Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Surrealistic Pillow" by Jefferson Airplane (March, 1967)

Dad's Take:

This is Jefferson Airplane's second album, but it's the first after the band was joined by drummer Spencer Dryden and vocalist Grace Slick, one of the sixties' most recognizable voices. It is also the first major success to come out of the San Francisco counter-culture scene.

The album's first track, "She Has Funny Cars," makes a good opener, but the record doesn't get going until the second song, "Somebody To Love," which gets my vote for one of the greatest rock and roll singles ever. I love that song. Paired with side two's "White Rabbit," "Somebody To Love" cements Grace Slick's reputation as an icon.

Almost everything about this song is first rate. A driving rhythm section, amazing vocals, great guitar work, hippy lyrics, and an overall upbeat counter cultural feel opened the floodgates for other bands from San Francisco. Together with LA bands like The Byrds and The Mamas and Papas, this music invited the peace and love crowd to come to San Francisco for a summer of love, with the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets and ground zero. That area eventually became a sad disaster zone, but for one short period, it was something beautiful.

"Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" aren't all this album has to offer, although they'd be enough. I've always had a tender spot for "Today," with it's great lead vocal by Marty Balin. Jorma Kaukonen's guitar work on "Embryonic Journey" is a classic of acoustic psychedelia. And I also really enjoy Balin's "Plastic Fantastic Lover." "Comin' Back To Me" also has a marijuana-fueled beauty that shows off the band's softer side. Grace Slick gets most of the attention--and deserves it--but Marty Balin's vocals are also a major part of the band's sound, a psychedelic instrument in their own right. "3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" is a another great example of the Airplane's sound, every bit as good as the record's pair of massive hits.

The version I have of this album includes several bonus tracks. Although we've tried to stick pretty much to reviewing the albums in their original form, I can't help commenting on the great blues track, Kaukonen's "In The Morning." (Brad will love the re-emergence of his favorite instrument.) The song just plain rocks. Sure, it doesn't exactly fit the sound of the album, which is probably why it was left off, but MAN! what a great tune. Same with the Paul Kantner rocker "Go To Her." There are two more bonus songs (and an instrumental hidden track), plus mono single versions of "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit." In this case, the bonus tracks really do enhance the original record. It doesn't always work that way.

I don't listen to this album enough. Whenever I do, I'm reminded just how great it is. There's really nothing here I don't like. It takes the LA folk rock and adds a generous twist of San Francisco's counter-culture (ahem) "fog," and the result is one of the best albums of the sixties.

Brad's Take:

Going into this album, I felt a bit pessimistic. 60s hippy rock music isn't typically my favorite, but by the third track, I was feeling pretty good about it! There's something about Surrealistic Pillow that is different than other albums of the same era/genre. It's got nice equal doses of just about everything from the era, and I like that. It's not overwhelmingly hippie-ish, but it's also not just a 60's rock record.

There were only a couple songs that I didn't really like as much as others, but to me, that's really surprising. Even the slow folky songs like "Comin' Back to Me" were interesting to me. Maybe it was because of "spiritual leader's" Jerry Garcia's fancy guitar playing. If it's even him. There's controversy about if Jerry Garcia contributed to this album at all. Garcia apparently even suggested the album title, but who knows. I'll need to research that stuff a little more.

But all in all, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of this album. It's got everything from folky acoustic tracks to fast rockin' songs to blues jams. I'd say this album encompasses the 60's perfectly. It makes me dislike the 60's a little bit less.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You" by Aretha Franklin (March, 1967)

Dad's Take:

First of all, that's one long album title. It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? But this is Aretha, and she can call her album whatever she wants. I mean, this thing starts with her version of "Respect," after all. We've heard that one before on our list, but from the first word on, she owns this song and always will.

"Respect" is clearly the star here. But don't let that fool you. This is a solid collection. After the album rock of The Doors, this feels like an old-school record, a collection of songs not unlike other soul albums we've heard. Mixed among the great songs are some filler tunes, which are saved by Aretha's performance. The album provides two top ten hits, with "Respect" (of course) going to the top of the charts.

While I kind of agree with Rolling Stone's 1967 review, which said that the songs lacked versatility by the sidemen, the showcase here is Aretha's voice and the album has her name on it. On a few songs, like the jazzy "Good Times," the band starts to groove a bit more than on many of the songs. If this had been a 1964 album, I don't think I'd complain. But this is '67 and I want to hear the band show their chops a bit more.

One of the surprises on this album was "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," which Aretha sings in a lower key. Although her higher, somewhat screechy voice is incomparable, I like hearing her occasionally down in the lower register of that song, with a more subtle delivery. But after a song like that one, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I'm ready for her to sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me again. And the next song, "Save Me," gave me what I was looking for, a classic Aretha delivery and head-bopping bass line, even if the song itself is a little weaker than some of the others. But I can't help moving.

Our list of classic albums would be incomplete without Aretha Franklin, and this is the Aretha album you have to pick. I admit that, for the most part, this one doesn't blow me away the way, say, the Ike and Tina Turner album we reviewed a while back did, it's a solid listening experience and a true classic, and would be even if "Respect" was the only worthwhile song on the record. Your soul collection isn't complete without this record, and when it comes down to it, that's the true definition of a classic.

Brad's Take:

Aretha damn Franklin...

It took me a long time to think of what else to write after that. There really isn't much else to say. Aretha Franklin just rules. The passion in her voice is just amazing. Whether she's yelling it and making the microphone levels peak or singing quietly, she's just great!

She performs perfectly on this album. However, some of the song choices and arrangements don't really impress me much. The album is lacking in memorable songs. It's got a couple hits, for sure, but the majority of the record feels like an album from the 50s or very early 60s, where it's got 2 or 3 singles (1 really huge one), and then just a bunch of filler songs mixed in to make it long enough to call "an album." It's unfortunate though since Aretha is such a huge talent. You know there's talent here on every one of these recordings, the moment you hear her voice, but it's the actual song selection that makes this fall a little flat.

With some of our past reviews, there were albums that I just knew I was going to have to buy after listening to them, as if a Greatest Hits album for the artist wasn't even going to suffice since the album itself was just so perfect. For example, Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours, Muddy Waters' Folk Singer, and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. All serious classics, in my eyes (or ears...) but after listening to this album, I think a Greatest Hits compilation would probably be better when it comes to listening to Miss Franklin.

"The Doors" by The Doors (January, 1967)

Dad's Take:

1967 opened with The Doors breaking through to the other side, the first classic album in a year full of experimentation, rule-breaking, psychedelia, and the summer of love. This would be a year dominated by Los Angeles and San Francisco, although the UK and other places would make their presence known.

Say what you will about Jim Morrison not having much of a voice, he had a power and a way of presenting a song. Over confident, swaggering, bigger than life. Whether stoned, angry (and probably still stoned), or whatever, his was the right voice for the drugged-out world of '67, especially when mixed with enough electric organ.

The Doors is one of those records that demands your attention. It's hard to do something other than listen. This is commanding music. There are the singles ("Break On Through (To the Other Side)" and the number one smash, "Light My Fire"), of course, but many of the other songs on the album have become bonafide classics. This is the era, remember, when albums had become more important than singles, at least for those artists who wanted to transcend pop. Songs became too long for the radio. The 7:06 "Light My Fire" was shortened considerably for AM radio play, with the long instrumental break and organ solo becoming the main casualty of the need to play more commercials. The Doors is truly a classic album, not just a collection of great songs but a coherent (well, mostly, I guess depending on your definition of "coherent") whole with a sound of its own.

If you know The Doors from their songs but not their albums, you'll be surprised how much of this record you know, even if you don't recognize the song titles. The album has become a cultural artifact, an icon of its time, the model of the heavier side of the year that gave us the Summer of Love with its sparkly psychedelic pop and folk rock. Unlike some of the music of that "heady" time, The Doors still holds up as something more than nostalgic. It really is a great album, the kind that you can even recognize as great if you don't really care for it personally. I happen to like it, even if The Doors don't rank as one of my favorite bands. This is just great music, with undeniable power.

Brad's Take:

The Doors are the epitome of a drugged out 60s rock band. This band was made for Woodstock, fuzzy posters, and black lights. This kind of music is totally outside of my comfort zone, but I liked it for what it is.

This album has a bit of everything from the era. Including, but not limited to: blues influenced rockin' singles, slow songs to sway to in a weird drug-induced manner, long guitar solo/jammy parts, experimental moments, lots of organ, and a shirtless front man for the sober people to drool over.

Jim Morrison had a great voice, and the instrumentation on this album is great. I really only liked a small handful of songs from this album though. "Break On Through (To The Other Side)," "Soul Kitchen," and "Back Door Man" were the only songs that really kept my attention and had me excited. The others just didn't grab me as much.

"The Monkees" by The Monkees (October, 1966)

Dad's Take:

I'm not ashamed to admit it. I like the Monkees. OK, maybe they were created by network suits with the idea of a TV series inspired by the Beatles. But the fact remains that they created some excellent pop music.

I don't know if I'd pick this first album as their best, but it's still pretty good. True, they don't do much more than sing their parts, where later they wrote and played more, but the songs are solid and these guys had some decent vocal chops, especially Micky Dolenz, who I consider one of the most under-rated vocalists in rock and roll. "Take A Giant Step" and "Last Train To Clarksville" both show off his abilities. They were treated like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, pretty faces with some talent who were fed songs from the Brill Building and forced into an image. Only, it didn't take the Monkees long to outgrow their handlers, much to the chagrin of the people who wanted to be their puppeteers, especially Don Kirschner. And, as it turned out, to the detriment of their popularity.

Even this early on, the two songs written by Mike Nesmith showed that he had real talent. Nesmith took his experience with the Monkees and became one of the pioneer of rock videos.

The Monkees is, despite its corporate baggage, an enjoyable and listenable album. Maybe putting it in the same list as Revolver, Pet Sounds, and Blonde on Blonde is pushing things a bit, but there's no denying the tremendous commercial success of this group, whose popularity continues to today, when they get more respect in retrospect than they did during their career. They are among the best of the bubble gum pop groups, easily transcending the disposable twee-ness of most of their peers.

So laugh if you must, but I'll listen to this record more than many others on our list. In fact, the Monkees currently fill two of the six CD slots in my car, and have for a few weeks. Whether it's Last Train To Clarksville" or the silliness of "Gonna Buy Me A Dog," the Monkees are just plain fun to listen to, a reminder that music does not have to be experimental, deep, or serious to be good.

Brad's Take:

I've always known of The Monkees, but I've never really jumped into any of their albums. I've heard singles though, like "Daydream Believer," "I'm A Believer," "Last Train to Clarksville," and a couple others. So this was technically the first time I have ever listened to a Monkees album. And what better place to start than with their debut.

I believe that Davy was the front man later on in their career, but it seems that in the very early days, Micky Dolenz was more of the voice behind The Monkees, while Davy was more or less just the eye candy.

Davy's first lead vocal track on this album is "I Wanna Be Free," which is a stripped down acoustic (borderline folky) song that I really enjoyed. Davy's voice was a perfect choice for that song. This is the only song that Davy sings lead on that I really liked though. Like my dad mentioned, Micky has a great voice and I think his songs are the strongest.

All of the songs on this record are great. It's a shame that The Monkees didn't actually write the majority of them though. In fact, only two of them were written or co-written by a Monkees member (Michael Nesmith.) I'm interested to dig deeper into their catalog sometime so I can see what they wrote after they broke away from the corporate puppet masters.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Revolver" by The Beatles (August, 1966)

Brad's Take:

Revolver is a Beatles album that I have been pretty familiar with for quite a few years. I remember my dad burning Revolver, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul for me one day, and out of the three, I think Abbey Road stuck with me the most. Mostly just because of "Oh Darlin'" though. That was quite a few years ago. But now, having listened to Revolver again, I think this one might win.

Every song rules. Well, with the exception of "Yellow Submarine." I could never really get into that song. But songs such as "She Said She Said," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Good Day Sunshine," how can you not love this album? Song after song after song is just gold.

I'm not sure how The Beatles did it. Just about every song on Revolver sounds so full and polished that you think every song was 5+ minutes long because of all the production and everything distracting you, but the longest song is a second or two over 3 minutes. Pairing the Beatles with producer George Martin was a match made in Heaven. I use the term "polished" lightly though. They don't play as tightly as they could have on these recordings, but with the strings, horns, percussion, and vocal harmonies mixed it, it all works perfectly.

Pet Sounds was The Beach Boys answer to The Beatles' Rubber Soul, and Revolver is The Beatles' answer to Pet Sounds. Personally, I think Revolver falls short, in comparison. But on its own, Revolver, to me, is the perfect Beatles album. Fun and catchy, with a little bit of dorkiness, and a touch of weird experimental sounds and production.

Dad's Take:

Revolver is the third disc on my list of greatest albums ever (and the rockingest of the top three), and is, on most days, my favorite Beatles record.

Of course, when I first fell in love with this record, it was the U.S. version, which omits three songs, "I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," and "Doctor Robert." The result is a different listening experience, although nowhere as drastic a difference as the U.S. and U.K. versions of Rubber Soul, which could be counted as different albums entirely. Having those songs restored to their rightful place only makes Revolver even better.

Picking favorite songs from this album is like singling out your favorite bits in a perfect salad. The individual components are great, but when assembled into a single unit, each part is even better. There are so many classics here, from "Taxman" and "Eleanor Rigby" (reportedly the first rock and roll song to feature only classical instruments) to the Beach-Boys-Esque "Here, There, and Everywhere" and the heartbreaking "For No One," the happy, poppy "Good Day Sunshine" and "Got To Get You Into My Life," the experimental "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "I'm Only Sleeping," and even the goofy, silly oddball of the album, "Yellow Submarine." Revolver bridges all of the different Beatle stages, a true musical candy store, and opens the door for the more artistic, studio-based sound that would continue through the end of their career.

Rock and roll really doesn't get any better than this.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"John Mayall Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton" by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, July 1966

Dad's Take:

Classic blues, mid-sixties style. As the sixties moved into its second half, blues music began to mix with psychedelia, permeating the airwaves with a sound both familiar and new. To help usher in this new sound, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers would, in its early years, include not only Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, who are featured on this record, but future Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and John McVie, future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, three members of Canned Heat, Aynsley Dunbar, and several other well-known names.

The lineup for this record, nicknamed "The Beano Album," featured Mayall, Clapton, and McVie, plus Hughie Flint on drums. The result is one of the legendary blues records of the sixties, a groundbreaking effort that also started the trend of playing a Gibson Les Paul guitar through an overdriven Marshall Bluesbreaker amp, helping to define the heavy rock sound of the late sixties and seventies.

Clapton's guitar work is all over this album, which is as much a showcase for his playing as anything else. But it also features his first recorded solo vocal, on Robert Johnson's classic "Ramblin on My Mind."

If you enjoy sixties style blues rockers, you need to have this album. The playing is solid, crunch without sounding overly shiny or corporate. This is the sound that paved the way for Hendrix, MC5, Led Zeppelin, and other blues-based rock with a hard edge. Made up mostly of blues standards with a few originals mixed in, this is a fine example of the trend to create album-oriented music that was not about collecting hit singles. There are not really any songs that stand out on their own, but the sound of the entire album is what makes it so great. It hit number six on the UK album charts but was not immediately well-known in the U.S. It is most important now for the influence it had on people like Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Brian May, and on the future sound of rock.

Brad's Take:

I enjoy when we get to listen to these records that I've never heard of before. I, of course, knew of Eric Clapton, but everything about this particular album was new to me.

First off, Clapton's guitar playing is awesome. But can you really expect anything less than that from him? The dude rules at guitar. There's no doubt about that. Song after song, the guitar solos are fantastic.

The album isn't much different than previous blues records from the 60s, but, like my dad mentioned, it was a little bit heavier in the rock genre than just straight up bluesy. I can really hear where Jimmy Page got some of his influence from. The song "What'd I Say" has a really long (but totally awesome) drum solo by Hughie Flint that John Bonham probably approved of, too.

Overall, this is just a great blues rock record. The opening track, "All Your Love," was probably my favorite song from the album. It's a lot heavier than most blues songs you hear, and I thought it was really good. It's definitely one I will go back to and put on my next mix CD for my car.