Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Led Zeppelin Take My Breath Away (San Diego, September 1970)

WE-045From Black Beauty

DISC1
1. Introduction
2. Immigrant Song
3. Heartbreaker
4. Dazed And Confused
5. Bring It On Home
6. That’s The Way
7. Since I’ve Been Loving You
DISC2
1. Organ Solo
2. Thank You
3. What Is And What Should Never Be
4. Moby Dick
5. Whole Lotta Love
6. Communication Breakdown

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January 2, 2014 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Take My Breath Away | , | Leave a comment

Eric Clapton Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings (2013)

MI0003673255From popmatters.com

What can you say or write about Eric Clapton that hasn’t already been voiced? His hailings have always preceded him, and we can visibly see through history it was much to his dismay.

Journalists much more qualified than I have tread and re-tread this path quite ceremoniously in the last 50 years, and most have had the same things to say … over and over again. Soon after “Clapton Is God”, the unsolicited titles bestowed upon him have done so much to distract one away from the music. It’s as if he were an actual Beatle, or some mythological deity summoned to this mortal coil to save the world with his mighty riffs. Of course I type in jest, but this stuff was real. Kids spray-painted these sentiments on their neighborhood buildings, and wrote them in their schoolbooks. Myths galore further alienated him along with tragedy, causing the man quite a deal of pain and anger. And being in the public eye like that? Anyone can surely conclude it is not pleasurable.

Some of his most celebrated works have come from his expressions of that, but not much has been done to highlight the music Clapton made when he was, dare I say it, happy. He sure looked happy on the cover of 461 Ocean Boulevard, and the record as a whole felt the same. To a lesser extent, so did There’s One In Every Crowd the following year. Clapton was infatuated with the island vibe then, and I’ve quietly wondered for years if ‘Slowhand’ had explored reggae further than “I Shot The Sheriff”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Don’t Blame Me”, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (he did record There’s One In Every Crowd in Kingston). The answer to that query, and many more revelations await the curious Claptonite on Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings.

Coming off of his well-publicized heroin hiatus and the Rainbow Theater comeback show, Clapton made his way to Miami, Florida for some needed rejuvenation time. The band assembled for his stay at Criteria Studios soon after would provide a well-spring of groove for these new formulas he wished to explore, somewhat based on his love for The Band and JJ Cale as well as a properly-timed introduction to the music of Bob Marley thanks to guitarist George Terry. Bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Dick Sims, drummer Jamie Oldaker (all three just came off of touring with Bob Seger), and backing vocalist Yvonne Elliman also participate in a stellar ensemble that execute Clapton’s pared down vision sublimely. Basically, he replaced the searing solos of the recent past for a slow-cooked southern-tropical feel, and he was extremely successful for doing so. Vocal ‘guitar god’ fans tend to dismiss this period in his career, pandering to the notion he was just going through the motions. If this box set proves anything, it’s the explosion of song-craft in the midst of this career revival and the humility expressed from within the man himself. Not the guitar god.

461 Ocean Boulevard was originally released in 1974 immediately following his first US number-one hit, “I Shot The Sheriff”. Yes, it was instrumental in the rise of reggae music awareness in the states, but didn’t do much to satiate the fans of the guitar workout a-la Cream. In fact, the whole album alienated many who hoped for the return of the macho soloist more than the discovery of an intimate artist. More respect is deserved, for this album is a moment of comfort never felt in a Clapton disc before. “Let It Grow” is a major breakthrough songwriting-wise, and it’s lush construction sounds as good today as it did on the ‘lite-rock’ FM stations of the ‘70s. “Give Me Strength” gently pulsates thanks to the guest rhythms of Al Jackson Jr. from the MG’s. All tracks from the Criteria sessions are fulfilling in their own way, and the Miami bonus cuts featured in this new boxed set are extraordinary.

Whether you admit it or not, Clapton was quite good at interpreting reggae. The smattering of a few more in this vein throughout the Strength box only drives this point home. If you put all of them together, there are enough tracks with the Carribean vibe here to release a reggae-only compilation (hint, hint). These explorations dominate the sessions for There’s One in Every Crowd, but that’s to be expected since the recording took place in Kingston at the revered Dynamic Sounds. From these tapes comes the additions of “Burial” and “Whatcha Gonna Do”, both penned by Peter Tosh (I swore I heard Tosh vocally participating during the sessions). There more than a handful of bonus goodies from the Dynamic Sound days, and it’s easy to appreciate each one of them.

The happiness heard on 461 Ocean Boulevard isn’t found in the same quantity in the Dynamic Sound sessions. Moments of awesome do await, but there is an overall strain felt throughout the recordings. Over the years, certain writings have alluded to the start of another dark period (in most historical accounts, it was). Clapton’s autobiography cites “problems in Jamaica”, but other than a developing drinking issue during this time period, very little is said. History would soon chronicle a drunken mess of a rant at one of his shows in 1976, thus beginning another chapter to be ‘box-setted’ in the future. I can’t wait to hear that one.

The rest of this snapshot in time chronicled within Give Me Strength finds one knee deep in the blues, especially the live stuff originally released as E.C. Was Here in ‘76. Unreleased performances from the Long Beach Arena show that made up most of the aforementioned live gem are incredible as well, leading me to question why E.C. Was Here wasn’t originally released as a double-live affair. There’s much more that’s been tapped from the vaults for discs three, four, and five … some of which was previously issued on the expanded edition of 461 Ocean Boulevard and others. We also hear the return of Clapton the unholy soloist, unleashing pure fire and blues-brimstone throughout the live tracks and studio workouts with Freddie King. This set also marks the first release of the full 22-minute version of “Gambling Woman Blues” with King. And if that wasn’t enough, quad mixes of both studio albums and the 5.1 mix of 461 Ocean Boulevard are here, too. There’s so much new information to ingest, it makes sense to study Give Me Strength in sections. I did, and I’m still overwhelmed.

As with most period-studying box sets, Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings is aimed right at the completist, or that smartass that writes their fine-arts doctoral final on subjects like Clapton. On the outside, it looks like a bunch of fluff peacocking on glossy stock. Niche marketing at its most diabolical. After the smoke clears, this collection reveals Eric Clapton, the song-crafting human being. Every track paints a new picture on his storyboard, filling in the blanks between the groove on the record and the tales in the headlines. We as listeners are now invited to examine his personal, emotional documents in a roughly two-year period, and I for one feel like I’m intruding a bit. It’s a lot to get through, but it never gets daunting. It gets real. That’s what makes this set so compelling, and worth both the money and time.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Eric Clapton Give Me Strength: The 1974/75 Recordings | | Leave a comment

Aerosmith Rockin’ The Joint (2005)

rockinthejointFrom popmatters.com

When your humble reviewer received his copy of the newest Aerosmith release, Rockin’ the Joint, I was looking forward to it—initially.

Here I thought Aerosmith would pick up on the excellent 2004 tour coming off their best release in years, Honkin’ on Bobo, and would have a variety of great music to choose from. Yeah, Aerosmith has done live stuff before (most recently A Little South of Sanity, a Geffen contractual fulfillment), and to have it done in the smallish venue called The Joint inside Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Casino would make the intimacy and intensity go up several notches.

My bad… actually, no—their bad.

Unfortunately, the tour this release comes from a show that took place in 2002, right off the crappy Just Push Play album. The song selection is iffy at best. Oh, and to make matters even more enjoyable, I received one of those promotional CD’s that you can’t rip to your computer’s music library to transfer to my iPod.

Now, the general public doesn’t give a shit about this last complaint (rightfully so), but in all honesty, I must thank Columbia Records for this, because what they inadvertently did was to keep this steaming pile of crap out of my ear range by not letting me put it on my computer or iPod. So Columbia, thank you—I don’t think you realize what a favor you just did for me (and I’m sure countless other critics, too).

Let’s list the positives first. The sound is crystal clear, so the crispness of Messrs. Tyler, Perry, Whitford, Hamilton, and Kramer (with Russ Irwin assisting on keyboards) comes blasting through. Of course, as it has been the last four or five tours, Aerosmith’s live show is a tight performance with just enough raggedness to keep things interesting.

And a few of the songs, which can be found on other CDs in other live settings, still sound good. “Same Old Song and Dance”, “Season of Wither”, “Draw the Line”, and “Big Ten Inch Record” qualify as ear pleasers. The only two mammoth hits represented here are “Walk This Way” and “Train Kept a Rollin’ “, both fine.

The yin’s done—now for the yang. Twelve songs are listed here, but the opening thing is a 30-second piece of nothing called “Good Evening Las Vegas”. Does anyone really need to have “Beyond Beautiful”, “Light Inside”, or “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” live? The sequencing stinks—go from “Draw the Line” to “Miss a Thing”, and you’ll understand why those new “Jack” radio stations are also lousy.

Again, technically, the album sounds great. But the fact that it wasn’t Aerosmith’s most recent tour, the haphazard song selection, and the inclusion of songs nobody really cares about (diehards excepted) makes me wonder just why this album came out in the first place. Was it contractual? Was it something to add to the collection? Was it a holiday coffers lifter? Why couldn’t they cull tapes from last year’s tour and take the time to put together a really great live album? Why don’t they put out two live albums, one of their rock stuff and the other of their ballads for the ladies?

The answers to these and other similar questions will probably never be known. But what is known is that Rockin’ the Joint will probably be one of the only albums I ever review that gets its low rating not from the way the songs sound (that deserves about an 8), but the reason this thing was ever released in the first place, and why certain songs appear on said release.

Aerosmith can do a lot better than this, and I certainly hope the band isn’t becoming a cash-cow wannabe. That remains to be seen—this album deserves to be hidden.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Aerosmith Rockin' The Joint | | Leave a comment

Radiohead The Bends (1995)

Radiohead-The_BendsFrom punknews.org

I sat alone in my college library writing down something I didn’t care about while the track “Fake Plastic Trees” carefully played about through my ears. I stared out into the New Mexico desert and felt isolated, lonely, depressed, tired and distraught. Would I be able to make it through these four years of art school and become something successful? What is Thom Yorke singing about when he says, “A green plastic watering can / A fake Chinese rubber plant / In the fake plastic earth”? All I know is that I felt alienation, isolation, plastic, fakeness. Was I the one who was fake? What could I do to right this wrong?

The Bends is the second studio album by Radiohead. This was the follow-up to their debut, Pablo Honey, which contained the massive single “Creep”. What could a band do that would give enough justice to such a powerful song from the ’90s that rode on the waves of grunge and indie rock? What could a band do to make the sophomore effort worth everyone’s time? Such a monumental task was running through the band’s mind and the history of studio tension and angst nearly caused a break up.

What happened though is that they grew into their own, carefully crafting out an album worthy of their own praise, disregarding what the critics thought (#4 in the U.K. charts). This was an evolution, as tracks began to break away and tear apart from the inside out. Considered one of the best guitar albums ever made, The Bends is a wealth of treasure worth the time and effort to learn, know, and become a part of. There are moments of future endeavors sprinkled throughout; showcasing what we all know was to come with their next album and each subsequent follow-up, but this one was the turning point for many.

First lead off single “High and Dry” was a genuine pop song, neatly arranged to the band’s displeasure as something a bit artificial. Despite being a great song, they haven’t played it in nearly a decade. This sort of benign attitude would accompany the band to the present day, thus showcasing their attention to detail that is unforgiving and confrontational in regards to what people thought was normal music. The Bends was Radiohead’s last straightforward rock effort. Most of the songs are somber, mellow and slightly depressing, hidden amongst nice jangly guitars and acoustic flourishes.

Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, the two-man superhero guitar team, are readily accomplished here as they produced very nice, interesting hooks and graceful melodies. The strums aren’t so much as heavy as they are concocted with precision and grace. This album was lumped in with the Britpop movement of time, but no one really did guitar work as well. Unfortunately the duo almost abandoned this style of playing as well. Future releases never sounded this open and free. And as for bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, the rhythm section has always been another highlight for the band. Greenwood’s bass has always kept a nice, audible groove and Selway’s drumming is never handled with more than it should be.

“Planet Telex” is a great opening number, giving off a sort of atmospheric outer space feel while Yorke gets more cryptic than ever. The change from personal, to social and global worry, showed a difference in maturity and a more immediate response. Yorke also changed up his vocal style, approaching the album with a more angst-laden falsetto, (popularizing it…) and making each song stand out on its own. Other numbers like “(Nice Dream)” and “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was” give an intimate nature, like a man alone in his room recording something for himself.

It’s a nice departure from what Pablo Honey had, and when carefully listened to, one can see how later songs like “Exit Music (For a Film),” “How to Disappear Completely” and “Nude” came about for them. There is also a noodly jam during the chorus to “Bullet Proof,” later on to be tried again in the song “Nude.” A nice little bit to seek out for those purists. And in regards to purists, the various B-sides to this album are worth seeking out as well. “Talk Show Host,” “Indian Rubber,” “The Trickster” and “Permanent Daylight” are among some great songs that shouldn’t be forgotten, but were wisely left off the initial album for good reason. Twelve tracks were enough to get their point across.

The last three numbers are the rear end of the ship; a nice close to an emotional, thoughtful, moment-in-time snapshot. “Black Star” is about a failed relationship: “I get home from work and you’re still standing in your dressing gown / well what am I to do? / I know all the things around your head / and what they do to you / What are we coming to? / What are we gonna do?” “Sulk” is an overwrought, depressing song which the title best describes what it means… sulking. “You bite through the big wall / the big wall bites back / You just sit there and sulk / Sit there and bawl.” No wonder Yorke was labeled the next “rock ‘n’ roll martyr” at the time.

And lastly is closing song “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” Beginning with desperate, eerie guitars, reminiscent of some sort of classical arrangement, the song builds up and up as each band member adds to the structure. Yorke’s vocals begin to soar as the drums kick the tempo and the guitars strum more quickly. The rhythmic nature of the song is always haunting, lacking in any sort of present being. More and more gradually, the song reaches for a sort of last breath to hold onto, making the listener contemplate what’s going to happen at the end. When all is said and done though, fading out is the right word here as the track reaches to its climax and quietly dispels its tight grasp.

Radiohead, critic darlings and cult favorites. The gap between what is modern and what is art has always been in their shadow. People often don’t know what to expect from the band these days. What stands as Radiohead’s accomplishment though, is that they still remain mainstream and inspirational, no matter what anyone says, but also stay rooted in their craft. If it isn’t for their works, then maybe it’s for their honest direction to do what they want and to create what they want. Always looking forward, but not so much in past, Radiohead are modern expressionists, minimalists and entrepreneurs of their own music world. The Bends really was the beginning of the end, but also the re-birth of something new.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Radiohead The Bends | | Leave a comment

Pink Floyd The Division Bell (1994)

The+Division+BellFrom johnmcferrinmusicreviews.org

Seven years and tons of critcism (mostly justified, I might add) later, Dave decided to make another Pink Floyd album. His most important decision along these lines was to get Wright and Mason involved in the project from the getgo, both in making sure they played most of the keyboard/drum parts on the album and making sure they had an impact on the songwriting and overall approach of the album.

Where the last few albums with Roger in the band had Dave as the only other reasonably significant creative presence, this album shows a very strong Wright presence, and it helps things a lot. Yes, Roger’s presence is still missed in a lot of critical ways, but Wright brings back elements to the sound and atmosphere that had pretty much disappeared after Wish You Were Here, and it’s neat to me to hear that a Gilmour/Wright Pink Floyd isn’t much less interesting than a Gilmour/Waters Pink Floyd.

It’s not for nothing that I mentioned Wish You Were Here in the last paragraph. One of the common criticisms of the album, with which I largely agree, is that the album sounds a lot like Wish You Were Here and Dark Side Of The Moon in more than a few places, with the group nailing their “classic” style just a little too closely for comfort. Cluster One reminds one a lot of the opening section of Shine On You Crazy Diamond (making this the second straight album where the band aimed for that vibe); What Do You Want From Me sounds a lot like Have a Cigar; Lost For Words sounds a lot like Wish You Were Here, and this doesn’t even mention the cribs from other albums. It’s definitely interesting that they were able to get back into this mode so easily after so many years of not writing together, and it’s very refreshing to hear this kind of sound on a 90’s album from a classic rock band, but I can’t totally forgive the amount of self-borrowing that happens on this album.

It also hurts considerably that I really don’t like three of the songs on this album. A Great Day for Freedom supports my belief that including the word “Freedom” in the title of a song reduces its chances of being good by ten-fold; the only songs I can think of with that word in the title that aren’t outright terrible are Chimes of Freedom (Bob Dylan), Freedom (Jimi Hendrix) and Freedom of ’76 (Ween). Gilmour is clearly trying to ape Waters here, as he tries to make this into a big universal anthem and includes references to “the wall” coming down, but it largely comes off as an inferior rewrite of On the Turning Away, with a duller guitar solo at the end.

Keep Talking is a reprehensible mix of the keyboard line from Sorrow, the pig guitar noises from Pigs and the awkward female backing vocals of Not Now John, complete with a silly Stephen Hawking voice sample, and is probably in the bottom five of all Pink Floyd tracks. Coming Back to Life isn’t obviously terrible, but it’s extremely boring, with seemingly endless guitar noodlings and a “poppy” backing that isn’t catchy, energetic or that moving. So that’s more than a quarter of the album gone right there.

Amazingly enough, though, I really like every other song on the album, even taking into account all of the ripoffs. One thing that’s rather interesting to me is that, just as WYWH was largely an open letter to Syd Barrett, much of the album largely functions as an open letter to none other than Roger Waters (the band has denied it, but given that I thought of this early on while listening and later found out this is the consensus among a lot of fans, I suspect there’s something to it). Check out these lyrics from What Do You Want From Me: “Should I sing until I can’t sing anymore? Play these strings until my fingers are raw? You’re so hard to please,” or “You can own everything you see; sell your soul for complete control, is that really what you need?”

That’s exactly what the dynamics were between Dave and Roger at the end! Check out these lyrics from Poles Apart: “Why did we tell you then you were always the golden boy then and that you’d never lose that light in your eyes? Hey you … did you ever realize what you’d become? And did you see that it wasn’t only me you were running from? Did you know all the time but it never bothered you anyway, leading the blind while I stared out the steel in your eyes.” There are interviews floating out there in which the band members described Roger as a steel-eyed monster at the end of his time with them. Finally, check out these lyrics from Lost for Words: “So I open my door to my enemies, and I ask, ‘could we wipe the slate clean?’ But they tell me to please go fuck myself; you know you just can’t win.” I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced.

Lyrics aside, I like the music in the other tracks a lot. What Do You Want From Me may indeed sound a lot like Have a Cigar, but the bluesy elements of the original are crossed with an overall tinge of mellow darkness, and both Gilmour’s singing (and don’t forget the power of the brief moments when we hear Wright’s naked voice coming through; he got it worse from Roger than David ever did, remember) and his guitar playing are extremely emotional (one thing I should mention about this album is that, even if he’s using the same styles as ever, Dave’s guitar parts consistently move me in a way that wasn’t always the case during the glory years).

Poles Apart is a terrific pop song, driven by an effective simple guitar line and a well-written vocal melody featuring a strong dose of whimsy, and it features a dark carnival (!) midsection. And while the melody to Lost for Words may be a lot like that to Wish You Were Here, it’s also acoustic-driven and a lot more light-hearted, and it gets in my head frequently while making Dave seem awfully sympathetic.

A track I want to particularly mention is Wearing the Inside Out, the first song solely penned by Wright (and featuring him on lead vocals) since Summer ’68. The song is mildly dull in some ways, and I’ve seen some fans of the band dismiss it the same way I’ve dismissed, say, Coming Back to Life. Personally, I think that considering it that way is a mistake. One thing that fascinates me is that, despite Wright not writing the lyrics (he only wrote the music), the song sounds completely like Rick doing an autobiographical number.

Between Roger’s mental abuse and his own cocaine habit, Wright had, over the years, seemingly become more and more withdrawn and afraid to say anything for fear of torment, and it took Dave extending him the chance to have a significant role on a Pink Floyd album again to pull him out of it. This song, to me, is the very sound of a victim of excessive verbal abuse, put to music, singing from the corner of a dark room but starting to find the strength to walk towards the light in the hallway. The saxophones are moody and creepy to no end, Wright’s worn voice is perfect for the main subject matter, Dave’s vocal near the end works perfectly in support, and the guitar at the end drives it all home wonderfully.

The other two “regular” songs are just fantastic. Take it Back sounds an awful lot like classic U2, but hell, The Edge’s guitar style largely came from Gilmour in the first place, and I don’t begrudge Dave for writing a great pop song in this vein. The closing High Hopes is probably more overblown than it should be, but it has a great melody (credit should be given where credit is due; Dave has the sole credit for the music on this song), a majestic atmosphere and some GREAT emotional steel guitar parts that play well off the strings in the background. I definitely dig the simple two-note piano chords that drive the melody in the beginning, too.

The two instrumentals shouldn’t be neglected either. Yes, the opening Cluster One goes for much the same vibe as SOYCD, but one significant difference is that it doesn’t go for the soul-crushing majesty of that piece, instead focusing on a warmer, more pleasant, but still sad vibe that hits me effectively. It takes a little while to really get going, but I like the way Dave plays off Wright’s simple piano lines in the second half. Marooned, then, calls back a bit to Great Gig in the Sky, but nowhere near enough to call it a ripoff. It’s a song that really matches its title, as it hits on the kinds of emotions I’d feel if I were marooned on an island, sitting on a beach, staring out over the sea and realizing there’s nobody coming to get me. I wouldn’t trade the track for the world, especially since it has yet more wonderful slide guitar.

I think it should be pointed out that, when I first bought this album, I did not have any high expectations for it whatsoever, and I’m very surprised that I ended up liking it as much as I do. If they’d ever gone back and made another album like this, ripping off their previous successes, I might have gotten annoyed, but as is, this works as a fine career ender. If you’re not slavishly devoted to Roger, and don’t feel all Pink Floyd without him should be ignored, you should get this.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Pink Floyd The Division Bell | | Leave a comment

Radiohead Kid A (2000)

Radiohead-Kid-AFrom pitchfork.com

We used to listen to music in an entirely different way. There was once a time when music was organized into 45- to 75-minute chunks– often a few standout tracks padded with a lot of mediocre filler, but occasionally designed so that the parts built up a larger structure. Used to be, people would sit down and listen to that lengthy piece of music from front to back in one sitting, resisting the urge to jump to their favorite parts or skip over the instrumental interlude that served as grout between two fuller compositions. These antiques were called CDs. Here’s a story about the last of its kind.

When Kid A came out in October 2000, it sounded like the future. Unless you were a Napster whiz-kid, the record was one of the last to arrive unspoiled and complete, a physical object, the disquieting Stanley Donwood art reinforcing its dark mystery. It’s arguably two-and-a-half minutes into “How to Disappear Completely”– more than a third of the way through the album– until anything sounds like a “Radiohead Song,” even with how far the elastic of that term was stretched on OK Computer. And while Radiohead were far from the first to glitch-up their vocals with a computer or drown their compositions in ambient washes, it was still a thrilling experimental gamble for a band that could’ve profitably re-made “Karma Police” 100 times over with minimal reputational damage.

But simply flirting with new technology wasn’t enough; even in 2000, the idea of a band “going electronic” was a laughable marketing gimmick from an era that spawned the term “electronica.” But the samples, loops, and beats of Kid A were more than just the patronizing dalliance of a bored band, they were tools used to service the album’s even deeper exploration of OK Computer’s thesis on identity loss in computerized society. It was, unashamedly, a complete album, one where everything from production to arrangements to lyrics to album art were carefully crafted towards a unified purpose.

It’s also a contoured album without clear highlights, best experienced in one sitting rather than cherrypicking the best parts. (It’s telling that the band famously quarreled over the sequencing of tracks.) The biggest stylistic coup was the corruption of Thom Yorke’s vocals– arguably the band’s most singular feature up to that point– and the detuned-radio effects of the album’s opening couplet: “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Kid A” threw listeners expecting that signature “Fake Plastic Trees” falsetto immediately into the deep end. On “The National Anthem”, Yorke is shouted down by horn section mayhem, and when he finally gets in an unfiltered word in on “How to Disappear Completely”, it’s the album’s most haunted (and revealing) line: “That there, that’s not me.”

There’s no storyline to pick out from Yorke’s lyrics, but a unified thread moves through the album nonetheless: Basically, Kid A is scary as hell. It might be the paranoid, nearly subliminal, unbroken undercurrent of haunted drone, courtesy of a Rhodes or a tape loop or Jonny Greenwood’s Ondes-Martenot, a instrument for nightmares if there ever was one. Or it might be Yorke’s terrifying one-line, Chicken Soup for the Agoraphobic Soul mantras that alternate between honeyed violence (“cut the kids in half”) and clichés and hum-drum observations twisted into panic attacks (“where’d you park the car?”).

(A brief intermission to talk about the bonus tracks included with this reissue. Capitol’s in a tough spot with finding Kid A outtakes, because they already released such a thing– it’s called Amnesiac…*rimshot*. So instead the bonus-disc padding is all live tracks, culled from British and French radio or TV shows. In keeping with the album’s isolation fixation, the empty studio of the four-track BBC session is the most fitting environment for the band’s performance, the vocal manipulations of “Everything in Its Right Place” ricocheting off egg-crate walls. Contrast that with the clap-along crowd on an “Idioteque” from France, which neuters the song’s sinister undercurrent and turns it into an inappropriate party jam.)

Every great album needs a great resolution, and Kid A has two: the angelic choir and harps of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” which serve as a much-needed (if fragile and a bit suspicious) uplift needed after such unrelenting bleakness, and a brief ambient coda that justifies the hidden-track gimmick. The silence that surrounds that final flash of hazy analog hiss is almost as rich, conferring a eerie feeling of weightlessness upon anyone who’s completed the journey with a proper headphones listen.

But that’s where the twist ending comes in. Kid A turned out not be the music of the future, but a relic of the past, more in line with dinosaurs like Dark Side of the Moon or Loveless as try-out-your-new-speakers, listen-with-the-lights-off suites. By the time Amnesiac officially arrived, it had been served up piecemeal on the internet, handicapping the final product from reproducing its predecessor’s cohesive structure. From then on, albums have persisted, sure, but they’re increasingly marginalized or stripped for parts– release Kid A today, and many might choose to save or stream “Idioteque” and Recycle-Bin the rest, missing the contextual build and release that makes the album’s demented-disco centerpiece all the more effective.

That’s not a qualitative judgment: The way things are now isn’t better or worse, just different. Technology, of course, is a selection pressure, digital music eroding the arbitrary 45ish-minute barrier that once was dictated by vinyl’s finite diameter. But while a single song will often do, there’s a talent to building and a pleasure in experiencing a dozen songs weaved together into a 40 minutes that’s richer than each individual track, a 12-course meal for special occasions between microwave snacks.

Like calligraphy, it’s a fading art, as even Radiohead themselves seem to be disinterested in the format, perpetually threatening to dribble tracks out in ones or fours when the spirit takes them. In the end, one of the many ghosts that haunt the corridors of Kid A is The Album itself, it’s death throes an unsettling funeral for a format that, like so much else, was out of time.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Radiohead Kid A | | Leave a comment

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here (1975)

LP-Cover-Pink-Floyd-Wish-You-Were-HereFrom johnmcferrinmusicreviews.org

Well, as you are probably aware, Dark Side Of The Moon was a complete and total success. It was definitely the guys’ best work to date, critics loved it, and although it was a #1 for only a couple of weeks, it managed to stay on the charts for 7 hundred-something weeks. So did all of these things make Roger at all happy or content? Heck no. Indeed, the group’s newfound success, especially in comparison to the struggles which they had had in the American market just two or three years previous, gave him more to whine about then when he had written the previous masterpiece’s lyrics. And, surprise surprise, we the listeners get to hear all about it.

Basically, his new set of complaints could be sorted into three categories, and each gets at least one song. The first, which is more or less a continuation of the themes of Dark Side, is that the world is a depressing pile of crap with everybody paralyzed by fear and as such missing out on life. Or something. Along those lines, we get the simplistic but pretty title track, which has held up rather well despite incessant overplay. It’s not the best ballad of its kind that Roger ever wrote, but it’s lovely, and the lyrics pull off “banal yet profound” very well. Plus, I dig the samples at the beginning.

Complaint number two is basically, “the music industry is made up of a bunch of greedy bastards who only care about money, know nothing about what is quality art, and who will try to steal your soul if you let them.” For this uplifting observation, we get two more radio classics in Welcome to the Machine (which, incidentally, was the first Pink Floyd song I ever heard), and Have a Cigar. The first does all it can to convince the listener via the atmosphere that to enter the music industry (or “the machine”) is to resign yourself to nothing but doom and despair. Of course it’s depressing, and maybe a bit overblown, but I do enjoy having my spirit crushed from time to time.

Plus, it’s got some of the coolest sounding synths of the decade. Now, the second, sung by famous studio musician Roy Harper, is based around actual experiences that Roger and Co. had with top studio execs after the success of DSOTM. Although it was their 8th studio album, Dark Side was the first that many high-ranking music people had heard of them, and as such they would treat the guys with the same “let’s sucker them out of their money” approach that they would with a regular overnight one hit wonder group.

As you might imagine, Roger was a bit insulted by this, and it was only made worse when one top level official, knowing nothing of the group but trying to pretend he was all buddy-buddy with them, asked them, “which one’s Pink?” And so, to deal with his frustrations, Roger took it out on them by slamming music executives in general into the ground with his lyrics. The song is a bit rudimentary, as it’s essentially just an okayish blues-based jam (the mid-section of Echoes did this sort of thing better), but I still like it.

The third and final gripe was that none of the Johnny-come-latelys that were suddenly claiming to be “big fans” knew a single thing about the group’s history, and consequently knew nothing about the man who had started it all, Mr. Syd Barrett. And so, Waters decided to write a tribute to him, which we know as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (get it? SoYcD? SYD?). And it’s absolutely fantastic. In all, it takes up about 25 minutes of time, but it’s broken up so the three other songs are in between the first and second half of it. Now, truth be told, I get a little tired with the second half.

The first instrumental passages of this half, both from Rick’s synth noodlings and Dave’s passionate guitar lines, are fantastic, and the actual song portion is great, but I find the weird synth-based jamming at the end rather tedious. The first half of the piece, though, is awesome beyond belief. The gradual synth, organ, and keyboard build up, along with the familiar heavenly guitar tone progress the tune to a point where it is the gloomiest, most soul crushing piece of music you have ever heard (the bluesy passage is absolutely killer at hitting my heart), and that’s just part I.

II gives us the now famous four ringing guitar notes, or “Syd’s Theme,” and it’s just perfect in its simplicity. III is a mellow guitar/synth noodle, IV is the actual “song” part (with lyrics making all sorts of references Piper and to Barrett’s own life), and V is driven by a saxophone part as passionate as the best moments on Dark Side before fading into WTTM. The first half of this piece, all 13-odd minutes of it, is pure heaven to my ears, and one of my favorite stretches in all of rock music.

All in all, this is quite a splendid album, and worthy of its reputation in many, many ways. Aside from the little quibbles I’ve already mentioned, the only gripe I have about it is that, in many ways, this is the first album where the band is no longer trying to push the boundaries, if you will, and keep progressing. Roger has said many times in the past few years that he always felt that the band, as a whole, reached its zenith with Dark Side, and that after that it was all down hill.

On the other hand, it’s not a huge step down, and the band had reached such a high point that even if they were to get worse and worse with each passing album, they would still be better than the best output of most groups. Plus, I should mention another major positive in this album’s favor: this is probably Rick Wright’s peak with the band. While he has no solo writing credits (only sharing credit on a couple of tracks), his keyboards are ALL OVER this album, taking on many different styles, and while this album may belong to Roger and Dave in songwriting, this album belongs to Rick in arrangements. I consider this one of the best demonstrations of 70’s keyboarding in my entire collection, and that says something.

Oh, one last thing. I have seen several possible synchronicities for this album on the internet, but the two most intriguing possibilities, in my mind, are with the classic It’s a Wonderful Life and with the director’s cut of Blade Runner (this one sounds fishy, though, given that WYWH came out long before the movie). Might be worth checking out, might not.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here | | Leave a comment

Radiohead In Rainbows (2007)

in-rainbowsFrom pitchfork.com

Like many music lovers of a certain age, I have a lot of warm memories tied up with release days. I miss the simple ritual of making time to buy a record. I also miss listening to something special for the first time and imagining, against reason, the rest of the world holed up in their respective bedrooms, having the same experience.

Before last Wednesday, I can’t remember the last time I had that feeling. I also can’t remember the last time I woke up voluntarily at 6 a.m. either, but like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, there I was, sat at my computer, headphones on, groggy, but awake, and hitting play.

Such a return to communal exchange isn’t something you’d expect to be orchestrated by a band who’s wrung beauty from alienation for more than a decade. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that Radiohead revel, above all else, in playing against type. It’s written in their discography; excluding the conjoined twins that were Kid A and Amnesiac, each of their albums constitutes a heroic effort to debunk those that came before it. Although 2003’s Hail to the Thief was overlong and scattershot, it was important insofar as it represented the full band’s full-circle digestion and synthesis of the sounds and methods they first toyed with on OK Computer. So, after a decade of progression, where do we go from here?

If the 2006 live renditions of their new material were anything to go by, not much further. With few exceptions, the roughly 15 songs introduced during last year’s tour gave the impression that after five searching records, Radiohead had grown tired of trying to outrun themselves. Taken as a whole, the guitar-centric compositions offered a portrait of a band who, whether subconsciously or not, looked conciliatory for the first time in its career. Although a wonderful surprise, their early October album announcement only lent further credence to the theory. Where they’d previously had the confidence to precede albums like OK Computer and Kid A with marketing fanfare worthy of a classic-in-making, this sneak attack felt like a canny strategy to prepare fans for an inevitable downshift.

The brilliant In Rainbows represents no such thing. Nonetheless, it’s a very different kind of Radiohead record. Liberated from their self-imposed pressure to innovate, they sound– for the first time in ages– user-friendly; the glacial distance that characterized their previous records melted away by dollops of reverb, strings, and melody. From the inclusion and faithful rendering of longtime fan favorite “Nude” to the classic pop string accents on “Faust Arp” to the uncharacteristically relaxed “House of Cards”, Radiohead’s sudden willingness to embrace their capacity for uncomplicated beauty might be In Rainbows’ most distinguishing quality, and one of the primary reasons it’s an improvement on Hail to the Thief.

Now that singer Thom Yorke has kickstarted a solo career– providing a separate venue for the solo electronic material he used to shoehorn onto Radiohead albums– Radiohead also sound like a full band again. Opener “15 Step”‘s mulched-up drum intro represents the album’s only dip into Kid A-style electronics; from the moment Jonny Greenwood’s zestful guitar line takes over about 40 seconds in, In Rainbows becomes resolutely a five-man show. (For all of Yorke’s lonely experimental pieces, it’s easy to forget how remarkably the band play off each other; the rhythm section of Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood are especially incredible, supplying between them for a goldmine of one-off fills, accents, and runs over the course of the record.)

A cut-up in the spirit of “Airbag”– albeit with a jazzier, more fluid guitar line– “15 Step” gives way to “Bodysnatchers”, which, like much of In Rainbows, eschews verse/chorus/verse structure in favor of a gradual build. Structured around a sludgy riff, it skronks along noisily until about the two-minute mark, when the band veers left with a sudden acoustic interlude. By now, Radiohead are experts at tearing into the fabric of their own songs for added effect, and In Rainbows is awash in those moments.

The band’s big-hearted resurrection of “Nude” follows. The subject of fervent speculation for more than a decade, its keening melodies and immutable prettiness had left it languishing behind Kid A’s front door. Despite seeming ambivalent about the song even after resurrecting it for last year’s tour, this album version finds Yorke wrenching as much sweetness out of it as he possibly can, in turn giving us our first indication that he’s in generous spirits. Another fan favorite, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” brandishes new drums behind its drain-circling arpeggios, but sounds every bit as massive in crescendoing as its live renditions suggested it might. “All I Need”, meanwhile, concludes the album’s first side by dressing up what begins as a skeletal rhythm section in cavernous swaths of glockenspiel, synths, pianos, and white noise.
With its fingerpicked acoustic guitars and syrupy strings, “Faust Arp” begs comparisons to some of the Beatles’ sweetest two-minute interludes, while the stunning “Reckoner” takes care of any lingering doubt about Radiohead’s softer frame of mind: Once a violent rocker worthy of its title, this version finds Yorke’s slinky, elongated falsetto backed by frosty, clanging percussion and a meandering guitar line, onto which the band pile a chorus of backing harmonies, pianos, and– again– swooping strings. It may not be the most immediate track on the album, but over the course of several listens, it reveals itself to be among the most woozily beautiful things the band has ever recorded.

With its lethargic, chipped-at guitar chords, “House of Cards” is a slow, R.E.M.-shaped ballad pulled under by waves of reverbed feedback. While it’s arguably the one weak link in the album’s chain, it provides a perfect lead-in to the spry guitar workout of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. Like “Bodysnatchers” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” before it, “Jigsaw” begins briskly and builds into a breakneck conclusion, this time with Yorke upshifting from low to high register to supply a breathless closing rant.

Finally, the closer. Another fan favorite, Yorke’s solo versions of “Videotape” suggested another “Pyramid Song” in the making. Given the spirit of In Rainbows, you’d be forgiven for assuming its studio counterpart might comprise some sort of epic finale, but to the disappointment of fans, it wasn’t to be. Instead, we get a circling piano coda and a bassline that seems to promise a climax that never comes. “This is one for the good days/ And I have it all here on red, blue, green,” Yorke sings. It’s an affecting sentiment that conjures up images of the lead singer, now a father of two, home filming his kids. A rickety drum beat and shuddering percussions work against the melody, trying clumsily to throw it off, but Yorke sings against it: “You are my center when I spin away/ Out of control on videotape.”

As the real life drums give way to a barely distinguishable electronic counterpart, Yorke trails off, his piano gently uncoils, and the song ends with a whimper. The whole thing is an extended metaphor, of course, and, this being Radiohead, it’s heavy-handed in its way, but it’s also a fitting close to such a human album. In the end, that which we feared came true: In Rainbows represents the sound of Radiohead coming back to earth. Luckily, as it turns out, that’s nothing to be afraid of at all.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Radiohead In Rainbows | | Leave a comment

Aerosmith Honkin’ On Bobo (2004)

aerosmith-honkinonbobo3From imarocker.com

The eagerly anticipated Aerosmith blues outing ‘Honkin’ On Bobo’ (apparently bluespeak for playing the harmonica) is finally here and to my mind is their finest release since 1989’s ‘Pump’. As I’ve been asked to submit a review, I’ll spare y’all any pre-amble and cut to the chase:

Opener ‘Roadrunner’ is a classic hard-rock tip-of-the-hat to 60’s R’n’B. Fans of Van Halen’s ‘Pretty Woman’, DLR’s ‘Tobacco Road’ or even the Horslip’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ will definitely enjoy this, which is probably the nearest Aerosmith have come to straight-ahead vintage RnR since Permanent Vacation’s ‘Im Down’.
Track 2 sees the ‘Smiths revisiting previously explored territory, as ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ could pass as a modern reworking of ‘Big 10 inch Record’ from their classic ‘Toys In The Attic’, albeit benefiting from 21st Century production techniques.

Next up, Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Eyesight to the Blind’ allows Tyler to show off his blues-harp prowess: a tall order, given the former’s legendary status as ‘King of the Blues Harp’. However, ST proves yet again that he’s no slouch in this department either, and is aided and abetted by the swamp-blues guitar of Perry and Whitford.
‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ needs no introduction to fans of Rock or Blues. This standard saw its entrée to the rock arena via Van Morrison’s Them in the mid-60’s and since has been covered by the likes of Budgie and AC/DC. This version breathes new life into the old tour de force, and for me is one of the standout covers of the rock era. Notable are Joey Kramer’s drum fills- simple yet highly effective. Additionally, Tom Hamilton’s bass work here is exceptional, holding down a walking bass line until the climax of the guitar solo, when he finally runs off on a freewheelin’ fret-fest that had me hanging on to the speakers!

‘Never Loved A Girl’ is crying out for a single release. This is a typical soul number, but its definitely Stax Studios Memphis, as opposed to Tamla Motown Detroit. It’s a game musician who’ll take on a vocal popularized by Aretha Franklin, but No Surprise (sic) that Steven Tyler is well up to the task.

The first half of the album ends with the first of three songs penned by Mississippi Fred McDowell (cousin of Carnhill Titch?) and sees Joe Perry capably take the lead vocal. Hearing this track hints at the possible influence behind the likes of former Aero-classics such as ‘Hang Man Jury’ and ‘Voodoo Medicine Man’. Tracey Bonham, who delivers in a style similar to Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks or even Bonnie Raitt, joins Joe on vocals, for what is possibly Perry’s best-ever outing behind the microphone.

Track 7 is another McDowell tune, ‘You Gotta Move’. Previously covered by the Rolling Stones in swamp blues fashion, Aerosmith instead prefer to sidestep potential Stones comparisons by applying the patented Bo Diddly riff and beat. This thereby gives the song an entirely different flavour- and no bad thing following 30+ plus years of unfavourable and meaningless Stones comparisons, which do neither band justice.
The only self-penned track is ‘The Grind’, which is a slow 12-bar, probably written as a single release. Typical latter-day ‘Smith-stuff, this is 21st Century Aero-blues, as opposed to the early nineties country pastiche of ‘Get A Grip’s ‘Crazy’ or ‘Cryin’.

Willy Dixon’s spooky-blues workout ‘Im ready’ will give Quentin Tarantino something to think about if he’s ever considering remaking The Adams Family and needs some inspired soundtrack material. This track may fit the bill.
The Jewish-blues of ‘Temperature’ sees Tyler’s vocal at its most affected. This type of material is reminiscent of the style and spirit of the ‘Unplugged and Seated’ retro-Faces set, recorded by Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood over 10 years ago. Fans of this album could do worse than check The Faces out if they require more of the same.

It’s nice to see Aerosmith acknowledge the blues influence from 4000 miles east of the Mississippi, with the penultimate track, Peter Green’s ‘Stop Messin Around’. Again Joe’s on vocals and while this has been an ad-libbed live staple for quite some time, on this occasion the band give it the full studio treatment, featuring a stunning dual lead break from Perry and the criminally underrated Brad Whitford.

‘Jesus Is On The Main Line’ is an acoustic gospel chant lifted straight from the Delta cotton fields. Again, additional vocals are capably provided by Tracey Bonham for a song that wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou’. It really doesn’t get anymore organic than this, and it’s a nice touch that the band should end this outing right back at the roots of the blues, musically, culturally and spiritually.
For me then, a five star rating, and I’d be very surprised if this album isn’t a huge success. I hope that I can come across a better album this year, but I seriously doubt it, given its many strengths and highlights. Few of the so-called ‘Greatest Rock Bands in-the-World’ could manage to pull this off: certainly not the likes of REM or the Chillis. Possibly Fleetwood Mac, if they can pull in both Peter Green and a revitalized David Lee Roth (!) or maybe even Van Halen, if they can travel back in time to hire James Brown circa-1967.

In short then, if you like rock, blues, or Blues-rock then check this out and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. If not, stand clear! The only gripe for me, is that at less than 44 minutes, this album is too short; then again, I’d probably say the same if it was twice as long. Grammy nominations writ large? – Lets wait and see.

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Aerosmith Honkin' On Bobo | | Leave a comment

Leonard Cohen The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968)

leonard-cohen-songs-of-leonard-cohenFrom rollingstone.com

There are, in The Favorite Game, Leonard Cohen’s first novel, several scenes in which people ask the hero (presumably Cohen, since everything else fits) to sing. A friend of mine read the book and finished with one question: if the guy was Leonard Cohen, why did they keep asking him to sing? I think that is untrue — the more I listen to this LP the more I like his voice. It is a strange voice — he hits every note, but between each note he recedes to an atonal place — his songs are thus given a sorely needed additional rhythm.

The record as a whole is another matter — I don’t think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.

The problem is that, whether the man is a poet or not (and he is a brilliant poet), as those ridiculous ads announce in hushed tones of reverence, he is not necessarily a songwriter; his three successes (“Suzanne,” “The Master Song,” and “The Stranger Song”) are stories, ballads whose progression of meaning becomes more important to Cohen than his poetic bag of tricks. Elsewhere, this kind of delicacy, put to the rigid demands of music, sinks into doggerel: “I lit a thin green candle/To make you jealous of me/But the room just filled up with mosquitoes/They heard that my body was free.”

Worse, in the same song, “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” (only forgivable if a parody of Dylan, and then questionable) Cohen does what has become reputable for the songwriter aspiring to poetry; he has confused the marijuana or fatigue silly high with the insight of poetry (one can blow one’s mind promiscuously): “Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night/And I put it in your little shoe/Then I confess that I tortured the dress/That you wore for the world to look through.” Then there is the standard Dylan trick of reversed images (“smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette”): “I showed my heart to the doctor/He said I’d just have to quit/Then he wrote himself a prescription/And your name was mentioned in it.” The poet-become-songwriter runs the risk of imprisonment in his new discipline, because he does not come to it naturally.

The arrangements are beyond even sympathy; a fact I take Cohen to recognize in his notes to the album: “… they were forbidden to marry. Nevertheless, the arrangements wished to throw a party. The songs preferred to retreat behind a veil of satire.” Would that it were that easy. In “Marianne,” the lyrics of which are reasonably unpretentious, there is a chorus, the musical ancestors of which are the Hi-Los. In “Teachers” there is a hard guitar sound, ridiculously inappropriate, copped, if I remember correctly, from Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” a better song. On the last song (“One of Us Cannot Be Wrong”) the arrangement fades into a hilarious cacophony — but the Beach Boys did this kind of thing better in Smiley Smile (and they aren’t even poets). If this is satire, it is satire after the fact. In back of most of the songs is an indistinguishable Muzak hum.

But three songs make the LP worthy of purchase (unless one is interested in culture heroes, like Janis Ian, in which case the other songs are infinitely more valuable).

“Suzanne” is a song of distance; doggerel exists when there is no place to go: this song goes into a center and out again, resting, finally, closer to the center than it began. Cohen, with the second person, is telling you how you (he) feels. Further distance.

“The Master Song” is ambiguous — but the art of its ambiguity does not interfere with its ability to move. There is, in Cohen’s novel, and in places on this LP, a kind of faith in the regenerative power of degeneration, of sadness, perhaps even of evil. The song works also — I don’t know whether this is the intention — as a song for two of the characters of Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s second novel.

“The Stranger Song” is perhaps the best. Cohen the aphorist here realizes that aphorism is more insight than surprise. The simplicity of the imagery does not interfere with the feelings of the characters nor the situation, nor does the images crowd the loneliness. Here is perhaps the most moving statement Cohen can make: “And he wants to trade the game he plays for shelter/And he wants to trade the game he knows for shelter.”

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Leonard Cohen The Songs Of Leonard Cohen | | Leave a comment