Thursday, February 15, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #68 - Herbie Hancock - Head Hunters (1973)

Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters is one of the best selling jazz records of al time, and with good reason. It's catchy, it's fun, it's exciting, and it broke important new ground in updating jazz to fit in with the changing times. Along with Miles Davis, Hancock can be regarded as one of the great innovators, not content to fall back on previous structures and textures that had long since been worn into the ground.

Talking about his inspiration for Head Hunters, Hancock said that he felt like the music his band had been making was getting too lofty and ethereal. He wanted something more down and dirty, more earthbound. With this instinct in hand, it's not surprising that he found his way towards funk, the dirtiest, earthiest music around.

In the early 70s, a lot of Prog groups were inspired by jazz, and were experimenting with working it into a rock context. Their efforts led to a whole genre of jazz/rock fusion, but none of those records approaches what Herbie did in transforming jazz into a truly electric medium. Armed with electric pianos, clavinets, and most importantly, the distinctively searing Arp synthesizer, Hancock and his sextet sank their teeth into funk grooves in a way that was anything but academic, while maintaining the spontaneity and virtuosity of high-octane jazz. Over the course of just four tracks, he crafted an album that remains thrilling more than four decades later.

Side one is dominated by Chameleon, a fifteen minute piece built around a syncopated bass ostinato, with plenty of room for soloing. The way the instruments gradually build up, one on top of the other, is a blueprint for many a funk or electronica tune, and it allows the listener to gradually get used to simple things before moving into the wilder reaches of virtuoso musicianship. 

The second track, Watermelon Man, is a rerecording of a tune first done on Hancock's debut album, but this time arranged in a way that imitates African Pygmy music, with a rhythm section build around blowing air across the top of a beer bottle.

Side two kicks off with Sly, an uptempo workout for the band complete with brain-melting solos. In fact, the final track, Vein Melter, seems like it would have been a better title for this one. Instead, the last nine minutes of the record are taken up by a psychedelic cooldown, perhaps suggesting that the title is alluding to narcotics.

I'm not the biggest fan of jazz in general, but I have to confess that Head Hunters is great. It combines catchy tunes, infectious rhythms, astounding musicianship, and an electric funkiness that I just love. It certainly stands the test of time better than a lot of fusion records from this period.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #69 - Faust - Faust IV (1973)

Ah, Krautrock. That weird, wonderful, and ephemeral genre of experimental rock music from Germany that was big in the 80s, and then suddenly seemed to go away. It takes a certain kind of mindset to appreciate it, but when it's good, it's really really good.

Faust were one of the three major bands of the genre, sharing the limelight with their monosyllabic brethren Can and Neu!. Actually, there were hundreds of Krautrock bands kicking around back then, and lots of good ones, but these are the three that got the most airplay and recognition for being innovative and unique.

With their debut a couple of years earlier, Faust had put together a dense slab of Teutonic sound collage and rock pastiche, focusing on lengthy pieces and abstract structures. Here, on their fourth record, they've mellowed out a bit, and have started writing actual songs, albeit not without the same penchant for experimentalism and a wacky sense of humor. In fact, it's hard to know whether the first track is meant to be a joke.

Simply titled "Krautrock", the album's opener could well be a sarcastic comment on the British perception of the band and its contemporaries. The song is eleven minutes of chugging, droning, rock groove that sounds more like Neu! than anything Faust has done previously. It's repetitive in the extreme, and could be a gentle jibe at the style of their contemporaries. Regardless, it's a fun listen.

"Krautrock" leads abruptly into The Sad Skinhead, which is a bizarre (and  not entirely successful) attempt at reggae, for some reason. Far better as an example of the band's songwriting abilities is Jennifer, which is pretty and dreamy, and would later inspire a similar track by the Eurythmics. (I can't confirm that the two songs are related, but they both have the same name, refer to refer to red hair, and share a slow, hypnotic quality, so I choose to believe it.)

The second half of the album is more abstract, featuring studio experiments, instrumentals, and callbacks to the band's second album. The last track, It's a Bit of a Pain, intentionally interrupts a lovely acoustic melody with an annoying squeak sound, once more showcasing the band's warped sense of humor. 

I'll be honest: although I love Krautrock, Faust IV is far from my favorite album in the genre. I like their first two better, as well as many works by Can, Neu!, Ash Ra Tempel, Floh De Cologne, Cluster, Harmonia, La Dusseldorf, Popol Vuh, early Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and... well, you get the idea. Faust IV is a fine record, but not what I would have chosen to represent the genre at #69. But never fear! There's still several Krautrock albums that appear later on this list, so stay tuned!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #70 - Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

What can one say about Dark Side of the Moon that hasn't already been said? For many people, this album would not only top the list of the best albums of the 1970s, but the best of all time. And here we find it at a lowly #70. Personally, I wouldn't even rank it as my favorite Pink Floyd album. Nevertheless, it is undeniably a great achievement in music and in terms of influence alone is worth celebrating, so let's dive in.

Dark Side of the Moon represents the moment when a somewhat eccentric psychedelic band really got its act together. Previous Pink Floyd albums had moments of brilliance on them, but they tended towards self-indulgence, excessive experimentalism, and the inclusion of filler tracks to round out the running time. With Dark Side, they produced a tightly composed, semi-concept album with no wasted space, as well as some of their most memorable tunes. It would set the stage for the next two albums, Wish You Were Here and Animals, which both surpass this one in my opinion, but we have to award points for coming first.

While it's true that Dark Side sees the band at their sharpest, both in terms of songwriting and performance, I think the lion's share of the credit for the success of the album as a whole is due to engineer Alan Parsons, who would later find fame (albeit on a less extravagant scale) with his own band, The Alan Parsons Project. In this age of digital music editing software and laptop wizardry, it's easy to forget just how difficult it was to perform complex edits back in the day.

It's astonishing to think that the intricate 7/4 rhythm of cash registers and jingling coins at the beginning of money, or the cacophony of chiming clocks in Time, were produced using a razor blade to slice and splice physical tape together with almost superhuman precision. These effects go a long way towards giving the album its unique charm and cohesion, and Parsons is the man responsible for them.

Still, Roger Waters and David Gilmour were no slouches either. Waters' bitterly sarcastic lyrics and memorable bass hooks (particularly in Money) are the work of a master, whereas Gilmour's trademark slow and dreamy guitar solos lend a soaring grandeur to the music, and once again prove that effective guitar playing need not be about speed or technical virtuosity. Gilmour pours more emotion into his playing than any dozen hair metal shredders, and is rightly regarded as a guitar hero for it.

Lyrically, the songs have their fair share of memorable lines. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" manages to be poetic, poignant, and catchy. And while I don't agree with Roger Waters' politics, his vitriolic diatribe against Money is as enjoyable now as it ever was. Even when there are no lyrics at all, as in The Great Gig in the Sky, the epic vocal solo sends the listener on quite a thrill ride.

Dark Side of the Moon may not be the best album of all time or even of the 1970s, but it is certainly a stone cold classic thta belongs in every record collection worthy of the name. And yes, I have lined it up to the Wizard of Oz and it does work. Check it out sometime. It's not just for stoners anymore.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #71 - James Brown - The Payback (1973)

First of all, an apology for abandoning this project for so long. National Novel Writing Month, followed by the December holidays got in my way and I'm only now regaining my momentum. Nevertheless, I'm resolved to complete this project sooner or later, so onward and upward!

To be honest, I never thought I would like James Brown. He just didn't seem like my thing. But then I had the chance to see him live in concert shortly before his death, and it remains one of the best shows I've ever seen. The man knew how to put on a show, and his band is one of the tightest in the business.

But this review is about his 1971 album, The Payback, not the performance I saw in the early 2000s. So how does it stack up? In general, I'd say this record lacks some of the dynamism and energy of the live performance. I know it's regarded as one of his finest, but it lacks immediate crowd pleasers like Living in America or Sex Machine. The tracks here are generally slower in tempo, simpler in their composition, and lacking the melodic hooks that made the aforementioned songs so great.

There's a curious stasis to this kind of music. A funk groove, usually of not more than two bars, repeats over and over again, while James shouts, hollers, screams, grunts, and emotes over the top. Sometimes there's a brief solo or a horn section sting, but that's pretty much it. It almost reminds me of minimalist music in the vein of Philip Glass in that it uses motion to create a sense of stillness. It's weird to think of those two styles of music as related, but focus on groove and repetition is certainly common in both.

Lyrically, the songs lack much of substance. James makes it very clear that he wants revenge on somebody for something, any other details or funny. Elsewhere he apologetically admits that he is just a man, but that he's doing the best he can, in a rre moment of soul vulnerability. 

Towards the end of the album, the songs get longer and the jams get spacier. I'll venture another unlikely comparison in that these tracks start to resemble similarly groove-oriented efforts by Krautrock and space rock artists. Of course, the horns, wah-wah guitars and general funk atmosphere lend the music a totally different feel, but mechanically, a jam is a jam, and the album's closer, Mind Power, is a particularly great one.

The Payback is a double album, which seems a little unnecessary, given that most of the songs contain a small amount of material stretched out into seven, eight, or even twelve minutes. James Brown is certainly a charismatic and talented performer, but I can't help but feel like his abilities are better showcased elsewhere.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #72 - King Crimson - Red (1974)

It probably says a lot about King Crimson frontman Robert Fripp's sense of humor that the cover of an album called Red is almost entirely black and white. Or maybe it's just a stark and somber image of a band falling apart, as King Crimson almost always was. For their last album of the 1970s, the group had been reduced to the power trio of John Wetton on bass and vocals, Bill Bruford on drums, and Robert Fripp on guitar, helped along in a few places by former bandmates Ian McDonald, Mel Collins, and David Cross.

The album consists of just five tracks, but boy do they pack a punch. All of the experiments of the previous two albums come to fruition here in perfect concert. It's simultaneously a shame and fitting that the group disbanded after an achievement like Red.

The title track, which opens the album, is a dense, heavily overdubbed slab of instrumental proto-metal, built on riffs in odd time signatures and still sounding ahead of its time more than forty years later. It's hard to imagine any progressive metal or math rock band not devouring and internalizing this track.

The second song, Fallen Angel, is a lyrical ballad reminiscent of the band's debut album. Still, never content with simplicity, the track is spiced up by virtuosic drumming, the creative use of guitar harmonics, squalling sax solos, and the rarely heard Oboe setting on Mellotron, the most characteristic of all progressive rock instruments.

One More Red Nightmare develops themes from the title track into a somewhat more traditional song, although retaining the weird overtones of the original. I don't know what Bill Bruford is using as a drum kit here, but it sounds like he went out back behind the studio and found some trash cans to bang on. Maybe there are some flanged handclaps in there too? Whatever the case, it lends the whole song a very unique feel.

Providence is another instrumental, an eight-minute live track that, like the previous album, showcases the band's improvisational skills. This leads into the monumental Starless, a track that was mysteriously rejected from the previous album, but which combines emotion and virtuosity into the most thrilling twelve minutes in all of progressive rock. It's a hell of a way to close this chapter in the band's history.

I was never keen on 80s King Crimson, when New Wave and post-punk had eclipsed the classic sound of Prog Rock, so for me this album always represented the end of King Crimson as I knew them. While it's still not my favorite in their catalogue, it's hard to deny that the band ever sounded any better and more together than they do here. Truly a wonderful record that stands out, even for such a consistently creative and talented band.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #73 - Van Halen (1979)

In my review for Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, I mentioned that I think there have been three major revolutions in guitar technique since the invention of the electric version of the instrument. The first was Chuck Berry, who really developed a style unique to electric guitar, rather than simply mirroring acoustic technique, the second was Hendrix, who exploited feedback and distortion in ways no one ever had before, as well as extending the possibilities for the instrument in general. The third revolution came at the lightning fast hands of Eddie Van Halen.

The technique of tapping on the guitar fretboard with the right hand was hardly new; blues musicians had already been using it for decades, and Brian May performed a memorable electric version on Queen's 1976 album News of the World. But this occasional dabbling for the purposes of special effect could never have prepared the world for what Eddie managed to accomplish through systematically employing the technique in a heavy metal context. The resulting sound influenced every hard rock and metal band of the 80s, and defined entire genres of music. 

The instrumental that forms the second track on Van Halen's debut album, entitled Eruption, remains jaw dropping to this day, and learning it is a rite of passage for aspiring shredders everywhere. The world of the electric guitar would never be the same. But it's too easy to get hung up on Eddie Van Halen's guitar chops, for while they certainly do a lot to add character to the band's first album, there is a lot more going on than simply instrumentalists showing off.

No review of Van Halen would be complete without mention of David Lee Roth, the frontman whose raw energy and enthusiasm carried Van Halen from something rooted in technical proficiency to a real rock band, driven as much by adrenaline as musicianship. If there is any doubt that Diamond Dave's yelping and hollering were instrumental to making Van Halen great, take a listen to the pale efforts of Sammy Hagar to inject enthusiasm into an otherwise limp and plaid out band. Regardless of whose name is on it, without Dave, Van Halen just wasn't Van Halen.

Then, of course, there are the songs themselves. While there are admittedly a couple of duds, these boys sure knew how to write a catchy tune. It's astonishing to think that Eddie was almost too embarrassed to perform Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, maybe the best song on the album, because it is only based around two chords. Elsewhere, I'm The One, Runnin' With The Devil, and Atomic Punk keep the listener engaged with unrelentingly high-octane performances. I'm particularly amused by the faux-retro Ice Cream Man, which starts off as an acoustic number before turning into another crazy shred-fest.

Even the Kinks' You Really Got Me, a great tune but arguably the most over-covered song in the rock canon, finds new life under the fingers of Eddie and in the vocal chords of Dave. The energy they give the song makes the original, once a roaring rock anthem, sound almost quaint in comparison.

I'll admit that Van Halen is not one of my favorite bands, and I find that their schtick gets old after a while, but in terms of both energy and influence on later acts, it's impossible to deny that their debut, coming right at the end of the seventies, certainly ranks as one of the most important albums in rock.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Top 100 Albums 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?