Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31: Sun Ra, "Space Is The Place"

Artist: Sun Ra
Song: "Space Is The Place"
Album: Space Is The Place
Year: 1973

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Though it is one of the most widely used terms to reference an artist who cannot be easily categorized, there are very few performers that are truly deserving of the term "avant."  These handful of musical pioneers were able to create sounds that were so different, yet so impossible to ignore, that their names alone became the only accurate way to describe their sound.  One can find examples of such performers in nearly every era, and yet few were as "out there" as one finds within the mind-blowing catalog of the great Sun Ra.  For more than four decades, he constantly pushed the limits on what could be called "music," and in the process, he became a massive influence on a wide-range of artists across the generations.  After spending a number of years as a musical arranger and freelance pianist, he finally formed his own group in the mid-1950's, which he dubbed The Arkestra.  While the early recordings of this group certainly had a strong foothold in the bop style, they were soon off in a completely unpredictable direction, and it was in these years where the true genius that is Sun Ra can be found.  Throughout his recordings in the 1950's and 1960's, it is almost impossible to find a Sun Ra recording that is anything short of superb, and yet it is his 1973 masterpiece, Space Is The Place, where one can find the band at their creative peak.  Fusing together countless instruments and genres, there is simply nothing else in music history that even remotely compares to the sheer brilliance on the title track of the album.

Within moments of "Space Is The Place" beginning, the mission of both the song and Sun Ra's sound are abundantly clear, as almost sci-fi style organs and bass pulse from Pat Patrick across the track.  The mood that is created here persists throughout the twenty-one minute length of the song, and the fact that the band is able to keep this mood intact for such a long time is a testament to both their talents, as well as their focus.  The sound is soon complimented by the baritone saxophone of Danny Thompson, and the way in which his playing seems to sway behind the rhythm of the keys is true musical bliss.  As these two sounds become more intertwined with each moment, "Space Is The Place" pulls the listener in deeper, and there are few songs that are as completely enveloping an experience as one finds here.  As the rest of the band joins in, it becomes impossible to push the sound into a single category, as there are elements of big band, swing, jazz, funk, and a number of other styles all weaving in and around one another.  The way in which there is a clear focus and even a "calm" within the performance of all the musicians is where one can fully appreciate the conducting talents of Sun Ra, and though it soon moves into one of the most amazing jams in history, the group never seems off track or even close to chaos.  In many ways, it is this sound which can be seen as the very spirit of music, as each musician is letting their instrument guide them, and the sheer joy and beauty of this artistic exploration is what makes "Space Is The Place" a musical achievement beyond all others.

At every turn, the mood builds more and more, and it seems as if the band will never reach the peak of the song.  To that point, there are a handful of different moments in the second half of the song that one can cite as the "turning point," as there are so many amazing instances of tension release.  This is yet another way in which "Space Is The Place" sets itself far apart from the rest of recorded music, and the final portion of the song is where the equally impressive vocals take over the spotlight.  Though a majority of the singing throughout the song is handled by June Tyson and Ruth Wright, as the song turns into the final segment, Cheryl Banks, Judith Holton, and Sun Ra himself all join in, each lending their unique sound and rhythmic pattern.  Is is the fact that even in the vocals, there is a unique approach, that highlights the complete package that exists on "Space Is The Place," and there are moments where the various voices seem to almost be bouncing off of one another.  Furthermore, the words that are being sung give a phenomenal interpretation of the music itself, as lyrics like, "...there's no limit to the things that you can do..." are both inspirational, as well as representative of the bands' musical approach.  The way in which the vocals blend seamlessly with the music is the ideal finishing touch to "Space Is The Place," and one would be hard pressed to find a more complete musical work from any point in history.

Though the song is most closely based in jazz, there are so many musical elements at play throughout Sun Ra's extraordinary 1973 composition "Space Is The Place," that it is truly impossible to define it in any way other than its name.  Yet even with the unquestionable musical mastery that is at play throughout the song, it also highlights the way in which many critics had difficultly in grasping the true genius within the music of Sun Ra.  The way in which the music is almost erratic at times, combined with his notorious habit of not listing all of the players involved made his music almost confrontational, and surely these almost inconsequential elements prevented a wider spread of his brilliant sound.  However, even with this reality in play, one cannot deny the massive amount of impact that Sun Ra had on the landscape of modern music, and one can hear clear influences of his style in artists ranging from George Clinton to The MC5.  This is perhaps more understandable when one considers that Sun Ra was constantly recording through the rise of so many different trends and technologies, and yet his music remained completely unique, regardless of the state of the world of music around him.  With so many of these recordings being absolute "classics," it is rather difficult to single out a specific album as his "best work" or "most essential" recording. However, Sun Ra's 1973 album, Space Is The Place, is easily one of the greatest musical achievements in history, and the title track may very well be the most extraordinary, yet indescribable moment ever captured on tape.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30: MC Serch, "Hard But True"

Artist: MC Serch
Song: "Hard But True"
Album: Return Of The Product
Year: 1992

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While it is a rare occasion when a single artist can be pointed to as the sole pioneer in any style of music, the fact remains that even when the opposite is true, many of the most important performers are often lost in the glare of those who find commercial success.  That is to say that behind every "hit artist," there are a handful of performers that were of equal stature, but did not have similar record sales.  Though one can find this trend in every genre, it is perhaps no more obvious than during the rise of hip-hop that occurred during the first few years of the 1990's.  While the style itself was being pushed in countless new directions by artists like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, it was the "gangsta" sound that would dominate the charts and become the standard for a majority of the decade.  However, there was one performer of this era whose contributions cannot be overlooked, and one cannot deny the massive amount of influence that can be found within the recordings of MC Serch.  Standing today as one of the most highly respected emcees in history, it was MC Serch that retained the "street cred" for white rappers, and his 1992 album, Return of The Product, remains one of the most hard-hitting and lyrically brilliant records ever released.  Each track on the album has a unique feel, but it is the defiant, unapologetic "Hard But True" that stands out above the rest, and quickly proves why MC Serch stands among the greatest performers in hip-hop history.

The opening sample on "Hard But True" perfectly sums up the song, as well as a majority of the album, when the sampled voice states, "This is probably the most challenging record you have ever put on your turntable."  The song manages to quickly deliver on that promise, as the musical arrangement hits hard, yet avoids the bass-heavy, cliché sound that dominated a majority of the hip-hop of that time.  There is a great diversity within the music, and it shows the amazing talents within the production duo of Wolf and Epic.  The deep bassline that runs throughout the song gives it much of its personality, and it is also this element that lends and almost jazz-like feel to the song.  When the bassline wavers in tone, it helps to give the song a sense of movement, and there is a brilliant simplicity that runs throughout all of "Hard But True."  This mood is furthered by the keyboard progression that moves in and out of the song, and it is also the interplay between these two instruments that gives "Hard But True" a distinctive groove.  The only other sound on the song is a stripped down drum progression, and this sparse musical arrangement not only helps to keep the focus on the lyrics, but it also proves that even without excessive bass or other instruments, one can create a sound that is just as hard-hitting; and it is this idea that defines much of the music of MC Serch.

Whether one was looking for speed in delivery or fantastic lyrics, there have been few emcees in history that were up to the combined level that one finds in the work of MC Serch.  Bringing a clear and measured delivery style, there is an impact that can be felt with every word he speaks, and there is never a moment where is vocals feel forced in any way.  It is this straightforward, almost "calm in the storm" style that sets MC Serch apart from his peers, and it is also this element that lends him a large amount of authenticity in his rhymes.  Yet even as great as his sound is, there is no question that the key to the status of MC Serch lives within his absolutely amazing lyrics, and there are few emcees from any point in history that have been able to deliver lines as powerful with the consistency of MC Serch.  On "Hard But True," MC Serch drops some of his most unapologetic and challenging rhymes, and there were not many other performers of any style that were willing to approach many of the issues he does on this song.  Case in point: there is perhaps no more a scathing critique in hip-hop history than when MC Serch rhymes, "...too many times crimes get backed up, case comes up, oops, switch all the facts up...three kids rape a sister at St. John's, and become graduates, instead of cons...instead of washin' drawers or be somebody's whore, college whack buffed and polished and they kept the doors closed, jail time, wasn't even phasin' 'em, probably one of the fathers gave the school a gymnasium..."  While other emcees might have rallied against injustices, it is impossible to find as "in your face" and unrelenting an attack as one finds here, and it is moments like this that remind listeners of the true purpose and power that can be achieved within the world of hip-hop music.

The social critiques continue throughout "Hard But True," and the song presents quite a contrast to a majority of the songs that MC Serch had been known for to that point.  From his days in 3rd Bass, as well as the singles released from Return Of The Product, most were familiar with his more light-hearted style, and yet with "Hard But True," he quickly proves that he can be far more on the attack, without sacrificing any of his talents.  Yet MC Serch takes a more positive approach on the song, as he encourages people to move beyond color, when he rhymes, " sit down and mingle with the devil over supper, the only difference between us and a brother is the color...instead of hittin the last nail in the coffin try to pull it out, and find out what the hard but true is all about..."  This, in many ways, is the true essence of MC Serch, as he attempted to make the listener think, and proved that at so many levels, "we're all the same."  It is the co-existence of this stance, along with the heavy criticisms of society that enabled MC Serch to cross so many musical boundaries, as there are elements of his music that would appeal to the "hardcore" hip-hop fans, as well as parts that could be enjoyed by fans of the more socially aware style of rapping.  Even in this fact alone, one can easily understand why MC Serch remains such an icon of hip-hop, and nearly twenty years after its release, few songs can compare to the sound and power that can be found within MC Serch's 1992 classic, "Hard But True."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 29: Blonde Redhead, "In Particular"

Artist: Blonde Redhead
Song: "In Particular"
Album: Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons
Year: 2000

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While there are many essential elements that need to be in play to create a truly unforgettable song, few are more essential than having a unique and perfectly crafted mood.  In fact, if the mood is right on a song, it can often overshadow shortfalls in other areas, as exceptional deployments of mood can "take" a listener away.  Yet countless bands seem to ignore this core aspect of music, and this enables those groups that appreciate such elements to become far easier to identify.  With this in mind, one can argue that over the past twenty years, the idea of mood has been largely ignored, leading to bands depending more on "studio magic" than actually creating via their instruments.  Thankfully, there are a handful of bands that are still striving to create complete musical works, and there are few groups over the past two decades that have released as sonically stunning a catalog as one finds in the music of Blonde Redhead.  Though they are often labeled as "indie rock," the truth of the matter is that once hearing their music, it is quickly clear that there is no category that can accurately describe their music.  This is perhaps most obvious on their absolutely mind-blowing 2000 release, Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, and as a whole, one would be hard pressed to find a more complete and truly perfect record in recent history.  Every song on the album is superb in its own way, and yet one can quickly understand and appreciate the unique brilliance that is Blonde Redhead via the groups' 2000 song, "In Particular."

Within moments of the song beginning, the band deploys what builds to be one of the most distinctive, yet unquestionably poppy sounds ever recorded, and it is this ability to be "artsy," whilst still making catchy music that sets Blonde Redhead so far apart from their peers.  The subtle, almost dancing guitar riff from Amedeo Pace quickly captivates the listener, as there is "something" within the sound that is impossible to ignore.  It is the way in which the riff has an underlying sense of tension or nervousness, yet is simultaneously upbeat that makes it so unique, and this persists throughout the entire song.  Complimenting this tone, the stutter-step drumming from Simone Pace is absolutely perfect, and the fills that he drops throughout the track only highlight the fierce, yet delicate balance Blonde Redhead manages to achieve on "In Particular."  Though these two pieces work brilliantly with one another, they are pushed to an entirely different level via the pulsing, dark keyboard that weaves in and out on the song, and it is this element that drives home the mood of the song.  The fact that "In Particular" has a faster pace, and yet manages to retain an almost schizophrenic quality is nothing short of stunning to experience, and one cannot help but get wrapped up in the music, as it swirls and pounds, getting deeper as the song progresses.

However, while the musical elements on "In Particular" find unique ways to blend together, it is the contrasting voice of Kazu Makino that proves to be the key element to the overall impact of the song.  The way in which her singing quickly cuts into the track is absolutely perfect, and yet it is the fact that she never needs to or tries to overpower the rest of the elements that pushes this track beyond the other songs on the album.  Working almost exclusively in the upper registers, Makino's voice is impossible to forget, and the uniquely melancholy mood of "In Particular" is brought to an unmatched level by her vocal performance.  Even on the bridge sections, when she delivers an almost breathless sound, she never fails to be anything short of phenomenal in her execution of the lyrics.  Yet it is also the words that Makino sings that give the song much of its personality, as one can argue that "In Particular" is one of the most uniquely "self aware" tracks ever recorded.  That is to say, one can sense that the band new just how captivating the music they were playing was, and there is absolute perfection when she sings lines like, "... lying on my back. I heard music, felt unsure and catastrophic, had to tell myself it's only blows my mind, but it's like that..."  These words manage to capture the mood of their song perfectly, and the soaring, yet measured manner with which Kazu Makino delivers them serves as a magnificent finishing touch to the mastery that is "In Particular."

In nearly every aspect, "In Particular" is about exceeding or completely defying expectations, and one can even see these elements at play within the "external" factors on the song.  Though it seems a stark departure from the sounds with which he is usually associated, the entire Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons album was produced by none other than Guy Picciotto.  The fact that someone so closely linked with the most influential hardcore bands in history was able to help the band craft such a uniquely delicate sound is a testament to his boundless musical abilities, and yet one can also look to his influence on the record as the source of the "edge" that can be felt throughout the entire album.  Furthermore, when one considers that there were only three musicians on the song, the massive sound and mood that they create becomes all the more impressive.  Far beyond a simple label of "indie" or "art" rock, Blonde Redhead's "In Particular" is a work of musical genius that instantly sets them into their own musical grouping.  While one can hear elements of bands ranging from Sonic Youth to Björk to Joy Division within their music, there is no question at any point that their sound is completely original, and it was this record that finally separated the band from their predecessors.  Though the mood and sonic expertise is on brilliant display throughout the entire album, Blonde Redhead's 2000 song, "In Particular" rises above the others and remains one of the most unforgettable and absolutely magnificent achievements in all of music history.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #65"

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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. Neil Young, "On The Way Home"  Live At Massey Hall, 1971
2. Dinosaur Jr., "Tarpit"  You're Living All Over Me
3. Art Pepper, "Red Pepper Blues"  Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section
4. The Tallest Man On Earth, "King Of Spain"  The Wild Hunt
5. The Clash, "Complete Control"  Complete Control '45
6. Mac Lethal, "Rotten Apple Pie"  11:11
7. Jenna Anne, "Goodbye Little Town"
8. The Little Willies, "Best Of All Possible Worlds"  The Little Willies
9. Black Sabbath, "Falling Of The Edge Of The World"  The Mob Rules
10. The Skatalites, "Guns Of NavaroneThe Best Of The Skatalites
11. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, "(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?"  The Boatman's Call
12. Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, "Chinese Rocks"  Chinese Rocks 7"
13. Dax Riggs, "Ghost Movement"  We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love
14. Guns N' Roses, "EstrangedUse Your Illusion II

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 27: The Creation, "Making Time"

Artist: The Creation
Song: "Making Time"
Album: Making Time (single)
Year: 1966

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Among the countless trends and odd occurrences within the long history of recorded music, few are as inexplicable as the almost random phenomenon of which bands find success and which bands never reach their full commercial potential.  In nearly every genre and every decade, one can point to a handful of bands that clearly came up short and yet gained massive public notoriety, while at the same time, there are groups that were so amazing and talented, yet remain in relative obscurity.  Though many bands have been relegated to this latter category, few make as little sense as the immensely talented and absolutely groundbreaking sound of 1960's hard rock pioneers, The Creation.  From the echoing guitar riffs to the exceptional lyrics to the captivating vocals, The Creation remain one of the most amazing bands that never receive their due credit for the impact they made on the shape of music that followed.  This is largely due to their baffling lack of record sales in the U.K., as even their peers like The Who and Led Zeppelin pointed to them as one of the most powerful bands of the era.  In later years, their music would be released on compilations that were disguised as full length albums, but it was the singles they released in 1966 that almost instantly cemented their place as music legends.  Bringing a power and attitude that was simply not present anywhere else at the time, there are few songs that are more impressive in every sense of the word than the experience one finds on The Creation's pivotal 1966 single, "Making Time."

From the moment that "Making Time" begins, the influence that the band had on all of their peers is instantly clear, and the lead guitar riff from Eddie Phillips remains today one of the most unforgettable in music history.  There is a grit and attitude within his playing that was clearly copied by bands like The Who, and this fact alone is enough for The Creation to have a rightful spot amongst music legends. In fact, there was a point where Pete Townshend asked Phillips to join the band as a second guitar player, but obviously, Phillips declined the offer.  Yet Phillips is not alone in creating the powerful, captivating mood found on "Making Time," and the almost looming bassline from Bob Garner is equally impressive.  There are points on the song were the bass seems to almost bounce, and it is this element that sets the band far apart from any of their peers.  The final element of the music, drummer Jack Jones, manages to highlight the driving grind that makes the sound on "Making Time" so unique, as he incorporates the cymbals in a far more involved manner than nearly any other group at the time.  It is the way in which the band moves as a single unit, deploying this pioneering brand of attitude-driven rock that makes the connection to punk rock and heavy metal quite clear, and after hearing "Making Time" only once, it is a song that is impossible to forget.

Providing what is without question the ideal finishing touch, in terms of both style and sound, vocalist Kenny Pickett quickly establishes himself as one of the greatest vocalists in music history.  Though he is clearly more on the "singing" side of things, it is the slightly-spoken, gritty vocal style that pushes "Making Time" to an entirely new level.  Much like the music over which he sings, one can easily hear how his vocal performance influenced all his peers, and when one looks at things from a chronological perspective, one can easily argue that it is Pickett's vocals that served as the blue print for nearly all of the British "hard rock" bands that emerged over the next few years.  Along with his brilliant vocal performance, the lyrics which Pickett sings also manage to rank among the greatest in history, as they manage to capture the spirit of angst-ridden youth in a manner that is perfect unlike any other song.  When Picket sings lines like, "...why do we have to carry on, always singing the same old song...," there is a call for musical revolution that is still in many ways well ahead of its time.  Furthermore, one can easily understand how a line like this was a perfect anthem for the generation that was rising, and these words can be seen as the ideal summary of the spirit of that generation.  The way that Kenny Pickett delivers this rallying cry for change is absolutely mesmerizing, and it plays as the exact element that the band needed to finish off what is an unquestionable musical masterpiece.

Taking into account the roaring guitars, spirited vocals, and the other elements that come together to make "Making Time" such a significant musical achievement, it becomes quite difficult to comprehend the fact that in its time, the song lived in relative obscurity.  While one can argue that there were a few other bands that were dominating the charts across the world, the attitude and sonic originality found on "Making Time" surely should have been enough to overcome such competition.  Yet reality is what it is, and "Making Time" barely managed to crack the top fifty on the U.K. charts.  However, as the years passed, the song proved its strength, as it endured better than many of the "hits" of the era, and even more than forty years after its initial release, the song retains its attitude and can easily hold its own with the music of the modern era.  This strength mostly lives within the repeating guitar riff from Phillips, and as the years have passed, it has earned him the status of a true guitar legend, as bands from every generation have cited him as a massive influence.  Truth be told, it is the attitude on "Making Time" that has enabled it to endure as it has, as the way in which Phillips' power chords seem to slam into Pickett's vocals is just as energizing today as it was more than four decades ago.  Though they still do not receive the accolades they so clearly deserve, it is impossible to deny the influence and sheer musical genius that one can find on The Creation's phenomenal 1966 single, "Making Time."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

March 26: The Cranberries, "Sunday"

Artist: The Cranberries
Song: "Sunday"
Album: Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
Year: 1993

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Though it is often overlooked due to the overwhelming presence of one or two styles of music, in retrospect, one cannot deny the fact that the first half of the 1990's was perhaps the most musically diverse period in nearly three decades.  With countless bands pushing the limits of music in so many new directions, the musical landscape has rarely been more varied, and this can even be seen within the pop hits of the era.  Even with the unexpected resurgence of psychedelia, which was being fused together with nearly every style of music, to the domination of "gangsta rap," there were still a number of bands that were able to find commercial success with their individual sound, and few groups of the era were more promising than Irish rockers, The Cranberries.  Their name alone defines the entire decade to many, and this is quite understandable, as their string of hit songs continually offered a beautiful and powerful alternative to the rest of the music scene, and yet these same songs somehow managed to simultaneously fit perfectly with the music of their peers.  Though each of their record is fantastic, it is their 1993 debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?, that features the band in their finest hour, and every song on the album is captivating and moving in its own way.  Yet even on such an exceptional album, one can argue that there is no song that better defines everything that made The Cranberries so fantastic than one finds in their 1993 song,"Sunday,"

Perhaps moreso than any other band of their generation, The Cranberries had an uncanny ability for constructing absolutely beautiful musical arrangements, as they combined the "jangle" of the rising "indie rock" sound with soaring, completely captivating moods.  Though the band had a handful of hits that displayed this idea, one can experience both extremes of their sonic genius on "Sunday," and it begins with the slow, moody guitar progression from Noel Hogan.  The progression itself is rather simple, yet the amount of emotion that he conveys is far beyond that of almost any other song of the era, and it is this ability to express such high levels of sorrow and joy that defines the sound of The Cranberries.  The way in which bassist Mike Hogan gently emphasizes certain notes only adds to this overall mood, and the light touches from drummer Fergal Lawler gives the song a slow-building tension that is completely unique.  It is the manner with which the band as a whole builds this tension, with a lone violin adding to the mood, that makes "Sunday" such a superior musical experience, and after this focus introduction, the song gently explodes in the musical joy that defines the band.  The fact The Cranberries are able to completely change the face of "Sunday," yet not raise the volume in any way is part of their unique genius, and it is almost impossible to not get completely swept up in the flow of the song.  The numerous peaks and valleys that the song offers in many ways defines the band, and "Sunday" remains just as intriguing and melodically original today as it did almost twenty years ago.

However, while the music of The Cranberries is absolutely impossible to "write off" in any way, there is little argument that the focus of nearly every song is on the unparalleled voice of Delores O'Riordan.  Without question one of the most iconic voices of her generation, on "Sunday," she shows off her entire vocal range, as well as her uncanny ability to express deep emotions through this seemingly boundless scope.  While she does not go for the almost falsetto notes that define many of the bands' other songs, it is the strength and drive within her singing on "Sunday" that are far more representative of her sound, and the clearly untouched, unaltered sound of her vocals is nothing short of stunning.  Throughout the entire song, there is a raw, straightforward sound in the voice of O'Riordan, and it is this sense of authenticity that helps to draw the listener in even further, as one cannot help but get caught up in the feelings which she is expressing.  Furthermore, the words that she sings seem to be personal in a completely unique way, and they are also lyrics to which many can easily relate.  Throughout most of this record, one can find songs of the frustrations of love, and there are few lines that better sum up these feelings than when O'Riordan sings, "...and I couldn't find the words,  to say, "I love you."  And he couldn't find the time,  To say, "I need you."  It is this level of honesty, along with the sheer power of the voice of Delores O'Riordan that sets The Cranberries so far apart from every other band of their generation.

The fact that such a diverse set of musical approaches were all able to find commercial success throughout the first half of the 1990's serves as not only a testament to the talents of the bands recording, but also to the open-minded, almost tenacious musical tastes of society at the time.  Yet in retrospect, it is almost unfathomable that the light, but highly emotional music of The Cranberries would be able to find such success in the "prime" of the grunge and "gangsta rap" movements.  A majority of the "lighter" bands of the time period had already come and gone by the time The Cranberries debut album was released, and yet there is no question that to this day, they remain one of the most definitive acts of their generation.  Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to name a more instantly recognizable or powerful a voice from that time period, and to this day, it is the soft intensity of The Cranberries that helps them to remain one of the most endearing bands in history.  In a manner unlike any other group in history, The Cranberries were able to keep a delicate sound intact, even when the tone and pace of the music increased, and it is this unique balance of sounds that continues to make their songs such wonderful musical experiences.  This distinctive tone and sound are the very essence of The Cranberries, and there is no better way to experience their absolutely beautiful brand of musical mastery than their 1993 song, "Sunday."

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 25: Captain Beyond, "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)"

Artist: Captain Beyond
Song: "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)"
Album: Captain Beyond
Year: 1972

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Though the formation of so-called "super groups" is almost always impossible to predict, in nearly every case, the music yielded was someone easy to comprehend, as it was a combination of those involved.  Rarely does the music of such a band take an entirely new direction, and this is understandable, as it was their sound in the first place that made them worthy of being in such a band.  Yet there are a few cases where a team of exceptional musicians came together, and the resulting sound had little in common with the previous sounds of the members, and in one case, the group has somehow managed to fade into relative rock obscurity.  Bringing together members of Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly, along with one of the finest drummers of his generation, few groups could boast similar pedigrees to that found in Captain Beyond.  However, even with such a history, a name, and the resulting music, few are aware of the bands' existence, yet their 1972 self-titled debut remains without question one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.  Perfectly balancing all of the talents of the band, few records are as mesmerizing as one can find here, and it is an ideal example of the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.  Many of the songs flow directly into the next, and yet it is the albums' lead track, "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)," that quickly proves why Captain Beyond is such an extraordinary band.

Even from the first notes of "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)," the song has a feel that quickly draws in the listener, as the shuffling drum beat from Bobby Caldwell is nothing short of perfect.  Having honed his talents with the likes of Johnny Winter, he is able to establish the groove before the rest of the band enters. and though simple, his opening progression sets the tone for the monumental musical achievement that quickly follows.  As the guitar of former Iron Butterfly member Larry Reinhardt enters the song, the full personality of the group becomes apparent, as there is a heavy, yet not overwhelming feel to "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)."  It is within the guitar work that the somewhat strange style of the band comes into focus, as there is clearly a "southern rock" element present, and looking at the band members' former groups, this seems rather out of place.  However, the band deploys this style with absolute perfection, and one would think that this was the sound they'd been playing their entire lives.  The way in which the bassline from fellow ex-Iron Butterfly member Lee Dorman injects a groove and attitude into the song is truly fantastic, and there is a chemistry between the trio of musicians that remains largely unrivaled.  The "jam" section that occurs in the latter half of the song is absolutely mind blowing, and it is in this moment that one can hear the link to all of the band members' exploratory past.

Working in perfect harmony with the music over which he sings, former Deep Purple vocalist Rod Evans provides the idea finishing touch to the sound on "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)."  Easily working the entire vocal range, there is a swagger within his voice that helps to give the song even more personality.  Furthermore, there is a "twang" in his singing that is as "southern" as one can find anywhere, and it is amazing to compare his vocals within the realm of Captain Beyond to his other recordings.  The ease with which he is able to sing in this style almost instantly ranks him with the finest vocalists in history, and it is this almost unexpected sound that adds further intrigue to "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)."  Yet it is also the content of the lyrics that makes his performance so fantastic, and the title of the song perfectly reflects the mood that is conveyed through both the music and singing.  There is a fantastic sense of tension that runs throughout the song, and yet at the same time, it is almost impossible to not get completely caught up in the rhythm.  The way in which Evans is able to quickly paint an almost sci-fi idea of floating above the world with your problems below is absolutely superb, and there is a unique magic that can be felt when he sings lines like, "...forget about your cares, and remember underneath you is just a sea of air..."  It is the way that he masterfully works each word that makes his performance so exceptional, and this proves to be the ideal finishing element to "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)."

It is almost impossible to understand just how or why Captain Beyond has faded into relative obscurity over the decades, as even with a short listening, the outstanding talents of the group become quickly apparent.  Furthermore, there is an absolutely unique sound to their music, as they find a way to blend the "southern rock" style with a sci-fi feel, and this has never been done elsewhere to the standards one finds throughout their 1972 debut album.  The hard-hitting, deep groove that the band deploys remains fresh and completely captivating even after countless listenings, and this in itself is an undeniable marker of a truly fantastic song.  Yet it is the combined effort of the four musicians that makes "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)" such an exceptional achievement, and it is songs like this that prove the real power that can come from amazing musicians who are able to put their egos aside for the betterment of the group as a whole.  After hearing "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)," it is impossible to deny Captain Beyond the status of "super group," and it also becomes apparent that the name they selected is rather fitting of their unique musical sound.  From the twisting guitars to the almost looming bass to the soaring vocals, there is truly not an off moment anywhere on the song, and it is the absolute uniqueness of the band and song that set Captain Beyond and their 1972 song, "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)" so far apart from every other song in the history of recorded music.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24: The English Beat, "Mirror In The Bathroom"

Artist: The English Beat
Song: "Mirror In The Bathroom"
Album: I Just Can't Stop It
Year: 1980

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Though it had many side-effects across the globe in the years that followed, the way in which the "punk explosion" of 1977 re-shaped music in England was nothing short of revolutionary.  The fact that so many bands suddenly brought a similar edge to their music was a sign of how well the punk ethos fit with society at the time, and yet this musical direction was interpreted in a number of different ways.  In fact, one can directly tie the rise of punk rock with the re-emergence of the ska sound a few years later, and though it went largely unnoticed in the U.S., this wave of ska revival was perhaps the finest to date.  However, while bands like The Specials and Madness had already released seminal records, it was not until 1980 when the "two tone" sound began to cross the ocean, and this was largely due to The English Beat.  The band was without question one of the most important and influential groups of the ska revival of this era, and following a handful of well received singles, the group released their seminal 1980 full length, I Just Can't Stop It.  Bursting with energy and a unique take on the "new" ska sound, there is perhaps no other album from the era that has retained its power as completely as this album.  While most of the bands' biggest hits are on this record, few can compare to the sound and impact that can be found within The English Beat's monumental 1980 song, "Mirror In The Bathroom."

The entire core of "Mirror In The Bathroom" sets itself with the opening notes of the song, as the bassline from David Steele is without question one of the most memorable in all of music history.  The deep, winding groove that it instantly sets manages to completely capture the listener, and this element of the song is able to have just as much impact even after three decades of existence.  The way in which the bass locks into rhythm with drummer Everett Morton is nothing short of perfect, and there is a completely unique cadence that the two are able to inject into the song.  It is this element that quickly sets "Mirror In The Bathroom" aside from any similar music, as the rhythm section maintains an amazing amount of tension throughout the song, whilst also giving "Mirror In The Bathroom" an irresistible dance feel.  Yet while this duo is certainly the core of the appeal of the song, it is the way in which The English Beat is able to infuse so many other sounds and feelings that truly makes this song such a magnificent musical achievement.  Perhaps the most notable element outside of the rhythm section is the saxophone that seems to jump in and out of the song with an uncanny sense of the feel of the song.  Truth be told, this is in fact former Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker horn legend, Saxa, and his presence alone gives the band all the "street cred" they could need.  Yet it is also the perfectly toned, almost slinky guitar work from Andy Cox that complete the sound, and there are few songs from anywhere in history that have a similar somewhat dark groove as one finds on "Mirror In The Bathroom."

While some may argue that it takes a bit of a "back seat" to the brilliant musical arrangement, one cannot overlook the importance and unique perfection that can be found within the vocals of Dave Wakeling and "toaster," Ranking Roger.  Though the latter of the two is not as present here as on most of the other songs of The English Beat, Wakeling delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and the almost "spacey" feel that can be found in his vocals is yet another way in which the song stands far apart from its peers.  Within Wakeling's singing, there is a tone which one can hear all across pop music from the 1980's, and it is likely due to this element, along with the fantastic musical arrangement, that enabled "Mirror In The Bathroom" to find a wider audience.  However, one cannot deny the fact that the rather un-subtle and suggestive lyrics of the song did not have something to do with its notoriety, and it is within the lyrics that the darker mood of the song becomes far more apparent.  The nervous, almost unhinged tone that comes forth in the lyrics manages to perfectly match the tension and mental instability suggested by the lyrics, as lines like, "...cures you whisper make no sense, drift gently into mental illness..." perfectly highlight the paranoia from this blunt exploration of cocaine addiction.  Though this approach to the subject is a bit taboo, it in no way detracts from the overall impact of the song, and few performers have delivered as perfect a feeling as Dave Wakeling does on "Mirror In The Bathroom."

Strangely enough, while "Mirror In The Bathroom" was a respectable commercial hit for The English Beat, many of the following generation are more familiar with the cover of the song that was released by U.S. rockers, Fifi in the mid-1990's.  However, one can also argue that this version helped to introduce The English Beat to an entirely new audience, as there is no question that the original recording is still just as captivating and powerful today as it was when it was first released.  This longevity is largely due to the fact that, even across the world of ska, "Mirror In The Bathroom" stands alone, as the nervous, dark feeling it conveys is rather uncommon within the style.  In fact, the balance that The English Beat is able to achieve between the irresistible danceable sound and this almost desperate tone is second to none, and one can hear the wide-ranging influence of this approach throughout many other pop hits of the decade that followed.  Furthermore, it is songs like "Mirror In The Bathroom" that provide a clear link between the punk revolution of the late 1970's, and the post-punk sound that emerged in its aftermath.  While bands like Joy Division took the ethos and stayed more on the punk side, it is groups like The English Beat that retained the sentiment, but infused it into an entirely new style.  Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a more original or engaging song from any point in music history, and the fact that the dark groove remains just as hypnotic serves as a testament to the sheer musical brilliance that can be found within The English Beat's classic single, "Mirror In The Bathroom."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23: Soul Asylum, "Somebody To Shove"

Artist: Soul Asylum
Song: "Somebody To Shove"
Album: Grave Dancer's Union
Year: 1992

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Though it is an exceptionally rare occurrence, there are a few instances throughout the course of music history, where any way that one attempts to label a band almost instantly renders itself inaccurate.  While it is to be expected that some may simply incorrectly label a band as something they are not, it is not often that the definition that most use to "correct" such a label is also an incomplete way of describing the sound of a band.  Though it does not happen often, this was exactly the circumstance that seemed to follow Minneapolis-based rockers, Soul Asylum.  By the time the band gained international fame, they had already been recording for nearly a decade, and perhaps due to the time in which their most commercially successful album was released, as well as the image they portrayed, the band was lumped in with the "grunge" movement that was dominating the airwaves in 1992.  If one takes a step back, it is quite clear that they have very few similarities with such a sound, and many moved to label the band as "alternative rock."  However, when one looks deeper into the album in question, 1992's Grave Dancer's Union, it is easy to make the argument that the bands' sound is so distinctive, that if they are given such a label, it cannot be applied to any other band.  Bringing a melodic, yet aggressive tone, there is no song that better highlights the brilliantly unique sound of Soul Asylum than one finds in their 1992 single, "Somebody To Shove."

The instant that "Somebody To Shove" begins, the tone of the song, as well as just how different the bands' musical approach is becomes quickly apparent.  The almost chaotic, warning-like sound that comes from the guitar of Dan Murphy gives the listener no choice but to pay complete attention, and the way in which the song quickly drops into the full band sound is absolute musical perfection.  It is in the first few bars of the "full band" portion of the song where one can understand why the group is so far apart from their peers, as the tone and mood they are able to create remains largely unmatched to this day.  The light, yet aggressive second guitar from Dave Pirner gives the song a link to almost folk sounds, and yet it is also this same aspect that gives "Somebody To Shove" its full, almost overwhelming sound.  The rhythm section of bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Grant Young is also at the top of their game, and the strict cadence which they put forth gives the song an almost punk-like mood.  It is perhaps due to this overwhelming amount of attitude coming through on the song that enabled many to link the group to the grunge movement, yet it is impossible to deny that there was far more going on musically on "Somebody To Shove" than on almost any other recording of the time.  Furthermore, in terms of both the musical arrangement, as well as the mood conveyed, a catch-all term like "alternative rock" is almost selling the song short of the magnificent power and energy that can be found within "Somebody To Shove."

However, though the song is unquestionably one of the bands' finest musical moments, there is no question that the key to the mood is the voice and lyrics of Dave Pirner.  Across the entire recorded catalog of Soul Asylum, it is the powerful, yet somehow gentle voice of Pirner that defined the bands' sound, and "Somebody To Shove" is unquestionably one of his finest performances.  There is a nervous, almost frustrated tone in his vocals on the song, and it is this element that helps to highlight the same feeling coming forth from the music.  Pirner is able to keep this mood perfectly balanced throughout the song, while he works the entire vocal scale, and adds the ideal amount of attitude and growl and various turns on the song.  It is due to the way range of vocal inflection found on "Somebody To Shove" that gives the song a certain sense of excitement, and it is also this performance that proves just how unique Pirner was in comparison to his peers.  Yet it is the absolutely perfect lyrics on "Somebody To Shove" that push the song far beyond the rest of the bands' catalog, as few lyrics in history have mirrored the mood achieved by the vocals and music as superbly as one finds here.  The nervous tension is pushed to an almost chaotic point, and though somewhat simple, the way in which Pirner delivers lines like, "...hello, speak up, is there somebody there? These hang-ups are getting me down..." frame the nervous mood of the song and make "Somebody To Shove" a truly unforgettable work of musical art.  Furthermore, it is the way in which Pirner is able to make these sentiments feel so universal that makes the song so appealing, and make have taken "Somebody To Shove" as their own anthem of the decade.

There is no question that "Somebody To Shove" would be quickly eclipsed by the bands' second single from Grave Dancer's Union, and yet before the release of the latter, "Somebody To Shove" cracked the top ten on the "Mainstream Rock" charts, as well as topping the "Modern Rock" singles chart.  Though the song does an exceptional job of reflecting the mood and tone of the album that followed, it is also a bit sonically unique for the band, and easily sets itself atop their entire recorded catalog.  If one takes a step back and looks a "Somebody To Shove" alongside the other music being released at the time, it is easy to make the case that the song belongs in a category all its own, as the way in which the band blends together everything from punk to hard rock to folk is completely unlike any other group recording at the time.  However, largely due to the image that the band presented, they were lumped in with the grunge movement, and such a classification sells the band massively short of the exceptional musicianship and performance that can be found across this album.  Furthermore, no other song on Grave Dancer's Union holds up over the years as well as "Somebody To Shove" does, and nearly two decades after its first release, the power and attitude behind the song still come off as fresh and captivating.  It is this mood, and the uniquely aggressive, angst-filled sound put forth by the entire band that makes Soul Asylum's 1992 song, "Somebody To Shove" such a uniquely magnificent moment in music history.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22: Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal"

Artist: Michael Jackson
Song: "Smooth Criminal"
Album: Bad
Year: 1988

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Representing the smallest group of musical artists, there are a select handful who have had such long and distinguished careers, that it is impossible to find a proper place to begin or end a discussion of the career in general.  With these elite performers, they went through so many changes, and shaped popular music for so long, that it is difficult to even consider a world in which their music did not exist.  Then of course, there is Michael Jackson.  His name alone demands the utmost respect in all circles of music, as there may not be another performer in the entire history of music who has had as much impact across the entire world of music for such a lengthy time as Michael Jackson.  From his early days in The Jackson 5 to his distinguished, if not legendary solo career, there is a reason that few argue with his title of "The King Of Pop."  Over the course of more than three decades, Michael Jackson was a part of so many great songs, ranging from Motown to disco to hard rock to pop classics, that one can argue more than a dozen recordings as his "best," and thus, one is almost forced to find a song that is not only one of his best, but represents this massive range in style.  It is with this thought in mind, that one can quickly understand the entire allure behind Michael Jackson by hearing his genre-bending 1988 classic, "Smooth Criminal."

While it is a song that is not often cited as his "definitive" tune, on nearly every level, "Smooth Criminal" captures the essence of Michael Jackson, and even more than twenty years after its release, the song remains just as fresh and captivating.  Released as the mind-blowing seventh single from his phenomenal 1988 record, Bad, the song separates itself from the other songs in Jackson's catalog in that it does not feel as if he is "trying" to put on a persona, and "Smooth Criminal" seems to flow effortlessly.  This is even more impressive due to the fact that there is so much going on both musically and emotionally, and the theatrical sense this yields is far beyond that of nearly any other song in the Jackson catalog.  The song itself fuses together elements of funk, soul, disco, electronica, and even hard rock, and the fact that they work together so perfectly is a miracle in itself.  The way in which the bassline seems to almost "stalk" Jackson, following his vocals in both tone and rhythm, is completely unique, and it seems to add a second vocalist to the song.  It is also the manner with which the keyboards bounce that makes "Smooth Criminal" so catchy, and though they were heavily used across every genre by 1988, there is simply no other song that utilizes them in quite this style.  The addition of the inter-locked guitar patterns serves as the ideal finishing touch, and the combined fast-paced, yet nervous feeling that they all created as whole a true musical masterpiece.

However, though the musical arrangement on "Smooth Criminal" is nothing short of perfect, it goes without saying that the song would have gone nowhere without the vocal performance from Michael Jackson.  Having already long established himself as the pinnacle of a pop superstar, in terms of both the vocal range, as well as the attitude and emotion within his singing, there is no parallel to the performance he gives on "Smooth Criminal."  Throughout the song, he works every single part of the vocal scale, from the deep, almost sinister and spoken verses to the soaring chorus sections, the song leaves no doubt whatsoever that even after nearly twenty-five years in the business, his vocal talents were still unrivaled.  Furthermore, the energy that be brings to every word on "Smooth Criminal" is far beyond that of anything else being recoded at the time, and it is on songs like this that one can hear just how much Jackson was able to get "in character" for his songs.  Heightening the uneasy, dark undertones of the music, "Smooth Criminal" helps to drive home the overall image that Jackson was trying to build on Bad, as he seems to show very little sympathy for the protagonist of this song.  Yet even in the face of these rather grim lyrics, and the high-tension mood, one can feel that Jackson is bursting with joy and energy at every word, and it is this element that sets him miles apart from any of his peers.

Though the song may not have the "name appeal" that many of Michael Jackson's other hits carry, when one steps back and looks at his entire catalog, it is difficult to find a song therein that better represents everything he was as an artist.  Bringing together elements of dance, funk, rock, and electronica, "Smooth Criminal" is as perfect a pop song as one can find anywhere, and it much the reason that it remains as powerful and fresh more than twenty years after its first release.  Adding further support to the songs' place within the Jackson catalog, it was "Smooth Criminal" that served as the inspiration for Jackson's legendary Moonwalker film, and the music-video/short film that was created for "Smooth Criminal" also remains one of the most treasured pieces in the long history of "The King Of Pop."  As if all this wasn't enough, though it was following some of the most successful singles of Jackson's career, "Smooth Criminal" easily cracked the top five on the charts in more than ten countries, proving that at the end of the day, though non-traditional, it was as much a pop single as any other in his catalog.  Whether it is the winding keyboard riff, the mesmerizing bassline, or the absolutely irresistible "break down" section of the song, "Smooth Criminal" stands as a complete unique work of art, and this fact alone makes it easy to argue the song as an ideal representation of everything that makes Michael Jackson the absolute icon of music that he remains to this day.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #64"

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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. Edwin Starr, "War"  War & Peace
2. Sha-Na-Na, "At The Hop"  Woodstock
3. Blue Scholars, "Bruise Brothers"  Blue Scholars
4. Björk, "Pagan Poetry"  Vespertine
5. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Johnny Appleseed"  Global A Go-Go
6. Shaun Freidman, "Levitate"  Space/Time Continuum
7. Wirepony, "Hold Onto Me"  Right Hook Of Love
8. The Specials, "A Message To You RudyThe Specials
9. Cypress Hill, "Pigs"  Cypress Hill
10. Johnny Cash, "The Legend Of John Henry's Hammer"  At Folsom Prison
11. Del McCoury Band, "Just Because"  2002/06/22, Bonnaroo Festival
12. Tinariwen, "Tamatant Tilay"  Aman Iman: Water Is Life
13. Eddie Vedder, "End Of The Road"  Into The Wild
14. Shock G, "Who's Clean"  Fear Of A Mixed Planet
15. Charles Mingus, "Invisible Lady"  Oh Year
16. Tom Araya, "Revenge"  Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit The West Memphis Three

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20: Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"

Artist: Little Richard
Song: "Tutti Frutti"
Album: Tutti Frutti (single)
Year: 1955

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One of the most frustrating trends that links nearly all of the "greatest" songs ever recorded is the fact that, over time, these songs are often so over-played that the reason they are held in such a category is often lost.  Whether it is due to appearances in movies, television, or simply one of the songs that seems to "always" be on the radio, when the impact of a song becomes compromised in any way, it is important to go back and remember just why the song in question was so significant.  This is perhaps no more true than in the unforgettable recordings of one of the most uniquely original rock and roll pioneers: Little Richard.  Bringing together the sounds of soul, gospel, and r&b, and pushing them into his piano with almost reckless abandon, it was this energy and combination that served as the blueprint for nearly every other early rock artist.  Furthermore, it is amazing to consider just how many of Little Richard's singles and lines have become landmarks of culture, with many of them standing just as tall today as when they were first recorded.  Many of these timeless songs were brought together on his debut full length, 1957's Here's Little Richard, and yet by that point, his legend had already been cemented by the song that leads off that album.  While there are a number of songs from Little Richard that are deserving of the label of "essential," there is simply no other song in history that can compare on any level to his monumental 1955 single, "Tutti Frutti."

If there was ever a song that perfectly presented the fusion of blues and r&b that became rock and roll, it is"Tutti Frutti," as one can easily hear both of these influences coming together in harmony to create the new sound.  However, "Tutti Frutti" represents the ultimate "song that almost never was" situation, and it all began during a recording session in February of 1955, with Little Richard being backed by Fats Domino's band.  As the legend goes, the band was in the studio for another song, and during a break, Little Richard was so frustrated with the session that he began to pound away at the piano and sing a song he had been working on in clubs for the preceding months.  Hearing a truly revolutionary sound, producer Robert Blackwell contacted Dorothy LaBostrie to rewrite parts of the lyric, and a few months later, Little Richard recorded the song in just under fifteen minutes.  The backing musicians for the session remain largely unknown, but there is no question that the best chemistry is between the drummer and Little Richard.  The two seem to play off of one another and yet it is the aggressive, almost chaotic way in which Little Richard approaches his piano that separates "Tutti Frutti" from every other song of the time.  It is the fact that he manages to retain a swing in the song that shows the true "bridge" into rock music, and in both the sonically appealing, as well as historical sense, "Tutti Frutti" knows no equal.

Furthering his case as the most important figure in the founding of rock and roll, Little Richard delivers a vocal performance to match the energy and attitude one finds in his piano.  Working the entire vocal scale, it is the power and absolute passion with which he sings that makes "Tutti Frutti" so unforgettable, and few songs boast as unforgettable a lyric and mood as one finds here.  Furthermore, the opening shout of, "wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!" has itself taken on a place in history, and while there are many interpretations as to what it "meant," it was in fact Little Richard making the "sound" of the drums in a vocal sense.  This shout sets the perfect tone for the song, and the song drops into what is largely a blues-based lyrical progression, again providing the link between the old and new styles.  Yet when one considers the time in which the song was recorded, the lyrical content on "Tutti Frutti" is unquestionably risqué, and Little Richard leaves very little to the imagination.  As he rocks the words back and forth, he paints pictures of the two of the women in his life, and the various "benefits" that each has to offer.  Looking across all of music history, there are few other songs of young love and lust that are as perfect as "Tutti Frutti," and even after more than fifty years, the sentiments that Little Richard expresses here are still just as relevant and powerful, solidifying the timeless nature of the song.

On so many levels, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" stands far apart from its peers, and it is impossible to deny just how pivotal a moment in music history the song represents.  In modern times, one must look past the fact that the song has been used in nearly every media-based reference to the time period, and this has caused the impact of the song to become somewhat diluted.  However, when one steps back and listens with "fresh" ears to the musical mayhem on the song, it is impossible to deny just how much the song shaped the entire history of rock music, and few songs can boast a similar level of impact.  Furthermore, if one looks at the range of covers that have been recorded over the years, with everyone from Elvis Presley to Queen to The MC5 making their own versions, the lasting impact of the song is quite clear.  However, even with these other legendary artists taking a turn at the song, there is no question that none of them even come remotely close to the spirit and sound found on the Little Richard original.  It is the energy and attitude that he brings to the vocals, combined with the absolutely blazing piano work that makes his version superior, and it was these two elements that would define a majority of his other hits.  Though there were a handful of songs that shaped what would become "rock and roll," there was simply no other song more jarring or essential to this development than Little Richard's groundbreaking 1955 single, "Tutti Frutti."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 19: Magazine, "Definitive Gaze"

Artist: Magazine
Song: "Definitive Gaze"
Album: Real Life
Year: 1978

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There are a number of instances throughout the course of music history that make little sense in their time, but after a few years pass, they prove to be nothing short of prophetic genius.  This has perhaps been no more clear than in a handful of situations that surrounded the "punk explosion" of 1977.  While few could have predicted it would have taken off as it did, there was one performer who managed to have massive success on both sides of the year, but was largely invisible during the "actual moment."  Having parted ways with The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto slowly pieced together a group for fitting to his musical needs, and this second band would become equally as legendary as his first band.  Though they were only around for a few short years, only a small handful of groups are worthy of being mention in the same breath as post-punk pioneers, Magazine.  Standing in stark contrast to the mindless, copycat sounds that were already beginning to dominate the punk scene, Magazine fused together a number of different influences, and their 1978 debut, Real Life, remains one of the most mind-blowing albums ever recorded.  Often taking a darker, more musically complex approach, the band was able to retain the nervous energy that served as the base of punk, yet expand the sonic possibilities into previously untouched territory.  Though their entire debut is absolutely brilliant, there are few songs more important to the development of music, or more defining of Magazine as a band than one finds in their 1978 song, "Definitive Gaze."

While most would point to the bands' first single, "Shot By Both Sides," as their definitive work, the truth of the matter is, looking at their entire body of work, that song stands as a bit of an anomaly, while "Definitive Gaze" is far more representative of their overall musical approach.  As the song opens, the uneasy, rather dark sound created by bassist Barry Adamson and keyboard player Dave Formula completely captivates the listener, and considering it in the time in which it was released, one can easily argue that there was simply nothing similar being created anywhere.  It is in fact the work of Formula that drives a majority of the song, as it gives "Definitive Gaze" a completely unique tone that largely defines the group.  Whether it is the almost haunting chords or the soaring progressions, one cannot fully understand just how brilliant Formula's playing is without experiencing it firsthand.  The sound with which his performance smashes into the guitar of John McGeoch is absolutely amazing, and the two manage to highlight both sides of the punk sound, whilst simultaneously blazing a completely new musical path.  However, perhaps moreso than any of his peers, drummer Martin Jackson proves the overall importance of the rhythm section, and the way in which he heightens the overall mood through his various fills and the steady, nervous cadence is the key to "Definitive Gaze" rising so far above every other band recording at the time.

However, while the music is certainly the focal point of the mastery behind "Definitive Gaze," the song would not be complete without the fantastic vocal performance from Howard Devoto.  As soon as he begins singing, the close ties with the sound of his former band are instantly clear, and yet they are slightly darker, perhaps more angry, and manage to become an entity onto themselves.  Throughout the entire song, Devoto sounds as "on edge" as one can find anywhere, and it often sounds as if he may unravel into madness at any point.  This unique tension is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of the entire song, and one can quickly appreciate how much more this lends to the song than the usual sneering, detached vocals that were already dominating the punk scene.  Along with his fantastic vocal approach, one of the most overlooked elements of almost all of Devoto's song is the fact that he is without question one of the finest lyricists of his generation.  Completely ignoring all of the norms and trends within the punk scene, one cannot deny the poetic quality found on "Definitive Gaze," and this enables the song to be far deeper and groundbreaking than nearly anything else at the time.  Even in the opening lines of, "...I've got this bird's eye view, and it's in my brain, clarity has reared, its ugly head again...," one can feel the somber, almost hopeless feeling, and the way in which Devoto conveys these moods proves to be the ideal finishing touch on "Definitive Gaze."

While many bands may have been bridges between the original, pure sound of punk rock, and the post-punk movement that quickly followed, one can easily argue that no band was more important than Magazine.  The way in which the group was able to incorporate the "art rock" sounds of bands like Roxy Music and even pulling elements from the likes of Pink Floyd is absolutely unprecedented, and without their pioneering efforts, music may never have expanded in the manner that it did over the following years.  Led by the sonic vision of Howard Devoto, it is almost impossible to fathom that he was able to craft as flawless and truly brilliant a record as one finds in Real Life, in less than a single year of work.  Even putting together such a perfect band could have taken this time, and yet there is no question that the five band members share an absolutely uncanny chemistry within the recording studio.  Quite literally every song on Real Life is true musical perfection, and after hearing the record, one can easily point out its influence on a countless number of later groups.  Yet in modern times, Magazine rarely receives the credit they deserve for being such an integral part of music history, being largely overshadowed by the more commercially successful punk bands of their era.  However, after hearing Real Life, one simply cannot deny their groundbreaking sound, and there are few songs in the history of music that are as truly stunning in every sense as one finds in Magazine's monumental 1978 recording, "Definitive Gaze."

Friday, March 18, 2011

March 18: U-Roy, "Chalice In The Palace"

Artist: U-Roy
Song: "Chalice In The Palace"
Album: Dread In A Babylon
Year: 1975

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While many see the "special" titles given to the most elite artists in history as insignificant or even over the top, the fact of the matter is, there is a reason why these performers were singled out from their peers.  Whether it was "The Genius," "The Teacher," or even "The King," such labels have become synonymous with the performer in question, and few can argue their right to such a title.  However, when artists of this caliber are discussed, there is always one that seems to be left out, and it was he who earned the title of "The Originator," the one and only U-Roy.  Hailing from Jamaica, he was not the "first" DJ, nor was he the first to put his talents on record; yet he was without question the first such performer to expand his sound beyond "the islands," and bring international recognition to the style of "toasting."  Having already spent more than a decade honing his craft, when U-Roy released his major debut in the form of 1975's Dread In A Babylon, the sound was nothing short of stunning, and it forever changed the landscape of the music of his home land.  Bringing a brilliant combination of amazing lyrics, largely rapped over some of the finest reggae and dub ever recorded, U-Roy perfectly captured all of the energy of the sound systems of his native land, and few songs better define his sound or the genre as the sound found in his 1975 classic, "Chalice In The Palace."

The instant that "Chalice In The Palace" begins one can only imagine how much it would have "set off" a sound system, as U-Roy sets himself to perform over one of the most famous rocksteady songs in history.  Using a tweaked interpretation of The Techniques' iconic song, "Queen Majesty," the tone and groove set into place is nothing short of perfect.  The way in which producer Prince Tony Robinson adds more of a dubstep feel to the song is exactly what the song needed to provide the ideal background for U-Roy's vocals, and yet the emotional beauty of the original version is not in the least bit lost.  The smooth, steady bounce to the song is easily able to draw in listeners from every musical persuasion, and one can easily argue that this ability to quickly and simply cross musical boundaries is one of the most defining aspects of all "island" music.  From the light keyboard progression to the way in which the guitar bounces along with the drums, "Chalice In The Palace" is without question one of the most catchy songs ever recorded, and this is highlighted by the way in which the bass seems to almost be dueling with the brief, but bright horn sections on the song.  The combination of all these sounds gives "Chalice In The Palace" a uniquely upbeat feel, and the mood of the song stays as strong as ever, even after repeated listenings.  This is the element that sets the music of U-Roy apart from his peers, as the song never "gets old," proving just how perfectly arranged and balanced every element of the song was crafted.

However, even with this amazing musical creation, there is no arguing that the focus of the song is entirely on that of the vocal performance of U-Roy himself, and his work on "Chalice In The Palace" is without question one of, if not his finest work.  Perhaps moreso than any other vocal recording in history, throughout the entire track, it is clear that U-Roy is completely letting the music dictate how and where he lets his delivers his words.  From singing to shouting, he gives into the power and groove of the song, and this raw, unrestrained sound develops into one of the most stunning vocal performances in history.  Furthermore, the subject of which he sings is one to which so many can relate, as he works a story of the classic "rich versus poor" love frustration, setting himself opposite a Queen with whom he yearns to be.  Yet U-Roy is certainly not taking the traditional approach within his lyrics, as all he seems to want to do is, "...really, really, really want to have a chat with you..." and, "...come out of the palace to lick of my chalice..."  Though this local slang may be lost on many listeners, the term "chalice" is a reference to his smoking pipe, and this gives the entire song a fantastically honest and strangely endearing feel, and this is one of the many reasons why U-Roy was able to rise above his peers.

Though the combination of the music and U-Roy's vocals are absolutely stunning, one can argue that due to the power and style of his voice, many of the songs found on Dread In A Babylon would have been hits even without the music.  U-Roy's voice is rarely less than completely captivating, and regardless of personal music taste, one cannot help but get completely caught up in his performances.  The sheer joy and relaxed mood found in most of his songs is honest and pure in a way unlike any other performance in history, and it is much the reason that the songs of U-Roy are perfect for any mood or situation.  Perhaps due to the way that he completely gives himself to the music, U-Roy's influence would quickly spread across the world, with an influence that can be heard in everything from hip-hop to soul, and even within the sound of legendary  punk bands like The Clash.  The way in which U-Roy paints the classic idea of love attempting to overcome class is absolutely fantastic, and there are few lines in his catalog that are more memorable than when he sings, "...seeing that you wear the crown, and I wear the dread, I'm feeling kind of red and I wanna have a chat with ya..."  This is a feeling to which all can easily relate, and it is this completely honest and universal approach that earned U-Roy the iconic status he holds to this day, as well as what helped his 1975 song, "Chalice In The Palace" rise to an equally legendary place in the overall history of recorded music.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17: The Pogues, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"

Artist: The Pogues
Song: "If I Should Fall From Grace With God"
Album: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Year: 1988

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Though it does not happen nearly as often as one might want, when two seemingly opposite sounds are able to be fused together in perfect balance, it almost always yields the most exciting and original music that one can find.  Across the decades, there are scattered artists who find ways to blend sounds together that nobody else would dream of, and there is simply no denying the massive influence that such artists have on the world around them.  Among these musical visionaries, few are as often overlooked as Shane MacGowan, and the way in which he brought harmony to a combination of punk and Irish folk music with his band, The Pogues.  Throughout the 1980's, The Pogues offered some of the most original and energetic music of any band on the planet, and they were able to excel in everything from beautiful ballads to somewhat dark humor to high-octane anthems.  After recording a pair of impressive albums, the group entered the studio again, under the watchful eye of Steve Lillywhite, and the resulting record, 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God, remains one of the most passionate and outright beautiful albums ever recorded.  Showcasing all of the bands' diverse sounds and talents, the record is an unprecedented journey through musical experimentation, and there are few songs that better define The Pogues than the albums' magnificent title track.

Released as the albums' second single, it presents a stark contrast to the bands' now-legendary, "Fairytale Of New York."  However, one can easily argue that"If I Should Fall From Grace With God" is far more accurate a representation of the sound of The Pogues, as it brings a far greater tempo and more jovial mood.  This, in many ways, is the secret to the music of The Pogues, as the manner with which they blend together the feelings and tones of traditional Irish folk music with the energy and spirit of punk rock is unlike any other band in history.  Incorporating a cavalcade of instruments, the wall of sounds that comes forth on "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" makes it one of the most irresistibly enjoyable songs, regardless of ones' musical preference.  From the accordion of James Fearnley to the array of banjos, whistles, and guitars from the remainder of the band, it is impossible not to get caught up in the mood, and the enjoyment The Pogues had recording this song comes through quite clearly.  Drummer Andrew Ranken gives the song a fantastic bounce, and the entire band seems to careen around every corner with stunning speed, yet not a moment on the song seems forced or out of place.  Furthermore, the production is far cleaner than their previous efforts, and "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" proves that this more "proper" recording sound can be achieved without sacrificing any of the bite and edge that define the sound of The Pogues.

Along with the full, joyous sound of the entire band, The Pogues are simply not The Pogues without the presence of frontman and founder, Shane MacGowan.  After hearing his voice for only a few moments, one can easily hear just how many later artists he influenced with his distinctive vocal approach.  Often slurring his words, and spitting them with a power that often overshadowed his amazing poetic talents, MacGowan set the standard for nearly every Irish-punk crossover band that followed.  Yet on "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," his words are more comprehensible than most of his songs, and one can easily feel the roots-based tone within each line.  Though the music and his singing are rather spirited, the song itself is rather dark, and this downtrodden, almost hopeless view found in his lyrics perfectly present how brilliant a writer there is within MacGowan.  Setting the tone for the song with the opening lines, of, "If I should fall from grace with God, where no doctor can relieve me, if I'm buried 'neath the sod, but the angels won't receive me, let me go, boys, let me go, boys, let me go down in the mud, where the rivers all run dry," there is a strange, but clear "every man" quality to the song.  It is this attitude that endeared the band to so many, gaining them one of the most loyal followings in history, as there are few singers that can be as easily related with as MacGowan, and the sentiments he presents, as well as the way he sings here give all the proof one needs to understand why he was such a pivotal performer in the overall history of music.

Strangely enough, The Pogues rarely receive the credit they so richly deserve for their unrelenting pursuit of unique musical perfection, as well as the fact that, simply put, before their time, there was no other group attempting to create similar music.  Their superb fusion of Irish folk music with the power and energy of punk rock is unlike anything else, and this delicate balance is one of the few sounds that can truly be enjoyed by music fans of any age or musical persuasion.  In every aspect of their music, there is a "working class" feel to the song, and one can easily imagine any of their recordings being played in a small pub for the enjoyment of the locals.  The fact that The Pogues were able to keep such a sound, even in a large studio is a testament to their talents, and they never sounded better than the songs on If I Should Fall From Grace With God.  The fact that the songs sound so clean, yet do not sacrifice any of the grit or sweat that can be felt on their earlier recordings is what makes the album so special, and it is a record that quickly works its way into the heart of every listener.  From the stunning ballads to the more politically charged songs, the record features every side of The Pogues, and few bands of any genre have shown as much diversity within their sound as one can hear here.  Yet it is the title track of If I Should Fall From Grace With God that stands out the most, summing up the energy, talent, and sheer musical genius of The Pogues, and there is simply no other song in history that can even remotely compare to the musical bliss found within this groundbreaking track.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16: The Lurkers, "Ain't Got A Clue"

Artist: The Lurkers
Song: "Ain't Got A Clue"
Album: Fulham Fallout
Year: 1978

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One of the biggest traps that both a band and listener can fall into is when comparison between artists comes into play.  When someone claims a group is "the next so and so" or "a response to this other band," it can unjustly classify a group or even downplay the talents or significance of the latter of the compared bands.  The fact of the matter is, every band is different, as they pull from different influences and life experiences, and to make such strong ties between groups does far more damage than good.  With this in mind, it is understandable that, in large part due to the band to which they were compared, The Lurkers have never received the credit they deserve for their music.  At the time, the group was called "Britain's answer to The Ramones," and while the two bands do share a similar sound, there is no question that The Lurkers easily stood on the merit of their own talents.  Bringing a fast-paced, punk sound that was as pure and enjoyable as any other band, the band was one of the few bands in the late 1970's punk explosion that stayed true to the roots of the genre.  Due to this, it is not surprising that The Lurkers 1978 debut, Fulham Fallout, remains one of the most potent and influential albums of the era, and the songs retain their punch and power even more than thirty years later.  Though there are a number of stand-out tracks on the album, it is the lead song, 1978's "Ain't Got A Clue," that quickly proves why The Lurkers were one of the most important bands in music history.

Few songs provide a better "opening" feel than one can experience on "Ain't Got A Clue," as the way in which the song "rolls" in is nothing short of perfect.  After the almost chaotic opening, the song quickly moves into a simple, yet powerful musical progression, and few songs serve as better proof of the brilliance that can be found in simplicity.  The guitar from Pete Stride is perfect in every sense of the word, as it has the edge that defines the punk sound, yet at the same time it is restrained enough to have a unique pop appeal.  The fact that the band decided not to turn the volume all the way up is one of the many aspects that separates them from their peers, and "Ain't Got A Clue" quickly proves that such a move usually turns out of the better.  Bassist Nigel Moore is equally impressive, and he quickly deploys a deep, winding groove that persists for the entire song.  Perhaps due to the fact that the volume is not overwhelming, his playing takes on a far more prominent place in the music, and it is within this element that The Lurkers were able to make themselves completely distinctive.  Rounding out the band was drummer, Esso, and he injects a quick march into the song, and again supports the idea that there can be great benefits to showing restraint and balance within an overall sound.  The way in which the three musicians move as a single unit is as good as music gets, and yet the key to "Ain't Got A Clue" is the fantastic mood and melody that dominates the entire song.

Furthering this purposeful concentration on the melody and construction of the song, the vocals from Howard Wall are clearly where the band ends up being compared to other groups.  In both his tone, as well as the style with which he delivers the lyrics, the similarity to Joey Ramone is almost unavoidable, and yet one can easily argue that Wall stands on his own.  There is a unique, nervous tension that runs throughout the song, and this mood is most apparent during the spoken "break down" section in the middle of the song.  The way that this part of the song gives way to the music is one of the greatest moments in all of music history, and one can easily feel this "drop" even after repeated listenings.  Yet even with the fast-paced lyrical delivery, Wall never sacrifices the musicality of the lyrics, and it is from this aspect that "Ain't Got A Clue" derives it's unquestionably pop personality.  Simply put, the combination of the bounce of the music and the melody put forth by the entire band at times makes the song sound more pop than punk, and after hearing it only once, it is almost impossible to forget this hook.  Yet even with this clear pop sense, it does not sound as if this was a purposeful mission, as the overall feeling is one of an uncompromising, straightforward group simply playing their songs in the style they wish.  This contrast is no better displayed than in Howard Wall's vocals, as he seems unconcerned with how they are perceived, and this mood provides the ideal finishing touch to the song.

Taking Fulham Fallout as a complete work of art, perhaps the most distinguishing aspect comes in the cleanliness and tone of every song.  While many other bands were going for a rough, almost sloppy sound, The Lurkers kept things tight and balanced, and this helps to put far more focus on their musical abilities and the overall sound of the song.  To this point, "Ain't Got A Clue" is as potent and powerful a song as one will find anywhere, and there are no gimmicks or overwhelming production tricks to get in the way of the sound.  This, in many ways, is the true essence of punk rock, as the band simply puts their music out there, and makes no implication that they care whether or not the listener enjoys their sound.  Yet it is impossible not to get into the music that the band plays, as the melodies which they deploy are easily on par with the finest pop songs of the day.  The fact that both the music and lyrics are so unforgettable is a testament to the talents of the band, and yet this aspect also separates them from the traditional perception of punk rock.  It is also this aspect that linked the band to The Ramones, and yet one can easily hear The Lurkers as a brilliant band in their own right.  Whether it is the perfectly formed musical hooks or the almost anthemic lyrics and singing, there are few songs that remain as powerful and musically perfect as one finds in The Lurkers' classic 1978 single, "Ain't Got A Clue."