Tuesday, December 29, 2015
It is with much sadness that I write a few sentences in tribute to a true ambassador of rock and roll. As these words take shape, I am drinking cheap beer while listening to the Bomber album. Proud to be a former teenage metalhead, Motorhead kicked down the door and stormed into my life in the early 80s. While those precious cassettes from that time are long gone, likely buried in a landfill, the memories are razor sharp. First cigarettes (left-handed and otherwise), the spine-tingling, adrenalin rush that ensued while blasting their anthems, pissing off parents, small dogs and children within a one mile radius. This culminated in the happiness of being swept along by that wonderful tsunami of noise, without pretension, containing the energy of a thousand suns. All other poser bands could suck it!
Whatever happened to your life? Stone dead, forever
My favorite recollection from that misty period was trading Anvil's "Forged In Fire" for "Another Perfect Day" back in 1983. The guy who did the deal didn't care because "Fast" Eddie Clarke had left Motorhead. Who cares? It was Lemmy's band. He continued to make uncompromising slabs of rock as my listening tastes shifted to other vistas.
Still came back to No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith from time to time, while visiting the ever popular, scenic altered states. The bass solo in "Stay Clean" is worth your left arm.
We are the road crew!
All of us rent a corner of the planet for a second, only to be cut down into biodegradable matter for recycling. With that knowledge, you should feel free to do anything. If you take up an instrument, sing and spread music to anyone who is willing to hear, then you will be the recipient of much love in return.
Lemmy has collected a lifetime of it, slashing away at his Rickenbacker while craning his moustachioed mug upward toward the mic.
Play his music loud for the next week, Your neighbour's lawn will turn brown and the prophecy will be fulfilled.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Nocturnal musings from a basement window of introspection could very well be the overarching theme this week. This precious space when most other humans are comatose allows for the anarchistic laundering of thoughts in seemingly fresher air. Inane chatter coupled with the incessant pinging of devices are thankfully muted. The perfect compliment to this gently unfolding quiet?
Tony Bennett's warm baritone wrapped around the dextrous playing of jazz pianist Bill Evans.
Two very gifted individuals in every respect, their collaboration is filled with many rewarding moments for the listener. Opting to record solo voice and piano is pretty daunting from the perspective of any singer as every note is under scrutiny. Poor phrasing or awkward pitch are easily exposed, without the coverage of other instruments. Working without a net, Bennett steps up to every song with confidence and cool, delving deeper into his artistry in the process. When this record first appeared in 1975, unheralded, its contents were very much out of step with contemporary noises, likely puzzling anyone who had not spent time in the confines of a smoky jazz club. Song selection along with arrangements were reportedly worked out during the sessions, with no prior preparation. Impressively, the duo ran through each tune a few times before deciding that they had a final take.
Evans approached the material with delicate brilliance, supporting Bennett tastefully as he sang, generous in leaving space for his vocals to soar. When he did stretch out to take solos, he became an orchestra, lifting the compositions to greater heights. Their choices all tend toward softer, downbeat jazz standards ("Waltz for Debby" being the lone piece composed by Evans), though this is quite a strong set. Very easy on the ear, it is highly recommended to be enjoyed under a purple sky, in close proximity to ocean currents with your favourite libation. Recognizing an undeniable chemistry, they teamed up to produce a second LP in 1977 (Together Again), though Evans passed away in 1980, sadly precluding the revival of this inspired pairing. Simply a masterclass in sheer technique all around.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Gently influencing all of the liquid on our planet, the first Christmas full moon since 1977 is also cutting a grand figure in the evening sky, shedding some of its reflected light on a corner of my music collection that has been ignored for quite some time.
Skip James' Blues from the Delta came back into listening rotation after a long hiatus, much like the musical path taken by the man himself.
He cut some remarkable material in a single session early in 1931 for Paramount records and was paid the miserly sum of forty dollars for 26 songs. Eighteen tunes from this recording spree saw release on cheap, 78rpm discs, though they did not sell. Nehemiah James then turned to the church, was ordained as a baptist minister in 1932 and concentrated on gospel music, forming the Dallas Texas Jubilee Singers and backing his father, who was a preacher. Some years after that, he stopped playing altogether and drifted back to Mississippi, where he worked driving a tractor and cutting timber.
Now here's one to ponder. Imagine if Robert Johnson hadn't died so young and was living in relative obscurity, only to be located by young blues enthusiasts and encouraged to return to live performance as he approached retirement age.
That's exactly what happened to Skip James in 1964.
Fortunately, he was also able to re-record his phenomenal music with far more sophisticated technology than what he had originally been afforded. His work was rescued from barely audible, scratchy discs and allowed to breathe. Cream also did a vastly different version of his tune "I'm So Glad" on Fresh Cream that put some long overdue money in his pocket. History came to life as one of the best Delta bluesmen had his music resurrected, with scores of very lucky people able to see him play live. His pure falsetto voice was unique as was his use of modal guitar tunings. That effortlessly light vocal approach is what separates him from so many others who mined this genre, most choosing to wring each phrase from their "troubled and worried minds" in a far lower register.
Poor health plagued him during this brief renaissance though and he passed away in the fall of 1969.
Listening again now to these cuts is quite stirring, with each note containing vast amounts of what draws people back to timeless art:
Skip will still be astonishing in late December of 2034.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Suspension of disbelief is the attitude that will take you far when you wade into the exceptional catalog of Mr. Frank Zappa. Commanding every stage upon which he walked, peeling off impeccable solos dressed in a guitar tone finer than silk, the man did not suffer fools gladly. Fueled by coffee, cigs and satire, he revolutionized recording techniques, while only the greatest musicians lined up to play/record with him.
"Apostrophe" is by far the best record with which to introduce a casual listener to Zappa, being one of his most accessible works. That doesn't excuse you from checking out the rest of his output, which is rich in exquisite playing, ingenuity of arrangement and eclecticism. Humour was the essential element in his lyrical subject matter, though he was serious as a heart attack about the fine details of every note produced under his watch. The title track on this immaculate disc features a solo taken in the Lydian mode, sitting straight-faced next to an opus about a fur trapper who is temporarily blinded by the "deadly yellow snow".
You just have to listen.
Satirical pieces that target hypocrisy in organized religion ("St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast", "Father O'Blivion"), New Age charlatans ("Cosmic Debris") and the misguided zeal of some social activists ("Uncle Remus") blend wit with effortless, musical gymnastics. Understanding sound from an orchestral perspective, his stock in trade was deploying a superb, rotating cast of sympathetic players to bring his sonic vision to life.
Now ladies and gentlemen, destined to take the place of the mud shark in your mythology, here it is, the killer guitar tone...
Sublimation of original thought in favor of following trends was a constant theme that he railed against and with "Apostrophe", no subject is safe from his razor-sharp, verbal barbs. He would continue to publicly defend freedom of expression throughout his life. While Zappa would continue to astound, amuse, confound and sometimes piss off listeners, this album represented a commercial breakthrough. For an artist who was not bound by the restrictions of the two minute pop single, it really didn't matter.
Genius is a label that is tossed around far too liberally in the world of recording arts, though it deservedly applies to the multi-talented, late Francesco Zappa. Better still, he would reject that tag and simply allow his art to do the talking.
Monday, December 07, 2015
Few groups have had such a radical influence on their peers as The Band. The first two releases ("Music from Big Pink" and "The Band") sent psychedelic taste makers reeling, leaving them face down on the canvas in the late sixties. Eric Clapton listened to "Big Pink" incessantly and wanted to join the quintet. After hanging out with them late in 1968, George Harrison's playing during the "Get Back" sessions echoed what Robbie Robertson was doing, who, in turn, was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. (That opening guitar figure in "Don't Let Me Down" is a very close cousin of the one which heralds "The Weight") Triumphant in invoking the true spirit of roots music, their gift for reading each other as ensemble players made it all seem effortless. Those songs have retained their power over time, still fresh and pure as the three voices that shaped them. Having set the bar quite high, it was inevitable that the third LP would come under heavy scrutiny. Pressure to produce another masterpiece, along with escalating indulgences on the part of key members of the team, would see a tapering off of the creative momentum that pushed them into the realm of recognition that they now inhabited in 1970. "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots" had the goods, though the reception for each was somewhat chilly compared to what had come before. Robertson was the main composer, though it seemed that his muse had temporarily checked out. The stop-gap measure would involve issuing a double live set (Rock of Ages), taking a brief group hiatus and recording a brilliant album of material by artists that had inspired them (Moondog Matinee).
Diminishing commercial fortunes now greeted the group as the seventies ticked on. In the dying months of 1975, The Band gently sent this quiet beauty out on the stormy seas of a consumer culture that had changed quite dramatically. "Northern Lights- Southern Cross" would be their first LP to feature all original compositions since "Cahoots".
Boards on the window, mail by the door,
Why would anybody leave so quickly for
Ophelia, where have you gone?
Curiously, this would be considered as a "comeback", though they really hadn't gone away.
"Acadian Driftwood" is the strongest track, with Manuel, Helm and Danko all taking lead parts in this epic tale that loosely describes the plight of Acadians displaced by the French and English conflicts that arose in the 1800's. Robertson chalked up two instant classics with "Ophelia" and "It Makes No Difference." Rick Danko's performance of the latter lifts the song with an aching soulfulness that few singers ever achieve, regardless of experience or technique.
Filling the spaces with tasteful keys and horns is the always brilliant Garth Hudson, employing synth textures that give the sound a contemporary feel. The professor was one of the early pioneers in exploring this technology, sometimes designing models to his own specifications. Genius is an underestimation of his capabilities. Manuel and Helm turned in their usual spot-on vocal and instrumental contributions, with the shuffling rhythms of the dance floor showing up in a couple of places. There are no serious concessions to the robotic disco beat that was steadily hijacking the popular music scene at that time, though "Jupiter Hollow" and "Ring Your Bell" are pretty "four on the floor" for these guys. Levon and Rick were masters of creating space as the rhythmic quarterbacks of the band, though their secret was to never overplay.
Despite all moves toward working together productively as they once had, the tight knit unit of old was coming apart. Interpersonal issues around writing credits and aforementioned substance abuse ("Forbidden Fruit" doesn't even come close to the real story) were now taking a serious toll on the group dynamic, though they managed to rally in Malibu to deliver this last truly great effort. An upbeat energy pervades this project, which is quite remarkable in light of their circumstance at that point. This return to form is an enjoyable listen in all respects while remaining criminally overlooked in their catalog.
Within a year, the five original members would take their final bows together with "The Last Waltz".
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
This is a call to anyone who is still interested in the nuances of song craft, melody and very intelligently assembled pop rock. XTC leader Andy Partridge had to rescue the source tapes for this gem and bake them in order to prepare this immaculate disc for reissue. No agenda here, just a reminder to look past the cool, Carnaby Street throwback cover (designed by Heinz Edelmann) to feast your ears on a fantastic album that still resonates 26 years on from its 1989 release.
"Mayor of Simpleton" (just absorb those bass lines as they fly through the air)
"Here Comes President Kill Again" Still relevant in so many respects.
Enjoy it here and buy the refurbished version when it is available...
Friday, November 13, 2015
Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor played the drums loud, hard and fast. He was part of the stone heavy power trio, Motorhead, along with "Fast" Eddie Clarke and Ian Kilmister (Lemmy to his friends and neighbours). For teenage metal heads like myself, these guys provided the best soundtrack for disturbing the peace in the early 80s. No pitch correction software was required nor would it have been welcomed as Mr. Taylor and his mates drove VU meters into the red, recording many classic slabs of straight ahead rock.
The sad news of his passing at age 61, along with a short career retrospective was issued today by the BBC
If you remember the band fondly, check out Phil in his natural habitat causing ear bleeding destruction circa 1980.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
The mid 70s version of Wings lights up the southern hemisphere. Paul and his cohorts had been written off in the early part of this decade as a lost cause, though he raises a giant middle finger to the doubters here.
As a percursor to the "Wings Over America" tour, this was part of the warm up to a concert event that lit up North American venues in 1976.
Saturday, November 07, 2015
Perfectly capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere that slowly envelops all and sundry as winter stakes its claim, this is yet another powerful song from the pen of Joseph Bridge. The icy grip of this season impacts people in different ways, though endurance sometimes masks a suffering that is not readily apparent to all. This is the mark of fine art, evoking emotional responses that are completely different, depending upon your perspective. Feed your soul as you would a blazing fire on a cold night. Listeners will find a light in the midst of the coming storm when they confront the winter blues.
Great tune, with an amazing turnaround, available to you now, right here
Saturday, October 31, 2015
For those that are familiar with Three Dog Night, Cory Wells was one of their three lead vocalists (along with Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron). Delivering the goods in this role, he and his mates took Randy Newman's "Mama Told Me Not To Come" to the top of the charts in 1970. The band enjoyed much chart success before parting ways in 1977. Wells revived the group as a touring entity in the early 80s and they continued to work through to the present. He passed away on October 20th, age 74. A friend of mine reached out to me to remind me of this sad and significant loss of a great talent.
Charlie Ricci wrote a very fitting tribute to Wells on his blog, which I encourage you to read at Bloggerhythms
His entries are always insightful and very well written, this post being no exception.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Whether you're sailing through the air on a fly's back or just having a few, this is really fun to listen to. Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane's creations were Britpop. Understanding the good time that went into making this is the key to absorbing the album.
Doesn't hurt that Marriott was one of the greatest rock singers of all time, bar none.
Starting with the instrumental title track, it's evident where all of the "inspiration" is coming from. Weak psychedelia doesn't apply here though, as they played heavier than most bands in that category.
Exaggerated Cockney delivery, huge hooks and an imaginative story about searching for the other half of the moon (the "Happiness Stan" suite on side two) are just some of the draws of this remarkably layered set. Stanley Unwin provided the narration in a style so unique that it was dubbed as 'Unwinese'.
"Lazy Sunday" was extracted as the single. Exuberance? There is enough here to power a large city for months. It is an absolutely perfect 3 minutes of pop.
Given their youth at the time these songs were created, it is astounding how insightful some of the lyrics were. Without doubt, my favorite bit of wordplay comes from the closer, "HappyDaysToyTown".
"Life is just a bowl of All-Bran/ You wake up every morning and it's there"
Whether intentional or not, the line is as funny as it is grim. All-Bran tastes sweet but it gives you the shits.
Produced by Glyn Johns, Ogdens featured some lavish overdubs that made it impossible to reproduce on stage, though they presented it (miming to backing tracks) on BBC TV shortly after release. It was the only time that this treasure of an LP was performed "live".
Here then, are the Small Faces on "Color Me Pop", June 21, 1968
Nice to report that this set was number one in Britain for six weeks in the summer of 1968. Steve Marriott left the Small Faces at the end of that year to form Humble Pie.
Through the course of a discussion that I had with a good friend recently, the subject of Paul McCartney and his eighties output came up. Sparked by the recent reissue of Tug of War and Pipes of Peace in deluxe format (remastered versions of the original discs with lots of B-sides, demos, some video, etc.), he had mentioned purchasing the updated Pipes of Peace. The conversation turned to the merits and flaws of that record, though he summed things up perfectly in one shot: Listening to Pipes of Peace brought him back to a time in his early teens when he first bought the cassette, took in the music and those memories remain warmly positive.
I recall McCartney II in the exact same way.
In a nod to Proust, my sonic equivalent of tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea is listening to "Coming Up". Whenever I hear it, a wave of involuntary memories from the summer of 1980 are brought into focus, conjuring up images of weekend dances down at the lakefront campground close to our home, swimming with friends for hours, bike rides, sweet aromas wafting from charcoal BBQs and formless fun that we had during our two month breaks from school. From a child's perspective, these simple pleasures were magic. The sun appeared every morning in a sky that seemed to be a sharper blue with the musical soundtrack providing another portal to further flights of imagination. During this period, my sister and I collected "45s" that we played endlessly on the family stereo, which was a piece of furniture with a turntable, an 8-track player and a tuner built into the cabinet. My LP collection was beginning to grow a bit, though "singles" were easier to obtain as they were much cheaper. "Coming Up" made a stuck landing on countless radio playlists, entering our household as it climbed to the top of the charts in July of that seemingly endless summer. Aside from boasting a great hook, it was born out of series of experimental sketches that saw McCartney revert to the one man band approach that shaped his first proper solo album nearly a decade earlier. The B-side of the single featured a live version of the song, performed by the last incarnation of Wings from a gig in Glasgow. There was an added bonus "on the flip" with the inclusion of a third, instrumental track called "Lunch Box/Odd Sox". I had no idea then, though this was a very cool confection that he had recorded during the Venus And Mars sessions a few years earlier, remaining in the vaults until that point. All three tunes received maximum rotation and are inexorably tied to all aforementioned events during that hazy, fun summer. Those times were experienced but once, though they always bring a wistful smile.
Did I dream this or simply choose to view it all through revisionist, rose-colored lenses?
Holding that copy of "Coming Up" today, weathered but still with me after 35 years, is a gentle reminder of a simpler existence that was very happy and quite real.
When Paul started to come to terms with the emotional and legal wreckage that ensued with the dissolution of the Beatles' partnership, family structure became more of a priority. Making music had long been his passion, salvation and had earned him a fortune (not to mention had also made him famous). With his first solo album (McCartney) he truly took up every aspect of the project. Save for a few harmonies from Linda, he performed and overdubbed every note on his own. In the decade that followed, there was a fresh start with the formation of Wings, world tours and commercial triumph as he managed to outsell his old band during the seventies. After countless hits, lineup changes and success, Wings would soon be in his rearview mirror as the decade wound down. During the summer of 1979, he decided to rent some recording equipment, plug in to some of the technological advances that had been made in the intervening years since his first, post Beatles statement and experiment with sounds.
One can imagine him blazing up, setting a pattern on a synth and getting some ideas down that he could further bend with wild effects or non traditional instrumental approaches. This was not just any stoned dude in his bedroom with great gear and time on his hands, though the results of this exercise were not initially intended for public consumption.
CHECK MY MACHINE
Patience is required when you begin the task of creating music, then endeavour to reproduce all of the sounds you hear in your head on your own. At the outset, McCartney needed to test drive the equipment so he took snippets of audio from cartoons, laid down the basic rhythm tracks and used a ridiculously over the top falsetto voice to "check his machine". Though it would not feature on the album, this loping, repetitive vehicle did establish the brief for the rest of the material.
I'm going to produce music that doesn't sound like me.
When you really take in the music on McCartney II, the first element that leaps out of your speakers is the distortion of that familiar voice. Tape delay, mountains of reverb, vari-speed and other variants of electronic manipulation are deployed to disguise the actual vocal persona behind the aural madness. "Coming Up" is a tight groove, with a lot of great instrumental parts that serve the whole. The vox is otherworldly, squeezed way into the upper register. "Temporary Secretary" has a looped synth pattern worthy of Brian Eno or Gary Numan, an almost grating chorus and a very calm, creeped out lead vocal. "On the Way" channels Macca's inner blues guitarist, though his singing is filtered through an insanely timed delay.
That's the way I like it, just so nobody knows...
The first side bounces around stylistically and yielded three singles. "Waterfalls" has a beautiful melody, though it would have been much better if he had dropped two verses and edited it down to two minutes.
Side two offers a clue as to where the LP really began. Harking back to "McCartney", "Front Parlour" is an instrumental with a lot of personality. Plenty of subliminal parts hide in the mix underneath the main, keyboard-driven theme. He didn't invent electronic dance music, though this is a distant cousin of similar contemporary fare. The ending is unresolved, sounding as if he was looking to add another bridging piece but decided to trail off and have a listen. "Summers Day Song" features sweeping, mock string arrangements with a touch of mellotron-sounding patches (similar to the Strawberry Fields flute sounds). This is a hidden gem where the music evokes a substantive emotional reaction, despite having a very austere lyric.
If you programmed "Bogey Music" and "Darkroom" into your party mix, your guests would know that there was a stash of electric lettuce hiding somewhere in your home. Raymond Briggs produced a children's book called Fungus the Bogeyman, upon which the former tune is inspired by. The groove is the key, with a boogie foundation and a sticky, eight note guitar figure with the vocal delivery virtually unrecognizable as being that of James Paul McCartney. "Darkroom" is completely bizarre, yet totally in keeping with his main intention here. Unless you are already acquainted with this disc, there is no frame of reference for it as being even remotely associated with his composing style. Stretching his artistic boundaries? Mission accomplished.
Only the acoustic closer, "One of These Days", returns to the familiar territory that he had occupied with ease since the sixties. Gently rendered, there is still so much reverb on the cut that it's difficult not to envision him performing this tender tune from the summit of Mount Everest.
Is this one of his best?
No, though a critical reassessment of sorts has taken place over time. The rock press received it with bewilderment and mixed reviews when first issued. There was an opinion that this record would not have found much of an audience had it been produced by someone else.
Commercially, it was a massive hit.
In light of the Fireman CDs, the direction now makes a bit more sense. By far, "Coming Up" is the best and most accessible of the pack. Don't spend top dollar to bring it home, though if you do obtain a copy, it is definitely one to play in headphones. McCartney II carries fond memories for me, though the objective part of my brain realizes that this is truly a demo; uneven in parts with a "rough sketch" feel. When it clicks, the material does benefit from the lack of overthinking and it's still lots of fun to listen to after all these years.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
Aptly named, as many ingredients are stirred into this amazing set of songs. Shannon Hoon floats his distinctive, keening vocals above soulful and tight playing. Refusing to be crammed into the grunge category, the five musicians created their own soundscapes and dared to experiment. They embraced the process of making music as opposed to following marketing strategies, resulting in the phony MTV autocracy losing interest in the band because they didn't do "No Rain Part II".
Critics were confounded because they couldn't easily slap a label on it, many giving poor marks overall.
Picking trendiness over creativity will buy you a music collection that you'll never listen to more than once
"Soup" is a daring album that reaches into many places, employing instrumentation and styles that are not typical of the generic sludge that was beginning to clog the airwaves in the mid 90s. Following their own instincts, the members of Blind Melon were armed with excellent tunes and prodigious skills as instrumentalists. Styles madly slingshot in different directions, though the strength of the ensemble playing makes it all work.
Opening with a horn arrangement worthy of Allen Toussaint, "Galaxie" explodes into a hard rock groove and sets the pace for the surprises to come. Andy Wallace's production is spotless.
Dark clouds hovered over some of the material, with subject matter that took in suicide ("St. Andrew's Fall") , the bizarre predilections of convicted killer, Ed Gein ("Skinned") and musical structures that were brilliant but seemed to convey a certain sadness ('Toes Across the Floor")
Highlights abound as each track throws a curveball at the listener, daring you to follow passages that are executed perfectly at lightning speed ("Lemomade") or shifting gears to curl up with a mandolin and acoustic guitars. The mood varies, though a sense of humor is at work here as well. Artistic ambition doesn't always translate into commercial success. Public reaction to the disc was marked by indifference, which is a crime because of its excellence.
Pressure was applied to stimulate sales by embarking on a tour in the fall of 1995, though Shannon Hoon was in the middle of a drug rehab program that wasn't going to plan. Reluctant to release him, his handlers did so on the provision that he would be accompanied on the road by a counsellor. Sadly, this did not work out and left to his own devices, nightly overindulgence became the rule. On October 21st, Hoon crashed into a sleep from which he could not be roused.
With that, the great promise glimpsed with this album was not to be fulfilled. What always surprised me was how quickly people quietly distanced themselves from the group. Twice as imaginative as anything released during this era, "Soup" has transcended the time period that produced it. One of my favorites.
Friday, October 09, 2015
October 9th, 2015: John Winston Ono Lennon would have been entering his 75th year, had it not been for the act of a deranged person (and presuming that good health prevailed). He was complex, flawed, gifted, funny and a host of other descriptors that could be broadly applied to most human beings. His life changed dramatically at age 23 when worldwide fame swept him into a surreal existence that many people daydream about, though very few understand, appreciate or experience. This is what separated him from the millions of souls who had never breathed such rarefied air. Though his story is well documented, it is truly a shame that he wasn't afforded a few additional chapters.
For those who have taken his music into their lives, it's tempting to imagine what creative direction he would have pursued after 1980. Perhaps he may have had another "fuck it" moment, making a second retreat from public scrutiny to the comforts of home and family. Doubtless that he would marvel at the advances in technology, global communication; yet remain perplexed that nothing has truly changed in terms of our propensity to form groups for the sole purpose of enslaving, killing and depleting the resources of fellow humans. Better still would be to witness a subversive smile spreading across his aging face as he fixed his progressive lenses to read a myriad of quotes wrongly attributed to him in a sea of ridiculous internet memes.
Hold on John, John hold on, it's gonna be alright...
Separating the art from the artist, his overall body of work had definite weak spots, though the highlights far outweigh his lesser output. Pretty impressive legacy from a musical standpoint. His two cents would be invaluable in the age of over-shared and under-researched "opinions". Imagine the targeted missiles that would fly from his Twitter account, hastily composed in his bathrobe over morning coffee and a joint...Happy Birthday, JL, from this dimension to the one that you are currently inhabiting.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Released on September 25th, 1972, the fourth disc from this legendary band was met with mixed reviews, due in part to a slightly different sonic approach. Beginning with the mournful strains of the multi-part, very clever "Wheels of Confusion", the listener is treated to greater clarity in sound. Their last release (Master Of Reality) had an extremely "compressed" feel in the final mix, with drum heads taped, dampened and smothered. The whole record sounded as if it was recorded in a closet. Leaving the UK behind, the group opted to tape their new compositions at the Record Plant in sunny Los Angeles. The result was a much less claustrophobic listening experience, with individual instruments allowed to breathe, specifically the drums.
This is one monster of a record, but don't simply take it from me. Listen to this guy...
I'll bet that some PR genius thought that this radio spot was a TERRIFIC idea. All that's missing is Vincent Price, laughing until he gives himself serious internal injuries.
My degree in capitalization is really starting to pay off.
Tony Iommi comes up with an array of interesting guitar figures that Ozzy is now singing against, rather than RIGHT ALONG with. Cigar for some interesting lyrics, courtesy of Mr. T.G. Butler. Kurt Cobain was definitely listening to "Tomorrow's Dream" while he was dreaming up "Pennyroyal Tea". This cowbell driven romp sounds as if the guitars were dipped in maple syrup and piled on to form a sludgy, beautiful noise. Excellent, early-stage grunge from the masters. Frank Zappa once proclaimed "Supernaut" to be the "greatest rock track of all time." Whether he was kidding or not, the rotating riff is the key ingredient. The band was nose-deep in snow during this period, which doesn't completely excuse them from bringing "FX" or "Changes" into the world, though it definitely explains their inclusion here. Both are expendable.
There is a strong case to be made that "Laguna Sunrise" nudged Jimmy Page into coming up with "The Rain Song". "Cornucopia" has Bill Ward expertly steering the others through a myriad of time signature shifts, as he does on the magnificent album closer, "Under the Sun" (which reportedly caused Ward some strife in trying to nail down his part). That riff in the third part of of this track sounds uncomfortably close to the one that Blackmore deployed in Deep Purple's "Flight of the Rat". One of the very few incidences of Iommi following, rather than leading. This massive slab of vinyl signalled the last gasp of the early Sabbath approach (which was to record very quickly) and pointed the way toward the change in sound that would shape their uniformly excellent next set, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Spontaneity began to vanish from the recording process, as it would take far longer for the quartet to produce new material. Two more "classic" LPs would appear after this one before a decline in momentum and overall quality set in.
All the way from 1985, it's Carl Perkins and a host of excellent rockabilly cats, including Dave Edmonds, Eric Clapton and a guy who cut his teeth on Perkins' riffs and has never looked more relaxed in a live setting than you'll see him here.
Carl Perkins (guitar, vocals)
Greg Perkins (bass guitar)
Lee Rocker (double bass)
Slim Jim Phantom (drums)
Earl Slick (guitar)
Dave Edmunds (guitar, vocals)
David Charles (drums)
John David (bass guitar)
Mickey Gee (guitar)
Geraint Watkins (piano)
Ringo Starr (drums, vocals)
George Harrison (guitar, vocals)
Eric Clapton (guitar, vocals)
Rosanne Cash (vocals)
Pays for itself after the 200th viewing.
Saturday, September 19, 2015
For those in need of some solid new music to add to their listening rotation, please direct your attention to this excellent new track from Joseph Bridge. "Brenda" has all of the elements that make for repeated spins: a great melodic hook, immaculate production, powerful playing and soul.
Check it out right here along with all of his stellar tunes.
Saturday, September 12, 2015
There's a mansion on the hill
Psychedelic music fills the air
Peace and love live there still
In that mansion on the hill...
This past week marked a quarter century since Ragged Glory was made available to the masses for purchase. Neil Young and Crazy Horse formed a mutual admiration society back in the mists of the late sixties. Young found Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Danny Whitten when they were part of a six piece band called the Rockets. Short story shorter: they took up with Uncle Neil and the Rockets were no more. In the intervening years prior to this record, they would, sadly, lose Whitten to an overdose in 1972, bring on Frank Sampedro in 1975, make five albums with Neil and five on their own. Having weathered twenty years of an "on again/off again" relationship, the four men convened at Young's studio in April 1990 and laid down the basic tracks for this effort in a week.
One excruciatingly loud and productive week
David Briggs produced and did the final mix, though John Hanlon was the engineer/tape op for these sessions. Hanlon was given one solid piece of advice by Briggs: "Record everything and don't miss one fucking second." The beautiful noise that they made in Neil's barn was louder than God, with the bleed from all of the instruments creating feedback-drenched havoc. That anyone involved escaped with their hearing intact is miraculous. When the dust settled on tracking and vocal overdubs were complete, the quartet emerged with their finest set since Rust Never Sleeps.
Ragged Glory was a return to form for the best known garage band on the planet. Young came in with some very straightforward rock songs, which also benefitted from having hooks that rose above the grunge ("Country Home", "Fuckin' Up", "Over and Over" and "Mansion on the Hill" being the standouts). The main idea was to get together, play and sort out the finer points afterward. I think that the spontenaity of their jams is captured with minimal polishing in the final mix. Credit David Briggs with his austere (and correct) approach to getting things on tape in the most direct fashion. Similarly, Young liked to work fast, without recourse to doing 70 takes of everything. Ragged Glory sounds as fresh as it did in 1990 because it isn't contrived. Mistakes are left uncorrected amongst extended solos, great vocal harmonies and zero bullshit. Easily one of the best discs that they made together, it would serve to revive their commercial fortunes and give way to an equally successful tour.
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Prior to becoming a platinum selling artist, Billy Joel spent a few years getting his act together, releasing albums that were greeted with the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. "Turnstiles" was his fourth and best collection of songs to date. It met with the same fate as his previous efforts, though this is unfair because of its relative excellence. Despite the fact that it was overshadowed by his breakout LP (The Stranger) in 1977, this is a disc that is more than worthy of investigation. I first heard it through a friend, who taped it for me on one of these.
This quaint little artifact was once branded as the weapon that would single-handedly bring down the music business.
We all know how that one turned out...
Back in 1976, all of the elements were coming into place for Joel. The core lineup of his backing band for the next decade was now present and he wrote a stylistically diverse set of songs for which he oversaw production. Most recognizable from this set are "Say Goodbye to Hollywood", which he had recently done for real in moving back to New York from LA, and "New York State of Mind" that celebrates said return. Personally, my favourites on this record are "Miami 2017" where the storyboard paints a lurid picture of future apocalypse and "Prelude/Angry Young Man", featuring dazzling playing from all involved with a sampling of his bitter wit.
Anyone who tells you that Joel is merely a lightweight singer of ballads is extremely misguided.
You would think that with such a stellar set of material, commercial success would have been a certainty. Such was not the case, though there really isn't any measure of what will grab the attention of the masses. In addition to providing a mini-master class on the 88s, his sure touch with melody is married to extremely sharp, ambitious arrangements here. While the next few outings would make him a star, "Turnstiles" is one of those esoteric pieces that covers ground he wouldn't visit again until he tackled the edgy songs that comprised the ultimate Beatles wet dream on "The Nylon Curtain".
Now, if you do want ballads, here's one of the finest that he ever did.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Motherlode had a top 20 hit with this song in the summer of 1969. Most listeners would immediately peg the group as Philly soul (I'm a sucker for a lot of the stuff that Gamble and Huff did) or perhaps even a Motown act.
Surprise. They were Canadian.
Lodged in my brain from early childhood AM radio brainwashing, "When I Die" is one of my favorites for the harmony parts alone. Written by band members William Smith and Steve Kennedy, it stands as a classic, smooth soul/pop confection. Carol Kaye plays bass on the track. Her session work is extensive ("Pet Sounds" being one of many highlights). Terry Brown (who produced Rush and countless others) was behind the board along with Doug Riley.
Beautiful song, albeit slightly sad.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Ottawa musicians Michael Hope and Armin Kamal have just released a terrific, five song EP that offers operatic vocals sitting on top of catchy hooks and fretboard gymnastics. Watch for the Devils can purchased right here
Check out their Facebook page to keep up with the band.
Truly solid set with a classic rock vibe.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
When we came back from the war, the banners and flags hung on everyones door
Compelling and occasionally frightening, this short song cycle is a Pink Floyd project in name only. Gilmour and Mason have limited involvement, while Richard Wright had been dismissed from the band. To emphasize the point, the back cover is emblazoned with "The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream - by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd"
Quiet, dark undercurrents lurk at every turn on this musically ambitious soundtrack for a rainy day. Mixing his contempt for the Falklands campaign and the politics of Margaret Thatcher, Waters also brings obsessions with loss and death into the program, carrying on with themes that had run through his writing for quite some time. Imaginative as it is morose, the disc is further boosted by ingenious sound design, interspersed with recordings of various effects courtesy of Nick Mason.
Michael Kamen handles most of the keyboards and arranged the orchestration, with "The Gunner's Dream" and "The Final Cut" sounding epic and lush. The adornments on the latter flirt with the exact arrangements found on "Comfortably Numb". One key element missing here is the vocal contribution of Gilmour, who takes only one lead. His guitar is noticably muted throughout, save for a few exceptions.
"Two Suns in the Sunset" is my personal favourite from this phenomenal set, although that shouldn't stop you from enjoying the rest.
Unfairly ranked as inferior when compared to other Floyd releases, it is nothing of the sort. Waters writing is mature and the concept is far more song oriented than past projects. There are no instrumental excursions into the outer limits to distract the listener from the overall point that is being made. Here is where the principal band members stood against one another, with Gilmour openly expressing his disapproval of the critical nature of the lyrics. Group infighting wasn't new, nor was it restricted to this period. Differences that were once worked out,however,became irreconcilable and Waters would never again enter the studio with the others.
Despite the dark clouds that hovered above it, this is their last great release and criminally underrated, at that.
Many memories associated with this record, having picked it up in the spring of 1983 after hearing "Not Now John" on the radio. My initial evaluation then was one of slight disappointment, though that changed over time. Becoming engrossed in the subject matter, I embraced the songs as they were presented as opposed to how I would have liked them to sound. Curiously, the aforementioned taster single now sticks out as a poor fit when measured against the other tracks. This is a disc that promotes a mood of contemplation, so it is best taken in its entirety. This is a tall order for those who have forgotten the grand design behind making an album, rather than two minute soundbites that can be skipped over or discarded quickly.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
For those who have had their sense of humour surgically removed minutes after being born, the concept of music parody is enough to make them squint, tilt their head and remain in a catatonic state for life. Does the thought of a man with long curly hair in a Hawaiian shirt playing the accordion in front of an adoring crowd make sense to you? How about if he gets naked, climbs into a tub of Jell-o and sings folk songs about Alpaca combing in Peru?
Weird Al Yankovic did one of those things as he owned the Claridge stage for a spellbinding hour and a half on the closing day of Ottawa Bluesfest.
Hey Ottawa! Do you want to hear some BLUES???
With that, the man of the hour and change opened with a medley of popular songs all pounded into the straightjacket of 4/4 time polka stomp. Backed by a very talented quartet, whose harmonies and instrumental chops were a huge part of the experience, Yankovic absolutely destroyed all of the pop culture icons (past and present) with razor sharp wit and costume changes. With trips offstage between songs to raid the wardrobe being an integral part of the act, short, comedic video segments were deployed to keep everyone occupied. Considering the humid conditions, Al was a trooper as he transitioned from furs and ice cream cone headgear for the Lady Gaga send up ("Perform This Way") to full yellow-suited, red-helmeted Devo ("Dare to Be Stupid"). Whatever the incarnation, his band followed suit. Everything worked like a Swiss watch and he held the crowd for the entire 90 minutes of mania.
The highlight? When everyone huddled in chairs at centre stage while performing "Eat It" and a handful of other classics ("Like a Surgeon" included) in the exact style of Eric Clapton's unplugged version of "Layla". Expertly rendered, funny as hell...this was one of the high watermarks of the festival in terms of delivering a full package of entertainment on every level. The energy that he expended was unbelievable. Finishing with "Yoda", they did an extended, inspired, harmonized bit of nonsense (A cappella) mid song before returning to the chorus and leaving thousands of happy people singing along.
Now That's What I Call Polka!-(medley)-Wrecking Ball/Pumped Up Kicks/Best Song Ever/Gangnam Style/Call Me Maybe/Scream & Shout/
Somebody That I Used to Know/Timber/Thrift Shop/Get Lucky
Perform This Way
Dare to Be Stupid
Smells Like Nirvana
Party in the CIA / It's All About the Pentiums / Handy / Bedrock Anthem / Another One Rides the Bus / Ode to a Superhero / Gump / Inactive / eBay / Canadian Idiot
Eat It / I Lost on Jeopardy / I Love Rocky Road / Like a Surgeon
White & Nerdy
Monday, July 20, 2015
Now in the midst of their "Fully and Completely Tour", the Hip hit the Bell Stage powerfully with their engine room, rhythm section Johnny Fay and Gord Sinclair, kicking off "Grace, Too". This would serve to be the first shot across the bow, signalling an exceptional night of live music for those that braved the weather. Slightly altering the opening line, the other Gord (Downie) leaned into his mic and bellowed:
He said I'm tragically HIP!!!!/
Come on just let's go...
With his first utterance, there crowd erupted, remaining statically charged as the silver penned devil did his level best to bring exaggerated pantomime into the proceedings, mugging wildly, striking poses and delivering his literate musings with a wink. Sheets of precipitation thoroughly soaked everyone, yet spirits remained high. Despite looking like a thrift-shop version of John Steed, I was glad to have dragged along my brolly.
Rain fell in real time/rain fell through the night
Laying out the appetizers, while getting sounds balanced onstage, the other highlights in the first mini-set were "Ahead by a Century" and the well timed "New Orleans is Sinking", both of which became mass sing-alongs. Downie was particularly animated in the vocal department, elongating certain phrases with strangled screams that went off script from the arrangements occasionally. There was a method to his madness, as all eyes were riveted on the frontman, leaving the band to create the soundscape. Duly warmed up, there was a very quick break while the musicians transitioned to the main course for the evening, playing their third album (Fully Completely) in its entirety.
Looking for a place to happen...
When the "Gord is Lord" tag first cropped up amongst fans of the Hip as a descriptor for the lead singer, 99.9 percent of that was attributed to his very special way with words. The lyrical content of Fully Completely is rich in imagination, historical reference and abstract thought at its finest. Wrongly convicted men mingle with mythical serial killers who roam free. Woven into this tapestry are tales that incorporate fact, fiction and shadowy areas in between.
Their performance was incandescent, instantly conjuring memories of that period for me (late 1992)...friends, parties, adventures all came crashing through the time barrier, forming perfect holograms. Every selection on this perfect disc was delivered with passion and swept the crowd into a rapturous mood. Delicate guitar figures ("Pigeon Camera") mixed with terrific, straight ahead rock ("Looking for a Place to Happen") and the intensity continued to build with every song. Bobby Baker took a few inspired, extended solos while smiling at Downie's antics. Celebrating the over 60 year old Bill Barilko OT goal as if it was happening at that moment brought him back to life momentarily in the midst of a waterlogged concert site. "Wheat Kings" was enhanced by a mass chorus of voices that lifted this plaintiff, acoustic ballad to anthemic heights. Not a beat missed, nor a note wasted, "Eldorado" wound up on an incredible sonic high.
Thanking the rain and the die-hards who stayed throughout the deluge, Gord reminded everyone that they weren't finished yet. The encore was almost anticlimactic, considering the sheer emotional impact of getting our collective heads ripped open by such a stellar show. I have seen these guys multiple times, though this was by far the best experience.
Ahead by a Century
New Orleans Is Sinking
Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)
Looking for a Place to Happen
At the Hundredth Meridian
Locked in the Trunk of a Car
We'll Go Too
My Music at Work
Long Time Running
Blow at High Dough
Monday, July 13, 2015
Played onto the Claridge stage by a super tight band, the flamboyant, golden-voiced Green appeared in red-trimmed leopard-print mumu, which screamed both comfort and sartorial splendour all at once. Stopping on a dime, his backing crew launched into the icy, synthetic crunch of, "Are We Not Men, We are Devo" as he asked the crowd to shout "We want CeeLo!!!" in the sweet spot.
And they did
Audience duly pumped, the brilliance continued with a 180 degree hard left turn into "I Wanna Be Your Dog". The Stooges? What a way to grab the audience by their collective lapels, lift them up and pin them to the wall. Hot Chocolate's late 70s smash, "Everyone's a Winner" was teed up and cranked out of the Le Breton park next. Welcome to McCeeLo! He knew enough to steer back toward his own "Bright Lights, Bigger City", which really came off far more powerfully live than it does on record.
Though he did perform the obligatory Gnarls Barkley hit that first brought his smooth tenor to the attention of the fickle public gallery in 2006 ("Crazy"), it is the kaleidoscope of covers that were spun out effortlessly which really caught the ear.
"Let's Dance", "Jungle Boogie", "Need You Tonight" all happened, with a funky, wet dream detour into Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" that seamlessly tiptoed into Ellington's own "Caravan". Medleys, fragments abound, "I Feel Good","Hey Joe" (Hendrix version) bounced wildly off of "Rock the Casbah" and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". Minds blown by this dazzling array of "other artistry", all that was necessary was the signature riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and his own "Fuck You" to sweep up the broken pieces.
By this time, I had already made the pilgrimage across the field to catch the Arkells. CeeLo is a giant among live performers, owing in no small part to a peerless set of pipes.
Straight ahead rock solid set from the pride of Hamilton (after Marty Short, of course). Fresh from playing at the Calgary Stampede, the quintet took the red eye into the nation's capital and showed no signs of sleep deprivation, lighting up the Canadian stage as the sun faded into the west.
Frontman Max Kerman worked hard to engage the crowd from the moment that they tore into the opener, "Come to Light". Over the course of three albums the band has delivered thoughtful, energetic and catchy rock songs that have been honed to perfection on stage. These guys are on tour in perpetuity and it shows as they ramped up the intensity over their 1.5 hour showcase. All of their singles (except "Ticats are Hummin'") were featured, with "John Lennon" and "Pullin' Punches" ending up as particular highlights. The unsung hero of this aggregate is drummer Tim Oxford, who could have stood in for an atomic clock as he expertly steered the group through razor sharp arrangements. His precision assaults on the kit kept people a least a foot off the ground throughout.
What complimented their hooks, harmonies and great ensemble playing?
Pristine sound out front.
"11:11" provided the soundtrack to a marriage proposal earlier in the day, with the happy couple invited to watch the gig from the side of the stage.
Kerman asked the audience not to clap but snap along at one point. They complied and it was surreal.
Jerry Lee Lewis moment for keyboardist Anthony Crane as he pounded the 88s like a man possessed during a solo.
Moving over to the Bell Centre stage just as they kicked into a two song encore, it was a pleasure to witness such an exciting, five star performance from a band whose star is definitely on the rise. If you have a chance, get out and catch them.
Come to Light
Ballad of Hugo Chavez
Never Thought That This Would Happen
Oh, the Boss Is Coming!
Where U Goin
Saturday, July 11, 2015
Bell Centre Stage
This was a perfect night for an outdoor event, warm and clear with just a few clouds emanating from herbal jazz cigarettes. Main objective: stake out a spot further back from the front of the stage with a view, while avoiding getting crushed or hit with water bottles. Tension started to creep through the assembled crowd as the "Yeezus of Cool" delayed his appointed 9:30pm appearance by twenty minutes. One guy in front of me yelled "We love you, Kanyeeeeee!!" repeatedly until he was hoarse, as his girlfriend cringed with every ear-shattering scream. He settled down after she hit him.
With that mercifully timed act of necessary violence, a bank of floodlights lowered toward the stage and the man himself emerged with the intro of "Stronger" throbbing from the mains.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS
When the bass kicked in, it packed the power of a one-inch punch to the sternum delivered by Bruce Lee in his prime.
There was no band, back up dancers nor were there any costume changes in evidence.
Songs in the set were frequently cut short by West himself and he would simply move on to the next one.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" was not attempted.
Thousands of attendees will be deleting heavily distorted, low resolution clips from their phones today.
Overpowering his flow in the first few songs was a very low-end dominated mix out front, which swamped "Power" and "Black Skinhead". He actually stopped mid-song, the lights came down and there was an uneasy break in the action as this was sorted out. The master of ceremonies then returned to the mic and proceeded to obliterate the gathered throng (roughly 25,000, reportedly) with a barrage of wordplay, sonic chaos and unrelenting energy.
Coming in, I did not have a complete digestion of his discography and what material I had heard didn't really blow me away as a listener. Through the course of the show, it became very clear why he has amassed such a fervent fan base.
From a psychological viewpoint, I have never witnessed anyone control a huge crowd so masterfully before. People were vibrating and knew every word of every song, with Kanye happy to let them do the heavy lifting and sing/shout his lyrics. Usually, the artist will have to do some work to get things going in a live setting. No exhortations were needed from stage to elicit audience participation and it was absolutely mesmerizing. The concept of the big outdoor rock spectacle has been well documented, yet this gig had little variation in lighting effects, no group of musicians to observe or take solos and very little banter.
Just one guy with a mic
There was an odd element to the proceedings in that it felt as if you were part of a human iTunes performance experiment, especially when he would turn to his tech and say, "Skip this and play the next one" and the track was cued up on a dime, cutting the previous song dead instantly. No one reacted negatively. West addressed his fans sparingly, though when moved to speak he was nothing if not predictably ostentatious:
“I want you to tell your kids about this one day, I want you to remember this. There’s a lot of great people who make music that I enjoy and all, but there’s only one fucking Kanye West!!"
He also managed to get in a few choice words directed at,"celebrity sell-outs who don't rap from their heart and soul and compromise their art for corporations, the money, and public opinion.”
Who does this guy think he is? Neil Young?
Sweeping aside the braggadocio, he did smile a few times, softening momentarily to thank the faithful:
“I really appreciate y’all, I love performing these songs, travelling the world, fulfilling these dreams!”
People genuinely love this guy. As for the often mentioned haters? They didn't appear.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show. While he is not a singer, his skills as a rapper/performer are estimable. The presentation was incredibly well paced, never dragged and held moments of true spontaneity, despite the absence of a live band. Ending on a quiet note with "Only One", by the time he wound it down, there was still a definite buzz in the atmosphere, though no encores ensued. He simply disappeared without any further word as the lights came up. As a result of attending this stellar happening, I now "get it" and have far more respect for what he does when caught in the act.
Cold as Ice
(Kanye West, Jay-Z & Big Sean cover)
I Don't Like
(Chief Keef cover)
(Big Sean cover)
Blood on the Leaves
No Church In The Wild
(Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
Through the Wire
All Falls Down
Can't Tell Me Nothing
Touch the Sky
Niggas in Paris
(Jay-Z & Kanye West cover)
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
A truly gifted musician, singer and composer passed away this week. He was dedicated to his craft and was in the vanguard of a completely new genre of music called progressive rock. Co-founder of Yes, Christopher Squire was an innovative bassist who was virtually without peer, though the exploration of the upper fretboard of his Rickenbacker overshadowed his abilities as a harmony singer. He effortlessly tracked Jon Anderson line for line on some of the most complex, melodic compositions ever committed to tape. Even now, the ground that he and his bandmates covered seems futuristic.
It is impossible to measure the influence that he had on other musicians. No less a light than Geddy Lee has often stated that without Squire, his own playing would not have flowered in the way it did. Trail blazing and brilliant, "Fish" will be sorely missed by family, friends and a legion of music fans.
For those that want to celebrate his talent, listen to his solo debut "Fish Out of Water" from 1975. It showcases his vocal, instrumental and compositional prowess. Turn it up loud...
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Meticulously crafted and sporting an inside-joke cover photo, this under appreciated disc represented the last vestiges of the original Byrds sound. Fighting, firing, and quitting marred the sessions, though no hint of that toxicity crept into the final product. The group was reduced to just two original members upon its release in early 1968.
David Crosby, fired from the band during the recording process, turned into a horse. Years later, he still called bullshit on the story that this wasn't planned. If you care to read more about this, take a moment and check this out
I'll wait right here.
Sgt Pepper cast a long shadow over the music industry in 1967. In its wake, record companies began to throw money at bands to create their own "psychedelic masterpieces". As it goes with most trends, much of the resulting product was unlistenable and dated quickly.
The Byrds neatly avoided such traps.
Gary Usher did take production cues from the Pepper playbook, but to positive ends. Legendary producer/engineer Roy Halee recalls the sessions:
I worked with a guy out in L.A. who loved to imitate everything The Beatles were doing — Gary Usher. He loved to copy them. 'Here, listen to this record, Roy,' and it would be some phasing thing; no big deal.
Usher helped to weave together very diverse styles of music, staying away from tedious explorations of the outer limits (with the exception of the closing track) At barely 29 minutes, it's tightly edited without bands of silence between cuts (another nod to Pepper).
Pyramids on the moon, tribal hippie gatherings, 1920's cowboy film directors, and smiling dolphins all make appearances on this patchwork quilt. "Artificial Energy" explores the wonders of speed, with compressed horns that resemble the brass parts from "The Prisoner" theme. Gated snare sounds appear as if flown directly from Abbey Road studios.
Sitting comfortably next to McGuinn's chiming 12 string and those trademark harmonies is the Moog synthesizer. A new toy at this point, it was deployed with great taste. What sounded futuristic then is a bit amusing now. Used sparingly, it did provide an esoteric feel, without overpowering everything else (as in "Natural Harmony").
A single, insistent cymbal introduces "Draft Morning", which is a model of lyrical economy:
"Sun warm on my face, I hear you
Down below movin' slow and it's morning.
Take my time this morning, no hurry
To learn to kill and take the will
From unknown faces
Today was the day for action
Leave my bed to kill instead
Why should it happen?"
Shifting from languid to intense, it is a startling aural commentary on the Vietnam war. The listener is left to draw their own conclusions.
Wild stylistic shifts are the rule here, some occurring within the boundries of a single song. The full stop to feature heavily phased strings in the otherwise country-fried "Old John Robertson" is an extreme example . Jazzy themes ("Gathering of Tribes"), woozy country waltz time ("Get To You") chamber pop ("Goin' Back" ) and synth drenched chant ("Space Odyssey") shouldn't work well together, but here they do. "Gathering of Tribes" flirts a bit too closely with Dave Brubeck, though the vocal harmonies are a highlight, as they are throughout the LP.
Gene Clark even returned to the band. It was only for three weeks, but he managed to make a TV appearance with the others before he was gone again. Their cover of "Goin' Back" should have been a massive hit, though it managed to escape the attention of record buyers and radio programmers. They should have listened more charitably as it is arranged and performed beautifully.
Personally, I would have included "Triad" here instead of "Dolphin's Smile".
Future Byrd Clarence White shows up to add stellar breaks on his modified Telecaster, pointing to the style of their next album, which would be a full plunge into country with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Easily one of the best of their offerings in the sixties.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Progressive rock hit a definite stride in the early 70s with a number of groups exploring the outer limits in grandiose fashion. Traditional three minute pop songs disappeared into album length presentations. Themes were varied, solos interminable and audiences were invited to lose themselves in fanciful flights of imagination, which could be mind blowing depending on the quality of your stereo equipment.
Having a decent stash didn't hurt, either.
Genesis honed their brand of art rock to a fine point on "Selling England by the Pound". Epic battles, knights, lawn mowers and quintessential English eccentricity fuel the disc. Instrumental passages push running times past the ten minute mark twice ("The Cinema Show", "The Battle of Epping Forest") with unfathomable lyrics adding further density.
Your patience is required.
Fortunately, it is rewarded with Tony Banks quasi classical keyboards that enliven "Firth of Fifth", complete with an excellent guitar solo from Hackett. The relatively brief (but great) "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" came as close to "a hit single" as this incarnation would manage. Mike Rutherford's sitar lines are tasteful, employed much in the same manner as Steve Howe's work with the instrument.
Incorporating theatrical presentation, costumes and genuine stage presence, Peter Gabriel gave the band an incredible visual dynamic. His vocal style infused their work with soul. The others were hidden behind keyboards or drums (in Steve Hackett's case, seated for the duration of live performances) rooted in place, faithfully replicating the complex arrangements of their recordings.
Banks and Rutherford were driving forces with respect to composing at this time, though everyone contributed ideas in what could best be described as a song writing collective.
There are some interesting glimpses into the future found in Hackett's use of fretboard tapping on "Dancing With the Moonlight Knight", prefiguring Eddie Van Halen's revolutionary expansion of the technique by five years. Phil Collins also steps into the role of lead vocalist on "More Fool Me". His playing is inventive and solid throughout.
Seriously fine contributions from all members puts this in contention as one of their best efforts.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Before delving into the content of this truly fantastic disc, please take a moment to ponder the subversive sense of humor at work behind the cover photo.
Is the shoot today? Man, I had a heavy night. Just take the picture and I'll start the coffee...
The guy in the bathrobe certainly didn't phone it in when it came to delivering his seventh record. Harry Nilsson was a gifted singer/songwriter who came to prominence in the late sixties. Astonishing vocal chops perfectly complimented his natural touch with a tune, winning praise from both critics and peers. Nilsson also had a knack for taking other peoples songs and deftly rearranging them as if they were his own. (If you can find it, the 1970 LP Nilsson Sings Newman is worth every penny that you'll spend to drag it home.)
Supporting players here are all top class session pros (Jim Gordon, Gary Wright, Jim Keltner, Herbie Flowers, Chris Spedding, Bobby Keys...the list goes on) with all of the layers blended perfectly under the direction of producer Richard Perry. The cast of brilliant musicians never overwhelm the artist, always playing in service of the songs.
Revealing a quick wit, the lyrics are whimsical ("Gotta Get Up"), clever ("Driving Along") and esoteric ("The Moonbeam Song"). Embracing novelty, he also pulls off "Coconut", sung, straight-faced, by separate "characters" that are carefully voiced and overdubbed by Nilsson, who was also a deadly accurate mimic. Caribbean breezes blow gently through the track, adding a touch of the islands.
Curiously, he was not moved to take his act on the road. While he didn't do proper tours, he did acquiesce to participating in filmed TV performances. The sheer melodic strength of "Gotta Get Up" is evidenced by his ability to sell the tune as a solo piano vehicle in this clip.
Conversational marker: "Without You" is a shining example of Nilsson's aforementioned talent for not simply covering material but breathing new life into it. Written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger, the song had built in pathos to begin with. Harry sang the shit out it, aided and abetted by very tasteful orchestration arranged by Paul Buckmaster. Personally, I believe that he wrenched untapped levels of emotion from this ballad, though his reading is entirely convincing and never strays into schlocky territory. The original version is staid by comparison. You believe that this man is on the precipice when he effortlessly hits those high notes.
Small wonder that it was such a monumental hit when released as a single, earning him his second Grammy award.
Therein lies his genius, as this was but one facet of his musical personality. "Early In the Morning" is yet another side of the coin, with as soulful a vocal as a white male could achieve. Minimalist masterpiece best describes this rendition as Harry ends up owning another cover, accompanying himself on keyboards. The stark arrangement is completely carried by his voice. Easily the best place to start on your journey through his body of work, Nilsson Schmilsson showcases his strengths, nicely beveled under Perry's direction into a final product with nary a wasted note.
As a Beatle obsessed kid, I discovered his music through reading about the unanimous endorsement bestowed by the group upon his second release (Pandemonium Shadow Show). The infamous, hard-partying exploits with John Lennon in the mid-70s and their collaboration on Pussycats was another point of reference. His brilliance has been criminally overlooked, though there was a decline in the quality of subsequent output causing his star to fade. Since he passed in 1994, his profile has remained low in terms of how his catalog has been marketed. It is a great shame that this effort falls into the category of forgotten music.
It's never too late to find out why people were wild about Harry. Here's the trailer for a 2006 documentary called "Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)". It was released on DVD in the fall of 2010 and comes highly recommended.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the release of Diver Down. Van Halen's fifth LP in a four year span was greeted with mixed reviews back in '82. Granted, no one was looking for a grand statement from the quartet nor was their fan base scouring the contents for hidden messages.
Hey, wait a minute! Play it backwards, man...
Though admittedly not a lyricist of consequence, David Lee Roth did liken the cover art to clever subterfuge on the part of his band. To wit, what is going on beneath the surface isn't readily apparent to the observer. Let's take this thought down a fathom or two further, gentle reader. Van Halen offered up entertainment on a grand scale. Roth played the hyper, over-caffenated ring master with a wink, always delivering on the promise of a party. This leering veneer masked a far more substantial thought process. The Van Halen brothers themselves were (and are) prodigiously gifted musicians who played up their swaggering, beer guzzling onstage personas. Michael Anthony rounded this out with his flawless harmonies, precision playing, though fans focused on his propensity for chugging Jack Daniels rather than his low-end fretwork. Eddie Van Halen had the touch of Paganini, wanted to widen the scope of what the group could do and wade into more serious compositional waters. Playing to type was expected, fun beckoned and Diver Down was recorded quickly with covers taking as much space on the record as original material.
Flash and substance meet in a duel and agree to disagree.
Once again they dig into the Kinks catalog for the opener ("Where Have All the Good Times Gone"), knock a Roy Orbison classic out of the park by virtue of their inspired, muscular playing ("(Oh) Pretty Woman") and "Big Bad Bill" best illustrates what I was alluding to in my scattershot opening thought (scroll back up a bit). The lads display a wealth of taste and chops, with zero pyrotechnics and a side of clarinet courtesy of Jan Van Halen.
With me so far?
"Hang 'Em High" and "Secrets" are my personal favourites, featuring all of the heavy and melodic elements that made these guys so compelling. Classic rock radio programmers have, mercifully, managed to avoid bashing these selections into the ground, which is another plus. If you aren't convinced of the genius that Eddie possesses, take "Cathedral" and the intro to "Little Guitars" into your brain. These brief, complex interludes have the effect of a quick, cool breeze on a sweltering day. Just a taste that leaves you wanting a bit more. Gathering around the campfire mic to dash off "Happy Trails" in four part harmony, they break down in fits of laughter and provide the perfect ending to an eclectic selection of tunes. The only track that could have been ditched is "Dancing in the Street" which is uncharacteristically turgid. Despite all efforts to inject some excitement, only Alex really shows up on this one.
Diver Down is an inspired charmer, very easy to digest and smartly brings back some silliness into the mix after the serious tones of Fair Warning. Overall, the set has aged well and really deserves much better than the poor notices that it has attracted. If they had spent more time on the project, there is a good chance that the spontaneity would have been sacrificed in favour of overthinking. Well deserving of another spin at 33 (and a third).
Saturday, February 28, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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
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...