Neverending Randomplay #231-#240
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 18,414 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. iTunes links, when available, are included for your convenience.
Note: due to the Great Meltdown of last week, I am randomizing from a smaller-than-usual pool of 6,653 titles (all I've been able to recover so far); restoring what was lost will take a couple of weeks, I reckon.
231. DJ Shadow: In/Flux **** iTunes
"A song about life, death, love, hate, wealth, poverty, racism, just a few things that were running through my head" is how Shadow describes this by way of intro, and he's obviously trying to cover a lot of ground. The track starts with a heavy drums 'n' bass groove with turntable scratching and voice snippets. And there it moseys for 6 minutes. The beat collapses at that point and reconstitutes itself with jazzy, percussive snare and cymbals. Drums 'n' bass return around the 8 and a half minute mark with some muted tremeloed guitar back in the mix and more sample voice snippets, which takes us the rest of the way. Does this 12:13 cut succeed in its mission? Only if you have a very active imagination. However, as a trip-hop chillout groove, this is a good one, with atmospheric touches and a hypnotic pacing, despite a somewhat shaggy construction. DJ Shadow is one of the very few American trip hop artists to gain Substantial club play. "In/Flux" got him noticed by British Trip Hop label Mo'Wax, which released it in 1994; it has since gained the reputation of being one of the most influential trip-hop cuts ever.
232. Wings: Listen to What The Man Said ****
This is from the album Venus and Mars, from 1975, and was a key release for McCartney and helpmates in two respects. If was the first album to follow Band on the Run, which had recieved raves from the critical Establishment after several years of critical damnation for Macca. It also was released to coincide with the first leg of McCartney's first solo world tour, which brought him to America for the first time as a solo act in 1976. "Listen to What the Man Said" was recorded in New Orleans, like much of the album, although very little of New Orleans is evident in the music, beyond hints from the horn section. As McCartney songs go, this one sums up pretty much his strengths and weaknesses. It's a complex number, with tricky changes in rhythm and tempo, and good singing. It also has a somewhat profound air to it, but a glance at the lyrics reveals very little to chew on. The song reached #1, the album reached #1, and the tour was a success. Venus and Mars has better and worse moments, but is one of Wings' best albums.
233. Bush: Synapse *** iTunes
Bush has gotten a lot of negative press over the years. A post-Nirvana British grunge band, they've been accused of being Nirvana clones (they're closer to STP or Soundgarden clones, actually), and they managed to ratchet up the critical backlash on their 1996 sophomore album, Razorblade Suitcase, by hiring Nirvana producer Steve Albini. Albini does what he does best, getting a heavy, stripped down, organic sound from the band, as evidenced by "Synapse", an album cut that wasn't released as a single. The rhythm lurches, the murky but heavy unison guitars are the best thing about it, Gavin Rossdale's vocals vaguely recall Chris Cornell's (with a hint of British accent). Despite the lukewarm-to-hostile reviews the band garnered, Razorblade Suitcase entered the U.S. charts at #1, before fading. It isn't bad, and it's better than filler. But it isn't going to make anyone forget Soundgarden, let alone Nirvana.
234. Bread: Everything I Own **** iTunes
On the other side of the spectrum, we have Bread's string-laden, bittersweet, easy listening soft-rock hit from 1972, "Everything I Own". While the track is just as syrupy and soupy as all their other hits, there's something indefineable that sets it a cut above. Perhaps it is the chiming bed of acoustic guitars it rests on. Maybe it's the better-than-average basswork. Perhaps it's the lyrics; another in David Gates' string of weepers, it never quite comes across as simpy. It could be the melody, which is instantly catchy and hummable. The single, one of four from the album, Baby-I'm-A-Want-You, peaked at #5, the album went to #3. Veteren L.A. sessionman Larry Knechtel replaced Jerry Royer for this album, and gives the band a hint more depth. Baby-I'm-A-Want-You is easily Bread's best album, and "Eveything I Own" arguably their very best song. Boy George did a good reggaefied cover of it in 1987.
235. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Honky Tonk Night Time Man *****
Lynyrd Skynyrd was reaching something of a creative peak in 1977 when the album Street Survivors appeared a week before three members were killed in a plane crash. Aside from containing radio staples like "That Smell" and "What's Your Name", nearly all of the album cuts were of an unusually good caliber, and the band was beginning to stretch out from their southern hard boogie roots and attempt a more varied approach to their material. "Honky Tonk Night Time Man" is a Merle Haggard cover with a spry arrangement. Ronnie VanZant namechecks Bakersfield, and launches into a jaunty country-blues. The band is tight and plays in a playful manner that vaguely suggests the Al Kooper-led band on Bob Dylan's mid-60's album gone country; VanZant himself sings more like a hillbilly Dylan here than Haggard. For those who only know Skynyrd for "Free Bird", this might be a revelation. VanZant's impending death was a bigger blow for rock than many realized at the time; there have been many pretenders, but no group has truly filled Skynyrd's niche.
236. Slave: Are Your Ready For Love? **** iTunes
From Ohio, also home to the O'Jays and the Ohio Players, Slave was one of the biggest funk bands of the late 1970's, although they enjoyed far less crossover success than the other two. Their first three albums delivered hard slabs of funk that could hold its own with its competitors; however, as the decade came to a close, hard funk was on its way out. Their fourth album, Just a Touch of Love, from 1979, was an effort to change with the times, and took a slower, smoother, softer approach than their previous outings. "Are Your Ready For Love?", however, is an uptempo and bouncy number that had a good funk break in the middle, and a fairly insistent beat throughout. Steve Arrington and Starleana Young handle vocal chores, and Young in particular shines. Those who have never heard Slave might want to check out their 1977 hit "Slide" (#1 on the Black charts) first, which is primo hard funk. This one delivers the goods too.
237. Sonny Rollins: Wagon Wheels *****
Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is one of the top-10 names in jazz history; important not to jazz aficianados but anyone with an interest in 20th century American music in general. With a discography going all the way back to 1951 (and a career that started in the 1940's) it's pretty hard to know where to begin with him. Way Out West, from 1957, is quite possibly his very best album; it established him as king of the tenor (until John Coltrane knocked him off his pedestal the following year), and remains one of the most engaging jazz albums of the 1950's-1960's. "Wagon Wheels" is perhaps not the best cut on the album -all eight are winners- but the Peter de Rose/Billy Hill piece has a long pedigree, dating back to Tommy Dorsey and Frankie Lane. Rollins' expressive sax will win anyone over, but bassist Roy Brown and drummer Shelly Manne should be singled out for praise as well. Rollins shocked the jazz world by retiring in 1959, but luckily, his retirement was short; he came back in 1961 and except for a second "retirement" in 1968-1971, he has played ever since.
238. The Breeders: Drivin' On 9 *****
The Breeders were going places, once upon a time. In 1994 the band had a platinum album, NME's 1993 song of the year, and a primo spot on the Lollapalooza tour. Their woozy guitar line for "Cannonball" was on of the most memorable of the early 90's. Unfortunately, Kelley Deal's long, protracted troubles with substance abuse and recovery prevented the band from releasing a follow-up to their smash Last Splash for 9 years, by which time nobody cared anymore. "Drivin On 9" demonstrates why this was such a tragedy; far from being a one-hit wonder group, Last Splash was full of rich and varied moments. "Drivin On 9" is a wistful and semi-absurdist country-folk number, with a winning melody, good violin work, a bouncy, melodic bass, and a great vocal from Kim Deal. Last Splash now is something of an artifact; a snapshot of a time when alternative rock was just beginning to be recognized and defined for what it was. It currently is selling for $0.24 at Amazon. It's definitely a steal, but that's also kind of sad.
239. Mazzy Star: I'm Sailin' **** iTunes
Continuing in a folk-country vein, but with a blues progression, Mazzy Star's "I'm Sailin'", from their 1990 debut, She Hangs Brightly, is another winning combination from the band that was little more than a duo of Hope Sandoval on vocals and David Roback on guitar. Sandoval's wistful vocal is the perfect compliment for Roback's guitars; he overdubs an electric slide over a strummed acoustic. Spare, haunting, sad, oddly psychedelic dream pop; the usual Mazzy Star adjectives apply here. The album didn't sell well, due largely to Rough Trade's financial woes; fortunately, the album was picked up by Capitol, who re-released it in time to capitalize off the duo's lone hit, "Fade Into You", from the 1993 follow-up, So Tonight That I Might See. The duo had a third album in 1996, but simply never released an album again, despite no 'official' word on the band's status. Sandoval has released some solo work, Roback, whose pedigree dates back to the paisley underground Rain Parade, remains largely out of sight.
240. Yes: Owner Of A Lonely Heart ***** iTunes
This was one of the unlikeliest hits by an unlikely band at an unlikely point in time. Yes, of course, were among the flagship progressive-rock dinosaurs that roamed the earth from the late 60's through the late 70's. By 1983, progressive rock was presumed extinct; done in by punk, new wave, MTV, and its own excesses. On the surface, this was true; certainly ELP, Caravan, Gong, Can, Soft Machine, and their cohorts were nowhere to be seen. However, there were exceptions; Robert Fripp convened a new King Crimson that released some excellent, stripped down prog-rock albums in the 80's. Genesis survived the defections of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett to produce a catchy prog-pop under Phil Collins. Yes, the biggest progressive rock band of them all, seemed doomed for the dustbins in the late 1970's. Never a stable lineup, with members leaving, returning, leaving again, the lineup fell apart in 1980 after a string of poorly received and poorly selling records. Drama featured ex-Buggles Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes in place of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman; it sold poorly. Horn and Downes then split to form Asia, an arena-rock version of prog rock. In April 1981, the band's official dissolution was announced. Chris Squire and Alan White formed a new band called Cinema with original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye plus Trevor Rabin. Jon Anderson was invited to join, and Yes had been inadvertantly re-formed. Trevor Horn came in to produce, and the result was "Owner of a Lonely Heart", a masterstroke. Instantly modern, telegenic, exciting, progressive in its textures, rhtyhms, and samples, it was also still very undeniably Yes. 90125 peaked at #5, and "Owner of a Lonely Heart" did the unthinkable, reaching #1. Even Billboard expressed surprise. Alas, the band never followed up on what could have been an interesting direction; a follow-up album didn't arrive until 1987, by which time the moment they had so brilliantly tapped had passed.
Neverending Randomplay is a regular feature.
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(Note to readers: I've gotten some kind emails and messages from people concerned about my computer, and the status of Freeway Jam. All is well; the updates have been slow because I've speen spending time restoring my music library, from which I draw my inspiration. It'll take another week or so, which will slow down the blog. But FJ is still very much in business)
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