Saturday, July 16, 2016
Epic BN 26167/LN 24167
The top picture depicts a counterfeit copy of this album that I bought in Berkeley in the early 1980s. I was pretty green back then, I could tell it wasn't an original copy because of the sleeve which was thin like an 80s sleeve not heavy like 60s albums. Also it was far less expensive than what originals normally sold for. However the record had what appeared to be an authentic Epic label so I assumed it was some sort of reissue. I had seen plenty of bootlegs by then but they were always shoddy looking, so it never occurred to me that this was a bootleg. Years later I acquired a mono original. It is a little worn but it still sounds better than the counterfeit which is a decidedly inferior pressing. I probably ought to just get rid of the fake one but it amuses me to be reminded of my youthful folly. This was the Yardbirds' debut album in the United States. It has no U. K. equivalent being cobbled together from singles, an EP and a couple of unreleased tracks. Although Jeff Beck is depicted on the album cover and discussed in the liner notes, he only appears on 3 tracks (from the EP.) The rest of the tracks feature Eric Clapton on lead guitar. He left the band when they shifted from blues to a more commercial pop-oriented sound as represented by the Graham Gouldman penned title track which was the group's first hit single. I am a big fan of that song, it was the song that made me fall for the band when I heard it on an oldies radio station as a young teenager. It is extremely catchy, driven by typically crisp drumming from Jim McCarty with a dramatic shift in tempo in the middle. It is augmented by bongos and Brian Auger on harpsichord which expands its instrumental texture. It is a brilliantly produced, classic single. My two favorite tracks both feature Jeff Beck. The band's cover of Mose Allison's "I'm Not Talking" is breathtaking. Beck practically invents hard rock guitar in the song with a devastating riff and two smoking hot solos that leave me saying "Eric who?" The interplay between Beck and the rhythm section is thrilling and gets me going big time. I think this was the most exciting rock song ever recorded at that point and it still sounds fantastic fifty years later. The band employs the same formula for Keith Relf's bluesy "I Ain't Done Wrong" which has more dazzling guitar work from Beck including a spectacular solo and a dynamic duet with Relf's harmonica. Nobody in rock was making music like this before Beck joined the Yardbirds. You can literally hear a new style of rock being created. Nothing else on the album comes close to these three tracks. The best of the remaining songs is a cover of Calvin Carter's "I Ain't Got You" which features what I consider Clapton's best studio solo with the Yardbirds. It is a hard driving performance and my favorite version of this much covered song. It was originally the b-side of the group's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" single which is also on this album, but it should have been the a-side since it a much better record. "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" is too slick and poppy for my taste, I prefer the rawer live version of this song on "Five Live Yardbirds." The song only comes to life during Clapton's all too brief Chuck Berry-style guitar solo. Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would" was the band's first single. It was a flop but I think it deserved a better fate. It is an energetic song driven by an urgent guitar riff with a frenetic harmonica solo from Relf in the instrumental rave-up. The b-side of that first single was "A Certain Girl" which is not particularly memorable although I enjoy its call and response structure as well as Clapton's noisy guitar solo. "Got to Hurry" was the b-side to "For Your Love." It is a lumbering blues instrumental dominated by Clapton's sterling guitar work that foreshadows his future work with John Mayall. "My Girl Sloopy" would later be a massive hit for the McCoys under the title "Hang On Sloopy." The song doesn't sound like a Yardbirds song and their version isn't very convincing, particularly in Relf's awkward vocal. Jeff Beck's guitar runs make the song listenable and the group does manage to cram four rave-ups into the song. The group's cover of the Shirelles' "Putty (In Your Hands)" isn't really a Yardbirds style song either. I've read that Jim McCarty claimed that the group recorded this song and the cover of Major Lance's "Sweet Music" to appease Clapton who thought they would be better singles than "For Your Love." I find it hard to believe that Clapton had such bad taste and in any case both songs were recorded before "For Your Love." Neither song was originally released in England which is hardly surprising. "Sweet Music" was one of the worst recordings the group ever made and it severely exposes Relf's limitations as a vocalist. It was produced by Manfred Mann and it probably would have been better suited to his own group. I love every Yardbirds album that I own and this one is no exception but I'm hesitant to recommend it. You can get all the essential tracks here on compilation albums and not have to suffer through "Sweet Music." On the other hand the record is historic and I love the cover. I'm so fond of it that I can't even bring myself to get rid of my counterfeit copy. The record has an aura to it that you don't find on most comps for which I recommend it to passionate Yardbirds fans.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
Sub Pop SP 550
The debut album by the Shins is one of my all time favorite albums. I can't believe it is already 15 years old, it stills seems so fresh to me. The first time I heard the band was when I heard "New Slang" on the radio while driving to work. It astonished me so much that I pulled over to listen to it more closely. People make fun of that scene in "Garden State" where Natalie Portman tells Zach Braff "New Slang" will change his life but I get what she means (even though I also hate that scene.) As was the case with Belle and Sebastian (who I fell in love with around the same time) I felt a strong personal connection to the Shins. For awhile these two bands were the soundtrack to my life. I listened to them all the time and when I wasn't listening to them I still heard their songs in my head. All the songs on this record were written and sung by James Mercer. The album begins wonderfully with "Caring is Creepy" which is an enigmatic song expressing alienation and unhappiness. The song has a soaring melody driven by cascading keyboards and jangly guitar runs over which Mercer sensitively croons the words. "One by One All Day" features the line that gives the album its title. It is an evocative description of coming of age in a rural setting. It is a rollicking song with a lot of propulsion that strongly appeals to me. The music shifts dramatically for the languid melody of "The Weird Divide" which poetically reminisces about a past relationship. The oddly titled "Know Your Onion!" recalls adolescent alienation and unhappiness. I like the reference to favorite records and books being Mercer's only fun back then, I felt quite similar feelings for awhile as a teenager. It features a punchy rocked up tune with a ebullient pop sound to it. "Girl Inform Me" is a charming and neurotic love song that evocatively captures the anxiety of a new relationship. It is irrestibly catchy jangle pop that fills me with joy whenever I hear it. Side two opens with "New Slang" which expresses alienation from a town and frustration with an unrequited love in stunningly poetic verses that have always enraptured me. It is a simple folk rock song but I find the melody haunting and mesmerizing. Mercer's poignant vocal moves me immensely. I consider it is one of the best pop songs I've ever heard. "The Celibate Life" dissects an unfaithful girlfriend. It is another captivating jangle pop tune that makes me feel good to be alive. "Girl on the Wing" looks back wistfully at a disintegrating relationship. It is a choppy rocker smoothed out with power pop sweetness that gets me bopping. "Your Algebra" is a mysterious and slightly sinister song with an appropriately creepy melody that stands out sharply from the other tunes on the record. It concludes with an odd coda featuring spooky keyboard music and children's voices and laughter. The album returns to its normal sound with "Pressed in a Book" which is a prickly song that describes the tension between friends. It is jaunty power pop with a pounding riff driving it. The album ends with "The Past and Pending" which is a devastating account of a break-up loaded with powerful metaphors. It is a gentle tune with a delicate arrangement. It gives the record a sensitive and emotional finish. Thus concludes an absolutely perfect record, an album that I consider to be a masterpiece. Lyrically and musically it pushes all my buttons, I find it endlessly listenable. I wish it had been around when I was an unhappy adolescent, it would have been my Bible. For better or worse I'm far removed from that, but I remember it well and I think that is why the album still resonates strongly for me. I'm always drawn to personal music and the way Mercer poured his heart out and drew from his experiences and alienation to create his songs is tremendously compelling to me. To me that is what good art is all about. Recommended to fans of early Belle and Sebastian.