Monday, November 30, 2009

November 30: They Might Be Giants, "Lincoln"

Artist: They Might Be Giants
Album: Lincoln
Year: 1988
Label: Bar-None

Often times, the most ingenious and original music is completely misunderstood, and more times then one might think, the music is given a "death sentence" by being classified as "novelty" music. This is usually done because the music in question is quirky, upbeat, and conforms to none of the usual rules of musical performance. While some of this music is in fact a "flash in the pan" sound, there are a handful of brilliant artists who have emerged and persevered through this unjust classification. By simply saying the words "quirky" and "artsy" in the same sentence, there is one band that comes almost instantly to mind, as they are the very definition of the terms when shared, They Might Be Giants. One of the most unique bands to ever record, the music of They Might Be Giants is unexpectedly catchy and never fails to be some of the most original and unique music one will find anywhere on the planet. The way in which the two band members mix the "smart" of art-rock with wonderfully catchy hooks and clever lyrics remains truly unparalleled, and the band remains in a category all their own more than twenty years after first appearing on the music scene. While their debut record is one of the most brilliantly artistic records ever and their third album is a fantastic pop party, it is their second album, 1988's Lincoln, that contains the best of both of the bands' abilities and stands as their finest work to date.

In many ways, They Might Be Giants draw as much influence from bands like DEVO and The B-52's as they do from The Ramones and Frank Zappa. Having such a wide range of influences is the only way that one can comprehend the amazingly eclectic and completely unique blend of sounds that forms the bands' music. Taking the art-rock style, as well as the heavy use of synthesizers and programmed drums from those first bands, as well as the "no rules" and slightly sarcastic feel of the punk movement from the others, there has never been another group to so perfectly meld the these two seemingly distant sounds. Understandably, this makes Lincoln one of the most stunningly diverse albums ever, and every single song on the record is nothing short of perfect. Rattling off eighteen songs in just under forty minutes, Lincoln has one of the highest concentrations of absolutely phenomenal music of any album ever released. From the jazzy-mamba of "The World's Address" to the jerky alternative-rock meets new wave of "Ana Ng," the duo that form They Might Be Giants prove to be a pair of the most talented musicians of their generation. This almost excessive amount of talent that is on display throughout all of Lincoln caught the eye of many larger labels, and it is the brilliance of the album that would lead to the band getting signed, and then releasing their most well known album, 1990's Flood.

Though They Might Be Giants would eventually take on a full time backing band, on their early records, all of the music and vocals is the product of John Linnell and John Flansburgh. With a liberal use of programmed drums as well as some live drumming, the duo created some of the most refreshingly unique, yet easily accessible "art rock" ever. Working in instruments ranging from accordions and tambourines to a variety of percussion and guitars, few groups have so successfully blended so many different sounds. At times, the songs on Lincoln are powerful walls of sound, with extraordinarily complex orchestrations, yet at other points on the record, the music is sparse and open, and it the vocals become more of a focus. From the DEVO-esque "Pencil Rain" to the simple and loose "Piece Of Dirt" to the speedy and strange sounds of "Cowtown," there are so many different styles presented on Lincoln that it is almost hard to comprehend all of this coming from the same musicians. The album also spawned a rather unlikely hit, as "Ana Ng" found its way to number eleven on the "College Radio singles" chart in 1988. The song, which is a strange tale of having a soul-mate on the other side of the planet sounds like nothing else before it, and it is one of the many songs that makes the groups' music so endearing.

While the music throughout Lincoln is absolutely brilliant, it is often the lyrics and singing that makes the songs of They Might Be Giants so memorable. Presenting the ideal balance between singing and speaking, the duo share vocal duties, and both Linnell and Flansburgh possess some of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history. Anyone who is familiar with the later hits of They Might Be Giants is extremely familiar with Linnell's voice, and the almost "geeky" sound is yet another aspect that makes their sounds like no other. Often times, the true genius behind the music of They Might Be Giants is lost in their sometimes silly lyrics. It is this eccentricity that is one of the most delightful aspects of the groups' music and within these lyrics, it becomes quickly clear that the duo have one of the most uncanny knacks for writing hooks that has ever been heard. Even after the first listening, every song sticks in your head, and the rhythms and beats are just as addictive. Though it is one of the more overlooked songs on the record, "The World's Address" perfectly encapsulates everything that makes They Might Be Giants so fantastic. From the piano-based orchestration (that was clearly a massive influence on Barenaked Ladies) to the rhythmic dance party to the absolutely wonderful lyrics, the song is by far one of the greatest ever composed. While one could go on and on about how sensational every song on Lincoln is, one must experience the album firsthand to truly appreciate the musical mastery featured throughout the record.

Bands that are truly talented and unquestionably unique are few and far between, yet their contributions to the world of music are often some of the most important. Paving the way for everyone from The Refreshments to Barenaked Ladies to Crash Test Dummies, it was the genius originality of They Might Be Giants that opened the doors to an entirely new style of music. Combining the "smart" aspect of art-rock with the hidden complexity of the punk ethos along with a style that is completely their own, They Might Be Giants remain an unmatched musical force more than twenty years after their first release. Responsible for some of the most enduring and most memorable songs of the 1990's, the group has earned one of the most devoted and diverse musical followings of any band in history. The brainchild of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, every note on Lincoln is played by one of the two, as they had not yet formed a complete backing band. The fact that such a wide range of sounds and styles were performed by these two serves as a testament to their amazing musical talents, and every song on the album further reinforces just how brilliant and visionary they were this early in their career. Though the make-up of the band shifted a few years later, it has always been anchored by Linnell and Flansburgh, and this has enabled the music of the band to remain consistently brilliant throughout their entire career. Without a bad song anywhere in their history, They Might Be Giants display everything that makes them so wonderfully unique on their landmark 1988 release, the truly unmatched Lincoln.

Standout tracks: "Ana Ng," "The World's Address," and "Santa's Beard."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 29: The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

Artist: The Beatles
Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Year: 1967
Label: Capitol

There are some bands that defy definition, so huge and so massively impactful, that their names alone bring with them countless preconceived notions. Across genres, artists of this caliber command the utmost respect, because regardless of musical preference, their influence on the world of music is simply undeniable. Among these indispensable groups stands the band that kicked the rock and roll movement into high gear, the one and only Beatles. Whether or not you actually like the music of The Beatles is irrelevant, as one simply cannot make the argument that modern music would be in its current form without their presence. Though there were a number of bands to come out of the British Invasion, none of them were as heavily and widely marketed as "The Fab Four," and this played a major role in why they were ultimately more successful then their counterparts. The other major factor was that the band was able to change with the times (or perhaps simply "change the times") and play a diverse range of music, as well as standing today as some of the most well respected music and lyric writers in history. So on this, the eight year anniversary of the tragic passing of George Harrison, it is only fitting that we discuss the album that stands as the album with which The Beatles kick-started a new movement, as well as proved that they possessed never before heard musical vision and sophistication. While many might argue that such a billing can be fairly given to a number of records from the band, there has simply never been another record with as wide-ranging and long lasting impact as The Beatles 1967 masterpiece, the unmistakable Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Somewhat ignoring the enormous impact that the music of The Beatles has had over the years, I will attempt to keep this review focused on the post-pop years of the band. The previous release from The Beatles, Revolver, is where the band began to break away from their "friendly" pop song format and they started to explore their music with an almost reckless abandon. By the time they were ready to record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they were pulling from influences as wide ranging as Indian sitar music and the after effects of obvious drug experimentation. Similarly, while the band certainly had more psychedelic and experimental records AFTER this album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band represents the "formal" transition of the bands' sound. Along with the music found on the record, the album also possesses one of the most recognizable covers in music history. First off, the cover with which most people are familiar is in fact the SECOND cover to this record. A very limited number of first pressings actually contain the original cover which was a psychedelic painting by artist, The Fool as the inner gatefold. The cover that was chosen is a photograph of cut-outs for more than seventy personalities ranging from spiritual gurus to political leaders to artists to a pair of renditions of the band members themselves. Containing a mind-boggling number of people and items that have been discussed and debated since the albums' release, in many ways, the cover is just as much of a statement and piece of music history as the music found inside.

Though the album's cover is fantastic, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band also contains some of the most iconic and unforgettable music that has ever been written. From beginning to end, every song on the album is a true classic, and both the lyrics and music are absolutely unforgettable. The iconic title track kicks off the record and the opening notes stand as one of the greatest guitar riffs in history. The riff is one of the most powerful that Paul McCartney has ever written, and it remains just as potent more than forty years after it was first heard. Another rather interesting guitar riff comes on the title tracks' reprise, as the core chord progression is played in the same key and aggressive style of that found on Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." Cris-crossing their musical abilities, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has something for everyone; from the gorgeous ballad, "She's Leaving Home" to the all out rock and roll of "Getting Better" to the mystical "Within You Without You." Then of course there is the absolutely iconic "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." Standing as one of the most unsubtle drug references ever, the song is by far one of the wildest and most daring songs ever written, and it was years ahead of its time to say the least. Though for some time, John Lennon claimed the song was inspired by a drawing by his son Julian, in recent years, the surviving band members have been more open about the drug reference. Regardless of the source of inspiration, the song became the very definition of the entire psychedelic movement, and it remains one of the most important songs in music history.

While the music is absolutely fantastic, and it forever changed the landscape of music, the vocals by each of the band members helps to give the album even greater diversity in both sound and style. The fact that each band member has a distinctive voice was always a key to the sound of The Beatles, as they were able to fit the best vocal style to each song. While McCartney fits best with the more fast paced, rock songs, the more relaxed sounds of Lennon and Harrison make songs like "She's Leaving Home" and "Within You Without You" pure delight. Even Ringo Starr takes primary vocal duties on what is perhaps the most covered song on the record, "With A Little Help From My Friends." Regardless of who is singing, the vocals on every song are equally fantastic, and this variety in vocal sounds is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the record. Along with the sensational music and superb singing, the lyrics throughout Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band run the gamut from the absurd to some of the most touching words that the band has ever penned. By far one of the most simple, yet endearingly endearing lyrics to ever come from the Lennon/McCartney team can be found on the song, "When I'm Sixty-Four." A simple song asking whether a lover will still be in love once the couple reaches old age, the song is truly timeless and remains relevant and fresh to this day. One of the more interesting lyrics on the record is the simple, yet complex wording found on "Getting Better." Full of juxtapositions as well as a few rather questionable lines, one can argue at length whether it is a song of "glass half full" or if it is actually a song of frustration on the futility of life. Adding fantastic vocals and brilliant lyrics on top of the groundbreaking music, there has rarely been an able as powerful as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Simply say the name "The Beatles" anywhere on the planet, and one will quickly discover that they may in fact be, as Lennon once commented, "...more popular than Jesus." With countless timeless songs, each band member, as well as the band as a whole remain some of the most highly regarded musicians of any genre from any point in history. Largely responsible for the "British Invasion," the group began to expand their horizons as the 1960's came to a close. It was during this time that the group began another musical revolution, and the catalyst for the psychedelic music movement can be found in their landmark recording, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album blends the more popular, more traditional sounds of rock music at the time with seemingly absurd lyrics and heavily experimental music for the time. Infusing a wide range of influences from all over the globe, the album also in many ways marks the beginning of the end for the band, as each band members' individual musical desires begin to come more clearly into focus. There is not a note out of place anywhere on the record, and the music, vocals, and lyrics are all perfect in every sense of the word. While The Beatles certainly had their fair share of memorable records, they were never as flawless and musically stunning as they were for their absolutely unrivaled 1967 record, the unequaled and indispensable Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Standout tracks: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," and "A Day In The Life."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

November 28: Ahmad Jamal, "At the Pershing: But Not for Me"

Artist: Ahmad Jamal
Album: At The Pershing: But Not For Me
Year: 1958
Label: Argo

They say that the key to being a great artist is knowing how to properly hide your sources and influences. If this is the case, then nearly every jazz giant has succeeded in this, as one of the most important figures in the development of the genre remains tragically underrepresented more than fifty years after some of his most significant recordings. As a major influence on everyone from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Herbie Hancock, few artists have so singlehandedly influenced so many whilst staying relatively unknown outside of jazz circles. Pioneering the idea that the silence in jazz is just as important as the notes, there are truly few figures in the genre as visionary as pianist Ahmad Jamal. So significant was Jamal's influence, that during the recording of the song "Freddie Freeloader" on the Kind Of Blue record, Davis famous asked pianist Wynton Kelley to, "sound more like Ahmad Jamal." Such reverence and respect from his fellow musicians was not enough to gain him similar notoriety in the public eye, yet Jamal has released more than fifty records over the past five decades, and he continues to make new music to this day. While there are many fantastic albums from which to choose, few will argue that Ahmad Jamal's 1958 release, At The Pershing: But Not For Me, not only represents his finest music moment, but similarly stands as one of the greatest and most influential jazz recordings in music history.

There are in fact three different releases of the album, with the same songs and cover, yet the title is slightly different. The original release of the album was released by Argo Records in 1958 and titled At The Pershing: But Not For Me. Around the same time, Chess Records also release the album with the same title and the same track order. Years later, Universal Distribution made their own release of the album, keeping the track order and cover, yet the took the "At The Pershing" out of the title and slightly altered the lettering on the cover to reflect this change. The three records are identical in terms of content, so when seeking out the record, any of the three releases will suffice. The most stunning aspect to At The Pershing: But Not For Me is the way with which Jamal uses the empty spaces (silence) in his compositions. Though the use of silence is not a common practice within jazz, the fact of the matter is, before Jamal, it had never been such a focus of the music. This style of playing also translated into a drastic change in the blues genre, and the fact that he influenced both genres so heavily pushes his status beyond legendary. Though the general public may not have understood his significance, those within the community certainly did, and his songs have been featured as covers on many albums, as well as serving as one of the most significant musical forces in Clint Eastwood's 1995 film, The Bridges Of Madison Country. Throughout At The Pershing: But Not For Me, Ahmad Jamal spins his own, unique take on many classics, and his efforts prove that, regardless of the material, one can make it "theirs" if they are unique and original enough in their musical approach.

Though Jamal himself is unquestionably the focus and most talented member on At The Pershing: But Not For Me, his backing band proves to be both musically intelligent as well as skilled, and the combination stands as one of the finest jazz groupings in history. Having played alongside the likes of Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson, bassist Israel Crosby is perhaps best known for his 1935 recording with Gene Krupa that features what is widely considered to be the first bass solo ever on a studio recording. It was not until he became a part of the Ahmad Jamal Trio that Crosby truly began to shine, as it is clear that the chemistry between him and Jamal is like that of no other, and the basslines he creates throughout the album remain some of the most uniquely wonderful ever recorded. Drummer Vernell Fournier has an equally impressive pedigree, having been one of the primary drummers for both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie before joining up with Jamal and Crosby. Having backed the likes of Billy Eckstine and Nancy Wilson as a teenager, few artists have spent as much of their life playing at such a high level as Fournier. All of the talent of both Crosby and Fournier is featured on every song, as their ability to fully comprehend Jamal's approach, and more accurately their ability to play along with this new style and make it sound great is what cements both of their names as true legends of the genre.

While it does take all three musicians for the compositions to truly take flight, the fact of the matter is, as one would expect, the focus of At The Pershing: But Not For Me is all on Ahmad Jamal. Playing a bright and crisp style, one cannot say enough about Jamal's liberal use of silence in his piano playing. These moments of piano silence often create a "tension/release" type of mood, as well as accentuating both the rhythm section, as well as the notes that Jamal DOES play. The spots that are "left unplayed" further show Ahmad Jamal's understanding of the music, as well as his deep connection with the spirit of the song, as he is in many ways leaving the empty spaces where he "feels" they should be. His understanding of this idea of purposeful silence is perhaps no more apparent or stunning then one finds on the trio's extraordinary rendition of the classic song, "Poinciana." There is little question that the version of the song found on At The Pershing: But Not For Me is "the" definitive recording, and the massive open spaces left by Jamal are absolutely something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood. Whether he is playing his fantastic progressions, or leaving silence which brings with it just as much impact, the influence of Ahmad Jamal's piano work on At The Pershing: But Not For Me is largely unrivaled and it created a true revolution within the jazz genre.

While a majority of the most important and influential jazz musicians are household names, there are a number of equally significant players whose names have been largely lost by time. Furthermore, it is often these slightly lesser known artists who were the "real" innovators and pushed the more popular names into the territory and sounds that would make them famous. Standing high atop this second list is the man who taught the world that the silence in jazz songs can be just as important as the played notes, piano genius Ahmad Jamal. Having recorded for more than fifty years, few jazz musicians have had as long and as distinguished a career, and one would be hard pressed to find any "jazz great" that did not cite Jamal's work as a significant influence on their own sound and style. Primarily known for the way in which he left "open spaces" in his music, when he does play, Jamal's piano work is equal to that of any of the other piano greats, and it is this fact that makes him an undeniable icon of jazz music. Though he has released countless amazing records, it was his work with his trio that yielded his most stunning and influential musical moments. Combining with the bass work of fellow jazz icon Israel Crosby and drumming prodigy Vernell Fournier, the three stand today as one of the most musically creative and pioneering groups to ever record. The true genius and musical superiority of this group is perfectly captured on Ahmad Jamal's landmark 1958 recording, the magnificent and monumental At The Pershing: But Not For Me.

Standout tracks: "The Surrey With The Fringe On," "Poinciana," and "What's New?"

Friday, November 27, 2009

November 27: The Sea And Cake, "The Sea And Cake"

Artist: The Sea And Cake
Album: The Sea And Cake
Year: 1994
Label: Thrill Jockey

Within the world of music, there are few things that are more difficult for a band then being consistent in sound, style, and success. While a majority of bands, at some point in their career, diverge from their "normal" sound to explore some new musical style (many people call this "selling out"), there are a handful of bands that stick to their original sound and simply play with greater precision as the years pass. Case in point is the absolutely fantastic and completely original sound that is presented by Chicago, IL based rockers, The Sea And Cake. Since the early 1990's, the group has released eight magnificent albums featuring and indie rock sound that is perfectly blended with elements of jazz, Caribbean sounds, and some of the most mesmerizing vocals in history. Sticking to this original sound, the groups' more recent records sound like more mature, more fine tuned versions of their earlier records, and this is the true sign of a group that understands what makes their music so enjoyable. Furthermore, this consistency makes each of their albums well worth owning, as there is not a subpar song anywhere in their catalog. Though many might argue that is their more recent, more polished efforts that are their finest, the truth of the matter is, it is The Sea And Cake's 1994 self-titled debut that stands as their finest, as it was one of the most original and pioneering records of the time and remains today a breath of fresh air in a music scene that has become increasingly stale.

The sound that one finds throughout the entire catalog of The Sea And Cake is a sound like no other, often coming off as a strange combination of Pavement, Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr, and Joy Division. The group creates about as "smart" an indie rock song as one will find anywhere, and there has truly never been another band with a similar sound. Much of the groups' great sound on The Sea And Cake comes courtesy of producer-extraordinaire, Brad Wood. Having worked with everyone from Liz Phair to Smashing Pumpkins, the sound that Wood is able to get from any band he works with easily makes him one of the most talented producers of his generation. The soft, yet not lazy sound found on The Sea And Cake is truly unlike anything else in music history, and the album perfectly represents the "anything is acceptable" idea that permeated the early 1990's music scene. Even when the band is experimenting with guitar feedback, the songs are still blissfully restrained, and the sound of The Sea And Cake is one that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood. The Sea And Cake presents a band that is moving flawlessly as a single unit, and it is obvious that all four band members are not only exceptionally talented, but they all share a common, unique idea of exactly how they want each of their songs to sound.

Clearly, one of the key aspects in The Sea And Cake's ability to be so consistent for nearly twenty years is the fact that the band has never changed lineups, though they did take a few years off in 2003 to explore their own individual projects. The fact that the band is still making equally as fantastic music all these years later proves the point that in most cases, switching out any band member so drastically changes a band that it is simply not right to use the same band name. In the case of The Sea And Cake, each band members' efforts are equally as important, and it is the balance between all of the instruments that makes their music so fantastic. On The Sea And Cake, the dual guitar playing of Sam Prekop and Archer Prewit is what gives the album much of its distinctive mood. The way in which the two interact is often reminiscent of the sound of Television, and whether they are playing meandering chords or fast paced progressions, the two shine on every song. Bassist and synthesizer master Eric Claridge is equally superb, and it is within his musical contributions that the songs on The Sea And Cake achieve their almost "vintage" sound. Rounding out the band is percussionist John McEntire, who also contributes synthesizer playing a few times on the album. It is McEntire's ability to be as perfect when playing sparse, minimalist rhythms as he is when playing complex, jazz-influenced pieces that makes his work so amazing. Perfectly executing the various styles which they present throughout their debut record, The Sea And Cake prove that these different sounds can all be pulled together when all containing a similar, fantastic sonic mood.

On top of the absolutely astounding musical textures, the voice of Sam Prekop is the very definition of the word "perfect." Sometimes whispering, sometimes falling somewhere between singing and a slightly despondent spoken delivery, Prekop's voice is truly the ideal sound over the bands' music. Showing no limit to his vocal range, Prekop never sounds as if he is straining his voice, and this almost restrained vocal sound further reinforces the relaxed, yet amazingly complex and sonically pleasing sound of The Sea And Cake. Lyrically the group is just as brilliant as they are musically, and the words found throughout The Sea And Cake are as enchanting and textured as the music over which they are sung. Creating wonderfully vivid images and Prekop's vocals seamlessly blending in with the music, they add another layer to the already fantastic songs. Clearly showing why their name is what it is, many of the songs have nautical themes or references, and this further enforces the feeling of being on a journey of some sort that is present throughout the entire record. Though perhaps a bit simple, lyrics like, "...fill your lungs with other, the ship was going under...splintered, broken hull, when it goes we all go down, together, together..." find the ideal balance between brilliant imagery and indie-rock smarts. Sam Prekop's lyrics are nothing short of perfect on every song, and the manner with which he delivers them solidify the absolutely unrivaled mood of bliss that is found on every song on The Sea And Cake.

Throughout history, there are very few bands who have presented as distinctive and original a sound as one finds throughout the entire recorded catalog of The Sea And Cake. Every single one of their albums is consistently fantastic, and they continue to offer breaths of fresh air to a boring and unoriginal music scene. Combining together the "smarts" of the indie-rock sound with fantastic Caribbean polyrhythms and a winding, almost free form feel that is reminiscent of jazz, there has simply never been another band that even remotely sounds like The Sea And Cake. Furthermore, few bands of any genre from any time period have been able to consistently deliver similar sounding, yet equally fantastic and original songs over such a long period of time as one will find within the overall catalog of The Sea And Cake. From the stellar synthesizer and bass playing of Eric Claridge and the brilliant drumming of John McEntire, to the dueling guitars of Prekop and Archer Prewit, every single note on The Sea And Cake is perfect, and the bands' music was "smart" before the term was even used to describe music. Prekop's vocal contributions are unlike that of any other singer in history, and they are just as mesmerizing as the music, helping to create one of the most universally enjoyable sounds in music history. While every album from The Sea And Cake is worth owning as the quality remains stunningly high and consistent throughout, it is their first studio recording, 1994's The Sea And Cake that presents the building blocks for their career and was easily one of the most underplayed yet musically superior albums of the era.

Standout tracks: "Jacking The Ball," "Flat Lay The Water," and "Showboat Angel."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

November 26: Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"

Artist: Arlo Guthrie
Album: Alice's Restaurant
Year: 1967
Label: Reprise

While some may think otherwise, the fact of the matter is, having a musically famous parent rarely ensures success of the child. There are countless examples of the offspring of a music legend falling short of expectations and forever living the their parents' shadow. Most of the time, this is due to the child attempting the same style of music and making the direct comparisons completely unavoidable. However, from time to time, regardless of the circumstances, a second generation musical artist can stake their own claim and earn their own accolades. Being the child of arguably the most important musical figure of the last century, certainly puts one at an immediate disadvantage, but Arlo Guthrie far exceeded expectations and became a musical icon in his own right. As one of the central figures of the late 1960's folk movement, Arlo took the anti-establishment spirit of his father, and infused it into the more "peace-centric" and mellow vibe of the time. Many of Arlo Guthrie's songs have become American classics alongside the songs of his father, and he has also made a name for himself as one of the most unique live performers of his generation. With a number of hit songs over the past four decades, few artists of the 1960's folk movement have had as long and as successful a career as Guthrie, and he still records and performs to this day. Releasing more than twenty albums thus far, there is little question that his most endearing and enduring work comes from his debut release, 1967's iconic Alice's Restaurant.

Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a modern song that is more synonymous with a single day then Alice's Restaurant's iconic and ironic title track. It is ironic in the fact that the song is as much of an anti-war song as has ever been written, yet it has become a radio staple every year as the Thanksgiving holiday is celebrated in the U.S. The song, properly titled "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" is a talking blues which recounts the actual events that befell Guthrie on Thanksgiving Day, 1965. The facts and characters in the story are all real, from the church to Alice's Restaurant, to Guthrie being rejected from the draft, and of course, the twenty-seven high by ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows (and yes, the judge was in fact blind). Though some of the details of the events are somewhat exaggerated for comical and satirical effect, the base of the song centers around the idea that "any" person convicted of a crime in the United States (at the time) could find themselves "not fit" to be sent into the Vietnam War. The way in which Guthrie crafts the amusing story, yet infuses it with plenty of anti-war undertones evokes the spirit of his father, yet Guthrie's less aggressive, more humorous spin is what makes him a star on his own. Clocking in at nearly twenty minutes, the few flubs Guthrie made during the live recording give the song its authenticity, and along with one or two other songs, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" truly defines an entire generation.

Though Alice's Restaurant gains its fame from the title track, the other songs on the album are equally as fantastic, and one cannot overlook their power. The remaining six songs on the record total in time less than the title track, yet the impact is just as strong, and it is on these songs that Guthrie cements his place as one of the finest folk singers in history. It is also within these songs that Arlo Guthrie exposes the rest of his personality and proves to me one of the most eccentric figures of his generation. Presenting a song that is a brilliant juxtaposition between the folk sound and one of the most "un-folk" themes, Alice's Restaurant features another of Guthrie's most enduring songs, "The Motorcycle Song." Though the lyrics are certainly more on the "silly" side of things, the feeling of freedom and Guthrie's love for his motorbike come through clearly. To this day, one cannot avoid singing along to the song, and his beautiful, yet meaningful songs are the true gift that Arlo Guthrie gave to the world. From more fast tempo folk songs to gorgeous, slow ballads, Guthrie is truly perfect on every song, and his mastery for perfectly capturing a mood is perhaps no more apparent then on the brilliant "Chilling Of The Evening." While the lyrics themselves are more of a love song, Guthrie manages to give the song an amazing mood, which feels more like a cool evening stroll on an empty small-town street. All seven of the songs on Alice's Restaurant are fantastic, and it remains one of the most powerful debut albums ever recorded.

From his beautiful melodies to his fantastic lyrics to his truly perfect voice, in many ways, Arlo Guthrie is the ideal folk singer. His vocal range is normally in the lower registers, yet he has no problem taking on the higher notes, and does this often for emphasis. The tenor with which he sings is very raw and honest, and Guthrie's songs give the listener the feeling as if he is sitting in the same room. This musical intimacy is one of the most difficult things to accomplish on record, yet Guthrie pulls it off in a seemingly effortless manner. Adding to the wonderful mood of his music, Guthrie's songs have an overall uplifting and light feeling, and even when he is addressing heavier subjects, there is always a brilliant play on words or a certain sound in his voice that keeps things from getting into a "down" mood. This is one of the key aspects to his place high above other folk singers, as Guthrie is a true entertainer and clearly understands that it is not just "what" the story is, but much more in how the story is told. As a storyteller, Guthrie knows few equals, and to this day, his live performances remain some of the most enjoyable and entertaining shows of any artist of any genre. Any single aspect of Arlo Guthrie's musical prowess would be enough to make a single artist successful, yet Guthrie has the great voice, and the superb writing ability and stage presence that makes him a true icon in the world of music.

With one of the most impressive musical pedigrees possible, the fact that Arlo was able to step out of the shadow of his father and create his own place in music is a feat that is rarely accomplished, even by the children of less significant artists. Whether it is his subtle humor, his mesmerizing voice, or the fantastic songs which he writes, there have truly been very few artists in history as talented as Arlo Guthrie. Perfectly representing everything that it meant to be a folk artist in the 1960's, Guthrie's songs are a balance between fighting the system and beautiful tales of a simple life. His songs create some of the most vivid images of any performer ever, and the scenes that he paints run the gamut from beautiful to hilarious. Along with his instantly recognizable voice, Arlo Guthrie's light, humorous approach to his songs is one of the key aspects that has made him into a music legend. Arlo Guthrie's debut record was a massive success, largely due to the monumental title track, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." A song that is truly timeless, it is one of the most famous stories of all time, yet the underlying anti-war theme is often overlooked. Presenting such a massive undertaking on his debut record instantly made him one of the most in-demand artists in the country, and as the decade came to a close, he gave the world even more amazing songs, as well as some of the most memorable live performances in history. Though every song in the Guthrie catalog should be cherished, there is a special feel to Arlo Guthrie's 1967 debut album, Alice's Restaurant, and it remains one of the greatest and most important musical efforts in history.

Standout tracks: "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," "Chilling Of The Evenging," and "The Motorcycle Song."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

November 25: Hawkwind, "In Search Of Space"

Artist: Hawkwind
Album: In Search Of Space
Year: 1971
Label: United Artists

With most bands, you can define their sound by saying it's "a bit of this band, combined with a bit of this other band" or by simply giving them a genre. However, there are a handful of bands that are so original, so unlike anything else ever heard, that they can only be described as defining themselves. These bands are often the most influential and truly original bands in history, and their importance can rarely be overstated. Somewhere between heavy metal, sci-fi sounds effects, and psychedelia lies one of the most original and truly amazing bands in history, Hawkwind. Though the group went through a number of lineup changes, and a few stylistic changes, their early work remains some of the most original and truly stunning music that the world has ever heard. Making some of the most unique half-metal, half-something indescribable, the compositions of the band are often almost orchestral in both sound and structure, and regardless of length, the band packs more superb sound into a single song then many artists create in their entire career. Having been active with one lineup or another for more than forty years, the recorded catalog of Hawkwind is both massive and diverse. Yet there is little question that their finest and most creative period was the bands' first era, when nothing seemed to be too "out there" for them to perform. Within these early records, there are few albums that are quite as magnificent as Hawkwind's phenomenal 1971 release, In Search Of Space.

Everything about In Search Of Space is "artsy" in every sense of the word. From the music to the cover to the liner notes to the inspiration behind the record, the album was an "art" record before the term was even used. The cover is especially wild, designed by Barney Bubbles and the original vinyl had an interlocking "X" leading to a full foldout. Many people see this "X" as preceding the title, and therefore many people refer to the album as X In Search Of Space. The back cover is just as intriguing, featuring a nude photo of Stacia (an exotic dancer with the band) which was altered by heavy strobe lights. The phrase: "TECHNICIÄNS ÖF SPÅCE SHIP EÅRTH THIS IS YÖÜR CÄPTÅIN SPEÄKING YÖÜR ØÅPTÅIN IS DEAD" is written on the back, and many people use the bands' usage of the umlaut as the basis for their argument that In Search Of Space is a heavy metal record. The inside of the album features an unprecedented twenty-four page book of photos and the "Hawkwind Log," which is a series of entries which attempt to give all of the songs a single, cohesive theme. The fact that so much artistry and time was put into the album design serves as an example of just how much the band felt that their music went beyond just the contents of the record itself. Furthermore, the album was remastered and re-released in 1996, and much of the drum and bass playing was re-recorded, as well as additional vocals. While one can argue whether or not this was a bad move, there is little question that the original version of the album is still the one to seek out. With each band member contributing to various areas of the project, there are truly few other albums that are as significant and all-encompassing as In Search Of Space.

Truth be told, few bands have had as impressive a lineup of musicians go through their ranks as one will find looking at the past members of Hawkwind. From Ginger Baker to Lemmy Kilmister to Arthur Brown, some of the most accomplished musicians in history have all spent time as a member of Hawkwind. The band has had more then thirty different musicians over the years, yet one member, Dave Brock, has been with the band since it first began. As the bands' founder, as well as handling a majority of the guitar playing, but also lending harmonica, synthesizers, and some vocals to In Search Of Space, few artists have has as long and as distinguished a career as Dave Brock. Throughout the entire album, Brock's playing is truly inspired, and whether he is going off on long, winding solos or running through fast chord progressions, he proves to be one of the finest players of his generation. Brock is also responsible for the writing of every song on In Search Of Space except for "Children Of The Sun." This fact alone catapults him to the top of the list of rocks' finest composers, and the songs he writes are light-years ahead of their time. The albums' first and most significant track, "You Shouldn't Do That" is a fifteen minute masterpiece, and Brock's writing and composition talents are as significant as his guitar playing as the song is by far one of the most stunning songs ever recorded. Though the rest of the band is undeniably talented, there is no doubt anywhere in the catalog of Hawkwind that, at the end of the day, it is Dave Brock's band.

The rest of the band that plays on In Search Of Space is absolutely fantastic, and the overall sound and mood of the record is like nothing else one can experience. From the long and textured jam portions which are as psychedelic as one ca get, to the additions of strange and often spooky sound effects throughout, the album is an experience onto itself. There are even moments when the punctuating saxophones (played by Nik Turner) are almost Zappa-eqsue in both sound and placement. Yet even with small similarities to other bands, Hawkwind's music is always heavier and this fact alone sets them in a category all their own. "You Shouldn't Do That," as well as a majority of the album is driven by the brilliant bass playing of Dave Anderson. Finding the ideal balance between moody and aggressive, Anderson's bassline for the dominant song is by far one of the greatest ever written. Though much of his work was replaced on the 1996 remaster, drummer Terry Ollis is nothing short of perfect on In Search Of Space. Using his entire kit on every song, few drummers of his era showed as much diversity and pure talent. Both contributing to the album at different times, the keyboards, synthesizers, and other scattered sound effects were performed by Del Dettmar and Dik Milk (real name Michael Davies). It is this final element that truly makes the music of Hawkwind unlike anything else, and the overall sound that the band achieves throughout In Search Of Space is something that one must experience firsthand to be properly appreciated.

When it comes to truly original sounds, there are few bands that were as pioneering and as unique as the early incarnations of Hawkwind. With a sound and style that influenced everyone from The Stooges to Mudhoney to Sleep, there are few bands that have ever created a masterpiece that is even remotely close to the sound found on In Search Of Space. There is not a band note anywhere on the album, and while each song is an experience onto itself, the six songs also blend together and create one of the most awe-inspiring musical performances ever captured. Guided by the playing and writing of Dave Brock, few bands have ever created as awesome a sound, and In Search Of Space is truly an album that all music fans must experience at least once in their life. Often drawing influence from the writing of Michael Moorcock, Hawkwind is easily deserving of the title "ultimate sci-fi band," as their music is as spacey and fantastical as one could ever imagine. With a flawless rhythm section, visionary synthesizer work, and sharp, punctuating horns, few bands have been able to so perfectly, and seemingly so effortlessly combine all of these sounds into such a stunning musical work. By far one of the most influential and absolutely remarkable albums ever recorded, Hawkwind's 1971 release, In Search Of Space, remains largely unrivaled nearly forty years after its initial release and it is an album with which every music fan should be very familiar.

Standout tracks: "You Shouldn't Do That," "You Know You're Only Dreaming," and "Master Of The Universe."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

November 24: Clifton Chenier, "King Of The Bayous"

Artist: Clifton Chenier
Album: King Of The Bayous
Year: 1970
Label: Arhoolie

It is a massive understatement to say that one of the greatest aspects of music is the amazing variance that one finds all over the globe. Whether it is the throat-singing of the Southern Russian Republics or the amazing rhythms created on streets all over Africa, the qualities that are unique to each culture are often what makes them so fantastic. While in the United States, blues, rock, and jazz have been the dominant sound for decades, there is one unique style of music that has its origins in the country, and it is by far one of the most brilliant sounds to ever emerge. Taking the style of spirituals and cajun music and infusing it with the sound of soul and R&B, there has never been another style of music quite like Zydeco. Though it is similarly one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented sounds in music history, the pure joy and love of live that comes through throughout the genre is absolutely undeniable. Though many have made their livings playing the style, there is only one man worthy of the title "King Of Zydeco," the one and only Clifton Chenier. With more than twenty albums to his name, it was Cheniers' work beginning in the early 1950's that brought this amazing sound to the worldwide masses. Though it is nearly impossible to find a Clifton Chenier record that isn't fantastic, standing as his finest work, and easily one of the best albums ever is his 1970 release, the aptly titled, King Of The Bayous."

The Zydeco of Clifton Chenier is like that of nobody before him, as he flawlessly blends R&B, blues, and even a bit of pop styles into the accordion-led sound. From slower ballads to waltzes to an almost polka-eqsue sound, Chenier uses King Of The Bayous to prove that within the style of Zydeco, there is really nothing that is "off limits." This diversity in style is rarely found elsewhere within the genre, and it is one of the many aspects that makes Chenier such an icon. Much of this diversity in style is due to the fact that, as he made a name for himself in the 1950's and 1960's, Clifton Chenier played many dances and other such events, and therefore he needed to have a varied repertoire to please all of the different people. This translates into modern day with an album that has something for everyone, and King Of The Bayous transcends all notions of "traditional" Zydeco, making it a wonderful album for all to experience. Every song on the album is a Chenier original with the exception of the classic honky-tonk tearjerker, "Release Me." The fact that Chenier was able to so perfectly compose such a wide range of sounds serves as further testament to his overall greatness as an artist. The other main reason who this album is so exceptional is simply due to the fact that Chenier was well into this third decade of performing by this point, and his sound, as well as the way in which he interacts with his band was a well honed instrument onto itself.

Most of the seven musicians who are featured on King Of The Bayous had been in Cheiner's band for many years, and this is a major factor in the fantastic sound and overall mood of the record. With Clifton himself leading the band with his brilliant accordion playing, the other musicians bring their own traditional instruments and sound to the songs, making it one of the most enjoyable and authentic sounding records in the history of the genre. As one of his longest collaborators, Chenier's brother, Cleveland plays on every song, bringing one of Zydeco's most well-known instruments, the rub-board. Traditionally used for washing clothes, it was the makers of early cajun music who turned it into a musical instrument. Cleveland Chenier playing is phenomenal on every song, and it is largely his playing that gives King Of The Bayous its authentic mood. Drummer Robert St. Julien had also been in Chenier's band for many years, and his diversity in rhythmic patterns makes him one of the finest ever in the genre. Similarly, bassist Joe Morris plays perfectly across the varying styles, and the combination of him and St. Juilen are truly a remarkable sound to experience. Guitarist Antonie Victor and pianist Elmore Nixon round on the band, and having both of them on hand gives the music of King Of The Bayous a far more full and complex sound then a majority of their contemporaries. After just a few minutes of listening, one can only imagine the awesome power and energy that Clifton Chenier and his band brought to the live performances which made them famous.

While his backing band is fantastic, the true soul and spirit of the group lies within its founder, Clifton Chenier. Famous for the way in which he blended waltzes and "two step" dance styles into the cajun sound, everything that makes him so brilliant can be found on King Of The Bayous. It is his unique approach to the cajun style of music that formed what is now called Zydeco, and in the opinion of most people, there was simply nothing like Zydeco before Chenier's time. Along with his high energy and unique music, Chenier was also well known for his equally entertaining personality, and he was often found sporting a cape and crown during his live performances. Truth be told, Chenier very much saw himself as a rock-style artist, and was famously quoted as saying, "...Zydeco is rock and French mixed together, you know, like French music and rock with a beat to it. It's the same thing as rock and roll but it's different because I'm singing in French." Chenier has by far one of the most mesmerizing voices of any genre, and regardless of what language or subject on which he is singing, his vocal work throughout the album is absolutely fantastic. Combined with his superb accordion playing, there are few artists who had as much personality and raw musical talent as one finds within Clifton Chenier.

Easily one of the most incorrectly maligned and genres of all time, Zydeco music is one of the most upbeat, celebratory, and original sounds ever created. Taking the cajun sound and infusing it with a far more dancable style, it can be seen as influencing countless genres that came after, from the later waves of SKA to southern rock sound, and even a bit of influence on the disco movement. Leading the charge of this sound and style was the man who most consider to be the first, and therefore most important Zydeco musician, Clifton Chenier. Mixing together the more popular sounds of R&B, blues, and rock music with the unique sounds of the Bayou, Chenier birthed a sound that was perfect for dance-halls, yet sounded absolutely nothing like anything that had previously been heard in such settings. With his equally talented backing band, Chenier quickly made a name for himself throughout the Louisiana/Texas area, and word quickly spread around the world of this new and exciting sound. Not only was Chenier a magnificent entertainer in every sense of the word, but the fact that he proved to be an equally amazing composer cements his legacy as one of the most talented and important figures in the entire history of recorded music. Though his entire catalog is well worth owning, to understand why Clifton Chenier is such a pivotal part of modern music, one need look no further then his truly phenomenal 1970 release, the perfectly titled King Of The Bayous.

Standout tracks: "Zodico Two Step," "Who Can Your Good Man Be," and "Grand Mamou."

Monday, November 23, 2009

November 23: Scott Walker, "Tilt"

Artist: Scott Walker
Album: Tilt
Year: 1995
Label: Drag City

In most cases, one of the easiest ways to end a career is when an artist or band takes too long in between album releases. A majority of the time, if too much time has elapsed between releases, the face of popular music has changed significantly or, to put it quite simply, the artist has been forgotten. While in this case, many artists can still make a decent living rehashing their "fifteen minutes" for a handful of years, even these most dedicated fans eventually fade away. If one inspects this trend, one will find that anything beyond two full years without a new album (or a tour), and the artists' sales and popularity are significantly decreased. However, there is one very strange case where all of these rules (aside from commercial success) seemed to disappear. Having found success as part of The Walker Brothers in the late 1960's, Scott Walker released albums as a solo artist as well as with The Walker Brothers until 1984. His early records garnered him a fair amount of success, with a few singles propelling the early albums into the top twenty five in the U.K. Then, Walker quite literally disappeared for more then a decade, releasing no new material and being all but forgotten by music fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, in 1995, Scott Walker returned with one of the most stunning and extraordinarily dark musical works ever released, the haunting and amazingly original musical masterpiece, Tilt.

The fact that nearly all of Walkers' success, whether with The Walker Brothers or as a solo artist is quite ironic considering the fact that he was born in southern Ohio. His early career was that of a fantastic singer who did all he could to capitalize on the "British Invasion," and the irony of his true birthplace became even stronger. However, one cannot deny the brilliance of the singles he created as part of The Walker Brothers (they were not brothers), and the success that he achieved as a solo artist whilst simultaneously being completely ignored in his homeland is nothing short of tragic. Walker is without question one of the most original and innovative musicians that the U.S. has ever birthed, and the manner in which he approaches each song is unlike that of any other performer in history. His solo compositions are sonic masterpieces, with dark, sparse instrumentation underlying his deep, sorrowful singing. At times, the music is almost operatic in sound, and at other times, it teems with a mood of pure evil and perfectly encapsulates everything that "goth" artists dream of creating. The stunning orchestrations that he creates has led him to work with countless artists, creating music with the likes of Nick Cave and Pulp. Cementing his spot as one of the most important figures in music, along with super-producer Phil Spector and Brian Eno, Walker is the only other recipient to ever be given Q Magazine's award for "contributions to music." On Tilt, Walker proves his worth of such an honor, as the album represents one of the few modern musical recordings that was done entirely live in the studio, and none of the songs received any post-recording enhancements or alterations.

The music that Scott Walker presents on Tilt is dark, moody, and sparse like nothing else one will ever experience anywhere else in music. The textures are extremely deep, and much like a good blues song, the spots where the music is absent is just as important and impactful as where music is present. While Walker is backed by more than twenty different musicians throughout the nearly hour-long run-time, there is a core of four players who are present on every song. Guitarist David Rhodes is without question best known for spending a majority of the past three decades collaborating with and playing alongside Peter Gabriel. His work with Walker is just as moving and original, and one can think of few other guitarists who can so perfectly fulfill Walker's musical desires. With winding and wailing textures, Rhodes proves his truly brilliant and amazingly innovative techniques, and it is a guitar sound like nothing else ever heard. Having also spent time with Gabriel, as well as backing everyone from Roberta Flack to Annie Lennox, session-bassist extraordinaire John Giblin is simply perfect throughout Tilt. Whether playing pulsing, deep rhythms or bringing an overwhelming sense of doom to a handful of tracks, Giblin is absolutely astonishing on the album, and none of his other works pales in comparison. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Ian Thomas proves to be a true genius on percussion. Rarely playing anything resembling "formal" drumming, the way in which the crafts the rhythm of each song with various other instruments is rarely anything short of stunning. The final member of the band is keyboardist Brian Gascoigne. Filling in many of the open spaces with his playing and sound effects, Gascoigne gives each song their final touch and it is often his work that enables the music to defy description. Each of Scott Walker's compositions that is found on Tilt is truly a work of genius, and the core musicians that perform these works of art do them justice at every turn, and it is a musical experience like no other.

While the textures that Scott Walker composes are truly beyond words, it is quite clear that the way in which he sings was a key element in his creation of the songs. Moreso then nearly anywhere else in music history, Walkers' voice is truly an instrument onto itself on Tilt, and it his singing and moaning blend in perfectly with the rest of the music. Dark and melancholy, but not evil or angry, the voice of Walker is low and powerful and unlike that of any other singer. Though there are times where both in tone and vocal approach, Walker bears resemblance to Nick Cave, where Cave is more "rock," Walker is more in search of a darker, more lonesome sound. When it comes to the lyrics of the songs on Tilt, one would be hard pressed to find a lyricists whose words were more purely poetic then those of Walker. Rarely approaching any sort of "formal" poetry in style, Walker's lyrics are often more akin to the style and substance of the "beat' era, and this intertwines perfectly with the music over which he performs. Whether he is mixing in biblical allusions with a dingy bar as on "Bouncer See Bouncer" or forcing one to question if he is singing of modern urban tragedy or tales of Native Americans from hundreds of years ago on the title track, Walker writes words that are far beyond that of nearly every other singer in history. Presenting the absolutely ideal combination of phenomenal lyrics and his uniquely fantastic voice, Scott Walker used Tilt to prove that even in an era when music seemed to be becoming annoyingly homogeneous, new sounds and directions were available to anyone brave enough to follow.

There are virtually no artists in music history who, like Scott Walker, found artistic success in three very different musical eras with three very different sounds. From his early days writing Brit-pop with The Walker Brothers to his forays into dark, avant musical atmospheres, everything he has ever created musically is absolutely fantastic. The fact that Walker was able to so completely step away from the music world and then return with an album as stunning as Tilt serves as a testament to just how much talent lives within him and how much one can accomplish if they refuse to be boxed in by any preconceived notions of musical structures or sound. By far one of the most innovative and original performers in music history, there is truly nobody who made music quite like Walker, and the albums that have followed Tilt continue to create new ways to present the moody, gloomy compositions which Walker writes. In recent years, Walker's status as an icon of music has been further solidified by the fact that David Bowie produced a documentary about his life titled Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. With countless modern and classic artists all jumping in to give their take on Walker's impact on modern music, one can make the case that Walker is by far the most famous, unknown artist in music history. To fully understand why Scott Walker is so worthy of all of these honors and accolades, one need look no further then his startlingly bleak, yet absolutely stunning 1995 musical masterpiece, Tilt.

Standout tracks: "Farmer In The City," "Bouncer See Bouncer," and "Rosary."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

November 22: The Heartbreakers, "L.A.M.F."

Artist: The Heartbreakers
Album: L.A.M.F.
Year: 1977
Label: Track

Easily one of the most frustrating occurrences in music is when a certain grouping of musicians records far too little. There are countless bands and singers who never should have been let near a microphone, yet have released many studio recordings. Conversely, throughout history, certain bands truly remain under-recorded. Among this latter group stands one of the most high energy and musically talented groups of their genre and era, the unrivaled Heartbreakers. Not to be mistaken for Tom Petty’s backing band, The Heartbreakers were the project put together by Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan after they left The New York Dolls. Strangely, the same week that the pair left The Dolls, Richard Hell parted ways with Television, and the trio brought Walter Lure on and The Heartbreaks were formed. Quickly making a name for themselves as one of the most powerful and original groups around, the band when through a handful of lineup changes before finally entering the studio in 1977 to record what would be their only “official” student release. The sessions from which the album came were, in fact meant to be “demo” sessions, yet the resulting product was so strong, that Track Records decided to release them as the unsurpassed 1977 album, L.A.M.F.

The title of L.A.M.F. is in fact an acronym for "Like A Mother Fucker," and it is a slang term from the streets of New York City that basically meant, "keep off our turf." This perfectly encapsulates the bands' general attitude, and it comes through in every song on the album. There are actually a number of different versions of the L.A.M.F. album, many of which have very noticeable differences in the music mixing as well as the tracks on the record. The original release in 1977 features twelve tracks, and it is widely noted for the extreme lack of production, almost to a point where it detracts from the album. In 1982, the original tapes were acquired by the U.K. label, Jungle Records, and the songs were remixed by Thunders and ex-Generation X bassist, Tony James and released as L.A.M.F. Revisited. This version was far superior in sound, yet the track order was altered, as well as the addition of two tracks that were not on the original release. Then, in 1994, Jungle Records revisited the original tapes yet again, hoping to make an even better mix with the newer technologies that were available. This final release, known as L.A.M.F. : The Lost '77 Mixes was released as a double CD, with the first being the fourteen songs found on Revisited with a better sounding mix, and then a second CD of outtakes and alternate takes of man songs. In the eyes (ears) of most, this final release is "the" definitive version of the classic record, and it is the version that is being referred to in this review.

Though the band had already gone through a number of changes in lineup by the time they entered the studio, the quartet that recorded the album stand today as one of the greatest lineups of any band in history. The potent musical punch carries with it represents everything that is great about punk, glam, and hard rock all in one. It is within the music that one can clearly hear echoes of Thunders and Nolan's days with The Dolls, especially on songs like "I Wanna Be Loved." The dueling guitars of Johnny Thunders and Walter Lure are fantastic in every song, as the pair switch lead and rhythm parts, and the shared power chords are pure rock and roll mastery. Bassist Billy Rath is equally as great on L.A.M.F. and he brings a much stronger punk element to the band, giving the music an edge and a bit of a menacing tone throughout. Rounding out the band is the drumming of Jerry Nolan, who throughout his entire career established himself as one of the finest players of his generation. While the music on L.A.M.F. is a brilliant fusion of a handful of different rock styles, the truth of the matter is that the albums' lack of commercial success is not that surprising. In 1977, the musical spectrum was very much polarized, as one end presented punk, and the other end was the more mellow beginnings of "soft rock." The fact that The Heartbreaks were in some middle ground all of their own makes it far more understandable that it took a few years after the band disbanded for the true genius of their work to be recognized.

The vocal work on L.A.M.F. is also unlike any other punk based band, as Thunders handles a majority of the vocals, but both Lure and Nolan also take prominent vocals as well. This almost shared vocal duty was very much a rarity in any form of music, yet it works brilliantly for The Heartbreakers. In his lead vocal work, Thunders sounds almost like a more restrained, slightly more melodic Iggy Pop, as the spirit and energy under his singing is powerful and full of angst. Every song on L.A.M.F. begs for group singing, and the truth of the matter is, there is not a dull moment anywhere on the entire album. One of the many high points is the one song that sounds slightly out of place, "Chinese Rocks." At first listen, it is clearly the most "punk" song on the album, which is nor surprising as it was penned by one of the finest punk writers ever, Douglas Colvin. Better known as Dee Dee Ramone, there have been many different groupings of people given credit for the song, yet Dee Dee is the only constantly and widely regarded as the many source for the song. The Ramones recorded their own version for End Of The Century, yet the version found here is equally, if not moreso fantastic. "Chinese Rocks" solidifies The Heartbreakers claim to be a punk style band, and it is by far one of the finest songs on the entire record.

When it comes to the pure power and spirit of rock and roll music, few bands presented it better then the quartet known as The Heartbreakers. With their unique blend of sleazy rock, punk, and glam, there has never been another group that sounded quite like them, and it is much of the reason why L.A.M.F. stands so high above other albums. Refusing to be categorized into any single genre, the group perfectly navigates a number of styles simultaneously, and the resulting songs are nothing short of fantastic. Clearly pulling from the spirit and sound of The New York Dolls, the group is far more structured and less glam then The Dolls, and guitarist and singer Johnny Thunders has rarely sounded better. With the superb rhythm section of Rath and Nolan, plus the second guitar of Walter Lure, The Heartbreakers represent one of the greatest rock and roll lineups in music history. The songs all burst with amazing energy, and they are still as enjoyable and fresh today as they were more than thirty years ago. Though there are a number of different versions of L.A.M.F. to be found, after experiencing them all, there is little doubt that The Lost '77 Mixes represent the definitive version of the album. Sadly, this would be their only "official" studio release with this lineup, yet it is by far one of the greatest rock records one can ever hope to hear. Unquestionably one of the most phenomenal groups in music history, The Heartbreakers solidify their place among the music elite with their 1977 masterpiece, the truly indispensable L.A.M.F.

Standout tracks: "Born To Lose," "Chinese Rocks," and "Can't Keep My Eyes On You."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November 21: Al Green, "Let's Stay Together"

Artist: Al Green
Album: Let's Stay Together
Year: 1972
Label: Hi

When it comes to the giants on soul music, names like Brown, Cooke, Hayes, and Mayfield come to mind among a host of many others. With their smooth voices and emotion packed songs, these singers stand among the most beloved and highly respected in history. Yet each of them had their own style and sound, and of course, there was one man who sang "smooth soul" like no other person in history, the one and only Al Green. His name alone instantly brings to mind some of the most sensual and beautiful songs of all time, and his music and legend are just as strong today as they were when he exploded onto the scene in the 1970's. Beyond his iconic voice, one of the most stunning aspects of the career of Al Green is the fact that between 1971 and 1977, he released a stunning TEN full length records, ALL of which found their way into the top twenty-five in album sales in the U.S. Such a massive output, and more to the point, quality output, serves as a testament not only to the true talent within Green, but also to the raw amount of music that he clearly needed to get out of his system. Due to such a massive catalog, it is difficult to pick what is the finest Al Green record. Truth be told, the emotion and soul that is emitted from each of his songs is always top notch, and his records remain some of the most cherished albums in history. However, even with all of these superb records, there is one that rises above the rest, the album that catapulted him into the spotlight and truly set his career in motion, Al Green's monumental 1972 release, Let's Stay Together.

Truth be told, it would be Al Green's next record, I'm Still In Love With You (also released in 1972) that would be his most commercially successful, yet it is Let's Stay Together where he lays the groundwork for all of his later success. Every song on Let's Stay Together is an absolute soul classic, and it is on this album that one realizes that what sets Al Green apart from his peers is the non-traditional, but very present pop-appeal that lies within his music. This pop-sensibility is perhaps no more obvious then on the albums' chart topping title track. "Let's Stay Together" is without question one of the most iconic songs ever written, and over the years it has been covered by everyone from Roberta Flack to Jimmy Smith to Donny Osmond. The song itself is easily one of the "ultimate" soul classics, as well as one of the greatest testaments of love and longing that has ever been written. After topping the charts across the globe a year before the release of the album, "Let's Stay Together" once again made a run at the charts more than two decades later after it was featured in Quintin Tarantino's 1994 cult-classic film, Pulp Fiction. Though the song certainly did not need the film to be considered iconic (it already was), one can make the case that its place in the film perhaps turned an entirely new generation on to the stunning sounds of Al Green.

While Al Green's voice is nothing short of perfect, a large part of the success of his albums revolves around the equally sensational music over which he sings. Taking the sound and spirit of early R&B records and slowing and smoothing down the arrangements, the music found on Let's Stay Together is a fantastic hybrid of these sounds, mixed in with funky, blues, and a bit of gospel. Performing the entire album with a standard rhythm section as well as a full horn section, the sound on Let's Stay Together is more full and fantastic then that of any of Al Green's contemporaries. The rhythm section is, in fact, a group that is perhaps only second to the equally legendary Funk Brothers, the trio known as The Hodges Brothers. Guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges performed with everyone from Isaac Hayes to Talking Heads, and his work on this album is as great as anything else he ever recorded. Bringing strong rhythms as well as amazing smaller touches, in many ways, it s Hodges work on Let's Stay Together that set the standard for soul-based guitar playing. Creating wonderfully deep grooves on every song, bassist Leroy Hodges and drummer Al Jackson Jr. stand today as one of the finest rhythmic duos to ever record. Rounded out by pianist and organ player Charles Hodges, the songs swing and sway like no other before them, and this newer sound played a vital role in the overall success of Al Green's music. Equally as important is the quintet of horns, led by arranger and saxophone master, James Mitchell. Along with fellow sax players Andrew Love and Ed Logan, the sound produced by this trio is bright and moving and unlike anything else previously heard. Trumpet player Wayne Jackson and trombonist Jack Hale round out the horn section, and when the rhythm and horn sections come together throughout Let's Stay Together, the resulting sound is truly stunning and largely unequaled anywhere else in the history of recorded music.

The backing band on Let's Stay Together is truly unlike that of any other singer, which is fitting as Al Green himself has a sound and style that rises far above that of any of his peers. Possessing what is without question one of the smoothest and most soulful voices in history, Al Green perfectly represents the idea of not needing to be loud to convey emotion. With his wide-reaching vocal range and equally diverse delivery style, many see Green as the final bridging of the two major styles of soul. Along with the pure beauty of his voice, Al Green also proves to have one of the most powerful voices ever, and even his lightest touch carries with it an absolute demand for attention. Green’s voice and delivery are absolutely perfect on every track of Let's Stay Together, and though the title track is a truly timeless song, it is the “hidden gems” of the album that make it such an stunning effort. From his absolutely phenomenal re-working of the Bee Gee’s song, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” to the blues-infused “It Ain’t No Fun To Me,” Let’s Stay Together offers a wider range of superb soul styles then any other album ever recorded. Along with singing every note, Green also wrote all but two of the songs, proving that not only was he a fantastic voice, but a prolific writer as well. Perfectly navigating each style, Al Green’s extraordinary voice leaves the listener in awe and wanting more on every single song.

Proving that true and honest soul singing was hardly a relic of the past, Al Green revived the genre and held it strong for much of the 1970's. With his unparalleled, shining voice and the varied ways in which he sang, there are few artists of any generation that quite match up to the overall talents of Al Green. Making his name on the strength of the legendary title track, the songs' nine-week run at the top of the charts quickly turned Green into a superstar of the highest level. The combination of Green's fantastic voice, outstanding lyrics, and phenomenal playing from his backing band, the songs of Al Green are truly unlike those of any other artist. The way in which the rhythm and horn sections brilliantly interact with one another gives the songs a feel like nothing else, and the smooth, almost sensual way in which they construct the sonic textures is still amazing to experience nearly forty years after it was first released. would become the first of a string of hit records for Al Green, and the title track would similarly begin a streak of unforgettable soul singles. The reason for his success is not hard to find, as his fantastic voice, and the manner with which he sings each song is truly everything that make soul singing enjoyable. Standing not only as Al Green's finest record, but by far one of the greatest albums ever recorded in any genre, his 1972 release, Let's Stay Together remains today one of the most beautiful and musically stunning albums in music history.

Standout tracks: "Let's Stay Together," "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," and "Judy."

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20: Emiliana Torrini, "Love In The Time Of Science"

Artist: Emiliana Torrini
Album: Love In The Time Of Science
Year: 1999
Label: One Little Indian

Throughout the 1990's, music seemed to once again begin expanding in countless directions, and countless new styles and sounds were emerging all over the globe. Thanks to the aid of computers for both creating music, as well as the rapid worldwide distribution of said music, cultures were being mixed together like never before. Whether it was African rhythms moving into rock music or the sounds of European clubs reaching to all corners of the Earth, music has never been the same since. Within this explosion, a handful of women with some of the most mesmerizing and beautiful voices emerged, and the likes of Björk, Sia Furler, Beth Gibbons, and many others began to gain large cult followings. With their gorgeous voices and the enchanting music over which they sang, they soon became the most admired singers in what was becoming the "ambient" and "trip hop" genres. With a similar singing style, yet opting for far more structured, less heavily programed music, and bringing an equally stunning voice was the one and only Emiliana Torrini. Torrini, whose Icelandic birth and electronically-backed songs automatically toss her into comparison with Björk, is deserving of the credit that comes with such a comparison, yet in no way ever attempts to purposefully sound similar. With a voice that is far more focused, and songs that are far more sensual and more "formally" musical, unless you are aware of her shared country of origin, Emiliana Torrini sounds like one of the many uniquely fantastic female vocalists that emerged during the end of the twentieth century. With a handful of albums and singles to her name, it is almost impossible to resist the allure of her absolutely fantastic 1999 debut, Love In The Time Of Science.

The album, whose title is adapted from the 1985 Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Love In The Time Of Cholera, is by far one of the most blissful and completely engrossing albums ever released. The textures created by the music, as well as Torrini's voice are largely unmatched, and the songs remain fresh and enchanting even after years of listening. While Love In The Time Of Science is a stellar album in its own right, many people may be more familiar with Torrini due to her co-writing Kylie Minogue's hit, "Slow," as well as her performance of "Gollum's Song" that ends the worldwide movie sensation, Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. However, once one becomes familiar with her entire catalog, one quickly realize that while these two songs are very good, they barely compare to the amazing level of musicianship found on her formal releases. It is very much Torrini's ability to perform brilliantly in a number of styles that makes her such an amazing talent, and one of the key reasons that Love In The Time Of Science stands as such an essential record. Taking the influences that were now "global," there are traces of rock, jazz, blues, and countless other genres found within the songs on the album, and it helps the record to almost defy any sort of categorization. From Torrini's soaring vocals to the sensational musical landscapes over which she sings, Love In The Time Of Science stands as one of the few records that can truly be labeled as "perfect."

Though every song contains nothing more then Torrini singing over music, it is the way in which each song is expertly crafted that makes Love In The Time Of Science such a stunning record to experience. The deep moods, both bright and dark, are extremely powerful, and the fact of the matter is, very few artists have ever been able to so perfectly present such contrasting moods on the same record with similar precision and success. As previously stated, it is largely within the the music over which she sings that Emiliana Torrini separates herself from her fellow Icelandic songstress. Torrini's music is far smoother and has a bit more of a pop appeal, lacking the somewhat abrupt and often clamoring sounds that dominate much of Björk's music. This is not in any way a bad thing, and the songs found on Love In The Time Of Science are absolutely gorgeous, with each track taking the listener away on a beautiful sonic journey. Every single note and noise on every song has a purpose, and there is not a note missing, out of place, or even anything extra. Such perfection in musical orchestration in an extremely rare occurrence, and one must credit the quartet of musician/producers that made these sounds happen. These expert musicians, along with Torrini are able to create amazing musical contrasts, from the soft and simple sounds of "Easy" to the bouncing, far louder feel of "Telepathy." Leaving plenty of room for Emiliana to use her most powerful instrument, there is not a "skippable" song anywhere on the entire record.

While the musical patterns and moods found throughout Love In The Time Of Science are simply perfect, there are few singers that even remotely compare to the voice of Emiliana Torrini. With absolutely no limit whatsoever in terms of vocal range or the power the can unleash, the variety in her vocals throughout the album show more diversity then almost any of her contemporaries. Whether she is singing a casual, almost whimsical tune like "Unemployed In Summertime" or a more powerful ballad as is found on "To Be Free," each song has its own unique mood, making for a musical experience like no other album. The way in which Torrini creates a warm, almost friend-like atmosphere on the soft "Summerbreeze" is like no other vocal found in any other genre, and this diversity in vocal delivery is truly something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood. While there is a great variance in the vocal style, it is a fantastic contrast to the simple, almost everyday lyrics that flow throughout the album. Finding little need for allusions, Torrini writes about what she sees and experiences, and this translates into songs that can be related to by anyone, and it makes every song all the more engaging. The common feel and simplicity in the lyrics is perhaps no more apparent then in the brilliant "summer youth" anthem "Unemployed In Summertime" when she sings, "...unemployed in summertime, I've only just turned 21, I'll be ok...unemployed in summertime, don't need money 'cause we're young...I'll just stay awake till the morning...with make up all over my face..." From the songs of love and longing to those of freedom and loving life, Emiliana Torrini is absolutely sensational on every song, and the diversity and sound and her fantastic voice set Love In The Time Of Science far above nearly anything else released at the time.

While she may not have gained the notoriety of peers like Björk, Beth Gibbons, or Sia Furler, there is no doubt that Emiliana Torrini is equally, if not moreso, talented then any of her contemporaries. With a truly stunning voice that knows no melodic or stylistic limits, there are few artists who are as instantly mesmerizing as Torrini. Equally as captivating as her lyrics are the moods that are created on every song, and the variance in these feelings is also largely unparalleled within any genre. From dark, cold, yet "safe" feelings to the perfect musical encapsulation of the feeling of sitting in a sunny meadow, every scene is flawlessly painted, and these rich musical textures make the album an absolute classic. Sometimes backed by a lone acoustic guitar, and other times singing over loud, powerful horns and percussion, every turn on Love In The Time Of Science reveals a new and equally intriguing musical platform, and Torrini navigates each style with unheralded success. After experiencing the record, one understands that it is not quite an "electronic" record, nor is it really a "pop" or "ambient" album. The fact of the matter is, throughout music history, there are few albums that are simultaneously so sensational, whilst also being almost completely impossible to categorize. Emiliana Torrini possesses what is without question one of the most amazing voices in music history. All of her wide-ranging talents are put on full display throughout every note of her truly unsurpassed 1999 debut, Love In The Time Of Science.

Standout tracks: "Wednesday's Child," "Unemployed In Summertime," and "Summerbreeze."