Sunday, July 31, 2011

July 31: Yes, "Roundabout"

Artist: Yes
Song: "Roundabout"
Album: Fragile
Year: 1972

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While many cite it as a negative trend, it is not surprising that bands who manage to endure over long periods of time end up altering their sound in some way or another, often "keeping current" with shifts in society and recording technology.  Though this happens to almost every band with such longevity, it is those few groups that make a point to stick to their original sound that become uniquely significant in the overall history of music.  Furthermore, it is rather astonishing to observe that among these elite few bands who sound today much like they did when they began, with each new generation, they are rediscovered, and therefore their sound really never goes "out of style."  While there are not band bands to achieve such a status, it is impossible to argue this is the exact scenario that has turned progressive rock pioneers Yes into the icons that they are within the modern music scene.  Bringing a sound that dates back to the tail-end of the 1960's, it is the elaborate orchestrations and exceptional musicianship that defines them, and throughout the 1970's, it was largely their efforts that continued to push forward and develop the sound of rock music.  When discussing Yes, one can easily argue a number of albums as their finest work, as when they were at their peek, they new few musical peers.  However, one can easily understand just why they are held in such high regard by experiencing Yes' iconic 1972 single, "Roundabout."

Similar to a number of songs of the era, "Roundabout" often falls into the category of songs that people know quite well, but are unaware of its lineage or "who" actually performs the song.  Yet perhaps moreso than any other song in history, there is literally so much going on throughout "Roundabout" that it requires multiple listenings to grasp it all.  After the delightful, meandering acoustic guitar introduction from Steve Howe, the rest of the band drops in all at once, and the most significant element to jump out becomes the brilliant bassline from Chris Squire.  This represents one of the first recorded instances of a rock-style bassist playing more of a lead part than "just" the rhythm, and his fluttering, high-speed performance is without question one of the defining bass recordings in all of music history.  The way that Squire interacts with the similarly mind-blowing keyboard from Rick Wakeman is in many ways what has become the trademark tone of "Roundabout," and many point to Wakeman's performance as just as definitive a moment as Squire's.  The fact that two showings of such exceptional quality co-exist on the same song would be enough to make it a classic, but the final touch of drumming and percussion from Bill Bruford truly pushes the song into a category all its own.  The way in which all of the sounds work perfectly around one another remains just as uniquely impressive today as it did nearly four decades ago, and it helps "Roundabout" to become one of very few songs that never sounds "old" or "dated."

Though it is the musical arrangement on "Roundabout" that defines the band, there is no question that the voice of Jon Anderson is just as synonymous.  Possessing what is easily one of the most instantly recognizable voices in all of music history, it is also the drama and intrigue that Anderson brings to his vocals that make them so distinctive, and his performance on "Roundabout" is certainly one of his finest.  Working largely in the upper registers of the musical scale, Anderson separates himself from many of his peers in the fact that his voice seems far more relaxed and proper when working this range.  It is also the way that Anderson is able to give the song an almost nervous sense of urgency with his singing, and this also enables "Roundabout" to gain a rather unique sense of movement.  This tone fits perfectly, as the lyrics were actually written whilst he was driving to the recording studio one morning, and yet at the same time, the words are slightly mysterious in nature.  Yet within his brilliant performance, every listener can easily take their own line as "their favorite," as even though parts may make little sense, there is a beautiful flow and elegance to each line.  Whether one takes it as simply describing the feeling of music or a more natural, if not ethereal theme, Anderson delivers a dazzling performance that leaves each interpretation of "Roundabout" equally satisfying.

However, the fact of the matter is, as absolutely extraordinary as "Roundabout" is, most people have only heard the completely butchered "radio edit" version of the song.  This cut eliminates a majority of the true musical mastery that is on display, leaving a dismal three and a half minutes to be enjoyed.  The full version found on Fragile runs more than five minutes longer than the edit, and it is almost impossible to comprehend how any band or management could let such a large portion of a song be cut for any reason.  Thankfully, as the years have passed, many radio stations have switched and played the full version, giving Yes their full credit for this extraordinary musical achievement.  Furthermore, "Roundabout" has found its way into many parts of popular culture, with one of the most appropriate "nods" coming in the film School of Rock, when the playing of Wakeman is cited as the inspiration for a child to study.  Yet even without acknowledgments of this nature, the fact that "Roundabout" still receives regular airplay is a testament to its impact, and one cannot deny the fact that played alongside modern music, the song can still easily hold its own.  There are very few recordings that so perfectly capture a band at their creative peak at the same time as that of their talents, but this is exactly what one can experience throughout Yes' absolutely astounding 1972 masterpiece, "Roundabout."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

July 30: Django Reinhardt, "Minor Swing"

Artist: Django Reinhardt
Song: "Minor Swing"
Album: Minor Swing (single)
Year: 1937

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While in a larger context, jazz is widely consider to be an "American" style of music, the reality is, like nearly every other genre, it is a product of many combinations from around the world.  Though there is little arguing where it rose to prominence, and where a majority of the sub-genres and off-shoot styles developed, one cannot overlook the importance of a handful of musical visionaries from around the world, without whom jazz would not have taken on its current shape.  Among these elite performers, there may be no other individual from Europe that was as vital to jazz and music as a whole as the influence and creative of Django Reinhardt.  The way in which Reinhardt approaches jazz as a genre was completely unique, and without him, the guitar (and certainly the acoustic guitar) may have never found there way to the front of jazz outfits.  Embodying the term "free spirited" in every way possible, from his personality to the tone of his compositions, there is no mistaking his work, and many of his songs have become absolute jazz standards.  In almost every way, his songs were truly decades ahead of their time, and when they first gained notice in the late 1930's, they presented a startling extreme to the more predictable, "formal" jazz that was rising.  Bringing an amazing amount of energy and flair, whilst also managing to inject a strong classical influence, there are few songs that better define the unique genius of Django Reinhardt better than his monumental 1937 composition, "Minor Swing."

The moment that "Minor Swing" begins, the European influence is completely evident, and Django Reinhardt's signature "gypsy" sound is in top form.  The emotion that comes through quickly and powerfully via the violin of Stéphane Grappelli is the very definition of "beautiful," and yet it is also the lightly upbeat tone he conveys that sets the song aside from other jazz and swing pieces of the era.  Though the swing style had already been on the rise of a number of years, "Minor Swing" is one of (if not the) earliest fusions of the sound with any other type of music.  The way in which Grappelli is able to blend the "old and new" sounds and feelings into a single, short progression is nothing short of fantastic, and it still resonates just as powerfully today as it did more than seventy years ago.  As the rest of the band, known as Quintette du Ho Club de France, joins in, it is understandable how "Minor Swing" was able to raise the mood under any circumstances anywhere in the world.  There is a truly universal appeal to the song that is rarely found elsewhere in music, and it is largely within the free spirited tone that runs from end to end in the song.  Though not in the traditional sense of the word, "Minor Swing" is an almost irresistible dance song, and there is a uniquely captivating allure within Grappelli solo later in the song.

Along with Grappelli's superb performance, the most noticeable aspect of "Minor Swing" is the complete absence of any percussion in any way.  However, due to the exceptional performances and mood of the entire band, is is completely unnecessary, save some fantastic punctuation from bassist Louis Vola.  Though they do not overshadow the others, it is the three-guitar sound of "Minor Swing" that becomes impossible to forget, and it is not only the progression, but the atmosphere created that stands as so significant.  The pairing of Eugene Vees and Joseph Reinhardt is absolutely fantastic, as they interlock to create the songs' rhythm.  Through their sound, there is a wonderfully organic feel to "Minor Swing," and it is this element which makes the song relevant regardless of nationality or musical preference.  Overtop the weaving guitars, it is the third guitar from Django Reinhardt himself that proves to be the most stunning characteristic of all of "Minor Swing."  It is in his playing where the "dance" of the song resides, and when one looks at all the other music of the time, it is clear what a unique musician visionary lived within Reinhardt.  Simply put, in both his progressions as well as the spirit behind his playing, his performance stands as a groundbreaking moment in music history, as "Minor Swing" brings together the gypsy sound, and seamlessly blends them with jazz and swing.  Reinhardt completely ignores every single musical "norm" of the time, and it is his pioneering performance that makes "Minor Swing" such an astonishing musical achievement.

As the decades have passed, the power and relevance of "Minor Swing" has rarely let up in any way, and though many may not be aware of the song or its roots, it still finds its way into popular music and culture on a shockingly consistent basis.  Within the world of jazz, it remains one of the most consistently covered songs, with everyone from Glenn Miller to a long line of current musicians who have taken their own spin on the song.  Yet "Minor Swing" has branched out into other genres to unheard of distances, with the song being incorporated into music from artists ranging from Esthero to Belleruche to a gorgeous cover by The David Grisman Quintet.  Furthermore, the song has been featured in films like The Matrix and Chocolat, and all of these tributes cement the place that Django Reinhardt rightfully holds high atop the list of influential musicians.  One can even argue that the fact that "Minor Swing" has spread so far is a fantastic mirror to the legendarily eclectic and free-spirited personality of Reinhardt, and there are few musicians from any genre who truly embodied the mood of the music which they played.  This all works perfectly with the overall idea that music is a universal language, as "Minor Swing" brings together many different cultural influences as well as musical, and there are few songs that remain as pertinent to the development of all forms of music as Django Reinhardt's magnificent 1937 composition, "Minor Swing."

Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29: Saint Vitus, "Born Too Late"

Artist: Saint Vitus
Song: "Born Too Late"
Album: Born Too Late
Year: 1986

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One of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of the "rock scene" of the 1980's was the way in which the term "heavy metal" was completely bastardized, being applied to bands that were musically not even close to the true meaning of the genre.  In so many cases, such a title was given to "any" band that had even the slightest distortion, long hair, and screamed their vocals; while anyone who understands the art form that is "heavy metal" knows that such requirements are akin to calling anyone with spiked hair a "punk rocker."  To add to this furstration, the bands that were actually making "real" heavy metal were largely overlooked, and this was no more true than in the case of doom-metal pioneers, Saint Vitus.  Taking equal influence from Black Sabbath and Black Flag, the band proved better than almost any other act the idea that intensity did not need to come from excessive speed or shouting, and that the same results could be derived from powerful, almost lulling musical assaults.  Following a brief change in membership, Saint Vitus entered the studio under Black Flag's SST label, recording their stunning sophomore album, 1986's Born Too Late.  Finding a far superior blending of sound and texture than appeared on their self-titled debut, the band fully realized their musical potential and one can quickly understand the unique presence and importance of Saint Vitus by hearing the records' title track.

The moment that "Born Too Late" begins, Saint Vitus seems to throw the listener for a bit of a trick, as the grinding, speedy "solo" from Dave Chandler give the impression that the band has completely shifted gears from their first album.  However, the song quickly descends into the dark, almost dangerous controlled trudge that defines the sound of Saint Vitus.  The way in which Chandler is able to raise and drop the tension of the song is second to none, and his guitar alone is all the proof one needs to understand how intensity and force can be created within a slower musical arrangement.  The bass playing from Mike Adams only enhances this overall statement, as he almost seems to be attempting to play as few notes as possible, whilst retaining maximum musical potency.  This is in many ways where one can find the strongest link to Black Sabbath, and yet in terms of being stingy with actual notes, they far surpass their predecessors.  However, "Born Too Late" never seems thin in any sense of the word, but it packs a unique musical punch that enables the listener to understand the actual delicacy of their performance.  Drummer Armando Acosta provides the ideal finishing touch to "Born Too Late," as he keeps a slow, almost looming rhythm behind the guitars.  Even when the song moves into the slightly faster, ripping solos, the overall mood is kept perfectly intact, and it is their ability to keep both moods simultaneously that makes "Born Too Late" such an important and influential performance.

There is no question that the most significant change in the sound of Saint Vitus from their earlier recordings is the presence of new singer, Scott "Wino" Weinrich.  Having previously fronted The Obsessed, his voice and delivery style were a far better and more complimentary fit for the overall sound of Saint Vitus, and his ability to blend in with the music is what sets Born Too Late so far apart from the bands' first album.  Again in the spirit of their predecessors, there is a strong power within Weinrich's vocals, and he never lets the darker, if not evil tone of his voice drop for even a moment.  However, Weinrich is a bit more aggressive and angry than previous acts, and there is a sense of urgency within his delivery style that clarifies his connection to the hardcore and punk bands that were playing throughout Los Angeles at the time.  Along with the intensity of his measured vocal style, there is a clear aggravation within his singing, and throughout "Born Too Late," it often sounds as if Weinrich is ready to knock out anyone in his path.  Though many of their other songs are more akin to the "classic" doom sound and themes, on "Born Too Late," Weinrich makes it a far more personal affair, and the refrain of, "...I know I don't belong, and there's nothing that I can do, I was born too late, and I'll never be like you..." make it completely clear just what the song is about.

While there have been countless fusions of musical styles all across the history of recorded music, when one breaks them down to their elements, few were executed with the perfect balance that one finds all across Saint Vitus' Born Too Late.  Managing to retain the "power sludge" that Black Sabbath first recorded, but blending it with the angst-ridden, in-your-face attitude of the hardcore and punk genres, Saint Vitus mixes them all in equal parts, creating one of the most uniquely powerful sounds in history.  Yet on every level, one would be hard pressed to find a band that was more "the wrong time" than the music of Saint Vitus, as in nearly every aspect, it was as far from not only the mainstream sound of the time, but the counter-culture scene as well.  This is what led to the band remaining in relative obscurity, yet within moments of hearing any of their recordings, their talents, as well as their massive influence on later bands becomes abundantly clear.  The sheer power of their songs is enough to make any listener a bit uneasy, and yet the way in which they achieve this result through slow, methodical pummeling is the very essence of "doom metal," and before them, no other band had been able to pull this sound off as brilliantly.  The way in which the vocals and music blend together in perfect, powerful menace is unlike anything else in music history, and there is simply no denying the importance of Saint Vitus, nor the monumental musical moment that is their 1986 song, "Born Too Late."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July 28: Salt 'N Pepa, "Push It"

Artist: Salt 'N Pepa
Song: "Push It"
Album: Hot, Cool, And Vicious
Year: 1986

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Though there is certainly a massive disparity within almost every musical genre, the dominance of men within the world of hip-hop is without question one of the most unbalanced styles one can find.  Furthermore, one can easily argue that female emcees must prove themselves to a much greater extent to receive the same credit as their male counterparts, when in many cases it is the talents of the female that are superior.  The rise of women within the world of hip-hop is very much still a work in progress, and yet when one looks to the early years of the genre, there was virtually no female representation at all.  Then, Salt 'N Pepa arrived, and on many levels, it was their efforts that kicked open the door for all female emcees that have followed.  Not only were they clearly as talented in rhyming as their male peers, but Salt 'N Pepa made a point to discuss many of the same topics, and this strong stance had a ripple effect that touched the "rules" for female performers in many other genres.  Along with their exceptional talents, Salt 'N Pepa stand as one of the first hip-hop acts to crossover into the mainstream sound, and due to a few of their early singles, hip-hop was able to gain a strong foothold in popular culture.  Quickly silencing any doubters, Salt 'N Pepa's 1986 debut album, Hot, Cool, And Vicious, stands today as one of the greatest albums in hip-hop history, and the record's best known single, "Push It" is unquestionably one of the most unforgettable and pivotal recordings of all time.

The worldwide appeal of "Push It" comes through within the opening moments of the song, as the musical backing manages to strike the perfect balance between hip-hop, dance, and pop styles.  This is due to the exceptional talents of DJ Spinderella, and her performance here was not only flawless, but it also proved that females could excel as DJ's just as well as males.  Throughout the song, she keeps the energy and an amazingly high level, adding subtle texture changes that keep the sound from becoming repetitious.  The synthesizer progression that serves as the main riff to "Push It" is without question one of the most instantly recognizable of the era, and it the way that Spinderella combines this with a deep, grooving bassline that makes the song the ideal dance song.  It is also the various percussive sounds that she mixes together which gives "Push It" so much depth, and the fact that there are multiple rhythms working simultaneously gives the song an even wider appeal.  Though the bass and drums are very forward in the mix, they are not so overpowering that they wash out the rest of the music, and this balance further separates "Push It" from other early hip-hop singles.  Even more than twenty years after the song first hit, "Push It" is still easily able to light up clubs and parties across the world, and this proves just what an amazingly unique accomplishment was achieved within the energizing musical arrangement by Spinderella.

Yet, while the music on "Push It" has truly become a part of culture, there is no getting past the powerful dual delivery from Salt and Pepa.  Unquestionably two of the most accomplished emcees in history, the way that they are able to play off of and balance one anothers' sound and energy helps "Push It" to retain its impact over the years.  While their voices do manage to blend perfectly, it is easy to distinguish one from the other, and yet they both prove to be able to deliver with similar energy and power, whether they are speaking slow, or spinning words one on top of another.  Their vocal dexterity can easily be argued as far beyond almost any of their peers, and it is due to this, as well as the catchy sound and content, that made "Push It" a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  Furthermore, when one delves deep into the way in which the lyrics match up with the music, it becomes impossible to deny the link between "Push It" and The Kinks' classic, "You Really Got Me."  Though aside from the lyrics there may not seem but of a connection, the attitude of both songs match up with one another, as well as sharing the same youthful spirit and almost risqué tone.  If there was any question as to the aspirations of Salt 'N Pepa, they were quickly answered with the lines, "...c'mon girls, let's go show the guys that we know, how to become number one in a hot party show..."

The other link of note within "Push It" is the songs' opening vocal, as the "only the sexy people" bit was lifted almost verbatim from The Time's song, "The Bird."  Not only does this happen to fit perfectly with the overall vibe of "Push It," but it is also a bit of a nod to the funkier, dance-based sounds that turned hip-hop into a worldwide success.  The fact that there is so much going on both musically and lyrically throughout "Push It" is perhaps one of the most overlooked realities in history, as most tend to write the song off as "nothing more" than an early hip-hop classic.  Yet it is because all of these different elements are at play within "Push It" that it remains one of the few songs from the so-called "golden age" of hip-hop that is still relevant within modern music.  In many ways, "Push It" has never really faded from the forefront of culture, as it is one of the most consistently sampled and referenced songs, as well as making countless appearances in movies and television shows.  However, it may be due to the massive presence that the song still retains that makes people forget just what a huge moment the success of "Push It" was for female performers, as on many levels, it completely leveled the playing field both in terms of talent, content, and possible success.  Whether it is due to this pioneering effort, or the fact that the song is just as enjoyable and powerful today as it was upon first release, there is simply no other song in history that can compare to Salt 'N Pepa's legendary 1986 single, "Push It."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 27: Madness, "One Step Beyond"

Artist: Madness
Song: "One Step Beyond"
Album: One Step Beyond...
Year: 1979

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Though it goes without saying that each person will have their on particular style of music to which they are drawn and prefer, there are certain sounds and bands that for one reason or another, are universal in their appeal.  Often due to either being so unique, or finding the ability to convey and energy and presence that cannot be ignored, such wide a range of musical pull is more commonly found within bands that play a more upbeat and brighter sound.  This can most clearly be seen within the so-called "third wave" of ska music that began to rise out of England at the tail-end of the 1970's, and many of the bands and songs of that era remain in regular radio rotation across the globe.  Among an select few bands at the forefront of this movement, there is an uncommon sense of enjoyment and merriment found within the music of Madness, and few groups have so flawlessly blended together so many genres as one can experience in their music.  Bringing together the sounds of punk, reggae, and in many cases, pop-dance, Madness brought a ska style that was completely unique, and their 1979 debut, One Step Beyond... stands as one of the most wonderfully infectious albums ever released.  Adding a bit of quirky, almost maniacal humor and energy to the ska sound, there are few songs that better define the wildly engaging and entertaining sound of Madness better than their take on the albums' classic title track.

The moment that "One Step Beyond" begins, the entire attitude of the album and band are clearly defined, as the group lifts the opening lines from 1971's "Monkey Spanner," adding their own lines onto the end.  Yet vocalist Suggs makes the words almost a bit haunting, but at the same time completely captivating, setting the stage for an all out party atmosphere.  After Cathal "Chas" Smyth calls it, "...the heavy heavy monster sound, the nuttiest sound around...," he calls for the listeners to get up on their feet, and the band instantly drops in at full energy.  The musical assault is led by the blaring saxophone of Lee "Kix" Thompson, and as soon as he begins playing, there is a sultry, swaggering, late night tone to the song.  For modern listeners, the music from the film Pulp Fiction will come quickly to mind, and yet even without this link, the saxophone demands the listener to get involved.  Throughout the song, Thompson never lets up the energy, and it is his presence and playing that separates the song from those of their peers.  His sound is perfectly complimented by the bouncing keyboards of Mike Barson, and it is his performance that roots "One Step Beyond" firmly in the ska style.  His sound is truly the "classic" ska sound, and one cannot help but skank along to his fantastic rhythm.  The random shouts of the songs' title from Smyth are so randomly placed that one can easily argue it was little more than him getting caught up in the mood, as this is the same reaction one has to the song, even after hearing it countless times.

Along with the absolutely phenomenal performance from Thompson and Barson, the rhythm section of Madness is clearly in top form for "One Step Beyond."  Drummer Daniel Woodgate keeps up one of the most high-paced, yet relaxed tempos ever recorded, and it is the way that he is able to keep the high level of energy intact without "overplaying" that makes this recording so significant.  He also manages to reinforce the lofty sense of movement that runs throughout the song, providing an ideal base of the work of bass player Mark Bedford.  It is within Bedford's performance where the deep groove of "One Step Beyond" resides, and the way that he manages to make it blend perfectly with the bounce of the rest of the band is something that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  If somehow the keyboards don't get you moving, the ascending and descending bassline is sure to grab any listener, and the almost third rhythm it creates makes "One Step Beyond" one of the most addictive songs ever recorded.  It is also the way in which guitarist Chris Foreman blends seamlessly into the overall mix of the song, highlighting the amazing bounce, and completing what stands as a song that is the true embodiment of "joy."  Throughout the quick two and a half minutes, the energy never dips for even a moment, and it is much the reason that as the decades have passed, the song remains a staple cover in ska style bands' live performances.

However, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Madness version of "One Step Beyond" is the fact that it is actually a cover song.  The song is almost entirely an instrumental (aside from the random shouts), and it was written a man who in the liner notes is credited under the name, Cecil Campbell.  While most will not recognize this name, within the world of ska music, he is known as none other than Prince Buster, and it was another of his hits that gave Madness their name.  The performance by the entire band on "One Step Beyond" is a fitting tribute to the main source of their inspiration, and yet they also manage to take the original recording and give it their own, unique spin.  Though the original is certainly fantastic, it is the faster pace and far larger sound provided by Madness that makes this cover superior on many levels.  The saxophone, both in tone and progression is almost a mirror image, and yet Thompson manages to bring more attitude and "fire" to the performance, and it is also this additional spirit that pushes the song to greatness.  Taking the song as an entire work, there are few others that can compare in terms of energy, and one can easily imagine the absolute "sweat-fest" that performances surely yielded due to the unrelenting nature of the band on this recording.  Easily holding its own with every band that followed, there is no overstating just how wonderfully powerful and enjoyable an experience lives within Madness' stellar 1979 single, "One Step Beyond."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26: Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"

Artist: Billie Holiday
Song: "Strange Fruit"
Album: Strange Fruit (single)
Year: 1939

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There are certain performers in the long history of recorded music who even in the act of speaking their name, demand the highest level of respect, even if one is not familiar with their music.  Their names alone have managed to transcend "just" music and have become a part of the history of culture itself.  While performers who fall into this category are without question exceptionally few in number, it is their influence within the world of music that clearly shaped the art into its current form; most likely in many different ways.  In a number of these cases, not only did the artist alter the state of music, but they made massive forays into society itself, and few have made their mark on history in as staggering and lasting a manner as that of the legendary Billie Holiday.  From her appearance to her voice to her unapologetic social critiques, Billy Holiday can truly be cited as not only a brilliant performer, but an individual that truly pushed the human race forward.  The way in which she moved vocal performances from simply singing the notes to conveying deep and personal emotions forever altered the way in which singers approached music, and there is quite literally not a single sub-par recording anywhere in her catalog.  However, there is no question that when it comes to defining Billie Holiday, one need look no further than her monumental, revolutionary, and unquestionably courageous 1939 single, "Strange Fruit."

The development of "Strange Fruit" is a rather peculiar one, and yet it now stands as one of the most well known stories in music history.  The lyrics were actually written as a poem that was published by a New York City teacher, Abel Meeropol in 1936.  After trying to find others to do so, Meeropol eventually set the song to music, and performed it alongside vocalist Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.  How the song found its way to Billie Holiday is somewhat "up for debate," but once it did, she turned it into a regular part of her set.  Yet due to the extremely controversial nature of the song, it was performed under very specific circumstances.  Regardless of the venue, Holiday made the song the last in her set, and there were never any encores that followed.  Also, food and drink service would be stopped well in advance of the song, and all of the lights in the venue would be turned off, save a lone pin-spot on Holiday's face.  Arranging for "Strange Fruit" to actually get recorded was understandably a bit of a difficult maneuver, as CBS Records, which owned the rights to Holiday, was not interested in releasing the song, largely out of fear of alienating their audience in the South.  Though Holiday had been performing the song for quite some time, CBS Records ended up giving her a single session leave, and she recorded the song under the Commodore Records label in both 1939 and again in 1944.

It is the later recording with which most are familiar, beginning with the slow, somber, wailing trumpet, which leads into an almost marching piano introduction.  In early performances of "Strange Fruit," this introduction was absent, and it was during the 1939 session where it was first improvised by Sonny White.  Completely drawing the listener into the song, during later performances, Holiday would do nothing more than stand in front of the microphone, eyes closed, as this delicate, somewhat haunting melody set the tone.  Yet the moment that Holiday begins singing, the reason she is held in such high regard is instantly clear, as not only does she possess one of the most powerful and emotive voices in history, but the actual sound of her voice cannot be mistaken.  Bringing a bit of grit to her singing set her far apart from other jazz-style performers of the era, and there is a painful sense of proximity to the lyrics that leaves listeners just as stunned and speechless today it they did more than seventy years ago.  Through both the music, as well as the timbre of her voice, the song transports the listener to a hot and humid gathering in the deep South, and even by today's standards, the words Holiday sings are rather graphic and disturbing.  The lyrics are as straightforward and honest as Holiday's voice, and there is no question that "Strange Fruit" stands as one of the most important and influential protest and political songs ever recorded. 

It has been well documented that even after performing the song for years, every evening Billie Holiday would be reduced to tears backstage following the end of the song.  One can sense this complete emotional dedication to the song within the studio recordings, and on many levels, she is singing far beyond the capabilities of any other vocalist in history.  There is an authoritative, almost holy presence to her performance on "Strange Fruit," and moreso than any other song, one cannot ignore the emotion and anger within both the music and vocals.  Almost instantly following the release of the song, it was heralded as a monumental achievement, and the Cafe Society Club in New York City took out ads with direct references to Holiday's nightly performance of "Strange Fruit."  Furthermore, the existence of the song and everything it stood for was without question one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement, as it was the first "popular" song to brazenly attack the issues of racism, and more directly lynching, that were occurring all across the country.  Though it would take a few more decades for "real" action to be taken against these issues, there is no overstating the importance that "Strange Fruit" played in the progress of humanity in becoming a more tolerant society.  Even today, the song is still used by those who are oppressed all across the globe, and one can easily argue that Billie Holiday's breathtaking 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit" remains the most groundbreaking, pivotal moment in music history.

Monday, July 25, 2011

July 25: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #82"

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

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

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. REM (with Natalie Merchant), "Photograph"  Born To Choose
2. Primus, "Groundhog's Day"  Frizzle Fry
3. Bud Powell, "Frantic Fancies"  The Complete Blue Note Recordings
4. The Clash, "Pressure Drop"  Black Market Clash
5. Rebecca Perl, "Far From Where You Stand"  Rebecca Perl EP
6. Johnny Hartman, "I Just Dropped By To Say Hello"  I Just Dropped By To Say Hello
7. The Lemonheads, "Buddy"  It's A Shame About Ray
8. Creation, "Making TimeMaking Time (single)
9. Blind Willie Johnson, "Nobody's Fault But Mine"  Dark Was The Night
10. Stubborn All-Stars, "Glimmer Of Hope"  Back With A New Batch
11. Bob Marley, "One Cup Of Coffee"  Songs Of Freedom
12. Nirvana, "Scentless ApprenticeIn Utero
13. Ty Segall, "The Floor"  Goodbye Bread
14. Telefon Tel Aviv, "When it Happens It Moves All By Itself"  Map Of What Is Effortless
15. Neil Young, "Alabama"  Harvest
16. Lords Of The Underground, "Chiefrocka"  Here Come The Lords

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 24: Jethro Tull, "Locomotive Breath"

Artist: Jethro Tull
Song: "Locomotive Breath"
Album: Aqualung
Year: 1971

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In many ways, one can make the case that there are certain "rules' that must be followed for a song to properly fit into the category of "hard rock," and yet this forces one to either make those rules almost endless, or place a handful of songs into another grouping.  This is due to the fact that some of the hardest rock songs ever recorded have come from a lineage so distant from the "normal" progression, that the resulting sound, while without question heavy, manages to simultaneously make itself completely distinctive.  Though a number of bands can make such a claim, none have done so to the level of Jethro Tull, as their music on many levels is as unique as one can find anywhere.  Even the mention of the name of the band brings a number of images to mind, and yet in many cases, the amount that they "rock" seems to be forgotten.  While some may even go so far as to take shots at their image or persona, the truth of the matter is, no "true" rock fan can survive without a number of the bands' albums, and to this day, many of their songs remain in heavy radio rotation.  Reeling off a handful of absolutely essential albums throughout the early 1970's, few records can compare to the musical diversity and sheer power that runs throughout their 1971 classic, Aqualung.  While the title track can certainly make its claim as an "all time great," there are few song in history that couple the raw power, brilliant melodies, and flawless vocals that one finds in Jethro Tull's monumental song, "Locomotive Breath."

Even from its first notes, "Locomotive Breath" seems to pride itself on being far from the standard idea of hard rock, as the bluesy, soulful piano introduction from John Evans is one of the most tension filled ever captured on tape.  Yet in many ways, it is not surprising that his brilliant performance leads into such an explosion of rock, as this serves as proof as to how the blues developed into the rock genres.  As his opening solo closes, it is perfectly fused together with the main part of the song by a similarly blues-based, ringing guitar from Martin Barre, before the entire arrangement dives head-first into a gritty, robust hard rock anthem.  However, "Locomotive Breath" has a swagger and core riff that is unlike any other song in history, and it is largely due to the unique bounce that bassist Jeffery Hammond brings to the track.  Not only does the song actually feel as if it is bouncing, but there is a speed and shake the bassline also lends that mirrors the title perfectly.  The way in which Barre punctuates the "empty spaces" with his guitar fills gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and the similarly quick bursts from drummer Clive Bunker make "Locomotive Breath" one of the most imposing "walls of sound" in music history.  When one pulls apart each aspect of the song, the complexity of "Locomotive Breath" is almost overwhelming, and the fact that it all comes together so perfectly is a testament to the exceptional talents of all involved.

However, when one speaks of Jethro Tull, there is simply no understanding the importance of the sheer brilliance of Ian Anderson.  As the bands' leader, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist, it was his unique vision that vaulted this band to their now legendary status.  Throughout "Locomotive Breath," all of his talents are on display, and it is his performance that proves the idea that within rock and roll, it is far more about how you play as opposed to the instrumentation.  This is most easily seen in the fact that the flute solo he delivers midway through the song has an unquestionable "rock feel" to it, while in most cases, such a shift would have dropped the energy of the song.  Anderson also provides the almost ska-like acoustic guitar rhythm that sits in the back of the mix, as well as a few other instruments.  Yet it is his unmistakable vocals that make be the most significant aspect of "Locomotive Breath," and as is the case with a majority of the music of Jethro Tull, there is a strong sense of a storyteller within his singing style.  Delivering the words in a manner which adds yet another rhythm to the song, there is an air of menace within his singing, and this helps to highlight the overall speedy, if not unsettling nature of the song.  From blunt references to adultery to the tone of a speeding train, the way in which Anderson is able to keep the song on the edge of madness is the final piece that makes "Locomotive Breath" such a breathtaking, yet exciting musical experience.

Truth be told, the complexity of "Locomotive Breath" almost made the song impossible to record, as Anderson was said to have had great difficulty in explaining to the band how he wanted the song to sound.  To this end, "Locomotive Breath" is actually a series of perfectly crafted overdubs, as the band was "forced" to record the song piece by piece as opposed to the more traditional method of playing it all at once.  After Anderson worked individually with each band member, recording their own part exactly as he "heard" it in his head, he placed them all together on a single track, and added the vocals as the final piece.  While in most cases, this would lead to the song in question having a rather disjointed or chaotic feel, "Locomotive Breath" gains much of its power from the different layers at play within the song.  The fact that each element of the song carries its own almost overwhelming amount of tension is what leads to the overall mood of the song bordering on mayhem, and yet it is also this tone that gives "Locomotive Breath" it's uniquely unsettling allure.  The fact that not only were Jethro Tull able to bring this all together in what stands as one of the most timeless hard rock songs in history, but they did so with some of the most unexpected instrumentation cements the argument that the "rules" applied to musical genres are simply a way to write off those who dare to dream of different ways of presenting the same sound.  Though it bucks nearly every notion of "hard rock," there is no questioning its place within such a category, and there is simply no other song that hits as hard or in the same manner as the experience to be had within Jethro Tull's extraordinary 1971 single, "Locomotive Breath."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 23: Flipper, "Sex Bomb"

Artist: Flipper
Song: "Sex Bomb"
Album: Generic
Year: 1982

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Largely due to the style and attitude that was buried within a majority of the mainstream music of the time, it is somewhat understandable why many critics claimed that the "spirit" of rock and roll was rather difficult to find throughout the 1980's.  While many bands decided to do little more than sing songs of excess and play rather showy music, the "guts" and attitude that defined much of what rock music had come to be was far more difficult to find.  However, it was most certainly alive and well, but it many cases it was hiding behind terms like "post-punk" and "hardcore."  In terms of both the attitude and energy which makes rock music so fantastic, few bands of the time period represented rock and roll better than Flipper, and yet they remain one of the most tragically overlooked bands in history.  Rising from the wild Los Angeles hardcore scene, Flipper were a band that seemed to make it their mission to follow no rules whatsoever with their music, and the resulting songs were largely chaotic, but there was a controlled genius to be found in every recording.  To this end, though it is completely unique in every way, one cannot deny the brilliance on their 1982 debut, Generic, and the album manages to hit just as hard now as it did upon first release.  Though the entire record is well worth hearing, it is the mind-blowing final track, "Sex Bomb," that cements Flipper's place as one of the most important and innovate bands in history.

From the instant that "Sex Bomb" begins, the wide range of influences on the band become abundantly clear, and while there is no question that Flipper simply smashed them all together, there is a strange genius within the sound.  The most dominant aspect of the music is the grinding bassline from Bruce Loose, and on many levels, in both his tone and approach, he captures the essence of the L.A. hardcore scene within his playing.  It is the almost lulling repetition of the bassline that gives "Sex Bomb" a bit of an unsettling, ominous feeling, and it is also where the song becomes firmly rooted in a sound that is rather akin to heavy metal.  This sound is complimented by the rather disorderly guitar from Ted Falconi, and though he is somewhat buried in most mixes of the song, he adds another level of crunchy chaos to "Sex Bomb."  Drummer Steve DePace gives one of the more controlled performances on "Sex Bomb," and yet on many levels, his rhythm is completely ignored by the rest of the band.  The other players seem to be going at their own pace, and the fact that it somehow works perfectly is the true genius behind Flipper.  These multiple rhythms play a bit of an odd game with one another, as there is no question that the song has a strong beat, and yet it is so untamable, that the song is impossible to nail in a specific time signature.  This makes the song impossible to dance or mosh or "anything" along to, and all one can to is stand back and appreciate the unmatched genius that is on display throughout "Sex Bomb."

However, what may be the most superb musical aspect of "Sex Bomb" is the saxophone from "Bobby" and "Ward."  From the earlier moments of "just punctuation" to the brilliantly potent almost-solos they take later in the song, the fact that they fit so perfectly within the sound is a testament to just how far apart Flipper were from their peers.  There is no question that in this aspect, the band took a page from The Stooges, and it works just as perfectly, giving "Sex Bomb" an overall feeling and sound like nothing else in music history.  Perfectly complimenting this clear familiarity with the The Stooges, on "Sex Bomb," even at first listen, there is no question that the focus of the song is on the almost feral, maddening vocals from the great Will Shatter.  As he shouts his way through the songs' only lyric, there is an almost Beat-era rhythm within his delivery, and it is almost odd how he is able to say so much by doing nothing more than repeating the same phrase.  Again, the comparison to the vocal approach of Iggy Pop is hard to avoid, and yet Shatter makes the sound all his own, seeming to dig deeper and deeper into his deranged lunacy with each repetition of the phrase.  It is the fact there is such a strong sense of raw honesty within his vocals that makes them impossible to ignore, and while many other vocalists attempted the "in your face" style, none carried it out as perfectly as one finds on "Sex Bomb."

In many ways moreso than any other band in history, it is truly impossible to place Flipper into any single musical genre.  This is largely due to the fact that on every song they recorded, the band seems to make a clear point to not obey any "rules" of music whatsoever, even their own.  While this certainly is the key reason that songs like "Sex Bomb" sound so chaotic at first, once one gives the song a "real" listening, the unique genius of the composition comes to light.  The way that the band was able to build a form around the seemingly disorderly music almost pushes it into a jazz arena, as there is certainly improvisation and playing off of one another present throughout "Sex Bomb."  Furthermore, the fact that the song clocks in at nearly eight minutes separates it quite far from the "normal" idea of punk or hardcore, and even sets it past the "normal" timing within rock songs.  Yet it is also the fact that throughout the eight minutes, "Sex Bomb" never loses any steam or power that proves its might and distinction, as one would be hard pressed to find any other song in history that can retain such a presence whilst largely repeating the same vocal and musical phrases.  As the song continues, the playing becomes sloppier and heavier, and this mirrors the way that one can hear Shatter's vocals become more and more disturbed, before the entire song somewhat falls over suddenly.  It is this mesmerizing chaos and all out sonic warfare that makes Flipper's extraordinary 1982 song, "Sex Bomb" such a pivotal and truly genius moment in music history.

Friday, July 22, 2011

July 22: Portishead, "Glory Box"

Artist: Portishead
Song: "Glory Box"
Album: Dummy
Year: 1994

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Though it takes many different pieces to make a song truly captivating, bands and artists that have mastered the art of creating perfect moods stand among the most highly revered across the history of music.  Whether it is the angst-riddled urgency of punk, the often mesmerizing exploration of jazz, the deep, soulful sound of blues, or any other type of musical perfection, when mood is deployed properly, there is never any question as to the brilliance of the song.  Though they were not the first to pull off such a feat, even in their own genre, there are few groups in history that have shown this balance and ability in finer fashion than Portishead, and it is quite difficult to not get completely caught up in any of their songs.  Having learned a great deal from the releases of Massive Attack, the group was able to push the electronic genre forward, showing how one could bring other styles into ambient textures.  Presenting a superb mix of hip-hop, electronic, and soul roots, Portishead were also able to give their songs enough edge, and add in sufficient guitar work that their songs reached far beyond the normal electronic or ambient fan groups.  Even almost twenty years later, Portishead's 1994 debut, Dummy, stands as an absolute classic of the genre, as well as one of the best of the decade, and there are few songs that are more mesmerizing or outright beautiful than the experience to be had within Portishead's 1994 single, "Glory Box."

As with a majority of the Portishead catalog, the beauty within the music is the result of the unique vision of Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley.  As "Glory Box" slowly fades in, the mood is instantly established, courtesy of a knocking drum beat, and a sample from Isaac Hayes', "Ike's Rap II."  Though the sample has become one of the most commonly used within the trip-hop genre, the way in which it is deployed here is perhaps the finest use in terms of both tone and pace.  The way that the sample gives "Glory Box" a slight sway is what begins to wrap around the listener, enveloping them in a smooth, slow lullaby.  Barrow keeps the drums rather sparse, and this helps to keep the delicate mood of the song from being disturbed.  However, it is Utley's performance on guitar that proves the possibility of adding both volume and attitude to such an arrangement, whilst keeping the overall feel of the song intact.  His fuzzy guitar interludes throughout the song push the tension and mood even higher, and it is also this aspect of the song that enabled "Glory Box" to find crossover appeal within the alternative rock audience.  However, the powerful guitar is superbly balanced by Utley's playing on a Hammond organ, and the soul of the song can be found in this arrangement.  The slight echo that comes from both gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and the combined efforts of Utley and Barrow make the song such that it is just as absorbing every time it is played.

Despite the absolutely phenomenal musical arrangement on "Glory Box," it is the vocal track from Beth Gibbons that truly makes the song the extraordinary recording that it remains to this day.  The way in which she is able to take on almost two different personalities during the song adds to the already staggering level of depth on "Glory Box," and yet it is also the contrast in emotion between the verses and choruses that is so stunning.  During the verses, Gibbons borders on a spoken delivery, and there is a bit of a strut in her voice, giving a strong sense of independence and confidence.  However, this seems to shift completely on the chorus sections, as she unleashes her unparalleled vocal power, pushing to the fullest extent of her emotions.  The pain and frustration that rings through at this point is the final element that one needs to become completely engrossed in "Glory Box," and it is also her soaring singing that truly puts the "glory" in the songs' title.  When one steps back from her breathtaking performance, the lyrics to "Glory Box" stand as some of the most brutally honest, yet morose words ever penned, and one can easily feel how Gibbons presents the protagonist as completely torn.  Clearly stating to her love that she is tired of the "games" of girls, few lines have captured the pain of love more accurately than when Gibbons laments, "...give me a reason to love you, give me a reason to be, a woman..."  In both the straightforward nature of the words, as well as the absolutely gorgeous way in which Beth Gibbons sings every line, there are few vocal performances on par with that found on "Glory Box."

From beginning to end, Portishead shows the true meaning of "perfect mood" throughout "Glory Box," and it remains one of the most potent musical experiences ever recorded.  The instant the song begins, the listener is completely entranced in the mood, and as the song closes, the level of emotion is such that one of the only possible reactions is to simply play the song again.  While there is certainly a level of somber, dark feelings at play throughout "Glory Box," it stands as a uniquely energizing musical experience, and this is largely due to the combination of the soaring vocal moments, as well as the sharp guitar interludes.  The fact that Portishead were able to so perfectly balance these sounds with the sluggish, yet spellbinding drums and samples is the clearest proof of their talents, and their efforts here would pave the way for many other bands to straddle the line between trip-hop and "alternative" rock.  Taking all of this musical perfection into account, one cannot write-off the somewhat unspoken message within the songs' title.  Many have interpreted it in different ways, but if one takes it for the common euphemism for the female organ, then it manages to work perfectly with the songs' overall message, and give the lyrics an even more empowering message.  In literally every aspect, Portishead achieved a completely flawless performance, combining a captivating musical arrangement with absolutely magnificent vocals to make their 1994 single, "Glory Box" one of the most spectacular moments in all of music history.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21: Mountain, "Mississippi Queen"

Artist: Mountain
Song: "Mississippi Queen"
Album: Climbing!
Year: 1970

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Perhaps due to the wider appeal than other genres, hard rock songs have a way of enduring the decades and musical changes in a far easier manner than other styles of songs.  Yet it is also clear that with this passage of time, while the song itself may remain relevant, in a number of cases, the band responsible for the song in question may be forgotten.  This is largely the case when one speaks of the band Mountain, who were without question one of the most powerful and important acts in the entire history of rock and roll.  Forming after the disbanding of "super group" Cream, producer Felix Pappalardi formed his own band, and it would be the efforts and sound of Mountain that would go on to define "arena rock" as it would be performed throughout the next decade.  With only a small sampling of the bands' music, it becomes quickly apparent that the sound and presence of their music easily lives up to their name, and it is their 1970 debut record, Climbing!, that stands as one of the most impressive, yet overlooked albums in music history.  Filled with soaring guitar riffs and some of the finest boogie-rock ever released, Mountain brings a groove and attitude that is wonderfully unique.  Every song on Climbing! is fantastic, but it is their stellar 1970 single, "Mississippi Queen" that best defines Mountain, and remains a true rock classic to this day.

On many levels, "Mississippi Queen" is all about tension and release, and few songs have executed these musical ideas as flawlessly as one can experience on this track.  Even the opening cadence from drummer Corky Laing manages to grab the listener right away and as he settles into the bulk of the song, it is in his performance where much of the "boogie" resides.  The almost stutter-step rhythm he brings to the song enables "Mississippi Queen" to gain a swagger that was largely absent from other recordings at the time, and it is this attitude which in many ways defines the "rock star" persona.  The bass progression from Pappalardi compliments this tone perfectly, and he also gives the song a drive and grit that begins to set the song apart from "normal" rock songs of the era.  However, it is the absolutely amazing guitar performance from Leslie West that turns "Mississippi Queen" into a true rock classic, as he incorporates every element in terms of both style and attitude.  There is a slight distortion to his tone, and this combined with his style makes "Mississippi Queen" almost more akin to heavy metal that "normal" rock songs.  When he veers off during the bridge section of the song, there is an undeniable Southern twang to his playing, and in many ways, it is through his playing that "Mississippi Queen" gains its ability to appeal to almost every different rock music fan.

Along with the exceptionally mood and tone set by the band, Mountain has the benefit of the almost "larger than life" vocal performance from West.  One can argue that West is pushing himself throughout the track, letting his vocals feed off of the energy of his guitar playing and vice versa.  The confidence and exuberance that he brings to the vocals are truly the very definition of what a rock frontman should be, as he completely captivates the listener, even after repeated plays.  Bringing a massive strength to his vocals, whilst he is certainly yelling for a majority of the song, he rarely loses the musicality to this performance, and it is this aspect that makes his rather unsubtle lyrics become somehow endearing.  In many ways, the lyrics on "Mississippi Queen" reflect the shifting acceptability of certain themes within music, as West sings of a "backwoods" romance, yet lines like "...she taught me everything..." certainly makes one wonder exactly what the true nature of the "Queen" was in relation to the singer.  The perhaps questionable morals of the woman in question are put further into doubt when West proclaims, " know she was a dancer, she moved better on wine..." and yet even with these statements, there is no arguing the reverence with which he is speaking of this female.  The fact that what would have been deemed as illicit only a few years earlier was now "nothing outrageous" stands as a clear turning point in culture, and Leslie West takes full advantage, delivering one of the most impassioned vocal performances in history.

While the link between Felix Pappalardi and Cream were literally clear, one can also detect it within the music of the band, as there is a striking similarity between West's extended solo and that played by Eric Clapton on "Crossroads."  However, there is no question that Mountain can easily stand on their own, as they were far heavier and aggressive than any Cream song, but it is within "Mississippi Queen" where one can clearly see the connection between the blues and heavy metal.  Yet it was not only the blending of sounds that made Mountain so important, as one can hear their tone almost copied in many bands that followed, and one can make the case that groups like Foghat, and even Thin Lizzy to an extent owe much of their own success to the music of Mountain.  As the decades have passed, "Mississippi Queen" has managed to remain a radio staple, and the main guitar riff has become one of the most recognizable ever recorded.  The song in its entirety has been featured in countless films and television shows, and this is more proof to the argument that "Mississippi Queen" remains just as relevant and powerful today as it did more than forty years ago.  Even current rock bands can be easily linked to Mountain, as almost the entire "hard rock" stage presence is a product of this very song, and while many may have forgotten their name, there is no question that Mountain's 1970 single, "Mississippi Queen," remains one of the most energizing, watershed moments in music history.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

July 20: Chick Corea, "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta"

Artist: Chick Corea
Song: "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta"
Album: Return To Forever
Year: 1972

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There are a handful of musicians throughout history that seem to make it their personal mission to continually defy all trends and constantly push their given genre forward.  While in many cases, one could understand a performer being content in being a part of what is considered to be one of the greatest recordings in history, there are an elite few players for whom this is simply not enough.  Whether it was the fact that he was one of such people, or the massive innovations he made throughout his career, one can easily argue that if there is one jazz musician that stands in a category all his own, it is Chick Corea.  Having backed the likes of Miles Davis and Mongo Santamaria, Corea pushed further into his own talents, refusing to plateau musically, and it was in this act where on many levels, he defined the term "jazz fusion."  It was within the confines of his own group, dubbed Return To Forever, where Chick Corea truly pushed the limits of the jazz genre, and the level of experimentation and exploration throughout the groups' first two records remains largely unrivaled.  It was their second, self-titled album where the true brilliance of the band became the most evident, and one can trace the impact of the record not only along later jazz recordings, but also within the sounds of funk and electronic music.  Though each of the four tracks on the 1972 release are superb, it is the second-side-long song, "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" that perfectly defines the genius of Chick Corea, as well as the true meaning of the term "jazz fusion."

It almost goes without saying that the lineup on Return To Forever is one of the finest in jazz history, and yet even if one is not aware of the players, the sound that they create makes this completely obvious to all. Yet "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" is a bit of an oddity within jazz in the fact that there are three completely distinct movements in the work, but it is largely the playing of bass legend Stanley Clarke that keeps them a cohesive work.  From his absolutely stunning solo during the first movement, to the high energy, yet moody progressions he displays in the remainder of the song, this is unquestionably one of his finest performances, and the interplay between him and Corea is truly stunning.  It is also Clarke's chemistry with drummer Airto Moreira that pushes "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" to such great heights, and the uniquely urgent swing that Moreira brings to the track is where the fusion truly resides.  There are even points where Moreira seems to be leading the group, and it is also his playing that highlights the Latin influences on the music.  Adding additional percussion, as well as the vocals in the middle section of the song is Flora Purim, and it is her singing that brings a brightness to the song that would not have otherwise existed.  Yet it is also the way in which the band is able to retain a darker, moody feeling underneath her signing that makes "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" so fantastic.

Along with these exceptional performances, Joe Farrell lends his talents on both flute and saxophone to the track, and it is within his playing that the avant and free spirit fo "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" reside.  Whether it is the flighty, swift flute sections in the central part of the song, or the absolutely brilliant saxophone progressions in the latter portion, there are few players that have achieved similar heights, and in this performance alone, Farrell cements his place as a legend.  Yet working behind and around all of these fantastic musicians is the electric piano of Chick Corea, and one would be hard pressed to find a more distinctive sound and tone than he possesses.  It is his playing that throughout all of "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" keeps the strangely dark, exceptionally capricious mood of the composition, and it is largely highlighted by his solo transition between the second and third sections of the song.  There is a robust presence in his playing, and it is in this where one can understand how a player can have one foot firmly in the world of jazz, and the other touching so many other genres.  The way that he coaxes in his own Latin influence with the jazz base is a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated, and it is in this flawless mixture where one can find the definition of "jazz fusion" at its finest.  It is the natural flow of the sounds and combinations in which the beauty of Corea's vision resides, and there are few recordings that can compare to the sounds and tones found within "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta."

However, one of the most stunning, revealing, and overlooked aspects of "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" is the spirit and sound found within the final section of the composition.  It is in this portion of the song were the musicians truly push the idea of jazz to its limits, and in the tone, speed, and style, one cannot help but make comparisons to the music of Frank Zappa.  The saxophone sounds and speed form Farrell is where one can most easily make this connection, as his playing would have fit in perfectly with Zappa's compositions.  Yet it is also within this absolutely mind-blowing moment where the most perfectly crafted piece of jazz fusion ever recorded occurs, when the band manages to flawlessly incorporate the songs' central theme alongside the modern, free-form exploration.  In many ways, one can see this as a perfectly crafted combination of the "standard" jazz style that Corea honed in his time behind Miles Davis with the new forays that jazz was making into almost every other genre.  Though it is used many other places, it is this final section where one can easily understand what "jazz fusion" means, and on many levels, this example was never bested.  The entire work of "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta" is a testament not only to the exceptional level of talent within the band, but more importantly, to the true vision of Chick Corea, as it was for the most part this work that pushed the jazz genre into the modern age.  From the stunning progressions to the incredible innovations and musical trailblazing, there is simply no other recording in history that can match the sheer magnificence of Chick Corea's 1972 song, "Sometime Ago/La Fiesta."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

July 19: Eric B & Rakim, "Paid In Full"

Artist: Eric B & Rakim
Song: "Paid In Full"
Album: Paid In Full
Year: 1987

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Over the course of the development of every musical genre, they each enter what can be considered a "golden age," where the form hits its creative height, and the basis for the style is firmly set into place.  While some of these periods can last well over a decade, for the most part, such a term covers a much shorter period, and it usually takes many years after for it to be termed as such.  When it comes to the hip-hop genre, one can claim this "golden age" as beginning in the mid 1980's, and coming to an end around 1993, as "gangsta rap" took over, and hip-hop entered the mainstream in foll force.  While in most cases, each distinctive style or approach in hip-hop has a difference source, when it comes to the entire modern delivery style, as well as a majority of modern sampling techniques, they all share the same root: Eric B & Rakim.  Though the duo never found great commercial success, there is no question that they can make a claim as the most important act in the history of hip-hop music, as they each trailblazed countless paths that remain essential to the genre to this day.  Their 1987 debut, Paid In Full, remains one of the greatest achievements in the history of hip-hop music, and almost every artist that followed would borrow heavily from the styles set forth on this record.  Almost every track has turned into a classic in its own right, yet one can cite the albums' title track as Eric B & Rakim's finest moment, as well as one of the two or three most important recordings in the history of hip-hop music.

Though hip-hop had already made its first "real" breakthrough courtesy of Run-D.M.C. about a year earlier, the reality is, "Paid In Full" would be where the genre was blown wide open, and almost every technique that remains the cornerstone of the genre to this day can be traced back to this song and album.  To say that Eric B uses samples is almost an injustice to the talent and style with which he mixes songs, as there is a sense of true understanding of the music itself, as well as a clear reverence of the music that comes through in his production.  That is to say, within the musical backing on "Paid In Full," there is a consistent melody and mood, and there is a sense of delicacy within his fusion of sounds.  Based around pieces of The Soul Seachers', "Ashley's Roadtrip" and Fab Five Freddy's, "Change The Beat," there is a smooth, yet aggressive tone to the song, and this is heightened by the addition of sounds from "When Boys Talk" by Indeep and Dennis Edwards', "Don't Look Any Further."  These samples work perfectly with the original beats and scratching that Eric B brings to the track, and one can cite his work as where the role of the DJ moved from "only" making break-beats to a far more central role as a musician and producer on any given song.  His techniques and approach would completely rewrite how DJ's were seen and how they worked, and to this day, it is his methods that remain the standard within hip-hop music.

While one cannot understate how influential Eric B has been on the state of almost every hip-hop song since "Paid In Full," there is no question that on the track and album, Rakim completely set the style for every emcee that followed.  Whether it is his tone, his rhythm, or the lyrics he brings, when looking at the chronology of hip-hop, it is this performance that serves as perhaps the most pivotal moment in the genres history.  Rakim's voice is beyond smooth and relaxed, and this enables his delivery to carry with it an amazing amount of confidence, and one can see his rhyming on "Paid In Full" as the very definition of the term "flow."  The way that he works the beat from every angle, often working off of the beat itself was also a largely new hip-hop approach, and while in a modern context his style may not seem that unique, the fact of the matter is that the modern hip-hop vocal style began in the voice of Rakim.  Furthermore, the lyrics he spits were far beyond nearly every other hip-hop performer of the day, as he pushed the limits both in the content, as well as adding a high level of intelligence and verbal mastery to the art of rhyming.  In fact, one can argue that until this point, rapping was not seen as an "art form," and it was Rakim's performance that changed that notion.  Both due to the words he wrote as well as his strong, yet calm tone, the entire history of hip-hop owes its longevity to the brilliant rhyming style of Rakim.

There have been a number of moments in the long history of hip-hop music that can be pointed to as essential to the preservation of the style, but the fact of the matter is, few have been as vital as the release of Eric B & Rakim's monumental album, Paid In Full.  Almost every track on the record is a hip-hop landmark in its own right, as the techniques that the duo displayed where completely revolutionary at the time.  When one listens to the musical arrangements and production throughout the record, it is easy to understand how it was leaps and bounds ahead of other songs being released at the time, and it is in Eric B's performance where the modern hip-hop background was born.  Furthermore, one simply cannot overstate the importance of Rakim's rhymes and vocal approach, as after the release of "Paid In Full," almost the entire genre shifted to be more similar to his sound.  As the decades have passed, it is amazing how well the Paid In Full record has held up, as even after more than twenty years, it is still as powerful and relevant as ever.  One can also grasp the impact of the song "Paid In Full" by the countless times the music, and especially Rakim's opening line of "...thinking of a master plan..." have been sampled over the years.  On every level, the song represents everything that makes modern hip-hop so fantastic, and there are only a few songs in history that are even remotely on par with the power and impact of Eric B and Rakim's iconic 1987 single, "Paid In Full."

Monday, July 18, 2011

July 18: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #81"

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

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

Tracklist (links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. Mixed Grill, "A Brand New Wayo"  Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times, and Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983
2. The Caretaker, "All You're Going To Want To Do Is Get Back There"  An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
3. Marylin Manson, "They Said That Hell's Not Hot"  Eat Me, Drink Me
4. Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, "A Night In Tunisia"  Diz 'N Bird At Carnegie Hall
5.The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations Good Vibrations (single)
6. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"  Talking Book
7. The Who, "Baba O'Reiley"  Who's Next
8. The Fall, "Last Commands Of Xyralothep Via M.E.S." Country On The Click
9. A Tribe Called Quest, "Buggin' Out"  The Low End Theory
10. Johnny Cash, "Cocaine Blues"  At Folsom Prison
11. The Noisettes, "Nothing To Dread"  What's The Time Mr. Wolf?
12. The Clash, "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais"  DOA
13. Shabazz Palaces, "Are You…Can You…Were You? (Felt)"  Black Up
14. Alice In Chains, "Hate To Feel"  Dirt

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July 17: Hawkwind, "Master Of The Universe"

Artist: Hawkwind
Song: "Master Of The Universe"
Album: In Search Of Space
Year: 1971

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To be a truly original band is almost an impossibility within the world of music, as in almost every case, the elements that make it seem like an original sound are simply clever combinations of the music of the influences of a particular band.  It is due to this reality that there are only a handful of actual "original" bands, and it is in the sounds of these musical pioneers where one can find some of the most amazing and almost always "ahead of its time" music.  One of the most concentrated eras of new sounds was during the early 1970's, when sudden advancements in technology opened the door for wild musical experimentation, and few groups pushed this to a similar extreme as one can find within the music of Hawkwind.  Epitomizing the idea of a "sci-fi" band, and creating music that is the very definition of "progressive," the music of Hawkwind challenges almost every musical ideal to that point, as well as forcing the listener to open the mind to their unique musical explorations.  Though they had a string of mind-bending records throughout this period, one can site their second record, 1971's In Search Of Space, as their most important recording, as it lays the groundwork for countless bands and complete genres that would follow in later years.  Fusing together jazz and what would become heavy metal, along with sound effects and musical landscapes that defy description, one must experience Hawkwind's 1971 song, "Master Of The Universe" firsthand to properly comprehend its greatness.

In Search Of Space is very much a "concept album," and due to this, it is a bit difficult to pull a single song without referencing the rest of the record.  However, "Master Of The Universe" happens to fall at a "break point" on the album, and in the original vinyl, it began the second side.  As the song begins, the sense of movement is instantly set into place by the synthesizer tone from Del Dettmar and Dik Milk (AKA Michael Davies).  As the pitch raises, so does the tension of the song, and the way in which the guitar of Dave Brock cuts into it remains one of the most mesmerizing moments in the entire history of recorded music.  Bassist Dave Anderson quickly takes over the groove of the song, and it is his performance that keeps the pace and drive at top-speed throughout all of "Master Of The Universe."  The drumming from Terry Ollis strikes the ideal balance between the almost unsettling bassline and the synthesizer tone, and his playing is far more forward in the mix than one might expect.  However, taken as a whole, the musicians are clearly all pushing as hard as they can in a forward direction, and as the sounds combine, "Master Of The Universe" begins to take on an almost ominous presence.  The way in which the instruments blend has a very dark feel to it, and this mood is punctuated by bursts from the saxophone of Nik Turner, creating both a sound and experience that have rarely been matched.

As "Master Of The Universe" progresses, the instruments seem to fade in and out of one another, giving a rather jazz-line feeling to the arrangement, whilst still showing a foot in the developing heavy metal sound.  Yet the somewhat chaotic feel of the song, combined with the uniquely dark tones, creates a nervous tension that is perhaps only similar to that found on Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd recordings.  The way in which these sounds sit under the eventual vocal track from Dave Brock is almost haunting, and the style with which he sings only reinforces this feeling.  Bringing a deep, almost looming voice to the song, Brock's sound on "Master Of The Universe" is extremely fitting of the title, as one can clearly understand the intent behind his voice.  Yet the lyrics which he sings are exceptionally cryptic on many levels, and there are points where it almost seems as if he is reciting primitive spells as opposed to lyrics in the more formal sense of the term.  One can also interpret the lyrics as perhaps the most anthropocentric ever compoused, as the opening lines of "...I am the center of this universe, the wind of time is blowing through me..." can be read as being spoken by a number of different individuals.  However, regardless of how one hears the lyrics, the fact of the matter is that Brock's vocals are the ideal fit for the music over which he sings, and they serve as the perfect finishing touch to a uniquely disturbing musical affair.

It is almost impossible to list all of the ways that Hawkwind's music has influenced bands that followed, as both in the way that they played, as well as the themes of their music, they stand as true musical pioneers.  No other band to that point had ever delved as intentionally deep into the world of science fiction, and one can see this influence in bands like Rush and even in the music of White Zombie.  The distinctive musical presence of Hawkwind was perhaps even more revolutionary, and as it preceded it by nearly two full years, one cannot deny that the entire In Search Of Space record had a massive impact on the now-legendary Dark Side Of The Moon.  From the way in which they incorporated both synthesizers and oscillators into their musical arrangements, to the vivid world which they built around each song, one can easily cite Hawkwind as the "godfathers" of progressive rock music, and once one is familiar with their catalog, the work of later bands is placed into proper perspective.  There is perhaps no greater display of the fusion between the fading sounds of psychedelia and the grind of heavy metal than one can expedience here, and yet it is the way that the band is also able to infuse a strong jazz feeling that sets them far apart from other groups exploring this combination at the time.  Though they remain almost tragically overlooked in the grand scheme of music history, there is no denying the amazing amount of impact that has been taken from Hawkwind's brilliant 1971 song, "Master Of The Universe."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

July 16: Public Image Ltd., "Memories"

Artist: Public Image Ltd.
Song: "Memories"
Album: Metal Box
Year: 1979

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If there was ever a genre that people seem to constantly write-off as a lesser form of musical achievement, it is punk rock.  Perhaps due to the straightforward, often more simple nature, the great albums from this style are often seen as secondary to those of rock or jazz, and yet within punk rock, the seeds for many later genres can be heard.  Also, if one follows some of the icons of punk rock, in a number of cases, as they move on in life, the music they create becomes far more diverse and pioneering than when one considers a similar time lime for other musicians.  Though many may not realize this reality, there is perhaps no better example than when one listens to the music of Public Image Ltd.  Formed in the wake of the break-up of The Sex Pistols, the band were in many ways the quintessential post-punk band, and their albums pushed the boundaries of what was possible within any form of music.  Without question, much of the PiL catalog is heavily experimental, and yet underneath the often wild musical swaths, one can easily hear the presence of the spirit of punk rock.  Though their first album did gain some commercial success, it was their second effort, 1979's Metal Box, that stands as their finest work.  Filled with some of the most stunning and captivating performances in history, there are few song that better define the band, as well as the post-punk sound as perfectly as one finds in Public Image Ltd's 1979 song, "Memories."

The band wastes no time in setting the tone for "Memories," as it kicks off with a rather loud and exceptionally heavy bassline from the one and only Jah Wobble.  There is a presence within his tone that is unlike any other bassist in history, and it is this looming, aggressive feel that enables "Memories" to become a rather dark affair from the onset.   Wobble's performance also gives the track an amazing amount of tension, and along with this comes a feeling of unease, which serves as a perfect compliment to the vocals.  It is also the way that Wobble's playing seems to bounce off of drummer Richard Dudanski's playing, and yet the drumming easily stands on its own as well.  The drums are far more forward in the mix than almost any other recording in history, and it is the sharp tone and nervous pace with which he plays that makes this aspect of the music so superb.  The final musical aspect of Public Image Ltd is guitarist Keith Levene, and he also adds the harsh, winding synthesizer track on "Memories."  It is Levene's performance that pushes the song to an almost maddening level, as the unsettling nature becomes almost overwhelming in his seemingly scattered notes.  Yet it is perhaps because he played both instruments that the way in which the guitar and synthesizer intertwine is nothing short of brilliant, and taken as a whole, there is simply no other musical arrangement in history that is even remotely comparable to that found on "Memories."

However, while the musical contributions are truly extraordinary, it is the vocal performance from the man once called Johnny Rotten that is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the song.  Now better known as John Lydon, there is a certain calm and clarity within his performances throughout Metal Box that can make many not even aware that this was the voice that fronted The Sex Pistols.  Yet his trademark bite is not absent in any way, but the way he controls the volume of his voice shows his maturity as a performer.  Present are still the caterwauling moments, and the angst and frustration that were his trademark are not lost in the least, yet as Lydon works all over the vocal scale, one can only stand in sheer awe of his performance.  Completely giving himself to the tension and flow of the music, Lydon's vocal track on "Memories" may very well be his finest moment, as it shows just how knowledgeable and talented a musician he was capable of being.  One can even argue that in comparison, his work with his previous band was holding back his true talents, and this is also supported by the brilliantly poetic lyrics he delivers.  If one ignores the music around him on "Memories," the lyrics can be heard as just as forceful a rant as anything he did previously, and the song can be summed up by the line, "...this person's had enough of useless memories..."  Retaining the attitude, but presenting it in a completely different light, few vocalists can boast as much true range as one hears in John Lydon's performance on "Memories."

Truth be told, there have actually been three completely different releases of the tracks that were initially released as Metal Box.  The original was put out only in the U.K., and would be followed in early 1980 on both sides of the Atlantic as the double album, Second Edition.  On this version, the song order is rearranged, and it was shipped in a standard gate-fold package, as opposed to the film canister which contained the Metal Box release.  Well over a decade after this, Metal Box was reissued on CD, and on this version, the sound quality was greatly enhanced, and in many ways, this is the definitive version in terms of acoustic superiority.  Yet regardless of which version one hears, the power of the music is never lost even in the least, and there are few records that can boast a sense of urgency that comes even remotely close.  The chemistry between the bands' core of Lydon, Wobble, and Levene is similarity extraordinary, and in many ways, this is as close as punk ever got to "jam" based music.  It is within this fact that one can even make an argument for the proximity that "Memories" has to a jazz form, and yet many still try and write it off as "just" punk rock.  Though the spirit of punk is certainly intact, it is the way in which the band was able to push this into such a distant form that makes it so amazing, and there may be no other song in history that blends as many styles and debunks as many musical assumptions as one can experience on Public Image Ltd's phenomenal 1979 song, "Memories."