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?

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.

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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #87 - Roxy Music - For Your Pleasure (1973)

The album cover of Roxy Music's second album, apart from being extremely visually striking, gives you a pretty good idea of what the music is going to be like before you even put on the record. On the right, the trashy glamour of a skin-tight vinyl dress, elbow-length gloves, and impractical heels. On the left, the menacing snarl of a barely-restrained panther, shrouded in shadow and backlit by the big city at night. Those competing, yet oddly complimentary, images are both very much present on this remarkable disc.

For Your Pleasure is a sinister and unsettling record, abandoning the brighter elements of the band's debut (which were not that many to begin with) to concentrate on instrumental textures and more contemplative lyrics. Although the album starts out innocuously enough, with a parody of 60s dance crazes, it quickly becomes clear that there's something darker going on here.

Before I get into the songs any further, it's important to acknowledge the band's composition and musicianship, which is a big part of what makes this album so unique. Lead vocalist, frontman, and principal songwriter Brian Ferry has a voice that's like a bizarre cross between Bing Crosby's crooning and David Byrne's yelp. He has the air of a wannabe Romeo who is just too strange and awkward to realize that he will never be believable in the role.

In addition to the usual backing instruments (all played expertly), the band utilizes the talents of Andy McKay on various reed instruments, most notably saxophone and oboe. I don't know too many rock bands that feature oboe, and this combined with his saxophone work adds a weird blend of 50s rock and roll and some sort of foreign otherness that keeps any of the songs from sounding at all normal. Finally, we have Brian Eno   on keyboards and, more importantly, sound manipulations. His brief career with Roxy Music predates any of his more familiar ambient work, but the signature style is already there, and very noticeable.

Eno's influence causes all the sounds on the record to be tweaked, filtered, and processed, making the whole thing sound weird and alien. Even when the basic structure of a song is simple and ordinary, it is this attention to detail that makes it remarkable, and even today there are few producers creating anything that sounds like For Your Pleasure. It's a terribly unique record even 40 years later.

Then there are the songs themselves. I think it's safe to say that Brian Ferry is a deeply strange person, and we are the beneficiaries of his strangeness. Strictly Confidential rides along a haunting oboe melody with vague lyrics about guilt, regret, darkness, and death. The Bogus Man is nearly ten minutes of plodding, paranoid instrumental jamming with occasional lyrics about a stalker.  The album's tour de force is In Every Dream Home A Heartache, which rocks back and forth between a two-phrase melody as it slowly builds to its climax. You're unlikely to ever hear a better love song directed towards a blow-up doll. The lyrics explore perversion driven by boredom, and paint a chilling picture of a wealthy bachelor slowly going mad all alone in a luxurious mansion. The way the song slowly builds tension through repetition is masterly, and it will stay with you for long after the last notes have faded away. The album's closer, the title track, transforms a relatively normal beginning into an end that is almost Musique Concret, which layer upon layer of tape manipulation that becomes so abstract as to be unrecognizable by the end. An entirely fitting conclusion.

For Your Pleasure was to be Eno's last record with Roxy Music, which is a real shame, because the tension between his and Ferry's style really works. It's almost like a surreal Lennon-McCartney in which each brings out the best in the other, despite their wildly different styles. The story I heard is that Ferry became jealous of the attention Eno's eccentric lifestyle was getting from the press and booted him out of the band, but who knows for sure? Both artists would go on to pursue productive careers long after, but For Your Pleasure remains a remarkable document of a moment when competing artistic visions fused together in a way that surpassed either individually.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Top 100 Albums of the 1970s - #88 - Giorgio Moroder - From Here to Eternity (1977)

Disco is a much maligned genre, and I guess I can see why. It supplanted the lush, technical, hyper-musical, heavily expressive, virtuosic, jazz- and classic-influenced progressive rock of the early seventies with throbbing, soulless beats, computer rhythms, and synthesized, phony baloney strings and horns. Great songwriters like Jeff Lynne and Freddie Mercury away from their sublime melodies and towards repetitive, inhuman grooves. I get it.

Still, I've never had this visceral hatred of disco, and this list, which contains several of the best albums from the genre, has given me a new appreciation for it. It's hard to criticize disco for being robotic when you listen to Kraftwerk. It's hard to criticize it as soulless when you listen to Throbbing Gristle. It's hard to criticize it as artificial or inauthentic when you appreciate lost genres like Exotica or Bubblegum. So I'm not ashamed to say I enjoy disco, especially for its influence on New Wave and much of modern electronica.

Nevertheless, in this enjoyment, I find something deeply depressing about it, and about this album in particular. Giorgio Moroder was an Italian producer who helped raise Donna Summer to stardom with his programming prowess. Here, he steps out from behind the mixing desk and lets his work stand on its own, untainted by any exterior interpreter.

And stand it does. The music is tight and well-produced. The melodies are catchy. The background vocals are superb. So why depressing? I think it has to do with the sense of fatigue that comes from the repetitive beat. The first track starts out sublime, but as he human vocals fade into robotic vocoders, its exuberance slips into a minor key and turns dark. All the time the four on the floor beat remains constant, monotonous, inexorable.

Like Lou Reed singing about the pointless, yet inescapable, life of the hard partying drug user, this feels like an early commentary on club culture, almost before there was such a thing. Moments of occasional euphoria fade away to reveal a deep emptiness, and yet through it all you keep desperately dancing, even after all enthusiasm or joy for the activity has died.

Make no mistake: I don't regard this as a weakness of the album. Instead, it's really what makes it so strong. There are a million records of cheerful, upbeat, one-dimensional techno. From Here to Eternity has an emotional depth lacking in similar yet inferior records. Even the title is perfect. At first glance, it sounds inspiring, but upon further reflection it suggests fatigue and hopelessness. Just like the eternal, thumping, bass beat, there’s no end in sight to an existence of empty hedonism.

Giorgio Maroder is one of the pioneers of electronic dance music, and this remains his most popular and influential work. Even if you're not a fan of disco, you have to appreciate his technical savvy and artistic vision. As a high water mark of pristine electronic production, From Here to Eternity totally holds up 40 years after its release.