Friday, October 30, 2009

Hero And Heroine

The Strawbs/1974

Back in the 1960s, English folk music was a little different than its American counterpart across the big pond. While American folksters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary were singing about war, racism, poverty and what they’d do if they had a hammer, English folkies like The Strawberry Hill Boys were prancing around the countryside, innocently picking and fiddling like merry troubadours of old. Whereas the Yanks were firmly connected to the social consciousness of the era, the Limeys harkened back to a grand folk tradition that spanned thousands of years…when village pickers and fiddlers got the party started way back in King Arthur’s court. Fast forward to the late ‘60s. Swingin’ London. The Beatles. Suddenly, all things British are igniting the rock ‘n roll revolution. Chief Strawberry picker Dave Cousins figures it’s time to dump the folk scene, plug in the amps, strap on electric guitars and boogie down – even shortening the band’s name to The Strawbs. Several lineups and albums later, we join them in early 1974 with Hero And Heroine. Now they’re firmly equipped to rock progressively, with ace electric guitarist Dave Lambert (a hot guitarist being the one important missing piece in previous lineups) and keyboardist John Hawken, dragging along the essential prog arsenal of mellotron, synthesizer, electric piano and Hammond organ. With Cousin’s woodsy, well-worn lead vocals (somewhat similar to Dylan’s crooner-antichrist voice) leading the charge, the band launched into extended, multi-section pieces (“Autumn”), straight-ahead rockers (“Just Love”), and Moody Blues-like orchestral pop (“Shine On Silver Sun”). The album was a hit with American FM radio, helping The Strawbs reach a wider audience at the height of the first Progressive Rock Era…when the mere sound of a mellotron would elicit glassy-eyed worship from American fans seeking enlightenment and high art from rock music. Was Hero And Heroine high art? That’s a discussion for another day. It was, however, one of The Strawbs’ strongest albums. Considered by many as their best lineup, these wandering minstrels soon lost an integral part of their sound with John Hawken’s exit. By the late ‘70s, after five more moderately successful releases, Cousins decided to put The Strawbs on hold. Fast forward to the 21st Century: This lineup, however older and grayer, attempted to recapture the magic on several recent independent CD releases. A heroic undertaking, indeed.

Essential tracks: “Autumn” “Shine On Silver Sun” “Hero And Heroine” “Lay A Little Light On Me”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shine On Brightly

Procol Harum/1968

“In the autumn of my madness…when my hair is turning gray…” Okay, I can relate to that. Actually, a general sense of madness permeates all the lyrics on this album, thanks to lyricist/resident head case Keith Reid. After all, he’s the guy who wrote “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor, I was feeling kind of seasick, the crowd called out for more…” on the much-loved yet overplayed classic rock staple, “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” It was that hugely successful hit single back in 1967 that unfairly relegated Procol Harum to one-hit wonder status. And that, my friends, is criminally inaccurate. Procol actually released a succession of strong albums spanning 1967 to 1977. And like Shine On Brightly, each displayed an exotic mixture of the baroque and the blues. Lead vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker would croon those strange and enchanted lyrics doing his best Percy Sledge imitation, backed up by moody Hammond organist Matthew Fisher and a then-unknown but eventual guitar god Robin Trower. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the late, great B. J. Wilson on drums. With Shine On Brightly, Procol took a huge leap forward. For starters, this one utilized that new, cutting-edge technology: stereo (believe it or not, the first album was only available in mono and ear-gnashing “electronically reprocessed” fake stereo). The highlight was the song suite “In Held ‘Twas In I,” taking up the better part of the vinyl Side 2. Opening with two ominous, sitar-embellished spoken-word poems/head-scratchers (“Well my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?”), it evolves into several musical sections punctuated by Trower’s heavy guitar ramblings and Fisher’s cathedral-like organ riffs. This epic culminates in “Grand Finale,” where Trower basically strangles his guitar and evokes one of the most emotionally intense solos ever laid down on tape. Many credit (or blame) Procol for creating the dreaded “concept album” with this stretched-out, multi-section piece. Problem here was, no hit singles. “Homburg,” the follow-up to “Pale”, sunk like a stone and wasn’t even included on this album. Thus began Procol’s descent into the “best band nobody ever heard” category, content with modest FM radio airplay and a constant touring schedule to help pay the bills. Gary Brooker resurrected Procol with various new lineups over the years. But none would shine quite so brightly as the band that recorded this masterpiece.

Essential tracks: “Quite Rightly So” “Shine On Brightly” “Rambling On” “In Held ‘Twas In I”

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Out Of The Blue

Electric Light Orchestra/1977

Out of the Blue descended from on high like the mother ship of all ELO albums – perfectly symbolized by the humongous flying saucer art work on the front cover. Perhaps saucer pilot Jeff Lynne had seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” once too often. Heck, the album even included a do-it-yourself flying saucer cut-out (ah, the glory days of vinyl when you’d get all sorts of cool stuff with records like posters, stickers, postcards…and yes, flying saucers). It had been a long, spacey voyage for the Orchestra to get here, an album that many would consider ELO at its peak. Lynne’s unique philosophy toward what was basically pop music was quite progressive for its day. Creating a kind of Beethoven-meets-Berry-meets Beatles-meets-Berkeley (as in Busby), much of ELO’s music had a retro, almost 1930s-movie soundtrack vibe. We’re talkin’ deliberately cheesy orchestrations mixed with spooky choirs set to a decidedly ‘60s rock n’ roll beat. After the breakthrough Face The Music and the equally huge New World Record, Lynne was hell-bent to create the ultimate ELO album – a two-record set crammed with weirdly out-of-step-for-its-time, yet immensely popular string-laden pop rock. This stuff was so irresistible, it would easily cross over between the shaggy-haired FM radio hipsters and the bubble-gum popping AM radio teenyboppers – catchy tracks you can’t get out of your head, like “Turn To Stone,” “It’s Over,” “Night In The City,” along with lush Lynne ballads including “Steppin’ Out” and “Big Wheels.” The centerpiece of the album is the “rainy day” song suite that took up an entire album side, and would have made a nice Side 3 to an alternate-universe Abbey Road. The suite culminates in what is probably the greatest ELO song of them all, “Mr. Blue Sky.” I’d imagine when Lennon and McCartney first heard it, they looked at each other wistfully and said “Why the hell didn’t we write something like that…” There would be a few more albums to follow, but even Lynne hinted later that Out Of The Blue was probably the true last hurrah for ELO. Ground control to Major Lynne: Mission accomplished on this record. (Ed. Note: This review dedicated to Chris and Erica!)

Essential Tracks: Way too many to list here – listen to the whole album.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ring Of Hands


Once upon a time, when Rob Zombie was most likely still in diapers, there was a band called The Zombies. Honest. Keep in mind, this was back in the days of the British Invasion – the mid-1960s – when you could actually call your band The Zombies and get away with it. The Zombies had a handful of big hits, before finally laying it to rest (if you’ll excuse the pun) later in the decade. While these grateful undead all went their separate ways, keyboardist Rod Argent became intent on forming a new group…his “personal dream group of musicians” as he wrote on the back of the first Argent album cover. It would be made in his image and his image alone. He would hand-pick each member, getting just the right combination of “ability, creativity and enthusiasm.” What the hell, he’d even name the band after himself – Argent. An exercise in blatant ego-mania? Not really. A-Rod truly was the brain – not to mention the heart and soul – behind Argent. The debut album, simply titled Argent, was a decidedly Zombie-like affair, probably a little too close for comfort. So, it was with Ring Of Hands that the true Argent group persona would fully emerge. The original liner notes described Argent music as evoking a feeling of sitting alone on a back pew of an empty church. Mysterious and melodic, the album showcased a more experienced, idealistic young band willing to explore more esoteric, keyboard-based musical territory than previously. “Celebration…an invitation…to come and join in…a ring of hands together…” sing A-Rod and guitarist Russ Ballard in beautiful, crystal-clear harmony on the hippy-dippy opener “Celebration.” Elsewhere, fantasy and Tolkien-ism rear their proggy heads on the extended keyboard workout “Lothlorian.” Other standout tracks, like the pew-worthy “Rejoice” and the piano-pounder “Pleasure” merely reinforce the notion that it was time to bury The Zombies once and for all. Sadly, Argent would never sound this good again, wandering aimlessly throughout the prog wilderness of the ‘70s (although scoring a huge hit with the single “Hold Your Head Up” in ’72). By their final album, 1976’s Counterpoints, Argent would explore a vapid jazz-fusion approach with little success. RIP Argent.

Essential Tracks: “Celebration,” “Lothlorian” “Pleasure” “Rejoice” “Where Are We Going Wrong?”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Selling England By The Pound


Welcome to the decline and fall of the British Empire. Or at least, the soundtrack to it. And what better band to put it all to music than Genesis – a bunch of snooty rich kids from the British Isles. Yet, these prim and proper English lads actually paid their dues, thus staking their claim to artistically trash their own country. Genesis toiled mightily on four previous studio albums, touring relentlessly and gaining a reputation for being…er, let’s just say a little “out there.” Lead singer/thespian Peter Gabriel developed a quirky habit of donning batwings, face paint, masks, costumes and other sundry dramatic elements – assuming the role of lead-singer-as-absurdist-clown, yet singing intelligently creative lyrics backed by a band that sounded more like a small chamber orchestra than a typical long-haired hippie rock ‘n roll band. “Can you tell me where my country lies...” Gabriel mournfully sings in the album’s title track. The England he once knew is long gone, but the band’s quaint, almost Victorian vibe still makes one want to jump up and hoist the Union Jack to the rhythm of “The Battle of Epping Forest”…which would be quite difficult, as the time signature on that particular track is all-over-the-place crazy. Still, throughout the album Tony Banks’ gorgeous mellotrons provide a lush, orchestral warmth, while the sweepingly sad guitar solos of Steve Hackett wail above the mix – all kept chugging along by the tightly wound rhythm section of Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins… former great drummer turned sappy, yet hugely popular crooner). Maintaining their grand tradition of avoiding commercial success at all costs, Genesis nevertheless created an important artistic achievement – finally catapulting the band into bigger leagues, to take their rightful place in the hierarchy of established artists (like Yes and King Crimson) who originally inspired them. The river of constant change would soon overtake Genesis. Gabriel’s subsequent departure, followed shortly thereafter by Hackett’s exit, meant that Genesis would look and sound very different in just a few short years. But for this one brief shining moment, the music of Genesis well represented the fate of merry olde England.

Essential Tracks: “Selling England By The Pound” “Firth Of Fifth” “The Cinema Show”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Brain Salad Surgery

Emerson, Lake & Palmer/1973

“Welcome back, my friends… to the show that never ends…” Let’s be honest. That now-iconic line could very well describe the remastering of the Emerson, Lake & Palmer catalog. I mean, how many times can you buy the same CD because it’s been “remastered” for “improved sound quality” (which these days, usually means ear-shattering loudness, suffocating noise-reduction, fingernails-on-chalkboard harshness, etc.)? But I digress. And to be fair, not all ELP remasters sound horrible. Which brings us to Brain Salad Surgery. Considered the ultimate ELP album by many, Brain Salad Surgery takes over-the-top bombast and pretension to dizzying new heights. And I’m saying that as somebody who loves the album. It’s got all the thrill and excitement of a runaway musical train wreck. Because, by 1973, it seems keyboard maestro Keith Emerson (not exactly a critics’ darling) concluded that if he couldn’t get critics to love his band, then he would simply pummel them into submission. Sonically, of course. Thus, Brain Salad Surgery lacks that one important element that made the band's earlier albums so unique: contrast. You’ll find very little of that. Gone are the nuances and subtleties of earlier songs like “Take A Pebble,” “The Endless Enigma” or “Trilogy.” Here, the band creates a nightmarish musical circus with the manic, multi-part “Karn Evil 9” that makes one seriously wonder how much cocaine could realistically be ingested in recording sessions for one measly little album. Not that the entire album is on substance-fueled overdrive. The stately “Jerusalem” kicks things off with majestic aplomb. And Greg Lake’s pretty acoustic ballad “Still…You Turn Me On” shoulda/coulda been a huge hit. But by the time you finally get to the end of this album, and the “great computer” steps up to the microphone…well, maybe it’s time to take a little break and give your head a rest. Note: Try to find the now out-of-print Brain Salad Surgery DVD-Audio disc. It’s got a surround-sound mix that will truly leave your brain feeling like a tossed salad. “We’re so glad you could attend…step inside, step inside…”

Essential Tracks: “Jerusalem” “Still…You Turn Me On” “Karn Evil 9 Pt.1”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Larks' Tongues In Aspic

King Crimson/1973
After breathlessly bringing home the new King Crimson album, tearing open the shrink wrap, placing the plastic platter on the turntable, warning my parents to leave the room, and gently dropping the dirty, worn stylus to vinyl back in ’73, one thing became immediately clear – Larks’ Tongues In Aspic was definitely not your 21st Century Schizoid Man’s King Crimson. For starters, the strange and scary album title sounds like the recipe for a witch’s brew. I’ve tasted my fair share of nasty brew, but thankfully minus any larks’ tongues getting stuck in my teeth. Secondly, the first track kicks off with what sounds like a seriously out-of-whack music box, slowly, ominously fading in, which only adds to the overall tension and creepiness. Not exactly “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the proto head-banger that kicked off their first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King. No, this was a new, improved King Crimson and would turn out to be its most stable classic lineup (the studio had to install revolving doors for their first four albums). With new players (aside from founding member, guitarist and major domo Robert Fripp), a new lyricist and a new attitude, King Crimson was back with a vengeance and a heavier, edgier musical approach. Gone were the gentle cellos and languid woodwinds of the previous LP, Islands – replaced with the arch, angular, almost machine-like precision of the new crew: David Cross' staccato violin jabs, Jamie Muir's eccentric percussives, bassist John Wetton’s massively distorted bass guitar and Fripp doing his best Black & Decker chainsaw imitation. Drummer Bill Bruford actually quit the hugely successful Yes to add his own brittle syncopation to these fractured arrangements. Still, echoes of the old Crimson remain – the wafting of a mellotron in the gorgeous “Exiles,” the bluesy sleaze of “Easy Money,” etc. Granted, King Crimson was never known for its cheery, sunny musical disposition. Larks’ Tongues In Aspic merely carried on this tradition. Considered the strongest post-In The Court Of The Crimson King album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic really can't be compared to that album. This is basically a completely different band – with similarities in name only. Long live the King.

Essential Tracks: “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt. 1” “Exiles” “Easy Money” “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Pt. 2”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Yes Album


They sounded like birds. Their chirping, chiming, pristine vocal harmonies came fluttering out of my speakers like songbirds on a spring morning, blurting out the lyrics: "I've seen all good people turn their heads each day, so satisfied I'm on my way..." Who the heck were these guys with the heavenly harmonies, I pondered. As I turned up the volume, it never dawned on me that the era of perpetual change had now begun. Remember when they used to call it Art Rock (before they called it Progressive Rock)? If you answered “Yes,” then I’ll assume you're familiar with The Yes Album. Because this is the album that set the mold for much of the Prog that followed. Having initially released two tentative, uneven albums that sank like stones, Yes finally started getting some much-needed airplay (evidently they'd be dropped by Atlantic Records if this album didn't do well). With new, nimble-fingered guitarist Steve Howe on board to replace recently booted Peter Banks, the band recorded this stunning collection of tight ensemble pieces. In the context of its time, the Yes sound was strange, fresh, unfamiliar…almost like they’d been transported from the future to show all the other shaggy hippies how rock music should now sound in the brave new world of the '70s. Obviously, no band ever sounded like this before: Chris Squire's metallic, thumping Rickenbacker bass mixed way up front and in your face (bass with balls); Howe's fiddly, fluid fret work (bluegrass meets Bach) skittering all over the place; Tony Kaye's thick, warm Hammond organ filling in the spaces; and Bill Bruford's busy, jazzy tapping (ever so gently) on the drums. It all melded perfectly with Jon Anderson's uniquely high-pitched vocals laid over the top. Extended tracks like “Yours Is No Disgrace” meld herky-jerky rythms, twisting/turning arrangements and recurring themes into a cohesive whole. “Starship Trooper” is launched by Squire's ascending-into-the-heavens bass line, one that any other band would have relegated to the lead guitarist. “Perpetual Change” follows the same strict Yes formula – tightly woven, complicated arrangements that never stay in one place for too long, performed with the precision of maestros having total mastery over their instruments. And let's not forget those crystalline vocal harmonies chirping away. Ultimately, The Yes Album would become a benchmark for a then new and untested genre…the dreaded (at least by most music critics) Prog. Yes would soon be consumed by a rash of personnel changes…the bane of many Prog bands back then. Kaye would be given his walking papers, replaced by dexterous, caped-keyboard man Rick Wakeman – well-armed with synthesizers, clavinets and mellotrons. Bruford would ultimately enlist for duty under Robert Fripp’s command in the Court of the Crimson King. Wakeman would also jump ship in a couple years. But more importantly, The Yes Album introduced a then-unknown Yes to America – breaking all the rules and redefining how a rock band should sound. Total mass acclaim would soon follow.

Essential Tracks: “Yours Is No Disgrace” “Starship Trooper” “I’ve Seen All Good People”