30 Sep 2012

Album Reviews: 2nd Edition

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Record That You Should Own Because I Like ‘Em, Part 2 of an Infinite Series

Thelonious Monk — The Very Best Of

In my sophomore year in college. I knew very little about jazz. Wasn’t particularly interested. I heard some stuff by Monk and instantly took a dislike to it. It was too freaky and discordant. Five years later and more jazz under the belt, I went back to him and was greeted with some of the most beautiful music I ever heard. The knottiness and angularity were still there but it’s the crunchy outside. There is such a sense of where melody can go inherent in his work. It consistently takes you by surprise. So, it stimulates intellectually but the melody feels so right it’s like breathing, so your heart feels it too. The Very Best covers his Blue Note years in the late 40’s and early 50’s and is a great primer.

Blondie — The Best of Blondie

Some folks you need more than the greatest hits to really get them. Some a greatest hits package is really all you need. Blondie is that band. They released a couple of really good albums, and a bunch of ok ones with great songs. So if you want Parallel Lines, sure, go get it. But for a definite Blondie record, you’re looking at The Best Of. Blondie were probably the most mercurial of the late 70’s New York group. The Ramones were the Ramones, Television had a novel, interesting sound but that’s pretty much all Television did. Blondie would try everything: punk, disco, girl group, garage rock, reggae. And they were so good and so smart and so knowing that they pulled most of it off. Oh, and the defining factor of all of this. They are fun.

Howlin’ Wolf — His Best

This is a single disc Chess compilation of his work. Howlin’ Wolf was smart, witty, primal blues. Emphasis on primal. There are plenty of one chord vamps here and a bunch of songs written by the great Willie Dixon. And Wolf. My lord, Wolf. Deep guttural voice playing wittily on (and sometimes inventing) all the clichés of the traveling, hard drinking, hard lovin’, hellhounds on my trail bluesman. There’s “Spoonful,” about our addiction to love or cocaine. . or both, “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline), “The Red Rooster” and if you like The Doors cover of “Back Door Man,” sit back and take in the original. Jim Morrison plays it as a come-on. To Wolf, it’s a warning. And you cannot forget to mention Wolf’s guitarist, Hubert Simlin, possibly the most underrated player in popular music. His guitar is like a snake, with short stabbing licks that hypnotize before striking with a barrage of notes that leave you floored. All this behind a minimal rhythm section creates a hypnotic drone for Wolf to howl over.

Bruce Springsteen — Darkness on the Edge of Town

This is the first of Springsteen’s steps back from populism and my favorite record of his. Unlike Born to Run, the production is minimal, the sound more live yet his propensity for anthems remain intact. All the characters here have the same desperate dreams as those in previous Springsteen tunes, the difference is in the realization that their dreams most likely won’t get realized, so it’s the details of the chase that’s invigorating. The music, in turn, is harder and more frenetic. From the opening salvo of “Badlands” through to the resigned title track, guitars flare angrily and fiercely. Some of Bruce’s best playing is on this record. Highly recommended and for my money, one of the truly great records of the 70’s.

Paul McCartney — Band on the Run

McCartney’s career after The Beatles is, to put it kindly, erratic. Occasionally, he has worked up some charming records but for the most part, you pretty much want to throttle him because he is so damn talented and what the hell is this piffle? Band on the Run is universally considered his best post-Beatles effort. And the universe is right. Much more cohesive than anything he’s done solo before or since, it’s a loosely connected batch of wonderful songs. None of them really make much sense, mind you, but you went to Lennon for that anyway.

The Who — It’s Hard

Leave it to Pete Townshend to thumb his nose at hippies. Strung together with songs left over from Townshend’s aborted Lifehouse concept album/show/whatever, it is unrelenting in it’s cynicism and bitterness over the failed revolution. Even the kindest songs, like “Getting’ in Tune” and the joyful “Goin’ Mobile” have dark moments and the seething bitterness of “Behind Blue Eyes” and the sarcasm clearly evident in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” more than flirts with nihilism that form the dark heart of the record. I pretty much consider this a punk album more than classic rock. Everyone is on the game +1 and for me, it’s the definitive Who record.

Sloan — Twice Removed

Sloan are huge in Canada. Huge. Here not so much. I would say that’s a testament to Canada’s musical tastes but Our Lady Peace are huge there as well so go figure. Sloan are power pop artistes. All their albums are nothing less than very good and they have a wonderful compilation record which you should check out. Twice Removed was their second record and the one where the fit the pieces together. Every member writes and sings and yet the record is remarkably cohesive. There’s something for everyone here. Dark, brooding ballads, sweet nothings of songs and stomping rockers. All have a crunch to them that harken back to prime Rasberries and Big Star. Yet the band is completely modern. Go on, make ‘em huge here too. They deserve it.

Mazzy Star — She Hangs Brightly

Mazzy Star got big because of “Fade Into You,” a decent song on their worst record. She Hangs Brightly is their opening salvo and it is brilliant. Hazy, woozy and seductive, it’s an opium den of an album. Full of lost love, regrets all extolled in Hope Sandoval’s smoky voice. Even when it’s loud, it’s not too loud. That would spoil the mood. But in no way is this a commercial record. The instrumental sections run too long, the production is just a touch too murky. This is music for stoners. Very sensitive stoners.

Pearl Jam — Vitalogy

Simultaneously raucous, punky and experimental, Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s first great record. Ten is all fine and good such. But here, Vedder is reaching. probing. And the band is right there with him. You got your leave-me-alone rockers, sensitive observations and freaky experiments (What the hell does Vedder have against bugs anyway) all sequenced perfectly. “Betterman” is one of the sweetest, saddest, most knowing song Vedder has written. And “Not for You” might as well be his manifesto.

Eminem — Encore

Eminem is wrong. We know he’s wrong. He knows he’s wrong. He’s finding your button and pushing it. And if you complain or get offended, he’ll push that sucker even harder. And if you’re in on that joke and understand it, he is the wittiest, raunchiest, funniest, wrongest public figure since 70’s era George Carlin. And just as complex. Up to Relapse, which I haven’t heard yet, this is the least of his three records, and it’s still damn good. Dr. Dre brings the beats (Eminem pushes him like no one else since the lovely folks in NWA) and Eminem raps about his usual obsessions with clarity, bile and humor in equal measure. Highlights include “Ass Like That” which will make the eight year old in you giggle like a maniac, “One Shot Two Shot,” catchiest song about a club shooting ever and “Mockinbird,” which is an incredibly lucid, mature lullaby to his daughter.

Pink Floyd — The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

This is not your father’s Pink Floyd. This is Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. And it should be yours. A combo of whimsical folk songs, bluesy pop and weird freak outs, it’s the vision of a singular artist. It’s the only Floyd album that Barrett plays on and his guitar is darker and more primal than Gilmour’s. Barrett stabs at his instrument with short sharp bursts that cut through the bed that the rest of the Floyd is laying down for him. At this point, he was de facto leader. And he was one weird dude. Singing about gnomes and rats named Gerald, there’s a strong sense of menace beneath the whimsy. Pick it up, pretend to drop acid (it is the late ‘00’s, after all), and enjoy the trip.

Mahavishnu Orchestra — Birds of Fire

This is what jazz fusion was before it got lite-FM’ed and Smooth Jazzed out. Sweaty, virtuoustic, smart and deeply moving and spiritual all at the same time. This, if you can believe, is their mellow album. The band included Jon McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, and Billy Cobham.

The Beatles — White Album

The definitive sprawling mess of an album. This and Rubber Soul are tied as my favorite Beatles. Everyone is on their game here. The musicianship is astounding. Precise when necessary, sloppy when it needs to be. Paul casts his net wide and pulls in every musical style he can think of and makes them all work, John here perfects his balance of cynicism and tenderness. Damn near a perfect record.

Squeeze — Singles 45 and Under

Concise and pretty complete overview of peak Squeeze. All of the usual suspects are here but you also get the great fuckup chronicle of “Up the Junction” They never ended up being the 80’s Lennon-McCartney because they weren’t interested in metaphors and the state of the world. They just wanted to tell stories. . .beautiful gems of stories.

Percy Sledge — It Tears Me Up — Greatest Hits

Lost in the shuffle of great 60’s soul singers, Percy is the tearjerker. Doesn’t have the grit of Otis or the smoothness of Sam. He just wanted to make you cry. And cry you will. “Dark End of the Street,” “Take Time to Know Her,” and the sublime “When A Man Loves A Woman,” possibly the greatest soul ballad in history. There’s a lot of Percy here but you won’t get bored. You will get dehydrated, though, . . .er. . .from all the crying.

Rage Against the Machine — Rage Against the Machine

John Carpenter, director of Halloween once said, “I’m sorry for ending the sexual revolution. It was not my intention.” He was talking about how his brilliant film Halloween become a template a series of desultory slasher films where any girl who had the temerity to enjoy herself sexually would get offed in some horrific manner, generally by a knife or some other large phallic instrument. Rage Against the Machine is the John Carpenter of nu-metal. The first group to mix rap and Sabbath style hard rock effectively, they were followed by a succession of considerably weaker groups with a lot less to say. Rage itself and this album in particular are brutal, just brutal. They have the thud of Sabbath but leave the mess behind, instead they take from hip hop’s astute sense of rhythm and become tight as a mofo. Add Zach de la Rocha’s blatantly leftist sense of righteous anger and you have tremendously potent, actually rebellious rock and roll.

The Grateful Dead — American Beauty

Not a huge fan of the Dead. In general, I find them too spacey and thin and I, being raised on both punk and pop, I tend to have little patience for the meandering jam. American Beauty, however, is a different kind of Dead. Here, as well as on Workingman’s Dead, they hearken back to their (and particularly Jerry Garcia’s) country roots. So we get sweet folky ballads and slow blues. Set ends with Truckin’, possibly the worst popular dead tune, but I guess you can’t have everything.

Outkast — Stankonia

This is where Outkast really start strutting. The idea of these guys being simply a rap group is left in the dust. They are a rock band, funk superstars, hip hoppers with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose. They are funny, sexy, gangsta when they wanna be. All with an effortless musicality. It’s also the last record where it feels like both Big Boi and Andre 3000 are on the same page musically. So, consider this their Sgt. Pepper’s.

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