Friday, July 7, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #80 - David Bowie - Hunky Dory (1971)

Bowie's second entry in the Top 100 albums list is one which I enjoy more consistently than Ziggy Stardust: the one which directly preceded it. Listening to the two records side by side, it's hard to believe it's the same artist, so different are the styles, although Bowie's distinctive vocal provides continuity between these two periods of his career.

Whereas Bowie is primarily remembered as a glam-rock icon, Hunky Dory finds him in humbler garb, A largely acoustic, piano based set of songs that sound more like the work of a singer-songwriter than a rock god. 

Bowie's sci-fi leanings that would fully blossom on Ziggy Stardust are still in their infancy here, most fully fleshed out on Life On Mars, while Changes and Oh, You Pretty Things showcase, somewhat uncomfortably, Bowie's fascination with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the ├╝bermensch.

Hunky Dory also finds Bowie stretching himself in pretty flagrant mimicry of some of his influences. Song for Bob Dylan sounds like, well, Bob Dylan, and Queen Bitch is a straight take on Lou Reed, a fact which doesn't detract from it being one of Bowie's best songs ever. Elsewhere, Bowie name checks Andy Warhol and covers an unlikely tune by frivolous tunesmith Paul Williams, something it would have been unthinkable for Ziggy Stardust to do. If all this makes the album sound derivative or lacking in inspiration, that's not exactly true. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the record is the way in which it wears its influences on its sleeve without compromising ingenuity and originality at all. The little bits of studio chatter left in here and there are a clever production choice that adds to the records quaint charm.

The album's closer, the Bewlay Brothers, is a domestic epic, as the longest song on the record featuring backwards guitar solos and a remarkably sophisticated structure. It has always felt to me like a sister song to Jethro Tull's Baker St. Muse, albeit more modest in its ambitions. It shows that Bowie could have gone full on prog rock if he had wanted to, and leads to questions of what might have been.

Speaking of prog, I can't fail to mention the contribution of flamboyant Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, whose dynamic piano playing adds welcome color to what might otherwise be dull tunes like Kooks or Fill Your Heart. It's nice to hear him shine without having to resort to ten-minute Moog solos, metallic capes, and over the top performance spectacles, proving that he really is an excellent musician.

Hunky Dory represents Bowie at the height of his early powers, and since there was no more space to move upwards, he instead opted to go sideways, switching genres entirely. It was really the only thing he could have done, and a remarkably savvy move for the young star, especially given the ever present pressure from record companies to repeat one's previous triumphs.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #81 - David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

What can one say about glam’s most famous record that hasn’t already been said? Of the four albums from the Bowie canon that appear on this list, this one is the lowest down, and deservedly so, I think. While the album that made Bowie a superstar, and certainly containing many fine songs, it is far from his best work. It contains a vague concept that doesn’t really work.

The above criticism should not be taken to mean that I don’t like the album. It's actually great. But like so many classic albums, it has been a victim of its own reputation. Ziggy Stardust on vinyl can’t possibly live up to Ziggy Stardust the legend.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to historical context, Bowie was already an accomplished and critically acclaimed frontman, but this album completely changed his image and rocketed him into the stratosphere. This is the point where Bowie transitioned from a vaguely folky singer-songwriter into a rock star of the highest calibre, as well as kicking off the journey through various styles of music that would continue for his whole career. It also introduced the world to Bowie's brand of glam-rock showmanship, including outlandish costumes and makeup, still relatively unusual in the early 70s, Arthur Brown notwithstanding.

Here, Bowie takes the Nietzsche-meets-Heinlein sci-fi elements he had been flirting with in the last two records all the way up, constructing a full on, if difficult to comprehend, concept album about a spaceman and his troubled relationship with mankind. It almost sounds prog, except it is anchored by straightforward rock playing by an excellent backing band, and concise, tight songs.

The closer, Rock and Roll Suicide, is the finest track, building from slow, cool-down melancholy into a roaring, saxophone driven anthem, compete with a string section. Other highlights include Suffragette City, with its driving, almost frenzied rhythm, and Lady Stardust, with its poignant melody. Bowie's vocals have really taken a leap forward here as well, attaining a muscularity absent from earlier records.

Unfortunately, not every song reaches these lofty peaks, and the concept doesn't really hang together as well as it might. Future releases like the Berlin trilogy and even Station to Station sound more coherent, at least to my ears.

Overall, Ziggy Stardust is a collection of mostly great rock songs, but as an album I’ve always found it to be slightly lacking, especially when stacked up against the rest of his discography.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #82 - George Harrison - All Things Must Pass (1970)

Some people saw the breakup of the Beatles as a tragedy, and it's easy to understand why. But it's also possible to see it as an opportunity, albeit a mostly squandered one. Realistically, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were not going to do anything apart that they couldn't do together. Ringo never really had the voice or the vision to make it as a solo artist. But George Harrison, now he had potential. A talented guitarist and songwriter, and an okay singer, he was routinely overshadowed in the Beatles by his two more gifted colleagues. If anyone was going to make it on his own, George was.

All Things Must Pass is probably George's most realized work as a solo artist, with a star-studded cast of musicians, and three LPs worth of space to stretch out on. And while it's not the kind of thing I would normally spend much time on, it's a pretty inspired effort, at least in places.

Before I get to the songs, let's talk about the team Harrison has surrounded himself with here. There are the obligatory Beatles alumni, including Ringo, Billy Preston, and Klaus Voorman (whose bass playing is some of the best, although rarely appreciated.) Then there are guests like Alan White (one of the drummers from Yes), Peter Frampton, Ginger Baker, and of course, Eric Clapton. I'll say it right here, I don't like Clapton's playing. Never have. I don't know what it is, but his tone is annoying to me, and I remain mystified as to why so many people list him as a favorite guitarist. I would much prefer to hear George throughout, but that's only my opinion.

Then there's the most controversial figure on the record, Phil Spector, the bombastic producer known for girl groups of the 60s. A lot of people hate his production here, as it is admittedly over the top, with all the sound pushed right to the front of the mix so that it will sound good on AM radio. This was a technique he pioneered known as the "wall of sound." Personally, I think it really works. I don't want this kind of record to sound stripped down, I want a full, excessive sound that compliments that amount of space and the diversity of the material, and I think Spector delivers admirably.

The songs themselves are a bit uneven, but there are quite a few standouts, mostly those to why Harrison's friend Bob Dylan lent a hand. If Not For You, while performed better by Dylan himself, is still a great song in anybody's hands. Other fine tracks include Beware of Darkness, What Is Life, I Dig Love, Art of Dying, and My Sweet Lord, obvious plagiarism notwithstanding.

The third disc is unfortunately disposable, consisting mainly of studio experiments and jam sessions lacking any real form or structure. It feels a bit like a wasted opportunity, honestly.

Like most double albums, All Things Must Pass could have benefitted from an editor, but you have to admire its exuberance and effort. Of all the post-Beatles offerings from the Fab Four, it reamins one of the best, and is certainly better than anything Wings ever did.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #83 - Iggy & The Stooges - Raw Power (1973)

The third and finalStooges album before Iggy Pop went solo, Raw Power is both a swan song and an example of taking a particular form as far as it could go. Following the howling anarchy of the previous album's L.A. Blues, there was nowhere left to go besides louder. And louder, as the name implies, is basically what Raw Power is all about.

We should begin by talking about the album's mix. After an error by Pop squashed all the original recordings into just three tracks, the band, the vocals, and the lead guitar, David Bowie was called in to help. The resulting mix was widely regarded as unsatisfactory, but the best that could be accomplished with the source material. In 1997, however, Iggy Pop remixed the whole album himself for the CD reissue. This is the version I have been listening to for many years, and when I say “listening to” I generally mean “not listening to.” In an effort to capture the band’s energy, Pop purposely cranked all the levels up into the red, and the result is a painfully loud, audibly distorted, brittle mix reminiscent of broken glass. I have always found it difficult to listen to, and as a result, I have not given Raw Power the same attention I have to Pop's other albums.

In preparation for this review, I went back and listened to the original Bowie mix, and I have to admit I find it much better. It’s more subdued, some of the noisier vocal and guitar parts, the ones that sound sloppy or like mistakes, have been edited out, and a few effects have been placed on the lead guitar that makes it sound more professional, as well as more interesting. It’s not an amazing mix, but it’s at least listenable.

Pop revels in the aggression of rock and roll, and his mix reflects that. You can tell he wants to be thought of as the baddest, most aggressive frontman in the industry, and he is not without credentials. Search and Destroy and Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell are searing workouts that make even most punk and metal - genres that hadn't really been invented yet - seem tame in comparison. But in my opinion, Iggy is at his best when he settles into a sleazy groove like on Gimme Danger and I need Somebody. These tracks are simply more interesting than the straightforward rockers.

The songwriting overall is pretty good, and Pop is assisted by lead guitarist James Williamson. I would argue that the writing on previous albums is slightly superior, but there are certainly plenty of solid compositions here, a facet of the band that tends to be overlooked due to the sheer volume and energy of the performances. Little touches like the celeste on Penetration show just how creative the band was feeling at the time.

The lone exception to this is found on the final track, Death Wish, which rather lazily rocks back and forth between two chords while drones on over the top. It feels like an uninspired closer to an album that otherwise bursts with vitality.

There's no denying that Raw Power is a good album, and was extremely influential on punk and other musical forms, but ultimately the effect is somewhat spoiled by Pop's failure to understand that you can't make music rock harder by simply pushing volume levels up to the breaking point.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #84 - Harry Nilsson - Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

At first glance, Nilsson Schmilsson is an unremarkable record, a pleasant but not too edgy slice of singer-songwriter tunes that sounds like something your dad might listen to to (an association colored, no doubt, by the fact that my dad did listen to it quite a bit when I was young.) But to dismiss this album as ordinary would be doing it a disservice. Schmilsson has hidden depths, and rewards deep listening.

The first thing one is likely to notice is the debt to the Beatles. Both Nilsson and producer Richard Perry are celebrated fans of the fab four, and that certainly comes out in both the songwriting and the production. Nilsson even confesses that when he first heard Without You, the Badfinger track he turns into a tour de force here, he thought it was a John Lennon song. But Nilsson takes Beatles-esque sounds and welds them together into something that sounds fresher and more honest than any of the solo Beatles were able to accomplish in the seventies.

Before addressing the songs themselves, I'd like to say a few words about Richard Perry. An underrated producer, in my view, who is also known for his work on terrific albums by Captain Beefheart and Tiny Tim, Perry has a taste for the whimsical that I always find exciting. In my view, it is his presence that elevates the album from good to great, with his characteristic splashes of instrumental color. Here he adds a line for accordion, here a tuba, there a trumpet fanfare, but unlike someone like Phil Spector, these additions do not overshadow the tracks behind them. Instead, they disappear almost as soon as you notice them, just enough to transform a piano ballad into something just a little more eccentric, without ever becoming cloying or overbearing. Perry's is a tasteful and sensitive touch I wish more producers would employ.

Nowhere is this sense of restraint more evident than on the song Early In the Morning, which is stripped down to only a simply electric piano progression and Nilsson's slightly reverbed vocals. It feels simultaneously stark and lush, and is a great example of how to utilize empty space and minimalism for effect.

Elsewhere, songs like Drivin' and Gotta Get Up, showcase Nilsson's strong voice and playful take on modern life, while his version of Let the Good Times Roll highlights his skills on the piano, and makes for a rollicking good time. Unfortunately, not ever song on the record is so memorable, and it does seem to peter out a bit towards the end.

I would be remiss not to comment on Coconut, a bizarre tropical celebration of folk remedies. While sometimes regarded as a novelty, it's impossible to deny the sense of fun of the song, and the irresistible catchiness of the simple repeated advice of "put the lime in the coconut". Also, it was used in Reservoir Dogs, so you know it's cool.

Nilsson's style of music is not the kind that blows me away, honestly. It lacks the complexity of the contemporary Prog Rock bands as well as the soul and attitude of the folk that preceded it or the punk that would follow. But Schmilsson is an accomplished and fun album that feels very at home on this list, and captures the spirit of a generation of hippies slowly easing their way into middle age, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #85 - Wire - 154 (1979)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but if that's the case then I would argue that boredom is its father. The genre of post-punk is proof of this. Punk emerged in the mid-1970s as a reaction against the pretense and excessive of progressive rock, but it only took a few years for the best punk bands to get restless with the aggressive simplicity of the genre, and began to experiment. Thus, post-punk was born, and few bands made the transition more rapidly and completely than Wire.

154 is the third and last Wire album before the band broke up. It represents the end of a three year journey that no one would have been able to predict the end of. Stripped down guitar rock has been replaced by cold and icy textures, with once reviled keyboards appearing prominently, wrapped around surprisingly tuneful melodies.

What's most remarkable here is the atmosphere. The dark and gloomy nature of this record sounds like a more intelligent version of Echo and the Bunnymen, as well as a precursor to goth rock (Bauhaus' debut single, Bela Lugosi's Dead, was released the same year, marking the official launch of the genre in many people's minds.)

The songs on 154 are unabashedly experimental. Rather than being build up around basic chord progressions or melodies, many start with little more than an angular chunk of sound, created on guitars or synthesizers, and the rest of the structure emerges around that one piece. For example, The Other Window rests on a bed of trembling guitar flange, with the lyrics delivered spoken word style on top of it. Indirect Enquiries is built on a two-note riff backed by a crunchy, percussive guitar effect.

At times, the band is even willing to abandon conventional song titles, with the first single from the album bafflingly called "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W".  I looked it up; apparently its in Iowa, although you'd never guess it from the cryptic lyrics. The tune is pretty good, though, and one thing I admire about Wire is that they don't sacrifice melody, as so many other bands do, even when they are stretching the genre to its breaking point.

Sometimes these experiments play out in a couple of minutes, and sometimes they are given more space to breathe. A great example of the latter, and the highlight of the album, is the nearly seven minute A Touching Display. Beginning with a clean, Morricone-esque riff, the song soon descends into somber waves of droning guitar distortion, almost abandoning form altogether in favor of raw sound. I don't doubt that this track must have been influential to later drone-metal and post-metal bands like Earth, Sunn O))), or Melvins. It's a thrilling willingness to throw musical convention completely out the window.

It's a shame Wire broke up when they did; given their trajectory over their three albums, there's no telling what would have come next. Just like post-punk contemporaries Joy Division, the band was perhaps cut short before achieving their full potential. Still, 154 remains a remarkable document of an emerging genre, and still somehow sounds fresh today.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #86 - Joni Mitchell - Blue (1971)

When I embarked upon this project, I knew that there would be albums on the list I wouldn’t like all that much, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue loomed large as the most likely contender. I’ve never been a fan of soft, female-vocaled adult contemporary music. I prefer something with a little more edge. Still, this whole experience is about broadening my musical horizons, so I tried to approach the record with as open a mind as possible.

On the first listen, it didn’t really do much for me. I found the songs meandering, the lyrics difficult to relate to. “Maybe you have to be a woman to get it,” I thought. Undeterred, I kept listening. You can’t evaluate an album in one hearing. Time would surely reveal hidden depths. But as I repeated the experience again and again, I came to realize something. I don’t just dislike this album; I hate it.

It seems odd to describe an album of stripped down folk-pop as “pretentious”, but that’s exactly what Blue is. In the Pitchfork review, Mitchell is compared to Bob Dylan, but Dylan was always honest (at least after the protest years) even when he was singing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He didn’t put on airs or pretend to be anything that he was not. He just did what he wanted to do. He wasn’t worried about impressing anybody.

The college I went to was attached to a music conservatory, and there were a lot of opera singers around. Everyone hated the opera singers. These were kids who had always been praised for their voices, and remained acutely and constantly aware of the fact that they could sing better than almost everyone else. This led to an intolerable personality of smug superiority. At first I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about Joni Mitchell’s singing, but this is it. She’s like that person who feels the need to insert harmony parts into Happy Birthday when sung at an office birthday party, just to show how clever and talented she is. There’s not a note on Blue that isn’t torturously subjected to vibrato and arbitrary leaps into the high soprano range. Mitchell knows she has a good voice, and by God she’s not going to let you forget it.

A couple of years after Blue, Bruce Springsteen would find fame singing anthems for the working class, kids stuck in dead end jobs in dying, midwestern towns with no futures and no options. When Joni Mitchell runs into trouble, she unhesitatingly jets off to Paris or Spain (I count at least six European countries mentioned in the lyrics), where she can rent a spacious loft apartment decorated with a grand piano and plenty of natural light. There she can pout about being misunderstood while basking in a Bohemian community brimming with praise for her talent and joie de vivre. Must be nice.

There’s no trace of real vulnerability on the album. Every attempt at self-deprecation is undercut by an unsubtle humblebrag (which I think would be a good alternate title for the album). In “River,” ostensibly a song about needing to escape, she doesn’t even make it out of the first verse before gloating “I’m gonna make a lot of money”. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone claiming they feel trapped when a plane trip to Europe or California is within such easy reach.

The only thing I found myself really able to appreciate on the album was Stephen Stills providing a rhythmic anchor to Carey in the form of a lively bass line, preventing that song from drifting off into the aimless navel gazing that dominates the rest of the record. Unfortunately, he disappears after that one track and is not seen again.

I hate to be uncharitable, but I find Blue to be nothing more than the self-satisfied musings of a flakey, “free spirited”, white girl with no real problems except how boring it all is.