Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads -- Talking Heads -- Review

The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982/2004)
Rating: 12
"Make a clean break, wipe that love away!"
Best Song: Love -> Building On Fire/Memories Can't Wait/Heaven
Worst Song: I'm Not in Love

       The gap between Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues was filled in by this, the band's first live album. It's been slightly overrated over the years, but I can't deny its power; this is a document of a brilliant band at the height of its powers. Name of This Band isn't a single, complete show; it's actually a compilation of several different Heads performances over the first four years of the band's existence. This definitely makes for an interesting listen, as the tracks are sequenced chronologically -- the tightly-wound guitar interplay of '77 leads into the mild synth touches of More Songs and Fear of Music, but the real shock comes when we hit the Remain in Light tour, as stalwarts like Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, and Nona Hendryx (along with a number of other backing members) join the band and effectively create a massive, all-encompassing dance-machine that just barely resembles the nerdy pop-rock shtick of the earlier tracks. 
       The album starts off with an absolute bang, a mini-set the band recorded live in the studio featuring tracks from 77. The group's energetic, David's vocals are in wonderful shape, and the interplay between David and Jerry's Fenders is even more mind-blowing than it was on the album -- in short, it's pretty much early-Heads-heaven. There's even a non-album rarity that made its way on here; it's called "A Clean Break (Let's Work)", and it's positively brilliant. Why it was left off of 77 is anyone's guess -- it's probably the best track here, topping even the infamous "Psycho Killer" in melody, performance, and sheer enthusiasm. The riffs are absolutely AWESOME, David's vocals are AWESOME ("Wipe that love awaaaaaAAYYYYYYY!"), and all in all it's easily one of my favorite Heads songs. Of course, this entire set of performances isn't quite perfect -- "Who Is It" is completely unnecessary, "The Book I Read" is pretty underwhelming (I was never crazy about it to begin with, but for some reason I really end up disliking the song in this context; chalk it up to my quirks, I guess), and "Pulled Up", while still great, doesn't quite match up to its studio incarnation. Everything else is gold, though.
       The album then takes a slight turn for the worse. It doesn't help that my two least favorite tracks from the 77 performance are placed right in a row at the end of the set, but the next few songs (all recorded during the More Songs About Buildings and Food era) after this dry spell also do a great deal of damage to the album's pacing. I like this version of "The Big Country" quite well out of context, but in context it sorta drags; same with "I'm Not in Love" and "The Girls Want to Be With the Girls" -- I like both of these songs, but the way they're structured in the album's overall flow just doesn't work well for me at all. It all gets really samey really quickly, and since none of these tracks are downright classics from a songwriting standpoint, it gets a little old. I do enjoy this early version of "Drugs", though; it's called "Electricity", and it replaces the creepy production and vocal effects of the original with a more traditional, riff-rocking style to great effect. "Found a Job" is next, and while I do miss those steel drums during the outro, it works just fine.
       The style completely shifts with the next few tracks, thankfully; I can't quite place my finger on it, but the rejuvenated guitar tones and added synth layers utilized by the band on the Fear of Music tour breathes a new layer of life into the album, one which it thankfully keeps for the rest of its running time.  There are some completely competent renditions of "Mind" and "Air" here, but the real meat comes in the three-track-stretch of "Love -> Building On Fire", "Memories Can't Wait", and "Heaven". "Building On Fire" is yet another non-album track, and it's nearly as good (if not just as good) as "A Clean Break"; the guitar lines are killer, the bridge is hilariously fun ("We go 'tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet! tweet!' like little birds!!"), and the main "It's not loooove!" hook in the chorus is ridiculously pleasing to the ear. "Memories" is done up in a hard-rocking, uber-dramatic fashion to great effect, and "Heaven" is given the room to breathe in a live setting that it never quite had on the original. Oh, and Byrne's delivery on the last verse is absolutely HEART-WRENCHING.
       And so ends the first disc. The second disc is completely different -- here we get a look at the Remain in Light band, a gigantic conglomerate with all sorts of guest musicians. Adrian Belew is a particularly inspired choice; his guitar effects help spice up nearly every song, and he's an invaluable addition to the group. Things start out well enough with another rendition of "Psycho Killer" followed by a decent run-through of "Warning Sign" and a particularly inspired "Stay Hungry". "Cities" is next, and...uh...what's that in the chorus? Oh yeah, that's Nona Hendryx singing backup. She sounds a little off-key, I'll admit, but she's in the background for the most part, so...she's fine. Besides, "I Zimbra" is next!
       ...aaaand she completely ruins it by shrieking like a dying wildebeest throughout it. Okay, she doesn't completely ruin it; the guitar interplay is AWESOME here, as Jerry, Adrian, AND David all swap licks and atmospheric touches. The vocal melody, however, is essentially left lying dead on the floor -- why couldn't they get Eno to sing backup on tour instead of HER? I mean, I guess she's fine as an over-the-top soul singer -- she was a member of the band Labelle back in the early 70s (most famous for the infamous "Lady Marmalade"), and as such, she's actually pretty great in "Take Me to the River" -- but when she tries to sing on something like "Houses in Motion" or "Once in a Lifetime" it's just flat-out painful.
       I can't blame her, though -- part of the allure of something like "The Great Curve" on Remain in Light was in Eno's intricately-constructed vocal arrangements, and those would be nigh-impossible to recreate in a live setting. And the guitars and rhythm section serve these tracks just fine -- yet another feat one would consider quite difficult given Eno's production, but the band members take up the job admirably. Of course, I'd be hard-pressed to call any of these repurposed songs better than their originals, and they generally work more in a "Wow, they were able to decently recreate *insert Light song here* in a live setting! How impressive!" way than in a "Wow, this is an awesome song! I feel the need to listen to this regularly!" way. That said, certain tracks are pretty cool -- the groove on "Crosseyed and Painless" is pretty freaking great, and this version of "Drugs" is flat-out AMAZING, combining the creepy effects found on the studio version with the liveliness and rocking guitar lines of the "Electricity" rendition found earlier in the album. "Take Me to the River" is a load of fun too, as the band delivers a more straight-forwardly thumping version than the quirky, awkward original.
       So it's not quite uber-essential listening, but it's still an interesting artifact of one of the best live bands ever. The first disc is certainly more pleasurable than the second, but I would whole-heartedly recommend the entire thing to any fans of the band. I'm not quite as in love with it as everyone else seems to be, but there's some great stuff to be found on here. Get it after you get a few studio albums, but still definitely get it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Abbey Road -- The Beatles -- Review

The cover of Abbey Road has no printed words. It is a photo of the Beatles, in side view, crossing the street in single file.
Abbey Road (1969)
Rating: 15
"Oh, that magic feeling / Nowhere to go"
Best Song: The entire second side
Worst Song: Come Together

       Awwwwww yeahhhhhh. As much as I love The Beatles, my adoration of it lies mainly in the fact that it attempts everything, and then proceeds to do everything successfully. However, while it is indeed well-structured, I still don't get the feeling like I'm listening to some grand "statement". It's just a bunch of really fantastic (hell, perfect) songs that...honestly have nothing to do with each other. This isn't a major flaw, just a simple fact. This thing, however, is where the band really grabs me by the jugular and refuses to let me go. THIS is their ultimate triumph, and I say this from both a personal and an objective viewpoint. 
       Simply put, this is one of the few Beatles albums that really gives me the "sensory overload" that I talked about in the introduction. For example, in the chorus of the doo-wop-influenced "Oh Darling" I genuinely have a hard time deciding on what great aspect I want to focus on! The banging piano? Paul's awesome vocals? Those incessant, biting *CLANK* guitar chords? Ringo's brilliant drumming? The awesome, 50s-ish backing vocals? Here's yet another example of the Fabs giving me what I personally crave in music -- brilliant songwriting PLUS brilliant, chock-full arrangements and production. No "Taxman"-esque emptiness to be found here, folks.
       Well...except for maybe the opening "Come Together". I know, I know, it's generally accepted as a classic, and it's one of the band's most famous numbers, but it's never been one of my favorites. The gibberish lyrics are rather silly, the arrangement is rather barren (although the pounding chorus is admittedly spectacular), and the melody just isn't catchy enough to completely hold my attention. Don't get me wrong, it's a fine song, but as far as major classics go it's always seemed a little weak to my ears.
       Everything else is sheer perfection, though. There's literally something for EVERYONE here. Don't care for the childlike fun of Ringo's cheerful "Octopus's Garden"? Well, I don't know why you wouldn't (it's the best thing he ever wrote), but just in case you don't, you'll probably find something more to your tastes in John's disturbing jazz-rock/proto-metal fusion monster "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". And while I could go on for hours about that one, I think the phrase "jazz-rock/proto-metal fusion monster" does a pretty decent job of summing up why that track is so unbelievably awesome...but I'll still go on about it anyway. The jazzy verses are wonderful in themselves, but it's the headbang-inducing heaviness of the chorus section that really sells this one for me. That looooong, gruesome fade-out has got to be one of the most memorable moments in Beatles history, and when the song finally drops out only to be replaced by the happy acoustic strums of "Here Comes the Sun", it's a wonderful effect.
       George's brilliant "Something" is also a highlight (if you don't get chills during that positively thunderous "You're asking me, will my love grow..." section, I'm fairly sure you don't have a soul), as is Paul's quirky murder story "Maxwell's Silver Hammer". I know a lot of people think it's stupid, and...yeah, it kinda is, but it's catchy, it's fun, and I love all the small (but effective!) touches throughout. Whether it be the cute, chipmunk-esque "Maxwell must go free!" backing vocals, the hilarious anvil sound effects, or the truly unique (and quite futuristic) synthesizer lines, there's always something going on here that puts a smile on my face and attracts my attention. 
      But as wonderful as all of these other tracks may be, the album's true genius is shown in the medley found on the second side. This story has become infamous by now, but I'll tell it anyway -- Paul and John had an assortment of random song snippets lying around, but both of them felt that these short snippets didn't deserve to be expanded into full-length songs. As such, they agreed to, for lack of a better word, smush them all together into one long, perfectly flowing medley. And, in my humble opinion, it's the best thing The Beatles ever did.
       While most would argue that the medley begins with "You Never Give Me Your Money", I often think of the previous track, "Because" as being in the medley as well -- the haunting, ethereal vibe of the piece just flows perfectly into the unsure, tender opening to "Money", doesn't it? Whatever the case, both songs are absolutely brilliant; "YNGMYM" in particular is absolutely classic, throwing a bunch of brilliant (and ridiculously emotional) ideas into something of an anthem. I'm especially fond of the joyful, ragtime-y "Out of college, money spent" section, and, of course, the moment right when Paul yells "Nowhere to go, uh!" and the rest of the band busts through with that insanely uplifting, triumphant scream of "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH-OOOOOOO!" is overwhelmingly brilliant, to my ears.
       And it's not like the rest of the medley is any worse. "Mean Mr. Mustard" features a fun character sketch from Lennon, and that fuzz-bass-driven groove is mighty tasty. "Golden Slumbers" is a perfect, ridiculously anthemic piano ballad, "Sun King" is one the band's most beautiful and soothing moments, and "Polythene Pam" is easily my second favorite rock song about a cross-dresser. Oh, and "Carry That Weight" just might be the best part of the whole thing -- those primal yells of "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time!" just SLAY me, and when the horn section kicks in....well, it almost makes me tear up a little. And of course, I think it's brilliant how elements of "You Never Give Me Your Money" are worked back into the track, as well; it really gives the whole medley a feeling of being an actual collective whole, as opposed to just a collection of random songs. 
       There's also a killer guitar solo, a goofy drum solo, and a completely self-deflating encore that keeps the whole affair from becoming too pretentious. But if ever pretension was deserved on a rock album, this is certainly the one that should earn it. In the end, Abbey Road is The Beatles' most touching, most emotional, most well-written, best-produced, most flat-out perfect album. It defines musical nirvana as I know it, and in the world of popular music, its stature is unassailable. If you've never heard it, you've never experienced one of the true examples of perfection in the world of mass art. 
       There, now is that pretentious and serious enough for you?

Past Masters, Volume 1 -- The Beatles -- Review

       
Past Masters, Volume 1 (1988)
Rating: 12
"How can you laugh when you know I'm down?"
Best Song: I Want to Hold Your Hand
Worst Song: I Call Your Name

       For those not in the know, in the late 80s EMI took a look at their vaults and realized that The Beatles had a great deal of material released only on singles. You see, back in the 50s and early 60s, bands would write 2 or 3 good singles and then record about 25 minutes of cover tunes and filler; this was how most pop albums were produced. The Fab Four, however, took a different approach, one designed to give their fans the most bang for their buck -- they would indeed record a series of brilliant, well-selling singles, but they would never actually place them on their albums, leading to every album containing nothing but completely new material. This was great back in the day, but by the 80s this proposition was a little troublesome; there was a load of great material released by the band that was virtually inaccessible.
       Enter Past Masters, a two-volume set of all the singles released by the band. This first set, comprised of material released from 1962 to 1965, is a little weaker than the second set, but it's still necessary. Sure, there are some middling tunes -- Ringo's cover of "Matchbox" is forgettable, Paul's chipper "She's a Woman" is rather boring, and John's "I Call Your Name" is just...meh. There are also German versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You", which, while fun for novelty value, are completely unnecessary when the brilliant originals are already placed on the exact same album.
       Other minuses include the silly "Bad Boy" and the slightly cheesy "This Boy" (although the middle eight on that one is friggin' excellent, featuring some of John's best vocals EVER), but everything else is definitely solid. The afore-mentioned "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" are pretty overplayed and ubiquitous, but you're heavily saturated with them for a reason! They're both spectacular pop gems, particularly "Hold Your Hand", which features some of the best harmonies I have EVER heard. "I'm Down" is Paul's attempt at something of a...hard-rock surf-rock doo-wop number, and he pulls it off handily -- it's brilliant. I've admittedly never been a huge fan of the group's first single "Love Me Do", but its follow-up, "From Me to You" is absolutely splendid, combining some great vocal melodies with a great harmonica line.
       There are other highlights as well (Paul's cover of "Long Tall Sally", "I'll Get You", and the groundbreaking "I Feel Fine"), but I'm sure you get the idea -- a great collection of a decent period by a great band. There are far more essential Beatles recordings, but I'd be hard-pressed not to recommend this at least somewhat. A solid buy.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Past Masters, Volume Two -- The Beatles -- Review


Past Masters, Volume Two (1988)
Rating: 14
"Don't you know it's gonna be / Alright!"
Best Song: ????
Worst Song: Old Brown Shoe

       The Past Masters train rolls on as we track the band throughout their true glory years. And yes, this is one hell of a compilation, one that should be owned by everyone. The disc kicks off with "Day Tripper", a song known by virtually everyone. What can I say -- it's catchy, the riff is immaculate, blah blah blah. Its b-side, "We Can Work It Out", might be even better, though. The melody is wonderful, the harmonium is a great touch, and I love how the tempo and mood keep shifting around throughout the whole track. Pretty freaking progressive for a pop single from 1965! (I should also mention that Stevie Wonder's little-known cover of this track is positively EXCELLENT.) Both of these songs are great, and I have absolutely no clue why either of them were left off of Rubber Soul (they were recorded during the same sessions) for substantially weaker material.
       Similarly, I have no idea why "Rain" and "Paperback Writer" didn't make it onto Revolver! Both tracks are FAR greater than anything like "Good Day Sunshine" or "Doctor Robert", and had they made it on there I might have even raised the score a bit. Ah well, we can still listen to them here, and they're both brilliant. "Rain" in particular is a stone-cold classic, filled with some AWESOME harmonies and what is quite possibly Ringo's best ever drumming. Oh, and dig that simply bizarre ending as John's vocal is filtered backwards over a sea of trumpet samples. Strange. Of course, "Paperback Writer" is no slouch either, but I'm sure you already know it by heart.
       Elsewhere you'll find hilarious novelty numbers ("You Know My Name"), one of George's best, most underrated Indian excursions ("The Inner Light"), and alternate versions of a few songs from Let It Be ("Across the Universe", "Get Back", and the title track) that are generally quite even with the original versions. You'll also find "Hey Jude" on here, which is still a classic...even if you've heard it 1,098,234 times. Sure, maybe the "na na na" coda winds on for a bit too long, but I still get chills when those horns kick in. Its B-side is hardly any worse, though -- "Revolution" is probably the Fabs' hardest-rocking tune ever, a complete jolt to the senses that thumps along with an intensity that one would expect on something like Led Zeppelin II, not a Beatles compilation.
       Paul's ridiculously catchy piano rocker "Lady Madonna" is also here (man, I love that saxophone line that kicks in from time to time), as well as John's rollicking "Ballad of John and Yoko" (man, I love those biting guitar leads that kick in from time to time) and his ridiculously emotional, powerful "Don't Let Me Down", one of my very favorite Beatles tunes (and one of my very favorite love songs ever, period). Why it didn't make it onto Let It Be is anybody's guess.
       And now we come to the problem of rating the album. There's no denying that the songs here are on the same level as the tracks on the "big four"; however, there is absolutely no "grand artistic scope/vision" here to push me over the edge into giving it a 15. (It also doesn't help that the singles are arranged strictly in chronological order, as opposed to simply placing them in a fashion that flows well like some other compilations.) I'll happily give it a 14, though, placing it firmly in the category of "not a completely perfect, groundbreaking artistic statement, but an undeniably essential addition to your music collection". And yes, I'm rating it higher than Rubber Soul and Revolver -- sue me.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Squeeze -- The Velvet Underground -- Review

Squeeze (1973)
Rating: 9
"Did I make you happy? Did I make you cry?"
Best Song: Little Jack
Worst Song: Dopey Joe

       After the commercial failure of Loaded, Lou, Sterling, and Maureen Tucker all left the band, leaving poor Doug Yule as the band's only remaining member. Not about to give up his last chance at commercial success, Yule got together with Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice and recorded a series of songs consisting of nothing more than Doug's voice, whatever instrument Doug was playing at the time, and Paice's drums. A saxophonist and some female vocalists were eventually brought in as an attempt to expand the sound, but for all intents and purposes, Squeeze is nothing more than a Doug Yule solo album. He sings lead, he sings harmony with himself (even attempting to pull off a decent Lou impersonation at times), he plays nearly every instrument, and he even produced the LP himself. The end result was a complete failure, both critically and commercially, leading most to pronounce the record one of the absolute worst of all time.
       So what does it actually sound like? Well, it's nothing more than 35 minutes of simple, two-to-three minute pop songs, just like the more flippant numbers found on Loaded. And I like it! I mean, it's hardly among the greatest albums ever, but it's not like Yule's musical talents suddenly disappeared. The best tracks here are easily the equal of "Who Loves the Sun", "Lonesome Cowboy Bill", and their ilk. Of course, those who think of Loaded as a terrible "sell-out" of an album would probably hate this, but me? Hey, I dig it. Fans of early-70s pop like Big Star should be all over this.
       Highlights include the ridiculously catchy "She'll Make You Cry", the Neil Diamond-aping "Caroline" (literally, the chorus features nothing but Yule shouting "Sweet Caroline!!"), and the countryish piano-pop of "Wordless". I'm also a fan of the opening "Little Jack", despite it being a hilariously obvious rip-off of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" -- the bouncing rhythm, the "hoo hooo!" backing vocals, and even the verse melody are essentially lifted straight from it. But all these elements are repurposed in a surprisingly fun, entertaining way, and I can't help but enjoy the track. Of course, it's not all perfect. "Crash" is a completely forgettable throwaway, and the over-repetitive "Dopey Joe" is...well...I'm sure you see this joke coming, but yes, it's indeed very dopey. The closing "Louise" isn't bad per se, but it's nothing more than a rather unmemorable piano-pop song that just so happens to feature a bridge which sounds IDENTICAL to the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". It's perfectly listenable, though.
       Hell, the whole album's perfectly listenable! It's probably the worst of the five proper studio albums released under the band's name, but if you have any fondness for Loaded and you want more VU goodness along those same lines, definitely give this a listen.

Speaking in Tongues -- Talking Heads -- Review

Speaking in Tongues (1983)
Rating: 8
"Stop making sense!"
Best Song: This Must Be the Place
Worst Song: Girlfriend is Better

       After the hyper-obsessive, ultra-intense sessions for Remain in Light were finished and the critical praise started rolling in, the band was stressed out to the max. They all proceeded to diverge and create a load of various solo projects (Byrne and Eno released their ultra-influential My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Jerry released his underrated solo debut The Red and the Black, and Tina and Chris joined forces and became the surprisingly successful Tom Tom Club) until they eventually got back together three years later...without Eno. Now, no one is quite sure exactly why Eno left, although most seem to think that Byrne fired him as a way of preserving the band's identity -- none of the other members were as head-over-heels in love with Brian as Byrne was, and I'm guessing that David decided to drop Eno as a way of keeping in-fighting down. Besides, after Remain, where were they going to go with Eno? What else could they do? They had reached the very top of the mountain, as far as groundbreaking sonic experimentation was concerned. And thus, they decided to go in the exact opposite direction...they SOLD OUT.   
       Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, but there's some truth to it -- the music video for "Once in a Lifetime" was a MAJOR MTV hit, becoming one of the most famous music videos ever, and the silly dance-pop of the Tom Tom Club had introduced some of the band members to a decent degree of popularity. I can't blame them for wanting to capitalize on their success, I just...wish they had done it in a more interesting way. This is nothing more than 50 straight minutes of bouncy dance-pop, "The Great Curve"-for-dummies, a poor man's Prince. It's all listenable, mind you (and certain songs, like the awesome, bluesy "Swamp" and the infamous "Burning Down the House" approach excellence), but it's also mostly forgettable. Of course, it was popular, and this album is the main reason that most average Joes recognize the name "Talking Heads", and for that I suppose I'm grateful, but I don't see myself throwing this one on very much in the future. 
       It also doesn't help that every song here is 5 or so minutes long (I suppose that's a suitable amount for a dance song, but still), leading to a very tiring experience. I could list some songs out for you, but I really don't see the point -- they're all bouncy, slightly catchy (well, except "Girlfriend is Better" -- I don't like that one at all), and generally pleasant background music, but from the people responsible for Fear of Music you would expect a little more than that. No thank you. (Oh, but "This Must Be the Place" is a deserved classic, a strangely beautiful, introspective near-ballad. Make sure to track down that one, "Burning Down the House", and "Swamp". You're welcome.)