Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Spirit Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus (1970)


I don’t quite get the deep hidden secret of this record. It is widely regarded as Spirit’s finest hour before their dissolution, given excellent marks by all the critics and even more, this record was the only testimony to Spirit’s spirit that could be found in print in the US for a long time.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if it was that factor that implicated Sardonicus being hailed as the band’s masterpiece, and not vice versa – people only could get a grasp at Spirit through that one release, and the rest of their career was subconsciously treated as a footnote.

Well then again, maybe not. There is one major advantage to this album: the guys sound completely mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that they have finally developed instead of running all over the place. There is one major flaw to this album, as well: the guys sound way too mature and self-assured, with a special, unique sound that replaces the diversity of old and makes most of these songs sound the same. No Britpop – jazz – folk – country – blues – psychedelia distinctions any more, just a special little brew of their own: mid-tempo jazz structures with moderately distorted virtuoso guitar and complicated rhythm textures, at times spiced with various psycho effects and gimmicks.

Randy California is now obviously at the forefront, pushing all the other players away, and he now also dominates the songwriting, contributing seven of the twelve numbers; Ferguson throws in another four, and Locke gets to ‘shine’ with a random psychedelic collage (‘Space Child’) that I don’t particularly find very engaging. And not coincidentally, Ferguson’s numbers are once again by far the most effective: ‘Animal Zoo’ is hilarious, a refreshing stab at country-pop that’s one of the very few pieces of ‘diversification’ on the record.

Just one note: the lyrics on the record suck throughout, with the band going for a ‘profound’ conceptual kind of message but failing – well, I suppose they were just pretending. Occasionally they find some pretty simple hippie mini-concept for a song, but much too often they’re just unintelligible. I don’t blame them, though – they were clearly going after the music rather than the words.

Okay, so ‘Animal Zoo’ is a highlight, but Ferguson’s main claim for fame on here is doubtlessly ‘Mr Skin’, one of the band’s best rockers – listen to it begin quite innocently, with quiet organ/guitar interplay and the band’s sly soulful harmonies, but then they go for a rip-roarin’ funk groove with a wonderful call-and-answer vocal arrangement and a brass section that would kick the bottom out of old Sly. Ferguson also contributes ‘Street Worm’, one of the hardest numbers on the album that to me, however, sounds more like a launchpad for these finger-flashing guitar solos from Randy than an actual song.

Randy himself, however, is in a relatively quiet mood: his songs are generally softer and moodier than Ferguson’s, and that’s including ‘Nature’s Way’, the album’s main minor hit single and the best known song from here in general. ‘Moody’ is the best description for the song; its instrumental melody is way too simplistic and repetitive to put it on a pedestal, but it gives a chance for the band to brew up some really powerful, mournful harmonies as they sing about… about… well, about ‘nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong’. Quite emotional, if you ask me.

Other highlights are ‘Life Has Just Begun’, a gorgeous acoustic ballad with some more beautiful harmonies with the band, and especially the upbeat rocker ‘Morning Will Come’: the two songs form a magnificent ‘optimistic anti-dote’ to some of the more gloomy overtones on the record’s first half. But I really can’t say anything else about any other song, because, frankly, I don’t know what to say. I don’t see too many hooks in these songs: I admire the mastery and the perfectionism, and, of course, no California band in 1970 ever sounded like this, but I’d like the songs to have just a wee bit more edge to match the band’s nearly-immaculate debut record.

The four or five classics I have mentioned are all classics, no doubt about that, but the rest of the album is just a bit too sludgey, with instruments buried under each other and rather pedestrian vocal harmonies that don’t seem to go anywhere – and I couldn’t remember how the main melody of ‘Soldier’ or ‘When I Touch You’ goes upon the five hundredth listen. Missing the hooks and the diversity, I can’t but give Sardonicus a wee bit lower rating than Spirit; I seriously think that looking at the band’s output without a bias must lead to the same conclusion from everybody.

Oh, and by the way, this isn’t actually even COMPLEX stuff. At least, it’s by no means more ‘complex’ than their first records, unless ‘boring’ means ‘complex’, of course. It’s far from ordinary and generic, of course, but so was Spirit. And the conceptual elements – the album title, the pretentious lyrics, vocal and instrumental links between the songs, etc. – just don’t make the record any more special than it already is; after all, it’s no Sgt Pepper, even if it’s obvious that the band seriously intended for the record to become one.

That said, the album is still very good – and an easy eleven on the overall rating scale. Consequent listens bring out several interesting musical ideas initially buried down in the depths of sound, and at least half of the songs are extremely well-written, whatever that might actually mean.

Bonus tracks on the recent CD re-issue include a couple alternate mixes, a weak rocker (‘Rough Road’) and a hilarious piece of goofiness in ‘Red Light Roll On’, perhaps the most campy track ever recorded by Spirit – of course, they take that dumb approach completely tongue-in-cheek, and it guarantees you a good healthy laugh to conclude the listening process to. Because, to tell you the truth, a good healthy laugh is what the original release of the album seriously lacked.


January 5, 2014 Posted by | Spirit Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus | | Leave a comment

Coldplay Parachutes (2000)


Pretty, lovely, fine, fair, comely, pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, adequate, satisfactory, nice, benign, harmless, innocuous, innocent, largely unobjectionable, safe, forgettable.

I have just summed up in 19 words what I am about to say about Coldplay’s debut full-length, Parachutes, in 600. Aside from being seemingly tailor-made for the paper-thin adult contemporary market, what is it about this Britrock quartet that’s driving them up the American charts? Is it their popularity in their home country, or their Mercury Music Prize nomination? Could it be their charming, boyish good looks?

Perhaps, even, a reputation built by Noel Gallagher’s projected insistence that they’re “a bunch of fuckin’ pansies, the lot of them?”

In reality, Coldplay’s secret deadly weapon is vocalist Chris Martin. With the ability to mimic a Brit-accented Dave Matthews one minute, Jeff Buckley revived from the dead the next, and sometimes even a young Peter Gabriel, Martin’s heartfelt delivery seems to be what’s winning the hearts, wallets and alternative radio request lines of Americans young and old. That’s not to say that the rest of the group isn’t sharp. Guitarist Jon Buckland provides plaintive, strummed acoustic guitar with the occasional amplified wail, and bassist Guy Berryman with drummer Will Champion form a competent rhythm section.

Oh yeah, the songs. They’re nothing special. Most of the 10 tracks on Parachutes are indeed pleasant enough, often consisting of standard alterna-pop fare with the occasional folky ballad. They’re innocent and inoffensive in general, but in turn, they’re also exceedingly generic and immediately forgettable– so much so, in fact, that after a minute of one song, you’ve usually already forgotten what the last song sounded like. And that’s even after a few listens.

Parachutes opens with “Don’t Panic,” the title of which is likely lifted from British mock sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, despite the fact that the song has nothing to do with it. This subdued, dreamy opener contains Martin’s falsetto chorus of “We live in a beautiful world,” which seems to sum up the overall sentiment of the record; the record also closes with the inspirational swinger “Everything’s Not Lost.”

Most of the other songs sort of drift in and out of consciousness, with the exception of the second track, “Shiver.” It’s the only truly decent song on Parachutes, but simultaneously, it’s the only one that blatantly shows its influences. In fact, the influence can even be pinned to a single song: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace.” Martin has his Buckley impression down cold, complete with dynamic range and the trademark vibrato. But as enjoyable as the song may be, there’s no question that Buckley did it better.

And of course, you’ve probably heard their smash hit single, “Yellow,” by now. Indeed, it’s the most obvious choice for a single, and it represents Martin’s vocal stylings effectively, but it’s also the record’s weakest moment. Buckland’s grating, slightly tuneless guitars seem jarring, especially when sequenced in the middle of a series of songs that generally lack dissonance. And the saccharine lyrics are those that might have caused Mr. Gallagher’s hypothetical remark: “Look at the stars/ Look how they shine for you/ And everything you do.” You’d practically expect the band to show up at your doorstep with a wilting bouquet and Hallmark card.

Parachutes is ultimately a promising debut for Coldplay, if by “promising,” I mean, “promising them a windfall of cash and international popularity.” If nothing else, it’s harmless and pretty. Unfortunately, it’s nothing else. If that’s what you look for in your music, by all means, go for it. If you want substance, I suggest moving on.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Coldplay Parachutes | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy (1973)


Led Zeppelin took stock of their phenomenal fame with Houses of the Holy, with deep contributions from each member of the rock quartet. This fifth album was released in 1973, nearly a full year after it was recorded in the Spring of 1972 at Stargroves, an English country estate owned by Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. The major reason for the album’s delay was trouble with designing and printing the unique album cover by the artistic company Hipgnosis, with the band completely rejecting the initial artwork and the first prints of the final artwork accidentally coming out with a strong purple tint. When they finally got the artwork correct, the album was banned from sale in many locations because of the naked children on the cover who pay homage to the Arthur C. Clarke novel Childhood’s End.

Produced by guitarist Jimmy Page (like all Zeppelin albums), the album featured sophisticated layered guitars, the addition of obscure instrumentation, and other rich production techniques. Beyond the Stargroves recordings, the album contains recordings from Headley Grange (site of recordings of their previous album Led Zeppelin IV) with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, along with Olympic Studios in London and Electric Lady Studios in New York. There were also several recorded songs not included on Houses of the Holy but released on later albums such as Physical Graffiti and Coda.

The album featured styles and sub-genres not heard on previous Led Zeppelin albums, such as funk, reggae, and doo-wop. The album is an indirect tribute to their fan base, who were showing up in record numbers to their live shows. It perfectly straddles the band’s early, more blues-based period from their later work, which consisted of more richly produced studio albums that tilted more towards pop and modern rock. Bass player and keyboardist John Paul Jones temporarily left the band for a few days during this album’s recording but soon returned and stayed with the band until the end.

The fact that this album features different sounds is evident right from the top with “The Song Remains the Same”. This song is odd on several fronts, from the pitch-effect vocals of Robert Plant to the extremely bright multi-tracked guitars of Page. Still, the song is great and is set up as a sort of journey, not a rotation. The song is a jam that feels loose yet does not get lost for one second, due mainly to the steady and strong drumming of John Bonham. The song was originally an instrumental which was given the working title “The Overture”, before Plant added lyrics and the title to it. It was originally going to be an intro for “The Rain Song”, and these songs were often coupled together in concert. “The Rain Song” Is an extended piece with eloquent acoustic and electric guitars weaved together. The song also features a long mellotron section (some would say too long) played by Jones, adding a surreal orchestral effect above Page’s guitar before returned to the climatic final verses and soft and excellent guitar outtro.

Parts of “Over the Hills and Far Away” written by Page and Plant during the 1970 sessions at the Welsh cottage Bron-Yr-Aur for the album Led Zeppelin. The song is mostly acoustic throughout but works into a harder rock section during the middle, making it one of the most dynamic Led Zeppelin songs ever. Jones and Bonham add a tight rhythm to Page and Plant’s etheral dynamics. The song was released as a US single, but failed to reach the “Top 40″, faring much better on classic rock radio through the decades. Over the Hills and Far Away single“The Crunge” is a funk tribute to Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown and evolved out of a jam session built around Bonham’s off-beat drums and a bass riff by Jones. This song features an overdubbed VCS3 synthesizer to replicated the funk “horn” section, which gives it a totally unique sound of its own. During the jam Plant calls for a “bridge” (imitating Brown’s habit of shouting instructions to his band during live recordings). When no such section materiializes, the song (and first side) uniquely ends with the spoken “Where’s that Confounded Bridge?”

The closest Led Zeppelin ever came to writing a pure pop song, “Dancing Days” was actually inspired by an Indian tune that Page and Plant heard while traveling in Mumbai. The guitar overdubs are simply masterful in this upbeat song about summer nights and young love. It was played live as early as November 1971 and, although not officially released as a single, it received heavy radio play in the UK. “D’Yer Ma’ker” was released as a single and became the band’s final Top 40 hit (although they didn’t have many of those). The song has a unique sound with Bonham’s exaggerated drum pounding backing a reggae-inspired riff by Page and Jones and Plant’s bubblegum pop vocals. The distinctive drum sound was created by placing three microphones a good distance away from Bonham’s drums, giving him much natural reverb to make the banging sound more majestic. The name of the song is derived from an old joke about Jamaica, and was often mispronounced as “Dire Maker” by those not privvy to the joke.

John Paul Jones centerpiece “No Quarter” provides a great contrast with a much darker piece about viking conquest, with the title derived from the military practice of showing no mercy to a vanquished opponent. The song features a distinct, heavily treated electric piano throughout with an acoustic piano solo by Jones in the long mid-section. Page doubles up with electric guitars and a theremin for effect, while Plant’s voice is deep and distorted. The album concludes with the upbeat rocker “The Ocean”, which refers to the “sea of fans” at the band’s concerts. Launching from a voice intro by Bonham, the song returns to the heavy riff-driven anthems that were popular on their earlier albums. But this song does contain its own unique parts, including an overdubbed vocal chorus, performed a Capella, by Plant in the middle and a doo-wop outro section that contains a boogie bass with strong guitar overdubs, bringing the album to a climatic end.

Houses of the Holy has been certified eleven times platinum and is often included on “greatest albums” lists. It is an odd but brilliant album by Led Zeppelin which finds a balance uncommon by hard rock bands of any era.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Presence (1976)


In late 1975, Led Zeppelin had planned a world tour to capitalize of the phenomenal success of their latest album Physical Graffiti. the band was at the absolute zenith of their popularity with a string on top-selling albums going back to 1969. However, a serious car accident involving lead singer Robert Plant while he was vacationing on the island of Rhodes with his wife, made the tour impossible. Plant was confined to a wheelchair for nearly six months and this tilted the band towards writing and recording a new “unplanned” album. The result was Presence, the least successful album in the Zeppelin catalog commercially and one with very mixed reviews critically. However, Presence is the album that the band themselves consider to be their “most important”.

During his recovery period in Malibu, CA following the accident, Plant began to write some lyrics. He was soon joined by guitarist and producer Jimmy Page to further work on these compositions. When enough material had been written, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham were summoned to rehearsals in California. The band then migrated to Munich, Germany for recording, all with Plant still in a wheelchair. The studio was small, in a basement, and very difficult for Plant to work in. Further, the band found out that they had just 18 days for the entire production as the Rolling Stones had the very same studio booked for their next album, Black and Blue. As producer, Page pretty much stayed awake for the entire 18 days in order to complete the album in Munich.

The result is, perhaps, the most unusual Led Zeppelin album (although each of their albums are quite distinct). Page developed a cleaner, “twang-ier” guitar sound in contrast to his signature “crunch” riffs of earlier days. Bonham’s drumming is furious and strong with a sound extended from that on Physical Graffiti, while Jones continued his migration from a dynamic blues to that of a more standard rock bass player. As Plant himself admits, his vocals dynamics suffered a bit due to his confinement. Further, he was a bit upset with the band’s management for keeping him from his wife, who was also seriously injured in the car wreck and recovering back in England, mainly due to tax reasons. Still, Robert Plant at 50% is superior to most rock singers and his performance on Presence is far from embarrassing.

The album was completed on November 26th, the day before Thanksgiving, which was a suggested title for the album. This title was rejected in favor of “Presence”, a representative force surrounding the band. The cover artwork features various images of random people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped “object”, a sort of play on the space object in the film 2001.

Presence is the only Led Zeppelin album with neither acoustic or keyboard tracks, as the band made a concerted effort to forge and updated version of their earliest “raw” sound. This strategy succeeds well on the first side but is less successful on the second side as the three songs on the first side are far superior to the four on the second. Still, it is refreshing that the band never lost their capacity for experimentation even with this quickly rushed album.

Unlike most albums which tend to build towards an epic song late on either sides this album kicks off right away with “Achilles Last Stand”, the tour de force of Presence. The song starts with dreamy, flanged guitar intro by Page which gives way to a rapid trigger-like riff that gets variated throughout. It is a true journey of a song lead by Plant’s lyric and vocal telling of his misfortune in the land of the Greek heroes. One flaw with the song is that it lasts just a bit too long and becomes a little repetitive towards the end. It perhaps would have worked better as a 7-minute song than this 10½ minute goliath.

This last point is magnified with the album’s closer “Tea For One”, another extended cut but with alot less action. The truth is, the best part of this 9-plus-minute song is the first 21 seconds when the band does a riff completely out of context with the rest of the song, which is a slow and depressing diddy that wallows in misery and desperately cries for a kick into a higher gear at some point. Some have pointed to the shorter songs on the album as “filler”, but I believe the filler actually lies within the longer compositions themselves by virtue of repetitiveness. Which begs the question – if the band didn’t feel like they had enough material, why not add some older material like they had with Physical Graffiti? We know now that there were some fine, unreleased songs out there like “Travelig Riverside Blues”, “Poor Tom”, and “Hey, Hey What Can I Do?”

Rounding out side one is a couple of unique Zeppelin gems. “For Your Life” is the quintessential Led Zeppelin song, filled with bluesy licks over a catchy riff and dynamic, much-improvised vocals by Plant belting out lyrics that are hard to decipher completely, but with a vibe “felt” to the bone. The song contains nice changes, an interesting bridge, and a precise, simple, and strong beat throughout by Bonham. “Royal Orleans” is a fun and funky tune alledgedly retelling a story involving John Paul Jones and a transvestite.

Launching the second side, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, Plant’s guilt-ridden song about bad things befalling him (presumably the car wreck) due to his own actions. The song contains an excellent blues harp solo, unlike anything he had done since “When the Levee Breaks” on Led Zeppelin IV, five years earlier. It is the first of two distinct leads, followed by Page’s own bluesy guitar lead, combined these make up the best part of the song. Much like “Achilles”, this composition would be better if more succinct and less repetitive, but it is still a fine track.

The heart of the second side contains two fine sounding throwback songs. “Candy Store Rock” is an Elvis tribute, which uses the candy store as an analogy for sex in the same fashion that “Trampled Underfoot” used the car on the previous album. It is not a terrible listen but just a little disappointing in the minimalist approach of Page and Jones. Bonham, on the other hand plays a very interesting beat with entertaining variations throughout. “Hots On for Nowhere” is one of the forgotten gems of the Zeppelin catalog, a stop-start rockabilly riff and beat with some nice changes. It is a song with a very upbeat vibe despite the mainly depressing lyrics.

Presence did initially rush to #1 on the Billboard charts (probably due to the band’s popularity alone) but quickly fell and tracks from this album have rarely received airplay. Also, because of it being completely built in the studio, few songs from the album were played live on subsequent tours. Still, despite this initial subdued reception, Presence is an excellent listen that has held up well over the decades and cannot be overlooked by any true fans of Led Zeppelin today.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Presence | | Leave a comment

Coldplay Viva la Vida (2008)


You know your band is in trouble when your lead singer admits that his lyrics are terrible.

Yet back in 2005, shortly after the release of Coldplay’s chart-topping yet critically-drubbed X&Y, Chris Martin did just that. The story was picked up by dozens of publications, providing ammunition for the band’s many haters while also showcasing Martin as man who was surprisingly aware of his surroundings. Indeed, Coldplay’s quick ascension into the popular consciousness was as sudden as it was unexpected. This UK quartet was only two albums into their career when they began racking up radio hit after radio hit, winning Grammys and slanderous reviews in equal measure.

Martin had a relatable, everyman croon that appealed to multiple demographics, the band (or, more accurately, his band) all the while pounding away at watered-down Radiohead balladry behind him. This was a group that was easy to love and even easier to hate, which is exactly why Martin & co. designed X&Y to be their U2-aping, anthem-filled, crowd-pleasing stadium rocker… which, clocking in at one very bloated and ballad-heavy hour, it most certainly was not (and let’s not even mention Crazy Frog defeating “Speed of Sound” on the UK singles chart).

But then… something weird happened.

Martin was still omni-present—it’s impossible to marry a star like Gwenyth Paltrow and not be in the public spotlight—but he began trying different, unusual things: first he guested on a Jay-Z track, followed by a Kanye West single. He made a hilarious, self-mocking appearance on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, and before long announced that the band would be working with the legendary Brian Eno on their next album, all while admitting that, yes, he was in fact a terrible lyricist.

Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends—despite its title sounding like a Rocky & Bullwinkle episode as penned by Jhonen Vasquez—is the least Coldplay-sounding album in the band’s discography. Gone are the piano-heavy ballads, Martin’s weepy falsetto, and the group’s naïve schoolboy charm. In their place (no pun intended) lies a sprawling, multi-textured aural tapestry that wraps itself around some of the tightest, quickest songs that Martin has ever penned. Eno bolsters the whole affair by adding worldbeat drums and the occasional choir vocal to mix things up a bit, ultimately playing it safe but still going beyond the usual Putumayo fare. In fact, opening track “Life in Technicolor” serves as the group’s first-ever instrumental number, replete with tablas, hammered dulcimers, and wordless Bono-affected howling swirling around the simple yet catchy chord progressions. “Technicolor” sets up a warning for all visitors to Viva Land: yeah, we’re trying something new, so either listen up or get out. Strange? Kind of. Necessary? Absolutely.

Admittedly, the band isn’t indulging in speed-metal shred-fests or cranking out a country album—this is Coldplay we’re talking about after all. Viva, instead, exhibits an enthusiasm and flat-out love of music that was virtually absent from X&Y. “Lost!” could have been another by-the-numbers weeper for the group, but Eno’s bristling, rattling percussion give the track a new, vibrant energy that isn’t traceable to any of the group’s previous efforts. “You might be a big fish in a little pond” Martin croons, before warning that having such a mindset “doesn’t mean you’ve won”. Yes, Martin is still relying heavily on cliché (the “December/remember” rhyme scheme is another standby that pops up this go-round), but his rehashed sentiments withstand scrutiny far better than the clunky wording that bogged down tracks like “Fix You” and “Talk”. Martin promised that his lyrics would get better, and though he’s still not on the creative level that Matt Berninger and Will Sheff occupy, he ultimately makes good on his claim.

Yet the more that Viva unfolds, the stranger the trip becomes. For example, Eno’s soundscapes prove to be so rich and detailed that Martin’s words are—for the first time ever—not the focal point of what Coldplay is all about. On the stunning, jaw-dropping highlight “Lovers in Japan”, Martin pounds away at a bouncy toy-piano melody that’s more reminiscent of Dexy’s Midnight Runners than Travis, all leading into a chorus where guitarist Jonny Buckland gets to unleash what might be the catchiest guitar riff he’s written since “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” (and yes, he absolutely bathes in the moment).

“Yes”, meanwhile, offers a descending verse vocal reminiscent of Thom Yorke, mashing it with a chorus straight out of the Oasis playbook, which—when taken together—makes for a remarkably strange trip down post-Britpop England (though Eno’s string quartet flourishes aren’t making it any easier to decipher). The rock guitars that populate “Violet Hill”, the backwards-looped slide guitar in “Strawberry Swing”, the off-key Sonic Youth riffing that concludes “42”… it truly sounds like that for the first time in the band’s career, Coldplay is actually using the ludicrous studio budget that they’re provided with each for release, here indulging in every passing whim and fancy, all while Eno serves as the playground supervisor, the results proving to be as potent as they are varied.

In a Rolling Stone interview that emerged the week of Viva La Vida‘s release (excerpted here), Martin discusses how the band “took apart” different albums with Eno, figuring how they worked and learning from the experience—Radiohead’s OK Computer being the band’s first and most obvious test subject. In the search for something different, Martin discusses challenging himself to write suites like Radiohead did, avoiding the usual verse-chorus-verse structure that will haunt their Top 40 singles until the day they die. Though it’s a nice pep-talk, the band doesn’t really get it: across Viva‘s 10 songs, we’re actually treated to 13 tracks.

The full official title of the track “Yes” is actually “Yes / Chinese Sleep Chant”, where immediately after the four-minute mark, the band decides to break into a guitar rock slug-fest that wouldn’t be too out of place on Keane’s Under the Iron Sea (ironic considering how that band is a total Coldplay knockoff). Why they’re kept on the same track space is somewhat of a mystery, though: if Martin wants to delude himself into thinking that he’s writing actual “Paranoid Android”-styled suites (the other victims on Viva are “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” and “Death and All His Friends / The Escapist”), then so be it. As easy as it is to be taken by the neon sway of the multi-colored textures and major-key confetti, Viva‘s heart is made of a bunch of Coldplay songs; we’re just lucky that this time around it’s a particularly good batch.

With that said, Viva la Vida—as ultimately satisfying as it is—still has a hard time shaking its unabashed idol worship. Many weeks before the disc dropped, the band pulled a pseudo-Radiohead stunt by allowing fans to sign up for an e-mail which will send them lead single “Violet Hill” for free, the offer good for one week only. It’s a strange move for such a big band (especially for one that’s signed to a label as huge as Capitol/EMI), but such optimism was ultimately drowned out by the fact that “Violet Hill” is the weakest track on the entire disc. Which track currently sits at #2 on the Billboard chart as I write this (trailing behind Lil’ Wayne, of all things)? Why, the title track of course. Though the song is a bit of a red herring, “Viva la Vida” is the most accessible, immediate, and instantly gratifying number that the band has ever penned. The quick synth/string jabs, the almost dance-like drum beat, the excellent use of strings in the second verse… the list goes on. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the track also contains the best lyrics that Martin has ever written:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sweep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

[…] I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringin’
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never, never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world

Do these words look familiar? Of course they do: “Viva la Vida” was featured in an iPod ad that proved inescapable during the weeks leading up to the album’s release. In the clip, the group isn’t in silhouette: you can actually see their faces. So far in the iPod ad linage, we’ve only seen the faces of U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney (and technically Feist, but it was only in a previously-filmed music video clip, so it doesn’t really count). The band is completely aware of the leagues that they’re now batting in, and just like U2, Eminem, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney, their superstar status doesn’t take away from the fact that they still crank out some outright terrible songs on occasion, as evidenced here by tired dreck like “42” and “Violet Hill”. Of course, clocking in at only 47 minutes, one can’t help but feel that Coldplay has jammed several albums worth of ideas into one place, the band easily setting themselves up for a Be Here Now-styled fall, but instead coming out the other end with a cohesive disc that actually rewards repeated listens.

No, Viva la Vida is not their masterpiece, but for now, it’s as close as they’re gonna get.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Coldplay Viva la Vida | | Leave a comment

Free Fire And Water (1970)


“Fire and Water” is quite an apt title for Free’s third and arguably most successful album. Firstly, it is closed by one of the band’s most well known and instantly recognizable tracks, ‘All right Now’, and secondly-and more importantly-it is the only Free album to have ever been reissued in America. Free’s third album was released after a mere two years of being together as a band, and in that time there had been quite a lot of extensive touring and two albums that seemed completely different from one another.

In contrast to the startlingly impressive debut “Tons of Sobs” and the mellower, somewhat quieter self-titled second release, “Fire and Water” almost seems to live up to its name, wherein no track sounds like any other. These 30+ minutes of precise songwriting and even more precise musicianship do indeed work towards an outstandingly good sound on the whole, and one that would finally deem Free as a successful band in the early 70’s. Both the opening title track and ‘Oh I wept’ appear to be mid paced all the way through, but before you shake your head in disappointment as a result of expecting something a little faster and livelier, Kosoff’s well executed guitar picking and Andy Fraser’s driving bass rhythm each give more action to the general sound of each song. It also seems that with each and every song, the musicianship does indeed get gradually faster and more prominent, from the relaxing, laid back nature of the title track and ‘Oh I wept’ to the the eventual, almost out-of-control instrumentation that ends both ‘Mr. Big’ and the band’s defining song, ‘All right now’.

The structure here does appear to be more thought out than ever before, but what is more noticeable is the nature of the lyrical content, which this time round appears a little more personal than usual. In particular Rodgers comes across as a man just taking his sweet time with his own life, harmonizing that “I take my seat on the train and let the sun come melt my pain/Come tomorrow I’ll be far away in the sunshine of another day”, whereas on the lighter, somewhat folkier nature of ‘Remember’, he reminisces that “In the summer days we were lazy/And sometimes the heat would drive us all crazy”. These lyrics alone give off a realistic image of what it is truly like to tour in the summer, and the various enjoyments that can be obtained from it. Free therefore sound like they are having fun as a band on “Fire and Water”, taking their time with each song so as not to be too inconsistent with their sound or indeed not fall prey to too much repetition.

The instrumentation here, as hinted at before with Kosoff and Fraser, is equally as impressive as the general sound itself. The usual drum rhythms and bass lines are prominent, but this time round each instrument appears to shine fully and make itself useful in an appropriately big enough way, as opposed to merely existing in the background. On ‘Heavy Load’ and ‘Mr.Big’ we hear a much louder and arguably heavier guitar sound than on the album’s first three tracks, thus giving the album more of a Hard Rock influence as opposed to the first two Free albums, which largely depended on Blues. The solos themselves are very carefully placed, and never seem to take away from any of the songs’ structures or make the songs go on for longer than they should. The guitar solos are somewhat controlled and clearly played with a lot of technique, and even towards the end of ‘Mr.Big’ Fraser uses the remaining time to his advantage and closes the song in a somewhat funky fashion, the bass almost sounding like a voice itself. Fraser also uses various piano interludes throughout the album, as on free’s other two records, yet it is only on ‘All right now’ when, alongside the other instruments, it features an ecstatic solo that makes the song a much more interesting one than ever before. ‘All right now’ also has one of the very rare moments where each and every instrument collides together, and gives off the impression that the band had recorded this in one, perfect take.

At a mere 36 minutes however, the album feels like it goes much quicker than you thought it would, and even though it is roughly the same time length as Free’s self titled album, it still manages to be quite short and at times even a little too soft. But this is merely something that serves as a disadvantage to some, and an instant highlight to others, for “Fire and Water” really does come across as an album of fun, enjoyment and a collision of four very talented musicians. Unfortunately, the band had only released three more albums after this, and not one of them would reach the quality found on “Tons of Sobs” or this one, and consequently, after a mere five years of being together, Free would finally split up. Nonetheless, these five years would see them sell a total of 20 million records, a stunning live performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and even play over 700 arenas. Sometimes the bands that last for a short term are the ones that truly succeed in the long term.

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Free Fire And Water | | Leave a comment