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Mingus and Coltrane (from Popmatters.com Best Protest Songs Feature)

Posted by bullmurph on July 17, 2007

cover art

Charles Mingus

The Clown

(Rhino)

1957

Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”

From the album The Clown (Atlantic)

Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionate would trump all others. Mingus cared—deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, about everything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957. And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and—this is the key—most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.

Sean Murphy

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John Coltrane

Live at Birdland

(Impulse!)

1963

John Coltrane: “Alabama”

From the album Live at Birdland (Impulse!)

Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of Coltrane’s enduring and devastating performances. Recorded with the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass), Coltrane, already considered one of jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, managed to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane also conveyed the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also, miraculously, managed to hint at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. If Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” in part predicted the turmoil around the corner, “Alabama” was directly inspired by an actual event that demanded an outraged reaction. As only he could, Coltrane crafted a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

Sean Murphy

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Studio One: Soul Jazz Records, Redux (Popmatters.com)

Posted by bullmurph on July 13, 2007

Various Artists

Studio One Kings

(Soul Jazz Records)

Studio One Rub-A-Dub

(Soul Jazz Records)

by Sean Murphy

Soul Jazz Records: Keeping Essential, if Largely Unheralded Music Alive.

This music is instantly recognizable: nectar-sweet falsettos, soaring harmonies, socially conscious lyrics, all backed by a tight stable of top-notch session players. Sound familiar? It could be Motown, obviously, but the descriptions above are equally applicable to what, in many ways, was its equivalent in a lesser-known, much less funded parallel universe: what Detroit was for soul music in the ‘60s, Kingston’s Studio One was for reggae music in the ‘70s. And, to belabor an easy analogy, the Berry Gordy of Studio One was Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd—the owner, producer, and mastermind behind some of the best-loved music of the last century, as well as a treasure trove of forgotten, unknown, and undiscovered material.

When it comes to reggae, ignorance is not bliss, but it is easier to simply overlook the world beyond Bob Marley, in part because there are so few prominent advocates for this music. The fortunate folks who may have picked up a Steel Pulse or Black Uhuru collection in college (invariably thanks to the influence of that one hacky sack enthusiast down the hall in the dormitory) may feel they’ve heard all there is to hear. And for the unfortunate, adventurous individuals who are up for an exploration of this genre, one quickly finds that, like jazz or blues—or especially classical—music, there are styles, sub-genres, and no particularly painless way to even guess how to begin. Trying to grapple with the breadth and substance of reggae is not unlike learning another language: the most effective way to do so is to immerse oneself in that area code for a while. Regrettably, one cannot live inside music (as much as one might try).

So… where to start? What guideposts are available for the uninitiated? Enter Soul Jazz Records. Since the ‘90s, this British label has done aficionados and novices alike an incalculable service, courtesy of their ongoing series featuring Studio One recordings. Suffice it to say, two more recent volumes, Studio One Rub-A-Dub and Studio One Kings, come warmly recommended. Each edition in this series revolves loosely around a specific theme, such as previous standouts like Studio One Rockers, Studio One Roots, Studio One Ska and, of course, Studio One Dub. These releases are as close to a sonic encyclopedia of this impossible to categorize era as we’ve seen or are every likely to have: Soul Jazz Records is an indispensable force for good and deserves all the appreciation and acclaim we can offer.

For starters, the music collected in this series provides a refreshing alternative narrative for the prevailing, Eurocentric version of how we should properly assess (or understand) what happened behind the scenes in the ‘70s. When rock music was seemingly hijacked by either progressive-minded mad scientists concocting sidelong Frankensteins, or else slouching greedily toward the disco apocalypse, over in Jamaica—for a literal fraction of the cost—human minds produced human voices and instruments played by actual human hands.

The best, if most efficient, way to delineate the import and influence of Studio One, founded by Dodd in 1954—a full two decades before Eric Clapton appropriated “I Shot the Sheriff” and helped reggae grab a foothold outside the islands—is to simply name the roster of geniuses who recorded and paid youthful dues there: Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots Hibbert (and the Maytals), Horace Andy, Alton Ellis, and, perhaps most significantly, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Get the picture? After many of these artists hit what passed at the time for pay dirt in the late ‘60s, the demand was high and, thankfully, the supply was strong. Studio One Rub-A-Dub features some of the incredible new faces who would make names for themselves (Cornell Campbell, Horace Andy, Freddie McGregor) and others who remain, regrettably, obscure (Len Allen Jr., Willie Williams, Lone Ranger).

Rub-a-dub, which may or may not have devolved into dancehall in the ‘80s and ‘90s, depending upon who you ask, unquestionably ruled in the early ‘70s. Roots reggae was never quite the same once Lee Perry began cooking up those strangely delicious sounds in his cauldron, creating dub in the Black Ark. Rub-a-dub was an amalgamation of classic roots reggae (in fact, many of the songs are versions of well-known originals, with different lyrics and singers), and while there are some early elements of dub, the focus here is on the vocals. Granted, in reggae the focus is always on the singer(s), with good reason, but dub eventually proved the powerful exception to that rule. Studio One Rub-A-Dub presents, then, the apotheosis of a style perfected by many of the best singers of that time. And these songs should satisfy anyone: the reggae enthusiast can feast on some previously unearthed bounty; soul music lovers can savor the song craft and, above all, the singing.

Magical moments abound. Fans of trip-hop maestros Massive Attack should recognize elder statesman Horace Andy, and be appropriately awestruck hearing a much younger, even more ethereal, almost feminine sounding version of this living legend. Andy’s rendition of “Happiness” goes right for the gut, all honesty and emotion, infused with the extra, ineffable quality that distinguishes the best music. Cornell Campbell, whose falsetto is occasionally, if unimaginatively compared to Curtis Mayfield, is in fine form on “My Conversation”. The musical accompaniment—as it is on all of these songs—is first rate, but Campbell could make any song compelling all by himself. Ditto for Barry Brown (“Give My Love a Try”) and Johnny Osbourne (“Forgive Them”). Judah Eskender Tafari’s “Danger in Your Eyes” is delivered with vulnerability bordering on desperation—it actually sounds as though he is singing his heart out.

Rapper Robert and Jim Brown provide a high note (inevitable pun intended) with their clever and hilarious “Minister for Ganja”. This selection alone is well worth the cost of admission: the infectious, free-form vocal antics in the opening seconds anticipate a style immortalized by Mikey Dread and, after him, Musical Youth (whose hit “Pass the Dutchie” may actually represent the last time reggae music had a song on the radio that everyone knew); and the mirthful coughing sounds during the choruses provide an obvious inspiration for the brilliant cough/inhale noises employed to replicate the cash register on Easy Star All Stars’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” (from their must-have Dub Side of the Moon). If all this sub-referencing seems gratuitous, it is an opportune time to mention how crucial—even inextricable—quoting and referencing is in reggae (especially dub). As is the case with jazz, this clever signal of respect and solidarity provides a ceaselessly enjoyable facet of the music. Finally, some free advice for Red Stripe: if they have any sense they would immediately option “Minister” for their TV ads and watch their revenues increase about a million percent.

Last, and far from least, special acknowledgment must be made regarding Len Allen Jr. (wherever he may be) for his soulful, softly devastating delivery on “White Belly Rat”. This underdog morality tale is a three minute tour de force, that rarest of songs that you can’t imagine your life without as soon as you’ve heard it for the first time. It is for unearthing small miracles like this that Soul Jazz Records should not only be appreciated, but worshipped.

Studio One Kings is more of the same, boasting a larger number of famous, familiar names. Burning Spear, Joe Higgs, Devon Russell, and Ken Boothe all appear, in typically top form. Alton Ellis contributes “The Well Run Dry” and Horace Andy delivers the goods, again, with “Every Tongue Shall Tell”. A case could easily be made that Ellis and Andy are the two most purely talented and distinctive vocalists from this era. On the other hand, a similarly compelling case could be made for at least a dozen of their compatriots. Take, for instance, the inimitable Burning Spear: if the uninitiated or unconvinced listen to “Them a Come” and remain unmoved, they are advised to check for a pulse. One of pleasant surprises from either collection is Freddie McGregor’s ten-minute celebration of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”; it is as definitive a reworking as Jimi Hendrix’s scorching rendition of “All Along the Watchtower”.

And so, like jazz and blues, there are hundreds (thousands?) of reggae compilations out there (some better than others, many copying an uninspiring formula, safely skimming the surface of vast and forbidding waters), and while the good people at Blood and Fire and On U/Pressure Sounds are noteworthy labels contributing admirably to the cause, Soul Jazz Records is leading the charge in an effort to keep this essential, if largely unheralded music alive. It is all but impossible to attempt collecting or keeping pace with all this indelible art, but it remains among the most rewarding and life-affirming endeavors in which anyone can engage.

Studio One Kings RATING:

Studio One Rub-A-Dub RATING:

— 13 July 2007

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So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (Popmatters.com)

Posted by bullmurph on July 10, 2007

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/blogs/reprint_post/43363/reflections-on-kurt-vonnegut/

June 29, 2007

Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.  Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts. 

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations.  Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife.  They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades.  Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated.  It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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Pink Floyd: Meddle (Popmatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on June 5, 2007

Pink Floyd

Meddle: A Classic Album Under Review [DVD]

(Chrome Dreams / Music Video Distributors) Rated: N/A

US release date: 12 March 2007
UK release date: 19 March 2007

by Sean Murphy

cover art

1971’s Meddle captured the moment when Floyd finally found their sound.

Pink Floyd were hardly an inconsequential group in the late ‘60s and very early ‘70s, and yet, without 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon and the albums that followed, their status today would be decidedly diminished. Most everyone would agree that Dark Side made them who they are today, but not as many people might appreciate that, if it were not for 1971’s Meddle, there would have been no The Dark Side of the Moon.

Meddle is indeed a classic album that is not accorded the level of attention it would otherwise receive if it did not exist within the ever expanding shadow of the subsequent string of albums it helped inspire. This is not an uncommon occurrence in rock (or any genre of music for that matter): it’s likely, to take one obvious example, that The Who Sell Out would receive those accolades generally reserved for Tommy or Who’s Next, the better known albums that came just after it.

It is appropriate then that, 40 years after the release of their first album, we have a serious critical appraisal of the pivotal record that served to end one era and instigate another. Regarding that earlier era, casual fans might not realize that Pink Floyd made as many albums before Meddle than they did after it (more casual fans might not even realize that Floyd made any albums before Meddle).

For this reason alone, the first section of this DVD provides an excellent overview of not only the group, but also the London underground for which they served as de facto house band. There were, really, three different Pink Floyds: the initial one led by Syd Barrett, the one forced to soldier on after Barrett’s LSD-induced demolition (at which point he was replaced by his good friend David Gilmour), and the one that eventually made the string of masterpieces starting with The Dark Side of the Moon.

Getting from Piper to Dark Side required several years and several albums, none of which sounded especially alike—a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each album, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental piece, that served as a centerpiece that at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the pyramid in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from Piper), “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” (from A Saucerful Of Secrets), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma) and “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother). As the band has indicated repeatedly over the years, there would be no “Echoes” without “Atom Heart Mother Suite”, and so on working backward.

The assembled critics interviewed for this DVD express varying opinions on the overall merits of these transitional albums (all of them generally agree that Piper is a masterpiece, although that one was Syd Barrett’s baby whereas the others were assuredly group efforts), but the consensus seems to be that while Floyd should be commended for their bold experimentation and constant evolution, the results were decidedly mixed. True, yet the participants seem to overlook how important Floyd’s live performances were in terms of reshaping and refining many older songs. The critics correctly single out “Set The Controls” as a crucial track, but none of them mention the title track of that album as a major cornerstone that Floyd built a foundation of sound upon.

The ways in which “A Saucerful Of Secrets” expanded and crystallized is documented on the live section of Ummugumma, as well as the definitive version, which they recorded live for their movie Live At Pompeii: Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as the major musical force within the group (a very positive development), forging an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound. The point that cannot be overemphasized is that Meddle was not so much an inspired product of its time as much as it was the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward, carving away at the stone with each successive effort, until the pieces finally came together (or fell apart, if you like) in the form of “Echoes”.

Ping…ping…ping. That is how it begins: the song that many still consider their definitive statement, the first track completed for the new album (like “Atom Heart Mother Suite”, it was a side-long opus; unlike the previous album, it was saved for the second side): “Echoes” unfolds deliberately, with carefully structured precision. This remains a striking departure from the previous album’s centerpiece which, in fairness, might well enjoy a better reputation, or at least seem less pretentiously impenetrable for many fans, if Floyd had stuck with its working title, “The Amazing Pudding”—quite apropos for such a gloppy, sweet, not especially easy to digest jumble.

Virtually every element Floyd had attempted to incorporate into their best songs is unified in “Echoes”, with no false notes or forced feeling: the moods and colors captured on those shorter instrumental pieces remain, stretched out to utilize the group’s considerable ambition and enthusiasm. The merging of Gilmour and Wright’s voices—a harbinger of good things to come, although on “Time” Wright sings the choruses while Gilmour handles the verses—is appropriately mesmerizing, and the two remain uncannily in synch on their respective instruments. “Echoes” also signals a minor step forward for Waters lyrically (the major step would be Dark Side of the Moon :

Strangers passing in the street
By chance two separate glances meet
And I am you and what I see is me…

The pace intensifies, with some extraordinary playing by Gilmour who employs an array of distortion, feedback and effects, culminating in a groove that inspired a billion jam bands. Then, the bottom drops out, spiraling into the great disintegration, an abyss of whale cries and subterranean shadows (courtesy of Wright and Gilmour, and what at the time was cutting edge use of an echo unit, which is discussed in some detail on the DVD). Out of the darkness the song slowly returns, bringing release as well as realization as the music fades into infinity.

What elevates Meddle from being a very good album to a great album is the fact that most of the remaining songs are quite memorable. The opening track signals the artistic leap forward Floyd had taken in only one year: “One of These Days” features contributions from the entire band, creating a sound that, like “Echoes”, manages to be abrupt yet unrestrained. The song materializes out of a sonic fog, like a laser closing in from a great distance, with Waters’ bass and Mason’s drums offering thudding contrast to Wright’s icy keyboards, then—after Mason’s singular, and amusing, vocal contribution: “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces!”—Gilmour torches the track with a slide guitar assault, the most powerful soloing he’d put on record to this point.

The future is now; Pink Floyd have found their sound. Gilmour, having already assumed primary vocal duties on the recent albums, is now firmly established at the forefront, his guitar truly (finally?) a lead instrument. Like the album itself, this is more a culmination than a revelation: on the less self-consciously psychedelic soundtrack More, Gilmour smokes on several tunes (listen to “Main Theme”, “More Blues”, “Ibiza Bar” and “Dramatic Theme” for hints at what was to come, and how overdue this unfettered sound, either overly refined or actively suppressed, really was).

The next song encapsulates much of what Floyd had attempted, but not quite mastered, on songs such as “If” and “Grantchester Meadows”. “A Pillow of Winds” is a fuller, more realized take on the Pink Floyd pastoral song, variations of it having appeared on each album after Piper. Again, Gilmour figures prominently; where his vocals had been, at times, tentative and even frail, there is a warmth and authority here that suggests augmented confidence and comfort with the superior material.

Two elements solidly established (the guitar sound and the vocals), a final one—Roger Waters’ increasingly mature and topical lyrics—comes to fruition on the third track, “Fearless”. This tune, which could be viewed as a poignant nod to Syd Barrett, is definitely an early installment of a growing Waters obsession: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against (or reeling from) a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as an early blueprint for the sound effects and ironic employment of actual voices used on later albums, specifically The Dark Side of the Moon.

The next two tracks are considered less than essential by most fans (and certainly the critics assembled on the DVD), but “San Tropez” is not without its charms. Despite pleasant enough vocals from Waters, this one might have worked rather nicely as an instrumental (no doubt to Waters’ considerable chagrin), as it once again features some incandescent guitar work from Gilmour. The song that closes the first side, “Seamus” is a throwaway…and yet. The idea of incorporating a dog howling alongside the band in a lighthearted call and response literally anticipates Animals, but indirectly, and importantly, reveals a band doing everything they can to avoid and obliterate cliché.

So, it can fairly be asked: who would want to watch a bunch of British music critics talking about a semi-obscure Pink Floyd album? The usual suspects, obviously: the hardcore fans and the curious novices. Neither will be disappointed. Of course, it must be reiterated that no members of the group participate which, while not shocking, is still disappointing. The collected writers know their stuff, but their remarks are similar and mostly surface-level, making the absence of input from the artists more glaring.

One delightful exception is the presence of Norman Smith, whose gentlemanly observations on producing the first three Floyd albums are charming and heartwarming. Heartbreaking, too, when he discusses the challenges (to put it kindly) he faced while trying to record the Salvation Army band Syd Barrett dragged into the studio for the track that eventually became “Jugband Blues”, Syd’s last song with the band.

The somewhat paltry extras include “The Hardest Interactive Pink Floyd Trivia Quiz In The World Ever” which is ridiculously challenging. There are screen shot bios of the participating commentators and a short but sweet special feature entitled “The Remarkable Syd Barrett”. This 10-minute bonus examines, in some depth, Syd Barrett and his fleeting trajectory, including another interview with Norman Smith who, it’s fair to say, was Pink Floyd’s George Martin—which brings things somewhat full circle as he worked as an engineer on the early Beatles’ albums.

Pink Floyd – Echos

RATING:

— 1 June 2007

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The Doors: Open for Business (Again) PopMatters.com Review

Posted by bullmurph on May 21, 2007

The Doors: Open for Business (Again)

[8 May 2007]

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. L.A. Woman manages to be all of the above.

by Sean Murphy

Ten days, ten thousand dollars. That is the time and money required to craft one of rock music’s significant debut albums. If the Doors had simply disbanded after their eponymous first effort, they would unquestionably hold a sacrosanct space in the ‘60s canon. Recorded around the same time as Sgt. Pepper (not after, which is noteworthy), The Doors helped establish the possibility that a rock and roll album could—and should—be a complete, fully-formed statement. If, inevitably, this raising of the artistic bar inexorably led to unwelcome excesses, such as the progressive rock “concept album” in the early-to-mid ‘70s, it also elevated the music from the short, fluff-filled releases of the early-to-mid ‘60s.

How did it happen?

First and foremost, so much ink gets spilled rehashing and aggrandizing the living legend of the Lizard King that it is, unfortunately, easy to overlook the certainty that the Doors were a first-rate band capable of creating incredible music. And they did: the often exceptional compositions were not conjured up from the bong water—all three of the musicians (Ray Manzarek played keyboards, Robbie Krieger played guitar and John Densmore played drums) were trained players with experience, reaching across classical, jazz, folk and blues. (A more extensive analysis of Jim Morrison’s ceaselessly controversial status as a poet was recently undertaken and can be found here).

A propitious way to create a near perfect album is to begin with an indelible opening salvo, and “Break on Through”, the first song and first single, still sounds fresh and essential 40 years later. This song delivers in every way: a signature sound (nothing else, then or now, sounds anything like this) and an urgency that balances aggression and acumen, in under three minutes. In terms of influence, it should suffice to say that the testimonials from bands in subsequent generations are numerous, and from a historical perspective, this dark but dynamic concision anticipates punk rock every bit as much as, say, the Velvet Underground.

Admittedly, “Light My Fire”—the second single and the one that actually broke them through, topping the charts in the infamous Summer of Love—reverberates, today, with more of that free-love vibe (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but the incredible trifecta that kicks off the proceedings remains remarkably, even improbably edgy and unique. Again, no other band made music that sounded like this and it is, to a large degree, attributable to Ray Manzarek, who, in addition to piano and organ, handled the role of bassist, utilizing his Fender Rhodes piano bass (on later albums the band would indulge themselves with the services of a session bassist, but on most of the early albums Manzarek did double duty). His versatility is on full display throughout these first three songs, and nowhere is his handiwork better represented than on the third track, “The Crystal Ship”: his restrained, often ethereal organ sound is always the water that the rest of the band could cook with, while his discerning, almost elegant, turn at the piano provides cerebral counterpoint.

A few more remarks about Manzarek: up to this point (and, to a large extent, outside of the mellotron mini-revolution pioneered by King Crimson and the Moody Blues in the late ‘60s, and the keyboards so essential to most progressive rock acts like Yes, Jethro Tull and Genesis in the early ‘70s) organ music was—and remains—generally relegated to the sideline on the rare occasions it appears at all. Certain groups might employ the use of an organ for one of their mellow or somber songs, but bringing an organ to the forefront was an original, and risky undertaking. Aside from the piano/organ interplay, Manzarek consistently creates different sounds with his instrument. At times he opts for funky and cool (“Soul Kitchen” or “I Looked at You”), other times carnivalesque (the group’s spirited cover of Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)”, or “Take It As It Comes”), and occasionally jazzy. Although any mention of this causes supercilious purists to puke, there is no getting around the reality that those extended and groundbreaking solos in “Light My Fire” were modeled, in part, on the standard improvised chord changes of bebop.

Let’s face it, one reason it is so easy, even imperative, to poke fun at the Doors is because Manzarek himself, who has been anything but tongue-tied in interviews over the years, seems entirely too eager to elucidate the ways in which the band consciously emulated John Coltrane while composing their most important song. It might have behooved him a bit to understand that the considerable majority of even the most proficient jazz musicians are wary of drawing any sort of overt comparisons to Coltrane (mostly because the first thing it does is amplify the rather extreme divergence between the very good and the Great). And yet. Robby Krieger, through lessons and discipline, had developed a facility on the flamenco guitar before moving on to amplified blues, then rock; John Densmore received classical training and played in jazz bands for years; Manzarek too had classical training. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of musicians (in rock and even in jazz) who have all the technique and ambition in the world, but cannot craft truly original, irrevocable melodies. Only the most obstreperous haters will deny that, as a tune, “Light My Fire” is irresistible … at least the first million times.

Certainly, the first album contains some less essential moments, such as “Twentieth Century Fox”, “I Looked At You” and “Take It As It Comes”, but two covers (the aforementioned “Alabama Song”, and an improbably convincing rendition of the pretty much uncoverable Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man”) work in wonderful ways. Listen, again to “Back Door Man” and compare it to the paint-by-numbers pastiches of classic blues songs the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were attempting only a few years earlier. “End of the Night” is undeniably of its time, but still provides pleasure, particularly in its economy and the way it anticipates the expansive final track which, if not the Doors’ best song, is definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway To Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Manzarek and Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents, certainly at the time of its recording, an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.

Only the authority and influence of the first album keeps its follow-up somewhat in its shadow. More than a few fans, however, might insist that Strange Days is actually superior. Overall, the sophomore effort (also released in 1967) sounds more tied to its time, but as an artifact of that era, it holds its own all these years later. Not unlike the first album, Strange Days features an extended closing statement, the more straightforward but also more calculated (and less arresting) anthem “When The Music’s Over”. To its credit, the band did not ardently attempt to duplicate the formula that worked so well the first time around (not that this would have been possible anyway), and were willing, even eager, to take some risks. The results are mixed, but mostly very good and occasionally exceptional. For starters, the somewhat overproduced title track (with its dated echo effects on the vocal) might not catch LSD in a bottle like “Break On Through”, but it more than adequately conveys, lyrically and musically, a foreboding menace that anticipates the not-so-loving summer of ’68:

Strange eyes fill strange rooms
Voices will signal their tired end
The hostess is grinning
Her guests sleep from sinning
Hear me talk of sin and you know this is it.

Radio staples “People Are Strange” and “Love Me Two Times” are shadowy nuggets of tight, intelligent song craft: even after you’ve heard them each a thousand times (and who hasn’t?), they always deliver the goods. A trio of obscure gems make this album essential for the casual fan who thinks a greatest hits collection will suffice: “You’re Lost Little Girl” is a lithe ballad with propulsive choruses (it’s always a delight to hear Densmore elevate the energy at exactly the right moment with his cymbal rides and rim shots); “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind” is one of the experiments that comes off spectacularly (the eastern vibe seems neither forced nor affected, no matter how much incense was probably obscuring the air during recording); “Unhappy Girl” has Manzarek mixing things up by overdubbing organ on top of a backing track playing backward. Oddly, it works. Perhaps the shining moment is the sublime “Moonlight Drive”, allegedly the song Morrison first sang to Manzarek on a beach in Venice before the band officially formed. It sounds like a ‘50s love song spun through a psychedelic wheel, with dirty bottleneck grounding it in the here and now (that being 1967 or 2007). And so, a little bit slighter, but quite solid, Strange Days remains an album everyone should own.

Love (or even tolerance) of the group’s next two albums is what separates the cautious Doors fans from the true believers: each is extremely brief with several throwaways and a handful of the band’s better moments. Waiting For the Sun is the one that almost never got made, discourtesy of Morrison’s now chronic capriciousness; the antics that bolstered his myth, but more often than not derailed the delicate act of making good music. The obvious example of this dynamic is epitomized by the song that is not on the album. An ambitious composition, “The Celebration of the Lizard”, based on a poem by Morrison, was intended to fill up an entire side of the album. For myriad reasons (Morrison’s histrionics in the studio, the inability to record songs when the singer didn’t bother making it to the studio, general lethargy and uninspired musical ideas), the band never came close to a worthwhile take, and fans would have to wait a couple of years to hear a version on Absolutely Live!. A section of the song survived, and based on the quality of “Not To Touch The Earth”, it might have been the group’s masterpiece.

Although it was a huge hit single, “Hello I Love You” is as close to bubblegum schlock as the Doors ever came (not to mention the rather blatant larceny of the Kinks’ “All Day and All the Night”), yet Morrison, even on a lightweight tune, could craft a dazzling line: “Sidewalk crouches at her feet / Like a dog that begs for something sweet”. “Love Street” is an enchanting love song that still injects the dark undercurrent the singer could seldom resist:

She has robes and she has monkeys
Lazy diamond studded flunkies
She has wisdom and knows what to do
She has me and she has you.

More lyrical virtuosity appears on the short but astounding “Summer’s Almost Gone”—also one of Morrison’s better vocal performances:

Morning found us calmly unaware
Noon burned gold into our hair
At night we swam the laughing sea
When summer’s gone, where will we be?

A couple of fan favorites, “The Unknown Soldier” (which has not aged especially well) and “Five To One” (which has) conclude the first and second sides. In the end, not at all bad for a record that came dangerously close to imploding at the launch pad.

By 1969 Morrison, if not phoning it in, was otherwise preoccupied by more urgent matters of wine, women and sloth. As the rest of the band struggled to assemble the odds, ends, snippets and unfinished blueprints that would eventually become The Soft Parade, the front man applied himself to the full-time activity of mutating from Adonis to Falstaff, having (mostly) eschewed acid for alcohol. Krieger, who had quietly contributed several songs to the last two albums, stepped up and wrote lyrics for half the tunes this time out. (People tend to forget, if they ever actually knew, that even on the earlier albums, many of the singles came from Krieger’s pen: he co-wrote “Light My Fire”, not to mention “Love Me Two Times”. For iThe Soft Parade, he supplied “Touch Me”, making him the de-facto hit maker of the group). Still, despite Krieger’s admirable enthusiasm—or survival instinct—the band missed Morrison’s inimitable edge:

Come on take me by the hand
Gonna bury all our trouble in the sand.
(from “Tell All The People”—Krieger)

The mask that you wore
My fingers will explore
The costume of control
Excitement soon unfolds.
(from “Easy Ride”—Morrison)

Or,

Wishful sinful, our love is beautiful to see
I know where I would like to be …
(from “Wishful Sinful”—Krieger)

The lights are getting brighter
The radio is moaning
Calling to the dogs
There are still a few animals
Left out in the yard
But it’s getting harder
To describe
Sailors
To the underfed.
(from “The Soft Parade”—Morrison)

And yet, uneven as this one is, like the previous album there are some beauties. “Wild Child” is as close to perfection as the Doors got between their first and last album, featuring Krieger’s effortlessly smooth slide guitar, and some of Densmore’s most cocksure, kickass drumming. Arguably, the elastic essence of what often set the Doors slightly apart from the pack is represented by what is probably the most unfamiliar track, “Do It”. To say it is lyrically thin is beneficent, but the authority of Morrison’s vocals—mostly repeating “Please, please listen to me, children”—is exhilarating (and special kudos must be offered to long-suffering perfectionist Paul Rothchild: he had produced all the albums thus far, and uses the studio brilliantly here to capture a clean sound, particularly on Densmore’s drums, and always augmenting Morrison’s range, bringing out all the warmth he could wring out of his vocal takes. Another way of putting it is to say he made Morrison sound like he could actually sing, something not in abundant display on the live albums).

The title track, a cut and paste job of previously uncompleted shreds and fragments, manages to be messy, embarrassing and brilliant, sometimes all at once. Take it or leave it, no other band would ever conclude a song with the words, “When all fails we can whip the horse’s eyes / And make them sleep, and cry”. In between accelerated turns in his coffin, Dostoyevsky had to grin at least a little bit. To be certain, this is a trillion light years from “Soul Kitchen” or “People Are Strange”, but the horns and strings and somewhat indulgent envelope-pushing prove that the Doors were anything but a self imitating machine. Like any other group that endures through successive generations, their songs have an authentic, instantly identifiable sound; even when—as is often the case—the actual songs sound nothing alike. Untalented opportunists have sold their souls for much less, and in fact are doing so right now on prime time TV.

Morrison Hotel was, rightly, lauded as a stunning return to form, although that appraisal is only halfway accurate. It was a return to the days when the Doors put out unreservedly great records, but Morrison Hotel is nothing at all like its predecessors. A stripped down, blues-flavored affair, the entire band is on fire, with Krieger continuing to make a case for being perhaps the most under appreciated guitarist in a major rock group. From the moment this sucker hit the streets, one needed only a cursory glance at the revealing band photo spread out across the inside foldout cover (for those who can recall that album covers were minor works of art in their own right; for those who can recall albums): in a bar, sporting casual threads, surrounded by cigarette smoking, unpretentious patrons, this is a group that had lived a little but was still alive.

If the first two Doors albums are drugs, they’d be of the decidedly psychedelic variety; the next couple are a dangerous cocktail of amphetamines and Quaaludes—highs and lows surging in an uneasy rush. Morrison Hotel is beer: authentic, unfiltered, as American as it gets. Plain and simple, some of the band’s most indispensable material appears on this one, and the tone is set with ballsy assurance on the familiar opener, “Roadhouse Blues”. It is the next song, however, that showcases what this new and improved model sounded like. “Waiting for the Sun” is ominous, yet inviting; there are traces of the psychedelic fog, mostly thanks to Manzarek, but it’s Krieger and Densmore (along with raw and refreshingly live-sounding vocals from Morrison) that propel this song into a new decade. Significantly, the band finally had the wherewithal to complete a track intended to appear on the earlier album that bore its name.

Even the ostensibly expendable numbers are bristling with a rediscovered energy. For instance, Manzarek is all over the ivories on “You Make Me Real” and, again, Morrison sounds like he not only showed up, but he actually cares. When, toward the end of the song, he recalls “Roadhouse Blues” with the reprised shout of “Let it roll baby roll”, there is no mistaking the purpose, and this most undemonstrative of bands seems to actually be enjoying themselves. Perhaps this is too much of a good thing, as the lame closer “Maggie M’Gill” represents one of the band’s weakest moments, and “Land Ho!” is so-so. It’s the kind of track that, if initially left off the album and “rediscovered” for a subsequent box set, would be a delight. On the other hand, the effortless synergy of a band clicking on all cylinders is in full effect on “Queen of the Highway”. If the brief, bittersweet “Indian Summer” uncannily conjures up the sound and feel from the first album, this is understandable since it was actually recorded in 1966 (an outtake from that album, this early—and amazing—love song’s subtle nod to “The End” is more obvious, and poignant considering it came first).

Special mention must be made of those indispensable songs. “Peace Frog” alone should satisfy either the curious or the unconvinced that Robbie Krieger is a bad man. These are indelible riffs from a man who grew up listening to old school blues and was helping author the codebook of rock and roll, still very much a work in progress at that point. Likewise, for anyone who insists Morrison can’t sing, cue up “Blue Sunday” (which “Peace Frog” segues seamlessly into), and stop resisting. Finally, the definitive track, and the one that pointed the way to the road ahead, is “The Spy”. A straight up, slow blues, Krieger and Densmore hang back like bar band veterans and allow Manzarek to do his thing. For folks who associate Manzarek with the alternately dated and occasionally clumsy-sounding organ, it might be a surprise to hear how authentic and authoritative his piano touch still sounds (and perhaps you’ll even catch yourself wishing he had employed it a bit more often before and after this particular album). Like “Indian Summer”, this one could be quite effective as an instrumental, but it happens to boast one of Morrison’s finest vocal performances. It almost seems, in retrospect, that in 1967, Morrison tapped into potential even he didn’t realize he had, and then spent a few years struggling—and at times, understandably paralyzed—to meet the inevitable expectations (at best) or avoid copying his younger self (at worst). Here, he finds a newer voice, the voice his body and brain had grown into, and it’s almost unthinkable that the old soul singing had recently turned 26.

If Morrison Hotel served as an unequivocal acknowledgment that the ‘60s were over (on multiple levels, not least of which the literal one), then L.A. Woman is another stride toward the future. It remains more than a little tantalizing to conjecture what, and how much, ammunition the band had up their collective sleeves, but judging solely on the increasing quality of their final two recordings, it is reasonable to lament some spectacular music that never had the opportunity to get made. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Doors album without some drama. This time, producer Paul Rothchild decided the band was a spent force, or, he had done all he could do to wrangle what he felt were acceptable versions of the assembled works in progress. Based solely on the strength of the eventual results, one wonders what he was thinking. In an inspired move based mostly on necessity, the band rallied around longtime engineer Bruce Botnick and decided to record the album pretty much live in the studio. What happened next could be a combination of luck, skill and the innate advantages of a band operating like a family, but whatever it was, the songs recall what worked so well on Morrison Hotel but also go places the band had not come close to approaching thus far. One obvious difference was the group’s employment of an actual bassist (Jerry Scheff) as well as a rhythm guitarist (Marc Benno); where the band had utilized session bassists on and off, it’s no coincidence that the meatier, bluesier sound is directly attributable to these welcome additions.

Krieger, the one-man hit machine, is back with “Love Her Madly” which, like “Love Me Two Times”, is a perfectly constructed pop confection that never gets stale. Two “fat Jim” songs feature raw vocals that turn to actual hollers and screams at times. To belabor an earlier point, Morrison sounds about a hundred years older than he did only a few years before, but his voice, and lyrics, have evolved with the band meeting him halfway. This singer would bludgeon the earlier material, but the young lion could never have gotten his paws around a song like “The Changeling”: “I had money, I had none / But I never been so broke that I couldn’t leave town”. On “Been Down So Long”, Morrison and Krieger sound raw, even angry, it’s a clever desperation that balances exhaustion and release. A dubious selection makes for the only false note: a lazy and half-assed obliteration of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake”, which should have been left at the lake with the other snake. (Quick fantasy: if they had held onto “The Spy”, and put that in the exact same spot as “Crawling King Snake”, and—if you really want to kick it up a notch—they swapped “Been Down So Long” for “Peace Frog/Blue Sunday”, L.A. Woman would go from being a great album to the short list of rock masterpieces.)

Solid departures like “L’America” and “The Wasp (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)” provide further indications of the different, and desirable, direction the band might have continued to travel toward, and the startling vulnerability (the Lizard King was human, after all) of “Hyacinth House” assumes an added poignancy considering Morrison would not be alive to listen to this album:

Why did you throw the Jack of Hearts away?
It was the only card in the deck that I had left to play
And I’ll say it again, I need a brand new friend
And I’ll say it again, I need a brand new friend, the end.

One of the great one-two punches in the Doors’ catalog concludes side one: “Cars Hiss By My Window” is arguably the band’s best song that no one has heard:

Headlights through my window, shinin’ on the wall
Can’t hear my baby, though I call and call …
Windows started trembling with a sonic boom
A cold girl will kill you, in a darkened room.

If you gave Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot of acid, he might have sounded something like this: lower than mellow, aged way beyond his years, but still seeing the sweetness and the humor and mostly telling it like it is. As straightforward as this song is, it is deceptively deep and reveals the considerable dividends of Scheff and Benno’s presence. Morrison’s human guitar howl at the end of the song sets up a sublime segue into what might be the band’s ultimate song. The title track is not as long or loquacious as the epics that closed out the first two albums, and while it is every bit as dark, it is also accessible and direct, a love letter and farewell note to the city the singer embodied:

I see your hair is burning
Hills are filled with fire
If they say I never loved you
You know they are a liar …
Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light
Or just another lost angel … City of Night.

Morrison captured L.A. for the ages, and notably, he did not need to status-check at the Chateau Marmont to conjure it up. The city was in his blood: it was the back-alley bars, rat-trap hotels and squalid side streets that he prowled, equal parts inspiration and escape. So much dissipated potential, to be certain, but it’s also reasonable to suggest that his accelerated stretch in the spotlight enabled him to write the songs on L. A. Woman, not unlike Malcolm Lowry’s extended period of self destruction instigated Under the Volcano.

Finally, while the Doors, obviously, did not realize this would be their last album, could any band ask for a more perfect finale than “Riders On the Storm”? If “L.A. Woman” depicts the claustrophobic, corrupted city of angels, “Riders On the Storm” takes on the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Perhaps the definitive marriage of music and words, this song could be an intriguing poem and a first-rate instrumental piece, but Morrison’s mellow, mature vocals (the decision to whisper the lyrics over the recorded take is an expert move) and Manzarek’s trickling rain on the keyboards make this, by any criteria, a stunner:

Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm.

There will always be plenty of speculation about how much more Morrison could have done, what he might have achieved, what other things he had to say. On the other hand, looking back on the way he left things, what more needed to be said?

Addendum: Behind The Music or, Detritus, Destruction and Resurrection

A few thoughts regarding these remasters, which are advertised as “40th Anniversary Mixes”. Enticement: the entire Doors catalog—all six studio albums—have been remastered, again, and given the lavish liner note treatment to commemorate the four decades since the debut album. Warning: these albums have been tampered with (hence, remixed) in ways that may be refreshing or sacrilegious, depending upon one’s perspective. Verdict: it is a bit of both, mostly good. These remixes are, in the words of the man primarily responsible (then and now) for engineering/producing them, “The Doors, as they were originally intended to be heard!”

We are all, by now, accustomed to the inevitable re-releases, with studio banter and false starts: they are advertised as such, obviously designed with the more passionate fans in mind. On the other hand, some caveat emptor action is applicable in this instance. Any prospective shopper should be fairly warned that the discs have been remastered and remixed, so these won’t sound like the albums you grew up with. (For those who are not aware, the initial pressing of compact discs, from the mid ‘80s, were properly redone in the late ‘90s via straight-up digital remastering that removed hiss and improved audio quality). In his breathless liner notes, Botnick alerts us to his (our?) revelation that the first Doors album has, for the last 40 years, been pressed at the wrong speed (!) Listen: “When the album was mixed at Elektra studios … either the four-track playback recorder was running slow or the stereo two-track was running fast.” And all these years I thought Iwas the only one who had noticed this! My guess is that the same people who will be flabbergasted by this development are the same folks who swear they can hear discernible warmth emanating from their system’s $600 gold plated connecting cables.

Sound aside—and the remastering job is, for the most part, an improvement in terms of clarity and instrumental balance—it’s the “bonus” material that fans will likely love or hate. If, for instance, you think it’s cool to actually hear Morrison sing “She get high” instead of “She get …” (was I the only person who, for many years, thought he was saying “Seek it”?), and can dig all the “fucks” restored to the, uh, climactic section of “The End”, then these reissues might, in the (actual) words of Mr. Botnick, “possibly change your life!” Interestingly, the first time the “fuck” version of “The End” was unleashed was during the powerful and disturbing opening scene of Apocalypse Now. This is more than a little ironic, because Botnick’s (and the remaining band members, who are not on record as having raised any objections) rationale painfully recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s insistance, upon reissuing his extended, bloated vision (Apocalypse Now Redux), that this was the real film in all its glory. Needless to say, it is entirely appropriate if the artist decides, decades later, that certain mistakes, false starts and excesses initially edited out deserve (demand!) to be resurrected. But that does not mean it improves the material; indeed, as we now see quite often with posthumous novels-in-progress (or worse, ones the author trashed for good reasons), alternate takes of old songs and director’s cut material (the latter two at least added as bonus material so as to not sully the initial versions that audiences are familiar with), there can be too much of a good thing.

Suffice it to say, similar sorts of embellishments exist on all of these reissues. Some are intriguing, some are appalling, and several are so incredibly ill-conceived you literally aren’t sure if you should laugh or sob. Again, assuming you are the type of fan who wants to hear snatches of lyrics or notes that didn’t make the first cut, it’s worth checking out these versions. For the first four albums, the slightly cleaner sound is a plus, especially on Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade. Of these two, Waiting for the Sun is probably the best bet, as the clarity is quite noticeable, but the bonus material includes the previously unreleased demo of “The Celebration of the Lizard”. Don’t get too excited: for anyone who has long wondered whether or not this song was meant to be the Doors’ magnum opus, the material here does little to make a case for it. The version on Absolutely Live! is half-decent, so between that and the polished section that became “Not to Touch the Earth”, it was not unreasonable to hope this song should have been among the band’s best—a genuinely tantalizing thought. Sadly, based on the take that survives, it’s not merely a work in progress, it’s a mess.

On the other hand, Morrison Hotel has bountiful bonus material—most of which is various takes of “Roadhouse Blues” under construction; they are interesting the first time around, but unlikely to inspire repeat listens. More importantly, this one is too slick by a half, rendering a raw, dirty classic straitjacketed into pristine submission. Finally, L.A. Woman provides a bit of a conundrum: moderately improved sound, but do you want to have anyone tampering with perfection? (Wait until you hear what they’ve done to “Cars Hiss By My Window”.) Lest anyone think, understandably, that I’m advising against picking up these reissues, remember that I’ve had the benefit of listening to them. In conclusion, I know I would not have taken anyone else’s opinion too seriously until I’d heard them for myself.

The Doors – Light My Fire

The Doors RATING:

Strange Days RATING:

Waiting for the Sun RATING:

The Soft Parade RATING:

Morrison Hotel RATING:

L.A. Woman RATING:

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Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall (Popmatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on March 22, 2007

Neil Young

Live at Massey Hall

(Reprise)

US release date: 13 March 2007
UK release date: 19 March 2001

by Sean Murphy

cover art

Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past

What an opportune time to be a Neil Young fan. Those of us still tingling and reeling from the remarkably hype-worthy Live at the Fillmore East may be neither worthy nor ready, but the next installment has arrived. (Typical Neil: make the fans wait for decades to deliver the goods, then drop two bombs within a matter of months.) Live at Massey Hall offers an ideal counterpart for the sublime sonic assault of the Crazy Horse concert; indeed, this recording is as restrained as the previous one was riotous, showcasing Young in as intimate a setting as possible: alone, in a small venue.

The show, from January 19, 1971, contains a set list that has been widely bootlegged over the years, with generally substandard fidelity. The sound quality, as it was on the last volume, is astonishing, making this official release welcome and instantly essential. If, like myself, you shudder anytime a reviewer claims that a concert sounds like it is right in your living room, imagine how it feels to actually write those words. And yet. This is Neil, naked: not unplugged in the contemporary sense (i.e., unplugged with a 50-piece string section and mostly non-amplified backing musicians), just the singer, his guitar, and occasional piano—an old school solo gig. The audience is respectful and refreshingly quiet during the songs, partly because a majority of the songs are brand new, mostly because it is not an American crowd (Massey Hall is in Toronto, making this, in effect, a homecoming for the native son).

The context of these first two volumes in the Neil Young Archives series was touched on in an earlier review, but it is nevertheless enlightening to consider what the peripatetic musician had been up to in the staggeringly prolific months before this concert. Shortly after concluding his tour with Crazy Horse (documented on the Fillmore East release), he returned to the studio and cranked out another extraordinary album, After the Gold Rush. Then, infuriated and inspired by the Kent State shootings, he quickly wrote and recorded the seminal single “Ohio”, featuring backing vocals by David Crosby. That summer he hit the road again with Crosby, Stills and Nash, which subsequently led to the release of the live album 4 Way Street. Like a shark that remains in constant motion to survive, Young came off that tour and began writing new songs for yet another album, which he began working into his solo performances in early 1971. The Massey Hall recording was sufficiently impressive that Young’s producer, David Briggs, practically begged him to release it as a live double album. Typically, Neil never even found the time to listen to the tapes; he was busy putting the finishing touches on the album he had already decided to drop next, which happened to be Harvest, the tour de force that cemented his reputation for all time. He was twenty-four years old.

Where Live at the Fillmore East exhibits a confident group basking in the afterglow of a recently recorded classic, Live at Massey Hall reveals the blueprints of songs that would, in short order, become rock music touchstones. The rather solemn reading of “Old Man” is laudable, but only hints at how poignant the polished version would eventually be, courtesy of a full backing band featuring James Taylor’s banjo and backing vocals. Likewise, it’s intriguing to hear the snippet of what sounds like a throwaway number that would, in fact, become “Heart of Gold”. A revealing rap introducing a new tune he wrote (the previously unreleased “Bad Fog of Loneliness”) for an upcoming appearance on The Johnny Cash Show (!) mentions James Taylor and Linda Rondstadt, who were slated to appear with him. A couple of weeks later, Young coaxed both artists into the studio, where they would provide indelible contributions to both “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”. Young utilized the London Symphony Orchestra to beef up two other songs that would appear on Harvest: “There’s a World” and “A Man Needs a Maid”. Here, they are disarmingly stripped down and demonstrate how adept Young was at constructing short, stark songs that manage to convey vulnerability and sweetness. Another example is the obscure gem “See the Sky About to Rain” (reworked for 1974’s On the Beach), although it’s impossible to imagine that particular song without the slide guitar and Wurlitzer. 

The rest of the concert splits the difference between songs from recent albums and songs that would turn up on imminent recordings (exceptions being the aforementioned “Bad Fog of Loneliness” and the atypically upbeat, therefore delightful “Dance Dance Dance”). “Journey Through the Past” and “Helpless” both name-check—and get appreciative shout-outs from—the Canadian audience, and Young makes sure to include highlights from After the Gold Rush, including “Tell Me Why” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”. Comparing the restrained acoustic takes of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” to the glass-breaking versions from the Fillmore East release provides living (and live) proof of Young’s resourcefulness. Unplugged and unintimidated, Young is taking no prisoners.

Fittingly, the two high points of the concert are songs pointing in opposite directions: where Neil had come from, and where he was headed. “On the Way Home” (from his Buffalo Springfield days) is a perfect choice to open the proceedings, featuring the singer at a moment when, possibly, his voice was never better: fragile, almost feminine, yet assured and unmistakable. On the other hand, even as Neil was getting used to being a celebrity, he was understandably wary of the trappings that had derailed some of rock’s biggest stars. His brief introduction to the recently written “The Needle and the Damage Done”—a eulogy for Crazy Horse band mate and recent heroin casualty Danny Whitten—reveals the sorrow and culpability Young was only beginning to really wrestle with. And again, that voice: it is a devastating, beautiful performance. This, then, is Neil Young as accessible and honest as he has ever been, busy at work on the soundtrack of his life, an open letter to anyone willing to listen.

Live at Massey Hall 1971 – Trailer

RATING:

— 20 March 2007

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/music/reviews/31840/neil-young-live-at-massey-hall/

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Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle (Popmatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on March 22, 2007

Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle

Battery Milk

(Hyena)

by Sean Murphy

Few bad things can be said regarding vibraphonist Mike Dillon. Critters Buggin, Garage A Trois, Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade: if the names of these acts mean anything to you, you already are well aware that Dillon’s contributions to each comprise an integral component of their appeal. Anyone who has had the good fortune of watching him perform will attest to an irrepressible energy and ebullience that brighten any proceedings with which he is involved. He has, for most of the last decade, been a seminal character actor in the underground, determinedly independent music scene. The time, it seems, is right for his star turn as a leading man, and Battery Milk , the first release from Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle, should be cause for celebration.

It is not. So what went wrong? Well, things start off with a bang: “GoGo’s Theme” sets a tone of immediate, raucous bliss with rollicking percussion (courtesy of Dillon and drummer GoGo Ray), fat bass (the double assault of JJ “Jungle” Richards and Ron Johnson) and funky sax from Mark Southerland. This is thinking person’s party music; the unit is locked and loaded, bringing the Bonnaroo to your bedroom. It is, in short, a perfect song to open an album and is pretty much a perfect song, period. Expectations met, it’s go (go) time. The second track, “Broc’s Last Stand” continues in an infectiously upbeat style, with Dillon coming to the fore, displaying vibraphone work that has become less bombastic (not that there was anything wrong with that) and more melodious: his playing has transcended mere accompaniment and a unique and delightful virtuosity is on display. Congratulations are in order: Mike Dillon has arrived as an artist who can—and should—be front and center, leading his own band(s).

Track three is the turning point. It starts off with some delightful distortion and crisp sax lines from Southerland: We are in Critters Buggin territory, and that is a great place to be. Then, rather abruptly, a strange noise enters. The sound of a human voice. It sounds familiar, for a moment, and you might think: who let Mike Patton in the studio? Or, better yet, maybe Mike Dillon is being a team player and recognizing the (apparently) still unwritten rule that Patton’s increasingly predictable cartoon persona has to appear on at least 70 or so albums per year. Nope, it’s Dillon himself (or, if someone else can be blamed, the liner notes don’t reveal the culprit). The song concludes the way it starts: strong, and without the distracting spoken-word sinister/silly antics. Okay, maybe that was just an odd lapse, an unfortunate choice. But no, the hoarse whisperer is back on the next track, “Robbing the Bank”. Indeed, he shticks around for the next two tunes. If the music wasn’t so wonderful, perhaps the superfluous vocals would be a slightly quirky, even devious diversion. But as the subsequent songs steadily devolve from bad Mr. Bungle to watered down Don Van Vliet one can only ask: Why? Perhaps it is just this reviewer’s prejudice, but to be perfectly frank, if I want to listen to Captain Beefheart, I’ll go directly to the source and put on a Tom Waits record.

In fairness, after repeated listens the vocals are somewhat less grating, and it’s a certainty that these songs will be a lot of fun to listen to live, but the misplaced spirit of adventure mars what should have been a fantastic album. Astonishingly, the worst is yet to come, when disappointment turns to disdain. When the familiar opening notes of Aaron Neville’s “Hercules” begin, it is a threshold type of moment. What a wise, inspired choice, covering one of the all-time Crescent City soul workouts, particularly with the stench of Katrina still suffocating the air of that great city. But then the unthinkable occurs: someone starts singing (this time the culprit is JJ “Jungle” Richards), and the frail, forced vocals are, unfortunately, an embarrassment. It’s not merely a bad decision for a weak singer to try and imitate the mighty Aaron Neville, it borders on the disrespectful. A shame, since an instrumental take might have well been an understated way to capture the poignancy and profundity of the original masterpiece.

The remaining four numbers split the difference with two tasty (and vocal-free) jams and two more throwaways, both of which aim to make political statements. The first, “Stupid Americans”, is too stale and cliché-ridden to work, and the other, “Bad Man”, employs the no-longer original strategy of using George W. Bush’s own butchering of the English language via inserted samples to delineate what a dunce he is. For recent examples of confident and engaging political statements without words or gimmicks, one might check out Stanton Moore’s latest effort, or Bobby Previte’s instant-classic The Coalition of the Willing .

In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that there are not exactly a wealth of instantly recognizable vibraphonists on the scene right now, and it does not appear likely that this generation will produce the next Bobby Hutcherson. And that is okay. Hutcherson did enough work that enough of us still haven’t quite caught up yet, and he’ll span all subsequent generations that listen to music. And so, perhaps because it’s easy to do, enthusiastic promoters might claim that Dillon is carrying the torch. Actually, he is on his own path, and there is every reason to expect a further maturation of this cerebral sort of jam-band music. If we’re lucky, Dillon will restrain his impulse to imitate and have more surprises—the positive kind—as he continues to grow, and groove.

RATING:

— 22 February 2007

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/music/reviews/11340/mike-dillons-go-go-jungle-battery-milk/

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Eric Dolphy: Outward Bound (PopMatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on February 9, 2007

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/music/reviews/10506/eric-dolphy-quintet-outward-bound/

Eric Dolphy Quintet

Outward Bound

(Concord)

US release date: 12 September 2006
UK release date: 6 November 2006

by Sean Murphy

cover art

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Lee Morgan—all trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Outward Bound, then, holds a special place as his debut recording as a leader.

Dolphy often draws comparisons to Ornette Coleman, another avatar of the free jazz movement. Not surprisingly, the two were friendly and obviously saw, in one another, a reflection of the intensely sensitive and eccentric misfit. But where Coleman sought to recreate the temple by first razing its very foundation, Dolphy constructed his singular edifice in accordance with a vision rooted on firm and familiar ground: the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker (who, fittingly, was initially ostracized by many of the mere mortals who still believed the jazz world was flat). Suffice it to say, like any artist who helps redefine the rules by recreating them, Dolphy had to first master the idiom before daring to transcend it. Although already intelligent and advanced beyond his years, he was 31 at the time of this recording, making him somewhat of a late bloomer by typical jazz icon standards (young hotshot Freddie Hubbard, for instance, was only 21 on this session). Point being, Dolphy served his apprenticeship wisely, and his incalculable hours in the woodshed left the sawdust offstage and off record, so that when his time finally came, it was on.

One of the paradoxical reasons Dolphy tends to get overlooked, even slighted, is not because of any lack of proficiency, but rather an abundance of it. It does not quite seem possible—particularly for lazier critics and ringleaders amongst the jazz intelligentsia—that such a relatively young musician could master three instruments. In actuality, Dolphy was an exceedingly accomplished alto sax player, drawing freely (pun intended) from Bird while pointing the way toward Braxton. Perhaps most egregiously disregarded is his flute playing, which not only achieves a consistent and uncommon beauty, but more than holds its own against fellow multi-reedists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Nevertheless, it is the signature, unmistakable sounds he makes with the bass clarinet that ensure his place in the pantheon: no one of note, excepting Harry Carney, employed this instrument on the front line before Dolphy and, arguably, no one has used it as effectively and indelibly since.

Outward Bound, aside from its import as Dolphy’s inaugural session as a leader, assembles what could accurately—if unfairly—be described as one of jazz music’s all-time second tier collectives. Whenever discussions of the unrivaled masters occur (whatever those types of discussions are worth), none of these players make the first cut: you hear about Monk and Ellington and Tatum and maybe Hancock (for starters) before you ever hear about Jaki Byard; you hear about Armstrong, Miles, and Clifford Brown before you hear about Freddie Hubbard; you hear about Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams before you eventually get around to Roy Haynes; you don’t hear much of anything about George Tucker (and this is unfortunate); and you hear about Parker, Coltrane, Rollins, and maybe a half-dozen legitimate heavyweight contenders before most folks might happen to mention Eric Dolphy. All of which is to say that this session brings together a handful of the finest musicians who ever played their respective instruments, and it’s more than a little coincidental that, when put in the same environment with a common purpose, there was an affinity and extra edge they conjured up, seemingly out of nowhere.

The tone is set with a Dolphy original, “G.W.”—a tribute to trumpeter, bandleader, and early mentor Gerald Wilson—which is a calling card and statement of purpose: not only does each musician get ample time and space to have their say, but the composition can be heard as the first major indication of where Dolphy was heading: up and away from convention and into a freer, flowing space—outward bound. After a throat-clearing flourish from Haynes, Dolphy and Hubbard enter in electrifying unison, a sound that still sounds brazen and irreverent today; one can easily imagine the ears of jazz “purists” turning sideways in 1961. Dolphy’s extended solo evinces his facility with the alto saxophone: he packs notes into undulating clusters that, of course, call to mind Charlie Parker, but this voice, which at once cries and laughs, is intense without being off-putting, ferocious yet still friendly. Jaki Byard takes a typical romp down memory lane, rolling and tumbling from stride to bebop and beyond. Repeated listens reveal how active his fingers—and mind—always are; he is never busy or noisy, yet he constantly colors the corners of the canvass, urging the vibe in and out of focus while offering running commentary, a playful and authoritative raconteur. The group then tackles the familiar standard “On Green Dolphin Street”, which is a showcase for Hubbard’s muted trumpet and Dolphy’s bass clarinet. While “G.W.” introduces the early foundation of a new type of language, here Dolphy uses that language to translate a classic text, encapsulating his greatest gift: making the old sound new and vice versa. Haynes, as always, is too cool to call unnecessary attention to himself. Content to provide supple, solid support for the soloists, he works subtle wonders while George Tucker’s bass is the calming and utterly professional presence throughout.  It is, in fact, Haynes and Tucker whose contributions are most amplified by the excellent remastering of this release—there is a clarity and immediacy absent in earlier editions. “Les”, another tribute from Dolphy (this time for trombonist Lester Robinson), presents another scorching alto sax workout and, like “G.W.”, allows Hubbard and Byard to share the spotlight. Hubbard and Dolphy duel throughout the piece, trading solos that invariably recall Coltrane and Davis from that quintet’s celebrated tenure. Dolphy remains with the alto sax on “245”, but Hubbard takes center stage bursting with ideas and energy, offering his own introduction of sorts to the imminent run of classic albums he would make, leading his own bands, over the next decade and change.

Finally, the flute makes its first appearance on the winsome cover of the Rodgers-Hart standard “Glad To Be Unhappy”, an especially inspired and affecting choice. Dolphy speaks, sings and cries, conveying beautiful feelings trying to break out from under some inexpressible sadness. Everyone rises to the occasion for “Miss Toni”—another remake and the song that concluded the original release—a rollicking, exultant showcase for the entire group: Haynes and Tucker lock in while Dolphy, once more on the bass clarinet, sprints out of the gate, again engineering a solo that swings with the best any hard bop has to offer, yet is uniquely off-kilter with that slightly disorienting, distinctive sound. Hubbard blows sparks out of his horn while Byard prances and prods, adding commas, parentheses and exclamation points as he so pleases. It seems quite fortuitous that this particular session was recorded on April 1, making the first bonus track, very appropriately entitled “April Fool”, extra special, particularly as it provides another opportunity to hear Dolphy on flute. Along with an alternate take of “245”, the real treat is the other version of “G.W.”, which stretches out over ten minutes and affords the soloists—especially Dolphy—to cut loose with greater urgency and abandon.

Admittedly, some of these remastered classics are less than essential: if you already own the original, there’s no real need to cough up the extra cash. This is most definitely an exception: the significantly improved sound quality (typical of all the Rudy Van Gelder reissues) along with three bonus cuts makes this an imperative purchase. If you’ve never experienced the joy that is Eric Dolphy, there is no better place to begin since this is where it all officially began. If, in the final analysis, it is not the unqualified masterpiece that Out To Lunch would be, and does not possess the truly strange and unfathomable wonder of Out There, it can contentedly settle for merely being a great album. Outward Bound, in sum, is a top tier effort from a tremendous quintet, and it signals the start of an abbreviated but incendiary burst of creative genius. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

RATING:

— 7 February 2007

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The Melvins: A Senile Animal (PopMatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on January 19, 2007

The Melvins

A Senile Animal

(Ipecac)

US release date: 10 October 2006
UK release date: 9 October 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Another year, another great Melvins release.

With considerable confidence, it can be assumed that the following name has never appeared in any review of a Melvins recording: Woody Allen. Perhaps because, for starters, the work and sensibility of that diminutive and reticent filmmaker could not be more opposite from this very aggressive and deliberate band. Plus, one makes movies; the other makes music. And yet, a case could be made that the Melvins are steadily establishing themselves as the Woody Allen of rock and roll: efficient, productive, reliably original, and influential. They churn out new albums at a steady clip which hard core fans snatch up, and most everyone else gives a miss. Like most great things in this world, they are an acquired taste but after they get their hooks in you, it’s on. They are the kind of band you almost hate to love, because once you are on board, you eventually understand you’ll have to own everything they make. And, unlike Allen, the Melvins show no signs of slowing down or slouching toward stale self-imitation as they approach dignified middle age. All of which is to say, their latest release, A Senile Animal, is business as usual, and business is as good as ever, and better than one could reasonably expect, given that this band has been cruising along since the mid-’80s.

The good news is that this album comes highly recommended, and is actually an ideal introduction for neophytes. Which isn’t to say A Senile Animal is exactly accessible; this is the Melvins, after all. Still, if you unfamiliar with their body of work, this is as good a spot as any to jump in and, once converted, start working your way backward through the intimidating catalog. For casual fans (are there any?), there are enough new twists to make this an essential listen: this band burns through bassists the way Spinal Tap did drummers, therefore newcomer Jared Warren joins the fray this time around. And there is a new drummer! (What? How on earth could they ever get rid of Dale Crover? They didn’t! There are two drummers in the new configuration of the band. If that sounds at all gimmicky, disabuse yourself of any misconceptions: it is an inspired move that pays significant dividends.)

The onslaught is immediate, and the new line-up wastes no time flaunting the singular strengths of all involved. Coady Willis, the second drummer, augments the inimitable sludgy framework that Crover has supplied for the last two decades: the first twenty seconds of “The Talking Horse”, with seemingly double everything, drums (crashing cymbals and double-time rolls), actual vocal harmonizing (!!) and the signature slow-mo chainsaw guitar sound of Buzz Osborne (King Buzzo). As “Blood Witch” bleeds into “Civilized Worm” (more vocal harmonies—all four members are credited with vocal contributions, and it’s pleasantly apparent throughout), the drum assault is never flashy, never superfluous, and it is obvious the band made an inspired decision to double a good thing. At the one-minute-46-second mark of the third song (“Civilized Worm”), an authentic Melvins moment occurs: the guitar growl grinds down to mud, a smattering of trash-can rattles and then … nothing; then a pulse—after skipping a beat, the riff returns. Bliss.

Speaking of riffs, let’s talk about King Buzzo for a moment. the Melvins have always drawn comparisons to Black Sabbath, which while complimentary, are a bit lazy and unimaginative. Sabbath certainly had their sound, and spawned a million miniature hair metal monstrosities, but it is to the Melvins’ considerable credit that they’ve carved out their own original, influential sound, something very few bands ever achieve. Tony Iommi, the metal-riff master, had an eight-year run while at the top of his game with Sabbath; Buzz has been pulling oily, oozing riffs out of his ‘fro for more than twice that, and is steadily making a case as one of the indelible, if all-time overlooked guitar gods. Over the top? Spend some time with “A History Of Bad Men” and consider that craftsmanship alongside his incandescent contributions to side project super-group Fantomas: just in this young century, Buzzo has delivered goods that many musicians would kill to call an entire career. It is almost too much to ask for, but King Buzzo is actually getting better with age, and continues to refine and define a sound that is his alone.

If A Senile Animal lacks the effortless intensity of, say, Stoner Witch, it is worth noting that a positive review of that album in 1994 very well may have observed that it did not have the effortless intensity of, say, Bullhead. So, is this a more refined Melvins? Maybe. Or more to the point: who cares? If the pace is a bit brisker here, the old school sludge is very much in effect, alongside the double-drums and layered vocals. Out of several viable candidates, the album’s high point may be the second-to-last track, “The Mechanical Bride”, which calls to mind the sublime “Hag Me” (from Houdini): it’s all in there, the centrifugal force of that muddy undertow—the sound of a band jamming in their own time, as though a collective joint pain forces the pace to roil at its own speed, simmering in its own fevered juices. It is the sound of an impossible pain that somehow feels good. It is the sound of the Melvins.

RATING:

— 19 January 2007

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Live at the Fillmore East (PopMatters.com Review)

Posted by bullmurph on January 19, 2007

Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Live at the Fillmore East

(Reprise/Warner Bros.)

US release date: 14 November 2006
UK release date: 13 November 2006

by Sean G. Murphy

cover art

Crazy Horse rides again, for the first time.

There is considerable controversy surrounding this anxiously awaited release. For Neil Young fans, this is an unexpected gift—a live show of the first, short-lived incarnation of Crazy Horse in all their ragged glory. For Neil Young freaks, this is an overdue, unconscionably abbreviated version of a two-night stand at the Fillmore East that has long been legend. The verdict? For anyone who enjoys good music, this is a no brainer that comes heartily recommended, period.

Long story short: it is well known amongst aficionados that the always enigmatic Young has compiled a veritable treasure trove of live recordings that he—in typical fashion—predicted would begin to see the light of day over a decade ago. The hope was—and remains—that this disc signals only the beginning of a thorough appraisal of Young’s live career via “official” bootlegs, drawing inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan’s critically worshipped and well-received series of sanctioned releases. So far so good. So what’s the problem? Well, this particular concert (actually a two-night engagement: March 6 & 7, 1970) was more than twice as long as the material collected and presented, leading to inexorable, and somewhat understandable claims of carelessness and even greed. If this inaugural release does not warrant a two-disc set, why not at least use up all 80 minutes available on the one disc (or 60, or 50)? Clocking in at 43 minutes, it is not unreasonable for the consumer to feel a tad cheated, particularly in our pirating-for-free era that has given rise to an online community that illicitly trades live recordings. One might conjecture that the bean counters at Reprise Records would want to entice as many legal and lucrative transactions as possible. Of course, there is the rub: how long until we see the “original, remastered and complete“ version of this show hitting the streets for double the price?

For all the folks aghast that Neil Young did not contribute detailed liner notes, or commission a self-serving essay by a pointy-headed musicologist, they should be the first ones to understand that this is not how the man operates. Indeed, the fact that Young is still alive and kicking and making music is sufficient cause for respect, and appreciation (and possibly awe: Young lived as hard and fast as many of his compatriots, yet his pace and output have scarcely slackened over the years). In short and in sum, one can hardly fault him for refusing to rest (or rust) on his laurels and journey through the past—he already lived it, and he’s still living.

Ancillary baggage hopefully accounted for and dispatched with, only one issue remains: what does this concert sound like? It sounds like what it is: a remarkable document of one of the better bands of its time, performing live with palpable purpose and passion, achieving something pretty close to perfect. To appreciate why Young seems so enervated on these proceedings, it’s important to remember that he was, at the time, emerging from the first of many moves that seemed inscrutable and career-killing when he made them-in this instance having bolted from the hugely popular and influential band Buffalo Springfield. His first, eponymous solo album was somewhat slight, but still wonderful in its way, not straying too far from the distinctively psychedelic folk sound he’d developed in the mid-to-late ‘60s. It was the following year, on his second album, that rock’s real chameleon made his first major transformation. No one could have predicted the way Young—and his new band Crazy Horse—would sound because no band ever sounded like them before.

Their masterpiece, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is the big bang that spawned guitar grunge and the iconoclastic figure the flannel-clad Young cuts on the album cover, of course, would find its way onto countless stages and music videos more than 20 years later. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unvarnished and unpretentious as rock ever got, and that is one of the myriad reasons it has retained its unique vitality to this day. The production is clear and crisp, but it has that garagey vibe that has caused more than a few fans to wonder: what did these guys sound like live? The answer, finally available for those not fortunate enough to be around them in 1970, is, unbelievably: better.

The three songs taken from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere reveal a band that is tight and locked in: the confidence and chemistry of their interplay sound more like a band that had played together for years, not months. Put simply, Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) are the ideal rhythm section for Young, and it speaks volumes that for all the styles and big-names he’s worked with over the decades, he continues to record and tour with Crazy Horse today. They surround Young like bark on a tree during the shorter, focused tracks, like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and an early, more aggressive version of “Winterlong”. On the longer workouts, they offer Young a safety net of sound that frees him to indulge his irrepressible energy and ideas. It is, incidentally, on those longer songs (“Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”) that the contributions of guitarist/vocalist Danny Whitten can be properly assessed, and appreciated.

The wasteful death of Whitten from a heroin overdose barely two years after this recording devastated Young, and while the tragedy inspired some of his best and most haunting work (“The Needle and the Damage Done” from Harvest and the deeply personal and dark classics Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach), it also cast a gloomy shadow Young fought for years to emerge from. Whitten’s loss was crippling not only to Crazy Horse (though he was ably replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro who has remained with the band ever since), but to rock music: aside from frequent collaborators Crosby, Stills and Nash, it is arguable that any single musician pushed Neil more or provided a natural and positive pressure that brought out his fighting best. To hear Young trade licks with Whitten is truly something to savor: you can catch yourself nodding along and suddenly realizing, “Holy shit! This is rock and roll”.

Nothing can really touch the studio version of “Down by the River”, but the sizzling take on “Cowgirl in the Sand” surpasses the original, making it-improbably-sound almost safe by comparison. Whitten and Young go for broke, and the entire band is on fire, churning out a take that is at once longer, louder and more dangerous: no words from Young could articulate what the loss of Whitten signified, it’s obvious in one listen. Whitten’s original number “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” was, until now, known from its inclusion on the seminal Tonight’s the Night, and now it is put in its proper, unedited historical context. In Young’s introduction to this song, his indication that he planned to record an album with Crazy Horse providing guitar and back-up vocals is a revealing-and tantalizing-tribute to the respect he had for his band mates’ abilities.

Finally, the most intriguing, and possibly most enjoyable song is the short, sublime “Wonderin’”. In typically optimistic fashion, Young introduces this tune as one that will show up “on the next album”; fans would actually have to wait until 1983 to hear it recorded in a radically different (see: rockabilly) form. On this number the services of Jack Nitzsche, who contributes electric piano, are most evident. His understated playing is never particularly noticeable-not surprising with the ceaseless twin guitar assault-but nevertheless serves purpose, providing contours and further space for Young and Whitten to thrash around.

And so, despite minor quibbles about its completeness, it is hard to fathom why any fan of Neil Young could pass on this release, which also comes strongly recommended for anyone who wants to hear live music performed with honesty and intelligent abandon. Context, as always, is key in rendering some final thoughts: indispensable as a historical document of what Crazy Horse sounded like in concert, Live at the Fillmore East is essential. And when one considers that Young was less than two years from dropping Harvest, the scope of his astonishing gifts and vision come into fuller focus: this perennial outsider was never a self-conscious stylist. As he famously remarked, traveling down the middle of the road became a bore so he headed for the ditch. Every time people have wondered (sometimes with good reason) where the hell he was going, he has always had the last laugh, proving that he knew where, and who, he was. As for the glories of the moment or remembrance of things past? Those things are already gone. Besides, everybody knows this is nowhere.

RATING:

— 12 January 2007

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