Saturday, November 28, 2009

456- Third Sister Lovers- Sorry, what?


Album: Third/Sister Lovers.

Artist: Big Star.

Year: 1974

Genre: Pop.

Tracks.


  1. Stroke It Noel
  2. For You
  3. Kizza Me
  4. You Can't Have Me
  5. Nightime
  6. Blue Moon
  7. Take Care
  8. Jesus Christ
  9. Femme Fatale
  10. O, Dana
  11. Big Black Car
  12. Holocaust
  13. Kanga Roo
  14. Thank You Friends

This is without a doubt the strangest damn thing that has passed onto my MP3 player in a long time. I thought this album was strange when I first encountered it, stranger when I listened to it and stranger still when I read about it. I naively assumed before I went into this blogging project that there wasn’t much that could surprise me. I thought every release (with the exception of some rap and hip hop) would be by an artist that I was at least familiar with. I might not own the album but I’d know a song or two and at the very least have heard of the artist. Imagine my surprise when Big Star came along- a musical act who were completely off my radar. An album that has been around almost as long as I have, by a band that’s been on the planet for longer than I’ve lived, but I was completely unaware of. It was a novel experience putting in my earphones in order to hear a release with no preconceptions, a completely fresh listen.

Third Sister Lovers is as weird as its title would suggest. It’s just a massive big bucket of odd with trappings of strange and a healthy dose of bizarre just to keep things interesting. But not in a Trout Mask Replica kind of way more in a “lets-not-adhere-to-any-rules” sort of way. I started to get a handle on the album a few tracks in when I finally recognised a song. It was a cover of Femme Fatale by the Velvet Underground and suddenly it all made a lot more sense. This is the sort of music that fans of Cale, Reed and Nico make when they’ve got recording contracts and melodies in their heads. Listening to this album you can formulate an image of the musicians as bohemian beatnicks who grew up in a freak community and found the Velvet Underground as their musical saviour. They started life performing 30 minute versions of Sister Ray and bemoaning commercial radio and pop music in general. Except that’s not the case. Lead singer and Prime Mover Alex Chilton was actually a member of the Blue-eyed Memphis soul/pop group The Box Tops who were clean cut young lads performing songs with titles like Choo Choo Train and I Met Her in Church. Chilton moved from those squeaky clean early days to take residence somewhere out in left field. He released two albums with his new band Big Star which didn’t sell well and then finally this record which was regarded as so uncommercial it sat unreleased for four years.

While Chilton may have embraced some of the musical directions of the Velvets he certainly hasn’t adopted their lyrical obsession with drugs and sadomasochism. Lou Reed penned a song called Jesus which you won’t find being adopted by mainstream churches anytime soon. But Jesus Christ by Big Star is an honest-to-god Christmas song. “Jesus Christ was born today, Jesus Christ was born” is sung without a hint of irony and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Christmas music compilation (It's probably on one somewhere). The rest of the album seems to be obsessed with sad themes and despair and the occasional moment of bafflement. What does Kizza Me actually mean?

Musically Third Sister Lovers roams merrily around genres without ever settling on one in particular or seeming to care. At times Chilton’s voice sounds eerily like a George Harrison impersonator searching for a tune. The guitars sound positively supernatural, ranging from ghostly to possessed, the strings drone and at times the backing vocalists sound like talented amateurs while at other times they just sound amateur.

There are melodies but nobody seems to know what they are.

You get the sense that the strings were arranged based on a visual aesthetic more than an aural one: “I’ve arranged the strings, all the violas are sitting in a straight line while the cellos have adopted a V formation”.

There are horns/woodwinds but they’re not played as much as engaged in combat, at one stage a clarinet player is physically attacked by his instrument which he clearly enraged at some point during the session.

The percussion wanders around with a sense of randomness not often found in mainstream drumming. At the end of Kangaroo there is a sudden burst of cowbell which is mixed in at a higher volume than anything else. It doesn’t sound like the deliberate act of a musician as much as the sudden entrance of a passing madman with a cowbell, or possibly even an actual cow.

All of this might make you believe I don’t like this album. In fact nothing is further from the truth. I should hate it but I don’t. Something about it sort of works, not in a “greater than the sum of its parts” way more in a “defying the impossible odds” way. A bit like the world’s must beautiful car crash, or a massive industrial accident that somehow resembles Michelle Pfieffer, it shouldn’t work but it does.

Either way I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this is the greatest album with a Christmas song and Nico cover ever recorded by an ex-boy band member and then left unreleased for almost five years.

Highlight: You can’t have me. Some truly great drumming moments and worth searching out.

Lowlight: I thought it was Kangaroo but according to everyone else it’s the best song.

Influenced by: disillusionment with a record label.

Influenced: Primal Scream and Radiohead.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: “It behooves us to examine the hit songs released in 1974, and see where rock and roll could have gone without this album and the intelligent fan base of aficionados and critics which have sustained its legendary status until the consciousness of the world could catch up. Here then is a list of top radio hits from 1974; it is not a pretty picture: "Smokin' In The Boys Room" - Brownsville Station, "Waterloo" - ABBA, "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" - Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, "Already Gone" and "Best Of My Love" - The Eagles, "Kung Fu Fighting" - Carl Douglas, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" - Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "Can't Get Enough" - Bad Company, "Shang-A-Lang" - Bay City Rollers, "Midnight At The Oasis" - Maria Muldaur, "I Honestly Love You" - Olivia Newton-John, and of course, the most horrific cloying noise that vaguely resemble music ever recorded..."(You're) Having My Baby" by Paul Anka & Odia Coates.”

-You have to love anyone who introduces research with the word “behooves.” Good for you.

So are you a third sister lover lover or do big star just kizza you off? Let me know below.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

457. For Everyman- Taking it very easy indeed.


Album: For Everyman.

Artist: Jackson Browne

Year:1973

Genre: Unchallenging listening.


Tracks.

  1. Take It Easy
  2. Our Lady of the Well
  3. Colors of the Sun
  4. I Thought I Was a Child
  5. These Days
  6. Red Neck Friend
  7. The Times You've Come
  8. Ready or Not
  9. Sing My Songs to Me
  10. For Everyman



There’s a song on For Everyman that I think sums up the situation rather well. It’s called Ready or Not and it’s about a young man who is forced to give up his carousing ways in order to settle down with the woman he’s knocked up. Ready or not he has to change from his life as a bit of a Rock and Roller to more of an Adult Contemporary individual. If you’re at that point in life where you’re starting to settle down and embrace your approaching middle-age then Jackson Browne might be just the thing for you. If you’ve got a CD collection that leans towards Rock music (some Stones, The Clash, copies of Dire Straits albums you don’t recall purchasing) and you want to move your tastes more towards easy listening then Jackson Browne might well be the perfect transition point. Treat him like training wheels for your middle-aged music tastes.


That’s not to say Jackson Browne is boring, he’s just not really that interesting. He’s not so much Rock and Roll as Sway and Wobble. He’s a musician that you could happily take home to visit your mother, she wouldn’t be offended, in fact it’s possible she wouldn’t even notice. The general feel on For Everyman is laid back and easy. It’s a fair bet all guitar solos on this album were played sitting down. It’s music for the back porch with all the urgency of a tectonic plate drift.


The most widely recognized song on For Everyman is Take it Easy which was written by Browne but a huge hit for the Eagles, who are another band that you’re mother would be happy to meet but struggle to recall the next day. Browne was generous enough to give Take it Easy away which means by the time he came to record it for this album everyone who cared knew it already.


The other standout track is the up tempo rocker Redneck Friend which kicks along at a reasonable pace thanks in part to Elton John who provides some rollicking riffs on piano. You know you’re album isn’t really rock and roll if Elton John is responsible for its heaviest moment. Other guests drop in to provide assistance to some of the tracks including members of the Eagles along with David Crosby and Bonnie Raitt who provide backing vocals but not so you could tell it was them. As an important footnote, Drums on this album were partly provided by Jim Keltner who may not be a name you recognise but has probably played more drums on the top 500 album list than anyone else. In fact it’s possible that Keltner is the one person whose performing features here more than any other artist.


The rest of For Everyman is basically Browne being laid back and oozing warm layers of inoffensive musical reflections full of yearning and contemplation. Jackson is the only guy on the planet who could cover Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and make it seem wistful. He just has a way of making everything come across as evocative of a time and place that I’ve never been but Browne seems to think I’m familiar with.


For Everyman is actually a fairly good title for this release. It’s probably has the same effect on pretty much everyone who hears it. Nobody is going to regard it as offensive and a painful listen but then I can’t see too many getting excited enough to actually raise themselves out of their porch chairs.Only 32 people felt moved enough by it to actually post a review on Amazon which is among the lowest for all the albums in the top 500. Four of those reviews gave the album 3 stars which is also fairly odd. Who logs onto Amazon to give an album 3 out of five stars? Traditionally all Amazon reviews are either five star raves or 1 star trashings designed to annoy the five star ravers and drop it's average rating down. Well here's to everyone who felt inspired enough by For Everyman to go out of their way to tell everyone they considered it slightly above average. Take it Easy.


Highlight: Red Neck Friend.
Lowlight: Our Lady of the well.
Influenced by: Furniture and the desire to record music without leaving it.
Influenced: The Eagles and the more laid back variety of singer songwriter.



Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:
"I alluded to a song from this album, "Ready Or Not" in my review of Alvin & Mylon's "On The Road To Freedom." It's a interesting little ditty about his ladyfriend (please tell me it wasn't Darryl Hannah) turning up....pregnant. In the key of "E," Jackson tells us, "someone's gonna have to explain it me." Dude, if you didn't know then, you've only your folks (I guess) to blame. And there's a great version of "Take It Easy" on this thing too, yeah, THAT one that he wrote for the Eagles. A tad too...."mellow" for my tastes, but then there's a song, "Redneck Friend," which ain't bad. The pianist noted in the liner notes is - ahem - "Rockady Johnnie." Which translates to a still closted, not yet a "sir," Elton John. I just can NOT deal with Jackson Browne in all honesty; however, after hearing "Ready Or Not" while "similarily inclined," I guess I felt I had to run out in a buying frenzy and purchase the album. It ain't bad, but my wife's the only one of us who listens to it anymore. Go figure..."

-How fantastic is that? A three star review that takes itself so easy in the end he admits he doesn't actually listen to the album.

So is this release really for Everyman or not? Let me know below.

Friday, November 20, 2009

458. John Prine- High Country and Western.


Album: John Prine.

Artist: John Prine.

Year: 1971

Genre: Hippiefied American Folk.


Tracks.

  1. Illegal Smile
  2. Spanish Pipedream
  3. Hello In There
  4. Sam Stone
  5. Paradise
  6. Pretty Good
  7. Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore
  8. Far From Me
  9. Angel From Montgomery
  10. Quiet Man
  11. Donald and Lydia
  12. Six O'Clock News
  13. Flashback Blues

Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline reconnected a generation of musicians with traditional American music and allowed them to incorporate the sounds of country and western into their musical landscape. The Eagles, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and others were able to marry their hippie ideals with the traditions of the American heartland and produce albums that some call country rock but I prefer to call Rope and Dope- songs about rural America and how much fun it is to experience while stoned.

Strutting into this genre in 1971 was a guy called John Prine who sounds like a country star with hippie values. His voice is Nashville but his lyrics are San Fransisco. He was happy to mix wild-west nostalgia with surreal imagery and anti war songs and comes away looking like a clever guy who has managed to keep a foot in both camps without alienating either.

The opening track on John Prine helps to set the tone. After a verse that establishes that he has the blues (including a great line about trying to stare down a bowl of oatmeal and losing) he comes in with a chorus telling us that it’s okay because he’ll be spending the evening with an “Illegal Smile.” Despite the fact that marijuana never gets a mention, it’s clear what’s giving Prine a reason to grin. The term Illegal Smile is now a part of hippie drug culture and Mr Prine managed to become a hero of a generation without alienating fans of country music who were happy to embrace his music.

Over the course of the album Prine gives us some protest songs, tragic tales of returned veterans, Dylan-like surrealism, high comedy, subtle sacrilege and some really great tunes. He also delivers a Country standard which you’ve surely heard somewhere. Angel from Montgomery is a fantastic song which I knew well from a dozen different covers but had never heard sung by its writer. It really is a beautiful song and while I probably prefer versions by Bonnie Raitt than its writer that doesn’t take anything away from Prine’s rendition which is just beautiful.

I have to confess that I had a very strange experience with this album. I listened to it for the first time on a Friday morning on my commute to work and enjoyed it a lot. By the time I returned home that night I’d heard it twice more and concluded it was great stuff. The next day I went down with Swine Flu and spent a period of days sick in bed with a high temperature. Throughout that experience I had lines from Prine’s songs repeating themselves over and over again in my head. My fever-addled brain had latched onto snatches of his music and decided that what I needed was to hear them as a permanent looping soundtrack to my global-pandemic induced illness. Most prevalent was the chorus of Pretty Good (“Pretty Good, not bad I can’t complain, but actually everything’s just about the same”) which seemed to be in my head every waking second of every day. By the time the virus has moved on to harass some other poor swine I can’t tell you how sick I was of hearing these lines. Music can definitely be evocative and your response depends on your experiences, so many people still love incredibly bad songs simply because they were playing while they lost their virginity (this is the only reason I can think of why anyone still has a fondness for Supertramp). My enjoyment of this particular song is possibly muted by my experiences but then it’s not fair to lay blame on John Prine just because the extra degrees of heat frying my brain chose to play his music as a soundtrack to my pain. But it speaks well of him that his songs are so catchy that I could sing them after only three listens.

Catchy sums up Prine well. His music is definitely catchy, his lyrics are witty and he’s a lot more fun than a dose of swine flu. I highly recommend him.

Highlight: Angel from Montogomery.

Lowlight: Hmmm. I’m struggling with this. It’s a very consistent album.

Influenced by: Bob.

Influenced: Loudon Wainwright III

Favourite Amazon Review Quote: "Illegal Smile" is a bouncy tune about trying to laugh when everything around you is going wrong.”

-Hmmm. I think you might have missed the point a bit.


So did Prine give you an illegal smile or do you think he should be arrested?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

459. Strictly business- My favourite Rap Album.


Album: Strictly business

Artist: EPMD

Year: 1988

Genre: Hip Hop.

Tracks


1 Strictly Business
2 I'm Housin'
3 Let the Funk Flow
4 You Gots to Chill
5 It's My Thang
6 You're a Customer
7 The Steve Martin
8 Get off the Bandwagon
9 D.J. K la Boss
10 Jane

This is the fifth Rap album I’ve listened to in the countdown so far (not counting the Fugees and D’Angelo which both had rap elements) and it’s definitely my favourite. While it hasn’t converted me to rap music it definitely ranked above a lot of other stuff I’ve had to endure lately. I reacted so positively to it that I decided to go back and dig out the rap I’ve listened to up to this point and give them a bit of a spin in case I’d started to develop a taste for rap music. Perhaps listening to five rap albums four times each had opened my ears to the joy of hip hop. I certainly understand what’s going on more. I know to call vocalists “MC’s” I know that a good backing is dope and a bad one is wack. So I wondered if I appreciated it more on a musical level now that I could follow it on an intellectual one.

The answer is no.

I stand by everything I’ve written about rap so far. LL Cool J is still duller than an internet forum dedicated to a the joys of fonts and all my other comments still stand. Which means my appreciation of this album isn’t related to my increased understanding of dope MCing as much as it’s about the fact that Strictly Business is a different kind of rap. EPMD are funky. They’ve got a groove on. Their beats are certainly (and I feel like a total wanker saying this but there’s no other word for it) dope. They are in fact the dopest beats I’ve heard so far. Positively toe-tapping in fact. Most of the backing behind the two MC's is made up of samples but they’ve chosen some funk-filled artists to use. The most easily identifiable was Clapton’s version of I shot the Sherrif (in the title track) but there’s also some Sly and the family stone, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and even some Pink Floyd kicking around in the background. The combined effect is obviously designed to fill dance floors more than other rap which seems designed to stand around posing to. (And you'd have to say it's the first time Pink Floyd have ever been used to get someone shaking their funky groove thing. "Hey cool! Astronome Domine! Lets get out on the dance floor and boogie!" <-- this never happened to anyone ever.)

It also helps that you get the impression that the two guys behind the microphones are actually paying attention to what’s going on around them. A lot of other rap I’ve heard seems to be distantly related to the backing. Years ago I listened to something called The Grey Album which was a mash up that lifted JayZ’s vocals from The Black Album and laid them over the Beatle’s White Album. To my ears the end result wasn’t nearly as good as The White Album but it’s just as good as The Black, which suggests the beats, dope or otherwise are kind of peripheral to the vocals. You can lift JayZ from whatever he's been laid over the top of and put him on something else that works just as well. The difference between EPMD and other rappers I’ve heard is that they appear to realise there are other musicians in the room other than themselves (even when they're not). They sound like the vocalists for a band rather than just lecturers capable of delivering rhyming rants for others to create the backing for.

The lyrical themes are pretty much standard Rap territory- we're great and you're not. We're the best thing that has ever happened to rap, women and in fact the entire human race ever and the rest of the planet only exists to give us something to be hugely superior too... oh and we're good at rhyming. The one strange variation comes late in the album when EMPD feel the need to dedicate an entire track to a new dance they've invented named The Steve Martin. Apparently they're big fans of The Wild And Crazy Guy and they're not afraid to immortalise him in dance form and then double immortalize him by immortalizing him in a song that immortalizes the dance. I have to say Steve Martin is a strange choice for a couple or MC's to be fans of but then to each his own. It's just refreshing to hear rap that praises someone rather that wishing a painful death on a rival.

Strictly Business suffers from a tendency to stack it's best tracks earlier in the album which makes it feel a bit repetitive by the midway point but there's still a lot to like. My favourite Rap album- which may be fairly faint praise but it's still praise for a hip hop album which is new territory for me.

Influenced by: Grand Master Flash and Steve Martin.

Influenced: All those more laid back Rappers like.... oh that MC someone or other guy and that other guy with the dope beats. Look I haven't a clue.

Highlight: The title track.

Lowlight: You're a Customer- the point where it starts to get a bit samey.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "yo home boys this was a fat cd you definately gots to gets this all the tracks are so dope"


-I love that. You can find reviews like this on every single rap album, which doesn't make it any less brilliant.

So is does EMPD stand for Excellent Music Perfectly Done or Evil Muck Purulent Dross? Enlighten Me Please Down (there)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

460. Love it to death- A chance to mock shock rock.


Album: Love it to death.

Artist: Alice Cooper.

Year: 1971

Genre: Shock rock.


Tracks

1. Caught in a Dream
2. I'm Eighteen
3. Long Way to Go
4. Black Juju
5. Is It My Body
6. Hallowed Be My Name
7. Second Coming
8. Ballad of Dwight Fry
9. Sun Arise


I know this might be a bit confusing but before Alice Cooper was a person he was a band, or more accurately they were a band and he was just part of it. Vincent Furnier and his friends formed a rock band and decided to name themselves Alice Cooper because they thought it sounded evil (even though it sounds to me like a cross between the housekeeper from the Brady Bunch and a guy who makes barrels- which doesn't strike me as exceptionally diabolic). Gradually the band dissolved and went their separate ways and Vincent adopted the name himself and launched a hugely successful solo career. But before the distinctive make up, before the mock executions during stage shows and long before he became everyone’s favourite recovering-alcoholic, golf-obsessed, bible-believing, spooky-person, Alice was just the lead singer of a band.

1971’s Love it to Death was the band’s big label debut and their break with Frank Zappa who had produced their earlier work. It contained a monster hit single which I’d never heard and a bunch of other songs which I hadn’t heard either. It launched their career and made them a big name in 1970’s rock and roll. And it makes for a very strange listen.

Love it to Death seems like a transitional record that sees a band moving from one stage of their career to another. It’s an odd mix of styles and ideas which for me didn’t really gel at all. The two centrepieces of the album are the longer epic songs Black Ju Ju and The Ballad of Dwight Fry, both of which sound to me like attempts to blend Pink Floyd and The Doors only missing the strengths of either. It’s doom-laden psychedelia floating around dark themes, probably best described as psycho-delia and it might just give you an appreciation of how hard psychedelic music is to pull of effectively. Dwight Fry contains one of the most cringingly hideous moments of 1970’s music in amongst its running time: early in the track the band decides to give voice to the lead character’s young daughter and rather than employ an actual infant, Alice does his best impression of a small girl. Those who thought Alice should be kept away from children would be heartened to hear his attempt which clearly prove he’s never spent any time around them, he certainly doesn’t know how they sound. It’s pretty painful to listen to which puts it on a par with the rest of the song, a lot of which is made up of Alice’s mad ranting.

The big hit on Love it to Death is apparently I’m Eighteen, which was a huge hit on radio although not on any radios I ever went near when I was growing up. Lyrically it’s a good summation of how it feels to be on the verge of adulthood but not quite there yet. “I’m 18, I get confused every day, I’m 18 I just don’t know what to say, I’m 18 I gotta get away” certainly resonates with my teenage years. Less so is the song’s opening: “Lines form on my face and hands”- are many 18 year olds wrinkly? I turned 18 exactly 18 years ago but I don't consider myself especially creased or prunelike even now. Apparently the band originally wrote this as another psychedelic epic but were persuaded to reduce it to a single length pop song which was definitely a wise choice. Many of the other songs on the album sound like they were written by an 18 year old except for Is it my body which sounds exactly like the sort of music 14 year olds write when they form their first band and are incredibly embarrassed about a few years later.

The final track on the album is actually a Rolf Harris cover which took me completely by surprise. Alice covering Rolf- who saw that coming? It’s a Harris song that I’d never heard before (not that I’m a big fan) but it’s definitely annoying even by his standards. I’m too far removed from this album to know if this was recorded with a sense of irony (had they invented irony back by the early seventies?) but either way it’s a very annoying track.


Highlight: I’m 18. I wouldn’t call it a classic but it’s not a bad song.

Lowlight: Is it my body.

Influenced by: The usual suspects, Sabbath and Zeppelin along with doses of Floyd and Morrison.

Influenced: KISS.


Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "this brought the death of normallicy that marked the sixty"

-That's how I like my Amazon reviews- short sweet and baffling, were the sixties really all that normal?

So do you feel malice for Alice or think Cooper is Super Dooper? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

461. How will the wolf survive? -I’m not sure but I predict he’ll outlast the piano accordion.


Album: How will the wolf survive.

Artist: Los Lobos.

Year: 1984

Genre: Tex-mex, mariachi, blues-based country rock.


Tracks.


  1. Don't Worry Baby
  2. A Matter of Time
  3. Corrido #1
  4. Our Last Night
  5. The Breakdown
  6. I Got Loaded
  7. Serenata Nortena
  8. Evangeline
  9. I Got to Let You Know
  10. Lil' King of Everything
  11. Will the Wolf Survive?


I’ve found some albums on this countdown really hard to get to the end of. There are releases I’ve reviewed that have been so painful I’ve struggled to listen to the whole thing once, let alone four times. Will the Wolf survive was tricky to get through but not because I couldn't get into it but because I get into the opening track so much I find it hard to get out of. Don’t Worry baby is a magnificent piece of Rock and Roll and ranks up there with the best songs I’ve heard on this list so far. It’s got everything a great song needs, a magnificent riff, belted vocals, stinging lead breaks and an outstanding groove. I never heard this on the radio when I was growing up and if I had I might actually bother listening to radio stations today. I’ve heard this song hundreds of times but even so when I came to review this oh-so familiar album I still had to repeat it a few times.


It’s a mystery to me that Los Lobos aren’t better known. There’s no doubt you’ve heard them. Most people who think they’re listening to Richie Valens singing La Bamba are actually hearing the version recorded by Los Lobos for the movie biopic of the same name. It’s still their biggest song and shining moment in the sun. It’s also a tiny fraction of what they can do. In addition to the usual instruments a gigging rock band needs to play, The Wolves (to translate their name into English) also feature a talented sax player and an outstanding piano accordionist. Now I know what you’re thinking at this point- does any band need an accordion player, talented or otherwise? Have you ever listened to an album and thought “Not bad but it could really be great if only they added some accordion?” No of course you haven’t. But listening to Will the Wolf Survive you might start to be won over by the world’s most foolish musical instrument. Dave Hildago can really play that thing and if you don't believe me ask Bob Dylan who uses Hidalgo as his accordion player of choice when his album's require one (which lately is more often than you'd think).

While their eclectic instruments would make Los Lobos stand out on their own they also bring a range of influences to their tunes which nobody else in music was featuring at the time. In addition to listening to bar-room boogie the wolves were also ingesting traditional Mexican and Spanish music that was part of their cultural heritage. Mariachi and other musical styles blend into their musical framework without ever competing with the rock side of their personalities.

But their influences and instruments would count for nothing if the boys couldn’t play or write a good tune. Thankfully they can and Will the Wolf Survive doesn’t contain a weak moment. In addition to the opening track they produce some great ballads, some very smooth rock and a song sung in Spanish which sounds like it really kicks along when played at Mexican weddings (although I’m sure they sing the phrase “Death Star” at one point so perhaps it was written for the marriages of Mexican Storm troopers). Apparently earlier in their career Los Lobos opened concerts for Public Image Limited who wouldn’t have stood a chance compared to the live power that is the wolves in the full awesomness of their live act. They release great albums but they’re fantastic live.

Personally I’d be including more Los Lobos albums in this countdown than the writers of Rolling Stone have chosen. It’s place here makes me wonder if there is a bit of a policy in this countdown which dictates what gets in. It seems to me that there are quite a few important bands who they’ve decided should be represented so they’ve thrown their debut album somewhere in the lower reaches. Most Lobos fans love this album but would regard 1992’s Kiko as a stronger set of songs. Reviewers seem to agree. But for some reason this debut is their one album in the countdown. There are other artists whose fans could make the same complaint.


Highlight: Don’t worry baby.

Lowlight: Lil King of everything. Not a bad track just a bit of a inconsequential instrumental.

Influenced by: Oooh… hows this for a list: John Lee Hooker, Country and western, The Grateful Dead, mariachi music, traditional Spanish ballads, bar room boogie.

Influenced: Los Lonely Boys. Definitely a band worth checking out if you get the chance.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "During my spring housekeeping (I know - it's a little late), I discovered this CD gathering dust. I bought How Will The Lone Wolf Survive? on the strength of the cover song `Will The Lone Wolf Survive?' The song is a bouncing jangle-guitar light rocker reminding me of Bruce Springsteen. The other tracks are mediocre Tex-Mex boogey-woogey and honky-tonk which I wound expect to hear from a local bar band. `Don't Worry Baby,' `I Got Loaded,' and `Evangeline' are simplistic boogey-woogey tunes with different lyrics. `Corrido #1' and `Serenata Nortena' are about as exciting as mariachi music played by a three-piece combo in a franchised Mexican restaurant. Terribly annoying is the ever present accordion (a musical instrument which does absolutely nothing for me). The never ending four-note country bass lines (Our Last Night, The Breakdown) bore me to tears. It's tough to pick the least credible track, but the title goes to `I Got To Let You Know.' The song has a brief saxophone line repeated 100 times. Is this supposed to be a polka? Now I'm wandering why this CD has been taking valuable space in my music collection since 1984. Time for the trash."

-The only negative review on the site. And it still gave it two stars.

So do the Wolves sink their teeth into you or are you hoping the Wolf won't survive? Let me know below.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

462. Here my dear- When Soul gets the blues.


Album: Here my Dear.

Artist: Marvin Gaye

Year:1978

Genre: Soul.

Tracks

  1. Here, My Dear
  2. I Met a Little Girl
  3. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You
  4. Anger
  5. Is That Enough
  6. Everybody Needs Love
  7. Time to Get It Together
  8. Sparrow
  9. Anna's Song
  10. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You
  11. A Funky Space Reincarnation
  12. You Can Leave, But It's Going to Cost You
  13. Falling in Love Again
  14. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (Reprise)

Here My Dear isn't a traditional Soul album. It's technically a double concept album and as regular readers of this blog know I can complain about double concept albums for even longer than it takes to play one. But unlike other concept albums, which are often based around an abstract and esoteric conceit ("Hey lets record an album about what it would be like if Tree sprites had soap operas") Here My Dear was written after Marvin Gaye's marriage collapsed. Which technically means it's probably not a concept album as much as an album of songs about Marv was feeling at the time- and they just happen to share a similar concept because he was going through an extremely mopey patch.

Hear My Dear has all the trappings of a soul album, the slow tempo, lush arrangements, backing vocals and spoken passages but the lyrics and tone address personal tragedy rather than the usual topics soul seems to address. Soul songs usually fit into three categories: “I love you” songs, “I love love” songs and “I love making love” songs. Most soul singers compose lyrics as if they get paid for every "love" they can work into a tune. That’s why it’s strange listening to an album dedicated to laments about romance and the fact that it’s gone sour. On other albums Marvin often has spoken introductions to his songs which usually involve telling his girl that she’s the best thing that happened to him and quite possibly the entire human race, so it’s quite a jolt when he introduces When Did You Stop Loving Me, when did I Stop Loving You with a soulfully spoken rant about how their wedding vows turned out to be a meaningless sham. It’s just out of place. It would be like a heavy metal band releasing a song called “Hooray for pretty flowers” or a rap album called “I’m broke and find rhyming quite difficult” or possibly even a country and western album from the 50’s called “I'm gradually coming around to the idea of being sodomized.”

Someone should instigate a blues/soul exchange program in which blues singers share their joy with soul singers who in turn get a dose of pain in return. Every time a blues singer writes a song about how much the woman they’ve met fulfills their every need they could hand it over to a soul singer in exchange for any songs they have about failed relationships. If someone put this into practice then blues singers would have a lot of great blues songs and we wouldn’t have to hear soul singers share their misery for over an hour. It’s not that Marvin Gaye doesn’t deserve an opportunity to show his pain, it’s just that I’m not sure we need to hear it. Here My Dear had a difficult gestation period. It was apparently written, recorded and then went unreleased for a while (long enough in fact for Gaye to marry and divorce again). When it eventually made it’s way into record shops the public chose to ignore it completely and it was reviewed badly and alienated most of Gaye’s fans. It’s only in recent years that people have reassessed Here My Dear and decided that it’s actually a vital part of Gaye’s cannon and worth treating as one of his greatest releases.

That’s all very well but I can’t help but wonder how his ex-wife feels. There’s no veiled references or metaphor, no esoteric imagery that requires interpretation. Gaye is totally open and honest about his feelings and experiences in a marriage that went completely sour. To be fair to the guy he’s clearly not laying all the blame at her doorstep, his feeling isn't that she failed him as much as love failed both of them. But there’s no doubt he’s bitter and broken up about the whole experience.

But not all of Here My Dear is about the divorce or the other troubles in his life. Sing little Sparrow Sing is about how a bird’s song can inspire hope in even the darkest times. Sadly it appears that the bird in question is reluctant to pipe up so the 6 minute running length is mainly made up of Marvin desperately pleading with a bird to make a noise. The other moment of relief is Funky Space Reincarnation in which Marvin Gaye steps into George Clinton territory and releases a funky song about getting high and getting laid in space. It’s not bad but wears out it’s welcome over eight full minutes.

To be honest all the pain makes Here my Dear a difficult listen. If you’ve ever experienced a divorce then it’s possible that you regard this as an amazing piece of work which perfectly captures the pain you felt or are feeling. As someone who is married and lucky enough to have avoided heart wrenching break ups it’s just a bit tricky to latch onto.

Highlight: Funky Space Reincarnation.

Lowlight: Sing little sparrow.

Influenced by: Pain and anguish.

Influenced: There’s no doubt it helped serve to deepen soul as a genre.

Favourite Amazon Customer review quote:Everytime I PLAY THE CD.I'll have to have a fire extinguisher by the stereo...cause it be SMOKIN........This is a joke...i'll have a toke,wait a minute.....Marvin Gaye, what a genius

-How nice, a reviewer that keeps us up to date while he’s typing.

So do you feel this album in your soul or does it give you the blues? Let me know below.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

463. Tumbleweed Connection- The Wild West via the Lake District.


Album: Tumbleweed Connection.

Artist: Elton John.

Year: 1970

Genre: Gentrified Country and Western

Tracks


  1. Ballad of a Well-Known Gun
  2. Come Down in Time
  3. Country Comfort
  4. Son of Your Father
  5. My Father's Gun
  6. Where to Now St. Peter?
  7. Love Song
  8. Amoreena
  9. Talking Old Soldiers
  10. Burn Down the Mission


In the opening lines of Love Song, Elton John sings: “The words I have to say may well be simple but they're true” which is, let's be honest, a blatant lie. The words on the rest of the album aren’t necessarily very simple and they're as far from true as Elton's home is from the wild west with which he's suddenly become so enamored.

Most of the tracks on Tumbleweed Connection are storytelling songs in which the singer adopts a persona. When Elton sings about being a well known gunfighter it’s not because he’s personally just returned from a shootout. Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s long standing lyricist) provided the piano player with a batch of 1st person narratives set in the American Deep South which means we’re treated to tales about the Civil war sung in John’s British accent. It makes for a very strange listen to my ears. He could probably pull this off more effectively back in the seventies when Elton wasn’t well known but today when he’s arguably one of the world’s biggest celebrities, it’s all too easy to focus on the singer not the song. The album isn’t helped by the instrumentation which doesn’t fit the tales John is spinning. It sounds odd telling us about the hardship of his life on the farm when he’s accompanying himself on piano with the resident string section firmly in place behind him. The overall effect is as disconcerting as if Merle Haggard released an album of songs about being a young homosexual attending the Royal Academy of Music.

If you can get past the weirdness of the lyrical content, the music in Tumbleweed Connection is much more fun than on his self-titled album. You could listen to Elton John and wonder why everyone regarded him as among the best pianists in pop music. Tumbleweed Connection allows him a lot more room to display his talents and the album is much better for it. He doesn’t just provide a few chords to sing over, he also thumps those keys and makes the piano wail. Take a listen to a track called Burn down the mission, if you can get past the fact that the song is basically a call to instigate arson you’ll enjoy the brief instrumental passages when John is allowed to cut loose. I just wish they’d let him do it more often. Put the violins away: strings only tie you down. The songwriting is also more effective than on the last album. Less sentiment and more feeling. Less of the syrup and more of the juice if you’ll pardon the expression.

But while Tumbleweed would take down Elton John in a gunfight on any given day, they’re both eclipsed by the final song on my version of Tumbleweed Connection which is a bonus track thrown on the remastered CD. It’s the original version of Madman Across the Water, a song recorded for this album but didn’t make the cut and instead was the title track of John’s next release. Madman is without a doubt the best Elton John song I’ve ever heard. It’s a great tune with a really gutsy baseline and some fantastic drumming. Mick Ronson, David Bowie's guitarist, supplies some lead guitar work and he and John were clearly having a great time playing off each other. It’s proof for me that the best rock and roll isn’t planned, scripted, arranged and rehearsed, it’s played pretty much live with talented musicians challenging each other and going places that neither expected to end up. If you’re a cynic and want proof that Elton John deserves a place in Rock history then Tumbleweed might start to win you over but Madman Across the Water will force you to change your tune.

Highlight: Madman across the water (kind of a cheat since it’s not technically on the album so I’ll say Burn down the mission)

Lowlight: Love Song

Influenced by: The pioneer spirit.

Influenced: Generations of English public school boy cowboys.

Favourite customer Amazon review quote: “The songs in this album flow so beautifully into each other, yet cover many different themes. The only sng that has gotten old for me is”

-That’s it. The review stops there. We’ll never know what song has aged for this reviewer and my life is incomplete.

So did you connect with Tumbleweed connection or was it shooting blanks? Let me know below.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

464. The Blueprint- Okay, whatever you say.


Artist: Jayz

Album: The Blueprint.

Year: 2001

Genre: Rap.

Tracks.

1. Ruler's Back

2. Takeover

3. Izzo (H.O.V.A.)

4. Girls, Girls, Girls

5. Jigga That N***a

6. U Don't Know

7. Hola' Hovito

8. Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)

9. Never Change

10. Song Cry

11. All I Need

12. Renagade

13. Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)


I think one of the reasons I like instrumental music is that it requires no explanation. You can just sit back and appreciate the fact that Miles Davis was in a mood to play that way and he managed to find a talented bunch of people to join him. You can play Kind of Blue to anyone and they don’t need to follow the back story. After I listen to a rap album I have to spend time on the internet reading lyrics and researching the history so I have some handle on what’s going on.

A blueprint is a document supposed to help you understand something but I needed an interpreter to work out what JayZ’s The Blueprint was on about. There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t understand. One track is called Izzo and features the repeated line “H to the izz-O, V to The Izz-A” which had me completely baffled. I had to read the lyrics to understand what was being said. Apparently it just spells out HOVA, the izz is just a word JayZ has inserted for reasons of his own. Of course knowing this doesn’t necessarily help all that much since I still didn’t know what the heck a HOVA was. Some research told me it was JayZ’s nickname (it’s short for Jehovah, he’s a modest chap). I also had no idea who the venom of another track was aimed at. Apparently it was some rapper who either upset Jayz or was upset that Jayz upset him or something. The album needed to kick off with an introduction like Keifer Sutherland always gives at the start of a 24 episode: "Previously on 24" or in this case "Previously in the life of Hova." Jayz uses the phrase R.O.C . in several tracks which I still haven’t found an explanation for: Rock Out Completely? Right On Cousin? Rip Off Cheat? Rank Outside Chance? Red Orange Colour? Radical Oragami Creations? Riley O’Cafferty? Really Opinionated Comedian? Risk Of Cancer? Rapping On CD? Rambo Owns Cardigans? I have no idea what it stands for but I’d really like it to be Radical Oragami Creations. Honestly I would.


Most of JayZ’s songs seemed to be about something but I struggled to work out what. There were a few exceptions. Song Cry is based on the rather neat idea that JayZ isn’t allowed to cry so he lets his music cry for him; Renegade is a duet with Eminem in which they both managed to claim the title renegade without looking like a complete wanker (no mean trick, traditionally anyone who says they're a renegade is actually a dickhead who hasn't realised it yet) and Heart of the City (Ain’t no love) which is the album’s highlight for me and possibly the first ever Rap track I actually kind of enjoyed. The question is how much credit JayZ can take for my enjoyment. The aspect of Heart of the City that I really responded to was the backing track which was a sample of an old blues song. The instrumentation on The Blueprint is almost entirely made up of recorded samples. People criticise Hip Hop as being “a bunch of people talking over old records” and you can’t help but admit they’ve got a bit of a point.

Like every other Rap album I’ve heard, The Blueprint is full of boasting about JayZ’s talent (he does compare himself to Jehovah after all), dissing of other rappers and accounts of how much money he has. Why is rap the only genre of music that is allowed to behave like this? Imagine if Bob Dylan behaved this way. How would if have looked if before he went electric he walked out onstage with just his acoustic guitar and started playing diss songs and tracks about how good he is? “Here’s a song called My Wack Pages and it’s about how I’m the greatest” or “This next track is called Forever Not Young and it’s a diss track aimed directly at N to the izz I to the izz E to the L yo!” The entire crowd would spontaneously shout “Judas” as one. It’s weird how rap stars are supposed to release lyrics talking about how rich they are and how their lifestyle is completely separate from their fans while equally rich Rock stars have to pretend they still have some sort of common life. Rock stars write songs about meeting a girl at the supermarket even though you know that the only contact they have with a grocery outlet is when they purchase shares in the parent company. If they sang about the hardships they faced finding a really reliable nanny for their strangely-named children they wouldn’t shift a single CD. But rap stars can write entire songs boasting about their material wealth and possessions.

While I enjoyed Blueprint more than the other hip hop albums I’ve heard so far (and infinitely more than LL Cool J) I can’t really get into rap music but then I think that’s just as well. There’s nothing sillier than a 30-something year old white fan of rap music. Jayz can get away with comparing himself to Jehovah and spelling things with izz but if I tried I’d just look like a D to the izz I to the C to the K. To be honest I probably look like a bit of a prat in my beatles T-shirt but if I wore rap gear I’d look like a total prannie.


Highlight: Aint no love in the heart of the city.

Lowlight: Girls Girls Girls.

Influenced by: Rappers who went before him.

Influenced: Rappers who came after (I think I need to put more effort into this highlights bit)


Favourite amazon customer review quote:U REALLY DON'T KNO WAT U DOIN IF U DONT GOT THIS ALBUM EVERYTHING THIS DUDE DROPS IS OFFICIAL

-Frankly it’s a bit galling being told that you don’t know what you’re doing by a guy who can’t spell, has no understanding of punctuation and doesn't know how to turn off the caps lock.

So is JayZ wack? Or not? And is wack good or bad? I haven't a clue and don't care. Either way let me know below.