Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur? - Woelv

Tout Seul dans la Forêt en Plein Jour, Avez-Vous Peur?
K Records KLP 172 

Woelv was the nom de disque of Geneviève Castrée who died far too young a little over a year ago of cancer.  She was a French-Canadian artist, poet and author who also recorded some strikingly memorable music, often in collaboration with her husband Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie.  This beautiful record features a 60 page album sized booklet with the lyrics of the songs (which are sung in French) along with translations in English and multiple other languages, illustrations by Castrée and some additional texts that reflect the theme of the record which is anti-war and questioning the American obsession with violence and power.  There are no musician credits on the album (aside from background vocalists on "Sang jeune") so I assume it is performed solely by Castrée and Elverum, the percussion and drone of some of the tracks is reminiscent of Mount Eerie and the Microphones.  The album opens with "Drapeau Blanc" ("White Flag") which poetically describes the violence of children having a snowball fight and Castrée's own desire to escape war.  The song begins as a delicate folky song with a gentle double-tracked vocal from Castrée that sounds appropriately child-like.  Then the percussion kicks in and Castrée belts out the lyrics driving the song to a very forceful conclusion.  "La fille qui s'est enfermée dans la salle de bains"  ("The Girl Who Locked Herself in the Bathroom") presents evocative images of domestic violence and more thoughts of escape.  This short a cappella song uses multiple vocal tracks to create a complex vocal arrangement.  "(Réconciliation)" is  about reconciling all the stages of one's life from birth to old age.  It is a folk-style song with a nice harmony vocal from Elverum.  "Deux coqs" ("Two Cocks") chronicles a pair of sparrows who begin fighting like roosters until they blind each other.  It is a short song driven by a bass guitar and an insistent and breathy vocal by Castrée.  "La petite cane dans la nappe de pétrole" ("The Young Female Duck in the Puddle of Petrol") uses the metaphor of a duck stuck in oil to describe the oppression of self-destructive relationships.  The song starts out like a folk song with a Spanish flavor before the percussion emerges to provide a thunderous droning backdrop to Castrée's wailing multi-tracked vocal.  This powerful song is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  "Au viol!" ("Rape!") begins by explaining how to tame a female wolf in the first verse and then in the second verse Castrée describes what sounds like an emotional and personal violation using the language of physical rape.  The song is driven by a repetitive and compelling piano riff over which Castrée sensitively croons and hums.  "(Arrogance)" is a very brief song that returns to the escape imagery of "Drapeau Blanc" but with a more optimistic conclusion.  It sounds very naked compared to the previous tracks, just guitar and voice which places all the emphasis on the stark lyrics.  "La mort et le chien obèse" ("Death and the Obese Dog") examines the hypocrisy of people who embrace religion yet condone military action and who lavish food on their dogs while children elsewhere starve to death.  This is another bass-driven song with a multi-tracked breathy vocal, but this time Castrée adds screamed howls in the background which enhance the feeling of menace and misery within the song.  "Sous mon manteau" ("Under My Coat") was derived from sentences from "The Koran" which Castrée translated from Arabic into French.  The song is highly poetic and the accompaniment is gentle and folky with a childlike vocal from Castrée that complements the simplicity in the lyrics.  Side two opens with "Sang jeune" ("Young Blood") which is another overtly poetic composition that laments the violence of young people.  The song begins with a slow sinuous tune with an Asian feel to it, before becoming more energetic via a driving percussion track and background vocalists giving the song extra weight.  This is another one of my favorite songs.  "L'Homme qui vient de marcher sur une mine" ("The Man Who Has Just Stepped on a Landmine") despite its grim subject matter is a dazzling display of Castrée's poetic gifts as she decribes the final moments of a victim of a landmine.  It starts out sounding like a Middle Eastern dance tune before settling into a languorous drone.  "Tout seul dans la forêt en plein jour" ("Alone in the Forest in Broad Daylight") combines a soundscape with a song.  It begins with a tranquil folk song that compares nervous violence-prone people with the calm of being alone in the forest asking which one do you fear more.  Gradually a soundscape emerges underneath the song.  Castrée had been living in the woods near a military base and set up a microphone to record the transition from jets landing to frogs croaking as evening sets in.  The soundscape continues after the song ends providing an atmospheric conclusion to the record.  I really love this album, I consider it a masterpiece that ought to be better known.  It was created with such care and authority, it is so satisfying as a work of art.  The combination of the artwork in the book, the poetic lyrics, the cohesive vision and the musical sensitivity make it an intensely engaging experience in a manner more common with high art than pop music, if you will pardon me getting pretentious, something akin to a Gesamtkunstwerk.  I don't mean to imply that this record is difficult or snooty.  It is very enjoyable and accessible on a casual level, but unlike most pop records, if you go deeper into it you will be rewarded.  Castrée's message is not particularly profound or intellectual, in truth it is not all that far removed from Melanie or Cat Stevens, just expressed in a more poetic and subtle manner.  What I particularly like about the album is Castrée's willingness to open herself up and to express her concerns with emotional honesty and commitment.  So many of the kids I hear in the indie rock scene nowadays seem so reserved and ironic, they are too cool to reveal themselves.  I find it refreshing to experience a musical artist willing to share her feelings and fears openly without barriers, one with ambition who wants to create a meaningful work that goes far beyond having a nice beat that you can dance to.  I feel bad that Castrée died so young, but I also feel bad that such a gifted and sensitive artist has been silenced.  It makes me treasure this album even more knowing there will never be another like it.  Recommended to fans of Joanna Newsom and Mount Eerie. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

San Francisco Bay Blues - The Halifax Three

San Francisco Bay Blues
The Halifax Three
Epic BN26060

Several years ago I was browsing through the new arrivals bin at Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo when this record caught my eye.  I was initially attracted to it by the group's name because I'm interested in Canadian folk music and also because I'm a fan of the title track.  Looking at the cover I realized one of the guys looked familiar and after a moment I realized it was Denny Doherty of my childhood faves, The Mamas and the Papas.  So I bought it not expecting much, but I have no regrets.  The group was basically a knock-off of the Kingston Trio with a similar sound featuring an emphasis on three part harmonies.  Doherty did most of the lead vocals along with Pat La Croix and Richard Byrne did all the arrangements as well as playing guitar.  The record begins with Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" which they deliver in a slick corny style that reminds me of a barbershop quartet or something you'd see in a variety show.  The record improves with a dramatic arrangement of the traditional work song "Rocks and Gravel."  My favorite version of this song is the one by Ian and Sylvia on their debut album, but this one is nearly as good with some wonderful vocal harmonies.  "Little Sparrow" is another traditional song also known as "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies."  There are numerous recordings of this song, but this one is quite pretty with another strong vocal arrangement.  "San Miguel" was written by Jane Bowers and it was previously recorded by the Kingston Trio.  This version has a beefed up vocal arrangement that makes it more romantic and engaging.  Their version of Mike Settle's "Sing Hallelujah" likewise benefits from dynamic vocal harmonies.  Side one ends with the much covered traditional song "East Virginia."  The group's version sounds like the one Joan Baez cut on her debut album.  They are both moody and atmospheric although I'd give Baez the edge for being more expressive.  Side two opens with "I'm Gonna Tell God" which is credited to Bob Gibson who recorded it with Hamilton Camp but it is actually derived from the old spiritual "The Welcome Table."  The trio offers up a lively performance, but gospel music wasn't their strength, they don't sound convincing.  "Rubin Had a Train" is a traditional song that has been recorded by a lot of bluegrass groups under the title "Reuben's Train."  The group gives a fast paced rendition that is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  The record slows down for "A Satisfied Mind" by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes which was a big hit for Porter Wagoner.  I prefer his version as well as the one by the Byrds on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" although the vocal on this track is very lovely.  "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along with Mitch" is the kind of novelty folk song that the Kingston Trio used to record such as "M. T. A.".  It is the most commercial track on the record and was released as a single.  I dislike it enormously.  The trio atones for it with the classic traditional folk song "The Great Silky" which is one of my favorite Child ballads.  There are better versions around, but I find this one melodic and appealing although lacking in the haunting quality that Joan Baez gave it on her second album.  "He Call Me Boy" was written by Richard Byrne, the only original song on the record.  It is extremely derivative being a fake slave ballad but it has a dramatic sound that at least gives the record a stirring finish.  Obviously this is a minor record that will likely only appeal to folk buffs but if you like the Mamas and the Papas and in particular Denny Doherty's voice as much as I do, you may want to pick this up if you stumble across a cheap copy.  The material is mostly ordinary but the singing is first rate.  Recommended to Kingston Trio fans.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Patty - Patty Duke

Patty Duke
United Artists Records  UAL 3492

I bought this at the Pasadena Flea Market last year shortly after Duke died.  "The Patty Duke Show" is one of the first TV shows that I remember liking as a child.  I must have watched it in syndication, I would have been too young to appreciate it when it first aired.  I don't remember why I liked it so much, I was probably attracted to the theme of identical twins not to mention obtaining a glimpse into the minds of teenagers.  Anyway since then I've always liked her as an actress and feeling sentimental following her passing, I took a chance on this record which I suspected wouldn't be very good.  If nothing else I'd have another cover of the Beatles' "Yesterday."  I was pleasantly surprised however, I mostly enjoyed it.  The record opens with "The World is Watching Us" by Wally Gold and Joe Brooks (Gold also co-wrote "It's My Party" for Lesley Gore.)  It was the second single off the album but it flopped.  It is not particularly memorable, but I like the dramatic shift in tone and tempo between the chorus and the verses.  The song is over-produced but Duke manages to hold her own with a strong vocal.  "Yesterday" does not stray far from the Beatles' version.  Duke sings with enough yearning and angst to turn the song into a teen melodrama.  "All Through the Day" was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern for the 1946 film "Centennial Summer."  The song gets a contemporary arrangement that disguises its age.  I particularly like the Latin-style horn arrangement that gives the song some oomph.  "Whenever She Holds You" was written by Bobby Goldsboro and released by him as a single in 1964 with modest success.  It was the first single released off this album but it did not crack the top 40.  The song is too lethargic and sappy to stand out on the radio, but it is one of the better songs on the album.  "Little Things Mean a Lot" by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz is another oldie having been a big hit for Kitty Kallen in 1954.  This song sounds very romantic with Duke's breathy warm vocal.  Side two opens with "One Kiss Away" which has a classic mid-60's pop sound.  It is a bit over-produced but Duke's vocal is full of charm and charisma.  Barry Mann and Larry Kolber's "I Love How You Love Me" had been a massive hit for the Paris Sisters in 1961, one of Phil Spector's first hits as a producer.  Duke was not nearly as good a singer as Priscilla Paris but the song suits her girlish voice extremely well.  Bobby Russell's "Sure Gonna Miss Him" was a hit for Gary Lewis & the Playboys the same year that this album came out.  This is not as punchy as the Lewis version, but I prefer it anyway because I like her voice a lot more than I like his.  Next she covers the Everly Brothers' classic "All I Have to Do Is Dream."  This is the track where Duke's limitations as a vocalist are most evident.  It is also poorly arranged and is the weakest track on the album.  The side concludes with "Nothing But You" which is a histrionic ballad that Duke sings very effectively giving the album an emotional finish.  This album is obviously a crass commercial effort attempting to cash in on Duke's fame as a teen television star.  It is incredibly skimpy, not even thirty minutes long.  It is full of pedestrian music and cover songs.  Duke's vocals are loaded with reverb and fussy arrangements to disguise her vocal limitations.  Despite all this I like the record.  Duke's voice is pleasing to me and expressive.  The songs are mostly slight but combined together they flow and complement each other making for a consistently engaging album.  This is a marginal record that probably will mostly appeal to Patty Duke fans, but if you have a taste for mainstream pop in the early 1960s, you will find stuff to enjoy here.  Recommended to fans of Little Peggy March and Shelley Fabares.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Exotica - Martin Denny

Martin Denny
Liberty LST 7034

My parents had no exotica records nor do I remember any of their friends playing this stuff at their parties.  I suppose they were a little too young for it, by the time I came around this stuff was probably already considered passé.  Bossa nova, samba or crooners were more their style.  If my father wanted to hear something exotic, he put on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.  I grew up unaware of Martin Denny and probably would have gone to my grave without ever hearing him were it not for the lounge revival of the 1990s.  What were once thrift store nuisances, suddenly became collector's items to hipsters.  Exotica and lounge bins appeared in record stores stocked with over-priced Les Baxter albums.  I didn't bite but when the fad eventually diminished, I ended up with a bunch of Capitol's "Ultra-Lounge" series of CD compilations when a friend who did bite, decided to pare down her CD collection and gave them to me.  To my surprise, I actually liked much of the stuff on the comps which is how I ended up with this album, my first Martin Denny record which I picked up for a buck in a thrift store.  Exotica collectors generally prefer the mono version of this album which was recorded in 1956 and released in 1957.  The stereo album was re-recorded later to cater to the growing hi-fi market and cash in on the success of the single release of "Quiet Village."  I'm happy enough with this version which sounds great.  The album consists entirely of Asian and Polynesian flavored instrumentals driven by Denny on piano and Julius Wechter on vibes.  The best song is "Quiet Village" which was originally recorded by exotica pioneer Les Baxter.  The band adds exotic bird calls to the song and with its languid bongo rhythm track, it is a tiki classic.  "Return to Paradise" is a cover of a Dimitri Tiomkin tune for the film of the same name.  It is too sedate and stodgy for my taste.  "Hong Kong Blues" is a cover of a Hoagy Carmichael song.  It is incredibly corny and stereotypical, but I appreciate its energy.  The Denny group returns to Les Baxter for a lively version of "Busy Port" that is one of the most exciting tracks on the album.  Cyril Scott's "Lotus Land" gets a light jazz adaptation that is mostly successful.  Side one ends with "Similau" by Arden Clar and Harry Coleman which gets the full tiki treatment, bongos, bird cries and bamboo sticks.  It is one of my favorite tracks on the record.  Side two opens with another robust Les Baxter cover, "Stone God."  August Colon's strong percussion playing propels it forcefully and Denny and Wechter offer dynamic performances on top.  Another winner.  The group slows the pace for an atmospheric performance of Baxter's "Jungle Flower," which like all of the other Baxter songs on the record, was taken from Baxter's classic 1951 album "Ritual of the Savage."  Asian musical cliches return for "China Nights" by Nobuyuki Takeoka and "Ami Wa Furi" by Gil Baumgart.  They are followed by the dreamy and romantic "Waipio" by Francis Brown.  The group tackles Baxter once more for the album closer, "Love Dance" which rehashes "Quiet Village" to give the record a strong finish.  I enjoy this record, but I'm hesitant to fully recommend it.  If I'm not in the right mood, it sounds like vulgar kitsch to me or even worse it puts me to sleep.  Neither Wechter nor Denny had the musical ability to transcend the stereotypes inherent in this musical approach.  Nonetheless when I'm feeling romantic or nostalgic, this record can push a lot of my buttons.  Plus the cover photo is fabulous.  Recommended as a soundtrack record next time you are drinking a Mai Tai on a warm summer evening.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The American Tour with Ed Rudy - The Beatles

The American Tour with Ed Rudy
The Beatles
Radio Pulsebeat News   News Documentary #2

I enjoyed Ron Howard's recent documentary on the Beatles touring days although I didn't learn anything new and it wasn't particularly insightful.  I think Albert Maysles' documentary on the first tour is the best portrait of this time.  For me the highlight of the screening was watching the Shea Stadium concert film on the big screen with good sound.  That was fantastic.  All the hoopla about the movie inspired me to pull out this record which attempts to document the Beatles' first visit to the United States.  It is presented and narrated by Ed Rudy who was a journalist who accompanied the Beatles on their trip.  Rudy seems to like the group and is consistently enthusiastic, but he has nothing interesting to say about Beatlemania and generally ignores the music, he is mostly attracted to the mass hysteria they generated.  Side one is a 22 minute assembly of sound bites from the tour mixed with a bunch of promos for Rudy by the Beatles as well as roadie Mal Evans, Lennon and Harrison even label Rudy "the fifth Beatle."  There are numerous snippets from the Beatles' first press conference in New York and Rudy interviews some fans as well.  Despite traveling with the band, Rudy doesn't get much face time with the group.  Initially the longest conversations he gets are with Mal Evans and road manager Neil Aspinall.  He also wastes some time talking to a twit from the British Embassy.  In Washington D.C. Rudy gets some muffled comments from a Beatle who he claims is John Lennon, but it sounds like Paul McCartney to me.  He also has an amusing conversation with Ringo Starr at the British Embassy party in Washington regarding his sex appeal.  Near the end of side one, on the plane flying back to New York after the Miami visit, Rudy finally gets some quality time with the band and their handlers.  On side two there is a fifteen minute telephone interview with George Harrison.  Predictably the sound quality is not good, but it is a nice conversation.  The "quiet Beatle" is surprisingly loquacious.  He and Rudy discuss the fan reaction on the tour, the Beatles' sound, the origin of the group's name, Beatle haircuts and fashions, mods vs. rockers, Harrison's personal ambitions, dating, friendships with the other Beatles and musical influences (Rudy astutely compares them to Buddy Holly and the Crickets.)  At one point Rudy refers to "Johnny" Lennon and asks if Harrison ever calls him "Jack" Lennon, which cracks me up.  This record is worth buying for side two alone.  I enjoy the entire record aside from Rudy's relentless self-promotion.  Even though it contains virtually no music at all, I still prefer it to Capitol Records' vinyl documentary of the Beatles on "The Beatles' Story."  This album is easy to find and generally not expensive (I bought my copy in a thrift shop for $2.)  Recommended to Beatlemaniacs whose favorite Beatle is George.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

In The Beginning - Paul Revere and the Raiders

In The Beginning
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Jerden JRL-7004

This is a 1966 reissue of the Raiders' second album on Sande Records originally released in 1963.  The original has different cover art but an identical track selection and running order.  Over the holidays I paid a visit to my aunt and uncle who live up in the redwoods in Northern California.  At one point my aunt mentioned having traveled around the Pacific Northwest with a rock band in her younger days.  I was immediately interested in this tidbit and pressed her for more details.  When she said they were Paul Revere and the Raiders I was flabbergasted.  She said she was dating one of the guys in the band.  I asked his name and when she replied Mark Lindsay I went nuts.  My aunt dated Mark Lindsay, I still can't believe it.  She was unimpressed about all of this.  Mark was a nice guy but she didn't think the band was all that special and she disliked Revere.  This was of course before the band became famous, back when they were a struggling group working in small venues playing music like the songs on this album.  I pulled out this record when I got back home and listening to it, I can understand my aunt's lack of enthusiasm.  I really enjoy the record, but there is not much here that suggests the band's meteoric rise once they signed with Columbia Records.  They sound like a bar band, albeit an extremely good one with excellent taste in material.  Many of the songs are very well known covers.  Their version of Big Joe Turner's classic "Shake Rattle and Roll" is highly energetic driven by Revere's hot organ riffing.  They wisely avoid going up against Elvis by turning "Don't Be Cruel" into an instrumental that features Revere on organ dueling with Lindsay on sax with Lindsay winning.  Their rocking version of Bill Doggett's hit instrumental "Honky Tonk" is excellent, one of the best versions that I've heard.  Unfortunately there are also pedestrian performances of "So Fine" and "Hey Baby" that are less entertaining than the hit versions by the Fiestas and Bruce Channel.  Their uninspired version of Hank Ballard's "Work with Me Annie" isn't much better aside from Revere's dynamic piano solo.  The less famous covers include a punchy version of Ray Sharpe's "Linda Lu" that showcases Lindsay's charisma as a singer.  The Delmore Brothers' country classic "Blues Stay Away From Me" is transformed into a high energy instrumental that makes it nearly unrecognizable.  It is one of my favorite cuts on the record.  Larry Bright's "Mojo Workout" suits the band's sound extremely well.  They increase the tempo and Lindsay's gritty vocal gives the song plenty of oomph.  It is another one of my favorites.  Dave "Baby" Cortez's "Rinky Dink" is a vehicle for Revere to show his chops although Lindsay steals the spotlight with a brief but smoking sax solo.  Their version of "Irresistible You" seems to be taken from the Bobby Darin version and Lindsay shows he can swing just as well as Darin with one of his strongest vocal performances on the album.  The one original track on the album is "Crisco" (also known as "Crisco Party") and it is easily the best cut on the record.  The record is worth buying for it alone.  It is a frat-rock classic with a lascivious vocal from Lindsay that has future rock star written all over it.  It is about boys, girls and a whole lotta Crisco and you can figure out the rest.  Did kids really do stuff like this back then?  I'll have to ask my aunt about that next time I see her.  This album is too derivative to be essential, but it is a lot of fun and a terrific record for a toga party.  Recommended to fans of the Wailers and the Kingsmen. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Volunteers - Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane
RCA  LSP-4238

This one goes out to the new President, congrats on breaking Nixon's long standing record for inaugural dissent protests.  I have only hazy memories of the 1972 election and all I remember from the 1968 one is my elementary school classroom's mock election which Humphrey won.  If I had been a teenager back then, I would probably have been freaking out just as much as progressives are now, if not more so.  Nixon after all was sending kids to die in Vietnam.  The protest movement against Nixon naturally extended into rock music resulting in some fine records.  I don't think any were better than this one though.  This album seethes with anger and rebellion.  This is evident in the fiery opening song, "We Can Be Together" by Paul Kantner.  With the first verse the sweetly crooned "we can be together, ah you and me" it sounds like a love song, but it is soon evident that this song is urging the counter-culture to unite in violent revolution with lines like "up against the wall, motherf*cker" and "we are forces of chaos and anarchy."  When I was younger I thought the song was too extreme and an over-reaction, but I have to admit nowadays I feel a lot more sympathetic to its message.  Musically the song is superb, alternating hard rock and more harmonic passages tied together by Jorma Kaukonen's stinging guitar riffs and enhanced by Nicky Hopkins' dynamic piano work.  "Good Shepherd" is basically a Hot Tuna song sung by Kaukonen and notable for the interplay between his guitar and Jack Casady's rumbling bass lines.  It is a laid back folk-rock interpretation of a 19th Century hymn.  It is quite a contrast from "We Can Be Together" and I've always felt it sounded out of place on the album although the religious lyrics are not incompatible with the theme of the album with their emphasis on avoiding the evil and corruption in the world.  The bucolic spirit of this tune continues with "The Farm" which is a country rock song by Kantner and Gary Blackman.  The song is a tongue in cheek gotta-get-back-to-the-country type song so popular with hippies at the time.  The song features Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar and offers harmony support from the pioneering all-woman Bay Area rock group, the Ace of Cups.  Side one concludes with Grace Slick's "Hey Fredrick" which clocks in at 8 and a half minutes.  The song combines a massive ponderous riff with softer passages driven by Nicky Hopkins' lyrical piano playing over which Slick intones the surreal lyrics with sensuous heaviness.  The song drifts into a lengthy jam where Hopkins and Casady are particularly effective.  Side two opens with Kaukonen's "Turn My Life Down" which is a poppy rocker that recalls "Surrealistic Pillow" to me.  The song expresses disillusionment and confusion.  It features a strong lead vocal from Marty Balin bolstered once again by the Ace of Cups.  Stephen Stills rocks out on organ and the band's future drummer Joey Covington plays congas enhancing the instrumental pallette of the song.  "Wooden Ships" was written by Kantner, Stills and David Crosby and was also recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  I prefer the Airplane's version which boasts a superior vocal and a much better instrumental arrangement including outstanding contributions from Kaukonen and Hopkins.  The track is stirring and powerful and impressed me greatly when I first heard it as a teenager.  It is a post-apocalyptic song that describes escaping the carnage of America on a ship and foreshadows the themes Kantner would develop more fully on "Blows Against the Empire."  Slick and Kantner's "Eskimo Blue Day" has a similar epic feel to it although with Gracie at the helm it is predictably less idealistic and more sardonic and surreal in its imagery.  Slick's authoritative vocal and the swelling and turbulent music churned out by the band behind her makes this one of my all-time favorite Airplane cuts.  Country rock returns with Spencer Dryden's "A Song For All Seasons."  It is a shambling, lackadaisical track aside from Hopkins' honky-tonk piano but I like the humor in the autobiographical lyrics.  "Meadowlands" is Slick's brief organ performance of a classic Soviet propaganda song.  The album ends with Balin and Kantner's rousing call to revolution, "Volunteers."  The song erupts with blistering guitar lines from Kaukonen and dueling pianos courtesy of Slick and Hopkins.  One of the best political songs ever to come out of rock and a nice finale for Balin's last songwriting contribution to the band he founded.  "Volunteers" was the last great album the Airplane recorded, things went swiftly downhill from here for the best American band of the late 1960s.  The singing of Balin, Slick and Kantner is tremendously powerful and the band was at the peak of its instrumental prowess.  This album is passionate and vibrant and full of the spirit of the eraDespite its topical urgency and political message, the album still sounds relevant to me, particularly since history is apparently repeating itself.  Recommended to people who think "alternative facts" are lies.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pictures at an Exhibition - Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Pictures at an Exhibition
Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Cotillion  ELP 66666

This is a live recording of ELP's version of Modest Mussorgsky's classical opus recorded at Newcastle City Hall on March 26, 1971.  It was released in England in 1971 but ELP's American record company initially rejected it and its American release was delayed until 1972.  I had been planning a post in honor of Keith Emerson after he committed suicide last year.  I was planning to do an album by his previous band, the Nice, which I like better than ELP, but I changed my mind following the recent passing of his bandmate Greg Lake.  I've made fun of ELP and this album in particular in some previous posts, but I was actually a fan of Emerson as a teenager.  I loved the Nice and liked the first ELP album as well.  This one not so much, but I've never considered getting rid of it in the many years I've owned it.  Reading his obituary I was surprised to find that Emerson was living in my hometown of Santa Monica when he died.  There are loads of British ex-pats here but somehow Emerson seemed so European to me that it was hard for me to imagine living next to him out here in sunny SaMo.  In one of the obits I read, his girlfriend mentioned that he never listened to rock music, only jazz and classical.  That I found easy to believe.  Even back in the Nice I sensed that Emerson felt that rock was beneath him.  Not unlike Frank Zappa, I got the feeling he was pandering to his fans presumably for commercial reasons.  In that regard this album is emblematic of his career.  I'm sure Emerson was skilled enough to have recorded a straight performance of Mussorgsky's original work but that would have sold a tiny fraction of what this "rock" version of it did.  The album begins with "Promenade" which was taken straight out of Mussorgsky's original composition.  It features a distinctive melody that is used throughout the original work to link together some of the movements.  Emerson plays it on the big pipe organ in the hall.  "The Gnome" was also taken from Mussorgsky and adapted by ELP's drummer Carl Palmer.  His main contribution seems to be adding a bombastic drum track to the piece as well as a mercifully brief drum solo.  Like the original piece, it is gloomy and ominous.  The work proves surprisingly suitable for the heavy rock treatment given to it by ELP.  I imagine Mussorgsky would have been appalled, but I like it.  Emerson switched to an electric organ and a synthesizer for this track and I enjoy his frenetic noodling.  Next Emerson plays a subdued version of "Promenade" on his organ and Greg Lake takes to the microphone to gently croon the words he composed for it which are basically quasi-mystical nonsense about life's journey.  Lake expounds further on this theme for his original song "The Sage" which is him and his acoustic guitar. The song sounds a bit like a courtly, Renaissance air crossed with a traditional English folk song although the lyrics are pure hippie bullshit reminiscent of the trite philosophizing of the Moody Blues.  Emerson changes the tempo dramatically with his high energy adaptation of "The Old Castle" which was the second movement in Mussorgsky's original work.  The sensitive romantic character of the original piece is completely obliterated by Emerson's intense bludgeoning of assorted electric organs and synthesizers but it is entertaining.  It segues seamlessly into the pompously titled group composition "Blues Variation" which is an Emerson-dominated jam that is easily my favorite track.  It really cooks, which is something pretty rare in ELP recordings.  Side two begins with a reprise of the "Promenade" theme played forcefully by the full band.  They then run through "The Hut of Baba Yaga" at breakneck speed.  This was the ninth movement in Mussorgsky's original work.  This is followed by another group jam entitled "The Curse of Baba Yaga" which features more blistering keyboard runs from Emerson.  It is followed by a brief return to "The Hut of Baba Yaga" before moving into the tenth and final movement of Mussorgsky's opus, "The Great Gates of Kiev."  In the original work this piece is stately and triumphant, but ELP instead go with a full throttle attack featuring Lake bellowing out more of his silly lyrics with Emerson maniacally raising a ruckus in support.  Near the end the band finally slows down and Mussorgsky's majestic music emerges to back up verses like "there's no end to my life, no beginning to my death, death is life."  Ugh!  When the music finally finishes, the audience erupts in thunderous applause and if I had been there perhaps I would have too, it is perversely impressive.  The band returns to encore with a high octane performance of Kim Fowley's ludicrous Tchaikovsky adaptation "Nutrocker" which gives the album a winningly irreverent finish.  I ought to hate this record, it is one of the most pretentious pop albums ever and a vulgar travesty of Mussorgsky's original work.  It goes against all my beliefs of what good rock music should be.  Nonetheless I do find it listenable and even sporadically enjoyable, mostly because Emerson was such a dynamic keyboard player.  He may not have been interested in rock, but he was good at it as a performer.  Also I find some charm in the dialectic collision between the refined art of classical music and the crudity of heavy rock.  The results are often ridiculous (especially when Lake is singing) but there are times when the frisson between the two is engaging to me.  This record never bores me which is more than I can say about Yes, Genesis, or even post-Barrett Pink Floyd.  You could definitely do worse when it comes to prog-rock.  Even if you hate this sort of thing, you ought to hear it at least once, if only to marvel at Keith Emerson's skill and shameless audacity.  I'm going to miss him.  Recommended to classical music fans who dig Jerry Lee Lewis.