Album Reviews

Soft Machine “Volume Two” (1969)

My personal favorite entry in the Soft Machine catalog, Volume 2 perfectly balances the psychedelia of their debut with the jazz-rock leanings of follow up Third. Sporting a stoner-friendly, reverb-drenched production, Wyatt’s vocals are as expressive as ever, with his drum prowess underscoring the tragedy of his paralysis a few years later, while Ratledge is favoring thick acoustic piano chords as much, if not more than, organ. Kevin Ayers is gone and in his place we have Hugh Hopper filling in the bass seat, decidedly more nimble-fingered and with his oft used fuzz pedal in tow, not to mention brother Brian on sax. Like their first album, side one consists of a suite of sorts, something of a cut and paste job that nevertheless keeps things going with highlights like the Third predicting sax driven “Hibou Anemone And Bear”, and “Dada Was Here” with Wyatt’s passionate yet nonsensical vocal delivery. Side two tends to follow a more conventional arrangement of separate songs, favorites being the twisted acoustic “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening”, “Pig” with it’s heavy fuzz-bass intro, and “10:30 Returns To The Bedroom” closing the album with some rapid fire fusion, and closing the door on Soft Machine’s pysch days for the jazzier pursuits to come. Volume 2 is one of those “difficult” albums that nevertheless draws one back continually, melodic content complex yet somehow totally captivating, instrumental aptitude in bounds, but focused for ultimate effect. –Ben

Ramones “Ramones” (1976)

My Ramones story goes — I couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old when I took a trip to the Big Apple with my family during the Thanksgiving holidays. I had been to the city several times before, but this trip was different: my interest in music had grown, I was aware of such a place as CBGB’s, and I had a somewhat understanding of the late 70’s punk movement. My knowledge on the topic was green, but anyhoo – I knew the basics. I would be lying if I said I listened to the music of the Ramones before, but if you were to ask, most likely I would have shrugged my shoulders in agreement that, “yes, I’ve listened to the Ramones.” I even had my very on Ramones t-shirt, despite never hearing any slab of music outside the “Hey Ho” chant of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” As music lovers, we all have been there – loving a band just for the sake of loving them. It could be an older sibling introducing what’s hip or simply idealizing a group to the point of feeling obligations to seek out their influences. For me, it was simpler than that. I saw a Ramones seal t-shirt in a window store and had to have it. Not the coolest introduction, but hey – I’m being honest. That was two years prior. Which brings us back to the New York City-Thanksgiving-Family-Vacation. As I mentioned before my knowledge in music had expanded. Therefore, one of the first things on ‘my’ to-do-list was seek out the nearest record store. My dad got the information from the concierge desk. The rest of the family went shopping with a plan to meet back up around lunch. The record store we found was not some stylish ‘mom & pop’ underground glory, but a mega-store that could have very well been Best Buy or Virgin, can’t exactly remember, it was a long time ago. I just remember it being big. The ‘cool’ meter from this story is already a scorcher, I know. But, like I said — I’m being honest. My pops gave me ample time to look around and peruse the album titles. Soon after it became apparent, why not pick up a Ramones album? Already have the shirt, why not get the music. I of course selected their debut, and it wasn’t because I knew it was the first or cos the only song I recognized was, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Truth be told, it was the artwork that made my decision. Johnny Ramone, so discreetly, giving the middle finger and Tommy, doing his best to add inches to his undersized height, standing on all tippy toes. While Joey, looking frail and freakish, towering over all his bandmates and Dee Dee…well, just being Dee Dee. The artwork was piercing, with its hoary set color, giving the appearance of an already classic album, I knew I had found my purchase. Many label this band as ‘dumb.’ But that doesn’t really fit. No dumbass I know could ever be described as an inventor of a revolution. Granted, these guys weren’t rocket scientists, they still possessed a talent which sparked an excitement that had been absent from rock. Back to the basics – that was their mission. And it’s obvious they had some wit. If not, they wouldn’t have been able to knock out four classic albums back-to-back, from their debut on to Road to Ruin. And even after, they still showed signs of luster with the Phil Spector produced, End of the Century, plus 1984’s, Too Tough To Die. There was consistency, no question. What gets me about their debut, above all the rest, is it never lets up. 14 songs in under 30 minutes. Now, that’s blitzing. No bullshit. No in between. Just plain old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll without all the self-indulgence that suffocated it from previous years. If I’m not a guitar player, then how the hell am I going to appreciate some fifteen minute virtuoso guitar solo? How am I suppose to relate? And more importantly, value what I’m hearing? The Ramones got that. And that’s what they unleashed on the world in 1976. I love the fact I was in New York the day I first listened to the Ramones. I love how I was experiencing their music in the very city that shaped their sound. I love how I could be passing 53rd and 3rd in a cab while hearing Dee Dee singing about turning tricks. I love hearing songs about chainsaws, beating on brats, and punks named, Judy. The Ramones first album was my New York City experience at the time. It made me see the city in a whole new light. Later I would move to NYC after my 22nd birthday and have other albums play there part in my living and musical advancements. But the Ramones were the first, and it’s fitting, seeing as they were the first to do everything back then. –Jason

Led Zeppelin “Presence” (1976)

One of Led Zeppelin’s greatest strengths was their willingness to explore and evolve, despite potential monetary incentive to put out more of the same. So, in 1976 we get Presence, with its harder grooves and choppy, funky guitar licks and not too much psychedelic blues wandering (“Tea for One” excepted) or acoustic folk-rock. Whether you consider this evolution welcome or not, it was certainly organic, and it resulted in the release of two flat-out, epic masterpieces. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” follows in the time-honored tradition of Led Zeppelin copping a song that pre-dates them by decades, and transforming it into something so majestic (and bombastic) that it practically renders all previous versions inert by comparison. “Achilles Last Stand” is something else entirely. It may be the best ten-minute track ever recorded. It’s certainly in the top three in Zeppelin’s discography. Blistering, intense and mind-blowing; think Rush on steroids. So, when viewed as a whole, Presence holds up a lot better than its reputation would suggest. –Lucas

Sun Ra “Space Is the Place” (1973)

If you like your big bands disciplined, tidy and marching together, then Sun Ra is not for you. They just don’t play that way on Saturn. It feels much more like the band are tumbling down a hill, musical instruments all over, but they are all falling in the same direction and by some miracle they never thump into each other, but are always dodging around, falling through each other’s legs. The first track, the first side, is held together by a simple rhythm played by bass, baritone sax and bass clarinet, and a singer or two repeatedly singing Space Is the Place – but then they are assaulted by percussion, keyboards, shouts and just noise, a chaos of sound that is always threatening to spin the music away into the darkness of space. At times the rhythm does break down, but it always finally returns. At first I thought the 21 minutes was a bit excessive but as I returned to the music, listening to the constantly shifting tensions within the sound, I realised that 21 minutes was exactly what it needed. The album continues with variations of this tension. The featured trumpet, tenor and piano on the second track, “Images,” are calmly normal, as though from a good 1950s hard-bop band, but again the rest of the band set out to upset things: it is as though through Sun Ra’s piano solo the band are sawing away at the piano’s leg, just waiting for the crash as it falls to the ground. “Discipline” is the most intense statement of the basic tension, the finest track (perhaps it should be titled “Discipline and its Enemies”). “On Sea of Sounds” chaos has won, we are thrown away into the darkness – and it’s up to us to go with it and move through the music or just sullenly sit down and cover our ears. The final track brings us back, gives us some ground under our feet. –Nick

Harry Nilsson “Nilsson Schmilsson” (1971)

It’s the hallmark of a truly talented popsmith to make a collection of songs this weird and diverse so remarkably palatable. Nilsson is nothing if not inclusive, but he doesn’t pander. A lot of folks will know “Coconut” from Reservoir Dogs, and while that little island oddity is indicative of the adventurousness of the album as a whole, it isn’t indicative at all of any other track. Nilsson un-ironically employs strings, horns, rock guitar, mellotron and whatever else he thinks will do the songs justice, whether they’re his own or one of the three covers. It’s easy enough to let the perfectly crafted sounds waft on by with a smile, but the more I think about them, the more the depth is evident. –Lucas

Mission of Burma “Vs.” (1982)

A densely visceral piece of post-punk that manages to evoke a whole spectrum of moods with limited means, I would say this is as important as early Sonic Youth and Husker Du but better than both; as challenging as any of the most difficult work of Wire or Pere Ubu, but less pretentious; as abrasive as the UK’s industrial scene, but a whole lot more fun; hypnotic, like Krautrock, but never usable for ambience; and as meat ‘n’ potatoes as the Ramones. No one quite sounds like this group, who serve up a very noisy piece of rawk that anticipates both grindcore (but slower) and shoegaze (but rougher). Empty genre-bending this ain’t, however. I’ll say it’s one of the half-dozen or so best guitar records of the 80s, especially because, without it, Daydream Nation (one of its only peers in the underground) probably wouldn’t exist. –Will

Lou Reed “The Blue Mask” (1982)

After a dispiriting early-’80s slump at Arista Records, Lou Reed renewed himself artistically by changing labels and releasing The Blue Mask on RCA in 1982. This was a brave move, since The Blue Mask is a resolutely uncommercial album, making no concessions in either its stark, flatly recorded ambience or harrowing themes. However, grace notes abound for the patient listener. Performing with a no-frills setup for the first time since the Velvets, Reed keenly matches words and music with the sparest of means to achieve the maximum end. The Blue Mask pits a hard-earned contentment (“My House,” “Women”) against the dizzying abyss lurking beneath the surface of life (“Underneath The Bottle,” “Waves Of Fear” and, most compellingly, the awesome title track itself). Running through all this, Reed and second guitarist Robert Quine intertwine their instruments, sustaining meditative interludes and codas which are closer to jazz than to rock. Bassist Fernando Saunders’ vibrant tone and supple lines also add a new element of flexibility to Reed’s music, and his gentle falsetto backing vocals make a nice contrast to Reed’s famously edgy song-speech. (Joe Sarno, Muze) –Singer Saints

Tiny Tim “God Bless Tiny Tim” (1968)

A walking freak show and the ultimate novelty act of the ’60s. But behind Tiny Tim’s fruity falsetto antics lay a genuine love of his material, most of it taken from the 20’s – an equally odd time in popular music–before the rise of Bing Crosby–when nearly all white male vocalists were no-voice freaks. I can’t honestly say that Tim’s debut LP survives its own novelty value in the end. But it’s a well-produced smorgasbord of highly entertaining moments complete with genuine hilarity (“The Viper”) and some genuinely touching performances as well, especially the ones done in the singer’s natural baritone (Gordon Jenkins’ “This Is All I Ask,” “Then I’d Be Satisfied with Life.”) Another curiosity: why was this kind of faux-vaudeville so popular in the ’60s? Does anybody remember “Winchester Cathedral”? In that sense Tiny Tim fit right into his times. During the late ’50s and early ’60s when he performed at Hubert’s Museum (singing Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” underwater) and appeared in Jack Smith’s Normal Love, he was merely freakish. –Singer Saints

Charles Mingus “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (1963)

Charles Mingus had always incorporated elements of modern avante-garde composition into his bop-esque and free-jazz/avant garde work while holding himself firmly within the jazz idiom. Here, he cast aside all the restrictions of both genres and meshed the two into an unbelievably complex, and yet emotionally and musically stunning magnum opus. Unlike Mingus’ previous albums, rather than being merely a showcase for different tunes which may have had little to do with eachother melodically and structurally, this cd comprises the six movements of a symphony, and the music and ideas flow into eachother seamlessly. My favorite moment comes during the third track, “Group Dancers” when, after Mingus hints at an amazing melodic figure on the piano, the full ensemble plays it in all its glory. Anyone who loves music is missing something if he or she has never heard this milestone of melodic ingenuity. –Zach

Scorpions “In Trance” (1975)

Three albums in and Scorpions are settling into an eccentric, decidedly European mix of piercing Teutonic fury and abject gothic balladry that would hallmark future Uli-era triumphs Virgin Killer and Taken by Force. In Trance features only a handful of hard rockers, but the manic, psyche-searing opener “Dark Lady” (featuring oddly appropriate lead vocals by Roth), tightly-clenched stomp of “Top of the Bill,” and weird, lost in translation “Robot Man” are all stinging entries, while “Longing for Fire” stands out as an unusual, brightly melodic moment. But it’s those troubled, moonlit strolls into balladry that really define the dark undercurrent of In Trance, with the mesmerizing title track, black veiled “Living and Dying,” and thunderous declarations “Evening Wind” and “Life’s Like a River” cementing the album under waves of isolation and melancholia. Only the lumbering blues “Sun in my Hand” hints at a loss of plot, one of Roth’s weirder Hendrix tributes that’s at least partially redeemed in his floating, Floydian instrumental “Night Lights” that closes the album. –Ben

The Gits “Frenching the Bully” (1992)

The Gits- Frenching the Bully has always been a very cold bone-chilling listen for me. One that no matter how many times I hear it I cannot think of what might have been for this band. Being veteran’s of the Seattle scene in the early 90’s these guys were some of the select few talented musicians that were poised to be huge rock stars. I really do believe that. Mia Zapata voice is like no other, she had such a passionate escape in her style of singing and a force that was undeniable. I wish Mia was still around, because I know her and the Gits would continue to give us amazing music to enjoy. At least we have this one. Frenching the Bully is a punk rock masterpiece with a furry behind it that will never die. I urge everybody to take the time to discover this band because they are truly one of a kind. –Jason

Linn County “Proud Flesh Soothseer” (1968)

I owned this album for a long while before I got around to playing it… uh, dumb move. I’d passed it over because I thought it was generic, “sweaty,” late sixties blues rock. And, though I like sweaty sixties white guy blues, I can only take so much so often! So, randomly, I finally tossed this on expecting to play it through as background once then file it away as I do (when it comes to certain styles)… uh… well, it IS blues rock, and sweaty, but its progressive blues with some heavy, very cool nods to sike. It’s sike is West Coast sixties genius, but it also plays a bit like later Graham Bond without all the occult mysticism and no African flecked jazz. That said, there is a blues jam in the middle of the record thats tortured and whatnot, BUT the interplay of horns, Hammond, and the song writing makes for some super catchy, and… it’s kinda DANCEABLE!? What progressive blues album can you say THAT about? –Nipper