Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Something/Anything?" by Todd Rundgren (February 1972)

Dad's Take:

This may be the ultimate "studio hermit" album. It's a long double album, clocking in at almost an hour and a half, with the three of the four sides recorded by Todd Rundgren all by himself, playing every instrument, much of it in a home studio.

What strikes me about this record is the variety of styles. In addition to the straight up pop hits "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light," the album has harder rock, singer/songwriter fare, and experimental studio noodling.

In a collection this big, one would hope for some great songs, and it doesn't disappoint. There are a lot of highlights. In addition to the hits, I've always been fond of "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference." "The Night the Carousel Burnt Down," is also very good, showing humor, pathos, and Rundgren's studio talents. On the heavier side, "Little Red Lights" stands out to me.

It's easy to see why this album makes our list, as well as placing at 173 in Rolling Stones list of the top 500 albums. It is loaded with good-to-great songs. That most of it was recorded by one man alone is pretty amazing. On the other hand, despite the variety of material, it sometimes suffers slightly from the sameness that is perhaps inevitable in a solo project of this length. Between several highlights and a few lowlights is a large pack of songs that don't stand out much either way. That's not to say they are bad, just that there are so many songs. Sometimes it feels like the album should be called "Something/Anything/Everything."

This album was a tremendous effort, and the work paid off. This is obviously a labor of love. It's enjoyable, sometimes great, and seldom dull. Todd Rundgren's enormous talent and range is showcased well. An excellent album all around. It's just, there's so much of it.

Brad's Take:

The problem with super long albums is that they're... well... super long. It's hard to get through an hour and a half worth of music. Something/Anything? is no exception, unfortunately. This album feels the same as other double albums; the top quarter of it is really enjoyable, the middle half is when you realize you've been daydreaming for about 20 minutes and can't remember the last 10 songs you listened to, and then the last quarter of the songs is just you impatiently waiting for it all to end.

Obviously, this didn't grab my attention much. After 5 or 6 songs, I knew what the rest of the album was going to sound like. There isn't much different from song to song, probably because Rundgren wrote and recorded every instrument on 3/4 of this record. It all just blends together, with a couple great songs sprinkled throughout.

There's no doubt that this guy is extremely talented. Being able to write and record quality songs like this is a great accomplishment, but this would have been much more enjoyable if it had been cut down to his best 12/13 songs, rather than making it a 25-song double-album. But people were into that kind of thing back then, I guess.

"It Wouldn't Have Made a Difference" and "Couldn't I Just Tell You" were the ones I liked the most out of all of these. But don't assume that those are the only two good songs. All of the others are very similar to those two, but those are just the ones that caught my attention the most, for whatever reason.

The last 1/4 of the album is different though. He has a band with him and you can totally hear a change in sound on these songs. They're good, but it didn't feel new enough for me to separate them from the rest of the pack.

Like I already said, Rundgren is obviously very talented, but this is just too much of a (pretty) good thing. It's not bad, it's not great, it's just too much.

"Pink Moon" by Nick Drake (February, 1972)

Brad's Take:

This is a complete change of pace, compared to that ELP album we reviewed just before this.

Pink Moon was Nick Drake's final studio album before he died of overdosing on depression medication at only 26 years old. Drake decided to make a solo acoustic album this time around, with just him and the sound engineer in the recording studio. The studio was booked during the day so in just two nights, Nick and his engineer would go in to record at 11pm and record during the night. It's pretty crazy to think that in just two nights, they recorded an album that became so influential.

Nick Drake is one of the many artists that got really popular posthumously. You can hear his influence in lots of current artists, such as Mike Kinsella and Mark Kozelek, especially with the use of alternate guitar tunings, which Nick Drake really liked using. Nick was self-taught on the guitar, and when he was trying to do complex guitar chords, he'd experiment with tuning certain strings differently in order to be able to play those chords easier. His guitar playing on this album is really lovely.

It's hard to name specific songs that I like because I really liked them all. One of the more interesting ones though is "Know." It repeats one little guitar riff over and over throughout the song.

I'm glad this album is on our list. Otherwise, I may have never listened to it. Everything about Pink Moon is beautiful. I really enjoyed it, and will definitely come back to it, and will add it to my ever-growing list of albums to find for my vinyl collection.

Dad's Take:

If you thought Joni Mitchell's Blue was personal, wait until you hear this.

This album is just downright shy. Nick Drake went into the studio after hours with nobody else but his engineer and recorded it without the help of any other musicians. The benefit of this technique is that the record is completely bereft of any trendy contemporary production or musical influences. A guy with his guitar is pretty much always going to sound timeless, and so this album sounds as 2015 as it does 1972. Which is interesting, considering how much better known Drake is now than he ever was when he was alive.

Each song is beautiful, with poetic (if sometimes hard to understand) lyrics and gorgeous guitar playing with interesting tunings. Because of the stripped-down recording technique, each song blends with the others, making it difficult for a reviewer to single out individual tracks, but creating a 28-minute musical painting that gets richer each time you examine it.

Drake's life was, by all accounts, pure torture, but I'm glad he had the strength to share his work. Pity that this remarkable artist died without ever knowing how beloved his music would become, and how much he would influence songwriters for several decades to come.

"Pictures at an Exhibition" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (November, 1971)

Dad's Take:

ELP's take on Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition demonstrates simultaneously everything that was right and wrong with progressive rock in 1971.

On the one hand, the band brilliantly pulls off their attempt to show that a well-known classical piece can be performed live by a rock band, and adapted to fit that genre. The musicianship shown on this album is amazing, and the creativity to arrange, adapt, and conform the piece is undeniable. The original classical piece remains not only recognizable but more or less intact, and the original bits that are added, such as the lovely Greg Lake piece, "The Sage," fit in nicely.

On the other hand, the album is a pretty good example of why the "pretentious" label is often applied to prog rock. Taking an orchestral piece and converting it to (often) keyboard, bass, and drums is a ballsy move, a prime example of the audacious self-important attitude of prog rock, and one that not all rock fans are going to appreciate. It undeniably exceeds the usual limits of both rock and roll music and the classical source. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on the listener's preferences. Almost certainly, classical music aficionados will find this to be a sacrilege, even offensive, while rock fans will find moments of brilliance but will possibly be overwhelmed, even befuddled, by parts of the album.

Me, I like a good prog rock album now and then, and this is the first one I ever purchased. At the time, I thought it was a little weird and I wasn't sure what to think of a lot of it back when I got it. I appreciate it more now, but it has never become a favorite. I like ELP's more original Brain Salad Surgery a little better.

I think adapting a well-known classical piece makes this record sometimes feel more like a novelty record than it should. Case in point, the encore, "Nutrocker," an adaptation of "The Nutcracker" that feels tacked on. Sometimes I find humor that I'm not sure was intended. Or maybe it was. This is a highly creative, atmospheric, and brilliantly played adaptation. That they were able to pull it off live makes it even more incredible.

Actually, "incredible" is a pretty good word for it. The word means more than most think it does, and is kind of a double-edged sword. This album treads on both sides of that sword.

Overall, though, I like listening to this one now and then. Can't say I love it, though. I do love parts, but overall, it can sometimes be just a little too much of everything that it is.

Brad's Take:

This was not at all what I expected.

For whatever reason, I always assumed Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were just another 70s folk-rock band, judging by their album covers and by their band name. I thought they were basically a Crosby, Stills, and Nash-type band. I obviously never listened to them, until now.

As soon as I hit play, I threw all my prior assumptions out the window and just sat back to finally listen to them and give them their fair chance to prove to me what they actually are. I don't really know how to classify this band now. Classical rock from Mars?

When the songs on this album aren't super weird, they're super great. The whole thing is just completely strange and experimental, while still being very musical and accessible. It's weird as hell, and a bit too sci-fi for my taste, but somehow they make it work. It doesn't sound like they're just aliens banging around on synthesizers and organs. They're actually playing songs. That's the most impressive part about this album to me. It seems that experimental music from the 60s and 70s was more or less just noise to be noise. This isn't like that.

The only bad thing I have to say about this album is that the synthesizer sound they used on "The Old Castle" sounds way too similar to when you're getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist. My stress levels went very high during that song, as you can imagine.

All in all, Pictures at an Exhibition is so hard to explain. You just have to listen to it. And if you go in with an open mind, you'll probably come out of it like I did: totally confused by how much you actually enjoyed it.

This was not at all what I expected.

PS: I had no idea that this was actually an old classical piece until after I wrote my review so that kind of changes my perception of it a little bit. I mean, it's not all their own original music, but that's fine. It was still really enjoyable, even when it wasn't. It doesn't make sense to me either.

"Hunky Dory" by David Bowie (December, 1971)

Dad's Take:

As 1971 approaches its end, we are treated to our first look at one of the inescapable presences of pop music for the next 20 years or more, David Bowie. Like him or not, there's no denying his influence on much of what came later, and that he managed to never be boring.

The first time I remember seeing Bowie on TV, he and his band were all wearing dresses. I'd never seen anything like it. But there was definitely something captivating about the music. Those last two sentences probably sum up David Bowie as well as anything else.

So, let's take a listen to the record.

If you look at album openers, it's hard to find one better than "Changes" for the messages it introduces that can be found throughout the record. The rest of the album was less known to radio listeners. In fact, the album was only a modest success, although in the years to come it would be revisited and reappraised as a groundbreaking album by a major artist who had scratched public consciousness but had not yet really broken through. It's a good album, full of well-written and well-performed songs that were not like anything else, and yet drew on everything that had come before. There's singer-songwriter influence, rock influence, blues, Velvet Underground, Broadway, the brilliantly weird songwriting of the Kinks' Ray Davies, T. Rex glam, Queen's torch songs...pretty much everything. But while it's all of those things, it's also none of those things. The combination is odd and fresh. I can easily imagine people hearing this the first time and not really being sure what to do with it, but finding it somehow captivating. Like that time I saw him on TV.

Highlights for me include the iconoclastic-but-commercial "Changes," "Life On Mars" (a hit single in the UK), "Kooks," the deceptively goofy "Fill Your Heart," the uncanny "Song for Bob Dylan" (with a vocal that is so Bowie, and yet so Dylanesque), and "Queen Bitch," which could well be the best Velvet Underground song that they never did. The album closes with the impenetrable-and-nonsensical-yet-interesting "The Bewlay Brothers," a great closer even if it doesn't make any sense at all.

All in all, this is one of those looks at somebody who would become much bigger than you'd expect from the record's initial response or the response to the songs that had broken out in the previous years, but when you look back, you see it. You see the great future the artist was destined to have, and the influence he'd have, and the inevitable mixed reactions that anybody has who breaks the rules and does something that goes beyond the norm. While his previous albums had been portents of what was to come, it's on this one that he really finds his voice and his persona.

This may be our first look at Bowie on our list of classic albums, but it won't be our last. I look forward to more.

Brad's Take:

Like my dad said, "Changes" is a great album opener. If you're like me (someone who isn't very familiar with David Bowie's music) I'm sure you will recognize "Changes" immediately. Such a good song! I think it's the only one that I was already familiar with.

A lot of the songs on here reminded me of that typical late 60's pop stuff, which was cool. "Kooks" was a fun little song. It reminded me of the silly side of The Beatles, like "Yellow Submarine" or "Octopus's Garden."

I don't really have much to say about this album. This being my first real taste of David Bowie, I liked it! I can definitely see myself coming back to this album again. We have more Bowie coming up so I'm interested to see how he naturally progresses from here.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"There's a Riot Goin' On" by Sly & The Family Stone (November, 1971)

Dad's Take:

I'm surprised Sly and the Family Stone aren't on this list earlier. We passed by all their pioneering late-sixties albums and skipped ahead to this one, featuring a Sly who is already burned out and showing the effects of his excesses. Still, this is a very good album, just not one of my favorites by this iconic band.

Songs like the opener, "Luv 'n' Haight" and the huge hit, "Family Affair," ensure that this is going to be a great album, but it feels darker and heavy than the earlier records. Although it charted well upon its release, it's really only in retrospect that it has earned the classic status that puts it high on best albums lists. Rolling Stone places it at number 99 of its 500 Best Albums.

The band was falling apart while this record was being recorded. Sly's behavior had become erratic, and record company deadlines had stopped meaning much to him. People who had not seen this band since the great Stand! album and their incredible Woodstock performance were likely shocked by this record. Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) created music that reflected the troubled events in the increasingly violent, racially-divided world that emerged as the sixties ended.

The album may be dark, but it's still loaded with the funky grooves you expect from this band, and the social messages that were always present in their songs. Artistically, it's a solid album, a good reflection of where its primary creator's head was at the time. Unfortunately, Sly was well on his way to becoming the next rock and roll casualty, and that downslide is evident here. He was still among the most expressive composers in the industry, though, and his genius shines through the darkness. "Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle)" is a good example of the funk guitar and innovative slap bass that made the band famous, behind the growling vocals of a stoned Stone.

So, that I prefer the livelier psychedelic funk of their earlier records does not mean that this album does not deserve a place in our reviews. This is still influential music unlike anything that ever came before. And those beats are incredible. Even if Sly sounds completely wasted, he's still breaking ground and writing songs with a lot to say.

Brad's Take:

I haven't gone deep into Sly & the Family Stone's catalog or anything, but from what I do know about them, I know that There's A Riot Goin' On is a bit of a departure from what came out before it. Before, you had more radio-friendly funk jams, but with this album, everything is a lot darker and mellow.

After reading the Wikipedia page about the making of this album, it's very apparent that Sly was going through all sorts of personal changes and dark things that directly affected his music. Drugs, inner-band drama, and all kinds of other things. You can hear the darkness all over this album. It's almost unbelievable that this even got recorded and released at all. Sly was getting heavily into drugs and would rather do those than actually work on music a lot of the time. There's A Riot Goin' On is an obvious beginning to a new chapter of Sly & the Family Stone.

Personally, I didn't really like it. I felt the moodiness throughout the album though, and maybe that's why none of it really excited me or anything. Maybe that feeling was part of the experience. Maybe I did like it! Either way, I don't really see myself coming back to this.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"IV" by Led Zeppelin (November, 1971)

Brad's Take:

It's kind of crazy to think that even four albums in, Led Zeppelin still had it! The opening track "Black Dog" just proves that they were not even close to being done melting peoples faces off. "Black Dog", "Rock and Roll", "Stairway to Heaven", When the Levee Breaks"... This is just packed with gold. Even the lesser knows songs, like "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks" are awesome.

This is just proof that The Beatles aren't the only band with absolutely irreplaceable band members. Robert Plant, John Bonham, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones together make the perfect hard-rock equation. 

Every good thing about this album (and the band, in general) has been said on all of the other reviews we've done for these guys. This is yet another perfect Zeppelin record!

Dad's Take:

This album, technically untitled but known for convenience as Led Zeppelin IV, is the one many people my age think of first when they think of Zeppelin. From the iconic cover to the well-known songs, this album is definitely a classic. From the initial "Hey mama, said the way you move" to the end of "When the Levee Breaks," much of my generation knows this one pretty much by heart. I mean, is there a bigger anthem of seventies rock than "Stairway to Heaven"? And what kind of immortal rock god does it take to write a song like "Going to California"?

The album still has some of the psychedelic touches of their earlier album, but mostly it's balls-to-the-wall rock, with touches of Tolkien fantasy and a whole lotta old blues (some of it stolen without credit...). Musically and lyrically, this is a pretty amazing album. Even if you're one of those people who never got into Led Zeppelin, I bet some of these songs will make you say, "OK, yeah, I do kind of like that one."

As Brad said, it's hard to think of new things to say that we didn't mention in earlier reviews. This is Zeppelin, and unless you've been hiding under a rock with your Air Supply records, you know exactly what that means.

If it's been a long time since you've rock and rolled, pull this album out of your collection (if you're over 50, you probably have it somewhere, and if you're younger, chances are you do too), put it on for a spin, and let your mind be blown.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Electric Warrior" by T. Rex (September, 1971)

Dad's Take:

T. Rex is best known in the U.S. for the song "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," from this album. However, listening to Electric Warrior reveals that this is a solid band and a great album.

A pioneer of glam rock, T. Rex treats us to solid bass lines, enjoyable songs, and classic riffs. "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" is clearly the stand-out track, but it fits well with the rest of the album, which is full of the elements that make that such a classic song.

When you compare this to something else from 1971, for example Joni Mitchell's "Blue," it feels like a lightweight, shallow record. There's not a lot of emotional connections to be made here. But it's not supposed to be deep. It's supposed to be a simple glam rock album, a playful record that doesn't take itself too seriously, full of musical games and wordplay (yes, he really compares the object of his affection's body to a car, but then, she does have a hubcap diamond star halo). This is kind of like what rock 'n' roll was originally meant to be, before it grew up and became serious.

It's a fun record, and clear proof that eighties rock started in the early seventies. For example, "Jeepster" could be Adam Ant or any number of eighties bands, slight but catchy and full of Marc Bolan's rather androgynous sensuality. It's no surprise that several songs from this record were covered in the eighties and early nineties.

Maybe not one of my favorite albums, but it spent a few weeks in my car stereo last summer. It's only rock and roll, but I like it.

Brad's Take:

I've never listened to T. Rex before so I didn't know what to expect at all. When I hit play, I was already into it. "Mambo Sun" was a great way to start the record. I was a little let down though when the song didn't really pick up or bust into any huge chorus or anything, like I was hoping for. But as soon as the next song started, I realized that this was just their sound and it was time to not expect anything more than just mid-tempo pop/rock music.

I don't really have much else to say about this album because it doesn't really do very much. There weren't really any standout tracks on here. They were all fairly similar, but not really in a bad way. This was a very easy album to listen to. T. Rex didn't try to be groundbreaking or anything on here. It was just a nice, safe rock record, and I can handle that. It's good though, for what it is. I just wish they had more dynamics in the music so it didn't sound so flat.

"Who's Next" by the Who (August, 1971)

Dad's Take:

Listening to Who's Next, I can't help but wonder if this is the Who album that will finally sell The Boy on this great band. With roots in another rock opera, the unfinished Lifehouse, Who's Next is as solid as a greatest hits album.

When a record starts with "Baba O'Reilly" and ends with "Won't Get Fooled Again" (ten-year-old me's first big favorite Who song, and probably still at the top of my list), you have to wonder if everything in the middle will be able to live up to being bookended by two of the greatest Who songs--nay, two of the greatest rock songs--ever put on record. No worries here. The stuff in the middle is just as solid. "Bargain," "My Wife," "The Song is Over," "Gettin' In Tune," "Going Mobile," and "Behind Blue Eyes" are all among the band's best.

Brilliant Townshend guitar and songwriting, classic Daltrey vocals, all to a prominent Entwistle/Moon rhythm backing that shows both of these geniuses at their best, this is the Who at the peak of their game. Absolutely freakin' brilliant from beginning to end.

I feel like I'm not doing this one justice with a short review, but I have to turn this one up and listen without worrying about having to write about it. This record might have sprung from the ashes of a failed project, but it's anything but a failure. Seriously, one of the greatest rock albums ever. It's hard to think of one that beats it. When it's done, I think I'll listen again.

Brad's Take:

You know as soon as those big piano chords comes in that this is going to be an epic song. When you kick off an album with a song like "Baba O'Riley", you're setting the expectations for the rest of the album very high. That song is a classic rock staple. The random violin breakdown at the end makes me want to get up and do a jig though, but I can forgive those last few seconds because the rest of the song is just so good.

Track 2 ("Pure and Easy") didn't really compete with "Baba O'Riley", unfortunately. The non-stop frantic drumming and funky bass lines were cool, but the most of the song was pretty forgettable to me. The next song didn't really do much for me either.

"My Wife" was really great though. Kind of a silly song about a drunk guy coming home late and being scared his wife is going to unleash her wrath on him, suspecting that he was with another woman. Bassist, John Entwistle, takes over lead vocals, as well as much of the song's instrumentation. The second half of the song was especially awesome.

The next few songs kind of blended together because I was distracted by the drumming. You can't really talk about The Who without at least mentioning Keith Moon. Did that guy ever stop?! He's non-stop on this album. It's like he walked into the studio already flailing around, and then they sat him down at a drum kit, handed him some sticks, pushed record, and then just jumped out of the way and watched the man beat the hell out of some stuff. Dare I say, I think he overplays a bit sometimes. Kind of like there's two songs playing at the same time.

"Behind Blue Eyes" would have been a better song if I didn't have the Limp Bizkit version engraved in my brain. I think until now that was the only version of this song I'd ever heard. Sad, right? Needless to say, The Who's is by far the better of the two.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" is another classic. It has the same kind of epic-ness of "Baba O'Riley" which book-ends the album perfectly.

Compared to the other Who albums we've reviewed, this is by far my favorite. There isn't a bad song on it. Sure, some blend together in the middle, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. It just makes me want to go back to this again and familiarize myself with it a little more.

Monday, February 2, 2015

"Blue" by Joni Mitchell (June, 1971)

Dad's Take:

"Blue" is one of the most influential singer-songwriter albums ever. It definitely belongs on any list of classic albums. In fact, many of today's singer-songwriter can trace their style back directly to Joni Mitchell.

The thing about Joni Mitchell is that she sounds like she is completely honest. Playing live was hard for her, especially early in her career, because she was a private person who had problems revealing so much of her inner self to a live audience. Listening to this album, recorded shortly after her break-up with Graham Nash, and largely written (as is obvious in many of the lyrics) during her tour of Europe after that relationship ended. Mitchell said that, on this album, she "felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes," emotionally transparent and open.

The album is as bare as an open wound, as stark and revealing as maybe any album has ever been. And, even though I'm not always a fan of her soprano leanings, I find this album to be beautiful in its deceptive simplicity. It's not so simple at all, with its alternate tunings and complicated melodies.

I really shouldn't try to single out any songs. I'd have to mention almost all of them. The album works best as a collection. There weren't really any hit songs, but the album itslef is on pretty much every greatest albums list ever compiled. "Carey," which peaked at 93 on the US charts, is a nice, relatively upbeat change from the mellow sadness of the songs that come before it, so it stands out to me. The opening of the title song, "Blue," sends chills down my spine. "River" is a beautiful song that might be familiar to some people. Pretty much every song is strong, but every song is even stronger as part of the whole album.

When I think of favorite artists and albums, Joni Mitchell doesn't come to mind. But this album makes me wonder why that it is. It really is a beautiful album, and a remarkable artistic statement.

Brad's Take:

I'm sure Joni Mitchell had these songs completely written when she went in to record them, but a lot of the songs feel very loose and spontaneous, like she's just playing and singing whatever she's feeling in that exact moment. That really adds to the charm and beauty of this album though. You can feel the emotion in her vocal delivery and roller coaster melodies.

I'm usually more into more upbeat songs, but on this record, I enjoy the sad slow ones the most. I especially really love her line in the title track: "Crown and anchor me, or let me sail away" or the line in "River": "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."

With this being my first first Joni Mitchell adventure, I liked Blue. I may seek out more from her eventually because this was pretty enjoyable, but I assume that she probably doesn't stray far from this particular sound over most of her 19 studio albums. I think I'd get burned out pretty quick, if that's the case. I've listened to a couple of her songs that came out of the 80s though and those are definitely a departure from the folky/singer-songwriter stuff that she's best known for. Maybe she has a killer disco album somewhere in her discography too...