Friday, October 31, 2014

"Sticky Fingers" by The Rolling Stones (April, 1971)

Brad's Take:

Right off the bat, I enjoyed this album much more than Aftermath. It's immediately more energetic and rockin'. This is the kind of Rolling Stones stuff I am into.

The best thing about Sticky Fingers (besides the scandalous album cover) is that just about every song is great! You have the fast hard rock songs that I love most, like "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch", but you also have some awesome slower jams like "Wild Horses" and "I Got The Blues", and even with the differences in tempos throughout the album, it still feels like a consistent and cohesive album.

There isn't really much else to say about this album. I'm sure it's not their greatest album in their huge discography, but it's nowhere near bad.

Dad's Take:

Unlike most British Invasion bands, the Rolling Stones made it into the 70s without becoming a nostalgia act. And they had a great decade. Their first studio album of the decade, and their first on their new record label, is often considered one of their best. It's their first to have no contribution at all from Brian Jones, who had died in 1969, but it is drenched with excellent guitar playing from Mick Taylor.

The album opens with "Brown Sugar," one of my favorite Stones songs, so I like it right off the bat. After that it's sort of a mixed bag. I'm not usually a big fan of Stones ballads, but "Wild Horses" is one of their better slow songs. Same with "I Got the Blues," one of the few ballads where Jagger doesn't sound slightly out of place.

"Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" is a good mid-tempo rocker with a funky, lengthy instrumental jam, the kind of song the Stones do so well. That jam apparently happened by accident. Both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor claim they just kept playing after they finished the song, but the tape was rolling and they liked what they ended up with.

"Bitch" opens side two the way "Brown Sugar" starts the record. It's one of the highlights of the album I love it when the Stones show their harder, rougher side, and this is classic Stones. It sounds like it's always this close to spinning out of control, but it never does. The rest of the side is pretty gentle musically, although it's dark lyrically. They even venture into country territory with "Moonlight Mile." It's a good side, but I would have liked one more big rocker.

The album ends up sounding like a template for seventies rock albums. Rough, bluesy, a little dirty, and full of a good mix of up, mid, and low tempo songs (although one or two more uptempo songs would not have hurt the album any), but all performed with a rough edge. Basically, the record is what you'd expect of a Rolling Stones album. Riff-filled blues-based rock and roll, often played with swaggering abandon. The Stones are best when they don't try to be more than they are. But when you are arguably the best rock and roll band in history, being what you are is a very good thing.

"Tapestry" by Carole King (February, 1971)

Brad's Take:

Carole King is a legend. She's written and co-written so many incredible songs over the years, and she is still making it happen today. I've heard many of the songs she's written, but this was my first time actually listening to an entire Carole King album.

Tapestry is Carole King's second album, and it's sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. She also won 4 Grammy awards for this album, including Record of the Year in 1972. And rightfully so, I must say. This album is packed with great songs, such as "So Far Away", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?", and many others that I'm sure you've heard before.

It's interesting to hear Carole's versions of the songs she wrote but were popularized by other artists. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" (made famous by The Shirelles) is a good example. The Shirelles version is much faster than Carole's. Carole King adds a sad and emotional twist to her performance, and you can hear how sad and desperate the lyrics are. Her version of "You've Got A Friend" (made famous by James Taylor) is also great.

Needless to say, all of these songs are well-written and very enjoyable. Even in the mellower moments of the album, there's an emotional connection that she makes with the listener where you can feel what she's feeling. Her imperfect voice helps make the songs on Tapestry feel genuine and real. You can say that she sounds like a "Natural Woman."

The more I read about Carole King, and see the lists of songs she's written, it blows my mind! I had no idea her songwriting went back as far as the early 60s. She's written so many songs that I love that were performed by other artists, like "Chains" by The Cookies, "Go Away Little Girl" by Donny Osmond (which was the first song to ever be #1 by two different artists), "The Loco-Motion", and so many more. This lady is a hit-writing machine, and Tapestry showcases that well.

Dad's Take:

Every generation has certain albums that everybody has. Just about every album collection when I was younger included Rumours, Frampton Comes Alive, The Best of Bread, Boston, Hotel California, Dark Side of the Moon, Their Greatest Hits (I don't even have to say whose; people my age will know), Saturday Night Fever, and Tapestry. (Most of these are on our list, by the way.)

Tapestry was a monster hit. 10x Platinum in the US. It's hard to even wrap my head around that. It is in the running for the best of the above list, although strong arguments can be made for at least four of the others.  This may well be the iconic singer-songwriter album, or songwriter-turned-singer album. So many of these songs were either hit singles or received significant radio play that it feels like a greatest hits album. Some of the songs that weren't hits became hits by other singers while this album was still on the charts.

Whether you like Carole King or not, and whether you got sick of this album because of the constant airplay, it's impossible not to understand why this made our list. Personally, I like it. A lot. "So Far Away" and "It's Too Late" are great songs that sound good even now. The rest of the album is just as good. "You've Got A Freind" was an anthem for people around my age, although mostly due to the version by James Taylor. And Aretha Franklin's version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" was just as big. Personally, I really like the mellower take on "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." It just feels like the right tempo.

King's voice isn't perfect, but it's the kind of voice that invites you to sing along. And it's really hard not to. Most of the songs are familiar enough that anybody above a certain age knows them.

Song after song, it's just a brilliant album.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Stoney End" by Barbra Streisand (February, 1971)

Brad's Take:

I go to a lot of used record stores and I am convinced that every single household in America had at least one Streisand album in their vinyl collections. Because no matter what record store I'm in, no matter what town I'm in (big or small), there's at least a couple Streisand albums on the shelf, no fail. And with that said, I started getting curious. Why are there always so many Streisand albums at these stores, and why don't people want to own them anymore? So one day while I was at work, I Googled: "Best Barbra Streisand album" and her album People (1964) was her #1 best (according to I listened to a bit of that album until I realized my questions had been answered. It became obvious to me that her musical style just didn't age well, and couldn't be carried over into the 2000s the way that it did in the 60s and 70s. Also, I will note that on that same list on, Stoney End is ranked #20. So there's that.

With Stoney End, young producer Richard Perry gathered a bunch of songs that he thought Barbra would be able to make her own. They were going for a more upbeat, adult contemporary sound for this album rather than her typical Broadway/showtune style she was popular for. They pulled it off. 

Halfway into Stoney End I realized that I actually was enjoying it a lot more than I expected I would. I don't know if it's the song choices or if it's her powerful voice or what, but I liked it! I prefer this classic sound a lot more than the showtunesy stuff she is best known for. This is so much more enjoyable to me. 

The album contains songs written by the great Carole King, Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, and a few others. The songs chosen by Richard Perry are spot on. He did a wonderful job at finding songs that Barbra could put her own spin on and still have them sound great. 

If all of Barbra Streisand's music sounded like this, I would be able to understand why everyone had at least one album in their collections. Maybe her subsequent albums were more like Stoney End. I wouldn't really know, but I'm definitely curious to hear what followed this enjoyable little album.

Dad's Take:

I have to confess a bias up front. Barbra Streisand has always irritated me for some hard-to-define reason, although I recognize her immense talent and would have trouble coming up with a counter argument if you were to claim she was one of the greatest voices of my generation. There's no question that she deserves her status. Maybe it's just that, in general, I'm not a big fan of brassy voices. Maybe it's because there were a few years back in the day when, no matter how hard I tried, I could not escape from her songs, which were played constantly on the AM stations I listened to when I was ten.

I'll try to set that probably irrational bias aside and just listen.

Most of the songs here are lovely, and the production of some songs, like "I Don't Know Where I Stand," have a dream-like quality. Fun songs like "Hands Off the Man" are a kind of Broadway-Pop fusion that usually works pretty well. "Stoney End" was a sizable hit, and still sounds pretty good. I also really enjoy "Time and Love," a catchy little song with a clap-along white-soul rhythm featuring most of the singers who were featured in the movie "Twenty Feet From Stardom," as does "Free the People." I wasn't surprised to find out that "Stoney End" and "Time and Love" were written by the same person, Laura Nyro.

As Brad mentioned Babs really does justice to songs by some of the best songwriters of the time, like Carole King, Randy Newman, and Gordon Lightfoot. A few songs in and I'm enjoying it more than I really want to admit, although songs such as "If You Could Read My Mind," despite a very good performance, make me want to go listen to the original version. A few songs later and I'm starting to get bored. The super-clean, hyper-polished productions are starting to get to me. Did I just criticize it for being too professional, too well-done? Yeah, I guess I did.

Streisand shows a wide range of styles on this record. Broadway, torch songs, pop, standards. She even gets a little bluesy now and then. She showcases her legendary voice and versatility. In some cases, but certainly not all, it feels like the track is about the singer, not the song. At other times, she successfully interprets the song in a way that really makes you notice how good the song is. In the end though, to me it all sounds just a little too sterile. The songs seldom connect with me personally, even songs that do when performed by another artist. It's like the productions are so polished that I can't quite grasp them.When she manages to transcend the shiny surface, Streisand wins me over.

I enjoyed the album more--a lot more, actually--than I had expected, but I wasn't overly disappointed when it ended. Any problem I had with the record was admittedly my own. It's a very good record, performed flawlessly, and full of excellent songs. Overall, it's not quite my cuppa, but it definitely earns a place on our list.


"American Beauty" by Grateful Dead (November, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Just a few months after Workingman's Dead was released, the Grateful Dead released their follow-up American Beauty. I enjoyed the former quite a bit and so I was looking forward to diving into this one. Being recorded only a few months apart left little room for growth in sound. This is more like a sequel to Workingman's Dead. It was more or less more of the same thing, which isn't a bad thing by any means.

"Box of Rain" kicks the record off and you are able to tell immediately that they are just picking up where their last album left off. Once again, you can hear the Crosby, Still, and Nash folk/country influence. "Friend of the Devil" was one of those fun knee-slapper songs that you'd sing along to around the campfire with your pals.

Basically, this album is exactly what I expected it would be as soon as it started. It's a spin-off of the album that came before it. There's a lot of good stuff, a few songs that blend together, but nothing I really disliked or anything. "Till the Morning Comes" would probably be the only track I'd actually come back to. That song is my cup of tea.

Dad's Take:

I really like Workingman's Dead, which we reviewed earlier, but American Beauty is the Dead album that I am most likely to spin. If I had to name a favorite Grateful Dead song, chances are I'd pick one from this album. "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia" (for a long time my absolute favorite Dead song, although it now has contenders), and "Ripple" are all top candidates. And "Truckin'" is, of course, the one Dead song everybody knows. And for good reason. "Truckin'" is probably also the first Grateful Dead song I ever knew. It received heavy airplay on the San Francisco stations, and I always had one ear to my little white clock radio.

There's a relaxed, contented feeling to this album. I get the sense that they were having a good time, and really enjoyed this making this album. And we enjoy it with them.

This is pure folk-rock-country-hippy bliss, full of rebellion against The Man, but in that laid back way that says "I just want to be left alone to enjoy the world without being hassled." How does anyone not feel like life is good when listening to the sunshine daydream of "Sugar Magnolia"?

Top to bottom, this is just plain old good listening. Song after song, story after story, makes you feel good, which is weird, really, because some of the stories are not all that happy. Getting busted, running from the heat, escaping the hassles of society. Those themes are all here. But they make it sound like it was fun to be a cultural outlaw. And of course, there are other songs about just kicking back and enjoying the world. Every time a new song starts, I find myself thinking, "Oh yeah! I love this song!" "Box of Rain," "Candyman," "Brokedown Palace" (with its gorgeous chorus), "Till the Morning Comes," the hymn-like "Attics of My Life"--it's like the great songs never end.

Stylistically, there's not much difference between this album and the one before it, but there's just something about this one. Maybe it feels cozier or more personal. Maybe it's just a bit tighter. Maybe the sound they experimented with on Workingman's Dead just gels even better. Or maybe it's just because this record contains both "Sugar Magnolia" and the flat-out incredible "Ripple." I don't know.

All I know is, I love this album. I don't listen to it all the time, but when I dig it out, I tend to listen to it over and over.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Tap Root Manuscript" by Neil Diamond (October, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Ah, our first Neil Diamond album has finally appeared! 

Apparently, this album was quite a big deal when it originally came out. It was Neil's sixth album, but his first where he decided to experiment and step outside of the standard Neil Diamond box. The first side of the album was your standard Neil Diamond album, but then the B side featured The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet.) It was this African trilogy that showcased Neil's experimental side. It features a lot of African influences, as you can probably imagine.

Side A (which I will refer to as "Typical Neil.") It features the awesome single "Cracklin' Rosie" and a handful of luke-warm Typical Neil songs. Nothing real amazing but a couple catchy songs here and there. "Cracklin' Rosie" being the best one.

Side B is when things get weird. Almost comically weird, since it's coming from Neil Diamond. But kudos to him for branching out and changing up his formula! This part of the album is very African-ish. Instrumentally and even lyrically. I'm not sure where his love of African music came from, but he pulls it off as well as he probably could. It isn't bad by any means, but Neil Diamond is kind of a novelty act for people my age, so this is just strange to me. "Soolaimon" is really catchy though. It sounds like a Typical Neil song, but with an African guest vocalist doing some soprano opera stuff in the background. 

Needless to say, this isn't album I will ever actually purchase, but I commend Neil for experimenting and trying something new. It paved the way for other musicians like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon to try similar things, and that's pretty cool.

Dad's Take:

Poor Neil Diamond. Today he is known mostly as that guy you "BOM BOM BOM" with at sporting events. As a result, kids have trouble taking him seriously. But it's always kind of been that way. He's like the Vincent Price of popular music. No matter how popular and talented he is, it's almost impossible not to associate him with cheese.

What the kids don't realize is that there was a time, when I was first getting heavily into music, when the man could do no wrong. His records flew off the shelves. You might not necessarily have wanted at the time to admit that you were buying them, but if you're around my age, you did. You know you did. Funny how women admit it readily and guys are hesitant, but we bought them too.

The thing is, despite some incredibly stupid major hits that we couldn't help singing along with (seriously, have you ever paid attention to the lyrics of "Song Sung Blue" and "I Am I Said"?), the guy had some songwriting chops. By the time this album, his most ambitious to date, came out, he'd been around for a long time, writing both for himself and for others. ("I'm a Believer" by the Monkees anyone? And that's not his only Monkees tune.)

The first side of this record is ambitious, with some fairly heavy songs in addition to the poppy "Cracklin' Rosie." Nicely done orchestrations, and emotional songs make side one a worthy offering.

It's the second side where he pushes the limits and surprises us all with his "African Folk Ballet." Of all people, who would have expected it from Neil Freaking Diamond? But it goes back to the Vincent Price comparison. Both men took themselves seriously, and were better than their reputations with the cognoscenti. This is Neil Diamond doing what Vincent Price did when he did Shakespeare. Both men have the chops to pull it off, but they still bring their particular brands of cheese to the effort, even if it's mostly in eye of the beholder.

In neither case is the reputation fair. Vincent Price was a truly fine actor, giving his best even in silly roles. Neil Diamond earned his continuing massive popularity with an endless string of hits and albums. If Diamond's experiment here fails, it's more a failure caused by the listener's expectations and the baggage of Diamond's reputation. But that's a legitimate cause of failure.

The suite is creative. It's interesting. It's entertaining. It's pulled off nicely. Neil Diamond's particular brand of bombast works in this kind of piece. Some of the songs, especially the enduringly popular "Soolaimon," are very good. But it ends up almost seeming like a novelty record because, from this particular performer, it seems really, well, novel.

And it's totally unfair. Truth is, this is a good album, an ambitious project pulled off admirably. It broke new ground, and is, by any measure, a success. It showcases why Neil Diamond is so hugely popular. Fact is, when he's good, as on this record, he's really good. He's legendary, and deserves to be seen that way.

But still.

"Loaded" by The Velvet Underground (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Before I hit play on this album, I got flashbacks to the Velvet Underground's first album that my dad and I reviewed earlier. I got really nervous about busting this one open until I remembered that the Velvet Underground's self-titled album was actually pretty great. So I crossed my fingers and hoped that Loaded would be on par with the one that came just a year before it. Thankfully, I was relieved.

"Who Loves The Sun" kicks the album off. It feels like a perfect depressing response to the Beatles' optimistic song "Here Comes The Sun." Lou Reed begins the song with this great verse: Who loves the sun? / Who cares that it makes plants grow? / Who cares what it does / Since you broke my heart? This song is awesome, and is a cool way to open the album. 

Before hopping into the studio, Lou Reed and his boys had a plan to make an album "loaded" with hopeful radio singles. They wanted radio-play and so that's what they set out to get. All of the songs are pretty upbeat and single-worthy until it gets to track 5 ("New Age") which is very moody and slow-paced.

The album picks back up with the rockin' "Head Held High." This is another great song that should have been a single on rock radio in 1970. It sounds pretty "ahead of its time" to me.

Like I said before, the band was wanting to make an album that would produce some radio singles. Loaded spawned at least two singles that are still played regularly on classic rock radio stations: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll."

This album was pretty great. There weren't any songs on it that I disliked. Even the 7 and a half minute long song "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" didn't kill me. However, I think I prefer their self-titled record more than Loaded.

Dad's Take:

This is what you get when talented musicians realize that art and commerce really can mix.

There's almost a snideness under commercial tracks like "Who Loves The Sun," a sly sneer, an extended middle finger. That has always been in VU's songs, but this time it's actually more meaningful because that finger hides behind a smile.

Lou Reed, who left the band shortly before the album's release, becomes a star in this album, doing his Lou Reed thang on songs like "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll," portending the solo career he was about to enjoy.

This album features good songs, but is not a sudden sell out. This still sounds like the Velvet Underground, only the songs are accessible and comprehensible and relatable. After the first couple VU albums we reviewed, I might never have believed that I'd one day be tapping my foot while listening to them.

There's kind of a Stones feel to several of these songs, a rough-sounding band full of rough characters delivering a white R&B record. I'm enjoying this one, and finding myself wanting to go back and try those early albums again.

Songs like "Head Held High" show why VU influenced early New York punk and the CBGB's scene. It takes that Stones influence I mentioned and roughens it into straight-up white R&B with a punkish twist. It's a fun song.

Then there's "Lonesome Cowboy Bill," which reminds me more of the Grateful Dead. So does the lengthy closing track, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'." Definitely not a bad thing. Lou Reed and Jerry Garcia have some vocal similarities, so when the song styles are similar too, it's hard not to make the comparison.

One of the most surprising songs, "I Found A Reason," features harmonies and a spoken interlude straight out of the sixties, but it has a wonderful tongue-in-cheek quality that is necessary to make that style of song succeed with Reed's style. It sort of feels like this should be the last song, a kind of coda to the album. But we're far from done, with about 11 minutes to go.
All in all, I enjoyed this album. I still don't think I'd put Velvet Underground in my top 20, but I'm learning to appreciate them, and even to like them. Their later work gives me more of an understanding of their early work. I can add them to a long list of people who I resisted at first but who have grown on me over time, which, I suppose, is why it pays to keep listening, even when a band doesn't grab you at first.

"Abraxas" by Santana (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

Apparently, September of 1970 was a stacked month full of albums that sooner or later became "classics." Abraxas by Carlos Santana is yet another one to have made the list. 

This is my first time with a full Santana record, and it kicks off with "Singing Winds, Crying Beasts" which sounds like 1970 to me. A psychedelic keyboard sound, some rumbling Latin bongos, and very little guitar, which was surprising to me since I am pretty familiar with what Santana is capable of on the guitar.

When "Black Magic Woman" starts, you understand the first track was just a prelude to the album, and track 2 is where this thing really begins. Anyone who is even just a little bit familiar with Santana (like myself) knows his variation of the Fleetwood Mac song "Black Magic Woman."

Next up was Santana's version of "Oye Como Va" (originally by Tito Puente) which is another song I immediately recognized. Good luck not singing along to that one, even though (if you're like me) you have no idea what you're actually saying. 

Carlos Santana has a very cool guitar style. It feels very well rehearsed because it's so fluid and clean. Not clean in tone, but clean as in "spotless" or "perfect." It's all very well articulated. That's just one thing I notice about his playing. 

This album has solos and memorable riffs all over the place. "Incident at Neshabur" in particular has a really cool riff that will be stuck in my head the rest of the day. "Hope You're Feeling Better" sounds like they're channeling their inner Jimi Hendrix a bit. Both in guitar playing and vocals. Gregg Rolie's vocals especially have that Jimi Hendrix disortion "ness" to them.

I'm not sure how much producer credit was split between Carlos Santana and Fred Catero, but this album feels very well thought out and cohesive. They knew exactly what they wanted and how to execute it. Maybe Carlos is as good of a producer as he is a guitar player. It doesn't seem like he half-asses what he does. Maybe that's part of what makes him so legendary even today.

Dad's Take:

Santana. That's almost all I need to say. I love this stuff.

Coming off his surprise show-stopping performance at Woodstock, Santana put out two great albums. Then followed them with more great albums.

Abraxas is great from start to finish, with it's Latin-flavored-psychedelic-funky-rock-jazz-fusion. Everybody recognizes the two classic tunes here, "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va," numbers two and three in the track list. But don't stop listening there.

This album--although it, of course, has great songs--works best as a whole album. It has a flow, a musical storyline. The songs are unified without becoming monotonous. It's almost a perfect musical picture of the area where I grew up, only a few miles from Santana Central. This is my local music, full of memories and a feeling--a sense--that feels much like home. Maybe not my street, but my town and my region.

Santana might be the tightest-sounding jam band ever, or maybe the loosest-sounding tight band. They expand the concepts of rock and roll and jam and create foot-tapping, head-bopping sound paintings that suck you in and threaten to never let you go. Not that you want to get out. You don't just listen to Abraxas. You feel it. You visit it. It invites you to move in and whether you want to go or not, you find yourself there, living an adventure you don't want to end. It's fun, sometimes frightening, sometimes sexy, and almost always irresistible. The music is literally a trip, and you don't want it to end.

Enough writing. I'm just going to let Abraxas carry me away.

"Curtis" by Curtis Mayfield (September, 1970)

Brad's Take:

This is Curtis Mayfield's first solo release and it came after he left the popular Chicago-based funk/R&B group The Impressions. This self-titled album is very political, very psychedelic and very funky. It's been called "the Sgt. Peppers album of 70s soul."

Despite Curtis' fantastic shy and smooth vocals and some awesome funky bass lines, this album didn't really do much for me. There's a lot of strange sounds and arrangements that you wouldn't normally expect from a soul/funk album, but there's also a couple songs that are a little bit more traditional sounding. I can see how this record got some Sgt Peppers comparisons, in terms of stepping out of the box and getting "funky" with the traditional style.

According to Wikipedia, Mayfield was one of the first to speak openly about African-American pride and also the struggles with being black in this era. "Miss Black America" is a good example of him incorporating this political topic into his music.

The song "Wild and Free" is one of the only songs that really stuck with me. It's upbeat and loud and features a fantastic horn section, as well as some sort of instrument that sounds like magic throughout the song. You'll know it when you hear it. "Give It Up" was a  great song too, and a nice way to close off the album.

Dad's Take:

I love me some old soul and some old psychedelic music, and the two sometimes blend surprisingly well, especially when mixed with a healthy dose of late sixties/early seventies funk.

It's not hard to feel groovy (even in a literal sense) during the opening funk jam, "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go," the only charting single from this album. Like the best of psychedelic soul, the song deals with racial and inner-city issues, with a funky back beat that makes sitting still difficult.

The album broke ground for its songs about black pride and race issues. That made it important to its time, and the album is a valuable musical history lesson about the concerns of the day.

It's pretty seriously dated at times, though. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're looking to get into a 1970 groove, but I can see why someone of Brad's generation might not quite be enthralled by it. Many of the same issues still exist, but they are discussed in a different way, and to a different beat.

I enjoy listening to this album, in the right mood. I love me some psych-funk, and Mayfield's voice was common in my younger days, and still sounds great. Those smooth soul vocals still work, even where the songs might not have aged that well.

For me, the softer soul songs on this record are the ones that sometimes don't quite work for me. The funkier tracks, though, like the brilliant "Move On Up" (with its Latin percussion and funky bass line and cool horns) and the opening songs, will always get my attention. Unfortunately, it's the softer songs that seem to predominate the album, even though the eight songs are split pretty evenly between funky and mellow. I think maybe the problem is that his vocal style, although great, does not vary much from song to song, so I appreciate the interesting things that happen in the music of the funkier songs. It doesn't surprise me that Brad digs "Wild and Free." It's upbeat both musically and lyrically, with an interesting and slightly unusual backing track.

But you can't skip the slow stuff. For one thing, Mayfield's voice is a lovely thing. For another, you might start a song thinking it's just another soul ballad, like "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue," only to have the song break into a funky, African-inspired, jam. Honestly, I was getting bored with that song, and then, wow! When it goes back to its original ballad style, I'm good with it, especially considering the tragic direction the lyrics take.

The album ends strong, with two great songs, and leaves me looking forward to what may be the greatest soul album ever, which we'll get to around mid-1971. But this one is no slouch itself. It amazes me how little attention Curtis Mayfield gets these days. Truly a pioneer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young (August, 1970)

Brad's Take:

After the Gold Rush is Neil Young's third solo album and it features a very creepy album cover of what seems to be an old lady walking through a cloak-wearing ghost. It turns out though that the ghost is actually Neil Young himself. The original photo was too blurry so the artist decided to polarize Young's face so you wouldn't be able to tell. It just looks scary to me though. Also, the words on the cover are impossible to read. I don't approve. Now, on to the music since that's why we're actually here.

This is a very mellow album. It feels very safe and very average to me. Lyrically, it's really good, but other than that, it doesn't really go anywhere. Maybe that was the point. It sounds like a band playing music on a family farm or something, playing just for themselves. It feels like they're just relaxing, playing music to pass time until dinner's ready. If that's the point, they nailed it. And if that was Neil's original concept, then I hope he also was hoping people would be able to fall asleep to these songs too. 

It's not until track 9 ("When You Dance I Can Really Love") when the band finally gets some energy. This song has a punchy bass rhythm and matching piano part that steadily bounces throughout the song that you can't help but tap your foot to. This track made me think the album might be making a different route. A late one, but a necessary change in scenery. Unfortunately, this was not the case. It was just a fluke because the last two songs are just as sleepy as the rest of the album is.

I know pumping out up-tempo rock jams isn't generally Neil Young's thing, but this album really just bored me. Maybe in a few years I'll change my opinion, just like Rolling Stone Magazine did after they initially called the record "dull" but now refer to it as a "masterpiece."

Dad's Take:

After the Gold Rush is a folk rock classic, channeling Young's work with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY into a solo album that highlights his messages. It includes "Southern Man," one of the greatest Civil Rights songs by a white guy, and a no-doubt-about-it classic song with a rock jam Brad must have somehow overlooked. He didn't even mention it, so he must have been distracted while it played. This is a flat-out Great Song with capital letters, a work of genius. Plus it pissed off southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd.

This album also features the title song, among Neil's best, a great song about the environment and the unrest of the time. "After the Gold Rush" lays bare Young's feelings about the time, and a sense that he just wants to escape it, to get high and get away.

If the album stopped with those two songs, it would be enough for me to justify its inclusion in our list. But it doesn't stop there.

"Only Love Can Break Your Heart," is a beautiful song about pain, set in waltz time.

Following the magnum opus that is "Southern Man," it's only natural that "Till the Morning Comes" feels lightweight and fragmentary. But it's an interesting little piece of music, from the Brian Wilson school of "You're Welcome." Plus, well, you kind of need something lighter to decompress following the wailing rage of "Southern Man."

"Don't Let It Bring You Down" is classic Neil Young, with a bluesy flavor to his folk rock. After a couple relatively weak tracks, it was nice to hear that classic first line of this one. I like "Birds" too. This short song might not be one of his better-known songs, but it has some things in common with my favorite Neil Young ballad, "Long May You Run" from a different album. And then there's "When You Dance I Can Really Love," which reminds me of some of his work with Buffalo Springfield.

This album bridges the gap between sixties folk rock and seventies singer-songwriters. It was highly influential, but unlike many albums that were influential in their time, it still sounds great today, with timeless messages delivered in a deceptively gentle package that carries an awfully strong bite. Neil Young is one of those songwriters who, at his best, strips off all filters and barriers and lays his feelings naked for the listener.

Like many of these kinds of records, multiple listens are necessary to really get a grasp of what Young is saying because there's so much here. The album is pure brilliance that shines too brightly to be watered down by his previous musical partnerships. I encourage The Boy to listen again, to see beyond the mellow feel and understand how heavy and sharp so many of Young's messages, both in words and music, can be. This is not my favorite Neil Young album. Like Brad, I would have enjoyed a couple more tracks from Young's rockin' side. It also doesn't have the strongest ending. But it is an excellent album with at least one truly great song, and is definitely worthy of our classic albums list.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Paranoid" by Black Sabbath (September, 1970)

Dad's Take:

If somebody told me I could have only one metal album in my collection, this is very likely the one I'd pick.

"Iron Man" could well be the greatest metal song, containing the One Riff to Rule Them All. I used to play it when I played Risk, as my national anthem. "Iron Man." I want to keep writing that title. If this album contained no other great songs besides "Iron Man," I'd have to have it in my collection. It's a cinematic rock suite, as close to perfection as rock has ever come.When I put this album on, it's hard to wait until the fourth song to hear this brilliant song.

As great as that classic song is, some others on this album aren't far behind, so you can't just skip ahead.. The opener, "War Pigs," for example. The song is epic in the classical sense. It's a head-banging message song from the Viet Nam era. Need I say more. And that wild ending. It's like they weren't sure where to go to end the thing, so they went crazy.

"Paranoid" is another amazing song, with a great Ozzy vocal that sounds as much like a riff as anything happening on the guitar. That guitar riff, though, is possibly the most influential riff in hard rock.

If "Iron Man" were song three instead of four, this album would open with one of the best 1-2-3 punches ever. But Sabbath takes a psychedelic break with song three, "Planet Caravan." It reminds me of some of the best work from Vanilla Fudge. I'd probably like it more if it didn't sound out of place between "Paranoid" and "Iron Man."

You'd expect me to feel let down by whatever follows "Iron Man," but "Electric Funeral" is psych metal at its best. It's a lot like "Iron Man" in its structure and even it's electrical themes, but it doesn't sound like a copycat song. And it's almost as good.

It doesn't really matter what comes next. Four of the first five songs are absolutely brilliant, and the other one is no slouch. They could stop now and have one of the greatest rock albums ever released.

But no, they give us three more songs. By this point, the best is over, but don't get me wrong. I like the Vanilla-Fudge-meets-Alice-Cooper-done-as-only-Ozzy-can-do-it feel of "Hand of Doom.""Rat Salad" is a great instrumental with the drum solo that was required at the time. I could see it going on for another five or six minutes. And "Fairies Wear Boots" is a great way to close the record, with its killer-riffs-and-drums attack on skinheads.

One of the things that makes this such a great album besides the fantastic songs and unforgettable riffs is that the album holds together. Even as great as most of the songs are, they don't kill the cohesive feel of the entire album. Brilliant stuff. Absolutely brilliant.

Ozzy, Geezer, and Tony managed what many consider the greatest metal album ever recorded, and I won't argue with anybody who makes that claim.

Brad's Take:

Black Sabbath is definitely one of those bands that has become a household name over the years. Even when I was younger, I remember my dad playing "Iron Man" in the car. And around Christmas time, he loves playing the Christmas themed "Iron Man" parody called "I Am Santa Claus" by Bob Rivers.

My favorite songs on this are probably the ones I already knew well. "War Pigs" and "Iron Man."

The majority of the album has great writing, and it's impossible to oversee that. Every member in this band rules at what they're doing. This is a band that consists of guys who are lucky to have all found each other because they compliment each other extremely well. Even Ozzy sounds great.

However, growing up in the digital age where audio recording is much more crisp, full, clean, and other adjectives for basically "perfect," I can't help but notice the aged production and tape-recorded quality, and I think that holds the album back for me. My ears have been (arguably) blessed with hearing modern hard rock albums that don't just have quality writing, but quality recording that helps compliment everything. If Paranoid was recorded today with modern equipment, this album would sound massive. The production quality dates this so much, and unfortunately that affects my opinion of the record as a whole.

The album also suffers from some of the same panning issues that I've complained about in a few past reviews. In these early days of stereo mixing, people seemed to think they should put random stuff into one speaker and other stuff in the other. On this album specifically, they put the bass guitar in only the right speaker, which I find very odd. But maybe I'm the only one that really notices that kind of thing so don't let that affect your decision to listen to this album (as if you haven't already at some point in your life.)

Overall, I didn't love the album, but the good songs are really good, and the not-as-good songs are definitely skip-able. Fortunately though, there's only 8 tracks so there's not a lot of filler at all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"John Barleycorn Must Die" by Traffic (July 1970)

Dad's Take:

Although I prefer my Traffic to include Dave Mason, who had left the group prior to this record, "John Barleycorn Must Die" is a worthy entrant in our list.

Full of good, solid, jazz-infused, blues-based British rock, this was a big hit on both sides of the pond, doing somewhat better in America than Britain. It's not one of my favorites on our list, but it is very good, very listenable, with a definite classic rock feel.

This album started out as a solo project for Steve Winwood, but when he asked most of his former Traffic mates to join him, a Traffic reunion album was born. At times, I hear later seventies albums in this music. For example, parts of "Freedom Rider" remind me of Steely Dan. The song "John Barleycorn" really stands out on this album. It has a cool, folksy, almost Cat-Stevens-meets-Jethro-Tull-like treatment that is not like anything else on the record. Of the more typical songs, I think I like the closer, "Every Mother's Son," best.

"John Barleycorn Must Die" brings together rock, blues, jazz, and even British folk influences to create an intriguing sound and an interesting set of songs. The record is full of great jams, punctuated by Winwood's expressive voice. I have to admit that I'm not a huge fan of Winwood's voice, probably because of overexposure in the eighties, but it works with this kind of music. But then, Rolling Stone lists him as #33 in its list of the 100 greatest singers, so what do I know?

Over the years, this album has received reviews that are kind of all over the place. My final impression? Great musicianship, very good performances, and songs that are good enough. There are albums I like better on our list, but this one is worth pulling out once in a while. There's nothing I consider bad here, but also nothing that I find running through my head at unexpected times. I don't feel disappointed when it ends, either because of what I heard or because it's over. Like it. Don't love it. It needs Dave Mason.

Brad's Take:

It's pretty obvious that the book we're pulling all of these albums from is from the UK. There's a lot of UK artists making the list that I've never heard of, including this band called Traffic. Were they big here in the US? Beats me.

I really only liked half of the songs on this album. Namely, "Empty Pages", "Stranger To Himself", and "Every Mother's Son." Those were some cool, upbeat blues rock jams that I was really into. The other songs though, I just wasn't feeling them. It's an enjoyable record, but just doesn't really feel memorable or special to me.

It's a little confusing to me why this album made our list because I don't really feel like it's up to par with a lot of the other albums we've listened to. On the other hand though, it's much more enjoyable to listen to than a few of our past reviewed albums. I'll definitely go back to "Empty Pages" but I doubt I'll listen to much more again.

"All Things Must Pass" by George Harrison (June, 1970)

Dad's Take:

I once heard a Beatles bootleg where George Harrison talks about his idea that maybe the Beatles should be able to work on solo albums while still recording as the Beatles. More than any other Beatle, George must have felt limited within a band that only let his songs trickle out one or two at a time.

When "All Things Must Pass" came out, people must have wondered where this guy had been hiding. Sure, there were hints at his songsmithing skills in the songs the Beatles released. But how could anybody have anticipated this creative explosion?

Three records of mostly excellent songs show what the Beatles were holding back by burying George's skills. If I wanted to list highlights, I'd have to provide the complete track list. There's so much excellence here. It's not only the number of songs, but the range of the material, that shows what the Beatles' "third wheel" was capable of. Who knew?

A track-by-track exploration of a triple album would make for a monster blog post, so for the sake of brevity I won't go there. It's probably enough to say that anybody who thinks Paul and John were the only major talents in the Beatles really needs to listen to this album. Helped by an all-star cast, Harrison truly shines on this record. From quiet spirituals to rowdy rockers, we finally get to see what George is capable of producing.

And he produced a ton. In addition to these six sides, there are reportedly enough jams and outtakes to fill at least two more records. Freed from the constraints of a band dominated by two other songwriters, Harrison almost went crazy, like a dog that gets out of the yard and runs like a bat out of hell with its new-found freedom. And not only is there a lot of material, but it's also really, really good.

It loses a little steam, perhaps, on the third disc, a set of Harrison studio jams, which I really enjoy (considering the all-star cast, it's hard not to like them) but have to admit that they do have a tacked-on feel, like bonus tracks. It hardly matters, though. The entire effect of the album, the jams included, is the revealing of a major talent that had been "hidden in plain sight," as author Robert Rodriguez put it.

So don't be scared off by the size of this set or the number of titles you might not recognize. If you are a rock fan and don't know this album, you really need to remedy that situation. Like, right now. So stop reading this and experience it for yourself.

Brad's Take:

This is my first time really diving into George Harrison's solo music. I'm sure I've heard a song or two before on the radio or something, but I never sought out more from him. Unfairly, I always just saw him as "the invisible Beatle" before this. So I kind of looked forward to squeeze this big ol' triple-LP album into my schedule so I could give it a solid listen and give George my full attention. 

The album starts out with "I'd Have You Anytime" which is a mellow, Beatles-esque song that was co-written with Bob Dylan. I can definitely hear Dylan's influence in the song. I wish the album had kicked off a little more up-beat though because there are some seriously amazing songs on here, come to find out!

"What Is Life" was a song that immediately caught my ear. I started tapping my foot to the bouncy rhythm right away. I also really loved the catchy vocal melodies and tambourines that helped carry the song. During this song, I did a quick Google search and discovered the reason this song in particular really piqued my interest. The song was co-produced by one of my favorite producers, Phil Spector (The Ronettes, The Crystals, etc.). Despite his homicidal tendencies and whacky hair-dos, Spector has been in my top 3 all-time favorite pop music producers, and this song is no exception. Another fun fact about "What Is Life": Eric Clapton played on the track as well!

Side note: After my Google search, I discovered that Phil Spector actually co-produced this entire album. My mind was blown!

A couple songs later, there's a track called "Let It Down." WOW! The gigantic, powerful, rocking introduction to that song certainly does not let me down! It's a huge, heavy wall of sound crushing into my ears. I absolutely loved how heavy that introduction was! The horns were a very nice touch too. Then the song pulls way, way back and gets very minor and moody sounding, but builds back up to the point of huge rockin'-ness again, but then quickly turns its head away and goes back to being mellow again, only to come back into full on rock gloriousness again! I can't say enough good things about this song. I had to go back and listen to it a couple more times before I could move on with the rest of the album.

"Awaiting On You All" is another song where you can really hear that Spector production. The heavy amount of reverb, tambourines, bouncy rhythms, etc. It just oozes with that signature Phil Spector production that I really love.

There's a few songs on here that I didn't immediately love. The 7-minute long "Isn't It A Pity" which chants "Hare Krishna!" a bunch of times was kind of an eye-roller for me. The eye-rolly moments were very few and far between though because there was a lot of songs I fell in love with. I'm excited to go back and revisit this album again soon. It now makes perfect sense why George Harrison was in the Beatles, and I no longer see him as "the invisible Beatle." In fact, he might be my favorite Beatle now.

Now, go listen to "Let It Down" immediately!