Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Loaded -- The Velvet Underground -- Review

Loaded (1970)
Rating: 14
"Somethin's got a hold on me / And I don't know what"
Best Song: New Age or Sweet Jane
Worst Song: Train 'Round the Bend

      I'm not even gonna try and hide my hand on this one -- as far as pop albums go, I insist there aren't many much better than this. I know it has its haters, and the majority just hold it up as a "pretty good" addition to the Velvets' legacy, and I know it makes me super uncool, but I can't help it -- I think this gigantic cheesy poppy sell-out is their best work, and it's easily one of my favorite albums of all time. As far as smile-inducing music goes, I really don't think one can beat Loaded
      For the uninitiated, the legend goes that after the paltry sales of The Velvet Underground, the band's record company advised Lou to write an album "loaded with hits". Obviously, knowing how cynical Reed can be, it should come as no surprise that quite a few of these tracks come off as parodies of 60s pop: "I Found a Reason" is a ridiculously schmaltzy doo-wop ballad complete with a dramatic spoken-word confession of love from Reed (when he begins reciting with that deadpan "Honey...", it's everything I can do to keep from cracking up), and the opening "Who Loves the Sun" is an exceedingly cheery, Turtles-or-Zombies-esque pop song complete with goofy wordless backing vocals and a completely accessible melody. Nevertheless, as ironic and sly as these tracks may be, they're still completely brilliant from a songwriting perspective. They're silly pop songs, sure, but they're GREAT silly pop songs, full of brilliant little details. Take, for example, the bridge of the latter, where the track randomly derails into an acoustic-led vocal harmony breakdown and then shuffles back into the chorus just as fast as it left it. Or the outro of "I Found a Reason", where the mood suddenly turns from romantic to completely desperate, with the almost-haunting mantra of "You better come, COME COME, COME to me" gradually fading the tune out. The entire album is full of incredibly effective and memorable little moments like these, and these aren't even the very best songs!
      "Sweet Jane" definitely is, though, but you probably already know that one. On the off chance you don't, then by god, you should -- it perfectly captures Reed's magical ability to craft songs that are both rambling and anthemic, and it's one of his very best. It just keeps growing and growing and building and building, culminating in that synth-led climax (a synth-led climax! in 1970!!) with Doug and Lou shouting as triumphant a cry of "LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!" as I've ever heard, followed by some more joyous chants of the title. It's a classic, dammit. And not much worse is the breezy California soft-rock of "Rock & Roll", another of the band's most famous tracks. It deserves the status, too, with its frenzied mid-section, fun lyrics, and memorable laid-back guitar riffs. Equally triumphant and joyous is the pounding "Head Held High", cleverly kicked off by a soothing choral intro. This first impression is quickly offset by a startling drum fill, followed by some of Lou's most rowdy, energetic vocal work ever. I don't know what else there is to say -- just like the other two anthems I've mentioned, it's got a passionate buildup, an incredibly catchy melody, and an epic climax featuring the band chanting the title for all its worth. Silly, throwaway pop formula? I guess so, man, but there aren't many other songs in the world that give me as much joy as these do.
      And besides, it's not like the album is nothing but upbeat soft-rock anthems -- far from it! You've got some fun, catchy country-rock (the fantastic "Cool It Down", the less-fantastic-but-still-entertaining "Lonesome Cowboy Bill"), some groovy feedback-driven experimentation ("Train 'Round the Bend", which admittedly is kinda weak, but is more or less saved by the aforementioned production experiments), and a 7-minute proto-power-ballad with an extended outro full of guitar heroics ("Oh, Sweet Nuthin'", which makes for a fantastically anthemic closer along the lines of "Hey Jude" or "You Can't Always Get What You Want""). And the very best song of all just might be "New Age", a song that strives for the late-night mood of The Velvet Underground and manages to do it even more effectively. From the tepid opening of "Can I have your autograph?" all the way up to the explosive, chillbump-inducing proclamations that it's "The beginning of a new age", I can't think of a much better classic rock ballad than this one.
      Of course, it's pretty obvious that Loaded has next-to-nothing to do with the Velvet Underground's legacy to this point, and if you're a jaded indie guy who worships at the altar of White Light/White Heat and Nico, then there's a decent chance this album just might disgust you. It's super soft, super happy, and virtually inoffensive -- virtually everything the band in its earlier incarnation was trying to rebel against. But if you go into it with an open mind, and understand that good pop music is just as valid an artistic medium as noisy, droning experimentation, then I don't see how one couldn't enjoy the living daylights out of this.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Velvet Underground -- The Velvet Underground -- Review

The Velvet Underground (1969)
Rating: 12
"Help me in my weakness, 'cause I've fallen out of grace"
Best Song: Beginning to See the Light
Worst Song: Some Kinda Love

       Well, after White Light/White Heat, John Cale decided to leave. I can't seem to find out a definite reason why (most think that it was due to tension between him and Reed), but whatever the case -- he's out, and Doug Yule is in. Yule, a veteran of some long-forgotten contemporary of the band called The Grass Menagerie, brought along with him something of a gentle, folky sensibility. This, coupled with the fact that all of the band's amps and pedals had been stolen, led to the group deciding to take their next album in a direction resembling the softer songs from their previous two records -- tracks like "Here She Comes Now" and "Sunday Morning". This ended up giving the whole affair something of a smoky, late-night/morning-after vibe that I've never really encountered on any other album. This general mood is absolutely wonderful and incredibly unique -- had they combined this mood with some extremely strong songwriting, the band could've made the strongest album of their career...emphasis on the "could've".
       Instead they simply made one of the better albums of their career, one that is indeed good, but also one that falls juuust short of all-time greatness. There's just too much flat-out filler here, such as the meandering, countryish "Some Kinda Love". The lyrics are mildly amusing, but the twanging guitars get a bit repetitive, the vocal melody doesn't really...erm...exist, and the whole thing just screams "Unneccessary!" in my ears. Yawn.
       There's also the issue of over-repetition that rears its ugly head every so often. Of course, a low-key folk-rock album can only have so much diversity, but the problem with repetition isn't only found in the style itself...it's also in the melodies. "Candy Says" and "Jesus", while both absolutely beautiful, heart-wrenching ballads, sound very similar, and "That's the Story of My Life" is nothing more than an silly acoustic retake of the uplifting, far superior "Beginning to See the Light".
       That's not to say that the entire album is nothing more than a bunch of sleepy folk songs built on dreamy arpeggiated guitars and soothing vocals, though; there are a number of exceptions to this general rule. "What Goes On" and the aforementioned "Beginning to See the Light" actually come close to being what you might call rockers! Anthemic vocals, powerful (but still subtle) multi-tracked guitar strums, and, in the case of "What Goes On", some wonderfully uplifting organ work help distance these tracks from the insomnia-aiding calm of the album's other songs. In addition to providing needed diversity, they're also simply flat-out wonderful songs. "I'm Beginning" is a particularly strong track; Lou's vocal melody is great, the layered acoustic riffage provides a wonderful backing, and the lengthy coda where the band keeps singing "How does it feeeeeel to be looooooooooved?" in unison is simply magical, one of the most memorable highlights of the whole VU catalog.
       Another song that's rather different than the bulk of the album's material is the simply bizarre "Murder Mystery", a 10-minute (!), multi-part song suite filled with deadpan spoken-word recitations, eerie keyboard lines, bashing drums, and some nice singing from Lou, Yule, and even drummer Maureen Tucker (who, despite being barely used by the band, has a pleasant child-like quality to her voice). The song eventually turns into something completely different around the 7-minute mark as it completely drops out and a strangely chipper piano line comes in. The brief moment of levity is then spoiled by a load of disturbing lyrics, dissonant feedback, and what sounds like a small army of out-of-tune pianos attacking the listener...and then it ends. Is it cool? Yeah, sure. Does it need to go on for 10 minutes? Nah, but it holds its length better than you might expect, and it's a welcome addition to the album.
       "The Murder Mystery"'s finish heralds the start of the album's final tune, the wonderfully charming "After Hours" (not to be confused with Martin Scorcese's criminally underrated film). It's nothing more than a simple acoustic show-tune sung by Maureen, but it works wonderfully as a closer to the whole experience. There are also a number of other ballads, including the magical "Pale Blue Eyes" and the uplifting, empowering "I'm Set Free", but that basic description pretty much sums up the album. No, it's not their best, but it's quite good, and the mood it creates is completely unique and very special. Don't get it first, but get it soon afterwards.

The Velvet Underground -- White Light/White Heat -- Review

White Light/White Heat (1968)
Rating: 10
"Aw, you shouldn't do that! Don't you know you'll stain the carpet?"
Best Song: White Light/White Heat
Worst Song: The Gift

       Is it wrong of me to say that I enjoy this one more than the debut? ...well, obviously it's not *wrong*, it's only a matter of personal opinion, but still -- 9 times out of 10 I would much rather listen to this than Nico.
       ....which is pretty ironic, since this one is FAR more purposely ugly and nihilistic than its predecessor. The band took the feedback squalls and avant-garde nuttiness of "The Black Angel's Death Song" and "European Son" and basically extended them into an entire album. No catchy guitar-rockers, no happy pop songs, no stately ballads...pretty much everything on here is dedicated to frightening and, to some degree, irritating the listener in ever way imaginable. And yet it's an accepted classic, and a completely enjoyable listen?
       One song, "The Gift", even goes so far as to have no melody at all -- it's just a short story being read aloud by Cale while the band mindlessly jams along behind him. It would be hard to even call it a "song", but for whatever reason it...kinda works. Now don't get me wrong, it's far and away the worst track on the album, but there's still SOMETHING about the song that attracts me to it. Those feedback squeals combined with Cale's hilarious accent make the song work juuuust enough to get by. It also helps that the story itself, written by Lou back in his college days, is quite entertaining. It's essentially a tale of two lovers who are separated, and the lengths that the guy in the relationship, Waldo Jeffers, is willing to go to in order to be reunited with his girlfriend...but of course, everything goes completely awry in an absolutely bizarre, darkly comedic fashion. Note to self and all blog-readers -- packaging and mailing yourself to a loved one, while a perfectly clever idea, isn't the smartest thing to do.
       The title track is a major classic, with the band returning to that incredibly effective *chank*chank*chank*chank* groove of songs like "I'm Waiting for the Man", albeit in an even harsher, sloppier way. The melody is brilliant (those backing vocal chants of "White light!" and "White heat!" are sooo catchy to me), the groove is irresistible, and that throbbing bass solo at the very end is just as disorienting and mind-blowing as I'm sure the band intended it to be.
       "Here She Comes Now" is a wonderful respite from the noise of the rest album, a gentle ballad that while short, works wonderfully in context. The melody is also very nice, and the low-key atmosphere is rather addictive, much like the ballads off of the next album. Even tastier is "Lady Godiva's Operation", a song that rises from the ashes of "The Gift". As the final crushing guitar notes fade out from that track, "Lady Godiva" kicks in to wonderful effect -- the seductive, very full sound of the song works wonderfully to take the listener out of the disjointedness of "The Gift". The song proceeds along this path as Cale sings a wonderfully seductive vocal melody over the dangerous-sounding (yet somehow slightly beautiful) backing track...until Lou randomly comes in at the end with an assortment of sound effects and jarring spoken-word declarations. The song then essentially collapses under its own weight after a minute of this chaos, to delightful effect.
       But all of this fades into the distance when we finally approach the album's final, most infamous track...I am speaking, of course, of the 17-minute "Sister Ray". As you probably already know, the song is nothing more than the band grinding on the same primitive riff over and over and over again for nearly 20 minutes. It's definitely jarring, and it's definitely a groundbreaking piece of music...but is it any good?
       Surprisingly, the answer is a rousing yes. It definitely is. Although I must agree with what many others have said before me -- it would make a BRILLIANT 8 or 9-minute track, whereas the 17-minute version is slight overkill. Nevertheless, the repetition of the same musical phrase over and over again gives the song an indisputably anthemic quality, and that basic guitar riff is SO pleasing on a near-primal level that it becomes hard to resist. If you were to travel back in time to the Middle Ages and explain the genre of music known as "rock and roll" to someone, I imagine that they would picture it as something like "Sister Ray". It's the one of the few 60s songs I've heard that still sounds legitimately frightening to this day. The only other possible contender for this title would be Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused", but even that has a level of professionalism and studio polish -- this features nothing along those lines AT ALL.
       Hell, the band's producer notoriously walked out of the studio halfway through the recording of "Sister Ray", refusing to participate in the creation of what he thought was sheer aural torture. The levels of distortion on the track approach levels of white noise from time to time (in fact, White Noise/White Heat would've been a pretty great name for the album), and while I prefer my bouts of sheer noise to be momentary rather than lengthy (and there are more than a couple of minutes of the song's running time where the noise reaches that level of extremity), the track still cooks on a general level. THIS, ladies and gents, is pure proto-punk -- one of the very first examples of rock and roll boiled down to its rawest elements. This is rock music dragged by the knuckles all the way back to its purest essence, and while you may not be able to stand it, I find it quite interesting and even pleasing, on some primal level or another.
       Y'know, you might as well just go ahead and use those last few sentences to describe the entire album. This is a band searching desperately to find the primordial ooze that rock'n'roll seeped out of, and then perverting and mangling that ooze into what must have been a ridiculously frightening piece of work when it came out. And you know what....it's still a bit disconcerting now.
       Yeah, now. Now!!!!! In the time of derivative scream bands, ridiculously edgy bands like, uh, I dunno, Death Grips, and loads of other artists making music for the sheer purpose of offending people's sensibilities: morally, musically, and otherwise -- this thing is still dangerous-sounding. It still shocks you when you first turn it on. There's something to be said about that -- I don't even think you could say something like that about The Velvet Underground and Nico. That's some seriously notable staying power.
       The sheer musical elements here still aren't quite enough for me to give the album anything higher than an 11, but everyone needs to give this a listen. And yes, I truly mean EVERYONE. I give it my highest recommendation...even if my score might not say as much. This is an album truly like no other.

Buy it here: White Light/White Heat

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Different Kind of Truth -- Van Halen -- Review

A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Rating: 7
"You wanna be a monk, you gotta cook a lotta rice"
Best Song: Blood and Fire
Worst Song: China Town, maybe...

       Well they heard you missed 'em, and they're back. Apparently time heals all wounds, and thus Diamond Dave rejoined forces with Eddie, Alex, and Micha--...oh, wait. Michael Anthony's still missing, leaving Eddie's son Wolfgang Van Halen (I'm still torn as to whether that's an amazing name, or a terrible one) to take over the duties on backing vocals and bass. And hey, he's great! I actually saw this lineup live last year (great show, by the way), and Wolfie absolutely tore it up -- he's a fantastic bass player, one that's easily as talented as Michael in my opinion.
       And as for the other band members, geeez these guys are on fire. Alex hasn't lost a beat since the band's glory days (pun most certainly intended), and Eddie, well, he might sound even better than he used to! Okay, his tone on the album is a little too "generic heavy metal" for my tastes, but as far as sheer chutzpah and talent is concerned, he's at the top of his game. Roth, on the other hand...well...
        ...he kinda sucks. Actually, "kinda" is too nice of a word; he really sucks. I would go as far as saying that his voice actually downgrades the album by a decent amount. For starters, he's mixed really loud, so it's virtually impossible to look over him. For the entire fifty-minute running time, he sounds like an old man trying ridiculously hard to be hip, and it's very, very painful -- especially on a song like "Stay Frosty", where he attempts to reach back into the showman shtick of tracks like "Big Bad Bill" or "Ice Cream Man" to particularly embarrassing effect. It's bad. Really bad. And the rest of the band, while certainly professional and talented, don't really sound like Van Halen. There's none of the winking irony, the interesting sonic techniques, or the unique instrumental ideas. Eddie's playing is impressive, yes, but it's not that enjoyable. It's just a lot of showboating wankery, and it just doesn't quite work for me.
       The songwriting here isn't exactly aces either. Some tracks, like the pummeling "She's the Woman" and "Blood and Fire" were written back during the band's early years, and these are the clear highlights ("Blood" is actually a near-classic, a powerful "we're the best!" anthem that actually lives up to its slightly self-aggrandizing lyrics) -- the newer material, though, like the afore-mentioned "Stay Frosty", sticks out like a sore thumb, and even some of the older tracks come off as stilted and awkward thanks to Dave's paltry delivery. It also doesn't help that the band is in full-on "RAWK" mode for the entire record, leaving you completely bored after about four tracks. I've heard worse reunion albums, sure, but I've also heard much better, and unless you're a really big fan, I wouldn't go for it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Talking Heads -- Album Reviews

Talking Heads -- Complete Discography

'77 -- Talking Heads -- Review

Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
Rating: 11
"Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good!"
Best Song: Tentative Decisions
Worst Song: First Week/Last Week...Carefree

       A wonderful debut. It doesn't reach quite the heights of the band's later work, and the production isn't nearly as special as it eventually would be (don't worry, Eno will be here soon!), but the songwriting is already at a high level, and the band is already startlingly sharp in their precision. This is essentially an album of nothing more than quirky, catchy guitar-pop songs, but they're nearly all classics on one level or another, and there's a surprisingly great deal of diversity to be found here.
       Not to mention that the album's guitar work is uniformly brilliant. Most reviewers seem to skip over this fact, opting instead to fawn over the band's guitar style on the famed live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Don't get me wrong, the '77 tracks found on Name of This Band are wonderful, but the guitar interplay here is just as excellent. The only difference is that the guitars aren't mixed nearly as loud, leading to a good deal of people glossing over them. But don't! -- the riffage on tracks like "New Feeling", "Don't Worry About the Government", and "Psycho Killer" is of a jaw-dropping quality. The band also indulges in a great deal of instrumental experimentation here that they would eventually abandon, for better or worse. You get some nice steel drums on the opening "Uh-Oh! Love Has Come to Town" (giving the track a wonderfully bouncy reggae feel), some tasty saxophone solos on "First Week/Last Week", some barroom piano here and there...it works wonderfully, and these little instrumental touches often provide a great boon to helping distinguish the various tracks and making them stand out even more.
       Highlights include the classic "Psycho Killer" (it of the infamous "oh-ho-ho-ohhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHH, AY-AYE-YEAH-YEAH-YEAAHH-OOOOOOOOoooooo" chorus) which has, for some odd reason, become one of the band's best known songs; the aforementioned pop of "Love Has Come to Town; and the AWESOME "Pulled Up", featuring some of the best New Wave riffs imaginable along with one of Byrne's most inspired deliveries ever.
       Hell, this whole album features some of Byrne's most inspired deliveries ever. Aside from "Pulled Up" and "Psycho Killer", he's also excellent in the hysterically quirky "Happy Day" (I love how it almost sounds like he's in serious physical pain as he squeals "it's such a happy...DAYYY-AY" in such a disturbing way, giving the otherwise pleasant ballad a touch of menace and dark irony) and the wondrously geeky love song "The Book I Read".
       On the bizarrely anthemic, multi-part "No Compassion" (which just so happens to feature a brilliant mid-song instrumental breakdown and some of the album's very best guitar lines), Byrne takes on the guise of one who is constantly looked to for answers, and he doesn't necessarily like this position. "Talk to your analysts!" he sings, "Isn't that what they're paid for?" He plays a similar character during the WONDERFUL "Tentative Decisions", another song that one could easily describe as anthemic. David dishes out romantic advice in the way that only he can as martial drumbeats, skitchy guitar lines, and infinitely catchy backing vocals (good luck getting the chorus out of your head -- I've been humming "Oh, the boys...want to talk..." for a good two weeks) accompany him. A criminally underrated track, and in my opinion, it's secretly one of the band's very best.
       Yes, it's a great album. A few songs might be a little forgettable ("Who Is It", "The Book I Read", and "First Week/Last Week" don't do a whole lot for me in particular) and the sound gets a *bit* samey after a while, but the vast majority of the material here is pretty freaking delightful. It might not be their greatest album, but it just might be their most fun. Get it soon.

Talking Heads -- More Songs About Buildings and Food -- Review

More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Rating: 12
"I wouldn't live there if you paid me to"
Best Song: With Our Love
Worst Song: I have no idea.

       As you probably know, after the debut the band met a young producer by the name of Brian Eno. For those not in the know, Eno is one of the most brilliant and influential figures in pop music history, a force to be reckoned with as both a producer for many other successful artists (Devo, U2, and obviously Talking Heads) and in his own solo career (a series of reviews dedicated to said career will be written in due time). His influence on the Heads is immeasurable, and a great deal of their best material came as a result of his own direct involvement. While not nearly as revolutionary as the later Talking Heads/Eno collaborations, More Songs About Buildings and Food is a major step forward for the band. Eno took the quirky guitar-pop of the debut and forced the band to partake in an endless series of overdubbing sessions. Thus, the sound of the album is ridiculously dense with chugging guitar rhythms, synth effects, and bass grooves, and it works excellently, especially when compared to the relatively spare sound of '77
       The opening "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" demonstrates this new style with a surprisingly high level of force. The name of the game here is momentum, as the band pummels (okay, that might be a bit too harsh of a word for Talking Heads, but you get the idea) over a powerful drumbeat and what is quite possibly the album's best vocal melody. It's nothing more than two straight minutes of pure exuberance, and it's a GREAT start to the whole affair. I'm especially fond of those ridiculously empowering guitar strums during the chorus -- "Yes you can *BANG* walk! You can *BANG* talk just like me!".
       "With Our Love" is another obvious highlight, featuring a great vocal melody along with some BRILLIANTLY layered guitar work and an amazing bass line. I also love how the first verse/chorus of the track is completely happy and chipper, but the second repetition of this section (which is musically identical to the first) comes across as moody/eerie/anthemic/whatever simply by the addition of a hardly noticeable, slightly ominous synth line. That's Eno for you -- completely redefining what a song is like by merely adding a subtle change in sound.
       "The Good Thing" combines some hilariously academic, geeky lyrics with a strangely inspiring chorus (Tina's backing vocals work excellently here) and a wonderful ending as the band jams out behind Bryne screaming "Watch me wooork!" over and over again. And don't forget about the subtly brilliant "Warning Sign"! Byrne's vocal melody isn't especially memorable here, but the instrumental texture is fantastic. The bizarre, echoey drum sound works together with a small army of disorienting guitar lines and an incessantly catchy bass groove to absolutely wonderful effect. Oh, and the creepy filter on David's voice is another excellent touch. "The Girls Want to Be with the Girls" would be notable enough just for being one of the first-ever LGBT anthems, but it also includes some wonderfully bouncy keyboard and an excellent guitar-driven after-chorus.
       The lyrics in "Found a Job" are some of the band's wackiest ever -- it's the story of a couple who save their marriage by creating their own television show; however, the contents of the show are left to the listener's imagination. Of course, the fact that "Judy's in the bedroom inventing situations" is a prominent line in the chorus gives us a hint, but who knows. The song's lyrics aren't the only objects of note, however; the guitar interplay here is at an all-time-high for the band, and the lengthy coda where Jerry and David jam over a wonderful steel drum melody is one of the greatest moments in all of Head-dom.
       "I'm Not in Love" isn't an especially memorable tune, but it seems that Eno noticed this and decided to dress it up in as dense an arrangement as possible -- as a result, the track still works, if only because the band flat-out COOKS during the instrumental sections. I also like the oft-hated "Big Country"; maybe it's just because the mere idea of Talking Heads doing a country song makes me slightly giddy, but I definitely enjoy the song more than not. Sure, the live version on Name of This Band is a definite improvement, but at least the original has some wonderful slide guitar work, eh?
       There are some other highlights here ("Stay Hungry" is another especially good one), but you get the idea -- this is a classic album through and through. The only reason it gets a slightly lower score than you might expect is that it's very samey throughout and the highs, while wonderful, aren't *quite* classic enough to put it over the edge. And, for the record, Eno produced ANOTHER post-punk album in 1978 that's even better than this one, but...that's a story for another time (I've got a gut feeling it'll come up again at some point in the future....*wink, wink*) . The band was soon to leave the world of minimalistic guitar rock behind, but their time in the genre was certainly not a waste. An excellent effort.