Friday, December 30, 2011

"The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" by Bob Dylan (May, 1963)

Dad's Take:

I've been looking forward to this one probably about as much as Brad hasn't been, but I'm hoping Brad might see the light.

Bob Dylan's first album didn't get much attention, but this second disc introduced him as the major new force in folk music. Innovative lyrics, social relevancy, solid playing, revolution, and that voice that some people have trouble getting used to but that delivers the songs so perfectly--all of this helped define the music of the sixties. Dylan is to folk music what the Beatles are to rock and roll: a redefining iconoclast that changed everything that came after.

Of course, there was no way to know that when this album first surfaced. There was no way to predict how much Dylan would affect all genres of popular music. There was just a collection of great songs. "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." There's anger, frustration, acidic wit, and beauty in these songs and in most of this album.

Sure, Dylan is not always easy to listen to, but that's true of so many great artists. He challenges you to listen and to think, to look below the surface and see the world. Not since Woody Guthrie had the folk music scene been forced to really see like this. Not since Woody Guthrie had folk music sounded this fresh and bitter at the same time.

We'll hear more Dylan in our list, but few of those albums will have exciting vibe of Dylan's breakout effort. I can't listen to this record enough.

Brad's Take:

My dad was right. I was not looking forward to this album. I've never been a real fan of Bob Dylan. Off the top of my head, the only Bob Dylan song I could name is "Blowin' In The Wind" but I have listened to a punk rock cover of it hundreds of times more than I have listened to the original. I won't ever disagree that he's a classic musician, but I just personally haven't been able to get into his music at all before so I went into this very pessimistically. Since that isn't very fair though, I will try to give this an unbiased review...

Bob Dylan's known mainly for his voice and his lyrics. Robert's voice is hard to get used to at first, but I got used to it on this album. Whether you get used to his unique voice or not, there's no denying that his lyrics are great. His lyrics are very politically charged, like every folk album that came out in the 60s.

As a guitar player myself, I was slightly annoyed that Ol' Bobby's guitar was noticeably out of tune on "Down The Highway" and a couple of others. Also, some of the really high harmonica notes he plays almost killed me, like the final drawn out note in "Girl From North Country." I've never been a real fan of the harmonica...

To me, this album sounds like a guy sitting on his front porch, imperfectly playing his slightly out of tune guitar but singing songs from his heart. But Freewheelin' launched Bob Dylan's career instantly, and it was well earned.

Although I was not excited to listen to an entire Bob Dylan album, I found myself to accept it about halfway through. There weren't any songs I loved, or any that I like-liked, but there weren't any songs I hated either. It's not my typical cup of tea, but for what it is, it's great. It's a perfect snapshot of the 60s folk music scene.

"Please Please Me" by the Beatles (March, 1963)

Dad's Take:
"1, 2, 3, 4!" And with that countdown that opened this record, history changed.

How do you review an album whose iconic status is due as much or more in hindsight to what it led to than to its own content? There was no Beatlemania yet. None of the insanity that followed the Beatles everywhere. The Beatles had not yet become a phenomenon in the United States and the rest of the world. There was no British Invasion yet. There were none of the cultural changes with the Beatles at the forefront.

All there was was this British band that had combined skiffle with rock and roll and R&B from the fifties. They dressed a little funny, and their hair was long. Girls and teens liked them. A lot. Their playing and singing was exciting. Electrifying. Nobody could tell at the time just how much better they'd get and how quickly they'd do it.

The only thing you can can compare this album to, really, is Elvis Presley's debut album. Good, but holy cow what it would lead to.

There are great songs here, to be sure. The opener, "I Saw Her Standing There." "Boys." The title track. "P.S. I Love You." "Do You Want To Know A Secret." "Twist and Shout" (so much more exciting than the version on Booker T & The MGs "Green Onions" record). The Beatles had already grown far beyond "Love Me Do" (also included on this album), but what they would do with each succeeding album, produced quickly while they were also spending much of their time on the road, almost defies explanation. In retrospect, much of what was improved upon in later albums is here. But there was no benefit of retrospect when this was released. Just an exciting new sound that those of us who are too young to have experienced it might not ever fully understand.

So, yeah (yeah, yeah), this is a great classic album. But it's only the beginning for the force that would change rock and roll and create the sounds that defined a decade and influenced nearly everything that came after. And that influence went far beyond the music.

Brad's Take:

There's no denying that The Beatles' first album Please Please Me would be classified as a classic. What the Beatles did for rock and roll goes beyond words. They upped the anty in their early years of making simple rock/pop songs, but then they changed the game entirely shortly thereafter when they caught on to Americans ears, and then when they started being more experimental in the studio in the mid 60s.

Please Please Me doesn't sound like a band's first record, but more like a greatest hits album compiled of early songs from their career. They were already ahead of the game. Although a lot of it doesn't sound that much different than earlier classic rock music we've reviewed so far, you can tell that the Beatles had something really special that no one else had at the time, not even Elvis. It's crazy to think that this new young band would become the Beatles that we all know today.

I was going to mention a couple of highlights from this album, but let's be honest, this entire album is a highlight. Every song is golden.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Green Onions" by Booker T and the MGs (October 1962)

(Note: I noticed when I was nearly finished with this one that our MP3 files are misnamed for this album, so any titles that are mentioned, especially in Brad's review, are likely incorrect. For example, when Brad writes about "Mo Onions," he really means "Green Onions." "Stranger on the SHore" is actually "Mo Onions." I hate it when that happens. --Dad.)

Brad's Take:

Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Booker T. and the MGs... Wait, what?! Green Onions??? This obviously came out of complete left field for me. I've never heard of this group before, and I immediately laughed at the ridiculous album name and cover art. I didn't know what to expect before I put it on, but I eventually stopped laughing, sat back, took a deep breath, and hit play...

This isn't what I expected an album called Green Onions would sound like. Booker T. Jones fronts the instrumental R&B band with his trusty organ. His band, his MG's, shines just as much as Booker, but that organ is definitely the loudest instrument on the album showing that it's the true star.

I didn't know what to make of this album for the first few songs. It's just wild organ-lead blues songs that make your foot bounce like crazy. It wasn't until track 4 ("Mo Onions") when I recognized a song. I remember that song being in one of my favorite childhood movies, The Sandlot. I'm just impressed that I actually knew a song from this band! I thought "Stranger On The Shore" was another one I knew, but then I realized it's basically just the same as "Mo Onions." Almost an identical bassline, and the same chord progression.

In the end, I surprisingly really liked this album a lot, for what it was. The organ sound gets a little irritating after a few songs, but fortunately when the headache begins to start, the next song is one that isn't so organ driven. So you have time to let your eardrums heal for a couple minutes. After laughing at the band and album name, and the ridiculous cover, I have learned the ways of Booker T. and the MGs.

Dad's Take:

I, of course, am very familiar with the hit, "Green Onions." I've no doubt heard it hundreds of times. And I know that Booker T and the MGs are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've also heard them described as the ultimate studio backing band. But I still only know the one song. So I wondered what it was about that band that could possibly place them on a list next to so many other great albums.

I can see why they had so much success as a backing band. They have a tight sound, with excellent musicianship, and an interesting roots-music sound behind that ever-present organ.

It's curious that they put "Green Onions" and the very similar "Mo Onions" on the record. This reminds me of the two versions of "The Banana Boat Song" with different names on the Belafonte album we listened to earlier. I guess two onions are better than one. But I think I need a good, strong breath mint.

If I were to rank all the albums we've listened to so far, this one likely would not finish in the top half. It's not that I don't dig it. These are some excellent blues and R&B jams with some very cool guitar playing, but I guess I prefer my electric organ in smaller doses. I've always liked that early sixties organ sound, but this is an awful lot of a good thing. It's kind of like cake: the first few bites are heavenly, but the rest of the piece is, well, just cake.

"Jazz Samba" by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (September 1962)

Brad's Take:

Jazz Samba was the first major bossa-nova to come out of America. It hit number 1 on the Billboard Pop Album charts, and even won Stan Getz a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance in 1963 for the song "Desafinado."

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd make a great team on this album. Stan's sax playing mixed with Charlie's amazing guitar playing make for a very cohesive record. Neither of them step on the others toes, and they compliment each other very well throughout. There's even moments where they let the bass player and drummer have a shot at the spotlight by backing off almost completely to let them jam out some solos.

I've heard one or two Stan Getz albums before this one. They were more bebop sounding, and less bossa-nova sounding. I prefer the classic bebop style over this, I'm afraid, but this still is a great album front to back. Although it's not my typical cup of tea, I wouldn't plug my ears if I heard this in a restaurant.

Dad's Take:

This one is new to me, the first totally unfamiliar album I've listened to for these reviews for a while. Jazz with a samba flavor turns out to be a pretty decent combination. Like Brad, I really like the bass solos on some of these pieces.

"Desifinado," I guess, is the classic track here, but I really like the track, "Samba Dese Days," a fun, upbeat number on which both Getz and Byrd really show their chops. Byrd's guitar solo is just plain amazing. "O Pato" is just as good, although considerably different.

That's the way this album works. Solid track after track, all easy to listen to, and always with that samba backdrop. This might not be my favorite jazz record we've listened to, but it's easy to hear why it's included on this list of classic albums. It's different than anything else I've ever heard, with its (as far as I know) innovative combination of jazz and samba. Although I'm really not a big samba fan, I found this record enjoyable throughout. It would be good background music when I write certain kinds of stories or scenes. It's easy to listen to and enjoyable. I feel like it expanded my musical horizons a bit, helping me realize I like samba more than I thought I did, and I want to listen to this one some more to get to know it better.

What better praise can you give a new record than that?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" by Ray Charles (April 1962)

Dad's Take:

Country music has never had this much soul. As much as I like Ray Charles, I've never given this album its due because Ray is at his best when singing gospel-tinged soul. Well, the laugh was on me. These might be country songs, but Ray still delivers his trademark sound.

You know the title of the album is a little misleading as soon as you hear the opening notes of Ray's take on the Everly's classic "Bye, Bye Love." The highlight for me is the final track, where Ray takes that old standard, "That Lucky Old Sun," and lifts it up among the best of Negro spirituals. Good luck finding a more moving version of that song.

Nobody sings like Ray Charles, and these soulful, brassy, bluesy renditions of country songs are about as soulful as music gets. This is a great album, despite a kind of lame title and less-than-exciting cover.

How can you not share the pain of "I Love You So Much It Hurts"? And who doesn't get a thrill when listening to the classic "I Can't Stop Loving You" and the almost-identical "You Win Again"? This record moves country music out of the honky tonks and into the smoky bars of the "colored" neighborhoods, improving the songs in the process. Even Hank Williams's "Hey, Good Lookin'" becomes a soul classic. As the civil rights movement heated up, I'm sure the rednecks were thrilled to see their music taken over by the guys at the back of the bus. This is a ballsy record, and it works amazingly well. Maybe Ray couldn't eat at the same restaurants, attend the same schools, or drink from the same water fountains, but he could take the most white music of all and give it gospel-tinged soul. And guess what? The whites ate it up. This record was number one for 14 weeks and remained on the chart for almost two years, falling only three weeks short of that mark.

I'm pretty sure this is the only Ray Charles album on our list, and it deserves to be there. This record contains everything good and soulful about Mr. Charles's music, no matter what the title might lead you to believe.

Brad's Take:

When I saw that this was next on our list, I got really excited. I've never listened to a full Ray Charles album before, but I've always wanted to. I didn't know where to begin so I guess this is a good place to start, with a "classic."

The first song, "Bye, Bye Love", kicks the album off with a bang. It's a fast rockin' 2 minute song, made popular by the Everly Brothers. That song leads right into the slower "You Don't Know Me" and this song really shows what this album's all about. It's a mid-tempo song with more soul than a pair of shoes.

Reading about the recording process, it's interesting how Ray picked the songs to do. Apparently, he was given about 250 songs from popular country artists from the time, and then Ray listened to each one to decide which ones he wanted to remake, giving it that Ray Charles flavor.

I never realized how great Ray Charles actually was. I've always known him as a classic artist, but I've never given him a real chance myself. I love his voice on this album. He sounds young and full of raw emotion and soul. Some songs are better than others, but overall this is a solid 3 and a half stars from me.

"West Side Story Original Soundtrack" (October, 1961)

Dad's Take:

From the initial finger-snapping, there's no doubt that this is Bob Fosse (Or "Don Fosse," as I call him when talking to my Fosse-fanatic wife). West Side Story was not just a hit. It was a phenomenon. Bringing modern (at the time) jazz and rock and roll to Broadway with a streetwise, hipster, racially charged twist on Romeo and Juliette, this musical revolutionized Broadway in 1957 and set the charts on fire when the movie was released in 1961. 54 weeks atop the U.S. album chart, and 175 weeks on the chart in Britain, where it also hit number one.

West Side Story is so heavy with jazzy dance numbers that just listening is only a partial experience, even more so than with other musicals. But the music stands out, so that experience, incomplete as it is, is still pretty spectacular. And if you've seen the movie (and, really, who hasn't) your brain will fill in the pictures even if, like me, you don't have every strut and finger snap memorized.

This record was released three months after I was born, but it was still everywhere when I became old enough to notice. I mean, fifty years later it's still hard to avoid, and it's still a moving experience. As silly as the choreographed "fight scene" might seem in our more realistic time, this remains one of the most beloved soundtracks in Broadway history.

Whether it's your cuppa or not, there's no way to deny this album a spot on any list of classic albums. In the history of the long-playing record, there's been very little that can compare with the phenomenal success of this record.

Brad's Take:

I think I am one of the only humans who has seen this movie less than two times. That's right, I've only seen it once. But even after seeing it that one time, I make references to it all the time by hunching over and snapping my fingers, and then slowly moving my arm in front of me like I'm holding a switchblade.

I had forgotten how jazzy the soundtrack was. It's obviously a film score, but I like it a lot, especially with all of the finger snaps. I love how intense some of the songs get. It's the most intense jazz music I've heard. It makes me feel like a mouse getting chased by a cat.

The instrumental songs were my favorites. Like every musical, the songs with the characters singing are cheesy, but it's hard to deny the classics like "I Feel Pretty."

This isn't an album I'd just put on when I'm wanting to listen to music, but for what it is, it's really fun. I feel like saying the name "Maria" over and over and over and over and over now...

"The Soul of Ike & Tina Turner," by Ike & Tina Turner (October, 1961)

Dad's Take

This is Ike & Tina before Phil Spector's pop stylings. This album highlights the soul sound that brought them to fame. Ike had been around since before rock and roll had a name, with such early songs as "Rocket 88," but the smartest move he ever made was teaming up with Tina.

Musically, this album is a lot like Ike's early R&B music, with its roots firmly in the fifties. But it's Tina's vocal power and soul that makes this record a classic. Song after song, whether rocker or ballad, Tina sings, growls, and screams her way into the listener's soul. How can you not believe her sincerity, her feelings, and her pain, when she puts so much into her performances? Even the largely spoken (and less exciting) "Letter From Tina" had me saying, "Yeah, Tina, you're right. I'm sorry. Whatever you say."

Sonically, these aren't the clearest recordings ever. They sound like they're from an older studio. But it really doesn't matter. The somewhat muddy sound of some tracks adds to the grit of Tina's voice. It just wouldn't sound right with pristine digital clarity.

When you listen to this record (and if you haven't, you really should), there is no doubt that Tina is here to stay, that she's a force who will either self-destruct or be around for decades. As it turns out, Ike and Tina's relationship nearly destroyed them both, but Tina survived it and increased her status as a legend.

This early Ike & Tina record shows that Ike's R&B formula still worked, and that Tina is incomparable, in a tiny class with other legendary soul singers like James Brown and very few others.

Turn it up and marvel.

Brad's Take:

Now we're talking! After reviewing a couple albums that I didn't love, this is a breath of fresh air. I'm loving this album.

The opening song "I'm Jealous" is the perfect one to kick off an album like. It introduces you to Tina Turner's incredibly powerful voice right from the beginning. I couldn't help but get a huge smile on my face when she does her loud scratchy screams. It's great!

I love the overall vibe of this album. It's got soul, R&B, and early pop all mixed together to form one fun album from front to back. Ike and Tina really compliment each others styles.

Tina's vocals are my favorite thing about this album though. She has so much emotion and power in her voice that you feel intimidated by her. I'd never want to make her upset. You can tell that she doesn't need anyone else in order for her to shine.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Shadows" by The Shadows (September, 1961)

Dad's Take:

This is a milestone of sorts in our reviews: the first album on our list to be released after I was born.

The Shadows were popular in Great Britain, but they never caught on as well here in the United States. They are interesting because of the way they explored the new sounds that were possible with electric guitars. Like many guitar bands of the period, they chose the somewhat twangy sound delivered by Fender instruments.

At times their instrumental tunes remind me of the "fake" rock and roll heard in sitcoms and low-budget movies of the time. But that's not quite fair. They helped to establish the two guitars/bass/drum combo as the standard lineup. They brought together a certain light jazz and light rock feel, combined with a skiffle background, to create a sound that was fresh at the time. And on the occasional vocal song, like "Baby My Heart," they previewed the sound that took over the world with the British Invasion a couple years later. "All My Sorrows" could be the Kingston Trio gone electric. And "That's My Desire" reminds me of the great songs of Roy Orbison.

But the Shadows were mainly an instrumental group, and it's there that they shine. They coaxed new sounds from their Fenders, though reverb, palm muting, bending, and just plain fine playing. Something like "My Resistance Is Low" had never been heard before, and classics like "Sleepwalk" sparkle with the new sounds.

The Shadows are not well known these days, but if you like the early sixties music, and especially instrumental groups like The Ventures, give them a listen.

Brad's Take:

I feel like I've listened to this album before. To me, it sounds like a big salad made up of a lot of the music that we've listened to so far.

Like my dad already said, "All My Sorrows" sounds like it could  be on a Kingston Trio album. It's slow, country-tinged, and full of vocal harmonies. "Shadoogie" sounds very reminiscent of Duane Eddy's surf guitar style. Songs like "Nivram" and "Theme From A Filleted Place" sound like they're in the style of Chet Atkins. Lots of twangy finger-picking. But all the "shadowing" aside, I need to try and give this album a fair review...

The Shadows do a great job at writing diverse songs. They've got a nice mix of fast songs, slow songs, and instrumental songs. They're known for their guitar playing though. They experimented with a lot of different sounds that eventually became popular.

Although the album's songs don't sound very different from earlier ones we've listened to, it still has a lot of originality and experimentation. It's good, but not great, and it's a little too all over the place for me.

"Joan Baez" by Joan Baez (October, 1960)

Dad's Take:

It's interesting to follow an established folk trio with the debut from one of the quintessential new breed of folk singer who arose in the early sixties. Joan Baez signaled the new era of the bare bones solo singer-songwriter (a little ironic since the songs are mostly folk standards, not Baez originals).

This album was recorded in a hotel room, with Baez, her guitar, and guitarist Fred Hellerman. It exhibits the folk sincerity that is sometimes parodied when people make fun of folk, but the performances are strong. Where blues and jazz records might conjure up the feel of a smoky bar room, this style of folk evokes a Greenwich Village coffee shop, full of beatniks and soon-to-be hippies, navel gazing and trying to out-deep each other in conversation. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Baez has that prototype young woman singer-songwriter voice that continues to this day. It's not one of my favorite voices, but it works perfectly with the songs and simple arrangements of the material. Her best work was yet to come, but this record is a solid announcement that a new musical force had arrived. This doesn't feel like a debut. In classic folk songs like "Donna, Donna," "Wildwood Flower," and "House Of The Rising Sun," the 19-year-old Baez performs with confidence and sincerity, opening the door for the great new folkies of the sixties.

Brad's Take:

This sounds like it was recorded today. I had to double-take that it really was released in 1960. Like my old man said, her vocal style is copied in a lot of today's female fronted folk music. It, too, isn't my favorite vocal style ever, but it works for what it is. VibratoOoOoOoOoOoOo! I can see the flower people poking their heads out from behind the trees wondering what this new sound they're hearing is.

I have never been a big fan of singer-songwriter kind of folk music. I'd take the Kingston Trio over this any day. I didn't love this album. I didn't even like it, really, but I can see why it is a classic album. It's a style that was new and fresh at the time, but became a leading one near the end of the 60s.

It isn't bad. It's just not my cup of tea. All the new-school indie kids and hipsters would love it though.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"Eddie Cochran Memorial Album" by Eddie Cochran (September, 1960, UK only)

Dad's Take:

This album was released to memorialize (or capitalize on) Eddie Cochran's death in a car crash in April, 1960, at the age of 21. It's a solid reminder of how good Eddie Cochran was and how much he'd done at such a young age.

Although Elvis's influence is strong, Cochran was much more than an Elvis copycat. He was an amazing talent on his own, and influenced guitar players like George Harrison, who, like Cochran, played a semi-acoustic Gretsch with an unwound third string.

Cochran's songs have been copied by many artists over the years. "Summertime Blues" is his best-remembered and most copied record, but his influence goes beyond that one song. One of the rockabilly greats, Cochran was copied by almost everybody in the sixties--especially the great British rockers like the Beatles, The Who, the Stones, and Led Zeppelin--if not in direct covers, then in style.

This album makes it clear why Cochran is in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Whether the song is well known, like "Summertime Blues" or "C'mon Everybody," or less known like "Somethin' Else," his performances are strong, energetic, and more original than some might claim. His influence on the second generation rockers is indisputable.

Check him out yourself if you don't believe me.

Brad's Take:

On songs like "Jeanie, Jeanie," you can definitely hear the Elvis influence in Eddie Cochran's music. He even sings "blue suede shoes" in the lyrics to that song which instantly reminds one of Elvis' song. But even if Eddie borrows Elvis' musical style a little bit, he's no Billy Fury. Cochran makes his songs his own, maybe except for the song "Pretty Girl."

"Hallelujah, I Love Her So" is a song I liked instantly. It's upbeat and has a loud strings section accompanying the other typical instruments. The violins really made that song stand out to me.

"Summertime Blues" is a classic that everyone knows, even if they just know the hook. This song shows that Cochran was original and not an Elvis Presley copy cat. This song is a solid golden hit that I don't even think The King could have written.

For me, this collection of songs is hit and miss throughout. I liked just about half of it, and the other half, I could have done without. Even though there are some songs that I didn't love, this is a great collection that shows off all of the sides to Eddie Cochran.

It's hard to believe that he was 21 or younger when he wrote all of these songs. The kid had true talent, and it's a bummer that he died so young. It would have been really interesting to see where he would have gone next.

"String Along" by The Kingston Trio (July, 1960)

Dad's Take:

We've covered just about every genre in popular music so far, so it's about time we move into folk music, one of my favorite genres. What better place to start than The Kingston Trio.

The Kingston Trio peaked commercially with "Tom Dooley" in 1958, but this album, their fifth studio record, captures everything I like about the trio. It has impeccable harmonies, humor, social awareness, and catchy melodies. By 1960, folk had been popular for a few years among the college crowd who where a little too old for rock and roll's dance beat, but it was only on the verge of becoming the force it would be with the ascent of Dylan, Baez, and the rest of the sixties folk icons.

The Kingston Trio were among the pioneers of modern folk music, and "String Along" makes it clear why. Great songs like "Leave My Woman Alone" are accessible to the aging first generation of rock and rollers (and, indeed, were influenced by people like the Everly Brothers), but with a maturity and social awareness that had not yet broken into rock and roll music. Those things would become part of rock and roll soon, thanks to people like The Kingston Trio and their influence on a folk scene that would soon give birth to Dylan and his cult of followers in all popular genres.

But back to the Trio. Not long after this album was recorded, Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio, putting an end to the first major era of the Trio. He was replaced by John Stewart, who I always liked as a member of the Trio and as a solo act. They weren't quite the same after that. They continued to have chart success for a couple more years, but "String Along" was their last album to top the charts. Six of their next seven albums hit the Top Ten, though, so Guard's departure definitely didn't kill the group.

I'm not sure why this is the album the authors of our list chose to represent the Kingston Trio, but I'm not complaining. I've never hear this whole album before, and I'm happy to have it now. "String Along" is a good, solid album, with strong songs and very little obvious filler. Like other Kingston Trio albums, it was criticized by some folk fanatics because of its political neutrality in a left-leaning genre, but record buyers ate it up and found it highly satisfying. It's a very good record.

Brad's Take:

Like a lot of the albums we've reviewed so far, I've heard of the band, but never actually listened to any of their music, until now. Although folk music isn't typically my cup of tea, this was a nice little surprise.

"Bad Man's Blunder" is an up-tempo silly little song that I thought was okay, but the next couple of tracks were a bit slower, and full of perfect harmonies. I liked all of the slow songs the most on this album.

They have great voices that sound great when they're harmonizing together. On songs like "When I Was Young," they harmonize the entire song together. It reminds me a lot of a band I occasionally listen to called Kings Of Convenience, who must have at least some Kingston Trio influence in their vocals.

 As a whole, this album is good. It's not my favorite, but there's some songs that I really liked a lot, and some that I sort of struggled to get through. Fortunately though, the entire album is only 30 minutes long so the songs are short and sweet, getting to the point from the get go.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Time Out" by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (June, 1960)

Brad's Take:

Dave who? That's what I thought when I got to this on our list. But right when the first track began, I knew I was going to remember Dave Brubeck from then on.

On the opening track, "Blue Rondo A La Truk," I was taken by surprise. Dave Brubeck shows no mercy on that piano! He pounds on it like each of his fingers are hammers, but then, out of nowhere, he turns his hammer-hands into cooked baby carrots which make for a very delicate and soft sound, of course.

This is a great jazz album. It's got the upbeat swing stuff all the way down to the mellow nighttime "I'll be in the back of this empty, cold, dark bar at a table sipping a drink all alone" stuff. And sometimes all those different jazz sub-genres come together in single songs. Also, to make it more fun and interesting for the listener, and probably the band itself, they wrote stuff in super weird time signatures that I can't even comprehend, and even showcased Joe Morello's awesome boomy drum solo in the middle of the song "Take Five."

Although this album got negative feedback from critics when it was originally released, there's no surprise that it eventually made its way on to lists such as "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die."

Dad's Take:

This is the kind of jazz I like. I like how Brubeck and his quartet explore everything from traditional jazz to swing and blues and even a bit of R&B and waltz music, all within a single number. It's like nothing is off limits, and they're going to go wherever the music leads them. The goal of "Take Five" was to explore unusual time signatures, and Brubeck succeeds, going all over the place but without ever becoming unlistenable. Everything fits together so well that you hardly even notice that this is experimental music. You can't get bored when the music captures your attention and creates suspense that makes you think it will go one way, and then it twists in an unexpected direction. To me, that's just plain fun.

Brubeck's piano leads the way, but he gives plenty of time to the rest of his combo. Paul Desmond on alto sax adds musical candy, with extra sweetness from Eugene Wright's restrained bass and Joe Morello's steady-but-never-monotonous skins. Brad pointed out Morello's solo on "Take Five," which is one of the most musical drum solos I've ever heard.

"Take Five" is the best known piece here, and it is sheer delight, but it's not the only cut worth listening to. The album is solid from beginning to end. It might be a step below Miles Davis's "Kind Of Blue," but it's a very small step.

"The Sound Of Fury" by Billy Fury (May, 1960)

Brad's Take:

I'd never heard of Billy Fury before this so I was curious to hear his debut album, "The Sound Of Fury." As soon as I hit play, I immediately thought, "I didn't know Elvis impersonators actually got record deals..."

After doing a little bit of research, I discovered that he kind of was Elvis, but the UK's version of Elvis. His vocal styling and energy is almost identical, and he even dressed and moved like The King.

On "Turn My Back On You," Billy Fury does his best Buddy Holly impression by doing the stuttering vocal style that Buddy was well known for.

Since our book is from the UK, it makes sense for Billy Fury to be in it. The UK needed an Elvis and a Buddy Holly so this kid probably made lots of people (especially girls) happy until the real came over from the states.

Putting the similarities to other artists aside, Buddy, I mean Billy Fury nailed it on this album. He stuck to the same blues/rock/country formula that was popular in the US and brought it to the UK, and he succeeded. His voice and energy were great, and he was a good looking guy. I'm sure the English girls swooned over him all day and night. It's not a surprise that a life size bronze statue of him (doing an Elvis impression) was eventually built in Liverpool in his honor in 2003.

Dad's Take:

This is one of a few British-only releases on our list. It's a British book, so that's to be expected. It's also interesting, because it ensures that we'll hear some albums that we've never heard, but that influenced the great British bands. Billy Fury, as an early leader in the Liverpool rock and roll scene, undoubtedly played a more important role than we Yanks are likely to recognize. Interestingly, according to one source, one group that auditioned to be Fury's band was a little band called the Silver Beetles. They were turned down when they refused to fire their bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, thus missing out on a £20 per week job.

If you listen to very much 1950's rockabilly, you'll hear a number of Elvis imitators of varying quality. Billy Fury is actually pretty good. The songs are good, and the performances are strong. As Brad mentioned, you hear the obvious influence of people like Elvis and Buddy Holly, as well as Carl Perkins and other rockabilly greats, especially Eddie Cochran.

Fury had the chops to pull off some really good rockabilly, as well as the voice for ballads. He didn't have quite the same energy level as Elvis or Buddy. His music isn't especially original, but he was one of the early architects of British rock and roll, and as such deserves a spot on our list.

Bottom line, though, is that it's just a fun record. Songs like "Don't Say It's Over," "That's Love," and several others on this record deserve to be better known stateside. I found "Since You've Been Gone" with its bizarre tempo changes and stuttering "baby baby baby" delivery to be especially interesting. It's not the best song on the record, but it's unusual and fun in its weirdness. If you like good old rock and roll, and especially rockabilly, look for this record. It's good stuff if you like this kind of thing. And I do.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"It's Everly Time," by The Everly Brothers (April, 1960)

Dad's Take:

The Everlys' country-flavored harmony pop is one of the signature sounds of the period. By the time this album came out, many of their biggest hits were behind them, but they put together a solid record. The Everlys helped to fill the void in rock and roll music in the time after Buddy Holly died and Elvis went into the Army, and the onslaught of the Brits. They were a huge influence on later harmony groups like Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, and the Hollies.

The best-known song in this set is the opener, "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)." Other songs sound familiar, though, because the Everlys never stray far from what you expect of them. I would have liked to see them welcome the sixties by trying something new on a song or two, but I can't complain about an album that is everything I expect from Phil and Don: some light rock and roll, country, easy ballads, and even a touch of country blues.

Not every song is a hit, but every song is a quality recording. It's a good, strong album.

Brad's Take:

I've listened to The Everly Brothers many times growing up, but never have listened to a full Everly Brothers album. At least not knowingly. But after listening to this one, I want to get all of their stuff and check them out.

I love the super catchy country pop sound they have on "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)," I love the slow songs like "Sleepless Nights" and I love the blues influenced style they had on "What Kind Of Girl Are You?" Each song sounds like The Everly Brothers, but the album has a nice variety of styles so it isn't monotonous at all.

It's just a great and solid fun record. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

"50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong - Golden Records Vol 2," by Elvis Presley (December, 1959)

Dad's Take:

You might think that only a year and a half after Elvis's first Golden Records collection, there wouldn't be enough hits for a second.

You'd be wrong.

Sure, this album with a long, funny title contains mostly second-tier hits, but this is Elvis Presley. His second-tier hits include great songs like "I Got Stung," "One Night," "Big Hunk O' Love," "Don't," and plenty more. Even though it doesn't have most of Elvis's biggest hits, this is in some ways more satisfying, because it contains great songs that you don't hear quite as often.

Elvis is at his peak here. He is confident and a little crazy. He doesn't hold back like he did on some of his earlier records. He's on top of the world, and he sounds like he's loving it. This album might not have "Hound Dog" or "Jailhouse Rock," but it has an energy that surpasses even that of those earlier hits.

Great stuff!

Brad's Take:

Since we listened to the first Elvis record, I get excited every time I see another Elvis album come up on our list. I'm really starting to become a fan.

This album has some awesome songs on it. "One Night" and "Big Hunk O' Love" were early favorites.

One thing that kind of bothers me a little bit on this album is that on some songs there's someone singing bass backup vocals... Normally, it would be cool. Like if it was a Frankie Valli song or something, but the mix of this guy's vocal track is just too loud, and sometimes even a bit delayed. Meaning, sometimes his vocals don't match up with Elvis' when they're singing the line. The bass guy's vocals start a little too early or a little too late. It's a little bit irritating to me, especially since it's so loud. It makes it even more noticeable. Oh well, just a small technical recording problem. Let's get back to what really matters...

Elvis sounds great on this album. You can tell he had a blast singing these songs. One thing that I especially love about this particular Elvis album is the fact that it's almost all fast-paced and energetic. That's the version of Elvis I like the most. But of course, like every Elvis album, there are some ballads, such as "My Wish Came True" and "Don't." They aren't bad, by any means, they're just not as fun as the fast songs. During his slow songs, I just wait for them to be over so I can enjoy the faster songs that will for sure follow. I bet if oldschool Elvis fans read this, they're thinking, "Oh great... Brad's one of these kids... Ugh!" But really, I can appreciate the slow songs, but if I had the choice, I'd tell Elvis to stick with the upbeat songs so I can dance with my girlfriend, rather than watch my girlfriend drool all over his shoes.

All in all, I really like this album. These are great songs that many casual listeners most likely don't know, but should know. 

"Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis (August, 1959)

Dad's Take:

I'm about to write something I very rarely say because I know how widely musical tastes can vary: no music lover's collection is complete unless they have this album. Even if you're not a jazz-head. Usually when I hear about a "must-have" album, I'm skeptical. Nothing is for everybody. But this one time, I'm going to say it myself, for all but the most ardent haters of jazz.

This is one of those precious few records that is beyond description. Created not only by Miles Davis but also by his super group combo (Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, Bill Evans on piano except for one number where he is replaced by Wynton Kelly, John Coltrane on tenor sax, and Cannonball Adderley on alto sax). Putting the best together doesn't always create the best results, but this time it did.

Mostly improvised in the studio, Kind of Blue is the ultimate jazz album. It's moody, beautiful, and never stale. This is midnight music. It doesn't have to be one of your desert island discs (but I wouldn't be surprised to find it on anybody's list), but you have to have it, and you have to pull it out once in a while, when the mood strikes you, turn down the lights, turn up the volume, and surround yourself in beautiful noise.

Brad's Take:

Everyone knows the name Miles Davis. My earliest memory of hearing his name was in the scene from Billy Madison when an old lady states, "If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis." When I first heard that, I didn't actually know who Miles Davis was, but I knew that that joke was really funny.

Before I started listening to Kind Of Blue, I read my dad's review to see what his initial thoughts were. Seeing how much he loved this album got me really excited, mainly because I have never heard it before. Lately, I've been getting really into more jazz music so I was pumped to crank this up and just sit back for the ride.

The first track on the record ("So What") is one that I think every person would recognize, right off the bat. When I hit the play button and heard the opening piano riff, I knew I'd heard it before, and I knew I was going to love this album. The entire album is so relaxing even at it's faster tempoed moments. The combination of upright bass, delicate piano melodies, brush drumming, and an occasional horn instrument will get me every time. I love this classy jazz sound.

After reading a little bit about this album, especially the making of it, only makes my infatuation grow more. It's crazy to think that the other musicians that Miles brought into the studio to record this knew little to nothing about what they were actually going to be recording. I had a couple random notes and sketches of scales and melody lines to improvise, but other than that, they really had no idea. Either they accidentally recorded a classic record that got #12 in Rolling Stones' 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, or Miles Davis knew exactly what he was doing by hiring those specific musicians to accompany him in the studio. I have a feeling it was the latter.

This is indeed worthy of the title "Classic Album."

"Exotica Volume II" by Martin Denny (July, 1959)

Dad's Take:

I can't think of a lot more to say about exotica. This album is very similar to volume 1, except that some songs are a little softer and moodier, more romantic. Denny's version of "Ebb Tide" fits well with elevator music, while songs like "Rush Hour in Hong Kong" are fast and playful. Other songs are romantic background music.

It's no wonder that exotica became known as "bachelor pad music." In the late fifties, thanks partly to Hugh Hefner and partly to a budding sexual culture, single men began decorating their apartments for seduction. Like this:

Music was a big part of the atmosphere, and exotica was apparently a popular form of music in the perfect bachelor pad. And I can see why, especially with this album. It's just the right set of sounds for a private tiki party.

And that's just about all I have to say about that.

Brad's Take:

When I saw this on our list, I muttered to myself, "Oh no... Volume TWO??" Martin Denny's Exotica Volume 1 wasn't bad necessarily, but I didn't want an encore...

It's kind of like when you're in high school or whatever and there's a kid that you don't like, but you feel sorry for him because he's a loner and everyone just teases him so you kind of pretend to be nice so he feels like he has a friend. So every day you sit through one of his lame stories or something, and then when it's finally over and you go to walk away, he stops you and says, "Wait! I have one more story to tell you!" and then you have to stay to humor him... This album was kind of like that for me.

Like my dad, I'm not really into this genre of music. I like to be open-minded when it comes to all styles of music, but it's hard for me to sit through Exotica style records, I'm discovering. To me, it's just too weird and sometimes barely musical. Maybe it's too busy and noisy for my liking. I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I can tell you that the vibraphones don't help me like it more.

I hope there's not a third volume by Martin on our list. If there is, I don't know if I will have it in me to humor him again... Again.

"Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel," by Duane Eddy (June, 1959)

Dad's Take:

As a surf guitar fan, I can't ignore Duane Eddy's influence on one of my favorite genres. The reverb-drenched twangy instrumental tunes of Duane Eddy helped give birth to that genre a year or so after this album came out. Duane Eddy's combo, featuring Eddy on guitar, a sax, bass, and drum, became the model for surf bands.

But one thing should be made clear: this is not surf music. Eddy created a kind of fusion of rock and roll, jazz, country, and even a touch of exotica (without the sound effects). "Rebel Rouser" is one of the true classics of instrumental rock and roll. It's probably the best known song on this collection, but it is definitely not the only one worth listening to. "The Lonely One" is also well-known, "Ramrod" is as energetic as any future surf tune, and even the lesser-known songs are good. I didn't find a single clunker on this record. This is what the Chet Atkins album we listened to earlier could have been if Atkins used a band and had a little more energy.

This is good stuff. Duane Eddy is too often overlooked in the lists of musical pioneers of the 1950s and early 1960s. Go out and pick this up, or some other Duane Eddy collection, You won't hear the pyrotechnics of a Jimi Hendrix or the speed of a Dick Dale, but neither of them would have been what they were without Duane Eddy being there first.

Brad's Take:

Strangely, I'd never heard of Duane Eddy until now. Doing a quick Wikipedia search on the guy, I learned a couple of pretty interesting things:

1. He was the first rock n' roll musician to have his own signature guitar model. So many musicians still do this today so it's pretty cool to me that he was actually the first.

2. Four of the songs from this album were on the Top 100 Billboard chart. This is interesting to me because you don't see any instrumental tracks getting their way onto the Top 100 anymore, let alone one ("Rebel-Rouser") getting into the Top 10.

2. Duane Eddy's song "Moovin' N' Groovin" has a guitar riff that The Beach Boys "borrowed" for their song "Surfin' USA." Those of you who know my dad probably know that he's borderline obsessed with The Beach Boys so I have grown to know "Surfin' USA" pretty damn well. I was quite surprised to learn that the song's opening riff was indeed pretty similar to Duane Eddy's song.... I can't believe my own father would subject his children to such blatant plagiarism! ...That was actually internet sarcasm. E-sarcasm, if you will. The songs' riffs really don't sound that alike, but you can tell that Brian Wilson and the gang were tipping their hats to Mr. Eddy.

Duane's guitar playing is tasteful. He doesn't show off with crazy fast guitar solos. He stays true to the mood of the song and doesn't always overshadow the other instruments involved. But with that said, you can tell that Duane Eddy has some true talent and skill on the guitar.

I liked this album. It is a cool combination of 50's blues-inspired rock n' roll instrumentals with echo-ey surf guitar thrown into the mix. There's even some country tinged tunes on this album. 

"The Buddy Holly Story," by Buddy Holly (May, 1959)

Dad's Take:

Three months after Buddy Holly's death, Coral Records released this album as a memorial (and, no doubt, to capitalize a bit). The album is lovingly sequenced, begining movingly with "Raining In My Heart," followed by Early In The Morning," which is about missing somebody who is gone. Then it moves into "Peggy Sue" and more of his biggest hits, before ending with another sad song, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." It was unusual to begin and end with sad songs, but in this case, it seems like the right thing to do.

Buddy Holly's career was so short, but he accomplished so much. Not only by recording so many hit records, but by writing and even producing, something that wasn't done. You can't talk Buddy Holly without wondering what could have been had he been around longer. His influence on so much that followed after in both rock and roll and country was enormous. Would he have remained influential and moved into new territory? Would he have faded away? No one will ever know.

His music was so energetic. And, if you pay attention, you'll discover that his lyrics were among some of t he best of the period, full of humor, irony, and tenderness. The guy could write. he could play. He sang well, and in a variety of styles. It's easy to see why only Elvis was more popular, even though Buddy didn't have the sex appeal, maybe, of so many of the singers of the day. Buddy was the real thing, and is one of my all-time favorite artists, not because of the tragic story but because he was genuinely good. Few artists accomplish what he did, if their careers are much longer.

This album provides a great overview of his career. Everything that was great about Buddy Holly can be found here. I'm going to stop writing now and sit back and enjoy.

Brad's Take:

My dad pretty much summed it up. Buddy Holly's life ended way too soon, to say the least, but he accomplished so much in the short 4 years he was a professional musician. He opened for Elvis, had a #1 hit ("That'll Be The Day"), performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, and finally, toured with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.

I grew up listening to Buddy Holly, courtesy of my dad's CD collection, and I've always been a fan. I love his diversity in styles and that stutter thing he would do when he sang. I always thought he looked cool too. In fact, I'm just now realizing that his look is kind of the trendy look now.

Greatest hits collections are hard to really review because all the songs were recorded at different times and everything, but this is a great compilation of most of Buddy's...uhh...greatest hits.

I really like the sequencing and flow of this compilation. I like how it starts and ends with sad songs, but then in the middle of the delicious sandwich is his happy and upbeat tunes.

If you're not very familiar with Buddy Holly and his legacy, this is a perfect start for you.  

"Exotica Volume 1," by Martin Denny (April, 1959)

Dad's Take:

This is a slightly more jazzy entry into the exotica genre we first saw with Les Baxter's Tamboo. Loaded with sound effects like screeching monkeys and with exotic instruments from around the world, Martin Denny transports the listener to a mysterious tropical island, or the jungle, or China. Or at least a Hollywood lounge version of those places.

This album got rave reviews that mentioned "the most exciting musicians" and claimed that it was the perfect record to push rock and roll stars out of kid's minds. I don't know about that last claim, but it's an enjoyable enough record, for what it is.

Next time you have a tropical-themed party (and who doesn't have those all the time?), put this record on and enjoy the monkeys and frogs and birds and the jazzy percussion-oriented music. Before you know it, you'll be dancing like the cartoon version of Barbara Eden during the opening credits of "I Dream Of Jeanie."

One little side note. This album was actually recorded twice, once in mono in 1956, and then again a couple years later in stereo. The stereo version features Julius Wechter on vibes (the mono version had Arthur Lyman). People who, like me, know more than is healthy about the Beach Boys, will recognize Wechter's name as part of Brian Wilson's stable of studio musicians. He also worked with Phil Spector and others.

Brad's Take:

This album is all over the place. There's songs that remind you of China, South American jungles, and so on. I enjoyed the jazzy piano bits of the songs, but everything else was just a little too weird for my taste. Some of the experimentation is interesting on the album, but a lot of it (mostly the crazy human-made animal sounds) was just laughable. I couldn't take it seriously.

The experimental sounds and instruments used on this album remind me a lot of the Pet Sounds and SMiLE era Beach Boys recordings, but it's of course missing the poppy vocals and melodies that I like most about those albums.

For what it is (a super weird experimental jazz record) I guess it's as good as you can get. I can't say I'm much of a fan of the exotica genre, but it's not that much of a struggle to get through.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Film Encores Volume 1" by Mantovani (April, 1959 in the UK and in our book, but actually 1957)

Dad's Take:

It's probably not Mantovani's fault that his style of music became the elevator music of my generation, and so we react to it with fear and loathing and aching teeth. But regardless of where the blame belongs, the facts remain.

The music is lovely enough. But those slow, slow rhythms and ultra-high-pitched strings found a place in my soul when I was young that stood for everything unpopular about "old fogey" music and everything we hated about waiting rooms at places like doctors' and dentists' offices. When I hear this style of music, I smell hot enamel being drilled off of teeth.

This is exactly the kind of music that turned my generation off, unfortunately, to classical music, because these little studio orchestras with their dentist-drill strings were wrongly referred to as "classical," just because they used classical-style instruments and arrangements. It took years to overcome that and to discover that real classical music is much more interesting and far better than classical-styled renderings of popular songs and show tunes that strip them of all life.

So, that said, I'm afraid I have a natural bias that keeps me, maybe, from giving this record a fair listen. I hear the associations of my youth and the misleading "classical" label that kept me from discovering the sublime delights of Mozart and Beethoven and Strauss and Hayden and Tchaikovsky and Strauss and Strauss (or how ever many Strausses there were) for far too long. That's all I hear. I don't know whether this is good or not. It brings be aural pain as well as oral pain. Seriously, my teeth literally ache listening to this. Yeah, OK, it's pretty, I guess, but ow.

This is one of those cases where "prettiness" and "beauty" are not the same thing. Not to me. This is the kind of "pretty" you'd find in Pleasantville before the colors came.

Maybe Brad won't have those associations. Maybe Brad can give this record a fair review. But I'm five songs in and I'm having a hard time keeping to our rules. I want to bail. I don't want to hear the rest of this. But I'll keep it on as background music while I do something else. I'm done with the active listening.

Brad's Take:

After reading my dad's less than praising review of this album, I was a bit nervous to dive into this 40 minute orchestral instrumental album. During the first song, "My Foolish Heart," I began to understand that high pitched violin sound my dad mentioned. But after I turned my speakers down a hair, my headache subsided, and I began to listen a little more. It became quite tolerable.

The first song that I recognized was the second track, "Unchained Melody," (originally by The Righteous Brothers.) I love The Righteous Brothers' version of the song so much already that it's hard for me to forgive Mantovani (let's call him Manny.) Manny also arranged his own version of "Over The Rainbow."

"Summertime In Venice" sounds like you're actually in Italy. The accordions and staccato guitar playing set the mood. I want some spaghetti now, Manny!

My dad might be traumatized by this style of music, but I didn't experience the dental office nightmares that he did. I didn't even really listen to this kind of music growing up... probably because of the memories it made my dad think of. So really, this is borderline new to me, and I kind of dig it. I preferred the first half over the second, and I prefer the original versions of the songs that I was already familiar with, but the overall mood of the album was relaxing. In fact, it almost made me want to fall asleep in a dentist's chair and get some teeth pulled.

Things Are Swingin', by Peggy Lee (October, 1958)

Dad's Take:

(Note: We're reviewing the original version, not the later edition that included "You Don't Know" and "Fever," so those songs are not included in this review.)

Before I listened to this record, if you would have asked me if I liked Peggy Lee, I probably would have answered, "Not very much." I always saw her as a bit too old fashioned, and a bit too white bread, as somebody who is to rock and roll what Air Supply was to eighties hair bands. In fact, I went into this album with a let's-get-this-over-with attitude, especially following an Elvis greatest hits record.

The opening song, "It's A Wonderful World," truly swings, when I expected the title of the album to be a misnomer. The next song, "Things Are Swingin'," swings even more. After two songs, I'm totally sucked in to this record.

Song after song has clever lyrics and a swinging big band sound. Jack Marshall's arrangements are impeccable, and Peggy Lee's voice fits the music like a soft white glove. I've apparently heard the wrong Peggy Lee songs all my life. When she sings "It's Been A Long Long Time," I even kind of developed a crush on her. This really isn't what I expected.

To say I like this album would be an understatement. This is an album I was dreading? That'll teach me. This is why Brad and I are doing this, to listen to stuff we would normally miss and broaden our musical tastes. Peggy Lee has won my heart. I want to hear more. So much for pre-judging. It just doesn't get much better than this.

Brad's Take:

I'd never heard of Peggy Lee before this came up on our list. If someone asked me what I know about Peggy Lee, I'd probably say, "She has two first names?" But right when Peggy Lee's singing began on the first song, "It's A Wonderful World," I immediately knew I was going to love this album.

Peggy Lee's voice is warm and welcoming. The whole time listening to this album, I felt like I was being serenaded in a tiny smoke-filled bar. It sounds like a very stripped down version of your typical big band jazz music. Without the horn section, you could say this sounds like Vince Guaraldi featuring Peggy Lee.

It's fun, it's classy, and it makes you want to get up and dance. It's also an album that I can see myself listening to on a night drive. This is definitely one of my favorite records we've reviewed so far.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Elvis' Golden Records, by Elvis Presley (April, 1958)

Brad's Take:

This is thought to be the first rock 'n roll greatest hits album. It includes eight Elvis #1 hits and five B-sides from 1956 to 1957. It includes "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "All Shook Up," and many more recognizable Elvis jukebox tunes. As of 1999, the album has gone 6x Platinum, which means 6,000,000 units have been sold from its original release date.

One thing that bugged me about this release is something that also bothered me with Elvis' second album Elvis; they kick both of these albums off with an upbeat song and then follow it up with a super slow song. I wish they did these albums like this... A side: Upbeat songs. B side: Slow songs. That way, depending on the mood of the listener, they could choose which version they wanted at that time, rather than having to flip the record over and over and over to get to certain songs. But that's the sequencer's problem, not Elvis' necessarily. Aside from the roller coaster sequencing, this is a great compilation of Elvis songs. It's got everything that any fan of The King would want; the fast upbeat songs and the slow-dancing ballads.

This is just another reminder that I need to make my own Elvis mix CD to listen to in my car

Dad's Take:

Brad has discovered one of the problems vinyl had compared to CDs, if you want to see it that way. We were at the mercy of the people who sequenced the songs. There was no programming the songs in the order you like, and skipping songs was only worth the effort if you really disliked a song. That said, the order of the songs on this record isn't that unusual. A fast song, followed by a ballad, then two or three fast songs, another ballad, and a fast song to end the side. The fast-to-slow-song ratio on this record wouldn't support the breakdown Brad suggests. If he wants a fast side and a slow side, he should check out the excellent Beach Boys Today! album which, somehow, did not make our list.

While I still think it's a little unfair to include a greatest hits package in a list of classic albums, unless the record became a phenomenon on its own (like, say, The Eagles Greatest Hits album that stayed on the charts for, like, forever), there's no denying the greatness of this record. And 40 weeks on the charts in its initial run, plus another 23 weeks after Elvis died in 1977, would qualify it as phenomenal record, I suppose.

Golden Records has most of the songs most people know, and a surprise or two for the casual listener. It's hard to listen to this record without breaking out the old Elvis imitation Mrs. Barbara Williams used to have me do in her Music As Media class back in my old Newark High School days, especially when I hear "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," which was one of my favorites to do. Only now I'd be the fat old Elvis and I'd have to rest my knees for a few days afterward.

That all of these songs were hits in a two-year period demonstrates Elvis's reign better than anything we can write about the songs. And he had enough hits in the next year and a half for another greatest hits album, which comes later on our list. But if you only wanted one Elvis record, this was the one to get before Elv1s 30 #1 Hits came out in 2002.

South Pacific Soundtrack, by Various Artists (March, 1958)

Brad's Take:

Once again, we have a soundtrack to review. I have never seen the actual Broadway show or film South Pacific so it's kind of hard to get really into this.

The film stars Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor, but apparently for the soundtrack, Brazzi's vocals were overdubbed by Giorgio Tozzi. I'm actually interested in watching the movie because I would love to compare Brazzi's voice to Tozzi's. Giorgio Tozzi sounds way too much like Dracula. I can't take his vocals seriously at all. I just imagine Dracula trying to re-invent himself by starring in a romance movie to show the world that he actually does have a sensitive side that wants love... not just blood.

The orchestration is good, and Mitzi Gaynor's voice is great, but the vocals by Dracula Tozzi are "bloody" distracting (in a bad way, if I haven't made that clear yet.) There are some good songs though. I like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." I can imagine that was every teenage girl's anthem when their boyfriend's were jerks.

I didn't really get into this album much at all. I feel like there are probably far better soundtracks that could have taken the place of this one in 1958, but for what it is, it's better than "okay" but I wouldn't call it a "classic."

Dad's Take:

Great. Now I'm going to hear Dracula, whether I want to or not. Thanks, Brad.

I've seen "South Pacific," of course, but I can't claim to know it very well. We used to listen to the Hi-Lo's version of "Bali Ha'i" before a play I was in in high school, so that's the song I know best, in a much different version.

And, yeah, I hear Dracula. Thanks again, Brad. Bela Lugosi singing "Some Enchanted Evening." Wow.

South Pacific is a great musical. It even became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like most musicals, the songs make the most sense in the context of the play. Although there are some great songs here that stand on their own, most are best when watching the show or if you know the show well enough that the songs conjure up visions of the play.

"Bali Ha'i" is a great song (although I prefer the Hi-Lo's version, but then I'm a sucker for harmony vocals), as is "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair" (which Brad is too young to associate with a certain TV commercial) and "Some Enchanted Evening." "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" sounds like Stan Freberg to me, but that's because Freberg is great at capturing the feel of a musical in some of his production numbers. "Honey Bun" is also a fun song.

"You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" is interesting now in light of its controversial nature when the musical came out, with it's justification of interracial marriage, which at the time was deemed indecent and "pro-communist" and a threat to the American way of life. The song inspired a bill in Georgia that outlawed entertainment that contained "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow" when the musical toured the southern United States. The writers of the musical refused to remove the song because it reflected the whole reason they wanted to do the play in the first place.

On its own, as an album, with only a weak mental context for the songs, and now with that vision of Dracula stuck in my head, it doesn't stand up as well on its own. But it's mostly an enjoyable listen anyway. I think Brad would like it more if he watched it instead of just listening. The songs are meant to be acted and danced, not merely listened to.

Sam Cooke, by Sam Cooke (March, 1958)

Brad's Take:

Sam Cooke's self titled solo debut was originally released in the US in 1957, but our book lists the UK release date of 1958.

Sam Cooke started out singing lead vocals in the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. It wasn't until 1956 that he wanted to try crossing over to pop music. In those days, it was frowned upon for nice gospel boys to sing pop music. In order to not be chastised, he released his first pop single "Lovable" under the alias Dale Cook, but his voice was too recognizable and it didn't actually trick anyone.

This album is definitely worthy of the "classic" title. His voice really makes these songs amazing. I love his voice's tone and powerful it sounds at times. He sounds young and excited to be doing something different than gospel music.

The orchestration from Bumps Blackwell is near perfect as well. It doesn't sound much different than the other blues influenced pop albums at the time, but Bumps pulled it off very well. I'm sure that working with Little Richard a lot in his early days helped perfect his skills too.

Most of the songs on this album are slow to mid-tempo, but it's a really nice laid back record. I'll definitely give this more than one spins.

Dad's Take:

This album sends me. OK, cheap joke, but I couldn't resist. Plus it's true.

There's a lot here I've never heard, or at least that I haven't heard from Sam Cooke. Most of the songs are pop standards, but the Sam Cooke treatment works well. The R&B fusion with jazz and gospel works for me, and Cooke's voice is always flawless, even when matched with the wrong song. Cooke himself was reportedly unhappy with the song selection, which he deemed inappropriate, but he recorded them well anyway. He makes it sound so easy. There are a couple songs I could live without ever hearing again, but overall, it's a solid record.

Several of these fifties records make me look forward to music becoming more album-oriented a few years down our list. Sometimes the filler is a little too obvious. This album feels more complete than, say, the Jerry Lee Lewis record we reviewed recently, but it's definitely a collection of songs rather than a unified album.

But you can't really knock an album for being put together the way it was done back in those days. The important thing here is that Sam Cooke could sing, and the instrumental arrangements are good, even if nothing breaks new ground here. The song selection is satisfying, for the most part. The oddest choices are probably "Danny Boy" (Sam Cooke just doesn't sound all that Irish, and the R&B treatment is unintentionally funny) and "Tammy," which is just kind of a dorky song, written for a teen girl singer.

This is one of those records a kid could listen to when his parents were home, without freaking them out. But then, it has a number of songs that the parents would have known. Fortunately, they are done well.

Good record. Mostly.

Johnny's Greatest Hits, by Johnny Mathis (March, 1958)

Dad's Take:

It's kind of cheating to include greatest hits records in a list of classic albums, but there are several on our list, so there you go. But I suppose when the greatest hits album not only topped the charts but stayed on the charts for two and half months short of 500 weeks, a Billboard record until it was bested by Pink Floyd's 1973 Dark Side Of The Moon, the album definitely qualifies as a classic.

The performances on this album are as sweet as honey. Whether the classic Mathis anthem, "Chances Are," or standards like "When Sunny Gets Blue" or the gorgeous "Wonderful! Wonderful!," Mathis is as close to perfect as you're going to get. He was perhaps the best old-school balladeer of the rock and roll age. Not bad for a Texas kid who grew up in San Francisco and very nearly made the Olympic track team.

Song after song, this album is full of slow dancing favorites. If 1958 was anything like 1978 (and I suspect it wasn't all that different), then this album was put on late at night, instantly turning teen dance parties into teen make-out parties.

Nearly every song that came on made me think, "Oh yeah! I know that one." I don't always recognize the titles, but I know most of the songs. I'd forgotten about great tunes like "It's Not For Me To Say." So, I might ding this one a bit for being a Greatest Hits record instead of showcasing what Mathis could do on a complete album, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a great record of mellow love songs, sung by one of the classic voices of popular music. Mathis occasionally tips over the line into sappiness, but most of the time he's just plain romantic.

One can only wonder how much this record contributed to the last few years of the baby boom.

Brad's Take:

Before listening to this, I'd heart the name Johnny Mathis here and there, but I don't know if I ever knowingly listened to any of his music.

After listening to the whole album, I re-discovered a couple songs that I have heard once or twice before, such as "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

If Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours was a post-break up album, Johnny Mathis' Johnny's Greatest Hits could have been the pre-break up album. All the songs are corny, but every song is sung with all of Johnny's full love stricken heart. (That was pretty corny too.) The lyrics aren't that corny though. They are love songs, but they're not overly cheesy. It's a grilled cheese sandwich, but the cheese doesn't melt over the edges. You know what I mean...

I'm excited to finally start a Johnny Mathis collection. I really like this greatest hits record and I'm very interested in hearing more from Johnny Mathis' ginormous back catalog.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

One Dozen Berrys, by Chuck Berry (March, 1958)

Dad's Take:

We've heard Bill Haley. Elvis. Fats. We've listened to Little Richard and Jerry Lee. But one key part of the foundation of rock and roll is missing, until now.

It's impossible to overestimate Chuck Berry's impact on rock and roll. When you hear a guitar solo by one of today's rockers, you're hearing Chuck Berry. When a lyricist tells a story and plays with the meter of his lines, you're hearing Chuck Berry.

On the excellent rockumentary about Berry, "Hail Hail Rock And Roll," Chuck talks about the blues music he heard in his neighborhood. But then then he'd go with his father to work in the white neighborhoods, and he'd hear country songs. So he figured out that he could make more more money from his music if he combined the two. He wasn't the first musician to mix blues and country, but he was perhaps the first to mix them so seamlessly. Then he played the horn solos from the swing combos on his guitar, and created a sound unlike anything that came before and that has not left us since.

"One Dozen Berrys" is Chuck Berry's second album. Significantly, it was the first to be released in England, where it had a tremendous impact on the up-and-coming British rock and roll scene.

This album contains several hits: "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Oh, Baby Doll," "Reeling & Rocking," and "Rock & Roll Music." But it also shows Berry has a serious musician with blues tunes like the instrumental "Blue Feeling" (and "Low Feeling," the same recording slowed down), the bilingual love song, "La Juanda," and the R&B love song, "How You've Changed." Chuck Berry had ambitions beyond teen dance music, but he also knew what he needed to do to make his money. The result is an album that wears its influences on its sleeves, but also shows how those influences were combined into that unique Chuck Berry sound. "Oh, Baby Doll" is a great example. It has a traditional country rhythm, sped up a bit, with R&B instrumentation behind a story song.

Chuck Berry changed everything.

In addition to being the king of rock and roll guitar, Chuck Berry is one of the great lyricists of all time, moving beyond the usual popular love songs with a kind of folk poetry that is on par with Cole Porter and the Gershwins, but with a straight-from-the-streets twist that makes it so amazingly easy to relate to. It's not just the words that he chose, but also the way he plays with the meter of his lines. I miss that on the many instrumentals on this record (maybe a couple too many), but those instrumentals also show the great musicianship from Chuck Berry and his band, especially his other musical half, pianist Johnnie Johnson, who deserves a bigger share of the credit for Chuck Berry's sound than he is usually given.

One thing that amazes me about Chuck Berry is that, unlike many of the rock and roll pioneers, his best music does not sound dated. A good Chuck Berry song from 1958 is still a good song today. Chuck Berry's music often lacks the trendy, novelty-song feel of so much of early rock and roll.

Brad's Take:

The first time I remember really listening to Chuck Berry was in 7th grade. We had to do a small report on a famous person, and my dad suggested I do it on Chuck Berry so I did. I played a clip of Chuck Berry performing and then read my report to the class. I didn't really listen to Chuck Berry much after that, at least not on my own.

This guy was an amazing performer, which helped him become a classic artist. Like Elvis, Chuck Berry had his own stage moves that people loved to see. On top of just being a great performer in general, he was an amazing guitarist. His guitar playing style stepped up the rock 'n roll game.

One Dozen Berrys has a couple of Chuck's well known songs, including "Sweet Sixteen" and "Rock & Roll Music," as well as some other awesome jams that I have never heard before, like "La Juanda." The lyrics to that song cracked me up for some reason:

I speak only the language of English
I don't understand Espanol

This album is a great record for people wanting to get into Chuck Berry. It's got some hits, some slower songs, and not much filler. If only "My Ding A Ling" was on this one...

Jerry Lee Lewis, by Jerry Lee Lewis (December, 1957)

Dad's Take:

It's telling that this album by one of rock and roll's original bad boys begins with an Elvis cover, turning "Don't Be Cruel" into a honky-tonk rollicker. And that the next song is a cover of Leadbelly's "Irene Goodnight." Jerry Lee Lewis was an exciting rocker with deep country roots. A hyperactive hillbilly, Lewis was always looking for trouble and had no difficulty finding it.

This classic Jerry Lee Lewis album has one big hit, "High School Confidential," but other songs like "Put Me Down" have the sound most people associate with Jerry Lee Lewis. But this album also has a ton of filler. At his best, Jerry Lee is one of my favorites. Unfortunately his output is a little bit inconsistent. Or maybe you prefer "versatile." On any Jerry Lee Lewis record, other than some greatest hits collections, you're going to get rock and roll as manic as Little Richard, Hank Williams style country, Dixieland spirituals, and bar room honky tonk. That's not a bad thing, as long as you don't go in expecting every song to be "Great Balls Of Fire." The Killer was far too ADHD to be pinned down to one musical style.

Lewis rose quickly and burned out just as fast, thanks to all that trouble he was looking for. Marrying his 13-year-old cousin was, in retrospect, maybe not such a very good idea, and it brought his career to a crashing halt after only about a year and a half. He has stuck around since then, but his prime was cut short by his actions. 1950s rock and roll liked its bad boys, but not when they really went Bad.

With all the great music he gave us in that short period, Jerry Lee Lewis leaves us with a "what if" almost as big as the ones we were left with on February 3, 1959. Fortunately, not for the same reason, but it still left Jerry Lee Lewis as one of the first tragic figures of rock and roll, brought down by his own hubris and poor judgment. Jerry Lee stuck around to have a few more hits even as late as the 1970s (especially on the country charts), and to electrify live audience all the way to now. I don't think the music world ever really forgave him, but they didn't forget him either.

Brad's Take: 

When I think of Jerry Lee Lewis, I instantly think of "Great Balls Of Fire." That's the only song that I really associate with Jerry, despite how unfair that probably is. I'm just only really familiar with his fast blues rock music. It wasn't until track 9 ("High School Confidential") when I heard the Jerry Lee Lewis sound that I was already familiar with.

I was a bit bored with all of the mid-tempo filler songs in the first half of this album. Maybe it's just today, but it wasn't holding my attention until "High School Confidential." And when the next track started ("When The Saints Go Marching In") I chuckled to myself. What a random song to throw on a rock 'n roll album. But either way, it was a fun version of the tune.

Needless to say, this album was mostly underwhelming. Especially with the Little Richard album we reviewed before this still fresh in my head. This album's energy and excitement just doesn't compare to Lil Rich.

This album isn't necessarily bad or anything. I just know that Jerry Lee Lewis has better music than what was put on this album.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Here's Little Richard, by Little Richard (July, 1957)

Dad's Take:

It's hard to imagine a greater contrast between two records than between the last one we reviewed, the soundtrack from "Around The World In 80 Days," and this one by the "architect of rock and roll," but the juxtaposition of these two records shows how schizophrenic the popular music charts were in 1957, as rock and roll started to dominate but still shared chart space with more traditional musical forms.

Victor Young's classical film score, heavy on the strings as it is, just can't match the excitement Little Richard's manic piano-driven rock and roll. It's clear which one is better music by traditional definitions, but the kids who were buying the records didn't care about traditional definitions. They wanted fun and excitement and enjoyed shocking their parents. Reviewing these two records back to back is about as detailed a definition of the 1950s generation gap as you're likely to find anywhere.

Few of the fifties icons shocked like Little Richard, this noticeably effeminate screaming black man. My mom tells stories of how her parents reacted to her Little Richard records, stories that include a certain very impolite N word that's hard to imagine coming from my grandparents, but apparently did.

This record starts with the iconic "womp bomp aloombomp a womp bam boom" and never lets go. There's screaming, sex, "jungle beats," and everything the aging white post-war culture feared, but that the kids absorbed and emulated in a way that never happened again until the hip-hop revolution 30 years later. Here's Little Richard is almost a greatest hits record, with great songs like "Tutti Frutti," "Ready Teddy," "Slippin' and Slidin'," "Rip It Up," "Jenny Jenny," and "Long Tall Sally." Those well-known songs are padded with R&B ballads and other fun stuff.

The mixed quality of the recordings makes it clear that this is a collection of music that was recorded over time in different studios. It also makes it obvious that the copy of this album we found online was actually cobbled together from different sources, rather than from the original record. A couple songs were the wrong versions. As a result, there's no uniform production value, and sometimes that can be a little distracting. But it doesn't change the fact that this is a kick-ass record (or a re-creation of a kick-ass record). I'm going to have to find the real thing.

It's easy to find what attracted the kids to this music. "Ready Teddy, for example," starts with a traditional swing sound and kicks out the jams. It's fast, fun, dirty, rebellious dance music that pissed off the parents. What's not to like?

Very few people influenced the future of popular music like Little Richard did, but nobody knew that when this record came out. Listen to it in the context of its time and it's exciting, scary, and more than a little naughty and dangerous. In 1957, this was about as edgy as anything could be. When Aunt Mary almost catches Uncle John with bald-headed Sally and they duck back in the alley, everything decent is turned on its head. That's the stuff of greatness. That's the stuff that changes the world.

Brad's Take:

After listening to the The Girl Can't Help It soundtrack, it made me excited that we'd eventually get to Little Richard's debut album Here's Little Richard. This is the first time I recall listening to a full official Little Richard album, and I am far than disappointed.

The energy this man has is just out of control. You can hear how much fun he must have been having in the studio recording his first album's set of songs. Whether it's a fast song like "Tutti Frutti" or a slower song like "Can't Believe You Wanna Leave", he puts 120% of himself into the songs and gives them maximum energy. The energy is totally contagious too. I found myself air-drumming to a lot of the songs.

This might as well be a greatest hits record because it includes so many Little Richard favorites, such as "Tutti Frutti", "Ready Teddy", "Long Tall Sally", and many others.

Besides the Frank Sinatra album that we reviewed, Here's Little Richard is my favorite album that we've reviewed so far. It's just straight up fun and energetic. It's an amazing debut album from an artist that is a couple years shy of 80 years old and still rocking these songs like it was 1957 again.