Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Turn Off the Light: The Doors' Strange Days is 45

 The Doors - Strange Days
The Doors
Strange Days
Rating: **** 1/2

            In January 1967, the Doors has released their self-titled debut album. The album catapulted the band into superstardom and made the band a household name. Only eight months after the release of their debut album, the Doors released their sophomore effort entitled Strange Days on September 25, 1967. Much like the debut album, Strange Days was another hit album for the band. However, Strange Days is much different in terms of sound compared to the debut album: it’s much dark, moody, and depressing. Some people have gone on to say that Strange Days might be the best album the Doors ever made.

            The album starts with the self-titled track, which opens with a very spine-tingling keyboard playing from Ray Manzarek. You can tell that in between the debut album and Strange Days, the Doors have grown tighter as a band musically and even lyrically. The lyrics seem to question the hippie movement or society itself at that point in time. This is followed by the creepy “You’re Lost Little Girl”. Jim Morrison’s vocals on this song are superb and suite the darkness of the song. Much like “The Crystal Ship”, Morrison’s vocals are hypnotic almost. The bluesy “Love Me Two Times” is one of the most popular songs off the album. It’s very radio friendly (even classic rock radio stations still play it today) but still like every song on the album, it’s still pretty dark. Morrison almost shouts the lyrics while the keyboard solo from Manzarek is just wonderful. “Unhappy Girl” continues the dark feeling of the album, this time as a psychedelic rock song.

“Horse Latitudes” is different from all the other songs off the album as it’s basically a poem by Morrison. Apparently, it has been said the poem was one of the first things Morrison ever wrote. This is pretty hard to believe, even for Manzarek, who thought was “too mature”. Towards the end, the song gets a bit frantic to the point where you might just want to skip to the next song (yes, it’s that disturbing). “Horse Latitudes” segues into the calming “Moonlight Drive”. As the story goes, this was the song that Morrison sang to Manzarek while the two were on a beach. Once Morrison sang this to Manzarek, Manzarek immediately said they had to form a band. It’s a great song and the lyrics are very poetic. Morrison always thought of himself as a poet first, then a musician. Morrison’s vocals are sooth and Robby Krieger’s guitar solo fits right in there in the song.

            Side two starts with “People Are Strange”, which another highlight off the album. It’s a pretty catchy song that’s about alienation! Once again, the lyrics are almost poetic and that would be all Morrison’s doing. “My Eyes Have Seen You” is yet another moody track from the album. Krieger has an impressive guitar solo right after the “move upstairs” lyrics. Of all the ten songs off the album, “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind” is probably the spookiest: the lyrics and even the music are downright depressing. The album wraps up with the eleven-minute “When The Music’s Over”. The song is an epic of sorts, with poetic lyrics from Morrison and even some impressive drumming from John Densmore. According to one source, Morrison found inspiration for the song from one of the clubs/bars the Doors were playing at in their early days. Apparently, he overheard the manager of the place tell someone that when the music’s over, they need to turn off the lights. Whatever the case might be, “When The Music’s Over” ends the album perfectly.

            Strange Days would be yet another hit album for the Doors. 45 years later, it’s still a great album. Still, I see that there is an argument over which album was better: the debut or Strange Days. Some might say the debut just for being the first album and for having the better songs. On the other hand, some people think Strange Days is better and really for one reason: all of the songs are dark and depressing. Sure the debut album was pretty dark but there were a few songs that were a bit pop-oriented (“I Looked At You” and/or “Take It As It Comes”). For me, the debut album is better but no matter what, Strange Days is an amazing album. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Bob Dylan- Tempest album review

 Bob Dylan - Tempest
Bob Dylan
Raing: ****

At 71 years old, Bob Dylan is still making music. While this is impressive, Dylan’s voice has grown weaker and weaker as the years go by. Some people think he should retire. This is what went through my mind when I heard that Dylan would release his thirty-fifth studio album. I wasn’t crazy about his last studio album in 2009, Together Through Life, and I didn’t bother getting his Christmas album Christmas from the Heart as a result. Luckily, I was wrong: Tempest is a very good album.

            “Duquesne Whistle” is the first song off the album, as well as the lead single for the album. While the song is a bit dark, it still comes out very tender and warm. In fact, I could see this as a lost cut from the Blood on the Tracks era. As for Dylan’s voice, it is hoarse and shot. Still, Dylan delivers through the strong lyrics. There are a few bluesy tunes on this album including “Early Roman Kings”, which follows a simple twelve-bar blues structure, and “Narrow Way”. Dylan also tells more tales, which I’ve always liked about Dylan: he could tell you all sorts of stories through song. “Scarlet Town” might not be a story too much but the lyrics are really well written. Like many of the songs on here, “Scarlet Town” is another dark number. “Tin Angel” is another example but it’s the self titled track that tells the best story: it tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic. At nearly fourteen minutes long, it’s an amazing track. I think “Tempest” might rank up there in terms of greatness and how long it is (his longest song his “Highlands” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind). My favorite song off the album is “Pay In Blood”, which has nice beat and feel to it. It’s a bit radio-friendly but there’s something about instrumentation that I just really like.  The album’s final track “Roll On John” is a wonderfully written song about John Lennon. Dylan goes from using lyrics from Beatles songs such as “A Day in the Life” and “Come Together” to describing Lennon’s tragic assassination.

            Tempest is a surprisingly good album. All of the songs are great as they all have this dark twist  to them, but still the outcome is very warm and soothing. Although Dylan’s voice is in bad shape, the songs on the album are so well written that it actually makes the album stronger (which is probably why I didn’t really like Together Through Life). It’s hard to say if this will rank as one of Dylan’s best albums but overall, it’s a very good album. If you’re a Dylan fan, I’m sure you’ll really enjoy listening to this album. I know I did. 

Hey Dudes!: Mott the Hoople's All the Young Dudes is 40

 Mott the Hoople - All the Young Dudes
Mott the Hoople
All the Young Dudes
Rating: ****

By 1972, Mott the Hoople had released four albums. Although the band did have a small following, it wasn’t enough to improve their record sales. However it was this year the band actually released a hit album. That album was 1972’s All the Young Dudes. Not only was the album a success in the charts but it saved the career of Mott the Hoople.

            Mott the Hoople formed in 1969 in England. The band consisted of pianist and lead singer Ian Hunter, guitarist Mick Ralphs, bassist Pete Watts, drummer Dale Griffin, and keyboardist Verden Allen. By 1972, the band already had four studio albums under their belts: Mott the Hoople (1969), Mad Shadows (1970), Wildlife (1971), and Brain Capers (1971). By this time, the band was pretty close to breaking up. It was around this time when David Bowie had emerged onto the music scene. Bowie was a fan of the band and offered to help them by producing their next album.

             The album opens up with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. For a band that was trying to redeem themselves (with David Bowie producing), opening an album with a cover song is pretty risky. However, the band does a fine rendition of the song. It doesn’t sound too different from the original except it is more glam rock. “Momma’s Little Jewel” is the first original song on the album and it’s a pretty good song. Hunter’s vocals sound a bit like Bowie’s (speaking of which, listen carefully to the beginning of the song and you can hear Bowie talking). Up next is the hit self-titled track, which was written by Bowie himself. An interesting thing to note is that Bowie offered the band “Suffragette City” but the band rejected the song. So Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” just for them. The song is widely regarded as one of the great glam rock anthems; although Bowie once claimed that the song wasn’t meant to be an anthem: it was supposed to go with the idea of an apocalypse which was a part of the story in Ziggy Stardust. Nevertheless, “All the Young Dudes” is a classic. “Sucker” is a simple little glam rock number while “Jerkin’ Crocus” is a full blown glam rocker. It’s just a nice, fast paced rocker and the chorus is just wonderful with the “I know” bits.

            Side two opens with “One of the Boys”, yet another rocker. There’s some great guitar work from Ralphs on this one and I believe you can hear Bowie on backing vocals. Verden Allen takes lead vocals for the keyboard-driven “Soft Ground”. Allen really shows off his skills on this one track. Mick Ralphs gets to sing on the next song “Ready for Love”. This is just a great classic rock track basically. The guitars are a bit crunchy and Ralphs is a pretty good singer. Some will know that Ralphs’ next band, Bad Company, would cover the song on their debut album in 1974 but I prefer Mott the Hoople’s version: it’s a bit heavier and it’s the original. The album closes with the ballad-esque “Sea Driver”. It’s a good song and it’s a min-epic of sorts, complete with a mini-orchestra.

            All the Young Dudes saved Mott the Hoople. The album was a hit in both the US and the UK. The self-titled track was also a hit single in both countries as well. With that, Mott the Hoople were able to continue with their career although Verden Allen quit before the band made their next album. The next album, simply titled Mott, is considered by some to be better than All the Young Dudes. Despite some line-up changes after the release of Mott, another studio album and then a live album followed before Ian Hunter quit. The remaining members would go on under the name Mott for a few years and then, British Lions. The band reunited for two concerts in January 2009 at the Hammersmith Apollo. The shows were so well received that the band did another couple of gigs before the year ended.

            All the Young Dudes is an album that speaks for itself: it’s an album that was made when glam rock was at its peak and among the dozens of albums released around that time; it’s still one of the best glam rock album ever made.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeking Electricity: Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk is 45

 Captain Beefheart - Safe as Milk
Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band
Safe As Milk
Rating: **** 

In 1967, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) would release his debut album. That album, Safe as Milk, was released in September of that year with his group, The Magic Band. The album flew under the radar and didn’t achieve any mainstream success. However 45 years later, people are still talking about Captain Beefheart as he is now seen as one of rock music’s greatest cult heroes. Safe as Milk is where it all started.

            Don Van Vliet was born on January 15, 1941. Growing up, Vliet had a love for art and sculpting. He also had a love for rock music and listened to blues records in his spare time. When Vliet attended high school, he met another music lover named Frank Zappa. According to Zappa, he and Vliet would listen to R&B records at Vliet’s house. Not too long after, Vliet took up to becoming a singer. He and Zappa recorded one or two demos until Zappa went off to join the Mothers of Invention. Vliet would eventually form his own group, the Magic Band, in 1965. Vliet also came up with his stage name: Captain Beefheart. The band was signed to A&M Records for a short time. During that period of time, they were able to gain some success with their cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”. The band was dropped by A&M most likely because they felt the band wasn’t conventional. The band signed with Buddah Records and began recording their debut album. While recording the album, the band found help from a young 20-year-old musician named Ry Cooder. With Buddah and Cooder, the Magic Band were able to record the album that A&M wouldn’t allow them to.

            In the wonderfully bizarre discography of Captain Beefheart, this debut album starts with a tame blues number “Sure ‘Nuff N Yes I Do”. Vliet’s vocals are very reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf’s: it sounds bluesy and you can clearly tell that Vliet loved listening to R&B records as a teenager. This is followed by the catchy “Zig Zag Wanderer”, which could’ve also been the opening track. The bass line is great and it sounds like something that could’ve been a hit. “Call On Me” might be weakest track off the album while the psychedelic “Dropout Boogie” has a hint of humor. “I’m Glad” is a really interesting song: by the song title, you would probably think that it’s upbeat. It isn’t. Instead, you have this downbeat doo-wop track. The lyrics are a bit ironic as Vliet sings about an ex-girlfriend, saying he’s glad about the good times they had. For the irony alone, “I’m Glad” is a stand out track. The next song, however, is my personal favorite off the album: “Electricity”. While Safe As Milk is pretty tame compared to the other albums Vliet would release, “Electricity” is where we first hear Vliet and the Magic Band get experimental. The guitars are wonderfully distorted and Vliet’s vocals are just zainy. You’ve got to love the way he yells and elongates “EEEE-LEC-TRIC-ITY!!” It is quite a frantic way to close out the first side.

            Side two opens with the surprisingly calm “Yellow Brick Road”. According to the 1999 CD reissue, Taj Mahal is on percussion on the track.  This is then followed by the humorous “Abba Zaba”. The song really isn’t about anything but it is known that Abba Zaba was a brand of bubble gum. The lyric about “big baboons” is based on the packaging of the gum. The delta blues influence is quite clear on songs such as “Plastic Factory” (which features some impressive harmonica playing from Vliet) and “Where There’s Woman”. “Grown So Ugly” is another bluesy number with some clever lyrics but it’s the eerie “Autumn’s Child” that ends the album. The song is pretty dark, which is rare for songs by Beefheart. The echoing harmonies are just beautiful and I know I sound like a broken record but Vliet’s vocals are superb on this song. In fact, I think this is his best vocal performance on the album.

            When released in September 1967, Safe as Milk failed to do much of anything. It wasn’t in the US charts and it wasn’t in the UK charts. It was in Europe, however, where the Magic Band had a small following. In fact, it has been said the John Lennon was a fan of the album. In a picture of Lennon in his house, you can clearly see two promotional bumper stickers for the album on Lennon’s cabinets. Despite the album not being able to achieve any commercial success, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band continued.  Beefheart was able to make more albums in the next 15 years including Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, and various others. In 1982, Beefheart released his last album Ice Cream for Crow. After it was released, he retired from the music business all together. Vliet devoted the rest of his life to art, which is something he did when he was younger. Vliet was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around this time, to the point where he was wheelchair-bound. On December 17, 2010, Don Van Vliet passed away at the age of 69.

            Decades after the release of Safe as Milk, music critics now praise the album as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Along with Beefheart’s other work, he has been cited as an influence by artists such as Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, and countless others. As of 2012, he has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, it probably doesn’t matter if he gets in. Safe as Milk and all of Captain Beefheart’s other albums speak for themselves: this man was ahead of his time.