Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Note From The Guru: Changes & Musings For The New Year

365 days, 365 artists, 365 albums. Honestly, there were many points throughout 2009 that I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off. This blog began as a challenge to myself, and over the year, it took on quite a life of its own.

Music has always been my passion, and it was a true joy to be able to share my thoughts (or ramblings in some cases) with the world at large throughout the past year. When I check the website traffic (a few times a week) and see hits coming from all over the globe, it brings a huge smile to my face. So, to all of my readers all over the world, thank you for taking a few minutes of your day to read my writing.

The initial plan behind this blog was to simply do the 365 and then call it quits. However, due to the sites' traffic, a number of emails, as well as conversations with a number of people, I have decided to keep things going, though the content will change....slightly...

I have always been a firm believer that all of the "1,000 Greatest Albums" books you can buy contain a great amount of "filler." So, with this in mind, I am going to leave albums alone for 2010, as I am rather satisfied that I've covered an overwhelming bulk of "the essentials." In it's place, I will be writing up a SONG a day. It is my belief that this will allow me to bring exposure to many other artists; those who could write a great song, but perhaps not an entire albums' worth. It will also allow me to SLIGHTLY shorten the blogs, as the current format certainly puts a strain on my time...I do have a "real" job aside from my writing...

So, Tuesday through Sunday, I will present write-ups on equally amazing songs and I am working on having a stream to each song. I am going to do my best to write up songs that were not featured on the albums I wrote up in 2009. Certainly, many of the same artists will reappear, but hopefully nothing I've already written about.

On Monday's, I will make available a one-hour podcast type of thing where I will present some other music and a bit of commentary. I wanted to keep this at an hour as I think it's a solid amount for each week for people to enjoy. From time to time, I am sure there will be guests of some sort who join me on this, and I am really looking forward to this addition.

Finally, though it was never even a thought in my mind when I first began "The Daily Guru," I will be spending 2010 working on getting the 2009 blogs published as a book. As this progresses, I will make note of it, but if you want to be "sure" you know about it, send an email to and I will send out ONE mass email when the book is set for publication. I hate spam and pointless email more than most people, so please be assured that your email address will only be contacted if/when I have a release date for the book.

Oh, and since it took about three months for me to really flesh out how the blogs were going to be written, I am going to be re-writing and "finishing" the first few months of blogs from 2009. I will make notes in the "daily songs" as to which of the '09 blogs have been updated.

So again, to all of you who read my blog, thank you SO much for taking time out of your day to read my ramblings. I hope that you've found new music that you love, as well as re-discovered music you already had. I hope that 2010 is your best year yet, and I hope the change in content on the blog is equally as enjoyable.

-Joel (AKA The Music Guru)

December 31: Elmore James, "The Sky Is Crying"

Artist: Elmore James
Album: The Sky Is Crying
Year: 1930-1950 (recorded)/1993 (released)
Label: BMG International

When one looks at the history of blues guitar, there is often a noticeable gap in innovators between Robert Johnson, and more contemporary artists like Bo Diddley and B.B. King. This often leaves people to question just how the electric blues came to such a distinctive, yet mostly universal sound, as most people are not aware of any artist that could fill this gap in time and playing. The truth of the matter is, when one considers this situation, it becomes clear that there was no more important a slide guitar player in the postwar era than the one and only Elmore James. With one of the most distinctive voices in music history, as well as being one of the finest writers ever, it is the guitar sound and style of James that bridged the gap between the raw, simple sounds of Robert Johnson and the more modern sound of blues music. It is largely due to this massive amount of influence that James has posthumously been dubbed "The King Of Slide Guitar," and he also made great strides with his approach to amplification as well as incorporating different backing instruments into the music. As a majority of his recording was done in the "pre-LP" era, James only released a pair of albums during his lifetime, yet the amount of songs he actually recorded is quite staggering. It is due to this fact that one must sift through the mountains of collections of his music to find his finest recordings. With well over one hundred compilations of his music in existence, one can find the ideal collection of the songs of Elmore James on what is easily one of the greatest blues releases in history, 1993's The Sky Is Crying.

As was the norm in those days, the recordings featured on The Sky Is Crying were pulled from a wide range of labels and sessions, and it serves as a testament to the true talent of James that every song is equally as powerful, regardless of where and when it was recorded. There are, in fact, a handful of albums with this title, as it was unquestionably one of his finest songs. However, the version in question here was released as part f the sensational Charly Blues Masterworks collection, and nearly every album in that series is well worth owning. The fact of the matter is, when one looks back at the so-called "classics" of the blues genre, the original writer is almost always one of three people: Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, or Elmore James. Truth be told, James played many shows alongside Dixon, and for decades, there have been rumors of recordings featuring both James and Johnson in existence. Having played alongside these iconic artists, it is little surprise that James himself is responsible for what is undoubtedly one of the most heavily covered songs in history, and it is this collection that contains James' original recording of the classic song, "Dust My Broom." Sticking to the simple, straightforward themes that make blues music so wonderfully universal, other classics like "Done Somebody Wrong," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and "Stranger Blues" have been re-worked by other artists over the years, yet these original versions are just as powerful and amazing to experience.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the recordings found on The Sky Is Crying is that, even though they are taken from more than two decades worth of scattered sessions, the backing musicians remain virtually the same throughout all of the recordings. This is largely due to the fact that, in that era, if one found a talented blues frontman, it would have been quite counter-productive to try and find another gig, as such players were very few and far between. One of the keys to the distinctive sound that is found within the music of Elmore James is the way in which he involved horns within his blues arrangements. Though he would later play alongside everyone from Muddy Waters to Jimmy Rodgers, saxophone great J.T. Brown got his start as one of the core elements of the music of Elmore James. His counterpart on sax, Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams is equally as brilliant, and his work with James led him to later performances with the likes of Otis Redding and Dinah Washington. Trumpet from Danny Moore rounds out the horn section, and it is this element that truly sets the music of Elmore James aside from his peers. Though he is largely known for his work as a guitarist, the legendary "Homesick" James Williamson actually plays bass on nearly every track on The Sky Is Crying, and it is largely due to his work with James that Williamson developed his own sound. Rounding out the core of James' backing musicians is one of the most influential drummers in music history: Odie Payne. Having backed everyone from Junior Wells to Chuck Berry, Payne played on many of the most important albums of the century, and his presence on The Sky Is Crying only adds to his legendary status. Though there are also a pair of pianists (one of them being Johnny Jones), as well as a few rhythm guitarists featured on The Sky Is Crying, it is these musicians that helped define the sound that would make Elmore James the legendary artist that he remains to this day.

As fantastic as his backing musicians perform on every track, there is never any question that the spotlight of every song is firmly on Elmore James. With a voice that is in every way the "ideal" blues voice, James belts and cries his amazing lyrics, and his vocal style can be heard in countless later artists. Then of course, there is James' absolutely stunning work on his slide guitar. While one might argue that there were other artists who had more technical expertise on the instrument, the truth is, there was NOBODY else in music who brought as much emotion and pure sonic power to the instrument as one finds in the playing of Elmore James. It is largely due to this fact that nearly every blues guitarist who came after James finds themselves at some point being compared to this master of the blues sound. This unparalleled sound is perhaps no more evident than on the albums' title track, the oft covered and truly legendary song, "The Sky Is Crying." The song, which has been covered by everyone from Etta James to Jimi Hendrix to becoming one of Stevie Ray Vaughan's best known songs, is an absolutely iconic song across all genres of music. So massive was the impact of James' song, that it also holds the distinction of being the song that was played at the funeral of legendary Allman Brothers Band guitarist, Duane Allman. From his powerful, soulful vocal delivery, to his absolutely phenomenal guitar work, Elmore James cements his name as one of the all-time musical greats with his performance on this truly iconic song.

Even if one just looks at the titles of the songs found on the Elmore James compilation album, The Sky Is Crying, it becomes immediately clear that he was one of the most important figures i all of music history. From classics like "Done Somebody Wrong" and "Dust My Broom" to slightly lesser known songs like "Held My Baby Last Night" and "Fine Little Mama," there are truly few artists that can boast as many equally influential songs as those in James' catalog. As the creator of some of the most well known songs in history, it is also the way in which James delivered these songs that makes him a legend to this day. James is also widely regarded as one of the first "amplifier technicians," as he altered the circuitry in his amp so that it would produce a slightly distorted and far more raw sound. This seemingly louder sound can be seen as an early equivalent to "turning it up to eleven," and it is due to this alteration that James' music has such a distinctive, and more emotionally sound than that of his contemporaries. Such early innovations would lead to ideas like feedback and other amplifier modifications, and much of this came from James' relationship with Ike Turner. Truth be told, it is nearly impossible to find a sub-par song anywhere within the catalog of Elmore James, and this makes his sudden passing at the age of forty-five all the more tragic. Without question one of the most important figures in music history, it is the 1993 compilation of the songs of Elmore James, The Sky Is Crying, that serves not only as a great introduction of his music, but it also solidifies his spot as one of the key players in the development of modern music.

Standout tracks: "The Sky Is Crying," "Dust My Broom," and "Done Somebody Wrong."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: The Les Claypool Frog Brigade, "Purple Onion"

Artist: The Les Claypool Frog Bridage
Album: Purple Onion
Year: 2002
Label: Prawn Song

With Primus on an indefinite hiatus, and Oysterhead behind him, Les Claypool found himself without a band in early 2002. Looking to remedy this situation, Claypool pulled together some of the finest musicians in the land, and perhaps due to his recent work with the more "jam-oriented" Oysterhead, he and his band quickly became a fixture within the "jam band" scene. Though Primus was certainly known for their musical expertise, it was this later band, combined with Claypool's signature quirkiness that made them one of the most exciting and popular bands of the "Phishless" jam community. It was also with his new band, initially dubbed "Colonel Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade," where Claypool composed some of his finest post-Primus music, and it also represents some of the most complex and "complete" songs on his career. It is during his work with The Frog Brigade that one can hear the power and depth of his music finally catching up with his legendary songwriting, and the live performances of this era were unquestionably some of the most stunning of Claypool's career. Backed by one of the most impressive and talented bands of the day, the group released a pair of live records before unleashing their phenomenal studio debut, the absolutely magnificent 2002 album, Purple Onion.

One of the most amazing aspects of Purple Onion is the level of subtleties that lace nearly every corner of the album. From small musical touches to the subtexts of the lyrics, in every way, this is one of Claypool's deepest bodies of work. The album title, which is clearly a nod to the legendary San Francisco club, recalls a few of the venues most famous moments, as Claypool even goes so far as name dropping some guy named Bob Zimmerman. Similarly, many of the songs on the record are clearly of a personal nature, as Claypool pays tribute to a local restaurant on "D's Diner," as well as an ode to the infamous UC Berkley dorm, "Barrington Hall." Each track on the album has a very unique feel, as it is clear that Claypool is pulling out all the stops and with this backing band, he sees no boundaries to the musical possibilities. This is perhaps no more clear than on the track that is named after what is easily one of the most amazing "musical inventions" in history, Claypool's homemade "Whamola." The instrument, which is clearly a direct decedent of the washtub bass, is little more than a single bass string on a stick with a handle at the top to adjust the pitch. Played by slapping the string with a drum stick, the Whamola produces a tone like nothing else, and Claypool proves to be a master of the instrument, as the track is one of the most uniquely exciting songs in decades. "Whamola" is taken to an almost untouchable level by the absolutely mind-blowing performance that is given not only by Claypool, but his backing also use this track band prove both their worth and might.

While in many ways, the era of the "backing band" had ended decades earlier, the fact of the matter is, with the number of "side projects" that Les Claypool has had over the years, The Frog Brigade perfectly fits the term. The one constant through nearly all of Claypool's projects over the years is drummer Jay Lane, who was one of the founders of Primus, and also played in Sausage, as well as groups like Rat Dog and The Charlie Hunter Trio. Unquestionably one of the finest drummers of his generation, Lane has rarely sounded as amazing as he does throughout Purple Onion. One of the key components to this "new" sound to Claypool's music is the presence of a second percussionist, the equally legendary Mike Dillon. Playing everything from a second drum kit to marimba to vibraphone, it is largely due to Dillon's performances that the songs gain the stunning amount of depth. Also bringing an amazingly unique sound to the music, as well as serving as one of the finest counterparts that Claypool has ever known, guitarist Eenor possesses one of the most distinctive sounds of his generation. From mind-boggling solos to some of the most crushing chords and riffs of the decade, Eenor easily fills the shoes of Claypool's longtime musical partner, Larry LaLonde. The fact that Claypool was becoming part of the "jam band" scene is further reinforced by the presence of a second guitarist on the song "Buzzards Of Green Hill," journeyman guitar legend, Warren Haynes. A second music icon is also featured throughout the album, and his playing was one of the keys to making both Purple Onion as well as the live shows such an amazing experience. Perhaps best known for his work with the band Galactic, saxophone master Skerik, has rarely sounded as fantastic as he does on this record, and the interplay between him and Claypool is one of the most stunning sounds ever captured on tape. Though there are a number of other guest musicians, it is this core group that help to give Claypool's songs life, and they are without question the most musically adventurous project that Claypool ever created.

When writers look back on the music scene of the 1980's and 1990's, there is little doubt that one of the key names that will be brought up again and again will be that of Les Claypool. Without question, Claypool stands as the most innovative and musically fearless player of his generation, and there has simply never been another musician quite like him. Along with his absolutely stunning performances on bass, Purple Onion features some of Claypool's most well written and delivered lyrics of his career. While the only thing that may be as instantly recognizable as his bass playing may be his voice, Claypool takes Purple Onion to make some of his work with Primus seem almost "traditional" in sound. With some of the vocals almost sounding sinister in nature, and others presenting his endearing, joyfully strange sound, Claypool runs the vocal gamut on the album. Songs like "Long In The Tooth" and "D's Diner" brilliantly highlight the lighter side of Claypool's character, as the songs are about as purely "fun" as one will find anywhere. However, throughout Purple Onion, Claypool presents some of his deepest and most socially aware and controversial lyrics of his career. The two-part songs of "David Makalaster" which bookmark the bulk of the record follow the tale of a newscaster turned sensationalist reporter, Claypool perfectly captures the "post-9/11" mindset of a large portion of U.S. society. The burning critique on that moment in history has perhaps never been better captured then when Claypool brilliantly quips, "...vengeance is back in style." Claypool continues the onslaught on the blind ignorance in society with one of the most harsh, yet accurate indictments of prejudice on the song "Ding Dang." The song itself would have fit in perfectly in the repertoire of Sly & The Family Stone, and Claypool cuts society no slack at all as he presents what may very well be the finest lyric he ever composed. Backed by a group that is able to follow and push Claypool to limits he never knew, Purple Onion finds Les Claypool at his finest, and from the music to the lyrics, the album stands as a testament to how much he has grown as a musician and solidifies his reputation as one of the most talented players and writers of his generation.

In an era when music was already disgustingly artificial and frustratingly tame and predictable, Les Claypool unleashed what may very well be his most musically exciting and innovative record of his career in the form of Purple Onion. Surrounded by some of the most talented musicians on the planet, the group tears through a dozen new Claypool compositions, and the songs never fail to be stunningly powerful in every aspect. The addition of the percussive expertise of Mike Dillon proves to be one of the key elements in Claypool taking his sound to "the next level," and it also provides a great deal of diversity in the styles that are presented throughout the record. With Eenor providing all the guitar mastery that Claypool could ever need, the chemistry between the two is clear, and they play off one another in brilliant fashion on every track. Guest players ranging from Haynes to bassist Norwood Fisher (Fishbone) to the sitar of Gabby La La help to make Purple Onion one of the most musically diverse and exciting releases of the decade, and Claypool's ability to weave them all into a single, cohesive sound serves as a testament to the fact that he has clearly reached full musical maturity. Every song on Purple Onion is a uniquely exciting musical experience, and much like his work with Oysterhead, it is almost frustrating that the group never released another studio record. Without question one of the finest projects of Les Claypool's career, his release with The Frog Brigade, 2002's Purple Onion, stands not only as one of the most original and extraordinary albums of the decade, but by far one of the greatest records in the overall history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Buzzards Of Green Hill," "Whamola," and "D's Diner."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29: The Animals, "Animalism"

Artist: The Animals
Album: Animalism
Year: 1966
Label: MGM

As has been proved countless times over the years, just because a song tops the chart, it does not ensure that the song in question is of high quality, or the finest song of that time. Taking this a step further, one could infer that simply because a song was the biggest hit that a band had does not necessarily mean that it was that groups best work. This theory is perhaps no more true than in the case of U.K. psychedelic-blues rockers, The Animals. Without question, the group is best known for hits like "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," yet by the time the group made their greatest record, not only had the lineup responsible for these hits been changed, but the group itself had called it quits. Regardless of which lineup was playing, The Animals were easily one of the most important bands of the entire "British Invasion," and their brilliant blend of R&B sounds into a rock and roll format is perhaps only second to that of The Rolling Stones. Releasing albums filled with fantastic original material, as well as a steady stream of covers which revealed their influences by everyone from Chuck Berry to Ray Charles to Robert Johnson, The Animals possess one of the most instantly recognizable sounds, and their songs remain just as enjoyable today as they were upon their initial release. Marking their final musical effort before the band name changed, The Animals' 1966 release, Animalism, is without question one of the most extraordinary records ever recorded, and it stands as a perfect final note for one of musics' finest bands.

Truth be told, for many reasons, Animalism, is one of the most difficult records to find in any format. The initial release, in December of 1966, was only available in the U.S., and even this was in VERY limited quantities. Since the group had disbanded months earlier (though a "different" group would soon emerge, calling themselves "Eric Burdon & The Animals"), there was very little press for the release (though it did manage to crack the Top 40), and the album soon became little more than a myth. Regardless of its lack of notoriety, the fact is, the music on the album is absolutely stunning, and this fact soon began to make the record one of the most highly sought items by collectors around the world. Finally, in 2006, a small record label called Hip-o Select re-released the album, again in VERY limited quantities, and after quickly selling out, Animalism remains one of the most rare albums in rock history. Furthermore, many people understandable confuse this album with their previous release, Animalisms (which was released in the U.S. under the title Animalization). These two albums feature different lineups, different songs, and different covers, and the overall musical experience is far superior on the more rare of the two records. Animalism also features a seemingly strange pairing, as the opening track, "All Night Long" was arranged by, and also features the playing of a young, up and coming artist by the name of Frank Zappa.

By the time The Animals began recording Animalism, they were into their forth overall lineup, and the second lineup of 1966. This album would be the only recording by this grouping of musicians, yet it musically outshines all of the previous incarnations of the band. Serving as the core to the bands' sound throughout their existence, guitarist Hilton Valentine and bassist Chas Chandler are clearly just hitting their stride on Animalism. Valentine sounds as brilliant as ever, as he seamlessly switches between lighter, more reserved playing on tracks like, "The Other Side Of Life" to absolutely destroying songs like "Louisiana Blues." Similarly, Chandler unleashes some of his most entrancing grooves ever, and this would be a fitting end to his formal career as a musician, as following his album, he would go on to manage the likes of Nick Drake and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Having joined the band only a year before recording keyboardist Dave Rowberry fit perfectly with the groups' sound, and whether playing electric keyboards and organs or simply a piano, his sound gives the songs much of their "down home" and raw feeling. Rounding out the final incarnation of The Animals is drummer Barry Jenkins, who was brought in after original drummer John Steel quit the band only two months before recording commenced for Animalism. The fact that Jenkins was able to so easily transition into his role with the band is clearly one of the key reasons why he would be the only "holdover" that would be a part of the first incarnation of "Eric Burdon & The Animals."

It is quite literally impossible to have any discussion of the music of The Animals without spending time discussing one of music's finest frontmen, Eric Burdon. With one of the most distinctive voices in history, Burdon's voice is in many ways the ultimate blues-rock sound, as he can snarl, growl, and belt out vocals with the finest of any genre. Whether it is his wailing rendition of Little Richard's "Lucille," or his swinging, soulful take on "Hit The Road, Jack," Burdon is nothing short of stunning on every song. Bringing a darker, sometimes sleazy sound in his vocals, it is somewhat surprising that Burdon was not labeled as "the" singer for parents to help their children avoid. Without question, Burdon's vocals were more overtly sexual in tone and in many ways, he represents an unrestrained version of Mick Jagger. This stunning delivery style, combined with his phenomenal vocal power makes him remain today one of the greatest singers in music history. Even when Burdon holds back slightly, as he does on The Animal's fantastic cover of the Sam Cooke classic, "Shake," the soul and power of his voice still shines brightly. However, one can easily argue that the cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" is the greatest single track that the group ever recorded. Featuring the ideal balance of blues, soul, and just a touch of rock, it is this track that stands as the epitome of everything that makes The Animals such an amazing band. Similarly, Burdon is nothing short of perfect on the song, as it is on this track that it becomes clear that it is his vocal work that served as the inspiration for later artists like Jim Morrison and many of the early punk style singers.

Though it is easily one of the most difficult albums in history to find, there are few records that are as worth spending the time to track down as this, the final recording of The Animals. The group had clearly found their groove, and their signature take on the blues-rock sound has never sounded better on any of their previous efforts, or even on those of other bands. Ripping through eleven covers, as well as the "new" song from Zappa, it is mind-boggling to think how this album was NOT a massive hit upon its release. Regardless of the fact that the band ceased to exist at the time, and the fact that the label did little to promote the album, the fact remains that the music on Animalism marks some of the greatest music of the decade, and the overall power of the album is perhaps the key factor in it remaining such a highly sought record. The rhythm section of Chandler and Jenkins clearly bonded very quickly, as their performance on the cover of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" stands as one of the most thundering and absolutely phenomenal musical moments in history. This track also spotlights Valentine's abilities, and the amount of soul that he emits through his playing is virtually unparalleled elsewhere in music. The contrast between the often light playing of Rowberry, with the gigantic presence of Burdon creates the final, absolutely perfect piece to the band, and though it did not produce any hit singles, there is little question that the album represents the finest hour for band. Remaining today one of the most important bands of their generation, there have been few records released that are as powerful and perfectly executed as the final effort from The Animals, their tragically rare 1966 masterpiece, Animalism.

Standout tracks: "All Night Long," "The Other Side Of Life," and "Smokestack Lightning."

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28: Bobby Hutcherson, "Components"

Artist: Bobby Hutcherson
Album: Components
Year: 1965
Label: Blue Note

One of the most unique aspects of jazz music lies in the fact that, given the proper talent level, ANY instrument can lead the music at any given time. While an overwhelming majority of the time, it is either a piano or a horn of some sort that leads the way, there are a number of occasions where a "lesser utilized" instrument takes center stage. Out of all of these non-traditional "leading" instruments, there are few that occupy this prominent position as rarely as the vibraphones. The reason for this is largely due to the fact that, throughout music history, there have only been a handful of artists talented enough on the instrument to garner the respect and following of a sufficient backing band. While earlier artists like Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson brought the instrument to prominence with swing and bop respectively, it was largely due to the efforts of Bobby Hutcherson that the vibraphones became an essential part of the "free jazz" movement. Without question one of the most unique, and perhaps the overall most talented vibraphonist in music history, Hutcherson played in a jazz style that was far more advanced and often bordered on avant-garde. This ability to step so far from the dominant paradigm of the jazz sound, and lead with a rarely used instrument serves as a testament to the unparalleled talent of Hutcherson, and his work remains massively influential to this day. As part of the stunning roster of Blue Note Records in the 1960's, Bobby Hutcherson released a handful of amazing records, yet none were most extraordinary than his 1965 masterpiece, Components.

In many ways, Components perfectly sums up everything that made the early years of Hutcherson's career so amazing. The album itself is split into two very distinct sides, with the fist side containing compositions of Hutcherson, and the second side being comprised of works written by drummer Joe Chambers. It is in the two very distinct writing styles of these artists that one can not only see the amazing range of music that Hutcherson and his band are capable of playing, but it also provides a fantastic contrast so one can clearly hear just how advanced and "out there" Hutcherson's writing is in comparison. The four tracks that comprise the first side of Components are about as advanced a "hard bop" sound as one will find anywhere in music, yet they remain wonderfully melodic throughout, and in many ways, this is the true genius and magic of Hutcherson's playing and writing. The compositions of Chambers found on this record, while equally as impressive, are far more "free" and avant than those of Hutcherson. These almost clashing sounds of melody versus harmony would derail most jazz efforts, yet the fact that the album is beautifully cohesive, and the entire band excels on every song, shows the amazing level of talent not only of Hutcherson, but of his backing band as well. also contains some of Hutcherson's best known compositions, including the winding, almost ethereal "Little B's Poem," which remains today one of the most gorgeous and truly perfect jazz pieces ever recorded. The overall greatness of every track of Components is slightly less surprising once one realizes that the record also marks one of the most stunning groupings of musicians that was ever assembled.

Even if one is not familiar with the name or work of Bobby Hutcherson, once one sees who comprised his backing band, it is clear to all that he was one of the most talented and highly respected musicians in history. As the second composer of the unit, drummer Joe Chambers is without question one of the finest percussionists in music history, and having played alongside everyone from Eric Dolphy to Chick Corea, he is clearly a talent unlike that of any other of his generation. Fresh off of the release of his own jazz masterpiece, the piano parts throughout the album are provided by none other than Herbie Hancock. Though he was still "formally" a part of Miles Davis' group at the time, being on Blue Note Records afforded him the opportunity to record with a wide range of musicians, and his work on Components remains today some of his most stunning work of his career. The third key piece of Hutcherson's backing band is the brilliant playing of trumpet master Freddie Hubbard. Without question one of the most revered and respected names in all of jazz history, Hubbard played alongside everyone from Dolphy to Coltrane to Coleman to Blakey, yet his playing captured here is easily some of the most impressive he ever recorded. Not to be overlooked in this grouping of some of jazz music's greatest players, bassist Ron Carter is in many ways the only "fitting" player, as few musicians would be worthy of such company. It is almost impossible to name all of the artists with whom Carter recorded, as with more than twenty-five hundred recordings, he is one of the most recorded musicians in history. Though he is perhaps best known for his work with the likes of Davis, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner, Carter's playing on Components is on par with his finest work anywhere else. Bringing with him a far more experimental and "out there" style of playing, the sextet is rounded out by flutist and alto saxophone master, James Spaulding. Having honed his skills with both Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, Spaulding is in many ways the key element to Hutcherson's exploratory playing, and there is clearly an uncanny chemistry between the two musicians.

While one cannot overlook the fact that Components contains one of the most overwhelmingly talented grouping of "backing" musicians that was ever assembled, throughout the album, there is rarely any question that Bobby Hutcherson is the "star" of the record. Though he affords himself far more solo space than on his previous record, his work does not seem overly dominating, but there is never any question that he is leading the group. More than nearly any other artist in history, Hutcherson's playing throughout Components perfectly defines the entire term "cool." From his light touches to his stunning solos, it is Hutcherson's playing that brings together the various sounds and styles of his backing band, and it is also what gives each track its sensational mood and character. From the gorgeous, meandering bliss of "Tranquillity" to the more formal, yet almost dirty feel of "West 22nd Street Theme," the sextet plays with phenomenal skill over a wide range of sounds and styles. It is this diversity in musical styles that highlights the difference in the writing of Hutcherson and Chambers, as the works of Chambers concentrate far more on the textures and group interaction, while Hutcherson's pieces are far more musically complex and unlike that of anything previously recorded. On every track, the playing of Bobby Hutcherson is a true musical treat, and he uses Components to stake his claim as not only one of the finest jazz musicians in history, but also as one of the most daring and truly intelligent players that the world has ever heard.

There was a time that, due to the nature of the genre at the time, one had to try quite hard to be "different" or "avant" within the world of jazz music. As the genre split off into countless sub-genres and new styles and forms seemed to be popping up every day, to truly set oneself apart from the pack, one had to be both a musical visionary, as well as exceptionally talented. Easily covering both of these requirements, vibraphone master Bobby Hutcherson remains today one of the most important figures in all of jazz music. Playing everything from the most unique and adventurous music of his generation, to some of the most intelligent interpretations fo established styles, Hutcherson's body of work pushed jazz music forward in ways like no other artist. Coming off of the heels of his vital work on Eric Dolphy's seminal work, Out To Lunch, Hutcherson brought together some of the finest players in the history of music, and the resulting sessions became an equally landmark moment in the development of jazz music. With names like Hancock, Spaulding, Carter, and Hubbard, the liner notes to Components reads like a "who's who" of jazz music, and this is one of a number of occurrences in music history where it is almost unfathomable that such greatness was ever assembled in the same room. Along with the brilliant playing and writing of Joe Chambers, Hutcherson leads his band with his unique vision and absolutely phenomenal playing. Though he has recorded countless albums since, there is little question that Bobby Hutcherson's landmark 1965 album, Components is truly his masterpiece, as well as one of the most import and and influential records ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Components," "Tranquillity," and "West 22nd Street Theme."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27: The Stubborn All-Stars, "Back With A New Batch"

Artist: The Stubborn All-Stars
Album: Back With A New Batch
Year: 1997
Label: Triple Crown Records

As is often the case when a non-rock genre finds its way into the mainstream, the "pure" representation of this "new" genre is often still far from the ears of the general public. Though certain hybrid sounds, which combine this non-traditional element WITH rock music may gain some notoriety, it is rare that the "authentic" groups gain as much credit. This has perhaps been no more true than when one considers the seemingly strange emergence of "SKA" music in the mainstream music scene in the mid-1990's. Groups like No Doubt, Save Ferris, and Reel Big Fish were suddenly giving the general public the impression that "this" is how SKA music sounded. However, anyone who has even the most remote exposure to "true" SKA music knows that No Doubt is about as close to SKA music as Courtney Love is to a talented musician. Sure, it SOUNDS like it might be close, but once you lift the EmpTV sheen, nothing but a well constructed poser remains. Yet, even while the groups getting noticed may have not been anything like SKA truly was, there were a handful of groups who were, in fact, bringing about the so-called "third wave SKA revival." Staying true to the core elements of the genre, as well as putting a more modern twist on the sound, there was perhaps no band that better displayed this re-birth of SKA than New York City supergroup, The Stubborn All-Stars. Led by none other than King Django himself, the group was without question the finest of all of the third wave SKA bands, and their sophomore record, 1997's Back With A New Batch, was without question the greatest album of that year, and remains one of the finest records ever recorded.

As is this case with many of the greatest albums of all time, Back With A New Batch is filled with small touches that make it quickly rise above its peers, and many of these nuances are so wonderfully crafted, that they slip by a majority of listeners. For example, take the opening lyric to the album: "I'm back with a new batch, and a hatchet that I bought from scratch." While it may seem like nothing more than a simple rhyme, if one reads the latter as "a hatchet that I bought from Scratch," one can clearly hear it as an allusion to the one and only Lee "Scratch" Perry, who happened to be the writer of the famous song, "Small Axe." Furthermore, knowing that Perry's music is where King Django took his stage name from, it is hard NOT to see this phase as a brilliant allusion. Later in the album, the group pays tribute to one of the other kings of the dub/reggae sound, as the song "Crop No Drop" can easily be heard as a "send up" to the late Bob Marley. While the group makes to attempt to hide their influences, this in no way means that they are copycats or unoriginal in their sound. Truth be told, the music that one finds on Back With A New Batch is some of the most refreshing and positive music of the entire decade, and with the fantastic, mesmerizing hooks, it is easily one of the greatest, most irresistible "groove" records ever made. The fact of the matter is, if after listening to Back With A New Batch, you aren't a bit tired from shaking your butt, you truly need to check your pulse to make sure you are alive.

In many ways, the fact that The Stubborn All-Stars create such brilliant music should come as little surprise, as the group lives up to their name, containing some of the finest SKA musicians on the planet. King Django combines pieces of his former band, Skinnerbox, as well as a handful of other amazing musicians of the genre. Django's trombone, along with the trumpet of Rolf Langsjoen (Skinnerbox) and the saxophone of Dave Hillyard (The Slackers), gives The Stubborn All-Stars one of the most potent and bright horn sections in recent history. On every song, the horns play in fantastic duality to the guitar and organs, and it is the way in which they are present on each track that gives every song its authenticity. The guitar of David Hahn (Skinnerbox/The Slackers) and "Agent J" (Agent 99) is nothing short of the ideal SKA sound, and they even infuse an almost "retro-swing" sound on the lead riff of "Because Of You." Proving that the "classic" sound of SKA is just as potent and enjoyable in the 1990's as it was in the late 1960's, Hahn and Agent J brilliantly fuse together old and new sounds, and the results are pure musical delight. The rhythm section consisting of shared basswork from Victor Rice and Sheldon Gregg alongside drummer Eddie Ocampo, the teams prove to be the key element in the fantastic sound of The Stubborn All-Stars. From the mellow, grooving tracks to the high-tempo musical explosions, they both perform in stunning fashion on every song, and their abilities enables the band to attempt a far wider range of musical sounds than most of their peers. Rounding out the band are keyboard player Paul Ackerman, and organist and SKA legend, Vic Ruggiero from The Slackers. Whether it is the base of "One Glimmer Of Hope" or the light touches on "Lost Out Again," both of these players create the perfect final piece to the bands sound, and the combination of all of these musicians make Back With A New Batch a truly extraordinary wall of sound.

Much like the music, the vocals throughout Back With A New Batch bring together various styles of "island music," from more formal singing to dub-style toasting to fantastic group vocals. A majority of the vocal duties are handled by King Django, and from his rap-singing to his more straightforward vocal approach, he soars on every single track. DJ Jack Ruby Jr. also makes an appearance, as he takes over "toasting" duties on the song, "Tired Of Struggling." There are also a pair of voices in the background that may be recognizable to both SKA and punk fans, as both Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen of Rancid, as well as Dickey Barrett (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) lend backing vocals throughout the album. Regardless of who is delivering the vocals, they fit perfectly on each track, and The Stubborn All-Stars prove that the "formula" works just as well in 1990 as it did three decades earlier. The album also excels lyrically, as King Django writes some of the finest lyrics of his career. From songs which speak of taking responsibility for making your own life better ("Pick Yourself Up") to remembering the small things in life ("Thankful") to classic reggae musings, ("Crop No Drop,") it is clear that the group knows no bounds, and every song is a true musical treat. The group even presents both sides of the idea of "love" as they play the heartfelt "I Can't Touch You," alongside the snarky, amusing "Because Of You." Bringing a lyrical diversity to match the varying musical styles, The Stubborn All-Stars use a variety of vocal approaches and in turn make their sophomore record one of the most sensational albums ever recorded.

Throughout the 1990's, a number of different genre titles were slapped on to popular music that, while perhaps not really what the genre was, gained the label simply because it was the "closest." While this may have made it easier for listeners to classify the style of music, the truth of the matter is that in many cases, this "new" sound was not representative of what the genre actually contained. During the middle of that decade, the term "SKA" was being thrown around to nearly any band that incorporated horns into their music, but were not "retro-swing." Such laziness in genre identification did have one positive effect: the "true" bands of the genre became far more obvious. With their phenomenal music, amazing lyrics, and one of the most mesmerizing and overall enjoyable sounds in music history, The Stubborn All-Stars stood as the ideal example of how SKA music should have been represented. Led by the brilliant vocals and writing of King Django, the group was comprised of many of the most talented and highly respected players in the SKA/dub scene at the time. Their sophomore album also garnered "cameos" from some of the finest names in punk rock, and the varied sounds and styles presented on the album make it one of the finest records ever made. Making every song as enjoyable and engrossing as the next, The Stubborn All-Star's 1997 album, Back With A New Batch, remains as fresh and fantastic today as it did upon its initial release, and this is one of the key elements that makes it one of the greatest albums in the entire history of music.

Standout tracks: "Pick Yourself Up," "Because Of You," and "Crop No Drop."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26: The Swell Maps, "A Trip To Marineville"

Artist: The Swell Maps
Album: A Trip To Marineville
Year: 1979
Label: Rough Trade

Countless times throughout music history, the bands that served as the pivotal players for the birth of a new style of music are forgotten and overshadowed by the bands that made the sound famous. In many ways, the timeless Bob Marley lyric, "If you know your history, then you will know where you're coming from" rings perfectly true. Taking these two thoughts into account, there are few bands that so completely represent these ideas as one finds with early British "art rock" pioneers, The Swell Maps. Playing a massively wide range of musical styles, the group can be seen as largely responsible for a large part of the post-punk sound, as well as one of the most indispensable forces behind the formation of the "new wave" genre. Though the band only released a pair of full length albums, they were together for nearly a decade, and after splitting up, many of the band members' later projects were just as influential. Playing everything from straightforward, simple, punk rock to some of the most intriguing, original "art rock," The Swell Maps proved to be a group that knew no musical boundaries, and the wide range of influences that one can hear in their music is nearly as impressive as the music itself. Though the band had existed in some form or another since the early 1970's, they did not release a full length record until the final year of the decade. This album, The Swell Maps' 1979 debut, A Trip To Marineville, is without question one of the most uniquely fantastic and massively influential albums ever recorded.

One can make very little argument that the sound of The Swell Maps is unlike that of anything else that was recorded previously. Pulling influence from groups like The Rolling Stones and T. Rex as much as they do from the likes of Can or The Damned, The Swell Maps present one of the most truly unique musical sounds that the world has ever heard. The fact that the group is able to not only incorporate such varied influences into their music, but that they actually play within the confines of multiple genres, is just part of what makes them so unique. While many bands attempt to perform different styles of music, there are very few that have done so with as much technical success and sonic brilliance as one finds throughout A Trip To Marineville. The amount of impact that their sound had can be heard in so many later bands, with one of the clearest examples being the dark, eerie sound of "Gunboats" that is unquestionably one of the earliest examples of what would become the "post punk" sound. This pounding, menacing sound was clearly a massive influence on an entire generation of musicians, and one can clearly hear remnants of it within the music of bands like The Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten, and even Pavement. This massive amount if influence across the musical spectrum, as well as the latitude of bands from which they draw they style is a direct effect of the unparalleled level of musicianship within the six members that made up the band.

When they need to be loud and outrageous, The Swell Maps bring a fury that would have made The Sex Pistols take note, yet when they need to be melodic and more restrained, the group is equally as impressive. Leading this sonic charge are bothers Epic Soundtracks (real name: Kevin Paul Godfrey) and Nikki Sudden (real name: Adrian Nicholas Godfrey). It is the vision of these two musicians that serves as the bands' primary direction, and the brothers were clearly a pair that listened to quite a bit of music in their early years. Though the brothers worked with a number of different groupings over the years, they did not find the "right" fit until they began working with bassist Jowe Head (real name: Stephen Bird) and guitarist Richard Earl. Head's wild, powerful basslines proved to be the key change in the bands' sound, as it is his playing that gives the songs on A Trip To Marineville their looming, sinister tone. The guitar work of Earl is also wonderfully unique, as he uses the album to experiment with what different types of sound he can get out of his guitar. Alongside these two musicians and the brothers Godfrey are fellow musical visionaries Phones Sportsman (real name: David Barrington) and John Cockrill. The combination of all six of these musicians working around one another creates one of the most imposing and magnificent walls out sound that has ever been recorded, and it is truly a sound that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

There is little question that the combination of these six musicians is unlike that of any other band in history, yet it is the talents of Nikki Sudden that rise above the others and prove to be the most vital to the bands' sound. Serving as the primary vocalist for The Swell Maps, as well as writing a majority of the songs found on A Trip To Marineville, his vocal style was clearly equally as influential as the music over which he sings. Vocalists from Lux Interior to Jeffrey Lee Pierce clearly take some of their vocal approach from Sudden's style, yet one can hear traces of everyone from Lou Reed to David Bowie within the voice of Sudden. Much like the music over which he sings, Sudden's voice sounds as perfect in the slower, more melancholy songs as it does on the more fast paced, punk songs, and this proves to be an absolutely invaluable element within the bands sound. Though the more "traditional" sounding sounds found on A Trip To Marineville are truly superb, it is often the more avant, more "artsy" songs that makes the band such legends. Presenting a true "noise experiment," the song "Don't Throw Ashtrays At Me!" is as "outside the box" a song as one can get; and while it may seem like nothing more than random musicality under random speech, there is unquestionably a structure to the song, and this proves to be the true genius behind The Swell Maps. It is the juxtaposition between songs like these and the more straightforward punk songs like "H.S. Art" that makes A Trip To Marineville such a stunning experience.

While many make the case that by the time 1979 rolled around, "true punk" was dead, the truth of the matter is, it was not; it had simply returned to its birthplace in the smaller, less commercially exposed bands of the world. This statement is rarely more true then one finds in the extremely unique and often indescribable music of The Swell Maps. Taking the "punk" ethos to the extreme, the group even went so far as to release their debut single (with their final lineup) on their own record label, Rather Records. This single led to a more formal distribution deal with Rough Trade Records, and also led to their recording of their first full length album, the massively influential, A Trip To Marineville. It is on this record that one can hear a wide range of influences at play, as The Swell Maps created music like no other band in history. Mixing together everything from the hardest of punk to the most "out there" of experimental music, The Swell Maps unknowingly laid down the groundwork for a number of smaller genres that would follow over the next two decades. Combining the brilliant talents of six musicians, the soundscapes that the group create run the gamut from more "formal" rock numbers to punk classics to true experiments of sound. It is due to the magnificent way in which the group carries out each of these varied styles that The Swell Maps stand today as absolutely music legends, and their 1979 debut, A Trip To Marineville remains a similarly indispensable and musically stunning record.

Standout tracks: "H.S. Art," "Midget Submarines," and "Gunboats."

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25: Cream, "Disraeli Gears"

Artist: Cream
Album: Disraeli Gears
Year: 1967
Label: Reaction (UK)/ATCO (US)

The "power trio" in rock music has become a time-honored tradition over the decades, but like everything else, there was a "first" band to find success in this format. While a majority of trios, more specifically "super-groups," tend to implode before making any significant musical contributions, over the years, it has been proven that if the members of a "super-group" can set aside their egos, the results are usually some of the greatest music ever recorded. While the most recent incarnation of the successful super-group was Oysterhead, there have been few groups of any size that can compare to the awesome power of the group that can be seen both as the finest rock trio ever, as well as the first "super-group, Cream. While Eric Clapton played with many different bands, as well as a great deal of solo work, when one looks at his entire career, it is hard to argue that his work with Cream was anything less than his finest. Along with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, Cream stands as one of the key bands in transitioning to the "blues-rock" sound, as well as one of the most unexpected stars of the psychedelic era. The bands' first two records, though similar in many ways, present both sides of the groups' amazing sound, as their debut record is one of the finest blues-rock albums ever, and in many ways, it opened the door for the "jam band" sound. While their debut is without question a superb record, it is Cream's second album, 1967's Disraeli Gears, that stands not only as their crowning achievement, but also one of the most influential and absolutely timeless albums ever recorded.

In many ways, the way in which the title of "Disraeli Gears" came to happen represents a perfect example of the humor and joy one can find in being part of a band. As the story goes, Clapton and Baker were discussing the fact that Clapton wanted to buy a racing bicycle when one of their roadies, Mick Turner, noted that racing bicycles had, "it's got them Disraeli Gears." In truth, he meant to call them the proper term, "derailleur gears," but instead substituted the surname of the nineteenth century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. For whatever reason, the band found this absolutely hilarious, and the name of their album is a never-ending reminder of Turner's comment. Disraeli Gears is also remembered for its shockingly vibrant cover, and the artwork featured on the cover is in many ways responsible for the "psychedelic art" movement that would become commonplace over the following years. Created by Australian artist Martin Sharp, he would go on to design pieces for everyone from Bob Dylan to Donovan, and his works remain the finest of the entire psychedelic art movement. Sharp also gave the group a poem when Clapton mentioned that they had music that needed lyrics. This poem turned out to become the b-side to the "Sunshine Of Your Love" single, and Sharp takes the writing credit for the song, "Tales Of Brave Ulysses." The rest of the songs of Disraeli Gears is a shared effort in terms of both music and lyrics, and this is one of the key reasons why the album is so fantastic.

The key change from the sound from their first record to Disraeli Gears lies in the fact that the group begins to move away from a blues-rock format, and along with the cover art, the influence of the early days of the psychedelic music movement are clearly present. However, the group does not leave blues-rock completely behind, as it is still the core of the songs, but clearly not in its traditional form. It is through this transition that Disraeli Gears shows Cream for who they truly are, as each member excels brilliantly and after hearing the record, it is clear that these are three of the greatest musicians in history. With each of the three musicians boasting extraordinary levels of talent, it is often the groove of bassist Jack Bruce that propels the songs to greatness. Bruce, whose influence can be heard in everyone from Geddy Lee to Chris Chew, was unquestionably the greatest bassist of the era, and his sound remains massively important to this day. The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Ginger Baker, is by far one of the most influential and unsurpassed players in all of music history. Though he would later play with the likes of Fela Kuti and Hawkwind, it is work with Cream that stands as his finest playing. Ginger Baker is also credited as pioneering the idea of having two bass drums, as well as turning drumming into a far more flamboyant and "showy" performance. By far one of the most accomplished and influential rhythm sections in history, it is largely due to the tensions between Bruce and Baker that the group disbanded following the Disraeli Gears tour.

Throughout Disraeli Gears, both Bruce and Baker perform brilliantly, yet they are always placed as a "second" note to the playing and singing of Eric Clapton. As the man who is perhaps the finest blues guitarist of his generation, Clapton epitomizes the term "rock legend" as his playing with bands from Derek & The Dominoes to The Yardbirds to Blind Faith cements his place as one of the true "guitar gods." Yet it is his work within the confines of Cream that often defines his sound and style. Bringing some of the most stunning solos and riffs of his entire career, it is this band that catapulted him to the revered status which he holds to this day. Disraeli Gears also contains what may very well be Clapton's most famous riff, and the main musical phrasing on "Sunshine Of Your Love" led the song to become the best selling single in the history of Atlantic Records (a record that remains intact to this day). The bassline to the song, which is just as memorable, was written by Bruce after watching Jimi Hendrix perform live a year earlier. It is this combination of two of the most brilliant musical progressions in history that makes "Sunshine Of Your Love" an absolutely stunning song, even more than forty years after its initial release. From Clapton's phenomenal guitar playing to the writing powers of all three band members, there is not a dull or "off" moment anywhere on Disraeli Gears, and there has truly never been another album with an equal level of power and sonic beauty.

While one may be quick to slightly understate the importance of Cream, the truth of the matter is, in the year that followed Disraeli Gears, Cream was the top touring act in the world, out-drawing the likes of The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, as well as becoming the first act to be earn a "platinum" album, as the record topped the charts across the globe. Powered by three of the most talented musicians in history, Cream also represents the first true "super-group" of music, and in many ways, they remain the finest example of this idea to this day. The rhythm section of Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce stand almost completely unrivaled in terms of power and playing, and Eric Clapton's stunning guitar work makes Cream a group that knows few equals. Paving the way for a new era of blues-rock, as well as being one of the key forces in the development of the "jam band" sound, there are only a handful of other groups that can boast as much influence and a similar level of raw musicianship. Containing some of Cream's most famous songs, Disraeli Gears is without question their masterpiece, and the songs remain just as powerful and fresh today as they were upon their initial release in the late 1960's. A true group effort, each song on the album is just as fanstastic as the others, and it is without question one of the most "complete" records ever made. Though the record would also mark the beginning of the end of Cream, there is little question that not only is their 1967 release, Disraeli Gears, their finest musical effort, but it is easily one of the greatest and most important albums ever recorded by any artist in music history.

Standout tracks: "Strange Brew," "Sunshine Of Your Love," and "Tales Of Brave Ulysses."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24: Lydia Kavina, "Music From The Ether"

Artist: Lydia Kavina
Album: Music From The Ether
Year: 1999
Label: Mode

While the term "experimental" or avant-garde music is often used in reference to some type of unorthodox approach to an established musical style, when one really thinks about the term, it simply should not work in such cases. Even groups like The Fall, Suicide, and Captain Beefheart, while certainly not playing like anything else ever recorded, are still at some level playing within an established genre. This idea becomes even more clear when one hears music that IS actually experimental, and such an experience enable a listener to more accurately place non-experimental acts into proper genres. There are few finer examples of experimental music than one will find in the uniquely stunning work of the woman who is without question the finest theremin player on the planet: Lydia Kavina. Hailing from Moscow, Russia, Lydia Kavina is one of the few people in the world who can call themselves a "professional" theremin player, and her brilliant performances can be found alongside some of the worlds' finest orchestras, as well as the core music in a number of films, most notably 1994's Ed Wood as well as being prominently featured in the theme to the long-running BBC show, Doctor Who. Along with her brilliant performances, Kavina also writes an overwhelming majority of her own pieces, and this further cements her name as one of the most talented performers in the modern music scene. While each of her records is an amazing musical experience, it is her magnificent 1999 release, Music From The Ether, that stands as her finest work, as well as one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

The theremin is without question one of the most interesting, yet still rather obscure musical instruments ever invented. Patented in 1928 by Russian inventor Lev Sergeivich Termen (AKA Léon Theremin), it is also known as an etherophone or a termenovox and was one of the earliest electronic instruments. In fact, upon seeing the instrument, then Russian leader Vladimir Lenin found the device so amazing that he sent its inventor on an around the world trip to show other countries the technological advances of Russian minds. In short, the theremin is made up of a pair of metal antennas which sense the position on the players' hands and in turn control the oscillators which creates the sound. One hand works with one of the these antennas to control the pitch, while the other is used to control the volume. This makes the theremin one of the most difficult instruments in history to play, as there are not keys, frets, or any other sort of marks to indicate "what" note you are playing. To this point, the theremin is completely unique as it is the only instrument in history that one does not actually touch to play. The sound that the theremin emits perfect defines the word "eerie," and it was used in many of the early horror movies, and though it has largely been replaced by synthesizers in more recent years, the sound remains the "ultimate" creepy sound. Though it is often difficult to find a teacher for such an instrument, Lydia Kavina was able to learn from the best, as she was taught to play theremin by her grand-uncle, Léon Theremin.

Though the theremin is a rather rare instrument to hear within the confines of a larger orchestra, Lydia Kavina's playing is so highly respected across the globe that she is regularly able to enlist the services of the finest musicians on the planet as her backing players. On Music From The Ether, she brings with her the talents of the Portland String Quartet, as well as pianist Joshua Pierce and soprano Elizabeth Parcells. Aside from Kavina, Pierce's playing is the most prominent on the album, and he proves to be one of the most talented classical players of his generation. Often bringing a power and tone similar to that of David Helfgott, Pierce's playing is one of the finest musical compliments that Kavina's theremin has ever found. The way in which the two interact is truly magnificent to experience, as these are clearly two exceptionally skilled musicians who are able to push one another to greater heights. On "In Whims of the Wind," a piece which Kavina herself wrote, the stunning voice of Parcells blends brilliantly with Kavina's theremin, and Lydia shows her true skills, as she makes the pitch of her instrument perfectly match that of Parcells' voice. Sounding like two unique singers, it is moments like these where one fully realizes the true talents of Kavina, as well as the limitless applications of the theremin.

While her backing musicians are fantastic and her compositions truly would not exist without them, there is simply no other musician on the planet that makes music quite like Lydia Kavina. While many music museums and "hands on" museums have theremin's on hand for the public to try, it does not take long for one to realize that it is without question one of the most difficult and precise instruments ever created. Without physical manipulation, playing theremin requires great concentration and an exceptionally delicate touch. Kavina shines throughout Music From The Ether, as every note is perfect, and she also shows a clear understanding of the finer points of music, as she gives notes the perfect sustain and waver when needed. These nuances, which are often lost among more recent artists, are where Kavina shines, as her compositions are some of the most original and complex of her generation, regardless of the featured instrument. There are also countless parts throughout Music From The Ether, most notably on "Fantasia for Theremin," where Kavina makes the theremin sound as if it is singing. As was previously stated, this comes to full realization on "In Whims of the Wind," yet there are countless other moments throughout the record where one must concentrate on the sound to decipher if it is Parcells' voice or Kavina's theremin that is being heard. From her technique to the compositions she creates, Lydia Kavina is without question one of the most intriguing and talented performers anywhere in the current music scene.

Much like terms like "alternative music" and "indie rock," labeling a sound or artist "experimental" occurs far too often, and most of the time, it is rather inaccurate. While it may sound a bit different than a majority of performers, an overwhelming amount of the time, "experimental" music is simply an established style being performed with a slightly different sonic texture. Taking a rare obscure instrument and mixing it into a classical format, Lydia Kavina truly embodies the idea of "experimental" music, and there has never been another sound or style that resembles the music she creates. Having been taught by the instruments' inventor, Kavina clearly understands the innermost workings of the theremin, and with this knowledge, she is able to compose some of the most breathtaking and unique musical pieces that the world has ever heard. From the signature "eerie" sound to points where the theremin almost appears to sing, Kavina's touch and skill on the theremin places her in a class of musicians all of her own. Across the board, in every way possible, Lydia Kavina proves to be a true musical genius and creates soundscapes like nothing else ever heard, making her 1999 album, Music From The Ether one of the most uniquely fantastic musical experiences in history.

Standout tracks: "Dance In The Moon," "Fantasia for Theremin," and "In Whims of the Wind."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23: Albert King, "Born Under A Bad Sign"

Artist: Albert King
Album: Born Under A Bad Sign
Year: 1967
Label: Stax

Often times, as amazing as a musician may be, until they have the correct backing band, their true potential may not be realized. There are also a number of times throughout music history that one is left to ponder what certain musicians could have been had they found a backing band that could properly support their skills. The former of these two scenarios is perhaps no more obvious then in the case of one of the "Three Kings Of Blues Guitar," Albert King. Along with B.B. King and Freddie King, Albert King helped to shape the sound and style of electric blues, and he remains one of the most unique and sensational players in history. Fusing together soul, funk, and rock into a blues format, Albert King is responsible for some of the most treasured blues songs in history, and it is also largely due to King's influence that the practice of "bending" guitar strings has become such a significant part of rock and blues music. It is almost impossible to name all of the bands that have taken from his style, and whether it was the way in which he approached the guitar, or the brilliant songs he wrote, his musical contributions helped to shape nearly every genre over the following decades. Though a majority of his early career was filled with singles, these songs stand as his finest work, and they were all compiled and re-recorded for his 1967 debut with Stax Records, the magnificent Born Under A Bad Sign.

Though many are not readily familiar with the songs of Albert King, they have been covered and re-worked by many of the biggest acts in music history. Without question, if there was one performer who owes their entire career to Albert King, it would be Eric Clapton. If one inspects the solo that Clapton plays on Cream's "Strange Brew," one will find a striking similarity to Albert King's "Crosscut Saw." Furthermore, on Cream's 1968 record, Wheels Of Fire, the cover "Born Under A Bad Sign" in its entirety. Also, on Derek And The Domino's classic song, "Layla," the core riff is said to have been inspired by the vocal melody that is found on "As The Years Go Passing By." Over the years, the title track remains one of the most oft-covered songs in history, having been performed by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Smashing Pumpkins to The MC5. In 1969, Led Zeppelin released their own debut record, and on the song "How Many More Times," one can clearly hear elements of King's "The Hunter." Showing just how wide and long lasting the influence of Albert King is, in 1988, Glenn Danzig covered King's "The Hunter" on is debut solo album. Though a number of the songs found on Born Under A Bad Sign had been previously recorded by King, when he was brought to Stax, he finally found a group of musicians that could help him fully realize the greatness of each of his compositions.

Truth be told, Albert King had already recorded a number of single sides before this album for different labels, but after their lack of success, he moved to Stax Records, where he teamed up with the backing band that would make him famous: Stax's "house band," Booker T & The MG's. Not only did they present the musicians that King needed, but Booker Jones and Steve Cropper co-wrote some of Born Under A Bad Sign's most memorable songs. The fact that Albert King aims to incorporate so many different genres into his music works so well on Born Under A Bad Sign because Booker T & The MG's are so musically brilliant, that they are able to infuse their funky grooves into any style King wishes to explore. Cropper's guitar presents a fantastic counter-point to that of King, and the way in which the two musically interact with one another is nothing short of stunning. Standing today as one of, if not the greatest rhythm section in history, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. have rarely sounded as muscially perfect as they do here. As they did on every recording, The Memphis horns add a dimension to the music that is absent from nearly every other blues recording before Born Under A Bad Sign, and countless blues players would attempt to incorporate horns after hearing the fullness that their presences brings to the songs. Unlike a majority of the work of Booker T & The MG's, there are actually two pianists that are found on Born Under A Bad Sign. Throughout the mid to late 1960's, Booker Jones was formally studying music at Indiana University, so there were times when he was not available for recording. Though he does play on a number of tracks on Born Under A Bad Sign, there are a few tracks where he was replaced by another piano player who went by the name of Isaac Hayes. Regardless of which person is playing piano, every song is equally as fantastic, and their presence on the album once again proves that there was never another band with the talent level to so perfectly play any style of music as is found within the members of Booker T & The MG's.

While one cannot overlook the phenomenal playing of Booker T & The MG's, every moment of the album reinforces the notion that, at the end of the day, this is Albert King's record. Possessing one of the most classic blue voices in history, King is almost a cross between Bo Diddley's gruff, loose sound and B.B. King's rich and powerful voice. From slow, almost r&b songs like "I Almost Lost My Mind" to the more upbeat, speedy sounds of "Crosscut Saw" to the classic blues-rock of the title track, King sounds absolutely perfect on every song. While his vocal work is fantastic, it is his stunning guitar playing that sets Albert King apart from nearly every other musician in history. Without question, the most interesting aspect of the playing of Albert King is the fact that though he was left handed, he played an upside down right handed guitar, as opposed to a "proper" left handed guitar. This is clearly what gives him his signature sound, and this approach would be imitated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain among countless others. Playing in unorthodox tunings, as well as truly turning note-bending into an art, King was one of many of the early "less is more" blues guitarists, and this helped to bring more focus to the beautiful riffs and progressions that he created. It is these elements that makes the sound of Albert King immediately recognizable, and it is also why he remains one of the most important and influential guitarists in music history.

From Diddley to Hooker to both of the Kings, the truth of the matter is, without the pioneering work of the electric blues masters, music simply would not exist today in its current form. Without question, Albert King and his style and approach to the genre were one of the key elements in these developments, and the impact of his playing can be heard across the musical spectrum to this day. Directly influencing artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, ZZ Top, and Jimi Hendrix, both the playing style and songwriting of Albert King rank among the most important and significant of all time. Powered by the timeless title track, as well as the brilliant performances from Booker T & The MG's (and Isaac Hayes), Born Under A Bad Sign is an absolute classic of the blues-rock genre, and one cannot overstate the amount of impact that it had on nearly every style of music. Finding this superb musical partnership, Albert King was finally able to fully realize the complete potential behind his songs and playing, and his work with Booker T & The MG's still stands far apart from all of his other recordings. With their supporting sounds, King unleashes some of the most blistering and stunning guitar lines ever recorded, and it is through these songs that King almost instantly cemented his name as a guitar legend. Bringing soul and emotion to guitar playing like that of nobody before him, Albert King is unquestionably one of the most important figures in music history, and the true beauty and genius of his music is on brilliant display throughout his landmark 1967 album, Born Under A Bad Sign.

Standout tracks: "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Crosscut Saw," and "The Hunter."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, "Streetcore"

Artist: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
Album: Streetcore
Year: 2003
Label: Hellcat

For everyone, there are moments in life that we can recall with ease as to exactly what we were doing at that particular point in life. These occasions, whether joyous or tragic, are markers of time in each persons' life, and they can often tell the tale of the person in question. Though I have made a point to keep my personal tastes out of my blogs throughout this year, I simply cannot overlook that December 22, 2002 will forever stand as one of "those days" in my life. It was late that evening that I received an email that simply said: "Joe is dead. En route to London." This email came from a friend of mine who had access to such information, and this was how I learned of the sudden and tragic death of one of the men who truly shaped my life: John Graham Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer. Best known as the driving force behind The Clash, Strummer stands today as one of the most powerful vocalists and greatest lyricists of his generation. Inspiring generations after him to "question authority," "know your rights," and that "the future is unwritten," Strummer was able to touch music listeners in ways like no other performer in music history. At the time of his death at the age of 50, Strummer was in the midst of finishing up his third full length recording since re-appearing after nearly a decade away from music. Though a majority of critics failed to see the absolute genius in his first two efforts with his new band, The Mescaleros, the album that would emerge nearly ten months to the day following his passing would prove to be some of his most stunning work ever. Leaving no stone unturned and revealing his wide range of influences, Joe Strummer left a stunning final gift to the world in the form of the 2003 release, Streetcore.

Still full of a fierce, yet somehow friendly demeanor, Strummer presents everything from solo acoustic numbers to some of the finest straightforward rock and roll tunes that he has ever written. In many ways, he was able to present such a wide range of sounds because by this point in his career, he had been largely forgotten by the masses. In interviews at this time, Strummer showed time and time again how much he was enjoying this anonymity, and for a man who once fronted "The Only Band That Matters," it remains clear that at the end of the day, Strummer preferred a smaller audience with which he could intimately connect, as opposed to a stadium of faceless people. Like many artists such as Muddy Waters, and John Coltrane, it was the later work of Strummer that truly showed his talents, and after experiencing his work with The Mescaleros, one can see the entire catalog of The Clash in a completely different light. Though The Clash had dabbled in mixing together the punk ethos with the reggae sound, Strummer leaves little question to his influence, as he re-arranges the ending, and puts his own magnificent spin on the Bob Marley classic, "Redemption Song." Strummer also takes time on the record to address one of the most significant issues of the day, as "Ramshackle Day Parade" remains one of the most moving and poignant songs as Strummer pays tribute to those lost in the "9/11" tragedy. Even with this abundance of "heavy" sentiments and history behind the record, Streetcore is without question a celebration of life, and the album is teeming with an uplifting and positive mood.

The Mescaleros stand today as one of the finest backing bands in history, and every song on Streetcore makes it clear that these musicians were fully prepared to follow Strummer in any direction. From the rock of "Coma Girl" and "All In A Day" to the wonderfully melodic "Burnin' Streets" to the funky feel of "Get Down Moses," one can only imagine the songs that Strummer still had inside. Playing everything from guitar to flute to piano, Martin Slattery proves not only to be one of the finest musicians of his generation, but one of the best songwriting partners with whom Strummer ever worked. Utilizing an equal number of instruments, along with songwriting and production work, Scott Shields forms the final part, along with Strummer and Slattery of one of the most powerful musical forces that the world has ever heard. Rounded out by bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen, The Mescaleros excel in every musical form, and they did a brilliant job of finishing up the remaining tracks after Strummer's passing. The band also takes a track on the album to pay a fitting tribute to their fallen leader, as the blissful "Midnight Jam" features sound bytes from Strummer talking about his favorite music that was recorded during his handful of BBC Radio programs which were aptly titled, "London Calling." The song, produced by Rick Rubin, is perfect like no other song ever recorded, as it truly evokes the spirit of Strummer with every listen. It is this wide range in musical styles that Strummer was striving for on this record, and the bands' ability to play brilliantly alongside him on each song is one of the keys that makes Streetcore such a phenomenal recording.

Though some of the music may be more mellow and relaxed then that of his work with The Clash, Joe Strummer sounds as good and powerful as ever. Bringing his trademark raspy, growling voice, Strummer re-stakes his claim as one of the greatest and most captivating vocalists in history, as he once again proves that "what" he says is equally as important as "how" he delivers the lyrics. As has always been the case with the vocal delivery of Joe Strummer, there is a certain "tongue-in-cheek" feel to a majority of his songs, as he is able to somehow keep the mood just a bit light, even when he is delivering powerful and moving lyrics. The albums' opening track, "Coma Girl," and "All In A Day" seem to imply that Strummer has found a new lease on life, and this is reflected in the fact that there is unquestionably a "spark" in his voice that had been absent even as far back as the final Clash records. Strummer wastes no time in bearing his soul, and Streetcore features some of the most provocative and soulful words that he ever wrote. In what can be seen as nothing less than a cruel irony, Streetcore features Joe Strummer's tribute to his own fallen hero, in the form of the simple, acoustic masterpiece, "Long Shadow." Written in remembrance of Johnny Cash, anyone who is even remotely familiar with Cash's music will hear this as a fitting tribute, even without the knowledge of the songs' meaning. The final lines of the song, which are sung/spoken by Strummer, are likely the exact way in which Strummer would want to be remembered, as he snarls, "...somewhere in my soul...there's always rock AND roll..."

Without question, Joe Strummer will forever stand as one of the most important figures in the entire history of music. From his brilliant work as the frontman for The Clash, to the way in which he fused together sounds from all over the world with the straightforward, honest ethos of punk rock, Strummer gave the world musical gifts unlike that of any other performer. Shaping and influencing countless musicians who followed, Strummer's name continues to demand the utmost respect to this day. After disappearing from the music scene for more then a decade, Strummer surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians on the planet, and along with The Mescaleros, he began to explore new musical territory and create some of the finest music of his career. Cementing his name as a legend, as well as proving that regardless of the style of music one played, it was the soul behind the songs that mattered most, Joe Strummer was clearly on the verge of once again re-writing all of the "rules" of music when he was taken from this world far too soon. Truth be told, there are very few moments in music that are as heart-wrenching as one will find at the end of the album, as after playing the stripped down, grab-life-by-the-horns song, "Silver And Gold," Strummer mutters his final ever recorded words, as he simply states, "OK, that's a take..." Such final words, eerily predicting his passing (which would occur less than a week later), along with the overall sentiment of the song which stands as his last, are in many ways a fitting end for a man who truly lived through his music. One need not be a fan of The Clash to enjoy Joe Strummer's work with The Mescaleros, as their 2003 release, Streetcore is without question one of the most magnificent, genre-defying albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Coma Girl," "Long Shadow," and "Burnin' Streets."