Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Obscure Albums That You Should Hear Before You Die: Part 1

As one of the few surviving people of the Digital Apocalypse over the past 15 years, I still buy albums on CD. I have my reasons for this... Reasons that I could elaborate in blog-length form, but I will currently save for another time.
     What this old-fashioned habit of mine does afford me is the revered importance of the music album as a whole. Currently, you can go to iTunes and buy whatever songs like off an album and be done with it and move on to the next one. The problem with this mindset is that you, as the listener, miss out on songs that didn't immediately catch your attention and never truly got a chance to appreciate. I mean really, should we as a the listener be simply content to appreciate only the songs that are immediately catchy to us? For me, some of my favorite albums were ones I had work at liking. I mean seriously, as listeners, we should put a little effort into it!
     Now, I could go on at even further length about this... But that's not the point of this blog update. 
     I was once asked by my friend, (and drummer in my band), to make a list of 5 important albums for him to listen to - specifically ones that he'd never heard or possibly never knew existed. And... as a bonafide music-geek, I had quite the time compiling that short list for him...
     Coincidentally, one of those albums is the one that I'm going to dissect in this, the first of a series of blogs covering obscure albums that you, the mass public should hear..... At least once... And, (whether you enjoy it or not), should appreciate for their impact on the current music you probably listen to....
      So, without further ado...

Artist:  John Cale 
Album:  Fear
Year:  1974
   Hopefully, you have a vague idea of who John Cale is. If not, we'll make this quick: 
Cale was the counterpart to Lou Reed in the infamous Velvet Underground, until leaving the group and pursuing his own solo career, etc... Much like Lou Reed eventually did, as well. 
 Classically trained and proficient on the viola and piano, Cale brought an avant-garde classicism to the Velvet Undergound's first two albums and these aspects also came into play with his solo albums... 
       Alright, enough history... 

Side A
This album starts off with the track "Fear is a Man's Friend"... What seems to be a simplistic piano-based song, inevitably ends in a dissonant climax with Cale yelling the song's title repeatedly. The guitars in this song are fairly clean-sounding, with little distortion, while the bass guitar has a life of its own, rather becoming an integral part of the sonic framework instead of simply "keeping the beat."
     As an opener, this song certainly shows an example of proto-punk tendencies... A good 3 years before "punk" truly existed.....(It should be noted that Cale produced the Stooges' debut album and Patti Smith's "Horses"... So, in my humble opinion, he's a bit of a Godfather of Punk Music)...
     The ending cacophony of the first track suddenly gives way to it's polar opposite in the form of "Buffalo Ballet", a song that shows off the classical beauty of Cale's songwriting, comprised of piano, acoustic guitar, and lush orchestration.
      The rest of side A continues with the quirky "Barracuda", which brings back the guitar work and eventually fades out what could be considered a bit of viola solo - then, switching back to piano-based approach with "Emily." This song seems float along, with a timing that is not dissimilar to Brian Eno's "Deep Blue Day"... Not surprising, since Brian Eno played synthesizer and fellow Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera played on this album, as well.
Side B
      The second half of this album holds what could be considered the center-piece of this album - the song "Gun." This song certainly retains some aspects of Cale's traits that were evident in the Velvet Underground, (perhaps more specifically, the Underground's "White Light/White Heat"). We have a song that's 8 minutes long, partially droning in parts, and some cool guitar riffs throughout. It's vaguely bluesy... But what is really great about this song is the weird combination solo of an electric guitar being fed through a synthesizer being played by Eno in real-time. Basically a two-person synth/guitar solo happening simultaneously.. It sounds perfectly weird, awesome, and enlightening that there were people doing crazy stuff like this 40+ years ago.
      This is followed by the strange "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" which wouldn't sound out of place on a Queen album like "A Night At the Opera", with its dips into cabaret such as "Lazing On a Sunday Afternoon", albeit that Cale and his band sound more relaxed and less dainty.
      "You Know More Than I Know" is back to an almost classicist-pop style, which has intermittently been Cale's main tactic with song-writing - basically a baroque-pop feel. Yet another example of subdued beauty, much like side A's "Buffalo Ballet."
     The album closes with "Momamma Scuba" which is a prime example of soulful rock and roll - filtered through an art-rock sound. It's strange, unsettling, and not an expected closer for an album. But what this final song accomplishes is the ability to make the listener wish there was more. It almost feels unfinished as the the final song fades. But it indeed leaves the listener feeling a bit uneasy, which is a not uncommon tactic with Cale's musical output over the years.

   The good news is that Cale went on to do a string of critically acclaimed albums in the rest of the 70's. My personal suggestions for further listening are: "Slow Dazzle", "Helen of Troy" and ...(if you can find it or manage to get your hands on it)... "Sabotage/Live" recorded at CBGB's in 1979.
     One last particular that I should mention, is that when listening to this album - listen for the production style. These songs cover the range from simplistic rock band set-up to lush beautiful orchestration. Yet, each song exhibits a lot of space in the recording. In the first track, for instance, you can plainly pick out each individual instrument in the mix. And in the more complex songs, despite their lushness, you can still pick out individual instruments and parts. No ginormous Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" business here... Just a carefully produced and mixed album that still sounds amazing and relevant. So, please... Listen to this album with headphones... And enjoy... Or appreciate...

   Till next time, take it easy!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Albums of 2014... (More Or Less)...

Oh, it's that time again... End of the year lists of this and that... And my inevitable... (drum roll please)...

Top 10 Albums of 2014

First! A preface..
     Unlike last year... This year has proved to be a bit more difficult. Great pop albums were harder to come by. But there were several albums that had great staying power with me throughout the year, and even a nearly dead-last release date that made the cut-off point by only a week or two that made so I could round off this list.
     As always, this is a list of the most listened to and enjoyed albums I have had the opportunity to hear over the past year. If you're asking "Why didn't the new Ryan Adams or Tom Petty album make the list?" Well, it's because I haven't gotten the chance to listen to either of those yet. So keep your anger/frustrations for the comment section.
     So without further ado... Here they are...

Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World 
    When I heard these guys were doing another album 10 years after their debut album, I was kinda excited already. For a band with one album from 2004, a remix album, and then a band-break-up under their belts, a new album is something of a miracle. But what is also a miracle is how f*cking good this album is!
     It's just 2 dudes with fuzzy bass guitar and drums and some minimal synths, but these guys have greatly exceeded expectations. Highlights are the already-on-the-radio "Trainwreck 1979" and the killer "Right On, Frankenstein." And it doesn't let up from there. Tired of the continually experimental Queens of the Stone Age? Well, these guys are making stoner-rock that you can shake your ass to. So pick it up!

Old 97's - Most Messed Up
    Admittedly, I've never been a huge fan of these guys. Don't get me wrong, they're a good band. But I found them as a band that my Best-Of compilation would cover most of the high points. And believe me, they have had some high-points, (i.e. "Doreen", "Time Bomb")... But I never felt they were an album band.
     So after 20 years of recording albums, these guys somehow made the best damn through and through alt-country album of their career this year. Hell, the first track, "Longer Than You've Been Alive" is a full-on homage to those 20 years in the band. But it's songs like "Let's Get Drunk and Get It On" and "This Is the Ballad" that really show you how great of a songsmith Rhett Miller has become. And the band itself is in fine form with what sounds like literally live-in-the-studio recordings of these songs, giving them a sense of energy that I can only imagine is in full-force with their live shows.

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn
     I stumbled on this album by accident, simply by walking through Music Millennium and they happened to be playing this very album. I had to go over and ask them who it was over the stereo.
   Needless to say, I walked out of there with this album.
     As a whole, this album sounds like it was recorded in 1992. Sorta like a hybrid between the Ronettes and the Breeders, this band makes music that will fit in with your Best Coast albums, but also shines brighter than those with way better guitar work, (see "Losing to the Dark" for some sweet Dinosaur Jr.-type soloing)...
     This album is best heard during the summer and gives off the feel of road trips to the beach. So, if you missed it this past summer, pick it up and be prepared for this next year!

The Flaming Lips - With a Little Help From My Fwends
    Well, this one is going to divide a lot of people, (kind of like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), in that you either see it as a interesting and sometimes brilliant view of a classic album.... or.... a complete sacrilege and desecration of a classic album.
     If nothing else, you should at least give this album a listen to see which camp you're in. Obviously, I'm of the former camp. I really do enjoy this technicolor/acid-trip version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  With a wacky guest list that includes the likes of My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog, Miley Cyrus, Tegan and Sara, Moby,  Phantogram, etc...
      Sure, it's not the best thing the Lips have done in the past 10 years, but it's still a lot of fun!

Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
      After years and years of work with Blur and the Gorillaz, we finally get a taste of the the first true solo album from Damon Albarn. And it's excellent.
       The songs are a perfect culmination of what Albarn's been doing in other projects over the past 10 years or more. Songs like "Lonely Press Play" and "Mr. Tembo" have the feel of Albarn's world-music excursions and the subtle electronic elements of recent Gorillaz efforts - all the while providing  basic everyday observations of isolation and modern life.
       The album is a great listen, if not a somber one. And if we're not getting a new Blur album anytime soon, it's go to know we have this solo effort to tide us over... (Plus, having Brian Eno guest in on "Heavy Seas of Love"is just the cherry on top)...

Foster the People - Supermodel
     The bad news first: there's no "Pumped Up Kicks" on this album. But the good news is that Foster the People really sounds like a band now with good cohesive songs that dig into your ears upon further listens. Granted, I wish they had something as ridiculously catchy as "Pumped Up Kicks" - but I can be sufficed with a really solid pop album from these guys.
    The album isn't ground-breaking, but then again.... neither was their debut.  But it does sound good, and the songs are definitely well-crafted - although not irritatingly catchy... Which in the long run, will serve this band well.
     In fact, maybe that's what I like about this album. There's no standout "single" on it. The songs are all nicely done, but none jumps out and says "Oh hey! I'm the single off this album!" One could argue that maybe it's not as good as the previous album, etc.. but that's really beside the point. It's a different album, made under different circumstances... Of course, it's not going to be the exact same thing we loved a couple years ago, and really... Should it have to be?

The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams
     I'm always stoked when I hear that there's going to be a new Hold Steady album. This year had a lot of build-up for this band and Teeth Dreams definitely comes through. This album is certainly a return to form, (sounding more like "Stay Positive" or "Almost Killed Me"), and that could be due to less keyboard work on the album - (they seemed to be heading this direction after the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay anyway... Although, I enjoyed "Heaven Is Whenever" more than most critics/fans did, I suppose)...
     But with songs about doomsday preppers, ("I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"), isolated people in the big city, ("Spinners"), Craig Finn takes us on welcome lyrical journeys that are at once unnerving and fascinating and all together extremely real.
     So for all you folks who can't handle Finn's talking/singing voice... Get over it! You're missing out on some intensely good song-writing here, and Teeth Dreams is an excellent place to start.

Various Artists - Guardians of the Galaxy Soundtrack
     Okay, it's not technically an album recorded this year - but it was compiled this year and is probably the most-listened to album in the past year for me... So much that my kids even became obsessed with it and had their own particular favorites.
      But honestly, this soundtrack is great.... If not just for Blue Swede's "Hooked On a Feeling", but also for Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love", and/or Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" (which I hadn't heard since back when I saw "Boogie Nights" for the first time...)... This soundtrack is just amazing on an impromptu road trip.
     You should already have this album..... And if you don't, I suggest you sneak off and pick it up...Your friends will be none the wiser...

Cracker - Berkeley to Bakersfield
     This one slipped in a couple of weeks before the end of the year. In fact, I almost missed it's arrival. Cracker hadn't made an album since 2009, with David Lowery focusing more on Camper Van Beethoven stuff.
       But luckily, I found out about this release in the nick of time.
      So after 5 years since their last album, Cracker releases a double album that showcases the 2 sides of this band. Disc 1: Berkeley tends toward the mid-90's alt-rock that Cracker has dappled with over the past 20 or more years, and even pulls out some funkiness with "El Cerrito" that is reminiscent of "Get Off This" from their  90's heyday.
     Disc 2: Bakersfield trends more to the alt-country leanings that have become more and more predominant for this band. Johnny Hickman takes the mic for "California Country Boy" and "The San Bernardino Boy" which are some of the strongest he's sung since "Lonesome Johnny Blues" in 1993.
      Overall, the band wraps this all up in a nice package that despite being a double-album, it feels shorter and doesn't overstay it's welcome. And it's also nice to know that David Lowery is still the king of quirky, almost dada-esque, lyrics...
      Sometimes it's the things that don't change that give me the most listening joy... And the fact that Cracker is still making albums how they want to and when they want to gives me a nice a cozy feeling inside... (Like a nice glass of whiskey)...

Perfume Genius - Too Bright
       Sometimes I find a good album that sneaks up on me... I found this album from internet perusing,  and I'm glad I did.  Probably the most soulful-sounding pop album I've come across in awhile.
        Starting things off with a sparse piano ballad with "I Decline" that sounds like Thom Yorke with a hell of a lot more soul, this album heads out into dark synth-pop tinged explorations. This is melancholy listening in it's finest form.
      There's certainly a minimalism to these songs that still manages to sound full and beautiful... Hmmmm.... Maybe imagine Lorde with less sparseness and...well.... way better songs. Or maybe like a Chromatics album, but less icy-cold. That's about all I can come up with.
     Well, words are going to convey how good this album is. So go hear it/experience it for yourself... Start with this track... "Queen"...

  So there's my top 10 albums... Now, bear in mind there were some other really good releases this year:
The Black Keys' "Turn Blue" was quite good.
Skrillex released a pretty damn good electronica album that wasn't completely overwhelmed by dubstep.
Beck's "Morning Phase" was quite good, as well - the same for Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence"...
Even Tweedy's release "Sukierae" was great, (which I had had my doubts about)...
And one of my favorites was Wilco's "Alpha Mike Foxtrot" collection of rare tracks from the past 20 years...
   But for better or worse, those were my top 10 for this last year.. now yours?