Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Exile on Main St." by The Rolling Stones (May, 1972)

Brad's Take:

Exile on Main St. is The Rolling Stones' 12th studio album. A double album that was recorded between 1969 and 1972. Recording began during the Sticky Fingers sessions, but when the band spent all the money that they owed in taxes, they all got out of Britain to avoid the government and moved to France. Most of the album was recorded in Keith Richards' new home's basement while the control room was actually in the band's infamous mobile studio. According to Keith Richards, the band never meant to record a double album. When it was time to compile all the tracks, they decided they liked all of the material they'd recorded so they chose to just release them all as a double album.

The first half of the record (or disc 1) kicks off with "Rocks Off." It's a typical Rolling Stones sounding rock song, but that pretty much just means that it's a great song. The next track "Plundered My Soul" is also great. It's got some gospel influence in it, especially with those powerful female background vocals. This first disc is blended perfectly with everything that you'd expect from the Stones. It's got a nice mix of rock, gospel, and blues songs, but they all flow really nicely with each other. It ends with probably my favorite song from that first disc, "Loving Cup." That song has an awesome ending filled with horns, cool percussion, piano, and group vocals.

Disc 2 begins with "Happy", a poppy little song with blues influence. The vocal melody in the verses sounds similar to "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night. It kinds of ends in the same way as "Loving Cup" did so listening to both of those songs back to back feels a little repetitive. "Ventilator Blues" was a really cool song. It has that twangy country-blues kind of thing going on and I love it. This is a sound that I don't recall the Rolling Stones doing before. At least not that I've heard. The second half of this album feels a lot more bluesy to me than the first, and I really liked that. The Stones do the blues very well.

It's kind of difficult to get really into a double album by a band that you're not very familiar with. Especially when you listen to the whole album in full only once through. It's hard to remember earlier tracks and fully digest everything. Exile on Main St. was pretty fantastic though! Solid blues/rock/pop/gospel kind of stuff. However, there weren't a lot of real highlights for me, so quite a few tracks (which were good) just went through one ear and out the other. I wouldn't say there's any bad songs, but maybe just too much material to really focus on and remember as well as some.

Dad's Take:

I'm not surprised that this is the Stones album that Brad finally dug. Or at least kind of dug. This is the Stones doing their Stones thang as well as they ever did. But they also do an awful lot of it here.

There's nothing really deep here, just loud, raucus, irreverent, R&B-based rock and roll with those rough edges that were often missing from other British Invasion bands. Within a couple seconds, you know this is a Stones album. And that's not a bad thing.

"Rocks Off" is a great opener, followed by the brilliantly updated fifties sound of "Rip This Joint," one of my favorite tracks from this album. Everything that follows stays pretty much on that same path. If there's one knock on this album, it's that, being a double album, the quality of the songs is somewhat inconsistent. But, true though that may be, even the weaker songs have that Stones thing going on in spades. And, of course, any album that contains "Tumbling Dice" is going to be worth listening to. Then again, of the eighteen songs on the record, that's the only one that almost everybody knows (although "Happy" is also pretty well known as well), which says something about the album too.

But hits and standout tracks aren't always the best way to judge an album. This one, despite its length, works well. The songs fit together, and there's enough variety in styles and tempos to keep it interesting. It's a good album to put on when you're in a Stones mood and don't necessarily want to hear a greatest hits album, and maybe you don't want to listen really closely--you just want to enjoy that Stones groove. And you're rewarded for your perseverance by a great closing set. Those last four songs sound great, great enough that I'm sorry to see them end, even when so much came before that one might be excused for feeling ready to move on.

Despite Mick Jagger's dissatisfaction with this record, it's an enjoyable listen, and has everything you'd expect from a Rolling Stones album. It has aged well, increasing its status with the years until it has become known as one of the greatest rock and roll records ever.

"Sail Away" by Randy Newman (May, 1972)

Brad's Take:

My dad and I are going to have very different views of this, I think.

Having been a little kid in the 90s really makes this album hard to approach fairly. I can't help but imagine each song as a movie scene featuring Woody and Buzz Lightyear because (as I assume everyone is aware of) Randy Newman did a few timeless classics on the Toy Story soundtrack. That movie and the songs from it have been in my life since it came out 20 years ago, when I was just 8 years old! So as you can imagine, it's really hard to hear Randy Newman's voice and separate it from those movies.

Just because I can't help myself: "Sail Away" is a prequel to "I Will Go Sailing No More" (from Toy Story) about Andy taking his toys sailing with him out on the lake. "He Gives Us All His Love" is about Andy from the perspective of his toys, obviously. "Old Man" must be a rejected song about Andy's dad, which would make sense as to why Andy's dad was absent from all of the movies. (But seriously, just for a second, "Old Man" is a really fantastic song, albeit super sad.)

I'll try to stop messing around now...

I think picturing this as an alternate Toy Story soundtrack made it a lot more enjoyable for me. Randy Newman's songwriting style and voice are very corny, chipper, cute, and other good C-words, like "cucumber"... Anyway, imagining the songs as rejected Toy Story songs helped me get through it with a child-like smile. I really liked this album, in that regard. I think if I had gone into this with no knowledge of his timeless classics (such as "You've Got a Friend in Me") I don't know if I would have liked this as much. It was a fun little album, but just a tad too jolly for my typical liking.

One thing's for sure though. There is nobody else that sounds like Randy Newman. His signature voice and songwriting style mixed with his family-friendly accessibility are the reasons he is on this list and why he's adored by so many.

Dad's Take:

Brad called this one. Different views, indeed.

Before Toy Story, Randy Newman was known as one of the world's most acerbic singer-songwriters, putting out deceptively fun songs full of bitter wit. Sail Away is the classic example. 

There's so much dark humor in Newman's songs, sometimes so subtle that people miss it. Listen to this album once, then listen to it again with the lyrics in front of you, and you'll be surprised at how much you missed when you thought you were just listening to catchy, old-fashioned songs.

No one likes us--I don't know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try 
But all around even our old friends put us down
Let's drop the big one and see what happens 

Few songwriters have had so much to say, and have said it so well. Whether poking fun at the government or making it sound like thermonuclear war is the best party in town, or even poking fun of a religion based on love, but that allows incredibly suffering, Newman points his finger at everybody, then raises the next finger high to the sky.

I burn down your cities--how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind

 Kick me again, Mr. Newman. I enjoy it.

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind 

And he kicks us, every one of us, in a way that's just so much fun. There's even a song I first heard on The Muppet Show.

Who needs money when you're funny

So put on this record and listen to some of the most brilliant songs to come out of the singer/songwriter period of the early seventies, by a guy who might best be described as the anti-singer/songwriter. You can leave your hat on while you listen, but just don't blink or you'll miss, well, everything, and you won't even notice that Newman stripped you down and left you naked in the cold. Sail Away might sound like happy Gershwin-inspired Tin Pan Alley fun, but if you pay attention, you'll notice he's singing about the bums sleeping behind the dumpsters in the alley, and he's making fun of them, only he's really making fun of you. It's one of the darkest albums I know, and I love it.

Listen all you fools out there
Go on and love me--I don't care
Oh, it's lonely at the top.  

"Machine Head" by Deep Purple (March, 1972)

Brad's Take:

If Ozzy Osbourne picks this album to be in his "Top 10 favorite albums" list, then you can assume this going to rock. (Spoiler alert: It does!)

Generally not my go-to genre, this early 70's metal album is actually really good. Like, really good! Huge guitar riffs and super fast solos sets this album apart from just about anything we've reviewed so far.

I'd list the songs I like the most, but they're seriously all so good. But I mean, you can't not mention "Smoke on the Water" since that song contains one of rock music's most classic guitar riffs. You still can't go into a guitar store without hearing someone jamming that riff. With only 7 tracks in total, this album is a perfect example of "all killer, no filler." Each song totally rules. "Pictures of Home" even has a badass bass guitar solo.

There isn't enough good things I can say about Machine Head. It just rocks. And for 1972, this seems ahead of its time to me. This definitely deserves to be on our classic albums list. I'm glad I got to hear it and finally see what these guys were all about. I really dig it! Time to listen to it again.

Dad's Take:

If asked to list the top five songs that exemplify classic rock, you're going to mention "Stairway to Heaven" first, and chances are good you'll mention "Smoke on the Water" second. If not second, then it won't be far down the list. For that iconic song alone, this album belongs on our list. But that's not the only song that makes this a classic album.

From the opening beat of the great "Highway Star" on, you know this is going to be a great album. That opener is one of the best driving songs ever, perfect for dropping the top, cranking the volume, and pushing the pedal. How can this album get any better?

But it does. Or at least it maintains that quality.

This is riff-based rock and roll at its finest. "Maybe I'm a Leo" slows down a bit, but it still has a great riff and cool solos. "That drum that opens "Pictures of Home" tells you that this song is going to be full of more brilliant solos, and it is, with everybody getting his turn. On and on this album goes, one great driving rock song after another, through the classic "Smoke on the Water," until it finally ends with "Space Truckin'," one of the true highlights of an album without any real low points. Even the songs that might lag a bit lyrically make up for it with those riffs and solos. Ritchie Blackmore dominates here, but he's got a great bunch of players behind him, lifting him to heights that have rarely been achieved by a metal album. I can't even begin to imagine 1970s radio without this record.

If you only know "Smoke on the Water," and even if you think it's a cool song and all but you've heard it so often that it has become a metal cliche, you owe it to yourself to give this album a listen. It is so much more than one iconic song. And when you're done, throw on "Made in Japan," the live album where many of these songs are kicked up several notches.

And if you're taking a road trip, this should be in heavy rotation, maybe even the first thing you put on.