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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Benjamin Gate -- Untitled


When I DJ'd at KLSU, my show had several regular callers. One of my favorites was "Thundar," who often got off of work during the middle of my Sunday night show. Every week, Thundar called without fail, and every week, he requested "something good." It was always implied that what he meant was, "Play me some Benjamin Gate!"
The Benjamin Gate was a five-piece rock band from South Africa, featuring effects-heavy guitar work, driving bass and drums, and the ethereal vocals of Adrienne Liesching. Liesching went on to move to America to marry CCM star Jeremy Camp, which subsequently ended the group. It's a shame she couldn't have cloned herself so that the copy could continue to front this band because they were really on to something. Untitled is the...title of their first album, and while it suffers from a few minor flaws inherent in most debuts, it's quite a good listen.
The dominant feelings on Untitled are atmospheric and arty. The guitar work is fairly unconventional, taking cues from the noisier pages of U2's songbook. The marriage of music to vocals is excellent, as Liesching's voice is perfectly suited to this type of sound. The band hits perfection by their third track, "All Over Me," and doesn't quite hit it again...because perfect is the best, get it?
Forgive their appearance, they're South African, remember?...

The rest of the album is very solid, though gets to be a little bit samey, except for "Rush," which tries to do things the band shouldn't be attempting, including rapping. Maybe it's better they stuck to their signature sound throughout, though the reverb-heavy piano ballad, penultimate track, "Hands," is pretty good stuff, and shows directions the band could have perhaps further explored if they'd made it a few more years. They didn't, though, so for now we have only two complete Benjamin Gate albums, though their debut stands as a great slice of confident, arty, optimistic pre-9/11 rock.

2001 Forefront Records
1. How Long 3:35
2. Scream 4:28
3. All Over Me 4:10
4. Heaven 3:54
5. Lay It Down 3:19
6. Nightglow 4:10
7. Blow My Mind 2:48
8. Halo 3:35
9. Rush 5:35
10. Secret 4:37
11. Hands 4:18
12. Live Out Loud 6:37

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Louisiana, Late October

Nothing like waking up to cool air, getting a wife-on-the-way-to-work-sent text that says thanks for the Coldplay CD, u a good one, waking up your son, feeding him and watching dolphins and whales jump on the TV lazing in bed, heading over to Bluebonnet Swamp, not even caring that you forgot your camera because it could never capture the 48-degree breeze dragging leaves over the mud and gravel with cypress knees below and trembling branches up above as the smell of smoking cajun sausage travels through the thick alleys of trees, and taking a break at a bench while the kid eats puffs, leans against your chest, and pats his hand on your knee because he is your son, watching slow moving water lap against the trees as they slowly go to sleep, and then the kid walking down the path, sitting, drawing with a stick for hours, and no one there in the early morning to bother the kid, and no camera flash to bother the kid, and the kid happy and you happy, and a wedding to go to later, but now a bowl of steaming noodles and manda sausage and bell peppers and onions and tomatoes and cayenne and football on the TV while the kid sleeps.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Becoming the Archetype -- Dichotomy


A progressive death metal band like Becoming the Archetype could only come from the South. I say this because only in the South are we this crazy.
Dichotomy is Becoming the Archetype's third album for Solid State records. It is purportedly based on the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength. I haven't read the book, but by the artwork and lyrics of Dichotomy, I can only guess it is about man's failure to transform himself through science and technology, when he is already created to be who he is by God. One of the most musically-straigtforward (except for the ELO-like intro riff) songs, "Artificial Immortality," features the lines, "I am not a mechanism, I am part of the resistance. I am an organism, an animal, a creature. I am a beast!"
Did I mention this band was kind of crazy? If you prefer a lot of singing with your heavy, screaming music, you are not in luck here. There are a few random sung lines here and there, but death metal growl-screams are the norm. That said, you never know where a choir will show up. The one on "Self Existent" pops up out of no where, chants "He is alive, He is forever!" as vocalist, Jason Wisdom, sings the same thing. This of course descends into the loud sound of a beating heart, before transitioning to the next track, "St. Anne's Lullaby," an acoustic guitar instrumental that could easily soundtrack a renaissance festival. And then the next song begins like a film score.
I haven't mentioned the strings, keys, pianos, and harpsichords yet, but there are some Danny Elfman-esque creepfests that pop-up and disappear just as you're noticing they are there. Of course there's a ton of chugging, shredding, string-bending, and solos as well--at it's heart, despite all the weirdness, Dichotomy is still, somehow, a traditional metal album.
The brutal "Evil Unseen" continues the albums themes--"I am not of this world/And science cannot explain me/I will transcend death/This body will not contain me"--and leads into more leftfield territory with a straightforward death-metal cover of the classic hymn, "How Great Thou Art," building acoustic-intro, blazing solos, and everything. I'm not even kidding.

Becoming the Archetype take it into outer space on Dichotomy's final two tracks. "Deep Heaven"'s got a piano break underneath a belting Pink Floyd-style soprano singer, then a weird piano/drum n'bass tango, before the heavy outro is led out by Wisdom's cries that "Eternity has overtaken me/Eternity is inside of me." The final track, "End of the Age" features just about every crazy thing that's come before just one last time, and some new stuff, including the sound of a lion roaring--I'm serious--and ends with some seriously triumphant lyrics, "With the valleys of the seas exposed/And the surface of the earth laid bare/He reached down into the void/He reached down and took hold of me!/Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
Dichotomy is perfect for those who like experimental metal that still sounds like metal. It's also great for Christian heavy music fans who long for actual spiritual content that is neither insipid, nor un-inspired. In other words, Dichotomy is great for anybody who likes untraditional but anchored heavy music.

2008 Solid State
1. Mountain of Souls 5:14
2. Dichotomy 4:23
3. Artificial Immortality 3:56
4. Self Existent 4:16
5. St. Anne's Lullaby 1:51
6. Ransom 4:02
7. Evil Unseen 4:02
8. How Great Thou Art 4:27
9. Deep Heaven 4:36
10. End of the Age 6:30

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beck -- The Information


If Beck's Midnite Vultures is the party before the apocalypse, his highly underrated The Information is the party after. However, while Beck's lyrics were the sore spot on the former, they are the most intriguing element of the latter.

Nausea Lyrics:
i’m a sea sick sailor
on a ship of noise
i got my maps all backwards
and my instincts poisoned
in a truth blown gutter
full of wasted years
like blown out speakers
ringing in my ears

its nausea, oh nausea
and we’re gone

i’m a straight line walker
in a black out room
i push a shopping cart over
in an aztec ruin
with my minion fingers
working for some god
who could see his own reflection
in a parking lot

its nausea, oh nausea
and we’re gone

like a priest teenager
on a tower of dust
i’m a dead generator
in a cloud of exhaust
i eat alone in the desert
with skulls for my pets
i rate the days 1 to 10
with lead cigarettes

oh its nausea, nausea
and we’re gone

The overall feeling is disappointment with a life lived on a wasted Earth. The word "desert" pops up on almost every track of The Information, usually in reference to what has become of civilization. Beck himself said "The Information" refers to the current information overload of the Internet, Facebook, Mylife, etc, and that theme is easily noticeable: misused technology alienates us from each other on a planet we've destroyed. If this sounds bleak, The Information also houses some of Beck's most comforting songs, like the acoustic/futuristic/electronic lubllaby, "New Round." "There’s no escape hatch/no submarine/that could take you to the moon/rake you in the leaves/and keep you just as safe/as you are in my hands/that someday, someday will say goodbye..." Sorry about the sound quality on this video, but it's too awesome not to link to:

So I've mentioned the dystopic lyrics, but not the music. The thing is, with The Information, the two are almost interchangeable. Beck raps more than he's done in quite a while, as if this is the only way he can get out all he wants to say in a reasonable time. He can still rap without sounding stupid, and his singing voice sounds better than ever. The music follows the usual patterns of unpredictably often featured on a Beck album. There are plenty of acoustic sounds, big beats, real drums, eerie, random voices, strings, scary electronic noises and samples. The Information also features more big bass grooves than any Beck album I can recall. This all flows together to create the sound of a party attended by ghosts on an old, empty dance floor, windows open to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It really is quite haunting, beautiful, and above all, fun.
I have talked this album up a lot, but it has a flaw. The inundation of information also reflects the inundation of music. There are too many songs, and a couple of the weaker tracks ("No Complaints," "1000 Bpm") should have been cut to take the running time under an hour. I guess this could easily be remedied by skipping them, though I hesitate to recommend skipping anything. Regardless of The Information's bloated length, there is an underrated masterpiece within, well worth your time.

ANOTHER BECK NOTE: I think I really undervalued my appreciation of Beck before starting on these reviews. I really, really enjoyed listening to these four albums. I think I am going to go back and purchase all the ones I skipped out on, or at least Guero and Mutations.

2006 Interscope
1. Elevator Music 3:38
2. Think I'm in Love 3:19
3. Cellphone's Dead 4:45
4. Strange Apparition 3:48
5. Soldier Jane 3:58
6. Nausea 2:55
7. New Round 3:25
8. Dark Star 3:45
9. We Dance Alone 3:56
10. No Complaints 3:00
11. 1000BPM 2:29
12. Motorcade 4:15
13. The Information 3:45
14. Movie Theme 3:53
15. The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton 10:36

Now Look What Scientology Did!

With all this effusive praise for Beck's music and joking around, I don't want anyone to think I've gone soft on Scientology. Scientology certainly hasn't gone soft on anyone.
In November of 2005, The Nicsperiment gleefully reported on South Park's hilarious "Trapped in the Closet" episode, which mocked Scientology's beliefs and behavior. As South Park regularly mocks every religion or belief system (including my own), nothing seemed out of the ordinary about this. Well, it must have seemed out of the ordinary to Scientology because their public response was fairly extreme, and there were even rumors that Tom Cruise himself attempted to have the episode pulled from re-airing. Now we know Scientology reacted even more ridiculously and dangerously than previously believed.
According to news reports, Scientology heavily investigated South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone in an attempt to discredit them. This investigation process reportedly entails: " escalating gradient of techniques beginning with quiet investigation and moving up to infiltration, identification of and use of influential friends and contacts of [Parker and Stone], loud investigation, threats, attempts to harm [them] financially, intense propaganda to discredit, and ultimately, if all else fails, utter destruction of the [humorists] through overt harassment."
Man, Scientology doesn't sound like a dangerous cult at all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beck -- Sea Change


Some albums are just depressing. If you are up, these albums can drag you down, and if you are already down, they can pull you further. "Misery Wallows," I like to call in, I just coined that term as I was typing that sentence, and I liked it. More rarely, there are albums that come from a place of depression, but are as uplifting and comforting as an old friend.
Beck recorded Sea Change shortly after discovering his girlfriend of nearly a decade was having an affair, and their subsequent breakup. He hesitated to put his feelings on display to the public in song, but eventually realized that the emotions he was feeling were universal. That's what makes Sea Change not just another "I'm depressed" album. By focusing on the more all-inclusive aspects of his feelings, Beck seems like a friend facing tough times--never a mopey, self-centered drag. Beck also waited just long enough after hitting bottom to record Sea Change. As the album progresses, there are more and more signs of hope to be found, particularly on "Sunday Sun," though the melancholy shades of the album are never abandoned.
Obviously, with this kind of lyrical theme, Sea Change isn't going to be a party record musically. The focus is mostly on acoustic instruments and strings, though the production still features plenty of unexpexted touches. "Guess I'm Doing Fine," showcases some particularly nice 70's folk-style electric guitar.

Beck's voice sounds deeper and more resonant than ever, and despite the scaled back arrangements, the music is still inventive, enjoyable, and full. As a testament to the enjoyability of this album, I just listened to it four times straight (the session with headphones was by far the best), starting in a particularly good mood, and 208-minutes later, I am still in a good mood. I needed Sea Change shortly after its release when I wasn't doing so hot myself, but it is just as good a friend in sunny weather.

A NOTE TO BECK: Plenty of reviews for Sea Change back in 2002 compared the album to the works of Nick Drake. I had never heard of Drake before that time, but after reading his name so consistently next to the name of an album I loved, I checked him out and loved him, as well. Thanks, Beck! You've not only given me years of listening enjoyment, you've also turned me on to other great artists. Also, your "Sunday Sun" is a great rebuff to Drake's own "Saturday Sun." I wish he could have seen the light at the end of the dark tunnels of life, as well.

2002 Universal Distribution
1. The Golden Age 4:36
2. Paper Tiger 4:35
3. Guess I'm Doing Fine 4:49
4. Lonesome Tears 5:37
5. Lost Cause 3:47
6. End of the Day 5:03
7. It's All in Your Mind 3:05
8. Round the Bend 5:15
9. Already Dead 2:58
10. Sunday Sun 4:44
11. Little One 4:26
12. Side of the Road 3:23

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beck -- Midnite Vultures


Beck's Midnite Vultures is the party before the apocalypse. Released a month before the near world-ending Y2k (so close, end of the world, so close!), Midnite Vultures has the strange distinction of being at once Beck's most fun album, but also his most difficult. The reason Midnite Vultures is so difficult? Because it is absolutely ridiculous.
I remember reading an interview with Beck sometime at the start of my senior year of high school. Within, he announced that his last album of the millenium would be absolutely stupid. Midnite Vultures is pretty stupid.
HINT: Midnight is not spelled "midnite."
Perhaps one track out of eleven ("Beautiful Way") can lyrically be taken seriously. The other ten are strange, sexual non sequitors that make little sense and seem to be composed solely for laughs. Thankfully, the music is up to par, and probably the main reason is (skip the next part, I'm being ridiculous again)
Beck – synthesizer, guitar, piano, keyboards, programming, vocals, choir, chorus, producer, vocoder, horn arrangements, mixing
David Campbell – viola, string arrangements, string conductor
Larry Corbett – cello
Joel Derouin – violin
Brian Gardner – mastering
Bernie Grundman – mastering
Greg Leisz – pedal steel
Jay Dee Maness – pedal steel
Johnny Marr – electric guitar
Michael Patterson – mixing
Herb Pedersen – banjo
Fernando Pullum – horn
David Ralicke – trombone
Joe Turano – horn, background vocals
Arnold McCuller – background vocals
Smokey Hormel – guitar
Joey Waronker – percussion, drums
Beth Orton – background vocals
Chris Bellman – mastering
The Dust Brothers – scratching, programming, producer, engineer
Robert Carranza – string engineer
Steve Baxter – horn, background vocals
Justin Meldal-Johnsen – synthesizer, bass, guitar, percussion, background vocals, handclapping, shaker, upright bass
Steve Mixdorf – second engineer
Valerie Pinkston – background vocals
Roger Joseph Manning Jr. – organ, synthesizer, piano, tambourine, background vocals, choir, chorus, clavinet, percussion, shaker, vocoder
Mickey Petralia – programming, producer, engineer, mixing
Shauna O'Brien – project manager
DJ Swamp – scratching
Eve Butler – violin
Charlie Gross – photography
Arroyo Bombers – choir, chorus
Arroyo Tabernacle Men's Chorale – choir, chorus
Jon Birdsong – trumpet
Derek Carlson – second engineer
Eye – artwork, art direction, design, collage
Gimbop – layout direction
Michel Gondry – collage
Tony Hoffer – guitar, programming, producer, engineer, editing, mixing, wah wah guitar, sound design
David Arthur Brown – tenor sax
(resume reading) Good grief, that's a lot of people. I don't mean to repeat myself, but this is even more performers than I wiki-quoted in my Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour review the other day. I'm not trying to say that more performers equates to better music, but when an album has that much musical variation, it's tough to get bored, especially when the music is well-written and being played at a high level of skill. 
Speaking of Midnite Vulture's music, it is a weird sort of funky, futuristic R & B, though somewhere, buried miles beneath, is Beck's tender, folky side waiting to burst out, though it rarely ever does (a little on the "Milk and Honey" outro, with it's acoustic guitar and flute(?), and bits of "Beautiful Way," which includes a nice harmonica solo).
So what we have here is an album featuring great, original music, with Beck belting out "I want to defy the logic of your sexx laws (yes, two x's)", "Give those pious soldiers another lollipop, cuz we're on the good ship, Menage a Trois," "I can smell the V.D. in the club tonight," and "I wanna get with you, only you girl, and your sister, I think her name's Debra." The last lyic comes from album closer, "Debra," which some kid made an awesome live action drama to...but he took it down, so here's just the song:

So anyway, if you have a sense of humor and like fun music, this is an enjoyable album, but if you are looking for Beck's serious side, or any seriousness whatsoever, steer far away--or simply steer to his next album, reviewed tomorrow (and in the case of its title, this pun works! You would be steering away from the good ship, Menage a Trois, to Sea Change. Get it? I'M SO BRILLIANT!).

NOTE: I hope it's clear that this review is scattered because this album is, too. I try to write with the feel of the music...whatever...

1999 DGC Records
1. Sexx Laws 3:39
2. Nicotine & Gravy 5:12
3. Mixed Bizness 4:10
4. Get Real Paid Beck 4:20
5. Hollywood Freaks 3:59
6. Peaches & Cream 4:54
7. Broken Train 4:11
8. Milk & Honey 5:19
9. Beautiful Way 5:43
10. Pressure Zone 3:06
11. Debra 13:48

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beck -- Odelay


Is Beck a Scientologist?
There, googlers, I hope you are happy.
Odelay is Beck's fourth album, but his first work with the producer duo, the Dust Brothers. Bologna is awesome and chocolate is awesome, but the two don't go that great together. In this case, Beck is chocolate, and the Dust Brothers are peanut butter. I made up this analogy myself. Chocolate, or in this case, Beck Hansen, provides the sweet flavor base, with well-written, catchy verses and choruses. Peanut Butter, or Michael Simpson and John King (the Dust Brothers), is a huge, thick slather of unpredictable ancient samples, beats, and additional instrumentation (there might be a banjo or two, and there might be some stuff that is completely unidentifiable) that...well, I was going to say some stuff about Peanut Butter, and how you can't get it out of your mouth, but that is just gross, and music goes in your ears, not your mouth, but if you put peanut butter in your ears, that would just be weird and uncomfortable, unless you like that sort of thing of course, and in that case, you probably wouldn't be able to hear anything through the peanut butter anyway, so I'm not sure what you would do. Probably not listen to Beck. Wow, this analogy bombed.
Anyway, Odelay is a lot of fun, not only because it features good, well-written songs, but also because of its aural unpredictability. The variation is excellent, with rowdiness, eclecticity (if I'm going to make bad analogies, I might as well just make up words, too), and quiet acoustic moments all getting their due. With hip-hop, trip-hop, rock, folk, and everything else under the sun featured, Odelay should have probably been the death of genre, but it wasn't, so as payback for history, everyone go listen to the song "Novacane" and write a five-hundred word essay on what genre this song falls under, because as everyone knows, everything can only be one thing:

2. Compare and contrast with the song that follows "Novacane" on Odelay, "Jackass."
What genre is it? Are they the same genre? Give examples.

3. Get two pieces of bread. Put a Hershey's Bar and three slices of bologna between them. Toasting is optional. How do the flavors combine?

1996 DGC Records
1. Devils Haircut 3:13
2. Hotwax 3:52
3. Lord Only Knows 4:14
4. The New Pollution 3:39
5. Derelict 4:11
6. Novacane 4:38
7. Jack-Ass 4:00
8. Where It's At 5:25
9. Minus 2:32
10. Sissyneck 4:02
11. Readymade 2:43
12. High 5 (Rock the Catskills) 4:10
13. Ramshackle 4:49

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On the Way to the Fourth Decade Pt.1

* A series of observations as my 20's end *

One of the oddest things about the back half of my 20's:
An inverse in beverage preference.
In my early 20's, I wanted and drank beer, and I loved it. Then, somewhere around 26 or 27, something changed: my tastes completely regressed. Beer started to taste like pee again...but root beer started tasting awesome again.
So awesome, that in any given situation, I will take Barq's over Budweiser (or fancy craft beer or any liquid with alcohol in it).

Friday, October 21, 2011

So Now What Do You Think About the Beatles? Well, I'll Tell You! Reflections on Seven Years of Beatlemania in Three Weeks

Nothing is real.
Well, that was intense. I've never been the type of person to go through phases. I like to think I'm a pretty well-rounded individual. Listening to almost nothing but one band for three weeks is something I'm completely foreign with. At times I felt like The Beatles were taking me hostage, even though I did this by choice. It probably did make me a little crazy, so in that spirit, here's an interview with me, by me:

With their moppet haircuts, those Beatles look like the Biebers of their day! The words even sound the same, so it must be so! Which Bieber...I mean, Beatle, is your favorite?
Ha. This is something I actually thought about while listening. Since I play all of the basic instruments The Beatles did, I didn't lean any particular direction based on that. The cool thing to do is say that George is your favorite. He seemed the most distant and chill, and he didn't put himself out there as much as the two front guys. Plus, when I was a kid, and my dad had a mustache, I thought they were the same person. It's no doubt that while George only wrote a small percentage of Beatles songs, he wrote some pretty good ones, especially near the end. His playing added a lot of soul to the band, as well, and his guitar solos always elevated the songs. The oddball, or even more leftfield hipster thing to do, would be to say that Ringo is your favorite. Obviously, he is wanting as a singer, and he only wrote two songs for The Beatles, both only decent. Also, his drumming isn't the most technically proficient work ever done. He did bring the perfect feeling to every song, though. He never overplayed, and he rarely underplayed. He was pretty darned good. The lame thing to say if you weren't a teenage girl at the height of Beatlemania is that Paul is your favorite. He wrote the poppier songs, and he has the most traditional appearance. Then again, the guy also wrote some geniunely weird songs, sometimes even more leftfield than John. Afterall, Sgt. Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour were both his ideas! He was far more creative than he's often given credit for, and some of his songs are the best the band recorded. Then, of course, there's John, who most people like to claim as their favorite. The guy wrote a bunch of great songs, a bunch of weird songs, and he had the attitude most people think of when they think of The Beatles. Then again, without his Yoko dalliances, the band would probably still be together. Also, it seems that he could be kind of childish and petty. Actually, they all seem to have kind of been that way. They were in their early 20's, afterall, and they were certainly no role models. Musically, I don't think I could pick, so I would say that I like them all together, and not really very much on their own. I haven't been able to get into hardly any of their solo stuff (just a little bit of Lennon's), so I think it is obvious to say they were much better together than apart. Lennon kept Paul weird, and Paul kept Lennon grounded. They both assured that only the cream of Harrison's crop would rise to the surface. Ringo was back doing what he did best. Untethered, they just aren't the same. Also, two of them are dead.

Well, you just reviewed TWELVE albums! What Beatles album is your favorite?
I have to say, even though I gave Abbey Road a better score and like that album a whole heck of a lot, I really love Magical Mystery Tour. I don't know why I'm drawn to that one so much, but I think maybe I have a stronger childhood connection to it, and it kind of defines what The Beatles mean to me. It certainly makes me feel the best when I'm done with it.

Not a lot of comments. Did anyone actually read your Beatles reviews?
Shockingly, traffic more than doubled during these reviews. I was really worried interest would be low, but apparently people still google "The Beatles" almost as often as they google "Is Zach Braff a Scientologist" or "What is the difference between dubstep and techno?" They even google it more than "i want 2 c a narked vargina with penes incide," which sadly hasn't led anyone to The Nicsperiment in a while.

So are The Beatles the greatest band of all time?
That question is completely subjective. I reviewed 12 Beatles albums and only gave out one "10." I reviewed nine Appleseed Cast albums and gave three "10's." If I were to tell The Appleseed Cast that I thought they were better than The Beatles, they would probably slap me in the face. Several times, probably.

Now what are you going to do?
Keep reviewing the letter "B." There's a ton of good stuff left, including Beck, Björk, Blindside, Bruce (I'm going in first name, not last name order, because that's how my Zune does it), as well as a bunch of lesser known should be interesting...or it should be something.

You smell nice today. What is that?
Well, I don't generally wear cologne, as no particular scent really sticks to me. I am wearing Brut Stick anti-perspirant/deodorant, which is getting increasingly hard to find. I don't know why. I've been wearing it since I was twelve. It's awesome.

Interesting. Do you find that the things you enjoy are becoming more and more uncommon?
Yes, it is interesting. You know, I'm not sure if they're becoming uncommon any more than they're just becoming harder to find.

Huh. So is it an access issue? At a time where access to information seems almost unlimited?
Yes, you see, me, that's the problem. The good things just don't stand out anymore because they are completely swamped by everything else. Everything is exposed now, naked so to speak, and anyone can have it, it's just a matter of thumbing through the to speak.

So, so to speak, are you still happy?
That's the goal, yes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Beatles -- Let it Be


And it's the end of the road. I mentioned in the previous review that The Beatles recorded Let it Be before Abbey Road, but it was tinkered with by producers, and released the year after. I also mentioned that this was a shame because Abbey Road would have made for an excellent swansong. Let it Be is a swansong of a different sort.
A detriment most often pointed out against Let it Be is the wall of sound touches Phil Spector added to the material. The truth is that these touches very rarely show up to the point that they can't really be blamed. The most egregious example is "The Long and Winding Road." Spector's Lennon-approved orchestral and choir touches on this song are oft-cited as a reason Paul McCartney left the band. However, Spector was just taking the song to its natural conclusion--it already sounded adult-contemporary in its untouched form. It's cheesy and over the top with the touches, but without them, it's just cheesy. It's hard to tell if the same changes are a benefit or a detriment to Lennon's "Across the Universe," though. It's obvious by the title that this is a very cosmic song, so strings fit, but with them, the song loses a lot of the ocean slowly lapping at the shore feel it has without them. Regardless of these two songs, the production touches aren't the problem with the rest of Let it Be. The problem is a lack of good songs.
Things start off strong enough, though. "The Two Us" is a great duet between John and Paul. It captures the rawer, more natural feel the band was originally going for in the Let it Be sessions. Lyrically, it's a good song for these two guys who have done so much together in the last eight years. The whistling of the melody from the end of Magical Mystery Tour's "Hello Goodbye" near the finish adds to the intimate feeling. The next track, "Dig a Pony" is a decent song, and again sounds like The Beatles are playing in the room next door, especially with the chatter after the song. "Across the Universe" follows and is, as said before, perhaps the only really good song possibly negatively affected by the production additions. George Harrison's "My, Me, Mine" comes up next, and is reminiscent of his previous "As My Guitar Gently Weeps." It's a good, hardrocking track, and the added strings are barely noticeable. "Dig It" is just a throwaway snippet of a Bob Dylan cover, and obvious filler. This is maybe the first clue that the label was low on material to add to this album, but it's also followed by maybe the best song Paul McCartney or anyone ever wrote, "Let it Be." You've heard it before, and you already know how good it is. The production touches neither add nor take away from the song. It's perfect. Also, George Harrison's guitar solo here is one of the best arguments that it's not the amount of notes one plays, but the amount of feeling one imbues in them.

The album takes a noticeable nosedive in quality from here on out. "Maggie Mae" is another snippet of filler. "I've Got a Feeling" is okay, but nothing much--it sounds like several ideas jotted down musically, and that's about it. "One After 909" is John and Paul's ridiculous attempt at a train song. It sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis on Quaaludes. This is followed by McCartney's drag of a song, "The Long and Winding Road," which has already been mentioned. "For You Blue" is one of the weaker songs George Harrison penned for The Beatles, though it is slightly elevated by the weird sound of John Lennon playing slide guitar with a shotgun shell. Now we're already done, but for "Get Back," which is a decent Paul rocker, but far from his best work.
Instead of speculating at what might have been, this is it:
The Beatles recorded a final album. It is called Abbey Road, and it is awesome. Then they broke up. After this, Let it Be was pieced together from some pre-Abbey Road studio work the band was not happy with. It's an okay album. The best song from those sessions by far isn't even on it, anyway:

1970 Apple Corps
1. Two of Us 3:36
2. Dig a Pony 3:54
3. Across the Universe 3:48
4. I Me Mine 2:25
5. Dig It 0:50
6. Let It Be 4:03
7. Maggie Mae 0:40
8. I've Got a Feeling 3:37
9. One After 909 2:53
10. The Long and Winding Road 3:38
11. Fore You Blue 2:32
12. Get Back 3:11

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Beatles -- Abbey Road


And here are The Beatles, teetering on the brink of world domination and absolutely falling to pieces. Abbey Road is the last thing they ever recorded together (Let it Be, which I will review tomorrow, was actually recorded before Abbey Road, but released with production tweaks after). From the first notes of the album, it's clear The Beatles are at the peak of their powers, and as each anthem rolls off their guitars into the eternal vaults of history, it's also clear that time simply doesn't allow such things to continue.
Even songs that could be toss offs, like "Octopus's Garden," are elevated. This is, afterall, a song written by the drummer, only the second song he's ever written, about being octopuses and living on the ocean floor, and it's still somehow timeless. When even your "C" songs are elevated to "A" songs, you can pretty much do no wrong, and on "Abbey Road," The Beatles don't. George Harrison's two tracks on Abbey Road, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun," sound as if Harrison tapped directly into Heaven. His guitar arpeggios and lead lines throughout the album are so far elevated above what he was doing on Please Please Me, I'm tempted to go back to my previous way of life of never listening to that album at all. John's guitar playing is almost baroque at times. Paul is singing and writing better than ever. Ringo pounds at the drums in a frenzy--he almost sounds like Keith Moon at points. Also, there are Moogs. Every member of the band is working at the peak of their artistic and technical prowess.
Then of course there's that whole rock opera thing on side two. The energy and zest of this section has been long noted, and I can't really add comment. It's awesome, and it leads to perhaps my favorite Beatles song, "Carry that Weight." I think it's my favorite because it showcases something The Beatles always did well, taking a simple phrase and infusing it with meaning simply by singing it. "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time," is sung with conviction by all four Beatles together and gives the feeling of inescapable time, and that the things we do and endure don't just go away. It's pretty tough stuff, and the line in the middle of the song, "...and in the middle of the celebrations, I break down" sums up the idea well, and is also heartbreaking in it's delivery (I won't even go into the obvious parallels this has with where The Beatles were at this point in their career and their imminent breakup). This last medley of songs, "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End," is the best thing the band ever did, says me.

Everyone gets several solos during "The End" before Paul's final line "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," which is about as good an ending as this band could have hoped to have.
I mean, this guy thought the same, so really, it's gotta be so:

Of course, "The End" isn't even the ending to this album, let alone The Beatles' career. After several seconds of silence, Paul comes back solo for the lovely, 23 second, "Her Majesty," which is easily the best 23 second song ever.
I hope Let it Be is the best 35 minute and 16 second album ever, but I hear it is not. I have never listened to it outside of the singles, so I guess I will find out. I doubt it will come close to Abbey Road, though, which is as good a swan song as any band could ever hope for. It solidifies The Beatles place in history. These songs will be floating around the Earth's atmosphere until it burns into nothing.

1969 Apple Corps
1. Come Together 4:19
2. Something 3:02
3. Maxwell's Silver Hammer 3:27
4. Oh! Darling 3:27
5. Octopus's Garden 2:50
6. I Want You (She's So Heavy) 7:47
7. Here Comes the Sun 3:05
8. Because 2:45
9. You Never Give Me Your Money 4:02
10. Sun King 2:26
11. Mean Mr. Mustard 1:06
12. Polythene Pam 1:12
13. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window 1:58
14. Golden Slumbers 1:31
15. Carry That Weight 1:36
16. The End 2:21
17. Her Majesty 0:27

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Beatles -- The Beatles


The Beatles is simply the sound of The Beatles proving they can do absolutely anything. Paul, often accused of being soft (by myself included), proves he can rock hard enough to inspire Ozzy Osbourne. He and every other member prove they can do anything, even be terrible, but mostly good, and sometimes great, enough to make The Beatles easily essential. I can say this without jumping the gun.
The title of the record is perfectly apt because it shows the band's full scope. The artwork is perfect for The Beatles because instead of facing an every color of the crayon makes brown sludge scenario, every song comes together to form some strange purity that no other band could achieve. Even the Billy Corgan one. And if that much complication can create simplicity, why waste more words trying to describe it? Get in the bathtub and put your headphones on.

1968 Apple Corps
Disc 1
1. Back in the U.S.S.R. 2:43
2. Dear Prudence 3:55
3. Glass Onion 2:17
4. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da 3:08
5. Wild Honey Pie 0:52
6. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill 3:14
7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps 4:44
8. Happiness Is a Warm Gun 2:44
9. Martha My Dear 2:28
10. I'm So Tired 2:03
11. Blackbird 2:18
12. Piggies 2:04
13. Rocky Raccoon 3:33
14. Don't Pass Me By 3:50
15. Why Don't We Do It in the Road? 1:41
16. I Will 1:45
17. Julia 2:56

Disc 2
1. Birthday 2:43
2. Yer Blues 4:00
3. Mother Nature's Son 2:48
4. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey 2:24
5. Sexy Sadie 3:15
6. Helter Skelter 4:29
7. Long, Long, Long 3:06
8. Revolution 1 4:15
9. Honey Pie 2:41
10. Savoy Truffle 2:54
11. Cry Baby Cry 3:02
12. Revolution 9 8:22
13. Good Night 3:15

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Beatles -- Magical Mystery Tour


From the first of these Beatles reviews, I've mentioned that The Beatles' music reminds me of my grandmother's house for some reason. One very tangible reason is that when The Beatles Anthology documentary mini-series aired, right before my fourteenth birthday, I watched it at my grandmother's house. For some reason, the thing that stood out to me most about the documentary was the subject of The Magical Mystery Tour film, and how the band (and a lot of my older relatives also watching the documentary) considered it to be their most abject failure. I found that hard to believe considering how much I was enjoying the music on that part of the documentary, but today the music is considered to be the best thing to come out of that bungled film. I've still never seen it, but half of the Magical Mystery Tour album is extra songs compiled by the label, not used in the film, so context means nothing in this case. The Beatles never meant to make these songs fit all together, but that doesn't stop Magical Mystery Tour from being one of their best albums.
Magical Mystery Tour kicks off exactly like it's predecessor, Sgt. Pepper, with an intro song that sets up the concept (the concept simply being that here are a bunch of magical, adventurous songs). This self-titled track actually bests the one for Sgt. Pepper, though. The hook is more fun, so much that I heard it as a kid, once again when watching the documentary sixteen years ago, and still remember it. Also, the outro is an awesome, kaleidoscopic piano and drum drip down a funky hallway, pure 60's, but it leads to maybe the worst juxtaposition on the album. The next track should really begin far out, but "The Fool on the Hill" starts off so low-key and traditionally, it could be starting a whole new album. That's not to say it's a bad song--once the multitude of flutes burst in at the halfway point, things already feel back on track, and the rest is good, flutey fun. The next track is--GASP!--an instrumental, led by a keyboard, a driving drum beat, and a wordless melody. It's called "Flying," and it really couldn't be called anything else. The positive song ends on a bad drug trip and leads directly down George Harrison's "Blue Jay Way" rabbit hole. The song is about Harrison's attempt to stay awake as he awaits his friend's visit on a very foggy night. It sounds exactly like that, too, and it might just be the best "headphones in the bathtub with the lights out" song The Beatles ever recorded. It leads into maybe the only inconsequential track on Magical Mystery Tour, Paul McCartney's "Your Mother Should Know." The rest of his work on the album is fine, so he gets a pass here, plus, the song isn't bad at all, it just isn't as out there as the rest of the stuff on the album. Speaking of out there...
John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" is the next song, and it closes out the first side, which is actually the soundtrack side. Side Two are the new tracks not used in the film. Also, I'm not sure what film "I Am the Walrus" could ever support because, good grief, it is weird. I remember visiting a book store with my father one time (and maybe only one time). The Star Wars section was across the isle from the music one, so while I sat on the floor and looked at the pictures from the making of The Empire Strikes Back, my old man read Beatles' lyrics out loud to me. When he got to this one, he stopped for a moment, then began:
"I am the eggman. They are the eggman. I am the walrus. Goo goo g'job. Mr. City Policeman sitting, pretty little policeman...what the hell is this? I wonder how many drugs he took on that one?" My guess is, a lot. The song begins with...oh yeah, right, like I am going to try to describe this song. It's fun, it's weird, and I will never do acid.
Side Two starts with Paul McCartney's "Hello, Goodbye," which is almost hilariously straight-laced after the previous song. It's still weird in it's own right, with the title of the song repeated as a mantra, some excellent shouting by Paul, some good drum-freakouts from Ringo, and another outro good enough to be its own song. It's a nice little trippy pop-song, but the next track is called "Strawberry Fields." John Lennon essentially traps "Hello Goodbye" in a psychedelic sandwich. Something that I think is strangely missing on the commentary for "Strawberry Fields" in the last 44-years--the fact that the recording of Lennon's voice is so slowed-down, it's almost unrecognizable. This makes Lennon's self-reflecting voice comforting, even though slowing down usually makes things scarier. The music sounded like nothing at the time, and really nothing now, and to highlight perhaps why, here is the song , and here is the personnel who played on it (thanks Wiki!):
Part one
John Lennon – double-tracked lead vocal, lead guitar, piano, maracas
Paul McCartney – Mellotron and bass
George Harrison – electric slide guitar
Ringo Starr – drums and backward cymbals
Part two
John Lennon – double-tracked lead vocal
Paul McCartney – timpani
George Harrison – swarmandal and bongos
Ringo Starr – drums, percussion and backward cymbals
George Martin – cello and trumpet arrangement
Mal Evans – tambourine
Neil Aspinall – guiro
Terry Doran – maracas
Tony Fisher – trumpet
Greg Bowen – trumpet
Derek Watkins – trumpet
Stanley Roderick – trumpet
John Hall – cello
Derek Simpson – cello
Norman Jones – cello
Both parts
George Martin – producer
Geoff Emerick – engineer
Dang. That is a lot of people. The fact that every Beatle member had a large hand in the song as well is a testament to how talented the four of them were by that point. Also, swarmandal.
The last three songs are interesting, as well. "Penny Lane," another poppy Paul song, is written well with some more idiosyncratic instrumentation. John's "Baby Your a Rich Man" follows in the same vein, albeit sounding a bit more topical, and more of the time.
Magical Mystery Tour ends with one of The Beatle's most well known tracks.
"All You Need Is Love" is one of those songs that sounds as simple as can be, but has some pretty weird timing going on, and generally the kind of cool weirdness we don't see done well too much these days. I really, really wish that more bands would realize how well The Beatles used horns--the horn really doesn't get enough attention these days. It seems like almost every track here has them, and they really make the sound. Horns.
"All You Need Is Love" bookends nicely with the title track, making the album a very well-rounded, cohesive listen, despite the piecemeal construction by the label. Magical Mystery Tour is a great sibling to Sgt Pepper, possibly more trippy, but actually less abrasive and more poppy at points. It shouldn't work, but it really, really does.
And now I've got only three to go. The monster White Album will probably take a while to review (it's thirty songs!), I'm skipping Yellow Submarine (only six tracks, some recycled, do not an album make!), then Abbey Road, then the original Let it Be. Almost there, and yet still so far!

(I think these are the three Beatles videos I remember best. Coincidentally, they are all from this album. When I said earlier (or maybe I didn't), "The Beatles I remember," this is definitely it.

1967 Apple Corps
1. Magical Mystery Tour 2:50
2. The Fool on the Hill 2:59
3. Flying 2:15
4. Blue Jay Way 3:55
5. Your Mother Should Know 2:28
6. I Am the Walrus 4:35
7. Hello Goodbye 3:28
8. Strawberry Fields Forever 4:07
9. Penny Lane 3:00
10. Baby You're a Rich Man 3:01
11. All You Need Is Love 3:52

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Beatles -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


Man, 44 years can create some dissonance. Maybe you've heard a cover of The Beatles' song, "It's Getting Better" at the end of certain commercials. This song is from their Sgt. Pepper album, and the lyric the commercials use is "I have to admit, it's getting better/it's getting better all the time." People smile as they interact with the product the commercial is promoting, and everyone is happy. So on the actual, original recording, what is the back up vocal after this line?
It can't get no worse!
The song also features the line, "I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man, I was mean, but I'm changing my scene/And I'm doing the best that I can." This would have been the perfect line to sell cars and TV's, and I really don't know why they cut it out of the commercials, too.
Anyway, my point is that after 44 years of people calling Sgt. Pepper "the greatest album ever made" and "a psychodelic masterpiece," what the heck is it? Is it what everyone remembers it as? Has it made history, or is it what history has made it to be?
Well lets talk about what I think this album's strongest point is first:
There is always a lot going on. The Beatles and "fifth Beatle," producer George Martin, put a ton of work in recording and adding odd sounds, cutting up and splicing tape, and generally being as different as possible whenever appropriate. This was a pretty original approach 44 years ago, and most pop music these days is just a keyboard, a beat, maybe a sample, and some vocals, so in a way the Sgt. Pepper approach is still original. I've only given three "10's" in this review series, and two of those were given to what is essentially a double album, The Appleseed Cast's Low Level Owl. The Appleseed Cast follow a similar approach in creating a full sound, except instead of whimsy, which The Beatles employ on Sgt. Pepper, The Appleseed Cast employ a type of dramatic ephemerality. The lyrics:
"Sowed a broken blue ocean with old wire hands/found in vacant lots, the lonely shells of flowered plans/outside there for nothing/wives and lovers in ageless sorrow/on now to the wasted rooms and gardens and stricken yards" are a bit different from "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain/ Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies/ Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers/ That grow so incredibly high," but does the seriousness really best the surrealness, or are these lyrics really incredibly close? What the heck am I talking about?
Trippy music is trippy music, I guess. The crux is, can you keep a cohesive feeling throughout your trippy album, and does it actually sound like something somebody will want to listen to? And will this review only be composed of introductory paragraphs?
Sgt. Pepper kicks off with a cool introductory track, getting the listener pumped for the rest of the album with a bunch of horns and clapping and fanfare. I bashed Paul for being a step back from the rest of the band on my Revolver review, but he really takes charge here, writing and singing most of the songs, throwing himself into the craziness, and doing things differently than he ever has before. He came up with this crazy Sgt. Pepper concept himself, and he never wavers from it. Even his token cheesiness gets subverted wonderfully...but I'll get to that. Track one ends with Paul shouting "Let me introduce to you, the one and only, Billy Shears!" Billy Shears turns out to be Ringo, as Ringo takes lead vocal on the second song, "With a Little Help from My Friends." It's a fun little song that gels perfectly with the feeling of the album, but there's a problem if you were born in the late 70's, or early 80's...

You heard Joe Cocker belt the hell out of this song every week before The Wonder Years, and by the time you got around to hearing The Beatles song, it just sounded like a jokey cover of the one that preceded Kevin Arnold's emotional journey every Wednesday night of your childhood.
Yeah, go ahead, listen to the Billy Shears one:

Anyway, if there is an album to bunny trail on, I guess this is it. "With a Little Help" flows into Lennon's awesomely trippy, (and aforequoted song that involves pies made of a popular confection) "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." This track might fit the album cover better than any of the others, and this is largely thanks to the creepy old fantasy organ played in the background (thanks Paul!) and the lyrics. Of course, now I can't hear this song without thinking of a bunch of hippie scientists dancing to it around an Australopithecus skeleton and a campfire in the African night. Thanks a lot, Professor Manheim! If I link to your book, can I get a cut?
And then that song from the commercials comes on. "Getting Better" is far...better than it's been given credit for in its pop-culture raping. The reason is, of course, the excellent subversion found throughout the song. It could be just a slightly trippy (thanks tambura!(thanks George!) version of one of Paul's cheesy pop-songs, but his lyrics are beautifully black. He sings about how wonderful things are now that he's basically found a girl he can't beat could things really be worse? Beating women, and beating anyone really, isn't funny or beautiful in the least, but writing a pop song about it that promotional companies will brainlessly institute into advertisements for their products is. And afterall...he doesn't beat the new girl, does he? And then the next song, "Fixing a Hole"...
"I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in/ and stops my mind from wandering/ where it will go" and there's a trippy harpsichord and electic guitar, and a steady beat. Sounds good to me. Somehow no one's ruined this one yet. Sounds just like you would think this album should sound.
Then there's "She's Leaving Home", a weird sort of call-and-response between a sort of Greek chorus singing about a girl running away from her parents to shack up with a guy, and the baffled parents themselves. Oh, and the band doesn't play, just a string section and a harp. It's weird, kind of wonderful, and not something even the most innovative ad man could push a car with...and I'll probably eat these words before Sgt. Pepper turns fifty.
The weirdness continues with the almost frighteningly carnivalistic "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," featuring John barking circus-related terminology over a variety of circus instruments and the rest of the band. Nothing could really follow this except for a weird sitar track from George, so "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is followed on side two by a weird sitar track from George. "Within You Without You" actually features George, a sitar, and a BUNCH of Indian instruments, and it's a pretty hypnotic earbug, which almost makes it easy to understand how it was originally a thirty-minute song, and not the five minute track it was culled down to...wait, a five-minute track?! From the Beatles?! Yes, the Beatles actually get out of the three-minute pop-hit time range on Sgt. Pepper, and that in itself is awesome.
Of course, a five-minute sitar-jam from George can only be followed by a two-minute cheesy love song from Paul, so...actually, "When I'm Sixty-Four" is all shiny whimsy on the surface, but pretty bleak under a microscope, as the protagonist is still wasting away, waiting for an answer from his love at the end of the song. The mood and sound also fit the rest of the album. Past the halfway point, we still have cohesion.
Paul posits another goofy love song that's secretly kind of twisted in "Lovely Rita," about a female parking ticket-giver he is quite clearly taunting. Also, "Lovely Rita" has a killer outro that I wish lasted three minutes instead of 30 seconds, but that just makes me want to listen to the song again.
"Good Morning" follows in a sort of annoying fashion. John's cadence is a little irritating, and the horns are a bit much, but all the ridiculous animal sound effects are fun, and the mood of the album never drops. Plus, George gets a raging guitar solo (I assume it's him). Then we get a reprise outro of the first track, and the album could be over, and just a pretty decent one, but as the sound of applause fades we get Sgt. Pepper's best song, and maybe the best one The Beatles ever recorded.
I think people have probably written entire books about "A Day in the Life," and this review is already reaching novella length, so I'll try to be brief by just making a list of reasons this song works so well:

1. The actual song:
2. It's placement on the album: Sgt. Pepper feels like a closed experience with the intro/outro, and a cohesive feeling throughout. "A Day in the Life" is like finding out you have a secret present waiting behind the tree after you've already opened all the others and thought you were done. It's a Red Ryder BB Gun called "A Day in the Life," and it's better than all the other pretty excellent presents you've received.
3. "A Day in the Life" holds you hostage. The three big orchestral buildups ratchet up the tension so high throughout the song that the final, resounding, releasing chord sounds like the most beautiful sound humans have ever created in the known universe.
4. The lyrics. The first and third verses, John's, sound timely, but have nothing to do with each other. The second verse, Paul's, is a nostalgic look at a day he had as a schoolboy. The combination of outer world and inner experience makes it feel like the song is somehow about everything.
5. That melody John sings in the bridge. People have been ripping it off ever since.
6. Nothing can follow it.

So there you have it. A great song to end a great album. But is Sgt. Pepper pefect?
No, it's not. I'd love to give it a "10" and say it's perfect in its imperfections, but a perfect album doesn't have as many weak moments as this one does (and shockingly, they are Lennon's fault this time). Groundbreaking doesn't mean perfect, and this album is only the former. Even so, it's a great listen--after 44 years of noise have dulled its impact, there's still only one Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (and where would Joe Cocker be without it?).

1967 Apple Corps
1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 2:02
2. With a Little Help from My Friends 2:44
3. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds 3:28
4. Getting Better 2:48
5. Fixing a Hole 2:36
6. She's Leaving Home 3:35
7. Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite! 2:37
8. Within You Without You 5:04
9. When I'm Sixty-Four 2:37
10. Lovely Rita 2:42
11. Good Morning Good Morning 2:41
12. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) 1:19
13. A Day in the Life 5:39

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Beatles -- Revolver


I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember) that Revolver is the sound of each individual Beatle peaking at the same time. I've read a lot of stuff similar to that, too, but I just can't get behind those statements. Rubber Soul sounded like all of the Beatles peaking at the same time, at the end of a first phase...Revolver sounds like a transition to the next one. Don't get me wrong, it's quite good, but in the present context of reality, based on the quality of each song, and each song flowing into the next, this isn't the greatest album ever made, and it isn't even the best of the first seven albums The Beatles recorded.
Revolver starts strong with "Taxman," which rocks harder than most of their previous songs. George Harrison really seems to be filled with confidence, blasting out jagged electric riffs, and belting lyrics that have absolutely nothing to do with romance. This is followed by the symphonic "Eleanor Rigby" with only strings backing Paul McCartney's vocals. It's clear by this point that The Beatles are, um...experimenting, as the next track "I'm Only Sleeping" features a backwards tracked guitar throughout, and the fourth, "Love You To" features only traditional Indian instrumentation. "Here, There, and Everywhere" would be a classic cheesy Paul ballad, but the melancholy melody of the song completely counteracts the lyrics. Same goes for "Yellow Submarine," which is a jaunty lullaby with a surprisingly sad underpining, perhaps due to Ringo's delivery (this is his only lead vocal on the album, but it's a good one). Then again, what kid wants to go to sleep?
Hey, speaking of Ringo, his drums sound great on the next track, "She Said, She Said," which finds Lennon doing more childhood introspection and coming up with trippy results.

The second side starts with McCartney's "Good Day Sunshine," which is an okay song, but kind of redundant at this point on the album. The arrangement is nice, the production is good, but it doesn't really add anything to the record--in fact, it kills the momentum.
"And Your Bird Can Sing" picks the momentum back up with it's electric swagger and rolling beat, but then McCartney's "For No One" grinds things to a halt again. Again, it's not a bad song, and the horns are nice, but it's like McCartney is on a different planet on this side of the album. He is lying under a tree taking a nap, not realizing that "I'm Only Sleeping" was seven songs ago. "Doctor Robert" picks up the pace again, but it's just not that good of a song, perhaps Lennon's only disappointment on Revolver. Things get back on track with George Harrison's "I Want to Tell You" (Harrison's tracks come close to owning this album). McCartney's "Got to Get You Into My Life" is delightfully raucous, yet his romantic lyrical aspirations are what knock Revolver down. Again, he sings about romance just like he did on the last six albums, while his bandmates seem to now be focusing on all aspects of life. It almost reaches a point where just hearing McCartney's voice kick off a Revolver track causes frustration--you know exactly what you are about to get. It's like the whole band is aching to get to some transcendant level musically, but only two are attempting to do so lyrically (Ringo don't count). Harrison and Lennon are looking at the whole scope of life, while McCartney is making googly eyes over their shoulders at some girl he sees. I can't remember if this ever gets better--I hope it does. McCartney proves on his first track here, "Eleanor Rigby," that he CAN do better, singing achingly about loneliness--so maybe that's why I am so disappointed with the rest of his lyrical output--and also why I am using so many dashes and the word "again" again and again.
Everybody else is more than solid, though, and Lennon's trippy closer, "Tomorrow Never Knows," proves that the Beatles are a great band, albeit one with members not quite on the same page.
Here, go eat some oreos:

Apple Corps 1966
1. Taxman 2:38
2. Eleanor Rigby 2:06
3. I'm Only Sleeping 3:00
4. Love You To 2:59
5. Here, There and Everywhere 2:24
6. Yellow Submarine 2:38
7. She Said She Said 2:36
8. Good Day Sunshine 2:09
9. And Your Bird Can Sing 2:00
10. For No One 1:59
11. Doctor Robert 2:14
12. I Want To Tell You 2:27
13. Got To Get You Into My Life 2:29
14. Tomorrow Never Knows 3:01

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Beatles -- Rubber Soul


Rubber Soul is the sound of a band creating songs they enjoy, and using their instruments to realize the sounds in their head. On the first two Beatles' albums, and large sections of the third, fourth, and fifth, it's easy to see a music executive barking orders at the band. I can't see anyone telling them what to do when I listen to this. I don't say this because I read it in a Rolling Stone article or something--for all I know, The Beatles could have been ordered around just as much during the Rubber Soul Sessions as on any before them. I say this because I've been listening to the previous five albums non-stop for the last week, and this one is so much better than those, it's almost unbelievable that this came only two and a half years after the first one.
For me, the biggest difference is the timeless nature of the music. Sure, some of the tracks on the first couple of albums, and a decent amount of tracks on the others before this are timeless, but this whole record exists in some special place where nothing sounds dated, and every note sounds original.
Maybe this is because the lyrics finally start stretching their legs--I don't think "girl" gets rhymed with "world" one time on the whole thing. Maybe it's that George Harrison sounds like he is having all the fun in the world expressing himself musically (this is the one where he starts playing the sitar!). Maybe it's that Paul and John sound like two artists writing songs together, and not two businessmen (Old Ringo sounds better than ever on the drums, as well). Whatever the reason, this is the first Beatles album I can listen to willingly (and not just because I am reviewing it) from front to back without skipping a track.
I mean, this guitar riff and these harmonies and that crazy keyboard bridge:

Listen to The Beatles "In My Life"

It would be one thing to have just a couple of songs like this surrounded by filler, but this whole album is just as fun, witty, and inventive.
I just listened to Rubber Soul five times straight. That definitely says something...I might like The Beatles now...I guess we'll see...time for Revolver.

1965 Apple Corps
1. Drive My Car 2:28
2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) 2:04
3. You Won't See Me 3:19
4. Nowhere Man 2:43
5. Think for Yourself 2:18
6. The Word 2:43
7. Michelle 2:42
8. What Goes On 2:48
9. Girl 2:31
10. I'm Looking Through You 2:26
11. In My Life 2:26
12. Wait 2:14
13. If I Needed Someone 2:22
14. Run for Your Life 2:23

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Beatles -- Help!


The Beatles continue to slowly grow on Help! Beatles for Sale showed the most promising signs of potential yet, and Help! goes even further. The songs are just a little more well written, and a little more varied in sound. The greatest flaw is still there, namely, sometimes cheesy, romance-based lyrics, but the situation of the various relationships is more complex than before. The lyrics rarely hit a level where the schmaltz is too heavy, but rarely doesn't mean never: "It's Only Love" is so sentimentally disgusting, it's hard to believe the biggest band in history actually wrote and recorded it. There are more than enough great classics to tip the balance far into the good column, though. The title track is a blast of wonderful energy, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and "I've Just Seen a Face" are better than the entirety of Please Please Me, and "Yesterday" is absolutely timeless.

That song in particular is as far away from the initial Beatles' sound as anything they had yet done (to be fair, it's also the only song up to this point featuring just one Beatle, in this case, Paul). In fact, Help! has less looks back to that orignal sound than any Beatles' album yet, though the freak-out closing number, "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," goes back to the old blueprint of finishing with a wild cover of someone else's song. It still works.
As much as I talk about the tiny, always forward steps between each Beatles' record, this is their FIFTH album in barely over two years! Today we get about three years between TWO albums from most bands, and we are quite lucky if those bands take any steps forward at all. Help! is already worlds apart from Please Please Me and it's only been half a presidential term (or in this case, an assassination, a succession, and a re-election...I guess things just moved faster back then).

1965 Apple Corps
1 Help! 2:19
2 The Night Before 2:34
3 You've Got to Hide Your Love Away 2:09
4 I Need You 2:28
5 Another Girl 2:05
6 You're Going to Lose That Girl 2:18
7 Ticket to Ride 3:09
8 Act Naturally 2:30
9 It's Only Love 1:56
10 You Like Me Too Much 2:36
11 Tell Me What You See 2:37
12 I've Just Seen a Face 2:05
13 Yesterday 2:05
14 Dizzy Miss Lizzy 2:58

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Beatles -- Beatles for Sale


"We got more and more free to get into ourselves. Our student selves rather than 'we must please the girls and make money', which is all that "From Me to You", "Thank You Girl", "P. S. I Love You!" is about. "Baby's in Black" we did because we liked waltz-time ... and I think also John and I wanted to do something bluesy, a bit darker, more grown-up, rather than just straight pop."--Paul McCartney on recording Beatles for Sale

While there are tiny steps forward between The Beatles' first, second, and third albums, there is a tangible shift between A Hard Day's Night, and Beatles for Sale. This is obvious from the sarcastic album title, the moody album cover, and the songs themselves.
"No Reply" starts things off with a notable jump in songwriting quality and attitude. Lennon (who for the most part, owns this album) sounds as real as he did on "Twist and Shout," except this is the first track on the album, and he actually wrote this song. The quiet/calm, loud/intense dynamic is excellent, the buildup is wonderful. The lyrics, still romance-based, are far more introspective, and the chord changes are surprising and moody. It might be the first Beatles-penned track that is truly great, not just as a crowd pleaser, but as a song.

The second track is called, "I'm a Loser." If you can't tell from the title, the tempo set by the first track doesn't ebb in the second. Even "Baby's in Black," which takes the token third track ballad spot, is idiosyncratic and morose. Speaking of ballads, McCartney even manages to write and sing one that doesn't sound like it's drenched in Aunt Jemima's. It's called, "Follow the Sun," and it's a wonderful, shame-free song. There are covers again on this album, but instead of regressing from the all-original, A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles really make these songs sound their own. And screw you, 1960's critics and"Mr. Moonlight" is an excellent cover! How can any song that starts with John Lennon's voice sounding like this be bad?

The weird,slightly creepy organs in "Mr. Moonlight" are great as well as Ringo's tumbling drumbeat.
Unfortunately, the second side of the record (or the second half of the CD) doesn't take nearly as many risks. "Eight Days a Week" plays with recording techniques, but doesn't break any ground as a song. The covers sound safer. Lyrics are a little more shallow. None of the songs are bad, though, they just pale next to the first half. On the flip side, Ringo adds more to this recording than on any previous releases. "What You're Doing" isn't that interesting of a song, but Ringo's big intro/outro beat is a classic.

Overall, Beatles for Sale finally sees the band taking a leg out of the teeny-bopper pool and dipping their toes into the vast ocean of the history they were soon to make.

POSTSCRIPT EDIT: I talked about some of the memories this music stirs in me in the Please Please Me post. For some reason Beatles for Sale reminds me of my grandmother's driveway in Morganza. I have no idea why.

1964 Toshiba
1. No Reply 2:16
2. I'm a Loser 2:30
3. Baby's in Black 2:04
4. Rock & Roll Music 2:31
5. I'll Follow the Sun 1:48
6. Mr. Moonlight 2:38
7. Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey! 2:38
8. Eight Days a Week 2:43
9. Words of Love 2:04
10. Honey Don't 2:57
11. Every Little Thing 2:03
12. I Don't Want to Spoil the Party 2:34
13. What You're Doing 2:30
14. Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby 2:27

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Beatles -- A Hard Day's Night


The Beatles return with more of the same, and yet something completely different on A Hard Day's Night. I remember watching this film on the Disney Channel one night when I was a child (and Disney was a completely different channel that actually geared some programming toward adults), and not knowing what to make of it. All I knew was that these girls were chasing these four guys in suits around everywhere, and they rode on trains and stuff, and there were catchy songs in the background. That's all I remember, anyway, so all I can do is take this album as something that stands on its own--which returns me to the opening sentence.
Musically, this doesn't sound much different from the first two albums: twangy, rocking songs, mixed with slowed-down ballads, all straightforward. If there's a difference, it's a noticeable growth in swagger--for this album, and for the first time, The Beatles wrote every song themselves, and this increase in confidence shows in the music. They sound a bit tougher, even though they still sing constantly about crying because of girl-trouble. Yes, the lyrics employ slightly bigger words and are more thematically cohesive (coming and going being the obvious common thread), but they still can't liftoff past the teenage romance stage. That is what seems to be holding the band back more than anything. You can tell by some of the additional instrumentation (which you can also find in the previous two albums) that they want to break the mold, but they don't have the experience or talent to yet do it. Then again, the three albums I've so far reviewed came out over the span of barely more than a year, so maybe I should cut these kids a break.
Lord knows they need it.

1964 Toshiba
1 A Hard Day's Night 2:34
2 I Should Have Known Better 2:43
3 If I Fell 2:19
4 I'm Happy Just to Dance with You 1:56
5 And I Love Her 2:29
6 Tell Me Why 2:08
7 Can't Buy Me Love 2:11
8 Any Time at All 2:11
9 I'll Cry Instead 1:45
10 Things We Said Today 2:35
11 When I Get Home 2:16
12 You Can't Do That 2:34
13 I'll Be Back 2:26

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Beatles -- With the Beatles


The Beatles return with more brainless pop music on their sophmore album, With the Beatles. The formula is tweaked a little, and there's a bit more of an edge to it, but With the Beatles is still cut from the same mold as Please Please Me.
The compositions do sound a bit more complex. "Till There Was You"'s delicate, sophisticated acoustic arrangement stands out particularly, as does the whimsical nostalgia of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." There are more little touches here and there, like the low-octave piano in "Not a Second Time," adding depth and atmosphere to the recording. John and Paul's voices gel better, perhaps a product of the months touring between the previous album and this one. While these are baby steps forward, the lyrics are still ankle-deep and almost entired focused on schmaltzy romance. This all adds up to another fun but harmless listen.
And on a final note...
Like Please Please Me, With the Beatles ends on a rawer number, this time the Motown standard, "Money." The vocals are harsher and more alive, and the song is a blast...

Until this ruins it for you for the rest of your life:

1963 Apple Corps
1. It Won't Be Long 2:13
2. All I've Got to Do 2:02
3. All My Loving 2:07
4. Don't Bother Me 2:28
5. Little Child 1:46
6. Till There Was You 2:13
7. Please Mister Postman 2:34
8. Roll Over Beethoven 2:45
9. Hold Me Tight 2:31
10. You've Really Got a Hold on Me 3:01
11. I Wanna Be Your Man 1:59
12. Devil in Her Heart 2:26
13. Not a Second Time 2:06
14. Money (That's What I Want) 2:51

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Beatles -- Please Please Me


Well, here we go. The Beatles. The most popular band in the history of the world. So much has been written about them in the last 50 years, the only reason I am even going through the trouble of reviewing their albums is the sheer ridiculousness of it. I come into this with as much bias as anyone. If I think back to my earliest memories of the Beatles, it's sitting in my grandmother's ancient home more than a decade after the band broke up, hearing guitar-jangle and reverbed-vocals, looking at black and white photos. Then all of a sudden there are all these bright colors and druggy things and hippies and all kinds of history happening and that Woodstock documentary where I saw boobs for the first time. Anyway, whatever The Beatles were to me as a child, they were always somebody else's music. My parents had most of The Beatles' albums on vinyl, but they also had every Yes album on vinyl, so any Beatle's nostalgia I get from them is mixed together with a full decade of progressive rock, and Zeppelin, and rolling papers that somehow never got thrown away.
Since then, or I should say, in the ensuing thirty years, I have made numerous attempts to make The Beatles mine, and I have failed miserably every time. The closest I've come is achieving the feeling of thumbing through a history book. Nothing ever connected to me like Kurt Cobain's eyeballs between "shiver the whole...night through" at the end of Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"--then again, I was actually alive and watching that happen.
So here I go again. New rules this time--the same rules I have implemented for every one of these "Every Album I Own" reviews: at least two listens, no song skipping, at least one listen exclusively with headphones. If this doesn't do it...
Jangle, Jangle, Jangle. That's what I heard the last time I tried to listen to Please Please Me, The Beatles' debut album. Forcing myself to focus, there is a lot more to this than jangle, jangle, but musically and lyrically, this is about as deep as a bathtub. Every song is centered on boy/girl relations, with the standard sensitive numbers, and the standard horny-boy numbers. What saves this music is the band's energy and charisma. If they only started this band to pick up girls and make money, they were definitely already throwing themselves into the proposition by this point.
Various sources say Please Please Me was recorded in only one day. It cewrtainly flows like one live band set--the only thing missing is fans' screaming voices. Today we would consider this guitar-pop music, certainly not rock music, except for the closing track, a cover of "Twist and Shout" where John Lennon was apparently losing his voice.

According to various sources, this was the last song The Beatles recorded during the whirlwind,ten-hour Please Please Me session, and to top it off, Lennon had a cold. Not knowing that, I would simply guess this was a really passionate performance of the song, and without a doubt, the album highlight. Even if this information about the performance is true, the realness of it overcomes the pop-packaged tendencies of the rest of the album. While the music and arrangements are well done overall, and some of George Harrison's jangly solos are a blast (the shoutout Paul McCartney gives him before the solo on "Boys" is particularly illuminating), this isn't anything groundbreaking as far as sound goes. I know that The Beatles pioneered the concept of a band writing and performing their own music, and that's awesome, but Please Please Me is trivial fun, and nothing more. It's at least fun, though.
I guess worse things have led to world domination...

1963 Apple Corps
1. I Saw Her Standing There 2:53
2. Misery 1:48
3. Anna (Go to Him) 2:57
4. Chains 2:25
5. Boys 2:26
6. Ask Me Why 2:26
7. Please Please Me 2:00
8. Love Me Do 2:21
9. P.S. I Love You 2:04
10. Baby It's You 2:40
11. Do You Want to Know a Secret 1:57
12. A Taste of Honey 2:03
13. There's a Place 1:50
14. Twist and Shout 2:37

Monday, October 03, 2011

Beanbag -- Welladjusted


I mentioned the turn of the century's Christian punk scene's embarrassment of riches in my Average Joe Aspiring review, but the truth is that the wealth was spread around every sub-genre of Christian rock. Creativity and diversity were at their peak, and you would never guess in 2001 that the myriad of sounds coming out of the scene would eventually all melt into a gooey, distasteful screamo wastepit. Australian rockers, Beanbag, were yet another band that put out incredible music, barely got mention, and broke up. Perhaps they were lucky to release two albums, but in the case of their sophmore outing, Welladjusted, it is truly the listener who is lucky.
Plenty of bands have attempted to perfect the quiet/loud dynamic, but Beanbag were excellent innovators in the pretty/ugly dynamic. One second, Beanbag's vocalist, Hans van Vliet, could bark menacingly, the next he could sing as pretty as anyone. The drummer could go from the sound of every seashell in the world being smashed into the surface of the Pacific, to rolling, ear-pleasing grooves. The guitarists sniped abrasively, then strummed and picked beautifully. Even bassist, Phil Hirvela, got into the act, finding menacing, neck-snapping tones, then falling into groove gorgeously with the drums.

Listen to Beanbag's "Slipstream"

Beanbag also held a firm grip on atmosphere. The dreamy, sad, and tense "These Stains" showed Beanbag's mastery over aural landscapes, eschewing most of the more unpleasant elements of their sound, but creating a song no less engaging. Also, in an absolutely crazy move, Beanbag attempted to cover Björk's "Army of Me" for this album. Most bands trying to cover Björk would sound like a fish flopping around on pavement, but Beanbag somehow made "Army of Me" sound like their own song, and a really good one at that. Their greatest work, however, is album-opener, "Limit of Shunt." This is the kind of song you play in a room full of people to get heads-turning, and people asking, "who is this?"

Listen to Beanbag's "The Limit of Shunt"

Unfortunately, if I did that today, my answer would be:
This is Beanbag. They were from Australia. They broke up.

2001 Inpop Records
1. Limit of Shunt 3:49
2. Chubb 3:23
3. Ill Minded 3:19
4. Slipstream 3:42
5. These Stains 4:47
6. Army of Me (Björk Cover) 3:53
7. Angst by Numbers 3:36
8. There Is More 3:00
9. Resistor 3:32
10. Dynamic Lifter 3:53