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 palette 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 was 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.