Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Live! At the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962 - The Beatles

Live!  At the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962
The Beatles 
Lingasong LS-2-7001

I was watching the movie "Backbeat" the other night and thinking how awesome the soundtrack sounded - too awesome since the music is played by an all-star band.  A rhythm section of Mike Mills and Dave Grohl is meant to represent Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best?  That might work if Grohl played bass and Mills played drums.  Anyway I pulled out this record to hear what the Beatles really sounded like in Hamburg although this was recorded after Sutcliffe and Best had left the band (there are a few home recordings on the "Anthology 1" album that feature Sutcliffe in the band if anyone is curious.)   It was recorded in late December 1962 during the band's final sojourn in Hamburg by fellow Liverpool musician Ted "Kingsize" Taylor on an amateur tape recorder with a single mike.  The sound quality is abysmal, sub-bootleg quality, often the vocal is barely audible and the music is tinny with very little bottom.  The record itself is shoddily made.  I bought it new around the time of its release and it had surface noise and the vinyl was dimpled.  In short it was a rip-off, but one I'm happy to own and one that all true Beatlemaniacs will probably find of interest.  The American version of this is all covers, but the European issue featured two songs by Lennon and McCartney that were presumably removed from this for copyright reasons.  Curiously neither version features "Love Me Do" or "P. S. I Love You" which the Beatles had already released as a single and which they had been performing in England.  Maybe they wanted to please the crowd with covers of songs they already knew.  Eight of the covers would turn up on the Beatles' studio albums and several of the others will be familiar to people who have heard the BBC sessions or the Decca audition tape.  The primary value of this record is that it gives a portrait of the group's sound and repertoire prior to their rise to stardom which was just weeks away.  It sounds like a great show, I'd give just about anything to have been there watching it.  The Beatles' patter is preserved on the disc and is fun to listen to, McCartney is already quite the charmer while Lennon sounds like he's under the influence of something and takes great delight in substituting the word "shitty" for "city" or "shimmy."  The songs run the gamut from ferocious rockers like Ray Charles' "Talking About You," Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" to pop ballads like the Teddy Bears' "To Know Her Is To Love Her" or Tommy Roe's "Sheila" to standards like "Besame Mucho," "Red Sails in the Sunset" and "Falling in Love Again" and almost all of them sound at least decent and many are first rate.  They were so versatile, even at this early stage in their development. What I find amazing, is that by most accounts, the Beatles did not want to be there, they were reluctantly fulfilling a contractual obligation and presumably just going through the motions and yet they still sound terrific.  Those early Beatles really could rock.  I think even without the benefit of hindsight, you could listen to these crude recordings and detect that there was something special going on here.  Recommended for people who prefer "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Yesterday."

Love, Luck N' Lollipops - The Bells

Love, Luck N' Lollipops
The Bells
Polydor PD 5503

The third album by the Canadian pop group, the Bells.  I'm a little embarrassed by my fondness for the Bells, I can't even explain why I like them so much.  I do have a thing for Canada, I sometimes think I must have been switched with a Canadian baby at birth: I like cold weather, maple syrup, hockey, bacon and above all Canadian pop groups.  Like most Americans I first encountered the Bells via their hit single "Stay Awhile" when I was a kid.  I thought that Jackie Ralph had the sexiest voice and that song really sent me.  Many years later I came across their second album "Fly Little White Dove" and jumped on it.  It is a really good record and I thought I had all the Bells music that I needed until I came across this at a flea market.  Despite the cheesy album cover, I decided to get it and I have no regrets, but I'm not all that impressed by it either.  I could make a claim that their second album was sunshine pop, but this is basically soft-rock.  It is dominated by cover songs and their choice of covers is pretty spotty.  Mac Davis' "Half N' Half" is basically bubblegum and as annoying as most of Davis' songs.  They do a medley of Kris Kristofferson songs as well.  Kristofferson was an infinitely superior songwriter to Davis and an infinitely worse singer than the Bells so the medley should be worthwhile but I think it is too pretty.  This music sounds better with a little roughness.  Their cover of John Sebastian's "She's A Lady" is typically lovely but adds nothing to the original.  I dislike their slow version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" which I find totally lifeless. The only cover I have much use for is their version of Phil Spector's "To Know You Is To Love You" which they deliver in a surprisingly gritty version.  It is still sappy, but it has a rock feeling to it.  Instead of all these dull covers, I wish there were more songs like "Gifts" and "Lady Dawn" which play more to the band's strengths.  They are gentle, quiet songs made memorable through the group's sweet vocals.  "Lady Dawn" was the single off the album.  It was a stiff, but more because of its lack of commercial appeal than its lack of quality.  The leader of the Bells, Cliff Edwards, came up with the best song on the record, "Easier Said Than Done" which sounds a bit like latter day Paul Revere and the Raiders although the instrumentation is softer, I could do without the strings and brass.  Ex-Bell Frank Mills contributed two songs to the record.  "Sweet Sounds of Music" is given an oddly funky treatment, I don't think it works but it is does vary the record's texture a bit.  "For Better For Worse" is more successful, it has a more convincing rock flavor and is one of the more appealing songs on the album.  I can't really say this is a good record, but it has its virtues and if you have a taste for soft-rock you probably will find it enjoyable.  Recommended for people who prefer the Carpenters to the Cowsills.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love - Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love
Belle and Sebastian
Matador OLE 944-1

My 100th post!  Belle and Sebastian are my favorite group currently extant, probably my favorite group of all time after the Beatles.  That love is based on their first two LPs and first 4 EPs.  Every record since then has been a disappointment to me even though I liked all of them.  However I understand that a group can't just keep making the same record over and over, that creative artists need to grow and explore new sounds.  I admire that and must admit that this is a very good record.  It is handsomely packaged with the usual monochrome photographs for cover art and a bonus 45 single as well.  The album opens with one of the best songs on the record, "I Didn't See It Coming" with Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch trading vocals culminating in some lovely multi-part harmonies at the end.  The song features quite a bit of synthesizer and some studio sound effects which is kind of unusual for the Belles.  It has a strong beat like much of their latter day music and a lot of musical twists and turns making it one of the more compelling tracks on the album.  Synths are also predominant on "Come On Sister" which is another bouncy tune.  The pace slows down for "Calculating Bimbo."  People often stereotype the Belles as twee, romantic softies, but Murdoch definitely has a mean streak as well and has written more than his share of bitter kiss-off songs.  This is one of those.  It has a disarmingly lovely melody for a song ripping an upwardly mobile ex who is trying to keep him on the hook.  "I Want The World To Stop" is my favorite song on the album.  It sounds like the early Belles fused with an 80s synthpop band.  It has a driving beat and a nice bass line propelling it along and the lyrics recall Murdoch's earlier persona as a befuddled observer of the world going by.  Norah Jones is the guest vocalist on "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" and is the strongest duet partner for Murdoch since Monica Queen on "Lazy Line Painter Jane."  Back when Isobel Campbell was still in the group I thought it was funny that the Belles had two female singers and they both sounded exactly the same - delicate, ethereal high voices.  Their limited range was suitable for the quieter songs they used to do back then, but as Murdoch has expanded the scope of his songwriting the lack of a strong second vocalist has often been evident in the group's sound.  This oddly named song (the title refers to the imaginary boy friends of the woman in the song) displays the soul influence that has become noticeable in the music of the Belles since "Dear Catastrophe Waitress."  Side two kicks off with another guest singer in the form of actress Carey Mulligan on "Write About Love."  She doesn't have Norah Jones' chops but she sings fine, her voice recalls 1960s pop singers like Billie Davis or Petula Clark.  The song has a 1960s flavor but doesn't sound the least bit derivative.  I can't think of another contemporary group that has done such a great job of assimilating the style of 1960s pop while still sounding original and unique.  The lyrics are classic Murdoch, the protagonist dissatisfied with her job and life, dreams about love.  It is a terrific song.  The 60s influence continues with "I'm Not Living In the Real World" which reminds me of the sound of mid-1960s The Who.  It is yet another Belle and Sebastian song about the trials and tribulations of adolescence.  Given that most of the Belles are now in their 40s, you'd think they'd be ready to move on already, but it is certainly a subject they have always had an affinity for.  The song is sung and written by guitarist Stevie Jackson.  I've never liked his singing but I have to admit his high pitched, slightly strained voice is ideal for conveying the angst and naivete of the teen-aged protagonist of the song.  "The Ghost of Rockschool" has a strong religious element to it.  Stuart has not been bashful about sharing his faith in his latter-day music but since my own feelings on the subject are more in tune with "If You're Feeling Sinister" I'm not very happy about that, but I give him credit for paying homage to Lawrence of the band Felt and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy (at least I think that's who "Lawrence and Phil" refer to in the lyrics).  "Read The Blessed Pages" is fortunately not about the Bible, but a sweet song about some old love.  I assumed it was about Isobel but Murdoch apparently denies that and when I think about it, I'm inclined to believe him given the bitter songs he wrote about her after she left.  I read somewhere that Murdoch said he was thinking  of his recently deceased father when he wrote it and even though it is about a girl, that makes a lot of sense to me.  It is a quiet folky song, very pretty.  Sarah Martin sings "I Can See Your Future" which is lushly orchestrated and makes nice use of French horns.  It is one of the better songs on the record.  The album ends with "Sunday's Pretty Icons" which is another synthpop song with a strong melody.  The album's bonus single features "Last Trip" sung by Stevie Jackson and presumably composed by him as well.  It is a pleasant but slight song, a throwaway basically which I guess is what you'd expect from a b-side.  "Suicide Girl" is another story.  It is also a synthpop song with a driving rhythm and surging chorus that I find very energizing.  It is a better song than many of the songs on the album with some interesting lyrics - I was puzzled by them at first until I looked up "suicide girls" on the internet and found out that they are punky girls who pose naked on a website of the same name.  I really enjoyed this record but I don't like it as much as its predecessor, "The Life Pursuit."  I am impressed though that after all these years, the Belles still make such good records and continue to explore new sounds.  If I shared his faith I would say that Stuart Murdoch is God's gift to indie rock.  Recommended for people who prefer New Order to the Smiths. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The In Crowd - The Ramsey Lewis Trio

The In Crowd
The Ramsey Lewis Trio
Argo LP-757

This is a live recording from the Trio's performances at the Bohemian Caverns in Washington D.C. in May 1965.  Lewis was a very prolific artist but I only have a handful of albums by him.  This is my favorite largely because of the title song which became a big hit.  It is such a swinging tune, it is impossible for me to listen to it without snapping my fingers and bopping my head.  It is the most exciting cut on the album rivaled only by a surprisingly frenetic version of "Tennessee Waltz."  The song is carried by bassist Eldee Young who switches to cello for the song.  He opens the song with some fluid Flamenco-style runs and then he plucks out the rest of the song with considerable power and virtuosity.  I fairly certain that this is the only time I've ever heard a guy shredding on a cello.  The trio delivers a jumping version of "Felicidade" from the "Black Orpheus" soundtrack which really gets me going.  "You Been Talkin' 'Bout Me Baby" has a seductive slinky groove to it.  There's a nice version of Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday."  It doesn't swing but it holds my attention.  A few tracks don't do much for me.  "Since I Fell For You" is basically cocktail lounge jazz, tasteful but dull.  "Spartacus (Love Theme From)" starts out sounding like Ferrante and Teicher, then picks up some power in a more jazz flavored interpretation in the middle before reverting back to pompous soundtrack music.  I find it a little boring.  There are so many other jazz pianists from this era that I like better than Lewis - Monk, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock to name a few - yet I still play this record as much as theirs.  When this record works, it really grabs me and even when it doesn't work, it is at least listenable.  It has the accessibility and immediacy of pop music, but the musical sophistication of jazz which is a pretty compelling combination.   Recommended for pop music fans who find jazz boring.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Standells in Person at P. J.s/"Live" and Out of Sight - The Standells

The Standells in Person at P. J.s
The Standells
Liberty  LRP-3384

"Live" and Out of Sight
The Standells
Sunset  SUM-1136

Many years ago I bought "'Live' and Out of Sight" not realizing it was a reissue of the 1964 Liberty album "The Standells In Person at P.J.s."  I was miffed when I found out but not so much that I made a big effort to get the original.  It kept bugging me though because I'm a silly collector so when I finally found a nice copy at a bargain price, I bought it.  The records are not identical.  The original has better cover art and superior liner notes.  The reissue drops two tracks from side one of the original album, "You Can't Do That" and "What Have I Got Of My Own," and substitutes the early Standells singles "Peppermint Beatle" and "Shake."  It also radically alters the running order of the songs which I don't approve of at all.  However I like having the singles so I keep both versions.  The Standells were arguably the greatest of all 1960s garage bands although I'm not really sure the term is accurately applied to them.  Sure they sound like a garage band, but they were hardly a bunch of teenage punks making a ruckus on stage at the school dance.  These guys were professional musicians with considerable ability and talent, they were no more a garage band than the Byrds were.  I'm referring primarily to their classic recordings on the Tower Records label.  On this record, they sound pretty much like an ordinary garage band.  The live tracks consist entirely of covers, all competently performed with lots of energy.  If I was watching them at P.J.'s I'd be completely satisfied, they have a good beat and you can dance to them.  It sounds like a really fun concert.  On a record though, I expect something more original than this.  If nothing else they do have excellent taste in covers.  My favorite cut is the high energy cover of Ray Sharpe's "Linda Lu" which shreds the original.  Not far behind is their speeded up version of Jimmy Reed's "Help Yourself" which really cooks.  I particularly dig the ferocious electric organ playing that drives this cut.  I also like their versions of Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," the Fiestas' "So Fine," Larry Williams' "Bony Maronie" and James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy."  Their versions aren't particularly distinctive but they are propulsive and fun.  "Louie Louie" and "Money" exist in so many other better versions that they are essentially useless.  I enjoy their covers of the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" and Trini Lopez's "What Have I Got Of My Own" but they don't really add anything to the original versions.  Dropping them for the two singles makes the reissue a slightly better record than the original.  Both singles are credited to Larry Tamblyn.  "Stand" features original drummer Gary Leeds who would later join the Walker Brothers and change his name to Gary Walker.  The song is simple and somewhat derivative of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" but it is fast paced and very enjoyable.  "Peppermint Beatle" is a little more sophisticated musically but features equally silly lyrics.  In case you were wondering the Peppermint Beatle is a dance, not a food.  I don't play either version of this album very much but when I do, it does make me hop and wiggle around.  If you plan on throwing a toga party any time soon, this might make a nice soundtrack for it.  Recommended for fans of the Kingsmen.   

Sunday, June 19, 2011

McCartney - Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney
Apple STAO 3363

Paul McCartney
Hear Music HRM-32812-01

A post in honor of Paulie's birthday.  I'm a little mortified that he is 69 years old but I'm happy that the man I've revered since I was 13 years old is still going strong.  This is of course his debut solo record and I have to confess that when I first heard it as a teenager, I was bitterly disappointed.  I came close to getting rid of it many times back then and there were long periods when I didn't listen to it at all.  I thought it was self-indulgent, amateurish and beneath his stature as an artist.  Today I don't disagree with my original assessment, but I've learned to appreciate the record's homemade charms.  Although I still think it is a minor album, it has become one of my favorite of McCartney albums.  "Maybe I'm Amazed" is a classic song although the original version has been eclipsed as far the radio is concerned by the live version from "Wings Over America."  I understand that, it is unquestionably a more powerful version, but I like this one too, it has the appeal of a heartfelt demo, which basically it is.  "Teddy Boy," "Junk" and "Every Night" are the only other first rate songs on this album.  "That Would Be Something" has a nice riff, but it sounds incomplete or unfinished.  With some more effort it might have been a worthy follow-up to "Get Back" instead of the pleasant filler it is here.  That is true of a lot of the songs on this record which feel more like demos or run-throughs.  "Valentine Day" is a nice rocking tune but McCartney couldn't even be bothered to come up with words for it nor for the less promising "Hot as Sun."  Even the more polished songs like "The Lovely Linda," "Oo You" and "Man We Was Lonely" are little more than fragments or throwaways.  They are likeable but totally forgettable.  As good as it is, "Junk" is not so good that it needed to be reprised as an instrumental on side two.  Given how prolific he was as a Beatle, it is hard to believe that he couldn't come up with something better to fill that spot or to replace "Momma Miss America" which is an instrumental that sounds like an outtake from the "Let It Be" sessions only not as good.  It is a lot better than "Kreen-Akrore" though, which sounds like some teenage kid messing around in his basement.  I don't even like drum solos when real drummers like Ginger Baker play them, when McCartney does one I reach for the reject button on the turntable.  It is the only song I actually hate on this record.  I'm critical of this record because I think McCartney is a pop genius and I expect a lot from him.  I still enjoy this album though, the same way I enjoy the demos and false takes on the "Anthology" albums by the Beatles.  The record is a bit like hanging around with McCartney in the studio and listening to him experiment and tinker with songs.  In a way, McCartney made the album that "Let It Be" was supposed to be, except that he took the idea too far.  Perhaps it was conceited for the man to think that his unfinished songs were worthy of public consumption, but I still like listening to them.  I enjoy the relaxed and intimate feel of the record although I can't deny that I wish it was little better.  Nonetheless even a minor Paul McCartney record is still better than a lot of people's major records and I'm very happy to have it.  As an added bonus the album is loaded with charming pictures by his talented photographer wife Linda including a priceless pic of the great man picking his nose.  I'd say it is worth having just for the pictures alone.  So happy birthday to Sir Paul and may he have many many more.  Recommended for people who wish that James Paul McCartney could live forever.

After I wrote this post, I acquired the deluxe reissue of this album.  It is remastered and includes a bonus record of outtakes and live cuts.  The cover art is the same although the new version has an irritating gray stripe on the side and a reduced sized cover image.  The gatefold image is the same.  The colors are sharper and richer on the Apple LP but the new version does boast inner sleeves covered with more of Linda’s snapshots similar to the ones on the gatefold image.  As far as the remastering goes, I don’t really hear a lot of difference.  It might be a little clearer than the Apple version with more separation between instruments but I’m not sure that is actually an improvement.  It is not like this is “Dark Side of the Moon,” it is practically a homemade record, it isn’t supposed to sound great.  I think the murkiness of the Apple mix is part of its DIY charm.  As for the bonus record, it is far from essential.  The three outtakes are useless.  The best is “Don’t Cry Baby” which is basically an instrumental version of “Oo You” and the most interesting thing about it is hearing Paulie talking to his crying baby in what sounds like his attempt at an American accent.  “Suicide” is another indulgence of McCartney’s fondness for music hall songs.  It is easy to see why it stayed on the shelf.  The demo of “Women Kind” is in a similar vein only worse with inane and patronizing feminist lyrics.  About the best I can say about it is that it is better than “Kreen-Akrore.”  Maybe.  There is also a performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the TV program “One Hand Clapping” that sounds a lot like the version from “Wings Over America” with a whole lot of echo a la “Let Me Roll It.”  It is good but I dislike the echo.   The best part of the bonus LP is the three songs from a 1979 concert in Glasgow.  There is yet another version of  “Maybe I’m Amazed” which is rawer than the the version from “Wings Over America” thanks to McCartney’s ragged vocal.  I really like it.  There is also a polished version of “Every Night” and a surprisingly good version of “Hot As Sun” that is a lot more engaging  than the studio version.  Does the bonus album merit owners of the Apple LP running out to buy this new version?  Not really.  Given that it lists for nearly 30 bucks, I’d say it was a rip-off.  You can buy a really nice used copy of the Apple LP for a third as much as the deluxe version.  I only bought my copy because it was brand new for less than 10 bucks.  I’m happy to have it but I’d only recommend it to collectors with deep pockets. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Last Word - Jack Kerouac

The Last Word
Jack Kerouac
Rhino RI 70939-D

This is the fourth album in Rhino's "Jack Kerouac Collection" box set.  It consists of outtakes and unreleased recordings.  Side one features two 1958 outtakes from "Blues and Haikus."  The first track is "Old Western Movies" which was unpublished.  It is very slight, it is easy to see why it didn't make it on the original album.  The most interesting aspect to it is the patter between Kerouac, the musicians Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and producer Bob Thiele.  There are a couple of false takes before the master.  In take one Cohn and Sims jam a little which prompts some scat vocalizing from Kerouac.  Take two breaks down when the musicians overshadow Kerouac who is apparently too far from the mike.  Thiele tries to instruct Cohn about how he should play, but Kerouac tells the musician to play whatever he wants.  Thiele mentions in the booklet that accompanies the box set, that he didn't think the musicians actually paid any attention to what Kerouac was reading, they just played whatever they felt like and listening to these outtakes I'm inclined to agree.  Kerouac sometimes responds to the music, but the musicians never respond to his work.  On the master take Cohn simply tells Kerouac where to come in and starts playing the piano.  Kerouac sings the beginning of the poem, it is more musical than any of the takes actually used on the original record.  I like it, he's not a great singer, but it is effective and it swings.  Overall it is a nice performance albeit a bit sloppy, too bad the poem is so weak.  I like when Kerouac sings the beginning of the other track, which is "Conclusion of the Railroad Earth," but then it is all downhill from there.  From a literary standpoint this is a strong piece, but Kerouac doesn't read it very well.  He sounds like he's drunk to me.  It is kind of fun but kind of annoying too, like a drunk at a party.  The track could have easily fit on the original "Blues And Haikus" album which is only about 30 minutes long.  I presume that the performance was considered unacceptable, but there is also a little static on the track that might have led to the decision to omit it as well.  Side two opens with Kerouac at the Hunter College Playhouse in 1958 giving a presentation at the "Is There a Beat Generation" forum.  Kerouac is in great form, the audience seems to inspire him.  He tells jokes, impersonates Ben Hecht and reads a rollicking poem about Harpo Marx.  I think he is more charismatic here than on any of the original records.  Not only is Kerouac very entertaining, but the speech itself is extremely interesting.  When he's really on he doesn't need music, he swings on his own.  The final track is from Steve Allen's television show in 1959.  Kerouac reads from "On The Road" and "Visions of Cody" with Allen accompanying him on piano in a very similar manner to the album they did together, "Poetry for the Beat Generation."  The reading here is arguably the smoothest and most disciplined on any of the albums perhaps the giant television audience intimidated Kerouac.  I enjoy it but he seems a bit stifled.  This is a really worthwhile album despite the marginal nature of the recordings.  I think it is just as interesting and revealing as any of the three original albums.  I've read a few biographies and oral histories about Kerouac and this record seems to capture the man the way his associates viewed him.  Recommended to anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to hang out with Jack Kerouac. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

After Bathing at Baxter's - Jefferson Airplane

After Bathing At Baxter's
Jefferson Airplane
RCA LSO-1511

The third Jefferson Airplane album.  I bought this while I was in high school.  The only other Airplane album I owned was the "Flight Log" comp although I had access to my step-mom's copy of "Surrealistic Pillow."  Neither of these really prepared me for the cornucopia of psychedelic delights that awaited me on this album.  It quickly became and remains my favorite Airplane album although not too many people share my opinion about it.  It is a landmark album for the group in many respects.  It marks a break from commercial rock in favor of free form heavy rock and it also marks the point where Paul Kantner took control of the group from Marty Balin.  Kantner wrote more than half of the album while Balin merely shares credit on a single song.  My favorite song however is by Grace Slick, "rejoyce" which is her reworking of James Joyce's novel "Ulysses."  The song has the same relationship to "Ulysses" that "White Rabbit" does to "Alice In Wonderland."  Slick takes the characters and events of the book and gives them her own spin.  I suppose you could argue that the song is pretentious and even a cynical attempt to replicate the success of "White Rabbit" and you might be right, but I still think it is a great song.  The emphasis on rebellion, sexual frustration, bodily functions, anti-war sentiment are all consistent with Slick's songwriting vision and the music is extraordinary - piano driven with Jack Casady's bass rumbling underneath and Slick's recorder for exotic instrumental color, this swirling hallucinogenic masterpiece is Slick's greatest musical moment.  There isn't another Airplane song like it, heck there are hardly any rock songs that are like it period.  It blends jazz, eastern music and rock brilliantly, a true synthesis.  Another unusual and interesting element on this record is that the songs flow into one another with generally seamless segues.  I believe this is one of the first rock records to be programmed this way, since it predates "We're Only In it For The Money," "The Who Sell Out," "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" and "Abbey Road."  The record is divided into five suites: "Streetmasse," "The War Is Over," "Hymn To An Older Generation," "How Suite It Is" and "Schizoforest Love Suite."   I don't think the songs are really connected thematically, but I like the flow of them, I think their juxtaposition gives them extra resonance just like the suite on "Abbey Road" did.  The record begins with the distorted roar of electric guitars and a blast of hard rock with Kantner's "Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil" which appears to have been written while he was tripping since it has some of the most psychedelic lyrics I've ever heard.  I love it.  The ensemble singing by Slick, Kantner and Balin is just breathtaking.  It is followed by a brief shot of self-indulgent nonsense with the cleverly titled "A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly" which is a jazzy and sporadically amusing instrumental.  The Kantner/Balin collaboration "Young Girl Sunday Blues" fuses Balin's romanticism with Kantner's psychedelicism with great success.  It boasts another set of evocative lyrics with a tune that feels like a sunny day in the park.  "Martha" is a quiet song with more trippy, but lovely lyrics and some very melodic bass playing from Casady.  It segues directly into the electric roar of "Wild Tyme (H)."  It is a thunderous song with some great guitar playing from Jorma Kaukonen over exuberant lyrics celebrating freedom and change, it is one of the best expressions of the philosophy behind the Summer of Love that I've ever heard.  Kaukonen's "The Last Wall of the Castle" sounds like it should be about revolution, but it is actually about a romantic relationship.  It is a very propulsive song with a lot of dynamic guitar work, Kaukonen's guitar howls like a cat in heat.  This frenzy resolves into the hypnotic allure of "rejoyce" to end the best side of vinyl in the Airplane canon.  Side two opens with "Watch Her Ride" which is another trippy love song from Kantner.  It is one of the more conventional songs on the record and has a nice sunny feel to it.  "Spare Chaynge" comes next and how you feel about this song will probably determine a lot about how you feel about this album.  It is a 9 minute instrumental jam between Casady, Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden and if you hate jams, well it may seem like "Revolution No. 9" to you.  I'm a huge Jack Casady fan, I think he's a genius and I love everything he plays.  For me this jam is wonderful, I just eat it up.  Casady's playing is truly inspired, Jorma can barely keep up with him.  Slick's "Two Heads" comes next and it is classic Gracie.  Hallucinogenic and sardonic at the same time, it is full of wonderful imagery and biting lines, along with a killer riff.  The album ends with the magnificent "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon."  The Airplane was justly celebrated for the incredible power of its vocalists and I would argue that this is the greatest example of their ability.  The triple vocal is outstanding, it soars and delivers a message of psychedelic bliss with extraordinary force and beauty.  It is a brilliant climax to a truly great album.  Lyrically and musically, this is the quintessential psychedelic record, rivaled only by the 13th Floor Elevators' "Easter Everywhere."  I consider it one of the great albums in the history of American popular music.  Recommended for people who want to experience the Summer of Love, "yellow clouds rising in the noon, acid, incense and balloons."  Won't you try? 

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Stone Poneys - The Stone Poneys

The Stone Poneys
The Stone Poneys
Capitol ST 2666
This is an original pressing of the Stone Poneys' debut album.  It would later be reissued to capitalize on Linda Ronstadt's stardom with her name on the cover.  Of the three Stone Poneys albums this is the only one that feels like it is the product of an actual group and not a Linda Ronstadt solo album.  The other two members of the group, Ken Edwards and Bob Kimmel, wrote most of the songs and their vocals are very prominent on the record.  Ronstadt gets some solo vocals, but many of the songs feature three part harmonies.  The record is basically folk-rock, although the emphasis is more on folk than rock.  My favorite song is the self-penned "Sweet Summer Blue and Gold" which was the single off the record.  It is a haunting little song with some nice ensemble singing from the trio.  I really like the band's version of the traditional song "Wild About My Lovin'" which is the most energetic song on the record, the charming vocal harmony reminds me of Ian and Sylvia.  Ken Edward's "Back Home" and Kimmel/Edwards' "Meredith (On My Mind)" are nice songs and the vocal interplay is very pleasant.  These four songs reveal the Stone Poneys as an above average folk-rock group with some potential.  There are signs of trouble though as well.  Edwards and Kimmel's "If I Were You," "All the Beautiful Things" and "Bicycle Song" are slight songs, enjoyable but forgettable.  The trio trade leads on "Train and The River" and when Ronstadt takes her turn at the microphone, it is hard not to wish she was singing the whole song instead.  Ronstadt sings Fred Neil's "Just A Little Bit of Rain" by herself and her big vocal really stands out.  It is easy to see why she attracted more interest as a solo singer than the group did.  Her solo vocals on the two songs by Tom Campbell, "Orion" and "2:10 Train" have star written all over them.  They are really good songs and she puts them over the top with her emotional vocals.  I like this album and appreciate Kimmel and Edwards' contribution, but you can hear that it was inevitable that Ronstadt was going to fly higher than them.  In the list of musicians credits she is credited with "pain and suffering" and that could not be more apt.  Her heartfelt vocals lift this genteel folk-rock to another level, the same way Sandy Denny transformed the folk-rock of Fairport Convention and Janis Joplin transformed the bluesy acid rock of Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Of course Fairport was a great band and Big Brother was a very good one, they both had a lot to offer and neither Denny nor Joplin were ever as good without them in my opinion.  The Stone Poneys without Ronstadt were a couple of folkies with guitars.  Ronstadt is the emotional and artistic core of a record that would never have been made without her.  She didn't need them and she went on to make better records without them.  Nonetheless I'm glad this record exists.  I like it better than many of her solo records although that is mostly because I have a thing for folk-rock and I don't really care much for the recycled rock and roll tunes she made a career covering as a solo artist.  This is a minor record to be sure, but it is sweet and sincere and I play it quite a bit.  Recommended for Peter, Paul and Mary fans who wish they weren't so full of themselves.

Imagine Our Love - Lavender Diamond

Imagine Our Love
Lavender Diamond
Matador OLE 752-1

I recently saw Lavender Diamond in concert.  It was a tremendous show, the band did a set of all new numbers, aside from the encore.  The new songs blew me away, I can hardly wait for them to put out a new album.  That was a real treat since I was wondering if Lavender Diamond would ever make music together again.  Inspired by the show, I've been playing this treasured LP quite a bit.  I never get tired of it.  Becky Stark is an extraordinary performer.  When I first started hearing her songs on the radio, I wondered if she was putting me on, if this was some sort of performance art type thing.  Her persona, a mixture of Melanie's hippie innocence with Cat Power's emotional vulnerability with Tori Amos' artistic integrity with Joni Mitchell's poetic insight on top of a set of pipes worthy of an opera singer, she just seemed too good to be true.  I was wrong though, she is definitely the real thing, an authentic musical treasure right here in plastic superficial Southern California.  She is such a dominating, overwhelming figure, I never really noticed how good the band was until I saw them live, particularly pianist Steve Gregoropoulos whose fluid solos are achingly beautiful.  There are only 3 guys in the band, but when they get going they really rock.  This is a great act, if they ever come to your town, you owe it to yourself to check them out.  If you don't leave the show with a giant smile on your face, then you have no heart.  As for this record, it ought to put a smile on your face as well.  If you just glance at the lyrics, the songs seem almost absurdly simple, yet when Stark sings them, they become powerful anthems.  I think Stark's strategy is to write basic, heartfelt songs that have a strong direct appeal to the listener promoting her message of the transcendent power of love.  Given that she studied Russian Literature and Semiotics at Brown University, I'm sure Stark is perfectly capable of writing complicated lyrics, but I think she has chosen to emphasize the heart over the brain, for me her songs are like hymns of hope and feeling.  In this age of irony and distance, this music has a special value to me.  It is not whiny emo or self-absorbed confessional music, it is an artist reaching out to the public with her message of fulfillment through being true to your heart.  There is a wide variety of music on this record.  There are sad, lovelorn songs like "Oh No" and "My Shadow Is A Monday."  There is exuberant sunshine pop like "Open Your Heart" and "Here Comes One" which are guaranteed to lift your spirits.  There is a country feel to "Garden Rose" and "Side of the Lord" the latter of which reveals Stark's feminist side and her ambivalence about religion.  I believe I read somewhere that her mother is a minister which makes sense when you listen to this song.  "Like an Arrow" sounds like a tribal dance song and even comes with dance instructions.  When I tried them out, I felt like one of the Supremes!  The sound of this album is consistently lovely.  "I'll Never Lie Again" has some exquisite string arrangements and the vocals on "Dance Until Tomorrow," "When You Wake For Certain" and the inspirational "Find A Way" are mesmerizingly gorgeous.  "Bring Me A Song" is my favorite song on the record.  Lines like "Bring me a song, Something to feel, Bring me a song, Please make it real" make this the ideal Lavender Diamond theme song.  I think Lavender Diamond is one of the most interesting new groups around and I'm so thrilled they are making music again.  Becky Stark is a true original.  Recommended to anyone who wants to open their heart with their mind (and ears).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Roots - The Everly Brothers

The Everly Brothers
Warner Bros.  WS 1752

My favorite Everly Brothers album.  I've listened to it a hundred times and I still love it.  It was their final studio album for Warner Bros. and arguably their last hurrah as major recording artists.  I like individual cuts on some of their later albums, but none of those records are really worthy of their greatness in their prime.  This album is a country rock masterpiece, one of the definitive statements in that genre.  I would say it is better than the Eagles' entire catalog, but that is like saying candy is better than poop.  It is a concept album as the Everlys explore the roots of their sound.  There are excerpts from a 1952 radio performance by the brothers with their parents that provides a foundation and gives some resonance to the modern songs they perform.  They only do a few really old songs, most of the songs are from modern songwriters but the record has a remarkable consistency of tone.  It is brilliantly arranged by the Everlys and Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels who also contributed the songs "Ventura Boulevard" and from the Brummels' "Bradley's Barn" album, "Turn Around."  As much as I like the Brummels' version, I think the Everlys' version is the winner.  The older songs are "Shady Grove," "Kentucky" and a jumping version of Jimmie Rodgers' "T For Texas" - with the trippy guitar and the driving beat you'd never guess the song was over 40 years old at the time they recorded it.  There are also some pretty trippy sounds on a return visit to their early hit, "I Wonder If I Care As Much."  I can't say that I prefer it to the original, but it is certainly interesting and fresh.  They perform two Merle Haggard songs, a powerful version of "Mama Tried" and a moving "Sing Me Back Home."  The Everlys' harmonies on Glen Campbell's "Less of Me" are gorgeous and the guitar playing on the cut is very memorable.  Some striking piano playing gives extra feeling to an evocative Randy Newman song, "Illinois."  That is followed by a haunting ballad "Living Too Close To the Ground" by Terry Slater who wrote most of their previous album "The Everly Brothers Sing" and played bass in their backing band.  (Weird rock trivia note: Slater would later become the manager and guru for a-ha.)  It is the most beautiful song on an album full of beautiful songs.  Ray Price's "You Done Me Wrong" gets some chamber pop flavor while still retaining its country essence.  That is the basic philosophy in the record, it is rarely straight country or country-rock.  There are all sorts of modern elements blended with the traditional flavor of the music, chamber pop style strings, psychedelic guitars, keyboards and interesting sound treatments.  It feels old yet sounds modern, a dazzling synthesis of style.  Throughout, the Everlys sing great with winning enthusiasm.  This is a tremendous record and yet it was a flop, outsold by the likes of Paul Mauriat, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66, Bobby Goldsboro and the Irish Rovers.  I can't even imagine how disappointing it must have been to make such a wonderful record and have no one care.  At least in recent years the record has gotten some of the recognition it deserves but too late to really do the Everlys much good.  How different their career might have been if in 1968 this record had been recognized as the classic album that it is.  Recommended for people who think country rock sucks, don't judge it on the basis of the stuff that came out of L.A., this is the real deal.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reflections - Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross and the Supremes
Motown 665

I was a big Motown fan as young teen.  The first record I ever bought was a Jackson 5 single and one of the first non-Beatles albums I bought was Diana Ross and the Supremes' "Greatest Hits" which I played all the time.  As I got older, I lost my appetite for Motown preferring the grittier sound of the Atlantic and Stax soul artists.  By the time "The Big Chill" came out and made Motown popular again I was thoroughly fed up with most of their music, aside from Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.  That hasn't changed all that much, I still don't play my Motown albums very often.  I do have a soft spot for the Supremes though.  Like most of the Motown artists, the group is best served by comps, none of their albums are essential, all of the ones I own have too much filler.  This is one of the better ones though.  It was a transitional album, the beginning of the end in some respects.  Original Supreme Florence Ballard was being forced out of the group.  Her replacement, Cindy Birdsong is on the cover of the record.  The record marks the end of the group's collaboration with Holland-Dozier-Holland who had been largely responsible for their sound and their hits.  They deliver several excellent songs on their swansong with the group including "In and Out of Love" and "I Can't Make It Alone" which recall the classic Supremes sound and a couple of more modern sounding numbers in "Forever Came Today" and "Reflections" which foreshadow the future sound of the group.  Side one of this record is first rate, one of my favorite Motown sides.  There is not a bad song on it, 3 memorable hit singles in "Reflections," "Forever Came Today" and "In and Out of Love" plus "I'm Going To Make It," "I Can't Make It Alone" and the passionate Brenda Holloway composition "Bah-Bah-Bah."  Unfortunately side two is the usual filler crap.  I like Diana Ross, but I think she is very limited as a singer.  What she does, she does really well, but she is not very versatile.  Side two is full of lackluster covers where she gets soundly trounced.  Jackie DeShannon's version of "What The World Needs Now is Love" is infinitely superior to the cover offered here.  Ross just sounds bored on it.  Dionne Warwick did it much better as well.  The Supremes lose to both the Fifth Dimension and the Sunshine Company when they tackle "Up, Up and Away."  Somehow they manage to suck all the life out of that normally exuberant song.  Labelmate Martha Reeves (who really can sing) gets bragging rights on "Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)."  The cover of "Ode To Billie Joe" is practically embarrassing.  Fortunately Smokey Robinson salvages the side with two terrific songs, "Then" and "Misery Makes It's Home In My Heart."  The man was unquestionably the greatest songwriter to come out of Motown, and yes that includes Michael Jackson.  Eight good songs out of twelve is a pretty decent ratio, especially for a Motown album.  Unless you have a thing for the Supremes you probably don't need this record but I think most 60s pop music fans will find something worthwhile on it.  Recommended for people who are tired of hearing the same old Motown hits over and over again.

Happy Trails - Quicksilver Messenger Service

Happy Trails
Quicksilver Messenger Service
Capitol  ST-120

The second album by Quicksilver Messenger Service with another excellent cover by Globe Propaganda.  I had it on display in my room for many years.  I bought it at Tower Records in Berkeley around 1979.  When I read the description of it in "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock" by Logan and Woffinden as one of "the best examples of the San Francisco sound at its purest" I had to have it.  I was obsessed with the San Francisco sound at the time and I wasn't disappointed.  I spent many an evening listening to this record through my headphones in my dark room with just a few candles for a light show imagining what it must have been like watching them at the Fillmore or the Avalon Ballroom.  I don't listen to it too much anymore but when I do, I still feel that magic.  Side One is devoted to a 25 minute live version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love."  Thanks to bootlegs and archival releases there are numerous other versions of Quicksilver's various performances of this song, but this is still my favorite.  I even like the bass solo and the audience participation/percussion solo section and that's pretty rare for me.  The guitar interplay between John Cippolina and Gary Duncan is dazzling.  I'm not a big fan of long jams, but this one really goes places.  It is so dynamic and propulsive that when it is finally over I still want more.  Side two is just as good.  It kicks off with another live Bo Diddley cover, "Mona."  It is a lot shorter, maybe too short.  It has a great bass riff courtesy of David Freiberg that provides a solid framework for some exciting flights by the guitarists.  Just a killer song, it could go on for the rest of the record as far as I'm concerned.  Instead it segues into Gary Duncan's stately "Maiden of The Cancer Moon" which sounds like the soundtrack to a spaghetti western.  It features more inspired guitar work.  It in turn segues into another western-themed song, the 13 minute "Calvary."  Like the previous song it is an instrumental (although there is some dialogue of sorts) but it has a wider variety of moods and textures.  It is basically the rock equivalent to classical program music, I believe it is the psychedelic soundscape of a battle between Native Americans and U. S. Calvary troops or something of that nature.  I can't really think of another song that is even remotely like it, it rocks too hard and is too trippy to be prog-rock, yet it is more structured and coherent than most psychedelic epics.  I imagine it must be what it is like watching a John Ford movie on acid.  The swirling sonic frenzy eventually calms and segues into a cover of Dale Evans' "Happy Trails" ending a brilliant album.  It is easily the best record Quicksilver ever recorded, only their debut even comes close.  It is also one of the best albums to come out of San Francisco and one of the best acid rock albums ever.  Recommended for Ennio Morricone fans who dig Bo Diddley.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

This Is Jackie De Shannon - Jackie De Shannon

This Is Jackie De Shannon
Jackie DeShannon
Imperial LP 12286

Jackie De Shannon is one of my favorite singers.  I suppose most casual music fans can get by with a good comp of hers, but I have most of her Imperial albums and think they are all worthwhile.  This was De Shannon's third album.   It features one of her most famous hits, "What The World Needs Now is Love" which was written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  They are also responsible for "A Lifetime of Loneliness" which is a terrific song as well.  The powerful arrangements and the dramatic vocal perfomances combine with some very memorable lyrics to produce the two best songs on the record.  JDS was an excellent songwriter in her own right and has credits on three of the better songs on this album, "Am I Making It Hard On You," "Hellos and Goodbyes" and "I Remember The Boy."  The latter song is particularly fine, a mix of folk-rock and swelling romantic ballad, it really sends me.  "I'm Gonna Be Strong" builds nicely with a stirring vocal from JDS that is reminiscent of Timi Yuro or Gene Pitney (who in fact had a hit single with the song.)  This performance demonstrates her chops as a singer.  "After Last Night" is a charming romantic song with a girl group flavor.  The rest of the album is pretty ordinary.  "Take Me Away" is by Randy Newman although I would never would have guessed that.  It is a pretty song but loaded with romantic cliches.  Despite its corniness, JDS sings it with such conviction that she makes it a lot better than it really is.  "Take Me Tonight" is an old fashioned ballad, it sounds like something from the late 1950s or early 1960s.  She sings it quite well, but it is not really my thing especially with the heavy strings and the sappy background chorus.  The strings and chorus are back on "Go On Your Way" but it is a meatier song and De Shannon's earthy vocal reminds me of Ray Charles or Janis Joplin.  She actually takes on Ray Charles covering his version of "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" and does a credible job, but as much as I like her I know she is not going to top Charles.  I like her dramatic version of "Summertime" but it also seems pretty pointless, there are so many other versions.  Even with lesser material, JDS is such a good singer that I never get bored or impatient with this record.  She sings with so much feeling and style that I always find something to appeal to me with every song.  Recommended to Bacharach/David fans who wish that Dionne Warwick sang more like Ray Charles.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Readings by Jack Kerouac on The Beat Generation - Jack Kerouac

Readings By Jack Kerouac on The Beat Generation
Jack Kerouac
Rhino  RI 70939-C

This is the third album in the "Jack Kerouac Collection" box set.  It was originally released on Verve and was Kerouac's final record.  Unlike the other two albums Kerouac recorded, there is no musical accompaniment for his readings.  It is just his voice and the occasional rustle of pages, which is kind of ironic since this is his most musical set of texts.  Jazz figures prominently in the excerpts from "The Subterraneans" and "Desolation Angels" and it is the subject of "The Beginnings of Bop."  I really miss the music even though I had problems with it on the other albums.  It is a bit like watching a silent movie without music, it feels incomplete.  Although somewhat clumsy, Kerouac is a fairly melodic reader, he even semi-sings in places and his voice is stimulating and engaging, but I still think a little music to fill the spaces and give some momentum to the reading would be a nice addition.  I'm not sure why they eschewed music on this album, but I must admit there is some appeal in listening to these unadorned readings.  It is a more intimate experience and it is easier to concentrate on the words.  The texts themselves are the best of the three records, full of dazzling word play that invites some of Kerouac's most inspired readings, particularly on "Visions of Neal: Neal and the Three Stooges."  His enthusiasm and passion is very captivating.  This is arguably the most faithful translation of Kerouac's style into sound.  Recommended for tone-deaf hipsters. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina - The Left Banke

Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina
The Left Banke
Smash MGS 27088

The Left Banke did not invent chamber pop but I think there is little doubt that this is the definitive chamber pop album (or as the liner notes label it, "baroque" pop.)  I think its only real competition would be the Zombie's "Odessey and Oracle" and this one came first.  1967 was the greatest year in pop music in my opinion, so many wonderful albums came out that year, but I would assert that of all those albums, this one is among the freshest and least dated.  It has influenced countless modern indie rock bands from Belle and Sebastian to the Ladybug Transistor and I think it is just as relevant and meaningful now as the day it was issued.  The album begins with my favorite of all their songs, "Pretty Ballerina."  The song is driven by a hypnotic piano line by Michael Brown supplemented by the drone of a tasteful string arrangement and a nice oboe solo.  Steve Martin's delicate and tender vocal helps make this one of the most beautiful songs of its era.  It is followed by "She May Call You Up Tonight" which sticks to conventional rock instrumentation, but the interplay between Brown's piano and the jangly folk-rock style guitar has a baroque feel.  The song features some stunning vocal harmonies singing the memorable lyrics of jealousy and unrequited love.  With both a lute and a harpsichord, the baroque sound is heavy on the extraordinary "Barterers and Their Wives."  This courtly song's lyrics attacking businessmen are gorgeously sung by Martin, George Cameron and Tom Finn.  It demonstrates how distinctive and unique the group's music was.  "I've Got Something On My Mind" continues in the same vein with a harpsichord and strings supporting another delicate vocal of frustrated romance.  Brown switches to a clavinet for "Let Go Of You Girl" and group members, Rick Brand, Cameron and Finn are finally allowed to play after being replaced by session men for most of the album.  It is the only song on the album that features the band pictured on the cover.  It is a simple pop song with banal lyrics, but the sophisticated vocals and the clavinet raise it to a higher level.  Brown uses both an electric piano and a harpsichord on the rollicking and sexy "Evening Gown" which demonstates that Martin was also adept at rocking out.  It may be the hardest rocking song ever to mention butlers, parlor doors and evening gowns and contradicts the stereotype that the Left Banke was a wimpy band.  Side two kicks off with the song that is primarily responsible for that wimpy stereotype, the eternal classic "Walk Away Renee."  Dominated by strings and harpsichord with a flute solo, the song's weepy lyrics of heartbreak and unrequited love are sung in high quavering vocals, it is both a quintessential landmark for chamber pop and twee indie rock.  If you have a problem with that, this is not the blog for you.  I worship this song and all it has wrought.  "What Do You Know" takes a very different direction.  It is country rock featuring a rare lead vocal by Michael Brown, it is one of the odder songs in the Left Banke catalog.  It is not all that great, but it is indicative of the band's versatility.  The opening strings of "Shadows Breaking Over My Head" signal a return to normalcy.  This is one of the prettiest and most haunting songs on the album.  "I Haven't Got the Nerve" is the only song not written by Michael Brown on the album, it was written by George Cameron and Steve Martin and they share the lead vocal as well.  Brown plays a mambo/samba style riff on the harpsichord which works surprisingly well.  The record ends with "Lazy Day" which features original group guitarist Jeff Winfield playing some stinging fuzz guitar, no chamber pop here, this is as close as the Left Banke got to playing straight ahead rock and roll.  This is a great record, one of my all time faves.  Recommended to lovelorn music students.

Procol Harum - Procol Harum

Procol Harum
Procol Harum
Deram   DES 18009

The debut album by Procol Harum.  When I was much younger, I really liked Procol Harum.  I liked that their music was complicated, I thought it was clever that they borrowed from Bach for their hit and I thought that it was cool that Keith Reid's lyrics were almost impossible to make any sense of.  Then I grew up.  I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with having an outside lyricist, Robert Hunter and Brian Wilson's various collaborators come to mind, but I do consider it a troubling sign when an artist has nothing to say.  It is an even more troubling sign when the outside lyricist is more fond of surreal wordplay then saying anything much either.  It is even worse when two of his songs on an album feature references to Neptune (the god not the planet.)  As far as major bands go, I consider Reid's lyrics to be the most pretentious and irritating in the history of rock.  I don't normally judge bands too severely for their lyrics, if the music is good I don't mind stupid or banal lyrics all that much, it is rock and roll, no one is expecting poetry.  If I do get something like poetry, hopefully it is good and still has an emotional impact like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith.  I think the best lyricists reach me on a direct emotional level while also making me think, people like Richard Thompson, Thom Yorke, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Tori Amos.  I respect authenticity and sincerity.  What I dislike are lyrics that are so obscure that I need to study a lyric sheet to even begin to figure them out, like Keith Reid's lyrics.  By definition that is not popular music.  I've never heard a Procol Harum song that had any emotional effect on me aside from perhaps "A Salty Dog."  That said, I still find this album sporadically enjoyable.  "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is practically beyond criticism.  That entrancing Bachian organ line is irresistible to me and Gary Brooker could be singing absolute nonsense (although lines like "if behind is in front then dirt in truth is clean" come pretty close to nonsense) and I would still enjoy this song.  It is certainly one of the odder classic hit singles in the history of rock and kudos to the the Procols for pulling it off.  The only other song on here that I really like a lot is "Conquistador" and this version sounds naked without the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra driving it.  "She Wandered Through the Garden Fence" is a jaunty tune with a nice organ solo but I don't see why the first verse needs to be repeated, it doesn't make any more sense the second time around.  "Something Following Me" is a dreary little tune about death notable only for some nice heavy guitar work.  "Mabel" is the song I most dislike, a shambling music hall type number with morbid lyrics, it reminds me of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" which if you read my entry on "Abbey Road" you'll know is not a compliment.  "Cerdes (outside the gates of)" as you can probably tell from the stupid title, is Keith Reid at his most self-indulgent with its references to unicorns and rhinestoned flugelhorns.  I would hate it were it not for the heaviness of the music with some blistering guitar work from Robin Trower.  "A Christmas Camel" is just as bad, a steady stream of verbal diarrhea rescued by the music.  How exactly does a sheik impersonate a hot dog stand anyway?  The piano hook seems to be lifted from Bob Dylan's "Ballad of A Thin Man" and the rest of the tune seems very influenced by Dylan as well.  I'm fond of J. S. Bach, but when it comes to rocking, I think you are better off copying Dylan.  "Kaleidoscope" is a nice rocker with more befuddled lyrics.  Reid's protagonists are so frequently disoriented that I suspect he must have spent a lot of time drunk or high, either that or he was easily confused. "Salad Days (are here again)" is a compelling majestic tune, I really enjoy the organ work, almost enough to ignore lines like "the sun seeps through the window to see if we're still dead."  Since it has no words "Repent Walpurgis" ought to be one of the best songs on the record, but I find it pretty boring, the most prog-rockish tune on the album.  I have a lot of problems with this record, but on the rare occasions that I play it, I do find it mildly engaging.  The lyrics may be annoying, but they are different at least and the music may be proggy, but it does rock as well.  Recommended for poetry majors with a taste for organ music.