50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Five (Revisited)

a_band_called_death

10. Material: Hallucination Engine

Speaking of Bill Laswell, if any single artist can be said to suffer from being too good, and too productive, it’s him. He is music’s quintessential shape-shifter, his hands in so many diverse projects and stretching himself, seamlessly, in so many directions. While any number of his productions could serve as proof for this claim, Hallucination Engine might best represent his uncanny brilliance. What can one say about a recording that brings together the likes of Wayne Shorter, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Sly Dunbar and, for a special—and hilarious—cameo, William Burroughs? Throw all that history and diversity into a studio and, unsurprisingly, a filthy gumbo of funk, dub and old-school jazz emerges, all with a driving beat and traditional Indian music vibe.

It’s entirely too easy to suggest this is a successful take on “East meets West”, but Laswell & Co. deserve considerable credit for using ancient, sacred music as a springboard for extended excursions into a postmodern mash-up: the moods swing from buoyant to serene, and conjure bright, blinking lights one moment and a drift into calm darkness the next. The final result is exhaustive but not exhausting and this isn’t a cynical instance of genre-trolling: this is the real deal delivered by a collective that has been there and done that in order to do this.

material

9. Dr. Octagon: Instrumentalyst: Octagon Beats

The backstory here is crucial for a proper understanding of the perfect storm of personalities and timing that created this album, but the music is ultimately all that matters. And it’s all music: this is a companion piece to the previous volume, Dr. Octagonecologyst. Dr. Octagon being the brainchild and alter ego of Kool Keith (Keith Thornton). While his rhymes and rapping on the first album are distinctive, disturbing and sui generis, he uses his voice, samples and well-timed outbursts to embellish this all-instrumental session (“vocals surgically removed” the cover boasts). The spotlight, then, shines on turntable wizard DJ Qbert and production maestro Dan “The Automator” Nakamura—both of whom are legendary in the appropriate circles.

This is an exceedingly dark, occasionally hilarious, wholly unique album. Nothing else sounds like this, and no amount of musical science could ever duplicate the spooky atmosphere these three men create. It’s a trip, in several senses of the word, through the night shift of an insane asylum inside a mad doctor’s brain, where bizarre announcements escape from muffled intercoms and sly laughter creeps around ill-lit hallways. It’s a homemade B-movie where one hand holds the camera, the other a scalpel, and it’s too dark to tell if that’s his sweat, your tears or somebody else’s blood.

dr octagon

8. DJ Spooky: Optometry

DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is proof that one can never be too smart or too ambitious. Of course, many artists who are too smart or ambitious for their own goods quickly cross the line of pretension or else become too enamored with their ingenuity. Spooky is incapable of thinking small, and his varied interests are obvious by the projects he’s undertaken: turntablist, producer, philosopher, author, professor, editor. But it’s his work in the studio, making music, that finds him combining all of these passions into enduring works of art. Put in more personal terms, I’d followed—and enjoyed—Spooky’s career to this point, but the second I popped this disc in, summer 2002, I knew the ante had been upped. Big time.

Optometry is a masterpiece, and one of the most satisfying musical-cultural mash-ups of the new millennium. Conceived as another installment of the excellent Blue Series, the vision here combined with the stunning cadre of musicians assembled could (should?) have been recipe for disaster or, at least, pretension. Instead, Optometry manages to be many things that succeed as a seamless whole: a rather straightforward—and banging—jazz release, and a fully experimental, heavily avant-garde exercise in illbient. William Parker, one of the premier contemporary bassists, is joined by Matthew Shipp (one of the premier pianists) and the always-excellent Guillermo Brown (drums) and Joe McPhee (sax), throw down sonic cage match style: the proceedings are clearly thought out, but there is plenty of room for improvisation. Words, as always, are hopeless and inadequate when the music can speak for itself: the title track is a triumph of postmodern style: genres smashing and scattering to the margins, all pulled together by Spooky, getting his Sorcerer’s Apprentice on. This is magic.

dj spooky

7. John Fahey: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes

John Fahey poses one significant concern for the uninitiated: he’s so great, and his recordings are all so superlative that once you’re in, you stay in. This ain’t a bad thing, but be forewarned: a little will never be enough. Fahey made a long, remarkable career out of tapping into an understated American expression, infusing traditional blues with folk and progressive elements. He is a guidepost that connects lines between the earliest, acoustic guitar blues of the early 20th Century and the more adventurous yet authentic blues-influenced music of the post-MTV world (think of the basement recordings of early Black Keys or Beck’s stripped down serenades).

Fahey’s work is always a history lesson: he draws freely on familiar (and, especially, unfamiliar) blues standards and, like a jazz player, improvises, embellishes and puts his own distinctive stamp on them. His original compositions emphasize repetition, and an unhurried impulse to get from here to there. Where here or there are is, of course, dependent upon the listener, but as Fahey himself would point out, he was trying to respect and preserve a roots music that was already largely forgotten by the early ‘60s. As his song (and album) titles suggest, he had a sense of humor and did not take himself too seriously even though this music is dead serious. Listening to these songs, you start to feel drawn back to a different time (no computers; no electricity even), and once the music gets inside you, it reminds you of places you’ve never been or don’t exist. Then you realize they do exist, because Fahey made them possible.

john fahey

6. Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The songs “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor.

If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

mighty diamonds

5. Fela Kuti: The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions

Kuti’s legend continues to grow as more people get their minds around how ridiculously productive and consistently awesome he was all the way up to his premature death in 1997. Lauded for inventing and/or popularizing Afrobeat, the work he did, especially throughout the ‘70s, is now correctly considered alongside some of James Brown’s extended funkfests. Leading large bands heavy on brass and percussion, Kuti was comfortable as bandleader and ringleader (and agitator, leading him to clash with and repeatedly be hassled by Nigerian authorities). He would become famous for his epic side-long jams, and just about anything he did in the ‘70s is excellent, but he is captured here, stateside, trying to find the groove. He succeeds, and this document stands as evidence of a master-in-the-making’s introductory statement.

There is an attempt at commerciality here, or at least accessibility he would dispense with altogether in short order. As such the songs are shorter, punchier and in many cases, booty-shaking mini miracles. There is an obvious amalgamation of African and western pop influences, and Kuti, seemingly making it up as he goes along, creates something that defies any type of easy description or categorization. Album closer “This is Sad” serves as a preview for the sprawling instrumental workouts he’d mastermind, but sometimes shorter is better, and there is as much emotion and concentrated intensity in this number as anything he’d go on to do.

fela kuti

4. Death: …For the Whole World to See

First order of business: if you’ve not seen the excellent documentary A Band Called Death, get thee to Netflix. The genuinely unbelievable story of this band and how they failed to launch (for all the wrong reasons) and finally found some semblance of recognition (for all the right reasons) is imperative viewing for artistic, historical and sociological factors.

Their story in a nutshell: music they recorded in 1975 (!!) finally saw the light of day in 2009, and minds were blown. Here is more or less what I thought when I first listened: This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, or can’t get around to acquiring all of, but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story. Simply put and without any overstatement, the tracks these three brothers (literally and figuratively) from Detroit laid down is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, Ramones before Ramones. Punk before punk, as mind boggling as that is.

(Sidenote: It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarrassment, because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least. And that the rock impresario Clive Davis, while allegedly digging what he heard, refused to get on board until the band changed its name. Fuck that, Death said, and the rest was, until 2009, three decades and change of unwritten and almost unheard history.)

So yeah, the story beggars belief, and the eventual documentary was pretty much a foregone conclusion years before it was made, and that is regardless of the actual quality of the music. But as it happens, the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians In My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. It can stand alongside pretty much anything; it’s that vital, that perfect, that real. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.

death

3. The Plugz: Better Luck

Check this out.

Isn’t that one of the greatest things you’ve ever heard? Using Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin (who would later make memorable contributions to REM’s Document), and beefing up the sound with Bruce Fowler’s trombone, this song should have been a number one hit, and should be considered an absolute classic. There is no way to say enough good things: the lyrics, mixing unrequited lust and self-loathing, the music (that trombone adding comic relief to the angst), the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of the vocals, and a guitar-bass-drum assault that is tight as a clam in a vise.

How about this for an album opener—and title track? Again, the lyrics, the vocals, the vibe. These guys aren’t just channeling Los Angeles, they are Los Angeles. And not the Hollywood mansion L.A., but the old Sunset Strip, Jim Morrison high-fiving Charles Bukowski shot and a beer, back-alley on a steamy, stinking summer night L.A. 1981: L.A., like The Big Apple, was still dirty, desperate and an unrivaled breeding ground for art. Not for nothing were The Plugz prominently featured on the soundtrack of consummate L.A. flick, Repo Man.

Right? It is another depressing dissertation on the way we let genius rot on the vine while watered-down, derivative twaddle makes millions. Certainly this was true yesterday, it’s true today and it’ll be true tomorrow. And who cares? Anyone who knows anything understands you have to get outside the margins and beneath even the underground to find the really good shit. And yet…it’s a travesty that Better Luck is not heralded as one of the great American rock albums. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it: let’s get a proper reissue of this masterpiece as soon as possible. I’ll write the liner notes.

plugz

2. Bad Brains: I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would—or could—have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. One of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in modern rock history. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and anything else you ever imagined. And it’s all good.

The album could be described the same way Thomas Hobbes described the state of mankind in the 17th Century: nasty, brutish and short. Add brilliant, soulful, impossible to compartmentalize. It’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of punk, hardcore, classic rock and the time warp that bridges progressive and alternative. Or, if you took the best things about The Clash and Black Sabbath (bookended by Death and Living Colour), it hints at the glories contained within these grooves. Side One of this sucker has to be one of the all-time adrenaline rushes in all popular music, and it stands alongside anything anyone has ever done.

bad brains

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. But here’s the thing: that is not acceptable. Shuggie deserves better, certainly, but it is intolerable that this album is not regularly talked about when we talk about albums everyone should own. Everyone should own this album because it is as perfect as anything anyone did that decade. Anything. Anyone.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s.

Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage. I continue to hope that the time is always right for a full reappraisal of how important, and essential this album is. I’m also willing to bet if you’re not yet in the club, you’ll be glad to join. Are you experienced? It’s never too late.

shuggie otis

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

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Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Five

a_band_called_death

10. Material: Hallucination Engine

Speaking of Bill Laswell, if any single artist can be said to suffer from being too good, and too productive, it’s him. He is music’s quintessential shape-shifter, his hands in so many diverse projects and stretching himself, seamlessly, in so many directions. While any number of his productions could serve as proof for this claim, Hallucination Engine might best represent his uncanny brilliance. What can one say about a recording that brings together the likes of Wayne Shorter, Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Sly Dunbar and, for a special—and hilarious—cameo, William Burroughs? Throw all that history and diversity into a studio and, unsurprisingly, a filthy gumbo of funk, dub and old-school jazz emerges, all with a driving beat and traditional Indian music vibe.

It’s entirely too easy to suggest this is a successful take on “East meets West”, but Laswell & Co. deserve considerable credit for using ancient, sacred music as a springboard for extended excursions into a postmodern mash-up: the moods swing from  buoyant to serene, and conjure bright, blinking lights one moment and a drift into calm darkness the next. The final result is exhaustive but not exhausting and this isn’t a cynical instance of genre-trolling: this is the real deal delivered by a collective that has been there and done that in order to do this.

material

9. Dr. Octagon: Instrumentalyst: Octagon Beats

The backstory here is crucial for a proper understanding of the perfect storm of personalities and timing that created this album, but the music is ultimately all that matters. And it’s all music: this is a companion piece to the previous volume, Dr. Octagonecologyst. Dr. Octagon being the brainchild and alter ego of Kool Keith (Keith Thornton). While his rhymes and rapping on the first album are distinctive, disturbing and sui generis, he uses his voice, samples and well-timed outbursts to embellish this all-instrumental session (“vocals surgically removed” the cover boasts). The spotlight, then, shines on turntable wizard DJ Qbert and production maestro Dan “The Automator” Nakamura—both of whom are legendary in the appropriate circles.

This is an exceedingly dark, occasionally hilarious, wholly unique album. Nothing else sounds like this, and no amount of musical science could ever duplicate the spooky atmosphere these three men create. It’s a trip, in several senses of the word, through the night shift of an insane asylum inside a mad doctor’s brain, where bizarre announcements escape from muffled intercoms and sly laughter creeps around ill-lit hallways. It’s a homemade B-movie where one hand holds the camera, the other a scalpel, and it’s too dark to tell if that’s his sweat, your tears or somebody else’s blood.

dr octagon

8. DJ Spooky: Optometry

DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) is proof that one can never be too smart or too ambitious. Of course, many artists who are too smart or ambitious for their own goods quickly cross the line of pretension or else become too enamored with their ingenuity. Spooky is incapable of thinking small, and his varied interests are obvious by the projects he’s undertaken: turntablist, producer, philosopher, author, professor, editor. But it’s his work in the studio, making music, that finds him combining all of these passions into enduring works of art. Put in more personal terms, I’d followed—and enjoyed—Spooky’s career to this point, but the second I popped this disc in, summer 2002, I knew the ante had been upped. Big time.

Optometry is a masterpiece, and one of the most satisfying musical-cultural mash-ups of the new millennium. Conceived as another installment of the excellent Blue Series, the vision here combined with the stunning cadre of musicians assembled could (should?) have been recipe for disaster or, at least, pretension. Instead, Optometry manages to be many things that succeed as a seamless whole: a rather straightforward—and banging—jazz release, and a fully experimental, heavily avant-garde exercise in illbient. William Parker, one of the premier contemporary bassists, is joined by Matthew Shipp (one of the premier pianists) and the always-excellent Guillermo Brown (drums) and Joe McPhee (sax), throw down sonic cage match style: the proceedings are clearly thought out, but there is plenty of room for improvisation. Words, as always, are hopeless and inadequate when the music can speak for itself: the title track is a triumph of postmodern style: genres smashing and scattering to the margins, all pulled together by Spooky, getting his Sorcerer’s Apprentice on. This is magic.

dj spooky

7. John Fahey: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes

John Fahey poses one significant concern for the uninitiated: he’s so great, and his recordings are all so superlative that once you’re in, you stay in. This ain’t a bad thing, but be forewarned: a little will never be enough. Fahey made a long, remarkable career out of tapping into an understated American expression, infusing traditional blues with folk and progressive elements. He is a guidepost that connects lines between the earliest, acoustic guitar blues of the early 20th Century and the more adventurous yet authentic blues-influenced music of the post-MTV world (think of the basement recordings of early Black Keys or Beck’s stripped down serenades).

Fahey’s work is always a history lesson: he draws freely on familiar (and, especially, unfamiliar) blues standards and, like a jazz player, improvises, embellishes and puts his own distinctive stamp on them. His original compositions emphasize repetition, and an unhurried impulse to get from here to there. Where here or there are is, of course, dependent upon the listener, but as Fahey himself would point out, he was trying to respect and preserve a roots music that was already largely forgotten by the early ‘60s. As his song (and album) titles suggest, he had a sense of humor and did not take himself too seriously even though this music is dead serious. Listening to these songs, you start to feel drawn back to a different time (no computers; no electricity even), and once the music gets inside you, it reminds you of places you’ve never been or don’t exist. Then you realize they do exist, because Fahey made them possible.

john fahey

6. Mighty Diamonds: Right Time

Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The songs “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor.

If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

mighty diamonds

5. Fela Kuti: The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions

Kuti’s legend continues to grow as more people get their minds around how ridiculously productive and consistently awesome he was all the way up to his premature death in 1997. Lauded for inventing and/or popularizing Afrobeat, the work he did, especially throughout the ‘70s, is now correctly considered alongside some of James Brown’s extended funkfests. Leading large bands heavy on brass and percussion, Kuti was comfortable as bandleader and ringleader (and agitator, leading him to clash with and repeatedly be hassled by Nigerian authorities). He would become famous for his epic side-long jams, and just about anything he did in the ‘70s is excellent, but he is captured here, stateside, trying to find the groove. He succeeds, and this document stands as evidence of a master-in-the-making’s introductory statement.

There is an attempt at commerciality here, or at least accessibility he would dispense with altogether in short order. As such the songs are shorter, punchier and in many cases, booty-shaking mini miracles. There is an obvious amalgamation of African and western pop influences, and Kuti, seemingly making it up as he goes along, creates something that defies any type of easy description or categorization. Album closer “This is Sad” serves as a preview for the sprawling instrumental workouts he’d mastermind, but sometimes shorter is better, and there is as much emotion and concentrated intensity in this number as anything he’d go on to do.

fela kuti

4. Death: …For the Whole World to See

First order of business: if you’ve not seen the excellent documentary A Band Called Death, get thee to Netflix. The genuinely unbelievable story of this band and how they failed to launch (for all the wrong reasons) and finally found some semblance of recognition (for all the right reasons) is imperative viewing for artistic, historical and sociological factors.

Their story in a nutshell: music they recorded in 1975 (!!) finally saw the light of day in 2009, and minds were blown. Here is more or less what I thought when I first listened: This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, or can’t get around to acquiring all of, but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story. Simply put and without any overstatement, the tracks these three brothers (literally and figuratively) from Detroit laid down is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, Ramones before Ramones. Punk before punk, as mind boggling as that is.

(Sidenote: It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarrassment, because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least.  And that the rock impresario Clive Davis, while allegedly digging what he heard, refused to get on board until the band changed its name. Fuck that, Death said, and the rest was, until 2009, three decades and change of unwritten and almost unheard history.)

So yeah, the story beggars belief, and the eventual documentary was pretty much a foregone conclusion years before it was made, and that is regardless of the actual quality of the music. But as it happens, the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians In My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. It can stand alongside pretty much anything; it’s that vital, that perfect, that real. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.

death

3. The Plugz: Better Luck

Check this out.

Isn’t that one of the greatest things you’ve ever heard? Using Los Lobos sax player Steve Berlin (who would later make memorable contributions to REM’s Document), and beefing up the sound with Bruce Fowler’s trombone, this song should have been a number one hit, and should be considered an absolute classic. There is no way to say enough good things: the lyrics, mixing unrequited lust and self-loathing, the music (that trombone adding comic relief to the angst), the tongue-in-cheek melodrama of the vocals, and a guitar-bass-drum assault that is tight as a clam in a vise.

How about this for an album opener—and title track? Again, the lyrics, the vocals, the vibe. These guys aren’t just channeling Los Angeles, they are Los Angeles. And not the Hollywood mansion L.A., but the old Sunset Strip, Jim Morrison high-fiving Charles Bukowski shot and a beer, back-alley on a steamy, stinking summer night L.A. 1981: L.A., like The Big Apple, was still dirty, desperate and an unrivaled breeding ground for art. Not for nothing were The Plugz prominently featured on the soundtrack of consummate L.A. flick, Repo Man.

Right? It is another depressing dissertation on the way we let genius rot on the vine while watered-down, derivative twaddle makes millions. Certainly this was true yesterday, it’s true today and it’ll be true tomorrow. And who cares? Anyone who knows anything understands you have to get outside the margins and beneath even the underground to find the really good shit. And yet…it’s a travesty that Better Luck is not heralded as one of the great American rock albums. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it: let’s get a proper reissue of this masterpiece as soon as possible. I’ll write the liner notes.

plugz

2. Bad Brains: I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would—or could—have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. One of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in modern rock history. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and anything else you ever imagined. And it’s all good.

The album could be described the same way Thomas Hobbes described the state of mankind in the 17th Century: nasty, brutish and short. Add brilliant, soulful, impossible to compartmentalize. It’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of punk, hardcore, classic rock and the time warp that bridges progressive and alternative. Or, if you took the best things about The Clash and Black Sabbath (bookended by Death and Living Colour), it hints at the glories contained within these grooves. Side One of this sucker has to be one of the all-time adrenaline rushes in all popular music, and it stands alongside anything anyone has ever done.

bad brains

1. Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information

Shuggie Otis endures as one of those inscrutable figures many people are familiar with, even if they don’t know his name. Sadly, though revealingly, he is likely best known to contemporary ears through the work of other artists. He’s been sampled by Beyonce (“Gift From Virgo”), OutKast (“Mrs. Jackson”) and most notably, The Brothers Johnson, who hit #5 on the charts in 1977 with their excellent, if inferior cover of “Strawberry Letter 23”.

Why isn’t Shuggie Otis recognized by more people as a genius? And why isn’t Inspiration Information regarded as one of the best albums of the ‘70s? Otis, and his masterpiece, have belonged to the underground, enigmas that attract word-of-mouth followings each generation. But here’s the thing: that is not acceptable. Shuggie deserves better, certainly, but it is intolerable that this album is not regularly talked about when we talk about albums everyone should own. Everyone should own this album because it is as perfect as anything anyone did that decade. Anything. Anyone.

The needle could be dropped at virtually any point to make a compelling case for its brilliance, but the high point may be its third track, “Sparkle City”. It still seems nearly impossible that a musician so young could sound this assured, and create a statement of purpose this persuasive. Laid back and unhurried, this song is like walking into a conversation called the ‘70s.

Two minutes before the vocals kick in, Otis is on his own time, taking his time—and it’s (somewhat) understandable why this didn’t find its way onto radios all over America. Dreamlike with an irresistible bass line and perfectly-placed horn flourishes, this psychedelic swirl showcases Shuggie’s remarkable voice. “I heard all the news/There is no offer that I wouldn’t refuse”, he sings, sounding wistful but not boastful. And then he follows that up with an astonishing line that practically predicts the rest of his life, intended or not: “Now come time for me to run / Sorry, people, but I’m not the one”. A wink and a nod, and maybe an insight that explains or at least vindicates how—and why—this preternaturally gifted cat could stroll so calmly off center stage. I continue to hope that the time is always right for a full reappraisal of how important, and essential this album is. I’m also willing to bet if you’re not yet in the club, you’ll be glad to join. Are you experienced? It’s never too late.

shuggie otis

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo (Revisited)

Let us give thanks for the guitar solo.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

Wherever necessary I have plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.) And bonus love, HERE.

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.) And a lot more on Jethro Tull, HERE.

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. A lot more on King Crimson, HERE. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too, irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul. A lot more on Yes, HERE.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, HERE)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Let Us Give Thanks for the Guitar Solo

Over at Esquire the always reliable Charlie Pierce (some previous blog love for him HERE) opened up a discussion on the best guitar solos.

This excercise is equal parts pointless and onanistic, which, of course, is the entire point. (Quick: what was your favorite orgasm? Thought so.)

I jumped into the fray, genuinely dashing ten suggestions of the top of me head. Wherever necessary I plagiarized from opinions I’ve already committed to print. Needless to say, I stand by my men.

1. Pink Floyd, “Time” (from Dark Side of the Moon)

David Gilmour’s epic solo on “Time”: perhaps it will only sound slightly hysterical to suggest that it, almost impossibly, conjures up so much of the pain and profundity that comprises the human condition; if you close your eyes you can hear the messy miracle of Guns, Germs and Steel. Or maybe it’s just the cold steel rail. (Much more on Gilmour, and his mates, HERE.)

2. Jimi Hendrix, “Pali Gap” (from South Saturn Delta)

This is God (sorry Eric Clapton). It’s like one extended solo, allegedly improvised on the spot in the studio. It contains all the multitudes that made Hendrix the Alpha and Omega of the electric guitar: it synthesizes the soul, funk, rock and blues with an inimitable swagger that sandblasts all the premature graffiti off those mid-60s walls in England (sorry Eric Clapton). No, seriously, stop what you’re doing and listen to what happens between 2.05 and 3.20: he takes an idea, follows it, fucks it, quadruples down on it, soars away on it and then sends it off into the world, with a smile. No one has ever done anything like this in rock. NOBODY.

(A LOT more about Hendrix HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

3. Jethro Tull, “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring… (More on this album, if you care to handle the truth, HERE.)

4. Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), “Diaraby” (from Talking Timbuktu)

Ah, the effulgent Ry Cooder dropping his sick slide skillz to devastating effect on this emotional tour de force. Starting at the 2.41 mark and lasting more than a minute, Cooder’s guitar is like a dark freight train headed straight for your skull, but it’s really there to save your soul. It will. From Captain Beefheart to Buena Vista Social Club (and beyond) Cooder remains the realest of deals: a genuine American treasure. (More on our dearly departed Touré, HERE.)

5. King Crimson, “Red” (from Red)

It’s impossible –and unfair– to pick just one from Fripp, but his work on the title track from “Red” is a yin-yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. (You want to talk prog rock? I got your back, HERE.)

6. Led Zeppelin, “Achilles Last Stand” (from Presence)

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is the Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is the Book of Revelation. See: “Achilles Last Stand”, aka THE SOLO. It never got more golden, or godlike. (More on the mighty Zep HERE and HERE.)

7. Bad Brains, “Reignition” (from I Against I)

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a million mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

8. Black Sabbath, “Wheels of Confusion” (from Vol. 4)

Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be)—why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us) but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky. Every member contributes their finest work, from Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming, to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault, to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded thisaccomplished, and committed.

The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme and it doesn’t need to. In fact, it probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches. Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do, and it’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic. (A HELL of a lot more on Sabbath, HERE. See what I did there?)

9. Rush, “Free Will” (from Permanent Waves)

Alex Lifeson’s solo is a 60 second truth bomb we can toss to all the “anti-everything”, blissfully ignorant blowhards. Also too,  irrefutable proof that Canucks can shred. (More on these soon-to-be-hall-of-famers HERE.)

10. Yes, “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Aside from Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled. His epic outro on “Starship Trooper” is a borderline unbelievable integration of power, skill and soul.

BONUS song: “Rainy Day” by Shuggie Otis. Inspiration Information. That is all. (More on Shuggie, coming soon…)

Let me know in the comments which solos I left out. I want to see your top picks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums (Revisited)

(August, 2010)

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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Reagan & Dickens or, The Money Dread (Redux)

Did you know Reagan and Dickens almost share the same birthday?

I didn’t.

One day apart: Dickens –and his readers– celebrate his 200th birthday this week. Reagan –and his disciples– celebrate his 101st.

Perhaps I’m forcing the irony, but the forces of Nature beat me to the punch here. How wickedly appropriate, equal parts amusing and appalling, that two of the more talked-about human beings of the last two centuries have milestones one year (and one day) apart. It would have been too much, even for ironists, and nihilists for that matter, if St. Ronnie happened to have his 100th the same year as Dickens has his 200th. Small blessings and all that.

And yet, how oddly fitting that we are forced to confront the legacies of two men who could not have possibly been more different, both in their causes and effects.

Dickens, aside from his superhuman productivity and a literary canon that scarcely needs to be commented upon, was the rarest of artists (and human beings) who utilized his prestige to influence the greater good. Driven by his own humble beginnings and torched by a ceaseless drive for justice and equity, he used the power of his pen to account for the forgotten and take the usurpers into account. His depictions of the impoverished did more to change the world than any number of politicians (no matter how well-meaning) ever could. That is the not-so-secret dominion of Art as an arbiter of change, an impetus for our collective evolution. Dickens, in short, was a man who attained riches but never lost his soul. He was unwilling –unable, really– to turn his back on reality and tune out the mostly silent screams of the lower castes who were brought into this world without half a chance. His novels are evidence for the distance we’ve travelled, and function as an unsavory reminder of how little we’ve managed to do.

And then there is Reagan, the actor who made a fortune making awful movies and parlayed that into a career that put his acting ability to the summit of its purpose, circa second-half century America. Rich, he became a lot richer turning his back, opportunistically, gleefully on his past, transmuting from an admirer of FDR to a true believer who hit the trail for the repugnant Barry Goldwater. From a man who saw the country ravaged by the Great Depression, and therefore endorsed the New Deal, he subsequently did more than any president to undo the legislation that helped stave off a genuine apocalypse and helped solidify the middle-class for decades.

You know what happened next: the actor started reading his scripts before rabid fans instead of imbecilic directors and he made moves instead of movies. The movement, not-so-fondly recalled as The Reagan Revolution, built its momentum on a shameful villification of America’s poor and lionized (some would say fetishized) the wealthiest percentile and turned them into folk heroes. Because Michael Douglas turned in such an effulgent performance (in a rather mush-mouthed, typically ham-fisted Oliver Stone screenplay), few people –then; now– understood that Gordon Gekko was not “merely” a bad guy; he was a sociopath. In less than two terms, Reaganomics and Wall Street vandalism laid waste to the working class and put us on a path where the richest of the rich were entitled, by Divine Right, to pay ever-less taxes even as young pillagers in training, like Mitt Romney, perfected the business acumen of bankrupting companies for profit into a repugnant performance art.

You know what happened next: 2008 and the cratered economy Obama inherited.

And America, where we read tributes to Dickens’ works but not the conditions that inspired them, and a clown shoes clusterfuck of weasels, egomaniacs and moral zombies all of whom invoke Reagan and pimp for his posthumous blessing the way Oliver Twist coveted that extra portion of gruel.

The Money Dread*

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business—and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.

*excerpted from the novel Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

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Hey Gibson, Let’s Talk Guitar Albums

Okay.

Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced their selections of what they deem the Top 50 Guitar Albums ever.

Now, as someone who writes about music (and who has offered up a few lists of my own), I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.

So it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ’round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on their list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.

Let’s review their Top 10:

10. AC/DC: Back in Black, 9. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, 8. Cream: Disraeli Gears, 7. The Allman Brothers Band: At Fillmore East, 6. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II, 5. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction, 4. Derek and the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 3. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV, 2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced, 1. Van Halen, Van Halen.

Nothing really outrageous there, I reckon. I would say The Who should be in any list before AC/DC and having Eric “God” Clapton in there twice is a bit much (particularly at the expense of Tony Iommi). I’ll just wryly suggest that putting Van Halen (a worthy Top 10 entry for sure) before Hendrix is equal parts laughable and ludicrous. And if you do –and you should– have Hendrix in there, put all three of his albums in there, because a case could be made that they go 1-2-3.

There are many predictable (and inappropriate) selections rounding out the other 40 selections, such as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Really? Those guys who could barely play their instruments made one of the 50 best (#15, in fact) guitar albums of all time? Give me a personal break and slip a safety pin through it. Another AC/DC (Highway To Hell) but nothing by Rush? Of course. Oasis but no Living Colour? Oh. Et cetera.

So I won’t spend more time bitching about the unconscionable omission of albums like (insert anything by Black Sabbath) or (insert anything by Rush circa 1970-something) or Aqualung, The Queen is Dead, Selling England by the Pound, Morrison Hotel, (insert virtually anything by Frank Zappa), Superfly, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Time’s Up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rubber Factory, Let It Bleed, Animals, The Royal Scam, The Woods, (insert anything by Sonic Youth), and one or two (dozen) others.

Here is my alternate Top 10, with respect to their mostly unassailable final selections.

10. Yes, The Yes Album

Let’s start out with Yes since, other than Rush, this band gets the least love from the so-called critical establishment. Nevermind the fact that (like Rush) their musicians, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have ever played. Steve Howe is the thinking man’s guitar hero.  His solos are like algebra equations, but full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song, and his ability to create texture, nuance (check out the extended midle section of “Yours Is No Disgrace”) and bombast (check out the blistering work on “Perpetual Change”) is, on these proceedings, unparalleled.

 

9. Kiss: Alive

Before the sex, drugs, alcohol and the gravity of expectations vs. ability set in, Kiss was lean, hungry, unappreciated and angry. They also wore make-up. But circa 1975, the hardest touring band in show biz was firing on every conceivable cylinder. Their overproduced, somewhat half-baked studio work did not adequately represent what outstanding musicians they all were (no, seriously), but their genius decision to put out a live album (before they were big) and make it a double album was what put them over. And it still sounds incredible; easily one of the best live albums of the era. The star of these proceedings is Ace Frehley, who was always better than he sounded. He is a rock god on this outing, and he never really sounded better than this. Every single song features a solo that is logical, concise and utterly original (check out his restrained but authoritative work at the 1:50 minute mark here). All those candy-ass hair bands in the ’80s weren’t even trying to emulate this because they knew it was impossible.

8. Bad Brains, I Against I

No Bad Brains, no Living Colour.

Maybe not literally (and that is not said to deny that the amazing Vernon Reid would –or could– have ever been denied), but if you want to talk about stepping stones, Bad Brains are the Viking ship that launched a thousand mosh pits. Side one of this sucker, their masterpiece, is one of the most pure and potent distillations of unclassifiable genius in all rock. It’s all in there: rock, rap, reggae, hardcore, metal and yourself. And it’s all good.

7. Pretenders, Pretenders

Prediction: if James Honeyman-Scott (and his partner in crime, bassist Pete Farndon) had not overdosed, The Pretenders would have owned the ’80s. As it happens, “all” they did was make three perfect albums, one right after the other. While assessing their first two records (back in 2006 when they were reissued), this is what I had to say about the guitar playing: James Honeyman Scott—whose guitar playing throughout announces the advent of a major talent—uncorks a solo that somehow manages to soar while remaining subdued, transporting emotion without the flash, substance without the shtick. Virtually every note he plays defines his less-is-more style, which is not an exercise in minimalism so much as the confident restraint of an artist who could speak for minutes but conveys it his own way in seconds. Importantly, his contributions are the very opposite of the much-maligned self-indulgence of the mid-’70s prog rock the punks so scornfully (and gleefully) piled on, but also a million miles away from the sterile sheen and hair band histrionics that dominated the scene after he checked out. Need more evidence? Three words: “Tattooed Love Boys”. Of all the mini masterpieces that make up the album, this short blast of bliss might be its zenith: no other group at any other time could ever make a song that sounds like this (the music, the words, the vocals, the vibe. To listen again is cause to celebrate and mourn the senseless loss of Honeyman Scott: even if we are fortunate that he essentially distilled a career’s worth of talent into two classic albums, it’s simply a shame to ruminate on how much more he had to offer.

6. King Crimson, Red

The progenitors of math rock on their last album of the ’70s. Red is the Rosetta Stone that every pointy-headed prog rock band worships at the altar of (even if they don’t realize it, because the bands they do worship once worshipped here). The title track is a yin yang of intellect and adrenaline, underscored with a very scientific, discernibly English sensibility. It is the closest thing rock guitar ever got to its own version of “Giant Steps”. Robert Fripp has never been boring or unoriginal and he outdoes himself here. Finally, few songs in rock history have the emotional import and uncanny feeling Fripp conjures in the album’s final song, “Starless”.

5. Santana: Caravanserai

Abraxas gets most of the recognition, even though Santana III is better. Yet not enough people name-check Caravanserai, which is a shame since it’s not only Santana’s best album, it’s one of the great documents of a great decade. If you’ve heard their big hits on the radio (and who hasn’t?) it’s familiar yet also elusive. There is an unforced exotic vibe the band taps into, and from the first cricket chirps to the last frantic arpeggios, the listener is definitely in another place altogether. The playing throughout is so obviously in the service of a singular and uncompromised vision, it still sounds primitive and from the future all at the same time (something the band itself acknowledges, literally, in the title of one of the more indescribable pieces). No serious fan of rock music should be without this album and that it didn’t make the cut for Gibson’s list is indefensible.

4. The Who: Quadrophenia

Sure, the Gibson crew got Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, but Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who’s best album, one of the five best albums of the ’70s and an all-time guitar-playing tour de force. This is it. Townshend was never this energized or inspired again, and it all came together in a double LP that is not as immediately accessible or endearing as Tommy, but once you get it, it gets inside you –and it never leaves. From extended workouts like “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged in version of Tommy’s “Underture), to slash and burn mini epics like “Bell Boy”  to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15” (check out PT’s lacerating but always-in-control frenzy toward the song’s coda).

I wrote at length about The Who last year and here is what I had to say regarding Quadrophenia:

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves) is yet to be fully detailed, at least for my liking. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next, it is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and important) than both of those excellent albums. Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream (see the movie and ponder this, this and especially this). Everything Townshend did, in his entire life, up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia. It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a winking self deprecation; this after all is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked, and articulated, in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age cri de coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout. Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Grafitti and London Calling are also on the dance card), it’s difficult to imagine a better song to open side three than the immortal 5:15. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced. Some of the songs on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Cut My Hair”, “Sea and Sand” and “Bell Boy”. And then there is the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones), “The Punk and the Godfather”.

3. Led Zeppelin: Presence

This is not a guitar album; this is guitar. Aside from Hendrix and Iommi, you could fill the rest of the list with Led Zeppelin albums and call it a day. Ridiculous though it may seem to some (many?), beloved and lionized as the Mighty Zep is, they actually don’t get enough attention for what unbelievable songwriters and musicians they were. Not too many people would argue –at least with any credibility– that Plant is one of the great rock vocalists and Bonzo is on the short list of rock drummers and John Paul Jones is the unsung hero and jack of all trades for this outfit. But Jimmy Page, aside from unimpeachable Golden God status, seems most known for his “Stairway To Heaven” solo and the work he did between ’69 and ’72. The blues-drenched debut and the next three albums helped define post-Beatles rock music and they need little elaboration. But let’s have some love for the last four albums. Houses of the Holy gets sufficient respect, sort of, but Physical Graffiti (#48 on Gibson’s list) should be acknowledged as what it is: one of the ten best albums of the ’70s. Some people give it up for the last hurrah, the (very) underrated In Through the Out Door (mostly because of  the radio-friendly hits “Fool in the Rain” and “All My Love”, even though Page does some of his finest playing on “In The Evening” and “I’m Gonna Crawl”). But what about the dark horse, the heroin needle in the haystack, Presence?

If Led Zeppelin II is the Story of Creation and Led Zeppelin IV is The Resurrection (and Physical Graffiti is Ecclesiastes), Presence is The Book of Revelation.

One thing most everyone can agree on: Presence is the most obscure, misunderstood and maligned album, even if it represents the most perfect balance of studio proficiency and unpolished bluster (anyone not in the know of its origins, but interested, start here). This is the effort that sees Page’s multi-tracked majesty playing hide and seek with some of the more raw and visceral playing of his career.

It comes crashing out of the gate with what may well be Page’s crowning achievement: ten minutes of electric guitar pyrotechnics and peregrinations called “Achilles Last Stand”. The vision (to imagine all these sounds) and the dexterity (to actually pull it off) is staggering and it features the solo: the impatient may proceed directly to the 3.43 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFRFtnTd620

It concludes with the laconic “Tea For One”, the slowest and saddest blues Page ever pulled off. In between, there is intensity (the anti-cocaine “For Your Life”), depravity (the “borrowed” blues lament “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”), playful Elvis parody (“Candy Store Rock”) and a spicy tribute to the Big Easy (“Royal Orleans”). What it adds up to is as intimate a glimpse as we mortals would ever get at Zeppelin at their most vulnerable and naked (emotionally and musically). Page’s playing is, as always, a see-saw of acumen and urgency, but he was never this insistent or soulful before or after.

 

2. Black Sabbath: Vol. 4

Simply put, this is an electric guitar rock symphony. This is the wall of sound (or for hardcore Sabbath fans, I should say “The Wall of Sleep of Sound”), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for them, for us) but it never got any better than this.

I’ve had more than a little to say about Sabbath, so I’ll let anyone interested in reading (or revisiting) go here and here. The best thing you can do is just listen to the magic, which is very black and very brilliant.

1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold As Love

 Not in Gibson’s Top 10? Okay.

Not in Gibson’s Top 50? Oh.

Look, any of Hendrix’s three “proper” studio releases could fairly be claimed as number one (Are You Experienced because it came first; Electric Ladyland because it was better —and it was a double album) but one might end up quite contentedly in the middle and claim that Axis: Bold As Love is the guitar album of all guitar albums. The best? Who knows. The most important? Who cares. The most satisfying? Who could argue?

Here is what I said earlier this year, while discussing Hendrix’s legacy:

Axis: Bold As Love did not have as many instantly accessible singles, but in spite (or because) of that, the second album is unquestionably a major step forward in several regards. This is the disc to slip into any discussion regarding Hendrix’s indisputable, but underappreciated compositional acumen. The guitar is consistently front and center (while Redding and especially Mitchell remain impeccable, as always, in the pocket), but the emphasis on Jimi’s vocals turns purposeful attention on some of the best lyrics he ever penned. While Are You Experienced remains the sonic boom that cleared away all competition, even the best moments on that effort could never in a thousand years have anticipated songs like “Little Wing”, “Castles Made of Sand”, “One Rainy Wish” and “Bold As Love”. (Even an ostensibly throwaway tune like “She’s So Fine” is instructive: Jimi’s lightning leads and delectable falsetto choruses shine, but then there’s Mitch Fucking Mitchell. Only one drummer in rock was this fast and furious circa 1967 and his name was Keith Moon.)

The songs on Axis: Bold As Love, for the most part, are concise and unencumbered (the clarity of sound on these remasters more than justifies their acquisition), and this is in no small part due to producer (and then manager) Chas Chandler, who brought a strictly-business professionalism to the proceedings all through ’67. He explains his old school M.O. on the companion DVD: “If a band can’t get it in two or three takes they shouldn’t be in the studio.” How can you not love this guy? And watching Eddie Kramer at the console, isolating guitar tracks and vocals while recalling how the songs came together is a treat true Hendrix fans will lap up like voodoo soup.

There is also an air of adventure and daring that augments the sometimes disorienting edge of the debut. Hendrix is clearly pushing himself, each day coming up with new ideas and electrified with the air of possibility. That vision is convincingly and definitively realized, and we can only lament the comparatively primitive technology that prevented alternate takes from surviving the sessions. Imagine, for instance, where “Little Wing” continued to go after the tapes fade out. If there is one particular moment on any of these tracks that best illuminates Hendrix’s insatiable creativity and unerring instincts, it comes toward the end of the incendiary “If 6 Was 9”. After declaring, in one of the all-time great rock and roll F-offs (“I’m gonna’ wave my freak flag high!”), a sort of whinnying, high-pitched noise slips into the maelstrom. Kramer explains that there happened to be a recorder lying around the studio, and Hendrix simply picked it up and started wailing. Kramer then applied the appropriate effects and echo, and the rest is history. In the final analysis, there is no way to improve upon practically any part of Axis: Bold As Love: this is as good as music is capable of being.

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The Hope of Audacity

Question: How many GOP staffers are looking for new jobs after agreeing to let the cameras roll during Obama’s smackdown at the Republican Retreat Q&A today?

(Answer: hopefully, none; if by some miracle that embarrassment was deemed in any way a success by the simpletons running the show in the not-so-big GOP tent, we should look forward to many more of these, like twice a day if possible.)

First off, let’s pause and consider something: can you imagine, under any circumstances, not only Bush alone (ha) but even if he had, say, Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rove with him, ever appearing before cameras to answer direct questions in an unequivocally partisan environment? Please. And don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing he had; dude humiliated himself just reading off of cue cards (or having answers directly piped to him during debates). Can you fathom the further levels of disgrace he would have brought upon the nation while endeavoring, under the hot lights and flashing digi-cams, to address unscreened queries from a hostile crowd? Of course I kid myself: he probably would have repelled into the auditorium sporting a flight suit and right-wing radio/Fox News masters of unreality would have declared it a TKO.

The fact that Obama would do it is beyond impressive; the fact that he can do it (and win, convincingly) is remarkable, illustrative and should give Democrats hope. We did not elect an idiot; we did not elect an empty suit. To watch him, in real time, wrangling with them, and (a la the undramatic eviscerations of McCain in the debates) calmly, methodically defusing them, without raising his voice, breaking a sweat or personally attacking, is to remember why people were overcome with the H-word (Hope) a year or so ago. It is like Reagan with Carter’s intelligence. Or Clinton without the smarm. Only more so.

This addresses the one tactical error I’ve complained about since last spring (!): Obama needed to be doing exactly this, then. About health care, about jobs, about any and everything, since at least early summer. That he’s only doing it now, after extreme circumstances, is unfortunate –and he and the party have paid a considerable price for it. But better late than never. Literally. And hopefully the feckless, spineless and mostly useless Democratic senate can take notes and learn a lesson or two. Their inertia has been worse than unacceptable (it has not done nothing; it has enervated and resucitated the braindead and tone-deaf Republican party), but to be fair, Obama’s virtual disappearing act from the public stage has not helped matters. Obama’s performance today is hopefully the salt spray required to move those slugs out from under their stones. Speaking of stones, maybe more than a few of them can grow some.

More of this, much more of this needs to occur as often and visibly as possible, effective immediately. Unfortunately, I don’t suspect the Republicans will make the same mistake a second time. That is, being seen in real time on camera trying to engage with Obama, and being shown –in color and without spin– having their collective asses handed to them on intellectual, moral and factual grounds. It is exhilarating, if lamentably overdue. And it’s up to the people with the majority (the majority of votes, the majority of ideas, and the majority of consent) to at long last begin bringing the fight to the party whose only goal is to accomplish nothing.

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