Tag Archives: Old/Newish Albums

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/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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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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Old/Newish Albums: Curtis Mayfield’s “Got To Find A Way”

mayfieldAs with a lot of classic black soul music, I was led to this album by way of D’Angelo. His first performance in the United States in over a decade was a monumental covers jam at Bonnaroo, backed by several members who would eventually become known as The Vanguard, along with a few others. They played covers alone, no D’ originals, but the set ranged from Led Zeppelin to Ohio Players to The Time. One of these covers was “Mother’s Son,” found on Got To Find A Way.

It’s been interesting to hear the song in the context of the rest of this album, because while D’Angelo and his Superjam band made the song an enticingly funky affair, the original is fairly tame, along with the rest of the album. Mayfield is known for mixing funk and soul really well, but this album falls flat.

There’s just very little memorable here. To be fair, I don’t know Mayfield’s discography well enough to know if this is a trend or not. I know his first few solo albums pretty well, but I don’t know the album immediately preceding or following Got To Find A Way, so I only have a few points of reference off of which to base my thoughts on it. But compared to his 1975 album There’s No Place Like America Today, this is a muddled work. That album (which I reviewed at the beginning of this year) has a distinct vision and identity. The songs coalesce but they don’t blur together, which is exactly what happens on Got To Find A Way. The two real stand outs are “Mother’s Son” and “So You Don’t Love Me,” and even these have their faults.

“So You Don’t Love Me” is the requisite ballad on the album, and I really do like this song a lot. It’s got a nice orchestral flavor to it and Mayfield does those flowery arrangements so well. But again, not groundbreaking. And “Mother’s Son” never quite reaches a real funky groove, although it comes close. I would’ve liked it better if the song was about two minutes shorter and had stuck to the musical theme that’s laid out in the opening. But instead, Mayfield takes it all waaaay down low in the verse, stripping the instrumentation down to a sparse drum beat and the bass riff, with light guitar flourishes thrown in. It saps all the energy that was built in the beginning. Again, this is a funky tune but I feel like it could’ve had so much more fire to it.

So I’m left with the feeling that this isn’t a standout in Mayfield’s catalog. A couple good tunes but he’s got better albums to seek out if you’re interested.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. So You Don’t Love Me
  2. Mother’s Son
  3. Cannot Find A Way

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Old/Newish Albums: Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Self-titled

converted PNM fileI can objectively say that this is a great album, and I can subjectively say that I only think about half of it is good (a healthy amount of this review was contributed by my wife, as she likes this album a lot and had more thoughts on it than I did).

Crosby, Stills & Nash was a huge hit for a debut, and this is a due to a number of reasons:

First, each of these guys had at least somewhat of a built-in fan base, as they’d all come from different bands. David Crosby had been a member of The Byrds, Stephen Stills came from Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash had co-founded The Hollies.

Second, they all brought something different to the musical table. Crosby was writing incisive political/social commentary, Stills was a skilled musician who was rooted in a strong folk and country background, and Nash was particularly adept at writing catchy pop melodies.

Third, these differences coalesced. It’s one thing to be varying musical talents and elements to a group, but it’s rare to see such musical diversity gel so well.

The blend of these three disparate artists really created a unique experience on record. It’s so hard for me to actually pin down a genre for this album, because of how specifically different some of these songs sound from each other. I’d almost argue that this is typical for Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).  “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” doesn’t sound like “Long Time Gone” (which points much more towards “Woodstock” and the rest of their Deja Vu record), and that doesn’t sound like “49 Bye-Byes.” And then you’ve got “Marrakesh Express,” which doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before.

It seems like a real mish-mash, but somehow it works. There are places where it is sounds complex (“49 Bye-Byes”) and places where simplicity rules (“Helplessly Hoping”). It’s not often too much either way, and just strikes the right balances throughout almost the entire thing.

That’s not to say it’s not without a few duds. “Lady Of The Island” sounds like a poor emulation of Simon & Garfunkel and both “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone” are a little heavy-handed for this album. Maybe it’s just that I dislike most of CS&N’s political work, not just on this album but on their subsequent releases. The places where this album excels are where they stay rooted in acoustic folk blended with a pop flavor.

And their voices, for crying out loud. These three guys blend so perfectly. And the harmonies they’re creating on this album aren’t just your typical “first, third, fifth” chord parts. The melody/harmony blend on this album is far beyond my understanding of music theory, but damn if it doesn’t sound great.

This is demonstrated to best effect on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and maybe I’m not crazy about this album because of how great I think the album opener is. The rest of the album can’t compare with this song.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
  2. 49 Bye-Byes
  3. Helplessly Hoping

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Old/Newish Albums: Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks”

bobdylanMan is this a tough one. Blood On The Tracks is generally considered a masterpiece of Bob Dylan. It wasn’t a huge hit upon initial release but history has been very kind to the record, and it’s often referenced as a cornerstone of the confessional singer-songwriter art.

Which is interesting, because while Dylan’s son, Jakob Dylan, has stated multiple times that this album is about the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, Bob Dylan himself has unequivocally stated that this isn’t a confessional record and was not inspired by the end of his marriage with Sara Dylan.

Whoever you choose to believe, the fact remains that Blood On The Tracks is a sprawling collection of heartbreaking emotions put on record. There are angry songs, sad songs, nostalgic songs, epic tales. Dylan runs the gamut of the rollercoaster one goes through when suffering through the breakdown of a relationship.

And while I can appreciate that to some extent, it’s difficult for me to relate and so this record doesn’t carry the same punch for me. With art, there’s the space where you can appreciate it and the space where you can relate to it. I’d argue the fullest experience comes with both, but Blood On The Tracks only hits me with the former rather than the latter. I just don’t see myself coming back to this album a lot.

And that’s a lot to do with Dylan’s voice. The guy was a voice of a cultural movement in the ’50s and ’60s, but listening with my 2015 ears, his voice just isn’t something I want to spend a lot of time with. There are points on this record where he reaches for a note and you’re not sure if he completely knows what he’s reaching for.

Musically, this is a decently typical Dylan record. It’s pretty stripped down, lots of acoustic instruments and pretty understated backing instrumentation. My favorite example of this on the record is “You’re A Big Girl Now.” It’s a beautiful acoustic number with a chorus of classical guitars. Weirdly, this is the one song where I really like Dylan’s melody and think his voice sounds great. It’s a very relaxed song, and overall, with the exception of “Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts” and “Tangled Up In Blue,” it’s a pretty slow-paced record. Dylan isn’t rushed in telling you his woes.

I wish I liked this album more. Or least that I understood how it became regarded as such a huge album in Dylan’s body of work, much less a landmark album in the singer-songerwriter genre. I wouldn’t be quick to recommend this to someone who wasn’t already a Dylan fan. But then, if you’re already a Dylan fan, you’ve probably already heard this album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. You’re A Big Girl Now
  2. Buckets Of Rain
  3. If You See Her, Say Hello

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Old/Newish Albums: Billy Preston’s “The Kids & Me”

billyprestonThis is something of a notable album in this series, because while I don’t know The Kids & Me that well, it does feature one song which I know super well. “Nothing From Nothing” is the #1 Most Played Song in my entire iTunes library and has been for about seven years. In fact, with the first listen of this album for this review, it bumped the play count of “Nothing From Nothing” up to be the first song in my library to break into the 200s.

But the rest of the album certainly shouldn’t be thrown away. It functions as a really great snapshot of Billy Preston’s solo career work. I’d almost argue this album could be viewed as a blueprint for the rest of Preston’s solo work.

Lyrically, this album is pretty wide-ranging. You’ve got love songs, a gospel tune, social themes, and a few instrumental pieces. I don’t think Preston is the greatest wordsmith ever, with some of his songs leaning towards a little too sugary sweet or a pinch cheesy. There are a few heavy-handed spaces on this record, but it’s forgiven because nothing is really awful and the good stuff is really good.

I’ve always found Preston’s strength to be his music. This guy was an unbelievable keys player, starting his career at a very early age (appeared in a W.C. Handy biopic at age 12, met the Beatles while playing organ on tour with Little Richard at age 16, released his first solo album a year later, etc.). He played with a lot of heavy hitters throughout the ’60s, culminating in contributing heavily to the Beatles’ final studio album, Let It Be. He was so influential in those recording sessions that he actually kept the Beatles from completely fracturing and he finished the record with them. He is one of the few people referred to colloquially as the “fifth Beatle” (John Lennon actually suggested to the other Beatles that Preston officially join the band) and is the only musician co-credited on a official Beatles-sactioned release (the single “Get Back” is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”).

So Preston had the musical chops. This album displays those really well. For my money, the apex of Billy Preston’s keyboard expertise is “Nothing From Nothing,” but there is a lot of really fantastic keys playing on this record. Preston’s instrumentals are a testament to his forward thinking, by featuring a Clavinet (or soundalike instrument) all over this record to create some really bizarre, funky sounds (“Struttin'” sounds like mosquitos in your ear). These instrumentals are some heavily funk-inspired jams.

But again, “Nothing From Nothing” is the pinnacle, both of Preston’s songwriting and his musical skills. This is an overtly happy sounding song, with one of the best chord progressions and coolest chord voicings I’ve ever heard. There is a bouncing ragtime rhythm and horns that add so much flavor to the tune. But Preston’s piano solo is absolutely insane. It’s like his two hands are speaking different linguistic dialects. His left hand is steadily pounding the rhythmic chords on the beat while his right hand is banging out an intricate solo that is rhythmically all over the place. It’s a masterpiece solo and adds energy to an already really energetic tune. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of this song.

There are some other notable tunes on this album, like “You Are So Beautiful,” which is a pretty cheesy song but important as it is the original version of the tune, written by Preston, which was later covered to huge success by Joe Cocker. Also great on the album is “Tell Me You Need My Loving,” which is a partial rewrite of an earlier Preston outtake tune called “All That I’ve Got” and kicks the album off in a really funky, groovy fashion.

Overall, this is a pretty good album, not just for the fantastic “Nothing From Nothing,” but also due to the representative picture of Preston’s solo work. If you only get your hands on one Billy Preston album, make sure it’s this one.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Nothing From Nothing
  2. Tell Me You Need My Loving
  3. St. Elmo

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Old/Newish Albums: Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”

billyjoelWhat an outstanding record. Billy Joel had experienced some success prior to The Stranger, with the albums Piano Man and Turnstiles both making some waves due to their hit singles (the self-titled hit on the former, “N.Y. State Of Mind” on the latter). But The Stranger was a massive hit, securing diamond status in the United States alone (confirmed 10,000,000 records sold).

Even with one listen to this album, it’s not hard to tell why it was such a smash. Song after song, this thing is packed with bonified classics; it’s full of well-written stories about sketches of people you know on top of catchy, indelible melodies.

Think about the context surrounding this album. Released in 1977, when the smack dab middle of the baby boomer generation is hitting their 20s. Billy Joel captures so many really poignant emotional snapshots of what it’s like to be right there. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote the album, and so many of the songs deal with issues and themes we struggle with as we make the uncomfortable transition to adulthood. This album was a success not only because it came at just the right time to strike lightning in the culture, but also because it has a very timeless feel.

As is par with this blog series, I had listened to The Stranger a few times in the past but in my earlier listening, only really focused on “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Vienna.” Both songs are fantastically-written pieces of pop music with great lyrics, great hooks, great melodies, great everything. This time around though, I was struck by the entire album, and especially one specific song, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Front to back, The Stranger is a powerhouse. I’d say its success is due to its relatability. I’ve felt the restlessness of young age (“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” “Only The Good Die Young”) and the trepidation about growing old (“Vienna”). I’ve felt the fear of missed opportunities (“Get It Right The First Time”) and the dog-eared familiarity of love (“Just The Way You Are”). I can imagine an entire generation of young adults starting to realize how little they know about life getting their hands on this record and hearing every feeling brought to life.

This record isn’t without its faults. I’ve always disliked the song “Only The Good Die Young” and didn’t really get into it this round through The Stranger. It’s about a guy trying to get his pious Catholic girl to sleep with him. Never liked the tune musically but the lyrics just smacked of so much insincerity as they follow the truly gorgeous “Vienna,” which is about not growing up too fast.

Joel also writes very incisively about the fear of letting someone truly know you in “The Stranger.” This song also struck home with me more than it ever had before, not only due to its intense and heady subject matter but due to the fantastic hook that bookends the main part of this song. The whistled melody is kind of the unofficial Theme of The Stranger. It is inexplicably haunting, a gorgeous piano instrumental with the most melancholy melody whistled on top.

But the song that I couldn’t stop listening to is “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” This tune is, in my opinion, the centerpiece and the mini-magnum opus of this album. The song functions basically as a suite with three separate movements. I like to think of it as a non-linear telling of the story of Brenda and Eddie, high school sweethearts who reconnect many years after their romance ends.

Lyrically, this song is nostalgic, heartbreaking, romantic and truthful. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how high school is often portrayed in our culture. While, in reality, high school is a very difficult experience for a lot of people, there are those kids who peak too early, whose best days are their high school years, and Brenda and Eddie are a couple of these kids. High school is their apex; nothing can top their high school romance and they feel invincible and unstoppable. The issue arises when these kids hit the real world with real problems, and their love isn’t actually strong enough to weather what life throws at them and they don’t have their happy ending, at least not initially. This is a song about lost innocence and the realization of how hard life can knock us over as we grow up.

But yet in the midst of that sadness, it’s an incredibly romantic tune that elicits so much nostalgia in me. I like to think that the first and second parts of the song are Brenda and Eddie reconnecting after their short-lived romance, many years later. They’ve both moved on with their lives but are reminiscing about their days together.

Obviously, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. But it’s rare for me to hear a song so uniquely structured that takes me on this much of a time-traveling journey and really makes me feel like I’m a first-hand witness of the rise and fall of this romance. Joel uses the saxophone as the signifying element that he’s taking us to a new time to tell a new part of the story and it took me quite a few listens to realize the transporting effect that it was creating as I listened.

Aside from the beautifully sad story told in this song, the way Joel has put this song together musically is so fantastic. The saxophone-as-time-machine is great, but the way the song moves through the different movements and how they create different environments in which you learn more about Brenda and Eddie is really cool.

The second movement feels very carefree and fun, eliciting the feeling of high school and being in love and feeling like all is good. The energy ramps up even more for the true ballad of Brenda and Eddie, and the frenetic feel matches the speed at which their relationship deteriorates. Joel has chosen every syllable so carefully too, and the cadence of his words flows so effortlessly with the music. Lyrically, the verse about Brenda and Eddie’s apartment and how they’ve chosen to furnish it seems forgettable, but it communicates so much about how unready these two kids are to start a life together. The line about the waterbed is the perfect example of how good a songwriter Billy Joel is, because with so much subtlety is the deepest issue of Brenda and Eddie’s relationship laid bare with a throwaway line about a piece of furniture (which, even more amazingly, was still very much in vogue at the time of this record). But this all culminates with how exactly perfect Joel’s chosen lyrics fit the cadence of the verse. The poetic rhythm of the words just attacks your ears and it amazes me how anyone can write stuff this good.

And finally, the song is bookended by the beautiful movements about the titular Italian restaurant. Something about the “A bottle of red, a bottle of white” line is so devastatingly gorgeous and romantic and it keeps me coming back to this song over and over.

I didn’t know I had so much in me about this one song. It’s just a really well-written tune that has a lot of insightful things to say about the lyrical themes present elsewhere on this record.

I can’t write enough about how great this album is. It’s absolutely one of my favorite albums ever (Top 50) and just hits so many right notes, lyrically and musically. The Stranger is so good, it basically functions as a Billy Joel greatest hits release. I highly recommend it.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Scenes From An Italian Restaurant
  2. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)
  3. The Stranger

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Old/Newish Albums: The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

LP_OUT-P1_output.pdfI might’ve gotten in over my head with this one. Pet Sounds consistently ranks incredibly high whenever a music publication makes a Best Albums Ever list; like Top 10 high. What would possess me to review an album that is generally thought of as one of the best in modern pop music?

Either way, here we are. Pet Sounds was the brainchild primarily of Brian Wilson as an indirect response to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Wilson was a founding member of The Beach Boys and had actually quit touring with the rest of the band to work on this album. If it’s any indication what an impact this album had, Wilson suffered a near-total mental breakdown trying to write the follow up, Smile (which ultimately never got released).

Lyrically, it’s an incredibly introspective record, and considering the majority of the writing was done by Wilson, it’s a pretty harrowing view of himself he’s sharing with the listener. There is so much insecurity in the lyrics, so much self-doubt. It creates a very somber and melancholic atmosphere; these are vulnerable and intimate lyrics that communicate the kinds of emotional issues that so many of us have and can’t deal with well.

What’s completely bizarre about it is how opposite that is from what the music creates. A lot of the music on this record sounds exuberantly happy. One of the reasons this was such a difficult album for me to write about is that it legitimately doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s like a SoCal bubble gum acid trip; a cacophony of pianos and cellos and theremin and actual pets and percussion and beautiful choral harmonies. This doesn’t sound like pop music to me, especially not pop music from 1966. My favorite description I’ve read of the sound on this record is “baroque pop.” It’s so well orchestrated, sounds upon sounds that don’t seem like they should coalesce and yet they exist. Pet Sounds reminds me a bit of the psychedelic pop music from bands like the 5th Dimension; Age Of Aquarius and all of that. But that album had an undercurrent of black soul music that is notably absent. The weird thing is that while Pet Sounds certainly doesn’t sound black to me, it doesn’t necessarily sound that white to me. It’s an album that defies genre-fication.

One opinion I held about the record before listening to it for this series, and an opinion I still hold, is that it’s hard for me to parse out individual songs. Obviously, the really well-known songs are immediately recognizable (“God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”). But my point is that this is an incredibly coherent album, one that is streamlined very intentionally. Pet Sounds is a concept album, not lyrically, but rather production-wise. The whole thing sounds like the whole thing. The songs flow so well from one to another, and because they break out of the confines of traditional mid-’60s sunshine pop music, it’s easy for the demarcations between songs to blur. Melodies and chord progressions and vocal stagings change with whimsy that it’s hard to pin the music down. It’s like a butterfly on mushrooms.

This isn’t a bad thing by any means. It just creates a most unique listening experience.

For my money, I enjoy about half the album. In general, the slower ballads don’t groove with me (with the exception of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” which was absolutely heartbreaking in its beauty), but I had an appreciation and enjoyed listening to the more upbeat tunes like “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows.”

Pet Sounds is a great album. It’s cohesiveness makes it difficult for me to enjoy it as anything but a full album and while that was important contextually to the album, its weirdness as a whole album makes it lose a little bit of its punch for me. I could easily listen to “God Only Knows” singularly and enjoy it, but I wouldn’t pop on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” or “You Still Believe In Me” and listen to only those songs. This album is a tough nut to crack but it’s worth the effort.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. God Only Knows
  2. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
  3. Sloop John B

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Old/Newish Albums: The Band’s “Music From Big Pink”

bandThis is an album that’s been on my radar for years due to one colossal song. Music From Big Pink is the debut album from The Band, released in 1968. Prior to this album, The Band had toured as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and before that, they were known as The Hawks. Most of this record was written and recorded during their time working heavily in collaboration with Dylan, and Dylan himself wrote a few of the songs on the album (he also painted the cover artwork).

Big Pink was the name of the house bought by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson (three members of The Band) near Woodstock, New York. Big Pink had a particularly large basement, which is where The Band and Dylan spent a lot of time writing and playing music. While the actual recording of Music From Big Pink occurred at studios in L.A. and New York City, the conception and writing of most of this music happened at Big Pink. Dylan and The Band also wrote a huge amount of songs that would end up being released as The Basement Tapes in 1975.

While I understand the historical value of this record, I could take or leave it. I don’t completely groove on the sound. It reminds me of a more fully-fleshed out Delaney & Bonnie (this is a good thing), or more equivalent to the sound of Clapton’s first solo records. I’m not particularly fond of any of the vocals, whether sung by Rick Danko, Levon Helm or Richard Manuel. There is more warbling than singing on this record.

The whole thing kind of drags, and maybe that’s just due to the roots rock nature of the music. That being said, there are a few tracks that, once I got my head around the fact that we weren’t going anywhere fast, I started to enjoy their appearance. The album opener, “Tears Of Rage,” almost sounds like a hopeful funeral dirge with the Lowrey organ, baritone horn, sax and shuffling tambourine. That’s followed by “To Kingdom Come,” which might qualify as the most uptempo tune on the album. I can imagine having fun playing this live, with numerous voices adding to the call-and-response feeling in the verses.

There’s a lot I dislike though. The ballads are slower than molasses on a cold day; nothing happens in “Lonesome Suzie” or “Long Black Veil” that I’d want to hear more than once. And another chip on my shoulder towards “Long Black Veil;” this is a folk song that seems designed for the singer to bust loose their best wail. Nearly every time I’ve heard this song performed, from Dave Matthews to The Band to Bob Dylan, the vocalist never hits the word “veil” clearly, without reaching. They always swoop their voice to hit the note. And while I know this is a vocal trope used constantly in country/folk/bluegrass music, it just grates on my ears every time I hear this song.

So the ballads are blah. The collaborative songs are better. And then there’s “The Weight.”

If I was tasked with creating the Next Great American Songbook, I wouldn’t hesitate to include “The Weight.” While I most likely heard this song in various places growing up, I didn’t really come into real contact with it until college, when I started running with a crowd who was heavily into folk and bluegrass. They listened to John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ray Lamontagne, Amos Lee, Avett Brothers. On the other hand, the album I was most into that year was probably Apple Juice Kid’s Miles Remixed, so it’s safe to say I was getting thrown into a new musical environment.

“The Weight” is a modern epic poem, replete with allusions of all kinds and a huge cast of characters. The meaning of the song has been discussed and debated ever since the song was written, and even Robbie Robertson himself (lead guitarist for The Band as well as sharing vocal duties, and the writer of lots of Band songs including “The Weight”) has never pinned one true meaning down. The song seems to tell the story of the Narrator, a weary traveler arriving from a long journey. The Narrator then meets a wide array of people in the town, many allusions to Biblical characters, and also based on many real people that were friends or acquaintances of The Band.

I’m not about to attempt to interpret the song, but Robertson has stated in interviews that he was inspired by spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel’s works often featured surreal imagery and moral quests for his characters that ultimately led nowhere. I’d say “The Weight” is Robertson’s attempt to encapsulate the heaviness and, often, futility of the human experience in a song.

One interesting piece of supporting evidence of the theory of six degrees of separation regarding music: this album is the home to “Chest Fever,” which was covered by John Mayer in (I think) his tour supporting his Born And Raised album. The song was used as a mood setting device, with the band slowly percolating and building it until they launched from “Chest Fever” into “Vultures,” which made for a really cool transition. Also interesting to hear one influence of JM’s sound around the time of that album.

This album is deeply loved by lots of critics, people that were hitting formative ages right around the turn of 1970, and fans of roots rock and bluegrass, but not so much by me. There are some pretty good tunes, and one powerhouse tune, but overall I could not hear this album again and not bat an eye. Except for “The Weight.” That song is fantastic.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. The Weight
  2. Tears Of Rage
  3. In A Station

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