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.