Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31: Alice Cooper, "Love It To Death"

Artist: Alice Cooper
Album: Love It To Death
Year: 1971
Label: Straight Records/Warner Bros.

Though they may be best known as one of the most spooky and dark bands in history, Alice Cooper (the band as a whole, not just the singer) began their career as a psychedelic rock band. Much of their early work as a band can be heard in the overall mood and extended jam sections of their later music. After a pair of luke-warm albums, the Alice Cooper took to the studio to attempt to create a more clear and concise sound for their band. With the help of some new personnel, and a fresh approach to their music, the results were the beginning of a string of fantastic rock records. The album that helped Alice Cooper to breakthrough and forever change the musical landscape is their stellar 1971 release, Love It To Death.

One of the reasons why Love It To Death was so superior to its predecessors is undoubtedly the addition of producer Bob Ezrin. Though Ezrin was still early in his career, he would go on to work with the likes of Aerosmith, KISS, Lou Reed...and oh yeah, he was the producer on some little album called "The Wall." It is likely Ezrin who helped the band to focus their sound and transition from their pseudo-psychedelic sound to the somewhat scary rock mood that defined the bands' career. Another aspect of note with Love It To Death concerns the fact that there are four different versions of the albums' cover. The albums' initial release on Straight Records (a label co-owned by Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen) featured the band on the cover...with Alice Cooper's thumb sticking out of his pants zipper. Upon gaining the rights to the record, Warner Bros. had it airbrushed out, and with later re-issues, other covers were released as well (the above cover is the most common).

Much like a majority of their Motor City peers, Alice Cooper was all about roaring rock and roll with an overload of energy and attitude. Guitarist Glen Buxton leads the charge and his solo work remains some of the finest guitar playing ever recorded. The music he pumps out during pieces like "Long Way To Go" is nothing short of stunning. Michael Bruce adds great rhythm guitar, yet it is hit keyboard and piano work that gives Live It To Death greater depth. The sinister solo that he plays to bridge the songs "Second Coming" and "Ballad Of Dwight Fry" is absolutely sensational. The rhythm section of bassist Dennis Dunaway and Akron, Ohio's own drummer, Neil Smith, create the perfect backing for the brilliant music of the rest of the band. However, much of Alice Cooper's earlier influence is still present, yet more focused on Love It To Death. The song "Black Juju" is a darker, more haunting take on the sound perfected by The Doors, and the song remains nothing short of extraordinary.

When it comes down to it, without their legendary frontman, there really would be no group called Alice Cooper. Alice (real name Vincent Damon Furnier), has one of the most unique vocal deliveries in history...and then there's his stage antics. Cooper's growling, borderline screaming vocal style separates him in the fact that, when it comes down to it, he is still, in fact, singing. His voice has a consistently menacing mood to it, and it helps to reinforce the overall vibe of the music. All of Cooper's styles are presented in top form on the strange, and eerie, "Ballad Of Dwight Fry." Cooper has earned the title of "King Of Shock Rock" thanks to his prop-laden, horror themed live performances. Known for using things like electric chairs, guillotines, and a healthy number of live snakes on stage, the way in which Alice Cooper presents their music is nothing short of legendary. These stage antics became the foundation for the live presentations of bands like KISS, Marilyn Manson, and GWAR among others.

Whether it is his music, his stage show, or the way in which he presents himself outside of his musical persona, there are few musicians who demand the respect and reverence equal to that of Alice Cooper. From his notorious stage shows, to his legendary appearance in Wayne's World, Alice Cooper is truly one of the most talented, eclectic icons in music history. With the ability to play all out rockers as well as compose beautiful, slow melodies, there is no doubt that there is far more to Alice Cooper than a spooky, over the top stage show. Taking the sounds of the psychedelic era and blending them with the angst-driven rock of the Detroit scene, the music of Alice Cooper still serves as a major influence to this day. Superb guitar and rhythm work, along with the overall dark and haunting mood makes the music of Alice Cooper sound like nothing else ever recorded. Though the band would achieve greater commercial success a few years later, it is Alice Cooper's 1971 release, the utterly fantastic Love It To Death, that defined the bands' sound and served as the blueprint for the rest of their career.

Standout tracks: "I'm Eighteen," "Is It My Body," and "The Ballad Of Dwight Fry."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30: Prince, "Purple Rain"

Artist: Prince
Album: Purple Rain
Year: 1984
Label: Warner Bros.

As has been stated before, there are a handful of artists who are so superb that they only need a single word to describe themselves. Boasting one of the diverse and outright brilliant careers in the history of music, there has truly never been another artist quite like the man people simply call Prince. Proving himself more than capable in nearly every music style since his debut in 1978, Prince is responsible for many of the most beloved songs and anthems of the past thirty years. From sensual R&B songs to ranging rockers, Prince has proved that he truly has no musical boundaries. Though it is extremely difficult to find a "bad" album from Prince, perhaps his greatest achievement is his monumental 1984 release, Purple Rain.

The moment Purple Rain opens, it is clear that this album will be like no other that has even been made. Prince's opening monologue is both a challenge as well as an affirmation to the simple act of living life. As with nearly his entire recorded catalog, Prince plays a multitude of instruments, as well as handling the writing and production duties for the entire album. The album proves to be nothing short of phenomenal, and topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, whilst yielding a trio of Top 3 singles, and a trio of Grammy awards. Purple Rain also earned Prince an Oscar for "Best Original Song Score," as one must remember that Purple Rain is, in fact, the soundtrack to Prince's film of the same name. Another significant aspect of the album comes with the song, "Darling Nikki." The song, which is filled with overly sexual content, remains largely regarded as one of the many catalysts behind Tipper Gore's founding of the pro-censorship Parents Music Resource Group (they're the folks responsible for those silly "Explicit Lyrics" stickers.) In more modern times, Foo Fighters recorded a cover of the song, and it appears as the b-side to their 2004 single, "Have It All." Prince turned this tribute around on Foo Fighters by playing their hit single, "Best Of You" during his halftime performance during SuperBowl XLI.

Purple Rain is significant because it represents the first studio appearance of Prince's legendary backing band, The Revolution. Having disbanded his previous group of backing musicians, The Revolution makes the sound on Purple Rain far more full and powerful than any of Prince's previous efforts. The musical range found on Purple Rain is nothing short of stunning; from the crushing guitar of "Baby I'm A Star" to the string arrangements of "Take Me With U," to the sparse, futuristic, "When Doves Cry." Bringing Prince's classic fusion of rock and deep funk grooves, many of the songs receive a "futuristic" feel thanks to the synthesizer work of Prince and Dr. Fink. This flawless mixture of sounds and styles is perhaps no more apparent than on the chart topping single, "When Doves Cry." Even when Prince slows things down, as with the title track, the musical arrangement and presentation remains spectacular, and the solos found on "Purple Rain" are some of the most brilliant ever recorded. However, the dance-friendly pop sound that has always pervaded Prince's music is just as present on Purple Rain as anywhere else in his catalog, and though many sound unconventional, nearly every song is a grooving, dance-club classic.

However, on Purple Rain, Prince also has another great thing working in his favor when it comes to the overall sound; the stunning duo known as "Wendy And Lisa." Wendy Melovin and Lisa Colemen may very well be the greatest backing musicians and collaborators in history. With Lisa working keyboards and backing vocals, and Wendy taking over guitar duties from Dez Dickerson, the importance and impact of this duo on the music of Prince simply cannot be overstated. Helping Prince to push into new territory, such as the nearly psychedelic sound on "Take Me With You," they prove to be essential additions to Prince's music team. Since their work with Prince, they have released a handful of solo albums, as well as produced and scored soundtracks for movies like Toys and Dangerous Minds, as well as currently being responsible for all of the music featured in the TV show, "Heroes."

Prince has one of the most amazing and distinctive voices you'll find anywhere in music history. Whether speaking low and bassy, singing anywhere in the musical spectrum, or one of his unmistakable screams, there has truly never been another singer quite like Prince. Much like with his music, Prince knows exactly how to perfectly present the lyrics to each of his songs, and this variance in sound and style has helped to make all of Prince's albums fresh and diverse. Lyrically, Prince has always stayed within the same general area with his writing. Songs of love, sex, and at times betrayal fill a majority of Prince's recorded catalog. When Prince uses subtle lyrics, they are consistently the most creative allusions and implications of his generation, and when he gets blunt, they are easily the most suggestive and sensual words perhaps of all time. Somehow, Prince manages to come off as acceptable, if not passionate with lyrics that, if delivered by anyone else, would be nothing short of offensive or disgusting. This serves as proof that, when it comes to Prince, it is not always what he is saying it, but moreso the amazing way in which he presents his musical masterpieces.

It is pretty much impossible to label Prince as anything short of "musical genius." With the ability to play nearly any instrument, as well as play in any style or combination of styles that one can conceive, his musical prowess is nearly unmatched throughout the history of recorded music. From funk laden grooves to slow, melodic ballads to what can only be termed as heavy metal, Prince truly runs the gamut of musical styles throughout Purple Rain. Having honed the lineup of his brilliant backing band, The Revolution, as well as having the skillful duo of Wendy and Lisa alongside him, the album serves as the jumping off platform that catapulted Prince into one of the most prolific performers that the world has ever seen. Penning dazzling dance songs, as well as creating some of the most unique music ever, Prince continues to push the limits of pop music more than thirty years after he appeared on the music scene. While he has released albums with countless different musical approaches, and had other albums that sold more units, there is little doubt that Prince's finest recording still lies in his immortal 1984 release, Purple Rain.

Standout tracks: "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and "Purple Rain."

Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29: Gangbé Brass Band, "Whendo"

Artist: Gangbé Brass Band
Album: Whendo
Year: 2004
Label: Contre Jour

While many U.S. and U.K. based musicians attempt to fuse together their own rock or jazz backgrounds with AfroBeat rhythms, it is nearly unheard of for an artist to attempt to reverse this process. For the most part, "genuine" African music follows a rather strict pattern, and "Western" instruments rarely fit the bill. However, in the case of Benin-based group, Gangbé Brass Band, this breaking of structure poses no issue, and yields amazing results. Gangebé roughly translates into "sound of metal" in the groups' native Fon language, and if you take this beyond the genre of metal, one can see how their name alone begins to separate them from a majority of their peers. The group has been making music for nearly twenty years together and, having released four records over the past ten years, their finest musical achievement is certainly their upbeat, jazzy/be-bop 2004 release, Whendo.

From the first notes of the record, it is clear that Whendo is unlike all other African albums. A bright horn section, bringing the sounds of New Orleans jazz fills the space around the more traditional African percussion work. It is on Whendo where the fusion of African and American musical styles finally come together perfectly, and the record is an absolutely stellar example of what can be achieved musically through this integration. One can also see this non-traditional approach to the African style of music to be a reflection of the rich history behind their home country of Benin. A former French colony, brass instruments were imported into the country from France and Europe, mostly for the military personal in the country. A group that is clearly aware of their roots, Gangebé Brass Band presents a fitting tribute to the one and only Fela Kuti on the aptly names, "Remember Fela." Musically, the song is a clear nod to Kuti, and the style which Kuti pioneered comes through clearly, with the horns making the track retain the groups' signature sound.

Each song on Whendo is a celebration of sound, and with nearly a dozen different musicians on each track, the sound of Gangbé Brass Band is well beyond the terms "full" and "rich." With four different musicians playing trumpet at different points, and three playing trombone (plus a saxophone and euphonium) the sound and style of each musician blends perfectly over the percussion, creating a wall of music that is a true joy to experience. It is clear that on Whendo, the group members are far more confident in both their individual sound, as well as the overall sound produced by the group as a whole. The extended solo sections are more focused and the musicians are obviously more comfortable in what they are doing, creating far more poised feel to the music. Unlike the previous efforts from Gangbé Brass Band, there is far much more musical importance placed on the percussion section, and this helps the group to finally achieve their full musical potential. The percussion is equally as varied, from traditional drums to fantastic talking-drum work, to a variety of bells and shakers throughout each track. This juxtaposition in sound is nothing short of stunning, and it gives Whendo a wonderfully unique sound and mood.

Each group member lends their vocals throughout the record, further helping Whendo to retain the key elements of African music. Whether they are signing group chants or shouting in celebration or frustration, the voices blend together in a manner that is equally as beautiful as the music itself. The deep, rich vocals are pure bliss, and it reminds one of a time when studio technologies did not exist, and pure talent was all one had with which to work. If one finds the translations of the lyrics, you will find that, no surprisingly, a majority of the songs concern the seemingly endless war and poverty that has ravaged much of Africa over the past decades. However, along with the aforementioned "Remember Fela," there are a number of more upbeat numbers, many of which are reminiscent of the sound and mood of the great King Sunny Ade. From more solemn, singular vocals to exuberant call-and-response group chants, each song on Whendo has it's own personality, and the combination of all of the different styles makes it one of the most wonderfully unique records to come out in decades.

Though something that has almost never been done before, the combination of the jazz and be-bop sounds of New Orleans brass sections along with the rich and emotional feel of traditional African rhythms is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Taking this idea and honing it to perfection, the dozen members of Benin's Gangbé Brass Band truly create some of the most uplifting, enjoyable music on the planet. With fantastic solos from trumpets, trombones, and various percussion, the songs have a great variety in sound, yet a clear, common mood runs through each and every song the group performs. Running the gamut from sorrowful and mournful to merry and carefree, each and every song found on Whendo is an absolute pleasure to experience time and time again. A group that tours relentlessly throughout South America, Europe, and Africa, their sound is beyond unique, and their live performances are said to be as moving and delightful as their studio recordings. The sensational combination of instruments and vocal talents help to make 2004's Whendo one of the most phenomenal and original albums to come out in ages, and it is an absolute essential record for every music fan.

Standout tracks: "Noubioto," "Remember Fela," and "Gbedji."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28: PJ Harvey, "Rid Of Me"

Artist: PJ Harvey
Album: Rid Of Me
Year: 1993
Label: Island

Though there were a number of talented females to emerge out of the "singer/songwriter" boom of the early 1990's, most of them were "girl and acoustic guitar" or "girl and piano." For the most part, these women were more on the soft-spoken side, but also tended to have deep messages of love and frustration. Then, there was Polly Jean Harvey. With a far more aggressive sound, both musically and lyrically, PJ Harvey remains in a category all on her own. Taking the helm of one of the most brilliant, though shortlived, musical trios ever, the music of PJ Harvey remains a huge influence to this day. Though her debut album, Dry, is a fantastic record in its own right, it is her sophomore effort, 1993's Rid Of Me on which she truly focuses her sound and style with phenomenal results.

The original lineup of PJ Harvey's trio featured Rob Ellis on drums and Steve Vaughn on bass, with Harvey herself handling all of the guitar duties. The chemistry between the three is undeniable, yet the two men would leave the group shortly after the release of Rid Of Me. All of Harvey's work since has a different tone, though much of it is equally as good as the two albums recorded by the trio. Part of the magic behind Rid Of Me may very well have been the production work of music legend Steve Albini. Albini, who was in the studio with Nirvana when Rid Of Me was released, also produced landmark albums for groups like The Pixies, Om, and Flogging Molly. Throughout Rid Of Me, it is obvious that Albini was trying to push the group as far as they could go in every musical direction, and the result is a far more abrasive and combative sound on the album. Fusing their own signature sound with one of the most memorable songs of all time, the band executes an absolutely brilliant cover of the Bob Dylan classic, "Highway '61 Revisited." While the song generally falls into the "you really shouldn't cover this song" category, PJ Harvey makes the song her own, and breathes a dark, yet superb new live into the classic tune.

When it comes down to it, PJ Harvey is as much of a rock band as you'll find anywhere. Bringing all the angst you can handle, alongside aggressive, crushing music, the trio of musicians brings enough noise and attitude as the finest rock bands ever. Taking the classic feel of rock music, the unforgiving attitude of punk, and giving it moody, dark overtones, the sound of this band served as a model for groups like The Kills and Vivian Girls. The drumming of Ellis is truly fantastic, often working only a cymbal and the bass drum, yet providing all the rhythm and thump that the song needs. Vaughn is just as capable as his bandmates, and he somehow creates deep grooves in the face of what seems like the border of musical chaos. Harvey herself is clearly a top notch guitarist, and though she rarely does anything even remotely resembling a solo, her consistently pulverizing, somewhat menacing guitar work is the perfect compliment to the other two musicians.

The sound that comes from PJ Harvey is often hypnotic, and it is no surprise that she served as the muse for Nick Cave for many, many years. The true majesty behind the music of PJ Harvey lies within the voice and writing of the bands' namesake. With a vocal delivery that takes inspiration from the likes of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, her singing is a stunning mixture of deep, poetic lyrics, with a fierce delivery. A unique combination of soul, blues, and punk in her voice, Harvey seamlessly changes from being on the musical attack, to a quick retreat, often within the same musical phrase. The lyrics, all written by Harvey (except, of course, "Highway 61"), are beautifully dark explorations of human nature, more specifically, love, sex, and a healthy dose of religious allusion. The words Harvey writes are often perfectly penned black humor, though there is an overwhelming feel of a tortured soul which runs through her entire recorded catalog.

In an era when most female performers were taking the more quiet, subtle approach, PJ Harvey was making some of the most blunt and crushing music anywhere. Her simple trio proved time and time again to have as much musical force and talent as any other band in the music world. Combining elements of rock, blues, soul, and giving it a much, much darker feel, PJ Harvey set the bar for what could be achieved by female performers. Harvey's unmistakable voice and delivery ensured the bands' success, and her sound and style have been mimicked, yet unequaled, countless times since she appeared on the music scene almost twenty years ago. A powerhouse of focused angst and anger, PJ Harvey wrote some of the most potent, soul bearing lyrics that the world has ever seen. With an unsurpassed combination of power and purpose, there is truly not another album ever made that is quite like PJ Harvey's 1993 masterpiece, Rid Of Me.

Standout tracks: "Rid Of Me," "50ft Queenie," and "Man-Size."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27: Frank Zappa, "Hot Rats"

Artist: Frank Zappa
Album: Hot Rats
Year: 1969
Label: Bizarre/Reprise

When it comes to outright musical genius, there are few artists (if any) that can be mentioned in the same breath as Frank Zappa. Moving well beyond the status of "musician," and standing as one of rock and rolls' true musical composers, his body of work remains well beyond the grasp of nearly every other musician in history. Constantly innovating and pushing the limits of what could be done musically, as well as approaching the recording studio as an instrument in itself, Zappa's impact on music is nearly immeasurable. Having disbanded the legendary Mothers Of Invention, Zappa set off to further his legacy with a more than forty equally brilliant solo records throughout the late 1960's and 1970's. Setting the mark for what is by far, the most perfect fusion of rock and jazz ever recorded, Zappa's talents shine as bright as very on the stunning 1969 release, Hot Rats.

Hot Rats is truly a jazz-rock masterpiece, highlighted by phenomenal instrumental orchestrations, which combine classical structures with some of the most experimental approaches ever heard. The album, which was produced entirely by Zappa himself, was recorded on Zappa's own homemade "sixteen track recorder," (for and eight track recordings were still the standard at the time) which pre-dated the "standard" sixteen track recorded by months. It is this additional track space which allowed for the amazing depth to the record, featuring a mind-boggling number of over-dubs and additional instrumentation. Additionally, with the sixteen tracks, Hot Rats is possibly the first rock record to feature a "true stereo" sound from the drums, as the track limitations had previously made such an impossible task. This becomes even more significant, as Zappa also used Hot Rats to pioneer "tape speed manipulation." On tracks like "Peaches En Regalia" and "It Must Be A Camel," Zappa recorded the basic drum tracks in "double time," and then added overdubs in "normal time," which then appear to be playing at "half time" when compared to the first recording. This technique also altered the pitch and tone of the drums, and the percussion sounds like nothing else that had ever been heard. Zappa applied this technique to a number of other instruments throughout Hot Rats, and the results give the album one of the most distinctive sounds one will find anywhere in the history of music. While, in our modern era, these feats may seem commonplace, the reality is, Zappa presented flawless use of these techniques decades before modern, digital recording equipment simplified this process.

As previously stated, Hot Rats is a peerless fusion of jazz and rock style. While the compositions stick to the jazz structure, the attitude and presentation of the music remains gritty, and loose. Zappa's own distorted and scruffy guitar tone finally finds a perfect home on Hot Rats, and his true prowess on the guitar is unleashed during the superb extended solo sections. Zappa openly despised the psychedelic movement of the time, and Hot Rats truly represents one of the few rock records of the time that really has no traces of psychedelia, aside from the "jam" sections. Aside from a few moments on "It Must Be A Camel," the record barely approaches anything else that was being done musically at the time, either in rock or jazz. Incorporating everything from harmonicas to "snorks," Zappa was not one to exclude any instrument or sound. The flawless manner in which Zappa was able to work any instrument into the rock-jazz structure is perhaps no more evident than on the jammed out "violin solo," delivered by frequent Mothers of Invention and Bluesbreaker collaborator, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, found on "The Gumbo Variations." Aside from Zappa, the only other musician who is a constant on Hot Rats is Mothers' holdover and multi-instrumentalist, Ian Underwood. On some of the tracks Underwood can be heard playing nearly ten different instruments, again thanks to the innovative recording techniques on the record. Whether playing the organ or a number of other keyboards or adding sax or flute, Underwood proves a formidable musical partner for Zappa throughout the record.

The lengthy, solo laden songs found on Hot Rats were, at the time, a great divergence from the satire-filled, concentrated songs that Zappa had presented with The Mothers Of Invention. In fact, the only vocals found anywhere on Hot Rats appear in the gruff and sleazy vocals to "Willie The Pimp." The vocals were delivered not by Zappa, but by one Don Glenn Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. Zappa had produced Beefhearts' legendary Trout Mask Replica a few months before the Hot Rats sessions, and Beefheart's vocals on the track are absolutely ideal for the song. While there are no other lyrics on the record, Zappa was able to bring his trademark wit and sarcasm to Hot Rats in even more ingenious ways than ever before. Case in point is in the somewhat odd track title, "It Must Be A Camel." While on the surface, the song appears to be a wild jam with a strange name, if one writes out the music notes played, the resulting pen on paper redoubtably resembles the humps on a camel's back. Knowing how truly genius Zappa was, one can clearly see this as another brilliant "inside joke" from Zappa.

The name "Frank Zappa" alone demands respect, and his works remain both unmatched and influential, even with many approaching fifty years in age. Both musically and technically, there are few, if any, artists that have talent enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as Zappa. In both quantity and content, there virtually no musicians that even come close the the musical contributions that Frank Zappa gave to the world. Whether working with The Mothers Of Invention or his own solo efforts, there is not a "bad" moment to be found on any of the more than sixty records he released before his death in 1993. With his first true solo effort, Hot Rats, Zappa created the quintessential jazz-rock record, as well as pioneering recording techniques that are still used to this day. Though Hot Rats features a number of amazing musicians, there is never a question that Zappa is the true "star" of the album on each and every track. Whether providing a jaw-dropping solo, or setting in motion the perfect melody, Hot Rats showcases Zappa and his unsurpassed musical brilliance like never before. Few will argue that a single artist has contributed as much in size and substance to the world of music as Frank Zappa, and the truth behind this opinion becomes undeniably obvious throughout Zappa's first true solo release, the utterly fantastic 1969 release, Hot Rats.

Standout tracks: "Peaches En Regalia," "Willie The Pimp," and "The Gumbo Variations."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26: Robert Randolph, "Unclassified"

Artist: Robert Randolph
Album: Unclassified
Year: 2003
Label: Warner Bros.

Though countless guitarists have attempted to master the fine art of the pedal steel, few have found as much successes "playing flat" as they have with the traditional guitar. This is mostly due to the entire approach and dynamic of the instrument changing, and therefore, far different skills are required. Working the approach entire reverse, Robert Randolph burst onto the scene in 2000, and is nothing short of a pedal steel virtuoso. After being spotted at the Scared Steel Convention, Randolph quickly found himself opening for acts like the North Mississippi All Stars, and recording the brilliant The Word record with jazz masters, Medeski, Martin, and Wood. With his brilliant backing band, The Family Band, Robert Randolph has released three brilliant albums since, with the groups' 2003 record, Unclassified, shining as their finest work to date.

Using the pedal steel as the primary instrument in a band is something that is rarely heard, let alone within a rock or "jam" setting. However, Robert Randolph deploys his talent flawlessly throughout Unclassified, and the album is a true delight to experience time and time again. In essence, the sound of Robert Randolph takes American gospel and smashes it together with the classic rock and roll aesthetic. Taking influence from everyone from Sly & The Family Stone to Eric Clapton to Earth, Wind, And Fire, the music the band makes is a refreshing shock to the system for an overly dull era of music. Perfectly combining gospel, rock, funk, and elements of the "jam band" scene, the music of Robert Randolph And The Family Band is pure enjoyment. The live performances of Robert Randolph And The Family band further this spirit, and they are some of the most marvelous live musical experiences one can find. The diversity in style and delivery found within Robert Randolph And The Family Band is like no other band in history, and they truly are in their own, brilliant musical category.

Though Randolph may be the frontman, The Family Band are absolutely amazing musicians in their own right. Conjuring the spirit of P-Funk era Bootsy Collins, bass player Danyel Morgan pumps out some of the deepest, funkiest grooves that have been heard in years. Drummer, Marcus Randolph is nothing short of sensational, as he leads the group through tempo-shifting joyrides, presenting wild time signature changes throughout the album, and even within individual songs. John Ginty jumps in, playing both a standard piano, as well as a Hammond B-3 organ, giving Unclassified a bit of a more gritty, yet bluesy mood. The shared lead guitar work of Robert Randolph and Morgan is nothing short of stunning. Riff checking Jimi Hendrix, and creating "Maggot Brain" like textures on "Good Times (3 Stroke)," it is clear that The Family Band are easily among the finest musicians on Earth. With each member of the group lending backing vocals, the shared harmonies give the music even more depth, and are the perfect finishing touch to their fantastic sound.

To be specific, the style in which Randolph plays is called "sacred steel," and it draws its name from the fact that, much like Randolph's playing, the style originated from church bands. Randolph himself was trained in the House Of God Church, a church that has been using pedal steel in their services since the 1930's. This background comes through in the music, and it also takes the level of "soul" in the music to a new level. Randolph's voice is a perfect combination of grit, soul, and pure vocal talent. Singing his heart out on every track, his religious background comes through as many of the songs are so good, they are often called "religious experiences" by listeners. The lyrics on Unclassified range from joyous, life affirming celebrations, to social critiques of the current culture. In fact, many of the songs, like the albums' opening track, "Going In The Right Direction," can be interpreted in a number of ways. While some may take their lyrics as having a religious undertone, many people interpret them as tales of caution and joy taken from Randolph's New Jersey/New York upbringing. It is this ambiguity within the lyrics that makes the songs all the more relatable and enjoyable for all audiences.

The album title, Unclassified, is a perfect statement as to the originality and individuality found within the music of Robert Randolph And The Family Band. Their catchy, addictive blend of gospel, soul, and funk, all with the energy of rock and roll makes them one of the most entertaining and uplifting bands in history of music. Playing an exceptional pedal steel with all his heart, Robert Randolph is undeniably one of the most talented and inventive musicians alive today. His backing band are equally as talented, and when the entire group gets "into the groove," they are nearly unrivaled when it comes to making pure musical magic. With a sensational live show to equal their studio work, Robert Randolph will certainly remain a band to be reckoned with for the next few decades. Though their current three studio albums are all well worth owning, it is their 2003 release, Unclassified, that is their finest work, and it is beyond an essential album for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Going In The Right Direction," "Squeeze," and "Run For Your Life."

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25: New York Dolls, "New York Dolls"

Artist: New York Dolls
Album: New York Dolls
Year: 1973
Label: Mercury

Take the attitude of The Stooges and add in the sleaze and bluesy feel of the Rolling Stones, and you have legendary rockers, The New York Dolls. Though only lasting a few short years (though a new lineup formed in 2004), the music they created had a profound impact throughout the music world, influencing everyone from The Smiths to The Ramones to Mötley Crüe. From the albums' cover to the sound within, without New York Dolls, there would most likely not have been "glam rock," "hair metal," or perhaps not even a full fledged "punk" movement. Though they only released two albums before calling it quits for nearly thirty years, their 1973 self titled debut remains one of the finest rock albums ever recorded.

Alienating record labels (and many fans), the early performances of the New York Dolls remain legendary, both for their cross-dressing, as well as the pure chaos that surrounded their live shows. It is this somewhat-controlled chaos that earned them a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a large reason why the group only lasted a few short years. After listening to New York Dolls in its entirety, it is rather difficult NOT to pull comparisons to much of the Rolling Stones recorded catalog. With slower tunes like "Lonely Planet Boy" sounding very similar to the acoustic sound that the Stones presented somewhere on nearly every record, it truly becomes the attitude of the New York Dolls that sets them apart. New York Dolls was produced by the seemingly straight-laced and rather conservative Todd Rundgren. Rundgren also lent piano, guitar, and backing vocal parts to the record. The band wrote nearly every song on the record, and they each describe the bands' general life approach. New York Dolls also features a brilliant re-working of the Bo Diddley tune, "Pills."

Perhaps the most notable figure in the New York Dolls was guitarist Johnny Thunders. Though not as common a name as Page, Hendrix, or Clapton, after listening to New York Dolls, there is little one can do to argue the point that Thunders is every bit as much a guitar god. Combining psychedelic, rock and roll, and the urgency of punk, Thunders pushed the sound into what would eventually become the essence of punk guitar style. Thunders would end up forming the legendary band, The Heartbreakers (NOT to be confused with Tom Petty's backing band of the same name), after leaving the Dolls. Bringing with him stellar lead and rhythm guitar talent, the unforgettable Sylvain Sylvain kept Thunders on his toes, and Sylvain made a number of appearances with Thunders' later bands. Drummer Jerry Nolan (who also went on to The Heartbreakers), who happened to be a childhood friend of Peter Criss (he was in some small band called KISS), fits in perfectly, providing perfect beats and fills, regardless of the direction in which the band veers off. Filling out the bands' classic lineup, and sporting one of the funkiest, sexiest bass tones in rock history is the one and only, Arthur "Killer" Kane. Known for standing completely still during live performances, his juxtaposition to the rest of the band furthered the legend of the New York Dolls.

Nearly every singer who followed after him owes a decent amount of their career and style of David Johansen. From the makeup, to the outrageous clothing, to his delivery, it is truly difficult to find a singer that didn't pull some of their stage style from Johansen. Whether singing or screaming, Johansen epitomizes everything in both vocal delivery and attitude that would become the prototype for nearly all punk singers. Though he would call it, "the bane of my existence," Johansen achieved decent commercial success in the 1980's, as his alter ego, Buster Poindexter. Lyrically, New York Dolls is a somewhat typical rock and roll record. Songs about women, drugs, and partying, it is the manner in which the band presents the material that sets them apart from other groups. The overall menacing, angry, yet somehow still "fun" sound which Johansen brings to the songs fits in perfectly with the seemingly unsavory, sinister music behind his vocals. The sleazy, strange, perhaps possessed vocal delivery of Johansen is truly something that had never been heard.

Though perhaps due to their short career and the explosion of punk, the New York Dolls are still a relatively lesser known band to come out of the 1970's New York City music scene. However, the reality is, their influence throughout nearly every genre of music is absolutely undeniable. From their androgynous, cross-dressing stage appearance, to the absolutely chaotic nature of their live shows, the band were truly pioneers out of the studio as much as in the studio. Their two 1970's studio recordings, which are a fantastic combination of blues-rock and punk energy remain fresh and amazing today as much as they were more than thirty years ago. Crushing guitars and the unmistakable vocal delivery of David Johansen helped to garner the New York Dolls a fanatical, cult following. With a career that sadly only lasted a few short years, the New York Dolls managed to release two brilliant albums, with their 1973 debut, New York Dolls, standing as one of the greatest records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Personality Crisis," "Looking For A Kiss," and "Trash."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, "Béla Fleck And The Flecktones"

Artist: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones
Album: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones
Year: 1990
Label: Warner Bros.

Though it is certainly not the most popular instrument around, and it has gained an unnecessary stereotype, the banjo remains one of the most wonderfully diverse instruments around. When properly played, it is able to convey soulful, slow moods as well as eccentric, hyper-speed feelings with equal power. Though primarily associated with bluegrass music, one man has spent more than twenty years re-writing the books on what can be done with a banjo. Béla Fleck is undoubtedly the most talented banjo player on earth, and from jazz to bluegrass to classical, he is constantly pushing the boundaries on what one should expect from the instrument. Having worked solo as well as with a number of different artists, most of his finest work comes when he works with his “normal” backing band, The Flecktones. Béla Fleck And The Flecktones have released nearly ten albums since the early 1990's, but their finest work may be on their 1990 debut record, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones.

The music of Béla Fleck And The Flecktones falls somewhere between jazz, bluegrass, new-age, and funk. Though the album features a number of session musicians, the band proper is simply four of the most innovate and creative artists you'll find anywhere. With a total of zero lyrics on the album, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones relies completely on the musical prowess of the band, and the record in no way disappoints. Every song, minus Beatles-inspired "Reflections Of Lucy" were composed entirely by Fleck, and this shows that his talent in musical composition is equal, if not somehow superior to his banjo playing talents. Produced entirely by the band themselves, the album cracked the Top 20 on the jazz charts, and also earned the album a Grammy nomination for "Best Jazz Album." Strangely enough, the bands' 1997 live version of "The Sinister Minister" would, in fact, win the Grammy for "Best Jazz Performance." Though their later work would be both chart toppers, as well as Grammy winners, it is on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones that one can find and experience the amazing groundwork for these later triumphs.

Béla himself takes center stage on many of the tracks, but each band member has plenty of time throughout the album to showcase their musical skill. From slow, soulful movements, to lightning-fast pick burners, Béla shows time and time again why he is so highly respected throughout the musical community. However, when it comes down to it, on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, Béla himself may very well be the LEAST innovate artist on the album. From the harmonica and guiro of Howard Levy to the programed drums and synth work by the man known as “Futureman,” (who is, in reality, the brother of bass legend, Victor Wooten) the Flecktones bring with them a cavalcade of musical expertise. Futreman is also notorious for sporting his one-of-a-kind "drumitar" at the amazing live performances of Béla Fleck And the Flecktones. Using all of these various instruments help to form soundscapes from space-age jazz to country-fused blues to some that simply defy description. It is this seemingly endless range of instrumentation that helps to bring even greater depth to Béla Fleck And The Flecktones.

As if the amazing talents of Béla weren’t enough, one third of The Flecktones is represented by the man who is arguably the greatest living bass player, Victor Wooten. Playing and innovating the instrument like nobody else on the planet, Wooten’s contributions are just as important as those of Béla, and the combination of the two is often nothings short of stunning. At their live shows, it is not uncommon for the duo to play the others' instrument mid-song, often trying to "mess" the other up, yet either musician rarely falters. Routinely approaching the bass with a "slap" or "pop" method, as opposed to the "normal" approach, the sound that Wooten produces, as well as the speed and variation he brings makes the basswork on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones sound like no other anywhere. There are even a few stunning moments on the album where Wooten goes all out and is truly doing "banjo rolls" on his bass, a feat that proves nearly impossible for nearly all other mortal bass players.

The terms "modern jazz" and "new age" have been thrown about carelessly over the past two decades. Nearly any artist that performs with minimal to no vocals, or is somehow "beyond description" gets tossed into one of these two categories. Bringing bluegrass roots and fusing it together with funk, blues, jazz, and electronica, the music of Béla Fleck And The Flecktones does, in fact, defy genre categorization. However, regardless of what you choose to "call" the music, there is no arguing that the music itself is nothing short of phenomenal. Easily accessible to any and all music fans, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones make some of the most original, yet undeniably fun and enjoyable music you'll find anywhere in the modern music scene. While each member spends ample time doing solo and side projects, when Béla Fleck And The Flecktones come together as a group, they are easily one of the most talented and extraordinary music groups on the planet. Though each of their albums is worth owning and enjoying, to truly understand how they came to their current place, one must own their stunning, self titled 1990 debut record.

Standout tracks: "Sea Brazil," "Sunset Road" and, "Tell It To The Gov'Nor."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

May 23: The Gun Club, "Fire Of Love"

Artist: The Gun Club
Album: Fire Of Love
Year: 1981
Label: Slash

Though their name might suggest otherwise, if Charlton Heston had a favorite band, chances are, it would not have been The Gun Club. Easily one of the most innovative and original bands to come out of the early 1980's Los Angeles music scene, the band took the organic sound that permeated a majority of their peers' music, and infused slide guitar and blues/country roots. Though they remained largely below the radar throughout their fifteen year career, they remain one of the most influential underground bands to rise from the Los Angeles music explosion. The Gun Club averaged nearly an album a year throughout their career, but their 1981 debut, Fire Of Love remains their finest work and an absolute musical masterpiece.

The Gun Club (who were originally called "The Creeping Ritual" until Black Flag and Circle Jerks frontman Kieth Morris suggested otherwise) brought a stripped down sound with a bit of country twang. The style and delivery would serve as the building blocks for groups like The Pixies, The Reverend Horton Heat, and The Von Blondes. This fusion of roots rock with punk rock can still be seen today, as it was really the first traces of what is now termed "psychobilly" music. The early traces are especially obvious on songs like the rocking and rolling, "Preaching The Blues" and "Ghost On The Highway." Fire Of Love also remains a massive influence of the "garage rock" sound that so many current bands attempt to present. White Stripes frontman, Jack White once referred to the brilliant music found on Fire Of Love by saying, "Why are these songs not taught in schools?"

As previously stated, musically, The Gun Club fall somewhere between punk, rockabilly, blues, and straightforward rock and roll. After original guitarist Brian Tristan left the band to join The Cramps, Ward Dotson joined The Gun Club and brought a brilliant lead and slide guitar along with him. It is Dotson's fantastic guitar playing that solidifies the country feeling that is present throughout the album. Again, this mixture of punk energy with country music roots was simply unheard of at the time, and few bands have presented the style better than you'll find on Fire Of Love. The rhythm section of Rob Ritter on bass and Terry Graham on drums rounds out the band, and the duo are the picture of perfection on every single track, proving that the band was more than capable in every musical approach they attempted. Sadly, due to a number of reasons, Fire Of Love would be the only album from The Gun Club to feature this amazing lineup, and is much the reason that the record remains their finest musical achievement.

When it comes to lead singers, there are few that can compare to the sound and style of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. With a stunning sound and range, Pierce's vocals, much like the music, take a country approach to the punk rock ethos. Often crooning and warbling like classic country singers, Jeffrey Lee Pierce brought an attitude and style that remains unmatched to this day. Along with his stunning vocal work, Pierce also lends rhythm and some lead guitar work to Fire Of Love. Tales of love, voodoo, death, sex, and drugs keep Fire Of Love in accessible "rock" territory, and make the songs even more universal. Though they are often darker and more powerful than your "average" rock song, the brilliance of each song is stunning time and time again. The songs are filled with black humor, though sometimes the humor is absent, and they are wild, haunting bits of mayhem, yet they are, at the same time, undeniably superb.

So many bands came out of Los Angeles at the end of the 1970's and the beginning of the 1980's that it is often hard to keep track of them all. While bands like Black Flag, X, and The Blasters remain relatively well known for their contributions, one simply cannot overlook the undeniable influence of a band like The Gun Club. With the unsurpassed vocal stylings of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and an equally unmatched fusion of country music roots and punk rock attitude, The Gun Club created a sound that remains all their own. Their stunning 1981 debut record, Fire Of Love, is their own album with the Dotson/Ritter/Graham lineup, and the combination, along with Pierce, is undoubtedly the finest grouping throughout the bands' history. Still hailed as one of the finest and most important records in music history, Fire Of Love is a phenomenal and refreshing album each and every time you listen to it, even nearly thirty years after its release.

Standout tracks: "Sex Beat," "She's Like Heroin To Me," and "Jack On Fire."

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22: Sly And The Family Stone, "Stand!"

Artist: Sly And The Family Stone
Album: Stand!
Year: 1969
Label: Sony

As we have previously discussed, certain artists are so heavily affiliated with their musical genre, that their names alone trigger the mood of said genre. Between the soul of James Brown and the psychedelic funk of George Clinton, there was the man who transformed the style: Sly Stone. Working beautiful, catchy melodies into peace and progress driven lyrics, all with brilliant funk and horn sections running underneath makes the music of Sly And The Family Stone simply irresistible. Marking the end of the first "era" of the bands' music, Sly And The Family Stone's 1969 release, Stand! is the more "accessible" of the bands' back to back musical masterpieces (we will discuss the other, the far more politically charged, There's A Riot Goin' On later in the year).

Sly And The Family Stone represent the archetype of rock and roll: honing their talent, building to worldwide success, and then completely crumbling under the pressure. Produced entirely by Sly himself, Stand! represents the moment in their career when the band broke through and became a headlining act across the globe. Truth be told, just three months after the release of Stand!, the band would steal the stage as arguably the finest act at the legendary Woodstock Music & Arts Fair. Stand! also yielded the bands' first #1 single, the often sampled "Everyday People" while the album itself reached #3 on the U.S. charts. Stand! produced an additional trio of high charting hits with "Sing A Simple Song," "I Want To Take You Higher," and the title track all finding commercial success. A small aspect of note on the album is that on the title track, it ends with a small "gospel" feel which is sonically different from the rest of the track. In fact, the final 50 seconds were recorded with "session" musicians, as a majority of the band was unavailable when Sly decided to finish the song.

Bringing together a full horn section, harmonica, and pianos, along with "standard" rock instruments helped to give Sly And The Family Stone a distinctive sound. However, it is truly the growling, thumping bass of Larry Graham that drives the sound of the band and served as the inspiration for later acts. In most other musical settings, the bass would be seen as overpowering, yet it is perfectly balanced against the rest of the instruments on the songs. The flawless horn playing of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson keeps the songs bright and moving, as they show their talent all over the musical and tempo spectrum. Drummer Greg Errico has his work cut out for him, as Sly's compositions run everywhere in both style and speed, yet Errico performs masterfully on every track. It is the combination of this pounding bass and the bright, poppy horns that create a perfect fusion between funk and the irresistible melodies that Sly has constructed. Later on Stand!, the band dives head-first into a thirteen minute instrumental track, "Sex Machine," which is dominated by Sly delivering "scat" vocals through a vocorder. Each member of the band takes a extended solo on the track, and, while in most cases such a song would come off as self indulgent, the track stands as a psychedelic jam of epic proportions.

While Sly himself handles an overwhelming majority of the vocal work on each of the bands' records, it is the group vocal work and harmonies that further strengthen the stature of this legendary group. Sly's bassy voice glides perfectly all over each track, and the mixture of harmonies, lead vocals, chanting, and yelling from the rest of the band provides a beautiful sound and depth to their music. Lyrically, Stand! foreshadows There's A Riot Goin' On with a few politically charged social critiques with tracks like "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and the aforementioned "Everyday People." The band also features the rather paranoid "Somebody's Watching You" which many see as an early indication of the approaching drug problems for Sly that would eventually lead to the demise of the band. However, Stand! also features some of the most enjoyable, fun songs of the entire decade. The oft-covered "Sing A Simple Song" and "I Want To Take You Higher" are flawless presentations of how the band perfectly melded their funk grooves with a delightful pop sensibility. It is this ability that makes the music found on Stand! a pure joy to experience time and time again.

While Jimi Hendrix and Santana may have come out of the Woodstock Music And Arts Fair with the most heavily circulated performances and most interesting stories, the fact is, the best performance of the festival belonged to Sly And The Family Stone. Featuring many songs off of their recently released Stand!, the band lit up the night and delivered a stellar, high-octane set. Led by multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone, the unmistakable combination of growling bass and bright horns make the music of Sly And The Family Stone nothing short of astonishing time and time again. Flawless musicianship, lyrics ranging from jovial to jarring, and wonderful vocal work truly set the band apart from others in a time when so many legendary bands were breaking into the mainstream. The middle child of a trio of brilliant recordings, Sly And The Family Stone's 1969 release, Stand! remains one of the greatest funk and pop records in history and is a refreshing musical experience each and every time you play the album.

Standout tracks: "I Want To Take You Higher," "Sing A Simple Song," and "Everyday People."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21: White Zombie, "La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1"

Artist: White Zombie
Album: La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1
Year: 1992
Label: Geffen

Aside from cliché tales of excess and a hole in the ozone layer, it goes without saying that there was not all that much "amazing" music to come out of the "hair metal" movement of the late 1980's. However, the "push back" against the trend DID yield a fair amount of significant musical contributions. By fusing the pop appeal of the "hair metal" style with other musical forms, bands like Soundgarden and a re-focused Guns N' Roses flourished at the onset of the 1990's. Taking a far darker, and far funkier approach to this new musical fusion was a band already nearly a decade into their career: New York City's own circus-style metalheads, White Zombie. The latter half of their career was scattered with a number of fantastic albums, but easily their finest work can be found in their 1992 breakthrough record, La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1.

The key to the success of La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 was undoubtedly the unlikely radio hit, "Thunder Kiss '65." The song itself is an ode to the 1965 film, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the notorious vocal sample in the middle of the song comes from the film. However, the song took quite some to catch on within the mainstream. The fact of the matter is, "Thunder Kiss '65" was released THREE times as a single before it caught the attention of anyone beyond metalheads. To make things even more unlikely, the person who caught onto the song was a young animator named Mike Judge. Soon after hearing it, Judge featured the video on his new cartoon, Beavis & Butthead. The youth of America quickly fell in love with the video (and the cartoon), and the rapid success of the single would lead to a Grammy nomination for "Best Metal Song" in 1993. "Thunder Kiss '65" has gone on to be featured in a number of films, video games, and it has been covered on recorded easily a dozen times since its release.

The band, who took their name from the 1932 Bela Legosi film of the same name, masterfully combine funky, frantic rhythms, with some of the most aggressive, crushing music of its time. A classic four piece, the bands' music centers around the driving, pulverizing guitar riffs from the man simply known as "J." When J rips into any of his lightning fast solos, it becomes clear that he is far more than a headbanger with three chords in his pocket. Drummer Ivan de Prume proves to be one of the finest drummers of the decade, constantly shifting tempos mid-song, and managing to incorporate things like tambourines into the heavy metal sound, without making it sound silly. Perhaps the most significant attribute of the music of White Zombie is in their bass player. Sean Yseult is without a doubt one of the most talented bass players in any metal-based band ever...she is also certainly one of the most attractive. Quickly becoming a "poster girl" for hard rockers and metalheads, Yseult was an underground icon in every sense of the word. With a combination of talent and looks that remain largely unrivaled to this day, her bass skill would eventually take her to a short stint with legendary goth-punk band, The Cramps.

As amazing as the music of White Zombie is, the band absolutely revolved around one man, the bands' founder, the one and only Rob Zombie. First off, combining his works with White Zombie, as well as his solo albums, the FACT is, Rob Zombie has more gold and platinum records than ANY other artist in the history of Geffen Records (that includes Nirvana, Aerosmith, and Snoop Doog, among others). Rob's signature gritty, borderline yelling, spooky vocal delivery is one of the most recognizable voices in the history of music. Throwing things like tact and filtering to the side, the lyrics of White Zombie are graphic tales of demons, devils, fast cars, and faster women. Singing with a sexy, sleazy, and snarky style, combined with his signature growl, the mix of the lyrical content and delivery give the music of White Zombie a strangely sensual appeal. However, those who are easily offended or "put off" my lyrics that go well beyond "suggestive" might want to skip this album...or get a life and enjoy this brilliant piece of musical mayhem!
Oh, if that's not enough to get you to go get this record, some guy named Iggy Pop lends his vocals on the track "Black Sunshine."

Simply put, there is no other band throughout the history of music that even remotely compares to the power and brilliance of White Zombie. Taking the power rhythms perfectly by bands like Metallica, and fusing them together with deep, funky grooves, and finishing them off with sinister, yet sexually charged lyrics makes this band quickly rise above the rest. Coming to prominence thanks to the success of "Thunder Kiss '65," White Zombie would solidify their place in the history books with their follow-up album, 1995's Astro Creep: 2000. Though they've not performed together in nearly a decade, both the band, as well as Rob Zombie himself remain relevant in today's music scene, and the band continues to be cited as an influence by many current metal and hard rock acts. Crating heart-pumping, loud and fast hard rock, White Zombie are a band the likes of which have never been seen. Their 1993 album,
La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 is an absolute musical masterpiece and should have a prominent place in every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Thunder Kiss '65," "Black Sunshine," and "Starface."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20: Public Enemy, "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back"

Artist: Public Enemy
Album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Year: 1988
Label: Def Jam

Throughout its history, rap music has usually changed slowly, with one style blending and then reforming into the next. This constant flow makes it difficult to ascertain exactly which artist(s) it was that changed the style into the new form. However, in the case of Public Enemy, there is no doubt that, from the moment their first album arrived, they permanently changed everything it meant to be a rapper. Taking the most aggressive, yet intelligent approach that had even been heard, both the music and lyrics of Public Enemy rewrote the rules of the genre, whilst simultaneously scaring the hell out of most of the word. Though each of their first four albums are absolute hip-hop classics, it is Public Enemy's sophomore effort, 1988's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, that rises above the others' as the groups finest effort.

Arriving just fifteen months after their earth-shattering debut, Yo! Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy's second record delivers on all of the promise of its predecessor, and then some. bringing some of the most hard hitting, pointed, and politically charged lyrics in music history, the name of the group was more than fitting, as Public Enemy were seen as an extremely dangerous act. The music was just as jarring, with amazing loops and soundscapes by the notorious Terminator X and "The Bomb Squad," and the stellar production of one Rick Rubin. Though appearing to be only moderately commercially successful a the time, the fact that such a "heavy" rap record cracked the Top 50 in those early days of rap is a statement in itself. Covered and referenced from artists like Rage Against The Machine and The Pharcyde, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back remains one of the most highly respected and influential rap albums ever recorded.

The music and beats created by The Bomb Squad were truly something that had never been heard, and the density within their compositions remains unrivaled to this day. Using samples from artists ranging from James Brown to David Bowie, from Big Audio Dynamite to Slayer, the sound in the finished product is nearly as remarkable as the diversity in the artists therein. Case in point is the legendary duet with Anthrax, "Bring Tha Noize." Though it would be re-recorded for Public Enemy's Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, the original version is worth hearing as well. The turntable work of Terminator X was also far more aggressive than any that had been heard previously. With his scratching and loops taking a more prominent place in the music than his peers, Terminator X used the first few Public Enemy records to prove that the turntables were an instrument as much as the beats or vocals on hip hop tracks. The combination of The Bomb Squad and Terminator X produced what can only be called a "wall of sound," and such feats have not been rivaled before or since, making their work that of legend.

The core of Public Enemy revolved around the juxtaposition between their two main rappers, Chuck D and Flava Flav. While in later years, Flav would fade more into a "hype man" role, his rhymes and work on their early records prove his ability as a top notch emcee. Chuck D remains one of the most exalted and revered rappers and minds of his generation. Spitting on topics from phone tapping to equal rights to black on black crime, no subject was taboo to Chuck D, and he presented each issue with an unforgiving clarity. Attacking one of the most relevant issues of the day, the classic "Night Of The Living Baseheads" is an all out assault on the plague of crack-cocaine usage by the African-American community. The song furthers the feeling of "danger" by the title, an obvious reference to the cult classic zombie movie, Night Of The Living Dead. Perhaps the best known song off of the album is the legendary, "Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos." A fictional tale being told in the voice of a Vietnam War draftee, the song contains some of Public Enemy's most famous lyrics. The opening lines, ""I got a letter from the government, the other day/I opened and read it, it said they were suckers. They wanted me for their army or whatever/picture me giving a damn /I said never!'"

From the revolutionary music and beats to the peerless lyrical work, there has never been another group like Public Enemy. The phenomenal walls of sound created by the piled sampling of The Bomb Squad, and mixed with the peerless turntable styles of Terminator X makes the sound of Public Enemy one of the most unique you'll ever hear. Setting the bar for the standard in "conscious" hip hop and pushing the boundaries on what could be addressed within rap, the group remains the finest example of everything hip hop should be. From the rhymes and comical character of Flava Flav to the hard hitting, rebel rousing rapping of Chuck D, there is simply no other duo in hip hop history that can even remotely compare. Though each of Public Enemy's albums are nothing short of remarkable, their second record, 1988's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is an absolute hip hop classic and one of the most influential records ever made.

Standout tracks: "She Watch Channel Zero," "Night Of The Living Baseheads," and "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19: The Jesus And Mary Chain, "Psychocandy"

Artist: The Jesus And Mary Chain
Album: Psychocandy
Year: 1985
Label: Blanco Y Negro

Certain bands have a sound and impact that is so immeasurable, it often eclipses the band itself. While most of the time, these are some of the most well known bands in history, once in awhile, the band in questions stays relatively “underground.” These bands are usually ones who push musical boundaries well into “avant” territory, and make some of the most original sounds you’ll find anywhere. In what can only be described as a combination of Beach Boys harmonies, combined with Velvet Underground instrumentation, and the attitude of The Stooges, the sound of The Jesus And Mary Chain is truly like nothing else ever. Influencing bands from Dinosaur Jr. to Nine Inch Nails to more recent acts like My Bloody Valentine, the sound and style of The Jesus And Mary Chain remains fresh and breathtaking to this day. Releasing six brilliant records over their career, few are finer than their 1985 debut, the legendary Psychocandy.

The formula that The Jesus And Mary Chain use seems simply: take the harmonies of Brian Wilson, put in plenty of feedback and distortion, and turn it all up “to eleven.” However, it is the mood that is created by this combination that makes the music on Psychocandy so amazing. The band themselves produced the entire record, and it is perhaps this lack of outside influence that enabled the band to present such an amazing new sound. The only legitimate outside help on the record came from engineer John Loder, who would later go on to produce records for the likes of Fugazi, PJ Harvey, and Babes In Toyland, among others. Psychocandy was originally released on Rough Trade Records subsidiary, Blanco Y Negro (later home to Dinosaur Jr, Everything But The Girl, and The Veils), but the act was quickly picked up by Warner Bros. for distribution. The band remained with Blanco Y Negro as their primary release label until a one-off with SubPop in 1998, and is easily the most successful band that the label has ever seen.

With a base of echo-filled, airy tracks, musically, there is a consistent, dark, somewhat haunting mood throughout Psychocandy. It is this ability to create gloomy, melancholy moods, yet instill a pop-appeal to the songs that makes the music of The Jesus And Mary Chain so sensational. The band revolves around the guitar and vocal work of brothers Jim and William Reid. Writing all of the music and lyrics, the band had a number of different members, with the Reid brothers being the constant. The epitome of the magic in the bands musical fusion can be found in the song "My Little Underground." With a massive wall of crunching guitars in the background, the band overlays a smooth, sweet vocal track and the combination makes the song an unlikely candidate for the term "radio friendly." The band mostly sticks to this "aggressive music" with more relaxed vocals, yet at a handful of points on Psychocandy, the band pushes towards a “hardcore” or “thrash” sound, most notably on the song “In A Hole.”

While the content of the lyrics centers around the usual rock themes of girls, drugs, and general apathy, it is not so much "what" is being said, but moreso "how" the lyrics are delivered. The vocals, which aside from "It's So Hard," are delivered entirely by Jim Reid. With a strangely calming, yet undeniably intense voice, his singing is as equally as wistful as the music behind his vocals. Part Lou Reed, part Robert Smith, and part H.R. (from the Bad Brains), the voice of Jim Reid is nothing short of stunning, and absolutely perfect for the music created by The Jesus And Mary Chain. Weaving in and out of the musical textures, there are times when the vocals are incomprehensible, yet they still fit in beautifully with the earth-shattering backing music. At times, Reid almost comes off as almost "bored" with the singing, but a careful listen shows that it is simply the mood of the song that demands such lyrical presentation. This style of singing has been copied countless times since, and it is very much the inspiration behind the style of a majority of "goth" and "emo" singers.

The Jesus And Mary Chain remain a band that still have not received all of the credit they deserve for their contributions to the world of music. True musical pioneers, they released nothing but sensational albums throughout their fifteen year career. Taking equal parts of The Beach Boys, The Velevet Underground, and Black Sabbath, their eerie, dark moods somehow also had a wonderful pop feel simultaneously. Using earth-shaking, blasting guitars, and some of the most ethereal vocals ever recorded, The Jesus And Mary Chain remain unrivaled musically to this day. Impacting countless bands, and creating the groundwork for genres from "industrial" to "emo," the importance of the band cannot be overstated. On a personal note, there are only a handful of albums throughout my life that have "stopped me in my tracks." The Jesus And Mary Chain's 1985 debut, Psychocandy, happens to be one of these records, and it is an absolute essential for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Just Like Honey," "Never Understand," and "Something's Wrong."

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18: Wire, "Pink Flag"

Artist: Wire
Album: Pink Flag
Year: 1977
Label: Harvest

The terms "original" and "punk music" are often an oxymoron when used in the same sentence. Though not always a bad thing, the punk form usually sticks to a very consistent sound and style. When artists take any creative liberty, they are usually placed into a different genre. However, if one takes the term "punk" as more of a mindset, as opposed to a sound itself, then the term is easily applied to a far larger group of bands. As punk exploded at the end of the 1970's, countless bands on both sides of the Atlantic were releasing great, fresh records. While groups like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned were dominating the UK punk charts, there were a number of lesser known bands creating amazing music under the radar. At the forefront of this group is Wire, a group that purposefully kept their distance from the "punk mainstream," mostly due to the fact that, from the start, they pushed the boundaries on what "fit" the genre. Making themselves instant legends, their 1977 debut album, Pink Flag, is undoubtedly one of the most amazing and most important records in the history of music.

Being a band without mainstream notoriety worked perfectly for Wire, allowing them to fully explore their style of punk rock. Pink Flag boasts 21 songs, yet clocks in at just under 36 minutes. Truly going after the minimalist approach, Wire never adds anything, music or lyrics, if it is not absolutely necessary. This does not mean that the their music is empty or even sparse. What makes Wire so brilliant is their ability to take the formal structure of rock and roll, and condense it down to its purest, then kick that out in a frantic, intense burst of musical brilliance. The band rarely features a song with the traditional "verse chorus verse" structure, and they rarely repeat any musical pattern. This style of approaching music served as the basis for countless bands that followed, from groups like Minor Threat to The Breeders and even can be heard in the early work of R.E.M. The influence of Wire remains to this day, with notable credit appearing in the form of Minor Threat's phenomenal cover of "12XU" and, if you can recall the 1994 hit song "Connection" by Elastica, you can find the core riff lifted from Pink Flag's, "Three Girl Rhumba."

The musical makeup of Wire is that of a traditional "guitar, bass, drums" rock group. At the core of the groups' music is guitarist Bruce Gilbert. From wild, swift, crushing punk chords, to more soulful, if not bluesy sounds, Gilbert shines on every song. Gilbert's musical range and experimentation would reach its apex years later with his side project, Dome. The other half of this side project is Wire bass player, Graham Lewis. On Pink Flag, Lewis provides moods from poppy to outright haunting, innovating new sounds and approaches to his instrument. Rounding out the musicians is drummer Robert Gotobed. Taking a far more subtle and free approach to drumming than a majority of his contemporaries, the impact that Gotobed (real name Robert Grey) had on the sound of Wire is immeasurable. The trio of musicians fuse perfectly together, regardless of they are playing an bouncing, punk rager, or a more moody, darker sound. It is this breadth in stylistic ability that truly sets Wire apart from nearly every other band that was recording at the time.

Bringing a flawless combination of attitude and talent to Pink Flag is vocalist Colin Newman. Though there are times on the album when the lyrics are somewhat incomprehensible, Newman compensates with the way in which he delivers the words. Proving that often times, it is not "what" you say, but "how" you say it, the overall vocal work of Newman is nothing short of fantastic. Again, the lack of "traditional" song structure makes the vocals even more unique, and aside from a handful of occasions, the lack of a chorus makes Newman's vocals even more unique. Lyrically, the lyrical themes are as wide-ranging and minimalist as the music itself. While many of the lyrics are very straightforward, the band closes the record with a bit of a stand against "the establishment." The song, "12XU" is a rather unsubtle euphemism, with the "X" standing for a choice four letter word that would have made the album far more difficult to market. The spirit behind the song is clear, and the tune has been covered countless times, the most notable begin the aforementioned Minor Threat version.

Though not commercially successful by any stretch of the imagination, Wire's Pink Flag is still largely regarded as one of the most influential and amazing albums ever recorded. Offering a fresh and unorthodox approach to the punk genre, Wire perfected the "stripped down" technique that countless other bands had attempted with lesser results. Presenting sounds from dark, almost post-punk soundscapes, to rapid punk structures, to what can clearly be seen as the foundation of the "hardcore" genre, Pink Flag is simply stunning in just how good the band is in each style. While many of the songs may seem "unfinished" at first listen, it quickly becomes clear that it is not that they are incomplete, they are just perfectly condensed, and such concentrated musical perfection has rarely been heard before or since. While other bands who came out of the late 70's punk explosion certainly achieved greater notoriety, there are few bands that have created an album as stunning as Wire's 1977 release, Pink Flag. The influence of the album remains strong today and it is absolutely a record that everyone should own and love.

Standout tracks: "Three Girl Rhumba," "Strange," and "12XU."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 17: Steve Poltz, "Chinese Vacation"

Artist: Steve Poltz
Album: Chinese Vacation
Year: 2003
Label: 98 Pounder

When it comes to the finest songwriters of the past twenty years, one simply cannot ignore the sheer brilliance of San Diego's Steve Poltz. Though perhaps best known for co-writing Jewel's mega-hit, "You Were Meant For Me," it is Poltz's solo work that makes him one of the greatest musicians in history. Always attempting to add new moods to the traditional "singer songwriter" style, Poltz consistently creates some of the most quriky and brilliant songs in today's music scene. From fronting The Rugburns, to co-writing and performing with Jewel, to his own amazing solo releases, Poltz seems to have an endless supply of amazing songs. Taking nearly five full years after his solo debut, Poltz released his spectacular follow up with 2003's Chinese Vacation.

There were two major factors behind the delay in the second album from Steve Poltz. First off, Chinese Vacation marks Poltz's first release on his own label, 98 Pounder Records. Secondly, following the attacks of "9/11," Poltz scrapped the album and started again from scratch. Poltz seems to even reference the event during the song, "You Remind Me" when he sings the line, " aero-plane, gone astray..." However, Poltz's trademark wit is all over the record, often hiding the beautiful themes within his words. With titles like "Give You Up For Lent" and an outstanding over of TLC's, "Waterfalls," Chinese Vacation shows the seemingly boundless talent and appeal that lays within Steve Poltz. Much of the appeal of the record is the fact that it is clear that, at the end of the day, Poltz loves his profession and truly enjoys making music. It is the conveyance of this love that makes the music of Steve Poltz a true treasure. His love for music comes through even more clearly in his eclectic, often wild live performances, where Poltz is usually having as much, if not more fun, than the audience.

While a majority of the music of Steve Poltz is simply the man and his guitar, throughout his solo studio recordings, Poltz experiments with everything from string sections to having the Mighty Mighty Bosstones lend some horns. On Chinese Vacation, Poltz incorporates brilliant string arrangements, with his guitar in the front, and the resulting musical landscape is nothing short of stunning. With fellow singer-songwriter Billy Harvey jumping in with a wide assortment of instruments, along with fantastic pedal-steel work from Mike Hardwick, the musical variety on Chinese Vacation helps the record to transcend the "guy and guitar" genre. With backing sounds ranging from an accordion to a wurlitzer, and even a kazoo, it is the ecclectic nature of Chinese Vacation, contrasted with the consistantly amazing lyrics and singing from Poltz that makes this album so enjoyable.

Steve Poltz has one of the most pure and universally pleasing voices in todays music scene. Using no "studio tricks," the result on his records is always organic and honest, furthering the authenticity within his music. Poltz's voice is always clear and calm, and even when he gets excited and a bit wild in the songs, the lyrical presentation never suffers. The true magic of Steve Poltz has always lain in his absolutely sensational lyrics. Constantly hopping the line between silly and smart, there is truly no other talent on the planet like Poltz. While many will write songs like the title track off as "silly," underneath the clever lyrics happens to be a hip, beautiful love song...mostly...because sometimes Poltz's silly is just silly...and there's nothing wrong with that. When Poltz gets serious though, the results are always something beyond stunning. Case in point is the heartbreakingly gorgeous, "Stax." Easily one of the most soul-bearing, poignant songs ever written, the song represents just how brilliant a talent there is in the pen of Poltz.

Steve Poltz is a musical talent of epic proportions, plain and simple. Releasing music for the better part of twenty years, Poltz has written some of the most amazing and beautiful songs of that time period. With an uncanny ability to write both silly and sentimental songs, often within the same tune, Poltz's music is always original and enjoyable. Bringing a live show that is consistently as memorable, Steve Poltz is truly a hidden gem within the current world of music. Each of his albums, whether with The Rugburns, or his solo releases, are all worth treasuring, as are the myriad of live recordings that openly circulate. After taking a few years off following his solo debut, Steve Poltz recorded, scrapped, and re-recorded his brilliant 2003 album, Chinese Vacation. Released on his own 98 Pounder Records, it remains an absolute essential for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Chinese Vacation," "Stax," and "Lost Without You."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

May 16: Paul Simon, "There Goes Rhymin' Simon"

Artist: Paul Simon
Album: There Goes Rhymin' Simon
Year: 1973
Label: Warner Bros.

Few artists have enjoyed such long lasting success as Paul Simon. Whether as half of the legendary "Simon & Garfunkel," working solo, or attempting to create Broadway shows, Simon has found success in every area he pursued. After breaking up with Art Garfunkel in 1970, Simon took two years off before starting his solo carer. After releasing a self titled album that, in essence, picked up where Simon & Garfunkel left off, Simon began exploring new musical territory. Then, in May of 1973, Simon released what may be his best solo effort ever, the sensational album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon.

Throughout his entire career, Paul Simon has proved to be one of the finest lyricists ever, as well as the owner of an amazing voice. What sets this album apart from the rest of the Paul Simon catalog is that, with There Goes Rhymin' Simon, he begins to explore new music styles, ranging from R&B to gospel to blues. With the help of musical giants like Quincy Jones arranging strings and Phil Ramone helping with production, it is little surprise that the album turned out as good as it did. The albums' first single, the immortal "Kodachrome" reached #2 in the U.S.A., yet went unreleased in the U.K. due to strict trademark violation laws (if you look at the liner notes from the U.S. version, Kodak required Simon to list the trademark). The album gained similar success, and remains Simon's most commercially successful album to date.

The fact that a majority of There Goes Rhymin' Simon was recorded in Jackson, MS, provides a clear reason as to the sound and feel of many of the songs on the album. With guest vocalists, The Dixieland Hummingbirds, contributing throughout the record, there is a more soulful, almost Motown feel to a majority of the record. This places in stark contrast to the simply, folky pop songs that Simon had been singing for nearly a decade. Using multiple guitar and keyboard tracks, full horn and string sections, and a handful of backing vocalists, the group effort on There Goes Rhymin' Simon further contributes to the album sounding like nothing else in Simon's catalog. Though there are still a few tracks that go back to Simon's "guitar and vocals" roots, it is the musical exploration on this album that served as the catalyst for later albums in which he would be comfortable in exploring foreign sounds.

The soft, steady voice of Paul Simon in many ways defined the folk-pop movement of the 1960's. Truly unmistakable, the calm beauty of Simon's voice has enabled him to have universal appeal throughout nearly five decades. Lyrically, Simon is nothing short of a genius when it comes to penning brilliant lyrics. Whether he is turning cliché likes like "One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor" into a clever song or flipping rhymes about his childhood, Simon is almost peerless when it comes to writing "American anthems." Nearly all of the lyrics of the aforementioned "Kodachrome" are "American classics," perhaps the most notable being the opening line, where Simon sings, "...when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Statements like this still stand the test of time, as there are few generations that cannot relate to such vivid and universal thoughts. It is this limitless lyrical appeal that has helped Paul Simon to remain relevant for nearly fifty years, and brought similar success to the sales of There Goes Rhymin' Simon.

Releasing chart topping hits since the early 1960's, Paul Simon is one of the most recognizable figures in the history of music. From his simple, folk roots to the polyrhythmic AfroBeat inspired records of the 1980's, to his foray into Broadway in the 1990's, Simon has found success in every avenue he has explored. With one of the purest, most classic voices of all time, and a pen the likes of which have rarely been seen, Paul Simon is truly a musical giant among men. As his solo career began to flourish, Paul Simon began to push the boundaries of his own musical sound, incorporating the styles of gospel, R&B, soul, and many others. Expanding his backing band in both size and scope, Simon fused the sound that made him famous into countless new directions, yielding amazing results. The beginning of these experiments occurred in 1973, with his album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon, and the record remains a stunning and beautiful musical release to this day.

Standout tracks: "Kodachrome," "Something So Right," and "Loves Me Like A Rock."