Saturday, May 23, 2009
Squeeze formed in the early seventies and had hit their stride when they grouped to record their third album. "Argybargy" is brimming with smart, tightly arranged pop/rock. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook emerged as UK heavyweight song writing champions, on par with Lennon/McCartney in the melody department (which is two aisles down from housewares and ladies apparel). The strength of the band hinged on Difford's effortless vocals which were expertly supported by Tilbrook's lower harmonies. Jools Holland's inventive work on keys provides the extra spark that lifts the material even higher. Just check out his spot on solo in "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell).
Absolutely brilliant, though this track is surrounded by strong offerings ("Another Nail For My Heart", "If I Didn't Love You") that really make it tough to play favorites. Musicianship is first rate with chord sequences often going to unexpected places, though the hooks are never ditched in favor of experimental meandering. Story telling fare like "Vicky Verky" pulls you in with exceptional, descriptive lyrics that suggest a short TV drama. Much thought went into keeping an energetic pace with uptempo, riff driven selections ("Misadventure", "Farfisa Beat") sequenced seamlessly with more subdued themes.
Powers of continuous creativity were quite high at this point, with Squeeze leading the charge of innovative, late 70s British groups that spurred a second "golden period", emphasizing song craft and substance. Never really catching fire in the US, barring a couple of successful singles, rotating lineup changes and periods of hiatus have not helped their cause. Criminally underrated, they have produced several stellar, full length discs. "Argybargy" is an excellent way to introduce yourself to Squeeze and if you're not a fan, you will be after a few spins.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Quite a bit of time and money went into the fourth Queen album, all of it well spent. There is much to be commended from a production standpoint as the group members utilized every inch of track space imaginatively, guided by co-conspirator Roy Thomas Baker. Walls of vocal harmonies, stacked guitar parts and innovative structures grace this collection of diverse, ambitious compositions.
Taking up where "Sheer Heart Attack" left off, this is where the Queen legend really begins.
"Death on Two Legs" provides the opening dynamite with a short, classically tinged keyboard flourish that dissolves into a tape collage of miscellaneous effects that all come to a screeching halt on a lone, insistent piano chord. The band kicks into a lyrically scarifying rock tune, apparently directed by Mercury at a former manager. Devastating intro.
Just as the layered voices hit the last "I feel goooooooood", a jaunty melody right out of British music hall breaks the tension and the lads take a huge cue from Ray Davies' vaudevillian leanings with "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon". It is an over the top exercise in campy fun with May adding those trademark harmonized leads. "Seaside Rendezvous" is also very much in this vein. The sheer whack of this disc is provided by matching the light and heavy sides of the group's personality with each theme blending seamlessly into the next. Big rock tracks ("I'm In Love with My Car") are followed by mid tempo, radio friendly ear candy ("You're My Best Friend"), written by Taylor and Deacon, respectively. Make no mistake that this was a four way street when it came down to writing, though Mercury and May have the majority of those credits here.
Prog in it's mildest form shows up in the multi-part "The Prophet's Song", which ranks high on the list of "songs that open side two with a bang". It plays its own role amongst a dazzling array of styles that keep you interested throughout. They didn't quite abandon heavier music completely on "A Night at the Opera", though it was slightly submerged in favor of the eclectic avenues that studio work allowed them to travel down. Live performances still showcased their harder edge.
Inside the gatefold sleeve, which I was glancing at while listening, is a proud declaration of "No Synthesizers!" at the bottom of the liner credits. In all of the years that I have had this album, that particular bit never really caught my attention. Looking at it now is just a reminder of how much effort they put into producing sounds from scratch, without recourse to the button pushing that is so commonplace in the digital age. Kind of funny, as well, when you look at how their output in the 80s was plastered with synths.
Closing with what would become the cornerstone of this set, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a brilliant suite that incorporated 180 overdubs, 70 hours to nail the vocals and first rate performances from all involved. Roger Taylor recalls Freddie Mercury playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" to the band at the piano. "And here, darlings, is where the opera section starts," he would say. "Freddie had the bare bones, even the composite harmonies, written on scraps of paper," said Taylor, "So it was quite hard to keep track of what was going on."
This ingenious creation is a testament to the rare talent that Mercury possessed and a crowning achievement in a career that featured so many highlights.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Monday, May 18, 2009
First dates can certainly be nerve wracking for a guy. You want to make a decent first impression, dress well and find a cool place to go that you'll both enjoy. Keeping your hands free of sticky, bubblegum-like goo is also advisable, just in case.
Everyone's favorite German rockers were in a period of transition before the recording of "Lovedrive". Guitarist Uli Jon Roth had left the band. Mattias Jabs was in, Michael Schenker rejoined and for this album, the Scorpions briefly had a three guitar team. The result was their most solid set of songs to date. "Loving You Sunday Morning" kicks things off with a fairly straightforward riff that goes to more interesting places on the bridge and a killer chorus featuring really airy harmonies.
Overall, the guitar work is exceptional, with their signature sound really falling into place here. Anthemic rock ballads ("Always Somewhere", "Holiday") are sprinkled in with heavier material like "Another Piece of Meat" and the excellent title track.
Never forgetting melody, there are some fine hooks that jump out and grab your ear. It isn't a huge time investment either, clocking in at just over half an hour. Useless trivia time! A few years back I went to see Uli Jon Roth play in a bar in Cleveland. After the show he was out mingling with the crowd and my buddies and I chatted with him for a bit. He told us that the band members picked the name "Scorpions" because it is recognizable in just about every language. Marketing 101.
Worth owning for the cover alone.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Many fine players have taken their place behind the kit over the years but when it comes right down to it, Buddy Rich was in a class of his own. Fastest hands to ever grasp sticks, by far. One of my most prized possessions is a recording that he did with Art Tatum and Lionel Hampton in the mid 50s. He primarily plays with brushes throughout and it's still one of the most remarkable performances of restraint and taste that I have ever heard.
Carrying the torch for big band jazz, he regularly promoted young musicians to sit on the bandstand with him. The group he assembled in 1978 (Killer Force) was one of his finest and I have watched the performance at the Hague from that period far too many times to even count. Brilliant.
Noted for his incredible technique as well as being outspoken, I think that the harder edge of his personality may have resulted in a less than fair shake when it comes his ranking amongst jazz musicians in the 20th century. Just listen to one of those infamous tapes of Rich cursing out his band members following a less than stellar set. Despite this, his obvious genius has transcended any criticism of his mercurial temperament. One of the great disappointments that I have suffered was having tickets to one of his upcoming shows in 1987 and learning of his sudden passing. I would have loved to have seen him in person.
Buddy's take on "Uncle Albert, Admiral Halsey". This arrangement is fantastic.
A "Non-Animal" drum battle with Ed Shaughnessy.
Amazingly, his skills never eroded with time and only became sharper. Right up to his death, this legendary player burned with the intensity of a man half his age.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Can you recall the last time that you took your brain out to dinner and treated it right? Exposing it to this album will more than make up for all of those boring nights at home.
Far from being bad, this is six string righteousness beyond all of your wildest expectations.
Jazzers hate it.
His interpretation of Paul Desmond' s "Take Five" is one of the reasons for their indisposition. Don't pay attention to them, as this is a really funky cover with brilliant, smooth solo passages.
Steve Gadd and Ron Carter anchor a dream rhythm section, while Phil Upchurch handles second guitar. Kenny Barron rounds out this stellar crew on piano. These guys never leave the pocket and cook up some extremely enjoyable high wire playing, especially on the 13 minute plus "Serbian Blue". Benson's lines are clean and sharp throughout and the grooves are guaranteed to snap your neck.
You'll die happy.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
CONSOLERS OF THE LONELY
In the current phony, auto-tuned sea of garbage that some refer to as popular music, listeners looking for a good rock record almost need to retain the services of private investigators to aid them in their search. I was considering putting these guys on the case.
If you're concerned about this sorry state of affairs, look no further than "Consolers of the Lonely". Last year's follow up to "Broken Boy Soldiers" saw The Raconteurs turning the brilliant trick of topping that album.
Brendan Benson and Jack White pool their talents in what sounds like an extremely democratic songwriting collective. Reaffirming the power of a good band working toward putting only their best efforts into the finished product, this is nothing short of superb.
Flying the flag for the glory days when bands still made excellent full length discs, the musicians do anything but phone it in. Real electricity flows freely through every track and the two lead voices provide variety in each selection. I realize that the music business is not going to retreat from aggressive marketing, but in this instance the group neatly sidestepped hype and won the prize in the "surprise release" sweepstakes.
Super solid live, great in the studio.
Breathing new life into epic narrative pieces , "Carolina Drama" is a the perfect example of a band living up to its name.
One of the finest releases of 2008. Proof positive that the rock revolution will not be silenced by corporate bullshit and elevator music for the lobotomized. Can't wait for the next one.
Monday, May 11, 2009
SKY BLUE SKY
Have you noticed how dispensable most new music is? Not entirely memorable or really even worth more than one spin? Dreadful?
Take heart gentle reader, there are still writers and performers who manage to escape the bounds of mediocrity and produce work of lasting merit. One sparkling example is Jeff Tweedy and the ever changing group of musicians that comprise Wilco.
"Sky Blue Sky" is a subtle, extremely spotless sounding effort, released around this time in 2007. I bought it straight away, having followed the band since their second album. It took some time to digest, though it quickly went into a regular listening rotation. No wild shifts or overt experimentation involved, with understated music to match the lyrical subject matter. If you like layered guitar work, you're going to find it here. Tweedy pulls off one of the best compositions he's ever contributed with "Impossible Germany". Three different lead parts share space right through to the delicate ending. This clip has a bonus ending, featuring a quick explanation of what prompted the song's lyrics.
Nodding to back to the first album, the title track has an ersatz country feel, complete with heavy foot on the high hat pedal, eat shit bass, sighing background guitar figures and a lyric that suggests the author passed through a fairly dark period. What it all means is purely subjective. Tweedy's vocal has an element of what Neil Young left uncorrected in "Mellow My Mind" from Tonight's the Night. Only in places, though. It's a really effective way of conveying the emotional weight of the words.
There are a couple ofl Wilcoesque diversions into madness within songs ("Side With the Seeds", "Walken") and the playing is first rate throughout. Understated and quietly beautiful, songs like "Please Be Patient With Me" and "On and On and On", which closes the album, mine territory that is borderline confessional and poetic all at once. Nothing comes across as overly heavy. Guitars are up front (always a plus) and you can detect the Byrds of "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" period in the mix. I have been listening to this a lot lately, ramping up for their next release (Wilco -The Album), due out next month. Have a listen, it's streaming here http://wilcoworld.net/discs/thealbum/
Tweedy is an exceptional song writer and his vision has often morphed into assumption of full control. Sounds like he's allowed some space for collaboration on this record, at least from a musical standpoint. The results couldn't be better. If you want to listen to something that will stand up twenty years from now, this is it.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Hawkwind's double live album is a bit cacophonous, with no shortage of futuristic noises to support tales of exploring the cold expanses of the universe. Slap on your glitter, ingest psychedelics and enjoy the light show.
Not on my list of all-time wonderfulness, though it is a killer excuse to put up this video of one of their better tunes, featuring an apple-cheeked Ian Kilmister on vocals. Seeing and hearing Lemmy actually singing here will be a revalation to those only familiar with the whiskey-voiced, growling style which defined his Motorhead recordings.
Strangely, "Silver Machine" is nowhere to be found on this record.
Friday, May 08, 2009
One man band Karl Wallinger's World Party was part manifesto and pure, mid sixties influenced pop. "Bang!" is no exception. Nothing wrong with good melodies. This one got swept away in the grunge parade that was holding up musical traffic on just about every street in the early 90's.. Certainly not a complaint, though British invasion styled sounds were finding their way back into fashion, soon to be reanimated in the form of Britpop.
Wallinger went back to excellent stylistic sources in crafting his tunes, so you'll have fun picking out his favorite bands in the mix. The entire LP is pretty easy on the ear, as is most all of his work.
"Is It Like Today?" would be the best known selection from this disc and it's of the finest that he ever wrote.
"Kingdom Come" and "Sooner or Later" claim honorable mention.
Fans of The Who will either be annoyed or scream, "Shit! Did you hear that?!?" upon listening to "Sunshine".
An underlying ecological message dominates the lyrics, though I was too busy tossing empties off the balcony to notice when I first played this back in 1993. I soon learned to "go green" and bring the bottles back in exchange for cash.
Seriously, this is a fine album from a very under-appreciated talent.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Second release from this powerhouse UK metal group and it is uniformly excellent. What would you expect to hear when gingerly applying the needle to a record by a band named for an 18th century torture device?
Songs about clouds, adopting puppies and love, of course.
Bassist Steve Harris single handedly takes care of the writing chores here, with all tunes but two dating from the first album. Despite the gothic horror image they projected, no effort is made to embrace themes of chopping up your relatives or selling your soul to the Evil One. The lyrics are fairly conventional and sit comfortably atop inventive structures with scorching twin guitar arrangements, courtesy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Exceptional playing is the rule. Humble opinion time: Murray is in a class of his own and does not get nearly enough credit for his fretwork.
I burned through my cassette copy of this in high school, listening so frequently to what remains my favorite Maiden set to this day. Kicking off with rolling drums that lock into an insistent pattern, the short instrumental "The Ides of March" gives way to "Wrathchild" ,which is a definite highlight.
When you listen, there's a great live energy retained in these tracks. Production legend Martin Birch certainly captured the best performances and allows them to breathe without sanding off all of the natural dynamics.
Vocalist Paul Di' Anno brings an intense edge to the material, while remaining melodic. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a great example of this style, as he's not merely screaming every syllable. Some singers in this genre fall into that trap with mixed results. Di ' Anno would be bounced from the lineup before the next studio project, though.
Always the "thinking person's metal band", this music has not stale dated since it first appeared in early 1981. "Killers" sounds as if it could have been recorded last week. Crank it up!
How about that happy, un-dead chap dispatching his latest victim with a hatchet? That's "Eddie", the ingenious cartoon mascot who has graced every one of their LP covers. Not just a pretty face, his skeletal mug is the image most closely associated with Iron Maiden.
He's available to do children's parties, too.
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Much bigger deal in the UK than he was in North America, Marc Bolan would find a huge audience with "Electric Warrior". Blessed with a face that drove teenage girls wild, he would also be associated with Britain's burgeoning glam-rock scene in the early seventies. Nearly forty years on, separating the music he produced from the glitter reveals a decent song writer who had excellent melodic sensibility. This album saw him strike a balance between the acoustic based material that he had steeped himself in through the late sixties and a newfound move toward amplification.
Stylistically, the song structures owed a lot to 50's rock and roll with the lyrics mixing hippie themes and raw sexuality. Bolan's voice was unique, to say the least, with a prominent quavery delivery that was quintessentially English. These factors may be why you don't hear these tunes in heavy rotation on classic rock stations, save for "(Bang a Gong) Get It On", which is a few steps ahead of its time from a production standpoint.
Top of the Pops, Christmas 1971. The guy miming along on piano had a few hits of his own...
Aside from this, there are quite a few standout tracks. "Cosmic Dancer" has a haunting melody and a fantastic string arrangement, while "Jeepster" is just a pure blast of tribal energy. I used to drink with a Brit who was a teenager when all of this was happening and he told me about a dance that was popular with his crowd at that time. Essentially, you only moved the upper half of your body, feet rooted in place with arms at your sides, as you violently bobbed and thrashed your torso, narrowly missing cracking heads with your partner.
Unfairly labeled as bubblegum due to Bolan's poster boy visage, this is actually a very fine record. Tony Visconti's polished production was in line with the work he did with David Bowie, who was also a friend and contemporary. T-Rex were a great live act and these songs were given a heavier treatment on stage. I would highly recommend checking out "Born to Boogie", mainly for the concert footage shot at Wembley stadium in 1972 by first time director Ringo Starr. It's a great document.
Here's a taste.
Shifting trends saw a decline in the popularity of T Rex, though Marc Bolan would continue to record and tour. He was killed in a road accident just shy of his 30th birthday in 1977. Underrated in many ways, he would, sadly, only find renewed interest in his work after his untimely passing. "Electric Warrior" stands as his best album.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
in its right plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace, in its riiiiiight plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace...
Be careful of this record! Once lodged in your cerebrum, ambient pieces will spider-web throughout your brain until it is completely saturated. Some parts you could almost whistle, though the moods stirred by these songs probably won't allow that.
Back in the fall of 2000, I tuned in to a radio broadcast of this remarkable set the week before it was released. In a slightly altered state, anticipation ran high as I braced myself for what the whole thing would sound like.
Stunning noises emanated from the speaker grills.
Exploring the capabilities of synthetic music isn't a new development. When it is done with this much imagination, the listener is drawn in and can't help but take notice. This direction pissed off more than a few people, too. Coming on the heels of releases that embraced guitar oriented arrangements, Kid A doesn't feature any until the fourth song in.
Difficult and beautiful, the layers are there to be peeled away, reconstructed and poured over. The lyrics are inscrutable, with any attempts at interpretation rendered futile. Soundscapes are as icy and bleak as the artwork that graces the cover and booklet. Just listen to those desolate synths in "Everything In its Right Place" and "Kid A". Day 13 of being abandoned in the tundra would have these selections playing over and over as a soundtrack.
Freeform jazz experiments color "The National Anthem" which is anchored by a killer fuzzed bass riff.
Much of this album is so sonically brilliant that it suggests images to accompany the music. "Treefingers" represents the long shadow of a dying, grey fall afternoon as branches are slowly stripped of their leaves by autumn winds. Perfectly suited to the season in which it was originally unleashed, it leads straight away into my absolute favorite track, "Optimistic". Guitar based and somewhat out of place amongst the other selections, it rumbles and stutters, only barely managing to break free of the claustrophobic atmosphere created.
Words really don't do justice to the damage that these songs have inflicted on my nervous system. One of the most challenging sets to be let loose in modern times, "Kid A" gave me hope that there were still individuals in the game with ideas that were far afield of contemporary trends.
Now, was all of this new? Not really. Thom Yorke and his partners in crime were absorbing some extremely complex records, spanning a number of different genres. Open minds will have heard these artists and you can certainly spot some influences in places. Out of the chaos, they managed to fashion completely original compositions with writing that manages to achieve fairly lofty ambitions.
Hard to top.
Friday, May 01, 2009
Found this in excellent condition on vinyl at a local indie shop about two weeks ago. My original copy was destroyed years ago at a party, hosted by my youngest sister, that got way out of hand (as in, the house suffered tons of damage) That infamous evening cost me quite a few really amazing albums, actually. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.
"Scoop" is a very entertaining collection of demos from Townshend's back pocket, taken from various writing sessions for several Who and solo albums. It differs from similar releases for a number of reasons:
1) Wholly different arrangements of songs.
2) Sound quality is first rate.
3) You will listen to it more than once. (really)
Even the casual fan will find themselves enjoying this, mainly because the material is so strong. Who aficionados have a treasure trove of blueprints to dissect and trace exactly what contributions the other members made to these remarkable tunes. They do stand up quite nicely without augmentation.
I tried to get my son to hold open the gatefold sleeve for a quick picture, though he wasn't in a cooperative mood.
Another great aspect of these discs is listening to Townshend mature both as a writer and multi instrumentalist. He handles all of the parts with flair and his vocal take puts a much different spin on things. You'll hear some of these selections almost as if it's for the first time. Glad to have this one back in my collection.
Here's a sample, with a few words from the maestro himself.
"Recorded on a 24-track in my studio at our country place. This song was written for my first solo album EMPTY GLASS. I first put the lyric together at the same time as 'And I Moved' for submission to Bette Midler. Neither song ever reached her. It didn't seem to impress the producer Chris Thomas, maybe it was ahead of its time. It sounds a little behind it now, but I still think it's great. The electro-pop sound was all done in a single pass (performance) on a Yamaha home organ with the bass pedals, drum machine, upper and lower keyboards and arpeggio units all laid onto separate trucks. Modern home organs are really very complex computer synthesizers that are a damn sight easier to 'programme' than the so called real thing. I love 'em and will buy more as soon as I get enough space"
"Bargain" from a 2000 show.