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“Killer” by Alice Cooper

This snake is a real ASP hole.

Alice Cooper (the man) may be laughed at now as an out of touch dinosaur who is not only a silly Republican and a golfer but a bit of a throwback to an area of rock and roll where “style” not “substance” was the primary source of entertainment.

I don’t agree with that assessment of the man’s work but especially not of his work with the “Alice Cooper Band” back when he was the solid singer and occasional lyricists for one of the 70’s finest garage rock/art rock/proto-punk/glam rock/heavy metal/Broadway bands ever.

This description may sound like a burst of insanity but it’s absolutely true: the original Alice Cooper band was an absolute gas, starting out with their two weird, math-garage-rock-Zappa influenced albums to their first hit “Love it To Death” which was one of the first albums to match garage rock, art rock and darkness in absolutely equal measure.

This album was a huge hit off of the success of “I’m Eighteen” and the band picked up even greater successes with albums like “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies” but the peak of their career, the peak of “art-garage” and one of the 70’s best rock and roll albums of all time was the ’72 followup to “Love it to Death” called “Killer.”

Let’s start with the presentation: Alice Cooper was always a band with a solid emphasis on image and presentation but that didn’t really start to coalesce fully until this album. The cover of “Love it to Death” could have been the cover of an Aerosmith album: the cover of “Killer” was unmistakably “Alice Cooper” with a close up shot of a snake, tongue elongated, a blood red background and “Alice Cooper” and “Killer” childishly scrawled above and below the snake, respectively.

And then there are the songs: no real hits but the best collection of songs the band ever put out. Certain albums, especially “Billion Dollar Babies” suffered a bit (in my opinion) from the band’s “macabre” image. They certainly possessed some good music but they often seemed a bit too…silly.

Not so much on “Killer.” Yes, there are some silly moments, especially lyrically but in general this album feels more “real” and “raw” when compared to later albums. I feel the reason for this (musically) is that the band is focusing on punching out aggressive, raw garage rock with intricate garage arrangements influenced mostly by rock and roll (very little of the Broadway shenanigans which made their later albums more diverse but harder to take seriously).

And yet, for all the “rawness” the band successfully integrates a wide range of textures, including a great horn section on “Under My Wheels” (the hilarious “driving” song about running somebody over) to the simple but effective guitar layering on “Halo of Flies.”

The later is a particular success musically as the band easily moves through a stunning succession of simple but great riffs with the ease of a King Crimson. Yes, the stuff they’re playing is way simpler than Bobby Fripp but constructed with more actual songwriting talent.

In other words, these riffs and arrangements are not designed to show off or push the boundaries of music (in the way King Crimson usually did) but to push certain emotional buttons, which the song successfully does (let’s just ignore some of the banality of the lyrics, kay?)

The other lengthy tune, “Killer” is just as good in its own way: driving, atmospheric, weird and with a rather disturbing lyrical image of an emotionless killer being led to the gallows. Once he’s “hung” at the end of the song and that savage keyboard riff starts looping endless…well, let’s just say it startles me every time I hear it.

However, these lengthy sonic explorations are not the stock and trade of the band on the album: for the most part, they stick with sweaty, garage glam and roll such as “Be My Lover” which has a simple but genial riff and melody and funny lyrics.

Perhaps the best moment on the album is “You Drive Me Nervous” which opens with an excellent blast of feedback, has the sloppiest, rawest and best riff on the album combining with an excellent Cooper work out (his pig-like shrieks of “NERVOUS! NERVOUS! NERVOUS! NERVOUS!” do exactly that) and another solid horn arrangement on the outro creating a glam garage rock masterpiece.

The theatrical elements of the band do continue to pop up time and time again including the rather brooding yet complex “cowboy ballad” “Desperado” which moves through several different sections and even has a thrilling string arrangement at the end.

I hate to go “song by song” with this review (as I swore against that when I got back to reviewing) but the album has such a strange diversity within its relatively simple style that it’s hard not to point out the ways all the songs differ. And how strange, macabre and even socially relevant the songs are even to this day.

Songs like “Dead Babies” which might seem like a bit of a bad joke (kind of like “I Love the Dead”) is actually simultaneously a joke and a chilling anti-bad parenting tune (the line “well we didn’t love you anyways” actually hits me hard for some reason).

Sure, that somewhat serious tone didn’t stop the band from chopping up dolls n stage oat the climax of the song. But that’s just Alice Cooper for you: mixing real social critique with horror movie aesthetics to create an unsettling experience. Do you laugh? Do you cringe? Do you do both?

You should do both. The best horror should simultaneously make you laugh at the absurdity of the situation and twitch nervously at the horrific nature of what you’re experiencing.

And that’s essentially what the band pulls off here: a high quality b-horror movie soundtrack that features a wide range of weird characters and horrific situations that simultaneously make you laugh and shriek as it explores the dark side of life realistically AND ridiculously, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty that enhances both the humor and the horror.

Later on, the band mimed the “silly” element a bit too much, going into clever but goofy concept album territory and throwing on tons of gore imagery to make up for the lack of true horror. Think of “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies” as “Killer Part 2” and “Killer: In Space” respectively.

Both are high quality pieces of entertainment that still possess a few moments of legitimate social intrigue but neither possess the same level of intrigue, depth and horror as the original masterpiece.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not good: they’re still Top of the Pops. Just buy all the original Alice Cooper band albums. They’re all good (even the maligned “Muscle of Love.”)

Songs to YouTube:

“You Drive Me Nervous” for the garage-rock-fury, “Halo of Flies” for the complex weirdness, “Desperado” for the “ballad” atmosphere and “Be My Lover” for shits and giggles.

 

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“Niagara Falls” by Greg Hawkes

Welcome to…the 80’s!

Bleep. Bloop. Bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow…fwee…zip zoooooo…blip blip…Bah bah bah! Bah bah bah!

That’s my interpretation of “Niagara Falls,” the first solo album by The Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes.

This might be a hard review to write (and read, for that matter).

Okay, so you’ve probably heard a few songs by The Cars, right? “My Best Friend’s Girl”? “Just What I Needed”? Maybe even “Let’s Go” or the super duper hit “Drive.” Drive by The Cars. Heh Heh HEH.

The Cars were an amazing pop band led by the super tight pop smarts of Ric Ocasek and featuring the amazingly underrated lead work of Elliot Easton. Ocasek was a solid rhythm guitarist who could compose a great pop song in his sleep.

However, when you think of The Cars, do you think of the ultra clever lyrics? Or the blazing guitar solos? Maybe you think of Ric’s detached vocals or ugly mug crooning out backing vocals for “Drive”?

You probably do. I know that I do. But the thing that stands out the most for me and which always brings me back to The Cars is the keyboard work of Greg Hawkes.

Hawkes was probably the most talented member of the group, instrumentally: he was not only a great keyboard player but he could also play bass, a little guitar, some drums and even saxophone. He later recorded an album of all ukelele covers of Beatles tunes with the uke taking up every single instrument part.

Mostly, however, Hawkes was a master of weird keyboard textures, layering his synths creatively and creating independent melodies and counter melodies that almost always served as the song’s main hook.

For example, sing “Let’s Go” in your head. Right now. Did you sing the vocal melody or the rhythm guitar part? Or did you start singing “bow bow bow…bow buh bow bow”? Of course you did! That weird little keyboard melody is a perfect hook and it combines with the tight melodies and harmonies of Ocasek to create an unforgettable tune.

Maybe every single note Hawkes played was dictated to him by Ocasek: I’ve never heard any Ocasek solo albums and couldn’t really tell you. However, listening to this 1983 solo album (released at the height of Cars mania (which didn’t exist)) I get the distinct feeling that Hawkes had a lot more to do with the keyboards parts and general arrangement than most people realize.

Basically, this sounds exactly like the Cars but with almost no vocals and a lot more keyboards. Hawkes plays every instrument on the album (except for a brief flute part by his wife, Elaine). Instruments include thousands of keyboards, some rhythm guitar and programmed drums.

I mean, it sounds EXACTLY like The Cars circa “Shake It Up” and could perhaps be an album of outtakes for all I know.

As a result, it sometimes sounds like slightly cheesy keyboard pop but without the amazing pop songwriting gift of Ocasek. Hawkes is smart enough to avoid singing and lyrics (only blathering out “Jet lag, it’s a drag” and “Voyage into space, check out some other place” into a vocodor on “Jet Lag” and “Voyage Into Space” respectively.

The album definitely sounds good while it plays but as mentioned Hawkes is no songwriting: none of these songs feature a real distinctively, instantly memorable instrumental melody to guide you. Yes, they all do have melodies but they aren’t exactly…the best.

That said, the album does feature a barrage of interesting and well arranged keyboard parts and tones that show off a lot of imagination, talent and playing skill.

It really gives you a great insight into the band, especially around the time of “Heartbeat City”: by the evidence of this album, Hawkes was definitely arranging and probably completely playing at least 80% off the music on that album by himself.

But it’s lack of good melodies means it can’t really sit on the same podium as the best Cars albums or probably even the best Ocasek albums. Instead, it serves as fun piece of background music that should instantly transport you back into the 80’s and may even make you get up and dance…

Or not; after all, it has yet to be released on CD. As far as I know, cept I saw an image of it in a CD case on Google while searching for an album cover…Intriguing.

“A Rainbow in Curved Air” by Terry Riley

You could say Riley’s influence was…huge. And TERRIFYING.

The avant guard underground of the 60’s was alive with the progress of the unknown, the uncertain and the Cage-ian ideas of chance, non-music, improvisation, the bleeps of electronics and the whir of excitement coming out of the minimalist composers focusing on simple, repetitive mantras: the Phillip Glass, the LaMonte Youngs and the Terry Riley’s.

For the most part, the music these composers made was fascinating in theory, incredibly groundbreaking in sound and style while being very boring and/or difficult to listen to in practice.

Yes, there was perhaps a limited application of the endless “drones” and “under tones” and “over tones” and “mantra, drone state of minds” preached by Young.

Glass was a bit more conceivably enjoyable as his style was later co-opted by some rock bands, such as Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno as he himself simplified his approach to create minimalistic operas and soundtracks that diluted his approach for a more mainstream audience.

Admittedly, it’s a pretty big deal for somebody like Glass to “make the mainstream” such as he did (in a limited fashion) but there’s one composer who I think made an even bigger impact on the burgeoning rock/pop/soundtrack scene and who did so with one simple, easy to digest 40 minute album.

Of course, I’m talking about Terry Riley and his album “A Rainbow in Curved Air.”

I realize that it would have been easy for me to make a fairly lame joke there, such as “Of course, I’m talking about the eternal Axl Rose and his beloved masterpiece ‘Chinese Democracy’” but I’m not in the mood for such shenanigans and frankly am getting rather bored of such tired set ups.

I just want you the reader to know I could have made the joke. But didn’t. You’re welcome.

Anyways, Riley’s album was probably THE break through avant guard pop album of its time. David Crosby worshiped it and played it endlessly. Pete Townshend named “Baba O’Riley” partially in honor of him. Curved Air took their name from the album.

Hell, even Ritchie Blackmore and Dio got into the act!

Okay, so “Rainbow” is not named after this album. Sue me.

Why did this album take off in such a (minor) way? Probably because it’s completely listenable, light hearted and even fun while also maintaining a strict experimental edge. Riley is pushing the envelope and attempting to change the musical world but doing so in a way that many more people can enjoy.

He does all this while maintaining strict allegiance to the idea of chance music and “found” sounds. It makes the album a fascinating listen from beginning to end and it sounds ahead of its time even now.

Naturally, it consists of two side long tracks, the first of which is the title track. The basic approach of this track can be summed up by…well, you know how Townshend named “Baba O’Riley” after this track?

Think of the first minute or so of that song with the repeating synthesizer figure. But a lot more complex.

A basic riff enters into the scene that holds down the fort for Riley’s improvisation, the first of which is perhaps the most memorable: the ascending sequence of notes that turns into a radar “call and response” tone that increases in speed to a fever pitch.

Every instrument on the album is played by Riley painstakingly overdubbing and it creates a fascinatingly dense layer of sound that never becomes over powering. Instead, the synths and organs pulse in repetitive but ever changing ways.

And no dissonance: he isn’t blasting out ugly noises or barraging the listener with untenable noise: it’s all listenable and if you threw a drum beat under it, even danceable.

The one complaint I feel you could lodge (fairly) at the track is that it can become rather tiresome by the end. It feels like Riley has run out of completely amazing ideas by the last…three or four minutes of the track. By then, however, one should totally be in the “trance” state of mind described by LaMonte Young and it won’t matter.

The second track, “Poppy No Good and the Phantom Band” isn’t quite as good because it’s nowhere near as dynamic. It’s more of a “drone” piece with Riley overdubbing a lot of saxophones on top of his sustained keyboards.

However, Riley is a competent and at times even great saxophone player so it isn’t worthless. Sometimes he plays some interesting repeated saxophone riffs that are overlaid with intriguing keyboard parts. That doesn’t stop this track from being a bit of a harder sell when compared to the first.

In spite of the relatively difficult sound of the second track (which does at times approach dissonance) it’s still a solid achievement that brings a little diversity and a slower pace to the album.

What I find so fascinating about this album is how often it’s been copied by other artists in not just the sound but in the structure. How many two track Tangerine Dream albums are there on the market? How many of them start out with a faster, dynamic piece and then slow down for a more drone based tone poem?

For that matter, how many Ash Ra Tempel albums follow that same format? How many ambient albums?

Of course, repeating synthesizer figures weren’t exactly invented by Riley or even perfected by him. Although I generally find the album to be pretty timeless, it can feel a bit “thin” by today’s electronic music standards, even with all of Riley’s mad overdubbing.

But it’s still a groundbreaking, endlessly listenable and heavily enjoyable album. Find it, if you can.

Songs to Youtube:

“A Rainbow In Curved Air” should tell you all you need to know.

 

“Sweet Insanity” the Unreleased Second Album by Brian Wilson

God, even the album cover is murky and weird.

I don’t know what it is about these unreleased Brian Wilson/Beach Boys albums that fascinate me so much. I think it’s a combination of Brian’s utter sincerity and belief in his work as well as the fact that they are sometimes more interesting than the product they released around the same time.

Such as this absolutely…Insane album, the proposed follow up to Brian’s semi successful solo debut “Brian Wilson.” That synth drenched album was as weird as anything, a little bit 80’s but 100% Brian with a group of great songs, some artistic drive and Dr. Eugene Landy trying to get as much money as possible by insisting on songwriting credits.

He pulled the same thing on this album and while I don’t think he wrote a single note or syllable of this album, his greasy, creepy fingerprints are all over this album. Landy is interesting: I fully believe he saved Brian’s life but he exploited him brutally and forced him into situations he probably wasn’t ready to be involved in at the time.

Such as pushing Brian to become a typical 80’s pop star. The artistic pretense of certain sections (“Rio Grande” specifically) of “Brian Wilson” have been pushed away and an increased focused on “fast 80’s pop songs mark “Sweet Insanity” as does a simultaneously improved sound (more guitar and live work) and worsened arrangements (tons and tons and tons and tons of bleeping, blooping weird synthesizers).

Of course, pushing Brian to become an 80’s pop star was doomed to failure (he was old, weird and couldn’t dance) but that didn’t stop Landy from making Brian appear on night shows, swaying around in a distracted, upset manner to the “Brian Wilson” track “Nighttime.” Disastrous.

Well, is this album a disaster on that kind of level? Not at all: I insist that every Brian Wilson associated album is worth listening to and this is no different. It’s just…weird. Again, in a somewhat weird way as it balanced heart felt sincerity with banality similar to “Adult Child” but in an 80’s fashion.

A great example would be the first song (on my copy, as there are a thousand different versions floating around) “Someone to Love” which comes on after a brief excerpt from the song “Concert Tonite” which consists of little more than a chant of the title.

“Someone to Love” is full of the trademark Brian Wilson compositional moves: immediately upbeat tune with an insistent catchy melody; an immediately different and yet equally catchy chorus; technically complex bridges that change keys, tempo and time signature changes; weird, weird lyrics; deep, complex arrangements (that in this case consist mostly of synthesizers).

One has to look past the somewhat wheezy arrangement tones and the “as usual” bad lyrics: this is a pop masterpiece in the typical Wilson mold and one that shows Wilson was finally “back” in a rather unique way.

I mean, one can’t expect “Pet Sounds” from a mind as warped as Brian’s was at the time. One can hope for more fully arranged “Love You” albums which is essentially what this and his debut were: albums filled with well written pop masterpieces that were arranged in an odd and unique fashion.

Because as 80’s as the album sounds, it has a tone and style completely unique from the basic aesthetic of the 80’s as possible. This sounds NOTHING like Phil Collins or the Pet Shop Boys: it’s its own thing, for better (yes) and worse (nothing ground breaking).

The ballads here are pretty solid but I honestly feel like its one of the few Wilson albums were the upbeat songs are the best part of it (perhaps this and “Love You” being the only two). “Water Builds Up” is an impossible to describe pop song with a beautiful “water builds up!” chorus that is technically simple but somehow magic in Brian’s hands.

“Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” and “Rainbow Eyes” are good ballads but not amongst Brian’s best. Again, I know they are heart felt but I don’t quite feel the genius of even songs like “Diane” (another unreleased gem, sung by Dennis Wilson).

“Love Ya” is a song that should have been on the album it’s title nearly matches as it has that same mix of simple synths and catchy melody and would have, in fact, been a standout track on that weird album. “Make a Wish” masks rather banal lyrics with an instantly uplifting and catchy melody that will NEVER leave your head (just typing the title brought it raging back into mind).

I described more songs than I wanted to in this review but it’s hard to avoid: each song has the same basic feel and approach but is differentiated by a careful approach to melody writing, complex arrangements and careful dynamics that build up and fall off with ease.

Honestly, listening to the album makes me confused: although it sounds somewhat worse as far as tone goes when compared to “Brian Wilson” it probably has better, catchier songs that fit in as well with the 80’s as Brian was ever going to and which, in another epoch and with a little tweaking, may have been considered essential parts of the Wilson songbook.

And then you hit the last track on the album. And it all makes sense. Yes, I’m talking about the infamous, legendary and universally beloathed (that is beloved and loathed at the same time) “Smart Girls” and it’s the worst creative decisions made by a member of the Beach Boys (yes, worse than “Kokomo” and “Stamos”).

Lofty you say? Hard title to live up to I bet you might think? I can understand your doubts but let me put explain it in three words: Brian Fucking Raps.

That’s right: Brian. Fucking. RAPS.

I’ll let it sink in. Please, go do something for a few minutes. Have a shot. Pet a dog. Tell somebody you love them. Cry into a mirror. Do what you have to do to let the idea of that sink in and fall out without infecting your mind too heavily.

In what I can only imagine was a Landry move (“Hey Brian! Rap’s huge! You should give it a shot!”) Brian…raps. I mean, kind of: this is the mid 80’s we’re talking about when rap was a bit more…simple. No Eminem, no Tupac, no Public Enemy. Instead, it was a growing movement still finding its feet and thought of as a simple novelty by the majority of the white world.

And yes, Brian sounds exactly like your dad (or grandpa) sounds whenever he tries to make fun of rap. Except Brian is, of course, serious: with lyrics like “My name is Brian and I’m the man/I write hit songs with a wave of my hand” I have no doubt Brian was serious about this track.

The worst part about the song (beyond the simple, basic rap style) is that they mixed in random snippets of Beach Boys songs as Brian raps. And I don’t mean in that Bomb Squad/Dust Brothers style of mixing and matching musical ideas to create a new whole.

No: Brian will be rambling about surfing and they suddenly throw in a 1.5 second slip of “Surfing USA” to remind us, yes, Brian wrote this song about surfing. It’s jarring, poorly done and ruins whatever…uh…flow the rest of the song had?!

All right, all right, point’s made: I’ve now rambled almost 400 words out of 1,200 about this one damn song. But I truly believe it’s the one reason this album never got released (beyond, perhaps the title, but that could have easily been changed) as this album is nowhere near bad and is in fact one of Brian’s best solo albums.

p.s. I forgot to mention that Bob Dylan sings on the song “The Spirit of Rock and Roll.” No, I don’t get it either.

p.p.s. A few of these songs ended up on the Wilson solo album “Getting In Over My Head” in slightly inferior versions.

Songs to Youtube:

“Someone to Love” as it immediately sets the mood for a fun, upbeat musical roller coaster.

The live performance of “Nighttime” so you can get a feel for how stupid of an idea it was to force Brian to be an 80’s pop star.

DO NOT YOUTUBE SMART GIRLS. Seriously, I’m begging you. It’s for your own good, kiddo.

“This Sporting Life” by Diamanda Galas

Watch out John! She’s got a knife.

After a series of increasingly intense and haunting albums that explored deeper and deeper realms of emotional torment, outre singer Diamanda Galas released “The Singer” a relatively restrained collection of piano and vocal covers that showed her debt to blues, jazz, standards and other roots oriented music. It was perhaps her most easily listenable album she had released up to that point and although it received some confused reviews (this was before she had established the cover routine as part of her repertoire) it can be seen as somewhat “lighter” style which may have helped lead her to the nearly accessible John Paul Jones collaboration “This Sporting Life.”

This Sporting Life…needs organizing…

Such a collaboration may seem incredibly bizarre on first glance: the First Woman of Avant Guard Shrieks collaborating with John Paul Jones, bassist of a DEDLY DUM heavy metal group with blues under pinning? A disaster.

…living on a knife’s edge…

However, it actually makes sense once one realizes that Jones is a restless musical soul who has done more for good music than Jimmy Page ever did once he left the over rated bloat monster of Zeppelin. Sorry, I can’t rate “The Firm” or the “Death Wish II” soundtrack as anything more than the tattered idiocy of a former junkie who wasted all his talent at a young age, chasing 13 year old girls while on tour.

And please say ANYTHING of his pathetic collaborations with Plant (no quarter given to pleading, poorly thought out nostalgic cash grabs) or his praising Puff Daddy ever for any reason at all.

This Sporting Life’s forever changing…

Enough Zep bashing though: it’s boring and designed to shock. I do have a lot of respect for certain aspects of Zeppelin but Jones has long been my favorite member as he seemed more prone to…change and experiment. His solo album “Zooma” sounds a lot like prime Primus while he produced such great works as “Independent Worm Saloon” by the Butthole Sufers.

Plus he’s a king of bass I always forget about because I never, ever listen to Zed Leppelin.

Are you bored? Are you jaded?

Easy questions with obvious answers: what does this album sound like? Well, the first track “Skotoseme” sets the mood immediately: Diamanda chants underneath a light drone and then Jones comes in playing his dunderheaded metal bass line while Pete Thomas of the Attractions bashes out “Better than Bonham” drums. Galas shrieks over top, babbles, raves and screams in her best tradition.

It sounds a little goofy sometimes but I feel that’s the effect: Galas showcasing her wonderful sense of humor…wonderful in the sense that it’s darker than the darkest gallows humor. You know, the kind of jokes that make staring at the dead body of your once beloved swinging from a gallows pole while you’re being buried alive seem light hearted in comparison.

As light hearted as the album cover which has Galas splayed across the front of a car driven by Jones with a crazed expression on her face and a knife in her hand as if she was moments away from either murdering Jones, holding him up for cash or demanding crazy, crazy sex.

Is it hot? You bet but a special kind of hot that perhaps reflects more about me than the album cover.

Has all enthusiasm faded?…

Not yet but that’s because I like this album. Not a LOT a lot as it’s not really too emotionally moving like Galas’ best work but it’s simply a gas. That’s right, a gas. Even in song’s like “This Sporting Life” which sounds like a gang of mad woman plotting somebodies rap and murder (if contemporary interviews are to be believed, it’s Snoop Dogg) of some dude.

Then “Baby’s Insane” comes on and you know Galas is having a laugh: it’s much too over the top to be serious. In fact, when performing this song, she’d always tell a story about how some critic slammed her for the song at which point she climaxes the story with “he’s trying to ruin my fun.”

Are you one of those people?

And then “Hex” comes on and you really feel like THIS is the moment the whole album’s been building up to (appropriate as it’s the last song) as it really combines the furious rock and roll drive of Jones and Thomas into an enchanting groove while Galas puts on her best performance yet: chanting, shrieking, improvising and building, building, building to a climax that puts much of the rest of the album to shame.

This is the bad Samaritan…

One should take a minute to appreciate the diversity of this album: Galas sometimes hitches a ride on a metal monster bass riff groove and sometimes babbles and babbles on top of each other in songs like “Do You Take This Man” that feel like streamlined version of past hits. Sometimes she seems to nearly croon only to remind listeners of the fact that she is perhaps the finest and most daring vocalist of her generation.

Make sure there’s a crowd below…give a little when you go…

One last thought: this is as close to a pop album as Galas ever produced. Of course, it’s as pop as water but it features a focus on simpler song structures, actual melodies and diversity in a way she never really approached throughout her career.

This makes it a good album with which to introduce her to your friends but it lacks the emotional punch of her best work. It’s fun and has great musical ideas but never stuns or surprises you.

Perhaps the best way to approach the album is the way Galas and Jones obviously are on the back cover: driving a convertible care free through the streets of a big city, roof down, laughing your ass off and blasting the strange noises to annoy the city folk.

Songs to YouTube

“Skotoseme” will tell you all you need to know but find the live version on David Letterman or Jay Leno or whatever show it’s on. It’s surreal seeing her there.

Tomorrow we’ll look at something as equally avant-guard and accessible. Stay tuned!

“Upstairs at Eric’s” by Yaz

Weird.

“Yaz (or Yazoo in the U.K.) were a two piece synth pop duo consisting of keyboard player/songwriter/arranger Vince Clarke, formerly of Depeche Mode and singer/songwriter Alison Moyet. They released a few singles, made a minor splash with two albums of synth pop in the early 80’s but had broken up by 1983, lasting a little over a year. Clarke formed the much more successful and long lasting Erasure while Moyet had a successful solo career.” – a boring, uninspired reviewer reviewing a band that to them meant little and who is seemingly a footnote in history.

Yaz has been plagued by that kind of dismissive attitude for a few decades now. In spite of making a splash as the “Next Big Thing” upon their debut, they quietly faded away after their demise, victims of their own success.

Clarke found a much more compatible, long lasting partner in smooth voiced Andy Bell in Erasure, pumping out nearly a dozen albums of electronic pop that has gained in complexity of arrangements in a way which the relatively stark “Upstairs at Erics” simply can’t seem to compete.

Moyet, the bluesy voiced shouter on top of all of Yaz’s tunes, went on to a more appropriate blues oriented direction, finding her feet on material that featured more live instrumentation and which suited her vocal approach more effectively

Basically, Yaz has been forgotten as a stepping stone for Clarke from early Depeche Mode (who’s later success eclipsed even his own in Erasure) while also bringing the solid vocalization and songwriting skills of Moyet into the consciousness of the public.

Which is a shame because this album is honestly better than both Clarke’s early Depeche Mode album, “Speak and Spell,” beats out the vast majority of his work with Erasure and though I won’t speak for Monyet’s solo work, I can’t imagine it being as irrevocably quirky and interesting as this album.

There are a few reasons that I find this album to be so interesting: the first of which is the evolution of Clarke’s music.

In Depeche Mode, Clarke had three keyboard players to work with as well as a singer. “Speak and Spell” had solid songs but had a weird, thin sound that somehow suited the material. The album was ground breaking as well, so people could ignore the thin wisp of the sound.

Later productions by Clarke for Erasure would become more epic, with layers and layers of synthesizers, drum machine work and even guitar work coming into the mix to compete with layers and layers of harmonizing Andy Bells.

Intriguing, sure and well done but this style somehow seems more generic and less interesting (to me) when contrasted with the early Yaz style which was a direct continuation of the Depeche Mode line but updated.

Basically, Clarke had better learned how to layer his synthesizers while maintaining an atmospheric, minimalistic edge that makes the material darker and more serious sounding when contrasted with the pure pop joy that marks most of Erasure’s work.

And then there is Moyet. Her raspy, blues influenced singing may seem to clash with Clarke’s sing-song melodies (darker in tone than earlier melodies but always the insistently catchy style that Clarke always preferred): but that’s only because it does.

This contrast is a huge part of what drives Yaz and makes them a more intriguing band. Bell’s vocal style may have been more suited for synth pop but it often blends in (in a good and bad way) with Erasure’s music and arrangements in a way that goes down easy but doesn’t create any tension.

On this album, Moyet sounds like the worst possible choice for the singer (due to the contrast, not her abilities) and this creates a fascinating tension in the music I’ve rarely heard.

It’s true that later raspy blues singers would attempt to mine a “synthesizer plus bluesy voice” approach but Yaz was not only the first but the best due to their commitment to songwriting, creating a diverse set of songs and creating a strange, dark aura about the album.

Which is set immediately with lead off track “Don’t Go.” A trademark Clarke synth riff enters (the kind that makes you think “I’ve heard this before!” when you haven’t) and builds up slowly until Moyet enters.

She sings a rather harrowing (if cliché) story of heart ache while Clarke layers on slight but trademark touches, such as drum stabs, harmony riffs and simple but catchy synth chording.

The album then moves through various songs that vary in tempo (“Midnight”) style (“Didn’t I Bring Your Love Down” with a more upbeat approach) and even through strange avant guard exercises (the indescriable “I Before E Except After C”).

Is it all good? Not always (especially the last track) but it remains solid, engaging and intriguing throughout. And never once loses the strange atmosphere created by the contrast between synthetic sounds and bluesy vocalization.

Yaz released another album “You and Me Both” which mines many of the same styles and approaches but in a more “pop” oriented direction. It has a solid selection of tunes but no real atmosphere which signaled the beginning of the end for the group.

It’s a shame the group lasted so shortly and became so obscure so quickly. They really had some great work which, for all the band members later successes, they never quite matched in terms of quality or intrigue.

Thankfully, you can get their entire discography on the box set “In Your Room” which features both albums, a CD of remixes (which isn’t that good) and a DVD collecting all their performances. Nice. Pick it up if you like off putting, art minded synth pop.

Amazing or Amazingly Shit? “Half Gentlemen Not Beasts” by Half Japanese

Yes, that seems about right.

“What’s the worst album you’ve ever heard in your life?” As a reviewer, I often get asked this question. The worst album I ever heard? There are so many ways one can define bad music! One could go the completely subjective route and say all music is based on taste and that there is no way you can objectify taste.

However, one could also go the ultra objective route and rate music based on the notes played, the construction of the songs, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics (if it’s song based music to which you’re listening) as well as the memorability and harmonious nature of the music.

Well, if one wants to rate music on such an objective scale, I’d have to say that “Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts” the triple (!) debut (!!!!!) by the Michigan-born Fair brothers would undoubtedly be, objectively one of the absolute worst albums I’ve ever heard.

This is an album with six sides of ridiculously written, out-of-tune music played on out of tune instruments by two idiot-savants that obviously barely know what they’re doing. The lyrics are the absurd droolings of a permanent man-child with a touch of autism. Objectively, listening to this album from start to finish is absolute agony.

Subjectively, this album is also one of the best albums I’ve ever heard in my life.

Okay, here’s where things start to get a little too intellectual (and perhaps more than a little stupid). David and Jad Fair are infamous for their naivety, crude approach and their dedication to never, ever getting better. Ever.

This can be viewed as a crime against music or as a refreshing breath of fresh air. There is nothing else in the world that sounds like this…except for perhaps the Shaggs which I won’t get into right now. Jad (usually) plays guitar like somebody who just picked it up for the first time. David (usually) plays drums in the same manner.

Both scream childish gibberish that focuses on girls they like, bands they love, girls they hates, bands they love, things they like doing, things they hate doing and an unending obsession with Jodi Foster, of all things.

Does this album sound a bit “serial killer” to you? Well, the Fair brothers are genuinely harmless but I think with a tad more insanity they’d be on some kind of watch list: both are rather nerdish, nebbish weirdos that have to be hovering near Asperger’s.

The music is always loud (cept when it’s not) and always noisy and sounds like a barely in control improvisation session: every song sounds the same but every song sounds different. The band tries their best to make each song stand out but over three sides of vinyl (including two complete concerts indexed as one track!!!) one starts to get a headache.

Basically, it sounds like the worst garage band ever (skills wise) playing whatever pops into their head and trying to create a diverse, unique experience and failing most of the time.

However, as one listens to the album, it starts to create its own unique soundscape and world view. Yes, it’s endless and the songs basically sound the same but you start to hear little weird touches…the kind of thing a real musician would have never included or “fixed up” to make it sound “better.”

This includes single note, endlessly repeat riffs, go nowhere solos, guitar tuning that’s done by “string tension” rather than actual notes played (or sometimes even stringing it with the same string six times) and a complete lack of care and abandon.

It all starts to make sense which can (and should) become terrifying: am I becoming a nerdy, nebbish, Asperger based potential serial killer too?

No: you’re just experiencing the unique sensation of absolute musical freedom. Kind of…I mean, as naive as the band wants to present themselves as being they still have a musical philosophy which guides them…that being that knowing what you’re doing is inherently limiting.

The basic concept is that if you “know” how to tune and string a guitar, how to play the “right” chords, all the “right” scales and how to “properly” write and arrange a song, you are falling victim to rules created for you by somebody else…rules that should not apply to you as they are rules you did not create and which will lead to music inherently limited by those rules.

I’ll admit it: this philosophy is intriguing to me and I agree with it to a certain extent. I have found that musicians simply have to play and write as if they know no boundaries. Try out new things, different sound combinations that they’ve never played and hopefully they can create something that’s somewhat unique and free of the “limitations” of the correct way to do things.

Which is why this album is, subjectively, one of the top 10 albums ever created. Because it’s music created with absolute freedom by two lunatics that are barely able to bash out anything even accidentally coherent on their instruments (they swap instruments a lot and both sing so it’s hard to know who is doing what and when).

But here’s the thing: completely unhinged and unschooled creativity such as this ultimately leads to…everything sounding exactly the same. As the band “expresses” themselves “absolutely freely” they end up making everything sound like everything else as they lack the skill to…differentiate their playing or “composing” approaches in anyway.

This is another reason why the album is objectively awful: a completely uniform sound palate.

But then there is the personality factor, the charisma and the charm which are impossible to define and bottle and which will vary from person to person. One person’s “charming masterpiece” will be another person’s “incoherent gibberish.”

So, long story short, the album is simultaneously the best album ever made and the worst. Both opinions are completely, perfectly, 100% valid and both can be proved using both subjective and objective definitions.

Which is why you should buy it and listen to it once a day for the rest of your life. And it’s been re-released on CD!

Songs to Youtube:

You kidding me?!