Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 31, Body Count, "Cop Killer"

Artist: Body Count
Song: "Cop Killer"
Album: Cop Killer
Year: 1992

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Whenever a song sounds so different than anything else being made at the time, it is sure to make some waves and get some people listening.  Add to that the presence of an already established artist, and there is a great likelihood that, at the very least, the song will develop a cult following.  Top all that off with a healthy dose of controversy and protest, and there is no question that you'll have on your hands a song that is nothing short of a classic.  Though these elements rarely come together, there has been perhaps no better an example of the explosive nature of this phenomena than eighteen years ago today, when the world first heard from a little band called Body Count.  Combining together heavy metal energy with the raw and direct style of the early formation of gangsta rap, there has never been a group that had a sound quite like Body Count, and there has never been a song that stirred up as much controversy as their legendary first single, "Cop Killer." While within the scope of the current music scene, the song may not seem as much of a heated issue, the fact of the matter is, when the song first appeared in 1992, it may very well have been the most talked about and heavily protested song in music history.  Yet the fact of the matter is, as is usually the case, such controversy only made the song more popular, though for years after its release, it was used as an example of "when music goes bad."  Love it or hate it, when it comes down to it, one cannot deny the amazing and powerful music contained therein, and furthermore, one cannot deny the overall impact on the entire music scene created by Body Count's "Cop Killer."

Though the music and lyrics of "Cop Killer" are actually fantastic, one cannot discuss the song without bringing up all of the controversy and overall drama that the song created.  Almost immediately after the album was released, the song made such waves that even then President, George Bush made comments on the songs' content.  However, the most pointed and aggressive attacks came from the Queen of Censorship herself, Tipper Gore.  She teamed up with a group of Texas police officers, calling themselves C.L.E.A.T., and spent a majority of the next few weeks doing nothing but voicing their problems with the song.  This led to a number of cities, states and even a few countries to ban the song, and in some cases (New Zealand), they even banned the group from performing.  All of this drama surrounding words and music eventually led Body Count's frontman, Ice-T to recall the record and then re-release it without the offending track.  Though he never apologized to the song, he cited the fact that the controversy had eclipsed the musical merit of the song, and he was also receiving a massive amount of pressure from Warner Bros. records to made such a move.  Though one can understand Ice-T's move to recall the album after one can make the case that his "point had been made," the fact of the matter is, it was this move that set the precedent for record labels to censor their own artists when the music may have caused them (the label) too many headaches or controversy.  Since the record was pulled back, the studio recording of "Cop Killer" has been completely unavailable, and the overall incident led to many record labels withholding albums that were deemed "too controversial" in the years that followed.

Stepping aside from the stir of media and commentary that surrounded the songs' not-so-subtle subject matter, one cannot deny that the music itself is nothing short of revolutionary.  The sheer power and energy put forth on the song from Body Count was unlike anything else a the time, and there is no question that the group paved the way for countless other bands as they were one of the first heavy metal bands that consisted completely of African American players.  Nearly all of the band members had met whilst attending Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles, and this gave them more "street cred" than nearly any other band in history.  While they were not the most talented musicians ever, the amount of energy and emotion that they bring to each song remains largely unrivaled.  On "Cop Killer," the group brilliantly fuses together metal, punk, and rap in a way which had never before been heard.  Opening with an aggressive, heavy riff from Ernie C., the song drops in following the iconic yell of Ice-T, and from that point on, neither the music nor the vocals ever slow down or relent in any way.  The core riff has become nearly as iconic as the song itself, and the overall mood of the song is nothing short of unsettling.  The drumming of Victor Wilson (AKA Beatmaster V) is absolutely phenomenal, and throughout the song, it sounds as if he is trying to destroy his drum kit through his playing.  The rest of the band falls perfectly into line and as they move as a single unit, Body Count was re-writing the rules on both heavy metal as well as hip-hop.

Had this been an instrumental track, it would still have contained the legendary guitar riff, but one cannot deny the fact that it is the lyrics that make "Cop Killer" the song that it remains.  A man who was never good at being subtle, Ice-T brings some of his most pointed and heated lyrics of his career, and one must also remember the time in which they were written.  With a country still deeply involved with the police beating of motorist Rodney King, the song was as political as they get, and it followed the hip-hop sense of delivering "the news' through rapping.  In the song, Ice-T even name drops both King as well as then-Los Angeles police commissioner Daryl Gates.  In fact, it was less than a month after "Cop Killer" debuted that the "L.A. Riots" began, and it was in many ways due to the riots that the song received the treatment that it did.  While on his earlier records, Ice-T had presented a bit more of a laid back and "gangsta" delivery style, on "Cop Killer," he is as aggressive and straightforward as ever.  This change in style showed the true skills he had as an emcee, and any artist who has performed hip-hop style delivery over aggressive music owes much of their career to the pioneering efforts of Ice-T.  Not leaving anything to the imagination, Ice-T almost takes both sides of the issue simultaneously when he screams, "...I'm a cop killer, better you than me...cop killer, fuck police brutality!"  The song contains what can be seen as a "call and response" of the songs' title, and overall, there has simply never been another song that was similar.  From the sheer power of the song to the unprecedented amount of protests and controversy, Body Count's legendary 1992 song, "Cop Killer" stands as one of the few songs that, if nothing less, will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 30: Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"

Artist: Marvin Gaye
Song: "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"
Album: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (single)
Year: 1967


There are certain songs in history that are so iconic, so absolutely unmistakable, that they defy all trends and one can understand that generations from now, they will still remain relevant and a major part of music history.  In these extremely rare cases, one will find the ideal combination of an amazing vocal, equally fantastic music, and a lyric that is both universal as well as deeply personal.  These elite group of songs have been covered countless times over the decades, and one can be sure that this trend will continue, with new artists attempting to put a modern spin on a classic.  Truth be told, in the case of one of these songs, it is, in fact, a cover that almost completely overshadows the original, and one can make the case that Marvin Gaye's cover of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is nothing short of the best Motown song in history.  Making such a massive statement may raise some eyebrows, but the question remains, what Motown song is "better" than the completely package found here?  Though he had hits before this single, and would later record his equally indispensable What's Going On? record, there is simply no other recording in history that is as unmistakable and absolutely perfect than this 1968 cover of a song that was originally performed by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.  Combining the unsurpassed level of soul and emotion within Gaye's amazing voice with one of the greatest compositions that The Funk Brothers ever created, one cannot imagine a world without the extraordinary presence of the 1967 single, "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

Remaining as one of the most under-represented groups in history, one can easily make the case that there was no more important band ever than The Funk Brothers.  As the backing band on well over one hundred of Motown's most successful singles, the groups' ability to create amazing, original grooves remains unrivaled to this day.  The music they put forth on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" is nothing less than the group at their finest and every second of music on the song is absolutely extraordinary.  With the unmistakable opening, deep organ riff followed by the almost snake-like tambourine of Jack Ashford, there is simply no other song that even remotely sounds like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."  The song also excels beyond its peers in the fact that it was literally revolutionary in the fact that it features two drummers overdubbed over one another, and this technique would be used across the musical spectrum, yet it was on this track that it was first used.  Further adding to the unique sound of the song is the presence of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the way in which they seamlessly integrate into the overall sound not only serves as a testament to the extraordinary composition skills of those on the session, but to the overall amazing sound and mood of the track.  Rounded out with brilliantly punctuating horns, as well as the irresistible groove of the guitar and bass of The Funk Brothers, it is moments like these where one would find it hard to argue that any band in history even comes close to rivaling the power and talent found within the ranks of The Funk Brothers.

Until this point, a majority of Marvin Gaye's biggest hits had been alongside his longtime singing partner, Tammi Terrell, and her not being on this track was the subject of great controversy during the studio session.  However, even with this in play, there are few moments not only in his own history, but that of all of music, where Marvin Gaye delivered a more impressive vocal performance.  Working all over the vocal range, legend says that at first, Gaye backed away from the upper register, and it was at the insistence of Norman Whitfield that Gaye took what is now an iconic approach to his singing.  The way in which Gaye's vocals wrap around and slide through the amazing, grooving music is like nothing else ever recorded, and due to the amazing nature of the music, the fact that at its core, it is a rather haunting composition is almost lost.  Stepping back, one can see what a dark and somewhat cold number the song is, yet the power is nothing short of stunning.  Presenting what remains an unparalleled juxtaposition between vocal eloquence and unguarded, almost unhinged emotion, the true soul and meaning behind the lyrics of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" have never been as clear or as moving as they are on this version.  As Gaye presents the unguarded torment of a man who has found out that his love is going to leave him for another man, but of course not from her, the pleading and near humiliation is pushed to the limit with the brilliant backing vocals from the legendary Andantes that perfectly compliment Gaye's stunning performance.  Much like the mixing of musical styles, the vocals on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" revolutionized music, and there has rarely been a performance of equal power since.

When musical perfection on every level comes together on a single track, the song itself is instantly catapulted into a category all its own.  Though over the years, the song may become seen as "overplayed" in some cases, the fact of the matter is, the songs' continued relevance serves as proof to the overall greatness of the song in question.  Bringing together music legends The Funk Brothers, behind the vocals of Marvin Gaye, it is not surprising that "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" remains one of the most important and influential songs in history.  Presenting one of their finest grooves ever, it is often the subtleties, such as the tambourine, that make the music of The Funk Brothers so distinct.  From the deep, funky bass guitar to the bring, punching horns, every member of the band is in top form, and it is performances like this that make it even more puzzling how this band seems to remain virtually unknown to the masses.  Though the band had recorded with Gaye on numerous occasions previously, the addition of the dual drums, as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra make this recording like nothing else in music history.  Furthermore, the song features one of Gaye's most brutally honest and unguarded vocals in history, and one can feel the pain and agony within ever word he sings.  Though there were countless amazing songs to come out of Motown, there was simply never another that measures up to the overall power and sound of Marvin Gaye's 1967 landmark recording of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine."

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #13"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

1. Truckee Brothers, "Griity Pretty"  Double Happiness
2. Gogol Bordello, "Pala Tute"  Trans-Continental Hustle
3. Captain Beyond, "Raging River Of Fear"  Captain Beyond
4. The Scientists, "Shake (Together Tonight)" Murder Punk: Volume 1
5. Konono No. 1, "Paradiso"  Congotronics
6. Nekromantix, "Dial 666"  Demons Are A Girl's Best Friend
7. Victoria Williams with Lou Reed, "Crazy Mary"  MTV 120 Minutes Live
8. KRS-ONE, "Hush"  The Sneak Attack
9. Live Recording, "Piano & Clarinet" Paris, March 2010
10. Lee "Scratch" Perry, "The Upsetter"  Trojan Rocksteady Box Set (Disc 3)
11. The Clash, "Death Or Glory"  London Calling
12. Howlin' Wolf, "Little Red Rooster (single version)"  Howlin' Wolf: Moanin' in the Moonlight - Two for One
13. Black Eyes, "A Pack Of Wolves"  Black Eyes
14. Tanya Donelly, "Feed The Tree (DEMO)"  Star DEMOS
15. Agha-Ye Sadjadifard, Agha-Ye Djamshidi & Agha-Ye Sahihi, "Farhang-e A'vām"  The Music Of Islām - Volume 12: Music of Iran
16. Janis Joplin, "Kozmic Blues"  Joplin In Concert

Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 28: The Fun Things, "Savage"

Artist: The Fun Things
Song: "Savage"
Album: Fun Things 7"
Year: 1980

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Before the rise of the internet, clearly one of the most difficult things was for a smaller band to make themselves known to an international audience.  This was made even more of a task when the band in question was only around for a short period of time, and had a minimal amount of releases.  Adding a final level of difficulty, one can easily understand that, in the late 1970's, the country of Australia was not really considered a hotbed for the punk rock movement.  However, if one does some exploration, the truth will be revealed that the country WAS in fact one of the finest places for the genre, and among the great, somewhat unknown artists of the era was one of the fiercest, and most pure punk bands in history: The Fun Things.  Though the group was only together for a bit over a year, and released only a 7" record, the impact of the release was such that they are without question, legends of the Aussie punk rock scene, and each of the four tracks on the 7" are absolute classics.  With an almost unsettling amount of energy, and a stripped down, pure sound that truly represented everything that made punk rock great, over the decades, The Fun Things have become one of the most treasured "underground" punk bands in history, and the songs from their EP were made a bit easier to get when they were placed on the fantastic Murder Punk compilation.  Pulling influence from The Stooges and The Sex Pistols among many others, The Fun Things perfectly captured the feeling of being on stage in their wild classic song, "Savage."

When it comes down to it, "Savage" is all about bringing the listener both the sound and mood of a live punk performance, and the song kicks off in brilliant fashion, with heavy feedback, and then dropping into the heavy guitar riff from and Graeme Beavis.  The guitar playing is absolutely perfect, as it brings the energy and aggression of the punk rock style, yet it is not overpowering or too loud, which gives it an ability to appeal to the more "normal rock" listeners.  The band even drops in a quick guitar solo before slamming into the final verse, and this makes the song even more distinctive.  The bass of John Hartley winds in sensational fashion around the guitars, and it is largely the bass playing that pushes the song to a frenzied level, and keeps the band o the border of musical chaos.  Rounding out the band is drummer Murray Shepherd, who brings an amazing level of sheer power to his playing, yet like the other members of The Fun Things, he keeps things stable and consistent throughout "Savage."  The song never relents or slows at any point, and the energy that they bring surely set off countless clubs across Australia, and their pure, high-octane performance is what makes them the legendary act that they remain to this day.  It is within the music that one can hear the influence of The Stooges, as the arrangement and style with which the band plays clearly pulls more from the early years of punk, as opposed to the more popular style that was present at the time that The Fun Things recorded their extraordinary 7".

Keeping pace with the wild, enthusiastic musical performance, Brad Shepherd brings an absolutely amazing vocal track to the song, and he leaves little question as to "who" was running the band.  Pushing the boundary on the screaming/talking versus singing, there has never been another vocalist that sounded quite like Shepherd, and one can also clearly feel the high level of emotion with which he is singing.  Again making the bands' love for The Stooges clear, Shepherd's vocals do a fantastic job in paying tribute to one of the greatest vocalists ever in Iggy Pop.  Further adding to this, one can make an argument that, although the lyrics could apply to nearly any punk band, they bear a striking resemblance to the legendary stage presence of Iggy Pop.  The lyrics which Shepherd sings are nothing short of fantastic, and they unquestionably play as vital a role as the music or the singing.  The words perfectly capture the emotion of a band taking the stage and having the underlying need to blow away their audience because, "...when you're paying your bills to see me, I've got to do what you want me to..."  In many ways, this simple line perfectly captures the entire punk ethos, as The Fun Things make it clear that on one level, the live show is about the audience, as opposed to the band.  The bridge again does an amazing job of summing up the mood as the songs' title is an amazingly accurate description of "how" a punk band should be when he sings, "...put me on the stage and I'll be your savage..."  The lyrics perfectly reflect the attitude and energy that The Fun Things bring to the track, and when it ends, there is little question that both the song and the band are absolute classics of the genre.

The case has been made over the decades that often times, the finest bands to ever record end up getting lost in the shuffle, and a myriad of reasons can lead to this occurrence.  The fact that they only existed for just over a year, yielding a single 7" release, and furthermore were located in Australia, one can make the case that The Fun Things had just about everything working against their ability to make waves on the international punk scene.  However, the fact of the matter is, that lone 7" remains one of the most highly sought after recordings, as it is without question a shining example of everything that there is to love about punk rock.  Keeping the sound in its most pure and straightforward form the band absolutely explodes off of the record, and they prove to be as good as any act in punk history on their classic song, "Savage."  The intense guitar playing of Shepherd and Beavis, combined with Hartley's bass playing create one of the finest musical compositions in the history of the genre, and the pummeling drumming from Murray Shepherd finishes off a true musical powerhouse.  The fact that The Fun Things were able to be so unique in an era when everyone was simply copying what was popular, one can feel their authenticity, and the subject matter about which they are singing becomes even more fantastic.  Truth be told, though countless bands over the decades have attempted to capture the feeling of being on stage in words, few have even come close to the perfection in this pursuit, as well as the similarly accurate power and feeling as one finds on The Fun Things 1980 classic, "Savage."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

March 27: Joe Cocker, "Feelin' Alright"

Artist: Joe Cocker
Song: "Feelin' Alright"
Album: With A Little Help From My Friends/Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Year: 1969/1970

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CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Cocker, Live) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Traffic Version) (will open in new tab)

There is little question that one of the trickiest beasts to tame in music is that of the cover song.  While nearly every artist in history has attempted this at least once in their career, an overwhelming majority of the time, the cover version simply does not measure up to the original.  Yet from Elvis Presley's take on "Hound Dog" to Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along The Watchtower," there is an endless string of songs that prove that if done correctly, a cover can completely overshadow the original.  Furthermore, much like these two songs, there are a handful of covers that become so iconic, that over the years, the fact that they are cover songs becomes largely forgotten.  Perfectly exemplifying this final idea, one need look no further than the case of the iconic song, "Feelin' Alright," which most people know due to the brilliant studio and live versions released by English soul singer, Joe Cocker.  However, the truth of the matter is, the song was actually written by Dave Mason, and released in 1968 by his own band, Traffic.  Though Traffic did not find much success with the song, everyone from The Jackson 5 to The Black Crowes have covered the song over the years, and yet no other version even comes close to the power and musical beauty that one finds in the two Cocker recordings.  The studio version comes from Cocker's debut record, With A Little Help From My Friends, and the live recording, which stands as one of the most stunning live performances in history, comes from his equally successful record, Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

The key to the success and intrigue of "Feelin' Alright" is certainly the brilliant piano hook that, while buried on the original Traffic version, becomes the centerpiece of the Cocker covers.  On the studio recording, it is Artie Butler who provides this amazing sound, and the funky, soulful way with which he plays immediately sets this version far apart from the original.  This groove that is quickly created turns the Joe Cocker studio recording into a far more upbeat and brighter affair than the original, and this certainly played a large part in its success.  Though he had played with a number of different bands over the previous years, it was not until this first "solo" release that Cocker was truly able to present the complete picture of his stunningly soulful singing, and his sound and style are absolutely unlike any other singer in history.  Further adding to the amazing mood of the studio recording, percussionists Paul Humphries and Laudir de Oliveria fill the song with sounds that bring to mind everything from rock to soul to the gentle sounds of the Caribbean.  Adding fantastic touches and small solos, guitarist David Cohen is slightly overshadowed for a majority of the song, but when he takes center stage, he is absolutely phenomenal.  Yet even with all of these amazing musicians on the song, there is little question that the most significant player on "Feelin' Alright" is the iconic bassist, Carol Kaye.  Having played on some of the most famous songs in history, from "La Bamba" to albums with The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, there are few bass players who carry as impressive a resumé.  On "Feelin' Alright," Kaye pushes the level of funk and groove to the limit, and one cannot deny her major role in turning the song into a classic.

While the studio recording of "Feelin' Alright" can surely stand on its own, the live version, released a year later, proved that like many artists, Joe Cocker's live performances absolutely blow away his studio work.  Recorded like at The Fillmore East in New York City on March 27 & 28, 1970, it is clear that Joe Cocker has assembled one of the most talented and funky bands to ever take a stage anywhere.  While the performance still centers around the piano riff, this time played by the one and only Leon Russell, one cannot overlook the amazing addition of trumpet player Jim Price and saxophonist Bobby Keys.  The way in which the horns and piano play off one another, especially during the songs' center solos, is truly what turns this recording into a classic, and the fills from guitarist Don Prestion pushes the song into a category all its own.  Strangely, none of the musicians from the studio recording are on this live version, as bass duties are handled well by Carl Radle, and there are a number of different drummers featured on the recordings, so it is hard to know which of them played on this track.  As the song builds and builds, the energy becomes more and more impressive, and it is clear that this is one of the most talented groupings of musicians to ever share a stage.  However, as good as the music is, as is the case with the studio recording, the song is all about the superb vocal work of Joe Cocker.  Clearly holding nothing back, the true soul power of Cocker's delivery is on grand display, and his performance here is largely what makes him a legend to this day.  His singing was so distinctive and so iconic that it even went on to create one of the most memorable moments in television history, when the great John Belushi shared the stage with Cocker, imitating his style, when they performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 1976.  Both of the live performances remain largely unrivaled, and the power of the version found on Mad Dogs & Englishmen have made it so the original remains largely unknown.

Whether it was this extraordinary live version, or the studio recording from a year previous, as the decades have passed, the fact that "Feelin' Alright" was originally written and recorded by Traffic has become one of the most forgotten facts in all of music history.  The original Traffic recording is a far more mellow affair, and yet it is the highlight of what is largely regarded as their finest studio release.  However, as has been proven throughout music history, there are certain songs that just "sound better" by artist who cover them in later years.  When Joe Cocker took this mellow, almost folky tune and injected it with some British soul, it breathed new life into the song, and in many ways, it barely resembles the original.  With Cocker's studio recording featuring some of the most talented studio session musicians of the era, it is little surprise that the final result was so fantastic.  The shared groove, complimented by Cocker's powerful vocals, remain today one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and that alone would have been enough to make Cocker a legend.  However, the live recording of Cocker and his new band (the band was called Mad Dogs & Englishmen, as well as the album) almost makes one forget the studio version, as the wall of sound, let by the equally legendary Leon Russell, is truly like nothing else ever released.  With Cocker completely unrestrained on vocals, the deep soul and emotion that one hears on the studio version is shown to be completely authentic, and it remains one of the most powerful live performances in history.  Proving that one need not write a song to completely understand "how" it should be performed, Joe Cocker used a pair of phenomenal releases to make the world forget that it was Traffic who penned the iconic song, "Feelin' Alright."

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26: Dexter Gordon, "Cheese Cake"

Artist: Dexter Gordon
Song: "Cheese Cake"
Album: Go
Year: 1962


For an artist to "reinvent" themselves is without question one of the most rare and truly unpredictable feats that can be accomplished.  As trends and styles change, an overwhelming majority of artists slip away from being relevant, and are only followed by the most devoted of fans.  However, every once in awhile, and artist is somehow able to find success a second time, and the way in which this is achieved is so random and rare, that it is impossible to make any sort of general statement on "how" this is achieved.  Yet even with this "reinvention" being such an anomaly, there is in fact one artist who accomplished this feat not once, but three times.  Standing as one of the most important figures in the entire history of jazz music, one can almost follow the rise and fall of jazz trends through the unparalleled recordings of the one and only Dexter Gordon.  From his early days, backing everyone from Nat King Cole to Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, to his later years, in which he was one of the more controversial performers due to his personal life, there were simply no other tenor saxophone players of the "bop era" that played as beautifully or as brilliantly as the man they called "Long Tall Dexter."  While his early recordings are unquestionably fantastic, there are few studio recordings that carry the same power and feel as his monumental 1962 recording, Go.  Backed by an equally fantastic band, Go features some of Dexter Gordon's most stunning moments, and few jazz recordings bring the same impact and soul as one finds in the albums' lead track, "Cheese Cake."

Without question, the most intriguing aspect of all of Go is the amazing mood which is created by the quartet.  Truth be told, each song has an absolutely stunning live feel, and there are times when it seems almost inconceivable that this is a studio session.  This serves as a testament to the extraordinary talent and chemistry between the four musicians, and it is one of the main reasons that the album remains in such vaulted status all these decades later.  Though one can easily understand that this mood is largely due to the players involved, one cannot overlook the fact that the record was produced by Blue Note Records founder, Alfred Lion, and this surely played some role in the albums' unparalleled mood.  Standing today as one of the most important and dynamic jazz drummers in history, Billy Higgins rarely sounded better than he does on "Cheese Cake," as the loose, heavily improvisational way in which he plays is a perfect backbeat for Gordon and the other players.  Having played alongside everyone from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, bassist Butch Warren remains in many ways the "ultimate" bassman, as he rarely solos, yet provides what can only be labeled as "ideal" playing, and his steady, grooving progression is one of the keys to the allure of "Cheese Cake."  The final member of Dexter Gordon's backing band on Go was pianist Sonny Clark, and it is largely the interaction between these two jazz giants that makes "Cheese Cake" such an unforgettable tune.  Pulling heavy influence from Bud Powell, Clark's playing remains some of the hardest, yet most swing-laden in jazz history, and there has simply never been another pianist quite like him.  The way in which these musicians work alongside Gordon is truly sensational, and it is clear throughout "Cheese Cake" that the quartet is as "locked in" as any other group in music history.

Though he certainly did himself a favor by surrounding himself with some of the greatest players in jazz history, there is never and question at any point on "Cheese Cake" that Dexter Gordon is the featured artist.  Immediately deploying the songs' key phrasing, the composition remains one of the most memorable and impressive of Gordon's entire career, and he rarely sounded as comfortable or confident as he does here.  Furthermore, as the first track on the album, it sets an amazing precedent, and this level of excitement and musicianship never lessens anywhere on Go.  The way in which Gordon rephrases and winds around the core riff is nothing short of sensational, and in many ways, one need to only hear "Cheese Cake" once to fully understand why Dexter Gordon remains such an important figure in the history of jazz music.  These alterations and improvisations highlight Gordon's notorious ability to hold his own with any jazz player, and his creativity and sheer emotion are also highlighted on "Cheese Cake."  Another key aspect of the overall impact of "Cheese Cake" is the bright energy which emanates from Gordon's saxophone.  The fact that the entire band seems to be constantly pushing the song forward, it is almost impossible to tell if Higgins is trying to keep up with Gordon's lines, or vice versa.  Though he rarely leaves the core riff entirely, the various ways in which Dexter Gordon re-works the phrasing shows off his amazing ability to create on the spot, and "Cheese Cake" remains one of the most unique and enjoyable jazz compositions in history.

Though he is nearly always mentioned as a "second tier" player, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Dexter Gordon.  As one of the key figures in pushing the genre forward, Gordon found ways to re-invent his sound over his career which spanned five decades.  Without question one of the most important figures to emerge from the bop scene, Gordon remains one of the few artists that was as relevant during the height of jazz as he was during the rise of disco.  This ability to appeal to such wide ranges in culture and mindset is one of the keys to the sound of Dexter Gordon, and many of his records are just as exciting and intriguing today as they were when they were first released.  Standing high atop this list is his 1962 effort, Go, which more than four decades later, still teems with energy and the creativity found therein remains largely unrivaled.  Backed by three of the most impressive, yet largely unsung players in jazz history, one can make the case that the magnificence of Go may be in large part due to the fact that all four musicians can be seen as "underdogs," and therefore, the lack of expectations allowed them to freely create exactly as they pleased.  The resulting music was in many ways the "second coming" of Dexter Gordon, and it solidified his place as one of the greats of the jazz genre, as it is largely his playing and position as band leader that makes this recording so fantastic.  Standing as the albums' finest moment, as well as one of the most extraordinary compositions and performances of his entire career, one need look no further than "Cheese Cake" to fully understand and appreciate the unparalleled talent that was the great Dexter Gordon.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

March 25: Tone Lōc, "Wild Thing"

Artist: Tone Lōc
Song: "Wild Thing"
Album: Lōc-ed After Dark
Year: 1989

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In an era when an overwhelming majority of hip-hop music is little more than a dull, uninspired rhyme about drinking and women or a recycled, bass-heavy beat, one must look to the "old school" not only to understand the roots of the genre, but for a reminder of the quality of music which the genre once held as a standard.  During this so-called "golden age" of hip-hop, an artist was forced to rely almost completely on their lyrical talent, and this amazing display of skill is one of the main reasons why a majority of the songs of this era remain standards of the genre to this day.  Similarly, the names of the emcees that recorded these legendary songs stand as some of the most highly respected rappers in history, and among them is a man who perhaps just as well known for his voice as he is for the songs he created: Tone Lōc.  Responsible for two of the most iconic hip-hop songs in history, his more risqué lyrics were counteracted by his raspy, yet relaxed delivery style, and his 1989 debut, Lōc-ed After Dark, is an absolute classic of the genre.  While many do not realize it, the fact of the matter is, Tone Lōc stands in many ways as the "first" West Coast rapper to gain commercial success, and with this in mind, he becomes an even more important part of the rise of hip-hop on a global scale.  Though it was not perhaps his original intention, Tone Lōc gave the world one of the most memorable songs of any genre when he released the first single of his debut record, and the song almost instantly became a success, the unmistakable classic single, "Wild Thing."

During this era of hip-hop, the idea of paying royalties to the artists that were sampled on songs had not yet become a normal practice, and it is one of the many reasons why the beats and sounds of this period are so distinctive.  Truth be told, "Wild Thing" is not only the debut for Tone Lōc, but also for the gentlemen who produced the song, a pair of up and coming musicians only known as The Dust Brothers. Though their later work would be far more aggressive and electronically based, on "Wild Thing," the duo shows that they have an amazing talent for working samples and creating an amazing mood.  Then again, when you are sampling a song that is already legendary to begin with, one can make the case that it makes the job a bit easier.   Containing extremely famous drum and guitar riffs, one can quickly pick out that nearly the entire musical backing for the song is derived from the Van Halen classic, "Jamie's Cryin'."  Truth be told, as were a majority of the samples at the time, the band was not paid what would be considered a "fair amount" at the time, and initially, it was only $5,000, as Van Halen's management did not believe the song would be a success.  Though it was later settled in court, the riffs are in many ways just as important as the lyrics, and the combination of these sounds propelled "Wild Thing" all the way to the second spot on the charts, selling well over two million copies.

With the music and production both going far beyond a majority of the songs at the time, Tone Lōc himself delivers on an equally impressive level, and he was almost instantly a star of the hip-hop world.  Tone Lōc's voice is wonderfully distinctive, as there is a certain raspy, gravely quality, and the fact that he is clearly not "pushing" to get the lyrics out gives a great contrast in styles.  Truth be told, there are few emcees in history that bring as relaxed, yet powerful a delivery as Tone Lōc, and it is one of the reasons why his songs appealed to hip-hop fans across the board.  Yet even with his fantastic delivery style, there is little question that it was likely the content of "Wild Thing" that made it a crossover success, and why it remains a classic more than twenty years later.  Along with Tone Lōc and The Dust Brothers, one more artist makes his debut appearance on Lōc-ed After Dark, and that is the man who is credited as the writer of "Wild Thing," another rising emcee who goes by the name of Young M.C.  Almost every lyric of the song has become a classic over the decades, and the songs' opening line of, "Workin' all week, nine to five for my money...when the weekend comes, I go get live with the honies..." remains one of the most borrowed and revered lyrics ever penned.  Leaving little to the imagination, one can also make the case that it was this song that firmly cemented the term "wild thing" as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Though it was certainly used in this manner before Tone Lōc's classic song, it was largely due to the track that it became a part of the world-wide vernacular.

Though "Wild Thing" was kept out of the top spot on the charts by a flash-in-the-pan pop-artist, the fact of the matter is, it was one of the highest selling songs of the year and remains one of the most iconic tracks ever released.  Borrowing a page from the legendary Rick Rubin, the song revolves around a hard-rock style sample, and one can make the case that "Wild Thing" is the best re-working of a previous hit that has ever been recorded.  Molding Van Halen's "Jamie's Cryin'" into something almost completely new, producers The Dust Brothers found the perfect vehicle to compliment the songs' provocative lyrics.  Capped off by the smooth, measured vocal delivery of Tone Lōc, "Wild Thing" is without question one of the most instantly recognizable songs of any genre in music history.  The fact that more than twenty years later, the song still holds up against current releases serves as a testament to the overall quality of the song, as well as marking one of the most pivotal moments in the history of hip-hop.  Paving the way for nearly every artist that followed, Lōc-ed After Dark was only the second rap record ever to top the charts, and this was due to the fact that in every aspect, both the album and the single were truly unforgettable.  While trends throughout every genre come and go, there are a handful of songs that never lose their impact as the years go by.  These classic songs find new life in every generation, and few are as memorable or as outright fun as Tone Lōc's 1989 ode to promiscuity, the iconic song, "Wild Thing."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 24: Dozer, "The Flood"

Artist: Dozer
Song: "The Flood"
Album: Beyond Colossal
Year: 2008

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As has been proven countless times over the decades, and mention many times in this very blog, simply turning everything "up to eleven" rarely results in a better quality of music.  While many bands believe that if they are louder, they are somehow being "more authentic" to their particular style of music, there is no substitute for talent and musical creativity.  Without question, the one genre where both of these theories have been proven time and time again is that of the heaviest of heavy metal, where one finds the sub-genres of "doom metal" or "trash metal."  Furthermore, as is often found in the electronic genres, one can easily make the case that a majority of the best and most original sounds from the heavier sounds originate from the countries of Scandinavia.  It is in this hotbed of powerful, loud music that one will find one of the finest and longest standing bands of this style: Borlänge, Sweden's Dozer.  Having released half a dozen records over the past fifteen years, Dozer have made a name for themselves not only for making some of the most impressive records of the true heavy metal style, but for doing so on staggeringly cheap budgets.  Notorious for recording their 2000 album In The Tail Of A Comet for only $500, it is almost impossible to find and of the bands' records that are anything less than superb, and each album adds further support to the idea that much like more volume, more money similarly does not insure a better record.  Proving that they are just as strong as when they started, there are few songs that can compare to the sheer power found on Dozer's 2008 song, "The Flood."

To those familiar with the overall catalog of Dozer, it is clear that the album featuring this song, Beyond Colossal, is without question their heaviest and darkest record to date.  Staying true to the sound which has defined the band over their career, the heavy, trudging guitar riffs and the massive wall of sound that the band creates often finds them labeled as "stoner metal," yet they are far more aggressive than a majority of bands in that special genre.  Furthermore, to kick off an album with a track like "The Flood" sets a difficult standard, as the song is so impressive that it is truly a tough act to follow.  Leaving no time for the listener to "prepare," the song kicks off at full power, with a tight drum introduction from Olle Mårthans before the dual guitars of Tommi Holappa and band founder Fredrik Nordin drop in, also at full power.  The full-scale musical assault that ensues is almost unsettling at times, as the group unleashes a fury of sound, pummeling the listener with each note, and yet Dozer makes sure not to make things so loud that the true beauty behind the music is lost.  The deep groove that the band creates on "The Flood" is present in large part due to the bass playing of Johan Rockner, and the manner in which he winds around the guitar players makes it clear that Dozer is far more than "just another" heavy band.  Throwing in smaller solos behind the main riff, the three guitarists clearly have a chemistry rarely seen in the genre, and the way in which the band moves as a single, crushing unit is one of the keys that makes both Dozer and "The Flood" sound like no other band on the planet.

Adding in what can only be labeled a "perfect" vocals, Fredrik Nordin uses "The Flood" to prove that even after more than fifteen years, he is still without question one of the finest singers on the planet of any genre.  Able to seamlessly switch between his captivating screams and his unquestionably wonderful singing voice, Nordin possesses a vocal dynamic that is rarely found within any of the heavier musical styles.  It is within his singing that the song moves from almost overpowering to something that is more accurately described as "foreboding."  The way in which Nordin attacks the vocals is where the darker, more somber approach of the band becomes clear, and yet "The Flood" serves as proof that one need not get slow and quiet to convey these emotions.  Though screaming often works perfectly alongside aggressive music, Nordin highlights the fact that, if the lyrics are unintelligible, much of the true beauty behind a song becomes lost.  It is also within the lyrics of "The Flood" that the band shows the more chilling and gloomy side of their music, and the words complete a truly perfect overall atmosphere.  While some may see lines like, "...before I have to go, I'll tell the tide to flood you all..." as little more than excessively violent, the fact of the matter is, if one looks at the lyrics overall, there are far deeper meanings that can be constructed.  Implying that there is far more behind the words, one can draw a number of interpretations from the verse of, "...die, no you will have to learn...cry, no I won't go unheard...and I will watch you from a higher ground..."  The way in which Nordin delivers the brilliant words creates an amazing mood, and there is simply no other song that can compare to the sheer majesty of "The Flood."

If there was ever a genre which gets constantly written off my inaccurate assumptions, there is no question that the number one victim of this is that of heavy metal.  Often seen as little more than "screaming over loud music," many music fans miss some of the most powerful and truly beautiful songs ever recorded.  Spending nearly two decades reinforcing the fact that there is far more within heavy metal than just "screaming over loud music," Swedish metal icons, Dozer, remain one of the most original and highly respected bands in the history of the genre.  Setting aside expensive recording sessions and finding no need for excessive volume, the group is sheer musical power, and the band finds a stunning way to balance amazingly elegant musical progressions alongside an uncanny sense of force that is the backbone behind their sound.  Filled with some of the most powerful and punishing guitar riffs ever recorded, as well as the devastating drumming of Olle Mårthans, Dozer keep doing their part to ensure the longevity of the heavier style of music, even in an era when quick, almost mindless songs are dominating commercial music across the globe.  Truly "sticking to their guns," Dozer find ways to constantly reinvent themselves, and their 2008 release, Beyond Colossal, though perhaps a bit pretentious in title, unquestionably lives up to the billing.  Filled with some of the finest songs of their career, Dozer remain one of the most unique and instantly recognizable bands on the planet.  Setting the stage for what stands as one of the finest records of the decade, Dozer delivers one of the greatest songs of their career with the first song on the album, the truly magnificent and fierce track, "The Flood."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 23: King Missile, "Detachable Penis"

Artist: King Missile
Song: "Detachable Penis"
Album: Happy Hour
Year: 1992

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While none will argue the difficulty of "making it big" with a mainstream sound, there is no question that the one thing that presents a greater challenge is finding widespread success with a unique, non-traditional sound.  During many periods of sadly stale music, anything that is the least bit different from the mainstream gets pushed far to the side and rarely sees the light of day beyond a cult following.  However, there are similar number of eras in music history where such wild creativity has been seen as a good thing, and it allowed some of the most truly strange bands ever to gain some time in the spotlight.  Without question, one of the finest and most exciting periods of encouraged musical creativity was in the early 1990's, and the then-new sounds that were emerging set the stage for the music scene of the next two decades.  Though many of the bands of this era were definitely original, there were few, if any, that were more outright weird than New York City avant-rockers, King Missile.  By the time the band released their 1992 breakthrough record, Happy Hour, they had already released a number of records and gone through a handful of lineup changes.  Yet it is this record that stands as their finest moment, and from the strangely psychedelic "(Why Are We) Trapped?" to the utterly insane "Martin Scorsese," there has truly never been another band that even remotely sounded like King Missile.  Furthermore, there has never been another radio single that was as risqué or as outright unpredictable as the bands' 1992 surprise hit, the unmistakable "Detachable Penis."

The name of the track alone not only immediately brings the song to mind, but it also makes one consider just "how" the song became a hit, as it clearly defies all logic of what it means to be "radio friendly."  The song falls somewhere between mellow heavy metal and beat-rock, and in many ways, the bands' sound completely defies description, as there has never been another group that had even a remotely similar sound.  "Detachable Penis" is powered by the distorted and delayed guitar of Dave Rick, and he highlights the song with brief overlain solos that slide brilliantly behind the vocals.  Doubling up the powerful, yet simple riff is organ playing from Chris Xefos, who also handles bass guitar duties on the song.  While the bassline is both strong and gives the song a great groove, it is in large part due to the somewhat wild keyboards that the song gains its distinctive sound.  Rounding out the musicians strong of King Missile is drummer Roger Murdock, and his jazzy approach is one of the keys to the songs' beat-like feel.  One also cannot overlook the brilliant production work of Mark Kramer, who also worked with everyone from Butthole Surfers (of which he was a member) to GWAR to White Zombie, and his unique ear for sound plays a major factor in the overall feel of all of Happy Hour.  The way in which Kramer sets the wild guitar solos against the almost plain, steady riff is a fantastic, yet simple musical contrast, and the overall manner in which he keeps the music steady, yet set back in the mix helps to highlight the stunning vocal performance and lyrics that truly make "Detachable Penis" an unforgettable musical experience.

While the "new" lineup of King Missile performs brilliantly throughout the song, there is simply no way to get past the fact that "Detachable Penis" is all about the sensational vocal delivery and lyrical content, both from John S. Hall.  As the bands' founder and only consistent member, there is rarely any question as to "whose" musical vehicle this is, and the beat-style poetry which he delivers on every track makes their sound completely unique.  With a steady, deadpan vocal delivery, there has rarely been a song that so perfectly epitomized the ability to have the lyrics so starkly contrasted from the music, and yet somehow making them fit perfectly together.  While Hall certainly takes a page from the delivery style of David Byrne, the odd, nonchalant attitude that is found within his vocals creates a brilliant contrast to the seemingly silly lyrics which he delivers.  Clearly not one for being subtle, "Detachable Penis" is a tale of just that, a man who wakes up with a massive hangover only to realize that his most treasured organ has gone missing.  The song spins an amusing, absurd story of his quest to find his missing part as he searches seemingly all of Manhattan's East Village.  Dropping a number of references to various spots around the city, the matter-of-fact way in which Hall calmly retells this tragic tale is truly so wonderfully ridiculous that it becomes one of the most captivating songs ever recorded.  Finally finding his missing appendage, Hall gives a bit of a sense of pride when he describes being able to haggle down the man who was selling it, before lamenting that, though he certainly sees the advantage of "having it permanently attached," he finishes off the tale by letting the listener know that, "...even though sometimes it's a pain in the ass, I like having a detachable penis."

There is simply nothing that could have prepared the world for "Detachable Penis," and in many ways, it is completely inexplicable that it found such widespread commercial success.  Cracking into the top twenty-five on the singles charts, the song is without question one of the most memorable songs of the entire decade, and there has never been another song that sounded similar.  Though in retrospect, one can make the case that it was the success of "Detachable Penis" that led to the downfall and eventual breakup of King Missile, one can similarly see the song as breaking down a number of barriers, as the fact that it was played largely uncensored on radio stations across the country perfectly captures the overall relaxed and adventurous state of music at the time.  Combining brilliant beat-poetry style lyrics and vocals with a mesmerizing, yet simple musical pattern, King Missile brought the world music the likes of which had never been heard, and while many bands before had released songs with subtle references, "Detachable Penis" leaves nothing to interpretation, and is one of the most hilariously extraordinary recordings ever made.  From the base idea of having a part that could be detached to the absolutely hysterical idea of being able to " it out when I didn't need it...," John S. Hall uses this song to prove that he is without question one of the most uniquely talented lyricists of his generation, and one can easily make the argument that had it not been for these truly underrated lyrics, the song would have been nothing more than a novelty.  Without question one of the most memorable songs of the era, both musically and lyrically, there has never been another song that quite compares to the unusually fantastic sound found on King Missile's unlikely 1992 hit, "Detachable Penis."

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 22: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #12"

11:30AM EST - I reposted last weeks' podcast by is fixed now :)

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

1. Mighty Blue Kings, "Don't Let Go"  Live From Chicago
2. Psycho On Da Bus, "Afropusherman" Comet: Afro Beats
3. Live Recording, "Basel, Switzerland Church"
4. Vic Ruggerio, "20 Flight Rock" Dead In Brookyln
5. John Scofield, "Green Tea"  A Go-Go
6. The Clash, "Last Gang In Town"  Give 'Em Enough Rope
7. Shock G, "Perfect Life"  Fear Of A Mixed Planet
8. Hüsker Dü, "Makes No Sense At All" 7 Inch Wonders Of The World
9. The Little Willies, "Lou Reed"  The Little Willies
10. Martha & The Vandellas, "Love Is Like A (Heatwave)" Love Is Like A (Heatwave) (single)
11. The Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" Ain't Too Proud To Beg (single)
12. The Supremes, "You Can't Hurry Love" You Can't Hurry Love (single)
13. Live Recording, "Paris Metro, March 2010"
14. Smashing Pumpkins, "Infinite Sadness" Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness VINYL
15. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "More News From Nowhere" Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March 21: The Breeders, "Cannonball"

Artist: The Breeders
Song: "Cannonball"
Album: Last Splash
Year: 1993

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While anyone can name at least a dozen memorable guitar riffs from music history, very few can name an equal number of iconic bass riffs from the same, endless time-frame.  It is through facts like this that one can easily make the case that the bass is likely the most underrated piece of a band, and yet without this instrument, nearly every song ever written would simply fall flat.  Furthermore, when there is a song that features a bassline that is so prominent, it is often even more unforgettable than its guitar counterparts, and in at least one case, a simple bass progression largely defined an entire generation.  Perfectly capturing the "anything goes" attitude that was quickly spreading throughout the world in the early 1990's, many so-called "alternative" bands found quick rises to fame as their songs threw away the boundaries of music that had been so present for well over a decade.  Among these courageous groups, there were none that sounded quite like the aggressive art-rock sounds of the all-star laden band, The Breeders.  A group that had largely started as a side project for The Pixies' Kim Deal, the band clearly became her primary focus, and the music found on their early records remain some of the most innovative and truly exciting music of the entire decade.  While their debut record, Pod, remains a true classic of music, there was nothing that could have prepared the band or the world for the widespread success of what is unquestionably their best known song: the infectious and iconic 1993 single, "Cannonball."

When it comes to the brilliant music on "Cannonball," it is truly all about the opening bass riff.  After a bit of heavily distorted chaos, and drummer Jim MacPherson counting out the beat, Josephine Wiggs drops in alone, and the simple, five note progression remains one of the most iconic musical moments of the entire decade.  Truth be told, play that simple riff for nearly anyone who was "of age" at that time, and they will instantly remember the entire song.  When the rest of the band drops in, it is quickly obvious that The Breeders have an uncanny talent for writing songs that are both musically adventurous, as well as heavy in pop appeal.  The core of the guitars of Kim and Kelley Deal in many ways define the bands' sound, and finding that balance between the experimental, noisy sound of The Pixies, and yet making it possible for Kim Deal to truly show off her amazing musical talents makes it no surprise when The Breeders quickly became her first musical priority.  From the onset, the music on "Cannonball" begins to build a wonderful tension that explodes on each chorus in brilliant fashion, and the heavily distorted vocals that accompany it are nothing short of a perfect fit.  Taking a page from the blues, "Cannonball" also features a number of wonderfully placed pauses, and these breaks in the music only add to the overall tension and enjoyment of the song.  The high energy of all of the musicians is also largely unrivaled in the music of the era, as they are loud, aggressive, and yet the one thing that sets them apart is that they are clearly having fun playing this tune.  In an era filled with grim, somber rock songs, "Cannonball" provided a breath of light, fresh air to a generation that was clearly looking for a different sound.

Along with the wild music, "Cannonball" also features equally "on tilt" vocals, and the lyrics contain many hidden gems as well.  With nearly all of the lead vocal parts being handled by Kim Deal, it is quickly clear that she has one of the finest and most unique vocal approaches in the history of music.  Able to instantly switch form her hypnotic, almost calm sound on the verses to the screaming, powerful choruses, there has simply never been another vocal track that is quite like "Cannonball."  It is within the verses and the bridge where one finds beautiful harmonies, something that was frustratingly rare within the entire music scene of the early 1990's.  This ability to mix together the more refined, more musical sounds alongside the wild choruses and music is much the reason the song is so fantastic and remains so iconic nearly two decades later.  Also adding to this are some of the most amusing and sometimes almost Dadaist lyrics ever placed on record.  While the core of the lyrics repeats, "Spitting in a wishing well...blown to hell...crash" before the band pauses so Deal can drop the album title, it is within the other words that one finds the sly brilliance of Deal's writing ability.  Throughout the song, she spins amazing phrasings, such as when she jokingly sings, "...I'll be your whatever you want...the bong in this reggae song..."  Though the lyrics are largely in jest, one cannot overlook them as they spotlight the fantastic singing of Kim Deal, and clearly, when given center stage, she quickly rises as one of the finest writers and singers of her generation.

Truth be told, one could not really escape the presence of "Cannonball," as countless magazines named it the best song of the year, and as the decade ended, it still found its way to the top of "best of the decade" lists all over the world.  It was a massive commercial success, ruling the charts in more than half a dozen countries, and "Cannonball" helped to make Last Splash The Breeders' most commercially successful record, eventually going platinum.  After hearing the song once, this success is not all that surprising, as the tune has everything one needs for success, and furthermore, it was a far cry form a majority of music that was being made at the time.  Taking a brighter, more upbeat approach, and powered by an unforgettable bassline, "Cannonball" truly took the world by storm and offered a welcome break from the melancholy world of "grunge."  In many ways the full realization of the musical world of Kim Deal, The Breeders remain one of the most important acts of the decade, and one can realize why Deal was rather hesitant to disband this group.  In reality, the entire Breeders catalog features one fantastic musical moment after another, but they would never reach the same commercial success that they found in "Cannonball."  Bringing together the edgy sound of the "alternative" music movement, along with superb musical writing and an attitude that comes through clearly in every aspect of the song, The Breeders are clearly at the top of their game, and it is largely the reason why there has rarely been a song that so perfectly captures a moment in history as one finds in their 1993 masterpiece, "Cannonball."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 20: Sonny Okosun, "Fire In Soweto"

Artist: Sonny Okosun
Song: "Fire In Soweto"
Album: Fire In Soweto
Year: 1977

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While there is certainly something to be said for following the styles and traditions of ones home country, one can make an equal case for the importance of stepping out of these norms and creating musical fusion.  Without such courageous forays into the sounds of other parts of the world, music would remain stagnant, and perhaps there would be no progress in any way.  While it may seem the unlikely answer, one would be hard pressed to find more fusion and experimentation over the decades than one finds in the music which comes from the African continent.  From the classic sounds of Fela Kuti to more modern work from the likes of Donso and Tony Allen, assimilating the sounds of other cultures is rarely done as well is it is all over the African music scene.  Standing high above nearly every other artists from the continent, and responsible for countless musical forms that followed is perhaps the greatest Nigerian musician in history: Sonny Okosun.  Fusing together the traditional sounds of his homeland with funk, reggae, and even a bit of "new wave," there has simply never been an artist who made music quite like Sonny Okosun.  Similarly, due to the nature of the African music labels in the 1970's and 1980's, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate discography and somehow track all of the music that was made.  Yet even with this reality, there is little question that the finest moment of his entire musical career lives in his 1977 hit, "Fire In Soweto."

The music found on Fire In Soweto is truly like nothing else ever recorded, and it is perhaps largely due to the fact that this is only the second effort from Okosun's recently formed band, Ozziddi.  Having disbanded his previous group a few years earlier, Ozziddi clearly better reflects who Okosun was as an artist, as well as helped to realize his complete musical vision.  The music of "Fire In Soweto" is a massive mixture of a wide range of sounds, and at its core, one finds the vibe and rhythmic style of the reggae genre.  This head-bobbing rhythm instantly makes one think of the finest reggae songs, and it also draws heavily from the "toasting" or highlife style that also originates from the music of the islands.  This fantastic backbeat is overlain with a funky synthesizer sound that simply defies description, and the combined sound of these two entities is truly like nothing else you'll ever hear.  Along with these two sounds, there is still a strong African element within the music, and the combination creates a true "wall" of music and somehow, with these varied inspirations, the music remains wonderfully consistent and is a pure joy to experience.  Each musician in Ozziddi is clearly in sync with one another, as they glide and slide through the composition, and each musical hook is just as unforgettable, which results in "Fire In Soweto" being one of the most unlikely "songs that get stuck in your head."  This ability to transcend culture and genres alike is in many ways the true genius behind the music of Sonny Okosun, and the reason why the music is till a joy to experience decades later.

The bright and upbeat voice of Sonny Okosun himself provides a perfect finishing touch to the overall fantastic sound found on "Fire In Soweto."  His voice is calm, yet powerful, and at the same time, the song is clearly a call to action.  Truth be told, the song centers around the uprising in Soweto, South Africa that occurred in June of 1976.  Protesting against both apartheid, but more specifically, regulations on what and how subjects were taught in school, thousands of high school students took the streets in what was a peaceful protest at the beginning.  Finding many of their intended routes blocked by police, it eventually erupted into an all out riot after police fired on the crowd.  It was this uprising that served as a massive turning point in the fight against apartheid, and Sonny Okosun perfectly captures the mood and feeling behind the events within the song.  Yet it is also within his words that Okosun separates himself from nearly every other politically minded African artist of the time.  While a majority of these other artists were promoting a far more aggressive and militant form of fighting the injustices, Okosun takes a far more proactive approach, and he seems to be more centered around the idea of "black unity," and this approach further connects him with the true spirit behind the reggae sound.  The song speaks of all of the fighting that has occurred throughout the African continent, and in many ways highlights the fact that the fighting has solved nothing, and only caused more pain and death.  This unique point of observation is in many ways the calling card of Sonny Okosun, and the passion with which he sings it is one of the most stunning aspects of all of "Fire In Soweto."

In most cases, songs speaking to specific struggles are only relevant to those who are experiencing the injustice, as the spirit and words often do not properly translate.  Yet when they are able to cross cultural boundaries, they almost always become the most cherished and respected songs in history.  From Bob Marley's brilliant songs of freedom to Woody Guthrie's tales of the downtrodden, a truly great song of protest or unity will become a universal cry and be able to be applied to new struggles as the decades progress.  Unquestionably within this elite group of songs, Sonny Okosun's "Fire In Soweto" serves as both a fantastic historical document, but it also represents one of the most amazing musical fusions in history.  Combining his native African sounds with a strong reggae backbeat, and then injecting some of the most mesmerizing, funky synthesizers that the world has ever heard, there is simply nothing else in music history that sounds quite like "Fire In Soweto."  Calling for the people of Africa to unite and take pride in their heritage, as opposed to simply perpetuating more fighting, one can easily make the case that Okosun's more peaceful approach had just as much, if not more impact than the long line of those musicians who were calling for their people to take up arms in revolution.  Regardless, the music that Sonny Okosun made throughout his entire career played a massive role in the development of countless later groups from all over the continent, and one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive example of his amazing musical talents than in the sound of his 1977 classic, "Fire In Soweto."

Friday, March 19, 2010

March 19: Röyksopp, "Sparks"

Artist: Röyksopp
Song: "Sparks"
Album: Melody A.M.
Year: 2001

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It has been proven time and time again that without question, one of the most difficult genres in which one can succeed is that of the host of sub-genres that fall under the title “electronic music.”  From techno and house to ambient and drone, the fact that “anyone with a computer” can create music of this style leads to there being far more sub-standard representations of this style of music than that of any other musical form.  However, this same ability for “anyone” to create also works in a positive way, in that it yields some of the most unique sounds and approaches due to being able to so tightly manipulate the composition.  Yet even with all of these truths, for whatever reason, a majority of the finest representations of all of the electronic styles come from northern Europe and Scandinavia, where it seems that as the climate gets colder, the ability to create warm, mind-bending sonic textures increases proportionately.  From Björk to Zero7, it is hard to argue that the finest acts of the various down-tempo genres come this this part of the world, and in that group, one simply cannot ignore the presence of the Norwegian duo known as Röyksopp.  With an ability to execute styles across the spectrum, their debut record, 2001’s Melody A.M. remains a mainstay of the genre nearly a decade after it was first released.  From almost haunting textures to some of the most beautiful, yet minimalist forays into the trip-hop/ambient sub-genre, Melody A.M. is a true musical masterpiece, and the duo are rarely as focused and awe-inspiring as on the gorgeous track, “Sparks.”

Though “Sparks” was the fifth and final single off of Melody A.M., the general public had not yet forgotten the beauty behind the record, and it found moderate chart success in the U.K, and would later be named the greatest Norwegian album of the decade.  Musically, the song is pure “chill-out” bliss, as the soft textures deployed by Torbørn Brundtland and Svein Berge instantly set them far above the cavalcade of electronic acts that filled the genre in the early years of the “oughts.”  With an opening that almost sounds like a vinyl record beginning, it sets a perfect stage for a sound and mood that simply defies description.  This goes further, as the overall sound of “Sparks” almost feels like a throwback to the 1970’s, as the warm, relaxed tone of the song begs for smoke-filled rooms with shag carpeting.  The synthesizer melody that squeaks and flows throughout the song is a sound like nothing else ever recorded, and while on its own, it would be far too harsh a sound, somehow Röyksopp makes it fit perfectly with their musical vision.  With a slow, steady rhythm instantly inducing head-bobbing, “Sparks” is unquestionably one of the most hypnotizing tracks in the history of the down-tempo style, and the way in which the duo intertwine their delicate sonic subtleties into this rhythm serves as a testament to their true musical genius.  Further displaying their talents, Röyksopp add in one of the funkiest basslines in the history of the genre, and this fantastic groove is yet another aspect that sets “Sparks” far apart as a “classic” track.

The music on “Sparks” alone would have made it a classic of the ambient genre, and yet Röyksopp ups the ante even further by adding in the stunning voice of Anneli Drecker.  Though she had already been recording with “dream-pop” veterans Bel Canto for more than two decades, her appearance here on “Sparks” stands as one of her finest performances.  With a voice that is just as smooth and captivating, if not moreso, as the music, Drecker gently rocks the listener, into a mesmerizing, almost ethereal state of mind.  Röyksopp have also put a slight distortion on her voice, and it manages to make her sound even more fused together with the overall sound, as the gloss that it gains perfectly completes the overall mood.  The final piece to this overwhelming beauty is the lyrics, penned by Drecker.  Though somewhat simple, they are a wonderfully crafted ode to the way in which “the small things” in life can turn a day around.  Making the song universal, she sings, “…it's those tiny little sparks, daily life that makes me, forget my wounded heart…,” and this almost melancholy mood that is set makes the song a true masterwork.  Her deep feelings of lost love are pushed further when Drecker sings, “…but you will always be here, stored inside my mind…” and one can feel both the beauty and the pain within both the lyrics, as well as the soulful, honest way in which they are delivered.

Achieving an entire song that, in every aspect, defines the term “beautiful” is a nearly impossible task, as there is always some small part of the song that must be “forgiven.”  Yet on their debut record, the Norwegian electronic duo known as Röyksopp make it look almost easy with their sensational single, “Sparks.”  Rooted by one of the most bewitching sonic landscapes ever put together, the song instantly pulls the listener into this delicate, yet vast space and it remains one of the greatest “chill-out” tracks ever composed.  The addition of the vocal presence of Anneli Drecker truly pushes the song over the edge, and one can search the entire history of the ambient sub-genre, and you’ll simply never find another track that quite measures up to the overall impact of “Sparks.”  While the song was somewhat lost behind the previous singles, coming out nearly two full years after the album first hit the streets, “Sparks” is easily the highlight of the album that took home its fair share of awards and accolades.  Nowhere else on Melody A.M. does Röyksopp craft such a perfect, yet almost minimalist mood, and it in many ways defines what it means to “be ambient.”  The warmth of “Sparks” is like no other song ever recorded, and it can instantly be felt by the listener, and yet this warmth continues to exist at the same power even after repeated listenings.  The blissful sonic textures that result in a fantastically warm mood, all capped off by the stunning vocal work of Anneli Drecker create the recipe for ambient perfection, and that is why more than a decade after its release, “Sparks” remains unrivaled and a true classic of the entire electronic genre.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March 18: Ten Years After, "I'm Going Home"

Artist: Ten Years After
Song: "I'm Going Home"
Album: Woodstock
Year: 1969

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While in most cases, it takes years of consistent recordings, or at least one amazing album for a band to become legendary, there are a handful of cases where a single moment was able to earn equal accolades.  It is these unique cases that are impossible to classify in a single group, and yet in almost every instance, they remain the most stunning moments in music history.  Though in many ways, they were overshadowed by the larger historical event, at least one of these special events occurred in Bethel, New York on August 17, 1969.  In the final hours of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, an unassuming blues-rock band from England took to the stage, and when they left, they had forever etched their names into the books of rock and roll history.  Though they had gained a bit of notice with their live release a year earlier, Undead, slotted between Country Joe & The Fish and The Band, they were in many ways, still one of the lesser known bands at the festival.  Similarly, their album that followed their performance at Woodstock would boast the hit single, “Love Like A Man,” but the band would break up only five years following their legendary performance.  The band was Ten Years After, and there has simply never been as stunning and explosive a blues-rock recording as one finds in their performance at Woodstock when they blew away the crowd with their song, “I’m Going Home.”
“I’m Going Home” is one of the amazing songs in history that, right from the start, is in high gear, and never relents even a bit.  The opening guitar solo is without question one of the most blistering and aggressive opening riffs in music history, and once you hear it, you can never forget it.  The man responsible for both the riff and the song, band founder and lead guitarist, Alvin Lee, is unquestionably one of the most powerful players in history, and though this performance is somewhat lesser known, it is impossible to argue that it is anything less than extraordinary.  Lee absolutely destroys the entire song, never lamenting, and his performance is one of the earliest appearances of a true “shredder” on guitar.  Giving the song a funky, yet moving feel, bassist Leo Lyons is an absolutely perfect compliment to Lee’s guitar.  Also playing a bit off kilter and almost taking a “metal” approach at some points, drummer Ric Lee helps to keep the song right on the edge of chaos, and it is one of the finest moments that marks the transition of blues-rock to metal and punk styles.  Though he was in the band at the time and at on stage at Woodstock, keyboard player Chick Churchill is nowhere to be found in the audio, which is a bit tragic, as his playing brings an amazing energy to much of the bands’ studio work.  The true spirit of the festival is also captured on this recording, as the audience is clapping from the start, and during many of the songs’ breakdowns, they can be heard as loud as the performers, clearly in awe of the ten-minute musical treat they are getting from the band.  It is this shared energy between the band and audience that helps to create a very special feel to “I’m Going Home,” and one has to assume that the band performed as well as they did due to the amazing vibe coming from the crowd.
Along with the high-octane musical performance, “I’m Going Home” is equally impressive in the vocal performance.  Strangely enough, this is one of the few songs of the band that features Alvin Lee on vocals, and it is clear through both his guitar playing and singing that he is “in the zone.”  Perfectly capturing the essence of blues and injecting it with the energy and attitude of rock and roll, there are few vocal performances anywhere in history that can compare to Lee’s work on “I’m Going Home.”  From his more straightforward singing to his truly inspiring yells to the quieter, yet heavy spoken parts, Lee shines throughout the entire song. As hard-rock as the song is, there is never a question that it is a blues song, as the lyrics follow the blues format, and the subject matter of a man letting his woman know that he’ll be home soon is as “classic blues” as one can get.  It is also during this performance of “I’m Going Home” that Lee pays tribute to one of the bands’ main influences, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, as he quotes everything from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” to "Mean Woman Blues."  This clear mixture of the early foundations of rock and roll, and Ten Years After’s more aggressive approach places them as one of the unique bands that was a bridge between sounds, and it is perhaps no more clear than in the vocal work of Alvin Lee.
In nearly every aspect of life, one can apply the theory of “playing to the level of the opponent” as a way to justify a breakout performance.  In the world of music, one can make this comment on a number of bands who found their finest moment when they took the stage at 1969’s Woodstock Music & Arts Festival.  Among these amazing performances, one cannot overlook or overstate the genre-crossing and scene-changing set that was pulled off my Ten Years After.  Though they had already made a bit of a name for themselves with a minor hit the year previous, after their performance of “I’m Going Home” at Woodstock, they were nothing short of music legends.  Listening to all of the recordings from the festival, it is clear that they had the crowd far more engaged than a majority of acts, and this is without question due to the fact that the energy they brought to the stage was unlike that of any of their peers.  Throughout “I’m Going Home,” Alvin Lee gives the performance of a lifetime, and it remains one of the finest live recordings in history.  From his fierce, intense guitar playing to his truly inspired vocals, Lee instantly catapulted himself into the music elite, and there has rarely been an equally stunning display since.  The rest of the band is also clearly “in the pocket,” as they push one another to greater musical heights as the energy of the song builds to an unparalleled climax.  Though it is often lost among the “big names” on the bill, there is no question that one of, if not the highlight of the entire Woodstock Music & Arts Festival was Ten Years After’s monumental performance of “I’m Going Home.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

March 17: House Of Pain, "Shamrocks & Shenanigans"

Artist: House Of Pain
Song: "Shamrocks & Shenanigans"
Album: House Of Pain
Year: 1992

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When one looks back at the history of pop music, it is almost impossible to decipher exactly “why” certain songs end up as hits, while others fall by the wayside.  While this is certainly true when it comes to pitting once group against another, one can take the same argument deeper, and note that in many cases, the most impressive song from a group often never gets much notoriety.  This is sometimes due to another song on the album becoming a surprise hit, and in other cases, the true brilliance behind a song is simply not realized by the masses until years later.  But of course, one must also take into account the generally fickle nature of popular culture, and the attention span of the masses is rarely short than it is in music.  As the music scene began to explode in countless directions in the early years of the 1990’s, there are few groups that found themselves at the top of the pop mountain quicker than hip-hop trio, House Of Pain.  Making the most of their Irish heritage and taking over the world with their infectious single, “Jump Around,” the group’s 1992 self-titled debut remains one of the finest examples of the eclectic nature of the music scene at the time.  Filled with fantastic musical landscapes and the distinctive vocal delivery of Everlast and Danny Boy, the song, as well as the groups’ persona are in many ways synonymous with the era.  However, after listening to House Of Pain, it is quickly clear that the groups’ finest effort was NOT the hit single, but their second single, the powerful 1992 song, “Shamrocks & Shenanigans.”

While “Jump Around” is best known for its hook, the same can be said of “Shamrocks & Shenanigans,” as DJ Lethal proved that he had a matchless understanding of how to craft fantastic beats, using songs from across the musical spectrum. In fact, the song did have a bit of chart success, cracking the top twenty-five in the U.K., and becoming a favorite “underground” track of hip-hop heads across the world.  More than a decade later, House Of Pain would take the song title as the name of their greatest hits compilation, and this further reinforces the fact that, while it may have not found the commercial success of their first single, it remains unquestionably the groups’ finest musical effort.  Much like the case of “Jump Around,” “Shamrocks & Shenanigans” has a short musical opening, and this time, it has a rather Irish feel to it before dropping into one of the greatest hip-hop beats ever composed.  The core of this song revolves around tight samples from John Lee Hooker’s, “I Come To You Baby” and “No Matter What The Say” by Booker T & The M.G.’s.  Along with these songs, Lethal spins in a sample from David Bowie’s “Fame,” and the overall effect is true sonic genius.  The music has just enough bass to get your head bobbing, and yet it is not so overpowering that it competes with the vocals, it simply compliments them.  The off-beat saxophone note that runs throughout the song is simple, yet perfect, as it adds an intangible element to the song that turns it into a true classic of the genre. 

While the work of DJ Lethal is unquestionably fantastic, there is simply nothing else on “Shamrocks & Shenanigans” that can compare to the high-octane, original rhymes of Everlast and Danny Boy.  History has proven that Everlast has one of the most instantly recognizable voices and delivery styles, and this unique ability is why he remains so highly respected all these years later.  Bringing a voice that is on the aggressive side, yet never seeming to be pushing to this sound, his natural style is unlike that of any other emcee.  The fact that he is able, in a single verse, to rhyme on everything from religion to pornography and somehow “make it work” proves what a brilliant writer he was, and that he was far more than his “tough guy” image.  Bringing a fantastic smoothness to his flows, Everlast has rarely sounded better than when he delivers the lines, “…I rock mad styles, I hop turnstiles, I rock all mics, I last all night, I puff fat blunts, I rock fine scunts, step up bold, I'll knock out your gold fronts…”  Providing a perfect contrast to the style and sound of Everlast, Danny Boy is also in top form on “Shamrocks & Shenanigans.”  Handling the middle verse, Danny Boy is just as smooth, and the pairing of these two emcees was unquestionably one of the finest hip-hop duos in history.  With a catchy, yet unobtrusive beat and music running underneath, “Shamrocks & Shenanigans” serves as a proving ground, highlighting the peerless rhyming abilities of both Everlast and Danny Boy.

It has been proven over the decades that any second effort from a group is almost just as, if not more difficult to find success than their debut.  Whether this pertains to an album or a single, the so-called “Sophomore Slump” has been shown so many times that it simply cannot be ignored.  Furthermore, one can make the case that, the more successful the initial effort, the harder it is for the second to be seen as anything more than “not quite as good” in comparison to the first.  Standing as a perfect example of these theories, House Of Pain’s second single, “Shamrocks & Shenanigans,” though in nearly every aspect superior to their runaway hit, “Jump Around,” never gained the same commercial success, and has remained largely an afterthought of the groups’ history.  From the perfectly crafted sounds and beats of DJ Lethal to the absolutely stunning rhyming styles of Everlast and Danny Boy, “Shamrocks & Shenanigans” is simply a hip-hop classic like no other song ever recorded.  Truth be told, Everlast is absolutely on fire on the track, and one would be hard pressed to find a better example of his lyrical prowess than is on display here.  It is the combination of his hard-hitting vocals and the strong, yet understated music of DJ Lethal that make this track such a classic, and it is also the reason that it remains a favorite of hip-hop fans nearly two decades after it was first released.  Though it is still overshadowed by the success of their hit single, there is no more a defining track of the unquestionable skill and power of House Of Pain than one will find in their 1992 song, “Shamrocks & Shenanigans.”