Monday, October 14, 2013

"Led Zeppelin" by Led Zeppelin (January, 1969)

Brad's Take:

Led Zeppelin is a band I've become very familiar with in the last few years. So when I saw that this album was next on our list, I was really excited to dive into it. Led Zeppelin (or as some refer to it: I) contains some of my favorite tracks by the band.

This album was recorded in only about 36 hours, over the course of a few weeks.

The album kicks off with guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham having a conversation with each other on their respective instruments on the classic tune "Good Times Bad Times." The song's intro must be one of the most instantly familiar rock intros of all time.

Next up is another great song, and my personal favorite Led Zeppelin jam, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." To me, this song encompasses everything that Led Zeppelin is. It starts with beautiful classic-styled acoustic guitar playing by Page with vocalist Robert Plant crooning about (you guessed it) leaving his babe. Then, the song busts into a hard hitting rockin' riff that you can't help but headbang to. The song is almost 7 minutes long, but it could play all day, and I wouldn't even mind.

The fact that this album was Led Zeppelin's debut is very impressive. Right from the beginning of their professional career, these guys were already destined to become a classic household name. It was recorded and mixed in only 36 hours over the span of just a few weeks. A very impressive feat. It contains a whole slew of recognizable hits. The ones I mentioned above as well as "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown." Listening to this record feels like a vacation for me. It's pretty much all gold.

Part of what makes this album so great is Jimmy Page's production. There are no points on here that feel sloppy at all. Everything was very well organized and pre-calculated before they even hit the record button. Page knew exactly what he wanted this album to sound like, and he nailed it.

I really only have good things to say about Led Zeppelin's debut. There are songs I like better than others, but there isn't a single note on here that is bad. This is a perfect album to start with if you're wanting to get into the band.

Dad's Take:

It's hard now to think of a time when Led Zeppelin was new, when their first album came out and nobody knew who they were. The members of the band were not complete unknowns. Jimmy Page had kicked around British recording studios for quite some time appearing on several well-known records as a session guitarist, and had joined the Yardbirds not long before Zeppelin's debut. The other members were also busy studio musicians or had been in other local bands of decent reputation.

But there had been no Led Zeppelin.

Then, in April, 1969, that iconic intro to "Good Times, Bad Times," introduced the new band to the world, and the music changed.

On their debut record, Zeppelin moved into the heavy blues rock world of Hendrix, Mayall, Butterfield, the Yardbirds, Cream, and others who had come before, but it's sometimes hard to recognize today that they came in with a fresh, new take on what was by then a common genre. It wasn't a new style of music, but the interpretation and presentation and reimagining of what had come before them resulted in something that was, and remains, absolutely unique.

Songs like "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" fit perfectly with the psychedelic-infused blues of those other bands. If you were a fan of other heavy blues rock bands of the day, much of this album would have felt comfortable and familiar. But then songs like "Communication Breakdown" would have made you sit up and realize that this was something fresh, and these guys were something special. Critics weren't crazy about the album, but rock fans ate it up, and it became even bigger as people discovered their subsequent albums and looked back to the band's beginnings.

This is a difficult album to write about, because so much has been said about it. But an album with the songs I've mentioned already, plus "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown" couldn't become anything but an instant classic.

Every song, thanks to Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones' impeccable playing and singing (and, no doubt, thanks to almost 45 years of frequent play) is now familiar and classic. You might not be as familiar with"You Shook Me" or "Your Time Is Gonna Come,"  but you'll immediately recognize them.

What I like best about this album is how firmly blues-based it is. Everything that Led Zeppelin added to the blues to create their unique sound is here, but it's wrapped tightly around the blues. For example, the album's closer, "How Many More Times," is at its root a basic blues tune, but by the time Led Zeppelin is done with it, it's something much more, something unusual that transcends the blues and psychedelia and anything that had been heard before. Sure, you could hear the influence of bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but this was no copy-cat band.

I don't want to write any more. I just want to listen. Many records are called great, but this one truly deserves that over-used adjective. It builds on what had come before, but there had never been anything like it, and all imitators since then have fallen short. This is an iconic, classic album.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

"Uncle Meat" by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention (April, 1969)

Dad's Take:

I can agree that Zappa was a genius. I can really enjoy his music in the right mood and the right dosage. But I must admit I've been dreading listening to four sides at once. So now I'll just let it play, for better or for worse.

From the first moment, Zappa's instrumentation gets me. A little weird, which I can enjoy, inventive, creative, stand-up comedy with a keyboard. The arrangement is interesting and unusual, a little reminiscent of Brian Wilson or Van Dyke Parks in 1967. This is not your typical pop or rock or jazz music. This isn't what you put on the hi-fi for your teenage dance party, or to bandage your aching heart. It turns the conventions of popular music on their ear, obliterates all of the usual rules about what makes a song, and creates something completely new and different. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is up to each listener. To me, it's pretty mixed. There are moments that blow me away. There are moments that make me want to get on to the next thing and see if I like it more. There are moments when I want to stick sharp objects in my ears but Zappa beats me to it. I think that's what he was going for, though.

It's the "height" of 1960s experimentation, of trying new sounds and forms, of mixing strangeness, rock, and jazz with something that's none of the above, none of whatever "above" you might think of. I can appreciate that. I don't always like it, though.

This isn't an easy album to listen to, but I don't think it's supposed to be. Call it avant garde, musique concrete, or whatever. Zappa and the Mothers are making fun of music, and of themselves, while moving into new territory. The are tracks I like, usually those that are more commercial sounding, like "Dog Breath, The Year of the Plague," which sounds like a funky R&B song until it starts to go in directions that make fun of the genre, while paying homage at the same time. He does the same thing with doo-wop on the infectious "Electric Aunt Jemima," one of my favorite tracks on this album. Or his other bit of doo-wop humor, "The Air."

Zappa is flipping off convention and rules, and having a good time doing it. And at times we can share their fun. Spike Jones meets rock and roll meets your best friend's drunken mom's hippie boyfriend and his dancing bear. 

The centerpiece is the King Kong suite, which tears jazz apart and brings it into the age of the hippie. And isn't particularly easy to listen to. It's an interesting work, but by the time you get there, it's not hard to be Zappa'd out.

During my youth, Zappa was renowned for his cosmic creative craziness. It would have been interesting to sit down with the critics when they first put this on their turntable in 1969, when they wondered if this was all a big put-on.

It's often self-indulgent ego music, experimentation for the sake of geeky hipness. It takes itself too seriously while demanding that we don't take it seriously. And sometimes it works. Sometimes it's frustrating, or scary, or annoying, or funny, or brilliant, or maddening. It's exhausting and heavy and thick. But that's Zappa for you.

This will never be my favorite album. I'm not likely to put it on very often. I can't say I was sorry to see it end. But it's not like anything else, and sometimes that makes something a classic bit of art, and sometimes it makes something incomprehensible. With this album, either response is justified.

Brad's Take:

Frank Zappa is an animal. This dude is like a hyena who learned that banging on instruments can make noise. And once he discovered that he could make sounds, he taught his little hyena self to hit the record button. Then, he never stopped. For two whole hours. This album is the definition of "cacophony."

It wasn't until track 5 ("Dog Breath: The Year of the Plague") (which was 10 minutes into the album) that actual music started to play through the speakers. Up until that point, it was just sounds layered on top of a million other sounds.

"Electric Aunt Jemima" (track 12) is the first song that I could actually say I legitimately enjoyed. It's sounds like a Buddy Holly song being covered by Frank Zappa. It was interesting and fun. I don't know if it's actually any good though, to be honest. It's like this.... If this album was a wild river and I was careening down it panicking, looking for something to grab onto, this song would be the first tree branch that I could finally grab hold of to feel like I was somewhat safe. But then, by golly, not even two minutes go by before the tree branch snaps and I go right back under the water. Dammit!

"Mr. Green Genes" contains the lyrics: "Eat your shoes. Don't forget the strings and socks. Even eat the box you bought them in." Can you sense my eyes rolling right now? That song did make me chuckle a little bit though. I'll give it that. It was yet again, another tree branch, but I grabbed onto it just because it looked like a penis and I thought that was funny. I knew it wouldn't save me, but my sense of humor is still intact, even while struggling to breathe in a crazy river.

After two solid hours, I got out of the river alive. It sucked though. Really bad. And I am cold and wet and all banged up. I probably have a concussion. But at least I made it out alive, and I can move on with my life. At least I have a story to tell...

Thank goodness Led Zeppelin is next. I need Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to nurse me back to health.

Cacophony. That is all there really is to say about this album.

"Velvet Underground" by The Velvet Underground (March, 1969)

Dad's Take

As has been clear in previous reviews, The Velvet Underground are not a personal favorite. That said, I might like their third album best of their records, even though it does not include John Cale, whose solo efforts are my favorite of any band member.

This album takes a somewhat more subdued approach than the two previous albums, beginning with the opening track, "Candy Says," which I really like. A lot, actually. I also like "Pale Blue Eyes" for its deceptive simplicity and confessional nature.It's not surprising that this is one of their most covered songs. This might be my favorite Lou Reed vocal. "Jesus" is another pretty little confession, performed softly and intimately, to draw the listener in.

In general, the album feels more mature than the two before it, and less self-indulgent. Even the more rocking tunes like "What Goes On" (which reminds me a little, strangely, of The Grateful Dead), have a more enjoyable sound, or at least more to my taste, whatever that's worth. On the first two albums, "What Goes On" might have become a ten-minute epic. Here, they keep it to a more enjoyable length, keeping it from becoming dull.

There's really not much here that I dislike, something I couldn't say of their first two albums. I'm not overly fond of songs like "Beginning To See The Light," but I actually kind of like the verses, although the choruses become a bit repetitive and uninteresting. "The Murder Mystery" might be my least favorite tune here, mostly because it's hard to follow what's being said, and because, at eight and a half minutes, it's too long, and features a kind of annoying attempt at self-indulgent poetry. Mostly, it just doesn't have the same vibe as the rest of the record. Still, I find it more listenable than many of their earlier avant garde pieces. I was glad when it ended, though. It left me feeling tired. But maybe that was the point, if there was one. On the other hand, the following track, the closer of the album, is the fun little ditty (and that's an appropriate word in this case) "After Hours." Fun little child-like tune that provides a nice recovery period following "The Murder Mystery." Nice sequencing choice.

This is still obviously a VU album. It's not like they completely changed their sound. But by taking a somewhat more restrained approach, they created an album that, if not more commercial, is more accessible to people who are not used to that particular type of East Coast precious experimentation that can quickly become annoying to people who have not spent significant time on the dark streets of New York City. This album feels almost like sitting in a coffee shop and listening to an artistic band in an intimate setting. I can't help but think that, by this time, they had been influenced by the sounds coming out of California. The ballads have a bit of an L.A. feel, while the faster songs remind me of San Francisco artists like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane ("I'm Set Free").

Of course, it's the New York-style experimentation of the early albums that appeals to many VU fans. But for me, not really a fan, this album is the one I'm most likely to return to of their first three. Fact is, I really kind of like it, enough to rethink my opinion of the band.

Brad's Take:

In the review that we wrote for The Velvet Underground's first record, The Velvet Underground & Nico (the Andy Warhol banana one), I stated that the band sounded immature and like they were just trying to replicate the folky rock stuff that was popular at the time, but that they fell short. It was a nice try, but it wasn't good. It sounds like they finally found a nice little comfy place on their third album though, The Velvet Underground.

The opening track "Candy Says" was a surprise right from the get go. Immediately, I noticed that this was a more mature band compared to who we heard on their first two albums. Like my dad said above, this doesn't sound like a completely new band or anything. They didn't change their sound necessarily, but they pulled back to a something more in their expertise and then tightened up what they needed to. Making those very necessary changes makes this album feel a lot more focused and mature.

As the album goes forward, we hear some more upbeat tracks that have obvious traces of some of their influences, like Bob Dylan ("Some Kind of Love") and The Beatles ("Beginning to See the Light"). Although those songs are great, they shine the most on the mellower more stripped down songs. "Pale Blue Eyes" is a great example of that. It's a very pretty song.

And now, as you see, I don't think I've said a bad thing about this album yet. And that's because the majority of the album is as great as VU has sounded up to this point in their discography. But then we get to "The Murder Mystery"... I don't want to talk about it, but let's just say that this less-than-casual Velvet Underground listener has a very disappointing headache now. Thankfully, the end of the record recovers with a bouncy bass driven jam called "After Hours."

Despite its very few flops, this album was a pleasant surprise. Especially compared to the other VU albums we've reviewed so far. It's not perfect, but I'm proud of them for making an album like this. I compared them to junior high school kids who just started a band to emulate their heroes on their first album, but on this one, I feel like they've matured and found their own little place that's a little more unique. Not bad, boys, not bad.