Sunday, December 30, 2012

140. Parallel Lines. One way or another



Album: Parallel Lines
Artist: Blondie
Genre: New Wave Rock
Year: 1979

Tracks


1. Hanging on the Telephone
2. One Way or Another
3. Picture This
4. Fade Away and Radiate
5. Pretty Baby
6. I Know But I Don't Know
7. 11:59
8. Will Anything Happen?
9. Sunday Girl
10. Heart of Glass
11. I'm Gonna Love You Too
12. Just Go Away


It's nice to get a pleasant surprise this late into the countdown. As we progress into the higher reaches  albums that I'm unfamiliar with are becoming increasingly rarer. The list is either dominated by bands or artists that I adore or by albums it's impossible to ignore. While obviously I'd heard of Blondie and can sing a few of their hits, I had never heard an entire album from start to finish. My exposure to Blondie was limited to radio hits, an episode of the muppets and a song a friend of mine used to sing in Karaoke bars in Japan.

Having heard Parallel Lines from start to finish four times I have learnt that:

Blondie are more than just their singles.
Debbie Harry is more than just a pretty face
My friend Lorraine did a surprisingly faithful version of One Way or Another

and finally...

Just because an album is called New Wave doesn't mean it's bad.  Much has been made of New Wave as a genre. Nobody really understands what it really is. The best definition seems to be a Punk Mentality with better musicianship but since nobody can really agree on what constitutes Punk it seems silly to define one genre we don't understand by comparing it to another we don't understand either.

Either way I've heard a lot of New Wave and most of it's pretty bad, mainly because it seems so dated and so obsessed with its own era. Blondie however manage to transcend their limitations by writing really good songs. Hanging on the Telephone, One way or another and Heart of Glass are all fantastic songs. They might have a tag that says New Wave but they're just good rock and roll. If Blondie had given them to The Glimmer Twins so that Keith could beef up the riff and Mick could sleaze over the top they'd be great Rolling Stones songs.

Not that I'm suggesting for a second that Blondie can't do justice to their own material. Harry can sing and the band can play. They can tick all the boxes a good band needs and while the filler tracks on Parallel Lines aren't as good as the singles that's hardly a massive crime, and if it is then it's one most albums on this list are guilty of.

I really enjoyed Parallel Lines. It's a great album by a band with a lot of talent and it manages to transcend its genre to become something more universally accepted and less dated than most albums calling themselves New Wave.

Highlight: Hanging on the Telephone
Lowlight: Sunday Girl

Influenced by: The Clash
Influenced: Pink

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Fun and irreverent, mildly innovative given the time it was made."

-Mildly innovative. I love that expression. It's not ground-breaking but it's definitely innovative to a degree. Mildly innovative.

So are you happy to travel in parallel lines or would you rather be perpendicular once in a while? Let me know below.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

141 Live at the Regal. King of the Blues



Album: Live at the Regal
Artist: BB King
Genre: Blues
Year: 1965

Tracks


1.     Every Day I Have the Blues
2. Sweet Little Angel
3. It's My Own Fault
4. How Blue Can You Get?
5. Please Love Me
6. You Upset Me Baby
7. Worry, Worry
8. Woke Up This Morning (My Baby's Gone)
9. You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now
10. Help the Poor



BB King is one of those performers who is happiest standing in front of an audience. He started playing concerts in the 1940's and is still playing in front of delighted guests in 2012 at aged 87. He's almost always on the road and in his lifetime has played over 15,000 concerts to an uncountable mass of humanity. He loves moving an audience using only his voice, six strings and his well-trained and practiced band of musicians.

King's record label has been keen to exploit his ability to work a crowd with a series of live albums released regularly throughout his career (and no doubt lined up ready to posthumously release when the King leaves us) but Live at the Regal was their first attempt at making money from his ability to channel the blues in its purest form. Later live releases are longer, have more hits and are frequently augmented by guests but this first outing proves that it didn't really matter which songs were chosen, King is a fantastic live performer who rules his own stage.

BB has a great voice, a tight band and can really play the guitar. He's one of those performers who rarely has a bad night but at the Regal he was in unusually fine form. If you're someone who wants to learn more about the blues and you're interested in hearing the music that influenced the white boys who picked up guitars and perfected rock and roll.

Influenced by: T Bone Walker
Influenced: Clapton and many others

Highlight: How Blue can you get?
Lowlight: Worry Worry

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote:  "I would steer clear of this selection. Or I'll send you mine for free!"

-What an excellent offer! Most people just slang off albums they don't like, this is the first time someone has offered to provide a copy.

So are you a monarchist when it comes to the blues or a staunch republican? Let me know below.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

142 Phil Spector a Christmas gift for you. Blech.



Album: Phil Spector a Christmas Gift for you
Artist: Phil Spector
Genre: Christmas
Year: 1963



1. White Christmas
2. Frosty the Snowman
3. The Bells of St. Mary's
4. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
5. Sleigh Ride
6. Marshmallow World
7. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
8. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
9. Winter Wonderland
10. Parade of the Wooden Soldiers
11. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
12. Here Comes Santa Claus
13. Silent Night


I'm not really a fan of Christmas albums. There are a lot of them out there and record companies love it when artists quickly whip together a collection of holiday themed hits for a quick Christmas cash in. Most of these are just deplorably bad even when they're recorded by artists I like. The Barenaked Ladies and Los Lonely Boys released appalling Christmas albums which immediately made me respect them less. Bruce Cockburn and the Indigo girls also succumbed to the lure of the Christmas album and while both did a creditable job it doesn't feel like their hearts where really in it. Their performances have "contractual obligation" oozing out of every note. Of course it would be remiss of me not to mention Bob Dylan's much maligned Christmas in the Heart which everyone seems to hate. I really like Christmas in the heart. It's not an album I turn to when I want to hear great Dylan but I do play it several times over Christmas (and it's worth pointing out that unlike most Christmas albums, all the profits of Dylan's release were donated to charity).

I'm also not much of a fan of Phil Spector. My idea of the perfect producer is one who keeps his distance and lets the musicians play. A good one can bring out something special in their artist (Daniel Lanois working with Dylan in 1989 for example) but most of them should sit back and let the band or artist get on with it as much as possible. The idea of producer as performer is not something that sits comfortably with me at all. This is the only album in the countdown which features the producer's name in the title (although in fairness it didn't in its original form). Spector felt the artist was just another thing for the producer to play with and his albums were all about his ability to create a wall of sound in which he piled on instruments, backing vocals and everything he could get his hands on in order to make a dense musical soundscape.

The end result is massively over produced. I don't deny it's hard to do. Layering everything onto a track and not losing the melody in amongst everything else is tricky but just not worth doing. While he might not lose the musical lines, Spector loses the impact of the music he's slathering instruments over the top of. You can still recognise White Christmas and Silent Night but that doesn't mean they sound like the songs you love, they sound like treacle poured over the songs you love.

I can imagine lots of people wanting to hear this around Christmas time. It probably gets pulled out of a few collections and dusted off in late December every year but personally I'll be keeping my distance. Even once a year is too much to hear this much over production on songs that I never really liked anyway. I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus has nothing to do with the Christmas spirit to me. It's just an annoying song that nobody could turn into gold but Spector turns into goopy mush.

By the way, the fact that this review appears on this blog a few days before Christmas is entirely coincidental and just one of those happy things. It was just the next album I was due to write about.  But since I have, let me take the time to wish everyone who has read this blog over 2012 a Happy Christmas. I hope some nice person gives you some even nicer music on the 25th.

Highlight: Amazing timing.
Lowlight: Annoying production

Influenced by: Christmas and ego.
Influenced: Production standards.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Spector's a genious. I wish he'd make a few more like this." I'm sorry but Phil is a bit tied up at the moment. Unless they have a huge recording studio in his prison I don't think he's making too much Christmas music.

So does this fill you with the christmas spirit or would you need to filled with other spirits to sit through it? Let me know below.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

143 Gris Gris. What in the hell is this?



Album: Gris Gris
Artist: Dr John
Year: 1968
Genre: Funk

Tracks


1. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
2. Danse Kalinda Ba Doom
3. Mama Roux
4. Danse Fambeaux
5. Croker Courtbullion
6. Jump Sturdy
7. I Walk On Guilded Splinters


Well this isn't what I was expecting at all.

I've heard some Dr John in the past, as part of this countdown and in other listening. I've also heard some other New Orleans music so I went into this with some preconceived expectations. I was expecting funk and something groovy. I was looking for some toe-tapping music in the vein of Aiko Aiko which would move my feet and shake my bones. I wasn't expecting weirdness. But weirdness is what I got. 

Goodness this is strange. It sounds like Dr John doesn't want to move your feet as much as claim your soul. It's eirie and spooky and full of creepy chanting backing vocals. The good Doctor himself sings in a disembodied whisper that makes him sound like the last person you'd want in attendance if you were ailing in some way. The musicians playing along are all mixed low and echoey as if they're not in the studio as much as they're on another spiritual plain being summoned by John's demonic vocals.

Much of the vocals are in English but there is French as well although it's not romantic French that would woo any lover from this dimension. Track two features the words "Danse Kalinda Ba Boom" (which Google translate thinks is Indonesian) repeated over and over again by frenetic singers and it sounds for all the world like the backing music to that scene in every cheap horror film where they're preparing the heroine for sacrifice. If you played it to me and asked who was responsible there is no way I would have ever guessed. There's none of Dr John's piano playing or distinctive voice. 

Crocker Courtbullion sounds to me like it features a harpsichord along with a flute odd percussion twangy electric guitar and general muted weirdness. If I had to guess I'd suggest it was Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart or more likely the two working together. The collection of singers all chanting the tracks title in a silly voice that sounds like an evil muppet doesn't help. God help me it's bizarre. 

I'd be writing this off as an inaccessible oddity if it weren't for the final track. I walk on Guilded Splinters is brilliant. It's funky and snaky and features John's best singing on the entire album. Someone even took the time to perform a quick exorcism on the backing vocals before it was recorded and the departing spirits took some of the musical weirdness with them. It's magnificently moody but catchy at the same time and I have no idea why it's hidden away at the end of the album. I wonder how many people missed it because they turned off  after the lunacy of tracks one to six?

If the entire of this album was like the final track I would be raving about it. If the last track was like the first six I'd still be shaking my head in bewilderment. As it is I can't recommend it but I do have a song to add to a folder of miscellaneous greatest hits I'm compiling from the top 500 so far.

Influenced by: Looking at a swamp while on drugs
Influenced: Psycadelic funk in general

Highlight: I walk on Gilded Splinters
Lowlight: Jumpy Sturdy

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Call me straight but since I never got into smack or LSD I don't get drug influenced music because it sounds synthesised and hybrid on the totality of mind-body as nature and Nature intended. Only Bird, Ray Charles and Miles Davis could do drugs and evolve as artists in their originality."

-Interesting perspective. Not sure I agree with the final claim though.


So do you walk on gilded splinters? Let me know below.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

144 Straight outta Compton



Album: Straight outta compton
Artist: NWA
Genre: Rap
Year: 1988

Tracks

1.  Straight Outta Compton
2.  Fuck tha Police
3. Gangsta Gangsta
4. If It Ain't Ruff
5. Parental Discretion Iz Advised
6. 8 Ball
7. Something Like That
8. Express Yourself
9. Compton's N the House
10. I Ain't tha 1
11. Dope Man
12. Quiet on tha Set
13. Something 2 Dance 2


In 1988 NWA recorded Straight Outta Compton and a new genre was born: gangsta rap. Suddenly hip hop moved away from simple obsessions like girls and started to focus on guns, violence and the gangsta lifestyle.

The most famous track on Compton is definitely Fuck tha Police which is about the police. NWA don't like them.

"Ice Cube will swarm
On any motherfucker in a blue uniform
Just cause I'm from the CPT, punk police are afraid of me, huh
A young nigga on a war path
And when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath
Of cops, dyin' in LA"

Suddenly rap wasn't about fun it was about declaring war on organized law enforcement.

NWA clearly hate the police. Whether their hatred is justified or not is a subject that commentators have written about for years. Are NWA empowering themselves from a point of racial disenfranchisement by playfully directing their anger at white dominated authority? Are they expressing the collected frustrations of a culture who have been oppressed for years and through music have been given a voice they have been otherwise denied? Or are they cynically using violence and anger to sell records? Or is it possible they're just an unpleasant collection of people with a recording contract?

Whatever your answer to the above questions you have to then address the band's attitude to women, a group they hold in only slightly higher esteem than organized law enforcement. NWA laid down the standard vernacular for rap's attitude to women. They were "bitches" and "ho's" who needed to be slapped down and have their ass "clowned". I don't know what an ass-clowning entails but I'm reasonably sure it doesn't involve the application of amusing makeup and a false nose. You can make whatever excuses you like for a "Fuck the Police" attitude but good luck trying to persuade me that constantly advocating violence to women is somehow justified.

I can't connect with this album at all. Call me white and middle class if you like and suggest that somehow my upbringing is keeping me from appreciating NWA but I just can't enjoy an album who constantly throws up images that repel me and advocates a lifestyle I think people should try and rise above rather than glorify.

This album created a genre we now call gangsta rap. If you think it deserves credit and praise for that achievement then no doubt you love it. If you think it deserves more blame than praise then you'll probably do what I do which is wish you never have to hear it ever again.

Highlight: There isn't one
Lowlight: Its existence as an extremely unpleasant blueprint

Influenced by: Lifestyle and money
Influenced: A really sad attitude

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "These five fakers exploited the pathology of ghetto culture that NONE of them really lived in, and brainwashed many impressionalbe young people (many whom I've mentored at my job) who had no one else in their homes or hoods to teach them any better,into thinking that gang life, violence, and disrespecting women were cool! Thanks, NWA, for making a bad situation worse while laughing all the way to the bank!"

-A fairly typical response. There are a lot of people venting anger at the fact that NWA weren't the struggling street-dwellers their lyric suggest.

So do you share the attitude or not? Let me know below.

Monday, December 10, 2012

145. Aja. Steely Dan again



Album: Aja
Artist: Steely Dan
Year: 1977
Genre: Jazz Rock

Tracks

  1. Black Cow
  2. Aja
  3. Deacon Blues
  4. Peg
  5. Home at Last
  6. I Got the News
  7. Josie

How many bands can you name that don't have a guitarist? Most have at least one, several have two but not many groups get by without a single guitar player.

Steely Dan is a duo which consists of a bass player and a pianist and a bunch of session musicians that they bring in to fill in the gaps in their line up. The obvious gaps include drums and guitars but there are also less obvious omissions in their ensemble that they felt needed filling like horns, flutes, saxophones   clavinets and backing vocals. I'd suggest there were other vacancies lacking when they went into the studio: soul for one, interest for another. 

Lord Steely Dan are dull. This is technically Jazz Rock which means it's got two great genres of music to cherry pick from so in theory should be better than either of them but in reality it's worse than the worst aspects of them both. 

Rock should have energy, sex drive, swagger and possibly a bit of anger thrown in. "Okay we're ready for another take. Someone get the groupies off the guitarist and break up the fight between the singer and bassist while I try and revive the drummer". Rock should be explosive and dangerous.

Jazz should be so ingrained in the performer that they're never not jazz. They should be 100% jazz all day, every day, at the very least. Miles Davis was at least 150% jazz his entire life which meant people around him became 50% jazz just by being near him. Great jazz players just wander around pouring jazz brilliance out of their instruments. Recording great jazz should be all about getting a group of them into a room at the same time and rolling tape. 

Recording Aja was obviously a very different process. It involved a lot of writing things down and calculating outcomes. Musical annotation was used and long discussions were had about key changes. Studio musicians came in to fulfil a role and would remain until they had produced exactly what was required. At no point was anyone moved by a crazy notion, inspired by a flash of insight or transported to a place they weren't expecting. It's album creation by mathematical design and calculation and it's unutterably tedious and over produced. 

Rock is spontaneous and joyful even if the performers are going through hell. Jazz is technically brilliant but effortlessly so. Jazz rock, if Steely Dan are anything to go by, has all the technical requirements of jazz with none of the soul. It's what happens when rock is left to the bassist and keyboard player to organize.


Influenced by: The worst aspects of Jazz and Rock
Influenced: Tedious over production

Highlight: The Cover (it's a really interesting image)
Lowlight: Peg

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Steely Dan was better as a "jazz influenced" rock band than the solipsistic, navel geezers they became"

-I can't work out whether "navel geezer" is a mistake or a wonderful new derogatory term that I should start using.

So is this better than rock? Better than Jazz? Or not as good as either? Let me know below.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

146. Surrealistic Pillow. Spiritually Guided



Album: Surrealistic Pillow
Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Genre: Rock
Year: 1967

Tracks

  1. She Has Funny Cars
  2. Somebody to Love
  3. My Best Friend
  4. Today
  5. Comin' Back to Me
  6. 3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds
  7. D.C.B.A.–25
  8. How Do You Feel
  9. Embryonic Journey
  10. White Rabbit
  11. Plastic Fantastic Lover

Surrealistic Pillow is the second album by Jefferson Airplane and the first to feature the classic line up with Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden which means it features one of rock's great bassists (Jack Cassady), one of its great guitarists (Jorma Kaukonen) and on of rock's great female vocalists (Grace Slick). As if that wasn't enough this album also benefits from the presence of Jerry Garcia who is credited with occasional guitar work and as Spiritual Advisor. Every recording session ever could benefit from having Garcia present. Hell I'd go so far as to say pretty much every event in human history could have benefited from some more Jerry. In fact I'm sure there would have been less war in our history if Garcia had been allowed to show up to peace talks.

I could go on about Jerry Garcia but I should probably talk more about Grace Slick because she's awesome. Slick has a fantastic voice and is one of the greatest females to ever front a band but she's also an underrated songwriter. The two giant songs here are Somebody to Love and White Rabbit which are both brilliant pieces of writing and wonderfully trippy. White Rabbit is unlike anything else going and creates such an atmosphere it's immediately used as instant aural drug shorthand in movies and TV shows.

The other true great in Jefferson Airplane is Jorma Kaukonen who is one of the most under rated rock guitarists. He can play beautiful acoustic music but is also a great electric blues player, a talent for which he deserves more credit. While Surrealistic Pillow showcases Jorma's outstanding acoustic talent on Embryonic Journey it lacks any opportunities for him to really shine on electric. For a recording session with two great guitar players in attendance it's not a very guitary album.

Unlike Volunteers, their later album which occurs much lower on the countdown, there's not a huge amount of great song-writing on Surrealistic Pillow. If you take out Somebody to Love and Rabbit there isn't a huge amount to write home about. There's some fine playing and nice vocals but nothing especially memorable. It's one of those releases which exists here because of the hits, not the consistency of song-writing. If it was all as good as those two songs it would be in the top twenty, if they weren't included it wouldn't be here at all.

Surrealistic Pillow is a great listen and has two brilliant songs but is less than the sum of its parts even without the addition of the great man with the beard.

Highlight: Somebody to Love and White Rabbit
Lowlight: How do you Feel

Influenced by: Jerry Garcia
Influenced: Acid rock

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "There's been some controversy regarding Jerry Garcia's role in the making of the album. Garcia is credited on the album sleeve as "Musical and Spiritual Advisor", and Kantner, Balin, Slick, Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Spencer Dryden all confirm that Garcia was prominently involved in the recording sessions. However, producer Rick Jarrard, along with longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship associate Pat "Maurice" Ieraci, agree that Garcia played no guitar on the album and that he wasn't present at any of the album's recording sessions."

-I have to say that as someone who has heard hours and hours of Jerry Garcia I didn't recognise his music on the album anywhere.

So would this pillow help you rest easy or keep you up nights? Let me know below.

Monday, December 3, 2012

147. Dreams to remember. Oh yeah.



Album: Dreams to Remember
Artist: Otis Redding
Genre: Soul
Year: 1998

Tracks

Disc 1

1. Shout Bamalama
2. These Arms of Mine
3. That's What My Heart Needs
4. Pain in My Heart
5. Come to Me
6. Security
7. Chained and Bound
8. Mr. Pitiful
9. That's How Strong My Love Is
10. I've Been Loving You Too Long
11. Respect
12. Ole Man Trouble
13. Change Is Gonna Come
14. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
15. Down in the Valley
16. Shake
17. My Girl
18. You Don't Miss Your Water
19. Cupid
20. I Can't Turn You Loose
21. Just One More Day
22. My Lover's Prayer
23. Cigarettes and Coffee
24. It's Growing
25. Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
26. Try a Little Tenderness


Disc 2

1. You Left the Water Running
2. Trick or Treat
3. Tramp
4. Lovey Dovey
5. Let Me Come on Home
6. I Love You More Than Words Can Say
7. Merry Christmas, Baby
8. The Glory of Love
9. Tell the Truth
10. I've Got Dreams to Remember
11. The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)
12. Hard to Handle
13. Amen
14. Direct Me
15. Love Man
16. Look at That Girl
17. I'm a Changed Man
18. The Match Game
19. (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay
20. Shake [live]
21. Respect [live]
22. I've Been Loving You Too Long [live]
23. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction [live]
24. Try a Little Tenderness [Live]


How would you like your Otis Redding best-of today? How much Otis are you looking for? A quick but definitive overview of his greatest moments? A more in depth examination? Or perhaps a massive and comprehensive anthology which takes in pretty much everything he ever did? In the digital era it's possible to take your pick and get just the right amount of Otis for you.

Dreams to Remember is the middle ground. It's two discs and while it has all the hits that a one disc compilation offers it also includes several moments that are probably too much for the casual Redding fan.  But then it won't satisfy people who really want to get their Otis-loving paws on Otis! The Definitive collection which has basically everything he's ever done. It's a strange middle ground land.

You won't find this album on the updated version of this list was released in early 2012. For some reason the writers dropped this and kept the three single albums (Dock of the Bay, Dictionary of Soul and Otis Blue) that this compilation effectively supersedes.

Personally I think I'd stick with a one disc retrospective. Who wouldn't enjoy hearing Dock of the Bay, That's how Strong my Love is, Mr Pitiful and Try a little Tenderness? But by the same token do you really need to hear Merry Christmas Baby, It's Growing or The Happy Song?

Otis is a massive talent with an incredible voice. He's one of those people who laid down the definitive version of most of the tracks he touched. I've never been convinced by his (or any soul singer's) attempts to do a version of Brit Invasion material (Satisfaction, Day Tripper and A Hard Day's Night) but when he lends his soulful voice to soul music it's a perfect match.

As I said when I reviewed him before, I can't recommend Otis Redding enough and it's definitely worth having some of his music in your collection somewhere. This is probably a bit much Redding for one person but get your hands on a single disc compilation (there are lots of them) and enjoy.

Highlight: Dock of the Bay
Lowlight: Merry Christmas Baby

Influenced by: Love and Soul
Influenced: Those who love soul

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "They say that whenever you bought an Otis single, you are buying a little bit of Otis himself."

-Really? What did he do, mix his blood into the cover art?

So is this just enough Otis, not enough or far too much? Let me know below.