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

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Neverending Randomplay #351-#360

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 23,652 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.

351. Benny Goodman: King Porter Stomp *****
Benny Goodman: Stomping at the Savoy (1992)
Along with Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman was one of the titans of swing, which was what a lot of young hepcats listened to, danced to, and made out to back in the prewar era. A revamped Jelly Roll Morton tune, "King Porter Stomp" is one of Goodman's best numbers, recorded in 1935, just as Goodman was entering his 1935-1939 peak. Indeed, the clarinet-playing Goodman is often credited as the inventor of swing as it came to be known, stemming from a 1935 performance at the Palomar Ballroom near Los Angeles where the crowd went wild after Goodman had been met with lukewarm enthusiasm on the east coast. "King Porter Stomp" captures succinctly the jauntiness of the era, and you'd be making a mistake if you assumed there was anything square about it. While the whole orchestra shines, special credit goes to drummer extrordinaire Gene Krupa, who gives the song its extra punch. Swing eventually fell out of favor during World War II, to be replaced by bebop jazz, Chicago blues, and eventually rock 'n' roll as the favored youth music in the nation. Goodman disbanded his orchestra in 1944, but remained active as a musician, arranger, and radio host, and even toured the U.S.S.R. in 1962. He died in 1986.

352. Paul McCartney: Motor of Love ***
Paul McCartney: Flowers in the Dirt (1989)
Flowers In The Dirt was McCartney's attempt to get himself out of the rut he spent most of the 1980's in. His stock had never fallen as far as it had by 1989; he endured a lot of spite following John Lennon's death in 1980, broke up Wings in 1981, saw his hits dry up by mid-decade, released an embarrassment of a movie in 1984, Give My Regards To Broad Street, and was largely silent in the late 80's. Perhaps signalling his desire to be taken seriously again, Flowers In The Dirt, from 1989, was his first album not to feature his photograph on the cover. More substantially, Elvis Costello was brought in to co-write a handful of songs, McCartney's first heavyweight musical collaborator in songwriting since the sainted Lennon. The result was a semi-success; Flowers In the Dirt was the first McCartney album to have substance since the 1970's, and sold fairly well. A supporting world tour, his first since 1976, was a huge success. "Motor of Love" isn't one of the McCartney/McManus collaborations, but it's an interesting tune nonetheless; a somewhat crackpot devotional from a secular Brit, it certainly isn't authentic, but does demonstrate McCartney's knack for tackling any idiom and making it his own. The drawbacks are what keeps the album from being truly fulfilling; cheesy 1980's synths and drum machines that haven't aged well. In the end, it was a step in the right direction, but only a step; McCartney wouldn't see his image rehabilitated until the late 90's, and even now he still gets dissed pretty often. Fans will like this, though.

353. Arctic Monkeys: From the Ritz to The Rubble ****
Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006)
Arctic Monkeys, formed in Sheffield, U.K., envision themselves as a cross between the Clash and the Jam, with some Britpop conventions thrown in. This alone should inspire suspicion, but I am here to report that on "From the Ritz to The Rubble", I'm buying what they're selling. Punky on the surface, it also boasts the dense layered guitars of post alt-rock, and they're edgy enough to provide nourishment. The song is aggressively uptempo, but more metallic than traditional punk; Alex Turner's snotty rapidfire vocals exude attitude without coming across as a pose, rare enough these days to be noteworthy. The song is the penultimate one on Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, their 2006 debut, which broke sales records when it was released in January. Not since Oasis has there been so much hype for a band across the Atlantic, and as with Oasis, it might be too much for any one band to live up to. But I'll gladly play this again, no problem. All I can say is, thank God for the guitars, and hope they don't fall prey to the almost inevitable sophomore swoon.

354. Mantovani Orchestra: Vaya Con Dios ***
Mantovani: In A Latin Mood (1994)
For those who wonder what the Moody Blues really aspired to, it was something like this. Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was a conductor, composer, violinist, and pianist, and crafted lush sounding easy listening albums with string orchestras. "Vaya Con Dios" perhaps best known for the Les Paul/Mary Ford rendition, is typical of his material; he relied more on TV and movie themes than on original compostions. How is it? Well lush, pretty, and melodic. Perfect for dozing off to, and there's the rub. When music becomes this innocuous, it ceases to stir any passions whatsoever, and becomes part of the wallpaper. There's certainly nothing to complain about, Mantovani is certainly a competent arranger; he may well be the best easy listening arranger in history. But some things shouldn't be too easy. Not sure of the date for this one; I'd guess it's from 1953 or shortly after. Those who like vintage lounge music for the camp value might find this to their liking; those who like lounge music without irony will find this much too tame. Recommended to Justin Hayward and John Lodge.

355. Devo: Space Junk *****
Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
Devo (short for 'De-evolution') was frequently derided as a one-joke band back in their heyday, and while that charge may be true, time has been kind to these Kent State art-rockers in disguise. In retrospect, their 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! is as much a piece of new wave history as the Talking Heads' early albums, and the Brian Eno production makes the comparison less ridiculous than it may seem on the surface. Indeed, the chiming guitars are very Heads-like, and Mark Mothersbaugh's vocals, full of goofy, hiccupy accents wrapped around a humanist message is very much in the style of David Byrne, for whom Eno produced More Songs About Buildings and Food the same year. In fact, nearly all of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! sounds less disposable now than it did when it was new, and would probably appeal to the power-pop fans who were afraid to try it back in the day. It's art-rock all right, but at a brisk 2:13, it won't wear out its welcome, and the playing is punchy. Accused by an out-of-it Rolling Stone of being Fascists, Devo's campy conformity to their baked philosophy was ultimately a humanistic message at heart.

356. Sandie Shaw: Message Understood ***
Sandie Shaw: Message Understood [45]
Chris Andrews, Sandie Shaw's chief songwriter, penned this charming little pop ditty, which sounds like Burt Bacharach writing for Mary Wells. It's innocuous in the way that only 60's British girl-pop could be, but therein lies its subtle charms, along with a brassy horn section that dates this recording to 1966. Along with Dusty Springfield and Lulu, Sandie Shaw was one of the bigger names of U.K. girl pop of the 60's, although she never reached the heights in the U.S. the others did, and saw her career dry up first. That said, she had enough catchy pop hits written by good songwriters and arranged by big names to make her worth exploring once you've run out of British Invasion groups to explore. A little on the sweet side, which means you've got to have a thing for 60's pop not to gag. Shaw later recorded in more of a cabaret sort of vein not unlike Mary Hopkin, and a minor personal scandal scuttled her squeaky-clean image, leading to her retirement in 1970; she re-emerged in the 1980's when the Smiths' Morrissey revealed himself to be a fan; she cut a single with the Smiths backing in 1986; she also worked with the Jesus and Mary Chain, of all people.

357. Concrete Blonde: Make Me Cry *****
Concrete Blonde: Concrete Blonde (1987)
This was a bit of a surprise when it came on today. Concrete Blonde were part of the mid-80's L.A. post-punk circuit where they shared gigs with X, the Go-Go's, and Wall of Voodoo. Their 1987 debut album Concrete Blonde, featured the anthem "Still in Hollywood", a tough-as-nails statement of purpose. "Make Me Cry", from the same album, sounds almost like the Cowboy Junkies; a tender, melodic, acoustic alt-country number featuring an unusually winsome and bittersweet vocal and harmony from Johnette Napolitano. While Napolitano sometimes came across as a more Goth Chrissie Hynde, here she's convincingly country, even if I don't quite buy the twang in her voice; the song's windswept ambiance compliments the vocals nicely. The band, also led by guitarist Jim Mankey, originally was called Dream 6, but a suggestion from I.R.S. labelmate Michael Stipe resulted in a name-change just prior to this album's release.

358. The Boo Radleys: Lazy Day ****
The Boo radleys: Everything's Alright Forever (1992)
The Boo Radleys never quite settled on a musical identity, which has hurt them in the long run in the legacy sweepstakes. As labelmates with My Bloody Valentine at the shoegaze-oriented Creation records, they shared with them their love of noise; fuzz, pedals, studio trickery, introverted vocals were part of their bag, and all make their appearance here. However, they clearly didn't want the shoegaze pigeonhole to apply to them; they had ambition. So unlike their fellow shoegazers, they favored linear, uptempo, jangle-pop derived tunes, as opposed to swirling, shimmery, noisefests. "Lazy Day" hurries right along, hanging its hook on its forward moving guitars; while there's plenty of white noise and static to keep a shoegaze fan feeling at home, there's anough of a tune here to please, say, an R.E.M. or dB's fan as well. "Lazy Day" is from Everything's Alright Forever, the band's 1992 debut album, and first release for Creation. The band's peak was in 1994-1995 when they released two excellent albums, Giant Steps and Wake Up Boo!, the latter reaching top-10 in the U.K. American audiences could never really figure them out, however, and by 1996 they had been dropped from their U.S. label, which eventually led to their 1998 breakup. Now mostly forgotten, they actually were one of the key early 90's bands; a missing link between shoegaze, roots rock, and Britpop.

359. The Police: Walking In Your Footprints ***
The Police: Synchronicity (1983)
Synchronicity, the 1983 album that was the fifth and final from the U.K. trio the Police, was at once their most ambitious recording and also their least cohesive. As was part of general Police policy since 1980's Zenyatta Mondatta, all of the world is fair game for the plundering of musical cues, and "Walking In Your Footsteps" is based almost entirely around a polyrhythm that undoubtedly had its genesis in some uncredited African tribe. Stewart Copeland's drums, therefore, are the star of the show here, although Andy Summers manages to coax some remarkable jungle bird cries from his guitar. Sting is the weak link here; he sounds disinterested, and the lyrics, an ode to dinosaurs, is pretty silly. These days, it's kind of hard to justify listening to stuff like this, with so much authentic worldbeat available, but the Police were one of the great synthesists of their age, and thus at no time does this not sound like the Police. The album was a mega #1, and nearly all of it turns up on the radio to this day. One of the few songs that seldom does is "Walking In Your Footprints", which ultimately works better in the context of the album, where its cornier aspects benefit from similar company.

360. Bonnie Raitt: Women Be Wise ****
Bonnie Raitt: Bonnie Raitt (1971)
Bonnie Raitt's biggest commercial triumphs came so late in her career (1989) that it's sometimes easy to forget how far she goes back. "Women Be Wise" is from her 1971 debut, Bonnie Raitt, which cast her as more of a blues singer than anything else. "Woman Be Wise" sounds something like Geoff and Maria Muldaur's blues excursions of the same era, although Raitt is a far more commanding singer than Muldaur ever was. The song is piano-based in a New Orleans sort of vein, but with a hint of laid-back California tucked away in there. Credited to John Beach/Sippie Wallace (Beach is the pianist), the song itself is homey and warm, although not especially memorable on its own merits; what stands out is Raitt's vocal, which could have established her as a bona-fide blues singer, had than been the direction she had chosen. Instead, she pursued an eclectic path, which has turned into one of the longest careers by a woman in any genre of music.

Listen to Concrete Blonde: Make Me Cry (1987)

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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Weekend Reissue Roundup #42: 05/28/2006

Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)   Harry Nilsson: Everybody's Talkin': The Very Best of Harry Nilsson (2006)   Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself (1971)   J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame (1981)

Artist: Album (label, release date) 1-5 stars

Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (JVC Japan, May 23, 2006) ***
Harry Nilsson: Everybody's Talkin': The Very Best of Harry Nilsson (RCA, May 23, 2006) ****
Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself (Universal Special Products, May 23, 2006) ***
J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame (Beat Goes On, May 23, 2006) ***

Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)
It's pretty hard to take this album seriously in 2006, especially since it was ridiculed at the time it was released. However, it became the biggest selling record in Atco's history in 1968, a year before Led Zeppelin's debut would eclipse the record. Most rock fans are familiar with the title cut, a 17-minute relic of 60's indulgence, complete with heavy gothic organ, drum solos, a rudimentary bass riff that seemingly never ends coupled with flash proto-metal guitar, and Doug Ingle's deep baritone mumble for a lead vocal. The song was a hit in an abridged 3-minute edit, and the album peaked at #4 on the charts. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (legend says it was to be called "In The Garden of Eden" until Ingle kept blowing the lyrics) is what it will always be; a snapshot of the moment when flower-power psychedelia began its mutation into the very first heavy metal ever. Since it took up all of side two back when albums had "sides", the rest of the disc is comprised of only 5 numbers with quaint titles like "Flowers and Beads" and "My Mirage". How much you need to hear them depends on how deeply into 1960's archaeology you want to go. I can tell you that "Most Anything You Want" is the best track, a kind of Association-meets-"Touch Me"-era Doors with plenty of fuzz guitar and organ. "Termination" is the closest to proto-metal they get besides the title track, and even there they sound pretty lightweight. Ingle and drummer Ron Bushy are the only holdovers from the band's 1968 debut, Heavy; the newcomers were 18-year old Erik Braunn, who supplies the fuzzy, heavy guitars and Lee Dorman, responsible for that famous bassline. The San Diego-based Iron Butterfly never repeated their success; their 1969 followup Ball, while more ambitious, faded after going gold, and by 1971 they were finished. A brief revival in 1975 yielded two failed (but interesting) albums, and the surviving members of the band have reunited several times since. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida belongs in the rock historian's collection, but casual listeners probably only need the title track, if that.

Harry Nilsson: Everybody's Talkin': The Very Best of Harry Nilsson
Harry Nilsson: Everybody's Talkin': The Very Best of Harry Nilsson (2006)
If ever there was a man who threw away his talent, it was Harry Nilsson. Once upon a time, Nilsson was a smooth voiced crooner who had a way with melody and a very crackpot sense of arrangement and production, that often relied on lush orchestrations bent in the service of bizarre pop ditties unlike anyone else's. During his peak, from the late 60's through the early 70's, he was responsible for a number of charming, goofball songs (which he wrote or covered) as well as some in a more traditional vein; among his hits were Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", Badfinger's "Without You", and originals like "Coconut", "I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City", "One", "Spaceman", "Without Her", and "Me and My Arrow". The Beatles became fans early in his career when they heard his layered, scrambled, diced and spliced medley of Beatles songs "You Can't Do That" from 1968. In 1974, he became drinking buddies with John Lennon during Lennon's famous "lost weekend" and essentially ruined his silky voice; the pair recorded Pussy Cats at this time, and Nilsson sounded ravaged. He never was the same again; although he fulfilled his contract with RCA by putting out a string of offbeat, strange albums in the 1970's that almost nobody bought, by 1979 he had stopped recording, and pretty much did nothing but laze around until his death from a heart attack in 1993. A Coca Cola ad in 2005 used "Coconut" and alerted a new generation to his offbeat charm; now RCA is giving his back catalog a new push, re-releasing his best-selling albums and offering this 14-song sampler. A sampler is all it is; the aforementioned songs are all on it (except "You can't Do That"), and a few others including the single version of "Jump Into The Fire" an uncharacteristic hard rock song that is much better in its manic, full-length album version. Nothing from Pussy Cats or later are here, nor his pre-"Everybody's Talkin'" material. But if you like "Coconut", and what to see what else the man had to offer, this is as good a jumping in place as any. Those who already have these tunes are urged to explore Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson Sings Newman, Nilsson Schmilsson, Son of Schmilsson, The Point, and maybe even the standards album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, for a better picture.

Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself
Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself (1971)
Uriah Heep never gets any respect. Critical disdain greeted their 1970 debut, and followed them every inch of the way. Yet, they've survived, multiple lineup changes notwithstanding, and continue to tour and release albums to the present day. Look At Yourself, their third album, was their big 1971 commercial breakthrough, earning them their first chart appearance in U.S. (#93), and sold well in Europe. It still doesn't get much respect, although time has been kind to it, and it stands up reasonably well to its competition of the time, which included discs by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Of the three, it is Deep Purple Uriah Heep most resembled, thanks to Ken Hensley's busy Hammond organ, David Byron's histrionic wails, and Mick Box's crunchy, meaty guitar. The centerpiece is "July Morning" a 10-minute early metal classic that hangs on a circular organ riff and plows forward with the certainty of an 18-wheeler before alternating between soft and hard, building to a prog-rock crescendo. The title track is an uptempo rocker also propelled by organ and featuring one of Byron's best vocals. Elsewhere, "Wanna Be Free" showcases Box's guitar, "Tears In My Eyes" is a delicate progressive track that recalls Yes to a vague degree, "Love Machine" gallops along on 8 cylinders, and the other tunes hold their own. Look At Yourself is Uriah Heep just as their sound was gelling; an improvement over the ponderous prog-rock of Salisbury from 1970, but not quite the semi-masterpiece their fourth album Demons and Wizards would be. Fans of early heavy metal should enjoy this album; particularly Deep Purple, Queen, and Judas Priest fans. Non-fans will probably be put off by the falsetto backing vocals and plodding rhythms. I fall somewhere in-between, but found it worthwhile in the end.

J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame
J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame (1981)
What happened to these guys? After spending the 1970's in relative obscurity, this Boston band broke through big-time with Freeze Frame, a 1981 album that peaked at #1 and spawned 3 hits, "Centerfold", "Angel in Blue", and "Freeze-Frame". All were catchy tunes, and the album itself was quite good, one of the better releases of 1981, which was one of the worst years ever for major-label rock. The band had changed their sound considerably over the years; renowned for their stage show, the band had specialized in a sweaty, gritty r&b at the outset. By the time of Freeze Frame, most of the r&b was gone, although not entirely, and the band had discovered a magic way with a hook. Freeze Frame was actually a continuation of the change in direction signalled by the 1980 hit "Love Stinks", and the band seemed poised to become one of the biggest of the 1980's until in-fighting between singer/songwriter Peter Wolf and keyboardist/songwriting partner Seth Justman came to a head; the pair split at the height of their success, and while Wolf managed a successful solo debut in 1984, the J. Geils Band's next album tanked, and the group split up for good. So Freeze Frame now has some of the patina many early 80's new wave/power pop bands have; a slightly disposable feel, despite the hooks. Aside from the hits, there are some interesting moments here, including the cacophonous "Rage in the Cage" and the almost punky sounding "Piss on the Wall"; all of it well played and fairly easy to digest. However, the band's failure to capitalize on this success makes this album sound like more of a dead end than it needed to.

Also out this week: Five post-peak 1980's albums (Girls to Chat & Boys to Bounce, In The Mood for Something Rude, Rock 'n' Roll Outlaws, Tight Shoes, Zig-Zag Walk) from second tier hard-rockers Foghat on Wounded Bird; The Best of Divine, yes Divine from all those John Waters flicks, on Delta Blue, Put A Little Love In Your Heart a 1969 album by British pop singer Jackie DeShannon, on RPM UK; Paul Carrak's post-Squeeze 1982 solo album Suburban Voodoo on Acadia; Sammy Hagar's post-Van Halen 1997 solo disc, Marching to Mars on Geffen Gold Line; Bill Haley's Jukebox a good 1961 album on Collectibles; This Land Is Your Land, a Woodie Guthrie compilation spanning 1940-1947 on Living Era; Ultravox, the 1977 sophomore album by synth-punk pioneers Ultravox on Universal International; and a good new Neil Diamond compilation of his early years, Forever Neil Diamond, on Shout! Factory.

Watch Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida [American Bandstand, 1968]


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