Saturday, July 31, 2010

July 31: digital underground, "Wind Me Up"

Artist: digital underground
Song: "Wind Me Up"
Album: Who Got The Gravy?
Year: 1998

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As hip-hop made its move to the forefront of popular music in the early 1990's, it was based around the aggressive sounds of the hardcore and "gangsta" styles of rap.  Names like Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac remain among the most highly revered of this era of hip-hop music, and to this day, this style remains the most commercially successful of all of the hip-hop sub-genres.  However, since that time period, there has been one voice that has consistently displayed the more socially conscious, yet more light-hearted side of hip-hop music.  Standing as one of the most accomplished musicians, producers, and emcees in hip-hop history, one cannot overlook the importance of the man known as Shock G and his primary musical outlet, digital underground.  Serving as the "jumping off point" for some of the biggest names in the history of music, digital underground stands today as one of the greatest collective groups to ever record, and their purposeful approach to give their songs a more upbeat and positive sound was one of the many ways in which they set themselves apart from the mainstream sound.  Making their names as legends with their iconic 1990 single, "The Humpty Dance," the group represented the most clear link to the funk-based roots of the entire hip-hop genre.  These themes of the group being more important than the individual, the base of funk, and the prevailing positive vibe ran across all of digital underground's records that followed, coming to a head with their 1998 album, Who Got The Gravy?  Easily one of their finest efforts, these elements, along with a clear display of musical maturity can be heard in one of the albums' strongest tracks, which stands as one of digital underground's finest moments, 1998's "Wind Me Up."

Released in an era in which hip-hop had become centered around gross over-use of bass, digital underground epitomized the idea of "keeping it real," as the deep, bright grooves remained the backbone of their music.  It is within the music that the deep inspiration of the Parliament-Funkadelic sound becomes apparent, as the overall atmosphere draws a very clear line across the decades.  Though many hip-hop acts of the time cited the P-Funk sounds as their source, few paid as consistent and fitting tribute to the founders as one hears within the music of digital underground.  On "Wind Me Up," there is an all-out party atmosphere, and it is set perfectly with frontman Shock G's alter ego, Humpty-Hump "introducing the band" as the song begins to spin around a single, repeating sound.  From these first moments, and throughout the entire song, Shock G proves once again that he is one of the most creative and innovative minds in the entire history of hip-hop, as the beat and music are joyously unique.  As the song progresses, the music seems to expand and contract, creating an amazing sense of moment to "Wind Me Up," and it also fits perfectly with the songs' title.  From the keyboards to the horns to the loops, everything pumps with the same level of energy on "Wind Me Up," and it also seems to push the energy on the vocals to a higher level than most other songs in the digital underground catalog.

Along with his distinctive style of musical composition, whether he is performing as Shock G, Humpty-Hump, or one of his many other alter-egos, the mind behind digital underground, Greg Jacobs, has one of the most easily recognizable voices in hip-hop.  In a genre full of copycats, Jacobs has always made a point of being original and constantly striving for new sounds.  On "Wind Me Up," both Shock and Humpty make appearances, as well as the debut of a new rapper in the digital underground family, Esinchill.  The fact that Jacobs was and is constantly searching for new, unique emcees to be a part of the "d.u. family" is one of the reasons why his songs are always so fresh and why the group is able to have such a diverse sound within their catalog.  Furthermore, with so many different emcees, the delivery style and lyrical content is always unique, yet there are always a few elements that appear across all their songs.  As "Wind Me Up" opens, Shock G gives a nod to his old school brethren, altering the iconic Eric B & Rakim lyric to state, "...well it's been a long time d.u. shouldn't have left you, without a heated beat you could step to..."  Filled with self-props, calls out to the crowd, and brilliant word-play, Jacobs proves his lyrical superiority, and the song truly contains everything there is to love about a great hip-hop song.  Jacobs also takes a moment to assert (as he often does), his call for unity as he puts a grin on the face of all true hip-hop heads with the rhyme, "...Nas, you can have the world, I want the universe...not for myself, but for all others first..."

Rarely caring what people thought of them and constantly doing hip-hop music their own way, few groups can boast similar integrity along with as impressive a musical catalog as digital underground.  Truth be told, Who Got The Gravy? was released during some of the most "heated" years of the so-called "Coast Battle," and the group uses the record to squash this idea, as legends like KRS-ONE and Biz Markie both make appearances on the album.  The entire record is filled with some of the most exciting songs that hip-hop offered that year, and the fresh and upbeat feel of the album helps it to sound just as good more than a decade later.  This is not all that surprising when one considers that the heart and soul of digital underground, Greg Jacobs, has proven to be one of the most innovative, creative, and intelligent members of the hip-hop community for more than two decades.  Perfectly transferring the spirit and sound of the P-Funk era, instead of just biting parts of it like most other hip-hop groups, it is digital underground that in many ways has served as the beacon for all that which is "right" about the hip-hop genre.  Leaving the "thug style" to the less talented emcees, the music of digital underground has a far wider appeal, as everything from the music to the rhyming style to the lyrics have an underlying mood of positivity, and this amazing sound can all be found within digital underground's extraordinary 1998 song, "Wind Me Up."

Friday, July 30, 2010

July 30: Paul Simon, "Kodachrome"

Artist: Paul Simon
Song: "Kodachrome"
Album: There Goes Rhymin' Simon
Year: 1973

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To find musical success at any point in a performers career, even if only for a few months, is one of the most rare occurrences when one looks at the percentage of artists attempting to achieve this goal.  Even bands labeled as "one hit wonders" have beaten incalculable odds, and this feat only becomes more impressive if a band is able to score a second hit song, or even a second acclaimed record.  Therefore, when one looks at the entire history of recorded music, it is almost unfathomable when one considers the improbability of an artist or band being able to make a life-long career as a musician.  Standing high atop this list of seemingly inexplicable success stories is an artist who has been recording hits for more than fifty years: Paul Simon.  As one of the foremost songwriters and composers of the last century, his list of hit songs is massive, and many of his compositions shaped an entire generation.  From his years as half of Simon And Garfunkel to his iconic solo work that defines "Americana" to his innovations in blending African and other polyrhythmic sounds into the folk format, few artists have had as much and as long lasting an impact on the musical landscape as Simon.  Due to this massive amount of recorded work, it is almost impossible to single out an individual track as his "best," but one can make the argument that few of his songs stand as iconic and recognizable as Paul Simon's legendary 1973 single, "Kodachrome."

Throughout his entire career, one of the most intriguing aspects of Paul Simon has been his ability to craft musical arrangements that are full and complex, yet never get too loud or in any way overwhelm the listener.  This delicate balance is how Simon managed to bring a bit of pop, if not rock sensibility to the folk sound, and it is due to his efforts that all three of those genres progressed as they did.  In many ways, "Kodachrome" exemplifies this idea perfectly, as it is based around a winding, comparatively fast-paced acoustic guitar progression, and filled with a number of instruments that give the song a vitality unlike anything else previously recorded.  Matching the tempo perfectly, the drumming gives "Kodachrome" an uncanny sense of movement, as the opening and verses almost sound as if there is a horse galloping across the track.  This mood is further enforced by the piano that moves to the front of the track during the bridge section, and it gives the song an almost "Western" feel that again separates it from the rest of the genre.  This fantastic blend to styles becomes all the more impressive in the final part of the song, when the entire group doubles the pace, and it is during this part where the song becomes more pop, if not rock than anything else.  The consistency of the song is never lost, and the fact that it is able to do so with such a seemingly odd musical arrangement serves as a testament to the talents of Simon and it is much the reason that "Kodachrome" has endured over the decades.

Along with being one of the most accomplished composers and arrangers of the last century, Paul Simon also possesses one of the most simple, yet instantly recognizable voices of that time period.  Never pushing his vocals to even a yell, Simon embodies the folk style of singing, yet there is a strong sense of a pop approach present on a number of his songs, including "Kodachrome."  Yet it is this base in the folk sound that makes his songs so appealing, as the straightforward, honest tone in his voice makes them easy to relate to, and often brings his tales a sense of authenticity.  On "Kodachrome," this idea that the words are taken directly from his own life rings through clearly, and one can easily make the case that this song contains many of his most memorable lines.  Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a more iconic opening phrase than, "...when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all..." and it is due to this universal sentiment that the song has persevered over the decades.  Yet this same line was edited out for the "radio friendly" version, and the BBC refused to play the song due to the trademarked name of Kodachrome.  As the song progresses, each new verse offers a fresh thought that heightens the laid-back, reflective tone of the song, and it all works perfectly into the overall concept of the "photograph" holding the memories of the past.

While there are many songs that stand as pivotal moments within the career of Paul Simon, one would be hard pressed to find a more defining song in his catalog than his 1973 hit, "Kodachrome."  The song, which rose to the second spot on the singles charts, captures a number of situations and feelings that are beyond universal, and Simon's ability to put these moods into words is the key aspect that has made him such an enduring musical icon.  Though penned nearly forty years ago, the fact of the matter is, all of the sentiments found within "Kodachrome" ring just as accurate and true today as they did in 1973, and this ability for his music to transcend generations is yet another reason why Simon is held in such high esteem.  The way in which he injects brilliantly subtle double-meanings into his lyrics, like the line, "...I can read the writing on the wall..." supports the idea that one need not be overly complex or use flashy words to be a top-notch lyricist.  Taking this same idea of subtle complexity and crafting his music in much the same fashion, Simon took the base of the folk sound he had perfected over the previous decade and fused it together with a pop sensibility and a rhythm and energy unlike anything previously heard from any genre.  It is this ability to intermix so many genres with such amazing results that defines the career of Paul Simon, and one can find everything there is to love about his distinctive, iconic sound in his classic 1973 single, "Kodachrome."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29: Hüsker Dü, "Makes No Sense At All"

Artist: Hüsker Dü
Song: "Makes No Sense At All"
Album: 7 Inch Wonders Of The World
Year: 1985

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Within a modern context, if one were to try and come up with an "opposite" for punk rock, it would be easy to make the case that it is the sound and style of pop music.  While a punk song certainly can (and often has) become popular, it is within the sonic approach and presentation that these two styles fall on completely polar ends of the spectrum.  Furthermore, one can make quite the same argument for the contrasting styles of heavy metal and pop music, and it is much the reason that often the biggest bands of these styles (punk and metal) are only seen as "cult heroes" on the larger level.  From this reasoning, one can understand that a band that plays a punk-metal hybrid sound is going to be about as far from a pop sound as possible; unless of course that band happens to be Hüsker Dü.  Though they rarely get the credit they so clearly deserve, it was the efforts of Hüsker Dü throughout the 1980's that remains one of the most important factors in the development of music as a whole.  In short, the rock-based sound simply does not progress "properly" or fully without the contributions of this amazing band.  Furthermore, it was also Hüsker Dü that proved that it was possible to make the jump to a "major" label and not have to compromise your musical approach.  While the list of fantastic songs is quite lengthy within the Hüsker Dü catalog, there are few that can match the power and presence of their 1985 single, "Makes No Sense At All."

Truth be told, Hüsker Dü had nearly every card stacked against them, as along with their "strange" sound, they were recording on one of the most notoriously anti-everything and confrontational labels in history, SST.  With label-mates like The Minutemen, The Meat Puppets, and of course the mighty Black Flag, it is almost unthinkable that there was even the smallest smattering of a "pop" sound.  Yet "Makes No Sense At All" first appeared as a single, and was given a larger release as part of the absolutely essential 1985 SST compilation, 7 Inch Wonders Of The World (it would eventually be released on Hüsker Dü's album, Flip Your Wig, later that same year).  It is in many ways due to being on this compilation that the difference between Hüsker Dü and their label-mates becomes the most clear, as while the minimalist approach and attitude are similar, they are light-years apart from their peers when it comes to the final sonic product.  From beginning to end, "Makes No Sense At All" is filled with a fuzzy, yet in-your-face sound that has a catch and appeal that is unlike anything else ever recorded.  Drummer Grant Hart is, as they say, on fire throughout the track, and his lightning-fast fills stand as one of the songs' most distinctive aspects.  The bass from Greg Norton is equally as impressive, as he winds around the track, working his sound between Hart and the stunning guitar work from Bob Mould.  It is the tone of Mould's guitar and the fact that the trio are playing such an aggressive arrangement that is somehow equally appealing to fans of any genre that makes "Makes No Sense At All" nothing short of a musical anomaly.

Along with the musical approach, the vocals from Bob Mould are also far more catchy and accessible than those of a majority of his peers, yet there is never any question that he is just as fierce and confrontational as the finest of all the punk and metal frontmen.  Much like a majority of his peers, Mould uses no vocal modifications on "Makes No Sense At All," and yet the "fuzz" that permeates the rest of the song seems to make his voice sound slightly different.  Regardless, Bob Mould has without question one of the strongest and most diverse voices of the entire post-punk movement, and to this day, his vocal approach remains one of the high-water marks for the genre.  While the music seems to somehow separate Hüsker Dü from their peers, it is within the words of "Makes No Sense At All" that the band makes it quite clear that they are just as punk as any other band in the world.  Taking an unrelenting, in-your-face lyrical approach, Bob Mould delivers what can almost be seen as a tirade against some unknown partner who clearly had control issues.  The songs' bridge is one of the most brutal stanzas ever penned as Mould unleashes on this unknown party with the phrase, "...I don't know why you want to tell me when I'm right or when you're's the same thing, in your mind, the only time I'm right is when I play along..."  It is sentiments such as this that fall in like perfectly with the other bands on SST, and yet it is the fact that Hüsker Dü is able to make their brand of musical chaos so much more melodic that makes them an indispensable part of music history.

Taking the uncompromising, bruising attack of the punk and heavy metal styles and somehow molding them into tunes that were as accessible as any pop song, few bands pushed music as a whole forward more than Hüsker Dü.  Making a point to keep one foot rooted firmly in their more aggressive musical upbringing, but finding a way to incorporate melody and harmony into this chaos, there has simply never been another band quite like Hüsker Dü.  It is largely due to the melody that takes "Makes No Sense At All" to another musical level, as Bob Mould penned one of his finest musical arrangements here, and it was (and is) able to transcend musical boundaries even more than twenty-five years after it was first released.  Though their first few records on SST are nothing short of classics, it is their single, "Makes No Sense At All" that shows the first signs of the bands' "perfected" musical approach.  Combining large doses of heavy metal and punk, the group brings a distinctive "fuzz" to the song, and the wall of guitar noise evokes the spirit of psychedelia that appears throughout much of the rest of the bands' catalog.  In many ways taking a small piece from every band that was on SST, Hüsker Dü fused together a number of musical approaches and somehow managed to form a new sound that was both faithful to their hardcore roots, but also had an appeal that brought countless new fans to the genre.  Truth be told, there is not a "bad" song anywhere in Hüsker Dü's stunning and innovative catalog, yet few of their songs can compare to the combination of raw energy, musical aggression, and unique pop-sensibility that have led to the lasting impact of their 1985 single, "Makes No Sense At All."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 28: Soundgarden, "Jesus Christ Pose"

Artist: Soundgarden
Song: "Jesus Christ Pose"
Album: Badmotorfinger
Year: 1991

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In all of the possible things one can do as a musician, there is perhaps no more daunting a task than that of being a true musical pioneer and bringing a new musical style to the masses.  The fact of the matter is, these new sounds are often so against the mainstream that in every aspect, from labels to the general public, it is almost impossible to get anyone to listen.  Furthermore, if this new sounds crosses over into the mainstream, in nearly every case, these innovators of style are often overlooked by the more popular bands that borrowed their sound.  Then of course, there is the band that was somehow able to get the best of both worlds, and that is one of the many reasons that musicians around the world still have only the highest respect for Seattle's own musical legends, Soundgarden.  Though they are often lost a bit behind the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam when the "Seattle sound" or "grunge" are discussed, there is simply no denying that it was largely the work of Soundgarden throughout the 1980's that made this breakthrough possible, as it was this band that found the ideal way to bridge punk rock and heavy metal into a new sound.  This hybrid sound is one for which the band were not only the architects, but they perfected it early on in their careers in the form of their 1991 musical masterpiece, Badmotorfinger.  Though the album is absolutely flawless from end to end, few songs capture the essence of the band and the sound they created than Soundgarden's 1991 single, "Jesus Christ Pose."

Quite literally, from the moment the song begins, everything that there is to love about the music of Soundgarden is on full display, as"Jesus Christ Pose" kicks off with some odd feedback before dropping into a fast paced, crushing musical cycle.  The song has an extremely unsettling, intimidating, dark groove running underneath nearly the entire time, and much of this mood is set in motion by the fantastic rhythm section of bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron.  The tempo they create and maintain is nothing short of stunning and stands as one of the most impressive and unique musical feats of the entire "Seattle sound" as no other song even comes close to the pace mood found here.  Also on "Jesus Christ Pose," Soundgarden displays one of the aspects of their sound that makes them so easily identifiable: the guitar work of Kim Thayll.  Without question, one of the most talented and highly influential players of his generation, and his performance here is easily one of his finest, most stunning moments of his career.  From the screaming progressions during the bridge sections to the pulverizing chords on the chorus to the lightning-fast parts in between, Thayll shows off all of his chops on this song, and much like the band as a whole, there were simply none of his peers that could even remotely compare to his sound and skill.  The sound achieved by the band on "Jesus Christ Pose" is so frenzied and borderline chaotic that even nearly twenty years later, it still blows away almost every other song that has been recorded.

In many ways, Soundgarden was a "super-group," but in this case, the true talents of each of the band members was not fully realized until after they had been together for more than a decade.  With the musicians strong making an instantly recognizable song, there are few vocalists that are as distinctive as the voice of Chris Cornell.  Both in terms of tone as well as the emotion behind his voice, it is impossible to mistake the singing of Cornell, and on "Jesus Christ Pose," all of his different vocal approaches can be heard.  Whether he is almost speaking the verses or completely unleashing the stunning power of his singing during the bridges and chorus, Cornell has one of the most captivating voices in history, and this song is clearly one of his finest performances.  Due to the extraordinary vocal display here, the lyrics become somewhat lost, though they were able to create a fair amount of controversy when the song was first released.  Though often misinterpreted as an attack on formal religion, the words are in fact nothing short of a brutal indictment of public figures and the way in which many attempt to frame themselves as martyrs for personal gain.  Cornell pulled no punches, many times mentioning Perry Farrell by name and summing up the song with the statement, " became fashionable to be the sort of persecuted-deity guy..."  This idea remains a very large part of "celebrity culture," and few bands have as unrelentingly, yet accurately attacked it over the decades.

Perhaps overshadowed by the two singles that followed ("Rusty Cage" and "Outshined"), one can find everything that makes Soundgarden such an extraordinary band within the first single off of their 1991 record, Badmotorfinger, the uncompromising "Jesus Christ Pose."  Though over the years, Soundgarden released a number of dizzying, metal-rooted classics, it is hard to argue that any of them top the fury and venom found on this song.  On every front, the band is clicking perfectly, led by the sonic assault from the guitar of Thayll and the bass of Shepherd.  The way in which these two move in and around one anothers' playing is second to none, and it is this formula that served as the influence for countless later bands.  Furthermore, Matt Cameron delivers an all out drumming assault, and it often sounds as if he is trying to completely destroy his drum kit during the song.  Capped off by the unmistakable, mesmerizing, and yet absolutely vicious vocal battering from Cornell, "Jesus Christ Pose" is the ultimate punk-metal fusion on every level.  Though it may not have had as "friendly" a melody as the songs of Pearl Jam and it makes the idea of Nirvana's music being "aggressive" or "angry" an almost laughable idea, these three bands remain linked as all three of their "big" records were released within months of one another, and the trio of albums almost complete defined everything that made the "Seattle sound."  In many ways kicking off the final stage in their rise to international fame, there are few songs in history that carry the same punch and lasting impact as Soundgarden's ferocious 1991 single, "Jesus Christ Pose."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27: David Bowie, "The Jean Genie"

Artist: David Bowie
Song: "The Jean Genie"
Album: Aladdin Sane
Year: 1973

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In a handful of cases throughout music history, referring to an artist as an "anomaly" or a "genius" or even an "icon" is simply wrong, as it does not fully encompass all that was brought to the table by the artist in question during their career.  In these rare cases, it is often only fitting to describe the artist by their own name and let their name define who they are, and this is certainly the situation when one considers the career and impact of the one and only David Bowie.  From his early years of "art rock" to the man that was Ziggy Stardust to his "plastic soul" sound, there is quite literally no other artist in music history that can compare to David Bowie, and one could easily write pages about any of these particular points in his career.  Having honed his dark, sci-fi style of glam with 1972's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, Bowie developed that album's main character even further a year later, and the result was the stunning record, Aladdin Sane.  A play on the term, "a lad insane," the album boasts some of Bowie's most adventurous work, and yet it is also on this album that the influence of the group Bowie was hanging around with at the time can be most clearly heard.  Teeming with an amazing energy and power that was heard in traces on his previous release, there is perhaps no song that better sums up this era of Bowie's career, and also perhaps no better glam-style song in history than his 1973 single, "The Jean Genie."

In many ways, all of Aladdin Sane is a reflection of "where" David Bowie was as a musician following the success of Ziggy Stardust.  During down-time from that supporting tour, he was producing records for many of the artists he was spending time with at New York City's legendary Max's Kansas City.  Bowie's work "behind the glass" can be heard on Lou Reed's Transformer and The Stooges' Raw Power records among many others.  It is his time with these two groups that one can hear quite clearly on "The Jean Genie," as the attitude and sheer power of the song is far greater than even the most "rock-based" number on his previous release.  The moment the song begins, Mick Ronson's guitar screams across the track before dropping into a soulful blues progression behind the thumping bass from Trevor Bolder.  While the strict drum beat from Mick Woodmansey gives "The Jean Genie" its signature stomp, it is very much due to the harmonica playing of Bowie that truly defines the swagger and sound of the song.  While the overall sound clearly displays the influence of those with whom Bowie had been working, it is in the attitude that runs throughout the song and the hand-clapping that defines the bridge where one can easily make the case that "The Jean Genie" is a brilliant, original creation from the mind of Bowie, and there are few songs that better display the true essence of the "glam" style.

Regardless of which stylistic approach he has taken over the decades, the one consistent factor has been the sound, soul, and pure power within the voice of David Bowie.  On "The Jean Genie," the listener is treated to everything that makes his voice so fantastic, from the breathy, seductive verses to the unrestrained attitude found within the bridge and chorus sections. Yet it is also within his vocals on "The Jean Genie" that one can most clearly hear the difference between this album and its predecessor, as their is a change in how he sounds when speaking of this far less sci-fi, more realistic character and story.  Truth be told, the protagonist of "The Jean Genie" is as real a character as one will find anywhere, and though Bowie denies it being about the man specifically, he has been quoted as saying that the song was about "an Iggy (Pop) type character."  Without this knowledge, the songs' meaning can still be easily interpreted, but once one is able to better focus the image of "The Jean Genie," the song takes on an entirely new life.  With his (Iggy Pop's) reputation as one of the wildest and most fierce performers and personalities in music history, lines like, "...he's outrageous, he screams and he bawls...," it is rather difficult to not connect the song and the person.  Furthermore, it is hard to get around the fact that the line "...sits like a man but he smiles like a reptile..." appears to be a direct reference to Pop who has the nickname of "The Rock And Roll Iguana."  Regardless of the truth behind the character, the rhythm and style with which Bowie tells his tale makes "The Jean Genie" one of the most powerful and enthralling songs of his entire career.

By the time "The Jean Genie" was released, David Bowie had already established himself as one of the most talented and unique composers and performers of his generation.  Constantly striving to push the musical envelope in any direction possible, Bowie was able to fuse soul and blues into the glam sound, and "The Jean Genie" can also be seen as one of the fundamental building blocks of the punk movement that would follow.  Though perhaps not as apparent as his more orchestral compositions, "The Jean Genie" boasts some of Bowie's finest musical writing, and it is the small touches, like the tambourine and "rattlesnake sound" that make this song such a stunning musical portrait.  Yet the one consistent attribute that runs throughout the entire song, from the music to the words to the singing is the amazing level of attitude, and somehow it is the "perfect" amount.  While many songs, especially in the glam era went overboard with their attitude to the point it became cliché, on "The Jean Genie," Bowie offers just enough to give the song a strong swagger, yet not too much that it becomes an over-done element.  This balance of style, sound, and spirit is one of the many aspects that has made David Bowie such a revered musician over the decades, and though he has gone through countless musical changes, much of his finest work can be found within the years that he was defining and perfecting the "glam rock" sound.  Reaching his musical high point of this era of his career, all of the pieces come together on David Bowie's attitude-driven, funky and punky counterculture anthem, 1973's "The Jean Genie."

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #30"

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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. N.W.A., "Express Yourself"  Straight Outta Compton
2. The Beatles, "Taxman"  Revolver
3. Steve Poltz, "Pixy Stick Girl"  Unraveling
4. Foo Fighters, "Alone + Easy Target"  Foo Fighters
5. Best Coast, "Each & Everyday"  Crazy For You
6. Robert Johnson, "Love In Vain"  King Of The Delta Blues
7. The Misfits, "Skulls"  12 Hits From Hell
8. R.E.M., "Try Not To Breathe"  Automatic For The People
9. The Clash, "The Card Cheat"  London Calling
10. Bjork, "Big Time Sensuality"  Debut
11. Johnny Hobo & The Freight Trains, "New Mexico Song"  Johnny Hobo & The Freight Trains
12. The Lemonheads, "Allison's Staring To Happen"  It's A Shame About Ray
13. Rage Against The Machine, "Calm Like A Bomb"  The Battle Of Los Angeles
14. Del McCoury Band, "Travelin' Teardrop Blues"  Del And The Boys
15. The Ruts, "You're Just A..."  The Crack
16. Roxy Music, "Mother Of PearlStranded

Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 25: Tinariwen, "Oualahila Ar Teninam"

Artist: Tinariwen
Song: "Oualahila Ar Teninam"
Album: Amassakoul
Year: 2004

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Though it is often only explored within the confines of the countries that produce pop music, the "power" of music to advocate for change is something that can be seen across every style from everywhere in the world.  While in many cases the song itself seems harmless, as soon as "the powers that be" take a stand against it, it highlights this idea, and it is often these songs and groups that become icons of their respective nations.  In many cases, these songs cross into other countries where people are in similar situations, and this is especially true within the African continent.  Looking across the entire history of music, one would be hard pressed to find a group with more "street cred" and more staunch opposition than the amazing music of the nomadic group, Tinariwen.  Formed in 1979 in the northern part of Mali, at one point the group were all members of the military training camps of Muammar al-Gaddafi, as they had been displaced from their homes by their native governments.  Truth be told, the groups' name translates into "empty places," and the music of Tinariwen speaks directly to those in similar positions.  From building their own instruments to becoming one of the most popular acts across the continent, Tinariwen finally became accessible to the world with the release of their fantastic 2004 album, Amassakoul.  Filled with brilliant hybrids of traditional African sounds and rock influences, there are few recordings that better define the group than their song, "Oualahila Ar Teninam."

Though the music itself may not seem so strong, the fact of the matter is, ONLY audiences outside of their native countries were able to get their hands o Amassakoul, as the album, along with their 2001 studio release were banned by the governments of both Mali and Algeria.  This is largely due to the music addressing issues like political exile, social inequality, and overall repression of people, which is why the music of Tinariwen has been dubbed "Tishoumaren" which translates into "music of the unemployed."  This sentiment of "music for the masses" comes through clearly in their music, as their songs are complete walls of sound, with a number of musicians all taking their own musical line on the overall theme.  On "Oualahila Ar Teninam," displays the truly hybrid nature of the music of Tinariwen, as one can find elements of funk, blues, jazz, and rock perfectly integrated with the traditional African sounds.  The song opens with what is unquestionably an African roots sound, with little more than group chanting and hard hand-claps, and it is this aspect that sets the mood for the spirited musical journey which follows.  The song then quickly differentiates itself from nearly every other sound to come out of Africa, as the guitar that drops in has such a unique tone, that one can hear everything from Chuck Berry to Carlos Santana as an influence.  As the sounds of the guitars and various percussion instruments blend together, it quickly becomes clear that Tinariwen has created as primal and mesmerizing a rock song as has ever been composed.

Furthering the blending to style, the vocals found on "Oualahila Ar Teninam" reflect the same hybrid sense that is found within the musical arrangement.  At the base of the vocals, they are "call and response" style, a vocal approach that can be seen across the world as the easiest way to convey that the song is speaking to an entire group, and encourage all to become "a part" of the song.  On "Oualahila Ar Teninam," the song has group founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib handles the "solo" singing portions, with the other nine or ten members of the group repeating his words.  Furthermore, this group response can easily be interpreted as the group singing on behalf of all of those who are in a similar, forced-homeless situation, and once one understands the lyrics, it becomes even more clear.  The song title itself roughly translates into "Oh My God, You're Unhappy," and this title in itself can be interpreted in a number of different ways, as one can see it as a commentary on the mindset of the forced nomads, but one can also interpret it quite literally as a statement towards a higher power.  The song goes deeper, yet keeps the double meaning when the group sings sentiments like , "...your soul is hurting and your body is ill..."  With statements like "...your silent suffering on your back, don't hide your pain any longer...," it is somewhat understandable as to why the governments were "afraid" of the music, as it bonded people together in common pain, and this is often one of the first steps in a public uprising.

It is almost amusing to look across the world and across history and see how many "people of power" have shown their cowardice in the face of music that promoted change.  From the early songs of slaves to the words of Woody Guthrie to the spirit of the punk movement, it is almost impossible to find ANY social uprising that was not rooted in music.  Taking their place along this proud line of musicians, the nomadic band known as Tinariwen has been standing in the face of oppression for more than thirty years.  Constantly bringing life to the despair of the "working man" and those forced from their homes, they have shown an uncanny ability for capturing the moods and feelings of the disenfranchised masses.  The fact that their 2004 release, Amassakoul, was banned in their "home" countries speaks volumes to the power of the words and music found on the record, and the manner with which the band blends together their native sounds with the soul, spirit, and sound of so many other genres from across the world is nothing short of stunning.  The guitar work found on "Oualahila Ar Teninam" has as much rock spirit and soul as one will find in any recording from any band, and in many ways, it highlights the fact that, even so many decades after rock music "began," it is still a sound of rebellion at its core.  Standing as one of the greatest groups of hybrid music, Tinariwen continue to stand in defiance of not only political restrictions, but musical as well, and all of their musical mastery can be found in top form on their song, "Oualahila Ar Teninam."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

July 24: The Supremes, "Come See About Me"

Artist: The Supremes
Song: "Come See About Me"
Album: Where Did Our Love Go
Year: 1964

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Though most people see 1964 as the year that the "British Invasion" occurred in the U.S., there was far more happening in the country at the time, and in many cases, it was these "homegrown" artists that were finding greater success than those who were stealing headlines.  While there are many factors that play into this reality, perhaps the most obvious is that the sounds of "pop rock" had not yet fully taken hold of the nation, and the charts were still lately dominated by R&B and soul groups.  Taking this into account, one can easily see 1964 as one of the most successful for Motown Records, and though many groups had big songs that year, there was one act that seemed incapable of releasing anything short of number one singles.  Truth be told, beginning in 1964, this group would have six of their next seven singles top the charts, and it is this string of hits that made legends out of the vocal trio known as The Supremes.  With half of these songs coming off of their truly perfect Where Did Our Love Go? record, it was this run of hits that make The Supremes worthy of being called the defining act of Motown Records, yet it also makes it difficult to pick a single song that defines the groups' sound.  Though it in many ways bears a striking resemblance to the albums' title track, and though the trio had many unforgettable hits, there is truly something magical about The Supremes' 1964 hit single, "Come See About Me."

Along with being one of The Supremes' most recognizable songs, "Come See About Me" also features one of the greatest musical performances in the long, storied history of The Funk Brothers.  From the moment the song begins with the drum lead-in that quickly builds, immediately grabbing the listener, it is clear that the entire band is "locked in" for this performance.  Again proving that simplicity is often the better way to go on a song, the iconic guitar riff is in reality only three chords played in a unique cadence, and the combination of these two instruments gives "Come See About Me" its distinctive swing.  The only other heavy musical presence is the hand-claps, a sound which few have so perfectly integrated into music as well as The Funk Brothers.  Though there are small touches from a few other instruments, overall "Come See About Me" is a rather stripped-down musical affair when compared to the rest of The Funk Brothers' work, yet it is one of their most memorable recordings, and proves that whether it was a simple orchestration such as this, or an extremely complex musical arrangement, the group knew few peers when it came to pure musical talent.  The brief horn sting on the songs' bridge is also significant, as it was this aspect that led to Junior Walker making his own version of the song a few years later, yet there has never been another take on the song that even comes remotely close to the musical performance found on the original.

While The Funk Brothers deliver their almost expected musical perfection, there is little question that the focus of "Come See About Me" is firmly on the vocal performance, and the lead singing from Diana Ross on this song remains one of her greatest performances.  As is almost always the case with Ross, her voice flows so naturally that it is truly stunning to consider the amount of power she has in her voice without "pushing" her sound.  From her smooth, sultry sound on the verses to the more emotionally somber, yet equally powerful sound on the choruses, Ross and her singing partners turn this song into one of the most irresistible ever recorded.  The backing vocals from Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard give the song a fantastic depth, as they present an excellent contrast to the sound of Ross' lead work.  With the fantastic vocals working over the superb musical performance, the mood of the song is wonderfully upbeat; yet if one inspects the lyrics of the song, they stand in quite a strong contrast to these elements.  Penned by the sensational Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team, "Come See About Me" can be seen as the final lyrical part of the trio that began with "Where Did Our Love Go."  By this point, the relationship in question had been broken, and the protagonist was looking for some sort of reconciliation with her lost love.  While the songs' words are quite universal, there is a strange implication that this was not the most emotionally healthy relationship, yet one cannot deny the long lasting impact of the songs' fantastic chorus.

Truth be told, "Come See About Me" was actually a bit of a rushed effort, as Motown Records President, Berry Gordy, had heard that singer Nella Dodds was going to release the same song.  Obviously, Gordy succeeded in beating Dodds' version to market, and The Supremes' version is so good that every other take on the song falls far beyond the wayside.  The fact that the song ranks among the greatest in the history of Motown, yet sports one of the most stripped-down arrangements in the labels' history serves as a testament to the exceptional talent of The Funk Brothers, and their ability to make "Come See About Me" swing in such a mesmerizing way makes the song like nothing else ever recorded.  From the trademark "walking" bassline to the perfect use of hand-claps, The Funk Brothers proved that while rock music may have been gaining steam, there was simply nothing that could make a groove quite like the sounds of Motown.  In many ways appearing as the "final" chapter of the story found on Where Did Our Love Go?, it is amazing to hear how Diana Ross is able to turn this sad, somber tale into a song with such spirit that the true sentiment behind the song is almost lost.  Her voice soars with an unmatched beauty, and it is almost impossible to argue any other performance anywhere in her career as superior to her work on this song.  Standing high atop the list of greatest vocal groups in history, there are few songs that are more closely associated with The Supremes than their iconic 1964 single, "Come See About Me."

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 23, Vic Ruggiero, "Lonely Nights"

Artist: Vic Ruggiero
Song: "Lonely Nights"
Album: Something In My Blindspot
Year: 2008

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While in an overwhelming majority of cases, when an artist decides to break from his band and "go solo," it is due to either band problems or the artist feeling as if the band is "holding him back," there are a handful of situations where it becomes clear in retrospect that the artist in question simply wished to explore styles that the band was simply not capable of performing for one reason or another.  Rarely due to questions of musical aptitude, such changes are almost always a shift to a genre that simply does not accommodate the lineup or musical approach of the larger musical outfit.  Furthermore, in nearly every case, once an artist has gone solo, they rarely return to the fold of their original band.  Proving this first point, as well as showing that the second is not necessary, there are few artists proving to be more captivating and able to display as wide a range of sounds as that of Vic Ruggiero.  For nearly twenty years, he has been the focal point of the ska band, The Slackers, as well as making appearances with The Stubborn All-Stars, Rancid, and a host of other projects.  Then, in the late 1990's, Ruggiero began making his own records, and the stripped down, edgy, folk feel to his solo work makes these albums some of the most enduring and enjoyable of the past decade.  Rarely more than just his guitar and a drum, the music always leaves plenty of space to showcase his brilliant lyrics and voice, and the sonic beauty that is the solo work of Vic Ruggiero can be summed up in the soft, yet edgy song, "Lonely Nights."

Coming from his phenomenal 2008 release, Something In My Blindspot, the song was actually originally released in a different form on Ruggiero's album, Hamberguru a year previous.  This time around, the song receives a complete re-working, and it sounds far more complete than the original recording.  As is the case with nearly all of his songs, Vic Ruggiero quickly establishes a fantastic, yet unique mood for the song, and it is fully fleshed out as the song progresses.  On "Lonely Nights," there is an almost retro feel, as the setting could be in the 1960's as easily as the present day, and this ability to make the mood transcend time is one of the many talents that Ruggiero shows off on a consistent basis.  Backed by the almost jazz-style, light drumming from Andrei Kluge, the simplicity of the musical arrangement only helps to heighten the mood and better display the subtle beauty of the song.  It is within the guitar work of Ruggiero on "Lonely Nights" that one can also clearly hear the folk influences on his music, as he rolls and meanders through the track with a rhythm that in many ways makes the drumming unnecessary.  Regardless, the musical arrangement on "Lonely Nights" is absolutely perfect, and one can easily picture the song being played in an apartment, as the intimate nature of the song makes it nothing short of mesmerizing.  It is this ability to completely draw in the listener that runs through all of the solo work of Vic Ruggiero, and yet he proves time and time again that he is able to deploy this same allure in a countless variety of musical approaches.

One of the most noticeable differences on "Lonely Nights" versus nearly all of the rest of Vic Ruggiero's solo work is the fact that he has another vocalist alongside him for the song.  Appearing on a handful of the tracks on Something In My Blindspot, German singer, Lisa Müller (from Black Cat Zoot) proves to be nothing short of a perfect vocal compliment to Ruggiero's voice.  With Vic Ruggiero's deep, almost spoken tone and Müller's somewhat airy, gorgeous work in the upper vocal ranges, the two are able to pull out every nuance of the songs' mood, and "Lonely Nights" stands as one of the most truly beautiful vocal performances in history.  The dual vocals also help to highlight the intent behind the lyrics, as it is within the words that the brilliance of the pen of Vic Ruggiero comes into the spotlight.  Throughout nearly all of his songs, Ruggiero proves to have an uncanny ability to find the hidden beauty in everyday life, and on "Lonely Nights," he is able to highlight the tragic humor in what comes off as a very "real" relationship.  Taking a far more honest approach to the relationship, the theme of the song is perfectly captured in the refrain of, " you remember those lonely nights together, more than our sweet days in the sun..."  The song goes on to explore some of the less glamorous moments of the relationship, and yet there is a persistent grin throughout the entire song, as if to say that it is these memories that represent the "real" love between the two in question.  Such an honest and realistic approach to the idea of love is rarely found, and it is this consistently straightforward lyrical approach that makes the songs of Vic Ruggiero so extraordinary.

Standing as one of the most accomplished musicians of his generation, over the past two decades Vic Ruggiero has proven that he knows no musical bounds.  From his fantastic work in the ska-confines of The Slackers to being a part of the superb lineup of The Stubborn All-Stars, Ruggiero is able to find space to shine in nearly any musical configuration.  However, it is on his solo records that the true breadth of his talents come into focus, and one would be hard pressed to find a better sculptor of musical moods than one finds within his solo work.  Even on the most tragic of songs, there is a persistent, upbeat mood or some sort of wink to the listener, yet Ruggiero also digs deep in exploring a wide range of human emotions.  On his 2008 album, Something In My Blindspot, Vic Ruggiero presents all sides of his phenomenal musical talents, and the songs remain fresh and enjoyable even after countless listenings.  Though there is not a "bad" song anywhere on the album, it is the handful of tracks recorded with vocalist Lisa Müller that stand out, largely due to the stunning interplay between their two voices.  Bringing Ruggiero's fantastic lyrics to life, both melodically as well as emotionally, the manner with which the pair play off of one another is a beauty that must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood, and this element, as well as the rest of the aspects that make Vic Ruggiero one of the most talented musicians of the past two decades can be found on the truly remarkable song, "Lonely Nights."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22: Primus, "Tommy The Cat"

Artist: Primus
Song: "Tommy The Cat"
Album: Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
Year: 1991

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While many fusions of musical styles pack a good punch, there are few that are more consistently exciting than when one smashes some groovy funk head on into aggressive punk rock.  There is an energy inherent in both of these styles on their own, but when they are combined, it often results in the most dizzying, yet positive energy one can find anywhere in recorded history.  Bands like Living Colour,  (early) Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fishbone found fame with this formula, yet there was one band that took the style and injected a steady dose of "weird" into the mix, making them one of the most brilliantly unique bands in history.  Constantly pushing the envelope on what could be done musically, as well as recording some of the heaviest and funkiest songs in history, there has simply never been another band that packed a similar punch to Primus.  From the inception of the band, the music has always been top notch, yet the varied, but consistently unique subject matters and overall moods have almost exclusively been the brain-children of Les Claypool.  Excelling in both the sonic and visual arts through his music, Claypool steered Primus through one of the most celebrated debut albums in history.  Then, in 1991, the band threw down the gauntlet with what remains their most impressive musical achievement in the form of their record, Sailing The Seas Of Cheese.  Showing off their wide range of musical approaches, one can find the musical mastery and pure madness that is Primus within the second single from the record, "Tommy The Cat."

Truth be told, this was actually the second time "Tommy The Cat" was released by Primus, as a live version of the song can be found on their debut EP, 1989's Suck On This.  However, the studio version is understandably far more polished and an overall more complete effort.  The moment the song begins, the amazing stylistic contrasts that make Primus' music so recognizable are instantly present as the deep, slap-grooves from Claypools' bass smash into the ripping guitar chords of Larry LaLonde.  Without question, LaLonde remains one of the most underrated guitarists in history, and it may be because he is often playing "second fiddle" to the stunning performances from Claypool.  On "Tommy The Cat," Claypool completely lets loose with one of his most impressive musical assaults, and it is performances like this that make his playing barely possible to imitate, and certainly unmatched. Rounding out the fantastic music on "Tommy The Cat" is drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, and it is this trio that represents the most impressive and potent lineup in the bands' history.  The three musicians move through the composition in perfect harmony, never letting the energy or oddly dark mood dip for even a moment, as they present one of the strongest grooves to ever grace what in all other aspects appears to be a heavy punk song.  This strange, almost "side-show" style mood that runs throughout their songs is what makes Primus so distinctive, yet one cannot overlook the fact that they also remain three of the most talented musicians of their generation.

While the music is consistent with the rest of the Primus catalog, "Tommy The Cat" features one of the most unique vocals ever recorded.  In nearly every other case, it is Claypool that handles all of the vocal duties, yet on this song, he shares the spotlight with another music legend.  Claypool gives the songs' opening and closing, and in many ways serves in a "narrator" role, while the voice playing "Tommy" is none other than fellow musical oddity, Tom Waits.  The fact that Primus was able to secure Waits for this performance is rather amazing, as even though their first record was exceptional, one can easily make the case that it put them in no better a "position" to land such a voice.  Regardless, Waits fits in perfectly with the mood of the song, and his raspy, somewhat squalid delivery brings the character of "Tommy" to life, and shows the true meaning and spirit behind the song.  Truth be told, it is on songs like "Tommy The Cat" that listeners are treated to the amazing wordsmith that is Les Claypool, as he proves to have one of the wittiest and truly unique pens in music history.  When he throws out word-plays like, "...she came slidin' down the alleyway like butter drippin' off a hot biscuit..." in describing this imagined feline world, the images are so vivid that the cartoon in his head immediately transfers to the listener.  Yet Claypool clearly has as much of a sense of humor as anyone, and he makes a point when he has Waits drop an aside in the line, "...the air was thick with cat calls (no pun intended)..."  The lyrics of Les Claypool fall somewhere between brilliant and completely mad, and the fact that Tom Waits delivers them on "Tommy The Cat" proves to be one of the most strangely perfect pairings in music history.

Whenever the conversation of "greatest bass player" in history begins, Les Claypool must always be one of the first names that arises.  The fact of the matter is, his style is so unique and innovative that none since have come close to copying his style.  Within the confines of Primus, his complete creative spirit was free to go wherever it wanted, as his drummer and guitarist were of equal musical stature, and the band is unquestionably one of the most musically powerful in history.  All of their talents and strange genius reached a musical apex on their second studio album, 1991's Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, and the record remains as jaw-droppingly amazing nearly twenty years later.  Taking the core style and energy of both funk and punk, Primus smashes them together in the most unique and impressive way of all the funk-punk hybrid bands.  Perhaps it is the element of "weird" that comes via Claypool both musically and lyrically, as he represents the meaning of the term "artist" to its fullest extent.  The guitar solos from LaLonde keep the song on the edge of chaos, and the frenzied tempos coming off of Claypool's bass both compliment and contrast it simultaneously.  Dropping one of the most wild and almost deranged vocals (even by Waits' own standards) over-top, there has simply never been another song that can compare to the sonic assault that is Primus' 1991 classic, "Tommy The Cat."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 21: Cat Stevens, "Wild World"

Artist: Cat Stevens
Song: "Wild World"
Album: Tea For The Tillerman
Year: 1970

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Throughout the long history of recorded music, one of the most consistent trends across all genres is that simple, honest, and straightforward music nearly always finds success.  While there is certainly a place for the overly-complex arrangements, there is something to be said for simple music, as it often conveys emotion and lyrics in a far more effective manner.  Clearly, when it comes to more basic musical arrangements, few genres show it better than that of folk music, and during the 1960's and 1970's, the genre flourished, with nearly every one of the greatest albums in the genres history coming out during that time period.  While there were countless artists releasing fantastic folk records at the time, a handful of them were able to cross over into pop success, and few were as endearing and memorable as the string of hits that came from the voice of Cat Stevens.  Arguably the most important British folk singer in history, the songs of Stevens remain essential parts of culture across the globe, and many of these songs have proved worthy of the notation of "timeless."  After finding moderate success with his first record, Stevens was sidelined for over a year as he battled tuberculosis, but as soon as he was able, he returned to recording and began reaffirming his place as one of the finest folk musicians in history.  All of his musical brilliance came together in the form of his 1970 record, Tea For The Tillerman, and one would be hard pressed to find a more defining song than his iconic single, "Wild World."

For this record, Stevens assembled the exact same group of backing musicians and producers that he used for his previous album, Mona Bone Jakon, and yet this time around, the overall mood is far more uplifting yet still "searching" than the first time the group was recorded.  The combination of acoustic guitar and keyboards that are featured on "Wild World" are without question one of the most perfect musical combinations ever captured on tape, and it gives the song a mood unlike any other.  The rolling melody from the keyboards, contrasted with the light, rhythmic guitar work serves as a shining example of the beauty of simplicity, and it also shows how much latitude there was within the traditional notion of what "was" folk music.  Even when the song reaches its chorus, the only additions to the music is a lone ride-cymbal, and yet the energy of the song lifts at this time.  The fact that Stevens is able to alter the mood so seamlessly without adding in additional instruments serves as a testament to his amazing musical talents.  Furthermore, the brief keyboard solo is also to the point and yet perfectly placed, as it gives a necessary break in the flow of the song.  The fact that this short solo is the only part of the song that is not the chorus or a verse almost gives the song a punk feel, as there is not a single "unnecessary" moment on the song, and it is all of these elements that makes "Wild World" such a superb musical achievement.

Playing in perfect compliment to his fantastic orchestrations, one would be hard pressed to find a more natural, yet completely captivating voice than that of Cat Stevens.  With an ability to work the entire vocal range, Stevens never sounds as if he is "pushing" his voice, and this gentle honesty makes his words all the more meaningful.  Yet "Wild World" is a perfect example of the idea of "looks can be deceiving," as on its exterior, the song seems like a beautiful, loving folk song.  However, if one digs even the slightest bit into the lyrics, one will find some of the most brash yet brilliantly penned words in history.  Overall, the song appears to be about a broken love, and the bittersweet, mixed feelings that the protagonist has towards his former flame.  While there is a not common emotion conveyed in the lines, "...and it's breakin' my heart you're leavin', baby, I'm grievin..." it is the rest of the song that perfectly captures the "other" feelings one has during such a breakup.  Stevens is rather unrelenting in his railing against his lost love, and few lines in history cut as sharply as when he sings, "'s hard to get by just upon a smile..."  The somewhat subtle assault continues on "Wild World," as Cat Stevens spins the brilliant couplet of, "...hope you have a lot of nice things to wear, but then a lot of nice things turn bad out there..."  While most artists are only able to convey one of the two main emotions of a breakup, Cat Stevens shows off his uncanny lyrical talents by presenting both simultaneously in fantastic fashion on "Wild World."

Though the list of important figures in folk music is rather lengthy, there is no arguing the fact that Cat Stevens belongs at the top with the other legends of the genre.  His ability to keep things simple and straightforward in a period in music where things were becoming overly complex, proved that he musical approach was one that was truly timeless.  While Stevens had many hits over his career, few have been covered as often in as wide a range of styles as "Wild World," and one can find versions from artists ranging from José Feliciano to Beth Orton to The Ventures to Maxi Priest.  The fact that many of these covers have been released in recent years proves its timeless quality, and yet the original version still reigns supreme and sounds just as fresh and relevant today as it did forty years ago.  Offering little more than his guitar, keyboard, and voice, Cat Stevens leaves plenty of room for emotion on "Wild World," and it is the sort of song to which nearly everyone can relate.  This ability to touch so many people across genres and generations is one of the trademarks of Stevens, as so many of his songs have shown this capacity.  Often lost behind the mellow mood of the music and lyrics, Stevens proves that he can be quite destructive with his pen, and one would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful song, with more brutal lyrics than one finds on Cat Stevens' 1970 classic, "Wild World."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20: The Cinematic Orchestra, "Burn Out"

Artist: The Cinematic Orchestra
Song: "Burn Out"
Album: Every Day
Year: 2002

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To be original, truly original, within the world of music is without question the most difficult of all tasks one can face as a musician.  The fact that musicians listen to older and current music obviously plays into the songs they create, and it is due to this fact that originality is so difficult.  It is due to this fact, as well as the brilliance of the statement that a band, "makes soundtracks for films that don't exist" that makes The Cinematic Orchestra one of the most original and absolutely amazing bands in the entire history of music.  Since releasing their debut album in 1999, the group has given the world some of the most stunning sonic landscapes imaginable, and completely rewritten the books on what can be considered jazz, electronica, and even "indie" rock among other genres.  The groups' ability to show so many styles and yet remain impossible to categorize is one of the many aspects that defined them over the years, and everything that makes The Cinematic Orchestra so wonderfully unique can be found in their second studio album, 2002's Every Day.  From fast-paced, techno-inspired tracks like "Flite" to some of the most soulful vocals ever recorded (courtesy of none other than Fontella Bass), Every Day has something to appease every musical taste, and yet there is never a question of consistency or cohesiveness on the record.  Yet one track stands far above the rest of the catalog of The Cinematic Orchestra, and there is simply no way to describe the sheer musical brilliance found on their 2002 track, "Burn Out."

In reality, both "Burn Out" as well as The Cinematic Orchestra are the brain-child of Jason Swinscoe (AKA J. Swinscoe), and he serves as both producer and musical arranger on every song on Every Day.  His ability to blend together both live and programmed instruments in such amazing harmony sets him far above his peers in nearly every musical genre, and it is on "Burn Out" that his unspoken claim to musical genius is solidified.  Though on previous records, Swinscoe incorporated far more sound effects and musical oddities, throughout all of Every Day, the concentration is more on the "live" musical element, and yet the groups' character stays firmly intact.  Truth be told, one would find it nearly impossible to find a song from any era or any genre that is as alluring and completely captivating as "Burn Out," as the sonic textures and subtleties stand as was of the most inviting absolutely enchanting that have ever been created.  Drummer Luke Flowers brings the groups' jazz roots to the forefront, as his rhythm is subtly smooth, as he uses little more than a snare and ride cymbal to create his hypnotic loop.  Though this pattern remains the rhythmic focus throughout, there are electronic/programmed elements that add depth to the rhythm, as they create both complimentary and contrasting tempos that give "Burn Out" a sound that is truly unlike anything else ever recorded.

On a song of this magnitude, there are so many elements that add to its overall impact, and it almost forces one to completely separate the rhythmic elements from the more melodic found on "Burn Out."  Without question, the most stunning and distinctive element on "Burn Out" is the varied approaches on electric piano from Phil France, and it is this instrument that truly pushes the song into unknown territory.  Whether he is emphasizing the mood with sustained chords or dancing across the track with a number of solos, France is clearly locked into the groove throughout the entire song, and it is his performance that makes the song impossible to classify as "techno" or any sub-genre, furthering the case of it being so unique.  Making another connection to the jazz element, the muted, yet blaring trumpet from Jamie Coleman seems to melt in and out of the track in an indescribable manner, adding yet another extraordinary layer to "Burn Out."  The song goes through a number of peaks and valleys, and yet the overall stunningly deep, almost meditative quality to the song is never lost.  The complexity of the musical arrangements and the way in which they intertwine so perfectly with one another serves as a testament to the musical vision within Swinscoe, and on an album that is filled with incredible musical achievements, none shine as bright as "Burn Out."

Truth be told, the title of "Burn Out" is nothing short of perfect, as the brain of the listener is free to do just that within the hypnotizing musical arrangement that seems to completely disconnect from reality and leave it far behind.  Though many may look toward the so-called "jam bands" for spacey, mind-altering music, the fact of the matter is, tracks like "Burn Out" leave the entire "jam band" genre in the dust in terms of "sonic hypnosis."  It is this ability to capture the same moods as "jam band" style songs, whilst incorporating elements of jazz, electronica, and countless other genres that makes the music of The Cinematic Orchestra so unique, and there has quite literally never been another band that makes music that is even remotely similar.  Seamlessly blending together live instrumentation with programmed drums and sounds, J. Swinscoe conducts his "orchestra," bringing their various sounds together to create a wall of music that is absolutely mesmerizing.    While their first album was a far more electronic affair, on Every Day, Swinscoe and his band move far beyond "electro-jazz" and in many ways create entirely new, undefinable genres.  Throughout the album, the emotions and textures created are amazingly deep, and each song is its own musical journey.  Without question, The Cinematic Orchestra's 2002 record, Every Day, stands high atop the list of albums that "must be experienced to be understood," and there is no song that better defines this bands' original and absolutely stunning sound than their magnificent composition, "Burn Out."

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #29"

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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. Pearl Jam, "Do The Evolution"  Live, Seattle, WA
2. Tim Barry, "Shoulda Oughta"  Rivanna Junction
3. L7, "Scrap"  Bricks Are Heavy
4. Cyne, "Haze"  Evolution Fight
5. The Clash, "Tommy Gun"  Give 'em Enough Rope
6. Sia, "The Bully"  Colour The Small One
7. digital underground, "Packet Man (Remix)"  No Nose Job: The Legend Of digital underground
8. The Slackers, "86 The Mayo"  Peculiar
9. Tool, "Parabola"  Lateralus
10. Procol Harum, "Whiter Shade Of PalePandora's Box
11. Prince, "Take Me WIth U"  Purple Rain
12. The Evens, "Shelter Two"  The Evens
13. King Khan And The Shrines, "Torture"  The Supreme Genius Of King Khan And The Shrines
14. Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode"  Chuck Berry Is On Top
15. Alice In Chains "Rooster (alt take)"  Music Bank (Disc 1)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 18: The Adverts, "One Chord Wonders"

Artist: The Adverts
Song: "One Chord Wonders"
Album: Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts
Year: 1978

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While nobody will argue the inherent difficultly in finding success in the music business, this achievement is made all the more difficult when there are bands who play the same style of music that are so dominant, that they overshadow nearly every other band.  Whether it was The Beatles being given all the credit for the "British Invasion" or Bob Dylan standing as "the" folk singer, artists such as these still define the genre ever decades after the high points of their careers.  Yet it goes without saying that countless bands still persevered even in the reality of such commanding names, and it is often within these groups that were somewhat passed over that one finds some of the brightest moments from a particular genre.  In the late 1970's, unless your band was called The Clash or The Sex Pistols, chances are, if you were a punk band in the U.K., you were going to have a very difficult time gaining any traction.  However, bands like The Ruts, The U.K. Subs, and The Damned among many others, proved that there was true musical brilliance in these music-critic-termed "second tier" punk bands.  Then, there was one band that was able to break-down a number of stereotypes and norms whilst simultaneously staying firmly rooted in the punk style.  Though they only existed for a few short years, one cannot deny the importance of The Adverts, and everything that makes them great can be found in their somewhat autobiographical 1978 single, "One Chord Wonders."

Along with the album from whence it came, The Adverts' phenomenal debut, Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts, the song is a somewhat sarcastic, yet hard hitting punk classic, and it in many ways captures everything that was going on within the punk scene at the time.  As if the song title itself does not imply enough, the mood and urgency within the music drive home the point that "this" is what punk rock is all about.  Truth be told, there really is no single aspect of the music that dominates the others, as all three musicians are given equal space to make their noise.  It is within the musicians strong of The Adverts that the band were extremely significant and important, as their bass player was Gaye Advert, who many see as the first female "star" of the punk era.  The tight rhythm that she locks into with drummer Laurie Driver was everything that made the U.K. punks sound great: fast, un-breaking, and a bit wild.  This was the key to much of the overall greatness of their debut record, and surely what made them a significant draw at clubs throughout the U.K.  Topping off the musical mayhem that is "One Chord Wonders" is the guitar playing of Howard Pickup, and his crunching tone and aggressive style serve as the ideal compliment to the rhythms section.  Keeping any solos or other "non-essential" music to a minimum, "One Chord Wonders" is a true punk classic, and it is in many ways musically superior to some of the more famous peers of The Adverts.

As fantastic as the music is on "One Chord Wonders," it is the final element of the vocals of T.V. Smith that push the song over the edge and make it nothing short of iconic.  Unquestionably one of the most influential voices of the punk era, Smith had the attitude and snear as good as any other, yet his ability to "actually" sing in a superior style is what set him above a majority of his peers.  On "One Chord Wonders," his vocal approach falls somewhere between the monotone style of Mark Mothersbaugh and the detached, somewhat remiss approach of Johnny Rotten, and this combination forms an absolutely superb vocal sound.  While Smith perfectly captures what a punk vocal "was," it is within the lyrics of "One Chord Wonders" that the band pulls no punches and defines the scene in which they lived in perfect style.  Though the lyrics are short, there is a great deal of meaning within them, and there are few more amusingly accurate lines than when Smith sings, "...I wonder how we'll answer when you say, "We don't like you - go away"..."Come back when you've learned to play"..."  One would be hard pressed to find a more indicting verse, and the fact that it came from within the scene not only gives it credibility, but also makes the slightly tongue-in-cheek nature a bit more clear.  Yet one cannot write this song off as a complete joke, as there are countless bands that fit the title of "One Chord Wonder," and one would be doing the song a disservice to write it off as anything less than a brilliant musical statement.

It is a rare occasion when any scene within music turns the pen on themselves, and even more an uncommon occurrence when the resulting song is not only accurate, but condemns certain aspects of that scene.  Making very aggressive statements at the fans of punk rock in the late 1970's, The Adverts took the chance of having the crowd turn on them when they released their debut album with the song, "One Chord Wonders."  Though the band does comment that perhaps the musicians themselves are not always the most talented, the band calls out the fickle nature of the fans in the line, "...we must be new wave - they'll like us next year..."  One can easily make the case that had it not been for the driving, unrelenting musical assault that moves behind these words, it may have had a different reception within the scene, and yet the song itself remains one of the most iconic of the era.  The rhythm section of Advert and Driver stand today as one of the most powerful of their time, and one simply cannot overstate the importance of Gaye Advert, as she served as the model for nearly every female musician that followed who played more aggressively-orientated music.  Howard Pickup's guitar blasts across the track, and the song has a sense of completeness that was often missing from the music of their peers, and the entire album feels far more "finished" that those of many of their contemporaries.  From the music to the singing to the absolutely fantastic lyrics, there are few songs that both describe and indict the bands' own music scene as perfectly as The Advert's 1978 classic, "One Chord Wonders."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

July 17: John Coltrane, "Acknowledgment"

Artist: John Coltrane
Song: "Acknowledgment"
Album: A Love Supreme
Year: 1964

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There are a handful of artists, the most highly respected and most revered in all of music history, that even if you have not heard their music, their name alone is able to command such a status.  In some cases, that single name completely defines a musical style, a way of approaching an instrument, or even an entire generation, both in and out of music.  It is these once-in-a-lifetime individuals who have shaped modern music into its current form, and there are only a few other names that are even remotely worth of being mentioned in the same breath as the one and only John Coltrane.  Unquestionably the most influential saxophone player in the entire history of recorded music, Coltrane routinely pushed the envelope on what could be done within jazz music, and it was he who developed new approaches to composition and playing styles.  From his innovations in tonal changes to his unique use of harmonics, Coltrane reshaped the jazz world to such an extent that those who copy these techniques now refer to the multi-tonic changes he first presented as "Coltrane changes."  Whether he was playing alongside Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, or Johnny Hartman, Coltrane never failed to shine brightest, and after a number of stellar albums as a solo artist, all of his work and innovation finally came together on a single album.  Standing today as one of the most important jazz recordings in history, few records can compare to 1964's A Love Supreme, and the power and brilliance of the album can be summed up within the first section of the recording, John Coltrane's brilliant composition, "Acknowledgment."

By the time Coltrane entered the studio to record A Love Supreme, he had been through a number of changes to his backing lineup, and the group with which he recorded this record and a number of others is considered today to be his "classic quartet."  The chemistry between the four players is clear throughout all of "Acknowledgment," and each player is given ample time to show off their talents, yet the focus rarely leaves Coltrane's horn.  After a brief opening solo from Coltrane, the song is set into motion by double-bassist Jimmy Garrison pounding out the catchy, almost mesmerizing core phrasing of the song a few times before the rest of the group joins into the music.  Drummer Elvin Jones then drops in with the mid-tempo shuffle that runs the course of the song.  Within his playing, one can hear a wide range of influences, as there are moments where he is playing "bop" style fills, as well as Latin sounds and more "cool" jazz style rhythms.  This diversity in the underlying beat enables "Acknowledgment" to take on a personal unlike any other ever recorded.  Playing a superb contrast and compliment to Coltrane, the performance of pianist McCoy Tyner on this song stands as perhaps his finest musical achievement, as he weaves in, out, and around Coltrane's horn.  It is the way in which the four musicians build off of and play off of one another that shows how "together" they were as a group, and few bands since have shown to be as impressive an overall group as one finds on "Acknowledgment."

Yet even with the three backing musicians giving top-notch performances, there is never any question that the 'star" of the entire album is John Coltrane.  It is Coltrane that pushes the intense and somehow subtle musical phrases, and while at times it seems as if he is "flying off" with his solos, upon closer inspection, he is more likely trying to push his band-mates to greater heights.  Exploring every inch of his composition, Coltrane takes countless musical lines that seem impossible to derive from the key phrase, and yet the fact that each and every one "works" serves as a testament to the true brilliance behind the man.  Throughout "Acknowledgment," Coltrane seems to try and make the band try and "catch" him as he spins away from the core musical phrase, and this creates a unique "tension and release" formation that is not found elsewhere in a similar manner.  Truth be told, there are points on "Acknowledgment" where the band gets so funky, so spacey, that it becomes oddly reminiscent of the music of Sun Ra, and this adds yet another layer to how talented a composer and band leader lived within John Coltrane.  It is this almost strange combination of emotionally free, yet completely musically logical solos and progressions that make "Acknowledgment" so stunning to experience, and also why it remains in the ears of many to be Coltrane's finest moment.

While Coltrane's "classic quartet" burns across "Acknowledgment" in an unprecedented manner, it is largely the interplay between he and Tyner that make the song so significant.  Tyner clearly plays an ideal foil to Coltrane's sound, as he seems to "push back" at Coltrane at every turn, and Tyner also pushes the song into different musical keys and choral progressions almost "daring" Coltrane to try and follow his lead.  It is this musical sparring of sorts that creates some of the most stunning moments on "Acknowledgment," and it also shows that Coltrane was far more in favor of having musicians that could keep up with him, if not best him from time to time, than simply having them serve the more traditional "backing musician" role.  All three of his band-mates are in rare form on "Acknowledgment," and it is on this track that the rhythm section of Garrison and Jones make their case as the most talented section in music history.  From the deep, funky groove that opens the song to the shuffles and "runs" found later on "Acknowledgment," the duo seamlessly move from one style to another, changing the tempo and overall mood in an unprecedented manner.  Over all of these amazing musical achievements, "Acknowledgment" boasts some of John Coltrane's most beautiful and daring musical explorations, and it is moments such as those found throughout this track that make him the legend that he remains to this day.  Though it is truly impossible to find a "bad" track from John Coltrane, few of his other works can compare to the stunning musical beauty and long-lasting impact of his 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supreme, and more specifically its opening section, "Acknowledgment."

Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16: ZZ Top, "La Grange"

Artist: ZZ Top
Song: "La Grange"
Album: Tres Hombres
Year: 1973

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The idea of the "guitar god" is nearly as old as the instrument itself, and over the decades, only the most elite and influential players have become worth of such a status.  From James to Hendrix to Van Halen, each of these iconic figures has their own distinct style that helped to push the art of guitar playing forward, and one can easily argue that music would not exist in its present state without each and every one of these brilliant performers.  Then of course, there is the one band that sported not one, but two legendary guitarists, and they remain today one of the most distinctive and "pure" blues-rock bands in history.  From their signature look to the dirty, yet technically superb sound they have perfected, there are few bands that are worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the pride and joy of the state of Texas: ZZ Top.  Standing as one of the most important bands that bridged the gap between blues and rock and rock (and even heavy metal to a certain extent), ZZ Top's catalog is filled with some of the most famous and unforgettable riffs in music history, and they also sport one of the most instantly recognizable sounds of any band ever.  Though nearly every one of their records is nothing short of fantastic, it is their 1973 album, Tres Hombres, that stands far above their others and is unquestionably one of the greatest albums in history.  Filled with some of the bands' most memorable tunes, there has simply never been another song that even comes close to the power and tone found on ZZ Top's iconic 1973 single, "La Grange."

Even the name of "La Grange" almost instantly brings to mind the feel and sound of the song, as there are few songs in history that have burned their way into the minds of listeners across the decades and across genres.  The core progression on the song is actually based on the main riff that appears on both John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" as well as Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips," and this fact yet again solidifies how closely the music of ZZ Top is tied to the blues roots of rock and roll.  "La Grange" also presents both sides of the persona of the band, as the opening, which is a slower, softer, yet just as sleazy sound gives way to one of the most explosive guitar progressions ever captured on tape.  The energy and passion that burst from the guitar of Billy Gibbons remain largely unrivaled to this day, and his tone has been copied by countless artists since.  Furthermore, the solo on "La Grange" has become one of the most highly sought by guitar players, proving a certain level of mastery of the instrument.  Furthermore, the rhythm section of bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard are also in rare form here, and in many ways, the trios ability to move as a single unit on "La Grange" is what would define them as a band and make them true musical legends.  It is their mastery this slightly sleazy, almost bar-band style blues that makes ZZ Top so extraordinary, and it is moments like all of "La Grange" that show the band at the top of their game.

Looking at the entire history of recorded music, one would be hard pressed to find a more perfectly matched vocalist than one finds with Billy Gibbons and his singing on a majority of ZZ Top's songs.  With his gruff, slightly growling, and often tongue-in-cheek approach, there is almost always a direct connection between the energy and style of his singing and the way in which he approaches his guitar on a particular song.  Case in point, during the opening of "La Grange," Gibbons is far more restrained, and the fantastic sense of mischief he brings to the vocals perfectly mirrors the energy of his guitar during that section.  After the song bursts into its unrestrained "main" section, his vocals bring a similar sense of freedom, as he shifts his singing into high gear both in terms of volume as well as injecting them with a far greater sense of enthusiasm.  Then again, how could one NOT bring both of these distinct emotions on a song with a subject matter such as "La Grange."  It is hardly a secret that the song refers to, or perhaps pays tribute to a "house of ill repute" that was located on the outskirts of the town of La Grange, Texas.  The bordello would go on to become known as "The Chicken Ranch" and served as the subject of the Broadway play and film, "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas."  Though the lyrics are somewhat muddy (in a good way), there is perhaps no better way to sum up the meaning and attitude behind the song than when Gibbons sings, "...they got a lot of nice girls there, heh..."

While countless bands have attempted the "sleazy-sexy" approach to rock music, there has simply never been another band that pulled it off as perfectly or as consistently as the Texas trio known as ZZ Top.  Keeping their songs firmly rooted in the blues, they furthered the blues-based by writing a majority of their songs about more simple subjects like drinking, women, cars, and the general pursuit of being a badass.  Over the decades, the group have become icons in every sense of the word, and the tone and vibe of their music remains almost immediately recognizable.  Though they have had a number of hit songs, there is perhaps no song in the ZZ Top catalog that is more treasured than "La Grange," and in many ways, it defines everything that makes the group so fantastic.  Built around a classic, yet simple blues progression, the rhythm second of Hill and Beard give the song a sway and swagger that was unlike anything previously recorded.  The blistering guitar work placed over this by Gibbons truly pushes the song to a level all its own, and "La Grange" has become one of the most essential guitar recordings in history.  In every aspect of the song, from the sense of bravado within the vocals to the almost menacing mood of the music, the band achieves nothing short of musical perfection, and nearly four decades later, no song even comes close to the overall power of ZZ Top's iconic 1973 single, "La Grange."