Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Allman Brothers Band “At Fillmore East” (1971)

If I was pressed to name the most talented rock band, in terms of pure ability to play their instruments, I would choose the Allman Brothers. The first three tracks, standard blues fair, won’t win any converts. They are played very well, of course, but they’re just the appetizer for the main course. The 20-minute “You Don't Love Me” kicks off the awe-inspiring portion of the album, show-casing the band’s brilliant interplay and individual contributions. Then, amazingly, “Hot ‘Lanta” does the same thing, even better, in just over five minutes. Finally, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” deliver 30-plus minutes of the greatest live rock performance I’ve ever heard. The communication between the entire band verges on telepathic, but you’d have to come up with a new super-power to describe the connection between Dickie and Duane. With most live recordings, I get bored by the time a song hits the six-minute mark. Here, even the ample running time seems cruelly short. –Lucas

Friday, July 30, 2010

Starcastle “Starcastle” (1976)

Imagine a group of children raised in total isolation, their only stimulus coming from daily spinnings of Fragile and Close to the Edge. If they were to grow up and make an album of their own, it would be Starcastle. Long-winded compositions full of buzzing Rickenbacker bass, precision drumming and hot shot guitars, a Wakeman-esque pallet of synth tones, and high-pitched vocals delivering nonsensical lyrics of elemental wonder, it's all here. If there's anything to separate Starcastle from Yes, it's that the 'castle seem to be even more uncompromising in their devotion to the most progressive elements of the sound, generally eschewing the sense of pop smarts that handed Yes a few hits and radio favorites along the way, in favor of a rabid working of the ornate and extravagant end of the spectrum. Yeah, it's derivativeness is obvious, but it doesn't change the fact that Starcastle still plays like a wet dream for acne-scarred starship troopers. –Ben

Grateful Dead “Grateful Dead” (1967)

The Dead were never a studio band, and their first record is even overlooked by the most ardent Deadheads. It’s easy to see why; here they sound more like a garage band: raw, loud, way fast, and with only one drummer! Recorded in LA, it’s rumored that the band cut these tracks in just a few hours while hopped up on Ritalin (an irony considering the superhuman attention span required for the long-winded jams of their later years). The opener, “The Golden Road…” sets the momentum for a series of short, bluesy, breakneck tempo numbers that don’t slow down until the beginning of Side Two: a cover of Bonnie Dobson’s post-apocalyptic “Where is everybody?” ballad, “Morning Dew”. But even here there’s a sense of visceral urgency that the band seldom recaptured on stage or off. The closing prison song cover, “Viola Lee Blues”, more closely resembles the exploratory and improvisational sound that would soon become their stock in trade, but with just enough sloppiness and dissonance to keep things interesting. From here, the Dead would inarguably record and perform some more great music while vocalist/organist Pigpen still had his liver, but never again with such reckless abandon. –Richard P

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Replacements “Tim” (1985)

After the skillful Let It Be, Paul Westerberg and the boys decided to make another essential classic rock album, only this time they got even better. Tim is loaded up with first-rate tunes such as the lasting "Bastards of Young" accompanied with the sweet "Kiss Me on the Bus." Let's not forget the sacred "Left of the Dial" and the touching "Here Comes a Regular." One of my personal favorites is "Swingin' Party," it's so catchy and complete with solitude that it's one of the very few songs I never get tired of. "Hold My Life" is terrific and "Little Mascara" is compelling at times. Every last song on this disc is superlative rock 'n' roll. If I was pressed to make a pick for the must hear Replacements album, it just might have to go to Tim. How this wasn't one of the best selling albums of the 80's is beyond me. –Jason

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brian Eno “Another Green World” (1975)

Another Green World is a mix between the instrumental ambient music Eno was making at the time, and the relatively more structured pop/rock songs he had released on albums like Here Come the Warm Jets.  Somehow, the combination works even better than either of individual elements does on their own, as this is his best album.  More than anything, Another Green World is about atmosphere.  In that regard, it’s dreamy soundscapes remind me of Miles’ In a Silent Way. –Lucas

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cheap Trick “At Budokan” (1979)

At Budokan brought Cheap Trick to the masses with a vibrant live set that captured the band in front of an adoring Japanese audience. Entirely overlooked on the original, the band's debut is represented by "ELO Kiddies" and "Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace," while essential In Color Tricksters "Downed" and "Southern Girls" are cranked to arena-rockin' levels in the same way the live "I Want You to Want Me" blew the lid off the studio version to achieve hit status. Elsewhere, "Auf Wiedersehen" and "High Roller" are featured from Heaven Tonight, as is the slow burning non-LP ballad "Can't Hold On." While the original At Budokan is a potent single album's worth of smoldering melodic rock fire, 1998’s expanded “At Budokan: The Complete Concert” proves you can't get too much of a good thing. –Ben

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Miles Davis “Nefertiti” (1968)

I wish I'd been a fly on the wall, no, a fly on producer Teo Macero's shoulder during the classic sessions which yielded this album and the rest of the quintet's catalogue in the late 60s. Creative tension probably doesn't even begin to describe the atmosphere. Strangely, there are no Davis compositions here, but Wayne Shorter weighs in with the first two tracks - the slightly off key, circular title track and beautiful Hand Jive. On the latter, the sax is a true wonder in his hands, soulful, searching, graceful. I much prefer the version of Herbie Hancock's Riot heard here, rather than on his own album Speak Like A Child. It's slightly faster, with an almost mambo, Latin sounding tempo. –Neal

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Talk Talk “Laughing Stock” (1991)

They started [in 1982] with “The Party's Over” - that's precisely how ten years later, Talk Talk’s last album sounds - the party’s over. Their music always contained elements of what Talk Talk would eventually develop into on their last two LPs, but who would have expected such a radical mutation, from synth Pop to practically classical music? Laughing Stock continues where Spirit Of Eden ended; the two LPs could be a double album, and anyone who loves one of the two should make sure he/she got both. Myrrhman starts the album with searching for structure. A mixture of Blues and modern classical music, the music is played on acoustic instruments. With Ascension Day, a groove is introduced; there are Jazz influences. The mighty and hymnic After the Flood, my favorite song of this album, is the closest Laughing Stock gets to resemble regular Pop, only its length (over 9 minutes) shuts it off from Radio play. It flows directly into the spacious and ambient Taphead. A 6/8 beat brings back the motion on the blissful and meditative New Grass - a Bach choral (from the St. Matthew's passion - O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden) appears, reinforcing the religious mood of the album. The final song, Runeii, starts with only voice and guitar, later, organ, piano and drums fade in and out; it's a quiet windup with a hippie feel. Laughing Stock is the ultimate step of Talk Talk's musical search into the soul. Commercially, it was a fiasco, and Laughing Stock, with its lengthy and introvert songs, sounds as if Talk Talk never planned to compete with this LP on the Pop market; it remains their last album. As a creative effort within the realms of Pop music, however, it's a victory, a timeless beauty and one of the best Pop records of the 90s. –Yofriend

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gene Clark “Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers” (1967)

After leaving the Byrds, Clark should’ve been a huge success. But in a way I’m selfishly glad that he remains one of the best kept secrets in popular music, widely influential but entirely under the radar of popular recognition. While his Dylanesque White Light and his coked-out baroque country masterpiece, No Other, are generally the ones most often mentioned, this one, which to all intents and purposes is his solo debut (the Gosdin brothers playing an integral role but having little to do with the album’s composition), is a record of tremendous scope for its modest length, with flashes of country, bluegrass, baroque pop, psychedelia—and more than an occasional nod to the spare melodicism of Rubber Soul. It’s the kind of record only a singer and songwriter as talented as Clark could pull off without coming off as pretentious or boring or unfocused. This album is none of those things. It frequently beats the Byrds at their own game, so fans of that group’s ilk should get this posthaste. But I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the best stuff from the mid 60s. –Will

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Eric Dolphy “Out There” (1960)

At first Out There sounds like an Ornette Coleman album, but then you realize that Eric Dolphy has twisted Coleman's weird ideas around his even stranger finger. I mean...legendary bassist Ron Carter plays cello. Cello!!! George Duvivier plays bass. What a stroke of genius. There's less musicians on Out There than on Dolphy masterpiece Out To Lunch. In fact, Dolphy is the only horn period. He puts in mind blowing solos on alto sax, flute, b-flat clarinet and bass clarinet. If I had to choose the most talented reed and woodwind player of all time it would be a tie between Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. While Kirk absolutely mastered more than 50 instruments, Dolphy can make a clarinet sound drop-dead sexy one moment and convince you that the world is ending the next. The same goes for any instrument that he played. "Sketch of Melba" has some stunning flute playing. –Rob

Rush “Hemispheres” (1978)

Hemispheres is the culmination of all that Rush had been striving for since Neil Peart ascended to the drum stool back on Fly By Night. The side-long title track is a winding conceptual piece that one-ups 2112 in it's uniformity and metaphorical marriage of paperback fantasy with egghead philosophy. A continuation of A Farewell To Kings' "Cygnus X-1" (on tour Rush would play both pieces together, forming one 30-minute monstrosity), "Hemispheres" tells a convoluted tale of the "battle of heart and mind" that dabbles in Greek mythology and Nietzsche-inspired psychology, set to an ever-unfolding barrage of head-spinning riffs. But it's side two of Hemispheres that ensures it's classic status, with the brief, but hard-hitting and lyrically direct "Circumstances," ably leading things off. "The Trees," an almost Brothers Grimm styled allegorical tale of the pitfalls of collectivism, quickly became a Rush standard, as did the multi-part instrumental "La Villa Strangiato." Subtitled with a wink, "An Exercise in Self-Indulgence," the showcase is a tour-de-force of prog-rock muscle that probably inspired half of the kids who heard it to hone their musical chops, while the other half headed straight for the record store's newly-added punk bin. But in it's own way, Hemispheres is as uncompromising a statement as any, and with it Rush carved a permanent niche as leaders of their own pencil-necked revolution. –Ben

Monday, July 19, 2010

T. Rex “Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow” (1974)

Conventional wisdom holds that Marc Bolan & T. Rex started to sink with Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow (or was it Tanx?) into his bloated period of mid-seventies mediocrity, but as a Bolan apologist I still hold it in high regard. Certainly, Zinc Alloy is the strangest release yet from the glitter-rock fairy, an often uncomfortable and chaotic collection that radiates a nasty, coke-fueled jitter. Bolan's idea of the new T-Rex sound was some sort of bubblegum-soul hybrid, and to that end he introduced future Mrs. Bolan, Gloria Jones, to the T-Rex fold, whose blood-curdling wail ironically possessed about as much soul as a set of fingernails being drawn across a chalkboard. Her voice, plus heavy doses of Bolan's spazzy fuzz guitar, and strings and synthesizers, are some of the odd limbs comprising this stumbling, glam-funk Frankenstein. But Bolan could pull killer hooks out of his wizard's hat no matter how deluded his vision had become in his quest to break the American market, witness the jumpy "Venus Loon," jubilant "Interstellar Soul" and "Nameless Wilderness" or glam grind of "Liquid Gang." Elsewhere, song fragments like "Galaxy" and "Spanish Midnight" house equally effective melodies, while the sweaty "Explosive Mouth" and grand "Carlisle Smith & the Old One" are other lost gems from this release. The relatively tame "Teenage Dream," with it's retro-50's lean, would make for an odd single flop from the album. –Ben

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Captain Beefheart “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” (1978)

Captain Beefheart has always been sort of an enigma for me, an artist who I greatly respect and enjoy, but never quite fully understand where he is coming from. I finally got to the point where I put aside all my questioning and decided to just take in all the wacky bizarre features he incorporates. This notion proved to be the best way to listen to the Captain. Let's face it - he's weird, but he experiment's with so many different things that you have to give him credit for being one of the most daring artists out there. I've come to be a big fan of all his music, but I still don't know how to describe it. It’s similar to Frank Zappa, well, maybe not because I really can't stand Frank's music. I guess you could say it's a cross between a free jazz freak out and an art-rock experiment. Whatever it is, it's very interesting. And Shiny Beast is by far the most exciting album I have found of his. Every song is completely different from the next and it's one of those rare albums where it never seems to get dull. If you are even remotely curious about the music of Captain Beefheart I would say begin here or with Trout Mask Replica; both are exceptional releases guaranteed to not disappoint. –Jason

Friday, July 16, 2010

Soundtrack “Performance” (1970)

Even if you haven't seen the film -- and heck, if you haven't, why not? -- this is a remarkably satisfying soundtrack album, put together by Jack Nitzsche and featuring Ry Cooder on guitar. (In places this sounds extremely close to Cooder's own scores, such as for Paris, Texas.) Randy Newman sings "Gone Dead Train" in a much more urgent style than anything on his own early albums, while Mick Jagger's version of "Memo from Turner" -- with Cooder on guitar and members of Traffic -- is a gloriously sleazy blues that should be in any Stones fan's collection. (If you've only heard the Stones' own fumbled version on Metamorphosis -- according to legend, deliberately sabotaged by Keith as revenge for Mick screwing Anita Pallenberg on set -- you really haven't heard the song at all.) And how can you pass up a soundtrack that has the good sense to include the Last Poets' "Wake Up Niggers"? (The first "rap" I'd ever heard.) –Brad

Thursday, July 15, 2010

X-Ray Spex “Germfree Adolescents” (1978)

This is still one of most amazing, alluring and simply surreal records to emerge from punk rock -- or simply rock. It's a total one-off, and it hasn't dated a bit. Where the hell did it come from? You can trace the lineage of the Clash or the Pistols back to their roots; Poly Styrene simply seems to have emerged completely formed, as if what she took from punk wasn't a formula but a license to truly be herself. She is a wonderful lyricist, both critiquing and celebrating modern consumerism; for Poly, there's something both fascinatingly alluring and horrifying in the plastic throwaway society. Really, the closest you'll come to this record are J.G. Ballard's 1970s novels such as Crash and The Unlimited Dream Company. The title track -- about an obsessive-compulsive (as a result of rape?) -- is one of the most haunting love songs you'll ever hear. All this plus Styrene's banshee wail and Rudi's wild sax. So wonderfully alien -- next to it, Bjork's eccentricities looks like a tryhard wannabe. No wonder the band split after this; what was there left to say? –Brad

Humble Pie “Rock On” (1971)

“Rock On” is Classic Rock with a Capitol C! It’s also The Pie’s very best record (in my Humble opinion). On this album a soulful Steve Marriott (of Small Faces) and guitar hero Peter Frampton seamlessly blend all that was good about the seventies into one big sweaty orgy: hard rock, blues, country, gospel and R&B, all rolled up in glitter. Fans of Exile-era Stones, The Faces and Led Zeppelin will find something to love here. Throw this one on and watch the smiles on people's faces as they groove to “Shine On,” “Sour Grain” and “Stone Cold Fever,” just three of many great tracks here. Criminally forgotten, shine some light back on “Rock On.” –David

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Jethro Tull “Songs From the Wood” (1977)

I love it! It's a glorious celebration of folk traditions and lore. These are presented for our consumption on a richly musical platter. It opens shakily with the title track which starts off vocal-only. That part doesn't work for me, but as soon as the music kicks in, I'm grabbed. As a song it certainly sets the scene and the tone for the album. "Jack-in-the-Green" is a vaguely amusing song about nature's relationship with the seasons and the changing planet. "Cup of Wonder" seems to be an upbeat celebration of May Day (and of life?), while "Hunting Girl" is a weird tale of social and sexual impropriety. It seems a little out of place. "Ring Out, Solstice Bells" is a joyous celebration of the winter solstice. It should not be confused with what are generally known as Christmas songs. This is a purely pagan affair. "Velvet Green" brings together nature, sex and love themes very successfully. Very interesting; very earthy; very folky. "The Whistler" is OK. It just reminds me (musically) of something that Cat Stevens did before. "Pibroch (Cap in Hand)" is the longest, darkest and heaviest track on the album. It's pretty good, featuring some folky instrumental passages, but these don't all work as well as each other. "Fire at Midnight" is a touching little love song that closes the album. I really like the theme of the album. I think it works very well and the songs have been put together well. There is some great music too. It sounds very rich: acoustic and electric guitars, flute, various kinds of percussion, bass, piano and assorted other instruments. It's an excellent production. With this album Jethro Tull ignored the dawn of punk and went back to their roots. –Jim

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

James Blood Ulmer “Tales of Captain Black” (1979)

"HOLY CRAP!" is a good summary of my reaction to Tales of Captain Black. If you ever wanted to hear a Jazz album that could match...make that surpass Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica then this is it. It's a Free-Jazz-Post-Punk-Polka-Funk-Blues merry-go-round, pushing the limits of any music listener's tolerance levels. The most famous member of the band is certainly Ornette Coleman. He's great company for James Blood Ulmer. You can hear briefly from time to time that Ulmer is a great Blues guitarist as well, when he's not being a demon. Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma books it at light speed. And Denardo Coleman's performance makes me wonder if anyone has ever recorded the drumming tracks for an album by mounting a small drum kit to a horse, having their beats thrown off by galloping and bucking of freaked-out horse as they rode it around the studio. That would be pretty "Free-Jazz" of them. –Rob

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Clash “The Clash” (1977)

While London Calling is often hailed as the finest effort by these guys, my tastes has always made me favor their debut above the rest. It really stands out as the best representation of what the Clash were capable of and why at one point, they were considered the only band that mattered. Unlike London Calling, there isn't a single bad song within the bunch. On this particular release (US version - which in my opinion is a more improved edition of the UK release) you get punk classics such as: "Clash City Rockers," "I'm So Bored With the USA," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" (which just might be my favorite Clash song), "London's Burning," "I Fought the Law," "Janie Jones," and so on. Every last song is a stone cold classic and it just sounds so exciting no matter how many times it has been played. This is about as good as it get's when referring to punk rock and it has my vote as the finest from the "Brit-punk" era. Actually, make that from any era. Highly recommended to everyone and it's pretty damn close to being my all-time favorite record. –Jason

Shuggie Otis “Inspiration Information” (1974)

Those who only give this album a cursory listen and then pass it off as a product of adult-contemporary‘70s listening will sadly miss the point. This is the ultimate soul-chill album. Shuggie is extremely versatile and this album exploits that ability. He might take you through a blaxploitation-era-sounding L.A. street walk as in the opener and "Strawberry 23", a dub-influenced Hammond organ tune in "Aht uh Mi Head". "Happy House" almost sounds like a millennial drum and bass piece. "Sweet Thang" might be one of the best soul jams on a blues number I’ve ever heard (here he’s successfully aped Duane Allman on guitar). He tries for some experimental stuff on his beat machine, some of it clearly dated, the songs that shine being when he allows his guitar to create the atmosphere. Shuggie’s excellence is extremely subtle due in part to his highly laxed and soft vocal style and his tendency towards quiet groove. But this IS a 2am come down lazy groove album in the best sense. Don’t give up on the album in the middle instrumental section which drops off, as the album’s second half picks up starting with "Strawberry 23". The high point of the album is the groove he kicks on the second half of "Island Letter". All this, and the fact that Otis was practically a toddler when he made Inspiration Information, set the tone for what is certainly one of the most underappreciated albums and artists of all time. –B

Siouxsie and the Banshees “Kaleidoscope” (1980)

And so the Banshees effectively start over, with a new drummer (Budgie), new guitarist (John McGeoch), and a new sound. They keep the heart of darkness that was at the core of The Scream, but swap the constant jittery guitar and fractured beat for something sleeker, stranger, more expansive and greater. Put it this way: if the first two albums were grainy black-and-white, Kaleidoscope is a big-screen epic in glorious technicolor. The band absorbs elements that would have seen out of place just a year earlier: the acoustic guitars of "Christine", the keyboards of "Happy House", the swirling psychedelic feel to much of the record. Yet the Banshee's signature sounds -- Siouxsie's emphatic vocals and Steven Severin's flowing bass -- are at the core of the album. A triumph, yet they would make even greater records down the track. –Brad

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Kate Bush “Hounds of Love” (1985)

Albums that take you into another world never seem to have the adorable pop structures our ears need to play them as much as we'd like to. Kate Bush solved this by breaking the album into two sides, suiting both. Before you know it, it's one and the same. There isn't a more comforting voice in the world than Kate Bush's, as far as I'm concerned. From the vivid opening trio to the down right moving "Hello Earth", it's amazing to contemplate Bush did this all on her own in her studio. The word genius gets flung around so often in music culture, but listening to Hounds of Love front to back there isn't another word that seems more appropriate. It's not about single-handedly inspiring every female musician to come or making some great songs, it's about making one of the most strangest, complete, moving albums ever made that takes you into a different world every time and yet has you humming when you return back to your home in the city. –Allistair

Friday, July 09, 2010

Angel “Angel” (1975)

With their matching white outfits, immaculately coiffed locks, and over the top stage presence, Angel were a band ready to take the technicolor seventies by storm, and their '75 debut easily ranks high among the greats of the decade's American pomp 'n' rollers. With the heavenly helium-fueled vocals of Frank DiMino, crunchy axework of poutin' Punky Meadows, and Greg Giuffra's laser-blasting synths, there's nothing shy or restrained about the Angel sound. Angel leads off with a pair of 7 minute epics in the fantasy chronicle "The Tower" and plaintive "Long Time," before kicking into the stage-stormin' "Rock and Rollers." The heavy groove of "Broken Dreams," dramatic ballad "Mariner," king sized riffs of "Sunday Morning" and heroic "On and On" keep side two moving, and the band bids farewell with the brief instrumental, "Angel (Theme)." Not unlike Styx, a band who took the same formula to greater success, Angel deftly walk the tightrope bridging grandiosity and heaviosity throughout this stellar set. –Ben

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Santana “Welcome” (1973)

Welcome stands between two popular Santana LPs, Caravanserei and Borboletta, and it's perhaps the most underrated Santana album. Like the previous LP, Welcome has a recording sound which can easily match today's standards. This band had it all. The album opens with an instrumental meditation dominated by Alice Coltrane's organ sound. The first highlight is Samba de Sausalito with a marvelous undercurrent of percussion and a good e-piano solo by Tom Coster. The next song, When I Look Into Your Eyes is a light Pop tune greatly upvalued by Joe Farrell's lovely flute solo and the band's accompaniment and the adventurous production: Leon Thomas uses his yodel as a sound effect and Richard Kermode comes in with a super-funky keyboard riff on which the song fades out. Next is one of my all-time Santana favorites, Yours Is The Light featuring Flora Purim, a Brazilian rhythm, Leon Thomas' whistling and a very disciplined yet inspired solo by Carlos himself. Side Two starts with another great instrumental, Mother Africa recalling Earth, Wind & Fire's Head To The Sky from the same year, Coltrane (Jules Brussard's soprano solo) and McCoy Tyner. Light Of Life evokes the atmosphere of Gato Barbieri's soundtrack, Last Tango In Paris. And now, the most ambitious instrumental piece on the set, Flame-Sky introducing John McLaughlin. In the face of this guitar giant, however, Carlos does not shy away, he opens with a typical yet inspired solo; the band shows they hold up to any challenge and finally, the Mahavishnu does what he does so well until they duet. The title song closes the circle of this marvelous LP in a quiet way with a meditation. A fantastic LP from beginning to end. The sound engineer can't be praised too high. Welcome sounds as good today as it sounded back then, a musical adventure and one of the best Rock albums of the 70s. –Yofriend

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Iggy Pop “The Idiot” (1977)

This is probably Iggy’s best record, thanks to Bowie’s inspired production touches and obvious assistance in the songwriting department. The weird post-glam sonic breakthroughs Bowie and cohorts were making in these days provide the perfect foil for Iggy’s nihilistic hedonism and manic-depressive urbanity, which ranges from the proto-goth, blasé-in-crowd banality of “Fun” to the “hey, where the f*ck did everybody go?” sentiments of “Dum Dum Boys,” to a final affirmation to just go out for cigarettes in “Mass Production.” The proto-industrial soundscapes give Iggy’s alienated musings the perfect setting, and the Eno-inspired spaciousness in the production gives him room to rant, rave, mumble, and croon his way through the urban wasteland without miring him down; in other words, even when it’s a semi-catatonic drag, this disc rocks with a kind of cold sweat and shivery stagger that reinvents rawk with an ever-so-slight intellectual angle: which is what we call post-punk, even though this is, chronologically speaking, in punk’s very midst. But never mind the conceptual bollocks: play this and Joy Division’s first in rapid succession and the influence becomes readily apparent. Thing is, though, this is a far better album than that one. And I’d even venture to say that this is better than Bowie’s own “Berlin” albums, at least in some respects. The melancholy and menace are more precariously balanced, and Iggy walks a fine line in his lyrics between abstraction and specificity, in vocal persona between a man driven to murder by boredom and an idiot getting stoned and running around (thus splitting the difference between the two and showing up their identity under conditions of mass production, wherein China Girl is not quite what it seems). And the cold, steely textures are at once severely remote and warmly inviting, thanks to Tony Visconti’s richly minimalist mix, which evokes neon nights, gothic fog, factory noises, radio static, and the little voice of one’s bad conscience, among other things. Not only an important and influential record, but one that remains honest-to-goodness great, and fully rewards repeated listening. –Will

Ry Cooder “Chicken Skin Music” (1976)

This largely acoustic set composed entirely of covers is an interesting offering from Mr Cooder and various buddies. It looks like he wanted to collaborate with musicians specializing in traditional styles of popular music. The fact that he chooses to record two songs by Leadbelly, himself one of America's great folk musicians, reinforces this notion. The hybrid "Always Lift Him Up/Kanaka Wai Wai" brings together a wonderfully positive gospel-sounding song from West Virginia and guitar music from Hawaii. "He'll Have to Go" features some lovely "Tex-Mex" style accordion playing that almost gives the song a french flavor. There is some sensuous Polynesian music in "Yellow Roses" and "Chloe". It's a clever album by someone who obviously has a deep love for and great knowledge of popular music. The singing sometimes lets the quality down a little, but the musicianship, arrangements and production are almost faultless. For sheer listening pleasure this one is hard to beat. –Jim

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Robin Trower “Bridge of Sighs” (1974)

Post-Hendrix bluesy power trios have a tendency to put competency over inspiration, attempting to match Hendrix's technique without considering his tunefulness or his essential emphasis on feel. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or style to put out a solid blues-rock album so long as you learn your instrument and learn it well. But once in a while this form finds some unique angle to exploit. Bridge of Sighs is a case in point. Former Procol Harum guitar whiz Trower uses a bank of effects pedals to produce a swirling, oceanic sound with sustain that hangs in the air for hours: lithe and surprisingly light of touch for the music's intensity, his style on this album should have guitarheads frothing at the mouth. Singer/bassist James Dewar is no slouch, either, sounding rather like Paul Rodgers in a lower register, and anchoring Trower's waves of sound firmly in the blues. The title track is a wonderful, atmospheric dirge-like thing, and closer "Little Bit of Sympathy" is another standout. It's a stylish and well produced album, Trower is a pretty amazing guitar player with a strong sense of melody and an uncanny ability to do a lot with few notes, and those whose appetite for good guitar albums is never sated should definitely pick this up. –Will

Mandrill “Solid” (1975)

There aren't a whole lot of bands like Mandrill! Even in the days of War and Santana when a psychedelic stew was bubbling and latin styles were merging, this band was a standout due to the heavy rootedness of their music. Throughout this album the band serve up a set of tunes that blend rather foreboding, dark funk with surreal strings, harmonies and wah-wahs such as on the compelling "Wind On Horseback," "Yucca Jump" and the title song. They rock hard in a funky place on "Tee Vee", a song whose message and almost proto hip-hop groove predates the Disposable Heroes Of Hisprocrisy's "Television" by about fifteen years. There are also some hardcore grooves such as "Peck Ya Neck" and "Stop & Go." The final song "Slick" is pretty much an instrumental that takes on some very dynamic influences: from the cinematic soul popular with Isaac Hayes to a sort of afro cuban jazz sound. Mandrill and Solid are potent reminder of the cross cultural pollination, from jazz to soul to pop, that the golden age of funk represented.  –Andre

Monday, July 05, 2010

James Gang “Rides Again” (1970)

Rides Again is an interesting album. It comes at the dawn of hard rock following on the heels of the psychedelic blues rock revolution. The album itself is half hard rock, where the influence of Zeppelin can be heard, and half something else, more akin to CSN or Neil Young. The album opens in fine form with the classic blues hook, “Funk #49.” “Woman” is another great hard-rocker, followed by the experimental suite “The Bomber” containing a neat interpretation of Ravel’s “Bolero.” The second side starts off quietly. “Tend my Garden” has some of the harmonies associated with CSN. This song fades into “Garden Gate,” an acoustic piece which finds Joe Walsh asking questions. “There I Go Again” is an annoyingly catchy song which features some great pedal steel guitar from guest Rusty Young. “Ashes the Rain and I” closes the album in thoughtful, almost sad, fashion. Dale Peters plays six string on this one and orchestration is added by Jack Nitzsche. It seemed to be de rigueur for US artists of the time to have Nitzsche orchestrate something for them...still it’s tastefully done. The material on this album is very varied, surprisingly hard and, at times, surprisingly progressive. –Jim

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Weather Report “Weather Report” (1971)

If you know Weather Report primarily from their latter-day funk-groove thang, this may come as a surprise -- perhaps even a pleasant one. For one thing, Joe Zawinul is restricted mostly to organ and piano, with none of the synthesizer excess of later albums. The balance between Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, too, is much more even (and Shorter's "Eurydice" is my favourite piece on the record). With bassist Miroslav Vitous on acoustic instruments, the album may remind you of Miles Davis's In A Silent Way, on which, of course, Zawinul and Shorter played crucial parts. There's a kind of calm and serenity hanging over the music, even when the playing gets furious (which, with these guys involved, it often does). "Orange Lady" was also recorded by Miles Davis as "Great Expectations" (for which he cheekily took the composition credit). –Brad

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Judee Sill “Heart Food” (1973)

I've heard Joni Mitchell, and I've heard Laura Nyro, and without wanting to denigrate either of those fine artists, I think Judee Sill's better than either of them. Actually, that's not quite fair; Sill reminds me more of Brian Wilson and his "teenage symphonies to God" than either Mitchell or Nyro. Like Wilson, there's a sense of childlike wonder to Judee; like Wilson, both talk a lot about God (and, in Sill's case, Jesus) without being explicitly Christian; instead God is used as a name for the Other, the Muse. And, like Wilson, Sill fuses all sorts of musics -- pop, soul, doo-wop, folk, "cosmic cowboy music" similar to Gene Clark's -- with an elaborate sense of orchestration to come up with something completely open, gorgeously sunny, wistfully dark and totally sensuous. In his liner notes to the CD reissue, XTC's Andy Partridge talks about the "velvet milk" of this record, and that's a perfect description of its plushness (but not lushness). Anyone who could hear "The Donor" and not acclaim its composer as a pop genius doesn't deserve a record player. You can, charitably, see why it didn't sell in 1973: just too damn individual and demanding a listen. Then again, Pet Sounds didn't sell either. –Brad