Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30: Telefon Tel Aviv, "Map Of What Is Effortless"

Artist: Telefon Tel Aviv
Album: Map Of What Is Effortless
Year: 2004
Label: Hefty!

Much like European artists struggle with creating quality hip hop music, so is the case with U.S. based artists and the genre of electronica. While there are, of course, a number of exceptions in each case, an overwhelming majority of the time, the statement remains true. One of the biggest surprises in in the ambient/down tempo scene in the last decade came from a pair of high school friends from Louisiana who called themselves Telefon Tel Aviv. Creating breathtaking ambient soundscapes, and sprinkling them with brilliant beats and an overall dark mood, the music they create is some of the finest in the genres history. Finding the way to make a consistent, complete, and outstanding down beat record, without presenting the same formula on every track, the duo are truly one of the best pairings that the genre has ever seen. Releasing just three albums before the sudden death of one of the group members, the duo are nothing short of phenomenal on their sophomore album, 2004's Map Of What Is Effortless.

The albums' title is wonderfully ironic, as the record itself is perfect in every sense of the word, from beginning to end. The albums' cover offers a brilliant visual description of the sound within, as many of the tracks are, to be cliché, smooth and sweet, and they almost drip into your ears, relaxing you. Crisp production (done by the duo), multi-layered, rich musical textures, and varied enough songs to keep things from being anything near mundane, Map Of What Is Effortless is truly a blissful musical experience. This is where the "effortless" part of the title rings true. To fully appreciate and enjoy Telefon Tel Aviv's amazing musical masterpiece, one needs nothing more than the album and an open mind, the duo take care of the rest. The album almost drifts by, leaving gorgeous textures and images in its wake. While many albums that get this deep into ambient grooves end up lulling listeners to sleep, Telefon Tel Aviv keeps the mind active with brilliant compositions, yet the album is never startling or loud. Even when the music gets a bit more uptempo, like on the somewhat sarcastic, "My Week Beats Your Year," the mellow mood behind the record remains unscathed, and the change somehow works perfectly. One simply cannot overstate how universally appealing Map Of What Is Effortless truly is; even for those who have no exposure to the genre, the album is intoxicating and addictive from the very first listening.

Using a pair of computers and a variety of different software, along with a pair of amazing vocalists, Telefon Tel Aviv simply make music like nothing else on the planet. All of Map Of What Is Effortless is absolutely stunning in the musical sense, as the duo created patterns and melodies that truly eclipsed anything else that was being done anywhere in music at the time. Telefon Tel Aviv is, in fact, two guys who go by the names Charles Cooper and Joshua Eustis. Neither of them had any previous work to their credit, so the fact that they are were able to create such fantastic music "out of the gate" is a testament to their talent. The soundscapes they create truly are astounding, from the deep, whispering "What Is Was Will Never Again" to the beautifully melancholy "I Lied," the pair finds endless creative spins on the foundations of the style. Relying mostly on simple drum loops and synthesizers, it is often the additional instrumentation that sets the album aside from its peers. Writing arrangements for everything from flutes and harps to a large string section or simple finger snapping, Telefon Tel Aviv's understanding and ability to utilize such a wide range of instruments takes their music into the stratosphere. Cooper and Eustis have an amazing talent for understanding just the right amount of computer blips and other sound effects to give each song a spectacular sound, yet the additional sounds are never done to excess. While the songs on Map Of What Is Effortless are anything but sparse, they are simultaneously never overpowering, creating a truly euphoric musical experience.

Telefon Tel Aviv presents a pair of different vocalists throughout the songs on Map Of What Is Effortless. While each as their own sound and style, each of the vocalists blend perfectly with the music, and the album has an amazing sense of cohesion. Guitar player, singer, and songwriter, Damon Aaron, has worked with everyone from Breakestra to I-Wolf, and he takes co-writing credit on each song on which he is featured on Map Of What Is Effortless. To say the least, his performance is nothing short of breathtaking on "I Lied," and his smooth, somewhat dejected tone on each song that he sings helps to perfect the overall mood of the record. While many may not realize it, the female vocals are performed by someone who was plenty famous before her work with Telefon Tel Aviv. At just seventeen years old, Lindsay Anderson played trumpet for the recording of 1982's Chariots Of Fire and also performed with the 1980's pop group, Wham! Over the past decade, she has been featured with down tempo artists like L'Altra and Slicker as well as on the other albums from Telefon Tel Aviv. The vocals she lends to Map Of What Is Effortless are as dulcet and elegant as any others recorded in the genre, and they also play a wonderful contrast to the vocals of Aaron. Much in the same manner that the pairing of Cooper and Eustis make the music perfect, so does the vocal duo of Aaron and Anderson, making Map Of What Is Effortless a superb record in every aspect.

Within any genre of electronic music, it is exceptionally hard to find a "complete" album as most artists simply cannot make an albums' worth of diverse, yet similar songs. An overwhelming majority of the time, there are either "throw away" tracks, or songs that are so divergent from the overall mood, that they end up ruining the album. More to the point, electronic music of worth rarely comes out of the United States. Bucking both of these trends, Louisiana based duo, Telefon Tel Aviv, create some of the most breathtaking and complete musical experiences in the history of the down tempo/ambient genre with the three albums they have released. Presenting elegant beats, with subdued, yet rich musical textures, their albums are the true definition of the word "bliss." Adding in vocals from Damon Aaron and Lindsay Anderson gives the songs a fantastic diversity, and the combination makes Map Of What Is Effortless one of the true great albums of the genre. The amount of talent found within group members Charles Cooper and Joshua Eustis is undeniable, and it makes the sudden death of Cooper in January of 2009 even more tragic. Each of the groups' three albums are well worth owning, but their 2004 release, Map Of What Is Effortless is their dour dé force, and easily one of the most spactecular albums in the history of the genre.

Standout tracks: "I Lied," "My Week Beats Your Year," and "Map Of What Is Effortless."

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29: Television, "Marquee Moon"

Artist: Television
Album: Marquee Moon
Year: 1977
Label: Elektra

Television, who hold the distinction as being the first rock band EVER to play at the famed CBGB's club in New York City, may not have the name recognition of The Ramones or Patti Smith, but of all the "Bowery bands," they are easily one of the most important. While the attitude and sparse "feel" to the music is as present as any of their contemporaries, this is where any similarities to their peers ceases. The biggest difference is that, to put it simply, the music of Television is FAR more musical than any of their peers. Writing "complete" songs, instead of the quick, jolting numbers of a majority of the punk pioneers, Television was out to prove that there was more to the punk aesthetic than was thought. Much of the bands' influence can still be felt in today's music, and genres like "post punk" and "new wave" may very well have never existed had it not been for the innovative work of Television. Releasing a pair of brilliant studio records before breaking up, Television's 1977 debut record, Marquee Moon, remains one of the most important and highly regarded albums ever recorded.

When one speaks of Marquee Moon, it is impossible NOT to talk about the title track itself. With the complete version (found on the 2003 remaster) clocking in at nearly eleven minutes, and the original release fading out about a minute earlier, it is truly THE epic song of the genre. The song itself, which features long guitar solos throughout, is, in many ways, one of the few occurrences of what could be considered a "jam" punk song. Amazingly, the entire song was recorded in a single take, though drummer Billy Ficca was under the impression that they were only rehearsing. Perhaps part of the reason that Marquee Moon is so much more musical than other releases of the genre is due to producer Andy Johns. As the younger brother of Glyn Johns (owner of Olympic Studios in London), Andy produced and engineered records for the likes of Joni Mitchell and Blind Faith. But Andy is easily best known for his work on Led Zeppelin IV and the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street. Another aspect of interest about Marquee Moon is that the cover photo was, in fact, taken by the often controversial artist, Robert Maplethorpe. On a final note, it is, in fact both Television, as well as Marquee Moon, that are subject to abuse and ridicule from U.K. legends, The Damned, on their song, "Idiot Box."

Keeping things sparse and open, the music of Television takes the "no frills" approach of punk rock, yet refuses to sacrifice beautiful melodies and quality musicianship. At the core of the music of Television is the dual guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. The way in which the duo trade off between lead and rhythm parts, playing superb solos and riffs, is one of the main reasons that their sound is so different. It is also the guitar playing that makes Television sound more like a more "traditional" rock band as opposed to anything having to do with the burgeoning punk scene. The interplay between the two musicians is perhaps no more clear than on Marquee Moon's stunning title track. Yet, even when one may get lost in the fantastic music, the reality is, most of the time, the guitarists are simply making the traditional "three chord punk" sound like something far more musically involved. Though Fred Smith was the bands' second bass player (co-founder Richard Hell left the band in 1975), it is very much due to his skilled work that the band was able to push their sound to the next level. Not to be confused with Fred "Sonic" Smith, "this" Fred Smith was a far more proficient musician, and the band would have never found similar success without his contributions. Drummer Billy Ficca brings a more jazzy style to his drums than any of the other drummers of the "Bowery" scene. His playing is also far more forward in the mix on Marquee Moon, and yet, the tone he achieves on his kit retain the sparse, urgent feel that defines the punk sound. Though many of their songs have a far slower tempo, and lack the yelling of most punk records, there is little doubt that the core elements behind the aesthetic are just as present, and Marquee Moon proves that there is far more to "punk rock" than had previously been thought.

Band founder, guitarist, song writer, and singer Tom Verlaine is undoubtedly one of the most talented and amazing musicians in history. With a voice that is a strange combination of peers like David Byrne, Patti Smith, and even a bit of Iggy Pop, there is truly nobody that sounds similar. Singing with great pitch, it is the somewhat detached tone, with a slight sense of disdain in Verlaine's voice that makes the record unquestionably punk rock. While his voice usually stays in the same pitch range, it is the perfect compliment to the underlying music, and there are numerous occasions where his sound makes the music extremely reminiscent of The Velvet Underground. Many singers on both sides of the Atlantic have taken from Verlaine's vocal style, and elements of both his sound and delivery are still heard throughout music to this day. On top of being an outstanding guitar player and singer, Tom Verlaine was also a top notch song writer. That is what makes Marquee Moon so sensational; each song is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether it is the detective story of "Prove It" or more abstract songs of love and life like "Venus" and "Elevation," Verlaine's lyrics are simply amazing. Again, unlike many of his contemporaries, the lyrics are all clearly delivered, and the diversity in subject matter and sound style further separate Marquee Moon from anything else in music history. While the music on Marquee Moon is nothing short of phenomenal, it is the writing and singing of Tom Verlaine that truly takes the album from "excellent" to "legendary."

Many other bands have achieved far more commercial success than Television, yet few have even come close to the musical mastery that is on display throughout Marquee Moon. Preserving the musical aspect that made early punk bands like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges so outstanding, Television proved that true punk did not need to sacrifice musicianship in favor of impact or sense of urgency. The album is truly a "crossover" record, as it straddles the line between punk and traditional rock, and is undoubtedly the catalyst for what became the "post punk" and "new age" genres. Bands like Joy Division, Gang Of Four, and even more modern artists like The Strokes and Jeff Buckley owe much of their sound and success to the pioneering efforts of Television. The unmatched talent of the quartet, combined with the extraordinary writing and singing of Tom Verlaine truly make Television one of the most important and sensational bands in music history. Sadly suffering the fate of many great bands, the group only lasted a few short years (though they re-formed in the early 1990's for a bit), yet every piece of their recorded catalog is nothing short of phenomenal. High atop their other records, as well as nearly every album of their peers stands their magnificent, and indispensable 1977 masterpiece, Marquee Moon.

Standout tracks: "Venus," "Marquee Moon," and "Prove It."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 28: Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Time Out"

Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Album: Time Out
Year: 1959
Label: Columbia

An overwhelming majority of famous jazz musicians earned their fame because they pushed the limits of the genre into new territory and created new styles. However, there are equally amazing jazz greats who not only created fantastic music, but were able to keep the music within the realm of "pop" sensibilities. High atop this list is one of jazz music's finest legends, easily one of the greatest jazz pianists in history, Dave Brubeck. While he made countless amazing musical contributions on his own, his work with his "classic" quartet remains some of the most exceptional and influential music of his career. Well into his sixth decade of releasing superb jazz compositions, few musicians have had as much success over such a long period of time. Understandably, his recorded catalog is enormous, and it can be difficult to decide where to start with a musician of his caliber. The fact is, while he has piles of top notch records, his finest, and most influential recording can be found within his quartet's celebrated 1959 release, Time Out.

While it may seem as if nothing within the albums' title could be significant, it is actually a rather clever title that perfectly describes the reason why the album is so significant. At first listen, the music found on Time Out may seem quite "standard" jazz music. However, the reality is, it was on this record that Brubeck became cutting edge, as he explored various time signatures outside of the "traditional" 4/4 and 3/4. Brubeck went all over the place musically, from 6/4 to an outrageous (for the time) 9/8 on the song, "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Truth be told, Columbia Records were VERY hesitant to release the record, as they and many critics felt that tampering with such traditions was musical blasphemy. However, as they usually are, the critics and record label were completely wrong, as the classing song, "Take Five" became the first million selling jazz single in music history. The song, which happens to be played in the rarely heard "quintuple time," was actually not composed by Brubeck, but instead by the quartets' saxophone player, Paul Desmond. Powered by these two brilliant songs, the album reached number two on the charts, and in 2005, it was selected as one of fifty albums to be placed into the National Recording Library. One side note on the album, the song, "Kathy's Waltz," is, in fact, misspelled. It should have read "Cathy's Waltz," as it was composed for Brubeck's daughter, Cathy Brubeck.

As he was already a decade into his career, the group that Dave Brubeck had assembled as his quartet were, needless to say, some of the finest jazz players in the land. A number of musicians had already been through the ranks of the quartet, but in 1958, Brubeck found a trio of other musicians with whim he gelled perfectly, and thus, the famous "classic Brubeck Quartet" was formed. Coming out of the "cool jazz" scene of Los Angeles, Paul Desmond remains one of the most highly respected sax players in history. The contrast between his own more relaxed playing and Brubeck's more hard, polytonal approach is one of the elements that made the quartet so stellar. With one of the most perfect double bass techniques ever, Eugene "The Senator" Wright, gives all of the compositions on Time Out a wonderfully deep and rich feel. Having already played with the likes of Stan Kenton, and having turned down an invitation to join the bands of both Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, drummer Joe Morello may shine brightest on Time Out. With his resumé alone, he is one of the greatest jazz drummers ever, but the way in which he dazzles on the unorthodox time signatures is the true testament to how amazingly talented he was on drums. Morello is also famous as he was the teacher for both Danny Gottleib and Max Weinberg among many others. Each of the three musicians who joined Dave Brubeck for his famous quartet went on to lead their own bands, but it was their time as a group where they gained their most notoriety.

The quartet's namesake, Dave Brubeck, is easily one of the most diverse and influential jazz pianists in the history of music. Playing everything from extremely traditional and refined pieces to some of the loudest and most unorthodox parts, there are few pianists with the talent and range of Brubeck. It is Brubeck's ability to adapt his non-traditional time signatures and melodies into a sound that is very listenable and understandable that makes him one of the "household names" of jazz music. Aside from the aforementioned "Take Five," Brubeck composed every song on Time Out, and the songs give great insight into just how far his taste and ability in style ranged. From the slow and beautiful melodies of "Strange Meadow Lark" to the bouncing, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" to the swinging "Pick Up Sticks," Brubeck truly knows no musical bounds. It is also Brubeck's ability to keep his ego in check and let the other members of his quartet shine that makes his music so sensational. Though his own solos and melodies are nothing short of brilliant, letting the group "truly" be a quartet of four equals helps to life then entire group beyond the sum of its parts. In both his ability to compose and play extraordinary pieces, as well as his ability to surround himself with some of the finest musicians in history, Dave Brubeck is a true legend of jazz music.

Few jazz musicians have achieved the title and notoriety of "household name." A majority of the ones who have, have done so due to their avant and experimental style of playing and composing. While on the surface, the music of Dave Brubeck may not seem anything "odd" or extreme, it is the subtleties within his compositions that vaulted his music above his peers and helped him to indeed become a household name throughout the world. While his phenomenal talent is undeniable, the other three musicians who help to make up his "classic" Dave Brubeck Quartet are equally skilled, and their combined talents catapult the group into the stratosphere of great jazz groupings. Having released well over one hundred recordings over his sixty year career, the catalog of Dave Brubeck is by far, one of the largest of any artist in the history of music. Throughout this time, he has penned some of the most famous pieces in jazz, and his influence can be felt throughout nearly every genre of recorded music. Within this mountain of music, there are of course, countless outstanding records, but it is the Dave Brubeck Quartet's 1959 release, Time Out, that stands above the rest as their crowning achievement, and undoubtedly one of the most important records in both jazz history, as well as the overall history of music.

Standout tracks: "Blue Rondo a la Turk," "Take Five," and "Kathy's Waltz."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27: Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, "Trout Mask Replica"

Artist: Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
Album: Trout Mask Replica
Year: 1969
Label: Reprise

Go an listen to the strangest, most avant record you can think of...I'll wait. Now, go listen to any recording from Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band and be amazed at how suddenly "normal" the music you chose suddenly sounds. Pulling elements of jazz, folk, and just outright odd sounds, there is truly nothing else in the history of music that even remotely resembles the music created by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. Though The Magic Band saw multiple lineup changes over their nearly twenty year existence, the group centered around the ideas of Captain Beefheart, and their sound has had a profound influence on everything from punk to jazz. One of the most obvious links is that listeners can clearly hear the enormous impact that Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band had on groups like The Fall, Primus, and even Joan Osborne covered one of their songs. Easily the finest recording of the groups career came on their third album, their 1969 release, Trout Mask Replica.

Many musicians and writers have noted before that, if there ever was a musical recording that truly personified everything it meant to "be" an artist, it is most likely Trout Mask Replica. When one examines how Trout Mask Replica came to be, there is one name that suddenly makes the stunning sound on the album almost a bit understandable: Frank Zappa. Zappa, who had just completed his first solo record since leaving The Mothers Of Invention, seems the perfect producer and collaborator for the highly experimental approach of Captain Beefheart. Though Zappa does lend his voice to a pair of tracks on the album, it was moreso his approach to the actual recording process that impacted the album. The songs for the record were composed by Beefheart (real name Don Glen Vilet) in a most unusual fashion. As the story goes, Vilet, who had never played piano, composed randomly on the piano until he found a melody or rhythmic pattern that he liked. Once he found one, drummer John French would transcribe his patterns into proper musical notation for the rest of the band. The duo would then take all of the fragments and piece them together into larger compositions, and assign the pieces to different instruments. The resulting product often sounds as if the band is working through a "free jazz" improvisation, yet the reality is, they are playing a strictly orchestrated arrangement.

Though many musicians have gone through the ranks of The Magic Band, the lineup found on Trout Mask Replica is easily the finest single grouping of the band. The music ranges from wild, chaotic celebrations of noise to very classic sounding blues numbers. On the more "normal" end of the spectrum, there is the completely improvised, "China Pig." Recorded on a cassette recorder at Vilet's home (with former Magic Band member Doug Moon on guitar), the song is as simple and standard a blues song as you'll find anywhere. The two songs that fall on either side of "China Pig" present such a stark contrast that the shift in mood is almost unsettling. Guitarist Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad play absolutely flawlessly on Trout Mask Replica, and the duo remain two of the most highly respected guitarists in history. Shifting on a dime from crushing chords to intricate finger picking and then to slide guitar, it is nothings short of stunning that ALL of the music for the entire album was recorded in a single recording session (though the band had practiced for months beforehand). John French is easily one of the most talented drummers in history, and his ability to constantly adapt for the tempo and style changes, as well as attending to the myriad of non-drum percussive requirements is extraordinary. The final two members of this incarnation of The Magic Band were Mark Boston on bass, and Vilet's cousin, Victor Hayden on bass clarinet. While the latter is often lost in the mix of musical mayhem, Boston's bass takes on multiple personas throughout Trout Mask Replica, and it is often mistaken for other instruments. As has been proven throughout the history of music, even the strangest, most seemingly chaotic music, can still be truly amazing when it is being performed by exceptionally talented musicians.

Much like the music, the voice, delivery, and lyrics of Captain Beefheart are beyond unmistakable. Somewhere between Tom Waits and Howlin' Wolf, you'll find a sound that isn't quite exactly like the voice of Captain Beefheart. Raspy, full of energy, yet strangely disjointed from the music at times, the vocals on Trout Mask Replica represent another display of the human voice being used less as a vehicle for lyrical delivery, and more as an additional instrument. Even when Beefheart sings acappella, in the way he chooses where to pause and inflect his voice, there is still an element is beyond simply traditional "singing." It is clear to anyone that a majority of the vocals seem to be a bit off time from the rest of the music. It is mostly due to the fact that, during the recording process, Beefheart was in a separate vocal booth, and refusing to wear headphones, he "sang" to the reverberations coming from the studio monitor speakers. However, the vocals are close enough that, not only do the songs only sound slightly disjointed, but the odd separation actually works in the favor of the overall sound. A majority of the lyrics on Trout Mask Replica are basically strange, surrealist poetry. Filled with nonsense and borrowed phrasings, Beefheart took the ideals of "free jazz" and be-bop, fused them with the beat poetry style, and in the process created an entirely new way of being a "singer."

One can call the music of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band strange, avant, and genius until the end of the world, but until you experience it first hand, you simply cannot grasp the amazing brilliance in their music. The way in which the band experiments with the elements of jazz, be bop, blues, and rock music produces a sound that remains unmatched to this day. Legendary radio DJ, John Peel, stated it best when he said in 1997, ""If there has ever been such a thing as a genius in the history of popular music, it's Beefheart…I heard echoes of his music in some of the records I listened to last week and I'll hear more echoes in records that I listen to this week." Truly a match even for the wild styles of Frank Zappa, the influence of Captain Beefheart can be found in everything from punk to hip hop. Trout Mask Replica was also no small effort by the band, with the original pressing spreading a full twenty-eight songs over four sides of two records. With many of the songs clocking on at well over three and a half minutes, the sheer amount of music on the album is enough to make it significant in its own right. While both the music as well as the overall catalog of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band are rather sizable and intimidating, their 1969 album, Trout Mask Replica, is a work of genuine musical genius and well beyond an essential for all music collections.

Standout tracks: "Moonlight On Vermont," "China Pig," and "When Big Joan Sets Up."

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26: Ben Folds Five, "Ben Folds Five"

Artist: Ben Folds Five
Album: Ben Folds Five
Year: 1995
Label: Passenger

One of the best things about the musical explosion of the early to mid 1990's was that it encouraged musicians to present their music in a raw, honest form. If you were the type to sing love ballads over electric ukulele, then chances are, there was a market for you. The era also gave rise to the slightly pretentious "indie rock" culture, which remains today virtually unchanged. Within this culture is where many of the "nerdy, yet somehow hip" groups emerged and flourished. High atop the most highly revered musicians of this group was a trio led by a thick-rimmed-glasses wearing piano player from South Carolina. Call them "indie rock," call them "nerd rock," call them whatever you please, yet there is no denying the sensational sound and style of the trio ironically known as Ben Folds Five. The group proper (as in, not Ben Folds' solo work) released four fantastic records before calling it quits in 2000, and their 1995 self titled debut still shines as their finest musical moment, and one of the best of the entire decade.

Everything about Ben Folds Five centers around the band doing things exactly how they wanted. From their choice in instrumentation, to keeping the entire recording process on a very small scale, to the fact that the songs on the album have no resemblance to traditional pop songs, it is also the reason they are such an amazing band. Simply put, the band doesn't care what you think about their music; THEY like it, and it seems to be all that matters. Taking as much influence from Elton John as he does from Nirvana, Ben Folds himself once described his music as, "punk rock for sissys." The music is perfectly constructed pop, yet the mood and lyrics have more attitude, anger, and angst than has ever been heard behind the piano. Perhaps this juxtaposition is no more clear than in Ben Folds Five's legendary anti-anthem, "Underground." The song is a celebration of geeks, freaks, and weirdos who latch to one another within music and art scenes, as the song perfectly illustrates the scene from both the inside and outside. "Underground" quickly became a hit and remains one of the groups' best known and most loved songs.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference in the rock style music performed by Ben Folds Five is the complete lack of guitar. Sticking to their formula of Ben Folds on piano, Robert Sledge on bass, and drummer Darren Jessee, the group very rarely brings in additional musicians or alters their sound. Yet there is nothing wrong with this approach; the group has their sound, they're damn good and doing it, and they're sticking to the formula. The music itself is undoubtedly pop at its core. Folds' piano riffs and compositions are absolutely beautiful and both fantastically played as well as exceptionally catchy. It is the manner in which the band molds their guitarless melodies that make Ben Folds Five so brilliant, as the songs are so good, the lack of the "standard" guitar goes almost completely unnoticed. Sledge (who played in a band with Sully Erna from Godsmack) is a monster on bass throughout the album, sounding like a total rock star, using heavy distortion from a classic "Big Muff" pedal. It is very much Sledge's sound that gives the band a large amount of their "edge." Bringing a heavy love and influence of the finest jazz drummers, Jessee's playing gives the band even greater depth, and his style and ability is heavily spotlighted throughout "The Last Polka." With each member of Ben Folds Five bringing a far different set of musical influences to the table, the resulting sound is truly pop bliss, yet like nothing else heard before.

Along with the superb music he writes, Ben Folds also possesses one of the most perfect pop voices. Whether belting out full volume or quietly singing with his piano, Folds' voice is never anything short of sensational. Sometimes bordering on whimsical, his voice is always filled with emotion and soul, and often times a fair amount of sarcasm or disdain. In many ways, it is the manner in which Ben Folds sings that makes him the ideal anti-pop star, and therefore the ultimate icon for the often pretentious "indie rock" fans. As great a singer as he is, Folds may be an even better songwriter. The lyrics found on Ben Folds Five are some of the most blunt, yet astute observations on people and culture of his generation. Aside from the legendary lyrics of the aforementioned "Underground," Folds presents stunning explorations into human nature, with songs like "Boxing" and "The Last Polka." He also turns the pen on himself with equally brilliant pairing of songs "Philosophy" and "Julianne." Truly, nobody is safe from the pen of Ben Folds, as he puts his unique spin on countless parts of society, yet even when he is cutting you down, the songs remain just as enjoyable and addictive. With his brilliant singing, insightful and forgiving lyrics, Ben Folds represents the paramount of "hip" in a scene where "hip" is the most highly sought commodity.

Attempting to perform pop songs with piano as the lead instrument is no new idea. However, the manner in which Ben Folds plays and performs is like nothing else before him. Tossing traditional notions of how pop music and "piano rock" is supposed to sound, Ben Folds Five stayed true to their own sound and ideals and became music legends in the process. No guitars, irresistibly catchy songs, and with just enough pretentiousness to keep their "indie rock street cred," the band remains the very definition of the word "hip." The crunching, fuzzy bass, bouncing drums, all capped by the stellar piano playing and singing of Ben Folds make the music of the band enjoyable by all, yet still as edgy as anything with ten times the volume. Though Ben Folds has released a number of excellent albums since the trio broke up, one can easily make the case that his best work was done within the confines of Ben Folds Five. Each of their four records are well worth owning, but inching above the others for superiority is their phenomenal 1995 debut record, Ben Folds Five.

Standout tracks: "Julianne," "Underground," and "Uncle Walter."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25: Run-D.M.C., "Raising Hell"

Artist: Run-D.M.C.
Album: Raising Hell
Year: 1986
Label: Profile

From the earliest days of hip hop music, there was little question of whether it would eventually become mainstream. Though there were large numbers of artists who tried, in the end, the breakthrough only needed three performers and six letters. Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizzel, better known as DJ Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay brought hip hop music to the masses as the seminal hip hop group, Run-D.M.C.. It is hard to name a group that has had the overall impact on the music and style that is equal to Run-D.M.C., and they remain one of the most highly respected groups in music history. Though they had already gained an underground following and small hits from their first two amazing records, it was their third record, 1986's Raising Hell, that catapulted them to superstar status and made hip hop music truly mainstream.

Run-D.M.C. dominated hip hop music throughout the 1980's, yet there are a number of aspects that sets Raising Hell aside from their other work. First and foremost, alongside Russell Simmons (DJ Run's older brother), Rick Rubin stepped in to handle production duties. It is Rubin's knowledge and love of hard rock that can be heard throughout the album, including its breakthrough hit. While most people know the song, few realize that the underlying riff on the legendary "It's Tricky" is, in fact, "My Sharona" by, The Knack. However, even with the success of "It's Tricky," Raising Hell gained most of its mainstream acceptance from the albums' lead single, "Walk This Way." Run-D.M.C. had used the riff to rap over for years, but this time, they did the entire song, and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (who were just re-forming the band) came in and laid down new vocals and guitars. The truth is, the Run-D.M.C. collaboration reached #5 on the charts, while the original 1975 release never made it into single digits on the same charts. Further helping the single was the presence of EmpTV, and the video is now considered an absolute classic. Both of these tracks, as well as tunes like "Peter Piper" and "You Be Illin'" helped Raising Hell to go all the way to the top of the charts, selling over three million copies and firmly proving that hip hop would not just be a passing fad.

Setting aside the brilliant re-working of "Walk This Way," the remainder of Raising Hell set the blueprint for 1980's hip hop both musically and lyrically. The truth is, if the album were only about that single track, it would have been seen as a "novelty" and ever reached the success and impact that it did. The reason it moved beyond just a single is largely because, along with Rubin and Simmons, Jam Master Jay simply creates more musically than had ever been heard on a hip hop record. Raising Hell moved beyond just a simple display of beats, rhythms, and scratching, and flawlessly infuses "true" musical elements, mostly courtesy of live guitars. The metal-based guitar riff and solo (played by Rubin) that backs the beats on the title track is a perfect example of how the group found the perfect fusion of the two styles. This is where the difference lies, the rock and metal music are not simply being looped or scratched, they are truly part of the music. Also lending his talents to Raising Hell, drum programmer extraordinaire, Sam Sever, creates some of the most simple, yet hard hitting beats of the time. Even with all of the amazing beats and music, Run-D.M.C. takes it all the way back to hip hop's origins, presenting a simple beat-box and vocal, with the quick rhyme, "Son Of Byford." The songs flow perfectly into one another, and it is very much this flow, between the different styles, that makes Raising Hell such a sensational and landmark record.

With their amazing vocal delivery, DJ Run and D.M.C. prove to be, by far, two of the most talented emcees in history. Unlike a majority of emcees of the past two decades, Run-D.M.C. were of the school of rappers who never found it necessary to raise their voice to get their rhymes across. Delivering each verse clearly and powerfully, the pair set the standard in both what they said as well as how they said the rhymes. Yet, the brilliance of Run-D.M.C. goes beyond the tenor in which they rap, it is what they say and how they work with one another on the songs. While most rappers before and since were satisfied with trading verses, or perhaps sentences with their counterpart, the duo ups the ante by often trading words. Taking loads of concentration and listening to the other, it makes their rhymes and sound absolutely top notch. Raising Hell's opening song, "Peter Piper," displays all of the characteristics that make Run-D.M.C. so brilliant, as the pair rap quickly, yet clearly, in and around one another, along with the legendary backing beats and music. While on "Peter Piper," the group mixes in rhymes from Mother Goose, their lyrics range from the more risqué suggestions of "Walk This Way," to rhymes about the pride of their heritage ("Proud To Be Black"), to their own greatness as emcees and a group overall. Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that Raising Hell also contains one of the greatest brand endorsements in history, as Run-D.M.C. dedicates an entire track to their legendary open-laced shoes with, "My Adidas." This track, along with their famous black track suits and hats, as well as their trademark gold chains, would become massive fashion trends within hip hop as well as mainstream culture throughout the world. From their lyrics to the way in which they rapped, Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell simply set the standard on what could and should be done within the hip hop aesthetic.

Perhaps as well known for their style and image as they were for their rhyming expertise, Run-D.M.C. make the case for being the most important hip hop group of all time. The flawless, shrewd rhyming of DJ Run and D.M.C. took the artistry of rapping to a whole new level, and the way in which they interacted with one another on the tracks remains unmatched. Thankfully free of the modern, boring lyrics about drugs, drinking, women, and such, Run-D.M.C. bring some of the most clever and original rhymes that rap has ever heard, and their approach set the standard for all the artists that followed. Jam Master Jay's pristine work with the turntables, and influence from Rick Rubin help to make the record the first truly musical hip hop album. When it comes to "landmark" records, there are very few that can stand with Raising Hell, as it forever altered multiple genres of music, as well as many elements of culture and society. From the metal-fused songs to the more traditional beat-based tracks and everything in between, the reality is that even today, Run-D.M.C.'s 1986 masterpiece, Raising Hell, still rocks hard as hell!

Standout tracks: "It's Tricky," "Walk This Way," and "You Be Illin'."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24: Brian Eno, "Here Come The Warm Jets"

Artist: Brian Eno
Album: Here Come The Warm Jets
Year: 1974
Label: EG

There are few musicians who have had as much success and influence "behind the boards" as they have as a performer. Having worked with everyone from The Ramones to Talking Heads to Dido to Coldplay, there are few people who have impressive a resume as a producer. Being a member of Roxy Music, as well as collaborations with David Byrne and Harold Budd among others makes his musical credentials just as stunning. After leaving Roxy Music in 1973, Eno immediately began working on a project with Robert Fripp, and then embarked on a solo effort. The result was spectacular in every sense of the word, and it marked the beginning of a decade of magnificent and influential recordings. Though nearly every album Brian Eno made before his work with U2 in the early 1980's is nothing short of phenomenal, his debut record, 1974's Here Come The Warm Jets stands slightly above the rest and remains his finest musical moment.

Due to the amount of impact that Brian Eno has had as a producer (the guy has five Grammys to prove it), it is often hard to remember than he began as a keyboard player. As legend has it, he wouldn't even be on stage during early Roxy Music gigs, instead controlling the synthesizers and sound manipulators from off stage. His work with Roxy Music remains highly distinguished, yet even putting aside all of his amazing work with other bands, within his work as a performer, one can find even greater influence. Case in point: if you're wondering where Talking Heads got much of their influence, look no further than "The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch." Eno is said to have taken a very original approach to his orchestrations, dancing and using other body language to direct the musicians in the studio, hoping his movement would convey the emotion he felt the music needed. Furthering this idea, in the liner notes, Eno credits himself with things like "electric larynx" and "snake guitar," showing he was more interested in what sort of feeling he found in each instrument. It is this unorthodox approach, combined with the solid musical foundation that Eno forged with Roxy Music that makes Here Come The Warm Jets such a unique musical experience.

The music on Here Come The Warm Jets is truly amazing, and sounds like nothing else you'll hear. Eno masterfully and magically makes the music glide and bounce at his will, and it sounds as much pop-rock as it does avant as it does noisy chaos. There are moments when the songs sound like almost-perfect pop songs, yet the way in which Eno manipulates the sound gives them a darker, stranger mood. From aggressive, clamorous tunes like "Needles In The Camel's Eye" to beautiful, melodious songs like, "Some Of Them Are Old," the album is sheer perfection at each and every turn. At times, the record is reminiscent of the work Eno had done with Roxy Music, yet on songs like "Driving Me Backwards," it sounds very much like Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Then there is the rhythmic, spacey rap, "Dead Finks Don't Talk" which sounds like a cross between the Moody Blues and The Beatles. Much of this fantastic sound has to do with the additional musicians that Eno enlisted for Here Come The Warm Jets. Aside from every member of Roxy Music (except Bryan Ferry), Eno is joined by Robert Fripp (King Crimson), Simon King (Hawkwind), and Paul Rudolph (Pink Fairies) among others. With such a gathering of talent, not enough can be said about how odd, yet amazing and accessible each song is on Here Come The Warm Jets.

The vocals that Brian Eno presents on Here Come The Warm Jets reflect the diverse nature of the songs on the album. His voice goes from the snooty, almost creepy singing on "Baby's On Fire" to the melodic tones of "Dead Finks Don't Talk," where he almost sounds like Roxy Music singer, Bryan Ferry. The singing on "Driving Me Backwards" is well beyond eerie, and the stuttered and whining delivery, combined with the haunting music makes it as fascinating as it is sinister. Perhaps the most genius thing about Here Come The Warm Jets is the manner in which Eno wrote the lyrics. After all of the musical tracks were laid down, Eno played them back, singing random syllables and scribbling random thoughts on paper until cohesive thoughts and themes were created from the chaos. This would be the manner in which he wrote all of the lyrics for a majority of his early albums. The way in which the lyrics came about understandably makes most of the songs somewhat nonsensical, yet there is a dark mood and a fair amount of black humor that is found within the words. The way in which Brian Eno sings throughout Here Come The Warm Jets is as experimental and varied as the music over which he sings, and it is the perfect finishing touch to a sensational record.

To say that Brian Eno's debut solo record, Here Come The Warm Jets, is like nothing you've ever heard is truly an understatement. Enlisting the help of some of the most talented musicians on the planet and creating some of the most unusual, yet brilliant compositions ever, the record is truly superb. Pushing for the importance of the feel and emotion behind both the music and lyrics as a paramount concern, Here Come The Warm Jets rewrites the manner in which songs were constructed. Whether he was working with them or not, countless bands have taken strong influence from the entire career of Eno, yet it is his solo work that may have served as inspiration more than anything else. Presenting styles that evoke everything from 1950's rock to deep blues to the psychedelia of the late 1960's, his debut solo album is a wide-ranging, yet breathtaking musical experience. Though he would push the aesthetic he created to new limits on later records, it all begins on Brian Eno's magnificent solo debut, 1974's Here Come The Warm Jets.

Standout tracks: "Baby's On Fire," "Driving Me Backwards," and "Some Of Them Are Old."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23: The Raconteurs, "Consolers Of The Lonely"

Artist: The Raconteurs
Album: Consolers Of The Lonely
Year: 2008
Label: Warner Bros.

While a simple, no frills approach is often brings out the best in an artist, when it is taken to an extreme, it can often be too restrictive. When it comes to musician extraordinaire Jack White, the truth is that his main band, The White Stripes, hold him back from showing all of the talent that lies within him. Though The White Stripes have many many great records, once White steps into the studio with a group of musicians and is not bound by any "format" or "sound," the genius he possesses shines brightly. Assembling a group of extremely talented friends, White's first side project, The Raconteurs, are an absolutely musical powerhouse. Having released a pair of sensational records since forming in 2005, it is their second album, 2008's Consolers Of The Lonely that showcases the seemingly limitless talent that lies within this amazing band.

The actual release of Consolers Of The Lonely was an event in its own right, with the band not even confirming that the record existed until a week before its release. The band claimed that it was due to the fact that the record was recorded only 3 weeks prior, yet many also saw it as a brilliant move to side-step critics, and deliver directly to fans. Even with all of this, Consolers Of The Lonely was leaked early, and many people were able to purchased it a few days before the "official" release. The album lived up to all of the hype that quickly surrounded it, and the record is a sensational collection of rock songs. Consolers Of The Lonely has all out rockers as well as slower, bluesy ballads and everything in between. The band also takes a moment for a rather obscure, yet fitting cover, as they deliver a fantastic version of cult-hero Terry Reid's, "Rich Kid Blues." With perfect production done by Jack White and Brendan Benson, the record is so good that one almost forgets that this is White's SIDE project, and not his main band. Also, for those wondering, the album title is derived from the inscription on the central U.S. post office in Washington, DC, which reads: "Messenger of sympathy and love, servant of parted friends, consoler of the lonely, bond of the scattered family, enlarge of the common life."

As a group, The Raconteurs are one of the most hard rocking, attitude driven bands of the past decades, and they even take a moment to sing what might be considered the groups' motto on the song, "The Switch And The Spur" when Jack sings, "...any poor souls who trespass against us...will be suffer the bite or be stung dead on sight..." Guitarists White and Benson are an earth-shaking duo, and whether bringing crushing chords or beautiful, meandering melodies, they play perfectly off one another. White also furthers the "old school" mood on Consolers Of The Lonely when he exchanges his guitar for a vintage stylophone. Greenhornes drummer, Patrick Keeler, fits in perfectly with the group, nailing each variation on style, while fellow Greenhorne and bassist/banjo player, Jack Lawerence completes one of the finest modern rhythm sections. Consolers Of The Lonely also gets a great amount of its amazing sound from the guest musicians who appear throughout the album. The Memphis Horns, who have backed everyone from Issac Hayes to Alicia Keys to The Doobie Brothers make an appearance on Consolers Of The Lonely, and they add to the albums fantastic mood. Also lending his talents to the record is Queens Of The Stone Age keyboard player, Dean Fertia. With the wide range of styles, and collective talent, it is little surprise that Consolers Of The Lonely is such an amazing record.

Though a majority of the vocals on Consolers Of The Lonely are handled by Jack White, Brendan Benson also takes the microphone for a few songs. Much like their guitar work, the pair work perfectly, following and playing off of one another. White's voice is one of the most unmistakable in modern music, and his distinctively aggressive, yet charming style are as captivating here as on any of his other work. There are moments when Jack White sounds like the perfect frontman for any of the 1960's and 1970's mega-rock bands, not surprisingly, one of the most apparent examples is on "Rich Kid Blues." The lyrics are rather varied, from calls against modern lifestyle to deep rooted depression, yet the way in which they are presented makes them a perfect group. Easily one of the high points of the album is the final song, "Carolina Drama." A dark and almost chaotic tale of murder, it is easily one of the most captivating songs ever written. White's vocals are perfect, and the song is as much a campfire "scary story" as much as it is a classic "southern" tale of woe. The split vocals and wire range of lyrical themes help to take The Raconteurs sound to another level and make the album an absolute powerhouse of a record.

Say what you will about The White Stripes, but the reality is, when Jack White is free of the self-imposed constraints of the band, his true talent and genius as a musician is allowed to flourish. Composing diverse instrumentations, yet staying firmly planted in his aggressive, lo-fi sound, his side project, The Raconteurs, stand as one of the most original and enthralling bands to emerge in decades. With a clear influence from the folk, southern, and outright rock bands of the 1960's and 1970's, the group is able to update the sound and style and create a magnificent, high spirited feeling that is a joy to experience time and time again. Jack White has moved to yet another group, The Dead Weather, and it may signal that The Raconteurs will not record another album. If this is sadly the case, one can truly be thankful that they released 2008's Consolers Of The Lonely, as it is undoubtedly an absolutely phenomenal rock and roll record, fusing sounds of the past with the energy and style that comes with every recording featuring Jack White.

Standout tracks: "Salute Your Solution," "Many Shades Of Black," and "Carolina Drama."

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22: Madonna, "Madonna"

Artist: Madonna
Album: Madonna
Year: 1983
Label: Sire

By the time 1983 rolled around, disco was long dead, hip hop was beginning to stir, and new wave was in full swing. Yet somehow, a twenty-five year old girl from Michigan managed to crack the Top 10 on the charts with her debut record that was most certainly a disco-powered pop album. Nearly thirty years after its release, she remains one of the most respected and successful performers in music history, and there is only one word that can describe her: Madonna. If Michael Jackson is the "King Of Pop," then one can make a strong case that Madonna is fitting of the title, "Queen Of Pop," as she was a "pop princess" before the term existed. Yet, with more than fifteen albums to her name, it is her 1983 self titled debut where one can find her finest work, and the blueprint for nearly everything she has done since.

As the story goes, Madonna offered whomever got her a record deal the right to producer her first album. When New York DJ, Mark Kamins, delivered the record deal, other producers were tapped for the project. Perhaps one of the reasons why Madonna has the pop variety that it does is due to the fact that production duties were shared by a few of the most talented men in the business. A majority of the album was produced by Reggie Lucas, and he also co-wrote the top 5 hit, "Borderline." John "Jellybean" Benitez produced a majority of the album, and it is he who is responsible for Madonna's first two number one singles, "Lucky Star" and "Holiday." Lucas and Benitez share production credits on another song, and Kamins got his only chance to produce when he took over for the song, "Everybody," yet the album itself is a cohesive pop masterpiece. One interesting note about Madonna is that the record originally featured vastly different cover art, and the name of the record was originally Lucky Star. Though a few African countries received this version, the rest of the world received the version which is still distributed to this day. It is this album cover that turned Madonna into a risqué sex symbol, as she is pictured in a seductive pose with a dog chain around her neck. Her midriff bared stomach is also featured on the inside cover, and though her later albums would push these same themes far further, at the time of its release, her debut cover caused enough controversy to help album sales eventually top eight million copies.

The music found throughout Madonna is truly everything one needs within a pop song. Taking the sound and soul of dance and disco hits and combining it with the modern, synthesizers and beats, the songs are perfect dance songs. Whether it is the soft keyboards of "Borderline" or the bright, catchy sounds of "Lucky Star," or the slightly darker, yet equally danceable mood of "Physical Attraction," there is not a dull moment anywhere on the album. While from a modern perspective, the synthesizers and drum programming seem very simple, at the time, they were truly cutting edge. At the same time, it is in this simplicity where the songs become even more catchy, and also let the vocal performance of Madonna shine. This is of the most amazing things about Madonna; the way in which the music is so fantastic and powerful, yet it still manages to let the dynamic and delightful vocals of Madonna keep center stage. However, another truth is, without the music behind her, Madonna's singing would not be much of note, yet the combination of the music and vocals create a truly addicting sound. The simple, bouncy sounds and enchanting vocals found on Madonna set the model for female pop success that is still very much followed to this day.

The real reason why Madonna has become as successful as she is lies in the way in which her voice draws you in to each song. Her personality, her passion, and her amazing voice set her high above nearly every other female performer in history. Though her later work would be far more intimate and sensual, there is still a great deal of love, lust, and passion running through each song on her debut record. Madonna's voice is as strong as they get, and she also presented a bit of a "girl next door" sound, as well as being able to hit both the lowest and highest notes back to back. Her vocal diversity was complimented by the fact that her attitude was consistently bright, and it was clear that she was having as much fun making the songs as those dancing to them. Nearly every song on Madonna has a similar, love or longing theme, yet even on her first album, Madonna was already walking the line of what a woman could say or imply on a record. With EmpTV also on the rise, it was the way in which she presented herself in videos that furthered her image and both captivated fans and angered conservatives simultaneously. Yet, at the end of the day, Madonna's stellar voice and the bouncy, exhilarating way in which she sang each song made her songs intoxicating and they are still amazingly catchy and enjoyable decades later.

Simply mentioning the name "Madonna" brings many opinions and images immediately to the mind of every person. Perhaps equally as well known for her superb songs as much as the controversy they create, the only thing one cannot do when it comes to Madonna is ignore her. Having pushed the limits on what can be said and done by a female entertainer throughout her entire career, she is very much responsible for the freedom and latitude that current female performers enjoy. A true musical icon, she remains one of the most recognized and respected entertainers in the world. Her influence and impact can be seen in everything from modern pop music, to the fashion trends she has created even as early as her style on her debut album. While later albums were more commercially successful, it is on her self titled 1983 debut where one can experience Madonna in her most pure form, and each and every song is an irresistible pop and dance gem.

Standout tracks: "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

June 21: Parliament, "Mothership Connection"

Artist: Parliament
Album: Mothership Connection
Year: 1976
Label: Casablanca

With countless albums and well over thirty members in their ranks over the years, there can be some confusion as to "which" band was Parliament, and why there seems to be so much chaos around the band. To set the record straight, in essence, Funakdelic and Parliament were, in fact, the same band, but on different labels. In the late 1950's, George Clinton assembled a doo-wop group he called "The Parliaments," and they had a minor hit with 1967's "(I Wanna) Testify." Clinton put together a backing band to tour after the hit, but then found himself in a contract dispute with his record label and lost the rights to the name. In response, Clinton formed a "new" band, with the exact same group members, and called them Funkadelic. After the contract dispute was over, Clinton re-launched Parliament, with the same members, yet both groups had a different take on funk. Shortly after the relaunch, the lineups of both bands began to go through countless changes as they would for the remainder of the life of each band. While both bands have recorded countless records, there is little doubt that the greatest moment for either band lies in Parliament's 1976 masterpiece, Mothership Connection.

Mothership Connection is an odd concept album, where Clinton took his love for Star Trek and used the theme of African Americans in space. The cover is a brilliant, retro representation of this theme, and the music found on the album is a perfect description of the term "space funk." Truth be told, it is nearly impossible to find an artist that has been cited or sampled as much as George Clinton. The deep, funky grooves and amazing musical hooks are second to none, and in many ways, the music of Parliament represents the beginning of the hip-hop genre. An overwhelming majority of early hip-hop records, as well as many of the most important records of the genre contain a heavy amount of sampling from Parliament, and one can make the case that hip-hop would have never existed had it not been for the work of Parliament. The pinnacle of the influence of Parliament can be found on Dr. Dre's seminal album, The Chronic, with a number of parts from "Mothership Connection (Star Child)" sampled regularly, as well as nearly every other song found on Mothership Connection. The sound on the album is perfect, and this is very much due to the fact that, as well as composing a majority of the songs on his own, Clinton also produced the entire album. After experiencing Mothership Connection, it becomes clear that George Clinton is undoubtedly one of the most creative, original, and talented band leaders in music history.

The lineup on Mothership Connection is truly a group of all-stars, from funk and jazz legends, to members of The J.B.'s, to musicians who have become legends from their work with Parliament. Having led James Brown's backing band (and recently left to join Parliament), the credentials that horn players Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker bring to the group are truly second to none. Alongside brothers Randy and Michael Brecker (who played with everyone from James Taylor to Billy Cobram,) the horn section easily rivals the talent level of any band in history. Infusing jazz, blues, and soul, the horns pop, slide, and groove through each song, and it is impossible to picture the songs without them. Fellow music legend Bernie Worrell handles all of the keyboard, synthesizer, and piano work on Mothership Connection, and his contributions are some of the most stunning on the record. Along with playing timeless riffs that serve as much of the foundation for the music, Worrell also helped with writing many of the songs found on the album. Having already cemented themselves as a legends with their playing on the stoner-anthem, "Maggot Brain," guitarists Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton furthers their status with a stunning group of riffs and solos throughout Mothership Connection.

For all of the amazing musicians found on Mothership Connection, there are two who manage to stand slightly above the rest. The first of these two is bass legend, former J.B., and one of the most recognizable performers in history, Cincinnati, Ohio's own Bootsy Collins. The basslines that Bootsy lends to Mothership Connection are some of the most famous in history, and his lead and backing vocals are as dynamic as ever. Unquestionably, the most important figure in the band is the man behind Parliament, the originator himself, George "Uncle Jam" Clinton. Having started as a songwriter for Motown Records, Clinton is easily one of the most important figures in music history. On Mothership Connection, his combination of sung and spoken vocals give the songs the perfect touch, and his vocals became the inspiration for countless slang terms, most notably, the term "the bomb." The spoken, rapped vocals on "P.Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" are filled with many now legendary phrases, and they have been referenced and sampled as much as the music since their release. Easily the most successful song on the album, and subsequently one of Parliament's best known songs, "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" takes the groups' funk sound and places it into a jazz formation. The song has been sampled from everyone from the Cherry Poppin' Daddies to the Seattle Mariners baseball team and remains one of the groups' most popular songs.

While many genres can claim a number of musicians as the "father" of their sound, there is little doubt that George Clinton is the originator of what is considered "funk" music. Assembling the finest musicians in the world and sculpting some of the most amazing, original songs ever heard, the impact of Parliament remains strong to this day. Music legends like Bernie Worrell, Ray Davis, Fred Wesley, as well as the men known as "Bootsy" and "Maceo" have all spent time within Parliament, and set the standard for musicianship in the group. Having just added Maceo and Fred Wesley to the groups' lineup, the horns take a far more prominent role on the record, and this is a large reason why Mothership Connection finds itself vaulted above the rest of the Parliament catalog. The songs of Parliament played a central role in the evolution of hip-hop music, and the George Clinton remains the most heavily sampled artist in history. This is in large part due to the fantastic grooves he created, making the music of Parliament some of the most fun and enjoyable that you'll find anywhere in the annuls of music. While nearly every record from Parliament is packed with amazing jams and grooves, the group is presented in their finest form throughout their indispensable 1976 tour dé force, Mothership Connection.

Standout tracks: "P.Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)," "Mothership Connection (Star Child)," and "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June 20: Woody Guthrie, "Dust Bowl Ballads"

Artist: Woody Guthrie
Album: Dust Bowl Ballads
Year: 1940
Label: RCA Victor

Some people say The Ramones were the first punks, others argue that punk began with The Velvet Underground. The truth of the matter is, the spirit of punk rock has been alive and well since the late 1930's in the voice and writing of the one and only Woody Guthrie. Few artists can claim as wide ranging and long standing impact as can be credited to Guthrie, with legends like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen citing him as the inspiration behind their music. His songs are only his guitar and voice, yet the lyrics and spirit behind the music represent some of the earliest "political" songs to be recorded. With a large number of scattered recordings, it is often difficult to figure out just "where" to start with the catalog of Woody Guthrie. Yet, like with many artists, the best place to start is at the beginning, in this case, his first batch of recordings that comprise the 1940 release, Dust Bowl Ballads.

All of the songs that appear on Dust Bowl Ballads were recorded on April 26 and May 3 of 1940, and the recordings would prove to be Guthrie's greatest commercial success. Though it has seen a number of incarnations over the decades, Dust Bowl Ballads was originally released as a pair of three-disc 78's in the July of 1940 and were called Dust Bowl Ballads Volume I & II. Due to it's length (nearly seven minutes), "Tom Joad" covered two sides of one of the albums. The original release omits "Pretty Boy Floyd and "Dust Bowl Blues" due to their length. During the folk revival of the early 1960's, all of the songs form the sessions were collected and released on a single LP in 1964. Both Rounder Records and Buddha Records released albums of the same title, with the same songs, but in different orders. Finally, in 2000, Dust Bowl Ballads was released yet another time, with this version including an alternate take of "Talking Dust Bowl Blues." Regardless of which version you pick up, the quality of the recordings is consistently solid on each release.

Musically, it truly gets no more simple than the sound of Woody Guthrie and his guitar. A mixture of blues and country, in many ways, Dust Bowl Ballads marks the birth of folk music in its modern form. The music is rarely anything beyond chords, and it's primary purpose is to simply provide a background over which the lyrics and be sung. This is not to say the music is of poor quality or boring, each song has it's own identity, and the influence it had on later artists is quite clear. Artists from Springsteen to Rage Against The Machine have taken parts or entire songs from Dust Bowl Ballads and made them their own, including Rage's hard hitting take on "The Ghost Of Tom Joad." It is within the music (and guitar) where one can find the previously mentioned birthing of the punk spirit. Most famously, on Gurthrie's guitar were written the words "This Machine Kills Fascists." While in our modern day, this may seem like no big deal, for anything, especially such a pointed statement to be present on the guitar was nothing short of revolutionary. Guthrie also presents a very different perspective on the infamous back robber, Pretty Boy Floyd, making him out to be more of a misunderstood Robin Hood, as opposed to an outlaw. There is also the mocking of economic status in the song, "Do Re Mi." The title, which is perhaps more clear as "Dough Re Mi," attacks the state of California and conveys the idea that, if you aren't wealthy, you aren't welcome in the state.

Woody Guthrie's voice is as "pure American" as one will find anywhere in history. Honest and simple, the Oklahoma born Guthrie sings strong and clear, with a bit of country "twang" in his voice. The honesty of the recordings takes on a whole new life when one hears Guthrie chuckle a few times, and it is then that one realizes that these recordings were all done in a single take, and the small nuances make them all the more enjoyable. Lyrically, there is still debate as to the inspiration behind the songs found on Dust Bowl Ballads. Many claim that the album is, in fact, a concept album revolving around John Steinbeck's classic novel, The Grapes Of Wrath. With one of the most prominent songs being "Tom Joad" and many of the other songs seeming to have strong connections to the story, it is quite hard to argue this point. However, the songs also happen to have a very similar connection to the life and travels of Guthrie himself. Woody himself experienced the socio-economic issues of migrant workers while he was in California, and having grown up in Oklahoma, many of the other songs can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Regardless of the "true" meaning behind the songs, they are all phenomenal, and they set the stage for his later, more politically charged songs, inspiring the "working man" to rise up and stand up for their rights.

With his classic voice and old acoustic guitar, Woody Guthrie was the beginning of the establishment questioning spirit of punk rock music. Serving as the archetype for folk musicians to follow, it is almost impossible to find an artist who has had an overall influence on music that is even remotely comparable to that of Guthrie. From criticizing economic castes to stories of storms and traveling, Dust Bowl Ballads is a perfect representation of the term "Americana." Guthrie's voice is as honest and simple as they get, and his unestablished sound continues to inspire musicians across the world to this day. Though there have been countless compilations and re-releases of his recordings, it is his first batch of recordings where one finds his finest, most beautiful work. Due it it being such an significant moment in music history that it has been re-released a number of times since it's recording nearly seventy years ago, Woody Guthrie's 1940 release, Dust Bowl Ballads, is undoubtedly one of the most important and amazing albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "Do Re Mi," and "I Ain't Got No Home."

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: Air, "Moon Safari"

Artist: Air
Album: Moon Safari
Year: 1998
Label: Astralwerks

There was a time when the terms "ambient," "downbeat techno," "trip hop," "chillout" and a number of other terms were all interchangeable when discussing techno-based, slower electronic music. The reason for this was mainly that, because the style was so young, few seminal albums existed to help differentiate between the sub-styles. As the 1990's came to a close, groups like Massive Attack, Fila Brazilla, and Biosphere began to help define the different styles that all fell under the category of "downbeat techno." Taking as much from Pink Floyd as they did from the Beach Boys, French duo, Air, presented the blueprint for what has become the "chillout" segment within the wide range of sub-genres. Creating blissful moods with a combination of live instrumentation and synthesizers, their debut LP, 1998's Moon Safari, remains the benchmark by which all other records of the genre are measured.

Air, which in this case is a backronym (feel free to google that one) for Amour, Imagination, and Réve (English: Love, Imagination, Dream), is comprised of the duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel. The pair met whilst playing in the band, Orange, after going to school or architecture and mathematics respectively. Moon Safari spawned a trio of hit singles with "Sexy Boy," "Kelly Watch The Stars," and "All I Need," the former of which gained recognition due to its placement in the 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate About You as well as being featured in the U.K. TV show, Queer As Folk. The record itself debut at number five on the U.K. charts, and this was in large part due to universally enthusiastic reviews as well as the success of the "Sexy Boy" single. While the music on Moon Safari is a far cry from what was traditionally thought to be "dance music," due to the amazing depth and mood, a few of the songs found their way into dance clubs, and this further helped the album to gain popularity. The significance of Air and Moon Safari were further cemented by a Swedish prog-rock who decided to name themselves Moon Safari.

Taking influence from the electronic artists they grew up with, Air sculpted the new sound out of the best parts of the best artists. At times showing off their obvious love for Burt Bacharach (just listen to "Ce Matin Lá" and you'll hear it), the group was out to push the boundaries on what could be considered "electronica," and in the process, defined a new genre. Spacey, hypnotic, yet not music that will lull one to sleep, the textures and atmospheres created by Air are truly amazing. Running the gamut from deep, trance inducing tracks like "Talisman," to more "jam" like explorations such as "La Femme d'Argent" to the upbeat, surprise dance track, "Sexy Boy," the group shows off their wide range of ability throughout the entire album. Primarily using Moog synthesizers and drum machines, Air also finds perfect sound effects and other instrumentation to make the songs nothing short of breathtaking. From glockenspiels to harmonica to simple hand clapping, Moon Safari features an amazingly diverse range of backing instruments, and it helps to keep the songs fresh and individual. Even with this diversity in instrumentation, the overall mood of Moon Safari is a consistent, relaxing feel that takes "mellow" music into an entirely different world.

Another element that vaulted Moon Safari to the exalted status that it has achieved is the stunning vocal work of Beth Hirsch. In many ways the link between Beth Gibbons and Sia Furler, Hirsch uses her amazing voice to create similarly hypnotic textures that move in and around the music perfectly. With minimal studio effects, Hirsch's voice is both subtle and commanding simultaneously, her singing takes the captivating delivery of Gibbons, yet leaves the melancholy mood behind in favor of a more neutral, or at times upbeat disposition. Dunckel also works in fitting vocals, using a vocorder to give the vocals on "Remember" a delightfully retro sound, the likes of which hadn't been attempted in decades. He also uses other recording equipment to give himself a distorted soprano vocal on "Sexy Boy." While there are only a handful of songs with lyrics, much like the mood of the entire record, the songs are of love and longing (and in one case, lust), and the words, much like the music and delivery are genuinely beautiful It is this variance in vocal sounds and styles that helps Moon Safari to be anything resembling repetitive, yet the group of songs function perfectly as a beautiful, cohesive unit.

With the help of irresistibly catchy and mesmerizing sonic textures and absolutely perfect vocals, Air and their seminal debut record, Moon Safari, helped to concretely define exactly how "chillout" music should sound. The blissful, almost euphoric atmosphere that permeates the entire record was truly the first album to present the mood so perfectly, for an entire album. The compositions offered by Godin and Dunckel represent their thorough knowledge of their influences and what it was that made those artists great. Condensing it all into a strict, yet free flowing sound, they constructed the perfect definition for the term "chillout." Though some songs have a bit quicker tempo, the relaxing, warm feel to Moon Safari is a pure delight to experience time and time again. While a number of groups have attempted to mimic the model set by Moon Safari, there honestly has not been another group to achieve the pure bliss and musical creativity and variety for an entire album of songs. Beth Hirsch's angelic vocals, combined with the enthralling, breathtaking musical landscapes of Godin and Dunckel make Air's 1998 debut, Moon Safari, one of the most phenomenal musical experiences ever released.

Standout tracks: "La Femme d'Argent," "All I Need," and "You Make It Easy."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18: Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Birds Of Fire"

Artist: Mahavishnu Orchestra
Album: Birds Of Fire
Year: 1972
Label: Columbia

As with all words, there was a time before the term existed, and a specific time when it was brought into existence. When it comes to using the term "fusion" in relation to music, it was jazz-rock legends, Mahavishnu Orchestra that served as the catalyst. Widely regarded as the first "jazz rock" fusion act, the group was an extension of founder John McLaughlin's work on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. Creating majestic musical masterpieces, the sound of Mahavishnu Orchestra turned the music world upside down and forever changed the concept of "what" could be considered both jazz and rock. While their stunning debut album, Inner Mounting Flame, made the group a household name, it is their second (and last) album that is truly the groups' tour dé force. The Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1973 release, Birds Of Fire, is musically superior to its predecessor, and the songs are more varied and far better crafted, making it an album of overall higher quality.

One cannot discuss Mahavishnu Orchestra without dealing specifically with its two most prominent members, John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer. As previously mentioned, McLaughlin served as the primary guitarist during the legendary Bitches Brew sessions, and is easily one of the most talented guitarists in history. From straightforward rock to flamenco and everything in between, McLaughlin plays flawlessly throughout every track on Birds Of Fire, and his solos are often both hypnotic and awe-inspiring. The sound and style that he presented had truly never before been heard, and musicians from Chick Corea to Pat Metheny to Eric Johnson all cite McLaughlin as a major influence. To hear McLaughlin truly shine, simply turn on the title track on Birds Of Fire and prepare to have your mind blown. McLaughlin is also responsible for every single composition on the album, and this fact serves as a testament to just how amazingly talented a musician lives within him. McLaughlin, as the bands' founder, is understandably the only member who was part of each of the six incarnations of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Even though each grouping was impressive in its own right, the bands' original lineup was nothing short of extraordinary and easily one of the most imposing groupings in music history.

Keyboard and piano player, Jan Hammer, was one of the pioneering players of the Mini Moog synthesizer and it became a staple of his sound both with and after his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Creating fantastic moods as well as breathtaking solos, Hammer's work on Birds Of Fire remains one of the most ingenious moments in music history. From Mick Jagger to Stanley Clarke to Jeff Beck, Hammer has worked with many of the most prominent musicians of the past four decades, and his talent and innovation remain a huge influence to this day. Hammer is also extremely well known for having provided the score for nearly every episode of the 1980's hit TV show, "Miami Vice." His work on the show earned him a pair of Grammy Awards as the resulting soundtrack topped the Billboard charts in 1985, with eventually sales of over five million copies. A true master of the keyboard, from conveying dark, somber moods to bright, blistering feelings, there are truly few musicians who can be spoken in the same breath as Jan Hammer.

The rest of Mahavishnu Orchestra are equally skilled and have similarly impressive resumes. Drummer Billy Cobham is, by far, one of the most brilliant percussionists that the world has ever seen. Constantly shifting tempos, often at lightning speeds, his sound and style continue to influence drummers to this day. Recording with the likes of Buddy Miles, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, as well as being a part of the Bitches Brew recordings, some of his finest work can be heard on the Birds Of Fire song, "One Word." Violinist, Jerry Goodman, was a trend-setter, taking the classical instrument to new heights and proving that it could be perfectly incorporated into the rock aesthetic. After his work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, he served as a session violinist throughout the 1980's as well as appearing on a number of movie scores and soundtracks. Having already played alongside the likes of Wes Montgomery and Sonny Rollins, bassist Rick Laird is heard in top form throughout his work on both of the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra records.. Following the break up of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Laird went on to work with Stan Getz and Chick Corea among others. With some of the most distinguished resumes in the music world, the music created by Mahavishnu Orchestra is almost unsurprising, and Birds Of Fire is a phenomenal display of how much talented lived within its members.

Though none of them have achieved "rock star" status in the same form as the great rock bands of the 1970's, the members of Mahavishnu Orchestra may very well be the most talented group to ever assemble. With a combined resume that features countless musical giants, the sheer talent of the group made their success almost guaranteed. From the stunning guitar playing of McLaughlin to Hammer's innovated keyboard work, all on top of the dazzling drumming of Billy Cobham, the resulting music is nothing short of magnificent. One can try and try, but it is genuinely impossible to find a bad or "less than amazing" moment on either of the releases from the original lineup of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Truly creating the genre of jazz-rock fusion, few have come even remotely close to the phenomenal sound found on the groups' first two records. Bringing far more musical content, in a much more organized and succinct fashion, Mahavishnu Orchestra's 1972 masterpiece, Birds Of Fire, remains one of the most outstanding and enjoyable musical accomplishments in the history of music.

Standout tracks: "Birds Of Fire," "One Word," and "Open Country Joy."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17: Jewel, "Pieces Of You"

Artist: Jewel
Album: Pieces Of You
Year: 1995
Label: East West

All artists, whether writers, singers, or visual artists are products of their upbringing, taking a majority of their sound, style, and substance from the environment in which they were raised. From Utah to Alaska to Michigan to California, Jewel Kilcher cultivated her sound all over the United States, and this plays a large part in why her sound and lyrics are so universally relatable. Since her appearance on the music scene nearly fifteen years ago, Jewel has released albums with content ranging from "girl and guitar" to a dance record to her most recent, a country-western album. At the core of each different style remains the pure and honest voice and lyrics of one of the most talented musicians to ever pick up a guitar. While her sound has matured over time, Jewel's 1995 debut album, Pieces Of You, presents a picture of pure musical honesty and innocence.

Though born in Utah, she was raised primarily in Alaska, where she performed alongside her father beginning at the age of six. With Pieces Of You, Jewel burst onto the scene, with the album staying in the Billboard charts for well over two years, and selling well over 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. However, Pieces Of You is perhaps best known for its trio of chart-topping singles, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant For Me,” and “Foolish Games.” The first single delivered Jewel her first number one hit, yet it wasn’t released until over a year after the album had been released. “You Were Meant For Me,” co-written by Steve Poltz, introduced the world to the relentlessly honest introspection that would become a trademark of Jewel’s music. Few songs have captured the true essence of breaking up and "moving on" as well as is found within the lyrics to "You Were Meant For Me." The latter of these singles held the Guinness record for longest chat run of a single after 65 weeks on the charts (it would be topped by LeAnn Rimes), and has also been featured in the movie Batman & Robin, as well as being heard briefly at the opening of Fastball’s, “The Way.” Pulling from her varied upbringing, the three singles that powered Pieces Of You to success show the range and depth both musically and stylistically that makes Jewel such an amazing performer.

Much of the beauty behind the music on Pieces Of You lies in the simplicity of the melodies. Often times, nothing more than Kilcher and her acoustic guitar, yet even when bass and piano are incorporated, the music always remains beautifully straightforward. Another reason for the minimal instrumentation on Pieces Of You is the fact that many of the songs are taken from live recordings. These live recordings were done at Neil Young's studio, and many of the additional musicians were, in fact, members of Young's backing band, The Stray Gators. Though the singles were re-recorded for release, the songs on the album that are live bring a wonderfully intimate mood, and it furthers the amazing overall feel throughout Pieces Of You. Along with Jewel's perfectly toned acoustic guitar, there are beautiful additions of pianos, keyboards, and string sections that gracefully weave in and out of Jewel's vocals. Poltz also lends a second guitar at times, including an unplanned, yet delightful quick fill following the first chorus of "You Were Meant For Me." Truthfully though, none of these other instruments are necessary, the uncluttered sound of Jewel and her guitar are more than enough to convey the soul of each and every song on Pieces Of You.

At the end of the day, Pieces Of You is all about Jewel’s stunning voice and her pure, honest lyrics. Jewel’s “normal” singing voice is as sweet and beautiful as you’ll find anywhere in music history. Soft, yet strong, she brings the classic “folk” feel and her voice never fails to move you on each listening. The other aspect that sets Jewel’s singing apart from others is when she infuses her unexpected ability to yodel. A talent she honed whilst performing with her father as a child, the manner in which it expands her vocal range truly puts her in a class all by herself. The true scope and power of Jewel's breathtaking voice take center stage on the gorgeous, hypnotic song, "Angel Standing By." Jewel’s lyrics go beyond the terms “honest” and “insightful,” and remain some of the most brilliant words of her generation. The title track is a pointed attack on a number of prejudices within society, while a majority of the remainder of Pieces Of You is a brave, soul-bearing affair, with Jewel singing lyrics to which anyone can relate. The songs of heartbreak and heartache are genuinely moving and the more cheerful songs are simply an irresistible joy to experience time and time again.

Since her debut, Jewel has given the world a wide range of fantastic songs, showing her talents in nearly every musical style that she has attempted. From big-band inspired albums to topping the country charts, the combination of her immense talent and equal drive make her one of the most dynamic musicians of the last twenty years. Yet, her finest music always comes when she keeps things simple, just her and a guitar. With a truly angelic voice and lyrics that rival any written in the long history of music, the success of Jewel Kilcher was almost guaranteed. Her sweet, soft voice draws in listeners and her candid, yet extraordinary lyrics make her songs truly mesmerizing. Presenting a perfect snapshot of where Jewel was in her own life, as well as the state of the world in general, her 1995 debut album, Pieces Of You, remains treasured in countless hearts and is one of the greatest albums of the era, as well as in the entire history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Foolish Games," "Morning Song," and "You Were Meant For Me."