Squeeze’s first three albums trace the startling transformation of a band evolving from a diamond-in-the-rough punk band with an unmistakable pop sensibility, to a polished new-wave outfit that seems to effortlessly crank out an unending stream of catchy masterpieces. “Cool For Cats” is the second album, and the sound is squarely in the middle between the stumbling debut, “UK Squeeze”, and the fully-developed third album, “Argybargy”, a true classic of Beatlesque pop-rock. The distinctive vocal sound of early Squeeze comes from the unusual gimmick of having both Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford singing the lead together, with Tilbrook an octave higher than Difford. But it wasn’t long before they moved away from that sound, with the sweeter-voiced Tilbrook gradually taking over most of the lead vocal chores from the courser Difford. At the same time, the punk-ish energy of the earlier material gave way to the slower tempos and polished professionalism that has characterized the band for most of their long career. This evolution was dramatic and unmistakable from the debut, to “Cool For Cats”, to “Argybargy”, by which time the transformation was almost complete. “Cool For Cats” highlights are many, starting with the lead track, “Slap And Tickle”, which is very reminiscent of the debut. The album then hits a lull, with the next 5 tracks not making much of an impression, but it finishes with 6 straight winners, starting with the high-energy pop of “Hop Skip And Jump”. The next track is the stunning “Up The Junction”, with Difford’s lyrics telling a woeful tale of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl because of his heavy boozing. Practically a short story set to music. The booze theme is repeated 2 songs later on the irresistibly catchy “Slightly Drunk”. In fact, excessive drinking would become a recurring theme for lyricist Difford for many years to come. The next track, “Goodbye Girl” is a Tilbrook-sung ballad with a lovely melody, the type of song that would become Squeeze’s trademark. The album comes to a close with the delightful, punky title track. All in all, a stellar effort by one of the greatest pop-rock bands ever. —Eric
Saint Etienne’s first album, Foxbase Alpha, rightfully set the standard for pop music. In a world where “pop music” is seen as somehow substandard, Saint Etienne proves to the critics that pop can both be catchy and musically worthwhile. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” a Neil Young cover, is an obvious hit, but less likely tracks also sparkle: “Girl VII,” “Spring” and “Carnt Sleep” run the gamut from uptempo fun to downtempo lullaby. And, as if to prove their range, “Stoned to Say the Least” is a instrumental house track, while “Like the Swallow” starts off ambient, then verges into melancholy. There are a few missteps, like the overused sample on “She’s the One” or the slightly watery “London Belongs to Me,” but the summery warmth of “People Get Real” and “Nothing Can Stop Us” amply make up any shortcomings. —Scoundrel
While prog-purists might frown at I Can See Your House From Here, which watches Camel trod closer to the middle of the road, anyone who’s been seduced by the easy-going charm that is the band’s calling card will find it well worth their time. Confusing lineup changes continue to hallmark the second phase of Camel’s career, which here features two keyboardists in Kit Watkins (Happy The Man) and Jan Schelhaas (Caravan), plus Colin Bass on his namesake and some lead vocals. Continuing to feel pressure from their label for some kind of chart action, Camel offer up straightforward pop-inclined material in the tense “Wait,” easy going melodies of “Your Love Is Stranger Than Mine,” and tough-guy tale “Neon Magic,” while “Remote Romance” is an odd stab at synth pop. Sandwiched between these tracks are the very Happy The Man-ish instrumental “Eye of the Storm,” and some excellent blends of prog and pop on “Who We Are” and “Hymn to Her,” before the cold vastness of space is explored via an extended guitar and synthesizer showcase in “Ice.” Despite it’s commercial leanings and continued shuffling of the band’s lineup, I Can See Your House From Here still delivers the Camel-essence. —Ben
Wow! I’ve been looking for the perfect Coltrane album to match my taste and here it is. Some people might say that the title track is very similar to Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis, but I also detected a hint of music from Tijuana Moods by Charles Mingus. Of course, nobody would dare mention Mingus. ;) That aside, this is beautiful jazz. Coltrane’s plays extremely well on soprano and tenor sax. When I saw the rest of the lineup for Ole Coltrane I knew it would be one of my favorites. It was definitely a stroke of genius to mix these two bassists. The interplay between them is incredible throughout. What’s great is that Coltrane steps back and lets the others shine. While everyone plays admirably, in my opinion it’s Eric Dolphy that steals the show. He pretty much steals the show on every album that he appears. When he plays a solo on the alto sax, you can almost feel him reaching into your chest and squeezing your heart. Even the extra track, “To Her Ladyship”, is great. Don’t forget to pick this album up. It would be a serious loss. –Rob
First Step establishes the revamped Faces’ change of direction with a set of woozy, laid back blues rock highlighted in swinging boogie numbers like “Shake, Shudder, Shiver,” “Three Button Hand Me Down” and the Delta flavored “Around the Plynth” (resurrected from Stewart and Wood’s tenure in The Jeff Beck Group), a stomping reading of Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger,” and the stately, powerful “Flying.” Elsewhere, the eminently affable Ronnie Lane checks in with a signature back country ballad in “Stone.” Fleshed out with two instrumentals, First Step ends up a little underwritten and jammy, but is ripe with the band’s signature brand of disheveled rock. —Ben
Spirit was (and still is) sadly one of the most overlooked bands from the psychedelic era – perhaps it was the fact that the music was more akin to Soft Machine and other jazz-oriented bands of the day during the era when country/rock (the Dead, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, etc) began to dominate California rock… whatever the reason, Spirit deserves greater attention and praise than it has received.
While they DID score a surprise hit in 1968 with “I Got a Line on You,” it is without question the 1970 concept lp “The 12 Dreams of Dr.Sardonicus” that will forever define the band. The songs, like the talent in the band, are enormous and special, spanning the gamut from the jazzy blues of the wonderful “Mr. Skin” (tribute to drummer Cassidy) to the out and out psychedelia of the gorgeous “Love has Found a Way,” to the surrealism of “Animal Zoo.”
“12 Dreams” remains one of the most consistent listens that I own from late 60′s/early 70′s rock n roll. This is due most to the brilliant musicianship of Jay Ferguson, John Locke, Mark Andes, Ed Cassidy, and Randy California. The wonderful interplay between these men is top-rate, with California’s brilliance on the guitar meshing perfectly with stepfather Cassidy’s jazzy drumming (he was drummer for the Rising Sons, featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder). The songs, as I mentioned earlier, are brilliant and flow wonderfully. The combination of the two equals an album that I can’t put down for very long.
Fans of late 60′s rock know about Spirit. The time has come for the rest of the world to do the same. One of the most underrated and brilliant lps ever made. Period. —Steve
If you know Weather Report primarily from their latter-day funk-groove thang, this may come as a surprise — perhaps even a pleasant one. For one thing, Joe Zawinul is restricted mostly to organ and piano, with none of the synthesizer excess of later albums. The balance between Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, too, is much more even (and Shorter’s “Eurydice” is my favourite piece on the record). With bassist Miroslav Vitous on acoustic instruments, the album may remind you of Miles Davis’s In A Silent Way, on which, of course, Zawinul and Shorter played crucial parts. There’s a kind of calm and serenity hanging over the music, even when the playing gets furious (which, with these guys involved, it often does). “Orange Lady” was also recorded by Miles Davis as “Great Expectations” (for which he cheekily took the composition credit). –Brad
Tyner recorded prolifically for Milestone throughout the 1970s, and produced a number of fine recordings. “Sahara” might be the best. It represents the state of the art for the time of its release, 1972.
The greatest strength of this recording lies in its varied aural landscape. If you want Tyner’s signature thunderous chords and lightning right-hand runs, cue up “Ebony Queen” and “Rebirth.” Need some spiritually rich solo piano? Move to “A Prayer for My Family.” Then try the 23-minute title track, which has his reedman, Sonny Fortune, playing flute, his bassist, Calvin Hill, playing reeds, and the group joining drummer Alphonse Mouzon with various percussion effects. As far from a blowing session as you can get, this extended performance is a well-planned trip across a variety of endlessly fascinating terrains. As if all this isn’t enough, on “Valley of Life,” Tyner picks up a kyoto, a Japanese stringed instrument and produces a delicate impressionistic sketch, aided by Fortune, again on flute.
“Sahara” represents the best that jazz had to offer in the early ’70s. The musicians aren’t afraid to display their chops (Fortune adds blazing soprano and alto sax to his delicate work on flute), but Tyner clearly is intent on finding new territory and expanding the definition of jazz, and he succeeds brilliantly. —Tyler
Much as I love to go against the critical consensus, in this particular case I have to agree. Earlier DEVO = better DEVO. I mean, up to a point; like say 1973 DEVO isn’t all that hot, but 1975 DEVO? That’s gold. Count me in among the unwashed masses who prefer the “art terrorist” DEVO era to the “wacky new-wave moppets” era; basically anything and everything up through 1979 is all golden. The only thing that could possibly improve this album is that if they were to start using, say, “Golden Energy” in TV ads. Why not, you know? They use everything else in TV ads. You know once I actually heard Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard” in a TV ad? It was for a wristwatch or something. I guess the message here is turn off your radio, and just watch TV ads nonstop. Anyway I’m not quite sure whether I like this or “Live: The Mongoloid Years” better, but they’re both good in their own way.
Oh, and three minutes of “Ono” pisses all over everything Suicide has done in their entire career. —David
So I saw this live video of “Surrounded By The Stars” about a month or so back and I was inspired to pull this one out. My God, what an absolute monster. When I think of Amon Duul II, I absolutely do not think of the more straightforward, prog-rock-inclined band on display here. I think of a bunch of dudes who felt they were ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED to put a side-long freakout on each of the first three records they did (and in the case of “Yeti”, it ran well over a side). I think of the incredible power conveyed by their particular brand of screaming anarchy. While this record is adventurous in its own way, and there is certainly no shortage of screaming, “anarchy” doesn’t describe this record at all; it’s very structured, very song-oriented. Nothing even cracks the eight minute mark. So I can certainly see why someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” would be disappointed by this record. But having said that, I’m someone whose primary interest in the band is “Yeti” and “Phallus Dei”, yet this is my favorite record of theirs. There’s a sometimes-unspoken assumption among most music nerds, particularly the ones who listen to so-called “Krautrock”, that the more commercial something is, the worse it is. For me this record is a serious challenge to that hypothesis. Making a record better than “Phallus Dei” is a formidable enough achievement in its own right. Capturing the raw, atavistic power of that record while condensing the songs to a much shorter length and still managing to bring more shades of meaning and musical/emotional depth to the table, well, that’s damn near unprecedented. (I realize the preceding sentence is painful rock-critic-ese, but this is a difficult album to speak about. Perhaps I should just say “IT’S FREAKING AWESOME” and leave it at that.) In particular there’s a definite “bad trip” vibe to the whole proceedings, as evidenced by the fact that I personally have had a bad trip while listening to it, which is a pretty significant feat when you don’t do drugs. It’s much darker than the typical music of the time, in a way I can’t readily define but which nonetheless becomes nearly palpable when it’s blasting through your speakers. No doubt everybody in the band was pretty familiar with bad trips through personal experience by this point in their career, which does a pretty good job of explaining the really upbeat, “everything’s going to be ok” vibe of the last two minutes of the record. I applaud their sense of social responsibility in this; most bands today are content to draw you into a relentless nightmare hellscape without taking the time to pull you back out. Maybe that’s why the world is so screwed up today. Probably not, but wouldn’t it be great if that was really the only problem we had, and all that needed to be done to fix it was for more people to make records like Wolf City?
I guess what I’m saying about this record is, IT’S FREAKING AWESOME. —David
This album came along in the States at a time when groups like Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Strawbs, Nick Drake and a bunch of others were plying the waters of Celtic folk rock. But Alan Hull & Company were different; these guys were as ragged as Fairport in their loosest moments — but they could be as polished and sharp as the Strawbs in their best moments. These guys were tight, multi-instrumentalists that played in the best of the tradition of English folk bands of the late 60′s and early 70′s. Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull and Gryphon were also contemporaries of Lindisfarne and had nothing on these guys. If you like any of the bands mentioned here and you’ve never added any Lindisfarne to your collection, you are missing a real treat here. Fog On the Tyne is Lindisfarne’s best effort overall (though many of their albums are very good) and their combination of rich, instrumental passages is backed by thick and bawdy harmonies in a very British and rollicking sensibility. The band’s guitar, mandolin and a seeming hundred other stringed instrument attack — along with a great rythym section on the bass and drums — gives them a sound that holds up well even today, thirty years later. Sadly, I heard somewhere that Alan Hull passed away recently, so there will be no nostalgia tours or “here we are again” releases from Lindisfarne. Get this one. It’s simply great. —R. Lindeboom
Nothing could have prepared audiences in ’73 for the brain scrambler that is A Wizard, A True Star, a double-album’s worth of ideas crammed horizontally (in the brevity of the songs) and vertically (in the impenetrable layers of sound) onto one album, albeit a long one. Was this the same guy who released Something/Anything a year before? But start peeling A Wizard back, and that pop-rocker is still there, most notably on the impassioned “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel,” space age soarer “International Feel,” oddly beautiful cabaret of “Zen Archer,” hard rock/lush pop hybrid “When The Shit Hits The Fan/Sunset Blvd.,” and the first of a new recurring theme for Todd, the uplifting anthemic “Just One Victory.” But the distinguishing characteristic of A Wizard is the 1 to 2 minute slices of “real” songs and outright weirdness that disorient the listener, to the point that a few tracks into this one you’ve either been totally seduced or completely given up, placing it as one of those polarizing efforts of either genius or bullshit, depending on your view. An easy five stars, of course. –Ben