Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30: The Black Keys, "Just Got To Be"

Artist: The Black Keys
Song: "Just Got To Be"
Album: Magic Potion
Year: 2006

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it makes very little sense, it has become a rare occasion for a band to fully realize a sound that is truly authentic, completely free of studio "polish" and production.  While many bands attempt this sound, most try to replicate this sound within an overly expensive studio, and the results are almost always obvious.  However, there are a few bands, most bred in the punk rock ethos, that have found great success in this area by simply making a lo-fi sound by using a true lo-fi approach.  Standing high atop this new wave of bands that purposefully shun the studio glitz in favor of a more pure sound is the punk toned blues rock of the Akron, Ohio duo known as The Black Keys.  For nearly a decade, the pair have been proudly carrying the torch for truly talented bands, and their music stands as some of the most exciting and refreshing of their generation.  From their early experiments that were nearly psychedelic in sound to their gritty, more hardcore songs, The Black Keys have shown an amazing range in style, and yet the one consistent element that runs throughout is the fact that they are far more talented than a majority of their peers and have a clear understanding of how to write great songs.  After "label jumping" for a number of years, the group released their phenomenal debut for their own label in the form of 2006's Magic Potion, and the entire album shows that with every year, they manage to get better at their style of rock music.  Though every song on the album is superb, it is the opener, 2006's "Just Got To Be," that way very well be the bands' defining song and quickly shows why they are so superior to other current bands.

With only two players in the band, one might expect a more stripped down sound, and yet The Black Keys prove time and time again that they bring a power and punch that is far beyond other bands with two or three times the number of musicians.  It is this ability to bring out so much sonic brilliance that makes their music so fantastic, and "Just Got To Be" is a perfect representation of this idea.  Kicking off with feedback from the guitar of Dan Auerbach alongside the seemingly random drumming of Patrick Carney, it is almost as if the duo is warming up before their dive head-first into the songs' deep grooving sound.  Truth be told, the quick opening drumming is extremely reminiscent of the late breakdown portion of Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick," though it is often overlooked due to how briefly it is played.  Furthering this connection, the moment in which the pair drop into the more formal musical arrangement is also almost identical to the same moment with "Moby Dick."  Yet it is clear that this is more of a respectful nod as opposed to a rip-off, and it only makes "Just Got To Be" a more exciting musical experience.  As the song progresses, The Black Keys deploy a brilliantly bluesy feel, and yet there is an edge to the song that is unlike anything else previously recorded.  Auerbach's guitar is perfectly toned, and the distorted fuzz evokes the wide-range of influences that are clear in the bands' sound.  During the verses, it drops to a more restrained, but sonically superior blues progression, and the way in which they are able to seamlessly transition from the heavier sections to the more sparse arrangements is what makes both The Black Keys and "Just Got To Be" such fantastic musical constructs.

Matching the mood that is set into place by the music, the vocals of Dan Auerbach add a perfect finishing touch to the sound of The Black Keys, and the tone of his voice often matches the sound and mood of his guitar.  On "Just Got To Be," there is a bluesy style to Auerbach's singing that is rarely heard within modern music, and once again the feeling of a truly authentic performance is what makes it so fantastic.  Throughout "Just Got To Be," Auerbach deploys a fresh, gritty take on the classic blues sound, and although this fusion what rock and roll was based upon, it has rarely been performed as perfectly as one finds here.  Working the entire vocal range, it is both in his pitch as well as attitude that the talents of Auerbach's singing are shown to be beyond that of his peers.  Further adding to the overall impact of "Just Got To Be," the lyrics that Auerbach sings are unquestionably among the bands' finest, and much like the other aspects of their performance, they go far deeper than most of the other bands of their generation.  Taking one of the most uniquely brilliant approaches to the age-old theme of the "evil partner," Auerbach sings of a woman that "'re gonna be mislead, left fear encounters..."  Yet he spins the idea further with the chorus of, "... you just got to be, the best thing for me..."  This almost audible grin of the woman being a bad influence but "just what he wanted" is something to which everyone can relate, and it gives "Just Got To Be" an absolutely fantastic feel.

Time and time again, The Black Keys have proven that they are without question one of the most powerful and truly talented bands of their generation.  Completely ignoring the style and sound of the modern music scene, the duo are proud to show their influences through their unique style of blues, metal, and psychedelic rock.  While many current bands try and bring this lo-fi sound, the truth is, The Black Keys bring a louder and more aggressive style, and yet are able to seem more pure than their peers who try and sound "less produced."  This is a testament to the purity behind the bands' musical approach and shows that they are not "trying" to create this sound, it simply "is" who they are as a band.  Clearly understanding that their approach works perfectly, the duo rarely deviate from this format, and yet have managed to churn out more quality albums that nearly any other band over the past decade.  From the crashing cymbals of Carney to the fantastic tone of Auerbach's guitar to his wonderfully soulful singing, The Black Keys stand as the high-water mark for modern rock bands, as each of their albums continues to prove that there is no substitute for straightforward rock and roll music.  Due to the fact that nearly every one of their albums is flawless, it is beyond difficult to choose a "best" song, yet one can easily find everything that makes The Black Keys so superior to their peers within their stunning 2006 single, "Just Got To Be."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, "The Impression That I Get"

Artist: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
Song: "The Impression That I Get"
Album: Let's Face It
Year: 1997

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though there are a number of odd instances that occur regularly in the world of music, one of the most inexplicable is that of fans getting frustrated when their favorite band finds commercial success.  Regardless of what band members might say in public to keep their image intact, the "point" of making music is to bring it to the masses, and if a band has a great sound and real talent, one should not be surprised when this happens.  Yet within the world of so-called "indie" rock and the punk genres and and its offshoots, this seems to happen quite often, and the term "sell out" is thrown around with reckless abandon.  Even when this term is not used, there are countless examples of a band releasing a song that somes commercial success, and the song forever carrying the "poser" label with it, regardless of the quality of the song in question.  While there are many easy examples, few make as little sense as the success of one of the key bands in ska and the ska-metal sound: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.  Largely responsible for the blueprint of the ska resurgence of the 1990's, few bands even come close in equaling the sound and energy that The Bosstones deploy on nearly every one of their songs.  After spending the better part of a decade honing their sound, the band released their most complete album in the form of 1997's Let's Face It, and the rest of the world was introduced to their brilliant brand of musical genius.  Unquestionably their most well known song, but similarly their strongest musical effort and completely representative of their sound, there are few songs that are as a catchy and truly fun as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' 1997 single, "The Impression That I Get."

The band wastes no time in setting the tone on "The Impression That I Get," as it opens with a speedy, bright signature-ska style guitar riff from Nate Albert, and this sets both the tone as well as the tempo that runs throughout the entire song.  Quite literally, the entire band drops in at the same time a few moments later, and the horn trio deploys what is unquestionably one of the most catchy and authentic sounding riffs ever recorded.  Comprised of the saxophones of Tim "Johnny Vegas" Burton and Kevin Lenear, along with trombonist Dennis Brockenborough, it is within the sound of the horns that the soul and spirit of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones lives.  While the band certainly made inroads with their ska-metal hybrid, there is no question that this more traditional ska sound represents their true musical roots, as they are clearly more a two-tone band than they were a metal offshoot.  "The Impression That I Get" is also without question the bands' most complete sounding song, and this should be expected, as the band spent nearly three years working on Let's Face It.  During this time, the band managed to find a way to mix their high-energy ska sound with unforgettable, heavier choral sections, and it is this combination that drive "The Impression That I Get" up the charts.  Though many longtime fans dismissed the song due to its success, one cannot deny the irresistible sound that the musicians strong deploy throughout the track, and it is why more than a decade later, it retains its fresh and upbeat mood.

Though the music on "The Impression That I Get" may have appeared to be more two-tone in nature, the more "aggro" or metal based sound can still be heard within one of the most unmistakable voices in music history: Dicky Barrett.  With his gruff growl, there is simply no other singer that even remotely compares to Barrett, and "The Impression That I Get" highlights every aspect that makes his sound so fantastic.  From the almost spoken verses to the screams that serve as the bridge to the choruses, Barrett has rarely sounded as comfortable or as perfect as he does here, and there is not a moment where is vocals seem out of place or contrived, turning the song into one of the greatest "sing alongs" of the entire decade.  Much like the music, Barrett's voice has an unwavering, upbeat feel, and this once again points to the two-tone influence, and there is a great authenticity that can be felt with every word he sings.  It is within the lyrics that The Mighty Mighty Bosstones take another step from their previous work, as "The Impression That I Get" is a far deeper lyric and idea than their more well-known "good times, reckless party" themes that ran throughout their previous albums.  At times, Barrett seems to almost bring a confessional tone, as he speaks of the fears of his future that everyone has felt.  While every line of the song is perfectly constructed, the entire theme can be summed up when Barrett states, "...I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested...I'd like to think that if I was, I would pass..."  Combining thought-provoking lyrics with the strangely mesmerizing voice of Dicky Barrett, it is not surprising that "The Impression That I Get" became such a massive hit.

Due to all of these musical elements working as they did, "The Impression That I Get" shot up to the top of the charts, and since then, the song has been featured in a number of movies, video games, and other forms of media.  While many fans that claim to be "true" fans label this as a "sell out," the fact of the matter is, "The Impression That I Get" is an extraordinary piece of music, and it exposed the band to many new people that may have never heard their brilliant brand of ska.  It is this disconnect of fans that remains one of the most puzzling regular occurrences in music, as so-called "dedicated" fans seem to take it as offensive when the general public "discover" the greatness in a band they've been listening to for years.  In the case of "The Impression That I Get," it is inevitable that the song was going to be a massive success, as The Bosstones crafted one of the most perfect songs in history, and with their sound and mood, it was only a matter of time before "the masses" found out.  At its core, the song boasts one of the most unforgettable and irresistible horn lines ever composed, and the trademark ska-style on guitar highlights this fantastic progression even more.  Capped off by the signature sound of Dicky Barrett and perhaps the greatest lyric in the bands history, the song remains just as strong and enjoyable today, proving the unsurpassed perfection one finds in The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' 1997 single, "The Impression That I Get."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28: Miles Davis, "So What"

Artist: Miles Davis
Song: "So What"
Album: Kind Of Blue
Year: 1959

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are rather infrequent, there are a handful of moments in music history that one can point to as clear turning points in the progression of music.  While these moments can take on many forms, in most cases, they are either the debut of a new artist, or a work of an established artist that is so extraordinary, nothing after was the same.  Then of course, there are one or two artists where there are so many of these events, one can only try to track them on their personal timeline as the artist in question reshaped music time and time again.  With this in mind, one can easily make the case that over the past century, there was no other artist that provided as many "world changing" moments as one finds within the music of Miles Davis.  From his development of the West Coast "cool" sound of jazz to his wildly unique work during the psychedelic era, Davis spent nearly half a century reshaping the idea of "what" could constitute jazz, and proving that there were no limitations to this definition.  During this time, he released countless legendary records, but few hold the reverence and iconic status as his flawless 1959 album, Kind Of Blue.  Seen by many as "the" definitive jazz record, the album stands as the blueprint for countless jazz concepts, and it also boasts what may very well be the greatest grouping of musicians in history.  Though there is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, to understand Miles Davis, one need only experience his 1959 classic composition, "So What."

Truth be told, looking at the liner notes to Kind Of Blue is very much akin to reading the back cover of any generic book on jazz history.  The names go beyond the idea of an "all star" lineup, and there is no question that the sextet here represent the most impressive collection of musicians on one album in history.  Opening "So What" is piano giant Bill Evans and double bass master Paul Chambers, alongside drummer Jimmy Cobb.  This rhythm section is truly unparalleled, and the trio set a brilliant theme in motion, kicking off with a fantastic swing, as well as deploying Davis' trademark "cool" from the very top of the track.  In retrospect, "So What" boasts one of the stranger openings, as Evans and Chambers completely flesh out an extended solo before dropping into the compositions' main theme.  The drumming from Cobb is nothing short of stellar, and it is due to his playing that the track is able to keep its "cool" feel throughout, as his laid back approach is flawless.  It is this almost overly relaxed element that makes "So What" so unique, as even during the more pronounced soloing, the mellow mood never dissipates.  Due to this aspect, as well as the musical structure, "So What" represents the pinnacle of "modal jazz," and the thirty-two bar format in which the song was written makes the song far more accessible, as this is the style in which most pop songs are composed.  In terms of both structure, as well as the deployment of the backbone of the song, there is simply nothing that can compare to "So What."

While one can argue the unparalleled level of talent within the rhythm section, the trio that round out The Miles Davis Sextet is nothing short of unbelievable.  Standing as three of the most iconic names in all of jazz, on "So What," one finds Davis' trumpet complimented by the alto and tenor saxophone of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and none other than John Coltrane respectively.  Both Adderley and Coltrane take a turn working around Davis' theme, and there are few other moments in music history where one can so easily listen to the differences in stylistic approach of three jazz icons.  Adderley and Coltrane are both given all the space they need to deploy their sound, and there is a very light, likely unintentional echo that surrounds both of their performances, and this gives "So What" an almost ethereal mood.  Yet while both Adderley and Coltrane perform in phenomenal fashion, it is the composer, Davis himself, that delivers the most stunning performance.  After setting the opening pace and mood, Davis steps completely away from the track, letting the others work the song, but rejoins them all to help deliver what may very well be the "coolest" two minutes ever recorded.  Repeating a two-note progression as "So What" closes, Davis proves that it is often what you don't play that becomes more significant, and as "So What" ends, his matchless talent as both a composer and player become impossible to argue.

With his name alone, Miles Davis instantly demands the highest level of respect from any musician from any genre from any era.  Unquestionably one of the two or three most important musicians to ever record, it is impossible to fully capture how much impact Davis had on the development of music in general.  While one can take a recording from any of the many phases of his musical career, it is his 1959 album, Kind Of Blue, that truly rewrote the books on music.  Due to both his own musical vision, as well as the fact that he was surrounded by five other legends of jazz, the album remains the quintessential jazz recording more than five decades later.  Though each of the five tracks on the album are brilliant in their own right, it is "So What" that perfectly displays everything that makes both Davis and this grouping so extraordinary.  Looking at "So What" as a whole, while the song itself is rather simple, it is the unsurpassed manner in which each of the musicians approaches the arrangement that makes it so impressive, and it is perhaps this brilliant simplicity that makes the song so amazing.  The combination of the unwavering "cool" from Cobb behind the powerful, yet controlled performances from the horn section is something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  Though his name alone is often intimidating to "casual" music fans, in every sense of the word, Miles Davis' 1959 recording, "So What" is as essential and musically perfect as one will find anywhere else in the entire history of recorded music.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #39"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

1. Van Halen, "Hot For Teacher1984
2. King Khan & The Shrines, "Sweet Tooth"  The Supreme Genius Of King Khan And The Shrines
3. Fats Waller, "Handful Of Keys"  Ain't Misbehavin'
4. deadboy and The Elephantmen, "What The Stars Have Eaten"  We Are Night Sky
5. T. Rex, "Cosmic Dancer"  Electric Warrior
6. The Clash, "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad"  Give 'em Enough Rope
7. Cowboy Junkies, "If You Gotta Go, Go Now"  Rarities, B-Sides, And Slow, Sad Waltzes
8. Tool, "Sober"  Undertow
9. The Lemonheads, "Hannah & Gabi"  It's A Shame About Ray
10. Soccer Team, "All The Walkers Home"  "Volunteered" Civility & Professionalism
11. Rage Against The Machine, "Sleep Now In The FireThe Battle Of Los Angeles
12. The Avett Brothers, "Ten Thousand Words"  I And Love And You
13. Gorilla Biscuits, "Start Today"  Start Today
14. Beastie Boys, "Sure Shot"  Ill Communication
15. The Stooges, "Fun House"  Fun House

Sunday, September 26, 2010

September 26: Ween, "Roses Are Free"

Artist: Ween
Song: "Roses Are Free"
Album: Chocolate And Cheese
Year: 1994

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though making truly unique music is a very difficult process that takes great amounts of dedication, it is often the bands that take themselves less seriously that end up producing the most intriguing songs with this approach.  Yet even when a band does succeed in this manner, it is usually short lived, and the band returns to a more novelty type sound soon thereafter.  Then of course, there is Ween.  Without question one of the strangest bands in history, their songs often border on offensive and are even more commonly outright nonsensical.  However, at the same time the band manages to prove time and time again that they know few peers when it comes to sheer musical talent, and their odd brand of psychedelic-pop remains a sound unmatched by any other group in history.  From their unforgettable first single, "Push The Little Daisies" to their strangely extraordinary album, 12 Golden Country Greats, Ween has proved over the past two decades that there is no sound or style in which they cannot achieve greatness, and the band showed all their musical sides on their 1994 record, Chocolate And Cheese.  Taking time to pay tribute to the late Eddie Hazel, as well as recording a pair of songs that may very well be their most offensive, Chocolate And Cheese has something for every musical fan, and one can experience everything that makes the music of Ween so fantastic in their 1994 song, "Roses Are Free."

There is truly no way to accurately describe the music that Ween plays, as it pulls from so many genres, and yet simultaneously seems to be nothing short of a musical anomaly.  The odd way in which the drums of Patricia Frey Stephan bounce across the track is unlike anything else in history, and the way in which the keyboards bring an almost carnival-like feel shows how Ween deploys psychedelic bliss for a new generation.  Adding to this distinctive sound is the bass of Mean Ween, which lends an almost sci-fi mood to the song, yet never seems out of place.  It is the distortion that is lain over nearly every instrument that gives "Roses Are Free" its distinctive sound, and the guitars from Gene and Dean Ween are no different.  Whether it is the oddly syncopated chords of the magnificent, soaring solos, the guitar work on "Roses Are Free" is nothing short of phenomenal, and it is in this aspect of the music that the groups roots in rock become most apparent.  The combined sound that runs throughout "Roses Are Free" is indescribable, as the circus-like elements are oddly balanced by the rock grandeur of the guitar solos, all the time sporting a strange groove.  This, in many ways, is the genius of Ween, as it is impossible to describe "what" it is that makes their music so amazing yet impossible to deny the fact that it is extraordinary in a way unlike anything else ever recorded.  This strange juxtaposition is the magic that makes "Roses Are Free" such a fantastic musical feat.

Using a very similar distortion to that found on the music, the vocals of Gene Ween come off as just as strange, yet brilliant.  Throughout the entire Ween catalog, Gene Ween has shown he is one of the most skilled and courageous singers of his generation, and his voice is impossible to mistake for any other.  Often singing in a style that seems detached from the music, he shows no boundaries to his vocal range, and often concentrates on using various modulators to alter the tone of his voice.  On "Roses Are Free," it often sounds like he was sucking helium before recording, and yet there is a strange authenticity to his singing.  This ability to simultaneously be silly and serious also comes through in the lyrics, as "Roses Are Free" features what is perhaps Ween's finest contrasting of the nonsensical and the philosophical.  Built around the idea that "nothing comes for free," the group uses a number of clear and abstract metaphors to convey this idea, and it is lines like, "... push it into third if you know you're gonna climb that hill..." that can be interpreted on a number of levels.  The fact that group was able to place such profound thoughts into what seems like a silly musical arrangement is the true genius of Ween, and why they clearly grasped the entire idea of the psychedelic movement in a way that no other group was able to understand.

With so many clashing sounds and ideas present, Ween shows their clear understanding of music in the fact that "Roses Are Free" never seems cluttered or chaotic, and it is instead a musical masterpiece unlike any other ever recorded.  Unquestionably some of the most talented performers of their generation, Ween is able to balance the playful and experimental nature of psychedelic music with the apathy and attitude of punk rock.  Truth be told, there has never been another band even remotely like Ween, and on every one of their songs, all the amazing talent and thought process that makes them so unique is easy to see.  "Roses Are Free" has taken on an almost second life, as jam-band legends Phish have pulled the song into quite regular rotation, and it has become a fan favorite within that community as well as within the legions of Ween fans.  Displaying a clear understanding of how to maker a song dramatic, the music on "Roses Are Free" has a stunning sense of movement, and though the tempo stays consistent throughout, the music seems to gain and slow in speed as the song plays out.  All of these juxtapositions that occur during "Roses Are Free" serve as a testament to the unparalleled level of talent within the four members of Ween, and it is perhaps their laid back attitude that helps to make their music so uniquely wonderful.  From the wild mood to the perfectly distorted instrumentation to the unforgettable lyrics, there is simply no other song that can compare to Ween's 1994 song, "Roses Are Free."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

September 25: Led Zeppelin, "Rock & Roll"

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Song: "Rock & Roll"
Album: Led Zeppelin IV
Year: 1971

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

For some bands, one can argue for ages about their greatness and exactly how high they should be on the "best bands of all time" list.  For these elite groups, even the mere mention of their name demands the highest respect, and one can instantly hear a handful of their songs in their head.  While these few bands are scattered across the decades, during the late 1960's and early 1970's, many of these iconic bands were in their prime, shaping the landscape of music for decades to come.  Keeping one foot firmly in the blues, and using the other to turn up the volume as loud as possible, there are few bands worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the mighty Led Zeppelin.  From their legendary ballads to their heavy-metal creating rock songs, Led Zeppelin stand as one of the most pivotal bands in history, and it was as much their musical talents as their recording innovations and personas that helped to mold the world of music into its current form.  With a band of such magnitude, it is almost impossible to pick a single song as their "best," as their music has such a broad scope that one is almost forced to only discuss a particular style that Led Zeppelin performed.  However, there is one song that represents everything that makes the band so extraordinary, and it lives on in the form of Led Zeppelin's 1971 masterpiece, "Rock & Roll."

Looking at the album it came from as a whole, Led Zeppelin IV, "Rock & Roll" stands as one of eight amazing songs, as the album itself stands as one of the finest in history.  However, though it is perhaps overshadowed by a pair of songs on that record, it is nonetheless the most true to the sound of the band.  Opening the musical assault is one of the most phenomenal and unforgettable uses of a ride cymbal in history, as the great John Bonham absolutely destroys the song, never letting up his energy or speed for even a moment.  As he did on a number of Led Zeppelin songs, Bonham sounds as if he is trying to smash his drum kit to pieces, and one cannot deny the impact this surely had on drummers of heavy metal, hardcore, and punk music.  Quickly entering the frey alongside Bonham is guitar god Jimmy Page, and he rips one of the most iconic riffs in history.  His performance throughout "Rock & Roll" is absolutely unforgettable, and yet it is perhaps due to the simplicity to the main chord progressions that the song has been covered so many times since.  Rounding out the bands' sound is the perfect bass work from John Paul Jones, and it is within his playing that the groove of Led Zeppelin lived.  Regardless of the era, "Rock & Roll" is one of the most hard rocking and fierce songs ever recorded, and remains a track that demands to be played at maximum volume nearly four decades after it was first released.

For a band to be as legendary as Led Zeppelin has become, there must be one element that somehow outshines the other, and in the case of Led Zeppelin, it was the voice and persona of Robert Plant.  Without question, it was Plant that set much of the tone and style of the "modern" rock star, and both his appearance and general demeanor have become nearly as legendary as the bands' music.  Robert Plant's voice is also one of the most recognizable in history, and on "Rock & Roll," he once again shows that it knows no limits.  In many ways seeming as if he is competing with the instruments for the spotlight, Plant's voice is able to jump off of the track and bring a volume that was simply unparalleled at the time.  The fact that he is able to stay in key whilst clearly pushing his vocals to the limit is a testament to his amazing skill as a singer.  It is this phenomenal energy and swagger, which match the music over which he is singing, where Plant takes a slightly more refined lyrical approach than one finds in a majority of Led Zeppelin's songs about women.  This time around, Plant penned a strangely dramatic lament about having gone some time without "rock and roll," which he deploys as a not-so-subtle euphemism.  Again, the lyrical pattern matches the music in that it is set up as a basic blues song, and this was the case for a majority of Zeppelin's songs.  Yet it is due to how Plant delivers these vocals that make them anything but "basic," and it is the final element that makes "Rock & Roll" such a timeless song.

Truth be told, "Rock & Roll" is actually a rather well disguised tribute to the early days of rock music.  Musically, it is a simple twelve-bar blues progression, and the opening drum and cymbal pattern was largely inspired by Little Richard's "Keep A Knockin'."  Furthermore, on the tail-end of the song, one can hear the piano played by Ian Stewart, and this draws yet another connection to the early days of rock and roll.  Robert Plant takes this yet another step, as the lyrics clearly reference a number of old songs, including "Book Of Love" and "The Stroll" among many others.  These links are rather fitting, as the song perfectly blends the old-school ideas with the new sounds of the day, and it makes it clear what an important bridge was created by the music of Led Zeppelin.  Facts such as these are often lost behind the mystique and sound of the band, but one cannot deny the fact that they remain some of the most talented musicians in history, and it can be easily argued that their combined talent remains unmatched to this day.  Whether it is the blistering barrage from Bonham or the crushing chords and soloing from Page, "Rock & Roll" has a mood and pace unlike any other song in history, and the deep rooted basswork from Jones proves the true might of this extraordinary band.  Topped off by the iconic vocals of Plant, there are perhaps no other bands worthy of being mentioned alongside Led Zeppelin, and it is within songs like their 1971 single, "Rock & Roll," that their place as true music legends is cemented.

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24: Morphine, "Whisper"

Artist: Morphine
Song: "Whisper"
Album: Yes
Year: 1995

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though there are many challenges within the world of making music, few have proved to be more difficult than being truly original.  To develop and execute a sound that has no direct linage is what can make a band truly legendary, as the performers who have done this are very few and far between.  Taking this into account, when a band attempts to play rock style music, yet makes a point to NOT have a guitar in the group, their sound is certainly going to be unique.  This was precisely the approach taken by the band Morphine, and the resulting music remains some of the most amazing ever recorded, and few bands have been able to convey moods comparable to those found on nearly every one of their songs.  Pulling elements of jazz, blues, funk, and even heavy metal, there is simply no other band that even sounds remotely similar to Morphine, as the band was able to take any tempo, any musical theme, or any mood and spin their unique sound around it, proving that rock music could be played masterfully without the traditional instrumentation.  Releasing four brilliant records before the tragic passing of frontman Mark Sandman, they achieved musical perfection in the form of their 1995 masterpiece, Yes.  Filled with deep, dark melodies and the bands' distinctive sound, there are few songs that more accurately represent the amazing musical approach of Morphine than their 1995 song, "Whisper."

The song begins with a smooth, slow, swaying sound that is put into place by a breathtaking, yet simple bassline from Sandman, and it is this element that often served as the trademark sound of Morphine's music.  This murky swing is strangely sensual, and it immediately pulls the listener into the song, enveloping them in a mood that perfectly reflects the bands' name.  Drummer Billy Conway backs it with a rather jazzy rhythm, again keeping things simple, and using his ride cymbal in magnificent fashion.  This sequence repeats for a majority of the song, as the one element that sets Morphine far apart from their peers, the saxophone of Dana Colley, seems to almost be playing a response to each of the vocals.  There are also brief piano pieces from Sandman that sit far back in the mix, yet complete the amazing depth found on "Whisper."  Instead of a guitar solo, Colley takes off on a stunning sax solo, and he seems to be purposefully over-blowing, yet the resulting sound is the epitome of Morphine's extraordinary musical approach.  With the phenomenal level of musicianship by the trio, it is clear that they are all in sync with one another, and this leads to the amazing mood, as they manage to get deeper and deeper into the thick, almost desperate feeling, and few songs of any era or genre can even remotely compare to the extraordinary musical work found on "Whisper."

While one cannot overstate the brilliance of the musical arrangement, Morphine's music simply would not be the same without the distinctive vocal sound and style of Mark Sandman.  With one of the most deep, yet completely raw voices ever recorded, Sandman's vocals are just as mesmerizing as the music, and the combination of the two is what makes the music of Morphine so fantastic.  Often sounding strangely detached from the music, Sandman had a truly poetic vocal approach, understanding that it was often where the vocals were NOT being sung that made them perfect.  Furthering this poetic sound, his lyrics were often more stream-of-consciousness than anything else, yet on songs like "Whisper," one can see his amazing ability to pen simple, yet beautiful phrases.  Capturing true intimacy in a way unlike any other lyricist in history, there is an uncomplicated beauty when Sandman sings, "...when there's nothing more I'd like to do than come in close and hear you laugh..."  It is these more subtle sentiments that make "Whisper" such a uniquely sensual song, and the words perfectly reflect the songs' title.  The combination of the music and Mark Sandman's fantastic vocals give the song a mood unlike anything else, and the listener can easily find themselves in a smokey, quiet club, and the words can just as easily been delivered to a stranger as they could to an old love.  The way in which the words can be adapted to many situations, and the soft, almost sultry sound the band achieves pushes "Whisper" to nothing short of musical perfection.

Though "Whisper" has many elements of jazz and funk within it, the song is able to keep a rock feel for the entire time, and the fact that Morphine achieves this without a guitar serves as a testament to their amazing musical vision.  Proving that there is something to be said or simplicity and subtlety, throughout their entire career, Morphine showed an uncanny ability to work more delicate arrangements into breathtaking musical masterpieces that were far beyond the work of any of their peers.  The basslines that Mark Sandman deployed over the years remain some of the finest of his generation, and the fact that all three members of the band were able to contribute to the superb moods found on each of their songs serves as a testament to the unmatched level of musicianship within the trio.  Though it lacked the indie-pop appeal of their previous album, the band made a truly perfect record in the form of 1995's Yes, and every song on it serves a purpose, making the combined sound a true musical gem.  Representing everything that makes Morphine such a special band, "Whisper" displays their unparalleled sound and style, and there are few songs in the bands' catalog that share a similar depth and mood.  From the stunning saxophone to the perfect rhythmic groove to the almost seductive vocals, there is simply no other song worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Morphine's 1995 masterpiece, "Whisper."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23: Sly & The Family Stone, "I Want To Take You Higher"

Artist: Sly & The Family Stone
Song: "I Want To Take You Higher"
Album: Stand!
Year: 1969

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they can often cause an almost unlistenable musical chaos, when a band properly mixes together many different genres, the results are almost always legendary.  To properly execute such an endeavor, a band must have an exceptionally high level of musical talent, as well as the vision of at least one member that can mix the different styles in the correct proportions.  Over their career, there were few groups that did this in as consistently brilliant fashion and influenced so many later bands then funk-soul-rock-disco pioneers, Sly & The Family Stone.  Throughout the end of the 1960's and the early 1970's, few bands showed as much successful musical experimentation, and Sly & The Family Stone were also able to embed strong messages in most of their music without ever sounding preachy.  Whether the band was playing simple, yet unforgettable songs like "Sing A Simple Song," or they were performing one of their many blistering civil rights anthems, few bands captured the entire spirit and sound of the era as accurately as one finds within the music of Sly & The Family Stone.  Though they had a number of great records, few can compare to the overall impact of their 1969 album, Stand!, as the album highlights everything that makes the band so significant.  Boasting a number of unforgettable songs, few show a similar level of perfect musical mixture as well as unrestrained joy as one finds within Sly & The Family Stone's 1969 classic, "I Want To Take You Higher."

As "I Want To Take You Higher" begins, the strong funk element is immediately clear, and yet there is a unique psychedelic mood which comes from it, making it unlike anything that had been recorded previously.  In many ways, this sound can be seen as the pinnacle of what Sly Stone had been working toward on his previous efforts, and this sound has been copied countless times since.  The guitar form Freddie Stone is a bit restrained in comparison to his other work, yet it still packs the same groove that defines many of the bands' songs.  However, one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive performance by a rhythm section anywhere than is found on "I Want To Take You Higher."  The pairing of drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham is able to deliver one of the most powerful, well paced cadences in the history of music, and yet there remains a fantastic swing and groove throughout their performance.  Capped off by the bright, almost screaming horn section of Jerry Martini and Cynthia Robinson, it is not hard to understand why their performance at the Woodstock Music And Arts Festival remains widely regarded as the highlight of the weekend.  However, the one element that sets "I Want To Take You Higher" far apart from the rest of the bands' catalog is the blistering blues harmonica that is played by Sly himself.  Adding yet another style into the mix, it is this aspect that makes "I Want To Take You Higher" a true classic and one of the greatest songs of one of the strongest musical eras in history.

Along with the unique sound of his band, the way that Sly Stone sings and shares the vocal duties on his songs are yet another way in which they were unlike any of their peers.  While in most cases, group vocals were reserved only for chorus sections, it is the fact that many of their verses feature this approach that gives their music an almost gospel feel.  On "I Want To Take You Higher," Sly, Freddie, and Rose Stone, along with Larry Graham all take turns on lead vocals, and while each of them sounds fantastic, it is their combined effort that makes the song truly soar.  It is also this shared sound that makes the song anthemic, as it almost forces the listener to sing along, and this was always one of the key elements that made the music of Sly & The Family Stone so special.  Yet "I Want To Take You Higher" is a bit different than most of the bands' catalog, as there is no strong political or social message, instead standing as a celebration of the joy of music.  The vocals and music build to an amazing level on the track, and both of them create a perfect example for the lyrics which are being sung.  Trading off lines, the essence of the song is perfectly captured in the lyrics, "...feeling that should make you move...sounds that should help you groove..."  Even during the nonsensical lyrical portions, the vocals are superb, and few songs so accurately represent themselves as one finds in "I Want To Take You Higher."

Strangely enough, "I Want To Take You Higher" was never released as a single, instead becoming the b-side to the albums' title track.  The fact that these two songs were paired together instantly makes that single one of the greatest in history, as it in man ways shows both sides of the personality of Sly & The Family Stone.  Fusing together elements of funk, rock, gospel, soul, and a number of other genres, "I Want To Take You Higher" expresses a love for music in a way like no other, and it is much the reason the song remains such a classic all these decades later.  Not only did this song set a blueprint for psychedelic funk, but one can also hear early sounds of what would become disco within the brilliant rhythm section on the track.  Whether it is the bright, almost overblown horns, the deep groove of the rhythm section, the dancing guitar work or the unmistakable harmonica, there is something for every music lover to be found on "I Want To Take You Higher," and this in many ways is exactly the purpose put forth within the lyrics.  The final element that makes Sly & The Family Stone such legends can also be experienced on this song, as it features their trademark ability to spin unforgettable, yet wordless musical hooks.  Taking all of these pieces together as one, Sly & The Family Stone were a musical powerhouse unlike any other band in history, and one can experience everything that makes their music so fantastic in the form of their 1969 song, "I Want To Take You Higher."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "The Mercy Seat"

Artist: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Song: "The Mercy Seat"
Album: Tender Prey
Year: 1988

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though every artist has their influences, it is often within the music of those performers who created their style from multiple predecessors where one finds the most unique and intriguing sounds.  In reality, it is hard to find any successful artist that pulls their sound from only one source, yet as a musician reveals more of his influences, the sounds they are able to create grow proportionately.  Taking this to its extreme, over the past three decades, few artists have shown as much musical diversity and creativity as one finds in the music of Australia's Nick Cave.  From his ferocious early years with The Birthday Party to his recent hard-rock brilliance with Grinderman, as the years pass, he seems to defy tradition and get better.  Yet it has been his main band, The Bad Seeds, with which he has had the longest tenure and released some of his greatest musical efforts.  Clearly masters of hard-rock chaos as much as they are able to work the intricacies of softer arrangements, it is within this setting that Cave has been able to fully explore all of the sides of his personality, and it is also where his wide range of influences blend together in stunning fashion.  Due to the superior level of talent within the band, it is nearly impossible to choose a "best" Bad Seeds record or song, yet one cannot deny the amazing change to the bands' sound that occurred with 1988's Tender Prey.  With all the parts coming together, there is perhaps no more perfect a representation of the phenomenal talents of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds than their 1988 single, "The Mercy Seat."

The most significant difference between Tender Prey and the previous efforts of The Bad Seeds was the addition of guitarist and keyboard player Rowland Wolf along with ex-Gun Club and Cramps guitarist, Kid Congo Powers.  From the onset of the song, the tension builds, with the almost military drum cadence from Thomas Wydler.  Swirling around this are the guitars of Wolf and then-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and there is an unsettling chaos that comes from the almost simple progression that the two follow.  Seeming to present a rhythmic contrast to the drumming, Mick Harvey pulls double duty, as he plays both piano and bass on "The Mercy Seat," and it this composition that can be argued as the best Cave/Harvey collaboration.  Nick Cave himself also plays on the song, as the gothic sounding Hammond organ playing comes from him, and the combined sound of all these instruments conveys an emotion that is unlike anything else ever recorded.  The gloom that hangs over the track is undeniable, yet it is spooky and unsettling in a unique way, and it manages to avoid coming off as clich√© and is one of the few truly frightening tracks ever recorded.  The music perfectly reflects the setting of the song, as it has an almost manic quality, and the manner in which the instruments seem to tear across the track at random turns "The Mercy Seat" into one of the most captivating recordings ever made.

Playing a fantastic compliment to the music, the vocals, whether spoken or sung, bring a similar quality of nervous tension, and the feeling of desperation becomes almost overwhelming.  Truth be told, there are few vocalists in history that have shown as much artistic range and personality as one finds in Nick Cave.  Showing no limits in terms of emotion or pitch, on "The Mercy Seat," Cave does everything from the mumbled opening to shouting at points on the song, and this captures the complete personality of the character he is describing.  It is this sort of raw theatrics that make Nick Cave such a magnetic singer, and yet he is able to do so without ever coming off as "going too far," and on "The Mercy Seat," he becomes impossible to ignore.  Working brilliantly within the confines of his character, Cave delivers a chilling tale from the viewpoint of a man walking to meet his fate via an electric chair.  Though some argue that the vocals are somewhat lost on the original version due to the wild music swirling around them, one cannot deny that the impact of the song remains intact, and it is lyrics like, "...and anyway I told the truth, and I'm not afraid to die..." that play out like the finest film thriller, as well as force the consideration of the deep philosophical idea of capital punishment being "merciful" on some level..  However, the song grows more intense and sinister as it progresses, with the truth of the crime being revealed at the end, and the way in which Nick Cave plays out this dramatic tale shows both his unmatched talent as a story-teller, as well as his extraordinary vocal talents.

The way in which Nick Cave spins this dark tale immediately brings to mind the songs of one of his biggest influences: Johnny Cash.  One cannot argue that in an odd way, "The Mercy Seat" would have fit within the Cash catalog perfectly, and more than a decade after its initial release, Cash in fact put his own spin on the song, releasing it on his American III: Solitary Man album.  One also cannot overlook the various live versions that have been released, as it is within these takes on the song that the vocals become more prominent, and the overall intensity of the song becomes more clear.  On their B-Sides And Rarities collection, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds also released an acoustic version of "The Mercy Seat," and it is quite interesting to hear all the different interpretations of this song which remains dark like no other recording.  The entire band perfectly captures the spirit of the song, as the scattered, nervous energy they convey is nothing short of stunning, and this is a testament to the exceptional level of talent within each member of The Bad Seeds.  Capped off by the absolutely magnificent vocal display from Nick Cave, "The Mercy Seat" is in a class all its own, and even the band themselves had trouble ever reaching this height of musical perfection again in their career.  Pulling elements from styles as far reaching as country and heavy metal, there is simply nothing ever recorded that can be compared to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' 1988 musical epic, "The Mercy Seat."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21: Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne"

Artist: Leonard Cohen
Song: "Suzanne"
Album: Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While there are many fascinating trends within the decades of recorded music that can be explored, one of the most enjoyable is looking at the inversely proportional relationship between how quiet a song is versus the overall level of musical perfection.  This comes to be due to the fact that it is far more difficult to hide shortcomings or errors within the confines of a more stripped down musical arrangement, as opposed to louder songs where one can almost "hide" behind the wall of sound.  Oddly enough, many of the best examples of this ability for more hushed performers to reach great musical heights have occurred during times when far more aggressive musical norms were the trend, and the bursting rock and psychedelic scenes of the late 1960's was certainly one of those moments.  It was during this time period that many new styles of music were born, and one of the most unique was the unforgettable blend of folk music and beat poetry that can be heard within the music of the great Leonard Cohen.  Without question one of the most influential and talented performers in history, Cohen in many ways re-defined "quiet" music, as his songs were often stripped completely bare of anything more than a lone guitar and his voice.  It is due to this that his songs carry with them some of the most powerful moods ever, and one can experience everything that is the genius of Leonard Cohen in his 1967 masterpiece, "Suzanne."

It is on "Suzanne" that one truly realized how much can be accomplished with so little, as the music of the song is little more than a lone guitar.  The progression the guitar follows is also rather basic, and yet the melody is completely captivating and is able to convey a mood unlike nearly any other song ever recorded.  From the moment "Suzanne" begins, there is a gloomy, almost mystical mood that is further enforced by the tone of the guitar as well as the overall "empty" feeling that is presented in every aspect of the song.  This is perhaps where Cohen's background as a writer and poet come into play, as he clearly had a far greater understanding of mood and creating dramatic scenes than a majority of his peers.  Along with the unforgettable guitar work, there is a small string section that makes a brief appearance, and it is this element that gives "Suzanne" an almost spiritual feel, as the song seems to soar away, making it unlike anything else ever recorded.  The combination of the two sounds gives the song an almost classical feel, and though it seems to be a folk instrumentation, one can easily hear just how far away from folk the song is, and it is much the reason "Suzanne" remains in a category all its own.  One can pick out elements of Latin music, folk, jazz, and even blues within "Suzanne," and the fact that so much is at play within such a stripped down sound cements the legend and matchless musical genius that is Leonard Cohen.

Though this musical element is unlike anything else ever recorded, it is possible to make the case that even without the music, "Suzanne" would have been a hit, as Leonard Cohen possesses one of the most unmistakable and captivating voices in history.  His strong, deep voice helps to capture and push forward the setting of being on along the river in Montreal, and his direct, clear singing helps to paint one of the finest musical pictures in history.  Truth be told, "Suzanne" was written about a very specific woman; the wife of Canadian sculptor, Armand Vaillancourt.  Though the song strongly implies that there was some sort of relationship between the two, over the decades they have both confirmed that at the time the song was written, they had met only one or two times, and that is perhaps why "Suzanne" has been able to become a song with a far more universal feel.  However, the picture that Cohen paints throughout the song remains largely unmatched, as it is vivid on a level unlike any other song, and one can easily picture the small room on a cold river.  It is perhaps due to his writing background that Cohen can achieve this, as the small details, like the oranges and tea, or the way Suzanne is dressed make the song move far beyond its peers.  Yet the words also have a strange, almost haunting feel to them, and it is this unexpected contrast, along with the deep, almost soothing voice of Leonard Cohen that makes "Suzanne" such an unforgettable musical achievement.

Adding to the case for the iconic status of "Suzanne" is the amount it has been used and covered over the decades by a wide range of artists.  Performers from Judy Collins to Nina Simone to Nick Cave have all made their own recordings, and the influence of Cohen's style can be heard in the music of groups like R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel.  Due to these facts, one cannot deny the lasting impact of Leonard Cohen, yet it is almost unimaginable that his distinctive sound could get a firm foothold during an era when loud, psychedelic rock was overshadowing nearly every other style of music.  However, it is perhaps due to the dark, somewhat menacing mood to his songs that made them so appealing, as this aspect sets them far apart from folk and into a category all their own.  Leonard Cohen's entire 1967 debut is filled with such songs, and it is within this album that one sees "Suzanne" is not a "one off" achievement, and it is difficult to find even the slightest fault in any song on that record.  While many artists were able to hide their musical imperfections behind the volume of the songs, Leonard Cohen places his talents out in an unguarded, straightforward fashion, and this feeling of honesty and authenticity is one of the reasons his songs have endured the decades.  Writing what may very well be the strangest, perhaps creepiest, yet undeniably beautiful ode to a woman ever recorded, there is simply no other song quite like Leonard Cohen's 1967 classic, "Suzanne."

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #38"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

1. Urge Overkill, "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon"  Stull EP
2. Guns N' Roses, "14 Years"  Use Your Illusion II
3. The Cramps, "Garbageman"  Songs The Lord Taught Us
4. The Fugees, "Zealots"  The Score
5. The Cranberries, "Put Me Down"  Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
6. Soul Asylum, "Never Really Been (live)"  Runaway Train (single)
7. Dinosaur Jr., "I Got Lost"  Beyond
8. Slayer, "Angel Of Death"  Reign In Blood
9. The Pixies, "Debaser"  Doolittle
10. The Clash, "I'm Not Down"  London Calling
11. Alice In Chains, "Right Turn"  Sap
12. 311, "Guns (Are For Pussies)"  311
13. Ween, "Drifter In The Dark"  Chocolate & Cheese
14. Groove Armada, "Suntoucher"  Goodbye Country

Sunday, September 19, 2010

September 19: Dead Kennedys, "Holiday In Cambodia"

Artist: Dead Kennedys
Song: "Holiday In Cambodia"
Album: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
Year: 1980

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While every genre gets a bad reputation for one reason or another, and often leads to people writing off the entire genre, there are always artists that stand in strong defiance to the perceived norms of that style and prove that anything can be done in any musical style.  This is perhaps no more true than in the genre of punk rock, as a majority of people write off the entire genre as little more than unskilled, teen-angst ridden rock.  Though much of the genre could be cited as such, it was bands like The Clash that proved that there was far more that could be achieved through the medium both in terms of musicality as well as placing a message within the lyrics.  In many ways, this is what kick-started the "hardcore" movement, and there are few bands that represent the punk-hardcore hybrid as brilliantly as one finds in the music of San Francisco's Dead Kennedys.  In less than a decade, The Dead Kennedys proved just how far one could push the limits of the punk and hardcore sounds, as they creates some of the most unique songs in the history of both genres, and became one of the most highly respected bands on the planet.  Often injecting strong political ideas into their music, there were few bands that could pull off the sense of irony that is found in many of their songs, and this is one of the most defining aspects of their music.  Though the band had a number of classic songs, there are few that better display all of the bands greatness than one finds in their 1980 single, "Holiday In Cambodia."

As "Holiday In Cambodia" begins, the unique way in which The Dead Kennedys blend together punk and hardcore is immediately apparent, and the song also gains an unsettling sense of darkness right from the onset.   The bassline from "Klaus Fluoride" (real name: Geoffrey Lyall) is one of the most recognizable in the history of the genre, and it packs an amazing amount of mood, making it clear that "Holiday In Cambodia" was not going to be a "normal" punk or hardcore song.  As guitarist "Easy Bay Ray" (real name: Ray Pepperell) enters the song, he brings an almost psychedelic sound with his playing, and the way in which his guitar seems to bounce and echo across the track is strangely reminiscent of the sounds of The Stooges.  There s no question that the punk "soul" of "Holiday In Cambodia" lives within the drumming of "Ted" (real name: Bruce Slesinger), as the speed and ferocity with which he plays is punk rock at its very best.  It is on "Holiday In Cambodia" that one can hear how the ideas of punk and hardcore music are about the spirit as opposed to a specific sound, and it is much the reason that all these years later, the song does not sound in the least bit dated and stands as one of the greatest songs in the history of the genre.  The song brings a fantastic punch, yet the playing of the three musicians keeps an almost breathtaking sense of careening movement throughout the entire song, making it absolutely unforgettable.

However, while the musical assault on "Holiday In Cambodia" is absolutely phenomenal, The Dead Kennedys are clearly nothing without the unmistakable voice of Jello Biafra (real name: Eric Boucher).  With an almost nasal-sound, the slightly sung vocals that are found throughout the catalog of The Dead Kennedys are perhaps their most identifiable aspect, as there are few singers who were able to bring a similar sense of sarcasm and irony quite like Biafra.  While most of the songs of The Dead Kennedys take aim at a single subject, on "Holiday In Cambodia," Biafra crafts a brilliant lyric that goes after both the songs' title, as well as a not-so-subtle slam on the complacency within the culture of the United States.  Biafra goes even further than just stating the two ideas, as he manages to place them in brilliant juxtaposition with one another, contrasting the phrases, " ethnicy jazz to parade your snazz on your five grand stereo..." and "...well you'll work harder with a GUN in your back for a bowl of rice a day..."  This contrast, between the spoiled American youth and those under the brutal regime of Pol Pot, may seem a bit extreme, but the fact of the matter is, even more than three decades later, one can draw similar parallels around the world.  Biafra is unrelenting in his attack on both subjects, and it is songs like "Holiday In Cambodia" that have helped the punk and hardcore scene open the eyes of the world to atrocities both far away and those at home.

Though a majority of the punk rock genre is stripped down rants of the angst of youth, there are countless examples of how far one can push the true ethos of the genre, and it is within these songs that many of the "punk classics" can be found.  Pushing the envelope in style as well as substance, there are few bands that represent the crossover between punk and hardcore as perfectly as The Dead Kennedys.  Perhaps moreso than any other hardcore-punk band, The Dead Kennedys blended together sounds ranging from psychedelia to surf rock to the most punishing punk, and this is what makes their music so easy to identity, and why they have influenced such a wide range of bands that followed.  There great, yet unique sound and power was clear from their very first album, as their debut record, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, remains one of the greatest punk records in history, and their entire range as musicians can be heard across the songs.  On "Holiday In Cambodia," the group is firing on all cylinders, as not only is the music beyond comparison, but Jello Biafra brings perhaps the greatest lyric of his career, as he brings a dual assault, and there are few places where is almost snarky delivery has sounded better.  Proving just how much could be achieved through punk or hardcore music, it is nearly impossible to find any song that brings a similar power in every sense of the word than what one can experence on The Dead Kennedys' 1980 single, "Holiday In Cambodia."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

September 18: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"

Artist: The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Song: "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"
Album: Electric Ladyland
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (FULL "JAM" VERSION) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (SLIGHT RETURN) (will open in new tab)

Though music history has amazing artists scattered across the decade, there are an elite few who have become so revered, that they transcend their era and truly know few, if any, equals from any other point in history.  For some, it was due to their vocals, for others it was due to an unsurpassed talent on a particular instrument, and for many others, it was an ability to see music from a completely unique perspective.  Naturally, there have been a number of artists that excelled in multiple areas, and it is these performers that command the utmost respect and simply the mention of their name.  Truth be told, there are few names more synonymous with the psychedelic movement or guitar expertise than that of the late Johnny Allen Hendricks, better known as Jimi Hendrix.  Over a period of only four years, Hendrix completely rewrote the books on rock and roll and made countless innovations in how the guitar was played, as well as recording techniques.  So many of his songs with both The Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the short-lived Band Of Gypsys have become true rock classics, and yet it is his final album with The Experience, 1968's Electric Ladyland, that may very well be his finest effort.  Filled with some of the most stunning psychedleic musical explorations ever recorded, Hendrix clearly pushes his talent to their limits, and the sheer genius that was Jimi Hendrix can be found in the albums' strongest and most famous track, "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."

The songs' title is often overlooked by causal listeners, but the addition of the "(Slight Return)" is there due to the fact that the "full" version of "Voodoo Chile" is found earlier on Electric Ladyland.  The first version passes fifteen minutes in length and epitomizes Hendrix's love and talent for pure blues recordings.  The song is as much of a straightforward "jam session" as one will find anywhere, and it is from this recording that the "(Slight Return)" version was birthed.  However, aside from the common core musical phrasing, the two pieces are not very similar, as "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is far more aggressive and direct.  Truth be told, "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is without question the greatest heavy metal, psychedelic-blues song ever recorded, and the main riff played by Hendrix is of equal stature in terms of legendary guitar work.  Further separating it from its counterpart, the other musicians on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" are the "normal" Experience lineup, while the extended jam featured Steve Winwood and Jack Cassidy alongside Mitch Mitchell.  Bringing in a number of different percussive elements, Mitchell gives "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" a tone like no other, as the maracas almost sting the track, and present a brilliant contrast to his basic blues drumming.  Noel Redding also plays a mesmerizing bassline, but much of it his overshadowed by pummeling guitar work from Hendrix.  The fact that only three musicians were able to create such a massive wall of sound is nothing short of astounding, and it much the reason that "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" remains such a classic more that four decades later.

Even with the superb performances of Mitchell and Redding, it almost goes without saying that the spotlight never moves far from Jimi Hendrix at any point during "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."  In a way unlike any other performance in history, on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," Henrdix manages to match the sound and soul in his voice to that of his guitar.  Both his voice and guitar bend, clearly letting the mood of the song guide them as opposed to a strict, pre-arranged progression.  It is this element that gives the song its amazingly soulful feel, as well as reinforcing its base in blues.  Furthering the clear connection to the blues, the lyrics are laid out in classic blues style, and they range from psychedelic slag to one of the most well known lines ever recorded, when Hendrix sings, "...if I don't meet you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one, don't be late..."  Without question, Hendrix is at his musical peak during "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," as one can easily see his performance as the culmination of his constant innovation and work to push his guitar to its absolute limits.  The blend of blues and psychedelia, all played at an absolutely blistering volume had never been heard before and has rarely been matched since, and one can easily see "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" as a song that launched thousands of guitar players dreams.  Though he had many fantastic songs, it is the playing of Jimi Hendrix on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" that cemented his name as a true guitar god.

The true magnificence of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is the fact that for every earth-shaking guitar chord there is, the song has an equally impressive subtle aspect that cannot be ignored.  It is through these elements that the true genius of Jimi Hendrix can be experienced, and they are numerous throughout "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."  Perhaps the most noticeable and enjoyable is the pan effect that Hendrix used on his guitar and various places during the song.  As the music slides from one side to the other, it gives an almost breathtaking feeling of movement, and it makes "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" one of the most stunning songs to experience through headphones.  Countering this idea, the sheer volume and power with which Hendrix plays almost demands that the listener turn the song up as loud as possible, and whether one is playing a real guitar or an air guitar, few songs continually command excessive "rocking out" in the way that "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is able to achieve.  This adds even more to the legend of Jimi Hendrix, and it is moments like this that have placed him in one of the most vaulted places in the entire history of recorded music.  While most artists take decades to reach such a position, Hendrix was able to do so in just a few short years, and the fact that "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" was the final song on his final album with his first band serves as a fitting "end" to his work within that group.  Though there are many "classic" rock songs and many unforgettable riffs, there is simply no other song in history that even remotely packs a similar punch and absolute onslaught of musical majesty that one finds within The Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1968 song, "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)."

Friday, September 17, 2010

September 17: Chris Isaak, "Wicked Game"

Artist: Chris Isaak
Song: "Wicked Game"
Album: Heart Shaped World
Year: 1989

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

As has been stated many times before, one of the most difficult things to accomplish within a song is conveying a truly authentic and powerful mood.  Obviously, as one moves further into that feeling, attempting to make it the central aspect of the song, it becomes more of a challenge and more of a musical rarity.  Furthermore, if an artist is attempting such a task within a genre that is not popular at the given time, getting any exposure for the song is rather unlikely.  However, when all of these elements come together properly, it almost always yields a song of such quality that it cannot be ignored long by the general public.  In an era of musical excess in terms of both sound and style, Chris Isaak brought listeners back to a time seemingly forgotten.  With his subtle, yet amazingly full voice, Isaak was a throwback to the early days of rockabilly and made a case for the need for artists that had true talent and were not relying on an image or "studio magic" for their sound an success.  Showing a heavy influence in many ways from the great Roy Orbison, Isaak brought a sound and image to the end of the 1980's that had not been heard in years, and in every aspect, it was a refreshing change of pace.  While he had a number of fantastic songs, over the decades, his name has become synonymous with his biggest hit, and there are few songs that can match the pure sonic beauty of Chris Isaak's 1989 single, "Wicked Game."

In many ways, the entire mood of the song is set in place perfectly by the opening two notes of "Wicked Game," as the perfectly toned guitar instantly sets the mood.  Even those not familiar with the "Sun Studio Sound" can feel that the song is a throw-back to the early days of rock, as the guitar of James Calvin Wilsey flutters lightly, creating one of the most sensual guitar progressions ever recorded.  There is a light rhythm guitar that can be heard throughout the track, and one can easily picture the song being sung in a dingy apartment as the rain falls outside.  This strong sense of imagery proves the overwhelming sense of authenticity in the song, as it does not seem forced or contrived; it comes off as a truly honest musical lament.  The light drumming from Kenney Dale Johnson lends an almost jazz-like feeling to the song, and the bass of Rowland Salley provides a perfect thump that often sounds akin to a beating heart.  The combination of the musicians is as close to musical perfection as one will find anywhere in history, as none of them attempt to steal the spotlight, letting the collective sound build into something far more powerful than the sum of its parts.  There is no denying that "Wicked Game" could have just as easily been released in 1959 as opposed to 1989, and it is largely due to the sensational performance of the musicians strong.

However, while the music is superb, in many ways, there was no way to prepare the world in 1989 for the voice and singing style of Chris Isaak.  Clearly having a perfect understanding of what made the voices of his influences so fantastic, Isaak brought a sound that had not been heard in decades, and he did so with a strength and honesty that makes it seem in no way like a copy.  Falling somewhere between crooning and crying, Isaak works the entire vocal scale, from his deep singing on the verses to the stunning high notes that are found within the choruses.  It is this element that proves his unmatched talent, and also one fo the key aspects to making him such a hit at the time.  Combining his phenomenal voice with his "greaser" appearance, there is no wondering why he became such a sensation, and the video he created for "Wicked Game" only added to his status as a sex symbol.  However, looking beyond this fact, one cannot argue that another key aspect to the success of "Wicked Game" is the honest and beautiful lyrics which Isaak penned.  Without question one of the most moving laments ever written, one cannot get around the heartbreak he conveys on lines like, "...what a wicked thing to do, to make me dream of you..."  There are no attempts at puns or over-stating the obvious, as "Wicked Game" presents an honest view of heartbreak and longing in a way that no other sing in history has achieved.

Truth be told, "Wicked Game' had been out for nearly two years before the "general public" got wind of the musical brilliance that lived within the track.  The song found fame when it was used as part of David Lynch's 1991 film, Wild At Heart, and most trace its roots directly to a radio station in Atlanta, Georgia that first started pushing the song.  Since that point, "Wicked Game" has become a consistent part of popular culture, popping up in many other films, TV shows, and other aspects of commercial media.  Also, there have been a number of cover versions of "Wicked Game" released, the most notable being that recorded by Finish rockers, HIM.  The fact that such a wide range of artists have recorded their own take on the song serves as a testament to what a phenomenal song Isaak composed, and more than two decades later, the mood of the song is still just as strong.  Throughout "Wicked Game," Isaak proved that much like it blues, it is often what you don't play that is truly gives a song impact, and through this idea, "Wicked Game" remains a song with a beauty and sensuality that remains absolutely unrivaled.  From the delicate guitar playing to the mesmerizing voice of Isaak himself, there is not an off moment anywhere on the song, and the mood continues to build with each passing second.  Making a case for the beauty of honest, more simple music, there are few songs that convey as much emotion and grace as one finds in Chris Isaak's extraordinary 1989 single, "Wicked Game."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16: N.W.A., "Express Yourself"

Artist: N.W.A.
Song: "Express Yourself"
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Year: 1989

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

At some point in their career, nearly every band that lasts more than a year or so records at least one song that seems strangely divergent from the sound for which they are best known.  In most cases, this manifests itself in the form of a ballad or other style of slower song, and it is far easier to pick thie "oddball" sound out within the more rock-based bands.  Even the most hardcore or fierce styles of music have countless representations of this style, yet the problem lies in the fact that in most cases, the song is such a wild departure, that it comes off as forced or artificial.  However, there are a handful of songs that have been recorded that are able to be seen as a break from the normal course of the artist in question, yet still retain the key aspects that define that artist.  While one may not even remotely consider such a statement in terms of a group that was "the most feared" group on the planet for a time, there are few songs that represent this as well as one finds in the catalog of "gangsta rap" founders, N.W.A.  Having made their name for their outrageous (for their time) lyrics and overly aggressive delivery, hits like "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck Tha Police" remain absolute icons within the genre.  However, alongside these vicious tracks, there is another that is far more introspective and shows another side of the group as well as almost predicting the state of the hip-hop genre over the next decade.  Though often overlooked, there are few songs within hip-hop that can compete with the overall magnificence that is N.W.A.'s 1989 single, "Express Yourself."

After a brief spoken intro, the song kicks in and has a far more accessible feel than a majority of the other songs found on the bands iconic Straight Outta Compton album.  Truth be told, the main musical piece that is sampled is the song "Express Yourself," which was recorded by Charles Wright And The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.  In fact, the song is nearly devoid of any other musical additions, as aside from an almost unnoticeable addition of percussion, the sample remains untouched.  In many ways, this fact makes "Express Yourself" as authentic a hip-hop song as has ever been recorded, as it perfectly displays the origins of the genre, with one emcee delivering his rhymes over a single musical loop.  This was certainly a conscious effort, as it is Dr. Dre's "solo" track on the album, as he spends a majority of the record handling production duties as opposed to being a primary emcee.  This is perhaps why the song has a such a unique feel in comparison to the other songs on the album, and it gives a peek into the sound that he would perfect on his own solo debut.  However, this different tone is one of the keys to the song retaining its place as a classic more than two decades later, as it was able to appeal to a far larger audience than the albums' more notorious songs, and it also showed the groups' lyrical approach in a completely different light.

In many ways, one can see "Express Yourself" as a Dr. Dre solo effort, as aside from Ice Cube's two lines in the intro, no other member of N.W.A. appears on the track.  However, one can feel the presence of the group, as the song still hits hard and has an aggression within.  Yet it is on this track that one can hear how different Dr. Dre's delivery style is from that of his band-mates, as his vocals do not seem as forced as other members.  His sound is smooth and well timed, and this was the aspect that made his later solo work so successful.  On "Express Yourself," one can also sense that there is a great deal of honestly and conviction behind the words Dr. Dre is saying, and the verses are just as relevant today as they were in 1989.  Looking over the entire history of hip-hop music, few songs are as perfectly critical of the genre as one finds in "Express Yourself," as Dr. Dre turns the pen on many of his peers, calling them out for their own hypocrisy.  Dr. Dre leaves no stone unturned, and it is scathing accusations like, "...or they kill where the hip-hop starts, forget about the ghetto, and rap for the pop charts..." that place the song high above nearly any other single in the history of the genre.  Dr. Dre even goes after the emcees that were trying to present themselves in a more positive light, throwing the charge of, "...some say no to drugs, and take a stand, but after the show they go looking for the Dopeman..."  The way in which Dr. Dre delivers each line is nothing short of perfect, and few artist of any genre have so perfectly criticized their own peers as he does on "Express Yourself."

Sadly perhaps, "Express Yourself" went largely unnoticed when it was released as a single, likely because it presented the other side of the group that had made their name on the controversial singles that had already been released.  However, as it almost always does, history has sorted out this issue, and "Express Yourself" has become one of the most highly respected and heavily covered songs in the history of hip-hop.  While many hip-hop artists have recorded versions of the song, it has also crossed over into other genres, with one of the most unique covers coming from none other than punk icon, Tim Armstrong.  It is this reality that proves the overall power and greatness of the song, and one can make the case that it is due to the truth and simplicity found on "Express Yourself."  Even by 1989, most of the music being released in hip-hop was getting musically complex, and one can see the genre beginning to lose focus even at that point.  On "Express Yourself," Dr. Dre scales things back to the roots of hip-hop, delivering smooth, clear vocals over a single, funk-based loop.  This combination works brilliantly, as the song is able to take on a life and personal all its own, even when surrounded by some of the most fierce and aggressive songs ever recorded.  Simultaneously taking a stand against the constraints that radio stations were placing on emcees as well as taking shots at inauthentic rappers, Dr. Dre created an absolutely iconic song when he recorded the phenomenal 1989 N.W.A. single, "Express Yourself."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15: The Exciters, "Tell Him"

Artist: The Exciters
Song: "Tell Him"
Album: Tell Him (single)
Year: 1962

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While there is a clear beginning to every genre and sub-genre, it is often far more difficult to find the origins of the more subtle aspects of any given musical style.  However, much like the larger idea of the genre, every persona other technique that one can find within music has a starting point, and one can see the way in which it builds itself over time.  Though it is often thought to be a very modern approach within music, the idea of the strong, "street smart" woman has been present in music nearly as long as there as been recorded music, and in each generation, it seems to be reborn anew.  Without question, one of the most important contributions to the growth of this style came during the odd musical time when jazz was giving way to the development of rock and roll.  Quickly setting themselves apart from the other "girl groups" of the time, there was a certain tenacity and attitude that one can find within the fantastic songs of Jamaica, Queens' own trio, The Exciters.  With their distinctive sound and style, it was this group that paved the way for the flood of "girl groups" that followed over the next few years, and one can easily make the case that without their contributions, music simply would not have taken shape as it did.  Standing as their finest achievement, there are few songs that bring a similar sound or style to what one finds in The Exciters brilliant 1962 single, "Tell Him."

In many ways, it is impossible to place "Tell Him" into a single musical category, as overall approach was completely fresh, and the musical arrangement is so unique that it defies any simple grouping.  The song opens with an instantly recognizable pairing of triangle and violin, and there is an immediate intensity to the song that is unlike anything else from the era.  The song soon slides into a fast-paced groove, and it is at this point that one can hear everything from funk to soul to Latin styles within the music.  If one listens closely, there are even elements of ska at play on the song, and one would be hard pressed to find a song from any era that has as diverse a musical sound as one finds here.  The cadence from the drums and guitar give "Tell Him" a fantastic sense of movement, and when it clashes with the violins, there is a strange, almost haunting mood that is conveyed.  "Tell Him" also brings a swing that is completely unique, and one can make the case either way on whether the music guided the vocal work or vice-versa.  Regardless, there has simply never been another song quite like "Tell Him," and nearly every genre from soul to Motown took pieces of this song and incorporated it into their own musical approach.  Though there is a great deal going on within the music, in comparison it is rather minimalist and restrained, and this is clearly to leave ample space for the sensational vocal work found on "Tell Me."

In many ways, The Exciters set the standard for "girl groups" with their performance here, and their style remains a massive influence on groups to this day.  Though there are three singers on the track, it is Brenda Reid who takes the spotlight for nearly the entire song.  From the instant she begins singing, her voice is completely captivating, as their is a strength within it unlike anything previous recorded in any genre.  Reid's voice soars across the track, showing no signs of weakness or lament, and there is also a certain sense of aggression that cannot be denied.  In retrospect, there were few acts that followed chronologically that boasted a singer with similar power, and this is one of the main reasons that "Tell Me" remains such a classic.  Further adding to her strong persona, the lyrics which she sings were quite racy for a woman to be singing at that time.  Moving far beyond the "helpless, sad woman" approach, the words to "Tell Me" are far more aggressive and proactive than one finds previously.  One need look no further than the opening stanza for an example of her forward nature, as Reid belts, "...I know something about love, you've gotta want it bad...if that guys got into your blood, go out and get him..."  In both the words she is singing, and the almost growling way which she delivers them, Reid stands as an indepsensible trend setter, and it helped to make "Tell Me" a world-wide hit for the trio.

Truth be told, "Tell Me" has actually already been released twice in 1962 before The Exciters recorded their version of the song.  Both Gil Hamilton (AKA Johnny Thunder) and Ed Townsend released their own take of the song, yet The Exciters version, release in October of that year, completely eclipsed the previous efforts, and though it has been covered countless times since, it is this version that remains the standard.  This is perhaps due not only to the amazing performance of Brenda Reid, but the work and presence of the producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  It was largely their work that led to the musical arrangement being as uniquely fantastic as one hears, and one can make a strong case that without their presence, the song would not have had such success.  However, the instant that Reid begins singing on "Tell Me," the presence of anything else on the track becomes a distant second, as her vocals are so superb and dominating that everything else seems to fade far into the background.  Working the entire vocal scale, Reid never laments even for a moment, and it is her performance here that remains very much part of the standard for strong female vocalists.  With an almost military-like cadence running throughout the track, "Tell Me" also has a strange, almost unsettling mood, and it makes the song enchanting in a way unlike any other song.  Taking all of these facts into account, one can easily understand why The Exciters 1962 version of "Tell Me" was such a hit and while it remains such a monumental musical achievement all these decades later.