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.