Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 28: Lucas, "Lucas WIth The Lid Off"

Artist: Lucas
Song: "Lucas With The Lid Off"
Album: Lucacentric
Year: 1994


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The practice of almost recklessly fusing together seemingly unrelated genres is a musical phenomena that seems to sweep through the industry every twenty years or so. At the end of the 1940's, it was jazz music splintering into countless directions, while as the 1960's came to a close, rock began to break off into many smaller genres. As the 1980's turned into the 1990's, it seemed that there was a complete musical "free for all," and one would be hard pressed to find any two genres that weren't combined at some point during the early years of the decade. From punk rock's rebirth as "grunge" to folk being relabeled as "singer-songwriter," musicians were finding new sounds, and few genres had more wide ranging experimentations than those in the hip-hop of the decade. From Public Enemy teaming up with Anthrax to the emergence of the "G Funk" sound of the West Coast, the first years of the 1990's represent the high-point of creativity within the hip-hop genre. Among these amazing sonic experiments, a handful of artists attempted to fuse the rap style together with jazz, and from the most funky sounds of "cool" to rapping over wild improvisations, nearly every corner of jazz was represented at some point. In one case, the earliest roots of jazz music, a sound that bordered on ragtime, found its way into a surprise hit single, and there are few songs that can compare to the brilliant track, "Lucas With The Lid Off" by producer and rapper, Lucas.

The fact that the song itself is so musically and artistically diverse is not as surprising when one learns that Lucas' mother was a painter, and his father was none other than Billboard editor and songwriter, Paul Sécon. Clearly, being brought up in what was surely an artistically eclectic environment played a massive role in the creation of "Lucas With The Lid Off," as it pays tribute to countless genres simultaneously. As soon as the song begins, it is clear that this will be a rap track like no other, as it instantly combines jazz along with scat-style singing. The mood is immediately set, as this is one of the finest "throwback" songs ever created, and every aspect of the song is truly perfect. With the core hook coming from a looped, muted trumpet, the more light-hearted, laid back mood persists throughout the entire song. Layered on top of this loop, the song has a second trumpet part, which combined with the light programmed drums, makes for one of the most intoxicating walls of sound in the history of the genre. The amazing backing vocal is an absolutely perfect generational bridge, as it is not sampled, yet the voice sounds as if it could have been recorded in the prime of the big band era. The entire song brilliantly smashes together the "old school" sounds and emotions of the jazz era with a modern, hip-hop style, and such a balance has rarely been heard since.

Along with the fantastic musical arrangement, Lucas himself winds and flips his words with the ease and precision of the finest "free jazz" players. The flow of his lyrical delivery is unlike any other emcee in history, as he finds his own rhythm within the song, often starting and ending on non-traditional beats within the music. This purposeful effort to navigate the rhythm of the song in his own way is yet another reflection of the jazz influence on the song, and it also makes for one of the most unique tracks in history, and one cannot deny the fact that this flow certainly had an impact on many artists who came later. Much like the music, Lucas' delivery style has a light and relaxed feel to it, and the overall upbeat mood is reinforced with his voice. Lyrically, the song has the feel of a freestyle, and the main hook of "whatever bubbles, bubbles up" seems to speak to this mood, in that it implies that Lucas will rhyme with whatever comes to mind in the moment. This fits in perfectly with the jazz-fueled music, and throughout the song, Lucas makes a number of references to the improvisational nature of jazz. However, the bulk of the songs' lyrics are a slightly subtle bragging about his lyrical prowess, and both through the subject matter, as well as his stunning delivery style, Lucas makes it quite clear that there is much to support his claim of amazing skills. There are few occasions in the history of hip-hop where the delivery and lyrical content so perfectly match the backing music as one finds on "Lucas With The Lid Off," and it is unquestionably one of the key reasons that the song remains fresh so many years later.

While in modern times, the hip-hop genre has sadly become one of the most predictable and dull genres on the planet, there was a time when it boasted some of the most unique and creative artistic endeavors one could find. With rap having solidified itself as a major part of the music world, as the 1990's developed, many artists took the base of the genre and began to find ways to mix it together with nearly every style of music imaginable. Without question, some of the most amazing fusions of this time came from the emcees who were able to blend hip-hop into genres that seemed distant, most notably, that of jazz music. In the case of Lucas, he went all the way to the beginnings of jazz, and well over a decade later, few artists have even gone near the ragtime sound or taken a similar approach with similar success. Building his hit single, "Lucas With The Lid Off" around fantastic horn loops and a truly timeless vocal hook, the song remains one of the most upbeat and truly fun hip-hop songs ever recorded. Combined with Lucas' rhyming style, which is wonderfully unique in terms of both meter as well as content, the song is truly like no other, and this perfectly captures the adventurous spirit that filled the music industry at the time. Though it is rather difficult to spotlight all of the original musical efforts that were pushed out during the early years of the 1990's, one cannot deny the unquestionably unique sound and lasting impact of Lucas' brilliant 1994 single, "Lucas With The Lid Off."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

February 27: Soccer Team, "We Closed A Record Store"

Artist: Soccer Team
Song: "We Closed A Record Store"
Album: Volunteered Civility & Professionalism
Year: 2006


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In what can be seen as a cruel irony, as the decades have progressed and technology has made t easier and less expensive to record and album, the variety in musical sounds has become less and less noticeable. While one would think that, with "anyone" now able to make a high quality recording in the comfort of their own home, new sounds and musical approaches would abound, the truth of the matter is, each year, music seems to become more and more homogeneous. Thankfully, there are still a handful of small record labels across the globe that make it their mission to find the most unique and original music around, and it is within the catalogs of these labels where one can find some very exciting music. Throughout music history, there is perhaps no other label that is as synonymous with original and unique music as the "indie" label that started it all, the mighty Dischord Records. Still going strong after nearly three decades, it is Dischord that was responsible for releasing one of the most wonderfully unique and fresh sounding records in years in the form of the debut (and only) record from the band Soccer Team, 2006's Volunteered Civility & Professionalism. Presenting a wide range of amazing sounds, the album is one of the most diverse and imaginative efforts in years, and each track is just as brilliant as the next. While this makes it rather difficult to pin down a single song that captures their sound, one would be hard pressed to find a better representation than the phenomenal track, "We Closed A Record Store."

At their core, Soccer Team is a duo, consisting of Dischord employees Ryan Nelson and Melissa Quinley. Running the gamut from open, sparse instrumentations to more straightforward, complex arrangements, the pair quickly prove that they are amazingly talented, and once you hear this record, it is impossible to forget. On "We Closed A Record Store," the winding guitar pattern, combined with a solid acoustic rhythm create one of the most intriguing musical sounds in decades. This layering of sounds enables the song to be quite full sonically, yet it remains a rather simple song overall. This works perfectly, as it represents an ideal balance that will please all music fans the same. The sound that Soccer Team achieves also helps to create a fantastic mood on the song, and anyone who has ever spent time in a dimly lit record store will understand that somehow, the group has managed to capture that essence on record. The song also gains a wide range of appeal from the fact that, while it begins as an up-tempo acoustic number, by the end of the song, it has seamless transitioned into a more rock-based piece, making it a song that is somewhat difficult to categorize. The fact that Soccer Team's music is so unique and creatively original is perhaps the key to making this album so impossible to put down after it is experience for the first time.

Playing in perfect harmony with the musical backing, "We Closed A Record Store" serves as the vocal debut of Quinley, and it is truly an impressive start. Bringing a wide pitch range, and clearly an amazing sense of mood and drama, Quinley's vocals are nothing short of mesmerizing, perfectly playing the part of the protagonist on the song. Finding a fantastic balance between "playing it cool" and letting her emotions show, rarely has the "indie chick" attitude been so perfectly captured as it is here. The vocal approach and attitude of Quinley fits perfectly with the songs' lyrics, as they describe in fantastic fashion, a pair of former lovers making a run to their local record shop. While it is not a love song in the traditional sense, in many ways, it describes a relationship far beyond that simple word, as one is left to ponder whether the "magic" of the record store will bring them back together, as the small things, like a wink or a grin, are clearly going on between the pair in the story. While there is a clear sign that there is still a "spark" between the two characters, one can also make a case that the song leaves the two as "just friends," and and there is clearly nothing wrong with this relationship. The slightly ambiguous lyrics, ranging from an affair to two people rekindling a friendship plays brilliantly on "We Closed A Record Store," and the vocal work of Melissa Quinley makes it a truly extraordinary musical moment.

Finding truly original, high quality music has become a far more difficult task over the past decade, as a majority of music has become so dull that there is little question as to why there has been such a sharp decline in record sales. With a majority of bands simply trying to copy whatever the trendy sound is, one must be thankful for the smaller record labels that encourage courageous musical endeavors that stand in contrast to the "money first" approach of most other bands and labels. Having largely pioneered the "power of the small label" ethos, Dischord Records continues to present some of the most exciting and unique bands on the planet, and the duos that they have assembled over the past few years stand as some of the finest in the history of the label. Though they only released a single record, Soccer Team is unquestionably one of the finest releases in Dischord history, and the entire album is truly a musical pleasure to experience. The record, Volunteered Civility & Professionalism, contains a wide range of musical approaches, from quick, smart bursts of energy to beautiful, perfectly orchestrated alt-rock works. Among these is the sensational composition, "We Closed A Record Store," which combines a brilliant musical arrangement alongside the wonderful vocal work of Melissa Quinley. The song is truly like nothing else anywhere in music history, and to properly appreciate both the band and the album, one must experience the sonic beauty that is, "We Closed A Record Store."

Friday, February 26, 2010

February 26: Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"

Artist: Johnny Cash
Song: "A Boy Named Sue"
Album: At San Quentin
Year: 1969


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Certain songs have such a distinctive sound or feel that, along with being instantly recognizable, there has never been another song that can be compared. In many of these cases, the song is so unique, that not even the artist that performs it has anything else in their catalog that sounds similar. Furthering this point, in one very special case, it is a song that is rather uncharacteristic of his "normal" sound that remains one of his most famous recordings, and one of the most well known in history. Having already established himself as the "renegade" of country music, and having sound success both musically, as well as adding to this image by playing prisons, in the late 1960's, there were few musicians who were as "badass" as the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash. Having found great success with 1968's, At Folsom Prison, Cash prepared a new set and traveled across the country, recording an equally impressive set in February of 1969 at California's San Quentin State Prison. This performance, released as At San Quentin, finds Cash in a far more wild, and more raw state of being, and in the opinion of many, this live recording far surpasses its predecessor. Alongside his standard "jailhouse ballads," there is one song that is truly odd when compared to the rest of the set, and yet Cash would never find a bigger hit than he did with his first performance of the legendary song, "A Boy Named Sue."

There are so many unique aspects about both the song, and this specific performance of "A Boy Named Sue" that in many ways, it is not surprising that it became such a hit. First and foremost, one of the reasons for the stark change in Cash's live sound must be attributed to the fact that only a few months earlier, his longtime musical partner, and second half of "The Tennessee Two," guitarist Luther Perkins, passed away. Furthermore, it has been well documented that the final years of the 1960's found Cash at the most out-of-control point of his life, and this clearly spills over into this live performance. The final major factor at play in "A Boy Named Sue" being so unique is that the lyrics come from one of the most unexpected sources one could imagine: writer and poet Shel Silverstein. Best known for childrens' books like The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends, Silverstein and Cash met at a "guitar pull" (a group writing/playing session), and the song was so fresh in Cash's setlist, that on the video from the San Quentin show, you can see Cash constantly referring back to the written lyrics in front of him. The newness of the song may also be the reason for the rather sparse musical arrangement, as it is little more than drums and guitar; and if you listen closely, you can hear a few moments here and there where the band is clearly not confident that they are playing the right progression. This may also be due to the fact that the musical arrangement is in fact a bit odd, and the A-A-C B-B-C rhyme scheme of the lyrics makes things even more tricky to follow for a band that had only learned the song a few days prior.

Regardless, the crowd is absolutely enamored with the tale, and it is largely due to the brilliant way in which Cash delivers the lyrics that make the song so iconic. The swagger with which Cash sings, as well as the "fire" in his voice is nothing short of extraordinary, especially considering the fact that the lyrics were so new to him. This amazing appearance of confidence is truly uncanny, yet it is also a key reason for the songs' success, as the story fits perfectly with Cash's style, and as the song progresses, one might almost be tempted to think the tale is autobiographical. When Johnny Cash throws lines about his constant fighting with those who taunted him for his name, leading to the line, "...I'd search the honky-tonks and bars, and kill that man who gave me that awful name...,"Cash fully realizes his "outlaw" persona, and it is surely one of the key factors in why the inmates enjoyed the song so much. Though "A Boy Named Sue" turns almost a bit heartfelt following "the fight," as there is a reconciliation between father and son, Cash keeps the attitude intact with the iconic line, "...'cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you "Sue." Though the crowd erupts at this, and it serves in many ways as the essence of Cash's swagger, radio stations did not like it, and the line was censored in a variety of ways for airplay. Regardless, the song still finds its way into regular rotation, and it is simply due to the fact that few songs have so perfectly captured an artists' style, as well as the fact that there is no other song in history that is quite like "A Boy Named Sue."

Though it is quite different from a majority of his catalog, the truth of the matter is, "A Boy Named Sue" went all the way to the second spot on the "Billboard Hot 100" charts, as well as topping both the country and "adult contemporary" charts. By far Johnny Cash's most successful single, the song has become a true classic of music, and across the globe, it remains one of the most recognizable songs ever recorded. From the sparse, meandering instrumentation to the completely unique storyline, the song has been covered countless times over the decades, as well as being referenced in countless TV shows and movies, perhaps nost notably in the 1996 film, Swingers. The recording found At San Quentin truly captures a special moment in music history, as in many ways, one can hear just how crazy Cash was at the time, as there are moments where he almost comes unhinged. Yet it is also due to this state of being that the style of "A Boy Named Sue" is what it is, as the brilliant swagger and carefree attitude that Cash brings to the song makes it far beyond anything else that had ever been recorded. Though one might wonder if this was the way Shel Silverstein had heard the song in his head, one sipyl cannot deny the power and awe that comes from Johnny Cash and this live recording of one of the most iconic songs in music history, "A Boy Named Sue."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25: John Lee Hooker, "Tupelo"

Artist: John Lee Hooker
Song: "Tupelo"
Album: Folk Lore Of John Lee Hooker
Year: 1961


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While there is no question that an amazingly complex song is easily one of the most impressive things in music, there is certainly a similar greatness that can be found within the most basic and stripped down sounds. Even though in modern times, the blues have found ways to become just as complex as any other genre, there is still something that is truly perfect about a simple, "talking" blues. Over the decades, countless artists have made their careers out of this style of blues, and yet one of the most stunning moments in this form comes from a man who made his name as the King of the boogie-blues, John Lee Hooker. As one of the most important figures in all of music history, Hooker is one of the keys to turning blues into rock and roll, as his more upbeat, yet still musically stripped down sound remains unrivaled decades later. Responsible for a massive number of "classic" blues tunes, John Lee Hooker has one of the most instantly recognizable and truly irresistible sounds ever, and yet it may very well be one of his most little known and sonically different sounds that stands as his finest moment. Whilst performing at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, John Lee Hooker stepped away from his boogie-blues for a moment, and sang with little more than some sparse guitar playing and his foot tapping the ground. Recalling the 1936 flood of Tupelo, Mississippi, Hooker completely silences the audience and unknowingly recorded one of the most stunning moments in music history with his performance of the aptly titled, "Tupelo."

Looking through music history, the story of the Tupelo flood has been used by countless artists, and the town has been the setting for songs by everyone from The Grateful Dead to Nick Cave to Steve Poltz. Yet it is in these early, blues-based recountings of the tragedy where the finest performances are found. In many ways, this recording perfectly captures everything it means to be a "true" bluesman, as John Lee Hooker is doing little more than telling a sorrowful tale over the most basic of instrumentation. Though for this performance, he did have his backing band alongside him, this track features only Hooker on guitar and bassist Bill Lee. The music is so quiet, and the crowd clearly completely entranced, that the one can easily hear Hooker's foot hitting the ground in rhythm, and in many ways, it is this silent, yet live sound that makes the song so amazing. In fact, things are so quiet, that one can hear random background noise, from a passing car horn to strange sounds that almost sound like moaning, to the microphone feeding back; and this in many ways makes the recording and performance all the more authentic. Truth be told, live blues rarely gets better than this performance of "Tupelo," and the fact that this was not John Lee Hooker's main style of blues makes it all the more impressive.

In a similar fashion to the musical arrangement, the lyrics and singing on "Tupelo" are as basic as one will find anywhere. However, as is often the case, it is the manner in which John Lee Hooker sings these lyrics that make the song move beyond anything else in blues history. With his deep, gruff, and truly distinctive voice, Hooker delivers the lyrics in a relaxed, yet attention grabbing style. Completely hypnotizing the audience as well as listeners of the recording, Hooker quickly pulls everyone into the story, and the imagery is amazingly vivid, and even people who had never heard of the incident are quickly taken there via the song. The lyrics are simple, recounting the tragic flood, and this straightforward lyrical approach results in one of the most chilling and unforgettable moments in music history. From Hooker's rhetorical question of, "...who can we turn to now, but you?" to the sounds of screaming that come to mind as Hooker sings, the pain of the townspeople is felt by anyone who experiences the song. It is the combination of these amazingly captivating lyrics, along with the wonderfully unique atmosphere that makes this recording so special, and though he recorded it a number of other times, there is simply no other blues recording that compares. John Lee Hooker's final words in "Tupelo" are about as accurate as one will find anywhere as he perfectly sums up the impact of the song by stating, "...I'll never forget it and I know you won't either."

When one strips music all the way down to its most basic elements, the fact of the matter is, it can be just as powerful and musically stunning as the most complex arrangements. One can even make the case that it can be due to NOT having as much going on that the listener is more able to concentrate and appreciate the true elements of great music. This idea is often no better shown than through early musical forms like folk and blues, and few examples are as undeniable as one finds in John Lee Hooker's 1960 performance of "Tupelo." Perfectly encapsulating everything that makes for a great blues tune, Hooker uses the most minimal instrumental approach of his career, proving that his skills were not limited to his amazing boogie style. Presenting one of the most simple, yet absolutely mesmerizing, circular guitar riffs, backed only by a light bass, "Tupelo" is one of the most intimate live performances ever captured, as in many ways, it almost seems like it is simply Hooker sitting in a quiet room, telling the tale to a handful of people. Though in many cases, the random background noises would ruin a performance such as this, for some strange reason, they only add to the overall atmosphere of the song, and there is simply no other recording in history that has a similar mood. With an amazing piece of blank-verse poetry style lyrics, and a stripped down sound that is truly perfect, listeners will find themselves much like the live audience at the performance: completely enthralled by John Lee Hooker's phenomenal performance of his 1960 song, "Tupelo."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

February 24: PJ Harvey, "Down By The Water"

Artist: PJ Harvey
Song: "Down By The Water"
Album: To Bring You My Love
Year: 1995


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Though writing a great song is without question one of the most difficult tasks in any type of creative endeavor, one can make the case that creating an authentic and consistent mood throughout the song is even more of a challenge. In a majority of cases, an artist either completely ignores the need for a "mood" and "just plays the song," or they go too far, and the song becomes cliché. This is perhaps no more apparent than in the music of the countless bands that attempt to create "dark" or melancholy moods, as most of them simply end up coming off as little more than posers. Standing in opposition to this trend, few artists in history have delivered as consistent and as deep a mood in their music then one will find in the catalog of the unmistakable Polly Jean Harvey. With a string of uniquely artistic records throughout the 1990's, PJ Harvey had a sound like no other singer-songwriter of the era, and her approach often sounded like a strange mixture of The Pixies and Nick Cave, with Patti Smith style vocals. Though her sophomore record, Rid Of Me, remains one of the most amazing albums ever recorded, it was her follow-up, 1995's To Bring You My Love that brought PJ Harvey greater commercial success. Creating amazing musical textures and dark, menacing moods, there are few albums that can compare to To Bring You My Love, and few songs that so perfectly capture the essence of atmosphere than the surprise hit single, "Down By The Water."

Without question, the most significant change from her previous albums is that on To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey ditches her band, and recruits new performers, allowing her to fuly explore the heavier, more experimental side of her music. Helping this effort, the albums' primary producer is the man known as "Flood," perhaps best known for his work with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and Depeche Mode among many others. This combination enabled the album to become one of the most unique in music history, and it received massive, widespread accolades, including a pair of Grammy nominations. This is not all that surprising, as the music is some of the most musically adventurous in years, and it is often the subtle musical additions that make the songs truly amazing. This is especially true on "Down By The Water," where Harvey and her band create one of the most wonderfully moody works ever, centered around the distorted bass guitar of Bad Seeds alum, Mick Harvey (no relation.) Working with a simple, primitive rhythm, punctuated by a shaker, the song is immediately dark and continues to emit the feeling of a murky, black body of water as the songs' setting. The low, almost eerie strings that move in and out of the song are a perfect compliment in terms of mood, and the lone plucking that occurs during the verses remains one of the most fantastic "light touches" ever recorded. Rarely in history has a musical arrangement so perfectly captured the essence of a song as brilliantly as it does on "Down By The Water."

While the music is truly extraordinary, it is unquestionably the vocal work of PJ Harvey that turn this song into a classic moment in music history. On her first two records, she had proved that her vocal range knew no limits, yet it is on songs like "Down By The Water" that Harvey shows her amazing sense of drama, as she quickly changes from powerful singing to light whispers. Regardless of "how" she is singing, the fact of the matter is, PJ Harvey's voice is completely entrancing, and once you hear it, "Down By The Water" is a song one can never forget. The final piece to what is truly a perfect song is the brilliant lyrics which PJ Harvey brings to "Down By The Water." Though one might initially be turned off my a song which has a central theme of infanticide, one cannot deny that the song is completely mesmerizing, and this is solidified by the fact that it rose all the way to the second spot on the "Billboard Modern Rock" charts. Easily one of the most outright disturbing lyrics ever penned, Harvey somehow spins the song to a point where this dark theme is almost secondary to the rest of the song. Yet one other fact that is proved on "Down By The Water" is that PJ Harvey is exceptionally well versed in music history. Though it is lost on an overwhelming majority of listeners, the fact of the matter is, the songs' hook of "Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water...come back here man, give me my daughter..." is lifted almost verbatim from blues legend, Leadbelly's song, "Salty Dog." With one of the most mesmerizing vocals ever recorded, PJ Harvey proves that performance can overshadow subject matter and it is surely one of the keys to the success of "Down By The Water."

In an era when the "goth" movement was already in full swing within music, creating dark, moody music without "going goth" was easily one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. At the time, any artist who injected even the smallest sense of drama or evil into their music was almost immediately lumped into this category, yet in a large number of cases, such comparisons were outright wrong. Having already made a name for herself with her first two records, PJ Harvey put together a new band and released one of the most amazing records in every aspect with her 1995 album, To Bring You My Love. Overflowing with perfectly executed, somber yet up-tempo songs, there was simply nothing like the sound that had ever been heard, and few records since even come close to this effort. The partnering of Harvey with Flood yielded amazingly vivid and well-rounded musical textures, and having a new band behind her, Harvey clearly felt free to push the music in any direction she pleased. Everything that makes this album so fantastic is summed up in the single, "Down By The Water," and the song remains one of the finest in history well over a decade after it was first released. From the murky imagery to Harvey's stunning singing to the unsettling lyrical premise, few songs in history are as "complete" as this, and one simply cannot deny the impact and musical genius of PJ Harvey's 1995 masterpiece, "Down By The Water."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

February 23: Breakestra, "Hiding"

Artist: Breakestra
Song: "Hiding"
Album: Hit The Floor
Year: 2005


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In nearly every aspect of culture, over the decades, trends in all aspects of society somehow seem to reinvent themselves with amazing consistency. Whether they are styles within fashion, common trains of thought, or musical sounds, in nearly every case, a so-called "new" trend can be traced back to a similar style from decades earlier. This is especially true in the world of music, as one can see things like "grunge," which was simply a new term for punk, "nü metal," which was being done nearly a decade before it became the norm, and the fact that "emo" can be found in music as early as the 1980's. As the decades pass, one of the most interesting approaches occurs when a group takes multiple previous styles and fuses them together, creating a new sound that is often greater than the sum of its parts. Proving this idea with wonderfully unique results, the ten-piece "funk orchestra" known as Breakestra have created some of the most original and outright fun music of the past two decades. Mixing together soul, funk, hip-hop, blues, and Motown, nearly every one of the groups songs is nothing short of a pure celebration of music. Standing as their first full length of completely original music, their 2005 album, Hit The Floor is highlighted by one of the most beautiful and irresistible songs ever recorded, "Hiding."

As the brain-child of funk fanatic, Miles Tackett, nearly every song form Breakestra centers around a brilliant bass groove, and "Hiding" is no different. The opening notes of the song prepare the listener for a smooth, mid-tempo rhythm, and within seconds, listeners find themselves unable to resist the urge to bob their head. Overlaying this groove with one of the most perfectly tones guitars ever captured on record, the group quickly evokes the true spirit of rock music, as the sound could easily have been from an early Stax recording, and this authenticity is truly unparalleled among the peers of Breakestra. It is within the guitar playing that there is also almost a ska feeling, and this seemingly strange fusion between ska, funk, and soul is one of the keys to the wonderful mood of the song. This fantastic musical performance is taken to an entirely new level when the beautiful combination of a Fender Rhodes organ and full horn section come into play. As this wall of sound revolves around the steady beat, "Hiding" easily and quickly moves far beyond anything that had been heard in decades, making the song and album into instant classics. At times, the groove gets so intense, that it is as if The J.B.'s have found a new singer and are again performing. Truth be told, though many of the sounds on "Hiding" had been heard before, they had never been fused together in this manner, and the results are truly unlike anything else in music history.

Though the music alone is worth buying the album and experiencing the sound, the vocals make the song truly one-of-a-kind. Bringing more soul, emotion, and pure vocal beauty than anything else in decades, Miles Tackett instantly makes his case as one of the finest vocalists of his generation. With a strong but smooth delivery, Tackett croons with the best of them, proving that though the style may have faded decades earlier, with a bit of a modern twist, truly talented vocals will quickly rise above the trends. To compliment his magnificent voice, "Hiding" is also one of the most heartfelt and truly beautiful lyrics in years. Perfectly capturing the struggle between guarding ones' emotions and telling someone how they truly feel, the lyrics are beyond universal, and yet have never been expressed in quite this manner. When Tackett sings, "...I've been hiding from your words, and keeping my head clear...trying not to let my heart, drown under the fear..." one can easily understand and relate to the turmoil in his mind, and yet the way in which he sings makes this unquestionably one of the finest love songs of his generation. Proving that not only his he an amazing composer and band leader, but a top-notch vocalist as well, Miles Tackett's singing on "Hiding" is nothing short of phenomenal, and the soul and power that he brings to the song is one of the keys to making it an amazing musical feat.

In most cases, when a group decides to revive an "old" sound, it is usually a "one off" effort, as there is almost always a reason why said style lost popularity. In a majority of these instances, the group is simply attempting to capture that style for a single song, perhaps to give their fanbase a bit of a novelty song. However, there are a small number of cases where a group takes the best elements of older styles, and fuses them together into a fantastic, new sound that is clearly years beyond the trends of the time. Standing as a shining example of this idea, Breakestra manage to mix together nearly every popular sound of the past decades, and their extraordinary fusion of soul, funk, hip-hop, and early rock are truly unlike anything else in music history. Bringing an amazing amount of energy, as well as an undeniable authenticity to their music, Breakestra proves time and time again throughout their 2005 album, Hit The Floor, that no sound is "dead," it is just a matter of how you approach the sound and convey the spirit behind the music. The modern musical flashback that runs throughout "Hiding" is truly unlike anything else ever recorded, as Breakestra proves that, with phenomenal singing and an irresistibly funky musical backing, an old style can be given new life, and it is one of the reasons why "Hiding" stands as one of the finest songs ever recorded.

Monday, February 22, 2010

February 22: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #8"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your desktop...it's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

TRACKLIST:
1. The Doors, "Roadhouse Blues" In Concert
2. Woody Guthrie, "Vigilante Man" Dust Bowl Ballads
3. Erykah Badu & Rahzel, "Southern Girl" Southern Girl
4. Aerosmith, "Lord Of The Thighs" Get Your Wings
5. Sonny Okosun, "Fire In Soweto" Ozziddi
6. Black Sabbath, "The Mob Rules" Mob Rules
7. Vivian Girls, "All The Time" Vivian Girls
8. Nirvana, "Serve The Servants" In Utero
9. Tori Amos, "In The Springtime Of His Voodoo" Boys For Pele
10. Marvin Gaye, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" What's Going On
11. The Streets, "Turn The Page" Original Pirate Material
12. The Clash, "Koka Kola" London Calling
13. Isaac Hayes, "Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic" Hot Buttered Soul

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 21: Martha & The Vandellas, "Dancing In The Street"

Artist: Martha & The Vandellas
Song: "Dancing In The Street"
Album: Dancing In The Street (single)
Year: 1964


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)


One thing that can be counted on, and has been proven time and time again throughout history, is the fact that a truly great song will overcome all obstacles, whether they be language, trends, or even societal constructs. It is moments within this later category that show the true power of music, and often times, the music is so fantastic, that one barely realizes the statements being made within. There is perhaps no better an example of this than when one looks deeper into one of the most defining songs on history, Martha & The Vandellas' 1964 classic, "Dancing In The Street." Over the decades, the song has come to define only only the sound of the trio, but in many ways, it is one of the "essential" songs of the Motown sound, and it is largely due to the amazing musical composition that this song remains a classic so many years later. Yet while this song is known for its upbeat, grooving call to a world-wide party, many people miss the fact that it is also one of the strongest cries for equality that came out of the civil rights movement. Filled with countless, iconic lines, and having been covered a number of times over the years, "Dancing In The Street" remains one of the most pivotal songs in history, and it is almost impossible to think of a world of music where the song did not exist.

"Dancing In The Street" is a truly iconic song on so many levels, from the brilliant music from The Funk Brothers to the fact that the primary writers for the lyrics were William "Mickey" Stevenson, alongside none other than Marvin Gaye. Strangely enough, the song was actually written to be performed by Kim Weston, but she passed on the song, and after asking if she could re-arrange the vocals, Martha & The Vandellas were more than happy to record the song. On this song, The Funk Brothers bring what is now one of the most famous musical progressions in history, yet when compared to their other work, this is unquestionably one of their most simply, most primal musical efforts. It is perhaps intentional, as it makes the rhythm, much like the lyrics, easy for anyone to duplicate, and helps to give the song a completely universal appeal. The bright horns alongside the deep, grooving bass epitomizes the sound and spirit of Motown Records, and yet many also see the horn progression as almost a rallying call not only for a world-wide party, but also for change. One of the most interesting aspects of the music is that, while Gaye himself is playing drums, IvyJo Hunter is banging on a crowbar, helping to accentuate the downbeat. The song reached the top five on the singles' charts in both the U.S. and the U.K., and it remains one of the most instantly recognizable songs in music history.

Yet as extraordinary as the music is here, there are few songs anywhere in history that can even remotely compare to the vocals found on "Dancing In The Street." The trio, led by Martha Reeves, were perhaps only second to The Supremes when it came to defining the female sound of Motown, and Rosalind Ashford, along with somewhat new member, Betty Kelly, have a sound that is unquestionably all their own. As Reeves opens the song with her "call around the world," it is impossible not to listen, as there is an amazing combination of joy and urgency within her voice. Throughout the entire song, the trio's voices are absolutely perfect, and the emotion and spirit within their singing remains largely unparalleled to this day. Though the lyrics to "Dancing In The Street" have become so iconic in modern times that people often overlook them, the truth of the matter is, they remain one of the most brilliantly written calls for universal acceptance that has ever been penned. Imagining a world in which differences and disputes are overcome by the beauty of song, Reeves soulfully sings, "...this is an invitation across the nation, a chance for the folks to meet..." Furthering this call for cities to come together as one, Reeves makes a simple point by saying the solution is, "...all we need is music, sweet music..." It is within these now iconic words that one can clearly see the deeper meaning of this legendary song, yet at its core, it remains one of the most upbeat and truly joyous recordings in music history.

During times of great social change, an overwhelming majority of the art of the time is, in some way, connected to that change. Though many times, the connection between the two is either quite buried or blatant, but overlooked, the fact remains that it is still present. Throughout the 1960's, the civil rights movement dominated the social landscape of the United States, and there is an endless list of songs that addressed this struggle for change. Perfectly exemplifying the songs in which the "deeper" meaning has become lost over the decades, one would be hard pressed to find a more genuine call for universal acceptance than is found in the legendary song, "Dancing In The Street." Solidifying this deeper meaning, in 1985, David Bowie and Mick Jagger, remade the song as part of the "Live Aid" charity efforts. Slightly altering the lyrics to address more modern global concerns, the single cracked the top ten in nearly a dozen countries, and again bringing the deeper meaning of the original to light. Though the Bowie/Jagger version is quite good, the fact of the matter is, nothing can compare to the original, as it is one of the most defining songs of the generation, though over the decades, the powerful message behind the music has become somewhat lost. Proving that one can balance deep, strong meaning into a pop-friendly dance song, there are very few recordings that can compare to the amazing mood and universal appeal of Martha & The Vandellas 1964 hit, "Dancing In The Street."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

February 20: Nirvana, "Scentless Apprentice"

Artist: Nirvana
Song: "Scentless Apprentice"
Album: In Utero
Year: 1993


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In many cases, when a band finds themselves suddenly in the spotlight, the band members begin to question whether they did something different on the song that brought them fame, and perhaps whether they may have lost sight of the music they originally wanted to create. Most of the time, this involves the band members looking back to their inspirations, and using their next record to attempt to redefine the sound with which they want to be associated. When one looks at the long list of bands who have done just this, there are few who so perfectly exemplified the term "overnight sensation" or who made such and effort to redefine their sound as "Generation X" icons, Nirvana. After being vaulted to the status of "generation spokesmen" on the power of their culture-shifting hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the trio attempted to completely alienate their audience by delivering one of the most brutal and uncompromising albums in history in the form of 1993's In Utero. An album packed with unrelenting, powerful, punk-based riffs and some of the darkest and most telling lyrics in history, Nirvana gave it all they had to shed their "pop friendly" image, and the fans that came with such a stamp. For the most part, their efforts worked, yet one cannot overlook the fact that In Utero still contains some of the bands' finest moments, and there is perhaps no song that better defines everything Nirvana stood for than the crushing, yet stunning song, "Scentless Apprentice."

On many levels, "Scentless Apprentice" is a song that is all about revealing the influences on the band, and from the lyrics to the production, there is far more than meets the eye. All of In Utero was produced by the great Steve Albini, and it is on this song that one can hear the reason why the band insisted on his help. It was no secret that Kurt Cobain was a massive Pixies fan, and on "Scentless Apprentice," the sonic quality is easily the closest Nirvana ever got to their heroes, and one can hear a similarity between the song and the classic Pixies track, "Bone Machine," especially within the sound of the drumming. "Scentless Apprentice" is without question one of Nirvana's most aggressive songs, and the opening drumming from Dave Grohl is wonderfully menacing, setting the perfect mood for the song. The rest of the music kicks in with full force from the start, and it never slows down or loses steam, creating a mood that is almost unsettling at times. The band absolutely pummels the listener, as the screaming chords from Cobain's guitar, coupled with the driving bass of Krist Novoselic creates one of the most violent, yet controlled sonic chaos that has ever been recorded. Throughout the entire song, it seems as if the band could descend into mayhem at any moment, yet there is an amazing, firm structure within this musical pandemonium. Filled with feedback and screaming, one can easily make the case that "Scentless Apprentice" is exactly the sound for which Nirvana wished to be known.

Alongside the pulverizing wall of sound that defines "Scentless Apprentice," Cobain gives one of the most disturbing and forbidding vocal performances not only of his career, but in the entire history of music. His caterwauling screams work not only within the overall mood of the song, but one can make a case that it was through the vocals on the first few songs of In Utero that Cobain was trying to yell directly at his audience. It is in this moment that one realizes that Cobain had completely left behind any thoughts on trying to make a record that both pleased his musical wants, as well as having "pop appeal," and it is clear that he decided to completely ignore the latter, making for what one can see as the truly "authentic" Nirvana sound. Yet it is within the lyrics of "Scentless Apprentice" that one can easily find the inspiration, as the words and title are a clear reference to Patrick Süskind's novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Following the tale of a man who is born with no body odor, yet possessing a highly sensitive sense of smell, the main character attempts to make the "ultimate" perfume by killing virgin women and "taking" their scent. In as much as one could sum up the story in a three minute punk-metal throw-down, Cobain succeeds, and yet it is still the way in which he delivers the vocals that completely overshadows what is contained within the songs' words.

Rarely does a band make as conscious an attempt to push their audience away as one finds on Nirvana's In Utero. Clearly, the group was questioning whether their breakthrough album, Nevermind, was true to the spirit of the band that they created, and the follow-up record is one of the loudest and most authentically hostile records ever recorded. The record is front-loaded with a string of thundering, confrontational songs, and yet it is clear that this was the music the band truly enjoyed playing. For a number of reasons, "Scentless Apprentice" stands out from the rest of the songs, as among other aspects, it is the only song on the record that gives writing credit to the entire band, as opposed to only Cobain. Presenting a sound that is more adversarial than almost anything else ever recorded, Nirvana makes their roots in punk and hardcore abundantly clear, and create as much distance as they can between this song and the string of unlikely hits that brought them fame. From the unrelenting battering from Dave Grohl's drums to the sonic warfare of the bass and guitars, "Scentless Apprentice" remains one of the most stunning moments in Nirvana's catalog, and it perfectly defines the group in many ways. Cobain's wailing, almost haunting vocal track also stands as an ideal example of the style for which he wanted to be remembered, and the overall feel of the song remains one of the finest moments in the history of the band. Though there were singles off of In Utero that were far more successful, one would be hard pressed to find a more accurate example of the direction in which the band was heading than on the tremendously aggressive, yet controlled chaos of "Scentless Apprentice."

Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19: Phish, "You Enjoy Myself"

Artist: Phish
Song: "You Enjoy Myself"
Album: White Tape/Junta
Year: 1985 (written)/1986 (recorded)


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (WHITE TAPE VERSION) (will open in new tab)


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (JUNTA VERSION) (will open in new tab)


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (LIVE @ RED ROCKS, 1994/06/11) (will open in new tab)


Though it is sometimes a rather difficult thing to do, nearly every song ever recorded can, at some level, be grouped into a genre or category of some sort. There is almost always some aspect of the song, whether it be musical or lyrical, that fits into a larger group, which can help to show the roots of the music. Yet a very small number of songs remain that, try as you might, are simply so unique that they find no musical peers, and stand as true anomalies of recorded music. Among this list of truly special recorded works is one of the most stunning compositions in history, an absolute musical masterpiece that lives in the form of Phish's 1986 recording, "You Enjoy Myself." The song that in many ways epitomizes the band, it remains their most frequently played song, with more than five hundred documented live performances since it first debuted in February of 1986. Rarely clocking in at under fifteen minutes in length, "You Enjoy Myself" has been developed and extended by the band over the years, and though it always follows some loose structural rules, the jams that are created within are almost always the highlight of their live shows. From the tension/release sections to the mythical vocals to the absolutely stunning musical progressions, few songs so perfectly capture the spirit and talents of a band as well as one finds within Phish's "You Enjoy Myself."

Truth be told, though there are hundreds of live recordings of the song, there are also two distinct studio versions of "You Enjoy Myself." The first recorded comes from the bands' legendary White Tape, which is nothing more than a fifty-six second vocal rendition of the songs' opening, yet the harmonies and "odd" vocal still represent the spirit behind the bands' music. The more well-known and more accurate portrayal of the song comes from the bands' first LP, 1986's Junta, and it is within this ten-minute version where one finds the overall structure of the song that remains solid more than twenty-five years later. Composed almost entirely by guitarist and singer, Trey Anastasio, few can argue that the song is not one of the most complex and absolutely stunning musical feats in the history of recorded music. The song was actually written by Anastasio when he and the bands' drummer were playing music on the streets of Europe in 1985, and the song remains one of the most beloved within the bands' massive catalog. Each of the bands' for members are in top form, as the shifting, yet steady rhythm from drummer Jon Fishman instantly gave him a right to the title of finest drummer of his generation. Using his entire drum kit in a masterful manner, Fishman proves that cymbal work can often be just as important as use of the drums themselves. Similarly, bassist Mike Gordon injects a fantastic groove into the song, and his jamming throughout stand as some of the most amazing aspects of the overall sound. The manner in which each of Phish's member approach both the song as well as their instruments is what sets them aside from every other act in history, and "You Enjoy Myself" is simple proof that there is no other band ever that has made music quite like Phish.

"You Enjoy Myself" also features one of the most enjoyable aspects of the music of Phish, as throughout the song, the interplay between Anastasio's guitar and the piano/keyboard work of Page McConnell is true musical magic. Sometimes "following" one anothers' musical progressions, almost dueling with their instruments, the chemistry between these two is unlike that of any other musical pairing in history. The way in which they play off of one another is truly uncanny, as it is clear that, while the entire band is "locked in" musically, there is something beyond that going on between Anastasio and McConnell. As "You Enjoy Myself" winds, dips, and rises, the listener is treated to one of the most truly beautiful songs, and this is made even better as the song begins to build to an amazing tension/release moment. This moment of "explosion" remains one of the greatest moments of any live Phish performance, as the band proves time and time again that their understanding of the "tension/release" moment is beyond that of any other group in history. It is following this brilliant musical moment that one is then brought to one of the great mysteries of Phish's music, the famous question of "What are they saying in You Enjoy Myself?" Though the first four words are quite easy to understand, it is the mumbled, perhaps nonsensical lyric that follows which has led to many arguments and long essays within the Phish community. While most believe the lyric is something close to, "Wash Uffizi Drive Me to Firenze," which may be a reference to Anastasio and Fishman's time in Italy around the time the song was written, the truth behind the lyric remains largely a mystery, and one that the band themselves enjoy poking fun at during live performances. The final piece of musical brilliance that comes from "You Enjoy Myself" has become the staple of live performances, and yet is absent from the studio versions of the song. The "vocal jam" that ends nearly every live rendition of the song stands as one of the aspects that not only makes Phish's live shows unlike any other band, but also presents the true musical genius of each of the four members of the band. From beat-boxing to plays on phrases to simply making noises, the "vocal jam" must be heard (preferably live) to be properly understood.

Though they are almost always lumped in with other groups as a "jam band," the truth of the matter is, there has never been another band that made music quite like Phish. Far more musically complex and upbeat than the Grateful Dead, the band quickly set themselves apart from the rest of music history with their brilliant song, "You Enjoy Myself." Though many are intimidated by its longer-than-usual run-time, the fact of the matter is, the song perfectly encapsulates everything that makes Phish such a fantastic band, and more than twenty-five years after it was written, it remains one of the central pieces of their live performances. Though the song has certainly evolved in many ways, the core structure and musical phrasings still remain completely intact, and one can see the song as a way to follow the musical maturity of the band. From the funky grooves of Mike Gordon to the unrivaled drumming of Jon Fishman, Phish makes a strong case for having the most talented rhythm section of their generation, and the numerous, seamless changes in time signature easily make this argument. Combined with the phenomenal musical interplay between Anastasio and McConnell, Phish's first studio album immediately made them a band to watch, if for no other reason than the complexity of their compositions. Quickly approaching the thirty year mark as a band, Phish continues to present some of the most musically creative and stunning live performances on the planet, and there is little question that a majority of these shows are anchored by a stunning performance of what may very well be their finest composition, the truly unparalleled, "You Enjoy Myself."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 18: Van Halen, "Hot For Teacher"

Artist: Van Halen
Song: "Hot For Teacher"
Album: 1984
Year: 1984


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Perhaps the most difficult aspect of creating an anthemic song is that for the most part, it is impossible to do in a premeditated manner. In nearly every case, those songs that are familiar across the globe became that way due to public perception, as opposed to how the band presented the song. Whether it was due to an amazing lyrical pattern, an unforgettable musical hook, or simply the spirit of the song, once a song gains the title of "anthemic," it rarely fades from public memory, and refreshes itself with each new generation. When it came to writing songs that were "instant classics," few bands were as good as much a talent for the art as one finds in the early records of rock legends, Van Halen. The bands' first few albums re-defined what it meant to be a rock band, and a majority of their most well known songs come from these early years of the band. As Eddie Van Halen was re-writing the books on guitar, "Diamond" David Lee Roth was quickly making his name as one of the most outrageous frontmen in history, and the rise of EmpTV only helped to catapult the band to fame. As the follow-up to one of the bands' biggest hits, Van Halen perfectly summed up their wild attitude and phenomenal musical talents in a single song, the 1984 classic, "Hot For Teacher." The song is such a classic that the name alone instantly brings to mind so many thoughts and images, as love it or hate it, "Hot For Teacher" remains one of the most memorable songs in music history.

Due to its somewhat "racy" nature, both the song, as well as the unforgettable video were heavily protested by creativity-killers, The PMRC, and the group attempted to have both the single and video banned. However, as they usually do, The PMRC failed miserably, and their ignorant hate-speech only helped to make the song even more popular, and it remains one of the most iconic songs of the decade. Musically, the band is in rare form, and the motorcycle-esque drum opening from Alex Van Halen starts things off in high gear, and when his brother, Eddie, drops in with the opening guitar riff, the song finds itself in a truly feverish pitch. The opening guitar riff remains one of the most stunning and heavily copied in history, and it helped to prove that, while the band was beginning to more heavily incorporate synthesizers into their music, at their core, they were still a hard rock band in every sense of the term. The song itself is one of the most non-stop, high-octane songs ever recorded, as the band simply lurches forward and never looks back. It is within songs like "Hot For Teacher" that Van Halen show how much they've perfected their sound, and one can easily hear the distance they've traveled since their first records. Throughout the entire song, the band never takes their foot off the gas, as Eddie Van Halen presents one of his most face-melting solos, and the band rides the line between musical chaos and outright fun. The power of "Hot For Teacher" is truly stunning, and the fact that it remains just as potent decades later serves as a testament to the level of musicianship and performance that is found on the track.

Adding to the amazing mood of the song, David Lee Roth is also in rare form, and his vocals on "Hot For Teacher" rank among his finest. Once again channeling the testosterone of your average teenager, Roth's vocals remain some of the most spirited and truly iconic in history, and it is within his vocal work that it becomes clear just how much fun the band was having in the studio. The "asides" that Roth injects throughout the song, while clearly contrived, remain absolutely classic moments in music, and the manner in which they were transferred to the visual medium was one of the keys to the songs' success. From the parts he sings to the spoken interactions to his random vocal interjections, Roth is truly perfect on the song, and it is moments like these that still make him the only vocalists that properly captured the essence of the band. Yet "Hot For Teacher" also contains one of the most misquoted lyrics in history, as most assume that the chorus is, "Got it made, got it made, got it made...I'm hot for teacher..." The lyric is, in fact, "Got it bad...," and yet it is the smattering of not-so-subtle spoken asides that were surely the words that got parents into a tizzy over the song. With classic one-liners like "I brought my pencil..." and the iconic bridge of "...I think of all the education that I've missed, but then my homework was never quite like this..." Van Halen perfectly captured a thought that runs through generations, and the manner with which David Lee Roth delivers the words, one is left to wonder whether this may have been a song Roth wrote in high school, as the mood is so perfect, it is almost eerily accurate.

In the case of many songs that are considered anthemic, it is almost impossible to remember a time when the song did not exist. From the frenzy-inducing drum patterns to the jaw-dropping guitar work to the absolutely fantastic vocal work, there is simply no other song in history that sounds or feels quite like Van Halen's classic, "Hot For Teacher." Even if the music video wasn't so memorable, and even if The PMRC hadn't raised a fuss, the song would have become a classic, as it perfectly captures the essence of the band, as well as the mood and spirit behind rock and roll. With its wonderfully tongue-in-cheek lyrics and somewhat snarky attitude, David Lee Roth spins one of the finest vocal recordings in history, and due to his reputation, as well as the way in which he delivers the vocals, it remains one of the most authentic and completely "believable" vocal tracks ever recorded. The musical interplay between the Van Halen brothers is as stunning as one would expect from them, and at many points, it seem as if they are trying to push the other to play so fast that they mess up. Portraying a sentiment with which so many can relate, Van Halen avoids being cliché or silly on the song, and this is largely due to the combination of impeccable musicianship and truly inspired singing. Remaining today one of the most instantly recognizable songs in history, Van Halen's 1984 classic, "Hot For Teacher" continues to show its power in the fact that, nearly thirty years after its release, it remains largely unrivaled and can still whip a listener into a frenzy, even if it's being heard for the thousandth time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February 17: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane, "Off Minor"

Artist: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane
Song; "Off Minor"
Album: Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane/The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings
Year: 1957 (recorded)/1961/2006 (released)


CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)


Easily one of the most frustrating aspects of music is that in most cases, it is nearly impossible to accurately trace the musical roots of some of the most important artists. Especially in jazz, until around the mid-1960's, one cannot find recordings of these important artists until they had already become famous. Somewhat due to the realities of technology, as well as the fact that until the "LP era," musicians were more likely to only record a side or two as opposed to an entire album, many of the early works of those that shaped modern music will never be heard. Yet it is also within the jazz genre that some of this is overcome by the fact that throughout the 1950's, there were brief band lineups that featured memberships that remain the epitome of the word "unbelievable." Easily making it onto this list, if not topping the list was the band that was assembled in 1957 by piano genius, Thelonious Monk. Having taken up a six-month residency at New York's legendary Five Spot, Monk was able to attract some of the finest musicians in the land, perhaps the most famous of which was none other than John Coltrane. Making a handful of recordings on both quartet and octet formats, one not only gets to hear one of the finest pairings in music history, but one is also afforded a rare glimpse into Coltrane developing a number of different aspects of his sound. Easily one of the most stunning recordings to come out of these sessions is when the octet forever changed the music world with their amazing rendition of Monk's composition, "Off Minor."

One of the main reasons why so little of this sensational grouping was recorded was due to a number of contractual issues, as at the time, Coltrane was a part of Miles Davis' sextet, and was signed to Prestige Records, making other sessions nearly impossible. Two live recordings led by the Monk/Coltrane pairing have emerged over the past two decades, and these make it even more frustrating that more was not recorded, as the two clearly shared a chemistry unlike that of any other musical duo in history. Throughout all of the recordings, and featured very prominently on "Off Minor," one can hear Coltrane beginning to experiment with his "sheets of sound" that he would perfect years later, as well as being treated to a wonderful display of matched syncopation between Coltrane and Monk. The other extremely unique aspect of these recordings is the fact that, in many places, Coltrane seems to find himself in a strange improvisational place which seems to have no musical escape. Yet it is the fact that he somehow turns these moments around and makes them work within the larger picture that serves as an early sign of his fearless experimentation that would emerge years later. Yet there is clearly a second (and actually third) saxophone on "Off Minor," and it belongs to none other than Coleman Hawkins. In many ways, it is the playing of Hawkins that keeps the song "balanced," as he is able to bring both Monk and Coltrane back from their solos, as well as providing the amazing "swing" that runs throughout the song. The true greatness of both Coltrane and Hawkins is clear on this track, as they both generously lend to the other in terms of both space and musical ideas, and it enables the overall track to rise beyond that of nearly any other jazz recording in history.

While Coltrane and Hawkins are nothing short of phenomenal throughout the entire recording session, there is rarely a moment when it is not clear that these recordings are all being led by Monk himself. All but one track are Monk originals, and "Off Minor" remains unquestionably one of the finest compositions of his career. At many points, Monk seems to be playing in a style that is beyond eccentric, almost off-kilter, and yet he somehow makes this seemingly chaotic sound fit perfectly with the piece. While many see this version of "Off Minor" as an "alternate take" of the version found on Monk's Music, the fact of the matter is, the sharp outbursts and more contrasting sounds between Monk and the horn sections make it a far more exciting version, and the band was clearly more in sync on this take. Brilliantly trading licks and lines with his sax players, Monk is in rare form as he seamlessly moves in and around the main musical phrasing, and the overall chemistry of the group is truly like nothing else ever recorded. Yet this is a bit less surprising when one looks at the rest of the group that Monk had assembled, as these sessions prove to be one of the "all star" lineups of all time. The amazing, almost swinging beat that runs throughout the song comes courtesy of none other than Art Blakey, and longtime Monk bassist, Wilbur Ware fills the other half of the rhythm section. With Ray Copeland on trumpet and the third saxophone of Gigi Gryce, there are few lineups anywhere in music history that even come close to the pure talent here, and the fact that this group easily surpasses their potential is what makes these sessions so special.

With so many amazing musicians emerging throughout the 1950's, finding the best of the best was a hard enough task for any band leader. Even more difficult was getting all of these players into the same city, and then finding a way to negotiate with the different record labels so that the group could record as a single unit. These hurdles surely prevented a number of amazing lineups from making formal recordings, though history has given the world a fair number of studio sessions that feature lineups that are truly mind-boggling. The fact that in 1957, Thelonious Monk was able to get BOTH John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins in the same studio should have been enough for any band leader. Yet the fact that he also added Art Blakey, as well as his own musical contributions make this musical grouping quickly rise to the top of "best ever" lists, and the music they created remains some of the most important and stunning work in history. The interplay between Monk and Coltrane is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is these sessions that offers one of the earliest and most unique glimpses into the development of Coltrane's sound. Monk himself has rarely sounded better, and it is clear that throughout every track, the musicians are pushing one another to greater heights, and in the process creating some of the most awe-inspiring music that the world has ever heard. Easily one of the highlights of these sessions, as well as jazz as a whole, comes in the form of the "alternate" take of "Off Minor," and the interplay between the musicians remains the high-water mark for the genre, and the song is just as stunning today as it was more than five decades ago.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

February 16: Faith No More, "Epic"

Artist: Faith No More
Song: "Epic"
Album: The Real Thing
Year: 1989


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Often times, within a moment in history, the popularity of a seemingly "strange" song makes very little sense when compared to the majority of what is going on in that current music scene. Whether it is due to an odd vocal or lyric, or perhaps a sound that is so different from everything else, the songs' success may in part be due to the fact that it is so unlike anything else. Yet in nearly every case such as this, in retrospect, these songs are simply a few years ahead of their time, and can then be seen as pioneering for trends that would follow. This is perhaps no more clear than in the case of "nü metal" pioneers, Faith No More, and their surprise 1990 hit, "Epic." As the second single from the bands' 1989 record, The Real Thing (the first being "From Out Of Nowhere"), the song would be the groups' biggest selling song in their history, and it remains one of the most iconic songs of the entire decade. Fusing together heavy metal, hip-hop, and funk, the group immediately drew comparisons to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, yet where the Peppers were more funk and punk based, Faith No More were far more heavy-metal based, yet "Epic" shows how wide a range of musical tastes had influenced the band. Simply put, "Epic" remains one of the oddest hit singles in history, yet it also remains one of the most immediately recognizable and identifiable songs of an entire generation.

Truth be told, while the song itself was an unlikely hit, the fact that The Real Thing represents the first effort from a new lineup of the band makes the songs' success even more of a surprise. Due to what the band called "erratic behavior," singer Chuck Mosley was fired before the sessions, and he was replaced with former Mr. Bungle frontman, Mike Patton. As the legend goes, within two weeks of Patton joining the band, the group had written all of the lyrics for The Real Thing, and his energy clearly pushed the band to a new level. The song is driven by the powerful combination of the sound of bassist Bill Gould and guitarist Jim Martin. It is in their playing that the funk and metal sounds are forced together, and their ability to make these styles into something exciting and new is unlike any other band in history. Martin's playing is absolutely stunning, and his solos on "Epic" remain some of the finest of the decade. Drummer Mike Bordin almost sounds as if he is trying to break his kit he is playing so hard, and it is his rhythm that allows for Patton's hip-hop styled vocals. Yet taking all of this heavy and loud sound into account, without question one of the most memorable aspects of the song is the piano, specifically the melodic ending of the song. The beautiful piece, which almost stands in total juxtaposition to the rest of the song, was made even more memorable by the legendary "flopping fish" from the heavily aired music video. Emerging in the era between "hair metal" and grunge, there was nothing even remotely like "Epic," and it paved the way for the entire "nü metal" revolution that besieged the latter part of the same decade.

While the music was unquestionably unlike anything else, similarly, the vocal work of Mike Patton set the standard for the style. Not only was Patton's style completely unique, but his voice remains one of the most instantly recognizable in history. With an uncanny ability to seamlessly switch between his rapping delivery and powerful singing, Patton quickly makes his case as being the most dynamic singer in the bands' history. His fantastic vocals continually push the song forward with an energy that can still whip listeners into a frenzy more than twenty years after the song first appeared. It is this combination of sound and style that makes the records created during Patton's time with the band like nothing else i music history, and sadly, this lineup would fall apart within a few years of the hit single. Lyrically, "Epic" is one of "those" songs that does not seem to make much sense, and yet the lyrics are still someone very memorable. Constantly referring to "it," in the lyrics, the group never even comes close to giving an understanding of what "it" actually is. Pushing this to the extreme, the chorus is nothing more than the group speaking "What is it? It's it!" While this has allowed endless speculation as to what the actual subject matter is, in many ways, it is unnecessary, as the lyics somehow strangely fit with the rest of the amazing sound.

One of the most difficult things in music is for a band to find their own unique sound, and finding success within this search is often even more challenging. While not wanting to simply be a copycat of the popular sound of the time, breaking through with a "new" sound or style is an even more risky venture. Mixing together powerful, Sabbath-influenced heavy metal with a clear appreciation for funk, and then somehow injecting a healthy dose of hip-hop style, there were few groups that could even conceive the brilliant sound that Faith No More presented to the world at the beginning of the 1990's. The addition of vocalist Mike Patton gave the group a new edge, and they forever cemented their names as rock legends with their first album together, The Real Thing, which was powered by the surprise hit single, "Epic." Taking full advantage of EmpTV, the video for "Epic" is nearly as absurdest as the lyrical content, and yet through it all, the success of the song proves that if you stick to what you believe is great music, regardless of whatever else is going on at the time, truly great music will always prevail. Pioneering a sound that would dominate the charts in the waning years of the decade, Faith No More breathed new life into the heavy metal genre, proving that it had survived the ugliness of the "hair metal" years, and the group became instantly legends behind their stunning 1990 masterpiece, the aptly titled, "Epic."

Monday, February 15, 2010

February 15: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #7"

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(Left Click (PC) or Command-Click (Mac) to save it to your desktop...it's about 75MB)

One hour of amazing music and SOME commentary from "The Guru" himself.

Info on Steve Poltz 50th Birthday Show @ The Belly Up: HERE


TRACKLIST:
1. The Noisettes, "Don't Give Up" What's The Time Mr. Wolf?
2. Captain Beefheart, "Moonlight On Vermont" Trout Mask Replica
3. Jackson 5, "The Love You Save" ABC
4. Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime" Fear Of Music
5. Sons Of Elvis, "Formaldehyde" Glodean
6. Descendents, "Hope" Milo Goes To College
7. Steve Poltz, "Brief History Of My Life" Traveling
8. The Rugburns, "The Ballad Of Tommy And Marla" Talking The World By Donkey
9. Steve Poltz, "Handjob On A Chuchbus" Live, 2005/05/05
10. N.W.A., "Express Yourself" Straight Outta Compton
11. Patsy Cline, "Crazy" The Patsy Cline Story
12. Operation Ivy, "Sound System" Energy
13. Ween, "Japanese Cowboy" 12 Golden Country Classics
14. Mamdouh El Gbaly, Mostafa Abd El Khalek, others, "Khatwet Habiby" The Music Of Islām-Vol. 1: AL-Qāhirah; Classical Music Of Cairo, Egypt
15. The Adverts, "Bored Teenagers" Crossing The Red Sea
16. The Clash, "I Fought The Law" Live At Shea Stadium

Sunday, February 14, 2010

February 14: The Flamingos, "I Only Have Eyes For You"

Artist: The Flamingos
Song: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
Album: I Only Have Eyes For You (single)
Year: 1959


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While songs of social change or injustice may become somewhat less meaningful over time, there is one style of songwriting that when done correctly, can withstand any changes in trends or musical production. This of course is the "love song," and while there are hundreds of thousands of attempts at a "good" love song, only an elite few have proven to still move generation after generation. Often due to their simplicity and sheer beauty, a truly great love song easily crosses all borders of musical taste and culture, and songs of this nature stand among the most treasured songs in history. Standing high atop this list is one of the earliest and most stunning contributions, as doo-wop legends, The Flamingos, put their own legendary spin on the 1934 song, "I Only Have Eyes For You." The song was actually written for the film Dames, and singer Bob Selvin took it to #2 on the charts that same year. Over the decades, artists like Art Garfunkel and Peggy Lee have both found success with the song, but even amidst a large number of recordings, none even come close to the beauty and power of the version recorded in 1959 by The Flamingos. While many know it from its placement in the 1973 film, American Grafitti, the song was a chart topper more than a decade earlier, and along with its fantastic musical presence, the recording features some of the most innovative and original techniques in history.

One would be hard pressed to find a finer example of everything that made the "doo-wop" sound so fantastic, as the voices of the six members of The Flamingos blended so perfectly, that the combined sound became an instrument onto itself. Never needing to raise their volume beyond an almost casual level, one could easily picture them standing on a street corner at night, perfecting their art. This purity in vocals is one of the keys to the groups sound, as the harmonies created by the group are absolutely unrivaled in terms of both musical sophistication, as well as sheer beauty in sound. Musically, "I Only Have Eyes For You" is one of the most sparse songs ever recorded, and aside from the very brief guitar opening, the music takes a backseat to the amazing vocal performance put on by the entire group. In many ways, this track is as good as the doo-wop sound gets, and the repeating "sh-bop sh-bop" backing vocals are truly legendary. The blissful, echoing sound is truly like nothing else before it, and legend tells that this part was actually recorded in a bathroom to achieve the special sound. This is where The Flamingos truly set themselves apart from their peers, as the their vocals are so stunning that they have no need for the backing instruments on the track, which in many ways presents the most pure example of the spirit behind the "doo-wop" sound.

While the group vocals on "I Only Have Eyes For You" are beyond comparison, the true magic behind the song lives in the lead vocal work of Nate Nelson, as well as the unparalleled lyrics which he sings. Much like the group vocals find no need to "push," neither does Nelson on the lead vocal, as the power behind his voice is more than sufficient to convey the heartfelt emotion that runs throughout the entire song. With an almost wispy, airy feel to his singing, it is the combined effort, led by Nelson that gives the song an almost ethereal mood, and makes it a love song that knows no match. However, one of the keys to the continued success of the song is the fact that the lyrics remain largely unrivaled in terms of perfectly capturing the essence of what it means to be lost in love. With each line presenting someone who is clearly so wrapped up in love that he is unaware of his surroundings beyond his love, few writers have ever been able to so precisely capture this mood without becoming cliché. Every single line in the song is fantastic, yet many people hold a special place for the brilliantly penned, "...I don't know if we're in a garden, or on a crowded avenue..." as one can only smile at the fact that this lover is so head over heels. It is this soul-bearing, heartfelt, yet universal feeling that is so perfectly captured that makes "I Only Have Eyes For You" stand the test of time and remain the finest love song ever recorded more than five decades after The Flamingos made it a classic.

Though the song has found controversy over the years, most notably when The Flamingos successfully sued Pepsi in the late 1990's for using the song without permission, "I Only Have Eyes For You" remains the high watermark for great love songs. Though countless artists across genres and eras have written amazing songs on this same idea, the fact of the matter is, in terms of both musical and lyrical beauty on the subject, no other song even comes close to The Flamingos take on "I Only Have Eyes For You." Barely needing the instrumentation (and many would argue they don't need them at all), The Flamingos present everything that it meant to be a top-notch "doo-wop" group, and along with setting the standard for love songs, they also set the bar for what one should expect from singing groups of the style. With the pure, unaltered vocal tracks, one could just as easily picture the song being performed on a street corner as they could in a recording studio, and in many ways, this embodies everything that one should strive for within a studio environment. With everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to Jamie Cullum spinning their own version of the song over the decades, it becomes more and more clear that the version recorded by The Flamingos represents a very special moment in music history, as none of the earlier or later versions even come close to the power and beauty of their iconic 1959 recording of "I Only Have Eyes For You."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

February 13: Black Flag, "Rise Above"

Artist: Black Flag
Song: "Rise Above"
Album: Damaged
Year: 1981


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While there are many, it is tough to argue that one of the key elements to a truly great punk rock song is that within the music or lyrics, it must have some aspect that ignites a flame within the listener. Whether this is from a powerful musical progression, or an anthemic lyric of some sort, without this, the song would be missing that quality which "makes" it punk. While many bands have found this formula throughout their career, there are few groups that displayed the sound as consistently and as powerfully as Los Angeles based punk rock legends, Black Flag. With songs that still explode off of the record after nearly thirty years, they remain one of the most influential and truly unrivaled bands in the history of the genre. Playing songs that were once described as, "...devoid of filler...the urgency of the music and playing was unsettling," there are few bands that have even once come close tot he energy and power that Black Flag brought on nearly ever song in their catalog. Responsible for countless punk rock classics, their songs have been covered countless times over the decades, and the name Black Flag continues to demand instant respect due to their undeniable contributions to the progression on the genre. While Black Flag has countless classics in their catalog, there are few that are as powerful and anthemic as their classic 1981 rallying cry, "Rise Above."

As the lead track on the bands classic Damaged album, "Rise Above" is in many ways the closest musical mastermind Greg Ginn ever got to perfecting his brand of controlled musical chaos. The song in many ways exemplifies Black Flag's ability to move like a single machine, as the top of the song seems to lean back a bit, before slamming forward with full force. The song tears in with a frenzied drumbeat from Robo, and then Ginn jumps in with one of the most iconic openings in music history. Within seconds of the song starting, one can imagine how live audiences would instantly go off, as the songs' primary riff is unquestionably one of the most energizing in history. Once referred to as "the perfect soundtrack for a full-scale riot," "Rise Above" captures the unsettlingly direct approach that the band perfected, and the overall feel of the song is truly like nothing else. Bassist Chuck Dukowski pounds away the entire song, often sounding as if he is trying to destroy his instrument. Behind Ginn's wild playing, rhythm guitarist and former band singer, Dez Cadena, keeps assaulting the listener with the core riff over and over, and the song remains one of the most unrelenting and awe inspiring songs in the history of the genre. Not a moment is wasted anywhere in the song, and "Rise Above" features only a few bars worth of what might be slightly considered as a "solo," further setting it apart from the "rock" style of music. Perhaps the only aspect of "Rise Above" that is more invigorating and iconic than the music is the magnificent vocals with are lain overtop.

Along with Damaged representing Black Flag's first full length record, it is also their first recording to feature their then new vocalist, Henry Rollins. Having joined the band only a few months previous, Rollins brought a far more aggressive and almost confrontational approach than any of the bands' previous singers. With "Rise Above" serving as most peoples' first introduction to Rollins' vocal style, he immediately proves that, while he may sound different than his predecessors, there are few vocalist in music history that can compare to the sheer power and emotion that Rollins brought on every song. With his signature shouting sound, Rollins matches the energy and power of the music as his vocals remain one of the most inspiring and iconic calls to action in music history. On "Rise Above," Ginn gave Rollins some of his finest lyrics ever, and there are few songs that so directly speak to the point of overcoming adversity. Speaking to both the larger picture of society, as well as to the individual, the meaning behind the song is captured in the repeated phrase, "...we are tired of your abuse, try to stop us it's no use..." Pushing the listener to be aware of "what" society is trying to do to them, the song encourages them to take this adversity and look inside themselves to find a way to overcome. At every turn, Rollins gives the listener an anthem to yell at those who try and keep them down, as well as an unforgettable kick in the butt to take it head on and rise above these obstacles.

Truth be told, there are actually three different recordings of "Rise Above" that feature Rollins on vocals. The version off of Damaged was actually recorded before the "formal" sessions for the record, but the band liked this original take more than the one recorded with the rest of the album. Later, in 2002, Rollins re-recorded the song with his own backing band on the benefit record, Rise Above: 24 Songs To Benefit The West Memphis Three. Aside from a fresh take on the music and vocals, this version (linked above) is made an instant classic as it features a brief opening by none other than Chuck D. Regardless of which version you hear, the sentiment behind the song is never lost, and the fact that "Rise Above" remains as potent and stimulating nearly three decades after its release is a testament to how extraordinary a song the group created. Standing as one of the most oft-covered songs of the punk/hardcore genre, groups across the musical spectrum, from Kid Dynamite to Sepultura have recorded their own versions over the years, yet none have ever come close to the stunning energy and sound found on the original. Leaving egos and any unnecessary music behind, Black Flag's first recording with new vocalist Henry Rollins resulted in not only their finest album, but also their most legendary single, which also stands as one of the greatest songs ever recorded, 1981's classic, "Rise Above."