Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31: The Dictators, "The Next Big Thing"

Artist: The Dictators
Song: "The Next Big Thing"
Album: Go Girl Crazy!
Year: 1975

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Though even in modern times, they are still seen as rather far apart on the musical spectrum, when one considers the evolution and form of the styles, it is impossible to deny the strong connections between heavy metal and punk rock.  The linage of both genres can be traced back to the likes of The Stooges and The MC5 among other bands, and in many ways, the only difference is within the actual musical arrangements and form.  This reality is made more clear by the fact that throughout the 1970's, there were a number of bands that attempted to find the balance between these two musical styles, and few were more successful in this venture than when one explores the music of The Dictators.  Bringing together the heavy, almost pummeling sounds of heavy metal with a stripped down, almost sophomoric attitude, The Dictators did all they could to point out all the irony and hypocrisy within the rock world, and yet they rarely get the credit they deserve for their pioneering musical efforts.  While many bands copied their sound and attitude, it is their 1975 debut, Go Girl Crazy!, that remains the pinnacle of the fusion of heavy metal and punk, and the record stands as an oft-overlooked classic of the 1970's.  Each track on the album reinforces their distinctive sound, and one can quickly understand everything there is to know about The Dictators by experiencing their fantastic 1975 single, "The Next Big Thing."

In every aspect, within the first moments of "The Next Big Thing," the entire personality of The Dictators becomes apparent, and while it suggests a rather comical nature, one cannot deny the powerful musical arrangement that is led by the guitar of Ross "The Boss" Funicello.  As soon as the music drops in, everything from Black Sabbath to Blue Oyster Cult comes to mind, and the progression injects a superb amount of energy into the song.  The band pushes the overall sound to a point that it almost becomes cliché, but their ability to stop "just short" proves the genius that lived behind their carefree persona.  The way in which Funicello locks in with the second guitar of Scott Kempner and bassist Andy Shernoff is true musical perfection, and the combined sound is one of the most imposing ever captured on tape.  Drummer Stu Boy Kingadds the ideal finishing touch to the arrangement, and it is within his performance that the unique sway to the song is formed.  It is also the slightly-sludgy, yet constantly driving sound of "The Next Big Thing" that quickly proves to be as good as heavy metal gets, and it is the clear control of their sound and energy that sets the song apart from others.  Yet it is the fact that there is an edge and attitude within the music, and the odd timing of the song, that makes it fit in perfectly with the still-forming punk sound, and one can easily argue that no other band straddled the line between the two sounds as perfectly as one finds on "The Next Big Thing."

Adding what is without question the ideal finishing touch to the bands' sound, there has never been another vocalist quite like Handsome Dick Manitoba.  It is his distinctive ability to bring a gruff growl that is on par with any punk singer, while at the same time working the entire vocal scale as a singer that makes him so impressive, and the shared parts with Shernoff play equally as great.  The amount of swagger and testosterone that comes forth in the vocals is second to none, and the fact that they are able to do so without having to be overly loud or fast is again a testament to the control they have of the mood of their music.  There are even moments within "The Next Big Thing" where one cannot help but compare the vocals to those found on The Stooges', "Gimme Danger," and the way in which the vocals lock in with the music matches this comparison quite well, even if they are a big sarcastic in this instance.  However, while the vocals are nothing short of fantastic, it is within the lyrics of "The Next Big Thing" where the true personality of The Dictators is able to shine.  There is a sense of "rock grandeur" within the words, and yet it is also clear that the band is poking fun at their own, turning the song into one of the finest musical satires in all of music history.  Though some may see the song as a "quest" for rock stardom, the fact that it can just as easily be read as one of excess and arrogance shows the almost hidden brilliance that made The Dictators so fantastic.

Bringing all of these elements together, the fact remains that "The Next Big Thing" is without question one of the most catchy and truly irresistible songs ever recorded.  Regardless of ones musical preference, there is a draw to "The Next Big Thing" that cannot be ignored, and it may live within the fact that one can truly feel the level of "fun" that the band had whilst recording the song.  Whether it is the heavily sarcastic, yet clearly accurate opening tirade from Manitoba, pushing it to the line, "...this is just a hobby for me," or the vivid images of packed arenas, on many levels, "The Next Big Thing" is able to convey rock and roll stardom in a manner unlike any other song.  Yet it is also the fact that the music is powerful and captivating, and after hearing the song only once, one is left to wonder how such an arrangement did not garner regular radio airplay at some point over the past decades.  In almost every facet, "The Next Big Thing" rings of the so-called "classic rock" sound, and aside from the lyrics, one would be hard pressed to separate the song from many others that were released around the same time.  Yet it is this exact fact that enables The Dictators to be so distinctive when compared to their peers, and it is the way in which they blended the punk attitude into the heavy metal sound that remains such a uniquely exciting experience.  Though the entire album is absolutely phenomenal, there is no better representation of everything that makes The Dictators so brilliant than what one can find in their 1975 song, "The Next Big Thing."

Monday, May 30, 2011

May 30: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #74"

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. The Clash, "Capitol Radio"  Cost Of Living EP
2. Art Tatum, "Tiger Rag1932-1934
3. Chuck Berry, "The Things I Used To Do"  Chuck Berry Is On Top
4. The Ruts, "SUS"  Peel Sessions
5. Luscious Jackson, "Here"  Here (single)
6. Allman Brothers Band, "Revival"  Idlewild South
7. Slayer, "Screaming From The Sky"  Diabolus In Musica
8. Mudcrutch, "Oh Maria"  Mudcrutch
9. Rune Lindblad, "Nocturne"  Death Of The Moon: Electronic And Concrete Music (1953-1960)
10. The Evens, "Get Even"  Get Evens
11. Moist, "PushSilver
12. Beck, "Paper Tiger"  Sea Change
13. Fiona Apple, "Slow Like Honey"  Tidal
14. Sublime, "Chico Me Tipo"  40 Oz. To Freedom
15. Dire Straits, "Portobello Belle (Live)"  Money For Nothing

Sunday, May 29, 2011

May 29: Gipsy Kings, "Baila Me"

Artist: Gipsy Kings
Song: "Baila Me"
Album: Este Mundo
Year: 1991

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Even as the decades pass and genres continue to develop, there are certain sounds and styles of music that will forever retain an "older" feel to them.  This is not to say that there cannot be a modern flare within the sound, but that there is always some sort of "classic" tone within the music.  While one can find this in a number of genres, it is no more clear than within many of the Latin based sounds, and any group that properly incorporates flamenco into their music is sure to have this tone present.  There is something wonderfully aged, yet dazzling within this style of music, and few groups have been able to bring it into the modern times as perfectly as one finds in the music of Gipsy Kings.  Mixing together many layered guitars, fantastic horns, and some of the most upbeat and invigorating vocals ever recorded, the group has been a constant force for more than thirty years, yet most are unaware that their heritage is French, and not a Spanish speaking country as their music suggests.  Yet this is almost irrelevant, as the spirit and sound within their music is second to none, and they are one of a handful of groups that continue to get better with every album they release.  Though they found moderate success with an earlier album, one can quickly understand just why the Gipsy Kings are so wonderfully unique within their unforgettable 1991 song, "Baila Me."

Serving as the lead track to their Este Mundo album, "Baila Me" sets an amazing tone for the rest of the record, as it almost jumps through the speakers.  Quite literally, every aspect of the song is perfectly executed, and even those who are not familiar with the "flamenco pop" style are sure to be completely captivated by the song.  From the first notes of the song, it is clear it is going to be a high energy affair, as the multiple percussion instruments create a complex, yet pointed poly-rhythm.  Though they all soon come together in a single beat, there is a more intense, but not louder, feeling within the rhythm, and it makes it impossible not to groove along in some manner with "Baila Me."  Yet the most distinctive aspect of nearly every Gipsy Kings song is the way in which the half-a-dozen guitars all come together as a single sound.  Again, it is the ability to have a layered sound, without a need to increased volume, that makes the sound so fantastic, and one cannot help but get caught up in this sound.  Though one or two guitars do veer off from time to time, creating brilliant sonic contrasts, in both the pace and the mood, one can quickly understand just why the term "flamenco pop" is necessary.  However, "Baila Me" separates itself from the bands' earlier hits with the amazing punctuation from the horn section, and it is the way in which these three factors come together that makes it an amazing and unforgettable musical experience.

Working in a perfect contrast to the music, the voice of Nicolas Reyes retains the classic sound of Latin music, but at the same time it is completely distinctive.  There is a slight grit and gruff within his singing, and it gives an amazing level of authenticity to the music of Gipsy Kings.  It is also the way in which the spirit of his voice works so perfectly with the music, and he enables the overall feeling of joy and happiness to become almost overwhelming.  Reyes easily works all over the vocal spectrum, and one can easily imagine this song being sung at a large party, and it is this almost organic feel that enables "Baila Me" to retain its impact and brilliance over time.  Yet one of the most amazing aspects of the song lives within the fact that even if one speaks no Spanish at all, the mood of the song is able to convey a great deal.  Clearly, it is a song of celebration and a carefree attitude, and it is this fact that proves the truly universal nature of music.  However, if one does translate the lyrics, "Baila Me" is actually as common a musical theme as one will find anywhere.  The words speak of meeting a truly intoxicating woman, and the ways in which the protagonist pines to win her over.  He is so madly in love with this woman that he needs to see a doctor, and he dedicates his singing and dancing to her for the rest of his life.  Reyes sings each line with an amazing amount of heartfelt dedication, and one must wonder if the woman in question is real.

In every aspect, "Baila Me" represents everything that makes the flamenco sound so fantastic, and yet it is the more modern approach found within that enables the song to be so unique.  The different rhythms that are found throughout the song, combined with the superbly layered guitar sounds are truly like nothing else ever recorded, and though other artists have attempted such a sound, none have done so with this level of brilliance.  It is the fact that Gipsy Kings are able to retain the older, almost classic sound of Latin music within the song, yet simultaneous have this modern flare that proves that such a balance can be struck, and the addition of a horns section on "Baila Me" enables the song to rise far above the rest of the bands' catalog.  This song, more than almost any other in history, is truly irresistible, and even for those who do not speak the language or are not familiar with the roots of this music, it is still as inviting and inspiring.  The fact that "Baila Me" is able to be so universal in every sense is a testament to the talents within the band, and it is likely due to the years of honing their sound that they were able to record such a truly special song.  Nicolas Reyes sounds as good as ever, and the way in which he seamlessly transitions in and out of the group vocals is as good as one will find in any genre.  With so many amazing musical feats being accomplished, one can listen to this song a number of times and still find new aspects, and this is perhaps the main reason that it there such a special experience within the Gipsy Kings' 1991 song, "Baila Me."

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28: Otis Redding, "I've Been Loving You Too Long"

Artist: Otis Redding
Song: "I've Been Loving You Too Long"
Album: Otis Blue
Year: 1965

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While there are a large number of artists and voices that have persevered for a number of years, there are only a select few that are worthy of being termed as "timeless."  Within this group of unforgettable, unmistakable voices, there is really no single common thread, as it is largely the uniqueness of the performers in question that sets them so far apart from their peers.  Among these elite performers, there are few that can outshine the powerful, beautiful voice of the great Otis Redding, and his name alone brings with it a wide array of assumptions and expectations.  Redding possessed one of the strongest yet most gentle voices in all of music history, and in many ways, he represented everything that it meant to sing in the soul style.  Rarely holding anything back, Otis Redding also displayed a wide range in his ability to convey his emotions, and from slow, swaying numbers to more fast-paced songs, there is not an "off" moment anywhere in his catalog.  While one can argue that he is best known for his posthumous hit single, "(Sitting On) Dock Of The Bay," in many ways, that song does not do justice to his talents, as it is one of his more restrained vocal performances.  To fully understand and appreciate the unique genius that was Otis Redding, one need look no further than his timeless 1965 love song, "I've Been Loving You Too Long."

Truth be told, there are actually two very distinctive recordings of "I've Been Loving You Too Long," as the song is one of a handful that Otis Redding tried before and after his working with the great Booker T. Jones.  The first version was recorded with a smaller arrangement, and by all popular accounts, the pianist on this mono take is none other than Isaac Hayes.  On this version, Redding's vocals are far more prominent, as there is little more than the piano in support, and it is this take that is the most common.  Strangely enough, this was the version released on Otis Blue, and yet it was done so with the three minute plus time noted on the record standing as completely incorrect, as the mono version is about twenty seconds shorter.  However, the listed time is the length of the second, stereo version of "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and yet this take is far more of a rarity.  Though it would be released on box sets of Redding's music, most remain unfamiliar with this version, and yet it has a tone all its own.  The band is led by Booker T. Jones, and there is a more "classic soul" sound to be heard on this version.  There are a few more instruments on the stereo take, and yet they still do their best to not interfere with Redding's superb vocals.  The addition of the horn section works perfectly, and one can find a similar mood and power in both studio takes.

The fact that both versions of "I've Been Loving You Too Long" are so captivating and moving is a testament to the true power of Redding's vocals, and it is in this song that one can fully realize how unique he was even amongst his peers.  As is the case in nearly every song Redding recorded, it is as much in his seemingly unlimited vocal range as it is the fluctuation in the power of his voice that is so captivating, and even after more than forty years, his performance still remain completely unmatched.  Throughout both takes of "I've Been Loving You Too Long," Redding clearly gives himself completely to the power of the music, and it is often the interplay between his vocals and the piano that is perfect in a way unlike any other song in history.  The emotion that he conveys is second to none, and one can easily argue that it is the most beautiful love song ever recorded.  The way with which Redding delicately deploys every word, filling each syllable completely gives a clear sense of the painful, yet caring feelings he has, and there has never been another song that so perfectly displayed this juxtaposition.  It is a frustration to which one can easily relate, and it is very much this "every man" sound and emotion that Redding displayed throughout his entire career that enabled so many to find such enjoyment in his music.  The true impact of Otis Redding's performance on "I've Been Loving You Too Long" is solidified int he fact that all these decades later, the song retains all of the power and emotion that it did when it was first recorded.

Almost immediately after its release in April of 1965, other artists began covering the song, and this fact alone is yet another way in which one can appreciate just how significant a performance lives within "I've Been Loving You Too Long."  Both The Rolling Stones and Ike and Tina Turner recorded covers of the song, and the latter was a hit onto itself.  In the year that have passed, everyone from Seal to Aretha Franklin to Joe Cocker have placed their own spin on the song, and yet there is no question that none come even remotely close to the original by Otis Redding.  There is something so pure, so raw within his singing on the track that has never been matched, and it is this aspect that has enabled the song to remain such a powerful voice across the decades.  It is also the fact that his voice is so phenomenal that both of his own studio versions are able to be equally captivating, and this reality proves just how much more powerful a vocalist can be when they are truly an elite singer.  That is not to discount the efforts of either of the backing groups, as they set the fantastic mood into motion; yet there is never any question on either recording that it is Redding that controls the song.  While it would be somewhat overshadowed by the success of his posthumous singles, almost fifty years later, there are few songs that can compare to the power and sheer beauty that one can experience on Otis Redding's unparalleled 1965 single, "I've Been Loving You Too Long."

Friday, May 27, 2011

May 27: Queensrÿche, "Silent Lucidity"

Artist: Queensrÿche
Song: "Silent Lucidity"
Album: Empire
Year: 1990

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While it is true in many, perhaps even a majority of cases, one cannot write-off the entire "hair metal" movement of the 1980's as something that had no "real" musical value.  Most of the groups of this period did their best to promote the virtues of a lifestyle of excess, and the personas that they displayed were, at least in hindsight, rather comical.  However, one of the biggest problems with just how big this trend became was the fact that a number of bands that likely did not belong, became wrapped up in the category, possibly giving an unjust assumption of their music.  There is perhaps no more clear an example than when one examines the music of Queensrÿche, as their arrangements and moods went far beyond the stereotypical sounds of the time.  In many ways, the band was more akin to the likes of KISS and Queen than they were groups like Mötley Crüe, and yet even to this day, this is a fact that somehow remains largely overlooked.  Bringing a far more melodic and grand sound, along with lyrics that were often almost philosophical, Queensrÿche remain one of the more intriguing bands of the 1980's, and yet it was their first album of the decade that followed that proved to be their finest work.  With the release of 1990's Empire, the band finally struck the ideal balance in all of their influences, and there are few songs that are as unforgettable or truly beautiful than what one can experience in Queensrÿche's classic 1990 single, "Silent Lucidity."

The opening acoustic guitar progression, played by Chris DeGarmo, has become nothing short of iconic to the youth of that generation, and yet it is also in this aspect where one of the greatest mis-labelings of all time occurs.  Due to the feel that this puts forth, as well as the perception that it is a slower song, "Silent Lucidity" is often labeled as a "ballad," and yet when one steps back and looks at the song, it is clearly not even close to this form.  However, the mood that this progression sets into place is one of the most brilliantly delicate in history, and it blends perfectly with the string arrangement that was arranged and conducted by Michael Kamen.  This mood grows even stronger, completely captivating the listener as the song moves into the "main" section, and the rest of the band joins the arrangement.  The second guitar from Michael Wilton locks in with DeGarmo to create an almost hypnotic cycle, and it remains one of the most distinctive aspects of the song.  It is also the way in which bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield are able to strike the ideal balance between the bands' hard rock roots and the soaring sound of the string section that makes "Silent Lucidity" such an amazing musical experience.  Though many other bands experimented with involving large orchestrations, they all seem forced and unbalanced when compared to the sheer beauty and emotion that one finds on "Silent Lucidity."

Adding the perfect final element to the song, few will argue that Geoff Tate possesses much less than one of the most instantly recognizable voices of his generation.  Easily able to work the entire vocal scale, it is the way in which he uses his deep, but strong lower register on the verses that in many ways defines "Silent Lucidity."  There is a unique tone within his vocal delivery here, and it almost seems as if he is playing the role of "old wise man" as he spins this often metaphysical tale of sleep and dreaming.  Working perfectly with the delicate nature of the music, the song is almost a lullaby at some points, and Tate walks this line, never breaking the mood or jarring the listener out of the hypnotic trance of the song as a whole.  It is also the absolutely fantastic lyrics that enable "Silent Lucidity" to achieve the status that it has, as they are some of the most perfect phrases and vivid images that have ever been penned.  At every turn, the lyrics can be dissected in a number of ways, an there are few lines that better capture the spirit of the song than when Tate sings, "...there's a place I like to hide, a doorway that I run through in the night..."  This is the final element that is necessary to create this enthralling, yet never overwhelming mood, and the vocal performance from Geoff Tate remains nothing short of unforgettable.

Even more than two decades after its initial release, the overall power and beauty of "Silent Lucidity" remains completely intact.  The fact that it has aged so perfectly, while almost every other song of the era has become more of a "period piece" is a testament to just how far apart the band was from their peers.  The song stands as so much more than a ballad or a relic of the "hair metal" era, and once one realizes this fact, the overall contributions of Queensrÿche become clear.  Truth be told, if one really dissects a song like "Silent Lucidity," there is an easy argument to be made that the song is most closely related to the works of Pink Floyd than any band of the 1980's, and this again separates the group from being a part of the "hair metal" scene.  Just "why" the song has turned into such an iconic moment in music history can be to so many aspects, and yet one cannot deny the fact that the group allows the orchestration to be far more prominent in the mix weights heavily on this fact.  The complete commitment to having this tone is what sets it apart from other such attempts, and the balance struck here clearly led to a number of the more regrettable combinations of hard rock and full orchestras that occurred over the decade that followed.  Bringing together a number of different influences and fusing them together to create an absolutely phenomenal, yet fragile mood, there is simply no other song in history that can compare to the brilliance that can be experienced within Queensrÿche's 1990 single, "Silent Lucidity."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26: Prince Buster, "Madness"

Artist: Prince Buster
Song: Madness
Album: Madness (single)
Year: 1963

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While one can argue that a majority of musical styles were not the result of only one person, there are certain individuals without whom, the genre would not have developed as it has.  Whether it was a certain tone or rhythm, or simply a personality that gave the style more appeal, there are a number of reasons why a specific artist can be seen as essential to the existence of a given musical sound.  This collaborative development has rarely been more clear than within the various styles that came from "the islands" in the 1950's and 1960's, and due to many of them originating from sound-system style parties, it is difficult to cite all those who helped it mature.  However, even with this reality, one would be hard pressed to find a more influential person in the world of ska than Prince Buster, and it is his songs and approach that has been copied for decades.  Releasing a number of moderately successful singles in the early 1960's, Prince Buster remains the definition of the Blue Beat label sound, and even after almost fifty years, his songs remain fresh and exciting.  While from a more modern perspective, his music may not appear as revolutionary, one can easily argue that it was these singles that introduced the world at-large to the ska sound.  Though a number of his early singles remain true legends of the ska scene, it was Prince Buster's 1963 recording, "Madness" that would become the blueprint for the ska sound.

From the instant that "Madness" begins, the rhythm and groove is put into play,  and though it is a very overused term, the sound that comes forth is absolutely timeless.  It is the down-beat that becomes prominent, and there is an upbeat, lifting feel that runs throughout the entire song.  It is the way in which the horn section punctuates the rhythm that sets "Madness" apart from other songs of the era, and it is also this element that remains a constant within the genre to this day.  Furthermore, the sound from the horns is what also makes the ska style different from the other "island sounds," and yet even though they stand so significant within the song, they are a rather subtle part when one looks at the entire musical picture.  The bounce that is provided by the rhythm section instantly captures the listener, and the fact that it never lets go throughout the entire run of the song makes "Madness" a truly special recording.  There is an almost jazz-like base to the drumming, and the lone hand-clap, though a bit random, fits perfectly into the overall musical arrangement.  It is within this aspect that the authentic and organic nature of "Madness" become most clear, and it is the fact that the overall recording seems so effortless that makes it so unique.  Each musician plays perfectly, and it is this controlled, never over-done approach that proves the power of simplicity within music.

Yet even though the musical arrangement found on "Madness" remains the blueprint for the ska sound, one cannot overlook the vocal work from Prince Buster, as this too has been copied countless times since the release of this single.  Much like the music over which he sings, Prince Buster's vocals are rather straightforward and simple, and there are times during the song that one cannot help but compare the sound to that found on Bob Marley's early single, "One Cup Of Coffee."  Clearly, it is this direct and mostly-spoken vocal approach that was the style of the island from which he came, and yet it is the bounce within his voice, perfectly matching the music, that makes it completely unique.  There is also a sense that lyrically, Prince Buster is implying quite a bit throughout "Madness," though the lyrics themselves are rather cyclical.  Having already released a single that condemned many aspects of society, one can hear the words on "Madness" as a frustrated, almost hopeless appeal to these same issues.  The only part of society that he takes on in a more straightforward manner is the way in which the government attempts to manipulate the minds of the general public, and yet even this is done in a rather passive style.  However, the overall level of frustration is clear, and the tension that Prince Buster creates throughout the song makes it impossible to deny the power of the simple words which he sings.

Truth be told, it was "Madness" that found its way into the ears and hearts of people all over the world, and one can easily cite the song as the catalyst for the entire ska and "two tone" movement.  While there were other artists that were making similar music, there is "something" about "Madness" that sets it aside, and it is likely the overall mood that Prince Buster creates.  The fact that he is able to construct such a captivating song without a great deal of musical complexity is the key, as the loose feel and upbeat rhythm never fail to draw in the listener.  Yet even with this in mind, there remains an intangible element to the song, as even this same rhythm was used by Prince Buster on an earlier single.  It is this reality that makes it truly impossible to say exactly "what" it is about "Madness" that makes it so special, but once one hears the song, it is easy to understand.  Furthermore, the fact that one of the most important bands of the "two tone era" took their name directly from this song serves as further proof to its lasting impact, as well as the idea that it was somehow different from the rest of the Prince Buster catalog.  There are few songs in history that are as instantly appealing as one can experience here, and even after a single listening, it becomes completely clear just who Prince Buster is held in such high regard.  From the brilliant bounce of the song to the way in which the horns drive home each musical phrase, there was no other song that was as responsible for the rise of ska music than one finds in Prince Buster's classic 1963 single, "Madness."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25: Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Born On The Bayou"

Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song: "Born On The Bayou"
Album: Bayou Country
Year: 1969

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While it was without question one of the most pivotal and creative points in all of music history, the tail-end of the 1960's also saw the rock-based genres of music moving further and further away from the sounds upon which they were founded.  That is to say, when one inspects a majority of the rock music being made during this period, the rhythm and blues and soul which led to its creation are largely missing.  This is not to take anything away from the amazing music created during that era, but it is also a reality that is often overlooked.  However, it is due to these circumstances that one can find a greater appreciation for the handful of bands that remained true to the spirit of rock and roll, though even in these cases, the fact seems secondary, if even recognized at all.  When it comes to bands that carried the torch for the almost roots-based rock and roll in the late 1960's, few did so with as much soul and energy than one finds in the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and their long list of hit songs serves as a testament to the impact and influence they had.  Bringing a unique fusion of soul, country, blues, and rock, their music is often referred to as "swamp pop," and the moods that the band conveys makes this term quite fitting.  Though they would find greater commercial success with later singles, there is no song that better defines the musical aim of Creedence Clearwater Revival than one can experience in their magnificent 1969 single, "Born On The Bayou."

Even from the opening notes of the song, it is clear that "Born On The Bayou" is far from anything else that was being released at the time,  as the misty feedback gives way to a guitar progression that sounds like one that could have been recorded a decade earlier.  It is the swing within John Fogerty's guitar that makes the song so distinctive, and even within this single element, one is quickly transported to a dusty road in the southern United States.  As the rest of the band joins into the musical arrangement, the feeling and mood of the song become even more vivid, and no other band in history has been able to convey such a clear sense of "place" than one can experience here.  There is a mesmerizing, almost primitive feel to the percussion of Doug Clifford, and it manages to perfectly match the "New Orleans mood" whilst also staying firmly rooted in the rock style.  Bassist Stu Cook furthers this combination, and the groove he injects into the song gives "Born On The Bayou" as much funk and soul as one can find anywhere.  It is the way in which the musicians manage to come together as a single unit and make the song teem with life and sets it aside from other songs of the era, as there is a gritty looseness that enables "Born On The Bayou" to remain just as fresh and exciting today as it was more than forty years ago.

Adding the ideal final element to the song, John Fogerty's vocals on "Born On The Bayou" remain some of the most inspired and unforgettable in all of music history.  Though he almost always borders on what sounds like screaming, there is a captivating attitude and growl within his voice, and it is without question one of the easiest voices to recognize.  It is in the vocals of "Born On The Bayou" that one can hear the country influences, and it is much the reason that Creedence Clearwater Revival were able to find crossover success in ways that which no other band was capable of achieving.  There is also a unique sense of defiance within Fogerty's vocals, and while many might argue, one can connect this element directly to the punk movement that was beginning to build.  Regardless of the more finite elements of his singing, it is this attitude and unrestrained energy that makes Fogerty's vocals so unforgettable, and yet they are supported by the wonderfully vivid and captivating lyrics which he sings.  Though many writers have put together songs of life in the South, few have done so in a manner that even comes close to what one can experience on "Born On The Bayou," and there is a sense of authenticity found here that is lacking elsewhere.  Strangely enough, Fogerty was born and raised in Northern California, and the song is written from the perspective of a town he had imagined.  Even without this knowledge, "Born On The Bayou" remains one of the most definitive songs of the decade, and it displays the power and presence of the fantastic voice of John Fogerty.

Leading up to the release of "Born On The Bayou," Creedence Clearwater Revival has released a handful of singles, yet all of them to that point had been cover songs.  The fact that this was the bands' first original song to gain any sort of recognition is one of the reasons it remains the most accurate definition of the band, as their later hits do not show the same balance in style and sound that one finds here.  The fact that one can so easily "feel" the heat coming off of the track is a testament to the combined talents of the musicians, and this mood is completely unlike anything else in recorded history.  The way in which they fuse together the deep, almost dark groove with the contrasting voice of John Fogerty is nothing short of brilliant, and yet there is also a clear connection to the "classic" sounds of rock and roll.  This is largely due to the reverb on Fogerty's guitar, and it would become a tone and approach that countless artists would copy in the years that followed.  Yet it is the flow that one can feel throughout the song that enables it to become so much greater than the sum of its parts, as it is this element that transports the listener, and even after countless listenings, one cannot help but be swept up in the imagery and mood.  The fact that it retains this element, as well as the purposeful presence of the more roots-based rock sound largely define the core of Creedence Clearwater Revival's musical approach, and they were rarely more true to this sound or in better form that what one can hear on their phenomenal 1969 single, "Born On The Bayou."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24: Count Basie, "One O'Clock Jump"

Artist: Count Basie
Song: "One O'Clock Jump"
Album: One O'Clock Jump (single 78)
Year: 1937

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While it goes without saying that every genre influenced at least one other that followed, there are only a select few styles of music which one can argue had impact on every genre that developed in its wake, and there was no other that remains as long lasting and wide-reaching as that of swing music.  Whether it is the energy, the groove, or the way in which musicians approached the arrangements, it is easy to link all the way to modern pop music, and yet it is within the original sounds of swing that one can experience some of the most timeless and fantastic music ever recorded.  It was also in these "big bands" where a massive number of jazz innovators were able to hone their skills, and it is almost impossible to name all of the players that did just this under the direction and guidance of the great Count Basie.  In many ways defining the entire swing and big band sound, Basie led bands and composed new music for the better part of fifty years, and yet it was in the early years that he recorded some of his most important work.  While other band leaders would write more unique and groundbreaking pieces, it was the energy and attitude within Basie's bands that led to him largely defining the entire era, and even those that are not familiar with his work know his name.  While his personality defined that time period, one can easily argue that there is no song that better represents the entire swing sound that one finds in Count Basie's classic 1937 recording, "One O'Clock Jump."

From almost the instant that the song begins, the energy is at full strength, and it never relents for even a moment.  The musicians quickly lock in with one another, and the combined level of musical brilliance is a bit less surprising when one realizes that for this recording, Count Basie managed to surround himself with a number of other music legends.  The core of the sound on "One O'Clock Jump" lives within the fantastic horn arrangement, and the bright, pulsing sound is led by the saxophones of Herschel Evans and Lester Young.  It is these two players that maintain the groove underneath the song, and it is also the way in which this mood stays in place while they trade solos that makes "One O'Clock Jump" so fantastic.  The trombone of George Hunt takes a far more forward place than a majority of songs from the era, and it is his slides and swaying that gives the song its unique sense of movement.  Rounding out the horn section is trumpet player Buck Clayton, and the way in which his performance gives the song a bit of a vocal tone proves just how much diversity one can achieve within a group of horn players.  As these four musicians play around, over, and under one another, "One O'Clock Jump" quickly moves into a category all its own, and it is the energy they create as a group that surely made the song irresistible in dance halls.

Yet even with this unmatched quartet of horn players, Count Basie himself manages to steal the show with his almost subtle performance on piano.  Largely translating the pace of the rhythm section, Basie dances across the keys, clearly letting the music take him where it wishes, and it is this relaxed, yet deep groove from the piano that serves as the ideal finishing touch to "One O'Clock Jump."  In many ways, one can see his performance here as a bit sparse, and yet it is this more textured, punctuating progression that sets the song aside from the rest of his work.  The way in which the lead is passed from musician to musician is seamless in a way unlike any other recording in history, and it is the way in which Basie is able to control the other players without needing to outshine them that enables "One O'Clock Jump" to become so much more than the sum of its parts.  In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a better example of the "head arrangement" approach to improvisation, as the way in which the other musicians build off of whomever is on the lead is as good as music gets.  It is this layered sound that would define so many later genres, and one can also assume that the amount of listening and interaction between the musicians on "One O'Clock Jump" is unprecedented.  Whether it is due to his own superb musical performance, or the way in which he is able to quietly lead the band, there is no question that the star of "One O'Clock Jump" is Count Basie.

Almost as soon as "One O'Clock Jump" was released, it became a classic of the swing era, and countless other groups have covered the song over the decades.  While everyone from Benny Goodman to Lionel Hampton took their own spin on the song, using it as a frequent part of their set, "One O'Clock Jump" has managed to become truly timeless, and it still makes appearances within modern music.  Case in point: Rush drummer Neil Peart used the songs' framework to close his solos throughout many of the bands' recent tours, and "One O'Clock Jump" still finds its way into films and television shows that refer to that era.  It is in this fact that one can see how "One O'Clock Jump" not only defines the swing sound, but in many ways, the entire time period, and this ability to sum up a moment in history is why certain songs are able to rise above others.  Truth be told though, "One O'Clock Jump" was not without its share of controversy, as legend says that the song was originally titled "Blue Ball."  However, early on in the development of the song, a radio announcer felt that such a title was far too risqué, and it was given the title which it retains to this day.  From the fantastic melody to the amazing way in which the lead on the song is passed around the group, one can quickly understand just why Count Basie remains "the" figure of the swing era, as there is no better a definition of that style that what one can experience within his magnificent 1937 single, "One O'Clock Jump."

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #73"

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. Hüsker Dü, "New Day Rising"  New Day Rising
2. Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"  Highway 61 Revisited
3. DEVO, "Mongoloid"  Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVO
4. Pearl Jam, "State Of Love And Trust"  1992/02/12, Amsterdam
5. Soundgarden, "My Wave"  Superunknown
6. Johnny Cash, "Sea Of Heartbreak"  Unchained
7. The Clash, "Police On My Back"  Sandinista!
8. Fats Waller, "The Joint Is Jumpin'"  Ain't Misbehavin'
9. The Gaylads, "Over The Rainbow's End"  Trojan Rocksteady Box Set
10. Mississippi Fred McDowell, "I Asked For Whiskey, She Gave Me Gasoline"  Live At The Mayfair Hotel
11. The Raconteurs, "The Switch And The Spur"  Consolers Of The Lonely
12. The Slackers, "International War Criminal"  Peculiar
13. Miriam Makeba, "Jol'inkomo"  Pata Pata
14. 311, "8:16 AM"  Grassroots
15. Liz Phair, "Soap Star Joe"  Exile In Guyville
16. System Of A Down, "Toxicity"  Toxicity

Sunday, May 22, 2011

May 22: Pavement, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)"

Artist: Pavement
Song: "Summer Babe (Winter Version)"
Album: Slanted And Enchanted
Year: 1992

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Throughout the course of music history, many genre names have been pushed so far and wide that they become little more than a "catch all" term, as opposed to actually defining a style of music.  Whether it is the term "pop" or "hardcore," one can find plenty of examples of songs and bands that have been given such labels that in no way fit with the other groups to that style.  However, there is perhaps no definition of a musical sound that has been more over-used than when critics cannot figure out a sound, so they fall back and label it as "alternative rock."  The fact that the term has been used for bands ranging from R.E.M. to Smashing Pumpkins proves that it is an undefined term, and yet it has perhaps never been more inaccurately used than when speaking of the band Pavement.  Bringing a musical approach and sonic chaos that is unlike almost any other band in history, whatever term one uses to define their sound cannot be used elsewhere.  Largely responsible for bringing the "lo-fi" sound back to the forefront of music, it was the bands' full length debut, 1992's Slanted And Enchanted, that seemed to come out of nowhere to capture a dedicated following.  Every track on the album erupts with a unique, fresh sound, and one can easily understand just why Pavement remains such an important part of music history by experiencing their 1992 single, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."

Within seconds of "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" beginning, one becomes completely captivated by the musical arrangement, as there is a unique intrigue that can be found within the circling, aggressive sound.  This distinctive tone is set into place by the guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, and their paired guitar sound has a tone that sets it far apart from any of their peers.  The level of distortion is absolutely perfect, and the mood within their playing brings to mind bands ranging from Joy Division to Dinosaur Jr. to The Fall, and it is likely the fact that their influences were so diverse that they were able to capture such a sound.  It is the way in which there seems to be a melancholy mood within the soaring guitar progression that makes "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" such an unforgettable song, and the rhythm section works in perfect compliment to this sound.  Bassist Mark Ibold is far more forward in the mix than is tradition, and yet it is the thump of his playing that pushes the song forward, and enhances the downtrodden, yet strangely hopeful feel of the music.  The final piece, drummer Gary Young, seems to bounce across the verses, before diving at full power and speed on the other sections, giving "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" a fantastic shift in sound.  It is the way in which all of the musicians work together to build the mood and tension that makes "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" so amazing, and within the song, one can hear the blueprint for a large number of bands that would find success in their wake.

It is in the vocals of Stephen Malkmus where one can most clearly hear just how influential a band Pavement was throughout the 1990's, as his mostly spoken style and rather detached attitude would fuel countless bands that followed.  However, though his style would be copied, his voice is completely unique, and one cannot help but connect with his vocal delivery.  Working in perfect sync with the rhythm section, Malkmus presents the vocals with an almost "beat poet" style, and this is where most of the connections to Mark E. Smith come into play.  Yet this comparison is rather inaccurate, as Malkmus' vocal style is far more clear and clean, and there is also a great deal of melody to be found within his performance.  Furthermore, Malkmus' singing fits in perfectly with the band, and he is not trying to sing apart from them or over them.  It is this blending of sounds that makes Pavement so fantastic, and the almost cryptic lyrics manage to seamlessly fit with the rest of the elements on "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."  Malkmus' writing is as distinctive as one can find anywhere, as his words often seem to make little sense with one another.  However, it is the odd images he paints, as well as the way in which the words work rhythmically with the rest of the song that is significant, and it is much the reason that "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" has become one of the most highly revered songs in music history.

Truth be told, there is a very specific reason that the "winter version" notation was given to the version of "Summer Babe" that was released on Slanted And Enchanted.  Shortly before Pavement moved to Matador Records, they recorded and released the song "Summer Babe" on Drag City Records.  That label soon folded, and the group recorded a new, slightly different take of the song, and gave it the added title.  Yet it is the second version that not only became far better known, but was a more complete and higher quality recording, though there are not many differences between the two takes.  Regardless of this circumstance, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" found its way to quite regular "college radio" airplay throughout the early 1990's, and the group represents the "underground" music scene better than anyone else from that era.  The fact that the band seemed at their best when they were purposefully ignoring the trends and norms of every other genre is a testament to their brilliantly unique talents, and even after nearly twenty years, Slanted And Enchanted remains a breathtaking musical achievement.  Every song on the album almost overflows with energy and emotion, and one can cite the record as one of the most important in what would become the inaccurately titled "alternative rock" boom of that era.  Finding a perfect balance between melody and attitude, there has simply never been another recording quite like Pavement's 1992 single, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21: The Ink Spots, "If I Didn't Care"

Artist: The Ink Spots
Song: "If I Didn't Care
Album: If I Didn't Care (single)
Year: 1939

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While one can easily trace the roots of almost every rock-based genre back to the blues, it can often be a bit confusing to try and find the origins of the "simple" pop songs that have been present within music almost since the beginning of the "recording era."  Though a number of pop hits can be linked back into the rock genre after awhile, there remains a large group of songs that are "only" pop, and one must go back quite a long time to find the source of this style.  It was during the transition from the 1930's to the 1940's where one can find the beginning of the "pop era," and though the time period is best known for the rise of both jazz and folk, it is also responsible for one of the most important singles in the history of music.  The group in question were a vocal quartet that had been trying to break through called The Ink Spots, and though their name may not be instantly recognizable to many, their contributions continue to impact modern music nearly a century after their seminal recording.  Having been given a song that was penned by the legendary hand of Jack Lawrence, the group actually recorded the song in question before Lawrence had completed it, and there was supposed to be a different ending, but by the time this information was passed along, The Ink Spots had already made a massive hit out of their timeless 1939 single, "If I Didn't Care."

The opening notes of "If I Didn't Care" can quickly confuse the listener into thinking that the song is a country ballad, as the acoustic guitar from Charlie Fuqua has a meandering, soft tone.  Yet there is also something completely inviting about the progression he plays here, and one cannot help but smile at the simple beauty within.  The way in which the piano and bass from Hoppy Jones manage to perfect fuse together with the guitar instantly transports the listener back in time, and the fact that this arrangement remains as captivating now as it did in 1939 is proof of the songs' timeless appeal.  The three instruments work lightly behind the vocals, and the overall delicate nature of the song is made obvious by the fact that there are no drums anywhere on the track.  This also enables "If I Didn't Care" to lock into a smooth sway that persists throughout the entire song.  However, it is in the final bars of the song where the "mistake" ending occurs, and yet one can look at this instance as proof of the true power of a brilliant recording.  If one listens closely, the ending of the song is actually performed in a different key than the rest, and this was due to a mistake by Jack Lawrence.  Though he did write a second ending, The Ink Spots had already recorded the original, and as one can clearly hear, it is this "mistake" that enables "If I Didn't Care" to have one of the most uniquely perfect endings in music history.

Due to the rather subdued and sparse nature of the musical arrangement, the focus of the song is on the vocals from the group, and this works to the pleasure of anyone who listens to the song.  On "If I Didn't Care," The Ink Spots quickly prove the value of "real" musical talent, and there are few recordings from any point in history that can boast as beautiful a vocal performance.  Whether it is during the solos on the verses, or the absolutely mesmerizing harmonies, "If I Didn't Care" is as close to vocal perfection as one will find anywhere, and the talent and allure of their voices are able to easily have as much impact today as they did in 1939.  One can also point to their performance here as the source of the "doo wop" sound, as well as the blueprint for the modern pop vocal.  Within the singing, one can hear influences of everything from gospel to jazz to blues, and it is the way in which The Ink Spots combine these elements into something new that makes "If I Didn't Care" so magnificent.  Whether it is the high-toned, almost gentle singing of Bill Kenny or the unforgettable, trend-setting, deep speaking from Hoppy Jones, one can find nearly every aspect of modern, popular vocals within "If I Didn't Care."  It is also the way in which the group presents this lyric of longing and hope that makes the song so amazing, and again, it is the direct, simple words which make it rise so far above other such songs.

Truth be told, it is almost impossible to cite all of the influence that "If I Didn't Care" has had over the decades, as there are few, if any songs that can boast as much impact.  While it can almost be assumed that there have been a number of covers over the years, one must look to other forms of media to completely understand just how significant a song The Ink Spots recorded.  From the hit TV show Sanford And Son to the Oscar-winning film The Shawshank Redemption, the song seems to never have been out of the ear of popular culture for very long, and it made a bit of a comeback when it was featured in the most unlikely of places: the "shoot 'em up" horror video game, BioShock.  Though it is likely that most were not aware of the piece of music history which they were experiencing, the fact that so many people still choose to feature the song is a testament to the lasting power and beauty one can find within the recording.  Furthermore, "If I Didn't Care" holds a very unique place in history, as it is one of only twenty-six singles to have sold in excess of ten million copies.  Modern estimates claim the single to have sold nearly twice that number, that that fact alone should be enough to prove the songs' lasting impact and worth.  These realities make it rather confusing that The Ink Spots are often overlooked for this massive achievement, yet after only one listen, one can quickly understand the significance and unrivaled beauty within their groundbreaking 1939 single, "If I Didn't Care."

Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20: Slick Rick, "Children's Story"

Artist: Slick Rick
Song: "Children's Story"
Album: The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick
Year: 1988

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Within the world of hip-hop music, on can argue that it is necessary to have two complete elements to be truly successful as an emcee.  The most noticeable necessity is that of having a unique sound and style to the rhyme, and while this certainly does not mean one must be loud, there needs to be some sort of swagger or intrigue within the vocals.  The second, and perhaps more difficult element, is that of exceptional writing talent, and it is the overall lacking in this area that has dulled a majority of the current hip-hop scene.  If the emcee cannot pull in the listener by spinning vivid images and thought provoking rhymes, then there is really no reason for them to be rapping in the first place.  Though there have been many emcees that combined these two elements in a number of different ways, there has never been another artist in the history of hip-hop that sounded or wrote quite like Slick Rick.  Bringing a smooth delivery that remains completely unrivaled, it is impossible not to get caught up in his voice.  Yet it is also the unapologetic words which he raps that pushed him to the status of "icon" within hip-hop, and few records can stand alongside his flawless 1988 release, The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick.  Containing a number of true hip-hop classics, it is almost impossible to measure the impact the album has had over the years, and few songs continue to hit as hard and remain as captivating as Slick Rick's 1988 single, "Children's Story."

Though to the modern ear, the musical backing on "Children's Story" may sound quite familiar, the fact of the matter is, when the song was first released, it was as exciting and fresh as one could imagine.  In fact, the artists that have lifted the beat and musical progression since have done so with complete knowledge that they were simply copying the tone found here.  Yet this does not detract in the least from the tone set forth by the music, which revolves around samples of Lyn Collins', "Think (About It)" and Bob James', "Nautilus."  The smooth, yet unquestionably dancable progression from the synthesizer is the key to the songs' appeal, and it is just as enjoyable now as it was more than two decades ago.  In many ways, the fact that the musical arrangement remains so fresh and enjoyable is a testament to just how influential a song one can find within "Children's Story," and it represents the "Golden Age" of hip-hop as perfectly as any other song.  The way in which the beat bounces across the track gives "Children's Story" an aggressive edge to match the vocals, and yet overall, the sound shows the blueprint for a majority of the early Def Jam recordings.  It is the way in which the musical arrangement perfectly locks in with the rhymes that makes "Children's Story" such a brilliant effort, and this amazing level of fusion is likely due to the fact that Slick Rick handled nearly every aspect of the song on his own.

Yet as unforgettable as the music remains, there is simply no getting past the fact that the vocals of Slick Rick remain completely unmatched.  In both his delivery style, as well as the content of his rhymes, he stands far above other emcees, and few other rappers have even attempted to copy his style.  Much like the music over which he raps, there is a smooth, almost cool tone within the voice of Slick Rick, and the way in which his British accent comes through from time to time only makes his vocal tracks more intriguing.  To this point, one can argue that without Slick Rick, the hip-hop movement would never have taken off in the U.K., and he also proved that the dark and gritty conditions found in the U.S. cities was similar to that of his own country.  Though many of his songs have a lighter or more racy overtone, on "Children's Story," Slick Rick delivers what remains one of the most unapologetic and brutal rhymes on the downfall of inner-city youth that has ever been recorded.  The lyrics are straightforward and non-stop, and the lack of any bridge or chorus makes the words hit even harder.  As the songs' single verse continues, Slick Rick gets deeper and deeper into the dark choices of the protagonist, ending in his arrest, and it is the fact that the story is so vivid that makes "Children's Story" completely unforgettable.

The influence that has been taken from the raw and in-your-face style of "Children's Story" is impossible to measure, as one can find traces of the song throughout a massive amount of songs that followed.  Many emcees even pulled complete lines from the song, and everyone from Eminem to Tricky have sampled "Children's Story" in part or whole.  Along with the lyrical copies, the music to "Children's Story" has become one of the most overly-sampled songs in history, most famously used by 'Ol Dirty Bastard's, "Baby I Got Your Money," as well as on Montell Jordan's chart-topping, "This Is How We Do It."  The fact that "Children's Story" has had so much impact is a testament to the unique perfection that can be found on the track, and yet one can argue that the song is distinctive within Slick Rick's catalog, as it is far more serious and cautionary that his usual subject matter of women and pimping.  This song can be seen as one of the first "warning" songs to rise to prominence within hip-hop music, and it also strangely foreshadowed the next "big thing" to rise in the genre, as "gangsta" rap would explode only a few months later.  Yet even without all of the influence and accolades that followed in the wake of the songs' release, at its core, Slick Rick's 1988 single, "Children's Story" is an ideal example of how vivid lyrics and an exceptional musical arrangement can combine to become the very definition of hip-hop perfection.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19: Ornette Coleman, "Lonely Woman"

Artist: Ornette Coleman
Song: "Lonely Woman"
Album: The Shape Of Jazz To Come
Year: 1959

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While every genre has its changes and sub-genres that occur over time, there is no other style of music that saw as many groundbreaking changes in as short an amount of time as one sees within jazz music.  When one looks at the history of the genre, for almost three decades, it seemed that every year or two, an entirely new school of jazz was rising, and one cannot overstate just how much impact this had on the entire world of music.  Similarly, the number of artists who helped to create all of these changes is quite long, and yet there are a few names that rise above the others.  Though many of these elite performers brought with them amazing back-stories, there were few that seemed as unlikely to become legendary than the great Ornette Coleman, who burst into the world of jazz in the late 1950's.  The odd thing about this was that unlike nearly every other jazz icon, Coleman was virtually unheard of before his first released, as he did not hone his craft in the same style as most other jazz greats.  This is one of the many reasons that his 1959 album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, is such a stunning and mind-blowing musical achievement, and it remains one of the most important and influential records in all of music history.  Largely regarded as the beginning of the "free jazz" movement, one can quickly understand why both the album and Ornette Coleman are held in such esteem by hearing the albums' extraordinary opening track, "Lonely Woman."

Almost from the moment that the song begins, there is a spirited tension that dominates the mood of "Lonely Woman," and it is set into place by bassist Charlie Haden.  Though there is nothing overly complex about his opening notes, it is the tone and echo he brings that makes it so unique.  As the song progresses, he digs in deeper, establishing the swaying groove that has a slightly Middle-Eastern feel to the sound.  The way in which he manages to simultaneously compliment and contrast the playing of drummer Billy Higgins is equally impressive, and the two quickly make their case as one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history.  Yet it is the rhythm itself that stands out more than almost anything else on "Lonely Woman," as each of the four musicians seems to be working within their own time signature.  Though there are periods on the song where they are all locked into the same tempo, a majority of the progressions exemplify the "free jazz" style in that they are often playing in double or half time when compared to one another.  It is the way in which all of these tempos lock in so perfectly with one another that makes the track such an amazing musical experience, and it is further highlighted by the fact that the quartet almost completely ignores any need for chords within their playing.  The combination of these two elements is what would define the "free jazz" sound, and "Lonely Woman" also displays the power that can be achieved within only the rhythm section.

However, the fact that chords are so purposefully ignored is without question the most significant aspect of "Lonely Woman," and one can pick up on this difference within the other half of the instrumentation.  Instead of the more traditional trumpet or piano, "Lonely Woman" features cornet player Don Cherry working alongside the bands' leader, and it is the way in which he matches, the veers away from the saxophone line that sets this song apart from the rest of the Coleman catalog.  Throughout his playing, one can sense the freedom of his improvisations, and even when they return to the songs' theme, there is an open, almost wild feel to his performance.  Yet it is the way in which Cherry is able to help frame and spotlight the saxophone playing of Ornette Coleman that proves to be the finest point of this song, as Coleman re-writes the books on what is possible within the jazz world with every note he plays.  Completely throwing all previous "rules" to the wayside, this is without question the finest moment of Coleman's entire career, and there are moments where he seems to have completely flown out of control with his playing.  Yet the fact that he is always able to bring his solos back to the central theme proves his unparalleled mastery of jazz, and while many have tried to copy his style, none have been able to bring all of the elements together in the manner that one can experience on "Lonely Woman."

In retrospect, one might not see "Lonely Woman" as that "far out" a performance, as the music that would appear in the years that followed certainly put it into a greater perspective.  However, when one considers what had been recorded previous to this point, it is easy to understand why so many performers and critics were polarized by the sound found here.  Easily living up to its name, The Shape Of Jazz To Come completely blew open a new avenue for jazz musicians, and one can cite the album as the reason that so many of the tonal and modal experiments occurred in the years that followed.  Furthermore, the fact that the instrumentation was so non-traditional also enabled other artists to test new formations within the lineup of a jazz outfit, and this again shows just how pivotal a release one can see in this record.  However, even with all of these far-reaching realities, at its core, "Lonely Woman," as well as the album as a whole, presents the finest jazz work one could want, and it leaves little question that Ornette Coleman belongs among the jazz elite.  Clearly interpreting music and mood in a way unlike any of his peers, the meandering progressions he plays are able to provide a brilliant contrast to the shrieks and squelches that seamlessly work their way into the arrangement.  It is the way in which he is able to play such wild sounds, yet never lose sight of the melody that enables Ornette Coleman's 1959 recording, "Lonely Woman" to achieve the status that it has, and there are few jazz songs that have proven to be as stunning or as massively influential.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18: James Carr, "The Dark End of the Street"

Artist: James Carr
Song: "The Dark End Of The Street"
Album: You Got My Mind Messed Up
Year: 1967

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One of the great tragedies of recorded music is the number of phenomenal artists that have become somewhat lost as time has progressed.  While it is not to say that they are any more or less deserving of accolades for their talents, it is often within these lesser known artists where the truly spectacular moments of music reside.  Perhaps due to the fact that they do not receive as much pressure or "guidance" from their labels as the "superstars," there is a sense of purity and authenticity that can be heard in these artists, and this is exactly what one finds in the soulful, often dark sounds of one of the greatest voices in history: James Carr.  Without question easily able to be mentioned in the same sentence as greats like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Carr's voice was nothing short of spectacular, and in nearly every song he recorded, one sense that he had a personal understanding of the pain within the words he sang.  It is the fact that his performances were often darker in nature than his peers that set him apart from the others, and yet regardless of what he was singing, the power and presence within his voice was often nothing short of completely mesmerizing.  One need look no further than his 1967 album, You Got My Mind Messed Up, to understand just why he was such an amazing artist, and it is James Carr's single from that album, "The Dark End Of The Street," that stands as not only his finest moment, but one of the greatest in all of music history.

Almost from the instant that the song begins, there is a groove within "The Dark End of the Street" that is completely unique.  It is led by the echoing, yet perfectly toned guitar of Chips Moman.  It is the way in which the guitar seems to slide effortlessly across the track that makes it so fantastic, and the deep, soulful sounds it puts forth easily rank among the greatest of all time.  Yet the guitar work is highlighted by the rest of the session players, and it is the potent, yet restrained horn section that seems to push the song along.  The way in which the horns blend into the track helps "The Dark End of the Street" ring of a slightly earlier time in history, as one could easily imagine a "doo wop" group performing the same song.  The light piano that seems to find its place as a "second vocal" role to Carr remains one of the few truly flawless performances in history, and it is clear that the player perfectly understands their role in the overall musical arrangement.  It is the fact that none of the musicians on the track seem to push beyond "their place" that enables the overall sound to become so fantastic, as the blending of instruments leads to one of the most potent moods ever captured on tape.  Yet when one steps back, the arrangement is rather simple, and it is songs like "The Dark End of the Street" that prove that one need not be overly complex to have a massive amount of musical and emotional impact.

Yet as brilliantly crafted as the music is on "The Dark End of the Street," there is not a moment where the focus is not on James Carr, and within moments of his first lines, it is clear that he is one of the most talented performers in all of music history.  The power and presences that can immediately be felt by his voice is truly unparalleled, and it seems there is not a note anywhere on the musical scale that is out of his reach.  It is the way in which he has clearly "given in" to the music that helps to elevate "The Dark End of the Street" above nearly every other soul song in history, as it is in this element where one can clearly sense how "close"" he is to the words he sings.  The clear understanding that he displays of exactly where to push his voice and were to "let it glide" reinforces this sense, and it is the emotion that he puts forth which completely captivates the listener.  Yet it is also within the words where he separates himself from his peers due to the darker, almost more realistic nature of the lyrics.  On "The Dark End of the Street," Carr spins a tale of two adulteress lovers, and while this is nothing new to music, it is the tone one can sense that makes the song so different.  While most other songs paint the situation as one to be regretted, within "The Dark End of the Street," the characters do not seem in any way set to "stop" their actions.  It is the way in which Carr sings each line where one can sense the love and pain, and after hearing his performance, his voice can never be forgotten.

Though his name, and perhaps the song, have been slightly forgotten by history, one can gain a full understanding of the true power of "The Dark End of the Street" by looking and the massive amount of cover versions that have been released over the years.  Everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen to Adam Duritz have recorded their own takes on the song, and this not only proves its timeless quality, but just how much it influenced so many other styles of music.  After hearing James Carr's original, this is not as surprising, as it quickly establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind vocal performance, with an emotional connection that remains unrivaled.  This, in many ways, is the essence of soul music, and the fact that Carr is able to connect so deeply with every listener makes it almost impossible to comprehend the fact that he did not become a "household name" along with the other great soul singers of his era.  Furthermore, when one listens closely to his songs, there are a number of other genres at play in his sound, and one can detect influences from r&b and country within his singing and vocal approach.  It is this combination that many cite as the "Muscle Shoals" sound, and few deployed it as perfectly as James Carr.  Backed by one of the most potent and deep musical arrangements ever recorded, there are few vocal performances in history that can even remotely compare to the power and emotion that can be experienced within James Carr's magnificent 1967 song, "The Dark End of the Street."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17: Massive Attack, "Unfinished Sympathy"

Artist: Massive Attack
Song: "Unfinished Sympathy"
Album: Blue Lines
Year: 1991

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Though many try and lump all of the variations on the core style together as a single genre, much like any other type of music, once one explores electronic music, the differences become quite obvious.  While they all have a common link, much like the patterns or instrumentation of jazz and rock music, it is the way in which different artists re-interpret this core sound that makes the genre so intriguing.  Furthermore, each of the sub-genres has its own origins, and while some of the styles can be attributed to a number of artists, one can give nearly all of the credit for the development of the "trip-hop" genre to one of the longest-running acts in the history of electronic music: Massive Attack.  In modern times, their name is almost synonymous with electronic music in general, as the inroads and innovations they have brought over the past three decades remain unrivaled, and their 1991 album, Blue Lines, remains one of the most perfect and absolutely mind-blowing records ever recorded.  Sounding nothing like anything else being recorded at the time, the album completed shifted the mindset on what was possible within the electronic genre, and even more than twenty years after its release, it remains the blueprint for the style.  Though the entire album is well worth experiencing, there may be no better a song in the entire history of "trip-hop" than the sheer brilliance that one can find within Massive Attack's 1991 song, "Unfinished Sympathy."

When compared to the more modern interpretations of the trip-hop style, "Unfinished Sympathy" may appear to be more mellow, as it is not overflowing with speedy drum loops or overly distracting sound effects.  It is in this more refined approach where one can find the true beauty that "is" the style at its finest, and the trio of Robert "3D" Naja, Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, and Andy "Mushroom" Vowles do not waste a second anywhere within the songs' arrangement.  Each element of "Unfinished Sympathy" is perfectly crafted, playing an essential role within the song, and even with the varied sounds, it never even comes close to sounding chaotic or over-done.  It is this balance that is achieved on "Unfinished Sympathy" that sets the song so far apart from its peers, as there is a clear musicality, as opposed to too much reliance on artificial elements.  The way in which these sounds are able to so seamlessly blend with the delicate string arrangement is the combination that paved the way for countless other artists, as well as serving as the link to the down-tempo and ambient styles, and with this in mind, one can easily make the case that "Unfinished Sympathy" is one of the most important songs in the entire history of the electronic genre.  There is a sophistication and complexity within the arrangement on "Unfinished Sympathy," and yet it is so direct that one cannot help but be completely captivated by the sound, and it is this fact that enables it to endure just as strong after so many years since its initial release.

However, the other element that sets "Unfinished Sympathy" far apart from other electronic recordings is the absolutely beautiful vocal on the track that is provided by Shara Nelson.  While other electronic groups had dabbled in this approach, it was Nelson's performance that turned the delicate, almost ethereal vocal sound into the standard for the genre, and in many ways, her showing here has yet to be matched.  The amount of emotion that she is able to convey within her vocals helps to bring out the similar elements within the music over which she sings, and it cements the idea that there is absolutely a great deal of "music" within "electronic music."  There is also a swinging, almost carefree feeling within her singing, and it is this fact that enabled "Unfinished Sympathy" to dominate the dance club scene, and it remains a staple to this day.  The fact that Nelson delivers such a moving performance is also due to the rather straightforward, universal theme within the lyrics, as the group is able to approach the idea of longing in a wonderfully unique way.  Clearly missing her partner, there are few who have been in love that cannot relate to a simple, yet powerful statement like, "... how can you have a day without a night..."  It is the smooth, almost jazzy way with which Shara Nelson deploys each line that makes "Unfinished Sympathy" truly unforgettable, and one can find copies of the formula found here in nearly every recording in the electronic style that followed.

Truth be told, as the years have passed, "Unfinished Sympathy" has seemed to move beyond the electronic genre, as it is quite regularly cited as one of the finest and most important songs ever recorded.  Across the globe, it has been given such accolades, and when one looks at the other songs with which it is grouped, it provides a basis for the argument that it is the most significant and influential song in the history of electronic music.  There are virtually no other songs from the long history of the genre that have ever even been considered for such praise, and it is likely due to the perfect balance of sounds that one finds on "Unfinished Sympathy" that makes it impossible to write it off as "just another" electronic song.  Furthermore, the fact that even so many years after its release, the sound and production remains fresh is a testament to how forward-thinking and truly pioneering a style there was within Massive Attack, and it is much the reason they continue to be a dominant force within the genre.  From the smooth string arrangement to the multiple rhythms, the groove and mood set by "Unfinished Sympathy" shows the true beauty which can only be achieved through electronic music, and it proves that one can find just as much emotion and bliss within this style as any other type of music.  As they progressed, the group released a number of other fantastic songs, yet none continue to have the wide-reaching impact as one can experience within Massive Attack's phenomenal 1991 song, "Unfinished Sympathy."

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #72"

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album): 
1. Foo Fighters, "This Is A CallFoo Fighters
2. Minutemen, "There Ain't Shit On TV Tonight"  Double Nickles On The Dime
3. Dave Brubeck Quartet, "Blue Rondo a la TurkTime Out
4. Janis Joplin, "Half Moon"  Joplin In Concert
5. New York Dolls, "Looking For A Kiss"  New York Dolls
6. B-52's, "Channel Z"  Cosmic Thing
7. Atom Orr, "Walking Snow White"  This Was Tomorrow
8. Joe Strummer & The Mescelaros, "Mega Bottle Ride"  Global A Go-Go
9. Frost, "Damian"  Melodica
10. Masshysteri, "Panik"  Var Del Av Stan
11. Y Pants, "Favorite Sweater"  Y Pants
12. The Time, "Jerk Out"  Pandemonium
13. Miroslav Vitous, "Infinite Search"  Infinite Search
14. Third World War, "Preaching Violence"  Third World War

Sunday, May 15, 2011

May 15: Buck Owens, "Together Again"

Artist: Buck Owens
Song: "Together Again"
Album: My Heart Skips A Beat (single)
Year: 1964

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Though many wish to place them on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, it is impossible to deny all of the common ground and links between rock and roll and country music.  One can easily see their shared roots within blues music, and throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's, as rock and roll began to take over mainstream music, one can find it seamlessly blending into the country style.  Though at first, many country "purists" rejected this new blend of music, known as "the Bakersfield sound," it would be these early musical pioneers that would shape modern country music, as well as most popular country music for the decades that followed.  Within this group of trailblazing performers, few were as important to the development of the new sound than Buck Owens, and though his songs have been covered countless times over the years, it is his original versions that still stand as the finest.  Whether it was due to his wide-ranging, yet straightforward voice, or the simple, yet beautiful ways in which he captured human emotion at it's finest, Owens' songs remain absolutely perfect even after many generations have passed.  It is also the way in which he was able to transition the traditional country sound to a more modern, electric style, without losing any of the core elements that had been in place for decades.  Though he had a number of truly unforgettable songs in his career, few present him as perfectly and beautifully as one can experience in Buck Owens' heartbreaking 1964 single, "Together Again."

Within moments of "Together Again" beginning, the stripped-down and straightforward nature of Buck Owens becomes clear, and it is this simple, almost sparse arrangement that immediately pulls in the listener.  The amount of emotion that Owens is able to convey through his guitar is virtually unparalleled, and this is one of the earliest examples of the idea of making a guitar "sing" on a track.  The slow, sorrowful sounds of his pedal-steel guitar match his voice and the lyrics perfectly, and it is also in this aspect where the connection to the "old" style of country music cannot be denied.  Complimenting the lone guitar is a similarly slow, steady drum beat, and it is in this element of "Together Again" that the feeling of somber movement can be felt.  The beat seems to almost pull itself along, and one can picture the protagonist with his head down, on a dark, empty street.  The mood set in place by the guitar and drums are truly timeless, and this is evident in the fact that after almost fifty years, they still hit just as hard and are just as accurate.  The rhythm guitar further enforces this defeated, almost listless movement, and one would be hard pressed to find a finer example of emotional expression in music.  The way in which these sounds combine also suggests a bit of influence from r&b, and if one follows the progression of the Bakersfield sound, this connection becomes more apparent.

However, the downcast, almost pitiful musical arrangement would not hit with maximum impact without the outstanding vocal work of Buck Owens.  The sense of raw emotion and honesty in the music are mirrored in his singing, as he brilliantly works all over the vocal scale.  The uniquely glum verses are made heavier by Owens' deep and powerful voice, and one cannot deny his ranking among the finest vocalists of his generation.  On "Together Again," Owens has clearly given himself completely to the song, and the way in which his voice soars across the musical scale remains one of the most truly beautiful moments in recorded history.  Again, it is the twang-tinged croon that he presents which keeps the spirit of country music intact, and yet his vocals are far more clear and forceful than most of what had previously been done within the genre.  Yet if there was one element that defined country music, it would be within the lyrical content; and in this aspect, "Together Again" is as country as one can find anywhere.  Rarely in any genre has there been as simple, yet perfect a composition of longing and heartbreak, and yet when one actually listens to the words, as opposed to the emotion, one can find the lyrics are of a reuniting.  It is within this juxtaposition that one can argue that the song is a dream or a wish, but regardless of how one interprets it, the vocal performance from Buck Owens is absolutely superb.

Strangely enough, "Together Again" was never meant to be a big single, as it was released as a b-side to Owens' "My Heart Skips A Beat."  However, shortly after its release, both sides began getting a great deal of attention, and there was a point where the two songs held both of the top spots on the "Country Singles" charts.  The two songs also switched positions with one another a few times, and it was largely upon this occurrence which Owens cemented his legacy.  In the decades that followed, the formula that Owens pioneered would become the "standard" approach for mainstream country music, and yet in many ways, he himself would become somewhat forgotten by the genre which he largely created.  This fact in some ways fits perfectly with his overall personality, as his music constantly seemed to contradict itself, and this was rarely more true than what one finds on "Together Again."  At face value, the song is a soft, sad lament for a lost love, and yet when one actually listens to the words, they are the complete opposite.  The fact that Owens was able to create such space between the mood and the words remains unrivaled to this day, and it is also the almost effortless manner with which he deploys the sound that sets him so far apart from his peers.  Though many long-time country fans wanted nothing to do with this new sound, it would eventually re-write everything the genre stood for, and it is due to this that one must experience firsthand the sonic bliss and beauty that is Buck Owens' 1964 single, "Together Again."