Monday, August 31, 2009

August 31: Tortoise, "Tortoise"

Artist: Tortoise
Album: Tortoise
Year: 1994
Label: Thrill Jockey

When a band plays music that is simply impossible to define, or even relate to a single genre, a majority of the time, the music in question becomes a landmark sound and a major cog in the progression of music. Similarly, many of these same bands are so avant, so ahead of their time, that their music becomes lost among a majority of the general public, and they achieve comparatively little commercial success. Case in point, somewhere in the space between Primus, Sun Ra, and Black Sabbath, you will find one of the most original and completely genius bands in the history of music, Tortoise. A brilliantly unique combination of moody, jazzy instrumentals with a heavy, dark shadow over each song, Tortoise were true innovators in every sense of the word, and they are seen as one of the integral bands in the formation of what is now called the "post rock" movement. With a lineup that has changed greatly over the past twenty years, members of Tortoise have gone on to form bands like Gastr del Sol and The Sea And Cake among others. Even with the various changes in personnel, the spirit behind the music has stayed consistent, and each album that the group has released is a truly brilliant musical accomplishment. However, it is Tortoise's first lineup and debut album, 1994's Tortoise that stands as their finest musical achievement and easily one of the most amazing albums ever recorded. The songs are completed by various sound effects, keyboards, accordions, and a range of other traditional and non-traditional instruments which combine to make the music on Tortoise like nothing else ever recorded.

By the time Tortoise was released in late 1994, the popular music of the time was filled with moods and lyrics that were either overly aggressive of celebrating more questionable, urban lifestyles. With the music of Tortoise, one would truly be hard pressed to find a sound that was further from these moods and themes. However, the progressive, innovative nature with which the group approached their music quickly gained them an underground following which remains to this day. The key to this is clearly the fact that each of the five musicians found on Tortoise trust one another, and they give each other the support to fully explore the musical themes which are found on the album. This complete exploration is one of the keys to the overall impact of the songs, and the smallest nuances and most subtle moments are often the pieces that make the album so compelling. The myriad of instruments and sounds found on Tortoise are perfectly spaced and mixed, and this is largely due to the flawless production work, which was handled entirely by the band, though mostly attributed to drummer John McEntire. Their unique, unorthodox instrumentation gives their songs an atmosphere unlike any other, and the level of musicianship found in the band easily rivals any of their contemporaries.

As the album is completely devoid of lyrical content, the entire genius of the songs comes solely from the unique manner in which the band members approach their instruments. Each of the five band members on Tortoise play a wide variety of instruments, and this further enables the band to create sounds like no other group in history. With a heavy emphasis on heavy, thumping basslines, the group also manages to find a deep groove on every track via the fantastic bass playing. The drumming throughout Tortoise is equally as impressive, as the beats seem to almost bounce off of the album on many of the songs. Whether it is the distorted, echoey sounds on "Onions Wrapped In Butter" or the far more standard drum down found elsewhere on the album, this is a group that is clearly as concerned with how the drums sound as much as they are with the drums' place within the overall musical picture they are creating. Furthering their musical uniqueness, the group often uses vibraphones, and on a few tracks, they even double up on the instrument, creating a sound and mood that is nothing short of stunning. The sensational way in which Tortoise incorporates the vibraphones into their dark, rock groove is no more perfect than one will find on the meandering mega-composition, "Ry Cooder." from synthesizers to heavily distorted sound effects, the group uses a wide variety of instrumentation of create their amazing sonic textures, and the manner in which they shift the instruments around in the mix throughout the songs makes the moods throughout Tortoise truly like nothing else ever recorded.

At their core, Tortoise is a band that is all about creating stunning musical moods and atmospheres. While there are a few brighter numbers at the end of the album, a majority of the songs have a dark, somewhat gloomy mood that is often reminiscent of groups like Joy Division. Many of the songs have very spacey, open textures, and this is where the band pushes into new territory for a rock-centered band. This approach to their music clearly influenced many bands, the most obvious of which would be Explosions In The Sky. The key to these mesmerizing moods is far and away the amazing bass playing on every track, and there are many moments where the basswork is nothing short of menacing and sinister in nature. The way in which the simple, yet rich rhythms create these unparalleled moods is perhaps no more clear than on the song, "Onions Wrapped In Butter," as aside from light keyboard sounds and loops, they are the only instruments present. One of the greatest moments on Tortoise comes in the form of the eight and a half minute composition, "Spiderwebbed." On the track, the band leaves no stone unturned, and the moods found therein cross the entire spectrum, from a grim atmosphere to a more hopeful, almost ethereal mood and then eventually fading off as a relaxed, almost jazzy feel. It is this ability to perform brilliantly across the musical and mood spectrum that makes experiencing the music of Tortoise so fascinating and enjoyable.

Composing and recording completely instrumental music that isn't jazz-based is easily one of the most difficult tasks a group can attempt. Truly braving uncharted territory, Chicago-based progressive rockers, Tortoise, succeed magnificently in this quest, and their undeniably unique sound and mood remains largely unequaled to this day. Having little use for lyrics, the group conveys all of the meaning and emotion necessary through superb musicianship and careful attention to the atmospheres that are created within each of their compositions. With five musicians, each playing a variety of instruments, both the moods as well as the music itself is like nothing else before it, and truth be told, few of their followers have even come close to their amazing sound. From the almost sci-fi feel of "Flyrod" to the grooving, dark tenor of "Magnet Pulls Through" to the strangely modern, uplifting "Cornpone Brunch," Tortoise is truly brilliant in every style they approach. As has been stated before, the early 1990's was a fantastic point of musical exploration in all directions, yet many of the non-rock based sounds and styles fell largely by the wayside, and there was little market for a group that had no need for lyrics in their music. Regardless of these trends, Tortoise were clearly committed to making their own, amazingly unique brand of music, and their 1994 self-titled debut album is just as magnificent and original today as it was when it was originally released.

Standout tracks: "Magnet Pulls Through," "Ry Cooder," and "Cornpone Brunch."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

August 30: Roberta Flack, "First Take"

Artist: Roberta Flack
Album: First Take
Year: 1969
Label: Atlantic

As has been documented again and again, it is most often the artists who dare to be brave and break from the normal musical styles that become legends. Whether it be through new techniques or simply taking a new approach to a time-honored style, innovation, when done properly, nearly always yields fantastic results. Blending together the heartfelt singing style of the soul genre with the more subdued mood of jazz, Roberta Flack stands as one of the most uniquely amazing vocalists in the history of music. Often times sounding almost more folk-like in her singing than the more common style of soul singing, Flack's vocals never cease to be completely captivating and moving. Whether performing with her small, jazz-based backing band, a string section, or simply Flack singing with little to no accompaniment, she never fails to be anything short of phenomenal, and her entire recorded catalog is something to be treasured. While she may be best known for her 1971 hit, "Killing Me Softly With His Song," it is Roberta Flack's stunning 1969 debut, First Take, that stands as her finest album, and it is far and away one of the most sensational performances ever committed to recorded tape.

One of the biggest factors in the brilliant sound found on First Take is the work of one of the greatest producers in the history of Atlantic Records, Joel Dorn. Dorn was responsible for signing Bette Midler among others, and he produced countless records for artists like Lou Rawls and Leon Redbone. On this album, Dorn finds a way to make Flack's vocals stay very far forward in the mix, yet somehow, they do not appear to be separated from the rest of the music. He also experiments a bit in exactly "how" the vocals sound, as can be heard with the slightly distorted vocals on "I Told Jesus." Even with all this amazing work, the album itself took nearly three years to catch on with the general public. However, when it finally did get exposure, the record quickly became a massive success, and Flack was forever a musical superstar. The combination of Flack's brilliant vocals and Dorn's fantastic production work sent First Take all the way to the top spot on the U.S. charts, and the single "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" topped the singles chart, as well as winning a Grammy for "Record Of The Year" in 1973. Aside from the hit single, there are three other tracks that stand out from the rest of the album for a variety of reasons. First Take's lead song and single, "Compared To What" stands apart from the rest of the record due to it's overall mood and tempo. Far more upbeat, and almost swinging, while it is a fantastic song, it is nothing like the rest of the more moody, more quiet album. While the final of these three tracks will be explored later, one must also note that First Take also shows Flack's ability to adapt to various singing styles, from formal singing to the almost poetry reading mood of the socially aware song, "Tryin' Times." Performing the entire song in Spanish, "Angelitos Negros" is a blend of soul, accentuated with the Spanish overtones and is like nothing else ever recorded. The albums' liner notes make a comment on this song, stating that, "In performance, the song is introduced by Miss Flack as follows: Painters, why do you always paint white virgins? Paint beautiful black angels." Throughout the eight tracks on First Take, Flack and her backing band are never anything short of superb, and the record is a true sonic masterpiece.

When one examines the backing band that Roberta Flack has in studio for First Take, the fact that the album clearly blurs the line between soul and jazz becomes quite understandable. Handling bass duties is none other than jazz legend, Ron Carter. By far one of the most influential and heavily recorded bass players in history, Carter brings the perfect combination of soul and groove, whilst simultaneously being the key to the "cool" mood that pervades the entire record. Primarily featured on the albums' opening track, "Compared To What," the horn section that backs Flack is simply perfect throughout the entire album. Having been a key player in Count Basie's orchestra, trumpet player Joe Newman is able to perfectly deploy his "punch" as well as playing in a more restrained, soulful manner throughout First Take. The dual saxophones of Frank Weiss and Seldon Powell provide a fantastic compliment to Newman's sound, and the duo work flawlessly with one another. Drummer Ray Lucas, much like Flack, finds a way to make these soulful songs retain their emotion, whilst simultaneously possessing a clearly jazz based swing. The combination fo Roberta Flack's sensational vocals and her fantastic backing band help to make First Take one of the most amazing musical fusions ever, and there has never been another album of similar stature.

The key aspect that sets Roberta Flack's voice apart from the rest is her ability to be just as powerful and commanding as her peers, but whilst singing far more quietly. While she clearly has every bit of vocal strength as Aretha Franklin, and all of the raw honesty of Nina Simone, there has simply never been another singer to mix the two styles as brilliantly as Flack. Capable of nailing every note across the musical spectrum, her voice soars on every song, and the heavy emotion on every song is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Throughout First Take, Roberta Flack croons and cries, and the emotion she delivers on every track is simply stunning. It is largely due to her vocals that the album itself is often more akin to the sounds of folk singing as opposed to what was considered to be the soul style, as Flack sings slowly and clearly, and finds no need to get loud to convey her emotions. The final of the trio of songs (mentioned earlier) that must be noted is Flack's brilliant cover of Leonard Cohen's, "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." While it must first be noted for how absolutely stunning the cover is, it is also significant as the original version had only been released a year or so earlier. This choice and performance further Flack's more "folk" sound, yet there is not a moment anywhere on First Take that lacks the true essence of soul singing, and the album never falls short of anything less than stunning.

Even the most time honored genres need change over time, and this is often only done by the most talented and brave performers in the history of music. Daring to experiment or put their own, unique spin on a style, blending new sounds together is one of the most amazing things a musician can do when it works successfully. While psychedelic rock was all the rage as the 1960's came to a close, the soul movement was similarly in full swing. Taking the essence of the soul sound and fusing it together with a far quieter, more jazz based sound, Roberta Flack forever changed the musical landscape with her extraordinary voice and performance style. By far one of the most captivating and sincere performers in the history of music, Flack truly rewrote the books on "how" soul singers could perform, and proved that nearly any other genre, when properly approached, could be presented in a stunning, soulful style. Often coming off as more folk than soul, Flack's voice ranks among the most pure and honest that the world has ever experienced, and the songs found on First Take are just as mesmerizing and magnificent as they were upon their release, just over forty years ago. While she may not have the immediate name recognition of Aretha, Nina, or Gladys, Roberta Flack is easily one of the most phenomenal vocalists in the history of music, and her 1969 debut album, First Take, remains an astonishing testament of her ability and is one of the most incredible records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Compared To What," "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," and " The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

August 29: Cannonball Adderley, "Somethin' Else"

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Album: Somethin' Else
Year: 1958
Label: Blue Note

Occasionally, an album title so perfectly reflects the music found inside that one must wonder if it was a chance happening, or if the artist and marketing teams stayed up late through the night thinking of an appropriate title. It is safe to assume, that before the mid-1960's, any occurrences like this were either pure chance, or a move by the artist, as before that point, album titles were simply not seen as very important to record labels. By simply looking at the album cover of Cannonball Adderley's 1958 release, Somethin' Else, it is hard to imagine ANYONE being able to walk by the record without purchasing it. Aside from the telling album title, the cover simply lists the names of the performers, in this case, Adderley, Art Blakey, Sam Jones, Hank Jones, and some trumpet player named Miles Davis. It goes without saying that each artist within this quintet would become jazz legends in their own right, and the thought of having them all together on a single recording session is truly mind boggling. Though Cannonball Adderley recorded with many other jazz giants during his career, it is this album that not only stands as his finest album, but by far one of the most important albums in both the "cool" and "hard bop" sub-genres of jazz.

The story of exactly "how" Cannonball Adderley ended up an icon of jazz is almost as intriguing as the players he finds himself with on Somethin' Else. Truth be told, in 1955, Julian Edwin Adderley was enjoying his life as a high school band director in his home state of Florida. During a school vacation that year, he and his brother Nat took a brief trip to New York City and stopped in at a few jazz clubs. At one club, Adderley was worried about his saxophone being stolen, so he brought it inside, and was persuaded to sit in with Oscar Pattiford's group, as their normal sax player was late for the gig. Adderley's ability to play without any knowledge of the group made him an immediate sensation, and he was quickly recording sessions and forming his own quintet. Many of his most notable appearances were with Miles Davis' legendary sextet (which also featured John Coltrane), and Adderley can be heard on both Kind Of Blue as well as Milestones. During these years, as Davis pushed into the "cool" territory, it was Adderley who was pioneering new styles within the "bop" genre, yet the interplay between the two was always nothing short of brilliant. Every track found on Somethin' Else displays this interplay between the musicians, and it makes every song absolutely sensational. The album was re-released in 2004 and included an additional track from the sessions, "Allison's Uncle." The added track is just as fantastic as the rest, and it is somewhat of a mystery as to why it was not included on the original release.

On the Somethin' Else sessions, quite literally EVERY person with a major involvement on the record stands today as an icon of the jazz genre. Beginning with Blue Note Records founder, Alfred Lion, who handled all of the production and the man who may very well be the greatest engineer in music history, Rudy Van Gelder. It is Van Gelder's signature sound of making the instruments roll into and over one another that makes every Blue Note recording so fantastic, and Somethin' Else is no different. While Van Gelder set standards for recording, Art Blakey revolutionized modern drumming, and his ability to combine the bop style with a funky, groove mood is what makes him remain a massive influence to this day. Having played with everyone from Wayne Shorter to Sonny Rollins, it is often the groups he himself led that formed his legendary catalog. The other half of this stunning rhythm section is bassist Sam Jones. Jones' credits include work with Thelonious Monk and John Lee Hooker among others, and he proves his mastery throughout every composition on Somethin' Else. The other Jones on the album, Hank, stands as one of the greatest jazz pianists in history. Playing alongside the likes of Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lester Young, Hank Jones is nothing short of sensational on this record. With most so-called "supergroups," regardless of genre, the recordings almost always end up suffering due to the musicians competing for the spotlight and musical supremacy. Thankfully, on Somethin' Else, the opposite is true, as the musicians brilliantly play along with one another, and the resulting sound of this team effort is truly one of the most amazing moments in jazz history ever recorded.

While these three musicians are truly phenomenal throughout Somethin' Else, the quintet's leader as well as featured trumpet player still stand above the others. Whether he is leading his own group or playing the role of sideman, Cannonball Adderley's sound and style are unmistakable. His sound was always more bright and upbeat than a majority of his contemporaries, and this is one of the many reasons why his compositions were always a bit more "accessible" to the general public. Even with his more upbeat moods, his talents rival those of any jazz sax player in history, and it is largely due to his contributions that the "hard bop" style of jazz moved forward and gained popularity. Oh, and for the record, his nickname has nothing to do with the ammunition; it is in fact a play on the word "cannibal," as a tribute to the appetite of the man. In many ways pushing jazz to the opposite side, the interplay between Adderley and Miles Davis is one of the most true forms of the phrase "opposites attract." Davis' style at this time was far more mellow and swinging, yet somehow the pairing works brilliantly. As always, Davis plays flawlessly, and his ability to adapt to Adderley's compositions and interpretations show the true extent of his abilities. The true magic of Somethin' Else lies within the manner in which Adderley and Davis work with one another. The entire album, they are trading solos and musical phrases, both simultaneously and occasionally following one another in brilliant musical patterns. Both musicians are in top form, and it is a truly rare musical treat to be able to experience such amazing musicianship from two jazz giants as one finds on Somethin' Else.

One of the most amazing aspects of the jazz scene throughout the 1940's, 50's, and 60's was the willingness of musicians to play alongside one another without caring "whose" record was being recorded. This overall sense of selflessness led to absolutely stunning combinations, as well as countless new styles and approaches being created. Having already made his name as an icon in jazz, Miles Davis clearly has no issue taking a side-seat to Cannonball Adderley on Somethin' Else, and the other members of the quintet are just as talented, making this grouping one of the greatest ever assembled. The liner notes are truly an all-star cast of jazz legends, and from the production and engineer to every instrument, every artist featured has a catalog and legend that rank among the most impressive in history. The mood throughout Somethin' Else is consistently upbeat, even when the tempo slows, and this is largely due to the musical direction and style of Adderley. The album itself represents one of the most important, defining moments in the "hard bop" genre, and it is similarly an absolute landmark recording and remains one of the most influential albums ever recorded. With a flawless recorded catalog, Cannonball Adderley stands as a true icon of the jazz genre, and he and his all-star quintet truly made jazz history with their magnificent and monumental 1958 album, Somethin' Else.

Standout tracks: "Autumn Leaves," "Somethin' Else," and "Allison's Uncle."

Friday, August 28, 2009

August 28: Babes In Toyland, "Spanking Machine"

Artist: Babes In Toyland
Album: Spanking Machine
Year: 1989
Label: Twin/Tone

While bands like Nirvana may have defined the "grunge" sound and are generally thought to be one of the louder, more angry bands of the era, the truth of the matter is, when compared to another seminal band of the time, the grunge movement might as well be lullaby music. When it comes to aggressive, harsh, and raging music, forget the endless list of male-fronted, copycat bands and look to the other side of the coin. While bands like Bikini Kill, L7, and Bratmobile are all important factors in the rise of the "riot grrrl" genre, when it comes down to pure anger and fury, none come close to Minneapolis' own, Babes In Toyland. A band that featured L7's Jennifer Finch and the always disagreeable Courtney Love in the early part of its existence, the group would eventually settle into one of the most powerful trios in the history of music. Though they only released a pair of EP's and three full length records over their decade-long career, they remain some of the most unsettling and influential albums on the era. Pre-dating the first release from Hole by well over two years, it is Babes In Toyland's 1989 debut record, Spanking Machine, that stands as a turning point in female-based rock, and retains its impact and relevance more than twenty years after its initial release.

The sound found on Spanking Machine is startlingly raw, and the urgency within the music is often unnerving. This is due in large part to the amazing production work of Seattle-based legend, Jack Endino. Having already worked EP's and full length released for the likes of Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and the aforementioned Nirvana, Endino is undoubtedly as responsible for the so-called "Seattle sound" as any musician with whom he worked. On Spanking Machine, he is able to perfectly and clearly present the almost out of control sound that the band creates, and he guides them to the ideal balance between volume, distortion, and musicianship. While their second full length, 1992' Fontanelle may be a bit more commercially accessible, it is this album where the unbridled fury that makes the music of Babes In Toyland so stunning is brilliantly displayed. Truth be told, they not only beat Hole to the punch insofar as release date is concerned, but they are far superior in their execution of the sound and style that is shared between the groups. After experiencing Spanking Machine, one can clearly hear the influences that the record had on bands like 7 Year Bitch, Angelica, and Die Cheerleader among a host of many others. The manner in which Babes In Toyland go about their heavy, agitated brand of hardcore rock is truly incredible, and the fact that it is all performed by only three musicians makes the music even more amazing.

The music itself is a unique blend of punk and hardcore, yet there is also a strange twist of glam-rock styling within the music as well. The instruments and energy are all turned up to the maximum, yet the volume is very much in control, and this is how Babes In Toyland avoids becoming just reckless noise and retain their musicality. Easily one of the most important female figures in the history of music, band founder and guitarist Kat Bjelland is absolutely stunning throughout Spanking Machine. Brilliantly blending the aggression of the punk sound with what can only be called a style and tone reminiscent of mid-60's surf rock, Bjelland truly has a sound all of her own. Seamlessly switching from crushing chords to perfectly toned, staccato patterns, Bjelland is simply stunning throughout the entire album. As the rumor goes, Michelle Leon learned to play bass AFTER joining the band. Apparently, Bjelland felt that Leon's inexperience with the instrument would foster more creativity and experimentation on the part of Leon. Regardless of the truth of the situation, Leon is absolutely stellar throughout Spanking Machine, and her ability to make these angry, pulverizing songs swing is a testament to her fantastic playing. Leon left the band in 1992, following the murder of her boyfriend, Joe Cole. Paving the way for countless followers, drummer Lori Barbero delivers a truly awe-inspiring performance on Spanking Machine. With her sound coming off as sometimes more hollow and bouncy as on "Boto(w)rap," yet more often very dry and powerful, she is easily one of the most talented drummers of the era. It is very much her playing that drives the songs to the border of chaos, yet it is simultaneously her drumming that keeps it from falling into an unorganized mess. Regardless of their gender, the trio of musicians in Babes In Toyland forever altered the musical landscape with their fantastic playing throughout Spanking Machine.

Along with her superb guitar playing, Kat Bjelland also handles nearly all of the vocal duties, as well as being the bands' primary song writer. Constantly shifting from a spoken style to screaming to more formal singing, few artists have been able to capture such honest emotion as is found on every song she sings. Brilliantly delivering her words with an aggressive, venomous style, Bjelleand takes the no-holds-barred approach of Patti Smith and injects it with a more forceful feminist spirit that still serves as the inspiration for countless performers to this day. Lyrically, Bjelland is just as much of a pioneer as her singing style, as her lyrics are some of the most brutal, blunt, and honest lyrics ever written, and they were lightyears ahead of their time. Stunning lines like, "...blind your mind, so tears will melt...numb the place where pain is..." and "...she screams sweet hell in her old white nightie, with rips and tears she's too aware...see through big black bombs that explode on chickens, all the while she thickens..."m stand as some of the most hauntingly poetic words ever written. Presenting some of the most aggressive and unforgiving commentaries on gender relations and the role of women, many of the lyrics are hauntingly dark, yet there have been few times in history where one can find such heartfelt, and perhaps more to the point, accurate words. Nearly every lyric found on Spanking Machine comes off equally as relevant and powerful as it did upon its initial release, and this is largely due to the phenomenal vocal delivery and unsettlingly honest lyrics delivered by Kat Bjelland.

For whatever reason, most people cite a handful of horrid late 1990's pop acts as the beginning of the "girl power" movement, but the reality is, what began in the 1970's was kicked into high gear as the 1980's came to a close. Proving that women could play just as hard (if not harder) than their male counterparts, Babes In Toyland remain a cornerstone in the rise of "riot grrrl" music, and stand as one of the most influential bands in the overall picture of the hardcore genre. The stunning rhythm section of Barbero and Leon play absolutely flawlessly throughout all of Spanking Machine, and the urgency with which they play is one of the many aspects that makes the album so fantastic. Truly one of the most important figures in female-fronted rock music as well as the wave of feminism that began in the early 1990's, Kat Bjelland is undoubtedly one of the most integral figures of her generation. Whether it is her crushing guitar work, her powerhouse vocals, or her amazingly evocative lyrics, she remains a true icon within the history of music. It is almost impossible to name all of the bands that have taken from the sound and style of Babes In Toyland, and due to this, it is similarly difficult to picture the musical landscape without their presence. Sadly, Babes In Toyland only recorded a handful of records during their decade long career, but their 1989 debut, Spanking Machine, remains one of the most mighty and magnificent albums ever recorded, and unlike other bands of the style that found more commercial success (read as: Hole), the influence of both the band and album continue to inspire and shape bands to this day.

Standout tracks: "He's My Thing," "Vomit Heart," and "Lashes."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August 27: King Sunny Adé, "Juju Music"

Artist: King Sunny Adé
Album: Juju Music
Year: 1982
Label: Mango

Sparsely spread throughout genres and the overall history of music, there are a handful of artists who so thoroughly dominate their particular genre, that nearly every other artist in the genre seems quite pale in comparison. These elite artists perform in their genre with such precision and perfection that, in many ways, their music actually becomes the definition of the genre. Though he was nowhere near the first or the last in the genre of juju music, there are almost no artists who are worthy of even being mentioned in the same breath as King Sunny Adé. Though he has worked with a number of groups, it is his solo records, as well as his albums with The African Beats that stand above the rest of his recordings. Though he did not start releasing formal, full length records until the early 1980's, since that time, he has released a staggering amount of albums, with the current count well over one hundred and twenty records. As is often the case, the first release of an artist represents their finest, and most true to form sound, and this is certainly the case with King Sunny Adé. His 1982 full length debut, Juju Music, lives up to the direct title, and the music found on the album is nothing short of extraordinary.

The term and style "juju" originated in Western Africa (Nigeria) during the early 1900's, and the name is derived from a term for a common form of witchcraft which was prominent in the area. Following World War II, electric instruments, as well as influences from reggae, funk, and other genres began to transform the juju style into the sound that remains to this day. Both the roots of the music, as well as the later influences come through clearly in King Sunny Adé's recordings, and one perfecting mixture of the two is absolutely sensational. While the base of the music is firmly set in the African tradition, Juju Music also features strong moods of Caribbean, Hawaiian, and even sounds and textures that are truly avant in nature. Truth be told, while much of the world praised Paul Simon for his 1980's pop-based songs with a heavy African influence as a new sound, the reality is, you can hear all of the groundwork for these records throughout Juju Music. Regardless of what other styles Adé is incorporating into the music, the one element that runs through them all is the amazing groove that makes the songs a joy to experience time and time again. The chemistry between Adé and his backing band is obvious, and the manner in which they work with one another helps to create a music and mood that is never anything short of stunning.

While an overwhelming majority of African based music centers around speed, volume, and large group chants, the juju style is far more subdued and relaxed. King Sunny Adé's music is truly blissful, and while the music is more mellow in sound, it is not slow or lulling as is the case with most "mellow" music. In fact, the mood on the album is quite the opposite, as the music is so perfectly crafted, that the relaxed vibe, yet more upbeat rhythms and sounds is nothing short of soul rejuvenating. It is this ability to have a laid back mood, yet create irresistible grooves that makes the music on Juju Music so mesmerizing and fantastic. The African Beats, Adé's backing band on Juju Music, is comprised of a number of percussionists, using instruments ranging from clavé and shekere's to more widely known instruments like congas, bongos, and a standard drum kit. There are also a number of yoruba's and other talking style drums found throughout the album. The manner in which all of these percussionists play with one another is breathtaking, as not a beat is off anywhere on the album, and the multi-layred textures are truly amazing to experience. The amazing compositions that Adé created for Juju Music are truly like nothing else ever recorded, and The African Beats perform brilliantly, creating a sound that transcends cultures and musical tastes.

Composing every song on Juju Music, as well as leading the vocals as well as playing guitar and keyboards, King Sunny Adé proves to be one of the most talented musicians that the world has ever heard. His low, soothing voice blends perfectly with the instrumentations, and it adds an amazing element to the overall sound of the songs. Adé's guitar perfectly punctuates the songs, and while it is not the primary focus often, when it is, such as on "Ma Jaiye Oni," the manner in which he navigates the music is nothing short of sensational. This ability to perform stunningly subtle, brilliant guitar pieces is what has made Adé an inspiration for countless guitar players, with one of his most public fans being Phish's Trey Anastasio. The keyboard and sound effects that lace the sounds is equally as amazing, and it is the element that makes the songs sound almost futuristic while being simultaneously traditional. The almost spacy, ethereal sounds that Adé creates on "365 Is My Number/The Message" are truly revolutionary, and it is a sound that remains unparalleled to this day. Whether it is Adé singing solo on the tracks or the group harmonizing, the vocals are always equally as superb as the music, and it adds another amazing layer to the music. Though they are singing in their native tongue, the spirit behind the singing comes through clearly, and this is a testament to the amazing sounds and moods that King Sunny Adé was able to create throughout Juju Music.

The fusion of various musical genres can often be a complete disaster, as it is a very difficult task to do so without having musical chaos. Brilliantly blending together sounds from all around the world with the traditional African style of juju, King Sunny Adé proves to be one of the most talented musicians and composers in the history of music. The fact that he has recorded more than one hundred records in only thirty years clearly shows that he has a musical mind that knows no boundaries and he obviously has a deeper connection to music than nearly all of his contemporaries. Though he remains one of the many "lesser known" influences, one can find traces of his sound all over the past three decades of popular music. His live performances are legendary for their length, energy, and the unparalleled grooves that are created by his band. This energy and ability to form grooves like no other are perfectly captured on his studio albums, and the fact is, one simply cannot find a bad recording anywhere in Adé's massive recorded catalog. By far one of the most talented musicians in history, King Sunny Adé is undoubtedly the King of juju music, and one needs to look no further than his 1982 full length debut, Juju Music, to experience everything that makes him such a phenomenal musician and his music some of the most enjoyable ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Eje Nlo Gba Ara Mi," "Ma Jaiye Oni," and "365 Is My Number/The Message."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

August 26: Ted Nugent, "Double Live Gonzo!"

Artist: Ted Nugent
Album: Double Live Gonzo!
Year: 1978
Label: Epic

It is never good to start off this way, but chances are, to fully appreciate this review, you will need to completely forget nearly everything you think about the artist in question. Though he is now more well known as one of the more outspoken and polarizing people on the planet due to the things he says, there was a time when Ted Nugent was nothing more than one of the greatest rock and roll players on the planet. Taking influence from blues-rock greats like Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix, and even his peers like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Nugent remains one of the most amazing guitarists of his time. Playing his unique blend of blues based, psychedelic, testosterone laced rock music, there are truly few artists who delivered the rock goods in the mid and late 1970's quite like "The Nuge." Though they are fantastic records, Ted Nugent's first three studio records were clearly lacking the atmosphere and mood that made his live performances so phenomenal. Nugent solved this problem by making his forth release a two LP collection of live performances, and the album, 1978's Double Live Gonzo! remains one of the most stunning live releases in the history of music.

The amazing tone found throughout Double Live Gonzo! must be noted, as Nugent's long time producer, Ric Browde, somehow finds the way to perfectly replicate the mood of Nugent's live performances. The sound is forward in the mix and clear enough that not a note is missed, yet there is still some separation between the music and listener, and this creates a truly magical mood throughout the album. Then again, it may just be Nugent's blistering performance that makes the record so amazing. Truth be told, Nugent is in top form, both musically, as well as the manner in which he works the crowds throughout Double Live Gonzo! Unlike his more modern reputation, throughout this album, Nugent plays the crowd perfectly, dropping one liners that keep the crowd in a frenzy and add to the energy of the songs. This is not to say that Nugent is filtering his words, but one has to admire his ability to be wonderfully "rock and roll" when he ignites the crowd with statements like, "...anyone who wants to get mellow, you can turn around and get the fuck outta here!" This notion remains throughout the entire album, as Nugent and his backing band never look back, with each and every song on Double Live Gonzo! becoming an all-out musical assault, and the undeniable, amazing musicianship of Nugent has rarely been more clear and awe-inspiring. The band even presents their own, lighting fast, truly incredible take on the classic, "Baby Please Don't Go." While Ted Nugent's hit single, "Stranglehold" is certainly a highlight of the album, the band also presents a few songs that, at the time, were new, including "Yank Me, Crank Me" and a recently released single called "Cat Scratch Fever." Simply put, there is not a weak moment anywhere on the album, and it remains one of the most stunning live musical documents ever released.

Though he rarely makes "best of" lists, after experiencing Ted Nugent's guitar work on Double Live Gonzo!, one clearly sees that he makes a great case at being one of the best players of his generation. His solos and progressions are truly extraordinary and his tone and style are unlike that of any of his contemporaries. Then again, when you have a guitar playing partner like Derek St. Holmes, it is quite hard to sound anything less than phenomenal. St. Holmes is equally a talented as Nugent, and the chemistry between the two is nothing short of legendary. The two play brilliantly off one another, though this would be the last Nugent/St. Holmes collaboration for nearly twenty years, as St. Holmes left the band soon after the release of Double Live Gonzo! Serving as both drummer and producer on every Nugent record until 1982, Cliff Davies is similarly one of the most underrated and overlooked musicians of his time. Keeping up with Nugents' breakneck playing pace is no easy task, yet Davies does so with amazing precision, and he is truly fantastic throughout the entire record, with his talents clearly on display on the albums' closing track, "Motor City Madhouse." This song spotlights the skills of each band member, from amazing guitar solos to the solid, almost menacing bassline from Rob Granger. Double Live Gonzo! highlights just how disciplined and talented a group of musicians Nugent had assembled, and every song on the album is so blisteringly hot that it serves as all the proof one needs to understand why Nugent is referred to as "The Motor City Mad Man."

While many aspects set Ted Nugent apart from his peers, one of the most obvious and important is the fact that one Double Live Gonzo!, one can clearly tell that, if nothing less, Nugent loves to play his music. The excitement and pleasure he takes in playing and singing is infectious and refreshing, as most rock stars of the caliber that he was at the time tended to almost "go through the motions" during live performances. There isn't a dull or "sell out" moment anywhere on the album, and Nugent is truly trying (and succeeding) to give the audience the greatest rock and roll show that they've ever experienced. While his guitar playing is never anything short of sensational, his singing is equally as inspired, and he never fails to convey the energy and mood behind each of his compositions. From the sleazy, somewhat sarcastic tone of "Yank Me, Crank Me," to the deeper, more serious style of "Great White Buffalo," Nugent is truly perfect on every song. Even on his more well known hits, Nugent performs as if it's the first time the audience has ever heard the song, and his makes the songs even more amazing to experience. However, contrary to popular belief, it is in fact Derek St. Holmes who delivers the vocals on "Stranglehold," as well as a handful of other tracks on the album. St. Holmes is just as good on vocals as Nugent, and the difference in their voices and style keep the album fresh. Regardless of who is singing, every song on Double Live Gonzo! is perfectly executed, and the album presents the ultimate display of a band that truly loves to play music, and it is one of the many reasons why this is an album that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

While disco, punk, and the early festering of "new wave" were still largely dominating the musical landscape in the mid to late 1970's, Ted Nugent proved that, at the end of the day, it was hard to top classic sounding rock and roll music. Bringing his no frills approach to every song, Nugent seemed intent on destroying every live audience as if they were both the first and last audience for which he would ever play. His band is absolutely phenomenal, and the manner in which they move as a single unit is beyond that of nearly every other band in musical history. Constantly pushing the energy higher, the band constantly make the case as one of the most talented and dynamic bands ever, and there is not an off note anywhere on the album. Whether it is the incredible guitar of Nugent and St. Holmes or the unrivaled rhythm section of Davies and Granger, Double Live Gonzo! serves as proof that you don't necessarily need volume or numbers to create top notch rock and roll. After one experiences Double Live Gonzo!, it becomes apparent that it is the live energy of his live performances that were truly the missing element from Nugent's studio releases. While in more modern times, he is perhaps best known for his polarizing views on life and the world, one needs to look no further than Ted Nugent's magnificent 1978 release, Double Live Gonzo! to understand why he is first and foremost one of the most spectacular musicians and performers in the history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Just What The Doctor Ordered," "Baby Please Don't Go," and "Motor City Madhouse."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

August 25: The Roots, "Things Fall Apart"

Artist: The Roots
Album: Things Fall Apart
Year: 1999
Label: MCA

All genres of music must progress at some point, or they will simply die away in what can see as musical Darwinism. Though many may not see it, there have been three very distinct phases of the hip hop genre. After the initial rise of hip hop which lasted until the late 1980's, hip hop moved into the "gangsta" era, and then, as the 1990's closed out, there began a rise of what can most easily term "alternative" hip hop music. In this third phase, artists began to push the limits on what short of music and rhymes could define the genre, and this simultaneously occurred alongside the emergence of a large number of "conscious" emcees. Perhaps the most important group in this new style of hip hop was a group of artists who preferred to mix together live instrumentation along with the traditional DJ-based elements of hip hop music. Combining this new musical approach with brilliant lyrics, Philadelphia based hip hop icons, The Roots, quickly rose to be one of the most innovative and highly respected groups in the history of the genre. With elements of jazz, blues, and soul music, there has simply never been another group to pull off the style as perfectly as The Roots. Though every album the group has released is an absolute essential, it is their 1999 release, Things Fall Apart, that is nothing short of a musical masterpiece and easily one of the most important records in the history of hip hop music.

While the music is the same, there are actually five different covers to the album, each of which represents a clear depiction of the the struggle of African American society. The version pictured above is not only the version that I have always owned, but it was also included in the 2005 book, The Greatest Album Covers Of All Time. Things Fall Apart was undoubtedly the album that broke The Roots into the mainstream, though it is in fact the groups' forth full length release. Powered by the Grammy winning single, "You Got Me," the album went on to sell nearly one million copies, and it remains a cornerstone of hip hop music. The song itself features the entire group playing masterfully, but it also features vocals by Erykah Badu and Eve, though the original vocals were written and performed by Jill Scott. This change was a demand from MCA records, as at the time, Scott had not yet risen to fame and the label wanted a more "high profile" artist on the album. The change works brilliantly, though Scott performed with equal impact during The Roots tour to support the album. This ease in changing of artists is largely due to the fact that The Roots themselves produced the album, and therefore the nuances of each song are never lost. With the amount of music that is featured on every track, along with the varied vocals, there are very few artists who have been able to so perfectly present the sheer amount of sound as brilliantly as The Roots.

The Roots were founded by schoolmates Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. It is Questlove's distinctive drumming style that powers a majority of the groups' music, and his love for jazz music gives the music a mood like no other group in hip hop. Questlove would take his love for jazz even further in 2001, recording the self-titled jazz album, The Philadelphia Experiment. Having worked with everyone from Madonna to Iggy Pop, there are few artists in the current music scene who are as well respected as Questlove. Bassist Leonard "Hub" Hubbard spent fifteen years as a member of The Roots, and it is very much his interaction with Questlove that makes the music's mood constantly slide between jazzy and funky. Though he may be best known for playing the riff on Dr. Dre's monster hit, "Still D.R.E.," keyboard master Scott Storch was also an original member of The Roots, and plays throughout Things Fall Apart. His ability to find the grooves created by the rhythm section and spin it with a pop appeal is one of the most addictively enjoyable aspects of The Roots' music. On a few tracks, Storch plays violin, and the keyboards are in fact handled by none other than R&B singer, D'Angelo. Also featured on the album are the dynamic duo of Rhazel and Scratch who would leave the group soon after the albums' release and make their own, amazing albums. Though there are a number of other musicians on the album, the truth of the matter is, regardless of who is playing, the music found on Things Fall Apart is never anything short of phenomenal, and it keeps The Roots in a category all of their own.

Equal to the number of musicians on the album is the number of emcees who appear throughout the album. While a majority of the rhymes are performed by Black Thought and Malik B, the other artists who appear on the songs is very much a "who's who" of the conscious hip hop moment. Mos Def, Common, Dice Raw, Beanie Siegel, and the aforementioned Eve and Erykah Badu all make appearances throughout the album, yet their rhymes are so brilliant, it seems as if each of them have been performing with the group for years. This ability to integrate any emcee style into the songs is a testament to the amazing ability within the group, as well as the universal appeal of the music. The other aspect that runs through the rhymes of each emcee is the powerful, blunt lyrical content, as the social criticisms and observations found on every track are both superb and sobering. At the front of these stunning rhymes is Black Thought, who leads the way with some of the most original and thought provoking lines in hip hop history when he delivers rhymes like, "...what does it all mean? What's it all for? With knowledge of yourself, then you're through the first people hungry and thirst for more next music explore, it's heavenly to your ebony daughter next what you think The Roots get world respect for? The splendid authentic hip hop that's raw core..." Truth be told, there is not a verse on Things Fall Apart that is anything short of sensational, and the diverse style and delivery of emcees keeps the album fresh and makes it one of the greatest hip hop records ever.

One of the longest standing arguments against hip hop is that it lacks the "musical" element that defines what most consider "music." Destroying this wonderfully ignorant argument, Philadelphia hip hop innovators, The Roots, masterfully blend phenomenal musical performances with some of the most vivid, moving rhymes in hip hop history. Whether The Roots are paving new ground or throwing shout-out's to the past on tracks like "Double Trouble," it is clear that the name of the group is far more than just a name, as they truly understand where they came from, and Things Fall Apart is a true tribute to what makes hip hop music is fantastic. The flawless production of Questlove, who immaculately blends the DJ spinning with everything from string pieces to moody keyboard and basslines, further makes this record a truly stunning musical masterpiece. It is on Things Fall Apart where The Roots' potential finally appears to be complete, as the amazing, original sound that they had been experimenting with on their early records finally appears as a stunning, flawless musical revolution. Every song and album created by The Roots is truly a work of art that must be experienced to be fully appreciated, and none shine brighter than the sensational collection of musical compositions found on their monumental 1999 release, Things Fall Apart.

Standout tracks: "The Next Movement," "Double Trouble," and "You Got Me."

Monday, August 24, 2009

August 24: Laurie Anderson, "Big Science"

Artist: Laurie Anderson
Album: Big Science
Year: 1982
Label: Warner Bros.

In the minds of most people, by the time the 1980's rolled around, the "beat" movement was dead and gone. Apparently, nobody told that to Laurie Anderson. Creating music that was simultaneously ahead of its time and a sound of the past, she was truly an artist that could not be placed into any category other than one all on her own. Combining heavily experimental music, horn and synth loops, and her unique spoken vocals, her music is almost sounds like the product of a collaboration between Brian Eno and perhaps William S. Burroughs. Her highly experimental sound and the manner in which she performs makes a bit more sense when one sees that her longtime companion (who she married in 2008) is another experimental musician who goes by the name Lou Reed. Though she is perhaps better known for her stage performances and live art experiences, she has also created many unique musical instruments, many of which have been adapted by other artists. Having released nine genre-defying albums over the past thirty years, Laurie Anderson is the epitome of an artist who refuses to compromise even the slightest detail of her music, and her albums are never anything short of stunning. Bringing her unexpected commercial success, Laurie Anderson's 1982 debut album, Big Science stands as one of the most original and absolutely brilliant albums ever recorded.

Big Science is, in fact, a collection of pieces from what would become Anderson's epic eight hour artistic production, United States I-IV, which would be released as a four LP/book set titled United States Live in 1984. Big Science was catapulted to success by the unlikely hit single, "O Superman" which found its way to the second spot on the U.K. singles charts in 1981, which led to Anderson's record deal with Warner Brothers. Being about as far from a traditional hit single as one could get, one can make the case that the overwhelming endorsement from the great John Peel played some role in the success of the song. At nearly eight and a half minutes, "O Superman (For Massenet)" is nearly three times the length of a standard radio song, and lyrically, it is both scattered and intense. The imagery created, from answering machines to allusions to the hostage crisis in Iran at the time, is both stunning and thought provoking, once again in ways that hit singles rarely sound. The song itself is based around Jules Massenet's 1885 opera, Le Cid, and the opening lines to the song, "Oh Superman, Oh Judge, Oh Mom and Dad" perfectly echo the opera's opening phrase. Using a constant, looped vocal that sounds like a short laugh, and containing sparse instrumentation (and a brief sax solo), the song exemplifies the true brilliance of Anderson's artistry. Anderson re-recorded the song in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, with lyrics altered to reflect the events. From just hearing this one song, one gains a great understanding of the sheer genius behind the lyrics and music that Anderson creates.

Much like her approach to the lyrical delivery, musically, Big Science throws all traditions to the side and it is like nothing else you'll hear anywhere. From sparse keyboard loops to almost tribal sounding rhythms to staccato beats made from sounds, Big Science is truly in a league of its own. Incorporating everything from accordions to trumpets and saxophones, the music on the album exemplifies what it means to take traditional instruments and use them like never before heard. Primarily using an Oberhem OB-X polyphonic synthesizer, this is where Anderson's music bears some similarity to the sound of Jean Michael Jarre, and possibly even a VERY small similarity to the keyboard choruses of Prince's early records. There is even a point during "Example #22" where the sound is almost that of a hip hop song, aside from the synth loop. However, it is in Anderson's minimal instrumentation, often using nothing more than bottles and hand claps to create the musical textures where one can experience her true artistic genius. With most of the music being created by only Anderson and producer and multi-instrumentalist Roma Baran, it is nothing short of amazing that such complex, yet sparsely played compositions are the results of just two primary musicians. Though others do lend various instruments here and there, the music found on Big Science must truly be experienced to be understood, as it is avant and original in ways that one simply cannot conceive.

There are few more accurate ways to describe the voice of Laurie Anderson than "strangely soothing." Never raising her voice at all, and usually sticking to a slow, yet powerful pace, there are countless times throughout Big Science when her voice is nothing short of hypnotic. From the bizarre, sarcastic opening track, "From The Air," where Anderson takes on the role of an odd pilot giving in-flight announcements to the vacant yodeling of the albums' title track, Anderson's style of delivery may follow similar lines in terms of tone and tempo, yet they are rarely all that similar to one another. Taking into account the fact that, until this album, Anderson was almost exclusively a visual artist, her sense of melody and rhythm become even more extraordinary. Perhaps more powerful than how she says things is what she is saying. One cannot deny the fact that Big Science is filled with brilliant social criticisms and observations, touching on the pitfalls of capitalism to the horrors of suburbia. Anderson also remarks on the ways in which science and "progress" can/are causing the downfall of society. However, as is highlighted on the aforementioned title track, Anderson also has a keen sense of humor, and many of her commentaries on society are cloaked within clever one liners. Whether she is using her voice to convey her fantastic lyrics or using it as part of the musical textures, Laurie Anderson truly approaches the role of the voice in music like no other artist in history.

Sadly, in the case of an overwhelming majority of avant and experimental artists, there is some point in their career where they trade away their originality in exchange for some bit of commercial success. Most people call such actions "selling out," and it is often the beginning of the end for the artist in question. By far one of the most experimental artists in music history, there has never even been the most remote sign of such compromise from Laurie Anderson, and that is a very good thing to say the least. Few artists have ever made more consistently unique music, and many of Anderson's compositions and albums are true works of art, as most of them have accompanying visual aspects, if not full on performances. Using a wide range of not traditional instruments, and sparsely scattering them throughout her compositions, the music that Anderson creates is equal to, if not greater than her unmistakable vocals. Her "cool," relaxed vocal tracks are as unorthodox and unique as one will find anywhere, and the way in which she delivers her lyrics is often nothing short of intoxicating. Powered by the unlikely hit "O Superman (For Massenet)," Laurie Anderson's 1982 debut album, Big Science, remains one of the most original and extraordinary musical efforts in the history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "From The Air," "Big Science," and "O Superman (For Massenet)."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 23: Sham 69, "Tell Us The Truth"

Artist: Sham 69
Album: Tell Us The Truth
Year: 1978
Label: Sire

While some of the best punk rock ever is so good because of the brilliant lyrics that accompany the music, there is something to be said for the more simple, less intellectual brand of punk rock as well. A huge number of the biggest punk bands ever built their careers on songs that told the plight of the "working man," yet many of these bands were comprised of more well-off white kids from suburbia. Then of course, there was U.K. "Oi!" pioneers, Sham 69. A true working class group of musicians who always kept themselves on the same level as their fans, the group rallied against the collapsing British economy and the content of their songs was straight to the point and with songs like "Hey Little Rich Boy," the meaning behind the songs was always very clear. Though many bands started their careers with these types of songs, an overwhelming majority of them moved on to "other" topics after gaining fame, yet Sham 69 always stayed true to their roots, even after finding commercial success. With their high energy, sing-along songs, the group also made a name for themselves by attracting some of the most violent and wild crowds of any band ever, and this would eventually play a large part in the band calling it quits. Releasing four albums over the two short years the band existed (they reformed in 1987), it is Sham 69's 1978 debut, Tell Us The Truth, that stands as their most influential and absolutely stunning record.

To clarify, the style of "Oi!" punk rock is often synonymous with "street punk," as it is based around the idea of promoting unity between the various working class groups of punk rock fans. The songs are often full of group sing-alongs or chants, and lyrically, the songs sing of the plight of the working man. Sham 69 represent one of the earliest and most influential bands of the genre, and later groups like Cock Sparrer and Dropkick Murphys owe a great deal of their success to Sham 69. On To Tell The Truth, the group splits the record into two distinct sides, with the "A" side being a live performance, and the "B" side being comprised to studio recordings. This gives a wonderful insight into everything that made the band great, and the crowd on the first side of the album perfectly presents the entire spirit behind the Oi! style. The crowd is very much a part of the performance and this can be heard all over the first side of Tell Us The Truth, but most notably after the band plays their most well known song, "Borstal Breakout." At that point, the crowd very much takes over and begins their own football-style chanting of the song, "Knees Up, Mother Brown" before breaking into an encore call for the band. It is this spirit and interaction between artist and audience that makes Sham 69 a truly amazing and special band.

Though Sham 69 went through a large number of lineup changes, it is the grouping that played from 1977 to mid-1979 that was, by far, the group's finest lineup. Guitarist Dave Parsons is not trying to blow anyone away with his speed or volume, but the aggression and skill with which he plays made him as good as any of his contemporaries. Like many of his peers, Parsons largely avoids anything resembling a solo, and when he does, they are simple, almost elementary progressions. With a sound that is far more forward in the mix than is usual, bassist Dave Treganna truly drives the songs on To Tell The Truth. His tone is absolutely fantastic, and he plays with far more creativity and skill than an overwhelming majority of his peers. Rounding out the bands' musical side is drummer Mark "Dodie" Cain. Like his bandmates, Cain plays masterfully on the entire album, and proves he is more than capable of producing amazing amounts of emotion, regardless of the tempo. It is the combination of these three musicians that makes the songs on To Tell The Truth morph into a frenzy of sound, and it is quite clear why the bands' music was able to insight wild, violent energy in their crowds. Writing, recording, and producing the entire album themselves, Sham 69 leave no doubt that they were easily one of the most talented bands of the U.K. punk explosion, and the addition of the live side shows why they were true crowd favorites.

At the front of the bands' music on both sides is the amazing presence of the one and only Jimmy Pursey. In the spirit of a majority of punk frontmen, Pursey leans more to the side of spoken word or yelling then he does to the more formal use of the word "singing." On the live side of Tell Us The Truth, Pursey is constantly interacting with the audience, and this is where it becomes perfectly clear that the band clearly saw themselves on the same level as their fans. Pursey sums this entire idea up as he says to the crowd before "Ulster," just dance and sing it...we want you to sing it...'cause you're going to get on the LP with us, 'cause you're us..." Whether he is leading them in football-style chants or calling a few of them out by name, the performances show a perfect example of the energy exchange between a band and their audience. Lyrically, the songs on Tell Us The Truth are as working class as one can find anywhere. Sham 69 writes songs that their audience can truly "feel," as they are by far some of the most direct and raw words for the less-well-off that have ever been written. Whether he is singing about the stores and shops that are too expensive for the working class on "Rip Off" or simple thoughts on finding yourself on "It's Never Too Late," the lyrics are as fantastic as the music. In both their words, as well as the manner in which they conducted themselves on stage, Sham 69, and the vocal stylings of Jimmy Pursey stand as the epitome of what it means to truly be a band "of the people."

Crowds interacting with bands and singing along has been present at live performances since the earliest days of live music. However, with the rise of the punk rock genre in the mid to late 1970's, this trend became far more interactive. Taking this idea to the next level, U.K. punk legends, Sham 69 truly made their fans "part" of the songs and made it a point to stay true to their followers. In many ways, this can be seen as the rock equivalent of "keeping it real," as even when the band found commercial success, the subject matter of their songs and the manner in which they conducted themselves on stage remained largely unchanged. With a trio of musicians who truly play as a single unit, and need neither excessive volume nor chaotic speed to whip the audience into a frenzy. Jimmy Pursey's brilliant vocal delivery on top of the music is nothing less than flawless, and he perfectly captures the spirit behind every song, and constantly keeps the audience involved in the performance. Whether it is the raw, untamed sound and mood captured on the albums' live side, or the perfectly executed studio sessions on the second side, Sham 69 plays without fault on the entire album, and prove that they are undoubtedly one of the most important bands to emerge from the U.K. punk explosion. Though this lineup only lasted a few years, it is by far the finest grouping of the band, and Sham 69's 1978 debut album, Tell Us The Truth, remains one of the most energizing and influential albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Rip Off," "Borstal Breakout," and "Hey Little Rich Boy."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 22: Ray Charles, "The Genius Of Ray Charles"

Artist: Ray Charles
Album: The Genius Of Ray Charles
Year: 1959
Label: Atlantic

Jazz, soul, R&B, rock, blues, and country may all seem like genres onto themselves, but in the case of one Genius, they were all simultaneously fair game. THE Genius himself, Ray Charles served as proof that genres were only what you made of them, and with true musical talent, they could all be performed with equal success on the same album. Ray Charles was always an artist who enjoyed blending musical styles together, and the manner in which he did during the early phase of his career is truly stunning. This was in large part due to the fact that, in hindsight, the man simply had too much music inside of him that he needed to expel. Impacting the music world for more than five decades, much of Charles' catalog have become "classics" and his voice is truly unmistakable. Though the catalog of Ray Charles is, by far, one of the most imposing, both in terms of size and range, one would be truly hard pressed to find any record in it that is anything short of superb. However, during the early years of his career, Ray's voice was unparalleled, and it is in these early recordings where the true brilliance of his talents shines brightest. Bringing in a handful of top notch musicians from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie among others, there are few albums that can even come close to the power and presence of Ray Charles' 1959 release, The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Though the name of Ray Charles is imposing in itself, if you read deeper into the liner notes on The Genius Of Ray Charles, it quickly becomes obvious that he found himself in quite good company for the recording. Produced by the tandem of Atlantic Records partners Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, it is little surprise that every musician on the planet wanted to get in on the sessions. The sound quality is absolutely perfect on every song, and Ertegun and Wexler masterfully bring out even the slightest nuances in both the band as well as Charles' singing. The album is split into two sides, the first side featuring a full band backing Charles; while the second side is just Charles with a simple, more jazz-based quintet and string section led by the great Ralph Burns. This split in sound truly makes the album perfect for every music lover, as the one constant is Charles' amazing voice and playing. The sound of the band on the first side of the album rivals any other in history, and this is in large part due to their conductor, and up and coming musician and arranger named Quincy Jones. Jones makes the slow songs swing, and the speedy songs rock, and one can clearly see that, even this early in his career, Jones was going to be an undeniable musical force. Aided by the flawless production of Ertegun and Wexler, along with the musical leadership of Jones and Ralph Burns, Ray Charles only needs to be concerned with his own performance, which allows him the space to be absolutely phenomenal on every song found on The Genius Of Ray Charles.

The sound of the side one band is absolutely sensational, with the horns blasting brightly, and the entire band moving as an unstoppable musical machine. Having played in the bands of Basie and Ellington, as well as playing alongside everyone from Thelonious Monk to Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry stands as one of the most influential and recorded trumpet players in music history. There are actually another four or five trumpet players along with Terry, which include among others, Snookie Young, and the sound that comes from the section is absolutely astounding. Also in this band is a quartet of trombone players, which include Melba Liston, who would become extremely well known for her collaborations with Randy Weston in the early 1960's. Zoot Sims and Paul Gonsalves bookend the four sax players, and the sound of their section never fails to fall short of stunning. With such a powerful, bright sound on side one, listeners almost "need" the more relaxed, slower second side to recover. On the second side of The Genius Of Ray Charles, the sound is led by the muted string section, which is under the supervision of the duo of Ralph Burns and Harry Lookofsky. The entire group understands that on these songs, the focus is truly Ray and his amazing voice and piano playing, though each musician, most notably bassist Wendel Marshall and an flute section take brilliant solos on various songs. As previously stated, the string section is simply sensational, and they provide a gorgeous backing texture for Charles on every song. Though the two backing bands are sharp contrasts in sound and style, the two sides are equally fantastic, and therein lies the genius of the album.

The sound of Ray Charles' voice is nothing short of a classic American sound. Easily one of the most rich and emotionally telling voices in history, there is never any mistaking the sound of Ray Charles. Whether he is exploding with joy on songs like "Let The Good Times Roll" or soulfully lamenting on the classic "Am I Blue?," Ray's singing is nothing short of magnificent. With his uncanny ability to find the true feelings and essence within each song, his take on every song is always unique and they remain unrivaled to this day. Regardless of where he is working on the musical scale, he nails every note, and his sometimes gritty, sometimes soft and soulful voice is a true treat to experience time and time again. On The Genius Of Ray Charles, Ray delivers a dozen original versions of some of the most classic songs in the history of music. His swinging, horn-laced take on "It Had To Be You" is by far one of the most enjoyable versions ever recorded, and his interpretation of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is so phenomenal that it has rarely been covered since. On the flip side, Charles' recording of "Come Rain Or Come Shine" is easily the most raw and soulful since the versions by Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Truth be told, the versions recorded after this one (read as: Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand) seem almost cliché or childish in comparison. Try as they might, there has simply never been another singer who could match the honest, and phenomenal sound and playing of Ray Charles, and the true essence of his amazing ability can be found on The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Whether he was playing piano and singing in the extraordinary style that he made famous, or shooting guns at would-be shoplifters in The Blues Brothers, there has truly never been another artist that can be mentioned in the same breath as The Genius, Ray Charles. Having recorded with everyone from Willie Nelson to Leon Russell to James Taylor, the boundaries of musical genres never mattered to Charles, and this is a large part why his music is so unique and amazing. His slightly gruff, always perfect voice set him high atop the list of the greatest vocalists ever, and the emotion and soul that he puts behind his voice truly make him nothing short of an icon. For his fifth studio recording with Atlantic Records, Ray decided to spotlight both of his loves, separating the album into two, starkly contrasting sides. The big band sound of the first side enables Charles to swing and belt out some of his most joyous sounds, while the second side is far more restrained and mellow, yet it is absolutely equal in its unmatched musical impact. Having recorded countless songs over his career which spanned more than fifty years, his recorded catalog rivals any other in terms of size, yet stands alone in terms of diversity in sound, as well as collaborative partners. Standing high above the rest of his albums is his truly awe-inspiring, monumental and magnificent 1959 album, The Genius Of Ray Charles.

Standout tracks: "Let The Good Times Roll," "It Had To Be You," and "Deed I Do."

Friday, August 21, 2009

August 21: Mudhoney, "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge"

Artist: Mudhoney
Album: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Year: 1991
Label: Sub-Pop

Though bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden all found far greater commercial success, the fact of the matter is, had it not been for the "true" originators of what is now called "grunge" or the "Seattle sound," those bands may have never found such fame. Before all these bands rose to fame, Mudhoney was pioneering the sound that would make them famous, and after one listens to Mudhoney, the amount of influence they had on all of the so called "grunge" bands is more than obvious. From the production to the style of playing to the sound of the vocals and instruments, it is this band that paved the way, yet barely received any accolades in comparison. As one of the most prominent bands on the now sacred Sub-Pop record label, Mudhoney also stand as one of the earliest "indie" bands, and they have been a large influence in the sense of their originality as well. The band has released eight studio records over the past twenty years, and they remain together to this day, though there have been a few changes in the lineup. Mudhoney's second album for Sub-Pop, 1991's Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, is by far their finest musical moment and remains one of the greatest and most influential recordings in music history.

First off, to get it out of the way, the album title is obviously a play on the mnemonic that is used to remember the note sequence of the treble clef in music writing. After listening to only the opening two songs on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, it is beyond obvious where Nirvana took a great majority of the sound they used on their breakthrough record, Nevermind. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that Nirvana ripped off these two songs and changed them slightly for their own record. Regardless, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge is a phenomenal album in every way, from the solid song writing to the amazing music to the perfect production. The album sounds dirty enough that it retains the raw mood that defined the grunge sound, yet simultaneously is clean enough that the lyrics and music are not lost. This amazing balance is largely due to lesser known, but absolutely phenomenal producer, Conrad Uno. Though this is by far his best known work, he also produced the debut record for Presidents Of The United States of America, as well as a number of smaller, Seattle-based bands over the years. His ability to keep the bands' organic sound fully intact, whilst keeping the album clean sounding is what defined the grunge genre, and it is impossible to overstate his importance in creating this sound.

The music of Mudhoney is a unique fusion of heavy metal, early punk, and in many respects, mid-1960's rock. This louder, more aggressive feel is largely due to the presence of Melvins founder, Matt Lukin on bass guitar. His deep grooves and more forceful playing style helps to give the album a far more direct and confrontational mood than anything else at the time. The dual guitar sound of Mark Arm and Steve Turner is sensational, as they find the perfect balance between making loads of noise, and crafting it into a brilliant, organized, chaotic sound. Drummer Dan Peters may actually be best known as the drummer on Nirvana's song, "Sliver," which he recorded before being replaced by Dave Grohl. The sound he achieves on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge is nothing short of fantastic, and one would be hard pressed to find an album of the time on which the drum sound is so perfect. Aside from his guitar work, Mark Arm also adds some organ playing to the album, and it is very much the sound and mood created by this instrument that sets the album aside from the rest of the bands' catalog. The albums' first single, "Let It Slide" perfectly sums up everything that makes the band so uniquely amazing as the drumming is reminiscent of the mid-1960's surf-rock style, while the guitars are extremely aggressive, and the vocals lain overtop are a perfect balance of the two.

If there is one aspect of Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge that stands out from the rest, it is very much the vocals of Mark Arm. Arm (real name Mark McLaughlin) sings in a somewhat detached, somewhat snarling style that one cannot help but compare to a Funhouse era Stooges sound. The energy he brings to each vocal is superb, and one can clearly hear the influence he had on the vocals that Dave Grohl would bring with Foo Fighters. At times, as on the song "Who You Drivin' Now?," Arm almost sounds as if he is sitting in with The Pixies, as his wailing strikes a strong resemblance to their song, "Debaser." Arm solidifies himself as one of the most talented vocalists of his time on the bands' uncharacteristically long song, "Broken Hands." The six minute runtime of the song is nearly triple that of any other song on the album, but the song itself is sheer brilliance, as the band prove that they are more than capable of writing long songs with just as much power and impact. The lyrics found on Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge are as strong and angst-fueled as any you'll find, and this is yet another reason why Mark Arm is held in such high regard. The slightly aggressive, absolutely unique manner in which he delivers his fantastic lyrics had a massive impact on the artists who followed, and it is a key aspect that makes the music of Mudhoney so incredible.

There are truly few bands who had as much impact on the musical explosion of the early 1990's as Mudhoney. Even outside of music, their impact on the culture can be seen as solidified by the fact that in the indie/grunge cult-classic film, Singles, the band "Citizen Dick" (which is, in fact, members of Pearl Jam) records a song called "Touch Me I'm Dick" which is actually a play on the Mudhoney classic, "Touch Me I'm Sick." With their dirty, yet straightforward sound, and the manner in which they blend the power and volume of punk and heavy metal with the more loose, more open sound of mid-1960's rock sets them far away and above a majority of their contemporaries. The rhythm section of Matt Lukin and Dan Peters rivals that of any band in history, as the duo drive the songs into a frenzied state and make the music absolutely addictive. Mark Arm and Steve Turner are equally impressive with their crushing guitar sound, and their tone and style of playing is what truly ignited the grunge explosion. Arm's vocal style and overall approach to music is clearly the inspiration behind the singing of Kurt Cobain, and one can also hear how he influence the singing of Eddie Vedder as well. As is often the case, the innovators of style go largely unnoticed, while those who follow find great commercial success. There are few times that it has been more true than in the case of the band that served as the primary example for the entire "Seattle sound," Mudhoney. Easily one of the most brilliant and dynamic bands in history, their 1991 album, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge remains one of the greatest, most influential and enjoyable records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Let It Slide," "Broken Hands," and "Who You Drivin' Now?"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August 20: Kraftwerk, "The Man Machine"

Artist: Kraftwerk
Album: The Man Machine
Year: 1978
Label: Kling Klang/Capitol

"Krautrock" is somewhat of a catch-all term that is usually used when referring to an overwhelming majority of the experimental rock bands to emerge from Germany during the late 1960's and 1970's. Groups like Can, Moebius, and Faust all perfectly represent the term, yet there are a number of bands that are less rock-based that also fit the bill. Rising out of the musical hotbed of Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk are largely regarded as the first true artists of the electronic music genre. Influencing everything from "new wave" to modern day techno, electronica, and even hip hop, Kraftwerk pioneered countless sounds and styles, and perfected most of them. By the time 1978 rolled around, Kraftwerk had already established themselves internationally with the success of their single, "Trans-Europe Express," as well as their brilliant 1974 breakthrough album, Autobahn. Following this success, the group truly began to push into the avant, as the members themselves began to publicly depict themselves as robots, and their music became less and less reliant on human instrumentation, and more based on manipulation of computers, synthesizers, and drum machines. The apex of this direction manifests itself within the groups' stunning 1978 release, the aptly titled, The Man Machine.

First off, the groups' name is German for "power station," and this industrial mood permeates nearly the entire recorded catalog of the group. The group itself is the brainchild of Florain Schneider and Ralf Hütter, who met years before whilst studying classical music at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, and they quickly became heavily involved in the experimental music scene in Germany in the early 1970's. Making music that ranges from dance-hall hits to some of the most experimental music ever recorded, the group truly had no musical boundaries. Cementing this point, there are moments on The Man Machine when the group sounds like a more modern Pink Floyd (see the opening of "Metropolis" for example), as well as points throughout the album where the songs could be modern day techno or trip-hop releases. It is very much due to this diversity in musical sounds and styles that makes the group so influential on so many genres, and the fact that they were able to blend together so many never before heard sounds in such brilliant harmony is a testament to the amazing talents of the group members. While the lineup of Kraftwerk fluctuated heavily (and still does today), the membership that is present for The Man Machine is identical to that of their smash hit, "Trans-Europe Express," as well as 3/4 of the lineup that created Autobahn.

While The Man Machine only runs for six songs, spread over thirty-six minutes, the music found on the album is absolutely extraordinary. The song "Spacelab" is truly at least a decade ahead of its time. The light, airy mood, with a similarly dark feel throughout, and the speedy synth and drum lines can clearly be seen as the origins of groups like Aphex Twins and The Orb. The high speed bass and drum work also bears a striking resemblance to the sound that Blondie was using at the same time, though Kraftwerk use it in a far less "pop" approach. The amazing contrast in use of vocorder between this track and "The Robots" shows that Kraftwerk were truly masters of even the smallest aspects of all of the equipment which they used. Another aspect that sets The Man Machine aside from the rest of the Kraftwerk catalog is the presence of the song, "The Model," which is a unique composition in the entire history of the group. The song represents, by far, the most pop-based song the group ever composed, as the song actually follows the traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure, as well as being strangely short for the band, running a typical three and a half minutes in length. The song had such a "pop" appeal to it that it ended up being a number one single in the U.K. While the song is rather odd when compared to the rest of the groups' work, it is still quite good, and there is truly nothing else like it anywhere else in the groups' catalog.

Kraftwerk represent a group that were true artists in every aspect of their musical pursuits, from the music itself, to the album art, to how they themselves appeared on stage and in public. It is during the time of The Man Machine that this final aspect became clear. On The Man Machine, the music is nearly completely devoid of "live" instruments, and almost all of the music is generated, in some way, by a computer or synthesizer. The odd transition of the group members themselves and their music into "non human" entities can be seen as the basis behind the song "The Robots" as the song repeats, "...we are the robots..." In more recent years, the groups' live performances of the song have been "performed" by robots, standing in for the band members. The group completes this "robotic" idea with what is, by far, one of their most phenomenal compositions, the albums' title track, "The Man Machine." In many ways, the song is the complete opposite of "The Model," as it is formed by sparse beats, an odd, funky tempo, and it runs well over five minutes in length. The combination of the keyboard riff and the odd sound effects that are placed throughout give the song an amazingly futuristic feel, yet the funk-based "dancability" to the song is undeniable. The vocals (versions of which can be found in both German and English) are perfectly distorted, and the song is truly a musical masterpiece. While Kraftwerk has always been a group that was clearly fascinated by the future and technology, it is on The Man Machine that their love for these aspects, as well as their quest for "non-human" music comes to fruition.

Truth be told, the music of Kraftwerk stands as some of the most heavily sampled throughout the history of hip hop music, though most are unaware of its origins. Taking the term "experimental music" to an entirely new level, Kraftwerk pioneered countless musical styles, and one can make the case that without their innovations, electronic music would never have existed. Manipulating keyboards, drum machines, synthesizers, as well as their own voices, the songs found on The Man Machine are truly amazing to experience, and the diversity in sound and style from song to song shows the range of talent of the group members. From the stunning soundscape of "Spacelab" to the strangely conventional "The Model," Kraftwerk proves that regardless of stylistic approach, they are some of the most talented musicians of their era. Perhaps building off of the sudden explosion of spacey, sci-fi themed art (Star Wars had become the rage between this album and their previous release), Kraftwerk are clearly in top form for this album, and their nearly complete elimination of "human" instrumentation makes their music like nothing else at the time. Truly a band that was decades ahead of their time, Kraftwerk remain one of the most stunning bands in history, and their 1978 release, The Man Machine is an absolute masterpiece of musicianship and musical innovation.

Standout tracks: "The Robots," "Spacelab," and "The Man Machine."