Wednesday, March 30, 2016

At Home - Shocking Blue

At Home
Shocking Blue
Metronome MLP 15 353

This is a German pressing of Shocking Blue's second album originally released in the Netherlands on Pink Elephant Records.  It was Mariska Veres' debut album with the band as lead vocalist.  I first encountered the band as a kid on the first rock record I ever bought, a compilation called "Get It Together," which featured their international hit single "Venus."  I liked the song but not so much that I made a big effort to obtain one of their albums which are not all that easy to find in the United States.  About 20 years later I heard Nirvana's wonderful cover of "Love Buzz" on "Bleach" and decided I had to get the original version by Shocking Blue.  Thus I finally ended up with this delightful album which contains both "Venus" and "Love Buzz."  The album opens with "Boll Weevil" which like all but one of the songs on the album was written by the band's guitarist/sitarist Robbie van Leeuwen.  It is a hard rocking song with a rockabilly flavor particularly in the chorus and guitar solo.  The lyrics are slight but Veres sings them with admirable verve.  "I'll Write Your Name Through The Fire" is trippy folk-rock.  The lyrics are of the "gotta ramble" varietyLike most of the lyrics on the record, they sound awkward to me.  "Acka Raga" is a cover of a song by John Mayer (no not that John Mayer.)  It is a raga rock instrumental driven by van Leeuwen on sitar and one of my favorite tracks.  "Love Machine" is greasy rock with stimulating guitar runs from van Leeuwen and a heavy bass riff propelling it.  Veres' vocal sounds slightly hoarse heightening the passion of her delivery.  "I'm a Woman" is a mix of raga rock and soul with a seductive vocal from Veres as she intones quasi-feminist lyrics of female empowerment.  The lyrics are extremely awkward bordering on abstruse which mutes the songs impact although Veres sings them so convincingly that they still convey the song's message.  Side one concludes with "Venus" which was their biggest hit and deservedly so.  The song features a hypnotic guitar riff over which Veres intones alluring lyrics of irresistible desireWhen I heard the song as a boy, Veres' vocal captivated me with her accent and her sensuality and all these years later I still find her performance very appealing.  I greatly prefer it to Bananarama's cover version.  Side two opens with "California Here I Come" which is driven by a strong guitar riff and features a stimulating instrumental break.  It is another "gotta ramble" type song that is a paean to California as well.  Despite the listing on the record sleeve the next song is "Long and Lonesome Road" which is a pounding rocker with an urgent vocal from Veres.  It is powered by a compelling organ riff and plenty of noisy guitar work from van Leeuwen.  "Poor Boy" opens with a lengthy instrumental passage featuring raga inflected guitar runs from van Leeuwen.  After a couple of minutes the vocal part of the song begins with Veres plaintively singing about the unhappy titular character.  She again uses the hoarse quality of her voice to great effect heightening the emotional impact of her singing.  "Love Buzz" begins with a memorable raga-style bass riff augmented by sitar over which Veres sings clumsy lyrics about desire leading to a frenzied rave up in the instrumental break.  Kurt Cobain followed the arrangement for Nirvana's cover but increased the tempo and rocked up the sound more.  I prefer the Nirvana version for its intensity, but being a raga rock fan I appreciate the Shocking Blue version too.  "The Butterfly and I" features more awkward lyrics so much so that I can't even figure out what the song is about.  Veres accent sounds particularly heavy on this track.  The song starts out with a raga rock sound and then halfway through the song it is weirdly transformed by a big band arrangement complete with a couple of trumpet solos.  If nothing else it gives the album a dynamic finish.  I really love the sound of this album, it pushes a lot of my buttons.  Van Leeuwen came up with a lot of great riffs and I like the sitar as well.  Veres was a charismatic and emotional singer and she goes a long way towards compensating for the weakness of the lyricsI suppose the lyrics are not bad for a Dutch guy, but they definitely diminish the strength of several of the songs.  It is still a terrific record though, well worth seeking out.  Recommended to fans of George Harrison's sitar playing.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Collection of Beatles Oldies - The Beatles

A Collection of Beatles Oldies
The Beatles
Parlophone PCS 7016

Here's a post to honor Sir George Martin, who passed away on March 8.  I revere him as the greatest of all rock producers.  I suppose "Abbey Road" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" would be more appropriate selections to showcase his great work with the Fabs but I've already done posts on them.  The "Anthology" albums would be good as well since they reveal the raw Beatles tracks and the mistakes before Martin helped the Beatles transform them into the pop classics they would become.  "Let It Be," which is the only Beatles studio album Martin did not produce, displays his brilliance by his absence since it is so poorly produced by Phil Spector, a guy so heavy handed that I would not even consider him worthy to bring Sir George his afternoon tea.  Even this lowly album displays Martin's greatness.  It was the first Beatles greatest hits album, crassly assembled by E.M.I. to cater to the Christmas market in 1966.  With its shoddy cover art and haphazard assembly of tracks (why omit "Please Please Me"?) it seems like a crude commercial project, yet it still shines like a diamond amongst the dross.  It features 16 wonderful songs largely drawn from the Beatles' hit U.K. singles many of which had not appeared on a U.K. album at the time.  They are joined by two beloved album tracks "Yesterday" and "Michelle" as well as an unreleased (in the U.K.) track "Bad Boy" which appeared in the U.S. on "Beatles VI."  If I had been a British fan I would have bought the album for "Bad Boy" alone as it is one of my all time favorite Beatles covers.  Martin's influence on the record is most obvious with "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."  Martin is generally acknowledged as persuading Paul McCartney to employ a string quartet on "Yesterday" rather than conventional rock instrumentation and was largely responsible for the string score.  I believe that the strings are the crucial element in the song that makes the lyrics seem deeper than they are on paper.  Martin also wrote the string score for "Eleanor Rigby" which greatly enhances the melancholy feeling produced by the lyrics (according to Mark Lewinsohn, Martin received a mere 15 pounds for his arrangement.)  Always a perfectionist, Martin also supervised stereo mixes for several of the singles on the album which had originally been released in mono, most notably on "I Want To Hold Your Hand" which greatly improved on the horrible fake stereo mix that Capitol used on "Meet The Beatles."  Martin was very adept at helping the Beatles realize their vision and achieve the sound they wanted, aside from their musical quality they made the most wonderful sounding records of their era.  The unforgettable opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," the cacophony of sound effects on "Yellow Submarine," the feedback that opens "I Feel Fine," the booming bass riff that drives "Paperback Writer" all testify to the tight connection between the Beatles and Martin that produced such fantastic records.  The staggering creativity and immediacy revealed on these 16 tracks demonstrate an inspired partnership between the two most talented songwriters in the history of rock music and the modest man who recognized their genius and helped them create the best records of my lifetime.  This record is so stacked with great music, if the band had broken up in 1966 they'd still be at the top of the rock pantheon.  However the band still had 3 more years of unparalleled achievement ahead of them including some of Martin's most inspired work with the group.  This record was rendered obsolete by "1962-1966" which has every song on here aside from "Bad Boy."  That song as well as all of the non-LP singles on here are on the two "Past Masters" compilations as well.  I'm still happy to have it though, it might be the best single slab of pop music vinyl ever pressed, nothing but greatness.  It was never released by Capitol in the U.S., presumably because nobody there could stand the thought of releasing an album with 16 tracks on it.  I've found it inspiring to listen to this these past couple of weeks as I mourn the passing of this great manThe world of the Beatles and those who love them has grown darker and colder now that Sir George is gone.  I can never thank him enough for helping to make the music that has mattered the most to me in my life.  Recommended to people who only want a single Beatles LP.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

I Break Chairs - Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song

I Break Chairs
Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song
Sub Pop  SP 571

This album comes in a paper sleeve.  The front folds out in the shape of a chair.  I had never heard Jurado at the time that I bought it.  I read some good reviews of him, but mostly I bought it because it was on Sub Pop, one of my favorite labels, and because it was cheap.  It turned out to be a good buy.  It opens with the ringing guitar chords of "Paperwings" which is my favorite track.  It is noisy, rocked up roots rock that reminds me of Son Volt.  It is an ambiguous love song.  The hard rock noise continues with the grunge-style "Dancing" which boasts a loud/quiet dynamic and really roars when it gets going.  It dissects a parasitical and unreliable friend.  "Birdcage" is a fast-paced, upbeat tune with a propulsive jangly guitar riff driving home lyrics about escape and recovery.  The record slows down for the cryptic "Inevitable" in which Jurado repeatedly sings "face that inevitable" without revealing what it is.  "Air Show Disaster" was written by Josh Golden, the bassist in Gathered in Song.  It is a laid back, folky song of which I have no idea what it is about.  It is pleasant but forgettable.  Side one concludes with "Never Ending Tide" which describes a woman who will move you like the tide.  It starts slow and quiet before moving into a lengthy instrumental section with more pronounced riffing and guitar workouts before ebbing away.  Side two opens with "Big Deal" which is a return to rocked up roots rock with a kinetic and ebullient sound.  It is a I-told-you-so put down song.  "The Way You Look" continues in a similar musical vein although it sounds more power pop than Americana with its synth riff and poppy beat.  It is a poetic song about envy although Jurado's intentions with the song elude me.  "Castles" is another rocker with a strong vocal from Jurado.  I think it is about indifference and retribution Gathered in Song raises a ruckus behind him in a classic hard rock manner.  "Like Titanic" is more subdued and intricate, I dig the drone that runs through it.  It features the most impressive lyrics on the album as Jurado intimately chronicles an escapist and self-destructive relationship.  He sounds like a neurotic Bruce Springsteen.  The line "you end up breaking hearts like chairs" gives the album its title.  This is one of my favorite tracks on the album.  "Parade" is atmospheric roots rock.  It is short and enigmatic.  The side concludes with "Lose My Head" which has a bit of an alt-country flavor to it although the guitar riff and pounding rhythm are pure rock and roll.  The introspective lyrics are striking and mysterious but Jurado sings them with considerable passion making the song a forceful conclusion to the album.  This album was a pleasant surprise for me.  I love it when I take a chance on a record that I don't know and it turns out to be very good.  Admittedly the music is a bit generic, but it has a lot of energy and drive.  I never get bored.  Gathered in Song is a solid band and Jurado is an excellent vocalist, even when I have little idea what he is singing about, he sounds convincing.  I'm not a big fan of obscure lyrics, but Jurado is skilled at creating striking imagery so I remain interested in his songs even when I don't get themI also appreciate his consistency of tone and mood, it makes for a cohesive album listening experience.  Recommended to mildly depressed fans of early Wilco.