Thursday, June 25, 2009


Off the Wall, by Michael Jackson

For my money, this is the disco album. It might be the only disco album.

The first track "Don't Stop Until You Get Enough" was the biggest hit. It also sets the template for the whole album: love songs, catchy hooks, and relentless rhythms.

Other key tracks that follow the mold include the title, "Working Day and Night", "Rock with You" and "Burn This Disco Out". It stands as the most joyful album he ever made. On "Get on the Floor" he starts cracking up towards the end.

In the middle of the album there is a pause, though, for reflection. "Girlfriend" is a seemingly tender song that slows the pace and readies the listener for what may be the best song offered: "She's Out of my Life". Famously, on this slow song about lost love, Michael actually breaks down and starts quietly sobbing at the end, overcome with emotion. In all the oeuvre of 'i wish she were back' rock ballads no one had ever felt the message so personally that the reminder of the loss causes tears in the studio.

This album got Jackson his first Grammy and three AMA awards. It showed a breadth, from laughter to tears, that was a defining mark of a mature performer. Unlike most of disco, which has the hooks and the rhythm but not the soul, Jackson's first outstanding solo effort is still listenable and enjoyable.

Thriller, by Michael Jackson

I'm almost positive this will be the title of a posthumous biography.

Possibly the greatest selling album of all time, what is left to be said? This album contains a trifecta of three of the greatest pop songs of all time: "Thriller", "Beat It", and "Billie Jean". Each one could get a paragraph of analysis.

Next on the list of fame would probably be "The Girl is Mine", the school-boy argument with Paul McCartney. "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", the first track, almost sounds like it was an afterthought to 'Off the Wall'.

The last three tracks are arguably weakest, but saying so is like saying that parts of 'Pet Sounds' or 'Revolver' aren't as strong as others. Sure. But the album, as a cohesive whole, is one of the best ever made.

Perhaps it's only understandable if you've listened to 'Off the Wall'. The sound on 'Thriller' is so different from anything that had come before, both for Michael, and in pop generally, that nowadays its revolutionary sound is often forgotten or lost. Unlike 'Pet Sounds' or 'Sgt. Peppers', Where a casual listening will perk up the ears to a unique sound, 'Thriller' can almost play unnoticed. Almost.

Thing is, Jackson created a template with 'Thriller'. The reason why it may not sound as revolutionary is because we are still listening to the echoes of what must be recognized as the peak of his career, and one of the peaks of pop, ever.

Monday, June 22, 2009

R+R H o F

To qualify for induction 25 years must have passed since the release of the band/artist's first album. I think the following performers are a bit overdue for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and should be the five inductees next year:

The Stooges. Qualifications: Released first album in 1969. Iggy Pop and the Stooges were a pioneering band in that they are credited with influencing both the development of punk and heavy metal.

Kraftwerk. Qualifications: Released first album in 1970. Pretty much invented electronic music. Without them: no techno, no synthesizers and vocoders, and no endless sampling of 'Trans-Europe Express'.

Roxy Music. Qualifications: Released first album in 1972. "Roxy Music were a huge influence on both punk and New Wave: They anticipated the restraint and the coolness of the Eighties, but you wouldn't have had the Sex Pistols without them, either." - John Taylor of Duran Duran.

Gram Parsons. Qualifications: Released first solo songs in 1973. Generally considered one of the founders of country-rock, a notable contribution to the rock and roll field.

Whitney Houston. Qualifications: Released first songs in 1985, and the Hall o' Fame can't resist such a qualification. That, and she's one of the best-selling artists of all time, and generally well-loved. I'm more confident in her getting in next year than any of the others above.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Three More Albums

More album reviews. What makes mine different from all the others in the blogosphere?

They're written by me, that's what.

Roger the Engineer, by the Yardbirds

The Yardbirds had three different guitarists during their brief existence: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. 'Roger the Engineer' hails from the Beck era.

Half of what makes the album so fun is its uniqueness. Beck made his other band members recite peculiar chants, some of which seems downright Gregorian. The guitar is blistering, the songs alternate between snappy and reflective, and the themes, aparently, have no connection.

'Over, Under, Sideways, Down' is a great stomper, followed by 'The Nazz are Blue', a guitar show-off with typical blues lyrics, next accompanied by 'I Can't Make Your Way', which sounds like a demented piece of tambourine sunshine pop.

Throw in some really odd tracks like 'Hot House of Omagarashid' (lyrics: ya ya ya, ya ya ya. Repeat) and seemingly you'd have an aimless, incoherent mess.

Somehow, though, the album feels right. The tracks work well in sequence, and in tone claim a sort of afinity to one another. Perhaps it's Beck's deft giutar skill that bundles it together. Whatever it is, it works.

The Gilded Palace of Sin, by The Flying Burrito Bros

Five seconds into this album Sneaky Pete, the guitarist, lets you know you are in territory most classic rockers despise: country!

If you let the track go for another 60 seconds, though, you'll start to recognize some bizarre sounds, lost in the cliche of country: these are psychedelic rock noises. What are they doing here?

This album, which was made with recent ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman at its heart, tries to create something a bit off: psychedelic country rock. Some of the tracks are more successful than others, but the lyrics of even the most 'country' tracks, talking about green mohair suits, reflect the time and objective.

Less 'country' than the Byrds' feature 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' in which Parsons introduced the Byrds' audience to the notion of country rock, 'Gilded' has some great covers, fine originals, and a sound that had not yet been locked in to the stereotypes of what a country rock album had to be. 'Sweetheart' provides that model just fine.

The last track, sounds like Luke the Drifter somehow was transported from a Hank Williams album into 1969. "I was walking down the street the other day/A sight came before my eyes./ It was a little hippie boy/ I must've been twice his size/ His appearance typified his strange breed:/ Guady clothes, long stringy hair hanging down." The hippie admits that the two walking side by side are "a million miles apart", but, in true hippie optimism, suggests the two could still both enjoy the sunshine. This album tries to create this same sort of reconcilliation: and ultimately succeeds.

Moanin' in the Moonlight, by Howlin' Wolf

Most of the songs in the Howlin' Wolf catalogue are first encountered through covers: 'Spoonful', 'Little Red Rooster', and the rest have been covered by aritists as diverse as Etta James, Sam Cooke, the Grateful Dead and Cream. But these tracks are found on Howlin' Wolf's first album, and are not original to Wolf, anyway.

On 'Moanin' Wolf's material, often donated by Willie Dixon, is straight blues. His growls and howls of loss express, what else, his hard times and loss. His career having begun in his forties Wolf (Chester Burnett) distills 20 years of blues development in one knock-out album.

'Smokestack Lightening' is the oft-covered single. The tracks are swirl of bar room piano, driving beats, and 12-bar guitar, complete with harmonica solos. As an introduction to the feeling and sound of electric blues there is no better album.

The Wolf is always on the wrong side of some situation, either with 'No Place to Go' or 'Evil', or the wrong side of women 'I'm Leaving You' and the hilariously acerbic 'I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)'. Hence his need to sing, howl and, living up to the title, moan his blues.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Album Reviews

I already did a review on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. I suppose I can use the forum to give more info on good albums.

Here are three to get us started:

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, by the Kinks.

This is an album of nostalgia. I found it highly relevant when I was studying modernity and memory, with authors like Fritzsche. If it's a concept album, the theme is on the losses experienced as we grow up.

The first track "The Village Green Preservation Society" is probably the most recognizable track. This album doesn't have "Lola", "You Really Got Me", or "Waterloo Sunset". For a versatile band, this album is sonically thin and reflective: "Waterloo Sunset" would be the closest hit, in terms of a similar sound.

The intro track's lyrics set the tone for the whole piece: "We are the village green preservation society/ God save donald duck, vaudeville and variety". Yet the sarcasm becomes apparent in a later verse: "We are the office block persecution affinity/ God save little shops, china cups and virginity". The quaintness of the past is gently made fun of - in part since by the time the album was made, 1968, it had already disappeared.

Two songs, running on the memory theme, deal with photographs - "Picture Book" (from which Green Day borrowed a riff) and "People Take Pictures of Each Other". Both are fairly disparaging. "Do You Remember Walter?" laments the loss of school friends and presents the most personal and familiar experience of loss and memory:

"If you saw me now you wouldn't even know my name/ I bet you're fat and married and you're always home in bed by half-past eight/ And if I talked about the old times you'd get bored and you'll have nothing more to say/ Yes people often change, but memories of people can remain."

God is questioned in "Big Sky", "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" is fairly obvious, and childhood is presented in two wonderfully juxtaposed pieces, "Phenomenal Cat" and "Wicked Anabella".

The album was one of the few released that year that didn't delve into psychedelia, but is straight-forward...rock? One definitely doesn't rock out to this. Perhaps it's one of the last examples of what Carlin defined as "roll".

Happy Trails, by Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Primarily a live album QMS were a psychedelic jam band that cropped up in the California scene contemporaneously with the Grateful Dead. The first five tracks, and twenty-three minutes, is an elongated jam of Bo Didley's "Who Do You Love". This jam, rankable amongst the Dead or Allman's at Fillmore East, is one of the most hypnotic, fascinating, and telling examples of a live performance in that day and age. By the fourth section (titled "Which Do You Love", as the other parts were renamed "When", "Where" and "How" so as to avoid royalties) the crowd interaction is frightening, and mesmerizing.

If this performance was a novel it would be Heart of Darkness.

Next comes a live performance of Didley's "Mona" - whipped up to seven minutes. Then we get some 'live' performance that were done in the studio: "Maiden of the Cancer Moon" and "Calvary" checking in at thirteen minutes. These are both instrumentals, and excellent ones at that - not repetitive, or meandering as often is the case. The final track, forty-seven seconds crooning Roy Rodger's farewell, is by far the least fitting and enjoyable track.

All in all the two sides share the extended plays, and fancy guitar work. Yet the feel of the two, in an overall eerie work, is noticeably different, but equally enjoyable.

Odessey and Oracle, by the Zombies.

It has been dubbed 'Baroque Pop' and it was a beautiful thing. Rich harmonies, dark themes, and symphonic orchestration. It's about as far away from the Ramones as you can get.

The Zombies are known for two hits: "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season". The latter, with its familiar echoing verses ("What's your name?/ Who's your daddy?/ Is he rich like me?") makes an appearance as the last track on this album, and the least recognizable in comparison to the other tracks. It reminds me of the inclusion of "Sloop John B" on "Pet Sounds" - not bad, but dissimilar in its presence.

It's not a concept album, but the themes are generally dealing with love and loss (no big surprise - nearly all albums are). Tracks such as "Maybe After He's Gone", "I Want Her She Wants Me" and "This Will Be Our Year" are fairly standard in this vein, if not their execution.

"A Rose for Emily" relates to a work by Faulkner, I believe. "Care of Cell 44" is a letter written to a girlfriend in prison. "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" relates the horrors of WWI from a soldier's viewpoint. These tracks, and others, break up the love songs.

Not that the listener needs a break. My favorite track, "Changes", is about a girl's transformation once she's left. But all of the songs, regardless of theme, are immaculate constructions. They are pop masterpieces, all only a few minutes long, with a more harmonious wall of sound than Phil Spector could provide.

"Time of the Season" gets the airplay because it reflected the sentiment of the time. The other tracks are more somber, with a careful timelessness.