Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31: Queen, "A Night At The Opera"

Artist: Queen
Album: A Night At The Opera
Year: 1975
Label: Elektra

When it comes to epitomizing the ideals of rock and roll excess and overindulgence, most will look to any one of a number of "hair metal" bands of the 1980's, or perhaps Led Zeppelin. However, the truth of the matter is, few bands carried with them as much pomp and consistent lavishness than U.K. rock legends, Queen. With their determination to stay true to the ideals of rock and roll (many of their albums contained the phrase, "no synthesizers were used on this record"), the band constructed some of the most timeless, outlandish, and simply stunning pieces of music that the world has ever heard. In the case of Queen, it is impossible to find a weak point in their music, singing, or lyrics, and this also makes it a bit difficult to choose their "best" album. However, in the fall of 1975, the band entered a handful of studios and recorded what would become their finest musical effort. The results were released in the form of their spectacular 1975 release, A Night At The Opera.

The albums' title is taken from the 1935 Marx Brothers film, which the band watched one night during the recording of the album. In many ways, the source of the title is fitting, because while they were undeniably hard rockers, Queen always had a bit of "tongue in cheek" sarcasm to much of their music. Furthering their claim to be "the" band when it came to the idea of excess, when it was recorded, A Night At The Opera was, in fact, the most expensive album ever. The albums' most famous track, "Bohemian Rhapsody," took nearly three weeks alone to record, with those who were there claiming that there were so many vocal overdubs, that you could literally see through the tape. In many ways, all of the extra effort was well worth it, as the album topped the charts in seven countries, and has sold nearly ten million copies since it's release. With Mike "Clay" Stone handling the engineering duties, it is not surprising how much vocal work was done on the album. Stone was well known throughout his entire career for creating massive choruses and finding unique ways to work with the vocals, and his innovations and style have served as a major influence on producers who came after him. This amazing talent is perhaps no more obvious then during the "vocal jam/solo" halfway through "The Prophet's Song."

Thematically, A Night At The Opera is truly all over the board. The albums' opening song, "Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To...)" is a VERY slightly veiled attack on the bands' former manager. The song is so brutal and blatant, that their former manager actually attempted to sue the band for defamation after its release. The almost silly, "I'm In Love With My Car" was originally thought to be a joke by Brian May, and the song would later become a source of friction between Roger Meddows-Taylor and Freddie Mercury. In the liner notes, the song is dedicated to "Johnathan Harris," who was a roadie for the band that was rather passionate about his automobile. Queen delves into one of their stranger tunes, with the sci-fi themed, "'39." While many believe that the song is about World War II, it is, in fact, about a space flight and discusses the theory of time dilation, which Brian May studied during his time at Imperial College London. A Night At The Opera also contains a pair of Queen's most beloved songs in "You're My Best Friend" and the aforementioned "Bohemian Rhapsody." The album closes with Brian May's rendition of "God Save The Queen," and this, along with the rest of the songs on the album make A Night At The Opera one of the most thematically diverse albums ever recorded.

There are few who will argue that Brian May is one of the greatest guitarists in history. While he also plays twelve-string guitar, as well as harp and banjo on A Night At The Opera, it is his playing of the electric guitar that catapults him to his legendary status. Truth be told, the guitar he played the most, the so called "Red Special," was actually designed by May himself when he was only sixteen years old. May's riffs and solos embody everything that makes rock and roll great, and there are very few artists even close to his talent level. Oh, and along with being a guitar virtuoso, he also has a PhD in astrophysics...yes, a REAL PhD in astrophysics. Drummer Roger Meddows-Taylor is similarly one of the most innovative and influential percussionists in music history. From the march-like beats of "The Prophet's Song" to the shimmering cymbal work of "Bohemian Rhapsody," to the quirky tambourine of "'39," Meddows-Taylor shines brilliantly on every song on the album. He also takes the lead vocal duties on one of the many Queen songs he wrote, "I'm In Love With My Car." Bassist, John Deacon, also takes on a different role, as it is he who is playing Wurlitzer organ on the song he wrote, one of Queen's biggest hits, "You're My Best Friend." Deacon also designed and built many pieces of equipment for the band, including the "Deacy Amp" that helps to give Brian May his unique tone. On top of all this is Deacons' phenomenal bass playing. It is his playing that drives most of the songs on A Night At The Opera, and his switching between standard and double bass makes every note he plays truly perfect. While some of their songs are certainly a bit "over the top," the reality is that, when it comes down to it, one would be hard pressed to find a more talented trio of musicians.

Even with the amazing musicianship of the band, Queen is very much all about Freddie Mercury. By far one of the most dynamic and flamboyant performers in history, though many have tried, there has never been anyone able to even closely resemble Mercury's extraordinary talent. Mercury, who was born in India, cited singers as diverse as Liza Minnelli to Indian playback legend, Lata Mangeshkar to Aretha Franklin to John Lennon as influences on his singing. This is one of the reasons why Queen was able to record such varied song styles, as Mercury's voice morphed to brilliantly fit each mood required. Mercury's ability to harmonize with the seconds and thirds of octaves also sets him aside from his peers, and he was able to push his voice to the far ends of the vocal spectrum. From his deep, growl to his borderline falsetto reaches, there are truly few vocalists with the range and power of Freddie Mercury. Furthermore, few singers deliver with as much conviction and emotion as Mercury. As Spanish opera legend, Montserrat Caballé (with whom Mercury recorded an opera-esque album) said of Freddie's voice and style,"...the difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice." With his legendary stage presence, unlimited vocal range, and phenomenal delivery, there are truly few singers who can even be mentioned in the same breath as Freddie Mercury.

Based on sheer talent alone, there are few bands in history that can hold a candle to the level of musicianship found in the ranks of Queen. Composed of some of the most legendary figures in music, the bands' music is rarely anything short of phenomenal. Brian May's innovations and style have served as the influence for countless guitar players, and his solos and riffs remain among the most sacred ever written. The rhythm section of Roger Meddows-Taylor and John Deacon still ranks amongst the finest duos ever, and their song contributions, as well as their musical contributions help to make A Night At The Opera rise above the rest of the Queen catalog. Rounding out the band is the unparalleled presence of Freddie Mercury, truly one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring figures in the history of music. Presenting a varied group of musical themes, the album flows perfectly, and there is not a bad moment anywhere to be found. Rapidly approaching the thirty-fifth anniversary of the albums' release, the music still sounds fresh and powerful, and continues to stand superior to an overwhelming majority of the music made since it's initial release. While the entire Queen catalog is well worth owning, their 1975 album, A Night At The Opera, is nothing short of astounding, and it remains one of the most fantastic musical masterpieces ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To...)," "The Prophet's Song," and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30: Saint Vitus, "Born Too Late"

Artist: Saint Vitus
Album: Born Too Late
Year: 1986
Label: SST

If you weren't playing disco-pop, new wave, or hair metal during the 1980's, chances are, in the United States, you weren't selling out arenas, or more to the point, many records. Due to this fact, many of the louder, more aggressive bands of the era developed extremely dedicated underground fanbases. This also allowed these bands to thoroughly explore their sound without the pressure of a major record label. One of the bands that benefited from this obscurity is Los Angeles based doom metal pioneers, Saint Vitus. Fusing together the dark, slightly psychedelic sounds of Black Sabbath with the aggressive, hardcore sounds of Los Angeles, their music paved the way for bands like Sleep and Crowbar. Uniquely combining the intensity and integrity that defined the hardcore and punk scenes with dark, slow, crushing music, the band made music like no other band before them. Having recorded nearly ten records with two main lineups, it is Saint Vitus' 1986 release, Born Too Late, that stands as their finest work, and one of the best albums that the genre has ever seen.

Born Too Late represents the first album with Saint Vitus' second lineup. Shortly before the recording, original vocalist, Scott Reagers left the band, and was replaced by former Obsessed frontman, Scott "Wino" Weinrich. Weinrich's voice is a perfect fit for the band, and it is his presence on the album that makes it "the" essential early American doom metal album. On Born Too Late, the bands' love of Black Sabbath has rarely been more clear, and songs like "Dying Inside" sound like slower, more gloomy version of the classic Sabbath sound. The band shows off their amazing talents, mixing moods and tempos on the doom metal classic, "The War Starter." Born Too Late truly showcases the band at the apex of their talents, and everything from the music to the vocals to the production are nothing short of superb. The manner in which the band blends the urgency and intensity of the hardcore scene is remarkable, as they do so whilst keeping the sluggish, dreary mood intact. Saint Vitus would make their love for hardcore music even more clear on their 1987 EP. On the EP (which was added to the 1990 re-release of Born Too Late), Saint Vitus takes a moment to pay tribute to another influence on their sound, label mates, Black Flag, as they cover the classic Black Flag song, "Thirsty And Miserable."

The albums' title, though perhaps seemingly unimportant, is inf act a commentary on the band and the music found on the record. The sound is unquestionably "old school" and was a great contrast to nearly everything else being done musically at the time. Musically, Born Too Late is unrelentingly slow and gloomy. Though the music is never boring, the songs plod along, and the music pummels the listener over and over. Guitarist, Dave Chandler has an absolutely stellar tone, and his crushing riffs are as close to Black Sabbath as one can get without actually being in the band. Using a perfect amount of distortion, Chandler also shines with a number of brilliant solos. The playing on bassist Mark Adams is what keeps the songs moving, with his fantastic, lulling riffs. The sound and manner in which he plays is what gives the songs their dark, trudging mood, and Adams' contributions are truly the backbone to the music. Armando Acosta is absolutely phenomenal on drums throughout Born Too Late. Flawlessly navigating the various tempos and slight mood changes, Acosta's drumming batters the listener constantly, yet he is never so forward in the mix that it becomes distracting. With each musician performing brilliantly throughout Born Too Late, the sound that they presented would serve as the blueprint for bands that followed, and the album is now largely considered to be the archetype of the "classic" early doom metal sound.

Scott "Wino" Weinrich is easily one of the finest and most influential metal frontmen of all time, and his addition to Saint Vitus truly takes the band to the next level. Having played with everyone from Dave Grohl to Rob Halford to Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, Weinrich is truly a legend in his own right. With a voice that ranges from deep growling to much higher notes clearly belted out, there have been few others with a voice so perfectly created for the genre. Weinrich sings flawlessly throughout Born Too Late, adding just the right amount of menace to his voice to give the songs a bit of a sinister mood. Much like their influences, the songs on Born Too Late revolve around dark, apocalyptic themes. The band does take a moment to stand against the stereotypes that they faced, as being an "old school" metal band in the mid-1980's certainly made one stand out. On the albums' title track, Weinrich sings, "Every time I'm on the street, people laugh and point at me. They talk about my length of hair, and the out of date clothes that I wear..." The band also presents one of the most poignant, succinct anti-addiction songs ever written with the chilling, raw track, "Dying Inside." Featuring many more personal songs than their previous efforts, and the unmistakable voice of Scott Weinrich, Born Too Late still stands a true classic of the doom metal genre.

In an era when "it" was all about women, money, and excess, Saint Vitus decided to concentrate more on perfecting the slow, dark metal sound that served as their influence. In doing this, Saint Vitus represents the epitome of a band refusing to sell out; as they kept playing the music they loved, though they knew it had minimal commercial appeal. Perfecting the dismal, melancholy mood, and creating some of the most devastating, slow-thrashing music ever recorded, Saint Vitus are truly a band like no other, and Born Too Soon serves as a testament to their amazing talents. By sticking to their guns, they created some of the most important and influential albums of the decade, and the sound of Saint Vitus can be heard in later bands like The Melvins, Nirvana, and L7. Though their early records are brilliant works of music, when Scott "Wino" Weinrich joined the band, the bands' sound moved to another level, and the results were nothing short of phenomenal. Though many felt that metal was "dead" by the mid-1980's, Saint Vitus kept on playing the music they loved, and in the process, helped the sound to stay alive, as well as creating a new style that remains to this day. Serving as the model for this new style, and standing as one of the most underrated, yet extraordinary albums of the decade, Saint Vitus' 1986 album, Born Too Soon, is nothing short of a doom metal classic, and similarly one of the best records ever made.

Standout tracks: "Born Too Late," "Dying Inside," and "The War Starter."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29: Elvis Costello, "This Year's Model"

Artist: Elvis Costello
Album: This Year's Model
Year: 1978
Label: Columbia

One would be hard pressed to find two more polarizing musical genres than punk and new wave. From the sound, to the vibe, to the fanbase, they are nearly completely on opposite ends of the spectrum. During the late 1970's and early 1980's, clashes between the fans were commonplace, with many such incidents leaving many people hospitalized. Somehow finding a way to bridge these two sounds together, Elvis Costello had been one of the most unique and influential songs over the past thirty years. With his new wave, retro sound, and more urgency and energy than most punk bands, Elvis Costello remains in a class all his own. With more than thirty albums to his name, he continues to make music like nobody else, and remains a majority influence to this day. Though his first dozen albums are all absolutely brilliant, it is his second "formal" studio recording, 1978's This Year's Model, that stands above the rest and remains his finest album, as well as one of the greatest records ever.

Many people who see the album are under the impression that the cover has been misprinted. On the U.K. release (pictured above), the cover appears to be off-center, with the "E" in Elvis cut off, and the printers' color bar appearing on the right side. However, this, along with the printed statement: "Special pressing No. 003. Ring 434 32 32. Ask for Moira for your prize" were intentional, and became the trademark of artist Barney Bubbles. The U.S. version of the release has a different photograph from the same session, and on the inside, it reads "Costello Records" instead of "Columbia Records." This Year's Model gets all of the "punk cred" that it needs in the form of producer Nick Lowe. Having worked with everyone from The Damned to The Ramones to Johnny Cash, few producers can claim as much influence on the punk sound as Lowe. This Year's Model represents the second in a string of five straight Costello albums that Lowe would produce; and the albums without Lowe have a far different sound.

Perhaps the most famous song from This Year's Model is the hit single, "Radio Radio." Though it does not appear on the original U.K. release, it became the albums' thirteenth song when the record was released in the U.S. By the time This Year's Model was released in the U.S., the single had already made waves due to Costello's notorious performance on Saturday Night Live in December of 1977. Serving as a last minute replacement for the Sex Pistols, Columbia Records insisted that Costello play "Less Than Zero" in an effort to promote the release of his first two records in the U.S. For many reasons, including the fact that "Less Than Zero" is, in fact, a song written in response to fascist British politician Oswald Mosley, Costello felt the song was out of place, and wanted to play "Radio Radio." Columbia Records kept the pressure on, and Costello agreed to play "Less Than Zero." A few bars into the live performance, Costello stopped the song, and after saying, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here..." the band launched into a blistering version of "Radio Radio." The event lives in the lore of the show, and on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event, Costello "interrupted" a performance by the Beastie Boys on SNL, and they all launched into "Radio Radio."

After disbanding his original backing band, Clover, Elvis Costello put together a new backing group, and called them The Attractions. This Year's Model represents the first studio recording of the "new" group. The music, all written by Costello, walks a strange line between the intensity and simplicity of punk, yet contains the heavy keyboards and "retro" feel of the new wave scene. At times almost sounding (and of course, looking) like a more modern Buddy Holly, Costello's music finds a way to appeal to nearly every audience. Steve Nieve gives the music much of its character, with his piano and keyboard work bringing the music a perfect sonic juxtaposition between retro and modern. Nieve's fantastic ability is highlighted on, "Living In Paradise," as he mixes quirky progressions with enchanting chords and perfectly, strange fills throughout. Drummer Pete Thomas brings a swinging, jazzy style to the band, yet his speed is equal to that of any other punk-rooted drummer. Bringing with him one of the most innovative and speedy bass playing styles ever, Bruce Thomas (no relation to Pete) still stands as one of the best bassists in history. His ability to convey the songs' emotion, with amazing, melodic precision, as well as fly all over the fret board is no more clear than his phenomenal work on the song, "Lipstick Vogue." Helping to turn the compositions of Elvis Costello into legendary musical masterpieces, there have been few backing bands with the talent level and diversity of The Attractions, and they are one of the key aspects that makes This Year's Model Costello's finest album.

With his unrelenting attitude, amazing voice, and fantastically clever lyrics, there are truly few artists who can share a stage with Elvis Costello. His voice is simply perfect, a stunning combination of vocal range and a snearing attitude that is unmistakably anti-everything. Again, it is Costello's ability to find the "middle ground" between punk chaos and beautiful musicality that makes his music so extraordinarily unique. This Year's Model features some of Costello's harshest, most unrelenting lyrics, and they often border on outright "mean." It is again the polarity between his lyrical content and his amazing voice and retro music that makes him such an amazing talent. Truth be told, Elvis Costello has an unrivaled talent when it comes to disguising his words of rebellion and sexual commentary. Much of this is due to the fact that, when it comes down to it, Costello's music and singing are irresistibly catchy, and they don't "sound" as "dangerous" as a majority of punk bands of the era. Yet the fact remains that songs like "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" and "Lipstick Vogue" are filled with sexually sinister themes, and the fact that they come across largely undetected is a testament to Costello's brilliance.

Though he didn't look the part, and his music was a far cry from the stereotypical sound, there can be little argument that the music of Elvis Costello isn't punk rock. Taking the retro style that would define "new wave" music and having a visual appearance strikingly similar to Buddy Holly, the brilliance of Elvis Costello lies within the juxtapositions that fill his music. Finding himself with a band that is truly "rock and roll," the music moves wildly at a breathtaking pace, and This Year's Model often feels as if it is moving so fast that it might fall apart at any moment. This sense of urgency is a key aspect in making the record so phenomenal, and even on the albums' slower songs, the mood never ltes up. With his trademark singing style, and even more viscous lyrics than on his debut album, Elvis Costello uses this record to cement his place as one of the most important figures in the history of music. Simply put, nobody has ever made music like you'll find on the album, and it is an album that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of musical preference. Elvis Costello's sophomore effort, 1978's This Year's Model, finds him at the peak of his talent, and having found the perfect band in The Attractions, the album is nothing short of musical perfection.

Standout tracks: "No Action," "Lip Service" and "Radio Radio."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

July 28: Curtis Mayfield, "Curtis"

Artist: Curtis Mayfield
Album: Curtis
Year: 1970
Label: Curtom

As the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's, a handful of artists began experimenting with the fusion of funk, soul, and jazz music. Artists like Herbie Hancock and Issac Hayes paved the way, creating some of the most original and timeless music in history. Concentrating on the interplay between funk and soul music, former Motown star, Curtis Mayfield took a completely different direction, yet remains one of the most important figures in the evolution of music. While he was never as commercially successful as many of his peers, one would be hard pressed to find an artist of the era who was more socially conscious, and more of an advocate for great changes within society. Making sharp criticisms on society, particularly African American culture, Mayfield conveyed his message with his smooth, soulful voice, earning the nickname, "The Gentle Genius." Recording dozens of albums, first with The Impressions, and then as a solo artist, his solo debut, 1970's Curtis, is easily his greatest musical contribution, and it remains a true musical masterpiece to this day.

When one looks back and the entire history of recorded music, the work of Curtis Mayfield represents one of the first times that an artist was directly addressing the struggle and issues within the African American community. While Mayfield is perhaps best known for the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film, Super Fly, his writing for this movie was different from other films of the genre in that it highlighted the darker side of "ghetto life" and attempted to promote a better sense of social consciousness. With unrelentingly honest lyrics, yet smooth and soulful singing, Mayfield was one of the first artists to advocate for change and a greater sense of pride within the community. As is seen throughout Curtis, he represents the ultimate musician, as he wrote every note of music and every lyric for the album, as well as handling the production duties for the record. It is due to this complete control of the album that Curtis can truly be seen as his true vision, and it is most likely one of the reasons that makes the album so fantastic. Bringing in a myriad of musicians, from funk-based rhythm players to classically trained harpists and violinists, Curtis presents a superb new take on both funk and soul music, and the sound remains unmatched to this day.

is one of the most full and beautiful albums of the entire decade, incorporating everything from jazz to classical to blues, all overlain with a heavy mood of funk. From the African drumming on Curtis' opening song, to the harp and string sections found on the albums' final track, the music is wonderfully eclectic, showing Mayfields' amazing range as a composer. The album presents a much harder version of the funk music at the time, yet the constant presence of Mayfields' voice keeps the songs somewhat soft, yet they never lose their sense of urgency or impact. The albums' opening track, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go," sums up Mayfields' genius, as the song transcends traditional funk sounds, with a musical landscape of horns, violins, and various percussion, all over one of the most additively funky basslines ever written. Taking the foundations of soul music, and turning it into one of the most gorgeous musical arrangements ever, the harps on "The Makings of You," make it one of the most amazingly beautiful songs ever. One of the most interesting aspects of the music found on Curtis, is that many of the songs appear to be played in strange, or at least non-traditional key signatures. This is mostly due to the fact that Mayfield, who wrote all of the music, had no "formal" musical training whatsoever, and simply wrote what he felt. Regardless of his lack of formal training, the music throughout is nothing short of phenomenal, and each of the large list of musicians on the album perform perfectly.

With one of the most distinctive, soulful voices in music history, Curtis Mayfield's soft, yet powerful voice is simply stunning. Completely original, Mayfield honed his amazing voice during his years with The Impressions, singing hits like "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right." Singing perfectly in the upper octaves, it was in his later years with The Impressions that his themes of social consciousness and racial pride began to form within his music. These lyrical themes are found on nearly ever song on Curtis, and from the onset of the record, Mayfield addresses racial relations as well as his views on both the economic and political state of affairs at the time. Curtis sings beautifully, soulfully, as he uses his rallying cry of a song, "The Other Side Of Town" to proclaim, "...ghetto blues showed up on the news, all is aware, but what the hell do they across the track, completely take a warning fact, don't you never come back..." Mayfield continues his sharp social observations on "We the People Who Are Darker than Blue," when he sings, "We people who are darker than blue, are we gonna stand around this town and let what others say come true? Are we just good for nothing they all figure..." Never mincing words or sugar coating the truth, the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield are some of the most poignant and socially charged words ever written, and his stellar voice provides the perfect vehicle for conveyance of these themes.

While there were many artists advocating for change within the African American community of the time, few were as brutally honest about the root causes and true situation than the great Curtis Mayfield. Working to instill a greater sense of pride within the community, Mayfields' raw, vivid lyrics are second to none; and the manner in which he delivers them makes his music nothing short of phenomenal. Taking aspects of all of the artists he had worked with previously, and blending together funk, soul, jazz, and classical music, Curtis is one of the most musically unique records ever made. Ranging from hard, funky grooves to more meandering, melodic passages, Mayfield shows off all of his musical talents on the album, and his unmistakable, unrivaled voice keeps the varied musical textures a single, cohesive album. The sensational music or lyrics on their own would have made Curtis worthy of longstanding acclaim, but the combination found on Curtis Mayfield's 1970 solo debut, Curtis, catapults the record into the uppermost echelon of albums, and it remains one of the most extraordinary records ever released.

Standout tracks: "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go," "Move On Up," and "Wild And Free."

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27: Swans, "Cop"

Artist: Swans
Album: Cop
Year: 1984
Label: K.422

Throughout the course of music history, there are a number of sub-genres that, though only in existence for a short period of time, have left behind a huge impact on the music map. Serving as the connection between the punk movement of the 1970's and the "noise rock" found in bands like Sonic Youth, there was the short lived "no wave" movement. Though the roots of the sound are varied, the one consistent element of "no wave" music is the concentration on rhythm over melody, abrasive sounds, and harsh, confrontational lyrics. Among the bands who perfected this sound were the likes of The Contortions, D.N.A., and Suicide. Yet one of the finest examples of the "no wave" sound, as well as one of the most captivating, if not disturbing bands in history, can be found in New York based band, Swans. Led by singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Michael Gira, Swans outlasted nearly all of their peers, and are responsible for some of the most hard hitting and unrelenting music ever made. Though each of the bands' albums are brilliant in their own right, Swans 1984 release, Cop, finds the bands' most dynamic lineup at their best, and it is one of the most destructively beautiful albums ever recorded.

First off, the juxtaposition between the bands' name and their sound is one of the starkest contrasts in the history of the English language. However, Gira himself summed it up perfectly when he said, "Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures...with really ugly temperaments." This is truly a perfect description of the music, as the music found on Cop is gloomy, grating, and hostile, yet simultaneously, something about the music is beautiful, and the amount of emotion conveyed throughout the record is second to none. It is on Cop, that one can find the beginnings of numerous genres, from industrial to "doom" metal to "noise" rock. When it comes to creating a complete "mood" record, few rival Cop, as it may very well be the most consistently dark album ever recorded. The album is grimy, ugly, and bludgeons the listener song after song with some of the heaviest and darkest music you'll find anywhere. However, the album avoids becoming cliché, to which so many "goth" and "industrial" records fall prey. While the lyrics and vocals push the album over the edge, it is the music found on Cop that draw the listener in for one of the most abusively amazing musical experiences anywhere.

Until you've experienced it first-hand, there is no way to fully comprehend the powerful and majestic nature of the music found on Cop. The music is unforgiving and truly like nothing else ever recorded. Primarily using single, crushing chords, or looping a series of chords, the music is inexplicably forceful and intense, as the band employs the perfect amount of feedback and distortion to make the songs simply stunning. The trudging, grinding guitar playing of Norman Westberg gives the songs all the mood they need, and the repetitive chords add to the feeling of being pummeled over and over by each song. Bassist, Harry Crosby uses short loops and a fair amount of distortion; and it is often his playing that provides the musics' gloomy, dark moods. Drummer Roli Mosimann is nothing short of sensational throughout the album, and at many points, it sounds as if he is trying to destroy his drum kit by playing as hard as he can. It is within Mosimann's playing that the songs seem to somehow swing, though such a sound seems almost impossible given the nature of the music. Mosimann is also somewhat known for being the original producer for Marilyn Manson's Portrait Of An American Family album, though he would eventually be replaced by Trent Reznor. Though many bands have attempted to find the balance between aggressive, dark music and becoming a cliché of the "goth/industrial" sound, none have ever succeeded as well as the music found on Swans' Cop.

Throughout the bands' entire fifteen year career, the core of their sound lived within founder, Michael Gira. Providing all of the music and lyrics on Cop, it gives a clear picture as to what a despondent and disturbed individual lived within Gira. Often lost behind the manner in wihch he delivers his lyrics, the pain and sorrow conveyed within Gira's singing is uncanny, and one would be hard pressed to find a more raw and unguarded singer anywhere. Gira's gruff, in-your-face vocals take the gloomy music and turn it into downright horrific at times, as even when it is just a series of loud moans, like on the song, ""Why Hide," the pain behind his singing is nothing short of unsettling. The lyrics found throughout Cop are just as ruthless and intesnse as the music itself. The title track is one of the most brutal indictments of police brutality ever recorded, and it truly makes N.W.A.'s infamous "F*ck Tha Police" seem harmless in comparison. To quickly sum it up, while N.W.A. may have dropped more choice four letter words, none of their rhymes are even in the same time zone as lyrics like, "...nobody rapes you like a cop in jail..." Many of the lyrics are similarly blunt and aggressive, making Cop one of the most halting, stunning records ever recorded. The manner in which Michael Gira delivers his unrelenting lyrics is nothing short of perfect, and it draws the sound of the entire band together in a single, disconcerting, concentrated fury of brilliance.

Dark, aggressive music is often misunderstood; usually because the band in question takes things too far and becomes cliché. This can be seen in an overwhelming majority of "goth" bands, as well as many industrial bands, as they feel as if playing loud and shouting is a substitute for original musical content, style, and talent. The roots of these genres were forged in the late 1970's, as bands split away from the punk and hard rock scene, and began experimenting with new sounds and musical approaches. Easily one of the most unique and important bands of this time were the avant "no wave" band, Swans. Making their own brand of calamitous, bleak music for nearly fifteen years, they outlasted nearly all of their peers, as well as an overwhelming majority of the bands who attempted to duplicate their style. By far one of the most forceful and fierce bands to ever set foot in a studio, their music remains some of the most potent, overpowering music ever committed to tape. Creating grim, dreary musical landscapes, finished off with the mournful, harrowing singing of Michael Gira, there is simply no other band in history that sounds like Swans. Each of the bands' records is well worth owning, as their originality and focus are consistent throughout their entire career. However, their 1984 release, Cop, remains one of the heaviest, most brutal, yet undeniably compelling albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Half Life," Your Property," and "Cop."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley"

Artist: Bo Diddley
Album: Bo Diddley
Year: 1956
Label: Chess

Though nearly everyone recognizes his name, most people are not familiar with the music of the man known as Bo Diddley. Furthermore, a majority of people are unaware of the massive impact that his work has had on shaping rock and blues music. Along with the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley stands as one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. Much like the others, he took blues music and put his own, rocking spin on the style. Having penned some of the most famous songs in history, as well as playing his own, distinctive style of music until his death in 2008, Bo Diddley's recorded catalog spans generations, and his music is as relevant now as it was more than fifty years ago. To truly understand both Bo Diddley's music, as well as how rock and roll music came to be, one need look no further than his first full length album, his 1956 release, Bo Diddley.

First and foremost, there is the name of the man himself. Often referred to as "The Originator," he was born Ellas Otha Bates, and after he was adopted by cousins, he took the name Ellas McDaniel. The name "Bo Diddley" has many rumored origins, but Ellas took the stage name around 1954, shortly before recording the song of the same name. Like so many others, Bo Diddley's first full length album is mainly a collection of the singles that he had released to that point. The album features many of the biggest songs in history, including the number one hit, "Bo Diddley," as well as the classic, "I'm A Man," which has also been recorded under the name "Mannish Boy." The fact of the matter is, though many of the songs found on Bo Diddley are now considered "classics," it was in fact Diddley (credited as Elias McDaniel) who wrote them. Songs like "Who Do You Love," "Before You Accuse Me," and the aforementioned "I'm A Man" remain some of the most iconic blues songs ever, and Bo Diddley marks their first recorded appearances. From the first singles he released, it was clear that the music of Bo Diddley was not an altered R&B sound like many of his peers, but it was, in fact, what was then a "new" sound which can now only be called rock and roll.

Like many of the early rock and roll musicians, Bo Diddley plays his own, very unique style. Taking a strong sense of beat and rhythm from John Lee Hooker, and then adding in a heavy dose of tremolo guitar, Bo Diddley's style is the ultimate fusion of blues and rock styles. Playing his signature cigar-box guitar (rumor is he made his first on his own), the image of his guitar is nearly as recognizable as the sound it creates. The tone that his guitar emits is instantly recognizable, and it is very much in his guitar playing that the blues roots of his style becomes clear. The rest of the music is very sparse and simple, with basic basslines and smooth, yet swinging drum patterns. Again, the strict and prominent sense of rhythm plays a key aspect in what is now referred to as "the Bo Diddley beat." The syncopated drum patterns make Bo Diddley's music instantly recognizable, and it makes tapping your foot along with the songs nearly irresistible. This rhythm is also central to many of the songs where Bo Diddley does not even change the chord he is playing on guitar. On songs like ""Who Do You Love" and "Hey Bo Diddley," the guitar chord is constant throughout, and it is the rhythm that becomes the central musical idea. Furthermore, countless bands have taken the "Bo Diddley" beat and used it in their own songs. Some of the most famous examples are The Who's "Magic Bus" and "Rudie Can't Fail" by, The Clash. Since Bo Diddley is a collection of singles, there are a number of different studio musicians on the album backing Bo Diddley, as the songs were nearly all recorded during different studio sessions over the previous years. However, the fact that there are a number of different musicians, yet the songs all fit together perfectly, is a testament to both the writing and playing skill of Bo Diddley.

The "Bo Diddley Beat" is as present in the vocals as it is in the music itself. Often concentrating more on the pace and meter of the words as opposed to the pitch of the notes, one can see many of the songs on Bo Diddley as early formations of what would become rap music. The voice of Bo Diddley is, like his music, a perfect combination of bluesy gruff and spirited rock singing. There are moments when Diddley gets deep and dirty like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, and then he can seamlessly shift into a hip, swinging sound like Chuck Berry. It is very much this contrast in sounds that makes it possible for his songs to be covered by everyone from George Thorogood to Eric Clapton to The Doors; each putting their individual spin on the songs. Lyrically, the songs on Bo Diddley, are rather simple, yet the origins of many of them are as varied as the songs themselves. The words Bo Diddley sings often epitomize the loose, and more jovial nature of rock lyrics, moving beyond "love" songs and creating the "bad boy" or "rebel" image that would become the foundation of countless bands that followed. While "Who Do You Love" contains many allusions to traditional hoodoo magic, one can clearly hear the link between "Hey Bo Diddley" and the common childrens' song, "Old Mac Donald." Even the lyrics find the balance between being somewhat "dangerous" and suggestive, yet they are simultaneously undeniably "cool" and catchy. While he many not have achieved the same chart success as artists like Chuck Berry or Little Richard, one can easily make the case that the music of Bo Diddley is just as, if not more important than the work of his contemporaries.

Bo Diddley remains one of the most recognized and highly respected performers in this history of music. Nearly everything about his music was groundbreaking, form his unique guitar, to the sound he created with it, to the distinctive rhythm of his music, known as "the Bo Diddley beat." Pushing and exploring the idea that rhythm could play a far more central role than any other element of the song, the music of Bo Diddley was like nothing else that had ever been heard, and there have been few who have done it was well since he created the sound. Bo Diddley's first single, "Bo Diddley/I'm A Man," topped the charts and both songs remain staples of rock and roll, nearly sixty years after their release. This is largely due to the simple, pure music and lyrics, and the wonderfully addictive rhythm that is created on each song he plays. Performing his amazing songs, with the same energy as when he first sang them, Bo Diddley played concerts all over the world until, literally, months before his passing in June of 2008. Truth be told, Bo Diddley represents some of the finest, most pure rock and roll music ever recorded, and it remains one of the greatest and most enjoyably addictive records in music history.

Standout tracks: "Bo Diddley," "I'm A Man," and "Who Do You Love."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

July 25: Ice-T, "O.G. Original Gangster"

Artist: Ice-T
Album: O.G. Original Gangster
Year: 1991
Label: Sire

Before Dr. Dre brought the world the "g funk" style of gangster rap, there was one man who brought some of the most potent and hardcore rhymes that the world had ever heard. One of the first rappers to be labeled as "dangerous," the rhymes of Ice-T have become some of the most revered and famous in the history of hip hop. Bringing an aggressive, hardcore style that bridged the gap between hip hop fans and rock and heavy metal fans, it is largely due to Ice-T's albums that hip hop gained such a diverse audience. From the seminal "6 In Tha Morning" to the beyond controversial, "Cop Killer," Ice-T is largely responsible for creating the entire "gangster" image that is still seen throughout the rap world. Though neither of those songs is found on it, Ice-T's 1991 album, O.G. Original Gangster stands as his finest achievement, and as the blueprint for nearly every "gangster" rap album that followed, it is one of the best and most important records in history.

O.G. Original Gangster rivals any other hip hop record ever in terms of being "hardcore," as the lyrics and mood on the album are as intense and "real" as you'll find anywhere. In many ways perfectly presenting everything that makes the album great, one of the highlights of the album is the song "New Jack Hustler. If you look deeper into the songs lyrics, it proves to be a scathing comparison between street drug dealers and the richest men within the U.S. capitalist economy. While the song glorifies the drug dealing lifestyle, the lyrics study every angle of the persona, looking at it from the perspective of the dealer, and then examining him from the viewpoint of the larger society, as well as looking deep into his morals and character. The song is one of the most vivid and dark human studies ever recorded, and Ice-T's rhymes are simultaneously stunning and unsettling. In the end, Ice-T sums it all up with an amazing question that he leaves to the listener when he rhymes, "...Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?" The song was also used as one of the most prominent songs in the movie, New Jack City. It is very much this ability to be ruthlessly introspective, and rap as directly and aggressively as any other emcee in history that makes both Ice-T as well as O.G. Original Gangster one of the most important hip hop records in history.

While the overall music on O.G. Original Gangster is an aggressive, angry offshoot of funk, there is a dangerous, somewhat menacing mood that pervades most of the record. The songs are all brilliantly produced, yet the entire album maintains the feeling that at any point, the cops might bust in and stop the recording. This sense of urgency gives a great amount of "authenticity" to the record, and O.G. Original Gangster is one of the few records that captures this feeling without becoming cliché. The samples used by DJ Evil are absolutely perfect, ranging from James Brown and Funkadelic to Motown and funk classics on a number of the tracks. However, one of the most interesting aspects is the amount of rock and metal that are featured on the songs. Everything from Guns N' Roses to Black Sabbath to Jimi Hendrix can be heard throughout O.G. Original Gangster, and Ice-T even takes a moment on the album to address the issue. At the opening of the song, "Body Count," he discusses the origins of rock music, and simply states, "music is music." It is this very song that would launch Ice-T to crossover success, as the song is the debut of his own hardcore rock group, Body Count. The group would join Ice-T on stage for the entire run of the inaugural Lollapalooza Tour in 1991, and would later help to deliver his most notorious song, "Cop Killer."

Simply put, Ice-T has one of the best rapping voices and delivery styles in the history of the genre. Truly personifying the idea of rap, as in speaking forcefully in rhyme, Ice-T's voice is clear and direct on every verse. The power with which he raps is second to none, and this forcefulness of his rhymes truly set him aside from his peers. His voice also has a sense of grittiness and each rhyme sounds as if he himself live(s/d) the stories he is telling. Furthering his "street cred," Ice-T grew up in South Central Los Angeles, attending the storied Crenshaw High School. Few records have painted as honest and vivid a picture of the environment as one finds on O.G. Original Gangster. The rhymes found throughout O.G. Original Gangster are surprisingly varied, given the albums' title and overall mood. Though many of the songs revolve around Ice-T glorifying the "gangster" lifestyle, there are also a number of extremely socially conscious rhymes on the album. Though it rarely receives the credit it deserves, the fifty-seven second rhyme, "The House" is one of the most bold and disturbing cries against child abuse that has ever been recorded. Ice-T also takes a moment to call out anti-free speech icon Tipper Gore on the albums' final track. Due to his amazing sound and style, as well as his diverse, brilliant lyrics, Ice-T remains one of the most highly respected emcees in history.

Ice-T remains one of the most recognizable people in the world, though now he may be more known for his TV and film work than he is for his rap career. Regardless, his impact on the musical landscape is so monumental that in many ways, it can never be overshadowed. Harnessing his love for rock and heavy metal music, and incorporating it into the hip hop style, Ice-T was able to draw in fans of other genres, and diversify the rap genre. Unveiling his hardcore rap/rock group, Body Count, he created an entirely new style of rap music, and this style would morph into the sound that dominated the end of the 1990's and beginning of the 2000's. Simultaneously one of the most innovative and controversial emcees, Ice-T makes sure that, if nothing less, you can't ignore what he has to say. While he is often spinning rhymes about the luxuries of the "gangster" lifestyle, he takes time to denounce many of societies' darkest aspects, as well as stand up for the rights of those who feel disenfranchised. With a phenomenal combination of amazing beats and samples, along with Ice-T's unmistakable, flawless rhyming style, 1991's O.G. Original Gangster is by far one of the hip hop's defining albums, and easily one of the greatest records ever from any genre.

Standout tracks: "New Jack Hustler," "Midnight," and "Body Count."

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 24: Captain Beyond, "Captain Beyond"

Artist: Captain Beyond
Album: Captain Beyond
Year: 1972
Label: Capricorn

During the early 1970's, most of the experimentation within rock generally revolved around the music either becoming far more aggressive (punk) or fusing together rock with psychedelia. Even with these massive trends, there were of course, bands who were pushing boundaries in other directions. Easily one of the most original and progressive bands was the relatively unknown quartet called Captain Beyond. The band combined elements of jazz, metal, blues-rock, and, well, the "spacey" element that was perfected by groups like Moody Blues. Though each member of the band came from the ranks of other bands for which they are far better known, in every case, it is their work with Captain Beyond that stands as their crowning musical achievement. Though the band was never very commercially successful, their 1972 self-titled debut is absolutely incredible and still stands as one of the most original and sensational albums ever recorded.

From their sound to the way in which the album progresses, everything about Captain Beyond was simultaneously innovative and spectacular. Even the album cover itself for Captain Beyond stands out, as it is a wonderfully "old school," psychedelic, lenticularly printed 3-D image. Though they were not the first to do this to their album cover (the Rolling Stones' "Their Satanic Majesties Request" comes to mind), they were, in fact, one of the last, and the method has obviously become a lost art in the "CD age." Captain Beyond take a note from the Moody Blues' style of music, as the songs all flow directly into the next, so the album only appears to have five individual songs. Tracks one thru three, six thru eight, and nine thru thirteen all segue directly into one another, and tracks four and five stand on their own. The structure of the songs is also notable, as the tempos constantly shift within the individual songs, and it enables the songs to further sound as if they are meandering single tracks comprised of the groups listed above. The perfection to which Captain Beyond carries out this idea, and the fact that the album, at no point, becomes dull or less interesting, is a testament to just how phenomenal a band they were.

The music on Captain Beyond runs from straightforward rock songs to beautiful, more mellow compositions, and both styles are perfectly displayed on the song, "As the Moon Speaks (To the Waves of the Sea)." Each song is equally superb, and it is very much due to how perfectly the bands plays along with one another. The chemistry between the musicians is undeniable, and after hearing Captain Beyond, it is clear that the band is easily one of the tightest groups to ever record together. The original lineup for Captain Beyond very much appears to be an all-star grouping of amazing musicians of the day. After working with Iron Butterfly, guitarist Larry "Rhino" Reinhardt founded Captain Beyond with original Iron Butterfly bassist, Lee Dorman. Reinhardt's guitar work, both electric and acoustic, is simply phenomenal throughout, and there are countless brilliant solos and fantastic riffs all over Captain Beyond. The bass-work of Dorman is equally as impressive, and he shines on each and every song. His true prowess as a bass player becomes clear with his stunning playing on the song, ""As the Moon Speaks (Return)." Having honed his chops playing on some of the best albums from Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer, drummer Bobby Caldwell is nothing short of phenomenal on Captain Beyond. While the musicians are rather diverse in their musical styles, they truly "click" as a group, and the resulting album stands as one of the best rock albums ever recorded.

The final piece of the puzzle that makes Captain Beyond so phenomenal is singer Rod Evans. Evans, who may be more well known as the founder and frontman for Deep Purple (he was the vocalist before Ian Gillan), simply has the perfect voice and delivery style for the sound of Captain Beyond. Evans is able to sing in a quiet, beautiful manner, as well as get more aggressive and help to drive the more "metal" based passages. Regardless of the manner in which he is singing, the songs very much come across as "journeys," and both musically and lyrically, the listener truly feels as if the record is "taking" them to another planet. Lyrically, Captain Beyond is far from a "standard" rock record, as the album explores more complex and deeper themes than the usual "wine, women, and song" topics of most bands of the time. Throughout the album, the group explores ideas concerning the meaning of human existence, digging deep into the question, often referencing other-worldly bodies like the moon, sun, ocean, etc. This more "meaningful" content within the lyrics is yet another way in which Captain Beyond completely outshines and stands superior to an overwhelming majority of other records of the era.

The tragedy of times of great musical explosions is that often times, the most amazing bands and records simply get left in the dust of the bands that, for whatever reason, have the most commercial success. Presenting some of the most extraordinary musical chemistry and innovative compositions, Captain Beyond proved to be well ahead of their time, and the music they created as influenced countless bands since its release. Bringing together members of Iron Butterfly, Deep Purple, and Johnny Winter's band, the musicians all have stellar musical resumés, yet the product they create as a group is far greater than the sum of its parts. Truth be told, it is almost shameful when one considers the lack of credit that this group has received over the decades, as their music is undoubtedly some of the finest to emerge from the decade. Though Captain Beyond's original lineup only recorded two albums, both are nothing short of stunning, and after hearing only one or two songs, it is clear that they should have been one of the biggest bands of their time. With an amazing, unique combination of jazz, metal, and psychedelia, Captain Beyond's self-titled 1972 debut remains one of the greatest records ever made, and it is a record that should be immediately purchased by those who have never experienced the astounding music contained within.

Standout tracks: "Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)," "Raging River of Fear," and "As the Moon Speaks (To the Waves of the Sea)."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23: 10,000 Maniacs, "Our Time In Eden"

Artist: 10,000 Maniacs
Album: Our Time In Eden
Year: 1992
Label: Elektra

Most bands who take their name from cheap horror movies play metal or some louder, more aggressive music. Taking their name from the 1964 film, 2,000 Maniacs, indie/alternative music legends, 10,000 Maniacs were anything but loud, yet their music had as much impact as the most noisy bands ever. Combining strong pop appeal with elements of folk, jazz, and classical music, 10,000 Maniacs truly make music like no other group in history. Serving as one of the most important bands of the rise of "alternative" music, their brilliant musical compositions, powerful lyrics, and, well, the simple presence of Natalie Merchant make them one of the most beloved bands of the era. Releasing six "official" albums before singer Natalie Merchant left the band in 1993, it is the final release of this lineup, 1992's Our Time In Eden, that stands as their finest musical achievement, as well as one of the most exceptional albums of the generation.

Musically, Our Time In Eden represents the most diversity that 10,000 Maniacs showed on any of their records. From the bright, classic sounding horns of "Few And Far Between" and "Candy Everybody Wants," to the gorgeous string arrangements throughout the album, the additional instrumentation perfectly compliments the bands' "usual" sound. However, perhaps the reason that the horns sound so great is because they are, in fact, "The J.B. Horns." Yes, James Browns' former backing section, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis are the group that play on the album. The fact that the trio were willing to lend their talents to the album is a testament to the musical stature of 10,000 Maniacs, and the collaboration is absolutely wonderful. Perhaps somewhat ironically, the lead violin and viola player on this album is Mary Ramsey, the woman who would replace Merchant after this album. Both of these elements helped Our Time In Eden to break into the top thirty on the album sales charts, as well as powering the single, "These Are Days" to the top spot of the Modern Rock charts. "These Are Days" remains one of 10,000 Maniacs most popular songs, and it perfectly captures the mood and sound of the blossoming alternative music scene.

Though they surrounded themselves with amazing backing musicians on Our Time In Eden, the "normal" members of 10,000 Maniacs are fantastic musicians in their own right. Guitarist Rob Buck (who is NOT related to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, contrary to popular belief) plays brilliantly throughout the album, experimenting with everything from banjo to mandocello to electric sitar. The variation in his instrumentation, along with "standard" guitar playing helps to give the album a far more diverse musical feel. The moods and textures created by the keyboards, piano, and organ playing of Dennis Drew is one of the keys to the uniquely beautiful sound that is constant throughout every song on Our Time In Eden. The influence of the sound of Drew, one of the bands' founders and one of only two original members still with the band, can be heard in later bands like The Wallflowers and Counting Crows. Drummer and percussionist, Jerry Augustyniak and bassist, Steve Gustafson, form a fantastic rhythm section, and regardless of the tempo and style, they made the songs swing and move perfectly. Though the lyrics are often intense and eloquent, the music remains sometimes ironically upbeat, but always wonderfully melodic throughout all of Our Time In Eden.

Looking back at the era, few can lay as strong a claim to the title of "Queen Of Alternative Music" as Natalie Merchant. Her voice, style, and general attitude served as the influence for countless other singers, as well as the generation to which she was singing. Truly possessing use of the entire vocal range, her vocals move from the deepest octaves on "Noah's Dove" to the highest reaches on "These Are Days." Merchant's airy, often plaintive voice glides over the music, and it is hard to express the quality of her voice as anything short of "beautiful" and "graceful." Her gorgeous voice often plays in great juxtaposition to the insightful, socially conscious lyrics that she is often singing. While some of the songs on Our Time In Eden are simple, brilliant explorations of human emotions, there are equally as many songs with deep, moving meanings. Case in point is the albums' final track, "I'm Not The Man." The lyrics sing of a man falsely accused, jailed, and awaiting his execution. The lyrics are grim and vivid, with the chorus of, "...But I'm not the man...he goes free as I wait on the row for the man,to test the rope he'll slip around my throat... and silence me..." It is bold, potent lyrics like this, made greater by the fantastic vocal delivery of Natalie Merchant that makes the music of 10,000 Maniacs so phenomenal.

Few bands shaped the "alternative" music scene in the United States as much as 10,000 Maniacs. From the sound of their music to their style of dress and their general outlook on the world, their impact on both music and culture of the time is nearly immeasurable. Though they had albums with more jarring lyrics, it was on Our Time In Eden where the band found the perfect balance between their socially conscious lyrics and undeniably poppy music. Highlighted by the presence of The J.B. Horns and a handful of other guests, the musicians strong of 10,000 Maniacs are at their best on Our Time In Eden, and it remains one of the finest collection of musical compositions ever recorded. Capped off by the delicate, yet powerful singing of Natalie Merchant, Our Time In Eden cemented the groups legacy, and their songs are just as amazing today as they were when they were first released. Though ironically it would be their final album with Merchant on vocals, 10,000 Maniacs' 1992 release, Our Time In Eden, stands as their finest album, as well as one of the best and most significant albums of the decade.

Standout tracks: "These Are Days," "Few And Far Between," and "Candy Everybody Wants."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

July 22: MC5, "Kick Out The Jams"

Artist: MC5
Album: Kick Out The Jams
Year: 1968 (recorded), 1969 (released)
Label: Elektra

With an overwhelming majority of bands and musicians, often the most difficult task is properly capturing their live sound within a studio environment. In most cases, the more aggressive and intense a bands' stage presence, the tougher it is to accurately represent them on record. This is rarely more true than in the case of the seminal hard rock/punk band, Detroit, Michigan's own, MC5. MC5, short for "Motor City Five," remain one of the most influential bands in both hard rock as well as being widely regarded as one of the first more "traditional" sounding punk rock bands. With their stunning musicianship, highly charged lyrics, and amazingly intense delivery, there are truly few bands that can compare to their sound. It is due to this intensity and spirit that makes it understandable for them to have opted for a live recording to mark their debut release. Recorded on "Devil's Night" and Halloween of 1968 at Detroit's Grande Ballroom, MC5's 1969 debut, Kick Out The Jams, remains one of the most powerful and important albums in music history.

Much like the band itself, Kick Out The Jams brought with it a great deal of controversy. While a number of songs on the album have rather blunt and rousing lyrics, it was one simple word on the title track that caused all of the chaos around the album's release. Though it is now almost cliché, yet one of the most recognizable openings to a song, "Kick Out The Jams" begins with vocalist Rob Tyner yelling, "...right now...right now it's time to...KICK OUT THE JAMS, MOTHERFUCKERS!!!" Obviously, this made the song unplayable on radio, and many stores refused to sell the album due to this phrase being present. Even the bands' record label was opposed to the line, but the band and their management refused to budge. The band even went further, having the line printed on the inside cover of the record, though this version was quickly pulled from stores. The chain store, Hudson's, completely refused to carry the record, and after Tyner took out a newspaper ad, rumored to simply be a photo of himself with the phrase, "Fuck Hudson's" on it, Elektra dropped the band from the label. Due to all of this, there are multiple versions of the album in existence. Some have censored covers, some censored audio, yet a majority of them are, in fact, the original, uncensored version. One quick note is that the great Sun Ra receives a "writer" credit on the album, and this is due to the fact that the lyrics to "Starship" were partially taken from one of his poems.

The music found on Kick Out The Jams is as intense and provoking as the lyrics of the songs. The energy that the band brings explains why they chose to make their debut record a live recording; as it would prove nearly impossible for any of their studio recordings to accurately represent the bands' stage presence. The names of the musicians within MC5 represent some of the most influential and talented names in the history of music. The dual guitars of Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith create a sound that is virtually unmatched anywhere else in music history. Both excelled far beyond their peers in both their technical ability, as well as the sheer force of their sound, and the way in which the two interact with one anothers' playing is nothing short of stunning. Bassist, Michael Davis, was actually the bands' second bass player, yet it is clear why the band chose him, as his sound helps to create half of one of the greatest rhythm sections ever. The other half of this top notch rhythm section is drummer Dennis Thompson. Thompson earned the nickname, "Machine Gun" for the extremely aggressive and fast paced manner of his playing. Thompson's sound and style has had a profound influence on nearly every drummer in hard rock, heavy metal, and punk who came after him. Upon listening to Kick Out The Jams, the early formation of what is now called hard rock and punk rock is quite evident, and it is also clear that MC5 have, by far, some of the most talented musicians that the world has ever heard.

The frontman for MC5, Rob Tyner, actually took his stage name as a tribute to jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner. It was Tyner's (real name Robert Derminer) infamous shout that created all of the chaos around the album, and in many ways, it was also due to his shout that the band gained as much attention as they did. While the musicianship of MC5 would have been enough to make the band legendary, it is Tyner's lyrics, as well as the way in which he delivers them, that makes the band as influential as they are. Half speaking, half shouting, every word Tyner delivers is just as important as the next, and the passion and potency with which he sings was like nothing else before him. While he was certainly not the first to sing politically motivated, "call to action" type lyrics, the ferocity and urgency in his voice remains largely unmatched. Rob Tyner's style of vocal delivery can clearly be heard in the sound of later artists like Joe Strummer as well as Zack De La Rocha. Lyrically, Kick Out The Jams features a cavalcade of "call to arms" anthems, and even when working cover songs, the band gives it their own, unique touch. Whether it is the incendiary title track, or Tyner praising the snipers from the Black Panther "Detroit Insurrection" of 1967 during the bands' version of John Lee Hooker's, "Motor City Is Burning," Kick Out The Jams is an unrelenting, polarizing display of some of the finest hard rock that has ever been recorded.

Few bands can claim the overall level of talent that can be found on the debut record from MC5. With what is arguable one of the greatest rhythm sections ever, as well as the unrivaled duo of Smith and Kramer on guitar, the music found on Kick Out The Jams is of the highest quality, and it is one of the reasons why the bands' success was somewhat inevitable. Combining this music with the high energy, riotous lyrics and delivery of Rob Tyner, one has everything needed for the ultimate "revolutionary" band. While hard rock and heavy metal were being explored elsewhere in music, it is largely the work of MC5 that serves as the foundation for what became punk rock, and the power of their music still resonates within modern music. Truly a band that did things exactly as they saw fit, and refusing to compromise anything about their music, lyrics, or appearance, MC5 paved the way for nearly every high energy or politically charged band who followed. While it usually proves to be a disastrous move for a band to make their first release a live recording, MC5's 1969 debut, Kick Out The Jams, perfectly encapsulates everything that made the band so phenomenal, and it remains a spectacular sounding and massively influential recording to this day.

Standout tracks: "Ramblin' Rose," "Kick Out The Jams," and "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21: John Scofield, "A Go Go"

Artist: John Scofield
Album: A Go Go
Year: 1997
Label: Verve

It seems that, within the world of jazz, musicians are far more open to sitting in with one another, and continuing to push musical boundaries and mix genres. This time honored tradition goes back as far as the genre itself, with icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and countless others combining their talents and creating some of the most amazing recordings in history. As jazz faded to the fringes with the rise of rock music, these pairings and groupings survived, yet with far less fanfare. Keeping the tradition alive in our modern times. Dayton, Ohio's own John Scofield enlisted the avant and original trio of Medeski, Martin, and Wood for a recording session, and results are pure musical bliss. Having played with the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Jaco Pastorius among a host of others, John Scofield stands as one of the finest modern jazz guitarists, as well as one of the best in history. Scofield has released nearly thrity solo records over the past three decades, and his more recent work supports the arguement that he is now coming into the "prime" of his career. This is no more evident then on the ten superb tracks that make up his phenomenal 1997 release, A Go Go.

A Go Go finds John Scofield beginning to blend his solid base in jazz with his love for the stylings and sound of funk music. While Scofield had eluded to such sounds earlier in his career, it was not until this album that he truly began to explore the concept. Overall, A Go Go is a brilliant collection of carefree, airy jams with a heavy funk groove, and the way in which the four musicians interact is truly unparalleled. The album runs from immensely bright tunes, like "Chank," to deep, somewhat darker songs like, "Kubrick." Regardless of the mood of the music, the groove is present throughout, and this is as much a head bobbing or foot tapping album as you'll ever hear. A Go Go gets very "spacey" and highly avant on songs like "Deadzy," yet the loose, meandering, lines still hold the groove and keep the album wonderfully cohesive. Much of this cohesive feel can be attributed to the amazing production work by Lee Townsend. Having worked with artists from Elvis Costello to Charlie Hunter, Townsend simply understands how to make great musicians sound their best. The true testament to the amazing music found on A Go Go, can be seen in the fact that this album, which certainly pushes the boundaries on "what" is jazz, topped the jazz album sales charts. Simply put, A Go Go is, by far, one of the greatest jazz records ever recorded.

It obviously goes without saying that, in the case of A Go Go, the primary performer is truly equaled by his backing band. The partnership that was formed on this album would be further explored on Medeski, Martin, and Wood's Combustication, and capped off with the quartet formally releasing an album with 2006's Out Louder. The chemistry between the four musicians is readily apparent, and they are truly functioning as a unit, playing brilliantly off of one another. John Medeski brings some of his funkiest, hardest grooves of his career, and whether on keyboards, clavinet, piano, or Wurlitzer, he is absolutely amazing. Drummer Billy Martin is also on top of his game, throwing multiple tempos within single songs, and perfectly displaying the concept of "open space," most notably on the song, "Southern Pacific." The bass playing of Chris Wood is what gives the songs the final piece that they need to truly groove, and his light, yet deep tone and style form the perfect completion to the group. As the quartet work though each song, the mood remains warm, yet it is undeniably hip and funky throughout. The chemistry reaches it's apex, as the four musicians become a single flawless unit on the stunning piece, "Hottentot." While all four musicians on A Go Go have collaborated with countless "big names" from multiple genres, it is their work together which brings out the best in all of them, and forms one of the greatest jazz groupings in history.

One aspect that sets the guitar playing of John Scofield apart from that of his peers is that, throughout A Go Go, there is clearly an underlying "fun" or happiness to his sound. While this is true of a majority of his albums, in his work with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, he truly seems to have found a musical comfort that is not seen elsewhere in his catalog. It is clear that the recording sessions were an enjoyable experience for all involved, and the bouncy, bright tone to Scofields' playing makes the album all the more pleasurable. This is personified with the upbeat, jovial whistling by Scofield throughout the dazzling track, "Jeep On 35." Whether Scofield is playing brilliant single note progressions, experimenting with different chord combinations, or simply adding textures to the sounds of his bandmates with intermittent plucking, there is no "filler" anywhere on A Go Go, and every song is absolutely fantastic. There are moments, such as on the song, "Green Tea," where Scofield's guitar truly sounds as if it's singing, and moments like these serve as a testament to how talented a player there lives in Scofield. While John Scofield was already a guitar legend before this recording, the complex compositions, musical diversity and pure joy in playing that shines through on A Go Go vaults both him and the album into the upper echelon of the finest jazz players and recordings in history.

Few can argue that, not only is John Scofield one of the most talented guitarists in the world today, but he is also worthy of being mentioned as one of the best in history. His clear, bright, happy guitar tone is like none other, and the precision with which he plays is virtually unparalleled. His compositions have always been, and continue to be, some of the most original and innovative musical pieces in modern music. When he partnered with jazz giants, Medeski, Martin, and Wood in 1997, one of the greatest quartets of modern jazz was instantly formed and the three albums that they have recorded rank among the finest of the era. The addictive, beaming bounce that is created by Medeski, Martin, and Wood truly takes Scofield's guitar playing, and his compositions as a whole, to an entirely new level. While Billy Martin and Chris Wood play superbly throughout A Go Go, it is the interplay between Scofield and John Medeski that shine brightest, and it makes the experience of the album a true joy time and time again. Though he has worked with some of the most famous names in jazz, and released nearly thirty albums over his career, when John Scofield partnered with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, he undoubtedly hits his stride and the music created by the quartet is nothing short of phenomenal. While this gang of four fantastic musicians have released three albums together, it is their first recording, John Scofield's 1997 album, A Go Go, that stands as their finest, and easily one of the best jazz fusion records in history.

Standout tracks: "A Go Go," "Boozer," and "Jeep On 35."

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20: Billie Holiday, "The Commodore Master Takes"

Artist: Billie Holiday
Album: The Commodore Master Takes
Year: 1939 & 1944 (Recorded), 2000 (Released)
Label: Commodore

Before there was Janis, there was Nina, and before Nina, there was Aretha. Before Aretha, there was Ella. Before Ella, there was Billie. The truth of the matter is, before Billie, there were very few singers who were anything more than "Tin Pan Alley" style performers, and it was she who was the first to really "personalize" blues and soul singing. Lady Day, as she was named by her longtime friend, Lester Young, carried with her one of the most sensational voices in history, as well as an uncanny refusal to compromise her sound or style in any way. This led to Holiday alienating many club owners, as her unorthodox style of singing was often as controversial as the color of her skin, and in the 1930's, this almost always spelled the end of the career for a singer. However, Billie Holiday's voice was so fantastic, and the soul behind her singing nothing short of stunning, that label execs and club owners simply could not ignore her breathtaking talent. There are, quite literally, hundreds of collections and compilations of her recordings, and this is very much due to the fact that Holiday recorded for at least three different labels, and they were mostly freelance sessions, as opposed to working under a standard contract with a specific label. Taking all this into account, the sessions she recorded for Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944 contain some of her finest, and most memorable work. While every note of these sessions is available on The Complete Commodore Recordings, it is truly only a necessary purchase for Holiday "completeists." However, in 2000, these tapes were brilliantly remastered, and what was released may be the finest collection of Billie Holiday's myriad of recordings, The Commodore Master Takes.

The story of how exactly Holiday (real name, Eleanora Fagan) found herself at Commodore Records centers around the highly controversial single, "Strange Fruit." The song, which is one of the most vivid descriptions of a lynching ever written, was brought to Holiday by it's writer, Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym, "Lewis Allen.") Columbia Records felt that the songs' content was far too risqué, so Holiday began "shopping" the song to other labels, until she found a willing party in the form of the legendary Milt Gabler. Columbia granted her permission to record a session at Commodore, and along with "Strange Fruit," Holiday sang nearly two dozen other songs in both 1939 and 1944. "Strange Fruit" became one of Holiday's most famous songs, and it became the final song of her sets, as the entire club would be made dark, with only a single spotlight on Holiday as she sang. This image became an iconic symbol of the majesty of Holiday's performances. Artists from Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley to Tori Amos have recorded covers of the song, and it remains one of the most moving and important songs in the history of recorded music. The version found on The Commodore Master Takes is, in fact, the first studio recording of the song, and the emotion and power behind the song still carries, nearly eight decades later.

As there are two distinct recording sessions represented on The Commodore Master Takes, there are also two very different, yet equally superb, backing bands. For the initial 1939 session, trumpet master and band leader, Frankie Newton brings his octet to the studio, and it is they who provide the mellow, chilling music for "Strange Fruit," among a number of other songs. Newton and his band had backed Holiday many times, as they were one of the primary bands at Café Society, where Holiday was a regular. Café Society is also significant as it is largely regarded as the first "popular" inter-racial club in New York City. For the sessions in 1944, Commodore enlisted up and coming pianist Eddie Heywood and his band to back Holiday's vocals. Heywood, who made his name with a number of brilliant solos with Coleman Hawkins, backed many singers throughout the 1940's, and though they share many similarities in their sound, it is not difficult to pick out which band is backing Holiday on each of the songs. Both bands clearly understand the extraordinary power of Holiday, and there is very little soloing by the bands. This allows Billie Holiday to perfectly present her unique take on each song, and the music blends perfectly behind her sensational vocals.

While there were countless singers before her who sang blues standards with a jazz feel, there were virtually none who sang with such conviction and soul as Billie Holiday. Her tremendous vocal prowess, combined with the way in which she makes every song her own, makes the music on The Commodore Master Takes nothing short of mesmerizing. It is this "personal" feel that set Holiday apart from the rest, and it was clear that Holiday herself had lived through many of the situations about which she was singing. Whether songs about love, hope, or racism, Holiday clearly has first-hand understanding of the subject matter, and it is this aspect that turned many "standard" songs into "Billie Holiday songs." However, regardless of how much she could relate to the subject matter, it would be a moot point if she didn't also have one of the most amazing voices in history. While Holiday does not have the widest vocal range of the great jazz singers, the conviction and intense emotion with which he sings compensates beyond words for her slight lacking in diversity of pitch. Throughout The Commodore Master Takes, Holiday swings and swoons, her stunning voice painting a velvet-smooth texture over the meandering music of the backing band. Truly, there has rarely been a talent as captivating and soul bearing as Billie holiday, and one must experience her sound and soul to truly understand what makes her such an icon of music.

By far one of the most controversial, yet enduring names in the annals of recorded music, Billie Holiday remains one of the most important and revered names, as her earliest recordings slowly approach the century mark. Refusing to compromise the manner in which she sang her songs, and rarely being afraid of singing intense or risqué songs, Holiday paved the way for later female performers to have a much stronger position when dealing with clubs or record labels. Billi Holiday also stands as one of the first artists to "cross over" and gained a large white audience, though many club owners still refused to let her perform in clubs that were not "mixed." The voice of Billie Holiday, which she used to craft in the style of jazz improvisations, created some of the most unique singing styles, as she experimented with tempo and phrasings in ways never heard before her time. Having recorded with a number of labels, including Columbia, Verve, and Decca among others, the Holiday catalog is very wide-ranging. Also due to the fact that her prominence was largely before the era of the "LP," the best, and often only, way to experience the majesty of Billie Holiday is via the myriad of compilations of these recordings. Perhaps the finest of all of these comes from the two sessions she recorded with Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944. It goes without saying that Billie Holiday is, by far, one of the most important figures in the history of music, and this makes her recordings absolutely essential for every music collection. Finding herself in front of backing bands who are ready to give her all the space she needs, Billie Holiday is simply stunning and absolutely perfect throughout every song found on, The Commodore Master Takes, and the collection serves as a great introduction into one of the most dynamic and captivating performers in music history.

Standout tracks: "Strange Fruit," "I Cover The Waterfront," "Billie's Blues."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 19: Butthole Surfers, "Locust Abortion Technician"

Artist: Butthole Surfers
Album: Locust Abortion Technician
Year: 1987
Label: Latino Bugger Veil

While many bands make "strange" sounding music, there are few bands who play as masterfully, whilst simultaneously being downright spooky, as music legends, Butthole Surfers. Easily one of the most controversial bands in history, from their radio-unfriendly name to their notorious circus-like stage presentation, the genius of the bands' music is often overshadowed by the hype that surrounds them. Blending styles as diverse as electronica and hardcore punk, the bands' musical influences come from all over the musical spectrum, and this in turn makes their music like nothing else ever recorded. Having recorded ten shockingly brilliant records over the past three decades, the band has cemented themselves as one of the most innovative and unrelenting bands in history. While they had an unlikely hit single with 1996's "Pepper," the song is a far cry from the usual sound of the bands' records. Easily their finest album to date comes in the form of their sensational 1987 album, Locust Abortion Technician.

The Butthole Surfers represent one of the most unique bands in history, as they blend together elements of hardcore, jazz, heavy metal, and psychobilly. The result is something that is never anything short of stunning. Much like Ween, this is also a band who do not take themselves too seriously, and along with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, the band has many musically avant moments on Locust Abortion Technician. While there are many, one of the most brilliant moments on this album occurs with the songs "Hay" and "22 Going On 23." Though many people do not know it, "Hay" is, in fact, a reversed, and slightly modified version of "22 Going On 23." As in, they are the same song, played in reverse directions. The "mooing" at the end of "22 Going On 23" is actually the core of the lyrics of "Hay," slowed down and reversed. That the two songs are equally great is a testament to the genius of the Butthole Surfers. Locust Abortion Technician also stands as the bands' first album that was recorded nearly entirely in their own, home studio. Without the constraints of time and money, the band was able to fully explore each song, and the results of this opened-ended recording process yields their finest musical work ever.

Musically, the Butthole Surfers take as much as they do from Frank Zappa as they do from Black Sabbath (the main riff from "Sweet Loaf" is lifted from Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf.") The quirky, sludgy music that is found throughout a majority of Locust Abortion Technician is truly like nothing else, and is absolutely amazing. Guitarist Paul Leary shines brightly throughout the record, mixing crushing riffs with fantastic soloing. Leary has also made a name as a producer, working with bands like Nirvana, Reverend Horton Heat, and The Refreshments. Bassist Jeff Pinkus is equally as brilliant, making the songs sway and shudder, and it is very much his contributions that gives the music its dark, somewhat maniacal mood. Pinkus also takes much of the credit for the album sounding different than the bands' previous efforts, as this was his first recording with the band. Locust Abortion Technician sets itself aside from a majority of the rest of the Butthole Surfers catalog in that it is one of their few albums to feature two different drummers on every track. King Coffey (real name Jeffrey Coffey), is the bands' "normal" drummer, and he has appeared on every record they have released since 1983. Joining the band in the studio on and off throughout the 1980's was drummer, Teresa Nervosa (real name Teresa Taylor). Rumors of Coffey and Nervosa being siblings have been a part of the bands' lore since the 1980's, and though there are facts that support both possibilities, it remains a "mystery" to this day. Nervosa returned to the lineup of the Butthole Surfers in 2009 after more than two decades away from the band.

Though his stage and studio antics are something that is well beyond the word "strange," lead singer Gibby Haynes' past is, in many ways, even more strange. Haynes was, in fact, a high school basketball standout in Texas, and whilst studying accounting in college, he was captain of the basketball team, as well as President of his fraternity. After graduating and working at a large accounting firm for about a year, Haynes formed Butthole Surfers, and his outrageous stage antics quickly garnered a cult following for the band. Haynes' vocal delivery is about as unique a sound as you'll find anywhere; sounding like a strange combination between Jello Bifara and Frank Zappa. Locust Abortion Technician also features the debut of what the band calls "Gibbytronix." This is the term they use when referring to the strangely distorted vocals that appear on songs like "Graveyard" and "Human Cannonball." It is often vocals like these that give the songs a far darker and eerier mood. While some of the songs, such as "Kuntz" are perfect examples of the bands' clever humor, lyrically, the songs are often strangely veiled musings on love, though usually hidden behind the grim music and non-traditional vocal delivery. It is the somewhat crazed, somewhat feral way in which Gibby Haynes sings that makes the music of the Butthole Surfers both sinister as well as absolutely genius.

Though many have not heard much of their music, there are few people who do not at least know the name of the Butthole Surfers. Much like their band name, the music is something that, once you hear it, you can never forget it as it is so unlike anything else ever recorded. Creating a strange, brilliant blend of heavy metal, hardcore punk, and shock rock, the music of Butthole Surfers is uniquely fantastic, and the band never fails to be wonderfully original. Centered around the writing and unmistakable vocals of Gibby Haynes, the band served as influence on everyone from GWAR to Dinosaur Jr to Pantera to Flaming Lips. The musicians strong of the band are constantly pushing the boundaries on what they are capable of musically, and this ensures that no two songs or two albums bear too much similarity. In nearly thirty years of performing, the band has never compromised, and still delivering amazing studio records, as well as some of the strangest, most controversial stage shows in history. While every album they've recorded is worth owning, the band delivered their finest musical work with their shocking, yet undeniably phenomenal 1987 album, Locust Abortion Technician.

Standout tracks: "Sweet Loaf," "Human Cannonball," and "The O-Men."