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.
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!
“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.
“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?!
Let’s change things up a bit from the heavy metal insanity of my last review shall we? Let’s review the sweetest, gentlest music I can think of off the top of my head. That’ll do!
In the world of 60’s orchestrated folk pop, the Mama’s and the Papa’s sometimes seem to get a bad rap. At least to this reviewer. “Hippie crap!” is one such refrain from various anti-fans around the world. “Fey nonsense, pre-built drama foisted on the brain dead and stupid!” is another. Or perhaps these are the jeers I’m imagining my punk rock friends throwing at the Mama’s and the Papa’s.
Or perhaps I’m simplifying things. Probably as this is often times my “modus operandi.”
The Mama’s and the Papa’s were definitely a bit “soft” but this was actually their advantage: in a world of increasingly heavy rock and roll values, they represented a bit of the old “ultra violently beautiful” if you will. That is to say, they took the “Pet Sound” vibe and ran with it.
That isn’t really fair to the Mama’s and the Papa’s or creative leader John Phillips but there’s some truth there: their lush, evocative and fully arranged folk style had similar production flourishes when compared to that Beach Boys masterpiece.
Throw in a solid bit of melancholy from Phillips, the only songwriter in the band and you got a similar sound, style and vibe. But with it’s own creative persona that we’re going to delve into here in a moment.
But first I must mention the vocal harmonies. We’re about to gush here.
The Mama’s and the Papa’s vocal harmonies were, without a doubt, the most luscious, complex and fully realized in the world of pop in the 60’s (and perhaps even to this day). Yes, even more so than the Beach Boys.
I’m not knocking the Beach Boys with this statement: it’s just that, at his best as vocal arranger, Phillips was either at Wilson’s peak level or surpassing it on every other song. While not a strong singer himself (he was the only member to never sing lead) he was backed by the amazing singing voices of wife (and scamp) Michelle Phillips, “Mama” Cass and Denny Doherty.
All three were knock out singers with their own individual style and amazing ability to blend in with each other. “Mama” Cass was a knockout blues belter who could tear down the house with a single screech; Doherty was an old style crooner who could also hit heavy moments when necessary; Phillips was a bit more coy, not a stronger singer, but of a bit of a sex kitten vocally.
I’m sure little of that makes sense but let’s move on.
Of course, the Beach Boys have The MP’s beaten on a lot of other levels: composition wise, Wilson handily beats Phillips. Phillips songs tend to vacillate around simple folk/pop forms and melodies: catchy and solid but not groundbreaking the way Wilson’s best work remains.
Instead, Phillips (and the in house orchestral arrangers) lavished his simple songs on this amazing debut album with deep, endless but appropriate arrangements that made each song seem like a mini-epic.
Amazingly, the arrangers were able to avoid complete mush most of the time: sometimes, they left the arrangements as simple as the song needed. For example, “California Dreaming” (their signature song) starts out with an evocative guitar figure that dances around the melody before you’re SLAMMED in the face with a wall of vocal harmonies.
The song’s arrangements grow lusher but not excessively, capping off with a simple, beautiful, wintery flute solo that actually makes the song feel more epic than originally envisioned.
Riding the waves of Phillips vocal harmonies one can often ignore or miss his lyrics. That’s a mistake. While no means the next coming of Dylan, Phillips simple tales of heart ache (influenced by his own bad decisions making and poor life decisions) creates simple poetry that can hit you harder than all the “darkness at the break of noon”-type Dylan passages put together.
Take, for example, “Go Where You Wanna Go” perhaps the best song on here. Yes, “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreaming” (both were on the same album) are more famous and justifiably so but “Go Where You Wanna Go” really gets to the heart of the Mama and Papa’s legend.
The lyrical message is timeless” “go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do with whoever you wanna do it with” may sound like hippie gibberish but it’s actually a command from Phillips to Michelle as a way of trying to force her out of his life.
This makes Michelle’s plea of “you don’t understand/that a girl like me can’t love, just one maaan” all the more heart rending. Even if the lyric is “CAN love just one man” (which it may be, but I always hear it as “can’t”) the sentiment possesses and incredible power due to the circumstance of the band at the time.
The orchestra has this amazing ability to kick in at just the right time on this album: the next segment with the plaintive lyrics of “three thousand miles, that’s how far I’ve gone” (or whatever) are backed with a simple but beautiful orchestral part that brings tears to my eyes every time.
Perhaps I’m just a sentimental sucker. But I even get a kick out of the “rocking” tunes on the album such as “Straight Shooter” (with it’s simple but cool looping riff) and boastful lyrics. Sure, it may seem a tad stale as a “real’ rocker but as a change of pace it really works.
Likewise to “The ‘In’ Crowd” which if the first showcase of Cass’s vocal skills. She belts out this simple tune with all the bluesy bluster and delicacy (at times) that the song requires. It’s another example of the type of blustery boastfulness that may seem out of place but which sure sounds cool when it’s arranged and sung so well.
Then there are the covers: the Beatles “I Call Your Name” is an excellent song enhanced by the MP’s vocal presence and slight cabaret style. “Do You Wanna Dance” is the most slowed down, wimpy take of this particular song I’ve ever heard which gives it a pleading, despairing feel absent from the more exciting Beach Boys take.
“Spanish Harlem” is a beautifully arranged tune that again may seem out of place if you’re a hard core “style and tone” fanatic (i.e. all albums must have a singular tone and style unique to them) but which adds a nice touch of diversity to the proceedings.
I’m honestly tempted to go through every song and review them individually as each song brings something to the table: the simple gentleness of “Got a Feeling” and the exuberance of the cover of “You Baby” being perhaps the best songs I hadn’t yet mentioned.
Honestly, I could write a whole review of the vocal harmonies of this album, focusing on all the nooks and crannies of the call and response, subtly shifting textures and adrenaline pumping excitement of some of these harmonies.
Yes that’s right: I said adrenaline pumping. The opening harmonies on “Go Where You Wanna Go” are head spinning in their complexity and trying to sing along to them will give you fits. But I try every time.
Basically, the Mama’s and the Papa’s were a highly unique band from the very start that head their own unique variation on a style, a genius vocal arranger with solid songwriting skills, four solid singers, amazing arrangements and impeccable taste.
And terrifyingly difficult home lives. But I won’t go into that: that’s been discussed to death. The band was able to cling together for three more solid albums (the second, self titled album being perhaps even better than this) while pumping out one crappy reunion album in the 70’s.
The best way to experience this band is to get a compilation of their first four albums (I bought a two CD comp, “All the Leaves are Brown” that collected all four in the early 2000’s which apparently went out of print one minute after I bought it) and just sit down and listen to them all in a row, starting with this one. You really won’t believe your eyes and ears.
Songs to YouTube:
You have probably heard the hits so try out “Go Where You Wanna Go,” “Straight Shooter,” “Got a Feeling” and even “Hey Girl” to see the different styles the band was capable of producing. They weren’t just constantly in ballad land.
What the…is this guy really reviewing Rick James? The Super Freak Guy? The Crack Pipe Prostitute Burning Fellow? The Dave Chapelle Lunatic Who Was Merciless Mocked for Years and Probably Rightfully So?
Sure am! Why? Because this is a good album. A great album actually and very influential to hard rock freaks after its released (hell, it influenced James so much he tried to remake it for the rest of his career).
I don’t feel like flying off the handle into the history of Rick James, partially because I don’t know it that well. James is a bass player (multi-instrumentalist, really but bass is his main thing) who had been kicking around the scene for decades. He was friends and roommates with Neil Young. He played in a lot of go nowhere bands. And then he started his solo career with a few solid but not high selling albums until “Street Songs” hit it big based off the success of the two hit singles “Give It To Me” and “Super Freak,” which was infamously sampled by MC Hammer for his biggest hit “You Can’t Touch This.”
These songs tell you a lot about the album and are indeed the two high points, musically: “Give It To Me” boasts an energy and drive that throws it nearly into a rock and roll camp. The intricate arrangements are quite clever with instruments seemingly answering each other and the chorus is unforgettable once you’ve heard it even a single time.
It’s also about doing it, a thematic concern quite dear to Mr. James throughout this album.
“Super Freak” has exactly the same ingredients as “Give It To Me”: a rock and roll drive, intricate arrangements centered around the unforgettable, immortal bass riff and another tale of wanting to do it. In this case, with a “super freak” who is so damn kinky you wouldn’t even want to take her home for a visit.
The songs may seem like cliches (and have kind of become jokes through the years due to James failures as a human being later in life) but they were something really new in funk. Early funk, such as that practiced by James Brown and the George Clinton gang was a jam heavy medium that often found songs stretching out past all realms of reasonableness to the average listener.
Of course, to the true funk believer (like yours truly) the repetition of those grooves is part of the appeal to funk: it sets up a mantra, meditative feel that feels truly liberating.
There was also an occasional looseness to early funk that was relaxing and fun but which often became meandering in the wrong circumstance (too many drugs, for instance).
James’ songs aren’t short but they aren’t set up for “jam” mode either: they’re wound up lean, mean and tight and rarely burst over the five minute range. They’re also highly composed: they aren’t simple “vamps” repeated ad nauseum while the singer improvises gibberish: these are composed songs with verses and choruses that are so efficient it’s hard to forget them even years later.
Basically, it is a form of “pop funk and R&B” that still maintains all of the positives of “real” funk while minimizing the negatives and compensating for a lack of “instrumental fireworks” with arrangement tightness that makes the mind boggle: these instrumentalists may not be soloing like maniacs but holding down these grooves in such a tight interplay was probably even harder than soloing.
What makes the album stand out even further, for me, is its focus on the dark and dirty side of life. After all, it’s not called “Street Songs” for nothing: James was very serious about documenting the rough, seedy side of the city and especially but not exclusively the African American experience. It’s not always successful (especially on the ballads, which are usually pretty dull as James doesn’t quite have the pipes to pull them off) but the faster paced songs are thrilling.
Yes, James Brown explored the grittier sides of reality at his artistic peak but he seemed more concerned with having a good time and celebrating the African American experience. He would occasionally delve into the crimes perpetuated against African Americans but generally his message was “Say it out…I’m black and I’m proud!”
And while Brown did indeed wax poetic about sexuality (“Sex Machine” after all) he wasn’t quite as lewd or…specific as James. Neither approach is superior but both are different.
Furthermore, James stands out from the George Clinton crew as he generally didn’t sing about science fiction and fantasy themes. Yes, Clinton often set up apocalyptic funk grooves and sang about end times but it seemed more literary minded (i.e. stuff he was making up) rather than based in the actual reality of the African American.
James stripped back all those pretenses and false poetics to explore his personal experiences and beliefs in simple yet evocative ways.
For example, “Mr. Policeman.” James sets up another tight funk grooves and preaches out against the institution of police brutality which he felt was holding he and his friends, neighbors and family firmly in place. It may feel like he is overreacting (and blaming the entire institution of law enforcement probably is overreacting a little) but his sincerity and dedication to the message helps it feel more “real” than it has any right to feel.
There are faults with the album, of course: James funk arrangements often become much too similar to tell songs apart even though they have distinctive melodies and riffs. Plus, his ballads are truly unengaging and don’t really hit any of the emotional areas for which they strive with so much strain.
But “Street Songs” is a serious statement made by a serious artist and it deserves consideration and respect, as silly as “Super Freak” may sound on the umpteenth listen.
Note: I don’t mean to insult either James Brown or George Clinton’s music in my comparisons to Rick James. I love both of those men and their music and find them to be more important than Rick James in general. I only compare to illustrate that he was truly a new voice in funk and is undeservedly ignored.
Songs to YouTube:
Anything but the ballads qualifies.
The early 80’s was a time of relative musical chaos. The 60’s had all coalesced into the hippie movement and The Beatles which fell gradually apart to be replaced by bands taking the “complex” sound of the times and running with it. This produced the incredible sounds of “progressive” rock which inevitably turned to crap.
Then, there were the “heavy” bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple who took the “heavy blues” vibe and ran it head first into the ground of wild (stupid) mysticism (in the case of the former) and lazy, riff nicking (in the case of the other).
Then punk came around and created the myth that it destroyed “bad” music forever by destroying the former “dinosaurs” and bringing rock back to the masses.
That lasted about a day: if punk was the “huge thing” in the late 70’s, how come crap rock bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon still existed?
I’m not knocking punk (I like a lot of it) but just the idea that it destroyed the careers of the dinosaurs. Yes, a few bands disappeared but most just warped into other, more mainstream styles of music.
The best influence of punk is that it did inspire amateur musicians to pick up their instruments and try out new styles, sounds and ideas that were neither “punk” or “mainstream” and which would come to influence a wide variety of musical stylistics in the decades to come.
This is where the “Young Marble Giants” come into the picture.
The Young Marble Giants was a three-piece with guitar playing brother Stuart Moxham writing the tunes, Phillip Moxham playing the melodic and nimble bass lines and Alison Stratton singing the “vibrato free” vocals. A drum machine (sometimes treated) keeps up the rhythm while an occasional organ pops up, played by Stuart.
What the band did reads very easily on paper: they created an airy, minimalistic “pop” style that influenced dozens of future indie bands looking to avoid the strum and drang of rock and roll and to develop a more subtle attack.
Hearing the album is a whole different experience. In my opinion, there are two possible reactions to this album: complete excitement or complete boredom.
The boredom is easy to explain: nothing happens. The songs all sound the same. The singer sucks. What’s the big deal? Next record, please.
The excitement that arises in the right person (such as yours truly) comes from an appreciation of how little the band is doing to create the atmosphere and style they are creating. Stuart is a capable rhythm guitarist and an excellent songwriter who’s signature guitar style comes from palm muting the guitar during most of the album.
Yes, palm muting, that thing you hear metal guitarists do during “breakdowns” in songs. Except Stuart plays his guitar mostly clean with just a touch of distortion for the “harder” parts i.e. those parts where he plays simple but memorable non-muted riffs.
The drum machine plays along with Stuart’s model: the beats are muted and warped through a slight phase effect. The drum beat is never more complex than a basic 4/4 but the phased beat creates an absolutely unique pulse that has never been repeated.
Phillips is perhaps the most important member of the band instrumentally as he has the most freedom to play. Stuart has surrendered himself to the rhythm: as Gabriel said, it has his soul. Phillip plays to the beat, around the beat, adds simple runs, plays melodies and does everything he can to color in the spaces between the beats.
Even then he picks his notes carefully (he’s not exactly doing Chris Squire stuff) and chooses careful, simple parts and pops them in from time to time, all adding to the slight, airy beat that is the sound of this band by adding a slightly more muscular attack.
And then there is Stratton. Her simple, child-like voice (forced on Stuart, who had wanted to be the band’s singer) floats above the simple rhythm bed singing simple, but catchy, memorable and endearing melodies as if commenting on the band playing beneath her.
Her voice is simply something: not much there technically but her vibrato free, no nonsense approach practically defined female indie singing for…well, ever it appears.
All of this praise would be to nothing if the band simply played atmospheric airy nothingness (a million bands do that) but this band does nothing of the sort. Stuart writes the kind of snappy, simple pop songs that defined the early punk era but plays them in the gentlest way possible.
“Looking for Mr. Right” is a perfect start for the album: the distant fade in of the atmospheric, faded drum beats slowly builds into a trademark Stuart palm mute rhythm. Phillip starts playing simple, stabbing bass lines that raise the tension. Stratton then comes in bemoaning her ability to find “Mr. Right.”
Bemoaning isn’t the right word: simply stating. She’s simply stating how difficult it is to find the right guy to a Stuart melody that is hard to deny.
A serious complaint that can be lodged at this album (that I can’t deny) is that it all sounds the same. This is very true: the band does throw in an organ from time to time, but generally when they do that the organ becomes the predominant instrument. With arrangements this simple, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve heard it all before.
However, and I insist this is the case, the band is obviously doing everything they can to diversify the songs within their formula. “Searching for Mr. Right” may serve as the prototype but “Include Me Out” breaks the mold by featuring some slight distortion, a straight forward guitar riff and the type of fluid bass lines that came out of the punk world.
Seriously, throw in a real drummer, a bit more distortion and Joey Ramone and you got a punk tune.
“Credit in The Straight World” is a similar “punk like” song that is so good, Hole of all people, did a cover on “Live Through This” that follows this arrangement to the letter except it adds a real drummer and another guitar to make it the hard core punk song it never quite becomes (for good or bad) in the hands of the Young Marble Giants.
And then the band slows things down, brings out the organ and croons about a “Wurlitzer Jukebox.” This song is a great example of how the band changes their style: by slowing down, focusing on the organ and developing a solid “ballad” vocal melody they create a song that stands out from the album.
Honestly, each song qualifies as either “good” to “great” but differentiating all of them would require focusing on the type of tiny details that only pop out after multiple listens.
Final verdict? Buy the shit out of this, especially the “Special Edition” as it contains two more discs: the first being “Colossal Youth” the second a disc of singles and EP’s the band recorded that are now impossible to find and a series of Peel Sessions. The band was right on the cusp of making it big and were the “next big thing” before the tension within the group finally broke them up for good.
Songs to YouTube:
Any I mentioned in the review plus a live performance of “N.I.T.A.” It gives you a solid feel for their live presence (which wasn’t much to be fair) and giving you a solid look as to what these strange, enigmatic people could possibly look like in the real world.
They look like a few British gits and a daffy broad (in the good sense of the word). Awesome.
Somehow, I feel that “Big Black” is a group that never really gets their due. Yes, any alternative rock fan worth their weight in salt knows the name “Steve Albini.” Albini is an infamous producer that patented a rather trebly, high pitched industrial-ish rumble that mixed drum machines, punk rock, high pitched guitar sounds (everything in “Big Black” is “treble”) and an absolute dedication to DIY that has made him one of the most respected and sought after producers in the business.
He is also one of the grumpiest guys in the world of rock and roll: his lengthy rants on well…everything are rather infamous. He called the CD edition of “Atomizer” “The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape” and chastised the buyer in the CD liner notes for wasting their money on an “inferior” sounding product.
Whatever his hang ups and personality quirks, the man is a living legend but mostly for his production skills and not for his songwriting. Which is a shame: the man developed an intriguing production style, had a way with catchy riffs and melodies and even had something to say lyrically, especially on the previously mentioned debut album “Atomizer” which is, naturally, our review of the day.
Now, what Albini has to say lyrically isn’t very pretty. His topics generally concern boredom, mid-western insanity, serial killers, self harm, serial child rapists and a variety of other nasty topics. There is no bright lights or sunshine in the lyrical world of Albini, as made clear on the track “Steelworker” from debut EP “Lungs” where he chants “I work with my hands…and I kill what I eat” over a harsh, grinding groove that makes it clear that Albini is coming for you.
Focusing on negative lyrical matters is nothing new but Albini goes the extra mile and sings everything from the first person perspective. It’s never “they’re steelworkers, they kill what they eat” or “they live in Jordan, they do what they like.” It’s “I’M a steelworker…I kill what I eat” and “this is Jordan, WE do what we like.” He puts himself right into the boots of the negative people about which he sings.
This caused some serious controversy when “Atomizer” came out, especially because of the song “Kerosene” Albini’s magnum opus and a masterpiece of rock and roll theatrical performance.
Albini would no doubt baulk at such a statement: calling his music theatrical would no doubt insult him more deeply than calling him a sell out.
But I don’t know how else you could define this song: it starts out with an insane, high pitch ringing (one of Albini’s trademark sounds) that builds into a wild, rampaging guitar, bass and Roland Drum stomp that eventually drops out to a bass and drum groove.
Albini then begins detailing the mentality of what he believes is a typical, mid-western, small town loser with no ambition, no future and no hope. He uses a minimum of words and phrases and repeats them regularly to reinforce their strength.
“There’s never anything to do in this town…lived here all my life…probably come to die in this town…lived here all my life…nothing to do but sit around home, sit around the house and stare at the walls, stare at each other and wait till we die, stare at each other and wait till we die…there’s never anything to do in this town…lived here my whole life…”
Chilling and a feeling that anybody who’s ever lived in the mid-west can identify with completely. And then he says a single phrase that reawakens the monstrous guitars “there’s kerosene around…it’s just something to do…” He repeats this phrase a few times, with various degrees of intensity before screaming “SET ME ON FIRE!”
The rest of the song then de-evolves (in a good way) into a noisy mess of over trebled guitars, bashing drum machines, screams and even a false start. The song perfectly defines the Albini mythos and style in a matter of seconds.
But there are other songs on this album too! Imagine. Opener, “Jordan, Minnesota” is a song about the (alleged) child abuse ring in the town of Jordan and while the truthfulness of the story has been hotly debated for years, hearing Albini sing “this is Jordan…we do what we like” over and over again is truly creepy. But only if you know the story: without knowing the story it’s nowhere near as effective but it still has a great riff and great drive.
“Passing Complexion” features more wildly over trebled guitars (really, how the hell doe she make that high pitched “shing!” sound on the guitars?) playing intricate, strange and relatively complex guitar parts.
The album does have a basic sound and style that bleeds over to the rest of the tracks: if you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard them all. They vary in the riffs and melodies as well as the arrangements and the lyrical focus but all set this mood of grinding, inescapable mid-west despair that is simultaneously gripping and wearing on the consciousness.
The CD version of “Atomizer” contains some bonus tracks from the “Heart Beat” EP. The title track is a cover of the Wire tune from “Chairs Missing” and has a similar menacing atmosphere but builds to Albini screams instead of the chanting of the original. It’s the highlight of the bonus tracks.
Final verdict? If you like noisy, difficult but well composed punk/industrial style rock, it’s worth a buy. In fact, buy everything by Big Black: you only need to get three CD’s: this, The Hammer Party and Songs About Fucking.
p.s. Big Black doesn’t really sound like “punk” or “industrial” but those are the closest genre terms I can find for the style they play. It’s definitely a unique sound that Albini utilized in all subsequent bands with minor variations.
Song to YouTube:
“Kerosene” and “Jordan, Minnesota” will tell you all that you need to know about Big Black. If you like those songs, you’ll like the rest.
As a young man, I despaired of moving to Marquette to continue my studies because a) I hardly knew anybody there b) went there for a girl who had broken up with me the day I registered for classes and c) the distance and snow. I had never lived anywhere so far from home or anywhere that was so prone to four foot snow storms.
A random snow storm on my way back up to class one day backed up traffic so bad on the I-75 that I made a diversion into Cheboygan for the night, stopping at Wal-Mart and randomly buying “Smiley Smile/Wild Honey” by the Beach Boys.
The strange sounds of the acid warped “Smiley Smile” confused me: my young mind associated the Beach Boys with the lameness (to me at the time) surf hits while “Wild Honey” possessed a simple, stripped down pop/R&B approach that sounds a lot like a lot of minimalistic indie bands of today.
And each were soaked in a sense of positivity held down by a sense of deep sadness that reflected the heart of composer and producer Brian Wilson perfectly: a radiant, child-like genius that wanted to express complete positivity to destroy the demons that were killing his mind and which infected his joyful music with a sense of foreboding that made the late 60’s/early 70’s Beach Boy albums vastly under rated forms of true rock and roll beauty.
Of course, the band ravaged and destroy their own reputation with obvious commercially shilling, complete suck-hack jobs of albums and songs and “Kokomo” a song bad enough to ruin the reputation of The Beatles, Beethoven, Bach and even Richard Nixon for all eternity.
Naturally, Brian had little to do with this: he was completely bonkers and was only just getting by with the care of Eugene Landy, a doctor who went too far and invaded Brian’s life completely to the point he was getting songwriting credits on Brian’s (solid but weird) solo albums.
Landy was able to save Brian from self destruction but he had to go and Brian was able to pick up his life (with the help of a young bride) and although not demon free (that would be impossible) was able to overcome his demons well enough to begin touring and even finishing up the album “Smile” that had eluded him so many years ago and which had contributed to the destruction of his mind.
So, Brian was finally back and was writing some solid music and was once again a force in music. The Beach Boys had folded years ago and were now little more than a traveling county fair oldies act led by Mike Love and a crew of scabs.
And then the band turned 50. So, of course the still living original members (without poor Dennis or Carl Wilson) got together to crank out a suck job of an album not worth a damn.
Or so I figured: until I saw Brian was not only on board but was writing most of the album and producing everything. In the past, this had led to such strange albums as “20 Big Ones” and the masterpiece “Love You” but Brian was “back” and my expectations were slightly elevated.
And the album came out: and of course I bought it. “That’s Why God Made the Radio” was designed to be the classic swan song the band deserved (and is much more deserving of that title than their last album, the stupid country cover album “Stars and Stripes Volume 1”) and it definitely sounds the part.
The harmonies are there: Mike, Bruce and Al all sound great (never druggies, they kept their voices strong) and they sing their hearts out on the trademark Brian Wilson harmonies. Wilson himself is still a bit rough around the edges but he doesn’t go off key.
And the material is there too: “Think About the Days” is a solid acapella and piano introduction that reminds one “Our Prayer” from “Smile” or “One for the Boys” from “Brian Wilson.” And lead off single, “That’s Why God Made the Radio” has the perfect mix of “simple but genius” melodies and flawless surf arrangements and playing that highlighted the band’s best material.
The album then goes through a variety of summer themed songs such as “Spring Vacation,” “Shelter” and “Daybreak Over the Ocean” a Mike Love composed song that is probably the weakest tune here but leagues about the shill he was putting out in the 80’s.
And then the album ends with a heart felt trilogy of songs that slow things down and get introspective with carefully paced melodies and arrangements that end with “Summer’s Gone” a lament to the passing of summer and perhaps a lament to the passing of the band (Love quickly kicked the other guys off their won 50th Anniversary Tour and replaced them with his typical scabs).
In spite of the bad vibrations (heh) that come from the usual Mike Love shenanigans, this album is a pure return to form right? The sound is there: the style is there. Brian is writing and producing. No one expects a masterpiece from a 70 year old in a style patented when he was in his 20’s but this album sounds like it’s worth the money, right?
Generally, yes: it works as a solid swan song for the band and I was rather excited listening to it the first few times. It really SEEMED like the old times were back but with a new twist reflecting the band’s age: they were no longer singing about surfing but simply celebrating the nostalgia of the old days.
This is all good stuff but the more I listened to the album the more I felt the nagging sensation that…Brian’s heart wasn’t really in this stuff. And this is the most important aspect of the Beach Boys: how focused and dedicated Brian is to the music. With apologies to the rest of the band, they could be anybody: the Beach Boys was Brian’s band (and to a lesser extent, his brothers’) and I don’t need Al Jardine singing harmony to make me feel like I’m listening to the Beach Boys.
Basically, the guys who aren’t Brian sound completely dedicated to the project: they sing their heart out, Mike writes an “okay” song and even original “second” guitarist David Marks puts in a solid performance, having grown a lot on the instrument since the band’s early days.
But the problem here is Brian. It’s not that Brian isn’t writing good music (this is catchy, well composed stuff) it’s simply that we’ve seen this kind of thing from Brian before. Everything seems highly calculated, carefully considered and composed to fit “The Beach Boys” sound.
But what is the “Beach Boys sound?” Many will cry out that it’s surf rock: yes, for the first few years, it definitely was surf rock. But then Brian moved onto to writing more complex rock and nearly baroque level ballads.
Then the band moved into weird psychedelic insanity, into a weird pop mode, some kind of odd minimalistic acoustic style, a weird melange of soul/rock/pop/and MOR in the early 70’s and then into a semi-roots rock band for a few albums which mutated into a hideous Broadway style group for an album before Brian recorded a “synthesizers and drums” album before the band started dabbling more in soft rock balladry and stale surf rock.
Which of these styles is represented on this album? Basically, the stale (but well written) surf rockers, some well written soft rock ballads and nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia. Nothing on the album is exciting or unique to the album: it sometimes sounds under arranged instrumentally in a way that Brian’s recent releases have not.
And therein lies the problem: I think Brian sort of rushed this out for the tour without putting a lot of thought into it. His best work in the last few years have been albums he’s taken his time on and which really touched his emotions and spurred him on to put his absolute heart into it (the Gershwin cover project, “That Lucky Old Sun” and “Smile” basically).
To these ears, this sounds the most like a “contractual obligation” album that Brian has ever produced. Sure, the Beach Boys have produced way worse albums but these represented at least Mike Love’s honest attempts to stay relevant and keep the band afloat. It didn’t work but at one cannot fault him for trying to keep the band going.
It even sounds more like a contractual obligation than those weird albums Brian did in the mid 60’s (like “Party!”) that were made to please Capitol and get product on the shelves. At least those were funny and inspired, more like a silly gag than anything else.
Final verdict? The album isn’t bad: it’s sure sonic poetry in the arrangements (as under arranged as I instinctively feel most of these songs are) with solid, catchy melodies and bad lyrics (just like we always expect from the band) set to a firm sense of nostalgia. If you go into it with that relaxed state of mind, it’s a great album. Just don’t expect to fall in love with the album or to find it on your play list too often.