Monday, September 2, 2019

Blind Willie McTell - Statesboro Blues

Just One Song - Triptykon

Altar of Deceit
Melana Chasmata (2014)

Do this. Make a list of bands that have been around for three decades and are still making new music that you might want to listen to. If it's anything like mine, it's probably pretty sparse. Of course, Triptykon is technically not the same band as Celtic Frost, but given that the driving force in each incarnation is frontman Tom Fischer, it works for me. In 2014, thirty years after Celtic Frost debuted with Morbid Tales, Triptykon released their second album, Melana Chasmata. If you allow that there's such a thing as extreme progressive metal or perhaps progressive extreme metal, this is a great example of the form.

Melana Chasmata is heavy, but it's not breakneck, unmitigated heaviness all the way through. There are bits that border on subtle and there's a track I'd nominate as the best Sisters of Mercy song the Sisters of Mercy never wrote or performed. But there's also some seriously heavy stuff on this album. There are two songs that are especially noteworthy, but since this feature is not called Just Two Songs, I narrowed it down to Altar of Deceit.

But a few words about the runner-up - Black Snow. Epic is a popular buzzword that gets tossed around (overused?) a lot these days, but it's a word that could be applied to Black Snow, a song that clocks in at over 12 minutes and includes no padding at all. Celtic Frost did some decent fast songs but for my money their most memorable ones proceeded at a more leisurely pace. Melana Chasmata has one good thrasher (Breathing) and Black Snow kicks it into high gear for a short stretch but for the most part it lumbers along, suffused with an atmosphere that drips with menace and foreboding. Combine this with the excellent production quality - nothing lo-fi or murky here - and the result is twelve minutes of music that hits like a ton of bricks.

It would easily have been the best song on the album if it weren’t for Altar of Deceit. Things get rolling with a plinky guitar that's soon joined by thunderous drums and before long a massive riff hits like a meteorite landing on your head. This gives way to another even more massive riff. It makes great use of the ponderous chugging rhythm that Celtic Frost might not have actually invented, but that they frequently made good use of. On it goes until the break, which gives way to a bunch of noodly, trippy guitar stuff that works well enough, in the context of things. Then come the final section, which takes a seriously heavier turn and features riffs that sound like they're shattering slabs of concrete. Then it's all over. If you're like me you’ll probably go right back to the start and listen again.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Just One Song - Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Let's talk about ambition, a quality some possess in greater measure than others. Much of the latter part of Karlheinz Stockhausen's lengthy career as a composer was devoted to his Licht cycle of operas. A whopping project that would consume more than a day, if they were performed back to back. Stockhausen is also likely to be the only person ever to write a string quartet where the performers flit about in a different helicopter while playing their parts.

Stockhausen started composing in the middle of the last century, beginning with the serial music that was all the rage then, if not so much with listeners, then certainly with a large contingent of academically-inclined composers. He soon began to apply those principles to electronic music, which was just coming into being, thanks to influential studios for experimental music that came into being around that time in France and Germany.

It was also the Germans who were instrumental in paving the way for electronic music with the development of magnetic tape recording, a medium which could and would be manipulated to radically alter the nature of sound and music. A shout out also goes to none other than Bing Crosby, who pioneered magnetic tape recording in the U.S. on his popular radio show and who made a substantial investment in the format when it needed it most.

Stockhausen's initial forays into electronic music were nothing special. Fair enough, given that it was the Fifties and he was one of the early explorers in a vast terra incognita. It was also a time when the rudiments of electronic music were about as rudimentary as they could be. Anyone who has ever spliced, looped or otherwise manipulated magnetic tape will understand why even very short pieces of music might have taken weeks or months to complete back in this Wild West of electronica. The piece under consideration here last for over a half hour and took years to produce.

Gesang der Junglinge, a piece that dates from the middle of the decade, was arguably the first time where Stockhausen did more than kick the tires of the new forms and make something musical - no matter how offbeat. Scored for voice and electronics, it's probably his best known work from this era. The end of the decade found Stockhausen involved with another significant piece of early electronic music. Kontakte was a longer work that was composed in two versions, one for electronic sounds and one which added piano and percussion to the mix.

Some of the composer's discussions of this piece (and his other pieces, for that matter) read like a weighty dissertation. I try to read these but my attention usually wanders. But writing about music is a far cry from listening to it and the proof is in the hearing and Kontakte is a surprisingly listenable electronic music work from this era. Mind you, there's not much here that resembles "music" as we know it, of the kind that's made by instruments and whatnot. The exception, a few brief passages where something sounding like bouncy synthesizer tones briefly rises out of the racket.

The tape version is still my favorite of the two and for a long time I avoided the tape and instrument version, opting for "pure" electronics. But over time I came to accept that it too had its merits. Electronic music from the Fifties is an acquired taste that a lot of people will probably never acquire, but if you're open to this sort of thing, Kontakte is essential listening.

The Spats on My Mother the Car

Featuring The Spats, a real-life band who hailed from Southern California.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Beagles - Indian Love Dance

Any resemblance to you know who must surely be unintentional....

Just One Song - Foghat

Slow Ride
Fool For the City (1975)

I make no apologies for including a Foghat song here. I guess you had to be there.

I'm no spring chicken. And as a white, middle-class suburban kid who grew up in a certain era, I’ve spent lots of time listening to classic rock. Lots and lots and lots of time. So much time that hearing many of those old chestnuts nowadays makes me want to hurl. But there are a few exceptions - like Slow Ride.

I was never much of a Foghat fan, mind you. They released a few classic rock staples and I might have had one of their albums, and without doing a memory check, I seem to recall that at least one member had a giant droopy mustache. But maybe that was the guy in the Doobie Brothers. Or maybe there was a guy (more than one guy?) in both bands, this being kind of a heyday for giant droopy mustaches. Another point of interest – as the story goes, Foghat apparently mistakenly thought that they were the inspiration for some of Spinal Tap's fictional misadventures.

As with so many bands of their era, Foghat formed in the Seventies to share their fondness for blues and blues-based hard rock with the world. They peaked later that decade but like so many other classic rockers, continue to beat the dead horse up until the present. Never mind that only one original member is still aboard (alive?). That's rock and roll.

Slow Ride, in all its glory, takes for its subject matter what so much other rock and roll is about. There’s a surprise. But it is a slow ride indeed, with a plodding and terribly enticing groove holding things on track until the thrilling conclusion more than eight minutes later. It's nothing fancy but sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.

Just One Song - Dead Boys

Dead Boys
Ain't Nothin' to Do
Young, Loud and Snotty (1978)

If you grew up in a certain region of the United States in a certain era and you were a music fan, you were probably acquainted with a department store chain known as Korvettes. The stores were renowned for their record departments, so much that they were profiled in a 1964 issue of Billboard magazine, which marveled at their $20 million worth of record sales annually.

This was all very convenient for a young music fan who didn't drive to be able to tag along while Mom as she shopped for whatever. I made a number of discoveries here. Rush's first live album and the Ramones Leave Home are two that spring right to mind. I had no idea who the Ramones were, but the photo of four glowering gents in tattered denim and leather was a promise of good things to come.

Ditto for the five glowering fellers who graced the cover of the Dead Boys first album - Young, Loud and Snotty. It was a fine piece of work and was followed in short order by We Have Come For Your Children (1978), an only marginally less fine piece of work. That was all for the Dead Boys and that's as it should be. Unless you count the handful of dubious live albums that have been released since, or the original mixes of the two studio albums, or Still Snotty: Young, Loud and Snotty at 40 (2017), in which two original band members and a bunch of youngsters re-recorded the first album. No, thanks. Young, Loud and Snotty is one of the great punk albums, say I. If I ever run across those rough mixes maybe I'll listen. As for the "new" version, I fail to see the point. Maybe the rough mixes topped the finished, sort of polished version, and maybe the "new" version improved on the original but I'm at a loss to figure out how.

There aren't any duds in this bunch but a few tracks stand out. Sonic Reducer kicks things off with a bang and is probably the band's best known song. High Tension Wire and Down in Flames wrap things up and leave the listener wanting more. My pick for best Dead Boys tune is Ain't Nothin' to Do, which wrapped up side one of the original LP release. It comes and goes in just over two minutes - few of these songs exceed the three-minute mark - and it takes everything the Dead Boys did elsewhere to higher heights, thrashing the gentle listener with an intense wall of sound and featuring vocals by the late Stiv Bators that reach a new peak of snarlishness. Sonic Reducer is often pointed to as a punk anthem - whatever the hell that is - but this one probably fits whatever weirdo criteria we're using to judge punk anthems nowadays.

Just One Song - Public Image Limited

Public Image Limited
Flowers of Romance
Flowers of Romance (1981)

The Sex Pistols turned out some decent music over the course of their short, turbulent existence. But that seemed to be lost in the furor of all things Sex Pistol. Public Image Limited were less gimmicky and more likely to stand the test of time. Or maybe they'll be totally forgotten in twenty years.

I came to PiL late in the game, after the release of that film canister album. I lost touch after the pink and white one with Lydon's lovely mug on the front (This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get). But after taking a few decades off they did what any self-respecting arena rock band would do. They reformed and released new albums and toured and presumably played their golden oldies and seem to be alive and kicking to this day. Which makes me want to wear an "I Hate Pil" shirt and spit on people.

But I kid. One must credit Lydon for burying his rotten past and not turning his next project into Son of Pistols. Credit is also due for surrounding himself with musicians who were up to the task of turning post-punk on its ear - Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Martin Atkins (drums), though Wobble was gone by the time of Flowers and Atkins only played on part of the album.

Much is made of how uncompromising an album Flowers of Romance is. Probably because it's true. It might not have made anyone blink if it was released on an indie label, but it was not. Even by Pil's offbeat standards, Flowers of Romance is very strange. It was my first real exposure to their music and I was open to anything weird but it took a while to sink in.

Revisiting it thirty years later, a few things stood out. It's very uncommercial and still ahead of its time. Drums and vocals dominate, with a few squiggles and drones and knick-knacks tossed in for color. Lydon's wailing never did much to win friends and influence record buyers but it is well suited to this music. Which is very catchy, for being so minimal and weird. I still like it and it doesn't seem to have dated much.

The high point of all of this floral romance is the single/title track. Which made it onto the charts over yonder in the UK. Which is surprising but maybe not so much. At the heart of it, amongst the ponderous drums and caterwauling, is a catchy song that stays stuck in your head for a while. Post-punk legend has it that the drums provided inspiration for Phil Collin's legendarily whopping drum sound on his solo albums - but we'll try not to hold that against anyone.

Just One Song - Cramps

I'm Cramped
Songs the Lord Taught Us (1980)

I'd wager that the Cramps are the only band to ever play a concert in a mental hospital. It was early in their career and fortunately they weren't held over for observation. They went on to be the Cramps we know and love and humanity is better for it. And their drummer's name was Nick Knox - the best drummer name of all time. Although Harry Drumdini isn't too shabby.

They're just two of the cast of characters who played with the Cramps in the decades they were in business, until the death of frontman and exalted potentate, Lux Interior. In that time they put out about a dozen albums and EPs. All of the ones I've heard were fab, but you could distill this Cramps thing down to their first three releases - Gravest Hits (1979), Songs the Lord Taught Us (1981) and Psychedelic Jungle (1982). Or just go with the second one - their first full length album.

Songs the Lord Taught Us features the classic Cramps lineup of Lux, Poison Ivy Rorshach, Bryan Gregory and Knox and it is swell. If you can point to a dud in this bunch, send me a telegram and set me straight. Numbers like TV Set, Garbageman, and I Was a Teenage Werewolf achieve only mere greatness, while Rock on the Moon, Mystery Plane, and Mad Daddy kick things up a few manic notches. There's Tear it Up, a cover of a Johnny Burnette song that takes the notion of manic to new heights. Refer to the live version of the song from the concert film Urgh! A Music War, where Lux nearly has a fit and bursts into flames on stage.

The standout track, for me, is I'm Cramped. When it comes to rock and roll it doesn't get any more minimal than this understated gem. It consists merely of a massive chord or two, a lilting, jumpy drumbeat and lyrics that are simply the title of the song recited every now and then. It is a majestic thing that, in its short running time, might actually induce visions, speaking in tongues or extreme rump shaking. You have been warned.

Just One Song - Echo and the Bunnymen

Echo and the Bunnymen
All My Colors
Music And Rhythm (1982)

I don't recall if the music of Echo and the Bunnymen was featured in any of those Eighties movies starring Molly Ringwald and I don’t care much. But it makes sense. Echo were that sort of band, although there was a little more substance (whatever that is) to them than so many of those other new wave sensations of the early Eighties. But maybe I'm biased because Bunnyman, Will Sergeant, their guitarist, made Themes for Grind (1982), an album of ambient noise drone type stuff (long before this sort of thing was done much), just as the Bunnies were climbing the steep slope to peak popularity.

The Bunnymen turned out about a dozen albums over the years and McCulloch and Sergeant are keeping the ship full of bunnies sailing through the ocean rain even now. But the heyday for these guys were the four albums they turned out between 1980 and 1984 - the latter being when they hit it biggest with Ocean Rain. Point of interest - most of their success was realized on the far side of the Atlantic. Not so much in these United States.

It was on those same shores that the first WOMAD (World Of Music Arts And Dance) festival was held, in 1982. Among the founders of WOMAD were Peter Gabriel, whose increasing interest in world music also led him to found Real World Records at the end of the same decade. The Bunnymen were among the Western pop acts in attendance at the first festival, along with the likes of Simple Minds and The Beat. They collaborated with the Royal Drummers of Burundi (Echo and the Burundimen - get it?) and the results were impressive. The song first appeared on Heaven Up Here (1981), the band's second album. Its among their more interesting numbers and lends itself well to a collaboration with a troupe of thundering African drummers.

Just One Song - John Cage

John Cage
Williams Mix
The 25 Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage (1994)

You've gotta have a gimmick. I guess.

With any mention of John Cage it seems obligatory - maybe there's an actual law that covers this - to mention his most famous composition, if you want to call it that. It is, of course, 4'33", a three-movement work in which the performer(s) are instructed not to play their instruments for the four-minute and 33-second duration of the work.

So try an experiment. Pull up a random selection of articles about John Cage. See if you can find one that doesn't mention 4'33". It's not likely. I guess it proves that it was a good gimmick, whether or not Cage intended it as such.

The problem with 4'33" is that it overshadows everything else that Cage did in the field of music, which included heaps of compositions turned out over the course of about 60 years. That's impressive, no matter how you look at it, as is the fact that many of these works were very much ahead of their time and some might still be, many decades later. Which can be a bit daunting for newcomers to Cage's music. I'm not that well versed in Cage, but if you're also a fan of electronic and concrete music from the early days, you might want to start your exploration of his music with Imaginary Landscape or Williams Mix.

Cage composed ("conceived" might be more appropriate, in some of these cases) five Imaginary Landscapes between 1939 and 1952. They employ a smattering of traditional instruments but also included the likes of buzzers, oscillators and variable speed turntables. The fourth of the series, from 1951, in keeping with Cage's fondness for the concept of chance, finds the performers using 12 radios as their instruments.

At about the same time, Cage was working on a pioneering piece of tape music, making an early contribution to a field that was in its infancy. Williams Mix was a Herculean labor that found Louis and Bebe Barron (electronic pioneers in their own right, who are probably best known for their score to Forbidden Planet) doing a lot of the grunt work on the piece. And grunt work it was, creating 600 snippets of sound and weaving them into an eight-track piece that clocks in at just over four minutes. Which would be a considerable feat even today. Back then it took about a year - that breaks down to about a month for each 20 seconds of music.

Was it worth it? Well...if the truth be told it's not one to tap your toes to or hum along with but that was surely not the point. It's a densely packed piece that whips through its huge assortment of sounds without pausing to linger on any one thing. It's a good bet that hearing it mixed down to one or two channels is a less satisfying experience than hearing it in the original eight. But for modern day listeners, this seems to be the only option.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Just One Song - Motorhead

Ace of Spades
Ace of Spades (1980)

As I write these features, I've tried to steer away from choosing the most obvious songs. What would be the point? But in the case of Motorhead, the most obvious choice is really the only choice.

They were rare birds - those Motorhead guys. Commencing operations in 1975, still the early days for both punk and heavy metal, they somehow managed to bridge the gulf between these two worlds, a gulf that was considerably larger then than it is now.

The band hung on for forty more years (apparently speed doesn't always kill) until Lemmy Kilmister, captain of the ship and the only constant member, finally drew the dead man's hand. They cranked (pun intended) out a boatload of albums in that time, many of them very fine efforts. But it's the early ones, starring the classic lineup of Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke and Phil Taylor that are the keepers. Though they mixed elements of punk and metal, especially early on, Motorhead seemed mostly to fall into the latter camp. Though Lemmy insisted that they were neither of the above and were just a humble rock and roll band.

I'm sure I'm not alone in picking Ace of Spades, their fourth album, as the best of the bunch. I'd put it up there with the best metal albums ever. It's hard to point to any stinkers in this array of 12 tracks, with highlights that include rippers like Love Me Like a Reptile, Shoot You in the Back, Fast and Loose
and (We Are) The Road Crew. Then there's Ace of Spades, one of the great metal songs of all time (sorry, Lemmy's ghost - that's metal).

There are plenty of songs that can grab your attention with a killer opening and Ace of Spades does that in...well...spades. Lemmy's furious bass barrage kicks off the proceedings, then here come the guitar and drums and we're off to the races. Unlike some of those songs that latch onto you at the start and then release, Ace of Spades doesn't let up, hammering home its point in less than three minutes and then getting the hell out of Dodge. Overkill, from the album of the same name, was a close runner-up to Ace of Spades, but it really doesn't get any better than this.

Of course, a solo piano cover version was called for. And they said it couldn't be done.

Just One Song - Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters
She's Alright
Electric Mud (1968)

There's great irony in the fact that, in 1968, as the fortunes of the Rolling Stones were on a dramatic rise, those of the man from whom they'd borrowed their name were languishing.

By all rights, Muddy Waters' record sales should have benefitted from the surge of interest on the part of British kids in music by American blues musicians. But by the mid-sixties, Muddy's record company, Chess Records, had determined that his sales were low enough that drastic steps needed to be taken. The Chess brothers had introduced many great artists and much great music to the world, but their solution to Muddy's troubles indicated that they were hardly infallible.

The solution in this case was to try to boost Muddy's hip quotient - as if he needed it - and team him up with a few sidemen and Rotary Connection, a garage rock psychedelic band of the type that seemed to be multiplying like rabbits at the time and whose six album releases in the late Sixties and early Seventies have since lapsed into obscurity (and whose ranks included singer Minnie Riperton, trivia fans). The album was released on a hipper Chess Records spinoff label, and was followed a year later by a similar effort from Howlin' Wolf and many of the same musicians.

The result of all this foolishness was an album called Electric Mud, which tried for a new spin on some old Muddy favorites. It tossed in a Rolling Stones cover (Let's Spend the Night Together) and a trippy and rather silly take on current events called Herbert Harper's Free Press News. It sold well but opinions varied as to the results. Blues lovers tended to look down their nose at it and even Muddy apparently was not enamored with it, though he expressed varying opinions about the record over the years.

I've listened to my fair share of blues over the years but I'm far from being a purist. Like so many white American rock and rollers who grew up in the Seventies, my intro to the form was via the likes of Cream, Foghat, George Thorogood and other rockers interpreting the works of the old bluesmen. But purist or not, I gave Electric Mud one listen and that was enough. Maybe I should give it a few more spins, just to be fair. But first impressions count for a lot and besides, there's so much music I haven't heard that there’s no time to waste on clunkers.

But there is one song that stood out from this uninspired pack, a number with the bland and uninspired title, She's Alright. It clocks in at little over two minutes on Muddy's earlier versions, which are quite fine but this version might as well be a different song altogether. Here it's psychedelically stretched out to nearly seven minutes. But speaking of Cream (and I believe we were), that's probably the closest reference point for this version of the song. Take a simple but effective and almost hypnotic riff that you might describe as Cream Lite. Marry this to a hypnotically funky groove, with drummer Morris Jennings trying to bash the drums into oblivion on the two and four. Mix in some impressive vocals by Muddy, who puts aside whatever feelings he might have had about the project and provides some inspired singing. It all adds up to a song that sounds…well…not much like Muddy - vocals aside - but it'll still kick your ass.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Just One Song - Ramones

Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio?
End of the Century (1980)

Time has finally caught up with the Ramones. They need no introduction today, a marked contrast to the early days when punk, the movement they help create, was still on the fringes. Not that their relative fame means much, since the original members of the band have hung up their leather jackets and shuffled off this mortal coil.

For those who do need an introduction to the Ramones, here's a Reader's Digestish type version. Four guys from the boroughs adopt a uniform of ripped jeans and leather jackets, borrow Paul McCartney's favorite pseudonym and play buzzsaw punk, with a significant debt to pop and bubblegum tunes of yesteryear.

The most obvious Ramones song to showcase, if you only pick one, is Blitzkrieg Bop, the very first song on their very first album. I'd call it one of the top ten rock and roll songs ever. But nowadays, thanks to TV commercials and whatnot, it too needs no introduction, nor does the much ballyhooed album that it was drawn from. We'll move on.

The next of the essential Ramones studio albums (the first five - the live one was good but redundant) is Leave Home. It's their second effort and the first Ramones album I was exposed to and it's arguably the heaviest (Commando, anyone?). The Ramones were never really a pedal to the metal, balls to the wall punk band and it shows on Rocket to Russia, their third studio album and my favorite. Most of the original songs are heavy on the bubblegum and punk-edged power pop), as are two well-chosen covers, The Trashmen's, Surfin' Bird, and Bobby Freeman's, Do Ya Wanna Dance. The follow-up, Road to Ruin, covered much of the same territory and featured I Wanna Be Sedated, arguably the band's best known song. Which took the band up to the dawn of the Eighties and their fifth studio album, End of the Century.

The first Ramones album was done on a shoestring, financed by collecting deposits on bottles and selling off plasma and whatnot. End of the Century found the band working with something that might be called a budget, not to mention a "name" producer. Unfortunately, the name was Phil Spector, known then for his considerable contributions to pop history, his legendary Wall of Sound recording technique and an "offbeat" personality.

While this melding of legendary pop impresario with bubblepunk up and comers should have been a marriage made in heaven, it seems that it was not. If you ever saw the Ramones live or listened to their live album, it was apparent that they were not a band that dilly dallyed with their art. It was the same modus operandi in the studio. Which brought them into conflict with Spector, whose methods of producing were meticulous, to say the least. But a finished and fully formed album was the end result of all this. I might be out of step with popular opinion, but I rank it right up there with the best of them.

End of the Century arrived about twenty years before the actual end of the twentieth century, but it was near the end of the line for the Ramones, who turned out a bunch more middling albums over the years before finally throwing in the towel. Some argue that that the end of the line for the Ramones came before End of the Century and some feel that Rocket to Russia was their last good album. Even some Ramones weren't over the moon about End of the Century. But comparing it to their earlier albums was almost like an apples to oranges comparison.

A look at the track listing reveals a number of songs that were at least in the capable to good range, as well as few standouts. These include old-school Ramones numbers like Chinese Rock and The Return of Jackie and Judy, a sequel to Judy is a Punk, from the first album, and bubblepunk songs like Let's Go and Rock 'n' Roll High School.

The notion of the Ramones doing a ballad seems a little ridiculous, even now. But let's recall that the band explored this territory right from the start, with I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, and continued to do so with every album that followed. End of the Century's ballad - Danny Says - chronicled the trials and tribulations ("we can't go surfing 'cause its 20 below") of a touring band's rigorous schedule and gets my vote for best of the Ramones ballads. But the Ramones/Spector collaboration (collision?) reached a peak on the album's opener. Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio is credited to the group - minus Marky - but Spector's Wall of Sound production gimmick is in fine form.

As befits a Phil Spector production, the sound is dense and the instrumentation is greatly expanded beyond the Ramones standard of guitar, bass and drums. Saxophone drives the song, a notion that would have made me retch in pre-End of the Century days but it works. This is a relentlessly, ear-wormingly catchy song of the first order. Trying to agree on which of the Ramones' songs is the catchiest is probably an exercise in futility and might even cause a fistfight or two. Their numbers are legion but no matter how you look at it, Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio? is near the top of the list.

Here’s a version by the Rockway Bitches (!), an all-girl Ramones tribute band.