Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 31: The Jackson 5, "I Want You Back"

Artist: The Jackson 5
Song: "I Want You Back"
Album: I Want You Back (single)
Year: 1969

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

In every group, there must be one member that stands out from the rest as a leader, or at least a focal point of the band.  While in some cases it is due to a unique appearance or high level of skill, in nearly every case, this duty falls on the bands' primary singer or lead guitar player.  Most of the time, it takes a few albums for this role to properly develop, but there are a handful of cases in history where from the moment the band in question first recorded, the "star" of the group was completely clear.  Though in many ways they marked the "end" of the "Motown era," there are few groups in history that can be seen as a true phenomena in the same light as The Jackson 5.  Truly coming out of nowhere and turning into international superstars overnight, the group brought an irresistible pop sound to Motown Records the likes of which had never been heard.  Coming into their own as merchandising of musical acts was beginning to take hold, few groups were more perfect for this treatment, as their appearance and sound made them one of the first true "bubblegum" groups, and many of their sounds have easily endured over the decades.  Having a number of hit singles to their name, the group kept their sounds upbeat and high energy, the groups' songs in many ways eclipsed their label, and most people are unaware that they were on the roster at Motown.  Though a number of their songs have become standards over the decades, it is truly amazing to consider the achievement of The Jackson 5 on their debut single, 1969's, "I Want You Back."

Though there are many memorable musical openings, few bring an instant smile and feeling of joy as one gets from the piano slide that leads into the guitar riff that kicks off "I Want You Back."  It is this guitar work that holds the song together, bringing an almost ska-like rhythm to the song, and injecting "I Want You Back" with a fantastic amount of funky feeling.  Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about "I Want You Back" is that most believe that it was the members of The Jackson 5 that played the instruments.  This could not be further from the truth, as the guitar work was actually recorded by three different players: David T. Walker, Louis Shelton and Don Peake.  The bass-work was done by Wilton Felder, who is perhaps best known for his role as part of the jazz-fusion group, The Crusaders.  The drums were performed by Gene Pello, and there are a number of other musicians who contributed to the fantastic sound and mood that makes "I Want You Back" so memorable.  Furthermore, this song represents the first song written and produced by the group calling themselves The Corporation, which was in fact Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Alphonozo Mizell, and Deke Richards.  This team would have a number of other successes, but none of them equal to "I Want You Back."  Each musician on the song performs brilliantly, and few songs in history can compare to the amazing combination of a smooth, soulful funk and positive mood that overflows throughout "I Want You Back."

While all five Jackson brothers sing superbly throughout "I Want You Back," from almost the instant the vocals begin, it is clear that the focus of the group is on Michael Jackson.  Recording this song at only eleven years of age, there is an innocence and honesty in his voice that continues to resonate all these decades later.  In many ways epitomizing the strong, soulful sound that defined Motown Records, Michael could clearly hold his own with singers many times his age, and yet it was surely his youth that enabled the group to gain such a massive fanbase.  While he sings brilliantly during the verses, it is the first time he transitions into the choruses that the true power of his voice becomes apparent, as the small yell remains one of the most perfect vocal moments in recorded history.  The sensational vocal work of Michael Jackson here is further aided by the fact that the lyrics which he is singing can be seen as age appropriate, though one must slightly overlook the fact that he was the youngest of all his brothers.  Unquestionably one of the most simple, yet moving lyrics of a missed opportunity at love, the words can be heard from the mouth of a teenager just as easily as a middle-aged person lamenting this missed chance.  It is this ability to speak to people across so many age groups that brought the song such a quick success, and more than forty years later, the vocal performance of Michael Jackson remains completely unrivaled.

Truth be told, "I Want You Back" was originally offered to Gladys Knight & The Pips, and then to Diana Ross, one can make the case that this song was "destined" for The Jackson 5.  How the song actually ended up in the hands of Berry Gordy's newly signed group remains largely debatable, but the fact of the matter is, upon its release, "I Want You Back" shot to the top of both the r&b and pop charts, turning the five brothers into international superstars.  The song would mark the first of four consecutive number one singles for the group, and it remains their signature song, as well as one of the most famous in the history of Motown Records.  "I Want You Back" was also significant as it was the first song The Jackson 5 recorded in Motown's Los Angeles studio, having recorded a handful of tracks in the legendary Hitsville studio in Detroit.  In many ways, one can feel the brighter, warmer energy of this environment on the track, and the fact that "I Want You Back" remains just as uplifting and irresistible all these decades later serves as a testament to the fantastic musicianship and truly special moment in history it represents.  It is almost unfathomable to consider that Michael Jackson was only eleven when he delivered this performance, and it remains one of the finest moments of his entire career.  Bringing an unforgettable musical arrangement and one of the most stunning vocal performances in the entire history of recorded music, there is simply no other song that can compare to the sound and mood of The Jackson 5's 1969 debut single, "I Want You Back."

Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #35"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

1. Talking Heads, "Thank You For Sending Me An Angel"  Live, 1984/01/25
2. Manu Chao, "Clandestino"  Clandestino
3. Sly & The Family Stone, "Stand!"  Stand!
4. Ryan Adams, "You Will Always Be The Same"  Demolition
5. Method Man, "What The Blood Clot"  Tical
6. Blue Cheer, "Summertime Blues"  Vincebus Eruptum
7. Masshysteri, "Var Del Av Stan"  Var Del Av Stan
8. The Clash, "Drug Stabbing Time"  Give 'Em Enough Rope
9. Bob Dylan, "Ballad Of A Thin Man"  Highway 61 Revisited
10. The Doors, "Five To One"  In Concert
11. Lucinda Williams, "Can't Let Go"  Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
12. Miles Davis, "Boplicity"  Birth Of The Cool
13. The Kinks, "You Really Got MeKinks
14. Fela Kuti, "Gentleman"  Gentleman

Sunday, August 29, 2010

August 29: Beck, "Bottle Of Blues"

Artist: Beck
Song: "Bottle Of Blues"
Album: Mutations
Year: 1998

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are very few and far between, once or twice in a generation, an artist emerges that has just profound ability, that it is almost impossible to predict what sonic approach they will deploy from record to record.  Over time, those in this elite group of musicians prove time and time again that they are capable of musical mastery across every genre, and though they are sometimes overlooked, they stand as the most important performers of their era.  Though he made his name off of what was almost a novelty song, those who looked closer could easily see the genius in his first single, and the albums that followed reinforced the fact that Beck had a musical gift that was far beyond that of any of his peers.  Seeming to be able to blend elements of any genre into his unique, lo-fi rock sound, the string of albums that followed his hit single, "Loser," remain some of the most inventive and exciting records of the decade.  While many see his 1996 record, Odelay, as his crowing achievement, the fact of the matter is, it is the trio of records that followed where one can find much of his most intriguing and inventive music.  Standing in stark contrast to his Grammy winning effort, Beck's 1998 release, Mutations, stands as one of the most brilliant, yet overlooked records of the decade, and it is on this album that he proves his true musical genius on many levels.  Spinning his quirky sound into beautiful, mostly acoustic textures, one can find everything that makes Beck such an amazing performer in his 1998 song, "Bottle Of Blues."

While many of his previous efforts had been full and complex musical pieces, "Bottle Of Blues" is in many ways the opposite, fueled by little more than an acoustic guitar and a simple drum beat.  This reflects much of Mutations as it is stands as Beck's finest balance between the musical experimentation found on many of his records, but gives a peek into the more introspective, more mellow sounds that he would take to their fullest on his equally brilliant Sea Change album a few years later.  One can make the case that much of the reason for his divergence on his sound was due to the presence of producer Nigel Godrich.  Perhaps best known for his work on Radiohead's OK Computer, clearly Godrich understands how to give the ideal sound to softer arrangements, and he helps to bring out all the emotion and subtle beauty of Beck's music at every turn.  Throughout "Bottle Of Blues," it is the light touches and singular musical additions that push the song beyond a "normal" acoustic song.  Whether it is the perfectly placed moments of triangle or the trademark "odd" sound effects that jump in and out of the song, Beck blends his trademark quirk with the delicate acoustic background to produce an overall sound that is truly like nothing else ever recorded.  The fact that the song (and the album) has such a laid-back feel, yet never drags for a moment is a testament to Beck's fantastic sense of musical structure, and many artists could learn a great deal from his brilliant work on "Bottle Of Blues."

Throughout nearly every song he has ever written, Beck has shown that his singing voice and writing ability are equal to his skills as a musical arranger, and it is this fact that places him far above nearly every one of his peers.  Without question, Beck has one of the most naturally beautiful voices of his generation, and whether he is using it at its "normal" speaking tone or pushing it to the far ends of the vocal spectrum, he clearly knows no limits with his voice, and this enables him to have songs that bring an amazing depth and variation in sound.  On "Bottle Of Blues," there is an amazing authenticity and simplicity in his singing, as one can easily picture the song being sung around a campfire, and his honest and straightforward sound is one of the keys to the song being so fantastic.  Along with being a superb composer and singer, though they are often lost in the somewhat silly nature of his music, there is no question that Beck is also one of the most talented lyricists in history.  With equal grasp on the profound and the simple, Beck has been able to weave some of the most profound phrases in music history, and on "Bottle Of Blues," he paints one of his finest songs of heartbreak and longing.  Showing both sides of his talents, Beck lays things out in a way all can understand with the lines, "...ain't it hard to want somebody who doesn't want you..."  However, he builds the repeated bridge section over a brilliantly put together phrase of, "...holding hands with an impotent dream, in a brothel of fake energy..."  Throughout "Bottle Of Blues," Beck's voice glides magnificently across every word, and it is in these words that he proves to have an uncanny grasp on both the simple and profound feelings that live inside us all.

Strangely enough, both Beck and his record label have implied over the years that Mutations was NOT supposed to be the follow-up record to his Grammy winning Odelay.  While this makes very little sense, as it surely could have been stopped before production, as well as the fact that it is an amazing record, Mutations went on to find respectable commercial success, proving that Beck's fanbase was willing to follow him in whatever musical direction he chose.  Placing his eclectic, almost dance-style songs on the back-burner, Beck used Mutations to show many of his musical roots, and the more mellow, almost country-style songs found throughout the record showed his abilities in an entirely new light.  It is this balance between the traditional sound of country music and Beck's infusion of what is almost a psychedelic sound that makes Mutations such a unique musical experience, and his strangely sober "Bottle Of Blues" is unquestionably one of the high-points of the record.  As he has always done throughout his entire career, Beck uses the song to spin an age-old theme into something that had never before been heard.  Placing his perfectly toned acoustic guitar over a light drum shuffle, he sets a fantastic backdrop over which he deploys some of the finest, yet most subtle sound effects of his entire career.  Capped off by his simple, yet soulful voice and the similarly shaped lyrics, there are few songs in Beck's catalog that can compare to the over all impact of his 1998 song, "Bottle Of Blues."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

August 28: Motörhead, "Ace Of Spades"

Artist: Motörhead
Song: "Ace Of Spades"
Album: Ace Of Spades
Year: 1980

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though no genre is without fault, there are few musical styles that offer as polarizing a sound as one finds within the music of speed metal.  The split occurs due to the fact that when it is done incorrectly, it is nothing short of unlistenable, and yet when played properly, there are few styles of music that are more energizing and technically stunning.  Rising to popularity around the same time as punk rock, the two genres shared much in common in their early days, as they each tried as hard as they could to be everything that was not "normal" blues-based rock music.  Similarly, these "speed metal" bands seemed to come into being simultaneously on both sides of the globe, making New York City and London, England the hot-spots for the development of the sound.  Honing their sound during this time period, there was one band that continues to in many ways stand as the most important band in the history of speed metal: Motörhead.  From their amazing attitude to the sheer speed with which they played, during the end of the 1970's and beginning of the 1980's, there was simply no other band on the planet that could "touch" Motörhead, and it was during this period that the band recorded some of the most enduring songs in the history of the genre.  Though they had already released a handful of fantastic records, there was nothing that could have prepared the world for the brilliant sonic assault that was unleashed the form of the magnificent title track to Motörhead's 1980 classic album, Ace Of Spades.

The instant "Ace Of Spades" begins, it is clear that this is a song like no other, and the lightning-fast bassline from the legendary Lemmy Kilmister remains one of the greatest ever recorded.  Lemmy seems to truly fly across the fret-board, and yet there is a sense of wild aggression that immediately adds a fantastic depth to the song.  Moments after Lemmy locks in the listener with his stunning playing, guitarist "Fast" Eddie Clarke joins in with an equally devastating performance, and it is this combination that in many ways defines everything that makes speed metal so great.  While Lemmy drives the song with an almost unsettling mood, Clarke tears across his basslines with a screaming guitar and almost feels like a bomb being dropped with every sequence.  Adding the final, amazing element to the song is drummer Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor, and his work in "Ace Of Spades" remains a high-water mark for drummers of both the punk and metal genres.  At many points, it sounds as if Taylor is trying to smash his drum kit to pieces, as the power and speed he plays with is nothing short of stunning.  Throughout "Ace Of Spades," the trio brings a volume, speed, and overall power that groups twice their size have rarely achieved, and the song in many ways represents true metal perfection, as the song has been able to crossover and reach fans that normally would not listen to heavy metal music.  The fact that this crossover occurred, and "Ace Of Spades" stays unquestionably rooted in the metal genre serves as a testament to what an amazing song it is, and why it has been able to endure over the decades.

Though many have tried over the years, there has simply never been another vocalist that has even come close to the uniquely perfect sound that is Lemmy Kilmister.  Bringing an ideal balance of gruff, growl, and gallivanting, much like the music, Lemmy's vocals on "Ace Of Spades" immediately capture the listener and pull them into his fun-loving, yet seemingly dangerous world.  It is this unique swagger that has made Lemmy the legend that he is, as there is an underlying tension and often a feeling of seediness that makes Motörhead's songs so amazing.  Throughout "Ace Of Spades," Lemmy's vocals appear to be standing on the edge of chaos much in the same was as the music, and the fact that he is able to keep things steady with such an amazing sense of tension is the main reason why the song remains a standard thirty years later.  This element of reckless danger is further enforced within the lyrics, though Lemmy takes a stab at a philosophical idea when he sings, "...the pleasure is to play, it makes no difference what you say..."  However, later in the song, Lemmy in many ways sums up the ethos behind both punk and metal when he delivers the lines, "...you know I'm born to lose, and gambling's for fools, but that's the way I like it baby, I don't wanna live forever..."  The energy and sinister spirit never drop for a moment anywhere on "Ace Of Spades," and the song continues to bring this unrivaled power more than three decades after it was first released.

Along with being one of the most enduring songs in history, upon its initial release, "Ace Of Spades" found commercial success across the globe.  It is the fact that the song found this sort of success that remains proof that a band can do so without sacrificing any of their musical integrity.  "Ace Of Spades" is in many ways as far a cry as one can get from "normal" pop songs, as the speed, power, and somewhat smarmy swagger that "is" Motörhead is in full swing, and yet it is perhaps due to the fact that the band stayed so close to their sound that the song became a success.  Over the decades, the impact of "Ace Of Spades" has been reinforced by the fact that it has been covered countless times by bands across the musical spectrum, and over the past years, it has even begun to appear in commercials.  These two facts prove that there is some intangible element at play throughout "Ace Of Spades," and the presence of the song has not diminished in any way over the years.  The almost unnerving interplay between Lemmy and Clarke remains the blueprint for speed metal guitar work, and the drumming from Taylor is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  The combined sound of these three players presents a balance of volume, speed, and pure energy that has not been equaled since, and it is why Motörhead's 1980 single, "Ace Of Spades" remains a truly indispensable and iconic song.

Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27: Ice Cube, "When Will They Shoot?"

Artist: Ice Cube
Song: "When Will They Shoot"
Album: The Predator
Year: 1992

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Throughout the history of the hip-hop genre, it has been claimed that the "true" emcees were much like reporters, telling the world at-large what was going on in their particular part of the universe.  From tales of struggling to get by to the many reasons why their town was the best in the world, such "reports" were the center-point of most of the biggest songs of the so-called "Golden Age" of hip-hop.  While in these earlier days, the stories were just as vivid and often just as provocative, as the 1990's began, a new attitude and aggression became the standard for the genre.  Largely the byproduct of groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A., in many ways, the world as a whole was not ready for such sounds, and many average people began to take very ignorant and conservative stances towards the records being released.  It seemed that as the urban cultures grew more tense, so did the hip-hop records, and in the summer of 1992, both reached a boiling point.  In the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots, nearly every musician from every genre was finding some way to relate their music to these events, yet few brought as clear and blunt a picture as those found within hip-hop.  Among these emcees that truly served as the role of reporter, there was one man who stood as their leader, rallying against "the powers that be" and releasing one of the most confrontational albums in history.  Standing as the finest song on that album, there are few songs that are as searing, aggressive, and outright crushing as one finds in Ice Cube's 1992 single, "When Will They Shoot."

Preceding Dr. Dre's legendary The Chronic record by more than a month, Ice Cube's The Predator remains one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and it is largely due to the pulverizing beats and sounds that are present throughout.  On "When Will They Shoot?," the trio of DJ Pooh, Bob Cat, and Ice Cube spin together one of the greatest musical pieces in hip-hop history, and it all revolves around a sample of the claps from Queen's "We Will Rock You."  This loop takes on a far more forceful and robust tone, and it highlights the overly aggressive nature of the song.  However, this is not the only sample used, and it is quite impressive how the production team mixed together pieces from Bob James, Slick Rick, Delegation, and even one of Ice Cube's previous tracks.  The result is a head-bopping, fist-pumping anthem that is unlike anything else in hip-hop history, and it is one of the greatest lead tracks on any album ever released in any genre.  One of the most discernible pieces is the repeated hook of "...stalkin', walkin' in my big black boots..." and this furthers the unnerving mood put forth by the wall of sound, and in many ways, this served as a middle-ground between the sonic mayhem of Public Enemy, and the smoother, more delicate sounds of Dre's "G-funk."  Regardless of what was behind it, one cannot deny the massive power and sense of rebellion that lies within the musical backing on "When Will They Shoot?"

Working in fantastic contrast to the almost chaotic sounds, the heavy, yet clear rhyming style of Ice Cube found here is so full of raw emotion that it becomes almost unsettling.  The way in which Ice Cube is able to keep a measured rapping sound whilst delivering these inflammatory rhymes.  It is this ability to ensure that his message is never muddled or lost while at the same time bringing an unprecedented power and presence that makes Ice Cube one of the most highly respected emcees in history.  Though he had made his name as one not afraid to speak his mind whilst in the ranks of N.W.A., on "When Will They Shoot?," Ice Cube absolutely lets loose and his rhymes stand today as some of the most brilliant and unrelenting words ever recorded.  Leaving nobody safe from his pen, he takes shots at everything, from the way in which the government "deals" with poor neighborhoods to police brutality, to black on black crime.  Giving each subject an equal verbal shellacking, he drops one of his most controversial and unapologetic lines when he rhymes, "...'cause to us Uncle Sam is Hitler without an oven..."  Ice Cube pushes things even further, when he implies that a non-violent solution would not work with the lines, "...now if I say no violence, devil, you won't respect mine..."  There is not a moment where Ice Cube relents even the slightest bit, and it is his forceful, pulverizing rhymes that make "When Will They Shoot?" a true hip-hop classic.

Placing the superb music and crushing lyrics to the side momentarily, there is one other aspect of "When Will They Shoot?" that makes the song a clear cornerstone of the hip-hop genre.  Giving a nod to what has become an almost annoyingly cliché "shout-out" within the hip-hop world, in the second verse, Ice Cube quotes the movie Scarface with the lines, "I...I...I bury those cockroaches..."  In many ways, this moment can be seen as the final piece that ushered in the full-blown "gangsta rap" era, and every aspect of "When Will They Shoot?" remains a blueprint of how the genre should be done even nearly twenty years after its first release.  In many ways, "When Will They Shoot?" also sets the perfect tone for the overall mood found on The Predator, as the sense of dire urgency and unbridled frustration overflows on the track at every turn.  Teaming up on the musically assault with DJ Pooh and Bob Cat, the combination of so many different songs creates a strangely stable musical chaos that reflects this delicate tension even more, and there have been few songs that have ever equaled this impressive balance.  Yet at no time anywhere on "When Will They Shoot?" does the focus move from the rhymes of Ice Cube.  Clobbering the listener with every line, he drops a huge list of names of other hip-hop groups, political figures, and athletes, and this in many ways can be seen as the beginning of the modern hip-hop style.  Though often overshadowed by the two hit singles that came from his 1992 album, The Predator, there are few songs from anywhere in hip-hop history that come even remotely close to the power and message found in Ice Cube's masterpiece, "When Will They Shoot?"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26: X-Ray Spex, "Art-I-Ficial"

Artist: X-Ray Spex
Song: "Art-I-Ficial"
Album: Germ Free Adolescents
Year: 1977

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Looking back across the entire history of recorded music, one cannot deny the overwhelming dominance of male performers and fronted bands in nearly every genre from every era.  While there are a few exceptions to this rule, in almost every case, the "best" albums from any given style of music were created by men, and the female contributions are often little more than side notes.  However, one cannot deny the fact that in what one can argue is the most male dominated genre in history, punk rock, one of the most essential records came from a female fronted group.  Though they only lasted a few singles and one full length record, one would be hard pressed to find a finer example of the punk spirit than within the music of the amazing X-Ray Spex.  Making their presence known via their 1977 feminist anthem, "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" which opened with the lines, "...some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but i think...oh bondage, up yours!" there are few groups that have had as short lived, yet massively influential as X-Ray Spex.  Filled with an aggression and energy that remains largely unrivaled, the group was also able to inject all of their songs with an amazing pop sensibility that was missing from much of the punk music at the time.  Standing as one of the greatest songs ever written, as well as one of the finest ways to open a record, few songs can compare to the greatness found on X-Ray Spex's 1977 song, "Art-I-Ficial."

Truth be told, there are few songs in history that set as perfect a mood for an entire album as one finds within "Art-I-Ficial," as the guitar riff that kicks off the song is one of the most upbeat and energetic to ever be recorded.  Played by the man known as "Jak Airport" (real name: Jack Stafford), the riff tears across the song and instantly pulls the listener completely into the album.  Compared to most of the punk songs being recorded at the time, the riff is quite different in that the tone is very clean, and the musical progression is someone more complicated than those being recorded by their peers.  However, the spirit of punk rock is undeniable, and B.P. Hurding quickly jumps in with a strong back-beat that makes "Art-I-Ficial" a piece of punk rock legend before the vocals even enter the picture.  Bassist Paul Dean adds even more nervous energy to the song, and as the song moves into the first verse, it is his playing that begins to build into a frenzy.  While all three of these musicians play brilliantly, the one element that set X-Ray Spex even further apart from their peers is the presence and playing of saxophonist Rudi Thomson.  Having replaced band co-founder "Lora Logic" (real name: Susan Whitby), Thomson steps into the role perfectly, bringing to mind the work of The Stooges, and helping to give "Art-I-Ficial" a sound and mood unlike anything else being made at the time.

However, while the music on "Art-I-Ficial" is absolutely fantastic, there is no arguing that the band would not exist both literally and figuratively had it not been for the vocals of the one and only Poly Styrene (real name: Marion Elliot).  Standing today as one of the most influential females in all of music history, her work throughout Germ Free Adolescents is nothing short of stunning, and she also used the album to make her case as one of the finest writers of her generation.  Seamlessly switching between singing and shouting, Styrene has everything her male counterparts had to offer vocally and then some.  The power and spirit in her singing is completely captivating, and there is a phenomenal sense of authenticity and raw emotion that runs throughout the song.  This is largely due to it being clear that every song from X-Ray Spex had a deep meaning for Styrene, as she used the musical form to fight for women's rights in every avenue of life.  On "Art-I-Ficial," she holds nothing back, giving a huge middle finger to society with the lines, "...when I put on my make-up, the pretty little mask not me...that's the way a girl should be, in a consumer society..."  This, in many ways, is the true punk spirit, and few artists have so brilliantly expressed themselves, and it is lines like these that have made "Art-I-Ficial" such a cornerstone within the progression of music as a whole.  Furthermore, countless female performers have used Styrene's "battle cries" as their own inspiration, and both her writing and vocals remain unrivaled more than thirty years later.

In many ways, it is almost tragic that X-Ray Spex released such a little amount of music, as they clearly had far more to offer than an overwhelming majority of their punk rock peers.  Having a firm grasp on how to create frenzy-inducing, high emotion punk rock with a musicality that appealed to non-punk audiences, on many levels, the group was light-years ahead of the other bands of their era.  Whether it was finding ways to perfectly blend saxophone progressions into their music or the mesmerizing vocal work of Poly Styrene, there has truly never been another band equal to X-Ray Spex, and it is much the reason that their only record, 1977's Germ Free Adolescents, continues to show up with a quite high ranking on countless "best of" lists.  The album is truly flawless, and one cannot deny how much impact and influence it clearly had on so many bands that followed.  The album is also significant in the fact that, while it is unquestionably punk rock, it does not follow the sonic trend that dominates much of the famed releases of 1977.  X-Ray Spex took their own approach to the punk style, and their unique blend of crisp, yet frantic guitar work and a high octane rhythm section along with the bleating saxophone set them in a class all their own.  Capped off by the uncanny presence of Poly Styrene, there are few albums that rival the brilliance of Germ Free Adolescents, and few songs from anywhere in history that can compare to X-Ray Spex 1977 song, "Art-I-Ficial."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

August 25: Zero 7, "In Time"

Artist: Zero 7
Song: "In Time"
Album: When It Falls
Year: 2004

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it does not necessarily make them "bad," it is quite common amongst the non-blues based musical genres for artists to seemingly forget that the world that follows their genre title is, in fact, "music."  Or perhaps it is better stated that many artists in these more experimental styles of music walk a fine line on what can be considered musical.  However, regardless of how "far out" a certain style of music is, there are always a few performers of that genre that help to "pull back" the sound and keep it rooted in musical creation and show the connection with the larger idea of music.  It is often within the world of electronic music that these questions of "what is" music are most often raised, as performers within these genres often lose sight of their purpose.  Furthermore, there are few genres that have more fleeting "stars" than in electronic music, as there are countless one-off players and even more sub-standard wannabe's.  Yet over the past decade, few acts have churned out more electronic albums of as high a quality as one finds within the catalog of the English duo known as Zero 7.  After blowing the world away with their stunning debut, the group upped the ante with their more creative and sonically adventurous follow-up, 2004's When It Falls.  Featuring a number of guest vocalists and some of the most beautiful compositions in the history of the genre, few songs better define the group's ability to fuse together new and old sounds than their absolutely beautiful, folk-sounding single, "In Time."

From the first notes of the song, it is clear that "In Time" is nothing like the stereotypical electronic song, as it brings a slow acoustic guitar over a soft, simple beat.  Throughout "In Time," the musical focus rarely shifts from the guitar playing, and it is so perfectly toned that it evokes the spirit of the country-folk singers of the 1970's.  The fact that this sound is undeniably present within such a modern genre serves as a testament to the unparalleled musical talents of Zero 7's Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker,  as it is clear that their musical creativity knows no boundaries.  However, these two have not created a re-hashing of an old style on "In Time," they have in fact found the ideal way to merge old and new, and this feat has yet to be topped since it was first released.  Yet along with this classic sound, throughout "In Time," they delicately place a number of other musical elements that highlight the best there is within the down-tempo or ambient sub-genre of the electronic style.  From gentle keyboard chords to to perfectly placed sound effects, Zero 7 finds a fantastic way to make the song very full, and yet it comes off as a very simple and almost minimalist sound.  It is their ability to create juxtapositions such as this that set Zero 7 far apart from their peers, and they offer a very unique blend of musical bliss within "In Time."

Along with giving the world some of the most gorgeous musical creations in recent history, Zero 7 has also gained a reputation for featuring some of the most gifted vocalists of their era, and many who have sung on Zero 7 songs have gone onto very successful solo careers.  Throughout When It Falls, the group has a number of different vocalists performing, and yet it is the work of Sophie Barker that shines brightest on the record.  Both of the songs she sings on ("In Time" and "Passing By") stand as the highlights of the album, and she would later work with artists ranging from Bliss to Groove Armada.  On "In Time," Barker's voice is nothing short of perfect, as there is a soulful sweetness in her sound, and she adds to the idea of the song being simple, yet overflowing with emotion.  Barker's voice soars, showing no limitations, and there is an honestly and purity within her singing that pulls the listener in and provides a stunning musical experience that persists even after repeated listenings.  Yet it is also the words she sings that help "In Time" to have such a "classic" feel, as they perfectly capture the feeling of a person who simply needs a bit of time to themselves.  While there are few songs that better accompany a mood such as this, there are few more accurate lyrics than when she sings, "...like to sit this silent moment out..."  Perfectly capturing the essence of introspection, as well as providing a fantastic musical companion for such times, vocalist Sophie Barker gives a stunning and unrivaled vocal performance, turning "In Time" into one of the finest songs in the history of electronic music.

Though a vast majority of electronic artists make no secret of their style and keep all of their songs firmly rooted within this sound, it is often those performers that blur the lines of genres that stand as the finest representatives of the electronic style.  For more than a decade, the English team known as Zero 7 have constantly pushed the down-tempo/ambient genre forward, and their early work remains some of the finest recorded music in the genres' history.  Creating truly stunning musical arrangements that completely engross every listener, it is Zero 7's ability to appeal to a wide range of listeners that has enabled them to crossover into more mainstream notoriety.  This has also been accomplished by the fact that the duo that "are" Zero 7 have shown an uncanny ability to spot and highlight some of the finest "underground" vocalists in the world, and on "In Time," Sophie Barker is instantly added to that elite group.  It is her voice that proves to be the special element that makes this song stand out on what is a superb record, and in both her pitch range, as well as emotion, few artists of her generation have shown similar ability.  Combining her soft, yet strong voice with a guitar progression that could have easily have been written three decades earlier, Zero 7 shows their true musical talents by not "ruining" their creation by "over-doing" the electronic element.  Finding a perfect balance between old and new sounds, few songs of any genre can compare to the amazing mood and beauty one finds on Zero 7's 2004 song, "In Time."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24: Derek And The Dominos, "Layla"

Artist: Derek And The Dominos
Song: "Layla"
Album: Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs
Year: 1970

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While in many cases, it takes a handful of records from any band before they gain any notoriety, there are a few isolated instances where for one reason or another, a band will release a single record and be absolute legends for that effort.  This may be due to the music being so far ahead of its time, or perhaps due to some sort of event surrounding the record, or it may also be due to the combination of musicians playing together.  However, though they are very few in number, there are also a handful of songs in music history that have become so large, that the song itself eclipses the performers who were responsible for its creation.  When a song achieves this status, there is no question that it has become one of the most important and influential songs in history, and yet there are always a number of reasons why a song finds itself in this place.  While one cannot deny the exceptionally high level of musicianship within the makeup of the band, it can be argued that 1970's Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs has become far bigger than the band that created the record: Derek And The Dominos.  Filled with some of the most memorable songs ever written, few records can boast as brilliant a fusion of so many different musical styles, all executed with a precision that is rarely found elsewhere in any genre.  Though every song on the album is a fantastic musical achievement, none of them can compare to the magnificent musical display that has become one of the most treasured songs in music history: 1970's "Layla."

From the moment that "Layla" begins, it is already iconic, as there are few, if any guitar riffs that even come close to the instant distinction that one finds here.  Played by one of the most powerful and unlikely duos in history, the guitar work here is courtesy of none other than Eric Clapton and the late Duane Allman.  While Clapton does a great job on the lead riff, it is the undertones from Allman that make "Layla" truly soar, and it is he who stands as the most stunning musician on the track.  Furthermore, while the main riff is absolutely brilliant and unforgettable, the fact of the matter is that the riff is almost lifted verbatim from a T-Bone Walker vocal recording (which is likely why Clapton re-worked the song for his over-hyped Unplugged performance).  Even with this in mind, one cannot deny the force and presence of the riff, though one similarly cannot ignore the lengthy, lamenting coda that follows the verses.  Stretching out over nearly four minutes, the movement was orchestrated by Jim Gordon and played him along with Bobby Whitlock and Carl Raddle on bass.  Playing in a stunning contrast to the first half of the song, this helps to re-enforce the duality of the feelings expressed through to vocals on "Layla."  The fact that both parts of the music have etched their way into music history each in their own way makes one wonder whether these could have been two separate hit songs, as the combined power of the legendary riff and timeless refrain push "Layla" into a musical category all its own.

Working in perfect balance with the duality of the music, the vocals, sung by Eric Clapton, stand as perhaps the finest of his entire career.  Finding the ideal middle-ground between his blues-based roots and the soulful, rocking mood of the music, Clapton completely commits to the vocal, and there are few tracks in history that can compare to the raw and unguarded sound that he brings here.  Though later in his career, Clapton wrote other songs of pure heartbreak, it is almost impossible to argue that he was ever more soul-bearing and outright tortured as one finds on "Layla."  The song itself is a not-so-subtle cry to Patti Boyd, the then-wife of Clapton's friend, George Harrison, and though rather questionable in motive, Boyd and Clapton would marry nearly a decade after the song was released.  Clapton holds back nothing in the lyrics of "Layla," and he seems to even take a few "shots" at Harrison with lines like, "...I tried to give you consolation, when your old man had let you down..."  However, he also brings some of the most simple, yet beautiful sentiments on love with phrases like, "... please don't say we'll never find a way..."  Regardless of the "true" recipient of the songs' words, "Layla" has become one of the most universally recognized songs of longing ever composed, and even more than forty years after being released, on nearly every level, the song remains unsurpassed.

Truth be told, it is hardly surprising that when one teams Eric Clapton with Duane Allman, the results remain one of the most enduring and endearing songs ever recorded.  While Clapton absolutely tears across the track with an aggression and soul that he rarely matched, it is the slide-guitar work of Allman that is the highpoint of the track, though this point is often lost in the hype and ego that has surrounded Clapton over the decades.  Furthermore, the second half of "Layla" remains the epitome of true musical beauty, and even after hundreds of listenings, the piano and guitar passages do not fail to convey the emotions as perfectly as they did on the first experience.  This is in many ways the "magic" that is "Layla," as it almost defies description how well the song has held up over the decades, and why there are simply no other songs in history that can even remotely be compared to this extraordinary musical achievement.  Not surprisingly, the song has rarely been performed live since the short-lived era of Derek And The Dominos, and Clapton himself once said of this fact, "...'Layla' is a difficult one, because it's a difficult song to perform live. You have to have a good complement of musicians to get all of the ingredients going..."  Along with having the right musicians, "Layla" also brings a raw level of emotion that has rarely been matched elsewhere, and it is the combination of all of these elements that makes Derek And The Dominos 1970 song, "Layla" such a phenomenal moment in music history.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #34"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

1. Les Rallizes Denudes, "Otherwise My Conviction"  Flightless Bird
2. X-Ray Spex, "Germ Free Adolescents"  Germ Free Adolescents
3. Reflection Eternal, "Some Kind Of Wonderful"  Train Of Thought
4. Vic Ruggiero, "Oklahoma"  Hamburguru
5. The Evens, "You Won't Feel A ThingThe Evens
6. Soundgarden, "Outshined"  Badmotorfinger
7. The Clash, "Revolution Rock"  London Calling
8. Sublime, "Boss D.J."  Acoustic: Bradley Nowell & Friends
9. Chuck Ragan, "California Burritos"  Feast Or Famine
10. Primus, "Pudding Time"  Frizzle Fry
11. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "Stagger Lee"  Murder Ballads
12. Godfrapp, "Pilots"  Felt Mountain
13. DEVO, "Blockhead"  Duty Now For The Future
14. The White Stripes, "It's True That We Love One Another"  Elephant
15. Counting Crows, "Another Horsedreamer's Blues"  Recovering The Satellites

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22: Tori Amos, "Professional Widow"

Artist: Tori Amos
Song: "Professional Widow"
Album: Boys For Pele
Year: 1996

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

There are few things that can be more detrimental to an artist than making a large stylistic shift after establishing their sound in a certain form.  This becomes even more true when the artist in question as perfected this initial sound to the point where they become the "reference point" for other artists pursuing a similar style of music.  Finally, if the sound in question is not a "standard" genre, deviating from the path in question almost always spells instant career failure.  However, there have been a handful of cases in history where an artist has made a rather abrupt stylistic change, and their fanbase has embraced this new sound to the point where it became the new path for that artist.  Though there are certainly more well known examples of this rare musical happening, in 1996, Tori Amos decided to change her image as the finest piano singer-songwriter of her generation.  Already known for her soaring vocals and perfectly crafted musical arrangements, her Boys For Pele record was a great musical shift for her, as the album contained some of the loudest and most musically aggressive songs of her entire career, yet the overall tone of the album was far darker than her previous efforts.  Though she had given a small peek into her "fully orchestrated" sound with her 1994 single, "Cornflake Girl," that song was a rather upbeat affair in comparison.  Brilliantly combining the sound which earned her a massive following with a far more complex and assertive musical arrangement, the new phase in the career of Tori Amos can be summed up in her magnificent 1996 single, "Professional Widow."

The moment "Professional Widow" opens, both the song and the album immediately take on a different tone than most of Tori Amos' previous work, as she has moved from her Bösendorfer grand piano to a perfectly tuned and toned harpsichord.  This instrument gives the song a stunning, gothic feel, and yet it also gives the song a bolder and almost sinister mood unlike any of her previous recordings.  After she runs through the songs' core riff once, "Professional Widow" takes its massive musical turn, as suddenly Amos is being backed by a number of other instruments, as well as a battering from programmed drums.  It is the percussion, programmed by Alan Friedman, and give the song an even darker feel and make the connection between Amos and Nine Inch Nails impossible to deny.  Though she would reference Nine Inch Nails later on Boys For Pele, the style and tone of the programmed drums on "Professional Widow" are unlike anything she had previously released, and they reinforce the somewhat malicious, almost dangerous mood on the song.  Underneath both Amos' playing and the percussion work, there is a strange sound effect that serves as an amazingly subtle finishing touch to the song.  The sound sounds almost like a long groan, and it plays into the song with expert timing, providing even more musical enjoyment for those that can catch it.  "Professional Widow" stands as a far cry from the previous work of Tori Amos, yet the shift in instrumentation only proves that Amos is unquestionably one of the most talented performers of her generation.

Perhaps the only thing more synonymous with the music of Tori Amos that is more prominent than her piano is her soaring, unmistakable voice.  Having previously shown her ability to work the entire vocal spectrum, Amos pushed even further on "Professional Widow," bringing an amazing amount of emotion and energy on every line.  Using very audible breaths to add a fantastic sense of rhythm to her singing, Amos paints an amazing picture with her words here, and once again, it is hard to argue that any other performer of the era had similar ability to create such vivid and mesmerizing moods.  In another stylistic change, Amos turns the pen away from herself on "Professional Widow," as she tells the tale of a woman who seems trapped on two levels, both in her home, as well as by society in general.  The song suggests that it is due to the womans' unsavory reputation, yet Tori Amos uses her unparalleled word-play to show that it is due to the labels given to her by her male counterparts that she lives such a life.  Though it can be interpreted on many levels, one can detect this accusation of being seen as a "second-class" citizen who is only there to serve others when Amos sings, "...gonna strike a deal, make him feel like a Congressman..."  At every turn on "Professional Widow," Tori Amos proves why she stands as one of the finest vocalists in history, as the song presents both the "entrapment" of the protagonist, but one can feel a sense of freedom by the time the song comes to a close.

Though never confirmed, there remains a widely-believed rumor that the "Professional Widow" of which Amos sings is, in fact, a rather specific person.  Credited by many for destroying the friendship between Amos and Trent Reznor, many believe that this song is written about pseudo-musician, Courtney Love.  Taking this into account, the name of the song suddenly takes on a completely different tone, as many also believe that Love had something to do with the tragic death of her former husband, Kurt Cobain.  Though Amos herself has never even remotely confirmed a connection between the two, one can also read the lyrics, "...Mother Mary...china white..." as a subtle reference to Love, though one can just as easily interpret these lines as a reference to the true innocence of the songs' main subject.  Regardless of how one sees "Professional Widow," it clearly marked a pivotal moment in the career of Tori Amos, as the song is without question more musically complex and more aggressive than anything she had previously released.  Her departure from the "girl and a piano" approach that had brought her fame could have gone horribly wrong, as her style was suddenly far louder and perhaps a bit more combative.  However, the emotion, clever lyrics, and absolutely stunning singing are still present, and the fact that her fans "followed her" on this musical change proves that it was these elements that were the keys to her sound.  Standing not only as the turning point in her career, but one of the finest songs she ever recorded, few compositions of the 1990's can compare to Tori Amos' sensational 1996 single, "Professional Widow."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21: Wesley Willis, "Rock N Roll McDonald's"

Artist: Wesley Willis
Song: "Rock N Roll McDonald's"
Album: Greatest Hits
Year: 1995

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While a majority of musicians that achieve any type of widespread recognition do so by a somewhat consistent path, it is often those performers that find success in their own way that prove to be the most unique and intriguing musicians in history.  Though there are many stories of a rise to fame that does not include playing very small shows and sending endless demos to record labels, there are few artists who found success in a similar manner to Chicago's Wesley Willis.  Falling somewhere between a novelty act and punk rock, Willis spent many years busking on the streets of Chicago, playing his strange, yet unignorable songs which once heard, can never be forgotten.  While Willis was a confirmed schizophrenic, and this illness comes across in some of his songs, the bizarre nature of his musical creations makes his sickness a side note, and there is truly nothing else in music history that even remotely compares to Wesley Willis.  Gaining notoriety after artists like Eddie Vedder and Billy Corgan saw his street act, Willis was eventually signed to a few record labels where he released more than a thirty albums throughout the in just under three years.  Sadly, Willis passed away on August 21, 2003, but he had already given the world such a wealth of material that he will clearly never be forgotten.  It was on his 1995 record, Greatest Hits, that Wesley Willis recorded what stands as his defining song, the strange yet captivating, "Rock N Roll McDonald's."

Once he was no longer playing on the streets of Chicago and was able to be in a studio setting, Wesley Willis added a few members to his band, and yet the original essence that made him s magnetic still comes through clearly in his songs.  Though these other musicians are present, one can easily hear the song completely stripped down, hearing nothing other than Willis and his synthesizer.  Most often playing a Technics KN model, the bubbly sound and mood it conveys is where the music of Wesley Willis tends to border on a novelty sound.  Playing looped progressions with a tone that in many ways defines the era of the synthesizer, it is within this aspect of the music that the songs of Wesley Willis defy all description and become so unique that they are beyond the ability to be compared to anything else in music history.  On "Rock N Roll McDonald's," the musical arrangement has an extremely sweet and poppy feel, and drummer Todd McDonald provides a steady rhythm throughout, but is careful not to get in the way of Willis' playing.  The instrument that adds the most depth on "Rock N Roll McDonald's" is the bass work of Dave Nooks, and it is his contribution that gives the song a great sense of movement.  Though "Rock N Roll McDonald's" is certainly nothing that will blow away a listener musically, it is so unique and simple that it stands in a musical league all its own.

While one can try and make the case that the music is so odd that it is the aspect that defines the songs of Wesley Willis, there is simply no arguing that it is the singing and lyrics on his songs that make them so unforgettable.  For the most part, Willis' singing consists of rap-style spoken word along side his strange yelling at seemingly random parts of the song.  Though perhaps unintentional, it is this brutally raw and unaltered vocal delivery style that gives his songs an unquestionable authenticity, and it also makes many of them impossible not to sing along with.  However, while the singing may seem a bit off-kilter, the lyrics which Willis sings on all his songs seem to bounce back and forth between serious and utterly absurd musings, furthering the intrigue of his music.  On "Rock N Roll McDonald's," Willis is in fact referring to a very specific place, as the most famous McDonald's, dubbed "Rock and Roll McDonald's," is located in Chicago.  As Willis' song opens, he throws the strange line of, "...it is a good place to listen to the music...people flock here to get down to the rock music..."  It is musings like these that make one wonder whether he is being serious or taking underhanded shots at the greasy-burger haven.  Willis' intentions become more clear in the songs' final verse, as he rips into the company stating, "...McDonald's hamburgers are the worst, they are worse than Burger King..."  While these lyrics were not going to change the world, there remains an aspect of the manner with which Willis delivers the words that makes them both catchy and memorable.

Though the subject matter of Willis' songs ranged greatly, from stories of his delusions from his mental illness to songs about his friends to completely unexplainable songs like, "I Whupped Batman's Ass." However, there is one common bond that runs through nearly every one of his recordings, as he ends each song with the phrase, "Rock over London, rock on Chicago" and then follows it with an ad slogan from a well known brand.  None of these "ads" were asked for by companies, and this strange, unexplainable element adds yet another level of intrigue to the recorded catalog of the late Wesley Willis.  Though his songs may come off as novelty songs or simply silly, when one looks deeper into the music of Willis, it is impossible to deny that there is a certain level of genius at play throughout his catalog.  From his unique synthesizer orchestrations to his choices in subject matter to the distinctive way with which he ended his song, there are few artists in history that have made music that is as individual as that of Wesley Willis.  Furthermore, the conviction and emotion with which he delivers every word lends a sense of authenticity to his music that is rarely rivaled in even the most raw and straghtforward musicians in history.  While it is perhaps a bit difficult to get past the "silly" sound of his music, one cannot deny the genius of Wesley Willis, and everything that makes him so extraordinary can be heard in his 1995 song,"Rock N Roll McDonald's."

Friday, August 20, 2010

August 20: Third World War, "Working Class Man"

Artist: Third World War
Song: "Working Class Man"
Album: Third World War
Year: 1971

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

In the case of nearly every genre in history, a handful of bands that unquestionably had a massive impact on the development of the genre did so with nearly no recognition at all for their contributions.  Though these bands are often known to the more well known bands of the genre, to the "general public," they are often the best kept secrets in music.  Case in point: while many people see bands like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground as the "only" signs of what would become punk rock at the beginning of the 1970's, there were a handful of other bands making equally important steps in the genre's development without any sort of fanfare.  Though many of these "unknown" bands were based in the U.S., there is one U.K. band whose 1971 self-titled debut remains one of the most stunning presentations of the fusion between heavy metal, folk, and blues, showing much of the style that would become "punk."  Lasting only a few years and two albums, there are few bands in history that were as quietly influential as U.K. rockers Third World War, and their first record remains one of the most powerful and musically brilliant albums ever recorded.  Overflowing with attitude and some of the heaviest and most aggressive sounds that were being made at the time, the wide-ranging impact of the group cannot be understated, and everything that makes them so fantastic can be found in Third World War's song, "Working Class Man."

The moment the song begins, "Working Class Man" has a tone and attitude all its own, and one can clearly hear the styles it pulls from, while at the same time see where their sound is going.  The brief opening guitar riff from Mick Liber instantly sets the tone, as it is perfectly distorted and has an urgency that moves the song without a rhythm section.  Band founder Terry Stamp quickly joins with a second guitar, and their combined sound is as captivating as it is invigorating, leaving any ideas of the psychedelic movement in the dust.  Bassist Jim Avery is very forward in the mix, and his presence gives "Working Class Man" a superb groove that is rarely found anywhere within the hard rock styles of music.  The final member of Third World War's musical assault was drummer Fred Smith (NOT Fred "Sonic" Smith), and the shifting shuffle that be brings throughout the song gives "Working Class Man" a fantastic depth that enables the song to sound just as fresh today as it did nearly forty years ago.  Throughout the song, Third World War makes it clear that they've no interest in those who were still clinging to the last remnants of the "hippie" movement, as the group brought an unrelenting musical aggression that exemplified the somewhat haunting nature of their name.  Yet even with their confrontational music and distorted tone, there is also an underlying sense of fun, almost to a point of recklessness, that runs beneath the music, and it is this aspect that played a vital role in the development of the punk rock genre.

While the music found on "Working Class Man" is nothing short of outstanding, it is the vocals from Terry Stamp that prove to be the "difference maker" in the overall sound of Third World War.  With a clear ethos that their music was "for the people, by the people," few vocalists in history have as gritty a voice that comes across as an "everyman" sound similar to Stamp.  While many singers both before and since have brought a similarly "dirty" sound to their singing, there is a sense of authenticity in Stamp's voice that is rarely heard elsewhere, and it makes songs like "Working Class Man" have a similar sense of legitimacy, again laying the ground-work for the punk rock style.  Following the varied drum tempo, both the music and vocals on "Working Class Man" have a fantastic sense of elasticity, and this movement within the song easily makes it one of the finest musical achievements of the era.  However, if it were not for the honest, simple yet profound lyrics that Stamp sings, the song would not have nearly the impact that it does.  Again reinforcing the "everyman" approach, the lyrics are as far from subtle as one can get, and the repeated idea of a man working as hard as he can just to make ends meet surely resonated with the English laborers as well as "blue collar" workers across the globe.  Speaking directly to the struggle of workers who find frustration when dealing with the "powers that be," Stamp sings, "...you'd think five years service is something, but it's not..." as he focuses on a "run in" with these "higher ups."  The entire song perfectly represents the sentiments of underpaid, overworked employees across the globe and across the generations, and few bands have ever composed as perfect a rallying cry as one finds on "Working Class Man."

Though countless bands over the decades have attempted to take the approach of "a band for the people," few have done so as honestly and as perfectly as one will find in the extraordinary 1971 debut record from Third World War.  While they remain one of the great secrets of the history of music, "those in the know" can clearly see the massive amount of impact they had on the overall development of the hard rock and punk rock styles, and many have even gone so far as to describe them as "England's first punk band."  Driving this point home, the great Joe Strummer once said of Third World War's music, that they "...were doing it when everything else was dead..."  Such accolades make it a bit difficult to understand why Third World War has not been given their due respect over the decades, as their first album still trumps nearly everything that has been released in the four decades since it first appeared.  Bringing an unparalleled combination of crushing, yet bluesy guitar work and some of the most creative rhythm work ever recorded, one simply cannot overstate the wide-reaching impact of their musical efforts.  Furthermore, the vocals of Terry Stamp can be seen as influencing nearly every "punk" singer, and one can only assume that the mighty Joe Strummer himself took some of his own stage presence from Stamp.  Though each song on their debut is absolutely stunning, the entire ethos of the band is perfectly summed up in their unsettling, powerful 1971 ode to the unappreciated, "Working Class Man."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19: Sinéad O'Connor, "Nothing Compares 2 U"

Artist: Sinéad O'Connor
Song: "Nothing Compares 2 U"
Album: I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got
Year: 1990

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

There are certain songs in the history of recorded music that were so huge in every meaning of the world, that they become just as, if not more memorable than the significant events of the era in which they were released.  Whether due to being so musically different, some type of controversy, or a host of other possibilities, it is these few songs that serve as the markers for the passage of time.  As has been stated many times before, there are few points in history that allowed for as wide a range of musical exploration whilst still achieving commercial success than one can see in the early years of the 1990's, and it is why this period stands as one of the most exciting in music history.  While there were a great number of artists that changed the landscape of music during these years, few did so as quickly and in a similar manner as one of the most influential, yet controversial performers in music history: Sinéad O'Connor.  Though she possesses what remains without question one of the most powerful voices in history, and one cannot deny how much impact she had on the influx of strong female performers that emerged early on in the decade, it is difficult to discuss Sinéad O'Connor without also speaking of the ripples she made due to both her image as well as her political views.  However, setting these aside, she is also responsible for one of the biggest songs of the entire decade, and music simply does not advance in the way it has without her stunning 1990 cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U."

While most know that the song was penned by Prince, few are aware that it was released by his short lived funk band, The Family in 1985.  This original recording was not released as a single, and nearly everything about the cover by Sinéad O'Connor is a great stylistic shift from the original.  Musically, the song is able to be both full and complex, while at the same time staying quite minimalist.  It is this odd juxtaposition that serves as an initial point of intrigue, as the music is provided by a small string section and a lone drum beat.  The slow pace of the song stands in opposition to nearly everything else being released at the time, and the combination of the tempo and the musical arrangement made it almost impossible to fathom that the song quickly topped the charts in more than a dozen different countries, and it stayed in the top spot for well over a month, instantly turning O'Connor into an international superstar.  However, one simply cannot deny the sheer beauty of the musical arrangement, as the string section seems to transcend the common moods of classical style musical backing, and create an almost overwhelming sense of sorrow.  Clearly, this tone could not have been created by a traditional rock-style orchestration, and though many have tried since, no artist has been able to achieve the odd musical perfection that one finds in the arrangement on "Nothing Compares 2 U."

However, throughout the song, both the string section and the percussion are kept at a rather low level, as the true focal point of the entire song is the unparalleled, breathtaking vocal performance of Sinéad O'Connor.  Though she had already shown her amazing abilities on her debut album a few years earlier, it was her singing on "Nothing Compares 2 U" that showed the world just how captivating and truly moving a singer she was.  Working the entire vocal scale throughout the song, O'Connor also plays two moods against one another, as she shows a sense of strength within the almost mournful lyrics she sings.  It is this aspect of "Nothing Compares 2 U" that would serve as the cornerstone of the movement of female singer-songwriters and performers that would explode over the following years, and one cannot understate the importance of Sinéad O'Connor to this movement.  Yet at the same time, one of the main reasons that "Nothing Compares 2 U" was so successful is the fact that Prince had written one of his finest lyrics, and O'Connor's cover proves the ambiguous nature of the words.  The lyrics show both sides of true heartbreak, as the protagonist is open about the severity of their loss, yet there remains a strong sense of "moving on" throughout the entire track.  In what remains one of the greatest lines ever written, one cannot avoid the almost overwhelming sense of sorrow within the words, "...it's been so lonely without you here, like a bird without a song..."  At every turn, the lyrical brilliance of Prince fuses together with the extraordinary vocal power of O'Connor, and it is this reason that"Nothing Compares 2 U" remains one of the greatest songs ever recorded.

The true testament of the power of a song is how it sounds after many years and countless listenings have passed.  The fact of the matter is, more than twenty years after her cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" first appeared, Sinéad O'Connor's voice and emotion are still able to move the listener just as easily and with the same power as it did when it was initially released.  This is largely due to the fact that O'Connor's voice remains one of the strongest to ever be heard, and the amount of emotion on each line is almost overwhelming.  There is an amazing sense of sincerity within her singing, and the fact that there is such minimal musical accompaniment only adds to the complete focus on her phenomenal vocal performance.  It is this feeling of a completely soul-bearing performance that sets "Nothing Compares 2 U" so far apart from its peers, as O'Connor could have easily broken into tears during the song and it would have been "passable," yet she never shows any sign of needing any aid to convey her deep emotions.  However, it is on "Nothing Compares 2 U" that O'Connor set the tone for the "new" image of the "strong woman" in music, as while the feeling of loss and sorrow pervades every turn of the song, one cannot deny the underlying sense of strength within her singing, and it is this aspect that has influenced countless artists since.  Though she went on to create a great deal of controversy, one cannot deny the fact that there were few songs in history that have singlehandedly shaped music and captivated the world in a similar manner as Sinéad O'Connor's unforgettable 1990 cover of Prince's, "Nothing Compares 2 U."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18: Meat Puppets, "Plateau"

Artist: Meat Puppets
Song: "Plateau"
Album: Meat Puppets II
Year: 1984

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it becomes increasingly rare as the years go by, there are few things better in the world of music than when a record company achieves "label identification."  This occurs when a record label decides to only sign the finest bands of a certain style, and it gets to a point where one is able to buy anything from that label and be sure that even if they do not know the band, it will be a certain style and a certain quality of music.  Throughout much of the 1980's, it was SST Records that was seen as the "home" of West Coast hardcore music, and though it was this label that brought the world the likes of Black Flag, Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü among many others, there were also a number of bands on their roster that could not be defined as "hardcore."  Pulling influence from the hard rock sound as much as that of country and many other styles, few bands have endured or made as wide a range of music as one finds in the catalog of the trio known as Meat Puppets.  Though their first record is unquestionably a hardcore affair, it was their second record, 1984's aptly titled Meat Puppets II that showed the word the diverse sound the band could play, and many of their greatest musical achievements are found on this album.  It was largely due to the fact that the band was injecting other sounds into the hardcore style that set them aside from their peers, and it is also the reason that the album remains a true classic nearly thirty years later.  Having been covered by many other bands over the decades, few songs in the catalog of Meat Puppets are more stunning than their classic tune, "Plateau."

From the moment "Plateau" begins, it sounds like absolutely nothing that one could even remotely affiliate with the hardcore sound, and it is within this song that the wide range of influences of the band become the most obvious.  Quiet, mellow, and melodic are just a few terms that describe this song, and one would be hard pressed to make the case that such words can be applied to any band looking to keep their "hardcore cred," and the Meat Puppets manage to do just that.  "Plateau" has a very strong country tone to it, as both the guitar and overall mood of the song could have easily come from an established artist in that genre.  The way in which Curt and Cris Kirkwood blend their guitars together is nothing short of stunning, and it is also the complexity of the musical arrangement that further sets the band apart from the stereotypical hardcore sound.  The country overtones on "Plateau" are further complicated (in a good way) by the deep blues sound that comes through clearly, and the fact that the group is still able to retain a sense of the punk ethos within the song serves as a testament to their talents as musicians.  Adding in an almost jazz-like feel, drummer Derrick Bostrom gives the song another unique aspect, and it is impossible to find anything similar to his playing here on any other punk or hardcore recording.  The fact that these elements are so blatantly present, yet "Plateau" stands as iconic as it does within the hardcore genre is truly inexplicable, and this exemplifies the odd musical mastery that is the music of Meat Puppets.

The one consistent aspect of the music of Meat Puppets is the wonderfully distinctive voice of Curt Kirkwood, and both his tone and style are immediately recognizable.  It doesn't take a music fanatic to understand that Kirkwood's voice is far from the "standard" styles of singing, as his singing is in many ways impossible to describe.  On "Plateau," his entire range of singing styles are on display, and one can experience everything from his almost spoken style on the verses to the high-pitched performance found on the bridge and chorus.  It is within these latter moments that one can hear a clear influence on later artists like J. Mascis, Kurt Cobain, and many other singers of the "grunge" and hardcore styles.  The fact that so many performers cite both Meat Puppets and Kirkwood as an influence to this day further reinforces how unique a band they were, and it is also within the words of Kirkwood that the band turned themselves into legends.  While the song itself seems to be little more than a description of a barren wasteland (it was written on a trip into the desert), it is the wild images that Kirkwood creates that make "Plateau" such a mesmerizing song.  Singing phrases that are almost psychedelic such as, "...holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand...," the words may seem nonsensical, yet there is much wisdom hidden within.  Without question, one of the most unexpectedly stunning and thought provoking lines ever written is found within this song when Kirkwood sings, "...who needs action when you've got words..."  It is moments like these that cement the groups' place as music icons, and their words have been re-quoted countless times over the decades.

Though Meat Puppets remained what can be termed as "underground legends" for more than a decade, the group, as well as "Plateau" were thrust into the spotlight when both were featured on Nirvana's legendary Unplugged performance in 1993.  One of two Meat Puppets songs the band performed that night, both Kirkwood brothers joined Nirvana on stage, and after the songs were played, it was clear to all where Nirvana had taken much of their sound.  This fact was perhaps the final piece in solidifying just how important Meat Puppets were to the development of music, and the fact that it was due to their more melodic songs as opposed to their wild hardcore musings serves as a testament to the "true" roots of the "grunge" sound.  Perhaps due to the fact that they were surrounded by some of the greatest hardcore bands in history, Meat Puppets found a way to blend country and psychedelic rock into the hardcore sound, and there has simply never been another band that was able to achieve a similar sound.  Their entire second album stands as one of the greatest musical achievements in history, and Meat Puppets II is without question on "the list" of albums that everyone should experience firsthand.  The album showcases the band at the top of their musical game, and the Kirkwood brothers and Derrick Bostrom rarely sounded better than on that album.  Filled with a wide range of musical approaches, few songs in the Meat Puppets' catalog carry the same musical power as one finds in their 1984 classic, "Plateau."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17: Black Sheep, "The Choice Is Yours"

Artist: Black Sheep
Song: "The Choice Is Yours"
Album: A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
Year: 1991

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

In nearly every aspect one could think, the early 1990's were a breeding ground for creative musical endeavors.  From the blending of genres in ways like never before to great forays within individual genres themselves, there seemed to be no limit to what could be accomplished musically.  This fact is even more clear, as within modern music, there is rarely anything that is much more than a stale copy of a sound or style that had gained a bit of commercial success.  This idea of an almost repetitive nature is perhaps no more apparent than within the current hip-hop scene, and yet it is also this genre that showed the most diversity during the early 1990's.  Though "gangsta rap" was beginning to build steam, there was a large portion of the hip-hop scene that was paving new group in the genre, from dance-style hip-hop to more socially conscious rhymes.  Without question, it was New York City that was still the main source of new sounds within hip-hop, and it is that city which was one responsible for one of the most innovative groups of the era: Black Sheep.  Releasing only a handful of albums, it was Black Sheep that gave the world what endures as one of the most overall entertaining records of the decade with their fantastic 1991 debut, A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing.  Brilliantly witty and musically unique, everything that made Black Sheep so fantastic can be found in their unforgettable 1991 classic, "The Choice Is Yours."

The moment "The Choice Is Yours" begins, it is clearly unlike any other hip-hop song to date, and yet it somehow manages to fuse together all of the different trends that were making for successful hip-hop songs at the time.  It is also within the music that one can experience the wide range of influences of the members of Black Sheep, as the songs they choose to sample are from all across the musical spectrum.  "The Choice Is Yours" is built around the combination of a mesmerizing bassline and catchy hook, and it is created from samples of The Bar-Kay's "Humpin" and "Big Sur Suite" by, Johnny Hammond.  While these two samples on their own may not have seemed significant, the fact that the third song that is heavily used on "The Choice Is Yours" is in fact Iron Butterfly's "Her Favorite Style" not only shows the groups' diverse musical tastes, but also its depth, as one can easily argue that this Iron Butterfly song is one of the more obscure tunes in music history.  Regardless, the combination of these samples, along with some fresh sound effects and other small musical pieces results in one of the most truly perfect musical arrangements in hip-hop history.  The song is able to hit hard enough to have that "turn it up" quality, yet it is simultaneously laid-back enough that it has a smooth feeling that is unlike anything else in hip-hop history.  It si seemingly juxtaposing sounds that made "The Choice Is Yours" so unforgettable, and much the reason it remains so highly revered nearly twenty years later.

It goes without saying that the rhymes found on "The Choice Is Yours" are nothing short of phenomenal, and this is not all that surprising, as Black Sheep were one of the "affiliates" of Afrika Bambaataa's "Native Tongues" group.  Along with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers, it was this "crew" that made great forays into the more positively styles hip-hop music, and they paved the way for later groups like Jurassic 5 and Common.  This upbeat, almost jovial nature comes through clearly in the lyrics, as emcee Dres rolls out some of the finest lyrics ever recorded.  Unlike many of his peers, Dres' delivery is never anything but smooth and measured, and he rarely sounds as if he is forcing the words of pushing his voice.  It is this chilled-out mood that serves as the perfect finishing touch to the song, and his rhymes on "The Choice Is Yours" remain some of the most iconic in the history of the genre.  Over the past two decades, one can find many instances of his lyrics being "bitten" or slightly modified, and this serves as a testament to their lasting impact.  Truth be told, in an era filled with countless memorable lyrics, few have a similar staying power to the beginning of the songs' third verse, which states, "...engine engine number nine, on the New York Transit line..."  While one cannot make a valid argument as to "why" this lyric has endured, the fact remains that it has, and it is rhymes like this that have made "The Choice Is Yours" a true hip-hop classic.

Though it does not receive as much credit as many other albums of the era, one cannot deny the fact that Black Sheep's A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing remains one of the most artistically influential albums in all of hip-hop history.  From the fantastic mixture of musical samples to the unique delivery style and subject matter of the songs, the album is without question entertaining in a manner unlike any other record of the time.  It is this distinctive sound that enabled the song to rise on the charts, and it shot even higher with the release of the albums' third single, "The Choice Is Yours."  While the delivery may seem a bit lighter in nature than that of many of their peers, the power behind the words is no less, and the distinct nature of their artistic approach can be heard within the lines, "...never was a fool, so we finished school, never see us sweat and you'll never see us drool...out to rock the globe while it's still here to rock, don't punch girls, and we don't punch a clock..."  While at face value, the latter half of the rhyme may seem a bit silly, when put in the context of the other emcees of the time, it simultaneously lifted Black Sheep to a higher level, while blatantly pointing out the childish nature of many other rappers.  It is this more subtle aggression, combined with the superb rhyming style of Dres, backed by the perfectly executed music that has enabled Black Sheep's 1991 single, "The Choice Is Yours" to endure as one of the most iconic songs of the decade, as well as one of the greatest in the entire history of hip-hop music.

Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #33"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

1. Jane's Addiction, "Stop"  Ritual De Lo Habitual
2. Generation X, "One Hundred Punks"  Generation X
3. Roberta Flack, "Compared To What"  First Take
4. The Clash, "Police & Thieves"  The Clash
5. The Pharcyde, "Ya Mama"  Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
6. The Adverts, "One Chord WondersCrossing The Red Sea
7. ZZ Top, "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide"  Dëguello
8. The Damned, "Smash It Up Parts 1 & 2Machine Gun Etiquette
9. The Supremes, "Come See About Me"  Where Did Our Love Go?
10. The Fall, "The Past"  The Real New Fall LP (Formerly "Country On The Click")
11. Wirepony, "Atlantic Man"  Right Hook Of Love
12. David Byrne, "Why"  Grown Backwards
13. Nine Inch Nails, "The Becoming"  The Downward Spiral
14. Mississippi Fred McDowell, "Shake 'em On Down"  Live At The Mayfair Hotel