Sunday, October 31, 2010

Magazine “Real Life” (1978)

You can't seem to pick up a music magazine nowadays without some interviewee citing Howard Devoto and Magazine as defining influences upon their own musical aspirations. Either that or some sycophantic retrospective which seems totally out of proportion for a band who were nothing more than a mote in the eye of music chronology. Amazingly, in this case, the hype is totally justified. Unhappy with the direction The Buzzcocks were taking and, possibly, recognising the limited shelf life of punk, Devoto formed Magazine and attempted to weave punk conviction into a more conventional and structured rock format. I'm convinced that longevity was no more guaranteed down this route, but it proved a panoramic trip whilst it lasted. The album is full of highlights and some quite astounding musical performances, particularly the bass and keyboards on the likes of "Definitive Gaze". Messrs Adamson, McGeoch, Jackson and Formula deserve praise. Personally I have reservations about Devoto's vocal style but as a discordant counterpoint to the music it works perfectly. "Shot By Both Sides" is spiky rock at its best and "The Light Pours Out Of Me" remains in my personal top twenty to this day. Magazine paved the path for post punk, pity they couldn't walk the road for longer themselves. –Ian

Friday, October 29, 2010

J.J. Cale “Troubadour” (1976)

J.J. Cale's fourth album Troubadour is a mixed stew of everything from country, jazz, arena rock, blues, folk to funk; and that's just in the first song. He manages to whisper like Nick Drake, growl like John Lee Hooker and wine like Dylan...did I mention he's an extremely adept guitar player as well? Cale's songs have been covered by many artists, the most famous being "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton, but here we have the original; stripped down, but somehow fuller, with funky jabs and clumsy power chords. There's also some simple love songs as well, "Hey Baby" never gets too corny with jazzy horn phrases intertwining with country style chicken-pickin.' "Travelin' Light" is an intense study of the driving song with guitars and vibes throughout, pulsing like highway lines in the corner of your eye. This record is about the groove, while brilliant arrangements and clever instrumentation provide the texture, making everything unclassifiable. –ECM Tim

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Zombies “Odessey and Oracle” (1968)

If elegantly arranged chamber pop going for baroque is your cup of tea, get out your best china. Just about every minute of this record is beautifully constructed and rich in mood, and the arrangements are continuously compelling: comparisons with other groups don’t suffice, because this is a record on its own terms. The Zombies were kind of a musician’s group; all very good players writing very conscientiously for accessibility and sophistication (rather like those Beatles blokes, but I wasn't gonna compare). Even if this disc falls off a bit on the second half, which isn’t wall-to-wall classic, the vocal harmonies and the variety of musical textures these guys manage to wring out of every chord should satisfy, even when the song isn’t quite spot-on. But jeepers, when they're on, they are really on. One of the high water marks of ’60s pop. –Will

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Les McCann “Layers” (1974)

Think of the work of the following artists in the early seventies: Tonto's Expanding Head Band, The Mizell Brothers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Stevie Wonder, George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. If you like their work, you'll like - love - this album. Aside from an electric bass and three percussionists, this is the epitome of a keyboard album. By overdubbing (this was the first album recorded in 32-track format), McCann employs ARP synths, clavinet, Fender-Rhodes e-piano, and piano to simulate horns, woodwinds, and whatnot. On the basis of funky grooves, he creates a reflective atmosphere that's both nostalgic and futuristic. The album is structured like a suite, with the tunes fading into each other. The result is something that could be called Prog-Jazz. McCann created a visionary sound when he recorded this album in '72. Layers is a groundbreaking Fusion album from the early seventies when fusion was not yet something to be ashamed of. The record belongs to the best of that genre. –Yofriend

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rush “2112” (1976)

Rush's first truly definitive release, 2112 kickstarts a run that would vault the power trio to the top of the heap among Canada's rock exports. Sporting an iconic sleeve and crystal-clear production values, the album has come to define Rush's early sound, featuring traditional hard rock retooled with progressive precision, while lyricist Neil Peart's mix of philosophy and fantasy would ignite the sci-fi dreams of pimply-faced rockers for years to come. The epic title suite covers the whole of side one, and credits it's dystopian storyline to author Ayn Rand's Anthem, whose individualist outlook would fuel the lyrical fire of many a Rush classic. The track tells it's Saturday afternoon story of futuristic rebellion with an interwoven set of songs ranging from the complex "Overture" section and barnstorming "Temples of Syrinx," through the delicate "Discovery," tortured "Soliloquy" and tear-down-the-walls "Grand Finale." The remainder of 2112 in no way pales in comparison to it's flip side, boasting the fan favorite wacky-tabaccy ode "A Passage to Bangkok," supernatural imagery of "The Twilight Zone," and self-reliant rocker "Something For Nothing." As the critics looked on in dumbfounded disbelief, the sounds of 2112 filled the bedrooms and basements of suburban exiles worldwide, who from then on would live in anticipation of the next time they could lay their comic book ink-stained fingers on a new Rush album. –Ben

Friday, October 22, 2010

Randy Newman “Little Criminals” (1977)

The more I listen to Randy Newman, the more I'm impressed. It's not his voice, even though his nasally vocal has a pleasant, relaxing quality. It's certainly not the music which on Little Criminals is particularly one paced with a soporific, dozy aspect. It's not even the lyrics. They can be incisive, biting and sardonic but they also are simple and endearing with a homey feel. No, it's none of that. What it is, is the subjects he choses to write about and the subtle twists he puts into the stories. Take the title track as a prime example. Start listening to "Little Criminals" and you have this picture of indigant locals determined to rid their town of a small-time drug dealer. But, as the song progresses, you suddenly realise his protagonists are themselves criminals worried about a newcomer taking away their business - or, even better, lowering the tone of the neighbourhood because they're into armed robbery and consider that a higher calling than drug dealing. Brilliant! Or how about "Rider In The Rain" which subverts the myth of the lone cowboy wandering the plains by reminding us of the wife he's abandoned and the fact he's "raped and pillaged" his way to the place he is now. Or "In Germany Before The War" which conjures up a picture of a old guy shutting up his store every day to wander down to the banks of the Rhine to gaze out over the river. Only this guy is (I think) Peter Kurten, a real-life serial killer, preying on defenceless children. And all that's without mentioning Newman's dig at psychiatry in "Sigmund Freud's Impersonation Of Albert Einstein In America" or how appearances can be deceptive with "Jolly Coppers On Parade". And another example of how satire can backfire in "Small People" which a great many people took offence to because they believed Newman was deadly serious. Although, thinking about it, I suppose it wasn't technically a backfire as the song became a massive hit! As you would expect there are a couple of tender love songs - "Kathleen (Catholicism Made Easy)" and "I'll Be Home". Plus the song "Baltimore" is particularly affecting as I visited the city very recently. I think there must have been a great deal of urban regeneration since that song was written because Newman's Baltimore is a far bleaker and darker place than I saw. I don't think Newman will ever release a classic album because of the way he writes. The uncertainty of the does he mean it? is he joking? is unsettling and uncomfortable and makes it impossible to like everything. But I'm equally convinced that, after hearing just two of his albums, there will always be something for me to enjoy on all his others. –Ian

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie “Bird and Diz”

This is hardly a typical recording, but I have to say that this is my favorite jazz album ever recorded. It's the only recording to have Thelonious Monk playing together with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which in itself is pretty amazing. Although their styles are so distinct, they do play quite well together. Hearing them playing together is almost surreal. It's hard for me to describe how and why I like this album. I think the main reason that I like it is that it's so strange and so normal at the same time. The tunes exemplify this...two catchy blues (Bloomdido and Mohawk), a laid-back song to the same chord changes as "Stompin at the Savoy" (Relaxin' with Lee), a slowish and rather bizarre rhythm-changes tune (An Oscar for Treadwell), leap frog which is just ridiculously fast, and rather cheerful...and melancholy baby. And of course...bizarre stuff happens to the harmonies and rhythms when you put these musicians together. One moment it sounds so old-fashioned, the next moment totally modern. I love it all the way! –Alex

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Circle Jerks “Group Sex” (1980)

When Keith Morris left seminal Californian Punksters Black Flag, it was obvious he needed something even more shocking, for pushing the boundaries of music and taste was it seems his ambition. So in 1979 he formed Circle Jerks  with Greg Hetson (Guitar), Roger Rogerson (Bass), and Lucky Lehrer (Drums). A reputation for the most wild local shows and enormous amounts of alcohol intake onstage and off started the folklore legend which attracted the disaffected SoCal Skater punks. The debut “Group Sex” is amazing by its brevity, with 14 songs spanning just under 16 minutes. It’s typical early American Punk thrash, razor sharp lyrics, tinny production and songs covering Politics, middle class Hollywood malaise, drugs, and of course sex... What seems unusual for the time and the sentiment, is that Hetson is a strong Guitarist and musically the band seems tight which in turn raises the quality above many of the bands of the period. The highlights include “I Just Want Some Skank”, “Beverly Hills” and “World Up My Ass”.That same year, the group was one of several California punk bands to be immortalized in the Penelope Spheeris documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”, and live versions of four songs from “Group Sex” appear on the movie's soundtrack album. “Group Sex” is a rabid pulsing slice of aggression liberally smattered with gruff and gritty lyrics from Morris. Though not essential, it’s a useful snapshot of American Punk circa 1980.  –Ben

Rudimentary Peni "Death Church" (1983)

Pick up any Rudimentary Peni album an stare at it's wild cover art for awhile. This is what it will most likely sound like; total no-pose insanity, and in a very dark shade. This is all a product of Nick Blinko (aka Rudimentary Peni) who's demented art and mind grace every square inch of every Peni release. 1983's "Death Church" is probably the most accessable album, but in no way comprimises to sanity. Subtle mind altering sonic tone rolls off what would otherwise be generic, mid-tempo, three chord death rock cuts. While their earlier work had more of a harsh UK hardcore edge, and later they went absolutely bonkers making LSD trip style punk sound collages, Death Church keeps a cool 4/4 pace through the whole record that makes it sound like some sort of meaty saturday night car cruising music that goths can get down to, which is nuts enough in itself but then it's also super Brittish sounding? I dont know, man. What can I say, the guy's crazy. And you are too if you don't give this raging slab a listen. –Alex

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jellyfish “Bellybutton” (1990)

From The Beatles right through to the likes of The Lightning Seeds, Britain has a knack of producing bands who deliver a brand of pure, polished pop. The content may have dark or serious overtones but the melody and vocals carry a rare, unblemished character. When a band is lauded as new pop sensations in America don’t expect the same characteristics. In some respects our pop is their AOR whilst their pop arrives way over from left field. They Might Be Giants and Eels are good illustrations of this idiosyncrasy and Jellyfish can be added to that list. They may have more rounded edges than the others but, underneath, they are equally strange. Vocally the closest comparison to Jellyfish is Crowded House (Andy Sturmer even sounds like Neil Finn), but when it comes to lyrical content they are a mile apart. Absent fathers ("The Man I Used To Be"), prostitution ("The King Is Half Undressed"), marital abuse ("She Still Loves Him"), rampant consumerism and parental neglect ("All I Want Is Everything") are all covered. It's testimony to the skill of the band that, no matter how heavy the subject, the music retains a lightness of touch to stop proceedings becoming too maudlin. Special mention should also be given to "I Wanna Stay Home" and "Baby's Coming Back" which, on their own, prove that Jellyfish was definitely a band that got away. –Ian

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Japan “Adolescent Sex” (1978)

Deciding enough’s enough is a tough call to make at the best of times. For a band accustomed to fame and its requisite trappings the severance must be that much harder. So it’s understandable why so many plow on regardless of their relevance or quality of work. The Stones, for instance, will continue until someone drops dead but their sound will remain timeless. On the other hand, Bon Jovi have had nothing to say since the early 90s but refuse to accept the fact. Japan belong to an elite club. Although diehards will argue, they jacked it in at just the right time leaving a stunning, if flawed, volume of work. I’ve always had a preference for their original incarnation as trash glam funksters a la New York Dolls or Hanoi Rocks but they were criminally ignored. There is some quite brilliant guitar playing from Rob Dean, particularly on "Suburban Love", "Wish You Were Black" and "Television" but this, along with David Sylvian's strangled, sneering, kazoo-like vocals were lost when they turned towards the New Romantic movement. Their musical vista of the seedy, dangerous, disposable isolation of modern day living deserves retrospective re-evaluation. –Ian

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mike Oldfield “Tubular” Bells (1973)

It's difficult to asess the importance of "Tubular Bells" and indeed the career of Mike Oldfield without reference to two important figures who contributed to the success of the album, Richard Branson and William Friedkin. The 19 year old Oldfield had used valuable studio time funded by Branson, to record his debut, then titled "Opus 1". Oldfield then hawked this work around the major record companies to complete rejection, and Branson, who at that time ran a mail order company, decided to form his own record company (Virgin), and release this (retitled "Tubular Bells") as the inaugural record. William Friedkin was at this time Directing the ground breaking horror flick "The Exorcist", and having heard "Tubular Bells" decided to use the opening eerie tinkling piano intro, decided to use it as the title music for the movie. And so, the die was cast and the album would go on to sell sixteen million copies worldwide, win Oldfield a Grammy award, and develop a new genre of music. It's difficult to review "Tubular Bells" as a straight Popular, Classical or Rock recording. It contains all of these genres and more, classically structured, it's a complex, startlingly unique, and undoubtedly valiant recording. At times the sound is beautifully symphonic, at other times hauntingly powerful. Oldfield uses over thirty different musical instruments and probably just as many percussive instruments, to create a plethora of differing interludes, some gentle, some sonically robust, all linked together by intricate tempo changes perfectly exemplified about twelve minutes into side one where a delicately intricate section is cleverly interrupted by rifferama guitar crash chords which fade into the next musical excursion. The album finishes with a traditional English folk tune which perfectly concludes a divinely satisfying album. Some Oldfield fans argue that "Hergest Ridge" and "Ommadawn" are better musical performances, but I stoutly defend "Tubular Bells" because of its bravery, complexity and utter originality. "Tubular Bells" remains a colossal achievement. –Ben H

Devo “Are We Not Men?” (1978)

Imagine the scene. The house lights dim on an expectant crowd. It's difficult to see through the darkness but the swish of heavy fabric announces the stage curtains being drawn back. The spots slowly rise on a stage shrouded in a huge sheet of black plastic which rises to cover the vague shape of a drum-kit. A bright beam of white light picks out movement from under the sheet and flashes off a number of blades which pierce the plastic and slash vicious tears into the black skin. Like a sci-fi caesarean Devo push themselves through, clutching instruments and dressed in vivid yellow boiler suits. It takes a little time to rip the sheet away from the drums before they launch into "Uncontrollable Urge", but it's still got to be one of the best entrances ever.

Far more guitar-led than their later releases, Are We Not Men? Was considered radical upon its release in 1978. Much closer to the punk revolution than is realised, Devo savaged the American materialistic way of life and dared to suggest that humankind was de-evolving. From sex related psycho-babble ("Uncontrollable Urge") to satellites falling from the sky ("Space Junk"), from consumerism ("Too Much Paranoias") to genetics ("Mongoloid"), this is a very strange and, on one plain, deeply disturbing album. It remains a powerful indictment of the human condition. –Ian

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Bill Withers “Just As I Am” (1971)

What a cool debut album! At first glance (including the cover), “Just as I Am” seems so low-key, almost unspectacular, but once you get used to these songs, and when you consider this is almost forty years ago, you come to realize just how much sophistication this guy Bill Withers had back then when he decided to record his first album. And in spite of a respectable cover version of Let It Be, Bill Withers outs himself as a respectable songwriter. His music is as related to the Blues and the Soul tradition as it is to the Folk tradition of, say, a James Taylor.
One of Bill Withers’ best records and still a great record. –Yofriend

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Montrose “Montrose” (1973)

Montrose’s debut was one of the premier rock albums of the seventies and remains a powerful, if little known, influence today. Featuring Ronnie Montrose, formerly of the Edgar Winter Group, on guitar and newcomer Sammy Hagar on vocals, their brand of pyrotechnic rock was totally divorced from the more blues based guitar of other bands in the field. Some of the tracks remain rock standards including "Bad Motor Scooter" and "Space Station No. 5" whose futuristic sounds the likes of Steve Vai would build a career upon. There may only be eight tracks on the album but there's not a wasted note to be heard anywhere. From the anthemic "Rock The Nation", through the wonderfully sleazy "Rock Candy", whose intro I'm sure Brian May must have ear-wigged before writing "We Will Rock You," to the brilliantly bluesy "Make It Last" this is one hell of a hard rock album and the best thing both Montrose and Hagar have ever done. This should be mandatory listening for every rock lover. –Ian

Monday, October 04, 2010

Silver Apples “Silver Apples” (1968)

Considering that this kind of music was released in 1968 is amazing, but even more amazing is that it still kicks the ass of every other electro-pop-band, save perhaps Kraftwerk. The oscillators flow wildly, the drums lay mindnumbing beats and the lyrics, maybe hippie-esque considering the day, somehow seem ageless still. And it’s unbelievably catchy, like in a pop way. I could tell a funny tale about Syd Barrett finding a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style alien mothership wrecked somewhere in the forest and going all circuit breaking on the mushrooms, but I won’t. Pioneering and reigning still. All hail the whirly-bird! –Tuukka

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Replacements “Let It be” (1984)

For me this is far and away the best album The Replacements ever made. Some people say that they wish rock and roll was always imbued with the spirit that The Clash brought to it on "London Calling". I could easily say the same thing about "Let it Be". This is the perfect synthesis of rock aggression and songwriting finesse. A song like "Androgynous" probably wouldn't move me so much if it had been more slickly produced. The raw beauty of these songs makes me believe in them. There have been a million songs written about adolescence but "Sixteen Blue" is one of the only ones that really feels like it. The painful yearning and confusion of being sixteen is captured perfectly in those crunching guitar chords and especially the guitar solo with which the song closes. Rather than offering release, the end of the song raises the unresolved tension higher and higher. It is full of beauty and sadness. And then we have the album closer, "Answering Machine", with its fabulous, tight guitar playing, its earnest, pleading vocal and gorgeous melodicism. This is one of the best songs ever written about romantic obsession. Indeed this is one of the best rock songs period. In its rawness, energy and its dual loyalties to grunge and melody, in 1984 this album sounded like the future itself. –Javasean

Friday, October 01, 2010

Blood, Sweat & Tears “Child Is Father to the Man” (1968)

It’s easy to overlook the ubiquitous Blood, Sweat & Tears as their LPs seem to be present in almost every dollar bin in every city. Spend the buck! Their debut is an essential listen and features the unpredictable Al Kooper at the peak of his powers. The music is an eclectic fusion of progressive and psychedelic rock, blues and jazz. There are even elements of lounge music, and occasional orchestration added to the mix. The album features eight originals and four covers. The best covers are Randy Newman's uplifting Just One Smile and Carole King's So Much Love which closes the album. Most of the originals were composed by Al Kooper. His bizarre Overture opens, with it's enticing orchestrated music joined by some manic laughing. Kooper's I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know is an excellent jazzed-up blues song and Something Goin' On is a great jam that was an essential part of late 60s progressive rock. Child Is Father to the Man is an excellent experimental rock album and an important part of any 60s pop collection. –Jim