Old/Newish Albums: Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun”

baduMama’s Gun is an album that came out of Electric Lady Studios in New York City around the turn of the millenium. For a few years, about ’96-2000, there was a collective of like-minded musicians who took up a near-permanent residence at the legendary studio. They referred to themselves as the Soulquarians, and Erykah Badu was a part of this group.

I’m hesitant to name the rest of this group because Badu, and this album in particular, was constantly compared to one of her Soulquarian counterparts. This is frustrating because Badu is the “female” version of no one. She is herself; she is a fiercely distinctive musician and this album is a classic that stands up without comparison to any of her male contemporaries.

Badu was one of the inadvertent standard-bearers of the neo-soul movement in the mid-late ’90s, and this album is, without a doubt, one of the best of that era. While the neo-soul era produced albums of significantly higher quality than a lot of the R&B that was getting play in the early ’90s, there are a few stand-outs among the cream of the crop, and Mama’s Gun is one of them.

While you can immediately feel this album in your bones, it really takes quite a few listens to suss out how much is packed in these songs. What’s interesting is that there are very few hooks. There isn’t a lot here that was bound to become a chart burner, and while the album did hit platinum status within a year of its release (2000 had to be the last year that that happened with any regularity), I wouldn’t use this album as an example of radio-friendly R&B.

But give this album some time and the slow-burners really start to simmer. This is most strongly evident on the first half of the album, where the songs fluidly lead from one into another and evoke the jazz and soul records from the early ’70s. Badu has updated the “quiet storm” genre for an entirely new generation, and it’s groovy as hell.

Badu doesn’t pull any punches with difficult lyrical concepts either. She touches on the pressures put on artists to consistently deliver products that sell, societal pressure towards females to adhere to an impossible standard of physical appearance, the danger of emotional baggage in relationships, and a heartbreaking lament that the rage and sorrow we feel as a culture that follows the tragic loss of life (in this case, the shooting of Amadou Diallo) is almost always short-lived.

And all this is touched upon within the framework of a generational shift in soul music. This is an album that takes the genre pioneered by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, et al, and pushes it into a new millennium. This is aided by the team of champions Badu collected to work behind the scenes: R&B/soul/jazz legends Roy Ayers and Betty Wright both contribute to the music and lyrics (respectively), Questlove and his encyclopedia-like knowledge of black/white music from the last 50 years is on drums, bass time-traveler Pino Palladino is on board updating the bass sound of the Motown machine from the ’60s/’70s, Roy Hargrove contributes horn arrangements that heavily evoke the ’30s/’40s (most obviously on the album closer “Green Eyes”), J Dilla provided song composition and production with one ear stuck in obscure soul from the ’70s and the other on the pulse of current hip hop and soul, and finally, vinyl/vintage equipment messiah Russell Elevado on mixing/engineering duties.

That is a powerful line up. Badu takes their collective skills and lets them loose, creating a lush, retro sound that never stops sounding contemporary.

There is very little here that I would excise. The guest spot by Stephen Marley sounds like a homage to the Fugees inching a bit too closely to “rip-off” to really enjoy (Marley very nearly employs the exact vocal wail that Wyclef Jean is famous for), and the song itself doesn’t have enough to offer to be worth that. And while the album is full of slow-burners, “Orange Moon” is a bit too long to keep my attention.

But Badu takes risks that pay off, like the introspective ten-minute suite “Green Eyes,” in which she touches on the aftermath of her relationship with (allegedly) Andre 3000 from OutKast. The emotional arc of the song is so powerfully echoed by the changes in the musical structure, and the tune is just absolutely gorgeous to boot.

Erykah Badu is a true artist in a time of so much musical dreck, and this album is a crowning achievement in a discography full of great albums. This album is nearly fifteen years old, and it still sounds fresh and vibrant. Timeless albums like Mama’s Gun deserve to be listened to. Badu has given us a glimpse into the past by way of the future. There is a lot to learn in these notes.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Green Eyes
  2. Booty
  3. My Life

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Old/New Albums: Digable Planets’ “Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space)”

digableDigable Planets was a hip hop group whose debut album, Reachin’ (A New Refutation Of Time And Space), was released in 1993. I could see how this album might’ve gotten lost in the shuffle of the laid back beats of other hip hop groups in this mold: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep, etc. A lot of those artists had hookier hooks though, and I’d be much more inclined toward their albums than this one.

That’s not to say this album is completely without merit. If this album has a fault, it’s too laid back. There’s not a ton that goes on that distinguishes it from itself, or from the rest of the sample-based hip hop coming out in the early ’90s.

The album consists mostly of jazz samples over simple rhythms. Granted, that’s how you could describe a lot of early ’90s hip hop, but the way the samples are used here is just so low key as to not be memorable.

Again, immemorable is different than unenjoyable. There were songs here I liked, and after repeated listens, there were quite a few vocal passages I liked, or at least became more recognizable. For some reason (maybe the touchy subject matter of abortion), “La Femme Fatal” was the stand out as far as the lyricism went. But there were lots of other little instances of catchy vocal licks, like in “It’s Good To Be Here” and “Where I’m From.”

If you only have a cursory knowledge of this era of hip hop, there are plenty of other seminal records to go seek out. Reachin’ falls more into deep cuts territoy.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Where I’m From
  2. It’s Good To Be Here
  3. La Femme Fatal

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Old/Newish Albums: Elton John’s “Honky Château”

honkychateauHonky Château marks the first album of Elton John to hit number one in the U.S. charts, marking the beginning of streak that would run for a consecutive seven albums. Elton ruled the ’70s, releasing a total of ten albums within a six year timeframe that were either smash hits at the time of release or have come to be regarded as some of the greatest albums of all time.

For my money, this is a good album. It’s not my favorite Elton record, but as far as the quality of the album goes, it’s a more succinct statement on fame and identity than he’d ever make again.

Elton’s known for some huge hits, and one of his biggest is on this record. But aside from the hits, Elton and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, wrote a lot of very poignant songs that were fantastic pop melodies. Some of these are on this album, but there are also some clunky tunes.

Musically, he’s got a few really awesome spots. Honky Château is really where Elton went from being a writer of quiet sensitive pop melodies to something quite a bit more bombastic. He’d had a few loud songs prior, but he kicks it into overdrive here, with awesome jangly hits like “Honky Cat” and “Hercules.” “Honky Cat” is an awesome song just for its sheer level of orchestration. There’s a lot going on in that chorus, and Elton writes a tune so catchy that everything just blends into a really great swirl of a tune.

This is an album where you can really hear the influence Elton would have on future players. Ben Folds is the prime example. “Honky Cat” has the irreverence in both the lyrics and music that Folds would become a master of in the late ’90s and especially in the early ’00s. I hear the influence most strongly on “Susie (Dramas).” Folds would later emulate Elton very openly with his song “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” (a direct riff on Elton’s “Bennie And The Jets” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) but “Susie (Dramas)” is a great example of how Elton’s musical influence really permeated into the young piano players starting to learn in the ’70s.

Yet the album isn’t without its missteps. “Mellow” starts off its opening chords sounding like a carbon copy of “Easy” by the Commodores, but quickly morphs into something more melodically interesting. And then there is this terrible electric violin solo right in the middle which just isn’t a pleasant sound.

In a different way, “I Think I’m Going To Kill Myself” comes off as an overtly condescending look at teenagers and their overly dramatic ways to get attention. The character in the song decides to commit suicide to try and win more attention. Considering this was written by Taupin when he was 22, it sounds like a whiney young adult complaining about whiney, slightly younger adults.

On top of this, the music has a jangly New Orleans jazz feel to it, and there’s even a tap dance routine going on in the background later in the song. All of this leads to a down-the-nose view of teenage suicide, which is a serious and complex issue. Maybe this is the point Taupin and Elton were making and it just went over my head, but the song just feels crass.

But then you’ve got “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time),” which is an absolute classic. A lot of songs like this one are self-reflexively popular; they’re popular because they’re popular. That doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only explanation for some huge pop hits from the last 50 years of pop music being hits.

“Rocket Man,” however, differs because it is a really fantastic song. Taupin paints this gorgeous picture of an astronaut with no fanfare; this guy is getting ready for his day job just like anybody else, and he’s struggling with how his job is separating him from those things that he really loves in his life. I think it’s a metaphor for the life of fame which he and Elton were quickly finding themselves surrounded by.

And Elton has written an undeniably catchy, indelible melody. I love how he starts the first verse with a very jazzy two-chord refrain and then that major chord leads into the “…high as a kite…” progression. The background vocals in the chorus are also very atmospheric; they’ve so expertly created the feeling of coldness and outer space. There’s a real sense of longing and regret in this melody, a resignation to the choices this man has made and what he’s given up to achieve certain goals over others. It’s weird, but Elton has created a melody that sounds like a spaceship in orbit. Really cool.

This album isn’t without its faults, but sometimes having one powerhouse tune makes all the difference. In this case, “Rocket Man” helps salvage any bad spots on this album, and makes it an essential record to know in Elton’s collection, and definitely one of the more important albums of the ’70s.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)
  2. Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
  3. Honky Cat

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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 14

1. “Maybe” – N*E*R*D, Fly Or Die

This was probably the second song I fell in love with on N*E*R*D’s sophomore album. Fly Or Die is absolutely one of my favorite records of all time (it currently sits ranked within the Top 25) and that was mainly due to the ear-catching weirdness of the first single “She Wants To Move.” I purchased the album on impulse (probably the best impulse record purchase I’ve ever made) and after the sheer confusion of what I was hearing wore off, I kept coming back to “Maybe.”

This tune immediately sucked me in. “Love was the egg…see?” Spoken by Pharrell before the song actually begins, this is a perfect example of so many elements on this record, both spoken and musical, that were way over my head. There’s no real explanation of what this means, but I loved the weirdness.

Throw in the militaristic drumline (that’s Questlove on drums, he’s in the music video sporting a mohawk) and I was hooked. “Maybe” is a really great example of how well the songs on Fly Or Die are built. Piece by piece, with so much hidden, waiting to be discovered on further listens. But “Maybe” is a really straightforward song, where you can hear the pieces being added. The uber-catchy piano riff, guest musician Lenny Kravitz’s bendy guitar lick, the bass subtly added underneath.

I have to hand it to Kravitz, he does some pretty awesome guitar instrumentation here. The solo licks all over this song play so well off the crunchy power chords in the chorus. And actually, listening to the song now, I’m realizing that one part of the chorus that I used to think was the guitar lick is actually Pharrell’s ethereal background vocals. They sound shockingly like a guitar effect. So cool.

And then, after a verse-chorus (2x) structure (I’m also just hearing the weird video game sound effect that quietly comes in at 1:54 in the second pre-chorus), the band blows into the sexiest sounding bridge this side of a Prince song. Right at 2:30, the chords change from minor to major with some major augmentation thrown in, creating a very suspended sound. Good interplay between instruments here too.

And then back to the verse for a few bars before closing in the bridge. This is just such an unearthly sounding song. I guess that’s appropriate for the lyrics, which again, are way over my head. Stuff about love and eggs? I don’t get it Pharrell, but I don’t care, because you created a song that ensured I wasn’t going to give this album two listens and give up on it. A real masterpiece of prog-pop weirdness.

2. “These Walls” – Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator

This is a mellow cut from the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s stunning debut album. While I absolutely love this album, this is one lesser known tracks to me. It broke into my Top 1000 mainly due to the rotation I had been giving to the whole record and hadn’t really focused on this particular song.

It’s a sweet one though. Very soft instrumentation, soft drum brushes, no hard rocking guitar, just lots of electric slide work provided by Derek Trucks, and an almost Oriental sounding acoustic slide providing the intro and coloring the song throughout.

This is a very melancholy song. The music is so soft and unassuming that I feel like it could be the music behind the montage scene of a romantic movie when the leads have split and are pondering where their relationship is headed. Pensive looks out the window, walking in chilly autumn weather on a busy New York street, etc.

In reality, the lyrical content of the song is sadder and more reality based. This is a song sung by a woman who’s been abandoned by her man and she’s left to make ends meet while trying to leave her past with him behind. Tedeschi imbues the voice of the song with so much feeling and while I don’t relate to the content, I feel like I understand the difficulty and sadness of this woman’s day to day experience. Tedeschi’s voice helps you understand. She has so much restrained power and soul in her voice. This is a song that illustrates perfectly why Tedeschi’s voice makes this entire record.

3. “Sara Smile” – Hall & Oates, Daryl Hall & John Oates

It’s always funny to me when a song like this one shuffles up because had I been asked whether “Sara Smile” was in my Top 1000 Most Played Songs in my iTunes library, I would’ve said no. I like Hall & Oates as much as the next guy; in fact, probably a little more than the next guy (their second album Abandoned Luncheonette is the subject of an upcoming blog post). I’ve given all of their core albums quite a few more listens past just the singles. But often, artists like Hall & Oates are remembered for their hits because their hits are fantastic.

This song is no exception. While it doesn’t have an immediately catchy hook like “Rich Girl” or “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Sara Smile” could be considered H&O’s breakout hit, as it was their first single that broke the Billboard Top 10.

Daryl Hall handles the main vocal, but the harmonies in the chorus are a great example of what these two guys could do together. “Sara Smile” is the perfect example of why H&O are often labeled “blue eyed soul.” Soul music done by white artists. This whole song is so R&B heavy; there is a very good chance if you’d never heard of H&O before and heard this song, you’d assume it was a black group singing it. The soft, atmospheric feel of the music and the interplay of vocals in the chorus make this feel like a cut straight off an O’Jays record or Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. This might not be Hall & Oates at their catchiest, but it’s definitely their grooviest.

4. “Bigger Than My Body” – John Mayer, Heavier Things

It’s crazy to think that this song takes me back more than a third of my life span. “Bigger Than My Body” was the first single released from John Mayer’s sophomore album, Heavier Things. By the summer of 2003, when this album’s release was announced (it came out September 9th of that year, great birthday present for me), I had completely devoured his first album because I had found an artist who spoke more directly to me than anybody I’d ever heard before. This was also right when I was really starting to gain a foothold into what I liked musically aside from DC Talk and Dave Matthews Band and I’d venture so far as to say that this was the first momentous album release of my musical lifetime. The first one that made a real, significant impact. I loved his debut album, Room For Squares, and kept pinching myself to think that I was about to get more music from this guy.

And I’m glad this was the first song I heard from the album, because it prepared me for the stylistic changes JM was undergoing. He was still a pop artist to the core, but he was slowly starting to integrate a wider range of genres into his music. “Come Back To Bed” is a straight blues-burner and “Daughters,” although released on the album as a sappy acoustic ballad, started as a slow blues jam that he co-opted back into its original form just a few years after this with the John Mayer Trio. He also started playing with electronic effects, not in any way that would actually scare off listeners and fans, as is evidenced by “Bigger Than My Body.” The intro line alone is just a effects-heavy electric guitar and he was able to easily replicate this sound live, but when my 15 year old ears heard it, I thought it was a universe away from what he’d brought us on Room For Squares.

Listening to it now, it’s almost quaint. If I heard a song like this now, at almost 30, I’d probably give it short shrift, but I get completely why it spoke to me. This is an inspirational tune, dealing with the feeling that you’ve got so much more inside of yourself than what you’ve been able to let loose. It’s about untapped potential, and what kind of teenager feels like they’re able to completely and accurately communicate their identity to the world? I was an easy mark for this song and it hit the bullseye.

Does this song hold up? I’m not as moved by it as I used to be, and I’d say my primary motivation in listening to this one would be nostalgia. As I said before, a little quaint, just a tad kitschy, but damn if JM doesn’t know how to write an effectively mesmerizing chorus. This guy is a guitar-driven hook machine, and the fact that this chorus sounds as good as it did 12 years ago is the proof.

5. “Tonight You Belong To Me” – The Bird And The Bee, One Too Many Hearts EP

“You know, while you were playing that just now, I had the craziest fantasy. That I could rise up, and float, right down the end of this coronet, right through here, through these valves, right along this tube, and come right up against your lips, and give you a kiss.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Well I didn’t want to get spit on me.”

This song is a little ditty from 1926, but you might know it best if you’ve seen the 1979 Steve Martin movie The Jerk. In the scene, Martin and his lady love, played by Bernadette Peters, walk along the beach at night, serenading each other with this tune. It’s a very sweet scene.

If you’ve never heard The Bird And The Bee, let this song be a brief introduction to the gorgeous vocals of Inara George and the bubbly pop art musical tableau of producer Greg Kurstin. This duo has been making music as The Bird And The Bee for almost 10 years now, and this tune is a decent representation of their sound.

There is something so special about their music. It’s so dreamlike; very atmospheric and ethereal. The instrumentation is so very electronic, done on synthesizers and keyboards and effects-heavy machines, but they manage to create the most organic sound from all of these machines. On top of that, Inara George’s voice has the softest and sweetest timbre I’ve almost ever heard. Her voice is breathy without being obnoxious. She sounds like a backing track on Pet Sounds.

If you like this tune, there is a huge chance you’ll like the rest of their stuff, because this is certainly not their best. Certainly, the sweetness of this song is perfectly suited to the blend of The Bird And The Bee. But George’s vocals are best when they are just purely hers with no blending male harmonies. And there is more shimmering in this tune than normal. Kurstin’s orchestrations might consist of many of these same instruments and machines, but his arrangements are often more unique than this. Some are more complex, some are less, but there is less to dig into in this tune than on their records.

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Old/New Discogs: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin have sat in the upper echelon of modern Western music for over 40 years now. When I think of rock music, I think of Led Zeppelin.


They are consistently referenced as one of the fundamental originators of heavy metal, which I find interesting having now listened through their biggest hit albums. I’ve always associated metal with bands like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. For some reason, whether I hear a Led Zep song like the acoustic-driven “Friends” or one of their harder cuts like “Heartbreaker,” I don’t think heavy metal. Maybe I’ve been associating heavy metal with rock music I didn’t like and I just need to cop to the fact that I might be a burgeoning metal fan. Led Zeppelin definitely has some of the hallmarks of other metal pioneers: huge sounds with a lot of distortion, riff-heavy guitar parts, dark or depressing lyricism that dips into myth, ancient cultural and literary references, etc.

But Led Zeppelin always managed to distinguish itself from other related bands. Plant’s vocals seemed (at least slightly) more coherent than someone like Ozzy and he was far less dark than the other pioneering heavy metal groups were, and the band could create these musical landscapes that were so rich. Their songs had layers, and even the harder-rocking stuff was miles ahead of the clunky riff of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

Another fact I uncovered in doing research for this post was that Jimmy Page was not just the band’s lead guitarist, but he was truly the architect of Led Zeppelin as a cultural force (nowadays, this concept would be referred to as their “brand”). Led Zeppelin was assembled during the dissolution of an English band called the Yardbirds (of which Page was a member), and each move he made as the Yardbirds were parting was precisely calculated to start something new and groundbreaking but that would be something more than a flash in the pan.

These moves included ditching the Yardbirds name (rather than retaining it and the subsequent fanbase), carefully choosing new members based on group dynamic and musical compatibility, and keeping creative control exclusively within the band by retaining all production duties as his own. This last factor was a particularly astute decision by Page in the band’s very early days, as it kept them from answering to an outside producer who also had a stake in the band’s success and would push for hit singles (a problem that caused the quick downfall of the Jeff Beck Group, another band that sprouted from former members of the Yardbirds and had experienced initial success and then quick burnout). Page wanted the band to be an album-creating unit, and he chose musical colleagues that felt the same.

One last thing about Page: it took him only two months to make all of these shrewd business decisions that led to the creation of Led Zeppelin and the recording of their first album. On top of that, he was only 24 when this was all going down. Insanely impressive.

Led Zeppelin (1969)

ledzep1Led Zeppelin is the group’s debut album, and also their debut of hilariously uncreative album titles. The album cover is probably more recognizable than most of the tunes on this album, as the band really started cranking out the well-known hits on the next album and beyond.

Let me address the obvious right up front. This album co-opts a lot of other people’s music. I’m talking black blues, white folk, newly arranged hits already done by various iterations of the Yardbirds. The first couple songs really rock hard and then “You Shook Me” takes me to a place where I feel like intellectual property theft discussions need to occur.

And as I listened to it more and more, it seemed like the album had two gears: traditional 12-bar blues done by white Brits and minor-driven chords played by arena-melting crunchy-toned guitars. There honestly are places where I’m not totally sure what song I’m in, if I catch it during an extended bridge jam.

Led Zeppelin is a band known for epic rock tunes and because I have at least a taste of what’s to come on their later albums, this one ends up being lackluster.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Good Times, Bad Times
  2. Your Time Is Gonna Come
  3. Black Mountain Side


Led Zeppelin II (1969)

ledzep2This is more like it. Sure, Led Zep’s still ripping off black blues music, but they’ve found a way to make it their own thing. Taking inspiration from rather than just straight copying.

This album is so good. You can hear Led Zeppelin completely nailing it, fully coming into their own by only their sophomore album. This record is fully formed, no half-baked ideas, a unified sound, experimentation, homage to music from the past, voluminous layers both hard and soft. What blows me away the most is that this album was recorded in a very harried fashion. They recorded it mostly on the road, at a wide array of record studios, while they toured in support of their debut album. They’d go into extended jams during their shows and when they stumbled onto something great or the seed of an idea, they’d quickly hit the studio after a show to get it down on tape. All of Led Zeppelin II was recorded in this kind of rushed way.

So to reiterate, their debut, Led Zeppelin, was released in January of 1969 after the songs had been road tested for a few months, and they graced us with Led Zeppelin II a mere 10 months later. It took 10 months to create this iconic, timeless album. Talk about a home run.

This album is full of hard rockers that sound unique, very unlike most of what was around in 1969. Again, a lot of blues feeling comes through in these tunes, but this sounds original. Sounds that pop culture hadn’t heard yet and blew people away.

This is the first Led Zeppelin album engineered by Eddie Kramer, who was Jimi Hendrix’s technical point man during his very brief solo career. Kramer was a technical wizard and wielded a lot of influence in the studios in which he worked, and to me, “What Is And What Should Never Be” is the clearest example of his work. This tune has a lot of Hendrix’s spirit in it.

Kramer himself has credited Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, with the true success of the record’s sound. Led Zeppelin II was created by the band, but the visionary behind the record was Page. His guitar playing clearly reached a new level, with the solo from “Heartbreaker” being a prime example. Page was shredding his guitar in a way that hadn’t been heard and would influence countless guitar players. It’s crazy to think he was only 25 when he was pushing musical envelopes this much.

But this album isn’t just Page’s magnum opus. You’ve got a band of four distinct performers all hitting their stride very early in their careers. John Bonham’s drumming is a monster force that drives this album like a tank and he’s featured prominently with an extended drum solo in his showcase song, “Moby Dick.” John Paul Jones’ is a hybrid, wavering between a consistent force anchoring these tunes from spiraling off into outer space and adding a slight taste of Motown funk. This is the first album to feature writing by vocalist Robert Plant and begins his foray into the mystical, philosophical, spiritual and literary, with “Ramble On” being the first of his several allusions to J.R.R. Tolkein’s literary work. These four guys were firing on all cylinders, and none of them were older than 25 when Led Zeppelin II was recorded. Remarkable.

Again, this is Led Zeppelin taking their previous format and tweaking it into something totally new. Sure, you can hear the lifeblood of the blues pulsing through the veins of these songs, but they’re experimenting with tempos, rhythms, finding new guitar licks and techniques to create new sounds. This album is far more respectful to their inspirations than Led Zeppelin was, and because they’re fully committed to pushing boundaries and finding new ground, the sound is so much more memorable and long-lasting. “The Lemon Song” is a great example of this.

Pulled directly from a Robert Johnson lyric, “The Lemon Song” shows Led Zep pushing past the standard formula. Rather than a slow 12-bar blues structure, this song morphs as it goes. They’re playing with a faster tempo and changing rhythms, and even the bass creates this surprisingly groovy line that adds an element of funk. And when the song explodes into its faster section, Page’s guitar is just rocking and wailing. Very little here evokes a old black guy playing a dusty acoustic guitar, but the spirit lives on in the music.

But ultimately, once you get past all the fancy rhetoric about the timelessness of the record, it’s just a great one to listen to. It’s so much fun; Led Zeppelin II finds this perfect middle ground between the sluggishness of their first album and the dramatics of Led Zeppelin III and the result are songs that just rock.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. What Is And What Should Never Be
  2. Heartbreaker
  3. Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)


Led Zeppelin III (1970)

ledzep3After an intense year of touring and the rushed recording Led Zeppelin II, the band took some time to rejuvenate as they worked on the follow-up, Led Zeppelin III. This album has a significantly more stripped down sound when compared with Led Zeppelin II, and the main reason for this is the setting in which the band recorded it. They found a remote cottage in Wales that was not only isolated but primitive; they had no running water or electricity.

This led them to go heavy on the acoustics and the album has a much more tranquil, pastoral feel in the music than their first two albums. Certainly, it’s not as though the entire album is an unplugged affair (“Immigrant Song” sounds like a war cry, and Robert Plant’s lyrics read as such, referencing old Nordic myths and the Vikings coming to conquer England). Yet the feeling that the band was pumping the brakes on their new signature sound was the main reason for an initial lukewarm reception after the album’s release in the fall of 1970.

I think with how groundbreaking and awesome Led Zeppelin II was, people in 1970 were expecting something heavy, something as powerful as that record. While III isn’t as ear-shattering or as straightforward “rock,” it’s still got a lot of edge to it, bringing some drama to the proceedings, even though there are a lot more acoustic instruments than what came before.

“Gallows Pole” and “Immigrant Song” are like two sides of a coin in terms of dramatics. “Immigrant Song” is in the heavier, more traditional rock style (I’d assume all the fans wanting a carbon copy follow up of Led Zeppelin II were really happy with this song kicking off the record and were immediately let down once “Friends” began in the track 2 spot), while “Gallows Pole” is the other side of the coin. Very dramatic and heavy, but heavily acoustic, an arrangement of an old folk song about a condemned woman pleading for someone to buy her freedom before she is hung.

The dramatics continue with the slow blues tune “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” I love this tune because it continues and furthers the evolution of Led Zep’s filtering of old blues through their prism. Lots of minor chords and Page’s guitar work is just insane.

But then you’ve got some more upbeat tunes, or at least a little sunny. “Tangerine” sounds like the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers, with a nice country feel. And my two favorite tunes are “Out On The Tiles” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” Both are just fun, rollicking tunes, the former featuring a real kick ass electric riff and the latter, an acoustic hoedown with one of the coolest drum rhythm patterns.

What I love about Led Zeppelin III is that it served exactly the purpose that the band was aiming for, to demonstrate that they weren’t a one trick pony and could expand their sound beyond what had made them so immensely popular. The record does exactly that, but even more so, the record is a standalone gem. When taken separately from the rest of Led Zep’s discography, the album is powerful, dramatic, acoustic, loud, soft, country, rocking, etc. Sure, you might miss all the immediately recognizable riffs that are present all over Led Zeppelin II, but nevertheless this is a very high quality record. I’m really happy with Led Zep’s trajectory so far and excited to see where they take it with the huge next album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Out On The Tiles
  2. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
  3. Immigrant Song


Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

ledzep4I can only imagine the sheer joy of Led Zep fans in 1971 when they set the needle to the acetate after opening the plastic wrap on Led Zep’s untitled fourth album and heard the opening riff of “Black Dog.” After Led Zeppelin III didn’t have the warmest reception after its initial release (history, however, has been very kind to the record), IV sounds like a return to form, or at least a return to the form of Led Zeppelin II, the band’s breakthrough album.

In reality though, this record isn’t an attempt to capture the lightning in a bottle of that second album, but rather sounds like a swirling of all the elements that the band had attempted on previous releases to create something new. Something even more “Led Zeppelin-ey.”

I’d argue there are fewer cases for a band creating a sound even more “themselves” than Led Zep did with IV. This record has it all: anthem dramatics, folkey acoustic numbers, swampy blues numbers.

And it’s all really good. There is a reason this album became the third best selling album in US history. It was a massive success when it was released and it’s only grown in popularity since, selling in excess of 37 million copies. Numbers like that are unheard of today.

But then, songs like these are also unheard of today. Let’s take the album’s most popular song, “Stairway To Heaven.” This little number is easily one of the biggest hits of all time, constantly referenced in pop culture and arguably considered the greatest song of all time. What’s crazy is that Led Zep’s record label, Atlantic, desperately wanted to release this song as a single from the album, and the band refused because it would require cutting down the tune to fit current radio single length standards. The actual song runs just over eight minutes which was way too long for radio. And because of the band’s insistence, the song was never released as an official single.

Which is remarkable, considering how permeated pop culture is with the song, and how anthemic the song has become, what a cultural force it has. It sits in the company of songs like “Hotel California” and “Thriller” and “Hey Jude,” songs that have risen above simple album tunes to become larger than life. “Stairway” is this mammoth song that defies definition and speaks to listeners individually. What’s even crazier is that the song isn’t a radio-friendly tune. “Thriller” had the dance, “Hey Jude” has a sing-along chorus, but “Stairway” defies convention in its structure. It begins with that medieval intro, one of the most commonly learned guitar riffs ever, and slowly adds in those fife-like pipes as Plant sings about materialism, or spirituality, or the Second Coming, or whatever it means to the listener. But then Page plays that gorgeous A minor chord with the electric guitar at about 2:15 and the song begins its slow crescendo into something otherworldly.

So much has been written about this song that it’d be redundant for me to try and add anything new. It just certainly doesn’t take a music expert to listen and hear why it became such a cultural force to be reckoned with. If they hadn’t already, Led Zep sealed their legacy with this one song.

And it’s not even my favorite song on the album. The album has a few hard rockers like “Black Dog,” and on the other end of the spectrum it has these very medieval tunes like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Stairway To Heaven.” Songs straight out of a Renaissance Fair. It’s an interesting mix to hear “The Battle Of Evermore” follow a song like “Rock & Roll,” but somehow, it all works on IV. This album is a rare treat: one that immediately earns the hype that history has given it. It’s a perfectly representative picture of this band, but it’s also just a damn good album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Black Dog
  2. Going To California
  3. When The Levee Breaks


Houses Of The Holy (1973)

housesoftheholyIf IV is the album where the band solidified their historical status as rock legends, Houses Of The Holy is the album where they decided to let go and have a little fun. Sure, there is some fun to be had on IV, but Houses Of The Holy is definitely off kilter in the best way, in a way that takes Led Zep in a different direction than their first four albums had led to.

Listening to it, I’m curious what musical influences they had during the writing/recording process. There is a lot of weirdness here, at least for Led Zep. “The Crunge” sounds like Page is doing his best funk guitar appropriation, while Plant is finding vocal inspiration in James Brown’s classic mid-song adlibs to the band.

They’re experimenting with reggae beats, for crying out loud. “D’yer Mak’er” (pronounced quickly, similar to the word “Jamaica”) is the first of a few songs that pop up on this and subsequent Led Zep albums that are so out of left field and sound nothing like the heavy stuff the band is known for. I can’t imagine how this song must have gone over with fans when they first heard it in 1973. It almost sounds like a joke when put next to a song like “The Ocean” or “No Quarter.”

And then you’ve got “No Quarter,” which is the bleakest tune on the record, but retains that swampy, really humid sound that “Dazed And Confused” had off of their first album. When the main guitar riff comes in, it makes me think of those shots in movies where you see someone coming from miles away in the desert, and the heat is just radiating off the ground making them appear all wavy. Not sure if that’s what Page was going for but that’s what this tune does for me. It sounds like a song The Flaming Lips would make if they time-traveled to the early ’70s.

But the album peaks fast in the second tune, “The Rain Song.” This is an eight-minute epic, much like “Stairway To Heaven” from IV but without as much drama behind it. And some really gorgeous acoustic guitar work by Page. He’s playing with a open tuning on his guitar and it creates some very cool, ethereal chords.

Overall, this record is a fantastic example of how a band needs to follow up a smash like IV. They retain some of their musical DNA but stretch it, pulling in some new influences, sounds, rhythms, etc. And all the while, this whole thing still rocks. For every weird “The Crunge,” there is a heavy-rocking riff “Over The Hills And Far Away.” Hats off to Led Zep.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. The Rain Song
  2. Over The Hills And Far Away
  3. D’yer Mak’er


Physical Graffiti (1975)

physicalgraffitiThis is the band’s first double album, and I have to wonder why. This thing could so easily be cut into one record because it feels like there is so much padding. The band at this point wasn’t doing anything revolutionary with their style and to follow Houses Of The Holy up with a double record just seems so fluffy.

The first three songs demonstrate why. The album kicks off with “Custard Pie,” which is a pretty rockin’ opener with a great riff, but it’s followed by “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying.” “The Rover” sounds like a Black Sabbath tune to me, a song that attempts to emulate Led Zep’s signature rock but falls flat and feels drab. It’s like a derivative of a derivative sound.

And on top of that, they stick “In My Time Of Dying” next, which is just the longest example of what this album needs less of. Over 11 minutes long that just meanders.

That’s not to say everything’s bad; there’s just one good album among the fluff. “Down By The Seaside” carries on the weirdness and experimentation of Houses Of The Holy, while “Bron-Yr-Aur” and “Kashmir” are throwbacks to IV and Led Zeppelin III, respectively. Even “Trampled Under Foot” channels the organ-pounding of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” albeit with all the funk stripped away and turning it into a much more stiff affair.

I want to acknowledge the experimentation to point out that this album isn’t a showcase of a band on top, resting on their laurels, but rather a band at the top, not content to rest and working in overdrive. There is so much musical content on this record and a good amount of stretching the band’s boundaries.

But it’s a matter of excess. If they had just cut this album down, they’d have another great chapter in their discography, albeit a shade less great than the previous releases.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Houses Of The Holy
  2. Down By The Seaside
  3. Bron-Yr-Aur


Album Ranking:

  1. Led Zeppelin II
  2. Houses Of The Holy
  3. Led Zeppelin IV
  4. Led Zeppelin III
  5. Physical Graffiti
  6. Led Zeppelin

Top 10 Tunes:

  1. What Is And What Should Never Be
  2. The Rain Song
  3. Out On The Tiles
  4. Heartbreaker
  5. Black Dog
  6. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
  7. Going To California
  8. Over The Hills And Far Away
  9. Houses Of The Holy
  10. D’yer Mak’er

Final Thoughts:

As far as my album ranking goes, if I was being completely subjective, I’d place IV at the top of the list without a doubt. It’s the perfect distillation of how skilled and effective this band was at making fantastic rock music. But as far as what I enjoyed the most, II and Houses Of The Holy win.

Wow is this band awesome. A band this monumental requires a PhD dissertation to really delve into what a force they had in American music culture, rather than a two month listening stint (which is what I gave them). But I enjoyed this set of albums immensely, and it makes much more sense to me why Led Zep became such a musical force at their peak. They were able to write envelope-pushing rock that changed the face and direction of popular music in the ’70s and arguably created an entirely new genre of music. They were just plain awesome and their music demonstrates that without a doubt.

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Old/New Albums: America’s “Hat Trick”

hattrickHat Trick is the third album by America, one of the more confusing band names from the ’70s.

Right out of the gate, this is probably one of the more boring albums I’ve listened to in the last year and a half. Nothing about Hat Trick is offensive, and nearly all of it is forgettable.

I think this is kind of America’s niche. Their first five or so albums all sound very similar to this one, and all of them have at least one or two songs that found some marginal success in the American market.

And their style is nice. It’s soft, acoustic, white folk rock music. Like Eagles, but ten times softer. It’s just very vanilla. It takes a great hook for this band to create something memorable. “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” and “Sister Golden Hair” are all examples of their soft style mixed with a good hook.

Unfortunately, Hat Trick has nothing like that. I like some songs more than others, but this is the one album of America’s that could be wiped out and almost nothing lost from their whole catalog.

The one song that really tries anything even slightly off-kilter is the title track, a seven minute tune that plays like a suite, with three different sections bound together very fluidly. It’s got a nice jangly piano part that anchors the first part, and the song morphs into a more guitar-driven vehicle as it goes along.

But even as pleasant as this song, it’s like a watered down version of something like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled album. And honestly, this whole album feels less like an homage to Crosby, Stills & Nash than a straight-up attempt to cash in on the West Coast soft rock/folk trend that blew up in the early ’70s. They just really hit the “soft” of soft rock way too hard here, and the majority of this album turns into forgettable pap as a result.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Hat Trick
  2. Wind Wave
  3. Goodbye


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Old/Newish Albums: The Decemberists’ “Castaways And Cutouts”

castawaysCastaways And Cutouts is an impressive debut album. It feels self-assured and confident with where the band wanted their music to go.

If you’ve never heard the Decemberists before, this album is a great place to start. It’s got many hallmarks of later Decemberists’ albums: accordions, vocabulary you’d find in an English PhD dissertation, huge worlds of characters built into these songs.

I’d call it literary folk rock. Musically, they sound different than any other band I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this whole old-timey instruments/weird mish-mash of styles has become its own genre, with many bands boldly taking up the mantle of the accordion and playing what could easily be mistaken as pirate music. But for me, the Decemberists were the first band I’d heard do it, and they do it great, and I wouldn’t want to listen to much more of it outside of them.

Lyrically, they’re cut from a similar cloth as Sufjan Stevens or Bob Dylan. Dylan often updated old-time folk songs, while Sufjan uses geographically established cultural pinpoints to write his autobiographical songs (this is done almost exclusively on his two state albums, Michigan and Illinois). The Decemberists take a slightly different approach, creating modern folk songs out of a wide variety of cultures, time periods, geographical locations, etc. Their lyrics aren’t bound to a specific time or place, and this album is just the beginning of that trend for the band.

And the vocabulary used on this record is really quite stunning. Bagatelles, joie de vive, laudanum, fecundity, moribund, indolent, wastrel, balustrade. All words and phrases found on this album. And it’s not like they’re all in one song called “The Thesaurus Song” and the band just went looking for uncommon words to use. Frontman Colin Meloy really does just write this way. This can be hit or miss, depending on your personal preference. It’s not hard for this lyricism to come off as pretentious.

What’s interesting about Castaways And Cutouts is how well they offset that semi-pretentious lyricism with their bucolic musical style. Sure, there are some outlier songs (specifically “A Cautionary Tale,” which sounds like a first draft of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” off of their better album, Picaresque), but for the most part, this album has a very folksy, almost country/western style to it. It keeps the lyrical style from being too over the top. This is done perfectly in “Grace Cathedral Hill.” It’s a slowly-moving ballad, but nowhere near as slow as “Coccoon” and “Clementine” (which suffer from their molasses tempos). “Grace Cathedral Hill” is a sad song that juxtaposes fancy and common language with melancholy country/western slide guitars behind it. It’s very pretty and very well done.

The most interesting thing for me was that with only a cursory knowledge of the album prior to this post, I thought I liked most the songs a lot with five or six listens. Over the course of the last couple weeks though, with more dedicated listening, I’m finding this particular Decemberists album to be a little lacking in my opinion. Most of the songs liked upon initial listening lost some of their verve and I really came to enjoy the few tunes I hadn’t loved before.

Along with the aforementioned “Grace Cathedral Hill,” I also really loved “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade.” This is a nearly 10 minute tune split into two major parts, and the first half is what I really loved. It’s in some kind of dropped guitar tuning, slow but grand, very reminiscent of the American West Coast and the anthemic nature of the song is just really cool. I feel like the band doesn’t always go full “stadium” in their songs, but “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade” is a great example of how awesome it is when they do.

As far as the Decemberists catalog goes, this is a solid debut album, pointing very clearly to where the band would go on their future releases. It’s certainly not perfect, but a great place to start as an introduction to the band’s unique blending of high-brow lyricism and all-over musicality.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade
  2. Grace Cathedral Hill
  3. Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

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