Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30: Merle Haggard, "Mama Tried"

Artist: Merle Haggard
Song: "Mama Tried"
Album: Mama Tried
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While honesty and authenticity are certainly characteristic that nearly every artist in every genre strives to place into their music, it is perhaps no more vital an element than within the realm of country music.  Without this essential aspect, such a song will surely fall short, as it is as much the intent and truth behind the vocals as it is the tone with which they are performed.  Though this does not require the songs to always be of a serious nature, within the world of country music, a solid feeling that there is nothing disingenuous about the overall song cannot be understated.  Among the scores of artists who made a career out of telling their own story, few did so with the brutal honesty and moving sounds as one finds in the music of Merle Haggard.  Standing as one of the most important figures in the entire history of country music, along with Buck Owens, Haggard was largely responsible for bringing the "Bakersfield sound" to the masses.  It was in their combined efforts that the "classic" sound of country and western music were updated with a more modern feel, and yet perhaps a bit moreso than Owens, Haggard remained rooted in the more traditional lyrical methods.  Though he had a number of songs throughout his career that not only defined his sound, but the modern country style as well, few of his compositions remain as brutally honesty and almost tragically beautiful as one can experience in Merle Haggard's unforgettable 1968 song, "Mama Tried."

Even from the very first notes of the song, one can quickly understand just how far from the "standard" musical idea of country "Mama Tried" falls.  The "twang" that is immediately present is almost the very definition of the "Bakersfield sound," and one cannot help but draw comparisons in tone to the sound of The Grateful Dead.  Truth be told, The Grateful Dead would later incorporate "Mama Tried" and other Haggard songs into their live performances, and this in itself proves just how far the influence of Haggard reached.  The opening arpeggio is one of the most beautifully moody ever recorded, and it maintains this power and presence throughout the entire duration of "Mama Tried."  Yet it is the rhythm section that manages to keep the song firmly embedded in the country sound, as there is a brilliant cadence to the drumming of Eddie Burris.  The way that bassist Jerry Ward is able to make the sound almost bounce is equally fantastic, and even those who may be biased toward the country genre cannot help but get wrapped up in the sonic presentation.  It is the fact that there seems to be no strict adherence to any singular genre that makes "Mama Tried" so musically unique, as there are clear traces of everything from country to jazz to slight signs of psychedelic within the sound, and it is this amazing combination that makes the song so memorable.

Though his musical compositions may lend themselves to other styles of music, the vocals and lyrics of Merle Haggard are as "classic country" as one can find anywhere.  His voice can work all over the vocal spectrum, and there is a strong sound and sense of honesty with every note he sings.  One can picture his songs being sung as easily around a campfire as in a local bar, and it is this ability to apply to so many situations that enabled Haggard to become such a success.  Yet in almost every case, it is far more about what he is singing that the sound of his voice, and one would be hard pressed to find a more straightforward and brutally honest performer as one finds in Haggard.  Though many of his other songs contained more universal themes, "Mama Tried" is largely autobiographical, and Haggard does himself no favors when turning the pen inward.  Throughout the song, Haggard perfectly captures the rough, often painful upbringing he experienced, from being raised in a converted boxcar to his well-documented run-ins with the law.  While many have rehashed the idea since, few have stated the theme of "troubled youth" as perfectly as when Haggard sings, "...despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad, I kept on turning..."  Yet throughout the song, there is always a beautiful thankfulness and reverence for his own mother, capped off with the heartfelt statement, "...Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied, that leaves only me to blame 'cos Mama tried..."

As one listens to "Mama Tried," there are as many cases for it being a "standard" country song as there are elements that seem to stand in contrast to such a label, and this in many ways is the truly unique  sound that Merle Haggard brought to the world.  While many of his predecessors had turned to the wide-open expanses of "the range" to capture the feeling of country music, Haggard was able to find the same sentiment, but in the darker, perhaps more simple world in which he was raised.  Furthermore, this tale of his upbringing resonated with countless people that experienced similar childhoods, and one can easily argue that the sentiments he conveys are just as relevant to such situations today as they were more than forty years ago.  Haggard's voice never waivers for even a moment during "Mama Tried," and one gets the sense that while he knows his actions were wrong, he is not passing judgment at any point and simply "telling it like it is."  Though the song never attempts to get sentimental in the traditional manner, the amount of pain that can be felt in Haggard's singing cannot be denied, and "Mama Tried" is without question one of the most staggeringly heartfelt songs ever recorded.  It is almost impossible to name all of the artists that have used this song as an influence on their own music, as traces can be found in everything from blues to hard rock to the current country scene, and the fact that the song remains fitting even in the current world is a testament to what a special sound and sentiment was captured on Merle Haggard's magnificent 1968 single, "Mama Tried."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 29: James, "Laid"

Artist: James
Song: "Laid"
Album: Laid
Year: 1993

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While many writers and performers have claimed at various points in history that there is a very specific formula that dictates what will make a song a pop hit, there are just as many songs that completely defy all norms and trends, yet still manage to find great commercial success.  It is often when a song manages to be so unique, yet also find a way to find into the current sound, where the most unforgettable songs can be found, and there has rarely been a more fertile ground for distinctive musical approaches than the world of music during the early 1990's.  It was during these years where one could find slow, acoustic songs bellied up to hardcore rap on the charts, and nearly every genre in history was being blended together with others, resulting in some of the most wonderfully creative music of all time.  Among the bands that took full advantage of this situation were British folk-rockers, James, and though they had already made a name for themselves in their own country, it would be their 1993 release that would introduce them to a far wider audience.  As a band, they brilliantly combined contrasting moods with some of the most beautiful sonic landscapes of the era, and it was this album that proved that sometimes, a band must step slightly away from their core sound to find their true potential.  While the entire album is a fantastic musical experience, there are few songs that better define the entire decade of music than what one finds in James' wonderfully unsubtle and equally unforgettable 1993 single, "Laid."

Few songs in history have as ideal an introduction as one can experience on "Laid," as the quiet, mellow guitar progression from Larry Gott eases the listener into the song in a truly unparalleled fashion.  As his playing begins to speed up, the entire tension builds in parallel, and as drummer David Baynton-Power joins the fray, the tension and energy begin to overflow.  However, the band is able to keep the mood in check, and instead of coming off as over-done like so many of their peers, they find the balance in both sound and mood, and they keep it steady for the remainder of the song.  One of the crucial elements to this balance is the keyboard performance from Mark Hunter, as he lends a smooth, almost psychedelic undertone to the song that also provides a fantastic level of depth on "Laid."  The interplay between Hunter and Gott is the key to the song, as they seem to follow the same progression, yet approach it from such different angles that it results in true pop bliss.  Bassist Jim Glennie rounds on the song, finding the middle-ground between the slower sounds of the keyboards and the speed of the drumming, and the fact that there are so many rhythms working together on "Laid" is one of the main reasons that it stands as such a unique musical achievement.  The way that the musicians manage to blend together folk, rock, and even a bit of the post-punk sound is unlike any other song in history, and it makes it understandable why "Laid" found such success.

However, while one cannot understate the importance of this fantastic musical arrangement, one can easily argue that it is the vocal performance of Tim Booth that stands as one of the most definitive moments of the entire 1990's.  For anyone who grew up during that time period, his vocals are instantly recognizable and can transport the listener back to that point in their own history.  Working the entire vocal scale unlike any other frontman in recent memory, there is a steady power to Booth's voice whether he is ruminating in the lower registers or delivering his glorious, unrestrained sound on the chorus section.  Truth be told, his high-pitched cry during the chorus in itself is one of the most memorable moments in music history, and references can be found all across pop culture since it first was released.  Yet as superb as Booth's vocal performance is, "Laid" was certainly not without a level of controversy, as the rather risqué and unapologetic lyrics were often censored, and they can be interpreted in a number of different ways.  The song itself clearly revolves around a couple that mesh perfectly in the bedroom, but seem to be a complete disaster outside of that space, and while the song has a very playful tone, one must wonder to what degree lines like, "...caught your hand inside a til, slammed your fingers in the door, fought with kitchen knives and skewers..." were accurate.  Regardless of the intent and serious nature of the lyrics, Booth delivers an absolutely stunning vocal performance, and nearly two decades later, it can still light up a room in a way that no other artist has achieved.

Truth be told, "Laid" is a bit of a departure from the sound that James is best known for and what can be found on their other albums.  This single is a bit lighter and less melancholy than most of their music previous to that time, and get the group manages to make it fit perfectly with the rest of the album.  This fitting contrast may very well be due to the presence of the albums' producer, Brian Eno, who was certainly not a stranger to pushing musical limits in any sense of the word.  It is the fact that there is a darker, almost sinister undertone within the music of "Laid" that perfectly matches the more questionable intent of the lyrics which enables the song to seem a cohesive piece of the bands' overall catalog.  The fact that on many levels, "Laid" is a rather soul-bearing, intimate song also helps it to match the bands' previous work, and one can even argue that the lyrics are almost a confessional tale if nothing less.  While many see the words as a joyous celebration of lust, if one considers the deeper meaning behind the words, there can be found a great sense of frustration, as there is perhaps a bit of underhanded commentary in the line, "...but she only cums when she's on top..."  Combining this sentiment with the "out of the bedroom" chaos that is clearly defined, one can easily see the song as a bit of a tragic lament, as opposed to someone singing the praises of their carnal conquests.  Yet even if one reads the song in this darker manner, there is no denying how catchy and invigorating the song remains even after repeated listenings, and this is where one can find the unique genius that is James' extraordinary 1993 single, "Laid."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June 28: The Victims, "Television Addict"

Artist: The Victims
Song: "Television Addict"
Album: Television Addict (single)
Year: 1977

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though many try and write it off as only something that occurred in the US and UK, there is no question that punk rock was and is a musical form that has been able to touch every corner of the globe.  Even in its earliest years, one can find strong representations of the genre all over the world, and while many overlook it, there were few countries that churned out more top-notch punk music than Australia.  Within this relatively isolated musical environment, there was an edge and a fury within the punk rock bands, and yet an overwhelming majority of them only recorded a handful of singles and EP's.  Among this massive list of absolutely stellar bands, few can compare to the energy and passion that one can experience within the music of The Victims.  Lasting just under two years as a band, and only releasing a lone seven-inch single and an EP, what they lacked in material, they more than made up for in the raw power of their music and the pin-point execution with which they performed each of these songs.  With only these handful of tracks to their name, it is quite easy to argue that they never recorded anything less than amazing songs, and even in the larger group of Australian punk bands, they still stand quite close to the top of the list.  In a true display of their talents and powers, it is The Victims' debut single, 1977's "Television Addict" that stands as their finest moment, and brilliantly shows the unrivaled power of Australian punk rock.

For only three musicians, The Victims are able to generate a massive amount of noise and energy, and the opening guitar riff from Dave Flick implies a greater deal of musical understanding than most other punk bands of the time.  Within this riff, one can easily hear a strong base in the blues and "classic" sound of rock and roll, as he has given just enough distortion to his guitar to give it the idea amount of attitude.  It is the fact that Flick is able to stand with one foot firmly in the "old" sound of rock, with the other clearly in the punk realm that makes the song so superior to most others of the era, and it is one of the few songs that can be played endlessly without ever losing its impact.  Bassist Dave Cardwell matches this feat, as he brings a fantastic, deep groove to "Television Addict," and it is his performance that causes the song to sway, yet never loses any of its spunky spirit.  The Victims are rounded out by drummer James Baker, and it his relentless, lightning-fast pace that gives the song an unnerving, almost chaotic feel.  This fills are brilliantly tight, and the entire band seems to show far more musical maturity than one would expect on a debut single from any band of genre.  Though "Television Addict" does boast a solo, which some may say goes "against" the punk norm, it is the attitude with which the band thrashes through this section that serves as the ideal finishing touch to an absolutely unrivaled punk classic.

The Victims further set themselves apart from a majority of punk bands at the time due to the clarity of Dave Flick's vocals, as well as the rather thought-out and pointed lyrics which he sings.  There is no question that Flick brings as much venom and frustration as the other "great" punk vocalists, yet he leaves the almost cliché snarl behind, paving the way for a far more accessible lead vocal.  As he shouts and speaks each line, one can sense the high level of emotion in his voice, and it is the posturing and presence of his voice where one can almost take a sense of inspiration.  "Television Addict" is as much a rallying cry as has ever been recorded, and one can easily understand how the track became an anthem for the Australian punk movement.  Even if one is not aware of the real situation which inspired the lyrics, the theme is absolutely universal, and Flick holds back nothing as he unleashes an all-out attack on "the powers that be."  The lyrics of "Television Addict" speak to those who wish to blame popular culture, whether it be music, television, or any other aspect of "youth" when any young person flies off at the handle.  Though it was written more than three decades ago, one can see all across modern culture how applicable it is when Flick sings, "...they said too much sex and too much violence, on the idiot box spoiled his idiot mind..."  As he spits each line, Flick does a superb job at showing how shortsighted and pointless such accusations are, and it is within this performance that he almost instantly cemented his place as one of the finest punk vocalists ever.

Though both the band and song have become somewhat lost with the passage of time, whenever any compilation of Australian punk is put together, "Television Addict" is almost a required track on that album.  This is due to the fact that it is as close to punk perfection as one can find anywhere, and the slight cracks and pops on the recording only add to the raw authenticity that almost overflows from the song.  When one ignores the fact that the band was from Australia, there is no question that "Television Addict" fits in perfectly with the finest punk songs being recorded anywhere else in the world, and yet the fact that they were not from the US or UK only proves just how far the punk influence was able to reach in such a short time.  Perhaps it is due to their somewhat remote existence that groups like The Victims were not tainted by the rising "image" of punk, and this enables their music to be far more authentic and "real" that other bands that found far more commercial success.  Regardless, as soon as one hears the music of The Victims, the only reaction is to be frustrated that the band did not record more music, as the pure energy and unrestrained tone of their music embodies everything that there is to love about punk rock.  From the ripping guitar work to the breakneck pace of the rhythm section, punk rock rarely gets better than what one can experience on The Victims' phenomenal 1977 single, "Television Addict."

Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #78"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. Dinosaur Jr, "Freak SceneBug
2. Pearl Jam, "Tremor Christ"  Vitalogy
3. Tinariwen, "Iktadar Dim"  Aman Iman: Water Is Life
4. Black Sabbath, "Changes"  Volume 4
5. Herbie Hancock, "Chameleon"  Head Hunters
6. Leadbelly, "On A Monday"  Where Did You Sleep Last Night?
7. Counting Crows, "Angels Of The Silence"  Across A Wire
8. Mac Lethal, "Know It All"  11:11
9. Ray Charles, "When Your Lover Has Gone"  The Genius Of Ray Charles
10. Thurston Moore, "Benediction"  Demolished Thoughts
11. The Scientists, "It's For Real"  Murder Punk: Volume 2
12. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Bhindi Bhagee"  Global A Go-Go
13. Howlin' Wolf, "Forty Four"  Howlin' Wolf

Sunday, June 26, 2011

June 26: Melvins, "Hooch"

Artist: Melvins
Song: "Hooch"
Album: Houdini
Year: 1993

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though many bands can easily rattle off a list of groups by whom they were influenced, one can make the case that in most of these situations, there is an understanding of the first band that is still "missing" from the follower.  While the music may bear a resemblance, it is often the intangible elements that are overlooked, and it is due to this that seemingly distant acts can cite the same core influence.  This is especially true with the pioneering acts of the late 1960's and early 1970's, and one would be hard pressed to find any group that plays "louder" rock music that does not credit Black Sabbath.  However, in nearly every case, aside from perhaps some of the dark imagery, or the volume with which they play, this credit seems to be little more than name dropping at best.  Then of course, there is the case of sludge-metal masters, the Melvins.  Not only capturing the sound and spirit of Black Sabbath, but stripping it to its core and tossing away some of the more theatrical aspects, there are few bands in history that have found the balance of power, volume, and sheer talent that one can experience throughout the catalog of the Melvins, and there may be no better a collection of their genius than one can find on their 1993 release, Houdini.  Filled with pummeling riffs and the driving, aggressive vocals that set them so far apart from their peers, there are few songs that better define Melvins as a band than the albums' lead track, 1993's, "Hooch."

When it comes to "wasting no time," few have achieved to the level that is found on "Hooch," as the opening gives no warning, kicking off with a staggering drum beat from Dale Crover.  As he fleshes out the sound, it is his playing that gives "Hooch" much of its imposing, intimidating feel, as one can almost sense his playing as stalking around the song, hunting the listener.  It is the way in which he shows restraint, highlighting the bands' ability to have impact within a slower, almost lulling approach, and there has rarely been as perfect an example of the power of emotion and style over speed.  Though the bass is credited to Lori Black, in recent years it has been stated (and not refuted) that the basslines on the album were in fact played by either Crover or Roger "Buzz" Osborne, and this may be the reason that they are so in sync with the drumming.  The combined rhythm section is beyond imposing, and one can easily hear how this influenced bands ranging from Nirvana to White Zombie.  Osborne handles all of the lead guitar work throughout the album, and he manages to match the intensity and tone of the drumming, pushing "Hooch" into a territory that does not quite fit into any category.  The trudging, robust sound of his guitar is certainly akin to heavy metal, and yet there is something deeper, more raw and primal that makes "Hooch" the brilliant sonic masterpiece that it remains to this day.

Along with his superb and punishing performance on guitar, Osborne brings a similar talent and style to the vocals on "Hooch."  In many ways, his singing throughout the history of Melvins set the standard for the heavy metal and sludge-metal vocal, and yet few can be seen as equals once one experiences the sound of Osborne's voice.  There is an ever-present venom within his voice, and yet Osborne also delivers the lyrics with more purpose, and more importantly, clarity than any of his peers or followers.  Bringing an emphasis on certain words, there is an almost poetic rhythm to his vocals, and this idea is pushed further when one steps back and inspects the seemingly absurdest words to "Hooch."  However, when one digs deeper, great tragedy and harsh reality can be found within Osborne's words, as one can easily interpret the song as the tale of plight of a drug dealer.  Regardless of what drug he may be moving, this locks in perfectly with the songs' title, and at the same time, it does not seem as if Osborne is passing judgment either way on his protagonist.  As the song continues, one can deduce that the main character is trying to get out of said lifestyle, but meets a tragic end when he goes for "one last deal."  This ironic twist and dirty, almost underground tale fits perfectly with Osborne's delivery style, and even if one cannot fully understand his words, the way in which he speaks conveys emotions that perfect the music over which he sings.

Though most are completely unaware, there are some additional percussive pieces played throughout "Hooch," and legend has it that they were provided by one of the biggest Melvins fans, the albums' producer, Kurt Cobain.  Once one understands the sheer reverence that Cobain had for the band, their influence on his own music becomes abundantly clear, and it is in this fact where one can also argue how essential the Melvins were in the development of the so-called "grunge" sound.  From Alice In Chains to L7 to Dozer, one can hear how the band was able to take the imposing sounds of Black Sabbath and transition them into a more modern, almost heavier sound.  Throughout the bands' entire catalog, Melvins make a clear point to keep things slower than "standard" heavy metal, and many of their songs can almost wear out a listener with just how heavy and punishing the musical arrangements become.  Though they have shifted their lineup a handful of times, the core of Osbrone and Crover have been in place for almost their entire existence, and they have proven that regardless of those with whom they surrounded themselves, it was their dual sound that defined the band.  Staying far away from the sometimes laughable lyrics that taint so many "heavy" songs, Melvins take a far more serious and destructive aim, and there are virtually no other songs in history that can hold their own when compared to their sludgy 1993 tour de force, "Hooch."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25: The Streets, "Has It Come To This?"

Artist: The Streets
Song: "Has It Come To This"
Album: Original Pirate Material
Year: 2001

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though in most cases they are the same, when a certain terminology takes on a different persona in another part of the world, the contents of that style can be rather misleading for the  uninformed.  While terms like "jazz" and "rock" certainly have become international, one can actually find a number of different uses of the term "garage" in various parts of the world.  In the US, it almost always refers to a more stripped down, abrasive rock sound; and yet in the UK, it is closely tied to the electronic style of music creation.  As this scene developed throughout the 1990's, various other styles of music began to be infused with the electronic roots, and the result was some of the most unique music of the past twenty years.  Though there were scores of laughably sub-standard albums released in this time period, there were also many bright spots, and one simply cannot overstate the brilliance of the 2002 debut from The Streets, Original Pirate Material.  Borrowing from both the US garage and 2-step styles, the record is not only one of the most creative endeavors in recent history, but one can cite the album as the first to bring a sense of intelligence and social awareness to the scene from which it was birthed.  Standing in strong defiance to nearly every standard that had been set in hip-hop and electronic styles, one can quickly understand just why The Streets are held in such high regard by hearing their 2001 single, "Has It Come To This?"

As the song begins, it is almost immediately impossible to place it into any single genre, as there are elements of dance, electronic, hip-hop, and even a jazz element as well.  The fact that this fusion comes together so perfectly is a testament to the one man that "is" The Streets, Mike Skinner.  Even for those who are unfamiliar with the UK garage scene, or even those who are not "into dance music," the song is insanely catchy, as he keeps the fast-paced beat present throughout the entire song.  Yet it is the way that Skinner gives a darker, almost somber tone to the song, and the manner with which it seems to clash with the rhythm that makes "Has It Come To This?" so sonically unique.  The keyboard that gives the song a sense of melody also brings with it an almost nervous, unstable mood, and this sense of unease is what sets "Has It Come To This?" so far apart from the other music that falls under the "UK garage" category.  There is also a deep, grooving bassline that runs underneath the song, and it gives the track a sense of being complete that is almost always missing from most electronic and dance songs.  The fact that "Has It Come To This?" can be "bumped" in a car in the city as easily as it can light up a dance club is a testament to the unique perfection that Skinner has achieved, and on many levels, it remains the high-water mark for UK garage artists.

However, while the musical arrangement cannot be overlooked, it is Skinner's vocals and lyrics that truly make "Has It Come To This?" such a brilliant recording, as they proved just how much one can achieve within rap-based lyrics.  Most feel that the entire hip-hop style is something that can only be properly executed by US artists, but on this track, Skinner proves that it is the diversity in his own upbringing and influences that helps to push the genre forward.  Completely ignoring the trend of the time to deliver lyrics as quickly as possible, Skinner speaks in a calm, clear tone, and in many ways, one can interpret his style as more of a "thinking man's" rap.  Through his vocal inflections, he is able to drive a great deal of emphasis whenever he chooses, and one must listen to "Has It Come To This?" a number of times to fully grasp all of the commentary and allusions within the song.  Along with his unorthodox delivery style, Skinner's lyrics take on a completely unique form, and the level of social critique therein is absolutely phenomenal.  In many ways, "Has It Come To This?" can be seen as an anthem of the "new youth," as Skinner references everything from PlayStations to joyriding new cars, and yet there are also far more intellectual thoughts to be found.  From the way that he cleverly claims just how wide-spread his influence is, to the way in which he says that regardless of our vices or musical tastes, we are all one, Skinner managed to completely embody youth, and there has rarely been as original or truly captivating a rhyme ever recorded.

Throughout "Has It Come To This?," Skinner also manages to dispel any negative comments that critics might throw his way, and there is an amazing level of self-awareness when he delivers lines like, "...we walk the tightrope of street cred..."  Skinner also leaves the "old school" ideals behind, and one can see the the track as the anthem of modern hip-hop when he rhymes, "...I'm just spitting, think I'm ghetto? Stop dreaming, my data's streaming..."  Regardless of which aspect of the song one finds the most alluring, the fact of the matter is, "Has It Come To This?" is simply a song that cannot be ignored.  From the absolutely blissful musical arrangement to the sharp, concise lyrics, the song is as close to perfection as one will find anywhere.  It is the way that the music is both high-energy, as well as very "chilled out" that sets it aside from any possibility of genre classification, and one can argue that in this reality, it becomes one of the most universally appealing recordings in recent memory.  Furthermore, Skinner's delivery style demands respect, and yet due to the controlled nature and tone of his rhymes, it is likely that many who do not care of hip-hop will give this song far more attention.  Completely rewriting the books on the possibilities and standards for a number of genres, few artists have ever been able to come near a musical achievement similar to what one can experience within The Streets' landmark 2001 single, "Has It Come To This?"

Friday, June 24, 2011

June 24: The Guess Who, "American Woman"

Artist: The Guess Who
Song: "American Woman"
Album: American Woman
Year: 1970

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are few and far between in the larger picture of the overall history of recorded music, one is often left to wonder whether a band is aware of the magnitude of their efforts whilst in the process of creating a song that will go on to be named an "all time great."  While some groups have made comments that they knew it was "something special," there are just as many that claim to have been shocked when the song in question reaches such iconic status.  Yet in most cases, one can see the group itself building to such a moment as their career progresses and their sound develops, and the situations where it seems to "come out of nowhere" are far fewer.  However, even though they had already had a number of moderate hits, it was not until The Guess Who made a drastic shift in their sound that they became the legends that they remain to this day.  Furthermore, their best selling song was about as accidental as one could possibly imagine, forming out of an impromptu jam session one evening on stage.  More than forty years later, the song remains as powerful and iconic as it did when it was first released, and many aspects of the song would become the key elements to the "arena rock" sound that dominated a majority of the 1970's.  From it's iconic riff to the somewhat controversial lyrics, there is no other song in history that can boast the same groove and musical prowess that one can experience on The Guess Who's unforgettable 1970 single, "American Woman."

When it comes to unmistakable guitar riffs, the one that Randy Bachman plays at the top of "American Woman" can easily be argued as one of the greatest of all time.  There is instantly a slinky, almost sensual swagger to the song, and few other recordings have been able to achieve such a distinctive groove.  On many levels, it is this sway that defines the decade that had just passed, and the slight distortion that his guitar brings makes the riff nothing short of perfect.  The downbeat emphasis brought by drummer Garry Peterson quickly builds a superb level of tension, and when the song drops into the main section, it is largely his efforts that make it so dramatic.  Bassist Jim Kale delivers the finest performance of his career, and it is within his playing where the groove of the song resides, as he is able t bring an amazing level of depth to the circling progression.  Yet aside from the guitar riff, "American Woman" may be best known for the almost wild keyboard playing from Burton Cummings.  Again making a close tie to the psychedelic sound, it presents a fantastic compliment to Bachman's playing, whilst also giving the song an amazing amount of width.  As a combined sound, there is a clear sense of blues influence, and yet there is also an overall amount of grandeur within the song, and it is this element that one can see becoming the cornerstone of what would become the "arena rock" sound.

Furthering the blueprint for that sound, Burton Cummings' vocals on "American Woman" remain some of the finest ever captured on tape.  The passion and energy that he brings to the track are absolutely infectious, and even after hearing the song countless times, they are just as invigorating.  Cummings easily works all across the vocal scale, and there are even moments where one cannot help but compare the tone and pitch of his voice to that of Robert Plant.  Yet Cummings keeps his sound completely unique, and the link to the blues influence comes through most clearly in his frustrated, but pointed delivery.  This is one of the finest examples of a musician completely giving into the music, as one can only listen in awe during the points where Cummings shows an amazing level of control, whilst still delivering with full strength.  However, while his performance is absolutely amazing, the song was met with a bit of controversy due to the seemingly "anti-American" lyrics which he sings.  With lines like, "... don’t come ganging around my door, I don’t want to see your face no more...," one can understand why this interpretation was so popular among many "anti rock" crowds.  Yet if one delves deeper into the song, the social critique becomes more clear, especially in the lines, "...I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes..."  Truth be told, the lyrics were written after the band returned home to their "small town" after many shows in large US cities, and the words reflect their want to leave that "dark chaos" behind.

It is almost ironic that even with the rather pointed lyrics, "American Woman" topped the charts in the US, and it stands as the biggest hit for The Guess Who.  As the decades have passed, the song has become nothing short of a standard in rock music, and it has been covered by everyone from Lenny Kravitz to The Butthole Surfers to Krokus.  The fact that such a wide range of artists have made their own versions is a testament to how far "American Woman" was able to stretch beyond "just rock," and one can easily hear the songs' influence in a number of hard rock acts that followed.  Strangely enough, when one looks at the overall catalog of The Guess Who, "American Woman" is a bit of an oddity, as until that point, the band had been recording some of the finest, more ballad-based psychedelic songs that one can find.  However, "American Woman" shows that truly talented artists can shift their style as they see fit, and one can understandably draw the conclusion that The Guess Who were a hard rock band from day one.  So many aspects of the song have become ingrained into culture, as the riff is one of the few that "everyone" knows, and the vocals of Burton Cummings are almost equal in their universal appeal.  The fact that this all came from a jam session on stage proves the fact that in most cases, one cannot predict from where greatness will arise, and even more than four decades later, there are few songs that are of equal sound and stature to The Guess Who's magnificent 1970 single, "American Woman."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23: Captain Beefheart, "When Big Joan Sets Up"

Artist: Captain Beefheart
Song: "When Big Joan Sets Up"
Album: Trout Mask Replica
Year: 1969

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

When speaking of a handful of acts throughout the history of recorded music, one must be very careful in both what you say, as well as how you say it.  This is due to the fact that the performers in question have become such icons, and gained such fervent followings, that even the slightest mis-speaking can lead to a cavalcade of disgruntled fans.  Though one can certainly think up a handful of bands that have garnered such dedication, it is often within the slightly lesser-known acts of such esteem where the most passionate fans reside.  While he may not seem to fall into the category with other acts that require such delicate reverance, those who "get" Captain Beefheart are exceptionally protective of his unique, often misunderstood genius.  The fact that he is nothing short of a musical genius is not something one can debate, as upon hearing any of his absolutely mind-blowing records, this statement becomes beyond reproach, and one can argue that he was one of only a few artists who truly saw music in a completely unique manner.  Even the question of which Captain Beefheart record is his definitive moment can be disputed, and yet one cannot understate the brilliance and importance of his iconic 1969 record, Trout Mask Replica.  The album itself shows nearly every side of Captain Beefheart's personality and talent, and there is perhaps no song that better sums up his controlled madness than 1969's "When Big Joan Sets Up."

Released during the period where the psychedelic movement was at its apex, "When Big Joan Sets Up" seems to completely stand in the face of every musical norm until that point.  However, it is the wildly experimental sound of the music that makes it absolutely fitting during the time in which it was first unleashed onto the general public.  In many ways, "When Big Joan Sets Up" feels as if you enter the song part-way though, as it does not follow any sort of tradition, with the opening notes spinning wildly from the onset.  There is so much going on, that one must listen to the song a few times to be able to grasp even some of the musical madness with which they are surrounded.  The guitars of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton are as distinctive as any ever recorded, and yet there is a certain "twang" to them that almost resembles the common tone heard in the music of The Grateful Dead.  Yet that is the only similarity to any of their peers, as the band quickly infuses elements of jazz, funk, and almost every other musical form.  Bassist Mark Boston and drummer John French manage to keep the group locked into a very strict pace, and it is in their playing that one can begin to find the form in what seems like musical chaos.  It is elements like the seemingly untamed sound of Victor Hayden's clarinet that make "When Big Joan Sets Up" even more "out there," and yet when one takes the entire musical work in a single thought, it is nothing short of a stunning fusion of rock, jazz, and psychedelic genius.

Adding to the almost schizophrenic feel of the song, the vocals of Captain Beefheart are as scattered and uninhibited as anywhere in his entire catalog.  As soon as he begins his vocal performance, there is no mistaking who is singing, as Beefheart possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, and the gruff tone with which he delivers the lines manages to rise slightly above the anarchic music over which he sings.  His performance is almost frenzied, but not in the unsettling manner that usually comes with such energy.  There is a calm, purposeful sense to each line he delivers, and this helps to further make order of the musical onslaught that is "When Big Joan Sets Up."  One can even find a rather unique melody along with this rhythm, and when one reaches this point of understanding, the true "magic" of Captain Beefheart's compositions becomes clear.  The track features one of his most clear and pointed lyrics, though there is also his usual sense of humor lacing the entire song.  On "When Big Joan Sets Up," Captain Beefheart spins a tale of a rather rotund woman, and yet it is the odd establishments and similes he uses, along with the beat-poetry-like rhythm that sets the song aside from his other works.  With lines like, "...she pulled up her blouse, n' compared her navel to the moon..." one can find his brand of humor, and yet Beefheart also turns the tale on those who have shown up to watch, questioning why they find enjoyment in voyeurism.  It is this duality of words that makes the lyrics of "When Big Joan Sets Up" so intriguing, and they work perfectly with Captain Beefheart's underlying sense of mischief in his vocal performance.

On "When Big Joan Sets Up," Captain Beefheart also shows off his instrumental talents, as many of the sharp, wild noises that fill out the track were played by him.  From almost primitive bleats from a saxophone to a musette, Beefheart makes as much of a statement with his instrumental work as he does through his unmistakable vocals.  This is also where one can see the musicality within his singing, and this completes the picture to the entire range of his distinctive talents.  It is the fact that both he and his entire "Magic Band" are able to maintain order within what first appears to be nothing more than musical chaos where one can understand just how talented a group of musicians were involved in the recording.  Furthermore, one cannot overlook the fact that the albums' producer was none other than Frank Zappa, and one can only assume that he aided greatly in keeping the form within the musical mayhem found on "When Big Joan Sets Up."  The entire album is in many ways the very essence of experimental music, as even though some may take time to fully appreciate it, one cannot deny the musicality that runs throughout the record.  On each track, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band allow their musical imaginations to run uninhibited across the song, and this results in some of the most inexplicable moments of musical genius ever captured on tape.  Though it is often overlooked for the level of depth and sheer brilliance found within, there is no other song in history that can even remotely compare to Captain Beefheart's 1969 masterpiece, "When Big Joan Sets Up."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 22: Victoria Williams, "Crazy Mary"

Artist: Victoria Williams
Song: "Crazy Mary"
Album: Loose
Year: 1994

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

It has been said that great art rarely comes from "normal, well adjusted" people, and this is especially true within music, as there almost always needs to be some sort of dysfunction or pain inside of the artist to create something truly amazing.  This is not to say that there are not some exceptions to this rule, but when one inspects the most moving and beautiful songs ever recorded, it can be argued as a necessary element.  While this does not necessarily mean some sort of dramatic issue within, it is often the honest, if not quirky visionaries that create the truly deep and powerful moments in music history, and this has certainly been the case with the career of Victoria Williams.  Though she is perhaps better known as a songwriter than a performer, it is her distinctive sound and lyrics that have turned her into a cult-hero in the eyes of many.  Fusing together country and folk music in a completely unique manner, her albums define "Americana" in a style that no other artist has been able to capture, and it is often the vivid images of "real" life that she paints which become so captivating.  The fact that Victoria Williams has been able to release so many stunning records and still live largely under the radar is one of the great travesties of modern music, and her 1994 album, Loose, is the pinnacle of this injustice.  Without question one of the most brutally honest and absolutely beautiful records ever recorded, there is perhaps no better a definition of Victoria Williams than what one can experinece on her 1994 song, "Crazy Mary."

Even from the earliest moments on "Crazy Mary," the various musical inspirations that Victoria Williams draws from become quite apparent, and it is the juxtaposition between these sounds that makes the song so unique.  The sparse guitar progression that opens the song has a distinctive beauty within the haunting, almost pained notes, and this sets much of the tone for the entire song.  It is the way in which one can picture the song being played on a dreary porch in the middle of nowhere that gives "Crazy Mary" its depth even without the lyrics, and it is this ability to convey such imagery that sets Victoria Williams so far apart from her peers.  As the rest of the players join the fray, "Crazy Mary" gains a breadth that has rarely been achieved within music, as she is able to incorporate a large number of instruments whilst still keeping the overall sound rather small and compact.  Even when there is a full string section working behind Williams' voice, the song never seems overdone, and it is the balance found throughout "Crazy Mary" that makes it such a uniquely beautiful accomplishment.  It is also the way in which the strings seem to push the mood of the guitar as the tension builds during the center section of the song that shows how perfectly one can blend these sounds together without damaging such a delicate musical landscape.  Furthermore, the fact that the sound of "Crazy Mary" was so far from the mainstream of the time, yet manages to fit in perfectly at the same time is a testament to what a special song Victoria Williams created.

Along with her completely distinctive way of arranging songs, Victoria Williams also possesses one of the most recognizable voices in music, and there is a certain raw honestly that comes through in her singing.  Easily working the entire vocal spectrum, Williams is able to convey emotions simply by changing the pitch of her voice, and it is also the slightest changes that become truly captivating.  There is an almost "down home" feel within her unique voice, and it is the way in which her singing is so inviting and welcoming that makes her songs so wonderful.  There are many points where one can picture her singing on that porch, simply watching life go by and writing about the honest and almost mundane things that she observes.  Yet, there is a darkness within many of her songs, and it is these almost tragically beautiful characters that one can never forget.  It is the way in which she is able to build such strong connections to her characters and bring the listener along where one can understand the complete ability of her vocals, and one can also sense a certain proximity to the images that she creates.  In the case of "Crazy Mary," Williams has crafted one of her most melancholy characters, and there is an almost gut-wrenching overtone to the entire existence of "Mary."  The innocence with which the character is observed shows the true humanity of Williams, as there is never a judgment passed on this social outcast, simply a portrait painted.  It is the way that Victoria Williams is able to make every listener look deep into themselves through songs like "Crazy Mary" that are a testament to her unique genius, and it remains one of only a few songs in history that can be heard countless times and never lose any impact.

Though the mainstream did not pay much attention to the release of Loose, many of the peers of Victoria Williams certainly did, and the album remains one of the lesser known gems of the entire 1990's.  "Crazy Mary" specifically has risen to a very special status of a song, and it is one which "those in the know" hold very dear to their hearts.  This was largely due to Pearl Jam incorporating their own take on the song into their live performances, and Williams has appeared with the band a handful of times on stage to perform the song.  The song took yet another breathtaking turn when Williams recorded an acoustic version alongside none other than Lou Reed on MTV's 120 Minutes, and this is without question one of the most stunning moments ever captured on tape.  At moments, the level of pain and tragedy within the story are even more powerful than on Williams' original, and the fact that Reed took part in the song is a testament to how highly regarded Williams remains among her peers.  The way that Williams has taken a figure within society that can be applied to any number of other people and make the listener look inside themselves can rarely be found on any other song in history, and the fact that she is able to make the listener judge themselves without implying such is perhaps the true genius of her talents.  From the absolutely beautiful, yet fragile musical arrangement to the unforgettable lyrics, Victoria Williams' 1994 song, "Crazy Mary" is truly one which knows no peers and must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 21: MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"

Artist: MC5
Song: "Kick Out The Jams"
Album: Kick Out The Jams
Year: 1969

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Certain moments in music history simply defy all attempt to properly put them into context.  Whether they are good or bad moments, they almost always served dual duties; both defining an exact moment in history, as well as having a massive influence for years to come.  While such incidents can be found throughout the history of recorded music, a large concentration of pivotal moments happened during the short period of time from 1968 to 1972.  Perhaps due to the massive changes in society as a whole, as well as the complete shift from "singles based" artists to full length albums, many still cite this time frame as the most important and exciting in the entire history of music.  Though it is perhaps best known for the emergence of the psychedelic movement, it was the few bands that stood in defiance to the entire counter-culture that were just as important in the development of new music, and hardly any other bands were as essential in this as Detroit, Michigan's MC5.  Taking the slowly rising hard rock sound and turning up both the volume and attitude, along with fellow Detroit natives, The Stooges, it is in these bands where one can find the most vital building blocks of what would become punk rock nearly a decade later.  Pushing music forward right out of the gate, few songs in history hold as pivotal or absolutely unmistakable spot as one finds within the title track to The MC5's 1969 debut album, Kick Out The Jams.

Following the songs' iconic and controversial introduction, the band wastes absolutely no time in setting the tone for "Kick Out The Jams," as they jump in at full speed and energy.  The guitar riff from Wayne Kramer remains today one of the most memorable ever recorded, and one can find variations on it throughout much of the history of the early punk scene.  There is an attitude and urgency within his playing that makes the song impossible to ignore, and the way in which Fred "Sonic" Smith compliments this sound pushes the song far beyond anything else being recorded at the time.  This dual sound has a presence that seems to swell larger as the song continues, and in both the tone as well as the actual progression, it is clear how much MC5 wanted to separate themselves from other bands of that era.  Bassist Michael Davis injects one of the most unique grooves of all time into the song, and it is his efforts that enable "Kick Out The Jams" to take on a swirling, almost hypnotizing tone.  Combined with the brilliant drumming of Dennis Thompson, one can hear the song whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and this amazing exchange of energy can still be felt through hearing the recording more than four decades later.  The fact that this power remains even after repeated listenings is a testament to the raw talent and spirit of the band, and it is much the reason that "Kick Out The Jams" stands today as one of the most important songs in the development of new musical trends.

Along with the music, "Kick Out The Jams" was responsible for setting new standards and approaches through the vocals of Rob Tyner.  The moment when he yelled "kick out the jams, motherfucker!" in the songs' opening was met with a great deal of controversy, and many stores even refused to carry the album due to this word.  Though there are many theories as to why this was left on the recording, the fact of the matter is that it fits perfectly, and shortly after its release, such language would become commonplace on many records.  However, in the case of "Kick Out The Jams," it was clearly not being used for "shock value," but instead conveying the emotions of the song.  This is the key to Tyner's performance, as the energy and emotion that he brings to the entire song remains largely unrivaled to this day, and his sound and spirit would become the blueprint for the entire punk rock movement.  Pushing himself to the point of almost being out of breath, he delivers each line as if it is his last, and this sense of urgency easily leaves nearly every other song of the era in the dust.  Furthermore, it is the straightforward nature of the lyrics that have enabled "Kick Out The Jams" to retain its iconic status, as the song nails down the essence of "real" rock and roll better than any song ever recorded.  From the sweat on stage to the reactions of the audience, MC5 delivers "the truth" on "Kick Out The Jams," and Rob Tyner's vocals were rarely better or more fitting of the subject matter.

As the decades have passed, the meaning behind the phrase "kick out the jams" has been debated and discussed, with many interpretations coming to light.  While the most popular theory is that it is simply a phrase to signal the beginning of high-powered, uncompromising rock and roll, the band members themselves have stated that it was actually a phrase they used to encourage the "jam bands" that often preceded their shows to get off of the stage.  It is the fact that as time has passed, so many people have given their own meaning to the phrase that proves what an iconic statement it was, and the fact that it is still relevant today is a testament to the unique brilliance behind the entire song.  Since its initial release, scores of groups ranging from Rage Against The Machine to Africa Bambaataa to Jeff Buckley have recorded their own version of the song, and yet it is the almost primal, raw energy of the original that manages to stand above every one of these covers.  It is the sense of urgency and frustration found in the MC5 version that makes it still stand out, and even when compared to almost every song from the punk movement, it remains unmatched in terms of honest energy and emotion.  The feeling of controlled chaos that runs throughout the song remains just as exciting and invigorating today as it did more than forty years ago, and this energy, combined with the unrelenting musical performances from the entire band is what enables MC5's legendary 1969 song, "Kick Out The Jams" to stand today as one of the greatest and most important songs ever recorded.

Monday, June 20, 2011

June 20: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #77"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that band, song, or album):
1. Bruce Springsteen, "Darlington County"  Born In The U.S.A.
2. The Aggrolites, "Mr. Misery"  The Aggrolites
3. Röyksopp, "SparksMelody A.M.
4. Beastie Boys, "Here's A Little Something For Ya"  Hot Sauce Committee Part II
5. John Coltrane, "AcknowledgmentA Love Supreme
6. The Clash, "Groovy Times"  Cost Of Living EP
7. Gogol Bordello, "Oh No"  Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
8. Oasis, "Digsy's Diner"  Definitely Maybe
9. Dream Academy, "Life In A Northern Town"  Dream Academy
10. Thra Kha Band, "Do You No Wrong Again"  Cambodia Rock Spectacular
11. Grinderman, "Bellringer Blues"  Grinderman 2
12. The Avett Brothers, "Ill With Want"  I And Love And You
13. Reverend Horton Heat, "I'm Mad"  Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
14. Seu Jorge, "Rebel Rebel"  The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Soundtrack

Sunday, June 19, 2011

June 19: Echo And The Bunnymen, "Pictures On My Wall"

Artist: Echo And The Bunnymen
Song: "Pictures On My Wall"
Album: Crocodiles
Year: 1979

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Original Single Version) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Crocodiles Version) (will open in new tab)

Though most people live under the assumption that by the time disco began to take hold of the world, the psychedelic sound was a thing of the past, the fact of the matter is, one can hear strong representations of hat sound well into the 1980's.  While it may have gone through a few slight changes, when one steps back from many of these records, there is no denying the strong connection between them and the "classic" psychedelic sounds of the late 1960's.  It was due to this sonic proximity that many began using the term "neo-psychedelic," and there were few groups that better represented this wild transition in music than Echo And The Bunnymen.  Without question one of the most sonically diverse bands in history, the group was able to be as dark and moody as any of their peers, as well as pulling off a punk attitude if they so desired.  However, it was the way with which the band crafted their often unnerving, gloomy 1979 debut, Crocodiles, that showed the band at their creative height and proved that with enough talent, any style could be merged with another.  Standing as a sharp contrast to a majority of the music coming out of the UK at the time, the record also served as one of the earliest blueprints for what would become the "new wave" and "post punk" sounds, and there are few songs that show the raw talent and exceptional mood that defines Echo And The Bunnymen than what one can experience on their 1979 single, "Pictures On My Wall."

Truth be told, the version of "Pictures On My Wall" found on Crocodiles is actually a re-recording of a single the group had released before they were signed to a major label.  While the arrangement and lyrics are the same on both, the earlier version is based on an acoustic guitar, while the latter has an electric backing.  Though the original is certainly moody and moving, it is the more full and sonically complete second version that is superior.  It is the way that the lone guitar of Will Sergeant opens "Pictures On My Wall" that immediately sets the mood, as there is a stark, almost bleak feeling within his playing that holds throughout the entire track.  The lone rhythmic tone that counts off the beat during this opening section only heightens the almost desolate feeling, and one cannot help but compare it to some of the darker and moodier songs in The Doors catalog.  When the rhythm section of drummer Pete de Freitas and bassist Lee Pattinson drop in, all comparisons stop, as this is a band that is clearly blazing new sonic territory.  There is an aggressive, almost biting tone and approach from this duo, and it is in their performance where the link to the punk sound resides.  The final element is the synthesizers that wind in around "Pictures On My Wall," and while they would become cliché in the years that followed, the execution here is absolutely perfect.  Their presence gives an almost mid-evil or gothic feel to the song at parts, and the combined playing of all of the band members remains one of the most wonderfully tortured and disturbed sounds ever captured on tape.

While one cannot overlook the almost enchanting draw of the musical arrangement, the overall mood of the song is cemented into place by the unmistakable voice and performance from Ian McCulloch.  Seamlessly switching between a more spoken sound and some of the most inspired singing ever recorded, the level of emotion in McCulloch's performance is second to none, and one cannot help but make a second comparison to the music and mood of The Doors.  It is the passion within the vocal presentation that makes this link apparent, as there is a certain sense of dramatic that McCullouch executes perfectly.  Furthermore, it is this element that draws the listener deeper into the song, and he also gives "Pictures On My Wall" a unique spinning sensation.  In many ways, the song becomes the epitome of "gloom pop," and thorough McCulloch's singing, one can hear the blueprint for countless bands that would rise to fame throughout the 1980's.  However, it is also the almost beat-style lyrics which McCulloch sings that make "Pictures On My Wall" such a unique musical achievement, and the way in which the words flow heighten the scattered, almost nervous feel the song retains.  With each short verse, the feeling of spiraling downward into chaos becomes stronger, and there is a distinctive feeling of paranoia when he sings the line, "...faces burning, hearts beating, nowhere left for us to run..."  It is the masterful way that Ian McCullouch gives "Pictures On My Wall" a sense of the dramatic that serves as the ideal finishing touch to an already brilliant musical work.

As the decades have passed, Echo And The Bunnymen have garnered a fervent, almost cult-like following, and it is largely due to the pioneering and unique musical style they present that have made this possible.  Though they would find greater commercial success with a number of later songs, "Pictures On My Wall" represents the early vision of the group at its apex.  Furthermore, one can hear many of the pieces that would be the basis for their later masterpieces, and yet it is the raw and direct nature of the song that sets "Pictures On My Wall" aside from the rest of their catalog.  The lasting significance of the song can also be seen in the fact that the original single was reissued a few times since, as there has been a steady demand for this groundbreaking recording.  While the original certainly shows an amazing "indie" effort, it is the version found on Crocodiles that remains the template for many darker styles of music, and yet Echo And The Bunnymen strike such a perfect balance that the song avoids being pigeon-holed into a single category.  The influences from the psychedelic movement are impossible to ignore, and there are few songs that present a more ideal fusion of this genre with the rising use of synthesizers.  In many ways, one can cite "Pictures On My Wall" as the bridge between the counter-culture of the 1960's and 1980's, and yet even today, the song remains an unrivaled musical achievement.  Bringing an attitude and completely enthralling sense of the dramatic, one can quickly understand why Echo And The Bunnymen remain such music icons by experiencing their magnificent 1979 single, "Pictures On My Wall."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June 18: Cannonball Adderley, "This Here"

Artist: Cannonball Adderley
Song: "This Here"
Album: The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco
Year: 1959

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

When one looks at the list of the so-called "jazz greats," one of the threads that runs through an overwhelming majority of them is the overall dark or sober sound that they perfected during their career.  While it is not to say that the masters of jazz were all depressed or unhappy people, much of the music they reflected had an emotion to it that gave it such a feeling.  This was often made even more prominent thorough the power with which they played, and yet there were a handful of performers that made it their style to bring a more upbeat, brighter feeling to the world of jazz.  In many ways, it was this style of performance that brought the jazz genre much of its early crossover success, and there were few players who were as influential or important as the great Cannonball Adderley.  Unquestionably one of the true geniuses of the saxophone, both in his compositions as well as his performances, Adderley brought a unique intelligence to his music, and whether he was fronting a group or playing along with other jazz luminaries, his distinctive sound is often easy to spot.  Due to his exceptional level of talent, along with his almost peculiar spirit, it is difficult to single out a specific recording as his finest, and yet one can hear his true brilliance in the handful of laie recordings he released.  Among all of these, there is perhaps no better a defining number for his entire sound than what one can experience on Cannonball Adderley's brilliant 1959 live rendition of "This Here."

Serving as the lead track on the absolutely phenomenal The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco album, it sets the tone for the set that follows, yet in some ways, overshadows the rest of the record.  Cannonball literally gets the mood right in the mood as at the top of the track, he asks for the lights to be lowered, and you can almost feel the audience settle in for what turned out to be a truly legendary performance.  The main musical theme that runs throughout "This Here" is one of the most unique in history, and even if one has never heard it, there is a strange familiarity to the progression.  The songs' composer, Bobby Timmons, quickly gets things underway, and the high energy, truly happy feeling resonates from his piano.  There is a wonderfully funky feel to his performance, as he seems to dance lightly across the keys, building an amazing level of tension with drummer Louis Hayes.  The pair play brilliantly off of one another, giving "This Here" almost a see-saw feeling, and this sense of movement has rarely been achieved anywhere else in jazz history.  Bass legend Sam Jones fills out the back-line for the song, and the way in which these three lock into the groove with one another is truly unprecedented.  Even in their solos, one never loses sight of the connection between the three, and it is this high-spirited swing that enables "This Here" to be just as stunning today as it was more than five decades ago.

Filling out the quintet is of course the Adderley brothers, and their ability to highlight and contrast both one another as well as the rest of the group is what pushes "This Here" to a legendary status.  Neither brother enters the song at the beginning, and one can sense that they were simply waiting to be taken away by the groove.  When they enter in unison, the devastating power and talent of the quintet becomes completely clear, as "This Here" becomes almost mesmerizing.  Seamlessly passing the lead back and forth, it is the Adderley brothers' sense of when to give more power to the notes that gives the composition yet another dimension.  Cannonball's performance on saxophone is a mind-blowing experience, as he pushes the limitations on the instrument in what can be seen as the completely opposite direction of most of his peers.  Finding the beauty in soft notes, as well as working some of the most melodic solos ever recorded, one can easily feel the sheer joy with which he is playing throughout the entire track.  It is this undeniable spirit that surely helped the song to gain a massive following, and it stands as one of the greatest, most accessible songs in jazz history.  Yet one cannot overlook the superb performance that Nat Adderley gives on cornet, as he manages to compliment his brothers' sound perfectly, while he simultaneously cements his own legacy in jazz.  Though there have been a number of great duos throughout the history of jazz, the performance that the Adderley brothers give on "This Here" easily places them near the top of such a list.

Among the many legendary musical combination that have made jazz history, the element they all share is the fact that in every case, each musician leaves plenty of space for his peers to explore the music.  This shared dedication to being unselfish never fails to produce phenomenal results, and few are as impressive as the 1959 live recording of "This Here."  Each of the five musicians are in top form, and the seamless way in which the lead is passed around the group is the epitome of what makes jazz such an amazing musical form.  Furthermore, those who are not on the lead prove that even in the background, a player can be just as essential, and it is the way in which the band is able to keep the deep, soulful groove intact throughout that pushes "This Here" so far beyond its peers.  In many ways, one can point to this performance as the definition, or even the beginning of the "soul jazz" sound, and there is a level of excitement running throughout all of The Cannonball Adderley Quintet In San Francisco that cannot be found on any other live recording.  As the song progresses, with the mood building more and more, one can hear bits of the audience seeming to get involved, and there is also a clear understanding by the musicians of just how "on" they all are at that moment.  This is the ideal example of how the shared energy between performers and an audience can enhance the song itself, and on so many levels, there is simply no other recording in history that can compare to The Cannonball Adderley Quintet's pivotal 1959 live recording of "This Here."

Friday, June 17, 2011

June 17: Bruce Springsteen, "Born To Run"

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Song: "Born To Run"
Album: Born To Run
Year: 1975

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they represent what may be the smallest group in music, there are an elite few performers whose influence stretches so far beyond just music that in many ways, they themselves have become institutions of society.  While they may have achieved this status through a number of different ways, their place in history is firmly cemented, and one can easily see how their presence has shaped many elements of the world in which we live.  In almost every case, the musician in question takes a long time to rise to mainstream notoriety, and then after some period, they fade away and become a true legend.  Then of course, there is Bruce Springsteen.  For more than three decades, Springsteen has managed to keep his status and relevancy with each new generation, and yet the sound and tone of his music has remained largely the same.  This in itself is a testament to the brilliant and unique talent that lives inside Bruce Springsteen, and even his name alone brings to mind a certain attitude and image.  During his long career, Springsteen has managed to fully explore almost every facet of his distinctive brand of "American rock," and this has left a large number of amazing songs, many of which have become institutions onto themselves.  With this in mind, one can argue a handful of songs as his best, and yet it is hard to deny that Bruce Springsteen struck the perfect balance on many levels within his iconic 1975 single, "Born To Run."

Perhaps moreso than any other song in history, the wall of sound with which the listener is hit in the opening moments of "Born To Run" is absolutely breathtaking.   Combining a number of different instruments, the song instantly gains an amazing sense of grandeur, and the main riff that persists throughout "Born To Run" remains one of the most instantly recognizable in all of music history.  This unforgettable musical moment is led by the guitar from Springsteen himself, and it is truly amazing to experience just how much emotion he is able to bring forth through the guitar.  Yet unlike a number of his other songs, it is the way that organist David Sancious and the glockenspiel from Danny Federci overtake the track that makes "Born To Run" such a unique musical gem.  There has rarely been as perfect a fusion of sound as is created by this combination, and it gives the song a certain sense of lightness and almost vulnerability.  However, the song also retains a powerful groove, courtesy of bassist Garry Talent, and his contribution becomes most obvious during the songs' second verse, where the almost sparse musical presentation again highlights the fantastic musical balances at play.  This is complimented by both saxophonist Clarence Clemons, as well as drummer Ernest Carter, and the fact that both of these sounds emphasize different aspects of the song proves the true genius behind the music on "Born To Run."  It is this superb musical arrangement, combined with the wide range of emotions that are conveyed within the music that makes "Born To Run" rise so far above almost every other song in music history.

However, "Born To Run" also proves the unique brilliance that is the vocal work of Bruce Springsteen, as both in the way he sings as well as the words he is singing, he truly knows no peers.  As legend has it, the song was his "last ditch effort" to find commercial success, and the pain and frustration is quite clear within his vocals.  Seamlessly switching between the deep, almost downtrodden sound of the verses to the glorious, unrestrained singing he brings to the bridge and chorus sections, even after more than thirty years, his performance here remains just as captivating and exciting.  It is in this juxtaposition of sound and emotion where the true essence of Bruce Springsteen lives, and as Joe Strummer once said of him, "...he'll never day down and be conquered by his problems..."  This determined, uplifting presence never gets old or loses its impact, and it is surely much of the reason that "Born To Run" retains just a heavy presence to this day.  Springsteen also managed to craft one of his finest lyrics on "Born To Run," and it can be applied to almost every situation of adversity that one might encounter.  While it is largely composed as a love letter to the now mythical "Wendy," the lyrics hold nothing back on the various ways in which one can be trapped by their surroundings.  In many ways presenting the "working mans'" side of the "American Dream," there are few lyrics from any point in history that are as brutally honest and moving as when Springsteen sings, " this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap...we gotta get out while we're young, 'cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run..."

It is almost an understatement to say that "Born To Run" has become a part of culture, as it is still so present in the media, sporting events, and still on the radio, that many forget the fact that the song is more that three decades old.  This in itself proves just how timeless a lyric and musical performance lives within the song, and it is much the reason that one can easily argue "Born To Run" as one of the two or three greatest songs ever recorded.  Embodying the struggle of the "working class" better than any other song in history, the image that Bruce Springsteen presents on "Born To Run" is the image that he himself retains to this day, and it is this proximity between the man and his lyrics that has enabled him to gain such a massive, dedicated fanbase.  Yet "Born To Run" also represents a transitional period for Springsteen's band, as both Carter and Sancious would be replaced during the recording sessions, with "Born To Run" standing as the sole contribution on the album from both of these musicians.  Furthermore, after the song firmly cemented him as both a critical and commercial success, "Born To Run" has been performed at nearly every one of his live performances since.  In fact, it has become a tradition that the house lights are turned on, with the audience singing along, and this in itself proves just how moving and personal the song has become for so many people across the planet.  While he is now a true institution onto himself, having released some of the greatest songs in music history, there is perhaps no better a definition of everything that makes Bruce Springsteen such an icon than what one can experience on his timeless 1975 single, "Born To Run."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16: Desmond Dekker, "007 (Shanty Town)"

Artist: Desmond Dekker
Song: "007 (Shanty Town)"
Album: 007 (Shanty Town) (single)
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though many fail to realize just how much diversity there is within the genre, reggae music has a number of different faces, most of which are not the mellow sound with which most are familiar.  It was during the mid and late 1960's that many of "the island" sounds developed, and during this period, a majority of the most important songs in the history of the genre were recorded.  In almost every case, these recordings involved Leslie Kong in one way or another, and one can easily argue him as one of the most important figures in music history.  However, Kong spent almost his entire career on "the other side of the glass," and it was the artists he helped mold that would truly change the face of music.  While he often times does not get as much credit as another of his fellow countrymen, there may be no other artist that was as vital in bringing the sounds of "the island" to the world than one finds in the music of Desmond Dekker.  In many ways establishing the blueprint for much of reggae, and standing as the definition of the "rudeboy" sound, a number of his singles remain true standards to this day.  Fusing together amazing melodies with his unmistakable voice, there is a tone and mood to his songs that is completely unique, and few songs better exemplify this sound, as well as showing just why Desmond Dekker is held in such high regard, than one finds in his groundbreaking 1967 single, "007 (Shanty Town)."

Almost from the instant that "007 (Shanty Town)" begins, the mood and tone that persist for the entire song are set into place.  While by current standards, the song may seem rather "standard" reggae fare, one must consider that in 1967, it was this song that SET that standard into motion.  Moreso than any song that had been previously recorded, "007 (Shanty Town)" brings an upbeat bounce that is absolutely irresistible.  The way in which the guitars dance across the track, providing a rhythm of their own that is perfect for "skanking," defines the entire "rudeboy" sound, and there is a simple perfection within the musical arrangement.  The steady cadence from the horns are equally ideal, as they make the down-beat more pronounced, and this would also become a defining characteristic of many of the reggae sounds.  Within the "formal" rhythm section, there is a stomp that separates it from the other island sounds, and it is also within this aspect that one can detect the attitude and swagger of the "rudeboy" movement.  Yet it is the way in which all of these elements fuse together that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a brilliant recording, as there is a smooth, light feeling that comes from the sound, and the way that this contrasts with the undeniable attitude is what set the standard for the entire "rudeboy" era that remains to this day.

Yet while one cannot deny the energy and presence of the music, it is the vocals of Desmond Dekker that remain truly iconic, and they have been copied and quoted countless times over the past four decades.  Though many later "rudeboy" vocalists would lean more toward the "toasting" style of vocals, Dekker is a singer first, and he possesses one of the most uniquely subdued yet strong voices in music history.  There is no question that he can sing, yet it is the way in which he contrasts his meandering singing with more direct, almost spoken pieces that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a brilliant recording.  Not only would Dekker establish the vocal approach for the "rudeboy" sound on "007 (Shanty Town)," but he also set into motion many of its longest standing themes and characteristics, turning it into "the" "rudeboy anthem" if there ever was one.  While at times, he certainly inflates the egos of the "rudeboys," he also gives them a stern warning, as the characters in his song are set free from jail, but they are chased around town by soldiers.  This duality is what further separates "007 (Shanty Town)" from other "rudeboy" classics, and yet there are few lines that stand as iconic as when Dekker sings the immortal words, "...rudeboys have no fear..."  While this line surely remains a calling card for the "rudeboy" movement, it is the way that Dekker presents both sides of their lives that set the standard for this entire musical approach.

While both the music and vocal work on "007 (Shanty Town)" have become absolute landmarks of "island" music, much of the lyrical content has risen to similar status.  Countless later artists have lifted lines from the song, perhaps most notably, The Clash and their exceptional song, "Rudie Can't Fail," which surely takes both its name and sentiment from those words found on "007 (Shanty Town)."  Furthermore, it is the way that Desmond Dekker is able to infuse so many images into the song, especially those relating to James Bond and Oceans Eleven that gave more of a "dangerous" feel to the song, and likely why "rudeboy" culture was so responsive to the song.  However, one can argue "007 (Shanty Town)" as one of the biggest examples of "you only hear what you want" in history, as most "rudeboys" surely ignored the songs' warning tones, only concentrating on the aspects that glorified their "dangerous" lives.  The distinctive bounce and attitude that backed these words remains just as strong to this day, as does the truly irresistible dance rhythm.  It is this combination of mood and style that makes "007 (Shanty Town)" such a uniquely fantastic song, and it proves that even within the "island" sounds, there was just as much sonic diversity.  Along with Jamaica, the song would find commercial success in both the US and UK, and in many ways, it was "007 (Shanty Town)" that truly introduced the "island sounds" to the rest of the world.  Whether it is this reality or the way in which the song sets the blueprint for "rudeboy" culture, there are few songs from any genre that are as important to the development of music as one finds in Desmond Dekker's 1967 single, "007 (Shanty Town)."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June 15: Babes In Toyland, "He's My Thing"

Artist: Babes In Toyland
Song: "He's My Thing"
Album: Spanking Machine
Year: 1987

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are rarely given the same level of credit as their male counterparts in almost every style of music, one can easily argue that as a female-led band becomes louder and more aggressive, the less acknowledgment they receive.  This trend goes back to the very beginnings of recorded music, and yet as heavy metal and punk began to gain a foot-hold, it became far more obvious.  Yet in many cases, it is the female-led bands of these genres that represent the pinnacle of aggression and sheer volume, and there are few groups that represent this idea better than Babes In Toyland.  Without question one of the most brutal, yet uniquely captivating bands in all of music history, one can easily see how they paved the way for almost every female-fronted rock band that followed.  Bringing a tone and passion that were far beyond any of their peers, each of their records has managed to retain its punch to this day, and due to the time when their debut was released, it can also be argued as an integral pre-cursor to the so-called "grunge" movement.  That album, 1987's Spanking Machine, remains one of the most hostile, yet truly mesmerizing musical documents in history, as the group holds absolutely nothing back in any sense of the word.  Every track seems to jump through the speakers with an almost unsettling sense of urgency, and one can quickly understand just why Babes In Toyland are held in such high regard by hearing their 1987 song, "He's My Thing."

If one completely separates the musical element on "He's My Thing" from the vocals, the fact that Babes In Toyland remain rightly labeled as a metal or even "thrash" act might be a bit confusing.  There is a grinding swing that is instantly set into placed by guitarist Kat Bjelland and drummer Lori Barbero, and the song takes on a bit of a rockabilly tone.  Though some may find it hard to hear this element, there is no question that the songs' musical arrangement has a bit of a Cramps-esque feel to it, and it is this unique musical take that pushes "He's My Thing" above the rest of the songs on the album.  Bassist Michelle Leon injects a fantastic, dark groove into the song,and it is through her performance that the song is able to gain much of its imposing presence.  Making her sound more pronounced than most of her peers, Leon becomes the driving force of the songs' aggression, and there are moments when her playing seems as if it is almost provoking the listener.  Yet it is the way in which the three instruments come crashing together that makes "He's My Thing" such an amazing musical experience, as the band is clearly unapologetic for their sound, but there is also a clear and controlled form to their playing.  The fact that they are able to strike such a perfect balance is what makes "He's My Thing" such a fantastic song, and it is also the element that separates Babes In Toyland from almost all of their peers.

However, while the musical elements may be able to show their inspiration from other genres, the ferocity and frustration that comes from the voice of Kat Bjelland remains absolutely unmatched to this day.  Simply put, while there are many who have attempted a similar style, once one hears her performance on "He's My Thing," it is clear that no other such singer even comes close.  Though it is far too widely used, there is perhaps no better an example of the correct use of the term "venomous," when one describes Bjelland's vocals, and the way in which her singing manages to completely re-shape the musical arrangement is a testament to her uncanny talents.  Certainly taking its base from the work of Patti Smith, Bjelland is able to raise the overall level of intensity, and yet even when she is screaming, there is a sense of complete purpose and control within her singing.  It is also the fact that the lyrics which Bjelland spits are as direct and unrelenting as the other elements of the song that serves as an ideal finishing touch to "He's My Thing."  Unquestionably one of the most unique songs of true love for a partner, Bjelland gives what can only be taken as a warning when she yells, "...stay away from my thing, why don't you get your own one around?"  Yet one cannot deny the sense of empowerment that is present as well, and Bjelland completely separates the band from their peers when she asserts, "... I kept for myself and not for you..."

Truly creating a "perfect storm" of heavy metal brilliance, one cannot overstate just how important Babes In Toyland have been to the overall development of music.  While the obvious impact can be heard in all of the female-fronted bands that followed, one cannot deny the impact their sound and style had on the still developing  "grunge" movement.  Preceding the explosion of that sound by almost five years, Babes In Toyland are quite deserving of the label of "musical trailblazers," and there is no question that they easily hold their own when compared to their male counterparts.  The level of intensity in their music is perhaps only matched by the raw sense of honesty one can find, and few groups represent the idea of "chaotic beauty" as perfectly as one finds in Babes In Toyland.  It is the way in which the vocals are able to move past a simple presentation of rage and become thought provoking in their own way that sets the band apart from their peers, and while it can be said of some of their followers, there is absolutely nothing on "He's My Thing" that sounds artificial or forced.  The wild energy seems to flow naturally from all three members of the band, and the entire album is one of the best representations of a record that simply cannot be ignored.  Bringing a sense of beauty and melody to the thrash and heavy metal blueprint, there are few songs from any band that can compare to the chaotic splendor that is Babes In Toyland's pivotal 1987 song, "He's My Thing."