Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Note From The Guru: Duty Now For The Future

3. 1095. 1,754,834.

For those wondering, that is the number of years, days, and words that I have put into this website.  Since January 1, 2009, there has been fresh written content here EVERY day.  I somehow managed to not miss a single day in that entire time period.  I have published entries from 16 different states and 6 different countries and under the pressure of countless other deadlines and life realities.  Yeah, I am damn proud of it, so that is my moment of bragging.

But, as George Harrison wrote, "all things must pass," and as I sit here with the writing for 2011 complete, I feel it that the time is now…sort of.

As most of you are aware, the second half of this year brought to life a rather unexpected YouTube channel that I have been enjoying creating content for to say the least.  It is not that I enjoy it more or less than writing, but after three years, I will admit that it is a nice break for my brain to express my love for music through a different medium.  It is with that in mind that 2012 will bring about some rather drastic changes to the site.

First and foremost, there will still be BRAND NEW content EVERY day.  I am not willing to sacrifice that in any way, shape or form.  I feel it my duty to bring music knowledge to the masses, and I take that job quite seriously.  BUT, there will not always be new writing.  Here is what the 2012 weekly lineup will be:

Monday - "Something Old, Something New" video on YouTube
Tuesday - Gurucast podcast
Wednesday - "Special" YouTube video (I will explain this down the post a bit)
Thursday - write-up on a "music personality" (Alan Freed, Paul Rothchild, etc)
Friday - "Something Old, Something New" video on YouTube
Saturday - write-up on one of the greatest ALBUMS in history
Sunday - write-up on one of the greatest SONGS in history

One of the main reasons for this shift is my hope that this shift away from writing each and every day will allow me to finish off the last of my book.  Since it too is about music, you can understand how the "burn out factor" plays into trying to write a book after writing entries for each day.  Also, I have made a point to not repeat any artists on albums or the two years of songs, and I do not want to "dilute" the quality of the songs and albums on the list.  Furthermore, I am excited for the "music personality" section, as I feel there are so many important figures in music that never picked up an instrument.

Oh, and that "special" YouTube bit will be a rotating series of videos.  They will be The Guru Soapbox, Ask The Guru, Get Over Yourself, and a new segment called "Gabbing With The Guru" where I will be sitting down with bands, music industry types, and other music obsessives.  Also, there will be a monthly contest to win new music…details are in THIS VIDEO (coming Sunday).

Also, there will be stickers, shirts, and other "Guru stuff" coming in 2012…yep…it's going to be sweet!

So that, as they say, is "the plan."  As I said, this site is important to me on a level I cannot put into words, and that is the reason I never even considered doing anything other than daily content.  All I ask is that if you know someone who you think might enjoy the site and content, toss them a link.  I NEVER have ads on this site, and I never will.  This site is not about the money, it's about bringing amazing music to the masses.

To each of you who have been reading for a few days or a few years, thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Seeing the daily hit count, and the comments and emails, makes it worth it each and every day.


"…somewhere in my soul, there's always rock and roll!" -Joe Strummer

December 31: Louis Armstrong, "What A Wonderful World"

Artist: Louis Armstrong
Song: "What A Wonderful World"
Album: What A Wonderful World (single)
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Across the long history of recorded music, there are a select few songs and musicians without whom it is almost impossible to picture a world.  These singular moments and individuals have so massively shaped the entire history of music and culture as a whole that they transcend any boundaries, and have truly become part of humanity onto themselves.  Across all nations, languages, generations and any other sort of convention of classification, these unique songs and people cannot be mistaken, and it is the moments when the latter creates the former that the most unforgettable and outright life-changing songs in history exist.  Strangely enough, when one considers this exceptionally short list, one of, if not the most prominent example is a rather odd one, as it does not very accurately represent the talents of the main performer, Louis Armstrong.  Making his name as one of the earliest and most successful jazz soloists from as early as the 1920's one can easily make the case that there would have been no jazz, no blues, and none of the genres that formed after, had it not been for the talents of Louis Armstrong.  As perhaps the greatest trumpet player in history, Armstrong also possessed what may be the most instantly recognizable voice of all time; and it is this element, combined with his almost saint-like presence, and has turned his 1968 recording of "What A Wonderful World" into one of the true masterpieces in the entire history of recorded music.

There is no question that the opening progression of "What A Wonderful World" has become one of the most well-known of all time, as the beautiful string ensemble gently sways the song back and forth.  The fact that this arrangement was able to garner so many fans from across the musical spectrum is nothing short of inexplicable, as the popular music of the late 1960's was about anything that was far from a standard or "older" sound.  However, the reality remains that this orchestration has a presence that cannot be denied or ignored, and in many ways, it is this performance which shows the true power of classical instrumentation, as to this day, it still sounds fresh and is just as captivating.  It is also the way that the lone guitar plays in the left channel of the mix throughout the entire song that gives "What A Wonderful World" its distinctive tone, and due to the way that this sounds, one can make a bit of a link to the folk sound of the era.  Furthermore, the slow cadence from the drums almost has a country-western tone to it, and this may explain why "What A Wonderful World" was able to so easily cross over into so many different categories of music fans.  Yet the fact remains that the power of the music lives within the string section, and the way that the players build and release the tension throughout the song is truly as good as music has ever been performed.

While one cannot deny the moving nature of the music throughout "What A Wonderful World," the reality is that it is the unmistakable voice of Louis Armstrong that vaults this recording far beyond any other song in music history.  When one considers his back catalog, it is strange to think that he found such success with his raspy vocal sound, and yet one can argue that almost every slower song or ballad that he recorded has an allure that is unlike anything else.  On "What A Wonderful World," Armstrong truly set a standard, as he is able to give a sense of hope and happiness that stays strong even after hearing the song countless times.  Furthermore, the fact that the song was released during a time of such world-wide unrest is perhaps part of why it became such a massive success.  In many ways, one can see "What A Wonderful World" as a bit of a relief or escape from the often dark realities of the "real world," as the moment that the song begins, one cannot help but be lifted away to a more simple, more peaceful and pure time.  It is the way that Armstrong's voice carries the listener, lifting the spirits and somehow "making everything ok" that has enabled "What A Wonderful World" to easily endure the decades, and there may be no better example of the true power that a song can have than the feeling that one gets throughout this legendary vocal performance.

As the years have passed, few songs have been covered as widely or more often than "What A Wonderful World," and one can find versions recorded by everyone from Joey Ramone to B.B. King to Willie Nelson to The Flaming Lips, and countless other groups have recorded their own take on this song.  However, there is no question that amid all of these takes on "What A Wonderful World," Armstrong's original still stands miles beyond the rest, as the purity, simplicity, and outright beauty in his sound are impossible to match, let alone top.  This is further supported by the fact that while the song has been used in a massive number of films and television shows over the years, it is rare that any version other than the Armstrong take is the one that is chosen.  Yet strangely enough, upon its initial release, "What A Wonderful World" barely charted in the United States, largely due to the fact that the then-head of ABC Records did not like the song, and it was not properly promoted.  However, it became a massive hit in the U.K., and would becoming the biggest selling song of 1968 in that country.  In fact, "What A Wonderful World" did not chart in the United States until twenty years later, when it was used in the film, Good Morning, Vietnam, though by that point, the song was already a "standard."  Truth be told, it is impossible to consider a world in which this song did not exist, and it is the reason that there is not another recording from any point in music history that is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Louis Armstrong's legendary 1968 single, "What A Wonderful World."

Friday, December 30, 2011

December 30: The Leaves, "Too Many People"

Artist: The Leaves
Song: "Too Many People
Album: Too Many People (single)
Year: 1965

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

During the middle years of the 1960's, there is no question that it was somewhat difficult for any rock band from anywhere aside from The U.K. to breakthrough on an international level, as "that" sound was overpowering everything else across the globe.  However, while there were a handful of bands that manged to do just this, it is the music of some of the lesser-known groups of that era that provided not only some of the finest music, but the building blocks for the next generation of musicians.  Though it was certainly most famous for being the hub of the psychedelic movement during the latter part of the decade, the reality is that preceding those years, San Fransisco, California produced some of the finest rock bands of the entire generation, and their contributions to the progression of music cannot be denied.  Among these fantastic bands, there was the group that took influence from many of the British rock acts, and yet founds ways to incorporate far more blues and folk into their sound: The Leaves.  Seen by many as one of the strongest and most talented bands to emerge in the wake of The Byrds, one can easily make the case that they had a unique sound all their own, and they remain one of the few bands of the era that once heard, can never be forgotten.  Though they had a handful of hits during their career, few songs better define their sound or the mood of the time period than The Leaves' classic 1965 single, "Too Many People."

The moment that "Too Many People" begins, the unique musical approach that The Leaves brought to nearly every one of their songs is obvious, and it is led by the brilliant harmonica work from John Beck.  While the instrument itself has its roots in blues music, it is the way that Beck gives it a bit of a swing and more modern feel which sets it apart from the more "standard" harmonica sound, and one can hear his influence on many later bands that attempted the same idea.  The way that it blends in with the rest of the instrumentation is nothing short of perfect, and "Too Many People" gains as much of a "classic" 60's sound as one can handle the moment that the guitar of Bill Rinehart enters the song.  It is the tone with which he plays that is so unforgettable, as one can hear everything from surf rock to rockabilly to the "new" sound of rock and roll in his playing, and it is also the rhythm with which he plays that lights up this song.  Rhythm guitarist Robert Lee Reiner emphasizes these elements, and the swing created by him is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the entire song.  The fact that the bass from Jim Pom is so far forward in the mix, as well as the way that it deploys a heavy, strict groove along with drummer Tom Ray gives "Too Many People" almost a growl that is far more aggressive than most other songs of the era, and one can easily make the case that The Leaves were the precursor to what is now called "garage rock."

However, if there is one element that shows just how much The Leaves were simultaneously breaking new musical ground, whilst somehow fitting in perfectly with the sound of the time, it was the vocals from Jim Pons.  As soon as one hears his voice, it is almost impossible to not draw a comparison to the sound of Mick Jagger, and yet at the same time, there is no question that Pons was in no way doing this purposefully.  Yet the reality is that even though this similarity exists, it almost reinforces the fact that such a singing tone is as perfect as one can ask for within the rock and roll style, and when Pons gets a bit gritty with his singing, it is nothing short of pop-rock bliss.  But perhaps the most unexpected and yet undeniable aspect of this entire song is that within the way that Pons sings, especially what he is singing, one can argue that "Too Many People" is one of, if not the first more modern incarnation of what would become the punk rock sound over the next few years.  At its core, "Too Many People" is a song of frustrated angst and defiance, and the direct nature with which Pons sings was certainly a rarity during that time period.  From lines like, "...too many things that I got to do, too many bags that I got to run through..." to the wonderfully defiant, "...wear a suit and tie, when I'd rather sit and die...," it is impossible to deny the element of punk rock present in this song, and the attitude that runs throughout the vocals serve as the ideal finishing touch to a superb recording.

There is a power and presence in every element of "Too Many People" that is far beyond what any other band of the era was doing, and it is in this song that one can see how the sounds of mid-1960's rock and roll developed into the hard rock, heavy metal, and punk rock that would dominate the next decade.  Yet even with being such obvious influences on this reality, as well as being so far ahead of their time musically, The Leaves are one of the many bands from that time period which fail to receive the accolades which they so clearly deserve.  It is the way that the band takes the more standard sound of rock and roll that was becoming a hit across the globe, and simply add more attitude and authenticity to it which makes their songs so magnificent, and it is almost impossible to comprehend that not only did this song not catch on across the country, but few bands from their hometown followed in their footsteps.  Oddly enough, it would be one of the bands' later singles, "Hey Joe," which would give them greater exposure, and yet one can easily make the case that "Too Many People" is a far more accurate representation of the bands' overall sound and spirit.  It is the way that the harmonica and guitars seem to have an edge that cannot be found in any other band of the era, along with the flawless vocal performance, that vault The Leaves' 1965 single, "Too Many People" to stand as one of the most important and impressive recordings in all of music history.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #38

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

December 29: Big Black, "Kerosene"

Artist: Big Black
Song: "Kerosene"
Album: Atomizer
Year: 1986

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While many bands and artists may think and attempt to give off the idea that they are controversial or that they don't care to adhere to any societal norms or boundaries, the reality is that almost every musician in history does conform to a certain set of "reasonable standards" in terms of musical arrangements as well as lyrical themes.  Granted, there are a few artists that have taken small steps away from these "acceptable" subjects, but for the most part, in terms of lyrics, the overall world of music is rather tame.  Then of course, there was the band Big Black, who for a brief period of time seemed to make it their mission to completely destroy any ideas of such boundaries, making music and writing lyrics that were as confrontational as anything else in all of music history.  Whether they were singing about mutilation or immolation or even more risqué subjects, the defiance in their lyrics was only matched by the aggressive, yet sonically competent way that they deployed their brand of noisy hardcore rock and roll.  Furthermore, it is these musical contributions that would form the basis for what would become the "industrial" sound, and while many of those bands were seen as "daring" or bold in their music or lyrics, they are almost laughably tame when compared to Big Black.  This can be easily understood when one hears what may very well be the creative apex of Big Black, their 1986 song, "Kerosene."

The moment that "Kerosene" begins, the rather in-your-face and aggressive nature of Big Black is completely evident, as the somewhat ear-piercing noise that opens the song surely turned away most listeners before the song even entered into its main section.  It is in this aspect where comparisons to The Fall have been drawn over the years, and yet there is a form and energy that places Big Black far apart from such similarities.  The song is largely driven by the bass of Dave Riley, and he brings a somewhat looming, dirty and aggressive sound the pace and mood with which is plays is nothing short of unsettling.  It is the way that his playing works with the programmed drums where one can find the base for the entire "industrial" sound, and yet it is the way that the drums are almost unrelenting that gives "Kerosene" an even more intimidating presence.  Taking this darker aspect of the song, it is the contrast created by the guitar of Santiago Durango which gives the track an unexpected level of depth, as well as a more powerful and angry presence.  Showing an amazing understanding of how to create mood on a track, Durango is just as great when he is letting a single note sustain in the background as he is when his distorted riffs and chords leap to the front of the song.  It is these shifts in sonic placement, as well as the overall tone of aggression and frustration that are the key to the sound of Big Black, and they were rarely more perfect than one finds on "Kerosene."

Along with the uniquely hostile musical arrangement, the vocals from Steve Albini serve as a similar "starting point" for the generation of musicians that followed, as well as providing the ideal completeness to this song.  It is the clear, methodical rhythm with which he speaks throughout the song that is in many ways more unnerving than the music itself, and it is this reality which vaults Big Black far beyond any other band.  The tension and intensity that builds with every line is second to none, and even when the music gets louder, it is the fact that Albini's voice stays largely the same which proves once again that shouting rarely equals more impact.  In many ways, it is the way that Albini seems to be delivering a "restrained rant" that makes "Kerosene" so uniquely intense, and once one concentrates on the words he speaks, the song becomes nothing short of disturbing.  Though it largely comes off as a "sounding off" against the rather mundane life of "suburbia," it is during the bridge and chorus sections where the band shows that they have no issue going far into territory where other bands would never dare.  The fact that Albini states the idea of self-immolation as "something to do" and yet does not come off as sarcastic or melodramatic in the least is perhaps the most telling moment in the bands' catalog, as his rather straightforward reference to this act manages to perfectly ride the line between agitating and captivating.

Strangely enough, though it is certainly their most musically complete, one can easily argue that "Kerosene" is one of the "less confrontational" songs within the catalog of Big Black.  While many may find this hard to believe given the nature of the music and words, this is a band that had no issue in bluntly discussing topics ranging from murder to racism to a wide range of "taboo" topics, and their ease with such subjects quickly put all other bands into stark perspective.  Furthermore, when one hears the music of Big Black, it is clear that they are not making these songs for "shock value" as so many later artists did, and it is this almost matter-of-fact approach that makes their music all the more disturbing.  Yet at the end of the day, the reality remains that the trio of musicians that comprise the band are exceptionally talented, and it is their ability to balance the overly-aggressive nature of their music with unquestionable musical expertise that make them a band that knows no peers.  From the ringing guitars to the dark groove of the bass, Big Black remain one of the few bands in history that refuse to be ignored, and one can easily make the case that without their music, a majority of the heavy metal, hard rock and "industrial" music that appeared at the end of the 1980's would have never occurred.  Though their catalog is filled with some of the most powerful and unapologetic music ever recorded, one can find Big Black at their best in every aspect throughout their 1986 song, "Kerosene."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28: Skip James, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"

Artist: Skip James
Song: "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"
Album: Various
Year: 1931

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While many may think that at its core, it is the most simple and straightforward of musical styles, the reality is that there is as much diversity within blues musicians as there is in any other genre.  Even in the earliest days of recorded blues music, there were different schools of playing, as well as a massive range in overall approaches taken by the musicians.  Though most are familiar with the "Delta" blues style, and the "boogie" style that would develop later, it is the forms of blues music that preceded both of these where the true seeds of almost every current form of music were planted.  Truth be told, due to the time during which they recorded, as well as the overall impact of some of the later artists, many of these early blues performers have been lost in time, and yet once one hears his music, it is clear that there are few players more important than Skip James.  Recording a majority of his best known songs before the likes of Robert Johnson and other blues luminaries, James went almost completely unnoticed until the 1960's, and yet within his recordings from the 1930's, one can find the basis for many of the best known blues songs in history.  Understandably, these recordings are as basic as one can find in terms of orchestration and overall sound, and yet the emotion and power with which he plays is second to none, and there are few moments in music history that can top Skip James' 1931 recording, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."

For the most part, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" is all about the amazing level of mood that Skip James brings to every corner of the song.  As was the case with almost all of the early blues players, the song features nothing but James and his guitar, and yet this is more than enough to completely captivate the listener.  There is a slow groove within the progression that he plays, and it is the almost "bumping" rhythm that sits subtly in the music which separates his sound from that of any of his peers.  This completely unique rhythm gives the impression of an older car or perhaps a horse-drawn cart moving down an unstable road, and helps "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" to take on an even more vivid imagery and personality.  There is also a deep intimacy within the guitar found throughout "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," and the sound is so delicate that it almost demands the listener to remain completely silent while experiencing this masterful blues execution.  At many points, the guitar also seems to take on a second vocal part, working in amazing contrast with James' voice.  It is during these moments where the line blurs on whether his voice is leading the guitar or vice versa, and this is a testament to the complete commitment and overall authenticity that comes through in the song.  This interplay and somewhat "still" sound is what would be copied by a wide range of later bluesmen, and yet none deployed it with the same impact as one finds here.

It is the way that the voice of Skip James travels along "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" that makes his voice impossible to mistake, as in both tone and pitch, he is completely unique.  The fact that James shows no problem in working all across the vocal scale instantly separates him from a large potion of his contemporaries, and the way that he uses different pitches to emphasize certain parts helps "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" to become far more than a "typical" early blues recording.  This is complimented by the fact that James also gives the song a great deal of depth by putting vocal inflections on certain syllables, and it is also this element which adds an additional rhythm to the song.  At the same time, throughout "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," Skip James keeps the overall mood very quiet and reserved, and this pulls the listener in even further, as if witnessing a solemn and spiritual moment.  It is the reality that this song does not follow a "standard" blues progression in terms of lyrics which places it apart from later artists, and yet the sentiment and soul of the song are as deep, if not disturbing as any other recording.  Though the last lines do offer some sort of "looking up" type of idea, the reality is that almost every line of the song emphasizes just how hard times were during the early 1930's, and the overall sense of hopelessness that hung over the nation.  It is the way that James brings out the darkest and most somber aspects of this point in history that in many ways gives it far more impact than any photographic or written historical record.

Though there is no question that Skip James is not as well known as some of the artists that followed him, when one looks at the overall historical progression, there can be little argument that his performances did not impact many of these same musicians.  It is the distinctive style with which he presented his songs that in many ways makes him a "school" of blues onto himself, and yet this would not be fully realized until his "rediscovery" in the early 1960's.  James was one of a handful of "found" bluesmen that played at the now-legendary 1964 Newport Folk Festival, and in the years that followed, he would find his songs being covered by some of the biggest artists on the planet.  Though many are unaware, the song "I'm So Glad" that was recorded by both Cream and Deep Purple among others, is in fact written and originally recorded by James almost four decades before these covers.  This would lead to an even wider recognition of the brilliant work of Skip James, and even in more recent years, one can find James' songs being featured and covered in some of the biggest grossing films around the world.  Furthermore, one can make the case that "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" has given its title and sentiment to similarly named songs, and the unique way that James tuned his guitar has created a legacy unlike any other bluesman.  Whether it is due to the purity in his sound or the overall mood that he conveys, there is simply no other song in history quite like Skip James' magnificent 1931 song, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #37

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

December 27: Toad The Wet Sprocket, "Walk On The Ocean"

Artist: Toad The Wet Sprocket
Song: "Walk On The Ocean"
Album: Fear
Year: 1991

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though one can make a strong case for the idea that the first few years of the 1990's saw a massive downturn in the level of musicianship all across music, there were a number of bands that stand in clear contrast to this trend.  While the music groups were writing seemed to take a gritter, more direct approach, and the rise of "gangsta rap" certainly skews perception in terms of "content" within lyrics, the number of brilliantly talented bands was easily equal to that of any other point in history.  Yet in many cases, the groups that were truly pushing musical boundaries and setting the form for the next few years in music seemed to go relatively unnoticed, but their amazing melodies still ring strong to this day.  It was the fact that bands were finding new ways to blend together the slightly more aggressive mainstream sound with different aspects of the past decades of music that made this era so exciting, and few groups showed more sheer talent and creativity than Toad The Wet Sprocket.  Though they are often wrongly associated with the "Seattle Sound," Toad The Wet Sprocket were responsible for one of the most amazingly catching musical approaches, as the way that they fused together an often-acoustic, folk base with a clear love for hard rock was unlike any other band at the time.  Clearly pulling off this sound better than almost any other group in history, Toad The Wet Sprocket rarely sounded better than on their unforgettable 1991 single, "Walk On The Ocean."

As "Walk On The Ocean" begins, the mellow tones of the bands' ability are immediately apparent, and yet at the same time, it is obvious that the group has a sense of melody and musical drama far beyond that of any of their peers.  Yet while there is no question that the overall pace of the song is slower than what one would consider "rock," it is the mood of the song that places it into such a category.  It is the way that the acoustic guitars of Glen Phillips and Todd Nichols blend with bassist Dean Dinning that is so wonderfully unique, and the trio extract an astounding level of tension from this combination.  The bass is mixed far more to the front than on most songs, and it enables "Walk On The Ocean" to take on a lulling bounce that must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  However, it is when the band enters the bridge section of the song that their true talents shine brightest, as not only is the volume raised, but the way that additional instrumentation is added to the mix is nothing short of musical perfection.  Whether it is the suddenly present mandolin and accordion, or the other strings that simultaneously enter the track, "Walk On The Ocean" begins to take on an entirely new life.  The percussion from Randy Guss is where the cohesion of the song resides, and the overall level of almost somber mood that the band creates is unlike anything else in music history.

While his instrumental contributions to "Walk On The Ocean" cannot be overlooked, the reality is that the voice of Glen Phillips is not only the most captivating aspect of the song, but one of the finest of his entire generation.  In every note that he sings, there is a strength and presence that is far beyond that of almost all of his peers, and throughout "Walk On The Ocean," Phillips shows a massive vocal range.  Yet much like the music, it is the level of emotion that he puts behind every word which makes the song so unforgettable, and the fact that he sounds so sincere and honest on each note is what enables the song to still have so much impact to this day.  However, it is the fact that the lyrics to "Walk On The Ocean" seem to present a compliment to the music in terms of fullness and complexity that truly sets the song so far beyond almost any other single from that time period.  There is no question that the words stand as some of the finest in history, as Phillips seems to have spun a myriad of interpretations into these brilliant lyrics.  Though there is no question that the song represents a loss, the fact that this "loss" can be seen as so many different things is what enables each listener to make the song their "own," and one of the many reasons it has such a wide appeal.  This ability to be heard in such a wide range of meanings is rarely more accurate than when Phillips sings, "...and somebody told me that this is the place...where everything's better, everything's safe...," and the lyrics remain some of the most memorable from the entire decade.

Oddly enough, the entire Fear record represents a rather stark departure from the sound that Toad The Wet Sprocket had been making to that point.  This album was far more refined and overall musically accomplished, and they seem to have made a conscious effort to tone down the more "garage band" style of playing that can be found on their earlier records.  Though many would see this as a "bad" idea, the reality remains that this change allowed their undeniable musical talents to take a far more prominent place, and clearly this also led to a stronger concentration on the melodies and harmonies throughout their songs.  Furthermore, the fact that the band were able to take this slightly more mellow approach, yet sacrifice none of their unparalleled talents in terms of creating hooks and "pop" sounds is a testament to just what an exceptionally talented group they were, and all of these realities come together on every moment of "Walk On The Ocean."  Whether it is the soaring musical arrangements and the way that all of the instruments are able to work together in amazing harmony, or it is the unforgettable, if not hypnotic vocals from Phillips, rarely has this overall level of musical perfection been heard, and during the early 1990's, it was more absent than ever.  Yet even after more than two decades, the song still commands as much respect and attention as ever, and it is

Monday, December 26, 2011

December 26: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #104"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

(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. Les Claypool & The Holy Mackerel, "Hendershot"  Highball With The Devil
2. Gildardo Montoya Y Conjunto Los Rumberos, "Fabiola"  The Original Sound Of Cumbia
3. Fugazi, "Merchandise"  Repeater
4. Blind Melon, "Holyman"  Blind Melon
5. Shock G, "We're All Killaz"  Fear Of A Mixed Planet
6. Odonis Odonis, "White Flag Riot"  Hollandaze
7. Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, "El Amor Brujo (Fire Dance)"
8. R.E.M., "Orange Crush"  Green
9. Santana, "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba"  Santana
10. John Coltrane, "Naima"  The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions
11. Led Zeppelin, "Traveling Riverside Blues"  BBC Sessions
12. The Buzzcocks, "Everybody's Happy Nowadays"  Singles Going Steady
13. Gogol Bordello, "Trans-Continental Hustle"  Trans-Continental Hustle
14. The Clash, "I Fought The Law"  Live At Shea Stadium

Sunday, December 25, 2011

December 25: Earth, Wind And Fire, "Shining Star"

Artist: Earth, Wind And Fire
Song: "Shining Star"
Album: That's The Way Of The World
Year: 1975

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it makes very little sense, the reality remains that when compared to other styles of music, the genre of funk rarely receives the credit it deserves on many levels.  Whether it is due to the unique arrangements and theories behind the style, or the fact that it influenced nearly every type of music form disco to hip-hop to heavy metal, those who deployed the funk sound the best stand as some of the most important figures in all of music history.  While there is no question that the finest songs from the "best" years of funk remain some of the most memorable in history, the names of the bands that created these amazing recordings seem to be overlooked more than any other style of music.  Standing high atop the list in terms of talent, impact, and overall importance within music, there are few groups that out-perform the mighty Earth, Wind And Fire, and their blending of r&b, funk, blues, and dance music is unlike anything else ever recorded.  It is the fact that within this massive musical mixture, the band is able to create a pop appeal that is completely unique which makes their songs so fantastic, and they were rarely in better form than on their 1975 album, That's The Way Of The World.  Filled with a number of the groups' finest recordings, there are few songs in history that are as unforgettable as Earth, Wind And Fire's magnificent 1975 song, "Shining Star."

As "Shining Star" begins, one can make the case that the song sounds like anything but the "traditional" notion of funk, as the almost country-style guitar riff seems to give a nod to the earliest days of the rock and roll sound.  It is the way that this progression smashes into a massive horn sound which sets the song into motion, and the fact that this works so well is a testament to the exceptional level of talent found within Earth, Wind And Fire.  Using the horns as a fantastic point of punctuation, "Shining Star" quickly becomes one of the finest and most upbeat grooves ever recorded, and the way that the brass plays a counterpoint to the guitar from Al McKay and Johnny Graham would become the blueprint for countless bands that followed.  It is the way that the two guitars intertwine with one another, almost giving a ska-style tone at times, which separates the Earth, Wind And Fire "brand" of funk apart from their peers.  There is also an unmistakable tone to the bass of Verdine White, and as is the reality with most funk songs, it is in his performance where much of the groove resides.  Yet it is the fact that "Shining Star" has so much going on musically that makes it such a special moment in music history, and after hearing this song, the way that the funk style would give way to the sounds of disco becomes completely clear.

Working perfectly with the overall mood and unspoken sentiments of the music, the vocals throughout "Shining Star" are nothing short of superb.  The lead vocals from Verdine and Maurice White capture the energy of the song, as they get a bit gritty at times, and yet the amount of positive feeling that flows from their singing cannot be ignored, and manages to completely captivate the listener ever after hearing the song countless times.  Beyond their fantastic lead work, when the entire group joins in for the harmonies on the bridge and chorus sections, "Shining Star" is somehow vaulted to an even higher level, and yet it is the fact that throughout all of the singing, the overall feeling remains so smooth, which marks the sound of Earth, Wind And Fire as a completely unique approach to the funk style.  However, the song separates itself from much of the rest of the bands' catalog in the way that the lyrics are presented, as well as the content therein.  Though the subject of striving to achieve your dreams has been approached countless times over the long history of recorded music, it is the unwavering sense of power and self-pride that comes forth on "Shining Star" which places it beyond most other songs on this theme.  In many ways, the song stands as the most irresistible musical affirmation of all time, and one cannot help but sing along with the extraordinary vocal performances found throughout the song.

Along with these unrivaled musical and vocal performances, "Shining Star" also over-achieved in terms of both sales and international impact, becoming one of the biggest selling singles of 1975.  In fact, the song did so well in the commercial sense, along with being an exceptional musical accomplishment, that it was given the Grammy Award for "Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals" for that year.  Yet even without such accolades, one can easily argue that the song would have become a part of many aspects of culture, simply due to the tone and talent with which every element of the song is deployed.  As the decades have passed, "Shining Star" has been used in a number of films and television shows, along with being covered by everyone from heavy metal acts to classical jazz musicians.  This latter fact shows the wide-ranging impact that the song had in terms of musical creation, and this is further supported by just how much of both disco and hip-hop one can hear within the music.  In many ways, one can see "Shining Star" as Earth, Wind And Fire taking the standard form of funk music to that point, and showing just how it could exist within the current and future world of music.  To this day, there are few songs that can compare to the amazing musical arrangement or unparalleled level of energy, and it is much the reason that Earth, Wind And Fire's 1975 single, "Shining Star" remains in a class all its own.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

December 24: Ritchie Valens, "La Bamba"

Artist: Ritchie Valens
Song: "La Bamba"
Album: Donna (single)
Year: 1958

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

For a handful of songs that have been recorded over the course of music history, there is a specials status that defies any attempt at description.  These elite songs have become so timeless and universal that they transcend the boundaries of music itself and are cultural institutions onto themselves.  Such songs number in the single digits, and they have appeared scattered across the past century, coming from all genres and backgrounds.  Strangely enough, a number of such songs were recorded by artists whose careers were ended far too soon, and this is certainly the case when one looks at the singles from Ritchie Valens.  Without question the first Hispanic star of the "rock era," Valens died at age seventeen in the infamous plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.  Due to this fact, as well as the reality that Valens' songs had just begun to gain a wider audience, it is impossible to speculate on "what could have been" had his career not ended; and yet the fact remains that nearly every one of the few songs he did record have easily withstood the test of time.  It is the unique fusion of his own cultural roots with the spirit and drive of the early rock and roll sounds that make his music so exciting, and there are few songs in history that can boast the recognition and sheer joy that can be experienced on Ritchie Valens' 1958 classic interpretation of "La Bamba."

Truth be told, there are perhaps only one or two guitar riffs from any point in history that are more instantly recognizable than that which opens "La Bamba," and yet it is the fact that even after hearing it countless times, this progression can still inject a massive amount of energy into the listener.  It is the almost overwhelming vitality that the guitar projects which quickly sets "La Bamba" far beyond almost any other recording, and there is a youthful sense of fun that is completely unique.  Furthermore, there is a tone within Ritchie Valens' playing that sounds completely unlike any of his contemporaries, and this is where the idea of the "Latin guitar" sound was first heard by the masses.  In many ways, it is also the rather sporadic presence of the bass guitar which emphasizes the overall mood on "La Bamba," as after giving the lead-in to the guitar, it only works as a punctuating point to the rest of the song.  This in itself goes against the traditional role of the instrument within a rock and roll arrangement, and it is in this element where one can see the first appearances of the cultural influences from Valens.  The way that the percussion makes "La Bamba" bounce and swing is easily the most entrancing aspect of the song, and it is the manner with which all of these sounds mix together so perfectly that make this a musical experience unlike any other.

Along with this absolutely unforgettable musical orchestration, the vocals from Ritchie Valens are impossible to mistake for any other singer.  Much like the music over which he is singing, it is the spirit with which he sings that is so captivating, if not overwhelming, and when it comes to a raw and honest vocal performance, few singers can hold their own against this recording.  From the moment e begins singing, Valens holds nothing back, and the exuberance with which he is performing enables "La Bamba" to quickly overcome any issues that might arise from those who do not speak Spanish.  The fact that the mood of the song is able to overpower the lyrical content proves just how unique a recording lives within "La Bamba," and yet this is also due to the fact that Valens possessed what is without question one of the most naturally powerful and emotive voices of all time.  As he easily works a large portion of the vocal scale, it is the distance from the microphone that one can detect which unintentionally gives "La Bamba" a more personal feel, and one can easily picture Valens recording this song amidst a massive gathering of people in celebration.  In fact, this idea is exactly what the song is all about, as while it has been interpreted in a number of different musical ways over the decades, at its core, "La Bamba" is about dancing and a good time, and this is exactly what one gets from Ritchie Valens' recording.

In the decades that followed the release of "La Bamba," it is almost impossible to note all of the covers that have emerged, as artists from almost every genre have attempted to make the song their own.  From the award-winning recording by Los Lobos to Bobby Darin to a number of punk bands, "La Bamba" as crossed over into every conceivable musical culture, further cementing its place as one of the most uniquely powerful and important songs in history.  Yet strangely enough, "La Bamba" was not even released with the intent of it becoming as big a hit as it has over the years.  It was initially placed as the b-side to another Valens' hit, "Donna," and due to this, one can argue that this single stands as one of, if not the greatest of all time.  However, it did not take long for "La Bamba" to outpace the a-side of the single, and it managed to find its way to the top of the charts in nearly a dozen countries, becoming the first non-English vocal performance to ever reach such success in the United States.  Even in modern times, the song still occupies a very unique place within culture, and it can be found in a wide array of films, television shows, commercials, and being used to energize crowds at sporting events across the globe.  Powered by an amazingly infectious guitar riff and one of the most unforgettable vocal performances in history, there is simply no overstating the impact and importance of Ritchie Valens' legendary 1958 rendition of "La Bamba."

Friday, December 23, 2011

December 23: Glen Campbell, "Wichita Lineman"

Artist: Glen Campbell
Song: "Wichita Lineman"
Album: Wichita Lineman
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it is a completely inaccurate statement, many of today's music critics attempt to convince "the masses" that the idea of a "crossover" artist is a recent trend within the world of music.  That is to say, perhaps due to sheer lack of knowledge, many people are led to believe that in previous decades, performers found a single, strict genre identification, and they stuck with this throughout their career.  When one considers the world of country music, this idea is often given even more credit, and yet the reality is that just like any other style of music, country has had a long history of artists working within other genres.  In fact, one of the most highly revered and respected names in the world of country music can be seen as having far more "pop" tendencies than a majority of his peers, and yet there are few performers from the style as important as the catalog of Glen Campbell.  For more than half a century, Campbell has been making one of the most distinctive brands of country-western music one can find, and it is the smooth soulful nature of many of his songs which have turned them into unforgettable classics.  Due to both his longevity within the world of music, as well as the fact that he has such exceptional talents, it is difficult to single out just one of his songs, and yet there are few recordings in history that are as truly perfect as what one can experience on Glen Campbell's 1968 classic, "Wichita Lineman."

As the opening string arrangement gives way to the musical structure that dominates a majority of the song, it is quickly clear that "Wichita Lineman" does not abide by the rules of the "normal" sound of country music.  Though there is certainly a certain feel to the song that suggests this style of music, one can easily make the case that the song is far more pop-oriented than the sounds that were coming from the world of country music at the time.  In many ways, "Wichita Lineman" represents the pinnacle of the balance between these two styles, and to this day, there has never been another recording that comes remotely close in terms of injecting a "mass appeal" tone within the confines of the country sound.  It is the way that the guitars from Al Casey and James Burton seem to almost "knock" back and forth that keeps "Wichita Lineman" firmly rooted within the world of country, and yet it is the more melodic, almost strangely smooth tone with which they play that simultaneously make it as "un-country" as one can find anywhere.  The light drumming from Jim Gordon helps to emphasize the almost delicate nature of the music, and it is this fragile sense which pushes the song further into a category all its own.  There is also an amazing amount of depth that comes from the strings and keyboards found throughout, and the overall sonic presence on "Wichita Lineman" simply defies description.

Working perfectly alongside this superb musical arrangement, the vocals from Glen Campbell manage to similarly straddle the line between genres.  While there is certainly the "country twang" present within his voice, it is far more subtle than one would expect, and this in itself certainly played a large part in "Wichita Lineman" finding a wider audience.  It is also the fact that Campbell can so effortlessly work all across the vocal scale that makes the song so impressive, and the emotion with which he delivers every word must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.  There is no question that "Wichita Lineman" represents Campbell's finest vocal moment, and countless later performers attempted (and failed) to mimic his style.  Yet it is the fact that Campbell was singing such powerful words which vaulted his performance to an even higher place, and few can argue that "Wichita Lineman" is not the most moving piece ever penned by Jimmy Webb.  Though he has written many other classics, "Wichita Lineman" holds a very special place, as the heartbreak and pain one can feel throughout the song feels somehow different, and the imagery of the weather and solitude of the protagonist remains one of the most vivid moments in all of music history.  One is quickly taken to the top of the telephone pole, and one can interpret the lyrics on in few different ways, yet none of them lack a punch that cannot be found anywhere else in recorded music.

Almost instantly upon its release, Glen Campbell's version of "Wichita Lineman" shot to the top of the charts in both the country and "adult contemporary," as well as cracking the top five on the overall chart rankings.  The fact that the same song occupied both of these places proved the fact that there was some element within "Wichita Lineman" that had a boundless appeal and intrigue.  As the decades passed, everyone from Johnny Cash to James Taylor to R.E.M. have recorded their own versions of "Wichita Lineman," and while many have been good, none have been able to capture the same overall tone found on Campbell's recording.  It is the almost overwhelming level of emptiness that one can feel, and the way that the strange sense of hope runs throughout the song, and many have referred to "Wichita Lineman" as the first "existential" country song due to the somewhat abstract way that one can interpret the lyrics.  Regardless of how one hears these words, the fact of the matter remains that the overall construction in every area on "Wichita Lineman" is absolutely flawless, and it can still easily hold its own against music from any current genre.  There is a purity and innocence that can be felt within the amazing vocals, and the way that this is complimented by the soft, almost unassuming music is what enables Glen Campbell's 1968 recording of "Wichita Lineman" to stand today as one of the finest pop songs ever captured on tape.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #36

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

December 22: The Teen Idles, "Teen Idles"

Artist: The Teen Idles
Song: "Teen Idles"
Album: Minor Disturbance EP
Year: 1980

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though it almost goes without saying, the length of a bands' career is rarely directly proportional to the amount of impact that they have in and out of the world of music.  While one can argue that there are some groups who have been able to constantly reinvent themselves and push music forward due to being together so long, there are countless other groups that can boast just as much importance, yet a career that is counted in months as opposed to years.  This idea is especially true within the various off-shoots of the punk rock sound that occurred throughout the final years of the 1970's, as the approach was being mixed with a number of other influences.  Yet there is one band without whom an entire movement may have never come to be, but they are somewhat overlooked due to the massive shadow of the later work of some of the members of that band.  Though they were only "formally" together as a group for slightly over a year, in terms of musical approach and lifestyle stance, there are few groups that are as pivotal to the development of music as The Teen Idles.  Delivering some of the most fierce and powerful music ever captured on tape, the band released their sole studio EP almost at the exact time as they ended the existence of the band.  Though each of the eight songs on Minor Disturbance are absolute hardcore perfection, there are few recordings that can hit with the same power and urgency as one can experience in The Teen Idles' 1980 song, "Teen Idles."

If one were to argue that the key ethos to the punk sound is the concentration on being as direct as possible, wasting no notes or time, than "Teen Idles" is as ideal a punk song as one can find anywhere.  Clocking in at under a minute, it is within the high-speed, in-your-face wall of sound that crashes into the listener where one can find the almost shouted frustration that defines the band.  However, there is no question that their sound, though similar in length, is far more fierce and pointed than a majority of the punk bands before them, as well as their peers.  This sound is led by the guitar assault of Geordie Grindle, and in terms of both speed and tone, it is in this moment that the blueprint was created for the entire hardcore movement.  The way that his playing tightly intertwines with the bass from one Ian MacKaye creates an intimidating grind that refuses to be ignored.  Rounded out by drummer Jeff Nelson, it is the way that the band is able to so quickly create a massive level of tension, pushing this level higher and higher as the song progresses.  It is easy to imagine how this song would have set a crowd into a frenzy, and even more than thirty years after its release, there remain few, if any albums that can compare to the power found on "Teen Idles."  The fact that the band were able to capture the energy of their live performances within the studio environment sets this record further apart from those of their peers, as one cannot help but quickly get caught up in the spirit of the song.

Along with the driving, intense musical arrangement, the vocals provided by Nathan Strejcek stand as some of the finest in the entire history of the punk and hardcore genres.  Though a majority of singers from this style were still "shouting for the sake of shouting," it is quickly clear that there is a message and a purpose to the ferocious vocal performance that Strejeck delivers all across "Teen Idles."  Yet at the same time, there is an "everyman" simplicity to his approach, and it is this single element that further defines the band and the "scene" which they were unintentionally creating around themselves.  The fact that Strejeck's vocals never get near the realm of pretentious or him being "better" than the audience was in many ways a return to the real meaning of punk rock.  Furthermore, it is the way that his vocal approach combined with the lyrics which enabled tracks like "Teen Idles" to become outright anthems for the disaffected youth of the day.  It is within the words of "Teen Idles" where one can find some of the most simple, yet powerful words ever committed to tape, as Strejcek delivers a scathing rant on the way that society has prevented "the youth" from thinking for themselves or doing anything that was not part of societal norms.  Whether he is taking on the dulling effects of television or one of the bands many cries against age-restrictive music venues, "Teen Idles" hits on every frustration the band members encountered in their everyday lives.

In fact, it is the latter of these ideas that would become one of the building blocks for the band that was formed in the wake of The Teen Idles, Minor Threat.  When Strejeck shouts, "...went to the Bavou they said "no," you're not eighteen you can't see the show...," this was one of a long list of rants against the age restrictions found at an overwhelming majority of music venues at the time.  It would be after the Teen Idles visited California that one of the most important moments in music history occurred.  Though the band was scheduled to play at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens, they were almost not allowed due to the fact that they were not of legal drinking age.  The band managed to reach an agreement with the club owners, and they were allowed to play after the management placed massive "X's" on each of their hands in black marker, so the bartenders would know not to serve them.  Upon their return to Washington, DC, The Teen Idles found other clubs that were willing to make similar deals and allow youth into their venues, and the symbol would go on to be the marking of the "straight edge" movement.  However, when one looks at the actual history of the symbol, it is far more accurate to say that it represents youth in general, and the "lifestyle choices" that many "straight edge" people choose have very little to do with the symbol itself.  It would also be Minor Disturbance that would become the first release on Dischord Records, and to this day, the label remains the beacon for everything that is right and honest in creating great music.  While there is not a single moment on the EP that is anything less than stunning, there may be no more important a song in the history of hardcore than The Teen Idles magnificent 1980 track, "Teen Idles."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Daily Guru: Year In Review 2011

Today at The DailyGuru on YouTube, we look back at the year in music that was.

December 21: Ma Rainey, "See See Rider Blues"

Artist: Ma Rainey
Song: "See See Rider Blues"
Album: Various
Year: 1924

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While most “greatest musicians of all time” lists are filled and top-heavy with performers from the genres of rock and jazz, the fact of the matter is that many of the most talented artists in history made their name well before these styles were even in existence.  It was during the first three decades of the twentieth century where a majority of musical styles and approaches were forged, and few can argue with the power of the blues music and the way that it transformed culture during the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s.  It was during this period where female performers also found themselves in high demand for the first time, and some of the biggest names in the history of blues-style singing emerged during this era.  However, standing far beyond them all was the singer from whom nearly every other “woman of blues” borrowed their style: the legendary Ma Rainey.  Though she was not the “first” female to record blues records, there is no question that it was her style and vocal prowess that made her the best by far, and on nearly every song she ever recorded, she more than earned her title of “Mother Of The Blues.”  It is the amazing vocal range she displayed throughout her songs, as well as the deep emotions that she conveyed at every turn which set her so far beyond her peers and followers, and yet due to the era during which she was recording, it is somewhat difficult to find high-quality versions of her songs.  However, there is not a bad recording in her catalog, and few songs have become more iconic than Ma Rainey’s 1924 rendition of the tradition number, “See See Rider Blues.”

As “See See Rider Blues” begins, the classic sound that defines the time period during which the song was recorded is immediately evident.  Not only in the actual musical sounds, but the slightly muffled overall quality, as well as the light crackles give “See See Rider Blues” an authentic feel that cannot be denied.  Yet the fact remains that the performances from the handful of musicians are fantastic, and there is no arguing that even at this early point in her career, Ma Rainey was able to easily command the presence of the finest musicians of the day.  It is the almost meandering, muted trumpet that takes focus for a majority of the song, and it is the way that it plays almost a second vocal part throughout the song that makes it so intriguing.  Yet at the same time, there is a jazzy feel to the trumpet progression, and this can be seen as one of the earliest examples of the blues sound sliding into what would become the jazz explosion of the following decade.  Setting the song far apart from a majority of blues recordings, there are no drums to be heard at any point on “See See Rider Blues,” and in this case, a steady cadence is provided by the piano.  Though it is mixed slightly to the back of the overall sound, as well as being slightly overpowered by the trumpet, the piano gives the track a slight sense of elegance, and it provides a superb contrast to the rest of the instrumentation.

Yet there is not a moment anywhere on “See See Rider Blues” where the focus moves far from the voice of Ma Rainey, and within seconds of her first notes, it is impossible to not be completely captivated by the power and emotion with which she sings.  Not quite crooning and not quite lamenting, it is Ma Rainey’s performance here that in many ways defines “what” the blues sound was supposed to be, and her style would be copied by nearly every later artist.  There is no question that throughout “See See Rider Blues,” Rainey has completely given herself to the music, letting it dictate the pitch and inflection within her voice.  Working from chilling notes in the lower registers to a breathtaking move to higher pitches, it is the strength that one can hear in every note she sings which makes her so unique, and on many levels, this is the very essence of what it means to “be” a great singer.  Along with her unparalleled singing ability, it is the way that Ma Rainey conveys the lyrics of the song that become so captivating, as she spins the tale of an unfaithful lover.  Though in modern times, the story has been spun in countless different ways, it is the original, almost innocent words found here that still resonate with the most impact.  One can see “See See Rider Blues” as the beginning of one of the most common themes within blues music, when Ma Rainey sings the lines, “…shoot my man, and catch a cannonball…if he won't have me, he won't have no gal at all…”

As the decades have passed, not only has the content of the lyrics to “See See Rider Blues” changed in a number of ways, but the songs’ title has also gone through a series of modifications.  Other artists have performed the track under titles like “C.C. Rider” or “Easy Rider,” and yet the overall theme of the song has remained intact.  Due to the early time during which it was recorded, as well as the timeless, universal themes found therein, “See See Rider Blues” stands as one of the most heavily covered songs of all time, with some of the most famous remakes coming from artists like The Who, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead and Jerry Lee Lewis among a massive list of other performers.  However, in many ways, it is the simple, pure way that Ma Rainey brings the tale to life that manages to set her version above the rest, and after nearly a century in existence, the song has lost none of its impact.  Perhaps due to the fact that the instrumentation is somewhat sparse and mixed behind her vocals, or more likely due to the reality that she simply has a voice that cannot be ignored, the pain, frustration, and eventual vengeance one can detect within Ma Rainey’s voice continues to be the standard in quality for vocalists across nearly every musical genre.  Though she is responsible for the definitive version of a number of now-standard songs in the worlds of blues and jazz, there is no other recording in history that is as impressive or as outright important to the development of music as a whole than Ma Rainey’s 1924 interpretation of “See See Rider Blues.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Daily Guru: Something Old, Something New #35"

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

December 20: The Sound, "Heartland"

Artist: The Sound
Song: "Heartland"
Album: Jeopardy
Year: 1980

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though one can easily cite a large number of “musical injustices” and absolutely inexplicable happenstances all across the long history of music, acknowledging that they exist rarely makes the situation any easier to accept.  In many of these situations, one can find an absent record label or an inexperienced or unprofessional producer that can be “blamed” for issues with an album or band not receiving the proper credit or exposure that they deserve; and yet it is when neither of these are the case that the problem in question becomes all the more frustrating.  Though this exact situation is exceptionally rare, it is no less a musical tragedy, and there is perhaps no better an example than when one looks at the brilliant post-punk band, The Sound.  It is when one hears the music of The Sound that the way in which the punk rock sound morphed into the darker “post punk” sound becomes clear, as it is this band that perfectly balanced both sounds within their music.  There is a sense of urgency and sonic beauty that runs through every song by The Sound, and once one hears this band, it is almost impossible understand how they did not become one of the biggest bands on the planet.  From the exceptional musicianship to the amazing moods to the soaring vocals, there has rarely been as superb a record as The Sound’s 1980 debut, Jeopardy, and there may be no song that better defines their unique brand of musical genius than the records’ second track, “Heartland.”

From the instant that “Heartland” begins, there is an energy and an urgency that is unlike anything else that was being recorded at the time.  It is the way that the keyboards from Bi Marshall have a quick sting to them, sending the song spinning wildly that pulls the listener completely into the song.  The vibrancy that comes through in his playing can be seen as a rather clear link to many U.K. punk bands like The Buzzcocks, and yet there is no question that his tone and approach are completely unique.  Yet it is largely due to the way that the bass of Graham Bailey sits underneath the keyboards that gives “Heartland” much of its personality, as its rather dark, almost brooding bounce that separates The Sound from nearly all of their peers.  The almost subtle aggression that he lends to the track works perfectly with the fervent, almost nervous pace of drummer Michael Dudley, and it is the interplay between these two that remains one of the finest aspects of the song.  However, throughout “Heartland,” there is little arguing that the main source of musical tension is coming from anything other than the fantastic guitar work of Adrian Borland.  There is an unsettling, somewhat nervous feel to his playing, and yet it is also the speed and tone he brings to the song that becomes so captivating.  It is also the way that the band is able to quickly shift into small bursts of tension-filled, yet quieter moments that show their exceptional talents, and “Heartland” is one of the few songs that once heard, cannot be forgotten.

Along with providing the spectacular guitar parts for the song, Adrian Borland also handles the vocals throughout “Heartland,” and one would be hard pressed to find a finer singer from this era of punk or post-punk music.  There is a unique allure to the high-energy, yet clearly pained sound of his voice, and he displays a far wider vocal range than nearly any other similar singer.  It is the strength and clarity within his singing that adds an ideal compliment to the overall musical landscape, and his performance here represents the pinnacle of making a vocal track fit seamlessly with the rest of the arrangement.  Throughout “Heartland,” the level of emotion that Borland provides is rarely anything short of tremendous, and it is the way that he injects so much expression and pain, whilst never coming off as inauthentic, that vaults him so far beyond any of his contemporaries.  However, it is also the beautifully poetic lyrics that Borland sings on “Heartland” that enable it to stand out from the rest of the songs on the album, and though simple and short, these are easily some of the finest lyrics of his generation.  The words themselves can be interpreted in a few different ways, and yet in each of these meanings, there is an ample amount of almost ethereal emotion, and the way that this manages to fit in with the more aggressive musical arrangement can rarely be found in any other era or musical genre.  It is also the fact that due to the energy within which Borland sings, one cannot help but sing along; and this in itself is the clearest proof of what a brilliant song lives within “Heartland.”

The fact of the matter remains, as absolutely phenomenal as every song found on Jeopardy is, The Sound stands as one of the most tragically unknown bands in the entire history of music.  While contemporaries like Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen continue to enjoy wide exposure to this day, the reality is that The Sound were the group that represented the transition from the more “standard” notion of punk rock to the “post punk” sounds upon which such bands made their careers.  That is not to say other groups were not deserving in their own right; but in many ways, The Sound should have been alongside them, if not slightly above these other bands.  Yet there is really nobody to “blame” for The Sound not catching on with an international audience, as the records were produced as they should have been, and promotion was what one could expect from their label at the time.  The fact of the matter is, The Sound represent the biggest mystery in music, as while they play absolutely brilliant music, they just “didn’t” explode across the planet as they should.  It is this rather harsh reality that is perhaps the most frustrating, and yet it in no way takes anything away from the astounding songs that the band recorded throughout their career.  From the soaring vocals and magnificent guitar work of Adrian Borland to the overall moods and sonic textures that are created by the band as a whole, there has simply never been another band quite like The Sound, and few songs from any era or genre can compare to their outstanding 1980 track, “Heartland.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

December 19: Daily Guru, "Gurucast #103"

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

(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.

1. Mississippi Fred McDowell, "Shake 'Em On Down"  Live At The Mayfair Hotel
2. Sonic Youth, "Teen Age RiotDaydream Nation
3. Blue Scholars, "The Inkwell"  Blue Scholars
4. The Beach Boys, "Sloop John B"  Pet Sounds
5. King Khan & The Shrines, "TortureThe Supreme Genius Of King Khan & The Shrines
6. MC Serch, "Don't Have To Be"  Return Of The Product
7. Phish, "The Horse"  Rift
8. Elvis Costello, "Radio, RadioThis Year's Model
9. Eric Dolphy, "Gazzelloni"  Out To Lunch
10. The Streets, "Let's Push Things Forward"  Original Pirate Material
11. Steve Poltz, "License Plate Eyes"  Dreamhouse
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Walkabout"  One Hot Minute
13. The Clash, "1977 (Mickey Foote Demo)"  DOA
14. Joe Strummer & The Mescalaros, "Silver And Gold"  Streetcore

Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 18: Method Man, "Bring The Pain"

Artist: Method Man
Song: "Bring The Pain"
Album: Tical
Year: 1994

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

There is no arguing against the idea that the bigger a band or group an artist may have been a part of, the more difficult it will be for them to establish themselves as a solo performer.  Throughout the history of music, one can find countless examples of this idea, as in most cases, the buying public simply want more of the sound the artist in question made within the confines of their original group, and the solo material simply does not find the same success.  This is further complicated when in both historical importance and literal size of the previous group is taken to exponential heights, and one can see how this impacted nearly every member of the iconic hip-hop group, Wu-Tang Clan.  Following their breakthrough 1993 record, the hip-hop community waited anxiously to see what the next offering from the group might be, and strangely enough, it was a solo release from the one and only Method Man.  While each member of Wu-Tang Clan had their own personality, few of the others could compare to the raw talent and smooth sound of Method Man's rhymes, and all throughout his 1994 solo debut, Tical, every side of his amazing talents are on full display.  The album is filled with a diverse range in sounds and approaches, and yet there are few hip-hop songs that can hold their own against Method Man's superb 1994 single, "Bring The Pain."

While there is no question that "Bring The Pain" is a Method Man solo song, it is the fact that RZA handles the production which enables it to also fit perfectly in with the rest of the Wu-Tang catalog.  Yet it is also the fact that there is only a single emcee on the track which allows for a greater appreciation of his production talents, and this is one of the finest pieces of his entire career.  It is the way that from the onset of the song, "Bring The Pain" provides a fantastic, head-bobbing beat; and yet unlike a majority of hip-hop songs from the era, the way that the bass "knocks" is almost subtle.  This smoother approach to the orchestration mirrors the vocal style of Method Man, and it is in this connection where one can see the depth of understanding that RZA had when working with each individual member of his group.  However, it is also the choice in samples and loops that set "Bring The Pain" so far above other songs, and the way that RZA manipulates Jerry Butler's, "Mechanical Man" into the song gives it a presence that is completely unique.  In many ways, RZA achieves the ultimate balance between the more hardcore style in the way that the song remains gritty, and yet at the same time there is the more laid back flow to the music that helps it to appeal to a much wider audience.  It would be this combination of moods that would become the blueprint for countless later artists, and yet none ever achieved it to the level of perfection found here.

But while one cannot understate the fantastic musical arrangement on "Bring The Pain," it is the vocals and lyrics from Method Man that are the clear highlight of the song.  There is a constant force and presence within Method Man's voice, but unlike nearly every other emcee who takes this approach, the words flow naturally and easily from him, and they never sound forced or inauthentic.  It is also the way that this strangely smooth flow is made all the better by his slightly gritty voice, and one can point to his sound as the pinnacle of the "hardcore" hip-hop sound.  Yet it is due to his more restrained approach that many do not place Method Man into such a category, and it is his ability to avoid being pigeon-holed that has given him access to a far wider audience.  Simply put, one cannot help but be completely captivated by the voice and pace of Method Man's rhymes, and the way he performs on "Bring The Pain" may very well be his finest to date.  Furthermore, it is the clarity in his verses that vault him further beyond his peers, and once one inspects these words, there is an almost shocking amount of depth in his rhymes.  While they may seem playful at face value, one can interpret rather sharp social criticism within the song, as well as an amusing array of the more "standard" emcee boasting.  But it is the way that Method Man mixes together his ideas all under his unmistakable voice that help "Bring The Pain" to become an absolutely unforgettable hip-hop recording.

In fact, one can easily make the case that "Bring The Pain" stands as one of the most famous songs in all of hip-hop history, and since its release it has been used all across the word of popular culture.  Whether it was "borrowed" to title a now-infamous comedy special or it was being covered or sampled by other hip-hop artists or even heavy metal and "industrial" bands, the song has managed to touch ever conceivable part of the entertainment world.  Furthermore, after almost twenty years since it was first released, "Bring The Pain" can still blow away almost any other song being made under the term "hip-hop," and it is due to the raw, honest nature of the vocals and the perfectly unique musical arrangement that have helped the song to such long-term success.  All of this can be seen as the result of the unparalleled sense of confidence and cool that Method Man has exuded throughout his entire career.  Even on the first record from Wu-Tang Clan, there is no arguing that his voice did not shine slightly brighter than the others; and it is the way that he is able to take some of the darkest ideas and images and spin them into something mysteriously appealing that has turned him into one of the most revered emcees in all of music history.  While there is not a recording he has made that is anything less than superb, it is Method Man's monumental 1994 single, "Bring The Pain" that stands as his most powerful and impressive work, as well as one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

December 17: Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man"

Artist: Tammy Wynette
Song: "Stand By Your Man"
Album: Stand By Your Man
Year: 1968

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Regardless of what era a recording occurred, or from what genre the song might arise, the reality is that any song which found a way to crossover into another genre was almost guaranteed massive success.  While it was certainly easier for styles like "big band" and jazz or hard rock and heavy metal to attract audiences from the other, it is the moments when you find punk and hip-hop or bluegrass and rock combining where some of the most unexpected music legends can be found.  Though in some cases, such fusions are far too ahead of their time, it is when this crossover occurs almost unintentionally that the finest examples can be found, and in every generation, there are a number of clear examples.  Among these seemingly impossible combinations, there are few that have proven to be more fruitful than when country singers are able to spin a bit of "pop" into their songs, and all across the past few decades, almost every time this has occurred, the song in question has become legendary.  Truth be told, before she recorded her "big" hit, Tammy Wynette had already had a number of hit singles on the country music charts, and many saw her as one of the biggest names in that style of music.  However, at the end of 1968, she would completely rewrite her own history, as well as that of popular culture in general, as there has never been another song quite like Tammy Wynettte's iconic 1968 recording, "Stand By Your Man."

As "Stand By Your Man" opens, the lone guitar is as somber as one can find anywhere, and there is no question that this is a country-styled song.  Both in the style and tone of the guitar, that "twang" is rather evident, and yet it is within the emotion that the instrument conveys where the listener is almost instantly drawn into the song.  It is the way that the bass guitar works softly in the background of the song, giving "Stand By Your Man" a unique bounce that pushes it even further into the country sound, and yet at the same time, it gives the track a rather distinctive overall flow.  There is a separation between the two instruments that is rarely found elsewhere, and it gives the impression that there is a great deal of "open space" on the song; and this style of performance and mixing would become the blueprint for a massive number of later recordings.  However, there is perhaps no more a typical "country sound" than what one can hear in the drumming; as the slow "knock" that can be heard is perfectly performed, and at times, it almost sounds more like a slow jazz progression than one from the country genre.  Even when the overall spirit of "Stand By Your Man" steps up slightly during the chorus sections, the overall intimacy of the song is never altered in the least, and it is this ability to keep the tension and mood that sets the recording so far beyond almost anything else from the era from any genre.

However, there is no arguing that while the music has certainly become well known, it is the breathtaking vocal performance from Tammy Wynette that is the highlight of "Stand By Your Man."  Though she had many recordings both before and after this song, there is no arguing that this remains her finest studio moment, as the true power in her voice cannot be denied.  It is the fact that she can so easily work what seems to be every part of the vocal scale, and the power that she brings to every note is far beyond almost any other singer in history.  It is the mixture of pain and perhaps confidence within her singing that is so captivating, and if the song were styled differently, there is no question that "Stand By Your Man" could easily be one of the greatest blues lyrics of all time.  Whether she is almost crooning, perhaps lamenting during the verse sections, or letting her voice soar as high as one can imagine during the chorus, one cannot help but be completely caught up in the force of her singing, as well as her deep commitment to the lyrics.  Yet the words that she sings have certainly caused a great deal of controversy over the years, as many feminist groups have decried the song, stating that it is far too passive.  However, Wynette has rightfully defended that the "key" to the track is in the final parts when one can almost sense her rolling her eyes at her silly, misguided love with the line, "...after all, he's just a man..."

Setting this small amount of controversy aside, one can argue that "Stand By Your Man" is the most heavily covered country song in history, as one can find versions recorded across the decades by artists from almost every conceivable genre.  Whether it was heavy metal rockers, Mötorhead or the new wave band Erasure, "Stand By Your Man" has found its way into all corners of the world of music, and one can also find parts of the song referenced from groups like The Clash and even a spoof on Sesame Street.  Along with these covers in part and full, "Stand By Your Man" is easily one of the most oft-used songs within television and film, and one can find dozens of such occurrences over the past forty years.  Taking all of this into account, there is simply no arguing against the massive amount of impact that "Stand By Your Man" has had across all forms of popular culture; and along with this, one can find a number of instances where the songs' title or lyrics have been cited in interviews and statements by some of the most famous personalities of that same time period.  However, putting this all into perspective, it is a bit unsurprising that the song has enjoyed such long-lasting and widespread success, as the music is perfectly produced, and there is simply no other voice that rings as beautifully nor as powerfully as one can experience when Tammy Wynette sings her iconic 1968 song, "Stand By Your Man."

Friday, December 16, 2011

December 16: Duke Ellington, "Take The "A" Train"

Artist: Duke Ellington
Song: "Take The "A" Train
Album: Various
Year: 1939

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

While there have been many important figures throughout the history of recorded music, there are an exclusive three that can be seen as "the beginning" of the primary forms of modern music.  Though the individuals in question began their careers well before the dawn of the full-length release, their impact cannot be denied, and their names remain the most highly revered across the entire spectrum of musical preferences.  Among this elite trio, one can make a case for each being the "most" important, and yet the easiest argument of the three may be for that of the one and only Edward Kennedy Ellington; better known as "Duke" Ellington.  For nearly fifty years, Ellington stood as one of the most prominent forces and figures in the world of music, and it was his approaches and compositions that fueled not only the early days of jazz, but "big band" music and a number of other styles.  Due to both his talent, as well as his longevity, it can be easily stated that Ellington was the most important jazz musician in history, and due to this reality, his recorded catalog contains many of the most famous and well-known songs in all of music history.  With this in mind, it is difficult to single out one track as his "best" or most representative, and yet there is no other song in history that holds the same respect and place as Duke Ellington's 1939 masterpiece, "Take The "A" Train."

Though many may not be familiar with the actual name of the song, the signature central musical theme that opens the composition is without question one of the most recognizable, and to this day it retains all of its joyous swing and impact.  In the earliest recordings by Ellington and his band, a light "dance" on the piano serves as a brilliant lead-in to the rest of the band as they follow a somewhat strict formation through the song.  It is the way that the trumpets punctuate the soft sway of the rest of the horn section that instantly captivates the listener, and there is a classic, yet still appealing tone that runs throughout the entire track.  The interplay between the various horns shows off Ellington's perfect control and pacing of his group, and the solos that comprise the center of the piece range from superb sounds from muted trumpets to Ellington himself swinging the song on his piano.  Within this "passing" of the lead between the musicians, one can hear some of the earliest "formal" moves towards a jazz sound, and yet there is no question that "Take The "A" Train" fits perfectly into the "big band" sound.  Furthermore, it is the fact that the main riff on the song has such a gentle flow, yet retains a fantastic bounce which makes it so unforgettable, and it remains one of the few songs that has earned the label of "timeless."

Strangely enough, "Take The "A" Train" also falls into the category of songs that almost never were, as it was not intended to ever be recorded.  Written by the legendary Billy Strayhorn in 1939, the notes were never played until one of the most important legal rulings in music history.  In early 1940, ASCAP raised its royalty fees for performers, and a majority of artists could no longer afford to play their own compositions on radio.  During this time period, and overwhelming majority of music was "brought" to the masses in this manner, and for many artists, this ended what could have been a very fruitful career.  However, while Duke Ellington was under this ruling, Strayhorn was a part of their rival, BMI; and he was not being held back by such restraints.  The duo began working on an entirely new group of songs for Ellington's band, and music lore has it that Duke's son, Mercer, actually pulled the sheet music for "Take The "A" Train" out of a garbage can in Strayhorn's office.  Within a few months, studio versions of the song were made, the most famous coming on February 15, 1941, and most point to this version which clocks in at just under three minutes, as the definitive take on the song.  Over the next few decades, more than one thousand "known" covers of the song would appear, and it is without question the most heavily covered song in all of music history.

Adding to the legend of the song, the title of "Take The "A" Train" is a clear reference to the subway line that Strayhorn was told to take when he was first asked to meet with Ellington in Harlem, New York City.  This has led to the song being used in reference to the city across films, television shows, and other parts of popular culture, and it has become a part of common vernacular onto itself.  Yet many people are unaware of the origins of the phrase, and once one hears this beautiful composition, it is quite obvious why the song has become such a timeless piece of music history.  Oddly enough, a few years after the initial recordings of the song, there are two sets of lyrics that emerged around the same time.  While some claim that the words by The Delta Rhythm Boys were the first to be placed over the music, there are others that argue that it was a Detroit teenager named Joya Sherrill that was responsible for them.  Regardless, it was the latter that became more popular, and countless artists, most notably Ella Fitzgerald, have made the song their own in whole or part.  Even within modern music, one can find references to the songs' existence or find "borrowed" chord progressions or themes, and this cements not only the legacy of Duke Ellington, but the absolutely unrivaled importance of his 1939 song, "Take The "A" Train."