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.