Thursday, December 3, 2009

58. The Beatles - Rubber Soul (1965)

Track List: Drive My Car // Norwegian Wood //You Won't See Me //Nowhere Man // Think For Yourself // The Word // Michelle // What Goes On // Girl // I'm Looking Through You // In My Life // Wait // If I Needed Someone // Run For Your Life

The first in a long run of landmarks. The Beatles! The Who! The Byrds! It's going to be a big couple of days here at the blog.

After a few false-starts and a lot of good singles, the Beatles finally come into their own as album artists. Everything about this record, from the production to the song-writing and the inventive instrumentation (acoustic guitars, sitars, and even a box of matches), is a step-up not just for the band but for the rock genre in general. Of course, all this means is that rock and roll is no longer quite so far behind pop as it once was, but that's really just praising with faint damnation. This is impressive stuff!

I mean, just look at the artwork - the four boys, no longer quite so nice-looking, and with their features all twisted and weird against a forest backdrop. The new album is slightly mellow, slightly folky, and more than a little weird - and the cover captures all of this perfectly. From the unspeakably pretty "Norwegian Wood"(which helped introduce the sitar into Western pop), to "Nowhere Man" - the first non-lovesong the Beatles wrote, and one of their most depressing - and the pretty little wedding favourite "In My Life", there's a lot of great stuff here.

Of course, it isn't all good - it's a rare Beatles album that doesn't have at least one stinker on it, and this time out we have a couple of doozies. "What Goes On", anyone? Unbearable, tuneless country. "Oh, but that's a Ringo song," I hear you say. "It doesn't count". Well then, how about the admittedly more tuneful misogyny of Lennon's "Run Fer Yer Life"? It'd be a great song, if not for John's threatening to murder his girlfriend if she even so much as thinks of leaving him.

Is this a masterpiece? No! But it is a landmark in pop music, and a very nice listen (even if it does reek entirely too much of pot). And (thank God) things only get better from here.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

54. B.B. King - Live at the Regal (196


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


Right. I've got to go into town to return a library book and get my phone fixed, so let's keep this quick. I think the last blues album we had here, Muddy Water Live at Newport, was something that I found initially off-putting but quickly grew to love. B.B. King, on the other hand, is a fellow I found myself liking immediately. He has a great conversational style, taking-on a sort of "Wise old man" approach cross-bred with the Lonely Lady, and doling out a whole lot of (usually sound) relationship advice. He's also a pretty funny guy, in that understated way I always associate with Johnny Cash. And he has lines like "If your woman doesn't do exactly what you ask, don't you go hitting her upside the head - because all that'll do is make her a little smarter; she won't let you catch her next time". Which I found funny. Haha.

Anyway, B.B. King is not just a funny and likable guy, he is (or was -no, is. Holy shit, how is this guy still alive and performing? Forget Robert Johnson, it's obvious that B.B. King's the one who sold his soul) a great musician. He has a remarkably versatile voice, wandering from deep rumbling to smooth crooning and that sort of high, whining style I associate with the Delta. And he is an absolutely amazing guitar player. Unfortunately, he doesn't really let rip on most of these songs, preferring to leave things to his more-than-capable backing band, but wow! When that guy plays a guitar, it stays played. Maybe this is what happens when you rescue a guitar from a fire and then name it Lucille. Is that the secret to great blues playing? I do not know.

Anyway, not only are King and his band firing on all cylinders, the material is damned solid, too. There's everything from straight-up blues to a weird sort of Latin dance number in "Help the Poor". And "How Blue Can You Get", in while King points-out the foibles of a perpetually dissatisfied lover, is just hilarious. It's a spectrum, really.

So, this is a very good album but I'm not going to elaborate upon it because damn it I have to get to the shop.


And now, in wonderful static monochrome!

Friday, July 31, 2009

53. John Coltrane - A Love Supreme (1965)

Part 1: Acknowledgement // Part 2: Resolution // Part 3: Pursuance // Part 4: Psalm


I'm coming to this album again for the first time in a long while, now imbued with the perspective that comes from having slogged up through the foothills of this list. It's interesting, having a slightly (albeit, only slightly) expanded knowledge of jazz, to listen through A Love Supreme and appreciate the ways in which Coltrane and his band have pulled-apart bop structures and then reassembled them into something loose and free and very, very beautiful. Kind of Blue was extremely free in its improvising, but the tracks on that album still seemed to hew to the notion of introducing a theme, playing it a few times, and then suddenly wandering off on a free and abstract (albeit, very pretty) jam. Conversely, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady displayed an awe-inspiring degree of compositional acumen, effectively rewriting the rules of jazz from the ground up.

On A Love Supreme, however, Coltrane seems to have found a balance between the beauty that comes from improvisation and the beauty that comes from adherence to traditional forms, and has hit upon a way of mixing bop with free jazz that is extremely loose and lyrical, and at times rather wild, but which also maintains a great deal of coherency, and progresses logically from album opener to close as though it were one single track (which, I suppose, is a fairly valid way of looking at it). The result is an album which is both highly experimental, and immediately accessible - a gorgeous, swirling mass of cymbals and saxophones anchored by Latin dance rhythms and woven-through with unusual-yet-catchy melodies. It's like watching the waves churn-up foam from the ocean on a cloudy day.

I will admit that there are bits of this album that I don't really like - specifically, the middle section, where the horns and piano die down in favour of some improvisation by the drums and bass. Now bear in mind, I have nothing against drums and bass - I just don't think the solos are all that great. Then again, it does break-up the album, providing some interesting sonic contrasts, and paves the way for the absolutely beautiful "Psalm" to finish with. The tones conjured-up on this album really are gorgeous - it's amazing to think what they acheived with a more-or-less live recording in 1964. It sounds like nothing else on Earth.

I don't adore A Love Supreme (which is odd, because by all rights I should) but at the same time I can't find much to fault it for. It's beautiful, spiritual music that manages to be just abstract enough to be moving, without ever giving-up the rhythms and melodies that make a person listen in the first place. I think this is a classic example of one of those albums where, even if you hate it with every fiber of your being, you will still be a better person for having listened to it (the Ulysses of jazz albums, maybe?). I'm very, very glad that it exists, even if I don't listen to it more. Maybe I should play it more often, and then I'd finally love it as much as every other person on the planet happens to.

Anyway I like it. It's a very pretty sound.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

52. The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys Today! (1965)

Do You Wanna Dance // Good to My Baby // Don’t Hurt My Little Sister // When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) // Help Me, Rhonda // Dance, Dance, Dance // Please Let Me Wonder // I’m So Young // Kiss Me Baby // She Knows Me Too Well // In the Back of My Mind // Bull Session with “Big Daddy” // The Girl from New York City


I like the Beach Boys! And why? Because they were a very good band. They had delightful harmonies, they had oddly-structured melodies, and they weren’t afraid (at least, under the management of Brain Wilson) to throw rock to the wind in favour of big, strange, all-encompassing pop. On this album, they start to move on from Chuck Berry-derived rock & roll and into the realm of Phil Spector, Les Baxter, Burt Bacharach and Bachman Turner Overdrive. Well, maybe not that last one.

I am biased in my fondness for the Beach Boys, in that they were in certain ways the soundtrack to my life. I suppose they are an omnipresence in the Western musical world, but that doesn’t change the deep personal resonance attendant upon listening to my granddad sing “Barbara Ann” to my sister while setting her on his knee. Nor can in tarnish the memory of solving year five maths problems to the sounds of “Surfin’ USA”, punctuated at regular intervals by the intonations of the voice actor declaring the sums and how long we had in which to get them right. And looking about at the current Indiescape, with its ten thousand bands all desperate to resurrect Surf’s Up, one can only feel a sense of vindication coupled with a deep and penetrating weariness. Move on, you jerks! I want it all for myself. I own “Wind Chimes” to the depths of my jealous heart.

Putting this aside, this is quite a good record. “Help Me, Rhonda” is very beautiful. The first half of the album boasts up-beat pop numbers, all of them extremely enjoyable, while the second half veers into nostalgic melancholia that would come to define the best of the band’s later work. If I am correct (and I’m probably not) this is the album where Brian Wilson locked himself away in the studio and decided he’d tour no more. Even if this wasn’t actually the album where he did it, such was a bold and well-chosen move that would send deep quivers down the spine of the pop-sonic landscape.

If I wanted to say something beyond the vague ululations of reminiscence, then I would declare that “Do You Wanna Dance” is a kick-ass bit for dancing, what with the explosion of the chorus*; that “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” asks some hard questions and has some soft melodies; that “Dance, Dance, Dance” has a kick-ass riff and a nice descending melody; that “Please Let Me Wonder” is so delicate and pretty as to be heart-breaking; that the same goes doubly so for “Kiss Me Baby”, which is almost painfully beautiful; and that “She Knows Me Too Well” basically invented the 1970s (ABBA, the Carpenters, Chicago... ain’t nothin’ wrong with that).

It’s not Pet Sounds, but then what is? What this is is very, very good.

A golden victory for squares in the realm of pop.


*the Ramones did it better.

Friday, June 19, 2009

51. Otis Redding - Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul

Ole Man Trouble // Respect // Change Gonna Come // Down in the Valley // I've Been Loving You Too Long // Shake // My Girl // Wonderful World // Rock Me Baby // Satisfaction // You Don't Miss Your Water


I must ask myself the following question – What does Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul mean to me? It’s no good blathering on endlessly about formal developments that could easily be pinpointed by a visit to Wikipedia. Rather ask – do I like this album? And the answer is yes. Do I love it? No, maybe not. And here I must show my work.

Otis Redding presents probably the most mature, fully-developed soul album yet enlisted. His unique and influential voice – woody and raw, yet capable of great emotional expressiveness and feats of technical daring – is contrasted with impeccably played and produced Stax-brand™ Memphis soul to give the world something peculiar in the realm of pop music. There is little doubt that this is pop music, you see – and it is infectious pop music at that. Redding, Isaac Hayes and Booker T. & the MGs combine forces like some sort of soul-powered Voltron to lend the magical, horn-laden, bronze-coloured touch to such songs as “My Girl”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “A Change is Gonna Come”. In the case of “My Girl”, they even manage to better one of my absolute favourite songs! And then they switch around, take the ferocious rock of the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, and turn it into a wailing, lunatic soul-stomp extravaganza. And then they do straight-up blues on “Rock Me, Baby!”. There really are a lot of covers on this album, but they’re all quite successful, so it’s not something to complain about. And, as opposed to what was the case with all of those Beatles and Stones albums, here the covers selections are well-chosen and used purely to augment a selection of equally brilliant originals – including the very first version of “Respect”! Granted, the Aretha Franklin version is better, but most things come-up short in such comparisons.

The interplay of a host of different elements is really what makes this album work. I think someone described this album as a “dictionary of soul”, and you really couldn’t come-up with a better term for it than that. Every song on the album is unique in style, and yet, everything comes-out sounding like Otis Redding. Of course, a great deal of credit for the success of this album rests with the band, but Redding’s voice is another key element in the album’s success. It’s not really the sort of voice I’d tend to favour – a sort of wild, raving voice that tends to wander off into gospel-esque, lunatic frothings and manic-depressive asides – but when buried in amidst the rock-solid playing of the MG.s it creates the perfect contrast. This is the sort of thing Al Green would do very well in the 1970s, playing his strange little voice off against these immaculately-assembled backing tracks. Add to this the fact that Otis Redding is, unlike someone like Mariah Carey, actually credible as a performer as well as a technician and, well, it’s enough to convert even this finicky old grouch (I am actually only 23). Granted, it gets a bit much when he starts rambling about biology in “Wonderful World”, but what are you gonna do?

To many people, this is the greatest soul album of the 1960s, if not of all time. I don’t know if I agree with that assessment, but then I’m hardly qualified to judge. It’s certainly brilliant, however – not a bad track on it, all performed wonderfully. A unique sound that proved influential on generation after generation of recording artists... Fun party jams like “Down in the Valley” following the mournful introspection of “A Change is Gonna Come”, and not a seam showing... What more could you ask from in an album? Well, maybe the ranting on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” could go – because damned if that isn’t just embarrassing. Oh, also this album does not contain a single song as good as “Having a Party” or “Lost Someone”. There, I said it.

A word on formats, however – This is available in a 2 CD set featuring mono and stereo mixes. Unlike The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, which sounds great in stereo and terrible in mono, or Pet Sounds, which sounds amazing in both, this is very much an album that should be heard in monophonic presentation. I’m sure someone could make a decent stereo mix out of this, but that someone apparently isn’t the Rhino Entertainment Company.



Otis Redding - My Girl

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bob Dylan – Bringin It All Back Home (1965)

Tracks: Subterranean Homesick Blues // She Belongs to Me // Maggie's Farm // Love Minus Zero/No Limit // Outlaw Blues // On the Road Again // Bob Dylan's 115th Dream // Mr. Tambourine Man // Gates of Eden // It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) // It's All Over Now, Baby Blue


Another side of Bob Dylan, with the man this time trading-in his folksy raconteur persona for equal parts rock-freak and philosophical balladeer. Since these two qualities were given a side each on the old vinyl, I might as well discuss the whole affair in two parts.

Side A:

The album opens with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which is just a great song – a weird, surrealistic torrent of 1960s fringe-culture wrapped around a pounding blues-rock beat that just EXPLODES from the speakers like something in the process of exploding. Skipping-out on conscription; brewing-up acid in the basement; shady dealings in back streets; living in clapped-out tenements; hippy jerks. It’s just such a cool song, really, encapsulating most of what people think they know about the 1960s in America, while at the same time being cynical enough about it to avoid falling into a Ginsbergian transcendentalist bullshit-fest. Makes sense that the Weathermen would swipe a line from it.

The cynicism of the opening song carries through the album, and it’s probably the most appealing thing about it. A lot of people take this as the album where Bob Dylan gets well-and-truly fed-up with all the god damned hippies and the counterculture movement in general and just said “Damn it man I’s a-gonna do my own thing”. And really, in makes sense. “Maggie’s Farm” has Dylan quipping that he “ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”, and delivering the rather pointed observation that

Well I try my best to be just like I am
But everybody wants you to be just like them.
They say “sing while you slave,” and I just get bored;
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”.

It’s a pretty good touchstone for anyone who’s ever gotten fed-up with the sort of bullshit, pseudo-intellectual, quasi-political nonsense which infests any gathering of bright young things seeking legitimacy for their anti-establishment railings.

This “Fuck off and leave me alone” vibe carries pretty well in “Outlaw Blues”, which is a fun song but not much of anything to go on about beyond it’s being pretty rocking. Although it does have the great line “Don’t ask me nothing about nothing – I might just tell you the truth”. Oh, and Dylan talks about wishing that he were somewhere on an Australian mountain range, which is something that I feel obligated to mention out of feelings of misplaced patriotism. He doesn’t seem to enthusiastic about the prospect, though, so eh. Anyway, this leads into “On the Road Again”, in which Dylan delineates the various reasons why living in this one place sucks, and why on Earth he should ever desire to stay there, finishing up with the question “You ask me why I don’t live here? I oughta ask why you don’t move!”. It may be a metaphor. And then the side ends-out on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, which is just a silly song about a silly story, and I don’t really care about it all that much.

Anyway, so side one seems both pretty rocking and pretty mocking, right? Well, I think I said something about Dylan being a burnt romantic, and you get this coming through in the two songs I hadn’t dealt with yet – “She Belongs to Me”, and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”. These are both very pretty and very delicate love songs which could be pin-pointed as the exact point of origin for every ballad that Tom Waits ever did. In contrast to his rather bitter and isolationist views on politics and such, Dylan still seems quite happy to play the complicated and confusing games of love. I suppose any port in a storm.

Having gotten Side A out of the way, let’s focus on the good stuff


Where the first half of the album is effectively Dylan just playing about with everything-at-the-wall rock music, the songs on side two are something completely new. Delicate folk-inspired music presumably put-in as a consolation prize for his pre-electric fans, this is four songs all over five minutes long, playing with abstract poetical concepts in a way which hadn’t really been done before. “Mr. Tambourine Man” is absolutely beautiful. His voice is beautiful, the guitars strum in these little, hypnotic ways, and the lyrics really are poetry. It’s really just the narrator reflecting on the act of reflection, yearning for some sort of beautiful place outside of anything. It’s probably about drugs, then maybe it’s not.

Then you have “The Gates of Eden”, which, if I were in a symbolical mood, I would argue was a strange rumination on the loss of the American Dream. Then again, that seems to cover 90% of American art, so who knows? I do know that it has an incredible melody, with the vocals climbing up the scale and then dropping down seven semitones and a whole scale (if I’m correct) for a marvellous effect. It’s neat.

Also neat is the opening riff on “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, which is a somewhat terrifying song where Bob Dylan does that thing where he stretches-out the verses for as long as possible, a few bars longer each line, with no real harmonic variation except perhaps for a slight slide up by a semitone or somesuch, before breaking into the hook, and then taking forever to finally get into the chorus, which is a very small and simple “It’s alright ma, I’m only etc...”. It may be apparent at this point that I have trouble explaining the theoretical concepts of music. Which doesn’t matter, because this is a frightening song. The whole thing is underpinned by a bouncy, shuffling sort of rhythm. It’s fascinating, what Dylan does vocally on this track, singing everything behind the beat on the verses and then shifting into a smoother style for the bridge and chorus. Structurally, it’s a marvel. Oh, and lyrically it’s good too, railing against the impossible unpleasantness of modern life, all the hypocrisy and such at present, in a very fiery and worrisome manner. It’s a masterpiece on all levels.

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.


And then the album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, which is both a much softer song, and a similarly depressing one, this time kind of a break-up song I guess. I suppose it helps to ease the listener out gently, rather than having “It’s Alright Ma” drive them to suicide. After all, if everyone who listened to the album were dead, then how would it get good press by word-of-mouth. Still, it’s sad.

So, a pretty neat album. The first half is quite good, but not necessarily brilliant, while the second half is maybe the most consistently excellent thing Dylan ever did. I liked it! I didn’t at first, but then I did, and there you have it.

So should I bother rating this? What's the point to ratings? The point is that it makes me feel like I've pinned this album and can finally move on with my life.

It's a 9.5/10


The Gates of Eden.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

49. The Sonics - Here Are The Sonics (1965)

Tracks: Witch // Do You Love Me? // Roll Over Beethoven // Boss Hoss // Dirty Robber // Have Love, Will Travel // Psycho // Money // Walkin' The Dog // Night Time Is the Right Time // Strychnine // Good Golly, Miss Molly


Well this album is loud. I mean, really loud. Elephant stampedes, air raid sirens and atomic bombs are called to mind. Seriously, parts of this album would leave Guitar Wolf clutching their (his?) ears and moaning; I can only imagine the impact it made in Seattle in 1965. And of course I mean this all in the best possible way. The Sonics play 50s-style rock with a 1970s-style punk mindset, and the result is an album which is almost as hard, groovy and insane now as it must have been back in 1965. The singer can't sing, the band can't really play their instruments, and as a result everything the group has is thrown into a Neanderthal rhythm section and the ability to be as loud, dirty and wild as possible. And did I mention loud? These guys were really loud. L-O-U-D. Louuuuuuudddddddddddddddd


The music itself is mostly just a mix of 1950s standards in the Chuck Berry/Little Richard mode, but it's all elevated to the next level by putting all the emphasis on groove. The version of "Do You Love Me" include here, for example, is the most infectiously propulsive thing on the list up to this point. I can't not dance to it. The version of "Money" is better than the Beatles', and the version of "Walking the Dog" leaves the Stones so far behind it's not even funny. And while the material is mostly shop-worn, the band throw-in a couple of original compositions which are easily the best things on the album. "The Witch" is a bizarre song about, well, a witch and the inadvisability of trying to make it with her, and it has this great stop-start rhythm that goes "BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM!


Seriously it's like Louis Prima meets the Stooges.

In addition to this you get "Strychnine", which is a weird and wild and feral song about getting your kicks by drinking strychnine, that doesn't quite sound exactly like anything else. Interesting lyrical conceits these guys have - an obvious influence, far down the line, on weirdo punk bands like the Misfits and the Cramps. A welcome addition to the musical lexicon! We'd live in a sadder world without kitschy horror-punk.

Given how cool these two songs are, it's a pity that the only real weak note on the album is an original composition. "Psycho", while not without its charms, is basically just a rewrite of "Do You Love Me" with none of the elements that made it work (although it does boast one really, really cool Can-style drum break). I don't mind it, but it's far below the level of the rest of the album, which is a real pity.

So, there you have it. This isn't great art. The Sonics are puerile, juvenile, atavistic and technically inept - and those are their good points! Seriously, as garage rock goes it'd be hard to better this. You've got the rockin'; you've got the groovin'; you've got the hedonistic abandon of youth... An all in an album that sounds like it was recorded through a cardboard box in a hurricane. Sure, it might get wearying after a while, but the whole album's only thirty-five minutes long! Talk about "purity of vision"! It's amazing what you can do with three chords, a few overloaded amps and a complete disregard for the integrity of your ear-drums.


Download: The Sonics - The Witch MP3
Download: The Sonics - Strychnine MP3

Oh, and here's the Cramps doing a pretty good cover of Strychnine, too: