Saturday, December 31, 2011

Early Morning Blues and Greens - Diane Hildebrand



Early Morning Blues and Greens
Diane Hildebrand
Elektra EKS-74301
1969

I came across this while flipping through the folk bin in a record store here in Los Angeles.  It caught my attention for a variety of reasons, partly because the picture of the artist resembles my stepmother back in the 70s, partly because it is on one of my favorite 1960s record labels, Elektra, but mostly because I recognized "Early Morning Blues and Greens" as one of the better songs on the Monkees' "Headquarters" album.  I decided to pick it up and I'm glad I did.  I know very little about Hildebrand except that she was a commercial songwriter who did some television work including co-writing "Goin' Down" and "Your Auntie Grizelda" for the Monkees, "Come On Get Happy" for the Partridge Family and "Easy Come, Easy Go" for Bobby Sherman.  Her sole solo album however could not be more different.  It is a quiet, introspective album of folk-rock with tasteful, spare instrumental arrangements.  "Jan's Blues" is the album opener and it is one of my favorites.  Like many of the songs on the record it is driven by a strong bass line with guitars and piano adding color.  It is a moody tune about an unhappy love affair.  "Thumbin'" shuffles along with some pleasant harmonica accompaniment.  It has a nice lazy day feel.  "From Rea Who Died Last Summer" is a haunting song in which the deceased urges her friend to enjoy life and not to mourn her.  "There's A Coming Together" is a low key, pretty song with hippie overtones.  "And It Was Good" has a chamber pop sound reminiscent of Judy Collins.  "Gideon" is a waltz-like tune without words, Hildebrand sings the melody with dee-dee-dees.  I prefer her version of "Early Morning Blues and Greens" to the Monkees' one mostly because of her superior vocal.  I think it is the most memorable song on the album and I dig the folk-rock arrangement.  "The Reincarnation of Emmalina Stearns" has a bluesy vocal that challenges Hildebrand's range.  Pushed by a strong organ line and prominent guitar, it is the hardest rocking song on the album.  I like the hypnotic bass riff in "You Wonder Why You're Lonely" which is another moody song enlivened by raga-ish guitar riffing. The country flavored "Come Looking For Me" features some charming harpsichord accompaniment. The album quietly ends with "Given Time" which is a gentle song about a love affair.  It is one of the more personal songs on the album and another one of my favorites.  As much as I like this record I can see why it did not make much of a splash at the time.  The folk-rock sound that is predominant on it was old-fashioned by 1969 and the record is largely quiet and sedate.  The biggest problem for me is the distance in the lyrics, it has a contrived songwriterly feel to it, as if Hildebrand was making stuff up rather than singing from a personal perspective.  I still enjoy it, but it doesn't really engage me the way Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen do.  On the plus side I like Hildebrand's husky voice and the quality of the instrumental support.  It is soothing late at night, I like falling asleep to it.  Recommended to Jackie DeShannon fans.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Midnight Ride - Paul Revere and the Raiders



Midnight Ride
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Columbia  CL 2508
1966

This was Paul Revere and the Raiders' third album for Columbia and along with "The Spirit of '67" it represents the high point of the band's career for me.  I don't think any of the band's studio albums are essential, the majority of their best songs were singles so most people can get by with any of their numerous comps.  Nonetheless I'm enough of a fan that I like just about all of their Columbia albums and I play this one quite a bit.  It starts off with the group's classic single "Kicks" which was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.  It is a hard rocking anti-drug song with a memorable guitar riff, a propulsive bass line and a strong, gritty vocal from Mark Lindsay.  It may not have gone down so well with the hippies, but I like the lyrics and think it is one of their best songs ever.  The only other song not penned by the band is "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" which was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and would later be a hit single for the Monkees, but I prefer the Raiders' version which rocks harder and has a more urgent vocal.  If there was ever any question about these guys' garage band credentials, this song answers it convincingly.  The remaining songs are all originals and every member contributes to the songwriting.  The team of Paul Revere and Mark Lindsay has the most compositions but lead guitarist Drake Levin comes up with the best original song on the album, "Ballad of a Useless Man."  It has a great riff, another fine Lindsay vocal and unusual lyrics written from the perspective of a homeless guy.  Levin and drummer Mike Smith wrote the hard rocking "There's Always Tomorrow" with features a lead vocal from Smith who is no match for Mark Lindsay in that regard.  It is a really good song though and I like the raga-like solo.  Bassist Phil Volk and Levin wrote the punchy "Get It On" which has a compelling organ riff, a sizzling guitar solo and a rough but effective lead vocal from Volk.  Revere and Lindsay's contributions are more eclectic.  They include the sappy "Melody for an Unknown Girl" which features an awful Davy Jones type recitation by Lindsay which he follows up with a lengthy sax instrumental that reminds me of Mr. Acker Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore" - that is not a compliment.  "Little Girl in the 4th Row" is another sappy tune directed at the teeny-bopper fan base.  It is pretty embarrassing.  Aside from those two duds the other Lindsay/Revere songs are all really good.  "There She Goes" has a country feeling that is better than you'd expect.  I think "Louie, Go Home" is inspired by "Louie, Louie" which the band released as a single earlier in their career.  It has a simple staccato riff and seems like a conventional pop song until the break which features a raga rock guitar solo.  "All I Really Need Is You" has another passionate vocal from Lindsay and more raga rock in the verses which gives way to a catchy pop chorus.  "Take A Look At Yourself" is a hard-driving putdown song with nice folk-rock style guitar licks.  The liner notes for this album compare it to "Rubber Soul" and quote Time magazine comparing the Raiders to Dylan and the Rolling Stones, which is ludicrous, but as far as mid-1960s commercial rock goes, the Raiders are about as good as it gets.  Mark Lindsay was one of the most talented vocalists in mid-1960s American rock and these guys came up with more good songs than almost any of their peers.  Recommended for snooty garage aficionados, if you think some teenage punks playing the high school dance circuit were better than these guys just because of their commercial attitude, you are kidding yourselves.  This is the real deal.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dye It Blonde - Smith Westerns



Dye It Blonde
Smith Westerns
Fat Possum Records FP 1235
2011

The inner sleeve and record label of this album are covered with smiley faces, which is appropriate since this is the happiest record I've heard this year.  When I started hearing cuts from “Dye It Blonde” on college radio earlier this year, they really jumped out at me with their sunshine pop sound.  I could hear a strong retro pop influence blended with a big old fashioned glam rock/Spectorish wall of sound.  I loved it and bought this album which lived up to all my expectations.  I wish I could say the same for their live act, but when I saw them open for the Arctic Monkeys at the Hollywood Bowl, I was a bit disappointed and I don’t think it was just me, because almost no one around me paid any attention to them, they just kept babbling to each other as if they weren’t even playing.  I think the Bowl was not a good venue for them, they seemed small and the sound was all murky.  It must be a challenge to reproduce that grandiose sound on stage.  Anyway they are still pretty young and I imagine the live act will improve with experience.  Perhaps the lyrics will improve too because these are pretty slight, mostly silly love songs.  The music is strong enough that I don’t mind too much, but hopefully as these guys mature they will find something interesting to say.  I love the shimmering power pop of “Weekend” and “End of The Night,” alternative rock does not get any more joyous than this.  I feel instantly uplifted whenever I hear these songs.  If you don’t listen to the words “Still New” sounds like an outtake from John Lennon’s “Mind Games” album, it even fades out with a Beatlesque segment of the song playing backwards.  I also hear Lennon in “Imagine Pt. 3" which I presume is named in tribute to him as well as in the reverb heavy  “All Die Young” which also reminds me a little of Badfinger in its guitar sound.  Side one ends with “Fallen In Love” which reminds me of mid-1970s Paul McCartney.  I dig the glossy folk-rock sound of “Only One” which sounds like the Wondermints covering the Byrds.  My favorite song is “Smile.”  It is a soaring, ecstatic song that sounds like the Polyphonic Spree jamming with ELO and Oasis, the music is so big and powerful that Phil Spector is probably sitting in his cell planning a plagiarism suit.  “Dance Away” is the hardest rocking song on the album.  It has a strong beat, bordering on disco at one point, but still features the rich musical sound of the rest of the album.  It sounds a bit like the High Llamas doing Bowie's "Modern Love."  The album closes with “Dye The World Blonde” which has the cleverest lyrics of all the songs on the album and a nice majestic 1970s power pop feel that brings to mind Todd Rundgren, Big Star or Badfinger.  I have a feeling if I checked out these guys' record collection, I'd see a lot of my favorite old records.  Maybe they aren't the most original band around, but their music makes me so happy that I don't care.  I love the band's enthusiasm and passion and I hope they can hang on to that as they get older.  I can't wait to hear where they are going to go in the future.  Recommended for fans of Best Coast.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Person Pitch - Panda Bear



Person Pitch
Panda Bear
Paw Tracks  PAW 14
2007

I saw Panda Bear at the Hollywood Bowl over the summer.  I thought his set was mesmerizing but perhaps the Bowl was not the best venue for him.  Most of the hipsters around me barely stopped blabbing and swigging wine to listen to him and my wife and kid were bored out of their minds by him.  I guess I can understand that.  Like a lot of electronic music his songs are repetitious, but they also have a pop quality that I find very remarkable.  He's like a cross between Philip Glass and Brian Wilson.  There is a sunny and joyful feeling to his music that distinguishes it from most of the electronic music I've heard.  This album is spread over two records but the sides are fairly short since the entire album is only about 44 minutes long.  The album features striking collage-style artwork from Agnes Montgomery and contains an insert that reproduces her artwork from the four singles that feature six of the album's tracks.  The insert also includes a list of groups and people who influenced the record and there must be close to a hundred of them listed comprising all sorts of disparate genres and styles.  Several of the artists are sampled for his tape loops.  The album opens with "Comfy in Nautica" which sounds like a psychedelic march.  It is a statement on how one should live.  I like the line "coolness is having courage, courage to do what is right."  "Take Pills" is another philosophy song that expresses a message contrary to its title, namely that the narrator does not want to take pills because he is stronger and no longer needs them.  The music has almost a tropical, world beat flavor to it.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the record.  The B side consists entirely of "Bro's" which is over 12 minutes long.  It also has a world music feel to it and I really dig the soaring vocal on it.  It is a gorgeous song, the sound is so rich and so multi-textured.  I have a hard time deciphering all the words on it but he seems to be telling his friends that he needs his space and has matured beyond them but that he still cares for them.  Side C opens with "Good Girl" which is a frenzied Indian music influenced song.  The vocal is so distorted that I can't understand the words at all, I had to look them up on the internet to figure them out.  I'm not sure what it means but it sounds like he is all stressed out and some girl helps him feel better.  I think it is the most extreme song on the album, my kid overheard me listening to it and asked me if a car alarm was going off outside, ha-ha.  It segues directly into "Carrots" which returns to the familiar Brian Wilson inspired style that is typical of most of the album to deliver a cutting putdown to critics.  The extreme invective in the lyrics contrasts with the beauty of the music.  Side D begins with "I'm Not" which is a stunningly beautiful song.  Again I couldn't figure out the song until I looked up the lyrics on the internet.  It seems to be about impending fatherhood.  There is also a French song running through it as well.  "Search For Delicious" is perhaps the most abstract song on the album.  A collection of bird noises, sound effects and loops accompanying a hypnotic drone, I didn't even realize it had lyrics until I saw them posted on the internet.  It reminds me a bit of early 1970s Pink Floyd only better.  The album ends with one of the most conventional songs on the album, "Ponytail" although with Panda Bear, conventional is a relative term, this still sounds pretty out there compared to commercial indie rock.  It is a short song about spiritual growth and like most of the music on this album, it is very pleasurable to listen to.  This album is one of my favorite albums of the past decade.  It manages to synthesize creative influences from past pop music and create something that is both progressive and beautiful.  I usually find contemporary electronic music to be more interesting than fun, but this record is both mentally stimulating and enjoyable to listen to.  Recommended to people whose favorite Beach Boys album is "Smile."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Crimson & Clover - Tommy James and the Shondells



Crimson & Clover
Tommy James and the Shondells
Roulette  SR-42023
1969

One of the things I find most interesting about pop music in the 1960s is the way in which so many music groups were transformed by the psychedelic era, not just major groups like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, but even ordinary garage bands suddenly found ambition and began producing elaborate records.  I don't think that any group really traveled farther than these guys though.  After a couple of years of producing some of the crassest bubblegum music around with considerable commercial success, they suddenly unleashed this pseudo-psychedelic epic on the unsuspecting teeny-boppers.  The title song is perhaps the best psych-bubblegum song of all time, rivaled only by "Green Tambourine" and "Incense and Peppermints" and to my mind better than either.  Lyrically it is as inane as the group's earlier work, but musically it is terrific.  Written by James and drummer Peter Lucia, the song features a simple but hypnotic riff that is endlessly repeated but subjected to gradually increasing technical manipulation that distorts it, accompanied by a lot of guitar soloing until the song reaches its climax and the song concludes with tremolo distorting the vocal.  It is such a stupid song that I'm embarrassed that I like it so much, but I do and I always have since I first heard it in my early teens.  "Kathleen McArthur" reminds me of the late 1960s Hollies in its pop craftsmanship.  It is a simple song about a gardener in love with a rich girl with mild tones of social criticism.  Psychedelia returns for "I Am a Tangerine" which features a lot of manipulated sound.  The lyrics are ludicrous, they sound like a parody, I don't know how anyone could sing a line like "hello banana, I am a tangerine" without cracking up.  Side one ends with "Do Something To Me" which is the only song that was not written or co-written by Tommy James.  It is a return to the bubblegum music that made the group famous.  I suspect Roulette made them stick it on there to placate the fan base.  It is totally inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the record.  Side two kicks off with another hit single "Crystal Blue Persuasion" which has an idyllic feeling reminiscent of the Rascals' "Groovin'" and is driven by a simple organ riff.  People have claimed it is a drug song but if you listen to the words it is obviously about love and God.  "Sugar On Sunday" is similar to the title song, a dumb love song with a nice riff and a mildly psychedelic musical style.  It was a modest hit for the Clique.  "Breakaway" is the hardest rocking song on the album and makes effective use of fuzz guitar.  It was arguably a garage band cliche by 1969 but it never gets old for me.  "Smokey Roads" is a slow rocker with a psych feel to it that describes how one can never go home again.  The album ends with "I'm Alive" with effectively blends the band's former bubblegum sound with a fuzz-laden garage band approach to produce one of the best songs on the album.  It reminds me of Paul Revere and the Raiders.  "Crimson and Clover" is reprised briefly at the end of the song to presumably demonstrate that this is a meaningful album and not just a bunch of songs.  I assume that is also the reason for the inclusion of between takes chatter, false endings and stray pieces of music that appear sporadically through the album.  It is hardly "Sgt. Pepper" but this is a consistently enjoyable album and an impressive leap forward for a commercial group seeking respectability and credibility.  The band probably didn't help their cause much though by printing a letter from Hubert Humphrey on the back of the album lauding them for help in his presidential campaign, but at least it was not from Nixon.  Recommended for people who prefer the Strawberry Alarm Clock to the 13th Floor Elevators.   

Friday, December 9, 2011

Narrow Stairs - Death Cab for Cutie



Narrow Stairs
Death Cab For Cutie
Atlantic/Barsuk  BARK75
2008 

I saw Death Cab twice this summer on the “Codes and Keys” tour and I’d go see them again tomorrow if I could.  They really put on a great show.  I can’t believe how big they’ve become.  I’ve been a fan since their second album “We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes” but back in those days I didn't think that they’d ever be more than a cult band.  I never would have predicted that big-time commercial radio stations like KROQ would be playing their singles or that they’d be headlining large venues.  The first clue I was wrong was when Ben Gibbard had all that success with the Postal Service.  I thought that would be the end of Death Cab and that Gibbard would go solo.  I was wrong about that too.  Instead Death Cab became one of the biggest bands in alternative rock and kudos to them for achieving success without sacrificing their original sound or their integrity.  The band that made “Codes and Keys” is easily recognizable as the band that made “Something About Airplanes.”  I love all their albums but my favorite is “Narrow Stairs” although it is arguably their darkest record.  The album begins with “Bixby Canyon Bridge” which is a spectacular bridge on Highway 1 in Big Sur, California.  That stretch of road  is one of my favorite drives and if you ever find yourself out this way I highly recommend it (unless you get easily carsick.)  In the song Gibbard makes a pilgrimage to the spot unsuccessfully seeking inspiration from Jack Kerouac who lived there briefly and wrote about it in his novel “Big Sur.”  Gibbard mentions feeling confused and uneasy about the direction his life has taken but finds no answers in the creek at the bottom of the bridge.  The song starts like a slow, ethereal ballad but gradually builds in intensity and develops into a noisy rockfest, the Death Cab version of a rave-up.  Death Cab opened up their shows this summer with the mesmerizing “I Will Possess Your Heart.”  The song opens slowly with the drone of a synthesizer and a hypnotic bass riff.  After a few bars, other instruments kick in and a driving instrumental passage ensues lasting over four minutes before Gibbard takes the mike.  The song starts out sounding like a love song, but as it progresses the protagonist is revealed to be a creepy stalker.  I think it is one of the band’s strongest songs.  “No Sunlight” sounds poppy and upbeat until you listen to the words and hear the narrator losing his youthful idealism and being enveloped by darkness.  I find the contrast between the words and music very striking.  It segues directly into “Cath...” which is an amazing set of lyrics depicting a doomed wedding.  Gibbard’s description of the contrast between the image of the bride and the reality of her situation is devastating.  With the band pounding away in the background , this is one of the most powerful songs on the record.  “Talking Bird” is a slow ballad with the band droning away beneath lyrics  that use a caged bird as a metaphor for a relationship.  Side two opens with “You Can Do Better Than Me” which describes someone in an unsatisfying relationship who stays in the relationship because they could never find a better partner.  Again the band pairs a depressing set of lyrics against cheerful, even wistful sounding music.  Gibbard once wrote one of the most devastating put-downs of Los Angeles ever in “Why You’d Want To Live Here” (on “The Photo Album”) but when I first heard “Grapevine Fires” I realized that Gibbard had become a genuine Angelino.  His description of the wildfires that periodically plague Southern California features such vivid and evocative imagery that I can practically smell the smoke in the air when I listen to it.  It is set to a haunting and hypnotic melody that stays with me for days after I listen to this album.  It is one of the best songs on the album.  It is followed by “Your New Twin Sized Bed” which is another song that matches cheerful, upbeat music to depressing lyrics.  In this case the subject of the song has thrown out their queen sized mattress and replaced it with a twin mattress because they’ve given up on ever being in a relationship.  “Long Division” is the catchiest and poppiest song on the album so naturally it is paired with lyrics depicting the end of a relationship.  It uses mathematics for the symbolism of the one who gets dumped by their partner, being the remainder like in long division.  It is another terrific song, but oh so bleak, although it is like sunshine pop compared to “Pity and Fear.”  The song describes a one night stand and the alienation between people with very powerful imagery.  The song starts out sounding like an Indian raga with droning instruments and tabla-like percussion but soon escalates into a straight ahead rocker that becomes extremely loud and powerful before ending abruptly in the middle of a riff.  The cacophonous finish of “Pity and Fear” is followed by the quietest song on the album, “The Ice Is Getting Thinner.”  Gibbard chooses melting ice as his metaphor this time as he examines the deterioration of yet another relationship.  It is a gloomy, but beautiful song that ends this dark album on an appropriately melancholy note.  This is such an unhappy record with such a pessimistic view of human relationships that it is almost mind-boggling that Gibbard would end up getting engaged to a movie star little more than half a year after this album was released.  It would have seemed more likely that he would have withdrawn into a monastery instead.  Despite the depressing nature of the lyrics, this isn’t a difficult record to listen to.  The music is mostly engaging and accessible and the lyrics are expressed with clever metaphors and poetic language, it is not at all like some emo mope-fest.  I imagine if you were in a bad relationship or had recently suffered a broken heart, it might strike a little too close to home, but I know when I’m feeling down, I generally find comfort in a kindred spirit rather than some happy optimist type.  Recommended for Morrissey fans who wish he wasn't such a drama queen. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

L.A. Woman - The Doors



L.A. Woman
The Doors
Elektra  EKS-75011
1971

I love listening to the radio.  It has been a big part of my life since I was a little kid and it remains my primary source for discovering new music.  I used to enjoy checking out the radio stations in the different towns I passed through on road trips, but lately it seems like they are all the same, especially the classic rock ones.  It is always Jack or Bob or the Hawk or some other stupid chain playing the same crappy Eagles or Frampton songs everywhere I go.  Soulless corporate radio, no personality, no variety, how is that so successful?  When I was a teen I listened to KSAN in San Francisco, which featured free-form progressive rock programming.  The DJs had style and personality and I heard all sorts of interesting music.  It broke my heart when they abandoned the format and went country.  That sort of programming has disappeared from commercial radio which is why I generally only listen to college radio.  There was one exception to that here in Southern California on a station called KLOS.  They bill themselves as a hard rock station, but basically they are just another dumb classic rock station playing the same tired old songs that other classic rock stations play, so boring.  But in the evening they let an old DJ named Jim Ladd abandon the playlist and play free form rock.  I enjoyed his show even though his musical tastes are somewhat different from mine.  The guy was basically a dinosaur and I would wince occasionally when he would go into his groovy hepcat schtick, but he was entertaining and played stuff that I had never heard before.  Ladd got fired a couple of months ago when the giant radio corporation Cumulus Media bought KLOS (ironically they are also the current owners of KSAN.)  Ladd recently took a job at a satellite radio station, but it makes me sad that there is no place for a guy like that on commercial terrestrial radio.  I think the popularity of formatted classic rock radio is a sign of our cultural decline and I'll never understand why people want to hear the same old songs over and over.  Ugh.  So this post goes out to Jim Ladd, thanks for making radio interesting and good luck with the new gig.  Ladd is a big fan of the Doors and would play stuff besides the five or six songs in heavy rotation on all the classic rock stations, he'd play stuff like "Peace Frog."  I'm not as big a fan of the band as Ladd is, but I do really like this album which was their final album before Jim Morrison's untimely demise.  Given Morrison's erratic behavior and mental instability around this time it is remarkable that it is so good, easily their best record since "Strange Days."  Also its quality makes me wonder what might have happened if Morrison hadn't died.  Side one is a flawless set of music beginning with the get down rock and roll of "The Changeling."  Jimbo sounds more gravel-voiced, perhaps the substance abuse was taking its toll, but the grainy quality of his voice suits the song well.  It is followed by "Love Her Madly" which is one of their most successful pop efforts, infinitely preferable to the sappy stuff on "The Soft Parade."  I particularly like the keyboard work of Ray Manzarek on the song.  "Been Down So Long" is one of several blues songs on the record with a nice gut-bucket vocal from Morrison.  I'm assuming the key line in the song comes from Richard Fariña's novel "Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me" which I'm sure Morrison must have been familiar with although it may have been lifted from the Furry Lewis song "I Will Turn Your Money Green" that inspired Fariña and which is musically similar to this song.  Given all of Morrison's personal and legal problems at the time it is tempting to read the lyrics as being perhaps more personal than they really are. "Cars Hiss By My Window" is a slow blues with a lethargic vocal from Jimbo.  The side concludes with the classic rocker "L.A. Woman."  It features one of Morrison's best vocals ever, you can practically hear his vocal chords shredding as he sings of love and desire against a backdrop of an apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles.  It is an extraordinarily passionate performance that showcases the bands instrumental prowess, a truly great song.  Side two kicks off with another rocker, the mildly creepy "L'America."  It has a theatrical feeling reminiscent of the first two Doors albums.  I like the way the song abruptly changes tone in the middle.  "Hyacinth House" is a weird song which Morrison sings in a gloomy deep voice that almost sounds like a parody of himself.  The song seems like a throwaway pieced together with seemingly inane lyrics until Morrison starts singing about needing a new friend.  The earnestness of his vocal at that point does convey a sense of desperation in keeping with the dark tone of so much of the record.  A cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" provides the obligatory Doors reptilian reference on the album.  It is a slow blues that features a strong Morrison vocal, he sounds very inspired.  "The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat) is another bluesy song that is about border radio and rhythm and blues music although there is also a sense of despair and a search for meaning culminating in the great anti-religion line "no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.The band really cooks during the instrumental break.  The album ends with the classic song "Riders On the Storm."  The song is very atmospheric with a western feeling to it.  The line "there's a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad" is one of my favorite Doors lyrics.  I frequently quote it when I encounter a person I consider crazy.  Manzarek's piano playing on this song is among the best in the Doors' canon, his runs flow like water.  The song is a terrific finish for the album and would have made a fitting epitaph for the Doors career if the surviving members hadn't decided to tarnish their legacy by recording two mediocre albums without Morrison.  This is a great album for late night listening and even though it is not a concept album, its unity of tone and inspired flow demonstrate the value of the album format, the songs add resonance and depth to each other.  Kind of like a good DJ spinning some free form radio.  Recommended for people who think that the Jack in Jack Radio is short for jackass.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Murmur - R.E.M.



Murmur
R.E.M.
I.R.S.  SP-70604
1983 

I had mixed reactions to the announcement a few months ago that R.E.M. was breaking up.  Part of me was relieved I’m sorry to say.  It is not that their latter day work was bad, I generally enjoyed most of their recent CDs, but I was buying and listening largely out of loyalty.  They stopped being interesting to me years ago and I felt they should have broken up when Bill Berry left the band.  On the other hand they were one of the most important bands in my musical life.  During their years on I.R.S. Records they were my favorite band aside from the Beatles.  I spent the 1970s listening to the music of the 1960s and wishing I had been born earlier.  I ignored contemporary music until the New Wave started, but even though I really liked a lot of New Wave groups, they did not displace my affection for the 1960s bands.  R.E.M. changed that.  They were the first group I ever loved that hadn’t either already broken up (Beatles, Yardbirds, Monkees, Jefferson Airplane) or was only a diminished version of its former self (Fairport Convention, the Who, the Kinks.)  I anxiously looked forward to each new R.E.M. album and finally felt nourished by my own musical culture rather than feeding on the leftovers of the baby boomers.  My passion for R.E.M. didn’t last much past the point they signed with Warner Bros. unfortunately.  As the group got more popular and started having hit singles, I became less enthusiastic about them.  Part of it was me being an indie-rock snob, but also the music was different.  The early R.E.M. was enigmatic and mysterious, the Warner Bros. R.E.M. was more accessible, there was little mystery to songs like “Shiny Happy People” and “Man In The Moon.”  I still liked those CDs but the magic was gone.  Oh what magic it was.  I first fell for R.E.M. when I heard “Radio Free Europe” on a college radio station.  It blew me away and I sought it out in the record store on my next visit.  In the bin I saw this weird album called “Murmur.”  It was a strikingly odd name for a strikingly odd looking album.  Record covers in the 1970s did not look like this, even the more abstract ones generally had some sort of meaning like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Led Zeppelin IV.”  I stared at the monochromatic image of overgrown kudzu on the cover of “Murmur” and wondered what the heck was this about?   Being a native Californian I’d never seen kudzu but if I ever make it down to Athens I will make a pilgrimage to this kudzu field.  I flipped the album over and saw a picture of a wooden trestle, a list of strange song titles and pictures of 4 guys who looked more like nerds than rock stars.  Not only did this record look different than anything I’d seen before, it sounded different too.  Art rock in the 70s took many forms, the literary-based music of the likes of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Joni Mitchell, the classical music inspired experimentation of Frank Zappa and the Krautrock bands, the grand theatrical statements of concept albums like “The Wall” or “Quadrophenia,” intellectual ironists like Brian Eno, Roxy Music or John Cale, and provocateurs like Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, David Bowie or Johnny Rotten.  I don’t think any commercial rock record ever sounded like “Murmur.”  The music was hooky and alluring but the words were illusive, seemingly abstract.  Bits and pieces stood out in striking clarity but other parts were indecipherable, willfully obscure.  The overall effect was making the seemingly mundane and ordinary seem mystical, as dreamlike as the band’s name.  It was as if André Breton and Man Ray had joined the Byrds.  The music was still rock - it had a beat and you could dance to it, but the effect was different, it was less visceral and more cerebral.  Most pop music is meant to be consumed and discarded, this record requires the listener to fill in the blanks, R.E.M. provides the framework and the listeners add their own vision to it.  It is almost a collaboration between the musicians and the audience. This album defies conventional interpretation, it is meant to be experienced not analyzed and I think everyone probably reacts to it differently.  For me this makes the music more personal and generates a deeper bond between the band and the audience.  It used to be a running joke among R.E.M. fans to make up their own lyrics about what they thought Michael Stipe was singing about and I don’t think that is too far from the way the album works.  I used to find myself singing along to a R.E.M. song and realizing that I had no idea what I was singing about.  Even if one didn’t know the words, it was hard to resist singing along, this music is so compelling, so full of hooks.  Inevitably after playing one of the I.R.S. albums I will find the songs running through my head for hours or even days later as if they were seared into my brain.  I’m sure part of the reason I loved the R.E.M. so much was the way their music was grounded in my favorite music of the 1960s - the jangly guitar of the Byrds, the melodic bass lines of Paul McCartney, the soaring multi-layered vocals of Jefferson Airplane, the propulsive, crisp backbeat of Booker T. and the M.G.s, yet it was not retro, it was a modern sound.  It blew away everything on the radio.  So much of the music of the 1980s now sounds dated, fake and gimmicky, but "Murmur" sounds as good today as it did in 1983.  All the songs are good and many are great.  My favorites are “Radio Free Europe,” “Pilgrimage,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Sitting Still,” and “Shaking Through.”  This is my favorite album of the 1980s and one of my favorite albums of all time.  Rest in peace R.E.M., your greatness will live on as long as rock music exists.  Recommended for people who think "Wolves, Lower" is a better song than "Losing My Religion."


Post Script (2014): Well I finally made it down to Athens over the summer.  It only took me 30 years, yikes.  I loved it there, great town.  I did not bother to look for the kudzu field, that stuff is everywhere down there.  I did make it to the trestle though.  I got goose bumps when I walked under it.  For this R.E.M. fan it was like visiting a holy place.  Kudos to Athens for preserving it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand



Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand
Domino  E92441
2004

When I became obsessed with Belle and Sebastian back in the late 1990s I started following the Scottish pop scene.  I discovered a lot of really good bands that way.  That was how I first heard of Franz Ferdinand.  They didn't sound all that interesting to me, but I filed them away in my brain as a topic for future investigation.  Then before I knew it, they broke big in the United States rapidly becoming the biggest Scottish band over here much to my surprise.  "Take Me Out" was all over the airwaves and I saw videos of these sharp-dressed pretty boys playing their dance pop and dismissed them as the Duran Duran of the 2000s.  I had some female friends who were really into them and they would come back from shows raving about them but I wasn't convinced.  Then I came across a sealed vinyl copy of their debut album in a thrift store and decided to pick it up for a spin and realized that they were better than I thought.  This album may be a bit lightweight and derivative, but it is never dull and it gets me hopping.  A lot of it is insanely catchy dance pop, like the two hits "Take Me Out" and "This Fire" as well as "The Dark of the Matinee" which has an enticing theatrical feeling to it and some of the most sophisticated lyrics on the record.  "Auf Achse," "Darts of Pleasure," "Michael" and "Come on Home" are also designed for the dance floor and really deliver the goods.  There is a 1980s flavor to these songs but they are mostly guitar driven rather than synth driven much to my approval.  You can also hear art rock-ish elements suggestive of Roxy Music or David Bowie particularly in Alex Kapranos' mannered vocals.  The big hooky bass lines and spiky rhythm guitar recall the New Wave funk of Talking Heads or Gang of Four.  Some songs deviate from the formula.  My favorite song is "Jacqueline" which starts slow like a cabaret song and then the pounding bass kicks in soon joined by a killer guitar riff and an exciting nouveau-garage style song ensues that sounds like the Strokes only better.  The riff-happy "Cheating on You" is another first rate rocker that really gets me going.  "Tell Her Tonight" sounds like 80s punk-funk in the verses but goes 1960s in the chorus, I find the shifting textures and driving beat very compelling.  Almost all the songs deal with romance aside from "40'" which is about a diver contemplating the water below him and features some of my favorite guitar work on the record.  As far as intelligent dance pop goes, this album is a real winner.  It is relentless in its drive and compulsive beat, I can't sit still when it is playing, but it also has clever lyrics and musical variety.  I find a lot of dance pop to be either inane or monotonous, okay for a club or party, but not for listening.  In contrast Franz Ferdinand appreciate traditional pop values and write well-crafted songs.  I give them extra points as well for their use of Russian Constructivism in their design graphics. Recommended for smart kids who like to dance.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jackie De Shannon - Jackie DeShannon/In The Wind - Jackie DeShannon



Jackie De Shannon
Jackie DeShannon
Liberty LRP-3320
1963 



In The Wind
Jackie DeShannon
Imperial  LP-12296
1965

You might notice that the songs on these two albums are largely identical.  I unfortunately didn't notice and once again got rooked by a major record label.  It's not the first time and probably won't be the last time.  I bought "In The Wind" many years ago, it was one of the very first Jackie DeShannon albums that I acquired.  The problem with having a lot of records though is that it is hard to remember what songs are on all of them.  A year or two ago, I was rummaging through the bins at the Pasadena City College Flea Market and I saw "Jackie De Shannon" which was her debut album.  I was quite taken by the cover and even though I remembered some of the songs from "In the Wind" I didn't hesitate to buy it.  I don't really regret it, the debut album's cover photo is awesome and it has more extensive liner notes, the notes on "In the Wind" have been edited out of the ones on the debut and are only half as long.  The debut album is all folk songs mostly from the commercial folk repertoire.  Both albums have 12 songs, "In The Wind" substitutes "Needles and Pins" and "Don't Turn Your Back On Me" for "Betsy From Pike" and "Sing Hallelujah."  "Needles and Pins" is a classic song, it should have been a hit for her and she wrote the passionate "Don't Turn Your Back On Me" but although they are great songs neither is a folk song and they disrupt the atmosphere and consistency of the "In The Wind" album compared to "Jackie De Shannon."  I really like her version of the 19th Century ballad "Betsy From Pike" and her singing on the gospel song "Sing Hallelujah" is excellent.  They are two of my favorite songs on the debut album, which is another reason why I don't mind having it.  I don't know the rationale for reissuing the debut album under another guise but I'm assuming that Imperial was trying to capitalize on Bob Dylan's growing fame or Peter, Paul and Mary's commercial success as well as trying to exploit the Searcher's success with their version of "Needles and Pins" in 1964.  Both albums feature three Dylan songs plus one that he popularized, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down."  My favorite of the four is her exuberant version of "Walkin' Down The Line."  Three songs associated with Peter, Paul and Mary also appear on the record.  "Puff (The Magic Dragon)" is not a good fit for her and she delivers a robust cover of "If I Had A Hammer" but there is nothing interesting about it.  The best of the three is her country flavored version of "500 Miles" which she sings with great feeling.  There is also a soulful vocal on "Oh Sweet Chariot" and her husky vocal on Bobby Darin's "Jailer Bring Me Water" is very effective.  That isn't really a folk song and neither is "Little Yellow Roses" which was written by the English actor Trevor Peacock, but both are arranged to sound like folk songs.  Considering her background in pop and her skill at songwriting, it is surprising to me that her debut album featured only folk style songs, none of which she wrote.  It is a tribute to her great skill as a vocalist and her versatility that the album is still completely convincing.  I like it better than any album Joan Baez ever made.  The instrumentation is mostly acoustic guitar and bass with occasional harmonica and percussion and DeShannon is tastefully supported by background singers throughout the album.  Both albums are really worthwhile, if you are a fan of DeShannon you ought to own at least one of them.  If I had to choose just one, I'd pick "Jackie DeShannon" because it has better song sequencing and I prefer the packaging.  Recommended for people who think that Tom Rush is a better folk singer than Pete Seeger.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's 2 Easy - The Easybeats



It's 2 Easy
The Easybeats
Parlophone  APLP.058
1966

The second Australian album by the Easybeats.  The Easybeats are by far my favorite Australian group although I'm hardly an expert on the subject.  When I first got this record I was surprised to see that almost all of the songs were credited to Stevie Wright and George Young.  The later Easybeat records were largely composed by Harry Vanda and George Young and of course the Vanda/Young partnership would continue long after the Easybeats broke up.  For most Americans the most well-known song on this album is "Women (Make You Feel Alright)" which also appeared on the United Artists album, "Friday On My Mind," which was their American debut record and it also appears on most Easybeats comps.  It is a classic good time rocker.  My favorite song on the album is "You Are The Light," a delightful folk-rock song that reminds me of the Beau Brummels.  I also really like "Easy As Can Be" which is catchy garage band style rock with a driving beat and a compelling hook.  The percussion driven "I Can See" is another great song that builds in power reminiscent of mid-1960s the Who.  "Wedding Ring" is a powerful rocker worthy of the Standells.  It was a hit down under and should have been here too.  "Let Me Be," "Someway, Somewhere," "Sad and Lonely and Blue" "What About Our Love" and "Then I'll Tell You Goodbye" sound very British Invasion, at their best they evoke comparisons to the early Beatles.  You could argue that they are imitative, but they are done so well that I don't care.  There are a few songs that vary from this style, "Somethin' Wrong" is pure garage, "In My Book" is a 1950s style romantic ballad, "Come and See Her" is rhythm and blues flavored and "I'll Find Somebody To Take Your Place" sounds like jug band music.  This album is not quite as good as "Friday On My Mind" which has a punchier sound and more distinguished songwriting, but it is still a very worthwhile purchase for fans of mid-1960s rock.  It might be hard to find a vinyl copy in the U.S., but it is easily available on CD.  Recommended to fans of the Searchers who wish they rocked a little harder. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Joyful - Orpheus



Joyful
Orpheus
MGM  SE-4599
1969

I imagine that most record collectors are familiar with the story of the "Bosstown Sound."  It was a notorious hype that attempted to position Boston as the successor to the San Francisco Sound in the late 1960s.  It was a shameless bit of record industry chicanery that I first learned of reading Lillian Roxon's "Rock Encyclopedia" as a teenager.  In recent years there has been some revisionist thinking on this topic and defenses of the groups associated with it.  I like some of the groups, most notably the Beacon Street Union, Ultimate Spinach and Earth Opera but I still don't believe the hype.  This group just reinforces my opinion.  I only acquired the three MGM Orpheus albums last year when I came across them at the record mart at the Pasadena City College Flea Market and was able to get them at a bargain price.  I became interested in them from reading reviews of the CD reissues of their original albums.  When I initially listened to the albums though I was dismayed.  I found the music sappy and boring.  With repeated listenings my opinion improved, but I still think the group is pretty minor.  This was the band's third album and is the one I like the best.  Orpheus played soft rock for the most part, a cross between the commercial pop of a group like the Association and the more ambitious, personal music of a group like Free Design, but ultimately not as satisfying as either.  There are some nice arrangements and lovely vocal harmonies but the music itself is often not very memorable.  Most of the songs on this album were written by the group's guitarist, Bruce Arnold often in collaboration with the group's bassist Eric Gulliksen.  They are mostly lugubrious love songs.  "As They All Fall" is the prettiest with a pleasant string arrangement and elaborate vocal harmonies.  "May I Look at You" has a jaunty melody and "I Can Make The Sun Rise" features some propulsive acoustic guitar work and a greater sense of urgency than most of the songs on the record.  "Lovin' You" is the closest thing to a rock song on the album, it is guitar-driven and relatively fast paced and easily my favorite song on the record.  The vocal interplay on "Joyful" is very enjoyable and I like the hooky bass line.  It segues into the delicate album closer, the pretentiously titled "Of Enlightenment."  "To Touch Our Love Again" is just too sappy for me but it does have an interesting arrangement.  There are also three songs that were written by others. "By the Size of My Shoes" by Larry Weiss and Jimmy Wilson is the most successful of the three, it has a nice soulful feel to it which is unusual for this group.  It would have been a tasty song for a guy like Jerry Butler.  Fans of the Turtles will probably be shocked by the Orpheus version of Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon's "Me About You."  The Turtles classic version was cheerful soaring sunshine pop.  Orpheus slows down the song and sucks all the life out of it, they might as well be singing about their dead girlfriend it is so gloomy.  The other non-original is "Brown Arms in Houston" by Lesley Miller and Joe Henry.  It was a flop single for the group.  It sounds like something Glen Campbell or even Andy Williams might have sung, middle of the road with a very slight country/soul feel.  With repeated spins, I've come to like this album, but very little of it sticks with me when it is done playing.  I do appreciate its intelligence and grace, I just wish the music was a little more distinctive.  It sounds best late at night, during the day it bores me.  Recommended for people who think the Association are too loud. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Circuital - My Morning Jacket




Circuital
My Morning Jacket
ATO  0105
2011

I finally got to see My Morning Jacket live this summer.  For years I've been reading about what an awesome live act they are and I have to agree.  It was amazing.  I don't know how they go out there and deliver such a high energy show night after night.  I envy their strength and stamina.  Almost every number ends up in a frenzied jam as if they had learned to play by listening to "Free Bird" over and over.  I was totally drained afterwards.  Not a lot of that energy has been transferred to their records though.  I enjoy the records a lot but it is hard to believe that they are made by the same band.  I guess that's why my favorite album of theirs is the live one, "Okonokos."  I had high hopes for this one though after hearing them run through much of it live.  The album gets off to a rousing start with "Victory Dance" which begins with the bang of a gong and a majestic fanfare leading into a compelling song colored with imagery from Native American culture and an almost biblical endorsement of the value of work.  Jim James (or Yim Yames as he seems to be calling himself lately) provides an earnest double-tracked vocal that makes the lyrics take on the gravity of a spiritual quest.  The song starts slow and gradually builds in power to its soaring climax just like the live act.  The song flows seemlessly into "Circuital" which also builds slowly and then rocks out.  It reminds me a bit of 1970s era The Who.  It explores the various meanings of circuit as they apply to life both in terms of inter-connectivity as well as circularity in the life cycle.  I think it is a major song destined to be one of the band's standouts and it gives James a chance to stretch out his amazing vocal cords.  "The Day is Coming" has a bit of a sunshine pop feel to it.  It begins with language sounding like it is about the day of reckoning but ultimately it is an uplifting "seize the day" type song.  The good vibes continue with the optimistic "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" which is a gentle, folky song embracing positive thinking and peace of mind.  "Outta My System" reminds me of "Sunflower" era Beach Boys.  It has a strong pop flavor with a catchy melody and a lot of instrumental richness.  It is a song about maturity that endorses sowing one's wild oats as a youth in order to avoid temptation when one is older.  The group kicks it up a few notches for the soulful and forceful "Holdin' On To Black Metal" which argues that it is okay for a rebellious teen to dig black metal music, but you ought to find something better to listen to as an adult with James mostly taking umbrage with the Satanic elements in black metal.  Personally I think one should stop listening to black metal simply because it sucks.  The very upbeat "First Light" is a spiritual song, not specifically religious although it could be interpreted that way.  Essentially James is celebrating something that has given his life direction and meaning.  It begins with a solitary guitar chord reminiscent of "A Hard Day's Night" and then the group rocks out with one of the most propulsive songs on the record.  "You Wanna Freak Out" sounds almost like a paean to hedonism, but I think it is actually endorsing being true to oneself and being uninhibited.  It is another upbeat sunshine pop-type song.  "Slow Slow Tune" is exactly that, a gentle lullaby for James' future child.  The album ends with another slow one, "Movin' Away" which is driven by a simple piano line and a gorgeous vocal.  The song shows James committing to settling down with his love although apparently with some ambivalence.  It is a perfect ending to an album that is thematically driven by a spiritual and personal quest for happiness and meaning.  It is really a wonderful record, endlessly listenable and rewarding.  It is also a model for vinyl packaging, a sturdy, elegant cardboard gatefold album with heavy weight paper sleeves covered with pictures and an insert that reproduces the handwritten lyrics which are a bit hard to read but testify to James' frenzied creativity.  The record is spread over two 180 gram slabs of vinyl running at 45 rpm.  I'm not so crazy about the speed since it requires frequent flipping of the record, but it sounds magnificent, an impeccable pressing.  This record may not live up to the power of their live act, but it is a credit to their immense talent and chemistry as a band and I'm not the least bit disappointed in it.  It is one of the best albums of the year.  Recommended to people who are looking for something more than sex and drugs in their rock and roll.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lady Godiva - Peter and Gordon



Lady Godiva
Peter and Gordon
Capitol  ST 2664
1967

I've been listening to a lot of British Invasion of late.  As a teen it was my favorite genre of pop music.  When I was really young, I liked Peter and Gordon because of their proper English accents and nerdy looks, but as I got older they seemed corny to me and I was only interested in them because of Peter Asher's connection to Paul McCartney and the handful of McCartney songs they recorded that the Beatles never did.  I look at the pictures on the back cover of this album and think that the boys look pretty cool, like wannabe Byrds, but unfortunately the music inside is mostly sappy.  It is hard to believe that this record came out in 1967, it would have been outmoded in 1964.  Compared to their increasingly ambitious peers Chad and Jeremy, not to mention every other significant British Invasion group, they seem hopelessly square.  To their credit, the two best songs were written by Asher and Gordon Waller, "Morning's Calling" and "Start Trying Someone Else."  The latter is just a decent romantic ballad, but the former is one of their few credible rock songs, an excellent folk-rock song with lovely lyrics about escape and heartache.  "Morning's Calling" is the best Peter and Gordon song that I've ever heard not written by a Beatle.  It is worth the purchase of this album in itself, although you can also find it on the b-side of the "Lady Godiva" single.  "Lady Godiva" is a novelty song with a music hall flavor, it is pretty catchy if you like that sort of thing.  It was their last top ten single.  The remainder of the album is made up of cover songs, none of which are very good.  In their hands the Beatles' "If I Fell" loses all its bite and becomes overwrought teen pablum.  Corny crooning predominates on "Till There Was You," "Young and Beautiful," "When I Fall In Love," and "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" which are also hampered by hackneyed arrangements.  I do like their melodramatic version of "The Exodus Song" which has some emotional power.   There is a yearning quality to the vocal on "A Taste of Honey" that cuts through some of the muzak.  The boys come on like the English Righteous Brothers on "Baby I'm Yours," it is not exactly soulful but it is kind of dynamic.  This isn't a good record, but I'm not sorry I bought it.  Recommended for people who think British accents make everything sound better.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Animals On Tour - The Animals



The Animals On Tour
The Animals
MGM  SE-4281
1965

This was my first Animals album which I bought in San Francisco in 1979.  I had a summer job in the City and in the course of my lunchtime explorations, I stumbled upon a fantastic used record store on the seedy outskirts of downtown.  It was run by this hippie-ish guy and was full of old Fillmore posters and a tasty selection of 60s era vinyl.  It was pretty pricey and I was pretty broke so I didn't buy a lot, but I learned a lot from browsing and talking to the proprietor.  He was kind of gruff but there weren't a lot of customers, usually just me and since I was pretty green he seemed to like teaching me stuff and showing me interesting records.  I wish I had taken a greater interest in the posters, he had a great selection and even some of the original litho plates to print them.  I thought they were too expensive, but of course compared to prices nowadays they were a bargain.  I did pick up some important records in the course of the summer and the place gave me a hunger for quality used record stores that remains with me to this day.  Unfortunately when my job ended and I went back to school, I didn't get over to SF and by the time I finally returned to the store, it was gone.  At least I have a few records to remind me of it.  This is a pretty good one.  It was the Animals' second American album.  Despite the title it is not a live record, but instead consists of songs taken from the Animals' first two English albums and some singles.  Among the groups associated with the British Invasion, I rank the Animals in the second tier.  They had a high quality instrumentalist in keyboardist Alan Price and with Eric Burdon they had the best British Invasion vocalist not in a group named the Beatles.  Burdon excelled at rhythm and blues vocals although you could probably make a case that he was too slavishly imitative of them in contrast to someone like Mick Jagger.  The Animals biggest problem was that they did not produce many original songs.  Their early repertoire consisted largely of covers of well-known American songs and their approach to them was derivative.  They were like a more talented version of the Downliners Sect.  Unlike the Yardbirds or Rolling Stones, who used the rhythm and blues songs as frameworks for their own interpretations of the style, the Animals seemed determined to ape John Lee Hooker or Ray Charles as authentically as possible.  Sometimes I wonder why am I listening to this when I could be listening to John Lee Hooker himself.  I think the answer to that question is that Burdon brings a lot of enthusiasm to his vocals and the band has a pop sensibility that smooths out the music without losing the energy.  The two singles are my favorite songs on this record.  "Boom Boom" is a high energy cover of John Lee Hooker's song and it is my favorite version of this song.  There is a nice organ solo from Price, but Hilton Valentine's guitar solo has been edited out.  It is not a particularly great solo but I don't see why it couldn't have been restored for an album that is already pretty skimpy.   Burdon and Price's "I'm Crying" is the only original song on the album and it is a good one with a steady propulsive beat, a hard-driving organ line and a powerful vocal.  It was deservedly a top 20 hit in the United States and I think it is among the best songs in their catalogue.  I really like the cover of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" which features another exciting solo from Price, a catchy riff and a strong Burdon vocal.  They return to John Lee Hooker for a cover of "Dimples."  The song swings but it is not as memorable as "Boom Boom."  Unlike most of their tunes, the song is driven by the guitar rather than the keyboards.  The group's cover of Chuck Berry's "How You've Changed" is better than the original largely because Burdon delivers a superior vocal.  There are three Ray Charles' covers on the album, the best of which is the jumping "Mess Around" with its blazing piano solo and pulsing bass lines.  Burdon is a terrific singer, but he can't out-sing Ray Charles and for that reason "I Believe to My Soul" and "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" are a waste of time although Burdon's smoldering vocal on the former is very soulful and I like Price's solo on the latter.  Charles is also one of the many people who have covered "Worried Life Blues" which is the bluesiest number on this record.  The Animals' version is impressive with a typically impassioned vocal from Burdon, a tasteful guitar solo from Valentine and majestic organ work from Price, but it is also the number that seems most blatantly imitative to me.  I prefer the Stones' cover of "Let the Good Times Roll" and the Yardbirds' version of "I Ain't Got You" both of which are more kinetic and imaginative then the comparatively tame versions offered here.  I also give the Stones the edge for "She Said Yeah" but the Animal's version is exciting in its own right and it gets me bopping.  I don't think any of the original Animals albums are essential, unless you are a big fan, a good comp will probably suffice for all your Animals needs.  I do play mine sometimes though and I'm happy I have them.  Recommended for people who prefer the Rolling Stones over the Beatles. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Strange Days - The Doors



Strange Days
The Doors
Elektra  EKS-74014
1967

The first time I heard of the Doors I was about 13, Jim Morrison was already dead and the remaining trio had given up their effort to keep the band alive.  I learned of them from reading an interview with Linda Ronstadt where she described touring with them in unflattering terms.  Nonetheless I was intrigued, particularly by the band's name.  I had heard "Light My Fire" on the radio of course, but I didn't know then who did it.  On my next visit to the record store I checked them out and liked what I saw.  I didn't have enough money to want to experiment with them though, my money was reserved for the Beatles.  A year or two later I read Joan Didion's classic essay "Waiting For Morrison" and I was hooked.  I had to investigate these guys.  I bought their debut album and it blew my teenage mind away.  During high school they were one of my favorite groups, I thought they were daring and even dangerous.  I outgrew them when I got to college and I came to find them silly and pretentious.  I stopped listening to them altogether.  Eventually I came back to them.  I'm not a fan but I like most of their records again.  This is my favorite although it is not as dazzling as the debut or as consistent as "L. A. Woman."  I just find it more interesting.  It opens with "Strange Days" which has a strong psychedelic feeling with the swirling organ and sound effects supporting trippy lyrics of distorted perception and confusion.  It features an alienated sensibility that permeates the album.  The confusion expressed in this song extends into "You're Lost Little Girl" which is a song that instantly invokes the sixties and flower children to me.  "Love Me Two Times" is a more commercial song reminiscent of "Light My Fire" with its sexually suggestive lyrics and urgency.  It has a catchy guitar riff and memorable harpsichord playing from Ray Manzarek.  "Unhappy Girl" finds Morrison attempting to liberate the title character from her self-imposed prison accompanied by a whirlwind of trippy music.  "Horse Latitudes" is one of my least favorite Doors songs.  It is about horses being thrown off a ship into the sea and Morrison orates the pretentious lyrics rather than singing them, like a bad actor or a pompous poet.  If you've ever read any of Morrison's poetry you know what an awful poet he was.  This song was one of the ones that made me decide he was full of crap back when I was in college.  I haven't really changed my mind about that and I still hate this song, but I appreciate Morrison's charisma and the band's theatricality enough to overlook a little pretentiousness.  Fortunately side one finishes strong with "Moonlight Drive" with some fine bottleneck guitar work from Robby Krieger supporting another Morrison call to hedonism.  I think it is one of their best songs.  "People Are Strange" features lyrics reminiscent of "Strange Days" but substitutes a cabaret flavor for psychedelia.  "My Eyes Have Seen You" finds Morrison coming on to another girl.  The man invariably comes up with good pick-up lines.  Its propulsive melody, strong hook and driving beat make it one of the most compelling songs on the record.  "I Can't See Your Face In My Mind" is either bad poetry or good psychedelia, maybe it's both.  The music has a dreamy feel to it.  The side ends with the epic "When The Music's Over" which I presume is an attempt to emulate "The End" from their debut album.  I think both songs are full of crap, but I like this one a little better.  I suspect both songs worked better live than on record since their dramatic character would have been enhanced by Morrison's magnetism and theatrical nature.  "When the Music's Over" has some pretty atrocious lyrics but there are some memorable lines, I particularly like "music is your only friend" and "cancel my subscription to the Resurrection."  I appreciate its ambition and the Dionysian message of it and there are some terrific musical passages in the song which is dominated by Manzarek's majestic organ lines.  If nothing else it does provide a dramatic conclusion to the album which to me is the most theatrical one in the Doors catalogue, indeed one of the most theatrical albums in rock history.  The theatricality extends to the brilliant album cover which is one of my all time favorites.  It is worth buying on vinyl for the cover alone.  For all its faults I find this album to be endlessly listenable.  It is full of originality and inspired creativity which you don't hear on too many rock albums, either then or now, the Doors may have been pretentious, but they did blaze a new trail in rock.  44 years later you can still hear their influence in countless modern bands.  Recommended to bad poets aspiring to be bad actors.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Beat Group! - The Hollies



Beat Group!
The Hollies
Imperial  LP 9312
1966

This was the Hollies third album in the U. S. and eight of its eleven songs were drawn from the Hollies fourth British album "Would You Believe?" which contained 12 songs.  As is the case with most British Invasion groups, there are considerable differences between the British Hollies albums and their American equivalents with the latter having fewer songs and stupider titles.  The British albums are easy to find on CD but finding original vinyl copies in the U.S is pretty tough so I've settled for the Imperial albums.  This is a pretty good one with a mixture of quality original compositions and a wide array of covers.  The most memorable song is "I Can't Let Go" by Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni which was deservedly a big hit in England but failed to crack the top 40 over here for some reason.  I think it is a terrific song with wonderful vocal harmonies and appealing jangly guitar riffs.  It is one of my favorite early Hollies songs.  Most of the other songs that I like were written by the Hollies under their collective pseudonym L. Ransford.  The country-flavored "Running Through The Night" did not appear on "Would You Believe?" and was the B-side of the British single of "I Can't Let Go."  It has a nice jangly guitar line and I'm pleased that Imperial stuck it on the album.  "Oriental Sadness" shows the group's growth as songwriters.  It has a memorable melody, a nice Asian style guitar lick and the vocals are typically outstanding.  Aside from the Beatles, I don't think any British group from that era can even come close to the Hollies' skill in that regard.  "Hard Hard Year" is reminiscent of the Beatles' folk influenced songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" aside from an almost metallic guitar solo.  "Fifi the Flea" is just Graham Nash and an acoustic guitar.  I find it sappy and dull, but I respect the band's effort to break free of the limitations of being a beat group.  The originals give this album a little depth, the covers are mostly lightweight.  They include a pair of soul numbers.  "That's How Strong My Love Is" is pleasant enough but it can't really compete with the more soulful versions by O. V. Wright and especially Otis Redding.  "I Take What I Want" had been a single for Sam and Dave the previous year.  I don't find the Hollies version very convincing.  There are also a couple of covers that weren't on "Would You Believe?" and which were also recorded by the Beatles.  The group tackles "A Taste of Honey" at a slightly faster pace than the Beatles did although the arrangements are otherwise fairly similar.  The Beatles version is more romantic but I like the propulsive quality of the Hollies' version.  "Mr. Moonlight" was taken from the Hollies first English album "Stay With the Hollies."  It is also has a quicker tempo than the Beatles' version but I prefer John Lennon's more robust vocal to the vocal by Graham Nash which sounds whiny to me.  Both songs seem old fashioned compared to the progressive direction the band was moving in and I suspect they represent Imperial trying to make the record more commercial.  The remaining covers are "Don't You Even Care" by Clint Ballard Jr. (who wrote the band's earlier hit "I'm Alive") and "Take Your Time" by the band's namesake, Buddy Holly.  The former is enjoyable but routine commercial pop but the Holly cover is delightful, one of my favorite songs on the album.  This sparkling tune shows what adept pop craftsmen the Hollies were.  This was a transitional album for the Hollies that finds them moving towards the more progressive psych-pop direction they would take on their future records while not abandoning the commercial pop beat group direction of their earlier albums.  The group's songwriting was improving and they were exploring new sounds.  I think they were still a second tier band among the British Invasion groups, well below the Beatles, Stones, Zombies or Kinks, but they had developed a distinctive sound and style featuring jangly guitar and multi-part harmonies.  They had the technique, all they needed were better songs and they would come soon enough.  Recommended for people who think "On a Carousel" is a better song than "Our House."

Full House - Fairport Convention




Full House
Fairport Convention
A&M  SP 4265
1970

I bought this in Berkeley around 1980.  A&M had already deleted it from their catalogue but I was lucky enough to find a cut-out.  This was the fifth album by Fairport Convention and the final studio album with original member Richard Thompson.  His departure for a solo career effectively marked the end of the group as an artistically significant unit.  They would keep plugging away to this very day (with various hiatuses) and release many more albums of course, some pretty good and one close to awful ("Gottle O'Geer".)  However as much as I love the band, I wish they had quit after this one, not even the brief return of Sandy Denny in the mid 1970s could save them from irrelevance.  Kudos to them though for hanging in there all these years despite all the adversity.  It is rather amazing that this record is as good as it is.  The band had to survive the departure of two critical members of the group following the release of "Liege & Lief."  Founding member, bassist Ashley Hutchings, was replaced by Dave Pegg who was more than an adequate replacement musically but didn't replace the artistic direction and inspiration offered by Hutchings who had largely been responsible for the band's venture into playing English folk-rock in the first place.  Still it was the departure of lead vocalist Sandy Denny that was the more serious problem.  In the course of two albums the band went from having two first rate vocalists to having none.  Denny was more than just a vocalist, she contributed many key songs and was both the face and arguably the heart of the band.  She was irreplaceable although the band's decision not to bring in a new vocalist at all is questionable.  Dave Swarbrick assumed most of the vocalist duties and as a vocalist, Swarbrick is an excellent fiddler.  Personally I find his voice rather grating and I would have preferred to have Thompson and Simon Nicol do all the singing.  Thompson was a little raw at the time, but would develop into a very fine, expressive singer in the coming years.  Still the music on this record is so good that even Swarbrick's singing can't detract too much from it and besides a good portion of it consists of instrumentals.  The jaunty opening song "Walk Awhile" features Swarbrick, Thompson, Pegg and Nicol all taking turns at the mike.  Although composed by Swarbrick and Thompson the song does have a strong traditional feeling to it and it is a lively and humorous song that displays the band's instrumental strength to good effect.  This is particularly evident on the next cut, "DIrty Linen."  On "Liege & Lief" the band had inaugurated the practice of performing a medley of traditional instrumental dance tunes on their records and there are two such medleys on this album.  "Dirty Linen" is my favorite of all the ones the band has ever done.  The band's new rhythm section of Pegg and Dave Mattacks kicks ass, Thompson's fingers fly up and down the fretboard and Swarbrick saws away on top of it all like a maniac.  It is an incredibly propulsive set of tunes guaranteed to turn the most stubborn wallflower into a lord of the dance.  I get happy feet every time I listen to it.  On a BBC recording of the song, Nicol says they chose the name for the medley because when they first started doing the song live they were bluffing their way through it, but I find that hard to believe considering how great the recording is.  The side concludes with another Thompson/Swarbrick song, the epic "Sloth."  Lyrically the song is a bit slight, a few verses decrying war and numerous repetitions of the simple chorus, for some reason the song makes me think of the American Civil War, but it is vague enough to apply to just about any war.  This simple song is stretched out by lengthy instrumental passages including some of Thompson's best guitar work with Fairport.  The interplay between Thompson and Swarbrick on the solos is mesmerizing and the robust rhythm section relentlessly drives the song to its climax.  The song is an absolute classic and it remained in Fairport's repertoire even after Thompson left the band, although frankly none of the other instrumentalists in the band ever came close to matching Thompson's ability.  The man is a true wizard of the guitar.  "Sloth" joins "A Sailor's Life" as the best example of the band's instrumental brilliance, fully the rival of any jam band from that era.  Side two opens with the traditional song "Sir Patrick Spens."  The band members trade vocals although Swarbrick sings most of it.  The band first attempted the song during the "Liege & Lief" sessions and there are at least two recordings of Sandy Denny singing the song with Fairport which give a tantalizing glimpse of how great this album could have been if she had stuck around.  Even with the low-fi nature of the recordings I prefer those Denny versions.  Still the official version is very impressive.  It has a dynamic arrangement with lots of sterling instrumental work, a fine example of the potential of English folk-rock.  On the BBC performance of "Sir Patrick Spens" Simon Nicol notes that the band was unhappy with the original tune ("a bit AC/DC" he says but I have no idea what he means by that) and substituted the tune of another Child ballad, "Hughie the Graeme."  I had trouble understanding the song when I first heard it.  I had to look it up in the Child ballads just to figure out all the words and realize it is about a conspiracy to kill a bunch of Scottish lords.  Next up is "Flatback Caper" another dance tune melody.  It is not as exciting as "Dirty Linen" but it is sure to get your toe tapping.  I might question the wisdom of including a second instrumental on the album, but if it keeps Swarbrick from singing I'm fine with it.  "The Doctor of Physick" is the final Thompson/Swarbrick song on the album and it is my favorite song on the album.  It is a sinister song about Doctor Monk who preys upon girls who think "improper" thoughts and steals their maidenheads.  It features a superb riff and the group shares the vocal.  I've always wondered if this song is derived from Chaucer, but I've never seen anything to confirm this.  In "The Canterbury Tales" one of the characters is a Doctor of Physick and his tale concerns a father who beheads his daughter rather than allowing a corrupt judge to rape her.  Obviously she is losing a different sort of "maidenhead" but there is some similarity there.  Regardless of the inspiration for it, it is a terrific song full of atmosphere and another example of the band's unparalleled skill at replicating traditional music styles.  The album concludes in a gloomy manner with the mournful traditional song, "Flowers of the Forest" which laments the loss of life in an ancient English victory over Scotland.  It might have been moving if Sandy Denny were singing it, but Swarbrick dominates the group vocal and to me having him sing a slow dirge is almost like fingernails scraping a chalkboard.  It is easily my least favorite Fairport song on their first five albums.  There was originally an eighth song intended for this album, Thompson/Swarbrick's "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" but Thompson had it withdrawn prior to pressing.  That is unfortunate because it would have been the best song on this album and lifted it to a higher status in my opinion.  Thompson would later add some overdubs with his then wife, Linda Thompson, and release it on "(guitar, vocal)" and the Fairport version would later surface on archival releases as well as the CD re-issue of this album.  It is one of my favorite Fairport songs and another fine example of Thompson's skill at utilizing traditional elements in contemporary songwriting.  Even without this song though, I still admire this album and I've played it a lot through the years without getting the least bit tired of it.  As an added bonus this album has some of the most interesting liner notes I've ever seen.  On the back of the cover Richard Thompson has written up the imaginary results of a bunch of games, most of them old and forgotten involving characters from folklore such as Allison Gross as well as characters from the album like the Doctor of Physick.  I've never heard of most of the games and I spent a good deal of time back when I got the record looking up the games and characters, no easy task in those pre-internet days.  Thompson's account is both amusing and sardonic with lots of violence.  I have no desire to try my hand at Badger in the Bag or Sparrow-Mumbling that's for sure.  Recommended for folklorists looking for proof that their work has relevance.