#491- Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign- 1967

April 18, 2013

cover

The Artist:

albert

If you have read my review of B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail, then the background info for Albert King will sound familiar, and for that reason the two are commonly confused with each other.

Albert was born in 1923 on a cotton plantation in Indianola, Mississippi.  I know what you may be thinking, the answer is ‘no,’ despite being born in the same place 2 years apart and using the same last name, the two are not related, as Albert was born Albert King Nelson.  Nelson’s large family (he had 12 brothers and sisters) performed gospel music together in church, and he learned to play the guitar when he was 8 years old.

Albert became a professional musician in the late 40’s playing drums on some recordings with Jimmy Reed.  Influenced by T-Bone Walker and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Albert wanted to play the blues.  In 1953, he signed with Parrot Records out of Chicago, and recorded a few singles.  By this time, he had dropped his last name and was now just Albert King.

King had very little success on the Parrot label and left Chicago for St. Louis.  For several years King and his band played the local blues clubs before attracting the attention of another bluesman, Little Milton.  Milton was working in the front office for a small St. Louis Record label, Bobbin Records, and he signed King to a deal.

Around this time, King began playing a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar.

King looking like a badass with the Flying V.

If this picture was shown in a gallery it would be titled “Badass at Work.”

King was left-handed, but much like Jimi Hendrix would do a few years later, he played a right-handed guitar upside-down.  Albert named all his guitars “Lucy,” further confusing him with B.B. and his “Lucille.”

Bobbin loaned King out to the (somewhat ironically named) King label out of Cincinnati.  It was there that King had his first major hit with “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” in 1961.  The song reached the top 20 on the R&B charts.

In 1962, King (the label) released Albert King’s first LP, The Big Blues.

big blues

It was technically a compilation, as all of the songs on the album were songs that had been released as singles on both Bobbin and King over the past few years.

Actually the title The Big Blues couldn’t be more apropos, as King was a huge man.  He stood 6 foot 4 and weighed over 250 lbs.  That was larger than most NFL linemen in 1960’s.

I could see him taking on Butkus.

After a few more singles, Albert left Bobbin and King and signed with Coun-Tree Records, which was mostly a Jazz label, after a couple of unsuccessful singles, King went looking for a new label to sign with.

One of the premier R&B/Soul music labels was Stax, located in Memphis, Tennessee.  The label had only been around for a handful of years, but was gaining popularity with the music buying public with huge stars like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the MGs.

There were not any other traditional blues artists signed with Stax at the time, and they were looking to expand into that market.  In 1966, King signed with Stax.  He was excited about the prospect of working with the young musicians that Stax employed, most notably Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs.

In his previous 13 years of being an artist, King had garnered only one solitary chart hit, but in just his first 3 years at Stax he recorded 5 R&B chart hits and had his first breakthrough on the Hot 100.

As Stax did with most of their artists at the time, they then compiled all of King’s singles recorded in 1966-67 along with the B-sides, and put them on one LP.

The Album Cover:

cover

Some have called this one of the best album covers of all time.  It’s a pretty funny cover with all of the “bad luck” signs of a black cat, ace of spades, dice rolling ‘snake eyes’, the skull and crossbones, and Friday the 13th on the calendar.

The cover was designed Loring Euterney, who actually worked for Atlantic as their cover designer.  At the time, Atlantic was partnered with Stax to release their albums at the national level.  That seemingly insignificant detail of who designed the cover may actually mean that it was Atlantic and not Stax that put together this compilation, or else the artwork would have probably been done in-house at Stax.  In fact, the album was released both through Atlantic and Stax.

The back cover has what was the standard Stax design at the time, as all of their LPs essentially had the same style back cover, the artist and title in bold at the top, the track listing on left and a short essay on the artist on the right side.

Note that the only picture I could find was of the back of the Atlantic release. The Stax version looks identical, except with the Stax logo instead of the Atlantic logo in the top right hand corner.

My favorite line of the essay “If you’ve ever been hurt by your main squeeze, deceived by your best friend, or down to your last dime and ready to call it quits, Albert King has the solution if you have the time to listen.”  Do I get a money back guarantee with that?

I have the Sundazed reissue of Born Under a Bad Sign and it has a second essay on the back by Bill Dahl written in 1998, giving more contextual information on the album, along with a picture of King playing guitar.

Sundazed reissue

The Album:

I am reviewing the 1998 Sundazed reissue LP of Born Under A Bad Sign.  As someone who lives in Memphis, TN, it is very hard to come by original Stax albums at non-astronomical prices, so I do not own an original copy of the album.  However, Sundazed is one of the best reissue labels when it comes to sounding just like the original as they put a lot of care into pressing their vinyl.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.  If you can get your hands on an original Stax S723 that is in good condition, then pick it up.  If not, the Sundazed vinyl reissue is fine.)

The album starts off with the title track, “Born Under A Bad Sign.”  The streak of awesome opening tracks continues!  The first thing that popped in my head when the song started is how much it is a perfect blending of the “Stax sound” and King’s blues.  It may be the quintessential blues recording.  Of course, it would even more famously be recorded by Albert King’s acolyte Eric Clapton with Cream a year later.

Eric Clapton, Cream, they will be discussed a lot over these reviews.

Ya know, when you listen to the lyrics it is actually a really depressing song.  He can’t read, write, has been living on his own since he was 10 years old.  Damn, that’s a rough life.  But I’m not sure that has anything to do with bad luck.

Next up is “Crosscut Saw.”  Which has very quiet vocals in comparison to the music, though that could just be a problem with the mix.  Again, it is interesting to hear the Memphis styled sound backing up King on what was a song he had recorded many years earlier.  The lyrics always have kinda confused me as the sexual innuendo on “Crosscut Saw” is odd.  “Just drag me across your log/ I cut your wood so easy for you.” I think this chick might have a dick.

Lieber and Stoller’s “Kansas City” has a much more laid back sound compared to the other versions of the song I’ve heard.  There are great sounding horns on this track. Overall, though, it really isn’t one of King’s best vocals and not one of the album’s best tracks.

Oh, Pretty Woman” is a hard-driving blues song.  And, no, it is not the same as the Roy Orbison classic.  The bass really drives this song, though it kinda sounds like it may be Booker T. playing the bass notes on the organ rather than Duck Dunn on the bass. I’m not sure about that, though. Really an early funk-blues piece, with a great guitar solo.  Really, it’s a pretty badass song.

Down Don’t Bother Me” is the first song penned by Albert King on the album.  A decent, yet semi-generic blues song, although the Memphis Horns keep it from being totally generic.

The Hunter” is a song written by all members of Booker T. & the MGs.  It sounds so much like an MGs song, only with lyrics and blues guitar.  Quite cool.

Hearing “The Hunter” and noticing how much is sounds like Booker T. & the MGs makes just want to add this here: shame on the Rolling Stone voters for only voting this one album from Stax on the list. There is so much that needs to be said about Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, Staple Singers, and loads of others.  There are three Otis Redding albums on the list, and while they are Stax albums, they bear the Volt logo.  There is not one album on the list with the best record label logo of all time, the famous “snapping fingers” logo, which didn’t appear until the year after Born Under a Bad Sign.

But at least I can acknowledge some of those artists’ contributions on this album, which, unfortunately, is not a traditional Stax album.  Although, I’m glad that it does have a touch of the Stax soul flavor mixed in with Albert King’s blues.

Like, seriously guys? You have 500 spots and this isn’t on there? (And yes I know this is technically on the Enterprise label.)

Oh yeah, Led Zeppelin took parts of “The Hunter,” sped it up, and made it into “How Many More Times” off their debut album.

led zep I

Writing credits: Page, Jones, Bonham. Hmm…

Actually this is where the original LP’s side one ends, but the Sundazed reissue includes a bonus track at the end of each side.  “Funk Shun” is an instrumental blues track that is pretty good and it is a nice ending to side one.

I Almost Lost My Mind” opens up side two.  I always like when someone can take a song that has been covered a million times and make it sound fresh, and King does that here.  I love the flute and horns, I honestly can’t remember ever hearing a flute on a blues song ever before.

Unless there is a parallel universe where The Marshall Tucker Band is considered blues.

Isaac Hayes plays piano on this track.  Everything works here, especially King’s vocal.  I wasn’t expecting to say this, but this might be my favorite track on the album so far.

Personal Manager” is another Albert King penned track as he wrote it with Stax’s resident songwriter David Porter.  It has that traditional blues sound, and here is the first time where he reminds me of B.B.  It does have an awesome guitar solo on it, bending the strings all over the place.  A lot of the time I don’t usually love the traditional blues style, but in this case it works really well.

Laundromat Blues” is just King, Isaac Hayes, and Duck Dunn playing a stripped down blues song for the most part, that is until the horns come in midway through the song.  The song is about his woman two-timing him with a man she is meeting at the laundromat.  I love the lyrics “I don’t want ya to get so clean, baby/ You just might wash your life away.”  Only in the blues can you say something like that with a straight face and it still makes you feel the man’s despair and anger.

Nothing sexier than a laundromat. What with all the vibrating and the underwear and stuff.

As the Years Go Passing By” opens with a great sax blast. This is a great track.   This song just has a feeling to it, it’s soft and cool, I imagine that they are playing in the studio with the lights turned out for some reason.  Kinda like how the Ohio Players used to do it.

Like, remember  the time they were playing in the dark and the woman from this cover busted in and was murdered, and her scream was heard on “Love Rollercoaster.” Or not.

Officially the original album ends on “The Very Thought Of You” which sounds more like a Brook Benton song than an Albert King song as it has a more R&B than Blues feel to it.  This may be his best vocal on the album. Also, it has a great sax solo by Andrew Love of The Memphis Horns. It is a lovely track to close out the original album.

Much like side one, side two of the Sundazed LP closes on an instrumental bonus track, “Overall Junction.”  Kind of a fun, bluesy guitar-driven song.  It’s good, but “The Very Thought of You” was such a great ending track, that I kind of wish they wouldn’t have put this here. It is great to have more tracks, but it kinda screws with the flow.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not the biggest fan of traditional blues.  I know it is something that requires an appreciation and time put in to “get” it.  That’s not to say I don’t like the blues, because I can appreciate it to a point, but much like classical and jazz music it takes time and effort to understand what keeps most songs from sounding just alike.  However, adding in the “Stax sound” into the mix does make the songs more palatable to my ears, and makes it an enjoyable album.

Aftermath:

The album (or at least the tracks from this compilation) immediately inspired many rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, who both acknowledged its influence and covered the title track.  Later people like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Walsh, and even John Mayer cited these King recordings as influences on their own guitar playing.

King’s follow-up to Born Under A Bad Sign was a live album recorded at the Fillmore West in San Francisco titled Live Wire/Blues Power.

The album was his first to chart on the R&B and Pop Charts.

His next studio album Years Gone By was his most successful on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, reaching #133.  Once again, Booker T. & the MGs backed King on that album.

King remained with Stax through 1974.  The label filed bankruptcy in 1975 and King signed with Utopia Records.

He continued to tour despite growing health problems throughout the 1980’s.  His final recordings came in 1992, after which he passed away of a heart attack at his home in Memphis in December of that year.

Coincidentally, I am posting this on April 18, 2013, and Albert King will be posthumously inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame later this evening.  Actually, considering his influence on so many people who are already in there, I’m surprised that it has taken this long for him to be inducted.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “King’s first album for the Stax label combines his hard, unflashy guitar playing with the sleek sound of the label’s house band, Booker T. and the MG’s. Hits such as “Crosscut Saw” and “Laundromat Blues” earned King a new rock & roll audience.”

I can’t really disagree with much of what they say here, although there are some times on the album where King’s guitar is quite flashy, and the truth is that really this is a compilation album, so I would have a feeling that a majority of the songs that “earned…a new rock & roll audience” were known before the album came out. Especially since the album itself was not a huge seller or anything.  However, these are the tracks that did influence a couple of generations of rock guitarists, whether it was from listening to the album on or listening to singles it really does not matter.

Conclusion:

There’s nothing bad at all on this album, but traditional blues is not exactly my cup o’ tea. There is a touch of funk and a lot of what I like best about the album is the contribution by the Stax crew. I don’t mean to knock Albert King in any way, because what he does is very good, too. I personally just enjoy the Stax sound more than the blues sound. Still, all of that makes up the album as a whole and despite being basically a compilation album it has a good flow to it. I will definitely recommend Born Under A Bad Sign to anyone.

4.25 Stars out of 5, recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

5. Outkast- Aquemini

6. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign

7. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

8. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

9. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

10. Eurythmics- Touch

#492- Eurythmics- Touch- 1983

February 7, 2013

Eurythmics--Touch--albumcoverproject.com-

The Artists:

Eurythmics-intro-640-80

The duo that would become known as Eurythmics first met in 1975.  Scottish-born Annie Lennox was a student at the Royal Academy of Music where she was studying the flute, and was working her way through school by waiting tables at a London health food restaurant.

Lennox during her days at the Academy.

Lennox during her days at the Academy.

When local record shop owner Paul Jacobs became a regular in the restaurant, Annie became friends with him, eventually handing him a tape of her singing and playing music.  Jacobs was friends with a musician named Dave Stewart, who had been part of a folk-rock band named Longdancer.  Longdancer had been signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records in 1971, but had failed to reach any measure of success.  They were quickly dropped from the record label.

longdancer - if it was so simple 1973 front

Stewart is pictured on far left.

Jacobs invited Stewart to go with him to the restaurant to meet Lennox.  Stewart had already been trying to get another record deal along with his friend Peet Coombes, who like Stewart was a musician from Sunderland, England.  One of the reasons they felt that they had been unsuccessful in securing one was that neither was a particularly good singer.  Stewart was hoping that Jacobs’ had found someone who had the kind of voice that could get them a deal.

Stewart has stated that the first thing that he ever said to Lennox was “will you marry me?”  The two quickly became lovers and found out that they worked well together musically.  The trio formed a band called The Catch, and signed a six album deal on Logo Records.  After one single failed to chart, the band added two new members in bassist Eddie Chin and drummer Jim Toomey, and changed their name to The Tourists.

tourists lp

The Tourists played pop music in a time when punk rock was all the rage and they were hated by British music critics at the time, but they caught on with the public and ended up having two top 10 UK hits “I Only Want to Be With You” and “So Good to Be Back Home Again.”

By 1980, the band had released three albums, but soon they started to have personal issues, much of it stemming from legal issues surrounding a change in record labels.  They decided to all go their separate ways, except for Annie and Dave, who, despite the fact that they were no longer romantically involved, decided to stay together as a musical duo.

Lennox and Stewart decided to name themselves after the style of musical education that Annie was taught as a young music student, Eurythmics.  Annie would continue to sing vocals along with playing keyboards, while Dave handled all other instruments.  They even decided that when they went on tour they would not have a backing band, but remain a duo by using recorded backing tracks and synthesized electronic sounds in concert.

The duo went to Germany to record their first album, hiring famed “krautrock” producer Conny Plank, who had produced albums for bands such as Kraftwerk.  Lennox and Stewart wanted to play in more of a psychedelic, electro-pop style than what they had been playing with The Tourists.

In October 1981, Eurythmics released their debut album In The Garden.

eurythmics-in-the-garden-original

The album was not very successful, nor were any singles from the album.  Personally, I like some of the songs on the album, but as a whole it is nothing memorable.

They decided to build their own 8 Track Studio in London, named “The Church,” so that they could experiment with more electronics in their recording sessions for their sophomore album.

For this album, Stewart wanted to abandon the psychedelic sound of the previous album and have more of a New Wave sound.  They upped the use of synthesizers and wrote songs with the purpose of breaking through with a commercial hit.  The duo spent the entire year of 1982 recording the album, originally named Invisible Hands.

The Eurythmics’ second album, now retitled Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) was released in January 1983.

Eurythmics--Sweet-Dreams-Are-Made-Of-This--albumcoverproject.com-

One of the most important things to happen to Annie and Dave was the creation of MTV.  The cable channel was still in its infancy when Eurythmics filmed their music video for the title track.  Annie had buzzed her hair and dyed it bright red and wore a man’s suit in the video.  Her androgynous look along with the song’s driving synth-bassline made it a big hit on MTV, and in turn made both the single and the album immediate smash hits, with the track going all the way to #1 on the Billboard US Hot 100 chart and reaching #2 in the UK.  They quickly became one of the leading acts of the early 80’s New Wave.

Lennox and Stewart immediately returned to The Church to begin work on a follow-up to Sweet Dreams. Recorded over only three weeks in the Summer of 1983, Touch would solidify Eurythmics as one of the quintessential 1980’s New Wave bands.

The Album Cover:

The front cover of the album is a fairly simple picture of Annie Lennox, appearing to be topless, wearing a “Lone Ranger” styled mask.  She appeared to be wearing the same thing on the small picture of her on the previous album.  The cover was designed by Andrew Christian & Laurence Stevens.

Eurythmics--Touch--albumcoverproject.com-

Perhaps there is some symbolism here that I’m not seeing.  I’ve read a few people’s opinions on the internet, and some people call it a “Rosie the Riveter” pose and talk about how it is showing empowerment of women or something.

WeCanDoItPoster[1]

I’m not seeing it.  I mean kinda, but not really.

Actually my favorite part of the front cover is name and title.

title

I like the fonts they used and the lowercase ‘e’ and ‘s’.  I wonder if the bars over the ‘e’ and ‘s’ and the star as symbols for Annie and Dave or something since they appear all over the cover and innersleeves.  You know it is not that exciting an album cover when I am discussing the fonts.

So let’s move to the back cover, it must be much more interesting.

touch back cover

Ummmmm….moving on.

Actually the innersleeves are the most interesting parts of the packaging.

inner 2

Picture by Olan Mills

inner 1

Neat little collage, perhaps that should’ve been the cover.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Touch released on RCA Records in 1983.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)

The album opens with “Here Comes The Rain Again.”  This is another great opening track, so the streak continues!  It may be because I’ve heard “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” so many times, but I prefer this song to their #1 hit.  This song might be the definition of good electro-pop.  Most of the time I don’t like synthesized instruments.  I don’t mind synthesizers, in fact I love synthesizers, I just usually don’t like syth-guitar or synth-drum sounds, but I really like the synth-violins on this track.

Even Keith Moon would look uncool playing this synth-drum.

Track 2, “Regrets” kinda starts out slow, with a kind of repetitive synth-keyboard line repeating, but it gets better as the song goes on as different electronic samples and synth-beats flow in and out. I will say that I am impressed that Annie and Dave could get these sounds in their homemade 8-track studio.  The lyrics make no sense, but overall it is an above-average track.

Right By Your Side” is a different sounding song from anything else I’ve heard by Eurythmics.  I swear the opening of the song sounds just like “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty, which makes sense since Dave Stewart co-wrote and produced that song just 2 years later.  “Right By Your Side” is a synth-calypso track, and while it has synth-hand claps and synth-guitars, there do seem to be actual steel drums and a sax in the studio.  I actually really liked that song.

Cool Blue” starts out sounding like a Casio keyboard demo button version of a Police song, but it really gets going once Annie’s vocals start.  Touch was later remixed into a dance album, which makes me wonder how they remixed this track since it is a dance track.  While I usually poo-poo dance tracks, I will admit again that I do like this track, especially the bass playing.  That is probably because is stands out as much more authentic sounding than the electronic sounds behind it.  The songs only has 11 lines of lyrics, which are repeated a lot.

Side One of the LP closes with “Who’s That Girl?,” which was a huge hit in the UK and a modest hit in the US, reaching #s 3 and 21 in each respective country.  Maybe one of Lennox’s more powerful vocals on the album.  The music is okay, but nothing really happens with it until near the end of the song when it kinda sounds feedbacky.  The music video was more successful than the single in the US, as it played all the time on MTV, and was notable for Annie playing both a woman and a man in the music video and then with the assistance of futuristic technology, she is able to make out with herself.

annie lennox

Side Two opens with a little more hard-driving bass and synthesizer with “The First Cut.”  Actually its a pretty good track, but it repeats everything over and over 15 to 20 times, for a second I thought my needle was stuck in a scratch on the record.  The oddest lyric on the album, “I’m a white girl – You can see my skin.”  Wait.  Annie Lennox is white?

annie

No freakin’ way.

Aqua” is what I don’t like about electronic music, it’s like pressing one button and then just singing over keyboard’s pre-programmed music.  It does change midway through into the song when it sounds reversed, but doesn’t last long enough to make the song interesting. Nothing to see here.  I should make up a factoid that the crap group that recorded “Barbie Girl” got their name from the title of this song.

Aqua_-_Aquarium

They make the Eurythmics sound like John Coltane.

The wordy titled “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)” starts off with that same 6 note synth-beat that I feel like every Eurythmics songs starts out with.  I do like Annie’s vocals, as she sounds kinda mad.  The song starts to get more orchestrated towards the end, or I guess i should say synth-orchestrated.  As the song goes on, I like it better, but does every song have to repeat the title 50 times?

Paint A Rumor” closes out the album.  Hmmmm..I shouldn’t but, I think I like this song.  The some of the music kinda sounds like it should go to an Atari game, plus it has a funky bassline in the middle.  Lyrics seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever.  I think the idea is that the phrase “paint a rumour” sounds like the phrase “paint a room.”  I don’t think they got further than that idea.

I may not be very positive in most of my comments, but overall I did enjoy the album enough.  My issue with the synth-pop sound is that it just doesn’t seem important, it is sort of disposable music.  It is what ringtones and music from video games that were played on machines with wood grain are made of.  Saying that, though, I don’t want to discount electronic music entirely.  I think prog-rock,  which incorporated tons of electronics and synth sounds, is a great, advanced form of music.  However, electronic pop is just not my cup of tea, as it feels like to me it is just artificial music made to appeal to the middle of the road of music tastes. Perhaps the one of the worst things to me is a song that on American Bandstand would generate the response of “it has a good beat and you can dance to it” (okay they all generated that response, but you get what I’m saying.)

Aftermath:

Touch was a major hit  reaching the top 10 in the US and #1 in the UK, eventually going platinum.

Eurythmics followed up Touch by doing the soundtrack for the movie 1984. However, director Michael Radford didn’t care for what they presented and replaced almost all of their music in the movie.  They did release the music they recorded as their 4th album, 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother.)

1982

The duo released an album a year over the next several years, and continued to have success on the pop charts.  The single, “Would I Lie To You?” reached #5 on the Billboard chart in 1985 and in 1986 they had their final top 20 hit with “Missionary Man.”

In 1990, after some unnamed internal squabbles and the birth of Lennox’s first child, the pair went their separate ways.  Stewart started a new band called The Spiritual Cowboys and mostly worked on the production side of things, producing albums for many major acts including Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, and Ringo Starr.

Lennox started her solo career in 1992, with the album Diva.

diva

It was a major hit, reaching quadruple platinum status in the UK and double platinum status in the US, and was nominated for Album of Year at the Grammy Awards.  The tracks “Why” and “Walking On Broken Glass” became staple of adult contemporary radio stations for years to come.  In 1995, she released Madusa which contained another big hit, “No More ‘I Love You’s‘,” and it too was nominated for a Grammy.

The duo reunited in 1999, following the death of their old band mate. Peet Coombes, and recorded their first album in a decade, Peace.

peace

Lennox released her third album, Bare in 2003, once again it made the top five in both the US and the UK.  Although, perhaps her biggest achievement came the next year when she won the Academy Award for best song for performing and co-writing “Into the West” from the soundtrack to The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King.

Both Lennox and Stewart have remained active in writing and producing as well as being involved in political activism to this day.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “Annie Lennox looked like a gender-bending cybor, but she sang with soul; producer Dave Stewart hid behind his beard and masterminded the sound. Together they made divine synth pop, especially “Who’s That Girl?,” a tale of kinked-up sexual obsession, and their massive hit “Here Comes the Rain Again.”

First off, I just cut and pasted that quote from RS’s website, so I have a feeling the word “cybor” should be “cyborg.”  Also, I think that they are confusing the music video for “Who’s That Girl?” with the song, because I don’t think the song has anything to do with kinks. They just remember Annie in drag from the video.  I also chuckle at the pointless beard mention.

Conclusion:

I didn’t love this album, but I did like it for what it was.  If you like synth-pop, then this is the album for you.  Personally, I don’t enjoy that style of music much, but some people do, and for a synth-pop record, this might be the best one.

3 Stars out of 5, Recommended with reservations

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

5. Outkast- Aquemini

6. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

7. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

8. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

9. Eurythmics- Touch

#493- Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot- 2002

February 4, 2013

yankee hotel

The Artists:

wilco

Jeff Tweedy was born in Belleville, Illinois in 1967.

Jeff Tweedy

Jeff Tweedy

When he was 14, his friend Jay Farrar, who had put together a band with his two brothers, needed a fourth member to be eligible to compete in a “Battle of the Bands” competition. He invited Jeff to join since he could play guitar.

They named their band The Piebes, then changed it to The Primitives, and then after finding out there was another band with that name, they settled on the name Uncle Tupelo.  Both Tweedy and Ferrar were fans of country and punk music, so once they started to put a “sound” together they started playing country music with a punk sensibility.

uncle-tupelo-sapphire-jim-leatherman

Uncle Tupelo

By 1988, the band was quickly gaining popularity and hired a manager in Tony Margherita.  The next year, they recorded a 10 song demo cassette.  They were being called by many critics the best unsigned band around.  Finally, they signed a deal with the independent label, Rockville Records.

Uncle Tupelo garnered critical praise and maintained a cult following on the alternative-country scene.  The band released 3 albums on Rockville: No Depression, Still Feel Gone, and March 16-20, 1992.  They began having issues with the label and felt that they were not being paid the royalties due to them, so they left Rockville and signed with Sire Records.

After the band released one album on Sire, Anodyne, Jay Ferrar called Margherita and informed him that the band was finished due to he and Tweedy not getting along anymore.  Uncle Tupelo broke into two groups.  Farrar started a band called Son Volt.  Joining him were former Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn, and brothers Jim and Dave Boquist.

Son Volt

Son Volt

Tweedy formed Wilco with the rest of the members of Uncle Tupelo, bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, and drummer Ken Coomer, taking the name “Wilco” from the military radio acronym for “will comply.”  Tony Margherita stayed with Tweedy and became Wilco’s manager. The band signed with Reprise Records and immediately went to work on recording their first album.

They released the album, A.M. in early 1995. Tweedy’s main hope was to outdo Son Volt’s debut album, Trace, which was released around the same time. While A.M. received mostly warm reviews, it did not get the ecstatic reaction that Son Volt’s album did.  Also, Trace outsold A.M. 2 to 1. The band considered the album a failure.

am

Personally I think A.M. starts off great and sounds like what Wilco would later do, but the second half of the album is a kind of retread of Uncle Tupelo’s sound and is a pretty mediocre album as a whole.

After the release of A.M., Wilco added a new member in Jay Bennett.

bennett

Jay Bennett

Bennett was born in 1963 just outside of Chicago.  He had gained a reputation as a fantastic musician and songwriter in the Chicago area, playing with several bands such as Titanic Love Affair.  Bennett was brought in to play synthesizers and keyboards and to arrange Tweedy’s songs.

As the band’s sessions for their second album began, Max Johnston decided to quit the band feeling that Bennett had taken over his role.  They completed recording the album titled Being There and had enough tracks for a double album. The band went to Reprise and got them to agree to release the album as a double album, yet charge the customer only the price of a single album.  They waved their royalties on the album to get the label to agree to the deal.  It is estimated that they lost over half a million dollars due to the arrangement since Being There turned out to be very successful critically and commercially.

wilco_being_there

Being There is an amazing album.  Many years from now once I’ve completed going through these 500 albums I want to review other great albums.  This is one that I’d like to review, because it is a terrific album and I highly recommend it.

In 1999, Wilco was nominated for a Grammy for joining with British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on an album of unrecorded Woody Guthrie penned songs, Mermaid Avenue.

album-mermaid-avenue

The album was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the 90’s.  I’ve read many reviews of the album that say Billy Bragg’s songs capture the spirit of Woody Guthrie while Wilco does “Wilco” songs with Woody Guthrie lyrics.  While this may be the case, personally, I prefer the Wilco tracks on Mermaid Avenue, but that is not to say that I don’t enjoy Billy Bragg’s songs, too. Overall it is a very good album.

A few months later, Wilco released their third studio album, Summerteeth.

Summerteeth-cover

It was a bit of a departure for the band, as they had normally recorded the music live, but this time they used overdubs on most of the albums’ tracks.  During the recording, they added multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach to the band. The album received high critical praise, but it was not a commercial success, selling way fewer albums than Being There had.

They re-joined Billy Bragg for Mermaid Avenue Volume II in the year 2000.

mermaid 2

Volume II still got mostly good reviews from critics, but it was not nearly as beloved as the first album was.

In late 2000, Tweedy started working on a side project, putting together a band called Loose Fur that he formed with Jim O’Rourke (an instrumentalist that Tweedy had become a fan of through his 1999 album Bad Timing) and drummer Glenn Kotche.

At the same time, Wilco was recording demo sessions for their next album at The Loft, a studio in Chicago that the band had purchased together so that they could stay far away from the record label’s prying eyes.

As they began recording what would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they were a band with some notoriety, but they still needed to come out with an album to solidify their reputation as a major player in the recording industry. Tweedy & Co. were wanting the next album to be more experimental and better than anything they’d done before.  During recording, Tweedy began growing tired of Ken Coomer’s inability to get the sound he wanted on drums, and replaced him with Kotche.  Wilco now consisted of Tweedy, Bennett, Stirratt, Bach, and Kotche.

The entire sessions of the album that would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the aftermath are chronicled in the documentary feature I Am Trying to Break Your Heart directed by photographer Sam Jones.

Wilco-I-Am-Trying-To-Break-Your-Heart

I highly recommend the movie as it is one of the best documents of the making of an album.  The film documented the recording, the problems they had with the record label, and the problems that started with Tweedy and Bennett.

During the album’s sessions, Tweedy grew tired of Jay Bennett’s insistence on mixing the album.  Tweedy felt that Bennett was not understanding how he wanted the album mixed, and decided to bring in his Loose Fur collaborator Jim O’Rourke to mix the rest of the album.  One of the films’ most notable scenes shows Bennett trying to explain himself even after Tweedy has given up the argument and is agreeing with him.  You can tell from that scene that they were not going to be working together much longer.

After recording was finished the band presented Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to their record label.  At that time, Reprise was owned by Time Warner, who was in the process of merging with AOL, and they had started cutting jobs to save money before the merger. One of the people whose job was cut was Howie Klein, the president of Reprise, who was a big Wilco fan.  Replacing him in the interim was David Kahne, who was not a big Wilco fan, and thought that the album that they had delivered was totally noncommercial.  The album was shelved, and eventually they asked Wilco to sign with another label to cut more costs. The band was fine with leaving the label as long as they could keep the master tapes of the album. They were even willing to pay for the rights, but ultimately the label just wanted them to leave, so they gave them the album for free.

I imagine the execs put this welcome mat out anytime they heard Wilco was coming over.

I imagine the Reprise execs put this welcome mat out anytime they heard Wilco was coming over.

These issues brought a lot of publicity for the band, and lots of buzz started going around about this “uncommercial” Wilco album.  A lot of anticipation had been built up for its eventual release. The band announced that they would self-release the album by download on their website with the date of release being September 11, 2001.  Of course, certain events interrupted that happening, but that date would remain intertwined with the album and people’s interpretations of Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics.

After the tracks stated showing up as pirated downloads, the band finally released the album, streaming it on their website.  Despite the album being available to listen to on their website, there were still a lot of independent record labels clamoring to release it.  The band settled on Nonesuch Records, another subsidiary of Time Warner, meaning that the parent company paid for the album twice.  Don’t you just love the way corporate America works?

The Album Cover:

The front cover has the now iconic photo by Sam Jones of Chicago’s Marina City.  It is shot in glorious black and white with the title and band name in all lowercase.

yankee hotel

Marina City consists of these two corncob looking buildings which contain apartments, offices, and a hotel.  There is an attached marina which gave the buildings their name.

Marina_City_-_Chicago,_Illinois

The back cover of the LP has a beautiful black and white view of downtown Chicago’s skyline with the track listing in the center.

back cover

The LP is a gatefold with various, quite colorful, pictures of the Chicago area.  These same pictures are included in the CD booklet.

gatfold

The innersleeves include the lyrics on one side and some more pictures from around Chicago with album credits on the other side.  The LP also comes with a copy of the CD in a cardboard sleeve.  Really the whole LP package is magnificent.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl Double LP release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which I don’t believe was released until 2008 by Nonesuch Records.  I also own the original 2002 CD release and the CD which was included with the LP.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.  I have to say that the vinyl for this album is one of the best masterings of a modern vinyl LP that I’ve heard, 180 gram discs that are completely void of any pops or clicks, and plus that magnificent packaging.)

Every album so far that I’ve reviewed has a great opening track, and this one is no different. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” starts the album off with almost psychedelic sound effects. Really when you listen to it, the music has no meter whatsoever, it just comes and goes, nothing really repeats other than the meter of Tweedy’s singing.  Jeff’s voice is craggy and purposely rough along with the unstructured almost post-rock sound of the music makes this an awesome opening track.

The lyrics at first glance seem to make no sense “Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns.”

This guy doesn’t believe in touchdowns either.

After several listenings it started to more sense to me.  I think it is written from the point of view of an alcoholic.  The opening verse he calls himself an “aquarium drinker” and in the last verse he calls himself a “disposable dixie cup drinker.” He went from at one point drinking the equivalent of an aquarium to barely drinking at all, a dixie cup-ful.  Tweedy has said that he did have issues with alcohol before giving it up completely after meeting his wife.  The nonsensical lyrics are the kind of thing someone drunk and out of their mind would ramble on about, while the “I am trying to break your heart” lyric seems to be his acknowledgement that he knows his problems with drinking are hurting the person closest to him, but he is too addicted to care.  At the end when he is a “dixie cup” drinker he now regrets those things he did, exemplified when he says “what was I thinking when I let go of you?”  Now, this is just my interpretation.  Jeff Tweedy may not have meant any of this, but I can’t find a better explanation on the internet.

Kamera” follows the unstructured sound of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” with a much more pop oriented song.  This was the first song from the album that the uninformed latched on to as song about 9/11.  I think it’s just because it contains the words “war” and “sidewalk.”  Again, Tweedy’s lyrics are usually somewhat cryptic, but I think I understand what this one is getting at.  He wishes he had a camera (the lyric sheet spells the word in the song “camera” but spells the title “Kamera”) that records everything that he does all day, so that he could go back and see what lies he is telling to himself and what memories aren’t really memories, but just things that he has imagined.  Great track.

Included with the Australian release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a six song EP that included songs recorded during the album’s sessions.  The EP was eventually available to download on Wilco’s website titled More Like the Moon.  It included an alternate version of “Kamera” titled “Camera.”  It is a harder rocking version of the same song from the album.  However, I prefer the album version to the EP version as the EP version has the vocals drowned in background and music isn’t quite as good.  The entire EP is pretty good, but nothing really good enough to be on the album.

More Like the Moon EP

More Like the Moon EP

Side One of the album ends with “Radio Cure.” They dropped all of the overdubs and sound effects until about minute and a half into the song where static sounds start coming in.  Tweedy’s voice is so raw on this, cracking and croaking by the end. I can definitely see how a record exec would not “get” what is going on here.  It is beautiful in its lack of structure.  It seems to be a song about having to have a long distance relationship.  I think the title refers to him needing to talk to his wife on the phone when he is on the road, and having her words of love come to him over thousands of miles, like radio waves, and using them as a cure for whatever is ailing him.

Side Two opens with “War On War” which was the one single released from the album.  It definitely has the best pop sound yet, although the lyrical content would probably disqualify it from being a pop hit.  The synthesizer flows in and out, and the song begins to break down into noise at the end.  Let me reiterate, this was recorded in early 2001.  It’s not just the title that confused people, but also the lyrics “you have to learn how to die/ If you wanna be alive” sound like something someone would write as a reaction to the war on terror.  I read it as everyone comes to that point in their life where you see death as something that is inevitable, and accepting that it will happen at some point is a way of understanding life.  The “war on war” is the war that you have with yourself over accepting the war between life and death.

Jesus, etc.” is (in my opinion) probably the best song on the album and one of my favorite songs of all time.  A beautiful, sweet track.  It is both synthesized sounding and yet still has a clean, acoustic feeling at the same time, if that makes any sense.  I love the lyrics “you were right about the stars/ each one is a setting sun.”  I really like when a line like that is in a song.  It sets you down in the middle of someone’s life.  It’s as though that you are eavesdropping on someone’s conversation. This is a song that you can just “feel.” I honestly think 20 years from now people will look at this song as one of the greatest love songs of this century.  Great, great stuff.

Ashes of American Flags” is in the same classic feeling of the prior song.  This contains some of Tweedy’s best lyrics.  Of course, Entertainment Weekly made sure to mention in their review of the album that they think this song was about the September 11th attacks.  They also thought that the Marina on the cover was a stand-in for the Twin Towers.  Of course, they knew that was not accurate, but talking about September 11th was the “in” thing to do in early 2002, so of course EW is going to find that correlation.

Actually some people are still trying to capitalize on it in 2013.

Actually some people are still trying to capitalize on it in 2013.

It sounds to me the song is all about renewal and much like “Kamera” it is about wishing to re-do parts of your life e.g.”My lies are always wishes.”  Some people thought this was an anti-patriotism song since he says he wants to “salute the Ashes of American Flags” but the very next line rhymes that with “all the falling leaves/ filling up shopping bags.”  When you combine this with the chorus of “I know I would die/ if I could come back new” he is using falling leaves as a metaphor for reincarnation as they must die for new leaves to sprout, and that’s what he would like for his life. So much of the album is about that same theme, wanting to re-do parts of your life.

As I move to the second LP, Side Three opens with maybe the most famous song off the album, “Heavy Metal Drummer.”  This was actually the first song that I ever heard by Wilco when they performed it on TV in 2002.  It is the one song from the album that I could actually picture being a hit.  This is really the first “story song” on the album, telling the story of his youth. I admit that I pretty much love all songs about nostalgia.  It is definitely the most straightforward song on the album as he reminisces about the days of going to the “landing in the summer” and listening to concerts by heavy metal bands and going home to play KISS cover songs.  I hope this song will be a staple of classic rock radio one day.

I'm not sure if there is are more polar opposite bands than Wilco and KISS.

I’m not sure if there are more polar opposite bands than Wilco and KISS.

I’m The Man Who Loves You” is a sweet song.  While it is a pretty straightforward rock song, there are bits of dissonance thrown in, especially at the end as it builds to a crescendo.  It’s basically another “story song” as he is saying that he trying to write a letter to the girl he loves but can’t put the right words down on paper. He’s wishing he could just take her by the hand and tell her he loves her.  I really like how the horns accentuate the line “I’m the man who loves you” in the last go around of the verses.  I don’t recall hearing any horns anywhere else on the album.

Pot Kettle Black” kind of sounds a little like “War on War,” but Tweedy’s vocals are different here than anywhere else on the album, it’s kind of like he’s whispering.  As the title would allude to, the song is about him talking to himself and how when he writes it’s always about himself.  I like the lyrics “every song is a comeback/ every moment’s a little bit later.”  Not the best song on the album, but still solid.

Side Four opens with “Poor Places.”  I love the lyrics so much: “His fangs have been pulled/ and I really want to see you tonight.”  It is a very beautiful song.  While I say the lyrics are great, I still have no idea what it is about. Most of the song is very melodic, but it builds up towards the end into noise.  The ending of the song includes the sample of the numbers station repeating “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the phonetic alphabet version of the letters Y.H.F. from which the album gets its title.   I guess it’s the fact that the numbers stations come from unknown origins and that the sound of the woman’s voice is robotic, but it always gives me the heebie jeebies.  For that reason I would skip through this track in the past, but listening to the album several times through for this review, I really feel like that it is close to the best song on the album.

If I imagine the voice is talking about Jeter dancing at the Hilton.

If I imagine the voice is talking about Jeter dancing at the Hilton it is less creepy.

The album comes to and end with “Reservations.”  Tweedy’s voice can sound so heartbroken as he displays on this song.  A scaled down song of sorts that evolves into drone as the last few minutes are sounds and non-melodic instruments. The lyrics really are a heartfelt plea for his lover to understand that any issues he has are his own neuroses and he has no reservations about how much he loves her as he repeats “not about you.”  A solid closer to the album.

Overall, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, would best be described as beautiful, intricate, and expertly crafted.  I’ll use the best word to describe it-masterpiece.  That word gets tossed around too much, but I try my best to not give in to hyperbole, so that means something coming from me.  While Tweedy and Bennett had their problems at the time and the band went through tons of adversity, those things no doubt helped fuel the creativity that made this album so beautiful.

In fact, the main problem Tweedy and Bennett were having were communication issues.  The theme of communication flows through the album as a whole.  On “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” he is trying to say something, but nonsense is coming out. “Kamera,” “War On War” and “Pot Kettle Black” are all about learning to communicate with yourself. “Radio Cure” is about how communication with the person you love can heal your pain.  On “Reservations,” he is trying to communicate the fact that his problems are within himself and not with someone else.  Most notably, they named the album after a sample of a recording of clandestine communication.  While there are many forms of communication that Tweedy was dealing with on the album, I think it was the communication problems with Bennett that fueled his writing on this album.

Aftermath:

Despite the fact that people had already had a chance to download the album for free there was much anticipation for its release. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released on CD in April 2002 and made it to #13 on the Billboard Albums chart, eventually going gold.  The documentary was released later in 2002.  Both the album and film were universally critically acclaimed.

After the album was completed, Tweedy fired Jay Bennett from the band.  Jeff knew that they weren’t going in the same direction both musically and life-wise.  Bennett went on to record five solo albums before passing away after an overdose of painkillers at the age of 45 in 2009.

Wilco has changed its lineup several times since 2002, but Jeff Tweedy still remains the driving force in the band.  They have released four albums since 2002: A Ghost Is Born (which won Best Alternative Album Grammy in 2004), Sky Blue Sky, Wilco, and The Whole Love. Their self titled album has one of my favorite album covers of the last few years:

Wilco-Wilco-The-Album-473761-755124

What can I say, I’m a sucker for pictures of Camels with party hats.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS: “Wilco’s great leap forward was a mix of rock tradition, electronics, oddball rhythms and experimental gestures. Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics pitted hope against doubt, with all bets off. “

Is it just me or does that last sentence sound more like a movie tag line rather than an album review?

Actually, the book has a completely different blurb:

“When Reprise Records refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco posted it for free on the internet.  Two hundred thousand downloads later, Nonesuch Records (owned by the same company as Reprise) released the album-it became critical and commercial gold.”

Well, those are facts about the release of the album, but it says nothing about why this is one of the 500 greatest albums of all time nor do they say anything about the music at all.  Lotsa help there, guys.

Conclusion:

For a long time I’ve stated that this is the best album of the 00’s.  I may not still agree with that statement, but from top to bottom this has no missteps and has some of the best lyrics of any album ever.  All I know is that I really love this album a lot.

5 stars out of 5, Perfect rating

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

I have to admit it is very difficult to decide which of the 2 albums that I’ve given a perfect rating to at this point should be at number one as of right now, but if push came to shove, and as much as I love Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, The Stone Roses is just a tiny bit more fun to listen to, so it will hold on to the top spot for now.

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

3. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

4. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

5. Outkast- Aquemini

6. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

7. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

8. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

The Best Albums of 2012

January 3, 2013

For the first time ever, I purposely listened to as many new albums as I could so that I could make an intelligent decision on what was good and bad in music in 2012.  I listened to about 40 or so albums, choosing ones that made the top 50 type lists of most of the top music publications (Rolling Stone, Mojo, Pitchfork, AV club, etc.) so most of what I listened to were the best reviewed albums of the year.  Overall, there was a lot of good music in 2012, and truthfully, very little of what I listened to this year was completely worthless.

So since every music reviewer has to do their year-end “best of” list, I guess I’ll give you mine:

#10

Tempest– Bob Dylan

I’ve been defending Bob Dylan’s voice for years, but even I have felt that his recent albums (from Love and Theft on) his voice is sounding craggier than ever (being 70 will do that to you,) but on Tempest I feel Dylan’s voice actually sounds a little clearer than it has in years.  The songs are really great, in particular the opening track “Duquesne Whistle.”  My one problem with Tempest is that a lot of the songs go on for way too long, and for no particular reason.  There are five songs that clock in at over 7 minutes long, and one, the title track, that is almost 14 minutes.  To me, they are not really epic songs that need that much time to drag on.  (Though to be fair, fellow old codger Neil Young’s album Psychedelic Pill just missed my top ten, it’s #13, opened with a 27 minute song, so maybe they are just trying to make their songs longer in case its the last song they ever record.)  Still, I enjoyed the songs, even if I skipped through the last 4 or 5 minutes of some of the songs the second time I listened to them. It still gets a recommendation from me.

4 out of 5 stars

#9

The Money Store – Death Grips

While I would normally say that I recommend any album that makes my top ten of the year.  In a way, I don’t recommend The Money Store by Death Grips.  Death Grips is an underground/alternative hip hop group out of Sacramento. I can best describe listening to them as the musical equivalent of being yelled at by the “Scared Straight” inmates for 45 minutes.  I do give The Money Store some points for the most WTF album cover of the year as I have no idea what’s going on in that picture.  They actually released two albums in 2012, the other being No Love Deep Web, which I don’t recommend doing a Google search for unless you want to see band member Zach Hill’s erect penis on the cover.  All that being said, this album is very different from anything else I’ve heard and while I wouldn’t recommend it to most people nor would I want to listen to over and over, I still like it a lot (and that is despite the feeling that I should be cowering in the corner, sucking my thumb after I have finished listening to it.) Despite my reservations of recommending it, I still feel it should be included my top 10 best of 2012.

4 out of 5 stars

#8

Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen

I keep hearing people say Wrecking Ball was a “return to form” for Bruce.  I swear they say that every time he releases a new album, which tells me what I suspected after listening to Wrecking Ball, that it sounds just like every Springsteen album since The River or at least every album after Tunnel of Love.  But that’s not really a bad thing, having your own distinct sound is a good thing.  Wrecking Ball contains some fantastic classic-Springsteen songs, for example: “We Take Care of Own,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “Jack of All Trades,” and the title track “Wrecking Ball.”   Every time I read something about Wrecking Ball it is in reference to it being Springsteen’s take on the “Occupy” movement, and while that is new subject matter for The Boss, it still is sort of the same type of things he’s been singing about for 40 years now.  Still, the music is really great, but it’s nothing groundbreaking.

4.25 out of 5 stars

#7

Kaleidoscope Dream – Miguel

The best reviewed album of the year is Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange.  Personally, I think Channel Orange is the most overrated album of the year.  It is a decent album, but it has nothing that sounds incredible to me and has some skippable tracks.  The R&B album of the year in my mind is Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream.  It was a big commercial hit going to #3 on Billboard’s album chart and includes a top 20 hit “Adorn.” The album’s catchiest song is “Do You…” which has somewhat goofy lyrics, “Do you like drugs?” “Do you like Love?,” but I still enjoy it.  This album does everything a great R&B album should do, songs about love and sex with synthesized beats.  I definitely recommend it.

4.25 out of 5 stars

#6

Lonerism – Tame Impala

Something that I will repeat over the next few reviews is how I like the albums based on how much they remind me of great music from 40 to 45 years ago.  I really think the late 60s through the early 70’s were the peak time for music and when music reminds me of that time, I am well pleased.  Lonerism by Australian rock band Tame Impala sounds like one of those great lost psychedelic albums that you see in the record store and even though you’ve never heard of the band you can just tell by the acid trip album cover art that it will be great.  Lonerism doesn’t have an acid trip cover art nor are they anywhere close to unknown, but their music is right up there with the best of psychedelia.  There are times on songs like the opening track “Be Above It” or on “Apocalypse Dreams” where I would even go so far as to say lead singer Kevin Parker’s vocals are very, and I want to bite my tongue when say this, John Lennon-from-Sgt. Pepper’s-era-esque.  For a while Lonerism was my #1 album of the year, but eventually I heard 5 albums I liked better.

4.5 out of 5 stars

#5

Here – Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes

Yet another album that sounds much more classic than current.  It has an early 1970’s California folk scene, pre-Eagles, folk-rock, homespun sound that disappeared for 40 years.  In a way it also is reminiscent of some kind of great country-gospel record, if there are any of those.  The only ones of those I can think of are Will the Circle Be Unbroken by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Satan Is Real by The Louvin Brothers and Here sounds nothing like either of those because it also has a hint of psychedelic rock mixed in, so I guess not, but I know of nothing else to compare it to.  All I can say is listen to it, because it’s very good.

4.5 out of 5 stars

#4

R.A.P. Music – Killer Mike

I knew of Killer Mike, since he appeared on Outkast’s Stankonia, yet I did not really know who he was.  The Atlanta-based rapper really surprised me in that just based on his name I thought he would be someone who rapped about the usual gangsta rap staples of killing, drug dealing, and hatred of police.  However, while those things exist on R.A.P. Music, what sets Killer Mike apart from others is his intellectualism.  Not many rappers name drop characters of Greek mythology, compare the people in their lives to characters in Lord of the Flies, or use the phrase “I’m addicted to literature.”  Killer Mike is usually classified as a “political rapper” but he is not what I would normally think of as a political rapper.  He really hates Ronald Reagan. He says in “Reagan” that he had a party the day Reagan died, as he blames Reagan’s policies for the infiltration of crack in the ghettos and other stuff.  I really liked this album a lot and hope (along with #3) that it helps spark a return to form in hip hop towards a smarter path that it once was on.

4.75 out of 5 stars

#3

Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – Kendrick Lamar

For a while I thought Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was the best album I’d heard this year.  It is amongst the highest ranked albums on most best of lists this year, and many people think Kendrick is the new “savior” of rap music.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising then that it was produced in part by Dr. Dre.  It is a concept album, in fact the cover calls it “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” that follows Kendrick’s character through a day where he starts out as a kid just looking to be with his girlfriend to his getting sidetracked with some old friends that get him involved in crime. The one thing that keeps it from being a 5 star classic in my opinion is that the album’s best song, “Backseat Freestyle,” doesn’t fit with the rest of the narrative.  In a way it sounds like almost every other “bragging that I’m the best” type rap songs, but it is still much better than any other songs of that type.  Despite it being the best song, it interrupts the flow of the album somewhat.  I love the whole album and I will be interested to see where Kendrick Lamar goes from here.

4.75 out of 5 stars

#2

Mature Themes – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

As a reviewer, I have compare one artist favorably to another so people will understand what I’m talking about, but in a way I hate doing that because it usually turns out to be like saying someone looks like someone else, it kind of depends on who the person is since most of the time other people can’t see it.  However, while I say that, when I first put the CD in of Mature Themes by avant-garde/ psychedelic pop/ lo-fi artist Ariel Pink, the first thought that popped in my head when I heard “Kinski Assassin” was “wow this sounds a lot like Frank Zappa.”  I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about another artist.  Then when I heard “Mature Themes” I thought “wow this sounds a lot like Elvis Costello.”  The track “Schnitzel Boogie” sounds like if Zappa had produced one of McCartney’s “Honey Pie” songs off of the White Album.  I love all of those artists and hearing someone who has the talent to put together an album that reminds me of all those people is a great thing.  But by no means is this purposefully an artist trying to sound like these people, but a great artist that is an original that just happens to remind me of people who I already really liked. Now, I’ve found another artist that I really like, too.

4.75 out of 5 stars

#1

Blunderbuss – Jack White

Yes, I am a male, middle class, suburban, white person so, of course, I love the White Stripes. That also means I like everything that Jack White does. And really is a Jack White solo record any different from a White Stripes record? (Other than the one song on every album with the girl singing that everyone skips over.)  Even though I gave it the same 4.75 star rating as numbers 4 through 2, to me, Blunderbuss is the best album of the year, because it is the one album this year that I wanted to listen to over and over.  Even more so, it is the one album that I can see myself going out of my way to buy on vinyl.  I really can’t single out any one track as outstanding in that it is all consistently great, and yet that lack of an outstanding track is why I did not give it the full five stars.  Ultimately, though, nothing from 2012 tops Blunderbuss‘s musicianship, nor was anything as enjoyable a listen, and as far as the 40 albums that I listened to this year go, (which I admit is about 1/10th of 1% of all of the albums of 2012) this was the best.

4.75 out of 5 stars

#494- Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs- 1969

October 7, 2012

The Artist:

William Royce Scaggs was born in 1944 in Canton, Ohio.  His father was a traveling salesman, and his job meant that the family moved frequently.  Eventually they settled in Dallas, Texas.

Scaggs attended St. Mark’s School in Dallas.  A classmate began calling William “Bosley” for no reason, but the name stuck and everyone was soon calling him Bosley or, more often, Boz for short.

Perhaps the kid was a fan of ol’ Tom.

When Boz was 14, a fellow St. Mark’s student named Steve Miller asked him to join a band he was putting together.  Boz agreed to join as the lead singer and guitarist.  Steve got his brother, Buddy Miller to play bass, and together they called themselves “The Marksmen.”

Steve was a year older than Boz and left Dallas to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison after graduation in 1961. After Boz graduated, he, too, decided to attend UW-Madison. By that time, Steve had already started a new band called The Ardells.  They played Texas Shuffle blues, something that was brand new to audiences in the Midwest in the early 60’s.

Miller invited his old friend to join the band on rhythm guitar and vocals. They were very popular regionally. Their popularity was short-lived, though. The band members started going their separate ways as they started graduating and Miller disbanded the band.

Boz left school 6 credits short of graduating and moved to England to be part of the music scene there in the early 60’s.  He didn’t stay there long and began hitchhiking across Europe.  He was “discovered” by a music executive while playing on the street in Stockholm, Sweden and signed a record deal with a small Swedish record label.

He released his first album in September of 1965.

Entitled Boz, the album failed to get any recognition.  It was made up of covers of folk and R&B tunes.  The album is extremely rare nowadays, as it sold just a very few copies back in 1965, was only sold in Sweden, was deleted by the record label immediately after the first pressing, and has never been reissued on any music format.

Boz’s old friend, Steve Miller, sent him a postcard and told him he had moved to San Francisco and had put together a new band, which it that time was called The Steve Miller Blues Band.  Miller invited Boz to join the band if he ever returned to the US.  Boz immediately left Sweden, flew to San Francisco and joined the band, whose name by that time had been shortened to The Steve Miller Band.

When Scaggs joined, they were getting ready to perform at the now legendary Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1968.

The Steve Miller Band with shirtless Boz on the far right

A couple of months later they traveled to England to record their first album, Children of the Future.

The album cover was designed by Victor Moscoso, the same guy that designed the cover for Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.

The album contained two songs written by Scaggs, “Baby’s Callin’ Me Home” and “Steppin’ Stone.”  While the album was not commercially successful, (it only reached #134 on the Billboard album chart) it was popular amongst critics, many of whom noted the two songs by Boz as standouts.

The band was already recording another album by the time Children of the Future was released. This time they decided to record in Los Angeles.  The album, Sailor, was released less than a month after their debut album.

This time, they had a commercial success.  It contained two songs that are now Steve Miller Band classics: “Livin’ In The USA” and “Gangster of Love.”  Boz had written or co-written 3 songs on the album: “My Friend,” “Overdrive,” and “Dime-a-Dance Romance.”

By 1969, Boz felt that he and Miller’s music tastes were going in different directions; he wanted to get back to more R&B and soul-based music while Steve wanted to move further towards psychedelic rock. Boz decided it was time to pursue a solo career, and with the help of Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, he secured a deal with Atlantic Records.

Jann Wenner

Boz and Wenner went down to the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama.  Backed with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and a then popular session guitarist named Duane Allman, Scaggs wanted to record a mix of R&B, soul, and country music.  Wenner co-produced the album with Muscle Shoals producer Marlin Greene, and Scaggs himself.  After the recording was completed, they brought in Stax Records’ music engineer Terry Manning to mix the album and give it the same “feeling” as a Stax record.

Coolest. Logo. Ever.

The Album Cover:

The front cover has a photo of Boz taken by San Francisco based photographer Elaine Mayes.

She wanted to take a photo of Boz in front of a “typical San Franciscan building.”  They walked around the neighborhood behind her studio and found a wooden building with a small old door and took his picture there.  If you look closely at the picture, you can tell that it is San Francisco by the deeply sloped sidewalk.

The back cover has a black and white picture of Boz laughing along with the track listing and band credits.

The original release contained a gatefold cover, and guess what it contains…

the ol’ “candid photos of the artists in the studio” collage.  That’s two!

…and a naked Duane Allman.

The Album:

I am reviewing the original 1969 vinyl release of Boz Scaggs on Atlantic Records.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the tracks, but they are the remixed versions. In 1977, after Boz’s big chart hits for Columbia, Atlantic remixed the album to capitalize on Scaggs’ new success.  The new mix was done in a way that many fans disapproved of.  Since Duane Allman had become a legend by then, they upped the sound on all his guitar parts and put the background voices and other instruments further down in the mix.  The problem is the newer remixed version is the only one Atlantic has ever made available on cassette and CD, refusing to release the original Terry Manning mix. So the only way to hear the album as it was intended is to get the original vinyl release which is Atlantic catalog #SD 8239. The remixes aren’t really all that different, but some songs are shorter and some have a bit of a different sound to them.)

This is who I’m betting remixed the album.

The string of great opening tracks continues!

If you only know Boz Scaggs from his late 70’s hits, then this first track may blow your mind. “I’m Easy” starts the album off on an amazing note. The Muscle Shoals sound is evident right away. The best blue-eyed soul is the kind where you can’t tell if this is a white or black artist, and that is true here.  It is just a fantastic song.  It really surprises me that this did not make any kind of dent on the Billboard Hot 100.

I’ll Be Long Gone” sounds like something out of Stax.  It sounds like a lost Isaac Hayes B-side, even down to the sax solo.  The music sits in the back to accentuate the vocals, only coming into the foreground at the right times, no doubt a signature of Terry Manning. Too cool.

Another Day (Another Letter)” is what I would imagine a song would sound like if you took an Otis Redding record and replaced Otis with some skinny white dude from Texas.

No not him.

It’s a good track, but nothing too spectacular.

Now You’re Gone” is a pure country & western song.  It sounds like it would be a cover song of some old Bob Wills tune or something, but it’s not, it’s an original track.  It is a bit jarring to place this song right after 3 soulful tracks.  I also don’t care that much for Boz’s singing on it. I still dig the song. I would even say the song by itself is great, but it definitely disrupts the flow of the album to put a country song here.

Finding Her” starts off with a haunting piano and wailing guitar.  It somehow reminds me of both “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Stairway to Heaven.” He really is attempting to do everything on this album.  It’s a great song.

Look What I Got” at first sounds a little like a lost Byrds song.  It becomes much more soulful as it goes on.  It was co-written by Charles Chalmers, who wrote tons of soul hits for people like Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and Etta James. It’s a good closer to side one.

Side two opens with a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting On a Train.”  No one would ever imagine this is Boz Scaggs if they hadn’t been told.  One thing I will say is that when he attempts to do a song in a particular genre, he does it the right way.  Good yodeling, too. It is done very well, but the country stuff just feels so out of place on this album.

Loan Me a Dime” might just be Boz Scaggs’ magnum opus.  A near 13 minute,  soulful, bluesy masterpiece,  It is what would have happened if The Allman Brothers would have formed a band with the Bar Kays and recorded a blues song.  While I say that, this song even pre-dates the formation of The Allman Brothers Band. Duane Allman’s guitar comes in just at the right times to complement the horn section and organ. It doesn’t really matter that the lyrics are kinda pointless, because Boz’s wailing of the blues makes it seem important.  While I loved everything on The Stone Roses, this here is the best track I’ve reviewed so far.

Really, “Loan Me a Dime” should have been the album’s closing track, you really can’t follow that.

The final track, “Sweet Release” sounds like it should be a Van Morrison song. I kinda feel like you can tell what Boz was listening to during his writing of this album by what his songs sound like. By the way, when I think of someone doing a pseudo-Van Morrison song, it reminds of “Peacepollutionrevolution” by christian rocker Larry Norman.

The album pictured is supposedly the “Sgt. Pepper’s” of christian rock.

Duane has another great part on “Sweet Release.”  While I like the song, I do feel it goes on a bit too long with a running time of 6:17, especially after the last track went nearly 13 minutes.

This was truly a surprise how many musical genres Boz tried to touch on at one time on one album.  The high points of the album are truly amazing, but the country songs just don’t fit with the rest of the album.

Aftermath:

As I seem to keep repeating with these reviews, Boz Scaggs received tons of critical praise, especially from Rolling Stone (whether that had anything to do with their founder producing the album, I can’t say,) but no one bought the album.  In a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, Boz estimated that it had only sold about 20,000 copies at that point.  The only song that got any radio play was “Loan Me a Dime” which got some play on the newly burgeoning FM radio, since they didn’t mind playing near 13 minute songs.

Boz left Atlantic in 1970 and signed with Columbia Records.  He spent the next 6 years releasing albums for Columbia with only modest success.

In 1976 Boz Scaggs would record the album that would bring him iconic status.

Silk Degrees contained 2 hugely popular songs that would make the Billboard Top 15, “Lowdown,” which reached #3 and “Lido Shuffle,” which made it to #11.  The album itself reached #2 on the Billboard album chart, eventually going 5 times platinum.

His next two albums went platinum and in 1980, he had 4 more Top 20 Billboard hits including “Look What You’ve Done to Me” from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack.

After releasing a greatest hits package called Hits! in 1980, Scaggs retired from recording. For 8 years he made a few live appearances here and there, before coming out of retirement to release a new album titled Other Roads to modest success in 1988.  Around that same time, he opened a San Francisco nightclub called Slim’s, which is still open to this day.

Boz has continued to tour and record for the last 24 years.  In 2003, his album But Beautiful, went to #1 on Billboard’s Jazz chart.

Currently he is touring the country with fellow 70’s hit masters Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and Michael McDonald of The Doobie Brothers.

My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:

RS:”The stone-solid grooves on this underrated gem come courtesy of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section; the soulful guitar comes courtesy of Scaggs and guest Duane Allman. Together, they made “Loan Me a Dime” an FM-radio classic – more than 10 minutes of knockout blues pleading and wailing.”

I’m fine with this.  Although, doesn’t seem a little suspicious that the album produced by the magazine’s founder makes the Rolling Stone 500, when really no other publication rates it so high?

Conclusion:

There is nothing bad on this album at all.  Every song individually is great, but part of what makes a great album is its flow, and the two country tracks just don’t fit.  It would have been better if Boz had either recorded another album of country music or perhaps made one side of the album soulful and the other side country.  Although, I’m not sure if that would have worked, either.

“Loan Me a Dime” is pure goodness and any album that includes a track that good is going to be recommended by me.

4 Stars out of 5, recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

3. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

4. Outkast- Aquemini

5. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs

6. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

7. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

#495- Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!- 1977

October 5, 2012

The Artist:

Ian Dury was born in 1942 in Northwest London, England.  He contracted polio at the age of seven.  This led to him being sent to a school / hospital for disabled children for a while. During his time recovering, he began drawing and painting and fell in love with early rock n’ roll, most notably Gene Vincent and his hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”

Gene Vincent

After he had sufficiently recovered, Ian was sent to The Royal Grammar School where he often got in trouble. As punishment he was forced to memorize lines of poetry by people like Keats, and if he missed one word, he was forced to start over. Ian felt terrorized by this at the time, but later in life, his lyrics as a songwriter would be highly influenced by this poetry.  As a teen, Ian fell in love with American Jazz music and became popular with his peers with his humor.

He went on to study at The Royal College of Art. After college, Ian taught art at several colleges and did commercial illustrations for The Sunday Times.

It was the 1971 death of his music hero, Gene Vincent, that influenced him to put together his first band, which he named Kilburn & The High Roads.

Kilburn & The High Roads

Ian sang lead vocals and wrote the lyrics and a friend of his, Russell Hardy was the pianist and wrote the music.  Ian then recruited several of his art students to fill out the rest of the band.  They became popular in the local pubs and got a record deal in 1974.  They released 2 studio albums and briefly toured with The Who, but a lack of commercial success lead to the band disbanding in 1975.

Ian spent his time throughout 1976 writing lyrics. After a chance meeting in a music shop, Dury handed his lyrics over to multi-instrumentalist Chaz Jankel.

Chaz Jankel

Chaz’s music sounded exactly like what Ian had imagined for his songs. They went to Manfred Mann’s recording studio, “The Workhouse” to record the songs.  They brought in session musicians in drummer Charley Charles, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, and former Kilburn band member saxophonist Davey Payne to join them in recording the songs.  They also hired Geoff Castle to come in and play the Moog sythesizer on some of the tracks.  Despite not having a record deal, Dury and the band members recorded an album’s worth of songs over the next few weeks.

Every major UK label passed on the album due to their belief it was nothing more than “pub rock” and didn’t think it was commercial. It happened that Dury had hired ex-Pink Floyd managers Andrew King and Peter Jenner to manage his career, and their office happened to be located next door to a brand new, small, music label, Stiff Records.

Stiff was looking for non-mainstream acts and had signed a couple of artists already, Elvis Costello and Nick Cave.  Stiff signed Ian Dury and took the tracks recorded at The Workhouse and in September 1977 they released the songs as the album New Boots and Panties!!

The Album Cover:

First off, let’s talk about the title.  Ian came up with it during some idle conversation about his clothes. He always bought all of his clothing from thrift shops, except his shoes and underwear which he bought new.  He wanted people to buy his new album, so he named it after the two things that he (and presumably most people) always bought new.

The front cover shows Ian standing in front of a lingerie shop and standing next to him is his 6-year old son, Baxter (who would later go on to a music career of his own.) I like the fact that you can see the reflection of the Woolworth sign from across the street. Personally, I love seeing old storefronts and old pictures inside stores, it captures a moment in time that will never be repeated.  But my favorite thing of all is seeing old  shopping malls, that is 80% of the reason I love Dawn of the Dead.

The back cover has a large picture of Ian wearing a gymnastics club t-shirt, which reaffirms that he bought his clothes from the second-hand stores.

I also think Ian has a passing resemblance to Steve-O from Jackass here.

The track listing and band credits look handwritten in marker and a couple of odd things.

“This record was not produced and recorded at the Workhouse in the old Kent road.”

…except that it was

and

There’s nothing wrong with it!!! – Ian Dury

Not sure what that’s about.

I haven’t gotten to any albums with inserts, yet.   While it isn’t necessarily an insert, the album’s inner sleeve had a collage of pictures of Ian Dury since his time with Kilburn & the High Roads. This doesn’t count towards my count of albums with “candid photos of the artists in the studio” collages.

The Album:

I am reviewing the US vinyl release of New Boots and Panties!! from 1978 on Stiff Records.  The track listing on my copy is slightly different from the original UK pressing, which I will discuss later.

(Note: Most song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the album tracks, with the exception of “I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra” for which I could only find a live version.)

Wake Up and Make Love With Me” is an awesome opening track.  Once again, the string of great opening tracks on these albums I’m reviewing continues.  After what I guess would be termed a stereotypical “Asian” sounding piano opening, the Funk-styled bass kicks in, then the Moog synthesizer joins in to give a haunting sound to the track.  Ian has some pretty good vocals here.

The song is pretty funny ode to morning sex.  Though, when you listen closely to the lyrics, they are kind of creepy.  I mean he is asking his girl to wake up before he jumps her bones, but it also sounds like he bangs her sometimes when she is asleep, too.

Sweet Gene Vincent” is a sweet ode to his musical hero, really almost too sweet.  Just when you start wondering where the attitude from Ian has gone, the song changes tempo mid way through and becomes a rocking early rock n’ roll styled song.  I like how it opens in the old-time rock n’ roll ballad style and turns into a real rocker.  Great song.

I’m Partial to Your Abracadabra” is a great song title.  The track shows off Ian’s classically untrained voice. The music is almost country rock, but Ian’s vocals are very English, an interesting mix.  The abracadabra in question appears to be a replacement word for pussy.  Paul McCartney did a cover of this song on an Ian Dury tribute album, Paul makes it sound a lot less dirty.

…despite how he may look here.

My Old Man” is a pretty simple sounding sound.  Almost children’s rhyming styled.  Interesting in that it seems to be a legit biography of his father, who was a bus and limo driver.  I’ve listened to this song about 10 times and I am honestly not sure if I like this track or not.

A spoken word intro begins “Billericay Dickie” with “good evening, I’m from Essex” which I think is supposed to tell me something. Since I’m not from England. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of that information. I’m guessing he is using an Essex accent in the song or something. This song just about as Britishy as a song can get.  The funny thing is it was co-written by an American, Steve Nugent.  It is rhyming words set to music that sounds like a Casio keyboard demo button.

I think they pushed the aqua colored button right there.

Again, I can’t tell if I like it or not.  I mean it’s kinda fun, but it is also kind of repetitive as it goes on.

On to side two.

Here I come to a conundrum, as I have the second vinyl pressing of New Boots and Panties!! which has a slightly different track list than the original pressing.  On my copy, side 2 opens with “Sex & Drugs & Rock n’ Roll” and “What a Waste” which were Dury’s singles.  Ian did not want any singles on his albums, and these tracks were not originally included on the album, in fact they aren’t even included on the track listing on the back cover.  Part of me wants to leave them off my review since they weren’t originally there on the album. But since they are on my copy, I will include them in my review.

Despite what some people claim, the song “Sex & Drugs & Rock n’ Roll” was not where the phrase was coined. It was already part of the lexicon before the song.  It has a really cool guitar and bass part.  I’m really glad it was added to this pressing of the album, because it is a good track.

What a Waste” is an unusual song but quite cool. It eventually made the top 10 on the pop charts in the UK. The Moog synthesizer is the best part of the song, coming in and out with many different sounds, but I like Ian’s vocals here, too, He gets a lot of words out very quickly.  The best way to describe this track is that it has an almost theatrical sound to it.

Well, it’s not that theatrical.

Clevor Trever” is a cool syth-based track, and also it has smooth backing music.  Ian again sings in the rhyming music hall style, but I really like his vocals on this song, and I dig the guitar solo towards the end.  Good track.

If I Was With a Woman” has an almost disco beat.  It has a similar sound to “Sex & Drugs & Rock n’ Roll.” I’m not sure what to think about this track, it becomes annoying with the word “laughing” repeated about 50 times at the end.

Blockheads” the song that would eventually give his band its name. Now this is a rocking song.  In a way I like Ian doing these screaming styled vocals more than the slower tempo songs.  Could you call this Synth-Punk? Also the Moog comes in farting at one point.  More of this, please.

Plaistow Patricia” opens with Ian yelling a bunch of obscenities, including…aerosol.

Perhaps I should have censored this picture.

The way the song starts I thought it would be Ian talking over dissonant sounds, but a Ramones-esque two chord guitar drives the rest of the song.

It is a really dirty song lyrically, and actually also kind of racist, but it is the story of a heroin addict so I think this supposed to be an unreliable narrator. Again, Ian is using more “down and dirty” vocals, which I like tons better than the British sing-songy style of the earlier songs.

Blackmail Man” definitely the most Punk song on the album, but with a great guitar mini-solo.  The second to last guitar last chord always makes me think Yes’ “Roundabout” is about to start.

Yeah, this album is definitely not for every one, but I can’t deny I enjoyed it.

Aftermath:

Dury invited the session musicians that played on the album to join him and Chaz Jankel as a permanent band.  They agreed, and added another guitarist named John Turnbull and pianist Mickey Gallagher, to form The Blockheads, named after the track on New Boots and Panties!!. 

Ian Dury and The Blockheads

In 1978, Ian Dury and The Blockheads released another single “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” It sold nearly a million copies, and went all the way to #1 on the UK pop charts, unseating “YMCA” by The Village People at the top spot.

Ian’s first album with The Blockheads, Do It Yourself, rose to #2 on the UK album charts and eventually went platinum.  While they maintained their popularity as a live band over the next two years, they never attained that much commercial success again.

Chaz Jankel left the band in 1980 for a solo career, and by 1981 Ian disbanded the band to go on his own solo career and left Stiff to join Polydor Records.  Dury remained a popular touring artist throughout the 80’s and 90’s and started drifting into acting roles.  He appeared in some movies such as Roman Polanski’s Pirates and with Sly Stallone in Judge Dredd.

I won’t hold it against Ian for appearing in this.

Dury was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1996.  Despite being told it was terminal, Dury continued to perform sporadically over the next few years. He finally succumbed to the cancer and passed away at the age of 57 in 2000.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS: “Dury cut his teeth on the British pub rock circuit before his debut made him a cult star,  He never managed to duplicate the brilliance of this punk-funk classic, but the album’s impact is felt to this day – even introducing the phrase “sex, drugs and rock & roll” to the lexicon.”

Oh Rolling Stone, you guys just can’t get your facts straight.  First off, the book credits the album to Ian Dury and The Blockheads, which is not accurate, it’s a solo album that predates the formation of The Blockheads.  Second, as I said earlier, the album did not invent the phrase “sex, drugs and rock & roll” as it was already a common phrase at the time, not to mention that that song wasn’t even originally part of this album. My original idea for this section was just to make mention of whether I agreed with Rolling Stone’s opinion of the album, I didn’t realize I was going to be a fact-checker for them.

Also, I should mention that this album is no longer included on the updated 2012 Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list.

Conclusion:

Well, this album is a difficult one to come to a conclusion about.  It definitely is not for everyone.  Personally, I like the album a lot. I think the best tracks are really great.  There are a few quirks to the album that I didn’t much care for, but nothing that completely ruins any of the tracks.  I definitely recommend everyone should give it a try, but with the caveat that it requires an open mind. It’s one of those albums where a lot of people won’t care for it at all, but those that do will like it a whole lot.

3.5 Stars out of 5, recommended with some reservations.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

3. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

4. Outkast- Aquemini

5. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!

6. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

500 Greatest Albums of All Time Reviews- An Introduction

October 5, 2012

In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine published a special issue that listed the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  It was voted on by musicians, critics, and others in the music business.  In 2005, Rolling Stone published a book version of the list.  The book made a few changes to the list, mostly combining the votes for a few albums that had separate entries even though their track listings were similar (e.g. With the Beatles and Meet the Beatles.)  The book list added eight new albums at the bottom of the list.  In early 2012, Rolling Stone’s website updated the 500 list again as they added in the votes for albums that showed up on their 100 Greatest Albums of the ’00s list and removed a few from the book list.  However, it is the book version of the list that I am using as my source.

I received the 500 Greatest book for my birthday in 2006.  Immediately I wanted to collect all of the albums on the list.  I already owned many of the albums on CD, but still a majority were albums I did not have and some albums I’d never even heard of.  I then had the idea of collecting the albums on vinyl records.  After buying one album, I abandoned the idea.  I eventually downloaded the bottom (500-250) half of the list onto my mp3 player.  My idea was to listen to each album and eventually write reviews of each one.

While I did listen to probably the bottom 75-100 albums, I listened to many of them while I was at work, so I didn’t really get a chance to “take in” the album, and I just didn’t have the motivation or time at that period in my life to complete a big project like that.

Early in 2012 I decided to start back my abandoned idea of collecting the albums on vinyl (when available.)  I have collected nearly all of the bottom 100 and now that I have them I will do my own reviews of the albums.

I have no real qualifications for reviewing music other than the fact that I have been a fan of music and have collected CDs and records for 20 years now.  I did record two albums GOAT (2002) and Expect the Unexpected (2003) although I play no real instruments. I consider my albums to be comedy as I parodied things such as hidden tracks, backwards masking, and avant garde music.  My reviews will be from the perspective of someone who just loves listening to music.  I also love everything that goes with pop culture, and I will definitely pepper my reviews with whatever pop culture reference pops into my head.

The way that I will structure my review will be as follows:

The Artist: I will give a brief biography if it is the first time I have reviewed one of their albums.  The most important part of this section is trying to explain the context within which the album was recorded.  To do this, I will try to listen and give a brief overview of which albums led up to the album I am reviewing.  In my opinion the where, when, and why the album was recorded is just as important as what the album sounds like.

The Album Cover: Especially when reviewing vinyl record versions of albums, the artwork chosen for an album is very important in fully understanding that album.  To me the entire package (the music, the cover, whatever inserts are included) is one complete piece of art.

The Album:  I will try to do a track by track review of every album.  While listening to the album, I will try to put into words how it makes me feel, plus I will try to add little pieces of information that I came across while researching the album.  Most of all I want to make my reviews fun and I will reference whatever weird pop culture or real life thing that the song reminds me of.

Aftermath: I give information of what happened after the release of the album and whether it was a hit or not.  If the artist has a subsequent album on the list, I will only talk about what happened up to the recording of that album, if not, I will tell what has happen to them up to the present time.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take: I will quote what Rolling Stone says about the album in the book and then give my thoughts on what they say about it. I’m just doing this for comparison’s sake.  Sometimes I think whoever wrote the blurbs really doesn’t know that much about the album and just gives a blanket statement.

Conclusion: I will give my final thoughts and give each album a star rating on the 1 to 5 star scale.

5 stars-Perfect rating

4.5 to 4.75 stars-highly recommended

4 to 4.25 stars-recommended

3.5 to 3.75 stars-recommended with some reservations

3 to 3.25 stars-mild recommendation

2.5 to 2.75-not recommended, but don’t avoid

2 to 2.25-avoid with some reservations

1.5 to 1.75-avoid

1 to 1.25-toss the album into the blazing fires of hell

The last part of the review will be my thoughts on where the album should rank in relation to the other albums that I have already reviewed.  My idea is to ultimately re-rank every album on the 500 list.  Some albums I probably will feel are not “worthy” of top 500 status, so once I have completely re-ranked the entire 500 I will remove those that I don’t like as much and add ones that weren’t on the list so that I’ll have my own definitive 500 Greatest Albums list.

Ultimately I assume that this project will probably take, conservatively, about 5 years to complete.

#496- Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up- 1972

October 3, 2012

The Artist:

Bonnie Raitt was born in Burbank, California in 1949.  The only daughter of Broadway star John Raitt and pianist Marjorie Haydock.  Her music talents were not just inherited from Marjorie, but John had a famous baritone singing voice which helped him get the lead roles in Broadway classics such as Carousel, South Pacific, and his most famous leading role as Sid in The Pajama Game. That part he later carried over to the movie version, playing opposite Doris Day.

John Raitt with Doris Day

Bonnie grew up loving the blues, and at a young age she learned to play the guitar.  She studied at Harvard and while there she began playing in the blues clubs around Boston. During this time she became friends with blues promoter Dick Waterman, and she moved to Philadelphia to work with him. He helped her get gigs opening for many legendary blues musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Even before she had a record deal, she accepted an offer to open for The Rolling Stones during part of their 1970 US tour.  One of the reporters from Newsweek (the name of the reporter I cannot seem to locate) began spreading the word of her musical ability to record company executives.  In 1971, Bonnie was signed by Warner Brothers Records.

Her first album, titled Bonnie Raitt, was released in November of 1971.

Many critics were blown away.  She was something new, a 21-year-old white, female, blues guitarist with a great singing voice.  The album itself was mostly filled with cover songs, although it did contain one original song called “Thank You.” The album got almost universally positive reviews, but it was not commercially successful at all.

A few months later, Raitt went back into the studio to record her follow-up album.  While she would maintain her blues edge, she wanted to add in a mix of other genres, too.  Recording commenced in June of 1972 in Woodstock, New York with her backing musicians comprised of some of the best players around at the time. They were the musicians that had backed artists like The Band, Van Morrison, and Taj Mahal during their recent recording sessions in Woodstock.

The Album Cover:

This is definitely the most basic cover I’ve reviewed yet.  A picture of a young, pre-Bride of Frankenstein-esque hair streak, Bonnie Raitt standing in a garden or something.  It kind of looks like a member of the class of ’72’s senior yearbook picture.  It is framed in a purple border with the album title and her name in cursive.  I’m trying to think of something interesting to say about it, but there isn’t anything.

Well, the back cover isn’t any more interesting.  Now, Bonnie is lounging on a bench outside a house or train station or Cracker Barrel or somewhere.  It has the usual stuff, the track listing, the credits, and a long paragraph telling which other albums the musicians have played on in the past, which actually sounds more interesting than it actually is.

Nothing much of note here…wait what’s this?

Oy.

This is the first album that I’ve reviewed that has a gatefold cover.

It’s also the first time we get to see the ol’ “candid photos of the artists in the studio” collage.  I’m willing to bet that we’ll see many more of these collages as I trek through the Rolling Stone 500.

The Album:

I am reviewing the 1972 vinyl release of Give It Up on Warner Brothers Records.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.  One minor word of warning, most of the songs that are linked here sound pretty lo-fi.  As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)

The album opens with “Give It Up Or Let Me Go” a fantastic, bluesy, New Orleansy sound.  One of the things that I am noticing while doing these reviews is the trend that the “500 Greatest Albums” all seem to have great opening tracks.  This song reminds me a lot of something by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with the tinny piano and the tuba. The tuba is played by someone wonderfully named Freebo, no first or last name given. The song also has a touch of the Delta blues with Bonnie’s steel guitar playing.  A really great song.

I was afraid that I’d be disappointed by seeing a picture of someone named Freebo. That’s him on the left.
I’m not disappointed.

Nothing Seems To Matter” is the first time we hear how beautiful Bonnie Raitt’s voice can be. I find the guitar playing quite beautiful, too. It is a very sweet song.

I recognize the album’s third track “I Know,” but the version I have heard is by someone else.  A quick Wiki search tells me the one I’m thinking of was a #3 hit for Barbara George in 1961.  Raitt’s version is not quite as good as the original, but it is solid in its own right.  There are times when the music reminds me of something off of The Band’s Moondog Matinee.  Also, there is a bit of a nod to The Big Bopper at the end.

Hellllllllooo Baaaaby!

If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” is another cover of an early 60’s R&B song.  It’s a good song and Bonnie’s vocals are nice, but it isn’t quite up to the quality of the rest of the album.  To be honest, it sounds a little generic.

On “Love Me Like a Man” we get the first, real, hard-driving blues song on the album. It is pure blues both musically and lyrically. This became one of Bonnie’s long time staples of her live performances.  It is a cool ending to side one of the album.

Side two opens with “Stayed Too Long at the Fair”  Oh wow, what can I say, this is a beautiful song.  The song was written by a guy named Joel Zoss who performed it on stage at a club that Bonnie’s manager happened to be at, and he taped it for Bonnie to hear.  It has incredible lyrics (ex: Jesus cried, wept and died/ I guess he went up to heaven/ I’ve been downtown such a long long time/ I’ll never make it home by seven.)

I’m really starting to realize how truly exceptional Bonnie’s vocals are.  Jon Landau of Rolling Stone said in 1972 about this album “the best thing about Bonnie Raitt is her singing, and the best thing about Give It Up is that she sings great from beginning to end.”  I totally agree.

Under the Falling Sky” is a Jackson Browne tune that is upbeat and fun.  Without looking at the album credits, I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that is Paul Butterfield on the mouth harp. (Checks album cover) Ding!  It is interesting that someone can sound so distinctive on what seems like a somewhat simple instrument.  I mean even I can play the harmonica, and I have no musical ability.  Actually, I don’t really know how to play it, I just blow in and out, but it sounds something like music to me.

The Butter Man, a much better harmonica player than me.

You Got to Know How” is a cover of a 1920’s blues song by Sippie Wallace. As I mentioned earlier, she was one of the old-time blues artists that Bonnie opened for early in her career. It has a really cool opening with the jazz piano.  Bonnie does some amazing vocal stretching here.  She has to hit some pretty high and some pretty low notes. I also like the clarinet solo, probably because it reminds of music from a Woody Allen movie.

You Told Me Baby” is a very Bonnie Raitt-esque song (if that makes any sense.)  What I mean is, this is her distinctive sound, and if someone else did a song like this, you would say they are trying to sound like Bonnie Raitt.  The jamming at the end sounds kinda Santana-ish.

No, not this Santana.

This Santana.

Love Has No Pride” is a slower, almost country song.  I see it was co-written by Libby Titus, who I only know because she was the musical guest on the Hugh Hefner hosted episode of Saturday Night Live in 1977.

I can’t find a pic of Libby singing, but I did find one of Hef crooning from the same episode.

This is a good song, and again Bonnie’s voice is so beautiful and clear that the whole song works due to her vocal ability.  My only minor complaint is that the album opened with such a rollicking song in “Give It Up or Let It Go” and yet it ends on a slow country ballad.  I would have preferred for the album to end on a faster paced tune.

Aftermath:

Critics were even more effusive over Give It Up than they had been for Raitt’s debut album.  However, the American public still had no interest buying her records.  The album did not even break into Billboard’s top 100 albums, peaking at #138.  The combination of critical praise and buyer apathy towards her albums would be repeated over and over for the next 17 years.

I will get to the rest of her story when I get to album #225.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS: “California darling Raitt headed to Woodstock to cut her second LP – only to face near-monsoon weather. “My house had sand and salamanders,” Raitt said. She took refuge in the studio and churned out gorgeous folksy blues, including a cover of Jackson Browne’s “Under the Falling Sky.”

Rolling Stone only has room for a one paragraph blurb for an album that they say is one of the greatest of all time and they insert a weather report?  That’s odd.  Also, if they had to single out one song off the album, picking “Under the Falling Sky” is kinda odd, too.  It is also strange that they call her a “California darling” when she was best known as a Boston and Philadelphia area musician at that time.  They make it sound like moving to Woodstock was her first music experience outside of California.

It seems to me whoever wrote this blurb just did cursory research on the album. They saw she was born in California, read something about rain, saw the name Jackson Browne, and wrote the paragraph without listening to the album.

Oh and…

Salamanders!

Conclusion:

I try to never assume anything before listening to an album or watching a movie, but it is human nature to have some sort of prejudice just based on what you see in the commercial or on the movie poster or on an album cover.  In this case, I will admit that I did not think this album would be up my alley, just because it is a Bonnie Raitt album.

I was never a big fan of her 80’s and 90’s hits, and those songs were all that I had been exposed to from her.  Even then, the only reason I didn’t like those songs very much is due to the fact that they were played so often Top 40 radio stations while I was growing up. I bet I’ve heard “Something to Talk About” and “Love Sneakin’ Up On You” a combined thousand times on the radio between 1991 and now. Even today I can guarantee that almost every local easy listening station still plays “I Can’t Make You Love Me” at least once a day.

But I was wrong, I found this album to be really great.

4.5 stars out of 5, highly recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

3. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up

4. Outkast- Aquemini

5. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail

#497- The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses- 1989

September 30, 2012

The Artists:

Ian Brown was born in Warrington, England in 1963.  While growing up in Manchester, he became friends with another teen that lived on his street, by the name of John Squire. after they teamed together to fight a bully.  They bonded over having the same taste in music and began attending concerts together all over the north of England. They were both mostly influenced by early punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

Ian Brown and John Squire

Brown and Squire both went to South Trafford College in Manchester. After Brown was expelled and Squire quit school, they decided to form a band with Brown playing bass and Squire on guitar. They called their band The Patrol.  They recruited a drummer in Simon Wolstencroft and a singer with Andy Couzens.  While the band did not last long, it was the genesis of what would be The Stone Roses.

After the breakup of the band, Brown worked for a nightclub while Squire worked as an animator.  In 1983, Couzens decided he wanted to put together another band and approached his old bandmate Brown about being a part of it as the lead singer. They called back Wolstencroft to be the drummer and recruited a new bassist named Pete Garner.  The only piece that was missing was Squire, and after some cajoling, he agreed to join as the guitarist. Wolstencroft left to join another band.  The band had auditions for a new drummer and chose Alan “Reni” Wren.

Reni found an advertisement for a drummer needed on a music store wall and answered the ad.  The band members knew immediately they’d never find a better drummer.  Even Pete Townshend said that Reni was the most gifted drummer he’d heard since the death of Keith Moon.

Reni, who became well known for wearing the bucket hat.

John Squire is the one that came up with the name The Stone Roses.  Despite people’s assumptions that there must be some deep meaning to the band’s name or some toughts that it is some reference to The Rolling Stones, Squire merely thought of two words that contrasted and put them together, and the rest of the band thought it sounded good.

Technically, there are such things as stone roses.

After several years of performing locally and gaining fame around Manchester, Brown and Squire became the main songwriters and co-leaders, which lead Couzens to leave the band.  During this time they used graffiti to advertise the band’s name, which drew the ire of many Manchester residents, giving the band publicity.

The Stone Roses along with many other Manchester based bands such as The Happy Mondays and 808 State were all becoming popular and hitting their peak at the same time.  The Hacienda nightclub became the center of the this new movement.  This music scene was termed the “Madchester” scene.  A mixture of rock and dance music along with the new popularity of the drug Ecstasy defined this new music scene.

In 1987, Pete Garner decided to leave the band and was replaced by another Manchester based musician, Gary “Mani” Mounfield on bass.

Mani

The foursome of Ian Brown, John Squire, Reni, and Mani would be the band that would record the band’s debut album.

The band had a few deals here and there with small record companies and released a handful of singles that didn’t go anywhere.  They toured extensively and gained quite a bit a notoriety as a live band.  Finally, in 1988 they signed with the music label, Silvertone and agreed to an 8 album deal.  Recording began on their first album in late 1988 and the album was ready for release in April 1989 in the UK.

The Album Cover:

The cover was desgined by guitarist John Squire.  No doubt inspired by the works of Jackson Pollock.

Pollock’s Number 8, from 1949. The inspiration of the phrase “my kid could paint that.”

According to Squire, the cover is supposed to be his artistic interpretation of the Paris riots of 1968.  A sideways French flag is painted on the left hand side.

The idea of the lemons came from the fact that they were used by the rioters in Paris to dull the effects of tear gas.

When I think of Paris 1968, the first thing that comes to mind is Tout va Bien, the Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin film starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, which deals with the aftermath of ’68, and has yet to not put me to sleep.

I’m waaaay off topic here, but this is the only chance I will ever get to link to Jean-Pierre Gorin’s ratemyprofessor page. Gorin is currently a professor of film at U.C.-San Diego and is pretty infamous amongst the film community for his yelling and cursing at his students for having the “wrong” opinions about movies.

Back on topic, the back cover is quite basic on the vinyl edition.

It has the band name in gold on black, with a black and white photo of the band performing with a track listing and band member credits.  The CD version just has a track listing.  The vinyl is rare and the picture above is the best I could find anywhere on the internet of it’s back cover.

The Album: 

I am reviewing the UK vinyl release of The Stone Roses, the track listing is slightly different than the American CD and cassette versions.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs.)

The album opens with an almost otherworldly sound flowing into, “I Wanna Be Adored.”  The song just gives you the feeling that you are about to listen to a great album.

I will now type every lyric that is used in this 5 minute long song:

I don’t have to sell my soul/ He’s already in me/ I wanna be adored/ You adore me/ I gotta be adored.

Even Paul McCartney’s “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road” is impressed at the disparate lyric per minute ratio in the song.  While it may not be “Tangled Up in Blue” lyrically, it is a perfect, haunting opening to the album.

And this is what Macca thinks of my poking fun of his lyrics.

She Bangs the Drums” is very poppy, and perhaps is the song that would be used most often to exemplify The Stone Roses.  It was the second single released off of the album.  It’s a bass and drum driven track.

Apparently there is a music video of “She Bangs the Drums” but I personally don’t want to see it.  Don’t get me wrong, I like music videos, but there is something about them that takes you out of the enjoyment of an album. You quit having your own personal experience with a song and start picturing the music video.  The best example of that is The Foo Fighters’ “Big Me” which is a brilliant music video, but I lose interest whenever I listen to the song on the album since I can’t see the Mentos parody video.

Whenever I hear the song I have a Pavlovian desire for chewy mints.

Don’t get me started on the fact that “She Bangs the Drums” is one of the songs available to play on Guitar Hero III.

Pushing buttons= musical talent?

“Waterfall” is a beautiful piece of music.  Reminds me a little of another great Manchester based band, The Hollies.  A sweet song.  It flows into “Don’t Stop” a very Beatle-esque sound, backwards notes and vocals that are reminiscent of “Rain.”  The ending and fade out has an almost African beat to it. Those are back to back tracks that I compared favorably to two Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers’.

Bye Bye Badman” sounds like something from twenty years prior, not so much Beatle-esque this time, but a pure sound.  It is what I think music would have sounded like in the 80’s if New Wave music had never happened.  A very violent song, lyrically, but very peppy musically, an interesting dichotomy.  I always like when songwriters do that.  Reminds of the time my young nieces were happily dancing around to “ABC’s” by K’naan, a song about children in Africa living in abject poverty.

It’s fun!

Side 2 of the album opens with “Elizabeth My Dear.”  It is just a brief minute long track. It is basically the same tune as “Scarborough Fair” and is an anti-Queen song.  I mean Queen as in Queen of England not Queen like Freddie Mercury.

“Dude, what if Freddie was the Queen of England?”- random stoner circa 1980.

That flows into “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister.”  I have no clue what the lyrics are supposed to mean, ex: “My hands are stuck to my jeans/ And she knows she knows what this must mean.” There are some nice harmonies on this track.  Again, it is just terrific pop music

Made of Stone” was the first single released off of the album.  It went to #20 on the UK pop charts, and it did not chart in the USA. I guess the American public were too busy buying New Kids On the Block and Milli Vanilli cassettes to bother with, you know, actual good music.

A visual representation of the record buying public of 1989.

Shoot You Down” sounds like straight out of 1965.  Only the flangering effects on Ian Brown’s vocals indicate this is something from 1989. I could see someone like Gerry and Pacemakers recording something like this.

Just look at those fresh-faced fellas.

This is the One” is a quiet track, with a nice recurring guitar burst, that flows into some of the heaviest music yet.  These are the awesome lyrics that open the song: “A girl consumed by fire/ We all know her desire/ From the plans that she has made/ I have her on a promise/ Immerse me in your splendor.”

The album closes on “I Am the Resurrection.”  My personal favorite track on the album.  I’ve heard every Billboard #1 song in history, and this has every earmark of what I would think would be a hit.  Perhaps people blindly read the title and assumed it was a religious song? Personally, I think it is because the public had the absolute worst taste in music during the years 1989-1991.

Paula Abdul had SIX #1 Hits on Billboard between 1989 and 1991, case closed.

“I Am the Resurrection” goes from beautiful pop and morphs into a hard driving guitar rock song midway through the track.  I guess an anthem would be the accurate term for it. It then has a false finish, before going back into the guitar jam with white noise flowing in the background.  The song keeps going for 8 minutes, but never drones on, it remains interesting throughout.

The Stone Roses much like so many other great artists were not destined to last, but what they did here is absolutely amazing.  This was a band out of its time. They could have been The Beatles of the 1990’s, ushering in a new British Invasion (and technically, they sorta did due to their influence on bands like Blur and Oasis.) When I say they were out of their time, by no means to I mean that they were old-fashioned. I mean they sounded like they were from that time when pop music was at it’s peak of beauty and innovation.

I will say that this is an album that I feel should be enjoyed as a whole.  I link the songs to the music clips to give a taste of what it sounds like, but that doesn’t give a full experience. I would most recommend the vinyl edition, but as of now it is quite rare and hard to come by in the US, but picking up the CD version is fine too, although it adds in the earlier single “Elephant Stone” to the album.  It is a fine song, but doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.

The Aftermath:

The postscript to The Stone Roses is that the band immediately started having issues with Silvertone and wanted to get out of their 8 album contract with the label. Legal battle after legal battle kept them from recording for years.  Then, finally, once the legal issues were over, personal issues starting delaying the recording.  It was mid 1993 before any recording started. Once it it did start, the recording went at a snail’s pace.  The follow up Second Coming was finally released in December of 1994 in the UK and not until mid 1995 in the United States.

Whatever the opposite of “striking while the iron is hot” is, that is what you would use to describe their sophomore effort.

Right after the release of Second Coming, band members started leaving.  First Reni and then John Squire.  By 1996 they were officially disbanded with only two studio albums the total of what they had under their belt.

For fifteen years that looked like that was all that we would see of The Stone Roses, but in 2011 Brown and Squire made amends, and in October they announced that they would do a short world tour, a documentary about the band, and as of this writing there are rumors of a possible new album.

In a way they reminds me of the great film director Terrence Malick, who in 1973 made Badlands, to much critical acclaim. Then took 5 years to follow it up with another masterpiece in Days of Heaven in 1978.  He then disappeared from movies altogether for almost 20 years before releasing The Thin Red Line in 1997.  Since then he has made two more amazing films, so perhaps The Stone Roses can do the same.

In my book, the best picture of 2011.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS: “For a few glorious moments, The Stone Roses looked like they might lead another British Invasion. Instead, they fell apart – but first they made this incredible album, highlighted by the ecstatic eight-minute-long “I Am the Resurrection.” It single-handedly launched Nineties Brit pop.”

My thoughts exactly.

Conclusion:

Something I’ll only be able to say a few times during my reviews: this is a PERFECT POP RECORD.  The fact that the album didn’t make the initial Rolling Stone magazine list and was only added in at #497 in the book version of the list (a least it didn’t get replaced in 2012 list like Head Hunters did, even though it did fall down one spot) makes me want to tell the Rolling Stone voters “c’mon hit your free throws.”  They actually thought 4(!) Madonna albums are better than The Stone Roses?

New Musical Express, the UK based publication, voted this album the greatest British album of all time and Observer Music Monthly voted it the greatest album of all time.  While I doubt I will agree with those publications once this journey through the Rolling Stone 500 is completed, it is the best album I’ve listened to yet from the list.  I don’t feel like there is a bad moment on the album. It’s beautiful, catchy, rocking, and influential. I don’t think I could give it a higher rating.

5 stars out of 5, Perfect rating

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses

2. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters

3. Outkast-Aquemini

4. B.B. King-Live in Cook County Jail

#498- Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters- 1973

September 28, 2012

The Artist:

Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1940.  A child prodigy on the piano, as early as 11 years old Hancock was playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

After college, Hancock played with a few jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Oliver Nelson, and Phil Woods.  His work got the attention of those at the legendary jazz label, Blue Note, and in 1962 Herbie Hancock released his debut album Takin’ Off.

Takin’ Off contained Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” which became a hit for Hancock and a cover version released the same year by Mongo Santamaria made it to the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100.  The tune would quickly become a jazz standard and as we will see, would be re-recorded by Hancock in the future.

Takin’ Off caught the attention of a fellow Blue Note artist.  The biggest Jazz artist in the world at the time, Miles Davis.  Davis was assembling what would be called “The Second Great Quintet.”  Herbie was invited to join as the pianist.

Miles Davis: Never not cool

They recorded some of the most influential free jazz albums of the 1960’s. By 1968 the group started going their separate ways.

In 1969, Herbie Hancock left the Blue Note label and signed a deal with Warner Brothers.  He had put together a sextet for his new label and had plans to change the music he was doing into a more electric sound, adding funk and rock bits to be part of the jazz fusion movement going on at the time

His first album under the Warner Brothers contract was actually a soundtrack album, Fat Albert Rotunda. It was mostly comprised of music that was composed for the 1969 animated TV special “Hey, Hey, Hey It’s Fat Albert.”

It is a cool album, a fantastic blend of R&B, jazz, and funk.  It is definitely not what you would expect from the soundtrack a children’s animated TV special.

On a side note, the Fat Albert special, seems to be completely unavailable to watch anywhere. Supposedly, it is an animated retelling of some of Bill Cosby’s standup comedy which used actual filmed footage of Philadelphia as the animation background with the animation drawn over it.  It sounds as though it was vastly different from the later TV series as the special focused mostly on the characters of Bill and his brother and apparently Fat Albert’s face was never shown.

There is no justice that the TV special is unavailable while this crap abides.

Hancock trekked further in jazz-fusion with Mwandishi from 1971.

It is more jazz based than Fat Albert Rotunda.  While still a great album, in my opinion, it doesn’t quite live up to the prior album and Hancock would improve upon the fusion of jazz and rock after this album.

The albums released in 1971 and 1972 are usually referred to as Hancock’s Mwandishi Period.  Mwandishi was the Swahili name that Hancock had called himself beginning in the late sixties.

Recorded in 1972,  Crossings upped the ante with the electronic music playing an even bigger part in this recording.  All three tracks are breathtaking and allow every member of the band a chance to shine.

During the sessions for Crossings, Dr. Patrick Gleeson came in to the studio to program the Moog synthesizer for Herbie.  During his setup, Hancock heard Gleeson playing it and instead decided that Gleeson should be the one playing the synthesizer on the record.  With the addition of Gleeson, the sextet became a septet.

Hancock then took his septet and left Warner Brothers and signed with Columbia.  The first album on Columbia was an almost avant-garde work titled Sextant.

Released in 1973, it was almost totally comprised of electronic music and the jazz part was almost nonexistent.  The album bombed with many of his fans thinking he had gone too far in the electronic experimentation, and had forgotten all of his jazz roots.  The biggest problem with the album was that it really was too ahead of its time, for example, the opening track “Rain Dance” sounds almost like the great 8-bit video game soundtracks from a decade later.

As soon as he saw the poor sales of Sextant, Hancock knew that he had alienated his audience, and decided to “bring his music back down to earth.”  The first thing he did was disband the septet.  He would handle keyboards and the synthesizer now, Bennie Maupin would remain in the band, on the reeds, added to the band was Paul Jackson on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion.  Hancock gave this new band the name “The Headhunters.”

He had been listening to a lot of Sly Stone, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder and for this new album Hancock wanted to add more of what those artists were doing except doing it with jazz.  He also wanted to reign in the synthesized parts to have a more mainstream appeal.

On October 13, 1973, Herbie Hancock released the first album with his new band, not surprisingly titled, Head Hunters.  Hancock’s decision to go for a more mainstream appeal worked big time, as eventually Head Hunters would become the biggest selling jazz album of all time.

The Album Cover:

The front cover shows all five members, psychedelically tinted, four in blue and Herbie in red orange.  Each member of The Headhunters is holding their respective instruments. From left to right in the background is Harvey Mason with his drum, Paul Jackson with the electric bass, Bennie Maupin with the sax, and Bill Summers with what appear to be shekere.

Herbie Hancock is sitting at the electric piano, but there is a weird mask thing over his face.  This mask is a particular mask from the Baoulé tribe which live in The Ivory Coast.

However, when zoomed in on the album cover, you can see there is a bit of a change to the mask.

The “eyes” of the mask have been changed to resemble the reels on a tape recorder and the “mouth” is now made out of a gauge.  These additions made the mask resemble a reel-to-reel tape head demagnitizer.

This one kinda looks like a face, with a fu manchu mustache.

The idea no doubt is giving a double meaning to the title Head Hunters, with the African mask stereotypically representing the mask of a African headhunter, while at the same time referencing a tape head on which the album is being recorded on.

The cover design is by Victor Moscoso, who designed a lot of psychedelic cover art in the 60’s and 70’s for people as varied as Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller Band, and Steve Cropper.  He is still doing artwork and a gallery of his album artwork can be found here. My favorite of his is probably this weird one for Manfred Mann’s The Mighty Quinn.

It’s Owlzilla! With some dude’s face.

The back cover is a slightly different picture, everybody has moved only a tiny bit from their front cover picture and now colored purple.  The most notable difference is that you can now you can see Herbie’s face, looking very serious, but very cool.  It also includes a track listing and personnel credits and which instruments were played.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl record version of Head Hunters, released in 1973.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs)

The album starts off with “Chameleon,” a song that has become a jazz standard through the years.  The 15 minute, 41 second track has probably one of the most recognizable bass tracks in jazz history.  Jackson drives the song with his electric bass.  Hancock used an ARP Odyssey synthesizer for the keyboard section of “Chameleon.”

This is some serious funk.  I think overlooked within Herbie’s syth sounds is some fantastic drumming by Harvey Mason.  About 6 minutes in “Chameleon” makes a bit of a twist, which the the syth vibe dropping out and the sound becomes less funky and more easy listening.  Bill Summers’ percussion on the conga or bongos (I’ll be honest I really can’t tell the difference in sound) flowing with the bass line.  But that is merely and interlude as the syth comes back to introduce a still electric piano driven, but faster section of the song.  They then take us back to the opening with the driving bassline reprise as the song comes to close.  One of the best opening tracks of all time, and definitely sets the stage for what is to come.

I will say my ignorance of jazz music shows when writing about pure instrumentals, in that I know there are terms for some of these segments and movements, but I don’t know what they are called.

I probably should have snagged one of these.

Track 2, is a cover song, of sorts.  Herbie Hancock decided to cover himself by updating his first big hit “Watermelon Man” with The Head Hunters.  On an album that features so much sythesized music, it was actually the simplest instrument, well technically non-instrument, that opens the track, Bill Summers blowing into a beer bottle.

The beer bottle even got a credit.

It is such an odd sound that I assumed it was some weird setting on the synth.  Along with some strange yelps, it gives an African music vibe, which I’m sure is exactly what Hancock was going for.  I can hear a bit of a reference to  Sly and the Family Stone on this track, it reminds me a bit of something around the time of There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

I’ll get to this one eventually.

Hancock has discussed coming up with the original song as a story and the sounds he used in the song were sounds that in his mind represented an actual man going around selling watermelons, a remembrance from when he was young.  He took the down beat from the sound of the cart on cobble stone walkways and the keyboard and sax parts represented the way that housewives would call out to the watermelon man asking to buy a watermelon.

And here I thought it was about this guy.

A clip can be found here, of Hancock explaining all of this to Elvis Costello and then playing both the original and Head Hunter‘s versions together to (in my opinion) less than successful results.

Side 2 opens with “Sly.”  Proving that I wasn’t too far off in comparing The Headhunters version of “Watermelon Man” to Sly Stone’s music, Hancock out and out names a track after him.  “Sly” while still very good, might be the least memorable track on the album in my opinion.  To be honest, I don’t hear a lot of Sly Stone influence on this track.

Thankfully Herbie never tried to copy Sly’s hair from recent years.

It is funky, but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The best part of the song is the quick time change interludes (again that probably isn’t the correct music term for what I am hearing, but I don’t know.) I probably don’t appreciate the complexity of what is being played here since I am not a jazz musician.  I will say that it would probably be the best track on most any other people’s album.

Side two’s conclusion has perhaps one of the greatest song titles I’ve ever heard, “Vein Melter.”  That title I think would work well as either the name of a horror movie or a WWE wrestler’s finishing maneuver.

I’m imagining something like this.

Interestingly enough, the track is quite laid back, but with a great recurring beat that sounds almost like chains.  About six minutes in it has an horror movie-esque sound cue.  Personally, I once wanted to use this track as part of a soundtrack to a spy movie I was working on, which never came to fruition.  It definitely has a bit of film score-ishness to it, perhaps foreshadowing Herbie’s future movie soundtracks.

Chuck Bronson and Herbie Hancock a match made in heaven?

“Vein Melter” is a truly great ending to a very great album. When looking at the album as a whole, everything recorded here is fantastic. “Sly” is the only song of the four that doesn’t in my opinion get a perfect rating, but even then it is close.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS: ” I was tired of everything being heavy-I wanted something lighter,” Hancock said. With that in mind, the keyboardist shed his former backing band (as well as all guitars) and recorded this Miles-meets-Sly Stone masterpiece, a peak of the jazz-fusion movement, highlighted by “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.”

Rolling Stone didn’t say anything new here, mostly just facts.  They did call it a masterpiece, which I agree with.

The oddest thing to me is that this album that they call a masterpiece just barely made the Rolling Stone 500, and in the updated 2012 list it is gone altogether which I guess means that its reputation has waned in recent years for whatever reason.

Conclusion:

The fusion of jazz with electronic instruments leads to some of the best sounds in music history and mixing that with the genius of Herbie Hancock, it lead to an extremely fertile time for him from 1969 to 1973.  Head Hunters was the culmination of that period and one of the true high points in jazz.

It is the best album I’ve listened so far from the Rolling Stone list.  I can’t quite give it 5 stars, but it is close.  “Sly,” while it has great moments, ultimately doesn’t quite live up to the other three tracks in my opinion, and it lowers my score by just a hair.  I hate being that petty, but when there is only 4 tracks I feel like I have to be a little more critical of each individual song when putting together my ratings.

4.75 out of 5 Stars, highly recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. Herbie Hancock-Head Hunters

2. Outkast-Aquemini

3. B.B. King-Live in Cook County Jail