Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top 100 Albus of the 1970s - #74 - Leonard Cohen - Songs of Love and Hate (1971)

I've been remiss in my music review duties lately, partly due to being busy and partly due to a lack of inspiration. In truth, this album is pretty dreary and it took some time for me to come up with something to say about it.

As the cover indicates, Songs of Love and Hate is a bleak, monochromatic collection of songs tackling such cheery subjects of death, suicide, and more death. Comparisons with other singer-songwriters are inevitable. Cohen is more somber than Bob Dylan, less personable than Johnny Cash, and more authentic than Tom Waits. His earnest and painful writing in tinged with an icy frost of alienation.

Even in the relatively uptempo number, There Are No Diamonds in the Mine, when backed by gospel singers and a twangy country lead guitar, Cohen comes across as desperately unhappy. I suppose that's part of his appeal. Where Dylan cuts his bitterness with jokes, Cohen maintains steadfastly committed to his grim outlook on life.

Apocalypse always feels just around the corner, with Cohen serving as a prophet resigned to the fate of the world, an aura that is helped by larger than life topics such as Joan of Arc and the suicidal ruminations of Dress Rehearsal Rag,

One of the surprising things about the record is Cohen's intricate style of guitar playing, over which his world weary voice drones and groans. Particularly evident in the album's opener, Avalanche, his style is a blend of classical guitar techniques and folky fingerstyle that's terribly effective in what is otherwise a very stripped down form of music.

Another oddity is the inclusion of a single live track, seemingly for no reason. It maintains the overall feel of the album, however, and doesn't really detract from its mood.

I have to be in a pretty gloomy mood to enjoy this sort of music, but when I am, it really hits the spot. There's definitely something to be said for wallowing in all of humanity's most negative emotions at once. It can be cathartic and therapeutic, and after all, isn't that what music is all about?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #75 - Led Zeppelin - Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin always liked to experiment with different genres, but perhaps never so much as on their fifth album, Houses of the Holy, in which the band stretches itself beyond their hard rock/proto metal roots to create a record that enigmatic, fascinating, and at times brilliant.

What Houses of the Holy lacks in a unified sound or consistent themes, it makes up for in exuberance and experimentation. It's not always successful, but it does include some of the highlights of the Led Zeppelin catalogue.

The album's opener, The Song Remains the Same, is a traditional Jimmy Page guitar-workout rocker that is made no less powerful by its familiarity.  Next, The Rain Song finds the band in a mellower mood than is typical for them, with Jimmy Page's twin guitars separated out into the stereo channels, providing a wide and full sound that soon is joined by warm strings. By this point, Page's layered guitar technique was well established, but this is a good example of how far the band had come in terms of production, and really sounds great through headphones.

The Tolkien-influenced flights of fancy are still around, with songs like Over the Hills and Far Away preserving the Celtic influences that allowed Zeppelin to give a nod to its native Britain while still reveling the in the sounds of American blues. 

On the second half, things start to get a little odd. D'Yer Maker (pronounced Jamaica) is a particularly weird genre experiment in which the band attempts reggae. The result doesn't exactly sound like something out of the Caribbean, but it is a fun enough to forgive its technical and stylistic shortcomings. 

No Quarter is even weirder, but instead of being a pastiche, it comes across as a genuinely frightening piece of nightmare music. It also proves that Robert Plant can do things with his voice other than shriek. It's one of my favorite things the band has ever done, and resembles nothing else in their oeuvre.

Elsewhere, the songwriting suffers, as on the mediocre Dancing Days and The Crunge (did they ever find that confounded bridge?) But if Houses of the Holy is not as consistent as the previous album, it must at least be given credit for how adventurous it is. It's not my favorite Zeppelin album, but it's certainly up there. As Robert Plant says in the last two words on the album, "so good."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #76 - Blondie - Parallel Lines (1978)

Blondie is that most unlikely paradox, a polished punk band. Emerging out of the New York punk/new wave scene, the band started out raw enough, blending aggressive modernism with sweet girl group-inspired melodies. But with their third album under producer Mike Chapman, they reached a level of professionalism equal to their energy and creativity.

Reportedly, relations between Chapman and the band were not especially friendly. He demanded perfection from a group that was used to knocking out sessions in a couple of loose takes. The resulting friction resulting in Chapman having instruments occasionally thrown at him by exasperated band members, but you can't argue with the results. Every note on Parallel Lines is as good as it could have been, with zero tolerance for sloppiness in any area.

The squeaky clean production highlights the essentially quality of the songwriting, and brings out the best in both the band and in Deborah Harry herself, whose instantly recognizable voice constantly rides the line between tender and tough. As her scowl on the cover photo suggests, she is not just another honey-voiced pop singer.

No one has a voice like Harry, and she uses it very adeptly. One Way or Another, about a stalking experience, would have the potential to be very repetitive, but she sings the chorus a different way every time. She growls and coos with equally potent effect.

What makes Blondie stand out among their peers is that, while the anarchic energy of fellow New York punk acts is present, they can't seem to help writing irresistible pop hooks. Picture This and Sunday Girl have killer ones, and Just Go Away is built around not one, but three hooks that other bands would give their bassist for.

Elsewhere, the band gets playful, transforming a Buddy Holly love song into a bratty punk anthem, complete with the obligatory rock and roll scream, and experimenting with disco on the album's most famous song, Heart of Glass.

Blondie is neither as hard as most punk bands nor as poppy as many New Wave acts, but their strength lies in combining the best parts of both genres into a tight and polished whole, that balances every sarcastic snarl with a shy smile. Parallel Lines represents the band at the height of their powers, both as songwriters and as musicians capable of delivering a professional product, even as they continue to have raucous fun.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #77 - David Bowie - Aladdin Sane (1973)

The third of four Bowie albums on this list, Aladdin Sane represents the hardest thing to do in music, to follow up a smash hit without either copying it or losing momentum. Bowie manages to avoid both these pitfalls, but only just.

Here we have Bowie attempting to build on his Ziggy Stardust persona while still treading new ground. And even if few of the individual songs have the catchiness or immediacy of the previous record, it's still an impressive feat of songwriting, musicianship and production.

Personally, I think the album shows a few signs of fatigue with glam genre, even though Bowie had only been treading that terrain for a year. He seems anxious to move on, to avoid repeating himself. While some artists are content to churn out album after album of similar material, Bowie’s restlessness is palpable. And indeed, he followed up Aladdin Sane with the arguably disastrous, but at least different Pin Ups, an entire album of covers from the 1960s.

The good news is that this means Bowie is in full experimental mode here, stepping into a variety of genres to see which ones fit. Time is influenced by German cabaret, but also seems to show signs of the Krautrock influences that would become dominant during the Berlin Trilogy phase. Watch That Man and Cracked Actor are hard rockers as good as anything else he has ever done. Prettiest Star and Drive in Saturday attempt to lighten the mood.

Avant garde piano flourishes are meshed together with tight pop melodies. It's clear that what Bowie is going for here is artier than a mere rock and roll record. Perhaps that's why his most straightforward attempts at rock music sound the most hollow in the context of the album.

For example, the only real misstep on the album is cover of Let’s Spend the Night Together. It's a sped up version of the Rolling Stones classic, and yet somehow feels less energetic than the original. It also feels out of place amongst Bowie’s more complex originals.

Ultimately, Aladdin Sane is a transitional album (aren't all of Bowie's records in one way or another?) building the bridge between the Ziggy Stardust era and the more adventurous period ahead, including the moody Station to Station, and the aforementioned Berlin albums. As a collection of songs, it has plenty of highlights, but to my ears it lacks the cohesion necessary for a truly great album.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #78 - Fela Kuti - Expensive Shit (1975)

This is the second Fela Kuti album on this list, predating the previously-reviewed Zombie by two years. Here we find Kuti and his Africa '70 engaging in a very similar style of Afrobeat, albeit this time in an extremely concise manner. The album comprises just two tracks and has a running time of under 25 minutes.

While Zombie was an overly, bitterly political record, Expensive Shit is a little more subtle in its attacks on the Nigerian government. The title refers to an incident in which Kuti was framed for drug crime by having marijuana planted on hi. To avoid arrest, he quickly swallowed the offending product, at which point the authorities held him prisoner until the could collect an incriminating stool sample. Yuck.

Thankfully, the music itself is not nearly so nauseating. The title track, stretching 13 minutes, is built around an electric guitar vamp, over which keyboards sprinkle jazzy riffing, while the drums beat out an active and busy rhythm underneath. After a couple of minutes, the obligatory horns come in, blasting out a syncopated melody in unison. The whole thing is made up of slow and subtle elaboration on repeated patterns, a style that informs other genres such as American minimalism and many kinds of electronica as well. Throughout, Kuti's solos as inventive and interesting to listen to, forming a nice counterpoint to the relentless rhythm section behind it all.

Lyrics come in about halfway through the song, but apart from repeated references to the title, they are largely undecipherable, and even then, they are fairly superfluous. The words are shouted amelodically over the instrumental backdrop, which would be no less interesting without them. It's a complain I often have with funk music, where great instrumental work is covered up by subpar vocals.

Speaking of great instrumental work, one has to be impressed with how tight the band as a whole is. This style of music only works if every player is function as a well-oiled part of a unified whole, and the Africa '70 carries it off with aplomb. It's quite reminiscent of James Brown's excellent band, who we'll come to later.

The second and final track, Water No Get Enemy,has a more laid back, almost Bossa Nova feel. The instrumentation is unchanged, with the same emphasis on keyboard and saxophone solos over a rhythm section of drums and guitar, with major melody lines being held down by the horn section. For its 11 minute length, the track is dominated by a more jazzy sound than its predecessor, with solos that would not sound out of place on many American jazz records of the time. The African feel is retained, however, in the horn and drum parts.

Once again, the lyrics are only partially in English, but appear to be about the need for fresh water as it relates to Kuti's political struggle in Nigeria. As a short slice of politically-tinged African jazz-funk,  it's certainly satisfying, and given the repetitious nature of the music, its brevity is probably more a strength than a weakness. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #79 - Randy Newman - Sail Away (1972)





These days, Randy Newman has devolved into a somewhat cloying composer of soundtracks for children’s movies, but there was a time when he had one of the sharpest pens in the songwriting world. Sail Away is the perfect balance between caustic cynicism and heartfelt piano ballads, where you are never quite sure to what extent he is kidding.

The title track, Sail Away, is nuquestionably the album’s masterpiece, composed as a sales pitch by an African slave trader to his victims. The singer paints a picture of America as a wonderful place of freedom and opportunity, never tipping his hand that what he has in mind is enslavement and hard labor. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to hear it as uplifting and honest, missing the dark cynicism entirely. This is a pattern on the album, where it's hard for the listener to know quite where the joke is, or if there even is one.

Political Science is a hilarious mock-suggestion for dropping nuclear weapons on the rest of the world for frivolous reasons, only sparing Australia because we "don't want to hurt no kangaroos." Joking about the end of the world with a completely straight face is exactly the level of darkness you should expect from the young Newman, and it's immensely satisfying to listen to.

Not every piece is so lighthearted, however. That’s Why I Love Mankind is jarring in its relentlessly harsh critique of religion. It’s the only song on the album that seems to come from a real emotional place, only the emotion is white hot anger directed at no less a person than God himself. Regardless of how you feel about the song’s message, it’s a powerful closer to the album.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, we're forced to wonder whether He Gives Us All His Love, a seemingly plainspoken rejoicing in God's benevolence, is sincere. It sounds like it, and on any other record you'd be forced to accept it for what it appears to be. But in the context of an album with That’s Why I Love Mankind, it’s hard to believe it. Maybe the joke is that “giving love” while allowing terrible things to happen is an empty gesture, or maybe Newman can just see two sides of the story.

Elsewhere, Lonely At the Top makes arrogance charming and You Can Leave Your Hat On is baffling in its absurdity. But the album is not without misses. Old Man, Memo to My Son, and Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear are not especially memorable. Still, it's hard to resent a few duds in an otherwise sterling collection of tunes.

Listening to Sail Away in the 21st century, I have to admit that I miss the old Randy Newman. At some point he lost his edge (and perhaps some of his bitterness) and became just another vanilla film composer. But it's important for people to remember that as a songwriter, his legacy contains a lot more greatness than Toy Story or Family Guy parodies could ever hint at.

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.