Sunday, May 01, 2016

"Purple Rain," Prince and the Revolution (1984)

The greatness of "Purple Rain" was evident upon the very first listen.  Prince had made some excellent albums before its release in 1984; "Dirty Mind," "Controversy" and "1999" were all landmarks in their own right.  But nothing (well, maybe "Little Red Corvette") could prepare you for what you heard on "Purple Rain."

It's a little thing, and it comes on what few people (if any) would claim is the best song on the album, but there's a moment on "Take Me With U," the second song on Side One, which stuck with me the first time I heard it and still resonates today.  Towards the end of the song, Prince tells the object of his affection (presumably, Apollonia), "You're sheer perfection," and in the background you hear a softly spoken "thank you."  I'm not sure why that one moment has stuck with me for 32 years, but it was right then and there that I knew that the record which was playing was a masterpiece.

And make no bones about it - this isn't just a great record.  This is one of the greatest records in the history of Rock 'n Roll, Pop, Soul, R&B, any moniker you want to give it.  I was almost afraid to write about "Purple Rain," because something this great is almost intimidating.  When art as glorious as "Purple Rain" enters the world, it's difficult to even wrap your head around it - the history of rock 'n roll is filled with miraculous moments, but when one album is comprised of one miracle after another, it's a bit scary.  And you can only shake your head in wonder.

Prince would make great albums again, and continue to be one of the most vital artists of his generation.  But as great as he and his work was, he never produced a work that was better than "Purple Rain."  And that's OK, because a record as great as "Purple Rain" deserves to have its place on the mountaintop.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"3121," Prince (2006)

Near the end of “The Big Chill,” Jeff Goldblum is sitting and talking with Glenn Close and accurately observing something along the lines of, “I’m feeling vibrations…and I’m pretty sure there is sex going on in this house right now.”  That’s sort of how I feel when I listen to “3121” – there is definitely something going on in Prince’s house on this album, and it’s not likely something that you’re going to see showing up on basic cable.

Frankly, it’s easy to make that leap even before perusing the lyric sheet that is provided with the album.  This music is nasty – and above all else, “3121” demonstrates the remarkable proficiency of Prince as a producer and arranger.  The bass and drums are turned up real loud, and there’s just something about the overall sound that distinguishes the album from just about every other Prince album I’ve heard.  I’m not even sure I can put it into words – “swamp music” comes to mind because of its near-underwater quality, but it also sounds a bit like a 21st century version of the great sound developed by Willie Mitchell for Al Green and other artists like Ann Peebles.

Also a credit to the production is the fact that it’s almost impossible to distinguish the “all instruments performed by Prince” songs from those which feature guest players.  In the past, some of his DIY records have come across sounding a bit thin, but that is definitely not the case on “3121.”  Listening without having the credits right in front of you, I’d defy any listener to tell which songs among the title track, “Lolita,” “Black Sweat,” and “Get on the Boat” are “band enhanced,” and which ones are all Prince by himself.

Also worth noting is the design of the lyrics sheets, which contain photos of a house (mansion, really) that if it isn’t Prince’s house, certainly should be.  And last but not certainly not least, a shout out to Maceo Parker, the great saxophone player who over the course of his life (73 now and still going strong) has played with James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Bryan Ferry, and many others.  When Prince cries out, “Play it, Maceo!” during the bridge of “Get on the Boat,” you feel like you’re part of rock & soul history itself.

This, folks, is a good one.  A very good one.

Christgau: A-. It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise – until you pay attention.  Sure “Love” and “Satisfied” and “Fury” constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock – but only by genius standards.  Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune – and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed “Lolita” by himself.  The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are.  I’m back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he’s in the mood.  Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Emancipation," Prince (1996)

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this, but nearly all the music I’ve listened to (or even wanted to listen to) since the news of his death last Thursday is music by Prince.  The soundtrack for cleaning house on Saturday was comprised of the vinyl editions of “Controversy,” “1999” and “Purple Rain.”  And playing non-stop in my car this week (for once, a reason to savor the morning and evening commute) has been “Emancipation,” the gargantuan 3-disc, 36 song set that Prince released in late 1996 to celebrate his departure from Warner Bros. Records.

It may not have been clear to me at the time, but “Emancipation” is a remarkable achievement.  Not once over the course of the album is there is a bad song, and I’m not sure I can think of another artist who could pull that off with anything close to the level of consistency that one finds on this record.  And better yet, the album is a collection of nearly everything that Prince does well.  So you’ve got your raunchy/steamy songs, you’ve got your homages to 1960s/70s soul, you’ve got some outstanding cover versions, and you’ve got the typically amazing instrumental performances that are always a highlight, even on Prince’s “lesser” work.

Unlike Christgau, whose full review appears below, I don’t think the covers are the best thing on the album, although his version of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” is amazing, as well as totally unexpected.  For me, the highlights are “Slave,” which may be the most minimalist song on the album – not much more than Prince and a driving beat accompanied by some nifty synthesizer work – and “White Mansion,” which stood out for me then and continues to do so nearly 20 years later.  It’s hard to pick a favorite disc, but I guess I’d lean towards #3 – but maybe that’s only because it’s the freshest one in my mind.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t recall “Emancipation” setting the world on fire when it was released in 1996.  Maybe part of the reason is the sheer volume of the material – good as they are, 36 songs are still a lot to make your way through, and it requires more commitment than one might normally devote to a single album.  But one thing is for certain – anyone making that effort won’t be disappointed, and is bound to find a few gems that they’ve never heard or fully appreciated before.

Christgau: A-.  Writing the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hop R&B – three discs and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard.  Yet although there’s not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and hear nothing that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn’t the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway.  Great grooves abound, however.  As does great singing.  Harmonies too.  Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool?  And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Controversy," Prince (1981)

"If anybody asks you, you belong to Prince."

"Controversy" was the first Prince album that I obsessed over...or I should say, "we" obsessed over, because on the second floor of Cheney Hall at UC Berkeley in the winter and spring of 1982, it probably got played more than any other album (the other contenders I can think of are Roxy Music's "Avalon," Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk," David Lindley's "El Rayo X," and the debut album from Tom Tom Club).  There was one memorable evening when a couple of Cal football players partied with us in my neighbor's room, and someone asked "what should we listen to?" and I blurted out, "Controversy!," for which I was later chastised ("...dude, don't you think that was a little too obvious?"). Whatever...it may have been too obvious, but it was still the obvious choice.

About the album, Stephen Holden wrote in Rolling Stone, "Prince's first three records were so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine.  On Controversy, that libertine proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society than the bellicose, overtechnologized America of Ronald Reagan."  Well, OK.  At the time I think we were more into the sound, although it was admittedly difficult not to notice the lyrics on the title track ("...People call me rude, I wish we were all nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules...) and songs like "Ronnie Talk to Russia" and "Annie Christian," two of the most overtly political statements he ever made.

And then of course, there was the usual dose of sexuality, both in the song with that title and on "Do Me, Baby," "Private Joy" and "Jack U Off."  And as an added bonus, there was the poster of the almost nude Prince in the shower, which we threatened for months to lacquer onto the door of one of our unsuspecting dorm mates but never quite mustered up the courage or reached the level of inebriation required to carry out that feat.

What we didn't know in 1982 was that Prince was on the cusp of a level of greatness that few artists have ever achieved.  What we did know was that "Controversy" was a damn good album.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince

In 1995, Prince released an album called "The Gold Experience." More than a decade removed from "Purple Rain," the album didn't get a lot of airplay; I'd be willing to bet that most of his legion of fans never even heard it.

And it's a masterpiece.

I don't know how many more musical deaths we're going to be confronted with this year, but this is the one that hits hardest of all.  And when I finally had a chance to sit down tonight and listen to some of his music, the first song I wanted to hear was "P Control," the "Gold Experience" opener.  To this day, it's one of the most outrageous songs that he's ever recorded; in comparison, Kanye West's "Golddigger" sounds like something The Archies might have recorded.
I don't want to say a lot about the song because it would be really cool if lending it a sense of mystery would lead some folks who've never heard it to seek it out, but suffice to say it's of a sexual theme (shocking, I know) and it's accompanied by a beat that even Christgau thought slammed "harder than any hip hop I've heard in years."

And that's the thing about Prince.  A couple of decades after the work for which he'll be most remembered by the general public, he was still producing great music.  And a lot of it - for crying out loud, "Emancipation" in the late 1990s had 36 songs on it, and there really wasn't a clinker in the entire bunch.  That's sure a lot more than The Clash could say about "Sandinista," and that thing won the Pazz & Jop Critics poll, for crying out loud.

Like some of his fellow musical geniuses, Prince never felt the need to provide the public with everything that it wanted, and so there would be times when a stone-cold masterpiece ("Purple Rain") might be followed by an album that was pretty lousy ("Around the World in a Day") followed by an album of maddening inconsistency ("Parade"), capped off by another stone-cold masterpiece ("Sign O' the Times").  And his approach to social media, particularly his obsession with keeping his music off of YouTube, was hard to describe as anything other than self-defeating.  And I suppose that one could argue that in his latter years, he got a little self-indulgent.

But in the end, SO WHAT? We forgive artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young for the dozens of lousy albums that they've made in the course of their careers, and we don't seem to care that the last meaningful music the Rolling Stones made was more than 30 years ago.  And hell, the only reason The Beatles never made a lousy album was that they quit while they were ahead.  But trust me, it was coming.

Prince was one of the great ones.  And by great ones, I mean great like The Beatles, great like Ray Charles, great like the Stones at their best, great like Michael Jackson at his best, great like Jimi Hendrix, great like Bob Dylan, great like The Clash and Bruce Springsteen.  And yes, great like Elvis.  Really, really great.  It doesn't matter whether there was work left in him that could match the best of his work that came before.  The point is, there was more Prince music to be heard, and it would have been worth the effort to seek it out and listen.

R.I.P.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Painting of a Panic Attack," Frightened Rabbit (2016)

When I was lucky enough to be invited by Jack Gallagher a couple of years ago to appear on his 5 Songs podcast, I tried to articulate my philosophy of music with the comment, "the best song ever written is still out there somewhere; I just haven't found it yet."

About a month ago, the band Frightened Rabbit appeared on Colbert, singing a song called "Get Out." I was transfixed, and I knew that as soon as the album was released, I'd be picking it up on strength of that song alone.

Got the album yesterday, and have not wanted to stop listening yet. And while I know my tendency is to get a little too excited upon first listens, right now I won't hesitate to call "Painting of a Panic Attack" an absolute masterpiece. For those who are unfamiliar with the band, think The National - in fact, this record sounds as if it's a companion to that band's last album, "Trouble Will Find Me" (one of the best albums of the decade, so far).

There's no lyric sheet, but the song titles alone tell you the story - "Death Dream," "I Wish I Was Sober," "An Otherwise Disappointing Life," "Blood Under the Bridge," "Die Like a Rich Boy" - this is not a particularly happy album. But then again, what pulled me in from first listen is the music - beautiful and moving, it's the first record in a while to remind me that sometimes, a piece of music really can change the course of a day, of a mood.

And if I hadn't managed to stay awake that night they were on Colbert, they'd be out there but I still wouldn't know who they are. I'm glad I found them, and now it's time to start searching for the next great band, the next great song.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"It's Only Rock'n Roll," The Rolling Stones (1974)

You're probably going to have trouble finding someone who thinks that "It's Only Rock'n Roll" is the best Stones album, or even among the Stones' best five (ten?) albums, but it was the first Rolling Stones record I fell in love with, way back in the days when Mick Taylor was still in the band and "the other Mick" was still the first name that one thought of when considering the Stones.

And you know what? It's a pretty damn good album. Except for "Fingerprint File," which I never got then and am still not sure I completely understand today, this is strong, consistent work that shows the band doing its best to stretch the very idea of what the Stones were meant to sound like, and mostly succeeding.

The most powerful tracks are not those that one would consider your standard Stones-style rockers, but rather "Time Waits for No One," the closer on Side One, and "Luxury," the opener on Side Two. Jon Landau described Jagger's singing on the former as "a controlled desperation that borders on acceptance but never quite becomes resignation...given the rock star's inherent fear of aging, the song becomes an affirmation of Jagger's willingness to keep on trying in the face of inevitable doom." About the latter, Greil Marcus wrote, "it comes on as if the Stones are trying to cash in on reggae—the pose—but by the time it’s halfway done what it really sounds like is a reggae band playing like Stones. The chords that seemed copped in the first minute are magical by the third—there isn’t a group in the world that can play like this."

Indeed, there isn't. I won't quibble with those who find it hard to take them seriously today, but it would be silly to pretend that they aren't one of the best and most important rock acts of all time.

Christgau: B. "This is measurably stronger than Goats Head Soup, and I hear enough new hooks and arresting bass runs and audacious jokes to stretch over three ordinary albums--or do I mean two? I also hear lazy rhymes and a song about dancing with Father Time and two sides that begin at a peak and wind down from there and an LP title that means more than it intends--or do I mean less?"

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Heart Like a Wheel," Linda Ronstadt (1974)

One of my Christmas presents in 1974 was an AM/FM clock radio, on which I began my slow transition from listening almost exclusively to AM radio over to the more adventurous climes (at least in those days) of FM.  I wasn't quite ready for the "free-form" format of KZAP, which went deep into album cuts (in many cases, of artists that I'd never heard of), but embraced "K-108 FM" which wasn't quite as adventurous but did introduce me to such classics as Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks."  

Even though it was Christmas vacation, just for the heck of it I set the alarm on Christmas night, and the song that woke me up the next morning was Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" - one of the best singles of its time, and the song that really turned Ronstadt from a popular cult artist into a massive superstar.

I'm not sure that Ronstadt really gets her due today, but I think part of the reason for that was her turn towards Sinatra-style ballads in the early 1980s.  While very popular, her versions of such classics as "What's New" paled in comparison to the originals - her wonderful voice was as beautiful as ever, but she brought little in the way of emotions to her interpretations.

"Heart Like a Wheel," on the other hand, is a great album; one that demonstrated Ronstadt's ability as an interpreter of other people's songs as well as anything she ever recorded.  I actually prefer her version of the title track to the original by the McGarrigle sisters, and on the record she proves that she's up to covering both Hank Williams ("I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You") and Lowell George ("Willin').  She even breathes life into an old Paul Anka song, for cryin' out loud.

Christgau: A-.  "For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice--and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody."

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Yesterday and Today," The Beatles (1966)

27:33.  That's how long the album is.

Story #1:  This was another birthday present; what I really liked at the time was "Hey Jude," but at the time I think my parents thought the song was a little too "hard rock."  

At the time, I had no idea that this was basically an album made up of leftovers from the U.K. versions of the Beatles albums (in this case, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, plus the Day Tripper single).  It all sounded great to me.

Story #2: When I was in the 4th grade, I was part of a group that was allowed to help out in the Kindergarten class.  One day, we were playing 45 records with them on a very lo-fidelity record player, with headphones on - and the record we played was "I Saw Her Standing There," because we loved the scream in the middle of the song.  And then one of the teachers heard us, and that was pretty much the end of that.

Story #3: At the time, our family record player was a Magnavox, really more a piece of furniture than anything else.  And there was only one speaker, so when you had an album like this one that was "stereo enhanced," there were some things that you never heard - like Ringo's vocal on "What Goes On?"  I could never figure out what was up with that.

At the end of the day, this wasn't really an album at all - just an attempt (probably successful) by Capitol Records to rake in a little more cash from Beatlemania.

On the other hand, it was (and is) a great album.  Call it a mix-tape of the Sixties.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Sundown," Rank and File (1983)

Rank and File was a relatively short-lived band from the early 1980s that fell into the “country punk” genre, of which I’m guessing there were few members.  “Sundown” is a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable record (if short – barely 30 minutes long), but there isn’t much about it that makes me think of punk.  The band must have been a marketing nightmare for Slash Records – I can’t imagine punks of the time wanting to listen to it much, and it seems a fair bet that most country fans would question the wisdom of any band associating themselves with those “damn punks.”

Trivia note: one of the band’s guitarists was Alejandro Escovedo, who remains an active (and strong) artist today.  I’m not sure what became of the Kinman brothers (who wrote most of the songs), but they wrote good enough songs that I hope they made a decent career of it eventually.


Christgau: A-.  As rock concepts go these days, the idea of making like the fourth-best bar band in Wichita Falls is plenty warm-blooded, so that even though I disapprove in theory of the loud, klutzy dynamics of this ex-punk country-rock, its zeal wins me over every time. Helps that they leave "Wabash Cannonball" etc. off the album and explain their excellent motives in their own words, fleshed out with a few of the guitar licks they found lying around that bar.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Out of Time," R.E.M. (1991)

A few years back, I put together a list of what I thought were the best 50 albums of all time, and then started writing a short essay on each of them for my blog.  I ran out of steam a couple of different times, after which I'd return after a couple of (or few) months newly determined to make it all the way to #1.

Where I got stuck for good was (I think) #21 or #22, where I intended to plug in an R.E.M. album.  But I kept changing my mind over which one, and I was determined not to do what I did with Talking Heads, for whom I picked their first four albums in a four-way tie.  And then after a while, this particular roadblock sort of convinced me of the futility of the entire exercise.  Why confine myself to 50?  (Although someday soon I do intend to publish the top 20 list, just for the heck of it).

"Out of Time" was one of the four, and since today is the 25th anniversary of its release, is today's selection.  It is indeed a great album, one of the four of theirs that I would put in that category - the other three being "Murmur," "Document," and "Automatic for the People."

The album begins with the words, "The world is collapsing around my ears," which sort of lends it a timeless quality.  The great single "Losing My Religion" is also on the first side, but the song that really hooked me in from the beginning was the third, "Low."  Others can tell me whether this comparison is apt, but it always struck me as very "Lou Reed-esque."  Leading off side two is "Shiny Happy People," which I know a lot of people hate but which I love.  And hearing Kate Pierson's voice on the song along with Stipe and Mills continues to be a delight to this day.

Happy anniversary.

Christgau: A.  "Hiding political tics behind faux-formalist boilerplate, pop aesthetes accused them of imposing Solidarity and Agent Orange on their musical material, but in fact such subjects signaled an other-directedness as healthy as Michael Stipe's newfound elocution. Admittedly, with this one beginning "The world is collapsing around our ears," I wondered briefly whether "Losing My Religion" was about music itself, but when Stipe says they thought about calling it Love Songs, he's not just mumbling "Dixie." Being R.E.M., they mean to capture moods or limn relationships rather than describe feelings or, God knows, incidents, and while some will find the music too pleasing, it matches the words hurt for hurt and surge for surge. The Kate Pierson cameos, the cellos, and Mark Bingham's organic string arrangements are Murmur without walls--beauty worthy of DeBarge, of the sweetest soukous, of a massed choir singing "I Want To Know What Love Is."

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Pretenders (1980)



I bought this album on the strength of the cover alone.

On the cover photo, the boys in the band look more than a little silly – on the left, bassist Pete Farndon looks as if he’s lost in space (which apparently he was, R.I.P.) while on the right, drummer Martin Chambers and guitarist James Honeyman Scott look sort of goofy, as if they’re laughing to themselves at some lame joke.

Chrissie Hynde is another matter entirely.  Looking straight at the camera, she conveys a look that is best described as “I’m sorry, but you do not want to f*ck with me.”  And that is a pretty good description of the music on “Pretenders.”  The brief liner notes advise the listener to PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD, and that’s not a bad idea.  As far as musicianship goes, you’re not going to hear a lot of subtlety or “tasty licks” on this record, at least not on Side One – it’s intended to be an assault on the senses (I mean that as a compliment), so if you’re going to take the dive, you might as well jump in the deep end.  Side Two slows things down a bit, although it does include “Brass in Pocket,” the hit single.

Money quote, from “Up the Neck:”

I remember the way he groaned
And moved with an animal skill
I rubbed my face in the sweat that ran down his chest
It was all very run of the mill

Like I said before…

Saturday, March 05, 2016

"Siren," Roxy Music (1975)



As Simon Frith noted in his Rolling Stone review of the album, six musicians were credited on the back cover of “Siren,” while eight people were credited with the cover design.  Frith’s review is worth seeking out; it’s a prime example of the best that RS used to offer in its Record Review section.

The cover model is Jerry Hall, who at the time was dating Roxy Music auteur Bryan Ferry.  This week Hall married Rupert Murdoch, and for years was in a relationship with Mick Jagger.  I’m not quite sure what to make of that progression, or if Ferry to Jagger to Murdoch even represents progress.  But cheers to her, nonetheless.

The first time I heard “Love is the Drug,” I was lying in bed on a lazy Sunday morning in early 1976, listening to “American Top 40.”  The song didn’t make it any higher than #30 (thanks, Wikipedia), but in retrospect is sure sounds like one of the best singles of the decade.

Reflecting today, Roxy Music was a real turning point in the evolution of my musical tastes.  They really sounded like nothing I’d heard or listened to up to that point, and they were certainly different than anything playing at that time on American radio.  And like the best rock music, “Siren” sounds as fresh today as it did upon release.  One might even say that Bryan Ferry’s world-weary approach to vocals is the perfect sound for any era.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Risque," Chic (1979)

At some point around the time of this year's appearance by Nile Rodgers at this year's Grammy Awards - I can't remember if it was during the show, or in an interview shortly afterward - it was said that Chic would be recording a new album.

On the one hand, that's welcome news.  But on the other, it isn't really possible, because there is no Chic without bassist Bernard Edwards, and Edwards died in 1996.

As great a guitarist as Nile Rodgers was in Chic (and remains today), the sound of Chic revolved around the bass lines of Bernard Edwards.  In a way, the band turned the traditional band structure on its head - Edwards on bass played the lead, with Rodgers on guitar providing the rhythm.

"Risque" was their best album, and of course "Good Times" was their masterpiece.  At the time (and even now) it may have sounded like nothing more than the best disco song of its time, but let's consider for a moment the words of Dave Marsh:

"Good Times" perfectly captures the heady, disintegrating atmosphere of New York in the late seventies, as both local and national government abandoned any hope of social equity and opened the door for the ruthless laissez-faire heyday of upper- and lower-class criminality that characterized the eighties.  "Good Times!  These...are...the...good...times...Our...new...state...of mind...," sing Alfa Anderson and Norma Jean Thompson as if they've learned to grit their teeth by rote, while Nile Rodgers' nasty guitar zips in and out like a premonition of the nasty crack-and-Contra era to come, and Bernard Edwards throbs underneath, imperturbable as he is implacable."

Get out on the dance floor...good times, indeed.  Sound familiar?

Christgau: A-.  "Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers proved on Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" that hedonism and its discontents, the inevitable focus of disco's meaningfulness moves, is a subject worth opening up. Here, "Good Times" and "My Feet Keep Dancing" surround the sweetly romantic "Warm Summer Night" in a rueful celebration of escape that's all the more suggestive for its unquenchable good cheer. Side two's exploration of romance and its agonies also has a fatalistic tint, but in the end the asides and rhythmic shifts (as well as the lyrics themselves) give rue the edge over celebration. Subtle, intricate, kinetic, light but not mindless--in short, good to dance to."

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Hearts and Bones," Paul Simon (1983)

"Hearts and Bones" is a good Paul Simon album that had the misfortune to be released just a couple of years before "Graceland," a very, very great Paul Simon album.

You can begin to hear the rhythms that would make "Graceland" such a phenomenal success on some of the songs here, but there's no question that the players - expert session men though they may be - lack the fluidity of the African musicians Simon would put in the spotlight on "Graceland."

On the other hand, you've got to love any album that includes songs with titles like "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Wild Planet," The B-52s (1980)



There’s no doubt that The B-52’s’ first album is their masterpiece, and without question one of the greatest New Wave albums.  But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the follow-up, most likely because it became a staple of Deutsch Hall parties at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1980.  And trust me, there were a lot of parties that fall.  Those were different days in college dorms; on my very first night there our dorm RAs hosted a wine-and-cheese party – and mind you, this was an official dorm function.  Berkeley was on the quarter system back then, and every quarter each floor of the dorm got a cash allotment (apparently, from an account derived from the fees we paid) to spend on whatever we wanted – and if we wanted a keg party, that was quite alright.  (Mind you, I’m not saying these things don’t happen on college campuses anymore, but I somehow suspect that the days of official underage drinking events are over).

But back to the album – the first side is almost (hold up thumb and forefinger) as a good as the debut, beginning with “Party Out of Bounds” and closing with “Private Idaho.”  The three songs between them are little more than extended riffs turned into songs, but I always loved the way that the slow burn of “Dirty Back Road” segued into the faster “Runnin’ Around” and “Give Me Back My Man.”  The second side isn’t quite as successful, but at least a couple of the songs – “Quiche Lorraine” and “Strobe Light” – work as really good jokes.

So why were The B-52’s so popular with a bunch of crazy smart kids away from home for the first time?  Maybe there was something intoxicating about the simplicity of the music and the enthusiasm of the singers – no one who’d never heard Fred Schneider before could really believe what they were hearing, and it wasn’t long before the young women of the dorm were competing for who could do the best impressions of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.  And maybe it was just because you couldn’t listen to this stuff without wanting to join in, jump around and have a good time.