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! 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.

"Bad Co.," Bad Company (1974)

My friend Thomas and I bought this album on the same day in September 1974, at a K-Mart no less.  His dad drove us and waited in the car, because he refused to set foot inside a K-Mart.  I’m not sure how many K-Marts exist today (if any), but they were sort of the Wal-Mart of their time.

I can’t speak for Thomas, but I’ll admit to thinking that I was quite the badass for picking this one up.  Hard rock!  Tough guys!  Long hair!  Heavy drumming!

It sounds like I’m making fun of them, but I always enjoyed the band’s work, and this album (their debut) was probably their best.  Meat and potatoes rock and roll for sure, but in what was becoming a pretty fallow time for A.M. radio, “Can’t Get Enough” certainly jumped out of the speakers.  I’m not sure if they qualified as a supergroup (Paul Rodgers sang for Free, Mick Ralphs was in Mott the Hoople, Boz Burrell came from King Crimson), but they had a good run through the remainder of the 70s.  Scanning their Wikipedia page I see that they in fact stayed around for a lot longer than that, but trust me – there’s no real need to listen to anything they released after 1979.

Christgau: B-.  “Since a strong singer (Paul Rodgers, who's letting the hair on his chest grow out) usually dominates a strong guitarist (Mike Ralphs, who's devoting himself to Paul Kossoff impressions anyway), this is less Mott the Hoople without pretensions (which are missed) than Free poppified (but not enough, hit single or no hit single).”

Monday, February 15, 2016

"Shame, Shame, Shame," Shirley and Company (1975)

I bought this album in early 1982 because of one song.

As you can see (if you look closely), I paid $1 for it – at Rasputin Records, on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley.

The only song I’ve ever listened to is the title track – which is not just one of the great disco singles of all time, but one of the great singles of all time, period.

Over the years, I’ve been tempted to listen to one of the other songs, but never have – and probably never will.

And whether you loved, liked, disliked or just plain hated disco, you’ve got to admit that this is one of the great album covers in the history of rock & pop music.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"New York," Lou Reed (1989)

The 1980s were a great decade for Lou Reed – to these ears, the only period where he created works of sustained excellence that could be spoken of in the same breath as his seminal work for The Velvet Underground.  1982’s “The Blue Mask,” 1983’s “Legendary Hearts,” and 1984’s “New Sensations” were all outstanding albums, and even 1986’s “Mistrial” isn’t half bad.

But my favorite is “New York,” the album with which he closed out the decade in 1989.  And although the songs are great, what I love most about the record is how it sounds.  It’s very basic – Reed and Mike Rathke on guitars, Rob Wasserman on bass, and Fred Maher on drums (with an assist from VU’s drummer Maureen Tucker on two songs) – and clean.  No embellishments, just a great band featuring two guitarists with the ability to match each other, note for note.

Lou Reed is one of those guys that you either love, or you don’t.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground when it comes to Lou.  He doesn’t really “sing” per se, although his vocals are one of the strengths of the album.  In many cases it’s amazing wordplay, in others it’s telling a great story.  And when he’s pissed off, there’s never any doubt about it.  Favorites: “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Halloween Parade,” “The Beginning of a Great Adventure,” “Busload of Faith,” “Hold On,” “Strawman” and “Dime Store Mystery,” which sounds more like a VU song than anything else that Reed has ever recorded.

Christgau: A-. “Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation--all that's missing is a disquisition on real estate. I don't always find his politics especially smart--though I have no problem with his grousing about Jesse's Jewish problem, I wish he'd called the man on Hymietown rather than Arafat. But that's not really the point, is it? As usual, the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery--plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Plus, right, the music. Which is, right, the most Velvets of his entire solo career. And which doesn't, wrong, sound like the Velvets. Not even as much as Galaxie 500. Just bass, drums, and two (simple) guitars.”

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Willy and the Poor Boys," Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

“Willie and the Poor Boys” was my birthday present in 1970, when I was in the 4th grade.

It seemed at the time, and nothing has transpired in the 45-plus years since to make me change my mind, that everyone liked Creedence Clearwater Revival.  All of my friends loved them; my parents loved them; even the teachers let us listen to their records during lunch every now and then.

Every Creedence album had a formula, and “Willy and the Poor Boys” was no different: a couple of massive radio hits (in this instance, “Down on the Corner” and “Fortunate Son”), a couple of John Fogerty-penned classics (“It Came Out of the Sky,” “Don’t Look Now”), a couple of oldies/traditionals performed Creedence-style (“Cotton Fields,” “The Midnight Special”), and a couple of songs that (at the time) I called “the long songs” (“Feelin’ Blue,” “Effigy”).

Thinking about it now it seems like a bit of an odd mix, but have no doubt – Creedence was a great, great band, perhaps the greatest American band of all.  Their flame may have burned for a relatively short time, but during that time it burned incredibly bright.

Christgau: A+. “Somehow I have never bothered to state my almost unqualified admiration for John Fogerty. Creedence's ecumenical achievement is almost unbelievable: this is the only group since the Beatles and the Stones to turn out hit after hit without losing any but the most perverse hip music snobs. With this in mind, Fogerty's subtlety as a political songwriter (have you ever really dug the words of "Fortunate Son"?) comes as no surprise. This is everything a good rock album should be--the best they've done yet, I think.”