Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September 30: Chuck Berry, "Chuck Berry Is On Top"

Artist: Chuck Berry
Album: Chuck Berry Is On Top
Year: 1959
Label: Chess

Everything that exists, whether in a physical or more theoretical sense must have a point of origin. These beginning points are often moments of explosion or great disruption within the status quo. Much like languages, philosophies, and even life itself, rock and roll has a very distinctive start point, and that landmark moment in history has a name, Chuck Berry. Though there were many artists treading the same path at the same time, the truth of the matter is, with his performance style and amazing writing ability, there is simply no other artist in history who has had as much impact on the overall sound and shape of rock music as Chuck Berry. Pulling influence from blues and soul masters like Muddy Waters and Ray Charles, Berry fused them together with an attitude that was entirely new. As Waters sang, "...the blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll." In this case, the Father was Berry, and there would simply not be any rock music (or any of the offshoot genres) in the form we know it without his presence. Over the years, Berry's songs have been covered by everyone from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols to Elvis Presley to Motörhead to LL Cool J. With his fantastic songwriting ability and knack for playing some of the greatest and most recognizable musical hooks in history, it's no surprise that the recorded catalog of Berry is one of the greatest ever, as it spans more than five decades. However, for the best understanding of everything that makes Chuck Berry so extraordinary, one need look no further then his monumental 1959 release, Chuck Berry Is On Top.

While at first glance, the song listing on Chuck Berry Is On Top may appear to be a "greatest hits" collection, it was actually a small collection of Berry's singles for Chess that had been released here and there throughout the previous few years. The fact that nearly every song on the album is instantly recognizable perfectly captures just how amazing and timeless a sound there is within the music of Chuck Berry. Among a host of rock and roll gems is Berry's first single, and arguably the greatest and most influential song ever written, "Maybellene." Based off of a late 1930's country song of the same name, "Maybellene" truly represents the change into rock music, as it was the first recording where the electric guitar moved from the backing role and was clearly the featured instrument on the song. Berry's lyrics are as universal as any ever written, as it is a simple song about unfaithful women and fast cars. The uncommonly aggressive guitar is the "rock," while the swing on the song is the epitome of the "roll." "Maybellene" remains a song in a class all its own, and the music and lyrics are just as enjoyable and relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago. The song represents one of five top ten singles (three of which, including "Maybellene" were number one hits) found on Chuck Berry Is On Top. Though Chuck Berry is undoubtedly the star throughout the album, his backing band simply cannot be overlooked.

The songs found on Chuck Berry Is On Top are truly American classics, and the band that plays behind Berry throughout the album also represent many of the finest musicians in rock history. Since the album is a collection of singles, there are a number of different musicians scattered throughout the various songs. If you inspect the liner notes, you will see that there is, in fact, a second guitarist on a majority of the songs. The fact that Berry himself was a fantastic guitarist makes it even more mind blowing that the other guitarist on Chuck Berry Is On Top was a man by the name of Bo Diddley. If you listen carefully, you can hear the two guitars, and Diddley's signature tone is as present as ever. Though there are three or four different drummers found on Chuck Berry Is On Top, featured on many of the songs is blues legend, Fred Below. Having made his name as the drummer for Little Walter, Below transitions perfectly to Berry's sound, and he is truly brilliant on every track on which he is featured. Also standing out among the names found on the various recordings is that of one of the most influential bass players ever, Willie Dixon. Finding these three names on any single record, then finding Chuck Berry was well makes the overall amazing quality of every song a bit less surprising, as one would be hard pressed to find a better collection of iconic musicians.

Even with these phenomenal backing musicians, at the end of the day, it all comes down to the extraordinary, visionary song writing of Chuck Berry. Berry's amazing voice shines on every song, as he nails every note perfectly, whether he is singing or almost growling with emotion at times. It is this swagger and style in his voice that further set Berry apart from his contemporaries, as he was not afraid of letting his excitement carry over into the songs. Along with this voice, Berry is responsible for penning many of the most time-honored songs in music history. From "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Sweet Little Rock And Roller" to "Carol," it is truly stunning to think that so many absolutely phenomenal songs came from one man. The impact of these songs can be found in the caliber of artists who covered them over the years, as well as the fact that the songs are still played and covered to this day. Along with "Maybellene," there is a second song on Chuck Berry Is On Top that goes beyond the term "iconic." Perhaps the greatest song ever written about a down and out kid from nowhere, dreaming of rock and roll fame, "Johnny B Goode" truly represents a special moment in music history. Everything about the song, from the music to the lyrics to the spirit are famous across the world, though the song itself was loosely based around the childhood of Berry, and moreso his friend and piano player, Johnnie Johnson. Ironically, Johnson does NOT play the piano on this version, and it is instead played by Lafaytte Leake. The opening riff may very well be the most famous in music history, and in reality, it is almost an exact copy of the solo found on Louis Jordan's 1948 song, "Ain't That Just Like a Woman." Standing as one of the few songs that can instantly light up any room in the world, "Johnny B Goode," as well as every track found on Chuck Berry Is On Top serve as a testament to the absolutely unprecedented writing and performance ability of the first rock and roll star, Chuck Berry.

In the realm of iconic musicians in the overall history of recorded music, few stand as tall as the founder of rock and roll music, Chuck Berry. Surrounding himself with some of the finest musicians of the day, Berry fused together blues, r&b, and soul and truly gave birth to the sound that would dominate the next half of the century. Making a conscious choice to move the electric guitar to the front of the music, Berry's amazing playing and singing were perhaps only overshadowed by the sensational lyrics he wrote. Nearly every song on Chuck Berry Is On Top is instantly recognizable, and later re-releases of the album tack on a handful of additional, equally influential songs. Whether it is the fast paced mood of "Maybellene," the swing of "Sweet Little Rock And Roller," or the timeless mood of "Roll Over Beethoven," there is simply no other artist in music history who so singlehandedly influenced so many others after him then Chuck Berry. For more than fifty years, Berry has been performing rock and roll in its purest form, and even after all the years, few play as honestly and emotionally as Berry. A true icon of music, Berry's sound and style have been copied countless times over the decades, yet his original takes on songs remain the finest to date, proving that though imitated, Berry remains unrivaled in musical talent and prestige. Collecting many of his singles to date, Chuck Berry's 1959 album, Chuck Berry Is On Top, is easily one of the greatest collections of the early days of rock and roll, and is just as extraordinary and enjoyable today as it was more then fifty years ago.

Standout tracks: "Maybellene," "Johnny B Goode," and "Roll Over Beethoven."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29: The Pop Group, "Y"

Artist: The Pop Group
Album: Y
Year: 1978
Label: Radar

Irony within music is often one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish without becoming cliche. Whether it is within the music, a bands' appearance or attitude, or perhaps in the most difficult case, the band name, being clever almost always ends up coming off as plain stupid. However, in what must be seen as a moment of wonderfully ironic genius, one U.K. art-rock, post-punk group took on the perfect name, calling themselves simply, The Pop Group. Unquestionably taking a page from the sound exploration of Suicide, The Pop Group are far darker and more aggressive. There are many moments throughout their handful of LP's and EP's that the music is outright frightening, and yet these moods are often the key to what makes their songs so amazing. However, buried within these gloomy, often times chaotic sounds are clear elements of pop music, though they are often so warped that they are overlooked. Though only around for just over two years, the music of The Pop Group has influenced everyone from Nick Cave to Marilyn Manson to Rage Against The Machine, and nearly every band that has ever attempted to be loud, dark, or "artsy." As is in the case with many bands, the 1978 debut from The Pop Group, Y, stands as their finest musical moment, and it is easily one of the most stunningly amazing musical moments in history.

The Pop Group epitomized the idea of a band that refused to compromise anything about their sound, and this is much of the reason why Y is such a uniquely amazing record. Blending together elements as wide ranged as jazz and the blossoming hardcore scene, there has never bee another group with a sound anything close to what is found on Y. The album itself has been re-issued a handful of times over the years, and later versions include The Pop Group's first single, "She Is Beyond Good And Evil" as the first track, though it did not originally appear on Y. Along with the band members, one of the key aspects to the sound throughout Y is the presence of producer Dennis Bovell. Having worked with everyone from Bananarama to Fela Kuti, his attention to the sonic quality is absolutely integral to the records' sound. Though Bovell is most well known for his work within the reggae genre, the fact that he fits in so well with this unmistakable "art rock" band somehow makes sense when one considers all of the chaos within the music. There are also a handful of moments on Y where Bovell's reggae roots come through, and early signs of the bands' short exploration into dub and funk can be heard. Throughout Y, the band presents both the most outlandish, seemingly disordered compositions, as on "Blood Money," as well as more formally constructed songs like "We Are Time." Regardless of which form the music takes, the quintet are truly fantastic on every song, and this is an album that must be experienced firsthand to be completely understood.

The wild, sonic mayhem found on Y is truly a group effort, and one cannot imagine such brilliant musical bedlam such as is featured on this album. One of the most important and most stunning aspects of the compositions is the lack of a consistent tempo anywhere on the album. It seems that as soon as the band finds a rhythm, they immediately throw it to the side and find a new tempo. This spotlights the sensational talents of drummer and percussionist, Bruce Smith. Masterfully guiding the band through these wild tempo shifts, Smith's playing is truly stunning, and his work with The Pop Group would lead him to later work with everyone from Public Image Ltd. to Björk. Bassist Simon Underwood is equally as brilliant, as he keeps the balance between Smith and the rest of the band. Whether he is playing a prominent, repeated bassline, such as on "Don't Call Me Pain," or flying around the scales as he does throughout a majority of Y, Underwood is truly fantastic on every song. The dual guitars of John Waddington and Gareth Sager completes the musical landscape, and their combined sound is often nothing short of unsettling. With their screeching, sometimes strangely tuned passages, there is truly nothing else ever recorded that even remotely resembles the sounds they create. Along with the more "formal" instruments, the wild saxophone on "Don't Call Me Pain" immediately brings to mind the mood and sound of The Stooges "L.A. Blues," and The Pop Group's ability to evoke such moods gives them all of the "punk credentials" that one could need. Once called, "the soundtrack for an insane asylum," the music found on Y is sincerely stunning, and the fact that the band members flawlessly navigate the wild musical patterns serves as proof to their amazing musicianship.

At the center of this primitive, yet somehow futuristic musical storm is one of music's most visionary musical geniuses, Mark Stewart. It is his caterwauling screaming and deep, stirring spoken vocals that complete the mood of each song. Clearly putting more emphasis on "how" he delivers the vocals as opposed to "what" he is actually saying, Stewart's vocals are some of the most emotive and raw that have ever been recorded. Often sounding like a darker, somehow more wild version of Iggy Pop, but similarly being able to be just as mesmerizing on quiet, more morose vocals, there is truly nothing vocally off limits to Stewart. It is within this contrast in sounds and styles that one can easily hear a major influence on Nick Cave's vocal style, and there are a handful of moments where it almost sounds like Cave himself singing. A majority of the lyrics on Y are, in fact, politically based, and this would become the central theme throughout nearly all of Stewart's later, solo efforts. Whether he is rallying against war on "Blood Money" and "Don't Call Me Pain" or more direct cries against the government in general on "Thief Of Fire" or simply being brilliantly avant on "We Are Time," if one takes the time to listen to the words, they are often as stunning as the music itself. It is this need to dig beyond the surface that makes the music of The Pop Group so rewarding, and the vocal delivery and lyrics of Mark Stewart are perhaps the best part of the entire musical picture.

Some bands are simply so unique that there is no way to categorize the music that they create. These bands are often the most innovative and pioneering bands in history, and their music is so distinctive, that it cannot be ignored. Blending together everything from funk to blues to punk, and presenting one of the wildest and most sonically avant products ever, U.K. post-punk icons, The Pop Group, are easily one of the most creative, yet underrated bands in history. Led by the eclectic genius of vocalist Mark Stewart, the band constantly pushed the limits on what could be considered "music." Presenting some of the most rhythmically diverse songs ever constructed, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist, Simon Underwood prove to be one of the most talented rhythm sections ever, as they keep perfect pace through the sharp, unexpected transitions. The guitar duo of John Waddington and Gareth Sager rival any sonic partnership, and their punctuations on the musical textures they create are rarely anything short of perfect. Though at first listen, much of the music of The Pop Group comes off as unorganized noise and screaming, one must be patient and dig deeper to understand and appreciate the truly clever and extraordinary musical genius that is being deployed. Though calling it quits after just over two years as a band, there is not a subpar moment on any of the recordings from The Pop Group. Standing as their finest musical effort, and easily one of the most innovative and important records ever made, The Pop Group's 1978 debut, Y, is a true musical masterpiece that must be experienced to be understood and appreciated.

Standout tracks: "Thief Of Fire," "We Are Time," and "Don't Call Me Pain."

Monday, September 28, 2009

September 28: The Easybeats, "Friday On My Mind"

Artist: The Easybeats
Album: Friday On My Mind
Year: 1967
Label: United Artists

There are a number of songs throughout history that are instantly identifiable by nearly everyone, and these songs have earned the title of "timeless." Whether it is due to the musical aspect, the lyrics, or some trivial fact about the song, one can make the case that these songs have been so thoroughly ingrained into society, that they will never die away. High atop this list is a song that features one of the most universally common themes, an amazing guitar riff, and some of the purest and most enjoyable energy ever captured in a recording studio. Though nearly everyone knows the song as well as the title, very few know the name of the band, as well as the rather interesting history of the band members. The song is one of the great "working man" anthems of all time, "Friday On My Mind," by Aussie-rockers, The Easybeats. While The Easybeats were often labeled as "the Australian Beatles," and they do share many musical similarities, The Easybeats have their own wildly eclectic sound, and their music is truly phenomenal. Though it would signal the beginning of the end for the band, unquestionably their finest and most successful album, 1967's Friday On My Mind remains one of the greatest, yet relatively unknown pop-rock records of the 1960's.

Though it is a rather common last name around the world, one must do a double take when you see a last name of "Young" in a music related sense, especially hailing from Australia. The truth of the matter is, Easybeats guitarist, George Young, is in fact the other brother of Malcolm and Angus Young, who are part of a very small Aussie rock band known as AC/DC. After listening to Friday On My Mind, one can clearly hear many of the building blocks of AC/DC's music, and the almost sinister sounding vocals throughout the album are eerily reminiscent of the later vocals of Bon Scott. This harder edge is what separated the sound of The Easybeats from contemporaries like The Beatles, and often times, they are more reminiscent of early songs from The Who. The music of the band perfectly encapsulates everything that was great about both early-60's pop-rock and late 60's hard-rock, and the fusion the band presents laid the groundwork for everyone from The Scientists to Aerosmith. The speed with which the band plays, as well as the manner with which Stevie Wright sings also clearly have elements of punk, an it is yet another aspect that makes the music of The Easybeats to unique. This ability to fuse together so many styles and create a fantastic new sound is a testament to the amazing, visionary talent within the members of the band.

While all five members of the band lived in and met in Australia, the truth of the matter is, none of them were born there, as they were all rather recent immigrants. The fact that most of them were from England and the surrounding area gives great insight into why their music has such similarities to the English rock bands of the time. In fact, drummer Gordon "Snowy" Fleet was from Liverpool, and before moving to Australia, he had been a member of one of the more well known bands of the city, The Mojos. His varied approaches to percussion, beyond simple drumming, gives the songs much of their unique moods, and it often gives the songs a bit of a psychedelic mood. The bouncy, meandering basslines of Dick Diamonde often make the songs swing, and the riff that he and the guitarists create on "River Deep, Mountain High" is one of the funkiest, and most fun riffs ever written. Along with George Young, Harry Vanda creates fantastic guitar progressions and quick hitting solos. The duo work perfectly with one another, switching lead and rhythm parts, and the tone the two share is absolutely magnificent. All of the band members also join in on the group harmonies, which are as good as you'll find anywhere in music. These harmonies are where the group gains even more likeness to The Who, and it is another element that makes Friday On My Mind so extraordinary.

Though the group harmonies are superb, there are few singers that can compare to the vocal work of Stevie Wright. With an uncanny ability to be sweet and sincere as easily and convincingly as he can pull off the menacing, "bad boy" sound, there are few vocalists with as captivating a delivery as Wright. Easily one of his finest performances comes on the soulful, crying singing he presents on "Pretty Girl." By far one of the most heartfelt tales of frustration, few vocal performances can compare in terms of raw emotion. The other side of Wright's character, the sinister, almost unsettling side is brought to light on the song, "Happy Is The Man." Seemingly a tale of a man who indulges in everything and anything he wants, the way in which Wright sings forces the question of the true meaning behind the song. However, these simple, universal song themes are the true power behind the bands' music, and it is no more clear than on their worldwide hit, "Friday On My Mind." The song itself, which was a top ten hit in Australia and England, as well as a top twenty hit in the U.S. and countless over countries, brilliantly depicts the monotony and frustration of "working men" across the globe. The song remains a staple on radio across the world and has been covered by countless artists, most notably David Bowie on his 1973 album, Pin-Ups. The fact that the song endures is unquestionably due to the perfect song structure and precise musicianship from all of the band members, topped off by the fantastic vocal performance of Stevie Wright.

Though many may be tempted to classify The Easybeats as a "one hit wonder," the truth of the matter is, they had a string of top ten hits in Australia in the years before the success of "Friday On My Mind." Upon moving to Australia, the five band members each brought with them a thorough knowledge of the sounds and styles of the blossoming U.K. pop-rock scene, and this helped to give them a leg up on other bands in the area. With top notch songwriting and musicianship, few bands anywhere in the world played such blissfully perfect rock music. Friday On My Mind truly displays the bands' wide range of influences, from the harder edged "Do You Have A Soul" to the more mellow "Who'll Be the One You Love," to a swinging, distinctive cover of the classic, "Hound Dog." Led by the dual guitars of Young and Vanda, The Easybeats push into a musical sound that can clearly be defined as an early rumbling of the hard-rock sound that would dominate throughout the next two decades. Their sonic and stylistic approach was obviously a massive influence on Young's brothers, as there is unquestionably a great deal of Easybeats tone, swagger, and sound within the music of AC/DC. Combining all of these elements together in amazing fashion, The Easybeats 1967 album, Friday On My Mind is far and away one of the most perfect pop-rock records ever recorded, and though the album is far superior to the more well known hit records of the time, the album remains tragically overlooked to this day.

Standout tracks: "Friday On My Mind," "River Deep, Mountain High," and "Pretty Girl."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

September 27: Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

Artist: Marvin Gaye
Album: What's Going On
Year: 1971
Label: Motown

When it comes to the greatest records of protest, those that call for action against social injustices, many assume that the best come from the likes of Bob Marley or Bob Dylan. However, when one digs deeper into records of this style and caliber, there is one album, that while perhaps a bit more unassuming, is easily one of the most insightful and scathing social critiques in music history. Hidden behind one of the most amazing voices in history, Marvin Gaye's 1971 release, What's Going On is nothing short of stunning and gives one of the most unforgiving views into what can be called the "crumbled American dream." Possessing what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and emotive voices in the entire history of music, Gaye's songs are some of the most captivating ever recorded. Having already cemented himself as a legend in R&B due to his work within the "Motown sound," and his hit singles over the first decade of his career, What's Going On is the first album where Marvin Gaye steps away from his "sex symbol" status and focuses more on speaking his mind on what he sees as the problems in the world around him. Keeping the lyrics simple and to the point, every song is amazingly powerful, and the gorgeous orchestrations topped off by Gaye's unparalleled voice makes his 1971 album, What's Going On easily the finest of his career as well as one of the most monumental and pivotal records in the entire history of recorded music.

Among the many factors that led to Marvin Gaye making such a stark switch in sound, one cannot overlook the fact that he had been dealing with major depression in the months leading up to the recording session due to the tragic death of his longtime singing partner, Tammi Terrell. Following her death, Gaye pretty much lost his interest in recording music, and after a failed tryout for the Detroit Lions football team, Gaye found himself assisting writer Al Cleveland in completing a song called "What's Going On." Though the song was originally meant to be recorded by Motown artists, The Originals, Cleveland persuaded Gaye to give the song a shot, and after recording the song, with the b-side "God Is Love," Gaye realized that this less "radio friendly"direction was a recording direction he quite enjoyed. However, Motown CEO, Berry Gordy Jr. refused to let the single be released, claiming it was "too political," and it took nearly a year until Gordy finally agreed to press the single. Upon its release, "What's Going On" almost immediately shot to the top of the charts, making it Motown's fastest selling single, and would lead to Gordy green-lighting an entire album. Yet, the version released on the single differs greatly from the album version, as the single take has far louder backing vocals, as well as a larger and louder presence of percussion. This use of almost conversational backing vocals would run throughout the entire album, and would give What's Going On much of its almost "conversational" feel. The album was produced almost completely by Gaye, and with the backing of the legendary Motown "session band," The Funk Brothers, the music is only rivaled for greatness by the lyrics and vocals of Gaye himself.

However, even with all of the stunning aspects to the songs, the full length album What's Going On was met with nearly as much reluctance from Berry Gordy Jr. as the single. The album is significant in that every song seamlessly flows into the next, and with its tight, focused concept, Gordy felt it was too "radio unfriendly" to be commercially successful. Truth be told, never before had there been a concept-based, soul recording, and the fact that none of the songs had a formal "fade out" ending gave Gordy much support for his argument. However, once again Gordy gave in, and much like the single, and nearly immediately after its release on May 21, 1971, the album was a massive success. What's Going On yielded three top ten singles, as well as gaining "Album Of The Year" accolades from countless music publications. The juxtaposition between the gorgeous musical arrangements, Gaye's phenomenal voice and the grim, bleak lyrics resonated across all social boundaries, and many felt that the album perfectly captured the sentiments and realities of the world at the time. The fact that Gaye was able to mix together elements of classical and jazz music with his soul and R&B roots is a testament to his musical ability, and the sound was truly unlike anything else recorded previously anywhere else in music.

Truth be told, there is not a moment on the album that is anything less than phenomenal, and the voice of Marvin Gaye has rarely sounded better. With his seemingly limitless vocal range, and the smooth, almost relaxed manner with which he sings plays a stunning juxtaposition to the content to the lyrics. Gaye's velvety, captivating voice draws the listener in close, and one cannot help but agree with everything he sings about, and many of the sentiments are still as relevant and powerful to this day. Lyrically, the album follows the tale of a Vietnam veteran (Gaye's brother-in-law) returning home and being stunned and baffled by the state of urban decay across the country. Wondering if his service had been done in vein, he laments on the horrors around him, and calls for change in every area. What's Going On moves beyond the "standard" protest albums of the time, and while it does question the futility of war, it focuses more on the repercussions "back home." Gaye addresses everything from children to poverty, and even makes one of the first environmental rally cries when he sings, "...what about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?" on "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." Gaye focuses on changing the world for future generations when he sings, "...when I look at the world it fills me with sorrow, little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow..." on "Save The Children." Such a wide range in themes, and the blunt, sorrowful manner with which he sings played in stark contrast to nearly everything else Motown had ever released, yet the honestly and beauty of the songs has made them some of the greatest ever recorded.

While many consider Marvin Gaye as perhaps the greatest soul singer in history, the truth of the matter is, he was also one of the greatest advocates of social change. Making a massive shift from his previous, radio friendly, more upbeat songs, Gaye presents a gritty, yet accurate collection of songs of the shattered American dream throughout his 1971 masterpiece, What's Going On. Infusing elements of jazz and classical music, alongside the signature funky, soulful sound of Motown, the music on the album is as stark a contrast to his previous work as the lyrical content. Obviously, the one constant through all of Marvin Gaye's recordings is his unmatched, unmistakable, and unbelievable voice. Understanding that one need not be overly loud or angry to have impact, Gaye simply "tells it like it is," and the songs found on What's Going On remain some of the most insightful and moving tales of poverty and social degeneration in history. Though it was met with a great deal of hesitancy before its release, What's Going On stands today as one of the most successful and influential albums ever, and tracks from the album have been re-recorded by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Alicia Keys to Los Lobos. Unquestionably one of the most phenomenal voices in the entire history of music, Marvin Gaye remains one of the most iconic performers ever, and his 1971 musical masterpiece, the politically charged What's Going On, endures as his greatest musical achievement, and is by far one of the most important and influential albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

September 26: Deerhoof, "Apple O'"

Artist: Deerhoof
Album: Apple O'
Year: 2003
Label: Kill Rock Stars

Truly unique bands, those that bear little resemblance to anything else before of after them, are exceptionally hard to find. Furthermore, within these bands that make it a point to plot their own course, those that create a sound that is constantly listenable and high quality are perhaps the most rare of musical species. When it comes to completely distinctive sounds, few bands are more unique and instantly recognizable than San Francisco, California noise-rock visionaries, Deerhoof. Combining mesmerizing, swirling vocals with a stunning contrast of chaos and calm, there is truly nothing that can prepare you for the sound of the bands' music. Born out of the early 1990's art-pop-rock explosion, the band has been crafting their distinctive tone and it is now one of the most potent and beautiful sounds in music today. Often classified as "indie rock" due to their label affiliation, the truth of the matter is, if one uses such a label for Deerhoof, then no other band in the world can be labeled as such; as no other band sounds even remotely like them. Having release ten sensational albums over the past two decades, Deerhoof's finest moment is captured on their breathtaking, clever, and truly unique 2003 album, Apple O'.

Recorded in a single, nine hour recording session, Apple O' perfectly presents Deerhoof's wide range in style, with some songs showing their soft, meandering side, and others are full force noise-rock gems. Often times straddling the line between musical experimentation and pure chaos, Deerhoof often sound like a louder, more high energy version of Radiohead. What sets aside Apple O' from the rest the bands' catalog is that, this time around, there is a focused concept behind the entire album, and it is an overall more cohesive effort. The albums' central theme is that of creation, and the band offers musings on offshoot ideas like love and sex. After understanding this loose concept, one sees the album in a completely different light, and one realizes that Deerhoof has, in fact, perfectly captured these feelings and emotions within their seemingly chaotic music. The contrast between the upbeat, sonic whirlwinds and the almost cathartic, more lulling numbers play in perfect harmony with one another, making for one of the most amazingly unique musical experiences ever recorded. This ability is, in many ways, the true genius behind the music of Deerhoof. Each member of the band brings some instrumental ability, and the dual vocals enable the songs to sound even further from anything else.

With only four band members, it is often stunning with the sheer amount of volume and sound that is presented. Redefining the "classic' rock quartet, Deerhoof present two guitarists, a drummer, and a bassist. This doubled guitar gives their songs much of their signature chaotic "twang," and the pair work brilliantly with one another. John Dieterich is joined on Apple O' by new guitarist, Chris Cohen. The two have an obvious chemistry, and it is extraordinary to hear them push one another to the furthest reaches of their talent. The addition of this second guitarist is another aspect that sets this album aside from all of the groups' previous work. Though the playing of bassist Satomi Matsuzaki is often understated, mostly due to the focus on guitars, she weaves amazing basslines around her bandmates. Often holding the mood of the songs together, Matsuzaki proves time and time again that she is as talented a bassist as she is a singer. The core of the Deerhoof's music is often within their ever changing, staggered time signatures. Rarely staying within any given tempo for long, drummer Greg Saunier is easily one of the most talented drummers of his generation. Both his ability, as well as the bands' love for rhythmic diversity is rarely more apparent then on the song, "Panda Panda Panda." Creating controlled musical chaos is a truly difficult task, yet due to the seemingly boundless talent within the members of Deerhoof, every song on Apple O' s absolutely fantastic.

While one cannot argue that the music of Deerhoof is beyond unique, the vocals of Satomi Matsuzaki are equally, if not moreso unlike anything else. With her almost falsetto, high soprano range, her voice often blends in so well, that it sounds like another instrument, beyond a vocal sound. The unorthodox, often lurching and staggered rhythm with which she sings are as unique and intriguing as her voice, and it is one of the most important elements in the bands signature sound. Sometimes pushing to the point where the lyrics are almost unintelligible, every vocal delivery contains so much unfiltered emotion, that often times the lyrics are completely unnecessary to understand the song. However, the lyrics are, in fact, consistently brilliant throughout all of Apple O'. Much like the music, the lyrics are often seemingly scattered in random arrangements. One of the clearest examples occurs during the bands' re-telling of the "Garden of Eden" story, when on the song "Adam+Eve Connection," Matsuzaki sings, "I said god, in the trees it's lovely...but it's lonely, with a bone...he will try to clone me, make a mother...there will be another me..." It is this ability to wave intricate verse into the stunningly creative musical structures that makes the music of Deerhoof so awe-inspiring, and the voice of Satomi Matsuzaki is absolutely the perfect vehicle for delivering the words and emotions.

Deerhoof are unquestionably one of the most unique and original bands of their generation. With a sound that is almost undefinable, the group truly embodies everything it means to be a musical artist. Throwing all conventions and stylistic norms to the wayside, Deerhoof constructs musical landscapes with sounds and rhythms that have never before been explored. The fact that the group is able to discover new musical territory within the modern age is refreshingly surprising, and their albums never fail to be original and intriguing. The addition of second guitarist Chris Cohen on Apple O' proves to be the key element in the bands' next step, and the manner in which he interacts with John Dieterich is truly stunning to experience. Few drummers possess the dexterity, openness, and raw talent that it takes to stick with the music of Deerhoof, and Greg Saunier uses every song to make his case as one of the finest drummers in the entire history of music. Topped off by the tremendous vocal performances of Satomi Matsuzaki, Deerhoof take the idea of art-rock and noise-rock and fuse it into a sound that is truly awesome to experience. Though there is no "bad' record from Deerhoof, it is their 2003 release, Apple O' that stands as their greatest musical achievement, and it is by far one of the most uniquely incredible musical creations in the entire history of music.

Standout tracks: "Flower," "L'Amour Stories," and "Panda Panda Panda"

Friday, September 25, 2009

September 25: Roxy Music, "For Your Pleasure"

Artist: Roxy Music
Album: For Your Pleasure
Year: 1973
Label: Virgin

If you combine one of the most visionary musical geniuses in history with one of the most amazing vocalists of his generation, it's quite hard not to have fantastic music. Holding down the ground somewhere between "art rock," "glam rock" and "prog rock" stand musical innovators and legends, Roxy Music. Pulling influence from everyone from The Velvet Underground to Pink Floyd to King Crimson, there has truly never been another band with the sound and approach of Roxy Music. With the finest of the groups' lineups being anchored by the combination of sound-savant Brian Eno and the unmistakable vocals of Bryan Ferry, the duo constantly challenged one another, and before it imploded, it helped to create some of the most amazing music in history. The songs of Roxy Music represent the epitome of fusing together avant, art rock with pop sensibilities, and this ability to fuse together these two distant sounds is the key to the genius behind the band. Truth be told, in many ways, it is the music of Roxy Music that paved the way for the "new wave" movement, as well has having a massive impact on the post-punk scene. Without their music, bands like Joy Division, Depeche Mode, and even Scissor Sisters most likely never would have formed. Representing the second, finest, and final pairing of Eno and Ferry, Roxy Music's landmark 1973 release, For Your Pleasure remains one of the most original and extraordinary albums in the entire history of recorded music.

Most likely, Roxy Music themselves never would have formed had it not been for Bryan Ferry being passed over when he tried out as a replacement for Greg Lake in King Crimson. Though he was not chosen as the replacement, King Crimson's Robert Fripp and Pete Sinfeld liked his vocal stylings so much, that it they would eventually play a central role in Roxy Music securing a record deal. On For Your Pleasure, the group enlisted the help of producer Chris Thomas. Having worked with everyone from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols throughout his career, Thomas was well versed in all musical styles, and this made him fit in perfectly with a group that was creating new sounds at every turn. For their second album, Roxy Music spent far more time in the studio than on their debut, and the results of this extra time are clear, as the songs are more polished, and the band explores each musical path completely. This also led to more experimentation by the group, and it is perhaps no more evident than on the "phasing" and seemingly odd fade in the latter section of "In Every Dream Home A Heartache." However, the album also features one of the groups most famous songs, and "Do The Strand" has been covered many times over the years, as well as remaining a crowd favorite at the bands' live shows. Though no UK singles were taken from the album, For Your Pleasure still managed to break into the top five in album sales in England, and this serves as a testament to the sensational music found therein.

The central, and most stunning aspect of the sound of Roxy Music lies within the amazing music that is created by the musicians. Truly a band that saw no instrument as "off limits," the soundscapes and moods created on For Your Pleasure are absolutely unparalleled. Though he was initially overlooked as the bands' guitarist, Phil Manzanera eventually got the spot after some rather odd circumstances, and it is clear that he is truly the perfect fit. Manzanera waves in and around Eno's textures brilliantly, and the more prominent, blistering guitar soloing sound at the tail end of "Strictly Confidential" is absolutely stunning and gives the song an amazingly spacey, psychedelic mood. Adding oboe, saxaphone, and organ work throughout the album, Andy Mackay gives the band much of their unique sound. Often sounding like a strange combination between the sound of The Stooges and Morphine, Mackay is truly stunning on every song. Drummer Paul Thompson (who would later found Concrete Blonde and Angelic Upstarts) is absolutely sensational throughout all of For Your Pleasure. Clearly able to follow the wild compilations of Eno and Ferry, his performance is flawless in every song, and the sheer power with which he plays is often nothing short of stunning. John Porter, an old friend of Ferry's, was invited to play bass on the album, and it is his only appearance with the band, as he did not even tour with the band in support of the album. His efforts however, are absolutely brilliant, and the fact that he was able to so quickly gel with the rest of the band shows his true musical talent. Surrounded by musicians who were eager to experiment and step away from the norm, it left the core duo of the band plenty of space to present their musical masterpieces.

While the rest of the band are unquestionably fantastic, at the end of the day, the band and album are all about the musicianship of Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. Ferry possesses easily one fo the most unique and recognizable voices in history, and his distinct manner of delivery makes the songs even more amazing. On For Your Pleasure, Ferry also contributes harmonica, piano, as well as mellotron parts, which help to complete the incredible musical textures. Ferry also has quite a talent for turning a phrase, and it is no more clear than in his somewhat sinister send-up to blow-up dolls, "In Every Dream Home A Heartache." Along with the fantastic singing and vocals, the music on For Your Pleasure is centered around the musical experimentation of Brian Eno. Truth be told, there has never been another person who understood and approached music in quite the same manner as Eno, and his vision and techniques found on this album truly revolutionized how music was created. Working almost completely from an EMS VCS3 synthesizer, Eno constructs some of the most astounding soundscapes that the world has ever heard. For Your Pleasure also gives a glimpse into where Brian Eno was headed musically, especially on the title track, as his wild combination of sounds feature everything from loops of the bands' previous recordings to the voice of Dame Judy Dench speaking the words, "don't ask why." It is innovations like these, along with the sensational vocal performance of Ferry that make For Your Pleasure one of the most unique and phenomenal musical experiences ever created.

On songs like "The Bogus Man," one can clearly hear the musical tensions between Ferry and Eno, as it's clear Eno is trying to push into more experimental, spacey, textured territory, whilst Ferry is staying firmly rooted in a more conventional rock style. It is this clash that would lead to Eno's departure, yet the music captured on the first two records from Roxy Music present one of the most extraordinary musical duos in the history of music. There is not a dull, bad, or uninspired moment anywhere o For Your Pleasure, and each band member plays masterfully on every song. Phil Manzanera is absolutely on fire, and his guitar work throughout the album stands today as much of his finest recorded work. Infusing the band with an element like no other, the saxophone and oboe from Andy Mackay punctuate the songs and are often truly stunning. Cementing his spot as one of the greatest drummers in history, Pail Thompson slams and bounces across every song, and the way in which he blends and contrasts with Eno's textures is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Yet, there is no doubt that throughout For Your Pleasure, the true magic is in the interplay between Bryan Ferry's superb vocals and the masterful musical madness of Brian Eno. It is nearly impossible to find another pairing anywhere in history quite like Ferry and Eno, and the brilliant, unique, and absolutely unparalleled music that they create makes Roxy Music's 1973 release, For Your Pleasure, by far one of the most spectacular and essential recordings in music history.

Standout tracks: "Do The Strand," "In Every Dream Home A Heartache," and "For Your Pleasure."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September 24: Social Distortion, "Social Distortion"

Artist: Social Distortion
Album: Social Distortion
Year: 1990
Label: Epic

Many will argue that with his sound and swagger, Johnny Cash was, in truth, the first "punk rocker." Approaching the country/western song style like none other before him, Cash has influenced nearly every musician in every genre that followed. Though many may not see any connection, the truth of the matter is, Johnny Cash's influence on the punk movement was rather significant, and it is perhaps no more clear than in the music of Fullerton, California's own Social Distortion. Flawlessly infusing elements of country and rockabilly into the distinctive L.A. punk sound, the band has created some of the most wonderfully unique songs in history. More musical than Black Flag, more introspective than The Clash, and more aggressive than The Gun Club, there are truly few other bands that compare to the brilliant sound of Social Distortion. Performing for more than thirty years, Social Distortion are one of the most highly respected bands in history, and their distinctive sound and style keep them in a musical class all their own. While their first few albums find the band trying to correctly convey their unique musical blend, it all comes together in magnificent fashion on their extraordinary 1990 release, Social Distortion.

Social Distortion are a bit of an anomaly, as they are one of just a few bands that formed during the late 1970's punk explosion, and are still making new music to this day. While they have refined their sound over the years, the music they make today is very similar to that of their early days, and this is another aspect that sets them apart from nearly every other band that has had such a long career. Perhaps the most significant difference in "Social D's" brand of punk rock is that they clearly pull a great amount of influence from artists like Johnny Cash and The Rolling Stones as much as they do from The Velvet Underground and The Clash. This purposeful incorporation of the country aesthetic makes their songs like none other, and in many ways, they are the epitome of the rockabilly/punk fusion. While one can find these roots in nearly every song the band has ever recorded, on Social Distortion, they leave nothing to question as they present an absolutely stellar cover of the June Carter penned, Johnny Cash classic, "Ring of Fire." The original emotion behind the song remains perfectly intact, yet the modern, more aggressive spin given by Social Distortion gives the song a new life, and it has endured as one of the greatest covers in music history. The fact that the band were able to so perfectly combine all of the elements of their influences is a testament to the amazing musicianship within the band, and on Social Distortion, the band has rarely sounded better.

With the long lifespan of the band, it is not all that surprising that there have been a number of lineup changes over the years. However, the quartet featured on Social Distortion had been consistent for the better part of a decade, and this lineup stands as the longest running single lineup in the bands history. Though he started off as the groups' bass player, Dennis Danell would usher in the signature sound of Social Distortion when he switched to lead guitar. His playing throughout Social Distortion is absolutely phenomenal, and it is Danell's tone and style that give the group much of their signature sound. Taking over bass shortly after Danell moved to guitar was the equally talented John Maurer. Fitting in perfectly with the other band members, Maurer gives the songs much of their soul, and the manner in which he interacts with Danell makes them one of the finest duos ever recorded. Drummer Christopher Reece proves to be one of the finest drummers of his generation in any genre. Easily able to play as hard, fast, or technically as necessary, it is largely due to his diverse abilities that enables the band to have more musical range than their peers. Truth be told, there are very few bands that have been able to so masterfully blend the punk style into anything beyond "standard" rock, and the fact that Social Distortion do so seemingly with such ease and skill catapults them high above their peers.

The one constant in Social Distortion throughout their entire thirty year career has been legendary frontman, Mike Ness. With his unmistakable, gritty, yet soulful voice, much like the music, Ness presents the perfect balance between country singing and punk-equse shouting. In many ways, Ness' vocals can be seen as the American Joe Strummer, and along with the similarity in delivery style, the amount of soul and conviction within the lyrics is shared between the two icons. Aside from his amazing voice, without question, Ness is one of the greatest lyricists of his generation. With many of the songs presenting some of the most brutally honest and easily relatable words ever written, Ness clearly has no issue turning the pen on himself and revealing his innermost thoughts. Whether it is the teenage, missed opportunity anthem of "Story Of My Life" or the hard-luck lament of "Ball And Chain," there are truly few bands, writers, or singers with the skill and impact delivered by Ness. Perhaps the most moving, yet overlooked song on the album is the truly heartbreaking tale found within "It Coulda Been Me." The song itself clearly speaks to Ness' former drug addiction, as well as questioning why he ended up with the life he has after comparing it to others he knows. The song is one of the most brilliant lyrics ever penned and though somewhat veiled behind the more aggressive tone of the song, it serves as a testament to the unparalleled talent that lives within Ness. Keeping the vision of the band focused for more than thirty years, with his stunning lyrics and fantastic voice, Mike Ness is easily one of the most important figures in the entire history of recorded music.

Social Distortion without question lives on the short list of bands and artists who are truly impossible to hate. Presenting one of the most unique musical blends ever, the band takes the rockabilly aesthetic and injects it with the angst and energy of the punk movement. While this progression took time to perfect, the end product is one of the greatest musical achievement in music history. The grouping of musicians on Social Distortion represents the longest running lineup of the band, and it is clear that their time together has enabled them to fully explore exactly how they wanted their music to sound. Each band member plays perfectly on every song, and the album is also superior to those of their peers in that the band is truly able to move as a single musical unit. Spearheaded by Mike Ness' distinctive vocals and his deeply personal, truly stunning lyrics, the music found on Social Distortion remains largely unmatched to this day. On their self titled release, the band sounds more focused and more together than ever, and the ten songs collected on the album easily represent the groups' finest hour. Clearly a moment when "everything comes together," Social Distortion's 1990 self-titled release is easily the best of their career, and stands as one of the greatest albums of the decade, as well as in the overall history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Ring Of Fire," "Story Of My Life," and "It Coulda Been Me."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 23: Esthero, "Wikked Lil' Grrrls"

Artist: Esthero
Album: Wikked Lil' Grrrls
Year: 2005
Label: Reprise

It is both disheartening and tragic that in our modern times, true musical talent has clearly taken a "back seat" to marketability when it comes to musical exposure. Artists who simply follow the current trend and make one "hit" song are given all of the publicity, while artists who actually work at their craft and make complete albums are overall left on the sidelines. Thankfully, most of this latter group continue to make their amazing songs, and they provide the saving grace for those who are ready to give up on "new" music. Standing high atop this group of performers dedicated to musical integrity is one of the most stunning musical chameleons that the world has ever heard, Esthero. While she many not be as widely known to the general public, within the world of music, there is no doubt of her greatness, as she has worked with many of the biggest stars, on their recordings, as well as her own. Among a host of many clear supports of this statement, one needs look no further than the fact that hip hop masters, Refection Eternal, name-check her on their stellar debut album. Possessing one of the most powerful voices of her generation, Esthero clearly knows and understands her roots and influences, and it is one of the key aspects that makes her music so fantastic. While her debut album remains one of the most sultry and sensuous recordings ever, Esthero reveals her entire personality and soul on her sensational followup, 2005's Wikked Lil' Grrrls.

On her first album, Breath From Another, Esthero stayed largely within the confines of the "trip hop" sound, and while there is not a bad song on that record, it is clear that she was being artistically restricted to some extent. From dance club anthems to beautifully poetic interludes, Wikked Lil' Grrrls provides the full picture of everything that Esthero is capable of artistically, and the diverse nature of the songs is truly unparalleled in comparison. The albums' lead track and single, "We R In Need Of A Musical ReVoLuTIoN" is one of the most scathing, scorching, yet absolutely brilliant songs to be released in years and Esthero makes it clear that nobody is safe from her pen. A bulk of the song is an indictment of the repetitive, substandard talent that continues to permeate popular music, as she rants, "...I'm so sick and tired of the shit on the radio and MTV, they only play the same thing..." Truly a rallying cry for a return to the fundamentals of what made music great (read as: talent), the song is amazingly catchy, and Esthero makes it clear that on this album, nothing is off limits. In what can only be seen as a blistering slam on R. Kelly, Esthero questions, "...tell me why a grown man can rape a little girl but we still hear his shit on the radio, a grown-ass man can videotape a little girl but we still see his mug up on our video screens..." Such brutal honesty, presented in such a musically fantastic manner is a true rarity anywhere in music history, and it is one of the key aspects that makes Wikked Lil' Grrrls so stunning.

While Esthero delivers brilliant performances on every single song on the album one simply cannot ignore the list of top notch musicians who also appear on the record. In what is one of the furthest musical departures from her debut, Esthero enlists the piano playing of Sean Lennon for the swinging, amazingly catching song, "Everyday Is A Holiday (With You)." Combining soft, muted horns, jazzy drumming, and Lennon's fantastic hook, the song is one of the most wonderfully original compositions of the decade. Standing in stark contrast in everything from mood, to style, Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley album, Cee-Lo Green joins Esthero for the somber, yet absolutely gorgeous, "Gone." The manner in which the two singers voices blend together is truly stunning, and the simple orchestration of light, programmed drums with a bit of mellow guitar helps to create an absolutely mesmerizing mood. Truth be told, after experiencing the track, one is left to hope that the duo find more studio time together as the collaboration is truly magical. One final collaboration of note on Wikked Lil' Grrrls in many ways presents the third side of Esthero's personality. Undoubtedly one of the most unsubtle, yet sexiest lyrics every penned, Shakari Nyte joins Esthero for the wild, "If Tha Mood." Perfecting what seems to be her mission to have a song work just as well in the club as it does in the bedroom, there are very few songs that even remotely compare anywhere in music history. Never backing away from any style or approach, Esthero picks the perfect partners for the handful of tracks which feature guests, and they each help to punctuate a different side of her boundless musical exploration.

Even with the fantastic collaborators on the album, there is no doubt at any point that the entire effort is anyone's aside from Esthero's. Her strong, limitless voice shines on every single song, and her songwriting has clearly matured over the years since her first release. The songs are far more focused, and it is equally obvious that she has more confidence in her vocal abilities. Songs like "Thank Heaven 4 You" and "Dragonfly's Outro" are reminiscent of the trip-hop mood of her first record, yet in every aspect, it is lightyears ahead of anything on that album. Wikked Lil' Grrrls also features Esthero truly giving herself to the jazz style, as she evokes the spirit of the greatest singers of that style on the soulful, then swinging song, "Melancholy Melody." In many ways, the musical diversity that Esthero is clearly perusing throughout Wikked Lil' Grrrls can be summed up by the albums' title track. The song is an extraordinary fusion of swing, hip hop, and a sound that can really only be classified as ragtime. Lyrically, the song is almost like watching someone have a personality crisis, yet it works brilliantly, and the song is truly amazing. The amount that Esthero has grown can also be seen in the fact that, a few times on the album, she leaves the music behind and presents her lyrics in a spoken word style. For any singer, such a diversion is a truly rare, and more to the point, brave endeavor, yet the style and sentiment found on "Dragonfly's Intro" are just as moving and fantastic as anything else on the album. Backing down from nothing, the range in musical styles and sounds that Esthero presents on Wikked Lil' Grrrls is truly unparalleled and her unrivaled voice makes her shine high above her peers.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of today's music scene is the fact that a majority of people find nothing wrong with the stale, uninspired performances that dominate the musical landscape. Thanks to institutions like EmpTV and iTunes making it no longer necessary for an artist to make a complete album, music has taken a downward spiral to a dark place where creativity and raw talent go to die. Standing as a beacon of hope and light in this era of false musical prophets, Esthero clearly sees no musical territory as off limits, and her songs never fail to be moving and original. With a voice that easily stands with the greatest in history, she is able to effortlessly dominate every style which she presents. From swing to soul to dance club anthems, Esthero is truly a unique talent and her deep and clear love for what she does comes through in every song. Taking seven long years after her trip-hop based debut, Esthero clearly throws off any shackles of that album and presented a follow-up that stands as one of the most diverse and fearless albums the world has ever heard. Calling out the media for their questionable morals, as well as turning the pen on herself and revealing some of the most raw and honest introspection in decades, one can only stand in awe as the pen of Esthero is one of the few things that may be as powerful as her voice. Easily one of the most phenomenal and original albums of her generation, Esthero's second record, 2005's Wikked Lil' Grrrls is magnificent in its diversity, and by far one of the most breathtaking musical efforts in history.

Standout tracks: "We R In Need Of A Musical ReVoLuTIoN," "Everyday Is A Holiday (With You)," and "Gone."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

September 22: Junior Wells, "Hoodoo Man Blues"

Artist: Junior Wells
Album: Hoodoo Man Blues
Year: 1965
Label: Delmark

While many believe that the image of the musician as the "tough gangster" was an invention of late 1980's hip hop music, the truth of the matter is, the image goes back decades earlier. Whether it was Iceberg Slim and his tales of the streets or performers who made up for what they lacked in talent with mob connections, the relationship between gangsters and musicians is as old as music itself. Known for strutting the stage in a gangster manner, and addressing the audience with one of the "baddest" personas ever seen, blues legend Junior Wells in many ways epitomized this duality. Recording some of the most memorable and influential blues songs of all time, Wells sang and played harmonica like no other before him. Wells had a sound and swagger that made his sound unlike that of anyone else, and this ability to easily differentiate himself from his peers is one of the key factors in his iconic status. After playing alongside Muddy Waters, among many others, Junior Wells went on to become one of the most important figures in the history of the Chicago blues scene. On September 22, 1965, Wells entered the studio with a simple, small backing band to record his debut full length, and the resulting session remains one of the greatest moments in music history, captured and released as Hoodoo Man Blues.

One of the key factors in why Hoodoo Man Blues is so fantastic is due to the large amount of freedom that was given to Wells in making the record. Unlike a majority of his peers, Junior Wells was given almost complete freedom in terms of backing band, song selection, and many other key aspects of the record making process. While most artists were "given" a backing band, and limited to songs under three minutes, Delmark owner, Bob Koester, gave Wells complete freedom, and his was largely due to Koester's deep appreciation for the artistic vision of Wells. Koester would also produce the Hoodoo Man Blues sessions, and it is clear that, along with being a huge fan of Junior Wells, he understood the music perfectly, and the sound on the album reflects his deep understanding of how the music should sound. However, upon its release, Hoodoo Man Blues was largely panned by critics, as many felt that the mood, which is captured on the album like nothing before it, would not be understood by audiences, and that this presented the key problem with the Chicago style of blues music. Yet, as they usually are, the critics were completely wrong, and Hoodoo Man Blues has been cited by nearly every blues musician after as a key influence on their sound. Approaching fifty years since its release, Hoodoo Man Blues remains the best selling album ever released by Delmark Records.

While the song selection and style of Junior Wells is exceptional, it is impossible to overlook the amazing trio of musicians that are also on the record. Due to questions over contractual limitations, the guitarist on Hoodoo Man Blues is cleverly credited as "Friendly Chap." While many may simply see this as a joke or mistake, it is in fact a reworking of another blues legend, Buddy Guy. When the group entered the studio in September of 1965, Koester was unsure of the status of Guy's legal obligation to Chess Records, so on the initial album, he refused to have Guy's name properly listed. Once it was confirmed that Guy was, in fact, clear to do the recording, the album cover was re-pressed with Guy's name listed as the guitarist. Whether he is playing lightly, but brilliantly, as on "In The Wee Hours," or rocking out full-tilt like he does on "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," Buddy Guy is truly stunning on every song on the album. Furthermore, the interplay between Guy and Wells is often stunning, and it is clear that the two share a chemistry that remains largely unrivaled to this day. Though he would go on to be one of Buddy Guy's most used bassists, Hoodoo Man Blues is basically Jack Myers' first appearance on record, and his performance makes it quite clear why Guy used him so often. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Bill Warren is equally as fantastic on the album, and his ability to perfectly execute every style and mood that Wells wants serves as a testament to his amazing talent. The energy and mood that the trio creates alongside Junior Wells is a truly stunning thing to experience, and it is largely due to this manner in which the quartet gel that makes Hoodoo Man Blues so phenomenal.

At the center of this amazing musical storm, conducting the stunning musical fury is the man himself, Junior Wells. Wells, born Amos Wells Blakemore Jr., was able to create fantastic moods with his punctuated vocals as easily as he can with his unrivaled harmonica playing, setting him aside as one of the most elite performers in history. While both of his talents are spotlighted on every single track on Hoodoo Man Blues, Wells proves that he is able to play a rocking, slow blues with the same success as he can bring a blistering, high paced song. His gruff, somewhat cocky voice rarely sounds as good as he does on "Early In The Morning," as he almost duets with himself, trading off between classically framed verses and his signature "vocal" styled harmonica playing. From well-known songs like "Hound Dog" and "Chitlins Con Carne," to new, equally brilliant numbers like "Snatch It Back and Hold It" and the fantastic title track, Wells proves that there is truly no limit to what can be done within the blues style. Hoodoo Man Blues even pushes into what can only be categorized as a swinging, almost rumba-style number, with the brilliantly performed "We're Ready." This vast stylistic diversity is one of the key reasons why the album is held in such high esteem, as it clearly laid the groundwork for the expansion of the genre into countless different directions. Though the backing band is absolutely fantastic, the true magic of Hoodoo Man Blues lives within the unsurpassed singing and harmonica playing of one of the greatest bluesmen of all time, Junior Wells.

Throughout the late 1950's and 1960's, many of the so-called "classic" musical styles began to evolve and blend with one another, creating entirely new genres of music. While many felt that this intermingling of styles would lead to a loss of the original spirit, the fact of the matter was, with every change, it only further proved that there were no limits on what could be accomplished musically except for the creativity of any given artist. Due in large part to the musical vision of Bob Koester, Junior Wells was able to freely explore his distinct style of playing, and the resulting album truly revolutionized the blues genre. Wells clearly found a kindred spirit with Buddy Guy, and the manner in which the two work with and around one another remains largely unmatched anywhere in music. Constantly pushing one another on every track, the interplay between Guy's guitar and the vocals and harmonica from Wells are truly a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated. Giving equally as impressive performances, the rhythm section of Jack Myers and Bill Warren provide the ideal backbone for their sound, and the talents of these two allow Wells and Guy to quite literally play anything they want. The sheer range in tempo and style found on Hoodoo Man Blues is truly staggering, especially considering that a majority of artists at the time were being pigeon-holed into a specific sound and style by their record labels. This diversity, as well as the absolutely magnificent playing of every musician catapults Junior Wells' 1965 album, Hoodoo Man Blues, into a class all its own, and it is unquestionably one of the most magnificent and important musical recordings in history.

Standout tracks: "Snatch It Back and Hold It," "Hoodoo Man Blues," and "We're Ready."

Monday, September 21, 2009

September 21: Killing Joke, "Killing Joke"

Artist: Killing Joke
Album: Killing Joke
Year: 1980
Label: EG

Across a number of genres, the number of bands that employ a certain sound as become so common, that is is cliché. However, even within these genres, there was a point when the sound was new, and one must take these early albums as truly groundbreaking, even though they may not seem as significant in the modern light. Though placing startling vocals over bleak soundscapes had already been toyed with by bands like Joy Division, there was nobody who had yet made music that sounded quite like that of U.K. post-punk pioneers, Killing Joke. Using sharp, distorted synthesizer rhythms with rich, open instrumentations, the sound of Killing Joke has influenced countless bands who came in their wake, from Type O Negative to Faith No More to Nine Inch Nails. The fact that, even with this wide reaching influence, the band remains relatively unknown is largely due to the fact that the music is so unique that it really cannot be classified into any already existing genre. Part experimental noise-rock, part post-punk minimalism, part heavy metal, and all glossed over with what can only be called a strange pop sensibility, there is truly no other band ever that sounds quite like Killing Joke. Pulling off one of the most difficult tasks and releasing an amazingly original debut record without a bad note anywhere, Killing Joke's 1980 self-titled album is by far one of the most extraordinary recordings ever made, and every music fan is sure to find some aspect of the album that quickly makes it a favorite.

Truth be told, it is very difficult to find ANY band that plays any form of louder/heavier music after their debut that did not, in some way, borrow from their sound. The songs found on Killing Joke range from the heavy metal-esque sounds of "The Wait" to more pop-inspired, strangely danceable tunes like "Primitive." The group also dives into deep, dark, lulling numbers such as "Tomorrow's World," that clearly set the stage for what would become the "goth" genre. It is due to this diversity in sound that makes Killing Joke such an amazing album, and the talent within the band is undeniable, as they perfectly execute every sound and style. The wide range of influence that Killing Joke has had across the musical spectrum can be seen in two extremely notably covers that have occurred over the years. If one finds a copy of the 1997 Foo Fighters single for "Everlong," the b-side is, in fact, the Foo's version of "Requiem." (Note: there are two different versions of the "Everlong" single, the other has a cover of the Vanity6 song, "Drive Me Wild" as the b-side.) A decade earlier, in 1987, Metallica covered the song, "The Wait" on their own The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited and it also appeared on the 1988 re-release of the EP, Garage, Inc. While these are two of the most obvious tributes paid by later artists, after experiencing Killing Joke, one can hear their influence throughout a countless number of other bands that followed their time. The work of every band member is nothing short of perfect, and the way in which they interact with one another is the true brilliance of the band.

The music found throughout Killing Joke is consistently as enjoyable as it is original. Though the band has gone through a number of lineup changes over the years, this is the musical grouping that shows the finest combination of the band that ever existed. As one of the original members of the band, and one of two who have been in every lineup, the playing of guitarist Kevin "Geordie" Walker is easily one of the most amazing aspects on the record. Playing with a style and distortion that is often almost hypnotic, Walker manages to find a strange balance between making his guitar sound extremely aggressive, yet it simultaneously has a captivating lull. Easily one of the greatest bassist of his generation, Martin "Youth" Glover may be better known for his work with Paul McCartney as part of the experimental electronic group, The Firemen. However, Glover's playing on Killing Joke is absolutely phenomenal, as he brings a groove and funk feeling that is noticeably missing from the rest of the groups' catalog. Glover's presence is perhaps no more clear than on the song, "Change," which was not included on U.K. release of the album. Drummer Paul Ferguson is similarly as stunning as his bandmates, and his perfectly spaced, often lightning fast beats often almost sound as if it is a drum machine playing. His ability to shine, regardless of the song texture is one of the key aspects that makes Killing Joke so extraordinary, and also provides the often unsettling sense of urgency within the songs. The lineup of Killing Joke found on their self-titled debut is unquestionably the best the band ever was, and after more than twenty-five years apart, this grouping re-assembled for a number of shows in 2008.

Rounding out the group, and providing keyboard playing as well as a majority of vocal duties is band founder, and the other member who has been in every lineup, Jeremy "Jaz" Coleman. Easily one of the most unique and recognizable voices in music history, Coleman perfected the "detached and dejected" sound long before the term "goth" was ever related to music. Singing with a desperate, yet completely captivating sound, there has never been another singer with the stunning sound and style of Coleman. Though they are often caught up in, if not slightly lost within the musical mastery around them, the lyrics that Coleman presents are just as fantastic as the manner in which they are delivered. From the dark, somber anti-war cries of "Wardance" to the deep questioning "Change" to the almost apocalyptic feel of "The Wait," Killing Joke presents a thematic range that was truly unrivaled in its day. Aside from his work within Killing Joke, Coleman is also known for his orchestral arrangements, and was the force behind two very successful collaborations with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The two releases, Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd and Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin were both arranged by Coleman, and he also devotes a great deal of time to working with young orchestral musicians all over the world. Standing today as one of the most influential and overall talented frontmen in the history of music, Jaz Coleman continues to push the envelope on what can be done musically, and his unparalleled voice continues to make him one of the most distinctive singers in the world.

Pulsing keyboards, crunching guitars, and a rich, open sound make the sound of Killing Joke appeal to a wide range of musical audiences. However, when one examines the album within its own time frame, it is truly stunning as there was little else that had even come close to the albums' sound. The brilliant rhythms created by bassist Martin Glover and drummer Paul Ferguson are punctuated by the keyboard playing of frontman Jaz Coleman, and the overall sound created is nothing short of phenomenal. The overlain guitar of Geordie Walker presents the perfect contrast, and the overall sound of Killing Joke is one of the greatest musical forms ever captured. Finding the balance between their dark, somber, often haunting tones and a strangely-pop appeal, the music of Killing Joke can be seen as a massive influence on bands like The Misfits and nearly every "prog rock" band from Helmet to Ministry. At times sounding like a wild combination of Public Image Ltd., The Fall, and The Birthday Party, there has truly never been another band with a sound quite like Killing Joke, yet they remain tragically under-credited bands in the entire history of music. There is not a bad note anywhere on the album, and the wide range of styles presented ensures that every music fan will find something they enjoy within the forty minutes that is Killing Joke's monumental and magnificent 1980 self-titled debut record.

Standout tracks: "Requiem," "Wardance," and "The Wait."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

September 20: Wayne Shorter, "Speak No Evil"

Artist: Wayne Shorter
Album: Speak No Evil
Year: 1965
Label: Blue Note

The so-called "greats" of jazz music can be easily separated into two, distinct groups: those who played other people's compilations, and those who wrote all of their own material. While one can make the case that those in the former group are still amazingly talented musicians, the ability to compose reveals the true musical genius of an artist, and one cannot help but consider them superior in comparison. Standing high atop this second list of musicians is one of the greatest performers and most unique and innovative composers of all time, saxophone master, Wayne Shorter. While many will argue that Shorter was superior in his capacity as a composer than as a musician, the fact of the matter is, his saxophone talents are unquestionably some of the greatest ever recorded. Though he would eventually become the saxophone player in what is widely considered Miles Davis' finest quintet, his work as a band leader generated some of the most amazing music in history. Shorter still performs and records to this day, and his longevity enables him to have one of the largest and most impressive recorded catalogs in history. However, it is his work throughout the 1960's that solidified him as one of the greatest in the history of jazz music. Within these recordings is the album that finally made him seen as a unique artist, a true innovator of style, and one can experience the true genius of Wayne Shorter on his magnificent 1965 album, Speak No Evil.

Though he would go on to make his own legend and record with many of the greatest musicians in history, the truth of the matter is, like nearly every saxophone player of substance, Shorter lived in the shadow of John Coltrane for most of his early career. The fact that he used nearly Coltrane's exact backing band for many of his finest albums, including the legendary JuJu, obviously did not help his case. However, after the JuJu sessions, Shorter dismissed Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman, and brought in is bandmates from his time with Mile Davis. With this new group of equally stellar musicians in place, Shorter brought in six brand new compositions, and the manner in which he plays throughout Speak No Evil finally began to force critics to see him as a new, equally brilliant musician, as opposed to "just another disciple." Recorded on Christmas Eve, 1964, Speak No Evil is an absolutely phenomenal display both playing and writing skills, and the new lineup enabled listeners to finally realize the unparalleled beauty that lived within his unorthodox compositions. Shorter's ability to use never before thought of harmonic structures and an almost bluesy approach to the bop sound truly make his songs sound like nothing else ever recorded. Helping to bring these fantastic piece of music to life, Shorter enlisted the help of one of the most stunning backing bands ever assembled.

As is a common theme amongst the great jazz albums in history, the lineup of musicians on Speak No Evil is nearly as impressive as the music they create. Though the grouping would record a number of albums together under the watch of Miles Davis, it is their work here that proves their amazing talent as a unit. Though he had not yet cemented his name as the king of jazz-funk fusion, pianist Herbie Hancock is clearly very comfortable with this group of musicians, and his performance is one of the finest of the early part of his career. Often seemingly to play in a "call and response" pattern with the other musicians when he isn't taking center stage with his fantastic solo progressions, Hancock shines on every single song. Though he was not a part of the Davis quintet, trumpet player, Freddie Hubbard brings a hard bop sound that gels perfectly with Shorter's style. The way in which the duo play off one another is often stunning, and the chemistry between the two is a sound rarely found elsewhere in music. As has been seen many times throughout the jazz albums covered in this blog, when one needed a top notch bassist, the man many turned to was Ron Carter. On Speak No Evil, Carter's playing is truly beautiful, and the light manner in which he flies through the songs gives many of the compositions their signature mood. The only holdover from Shorter's past sessions is the unmistakable Elvin Jones. With one of the most stunning resumes in music history, there are truly very few jazz drummers deserving to be mentioned in the same breath. Listening to the way in which he interacts with Shorters' playing, it is abundantly clear why Shorter could not visualize his music with a different drummer. With the amazing caliber of musicians that Wayne Shorter brought together for the Speak No Evil session, it is not as surprising that the group was able to perfectly record all six of the superb compositions in a single evening session.

Even with the stellar musicians with which he surrounds himself, Wayne Shorter still manages to easily shine as the finest in the bunch. Making himself unique in the fact that, depending on which of his saxophones he his playing, he has a completely different sound, it is clear that Shorter was a talent unlike any other in history. When Shorter is playing tenor sax, he presents a more tough, succinct sound; while his work on soprano sax displays the more gentle, loving sound that he is able to create. This ability to have such a wide range in sound available is undoubtedly one of the key factors in Shorter's ability to compose such stunning pieces. Clearly able to play winding lyrical melodies as well as work within the modal or tonal structures, the music of Shorter explores territories that had never before been heard. The way in which Shorter constructs the compositions found on Speak No Evil truly jump-started an entirely new writing approach. Countless times throughout the album, it sounds as if there is a much larger band playing, and this is simply due to the way in which Shorter arranged the instrumentation. Whether Shorter is fusing together the hard bop style with modal piano or melding the blues with inverted lyrical patterns, there are very few artists who were able to be as successful with such creative musical imaginings. Shorter even presents the song "Wild Flower," which holds the distinction of being one of the few jazz waltzes ever composed. This seemingly boundless ability to write is not only what makes Wayne Shorter so iconic, but makes the Speak No Evil album so fantastic to experience.

Though musically, he may be best known for his work with other artists, it is impossible to deny the stunning musicianship and unequaled writing ability of Wayne Shorter. Whether he was bringing the final, key element to Miles Davis' quintet, or leading his own group of outstanding musicians, Shorter is by far one of the most important figures in all of jazz music. Mixing together musical styles that previously seemed too far apart to work, Wayne Shorter's compositions rank among the greatest ever, and their impact is still massive in modern times. Moving from basically using the backing group of John Coltrane to his own, equally superior group, Shorter surrounds himself with equally talented, visionary artists. With the rhythm section of Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, the songs are able to swing as easily as attain avant rhythmic qualities unheard of anywhere else in music. Pianist Herbie Hancock ebbs and flows perfectly alongside the stunning trumpet work of Freddie Hubbard. The quintet gel in a way which is virtually unheard of anywhere else in jazz history, and the resulting session remains one of the most stunning musical collections ever recorded. The combination of Shorter's phenomenal, pioneering writing and his sensational musicianship easily makes Wayne Shorter and his Speak No Evil record stand high among the greatest in jazz history.

Standout tracks: "Witch Hunt," "Speak No Evil," and "Wild Flower."