Friday, December 28, 2012

Zomes - "Earth Grid" (LP Review)

About a year ago I covered the 2008 self-titled debut LP "Zomes", the drone alias for Asa Osbourne.  His second LP as Zomes, 2011's "Earth Grid" is very similar in structure, but with minor differences in the resulting sound.  I have to confess I liked the fuzzier, more distorted sound of the first LP, but really these two LPs are interchangeable.  I still haven't thought of a better description than from last year's review:
If Kevin Shields, Brian Eno, and Phillip Glass listened to a bunch of Ramones and Iggy Pop LPs and then went on a weekend recording bender, it would sound like this.

So I'm not going to try to improve on it.   Fortunately, there are a number of effusive reviews that do a better job at capturing the essence of this LP: Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Thrill Jockey.  And to be fair, here's a review from Spectrum Culture from someone who doesn't care for the genre. 

Standout songs: Again, this kind of LP doesn't lend it self to picking out individual songs.  The entire LP is available on GrooveShark, and only a few selections are on YouTube: Pilgrim Traveler, Alec's Anthem

Skip 'em songs: none

Final score: 8/10.  I gave the first LP a 9/10, and since I have a slight preference for the first LP I'm giving this one an 8/10. 

Bonus link: live 2010

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Matt and Kim - "Daylight" (spotlight)

I was recently telling a friend about Matt and Kim's upcoming show at the Norva. She wasn't familiar with them, so we started talking about their song from the Bacardi commercial, etc. I wish I was cool enough to say that I had heard of them before that, but alas...

"Daylight" is the lead single off their 2009 sophomore LP "Grand" (the single itself was released in 2008).  This song is just pure joy set to music, and the video is equally clever and charming (check out the stop motion work starting at ~2:12).

Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino have a formula, and as a drums & synth DIY duo there is a limit to the variation you get from them, but it's a good formula and their attitude is infectious so why mess with what works.  Their YouTube channel is filled with gems, but "Daylight" is a good place to start.

Daylight: official video, live on the Daily Habit, live 2012, 2009 live debut, 2010 live.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - "Time Out" (LP Review)

I've been meaning to include some jazz classics in the blog, but I've always been intimidated: 1) I'm a jazz dilettante, and 2) is there any genre of music with a greater ratio of "words written" to "minutes recorded"?  And since "What Michael Doesn't Know About Jazz" is a pretty long book, what could I possibly say that hasn't been said before?

I had been thinking about "Kind of Blue", "Sketches of Spain", or "Blue Train", but Dave Brubeck's passing today made the choice of "Time Out" an easy one.  If you want to read about why this LP was such a leap forward and how it became a universally accepted classic, read the Allmusic review or the Wikipedia page.

Instead, I'll tell you my involvement with this LP goes back to an early teenager rifling through my father's LPs and ultimately commandeering it for my collection.  If I recall correctly, he got this LP from one of his brothers; Jack is older, but Douglas was the family audiophile.  Even as a teenager (knowing even less about jazz than I now do) I was captivated by "Blue Rondo a la Turk".  Much later in life I read about the rarity of 9/8 time, but ~30 years ago I just knew it sounded unlike anything else I had heard.  It was even later in life when I realized that the LP's real masterpiece is the smoky, cool "Take Five".  That's not to slight the other songs on this LP, but you haven't really heard jazz until you've heard these two.

This is one of the few LPs that I have on both vinyl (from the early family collection) and CD.  It might have been soon after college when I purchased the CD (I'm not entirely sure, but I probably had to have had a job to afford the luxury of purchasing a CD for something I already had on vinyl), but I still recall my first time hearing the vinyl.  50+ years later, this LP still sounds modern.

Stand out songs: "Blue Rondo a la Turk" (live 1962), "Take Five" (live 1966)

Full LP: YouTube playlist, grooveshark

Final Score: 10/10


Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Beach Boys - "Heroes and Villains" (forgotten song)

For most people, The Beach Boys discography mysteriously ends in 1966 with "Good Vibrations".  Largely forgotten is the single that followed, 1967's "Heroes and Villains", conceived as the center piece of the aborted "SMiLE" project that devolved into the less ambitious "Smiley Smile".  The single failed to duplicate the success of "Good Vibrations" and Brian Wilson's subsequent disappointment brought a messy end to the friendly competition with The Beatles.  It's a good song, but it really only makes sense in the larger context of SMiLE's cryptic theme of "journey across America".

Poking around on YouTube the other day, I was surprised to find the number of different videos for the song that most people don't know exists.  It turns out that Capitol Records held a video contest for 2011's (re-)release of SMiLE, and many of the submissions found their way onto YouTube.

There are many arrangements, demos, outtakes, etc. of this song, but basically they fall into 2 general categories: the simpler, ~3 minute version from Smiley Smile, and the more complex, ~5 minute version from SMiLE.  The latter has the "cantina" break, and is often prepended with two opening acapella tracks "Our Prayer" and "Gee". 

Smiley Smile version:

SMiLE version:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Saxon - "Princess of the Night" (forgotten song)

An early 1980s metal band, a song titled "Princess of the Night", and ... it's about a train.  Because who hasn't asked themselves "why aren't there more love songs about trains?"

Saxon was a central figure in the NWOBHM movement of the late 70s and early 80s, however they are all but forgotten today.  I have a handful of their LPs on vinyl stashed away somewhere, but aruably the best was their 1981 LP "Denim and Leather", from which "Princess of the Night" was a single.  I remember being enthralled by their video (and the NWOBHM sound) in the early days of MTV, but only now (nearly 30 years later) do I realize the visual similarities between this video and Spinal Tap (yikes!).

And while the 8-year old in me still likes steam trains (who doesn't?), I've transposed the song to a more personally applicable setting: every time I walk through a computer machine room, the second verse comes to me:
She used to be an iron horse
Twenty years ago
Used to bring the mail to me
Through the ice and snow
I've sat alone and watched her
Steaming through the night
Ninety tons of thunder
Lighting up the sky

Speeding smokestack lightning
Engine working hard
Furnace and the footplate
Shining in the night
Iron striking metal
The sound of racing steel
It's all I ever want to hear
It's music to my ears

Ninety tons of thunder
Lighting up the sky                                       
Steaming red hot pistons
See the wheels flash by                                    
Hear the whistle blowing                              
Streaking down the track                     
If I ever have my way
I'll bring the princess back one day    
Well, realize that connection was made for me in the late 80s when first working at NASA and walking through the machine room complete with a Cray-2 and Cray-YMP.  In 1989, I saw the Crays as beautiful, purposeful, behemoth "engines working hard".  Now they, especially the Cray-2, are revered but obsolete museum pieces like steam engines.

Until there is a NWOBHM song about machine rooms, this love song about a train will have to do...

Princess of the Night: official video, regular video

Bonus link: Does the pre-solo break in the song sound familiar?  Metallica, who were heavily influenced by the NWOBHM, would borrow it for "Seek and Destroy" two years later: listen to this comparison.

Bonus images:

Chesapeake & Ohio RR #2756 located in Huntington Park, Newport News.  An obvious landmark for those growing up in the area. 


The NASA LaRC Cray-2, "Voyager".  Named after the Rutan/Yeager Voyager, not that Voyager

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ph Balance - "Ph Balance" (LP Review)

I'm betting you haven't heard of the band Ph Balance; few people outside of their original Atlanta base have.  Outside of a chance viewing of one of their videos in 1999 on the "Independent Music Network" (I've forgotten which cable channel carried it), I would not have heard of them either.  discogs.com has almost nothing on them, YouTube has two songs, wikipedia has literally nothing on them, and myspace has an outdated page. 

The summarized band history goes something like this: Pam Howe (the "Ph" in Ph Balance) and Christopher Burt have formed the basis of Cicada Sings, then Ph Balance, then Chakra Bird, then (and current, I believe) Pam Howe's Bossa Nova Jazz.  Cicada Sings was a straightforward lounge, jazz, bossa nova band, and when they incorporated a hip-hop esthetic (complete with a few new members), they changed their name to Ph Balance.

What makes Ph Balance different from the 100s of other bands that seek to achieve the prized but elusive jazz/hip-hop integration is they do it with from a solid jazz orientation: no samples, the instruments are acoustic, and the synths are rare and limited to background use (think of them as a lounge-oriented version of The Roots, or the acoustic, non-trip-hop version of Portishead).  MC Mudfish provides the adequate rapping, but the star of the show is Pam Howe: the Gen-X, hip-hop influenced torch singer.  Not unlike Blondie 20+ years earlier, while Ph Balance is technically a band the whole thing works only because of Pam. 

The sound is very much of the time, and while not every experiment works (a few songs are worth skipping), they fail while trying to do interesting things so the misses are easily forgiven.  "Soothing" was the video I saw in 1999 (it may well be their only video), and it made such an impression on me that I had to order this LP.  Their eponymous first LP was released on tiny Daemon Records (founded by Amy Ray) and although I think it is out of print you can still find new copies on Amazon

Standout Songs: Soothing, Flora Avenue, C'est Noire, Come Back to My Arms (And Stay), Whirl Twirl Toy, Speak To My Face, Hand Hurt, I Want to Shrink, (find these songs at grooveshark).

Skip 'em Songs: She Favors Winter, Kaleidoscope React, Back Off

Final Score: 8/10

Bonus link:  cduniverse has an informative LP review.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sirah - "Double Yellow Lines" (spotlight)

Since the previous post mentioned Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, you might be asking "whatever happened to her?"  I can now tell you she has been reincarnated as Sirah, the 20-something DIY punk/indie-pop/hip-hop rapper. 

I learned about her a while back when 96.1 played the Skrillex song "Bangarang", in which she is featured.  Poking around on Youtube turned up her 2011 single "Double Yellow Lines".  Since she's unsigned, her discography is not entirely clear: I think this song was supposed to appear on an EP called "Trick'd", but I can't determine if that was ever released.  You can learn more about her in various interviews: LAWeekly; Her Campus; Mousertime; Vlaze.

In the "Double Yellow Lines" video, Sirah is clearly channelling Annabella as the mohawked coquette, albeit updated by 30 years.  Although it is probably a coincidence, the video also features a "Luncheon on the Grass", like BWW's "See Jungle..." LP.  However, instead of the "Endless Summer" beach setting of the "I Want Candy" video, DYL is set in a safe, suburban environment: how many music videos do you know that feature a bunch of kids riding around in a minivan, filling up on gas, and eating at a diner?  Danette also noted the "Chatty Cathy" reference in the lyrics -- not standard fare for Gen Yer

Regardless, the whole thing works surprisingly well.  A youthful, light-hearted video that captures the spirit of the song, well-produced and successfully straddling a number of genres; I'm surprised this song hasn't launched a career for her (yet).  I'm not really her target demographic; I have more in common with the boring, old-enough-to-be-her-dad guy that appears at 1:14 in video (left), but the video is so fun that it makes me feel like the just-happy-to-be-here entourage guy that appears at 3:20 (right).



Sirah - "Double Yellow Lines"

Since this is neither a cover, forgotten song, nor a review of a complete release, I've started a new series, "spotlight", for songs that deserve attention but don't fit in the previously define categories.

Bow Wow Wow - "I Want Candy" (forgotten song)

Earlier this week Danette and I saw Adam Ant at the Norva.  Danette was more of a fan of Adam and the Ants/Adam Ant than I ever was and Adam is looking a little worse for the wear, but it was a fun show regardless.

It does remind me that I've been meaning to blog about Bow Wow Wow for a while; the connection being that Bow Wow Wow was formed when band manager Malcom McLaren (of Sex Pistols fame) convinced the Ants to leave Adam and form their own band with Annabella Lwin as the lead singer. 

That was probably a bad decision since although Bow Wow Wow had some success in the UK, their biggest hit in the US was their 1982 cover of the song "I Want Candy", released in 1965 by The Strangeloves.  "I Want Candy" is probably the most well-known example of the "Bo Diddley Beat" (bomp, ba-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp).  Many (most?) artists have used this beat at some point in their career (here's a good list of  examples) and you have to ask yourself: given the primal effectiveness of the Bo Diddley Beat, why do we even have other beats?

Bow Wow Wow: "I Want Candy"
The Stangeloves: "I Want Candy"
Bo Diddley: "Bo Diddley", "Hey, Bo Diddley"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Cure - "High" (forgotten song)

Another birthday song for Danette.  The last two have been punk songs ("Punk Rock Girl" and "Josie"), so this time we'll pull from the related goth genre.  

"High" is the first single from The Cure's 1992 LP "Wish" and while "Robert Smith was (is) still sad", I'm glad he took some time off to write this uncharacteristically joyful song.  The playful wording, the memorable guitar riff...  three and half minutes of perfection that always made me think of Danette:

when i see you sky as a kite
as high as i might           
i can't get that high       
the how you move              
the way you burst the clouds
it makes me want to try 

The Cure: "High", live version, extended version

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Beach Boys - "Good Vibrations" (the song remains the same)

I just finished reading "The Nearest Far Away Place", the 1996 biography of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys.  I believe it was a thrift-store find from Terry many years ago and I've just now gotten around to reading it.  I moderately enjoyed the book, but there were several features that limited my enjoyment: 1) it was written before the 1998 death of Carl Wilson, 2) there was way too much biography about the Wilson's grandparents and great-grandparents, 3) many of the stories reported in the book now have contradicting stories, and 4) Timothy Whites's "rock-n-roll" writing style was excruciating.  Having recently read Marc Spitz's "Bowie" I can only assume things have reached epidemic status and  Hunter S. Thompson was patient zero

Regardless, it was fun to revisit The Beach Boys; I've been busy ripping my old CDs and I've just now gotten around to ordering (and enjoying) the apocryphal "SMiLE".  I'm not quite ambitious enough to rehash the cultural importance of Brian Wilson, "Pet Sounds", "SMiLE"/"Smiley Smile", etc.  -- and really, what could I say that hasn't been said before?

But I will briefly mention the 1966 single "Good Vibrations".  Originally developed during the "Pet Sounds" sessions, it was left off that LP and released as an advance single for "SMiLE".  Nearly a year later "SMiLE" devolved into "Smiley Smile", and that was pretty much it for Brian Wilson.  But the fact that this song was ever a hit is nothing short of amazing.  Sure, the standard song structure is in place, but how many other hit songs that you know of feature an electro-theremin?!  If you could pretend that you haven't heard this song 1000 times before, you realize it is amazing that you ever heard it in the first place.  Before The Beach Boys became a Ronald Reagan-approved nostalgia act, there was the drug-induced breakdown, the TM, and of course Charles Manson (no, really).

And now I would like to draw your attention to Psychic TV's excellent cover of "Good Vibrations", which I believe first appeared on their 1986 EP "Magickal Mystery D Tour".  I'm not going to even try to explain Psychic TV / Genesis P-Orridge... other than credit Terry for my first Psychic TV experience too.  Psychic TV plays the cover pretty close to the original, with only the spoken word part during the break (~2:40), but that little touch makes the cover stand out. 

The Beach Boys: stereo version, mono version, 1976 live version

Psychic TV: 7" version, long version

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Equals - "Police On My Back" (the song remains the same)

My previous post was about The Clash covering a rebellious song, so let's do another.  "Police On My Back" was originally a 1967 single by The Equals.  Don't worry, nobody in the US has heard of them either.  But if you're a Gen Xer, you might remember Eddy Grant's 1983 hit "Electric Avenue" -- that's the same Eddy Grant that was fronting The Equals in the late 60s.  Now you know.

I learned of this song from Sandinista!, the 1980 sprawling, ambitious, wreck of a triple LP from The Clash.  I keep threatening to review Sandinista!, but truthfully it is simply too daunting.  In the meantime I'll just chip away at it, starting with arguably the best track on the LP.

The Equals: no, that's not Austin Powers IV or "Listen to the Flower People"-era Spinal Tap, it's a lip sync version on Beat-Club, ca. 1967 (version 1, version 2), studio version

The Clash: studio, live in Jamaica, live in Tokyo, live in ???

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Clash - "I Fought The Law" (The Song Remains The Same)

Russia now has the most legitimate contemporary punk band I can think of: Pussy Riot, who are now officially "hooligans". Lots of artists have "gaming debts, ... drunken routs, ... debauches, intrigues, seductions"*, but "excess ain't rebellion".  How many are willing to risk jail for political protest?

As a result, I can only conclude there is now a "punk gap"** between Russia and the US/UK.  Alert Buck Turgidson, this is serious...

In support of Pussy Riot's protest of Putin, I offer "I Fought The Law".  Originally written in 1958 by Sonny Curtis and performed by The Crickets, it was made famous in 1965 by the Bobby Fuller Four.  It has been covered by every band imaginable, but probably none better than "the only band that matters".  Where have you gone Joe Strummer?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

"I Fought The Law":  The Clash (live, studio), The Crickets, Bobby Fuller Four.

* Jane Austen, O.R.G. (original riot grrrl).
** "punk gap" is not to be confused with "GAP punk", although both are sad in their own way.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Catherine Wheel - "Ferment" (LP Review)

You know that music that's played before and in between sets at concerts?  Presumably it is the sound engineer's cousin's band, with music that is simultaneously slightly familiar (if only because it is so derivative) but ultimately forgettable.  It blandly fills the aural space without distracting from the live acts that will follow.

Got that sound in your mind?  That's what "Ferment", the 1992 LP by Catherine Wheel sounds like.  None of the songs on this LP are really bad, some are decent (e.g., "Indigo is Blue"), but it's mostly an uninspiring shoegaze-by-numbers.  A reminder: I like shoegazing, but CW is no MBV or Slowdive; they're not even Curve or Lush -- a point apparently lost on Allmusic's Andy Kellman.

Uninspiring except for, and this is a huge "except", the song "Black Metallic".  Catherine Wheel caught lightning in a bottle for this one epic song.  I don't recall this song getting radio airplay, and although they have a video for the single edit (i.e., 4 minute version), I don't remember the video either.  But you really need to hear the 7 minute LP version; the single version doesn't build the same energy.  And it goes without saying that you also need maximum volume.

I'm not entirely sure what the song is about: some explanations include being in love with an emotionally unavailable person ("I never see you when you're smiling") or even an automobile ("Your skin is black metallic").  Those are pretty boring explanations; I read in some forgotten page a long time ago that it was about sex with a robot.  Granted, that's almost surely not true, but it ought to be true because it lends an engaging sci-fi creepiness to the song ("I think of you when you're sleeping / And all the secrets that you're keeping").

Standout songs: "Black Metallic" (7 minute LP version), (live version), (4 minute single version)

Skip 'em songs: none

Songs that appear: "Indigo Is Blue" (live version)

Final score: 5/10.  I don't normally recommend skipping the entire LP in favor of a single, but this is one of those times.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Velocity Girl - "Velocity Girl" (LP Review)

"Velocity Girl", later unimaginatively reissued as "6 Song Compilation", is an EP by the late 80s - mid 90s band Velocity Girl. Although they were based in Maryland, I didn't know about Velocity Girl until they received minor radio airplay with their 1994 single "Sorry Again", a song I simply don't tire of.  Unfortunately they were a one hit wonder: they released three solid, but ultimately unspectacular LPs on Sub Pop before hanging it up in 1996. 

This 1993 EP collects their early singles released on Slumberland Records before they joined Sub Pop.  It captures their early sound, including three songs with their first lead singer, Bridget Cross, who was replaced by Sarah Shannon in 1990.  It includes the 1990 single "I Don't Care If You Go", the Australian version of that same single (with different B-sides), and the 1992 single "My Forgotten Favorite". 

What makes this EP enjoyable is that even though I did not know of them prior to 1993, the band's sound is very much of the time and as such makes a pleasant time capsule for early 90s college rock (see also: The Connells).  I'm not claiming this is a retroactively vital lost classic, but if you haven't heard of Velocity Girl then think of it as "new" music from twenty years ago. 

Standout songs: "I Don't Care If You Go", "Always" (live), "My Forgotten Favorite", "Why Should I Be Nice To You" (live)

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 6/10  Fun, but not necessary.  Want the full time capsule effect?  Check out the live concert footage links above.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Yngwie Malmsteen - "Rising Force" (LP Review)

Driving through the Ward's Corner section of Norfolk (the corner of Granby and Little Creek) this morning, I saw that the former Tracks record store building had been razed.  Remember them?  I can't even find a good URL to link to for them, not even a newspaper article about them going out of business.  That building eventually became Wherehouse Music, and then most recently it was AJ Gators Sports Bar

I don't think I went into AJ Gators, but I went there several times when it was Wherehouse.  But more importantly, I remember the first time I went there when it was Tracks.  It was probably 1985, and after attending a Friday night (!) Peninsula Atari Computer Enthusiasts (PACE) meeting at NASA Langley with my father, he drove me to the Tracks in Norfolk.  You have to remember that growing up in Denbigh in 1985, Norfolk seemed (to me anyway) like the other end of the world.  I don't remember who brought up going there -- I might have asked, but I don't recall.  And I think there may have been another father/son pair with us, but I'm not clear on that either.  But I do recall that at the time, Tracks had a dedicated "metal" section, with all the imports and other hard-to-find LPs that other stores would not carry.  It was on that trip that I bought Yngwie Malmsteen's 1984 LP "Rising Force" as a gift for my HS (and later, college) girlfriend.  She had told me about him but did not have the LP (remember that the "local" stores did not carry it).  Also, at ~$20 it represented quite an investment for me at the time -- remember when music cost big $?

The LP itself?  It is hard to overstate the importance that it had on shredding, arguably defining it as a stand-alone genre.  Sure, there had been "Eruption" and other amazing tracks on various LPs, but I believe Yngwie was the first to release a popular, metal LP focused only on guitar.  There are two vocal tracks which are best skipped, but the other six tracks form the nucleus of what every other LP in this genre wishes it could be (including later LPs by Yngwie, which were never in the same class as "Rising Force").  Yngwie wasn't the first guitarist to shred, but he arguably released the first shred LP.  (Context: recall that at this time Eddie Van Halen had all but abdicated his throne with the release of "1984" and his pointless fascination with keyboards.  Who thought that was a good idea?!)

Yngwie was the first to really popularize metal as a modern extension of classical music, explicitly namechecking artists like JS Bach and Paganini, as well as using actual harpsichords (not synths) in the songs.  Of course I thought that was beyond cool at the time.  Metal always had the culture of the virtuoso, but Yngwie took it to another level.  Yes, this was dangerously close to Metal Opera, but the mostly instrumental focus of the LP helps curb its worst tendencies.  Prior to "Rising Force", Yngwie had released some forgettable LPs as the guitarist for Steeler and Alcatrazz, on which he had only brief moments to shine (e.g., Steeler's "Hot on Your Heels" intro, which was also used in the radio program "Metal Shop" -- remember that?), but this is the LP where he blossomed as a solo artist. 

I probably still have a tape of the LP in question some where in my stuff, but in an interesting bit of symmetry I also have the CD: I acquired it from Danette, in a box of CDs from a friend of her's that was purging his CD collection after ripping them.  So while the Ward's Corner area has been in decline for quite some time and the planned renovation is welcome, it is with a nostalgic fondness that I recall Tracks, that night with my father, and my excitement at selecting a perfect gift. 

Standout songs: Black Star, Evil Eye, Little Savage, Far Beyond the Sun, Icarus' Dream Suite Opus 4, Farewell

Skip 'em songs: Now Your Ships Are Burned, As Above, So Below

Final score: 9/10.  The LP is hugely influential, but replacing the two vocal songs with something as good as "Black Star" would have made for a perfect LP.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Deep Purple - "Child In Time" (forgotten song)

Jon Lord, the keyboardist and a founding member of Deep Purple, died today of pancreatic cancer.  I was a big fan of Deep Purple growing up, but I've only mentioned them in passing so far (e.g., the "Born Again" and  "Rainbow Rising" reviews).  The various studio LPs were good, but I was especially fond of their 1972 live LP "Made in Japan", one of the sprawling, indulgent live LPs that were de rigurer in the 1970s.  MIJ had two highlights: a 10 minute version of "The Mule" (which we'll save for when Ian Paice dies), and a 12.5 minute version of "Child in Time".

"Child in Time" features a memorable keyboard intro from Jon Lord and then builds into a good workout for the entire band.  It was released as a single in 1972, but it comes from the group's breakthrough 1970 LP "Deep Purple In Rock".  Various Deep Purple songs are still staples on classic rock radio, but I'm not sure I've ever heard "Child In Time" on the radio. 

I'll eventually review "Made in Japan", but for the moment we'll have to remember Jon Lord with this song.

Child In Time: studio version1970 Live TV audience version (quite good), 1972 Made In Japan version

Bonus Link: Mick Jones likes "Child In Time" as well; it is sampled at the beginning of BAD's 1991 single "Rush".

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Caretaker - "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World" (LP Review)

A few months ago I purchased the most recent (at the time) LP by The Caretaker, 2011's "An Empty Bliss Beyond This World".  A couple of years ago I reviewed his 2008 LP "Persistent Repetition of Phrases" and I was completely blown away by The Caretaker's entire aesthetic of reprocessed collective nostalgia.  I won't repeat myself here -- read my review of PROP for the necessary context of this work. 

At first listen, AEBBTW is very similar to PROP: if you like one, you'll certainly like the other.  But there are subtle differences that are only apparent on careful listening.  PROP (metaphorically) broadly explored the notion of memory and aging (e.g., with song titles like "Von Restorff Effect" and "Lacunar Amnesia"), while AEBBTW focuses specifically on Alzheimer's.  While the songs draw from the same source material, here they are less processed than the songs on PROP; there is less of a hazy, dream-like quality to them.  There is more looping, frequent abrupt termination to the songs, and a generally less linear feel to the songs. 

An interesting note is that James Kirby (aka The Caretaker) has retired his V/Vm Test Records label and is instead releasing on his newly established label History Always Favours The Winners.   I also recommend the reviews at Altered Zones and pitchfork.com, the latter of which does a good job comparing this LP to other artists with which I'm unfamiliar. 

Standout songs: Picking out individual songs is difficult, but if forced to do so I'd say be sure to listen to "Libet's Delay" and "Camaraderie At Arms Length".  I'm not sure how they'd sound out of context, so fortunately Altered Zones has uploaded the entire LP.

Skip 'em songs: n/a

Final score: 9/10.  While this is an impressive LP, I have a preference for the ghost-like quality of "Persistent Repetition of Phrases".

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Husker Du - "Land Speed Record" (LP Review)

17 songs in less than 27 minutes.  A live, 2-track recording from 1981.  A recording budget ($350) only slightly larger than the capacity of the venue (250 people) where it was recorded.  The seventh release on an independent label.  Song titles like "Guns At My School" and "Tired of Doing Things".  A vaguely political statement for the cover art.  If you don't already know what this sounds like, you haven't been paying attention. 

Released in early 1982, "Land Speed Record" is Husker Du's first LP, and that alone makes it of interest especially since only two of these songs would later be recorded in the studio ("Bricklayer" and "Let's Go Die").  But let's be honest: while the songs are ferocious, the poor recording quality makes them nearly unlistenable.  I'm sure it was a great show to be at, but this is the kind of recording that people claim to love so they can be "very metal". 

I have the SST posthumously re-released 1988 CD version (the band broke up in 1987), which SST did not bother to even segment into separate tracks: just part one and part two.  I love Husker Du and I'm glad I have this CD, but it honestly looks better on the shelf than it sounds coming through the speakers. 

Songs: part one, part two

Final Score: 5/10.   If you want to explore their early catalog (i.e., pre-"Zen Arcade"), it is better to stick with "Everything Falls Apart" or "Metal Circus".


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Black Sabbath - "Born Again" (LP Review)

Black Sabbath's 1983 LP "Born Again" has to be the most unfairly maligned major artist LPs ever released.  Contemporary reviews panned the LP ("one of heavy metal's all-time greatest disappointments").  Few liked the production ("in a misguided attempt to record the heaviest album ever, [they] came away with the muddiest instead"), and nobody liked the cover art, including the person that created it (black-sabbath.com has a nice article with quotes from the artist explaining the cover's origin).  The supporting tour was a comedy of errors (more on that later). 

In late 1982, Black Sabbath was looking to replace its vocalist for the 3rd time in as many years.  Ronnie James Dio had joined the band in 1980, replacing the venerable Ozzy Osbourne, but had left in 1982 in a bitter dispute with Tony Iommi.  The replacement was Ian Gillan, who had been quite successful fronting Deep Purple during their height of popularity.  So you have a set of veterans trying to recapture the magic of 10+ years ago, especially in light of their style of music about to be supplanted by the emerging sub-genre of thrash metal (remember: "Kill 'Em All" also came out in 1983).  Add to this mix a family feud (Ozzy & Sharon Arden vs. Black Sabbath & Don Arden (Sabbath's manager and Sharon's father)), and the result is simply a band trying really, really hard -- perhaps too hard -- to be the heaviest thing out there.

Here's where I stand: this is actually a pretty good LP.  Not a great LP, mind you.  But a good one nonetheless, even if it doesn't hold up to the classic Ozzy-led Sabbath LPs, or even the two Dio LPs.  It is leagues ahead of the last two Ozzy Sabbath LPs (remember "Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die"?  I didn't think so). 
  • cover art: I agree with bassist Geezer Butler, who said of the cover: "It’s shit. but it’s fucking great!"
  • production: Geezer's quote applies here too.
  • Ian Gillan: I love Deep Purple, I love Black Sabbath, and I have no problems with Purple Sabbath (full disclosure: I also kinda liked Glenn Hughes on "Seventh Star", even though that barely qualified as Black Sabbath).
But I'm here to tell you that even if you have never heard of this LP, you should celebrate its very existence for one reason:
It is the cornerstone of "This Is Spinal Tap".
Ok, sure, there are plenty of rock/metal cliches for Spinal Tap to mine, and maybe Spinal Tap would have existed without this LP, but it would not have been as funny.  Here, in increasing order of priority, here are the contributions of "Born Again" to Spinal Tap:
Yes, the "Born Again" tour gave us Stonehenge.  And not just Stonehenge mind you, but Stonehenge with a dwarf, because who doesn't look at the 20+ feet-high trilithons and think "you know what's missing?  a dwarf."  In real life, the Sabbath Stonehenge set was actually too big (because of a feet vs. meters confusion) to fit in most venues instead of too small ("I think that the problem *may* have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being *crushed* by a *dwarf*. Alright?"). Here's a short reflection from Ian Gillan about Stonehenge (transcript).

In summary, this is an enjoyable, but not classic, LP.  And in retrospect, it was Sabbath's last commercially or critically significant studio LP.

Standout songs: "Trashed" (there just aren't enough songs celebrating drunk driving...), "Disturbing The Priest" (and even rarer: songs inspired about interrupting choir practice), "Zero The Hero", "Digital Bitch" (and the rarest rock genre of all: songs trashing Ozzy's wife), "Born Again" (Iommi's guitar sound on this is great), "Keep It Warm" (well-suited for Gillan's style).

Skip' em songs:  none.

Final score: 6/10.  Stonehenge, people, it gave us Stonehenge: "Where the dew drops cry and the cats meow".

Bonus links #1: official videos -- caution: they're really awful and will make you enjoy the songs less:  "Trashed", "Zero The Hero"

Bonus links #2: bootlegs of unmixed demos are floating around the web (illogical contraption, viva les bootlegs).

Bonus image:  The magazine image that became the cover:


Bad Bonus link: The Guardian has an article that points out problems with the timing of Black Sabbath influencing "This Is Spinal Tap": the band's tour and the movie both occurred in 1984.  But that would mean that life imitated art, down to dwarfs and dimensionally inappropriate Stonehenges, and that is just too terrible to contemplate.  I'm sticking with my more comforting ordering of events.

Update: Bad Bonus links #2: Turns out, the Stonehenge bit was in the original, 1982 20 minute demo version of the movie, entitled "Spinal Tap: The Final Tour".  Here is a direct link to the scene, and here is the full demo (parts 1 and 2).  Sabbath would not have known about the 20 minute demo film in 1983/84, so I guess this is like Newton and Leibniz

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Magnetic Fields - "Distortion" (LP Review)

The Magnetic Fields pay homage to The Jesus and Mary Chain.  If your reaction to that statement is "who and who?!", then you're not going to appreciate this LP.  "Distortion" is the 2008 TMF LP that borrows heavily from the aural aesthetic of TJAMJ's 1985 noisy masterpiece "Psychocandy". 

In itself, that's not such a big deal -- lots of bands wish they could make something as good as "Psychocandy".  When TMF does it, it is a big deal.  Not only is their sound more in a synth & folk pop sound, TMF's leader Stephin Merritt has hyperacusis, which explains in part why TMF has typically has a muted and restrained sound (and why the live performances of these songs are not done in the typical TMF style and  TJAMC style).

I think this is a fun LP -- every band should do a Psychocandy homage -- but the song writing does not approach the genius of something like "69 Love Songs".  There are no bad songs and some are quite good, but the production is a bit of a gimmick.  Granted it is a gimmick I like, but this should not be your first TMF LP.

Standout songs: "Threeway" (live), "California Girls" (live), "Please Stop Dancing", "Too Drunk To Dream", "I'll Dream Alone", "The Nun's Litany".

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final score: 7/10.  Essential only for TMF and/or TJAMC fans.

Bonus links: "Just Like Honey", "Taste of Cindy".

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Magnetic Fields - "69 Love Songs" (LP Review)

It has taken me a while to get my head around just how remarkable "69 Love Songs" is, but the iTunes play count doesn't lie.  I've wanted to review it for a while but I've been intimidated by its scale.  Released in 1999, "69 Love Songs" is a triple LP from NPR-indie-rockers The Magnetic Fields.  I'm not sure "NPR-indie-rockers" is a legitimate music genre, but think of it is as 80s college radio all grown up with kids and a mortgage. 

"69 Love Songs" is, at first blush, a relatively simple concept LP: literally 69 songs about love.  No big deal, right? -- most songs you hear every day are about love in one way or another.  But this isn't really 69 songs celebrating love, this is 69 songs celebrating love songs.  A love song to love songs, if you will.   In fact, the entire LP can be summarized with these lines from the song "The Book of Love":
The book of love has music in it
In fact, that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb
Although TMF is a band with a relatively stable lineup, Stephin Merritt is the unquestioned leader, primary lead singer,  and sole songwriter for TMF.  This LP is his "book of love", covering the entire spectrum from "transcendental" to "really dumb".  Every imaginable aspect of romantic love is covered (gay, straight, unrequited, celebration, prurient, mature, etc.), along with a full range of musical styles (Celtic, world, folk, country, punk, jazz, electronic, surf rock, and surely other sub-genres that I'm forgetting).  Doing a cross product of "types of love" and "types of music" is how you get to a triple LP with 69 songs.  When you begin to appreciate the ambition and scale of the project, you wonder how he can fit it in only 69 songs.

Ok, so Merritt wrote a lot of love songs... what makes this collection work is that Merritt is a wickedly clever lyricist and songwriter (I will not spoil the several laugh-out-loud gems sprinkled throughout the LPs).  This simple concept would not work in the hands of someone less expert, in which case the songs would be closer to parody than celebration.  Some reviews (e.g., The Independent, July 2000) considered the question of the "authenticity" of Merritt covering far more experiences than any one lifetime could support, but that presupposes that personal experience is the only source for songs.  But if you accept this is a celebration of love songs, then I suppose that is actually what has happened and why this LP resonates so strongly: we've all heard these kinds of songs and from transcendental to really dumb, they are the stuff of life.

I'm going to deviate from the normal LP Review structure.  There are no bad songs on this LP, and there are too many great songs to cover.  I'm going to choose an arbitrary limit of four songs from each of the three volumes, but don't read too much into this list because I'm sure it would vary each time I rewrote it.

Volume 1:
"All My Little Words"
"I Don't Want To Get Over You"
"The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side"
"The Book Of Love

Volume 2:
"(Crazy For You But) Not That Crazy"
"Washington, D.C."
"Papa Was A Rodeo"
"I Shatter

Volume 3:
"I'm Sorry I Love You"
"Acoustic Guitar"
"Yeah! Oh, Yeah!"
"The Night You Can't Remember"

By my count, 11/12 of the videos linked above are from aspiring video directors, art students, fan boys, and just one is the song uploaded with a static image.  I think that says something about 1) the inspirational quality of the music, and 2) the kinds of people it inspires.


Final Score: 10/10

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mazzy Star - "Common Burn/Lay Myself Down" (LP Review)

Yeah, I know Mazzy Star never officially broke up and they were just on indefinite hiatus, but I was still surprised to find this new single from them.  "Common Burn/Lay Myself Down" was released in late 2011 and is the advance single from their still untitled and unreleased 2012 LP.  Since it was 1996 the last time they released an LP, I guess we can wait 8+ months after the first single is released to find out the title of their new LP. 

In what is becoming de rigueur for hip bands, here are two ways to get this single: digital and 7" vinyl.  I went the iTunes route, in part because I know if I start collecting 7" vinyl I won't be able to stop.  On the other hand, it still doesn't feel real if I don't have a CD to file on the shelf.

The song themselves...  honestly, and I mean this in the best possible way, I can't tell if these are new songs or outtakes from the 1990s.  They represent the two main types of songs from the Mazzy Star oeuvre: "Common Burn" is hazy, quiet shoegazing, dream pop, similar to "Blue Light", "Rhymes of an Hour", or "Mary of Silence".  It sounds like the cover art set to music.  The B-side, "Lay Myself Down", is a more up-beat, alt-country song, not unlike "I'm Sailin'" or "Give You My Lovin".  They sound like Mazzy Star; they sound like the 1990s never ended. 

Standout songs: "Common Ground" (live version), "Lay Myself Down" (pitchfork.com)

Skip 'em songs: none.

Final Score: 8/10.  Neither song is "Hallah" nor "Fade Into You", but who cares?  It's new Mazzy Star and they (still) sound great.

2013-08-20 edit: The name of their forthcoming LP is "Seasons of Your Day".

Thursday, May 31, 2012

DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist - "Product Placement" (LP Review)

"Product Placement" is the 2001 mix LP from DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist and follows their similar 1999 LP "Brainfreeze".  The premise of the LPs is rather simple: create a DJ mix LP using nothing but 7" 45 rpm records.  The trick is in their expert choice, mix, and execution.  Yeah, you could do all this digitally, but that's not the point: it's just two of the premier turntablists shredding.  And limiting themselves to only material that appears on 7" steers things to an older, funk-oriented mix as well as being an homage to an obsolete format.

Another observation is that the presence of Cut Chemist adds a level of humor that DJ Shadow's mixes (not to mention his original material) simply don't have.  For example, listening to DJ Shadow's "Funky Skunk" is an entirely different experience, not to mention his early KMEL mixes or "Diminishing Returns". They also have this fascination with 7-11 and related cultural artifacts (continued from "Brainfreeze") that would make Kevin Smith proud.

As always, it's difficult to review a mix LP since there are only two tracks, each nearly 30 minutes long.  My two favorite parts appear in track 1:
The full track list is available, but it is easier to just listen to the whole thing and find your own favorite parts.  In 2003 they released a DVD of them performing this mix live; you can find the entire thing on Google Video.  You owe it to yourself to check that out; obviously a big part of the appeal is watching them working together and manipulating the vinyl.

Standout songs: n/a

Skip 'em songs: n/a

Final score: 9/10  Part of that score is based on the novelty, but this really is a fun mix LP.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

DJ Shadow - "Preemptive Strike" (LP Review)

Today's review is about part vs. wholeDJ Shadow's 1998 compilation LP "Preemptive Strike" contains in its entirety the 1994 4-track single "What Does Your Soul Look Like", which I rated as 10/10.  So if "Preemptive Strike" contains all of that release, how could it possibly be less than 10/10?

The answer lies in the purpose of the compilation LP and whether or not it achieved its purpose.  In 1998, DJ Shadow was leaving Mo' Wax Records for MCA and wanted to re-release some of his earlier singles in a package that he could control (hence the name "Preemptive Strike").  Mo' Wax has a culture of releasing a lot of singles, EPs, and compilations with a limited number of pressings (often with high-quality packaging), so prior to his 1996 debut LP he had already released at least an LP's worth of material appearing in a variety of formats, most of which are long out of print. For Mo' Wax, the vinyl or CD and its packaging are an integral part of experiencing the music, and the exclusivity of limited releases reinforces this.

To assemble this LP, he chose:
  • The A and B sides of first full single, 1993's "In/flux" / "Hindsight"
  • All four tracks from 1995's "What Does You Soul Look Like"
  • Two of the four tracks from 1997's "High Noon" ("High Noon" and "Organ Donor (Extended Overhaul)"
  • Three short, disposable snippets of studio chatter named "Strike 1", "Strike 2", an "Strike 3"
The first problem is that 3 of these tracks, (parts 1 and 4 of "What Does Your Soul Look Like" and "Organ Donor") appeared, albeit in slightly different form, on "Endtroducing.....".  There is value in having these tracks appear in their original form, but this leads to the second problem: the many tracks that were left off this LP.  Shadow's discography is long and complicated, but even leaving off various remixes and production credits, few could deny that these songs should have been collected on this LP:
Sure, that would have required this to have been a double LP, but some versions of "Preemptive Strike" also included the "Camel Bobsled Race" megamix LP, which truth be told isn't very good.  "Preemptive Strike" is an easy way to get to some of the early material from Shadow, including the essential "What Does Your Soul Look Like", but his early catalog deserves a more careful (even if not complete) compilation LP.  Here's what mine would look like, roughly in order of release:
I'm not a big fan of "Organ Donor", so I left that off.  Some of the above tracks were collected on the bonus disc of the deluxe edition of "Entroducing.....", but his early catalog deserves better treatment than it has received.

Final Score: 9/10.  Because of what it misses.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Jim Carroll - "People Who Died" (forgotten song)

Danette pointed out that memorials were becoming an unfortunate theme as of late (e.g., Ronnie Montrose, Clarence Clemons, Ronnie James Dio) so naturally the appropriate song is Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", which tells the autobiographical story from Carroll's 1978 book "Basketball Diaries" (and made into a film of the same name in 1995). Aside from the film's soundtrack, the song originally appeared on The Jim Carroll Band's 1980 LP "Catholic Boy".

You occasionally hear this song on the radio, but only when they're playing alternative 80s or something like that. That's too bad, because this is a great song and features prominently on several of my playlists. The take away message from this song is: you and your friends aren't nearly as screwed up as Jim and his friends...

I was surprised to learn that Jim Carroll recently (2009) joined the people who died.

Jim Carroll Band: Basketball Diaries Film Video, live (198x?), studio version (with lyrics)

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Townes Van Zandt - "Pancho and Lefty" (the song remains the same)

In my previous post I introduced Ronnie Montrose to illustrate the concept of popular vs. influential. Continuing in that theme we now look at Townes Van Zandt, a songwriter's songwriter. You probably haven't heard of Townes, but he was an enormously influential on and respected by artists you do know, as we will see.

One reason Townes never achieved greater fame is that he was his own worst enemy, embodying all the cliches of "Bad Blake" in Crazy Heart, but without the happy ending. His death could be a movie by itself. Somewhere, Townes must have heard that you need to suffer to be a good songwriter... and he was a very good songwriter. As Steve Earle once said:
"[Van Zandt is] the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
My first introduction to Van Zandt's music was long before I even knew who he was. In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard released a collaborative album entitled "Pancho & Lefty". I had a lot of exposure to country music at the time because my mother played it 24-7 and even though I was into metal then, I knew "Pancho and Lefty" was a compelling song.

It tells the story of the two outlaws, Pancho now dead and Lefty retired (for the record: it is not about Pancho Villa). They live a hard life on the run, but perhaps their freedom is a farce:
All the Federales say
We could have had him any day.
We only let him slip away
Out of kindness, I suppose.
Eventually Pancho is "laid low" and Lefty escapes:
The day they laid poor Pancho low,
Lefty split for Ohio.
Where he got the bread to go,
There ain't nobody knows.
The exact details of what happened are never revealed. One reading of the song is that it is a retelling of the universal theme of betrayal, but even though the evidence suggests otherwise I like to think Lefty didn't flip on Pancho (read the rest of the lyrics to decide for yourself). The story that Townes tells is simple, direct, and powerful; there are no wasted words. It is a perfect match for Willie Nelson's voice, who absorbs the story and the way he sings the opening stanza gives me chills:
Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean.
Now you wear your skin like iron,
Your breath as hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only boy,
But her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye,
And sank into your dreams.
Before Willie and Merle recorded it, Emmylou Harris recorded it for her 1977 LP "Luxury Liner", and it first appeared on Towne's 1972 LP, "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt". As you can see below, you can take almost any combination of country and folk singers and find a live version. Some of the notable versions are:

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: studio (1983), live

Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan: live

Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris: live (2000)

Emmylou Harris: live (1977), live (2008)

Steve Earle: studio, live (2009), live (2009)

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: live (1997)

and of course:

Townes Van Zandt: live (1993), interview + live (1984)