Sunday, September 29, 2013

78. Harvest (1972) Neil Young

  1. Out on the Weekend
  2. Harvest
  3. A Man Needs a Maid
  4. Heart of Gold
  5. Are You Ready for the Country?
  6. Old Man
  7. There's a World
  8. Alabama
  9. The Needle and the Damage Done
  10. Words (Between the Lines of Age)

Harvest is not only a Neil Young album it's an album that only Neil could do. It's uniquely Young and a clear statement about just how amazingly good everyone's favourite Canadian was back in '72 and how removed from his contemporaries the great man was. Nobody else was in his tree, to quote John Lennon and Harvest is the best way to clearly appreciate just how unique Neil's Tree was.

Neil could write tunes. He could create a memorable song and there are some truly beautiful melodies on Harvest. A man needs a maid, Heart of Gold, Old Man and the title track are all classic songs and the rest of the tracks aren't really filler either. They're all products of Neil's performing schedule which saw him debut new songs before an audience and change them as he went. They weren't being birthed in the studio they were being captured in an already honed state.

Neil could write words too. Old Man has one of my favourite lyrics of all time and the line "Doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you" is my pick for greatest line from a song ever. It's not just a well-said and pithy phrase it's a perfect summation of Neil's life. He doesn't really need to be loved and adored, he's just doing what he does and if you like it that's fine but if you don't he's not bothered. For me it's what sets Young and Dylan apart from people like Jagger and Bono who seem desperate to be adored. Neil will thank you for your support, Bono needs it.

Neil can play music. People might argue endlessly about whether Dylan or Young writes the better songs. There are many who claim Neil is greater and doesn't get the respect he deserves. Others will claim nobody touches Dylan. Personally I believe both are true. But nobody is debating who the more competent musician is. Neil is a more than capable Piano player. We picture him with guitar in hand but the truth is he's quite at home tinkling ivories and can accompany himself well on a keyboard. He's also a great harmonica player. Out on the Weekend features some beautiful playing. Dylan might be the first person everyone thinks of when they talk about folk harpists but I prefer Neil's playing any day of the week. It's soulful and restrained and a joy to hear. Of course the musical area in which he truly excels is playing a guitar. Neil is not just a competent guitarist he's one of the world's best which he shows more than capably strumming an acoustic on The Needle and the Damage Done and hauling an electric through almost seven minutes of Words (Between the Lines).

Neil can sing. I love Neil's voice. It's a perfect instrument unto itself. That wavering thing he does when singing "Every Junkie's like a setting suuuuun", the soul he puts into Old Man. It's perfect stuff and justifies the claim that Neil is one of the greatest voices in contemporary music.

Neil is not only uniquely talented he has a unique talent and a unique ability to boldly create an album that nobody else would dare go near. Other people release albums that have some sort of thematic consistency. This is my country album. Here's my rock album. I recorded this with an orchestra. This is live. This is my attempt to do Beatles covers in a bluegrass style with a tuba player and choir made up entirely of birds. Neil however is prepared to do all of them at once (except the bird choir thing). Harvest has country flavoured tunes with steel guitars (Out on the weekend and the title track), straight ahead rock (Alabama), loose jammy rock (Words Between the Lines of Age), live acoustic ballads (The Needle and the Damage Done) and two tracks (A Man Needs a Maid and There's a World) that feature a full orchestra. It's a thematic mess but the whole thing works incredibly well as a coherent whole. It's a great album whose disparate elements seem to compliment each other well. Neil's songwriting, voice and lyrics keep the various styles together and make it feel like a great work and not a weird compilation.

Is Harvest Neil's best album? It's a debate that rages long and hard whenever Mr Young is discussed by his legions of devoted fans. Personally I struggle to pick a favourite but this is definitely my pick for one of the greatest albums of 1972. If you haven't heard it you deserve to check it out. You'll know the hits but even the lesser tracks are worth your time.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Mr Anti-Capitalism does not give anything away for FREE. YOU GOTTA PAY FOR THIS CRAP!"

-When the hell did Neil Young declare himself Mr Anti- Captalism?

So is this a Harvest you're happy to reap or would you rather leave it alone? Let me know below.

Friday, September 20, 2013

79. Star Time (1991) James Brown

Disc 1 "Mr. Dynamite"

  1. Please Please Please
  2. Why Do You Do Me
  3. Try Me
  4. Tell Me What I Did Wrong
  5. Bewildered
  6. Good Good Lovin'
  7. I'll Go Crazy
  8. I Know It's True
  9. (Do the) Mashed Potatoes, Pt. 1
  10. Think
  11. Baby, You're Right
  12. Lost Someone
  13. Night Train
  14. I've Got Money
  15. I Don't Mind
  16. Prisoner of Love
  17. Devil's Den
  18. Out of the Blue
  19. Out of Sight
  20. Grits
  21. Maybe the Last Time
  22. It's a Man's World
  23. I Got You
  24. Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Pts. 1, 2 & 3

Disc 2 "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business"

  1. Papa's Got a Brand New Bag, Pt. 1
  2. I Got You (I Feel Good)
  3. Ain't That a Groove
  4. It's a Man's Man's Man's World
  5. Money Won't Change You
  6. Don't Be a Dropout
  7. Bring It Up (Hipster's Avenue)
  8. Let Yourself Go
  9. Cold Sweat
  10. Get It Together
  11. Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me), Pt. 1
  12. I Got the Feelin'
  13. Licking Stick-Licking Stick
  14. Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud, Pt. 1
  15. There Was a Time
  16. Give It Up or Turnit a Loose
  17. I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open up the Door I'll Get It Myself)

Disc 3 "Soul Brother No. 1"

  1. Mother Popcorn
  2. Funky Drummer
  3. Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine
  4. Super Bad, Pts. 1 & 2
  5. Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothing
  6. Get Up, Get into It and Get Involved
  7. Soul Power, Pts. 1 & 2
  8. Brother Rapp/Ain't It Funky Now
  9. Hot Pants, Pt. 1
  10. I'm a Greedy Man, Pt. 1
  11. Make It Funky, Pt. 1
  12. It's a New Day
  13. I Got Ants in My Pants, Pt. 1
  14. King Heroin

Disc 4 "The Godfather Of Soul"

  1. There It Is, Pt. 1
  2. Public Enemy #1, Pt. 1
  3. Get on the Good Foot
  4. I Got a Bag of My Own
  5. Doing It to Death
  6. The Payback
  7. Papa Don't Take No Mess, Pt. 1
  8. Stoned to the Bone, Pt. 1
  9. My Thang
  10. Funky President (People It's Bad)
  11. Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Loved)
  12. Get Up Offa That Thing (Release the Pressure)
  13. Body Heat, Pt. 1
  14. It's Too Funky in Here
  15. Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses)
  16. Unity, Pt. 1

Some artists deserve a single disc best-of compilation, some are worthy of double album greatest hits packages. A select few are deserving of three disc monsters. Some are even worthy of great big whopping box sets with four discs spanning their career and containing all their hits along with obscure cuts and less accessible stuff.

James Brown is in the latter camp. He's a guy who deserves a full box with extensive liner notes and comprehensive remastering. He has a career that is worth someone dedicating years of their life in a dark room with an expensive piece of machinery and the master tapes doing whatever it is a sound engineer does to make sure an old record sounds as good as possible.

The question is: do most of you need to hear it? Does your interest in James Brown warrant spending five hours listening to seventy-one tracks of Brown? For most of you I'm guessing the answer is no.

James Brown had some great hits and is justifiably held up as a hero of Funk and Soul and the godfather of modern music. He's the legend who gave us I Feel Good which is one of the most universally loved tracks in the last fifty years of music. Pretty much everyone loves I Feel Good and it's one of those songs that never wears out its welcome no matter how many times you hear it. But that's not say that Brown is a one trick pony. He's a many trick war horse whose career deserves more attention. If you can only name a handful of Brown hits then you need to hear more of his work. But I'm not sure you need to hear quite this much.

71 songs on four discs is a lot of Brown which makes this compilation only for the dedicated listener. There are numerous best-of compilations out there which do a good job of documenting his career in as much detail as most listeners need,  this one for example and will probably do everyone but the die-hard James Brown fan.

Star Time is here partly because James Brown is great but also partly because it's one of the great original boxed sets. Before every single artist on the planet was deemed worthy of a box of some kind it was a special honour reserved for only the truly great and legendary. Star Time was not just a box of songs it was a lovingly crafted compilation remastered with care and accompanied by extensive notes and photographs. It was a celebration of a career and for James Brown fans it was something to be treasured and returned to.

I never owned Star Time but I can appreciate the joy of a box. It's a rare and wonderful thing. The Led Zeppelin boxed set was one of my early CD purchases and I played it constantly and re-read the accompany book over and over again. I've since bought boxes by the Grateful Dead, TISM, Neil Young, The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and others and always treasured them as a special kind of purchase. Star Time helped make record labels realise that there was a market for lovingly produced boxed tributes for fans to treasure.

None of which is enough reason to purchase this if you're not a James Brown fan. If you want to hear more of the great man then grab a smaller best of. If it moves you in ways that other music doesn't them maybe you need 71 tracks in which case Star Time will definitely make you feel good.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "James Brown has always been my favorite, but I was never able to find much of his music in the CD era before the internet exploded."

-Wait the Internet exploded? Why did nobody tell me? You'd think I would have read about that on the net.

So is this 4 discs too much or not enough Brown for your buck? Let me know below.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

80. Odessey and Oracle (1968) The Zombies

  1. Care of Cell 44
  2. A Rose for Emily
  3. Maybe After He's Gone
  4. Beechwood Park
  5. Brief Candles
  6. Hung Up on a Dream
  7. Changes
  8. I Want Her, She Wants Me
  9. This Will Be Our Year
  10. Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)
  11. Friends of Mine
  12. Time of the Season

Perhaps the Beatles were magic after all. Maybe their extraordinary success was contagious in some way and actually rubbed off on things they came into contact with (it's certainly the only way to explain Yoko Ono's baffling musical career).

If this is true then it's logical The Zombies were the lucky recipients of some Beatles magic. The Odessey and Oracle was not only recorded in Abbey Road but engineered by Geoff Emerick who engineered the later Beatles albums assisted by fellow Beatles recording veteran Peter Vince.

Beatle magic was in the air and resulted in a recording that is revered and loved as a musical classic. Shame nobody liked it at the time.

When it originally came out in 1968 nobody was interested in an album of psychedelic tunes with a strange name by a band with an even stranger title. Zombies weren't cool back in 1968 and the band weren't either. The record didn't do much and the recording process was enough to break up the band who didn't tour in support. It didn't sell enough copies on its initial release to make the UK charts and it peaked at number 95 in the US. In every respect it was a bit of a flop.

The album was re-released when The Time Of The Season became a hit single the following year and sold more respectably but it's always hard to promote an album when the band itself has gone their separate ways. In the decades since it first appeared, Odessey and Oracle has enjoyed a heightened reputation and frequently appears in lists like this. It's viewed as not just one of the great albums of the era but as one of the great releases of all time. All of which makes a lot of sense.

Back in 1968 the album still wasn't the artform that we think of it today. Sgt Peppers and other Beatles releases were raising its reputation but singles were still king and the album was still a way of packaging hit singles with filler. Today we understand an album as the pinnacle of an artist's expression. It's the greatest and most noble form a musician can adopt with groups like Radiohead ignoring the single format altogether and focusing all their attention on the album form.

Odessey and Oracle was literally ahead of its time. It's an album of coherent thought and message at a time when LP's needed to be full of hits to be big sellers. They needed big stand-alone songs to sell units and had to have a few stand out tracks for anyone to care. O and O has a lone big hit which at the time just wasn't enough. It didn't matter that the rest of the album was a collection of strong songs which got better with repeated listens, it wasn't relevant that it worked as a unified whole and nobody cared that it seemed to have a coherent and interesting vision. All anyone cared about was the fact that they picked it up and saw a tracklisting made up of songs they'd never heard on the radio.

O and O's reputation increased at the same rate that the album as an artform increased in esteem. People started to appreciate it and revere it as rock grew up and grew into the concept of a long player and eventually a CD. It will be interesting to see how it's viewed now that we seem to be moving away from the album and into a bold new digital territory where songs are king again.

If you want to know what the music on Odessey and Oracle sounds like without having to actually hear it then take a good look at the cover because it's the perfect visual depiction of the sounds inside. It's densely filled with colour and movement and the words are a bit hard to make out but it leaves you with an overwhelming sense of flowers and naked people and hippieness and drug-taking excess.

O and O's current tragedy is the blatant over saturation of its hit single as a tired sixties cliche. For years whenever film makers have wanted to aurally depict the summer of love and the hippie era they've turned to Time of the Season to do it. All the bigger hits were too expensive to use but Time is cheap and so it's become a weary and tedious cliche which is a pity because it's a great song that deserves more than to have its chorus lifted as a thirty second soundtrack to pictures of hippies dancing at Woodstock.

If you've never heard the Odessey and the Oracle then give it a try. It's psychadelic and trippy but perfectly accessible. It doesn't have songs that leap out at you on a first listen but appreciate the whole thing as the self-contained work of art that it is and enjoy it.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "With so many people calling this the most underrated album of the 60s it is actually becoming the most overrated album of the 60s."

-That's a very astute observation.

So is this the best kept secret of the sixties or does it obscurity richly deserved? Let me know below.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

81 Graceland (1986) Paul Simon

1. The Boy in the Bubble
2. Graceland
3. I Know What I Know
4. Gumboots
5. Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
6. You Can Call Me Al
7. Under African Skies
8. Homeless
9. Crazy Love, Vol. II
10. That Was Your Mother
11.   All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints

I'm quite capable of separating the idea of the the musician from the music. The actions and lifestyle of the person creating the artform doesn't affect my appreciation of it. I know that Miles Davis was a deeply troubled guy who from all reports was hard to like, but it doesn't stop me from loving Kind of Blue. I'm aware that Dylan can be a bit prickly and aloof but I love the guy. Prince is a complete failure as a person but that's not the reason I don't like his music.  But Graceland presents a bit of a problem.

Paul Simon is widely regarded as a difficult guy to get along with. He's always had a reputation for being a bit testy and comes across as fairly arrogant in interviews, all of which is fine. He's got the talent to back up his arrogance and I think it must be an exceptional person who goes through decades of rock stardom without turning into something approaching a bastard. I've known people who became insufferable just because they got retweeted by a celebrity so I can only imagine what it must be like to have a hit single, let alone a successful career.

Simon may be a genuinely unpleasant individual in real life but that doesn't stop me admiring his work with The Funkle or his earlier solo projects.

But Graceland isn't just the product of a potentially unpleasant guy, it came about as a direct result of his unpleasantness, at least if the people lining up to criticise it are to be believed.

The story Simon tells is that Graceland was inspired by a recording of Gumboots by a South African band called The Boyoyo Boys. He heard the song and realised it was similar to the 50's rock and roll he grew up with and the connection inspired him to go to South Africa and record with the Boyoyo Boys and other South African artists. The recordings that came out of these collaborations were turned into the Graceland album.

Others tell a different story.

American musician Heidi Berg claims she lent Simon the Boyoyo Boys tape and was interested in recording some of the material in a similar style herself. Simon never returned the tape or her subsequent phone calls. When they met up again he actually threatened her when she mentioned the incident and claimed he purchased the copyright for his own usage.

Berg and others have claimed that many of the songs on Graceland are essentially Paul Simon cover versions of South African songs which he has taken undeserved writing credit for. They believe the entire venture to South Africa was less about musical collaboration and more about an artist starved for ideas plundering a newly discovered market. She even goes so far to claim that You Can Call me Al, which is exclusively credited to Paul Simon on the album was stolen directly from The Boyoyo Boys without any credit at all.

It's a damning criticism and not the only one levelled at Simon by collaborators. The final track on the album features a guest appearance by Los Lobos whose sax player Steve Berlin is far from Simon's biggest fan. Berlin's story is that Los Lobos went into the studio to play with Simon but Paul had nothing for them to actually record. He hadn't written anything and didn't have any ideas for them to work on. The band were jamming and played a song they had written and planned to put on their next album. Simon liked what he heard and put some lyrics to their music. The Band then recorded the track and believed they'd just co-written a song with Paul Simon. They were therefore surprised to learn that when the record came out, the song they'd written was credited as a Paul Simon song without any input from them at all (except as musicians).

Misunderstandings can arise in any musical setting but in this instance someone is clearly telling an outright lie. Simon claims the first he heard of Berlin and the band's complaint was months later when the album came out and a letter from their lawyer was sent to his. Los Lobos however claim they contacted him much earlier and he personally dared them to sue him. Clearly someone is not telling the truth.

There's no doubt however that All Around the World Or The Myth of Fingerprints (as the song was called on the album) sounds a lot like a Los Lobos song and not much like a Paul Simon song. It's hard not to feel that the band deserve some songwriting credit because the alternative is to believe that Simon wrote a perfect facsimile of a Los Lobos song and then got the band in to record it.

It's especially difficult to take Simon's side when you read more about the album. He was criticised at the time for not approaching the African National Congress and asking for their blessing to defy the UN cultural boycott on South Africa. He claimed he did and didn't get a response but later changed backpeddled and admitted he didn't but didn't believe it would matter.

All of this shouldn't affect my appreciation of the music but I'm afraid it does. It's catchy stuff but I can't help but get set against it by what I know. It doesn't help that it sounds to me like a compilation of African music with a Los Lobos track attached at the end. It doesn't sound like Paul Simon's work before or since. It doesn't have his stamp on it in the way that his other stuff does. I can't see anything of Paul Simon in it.

I'd like not to believe the stories but it's hard to hear Graceland and not think it's the opportunistic dealings of a guy who hadn't had a hit in years and who is fiercely competitive. It's all to easy to think of it as a guy mining a musical heritage that he could take a degree of credit for to revive his flagging career.

Harsh? Possibly but I genuinely can't shake it and I can't appreciate the music because of it. And I'm sorry if telling you all this has had the same effect on you.  I really am.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "dink dink dink dink dink dink dink dink"

-That's the full review. One dink too many or just the right number? You decide.

So can you look past Paul or not? Let me know below.