Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Best of the Animals - The Animals

The Best of the Animals
The Animals
MGM  E-4324
This is yet another premature comp and a pretty skimpy one at that with only 11 cuts.  It covers the Animals' first three American albums encompassing the entire era when Mickie Most was their producer.  There is nothing from "Animalism" or "Animalization," their final two albums before breaking up.  Nonetheless when I feel like hearing the Animals, this is the album I generally reach for.  It has all of my favorite songs from them except for "Inside Looking Out."  It features both sides of the group, the earthy purveyors of rhythm and blues and the skilled craftsmen delivering passionate versions of commercial pop songs.  I prefer the latter facet of the group which is represented on this album by their classic singles "It's My Life" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."  "It's My Life" was written by Carl D'Errico and Roger Atkins who also wrote "No Excess Baggage" by the Yardbirds.  The lyrics describe the aspirations of an ambitious lower class guy determined to make his fortune any way possible including ripping off wealthy women who are attracted to him.  The song's naked aggression, bold statement of independence and blatant misogyny recall the Rolling Stones, but instead of the cynicism and decadence of Jagger's persona, Eric Burdon offers up a desperate and urgent vocal that makes the song extraordinarily compelling.  Musically the song is different from the Animals' usual sound.  When Alan Price was in the group, his organ generally drove the songs, but the keyboard is in the background on this song.  It is steered by Hilton Valentine's jangly guitar line echoed by Chas Chandler's heavy bass riff.  "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" is my favorite Animals song.  It was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil but Burdon sings it with so much feeling that you'd think it was coming straight from his heart.  I consider it the pinnacle of his career and one of the great pop performances of the 1960s.  He starts slow and the vocal gradually builds in intensity before he cuts loose in an awesome display of passion.  I don't know of another song from that era that so effectively conveys feelings of class struggle and oppression.  Musically the song is dominated by a mesmerizing bass riff from Chandler with strong support from Valentine on guitar and Dave Rowberry's wailing organ.  This album features a different take of the song than the one found on British imports and a lot of modern comps.  I believe that this is a superior version.  The other highlight on this album for me is the unedited version of "House of The Rising Sun" which features an extra verse and a more expansive organ solo than on the single.  This was the first Animals song I ever heard and it blew me away as a young teen with its great guitar riff and Burdon's howling vocal.  I'd never heard anything like it and even now it still impresses me.  Another standout cut is "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" which was originally recorded by Nina Simone.  Burdon's anguished vocal and the strong instrumental treatment by the band trounce the original version not to mention the disco version by Santa Esmeralda which I regarded as sacrilege when it came out.  "I'm Crying" is by Burdon and Price and is the only original song on the album.  The group's dependence on outside songwriters was arguably their greatest weakness compared to the top groups in the British Invasion.  The trite lyrics in this song do little to dispel that. although musically it is very dynamic and propulsive.  The rest of the cuts on the album are covers of rhythm and blues songs.  They are derivative by nature, but Burdon's vocals are very convincing.  My favorite is "Gonna Send You Back To Walker" which was originally recorded by Timmy Shaw as "Gonna Send You Back To Georgia."  I never understood the name change until I found out that Walker was the section of Newcastle where Burdon was born.  It is a swinging number with a smoking hot organ solo from Price.  I also like the two John Lee Hooker numbers, "Boom Boom" and "I'm Mad."  The former is one of their catchiest songs with a soaring chorus section.  I'm mystified why it wasn't a bigger hit.  "I'm Mad" boasts a typically powerful organ solo from Price and some of Valentine's most exciting guitar work.  There are more complete Animals compilations out there, but because of its brevity, this is a perfect album.  No song is less than very good and several are great.  It is non-stop classic and essential music.  Recommended for people who wish that Eric Burdon had never spent any nights in San Francisco.

Monday, May 21, 2012

You Were On My Mind - We Five

You Were On My Mind
We Five
A&M SP 4111

I first encountered this record in my stepmother's record collection.  The folk-rock title tune had an enormous impact on me.  Along with the Byrds' albums "Greatest Hits" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" it made me a huge folk-rock fan.  I became obsessed with the jangly sound of the twelve string electric guitar that was the foundation of folk-rock.  The song (which was composed by Sylvia Fricker) also led me to Ian and Sylvia whose albums remain to this day a treasured part of my record collection.  I played the song over and over until I had it memorized.  With its ringing guitar, hooky bass line, crisp drumming and charming vocal harmonies, I still find it irresistible.  I didn't care for most of the rest of the album though.  I imagine that most people who bought the record on the basis of the single probably felt the same way.  The vast majority of the album isn't folk-rock at all, the band did not even have a drummer (a session drummer is used on a few tracks.)  The album consists largely of easy listening type tunes.  Take away the electric guitar and you have a Sandpipers album.  That is why when I left home, I didn't take this record with me and it probably ended up in a landfill somewhere.  I bought this particular copy many years later, mostly out of nostalgia.  I like it better now then I did when I was a teenager.  Aside from the electric guitar (which actually is only prominent on a handful of tracks) the prime attraction on the album is Beverly Bivens' big voice which calls to mind Judith Durham of the Seekers.  Still there is not much she can do with the group's mundane arrangements of show tunes like "My Favorite Things," "Small World," and "Tonight."  Their version of "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" is truly weird.  For some bizarre reason, it is played in the style of surf-rock which shows how horrible "Porgy and Bess" would be if performed by Jan and Dean.  The group fares a little better with standards like "Somewhere Beyond the Sea" and "Softly As I Leave You" and I especially like their folk-rock style version of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" which has been one of my favorite songs since I was a little kid.  There is also a quasi-flamenco style take on the sappy Elvis Presley chestnut "Can't Help Falling In Love" that gives the song some drama and tension that I find more appealing than the original's mushiness.  Aside from the title track all the best songs come from John Stewart (of "Daydream Believer" fame) who was the brother of Mike Stewart who was the leader of the group.  "Love Me Not Tomorrow" is an atmospheric tune with a passionate vocal from Bivens.  The two Stewart brothers collaborated on "If I Were Alone" which is my favorite song on the album after the title track.  It features elaborate folk-style harmonies, a propulsive melody and a lively electric guitar line running through it.  The album concludes with John Stewart's "I Can Never Go Home Again" which reminds me of Ian and Sylvia with its chugging acoustic guitars and pleasing vocal interplay between the male singers and Bivens.  It gives the album a strong finish.  Even though I'm fond of this record, I'm a bit hesitant to actually recommend it.  Much of my attraction to it comes from my long history with it and the early influence it held over me.  I do think parts of it are genuinely good and I don't think any of it is truly awful.  If you have a taste for 1960s soft-rock or folk-pop, I imagine you will find stuff to like here and the title tune is essential for folk-rock fans.  Recommended for people who dig the Seekers and Peter, Paul and Mary but wish they didn't sing so many old folk songs.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Excitable Boy - Warren Zevon

Excitable Boy
Warren Zevon
Asylum  6E-118

I went to a Dawes show last year.  I'm not a big fan of the band (although I like them for the most part), I really went because I was curious about what makes them tick.  I find it hard to believe that a group would listen to Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash and decide to make music inspired by them.  That seems weird even for a bunch of kids from Malibu.  I was unfortunate enough to have grown up during both the singer/songwriter heyday and the Los Angeles/Laurel Canyon 1970s rock scene when people actually thought that J. D. Souther and the Eagles were not only talented but cool as well.  The only thing that music ever inspired in me was a desire to go back to the 1960s.  I did enjoy Dawes' set though.  At one point they brought out their hero, Jackson Browne, and I grimaced expecting them to lay into "The Pretender" or something of that ilk, but to Browne's credit he did a Warren Zevon cover instead.  When he came back out for the encore he did another Zevon song as well!  Kudos to Browne for being humble and for paying tribute to one of the few worthwhile artists to emerge from that scene.  That show got me to pull out my Zevon albums and start playing them again.  This one is my favorite, a true masterpiece.  If you look at the credits on this album, you'd think you were looking at a Linda Ronstadt album or something.  It is produced by Browne and Waddy Wachtel backed up by a bunch of Los Angeles sessionmen like Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar and Russell Kunkel as well as ex-Stone Poney, Kenny Edwards.  Ronstadt herself even sings back-up on the title tune and Browne and J. D. Souther sing on several cuts as well.  The musical sound of the album is mellow and smooth for the most part, like the trademark L. A. sound of that era which does undercut the force of the songs.  Zevon comes up with memorable riffs on songs like "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," "Werewolves Of London," and "Lawyers, Guns and Money."  If he was backed up by an actual rock band instead of these jaded studio pros, the songs would probably have a lot more bite.  "Werewolves of London" is a bit of an exception.  It is boistered by Zevon's rollicking piano playing and the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section, guys who know how to rock out from their days working for Peter Green.  All the song really needs to put it over the top is some heavy crunchy guitar, but that is hardly Wachtel's forte, although he briefly gives it a try.  Despite the slick studio sound, no one is going to mistake this for a Jackson Browne album.  Zevon sings with a rough gravelly voice that gives the songs an edge and then there is his lyrical vision, which rivals Richard Thompson in its darkness, originality and toughness.  There is really no song from that era remotely like "Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner."  It is weird but not gratuitously weird like Frank Zappa or Alice Cooper, it is straight forward and realistic, at least as realistic as a song can be that is about a Norwegian mercenary in Africa who gets decapitated by a comrade at the behest of the C.I.A. and whose headless body goes on a vengeful killing spree around the world.  There is also "Werewolves of London" which is probably Zevon's most famous song.  It could have been a novelty song with its humor and lupine howling, but the intelligence and viciousness in the lyrics lift it to another level.  "Excitable Boy" is a sarcastic song about a young psychopath.  "Veracruz" is a serious song about the 1914 American occupation of that Mexican city written from the point of view of one of the defenders.  "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is about a rich kid who gets into trouble with a Russian spy in Cuba and asks his father to bail him out.  Of course not every song on here is so exotic and esoteric.  "Accidentally Like A Martyr" is a poetic song about heartbreak and "Tenderness On the Block" depicts a young woman coming of age and discovering love.  I don't really get "Nighttime In the Switching Yard" which is a funky song that borders on disco.  It is the closest thing to a throwaway filler type song on the album although it does have a good beat and you can dance to it which is more than you can say for any James Taylor record.  As much as I hated the era that this album came out of, I have to admit that if it was able to develop and nurture an artist of Zevon's stature it couldn't have been all bad.  Recommended for Jackson Browne fans who wish he had a sense of humor.         

Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Pick On Me - Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White - The Standells

Why Pick On Me - Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White
The Standells
Tower T 5004

I discovered the Standells via my purchase of the "Nuggets" vinyl comp when I was in high school.  Their version of "Dirty Water" on that album was one of my favorite tracks.  I'm the happy owner of the three proper studio albums they cut for Tower (I don't count the one of cover songs although I have that too.)  I have to admit that all three are far from essential although each of them contains some essential music, especially if you dig garage bands.  That's my convoluted way of saying most people should just pick up a Standells comp.  Nonetheless if you are adventurous enough to seek this out, you will probably find stuff you like on it.  I consider the two title songs to be among the best tracks the band ever did.  Both songs were written by the album's producer Ed Cobb (who also wrote "Dirty Water") and were released as singles.  Neither cracked the top 40 but they are better than a lot of songs that did in 1966.  "Why Pick On Me" has a slightly Middle Eastern feel in its verses but the choruses are pure soaring garage.  "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" is a rollicking song with a chugging riff and a driving beat sure to get your head bopping.  The band's drummer, Dick Dodd, delivers the lyrics with a sneer as he defends his humble background against his girlfriend's parents' upper class prejudices.  It is a classic song with a powerful rebellious edge.  Nothing else on the album is as good as the two singles although there are some worthy songs.  My favorite is Larry Tamblyn's "Mr. Nobody" which attacks a guy trying to make a move on his girl friend.  With its fuzz guitar riffs and edgy vocal, garage buffs should eat it up.  Tamblyn also contributes "The Girl and The Moon" which is a romantic pop song.  It doesn't rock but I like the swelling chorus that reminds me of the Turtles.  Glenn Houle's "Black Hearted Woman" is gritty and bluesy with stinging guitar lines.  "Mainline" is slightly bubble-gummy but the band goes after it with a hard rock attack that makes it worthwhile.  The rest of the album is mostly forgettable.  The covers of "Paint It Black" and "My Little Red Book" are faithful to the versions by the Rolling Stones and Love, almost to the point of slavish imitation, they are competent but pointless.  "Have You Ever Spent The Night In Jail" proves that Ed Cobb was merely human and not some garage band god.  It is a dreary folk-style song that ends the album on a down note.  Guitarist Tony Valentino's "Mi Hai Fatto Innamorare" is the oddest song on the album, about as unlikely a track as you will ever find on a garage band album.  It is sung by Valentino in Italian and is driven by a mandolin and some cheesy organ riffs over a rock and roll beat.  I have no idea why it is on the record, perhaps as a novelty song or maybe Valentino (who was born and raised in Italy) was trying to impress his parents or something.  This is a very inconsistent album, but by the standards of 1966 six good cuts on an album is above average, especially for a garage band.  It is debatable whether the Standells were truly a garage band, but they produced enough classic garage-style tunes that I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  They are better than most of the bands that you will hear on "Pebbles" or "Nuggets" type comps largely because of the quality of the songwriting and because these guys could really play.  Recommended for people who think Paul Revere and The Raiders ought to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I think the Standells belong there too.)