Tag Archives: Old/New Albums

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/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/New Albums: Sheila E.’s “Romance 1600”

sheilae“Yellow is a happenin’ color, if you’re a banana.”

This line should tell you all you need to know about every single side project of Prince. One could argue that his solo work is pretty weird and out there, but one could argue that even moreso for his side projects.

And I’m not giving proper schrift to Sheila E. Technically, Romance 1600 is her solo album, but Prince’s presence is absolutely felt. He wrote or cowrote every song on the album, and the sound is unmistakably Prince. But unlike another one of his side projects, Vanity 6Romance 1600 feels more distinct because of Sheila E. herself. Vanity was a much weaker of a character, while Sheila E. is a true personality that is able to stand out from Prince’s weirdness and make it her own.

But as I said, you can’t listen to this album without hearing The Purple One’s fingerprints all over it. While Vanity 6 sounded very analogous to The Time, Sheila E.’s record skews more towards the instrumental Madhouse project that Prince did. Sheila E. played drums on the Madhouse record 16, so it makes sense Romance 1600 retains some of that “out there” arranging (“Merci For The Speed Of A Mad Clown In Summer” features a horn doing the circus theme song riff like it’s not the weirdest thing ever to hear in a pop song).

The only song that explicitly credits Prince is “A Love Bizarre,” but it’s a 12 minute dance pop number so that makes sense. A lot of this tune could’ve been cut in editing (coincidentally, a shortened version was this album’s most successful single), but Prince stretches this out and explores every weird instrumental adlib and flourish he can.

If you remember from my review of Vanity 6 last year, I was kind of surprised how much I enjoyed it. Conversely, I was kind of surprised that I didn’t enjoy this album more. It has all the elements in place, but it might be almost too serious for its own good. Sheila E. is too much of an artist herself to only play muse for Prince, and her record is far less fluff than Vanity’s. But I think I enjoy the fluff a little more, and as Vanity fit the muse role perfectly for Prince, her record was just wall to wall weird and fun Prince pop tunes. Romance 1600 has moments of sheer fun, like “Yellow,” but for as off the wall as Prince can get with tunes like this (again, referring back to the lyric I opened with), I was hoping for more songs I just couldn’t help but enjoy. Prince’s ’80s work is so awesomely weird, it’s like kids music for adults. This album feels just a little more mature than that.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Yellow
  2. Romance 1600
  3. Sister Fate

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Old/New Albums: Average White Band’s “Person To Person”

averagewhitebandThis is a first for me in this blog series. Person To Person is a live album, and I’m curious if it might’ve been a better experience had I chosen a live album by a band I was more familiar with. If only because I’d have a fuller understanding of the studio incarnations of the tunes and could view the live versions through that prism.

But here I am, listening to a concert album from 1976. It’s not a bad record. It certainly shows that the band could easily recreate the magic funk they had done so well in the studio. And as almost all live shows do, it gives the band room to breathe on all their tracks, giving longer spaces for the various band members to solo.

This is shown most effectively in the band’s best-known song, “Pick Up The Pieces.” The version on this album is notable for a couple reasons. First, it runs over 18 minutes long. Even on live albums, very few current bands would bother putting an 18 minute song on their record. The length of this tune kind of betrays its age, back when people would want to listen to an instrumental for this long.

It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s just really long. You’ve got to be in a very specific zone to jam out to an instrumental piece for that long. Bands in the ’70s loved letting their songs loose in this long form kind of way. Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead. But I was a little surprised to find a band like Average White Band, not commonly categorized as a “jam” band, doing the same thing.

The other interesting thing about this song is that it is actually culled together from several different live shows on this tour. Since it features several members doing solos, they recorded several different shows and each member was able to choose the specific solo they wanted to featured from a specific show. It’s all spliced together and sounds fluid enough that I wouldn’t have noticed had I not uncovered it in doing research.

But there are parts of this album that could’ve been tightened. I would’ve rather heard another original cut from the band than a 10-minute cover of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to close the album out. The long cuts of “T.L.C.” and “Pick Up The Pieces” also could’ve been shortened and left more room for other songs.

There are some awesome tunes on here though too. “Cloudy” and “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” are both slices of almost Bee Gees-level tightness in the soul/pop arena, and “I’m The One” and “Love Your Life” both have sample-ready horn parts (Exhibit A: A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check The Rhime”). But ultimately I’m left with the feeling that I’d enjoy the studio versions a bit more. A little more palatable than 18 minutes of the same song.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. If I Ever Lose This Heaven
  2. I’m The One
  3. Love Your Life

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Old/New Albums: Randy Newman’s “Trouble In Paradise”

randynewmanIf you’ve watched a single Pixar movie from the last 20 years, there is a great chance you’ve heard Randy Newman’s music.

Specifically, you’ve heard Newman’s “nice” music. “You’ve Got A Friend” (Toy Story), “Our Town” (Cars), “If I Didn’t Have You” (Monsters, Inc.) are all fantastic songs, and just a small sampling of Newman’s musical output in the last couple decades.

But Newman made a name for himself with his earlier work, and Trouble In Paradise actually lands us just before the halfway mark in his nearly 50-year career.

Let me start by saying that I initially liked Trouble In Paradise. There are some catchy tunes, a lot of really cool melodies, and as always, Newman’s incredibly gifted piano playing.

That being said, Trouble In Paradise is just one of many examples of how the ’80s were a pretty rough decade for the male pop singer-songwriter crowd, comparatively speaking. I can’t think of one major solo musician whose output got markedly better in the transition to the ’70s to the ’80s. Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, all guys who had a really stellar decade and then went into the ’80s and released a few stinkers among the lot of them.

Again, I don’t think Trouble In Paradise is bad, it’s just a very ’80s record. Lots of slick production, a little bombastic. The production reminds me a lot of Paul Simon’s Graceland (arguably the best ’80s album released by any of these guys, possibly rivaled only by Springsteen’s Born To Run).

I feel like the ’80s were where these guys were trying to figure out how to stay on top of the pulse of pop music and not all were equally successful. This is one issue with Trouble In Paradise. It’s got some good tunes (“The Blues” reminds me of the best of Paul Simon’s ’80s work, most likely because it features Simon himself), but there are also tunes that end up sounding almost awkward in their experimentation or reaching for new melodic structures, like “Mikey’s.” This song is so odd, it reminds me of McCartney’s completely left-field “Temporary Secretary” from his McCartney II album from 1980. Musically, I’m split down the middle on this record.

Here’s another thing about Randy Newman. He doesn’t write songs so much as eye rolls and winks. Honestly, like 90% of his songs are sarcastic. In my opinion, that’s a notable difference than satirical. Satire can be subtle, and often, the more subtle it is, the more pointed and effective it is. Sarcasm is, almost by definition, heavy-handed. Sarcasm is accompanied with an exaggerated tone of voice or body language.

And that’s the best way I can describe Randy Newman’s writing style. “My Life Is Good” and “I’m Different” are perfect examples of this. They’re all sung from the perspective of people Newman clearly has no respect for and these tunes just rip into them.

And it’s not just on this record. “Little People,” “The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band,” “Sail Away,” the entire Good Old Boys album. Newman has made a career of writing sarcasm. This is very one note, and it’s the reason I don’t come back to Newman a lot.

At the same time, the biggest thing that does keep me coming back is how confoundedly catchy his tunes are. “I Love L.A.” is arguably the most overtly sarcastic, winky song on this whole record, and it’s hands down the best tune. I first heard this done by Newman on The Tonight Show, accompanied by The Roots of all people. I liked the song a ton because it’s catchy as hell and the Roots add real panache to any old white fella they accompany, but listening to this song in its original setting adds the “Screw you L.A.” context to him playing on the New York incarnation of The Tonight Show.

This is one of the few albums of any of my blog series’ that I actually enjoyed less the more I listened to it. Aside from the couple songs that had unique/catchy hooks, the rest of the album just started to grate on me. I think it comes back to the album’s sarcastic through line. It’s hard to fully engage with an album that ends up coming off so pretentious. Newman’s a great songwriter, and if he had eased off the sarcasm and written more less-winky pop songs, I probably would’ve enjoyed this album a lot more.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. I Love L.A.
  2. My Life Is Good
  3. The Blues

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Old/New Albums: Melanie’s “Gather Me”

melanieAs I’ve spent well over a year doing reviews like this now, I’m intrigued by the question, “Would I have liked this if I’d been age appropriate to listen to it at the time of its release?” It’s easy to say I like the Beatles or Bill Withers or 10cc or whoever now, in 2015, but that’s because these albums have had decades to permeate the culture. Time is often the most important thing in critical reviews. There are countless albums that were initially looked down upon by critics or commercial figures and only after much time have these critical opinions changed.

The whole reason I bring this up is that I’m curious if I would’ve enjoyed listening to Melanie if I was in the Baby Boomer generation. Melanie is the professional name of Melanie Safka, a folk singer who gained popularity in the late ’60s/early ’70s. She’s no longer a household name, but she enjoyed a lot of the same success as her folk contemporaries at that time. It’s interesting to wonder why she faded into history while singers like Carole King or Joni Mitchell or James Taylor became the singer-songwriter legends that they did.

Because most of this album is in the same class as Blue or Tapestry. Her voice absolutely evokes the female folk singer subgenre that was such a hit around this time. “Shine The Living Light (Chant & Reprise)” reminded me immediately of Joni Mitchell, but with a tighter cadence in her singing. Melanie even evokes some of Dolly Parton’s classic country warble on “Little Bit Of Me.”

A lot of this album is good, and some of it is just OK. “Brand New Key” is the biggest hit and the one my parents might remember or recognize. And I like it a lot. It’s a cute little novelty song, kind of reminiscent of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” or Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime.” Kind of a throwback tune, even for 1971. But “Some Day I’ll Be A Farmer” is even better; it retains just a pinch of that novelty feel, an almost winky-cute melody but staying grounded enough to not seem like a total joke and instead just a really catchy, great song.

But I’m listening to this album in 2015 instead of 1971, so I’m inclined to rate this album lower than I might have had I not had the last 40 years of musical context surrounding it. I feel the same about Blue or Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon. There are a few really good songs, but overall (especially the last half of the album), I’m not in love with all of it. If you like other female folk singers from the early ’70s, this album would be a safe bet for you.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Some Day I’ll Be A Farmer
  2. Brand New Key
  3. Shine The Living Light (Chant & Reprise)

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Old/New Albums: Isaac Hayes’ “Hot Buttered Soul”

isaachayesI was excited to listen to this album, as I had known about Isaac Hayes since junior high but not heard anything except the “Theme from Shaft” used as a pop culture reference in various places. For some reason, the cover of Hot Buttered Soul has stuck out to me for a long time and it’s always piqued my interest whenever I see it; it’s this album that’s generally considered a landmark in soul music but I knew nothing about it at all. Isaac Hayes seemed more a Barry White singer than a Curtis Mayfield, but again this was basically rooted in my assumptions and I was looking forward to finding out what he was all about through this album.

And it’s kind of weird to me. Especially for a soul album from 1969. The album consists of four tracks, with three of them being very nearly 10 minutes or longer. After I got through it, I kind of felt cheated. Like four songs would be permissible if they were really groundbreaking songs or something I’d never heard before.

But how much variety can you expect with four tunes?

I will admit, after repeated listens, the extended jams started to coalesce better and sound more distinct. There were points where I thought the length of these tunes were maybe justified. But still, so much could have been cut from this record, more songs added and I feel like it could’ve had a bigger impact on me. “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” has about a nine-minute speaking intro for crying out loud. And when the music over which the speaking occurs isn’t really that memorable, I was constantly left wondering why Hayes made the stylistic choices he did.

And as I read about this album, I keep seeing things about the innovative production and engineering style and they’re just lost on me. I’m not sure if I don’t have enough of a background in soul music (and I feel like I know a fair amount of it) or if I just don’t have the technical knowledge to understand why this was such a groundbreaking album.

For me, this album is meh. In terms of soul, there are so many landmark albums I’d rather listen to than this one. This album was a little self-indulgent to me and I wasn’t really moved, either by the lyrical content or by the extended musical jams, none of which really made me groove. This record was a letdown.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic
  2. One Woman
  3. Walk On By

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