Friday, November 7, 2014

"What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye (May, 1971)

Brad's Take:

We all know the name Marvin Gaye. If you're like me, you probably know him best for his bedroom classics like "Let's Get It On." This album is a political-based one though. It's a concept album told from the point of a view of a Vietnam War soldier who just returns home to see that nothing has changed and that the country is still full of hatred and injustice.

Marvin Gaye's lyrics are inspired. You can hear it in his voice how much this meant to him. Although he made it into a story, you can tell that it's a passionate topic for the soul singer. 

Underneath the solid storyline is gorgeous soulful music that plays through each song. Each song flows into the next one swimmingly, like the album is supposed to just be one single track with different movements throughout it.

It's hard to pick what songs are better than others because they all flow so well into each other. If anything, it gets sort of repetitive since all the songs are more or less about the same things, and they're all the same tempo. But it works! The title track "What's Going On" is one of his most well-known songs so that one obviously stuck out the most to me, but everything else blends together, but in a good way. And the album is just over 30 minutes long so it doesn't feel too long at all.

For what it is, I can see why this would be a classic album, especially for its time. It's a great representation of the era and the political crap our country was going through.

Dad's Take:

This is probably my favorite soul album. I love the combination of Gaye's smooth voice, the beautiful music, the creative production, and the social commentary.

The message of this album was important at the time, and much of it is still relevant. However, I often find myself forgetting to listen to the lyrics and I just listen to Marvin's voice. A good example of this is the last section of "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)."

I do agree with Brad's comment about the whole album being pretty much one tempo. But there's enough going on (see what I did there?) to keep me interested. Like the spoken/sung call and response of "Save the Children." But then there's "Right On," a jazzy funky tune with internal tempo changes that blend with the slowed down beginning of "Wholy Holy." Plus, Gaye's terrific voice and that music pulls me in, keeps me interested, and prevents boredom. Maybe the tempo doesn't change much, but the songs are different enough, and yet they all slide together perfectly.

The best-known tracks are "What's Going On," "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler')" but singling out songs on a record that is obviously meant to be heard as a whole almost seems like a violation of the album.

When taken as a whole, this album is both dark and light, and beautiful. Truly a masterpiece.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Sticky Fingers" by The Rolling Stones (April, 1971)

Brad's Take:

Right off the bat, I enjoyed this album much more than Aftermath. It's immediately more energetic and rockin'. This is the kind of Rolling Stones stuff I am into.

The best thing about Sticky Fingers (besides the scandalous album cover) is that just about every song is great! You have the fast hard rock songs that I love most, like "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch", but you also have some awesome slower jams like "Wild Horses" and "I Got The Blues", and even with the differences in tempos throughout the album, it still feels like a consistent and cohesive album.

There isn't really much else to say about this album. I'm sure it's not their greatest album in their huge discography, but it's nowhere near bad.

Dad's Take:

Unlike most British Invasion bands, the Rolling Stones made it into the 70s without becoming a nostalgia act. And they had a great decade. Their first studio album of the decade, and their first on their new record label, is often considered one of their best. It's their first to have no contribution at all from Brian Jones, who had died in 1969, but it is drenched with excellent guitar playing from Mick Taylor.

The album opens with "Brown Sugar," one of my favorite Stones songs, so I like it right off the bat. After that it's sort of a mixed bag. I'm not usually a big fan of Stones ballads, but "Wild Horses" is one of their better slow songs. Same with "I Got the Blues," one of the few ballads where Jagger doesn't sound slightly out of place.

"Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" is a good mid-tempo rocker with a funky, lengthy instrumental jam, the kind of song the Stones do so well. That jam apparently happened by accident. Both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor claim they just kept playing after they finished the song, but the tape was rolling and they liked what they ended up with.

"Bitch" opens side two the way "Brown Sugar" starts the record. It's one of the highlights of the album I love it when the Stones show their harder, rougher side, and this is classic Stones. It sounds like it's always this close to spinning out of control, but it never does. The rest of the side is pretty gentle musically, although it's dark lyrically. They even venture into country territory with "Moonlight Mile." It's a good side, but I would have liked one more big rocker.

The album ends up sounding like a template for seventies rock albums. Rough, bluesy, a little dirty, and full of a good mix of up, mid, and low tempo songs (although one or two more uptempo songs would not have hurt the album any), but all performed with a rough edge. Basically, the record is what you'd expect of a Rolling Stones album. Riff-filled blues-based rock and roll, often played with swaggering abandon. The Stones are best when they don't try to be more than they are. But when you are arguably the best rock and roll band in history, being what you are is a very good thing.

"Tapestry" by Carole King (February, 1971)

Brad's Take:

Carole King is a legend. She's written and co-written so many incredible songs over the years, and she is still making it happen today. I've heard many of the songs she's written, but this was my first time actually listening to an entire Carole King album.

Tapestry is Carole King's second album, and it's sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. She also won 4 Grammy awards for this album, including Record of the Year in 1972. And rightfully so, I must say. This album is packed with great songs, such as "So Far Away", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", and many others that I'm sure you've heard before.

It's interesting to hear Carole's versions of the songs she wrote but were popularized by other artists. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" (made famous by The Shirelles) is a good example. The Shirelles version is much faster than Carole's. Carole King adds a sad and emotional twist to her performance, and you can hear how sad and desperate the lyrics are. Her version of "You've Got A Friend" (made famous by James Taylor) is also great.

Needless to say, all of these songs are well-written and very enjoyable. Even in the mellower moments of the album, there's an emotional connection that she makes with the listener where you can feel what she's feeling. Her imperfect voice helps make the songs on Tapestry feel genuine and real. You can say that she sounds like a "Natural Woman."

The more I read about Carole King, and see the lists of songs she's written, it blows my mind! I had no idea her songwriting went back as far as the early 60s. She's written so many songs that I love that were performed by other artists, like "Chains" by The Cookies, "Go Away Little Girl" by Donny Osmond (which was the first song to ever be #1 by two different artists), "The Loco-Motion", and so many more. This lady is a hit-writing machine, and Tapestry showcases that well.

Dad's Take:

Every generation has certain albums that everybody has. Just about every album collection when I was younger included Rumours, Frampton Comes Alive, The Best of Bread, Boston, Hotel California, Dark Side of the Moon, Their Greatest Hits (I don't even have to say whose; people my age will know), Saturday Night Fever, and Tapestry. (Most of these are on our list, by the way.)

Tapestry was a monster hit. 10x Platinum in the US. It's hard to even wrap my head around that. It is in the running for the best of the above list, although strong arguments can be made for at least four of the others.  This may well be the iconic singer-songwriter album, or songwriter-turned-singer album. So many of these songs were either hit singles or received significant radio play that it feels like a greatest hits album. Some of the songs that weren't hits became hits by other singers while this album was still on the charts.

Whether you like Carole King or not, and whether you got sick of this album because of the constant airplay, it's impossible not to understand why this made our list. Personally, I like it. A lot. "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late" are great songs that sound good even now. The rest of the album is just as good. "You've Got A Freind" was an anthem for people around my age, although mostly due to the version by James Taylor. And Aretha Franklin's version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" was just as big. Personally, I really like the mellower take on "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." It just feels like the right tempo.

King's voice isn't perfect, but it's the kind of voice that invites you to sing along. And it's really hard not to. Most of the songs are familiar enough that anybody above a certain age knows them.

Song after song, it's just a brilliant album.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Stoney End" by Barbra Streisand (February, 1971)

Brad's Take:

I go to a lot of used record stores and I am convinced that every single household in America had at least one Streisand album in their vinyl collections. Because no matter what record store I'm in, no matter what town I'm in (big or small), there's at least a couple Streisand albums on the shelf, no fail. And with that said, I started getting curious. Why are there always so many Streisand albums at these stores, and why don't people want to own them anymore? So one day while I was at work, I Googled: "Best Barbra Streisand album" and her album People (1964) was her #1 best (according to I listened to a bit of that album until I realized my questions had been answered. It became obvious to me that her musical style just didn't age well, and couldn't be carried over into the 2000s the way that it did in the 60s and 70s. Also, I will note that on that same list on, Stoney End is ranked #20. So there's that.

With Stoney End, young producer Richard Perry gathered a bunch of songs that he thought Barbra would be able to make her own. They were going for a more upbeat, adult contemporary sound for this album rather than her typical Broadway/showtune style she was popular for. They pulled it off. 

Halfway into Stoney End I realized that I actually was enjoying it a lot more than I expected I would. I don't know if it's the song choices or if it's her powerful voice or what, but I liked it! I prefer this classic sound a lot more than the showtunesy stuff she is best known for. This is so much more enjoyable to me. 

The album contains songs written by the great Carole King, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, and a few others. The songs chosen by Richard Perry are spot on. He did a wonderful job at finding songs that Barbra could put her own spin on and still have them sound great. 

If all of Barbra Streisand's music sounded like this, I would be able to understand why everyone had at least one album in their collections. Maybe her subsequent albums were more like Stoney End. I wouldn't really know, but I'm definitely curious to hear what followed this enjoyable little album.

Dad's Take:

I have to confess a bias up front. Barbra Streisand has always irritated me for some hard-to-define reason, although I recognize her immense talent and would have trouble coming up with a counter argument if you were to claim she was one of the greatest voices of my generation. There's no question that she deserves her status. Maybe it's just that, in general, I'm not a big fan of brassy voices. Maybe it's because there were a few years back in the day when, no matter how hard I tried, I could not escape from her songs, which were played constantly on the AM stations I listened to when I was ten.

I'll try to set that probably irrational bias aside and just listen.

Most of the songs here are lovely, and the production of some songs, like "I Don't Know Where I Stand," have a dream-like quality. Fun songs like "Hands Off the Man" are a kind of Broadway-Pop fusion that usually works pretty well. "Stoney End" was a sizable hit, and still sounds pretty good. I also really enjoy "Time and Love," a catchy little song with a clap-along white-soul rhythm featuring most of the singers who were featured in the movie "Twenty Feet From Stardom," as does "Free the People." I wasn't surprised to find out that "Stoney End" and "Time and Love" were written by the same person, Laura Nyro.

As Brad mentioned Babs really does justice to songs by some of the best songwriters of the time, like Carole King, Randy Newman, and Gordon Lightfoot. A few songs in and I'm enjoying it more than I really want to admit, although songs such as "If You Could Read My Mind," despite a very good performance, make me want to go listen to the original version. A few songs later and I'm starting to get bored. The super-clean, hyper-polished productions are starting to get to me. Did I just criticize it for being too professional, too well-done? Yeah, I guess I did.

Streisand shows a wide range of styles on this record. Broadway, torch songs, pop, standards. She even gets a little bluesy now and then. She showcases her legendary voice and versatility. In some cases, but certainly not all, it feels like the track is about the singer, not the song. At other times, she successfully interprets the song in a way that really makes you notice how good the song is. In the end though, to me it all sounds just a little too sterile. The songs seldom connect with me personally, even songs that do when performed by another artist. It's like the productions are so polished that I can't quite grasp them.When she manages to transcend the shiny surface, Streisand wins me over.

I enjoyed the album more--a lot more, actually--than I had expected, but I wasn't overly disappointed when it ended. Any problem I had with the record was admittedly my own. It's a very good record, performed flawlessly, and full of excellent songs. Overall, it's not quite my cuppa, but it definitely earns a place on our list.


"American Beauty" by Grateful Dead (November, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Just a few months after Workingman's Dead was released, the Grateful Dead released their follow-up American Beauty. I enjoyed the former quite a bit and so I was looking forward to diving into this one. Being recorded only a few months apart left little room for growth in sound. This is more like a sequel to Workingman's Dead. It was more or less more of the same thing, which isn't a bad thing by any means.

"Box of Rain" kicks the record off and you are able to tell immediately that they are just picking up where their last album left off. Once again, you can hear the Crosby, Still, and Nash folk/country influence. "Friend of the Devil" was one of those fun knee-slapper songs that you'd sing along to around the campfire with your pals.

Basically, this album is exactly what I expected it would be as soon as it started. It's a spin-off of the album that came before it. There's a lot of good stuff, a few songs that blend together, but nothing I really disliked or anything. "Till the Morning Comes" would probably be the only track I'd actually come back to. That song is my cup of tea.

Dad's Take:

I really like Workingman's Dead, which we reviewed earlier, but American Beauty is the Dead album that I am most likely to spin. If I had to name a favorite Grateful Dead song, chances are I'd pick one from this album. "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia" (for a long time my absolute favorite Dead song, although it now has contenders), and "Ripple" are all top candidates. And "Truckin'" is, of course, the one Dead song everybody knows. And for good reason. "Truckin'" is probably also the first Grateful Dead song I ever knew. It received heavy airplay on the San Francisco stations, and I always had one ear to my little white clock radio.

There's a relaxed, contented feeling to this album. I get the sense that they were having a good time, and really enjoyed this making this album. And we enjoy it with them.

This is pure folk-rock-country-hippy bliss, full of rebellion against The Man, but in that laid back way that says "I just want to be left alone to enjoy the world without being hassled." How does anyone not feel like life is good when listening to the sunshine daydream of "Sugar Magnolia"?

Top to bottom, this is just plain old good listening. Song after song, story after story, makes you feel good, which is weird, really, because some of the stories are not all that happy. Getting busted, running from the heat, escaping the hassles of society. Those themes are all here. But they make it sound like it was fun to be a cultural outlaw. And of course, there are other songs about just kicking back and enjoying the world. Every time a new song starts, I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah! I love this song!" "Box of Rain," "Candyman," "Brokedown Palace" (with its gorgeous chorus), "Till the Morning Comes," the hymn-like "Attics of My Life"--it's like the great songs never end.

Stylistically, there's not much difference between this album and the one before it, but there's just something about this one. Maybe it feels cozier or more personal. Maybe it's just a bit tighter. Maybe the sound they experimented with on Workingman's Dead just gels even better. Or maybe it's just because this record contains both "Sugar Magnolia" and the flat-out incredible "Ripple." I don't know.

All I know is, I love this album. I don't listen to it all the time, but when I dig it out, I tend to listen to it over and over.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Tap Root Manuscript" by Neil Diamond (October, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Ah, our first Neil Diamond album has finally appeared! 

Apparently, this album was quite a big deal when it originally came out. It was Neil's sixth album, but his first where he decided to experiment and step outside of the standard Neil Diamond box. The first side of the album was your standard Neil Diamond album, but then the B side featured The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet.) It was this African trilogy that showcased Neil's experimental side. It features a lot of African influences, as you can probably imagine.

Side A (which I will refer to as "Typical Neil.") It features the awesome single "Cracklin' Rosie" and a handful of luke-warm Typical Neil songs. Nothing real amazing but a couple catchy songs here and there. "Cracklin' Rosie" being the best one.

Side B is when things get weird. Almost comically weird, since it's coming from Neil Diamond. But kudos to him for branching out and changing up his formula! This part of the album is very African-ish. Instrumentally and even lyrically. I'm not sure where his love of African music came from, but he pulls it off as well as he probably could. It isn't bad by any means, but Neil Diamond is kind of a novelty act for people my age, so this is just strange to me. "Soolaimon" is really catchy though. It sounds like a Typical Neil song, but with an African guest vocalist doing some soprano opera stuff in the background. 

Needless to say, this isn't album I will ever actually purchase, but I commend Neil for experimenting and trying something new. It paved the way for other musicians like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon to try similar things, and that's pretty cool.

Dad's Take:

Poor Neil Diamond. Today he is known mostly as that guy you "BOM BOM BOM" with at sporting events. As a result, kids have trouble taking him seriously. But it's always kind of been that way. He's like the Vincent Price of popular music. No matter how popular and talented he is, it's almost impossible not to associate him with cheese.

What the kids don't realize is that there was a time, when I was first getting heavily into music, when the man could do no wrong. His records flew off the shelves. You might not necessarily have wanted at the time to admit that you were buying them, but if you're around my age, you did. You know you did. Funny how women admit it readily and guys are hesitant, but we bought them too.

The thing is, despite some incredibly stupid major hits that we couldn't help singing along with (seriously, have you ever paid attention to the lyrics of "Song Sung Blue" and "I Am I Said"?), the guy had some songwriting chops. By the time this album, his most ambitious to date, came out, he'd been around for a long time, writing both for himself and for others. ("I'm a Believer" by the Monkees anyone? And that's not his only Monkees tune.)

The first side of this record is ambitious, with some fairly heavy songs in addition to the poppy "Cracklin' Rosie." Nicely done orchestrations, and emotional songs make side one a worthy offering.

It's the second side where he pushes the limits and surprises us all with his "African Folk Ballet." Of all people, who would have expected it from Neil Freaking Diamond? But it goes back to the Vincent Price comparison. Both men took themselves seriously, and were better than their reputations with the cognoscenti. This is Neil Diamond doing what Vincent Price did when he did Shakespeare. Both men have the chops to pull it off, but they still bring their particular brands of cheese to the effort, even if it's mostly in eye of the beholder.

In neither case is the reputation fair. Vincent Price was a truly fine actor, giving his best even in silly roles. Neil Diamond earned his continuing massive popularity with an endless string of hits and albums. If Diamond's experiment here fails, it's more a failure caused by the listener's expectations and the baggage of Diamond's reputation. But that's a legitimate cause of failure.

The suite is creative. It's interesting. It's entertaining. It's pulled off nicely. Neil Diamond's particular brand of bombast works in this kind of piece. Some of the songs, especially the enduringly popular "Soolaimon," are very good. But it ends up almost seeming like a novelty record because, from this particular performer, it seems really, well, novel.

And it's totally unfair. Truth is, this is a good album, an ambitious project pulled off admirably. It broke new ground, and is, by any measure, a success. It showcases why Neil Diamond is so hugely popular. Fact is, when he's good, as on this record, he's really good. He's legendary, and deserves to be seen that way.

But still.

"Loaded" by The Velvet Underground (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Before I hit play on this album, I got flashbacks to the Velvet Underground's first album that my dad and I reviewed earlier. I got really nervous about busting this one open until I remembered that the Velvet Underground's self-titled album was actually pretty great. So I crossed my fingers and hoped that Loaded would be on par with the one that came just a year before it. Thankfully, I was relieved.

"Who Loves The Sun" kicks the album off. It feels like a perfect depressing response to the Beatles' optimistic song "Here Comes The Sun." Lou Reed begins the song with this great verse: Who loves the sun? / Who cares that it makes plants grow? / Who cares what it does / Since you broke my heart? This song is awesome, and is a cool way to open the album. 

Before hopping into the studio, Lou Reed and his boys had a plan to make an album "loaded" with hopeful radio singles. They wanted radio-play and so that's what they set out to get. All of the songs are pretty upbeat and single-worthy until it gets to track 5 ("New Age") which is very moody and slow-paced.

The album picks back up with the rockin' "Head Held High." This is another great song that should have been a single on rock radio in 1970. It sounds pretty "ahead of its time" to me.

Like I said before, the band was wanting to make an album that would produce some radio singles. Loaded spawned at least two singles that are still played regularly on classic rock radio stations: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll."

This album was pretty great. There weren't any songs on it that I disliked. Even the 7 and a half minute long song "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" didn't kill me. However, I think I prefer their self-titled record more than Loaded.

Dad's Take:

This is what you get when talented musicians realize that art and commerce really can mix.

There's almost a snideness under commercial tracks like "Who Loves The Sun," a sly sneer, an extended middle finger. That has always been in VU's songs, but this time it's actually more meaningful because that finger hides behind a smile.

Lou Reed, who left the band shortly before the album's release, becomes a star in this album, doing his Lou Reed thang on songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll," portending the solo career he was about to enjoy.

This album features good songs, but is not a sudden sell out. This still sounds like the Velvet Underground, only the songs are accessible and comprehensible and relatable. After the first couple VU albums we reviewed, I might never have believed that I'd one day be tapping my foot while listening to them.

There's kind of a Stones feel to several of these songs, a rough-sounding band full of rough characters delivering a white R&B record. I'm enjoying this one, and finding myself wanting to go back and try those early albums again.

Songs like "Head Held High" show why VU influenced early New York punk and the CBGB's scene. It takes that Stones influence I mentioned and roughens it into straight-up white R&B with a punkish twist. It's a fun song.

Then there's "Lonesome Cowboy Bill," which reminds me more of the Grateful Dead. So does the lengthy closing track, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'." Definitely not a bad thing. Lou Reed and Jerry Garcia have some vocal similarities, so when the song styles are similar too, it's hard not to make the comparison.

One of the most surprising songs, "I Found A Reason," features harmonies and a spoken interlude straight out of the sixties, but it has a wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality that is necessary to make that style of song succeed with Reed's style. It sort of feels like this should be the last song, a kind of coda to the album. But we're far from done, with about 11 minutes to go.
All in all, I enjoyed this album. I still don't think I'd put Velvet Underground in my top 20, but I'm learning to appreciate them, and even to like them. Their later work gives me more of an understanding of their early work. I can add them to a long list of people who I resisted at first but who have grown on me over time, which, I suppose, is why it pays to keep listening, even when a band doesn't grab you at first.

"Abraxas" by Santana (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Apparently, September of 1970 was a stacked month full of albums that sooner or later became "classics." Abraxas by Carlos Santana is yet another one to have made the list. 

This is my first time with a full Santana record, and it kicks off with "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" which sounds like 1970 to me. A psychedelic keyboard sound, some rumbling Latin bongos, and very little guitar, which was surprising to me since I am pretty familiar with what Santana is capable of on the guitar.

When "Black Magic Woman" starts, you understand the first track was just a prelude to the album, and track 2 is where this thing really begins. Anyone who is even just a little bit familiar with Santana (like myself) knows his variation of the Fleetwood Mac song "Black Magic Woman."

Next up was Santana's version of "Oye Como Va" (originally by Tito Puente) which is another song I immediately recognized. Good luck not singing along to that one, even though (if you're like me) you have no idea what you're actually saying. 

Carlos Santana has a very cool guitar style. It feels very well rehearsed because it's so fluid and clean. Not clean in tone, but clean as in "spotless" or "perfect." It's all very well articulated. That's just one thing I notice about his playing. 

This album has solos and memorable riffs all over the place. "Incident at Neshabur" in particular has a really cool riff that will be stuck in my head the rest of the day. "Hope You're Feeling Better" sounds like they're channeling their inner Jimi Hendrix a bit. Both in guitar playing and vocals. Gregg Rolie's vocals especially have that Jimi Hendrix disortion "ness" to them.

I'm not sure how much producer credit was split between Carlos Santana and Fred Catero, but this album feels very well thought out and cohesive. They knew exactly what they wanted and how to execute it. Maybe Carlos is as good of a producer as he is a guitar player. It doesn't seem like he half-asses what he does. Maybe that's part of what makes him so legendary even today.

Dad's Take:

Santana. That's almost all I need to say. I love this stuff.

Coming off his surprise show-stopping performance at Woodstock, Santana put out two great albums. Then followed them with more great albums.

Abraxas is great from start to finish, with it's Latin-flavored-psychedelic-funky-rock-jazz-fusion. Everybody recognizes the two classic tunes here, "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va," numbers two and three in the track list. But don't stop listening there.

This album--although it, of course, has great songs--works best as a whole album. It has a flow, a musical storyline. The songs are unified without becoming monotonous. It's almost a perfect musical picture of the area where I grew up, only a few miles from Santana Central. This is my local music, full of memories and a feeling--a sense--that feels much like home. Maybe not my street, but my town and my region.

Santana might be the tightest-sounding jam band ever, or maybe the loosest-sounding tight band. They expand the concepts of rock and roll and jam and create foot-tapping, head-bopping sound paintings that suck you in and threaten to never let you go. Not that you want to get out. You don't just listen to Abraxas. You feel it. You visit it. It invites you to move in and whether you want to go or not, you find yourself there, living an adventure you don't want to end. It's fun, sometimes frightening, sometimes sexy, and almost always irresistible. The music is literally a trip, and you don't want it to end.

Enough writing. I'm just going to let Abraxas carry me away.

"Curtis" by Curtis Mayfield (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

This is Curtis Mayfield's first solo release and it came after he left the popular Chicago-based funk/R&B group The Impressions. This self-titled album is very political, very psychedelic and very funky. It's been called "the Sgt. Peppers album of 70s soul."

Despite Curtis' fantastic shy and smooth vocals and some awesome funky bass lines, this album didn't really do much for me. There's a lot of strange sounds and arrangements that you wouldn't normally expect from a soul/funk album, but there's also a couple songs that are a little bit more traditional sounding. I can see how this record got some Sgt Peppers comparisons, in terms of stepping out of the box and getting "funky" with the traditional style.

According to Wikipedia, Mayfield was one of the first to speak openly about African-American pride and also the struggles with being black in this era. "Miss Black America" is a good example of him incorporating this political topic into his music.

The song "Wild and Free" is one of the only songs that really stuck with me. It's upbeat and loud and features a fantastic horn section, as well as some sort of instrument that sounds like magic throughout the song. You'll know it when you hear it. "Give It Up" was a  great song too, and a nice way to close off the album.

Dad's Take:

I love me some old soul and some old psychedelic music, and the two sometimes blend surprisingly well, especially when mixed with a healthy dose of late sixties/early seventies funk.

It's not hard to feel groovy (even in a literal sense) during the opening funk jam, "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go," the only charting single from this album. Like the best of psychedelic soul, the song deals with racial and inner-city issues, with a funky back beat that makes sitting still difficult.

The album broke ground for its songs about black pride and race issues. That made it important to its time, and the album is a valuable musical history lesson about the concerns of the day.

It's pretty seriously dated at times, though. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're looking to get into a 1970 groove, but I can see why someone of Brad's generation might not quite be enthralled by it. Many of the same issues still exist, but they are discussed in a different way, and to a different beat.

I enjoy listening to this album, in the right mood. I love me some psych-funk, and Mayfield's voice was common in my younger days, and still sounds great. Those smooth soul vocals still work, even where the songs might not have aged that well.

For me, the softer soul songs on this record are the ones that sometimes don't quite work for me. The funkier tracks, though, like the brilliant "Move On Up" (with its Latin percussion and funky bass line and cool horns) and the opening songs, will always get my attention. Unfortunately, it's the softer songs that seem to predominate the album, even though the eight songs are split pretty evenly between funky and mellow. I think maybe the problem is that his vocal style, although great, does not vary much from song to song, so I appreciate the interesting things that happen in the music of the funkier songs. It doesn't surprise me that Brad digs "Wild and Free." It's upbeat both musically and lyrically, with an interesting and slightly unusual backing track.

But you can't skip the slow stuff. For one thing, Mayfield's voice is a lovely thing. For another, you might start a song thinking it's just another soul ballad, like "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue," only to have the song break into a funky, African-inspired, jam. Honestly, I was getting bored with that song, and then, wow! When it goes back to its original ballad style, I'm good with it, especially considering the tragic direction the lyrics take.

The album ends strong, with two great songs, and leaves me looking forward to what may be the greatest soul album ever, which we'll get to around mid-1971. But this one is no slouch itself. It amazes me how little attention Curtis Mayfield gets these days. Truly a pioneer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young (August, 1970)

Brad's Take:

After the Gold Rush is Neil Young's third solo album and it features a very creepy album cover of what seems to be an old lady walking through a cloak-wearing ghost. It turns out though that the ghost is actually Neil Young himself. The original photo was too blurry so the artist decided to polarize Young's face so you wouldn't be able to tell. It just looks scary to me though. Also, the words on the cover are impossible to read. I don't approve. Now, on to the music since that's why we're actually here.

This is a very mellow album. It feels very safe and very average to me. Lyrically, it's really good, but other than that, it doesn't really go anywhere. Maybe that was the point. It sounds like a band playing music on a family farm or something, playing just for themselves. It feels like they're just relaxing, playing music to pass time until dinner's ready. If that's the point, they nailed it. And if that was Neil's original concept, then I hope he also was hoping people would be able to fall asleep to these songs too. 

It's not until track 9 ("When You Dance I Can Really Love") when the band finally gets some energy. This song has a punchy bass rhythm and matching piano part that steadily bounces throughout the song that you can't help but tap your foot to. This track made me think the album might be making a different route. A late one, but a necessary change in scenery. Unfortunately, this was not the case. It was just a fluke because the last two songs are just as sleepy as the rest of the album is.

I know pumping out up-tempo rock jams isn't generally Neil Young's thing, but this album really just bored me. Maybe in a few years I'll change my opinion, just like Rolling Stone Magazine did after they initially called the record "dull" but now refer to it as a "masterpiece."

Dad's Take:

After the Gold Rush is a folk rock classic, channeling Young's work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY into a solo album that highlights his messages. It includes "Southern Man," one of the greatest Civil Rights songs by a white guy, and a no-doubt-about-it classic song with a rock jam Brad must have somehow overlooked. He didn't even mention it, so he must have been distracted while it played. This is a flat-out Great Song with capital letters, a work of genius. Plus it pissed off southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd.

This album also features the title song, among Neil's best, a great song about the environment and the unrest of the time. "After the Gold Rush" lays bare Young's feelings about the time, and a sense that he just wants to escape it, to get high and get away.

If the album stopped with those two songs, it would be enough for me to justify its inclusion in our list. But it doesn't stop there.

"Only Love Can Break Your Heart," is a beautiful song about pain, set in waltz time.

Following the magnum opus that is "Southern Man," it's only natural that "Till the Morning Comes" feels lightweight and fragmentary. But it's an interesting little piece of music, from the Brian Wilson school of "You're Welcome." Plus, well, you kind of need something lighter to decompress following the wailing rage of "Southern Man."

"Don't Let It Bring You Down" is classic Neil Young, with a bluesy flavor to his folk rock. After a couple relatively weak tracks, it was nice to hear that classic first line of this one. I like "Birds" too. This short song might not be one of his better-known songs, but it has some things in common with my favorite Neil Young ballad, "Long May You Run" from a different album. And then there's "When You Dance I Can Really Love," which reminds me of some of his work with Buffalo Springfield.

This album bridges the gap between sixties folk rock and seventies singer-songwriters. It was highly influential, but unlike many albums that were influential in their time, it still sounds great today, with timeless messages delivered in a deceptively gentle package that carries an awfully strong bite. Neil Young is one of those songwriters who, at his best, strips off all filters and barriers and lays his feelings naked for the listener.

Like many of these kinds of records, multiple listens are necessary to really get a grasp of what Young is saying because there's so much here. The album is pure brilliance that shines too brightly to be watered down by his previous musical partnerships. I encourage The Boy to listen again, to see beyond the mellow feel and understand how heavy and sharp so many of Young's messages, both in words and music, can be. This is not my favorite Neil Young album. Like Brad, I would have enjoyed a couple more tracks from Young's rockin' side. It also doesn't have the strongest ending. But it is an excellent album with at least one truly great song, and is definitely worthy of our classic albums list.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Paranoid" by Black Sabbath (September, 1970)

Dad's Take:

If somebody told me I could have only one metal album in my collection, this is very likely the one I'd pick.

"Iron Man" could well be the greatest metal song, containing the One Riff to Rule Them All. I used to play it when I played Risk, as my national anthem. "Iron Man." I want to keep writing that title. If this album contained no other great songs besides "Iron Man," I'd have to have it in my collection. It's a cinematic rock suite, as close to perfection as rock has ever come.When I put this album on, it's hard to wait until the fourth song to hear this brilliant song.

As great as that classic song is, some others on this album aren't far behind, so you can't just skip ahead.. The opener, "War Pigs," for example. The song is epic in the classical sense. It's a head-banging message song from the Viet Nam era. Need I say more. And that wild ending. It's like they weren't sure where to go to end the thing, so they went crazy.

"Paranoid" is another amazing song, with a great Ozzy vocal that sounds as much like a riff as anything happening on the guitar. That guitar riff, though, is possibly the most influential riff in hard rock.

If "Iron Man" were song three instead of four, this album would open with one of the best 1-2-3 punches ever. But Sabbath takes a psychedelic break with song three, "Planet Caravan." It reminds me of some of the best work from Vanilla Fudge. I'd probably like it more if it didn't sound out of place between "Paranoid" and "Iron Man."

You'd expect me to feel let down by whatever follows "Iron Man," but "Electric Funeral" is psych metal at its best. It's a lot like "Iron Man" in its structure and even it's electrical themes, but it doesn't sound like a copycat song. And it's almost as good.

It doesn't really matter what comes next. Four of the first five songs are absolutely brilliant, and the other one is no slouch. They could stop now and have one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

But no, they give us three more songs. By this point, the best is over, but don't get me wrong. I like the Vanilla-Fudge-meets-Alice-Cooper-done-as-only-Ozzy-can-do-it feel of "Hand of Doom.""Rat Salad" is a great instrumental with the drum solo that was required at the time. I could see it going on for another five or six minutes. And "Fairies Wear Boots" is a great way to close the record, with its killer-riffs-and-drums attack on skinheads.

One of the things that makes this such a great album besides the fantastic songs and unforgettable riffs is that the album holds together. Even as great as most of the songs are, they don't kill the cohesive feel of the entire album. Brilliant stuff. Absolutely brilliant.

Ozzy, Geezer, and Tony managed what many consider the greatest metal album ever recorded, and I won't argue with anybody who makes that claim.

Brad's Take:

Black Sabbath is definitely one of those bands that has become a household name over the years. Even when I was younger, I remember my dad playing "Iron Man" in the car. And around Christmas time, he loves playing the Christmas themed "Iron Man" parody called "I Am Santa Claus" by Bob Rivers.

My favorite songs on this are probably the ones I already knew well. "War Pigs" and "Iron Man."

The majority of the album has great writing, and it's impossible to oversee that. Every member in this band rules at what they're doing. This is a band that consists of guys who are lucky to have all found each other because they compliment each other extremely well. Even Ozzy sounds great.

However, growing up in the digital age where audio recording is much more crisp, full, clean, and other adjectives for basically "perfect," I can't help but notice the aged production and tape-recorded quality, and I think that holds the album back for me. My ears have been (arguably) blessed with hearing modern hard rock albums that don't just have quality writing, but quality recording that helps compliment everything. If Paranoid was recorded today with modern equipment, this album would sound massive. The production quality dates this so much, and unfortunately that affects my opinion of the record as a whole.

The album also suffers from some of the same panning issues that I've complained about in a few past reviews. In these early days of stereo mixing, people seemed to think they should put random stuff into one speaker and other stuff in the other. On this album specifically, they put the bass guitar in only the right speaker, which I find very odd. But maybe I'm the only one that really notices that kind of thing so don't let that affect your decision to listen to this album (as if you haven't already at some point in your life.)

Overall, I didn't love the album, but the good songs are really good, and the not-as-good songs are definitely skip-able. Fortunately though, there's only 8 tracks so there's not a lot of filler at all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"John Barleycorn Must Die" by Traffic (July 1970)

Dad's Take:

Although I prefer my Traffic to include Dave Mason, who had left the group prior to this record, "John Barleycorn Must Die" is a worthy entrant in our list.

Full of good, solid, jazz-infused, blues-based British rock, this was a big hit on both sides of the pond, doing somewhat better in America than Britain. It's not one of my favorites on our list, but it is very good, very listenable, with a definite classic rock feel.

This album started out as a solo project for Steve Winwood, but when he asked most of his former Traffic mates to join him, a Traffic reunion album was born. At times, I hear later seventies albums in this music. For example, parts of "Freedom Rider" remind me of Steely Dan. The song "John Barleycorn" really stands out on this album. It has a cool, folksy, almost Cat-Stevens-meets-Jethro-Tull-like treatment that is not like anything else on the record. Of the more typical songs, I think I like the closer, "Every Mother's Son," best.

"John Barleycorn Must Die" brings together rock, blues, jazz, and even British folk influences to create an intriguing sound and an interesting set of songs. The record is full of great jams, punctuated by Winwood's expressive voice. I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of Winwood's voice, probably because of overexposure in the eighties, but it works with this kind of music. But then, Rolling Stone lists him as #33 in its list of the 100 greatest singers, so what do I know?

Over the years, this album has received reviews that are kind of all over the place. My final impression? Great musicianship, very good performances, and songs that are good enough. There are albums I like better on our list, but this one is worth pulling out once in a while. There's nothing I consider bad here, but also nothing that I find running through my head at unexpected times. I don't feel disappointed when it ends, either because of what I heard or because it's over. Like it. Don't love it. It needs Dave Mason.

Brad's Take:

It's pretty obvious that the book we're pulling all of these albums from is from the UK. There's a lot of UK artists making the list that I've never heard of, including this band called Traffic. Were they big here in the US? Beats me.

I really only liked half of the songs on this album. Namely, "Empty Pages", "Stranger To Himself", and "Every Mother's Son." Those were some cool, upbeat blues rock jams that I was really into. The other songs though, I just wasn't feeling them. It's an enjoyable record, but just doesn't really feel memorable or special to me.

It's a little confusing to me why this album made our list because I don't really feel like it's up to par with a lot of the other albums we've listened to. On the other hand though, it's much more enjoyable to listen to than a few of our past reviewed albums. I'll definitely go back to "Empty Pages" but I doubt I'll listen to much more again.

"All Things Must Pass" by George Harrison (June, 1970)

Dad's Take:

I once heard a Beatles bootleg where George Harrison talks about his idea that maybe the Beatles should be able to work on solo albums while still recording as the Beatles. More than any other Beatle, George must have felt limited within a band that only let his songs trickle out one or two at a time.

When "All Things Must Pass" came out, people must have wondered where this guy had been hiding. Sure, there were hints at his songsmithing skills in the songs the Beatles released. But how could anybody have anticipated this creative explosion?

Three records of mostly excellent songs show what the Beatles were holding back by burying George's skills. If I wanted to list highlights, I'd have to provide the complete track list. There's so much excellence here. It's not only the number of songs, but the range of the material, that shows what the Beatles' "third wheel" was capable of. Who knew?

A track-by-track exploration of a triple album would make for a monster blog post, so for the sake of brevity I won't go there. It's probably enough to say that anybody who thinks Paul and John were the only major talents in the Beatles really needs to listen to this album. Helped by an all-star cast, Harrison truly shines on this record. From quiet spirituals to rowdy rockers, we finally get to see what George is capable of producing.

And he produced a ton. In addition to these six sides, there are reportedly enough jams and outtakes to fill at least two more records. Freed from the constraints of a band dominated by two other songwriters, Harrison almost went crazy, like a dog that gets out of the yard and runs like a bat out of hell with its new-found freedom. And not only is there a lot of material, but it's also really, really good.

It loses a little steam, perhaps, on the third disc, a set of Harrison studio jams, which I really enjoy (considering the all-star cast, it's hard not to like them) but have to admit that they do have a tacked-on feel, like bonus tracks. It hardly matters, though. The entire effect of the album, the jams included, is the revealing of a major talent that had been "hidden in plain sight," as author Robert Rodriguez put it.

So don't be scared off by the size of this set or the number of titles you might not recognize. If you are a rock fan and don't know this album, you really need to remedy that situation. Like, right now. So stop reading this and experience it for yourself.

Brad's Take:

This is my first time really diving into George Harrison's solo music. I'm sure I've heard a song or two before on the radio or something, but I never sought out more from him. Unfairly, I always just saw him as "the invisible Beatle" before this. So I kind of looked forward to squeeze this big ol' triple-LP album into my schedule so I could give it a solid listen and give George my full attention. 

The album starts out with "I'd Have You Anytime" which is a mellow, Beatles-esque song that was co-written with Bob Dylan. I can definitely hear Dylan's influence in the song. I wish the album had kicked off a little more up-beat though because there are some seriously amazing songs on here, come to find out!

"What Is Life" was a song that immediately caught my ear. I started tapping my foot to the bouncy rhythm right away. I also really loved the catchy vocal melodies and tambourines that helped carry the song. During this song, I did a quick Google search and discovered the reason this song in particular really piqued my interest. The song was co-produced by one of my favorite producers, Phil Spector (The Ronettes, The Crystals, etc.). Despite his homicidal tendencies and whacky hair-dos, Spector has been in my top 3 all-time favorite pop music producers, and this song is no exception. Another fun fact about "What Is Life": Eric Clapton played on the track as well!

Side note: After my Google search, I discovered that Phil Spector actually co-produced this entire album. My mind was blown!

A couple songs later, there's a track called "Let It Down." WOW! The gigantic, powerful, rocking introduction to that song certainly does not let me down! It's a huge, heavy wall of sound crushing into my ears. I absolutely loved how heavy that introduction was! The horns were a very nice touch too. Then the song pulls way, way back and gets very minor and moody sounding, but builds back up to the point of huge rockin'-ness again, but then quickly turns its head away and goes back to being mellow again, only to come back into full on rock gloriousness again! I can't say enough good things about this song. I had to go back and listen to it a couple more times before I could move on with the rest of the album.

"Awaiting On You All" is another song where you can really hear that Spector production. The heavy amount of reverb, tambourines, bouncy rhythms, etc. It just oozes with that signature Phil Spector production that I really love.

There's a few songs on here that I didn't immediately love. The 7-minute long "Isn't It A Pity" which chants "Hare Krishna!" a bunch of times was kind of an eye-roller for me. The eye-rolly moments were very few and far between though because there was a lot of songs I fell in love with. I'm excited to go back and revisit this album again soon. It now makes perfect sense why George Harrison was in the Beatles, and I no longer see him as "the invisible Beatle." In fact, he might be my favorite Beatle now.

Now, go listen to "Let It Down" immediately!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Fire and Water" by Free (July 1970)

Dad's Take:

When your band features Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company, Queen), Simon Kirke (Free, Bad Company), and Andy Fraser (Free, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers), it has to be good. Add some brilliant guitar from the late Paul Kossoff and you have a great band.

This is one of those albums that probably shows that the list we're working from comes from England. "Fire and Water" cracked the top 20 in the US, but in England it soared to #2. The album contains solid songs, but most people will probably recognize only the monster hit "All Right Now." But then, that's not a bad song to anchor your record.

"Fire and Water" is loaded with well-performed British blues rock, with solid bass, drums, and guitar, but what makes it for me are Rodgers' vocals. It can easily be argued that he belongs in the top ranks of any lists of best rock and roll vocalists. He was the voice of both Free and Bad Company, and, most recently, Queen.

For me, the highlights of this album are "All Right Now" (of course) and the blues ballad "Heavy Load."

Today, this album sounds very 1970, but that's not a bad thing. As we've seen on this blog, it was a good year. If I were to compile my own best of 1970, I'd probably include this record, but it wouldn't top my list. Still, it's good, solid rock with a blues base and one of rock's premier singers. An enjoyable listen, to be sure.

Brad's Take:

The name Free didn't initially ring a bell, but when I discovered they were the band that did "All Right Now," I realized that I guess I'd known of them (well, that song) so I was pretty interested in hearing some more stuff by them, especially after I found out that Paul Rodgers fronted the band.

The title track, "Fire and Water" is a great song to kick off the record. Its upbeat blues-rock sound makes you want to play along on air guitar. "Mr. Big" is another awesome jam that people should check out. No wonder the band Mr. Big named themselves after that song.

Obviously, "All Right Now" is the hit from this record. It deserved to be a hit, as it's probably the most single-friendly song on here. It's a fun song and you can't help but feel the positive vibes it exudes. It'll cheer you right up and keep you singing along long after the song is over.

This wasn't a bad album by any means, but it definitely is one of those albums that's only book-ended with great songs, has one or two goodies in the middle, and then the rest are pretty forgettable. This seems like a pretty typical trend I'm starting to notice for albums around this era.

"Workingman's Dead" by The Grateful Dead (June, 1970)

Dad's Take:

"Workingman's Dead" is my second favorite Grateful Dead album, and one that I'd consider essential to music collectors. Later in the year, they released "American Beauty," one of my desert island records, but this album is equally strong and was one of many left turns the band took as their sound evolved and changed.

Starting with the iconic "Uncle John's Band" and ending with the brilliant "Casey Jones," the album is, as Jerry Garcia said, influenced by the sound of their friends Crosby, Stills, and Nash, which explains the vocal harmonies heard on several songs, a new element of the Dead's sound. Not what the uninitiated expect from a legendary jam band.

One of the things I really like about this record is its folksy feel and mellow harmonies. I guess that's two things. Whatever. I was never good at math. Listen, for example, to the bluegrass-rock of  "Cumberland Blues." Banjos, harmonies, and an upbeat mood despite dark, sad lyrics. Great song. Much of the album is like that. Gentle, friendly tunes with a dark underbelly. This is not simple stuff.

Some of my favorite Dead songs are on this record, including "Uncle John's Band," "Dire Wolf," "Black Peter," and "Casey Jones." Throughout, the record has a good, unified, gentle stoner feel that I find pleasant and entertaining. Much of it is acoustic and intimate. Electric jams like "New Speedway Boogie" still carry the positive mood of the album, which was recording during kind of a rough time for the band, between drug busts and the manager (also band member Mickey Hart's father) running off with much of the band's money. They could have recorded an angry response to their hard times, but instead gave us a record that feels good. Listen closely, though, and you'll hear clues about the band's troubles.

It's an excellent album with a cohesive feel that's just plain fun to listen to. If you don't know the Dead, that last sentence might not match your preconceptions of what their music was about. So, if that sentence surprised you, you need to pick up this record. And maybe some others. This is a band that constantly broke people's preconceptions of who they were.

Brad's Take:

Like my dad said, The Grateful Dead were good at throwing people off from their general preconceptions they had about the band, which includes even myself. I've only ever heard their hippie jam stuff, and never the mellow folk-influenced music that this album is all about.

You can most definitely hear the CSN influences, and that's in no way a bad thing. The Grateful Dead has some awesome vocal harmonies on this album. My favorite example of it is probably "Uncle John's Band." There's a moment in the song where all the instruments stop playing, which gives the vocals to soar openly on their own. That's one of my favorite parts on the whole album.

Some other highlights are "Easy Wind" and "Casey Jones." Those two songs are more upbeat and show the band's blues-rock influences.

Workingman's Dead was pretty cool. I liked hearing the obvious CSN influence that they incorporated into a few songs. A couple songs in the middle dragged a little bit to me. Maybe just because they were super mellow songs that would be perfect to listen to if you were trying to sleep underneath a tree on a sunny afternoon.

If the Grateful Dead have other albums like this, I might need to check out a bit more of their stuff.

"Woodstock," Various Artists (May, 1970)

Dad's Take:

What do you say about one of the most analyzed music events in history? Everything has been said already.

As I've said before in this blog, I'm not a big fan of most live albums. But how do you possibly leave "Woodstock" off a list of classic albums? You can't of course. I'm not going to discuss the phenomenon of the music festival. I will recommend that music fans see the movie and read organizer Michael Lang's book, "The Road to Woodstock." I'd also recommend going for one of the CD box sets that contain more of the music, which is what I'm actually listening to right now. The original soundtrack is great, but I want to hear more.

There's a lot of great music here. Pretty much the whole album is legendary, although some performances are definitely better than others. Some of the bands have released their complete performances. I'd highly suggest digging out the complete Woodstock performances by showstoppers Santana (at the time, an unknown group from the San Francisco Bay Area who were chosen to perform by winning a coin toss, and by virtue of their performance burst onto the music scene as a legendary band), Sly & the Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix. Whether on record or in the movie, those are my three favorite Woodstock performers. But they are certainly not the only great performances from all four days of the "Three days of peace and music."

Much of the list of performers could be a list of my favorite bands. Several performers, including the Grateful Dead and CCR, are not represented on either the soundtrack or the movie, for various reasons. But those that are here include many of the major bands and singers you'd think of from the period. Some are at the top of their game, and others are not, as you'd expect from any festival.

The sound quality of the soundtrack is surprisingly good for a live album, especially one recorded under the circumstances of this one. The festival was a mess and, at times, the soundtrack reflects that. But Woodstock pretty much summarizes the second half of the sixties, both musically and culturally. I can't imagine not having this album somewhere in my collection.

Brad's Take:

We've reviewed some compilation albums and soundtracks already, and I've found that it's kind of hard for me to fully get into some of them because they aren't as cohesive as an actual album by one particular band. This Woodstock compilation is kind of a different monster though. Technically, it's a compilation just featuring a bunch of bands that played the festival, but with it all being recorded in the same place, it has a certain cohesiveness to it that makes it not feel jumbled like a typical soundtrack usually is.

Like my dad said, there isn't really much to say about Woodstock because it's all been said before. It was a legendary concert that will be talked about forever. Everyone's seen or heard the notable performances, like Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" which is arguably the best performance of the entire festival.

My only real gripe with this is its length. Obviously, I understand why the people who put this comp together made it this long (in fact, it easily could have been longer) but my attention span was barely hanging on near the end.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Bitches Brew" by Miles Davis (April, 1970)

Dad's Take:

Once again, I'm faced with the problem of not having the vocabulary to really discuss jazz.

However, what I can say about this Miles Davis record is that it surprised me. I really like "Kind of Blue" and expected more of the same, but this album has a wilder, sometimes almost uncontrolled feel to it. The sounds are deep and strong. In technical terms, this record is "freaking awesome."

This dream music. It runs all over the place, and just when it's starting to make sense, it takes an unexpected turn. As such, it holds my attention and captures my imagination. It seems to become most interesting when it becomes harder to understand.

Case in point, the title track. At times, it feels like it's trying to figure out where it wants to go, sometimes crawling to a near stop, like it does at around the midpoint, but then it gets big and loud and carries the listener to an exciting place, maybe a dangerous place. And at times it creeps along slowly, almost confusedly, with sounds that don't quite make sense, like a vivid dream.

"Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" starts out sounding like it could be the Doors, but then Miles jumps in and there's no doubt who it is. It begins with almost a noirish feel, then grows into cool jazz, then becomes bigger and wilder as it goes, like a walk into an exciting city. The rhythm becomes hypnotic, and the stuff in the foreground is vivid and varied, taking the listener on a wild ride. I want to see where it takes me, but it turns out there's no real destination, just an interesting trip.

The final piece, "Sanctuary," starts soft and quiet, a welcome cool down from the exhausting wildness that comes before it. It gets bigger, then almost falls asleep at about the midpoint, leading gently to a big, brassy ending.

The version I have includes a bonus track, "Feio," which works well as a gentle coda to the dream. It doesn't feel out of place with the rest of the album, as bonus tracks sometimes do.

The album is long, and the music is big and noisy and often feels out of control. But sometimes it's little and quiet and, well, still feels kind of out of control. But one thing it's not, and that's dull. I listen, amazed that this came from a human mind, presumably while awake and coherent. It's often intense, sometimes almost violent, like a welcome attack on the senses.

I've never heard anything like it, at least not on this scale. It's challenging and sometimes difficult and exhausting. Like a dream, it sometimes feels like it's going to go somewhere but then it never gets there. I mean that in a good way. I'm not really sure what else to say, besides I like it. And it wears me out. But that's a good thing.

Brad's Take:

When I think of Miles Davis, the first thing that comes to mind is how much I love Kind of Blue. I still listen to that record often and that's how I picture Miles Davis now.

And then Bitches Brew came up on our list...

I attempted to listen to and review this album a couple of weeks ago, but it's so completely different than the Miles Davis I am used to so it really threw me for a loop that I wasn't ready for. I decided to hold off and listen to it at another time. I thought maybe I was just not in the mood for experimental jazz music that particular day or something.

So now here I am, giving the album a solid listen, and although I still wish it was like the classic jazz style that's featured on Kind of Blue, I tip my hat to the guy for stepping outside of the box and creating some really wild and interesting free-style jazz music. To me, it sounds like Miles had a lot of energy built up and just wanted to let it all out uncontrollably.

While I commend him for doing his thing, this just isn't for me. I like nice smooth jazz to have on while it's raining outside, or as background music while I'm listening to podcasts or working. This stuff just confuses my ears and actually kind of stresses me out. Maybe that's what is supposed to happen when you listen to this album for the first few times. Maybe it was intentional. Maybe it's an album that gets better over multiple listens. Whatever it is, this review is just based on my first solid listen of it. I may try to listen to it again eventually, but for now, I think I will continue with sticking to Kind of Blue when I want to listen to Miles Davis.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Deja Vu" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (March, 1970)

Dad's Take:

In case Crosby, Stills & Nash weren't an amazing enough supergroup, they upped their game on their second album by adding Neil Young. The result is one of the truly great records of the period. Of any period. This thing plays like a greatest hits album, only it's not. "Carry On," "Teach Your Children," "Helpless," "Woodstock," "Our House"--it's greater than a greatest hits package.

In addition to the big hits, the album contains many gems. At the top of the list for me is the great David Crosby jam, "Almost Cut My Hair." It's practically an anthem for me.

You're not going to go wrong with any songs on this record. Crosby, Stills and Nash are all great musicians and songwriters with amazing harmonies. If they lacked anything on their first album, it might have been a little bit of edginess. Neil Young adds a ton of that with his guitar and voice and just his Neil Youngness.

Everybody has hit full stride in this album. David Crosby contributes the aforementioned "Almost Cut My Hair" and the incredible title track. Stephen Stills shows is writing chops on "Carry On" and "4+20." Grahama Nash contributes two of the group's biggest hits with "Teach Your Children" and "Our House." As for Neil Young, he almost steals the show with songs like "Helpless" and "Country Girl," as well as his guitar work throughout the record. It's not hard to tell whose songs are whose, but all are made even better by the group's contributions.

The album is a great combination of folk harmony and classic rock. This is one of those rare discs that approaches perfection. The only problem is that it's too short. I don't want it to end.

I don't even want to write about it. I just want to listen and dig it.

Brad's Take:

I was excited to dive into another album by these guys. I liked their debut so much that I went out and bought it on vinyl so I could listen to it the way everyone else did back when it was originally released. It sounds great. And now, after listening to this Deja Vu, I might have to go out and find this on wax too.

Everything I loved from their first album is here. The perfect vocal harmonies, the rockin' guitar riffs, the beautiful acoustic guitars, etc. These songs range from energetic to calming, and it doesn't sound at all forced. It feels so natural. It's pretty crazy that these 4 songwriters could mesh so well together and always be on the same pages.

I really enjoyed the addition of Neil Young. "Helpless" is a great song. I liked the piano in it a lot. And now, anytime my brothers are acting helpless, I can sing the chorus to them: "Helpless, helpless, helplessss." Where has this song been my whole life?

There isn't a song on here that I didn't like. The fact that they could totally nail their sophomore record really says something about this band. This truly is a super group, and they knew exactly how to mesh their superpowers together to win.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor (February, 1970)

Dad's Take:

Early seventies music was largely defined by the singer-songwriter, and it's easy to argue that James Taylor was the king of the genre. Sweet Baby James is the first of nine consecutive Top 20 albums for JT, seven of them Top 10.

Building on a base of folk and pop, with a little rock and a touch of country, James Taylor was one of the dominant players on the airwaves of the time. This is the album that introduced him to most people, although it was his second album. "Fire and Rain" was a #3 hit, and "Country Road" also charted in the Top 40. Although not released as a single at the time, "Sweet Baby James" has become one of Taylor's most-beloved tunes.

Those who know Taylor mostly for his hits will have plenty to discover here. The highlight here is, of course, "Fire and Rain," one of the truly great songs in this genre, full of angst and hidden meanings and sorrow and and regret and even a little hope. Try not to sing along. Just try. Even if you don't know the words, chances are you'll try. He even makes the kind of silly traditional song "Oh Susannah" sound deep and important. "Suite for 20 G," which would feel at home on a Crosby Stills & Nash record, is another highlight that you might not know, one I could easily listen to at twice its length. The jam has just started when the song comes to an end, leaving me wanting more.

There are no real surprises here. James Taylor sounds like James Taylor: smart, mellow, melodic soft rock delivered with his velvety voice. Even when he stretches beyond the soft tunes with a song like the bluesy "Steamroller" and "Oh Baby Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me," he still sounds like you expect him to sound.

And that's not a bad thing. The album is a solid effort that sets the tone for much of the first half of the decade. And he didn't stop there. In fact, he's had three albums peak at #4 in the 2000s. Almost everything he's ever done has gone gold or platinum. As far as breakout albums go, Sweet Baby James is tough to beat.

Brad's Take:

Like my old man said, this sounds like James Taylor. And I agree that that's not a bad thing. We haven't reviewed a James Taylor album yet so it's cool that I am finally listening to a complete album of his rather than just whatever song is on in the grocery store.

Sweet Baby James doesn't pack much of a punch like the Simon and Garfunkel album that we reviewed just before this did, but I can still enjoy this. It's a lot more stripped down and bouncy, and should probably be listened to in a field of flowers.

The bluesy "Steamroller" is a nice change of pace. It definitely has the punch I was missing. When the full band popped in about a minute into the song, I got really excited because moments before that, I was thinking to myself, "Man, I wish this song wasn't just him on a guitar. It needs some drums and bass." And then that's when all the other instruments came in.

"Fire and Rain" is a classic song, and it's probably the one I've heard the most by him. Like my dad said, it's a song that you can't help but sing along with. It's completely true. I'm going to have "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" stuck in my head for awhile today.

By the time I got to "Suite for 20 G," I was feeling a little restless and eager for the album to be over. But this song got me excited again. It goes from a standard James Taylor sounding song and then it gets to the halfway point and becomes a big funky jam with horns and a contagious bass riff. There wasn't anything else like this that on the album which is kind of a bummer. 

The story behind the titling of the song "Suite for 20 G" is pretty entertaining. James was promised $20,000 once the album was finished and delivered. He needed one more song so he strung together three unfinished songs into a "suite," and completed the album.

All in all, Sweet Baby James was a mostly enjoyable listen. His vocal range is very monotonous across the entire thing, which can get a little boring, but the actual songs were good and some of them were really enjoyable.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon & Garfunkel (January, 1970)

Dad's Take:

If there were cracks in the relationship between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel while this album was being recorded, you wouldn't know it by the harmonious sound of the record. But Simon was concentrating on music while Garfunkel was building an acting career, and this album, which resulted in two Grammys and hours and hours of airplay would turn out to be their last.

The title song was a megahit, topping charts around the world, but it's not the only hit on the record. "The Boxer" was also a huge success. Two other songs, "Cecilia" and "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" were successful enough to make most groups happy, but seem like minor successes when compared to the other two.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" is one of those instant classic songs, one of those recordings that seems superhuman. The beautiful track, the ethereal vocals, and the meaningful lyrics combine into a song that defies mortality. Hard to believe that Art Garfunkel really didn't want to sing it, thinking it should be performed by Paul Simon. The song is so nearly perfect that considering anything different than what they gave us is almost impossible.

Next up is "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)," which can be seen as the beginning of Simon's obsession with world music. It's among my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs, despite not being an original composition. That's followed by "Cecilia," a faster song that was almost inescapable on 1970 radio. Not among my favorites, it is another classic. Three songs in and this is feeling like a greatest hits album.

The next two songs aren't known as well. The Everly-Brothers-like "Keep The Customer Satisfied" is a fun song, a big production that reminds me a little of Simon's "Kodachrome," which would become a big hit in 1973. Then we get another sweet ballad, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, a samba featuring Art Garfunkel, before the next big hit, "The Boxer."

It took more than 100 hours in several studios to record "The Boxer." The result is astounding, another classic song that everybody knows.

The rest of the album features songs that are not as well known, but are certainly worth listening to. There's not a bad song on the album. "Baby Driver" is an enjoyable upbeat story song with fun harmonies. "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Why Don't You Write Me," the live Every Brothers cover of "Bye Bye Love," and the closer, "Song For The Asking," along with the side's opener, "The Boxer," combine into one of the truly great album sides, something that is missed on CD or when listened to from computer files.

This is one of those records that anybody who is interested in folk rock and in harmonies and song writing and singing and, well, just music, should know. No album will be loved by everyone, but there are some records that are just good to know, whether you love it or not. This is one of those.

You have to hand it to Simon & Garfunkel. They might have recorded only five albums, but every one of them is great, and they went out big. This is a nearly perfect record.

Brad's Take:

Sometimes when you go into an album you've never heard before, especially from an era that you're not very familiar with, you don't really know what to expect, and that can be kind of intimidating. When I hit the play button and jumped into Bridge Over Troubled Water, I was immediately into it.

How can you deny these vocals? Both of them sing beautifully together. Whether it's quietly sung or when they're belting it out, they sound amazing.

The title track is especially gorgeous. Not just vocally, but also musically. I love the slow, really quiet stripped down beginning of the song, and how it builds and builds and builds into this huge dramatic ending. It's really powerful, and definitely one that I will go back to again.

Another song I loved right off the bat was "Keep The Customer Satisfied." It's a very fun and upbeat tune. Musically, it's very early-Beatles-esque. I especially love when the horns come in strong at the end of the song. So good! When you compare this song to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," you can see the full range Paul and Art have together, creatively. Whether it's slow or upbeat, they nail it.

One thing I love about this album is although they're technically a folk group, they layer all these different instruments over the finger-picked acoustic guitars, and the songs sound so much more full and exciting. The pop and rock elements really make Simon and Garfunkel's folk music stand out. I'm not sure if that was their co-producer's doing or if Paul Simon had it all figured out in his head that the songs would sound this way, but whoever is responsible deserves a Grammy. Oh wait, they got two Grammy awards for this album. Boom!

Basically, this album encompasses all of the genres that were popular at this time, but they spice it up with great production, songwriting, lyrics, and beautiful vocal harmonies throughout the entire record. Some songs are slow, some are fast, but somehow they are all perfect.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" by John Barry (January, 1970)

Dad's Take:

It's been a while since we had a soundtrack on our list.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the soundtrack to the James Bond film of that name, with music composed by John Barry, who won quite a few awards for his movie scores, but not for this one. I've never listened to this before, and don't think I've seen the movie, and frankly, I don't have very high expectations. But let's see how it goes.

The album begins with Louis Armstrong singing "We Have All The Time In The World." You can't really go wrong with Satchmo. I think this is his only appearance on the album. If he was on it more, I'd be feeling much better about it.

After Satchmo, we move on to the cleverly titles "This Never Happened To The Other Feller," a big brassy tune that's what you'd expect from a Bond film, including bots and pieces of other Bond music. OK, it's fun, but as you'd expect from a movie score, it feels like a bunch of stitched-together fragments, more than a single tune. Yeah, it's good, but I miss Louis Armstrong.

"Try" is a nice slow tune that sounds like a good number to dance to. Then we're back to more big Bond sounds, followed by an odd little Christmas song performed by Danish singer Nina. And then, nor surprise, we're back to the brassy Bond sounds for the rest of the album. There are very good bits in here, like "Gumbold's Safe." And, the album ends on a high note, with the exciting "Bobsled Chase," which has some interesting things going on in the music. And then it's suddenly over.

Overall, the arrangements are interesting, and the music is fun. The album is good for what it is. Barry's talents kept him very busy, and it's easy to see why. Maybe if I knew the movie better, the score would be more meaningful, but this just doesn't do much for me. I'm not that into movie scores as albums. This one is pretty good, just not my bag.

Brad's Take:

I was never the guy who got very into James Bond films. I think I've only seen one or two of them. As a kid though, playing Goldeneye64 on the Nintendo 64 video game system was something my friends and I did very often, and continue to do sometimes. So when I saw this soundtrack come up on our list, I had no excitement or anything towards it. But this isn't about James Bond and the movie the score comes from. It's just about the music, right?

I'm not too well-versed in classical music, which I think we can classify most of this album as, but I enjoy listening to it from time to time. Especially while I'm at work, which I am right now. (Don't tell my boss.) The instrumental tracks are pretty exciting. The big horns and string sections make it sound really cool and epic. Music from a James Bond movie shouldn't be any other way though.

With that said, I don't feel like this score is anything special. Why would they pick this soundtrack over any other one? And why is it considered such a classic? Maybe I need to listen to more of this kind of music in order to fully understand. Despite my ignorance, John Barry's compositions are very nice to listen to. They aren't overly lengthy. They don't linger or move too slowly.

Some of the songs on here don't really fit the "classical music" label though. "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?" sounds like it would be better suited on The Sound of Music, as it sounds like it's a teacher singing to a bunch of children while they all sing along on the choruses. It seems very out of place squeezed between a bunch of classical instrumentals. That's what you get for listening to a soundtrack though. Not everything is going to make sense like a cohesive album would. This is more or less a compilation.

"We Have All The Time In The World/James Bond Theme" is another song that doesn't fit with the others. It sounds like it's taken straight from the '80s with its big boomy drums and synthesizers, which is odd since this soundtrack came out in 1970. I thought that particular track was fantastic! It was a fun twist in the otherwise bland-ish orchestrations of the majority of the soundtrack.

I recognized a few of the songs from the video game that my friends and I used to always play so that was nostalgic and fun to listen to, and that '80s sounding song was pretty awesome. Overall though, this was just nice background music for while I was working, but wasn't anything too exciting to me. I'd like to go back and read the little blurb about this soundtrack in the book that we are pulling all of these albums from and read the author's reasoning as to why this is included as a "classic album" because I don't really buy it. Maybe if I was familiar with the film it would be a different story.