Friday, September 30, 2011

September 30: The Fugs, "Slum Goddess"

Artist: The Fugs
Song: "Slum Goddess"
Album: The First Fugs Album
Year: 1965

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Though many think it to be a more recent trend within the world of music, the fact of the matter is that all throughout history, there have always been a small handful of bands that were so popular across the planet that they cast a massive shadow over nearly any other group attempting to bring about a new sound.  During the middle of the 1960's, the bands that cast such a shadow now stand as some of the most famous in all of music history, and yet once one digs a bit beneath the presence of these groups, it is almost shocking to hear some of the elements that were already in existence within recorded music.  Though it is thought to be an "invention" of the final years of the decade in question, one can find some of the most stunning "experimental" music ever recorded within the catalog of the New York City band, The Fugs.  In many ways serving as the earliest definition of what the East Village stood for in a musical sense, the band fused together countless different styles, all the time showing a very purposeful disregard for acceptable standards in terms of both music and lyrics.  This reality quickly earned them the ire of many labels and "parent groups," but at the same time it garnered the band a dedicated following.  Each of the bands' early records is a musical landmark on its own, but it is their aptly titled debut, The Fugs First Album, that shines as their finest.  Each track on the record shows a different side of the band, and there may be no better a definition of everything that makes The Fugs so brilliant than their 1965 song, "Slum Goddess."

When one looks at the overall catalog of The Fugs, it is impossible to sum up their sound in a single song, and yet "Slum Goddess" gives the finest representation of their clear musical talent, as well as their unique approach to sonic structure.  So many different musical influences are at play throughout the track, as one can hear everything from folk to pop to "art rock" all integrated seamlessly into this unique musical structure.  A number of the elements that one can experience on "Slum Goddess" make it the clear precursor to the entire punk and "experimental" sound, as the bands' clear mission to completely ignore all of the norms of the time works perfectly all throughout the song.  The tone within the guitar is like nothing else that was being played at the time, as there is a dry, "twangy" sound to it that brings a rather country-western feel to "Slum Goddess."  However, this same instrument sounds almost broken in some areas, and this gives the song an edge unlike anything found elsewhere, and in many ways, this tone and mood is the very definition of The Fugs.  The way that both the lead guitar and bass are able to make the song sway from side to side is absolutely fantastic, almost "daring" the listener to try and resist its appeal, and the fact that such a hook can exist within as unconventional an arrangement as one finds on "Slum Goddess" is in many ways the most clear marker of the beginning of the "experimental" music movement.

Yet it is also within the vocals and lyrics that one can hear the essence of The Fugs on "Slum Goddess," as John Anderson rarely sounded better than he does on this track.  While at first listen, the singing here may not seem all that unique, when one considers that the recording is from 1965, there is no question that Anderson's detached, almost disinterested approach was quite far ahead of its time.  For this reason, the vocals on "Slum Goddess" can be seen as one of the most important building blocks in the "art rock" and punk rock movements, as one can hear this approach copied all across the catalogs of many later legendary bands.  Yet it is also the defiant attitude that comes with Anderson's vocals that makes "Slum Goddess" so fantastic, as even while he is singing of what seems to be a rather unwholesome woman, not only is he ok with it, but he is proud of their exploits.  It is within the lyrics that Anderson paints a rather vivid portrait, and the scenes he creates are the very essence of the image that remains with the East Village of New York City.  From the constant references to their seemingly deviant sexual encounters to the general vibe he builds around this woman, there is no question the song would be a bit racy by today's standards, and the fact that such lyrics emerged well before they were remotely acceptable makes "Slum Goddess" an even more important song in the development of all musical forms.

There is simply no arguing that both musically and lyrically, The Fugs were many years ahead of their time; and yet they remain relatively unknown in the overall history of recorded music.  Perhaps because they hit their musical apex at the same time as the "British Invasion," or perhaps due to the fact that society as a whole was simply not ready for their revolutionary musical approaches, the band stands as one of the "hidden treasures" of the music scene of the 1960's.  The way in which they blended together so many different styles to create an eccentric, almost wild new sound can be seen as one of the cornerstones of what would become the "psychedelic" sound, and one can easily make the case that without the songs of The Fugs, such later sounds would not have developed.  Along with this wonderfully creative music, there were few vocalists at the time that sounded like John Anderson, and it is his style that has been copied countless times over the past four decades.  However, once one hears Anderson's style, it is not only clear that he was one of the innovators of such singing, but that he manages to sound completely unique in his approach.  The fact that The Fugs were able to create a sound that even all these years later can still stand on its own is a testament to their exceptional talents, and there are few songs in their catalog that are more definitive or historically important than their 1965 track, "Slum Goddess."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #12

Thursday means another dose of “Something Old, Something New” with yours truly. Share and enjoy!

September 29: EPMD, "Strictly Business"

Artist: EPMD
Song: "Strictly Business"
Album: Strictly Business
Year: 1988

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As is the case with every genre, during the early years of hip-hop, almost every sub-genre was founded in some manner, though some can be found in more subtle places.  Though there is no question where styles like "gangsta" and "jazz fusion" hip-hop came from, there were other artists that were making statements in other directions, and even in its earliest years, one can find an "underground" sound within the hip-hop community.  It was within this sub-culture that some of the finest records of the "Golden Age" of hip-hop emerged, and there were few artists that could hold their own when compared to the duo known as EMPD.  Comprised of emcees Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, the pair are responsible for some of the most iconic songs in the entire history of the genre, and yet it is also their distinctive rapping style that would influence countless later performers.  Though there was never anything "shocking" about the sounds one could find on EPMD records, it was the way that the songs were constructed, along with the focused, straightforward vocal delivery from the pair that set them far apart from the songs of their peers.  Each of the studio releases from EPMD carries with it a great deal of power and presence, and yet one can easily argue that it was their 1988 debut, Strictly Business, that remains a landmark recording in hip-hop history.  Filled with some of the most memorable songs and lines ever captured on tape, there is no question that the title track to EPMD's first release stands among the most highly revered and influential tracks ever to be released.

Perhaps moreso than any other early hip-hop artist, the musical arrangements over which EPMD performed were some of the most perfectly balanced one can find.  While in many cases they seem to be a bit less aggressive, there is always a strong, driving force within the music, and that which one can experience on "Strictly Business" is unquestionably one of their finest.  Throughout the song, DJ K La Boss mixed together a number of iconic songs, basing them all around the main refrain to Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot The Sheriff."  Infusing everything from "Long Red" by, Mountain to Kool And The Gang's, "Jungle Boogie," the track is as unique as one can find anywhere, and the fact that "Strictly Business" is able to stand as so distinctive, whilst being comprised of such well-known songs is a testament to the talents of the entire musical and production team.  Furthermore, "Strictly Business" carries with it a far more inviting musical feel than most other hip-hop songs at the time, and while this in no way diminishes the power of the song, the tone is clearly different.  The group compensates for this less aggressive approach by securing a firm, bouncing beat, and it was this element that engaged all of the fans of the more mainstream style of hip-hop at the time.  This is yet another balance that is carried out with absolute perfection, pushing "Strictly Business" to a status far beyond almost any other hip-hop recording in history.

However, there is no question that while the musical arrangement on "Strictly Business" is now considered "classic," the overall impact of EPMD lives within the vocal style and lyrical brilliance from Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith.  The instant that the rapping begins, it is clear that these two are taking a completely new approach, as there is a relaxed, almost mellow feel to their voices.  In many ways, this represents the most natural, unforced rhyming ever recorded, and this in itself is proof to the exceptional level of talent within both emcees.  Each line comes off as amazingly organic, and it is this almost "freestyle" sound that would influence the next generation of rappers.  Furthermore, it is the rhyming on "Strictly Business" that remains proof that it is unnecessary to get loud or wild to have impact, as the perhaps more thoughtful approach EPMD display throughout the track were able to appeal to a far wider audience.  This greater concentration on the actual lyrics to the track serve as a reminder that one need not use any sort of "abusive" or "foul" language to make a point or a "good" rhyme, and it is this approach that has in many ways become the foundation of the "underground" hip-hop style.  Yet this is not a passive set of lyrics, as the pair do their best to remind all other emcees that not only are they (Sermon and Smith) far superior in rapping skill, but they have all the other elements needed to be the best of the best in life in general.  This at its core is the essence of modern hip-hop, and there have been few other artists to strike this balance as perfectly as one can hear on EPMD's "Strictly Business."

Though upon first release, "Strictly Business" was not widely regarded as anything overly spectacular, as the decades have passed, there are few records that have proven to be as timeless or widely influential.  From the musical arrangements to the rhyming techniques, the entire record shines from end to end, and it is almost impossible to cite all of the performers that have borrowed from this album.  Furthermore, the lyrical content in itself has become iconic, and countless emcees have taken parts of the rhymes for their own, referencing them in part or whole in later songs.  This in itself is the most undeniable testament to the impact that EPMD have had on the entire world of hip-hop music, and yet even more than two decades after its initial release, songs like "Strictly Business" retain their power within the current world of hip-hop.  Truth be told, the completely distinctive way that both Sermon and Smith rap can easily overpower the louder, and less intelligent emcees that currently dominate the hip-hop charts, and this is all the proof one needs that on many levels, content is far more important than volume or attitude.  Yet the smooth, unforced style with which they rhyme can still be heard within a number of today's most famous emcees, and there is no question that EPMD stand as one of the most iconic groups in hip-hop history.  While a number of their singles are deserving of the term "classic," there may be no better representation of everything that makes the music of EMPD so fantastic than what one can experience on the title track to their 1988 debut, Strictly Business.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

September 28: The 101'ers, "Keys To Your Heart"

Artist: The 101'ers
Song: "Keys To Your Heart"
Album: Keys To Your Heart (single)
Year: 1976

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While many may point to the waning years of the previous decade as the most musically creative, one can easily argue that it was the first half of the 1970's where music truly began to expand in countless directions.  Aided by new technologies, as well as a number of different cultural movements, all across the 1970's one can find absolutely amazing musical moments; many of which have been lost in the shadows of the "mega bands" of the era.  Whether these smaller bands were experimenting in heavy metal, electronic, jazz fusion, or simple rock and roll, it was often these unorthodox approaches that led to new sounds and styles entering the mainstream.  Yet there were also a number of bands that were attempting to take the "standard" sound of rock and roll and simply give it a new, youthful energy, and in London, many of these groups became labeled as "pub rock."  Among these fantastic, yet little known bands was a small group of musicians from London that called themselves The 101'ers, and though the group was extremely short-lived, the impact they had on music can still be felt today.  Though the band did not release any studio recordings before they broke up, there is no question that the group is responsible for one of the greatest songs in history, as there are few recordings that are as truly perfect as The 101'ers 1976 single, "Keys To Your Heart."

From the opening notes of the song, there are clearly a number of different influences at play on "Keys To Your Heart," as the song has a classic rockabilly sound, and yet there is an urgency and edge that makes it far more modern.  Much of this unique tone can be heard in the guitar of Clive Timperley, and it his his playing that drives the entire song.  The way that his notes strike a brilliant contrast with the rhythm guitar part is absolutely fantastic, and one can easily hear how this recording led to the punk sound.  The second guitarist was a man who was then calling himself "Woody," but a few years later, he would make his name under the alias "Joe Strummer."  Even as early as "Keys To Your Heart," one can hear the distinctive tone and approach that would become his signature sound with The Clash, and yet there is almost an innocence to his sound here that makes it all the better.  "Keys To Your Heart" also has a rather unique pace, and this is due to the bass of Dan Kelleher, as he gently thumps in the back of the mix, almost giving a human "beat" to the track.  Rounding out the group was drummer Richard "Snake Hips" Dudanski, and it is his "sting" that serves as an ideal finishing touch.  The overall sound that the group presents is a perfect blend of the early 1960's rock and a new, youthful attitude, and it is the type of song that almost demands to be listened to over and over again, never losing its impact or sense of enjoyment.

"Keys To Your Heart" also represents the first recording of Joe Strummer as a vocalist, and there is no question that even after having one of the most famed careers in history, this remains one of this finest performances.  There is a youthful purity and carelessness to his sound on this track, and yet one can also hear how this recording would lead to his iconic tone all across the catalog of The Clash.  The rough, yet someone vulnerable tone that Strummer perfected throughout his career is in top form on "Keys To Your Heart," and this is without question one of his finest lyrics; though it is certainly a far cry from the subject matter for which he is best known.  Yet it is in the fact that the lyrics found here are so different, yet fit perfectly with the rest of his writing that shows just what a diverse talent lived within Strummer, as the unwavering sincerity in his words is as obvious here as on any of his other songs.  However, it is the attitude with which he sings that pushed "Keys To Your Heart" to such a special place, as in many ways, the song can be seen as "the love song for tough guys," as Strummer's matter-of-fact delivery style helps the song to retain its edge, even within such a sentimental theme.  Furthermore, the words are so straightforward and universal that one can imagine the song setting off a room of people singing along, and this would be a large part of the lasting legacy of the performance persona of Joe Strummer.

Though there is no question that the work he did with The Clash casts a massive shadow over this early single, on many levels, it works in the songs' favor.  Due to it being such a different musical sound, "Keys To Your Heart" can easily stand alone and be judged on its own merits, and even without his later work, the song is one of the finest recordings in history.  It is the way that The 101'ers were able to blend together so many different influences, creating a wonderfully unique and exceptionally catchy song in the process.  At the same time, "Keys To Your Heart" has a bit of a "garage rock" feel to it, as the simple, unembellished musical arrangement quickly draws in the listener, and once the hook and lyrics are set into place, the song is impossible to get out of your head.  Furthermore, at the time it was being performed live (and eventually recorded), "Keys To Your Heart" was quite distant musically from what was going on within the mainstream of music, and it is due to this reason that one can see how vital the track was to the development of the punk sound.  Truth be told, The 101'ers were the headliners at a critical show in April of 1976 when a small band called The Sex Pistols opened the show, and it is this performance that many cite as the "beginning" of the punk movement in England.  Regardless of all of the historical significance of the track, at its core, "Keys To Your Heart" is an absolutely fantastic recording, and even more than three decades later, it is difficult to not fall in love with The 101'ers brilliant 1976 single.

Daily Guru How To: Making The Perfect Playlist

In today's special edition of The Daily Guru on YouTube, I teach you how to make the perfect playlist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Daily Guru, "Something Old, Something New #11"

It’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for another dose of “Something Old, Something New” with The Daily Guru.

September 27: McCoy Tyner, "Passion Dance"

Artist: McCoy Tyner
Song: "Passion Dance"
Album: The Real McCoy
Year: 1967

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All across the history of jazz music, there are countless musicians who helped to push the genre forward, and a majority of these names stand among the most iconic in all of music history.  However, within these names there are an elite few who stand out for an entirely different reason.  Not only were these select few musicians some of the most influential on their particular instrument, but they were able to make their presence known as a "sideman" before taking a leading role within a band.  Though there are only a handful of musicians who can make such a claim, there are few that can do so with as stunning a resumé as both a sideman and leader as that of McCoy Tyner.  Serving as the pianist for the great John Coltrane, it was often Tyner's performances that pushed Coltrane to the heights he reached, and the interplay between the two musicians remains absolutely unparalleled to this day.  Yet all throughout his recordings behind Coltrane, one can detect a spirit that was looking to go off in an entirely new direction, and when this finally occurred, McCoy Tyner began creating and releasing some of the most phenomenal recordings in the entire history of jazz.  All throughout the middle and late 1960's, Tyner recorded with his own band, and there are few jazz records that can measure up to his 1967 release, The Real McCoy.  Filled with some of his most brilliant work as a player and composer, there are few songs in McCoy Tyner's recorded history that can measure up to the musical emotion and talent on display all throughout the albums' lead track, "Passion Dance."

The moment that "Passion Dance" kicks off, a number of realities are instantly evident, the most clear of which may be the fact that Tyner has a composition style all his own.  There is a bounce and swing to the track that is quite distant from his previous work, and the fact that he was able to establish himself as so clearly different from his previous role surely played a large factor in his solo success.  Yet it is also the obvious chemistry between the members of the quartet that instantly grab the listener, and "Passion Dance" is one of the tightest and most enjoyable jazz recordings in history.  This connection is not all that surprising, as it is led by drumming legend Elvin Jones, with whom Tyner had played many years in his previous role.  Jones is in rare form on "Passion Dance," as he pushes the song forward with a relentless skip, working his cymbals as never before.  His performance is complimented by another legend, bassist Ron Carter, and the fact that these three were in the same studio almost guarantees a musical result that could be nothing short of stellar.  Carter absolutely flies up and down the fret-board, and in many ways it is the controlled speed shown by the rhythm section that makes "Passion Dance" such a unique musical experience.  The duo seem to blaze around the corners of the composition, and the sense of freedom that one can detect in their playing is what sets the song apart from most other jazz recordings.

However, while the rhythm section is absolutely brilliant on every moment of the track, it is the other half of the quartet that push "Passion Dance" into the highest group of jazz performances.  Though he had already made his talents clear within the confines of his previous groups, McCoy Tyner plays with a sound and spirit here that was rarely heard before.  The level of expression and passion with which he performs all across the song is nothing short of stunning, and the complexity he brings is in many ways what jazz music is all about.  Seamlessly moving from the lead to backing his bandmates, "Passion Dance" has a flow far beyond that of most other jazz songs, and this is a testament to Tyner's talents as a band leader.  Finding a number of different ways to approach the musical theme, Tyner plays in various tempos throughout "Passion Dance," and it is this unending exploration that make the song impossible to forget.  It is also the presence and playing of tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson that make the track so fantastic, and one can argue that it is the distinct sound and style with which Henderson plays that enables "Passion Dance" to separate itself from the earlier work of Tyner.  Henderson gives the track a superb spin and a great deal of rising and falling, and this addtional depth is what turns the song into an absolute jazz classic.

After experiencing the entire work that is "Passion Dance," one can argue that there may be no more difficult a task in music history than for an artist to stand firmly on their own after being a part of a truly revolutionary musical project.  Yet this is exactly what McCoy Tyner achieved, and while one cannot discount his work with John Coltrane in the slightest, there is no question that his talents as a band leader are far beyond that of almost any other artist.  The combined sound of the quartet is as tight as one can find anywhere, and the ease with which they pass the lead all across the song is as good as jazz music gets.  There is a shared chemistry between the four performers, and yet there is also an unselfish approach from each of them, and this freedom to explore is what makes "Passion Dance" such a phenomenal musical moment.  Focusing on the efforts of Tyner, one can easily argue that the combination of technical precision and overall artistic creativity that he shows is as good as one can find anywhere, and it is this pairing of styles that vault him to the level of one of the greatest pianists in all of music history.  The music itself seems to flow effortlessly from his fingers, and the power with which he plays makes the title of the composition completely fitting.  Pushing hard at a rather speedy pace, the quartet create a sound that appeals far beyond that of "just jazz," and it is this reason that there are few songs from any genre that can hold their own when compared to McCoy Tyner's brilliant 1967 recording, "Passion Dance."

Monday, September 26, 2011

September 26: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #91"

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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 commentary from "The Guru" himself.

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. Generation X, "From The Heart"  Generation X
2. City And Colour, "Sleeping Sickness"  Bring Me Your Love
3. Miles Davis, "Israel"  Birth Of The Cool
4. Cake, "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps"  Fashion Nugget
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Voodoo Chile"  Electric Ladyland
6. Guns N' Roses, "Since I Don't Have You"  The Spaghetti Incident
7. The Clash, "1977 (promo video version)"  DOA
8. REM, "Departure"  New Adventures In Hi-Fi
9. Tori Amos, "Snowblind"  Night Of Hunters
10. Muddy Waters, "Tiger In Your Tank"  At Newport
11. The Cinematic Orchestra, "Breathe"  Live At The Royal Albert Hall
12. Velvet Underground, "There She Goes Again"  The Velvet Underground & Nico

Sunday, September 25, 2011

September 25: The Kaleidoscope, "Oh Death"

Artist: The Kaleidoscope
Song: "Oh Death"
Album: Side Trips
Year: 1967

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There have been a few eras in history where music appeared to burst at every seam, with countless styles mixing with one another, and entirely new musical approaches being birthed.  Though they seem to only occur every thirty to fifty years, it is in these musically explosive times that the following decades are mapped out, and yet some of the most unique moments in such periods become comparatively lost over time.  This was certainly the case in the late 1960's, as rockabilly and rock and roll gave way to the psychedelic and heavy metal sounds, but it is the former of these two that showed some of the widest range in diversity of any style in history.  Though nearly everyone is well aware of the psychedelic rock movement, as it has yielded many of the most famous bands in history, there was also a completely unique "psychedelic folk" scene simultaneously building, and few bands represent this sound than one can find in the catalog of the US band, The Kaleidoscope.  While they are far less well known than a number of their peers, once one experiences their music, there is no question that they stand as one of the most distinctive groups in history, and their 1967 release, Side Trips, is similarly unparalleled.  Filled with sounds ranging from folk to tribal to country to psychedelic to Middle Eastern, there may be no other song that better represents the wonderfully singular sound of The Kaleidoscope than their 1967 track, "Oh Death."

If there was ever an album that could boast about a wide range of instrumentation, it is Side Trips, and the massive talents of each member of the band is on display throughout "Oh Death."  The fact that a majority of the song is based around a fiddle gives one instant insight into the sound of The Kaleidoscope, as there are few recordings in folk from that era that have a similar approach.  It is the way that the band is able to so perfectly balance this sound with the meandering bassline that makes it the highlight of the record, as this is a fusion that would influence countless other groups.  The way in which "Oh Death" seems to sway back and forth almost gives it the feeling of a "drinking song," and it is in this reality that one can detect influence from older European songs and chants.  However, there i a stark contrast to this idea in the traces of dorbo and dulcimer than can be heard, as these are far more related to African and Middle Eastern music.  Yet it is again the ability of The Kaleidoscope to strike such a wonderful sonic balance that enables the track to rise above becoming muddled or confused, and "Oh Death" instead takes on a persona that cannot be found elsewhere in recorded history.  There is no "lead" instrument, and it is the smaller sounds from the bells and distant drums that give the track an unparalleled level of atmosphere, and in many ways, this element makes it far more psychedelic than the more popular songs associated with the genre.

Working in perfect harmony with the music over which he sings, Solomon Feldthouse possessed what is without question one of the most distinctive voices in the entire history of recorded music.  Though it fits in with every song in the catalog of The Kaleidoscope, due to the mood and lyrics of "Oh Death," it is hard to argue that he ever sounded better than on this recording.  It is the unique blend of speaking and singing that makes Feldthouse's voice so easy to recognize, and throughout "Oh Death," one can easily picture him singing the song in an ancient pub full of other patrons singing along.  The way that he presents the lyrics enable the entire song to feel far older than it actually is, and one might assume that the words were taken from a traditional source, as opposed to being penned by country musician, John Reedy.  This reality shows the power of a conscious mood being set on any song, and "Oh Death" is able to hit just as hard even after hearing the song a number of times.  The way that Feldthouse spins this dramatic tale of a man battling with Death is far beyond that of almost any other similar lyric, as the dark and almost "knowing" way with which he sings is rarely anything short of completely captivating.  However, the story that runs throughout "Oh Death" is absolutely timeless, and in the end, not even promises of wealth can sway Death from his duty, and Feldthouse's vocal mastery delivers this reality in truly spectacular fashion.

After experiencing "Oh Death," one cannot help but find strong influences of the track in the music of countless later bands, and yet this only makes the reality that The Kaleidoscope remain comparatively unknown even harder to understand.  In so many ways, one can see the direct link to the music of Black Sabbath, as the lyrical imagery as well as the musical approach are unquestionably similar.  Furthermore, one can argue that almost every band that "followed" Black Sabbath were in fact taking a large portion of their sound and style from The Kaleidoscope, and yet the band also gave life to another side of music.  One can easily hear how this song shaped many of the "crossover-folk" bands that emerged in the final years of the 1960's, as the wide range of influences that can be heard in the music of The Kaleidoscope clearly played a massive role in the music of a majority of the bands in the "San Francisco scene."  However, even without these obvious connections, the music of The Kaleidoscope easily stands on its own as some of the most uniquely brilliant in the entire history of music, and there are few groups that can even remotely compare to the sound of their music.  The way that the band combined sounds from all over the world and different parts of history is truly uncanny, and there is simply no other song in history that sounds or feels quite like The Kaleidoscope's 1967 track, "Oh Death."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September 24: Pete Seeger, "Little Boxes"

Artist: Pete Seeger
Song: "Little Boxes"
Album: Little Boxes (single)
Year: 1963

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While many may wish to believe that being subversive and writing songs that rally against "the powers that be" is some more modern invention that was birthed in the beginning of hard rock and punk rock, the reality is that such songs have been in existence since the very beginning of music itself.  Furthermore, it is within many of the earlier recordings of "culturally charged" songs that the bet examples of such an approach exist, as they are far more subtle in nature, and yet often far more powerful and cutting than their more modern counterparts.  This need to stand against "the system" was in many ways the very foundation of the folk movement, and few exemplify this idea better than the legendary Pete Seeger.  Having penned and performed a massive number of songs that are now absolute icons of the "American music" catalog, his name alone commands more respect than nearly any other figure in the entire history of recorded music.  Whether it was due to the style with which he sang, the passion within his lyrics, or the fact that he has been creating songs for more than seventy years, there is no other artist that has had as long standing an impact on the world of music than Seeger.  Due to his unmatched longevity in recording, it is impossible to cite a single song as his most important, and yet one can quickly understand everything that makes Pete Seeger such a legend within his 1963 recording of "Little Boxes."

Everything that makes "Little Boxes" such a magnificent recording lives within the juxtaposition in sound and intent, and few have mastered this balance better than Pete Seeger.  In this case, there is nothing more than his lone banjo, and yet few songs have been able to extract as much meaning or feeling from such a slim sound than one finds here.  The tone and rhythm with which he plays is as "classic" as one can find anywhere, and "Little Boxes" quickly takes on its unforgettable "child-like" persona due to the playful, light musical arrangement.  This is where the first sense of what a subtly brilliant work Seeger is constructing, as those who do not read into the songs' true meaning can easily mistake it for a child's tune.  It is the simplicity of the banjo progression that gives it such an immediate and wide-ranging appeal, and it is also this basic arrangement that makes "Little Boxes" able to be played by nearly anyone of any age.  This ability to be so universal in so many ways is one of the keys to the lasting impact of "Little Boxes," and one cannot help but assume that this was a conscious decision by Pete Seeger when he recorded the song.  The stripped down music also allows a greater focus on the vocals and overall tone of the song, as well as providing an ample space for the songs' sarcastic nature to take a firm hold.

While the banjo arrangement is one that is almost impossible to forget, there is no question that the true strength behind "Little Boxes" is the way that Pete Seeger presents the vocals and lyrics.  Much in the same way that the banjo can be taken as far less of a "threat" than it seems, Pete Seeger's perfectly pleasant, absolutely endearing voice sounds as good as any of his recordings, and the "sing-songy" way that he pushes the vocals further suggests that "Little Boxes" is a song aimed at children.  It is very easy to understand how the song would have quickly engaged audiences to sing along, and this ability of "Little Boxes" is still strong to this day.  However, once one gets past the swaying vocals, there is no question that "Little Boxes" is one of the most subversive and cutting songs ever written.  At every turn, the lyrics pass harsh judgments on the state of middle-class society, and yet much like the alluring nature of the music and singing, the words to "Little Boxes" are just as relevant today as they were more than half a century ago.  Making a number of observations on the almost tragic homogenization of culture, the lyrics, originally penned by Malvina Reynolds, seem to be a warning call against those that find comfort in bland conformity.  From choices in careers to leisure activities to the way in which children are raised, "Little Boxes" cuts at every aspect of society, and one can easily imagine those "guilty" of such actions unknowingly singing along with Pete Seeger's voice, cementing the songs' sarcastic irony.

In every aspect, Pete Seeger's recording of "Little Boxes" defines the very essence of music, as it is beyond expressive, making unapologetic criticisms of society.  This is what many claim to be the "job" of art in general, as it shows the problems and shortcomings of society as a whole.  Furthermore, the fact that so many decades later, the song is not only still relevant in content, but continues to be used in various aspects of culture is a testament to what a special moment it represents.  Perhaps moreso than any other song in history, "Little Boxes" has been covered to an extent that one cannot even fathom the number of versions that exist.  Across nearly every culture and genre of music, one can find recordings of "Little Boxes," and while the way in which they are constructed varies greatly, the intent within remains constant.  The song has also been used in a wide range of films and television shows all across the globe, and yet in the ultimate irony, many who hear it in such ways are unaware of its actual meaning, though they themselves represent what the song preaches against.  However, through the long list of covers and uses of the song, there is simply no other that carries a similar impact to that of Pete Seeger's recording, as there is a purity and power within his rendition that epitomizes the "mission" of folk music.  There may be no other song in history that is as "to the point" in every aspect whilst simultaneously standing as so sharp and subversive, and this perfectly represents everything that makes Pete Seeger such a legend, and why his 1963 recording of "Little Boxes" stands as one of the most important moments in all of music history.

Friday, September 23, 2011

September 23: Masshysteri, "Vår Del Av Stan"

Artist: Masshysteri
Song: "Vår Del Av Stan"
Album: Vår Del Av Stan
Year: 2009

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Though many may wish to think differently, the reality is that in modern society, almost every form of music can be easily accessed to anyone across the globe.  While there are certainly some negative results of this truth, it also makes it possible for the sounds of one culture to me brilliantly blended with those of another, creating some of the most uniquely exciting music the world has ever heard.  This is true in every style of music, as one can find examples of hip-hop in remote areas of the world as easily as one can find "local" tribal music being created in the largest cities on the planet.  Yet it is when a band is able to take a number of different influences and fuse them together into something entirely new that the greatest results of such "access" can be heard, and there are few finer examples of this idea than in the music of Swedish rockabilly/punk rockers, Masshysteri.  While the band was sadly only in existence for a few short years, the music they created was far beyond that of almost any other group on the planet, and it is within their songs that one can experience the culture and language-defying power of truly great music.  Mixing together everything from Black Flag to Dick Dale to Chuck Berry, there has simply never been another band making music quite like Masshysteri, and few songs better sum up their unique musical genius than what one can experience on the title track to their 2009 album, Vår Del Av Stan.

Serving as the lead track to the album, "Vår Del Av Stan" sets an amazing tone for the record, as it contains a completely captivating sound and energy that is rarely found in today's music scene.  There is an urgency and authenticity within their playing that reminds listeners of what music sounds like when it is being created for the "right" reasons.  Following a perfectly tones chord, the band builds an exceptional level of tension behind the opening vocal, and as they begin to tilt the sound over the edge, the excitement can easily be felt.  Even after hearing the song a number of times, the emotion and feeling of this moment are still just as powerful, and it is this reality that sets "Vår Del Av Stan" so far apart from almost any other recording in recent memory.  However, it is also the way that Masshysteri is able to bring together their various influences into a new sound that makes the song so fantastic, as the surf-like undertones of the guitar manage to blend perfectly with the power and grind that the song demands.  The speed of "Vår Del Av Stan" surely lit up countless clubs, as one cannot help but get caught up in the emotion of the song, and yet the band does not push the music to a point that it might turn off other music fans.  It is this balance that Masshysteri strikes in every aspect, from the deep grooving bass to the almost flying guitars that make "Vår Del Av Stan" such a special recording, and it serves as a reminder that when one stays true to the music within, it is almost impossible to yield anything less than stellar results.

It is also the way that the shared vocals blend so perfectly with the music over which they are placed that makes "Vår Del Av Stan" a song that is impossible to forget.  Even if one does not speak Swedish, the emotion behind the words are more than enough to "hook" the listener, and this in itself is the true essence of the power of music.  Handling a majority of the lead vocals, Robert Pettersson mirrors the urgency of the musical arrangement, and there is a clarity and spirit within his voice that easily transcends cultural borders.  His singing blends with that of Sara Almgren in a fantastic manner, and their combined sound is completely unique, giving "Vår Del Av Stan" an edge that is rarely found elsewhere within modern music.  There is a large amount of spirit within their singing, and it is this energy that matches the punk spirit, even without any understanding of the lyrics which they sing.  However, when one learns even a small amount of the words to "Vår Del Av Stan," the link to the punk style becomes even stronger.  The title itself roughly translates into "our part of town," and this idea is as true to the punk spirit as one can find anywhere.  A majority of the rest of the lyrics speak to the thought of being true to yourself and understanding that life is tough, which is a reality one must face.  This idea of "live for today" is similarly as close to the punk rock ethos as one can imagine, and it enables "Vår Del Av Stan" to serve as proof as to what a border-less sound that genre has become.

In an era when there is virtually no limit to the sounds and styles of music that one can access from the comfort of home, it is somewhat surprising that such mediocre music still manages to dominate sales all across the world.  However, there are also a massive number of bands that stand in strong defiance to this idea, creating exciting and new combinations of sounds form across the planet.  There are few bands that better represented the latter of these ideas than Sweden's own Masshysteri, and one can only sit in frustration at the fact that the band is no longer making music.  In every aspect, Masshysteri represented everything that was great about rock and roll and punk rock, as they clearly made music exactly how they wanted, fusing together a wide range of influences into a completely unique sonic assault.  Whether it was the surf-influenced guitars or the clearly punk-styled vocal approach, there are few music fans that such a sound would not appeal to, and the fact that there is an honestly and authenticity on every song that can be easily felt is a reminder to the "true" spirit of rock and roll.  Furthermore, one can easily understand just how powerful the band was in live situations, as a majority of their songs carry with them a power and energy that easily set off any club anywhere on the planet.  In every aspect, there are few bands that have shown as perfect a balance between power and talent as one finds in Masshysteri, and there have been few releases as refreshing to experience as their 2009 song, "Vår Del Av Stan."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Daily Guru: "Something Old, Something New #10"

Thursday means another dose of “Something Old, Something New” with yours truly. Share and enjoy!

September 22: Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Turn On Your Love Light"

Artist: Bobby "Blue" Bland
Song: "Turn On Your Love Light"
Album: Turn On Your Love Light (single)
Year: 1961

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One of the more intriguing aspects in music is the way in which a song can become so far removed from the original recording as time passes, taking on an entirely new image to the point that the source material is almost entirely forgotten.  While in many cases, this can occur due to nothing more than a cover version gaining great notoriety, it is also a common reality when the original artist may themselves have been somewhat forgotten by time, and both of these possibilities are in play in the case of legendary blues and soul singer, Bobby "Blue" Bland.  Without question one of the most vital contributors to the state of modern music, the way with which he was able to take the deep, almost pained mood of the blues and give it a more high-energy, yet heavily emotional spin placed Bland into a category with very few others, and yet most today are unaware of his existence.  Furthermore, though many unknowingly attribute them elsewhere, it was Bobby "Blue" Bland that was responsible for the original recordings of a number of songs that have become standards, and in many cases, his take remains far superior to the long list of covers that have occurred over time.  It is often the way that his original recording displays the true spirit of the song that sets them far apart from later versions, and this is absolutely the case when one hears Bobby "Blue" Bland's brilliant 1961 recording of the now-iconic song, "Turn On Your Love Light."

From the first notes of "Turn On Your Love Light," the unique blend of styles that is the music of Bobby "Blue" Bland is absolutely apparent, and there are few artists that stuck as perfect a balance as one finds here.  The way that the bright, almost over-blown horns instantly grab the listener is unlike anything else, and in this style and mood, one can hear the basis for the image and sound that The Blues Brothers would take nearly twenty years later.  It is the horns that dominate much of the track, and their presence gives "Turn On Your Love Light" a tone that is almost always lost in later recordings of the song.  The bouncing piano progression gives the track a unique "dance feel," and it is this element that makes it fit perfectly into the era in which it was released.  This ability to make the song swing further separates it from other songs of the time, and it also sets Bobby Bland far apart from any other soul-style performer.  There is also a wonderfully funky groove in the guitar all across "Turn On Your Love Light," and the way that this sound blends with the piano makes it understandable why the track shot to the top of the r&b charts.  The light drumming serves as the ideal finishing touch, and it is the way that this sound gives way to the bright, energizing horns that give the original version of "Turn On Your Love Light" far more life and appeal than any of the covers that followed in later decades.

However, while the musical arrangement on "Turn On Your Love Light" has become nothing short of iconic, Bobby "Blue" Bland remains an absolute icon of music for nothing more than his voice.  Unlike many other blues and soul performers, Bland had no other instrument with which to make his name, but the reality is that with as powerful and beautiful a voice as he possesses, nothing else is necessary.  There is a strength and soul within his singing that remains unmatched to this day; and it is this "honest pain" that pushes his original versions of so many songs to a far higher places than later, better known covers.  Easily working all across the vocal scale, Bland is able to make "Turn On Your Love Light" swing a bit more with his voice alone, and yet it is the all-out commitment to the lyrics that makes his rendition so stunning.  It is the sincerity with which he sings that makes later covers sound as if the performers are "simply singing words," as all across the original, one can experience what a soulful song it was meant to be.  In many ways, this reality on the original is what firmly places Bobby Bland into the soul style, and yet the slight growl, as well as his vocal approach make it clear that there is a great deal of blues at the core of his sound.  Due to this reality, Bobby "Blue" Bland is one of the few artists in history to perfectly balance soul and blues, and it rarely sounded as fantastic as his recording of "Turn On Your Love Light."

As the years passed, countless artists from a wide range of genres have turned many of Bobby "Blue" Bland's songs into classics, and yet in many of these cases, the later versions completely obscure the far superior original.  This is without question the case with "Turn On Your Love Light," as The Grateful Dead made the song a regular part of their live shows, and yet once one hears the original, the version from The Grateful Dead clearly lacks the soul and power that Bland brought to the track.  Furthermore, though most are unaware, it was a bootleg recording of the band Them playing "Turn On Your Love Light" that snagged the band a record deal, and this can be seen as the launching of the career of Van Morrison.  Countless other groups have made their own recording of the song over the years, and yet none have been able to bring the combination of soulful dedication and upbeat power that one finds in Bobby "Blue" Bland's original.  Yet there is no question as to the massive impact that the song has had on the face of modern music, and in 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.  Whether it is the literal song itself, or the way that Bobby "Blue" Bland performs all across the track, there are few songs in history that can boast as wide-ranging an impact, and it is due to these realities that one must hear and understand the stunning original 1961 recording of the unforgettable song, "Turn On Your Love Light."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September 21: The Roots, "You Got Me"

Artist: The Roots
Song: "You Got Me"
Album: Things Fall Apart
Year: 1999

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One of the largest misconceptions that the musically ignorant like to place on the hip-hop genre is their claim that it is somehow less of a talent, often stating that there is no "music" to the style.  Yet while this stereotype has persisted since the first appearances of the style, the reality is that there has also been a constant stream of hip-hop artists that made their name from creating amazing musical compositions over which some of the finest rhymes in history have been placed.  One can choose any "era" of hip-hop music, and the overly creative, original sounding groups are absolutely present, yet few have excelled as brilliantly as one can find all across the recordings of The Roots.  Making their name within the vibrant "underground" hip-hop scene of the early and mid 1990's, the group gained an extremely dedicated following, largely due to their combination of jazzy, funky songs, along with their hard-hitting, vivid lyrics.  As the music scene gradually tired of the over-done, rather bland world of "gangsta rap," it was artists like The Roots that served as the saving grace for the genre, and few records from the entire history of hop-hop remain as stunning to experience as their 1999 opus, Things Fall Apart.  Filled with some of the most engaging musical arrangements and intriguing lyrics, The Roots cemented their name as one of the most important bands in all of hip-hop history with their beautiful, powerful 1999 single, "You Got Me."

The moment that "You Got Me" begins, it is impossible to get away from the song.  The music is instantly hypnotizing, as the band wastes no time in setting one of the most perfect grooves ever captured on tape.  There is a tone and mood that grabs the listener from the get-go, and this reality is the very essence of the exceptional talents of The Roots.  Much of this fantastic mood comes from the sharp drumming from the now-iconic ?uestlove, as it is the high-tension snap that he lays down that gives "You Got Me" its signature sound.  The way in which one cannot help but nod along with this beat quickly pushes it far beyond any other hip-hop recording, and the mellow, beautiful guitar progression works in perfect compliment.  It is the interplay between these two elements that makes "You Got Me" so inviting, as the song is able to appeal to the more r&b-style crowd, whilst simultaneously providing enough of an edge to keep the hip-hop fans engaged.  Furthermore, The Roots are clearly conscious of the tends within hip-hop at the time, as "You Got Me" carries with it a heavy, but subtle kick from the bass, making the song just as good for "bumping" as any other, yet in a more refined, more musically sound manner.  It is the wide array of instrumentation at play throughout the song that make "You Got Me" such a fantastic work of art, and this track is all the proof one could need to cement hip-hop's place alongside any other musical style.

Yet it is also the way that The Roots are able to create a brilliant vocal dynamic that vaults "You Got Me" to such a high status.  While in many ways they had already proven their exceptional vocal talents on their previous albums, it is the inclusion of songstress Erykah Badu on "You Got Me" that makes the song a true classic.  The fact that Badu fits so perfectly into the mix the band creates is a testament to the exceptional level of musical balance all across the track, as well as standing as the finest crossover between hip-hop and r&b that has ever been recorded.  Badu's smooth, yet somewhat edgy voice is absolutely beautiful at every turn, as she spins a uniquely female perspective into a male-dominated lyrical environment.  The way that Badu's sound contrasts the vocals of emcee Black Though is spectacular, and even those who are not huge fans of hip-hop are sure to enjoy this superb vocal pairing.  It is the fact that Black Thought's vocals are so clear and creative that set the song further apart from "just rap," and this in many ways is one of the most important factors in all of the music from The Roots.  "You Got Me" also features one of the earliest and most impressive rhymes from Eve, as she plays the "other side" of Black Thought's message of "real" love and trust.  The fact that "You Got Me" is based around the idea of two lovers reminding one another that their feelings are true also sets the track far apart from a majority of hip-hop music, and yet the fact that the song is without question as "real" as one could want is the final proof of the songs place as a true hip-hop masterpiece.

Following the release of "You Got Me," the song vaulted The Roots into the hip-hop mainstream, yet they stayed true to their sound, releasing a number of fantastic songs in the years that followed.  However, "You Got Me" caught the attention of a massive audience, and the sheer beauty and perfection of the track ended up winning the 2000 Grammy Award for "Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group."  Even without such accolades, there is no question that the track is one of the greatest in hip-hop history, and even more than a decade since its release, it remains just as fresh and powerful as ever.  At every turn, one can experience just why The Roots are held in such high regard, as their knowledge and ability in all forms of music come through quite clearly.  The way that the band is able to fuse together elements of jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop into an amazing musical work is unlike anything else recorded to this day, and there are few bands from any genre that make as consistently great music as one finds all across the recorded history of The Roots.  However, the truth of the matter is, the original backing vocal on "You Got Me" was written and performed by Jill Scott, but MCA Records asked for it to be re-recorded by Badu.  Both versions are absolutely fantastic, and there is no getting around the fact that the song is the living proof that hip-hop is just as "musical" as any other style.  Boasting musical perfection in absolutely every area, there is no other song in history that measures up to The Roots magnificent 1999 single, "You Got Me."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Daily Guru: "Something Old, Something New #09"

It's Tuesday, and that means it's time for another dose of "Something Old, Something New" with The Daily Guru. Share and enjoy.

September 20: The Byrds, "Eight Miles High"

Artist: The Byrds
Song: "Eight Miles High"
Album: Fifth Dimension
Year: 1966

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When one inspects the entire music world of the mid-1960's, it is almost inexplicable to see the way in which almost every band was able to simultaneously give influence and take influence from their peers.  That is to say, due to the way in which music was splintering off in countless directions, bands were constantly using ideas and musical fusions from other groups within their own music.  While some may wish to believe that "every" band took their sound for the "new" style of rock from a single source, the fact is, if there was any band that can be singled out, it is likely a group that is often overlooked.  Though they are rarely given such accolades, when one follows the timeline of musical innovation, there may be no other band more vital to the development of the psychedelic rock sound than Los Angeles, California legends, The Byrds, and their influence can be heard all across many of the most commercially successful bands of their era.  Mixing together sounds of folk, blues, and the rising rock and roll sound, The Byrds created sonic beauty of unmatched proportions, and though they had already experienced a number of lineup changes, they found their artistic apex with their 1966 album, Fifth Dimension.  Without question the turning point in the psychedelic movement, there are few songs that remain as influential and absolutely vital to the progression of music as a whole than The Byrds stellar 1966 song, "Eight Miles High."

While the musical arrangement found on "Eight Miles High" may not seem anything out of the ordinary, when one considers the time in which it was released, it was so far ahead of other bands, that one can cite it as one of, if not the earliest and most clear psychedelic song.  From the progression and sounds found across the song, one can hear its direct influence on bands ranging from Pink Floyd to The Beatles to R.E.M., and this reality alone is enough to cement the songs' legacy as one of the most important in all of music history.  The bassline from Chris Hillman that kicks off the song is as integral as any other element, and the fact that each part of the song can stand on its own pushes the overall arrangement to even greater heights.  The way that the guitars seem to cut across this sound, then lift the entire song is a technique that has rarely been matched, and once "Eight Miles High" settles in, there may be no other song that so perfectly captures the psychedelic mood.  This reality seems to defy every common assumption about the lineage and rise of this movement, as it is commonly assumed that San Francisco was the "birthplace" of such music, and yet "Eight Miles High" stands in strong defiance so such thoughts.  In fact, one can make a much easier case that it is the sounds and techniques found here that influenced the later, more popular groups of the psychedelic movement, and yet in comparison, no later band was able to achieve the musical bliss found all across The Byrds, "Eight Miles High."

Managing to perfectly match the sonic beauty of the music, it is the shared vocals on "Eight Miles High" that have turned the song into such a legendary recording.  Within the vocals and lyrics of the song, the strong influence of the folk movement is best represented, and it is here where one can experience just how closely that style is with the psychedelic rock sound.  Though for some members of The Byrds, these gorgeous vocals would serve as a preview of their achievements in later groups, the signing on "Eight Miles High" remains the pinnacle of group harmonies on many levels, and the sound is just as enjoyable today as it was upon first release.  The combined voices of Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark are nothing short of perfect, and there is also a great deal of movement within their singing, adding yet another dimension to the song.  However, it was also within the singing that "Eight Miles High" created a great deal of controversy, and the song was even banned from radio for some time.  Though the band insists that the lyrics were written in reference to their first trip to England, it became assumed that the words were in fact commentary on drug use, and this is what led to the banning of the track.  In later years, some members of The Byrds did admit that while the bulk of their initial defense was true, "Eight Miles High" was not completely "innocent" in nature, and one was not wrong in reading drug references into the songs' lyrics.  Yet this remains a rather secondary fact, as the absolutely stunning vocals far overpower the words, and one can still hear the impact of these vocals in modern music.

Though in many cases it goes largely unnoticed, "Eight Miles High" stands as one of the most covered and referenced songs in all of music history.  From the iconic song "American Pie" to The First Edition's, "I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition my Condition Was In)" to recent recordings by Bruce Springsteen, one can find traces of the track in nearly every genre of music.  Furthermore, the number of complete covers of "Eight Miles High" is astounding, and even in today's music scene, the song still makes appearances, though most modern audiences are unaware of its origins.  All of these tributes to the song further cement its place as one of the most important in history, and when one looks at "Eight Miles High" on the overall timeline of musical progression, there is no question that without its presence, the psychedelic movement would likely never have occurred.  It is the way that The Byrds were able to so brilliantly blend together the instrumentation, then compliment this sound with one of the most perfect vocal tracks ever recorded that sets the song so far apart from others, and the fact that one can hear everything from jazz to folk to rock in the song is the final testament to what a special achievement one can find in this song.  While the band itself has yet to receive all of the credit they so clearly deserve, the fact remains that there is no other song in history that is as vital to the development of a new style of music than one can experience on The Byrds' 1966 classic, "Eight Miles High."

Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #90"

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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 commentary from "The Guru" himself.

Tracklist (all links are to MY review of that artist, song, or album):
1. Peter Gabriel, "Big TimeSo
2. Curtis Mayfield, "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go"  Curtis
3. Joan Jett, "Bad ReputationBad Reputation
4. George Harrison, "What Is Life"  All Things Must Pass
5. Joe Strummer & The Mescalaros, "Johnny Appleseed"  Global A Go-Go
6. Tim Barry, "Wait At MilanoRivanna Junction
7. 2Pac, "Picture Me Rollin"  All Eyez On Me
8. Ryan Adams, "Nuclear"  Demolition
9. Magazine, "Definitive Gaze"  Real Life
10. Dr. Dre, "Lil' Ghetto Boy"  The Chronic
11. Neil Young, "Journey Through The Past"  Live At Massey Hall, 1971
12. Foo Fighters, "I'll Stick Around"  Foo Fighters

Sunday, September 18, 2011

September 18: Rick James, "Super Freak"

Artist: Rick James
Song: "Super Freak"
Album: Street Songs
Year: 1981

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In a number of cases throughout the course of music history, and artist has become far larger than their musical persona due to a wide range of external incidents and influences.  There are a handful of such performers that have also managed to write songs that have fallen victim to a similar fate, and in these situations, one can often forget just why the artist or performer was so respected and revered in the first place.  Though one can cite a few musicians who fit this description, there are few that better define the idea than Rick James, and yet one cannot deny the fact that on many levels, he saved the style of popular music.  As the 1970's began in wind down, a number of iconic record labels began to suffer due to not being able to properly "update" their sound, and this was certainly the case with the legendary Motown Records.  Truth be told, it was the efforts and musical talents of James that revitalized the label, giving them new life throughout the 1980's.  Finding a number of creative ways to blend funk, rock, blues, soul, and disco all into some of the most unforgettable and musically brilliant compositions in history, James scored a handful of chart-topping hits, cementing his legacy as one of the most talented performers in all of music history.  However, it would be his own 1981 album, Street Songs, that would yield his definitive moment, as their are few songs more iconic than Rick James' unforgettable disco-funk single, "Super Freak."

The very moment that "Super Freak" begins, the level of worldwide fame that the core riff has achieved becomes instantly clear, and there are few musical progressions in history that are as instantly recognizable as the one found here.  Though it is not the most complex, it is the deep groove that James deploys via his bass that grabs the listener and pulls them into the song.  Truth be told, even after hearing "Super Freak" countless times, the bassline is just as exiting and appealing, and this in itself cements the songs' place in history.  The way that the progression slides up and down is a perfect compliment to the lyrical tone of the track, and yet it is also the fact that there is an unquesitonably "disco sound" on the track that makes it even more unique.  By 1981, one can argue that disco was gone, if not dead, and it is "Super Freak" that bridges the gap between that sound and the rising "club" sound that would dominate the dance scene of the 1980's.  However, one cannot overlook the way that the keyboards punctuate this amazing bassline, presenting yet another rhythm within the song.  In fact, it is the multiple keyboard progressions one can hear on "Super Freak" that make the song so fantastic, as the track bounces and moves in different directions simultaneously.  This rhythmic complexity is finished off by an almost restrained drum track, and yet it is the way that all of the instruments come together that makes the music on "Super Freak" absolutely iconic.

However, while the musical arrangement alone would have easily made "Super Freak" a classic, the vocals and lyrics from Rick James push the track into a category all its own.  There is an attitude and swagger within James' singing that match the lyrics perfectly, and it is also this singing style which defined him as an artist.  Managing to become one of the most lavish stage persona's in history without becoming a caricature, James achieves a rare balance in personality and style.  It is this almost pompous attitude, mixed with the extremely suggestive tones of the song that make "Super Freak" one of the finest party anthems in history, and yet there are few songs as lewdly misogynistic as one finds here.  From the opening lines of the song, James spins the tale of a woman of ill repute, claiming that, "...she likes the boys in the band, she says that I'm her all-time favorite..."  While James does not explicitly state exactly how much she "likes' the other members of the band, the rest of the song seems to suggest that she is the more modern representation of a "groupie," and as the song progresses, James continues to paint a rather unflattering picture of the female in question.  Strangely enough, it is this "bad girl" image that he unapologetically creates which pushed the song to such heights, as even with these rather questionable traits, the music and vocal performance seem to overcome what could have resulted in great controversy.  This fact alone solidifes what a special moment one can find on "Super Freak," and James vocals throughout are nothing short of perfect.

In reality, there are few songs that have delievered as much of a "total package" as one can experience on "Super Freak," and it is due to the perfecton in every element that has enabled the song to become one of the most heavily covered and sampled in all of music history.  One can look to almost every musical trend that has occurred since the songs' release and find the track either being sampled, covered, or referenced in some manner.  In fact, one of the biggest selling tracks of the decade that followed was based around the musical arrangement found on "Super Freak."  Selling more than ten million copies across the globe, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" remains one of the definitive songs of the 1990's, and almost every moment of the music on that track is the core riff of "Super Freak."  Furthermore, since 1981, the song has been re-recorded by heavy metal bands, folk groups, and there is even a bluegrass rendition of the song, and combining these with the myriad of instances where the track has been sampled, and one can argue that there are few songs that have achieved as wide-ranged an impact as "Super Freak."  Even more than three decades after the song was first released, "Super Freak" can still easily light up a room, as the music and lyrics are upbeat and fun, regardless of the musical trends by which they are surrounded.  Taking this all into account, while his persona may have become larger than life, there is simply no question that when one discusses the most influential songs in the entire history of music, few can compare to the timeless perfection found on Rick James' legendary 1981 single, "Super Freak."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 17: Camper Van Beethoven, "Take The Skinheads Bowling"

Artist: Camper Van Beethoven
Song: "Take The Skinheads Bowling"
Album: Telephone Free Landslide Victory
Year: 1985

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Though it often makes it easier to describe the sound of a particular band, there is no arguing the fact that genre classifications are completely arbitrary, and in many cases they are rather meaningless.  This idea is perhaps easiest seen in the fact that there are a number of bands playing a particular sound far before it is given the more popular genre title, and yet these early bands are often placed into a different category.  While this has occurred a number of times over the course of music history, it has rarely been more obvious than in the case of the handful of bands in the 1980's that bridged the gap between punk rock, folk rock, and "garage" rock.  In more modern times, the sound these bands created would certainly be called "alternative" or "indie" rock, and yet in their own time period, it was so unique that it was often not given any classification at all.  Bringing one of the most unique sounds in all of music history, and laying the groundwork for what would become the "alt rock boom" of the early 1990's, there are few groups that better display this reality than Camper Van Beethoven, and there are few records of the entire decade more impressive than their 1985 masterpiece, Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  Filled with a massive array of sonic approaches and influences, the record still easily holds its own to this day, and there may be no other song that better captures the essence of Camper Van Beethoven than their seemingly immortal 1985 song, "Take The Skinheads Bowling."

Only a few notes into the song, the unique and almost defiant nature of "Take The Skinheads Bowling" becomes apparent, as the band seamlessly fuses together the core of folk music with the angst and spirit of the punk rock sound.  Though other bands had experimented with stripping down the punk sound, none did so in a similar manner, and one can easily hear the wide range of influence that this track had on later bands.  It is the way that the grouped guitars ring across the track that makes the song so distinctive, as they seem a bit rough and edgy, and this is where one can hear the punk influence.  Many might argue that the tone of the guitar sounds unfinished or perhaps even "off," and yet it is this same element that stands as the songs' most enduring musical aspect, as there is an energy within the guitars that is unlike any other recording.  It is also the fact that there are multiple guitars at work that make "Take The Skinheads Bowling" so unique, and their sound is perfectly complimented by bassist Victor Krummenacher.  Within the bassline, the song gains its fantastic sense of movement, as one can feel the track sliding back and forth, and yet this is also what keeps "Take The Skinheads Bowling" from becoming labeled as punk, furthering its distinctive nature.  Drummer Anthony Guess rounds out the band, and it is his fast paced, almost nervous sound that serves as the ideal finishing touch, and once heard, it is impossible to forget the musical performance and hook found on "Take The Skinheads Bowling."

Yet while the musical arrangement on "Take The Skinheads Bowling" is superb, there is no question that the spirit and soul of both the sound and band reside within the vocal performance of David Lowery.  Furthermore, it is Lowery's vocals that cement the bands' place within the punk aesthetic, and yet on many levels, the singing and lyrics are more "artsy" than what one expects from the punk genre.  However, Lowery's seemingly detached, almost nonsensical performance is truly fantastic, and it becomes almost, if not more iconic than the music over which he sings.  Moving between speaking and almost uncontrollable shouting, there is simply no parallel for the style of David Lowery's singing, and on many levels, it is this performance that would become the blueprint for every "alternative" singer that would emerge half a decade later.  It is this unique swagger that manages to make the extremely strange lyrics somehow work, and due to the way with which he presented them, countless people assumed there was some "deeper" message within the words.  However, when one steps back and inspects the lyrics to "Take The Skinheads Bowling," they are completely random, and though the chorus is beyond catchy, the verses themselves are as dadaist as one can find anywhere within the history of music.  Yet the fact that they are so unforgettable serves as proof to the power of a great vocal delivery, and it is the reason that David Lowery stands so far apart from his peers.

There is no question that "Take The Skinheads Bowling" stands as one of the most iconic songs of the entire decade, and few can recall a time when the song did not exist.  However, while this is all true, the fact of the matter is that the song never even came close to charting on any sales records.  Though the track became a staple of college and independent radio during the 1980's, this did not lead to greater success for the band; and in this way, Camper Van Beethoven stand as one of the most unique acts in all of music history.  Yet the reason why the song became such an "underground" success is completely clear, as few other recordings in history are as outright irresistible and unforgettable as one can experience in every aspect of "Take The Skinheads Bowling."  The trio of guitars are nothing short of perfect, and it is largely the attitude behind this sound that defines the song.  Rarely has their been a song based around a largely acoustic instrumentation that has as much attitude as one finds here, and this is much the reason that "Take The Skinheads Bowling" was able to appeal to such a wide range of music fans.  This seemingly limitless appeal can be seen in the fact that in the time since the song was first released, the track has been covered by artists ranging from rock to ska to punk to folk, and in each case, it seems to fit perfectly with the genre in question.  Taking this all into account, there is no question that Camper Van Beethoven stand as one of the most unique bands in all of music history, and there are few songs as timeless as their 1985 track, "Take The Skinheads Bowling."

Friday, September 16, 2011

September 16: The Coasters, "Yakety Yak"

Artist: The Coasters
Song: "Yakety Yak"
Album: Yakety Yak (single)
Year: 1958

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While there are many different musical approaches that can be quite challenging to combine, few seem to be more difficult than when a band attempts to inject a sense of humor into their music.  Regardless of the style of music being played, it is nearly impossible for such efforts to not come off as a "novelty" or be regarded as some lesser musical achievement due to the inherent humor in the song.  Though a handful of bands have been able to make careers out of making silly songs with a decent musical backing, there are virtually no artists from any point in history that have been able to make both humorous recordings, as well as more serious musical efforts.  Within this small group of such acts, there may be no other as impressive or successful as The Coasters, and while many may not know their name, a number of their singles remain the most unforgettable in all of music history.  Emerging from the r&b and "doo wop" culture of the early 1950's, the quartet found a way to be both entertaining, as well as musically stunning simultaneously, and it was their relationship with the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that yielded almost every one of their most successful songs.  While the group had a number of high-charting singles, there is no song for which they are better known than their iconic 1958 single, "Yakety Yak."

One of the biggest hurdles one must overcome when looking at "Yakety Yak" is the fact that over the past few decades, the song has become so well-known that it is difficult to hear it with "fresh ears" and appreciate the musical accomplishment in a vacuum.  But once one can remove the song from all of the cultural moments in which it has been used, there is no question that "Yakety Yak" is one of the finest moments in music history.  The arrangement over which the vocals are placed is brilliantly constructed, and within it, one can hear a number of different influences interacting in a completely unique manner.  The way that the instrumentation seems to slide all across the track is what gives "Yakety Yak" it's signature whimsical mood, and this is certainly one of the most distinctive saxophone progressions ever recorded.  The fact that it is slightly over-blown gives the saxophone a bit of a distorted, almost dirty sound, and this reality is where the songs' "everyman" roots reside.  The bouncing, exceptionally upbeat piano adds even more to this mood, and one can hear influences of early jazz, ragtime, and an almost vaudevillian undertone that makes the mood on "Yakety Yak" truly unparalleled.  The "walking" bassline serves as an ideal finishing touch on the song, and few recordings in history have managed to be as upbeat and yet musically sound as one can experience on "Yakety Yak."

However, while the music on "Yakety Yak" certainly set the tone for the song, it is the vocals and lyrics which have pushed the song to the iconic status that it holds to this day.  Almost every single line in "Yakety Yak" is performed by multiple members of The Coasters, and it is the wide array of ways that they mix their voices which further sets the song apart from the work of their peers.  Their talent level is unquestionable, and these harmonies stand as some of the finest in history.  The fact of the matter is, while the music over which they is in fantastic, one could easily remove the instrumentation, and the song would still stand as a powerful, a-capella number.  It is in this reality where The Coasters completely avoid being labeled as "just" a novelty act, as one cannot deny their superb vocal expertise, and yet at the same time, there is a pure, almost "everyman" feeling within their singing.  This is highlighted by the Leiber/Stoller words which they sing, and there are few people on the planet that cannot easily relate to "Yakety Yak."  Whether it is the frustration of youth or older people who are fed up with their jobs, the song is still as applicable in modern times as it was more than half a century ago.  Furthermore, the vocals from each member of The Coasters is just as enjoyable as it ever was, and there are few songs that define the term "timeless" as perfectly as one finds in every aspect of "Yakety Yak."

Truth be told, it is impossible to cite all of the covers of "Yakety Yak" that have been made over the years, though one can cement the legacy of the song in the fact that the band Sha-Na-Na performed their own take on the track at the legendary Woodstock Music And Arts Fair in 1969.  "Yakety Yak" has also been featured in  wide array of films over the decades, and there was also a television show that was created with the same name, roughly based on the lyrics of the song.  Taking all of this into account, though the lyrics may be somewhat silly in comparison, there is no arguing that "Yakety Yak" has become something far larger than such a simple title, and this feat has rarely been achieved elsewhere in music history.  The fact that the vocals and overall mood of the song is able to slightly overshadow the whimsical nature of the track is that "difference," and it is this fact that enables the song to fit in perfectly with the rest of the groups' catalog.  This was all quite clear when "Yakety Yak" was first released, as it quickly climbed the charts, taking the top spot for a short time, and it remains one of the most enduring songs form the entire decade.  Whether it is the upbeat, bouncing musical arrangement, the vibrant, beautiful vocals, or the brilliantly penned lyrics, there has simply never been another recording quite like The Coasters' unforgettable 1958 single, "Yakety Yak."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Daily Guru: "Something Old, Something New #08"

Thursday means another dose of “Something Old, Something New” with yours truly. Share and enjoy!

September 15: Johnny Hartman, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning"

Artist: Johnny Hartman
Song: "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning"
Album: I Just Dropped By To Say Hello
Year: 1963

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One of the more frustrating aspects found throughout music history is the way that certain artists who are far more talented are overshadowed by others for often inexplicable reasons.  There are countless cases of this in almost every genre, but there has perhaps been no more obvious a situation than when one inspects the so-called "crooners" of the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Though there existed a wide array of phenomenal talents, many of them did not receive the credit and exposure they clearly deserved due to the presence of a handful of far less talented, but better connected performers.  While some may try and argue this as something different, the reality is that once one hears the sounds of the truly talented singers, the inferior skills of the others becomes abundantly clear, and there may be no finer an example than the voice of Johnny Hartman.  Without question one of the most pure and emotive singers in all of music history, there is a humble, delicate sound to every lyric which he sings, and once one experiences his fantastic talent, all other crooners seem rather pale in comparison.  Though Hartman only released a handful of albums during his career, they are all packed to the brim with extraorindary performances, and few moreso than his 1963 album, I Just Dropped By To Say Hello.  Showing off his entire range, the album is one of the greatest ever recorded, and there are few individual performances as moving or truly beautiful as one finds on Johnny Hartman's 1963 rendition of, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning."

From every angle, the entire work that is this take on the classic song is nothing short of definitive, and though countless artists have recorded their own version, none come even remotely close to the version found here.  In reality, there has rarely been as perfect a balance between a singer and his backing band as one finds on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," as there is no question that everyone involved in this recording understands just what a delicate atmosphere is necessary for this song.  Pianist Hank Jones has rarely sounded better than he does here, providing almost a second vocal line for Hartman, as well as gently exploring some of the arrangements more subtle nuances.  The smooth, meandering path he takes is nothing short of perfect, and one can easily picture he and Hartman performing in a small piano on a cold winter evening.  This approach is mirrored by bassist Milt Hinton, as he is able to extract an amazing level of mood from what stands as one of the most restrained and minimalist basslines in history.  Using his instrument to punctuate various musical moments, his performance is the very essence of balance within a song.  Guitarist Jim Hall slides effortlessly into the mix, lending ideal fills in some of the songs' "open spaces."  The band is rounded out by legendary drummer Elvin Jones, and it is his light, brushed cadence that gives "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" the ideal finishing touch, as the trio of musicians create what may very well be the greatest single mood ever captured on tape.

However, while one cannot overlook the brilliant work of the band on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning," there is never a question that the focus of the track is the absolutely beautiful vocal performance from Johnny Hartman.  Within the first few notes that he sings, it becomes instantly clear that not only does he have a complete understanding of the true spirit of the song, but that there are few singers from any point in history that can even remotely match the power and presence of his voice.  Easily working all across the vocal scale, Hartman has a deep sincerity within his voice that is rarely found elsewhere, and it is this honest, unassuming sound that becomes instantly unforgettable.  The depth and tenor of his singing is made all the more impressive by the fact that he is able to deliver such strong notes whilst not disturbing the fragile mood of the song, and he pushes it to even greater heights within his performance.  Though Hartman follows the logical progression of notes throughout the song, it is the small places where he holds a note or slides his voice that sets this version so far above others, and it is this take on "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" that solidifies him as one of the greatest vocalists in history.  The way in which Hartman is able to seamlessly blend his somber, blues-based voice into this quiet, graceful song is absolutely stunning to experience, and it remains a vocal performance of unparalleled impact.

In reality, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" was first recorded nearly a decade before the Hartman version emerged, and since that time, countless other performers have taken a shot at the song.  However, once one hears Johnny Hartman's rendition of it, all others quickly fall far below, and there is no question that this is the definitive take on the David Mann composition.  Yet history tends to forget this mind-blowing performance, citing the version by a far less talented performer as the one to seek out, and the truth of the matter is, when one compares the two recordings, the difference is almost laughable.  This reality is in many ways the finest example of the "problem" within the music industry, as once one experiences the voice of Johnny Hartman, there is no question that he was not given the promotion and accolades he deserved.  In every aspect, his singing is as close to perfection as one can find anywhere, and in both power and emotion, he easily outshines his commercially successful peers.  The way that he is able to match the mood of the band behind him not only shows his understanding of how to make a "complete" song, but it also serves as a contrast, showing how other singers were far more concerned with being the center of attention than they were in making a beautiful musical work.  Striking the ideal balance between musical superiority and a truly magnificent mood, there is no other recording in history that can match the power and presence of Johnny Hartman's 1963 version of the classic, ""In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning."