Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Get Over Yourself, Joel #01 - "Pop" Music

In this special edition of The Daily Guru on YouTube, I defend the musical legitimacy of a rather unlikely performer.

August 31: Jackson Browne, "Runnin' On Empty"

Artist: Jackson Browne
Song: "Runnin' On Empty"
Album: Runnin' On Empty
Year: 1977

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Though every musical genre carries with it a handful of preconceived notions and assumptions, there are few that have earned a reputation that can be as far off base as that of the oft-combined genre of folk music and the sub-genre of "singer/songwriter."  The latter of these two terms is in itself a rather ignorant term, as performers of every genre feature singers who are also that bands' songwriter, and yet the term has become a definition onto itself over the past few decades.  These two types of music are often assumed to be the more mellow and easy going styles, and yet one cannot overlook the fact that some of the finest songs of defiance and frustration were birthed from the folk genre, and it has also provided the world with some of the most disturbing and moving words ever composed.  Easily making a case as one of the most elite performers in the entire history of the genre, in terms of both musical approach and lyrics, few took as distinctive a take on the folk or "singer/songwriter" sound as one can find all across the catalog of Jackson Browne.  Releasing album after album of songs that have become true "standards" all across the globe, it is almost impossible to cite a single album, let alone a song as his finest recorded moment.  However, when one inspects the long history of music, there are few recordings that are as timeless or powerful as what can be experienced on Jackson Browne's brilliant 1978 song, "Runnin' On Empty."

Serving as the title track to the album, "Runnin' On Empty" in title alone gives the listener a quick understanding of what this rather unique live release was all about.  Combining studio and live recordings, Runnin' On Empty has an absolutely unparalleled sense of movement, and it is the title track that remains the finest moment.  This version was actually recorded at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland on August 27,1977, and Browne's band rarely sounded better than they do here.  In many ways, the track is led by drummer Russ Kunkel, and it is the way that he kicks the song off that makes it almost impossible to pigeon-hole the track under the "restrictions" of the genres as discussed above.  There is an almost rock-feel to his playing, and it is far more aggressive than the traditional "folk" style, yet it never gets too loud or forceful that it would turn away such listeners.  The trio of guitars seem to melt perfectly together, adding brilliant textures and secondary rhythms to "Runnin' On Empty," providing the track with much of its musical depth.  The solo taken mid-way through the song also places "Runnin' On Empty" far more into the "rock" style, and it is this almost duality in existence that not only prove the overall irrelevance of genre-based assumptions, as well as the phenomenal talents that Jackson Browne possesses as both a composer as well as a musician in every sense of the word.

While in many ways, the music to "Runnin' On Empty" is absolutely enough in itself to make for a classic moment, it is the final addition of the vocals of Jackson Browne that vault the song into the most beloved songs in history.  However, while the music on this track certainly makes it seem as if he has no place within the confines of the folk genre, it is his absolutely beautiful voice that make it clear why he is one of the finest representatives of the style.  There is a pure power and honesty within Browne's singing that have rarely been matched, and it is this raw sound to which people from all walks of life can easily relate.  The melody which he sings is just as catchy as the music itself, and the chorus is so perfectly structured that it is almost impossible not to sing along.  Again, this marks a point where "Runnin' On Empty" seems to be a bit distant from the "normal" folk style, which by 1977 had been molded into something far more bland than the original spirit of the sound.  Along with this reminder that folk music is at its core a style to be shared, the lyrics of "Runnin' On Empty" speak similarly, and it is within the words where the final elements of the "movement" exists.  Browne's words can be interpreted on a number of levels, as they create sentiments on the passage of time that can be translated into almost any situation, and it is this final element that has enabled "Runnin' On Empty" to become a truly timeless song.

As the decades have passed, "Runnin' On Empty" has easily withstood the test of time, and countless artists from across the musical spectrum have recorded their own takes on the song.  With covers and references appearing in everything from "arena rock" to hip-hop, the fact that the song has engaged such a wide audience is perhaps all one needs to understand just why Jackson Browne remains such a highly regarded figure in the long history of music.  It was also this song which created a great deal of controversy when it was used without permission in a number of "attack" ads during the 2008 Presidential election.  Whether it was due to the fantastic, strangely inspiring musical arrangement or the smooth, yet strong and engaging vocals, there are few songs in history that play as truly perfect as "Runnin' On Empty."  It is also the energy that one can feel due to this being a live recording that adds further to the overall impact of the song, and while one can find studio takes of "Runnin' On Empty," there is no question that it is the original live release that remains the definitive take on the track.  The fact that some listeners continue to look past the spectacular music and talents of Jackson Browne lives on as proof that making any sort of classification is beyond an imperfect science, as he manages to perfectly deploy the classic arrangement and moods of folk into a more rock-based sound on his absolutely unforgettable 1977 song, "Runnin' On Empty."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30: Fear, "I Love Livin' In The City"

Artist: Fear
Song: "I Love Livin' In The City"
Album: I Love Livin' In The City (single)
Year: 1978/1981

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Though most critics would rather ignore the truth and claim that there are a handful of genres that have no "range" and are all the same style, one will truly miss out on some of the finest songs ever by subscribing to such a thought.  Even within what is often pointed to as the most "simple" musical style, punk rock, there are wide variations on the central spirit of the music, and this truth alone makes it just as important to the development of music as any other genre.  Within the punk style, one of the most critical sub-genres is that of "thrash," as the true ferocity and power of the punk spirit are brought most clearly to light.  While there have been a number of bands who excelled within the "thrash punk" style, few can compare to the intensity and drive of Fear, and at the same time, one cannot overlook the fact that the bands' songs retain a rather unexpected but undeniable pop edge.  Rising from the fiery, fertile Los Angeles, California punk and hardcore scene of the late 1970's, Fear never made any attempt to be subtle or apologetic for their music, and their 1981 full length debut, The Record, remains just as confrontational and provocative today as it was when it was first released.  While there is not a moment anywhere on the record that is anything short of completely intense, it is the bands' re-recording of their first single, 1978's "I Love Livin' In The City" that stands as Fear's finest recorded moment.

The two different recordings of "I Love Livin' In The City" are extremely similar, with the major difference being the overall "cleanliness" of the latter version.  The energy and actual music itself is nearly identical, and for this reason, one should seek out the 1981 recording.  The other difference is that on the original release, the guitar parts are played by both Lee Ving and Burt Good, where the The Record take features Good being replaced by Philo Cramer, yet this change occurred very soon after the single was released.  Drummer Johnny Backbeat also plays on the original, and it is Spit Stix on the full length, and it is the addition of these two that pushes the later recording to such unforgettable heights.  Where many of the peers of Fear seemed to care little for the actual musicality of their songs, all across "I Love Livin' In The City" one can find a brilliant hook and an energy that has rarely been matched.  There is a fantastic tension within Cramer's playing, and it is also his performance that gives the track an amazing sense of movement.  The grinding groove from bassist Derf Scratch cannot be understated, and one can hear this performance as one of the most important building blocks in the development of the hardcore sound.  The combined sound of the group in many ways represents the finest that both punk an hardcore have to offer, and yet they are presented in a manner which easily appears to a far wider audience.

The massive wall of sound deployed by the band is perfectly complimented by the vocals of Lee Ving, and there is no arguing that he stands as one of the finest frontmen of the entire L.A. punk and hardcore scene.  Though his delivery is certainly quite similar to that of many of his peers, it is the strangely natural manner with which the words and sound seem to flow from him that sets Ving so far apart, and it is this authenticity that serves as the ideal balance to the musical arrangement.  The growl that sits underneath his unrelenting voice is absolutely perfect for the style with which he sings, and the spirit he brings to every line makes it almost impossible to not sing along.  It is in this reality that one can easily imagine just how wild Fear shows were, as the combined effort and sound of the band is one in which listeners cannot help but be swept up.  Yet it is also the fact that the lyrics to "I Love Livin' In The City" are such an ideal match for both the vocals and music that make this song such a powerful force, and it is the words that magnify the dark, almost dirty nature of the band.  Exposing the "real" world around them in the city, Ving speaks of everything from vomit and garbage on the sidewalk to the awful smell around him, and yet it is the fact that his words are so unapologetic and vivid that makes them work.  Both in these words as well as his delivery, it is the fact that there is no attempt to gloss or polish reality that makes Fear's "I Love Livin' In The City" such a brilliant and unparalleled musical effort.

Over the past few decades, the actual place and significance of "I Love Livin' In The City" has become quite clear, as it remains one of the most highly respected recordings in both the punk and hardcore genres.  It is almost impossible to list all of the bands that have covered the song over the years, and "I Love Livin' In The City" has also been featured in a number of films and video games.  It is perhaps the fact that the song is so "to the point" and focused that has enabled it to have such a wide appeal and longevity, and yet one simply cannot understate the musical competence that is displayed throughout the track.  The melody itself is unquestionably as punk as one can find anywhere, but the fact that Fear is able to strip away the pretension that ruined countless great punk songs and simply deliver the music itself is what makes them so vital to the development of the genre.  Deploying one of the darkest grooves ever captured on tape, complimented but a high-octane lead riff remains absolutely unparalleled more than three decades later, and yet Fear somehow remain relatively unknown compared to some of their far less talented peers.  The fact that all of the songs on The Record manage to hit just as hard today as they did upon first release is a testament to the unique talents of Fear, and there are few songs from any era or genre that can compare to the sheer energy and attitude found all throughout their 1978 classic, "I Love Livin' In The City."

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #03

It's Tuesday, and time for another dose of "Something Old, Something New" with The Daily Guru. Enjoy!

Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #87"

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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. Phish, "Punch You In The Eye"  2000/07/08
2. Bo Diddley, "Bo DiddleyBo Diddley
3. Widowspeak, "Puritan"  Widowspeak
4. Das EFX, "Mic Checka"  Dead Serious
5. The Clash, "White RiotThe Clash
6. Ty Segall, "You Make The Sun Fry"  Goodbye Bread
7. Pink Floyd, "Astronomy Domine"  The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
8. Aretha Franklin, "Money Won't Change You"  Lady Soul
9. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, "No One Is (As I Are Be)"  Mirror Traffic
10. ZZ Top, "Tube Snake Boogie"  El Loco
11. Primus, "Last Salmon Man"  Green Naugahyde
12. Rondelles, "Shanghai Surprise"  Fiction Romance, Fast Machines
13. Atmosphere, "Puppets"  When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold
14. Tom Waits, "Goodnight Irene"  Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, And Bastards

Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 28: The Impressions, "People Get Ready"

Artist: The Impressions
Song: "People Get Ready"
Album: People Get Ready
Year: 1965

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Though many may try and paint it otherwise, the reality is that a majority of pop music can be traced back to roots in traditional religious hymns and other "spirituals."  While within the current music scene, any group that makes a purposeful effort to incorporate religious themes into their music are pushed into their own category, one can find such overtones present in some of the most pivotal songs in the history or music.  While some may assume that these instances are far more subtle in nature, when one examines the history of soul music, the two virtually go hand in hand.  The names of the luminaries of this style can be easily rattled off, and yet there is one group that seem to be omitted from this list more often than not.  Whether it is due to the fact that the group was responsible for two of the most important figures in all of music history, or the fact that their songs remain some of the most beloved of all time, there are few acts in history that can compare to the impact and importance of The Impressions.  Riding a wave of hits throughout the early and mid-1960's, the trio set the standard for the "Chicago Soul" sound, and it was also their distinctive instrumentations that set them so far apart from their peers.  Though the group had a handful of songs that have become standards, few recordings from any genre or era can match up to The Impressions magnificent 1965 single, "People Get Ready."

To refer to "People Get Ready" as a melodic over-achievement is actually an understatement, as one would be hard pressed to find a more soothing and outright beautiful moment from any point in music history.  This mood would become much of the definition of the sound of Curtis Mayfield, and few can argue that "People Get Ready" remains one of his most impressive compositions.  From the moment that the track begins, there is an almost ethereal tone, and this matches the similar feeling that one can find on the groups' impressive debut single.  However, it is the way that "People Get Ready" seems to sway gently back and forth, creating a completely unique groove that makes the song stand so far apart from other recordings.  Whether it is the sparse guitar pattern or the almost non-existent percussion, there is no question that finding a predecessor to this sonic structure is absolutely impossible.  The small nuances like bells and descending string and horn sections almost lulls the listener into a blissful state, and there is simply no other song that sounds quite like "People Get Ready."  Furthermore, the fact that such an unforgettable musical moment was created within such an unorthodox, if not revolutionary arrangement is a testament to the exceptional talents of Mayfield, and it would be this recording that would set him on his now-legendary path.

Yet it is also the way that the vocals fuse so perfectly into the arrangement that have cemented "People Get Ready" as one of the most iconic songs in history, and this is not only due to Curtis Mayfield, but fellow-legend Fred Cash as well.  Along with Sam Gooden, the way that the vocals are deployed throughout the song seem to transcend all vestiges of culture, standing as something purely and beautifully "human" at their core.  The amount of conviction and emotion deployed at every line remains absolutely unparalleled, and even if one does not follow the same religious beliefs that are referenced throughout the song, one cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning vocal performance.  Furthermore, while there is no question that the overall sentiment of the song is that of religious conviction, there is a positive, uplifting feeling that runs throughout, and can easily carry away any listener, regardless of spiritual affiliation.  This in itself is the perfect representation of the power of music, as "People Get Ready" easily breaks down all societal barriers, proving that music in itself is something that knows no borders or dividing lines.  This would also be the first sign that Curtis Mayfield's music would carry with it messages that reached far beyond such limitations, and whether he was singing of religion or racial oppression, throughout his career his voice became one of the most revered and respected all across the globe.

Soon after its release, "People Get Ready" rose into the top five on the singles charts, and yet few could have predicted just how long-lasting an impact the song would have.  As the decades have passed, "People Get Ready" has become one of the most heavily covered songs in history, with everyone from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin to The Doors to Prince all putting their own touch on the song.  However, even with this myriad of covers, there is not another that even comes close to the power and presence of the original, and this in itself is the most telling reality of what a special moment lives within The Impressions recording.  Yet the tributes go beyond just covers, as many of the lyrics of the song have been lifted and placed into other musical works.  Perhaps most famously, Bob Marley took the lines, "...there ain't no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind just to save his own..." for his legendary recording that in modern times has taken on the dual title of  "One Love/People Get Ready."  As all of these elements come into play, the fact remains that at its core, "People Get Ready" is as perfect a pop song as one can find anywhere; with both the musical arrangement and the vocals being executed at an unprecedented level.  Though he may be better known for his later solo work, one simply cannot overlook the brilliance shown by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions on their monumental 1965 single, "People Get Ready."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

August 27: Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Texas Flood"

Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Song: "Texas Flood"
Album: Texas Flood
Year: 1983

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Much like similar trends within culture as a whole, one can see various "old" forms of music reinventing themselves decades later, as new audiences discover the beauty and brilliance of a certain style.  Though they are often relabeled by the industry (as when punk was re-termed as "grunge"), the true roots of the sound cannot be denied, and it is often within these musical rebirths that some of the finest moments in the genres' history occur.  While one can easily make the case that it was completely unexpected, when the classic sound of electric blues suddenly became massively popular during the 1980's, it could be almost entirely attributed to the efforts and talents of a single individual.  Standing today as one of the most iconic figures for both his emotive singing as well as his absolutely unparalleled guitar skills, there are few musicians as important to the development of music as Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Though his name is now far beyond legendary, the fact that his talents were in such form on his 1983 debut, Texas Flood, served as almost a warning shot for the revitalization of the blues sound, as well as the new rise of the guitar virtuoso.  Bringing a distinctive style and tone to his performances, he remains one of the most instantly recognizable players in history, and there is perhaps no better summary of Stevie Ray Vaughan's extraordinary talents than what one can find in his 1983 cover of Larry Davis', "Texas Flood."

From the moment that "Texas Flood" begins, the roots of the song are without question, and yet it is the "slow burn" that Stevie Ray Vaughan perfected that sets it far apart from almost any other blues song in history.  Among all of the other so-called "guitar gods," Vaughan may have the most distinctive tone of all, and there is never any mistaking his soulful, sliding sound.  In many ways, "Texas Flood" is far more about the instrumental than the vocals, as the level of emotion that Vaughn conveys at every turn quickly pushes him far beyond nearly all of his peers, as he encompasses the true spirit of the blues in an era so far removed from the origins of the sound.  It was due to this performance that other musicians who "dabbled" in blues were exposed for their shortcomings, and there are few bluesmen of any era that can complete with the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Yet it is also the way that Vaughan gels so perfectly with his bandmates that make the overall impact of "Texas Flood" so great, and one cannot overlook the efforts of his rhythm section.  The slow, steady work from bassist Tommy Shannon is nothing short of fantastic, as he digs the groove deeper and deeper at every turn.  This approach serves as an ideal compliment to the drumming from Chris Layton,  and there has rarely been as superb or moody a drum performance as one experiences all throughout "Texas Flood."

However, while there is no question that the focus of "Texas Flood" is this stellar musical arrangement, the song would not have achieved such heights had it not been for the captivating vocal performance from Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Much like his guitar sound, Vaughan possesses a voice that is so distinctive that one cannot help but be drawn in by his singing.  The level of soul and emotion that he brings to every word matches the similar sentiments of his guitar, and it is the interplay between these two elements that vaults him to such a revered status.  On every line, Vaughan holds nothing back, and it is this raw, gritty tone that again links him to the earliest blues players, as well as sets him miles apart from any other signer of his era.  It is also the unique vocal sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan that makes his rendition of "Texas Flood" the definitive take, as he is able to extract the very essence of Larry Davis' words, and makes the song his own in a manner that remains unrivaled.  Yet it is also the fact that Davis' lyrics were so simple, so pure to the blues that make the song nothing short of perfect, and one can easily tell just how close Vaughan could relate to every line.  The amount of love and longing that one can find at every turn is absolutely fantastic, and it is the soulful, slightly gravely tone with which Vaughan sings that pushes this rendition to a point where it eclipsed being "just" a blues song and stands today as a moment that appeals to fans from every musical persuasion.

Though both his guitar playing and singing cannot be mistaken, there is an actual "tangible" element at play on Stevie Ray Vaughan's rendition of "Texas Flood" that sets it apart from other versions.  The song was originally written to be played in the key of 'G," but Vaughan was notorious for using unorthodox tunings, and this version actually sounds as if it is playing in F sharp due to the way that Vaughan set the strings.  This purposeful alteration, combined with a somewhat uncommon musical timing (12/8), makes "Texas Flood" wonderfully distinctive from every angle, and there is simply no other blues song that can compare to this perfect recording.  The overall impact and significance of Vaughan's take on "Texas Flood" as been reaffirmed over the years, as it has appeared in a number of films and television shows, as well as video games and other forms of media.  Furthermore, the song still manages to find consistent radio airplay, and while another of the songs off of Texas Flood found better commercial success, there is no question that the title track remains the signature moment in the career of Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Achieving musical perfection on an unparalleled level, the guitar work here is without question some of the most iconic in history, and the way that this combines with the unforgettable vocal delivery of Stevie Ray Vaughan almost instantly makes his 1983 recording of "Texas Flood" one of the most stunning and outright beautiful moments in all of recorded history.

Friday, August 26, 2011

August 26: Daft Punk, "Da Funk"

Artist: Daft Punk
Song: "Da Funk"
Album: Da Funk (single)
Year: 1995

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Though it is clearly difficult to create a completely unique and original sound within any musical style, one can argue that in the world of electronic music, this task is even more trying, as there are certain perceived limitations that hold a majority of songs in a similar musical space.  However, as is the reality with every musical genre, the truly great artists find ways around these trends, and their creations are what enable the various musical styles of progress forward with the passing decades.  While one can easily argue that there is no other genre filled with more sub-standard music, it can also be said that this reality makes the great artists easier to spot, and there is no question that within the world of electronic music, few performers can old their own against Daft Punk.  Though in modern music, they are a rather well-known name, in their early years, the group struggled as much as any other, as the style of music was not anywhere near as widely accepted as it is today.  However, it was during the middle and late 1990's that the group found their sound, and while many of their more recent efforts have received well-earned accolades, it was during these earlier years where Daft Punk made their finest recordings, as well as those that have become the blueprint for modern electronic music.  Though it is often overshadowed by their latest recordings, there is no other song in the history of electronic music that stands as vital to the development of the genre as one can hear within Daft Punk's 1995 single, "Da Funk."

One of the key elements that sets Daft Punk aside from their peers is how intentionally atmospheric their recordings are, as it seems that each of their songs has a very specific intent and origin.  In the case of "Da Funk," the opening of the track sounds as if the song is emanating from a boom box on the streets, and this tone carries through every other aspect of the song.  Before the main section of the track drops in, there is a stripped down, almost "tin" tone to "Da Funk" which makes this "boom box reference" sound even more authentic, and it is also this sound which kicks off the unparalleled sense of movement that can be experienced on the track.  The voices and sounds that sit behind the music itself strike an ideal balance, and their presence would be further explored in the songs' music video.  However, it is the fact that even when these background noises are absent, the mood itself stays completely intact, that proves the true brilliance of "Da Funk," and it stands as one of the most humble tracks in history, as the group have managed to create unheralded power within repetition and slight augmentations.  The sense of movement found all across "Da Funk" enables the track to be just as powerful walking down a city street as it is in a packed dance club, and it is in this idea where one can understand how Daft Punk were able to push the boundaries on the electronic genre, cementing it as a pop style onto itself.

However, "Da Funk" is not entirely about mood, as the arrangements and progressions created by the team of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter are without question some of the finest ever recorded.  It is the way that the pair are able to take the seemingly faded style of "synth-pop" and breath into it an entirely new life that is one of the most staggering elements of "Da Funk," as if one strips away some of the technology, the track would have fit in perfectly with the music scene a decade earlier.  The way that the synthesizers bounce all over the song makes "Da Funk" just as enjoyable even after repeated listenings, and in many ways, this is why one cannot deny the status of the track as a "pop" song.  It is also the perfectly toned bassline which grooves all over the place which makes "Da Funk" so unforgettable, and the combined hook created by these two elements makes the song impossible to forget.  The hook is rather simple, yet it is the sound and attitude which Daft Punk give it that make it one of the handful of progressions that once heard, are impossible to shake from your head.  It is also the way that the pair deploy what are almost break-beats across the track that have cemented its place as a dance club fixture, and even almost two decades after its initial release, few electronic tracks even come close to the sheer perfection that Homem-Christo and Bangalter achieved on "Da Funk."

Truth be told, there are a number of different versions of "Da Funk" that can be found over the past decade plus, and this is also largely due to the songs' overall greatness.  The original version is nothing more than the brilliant musical arrangement, and yet one of the most commonly heard versions of the song features the voice-overs and other elements that were present within the songs' music video.  The problem with this version is that the music itself becomes somewhat disjointed, as the flow is interrupted at points by elements that work perfectly within the visual interpretation of the song, but not as well within the strictly audio experience.  One can also find a pair of different mixes of the "full length" version of the song, as well as a "radio edit," and a number of other variations on "Da Funk."  However, while each of these certainly has their own appeal, it is the original cut that is without question the finest, and it remains just as enjoyable and captivating today as it did well over a decade ago.  This is in many ways the most telling testament to the greatness of the track, as moreso than any other genre, electronic music seems to have less "staying power," and therefore those songs that persist can be seen as truly exceptional examples of the style.  Though in recent years it has been their stunning visual presentations that have garnered them international acclaim, there is no question that the true spirit and talent of Daft Punk was at its apex within their groundbreaking 1995 single, "Da Funk."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25: Tom Verlaine, "Penetration"

Artist: Tom Verlaine
Song: "Penetration"
Album: Dreamtime
Year: 1981

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Though one can easily name the handful of musicians that "the media" claims were the most important of any given generation, it is often those that are able to work out of such a spotlight that truly make the most impact on the direction of music.  Perhaps due to the fact that they are more free from the constraints of label pressure to make a certain sound, one can often trace the larger changes in music to the efforts of these individuals.  It is also such performers who seem to find new ways to deploy this sound, and whether it was with his band or as a solo performer, there are few musicians from the past forty years that are on the same musical level as Tom Verlaine.  Having honed his skills and made his name within the confines of the absolutely phenomenal band Television, following the breakup of that group in 1978, Verlaine set out as a solo artist, releasing a number of brilliant recordings that are clearly the logical progression of his previous bands' work.  Possessing one of the most distinctive guitar styles and singing voices, there are few musicians from any era that have proven to be as creative and truly unique as one finds all across Verlaine's work, and this exceptional talent came to a head in the form of his 1981 solo album, Dreamtime.  Though there is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, one can find everything that makes Tom Verlaine such an amazing artist on his 1981 song, "Penetration."

From the moment that "Penetration" begins, the sonic proximity that it has to Television's extraordinary 1977 Marquee Moon is apparent, as the song is based around a slightly stuttered, ringing musical arrangement.  Perfectly balanced between "art rock" and punk rock, "Penetration" has an tone that instantly grabs the listener, completely enveloping them in the sound.  The way in which every element of the song comes together on "Penetration" is far beyond that of almost any other Verlaine composition, and this is likely due to the fact that Verlaine himself plays both lead guitar and bass guitar.  This leads to an interlocked sound between the two instruments that has rarely been achieved elsewhere, and it is this duality that remains one of the strongest aspects of the song.  It is also the almost military-like drumming from Jay Dee Daugherty that makes "Penetration" so unique, as there are a number of different rhythms simultaneously at play.  Though they are slightly understated, the keyboard fills from Bruce Brody are as essential as any other aspect, enabling "Penetration" to have a full feeling that is far beyond almost anything else being recorded at the time.  It is the way in which all of these instruments play off of one another, giving the song a fantastic sway, yet retaining a unique edge that pushes it to such heights, making "Penetration" a song that can never be forgotten once heard.

Along with the link one can hear to Television within the musical arrangement, there has never been another voice that sounds even remotely similar to that of Tom Verlaine, and one cannot help but hear the connection to his former band.  This is in no way a bad thing, and it is the fact that Verlaine sounds just as good in this solo setting as he did with Television that proves his exceptional talents as a vocalist.  The almost detached, almost nervous persona that he perfected over the years it as its best on "Penetration," and even those unfamiliar with his work will be instantly drawn in by this stellar vocal performance.  Bringing a number of peaks and valleys in terms of vocal power, Verlaine is able to make the singing just as dramatic as the music, which further sets the song aside from others.  Yet much like his work within Television, on "Penetration," the high level of quality within the singing has just as much to do with his brilliant lyrics as it does with his voice itself.  While the title of the song certainly suggests certain meanings within his writing, there are a number of ways that one can interpret Verlaine's words, and one can cite these as some of the finest of his career.  From the sensual to the sorrowful, one can hear a wide range of emotions within the lyrics to "Penetration," and it is the way that Verlaine pulls the listener in deeper with each line that makes this such a wonderfully unique performance.

The end product of Dreamtime is without question an amazing effort, yet there are few records that have as troubled a timeline as one finds in the history of this album.  The initial recording sessions for Dreamline were largely lost due to low quality reel-to-reel tapes, and more than half of the record had to be re-recorded after the fact.  Due to this, there are two almost completely different band lineups on the record, and this makes the overall consistency of Dreamtime even more impressive.  While former bandmates from Television appeared on the record, it is also filled with members from Patti Smith's band, whom Television had toured with in their final years.  Yet all of these difficulties and differences only prove the talents of Tom Verlaine, as one would be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable and appealing record than Dreamtime, and the album easily holds up as the decades and musical trends pass.  The music has an absolutely full sound, and yet on many levels it is a rather stripped-down approach, and there is no other group in history that has shown such an ability to strike this balance.  Furthermore, the unique vocal approach of Tom Verlaine, though often copied, has never been equaled, and it is his singing that keeps the song exciting even after hearing it countless times.  Though the record itself is absolutely flawless, there are few songs in history that are on par with Tom Verlaine's marvelous 1981 song, "Penetration."

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #02

It's Thursday, and time for another dose of "Something Old, Something New" with The Daily Guru. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 24: Bad Religion, "21st Century Digital Boy"

Artist: Bad Religion
Song: "21st Century Digital Boy"
Album: Against The Grain
Year: 1994

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Though some musical styles may wish to present themselves in a different manner, the reality is that every style of music has its own rules and norms which one cannot get around.  Even within the supposedly anarchic world of punk rock and hardcore, there is a form to the music and certain elements which must be present to be labeled as such.  Yet it is in the history of these two styles of music where one can find clearly talented bands being "trapped" by the minimalist and often under-thought expectations, perhaps selling their full potential short in fear of losing their "credibility" within their audience.  However, there were also a handful of such bands that clearly paid little attention to such silly expectations, pushing the genre itself forward, and proving the wide range of sound that could be achieved within both the punk and hardcore forms.  While there were a number of bands that pushed these boundaries, few have had the "staying power" and fantastic musical development as one finds within the catalog of the iconic Southern California band, Bad Religion.  Even their name alone commands a massive level of respect, and their influence can be heard across nearly every band that came after their first releases.  However, what truly sets Bad Religion apart from their peers is their ability to keep the punk and hardcore ascetic firmly intact, yet compose musically progressive songs that have a much wider appeal, and this has rarely been more evident than in their brilliant 1990 song, "21st Century Digital Boy."

Truth be told, there are actually two very distinct versions of "21st Century Digital Boy," with the original recording appearing on the bands' 1990 record, Against The Grain.  However, this version did not find much success, and the band was asked to re-record the track for the soundtrack to the 1994 film, Stranger Than Fiction.  During intervening years of recording, the song itself developed quite a bit due to live performances, and it was this re-recorded take that quickly caught on with nearly every group of music fans.  The fact that the song had such a wide appeal is not all that surprising, as by this point, the band had been honing their sound for more than a decade, finding ways to bring the heavier, more aggressive sound to a wider audience.  In the case of "21st Century Digital Boy," the appeal lives within the interplay between guitarist Brett Gurewitz and Greg Heston, and the heavy drumming from Bobby Schayer.  The way in which these musicians smash together represents everything that makes more aggressive music so appealing, as there is a gritty drive within the sound that quickly captures the attention of the listener.  The fact that bassist Jay Bentley is able to keep a deep groove underneath this sound also gives "21st Century Digital Boy" a wider musical appeal, and one can argue that the track represents the ideal balance between the more fierce sounds of hardcore and punk and the more traditional "rock" arrangement in terms of the music and sonic progression.

Working perfectly with the duality found within the music, the vocals of Greg Graffin are without question some of the most instantly recognizable in all of music history.  The gravely, gruff sound he brings to every line does an amazing job of heightening the tension put into play by the band, and it is the balance between his vocals and the music over which he sings that makes "21st Century Digital Boy" such a unique moment in recorded history.  On many levels, Graffin represents the more underrepresented side of punk and hardcore frontmen, as he makes a clear effort to sing more than scream, and this in itself was one of the most critical ways in which Bad Religion as a whole helped to shape and alter the world of punk and hardcore music.  On "21st Century Digital Boy," Graffin brings a massive amount of intensity to his vocal performance, perfectly straddling the line between speaking and singing.  Yet it is this intensity that proves to be one of the finest aspects of the entire song, as the way that he never lets the listener go enables each line to hit quite hard, and cements the bands' place in punk, as one simply cannot ignore his vocals.  The lyrics are perhaps more relevant today than they were more than two decades ago, as the band seems to give a rallying cry against youth becoming "trapped" by technology and gadgets, and one cannot help but admit how perfectly these words describe the current youth culture.

However, while there is a great deal going on within "21st Century Digital Boy" in terms of both music and lyrics, there are also some more veiled elements of the song that cannot be overlooked.  It is within these almost cryptic elements of the song where the true genius of Bad Religion become clear, and yet most are unaware that such moments exist on the track.  Perhaps the most telling attribute of the song is the fact that in the songs' final verse, the band lifts the opening verse from King Crimson's legendary track, "21st Century Schizoid Man."  The main hook of "21st Century Digital Boy" is also a clear play on another line from the song, and the fact that Bad Religion recorded such lyrics shows the wide range of their own influences, as well as cements their knowledge of far more complex musical arrangements than one expects within the world of punk and hardcore music.  Yet as the years have passed, Bad Religion have found tributes being paid to themselves by many bands which they influenced, and there are a number of covers of "21st Century Digital Boy" to be heard, and the song has also been featured in a number of video games over the last few years.  In many ways, "21st Century Digital Boy" has almost moved "beyond" being a punk song, as it strikes an unrivaled balance between that style and retaining pop appeal, placing Bad Religion's 1990 song into a group of exceptional recordings that know no musical peers.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23: Steely Dan, "Aja"

Artist: Steely Dan
Song: "Aja"
Album: Aja
Year: 1977

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Though it makes almost no sense, for the few bands in music history for which there is no accurate description, majority of publications and critics seem to do little more than place them in a category that is almost entirely completely unlike the actual music of the band in question.  In nearly every case, this ends up creating a stereotype around the group that does not represent them properly, and one can argue that this misrepresentation leads to many likely fans never exploring the music of the band due to the perception created by critics.  While a number of bands have fallen victim to such distortion, few have been mislabeled as severely as avant-rock icons Steely Dan, as in most cases, they are placed under terms like "soft rock," and yet this is far from the truth.  Blending together the worlds of jazz and rock in one of the most distinctive and in some ways confrontational manner in music history, Steely Dan represent the epitome of a group that is determined to make their music in their own way, regardless of the norms and styles by which they are surrounded.  This has resulted in some of the most original, genre-defying music in history, and nearly every one of their records is in itself a turning point in music history, making the entire Steely Dan catalog some of the most important music ever recorded.  Though they had many other songs that found greater commercial success, there is no question that every musical side of Steely Dan, as well as the duo's exceptional talents as songwriters are at their best on the title track to their phenomenal 1977 album, Aja.

As the decades have passed, a massive number of musicians have spent time as a member of Steely Dan in one way or another, yet it is the minds and talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker that have been the catalyst behind the groups' sound the entire time.  It is their brilliant compositions and leadership that have been able to push the boundaries on all forms of music, and one would be hard pressed to find more skilled performers than one finds in this pair.  "Aja" is a perfect example of their exceptional abilities, as the song itself goes thorough a number of different sections, each having its own unique feel, yet working perfectly as a single unit.  On many levels, this arrangement gives the song more of a classical structure than anything else, and yet through the performances, there are elements of rock and jazz, as well as the basic elements that would become both the "new wave" and ambient genres in the years that would follow.  All across "Aja," the musicianship is absolutely perfect, led by the ever-shifting keyboards of Fagen, and the deep groove from Becker's bass.  Drummer Steve Gadd is one of the keys to the overall impact of the song, as he shifts the tempo a number of times throughout the song, giving "Aja" an amazing level of depth that is rarely found elsewhere.  However, it is the various other musicians on the track that give the song its massive range of appeal, as the duo of Fagen and Becker bring an almost orchestral feel, delivering on every front with a stunning sonic appeal and musical precision.

However, while the music on "Aja" is some of the finest ever recorded, it is within the singing and lyrics of the song that much of the true spirit of Steely Dan can be found.  Though many may try and paint it otherwise, as soon as the vocals begin, there is no way to deny the similarity to the sound of Frank Zappa, and this is true both in terms of the actual vocal tones and harmonies, as well as the attitude beneath the singing.  It is the fact that there seems to be a somewhat playful, if not sarcastic undertone in the vocals that make them so enjoyable, and it s also the way in which the singing itself seems to have an amazing amount of movement that pushes them far beyond nearly anything else being recorded at the time.  The fact that the vocals are able to gain so much sonic range and presence is one of the keys to the overall impact of "Aja," but it is also the seemingly cryptic, certainly poetic, and perfectly deployed lyrics that truly make this such a standout within the overall Steely Dan catalog.  The true testament to the abilities of Fagen and Becker has always been within their lyrics, and "Aja" is their finest moment, as the words seem to soar and move just as high and far as the music, and there has rarely been another lyric that can boast a similar existence.  It is the fact that this reality makes "Aja" a "complete package" in terms of vocals and lyrics that helps to it rise above the rest of the groups songs, and it also enables it to become a song that can never be forgotten once heard.

Yet event taking all of this absolute musical brilliance into account, there is one more aspect of "Aja" that cannot be overlooked, and that is the presence of one of the most important musicians of the generation that preceded this record.  Near the middle of the song, there is a truly fantastic and flawless saxophone solo, and it is performed by none other than Wayne Shorter.  The fact that Steely Dan were able to get a musician of such talent and status to perform on their record is a testament to the abilities of Steely Dan, as well as the respect they had from their peers in terms of composition and musical expertise.  Shorter's presence stands as the final piece of what stands as one of the most impressive moments from any genre in music history, and it is the wide range of sounds, influences, and musical styles that the band presents which makes it almost impossible to properly classify "Aja" into any single genre.  There are elements ranging from jazz to electronic to rock along with many others, and it is the fact that they are so perfectly balanced that not only define the sound of Steely Dan, but also stand as proof to their abilities that reach far beyond that of most other musicians in history.  For more than four decades, Steely Dan have been making it their mission to completely ignore every norm and trend within almost every style of music, and it is much the reason that they stand as one of the most revered groups in history.  Due to this dedication and sheer talent, there are few moments in their catalog that are not worth experiencing, and yet few can argue Steely Dan was at anything less than their creative peak on their brilliant 1977 composition, "Aja."

Daily Guru, "Something Old, Something New #01"

Welcome to the new video content of The Daily Guru. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I will review two albums (one old, one new) on YouTube. Enjoy!

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 22: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #86"

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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. Hüsker Dü, "Celebrated Summer"  New Day Rising
2. Liz Phair, "Girls! Girls! Girls!'  Exile In Guyville
3. Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi, "Season's Trees"  Rome
4. Wirepony, "High In Your Eyes"  Tour EP One
5. The 101'ers, "Keys To Your Heart"  Keys To Your Heart (single)
6. The Clash, "Clampdown"  London Calling
7. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Long Shadow"  Streetcore
Johnny Cash, "The Man Who Couldn't Cry"  American Recordings
9. Nine Inch Nails, "Ruiner"  The Downward Spiral
10. T. Rex, "Life's A Gas"  Electric Warrior
Reflection Eternal, "Too Late"  Train Of Thought
12. Ahmad Jamal, "(Put Another Nickel In) Music! Music! Music!"  At The Pershing: If Not For Me
13. Street Dogs, "Tobes Got A Drinking Problem"  Fading American Dream
14. The Supremes, "Where Did Our Love Go"  Where Did Our Love Go
15. Blues Traveler, "Regarding StevenLive From The Fall
16. Jerry Lee Lewis, "Matchbox"  Live At The Star Club, Hamburg
17. Minor Threat, "Straight Edge"  Complete Discography

Sunday, August 21, 2011

August 21: The Everly Brothers, "All I Have To Do Is Dream"

Artist: The Everly Brothers
Song: “All I Have To Do Is Dream”
Album: All I Have To Do Is Dream (single)
Year: 1958

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While one can easily rattle off a list of large figures in the development of popular music, there are always a handful of performers that are left off.  Though they are in some cases even more important in this development, for whatever reason, they rarely receive the full credit they deserve for their influence, and this becomes more common as one goes back in music history.  Throughout the 1950’s, the “rock and roll” and “pop” sounds were being explored in a number of different directions, and while most are aware of the way in which the musical formula came to be, the way in which the modern pop vocal came to be.  There were a number of performers that aided in its cultivation, but there is simply no other group that had an equal impact of the shape of pop singing and harmonies than one finds in the catalog of The Everly Brothers.  Everyone from The Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel to The Beach Boys owe a great deal of their sound to the work of The Everly Brothers, and there are few singles from the duo that are anything short of spectacular.  Providing the more melodic and mellow alternative to the speedy, louder rock sound that was overtaking the mainstream, The Everly Brothers brought together the sounds of folk, blues, and country in a wonderfully unique manner.  Though each of their songs is unforgettable in its own right, there are few songs in history that can hold their own when compared to the historical significance and musical perfection found on The Everly Brothers’ timeless 1958 single, “All I Have To Do Is Dream.”

Though at first listen,  "All I Have To Do Is Dream" may seem like an exceptionally simple musical arrangement, the fact of the matter is that there is a great deal going on within the song both in terms of composition, as well as the influences one can hear at play throughout the track.  The guitar strum which opens the song, happens to be played by none other than Chet Atkins, and it pulls the best of multiple worlds of music, becoming on many levels the quintessential "rockabilly" tone and sound, and it has been borrowed countless times since.  It is the way that this guitar shifts to a smooth, swaying sound that makes it so intriguing, and this element helps to set the overall mood for "All I Have To Do Is Dream."  The guitar almost shimmers across the track, and the way in which it manages to dance lightly behind the vocals remains one of the most impressive moments in music history.  Combined with the rather unique bassline, which is far more open and widely spaced than nearly any other in history, and one can clearly understand just how much of the fantastic music on "All I Have To Do Is Dream" was completely intentional.  It is also the way in which the percussion plays more lightly than almost any other recording of the time, yet retains a bit of a sting that would become its own sonic blueprint in the years that followed.  The fact that each instrument is working its own rhythm makes the final product all the more impressive, and it is the key that has enabled "All I Have To Do Is Dream" to easily endure the passing decades and musical trends.

However, it almost goes without saying that the most impressive element of any song from The Everly Brothers lives within their shared vocal work.  The way in which Don and Phil Everly combine their voices is rarely anything short of stunning, and one can easily attribute the success of a majority of the great vocal harmony groups to their efforts.  All across "All I Have To Do Is Dream," the duo are nothing short of perfect, as both in terms of the pitch and emotion, they manage to match the music over which they sing.  Truth be told, their singing on "All I Have To Do Is Dream" is so truly perfect that it has almost become cliché as the years have passed, and it is nearly impossible to find any other recording that is up to par in terms of harmonic quality.  One can also easily understand why the song was such a massive hit at the time, topping the pop, r&b, and country charts in the U.S., instantly becoming one of the most accomplished songs in terms of breadth of sales.  Furthermore, "All I Have To Do Is Dream" has become one of the most recognized songs of the entire era, and it has been used in countless films and television shows that depict the point in history.  Yet one can argue that the song also reached such heights due to the perfect lyric, as the words penned by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant may very well be the best of their career, and there is no question that the words stand among the most honest and beautiful ever committed to recorded tape.

As the decades have passed, "All I Have To Do Is Dream" manages to stay relevant, and this is largely due to the fact that within every generation, a significant and well received cover version of the song appears, reminding listeners of the brilliant original recording.  Whether it was Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen singing the song for the film Starman, Kermit The Frog taking a turn on the track for one of the Muppet records, or even the more recent rather strange duet of the song between Elvis Costello and Stephen Colbert, there is no question that the impact of the song remains strong even more than half a century after its initial release.  This in itself is enough to cement the songs' place in history, as there is no other song that seems to have been able to achieve such success, and yet at the same time, the original recording still manages to stand high above every other recorded version.  This is due to the raw and straightforward nature of the performance from The Everly Brothers, along with the fact that the way in which they deployed every element of the song simply "fit" for the time period during which they were recording.  After the song was first released, one can hear traces of its influence in everything from do-wop to soul to country, and there may be no other song that can boast such impact, solidifying the unparalleled magnificence of The Everly Brothers' stellar 1958 single, "All I Have To Do Is Dream."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 20: The Psychedelic Furs, "Love My Way"

Artist: The Psychedelic Furs
Song: “Love My Way”
Album: Forever Now
Year: 1982

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If there is one sure thing that one can see all across the history of music, it is the fact that regardless of the circumstances and current music scene, the art form itself continues to move forward at all times.  Even when one feels that the current sounds cannot evolve into anything of further artistic worth, music itself manages to defy this idea, finding new ways to present itself to new audiences.  This thought process was surely in play during the mid and late 1970’s, as it seemed that music was quickly devolving, with the glam and punk sounds appearing to leave little for up and coming performers to create from.  However, while it certainly did have some rather forgettable offspring, these styles of music also led to the post-punk and “new wave” sounds, and in these subgenres, some of the most memorable music of an era can be found.  Striking a stunning balance in terms of musical approach, sonic mood, and instrumental innovation, there are few groups that embody the early 1980’s as perfectly as The Psychedelic Furs, and even more than two decades after they disbanded, their music sounds just as fresh and exciting.  Going through a number of changes in lineup and musical approach, one can find breathtaking moments scattered across the history of the group, and yet there may be no more impressive or definitive a song in the catalog of The Psychedelic Furs than what one can experience on their superb 1982 single, “Love My Way.”

Though many may not be familiar with the name of the group or this song, there are few who have not heard “Love My Way,” as it is easily one of the most instantly recognizable hooks of the 1980’s, perhaps in the entirely of music history.  Unlike most other songs of the time period, “Love My Way” centers around the brilliant combination of drumming and keyboards, and this interlocking progression is in many way the very definition of the “new wave” sound.   Drummer Vince Ely deploys what is without question the finest performance of his career, as there is a larger presence to his playing than one finds elsewhere, and this tone gives the entire song an almost looming feel.  The keyboards come courtesy of one other than the albums’ producer, Todd Rundgren, and his playing proves to be one of the most important aspects of the overall feeling of the song.  However, the darker, almost tragic mood is largely a product of the bass from Tim Butler, and it is within his performance where one can see the close link to the entire post-punk movement.  The combination of the keyboards and bass stands today as one of the most breathtaking pairings of the decade, and these two instruments truly carry away the listener in the brilliant sonic pattern.  Guitarist John Ashton takes a somewhat lesser role on “Love My Way” when compared to the rest of his work, but it is the balance created by his light, almost surf-like sounds that complete this absolutely fantastic musical landscape.

Along with the unforgettable musical arrangements on “Love My Way,” the vocals from Richard Butler are similarly definitive of both the band and musical time period.  There is a grittiness within his singing that is somewhat similar to that found in punk rock, and yet there is also a more concentrated effort to retain the melody that make his singing something entirely new.  Yet Butler also seems to be channeling the spirit of the glam rock movement as well, and there are moments where his voices are rather “Bowie-esque.”  At every turn, Butler’s singing is nothing short of outstanding, and it is the detached, almost pained way with which he delivers every line that makes him stand out so far from his peers.  It is also the way that the backing vocals from “Flo & Eddie” (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) blend so perfectly that makes “Love My Way” such an amazing vocal achievement.  Yet the words that Butler sings are just as essential as the way in which he sings, and there are few lyrics in history that are as brilliantly poetic as what one can experience on “Love My Way.”  These words somehow manage to completely encompass the listener, as Butler is almost avant in the way that he spins the somewhat mysterious ode.  While they may seem a bit cryptic at times, the intent of the words is never in question, and “Love My Way” stands as one of the most uniquely intimate, almost sensual songs ever recorded.

As the decades have passed, a majority of the music from all across the 1980’s has faded into relative obscurity due to it sounding very dated.  However, The Psychedelic Furs have managed to completely avoid this pitfall, as their songs remain just as intriguing and energetic today as they did upon first release.  The fact that “Love My Way” falls into this category whilst simultaneously being as definitive an “80’s tune” as one can find anywhere is a testament to the extraordinary level of musicianship and quality one can experience on the song.  Each of the four band members are in top form throughout the entire song, and yet it is the way that they each give ample space to the others, moving as a single unit, that pushes “Love My Way” to such great heights.  The fact that the band were also able to deploy unforgettable hooks both musically and vocally further set them apart from their peers, and one can find influence of the band and this song in particular all across the next two decades of recorded music.  Even when the song was first unleashed onto the world, “Love My Way” found moderate chart success all across the globe, and yet it has remained a bit of a “cult classic” in the time since.  It is due to this nature that the song falls into the category of one that nearly everyone knows, but few are aware of its name or performers.  However, the fact remains that there is not another song in history that has a similar sonic appeal and impact than what one finds on The Psychedelic Furs’ masterful 1982 single, “Love My Way.”

Friday, August 19, 2011

August 19: George Jones, "He Stopped Loving Her Today"

Artist: George Jones
Song: "He Stopped Loving Her Today"
Album: I Am What I Am
Year: 1980

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While it goes without saying that any artist from any genre can write about any subject matter they wish, the fact remains that there are certain themes which work better within specific musical confines.  To be more exact, though musicians from every musical style try their best, there is no question that when it comes to songs of heartbreak, country music has the perfect formula.  There is something within the nuances of the genre that make it the ideal fit for such tales, and across the generations, lyrics that reach deep into the heart of listeners have become one of the trademarks of every great country performer.  Among the artists who have perfected this style and theme over the years, there is one who stands above the rest, and one can easily make the case that there has never been a better country vocalist than one finds all across the catalog of George Jones.  As a stalwart of the country music scene for nearly six decades, few artists of any genre have as massive a back catalog as Jones, and he is responsible for a number of the songs considered to be "standards" within country music.  Due to this reality, it is almost impossible to name a single song that defines him as an artist, as there were a few different "phases" that one can see throughout his career.  However, there is a track that is held in such reverence that it cannot be overlooked, and one can quickly understand why George Jones remains such an icon by experiencing his stunning 1980 single, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

On every level, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is true musical perfection, and it begins with the absolutely fantastic musical arrangement that works behind Jones' voice.  The song is led by a handful of guitar tracks, with the classic country "twang" provided by a lonesome acoustic progression, and it is in this sound that the songs' soul resides.  Even as more instruments are added to the track, it is this single guitar which remains constant, and it blends beautifully with the slightly distorted slide guitar.  The slide track has an almost ghostly feel to it, and it presents a brilliant sonic contrast to the rest of the track, giving "He Stopped Loving Her Today" far more depth than nearly any other country song.  The slight wavering in the slide guitar is nothing short of perfect, and it pushes the overall mood to unmatched levels.  Yet the "roots" sound is reinforced by the harmonica performance, and this is where the "cowboy" style also comes into play.  It is the fact that even with such an "old" instrumentation, the song fits perfectly into any time period which makes "He Stopped Loving Her Today" such a unique musical achievement, and this amazing overall tone also enables the track to easily appeal to an audience far beyond the "standard" country music fan.  Adding in a bit of percussion and a small string section, there is a fullness to the arrangement on "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and this combined sound creates one of the most completely mesmerizing musical experiences in all of music history.

Yet even as ideal as the instrumentation is on "He Stopped Loving Her Today," it is the unmistakable voice of George Jones that truly makes the song something unforgettable.  One can easily make the case that Jones possesses the strongest and most "pure" voice in country music history, as his vocals never seem forced, and he always finds the perfect way to capture the sentiment of every song he sings.  The level of honest and proximity to the words he is able to deploy is often breathtaking, and it is this subtle showmanship that sets him so far apart from any other singer from any genre in music history.  On "He Stopped Loving Her Today," Jones found a completely new level of heartbreak and despair within his singing, as the song turns into one of the most devastating tales of lost love that has ever been recorded.  Throughout the verses, Jones describes a love to which all can relate, and this simple, unembellished presentation reinforces the honesty and raw nature of the song.  Within these lyrics penned by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, one can easily see themselves or someone they know, and one cannot help but get caught up in the seemingly unending devotion the protagonist has for his lost love.  It is due to the fact that Jones draws the listener so far into the song that the chorus is able to be so crushing, and the impact of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is one which can be felt well after the song has ended.

On every level, George Jones deployed every element of country music with absolute perfection on "He Stopped Loving Her Today," and to this day, it is often cited as the "greatest" song in the history of country music.  In fact, such accolades did not take long to begin, as soon after the release of I Am What I Am, the song found its way to the top of the charts, garnering the Grammy Award for "Best Male Country Vocal Performance" in 1980.  However, in an absolutely unprecedented occurrence, the song was forever vaulted far beyond others when it was awarded "Song Of The Year" by the Country Music Association in BOTH 1980 and 1981.  This in itself should have been enough proof as to the songs' massive impact, and yet even more than three decades after "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was first released, it retains all of its power and relevance within modern music.  In fact, even if one has heard the song countless times, the level of emotion from George Jones continues to hit as hard as ever, and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" remains the standard by which all other songs of heartbreak and loss are judged.  Due to the fact that it is such a powerful recording, as well as the exceptional level of musicianship throughout the track, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" has managed to transcend musical boundaries, and there are few songs from any genre that can compare to the beauty and impact that one can find within George Jones' astounding 1980 single.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 18: Biz Markie, "Just A Friend"

Artist: Biz Markie
Song: "Just A Friend"
Album: The Biz Never Sleeps
Year: 1989

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There are certain moments throughout the history of music that simply cannot be forgotten, and even as the generations and musical trends come and go, these few songs remain relevant and present within the mainstream music scene.  This rather unique group of songs come from all across the musical spectrum as well as that of time, and it is almost impossible to "know" that a song will achieve such success upon its first release.  Furthermore, when such a song seems to defy so many musical norms, the idea of it becoming such an iconic moment may be even more difficult to foresee.  However, if there was one performer in music history that seemed destined for success in one way or another, it was the man who has earned the title of "Clown Prince of Hip-Hop," the one and only Biz Markie.  Though his persona and image are impossible to forget, one cannot overlook the fact that at his core, Biz Markie stands as one of the most creative and outright talented emcees in history, and one can easily make the case that had it not been for his efforts, hip-hop itself would have never achieved the mainstream success that it enjoys to this day.  Having already made his name as both a beat-boxer and an emcee, as well as releasing a fantastic debut album, Biz Markie completely shifted his approach, and it was due to this change that he created what is without question one of the most enduring and endearing songs in all of music history, 1989's, "Just A Friend."

On many levels, the opening moments of "Just A Friend" are as legendary as any musical work from the 1980's, as the almost toy-toned piano springs out, instantly grabbing the listeners' attention.  Though it is slightly altered in terms of speed and rhythm, the iconic core riff upon which the song is built is lifted in its entirely from Freddie Scott's 1968 song, "You Got What I Need," and yet the way that Biz Markie re-works the sound gives it a wonderfully modern feel.  Furthermore, the heavier bass beat that he lays underneath the song make it hit hard time after time, and it is easy to understand how this sound became one of the true standards of the "golden age" of hip-hop music.  Yet even within this sampling, Biz Markie separates himself quite far from his peers, as there is a clear understanding of music itself that goes far beyond scratching and altering the sample itself.  There are a number of "open" spaces throughout "Just A Friend" that suggest a knowledge of blues music, and this leaning is further enforced by the lyrical content.  When Biz Markie lets the drums drop, there is a rather tongue-in-cheek, soulful feel to the song, and though one cannot overlook the humorous nature of the song itself, it is often this lighter mood that makes listeners miss the fact that the composition itself is exceptionally deployed, moving far beyond the "standard" approach within the musical arrangements on hip-hop songs.

Yet while the re-worked riff is without question one of the most unforgettable to ever be recorded, one cannot deny that the true impact and timeless appeal of "Just A Friend" lives within the extraordinary vocals and lyrics that Biz Markie brings to the track.  There has rarely been as perfect a balance between character and content as one can experience all across the song, and yet much like the tone of the music, the light-hearted, almost vulnerable nature of the vocal delivery tends to overshadow the fantastic lyrics that he brings to every line.  Truth be told, during this era of hip-hop music, the idea of a sensitive or "down and out" male is almost impossible to imagine, as the genre was filled with overly-machismo'd rappers largely reminding the world just how amazing they themselves were.  However, as Biz Markie unravels his tale of the girl who had his heart lying to him about her relationship with other men, there is something far more powerful than what his peers could deliver.  It is the honest, unguarded, and absolutely brutal words he spins that enabled "Just A Friend" to rise so far above other hip-hop singles, and there are few lines from the song that are anything less than "classic."  Though for many, the highlight of the song is the chorus, every line Biz Markie delivers is nothing short of perfect, and there are few tracks in history that can boast as potent a perfection in rhyming as one can experience on "Just A Friend."

Even as the decades have passed, the significance and appeal of "Just A Friend" has managed to remain just as strong, constantly reminding emcees that there is just as much success to be had within a lighter delivery style and completely honest lyrics.  Furthermore, it is almost impossible to cite all of the times that "Just A Friend" has been sampled in some form, and this tribute runs all across the musical spectrum.  Whether it was Pharrell Williams from The Neptunes or 50 Cent quoting the song or complete covers by the likes of Umphrey's McGee among many others, "Just A Friend" has achieved a status that one can argue is completely unmatched by any other song in the entire history of recorded music.  Furthermore, one can hear the song played at nearly any large gathering, and it has even been used as "entrance music" by a number of professional athletes, as well as being featured in countless films and television shows.  The fact that the song has managed to ingrain itself into so many different aspects of society pushes it into a category all its own, and yet many do not give the track all the credit it deserves due to the jovial nature of the vocal performance.  Yet after listening to the song with "fresh ears," one cannot deny the sheer perfection that is at play in every aspect of the song, and it is this reality that makes Biz Markie's 1989 single, "Just A Friend," one of the most truly extraordinary moments in all of music history.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 17: The Hollies, "I Can't Let Go"

Artist: The Hollies
Song: “I Can’t Let Go”
Album: I Can’t Let Go (single)
Year: 1966

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Though the scene was heavily dominated by a handful of bands, the fact of the matter is, the mid-1960’s remains one of the most exciting and progressive periods in all of music history.  As the new face of rock and roll was developing, it was the bands that fused together different sounds who made some of the finest recordings of the era, and it is also these bands that continue to shape and influence the modern music scene.  While there were certainly a number of U.S. groups and performers that remain icons of the era, it was the rock-style bands from the U.K. that were pushing the envelope further for a time, and few groups blended sounds as beautifully as one finds within the music of The Hollies.  Like most bands at the time, the group began by performing a range of r&b and rockabilly covers, but they quickly developed a distinctive sound, and soon started to release a seemingly endless string of hit songs.  The way in which The Hollies fused together the psychedelic landscape, yet kept a foot firmly rooted in folk, is what separated them from a majority of their peers, and this blend would be further explored by the later musical projects of some of the band members.  Deploying stunning harmonies over ringing guitars and some of the catchiest, and most uplifting musical and lyrical hooks in history, there are few songs that can compare to the musical mastery found on The Hollies’ classic 1966 single, “I Can’t Let Go.”

As “I Can’t Let Go” begins, it presents an edge and aggression that are rather similar to the tone found within modern hard rock songs, and this can surely throw the listener for a bit of a curve, though the group quickly moves away from this sound.  While the energy of the guitars of Tony Hicks and Graham Nash retain their presence throughout the song, they shift to a far more stereotypical progression and swing.  Both guitars stay in the upper octaves, making them impossible to mistake for any other group, and it is the way that they create such a fantastic sonic contrast with the bass from Eric Haydock that pushes the song to even greater heights.  Truth be told, “I Can’t Let Go” would be Haydock’s final studio recording with the band, and yet he could not have left on a better note, as his performance is what gives the song its vertical depth.  This incarnation of The Hollies were rounded out by drummer Bobby Elliot, and his cadence keeps “I Can’t Let Go” bounding forward with a tension and energy that is completely unique.  It is the way in which the entire band leaves open spaces at certain points that lends a certain sense of drama to “I Can’t Let Go,” and one can easily picture the song setting off house parties all across the world.  The distinctively “free” feeling that one gets from the musicians is in many ways the key to the appeal of “I Can’t Let Go,” and it remains one of the few songs that can never be forgotten once heard.

Perhaps moreso than their superb musical arrangements, it is the vocal stylings of The Hollies that remain their most distinctive element.  This becomes less surprising when one takes into account the entire career of Graham Nash, and yet it was often Allen Clarke handling the lead vocal duties within the group.  The way in which their voices blend all throughout “I Can’t Let Go” is absolutely spectacular, and in many ways, they achieve the harmonies that most other groups attempted, yet could not achieve.  In terms of both the octaves, as well as the spirit behind the singing, one cannot deny the proximity in sound to some of the finest harmonies in history, and yet it is the fact that the song is still clearly “rock” that sets them so far apart from their peers.  Along with their fantastic vocal work, the lyrics that they sing are as universal and straightforward as one will find anywhere, and it is this simplistic approach that surely made the song even more popular.  There does seem to be a bit of a questionable situation occurring within the lyrics, as one must wonder exactly what the moral purity of the woman in question may be, but the love expressed by the protagonist is clear.  When Clarke sings, “…though I'm just one of your lovers, and I know there are so many others, you do something strange to me…,” one can see just how far from most other lyrics of the era the song was, and yet it is likely that the “true” meaning of the song went rather unnoticed, allowing it far greater airplay.

As the decades have passed, “I Can’t Let Go” has been re-recorded on a number of occasions, including a rather successful version by Linda Ronstadt in 1980.  However, the key element that came from the song was surely the way that The Hollies were able to perfectly balance the musical and vocal beauty of folk with the rising edge of the new sound of rock and roll.  While there were certainly a number of bands exploring this same approach at the time, the method and sound found on “I Can’t Let Go” is unquestionably unique, and it remains perhaps the finest moment in the entire recorded catalog of the group.  It is difficult to pick out a single aspect of “I Can’t Let Go” that stands apart from the rest, but one can hear the impact of Tony Hicks’ magnificent twelve-string performance here all across guitarists that followed, as he seems to simultaneously channel the early sound of The Beatles and the tone of The Byrds.  Yet the vocal harmonies are just as astounding, and the building blocks for the later groups of Graham Nash are clearly on display throughout this song.  The way that Nash, Clarke, and Hicks all combine their voices to create brilliant poly-rhythms, and there has rarely been a performance of equal merit from any point in history.  Combining these two crucial elements with the upbeat mood and swinging rhythm section, and there is simply no denying the musical mastery found on The Hollies’ unforgettable 1966 single, “I Can’t Let Go.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16: Medeski, Martin & Wood, "Sugar Craft"

Artist: Medeski, Martin and Wood
Song: "Sugar Craft"
Album: Combustication
Year: 1998

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While it is certainly not in the spotlight that it was half a century ago, the current world of jazz music remains just as exciting and inventive as ever, yielding some of the most intriguing and creative approaches to the genre that the style has ever heard.  Though some modern jazz musicians have done an amazing job of proving that the "classic" sounds can still be just as powerful today, it is the groups that push the boundaries on the genre that have given the world some of the most exciting and unique music of the past few decades.  Mixing together nearly every genre one can think of, there is simply no other group on the planet that makes music quite like the avant-jazz of Medeski, Martin and Wood.  For more than two decades, the group has been pushing deeper into what is possible within a jazz setting, and there is no question that it is their collective efforts that are one of the main factors in the progression of modern music.  Taking everything from electronica and hip-hop to blues and psychedelic and mixing it all into their distinctive jazz format, there are truly no limits to the appeal of Medeski, Martin and Wood.  Having honed their sound in the New York City underground throughout the early 1990's, it was during the latter half of that decade when the trio finally realized their full musical potential within a studio environmental, and there are few works from any genre within modern music that can boast the sheer brilliance found on Medeski, Martin and Wood's 1998 track, "Sugar Craft."

Serving as the opening track to the trio's amazing Combustication album, they leave little to question as to the extent of their ambition, as the odd sound effect is quickly followed by turntable scratching and a lightning fast, sampled keyboard loop.  This comes courtesy of DJ Logic, who joins the group for a handful of songs across the record, and his presence alone instantly places the band into a category all their own.  Throughout "Sugar Craft," it is the unique sounds and moods from DJ Logic that make the song so unique, and it manages to perfectly straddle the line between a number of genres.  One cannot completely place the song in jazz or hip-hop or electronic, as each are represented equally on the song, proving the groups' unparalleled focus and talents.  It is also the way in which the DJ techniques blend perfectly with the keyboards from John Medeski that become so captivating.  The slinky, descending progression that serves as the central theme to "Sugar Craft" is absolutely fantastic, and yet there is a simplicity to it that makes it even more accessible outside of "jazz circles."  Medeski switches seamlessly from lead to the background, and wherever he is playing within the configuration of the group, he never looses the groove, and the solo he takes is without question one of the finest of his entire career.

However, along with this superb performance, Medeski, Martin and Wood have the benefit of one of the finest rhythm sections in all of music history.  Bassist Chris Wood is easily one of the most talented and creative of his entire generation, and the sway and slide he is able to give "Sugar Craft" quickly becomes one of the most hypnotizing elements of the entire song.  There are also moments within his performance that take on a slightly darker, almost intimidating tone, and it is within these parts of the song where it gains an exceptional amount of depth.  The various fills and progressions that Wood deploys throughout "Sugar Craft" also serve as a clear second rhythm, as he often seems to be "dueling" with drummer Billy Martin.  Yet Martin himself is in rare form, as he seems to fly all over his drum kit, pushing each member of the band in different directions.  Though for the most part his playing sounds rather reserved, it is the manner with which he plays off the other three musicians that is so fantastic.  Whether he is coming in on an "off beat" or creating a truly amazing level of tension through his playing, there are few better examples of the "less is more" principle within drumming.  Furthermore, the complexity that arises from these two players, along with DJ Logic all working different tempos is perhaps the key that makes "Sugar Craft" such a uniquely extraordinary musical experience.

Though many try and "write off" the world of modern jazz as a "watered down" version of the classic sounds, once one gets past the surface of the genre, some of the most creative and original music of the past twenty years lives within the style.  In reality, few groups have constantly pushed the envelope on what could be achieved through music as much as Medeski, Martin and Wood, and whether they are experimenting with equally impressive guitarists or infusing the sounds and styles of a DJ into their compositions, one can easily argue the trio as one of the most important forces of the past two decades of music.  On Combustication, the group completely rewrote everything that was thought to be possible within music, as they perfectly fused together the modern sounds of hip-hop and electronic music with the classic jazz formula.  This is in many ways the most true approach there has ever been to the spirit of jazz, as the foundations of the genre were in the idea of finding complete musical freedom and refusing to conform to the norms and trends previously set.  Furthermore, the fact that Medeski, Martin and Wood achieve this feat with the stunning, sonically pleasing nature that they do is a testament to the exceptional level of talent that the trio have as both musicians as well as "students" of music itself.  Reigniting the flame of jazz music, and turning an entirely new generation on to its full possibilities, there are few moments in music history as pivotal as Medeski, Martin, and Wood's 1998 composition, "Sugar Craft."