Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June 30: Fugazi, "Repeater

Artist: Fugazi
Song: "Repeater"
Album: Repeater
Year: 1990

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Out of all of the countless styles of music that have come and gone over the decades, there may not be any other that has earned as inaccurate a reputation as that which still is used when speaking of "hardcore" music.  Those not familiar with the genre often write it off as little more than shapeless noise created by substandard musicians.  However, as is the case with nearly every style of music, there are a number of bands that fit this stereotype that in many ways "spoil" it for the rest of the groups.  Yet constantly standing as a foil to these bad examples, there are the groups that began the "hardcore revolution," as well as those who helped to develop the sound and move it forward.  Somehow managing to occupy both of these positions, there is perhaps no musical figure of the 1980's that was more important than the Godfather of "DIY" and hardcore himself, Ian MacKaye.  Though one could easily make the case that his work with Minor Threat alone would have been enough to make him an icon, he proved to be nothing short of a musical genius when he expanded his own musical vision, as well as the scope of the hardcore sound within the confines of his equally legendary band, Fugazi.  Without question a band that many held as close to their heart as any band in history, Fugazi brought some of the most high-energy, original, and intelligent music that has ever been created, and few bands have equaled their overall talent since.  While there are a number of the bands' songs that remain classics of the genre, few better define the band than the title track from their monumental 1990 album, Repeater.

The moment "Repeater" begins, it has an unsettling, almost nervous mood to it, as the bass of Joe Lally seems to almost moan around the strict cadence of the guitar playing of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto.  The speedy drums of Brenden Canty offer a fantastic finishing touch to the overall sound, and yet it is far more about how the musicians interact with one another as opposed to their individual performances that defines the extraordinary sound and mood found on "Repeater."  Truth be told, there are few pairings from any genre in history that even come close to the amazing performance and chemistry found between Lally and Canty, and they are perhaps the greatest rhythm section in music history.  On "Repeater," Lally plays with such fury and power that when you listen closely, you can actually hear just how hard he is hitting his bass.  The pair often seem as if they are "chasing" one anothers progression, and their playing was surely the key to setting off the crowds at Fugazi's legendary live performances.  Similarly, the staggered, screaming guitar noises found on the track present a fantastic contrast and make "Repeater" sound like nothing else previously recorded.  The controlled, yet chaotic fury of guitar noise that leads into the songs' final phrasing is nothing short of stunning, and also serves as an example of how to get to the edge of disorder, yet keep the musicality intact.  Overall, the song is an amazing example of organized musical anarchy, and it is all the "proof" one needs to understand just how much talented lived within these four musicians.

While the music found throughout the Repeater album can be seen as "post" hardcore music, it often takes a backseat to the brutal lyrics of MacKaye and the shared vocals of him and Picciotto.  However, on "Repeater," the vocals are almost exclusively performed by MacKaye, and the "doubled" style with which they were recorded remains one of the most awe-inspiring moments in music history.  As was the case with the rest of the Fugazi catalog, MacKye takes a completely unsubtle and direct approach to the lyrics, almost "attacking" the listener with the aggression in his voice.  The urgency in his voice makes it impossible to ignore his words, and this was one of the other keys to the overall greatness of Fugazi.  Among other things, throughout their career, Fugazi made a name for themselves as a band that, if nothing less, was exceptionally serious, and their hard-hitting, unrelenting social criticisms within their lyrics drove this point home on a regular basis.  Though they often attacked ideas of failed government, greed, and the pitfalls of capitalism, "Repeater" speaks to a far different subject, and is one of their darker songs.  In truth, "Repeater" is a play on the word on many levels, but at its core, the song concerns the overwhelming amount of gun violence that occurred throughout the 1980's in the Washington, DC area.  MacKaye takes on both the issue itself, as well as sensationalist reporting when he roars, "...did you hear something outside? It sounded like a gun...stay away from that window boy, it's not anyone we know...only about ourselves and what we read in the paper..."  He then finishes the phrasing off with the brilliant, yet profound statement of, "... don't you know ink washes out easier than blood..."  Both in what he is saying, as well as how he delivers the words, Ian MacKaye's performance on "Repeater" remains one of the most captivating vocal performances ever recorded.

Constantly innovating and refusing to settle for the status quo on many levels, there are few bands that pushed their particular genre forward as much as one finds within the music of Fugazi.  Taking the hardcore style that he largely founded and pushing it into a new era, Ian MacKaye may very well be the only musician who created both the initial sound as well as the "post" sound related to the original style.  This serves as a testament to his uncanny musical talent and vision, yet one cannot deny that the other three players who made up Fugazi were equally instrumental in the execution of this second sound.  Creating grooves that were as deep as they were frantic, the rhythm section of Joe Lally and Brenden Canty remains largely unrivaled, and it is this aspect of the music that makes their songs so unforgettable and surely "set off" countless crowds.  Bringing what was often called "sonic guitar terrorism," the screaming and shrieking of MacKaye and Guy Piccotto helped to highlight the bands' ability to stand on the edge of musical chaos, creating a sound that often defied description.  All of these elements are on brilliant display on the title track of Fugazi's 1990's album, Repeater, and both the song and record remain the high-water mark for the post-hardcore sound.  Spinning his "DIY" ethos into everything he did, MacKaye drives the basis for his lifestyle into the listeners' ears with the simple phrasing of, "...but we don't have to try it...and we don't have to buy it..."  Hitting hard from all angles, there are few songs that bring the forcefully mesmerizing lyrics and pure musical fury that one finds in Fugazi's colossal 1990 song, "Repeater."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 29: The B-52's, "Cosmic Thing"

Artist: The B-52's
Song: "Cosmic Thing"
Album: Cosmic Thing
Year: 1989

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Though it in many ways makes very little sense, the history of recorded music has proven that there are perhaps no two elements that are further apart than that of "art rock" and "pop rock."  For whatever reason, it seems that if a band that makes very unique, "artsy" music, if they find even the least bit of success, it somehow compromises their vision, and they lose a majority of their "street cred."  While this illogical reality has persisted for decades, there is one group that managed, at least for a bit of time, to completely defy this norm, and were able to successfully keep one foot in their distinct musical approach, whilst simultaneously making hit songs.  Then again, perhaps this was the case all along, and it is this ability that is the true genius of the Athens, Georgia quartet known as The B-52's.  After releasing a pair of critically acclaimed records that seemed to define the "new wave" sound as much as defy it, the group found themselves in a rather dark space, suffering from both the loss of a band member, as well as a seeming inability to recapture the magic that made their first two records to fantastic.  However, one of the other things that the history of music has proven is that adversity is often what leads to massive breakthroughs for bands and is clearly one of the central elements in spurring new creativity.  There is perhaps no album that better defines the re-awakening of a band as well as the sheer joy of The B-52's than their 1989 smash, Cosmic Thing, and it is the title track that defines the group perfectly and remains one of the most fantastic songs ever recorded.

As an album opener, there are few that better lay out the mood that perseveres throughout the record as "Cosmic Thing," and there are also few other songs that are so overwhelmingly upbeat.  It is this latter characteristic that was in many ways missing from the groups' previous two records and was certainly much of the "magic" that defined their debut.  The uniquely retro, yet edgy sound that they had perfected was once again brilliantly crafted here, and it is largely due to the fantastic production from the team of Don Was and Nile Rodgers.  The duo were able to update the groups' sound without sacrificing their uncommon musical approach, and overall, Cosmic Thing is a much cleaner and better focused album than any other in the catalog of The B-52's.  The moment the song kicks in, the group is already in top gear, bouncing across the song with one of the most irresistible grooves of the entire record.  The heavy pop sound is immediately present, and the song strikes the perfect balance between the one-of-a-kind musical approach that the group had displayed their entire career and a mood and sound that is everything that makes a pop song memorable.  From the high-speed, layered percussion to the almost spacey guitar progressions, to the scattered keyboard fills, the band seems to pull as much influence from the likes of Blondie and Talking Heads as they do from more experimental groups like Captain Beefheart.  This ability to create a mainstream sound that is in reality so strange is what makes The B-52's so memorable, and it is brilliantly displayed on "Cosmic Thing."

Yet as fantastic as the music of The B-52's was across the Cosmic Thing record, there is perhaps no element that better defines the group than their consistently stunning vocal work.  Standing as one of the few groups in history that can make claim to three separate singers capable of taking lead vocals, it allows the group to have so many different musical approaches that this aspect alone makes them one of the most unique groups to ever record.  However, while they are able to pass around lead vocals, it is hard to argue that the voice that defined the group was that of Fred Schneider, and everything that makes his voice so memorable can be found on "Cosmic Thing."  The almost sarcastic, forcefully, yet playful spoken delivery found here plays a perfect compliment to the music spinning around him, and the gorgeous harmonies from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson stand as some of the finest in the groups' long history.  As is the case on "Cosmic Thing," it is often the manner in which these two sounds clash together that makes the songs of The B-52's so fantastic, and it is also this beautifully simple sound that makes listeners unable to NOT sing along.  Furthermore, the bands' lyrics are often as fun, if not nonsensical, as the signing, and this is also true in the case of "Cosmic Thing."  The song follows the long lyrical tradition of The B-52's as it is speaks of space travel, aliens, and parties, which the group has somehow made "logical" throughout their history.  Bringing it all together, Schneider sings, "...while cruising through the ionosphere, I saw these alien beings, everywhere I went up there, they were shakin' their alien things..."  He later demands the listener to "...shake your honey buns!" and it is these ecstatic moments that make "Cosmic Thing" such a sensational musical experience.

The unparalleled level of energy, along with the equally impressive blend of musical experimentation and vocal prowess is the combination that made the music of The B-52's some of the most uniquely delightful of the late 1970's and 1980's.  Never failing to seek out new ways in which to deploy their strangely retro yet ultra "cool" sound, it was their work with the Was/Rodgers production team that brought them their greatest success, and many of the songs made during this period have endured the test of time and remain radio staples to this day.  Though there are other songs on Cosmic Thing that were more commercially successful, it is the albums' title track that best defines the overall sound of the album as well as the extraordinary talent that lived within each member of the group.  From the soaring harmonies of Pierson and Wilson to the geek-chic delivery of Schneider to the fantastic guitar work of Keith Strickland, everything comes together perfectly on "Cosmic Thing," and the song is a true explosion of musical pleasure.  This mood of pure enjoyment cannot be denied, and the fact that the song retains this quality after countless listenings and more than two decades proves just how uniquely extraordinary a creation the group achieved with this song.  Though it has a massive "pop sensibility" within both the music and vocals, The B-52's manage to also keep their "artsy" feel on "Cosmic Thing," as the lyrics are just as strange as any other they penned, and the musical style is still very reflective of even their earliest songs.  With all of these elements working simultaneously, The B-52's created true "musical magic" throughout their entire 1989 album, Cosmic Thing, and there is no better song on the album that defines the extraordinary sound and talent within the group than the title track.

Monday, June 28, 2010

June 28: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #26"

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

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

1. Phish, "Llama"  Live Phish 10: 1994/06/22
2. Metallica, "Of Wolf And Man"  Metallica
3. Joe Strummer & The Mescelaros, "All In A Day"  Streetcore
4. Konono No1, "Guiyome"  Assume Crash Position
5. Ty Segall, "My Sunshine"  Melted
6. The Noisettes, "Scratch Your Name"  What's The Time Mr. Wolf?
7. Queen, "Somebody To Love"  A Day At The Races
8. Greg Aranda, "Double Jeopardy"  Outlaw Blue
9. Les Claypool & The Holy Mackrel, "Delicate Tendrils"  Highball With The Devil
10. The Lemonheads, "Bit Part"  It's A Shame About Ray
11. The Streets, "It's Too Late"  Original Pirate Material
12. Thin Lizzy, "Cowboy SongJailbreak
13. Sublime, "Ebin"  40oz To Freedom
14. Dax Riggs, "Wall Of Death"  We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love
15. The Time, "Jerk Out"  Pandemonium

Sunday, June 27, 2010

June 27: Wilson Pickett, "In The Midnight Hour"

Artist: Wilson Pickett
Song: "In The Midnight Hour"
Album: In The Midnight Hour (single)
Year: 1965

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While much of the classic Motown songs are founded in slick, smooth vocals and fast paced orchestrations, there were then, and remain today, many music fans who prefer a gritter, more raw approach to soul music.  When it came to this almost secondary sound of Motown, there was one man who rose far above his peers to be "the" embodiment of raw, dance-friendly soul: Wilson Pickett.  After spending a few years as a member of The Falcons, and being a part of their 1962 hit, "I Found A Love," Pickett struck out on his own with Motown Records, and over the next decade, he would be responsible for a handful of the most memorable songs in the label's storied history.  The key to his success as a solo artist was the fact that his voice and approach were so unique from the rest of the "cleaner" sounds found on the label, and this difference resonated with fans across the globe, making many of his hits go all the way to the top of the charts.  With classics like "Mustang Sally," "Land Of 1,000 Dances," and "Funky Broadway," Pickett proved to have the "magic" that it took to make it as a solo artist, and he in many ways created the blueprint for the more raw and unrestrained vocal approach that would bring fame to a number of other artists in later years.  As fantastic as these songs remain, there is one Wilson Pickett tune that stands far above the rest of his catalog, and similarly remains one of the greatest hits of the entire "Motown era."  Co-writing the song with Funk Brother, Steve Cropper, there are few songs that are as unforgettable as Wilson Pickett's 1965 classic, "In The Midnight Hour."

Along with it being an amazing song, there is a bit of "strange" history behind the creation of "In The Midnight Hour" that remains largely unknown to most music fans.  The song was actually composed while Pickett was on the road, and he and Cropper wrote nearly every note and word whilst sitting in the tragically iconic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.  Though a few years later, this site would become known for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the song that came from the hotel offers a far brighter memory.  When the song begins, it is almost instantly unlike any other Motown tune, as instead of the "usual" drum drop-in, the song opens with a stinging, bright horn progression before dropping into a funky, swinging groove.  The deep notes from these horns that appear in fantastic cadence throughout the verses further "In The Midnight Hour" from sounding like anything else on Motown, and the way in which the Funk Brothers are able to make the song swing whilst keeping the tone very raw is likely why the song became a number one hit that year.  Furthering this idea, the drums take a very place very much in the forefront, which makes the song "hit" far harder than other Motown tunes, and this purposeful re-arrangement gives the "In The Midnight Hour" much of its overall mood.  Yet the fact that Cropper was a co-writer on the song cannot be mistaken, as he jumps in and out of the spotlight, grabbing moments between the other musicians to deploy his legendary guitar tone and style.  The overall creation from The Funk Brothers on "In The Midnight Hour" stands as one of their finest and most unique, and it shows the uncanny skill and diversity that lived within this legendary group.

While history has not given him as high profile a spot as the likes of Otis Redding or the long line of "smooth" soul singers, one cannot deny the sensational power and tone behind the singing of Wilson Pickett.  Taking the unrestrained approach of singers like Sam Cooke and giving it a swing similar to that of Ray Charles, Wilson carved out a sound so distinct, that it is truly difficult to fully compare his sound to that of any other singer that followed.  On "In The Midnight Hour," Pickett delivers with such conviction, such power that it remains one of the most stunning performances in music history, and the level of emotion he brings makes the words of the song far more meaningful, while at the same time, far more clear in their intent.  While at its surface, "In The Midnight Hour" may appear as another example of the stereotypical love and yearning song of the era, there is a far less subtle and risqué process occurring when one listens closely to the lyrics.  Pickett makes his intentions quite clear, and speaks the thoughts of countless men in love when he sings, "...when there's no one else around, I'm gonna take you girl and hold you...and do all the things I told you, in the midnight hour..."  To say the least, this was quite a bold statement to imply during the first half of the 1960's, and the fact that it became such a hit song is almost a bit surprising, as many radio stations refused to play such "suggestive" songs at that time.  Pickett drives his implications home when he later sings, "'re the only girl I know, that can really love me so..." which can be read as both a sweet sentiment, as well as a thought with far more racy hints.

While there was really no singer quite like Wilson Pickett before or after his time, one can see his singing, as well as the songs he wrote as some of the most important in the progression of music in many fronts.  Ignoring the trend to make things sound smooth, Pickett let loose with all his power, and across the decades and genres, this approach has influenced countless other performers.  Though he had already scored a handful of hits with his former group, as well as working as solo performer, there is perhaps no song in his catalog that compares to his approach and sound on "In The Midnight Hour."  The fact that a member of The Funk Brothers was part of the writing team for the song rings clear, as the band plays with a power and passion that is unlike any other of their recordings, and this is likely due to the fact that Cropper "knew" how to make his bandmates sound best.  The Funk Brothers burn across "In The Midnight Hour," bringing an amazing, irresistible swing to the gritty, funky sound that is led by the almost over-blown horn section.  It is this aspect of the music that made the song an undeniable dancehall smash, as even to this day, the song can ignite a room as soon as the opening notes are heard.  As the track progresses, one is left to wonder if it is Pickett's inspired singing that is pushing the band to greater heights, or if the sensational performance of The Funk Brothers is the very source of Pickett's uncanny execution of the vocals.  Regardless of which was the cause, there is simply no denying the power and energy behind the song, and it is a majority of the reason why more than four decades later, there are few songs that can compare to Wilson Pickett's 1965 single, "In The Midnight Hour."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 26: They Might Be Giants, "Birdhouse In Your Soul"

Artist: They Might Be Giants
Song: "Birdhouse In Your Soul"
Album: Flood
Year: 1990

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While there is certainly no "easy" way to write a great song, one can easily make the case that it is far more difficult to write  a"funny" or "weird" song than it is to write a more "normal," blues or rock based song.  Another way of saying this is that the line between "novelty" and genius is quite thin, and a majority of bands that end up attempting this first style miss by a long shot and appear to be "trying too hard" or simply appearing as silly.  Yet there is one band that for nearly thirty years has walked this line perfectly, and churned out some of the most original and brilliantly quirky music in history: They Might Be Giants.  Though the group first gained notoriety from their songs receiving rotation on the legendary Dr. Demento radio program, it did not take long for the band to receive a record deal with a large label, and this is where some of their most brilliant work occurred.  The manner with which the group has been able to combine some of the most infectious musical progressions with witty, often absurd lyrics is unlike that of any other band in history, and a number of their songs have become "classics" and have crossed into countless other genres and fan bases.  After releasing a pair of truly magnificent records, They Might Be Giants found themselves signed to Elektra records, and it was then that they recorded what remains their most commercially successful record to date: 1990's Flood.  Containing most of their best known songs, there are few in their catalog that can compare to the overall sound and mood of the now iconic single, "Birdhouse In Your Soul."

The most obvious change that occurred when They Might Be Giants entered a "major" recording studio is immediately evident on "Birdhouse In Your Soul" as the sound of the band is far more clean.  This allows the true brilliance of the bands' orchestrations to take center state, and the small aspects that make their music so fantastic are easier to spot.  This is largely due to the musical genius of the team of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, and from the almost "introduction" style opening of the song building to the core hook, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" is a true explosion of musical enjoyment.  The key to the sonic pleasure that is "Birdhouse In Your Soul" lies within the amazing and catchy keyboard progression, and the tone that is brings to the song is one of pure joy.  As the steady beat from drummer Alan Bezozi bounces across the track, it becomes nearly impossible to listen to the song without swaying your head from side to side.  Along with an equally enjoyable bassline, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" stands as one of the most simply complex songs ever recorded, as there is a stunning amount "going on" musically, and yet the overall feel of the song is still wide open and not in the least bit overwhelming.  This ability to create such sonic juxtapositions is the true genius behind "The John's" and the key to "Birdhouse In Your Soul" being such an unforgettable and unique moment in music history.

It is a rare occasion that the singing and words to a song are in equal proportion to the memorability of the music, but on "Birdhouse In Your Soul," the group is able to keep these two in balance, as there is no aspect of the song that does not immediately implant itself in your brain.  With a vocal approach that might only be loosely compared to that of DEVO, the rhythm and sound of the vocals is nothing short of fantastic, and one would be hard pressed to find a chorus that is more irresistible to sing at the top of your lungs than one winds on "Birdhouse In Your Soul."  Along with the music and singing, the lyrics are perhaps where They Might Be Giants shine brightest, as their ability to find the balance between the absurd and astonishing is far beyond that of any other group in music history.  Truth be told, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" is a song that is told from the perspective of a nightlight, working with the idea that at night, the nightlight is the "only friend" of the listener.  While such a concept might seem as if it was for kids, there is a profound quality to the idea, and the words continue to resonate more than two decades after the albums' first release.  This exploration of the relationship between the human and a nightlight is thrown across history, as the group makes comparisons to lighthouses which guided (and continue to guide) ships to safety.  "Birdhouse In Your Soul" is a rather touching lyrical work when one inspects it deeply, yet even at its surface, it remains an amazingly catchy song that cannot ever be forgotten.

While many bands have attempted to develop and record an original sound, few have done so with the talent and vision of They Might Be Giants.  Straddling the line between novelty and genius, there has truly never been another made that had a similar sound, and this is largely the reason the group has retained such a large following over the decades.  Bringing an uncanny talent for unique rhythmic patterns and creating stunning musical textures, the team of John Flansburgh and John Linnell stand as two of the most important musical minds in history, and it was their "anything goes" spirit that played a major role in the development of the "alternative" music movement in the early 1990's.  While their first two albums are unquestionable musical masterpieces, the group took a sharp turn with their first "major label" release, and the results were far cleaner and perhaps a bit more "accessible" to the more casual listener.  Yet this is not to say that Flood is any less of a musical achievement, as it contains some of the groups' most beloved songs, and the complexity of the music is just as amazing to experience as anywhere else in their recorded catalog.  Furthermore, one can easily make the case that the albums' most memorable single, "Birdhouse In Your Soul," stands as the bands' finest lyrical work, and the contrast of sentimental feeling with abstract concept is truly uncanny.  Pushing all the way to the third spot on the "Modern Rock" singles charts, They Might Be Giants cemented their names as music legends with their uniquely brilliant 1990 single, "Birdhouse In Your Soul."

Friday, June 25, 2010

June 25: Aerosmith, "Lord Of The Thighs"

Artist: Aerosmith
Song: "Lord Of The Thighs"
Album: Get Your Wings
Year: 1974

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Of all the things that have been proven time and time again over the course of music history, one of the most interesting trends is that of bands creating superior songs as "last minute" additions to albums.  There are countless cases where a band has either had extra studio time or needed a final song for their record, and the song gets written and recorded quickly, yet it yields one of the groups finest efforts.  Of the many bands who have found themselves in such a situation, one of the greatest examples comes from a group who experienced this during work on their second record, while they were still fighting to gain notoriety.  Though they are now a household name across the globe, during the first half of the 1970's, legendary rockers Aerosmith were still trying to find a song that would propel them to greatness.  With neither of the singles from their first record ("Dream On" and "Mama Kin") even managing to crack the top fifty singles, the band returned to the studio and recorded what would become their 1974 release, Get Your Wings.  Having already completed the recording of the songs they had brought to the studio, the band felt they still needed one more song, so legend says they locked themselves in a rehearsal space, and soon thereafter, they emerged with one of their finest, yet most risqué tunes.  Keeping their blues rock roots intact, it is largely this song that made Aerosmith's slightly sleazy themes come completely info focus, and this is a style the band would perfect over the following decades.  Bringing an amazingly catchy groove and one of the finest vocal performances in the bands' history, this "rushed" effort stands as on of their greatest, and there are few songs with a similar sound and mood to Aerosmith's 1974 classic, "Lord Of The Thighs."

During their early years and over their first few records, Aerosmith proved that they were truly masters of "the groove," and found a number of different ways to deploy this fantastic musical concept at various tempos and within a range of moods.  On "Lord Of The Thighs," bassist Tom Hamilton presents one of his finest progressions, and the manner in which he locks into the groove with drummer Joey Kramer is in many ways, "what" the groove is all about.  Kramer's shifting tempo on the opening, before dropping into a tight rhythm shows him in a different light than on nearly any other Aerosmith song, and it remains perhaps his greatest performance.  Adding to this amazing sound are the dual guitars of Brad Whitford and Joe Perry, and this wall of sound created by the trio works just as well on this slower, slightly darker arrangement as it does on the bands' more famous, more upbeat numbers.  As the song winds through its different sections, the groove is never lost, and the musicians prove that they are able to put a hard rock spin over-top this soulful style, which is a feat that has rarely been accomplished to such a high level elsewhere in music history.  Filling out the sound is piano work from Steven Tyler, and it is largely within his playing that the blues-based roots of the band lives.  Unlike many of Aerosmith's other songs, on "Lord Of The Thighs," the musical arrangement is somewhat sparse, and though Perry rips off a brilliant solo (though Whitford plays a majority of the lead parts), the overall sound on the song is more open, yet almost uncharacteristically funky.  This style drives home the songs' gritter, more menacing mood, as well as leaving plenty of room for the vocals to shine.

It is the vocal work and sound that is perhaps the only element that is more distinguishable than the guitar playing within the music of Aerosmith.  Though many have attempted to copy his sound, there has simply never been another vocalist in music history that sounds quite like Steven Tyler.  From his trademark screams to the attitude that lies underneath all his vocals, Tyler is truly an original, and "Lord Of The Thighs" may very well be his greatest studio performance.  It is a rare occasion that a vocalist captures the mood of a song as Tyler does on this song, and one can almost picture him standing on a street corner, scoping the women as the pass, with a devilish grin across his face.  The spunk and bravado of the character on the song come through with brilliant clarity, and this is much of the reason why the song is one of the bands' finest.  In reality, "Lord Of The Thighs" is a rather dark affair, spinning the tale of a pimp who is "recruiting" a new "worker" for his business.  The pimp in question "is" the songs' title bearer, as the song is largely summed up when Tyler sings, " must have come here to find me, you've got the look in your eyes...although you really don't mind it, I am the Lord Of Your Thighs..."  This phrasing leaves little to the imagination, and while there is certainly a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the words, one can also see them as very dark, and within this point of view, the song drastically seperates itself from the rest of the Aerosmith catalog.  Without question, "Lord Of The Thighs" represents one of Steven Tyler's finest and darkest lyrics, and combined with the fantastic groove of the band, the song remains one of the most mesmerizing yet dangerously dark songs ever recorded.

Throughout their nearly four decades of recording, Aerosmith has made their name for their brilliant songs, most of which speak to the loving and lusting of women.  While nearly every one of their hits is a send-up in a positive light, one cannot deny the spectacular performance that all five band members bring to the gritty and provocative "Lord Of The Thighs."  Though it was written in a bit of a rush in order to finish their second record, the song serves as proof that often times, such time restraints can force a group of musicians to focus, as the results here are nothing short of music legend.  While "Lord Of The Thighs" was not released as a single, it quickly became a fan favorite and was a staple of their live performances for decades.  Furthermore, the song became a favorite among Aerosmith's fellow musicians, as well as many artists that followed, and the longevity of the song was driven home when the lyrics were "gender flipped" by The Breeders on the b-side of their 1994 single, Cannonball.  Exemplifying everything that makes Aerosmith such an iconic band, the group creates a blueprint for how one can take a hard rock style and make it funky without sacrificing and of the power or attitude in the process.  While Kramer's drum opening bears a great resemblance to the opening of "Walk This Way," this is where any similarity to the rest of the bands' catalog ends, and it is largely this difference in sound and style that has made the song such a significant part of the bands' history.  Creating an amazingly vivid and believable character, the dark and rather menacing lyrics are the key aspect in what remains one of Aerosmith's most impressive songs, 1974's "Lord Of The Thighs."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

June 24: The Elgins, "Heaven Must Have Sent You"

Artist: The Elgins
Song: "Heaven Must Have Sent You"
Album: Heaven Must Have Sent You (single)
Year: 1966

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With a theoretically infinite number of options to choose from, one would assume that coming up with a unique name for a group would not be a difficult task.  However, history has proven that this is not so, and there are a number of cases of groups using the same name, and many times, this name seems a bit of an "odd" name to occur multiple times.  While there was a group that recorded for Congress that used the name, as well as a doo-wop group based out of Los Angeles, CA that also used it, one can easily make the case that it was the group that recorded for Motown Records that made the name of The Elgins the most famous.  Though even this group only had a pair of "minor" hits for the record label, in retrospect, the songs stand as two of the finest in the labels' history, and while they follow the "Motown format," they are easily distinguishable from a majority of the other hits that Motown Records released over the years.  The success of the music of The Elgins lies within the fantastic voice of Sandra Edwards (AKA Sandra Mallett), and one can easily make the case that she ranks among the finest vocalists in the entire history of the Motown label.  Due to her dominating presence within the group, one can also argue that having a name such as "The Elgins" was a bit odd, as the spotlight is never on any other group member.  Regardless, the soul and sound of their music represents everything that makes Motown great, and it can all be found in The Elgins' classic 1966 single, "Heaven Must Have Sent You."

The evolution of The Elgins was a rather odd one, as the group was originally called The Downbeats, and Edwards did not become a member of the group until only a few weeks before the recording sessions.  Even after the songs were recorded, the group was still using the name The Downbeats, and it was not until Motown boss Berry Gordy was about to release their first single that new labels were placed on the records, and largely unbeknownst to the group, they were renamed The Elgins.  Truth be told, Gordy took this name from the "original" members of The Temptations, as they had used it for many years, but at the time of this 1966 release, they had changed it, "freeing up" The Elgins for use again.  "Heaven Must Have Sent You" was released as the groups' second single on one of the smaller Motown subsidiaries, and it was largely due to being off of the "main" label that caused the song not to chart as well as it should have.  Though it had little promotion behind it, the single found moderate success, and when one looks at the song, it exemplifies everything that makes the "Motown sound" so enjoyable.  From the brilliant instrumentation from The Funk Brothers to the superb performance of Sandra Edwards, it is almost confusing "why" this song was not a massive hit, and in many ways this shows just how much impact proper promotion (or lack thereof) can have on the sales of a particular record.

"Heaven Must Have Sent You" opens with as "standard" a Motown sound as one will find anywhere, bringing a sensational swing from the onset as the drums and piano bounce back and forth.  The music stays strong but a bit sparse, as the light touches on vibraphone and bass are really the only other instruments used, leaving a massive space for Sandra Edwards to deploy her phenomenal vocal power and style.  Truth be told, one must truly wonder if there had not been a label on the album, if the song may have been "mistaken" for a Supremes song, as the vocal strength of Edwards is certainly on par with that of Diana Ross.  Though the two groups do not sound much like one another, to the casual listener, such a mistake would have been understandable, as "Heaven Must Have Sent You" is just as good as many of The Supremes hits.  Edwards' voice soars across the track, instantly ranking her among the most talented vocalists in the history of Motown Records, and the raw emotion behind each line makes her performance all the most impressive.  Combined with the classic sound of The Funk Brothers and the Holland-Dozier-Holland lyrics, "Heaven Must Have Sent You" perfectly represents the best that Motown had to offer in every respect.  The lyrics are truly beautiful, and nearly all can relate to the longing and heartbreak found within the words, but it is the unguarded honesty in Edwards' voice that makes the performance so special.

Making your own identity within the world of music can often be a rather difficult task, as being unique both in terms of sound and style is often the most challenging aspect of being a musician.  This can be further complicated if there are multiple groups using the same name, as well as if one does not receive proper support from a record label.  It is these reasons that can me seen as the factors that led The Elgins 1966 single, "Heaven Must Have Sent You" to only momentarily break into the top ten singles, and become somewhat of a "second tier" single in the overall history of Motown Records.  This fact is rather tragic, as after hearing the song, one can easily make the case that Sandra Edwards is one of the most talented voices in the entire stable of performers that the label had, and the music laid down here by The Funk Brothers stands today as one of their most memorable orchestrations.  The power writing trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland have so many classic songs to their name, yet when Edwards sings their phrasing, "'s heaven in your arms, boy, it's the sweetness of your charms...makes me love you more each day, in your arms I wanna stay..." one can easily make the case that it is one of their finest, and it is largely due to the sensational manner with with Edwards sings.  From the words to the music to the singing, there is nothing on the single that is anything short of spectacular, and few songs can compare to The Elgins' 1966 classic, "Heaven Must Have Sent You."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

June 23: The Scientists, "Shake (Together Tonight)"

Artist: The Scientists
Song: "Shake (Together Tonight)"
Album: Frantic Romantic (single)
Year: 1979

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Looking back and the overall history of recorded music, there are a handful of cases where it simply does not make sense that a certain artist has to date not received the amount of accolades and credit that they deserve for their contributions to the progression of music.  While many of these artists never found massive commercial success, from a critical standpoint, music would not exist in its current form without them, and many of these "lost" records stand as the most innovative and exciting in history.  Among this list, one cannot deny the significance of one of the most original and truly ingenious performers to ever record, Australia's Kim Salmon.  For more than three decades, Salmon has been creating some of the most exciting and powerful punk and hard rock on the planet, and from Beasts Of Bourbon to The Surrealists, few performers can claim as large and high quality a catalog.  Yet even with these two amazing projects, one cannot deny that some of his finest work came in his early years, when he was the core of one of the most important bands of the punk and post-punk era, The Scientists.  Taking the formula that had been set by the likes of The Ramones and The Stooges and putting their own unique spin on the sound, the early singles from The Scientists stand today as some of their finest work.  In truth, one can easily make the case that they never quite matched the power and simple brilliance that can be found on the b-side of their debut single, 1979's "Shake (Together Tonight)."

The moment the song begins, it has a feel like few other songs of the era, and certainly a far cry from a majority of the punk being made at the time.  The core guitar riff, played by Kim Salmon and Roddy Radalj, has a unique swing to it, and this was an early sign of the pop sensibility that Salmon brought to all of his musical projects.  However, at the same time, one cannot deny the fact that the riff has a very close similarity to that which supports Blondie's "One Way Or Another," and due to the proximity of release dates of the two songs, it is almost impossible to claim that one was "stolen" from the other.  In the case of "Shake (Together Tonight)," the riff is a bit more staggered and sparse, and it is also a bit more aggressive in tone, which is fitting of the overall musical personality of The Scientists.  The song continues its almost dizzying musical assault, as the rhythm section of bassist Dennis Byrne and drummer James Baker (formerly of The Victims) present some of the most original and creative work of the entire "golden age" of punk.  Throughout "Shake (Together Tonight)," it is clear that The Scientists are far more than your average punk band, as not only do they display a far greater understanding of musical composition than a majority of their peers, but their ability to move as a single musical unit takes the song to an entirely new level.

Along with writing all of the music of "Shake (Together Tonight)," Kim Salmon also handles vocals for the song, and even at this early stage, the swagger and grit that he has perfected over the years can already be heard.  From the opening line where he can be heard simply saying, "Shake it, Roddy," it is clear that Salmon has a personality which cannot be held back by the music, and it is this personal touch to the lyrics that makes his performance so fantastic.  With a bit more "singing" than a majority of his peers, Kim Salmon's voice clearly served as the blueprint for nearly every Aussie punk vocalist that followed, and even more than thirty years after it was first released, his performance on "Shake (Together Tonight)" can still ignite a joyous fury of listening pleasure.  It is within the words that Salmon sings that one can hear the influence from The Ramones, as on this song, the lyrics are far more "friendly," and more about having a good time than they are about rebellion.  Written by Baker, the song does not leave much to subtlety, as it is about heading out to a dance and having a damn good time.  From speaking of dressing right to lines like, "...we're gonna rock, and lose control...," the song perfectly captures the urgency and mood of youth looking to have fun, and this same mood is portrayed just as well within the music, making the longevity of the song a bit less surprising.

Though he is often lost in the shuffle of so many other performers, one cannot deny the massive impact that Kim Salmon has had over the decades.  Truth be told, one can easily make the case that Salmon was almost completely responsible for their being any sort of "punk scene" in Australia, and it is why he remains one of the most highly respected artists in his native country.  From his more "bar rock" projects like Beasts Of Bourbon to his brilliant experimentation within the work of The Surrealists, few performers have proven such wide-ranging and long lasting talent as Salmon.  However, some of his finest work came in his early recordings with The Scientists, and the high energy, high fun sound of the band remains a joy to experience to this day.  Though the A-side is an impressive recording, there is simply nothing else in the catalog of The Scientists that quite compares to the overall sound and mood found on "Shake (Together Tonight)," and this energy still resonates, far surpassing nearly everything that is being recorded in modern times.  From the hurried guitar work to the pummeling drums, there is not an off or down moment anywhere on the track, and the attitude that the band brings to the song serves as proof as to why this early grouping remains the finest in all of the bands' various lineups.  Somewhat a "hidden treasure," there are few songs of any genre that can compare to the perfection found on all fronts of The Scientists' groundbreaking 1979 single, "Shake (Together Tonight)."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22: Dusty Springfield, "Son Of A Preacher Man"

Artist: Dusty Springfield
Song: "Son Of A Preacher Man"
Album: Dusty In Memphis
Year: 1969

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The idea of “cool” is rarely something that can be defined in words; it simply “is” cool and everyone just “knows” that it is such.  Whether it is a progression from Miles, a lyric from Lou, or Jay-Z simply being Jay-Z, that which is truly “cool” can rarely be argued.  Often times, such feeling comes from unexpected places, and one cannot argue that all of this comes into play when one discusses the woman who can lay claim to being the finest white soul singer of her time, Dusty Springfield.  From her sliding, sultry voice to the amazing melodies created by her band, over the years, Springfield brought an unparalleled level of style and emotion to the world of music.  It was through this uncanny ability to make the listener feel her pain that Springfield was able to create moods that while often heartbreaking, were always portrayed with a level of comfort and “cool” that was not found elsewhere among female performers.  Churning out a staggering ten records in under five years, it was on this tenth record that Dusty Springfield cemented her name among the greatest vocalists in history.  While Springfield had made her name already by singing a soulful, country style, the fact of the matter was that England’s prized voice had never visited.  So her record label flew her to Memphis, Tennessee, and the resulting album, 1969’s Dusty In Memphis, was sheer perfection in every sense of the word.  From the song choice to the orchestration, the album oozed with Springfield’s soulful “cool,” and there is perhaps no better example of this than her classic 1969 single, “Son Of A Preacher Man.”

More than four decades after it was first released, few hooks are as instantly recognizable as that found on “Son Of A Preacher Man,” and the song found a resurgence when it’s “cool” factor was validated when it was a central part of the 1994 film, Pulp Fiction.  The song also proved that it was able to cross genres, as hip-hop legends Cypress Hill looped the hook on their 1993 song, “Hits From The Bong.”  The key to the songs’ longevity and wide appeal is undoubtedly it’s unforgettable guitar introduction that becomes the riff for the entire song.  Played by Reggie Young, the riff proves that there is a certain “magic” to simple, yet sincere musical performances.  The riff is further punctuated by the bright horns, which were arranged by producing legend, Tom Dowd.  The way in which the horns hit gives the song an amazing amount of depth, and offer a fantastic contrast to the almost lulling mood that a majority of the instrumentation brings.  Whether they are adding emphasis to the guitar line or working in opposition to it, it is this interplay between sounds that gives "Son Of A Preacher Man" its distinctive sound.  The song also features a "walking" bassline from Tommy Cogbill that when combined with the horns, gives the song almost a Motown feel, and this aspect surely played a major part in the songs' overall success.  When one considers the state of popular music at the time of the release of "Son Of A Preacher Man," it is almost unthinkable that the song became such a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  Psychedelic music was still dominating the charts, and the "Motown sound" was on its last legs with harder rock on the rise.  The fact that it became a top ten hit serves as proof that regardless of trends, the great songs always find a way to make a splash.

However, one cannot deny the fact that along with superb instrumentation, the voice of Dusty Springfield surely played a massive role in the songs' success.  Filled with an almost uncanny level of emotion and smoothness, there are few U.K. singers of any style who can compare with her sound, and only a handful from elsewhere in the world that are worthy of the same breath.  On "Son Of A Preacher Man," Springfield displays a limitless octave range, as well as putting her full ability to express her deep emotions within a song.  It is amazing to consider the fact that, though every word comes from deep in her heart, Dusty Springfield did not write the song, and one can then deduct that the story of the song had little actual relation to her real life.  The song itself was written by the team of John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and one must pause for a moment to consider just how two men were able to pen such a touching and sultry love ballad from a female perspective.  Furthermore, the song was originally offered to Aretha Franklin, but after she turned it down, Springfield was given the tune.  Ironically, after hearing Springfield’s rendition, Franklin made her own recording of “Son Of A Preacher Man” in 1970.  Regardless of who wrote the song, Springfield instantly made it her own, and her performance is so moving, so raw, that one can easily take the story as her own.  Furthermore, few songs have as sensual, yet subtle a phrasing of this "coming of age" tale, and there are not many lyrics in the history of music as truly perfect as when she sings, "...stealin' kisses from me on the sly, takin' time to make time...tellin' me that he's all mine...learnin' from each other's knowin', lookin' to see how much we're growin’..."

Though it is nearly always left out of the "greatest riffs" lists, one cannot argue the significance of Reggie Young's guitar progression that is the core of "Son Of A Preacher Man."  Working in stunning subtlety, it is these light touches that perfectly compliment the singing of Dusty Springfield as well as the somewhat delicate lyrics.  These three aspects work together to create an amazingly intimate mood, and even after more than four decades, this mood remains intact, and few songs can boast such a quality.  The depth presented by the small horn section only help to heighten the mood, and few songs so perfectly capture the entire mood of "teenage innocence."  Taking all this into account, one can easily make the case that in an age when most musicians were "searching" for a new sound, Dusty Springfield had found hers, and had no intention of deviating from a sound she knew and loved.  The manner with which she makes the song sway and swing is nothing short of fantastic, and few artists have achieved this with such a subtle vocal approach.  Furthermore, for a female to take such a bold and straightforward set of lyrics was still largely a risqué musical venture, and one cannot deny that this performance from Springfield still remains one of the most progressive songs in the history of music.  Proving why she was one of th U.K.'s most treasured artists, there are few songs that have become as iconic and proved to have a staying power comparable to Dusty Springfield's 1969 single, "Son Of A Preacher Man."

Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #25"

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

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

1. The Ramones, "Teenage Lobotomy"  1978/01/07, NYC
2. The Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop"  1978/01/07, NYC
3. Vic Ruggiero, "Innocent Girl"  Hamburguru
4. Blondie, "Call MeAmerican Gigolo Soundtrack
5. RUN-DMC, "You Be Illin'"  Raisin' Hell
6. The Clash, "London Calling"  Shea Stadium, October 1982
7. Tom Waits, "I'll Take New York"  Franks Wild Years
8. U.K. Subs, "New York State Police"  Brand New Age
9. Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie, "Dizzy Atmosphere"  Diz n' Bird At Carnegie Hall
10. Wu-Tang Clan, "Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'"  Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers
11. Gogol Bordello, "American Wedding"  Super Tatanta
12. Talking Heads, "Psycho Killer"  1984/01/25, Milwaukee, WI
13. Notorious B.I.G, "Juicy"  Ready To Die
14. Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne"  The Best Of...
15. Vivian Girls, "Where Do You Run To?"  Vivian Girls
16. Jay-Z, "Never Change"  The Blueprint
17. Woody Guthrie, "New York Town"  This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings
18. Velvet Underground, "I'm Waiting For The Man"  Velvet Underground & Nico

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 20: Beastie Boys, "Jimmy James"

Artist: Beastie Boys
Song: "Jimmy James"
Album: Check Your Head
Year: 1992

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Though one can make arguments for other cities "founding" various genres of music, from jazz to punk, New York City is one of many that can make a solid claim to this title.  Perhaps due to the unique geography of the city, perhaps due to the social realities, one cannot deny that the city has been a hotbed for all types of music for the entire history of recorded music.  However, there is one genre to which no other city on the planet can take credit for creation, and New York City remains the dominant force more than three decades after it gave birth to hip-hop music.  From the early days of Afrika Bambaataa to the crossover success of Run-DMC to the dominance of Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, as the decades have passed, the city has retained its space at the top of hip-hop towns.  Among the most original and successful of all the New York City hip-hop groups is a trio of Jewish white boys from Brooklyn who call themselves the Beastie Boys.  Truth be told, the group began in the early 1980s as a hardcore punk band, but in 1982, the group altered their lineup and with the help of Rick Rubin, "changed" into a rap trio.  After spending a few years playing in support of groups ranging from Madonna to Public Image, Ltd. to LL Cool J, the trio entered a studio and released their monumental 1986 debut, Licensed To Ill.  The album was a massive success, and the group toured in support of the record before releasing the more creatively impressive Paul's Boutique in 1988.  However, it is the third album from The Beastie Boys that shows the group at their creative height and completely re-wrote the books on hip-hop music.  There is perhaps no song that better personifies everything that makes The Beastie Boys great and captures the magic of their 1992 record, Check Your Head, than the albums' lead track, "Jimmy James."

In reality, when the song was first created by Adam Yauch (AKA MCA), it was made as purely an instrumental track, with the samples and record scratching all done by him.  However, since a majority of the samples he wanted to use were from Jimi Hendrix songs (as the song is said to be a tribute to Hendrix), the estate of the late guitar god denied him the right, so the band was forced into a position that would forever change the genre.  The Beastie Boys wanted to have the track on Check Your Head, and seeing no other choice, the trio picked up their instruments and created music very similar to the desired samples, and this is what one hears on the album release of "Jimmy James."  With MCA on bass, Ad-Rock on guitar, and Mike D on drums, the group laid down wonderfully funky grooves, and this would be the beginning of a trend that the trio would explore deeper and deeper with every album that followed.  Furthermore, the groups' use of "live" instrumentation paved the way for countless other groups to do similarly, and the approach remains alive and well nearly twenty years later.  Strangely enough, after the album was released, the Hendrix estate relented, and gave clearance for the samples to be used, and the group "remade" the song and released it as a single, so there are two very different versions of the song available.  Along with the Hendrix samples, both versions of "Jimmy James" feature samples ranging from The Turtles to Cheap Trick to The Fearless Four, and this diverse sampling group shows just how well rounded the musical tastes were within The Beastie Boys.

Though "Jimmy James" was originally created as an instrumental track, after Ad-Rock and Mike D heard the amazing groove MCA had created, they convinced him to put vocals overtop parts of it, and this addition made a great song even better.  On many levels, "Jimmy James" defines the style and approach of The Beastie Boys perfectly, as there are few groups that so perfectly trade lines with one another.  As they have nearly their entire career, the trio weave in and out of one anothers' rhymes, and this remains one of the most distinctive aspects of their music.  The fact that each of the three have a rather distinctive voice further drives home just how well they flow alongside one another, and there are few groups that better define the idea of a "group effort" on a track.  Yet the manner and attitude that they bring to the vocals on "Jimmy James" represents an almost complete opposite to the sounds of their first album, as the yelling and almost reckless abandon within their music was all but gone.  Throughout nearly all of Check Your Head, it is clear that The Beastie Boys were maturing and finding far more to rhyme about than girls and drinking.  While the upbeat mood of their songs persists, there is clearly "something" different in the way that they are delivering the lines, and in retrospect, the work on "Jimmy James" was a sign of a complete change in their style and subject matter that would follow on their next two records.  The "new" ethos of the group can be summed up in the songs' final line, when all three chant, "...but the music brought the people into harmony..."

Having survived the explosion of their first record, and the cooler reception to its follow-up, The Beastie Boys continued to make music how they wanted, and in the process completely changed the rules with their third record, 1992's Check Your Head.  Using heavy amounts of live instrumentation intertwined with the "standard" samples and scratching, one can point to this record as putting the "music" back into "hip-hop music."  Clearly, this was the focus of The Beastie Boys at the time, as on a majority of tracks, the lyrics are not up to par with their previous efforts, yet there were no other hip-hop records from ANY artist at the time that could compare in terms of both music and mood.  Regardless of "which" version of the "Jimmy James" you hear, the bassline brings a fantastic groove and the way the group mixes it seamlessly with the "classic" scratching and samples of hip-hop truly changed "how" rap music was made.  A far cry from the "women and beer" ethos of their first album, clearly by this point, all three members of The Beastie Boys were maturing, and their new focus on more positive fun and world peace began to appear as early as "Jimmy James."  It is this more universal feel that makes both the song and the album so alluring, and the lo-fi sound that is also present makes Check Your Head one of the most uniquely intriguing records ever made.  Setting high expectations for the rest of the album, many listeners were shocked by the hybrid sound and unexpected mood found on The Beastie Boys' stellar 1992 track, "Jimmy James."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

June 19: The Ramones, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"

Artist: The Ramones
Song: "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"
Album: Rocket To Russia
Year: 1977

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One must be careful when attempting to categorize the bands that defined genres, as often times, a simple one word classification omits much of the talent and sound of the band.  Even bands and performers that have become synonymous with their particular genre have some songs or nuances of their music that seems to defy the sound with which they are most closely associated.  Whether it is Miles Davis and the psychedelic movement or Freddie Mercury and opera, these instances run across all styles of music and throughout the entire era of recorded music.  There is perhaps no more clear an example than when people attempt to write of The Ramones as "just a punk band."  While they were unquestionably THE band that kick-started the punk movement, and they certainly laid out the best way to play simple, frenzied music, when one looks closer at many of their songs, one can find a wide array of sounds and influences within their music.  Released less than a year after their groundbreaking 1976 self-titled debut, the band gave the world another fourteen songs totaling just over a half hour with their 1977 album, Leave Home.  A few months later, the group dropped their Rocket To Russia album, proving beyond a doubt that they were "the real deal."  It is within these three records that one can hear everything from the "classic" punk sound to surf rock to experiments that are slightly heavy metal, and this ability to blend so many influences in such a subtle manner is one of the many reasons that the music of The Ramones remains so vibrant and fresh after so many decades.  Though it appears on versions of both their second and third record, there is perhaps no song that better defines The Ramones' ability to blend these styles together than one finds in the song, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

The song was actually recorded during the sessions for Leave Home, but it was initially left off of that record and pushed onto Rocket To Russia.  However, after controversy around one song on Leave Home, and then a switch of distributors, the song was released on the "third" version release, as well as on Rocket To Russia. Regardless of the version, the power and sound of "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" remain the same, and it is easily one of The Ramones' catchiest and most "poppy" tunes of their entire career.  From the moment the song begins, it is like no other in their catalog at the time, as the great Johnny Ramone brings a brilliantly simple guitar progression, yet with it brings a swagger and mood that immediately evokes the spirit of surf rock, and it could have easily been a song from that genre.  The rhythm section of Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums follow right along with this tone, and the hand clapping finishes off a pop appeal that drove the song to moderate placement on the singles chart.  By the time the song came out, punk had gained a reputation for being angry, dark, and aggressive, and yet it is songs like "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that proved that punk is about how you approach the music as opposed to how you try to portray your music.  Regardless of whether you're a fan of punk or not, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" is irresistible, and the effect remains the same even after countless listenings, proving the overall greatness of this simple composition.

While there is perhaps no other voice that more defines punk rock, it is also within the words Joey Ramone sings on "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that he spells out the "story" of so many youth of the time.  Though the argument can easily be made that Joey Ramone doesn't exactly have a "singing voice," the manner with which he delivered his vocals are absolutely unique, and it is on "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" that the group employs harmonies with the full band, further making the link to bands like The Beach Boys.  Most people do not make any connection between these two bands, but after hearing this song, the similarity and influence is undeniable.  This relationship between punk and surf rock is further reinforced within the lyrics, as the first verse speaks of a group of kids and, "...they've got their surfboards, and they're going to the discotheque a-go-go..."  Painting a picture of "wholesome" youth at the time, Joey quickly introduces an at-first unnamed member of the group who, though they are her friends, can clearly no longer stand that sort of lifestyle.  Putting lyrics to the pilgrimage that so many continue to make to this day, Joey sings of her plight with the lines, "...but she just couldn't stay, she had to break away...well New York City really has it all..."  Not only does Joey give "props" to his hometown here, but he was basically saying, "if you want punk rock, come to New York."  The song implies that Sheena found her "home" once arriving in New York City, and the chorus of "...Sheena is, a punk rocker..." begs for sing-alongs and remains one of the finest of all of Joey's lyrical contributions to the band.

Overall, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" has a more direct pop appeal, and though one can easily make the case that all of the songs of The Ramones have such an appeal, there are few that have it so directly and so strong.  Keeping the punk ethos of simplicity firmly in place, The Ramones make their love for surf rock and catchy tunes abundantly clear, and in many ways, the song made it "ok" for other bands to pursue similar musical ventures.  Though it is a bit slower than a majority of the rest of their catalog, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" still contains the high energy drive that defines The Ramones as a band, and one can easily argue that it is songs like this that turned a completely new group of music fans onto both The Ramones as well as the punk style in general.  The fact that the band "call out" disco as the "anti-punk" on the song also speaks to the times, as at the time the song was recorded, disco was fading fast, and the youth were looking for "the next big thing."  In many ways, The Ramones' character of "Sheena" is the archetype of the punk rock lifestyle and can easily be seen as a rebel, yet few songs of rebellion have been recorded with such pop appeal and simple brilliance.  Bands from across the world have covered "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" over the years, and it remains one of the groups' most beloved songs, likely due to the fact that is has such wide ranging appeal, and to this day keeps its "sing along" quality.  Summing up everything he saw in the "punk scene" of 1977, there are few songs that so perfectly define the genre, yet simultaneously incorporate a number of elements rarely associated with the punk sound than one finds in The Ramones 1977 classic, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

Friday, June 18, 2010

June 18: Charlie Parker, "Ornithology"

Artist: Charlie Parker
Song: "Ornithology"
Album: Ornithology (single recording)
Year: 1946

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When it comes to musicians, the term “icon” is thrown around and doled out so often, that in some cases, a far more prestigious term is necessary to describe the most elite and influential artists the world has ever known.  Though the list is short, there are certain performers without whom, music simply would not have progressed, and one can see them as paragons of their particular genre.  Though he passed away at the age of thirty-four, it is nearly impossible to make a case that any other performer was as critical to the development of jazz as the band called “Bird,” Charlie Parker.  With his lightning-fast lines on his saxophone, along with the liked of Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, Parker is unquestionably one of the “creators” of the bebop sound, and one can further argue that remains the greatest saxophone player in music history.  Honing his sound alongside some of the finest players of the early jazz era, it was when he began playing with Gillespie that Parker truly began to progress.  Much of the early work of the bebop sound was never recorded due to the recording ban by the Musicians’ Union that ended in 1944, but shortly after the ban was lifted, Parker entered Radio Recorders Studio in Hollywood, CA and recorded a session that would cement his place high atop the jazz hierarchy.  Though he was responsible for a large number of jazz tunes that have become “standards,” there is perhaps no better an example of Charlie Parker’s superior ability, as well as the essence of the bebop sound than one finds within his legendary 1946 recording, “Ornithology.”

While bebop, like jazz itself, was a relatively freeform style, on “Ornithology,” there is a rather clear structure within the music.  Truth be told, the song represents the idea of a contrafact, which occurs when a musician creates a new work out of a previously existing piece of music.  In the case of “Ornithology,” Parker spins a new melody over the chord progression of the song, “How High The Moon.”  This link becomes more clear in “cover” versions of “Ornithology,” as often times, vocalists perform the lyrics to “How High The Moon” in a scat-style over the musicians.  Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to various incarnations of the bands of Powell and nearly every other “jazz giant” has taken a run at “Ornithology,” yet as is often the case, there is nothing quite like the original.  On the Parker version, he finds himself in the company of his fantastic septet, and as the track progresses, one can clearly hear that his band is doing everything they can to simply keep pace with Parker’s stunning musical lines.  For a majority of the song, Parker is trading licks and working in and around the playing of “Ornithology’s” co-writer, trumpet master, Benny Harris.  Their work on this song shows that the pair had an obvious musical chemistry, and Harris’ work here certainly played a large part in his own revered status within jazz history.  The rhythm section stays largely in the background on the recording, yet the speedy ride cymbal and almost dizzying bass prove that the players were certainly up to the task of following Parker’s lead.  Rounding out the septet is the scattered piano of Dodo Marmarosa, and this is largely where the “How High The Moon” chords live, and one can see his playing as a fantastic representation of the vocals of the song.

With his amazingly skilled musicians in tow, Parker wastes no time, as the moment “Ornithology” begins, he is already in top gear, ripping across the track with stunning energy and precision.  Even when he takes small pauses for emphasis, it is awe-inspiring to hear just how many notes Parker is able to pack into the song.  With this in mind, it is also quite remarkable that with such a compact musical progression, not a note is lost, and each note has a clear place and purpose.  While many players have impressed the masses by being able to play a long string of fast notes, few have done so with the feeling and flow that Parker brings to "Ornithology."  At no point of the three-minute run-time does Parker show any sign of slowing down or “cooling off,” and live recordings of the track show that there was far more within the song than was captured during the studio session.  In fact, the studio version almost seems to “cut off,” and one can only wonder why this version of the song seems almost “unfinished.”  Regardless, Parker’s performance on “Ornithology” shows how far beyond his peers he was in terms of both talent and feeling, and he is playing so fast, that one often has to listen to the song a few times through to simply catch everything that he is playing.  In every aspect, “Ornithology” is a tribute to Parker’s unparalleled skills, as not only is his performance extraordinary, but also due to the fact that the songs’ title is refers to the scientific name for the study of birds.

Due to the recording ban that overshadowed some of the most innovative years in music history, when the bebop sound finally found its way to recording studios, many saw the sound as “coming out of nowhere.”  Yet the fact of the matter is, Charlie Parker had been leading jam sessions to develop the style for quite some time.  These sessions featured many other jazz superstars, and it is likely due to this concentration of talent that the style was so well formed by the time the musicians entered studios.  Everyone from Gillespie to Max Roach to Coleman Hawkins released their interpretations of the new style, yet nothing compared to the power of the Parker composition, “Ornithology.”  The song itself sums up Parker in every way possible, and more than six decades after it was first released, it has yet to be equaled in terms of power or influence.  This song is the reason why Charlie Parker remains such a highly respected name across all musical genres, and without this recording, one can make a case that bebop would not have “caught on” in the manner that it did, nor re-shaped the other jazz styles that followed in its wake.  From Coltrane to Mingus, nearly every jazz player cites Charlie Parker as an influence on some part of their methodology, and one must assume that his septet was simply in awe of the blistering performance he delivered on “Ornithology.”  Rising far beyond a label such as “icon,” there is really no way to do justice to the influence and importance of Charlie Parker, and one can quickly learn just why he is such a hallowed figure in the world of music by experiencing his breathtaking performance on his 1946 composition, “Ornithology.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 17: Tony Allen, "Black Voices"

Artist: Tony Allen
Song: "Black Voices"
Album: Black Voices
Year: 1999

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True musical geniuses never lose their talent, but sometimes they need a bit of a break to refocus and refresh their minds.  Whether it was Joe Strummer taking more than a decade away after ending The Clash or DEVO returning after nearly three times that length, those whose souls feed on music always return to aid in reshaping the musical landscape.  After the tragic passing of Fela Kuti, drummer extraordinaire Tony Allen took a similar hiatus, and when he returned, he proved to be just as strong, and gave the world some of the most progressive and musically stunning work of his storied career.  Without question, the highpoint of his post-Fela catalog was his 1999 record, Black Voices, which crosses over so many musical boundaries that it is impossible to name them all.  A group effort in every sense of the word, Allen found himself surrounded with some of the most innovative, talented, and energetic musicians on the planet, and the sounds and moods they created as a group represent the pinnacle of what can happen when such talent is properly focused.  Each of the tracks on Black Voices explode with positive energy and irresistible grooves, yet there are also social criticisms and observations running underneath the stunning musical arrangements.  Taking the core of the AfroBeat sound that he helped to create, on Black Voices, Tony Allen fuses it together with funk, jazz, and elements of electronica, and the resulting product is as special and unique a record as has ever been released.  With the 10th anniversary of the record yielding a re-release containing the "raw" tracks from the session, there are few tracks that better define everything that was magic about the Black Voices session than the title track of the original 1999 release.

It is on “Black Voices” where the true teamwork of all of the musicians involved becomes most clear.  While Tony Allen lays down one of the finest rhythms of his career, it is as if each musician found their own, individual groove within the larger sound they create together.  From the brilliant keyboards of Fixi to the warm bass of Caesar Anot, “Black Voices” has an absolutely stunning tone that cannot be found anywhere else in music history.  The keys and bass weave around one another in grand fashion, making “Black Voices” one of the most irresistible dance grooves ever recorded.  Yet underpinning their work is the complex rhythms that Allen brings, proving that he was without question the spirit behind the recordings of Fela Kuti.  As he effortlessly switches tempos and takes off-beat pauses, one can feel the enjoyment he clearly had whilst recording the track, and it helps to push the mood to amazing heights.  Though it is a fantastically funky groove in its "pure" state, the modern flare that Doctor L brings to the mix makes "Black Voices" a song that truly defies categorization.  Spinning dub sounds and subtle sound effects over the track, Doctor L morphs "Black Voices" into a track that could even fit in within a dance club setting, and it turns the song into an absolute musical anomaly.  While attempting to blend the old and new together is not all that rare an occurrence, it rarely works as brilliantly as it does on "Black Voices," and it is even more impressive when one takes into account that at the time of its recording, Allen was sixty years old.  Furthermore, the fact that Tony Allen chose to push forward with new musical ideas when he could have just as easily stuck with the sound that made him famous serves as a testament to both his talent and integrity as a performer.

Adding to the group element as well as bringing a vast amount of musical knowledge and experience, the duo of Michael "Clip" Payne and Gary "Mudbone" Cooper handle the amazing vocals that are staggered across the track.  Furthermore, though they hailed from completely different ends of the musical spectrum, Payne and Cooper shared a common ground with Allen in that they had all paid their dues in support of a prominent frontman.  Payne and Cooper both spent many years within the ranks of Parliament-Funkadelic, and their ability to find the ideal spot and style to deliver the vocals pushed "Black Voices" to the brink of musical perfection.  From deep, almost growling words to soft whispers, both vocalists show a great amount of diversity in their delivery, and their voices truly become an instrument onto themselves.  Again, from the manner with which they are singing, it becomes instantly clear that they too are having a blast performing on the track, as there is a joy within their vocals that cannot be denied. There is perhaps no aspect of the music where the personality of each musician becomes more clear, as the small touches which both vocals place into "Black Voices" show the high level of dedication and love that they had for the song and record.  It is also within the words they sign that the entire ethos behind the album, both in and out of the studio, rings through.  The idea of "black voices everywhere" can be seen within the makeup of the band, and at the same time, the music crosses into so many genres and cultures that the song itself becomes a common place for all of the various cultures to come together.  This is perhaps the finest representation of the combined genius on "Black Voices," in that while making a song they all could take ownership of, they gifted the world with a universal anthem.

When an artist or group are making music for "the right reasons," the joy they have in recording comes through clearly on the album.  Looking back on the sessions for Tony Allen's Black Voices record, Michael "Clip" Payne said, “…it wasn’t a record where we thought about having a hit...we just all wanted to play with each other.”  In many ways coming off as a "jam session," the energy and spirit behind the record are perfectly captured on the title track, and it remains one of the most uniquely fantastic recordings in music history.  Led by the distinctive and almost free-form playing of Allen, the rest of the band puts their own stamp on the song whilst simultaneously creating a whole that is far larger than the sum of its parts.  Smashing together the "old school" styles of AfroBeat with the fundamentals of funk, then given a healthy dose of electronic music, there are few songs that can be seen as kindred to the sounds of "Black Voices."  Mixing these elements together, the band truly created a completely new sound, and though some have tried to duplicate it, nothing since has even come close.  Throughout "Black Voices," while each band member performs with the utmost precision, there remains a very loose feeling to the entire track, and it is juxtapositions such as this that make the song so special.  Seeming to pick up right where he left off decades earlier, Tony Allen leads from behind, using his uncanny drumming ability to turn 1999's Black Voices into an almost futuristic musical experience, and the title track spotlights everything that makes this combined effort so magnificent and important to the present and future of music.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

June 16: 2Pac, "Dear Mama"

Artist: 2Pac
Song: "Dear Mama"
Album: Me Against The World
Year: 1995

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If there is one thing that can be easily proven by the long history of hip-hop, it is the fact that a male emcee showing any sense of weakness or sensitivity will be exiled by his peers.  Due to the overwhelming machismo that overshadowed the entire "gangsta rap" movement of the 1990's, if you weren't rapping about "bitches and money," then you simply weren't "keeping it real."  Yet, there are certain circumstances where an event may lead to a massive change in a person, and such was the case when iconic emcee 2Pac Shakur released his 1995 record, Me Against The World.  The album was recorded shortly after his near fatal shooting, and it was actually released while he was in prison.  Having survived the shooting, Shakur had more than enough "street cred" to pretty much do anything he wanted on the album, and this shows in the fact that he gets more violent than ever, but also more introspective.  His forays into more thought-provoking territory, often showing emotions that were shunned within the hip-hop world, remain today some of the most highly respected tracks in the entire history of the genre, and it was on this record that 2Pac's true talents as a writer came clearly into focus.  Much of the album involved Shakur looking back on his own life, speaking of those he had already lost to violence, as well as a deep study of his own upbringing.  There is not a sub-par moment anywhere on the record, and yet 2Pac outdoes himself, as he throws down the gauntlet completely when he penned one of the most powerful and touching hip-hop tracks in history in the form of his 1995 single, "Dear Mama."

From the moment "Dear Mama" begins, it is clearly unlike any other track that had been released by a "hardcore" emcee to date.  With the melodic keyboards and string-type arrangement, the focus musically is far less on hard-hitting beats and more on creating the proper mood for the lyrics 2Pac had penned.  The keyboard piece is actually a sample, taken from Joe Sample's song, "In Your Wildest Dreams," and the inclusion of this rather unorthodox source material is one of the many ways in which "Dear Mama" re-wrote the books on what was "acceptable" from gangsta-style emcees.  The looping string section also stays in place for the entire song, and the combination of these two elements gives the song a mood that is almost like that of a eulogy.  It is also largely due to this less aggressive musical arrangement that the song became more accessible to even casual hip-hop fans, and in combination with the moving lyrics, the song stormed its way up the charts, topping the "Rap Singles" and going to number three on the "Hot 100" charts.  This success led to the song being one of the most famous of all of 2Pac's tracks, and fellow hip-hop icons Eminem and Snoop Dogg both repeatedly cite the track as a massive influence on their own careers.  Such success and reverence are not surprising, as in many ways, "Dear Mama" strikes the perfect balance with the powerful, yet non-violent lyrics, and the smooth, almost R&B style music over which 2Pac delivers his brilliant words.

Though the music certainly adds a key element to the song, one cannot deny that the true magic behind "Dear Mama" lies within the voice and words of 2Pac himself.  Never using any sort of distortion or vocal alterations, there is a mesmerizing raw and honest feel within every one of his verses across his career.  On "Dear Mama," 2Pac rarely even pushes his voice behind what one assumes is his "speaking voice," and this allows for every word to come through clearly, and not only brings an amazing impact for what he is saying, but allows the spotlight to shift to his uncanny ability to work within poetic verse.  Standing today as one of the most talented lyricists in history, 2Pac had already proven that he could write the most gritty and violent lyrics ever, yet here he proves that there is nothing "wrong" with an emcee turning the pen on himself.  Every line of "Dear Mama" is a tribute, as he speaks of his own mother's battle with drugs, yet consistently makes points about how hard she worked to make sure that 2Pac had a "good" upbringing.  Taking much of the blame for the problems between them, he states one of the most stunning lines ever in, "...I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell...huggin' on my mama from a jail cell..."  Though it may seem like nothing special in retrospect, the fact of the matter is, until 2Pac dropped "Dear Mama," such introspection and almost sensitivity from emcees was simply unheard of.  2Pac later presents both sides of his mother, and clearly "buries" any issues between them with the rhyme, "...and even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a black queen, mama..."  It is lines like these that showed a completely new side of one of hip-hop's most "dangerous" rappers, and it is due largely to the courage and honestly that he showed here that 2Pac remains so highly revered in the world of hip-hop.

Though an overwhelming majority of emcees point to their "toughness" as the reason they are so much more manly than their peers, one can easily make the case that it is due to 2Pac's open and honest nature that he stands so far above the rest of the history of the genre.  Clearly not caring what others may have thought, 2Pac takes full responsibility for his mistakes in childhood and "buries the hatchet" with his mother on the moving track, "Dear Mama."  Yet he goes even further, promoting the virtues of finding success in life, and when he states, " feels good puttin' money in your mail box...I love payin' rent when the rent's due, I hope ya got the diamond necklace that I sent you...'cause when I was low you was there for me, and never left me alone because you cared for me..."  It is passages like this that made it "ok" for other emcees to delve into deeper subjects, and the song is also consistent with 2Pac's overall aim to try and promote unity and forgiveness within the "street culture" from whence he came.  Though he had previously dabbled in more sensitive subjects, those beyond simple street violence, before "Dear Mama," there had simply never been another such outpouring of thanks and love, and one can easily make the case that it was his more introspective songs that made 2Pac the legend he remains today.  Backed by a more soulful, restrained musical arrangement, the focus shifts completely to 2Pac's magnificent lyrical talents, and there are very few songs of any era or genre that can compare to the beauty and emotion found within his monumental, genre re-defining 1995 single, "Dear Mama."