Sunday, November 24, 2013
The Guess Who
As a teenager I was a fan of these guys, I even liked "Clap For The Wolfman," a song that now makes me wince. This was my favorite of their studio albums although I rarely listen to it (or any of their other records) anymore. I can't remember why I liked them so much back then but I've always been a sucker for a good riff which was guitarist Randy Bachman's forte. He left after this album eventually forming the riff-happy Bachman-Turner Overdrive another band I really liked back then. The album kicks off with the title track which was a massive hit. I loved the song as a kid, such a compelling riff, but the grown-up me has problems with its misogyny and anti-American lyrics. As I've mentioned in past posts, I'm a huge Canadaphile. I love it up there in the Great White North, but I still resent it when a bunch of jackasses from Winnipeg come down here and start ragging on the people buying their records and making them rich. Furthermore blaming women for the American military industrial complex and institutionalized poverty makes as much sense as blaming Haiti for global warming. This is an obnoxious song that makes the band sound like a bunch of sexist yokels. Unfortunately it is also insanely catchy and powerful which has kept it on classic rock radio for more than 40 years. The entire band gets songwriting credit for "American Woman," but the next song "No Time" is written by Bachman and lead vocalist Burton Cummings who paired up to write all the rest of the songs on the album except "Humpty's Blues" which is another group composition. "No Time" is less offensive than "American Woman" but just as obnoxious. It is a callous kiss off to a lover of the so-long-babe-I-gotta-ramble variety only crueler. Despite its vicious tone the song is melodic and musically pleasant with another catchy riff that helped make it the second hit single off the album. "Talisman" is a respite from riffs and misogyny. It is a slow moody song played on an acoustic guitar with a piano emerging at the end playing some lovely lines. Its trippy lyrics represent the point of view of Native Americans. Bachman's "No Sugar Tonight" is blended with Cummings' "New Mother Nature" to close out the first side. This is my favorite part of the album. I've always liked the little acoustic guitar run that opens the song and reappears in the segue between the two songs. The rest of the tune is driven by hard rock riffing. The sugar in Bachman's song refers to sex and Cummings' tune is more about dope than ecology. Side two kicks off with Bachman's "969 (The Oldest Man)" which is an instrumental. It starts out rocking with plenty of bluesy guitar runs and then slows down for a flute solo from Cummings. It is kind of weird but I like it and at least there are no dumb lyrics to annoy me. "When Friends Fall Out" has the same odd heavy/light dichotomy. Most of the song is driven by a slow heavy riff played on a fuzz guitar but the center and end of the song revert to a very poppy and melodic passage reminiscent of the Association. "8:15" is a fast tempo song with a hard driving guitar line and a percussion-based instrumental break in the center and at the end. The song's alluring mixture of rock power and pop accessibility provide me with a clue of why I liked these guys so much back in the 1970s. "Proper Stranger" features a return to heaviness with a sluggish fuzzy riff and a get-down growling vocal from Cummings as he intones feelings of alienation and confusion living in the big city. Time to get back to Winnipeg, kid. The album ends with the heaviest tune of all "Humpty's Blues" which is a straight blues dominated by Cummings' screechy vocal and harmonica playing supported by a lethargic guitar solo. At the end of the song there is a brief reprise of the acoustic part of "American Woman" from the beginning of the song which has a nice bookend effect for the album. I'm starting to remember why I used to like this record and this group, they definitely knew how to rock a riff and had enough pop smarts to stand out among the bland hard rock of the early 1970s. If the lyrics on this record were smarter (or nicer) I'd probably still be playing it. Recommended to Steppenwolf fans who have issues with their girlfriends.
Friday, November 15, 2013
I've never liked Jackson Browne yet somehow in the past few years I've seen him live three times and enjoyed his performance each time. I saw him cover Warren Zevon at a Dawes show, I saw him cover the Everly Brothers with Jenny Lewis and the Beach Boys with Dawes at the tribute to Glen Campbell at the Hollywood Bowl and most recently I saw him do a guest spot with My Morning Jacket down in Irvine. He did a Dylan song and "Late for the Sky" off this album. Having the best live band in the world back up Browne is like hiring Wolfgang Puck to make the pizza for your little kid's birthday party, but boy did it sound great. Despite all this I haven't changed my mind about Browne, I still find him kind of boring. I was a teenager during his heyday and despised him, lumping him in with James Taylor and the Eagles and that whole 1970s singer/songwriter scene as well as the laid back Southern California country rockers that I blamed for ruining rock. That was unfair to him, he was more talented than those guys and when I was in college I softened a bit and bought some of his albums in bargain bins and garage sales. Most of them now sit on my purgatory shelf while I decide whether I really want to keep them. The only one I ever liked much was "Running On Empty" because it was relatively rough and even rocked a little. However if I had to name his best album, I'd probably select this one even though I rarely play it. The most striking thing about it is the cover which I think is one of the best ones of its era. Browne's biggest asset is his lyric writing which is evident in the opening track, "Late For The Sky" which is the best song on the album. It is a stunning portrait of alienation and a disintegrating relationship delivered with a mournful country rock tune. I don't think Browne is a good singer, but in this case he expresses considerable feeling and I find his performance more moving than usual. David Lindley's guitar solo is very expressive as well. "Fountain of Sorrow" covers a lot of the same ground but it is not quite so bleak. The song is more uptempo as well, pushed along by Jai Winding's energetic piano lines. Browne's vocal is typically bland, I have to force myself to pay attention to the words. The song goes on too long, I lose interest before it peters out. "Farther On" is very introspective as Browne examines the role of music and dreams in his life and persistence in the face of perpetual failure. It is a lovely song, but it hardly has any tune and is largely carried by Browne's vocal which just makes me wish someone else was singing. Side one ends with "The Late Show" which is another relationship song that stresses the importance and difficulty of relating to another person with honesty and openness. It is more mournful country rock, but Browne's dreary vocal makes the song sound more whiny than confessional. The Eagles-ish harmonies from the background singers (who include J. D. Souther and Don Henley, yuck) don't help any. Side two kicks off with the only song on the album that could be considered a rocker, "The Road and the Sky." The song uses the metaphor of a road trip to examine themes of fulfillment and freedom. It is propulsive enough to keep me from getting bored and even has a little guitar noise. It figures that the most musically stimulating song on the album is also the shortest one. "For A Dancer" is a eulogy for a dead friend that touches on the meaning of existence as well. It has one of the better melodies on the record and a lovely fiddle solo from Lindley, but it is ultimately undermined by Browne's dull vocal. "Walking Slow" is a light song by Browne's standards in which he takes a stroll feeling good although he also takes a little time to mention his relationship troubles as well. It has an appropriately punchy and jaunty tune, but Browne's vocal is hopelessly stiff. The album finishes with "Before the Deluge" which is a depressing song about the futility of human life in the face of the apocalypse as well as the disillusionment of youthful hippie idealism as his generation grows older with a little ecological rage thrown in as well. Musically it is the usual tedium until the final section where the chorus and Lindley's fiddle give the song some much needed vitality. I admire Browne's songwriting ability, he writes intelligently and expresses himself with vulnerability and sincerity, but as a performer, I just can't relate to him. I think the decisive cross-references with Browne are Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. Mitchell also writes deeply personal and highly poetic songs often with minimal musical accompaniment but she is a world class singer who can bring out the feelings in the words. Paul Simon isn't that much more expressive as a singer than Browne, but he writes memorable melodies that enhance his songs which is something that Browne can't do with any consistency. Recommended to Bruce Springsteen fans who like his slow songs better than his fast ones.
Friday, November 8, 2013
I saw the Go-Go's play at the Hollywood Bowl last summer. It was the classic line-up minus Kathy Valentine who had injured her wrist and could not perform. Alas since then she has been kicked out of the band. It was a terrific show, I had a great time but I was disappointed that they only did one song from this album, "Head Over Heels." I can't blame them for concentrating on their first two albums for their set list, they were the two that were big hits. I think this album, their third, is their best one though. I was not initially a fan of the band. When "Beauty and the Beat" was released and "We Got The Beat" was all over the radio, I dismissed them as bubblegum. My sister loved them though and bought the album. I heard her playing it and I started to like it. Soon I was a fan too. What was there not to like? Five attractive women playing uptempo New Wave flavored power pop with clever lyrics, that was right in my wheelhouse. I bought and enjoyed their first two albums, but this was the album that really made me fall for them, just in time for them to break up unfortunately. "Talk Show" impressed me immediately with its rocked up sound while still retaining the band's pop sensibility. It is loaded with hooks and musical appeal. It always makes me happy when I listen to it even though it is easily the most unhappy album they ever made. It kicks off with Charlotte Caffey and Kathy Valentine's "Head Over Heels" which was the big hit single off the record. It is a sparkling tune driven by an insistent keyboard riff and a hard driving bass line with noisy guitars on top. It is loaded with pop appeal but the lyrics are dark and express confusion and desperation which seems an accurate reflection of the group's state of mind at the time with the band heading for a break up and drug problems taking their toll as well. It is my favorite Go-Go's song, I played it over and over when I bought this record. Caffey and Jane Wiedlin wrote "Turn To You" which was the other top 40 single on the record. It is another riff-driven rocker with an urgent, rough vocal from Belinda Carlisle with catchy back-up vocals from the group. It has a relentless beat that gets me bopping and features one of the best guitar solos in the band's catalog. It is another big favorite of mine. Despite its hard rocking sound, the song is a poignant plea to a lover to let her into his heart. The big beat continues with Gina Schock and Valentine's "You Thought" which has that synth with big drums sound so popular in the 1980s (much to my chagrin) but fortunately it also has loud guitars too. The song is about communication problems in a deteriorating relationship and it demonstrates the group's growth as lyricists with a lot of evocative imagery. The communication breakdown persists with Valentine and Wiedlin's "Beneath the Blue Sky" which features the great line "I think we're sharing the same lies." This song features another terrific guitar solo on top of a soaring melody that makes this song a real winner for me. Side one concludes with Wiedlin's moody "Forget That Day" which is about being deceived by a lover who loves someone else. Carlisle's plaintive, heartfelt vocal is very expressive. Side two opens with the powerful guitar riff and crisp drumming that drives "I'm the Only One" which Valentine wrote with Carlene Carter and Danny Harvey of the Rockats. This high energy song features more delightful vocal harmonizing from the band in support of Carlisle. It is another song about misunderstandings in a love affair. "Yes or No" is a collaboration between Wiedlin and Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. The song was released as the third single off the album but it flopped, although not for lack of musical quality. It has a hooky bass line and a catchy chorus that has hit single written all over it. Lyrically it recalls the earlier Go-Go's records with its love 'em and leave 'em ethos as the narrator tries to get a guy to dance with her no strings attached. Wiedlin's optimistic "Capture the Light" is about trying to stay positive and avoiding dark thoughts. Once again jangly guitars and tight drumming result in a very appealing musical concoction. Schock and Wiedlin's "I'm With You" is about the unhappiness of being away from the one she loves presumably because of a tour. Carlisle sings the words with a lot of feeling and the group substitutes a steady groove in place of the rocked up sound on most of the record to reinforce the desperate sadness that permeates the song. The album concludes with Wiedlin, Valentine and Caffey's remarkable ballad "Mercenary." It opens with martial drumming and delicate guitar strumming gradually picking up steam as it builds to the emotional chorus. It is a heart-breaking song about a girl who uses a guy and his unhappiness as a result delivered by Carlisle in one of her best ever vocals. It gives the album a moving finish full of depth and tenderness. Scoff if you will, but I say this is one of the best albums of the 1980s. It obliterates the persona of the Go-Go's as cartoonish party girls with its sensitivity and heartfelt honesty. Its powerful rock sound displays the group's punky roots and musical chops. This album sounds great and it has hardly aged a bit. I find it endlessly appealing and stimulating. Recommended to Bangles fans who wish they weren't so hung up on the 1960s.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
Decca Roots 2
Here's a post for Halloween. Just kidding, aside from their name, the Zombies with their tender and romantic records could hardly be farther from the spirit of Halloween. I saw them give a wonderful show at the Troubadour back in September. Well they were calling themselves the Zombies but it was really just Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent with some side men one of whom was Jim Rodford so they could have just as accurately called themselves Argent (they actually did perform "Hold Your Head Up.") Although Blunstone looks more like a head master nowadays, he still sings with the angelic voice of a schoolboy. He looks great compared to Argent and Rodford though who are definitely showing their age. It was an old crowd too, it was the first time I've been to a show where everyone rushed up to the balcony to get one of the few seats available because no one wanted to stand. I was well back in line and I still got right up front in the pit. I'm glad they are still working, they've been one of my favorite groups since I was a teenager. As I mentioned in my post on "Time of the Zombies" the box set of "Zombie Heaven" has rendered all Zombies compilations obsolete and this one is no exception, all of it is on the box. Of course the box is a bunch of CDs and this is vinyl so it has value to me. I was thrilled when I found it at Aron's Records back in the 1980s. Although the liner notes claim that 10 of the 16 songs on the album had never been released on an LP prior to this album, they are referring to England (this is an import.) This claim is untrue since one of those 10 tracks ("I Remember When I Loved Her") appeared on the Zombies' English debut album, "Begin Here." In the American market 4 of the non-album tracks on here are on "Time of the Zombies" and 2 others appear on the London Records compilation "Early Days." Since the album consists largely of the Zombies' Decca singles, the later See For Miles Zombies singles collection has almost all of it as well. Be that as it may, I'm still glad I have it since I don't have the See For Miles compilation. Side one is wonderful. It kicks off with their 1964 classic hit single "She's Not There" and its B-side the Beatlesque "You Make Me Feel Good" which is so good it sounds like it could have been an A-side in its own right. It has a brief bit of studio noise before it starts which I haven't heard on any other recording of the song. Their 1964 follow up single "Leave Me Be" is next. The single flopped but I think it is a great song, one of my favorites in their catalog. I like the contrast between the delicate verses and the driving chorus led by Argent's dynamic organ line. "Indication" from 1966 tanked as well but it is another excellent song. It is one of the hardest rocking songs they ever did and the organ and guitar interplay at the end of the song is very exciting. Although the liner notes indicate the 2.07 running time of the abbreviated American version of the single, this is the full length 2.59 version of the song. "How We Were Before" was its flip side. It is the sort of delicate, wistful song the Zombies excelled at and unlike most of their songs it is guitar driven with bongos providing percussion. It is one of the few Zombies songs written by Colin Blunstone as opposed to Chris White or Rod Argent. "I Remember When I Loved Her" is in a similar vein, a quiet, sad song full of atmosphere. It was the B-side of a 1965 U. S. single in addition to its appearance on "Begin Here." "Is This The Dream" was a 1965 single. It is a punchy, uptempo tune with a strong vocal from Blunstone and a brief but powerful electric piano solo from Argent. It reminds me of the Animals. The side concludes with "Woman" which was the B-side of "Leave Me Be." It is a propulsive riff-driven tune with an energetic organ solo from Argent as well as one of Paul Atkinson's best guitar solos. Side two opens with the Zombies' other hit single for Decca, "Tell Her No" released in January 1965. Blunstone's vocal really sends me on this one. "Whenever You're Ready" was an unsuccessful single from 1965, but it deserved a better fate. It has that special Zombies mixture of tenderness and power with a strong melody and plenty of instrumental force. It is followed by its B-side, "I Love You" which was a hit for the American group the People in 1968. I like the Zombies' version much better, particularly Blunstone's vocal. It is followed by the only non-singles on the record, "Summertime" and "I Can't Make Up My Mind" which appeared on "Begin Here" in 1965. "Summertime" is also on the group's American debut album, but as far as I am aware "I Can't Make Up My Mind" was never on vinyl in the United States. "Summertime" is the Gershwin classic that has been covered countless times but the Zombies' jazzy version is one of my favorites with a fabulous breathy vocal from Blunstone and a terrific piano solo from Argent. It was one of the highlights of their show at the Troubadour. "I Can't Make Up My Mind" has a weird bit of studio chatter at the beginning of the take. It is a moody song driven by a melodic jangly guitar riff that is one of my favorite songs on "Begin Here." "Remember You" was a single from the soundtrack for the movie "Bunny Lake is Missing." It was an A-side in England, but in the U.S. it was the B-side to the other song from the film "Just Out of Reach" which was left off this album for some reason. I actually prefer "Just Out of Reach" myself but "Remember You" has its virtues, in particular its jazzy rhythm and some memorable piano work from Argent. "Gotta Get A Hold of Myself" was the Zombies' penultimate single for Decca in 1966. I don't believe this was ever released in the U.S. on vinyl. It was written by Clint Ballard Jr. (who wrote the Hollies' hit "I'm Alive") in collaboration with Angela Riela and had been a single for Dee Dee Warwick in 1965. The group manage to make it sound Zombieish but it depresses me that they felt compelled to do covers to try and get a hit and it didn't even work. "The album concludes with another cover, the final Zombies Decca single, "Goin' Out Of My Head" from 1967 which also went unreleased in the American market. I like it better than the hit version by Little Anthony and the Imperials, if only because it is less melodramatic. It decidedly isn't very Zombieish, the flip side "She Does Everything For Me" (not on this record alas) is much better. It was a disappointing finish to their run at Decca. It is hard to believe that a few months later they would be recording "Odessey and Oracle" creating the best music of their career. I'm not sure what the point of this record was, as a singles collection it is missing several tracks and as a greatest hits on Decca record it has the very obvious omission of "She's Coming Home." Nonetheless I'm happy to have it. When I bought it I hadn't heard many of the songs on it and even now I still enjoy listening to it. It sounds great, nine of the tracks are in mono and it is a quality pressing. Aside from "Goin' Out of My Head" every track is good and many are great. Recommended to Zombie fans who prefer vinyl over CDs.