Album Reviews

The Grateful Dead “Anthem of the Sun” (1968, Warner Brothers)

Grateful_Dead_-_Anthem_of_the_Sun My uncle was a Deadhead and his home was filled with iconic Dead-stickers set up like markers or beacons around the house. The Dead was on his garage stereo while he worked on his truck, played right alongside Hank Williams Sr. I visited often growing up and so their sound just became part of my make-up.

“Anthem of the Sun” really grabbed me in a way that the Dead never had reached me before, once I gave the album even slight attention. Apparently this record combines live and studio material but I could hardly tell during my first listen. Changes happen often but are usually slight and subtle, until they aren’t, anyway… “That’s it for the Other One” is a perfect example of this, a piece that morphs often but in a way that seems so natural that you can tell all players involved had reached a well composed and relaxed state with each other. “New Potato Caboose” is more of a happy, plodding affair, and if you haven’t noticed yet, two drummers have been banging away since about midway through their first track. That pre-dates Gary Glitter and Swans right?

The real jaw-dropping material comes on the flip side though, with tracks “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks).” Kazoos and organ sounds open up among churning rhythms going down-river. Drummers studying this record better know that they are hearing two men behind the sticks once the tribal sounds come in. Garcia guitar finally breaks through it all and defines itself until Bob Weir and Phil Lesh come in to fill “Alligator” out. And as far as “Caution” goes, it’s feedback and odd drumming unconcerned with the past or future, going nowhere, yet transcending…

Uh, maintain! -Wade

Grand Funk “Live Album” (1970, Capitol Records)

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The Grand Funk Railroad song that really caught my attention was their cover of The Animals’ “Inside Looking Out.” The interplay between this power-trio that I caught in a live video showed that this was a hard rock band with their shit together; while the group takes you on a journey, there are no pastoral meanderings. The drums brought on by ex-Question Mark and the Mysterians member Don Brewer keep time in a heavy manner and make themselves heard alongside a fat and heavy bass sound distinct only to Mel Schacher, while Mark Farner’s guitar scratches out practical noise that at that point was already becoming a form distancing itself from the blues it had derived from.

That video has since got plenty of repeat viewings. It also led me to their “Live Album” before checking out their debut or any other output, and I’m glad thats how I went about it. Grand Funk’s first three albums, which are fine, have the majority of the cuts you’ll hear on “Live,” but those albums have a democratic mixing that I find never really captured what made them stadium-toppling performers.

The “Live” album on the other hand doesn’t hold back. Here, the drums punch, the bass is REALLY high up there, and Mark’s guitar has more of that practical noise I was talking about, and it’s put to great use. The track “Paranoid” has one of the best bass-lines to ever reach these ears in a rock context, and the guitar here just rips all over it in a way their studio re-creation just couldn’t allow. It’s a rocker! On the flip side (still disc one of this double LP), the Animals’ cover makes its appearance, and it’s long, thirteen minutes or so, but it never lets up or comes across as self indulgent. I actually prefer the nine minute or so live video that turned me on to them in the first place, it’s a bit more compact just because it lacks the repetition of this version, but since you can hear the ecstatic cheers from the audience during this exercise, it comes across as, well, grand.

On side three, after the ballad of “Mean Mistreater,” the drums get a real showcase, heading off the great track “Mark Say’s Alright” and getting a very long solo session workout on “T.N.U.C.” Things are looking pretty self indulgent on this side, but once again it’s the audience reaction that saves them during these extended live renditions (not jams).

Side four is taken up completely by the triumphant “Into The Sun.” Can you make it this far? In our YouTube/Blogger/Spotify addled universe you probably can’t realistically sit through a live double LP in one sitting and give it the proper attention you believe it might deserve, but the audience here seems like they didn’t mind standing in whatever stadium this was recorded in (it’s under dispute as to where exactly this recording came from, despite what it says on the back cover) for more than an hour of pretty solid rockin’. So they did all the work for you!

The best part about coming across a Grand Funk “Live” album is that while they were one of the largest bands of the Seventies, hardly anyone needs to go spelunking for this hard rock stuff anymore on vinyl, so you can find it pretty cheap! Also, in the space between songs, Mark Farner says some pretty funny stuff. So save that cash, brothers and sisters, avoid the latest obscure world music reissue and pick this puppy up! -Wade

 

 

Hawkwind “Hall of the Mountain Grill” (1974, United Artists)

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In rock music there are roots, but when space is the place you have to evolve. By the time Hawkwind had reached this here fourth album, their lineup and equipment had gone through the changes necessary for interstellar travel.

“Hall of the Mountain Grill” follows the live album “Space Ritual,” and it’s around the time between that Hawkwind are usually considered to be at their prime. Essentially creators of the psychedelic niche known as space rock, these guys put together not-so-ambient pieces that do indeed appear as vast as space and placed them alongside some well-grounded-but-mind-bending rockers. Guitars drive forward in choppy rhythms and turn into sheets of plane engine rumble a few innovative steps post-Dick Dale (out with distortion, set phaser pedals from stun to kill).

Openers “The Psychedelic Warlords” and “Winds of Change” let you know that Hawkwind are all about having one boot grounded on Earth and another among the stars. They aren’t afraid to rock in a way that sounds recognizable, then leave you in a fog. On the flip side of this album you get similar treatment with “You’d Better Believe It” and title track “Hall of the Mountain Grill.” One of the best tracks “Lost Johnny” gives bass player Lemmy (of later Motörhead fame) some vocal duties and the magnificent closer “Paradox” eschews strings for future-forward synthesizers.

Vocals aren’t quite buried, but rather accompany the rock. Looking up the opening track lyrics show that Hawkwind were all about escaping from their environs, relating to their audience of the day whilst giving an awesome instrumental high. And we can still use that right about now!

Space is a big place. This is a great album to start exploring it with. -Wade

 

Elvis Costello “This Year’s Model” (Columbia, 1978)

Elvis Costello This Years Model HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTAfter scoring success with his debut album My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello wasted no time in recording a follow-up. This Year’s Model takes everything that made his first album great and multiplies it several times over. The catchy melodies and intricate wordplay remain firmly intact but they’re given an extra dose of energy by EC’s famous backing band The Attractions, composed of Bruce Thomas on bass, Pete Thomas on drums, and Steve Nieve on keyboards. It’s a firecracker combination that doesn’t let up for even a second during the album’s 39 minute duration.

“No Action” opens the record with such intensity that it’s almost exhausting just to listen to. Elvis begins by snarling, “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch/I don’t wanna see you ’cause I don’t miss you that much.” Every member of the band comes in at full-throttle and it’s a perfect slice of punk energy that demands your attention and leaves you feeling like you just stepped off a roller-coaster when it ends just two minutes later. I can’t think of a better way to introduce The Attractions and it lets you know immediately that this album will be louder, rougher, and more intense than the first.

The record contains a couple well-known hits, most notably “Pump It Up”, which everyone has heard at some point. Even by today’s standards it still sounds fresh and energetic, making it a well-deserved classic in Costello’s vast catalogue. “Radio, Radio” was a controversial diatribe against corporate radio and its predictable “play it safe” attitude toward music, while “(I Don’t Wanna Go to) Chelsea” rides a killer guitar riff that firmly ingrains it in your mind after just one listen. “The Beat” and “Little Triggers” are both prime slices of pop while “Hand in Hand” and “Lip Service” are trademark Costello songs whose dark lyrics are cleverly disguised by an upbeat melody. “Living in Paradise” is one of my favorites and finds Elvis in a state of jealousy and frustration before concluding, “You better have your fun before it moves along/And already you’re looking for another fool like me.” Perhaps The Attractions’ finest hour comes in the form of “Lipstick Vogue”. Pete Thomas’ drums open with a furious solo and intensity that only heightens as Steve’s organ chimes in as the song blazes by with a punk ferocity that’s impossible to ignore. Every track here is impressive and there’s not a trace of filler or wasted space.

It would have been hard for any artist to follow My Aim Is True and Costello took a big risk by going with a louder and more forceful sound. However, it works perfectly and there’s no denying that The Attractions are a major key to this success. They take Costello’s songs and elevate them to incredible heights. Each musician is amazingly skilled and they all get equal chances to shine here. If Costello’s first album proved him to be a naturally-gifted songwriter then This Year’s Model proved that he was here to stay and wasn’t afraid to take his sound in new directions. His first album was stellar and this one, in my humble opinion, is even better. Don’t miss it. —Lunar

The Turtles “The Turtles Present The Battle of the Bands” (1968)

In the classic film “Sybil,” Sally Field won an Emmy for her portrayal of a young girl with a dozen different personalties. The Turtles never won a grammy for “Battle of the Bands,” but they should have! They’re just as convincing here in their portrayal of twelve different bands performing twelve different genres in a high-school talent show. In doing so they pay tribute to the entire late-sixties musical spectrum including The Beatles, Psychedelia, R&B, surf, bubblegum, folk-rock, country and garage and create one of the greatest concept albums of all time! My favorite tracks are the psychedelic, fuzzed out tribute to Booker T & The MG’s “Buzzsaw,” the silly tribal chant “I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts),” best known for it’s Beastie Boys sample, and the lush Brian Wilson inspired “Earth Anthem” to name just a few. The Turtles’ “Battle” is surprisingly cohesive while being delightfully schizophrenic. –David

Bert Jansch “Rosemary Lane” (1971)

I don’t understand why this record is so overlooked. Perhaps it’s because at the time of its release, when every other 1960s folkie was busy going electric in the wake of Liege and Lief, Bert — ever the nonconformist — chose to go the other direction. This is nearly all-acoustic, and it might be his most gentle and heartbreakingly sad record ever. There’s a dreamy, hazy vibe to much of the music — one of the tracks is even titled “A Dream, A Dream, A Dream” — that creates a timeless feel; by which I mean not that the music hasn’t dated (although it hasn’t), but that it actually seems to stop time. I don’t think Jansch ever topped his vocal on “Tell Me What is True Love”, and it goes without saying that his guitar playing is superb. Seek it out. Fun Fact: Psych-folk supergroup Espers did the title track on their covers album The Weed Tree. –Brad

O.M.D. “Architecture & Morality” (Virgin, 1981)

Omd_architectureBoth sides begin with synth pop of the highest order – in fact, one could make a strong argument that the two variations on “Joan of Arc” are the greatest new wave singles of all time, the “Maid Of Orleans” version’s musique concrete intro and waltz time signature making it an astoundingly atypical hit single. “The New Stone Age” is a startling and dirty rocker whose sound may not have much in common with the rest of the album but certainly set the depressed, hurt tone perfectly (and the experimentation with near atonality foreshadows the more ponderous passages of the record). The one-two punch of “She’s Leaving” and “Souvenir” are just gorgeous, however.

What sets this apart from nearly every record of its type and time, though, is the way either side goes out. Tracks like “Sealand” and the title cut wouldn’t feel out of place on a Brian Eno record, while “Georgia” begins with Kraftwerk robotics and ends in an ambient whir. “The Beginning and the End” is a perfect mix of the two sides of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a lush vocal piece that is nevertheless indebted more to Gregorian chant than any sort of rock or pop fore-bearers. This record is perhaps the ultimate statement of synth pop/new wave as an artform, and a must for anyone even remotely interested in the genre. —Andrew

Wire “154” (Harvest, 1979)

Wire_154This has to be the first truly great Wire LP, certainly the best one in their first incarnation. 154 is filled with all the nihilistic, murky, schizophrenic variety that made it their finest achievement. 154 takes a few steps further from Chairs Missing and makes no apologies for where it takes the listener.In a nutshell, 154 takes one to a dreamy, crazy place with many questions and no answers. A place of musical paranoia and lyrical madness. Right from the start, 154 lures the listener into a wonderous, surrealistic soundscape. Even if there are a few cuts that hark back to Pink Flag (On Returning, Two People In a Room) and Chairs(Mutual Friend), the rest is the next step in Wire’s intriguing evolution. Maybe some would place “The 15th” and Single KO” as also Chairs-influenced, but I would say that those two are murkier, and less accessible than “Outdoor Miner”.

With that said, the rest ventures into unprecedented instrumentation and novel melodies. Frontman, Colin Newman, shines on “Indirect Inquiries” and “Forty Versions” as well as on “The 15th”, my favorite by the way. The meshing of schizophrenic lyrics with twisted guitar licks, bass, and flexible drumming, speaks volumes. Right hand, Graham Lewis, steps forth and takes center on some cuts (Touching Display, Other Window). The album opener, “I Should’ve Known Better”, begins with Lewis singing and not Newman, another indicator that things were really changing.

154 is rather hard to categorize, like the band itself, aside from declaring it post-punk. Basically, it is a surreal blend of Pink Floyd, The Clash, and The Cure. It is an integral piece in the post-punk catalogue. And amazingly, not surprisingly, the LP is still influential and referenced to this day. —Mike

Primus “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” (Interscope, 1991)

1892069Primus’s albums have always had the feel of an adolescent’s guilty pleasure in a way. Sure you can take it seriously – the musicianship is outstanding and their melodies masterfully twist among pop, funk and grunge. But that’s only part of their style; there’s a silly side that’s part musical humor, part Saturday morning cartoon, and a sense that there could be more quirks around any corner. I imagine that if Phish had a heavy King Crimson influence they’d sound a little like this. There’s incredible bass work, subtle nuances in the guitar playing that you don’t notice right away, and lyrics that suggest a strange mix of Roger Waters and Frank Zappa.

If the title and cover of this album alone don’t seem cartoonish enough, take a listen to the lumbering bassoon introducing the first track. Les Claypool talks and screams through “Is It Luck?” like a hopped-up WB cartoon. “Tommy the Cat” is crazy funk with Tom Waits, of all people, lending a distorted voice to the narrative. As with any Primus album there are times when they go a little too far off the edge (“Granddad’s Little Ditty” comes to mind), although I probably shouldn’t complain when it’s compared to such later offerings as “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.” Regardless: for most Primus fans this album still stands as their strongest. For those merely curious it’s the ideal one to start with. If you don’t like Seas of Cheese, chances are you won’t like the others. —Spiral Mind

Ramones “ Pleasant Dreams” (Sire, 1981)

rrraaaThe years 1980-1983 were not kind to the Ramones. Struggling to find their niche in a sudden sea-change of musical direction known as New Wave, they tried to keep up without compromising themselves and the sound they were known for. Riding the high from their appearance in the film “Rock’n’Roll High School,” and the accompanying hit of the same title, they entered into an alliance with legendary producer Phil Spector. Bad move! The resulting album was a dud (though I personally like it well enough), and the next two Ramones efforts struggled to correct their blunder by gaining back the fan base that had eroded.

“Pleasant Dreams” was the first of these efforts (“Subterranean Jungle” is the other). Unfortunately, this is/was the most ignored of all Ramones albums, which is a shame considering just how tasty it really is. Unlike the following “Jungle,” which was dark and fierce, reflecting the Ramones’ growing frustration, “Pleasant Dreams” is mostly light and well-humored. The Ramones vent some frustration here too, on “We Want the Airwaves” and “This Business is Killing Me.” But on the whole, the album features some very mature, bubblegum rock. What I love most about “Pleasant Dreams” is its uniqueness. The album encompasses a style on to its own. —Mark

Rockpile “Seconds of Pleasure” (Columbia, 1980)

rockpileRockpile was formed as a backing band for Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds’ solo records and as an outlet for the two the hit the road and play live. Along with Billy Bremmer on guitar and Terry Williams on drums, the unit played on great albums like Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool & Labour Of Lust and Edmunds’ Tracks On Wax & Repeat When Necessary which were essentially Rockpile records. Seconds Of Pleasure is the only official release under the Rockpile moniker. The album kicks off with a great one-two punch. First is an ode to teenage lust “Teacher Teacher” and then moves into an old Joe Tex rave up “If Sugar Was As Sweet As You”. The third song is “Heart” which is probably more familiar in its later incarnation as a slowed down reggae song on Lowe’s Nick The Knife album. Here it is a fast paced pop tune, which I think is superior to the remake. Other standout cuts include “When I Write The Book”, “Play That Fast Thing”, “Now & Always” and the humorous “A Knife & A Fork”. The original album contained a bonus 45 with 4 Everly Brothers remakes and they are included as the last four tracks on the disk. The best of the four is “Crying In The Rain”. Unfortunately after this album and a supporting tour, Rockpile never recorded as a unit or play live again. They only sporadically worked on Lowe & Edmunds’ solo recording. Too bad we couldn’t have had a few more albums from this fine band. —P Magnum

World Party “Private Revolution” (Chrysalis, 1986)

Karl Wallinger’s quite the mini one-man-Travelling-Wilburys on his solo debut, with traces of Beatles, ELO and especially Dylan abounding. There are shades of Prince too but by and large he doesn’t wear his influences too much on his sleeve, coming up, in the main, with a highly attractive and varied set of songs.

His lyrics especially sound phoned in from Radio Bob but I mean that more as a compliment, while it’s on the musical side that he really shines, furnishing every track with a strong melody and clever production.

Highlights are the purplish pop-funk of the title track, a “Ship Of Fools” better than roughly contemporary songs of the same name by Robert Plant and Erasure and the McCartney-cribbed self-referencing “World Party” where he substitutes just one word in Macca’s “Birthday” for his chorus. The only mis-step is the unnecessary inclusion of a synth-backed over of Dylan’s lyrically dazzling but musically dreary “All I Really Want To Do”.

In truth though this is a richly varied set of catchy tunes, like watching a kaleidoscope open up through a pin-hole and great listening for any fan of good 60′s and 70′s music, which Wallinger’s himself undoubtedly is. –Jim