Neverending Randomplay #311-#320
Neverending Randomplay is a feature in which I let my J-River Media Center choose what we get listen to. My collection currently stands at 18,403 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. Rated 1-5 stars.
311. Badfinger: Name Of the Game *****
This is a heartbreakingly lovely song, one of the the most fully realized of the band's career, from Straight Up, which was recorded in 1971. Badfinger was the doomed power-pop forebears who worked in the shadow of the Beatles at Apple records. Straight Up was a difficult album for the band. An early version of the album, produced by Geoff Emerick, was rejected. George Harrison took over production, and sat in on slide guitar. Midway through the sessions he was called away to organize The Concert For Bangla Desh, and Todd Rundgren produced the rest of the album. The Harrison-produced numbers, which include "Name of the Game", are in a very similar production style to the Phil Spector/George Harrison production on Harrison's own All Things Must Pass, from 1970. So the Harrison-produced "Name of the Game" is a lot weightier sounding than the horn-dominated pop version Emerick came up with. Far from power pop, it's a slow tempo number with piano, acoustic guitar, a chiming lead, metronome time-keeping on drums that all build into an enormous, multi-tracked chorus. The plaintive vocal from Pete Ham are literate and depressive; given the band's subsequent tragic end, the lyrics gain an additional layer of resonance. Beatle fans, power pop fans, and a lot of other people ought to give Straight Up a listen; it has the Emerick produced versions added as bonuses.
312. Portishead: Sour Times *****
Trip-Hop popularizers Portishead's 1994 debut, Dummy, is one of the most realized albums of the genre, full of fine tracks like "Sour Times". This is a slinky, sultry number with a pronounced bass and cool jazz ambience; the lead guitar plays slowed down and stripped surf-like riffs, while another supllies an abrasive jangle. Beth Gibbon's torch-like delivery, which is given is stark and cutting; when she sings "Nobody loves me, it's true/Not like you do" it sounds sacrilegeous and shocking. It also plays like the soundtrack to a very noir-ish movie set in a smoky bar. Formed in Bristol by Geoff Barrow in 1991, who learned his tricks from Tricky during a stint as tape operator for trip hop pioneers Massive Attack. Dummy was the first trip-hop album to gain widespread acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Europe and Japan. Alas, they only cut three albums; Portishead in 1997, and PNYC, a live album, in 1998.
313. Jefferson Starship: Jane ****
Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner had a problem. He had just fired ex-girlfriend Grace Slick, who had developed a nasty problem with alcohol. Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin had quit at the end of the 1978 tour. Drummer John Barbata, who had been with the band since the Airplane's last tour in 1972, was in a car accident that left him unable to drum. Kantner himself was a weak singer; not often able to carry a song by himself, let alone an album. Yet, the previous Jefferson Starship album had gone platinum and spawned four singles. So he did what anyone would do. He hired a singer and drummer: Mickey Thomas (ex-Elvin Bishop group) and Aynsley Dunbar (ex-lots of groups). A decision was made to up the beef in the songs, the band had been called "pop" for years. The resulting album, Freedom At Point Zero (1979) was an ultra-slick slice of corporate hard rock, with virtually any traces of the Airplane (from which only Kantner remained) erased. As such, a lot of Airplane fans hated it, although in some respects it is a better corporate hard rock album than it had any business being. The hit was "Jane", all swirling keyboards, crunchy air-pumped guitar, cocksure vocals, and showoffy interstellar lead guitar. It's somewhere between Foreigner and Journey, and as such, it's a perfectly acceptable radio hit. But it won't make you see visions or start a revolution.
314. Prince Far I: Armageddon *****
Prince Far I (Michael James Williams, 1944-1983) is a name mostly known to reggae/dub aficionados, but he defies classification as either. A character on an island of characters, he had worked as a DJ for years, supplementing his income as a bouncer. When his boss at the club had a singer miss a 1970 session he was recording, he asked the bouncer to supply the vocals, which was Prince Far I's first single, released under the name King Cry Cry. "Armageddon" is from his peak, closing the 1978 album Message From The King. It very aptly captures his very unique musical vision. It's dub with an almost preacher-and-congregation call-and-response interspersed with sung bits and DJ tricks. It's slow, buzzed, eerie, and stoned. Message From The King is a great album; most of it was combined with the excellent Livity album on a 1990 collection called Black Man Land, which might be the best place to start exploring. Unfortunately, Prince Far I's distinctive vision was abruptly cut short when he was killed during a robbery at his home in 1983.
315. Nat King Cole: The Very Thought Of You *****
These days, when people conjur up the image of Nat King Cole (Nathaniel Adams Coles), they tend to lump him in with the likes of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and other crooners of the era. However, this neglects to consider the very different musical tradition Cole came from; before he reached pop stardom, he had been a jazz pianist in a trio, not a holdover from the swing era like the others. This made him subject of great controversy among jazz fans of his day; on one hand, he was seen as a traitor to jazz, abandoning it for pop just as it seemed at its death throes. On the other hand, he was an African American who enjoyed very mainstream success among white audiences as well during the segregated era. That put him in a heroic league with Jackie Robinson in some respects, but also angered persons on both sides of the racial divide. History has removed much of these controversies from the public imagination, for better or worse, and so now there's only the music. Obviously, Nat King Cole isn't "rock", although it's hard to imagine a Sam Cooke without Nat King Cole's breaking of the racial barrier in pop. But it's hard to deny that "The Very Thought of You" (1958) is a gorgeous romantic ballad. If Gordon Jenkins' strings overwhelm the gentle piano, acoustic bass, and drum accompaniment, let them. I can't see how this could come on at midnight in the company of the one you love and not induce a little slow dancing...
316. Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused [live] ****
"Dazed and Confused" is the bluesy heavy metal guitar-and-vocal showcase that earned Led Zeppelin its name on its 1969 debut. The original version is what Led Zeppelin was all about at the end of the sixties; Jimmy Page's stolen blues riffs turned into post-psychedelic explosions of sonics, and Robert Plant's shrieks and wails that play off,echo, and galvanize around the guitar. John Paul Jones' distinctive descending bassline (one of the easiest to play, for beginners) and John Bonham's primitive pounding hold down the bottom end while Page and Plant zoom all over the place. This version, however, may be too much of a good thing. Recorded in 1973, and released on the 1976 film soundtrack to The Song Remains The Same, a legendary midnight movie, it goes on for over 26 minutes, challenging even the most devoted Led Zeppelin fanatic. Still, there are plenty of nice bits, like the raga-rock noodling, the guitar-and-drum interplay section, Jones breaks free of his bassline and jams, Plant does things mere mortals can't. But around the 8 minute mark, my mind starts to wander, and while it wanders back again several times, it never quite stays there. If anyone wants to know why punk rock started, this is a good place to start. But hell, it is Led Zeppelin. Docked a star for taking a few dead end streets.
317. The Cramps: Twist And Shout ****
This "Twist and Shout" is not the same one by the Isley Brothers and popularized by the Beatles. Instead it is a good slab of psychobilly from the vintage era; this first appeared on a 2003 Empire two-fer that repackaged Off the Bone and Songs the Lord Taught Us, both from 1980, and tossed in some bonus cuts, including "Twist and Shout". Songs the Lord Taught Us is one of the key releases of the first psychobilly era, originally released on seminal 80's label I.R.S. Producing was enigmatic figure of rock legend Alex Chilton (ex-Box Tops, ex-Big Star) who is perfectly attuned to the sound fits the Cramps best: echo and not much else. Bassist Lux Interior sounds like the B-52's Fred Schneider half of the time, and wildman Gun Club frontman James Pierce the other half. Poison Ivy's guitar is full of Duane Eddy style twang, Nick Knox gives the drums a real beating. While fans of the Meteors really bristle when one suggests The Cramps invented psychobilly, they certainly were among the most important first-wave American psychobilly acts of the day, right next to Gun Club and X. "Twist and Shout" is maybe not quite as good as anything on the original Songs the Lord Taught Us, but it won't disappoint fans.
318. Swervedriver: A Change Is Gonna Come *****
As their name might suggest, Swervedriver, from London, had a fascination with cars in may of their songs, borrowing some Americanisms for their shoegaze sound. best known in the U.S. for touring with Soundgarden in 1991, they differed from many of the other shoegaze bands of the era in that they had a much more aggressive, forward leaning sound; there was less navel gazing and more propulsion. "A Change Is Gonna Come" isn't one of their car songs, but it sounds great in one. The principal auteurs are vocalists/guitarists Adam Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge; part of what gives them their strength is the dual leadership; many other shoegaze bands quickly became studio projects of a single obsessive. It's hard to say best what I like about "A Change Is Gonna Come" which appeared on their 1993 masterpiece Mezcal Head, their best moment. It might be the buzzed vocals, or the rich guitar texture that crackles and crunches and rings in your ears. It might be the sinister lyrics, or the underlying tunefulness. Mezcal Head almost didn't happen; the band lost their drummer and bassist following the Soundgarden tour and their more conventional swirly-shoegaze Never Lose That Feeling EP. The band's swansong was 99th Dream, from 1998; Adam Franklin continued with a new band, Toshack Highway and released two albums, the most recent in 2003.
319. Solomon Burke: Sit This One Out ****
Solomon Burke is one of those names that might ring a vague bell, but doesn't conjur up memories of his hits. The primary reason for this is he never really had a pop hit; "Tonight's The Night" a #28 in 1965 was his best showing on the pop charts. he was never king of the Black/r&b/soul charts either, although he had a #1 and a pair of #2's in the 1960's. Beyond that, history has largely passed him by, although Burke, who turns 66 this year, is still active. In the 60's he was another of the Atlantic soul artists, produced by Jerry Wexler, and certainly would appeal to anyone exploring 60's soul. His talent remains fairly intact today; "Sit This One Out" is from Don't Give Up on Me, a 2002 album produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, who manages a contemporary feel while still recalling the 60's soul tradition. Burke's deep voice is expressive and earthy; his delivery is more gospel than soul here but with a great organ accompaniment from Rudy Copeland, who plays organ at the church where Burke, now a minister, preaches. Songwriters contributing to this excellent album were Van Morrison (whom this Rick Purnell song recalls strongly), Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson, and Nick Lowe, all of whom contributed new material.
320. Bad Religion: Better Off Dead ****
The problem with punk is that there's no future in it, unless Green Day has found a new formula. Bad Religion were one of the key greater-L.A. punk band of the early to mid 1980's, in league with X, The Descendents, Black Flag, The Adolescents, and the Circle Jerks, among many others. Like many of those bands, Bad Religion always had an unstable lineup, although during most of its admirably long peak, guitarist Brett Gurewitz and vocalist Greg Graffin comprised the core. From their 1982 debut through their seventh album, recipe For Hate (1993), they remained with indie label epitaph and managed a mix of street cred, critical respect, and a reputation for a good show. "Better Off Dead" is from their 1994 major label debut, Stranger Than Fiction, from 1994. And as with so many others, the change didn't do them any good. The edges are sanded, there's more of an "alternative rock" sound than punk at this stage, and while "Better Off Dead" is an engaging juggernaut, it can't hold a candle to their late 80's output. After five major label releases, they returned to Epitaph, where they sounded positively retro, as if it were still 1988. Which makes them sound better than on most of the major label releases, but it no longer sounds very relevant. Their fans will find much more to like about "Better Off Dead" and other material of the era; it's certainly okay. But it's also a little humdrum, and humdrum punk is hardly a thing at all.
Listen to Badfinger: Name of the Game (1971)
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