Tuesday, June 12, 2007

On The Run InThe 1970's

Neil Young takes on the seventies and wins hands down

Every musical artist who has survived long enough to have a “career” can expect that career to be broken down, analyzed, dissected and so on. It comes with the territory. One of the things that most often occurs is that the artist is assigned and “era” that more than likely refers to their best work. Sinatra of course had the fifties, the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all had the sixties. You get the picture.

My vote for the seventies goes to Neil Young. (Due to the numerous live recordings, and the fact that a whole band was contributing, I give Young the nod over the Grateful Dead for this accomplishment.) I can think of no other artist who produced so much first rate material for the duration of the decade. Lots of acts turned in memorable and historic recordings during the seventies. None did it year in and year out for ten years though. Even the best would stumble occasionally. Young never stepped off the beam though. As others would slip he just kept passing them with one impressive album after another.

Most artists have that one album that you just can’t love like you do all the others, not Young in the seventies. I can’t swear to it, but I can’t think of another major act who released more studio music in that time either. He was simply at his peak and followed his muse wherever it took him. Where he led, I followed like a puppy.

He had plenty of commercial success during that period too, but he never rested on it or tried to repeat himself. He was a rock act, a country act, a folk act, hard rock, soft rock, a live act, part of a group off and on and more. He never stood still. He released eleven solo albums and was a part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for “Déjà Vu” and “Four Way Street” during that stretch. I have no doubt the man needed a maid as busy as he was.

Music has always had prolific artists, but we’re focusing on consistency not quantity here. Some would say that Ryan Adams would be the modern day equivalent, but that’s wishful thinking. Young released thoughtful, concise recordings that inspired his generation. Adams vomits up demos, unstructured songs devoid of melodies and meandering musings that serve no purpose but to keep his name in magazines like “Paste” and “No Depression.” But I digress, I come here to praise Neil Young not bury Ryan Adams. (I’ll save that for a future post)

Here’s a list of each album Young released during the 1970’s. Let me know if any other artist can match this output. Note that this list doesn’t include “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” which came out in 1969. Also not included are the soundtrack “Journey Through The Past” and the first real box set if you think about it, the three album set “Decade.”

1970 - After The Goldrush
1972 - Harvest
1973 - Time Fades Away (Live)
1974 - On The Beach
1975 - Tonight’s The Night
1975 - Zuma
1976 - Long May You Run (W/ Stephen Stills)
1977 - American Stars ‘N Bars
1978 - Comes A Time
1979 - Rust Never Sleeps
1979 - Live Rust

Most acts would be glad to call that output a career and be proud. For Young it’s just one of the five different decades he’s released music in. The extraordinary music from Young didn’t end in the seventies by any means. He just hasn’t strung ten straight years together of essential recordings like those again. Stay tuned though, if anyone could do it a second time it would be him.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

London Calling


Other than “can we settle that bar tab now” the question I’m most often asked is “what have you been listening to?” Usually my answer is along the lines of “the same stuff I’ve been listening to for the past forty years.” I don’t soak up much of the new music these days. My listening tends to be from the sixties and seventies when like my parents would say “it was just better then.”

I’m not sure it was better then, it’s probably no different, I just happen to like it more. Give me a reissue on disc of some album I had as a youth and I’ll take it over anything scaling the charts today. You don’t have to have kids to sound like a parent. Then, just when I was getting nice and comfortable in middle age out of nowhere a new album comes along that was recorded in the past year that happens to be the best thing I’ve heard in years. Now here’s the catch: it sounds like it was recorded forty years ago. Hey, it’s still progress no matter how you look at it. It's a mid sixties Byrds meets Beatles and share some studio time affair.

The Red Button aren’t exactly a band, it’s more of a studio project. It’s the brainchild of Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg. For lack of a better term they are behind the scenes songwriters for various acts and have had some major success in their time. Apparently their love of mid sixties, swinging London gave them the idea to create their own album for that scene. “She’s About To Cross My Mind” is that album. (And who better to create the perfect British pop album than a couple of guys from the states.) The fact that it’s a little too late to catch that wave didn’t derail them. Good thing. This album could have easily topped the charts back then. Sadly, it has no such chance now. If it means anything to them, it’s currently topping my personal chart.

So, if you remember a time when things were just as complicated in the world as they are today, but could have cared less if you had some cool new records then this one’s for you. Eleven songs, just over a half of an hour long, and from another century this album will get you through today’s headlines like nothing else.

If you want to hear some complete tracks drop by my cyber store and find it on the jukebox there. (Running a search on them you will find that I also have it for sale.) If you still need a final push you can check out their site and hear samples of each track. While you’re there click on the videos link for even more fun. It’s fab and gear to say the least.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Another Sleepy, Dusty Delta Day

An ode to Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billy Joe"

I’ve read a couple of books on songwriting over the years and they all agree on getting the who, what, where and when covered as quickly as possible if you want to produce a compelling song. This song (along with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi”) gets that out of the way about as fast as any I’ve heard. Gentry spins a swirling gothic tale from the deep South that tells quite a story, but never lets us feel we’ve gotten the whole picture no matter how many characters and locales are introduced.

Time certainly falls through the hourglass for most characters in the song, but for the narrator that hourglass drips like quicksand. Life changes for everyone in very noticeable ways. For her though it now moves in a sort of slow, cruel cycle that returns her to the days surrounding the tragedy only to watch helplessly as Billy Joe jumps off the bridge continuously. Even if she closes her eyes he’s still in freefall. After all this time he still dies daily on radios throughout the world.

Wading through the verses the first thing you notice is that their dinner conversations were geographically and subject wise miles from the Cleaver household. Other than her appetite no one seems concerned with the narrator and the effect the news is having on her. The old man gets in his digs (and seconds) and lets it stand for gospel, the brother recalls some schoolboy prank while the mother brings it full circle by trying to speak well of the recently departed. Like any mother she withholds the news until everyone has wiped their feet. Incredibly no one even asks if anyone else has any thoughts as to why he took his leap to immortality. One small step for man, one giant leap for the music industry.

Speaking of the music industry, to fully understand the impact this song had on the world you have to consider the times when this song appeared. To say that it came out in late summer of 1967 is to only provide technical information. To be more precise it was the “summer of love.” (Or for me, a summer like any other on my street.)

In the real world though there was free love, the sex was clean and the air was dirty. “Sgt. Pepper’s…” was on every turntable, and reel to reel around the world. A war was raging, we hadn’t yet set foot on the moon, but it was inevitable. Headshops calling themselves “boutiques” were springing up on every corner. Everywhere there was hair and beads. Incense was wafting through the air. Drugs were the new alcohol. You needed to use both sides of a score card just to keep track of the changes and happenings in society. Then out of the ether comes a song by some Southern gal with an acoustic guitar about a teenage suicide involving a bridge that nobody could spell.

The song stormed up the charts and sat in the top spot like the old man on the mountain for a month. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone had their own forensic evidence as to what really happened and why. Again everyone focused on everybody but our heartbroken narrator.

The thing that makes “Ode To Billy Joe” a classic is the same thing that makes the film “Pulp Fiction” a classic. (I bet you never thought you’d see that song and movie in the same sentence) Think about it though: over the course of roughly four minutes we find out everything there is to know about this family and their eventual fates. However, we never find out why Billy took the plunge or what him and the girl were throwing off the bridge. (Forget the movie version of the song) In “Pulp Fiction” after close to three hours we have been taken on a dizzying ride that covers everything under the sun except resolving the actual impetus for the events of the film. We never learn what it was in the briefcase stolen from Marsalis Wallace. In both cases we hardly care, the ride and aftermath are really the story. Details only get in the way. Our guesses are as good as anyone’s. Call it what you will, the bottom line is it made us think.

The song eventually left the charts but it’s never left our conscious. It’s become a part of musical history and in a sense our own history. I would venture to say that you wouldn’t be able to use a single line from it in a trivia contest to stump someone. There isn’t a single throwaway line in the bunch, we know them all by heart at this point. It was one of those songs that told us life was complicated if we didn‘t already know it.

Today is the fortieth anniversary of Billy Joe’s historic jump. This blog entry though isn’t for him or his demons. It’s for the girl left behind who I bet hasn’t aged a day anytime this song echoes through the delta. Instead of offering you the lyrics or a video I’ll let you go out and find the song on your own and spend some quality time with it.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part #1

If you scroll back through the posts to #10 in this series you’ll see my criteria and purpose for this series of posts. If you’re having trouble sleeping you can check out all fifty albums and my reviews/defense of them as you move through the posts. It’s been hard work, but it was fun to listen to these again and reacquaint myself with them all these years later. After the first ten or so the numbers might change a bit, but the same albums would still be in the mix.

1. Slim Slo Slider - Johnny Rivers

Sorry to disappoint here if you were expecting an album you’ve heard of. I take the word favorite in its most literal sense in this case. For over thirty years this album has been my constant companion. I’ve never grown tired of it and when it finally surfaced on CD the love affair started all over again. I think I can safely say I’ve probably played this one more than anything else.

The time was 1970 and Rivers was still moving in a spiritual direction. Unlike many artists who choose this path he took a more subtle approach and found it in the works of others. Nothing overt here at all, but the theme is there if you look. Rivers had made his career covering the works of others and showcasing both known and unknown writing talent. For this one he went to album tracks from some of his favorite writers and pooled them all for his best recording.

With a voice like his nearly any song is your oyster.
He’s one of the greatest of the blue eyed soul singers and on this collection he merged it with the sounds that were coming out of the West Coast country rock scene. It’s an organic sound that contains no flash, just a singer at the top of his game. Using the best studio musicians in L.A. and covering the works of Van Morrison, Tony Joe White, John Fogerty, Gram Parsons, and others he makes it all sound like they were destined to be heard together.

There's no deep message floating above or below this album. It is simply a pleasant listening experience that I turn to more than any other in my collection. It's all you could want in an album.

When this finally arrived on CD it was from a European label that paired it with his follow up album “Homegrown” where he continued the same concept. It comes close to this one, but not quite its equal. If you’re ambitious though one could easily cull the best tracks from both into a classic mix-disc.

2. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan

I could write for days about this album, but what would be the point? This is the most universally lauded album of his endless career. It means so many different things to so many different people we should all just spin it and enjoy it in our own way.

Feel free to talk among yourselves.

3. Astral Weeks - Van Morrison

This album is proof of my mortality. When it comes to this album I’m no different than anyone else. I’m a slave to its sway just like anyone else. I can still remember that long ago late evening listening to my clock radio when I first heard the song “Madame George” and being just as seduced as the characters in the song. (Suddenly my 45 of “Brown Eyed Girl” seemed quaint and possibly by some other artist with the same name.)

Other than a few Leonard Cohen songs nothing beats this one when it’s too late and you’ve maybe drank too much. Where a song like this comes from I can‘t say. The imagery and the swirl of the instruments for nine minutes is like very few things I’ve ever heard. Nearly forty years later I still feel the same each time I hear it. You can say goodbye to Madame George all you want, but he’ll never truly be gone.

The rest of the album of course is just as strong and singling one track out is tantamount to picking your favorite child. The leap from this recording and “Blowin’ Your Mind” that proceeded it is the Grand Canyon and then some. Even an early version of “Madame George” doesn’t tip you off to what’s coming next.

At the time (1968) this album was just too much for the masses and it never registered with the buying public. It failed to even make Billboard’s Top 200 when it was released. Reviewers and FM jocks kept it alive though and over time it has found a home on nearly every “Best Of” list of albums that you can name. If you find one that doesn’t include it move along and forget anything else listed.

4. The Wild, The Innocent… - Bruce Springsteen

Hearing this album for the first time was a revelation for me musically. It was at that point when I knew I was going to judge the music I liked differently. I was in the midst of shaking off Deep Purple, I’d already dumped Sabbath and was tiring of Zeppelin. I guess in hindsight it seemed like a regular guy got to make an album the way he wanted to. I’m not sure looking over these tracks today that the label had any hopes of anything but FM play for this one. The funkiness and length of the songs made it a sure bet that AM wasn’t chomping at their heels for focus tracks.

I actually heard this one before his debut “Greetings From Asbury Park.” I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years without ever completely embracing it. I often wonder what he thought of the final product too. These two albums were released only eight months apart in 1973. A trend he would never revisit. I’ve always felt that this album was really him and that the other one was him exorcising his Dylan influence. (Bruce, call me we’ll hash this out.)

I don’t think I’ve ever heard this album referred to as a concept album in the traditional sense. To me though it is one of the better ones. The entire set plays like some Jersey version of “West Side Story.” Not to wax to poetic here but Berstein and Sondheim surely must have heard some of this over the years and noticed the influence. The nearly twenty five minute, three song second side of the original album is a prefect example of the magic of vinyl. This would be the least self conscious he would ever get with his music. Probably because at this point he was making it for himself as much as anyone.

If one song is truly worth the price of an entire album then you need only to check out the second song on side one. “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is a song that I will never tire of. Set against the backdrop of a boardwalk carnival, serving the role of metaphor, this song set the stage for both the song and the album “Born To Run.” The nuance of the vocal and the sweep of the lyrics sound like a short story come to life with the narrator finally putting into words what he can no longer hold inside.

Before we go here, let me also mention that I think this is one of his best recordings when it comes to just plain singing. He showed a soulful side and never once drops into the growl that he would debut on “Born To Run.” This album sounds like it was as much fun to make as it is to listen to.

5. Never A Dull Moment - Rod Stewart

This selection is truly just keeping this spot warm for Stewart’s early solo material. At any given moment his debut, “Gasoline Alley,” and “Every Picture Tells A Story” could be in this slot. Those albums are almost interchangeable in their energy and importance to my musical upbringing. They all contain the perfect mix of covers, originals, sloppy, but effective instrumentation and vocals. What’s not to like?

This one gets the nod because I could hardly sleep in the days leading up to its release. Then, I could hardly sleep for weeks afterwards although I should have been fatigued from turning it over so many times. I even sprung for the eight track because it contained an extra cut. It was his cover of the country standard “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous.” Why it was left off the album is a mystery to me. The album isn’t very long and it wouldn’t have been out of place as far as I’m concerned.

The cracks would begin to show a bit after this album before the damn finally burst. However, between his early solo albums and the Faces albums coming out around them it’s a pretty decent stack of wax by any measure. Who could blame him for grabbing the ring when it came around? A hot British actress for a main squeeze, a different girl in every other town, untold riches, vacations on the Riviera, luxury autos, yeah we’d all turn the other way to keep our street cred, right? Let’s be real, he’d put in his time during the sixties and deserved some of the spoils of the seventies. No hard feelings here, just a big thanks for those early recordings.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Top 50 Favorite Albums: Part 2

All but there...

6. Let It Bleed - Rolling Stones

Everything good or bad eventually comes to an end. (Yes, even the current administration will eventually become part of our dark history) This album was essentially the last album of the sixties. Released in late November it arrived like and early Christmas present for a dying child. In this case the doomed child was the sixties. In that ten year stretch of time that poor kid had been turned inside out , kicked in the teeth, blown apart, shot down and set on fire countless times. However, it would prove to be an extremely resilient decade and as it rose from the ashes you could almost hear the opening licks of “Gimme Shelter” seeping through the smoke.

Rock had arrived in the fifties like some bastard stepchild. By the end of the sixties bands like this served notice that it was here to stay, no matter who were the parents. They would never look back, they would solider on and carry the torch for the next few decades. Sometimes higher than others. Their break with the past started with “Beggars Banquet” and it’s blues infused, hard acoustic sound. Mick and Keith had dropped all pretense of thinly veiled tales of drugs, women and booze at this point. With this album all vices were front and center. If radio found something that didn‘t address it too directly it was fine with them. They just weren‘t going to make any more concessions.

Not that either band cared, but this was also the turning point where they and the Beatles decided to sever the cord once and for all see what they were capable of by looking straight ahead instead of over their shoulders. Clearly, they were their own band at this point. And with that realization, they became everyone’s band.

There is no real traditional ebb and flow to this album other than the closer of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There is nowhere else on the album you could have placed this one. Each song is almost a jolt from the one before it. They were writing great stuff in several styles at this point. It’s more an audio diary of how they spent 1969 than anything. At this point Brian Jones had one foot out the door, and would have both in the grave by the time of the albums release. Mick Taylor was just coming through the door. It (the album) all but served as the exit music for the sixties. Fading in the opener of “Gimme Shelter” was a good idea. That song really has no beginning or end, we simply get a slice of the vibe and ride it out with them for a few minutes.

There’s nothing resembling a hit single here, these are truly album tracks that vary in length and style. Album oriented rock had already been established, but this is a pretty good example of what its true definition is.

7. The Beatles (White Album) - Beatles

I guess it’s my turn to take on this gargantuan album that just seems to get whiter and longer with each passing year. Although they would suck it up and actually return to being a group for “Abbey Road” on this one they all got a chance to try out their solo careers with the others as their backing band. Like anything intended for the masses, results may vary depending on how adventurous you were then and now. Me, I’ve always been drawn to it like a puzzle that you just can’t resist trying to assemble every now and then. At just under ninety four minutes it’s a lot to digest in one sitting. The first side is easily my favorite. The others don’t have the flow, but they yield some real gems just the same. No need to bore you with them here, you know them by heart.

I’ve always thought that they missed a great opportunity to establish a new format for vinyl with this one: that of the three sided album. This one has just a bit too much indulgence here and there and could have been trimmed. (Since there’s no doubt that Paul and Ringo read this blog I’ll not mention how I would have edited it down.) The three sided album would eventually surface, but was relegated to novelty status since Johny Winter wasn’t in their league when he released “Second Winter.” Had the Beatles done it first it would have no doubt become the new standard. A standard that many double albums over the ensuing decades should have heeded.

Bottom line is that this is the Beatles trying to come to terms with everything going on in their lives in late sixties London. The hoards of screaming women and been whittled down to wives and kids now. They had to get up and go to work just like everyone else. Beatlemania was a couple of years and a couple of lifetimes away at this point. To these ears they carried the weight pretty well all things considered.

8. Grievous Angel - Gram Parsons

You all know the story of Parsons and his too short life. You may even have all of his recordings. The only thing left to figure out is how someone so young could make such a fully realized album with no clunkers in a genre that belied his lifestyle to such a large extent. I have no answer or clever twists to follow the question. His body of work is worthy of all the accolades still being presented though. It simply holds up better than many others who took similar paths when trying to merge country and rock.

I know a lot of people hate them, but this is probably where the Eagles got their early sound as much as anywhere. I have to think they were hip to Parsons and his earlier material. There’s nothing raw or sloppy about Parsons’ approach to music. He was just as in love with the country music that was coming out of Nashville as anyone. His problem was he could write and find better material. He also had an angelic voice that could show emotion and not fall into parody like so many others. To bring this full circle, he simply loved country music, he just felt there was another way to sing and play it. No arguments here.

The title track alone is reason enough to include the album on this list. He didn’t stop there though, using Elvis Presley’s band and Emmylou Harris they took us down those twenty thousand roads on a thrill ride I‘ve never gotten over. Since this one came out years before bloated CD’s and shuffle options this one was carefully sequenced. It opens with the title track, kicks off the second side with a irresistible fake live recording, throws in some covers and closes with a hopeful country prayer. In its own way it serves as an audio epitaph. He would be dead before this one even reached the pressing plant. Thankfully music is something that never dies.

9. Who’s Next - Who

I’ll keep this one short and sweet. There’s not much I can add to this albums history. This was simply the right album at the right time for this band. They would never top this one for a complete work as far as I’m concerned. Townshend was one of the more prolific of the rock writers of his era. He had large ambitions, but at this heart he was a rocker just like the rest of them. This is also perhaps their most varied album. The sequencing is perfect from start to finish.

By the time of this release the group had already hit all of the checkpoints for a classic sixties British band. They had an initial hit right out of the box, had a non instrument playing lead singer, gave props to U.S. R & B acts, lived hard, looked scruffy, delivered an incendiary live recording and recorded a double album. The only thing missing that everyone else had done was they needed the obligatory seven minute or longer FM staple to reach the summit. With “Won’t Get Fooled Again” they scaled the mountain and planted the flag.

Unlike a lot of music in my collection this one sounds better and better with the passing years. I don’t play it every week or day like I once did, but I play it start to finish whenever I do.

10. Bookends - Simon & Garfunkel

Over the course of a lean five album career this duo left us with as many signature songs as anyone with twice as many offerings. Speaking of lean, running just over twenty nine minutes they manage to offer a mini opera about life in our fair land and four top forty singles including the iconic “Mrs. Robinson.” Not a bad half hour at the studio if you ask me. Much like the Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” the first side was new and unheard material, while the second side gathered up their recent singles. In their capable hands it all comes off seamless and as long as we’re using words that end in “less” let’s throw in timeless.

When this came out in 1968 they were among the elite groups that had their material equally embraced by AM and FM radio. If you had a transistor taped to you handlebars you got “A Hazy Shade Of Winter.” If your dad had some nice hi-fi gear in the family room you got “America.” “America,” now there’s a song that could nearly define the sixties that we knew. We’ve aged quite a bit, but it’s never lost its edge or its meaning no matter how many years you pile on top of it. Wish I could say the same.

Although he’s won every award there is other than world’s tallest man I still think Simon’s contributions to music are underrated. If you look over just the hits you’ll find one of American music’s most creative and inventive composers. I say inventive because of his never mentioned prowess on the guitar. His intros alone are some of the most memorable the airwaves have ever broadcast. When was the last time one of their songs came on the radio and you couldn’t place it until you heard the lyrics? The complex fingering intro of “Mrs. Robinson” tips you off that the title character is a complicated person. The poignant resignation in the strumming on “Homeward Bound,” the calming notes of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or the melancholy of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” You get the idea. These are complete songs, not poetry set to music like other writers sometimes rely on.

All of their albums have their shining moments and “Bridge…” is one that could have had this slot. The thing that holds that one back for me is the production is a bit over the top and the inclusion of “Bye, Bye Love” recorded live just doesn’t feel right. It should have been a B-Side instead. That said I never program around the track either. For such a classic album it just lacks a flow that should be there. “Bookends” has no such problem. My only gripe is the short running time, I just don’t want it to end.