Music Consumption in the MP3 Era
Music Consumption in the MP3 Era

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Neverending Randomplay #11-#20

Neverending Randomplay is a weekly Wednesday night/Thursday AM feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 17,301 titles. The lion's share are rock of all genres, with a mix of pop, blues, country, pre-rock, jazz, reggae, soul, electronic, avant-garde, hip-hop, rap, bluegrass, trance, Afrobeat, J-Pop, trip-hop, lounge, Worldbeat, commercial jingles, etc. filling it out. I don't influence the track selection in any way; whatever comes up, comes up. Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow each track.

11. I Am The World Trade Center: Flute Loops **
I Am The World Trade Center: Out of the Loop (2001)
The New york electronica duo of Daniel Geller and Amy Dykes, I Am The World Trade Center (named prior to 9-11), recorded their 2001 debut, Out Of The Loop, entirely on a laptop computer. Dykes added lyrics and vocals to Geller's mixes. "Flute Loops", which does not feature a Dykes vocal, has a distinctly lo-fi electronica sound, and has a bouyant beat, looped electronic bleeps and whistles. Actual flute-ey sounding loops whirl throughout in the background. The most intriguing thing here isn't so much the music, but how it was recorded; while the limitations of Geller's laptop does lend this a vaguely cheesy texture, it almost passes for something done in a professional studio. Power to the people.

12. Louis Armstrong & His Hot Fives: Struttin' With Some Barbecue *****
Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives and Sevens Vol. 3
Recorded in 1927, this is seriously exciting and historic music. With his Hot Fives in the 1920's, Armstrong was busy becoming the single most influential jazz artist of them all, becoming the very first important soloist to emerge in jazz, from which everything from the improvisation that is at the heart of jazz to the rock guitar solo stems from. On this number, recorded in peak form, Armstrong delivers a perfectly constructed, smokin' solo; the doorway that would eventually lead to bop, 20 years later. He was only four years into his recording career at this point; 26 years old. The Hot Fives were excellent too, a lineup consisting of clarinet, trombone, banjo, piano, and drums behind Armstrong and his trumpet.

13. The Flying Burrito Brothers: Just Because ****
Flying Burrito Brothers: Honky Tonk Heaven (1974)
This pre-war pokla-style country tune written by Bob and Joe Shelton and later recorded by Elvis Presley and a host of others, is given a somewhat rushed contemporary country-rock rendition by the Gram Parsons-led version of the band. This didn't make it onto the two albums released with Parsons; it first surfaced on a 1974 compilation Honky Tonk Heaven, a quickie cash-in release following Parson's death. Even though the rough performance edges do give this the sound of an outtake, it is an excellent outake. Parsons sounds invigorated, the band plays well.

14. ABBA: Voulez-Vous ****
Abba: Voulez-Vous (1979)
This title track to ABBA's 1979 album is thoroughly steeped in disco, and the album from which it comes represented a decline in quality from The Album, in 1978. That said, this is a perfectly fine track providing all the glossy thrills one looks for when seeking out late 70's disco. The girls sex it up a little, the synthesizer is sleek and shimmery, the guitars and bass make like Chic a little, and the beat is big. If you can't stand ABBA, this won't convert you, it might even make you hate them more. If you like ABBA's most famous hits, this one ranks close.

15. Nelly Furtado: Island Of Wonder ***
Nelly Furtado: Folklore (2003)
Nelly Furtado comes to music from a pretty unusual direction. A Portugese-Canadian, who listened to mainstream R&B when she was young, and then got interested in rock and electronica, her music is a very original mixture of all of these influences. Not always easy to get into, but often compelling nontheless. This one falls short of compelling, but it is interesting; a trip-hop influenced duet with exotic melody and instrumentation. Overly somber sounding, it didn't get my head bobbing like some of her other stuff does. From her 2003 release, Folklore.

16. Badfinger: Midnight Caller (re-recording) **
badfinger: best Of badfinger (1997)
This is really a rip off. Not Badfinger at all, it is really Badfinger guitarist Joey Molland and a band of session players from a quickly dashed off 1997 album misleadingly titled "Best of Badfinger", which consists of ten such re-recordings. "Midnight Caller" was a fine song when the real Badfinger recorded it in 1970. Originally sung by Pete Ham, the song suffers here, with cheesy-sounding lightweight production and Molland's own voice, which sounds hoarse and hurried. Original pressings didn't identify these as re-recordings; subsequent ones do. Molland must've needed a few extra bucks that year; the album is useless except for super-diehard completists. And even they should feel a little guilty about this.

17. Yes: Machine Messiah ****
Yes: Drama (1980)
Drama, from 1980, occupies a strange niche in Yes' history. Jon Anderson and Rick Wakemen had just quit the band, and were replaced by ex-Buggles Geoffrey Downes and Trevor Horn. The vocals here sound so much like Anderson, you'd swear it was him. The instrumentation veers toward metal territory in places, with Steve Howe producing uncharacteristically doomy sounding chords. The band is, in fact, in fine form on this 10-minute workout; while it doesn't rate with their best, it does let fans hear what a heavy metal Yes would sound like, and the icy, crystalline textures here point to other interesting potential roads. However, after Drama, the band broke up, only to be re-formed with Anderson again a couple of years later, and score a few more hits. Downes and Howe formed Asia in 1981.

18. Black Pearl: Mr. Soul Satisfaction *****
Black Pearl: Black Pearl (1968)
Black Pearl recorded two albums for Epic, a studio debut from 1968 and a live one from 1969. Credited by Lester Bangs as being one of the original three American heavy metal bands, alongside Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly. Black Pearl was essentially the merger of two legendary 60's garage bands, The Barbarians and The Tallysmen. "Mr. Soul Satisfaction" is a kinetic, fuzzy piece of acid rock, with a fluid psychedelic lead guitar and soul shouter style vocal.

19. Dead Kennedys: Viva Las Vegas ***
Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)
While their relative merit as music has been argued pro and con for two decades, Jello Biafra's quavery vibrato atop radical skatepunk was a sound all their own, and All-American, too. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables remains their lone classic; while much of the politics have dated to the point of irrelevancy, the audacity in this music is still admirable today. A smirking "Viva Las Vegas" closed the album, and while it isn't on par with the violence that precedes it on the album, it's funny in its own way.

20. Blue Oyster Cult: Before The Kiss, A Redcap *****
Blue Oyster Cult: Blue Oyster Cult (1972)
Excellent track from Blue Oyster cult's excellent 1972 debut. This one is a bluesy hard rock boogie, sporting stellar Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser riffing, Eric Bloom and Allen Lanier adding two more guitars for a triple-attack, and a tight, charging rhythm section of Joe (bass) and Al (drums) Bouchard. Malevalent and menacing, murky but thrilling, this is what this sinister band was all about in its conceptual early days. Produced by concept master, Sandy Pearlman.

Listen To Louis Armstrong: Struttin' With Some Barbecue (1927)



Genre Playlist: Country Rock

The Byrds: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)   Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel (1973)
Charlie Daniels Band: Fire On The Mountain (1975)   Flying Burrito Brothers: Burrito Deluxe (1970)

Distinct from Alternative Country, Progressive County, Cowpunk, Psychobilly, No Depression, and Outlaw Country, all of which represent countrified rock or rockified country, the basic genre "country-rock" refers to the first wave of artists who blurred the dividing line between traditional country and contemporary rock styles. From 1968 to about 1975, country-rock was one of the biggest selling genres in rock, with fully mainstream artists like The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and Neil Young working in the idiom.

At its heart it was essentially country music, filtered through the rock experience; amplification, big backbeat, countercultural lyrical concerns, emphasis on hooks.

Rock, after all, was originally the marriage of blues and country; Muddy Waters plus Hank Williams. By the time of the British Invasion, rock and country had gone their separate ways. Country audiences didn't dig the Beatles' long hair and British accents, and rock fans didn't dig country's corniness and redneck machismo.

Michael Nesmith: Magnetic South (1970)   The Eagles: Desperado (1973)   Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972)   Firefall: Firefall (1976)

The rift was a cultural one, more than a musical one. The styles remained more similar than dissimilar; even the British bands like the Beatles played some country music on their albums.

However, the true forefather of the genre is Gram Parsons, who died in 1973 at the age of 26, but managed in his short, tragic life to ignite what would turn into a multimillion dollar rock subgenre, and also bridge the gulf between the two styles, which were cousins after all.

Parsons, with his International Submarine Band, recorded what most consider to be the very first country-rock record ever, Safe At Home in 1967. The album went nowhere, but gained notice among musicians in particular, who were impressed by the convincing country music played by this rock group. In particular, 20-year old Floridian and Harvard theology major dropout Parsons, seemed visionary beyond his years.

At about this time, the Byrds were undergoing a major lineup reshuffle. Up to this point identified as kings of the folk-rock movement, the Byrds invited Parsons to join. This shifted their sound dramatically from folk-rock to country, and their 1968 album with Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, was considered the first true country-rock album to receive mainstream attention. The country artists they drew from mainly were from the Bakersfield school; Merle Haggard, Buck Owens. But they dabbled in an exploratory style.

The Everly Brothers: Roots (1968)   Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt (1971)   New Riders Of The Purple Sage: New Riders Of The Purple Sage (1971)   International Submarine band: Safe At Home (1968)

Parsons and original Byrd Chris Hillman would soon depart, and form their own band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their 1969 debut, The Gilded Palace of Sin was another country-rock effort that didn't sell many copies but influenced a wide range of musicians. Folkie Bob Dylan would release "Lay Lady Lay" and his countrified Nashville Skyline in 1969. Keith Richards befriended Parsons, and the two spent much time together; Parson's influence can be heard all over the Stones' 1971 release Sticky Fingers. The Grateful Dead released two heavily countrified albums in 1970, Workingman's Dead, and American Beauty.

1969-1970 is when country rock broke into the mainstream. Buffalo Springfield dabbled in it, and much of Neil Young's early solo music is informed by country more than folk. Poco released a successful debut album with strong country leanings. The original Flying Burrito Brothers would eventually break up, with Bernie Leadon joining the Eagles, and two members joining Stephen Stills' Manassas, a country-rock vehicle.

While none of this led to much acceptance among country audiences, it did gain some. The cultures remained different; for rock listeners, country represented an organic back-to-the-earth movement of sorts, a chill-out from the intensity of the 60's. As such, it never truly crossed over to the point of integrated rock and country audiences; the cultures and attitudes remained different.

Emmylou Harris: Elite Hotel (1975)   Swampwater: Swampwater (1970)   Bob Dylan: John Wesley Harding (1968)   Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1969)

By the time Parsons died in 1973, country rock was at its peak; a look at the charts from that year wil reveal dozens of country-rock or country influenced tunes; by mid 70's country had gone mainstream pop as well, with lightweight AM acts like Firefall, Michael Murphey, David Loggins, and the Australian Olivia Newton-John scoring huge country flavored hits.

But as with the blues-rock rediscovery, country-rock's supremecy would ultimately wane and disappear altogether. As the 80's began, the pop charts were virtually devoid of country hits, and rock had gone new wave. Still, in the shadows, a new generation of indie bands like the Long Ryders and Green On Red began grafting country to a post-punk aesthetic; it wouldn't be long before a new country rock developed, spawning the cowpunk, alternative country, and No Depression styles.

Some important or influential artists and songs from the first country-rock era:

1. Flying Burrito Brothers: Juanita
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
It's hard to choose a representitive song off this outstanding debut, the material is that strong. The influence this album had on influential musicians cannot be overstated, even if the album itself might seem somewhat unexciting to the modern listener. For those who tune into it, it is a treasure. A near perfect blending of country music and light psychedelic rock, it is a showcase for the talents of Gram Parsons, who delivers these weepers with conviction, and Chris Hillman, who supplies the perfect harmonies. It only reached #164 on the charts, but The Eagles would take a similar formula to megastardom.

2. Poco: Pickin' Up The Pieces
Poco: Pickin' Up the Pieces (1969)
Poco was formed from the ashes of Buffalo Springfield after Neil Young and Stephen Stills departed. Guitarist/singer Richard Furay and bassist Jim Messina put together this band in 1969 with steel guitarist Rusty Young, drummer George Grantham, and future Eagle Randy Meisner. Meisner left the band before this debut album, which was recorded as a quartet. The album peaked at #63, a respectable showing at the time for an overtly countrified album. The band was originally called Pogo, but Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly objected. Fans of The Eagles might like Poco.

3. The Eagles: Take It Easy
The Eagles: The Eagles (1972)
The Eagles were megaplatinum titans; their anthology, Greatest Hits 1971-1975 remains the biggest selling album of all time. Very derivative of the country rock that earlier L.A. bands like Poco (Randy Meisner's old band) and the Flying Burrito Brothers (Bernie Leadon's old band) played, the Eagles rocked a little harder, and provided richer hooks; as a result they found the formula that would make them millions. Don Henley had been in the band Shiloh, and Glenn Frey had been a backing musician for Bob Seger. The four met while backing Linda Ronstadt, and formed the Eagles. "Take It Easy" was their first hit, reaching #12, and remains one of their freshest; a primary example of the genre.

4. Bob Dylan: Lay Lady Lay
Bob Dylan: Nashville Skyline (1969)
Bob Dylan seemed to be heading towards country with his previous album, John Wesley Harding, but with the 1969 release of Nashville Skyline, his country experimentation became explicit. "Lay Lady Lay" is an enduring country song, sung in a rich croon that Dylan had never before displayed (and seldom since used), and remains one of his most beloved songs. The album charted at #3 and the single made it to #7, making this one of Dylan's best chart showings ever, and it helped establish country-rock as a commercially viable style.

5. The Byrds: Goin' Back
The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)
The addition of Gram Parsons to the Byrds in 1968, and their subsequent album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, were milestones in the development of country rock. In fact, the Byrds had been dabbling in country rock before Parsons' arrival, on their The Notorious Byrd Brothers album from early 1968. "Goin' Back", a Gerry Goffin/Carole King tune, gets an unlikely but authentic sounding country treatment, with pedal steel guitar augmenting the band. This song has been covered by some notable artists, including Dusty Springfield, Nils Lofgrin, and Richard Thompson.

6. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Mr. Bojangles
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:  Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy (1970)
The longest lived country-rock group of them all, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has recorded and released albums regularly from 1967 to the current day. Originally a folkie jug-band, they developed a countrified sound by 1970, incorporating such non-rock instruments as a mandolin and banjo comfortably into their sound. Their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" was a top-10 smash; the rest of this album consists of a diverse collection of originals and cover versions of Michael Nesmith, Randy Newman, and Kenny Loggins songs. The band focused on the country audience from the late 70's onward, and had an incredible string of 14 consecutive top-10 country hits in the 1980's.

7. Neil Young: Heart Of Gold
Neil Young: Harvest (1972)
Harvest, the only #1 album of Neil Young's long and storied career, is primarily a country rock album, but like much of Young's works, veers off in other directions, too. "Heart of Gold" is an honest piece of strongly Nashville-inspired material, deceptively simple and to the point, with prominent pedal steel and harmonica. It was also the only #1 single of Young's career; for many, Harvest remains a favorite Neil Young album. Young himself dismissed it in his liner notes to Decade, calling it "middle of the road", and consciously moved back towards harder rock.

8. Pure Prairie League: Aimee
Pure Prairie League: Bustin' Out (1972)
Bustin' Out, the second offering from Ohio's Pure Prairie League, initially flopped upon its 1972 release, prompting RCA to drop the group from its roster. However, in on odd turn of good fortune, the band's touring paid off, and the album's single "Aimee" began getting radio airplay two years after its release, prompting RCA to re-sign them, unfortunately without leader Craig Fuller, who would turn up in a new band, American Flyer. "Aimee" is a pretty irresistable slice of country-rock confection; instantly hummable, it became a staple of country-rock bar bands around the country.

9. Amazing Rhythm Aces: Third Rate Romance
Amazing Rhythm Aces: Stacked Deck (1975)
Formed in Memphis, the Amazing Rhythm Aces represented a rootsier, closer-to-the-source brand of country-rock unlike the more pop oriented west coast bands. Steeped in a soulful southern-rock sound, and employing country instrumentation and covering the likes of Charlie Rich, the band managed to place records on the country chart as well, becoming a true crossover for a brief period. "Third Rate Romance" reached #14 on the pop charts, and #11 on the country charts.

10. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: Hot Rod Lincoln
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen: Lost In The Ozone (1971)
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen were perhaps the hardest rocking of all the early 70's country-rock acts. Their music was a mix of basic, rootsy R&B flavored 50's rock cut with sweaty, tough country numbers. "Hot Rod Lincoln" was a fluke hit, reaching #9 on the pop charts, although the band never came close to repeating that success. Commander Cody (George Frayne IV) disbanded the group in 1976, but continues to tour and record today.

Listen To Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels: Six Days On The Road (live) (1973)

A slightly modified version of this article appears at Blogcritics.Org