Sunday, October 31, 2010

October 31: The Misfits, "Skulls"

Artist: The Misfits
Song: "Skulls"
Album: Walk Among Us
Year: 1982

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In nearly every case in history, a band made their name and gained their following by the albums they released, as they were often so moving and unique, they could not be ignored.  Yet there is one case where both in terms of quality and quantity, a band managed to succeed with the completely opposite approach.  Looking back on their history, this band has become notorious for the rough, almost amateurish sound quality on their albums, and for the fact that even later reissues of their music often left key songs difficult to find.  However, even with these factors, few bands in history have been able to cultivate as rabid and long-lasting a following as those who extol to others the virtues of Lodi, New Jersey's own legends, The Misfits.  There is perhaps no other band in history that was able to write as many songs with anthemic sounds as The Misfits, and few records are as powerful as their monumental 1982 debut, Walk Among Us.  Mixing in a penchant for "b movies" alongside the amazingly powerful voice of Glenn Danzig, and while many bands have tried to mimic the sound and style of The Misfits, none have succeeded.  Though they were as energetic and minimally talented as their punk brethren, it was The Misfits that stood in defiance of many of the norms that were quickly forcing conformity in the punk scene, and there extraordinary sound and style are in top form on The Misfits 1982 classic, "Skulls."

One of the keys to the music of The Misfits, and their clear connection to the punk sound, is the fact that the instant their songs begin, the tone is immediately set, and it is almost always with a fast paced, heavy guitar sound.  The guitar riff here, played by Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein (AKA Paul Caiafa) is simple, yet powerful, and the crunch that he toes the riff with is nothing short of perfect.  In fact, Doyle proves on "Skulls" that there can be a superb about of energy and mood set with just a few chords, as if one listens closely, he uses less than six chords throughout the entire song.  Bassist Jerry Only (AKA Gerald Caiafa) plays just as brilliantly, whipping the rhythm along at an amazing pace, and it is within his playing that the sound of The Misfits begins to separate itself from other punk bands.  While the Caiafa brothers play with extraordinary power on "Skulls," the true genius and magic of the song lives within the drumming performance of Arthur Googy (AKA Joseph McGuckin).  As "Skulls" progresses, Googy keeps pushing the overall intensity of the song higher and higher, and his playing is far more forward in the mix than a majority of bands of any genre.  Yet within the combined sound of the three players, there are traces of deep emotion within their heavy, aggressive sound, and this is one of the largest ways in which The Misfits were unlike any of the other punk bands at the time.

Though the sound and energy from the music makes The Misfits distinguishable, there is nothing that defines the band more than the voice of Glenn Danzig.  Without question one of the most misunderstood and underrated vocalists in history, Danzig brings a superb power and presence to every song, and "Skulls" is no different.  Easily able to work a wide-range of the vocal scale, Danzig almost always sings, and this separates him from nearly the entire punk movement, as he has an almost surprisingly beautiful, yet aggressive and slightly gritty sound.  On "Skulls," the punch one finds in the singing of Danzig fits perfectly alongside the music, and it is in his vocals that one can quickly understand why so many of The Misfits songs have become anthemic over the decades.  It is also within the performance of Glenn Danzig that one easily finds the bands' love for horror films and grim subjects, and nearly every line of the song reinforces this idea.  The opening verse leaves no doubt when Danzig sings, "...the corpses all hang headless and limp, bodies with no surprises and the blood drains down like devils rain, we'll bathe tonight..."  While the lyrics are rather brutal, there is also an almost melancholy mood that runs throughout the song, and it is in this aspect that one can see The Misfits are far more than your average punk band, as the voice of Glenn Danzig was able to inject a powerful undertone into the song.

Truth be told, there are actually two full studio recordings of "Skulls" to be found, and they are rather different on many levels.  While the Walk Among Us version is easy to find, two years previous, the band recorded another version that can be found on the VERY hard to find 12 Hits From Hell album.  This release, which was more of a demo version in retrospect, features both Doyle as well as original guitarist Bobby Steele playing, and there is a deeper and louder overall sound.  The vocals of Danzig are far more forward in the mix, and the backing vocals can also be heard better on this version.  The final difference is that the 12 Hits From Hell version is far faster, and there is a more aggressive feel to it, and in many ways, one can hear this version as superior to the more well-known Walk Among Us release.  Regardless, "Skulls" is an absolute classic, as the energy and spirit behind the song are unlike anything else, and it is here that one can see how The Misfits stood in defiance to everything punk, whilst simultaneously making a classic of that exact genre.  The fact that amidst the musical mayhem, Danzig gives a slight sense of emotional vulnerability again distances The Misfits from every band that plays a more aggressive style, and yet it is within this very aspect from which much of the greatness of The Misfits is derived.  While The Misfits boast a large number of unforgettable punk anthems, few pack the style, power, and overall impact as their classic 1982 recording, "Skulls."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

October 30: Tool, "Sober"

Artist: Tool
Song: "Sober"
Album: Undertow
Year: 1993

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If there is one thing that has been definitively proven over the course of the past three decades, it is the fact that playing music louder rarely makes it sound better.  That is to say, playing "good" hard rock or heavy metal is one of the most difficult achievements, as finding the balance between noise and engaging the listener is a very tough line to walk.  Furthermore, when a band attempts to inject a dark or confrontational mood into the music, it further complicates things, and only a handful of groups have been able to successfully achieve such a sound in the entire history of music.  While many bands have been more commercially successful, one cannot deny that no band has ever been able to combine brilliant musical arrangements, superior musicianship, gripping moods and massive levels of sound like California's own Tool.  Their name alone instantly demands a certain level of respect, as they are one of the few bands that clearly is more concerned about putting out records of the highest quality as opposed to releasing albums with any regularity.  With this in mind, each of the four records Tool has released over the past decade and a half are nothing short of extraordinary, and no other band has been able to come close to their sound.  Though their later records show more of their powerful side, it is on their debut record, 1993's Undertow, that Tool's uncanny ability to balance sound and mood can be heard, and there are few better examples than their second single, the unforgettable "Sober."

The mood on "Sober" is set in the opening notes, as the deep, pulsing bass of Paul D'Amour makes it clear that the song will aim for that balance between dark mood and heavy sound.  Throughout the song, D'mour keeps this sound going, as even during the heavy break-down sections of the song, he continues to drive this repetition, giving the song a unique presence.  The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Danny Carey, became an instant legend in the world of drumming with his work on Undertow, and the way in which he changes up both the tempo and mood throughout "Sober" is a shining example of his exceptional level of talent.  It is within his playing that the intimidating, unsettling mood of the song comes across, and when Carey lets loose on the bridge and chorus sections, it is his sound that becomes the most aggressive.  Rounding out the musical side of the band is guitarist Adam Jones, and his tone is perfect for the overall mood of the song, ranging from grinding chords to his solos which bring a strange, dark echo to the song.  One can look to the performance of Jones as a clear sign that while Tool was playing the hard rock or heavy metal style, they were doing it in a way unlike any other band, and the combined sound of the three musicians brings a strangely majestic, captivating, yet unquestionably brutal mood, and this is the key aspect that makes Tool so extraordinary.

Though the music of Tool is instantly recognizable, it is the vocals of Maynard James Keenan that define the bands sound, and where much of their power can be found.  Sounding completely unlike any other singer in music history, Keenan has a presence that can be felt immediately, and his ability to work the entire vocal spectrum, as well as bring a number of different tones to his delivery is much the reason he remains in a class all his own.  Whether he is almost speaking the verses or letting his voice take flight across the bridge seconds to an all out yell on the choruses, the way in which Keenan is able to convey the mood and power of his writing is second to none, and this becomes even more intense during the bands' legendary live performances.  While this is in many ways just "how things are" in modern times, when the band first let the world into their sound on "Sober," there was simply nothing that could have prepared people for the power of Keenan's delivery.  The lyrics of "Sober" remain some of the bands' finest, as Keenan crafts a story of self-hate and destruction along with subtle and blunt religious references.  Though each line carries with it a great weight, there are few lyrics more powerful than when he sings, "...I will find a center in you, I will chew it up and leave, I will work to elevate you, just enough to bring you down..."  Both in what he sings, as well as the wide-range of delivery styles, it is songs like "Sober" that prove the unmatched talent of Maynard James Keenan.

Truth be told, "Sober" was actually written in the late 1980's, and was one of the first songs Keenan ever wrote.  Bringing an extraordinary mood of hopelessness and despair, there was simply nothing previously recorded by any band that even came close to the overall impact of "Sober."  In both the lyrics and the music, this feeling comes across clearly, and nearly two decades later, the mood retains its power and "Sober" still stands as a pillar within the hard rock and heavy metal genres.  It is within "Sober," as well as Undertow on the whole that Tool reminded listeners that when done correctly, there was a spirit and sound that could be achieved via heavy metal that could not be found elsewhere, and it is in their playing that the line was forever drawn between "good" and "bad" heavy metal records.  Few bands have proven an ability to move as a single unit as perfectly as one finds within the music of Tool, and the quartet is able to inject an amazing amount of theatrical drama into their music, raising the overall intensity, yet never coming off as cliché or artificial.  In short, Tool is all about bringing as much power and sound as they can to a song, yet never sacrificing the quality or mood that they seek from the music.  Though later songs brought the band more accolades and sales, it was their initial single that stands as their most powerful, and even nearly two decades later, there are few songs that can compare to the sonic brilliance and sheer presence of Tool's unmistakable 1993 single, "Sober."

Friday, October 29, 2010

October 29: The Allman Brothers Band, "Whipping Post"

Artist: The Allman Brothers Band
Song: "Whipping Post"
Album: The Allman Brothers Band
Year: 1969

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While a number of bands in history have created a sound that stands suprior decades after it was recorded, in many cases, there is an element within the music that makes it sound as if the band was working quite hard to achieve the sound in question.  Though it is difficult to say the sound comes off as a bit "forced," once one hears a band where there is a clear sense of ease in playing, the opposite becomes more obvious.  Many bands have displayed this ease of playing, where one can hear the music "flow" through the band, but few groups have done so with the presence, beauty, and power that one finds within the recorded history of The Allman Brothers Band.  As an integral part of the development of the "Southern Rock" style as well as the "jam band" scene, their sounds stand today as perhaps the greatest fusion of rock, blues, and soul that has ever been recorded.  Though many attempt to label the group as one of these styles, the fact of the matter is, The Allman Brothers Band have such a distinctive sound and style that they must be placed into a musical category all their own.  As one of the most long-standing and highly respected bands in music history, it is hard to site a single song as their finest work, yet one can experience all of the beauty and power that makes them so extraordinary within The Allman Brothers Band's legendary 1969 song, "Whipping Post."

Truth be told, The Allman Brothers Band may very well be the greatest, certainly the most potent debut album ever released by an American blues band, and it retains its impact more than four decades later.  Though it closes the album, "Whipping Post" is without question the centerpiece and most potent song, capturing the groups' amazing live energy, as well as the superb musicianship found in the band.  The song was placed in this position due to its poor performance as a single, and yet it stands today as one of the greatest songs of the entire decade.  The bass riff that opens and runs throughout the song, played by Berry Oakley, has a uniquely intimidating sound to it, and it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the song.  Quickly joined by the pulsing guitar of Dickey Betts and similar sound from Duane Allman pulls "Whipping Post" to an entirely new level, as the combined sound has a frustrated, beautiful tension that is unlike anything else ever recorded.  When the organ playing of Gregg Allman joins in underneath the other instruments, the mood becomes nothing short of overwhelming, as even without the vocals, one can feel the deep sense of sorrow alongside the majestic overtones that the band brings.  Rounding out the sound on "Whipping Post" is drummer Butch Trucks, and as he switches tempos, including a mind-bending 11/4 time signature that persists for a majority of the song, the superior level of talent within the band becomes undeniable, and the mood they create as a group is nothing short of perfect.

Working in superb harmony with the tone he sets via his organ playing, the vocals of Gregg Allman on "Whipping Post" may very well be his finest to date.  Unquestionably one of the most soulful singers in history, there is a fantastic level of grit in his voice that pushes the mood even higher.  Throughout "Whipping Post," Allman works the entire range of his voice, from softer moments in the verses, to an unrestrained yell on the bridge and chorus sections.  The changes in tone match perfect with the music over which he sings, and it is this combined sound that makes "Whipping Post" such a monumental musical achievement.  Clearly, there is a deep emotional connection to the words which he sings, and one can easily relate the song to the years of struggle and rejection that Gregg Allman experienced whilst trying to "make it" as a musician (and in life) in Los Angeles in the 1960's.  However, "Whipping Post" has a completely universal quality to it, and one can easily apply the lyrics to any situation of struggle in life.  The way in which Allman laments about his "woman gone bad" throughout the song has a tragic beauty to it, and the pain comes through so clearly in his voice that one cannot argue that it is performances like this that are what the blues are all about.  As Allman completely lets loose on the final bridge and chorus section, one can feel the catharsis, and the impact of the song remains firmly intact even after repeated listenings.

While the studio recording of "Whipping Post" is nothing short of flawless, The Allman Brothers Band were able to "one up" themselves when they released a live version on their equally legendary 1971 At The Fillmore East album.  This version, stretching more than twenty-three minutes, is highlighted by the stunning solo from Duane, which would be one of his last before being tragically killed less than six months after the performance.  Throughout the live version, it is clear that the band has bowed to the mood of the song and they are letting it dictate the pace, as Gregg places the vocals where they seem "right," as opposed to where they should be when compared to the studio version.  It is aspects such as these that solidify the groups' claim to greatness, as the emotion and power of the song clearly flow through each of the band members, and the resulting product is nothing short of legendary.  Regardless of which version one hears, there is a mesmerizing tone to "Whipping Post," and this is largely due to the straightforward, honest approach in terms of both the music as well as the lyrics to the song.  Gregg Allman holds nothing back, and "Whipping Post" stands as a shining example of the power and beauty that can be created when a band is truly in sync with one another, as well as not forcing even a single note on a song.  Achieving musical perfection in every sense of the word, even more than forty years later, there is no other recording that can even remotely compare to the combination of musical beauty and all out blues power than one finds on The Allman Brothers Band's iconic 1969 song, "Whipping Post."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 28: James Brown, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine"

Artist: James Brown
Song: "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine"
Album: "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" (single)
Year: 1970

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Though they are very rare in the overall history of music, there are a few songs that not only define an artist, but an era and style as well.  These elite songs are almost always known worldwide and have become definitions onto themselves.  While there are a few instances where these songs are "one off" hits for an artist, there is at least one case where a bit more justification may be necessary due to the artist in question being so pivotal in the development of music.  There is at least one case where a song of this nature was recorded by an artist whose name defines an entire era of music, and that is why one cannot overlook the rest of the catalog of the late, great James Brown.  Call him "The Godfather Of Soul," call him "The Hardest Working Man In Showbiz," but at the end of the day, Brown completely re-wrote the books on music a number of times throughout his career, and from the sound of the band behind him to his own stage presence, there is truly no other performer in history worthy of being mention in the same breath.  Over the course of the six decades in which he was recording, Brown released a massive amount of songs that have become iconic, and yet there is one song that defines him above all others.  Signifying the "next stage" in his career on a number of levels, there is simply no other song in recorded history that can even remotely compare to James Brown's monumental 1970 single, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."

The most significant difference between "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" and all of the previous recordings of James Brown is that this was one of the first he released with his (then) new band.  By the time 1970 rolled around, nearly all of the members of Brown's previous band had left for other groups, and longtime member Bobby Byrd helped Brown recruit a group of musicians from Cincinnati, Ohio that called themselves The Pacemakers.  Led by the Collins brothers, it is their playing that makes "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" such an amazing song, as it injected an uncanny amount of funk into Brown's legendary soul sound.  This is largely due to the playing of William Collins, better known as "Bootsy," as he works all over the fret-board, and it would be due to his work here that he would become a legend in his own right.  His brother, Phelps Collins, better known as "Catfish," lends an almost ska-style riff to the song, and this is the signature sound on "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."  John "Jabo" Starks adds to this "sting," with his brilliant work on drums, and the brief piano interludes from Byrd provide for a perfect change in pace.  The fact that the horns are not nearly as prominent here is one of the main differences from Brown's previous recordings, and this is also where one can hear the "new" style of soul that Brown would pursue over the decade that followed.

Yet even with this new group of phenomenal musicians in tow, there is still nothing that can outshine the presence of James Brown himself.  There may be no other singer in history with as recognizable a voice as Brown, as both the sound of his singing, as well as the way in which he delivers the word have become the basis for countless artists that followed.  Always bringing an almost overwhelming amount of energy and emotion to every song, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" is no different, as Brown works the entire vocal range, and one can almost feel the sweat coming off of the track.  Often ignoring traditional spacing for the lyrics, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" is very much about "feeling" out where the words best belong, and there is also a great deal of improvised singing and shouting across the nearly six-minute original recording, as well as the shorter single release.  These improvised moments are in many ways the spirit of this new soul sound, as Brown lets the groove carry him and simply lets loose.  The shouting back and forth that opens the song, as well as leads into the bridge stands as one of the most recognized moments in music history, and during live performances, Brown was able to work these points to an almost dizzying level, creating a mood and energy that remains largely unmatched to this day.

Truth be told, while the studio recording of "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" is nothing short of iconic, it is in the handful of live recordings that one can experience the true majesty of this song.  While there are others that are better known, the version Brown released as Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo Volume III contains without question the most high-octane performance, and it is truly something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  It is also in this live version that one can completely grasp why many refer to his band at the time as the "most dangerous" band in history, as the precision and skill with which they play is absolutely unmatched anywhere else on any recording.  The band seems to be able to turn on a dime as a single unit, and there seems to almost be a competition to see who will break first, the band or Brown himself.  On both the studio and live versions of "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," it is clear that this new lineup has revitalized Brown, and he rarely sounded better or more into the recording process than he does here.  As he shouts and sings across the track, the overall sense of joy cannot be denied, and it becomes even more clear when compared to other songs in the Brown catalog.  While it is difficult to point to a "definitive" song in a career such as that of James Brown, one cannot deny the historical significance, stunning performance, and lasting impact of his 1970 single, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 27: Blues Traveler, "Regarding Steven"

Artist: Blues Traveler
Song: "Regarding Steven"
Album: Live From The Fall
Year: 1995

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As the years pass, one can easily make the argument that along with the music itself, the overall emotion and sincerity behind music has become far more artificial.  That is to say, as the years go by, it seems to become more and more difficult to find an artist who brings authentic emotion that clearly sings from the heart.  While there are a handful of artists that do this, the overall feeling from modern music is more "plastic" than it has ever been, and it makes those who defy this notion all the more important to the preservation of "real" music.  Over the past two decades, as this trend has set itself into place, it is often in bands that can be easily tied to "older" sounds that one finds "real" meaning in music, and this is the reason why Blues Traveler continues to draw in new fans year after year.  Boasting one of the most unique musical arrangements in history, one cannot mistake their music for that of any other band, as they blend together blues, folk, and rock in their own distinctive way.  Though they are certainly best known for their surprise hit album Four, anyone who listened beyond that record can attest that their best work comes from their live performances, making the bands' 1995 double-disc release, Live From The Fall, quickly rise above their other recordings.  It is on this album that one can experience the true essence of the band, and there are few songs in the Blues Traveler catalog as moving and absolutely beautiful as the live 1995 version of their song, "Regarding Steven."

The song itself begins innocently enough, with a slow groove that is instantly set into place by the bass of Bobby Sheehan.  It is his performance that largely dictates the mood of the song, as he moves the tempo around in various places, capturing music of the unique sound that is Blues Traveler.  Joined quickly by the unmistakable harmonica of John Popper and guitarist Chris Kinchla, few bands can form a single sound as quickly as one experiences on "Regarding Steven."  With drummer Brendan Hill making the most of the mellow mood, Blues Traveler quickly pulls the listener into their strangely "safe" sounding song, and yet there is a tension or uneasy sense that is present alongside this feeling.  The band spins this slow, tight groove for a bit, and then Popper goes off on one of his finest harmonica solos ever captured, as he conveys the deep emotion of the song in an uncanny fashion, and it is within this performance that the true soul of the band is shown perfectly.  Though the mood of the song becomes more intense at this point, the band keeps the timing in check, showing just how much one can develop a single mood without resorting to different time signatures.  During the latter half of "Regarding Steven," the interplay between the singing of Popper and the drumming becomes more of a focal point, as the two seem to be performing a strange duet, giving the song a feeling and sound unlike anything else ever recorded.

Along with his instantly recognizable harmonica style, John Popper also possesses one of the more unique voices in music history, and his straightforward vocal approach is one of the keys to the overall mood and experience of "Regarding Steven."  Truth be told, few performers have ever given as raw and clearly heartfelt a performance as one finds here, and it is instantly clear that the words which Popper sings ring close and true to his heart.  Pushing his voice as far as it can go in every direction, Popper's performance on "Regarding Steven" stands as one of the most mesmerizing in history, and one cannot help but feel the pain he is trying to express.  The words, also written by Popper, are simultaneously cryptic and quite clear, making the song open to a number of interpretations.  Clearly giving a nod to The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil" with the opening lines of, "...I've guessed your name and I'm sure you know mine...," the song can be seen as a reference to a number of different problems concerning addiction, and this universal application is one of the keys to making the song so powerful.  While Popper has stated that it was directed towards a very specific time in his life, the fact of the matter is that "Regarding Steven" can be seen as a letter to any friend struggling with a deep problem, or one can even turn the song on themselves, and see the song as a cry for help or even a look back on a life that one was.  Regardless of how one interprets the song, the words carry an amazing weight, and the song remains heartbreakingly potent even after repeated listenings.

The way in which Blues Traveler is able to bring powerful moods to their jam-style, free spirited music is what makes them such a unique and amazing band, and yet it is this aspect that is largely absent from their most commercially successful songs.  This is not a bad thing, as it once again proves that in most cases, it takes a slight divergence from their core sound for a truly great band to gain public notoriety.  With their 1995 release, Live From The Fall, Blues Traveler instantly proved their case as one of the finest live acts of their day, and the double album provides a fantastic cross-section of the bands' various styles, as well as the overall upbeat mood that runs throughout their music.  However, the album also boasts songs like "Regarding Steven," which put on display the superb writing ability of John Popper, as well as showing that honest and introspective lyrics will always easily surpass those not written from the heart.  The raw and clearly painful nature of the words Popper sings push "Regarding Steven" into a category all its own, and while it may not display the "normal" mood that Blues Traveler brings to their songs, it shows just how powerful a song can be when performed with true sincerity.  The song offers hope in its closing lines, yet the sense of tragedy and pain remains strong throughout, and it is this contrast in moods that helps to make Blues Traveler's 1995 live release of "Regarding Steven" one of the most beautiful and moving songs ever recorded.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 26: Guns N' Roses, "Estranged"

Artist: Guns N' Roses
Song: "Estranged"
Album: Use Your Illusion II
Year: 1991

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Often times, simply due to the era in which they were recording, and perhaps also adding in their general appearance, a band may be lumped in with a style of music to which they simply do not belong.  Though they may quite clearly be coming from a different place musically, these other two factors often outweigh the realities behind their sound.  While many bands have been forced to endure this often unwanted fate, there is perhaps no greater mis-labeling than when people lump Guns N' Roses in with the so-called "hair metal" movement of the 1980's.  Certainly the band had a similar appearance and attitude to many bands of that style, yet as soon as one begins to discuss the musical side of things, any possible comparisons quickly become impossible.  Bringing a sound that was far more raw, dirty, and unapologetic than the carefree style of the "hair metal" movement, Guns N' Roses built their name on the mostly deserving image of being the "bad boys" of hard rock.  Though the band is perhaps best known for their string of hits off of their 1987 record, Appetite For Destruction, it is their later, final work that sets them in a category all their own, and spotlights their unquestionable talents.  The double release of Use Your Illusion in September of 1991 gave the world a number of stunning tracks, and yet one can hear everything that makes Guns N' Roses such a phenomenal band in the final single released from those records, 1991's "Estranged."

There are few songs of any band form any era that have even a remotely similar presence to that found on "Estranged,"as it seems to break nearly every musical rule possible.  First and foremost, there is absolutely no discernible structure to the song, as the band throws the typical "verse chorus verse" idea out the window, and "Estranged" has no actual chorus at any point.  With the song clocking in at nine and a half minutes, the band never loses focus, and these two elements combined prove that Guns N' Roses was far more talented than a majority of critics would like to admit.  There is a strange contrast to be found throughout "Estranged," as the moody, melodic piano from Axl Rose smash up against the ripping guitar work from Slash.  In fact, in the liner notes, Rose thanks Slash for "the killer guitar melodies" on "Estranged."  The overall mood is enhanced by the work of the rhythm section of bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum, with rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin presenting a fantastic backdrop over which Slash works.  Listening closely to the song, it often sounds as if the band was simply having a jam session at points, as they completely flesh out every part of the song, again standing in contrast to the entire style of "hair metal."  There is an almost overwhelming, majestic feel to "Estranged," and at every turn the band is showing their extraordinary musical talents, cementing the group in a category all their own, as well as creating one of the most stunning works of hard rock in history.

Yet even with the superb musical performance on "Estranged," one simply cannot discuss anything related to Guns N' Roses without talking about the one and only W. Axl Rose.  Unquestionably one of the most outspoken and eccentric frontmen in history, on "Estranged," Rose brings one of his most moving lyrics, as well as some of his finest vocal work to date.  From the distant, almost whispered opening verses to the more powerful parts found in the middle of the song, Rose shows his entire range in terms of both delivery style as well as his ability to easily work the entire vocal spectrum.  Through both the music and vocals, one can feel the sense of anguish that Rose was trying to convey, as he later admitted that the song was inspired by his annulled marriage to Erin Everly.  Contrasting his forceful, pained lyrics with one of the most honest and emotional lines ever, one cannot help but be pulled into Rose's mood when he delivers lines like, "...I'll never find anyone to replace you, guess I'll have to make it through, this time...oh this time without you..."  While Rose dominates the song (in a good way) with his exceptional vocal work and dramatic conveyance of his lyrics, one cannot speak of "Estranged" without giving a nod to the perfectly placed backing vocals which were performed by, among others, a man named Shannon Hoon.  It is in this contrast of styles that one can see just how unique a band lived in Guns N' Roses, and there is simply no denying the overall majesty that one finds within "Estranged."

Taking all of the moods and contrasting sounds into account, one can also see "Estranged" as a rather prophetic song, re-interpreting the lyrics and clashing of sounds as a reflection on the state of the band at the time.  If one considers the more mellow, melodic piano parts as "Axl" and the crushing guitar work as "Slash," one can easily see the split between these two personalities that in many ways defined an entire era of music.  Furthermore, the lyrics which Rose penned can easily be seen as a final attempt to resolve the well-documented internal problems of Guns N' Roses, and the fact of the matter is, within a few short years of the release of "Estranged," the band would enter what stands as one of the most talked about hiatus' in music history.  Truth be told, though released on Use Your Illusion II in 1991, "Estranged" was not actually released as a single until January of 1994, and the fact that more than 2 years after its release, the band was still taking singles from the record, serves as a testament to just how good both albums were.  It is songs like "Estranged" that stood in sharp contrast to the bands' public persona as a group of rowdy rockers, as there is an undeniable beauty to the song, and it is this display of a superior talent in musicianship as well as arrangement that sets Guns N' Roses far apart from any other band of the era.  Standing as what can be seen as a culmination of all of their efforts to date, there is simply no way to accurately convey the level of emotion and superb musicianship that one finds on Guns N' Roses monumental 1991 song, "Estranged."

Monday, October 25, 2010

October 25: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #43"

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

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

1. The Cramps, "I Was A Teenage Werewolf"  Songs The Lord Taught Us
2. Marilyn Manson, "You And Me And The Devil Makes 3"  Eat Me, Drink Me
3. The Misfits, "Vampira"  12 Hits From Hell
4. Alice Cooper, "Under My Wheels"  Killer
5. The Clash, "Atom Tan"  Combat Rock
6. The Rolling Stones, "Sympathy For The Devil"  Beggar's Banquet
7. Slayer w/Atari Teenage Riot, "No Remorse (I Want To Die)"  Spawn Soundtrack
8. Black Sabbath, "Lady Evil"  Heaven And Hell
9. Social Distortion, "Mommy's Little Monster"  Mommy's Little Monster
10. Santana, "Evil Ways"  Santana
11. Metallica, "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)"  Master Of Puppets
12. Alice In Chains, "Angry Chair"  Dirt
13. Dax Riggs, "Living Is SuicideWe Sing Of Only Blood Or Love
14. Phish, "Ghost"  The Story Of The Ghost

Sunday, October 24, 2010

October 24: Edgar Winter Group, "Frankenstein"

Artist: Edgar Winter Group
Song: "Frankenstein"
Album: They Only Come Out At Night
Year: 1973

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As more and more genres and sub-genres come into being with the passing of each year, the exact linage of each sound often becomes more and more difficult to trace to its beginnings.  Due to this, there are many bands that are seen as "founders" of a style that simply are not, and likewise, there are a number of acts that are overlooked when it comes to their impact on a certain style of music.  Sometimes due to the time in which they were making a particular sound, or in some cases simply because listeners do not pay close enough attention, many in this latter category are often completely under-represented in the overall history of music.  This is especially true when it comes to the world of heavy metal, as there is one artist that is almost always forgotten, yet played one of the most important roles in the development of the sound.  While performers like Led Zeppelin, Motörhead, and Cream certainly had a great deal to do with the rise of the sound, most overlook the presence of a blues artist without whom, the genre may have never been fully realized.  Known for being one of the greatest composers and multi-instrumentalists in history, one cannot deny the fact that without the great Edgar Winter, much of the music of the past four decades may have never been recorded.  While he is responsible for a number of amazing tracks, few have had the lasting and wide-reaching impact of Edgar Winter Group's classic 1973 instrumental, "Frankenstein."

If there was ever an example of a "jam session gone right," this is it, as the band quickly slides into one of the tightest musical formations ever captured on record.  "Frankenstein" has a trademark crunch to it that is lain over nearly every instrument, and it gives the song a far heavier, grittier sound than it would have without this distortion.  In many ways, this is where the tie is to what would become heavy metal, as Edgar Winter fuses together his progressive style of rock music with the louder, more aggressive style that was the early signs of the metal movement.  It can be heard in everything from the pummeling drum work of Chuck Ruff to Winter's own keyboard sound.  Truth be told, when it comes to "iconic riffs," few hold a similar status to the one that runs throughout "Frankenstein," and it is also one of the few in this group that is NOT played on guitar.  The way that Winter manipulates the riff through various bends and key changes is nothing short of spectacular, and it is perhaps due to this different sound that helped the riff achieve its status.  It is also through the deep, funky bass playing that the song gets its unmistakable sound, and this is where one can see the link between metal and funk that would be explored by a number of groups over the following decades.  Without question one of the most diverse and unique songs in history, it is impossible to note all of the different ways in which "Frankenstein" defined music to come, and it is that fact that solidifies its place as a pivotal moment in music history.

However, as is the case with a number of the most important songs in history, in some ways, "Frankenstein" was never meant to be.  As one can tell from the sound, the song itself is a loose jam session, and it was only included on the album as a last minute, almost joking move.  In fact, it was initially only released as the b-side of the single for "Hanging Around," but after a number of radio stations began playing it, the band was almost "forced" to "properly' release the song.  Amazingly, the song ended up topping the charts and would remain as the groups' most successful single.  Yet there is a great deal behind the name of the song as well, and these facts only add to the overall amazing quality that is "Frankenstein."  While most simply take the song title as the group attempting to describe the sound that they create, there is far more to the name than one might gather.  The original version of "Frankenstein" was far longer than the version one can hear on the album, as the band fleshed out every jam and progression they could find.  In the end, the engineers and band used straight razors to splice together the shorter, more compact version that made the album, and it was due to this slicing and piecing together that the band came up with the name, "Frankenstein."  Regardless of from where the name was derived, few songs in history have as fitting a name as one finds here, and it only adds to the overall perfection of the song.

The final element that cements the place of "Frankenstein" amongst the greatest songs ever recorded is in the legacy it has garnered over the past four decades.  The riff itself stands among the greatest of all time, and though some do not know its origins, thanks to heavy use within popular culture, nearly everyone knows the riff itself.  Furthermore, everyone from hip-hop and jazz artists to The Weather Channel have used the song or its progression over the years, and the band Phish have turned the song into a regular part of their live sets.  For a song that was not originally supposed to even be released to the public, the fact that it has gained so much prominence over the decades is somewhat unfathomable.  Yet at the same time, it is this fact that proves the completely unpredictable nature fo music, as one would have been crazy to think that a heavy-metal style song based around a synthesizer would have been anything even remotely successful in the early 1970's.  From the perfectly placed wah-wah of the guitars to the unexpected horn breakdown to the grinding sounds of the keyboards, there is truly no other song ever recorded that bears even the slightest resemblance to "Frankenstein," and it is this uniqueness that makes it such a special track.  Bringing a somewhat dark, yet absolutely irresistible groove, the combined sound of the musicians found on Edgar Winter Group's classic 1973 single, "Frankenstein," is what makes the song not only the greatest rock instrumental of all time, but one of the greatest songs of any style in music history.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

October 23: Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, "It Takes Two"

Artist: Rob Base And DJ E-Z Rock
Song: "It Takes Two"
Album: It Takes Two
Year: 1988

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There was a time when hip-hop music had very little to do with drugs, guns, or money, and it genre itself was more about having a good time or raising ones' place within society.  In modern times, songs with such a subject are often termed as "alternative" hip-hop, and yet it is within this style that the sound itself began.  From the early days, when hip-hop was the sound of block parities and a new era of social change, there was almost always a sense of positivity or a group atmosphere, and this was much of the draw of the earliest singles in the genre.  As hip-hop began to rise and fuse into the mainstream, it was this sound that served as the backbone for many of the biggest singles in the genres' history.  Then of course, there was the duo from Harlem, New York, that completely changed the genre and released one of, if not the greatest single in the entire history of hip-hop music.  Before this single, few knew of emcee Rob Base and his partner, DJ E-Z Rock, and yet within their first album, it sounds as if they'd perfected their style years before, and the record sounds like one made by long-time hip-hop veterans.  Bringing together all of the elements, a great beat, perfect samples, an emcee with a smooth, solid voice, and superb lyrical work, there is nothing that could have prepared the world for the arrival of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's monumental 1988 single, "It Takes Two."

In many ways, "It Takes Two" is the epitome of teamwork within a song, as both Rob Base and E-Z Rock's contributions are absolutely and equally essential to the songs' success.  From a musical viewpoint, few songs of any genre are as instantly recognizable as "It Takes Two," as the samples and break-beats constructed by DJ E-Z Rock stand today as some of the finest and most infectious.  The song itself is based around a sample from Lyn Collins' 1972 song, "Think (About It)," and this is from where the song takes its unforgettable chorus, as well as namesake.  However, this is where "It Takes Two" separates itself from most hip-hop singles, as DJ E-Z Rock does not excessively loop the single, making it into the base for the song as is usually the case.  He instead places it briefly and perfectly into the song, and lets his own musical arrangement work remain the core of the songs' sound.  It is perhaps due to this ideal balance that made "It Takes Two" such a smash success, and one can point to the song as one of the most important crossover singles in history, though in reality, it barely even broke the Top Forty on the singles charts.  This seems almost unfathomable, as in modern times, the moment the song comes on, it still has the ability to light up any room, and this is the final piece that proves the true musical genius that was achieved in all areas on "It Takes Two."

With DJ E-Z Rock creating a truly extraordinary musical background, there was nothing more emcee Rob Base had to do than simply be himself on the microphone.  Though the phrase has been used countless times over the decades, there are few better examples of an emcee's delivery truly sounding effortless than one finds on "It Takes Two."  Choosing to rhyme about having a good time and doing nothing more than enjoying a party and the presence of others, Rob Base even calls out the then-rising trend in hip-hop when he rhymes, "...don't smoke buddha, can't stand sess..."  Though there is a laid-back mood to his vocals, they are delivered rapidly and with a great deal of energy.  In many ways, this clashing of styles within his voice is what makes "It Takes Two" such a classic.  Furthermore, the clarity and pace with which Rob Base rhymes makes it easy for anyone to pick up the lyrics, and this fact is what has turned the song into an all-out party anthem over the decades.  Building on this thought, there are few songs from any point in history that have as memorable an opening verse as when Rob Base delivers the lyrics, "...I'm not internationally known, but I'm known throughout the microphone..."  The fact that the line can carry people away into a far more positive, festive mood even more than twenty years after it was first released is a testament to just how timeless the song has become, and in turn what an extraordinary achievement one finds within "It Takes Two."

Serving as the final verification as to the overall impact and timeless nature of "It Takes Two," since its initial release, the song has been sampled and lifted into countless other musical efforts across a number of different genres.  From Snoop Dogg to Girl Talk to Black Eyed Peas, it is almost impossible to note all of the different types when the song as been sampled, and it has also appeared in a number of movies, TV shows, and video games.  All this from a song that barely charted as a single, yet stands today with an unquestionable status of "all time classic."  It is this juxtaposition of facts that proves the fact that the success of a song is not always an indicator of its greatness or influence, as there are many today who still point to "It Takes Two" as the greatest hip-hop single in history.  It is not hard to justifiy such an honor in this case, as the work of both members of the group is nothing short of superb, and the combined product perfectly walks the line between using samples and creating original material.  The way DJ E-Z Rock is able to create such an infectious beat around the Lyn Collins sample is truly second to none, and Rob Base's unmistakable voice over-top catapults the song into a category all its own.  Truth be told, few songs in history have come off as perfectly in every aspect as one finds here, and that is much the reason why Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's 1988 single, "It Takes Two" remains a paragon of hip-hop more than two decades later.

Friday, October 22, 2010

October 22: Dead Boys, "Sonic Reducer"

Artist: Dead Boys
Song: "Sonic Reducer"
Album: Young, Loud, and Snotty
Year: 1977

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Certain songs in music history have become so large, that the band originally responsible for its creation often becomes a bit of a side note to the song itself.  When the band in question was not a "mainstream" act, and therefore did not receive the adoration of music critics, this can become even more of a task, and in some cases, bands that cover the song are actually believed to be the originators.  If one further adds into this equation the band responsible for a "classic" song being one that did not last very long, it in some ways becomes a bit understandable when their name is not known worldwide.  However, these facts are not excuses, as bands who recorded such songs deserve their status, and that is why one cannot overlook the importance of Cleveland, Ohio's own Dead Boys.  Lasting only a few short years, it was Dead Boys who were largely responsible for setting up the groundwork for the "hardcore" movement, as their music injected the violence, nihilism, and dirtier sound of punk rock that remains to this day.  Though the band would splinter off into other groups that would achieve greater notoriety, Dead Boys 1977 debut, Young, Loud, and Snotty, stands today as one of the finest albums of the "punk explosion," and everything that makes them such an extraordinary band can be found within their legendary single from that same year, the unmistakable, "Sonic Reducer."

The song wastes no time in setting the mood and pace, as after the iconic, two-note lead-in, the quick guitar progression is immediately set into motion, and one can easily imagine just how well this introduction would have set off a live crowd.  This is the key to the sound on Young, Loud, and Snotty as it does a fantastic job of capturing the energy and ferocity of the bands' live sound, and the sense of urgency in the music is what sets the record apart from those of their peers.  On "Sonic Reducer," guitarists Cheetah Chrome (AKA Gene O'Connor) and Jimmy Zero bring a dual assault of unmatched proportions, as their tone is tweaked just enough to give it an edge, yet not so distorted that it becomes a distraction from the rest of the song.  Bassist Jeff Magnum adds in a driving, almost stalking bassline, and the speed and attitude with which he plays is the spot from where the entire spirit of the song is taken.  The drumming from Johnny Blitz is as good as any other punk outfit of the era, as he shows a superior ability to switch the rhythm mid-song, and this aspect would be copied by countless bands over the years.  "Sonic Reducer" clocks in at just over three minutes, so this in itself sets it apart from the standard "punk set-up," and the solo mid-song stands as one of the finest in the history of the genre.  The slightly distorted drum break-down that follows is nothing short of legendary, and it proves the talent and musical vision of each of the band members.

The final member of Dead Boys, and one who also served as a bridge between punk and hardcore was vocalist Stiv Bators (AKA Steven Bator).  The snarl and attitude in his voice was clearly derived from the great vocalists who came before him, yet there is a spirit and sense of chaos within his vocals that make them completely unique.  Delivering each line with a grit and growl that is nothing short of perfect, Bators is able to bring the "snootiness" of punk rock without coming off as cliché.  The way in which he delivers the vocals makes them ideal for group sing-alongs, and it is much the reason that "Sonic Reducer" remains an anthem to this day.  However, the song itself was written by O'Connor and his former bandmate, David Thomas (of Pere Ubu).  While many have tried, there is simply no other song in history that defines the uncaring, anarchic spirit of punk rock better than "Sonic Reducer."  With the opening verse of, "... I don't need anyone, don't need no mom and dad, don't need no pretty face, don't need no human race...," the band set the tone for the ultimate song of singularity, and the raw spirit behind it makes it nothing short of sheer perfection.  Even more than three decades after it was first released, "Sonic Reducer" still has a tone and energy that says "fuck off" louder and stronger than any other song in the entire history of music, and this is the reason it has become so iconic and so many bands have used it as a blueprint for their own song.

Truth be told, everyone from Dozer to The Vibrators to Overkill have covered "Sonic Reducer" over the decades, and even Pearl Jam has made it a somewhat regular part of their live shows.  Yet regardless of the band that covers it, there is simply no group that has been able to accurately capture the raw power that is found on the Dead Boys' 1977 original.  The entire album is in many ways where one can see punk rock blending back with the "original" form of rock music, as well as the clear groundwork for the hardcore movement that would explode a few years later.  This unrestrained energy and complete attempt to ignore the "form" that had been set for punk rock resulted in an album that sounds as powerful and fresh today as it did more than thirty years ago.  With "Sonic Reducer" as the lead track on the album, it set a very high standard, and Dead Boys deliver one musical assault after another.  However, no other song on the record demands the respect and attention of "Sonic Reducer," as there is a sense of immediacy to the song that has rarely been equaled elsewhere in any genre from any era.  The fact that "Sonic Reducer" stands as such a pivotal moment in music history makes it almost unfathomable that Dead Boys rarely receive the credit they so clearly deserve, and one can only gather that it is due to the fact that they were not commercially successful.  Regardless, one cannot deny the extraordinary level of energy and superb musical arrangement that one finds on Dead Boys classic 1977 single, "Sonic Reducer."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October 21: Blind Melon, "Change"

Artist: Blind Melon
Song: "Change"
Album: Blind Melon
Year: 1992

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Looking back on the entire history of recorded music, one can easily make the case that the most powerful and memorable music occurs when an artist, regardless of genre, puts themselves entirely into their music and holds nothing back.  When a performer uses their music as an outlet for whatever emotions they are dealing with, there is a certain level of honesty that comes across in the music, and the more honest the artist is, the more powerful their music becomes.  At its most powerful, one of the most amazing things can occur, as there are countless examples of when an artist is so introspective and honest with themselves that their songs become eerily prophetic.  Though this is occasionally a good prophecy, one can often see the long-standing pain and tragedy within such honesty, and this has rarely been as clear as one finds within the writing of the late Shannon Hoon.  As the frontman for the early 1990's neo-hippie band Blind Melon, Hoon quickly proved to be one of his generations' most distinctive voices, as well as one of its most prolific writers.  Turning the pen on himself and offering his deepest and most troubling thoughts to the world, there is a unique sense of agony and innocence within both Hoon's singing and writing, and it is his presence that makes the music of Blind Melon so extraordinary.  Though the band is certainly best known for their surprise hit, "No Rain," there is little question that Hoon was at his finest and most heartbreaking on Blind Melon's stunning 1992 lament, "Change."

While many of the artists of the time were using studio tricks and overdubs to make their sound, Blind Melon took the completely opposite approach, as their songs are stripped down and straightforward, pushing their raw talent to the forefront of every song.  It is on "Change" that one can hear Blind Melon's unique sonic approach, as they purposefully split the sound of their two guitarists, letting each player occupy a "side" of the music.  If one listens closely, the guitar of Rogers Stevens is mostly on the right side (or ear) of the song, while the bands' other guitar player, Christopher Thorn is panned to the left.  This split gives the band and song a very distinctive sound, and the dual-guitars comes into larger play when the song mixes an electric solo over the acoustic rhythm.  The addition of a mandolin on the track gives the song a sound like no other, and the instrument has rarely been used as perfectly as it is here.  Bassist Brad Smith gives "Change" much of its movement, helping it to swing slowly back and forth, before climbing up the frets to lead into the bridge and solo sections.  The drumming from Glenn Graham is amazing, as he is able to deploy a perfect balance between the light touch that the song requires, and a strong back-beat to keep the song moving.  With each of the four members perfectly executing their part, they form a single sound that enables "Change" to sound quite modern whilst simultaneously having a "classic" feel.

However, as superbly as each of the musicians play, there is simply no overshadowing the performance that is given here by Shannon Hoon.  Best known for his ability to work the upper registers of the vocal spectrum, on "Change," he uses his voice to its fullest, working across the scale in brilliant fashion.  Whether he is singing low and soft or releasing his soaring displays on the higher notes, there is a presence and power behind Hoon's voice that sets him far apart and above nearly all of his peers.  It is this strength and authenticity in his voice that made Blind Melon so unique, as one can instantly hear the honesty and pain in his singing.  There are moments on "Change" where it is clear that Hoon was using the studio space as a place for catharsis, as his singing pushes beyond "just" performance, and he seems to be signing from some unknown, dark, inner place.  If the sound in his voice isn't enough, "Change" boasts Hoon's finest lyrical moment, and few artists in history have ever dared to be this up front and soul bearing.  Speaking directly to his deep-rooted depression and problems of drug abuse, the words he brings here can be applied to nearly any situation in life where one begins questioning their place.  Hoon outdoes himself, bringing a chilling truth when he sings, "...and when your deepest thoughts are broken,  keep on dreaming, boy, 'cause when you stop dreamin' it's time to die..."  Every line is clearly from the heart, and Hoon achieves the rare moment of unintentional prophecy when he delivers the lines, "...but I know we can't all stay here forever,  so I want to write my words on the face of today..."  Cutting himself no slack, Shannon Hoon exposes his darkest corners and deepest feelings, and it is this honesty that makes "Change" such a phenomenal musical experience.

Nearly twenty years after it was first released, Blind Melon's 1992 debut still stands as one of the most pure and powerful records ever released.  Making no apologies, the band simply put down their sound on record and let listeners be the judge.  This straightforward and largely untouched approach worked wonderfully, as the sense of simple honesty within their music made it one of the most successful albums of the decade, as well as kick-starting the neo-hippie movement that would last for a majority of the 1990's.  With the quartet of musicians bringing a strong, yet measured musical approach, the music of Blind Melon brings the attitude of rock, yet is able to be a bit lighter without sacrificing any of the power or attitude.  It is this combination of sounds that sets the band so far apart from their peers, as well as much of the reason the album has held up over the decades.  However, the most potent aspect of Blind Melon is the singing and writing of the late Shannon Hoon.  Without question one of the most powerful voices of his generation, Hoon used the songs of Blind Melon to expose and expel his own personal demons, and in the process, he gave rays of hope to people suffering with similar problems.  On "Change," Hoon holds nothing back, and the resulting recording stands as one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of music history.  Finding an ideal balance between the joy of moving on and the reality of being trapped within ones' problems, the true sense of tragedy is perhaps what makes Blind Melon's 1992 song, "Change," the phenomenal, unparalleled musical moment that it remains to this day.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 20: Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel, "Delicate Tendrils"

Artist: Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel
Song: "Delicate Tendrils"
Album: Highball With The Devil
Year: 1996

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For certain musicians, it seems as if there is never enough time in the day to completely empty themselves of all of the songs that live within them.  Though these artists often have a staggering number of solo and side projects, it always seems as if they still have so much to say though their music, and in comparison, they are the most restless musicians in history.  Such performers are scattered throughout the decades and genres, yet for a number of reasons, they often easily rise above their peers in terms of both talent and impact.  Over the past few decades, few artists have shown a wider range of musical exploration or as unique a sound as one finds within the songs of Les Claypool.  Whether recording with his main band, Primus, or one of his many side projects like Sausage, Bucket Of Bernie Brains, The Flying Frog Brigade, or a host of other lineups, it is always his distinctive sound on bass, his voice, and his completely individual musical approach that shines brightest.  Yet even with all of these "formal" side projects, in the mid-1990's, Claypool released what is largely a solo record, bringing in a host of different musicians on each song and naming the band "The Holy Mackerel."  From members of Primus to the great Charlie Hunter, the only album released under this name, 1996's Highball With The Devil, is a stunning work of music that remains largely unnoticed.  While each song has its own personality, few songs in the Claypool catalog bring as much tension and a strange sense of darkness as one finds in Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel's 1996 song, "Delicate Tendrils."

The song begins "innocently" enough with a rapid-fire drum intro that moves into a grinding, aggressive attack from the guitar and bass.  Finding their way into a simple, looped progression, it is impossible to explain how this continual repetition is able to build as much tension as it does as "Delicate Tendrils" plays.  However, the tension is undeniable, and at many times, it almost feels as if the song itself is pacing back and forth or even making circles around the listener.  This ability to convey such motion and mood sets "Delicate Tendrils" far apart from the rest of the Claypool catalog, as while many of his songs have an odd sense of darkness, none even come close to the tone set on this song.  The distorted, battering guitar and bass are exceptionally imposing, and the way in which the song seems to be assaulting the listener over and over again proves the idea that "repetition works" when done properly.  Perhaps the reason the song is able to achieve this unique sense of darkness and aggression is the fact that, as is the case on a number of songs on Highball With The Devil, Claypool plays every instrument on the track.  With this in mind, Claypool had complete control over exactly how his music vision would be executed, and the three primary instruments fuse together to form a single, destructive sound.  This perfectly deployed mixture of hostility and odd gloom makes "Delicate Tendrils" impossible to ignore, as well as one of the most imposing songs in the entire Claypool catalog.

The other element that sets "Delicate Tendrils" far apart from other works of Les Claypool is the presence and performance of vocalist Henry Rollins.  Best known for fronting the hardcore band Black Flag, Rollins has a reputation for his own aggression and anger that he expresses via his songs.  On "Delicate Tendrils," Rollins' voice is slow, somewhat soft, and yet the hostility in his delivery cannot be denied.  The tension and dark, forceful sound of the music is perfectly replicated in Rollins' vocals, and it is this spoken-word style delivery that accentuates the strange sense of imposing, unnerving movement.  Though he was once known for his screaming, in-your-face performances, on "Delicate Tendrils," it is his oddly restrained, yet equally unsettling delivery style that serves as the perfect finish to the overall mood Claypool has created.  Furthermore, the lyrics, penned by Rollins, work brilliantly to make the feeling of frustration, anger, and ferocity come through perfectly.  Written in Rollins' distinctive poetic style, the lyrics speak of the tension between the "haves" and the "have nots," and Rollins pushes this idea into thoughts on class, race, and many other social constructs.  Rollins is able to capture the mood of the music within his words when he delivers the lines, " hated them because they looked weak and slightly circled the water hole and thought about closing in..."  Pushing the tension higher and higher with each line, Rollins brings a furious mood of the unstable, paranoid, singular being with the lyric, "...hang spent bullet cases from fishing line outside all the windows of your house...put up signs..."please break in...I would love the opportunity to kill you legally...""  It is dark, aggressive sentiments like this that serve as an ideal compliment to the amazing mood that Claypool creates musically, and the spirit of "Delicate Tendrils."

Though at face value, Highball With The Devil may seem a bit of a scattered affair in terms of the music, the fact of the matter is, as an entire piece of work, one can see it as Les Claypool pulling in the proper individuals so he could completely realize his various musical visions.  From fast-paced, quirky tunes to some of the darkest of his entire career, the album offers a peek into nearly every side of Claypool's personality, and in many ways, foreshadows many of the bands he would work with over the next decade.  However, it is on the track "Delicate Tendrils" where Claypool's ability both as a musician and musical arranger come fully into focus.  Playing drums, guitar, and of course the bass, Claypool took complete control and responsibility for the final product, and the song bring a mood and tone that is unlike anything else he has ever recorded.  The overwhelming sense of impending doom and frustration that runs throughout the song is unparalleled, and it is almost impossible to comprehend how Claypool managed to pull this off by only using a simple, repetitive musical progression.  Adding in the equally dark and dramatic vocals of Henry Rollins, "Delicate Tendrils" is truly like no other song ever released, as the way in which it assaults the listener is something that must be experienced to be understood.  Though he has been the force behind many wonderfully unique songs, there is simply nothing else in recorded history that sounds or feels quite like Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel's 1996 song, "Delicate Tendrils."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October 19: Isaac Hayes, "Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic"

Artist: Isaac Hayes
Song: "Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic"
Album: Hot Buttered Soul
Year: 1969

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While there are many amazing and indispensable figures throughout the history of music, few can be called true luminaries, having impact across every genre throughout a number of decades.  For these elite few musicians, there are few titles that are fitting, as their names alone have become a definition in itself.  A majority of these icons of music paid their dues during the late 1950’s and 1960’s, as due to both culture and technology, mainstream music was splintering off into countless new directions.  Though this period is perhaps best defined by the albums that came out of Motown Records in Detroit, and equally important musical hotspot was Memphis’ own Stax/Volt Records.  Home to the likes of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, and of course Booker T & The M.G.’s, it was in the halls of Stax that soul music was being redefined.  At the forefront of this new style of soul there was one man, and there are few musicians show have been as pivotal in the development of music as the great Isaac Hayes.  After spending a number of years as a backing musician and writer, Hayes finally stepped into the spotlight in 1967 with his legendary debut, and it was here that he proved that there were no limit to his talents.  However, Hayes would accomplish what was thought to be impossible, as his sophomore solo effort, 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul, not only equaled the impact of his debut, but surpassed it.  Containing only four songs, yet running over forty-five minutes, there is not a dull moment to be found, and the record opened new doors in the funk and soul sound, paving the way for a majority of the music that was recorded over the next decade.  Bringing all of his talents and musical vision into focus, few songs bring as strong and unique a groove as one finds in Isaac Hayes’ 1969 classic, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic.”

After an almost danced piano intro, Haeys’ entire backing band, The Bar-Kays, drop in at full strength, and the power with which the hook and groove hit is unrivaled to this day.  The stinging, funky guitar from Michael Toles brings together funk, soul, and blues in an unprecedented manner, and it is his tone here that would become the blueprint for the genre over the next decade.  The rhythm section found here is unquestionably one of the greatest in history, as drummer Willie Hall and bassist James Alexander bring a movement to “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic” that defies description.  Crossing through nearly every style of music, the thump of the bass presents the ideal contrast to the “walk” that came from Motown.  Rounding out the sound on the song is Hayes himself on piano, and the way in which he slides in and around his bandmates brings to mind the idea of it often being about where you don’t play that makes a melody so fantastic.  However, about halfway through “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic,” breaks out into one of the most soulful solos ever recorded, and he seems to be able to simultaneously hit the keys with an amazing power, whilst keeping the overall mood smooth and somehow soft.  The song moves into an all out funk jam, and it is here that Alexander and Toles shows the full power of the Bar-Kays, as the intricate grooves and patterns they create are truly monumental.  The song continues to build, with an almost overwhelming tension, before fading out, wondering just how long the band jammed and what extraordinary musical moments remain unheard.

Along with being a phenomenal writer and musician, Isaac Hayes also possessed one of the most distinctive voices and personas in all of music history.  His deep, sometimes almost growling voice had a smoothness to it that defies description, and it is this clashing of sounds that makes him such a unique talent.  On “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic,” Hayes uses his entire vocal arsenal, from soaring cries to striking spoken pieces, and it is in this stylistic combination that one can hear his roots in blues and gospel.  The manner with which Hayes pulls all these sounds together is the main aspect that made his sound so revolutionary, as underneath it all, there remains a relaxed, cool tone.  Furthermore, his appearance of his shaved head and ever-present sunglasses reinforced the fact that without question, Hayes defined the entire idea of “cool” in every sense of the word.  Along with a twisting, unpredictable musical backing, the lyrics to "Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic" may very well be the most wildly poetic in history.  At some points, Hayes flips brilliant statements on love, such as when he sings, "...I can't sleep at night, but that's all right...the M.D. tells me, my heart's on strike...emanating, originating from a love asphixiation..."  At other times, Hayes seems to get outright philosophical, and it is clear that he chose the words based mostly on their sound and rhythm, as opposed to getting "directly" to the point he wanted to make.  This shows the true roots of music, taken from old spoken stories, and it points at the significance of having the proper rhyme and meter when one looks to create a true masterpiece of a song.

Though soul and funk music certainly existed before Isaac Hayes released his monumental Hot Buttered Soul album, after it came out, neither genre was ever the same again.  Both as individual styles of music, as well as the ways in which they came together, Hayes’ years of playing behind some of the finest musicians in history helped him to completely reinvent all that was possible. With each track on the album defying all traditional thoughts on both sound and length, the nearly ten minutes that is “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic “ seems to fly by, proving what a superb job each player did on the track.  Backed by what has withstood time as one of the most powerful and original grouping of musicians ever, the sheer force with which “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic” hits instantly places it in a category all its own.  Even more than four decades after it was first released, no song has ever even remotely equaled the power and presence of this track, and one can point directly to the song as “the” beginning of the next movement in both funk and soul.  It was here where suddenly the sounds of Motown seemed perhaps over-produced or manufactured, and the persona of James Brown almost too flashy or theatrical.  Hayes’ image was the new definition of cool, and one can see scores of performers in the years following that took this as their own style.  Both musically and culturally, Hayes had begun a wide-reaching revolution that in many ways persists to this day, and one can get a complete grasp on just how extraordinary a talent he was within Isaac Hayes’ tremendous 1969 classic, “Hyperbolicsyllabicsequedalymistic.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

October 18: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #42"

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

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

1. Funeral Dress, "Rebel Radio"  Global Warming
2. Jerry Lee Lewis, "Mean Woman Blues"  Live At The Star Club, Hamburg
3. Goldfrapp, "Human"  Felt Mountain
4. Robert Johnson, "Traveling Riverside Blues"  King Of The Delta Blues
5. The Clash, "London Calling"  London Calling
6. Steve Poltz, "Hater's Union"  Traveling
7. Sixty-Nine, "Sixty-Nine"  Just For The Fun
8. The Dirty Scums, The G-Spot"  R.A.M.O.N.E.S.
9. The Noisettes, "Scratch Your Name"  What's The Time Mr. Wolf?
10. Gogol Bordello, "Sun Is On My Side"  Trans-Continental Hustle
11. Grinderman, "Evil"  Grinderman 2
12. Zero7, "In Time"  When it Falls
13. U.K. Subs, "Kicks"  Brand New Age
14. Vic Ruggiero, "Lonely Nights"  Something In My Blindspot
15. The Fall, "Groovin' With Mr. Blue->Green-Eyed Loco Man"  Peel Sessions
16. Tenacious D, "The Road"  Tenacious D

Sunday, October 17, 2010

October 17: Grinderman, "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)"

Artist: Grinderman
Song: “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)”
Album: Grinderman
Year: 2007

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There is perhaps no more rare an occurrence in the history of music than that of the rock-style band that gets better and heavier with age.  Most of the time, as performers age, their music becomes more mellow and the edge that once defined them seems to become a thing of the past.  Thankfully, nobody told that to Australian rock-god, Nick Cave.  Having spent nearly three decades fronting the likes of The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, Cave unleashed his most volatile and musically stunning project in years when he premiered his most recent outfit, Grinderman, in 2007.  Their self-titled debut that year shook the music world and severed as proof and a warning call that pure, raw, and unapologetic rock and roll was still alive and kicking, as each song on the record easily outshined nearly everything else that had been released in years from any genre.  From the punishing, roaring guitars to the amazing presence that “is” Nick Cave, it seemed that though they had aged in years, the band members still had the energy and attitude of musicians more than half their age.  This, in many ways, is what makes Grinderman so extraordinary; as they have the talent and maturity of veteran rockers, by the spirit of their music remains unquestionably youthful.  Though there are some reflective moments on Grinderman that showcase the quiet, yet equally intense moods that Cave has perfected over the years, it is in the albums’ more wild, almost unhinged rockers were the band is clearly at their best.  Though nearly every song on Grinderman is nothing short of rock and roll perfection, everything that makes this band so magnificent can be found in Grinderman’s 2007 song, “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars).”

The moment the song begins, the urgency therein is like nothing that had been heard anywhere in years.  The almost alarm-like guitar note that starts the song before Cave drops in the background with a punk rock “one, two, three, four” serves as the perfect lead-in to this borderline chaotic musical masterpiece.  The team of Cave and multi-instrumentalist and Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, have rarely sounded as good as they do here, as the guitar mixes brilliantly with the pounding keyboards.  This combination has an amazing potency, and the way they weave through and around one another creates an all-out musical assault that captures everything there is to love about “real” rock music.  There is an attitude deep within all the players, and it gives “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)” a fantastic swagger that in many ways defines Grinderman.  The rhythm section of bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos build an almost nervous, fevered groove underneath, and this only raises the overall mood of the song to a level beyond words.  Clearly there is a chemistry between the quartet, and one can make the case that this was further explored on The Bad Seeds 2007 release, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!.  The distortion during the bridge sections is almost overwhelming,  As the song moves into the final section, the group sounds as if they are about to spin out of control, bringing an energy and sound indicative of their explosive live performances, and this is much the reason that “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)” now serves as the high-water mark for which all bands looking to play the “garage” sound now strive.

Having his work cut out for him to keep the energy and mood at such a high level, Nick Cave proves that though many may try to best him, he still stands as one of the most mesmerizing and brilliantly raw frontmen in music history.  His voice, which still knows no boundaries in terms of range, has rarely sounded better, and it is clear that there is a deep connection with each of these songs.  The attitude in his performance is absolutely stunning, as Cave manages to capture the wild abandon perfected by Iggy Pop with a strange soul that gives a nod to his roots in the blues.  There is also a feel that all of Grinderman is very much a long extension from his years in The Birthday Party, and one can easily connect the attitude within the music to those years.  Furthermore, Cave has always had a flare for the dramatic, and his uncanny sense of vocal theatrics are as present on “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars)” as anywhere else in his vast catalog.  Seeming to coax the listener to join the band in their frenzied pace, Cave shows a superb sense of timing, as he drops the lyrics in when he sees fit, often clashing with the “normal” rhythmic flow that one expects.  It is this amazing combination of presence and unique timing and expression that makes Nick Cave such an icon, and there are few better examples of his legendary talent then on “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars).”

Simply put, there was no way one could have been prepared for the avalanche of rock and roll mastery that Nick Cave and three Bad Seeds injected into the world in the form of 2007’s Grinderman.  Combining their shared decades of musical experience, the group took a “show up and play” approach to the record, as opposed to more formal writing sessions beforehand.  Clearly, this worked to their advantage, and the raw and unplanned nature of the music comes through in every song.  Deploying wild progressions and perfectly balanced distortion, Grinderman stands as one of the most invigorating albums ever released.  Even on first listen, one cannot help but “rock out” to nearly every song, and this stands true even to those who have never experienced any of Cave’s previous projects.  It is this single fact that solidifies the overall greatness of both the band and record, and it is almost unfathomable that such a musical achievement could come so far into Cave’s already legendary career.  On “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars),” the band throws all expectations and inhibitions to the side, and the song reaffirms that at its core, rock and roll needs to have a certain element of fun for it to be done properly.  The fact that the quartet are loving the songs they are playing comes through clearly on every track, and this adds to the level of energy and authenticity that persists through every song.  Redefining themselves as musicians and proving that the true spirit of rock and roll is alive and well, Grinderman’s 2007 self-titled debut is beyond “required listening” for all music fans, and everything that makes this album so monumental can be found in their phenomenal song, “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly To Mars).”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

October 16: Warren Zevon, "Werewolves Of London"

Artist: Warren Zevon
Song: "Werewolves Of London"
Album: Excitable Boy
Year: 1978

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With few exceptions, the overall history of folk music is one of rather serious, usually heartfelt words that rarely show any signs of humor or any emotions beyond love.  While the early songs of Woody Guthrie proved the style could be used for social change and the expression of frustration, this trend really never took a consistent hold, and the "folkies" have been a largely mellow bunch for a majority of music history.  Thankfully, scattered throughout this trend there have been a handful of performers, who whilst staying firmly rooted in the folk style, have shown the entire range of emotions and sound that can be achieved.  Bringing a sometimes angry, often sarcastic, sometimes absurd point of view, few folk artists have been able to achieve a similar sound to that of the late Warren Zevon.  Having tried various forms of getting his sound across, it took Zevon well over a decade before critics and the general public finally saw the true genius within his music.  Even after his 1976 self-titled album found success, he was strangely resistant to do the follow up, and yet it is that album, 1978's Excitable Boy, for which he is best known.  From the brilliant title track to hidden gems like "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," the album perfectly captures his unique, often wry writing style, yet there is no song for which Warren Zevon is better known than his indescribable 1978 classic, "Werewolves Of London."

The fact that Zevon did not write in the traditional folk style was not helped by the fact that instead of a guitar, his primary instrument was a piano.  However, this fact does allow him to have a far wider range and mood to his music, and "Werewolves Of London" exemplifies this perfectly.  The song kicks off with a swinging, almost waltz-like progression, and in many ways, this was as "anti-disco" as the heaviest punk around.  Yet while it stood in defiance to the modern trends, there is something irresistibly danceable to the song, and it is this aspect that shows Zevon's superb skills as an arranger.  However, one cannot overlook the fact that the other musicians on the track were the likes of John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, and a number of members of Linda Ronstadt's group, The Section.  In many ways, this combination of talents made it almost impossible for the song NOT to be catchy, and it is the level of musicianship found here that sets "Werewolves Of London" apart from the rest of the Zevon catalog.  There is an exceptionally odd element at play on the song, as it seems to stick to the odd-folk style, until it is knocked over by a guitar solo that screams of the "Southern rock" style.  Somehow, this element manages to work perfectly, and it is perhaps this completely random combination of styles, played by top-notch musicians, that makes "Werewolves Of London" such an unforgettable song.

While his musical arrangement on "Werewolves Of London" was unlike anything else, one can also hear a number of different influences coming through in the vocals of Warren Zevon.  Though the verses are mostly spoken, they are delivered in a far more pronounced and almost aggressive style than a majority of the "beat era" lyricists of this style, and in some ways, they are more akin to the growing rap movement of the late 1970's.  Yet there is a grin that can be heard throughout the entire lyrical portion of the song, and it is obvious that Zevon had a very good time both writing and recording the lyrics.  Though at first glance it may not seem as such, "Werewolves Of London" is one of the finest noir-style stories ever recorded.  Letting the title be quite literal, Zevon paints a picture of a real-life werewolf stalking the streets of London.  He even name drops boy Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., who were both movie starts, with the elder being best known for his silent, grotesque creatures, and the younger starring in the 1941 film, The Wolf Man.  Along with these two, Zevon mentions a wide array of London hot-spots, as his creature seems to take a tour of the town, searching for a victim.  The gritty, somewhat cold picture he paints is quite vivid, yet the strangely upbeat sound in his voice and music create another fantastic juxtaposition, making "Werewolves Of London" play like no other song.

Due to the fact that there are so many styles at play on "Werewolves Of London," it stands as one of the truly impossible to classify songs in history.  The song fits in just as perfectly on "classic rock" stations as it does on "oldie" stations as it does on stations playing newer rock, and this timeless feel is one of the most amazing aspects of all.  Furthermore, the range of artists that have covered it over the years is just as diverse, with versions coming from everyone from The Grateful Dead to Magnolia Electric Co, and the main riff was ripped-off for Kid Rock's nauseating 2008 song, "All Summer Long."  Furthermore, the songs' opening line, "...I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain..." has oft been voted as one of the greatest first lines ever, as there is a brilliant absurdity to the words.  All of this from a musician who almost turned his back on the business after years of playing as a backing pianist and struggling to get a record contract of his own.  In the end, it was friend and fellow musician Jackson Browne that not only got Zevon the deal, but also produced the hit song.  Whether it was the seemingly strange combination of styles in both lyrics and music, or the sheer level of talent within the musicians on the track, there is no arguing that Warren Zevon's 1978 song, "Werewolves Of London" is anything less than a true music classic.