Saturday, November 29, 2014

15 Are you Experienced (1967) Jimi Hendrix Experience

1. Purple Haze
2. Manic Depression
3. Hey Joe
4. Love Or Confusion
5. May This Be Love
6. I Don't Live Today
7. The Wind Cries Mary
8. Fire
9. 3rd Stone From The Sun
10. Foxey Lady
11. Are You Experienced

Hendrix once supported the Monkees on tour. In 1967, the Monkees thought The Jimi Hendrix Experience was the right group to warm their audience of teenage girls up for their rendition of Daydream Believer. Predictably it was a disaster and Hendrix eventually grew sick of performing to room full of screaming Monkees fans chanting "We Want the Monkees!" while he was playing Purple Haze and walked out of the tour.

Today we look at Hendrix as a guy who could solo for longer than most Monkees songs and we think of him as the height of psychedelic excess. But back in 1967 when people only had this album as an indication of his abilities, it must have seemed like a more reasonable proposition. Granted it would never have looked like a good idea and there must have been people scratching their heads and saying "Seriously?" to each other when they first heard it but you can kind of see where people are coming from because Are you Experienced is, at its core, a collection of really strong songs.

Forget about the wild clothing, forget about the stage theatrics, even forget about the guitar playing ability and just focus on the album as a set of 1960's pop tunes. Foxy Lady, Manic Depression, Can you See Me, Fire, Love or Confusion and I Don't Live today could all have been hits for other bands if they'd played to their pop strengths. At their core, they're just catchy melodies with good hooks. You may think I'm mad but I can even imagine a song like Fire being slowed down slightly, brightened up and performed by the Monkees themselves. It's not lightyears away from I'm Not Your Stepping Stone.

Thanks to a frenetic schedule of touring and recording, Hendrix would never have such a strong set of songs to enter a studio with ever again. His time spent building his career in the lead up to the release of his first album gave him some freedom to sit down and write which gave him an opportunity to pen some fantastic pieces of late sixties rock. Regardless of what you think of Jimi's other abilities, you can't deny the fact that The Wind Whispers Mary is actually a beautiful song. It might be played by a guy we associate with feedback and guitar burning but we should take the time to remember that he was also a guy who could write a really lovely piece of music. Even the lesser known tracks on Experienced showcase a talent for putting together a memorable song.

Of course his songwriting pales when you compare it to his guitar playing. My goodness could that guy play guitar. He was a truly amazingly gifted musician and there aren't too many other people who have such a natural talent. He was 24 at the time this was recorded which still blows my mind. I have no idea how someone manages to develop such a revolutionary ability and freakish range of gifts when they've only been of legal drinking age for 3 years. It's one thing to be incredibly good at what you do, it's another thing to be able to take that talent in a bold new direction. Hendrix mastered the pop, rock and blues playing styles of the day and could do what his contemporaries could do but could also pioneer new ways of using the guitar to express himself which are still be copied (but rarely if ever bettered) to this day.

Hendrix was a great singer and the world's greatest guitarist, but early in his career he was a great writer of pop tunes as well which makes Are you Experienced one of the greatest albums of alltime.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review quote: "Words cannot describe my intense dislike for Jimi's guitar "skills". This guy is a HACK."

-This has been so depressing. Every week I sift through some of the most peurile and inane dross searching for an interesting Amazon Customer Review Quote. "This albums sucks, if you want real music listen to..." over and over again. It's been soul destroying finding this nonsense for you. Soul destroying.

So are you experienced? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

16 Blood on the tracks (1975) Bob Dylan

1. Tangled Up in Blue
2. Simple Twist of Fate
3. You're a Big Girl Now
4. Idiot Wind
5. You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
6. Meet Me in the Morning
7. Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
8. If You See Her, Say Hello
9. Shelter from the Storm
10. Buckets of Rain

By 1975 Dylan had been recording albums for 13 years and had managed to effectively kill off the public's expectations of his work, which he felt had been holding him back for nearly a decade. He started life as an acoustic writer of "Finger pointing songs" but destroyed the ideals of a generation when he went electric and became a rock star, singing impenetrable psychedelic missives backed by a full band. He then explored Americana and totally changed his singing style before finally killing off his entire fanbase with Self Portrait a deliberate attempt to commit career suicide.

After becoming an icon of the sixties, Dylan entered the middle of the seventies as nothing more than an artist, free to create music on his own terms and in his own way. He no longer felt the overwhelming burden of public pressure and an insatiable desire to shrug if off. He had reached a happy point in which he could just release Bob Dylan albums for people who wanted to buy them. He could write songs and release them and if people liked them they could buy them and show up to his concerts and everyone else wasn't his concern.

1974's Planet Waves was a return to form of sorts but it wasn't until 1975 that Dylan proved he wasn't just the best survivor of the 1960's, he was one of the best artists of the 70's as well.

Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece and far and away the best album released in 1975 and quite possibly the finest release in the entire decade. It has at least four of Dylan's best songs and several tracks which classify as those unappreciated gems that Dylan fans love and more people should hear.

Tangled Up In Blue is quite possibly my favourite ever Dylan song (although even pinning me down to a top ten in no actual order would cause me considerable pain and angst). I'm one of those people who always seems to have a song in their head and spends most of their time singing it out loud much to the irritation of those around me. For over two decades now I think Tangled has been the song my brain has returned to most frequently. It's just a permanently happy place that my mind gravitates towards and I'll regularly find myself singing "Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed..." and I'll be off. I can do the whole song and have to stop and really revel in each opportunity to sing "Tangled up in blue!"

Tangled challenges the notion held by many, Dylan included, that he was a lyricist and not a tunesmith. To the best of my knowledge nobody has accused Dylan of snatching the melody for Tangled from another source. Many of his classic songs are "based" to a lesser or greater degree on folk melodies but there are others that are entirely original and Tangled is one of them. It's a perfect marriage of music and lyrics and while it wouldn't be as brilliant with other words attached it's definitely not a case of poetry propping up a substandard melody.

I really love Tangled's lyrics by the way. I mean really love them. I can't explain why lines like "Some are mathematicians, some are carpenter's wives" are so perfect but I know they are. They're unmistakably Dylan and even though he would tamper with them in later live renditions they're triumphant in their original, and deliberately baffling form. Much of the appeal of Tangled lies in the fact that the narrative perspective switches around so we can't tell if Dylan is singing in the first person or the third person which sounds a bit crap as an idea but makes the song so much more intriguing in practice.

Tangled on its own would be enough to carry the album (it's better than Forever Young which was Planet Waves standout track and was so good Dylan included two different versions) but it's far from the album's only highlight. Simple Twist of Fate is one of Bob's best slow ballad songs and tells a story that is so much more than a simple love song.  Idiot Wind is a magnificently scathing and vitriolic song that rivals Like a Rollin Stone or Don't think twice it's alright in its bitterness and would overtake them completely if it wasn't for Dylan's declaration that he's an idiot as well. The final act of outright genius on Blood is Shelter from the Storm which gets under your skin and shakes you around. It's essentially another break up song in an album which is full of them (nobody believes Bob when he says he didn't write it about his failed marriage) but its images are apocalyptic, messiah-like and downright scary at times but beautiful at others. You could spend months alone with this song dissecting its meaning and at the end you might come to some understanding but a part of you might die as well as you looked into its blackness.

Tangled, Simple Twist, Idiot and Shelter make up the four great moments on Blood and they're all classic Dylan songs and arguably the best tracks released in 1975. They're well supported by You're a big girl now, You're gonna make lonesome when you go, Meet me in the Morning, If you see her say hello and Buckets of Rain which would have been the standout track on any album Dylan released for the next decade. In fact only the overlong Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, which doesn't deserve a quarter of it's running time, let alone a full 9 minutes, isn't at least very good.

Blood on the Tracks marks the moment when Dylan reconnected with his muse and proved to children of the seventies why he was such a big deal in the sixties. His muse would abandon him again for a while in the future but anyone who thinks Bob is a part of the hippie decade and never survived outside needs to hear 1975's Blood on the Tracks. And then follow that up with 1989's Oh Mercy and then everything he's released since 1997.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Zimmerman? Zimmerframe more like, you cactus-faced crock of cack."

-Oh shush, foolish person.

So are you happy this blood was shed? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

17 Nevermind (1991) Nirvana

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. In Bloom
3. Come as You Are
4. Breed
5. Lithium
6. Polly
7. Territorial Pissings
8. Drain You
9. Lounge Act
10. Stay Away
11. On a Plain
12. Something in the Way

There have been a few albums which have totally changed the world. Their appearance completely revolutionised music as we know it and left an altered state in their wake. They grabbed what we knew about popular music and shook it up and battered it around and everyone knew nothing could be the same again. It wasn't subtle, we didn't need ten years and the benefit of hindsight to see it happening, we watched music change before us and knew we were part of a revolution.

I wasn't actually born when a lot of these changes occurred. When Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin and others dropped their respective bombshells I was yet to trouble the planet in any way. When the Sex Pistols tore music apart in the last seventies I was only four years old and it would still be years before I listened to anything that wasn't created by Jim Henson.

But Nirvana's bombshell I was definitely around for and I remember the impact well. In 1991 I was 18 and had lived through the eighties and knew I was being shortchanged. I had realised that previous generations had great music and I had to put up with synth pop and hair bands. I was acutely aware that with a few exceptions (thanks Midnight Oil, thank you now and always) most music from the decade of my formative years was more than a bit naff.

I remember things like Poison's Unskinny Bop being what we thought Modern Rock and Roll was. It had all the ingredients music needed at the time: Handsome guys with big hair. That's what the decade was basically all about.

And then Nirvana came along and stuck a massive boot straight though our musical TV screens. I can remember a time when Smells Like Teen Spirit was everywhere. It was on TV and radio all the time and people were playing it in their homes and singing it in the streets. I'm sure looking back on it now I'm over romantacising the time and there must have been some people singing something by the Carpenters but in my memory it was everywhere and we loved it.

Being 18 at the time I was part of the generation that the song apparently spoke to. People have held it up as an anthem for a generation and something that spoke to us and moved us in a way that we hadn't been moved before. It summed up Generation X apparently which I personally think is nonsense. My friends and I didn't respond to Smells Like Teen Spirit because it expressed our feelings in a way that we couldn't. We didn't think we'd finally found an outlet for our angst and frustration which somehow wasn't being conveyed in whatever the hell Unskinny Bop was about. We just liked it because it rocked.

And Smells Like Teen Spirit definitely rocks. Those opening chords are fantastic and the sound is just unbelievably powerful. That onslaught of grunge intensity made us all realise just how anaemic hair bands really were. They didn't have attitude, they had stylists, but Nirvana looked like they would physically assault anyone who came near them with hair spray. I didn't know what the lyrics were at the time and still don't but I knew that stomping drum beat was the sound of three guys jumping up and down on the grave of Poison's career and I thanked them for it.

You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm a massive Nirvana fan. The truth is I never actually bought a copy of Nevermind and have never heard it all the way through before now, more than two decades after it was released. I liked Smells Like Teen Spirit and enjoyed hearing it on the radio and I'm forever grateful that it existed but it never moved me enough to buy it.

There's no doubt that listening to Nirvana twenty years after its initial release makes you appreciate that unlike a lot of things that demolished music (the Sex Pistols most notably) they don't sound stuck in their era. You could play one of the lesser known tracks, Polly for example, on the radio today and nobody would immediate think it was a 90's song that should have stayed there. There's nothing that dates it badly or holds it back. And it doesn't have the traditional grunge sound that makes it immediately recognizable. Polly features acoustic guitars and harmonies and is quite a pretty melody when you get down to it.

When Rolling Stone magazine listed the best albums of the 90's at the end of the decade, they put this at number one with Radiohead's OK computer at number two. Years later they revised the list and swapped them over to put Nevermind in second place. Regardless of which is best there are definitely similarities between the two bands. They both appear to operate with a total disregard for any genre classification or rules. Neither band really cares what you think they should sound like and what category record shops put them in. They're both they're own genres and they both arrived at that point by absorbing a huge range of musical influences. The members of Nirvana have talked about being huge devotees of both Punk and bands like Led Zeppelin which Punk was a reaction against. They enjoy alternative rock like The Pixies and a lot of the Heavy Metal bands that The Pixies were supposed to be an alternative to. They're just three guys who devour the music they like and let it create something new without really trying.

The result really does deserve to be held up as one of the great rock albums of all time. Cobain is a talented vocalist, the band creates a fantastic sound and more importantly there's some great songwriting on offer. Tori Amos proved that Smells Like Teen Spirit didn't need the power chord and volume to work, it thrived with just her piano and a voice to propel it. Come as you are, In Bloom and Polly are all great pieces of writing and brilliant songs in their own right.

The massive success of Nevermind delighted the record company executives but made Cobain decidedly uncomfortable. He quickly wanted to turn his back on the image they'd created. It's hard to know what Nirvana might have sounded like had Kurt not taken his own life a few short years after this album was created. They might have sounded like the Foo Fighter do now, or it's possible they'd still be playing somewhere debuting new music to smaller and smaller crowds disappointed at Cobain's refusal to play anything from their glory days. Sadly we'll never know, but this album does stand testament to a massive talent who deserves our thanks for helping to drive a knife through the heart of eighties music.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Better yet, go check out some classics like Van Halen (Sammy Hagar era - I don't think we have to get into that other dork and his pathetic shtik). Now there's someone that knows how to take a guitar and make it go "neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeer-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-diddly-diddly-doodley-doooooooooo!!!!!"."

-I love that solo! That's a great song!

So is this great or... nevermind? Let me know below.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

18 Born to Run (1975) Bruce Springsteen

1. Thunder Road
2. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
3. Night
4. Backstreets
5. Born to Run
6. She's the One
7. Meeting Across the River
8. Jungleland

This countdown has given me an excellent opportunity to assess several artists that I've always respected but never actually enjoyed, and discover what it is that's keeping me from appreciating them. With Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison it's their voice, with David Bowie it's his production and with Bruce Springsteen it's that face he pulls when he goes shouty.

Actually it's not the face as much as it's the voice he's using and the mood of the song. There seem to be a lot of songs in Springsteen's repertoire which see him take the microphone and shout a big line while the band swells behind him and the volume rises and it gets faster and its all big and bombastic. While this is happening, Springsteen makes a face. I have no problem with his face or any particular expression it pulls. I'm okay with Springsteen's features it's just a visual representation of a Springsteen musical mood that I just don't get. I'm not 100% sure why this is. I have no trouble with loud rock and roll and many of my favourite artists have big voices which they're not afraid to use. When Daltry gets screamy I get chills, when Springsteen gets shouty I get kind of bored.

It might be in part because it seems like a technique that Springsteen tends to over use. He does it a lot and to be honest every time I hear Springsteen from this era I'm just waiting for it come along. Even when a track starts off slowly, I'm still anticipating a build up towards the moment when the band turns everything up to 11 and Bruce gets shouty and pulls the face. I passed every song on Born to Run through the "Does it have Shouty Face Bruce" test and the following are my results...

Thunder Road? Yes. It gets their eventually.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out? He gets there within the first minute even if the the band don't go with him.

Night? Doesn't go all the way to 11 until the final minute when it definitely approaches ten.

Backstreets sounds like it will never get there because it starts with a gentle piano but by the halfway mark he's well and truly shouting.

Born to Run? Hurtles there within the first minute and pretty much stays there for the entire track. The video clip is one of the best visual depictions of the shouty face you're likely to find.

She's the one?  Another faker, it starts nice and gentle but builds again and by three minutes in he's shouting to compete with a saxophone solo.

Meeting across the river? No. Bruce starts gentle and despite spending the whole song looking like it's going to suddenly launch into 11 territory it says toned down.

Jungleland? With a nine minute running time you would think Bruce has longer to wait before he gets shouty but he's there before the three minute mark.

In other words pretty much every song on Born to Run except one has Bruce in shouty bombast mode after a brief but predictable musical climax. It's a trick that might be really effective once but when it's used on the majority of the album it tends to wear a bit thin.

I've discovered in my musical listening that my favourite Springsteen tracks are pretty much all his quiet and subtle ones. The Streets of Philidelphia, My Home Town etc are all really great songs. I like Bruce when he slows down and uses his fantastic voice as a subtle instrument not something to bludgeon the audience with.  He's got a great voice, writes a great song but for reasons I'm struggling to identify, he bores me a bit when he gets loud and shouty.

Before I started listening to his albums on this countdown, I would have struggled to answer if someone asked me "Do you like Springsteen?" I probably would have said I liked him as a person but not really as a performer. Now that I've delved into his catalogue more I can say I really like him when he's being subtle but I find him a bit dull when he puts his foot the floor and goes full bore.

Born to Run isn't my least favourite Springsteen album, but it's certainly one I don't need to hear again. Every song except one (and that's pretty dull to be honest) builds up to 11 pretty quickly and gets immediately tiring when it does.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Timing really is everything. When this album came out in '75, most of the people who had revolutionized rock in the 1960s and early '70s were either dead (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison), in seclusion (John Lennon, Brian Wilson) or in a declining phase (the Rolling Stones). Meanwhile, Punk and New Wave were still a couple of years away on the horizon. The Bay City Rollers were probably Bruce's toughest competition. The contrast made this album look more innovative than it really was."

-That's actually quite an astute observation. Not sure I entirely agree but it's kind of hard to argue against.

So were you born to run or are you happy walking? Let me know below.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

19 Astral Weeks (1968) Van Morrison

1. Astral Weeks
2. Beside You
3. Sweet Thing
4. Cyprus Avenue
5. The Way Young Lovers Do
6. Madame George
7. Ballerina
8. Slim Slow Slider

Sometimes there are things that just stop me from enjoying an album. It might be the artist's reputation, it might be the production values, it might be a personal association. With Astral Weeks, it's Van Morrison's voice, which I find staggeringly unpleasant in every possible way. I'd even go so far as to say Van Morrison has the least appealing voice in the entire of rock and roll as far as I'm concerned. There is nobody on the planet whose vocal chords annoy me more. It's no exaggeration to say I'd rather listen to an actual Van than Van Morrison, even if the van in question was being gradually whittled by a team of crying children with nail files. Even the sound of metal on  rasping metal as applied by howling infants would be preferably to hearing Van Morrison sing.

In the past, when I've been presented with an album that presents a stumbling block that prevents me from appreciating it, I try and look for a way around it. Usually I go in search of cover versions to I can hear the song-writing from a fresh perspective and I can listen to the songwriting rather than the singer. That seemed like the perfect approach for Astral Weeks in which the problem was the vocalist. I wanted to know if I could enjoy the songs without having to endure Van Morrison adding every single vowel sound known to man, and even some that are traditionally only the domain of animals, in every word. Could I appreciate Astral Weeks in the hands of someone whose voice didn't remind me of a nasal-inflected impression of an air raid siren?

Thankfully I didn't have to turn to anyone else. Van himself came to the rescue. In 2012 he decided to perform Astral Weeks in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl and then release the result as a live DVD and album. I have to admit I was tentative but considering it's up on youtube I thought I'd give it a go and see what the years had done to Morrison's voice. Had the passing of time mellowed his tones and smoothed out his tendency to wail?

Thankfully I'm pleased to report the answer is yes. Unlike a lot of other artists, Morrison's voice has actually improved over time. He can still hit the notes and still has power but doesn't have the need to wander around vowels the way he used to and the nasal tones have been tempered a lot. It was odd experience: I can honestly say I suffered through 4 listens of Astral Weeks. I endured them for the sake of the blog. But I found myself quite enjoying the live rendition at the Hollywood Bowl. It's a completely different experience.

It probably helps that Van has surrounded himself with a great bunch of musicians. He plays with what looks like a jazz combo backed with a string quartet and a flautist which might sound like overkill but it really works. They're a tight unit and they really bring the songs to life. They even manage to not be totally upstaged by Van's tendency to sing all the time. Morrison has obviously decided he will wait until he's dead to be silent (although even then the sound of gases escaping from his corpse will sound better to me than his younger self singing) and until then he's going to fill pretty much every moment with singing of some kind even if it's just repeating one word a lot in a descending register as if the word in question has just thrown itself off a cliff.

I really recommend checking Astral Weeks Live out on youtube. You don't need to actually watch it. Van was never much to look at in his prime but now he's basically an overweight old guy with bad teeth in a silly hat and dark glasses. He looks like a bad Blues Brothers tribute act, but you can always have the clip playing in the background without the visuals. For me it was a way of appreciating the songwriting in Astral Weeks and enjoying the album without having to endure vocals which I will never, ever be able to appreciate.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "The customary juxtaposition of the existential with the metaphysical may lead one to believe there is more going on here than the VanMan improvising for 45m on a few of his favorite themes. "

-So juxtaposing existential with metaphysical is customary now is it? Okay.

So is this an album you could listen to for Astral Weeks or turn off after Astral minutes? Let me know below