Saturday, December 14, 2019
Paul Simonon putting his bass to death on the iconic cover along with the paranoia of the title track are more than worth the price of admission to the Clash's third set. Double albums are tricky as you really have to vary the pace to maintain interest throughout. No such issues arise with London Calling. Rock, rockabilly, pop, punk, soul, reggae and ska all figure in the mix, topped with clever lyrics that touch on many themes.
It has been forty years since they unleashed their masterpiece, yet it sounds contemporary. The main reason? In a matter of weeks, they hit these songs hard with a minimum amount of takes and retained an excitement that radiates from your speakers with genuine force. Three cover songs show up alongside the strongest material that Strummer and Jones had contributed to date. "The Guns of Brixton" is the lone track written by bassist Simonon. While Elvis didn't pen anything here, he showed up in spirit.
"London Calling" (the song) is a perfect opener. Building on an intense, staccato march, Strummer unleashes a kitchen sink litany of doomsday scenarios that include nuclear meltdown, depletion of wheat crops, the earth hurtling toward the sun and impending ice age. Referencing the the decline of sixties optimism that defined "Swinging London" (see we ain't got no swing") and snidely ripping the band that dominated said decade ("phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust") there is now only hard drug addiction ("while we were talking, I saw you nodding out") a grim economic picture with many on the dole and London sinking into the Thames. It is a gripping piece of music. Ending on a question mark with Morse code, the unfinished "I never felt so much a like, a like..." line is actually a truncated "I never felt more like singing the blues." No wonder, in light of such grim circumstance. They continue to dazzle with shaggy dog tales ("Jimmy Jazz", "The Card Cheat") touching commentary on finding your place in a crass commercial society ("Lost In the Supermarket") and socio-political concerns ("Spanish Bombs"). Out of everything, "The Right Profile" wins the prize for most bizarre lyrical subject matter. Documenting the car crash of actor Montgomery Clift that damaged his face and forced him to suspend work on Raintree County, the title comes from the actual direction to shoot his right profile as much as possible when he returned to finish the film. Hearing Strummer howl this one is a close encounter with extremely black humor. Despite a few interesting detours into other musical forms, rock is at the heart of the most potent cuts. "Clampdown" warns against getting caught up in a socio-economic trap, where you end up working within a structure that rewards you with...more work and very little to show for it. Donning the "blue and brown" traps you in a cycle of hard labor and debt.
The men in the factory are old and cunning
You don't owe nothing, so boy get running!
It's the best years of your life they want to steal!
The riff is supported by the dynamic percussion of Topper Headon, whose skill on the kit greatly benefits the quartet. It allowed them to pursue the eclectic styles that color these truly magical four sides of vinyl.
They put their collective foot down in the back nine, accelerating the pace with high energy tracks ("Death or Glory", "Koka Kola", "Four Horsemen" and "I'm Not Down") only to lay back slightly with another well chosen cover. Originally done by Danny Ray and the Revolutioneers, “Revolution Rock” is no call to arms but rather an invitation to let go and have a little fun. Their enthusiasm is infectious, with Strummer making jokey announcements over the strains of the Irish Horns through the outro.
Playing requests now on the bandstand! El Clash combo. Make fifteen dollars a day.
The long fade seems like a fitting end to this wonderful trip.
Not so fast.
You didn’t stand by me / No way
"Train in Vain" is a peppy, surprise closer (courtesy of Mick Jones) that is all pop, all day long. Complete with wheezy harmonica and a very basic structure, it finishes as one of their most accessible tunes. Radio loved it and the single version charted respectably at that time. It went unlisted on the first pressings of London Calling simply because it was added to the running order at the last minute.
No longer primarily identified as a "punk" band by this time, genre experiments and a move toward "rock" pushed them toward greater commercial success. The attitude remained the same, though their profile was raised considerably. Often name-checked one of the best sets of the 1980s, it can easily vie for the honor of one of the most exciting double albums ever issued. Better yet, it has not stale-dated, sounding extremely vital in 2019.
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
A veritable dream team rolled into Southern California on Sunday evening to deliver an action-packed, incredibly tight program of music. The brief? Recreate the sprawling, eclectic tracks that comprise The Beatles' White Album, live without a net.
The musicians in question are five young upstarts who have a bright future ahead of them.
Mickey Dolenz, Todd Rundgren, Joey Molland, Christopher Cross, Jason Scheff backed up by a stellar supporting cast, absolutely obliterated an ecstatic, packed house at the Magnolia.
Taking the stage to a prerecorded snippet of "Revolution 9", the players leaned into "Back In The USSR" which segued into "Dear Prudence". This was the only instance where they followed the album sequence, though the set was very well designed. Following a killer version of "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey" led by Rundgren, Christopher Cross took up a note-perfect "Martha My Dear" before handling over the spotlight to Joey Molland, who nailed "Savoy Truffle". He received a round of applause for being the lone Liverpudlian in the ensemble cast.
Just as the crowd was catching their collective breath, Mickey Dolenz strode back out to kick off the bonus round. Thanking the great songwriters who contributed to The Monkees discography, he peeled off "I'm a Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" in rapid succession. Both he and Rundgren were by far the most animated performers, bringing a touch of theater to everything that they touched.
Molland then chipped in with two of Badfinger's best known tunes ("Baby Blue" and "No Matter What") which he had help on harmonies/guitar from Rundgren. Being the pro that he is, when Molland mistakenly went for the bridge instead of the guitar solo in "No Matter What", he did a mock panicked gesture and coolly jumped back into place to wring those iconic notes from his Gibson. Easy when you know how. San Diego born Scheff was next up, remarking how surreal it was to be back in front of hometown supporters. "25 or 6 to 4" was a shred-fest, featuring Wayne Avers raising the ghost of Terry Kath. He and Rundgren melted their respective fretboards, as Scheff effortlessly knocked his vocal out of the park. Rundgren then performed two of his biggest hits, "I Saw The Light" and "Hello, It's Me", encouraging maximum participation from the faithful on the latter. Christopher Cross was then given a humorous introduction, teaming with Scheff on "Sailing" and "Ride Like the Wind". (Cross soloed like a madman, albeit a very talented one) He has not lost one iota of that golden voice, either. Joking about bribing their musical director with a thousand dollars just for the privilege of getting to sing "Honey Pie", he then did so with obvious joy. Dolenz reappeared for "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?" and the first portion of the show closed with Rundgren handling "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". He took the opportunity to wind out on his custom painted, psychedelic axe.
Let's all go to the lobby, let's all go to the lobby and get to know the rest of the players
It takes the right combination of voices and instrumentalists to pull off this type of effort successfully. Nailing the iron clad harmonies that the Beatles were known for is no mean feat, though it is important that all sonic nuances are covered properly. The White Album has cuts that boast guitar noises so dirty that you need to shower even after minimal exposure to them. Arrangements also feature augmentation that needs to be present so as not to disappoint the more discerning listener.
To that end, musical director Joey Curatolo, who chipped in on keyboards/guitar/vocals, did a masterful job of assembling the band. (Fun fact: he also served the same role for the popular "Rain: A Tribute To The Beatles" show). The aforementioned Wayne Avers was brilliant on guitar, handling those signature lead parts with taste and razor-sharp attention to detail. (He is Dolenz' lead player/musical director)
Drummer Darin Murphy, who played John Lennon in the Broadway Musical "Lennon" was stellar, not only steady as an atomic clock on his Ludwig kit, but also in contributing excellent vocal harmonies. Keyboardist Gil Assayas, who is Todd Rundgren's right-hand man when he's out touring, rocked the 88s, in addition to covering all key string and horn parts with very nimble fingers.
Following a brief intermission that was filled with the music of Bert Kaempfert blasted at top volume to cleanse the palate (kidding!), the back nine of the production commenced in understated fashion with Cross on acoustic. He did "Blackbird" on his own, while the others joined him on "I Will" and "Mother Nature's Son". Sheff took the lead on "Julia". It didn't escape the attention of anyone present that this was the 39th anniversary of John Lennon's death. His spirit was very much alive as very respectful readings of his songs filled the venue. "Revolution 1" was a wonder. As Molland's only lead vocal in the second half, he really made it count.
Highlights abound, the energy increased as the band rolled on, playing with the abandon of teenagers. Thousands of hours of gigging experience were on display, as all in attendance were swept along with their passion. Todd played ringleader and showman to the hilt, dressing as though he had just left the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for "Sexy Sadie". He then did a quick change into full jungle hunter gear, accompanied by a power squirt rifle with which he baptized the first few rows as he giggled through the intro line of "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill", recovering quickly to pull off a spot on Lennon imitation.
Watching Mickey Dolenz power through "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" was sublime. The filthy riffs in the "I need a fix" section were perfectly executed by Dr. Avers. Similarly, no distorted punches were pulled during a devastating "Helter Skelter", which Rundgren screamed with every ounce of conviction. These guys were all in exceptional voice. No cheating was undertaken by tuning down an octave and they treated every note with respect.
"Birthday" got everyone up and singing together again as did the finale, an encore reading of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," which capped off an incandescent night of music. Taking their bows to a well deserved standing ovation, the players trooped off. The crowd filed out to the strains of Ringo crooning "Good Night", with smiles on their faces that a nuclear detonation could not wipe off.
From my perspective (third row, center) the front of house sound was impeccable as was every note that wafted from the stage. Mind blowing show in every respect. They take their collective talents to the Wiltern in LA tomorrow night. Your only excuses for not attending should be death or jail. It is that good. You'll be inspired out of your skull while revisiting a treasure trove of exceptional music.
Thursday, December 05, 2019
The Rolling Stones were in the initial phase of an extremely creative roll as they began work on what would become their eighth LP. Mick and Keith brought their strongest collection of songs to date into the sessions. Beggars Banquet was successful, commercially and with critics. Their next release would be highly anticipated. One dark cloud hovered over the new project. Brian Jones was no longer a productive, functioning member of the team. His absence saw Richards cover all of the bases when it came to guitar work. Gearing up for a return to touring meant that a decision had to be taken. Jones was informed that his services were no longer required in June 1969 and within a few weeks he was dead. Mick Taylor was recruited as his replacement. Despite the tumultuous circumstances surrounding the band during this period, they pulled together to finish Let it Bleed.
When it comes to the deployment of open tuning in the framework of rock composition, it's safe to say that Keith Richards has already explored every option before most of his contemporaries. Half riff machine, half cigarette, the man delivered one of his most memorable passages with "Gimme Shelter", which is done in E major tuning for those of you playing the home game. Opening strong, this is is simply a masterclass in arrangement and taste. Compelling from the introductory notes, there is a tension that builds as each instrument is introduced that actually conjures the effect of an impending storm that Jagger references in the lyric. Merry Clayton's soaring vocal part is a critical element to the structure here. The sheer force of the performance, which is cinematic in scope, would make this the highlight of any album. Simply a cut above anything they had done to that point. If this gem doesn't persuade you to keep listening, then you don't have a pulse.
Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away...
Brilliant sequencing allows for a soft landing pad in their acoustic-driven interpretation of Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain". Understated in execution, it is graced by a delicate mandolin solo courtesy of guest contributor, Ry Cooder. As the lone cover in the pack, it fits perfectly with the general vibe. The same cannot be said of "Country Honk", which should have been elbowed from the set in favor of "Honky Tonk Women". It's a jokey B-side, at best. Things return to focus as "Live With Me" features Keith playing a slinky bass intro, riding the steady wallop of Charlie Watts. It's a straight up, filthy rocker with sex on the menu. You can almost picture Mick's sarcastic leer as he delivers each line. The title cut and companion piece is served up next, closing the first side in spectacularly grimy fashion.
I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
With that jaded, faded, junkie nurse oh what pleasant company
Grim subject matter is a lyrical thread that runs through all you encounter on this mesmerizing record. There is a callback to the rape/murder exhortations of "Gimme Shelter" in the sprawling blues of "Midnight Rambler". The "hit and run raper" creeping about with sharpened knife conjures absolutely terrifying images. Dramatic and tight as an E string, this stunner would find a home in their set lists for years to come. The remainder of the second side is slightly less intense. It is to their credit that "You Got the Silver" follows, providing a light break from the assault that precedes it. Keith takes his first true solo lead vocal on this tender tune. The sleeper here? "Monkey Man". Fantastic intro, top class bass work from Bill Wyman and it stands as one selection that classic rock radio has not driven into the ground.
In the category of easy decisions, there is no other offering more deserving of the closing spot than "You Can't Always Get What You Want". The strains of the London Bach choir would seem to be the most unlikely sound you would expect to be emanating from your speakers at this point, yet, there they are in full stereophonic glory. Even better, you could not imagine this without them. As they complete their intro, gentle acoustic strumming takes center stage with Al Kooper providing a moody French horn to perfectly set up Jagger.
I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man
Disillusion clouds a very clever lyric, though the addition of one key line softens the blow. ("If you try sometimes you just might find/You get what you need"). There have been many armchair attempts to decode the meaning of the song. Best just to appreciate the artistic triumph of this one, without trying to over-analyze the message. Producer Jimmy Miller "fills in" for Charlie on the kit and there isn't one note out of place. It is a majestic ending to a truly devastating song cycle.
Peering through a cloud of smoke back into the foggy mists of the late 1960s, it is hard to believe that a half century has passed since Let It Bleed first hit the shops. It is more than fair to state that the Stones more than held their own with their competition of that era, which included the Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin (to name a few). There has been much ink spilled in editorializing certain aspects of this release. You often hear that it provided a summation to the violence of the decade that spawned it. There is some truth in this take, however, much of that narrative is tied to coincidence. Namely, the issue date was reportedly held up over delays with cover art. When it was ready for public consumption, the unfortunate events that befell their headlining gig at Altamont Speedway cast a pall over what had been an otherwise successful US tour. This took place a day after Let it Bleed was made available to record retailers. That said, none of this detracts from the excellence of the final product and how well it has aged overall. For those who know and love this one, spin it again. For the uninitiated, get yourself a copy now and find out what made these guys great.
Friday, September 20, 2019
Revisiting this often misunderstood disc requires equal measures of patience, open mind/ears and some understanding of the events that preceded the sessions. Ultimately, the listener may want to indulge in a dollop of "Mother Nature's Finest" to get in the head space of the gentlemen who recorded it. Not necessary, of course, though the Beach Boys were admittedly wreathed in smoke during this time, as were many of their contemporaries. Something to keep in mind when you first take in Smiley Smile.
The backstory here is critical. Without going too far down the proverbial rabbit hole, the project that the group was immersed in prior to this one needs to be addressed.
A seemingly endless series of online write ups, audio reconstructions from fans, videos and books have been issued to try and capture the story of Smile. Brian worked tirelessly on this , with the intention of taking his compositions to another level. Aided and abetted by Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics, members of the famed Wrecking Crew and the vocals of his bandmates, this concept LP was intended to be his magnum opus. He shut down the sessions in the spring of 1967, refusing to do any further recording. Because it did not see official release at the time, Smile achieved legendary status in the intervening years. Certain tracks dribbled out on subsequent Beach Boys albums (including Smiley Smile), though they were reworked by the band.
Finally in 2004, a re-recording/release of the project itself was undertaken by Brian Wilson (as Brian Wilson presents Smile). This was followed in 2011 (with Wilson's blessing) by The Smile Sessions, which presented the project content as it would have been originally sequenced along with outtakes.
Back to summer, 1967
Smiley Smile is an important record for a number of reasons.
The Wilson brothers along with Mike Love and Al Jardine handle the instrumental parts as well as those impeccable vocals. With session players no longer filling these roles, the final product was far more of an actual group effort. They didn't exactly roll the clock back to 1962, setting up as they once had to capture a track, though democracy was (sort of) restored with production credits going to all five members.
This set also prefigured the "lo-fi", home recording movement by a few summers, with the bulk of material taped at Brian's home studio. In this instance, the final mix was light years away from industry standard. After the release of Sgt. Pepper, artists started down the path of lavish, big budget productions. The Beach Boys went in the opposite direction, which was a fairly bold move during this period. The decision wasn't calculated as much as it was born out of necessity, though it put them in the vanguard of the "return to basics" movement that would emerge in 1968.
JUST LISTENING AND RE-LISTENING...
Both sides of the vinyl version of Smiley Smile begin with songs that have elaborate production values. No surprise that both were originally tracked the previous year. "Heroes and Villains" was released as a single in July of '67 and "Good Vibrations" was a massive hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic after it was issued in fall 1966. The rest of the disc is austere by comparison, utilizing spare instrumentation and emphasizing vocal harmony. Curiously, the sequencing of these tracks sets the listener up for a pay off that never happens. It almost seems that their placement is a deliberate cover for some of the offbeat insanity that follows. The prime source of the charm that oozes from the grooves here is quirky humor, with the "smiles" generated from both an innocent and subversive perspective. Are they pulling your leg? Sure, though we'll explore that later on.
Heroes and villains, just see what you've done now
There has been much conjecture around what iteration of "Heroes and Villains" should be considered as the definitive version. As mentioned, it was dangled before consumers as a trailer 45 that summer, charting respectably. That exact mix was chosen to open the album. The complexity of the vocal arrangement is stunning and it boasts one of Brian's most haunting melodies. Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are poetic, referencing the conflicts that took place between indigenous peoples of California and the state militia spanning the period of 1850 to 1880. The historical context is not explored in granular detail, but provides the background for a series of vignettes. Recording was a glacial process. Taking place at various times from the initial attempt in May 1966, going well into spring/summer of 1967, multiple mixes and edits were undertaken. Inscrutable as it is beautiful, the final outcome is sublime. What didn't make the grade was the yearning, majestic instrumental outro, which is a shame as it serves as a wonderful summation to a standout cut. (Wilson wisely restored this piece when he re-recorded it in 2004). The unexpurgated Beach Boys take is worth a listen, running nearly five minutes.
Transitioning from this to "Vegetables" is jarring, with an insistent bass line serving as the lone support to those ever-tight harmonies. The tune and lyrical subject matter is deceptively simple, but extremely catchy. Actual vegetables get chomped, with group chewing recorded for posterity. Brian also flies in a segment that had been done during the Smile dates toward the end. Harmless fun, yet damn near impossible to dislodge from the brain. Before you can name your favorite vegetable, we have seasonal change in the ultra-cool, slightly trippy "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter". Managing to sound light and ominous all at once, this interlude packages stacked harmonies that float over percussive noises with a squeeze box deployed to intermittently imitate the laugh of Woody Woodpecker. Setting the table for what follows, things manage to get stranger with "She's Goin' Bald". This bizarre confection starts off fairly straight with a narrative about a girl who quickly becomes "follicly challenged". The Eltro Information Rate Changer then provides a drastic pitch change of the "sha-na-na-na" harmonies midway through, which allowed them to achieve this effect without manipulating the actual speed of the tape. Taking a page from the Silhouettes 1957 hit, "Get a Job", there had to be a lot of spoiled takes and laughter in realizing this one. Savagely cutting the elfin doo-wop insanity dead, a spoken word passage takes over briefly before all is resolved in jazz guitar figures, with a final reminder to the girl that any remedies for her condition are futile.
You're too late mama
Ain't nothin' upside your head
No more no more no more no more
Side one closes on a gentle note with "Little Pad". Announced by a snippet of audio verité, the lads break down in giggles while gathered round the mic. Lyrically slight, the melody is sweet. Brian conjures the music of a time before rock and roll. Deftly strummed ukulele (courtesy of brother Carl) anchors this gem, with a wistful feel generated by the vocal. It finishes as one of the best of the pack. You need only listen.
Following the wayward journey of the first half to the run out grooves, you realize that this is nothing like Pet Sounds. Flipping the disc to start the second side causes a quick revision of that revelation. "Good Vibrations" is a stunning creation deserving of every scrap of praise. Nothing short of a master class in studio craft, it represents the genius of Brian Wilson in full bloom. Worth every penny and hour (reportedly 90 hours) invested over six months of work, it is the most recognizable Beach Boys classic.
Yet it doesn't belong here.
This beauty was a worldwide smash roughly a year before it was slated for inclusion on Smiley Smile. Polished and perfect, these vibrations are the antithesis of all that surround it, "Heroes and Villains" being the lone exception. Still ahead of its time, though not part of the author's (then) current head space. As it fades (gloriously), we are guided back to earth. "With Me Tonight" is a chant, held together by those iron clad vocal harmonies. The stripped down, repetitive approach is also evident in "Little Pad" and the closer, "Whistle In". Small wonder that it was Mike Love (and not Brian) who gravitated strongly toward the practice of Transcendental Meditation. These examples are redolent of chanting a mantra, focusing on a particular phrase to achieve a path to inner tranquility. For Brian, it may have been a musically therapeutic way of blocking out the noise of negative voices, keeping them at bay with positive self talk. The homestretch of this beguiling set is placid, with the exception of "Gettin' Hungry". This is by far the most disposable offering. By contrast, "Wonderful" lives up to its title in every respect, worthy of repeated spins.
All things considered, this LP was unfairly written off when it was made available to an unsuspecting public back in September of '67. Expecting another lush extravaganza a la Pet Sounds, disappointment quickly set in as listeners adjusted to these very quiet soundscapes. It is far better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Returning to the conversational marker concerning the "comedy" aspect of Smiley Smile, there are quite a few layers to be found in this cake. From the slide whistle interjections that punctuate "Heroes and Villains" to the “giggling” backing vocals of "Vegetables", having a laugh seems to be the dominant theme throughout. To wit: "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" has the “haw haw” (sounds close to a dog bark) and the aforementioned Woody Woodpecker laugh. "Wind Chimes" sneaks in a subtle accordion ”laugh” at the 1:26 mark. There is also a deliberately "off" delivery of the "ting a ling" lines that are treated with heavy reverberation, which culminates in the ultimate audio prank. Those barely whispered lines as the song winds down move you to gradually increase the volume in an effort to catch everything. BANG! you then get knocked back in your chair as the opening of "Getting' Hungry" crashes in. Priceless. Add to this the “stoned” laughter at the beginning of "Little Pad" and the entirety of "She's Goin' Bald". Let's just say that it's surprising that they didn't plant a loop of Woody Woodpecker laughter to play insistently in the run out groove.
In my woody, I will take you everywhere I go...
Enough said. Time now to revisit your copy of Smiley Smile, if you happen to own one. While listening, know that there is an intelligent design to the madness that unfolds. Wilson didn't retire to his bedroom at this point. He was wide awake, involved and tuning in to a different creative wavelength.
Thursday, September 12, 2019
September 13th, 1969. The Rock and Roll Revival is held at Varsity Stadium in Toronto before a crowd of 25,000. Twelve hours of music is presented by iconic, first wave pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Representing the (then) current generation of bands are the Doors, Alice Cooper and Chicago.
John Lennon, who had not set foot onstage for a proper gig since Candlestick Park in 1966, was invited to attend. Insisting on performing, he brought Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and Yoko out for a rough and ready set that mixed oldies with a couple of new tunes. His appearance was unexpected, the audience erupted and a good time was had by all. The gig was filmed and professionally recorded. The resulting LP, Live Peace in Toronto, hit record stores just three months later.
It all happened a half century ago. Crank it up...
Thursday, August 15, 2019
New music from Led Zeppelin was eagerly awaited by their fan base in the summer of 79. Three years had passed since the issue of Presence and The Song Remains the Same soundtrack. They had not set foot onstage since the ill-starred US tour in 1977, which had been cut short due to the tragic death of Robert Plant's son, Karac. All group activity came to an abrupt stop as the once mighty dirigible lost altitude, floating gently back toward earth. At this point, it was uncertain that the quartet would ever regroup again. This was kept quiet as Plant took time to grieve with his family.
While they were away, the sonic landscape shifted. Punk, new wave, and pub rock offered back to basics, streamlined fare that hit listeners hard. Lengthy sets, interminable solos and spectacle were replaced by short blasts of adrenalin from groups that made up for in energy what they lacked in chops. Radio was dominated by disco, soft rock and pop. The dinosaur tag was slapped on those artists/bands that came to prominence in the previous decade and who were now considered out of touch.
How would Zeppelin respond, creatively, to these developments?
Their return to business would be a fairly glacial process, though the offer of free studio time that came from Abba members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson would be too good to pass up. The now defunct Polar Studios was be no means conveniently located, though it did provide a new environment in which to work. Convening in the last months of 1978 to start the project, winter weather in Stockholm ensured that the players would be woodshedding without distraction. Despite this fact, certain indulgences were still impeding half the team, leaving them not quite match fit. (We'll insert a conversational marker on that point.) They soldiered on, finding their feet and rediscovering their chemistry as a functioning unit.
The contents of In Through the Out Door would serve to both delight and confound listeners on first pass. The key element common to all of their albums is clever sequencing. Page especially knew the power of an attention grabbing first track bookended by a dramatic closer. "In the Evening" would continue that tradition in grand style. Deploying a Gizmotron, Jimmy sets up a hazy, atmospheric drone that has a middle eastern flavor. Hypnotic as it is exotic, the minute long intro creates a spacey feel, building expectation of what's to come.
In the eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevening
Plant breaks the spell, leaving Bonham to kick down the door with authority. Over his four on the floor stomp sits an exquisite, rotating riff punctuated by dive-bombing whammy bar action. All perfectly complimented by the innovative synth touches of John Paul Jones. Page's solo is preceded by a brief, but glorious, noise explosion that he created by depressing the tremolo arm toward the body of his Strat as far as it could go before quickly releasing it. He references this trick in a 1990 interview with Guitar World magazine, stating that he wanted to shake up anyone listening to the tune and make them go, "what the hell was THAT?!?". There is even a quick nod to Clapton's figure from "Outside Woman Blues" in the outro passage to ice the cake. Outstanding work from all involved.
Now is an appropriate time to return to that aforementioned conversational marker. The material that follows can scarcely be described as "Quintessential Zeppelin". This is where devotees of the band who appreciated their "scorched-earth" approach to rock were puzzled. Similarly, if you were in search of acoustic fare there wasn't any to found. One main factor in the musical knuckleball tossed out here is that John Paul Jones had a larger hand in the writing than he had previously. He had also come into possession of a Yamaha GX-1, an analog polyphonic synthesizer organ that figured prominently in the overall sound. He stepped forward because Page had partially checked out, his contributions greatly scaled back in comparison to all efforts that had come before. He played brilliantly, though mainly to add color instead of being the driving factor behind these compositions. Be mindful of this as you listen.
"South Bound Saurez" is a light, piano driven piece that would have sounded more at home on an early Elton John record. Not a bad tune, though nothing that sticks in the brain or bears repeated spins. Zep aficionados were not seeking such detours nor were they hoping for the lads to suddenly morph into the Atlanta Rhythm Section. "Fool in the Rain" is far superior, boasting a strong melody that supports a clever narrative where the protagonist is so anxious about being stood up on an important date that he blanks on the agreed upon meeting place. Nifty 12/8 meter is employed, with the piano and bass playing slightly against it. The instrumental star of this piece is Bonham, who flawlessly executes a deep pocket groove that is worthy of every scrap of praise which has been heaped on it over the years. His technique is stunning. Percussionists can easily go to Youtube and marvel at his work on this cut in isolation. Cigar goes to Jones (with an assist from Robert) for the arrangement, featuring that cool, freewheeling samba breakdown. Plant nails his vocal, making this an absolute highlight. Again they aren't playing to type, though that doesn't matter when the song itself is so strong. Rounding out the first side is "Hot Dog", which is notable for Page's tricky riff, barrelhouse flourishes on the 88s from JPJ and comedic, cornpone delivery from Plant. His Elvis worship comes into play here as does Jimmy's love of the Sun Records sound. While this is a fine example of their versatility and ability to comfortably slip into another genre, the track is dispensable. "Wearing and Tearing" which had been committed to tape during these sessions, but left in the vault, (eventually released on Coda in 1982) would have been a much better fit.
Side two begins with the sprawling, proggy "Carouselambra". Dominated by the stabbing, icy synths of Jones, this multi part vehicle is interesting in places, yet it would have benefited from judicious editing as the running time outlasts the strength of the concept. Zep were rarely tedious with their studio work, the lone exception being made here. By contrast, "All My Love" is a triumph. Taking care with all possible loose ends, the lyric is a fulsome, heartfelt tribute to Plant's son. Out of tragedy, healing is achieved in creative expression. Beautifully sung, delicate guitar decoration is woven in seamlessly in with the keys. All is topped by a stately, classically influenced solo from JPJ. It is the closest that they ever came to a pop song and is another standout. Page was dismissive of this approach in later interviews, going as far to say that it really wasn't their style. He plotted with Bonham to ensure that their next project moved them squarely back into the hard rock camp. This would sadly not come to fruition. In Through the Out Door did close out in far more familiar, bluesy territory. "I'm Gonna Crawl" is soulful, nodding to the Stax sound. Plant pours some real emotion into the mic. And Jimmy? If the master doesn't bring you to the verge of tears with his expressive solo, you don't have a heart. It almost seems as if he is roused from a soporific state, taking the reins belatedly to remind us that his gifts are still intact. Ending on a single note from Jones that sounds like a musical question mark, there is a feeling of unfinished business hanging in the air for a moment. With that, the prodigiously talented aggregation that guided a generation on a magically mind-blowing, decade-long sonic journey took their final recorded bow. Pity was that no one realized it at the time. All future plans ended with the shocking death of Bonham the following year.
EPILOGUE: IN THROUGH THE OUTTAKES
Forty years have passed since the release of this often misunderstood LP. Points can be made for the fact that though it was uneven as a whole, they were at least making an attempt to expand their horizons, experiment with new technology and deliver an end product that was moving with the times. For better or worse, the synthetic layering (which seems woefully dated now) prefigured what was to come in the eighties. All four members of Zeppelin had large music collections, covering a broad range of styles. It should come as no surprise that they would add new colors to their creative palette. Commercially, the disc flew off the shelves of record retailers with alarming speed. Music executives of the era credited this platter with single handedly rescuing an industry that was flagging as the seventies drew to a close.
Page has been protective of their legacy, acting as curator over the years when it has come to the three R's of this iconic band: Remixing, Repackaging and Re-releasing. The 2015 reissue didn't yield very much in the way of aural goodies. Essentially, the second disc features an alternate mix of each song from the original set. It would have been nice to hear demos or tracks that never saw the light of day in any format. Even better, there is live documentation of a handful of these tunes that could have been cleaned up and offered for consumption. Only extremely hardcore fans would play the 2015 extras more than once. If you see a vinyl copy in good shape for five to ten bucks, grab it. No need to shell out anymore than that. There are six different cover photo variations out there as well, just to add to vinyl collectors fun. Happy hunting.
This gig from June 30th, 1980 is one of then best you'll hear as far as late period, live Zeppelin goes. Captured without a net in Frankfurt, they are firing on all cylinders. Far more solid than their Knebworth performances. One week later, they played their last show with Bonzo.
Monday, August 05, 2019
Sunday, August 04, 2019
The fourth full length disc from Joe Robinson is the sonic equivalent of a cool breeze on a sweltering summer day. His estimable skills as a guitarist have drawn high praise from peers and audiences around the globe. This is merely one facet of his musical persona. All too often, a rare talent will appear on the scene with astounding instrumental prowess, mowing down listeners with dazzling displays of technical flash. Folks lend an ear, are duly surprised and move on to other business once the comet streaks by.
Undertones is aptly titled as it reveals multiple layers of gifts that are on display
Robinson wears a number of hats with ease. He produced and co-wrote all twelve tracks, topping each with melodic, soulful lead vocals. It is the strength of song craft which really catches the ear and those superb, fret board chops always support, though never overwhelm, what is presented. Playing in service of the tune is an art, which he executes with taste to spare. To give credit where it's due, Joe is brilliantly supported throughout by Pete Abbott (drums) and Anton Nesbitt (bass). They provide solid foundation work, jumping with ease from funk to pop to blues-inflected rock, leaving nary a blemish on this stunning set.
"Anything But Love You" has a stutter stop intro, quickly transitioning into straight-ahead power pop with a great hook. Opening strong, he follows it up with the punchy "Reputation" which features tasty rhythm playing by all members of the trio and is topped with a note perfect outro solo. Elsewhere, he hits home runs with radio-friendly fare ("Mindless", "Connection") and sharply satirizes the trappings of 21st century social media along with here-today-gone-later today trendiness ("Millennium Man").
Going deeper still, the narrative of "Snakeman" is truly jarring, ending up as one of the most beguiling creations in already impressive company. Brushed snare and jazzy comping provide the atmosphere, brightly lulling you into a false sense of security. The storyline is one that you could frame with a 180 degree twist that M. Night Shyamalan would offer up an appendage for. Delicate, ultra pro-playing from all involved (which is the rule here) culminates in a gorgeous solo that floats into the ear with the stealth of a cat burglar. If it was etched on canvas, this gem would be proudly displayed in the Louvre. Full stop.
It gets even better
Combining a clever, engrossing shaggy-dog tale from the road, impeccable acoustic finger picking and smooth vocal, "Let the Guitar Do the Talking" finishes as another highlight reel cut. Brevity being the soul of wit, the author makes his point with authority, leaving you wanting more. The closer, "Temagog", is pure poetry. Providing another pleasant surprise, this spoken word piece mixes autobiographical detail with peerless, free-form imagery. It is a wonderful epilogue to a record that takes you on an eclectic and ultimately very satisfying journey.
Undertones comes highly recommended. Meticulous production, top class playing/singing lift songs that are both thoughtful and incredibly catchy. Best of all, this is material that does not have an expiry date. He has neatly avoided the aural traps that contemporary artists have bought into in recent times. People will be discovering and enjoying this music for years to come. Count on that.
Here at home in the eternal now, you can support his work, purchase Undertones here and learn more about this talented musician via his website
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
The Lord of the Strings Concert Series has brought a host of top flight musicians to the stage to showcase their talents. President and founder Tim Johnson has been doing so since 2002, to the delight of Southern Californian music fans. On Saturday evening, he took up his usual role as master of ceremonies to introduce a performer who proceeded to dazzle the assembled crowd with two sets, featuring inventive original tunes mixed in with a variety of genre-hopping standards.
Water-droplet harmonics cascaded in waves over the audience, followed by complex chord voicing executed at the speed of light supported by bass-lines that seemed to be rolling off the thumb of the tastiest funk player. Floating over this were flawlessly picked melody lines interjected by mind-blowing solos.
All executed simultaneously, seemingly effortlessly, by one prodigiously talented individual.
Meet Joe Robinson...
While those of us witnessing this wizardry paused to pick our collective jaws from the floor and reattach them, Joe casually remarked that he was now "warmed up" and continued on with a virtual masterclass in guitar virtuosity. The combined skillsets of Lenny Breau, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel (who has championed and mentored Robinson), Merle Travis, Roy Clark and Roy Buchanan all figure in his wheelhouse. Add to this a pitch perfect tenor voice, topped off with a unique, melodic songwriting gift and you have an artist to be reckoned with.
None of this is surprising when you learn that he had logged 1000 plus gigs by the tender age of eighteen(!). The by-product of hard work and natural prowess was obvious to all who were lucky enough to be in attendance. Dashing off a highlight reel of jazz standards, pop, funk, country licks (and everything in between) "The Cannonball Rag" sat comfortably alongside "Misty", "Bye, Bye Blackbird" and his caffeinated version of "Classical Gas" which earned him top honors in the 2008 Australia's Got Talent competition. He also included Adam Rafferty's arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" as well as Tommy Emmanuel's reading of "Over the Rainbow". Both were sublime interpretations. Utilizing a loop pedal for certain tunes, he would lay down sweet rhythm grooves and then grab his Telecaster to obliterate the faithful with incandescent leads. For one selection, he played two guitars at once (picking hand on the acoustic, fret hand on the electric) in what he described as (paraphrasing here), "wrangling both instruments to perform a parlor trick that he never tires of."
Showmanship at its finest.
It must be noted that Robinson read the mood of the crowd quite well, pacing his set accordingly. The most impressive aspect of his stage banter was that he kept it light, humorous and never fell into the singer/songwriter abyss of over-explaining what he was about to do.
Let the Guitar do the Talkin'...
On top of his aforementioned abilities as a performer, his compositions reveal him to be an absolute wordsmith. Free of cliché and brimming with melodic hooks, the songs that he previewed from his new disc, Undertones, were spectacular. ("Anything But Love You", "Let the Guitar Do the Talkin'" and the very clever (hilarious) "Millennium Man"). I will be reviewing that album in full soon, so stay tuned. Other standouts were "Adelaide" and "The Ghost of al Capone", which was result of a dream he had. His storytelling on the latter has a concision and intelligence that draws the listener in, with nary a wasted word to be found. Concluding the evening with "Out Alive", he ripped a series of solos that brought the house to its collective feet. Generous with his time, he even did an encore after that. It was an incredible show, in an intimate venue with crystal-clear sound. My thanks to Nate and Scott for the invite, as all expectations were exceeded.
Deserving of every superlative, to truly appreciate his estimable talents in person, please check out Joe's website for upcoming shows. Highly recommend to all reading here to get out and see him, support the artist and purchase his music. Guaranteed that you will be entertained and inspired out of your skull.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
"There weren't any demos...Everything was basically made up in the studio, you see. I just play the guitar, don't I? That is my characteristic and it's my identity as you hear it. I suppose as far as this album goes, in a way it's almost like a back-to-basics album."
Interviewed for Guitar World magazine back in 1988 to promote Outrider, Jimmy Page certainly was no ordinary guitarist talking up his new disc. He was one of the most revered figures in rock circles. The eighties began with the promise of the first Led Zeppelin US tour since 1977 and the potential of forthcoming new music. All of that disappeared in an instant with the untimely passing of John Bonham. Shortly after, the surviving members announced that they had made a mutual decision to disband. Deep shock was followed by a retreat from the public eye. Page downed tools, reportedly not touching a guitar for a long period of time until he was approached to do the soundtrack for Death Wish II. This led to a reset for the gifted musician, who returned to live performance in 1983, joining Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton for the ARMS charity shows in the UK. Out of this experience, he also reconnected with Paul Rodgers who had recently left Bad Company and stood in for Steve Winwood when nine additional ARMS dates were booked in the US. Their collaboration in The Firm came next, yielding two albums and a couple of short tours before they called it quits. In 1987, he began work on the material for his solo debut.
Naturally, the nine tracks that appear on this record feature spotless fret-work from the star of the show, who tastefully deploys his guitar army and manages to properly scorch the clone groups that cropped up in that time period attempting to replicate sounds that he invented back in the late 60s. Looking at this from a vinyl perspective, side one leans toward hard rock while the flip downshifts to a more laid back vibe, with the blues taking center stage toward the finish line. Three lead vocalists lend their throats to the proceedings (John Miles, Chris Farlowe and Robert Plant). Amongst the heavy hitters, "Wasting My Time" and "The Only One" both leap from the speaker grills to instantly grab your attention. The former has sweet slide breaks and a catchy chorus while the latter has Plant presiding over a series of riffs that recall the vibe of their old aggregation. Jason Bonham acquits himself admirably throughout, forging his own style on the skins, particularly shining on "Writes of Winter".
“Emerald Eyes” is the absolute standout of the pack. Page masterfully blends acoustic twelve string and electric guitar with a shimmering tremolo effect. The melody is haunting, accented by those silky Pagean bends. Quite like old times.
Positively wigging out on "Prison Blues", JP throws down face melting solos with a twist. His great sense of dynamics allows for a build up in intensity before he takes it over the top. Great "off the floor", spontaneous feel.
If I cannot have your love, I'll sing the blues
Overall, this is a pretty decent platter. Those that rushed out to purchase it in the week it was released (yours truly being one of them) were presented with a sturdy set of tunes, highlighted by impeccable musicianship throughout. Anyone expecting the second coming of Zeppelin would have had a sharp adjustment of expectation. Hence, contemporary reviews were mixed.
The dissenting voices missed a few key points.
First off, Page wisely avoided the trappings of horrible eighties production that was all the rage at that point. No fake drums pushed up in the mix or dated synthesizers with everything drowning in reverb. Shelf life of the material extends exponentially as a result. While he nods to his past, there is no concentrated effort to turn this into Zeppelin Redux. His knowledge of how to get the best sounds to tape came from years of hanging around after playing sessions, watching the engineers and taking notes. A deep understanding of varying styles/genres of music also factors in, though he doesn't stray too far from the known path here.
Holding up well in 2019, it still stands as the lone title in his discography to be produced under his name. The subsequent tour undertaken in support of the LP exposed a new generation to his talents. If you see Outrider in any format, drag it home. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Saturday, June 08, 2019
How do you follow being Fab?
For Paul McCartney, hard work was the key to his impressive run during the 1970s. Forming Wings was a deliberate attempt to start over, return to playing live and reignite the joy of being in a working band. Written off initially by critics, Paul and team would eventually turn negative notices for their inaugural effort, Wild Life, into glowing reviews with Band on the Run. During this time, group members came and went, with Denny Laine and Linda being the only constant fixtures throughout the journey. Following up with a string of hit singles/albums, culminating in the hugely successful Wings Over America tour and triple disc, document of these shows, Wings had become a veritable commercial force. Entering their seventh year, lineup changes once again entered the equation. With the departure of drummer Joe English and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch in 1978, it was left to Laine to recruit new members.
Enter Steve Holley and Laurence Juber.
Their skillsets as musicians are estimable. Bringing a new energy to the proceedings, this version of Wings would feature far more muscular playing than ever before. Reset button fully deployed, the quintet set to work on new material. The sessions for what would become Back to the Egg were ground out at multiple locations/recording facilities and lasted nearly a year. Chris Thomas was brought in to co-produce with McCartney. His presence would bring another perspective in terms of the approach to tracking and final mix.
Before delving into the content, it's best to set expectations for those not familiar with this record. Upon release, it was subject to scathing reviews from rock scribes of that time. Some were mildly snarky, while others were pretty vicious. This set is much better than the notices it received. Next up is the talk track around McCartney wanting to capture the energy of punk and some of the premier "New Wave" acts that were coming to prominence during that era. Some of the tracks have a harder edge, which is a positive, though any evidence of trying to recreate the vibe of the Sex Pistols doesn't really stand out. (Try to imagine John Lydon wrapping his vocal chords around "Winter Rose"). Instead, certain selections are closer in feel to the pub rock/power pop movement. Far more Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds than the Damned. Let's face facts: Punk was DIY, ragged-ass musicianship and pure adrenalin. None of those bands spent a year on their productions nor did any utilize a castle as a recording locale.
HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR EGGS?
Naturally divided into two listening experiences in its original vinyl format, side one is labeled as 'Sunny Side Up' while the flip (pun intended) is 'Over Easy'. It is the sunny side that gets the edge for consistency. Opening with the funky "Reception", it's all about the bass. Paul's line is tight and perfect, grooving accordingly. Nodding to his mid-sixties experiments with tape loops, spoken word snippets are threaded into the mix (excerpted from "The Poodle and the Pug") along with a shrill synth-guitar line. The effect is that of someone fiddling with a tuner dial on a radio, trying to pick up a clear signal. As this brief instrumental fades, "Getting Closer" crashes in with authority. Custom built with a fantastic hook and a powerful, vintage McCartney "screaming" vocal, it was an obvious choice for a single. The energy is amped up in the outro, propelled by Holley's precision percussive attack. First rate rock tune, it certainly deserved a higher chart ranking. "We're Open Tonight" is a short, delicate acoustic piece that serves as a clearing of the aural palate before the onslaught of "Spin It On", which is about as close as this set comes to Punk. It is hyper-caffeinated, though the rotating riff is pretty standard. Juber's fretwork is the star of the show on this one. Denny Laine's lone offering, "Again and Again and Again", raises the bar a notch higher. Reportedly a hybrid of two motifs that he had been working on, the bridge is spectacular with a very clever turnaround. A standout track with Laine delivering a pristine lead vocal, supported by McCartney's stellar harmony, it is power pop at its finest. Scoring again with a superbly heavy slab of guitar-centric madness is "Old Siam, Sir". This one apparently caused some friction in terms of credits for contribution of key parts, though the result is another contender for best in show on the disc. McCartney steps up with a tonsil-shredding lead, Juber and Laine execute fine harmonized guitar figures and Holley steers the arrangement with inventive fills. Linda's keyboard perfectly compliments the lyrical theme. Downshifting slightly, "Arrow Through Me" is a prime example of how seamlessly Paul adapts the stylistic elements of other genres, in this case funk/R & B through the lens of Stevie Wonder. Smooth vocal, leaping into falsetto territory, floats over a haunting melody and the horn section ices the cake. These last two cuts were also 45'ed, making it as far as the top 30. Both were worthy of higher placement and round out an ultimately solid first side of music.
Conceptually, pulling together a virtual "dream team", comprised of some of the premier instrumentalists in rock, to play in unison on a song or two seems like a pretty interesting idea. McCartney brought these heavy friends into the studio to lay down the "Rockestra Theme" and "So Glad to See You Here".
Denny Laine, Laurence Juber, David Gilmour, Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend – guitars
Steve Holley, John Bonham, Kenney Jones – drums
Paul McCartney, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane, Bruce Thomas – basses
Paul McCartney, Gary Brooker, John Paul Jones – pianos
Linda McCartney, Tony Ashton – keyboards
Speedy Acquaye, Tony Carr, Ray Cooper, Morris Pert – percussion
Howie Casey, Tony Dorsey, Steve Howard, Thaddeus Richard – horns
The motif of the "Rockestra Theme" is quite basic, easily adapted by an expanded session crew and is concise. Not sure why they still hadn't had any dinner, though.
Feed the Rockestra, Macca or face their wrath...
Despite the cast of thousands approach, both worked out extremely well. The "Rockestra Theme" won a Grammy for best rock instrumental. One of the surprises amongst the pack on the 'Over Easy' side is "To You". Lyrically it deals with a similar theme as that of "Arrow Through Me" where the narrative is taken from the point of view of a jilted lover. The music that supports it pre-figures the sounds that would color eighties productions. It is quite different than anything that had come before it in the Wings catalog and pointed to a very promising sonic direction for them had they continued on as a unit.
Instead of carrying on down a more experimental avenue, Paul retreated into familiar territory, filling out the rest of the back nine with softer fare. To be blunt, "The Broadcast" is execrable and should have been elbowed in favor of something else from the sessions like "Cage" (which went unreleased) or perhaps another tune from Denny Laine. Taking song fragments and welding them together saw the inclusion of "After the Ball/Million Miles" and "Winter Rose/Love Awake". While boasting fetching melodies (Winter Rose is especially beautiful, taken on its own), they are a poor fit with the surrounding material. "Baby's Request" was chosen to close out the set, though that honor should have gone to "So Glad to See You Here", which includes a short, reggae-fied reprise of "We're Open Tonight" toward the end. Showcasing McCartney's versatility, this soft jazz number is about as close to Hoagy Carmichael as you can get. It's good yet really doesn't belong here, coming off as an anachronism that few contemporary consumers would truly connect with. The aforementioned songs diffused the finished product, likely resulting in the indisposition registered by the reviewers who gave it such a critical pasting.
The perspective of forty years has seen a revision of opinion concerning Back to the Egg. It is now seen as a creative step forward in some respects, with Chris Thomas helping to guide McCartney toward a cleaner production style. The infusion of new blood in the Wings camp also gave a meatier dimension to their overall sound. Desire to do something different with song structure is another plus. This incarnation was really just finding its feet as a live act (as bootlegs from the 1979 UK tour will attest). It's a pity that an unfortunate series of events (the pot bust in Japan being the major blow) conspired to permanently bring an end to Wings.
While it kicks off better than it finishes, it is well worth adding to your collection. Those of you who own a vinyl copy know what to do.
Spin it on, don't stop, take it back to the top...
Sunday, June 02, 2019
Stan Rogers' untimely passing would give his third studio LP the sad distinction of being the last recording released by the artist during his lifetime. He was working on an ambitious concept that involved writing entire albums around the theme of specific regions in Canada. His first two sets dealt with the socio-economic concerns of the Atlantic Provinces in the mid 70s, blending nautical tales with topical fare and good old fashioned songs that addressed love, loss and everything in between. Rogers was a wordsmith, possessed of a rich baritone voice and the soul of a poet who crafted intelligent music that continues to inspire anyone lucky enough to be introduced to it. The title track, once hailed as the alternate Canadian national anthem, details the futility of the quest that early explorers undertook to find a route across Canada to the Pacific ocean. His work had diverse roots in folk, country and English traditional styles. "The Field Behind the Plow" is one of the most eloquent and heart wrenching tributes to the men and women who toil quietly to help provide the food on our tables that we take for granted. Equally beautiful is the metaphor deployed in the lyrics of "Free in the Harbour" which compares the extensive whale hunting in times past to ongoing oil exploration and how these creatures are no longer pursued in favor of extracting an entirely different type of "oil from the sea". It ranks as one of his finest tunes.
Regardless of the subject matter, he infused the characters that populated his writing with a wonderful accessibility. You knew them or at least had a sense that you did. Skipping an afternoon of work to escape a few hours of drudgery, the protagonist in "Working Joe" steals some time to relax. Managing to balance light hearted fun with a touch of pathos, the tune also swings. "The Idiot" takes up an all too familiar tale of young Maritimers heading west to seek work in the oil patch, daydreaming about returning to their home town. Stan wrote for everyone and he captured the cultural touchstones of the western region as masterfully as he did in his earlier paeans to the east coast. When it came to the music itself, he surrounded himself with top class players. Brother Garnet Rogers brought his talents to the mix on violin, while Paul Mills (who also produced his recordings) added his nimble fingers on lead guitar. In performance, impeccable musicianship and spot on vocals from everyone were punctuated with entertaining, frequently hilarious stories.
Northwest Passage comes highly recommended, though all of his output was of very high caliber. Anyone with a love for clever, well-constructed and heartfelt music will connect with these compositions. He was the genuine article, living and breathing his craft.
Brilliant, outspoken, opinionated and on the cusp of greater notoriety as an artist, Rogers perished in a fire aboard Air Canada flight 797 on June 2, 1983. He was just 33 years old. Such promise, of new music to be made, stories yet to be told, all disappeared in an instant.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Fittingly titled, the third Nilsson record soars majestically. Named for a vaudeville act originally performed by his grandparents, there is definitely a circus-like atmosphere woven into the grooves. The cover art depicts an old fashioned aircraft superimposed on a drawing of the artist's unsmiling visage. This provides another perspective entirely as the songs deftly perform the sonic equivalent of an Inmelmann turn, which is comprised of an ascending half-loop followed by a half-roll. Successful execution means that the pilot brings the plane to a higher altitude and pulls off a course change of 180 degrees. Listeners are guaranteed an equally exhilarating experience.
In addition to capturing that gravity defying voice in the midst of complex aerobatic maneuvers, producer Rick Jarrard pushes studio craft to its very limit. Add to this the remarkable arrangements of George Tipton and you have a veritable dream team in place. Harry brought some of his most innovative compositions to the table, resulting in one of his finest albums.
Despite the lighthearted intro, "Daddy's Song" alludes to the personal pain felt by its author, whose own father deserted him at an early age. This underscores a rigid dichotomy that informs much of content in this set. Themes of loneliness, insecurity and ruptured relationships are set to uplifting musical accompaniment. This could easily be a companion piece to "1941" from his previous disc. Wrestling with the raw emotions that come with paternal abandonment, there is the idealized version of Dad in the first two verses followed up by the reality of "the rainy day" that he left and the vow to end the cycle of sadness should he become a father himself. With its meticulously multi-tracked harmonies, this beautiful song makes for a compelling opener. In jarring juxtaposition to people who let you down comes a truly inventive ode to the workstation.
“When my heart’s on the floor I just open the drawer of my favorite guest / And what do I see but a picture of me working at my good old desk"
Melodic with a truly killer hook, "Good Old Desk" is one of the highlights in a stellar set. Curiously, many read a divine meaning into the title, seeing it as an acronym for the Almighty (G.O.D.). Appearing on Playboy After Dark in 1969, Nilsson performed the tune, telling host Hugh Hefner (with a straight face) that, "the song's meaning was in its initials." Years later, he fessed up to the fact that he was really just bullshitting Hefner and simply thought that it was a funny thing to say. In truth, there was a far more mundane inspiration for this one. Nilsson had office space at RCA and elaborated on his quiet place of work in a 1977 interview on the BBC:
"I had this little office with a desk, and a lamp, and then a couple of things on the wall and a rug. I turned the regular office overhead lights out and just lit this little lamp, and I was very comfortable there. I'd go there at night and write and there was no one in the building."
The other standout in terms of ingenuity and execution is the brilliant "One". Harry claimed that the staccato keyboard centerpiece of the arrangement was conjured while placing a phone call and getting a busy signal. His vocal is a mini master-class in dynamics, culminating in a flawless falsetto leap toward the outro. Pre-figuring Neil Young by a few years, the "number" that you're doing here is a thinly veiled reference to rolling/smoking a left handed ciggie. Tipton takes a minimalist approach to augmentation, with light strings, decorative flute and a hint of harpsichord supporting that effortless hummingbird of a voice throughout. Three Dog Night covered "One", scoring a hit, while Harry's version failed to chart. Great shame, as the original here is far superior.
Aerial Ballet is notable for being a proverbial Trojan horse, as it contains Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", which would sit virtually unnoticed until it was pulled for inclusion on the Midnight Cowboy film soundtrack in 1969. In an odd reversal of fortune, while others would hit big with his songs, he would do the same when covering the work of other writers. It would earn him his first Grammy.
There is nothing resembling "rock" to be found in the grooves of Aerial Ballet. Nor does the material align with anything remotely psychedelic, flying in the face of the trends of those times. Instead, the musical underpinnings are incredibly serene, at times seeming like a throwback to a bygone era. The professional songwriter surfaces in offerings like "Don't Leave Me" and "The Wailing of the Willow" and both also tap feelings of sadness that are at the core of the lyrical subject matter throughout. Elsewhere, Beatlesque touches can be found in the story-oriented songs ("Mr. Tinker" and "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song"). Harry weaves these narratives with a sharp eye for concision and exposition of the theme, taking the shortest route possible. Your patience is never tested in spinning this wonderful disc as no cut exceeds the three minute mark. While Nilsson Schmilsson often gets the critical nod as his best work, this is an equally strong contender for that honor. It is no surprise that his contemporaries greatly admired his estimable talents. Using his voice as an instrument, backed by top class musicians with a sympathetic producer in his corner, Aerial Ballet is a high watermark in his catalog.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Seismic shifts in popular music occurred during the 1960s. Artists who stretched the boundaries of expression provided listeners with sounds that would have a shelf life lasting for decades beyond the era in which they were created. Rock as a genre had matured. With the advent of FM radio format, full length albums became statements that required your attention as opposed to one or two hit singles cobbled together with filler. Stylistic diversity and the element of surprise were a constant thread that made the material so compelling. As the decade wound down, a new musical aggregate appeared on the scene that would inspire their contemporaries and have a powerful influence on the sonic template of the seventies.
The debut LP of Crosby, Stills and Nash was a game changer.
What's more, they did it quietly.
While the principals themselves disagree on exactly where they first blended their voices in glorious harmony (Joni Mitchell's place versus Cass Elliot's pad for those placing the home game), what is not in dispute is how important the results were. The trio were all former members of high profile groups. Crosby had success with the Byrds, Stills came to prominence with Buffalo Springfield and Nash was a key player in the Hollies. All had experienced creative frustration during their time with these bands. The idea of using their own names for this new project would guarantee that each writer was given equal billing and would be free to pursue solo work, if they so desired. Ground rules in place, they began the task of crafting and rehearsing the songs that would comprise this phenomenal disc.
THRILL ME TO THE MARROW
Opening with the multi-part stunner that is "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", the tone is set beautifully. Shimmering harmonies, inventive acoustic playing, Latin flavors and shifting time signatures are blended expertly. Stephen Stills quarterbacks this one, topping his cry from the heart with a soulful lead vocal. Nicknamed "Captain Manyhands" by the others, he plays almost every note on multiple instruments throughout, with few exceptions. Stills' recently ruptured relationship with folk singer Judy Collins translates into a soaring, majestic cornerstone piece. It is nothing less than a career highlight. Just as you catch your breath from the jubilant outro, a snippet of spoken gibberish (courtesy of Crosby) leads into the sleek, catchy "Marrakesh Express". Finding hidden messages embedded in rock records had become de rigueur for those fanatics whose sleuthing was generally aided by a healthy supply of cannabis (or other stimulants). Poking fun at this with his subversive intro, Croz probably inadvertently caused many to damage their vinyl copies trying to play this backward. The joke gets funnier when you take into consideration that many were looking to East Indian philosophies and gurus to find a deeper meaning to their existence. Composer Nash gently sends up all and sundry looking for "The Answer".
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you
He scores with a melodic single, which made it into the top 30 along with "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". Graham has finely honed pop sensibilities, a knack for which would land CSN on top forty playlists with regularity. Crosby weighs in next with the serene, intelligently designed "Guinnevere". His vocal interplay with Nash is a model of economy and beauty, while the tuning he uses (EBDGAD) enhances the ethereal quality of this quiet gem. All three tracks serve to introduce you to the eclectic nature of the group dynamic and the personalities behind the creative process.
Stills provides two more acoustic-guitar-centric vehicles to showcase their spotless harmonies in "You Don't Have to Cry" and "Helplessly Hoping". The former was the proving ground for Nash to add his clean, stratospheric high harmony to that of his partners in crime. How amazing would it have been to be in the room when he listened intently to the first pass and then provided the missing piece to what would become their signature sound. When you have singers that are this talented, why pile on layers of augmentation? "Helplessly Hoping" is pure, alliterative magic and would remain a staple of their set-lists for years to come.
"Wooden Ships" boasts a brilliant, anti-war tale with Stills and Crosby each taking a lead role from the prospective of characters who are survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Written with Paul Kantner, the narrative ingeniously has the post-apocalyptic group escaping the fallout zone by boat to start a new civilization.
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cries
Stare as all human feelings die
We are leaving you don't need us
This is one of the handful of selections that have a full band arrangement (meaning Stills plays everything with Dallas Taylor on drums). The sleeper cuts are "Pre-Road Downs", another criminally underrated Nash tune with a great hook and Crosby's very fine "Long Time Gone". Crosby tends to be overshadowed by his mates as a lead vocalist, though he turns in a powerful performance. The sheer confidence that is on display in every aspect of this landmark recording is felt even today, fifty years after it landed in stores and subsequently on the turntables of millions.
Why is this such an important record?
The key is in the approach. Sharply bucking prevailing trends of the time, arrangements are stripped down to feature acoustic guitars and voices prominently. When drums do appear in the mix, they are unobtrusive and deployed to keep time. Tedious, lengthy, electric guitar-heavy workouts are avoided. The focus is rightly placed on the songs. All three composers brought only their very best to the table. Their transatlantic hybrid introduced a very unique harmonic style that inspired countless acts, setting the stage for what would be labeled as "soft rock" and permeating playlists of the early 70s as the singer-songwriter movement grabbed hold of the public imagination. They also became poster children for the Woodstock generation, due in large part to their coming out party at the festival mere months after CS&N was released. Imitators appeared, though no one managed to successfully duplicate what they were laying down. Elements of folk, pop, jazz, rock and everything in between were synthesized into something entirely fresh. Ultimately listenable, well crafted and still beguiling a half century on, this record is required listening for anyone who appreciates top class harmony singing and melody.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, this LP is arguably where Neil Young discovered his true essence. Compared with some of the more elaborate arrangements found on his self titled, debut solo disc, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere is austere. All of the urgency, energy and inspiration of the musicians playing together in the studio is captured beautifully. David Briggs understood the value of transferring a "live off the floor" feel directly to tape, without endlessly revisiting the tracks to re-do parts in layers after the fact. No need to over-analyze. The minimalist path to recording would become a signature in the work that Neil would produce from this point forward.
Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina were primarily a vocal group (Danny and the Memories) in the mid-sixties, cut a single as The Psyrcle (produced by Sly Stone) and made little impression on the music scene of that era. All three picked up a musical instrument fairly late in the game. With some rudimentary instruction, they began to play together. Hooking up with other like-minded players, the Rockets were born. Endless jams evolved into shaping some of their own material, penned mainly by Whitten and Leon Whitsell. They managed to produce one, eponymously titled long player. Again, it was not a raging commercial success. At this point, Young stumbled upon them. He had escaped the wreckage of the Buffalo Springfield and had his own first disc in the can. Long story short, he poached Whitten, Talbot and Molina from the Rockets.
George Whitsell: "My understanding was Neil was gonna use the guys for a record and a quick tour, bring 'em back and help us produce the next Rockets album. It took me a year and a half to realize that my band had been taken."
This new aggregation was re-branded as Crazy Horse. Rehearsals began in earnest to work on music with their new boss. What they put to tape in a relatively short period of time would be a game changer.
"Cinnamon Girl" is the perfect opener, deploying a mesmerizing riff in D A D G B D tuning. It is a short blast of pure rock and roll, with a killer hook, dual lead vocals courtesy of Young and Whitten (who takes the high harmony) and culminates in a one note solo that you could frame. Like the best work of any writer, it is marked by brevity and ingenuity. Young lets out brief burst of noise from his Les Paul as a postscript, letting the last note decay in a haze of distortion. This shot across the bow would remain a staple of his set-lists for decades. It has aged beautifully, neatly avoiding any ties to the era from which it came.
So who is this girl? In typical Neil fashion, he provided a cryptic explanation in the liner notes to his Decade collection.
"Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes, playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife."
Deftly switching gears, the title track follows with the groove downshifting to a laid back, country rock vibe. Great harmonies frame this fulsome tribute to getting back to a place where the pace of life is slower, free from hectic itineraries. Purposely open ended, the details of this idealized retreat are left to the imagination.
Everybody seems to wonder/What it's like down here...
Just as you get acquainted with the subtle charms of this tune, it fades out, leaving you wanting a little more. Definite highlight. Pulling a complete 180 degree turn, "Round and Round (It Won't Be Long)" is a simple vehicle for acoustic guitar. His keening tenor is joined here by Robin Lane, who admirably complements Young on this folky, minor key sad ballad. As he would later on with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson, bringing a female voice into the vocal arrangement brought another sonic dimension to the table. While it is a decent composition, this is one instance where cutting the running time down would have been beneficial. A minor complaint, though side one ends on both a hypnotic and gloriously sprawling note. "Down by the River" is a cornerstone piece, which would be taken well beyond the nine minute mark on stage by the Horse. The rhythm section hangs on tight while Whitten weaves simple but effective lines through Young's solos. There are no virtuoso heroics, so bass and drum fills are economic and as unobtrusive as possible. Briggs simply let the band play and pruned the end result of any glaring mistakes or uninspired sections. Another instant classic, without pretension.
Side two gets off to a slow start, flagging a bit in terms of intensity. "The Losing End" (When You're On) is a serviceable, country flavored shit-kicker, though fairly non-descript. "Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets) is a dirge, salvaged only by the outstanding violin improvisation by...wait for it...former Rocket, Bobby Notkoff. The closer snaps everything back into sharp focus. "Cowgirl in the Sand" is the majestic, long form companion to "Down By the River", yet manages to hit harder due to some truly unhinged fret-bombing from Mr. Young. Sporting a short, brooding intro, the lyric is unfathomable with a turnaround that is nothing short of breathtaking. Just to illustrate how strong this melody is, have a listen to the acoustic version found on Four Way Street, which documents the CSNY live experience circa 1970. It works either way, though it's a blast to hear Crazy Horse support Neil as he coaxes some otherworldly licks from his axe. Slamming the door shut on this timeless disc, it completely overshadows the aforementioned selections that precede it on the second side.
While this stunning artistic statement did not fly up the charts when it was initially released back in '69, it sold respectably and made a lasting impression on his contemporaries. Listeners were put on notice. Young found both his aural template and sympathetic co-conspirators to help bring his unique vision to life. It is remarkable how fresh this music sounds a half century later. If you dig Uncle Neil, dust off your vinyl copy and have a loud 50th anniversary celebration.
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Commitment to a persona, without so much as a wink, is commendable. Neil Hamburger is an inspired product from the fertile imagination of Gregg Turkington. On stage, he inhabits this character perfectly, often challenging his audience with material that is intentionally offensive, groan-worthy and insanely funny. Possessed of a razor sharp wit, he also expertly destroys would-be hecklers while moving, at a glacial pace, through each set up. Hamburger delivers all and sundry in a very distinctive voice, which he deploys on his latest recording, Still Dwelling. For the uninitiated, Turkington steps up to the mic, singing as Neil Hamburger on all twelve tracks. This is not an easy task, though he makes it seem effortless. For the prospective listener, do keep this in mind when you delve into this very fine disc.
Featuring an impressive list of guest contributors, meticulous production, arrangements and impeccable playing, you will be drawn in by the lush soundscape that lifts every song. The choice of covers had to have been an assiduous process as each selection takes you on both a genre and era-hopping journey. Two original compositions ("The Luckiest Man in the Room" and the closer, "Little Love Cup"), co-written by Turkington and his long-time collaborator Erik Paparozzi, round out the set.
Special mention must be made of the masterful job that Erik Paparozzi does in wearing multiple hats as producer/ arranger/multi-instrumentalist. Assuming the roles of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and one-man Wrecking Crew (pun intended), he raises the ghost of those legendary recordings that came out of Gold Star and Sunset Sound in the sixties. What is most impressive, is that he did not have the luxury of sitting behind the glass at the board with a crack team of session players ready to do his bidding. He alone lays down all of the bed tracks and painstakingly overdubs a laundry list of additional instrumentation. Deserving of every superlative, this is genius level work and the main reason why the end product has such a warm, cohesive sound.
"Backwards Traveler", which originally featured on Wings' London Town LP, is a clever way to open the proceedings as it sets the tone for the trip back in time that you are about to take. Different from McCartney's arrangement, taken at a faster pace and wisely opting to drop the transition into "Cuff Link", it gives Hamburger a flashy vehicle to establish himself as master of ceremonies.
Highlights abound, though "Everything's Alright" takes things to yet another level of excellence. In addition to the aforementioned exquisite musical underpinnings, Jack Black (as Judas) and Mike Patton (as Jesus) lend their vocal talents to the mix. Their voices bring a sense of balance to this stunning, over the top slice of musical theatre. Former touring keyboardist for the Who, John Bundrick ("Rabbit" to his friends) makes the first of his four contributions, shining brightly with his nimble work on the 88s. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself would surely approve.
Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" has been covered before, notably by Glen Campbell on his 1967 album, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. His rendition is earnest and smothered in strings. Flipping the script, it is arranged here as a country vehicle. Hamburger brings a genuine a road-weary feel, audibly sighing at times while half-speaking the lyrics, with which he takes a couple of pointed liberties. ("On a tour of one night stands/my suitcase and my jokes in hand" and "Tonight I'll tell my gags again"). Those dusty, maudlin ballads where the narrator spins a deliberately sad tale with a cast of thousands wailing away on backing vocals are parodied here in grand style.
A deep sense of pathos is conveyed convincingly on "Standing on the Corner". Where the original was jaunty, this version has you wondering why the protagonist seems so morose. Key to the desultory atmosphere is the brilliant string arrangement, courtesy of Petra Hayden. Minor key sad, you almost forget about the objectifying nature of the lyrics until the truly creepy, half-whispered delivery of the line, "Brother you can't go to jail for what you're thinking". Imaginatively reinvented, the whole thing works like a Swiss watch. The back nine of Still Dwelling continues with some very pleasant surprises. "Crazy On You" has to be heard to be believed. A galloping drum pattern is interpolated by short breakdowns, with sweeping orchestration (handled by "Rabbit") and choral backing. The coral sitar substituting for the guitar solo is particularly inspired. You can almost picture Hamburger, comb-over and bow tie askew, prodding his finger wildly at those whom he vows to unload on.
Gonna go crazy on you and you and YOU!!
Further ramping up the derangement factor, he also delivers a truly unhinged vocal take on "World Without Love". Gives fresh perspective to that opening line.
Please lock me away
The grand slam moment in this highly entertaining program is the marriage of the Midnight Cowboy Theme with John Lennon's "Isolation". After hearing this beautifully executed piece, you may even be moved to do an A/B comparison with "Let's Go Away for Awhile" from Pet Sounds. Why? Not because the melodies are anything alike, but rather that this is the vibe that radiates from the speaker grills as the music washes over you. It is a very high complement to all involved that this feel is captured perfectly. It isn't a stretch to imagine this wafting from dashboard of a 1967 GTO convertible, racing along the Pacific Coast Highway at sunset.
Closing out on an unexpectedly touching note, "Little Love Cup" offers a tender message to be good to one another.
You'll never be lonely, if love everybody you know.
Signing off with a touch of show-biz schmaltz, the mantra that you're left with is concise: No one loves a hater.
This extremely fun journey through the past is quite clever with nuances that reveal themselves upon each new spin. Love and loss through the lens of truly talented people who have a deep understanding of music history combined with a subversive sense of humor. I would highly recommend that you seek out a vinyl copy of Still Dwelling as this format will allow you to take in every note as it was intended to be heard. Support the artist and grab this for yourself right here