Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Four Tops Greatest Hits" by The Four Tops (Jan., 1968)

Dad's Take:

The Four Tops managed to stay together without a single personnel change from 1953 until 1997, when Lawrence Payton died of cancer. To get their signature sound, songs were written just a bit high for lead singer Levi Stubbs, a baritone. As a result, he often sounded like he was reaching for an emotional high note.

It's hard to review a greatest hits album. What do you say? "This album contains all their greatest hits," at least those recorded through 1967. "Reach Out I'll Be There," "I Can't Help Myself," "Baby I Need Your Loving," "Shake Me Wake Me (When It's Over)," It's The Same Old Song"--all there, as well as several others you might not know by title, but you'll know it when you hear it.

This is a rock-solid record, a great listen all the way through. But what else would you expect from a greatest hits album by one of the great soul vocal groups?

Brad's Take:

Every song that I already knew by The Four Tops I had no idea was actually The Four Tops. I've heard of their group's name, but never really associated any songs with it until now. Not really sure why I slept on that because I should have gotten their entire discography a long time ago.

I love this kind of music. It just feels so happy and fun, despite what the lyrics talk about sometimes. This music just puts me in a good mood.

"I Can't Help Myself" and "Reach Out I'll Be There" are a couple of the songs on this collection that are immediately familiar to me. But there's some tracks on here that I haven't heard before that I love now, like "Seven Rooms of Gloom," "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," and "You Keep Running Away," just to name a few.

After listening to this, I decided that I'm definitely going to have to dive into more of The Four Tops' discography. This is a great collection that really showcases their greatness. I really hope other songs off of their full albums are as good as their hits are. This is one of my favorite albums we've gotten to listen to, I think. So much fun!

"Greatest Hits" by Diana Ross & the Supremes (January 1968)

Dad's Take:

In the mid-sixties, the Supremes were up there with people like the Beatles and Beach Boys as a chart force, creating hit after hit and dominating the radio. This two-record set of twenty songs contains all the hits and several less-familiar B-sides from that period.

There's not much more to say. If you like the Supremes but aren't fanatical enough to want all of the original albums, everything you'd expect to hear is here. "Can't Hurry Love," "Stop in the Name of Love," "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," and even more songs with love in the title, "Come See About Me," "Back In My Arms Again," "I Hear A Symphony"--all bona fide classics and more familiar to many of us than the stuff at the back of the refrigerator. Throw in some lesser tunes like "Ask Any Girl" and "Whisper You Love Me Boy," that you might not know but that will sound familiar anyway, and you have a classic greatest hits comp.

There aren't any big surprises. It is, afterall, a greatest hits package. So kick back and enjoy some soulful Motown diva pop. It's a welcome antidote to the experimentation of 1967, straight up pop song, mostly about love. Nothing particularly groundbreaking about the songs, but the Motown productions are stellar and the performances by Diana Ross and her girls are, well, yeah, supreme.

Brad's Take:

Now this is more up my alley! Who could not love The Supremes. They are just a fun little Motown group that you can't help but dance along with. There isn't really much more to say about Diana Ross and The Supremes.

Some of my favorite tracks on here are "Baby Love," "Where Did Our Love Go?", "Stop! In The Name of Love," and "Come See About Me." There's a bunch more that I like just as much, but I don't want to copy and paste the entire track list. The only negative thing I'd have to say about this compilation though is that I enjoy the first disc more than the second.

Like my dad said, there's no real surprises here. The biggest surprises are the B-sides, and even those are just about as great as the hits.

"White Light/White Heat" by The Velvet Underground (December 1967)

Dad's Take:

John Cale, who makes his last VU appearance on this album, claimed that the record was "a very rabid record...The first one had some gentility, some beauty. The second one was consciously anti-beauty" (Wikipedia). They succeeded.

Important because of the influence the distorted, feedback-ridden, rough recordings had on future musical genres, the album tanked upon release, peaking at #199 on the Billboard charts. It's not an easy album to listen to. "The Gift," for example, is kind of the dark side of a coin shared with Leonard Cohen, a dull short story set to distorted music and feedback.

Brad's going to love "Sister Ray," because I know he'll really dig a 17-minute three-chord improvisation. If they'd kept it to about three minutes, I think I might like it. Even six. It's kind of a fun little jam, but it goes on too long. "Lady Godiva's Operation" is maybe the most listenable track for me. The instrumental portions of "I Heard Her Call My Name" are some interesting bits of proto-punk, which is pretty cool. But they still sound like the guys down the street who put a band together but don't know how to play, so they just go loud and distorted and hope nobody will notice.

I'm OK with weird. I'm OK with rough. I'm OK with anti-establishment. But I have trouble getting into this record. It has its moments, and I'm glad it's around to influence records I like better, but it's not my thing.

After this album was released, John Cale left and recorded some solo stuff that I enjoy more than most of his VU work.

Brad's Take:

First off, the mixing and overall quality of the recordings on this album drive me crazy, in the worst way. Everything is so muddy and gross sounding. Even if they meant for it to sound so bad, this was a waste of someone's money. I don't get it...

Aside from all of that, there isn't really much else to say about this record. It was really hard for me to actually get through each song. Especially "I Heard Her Call My Name." That guitar mutilation was incredibly hard for me to stomach. So was the entire "Sister Ray" track.

This was one of my least favorite albums we've had to listen to, for sure. Sorry, Velvet Underground fans...

"Their Satanic Majesties Request" by The Rolling Stones (December, 1967)

Dad's Take:

In the wake of Sgt. Pepper's, everybody had to do a psychedelic album, including the Stones. Problem is, their album sounds like they were jumping on a bandwagon. It sounds insincere, more than a little off, and just not especially good.

The Stones are best when they play blues-based garage rock. They are clearly out of their element here. A few songs are interesting, like "She's A Rainbow" (reviled by John Lennon), and my favorite from the album, "2000 Light Years From Home," but most of the album comes off as nothing more than a pretention, over-produced (and badly produced) attempt to follow a trend. Trend following is the opposite of what people love about the Stones. Throughout their 50 years, they've been themselves, managing to stay current without huge shifts in style--except here.

The album charted very well, #3 in the UK and #2 in the US, but didn't maintain its popularity very long. Many listeners agreed with Keith Richards, who famously called the album "a piece of crap." Unfortunately, when it comes to many of the songs, he may be right. Like in the way overlong "Sing This All Together (See What Happens)," with all of its sound effects that just never quite work. Or "Gomper," which sounds like an attempt at Indian music by somebody who doesn't understand it.

I'm all for bands stretching their wings and trying new sounds, even if it doesn't quite work, so I'll give them credit for trying. Every band needs to grow and occasionally take a new path to keep it fresh. I'll give them even more credit for returning to their own sound after this anomaly.

Brad's Take:

A lot of these songs just sound like... well... not songs. They sound like they improvised parts on each instrument individually, recorded themselves saying weird stuff into the microphone (snoring? really?), and then played them all at the same time, and then declared it as art and put it out into the world. Like my dad said, it's obvious (but very poorly executed) that the Stones were trying to ride the coattails of The Beatles here. It almost sounds like they're trying to make fun of The Beatles.

I didn't know "Yellow Submarine" was on this album. Oh wait, it's actually the song "On With The Show."

"Sing This All Together" would be a lot better if it was half as long and didn't have the random middle section. That song is probably the only one that I kind of liked. "2000 Light Years From Home" is okay, but it still doesn't feel original at all, no matter how hard they tried for it to be. I'm not sure why this album is considered a classic, other than maybe a classic parody album.

The album's production has a flaw that I've noticed in a lot of albums from this era. It's the panning of the tracks that really bothers me. Why is it that they sometimes insisted on putting the drums in just one speaker, or like in the case of "Citadel," the lead vocals are only in the left speaker. It drives me crazy. Drums and lead vocal tracks should always be in both ears. It feels so lopsided when they're not. It really bothers me.

"Songs of Leonard Cohen" by Leonard Cohen (December 1967)

Dad's Take:

This is another album that shows that the list we're basing our reviews on comes from Britain, where this album charted much better than it did in the U.S. That said, I like Leonard Cohen and his songs.

The problem is, the album suffers from a sameness between songs that makes it hard to get through without getting bored, unless you listen very closely to the poetry Cohen sets to music. But that's kind of the point. This isn't an album for casual listening. It demands attention to Cohen's often poignant story poems set to music.

"Suzanne" is the obvious classic here, along with "So Long, Marianne," but the rest of the album is worth a listen, in the right mood. My favorite, beyond the two classics, is probably "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." The acoustic music is played well throughout the album, but often doesn't differ much between songs, although if you listen closely there are interesting things happening in the arrangements. Cohen's droning chanting of his poems also doesn't change a lot from song to song, but he's easier to listen to here than in later albums when his voice became little more than a deep growl.

When I listen to my collection on shuffle, I always enjoy the Cohen songs when they pop up. Listening one or two at a time is a great experience. So is listening to a career-spanning collection, where his voice and music change over the years. Unfortunately, by the time I reach the end of this album when listening to the entire thing--which I've done several times because, when it comes down to it, I'm a sucker for stories about strange, sad people-- I become somewhat numb and don't give the songs the attention they deserve. It gets better with repeated listenings, when the subtle differences between songs start to pop a bit more and it becomes more clear how much is going on in each of these songs.

If you like story songs and poetry, check this one out. If you want a good beat, this isn't your album. And if you're looking for something to party to, an album of mellow, depressing stories isn't right for you. Well, at least not until you're wasted and everything sounds deep.

All that might not sound like much of an endorsement, but I like this album. The stories are good if you can keep your attention focused, and the musical arrangement are actually more varied and interesting than they sound the first time you listen or if you don't listen closely. This might not rank up there with my favorite albums, but when heard at the right time, I really enjoy it.

Brad's Take:

"Suzanne" is such a pretty song. I love everything about it. The female background vocal on the chorus was especially great. "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" are also really great. And again, the background vocals really help make these songs shine for me. I don't know who she is, but she has a really pretty voice.

I wouldn't say there's any bad songs on this record, but there aren't a lot of songs that I love individually either. However, I really like the overall mellow feel I get from listening to the album as a whole. I don't think I would like it this much every day, but this evening it's hitting the spot. It's definitely a mood record, and right now my mood is: Sleepy.

Most of the songs on this album are basically two songs. The casual listener who just listens to this as background music or something will probably just hear Leonard's voice and an acoustic guitar on most of these songs. But those who put on headphones and give this record a focused listen will hear a lot of other instruments that kind of hide out in the background a little bit. The production on this album carries every song perfectly. It never overshadows the actual skeletons of the songs, but it puts just enough meat on the songs for it to be attractive to the ears.

"Forever Changes" by Love (November, 1967)

Dad's Take:

Our excursion into psychedelic rock now turns stateside, where Love takes a lighter approach, full of strange turns that nearly always lead someplace special. Rolling Stone lists this album at number 40 in its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and it's not hard to understand why.

This ambitious album, full of unusual twists and turns that never bend beyond taste and always work, was not a big seller, but it's one that holds up better than many of the better-known records of the period. A brilliant fusion of folk rock, acid rock, and pop, often with a classical feel, is nothing short of incredible. Like many people, I don't know it nearly as well as I should, but I suspect that will change soon.

At times, like on the opening track, "Alone Again, Or" it reminds me of the sound that the Moody Blues had not yet created. Then there's one of my favorites on the record, "Andmoreagain," similar to the best of the pre-disco Bee Gees songs, which they also had not yet created.

Throughout the album, the playing is excellent. The lyrics are poetic and sometimes psychedelic without dipping to often into the silliness that was so common during that time. Unlike much of the classic output of 1967, this album stills feels vibrant and relevant. There are still echoes of this record in many of today's subgenres.

I feel like I should be mentioning more songs but, although individual songs are great, this record is best appreciate as a whole. There's a cohesive sound here that can accommodate disparate songs like "The Red Telephone" (another of my favorites), "Old Man," and the jazzy horn-drenched "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," or the Hendrix like "Bummer in the Summer." Can't wait to read Brad's reaction to "Live and Let Live," probably the catchiest song ever to feature snot. I also really like "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This." Then the closer, "You Set The Scene" is one of the best-realized rock mini-suites I've heard, leaving me wanting so much more. But, as I said, this record is much more than a collection of interesting songs. Everything combines perfectly into a great piece of work.

This is one of my favorites on our list so far, and I can't believe I haven't given it more attention before. I've always kind of written it off as just another psychedelic critical favorite that doesn't fit as well outside its time, but I've been very wrong. This is great stuff. It takes all of the self-indulgent weirdness of 1967's rock and combines it into an almost timeless, highly accessible record that should be listened to as often as it is talked about. 

Brad's Take:

The opening track "Alone Again Or" starts off with an almost silent acoustic guitar, but the track explodes quickly. "And I will be alone again tonight my dear." That line is probably going to be stuck in my head the rest of the night. Big guitars and an even bigger horn section makes this song really stand out to me.

This band doesn't just utilize horns to stand out with their competition. They also use a string section sometimes,  like in the songs "Andmoreagain" and "Old Man." The horns and orchestral arrangements on this album are awesome. They really make the songs they're featured in sound even bigger and fuller. But the band doesn't need that stuff all the time. 

On songs like "The Daily Planet," it's just the band doing what they do. Go glitz and glamour, just guitars, bass, drums, and vocals rockin' out together. This would have been a really fun song to see performed live by Love, I think. Plus, it's called "The Daily Planet." I hope that's a Superman reference because that would make me like the song even more. 

The album gets the weirdest with the songs "The Red Telephone" and "Live and Let Live." The lyrics to these songs are just ridiculous, especially the former. But I think I know why my dad was excited to read what I have to say about "Live and Let Live." The songs opens with the line: "Oh, the snot has caked against my pants, it has turned into crystal." Probably the best line in any song of the 60s.

Overall, I really enjoyed this album. It's really accessible, for the kids who aren't into most psychedelic rock, like myself. It's got really weird stuff, really rockin' stuff, and really mellow stuff. It's just a lovely, well-rounded, little child made out of Love. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Disraeli Gears," by Cream (November, 1967)

Dad's Take:

This is one of those heavy sixties rock albums that every collection should include. You know any album that begins with the one-two punch of "Strange Brew" and "Sunshine of Your Love" is going to rock. Throw in songs like "Swalbr" and "Tales of Brave Ulysses" and you have a bona fide classic. Although it's still full of those sixties sounds, I have a feeling Brad will like this better than some of the other recent albums, especially the bluesier songs like "Outside Woman" and "Take It Back."

Being drenched with psychedelic sounds doesn't stop this album from rocking. It's full of great Clapton guitar work and classic riffs. "Sunshine Of Your Love" is the obvious killer track here, but there's plenty more where that came from. The epic "Tales of Brave Ulysses" is one of the great album-oriented rock tunes of the period, one I don't listen to enough. How can anyone resist a song with lyrics like "Tiny purple fishes run laughing through your fingers"?

It seems kind of fitting that I'm listening to this one in San Francisco, even though Cream was not a San Francisco band. You know this was played heavily in the Haight as the summer of love faded into the winter of...well, whatever.

"World of Pain" has cool psychedelic sounds as the singer contemplates a tree outside his window. "Dance The Night Away" also seems to be interested in what's outside the window, only with some heavier riffs mixed into the mellowed-out contemplation. I also like the Cockney stoner tune, "Blue Condition." It makes me laugh. But that's nothing compared to the album's closer, "Mother's Lament." That song doesn't quite fit the rest of the album, but what a fun little encore.

Classic albums attain that status for many reasons. Some are just so packed with hits that they can't be ignored. Others are just plain great music that transcends time and place and remains popular for decades. Others, like Disraeli Gears, are a time capsule of their time. Is it dated? Sure. Nobody makes music like this anymore unless they are paying tribute to that time. But "dated" isn't necessarily bad, especially when the record serves almost as a historical document of the time, and features one of the world's great guitarists and one of the great bass players.

Brad's Take:

"Strange Brew" kicks off the record with a fun little groove that you can't help but bob your head to immediately. This might be my favorite track off the album. And then it kicks right into the massively popular jam "Sunshine Of Your Love," which is undeniably one of the most recognizable rock guitar riffs. We can thank the great Eric Clapton for that one.

Eric Clapton definitely is the star on this album, and that goes without saying really. The dude shreds on the guitar and that's all there really is to it. 

It's got a little bit of filler, but this album is pretty great for the most part. The awesome songs help you look over the filler tracks. This isn't one of my favorite albums we've listened to, by any means, but it's definitely not one of the worst either. It's in the middle range somewhere.

Friday, May 4, 2012

"The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn" by Pink Floyd (August, 1967)

Dad's Take:

In the months following the release of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," psychedelic rock exploded on the scene. The Beatles weren't the first to venture into that territory, but they helped bring an underground musical form to the masses, opening the door for bands like Pink Floyd, who took psychedelic rock and eventually led the way into a new genre, progressive rock.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was Pink Floyd's first album, and the only one created under the direction of their legendary leader, Syd Barrett, probably the prototype of the rock genius driven to madness. Barrett's decent into insanity makes others like Brian Wilson and Sly Stone look almost normal.

For better or worse, madmen seem to make interesting music, and Barrett is proof of that. Piper is a crazy record, at times whimsical and at times just mad, but seldom dull. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the album is like a heavier Sgt. Pepper's without borders. Moving from fairy tales to space to bicycles and just everything in between, the album is unlike anything before it, defining Pink Floyd's unique musical vision and helping to usher in a period of baroque 'n' roll, where the studio is the most important instrument in the music.

For better or worse, Pink Floyd helped shatter the three-chord, three-minute idiom of popular music, pushing the way into art rock, and burying it all in the deep tones of madness.

Possibly my favorite song in the collection is the heavily whimsical "Flaming," with its fairy tale images, insane sound effects, and insane chord patterns. "Pow R. Toc H." takes the sounds and rhythms we heard on the exotica albums of the late fifties and makes them psychedelic--a pretty cool effect, actually. "The Scarecrow" and "The Gnome" are also interesting tunes. Throughout the album, every song seems to build on the last, creating a cohesive record that demands a close listen to get it all.

OK, and a weird album. There's no denying that this is a strange record, even in retrospect. Even without the help of chemicals, the listener's mood is altered, and we are pulled into the mind of a madman. It's not a comfortable place to spend time, but that only makes the record all the more interesting.

These album makes me wonder what Barrett could have given us if he'd been able to. On the other hand, if he hadn't been losing his mind, this would be a completely different experience, and not necessarily for the better. Art and madness often go hand in hand, and this is a classic example. I like it, in the right mood.

I can't wait to read Brad's take. I know how much he loves psychedelic rock.

Brad's Take: 

I've tried listening to a couple Pink Floyd albums before (The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon) to see what the big hype was all about. That was a couple years ago, and I still haven't figured it out. They're weird as hell, but that's pretty much the only thing I have been able to take from Pink Floyd's music. I don't really find "weird" to be that cool. Just weird. So I have been kind of dreading listening to this album, but my old man's been patiently waiting for me to do it so we can move on to more reviews. So here goes...

The first third of the album wasn't all that bad. It was more rock-oriented and pretty structured. As structured as Pink Floyd allows themselves to get, anyway. "Matilda Mother" was probably the song I liked the most on the whole album.

When the record moves into its belly section, you start to hear how crazy and weird this band can get.

Doi, doi, doi... "Pow R. Toc H." almost made my brain go inside out. I just imagine a whacked out Syd Barrett jumping around like Dr. Frankenstein screaming, "We need more of this!!! Play that instrument over there!! What is it?! Who cares!!!! Just go nuts!!! This is AMAZING!!!! Don't STOPPPPP!!!!!!!!! HAHHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!" He must have been on the verge of an aneurysm his whole musical career.

The last third of the album is more poppy. Still just as weird as everything else on the album, but there was more of a bouncy Beatles-ish kind of vibe to these last few songs. I want to hear my dad sing the song "The Gnome." He can't roll his R's so it would be pretty funny.

All in all, Syd Barrett was nuts. Or maybe the whole band was nuts. Even the producer was probably nuts. Either way, not just any band or producer could make (or even want to make) this record. It could only be done by a band of equally crazy people so they could all get inside of each other's heads to make the songs work. Everyone must have been on the exact same page, and that kind of scares me.

After listening to this album though, I am starting to understand the appeal of Pink Floyd a little bit. They had no rules. The only rule they had was "make it weirder." They were geniuses when it came to experimenting with different sounds, structures, chords, and all sorts of other stuff (including, but not limited to: drugs).

Although I am not exactly looking forward to listening to the inevitable other Pink Floyd albums on our list, I'm not dreading them as much anymore.