Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #23: The Band

The Long Fade Away

The Band is really only important because of their first two records. They are what their reputation is built upon. Yes, there are a handful of great (truly great) songs on subsequent albums, but it is Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969) that stand apart from the rest of rock and roll at the time. Those two records stand apart from The Band itself. They just appeared through divine intervention in a moonlit Southern field about a century earlier, and happened to be discovered in the late 60's by archeologists.

Neil Young famously sang “it is better to burn out than to fade away.” The entirety of the 1970’s was The Band fading away. Why did so many people (mainly critics and fellow musicians, because let’s face it, The Band was always most beloved amongst critics and musicians vs. the masses) hang on for so long? It wasn’t just the cache of being Dylan’s “Band” on his seismic first electric tour of ’66. Those first two records are so great, so deep, so covered in Southern soil (nevermind that four of the five members were Canadian) that they stand as documents from centuries gone by. Take “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Band. In about four minutes, Robbie Robertson captured the battered Confederate psyche more completely than 10 hours of Ken Burns documentaries. Just look at the cover of The Band. This was 1969. Flower power in full bloom. The year of Woodstock. But this photo looks like a group of guys circa 1860’s, not the 1960’s. They were the ultimate organic musical group. All multi-instrumentalists, three lead singers, several songwriters (in the beginning at least, before the others gave up writing or Robbie forced them aside, depending on who you believe), these guys worked and lived together as family. The rhythm section of Rick Danko on bass and Levon Helm on drums is the funkiest white rhythm section of the era. “Up On Cripple Creek,” Exhibit A.

ABOVE: The Band's The Band

Music From Big Pink is so mysterious. Where the hell did “Chest Fever” come from? There is nothing else like it in their discography. Has an organ ever been recorded so fully on a rock record as Garth Hudson's on this tune? I think that part of what gives MFBP its mystery is that Robbie Robertson was sharing space with other songwriters on that record. Here, Richard Manuel is as important as Robbie. Yes, Robbie wrote “Chest Fever” and, of course, “The Weight.” But it is Richard who gives us the opaque “In a Station,” “We Can Talk,” and co-writing “Tears of Rage” with Dylan. And The Band is so timeless and perfect in every way, although even by this point Robbie had taken over. Were the others in decline and Robbie stepped in as a stabilizing force (Robbie’s version, which also includes his claim that he desperately tried to coax Richard to write more material) or did Robbie take over like a ruthless dictator (Levon’s version)?

The rest of The Band’s discography is rather pedestrian with flashes of greatness. Why is that? I think it is because they had ceased to work as a cohesive musical unit with input from several talented members and became, well, a band under Robbie’s guidance. As great as each member was, their soul was Richard Manuel. And after the second album he began to fade. He lost his writing touch, he lost his inspiration and he spiraled into a haze of alcoholism which culminated in his tragic suicide in a motel bathroom in Florida in the early 80's. His emotional voice remained intact, though, and Robbie continued to feed him sometimes inspired material like the sadly prophetic “The Shape I’m In” (from Stagefright).

All star farewell / kiss-off The Last Waltz is wonderful musically, but watch the fascinating Martin Scorsese film (Robbie and Marty were coke buddies in the late 70’s, living and working together). The Last Waltz was all Robbie’s idea, and watch the uncomfortable scenes with Robbie and Levon as they pretend to happily recall the old days. But the key to the non-musical parts of The Last Waltz film is the wreck that Richard Manuel is in by that time. His incoherent retelling of their early lean days is sad, sweet and hard to watch. Incredibly, as incoherent and rambling as it is, you can tell Scorsese edited it heavily to try to make sense of it. But God is the music still great. I don’t think the Band have ever been better than on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with Allan Toussaint’s wonderful horn arrangement and Levon Helm singing the song with all that he has, as if he knew that this was indeed the last time he would ever sing this song with the original Band and with all his anger at Robbie for unilaterally ending the party.

ABOVE: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" from the film The Last Waltz

What To Listen To:
As stated above, Music From Big Pink and The Band are absolutely essential listening. Start there. The third album, Stagefright, is good, while not on the level of what came before. After that, it gets spotty, but there are fantastic songs here and there. I can’t recommend The Last Waltz enough, it is a killer live set with fantastic musical guests, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield…even Neil Diamond shows up. The Band tear through many of their own classics, backed by wonderful horn arrangements from Allen Toussaint, and then ably back up their guests on their tunes. See the Martin Scorsese-directed film as well. If you want to spend some dough and really dive into The Band, then their box set, A Musical History, is superb and full of worthwhile rarities alongside all of the essentials.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #24: Duran Duran

Occasional Perfection
What makes the perfect James Bond theme song? It’s got to have some sex in it, for sure. It needs an air of sophistication about it (taking about half of the actual Bond themes out of the running). Modern, yet a hint of old school as well. A bonus if you can reference the original Bond theme somehow. A Bond theme should stand on its own as a great tune, but it should also evoke and become an essential facet of the film, it needs to evoke the Bond character in all of his complexity. Many fans would pick Shirley Bassey’s brassy, bombastic “Goldfinger.” 70’s fans will, I’m sure, go to Paul McCartney’s great “Live and Let Die.” But I maintain that the perfect Bond song is Duran Duran’s “A View To a Kill.” It was also the only #1 charting song for the band, and the highest charting Bond song out of 22 movies so far. We can set aside the fact that the actual film was the absolute nadir of the series. (Fun fact for ANCIANT: the Christopher Walken role almost went to David Bowie).

Back to the song. In a brief 3:40, Duran Duran delivers a punchy, seductive, sophisticated, groovy tune full of action and sex that sounds modern (for its time, the mid-1980’s) yet gives a sly nod to older influences (bonus points for creatively throwing in the original Bond theme). At their very best, that is Duran Duran. Seductive, sophisticated and full of punchy pop grooves that can fill a dance floor. The flip side to that is that they are often not at their best, but they hit that peak enough to qualify them as a great band. In fact, they are one of the greatest pop bands of the last thirty years. Often lost in the mascara, feathered hair and screaming teenage girls is the fact that they are excellent musicians. John Taylor is such a great bassist, playing buoyant, funk-inflected bass lines, while Nick Rhodes creates massive synth soundscapes as underrated, estranged guitarist Andy Taylor weaves in lithe and crisp riffs and rhythms.

Returning to my theme of perfection, Duran Duran created the perfect 80’s specimen with 1982’s Rio. I am sure that my readers recall my Favorite 100 Albums List from a couple of years back, where Rio made its appearance at #15. Here is what I wrote then about Rio:

“[Rio] defines a certain period of the 80’s…glitzy, superficial, dangerous, fun, excessive. But as with much of Duran Duran’s material, what on the surface may seem slight synthesizer pop, there is an interesting undercurrent of unease and melancholy. These guys were much better musicians than their detractors give them credit for (especially bassist John Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor), and Rio is their seminal release. It remains as glitzy and as listenable today as it was when it was released. The title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are both classic 80’s glam singles, accompanied by iconic music videos. But the album tracks are just as interesting, such as the brooding Roxy Music-ish “The Chauffeur” and “Lonely In Your Nightmare.” The highlight is “Save a Prayer,” which captures what is great about Duran Duran and also the essence of 80’s excess culture, it is both glamorous and wistful, and full of sweet regret. It is easy to make glamorous pop singles about the wild night on the town, but harder to write them about the morning after. DD simultaneously captures the seductive hedonism of 80’s excess and the consequences only fully understood on the day after. Even further, the song is ambiguous enough to where the listener is not sure whether Simon le Bon, even knowing the consequences, would have done anything differently.”

ABOVE: Even the Nagel-designed album cover for Rio is perfect 80's

What To Listen To:

Debut Duran Duran is a landmark recording of the New Romantic movement, and features some wonderful mood pieces in the second half that would make Brian Eno proud. As discussed above, Rio is their peak. Seven and the Ragged Tiger rounds out the “classic” period, and while not as great as the first two records, it still has many worthwhile tracks. Duran Duran, phase 2 started out promisingly with the Nile Rodgers-produced, dance-oriented Notorious. Duran Duran (aka The Wedding Album) was a surprising comeback in the early 90’s, featuring more adult-oriented pop, highlighted by the gorgeous pair of singles, “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.” Some of their side projects are worth searching out. John Taylor and Andy Taylor joined forces with Robert Palmer for a couple of albums under the name The Power Station. The debut is good. At the same time, Nick Rhodes, Simon le Bon and Duran drummer Roger Taylor recorded their one-off side project record under the name Arcadia, and the record is called So Red the Rose. That is really worth finding, it is moody and excellent. Since they were the consummate pop band, Duran is well represented on a good compilation. Greatest is the greatest of them. Also, it is well worth it to download the debut, Rio and Seven and the Ragged Tiger from iTunes, because for a great price they have the expanded, super-duper, deluxe, remastered editions, featuring their often outstanding b-sides and remixes as bonus tracks. In my view, Duran had the best remixes of any band of the 80’s, beating out even Depeche Mode or New Order. Look for the “Night Versions,” those are the best remixes of their early songs.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #25: Genesis

In Defense of Phil Collins
Let’s be clear, Genesis would not be here without the Peter Gabriel years. It is funny that many casual music fans would respond with “Peter Gabriel was in Genesis?” Yes, he was. Peter Gabriel was the lead singer for Genesis in the early to mid-1970’s, when they were one of the most respected progressive rock bands on the planet. But their records didn’t sell worth a sh*t. He sang with them for six studio and one live album before abruptly leaving for his solo career. With Gabriel at the helm, they released what many consider (including myself) to be at least three of the greatest prog rock records ever recorded: Foxtrot, Selling England By the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Brilliant stuff.

When Gabriel left, the band auditioned many possible replacements, and drummer Phil Collins would help show the contestants the tunes (Phil had sung back-up vocals on many songs, and had taken lead on a handful during the Gabriel years). Finally, not really clicking with any of the candidates, the band realized that their answer was already within their ranks. So rather by accident and out of necessity, Phil Collins became the singer for Genesis. His solo career also started by accident. The band was on hiatus, Phil’s wife had just run off with the home decorator at their house (when performing "In the Air Tonight" on British television, Phil cheekily had a paint can and brush sitting prominently on his piano), and so to pass the time, alone and depressed, he recorded demos at his home. He sent them off to the record company just to see what they thought of them. They became his solo debut album, Face Value. The angry “In the Air Tonight” was a bigger hit than anything Genesis had released up to that point.

Phil’s reputation has not faired so well over the years. Old school Genesis fans blame him for making the band “go commercial.” ("Yes, I am the guy who ruined Genesis," he has said). He was one of the biggest selling acts of the 80’s, but he doesn’t get the same respect as Michael Jackson, Prince or Springsteen, although his record sales compare with that elite company. There was a fascinating and rather depressing article about Phil Collins last year in Rolling Stone Magazine. He suffered a serious back injury several years ago, which has essentially ended his career as a drummer (“I was going to quit anyway…I don’t miss it”). He recently released a covers album of Motown tunes, but has not written or released any original material in a decade. He claims he has no interest in creating any new music, lives in a house in Switzerland to be near his children from his third divorce, admits to having suicidal thoughts, seems genuinely hurt by how he is viewed by many in the industry, and spends most of his time collecting Alamo memorabilia. That’s right, Phil Collins is actually one of the leading collectors of Alamo memorabilia in the world. He is supposedly an expert on the subject, and even attends and speaks at Alamo historical conventions. I seem to recall the writer of the article commenting that it was hard to get Phil to stay on the topic of music at all, he wanted to discuss the Texas Revolution and disappear from the public eye ("I sometimes think I'm going to write this Phil Collins character out of the story...Phil Collins will just disappear or be murdered in some hotel bedroom").

ABOVE: a rather disturbing photo from the Rolling Stone article of Phil Collins holding one of his vintage guns

But let’s take a closer look at Phil’s accomplishments. First and foremost, he is an influential and superb drummer. I honestly think that had Peter Gabriel never left Genesis, Collins would have been content continuing as “just the drummer,” as he referred to himself at last year’s long overdue Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of Genesis. Playing in a prog rock band generally requires superior musical chops, and Phil’s got them. The drumming on Genesis’s material is never less than professional, and it is often quite inspired and creative. Phil also has produced and drummed for a host of others, especially in the 80’s, from Eric Clapton to old friend Peter Gabriel (Phil drums on much of Gabriel’s landmark third solo record).

He didn’t usurp Gabriel’s leadership in Genesis. Gabriel abandoned the group by the roadside, and Phil took over out of necessity and did a fine job. I cannot argue with the fact that the best Genesis music came during Gabriel’s tenure, but you can’t completely dismiss the Collins years. In prog rock circles, commercial success is viewed with great suspicion, but Collins and Co. made this old prog rock relic from the 70’s into an absolute pop hit machine in the 80’s. Genesis became one of the most unlikely stadium-filling groups of the 80’s. In fact, one of the few acts to surpass Genesis in popularity in the 80’s was Phil Collins as a solo artist. And he made his way undeniably with his music. Obviously MJ, Bruce and Prince are hugely talented individuals, but they were also aided by ungodly dancing, good looks/charisma, and a sexy mystery, respectively. Phil Collins was a short, balding, pasty Englishman. A most unlikely superstar for a decade that paid much attention to the presentation. His popularity did not lay with the visuals or with his riveting stage persona. He had to depend on the music, which included an impressive nine #1 singles as a solo artist in the U.S. or UK.

And about that music. The Genesis side of things tried to traverse that prog credibility / mainstream success line for awhile, often awkwardly, during what I call the Genesis middle period (from A Trick of the Tail through Three Sides Live). When they finally did put the prog in the closet and just concentrated on catchy pop hits, few bands were better at it. As for the solo material, I stand by his first three solo records. Face Value was a largely self-recorded home studio project that was an unlikely smash (also, Phil’s episode on Face Value in that great VH1 series 'Classic Albums' is really interesting. Better than most of the other episodes because Collins is quite intelligent, witty and articulate as he deconstructs the record). The mostly forgotten Hello, I Must Be Going is actually my favorite of his solo records, while the megahit No Jacket Required deserved to sell the gazllion copies that it sold (it was the 6th highest selling album of the 80’s). After that, I admit, there is a sharp decline in quality.

ABOVE: Collins speaks at an Alamo historical convention

Collins deserves better. He deserves to be more than a retired pop star who feels despised, as he clearly does if you read that RS article. Phil Collins is an important drummer (he and Gabriel pioneered the much used “gated” drum sound on Gabriel’s third solo record, when Collins showed up to the sessions Gabriel's orders were "no metal," so if you listen to that record, there are no cymbals on the entire album). He was a pop music machine in his heyday, and impressively led one of the biggest bands of the decade while simultaneously having one of the most successful solo careers of the 1980’s. Maybe it was too much success? Too much Phil? As Entertainment Weekly stated in reviewing a later release, “even Phil Collins must know that we grew weary of Phil Collins.”

What To Listen To:
As stated before, I consider Foxtrot, Selling England By the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to be in the very elite of Prog Rock albums. All are essential, brilliant, and there is much to explore in them. As for the Collins era, Abacab is actually quite good, a bridge between the Prog years and the pop music of the latter years. I personally love Genesis, “That’s All” is such a great pop song, one of the best of the decade. As for collections, it is hard to anthologize a band like Genesis, with such lengthy compositions from the early days and then such a shift in style. But the three disc Platinum Collection does an admirable job, dedicating one disc to the Gabriel years, one disc to the middle Collins transition period, and one disc to the mega-80’s.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #26: The Buffalo Springfield

You Can't Always Get What You Want

An interesting phenomenon in rock fandom is the “lost (masterpiece) record.” This is a record that falls within one of several categories: a. a band started recording the record but it was aborted, yet tapes exist; b. the band actually finished the record but never released it for some reason; or c. it was released at one time but has long been out of print, making it a collector’s item. Fans who obsess over certain bands need something further to obsess over, so what could be better than a mythical record that you can’t listen to but rumor states that the music is the greatest thing since Mozart. If only the suits at the record company had understood! The record was 20 years ahead of its time! The music was so great that if you touched the master tapes you would explode, therefore it was never finished. Whatever the story, music fans love to speculate and discuss and trade treasured bootlegs of these (sometimes) great lost records.

The most famous is probably The Beach Boys’s Smile, which was to be their bold follow-up to their beloved Pet Sounds. But mastermind Brian Wilson lost his marbles, and so it was never finished (Wilson recorded and released a reconstructed Smile earlier this decade). But there are many others. There is The Great Lost Kinks Album (creative title), and I have a bootleg of that and it really is quite great. There is Pink Floyd’s Household Objects, where they tried to make an entire record using only household items like pots and pans and cardboard boxes (David Gilmour: “in the end, after you’ve spent weeks trying to make cardboard boxes sound like bass drums and snare drums, you think, ‘well, why don’t I use a bass drum and snare drum?’”) There’s Neil Young’s Homegrown, which he deemed too depressing and personal, so instead he released Tonight’s the Night! There is also Neil’s Time Fades Away, which was released but has been long out of print. I’ve got a copy and love it. Prince’s notorious Black Album, Springsteen’s Electric Nebraska (the E Street Band recorded a full electric version of Nebraska before Bruce decided that he liked the acoustic demos better. This is a Holy Grail of sorts for Boss fans, since the Darkness on the Edge of Town-era material has been released on The Promise)…and many others. Each has its story.

Some have seen the light of day after a long delay. Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos (solo effort from the less famous partner in the Alex Chilton/Chris Bell collaboration that was early Big Star). Excellent. Big Star’s third album. A masterpiece. The stripped version of the Beatles’s Let It Be. Very good. The Who’s Lifehouse (Townshend’s intended follow-up to Tommy that became Who’s Next). Mixed bag. The Velvet Underground’s “VU”. Great. Dylan’s ’66 live material. Awesome. Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. Fun, but not essential. Tragic Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s solo album Pacific Ocean Blue. Overrated.

What does this have to do with the Buffalo Springfield? Not much. I told you that I would use these selections as jumping off points for different types of essays. But The Buffalo Springfield also have a much-discussed Lost Album. After their debut, they almost completed a follow-up called Stampede. It was so far along that they even had cover art prepared for it…

ABOVE: The proposed album cover for the aborted Stampede. Dewey Martin down front has the cowboy hat over his face because that is not really Dewey Martin. It is a stand-in. Dewey was serving a short stint in jail for dope.

But the band was already ripping apart due to internal strife, and for still unknown reasons, the album was scrapped and they released their greatest accomplishment, Again, instead. I’ve done some research, and by collecting tracks from the Buffalo Springfield Box Set (a four disc set for a band that only released three records!) and from Neil Young’s Archives, vol. 1, I have reconstructed a fairly accurate version of Stampede, and it is really quite good. Equal to the debut, better than the third, but not as great as Again (so I guess they made the right decision at the time).

In case you are not familiar with the Springfield, they were a shortlived but very influential band from the late 60’s who were pioneers in mixing folk/country/rock. Kind of a less celebrated Byrds. Also significant because it was the first important band for three extremely talented musicians, Neil Young, Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. This was really Stills’s band (their one huge hit, “For What It’s Worth,” and their greatest song, “Bluebird,” were both his), but Neil’s always unpredictable presence made the group interesting. I think the group is significant also because although shortlived, Neil wrote some of his most experimental and interesting songs with the Springfield, and Stills’s best song of his career is “Bluebird.” Many people refer to The Buffalo Springfield as one of those “what could have been” bands, one of lost opportunity. There is definitely that element to their story (Neil Young and Stephen Stills both have to be in charge in any group they are in, so it was destined to implode), but we should not forget the small but substantial legacy that they actually left us.

What To Listen To:
They only put out three records. Debut Buffalo Springfield is tentative in spots, but has some great moments. They band had already broken up by the time the third, Last Time Around, was released, but it also has some high points. The one truly great record is the middle one, Again, featuring Stills’s greatest song “Bluebird,” Stills’s greatest pop/folk song “Rock and Roll Woman” (the best Byrds-like song not by the Byrds, although David Crosby sings on it, so there is at least one Byrd actually there), the prettiest song Neil Young ever recorded, the lush “Expecting To Fly,” one of his best rockers, “Mr. Soul,” and Neil at his most experimental in the multi-part “Broken Arrow.” All of those songs are essential. But honestly, the Springfield can probably be best appreciated on their concise but great compilation, Retrospective.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop, #27: TIE - The Grateful Dead, The Byrds and The Allman Brothers Band

JMW says that it is kosher to have ties, so here is my last tie of the list, and it is a threeway. From here on out, there will only be single entries, I promise. Alright, some mini-essays for each of these picks…

The Grateful Dead: Summer, early 1990’s

Driving from Houston to Aspen, Colorado with my friend Eric. Eric has somehow just gotten his gum all over the road map, and in trying to clean it off he has now gotten the gum all over the map and the front dash of my car. We finish arguing over the gum just as we cross the New Mexico and then Colorado border and all is well again. After hours of the flat, boring hell that is the Texas panhandle, once you enter the brief bit of New Mexico and then Colorado it becomes one of the most beautiful parts of the country. The mountains are visible in the distance, the air immediately feels fresher and cooler. Eric pulls out a cassette of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty from his backpack. I’ve had happier days (my wedding day, birth of my daughter), but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so content and relaxed as on that day. Beginning of summer, with one of your best friends at your side, driving into the Colorado mountains, a clear blue sky, and the smooth groove of “Box of Rain” coming out of the speakers. I think we played through that tape about 5 or 6 times, all the way to Aspen. Nothing fits the carefree freedom of summer like the Dead. At the end of the trip, Eric gave me the tape as a gift to commemorate our adventure. Sure I’ve got American Beauty on CD and vinyl, but they don’t quite sound like that old cassette tape.

What To Listen To: Man, this is tough with the Dead. There is studio Dead and live Dead. Very different creatures. On the studio side you need to head straight for 1970. In that same year they released their two best records, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. Both are acoustic-heavy Americana that is as good as any out there. Two great records that are live but are also used to introduce important new (at the time) songs into the Dead canon are The Grateful Dead (1971) (aka “Skull and Roses”) and Europe ’72. As for getting a real taste for legendary live Dead jams, there are over 100 live recordings available, and they are daunting to sift through. Out of the ten or so that I own, I would recommend 1969’s Live/Dead for the trippiest, boldest, most psychedelic improvisation. For more down to earth but very good live shows, I like The Closing of Winterland and Dick’s Picks, vol. 14.

The Byrds: Individuality

The genius of The Byrds is that leader Roger McGuinn realized that he was surrounded, throughout the shifting line-ups, with very distinct talents. He loosened the reigns enough to allow each of these talents to contribute to the magical sound of The Byrds. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Batten were all given the opportunity to contribute songs, take lead vocals (or guitar in the case of White), and even shape the direction of the band. Crosby’s wacked-out but always sonically complex musings, Gene Clark’s ethereal and hypnotic songs and vocals (Clark was the primary songwriter on the first two records), Hillman’s burgeoning prowess on multiple instruments and deep roots in traditional American music, Gram Parson’s country/rock pioneering, White’s stunning and fluid guitar work and Batten’s simple but engaging country compositions were all given full flight alongside McGuinn’s own great compositions and groungbreaking 12-string jingle-jangle chime.

ABOVE: "Eight Miles High." The greatest psychedelic song ever? You decide. Listen to those tight vocal harmonies!

As many great songwriters that they had going through their ranks, they were also masters of covering songs while making them their own. There is really no point in a cover unless you transform it in some way. Of course, Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” remains the greatest and most transformative cover, but The Byrds’s debut single of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” remains the most significant cover in rock. It created the folk-rock movement, opened the door for more serious songwriting in the rock realm, and was a catalyst in encouraging Dylan himself to go electric. What is it about Dylan’s songs that make them so ripe for great covers? The songwriting is so solid, yet the musical structures so basic (like a rock solid blues song) that it gives the artist much room to go in many directions with it. (Another brilliant Dylan cover: Van Morrison and Them doing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”). Finally, forget about the Beach Boys, CSN or The Beatles. The Byrds had the most gorgeous vocal harmonies.

What To Listen To: Much of their early repertoire is essential. Debut Mr. Tambourine Man is stunning. The three records they released during their first transitional period (Gene Clark and David Crosby’s exits) are all brilliant: Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday and the gorgeous and mysterious The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Gram Parson’s sole record as a Byrd, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is considered by many to be the greatest hybrid of country and rock, although I’ve never really warmed to it for some reason. For a compilation, there are many out there. I quibble with a few omissions, but the 2 disc Essential Byrds is a good intro.

Allman Brothers Band: Improvisation

The Fillmore Concerts. That is where you need to go. The Grateful Dead may be the most celebrated jam band, but the Allmans were the best. Duane Allman was a visionary guitarist, one of the few who had both the chops and the creativity to make 20 minute jams interesting. It is telling that Duane cited John Coltrane as one of his biggest influences. The Allman’s were one of the few bands whose jams and improvisation workouts were of the quality of great jazz music. And they did it using basic building blocks, tunes that were simple yet solid and open enough to explore freely. Some of their greatest improvisations were based on simple blues or folk compositions, the best example being “Mountain Jam,” a 33-minute rocker based on the simple, three minute Donovan confection “There Is a Moutain.” Some were more complex, such as Dicky Betts’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (their version on the Fillmore Concerts features my favorite Duane Allman solo at the climax of the song). The Fillmore Concerts is most famous for its 22-minute tour de force version of “Whipping Post,” a fascinating exploration of one of their signature songs. Yes, it spawned many less talented jam bands who made the long jam a cliché of overindulgent noodling, but you can’t blame the Allmans for that. Chops + creativity. So rare to find both in the same artist. Duane had some stellar help, of course. Dickey Betts was a brilliant second guitar foil, the rhythm section of Berry Oakley on bass and the double drums were a complex rhythmic cauldron, and the greatest white blues singer ever in brother Gregg Allman definitely helped fulfill Duane’s vision.

ABOVE: The Allman Brothers Band The Fillmore Concerts

What To Listen To: Everything from their original line-up before the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley is essential. Debut The Allman Brothers Band and sophomore effort Idlewild South both laid the foundation, the greatest live album ever in The Fillmore Concerts (an expanded version of the original Live at the Fillmore East) is essential, celebration/wake for Duane Allman Eat a Peach was a surprising triumph, as was celebration/wake for Berry Oakley Brothers and Sisters, which allowed Dickey Betts to step out in front…get them all. After that, it gets spotty, but there is worthwhile stuff out there. As for compilations, Gold covers the 60’s and 70’s exceedingly well, while Mycology is an excellent overview of their surprising and inspiring resurgence in the 1990’s.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

RIP Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

No joke, just yesterday I was thinking to myself that I had not interred anyone lately in the GNABB Cemetary. But the Big Man? He can't die! He's supernatural! Take a good look at that picture above (the gatefold album cover photo for Born to Run), and that says it all right there. Clarence Clemons may not have been the most crucial musician in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, but he was the heart and soul. He was the mystique. It was the relationship between Bruce and Clarence that created that whole band of brothers camraderie that made the E Street Band so unique. For decades, Bruce leaned on Clarence as they rocked the world on world tour after world tour. And one thing that he did add musically was a link to rock's past and a link to soul and R&B. The E Street Band is a traditionalist band in many respects, and that sax component is crucial. It made Bruce's E Street Band more than merely a guitar-heavy rock band, from the 70's through to today. It gave Springsteen's music an extra swing (especially in the early to mid-70's) and old school swagger. Here is Clarence's version of the oft-told tale as to how he joined the band...

"One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I'd heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I'm a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, "I want to play with your band," and he said, "Sure, you do anything you want." The first song we did was an early version of "Spirit In The Night". Bruce and I looked at each other and didn't say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other's lives."

ABOVE: Here's Bruce and the E Street Band in 1978, playing "The Promised Land." Clarence comes in with his sax solo at about 2:50. The affection between Bruce and Clarence is clear in this clip and was so crucial to the E Street Band shows, just watch their interplay

Clemons was one of the charter members of the E Street Band, joining up with Springsteen in 1972. He was not the most technical of sax players, but he had a monstrous sound that was a force of nature. His sax solos were key parts of many Springsteen classics. "Spirit in the Night," "New York City Serenade," "Thunder Road," "Jungleland," "The Promised Land," "Bobby Jean"...all would have been very different songs without Clarence's solos and parts. Clemons also released several solo records, and was a prolific guest musician playing on music for many others, including Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Luther Vandross, Roy Orbison, Zucchero and even Lady Gaga earlier this year.

Clarence was a good musician who added a distinct sound to Springsteen's music and whoever else he was playing for. But what will be irreplaceable is that stage presence and charisma. The E Street Band will continue without the Big Man, just as it did with the loss of Danny Federici several years ago. But it will never be the same. A era has passed.

RIP The Big Man, Clarence Clemons

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists, #28: TIE, Stephen Stills and David Bowie

Ties are always kind of cheesy in these lists. But this is one of only two ties on this one, so I don’t do it too often.

Stephen Stills: So Little to Show For It

The majority of Stephen Stills’s work seriously sucks. It is uninspired, clichéd, lazy work. His voice has been shot for at least the last 20 years. At this point, it is little more than an incomprehensible grumble. Much more often than not, he phones it in. Yet his ego is monstrous, an ailment he shares with comrades Crosby and Nash. They only released two records of real significance, yet consider themselves amongst the elites of rock and roll. Stills has released entire albums that are embarrassments, ever listened to Illegal Stills? Thoroughfare Gap? Or the worst of all, Right By You? So…why is he here? For a brief span of time, the late 60’s into the early 70’s, he was as good as anybody. When he does hit the right stride, there is nobody who can get me more excited about what they are doing musically. Along with Lindsey Buckingham, Stills is the most exciting and talented acoustic rock guitar player I’ve ever come across. When his voice was right, it was one of the most expressive and earthy voices in rock. Stills is the poster child of my “80 Minute Test.” Give me one 80 minute CD, and I could fill it with 80 minutes from Stephen Stills’s career that would stand up against 80 minutes from anybody else. Stephen’s problem is what comes after those 80 minutes.

ABOVE: I may have posted this before, but it is worth repeating. Just listen and watch that f'ing guitar playing.

What to Listen To: Crosby, Stills & Nash’s reputation far exceeds their actual output. But debut Crosby, Stills & Nash deserves its status as a classic of the era, and Stills was primarily responsible for its construction and production. Follow-up effort Déjà vu (with Neil Young coming aboard) is also a must own. As far as his spotty solo career, it started off strong. Stephen Stills and Stephen Stills 2 both have some great tunes on them, and his double album with the shortlived band Manassas entitled Manassas is Stills at the peak of his powers, successfully diving into many genres, including rock, latin, country, bluegrass, folk and blues. While flawed, Live from 1975 features some stunning moments, especially on the solo acoustic side.

David Bowie: Dance the Blues

My friend ANCIANT is the real Bowie expert, but I count myself as a serious fan (obviously, if he graces my Top 30). Much has been written regarding his stellar 70’s output, and since I want these essays to address the less obvious, I’d like to talk about my favorite Bowie album, 1983’s Let’s Dance. (I recognized that it is far from his best record, but it is my personal favorite). It is an often dismissed record in his discography, but it was a huge hit when it came out. First and foremost, Bowie made a great dance record, fitting comfortably in the New Wave early 80’s but also with some shadings of his Young Americans blue-eyed soul persona. Even if you discard the three crappy tracks (“Without You,” “Ricochet” and “Shake It”), there is so much to love in the remaining five. “Modern Love,” “China Girl” (co-written with Iggy Pop, Bowie’s version blows away Iggy’s 1977 version…”I’m feeling tragic like I’m Marlon Brando” may be my single favorite rock lyric of all time) and the title track were all big hits at the time, and all are distinctive and memorable. His up tempo reworking of “Cat People” bests his original version from a year before, and the silky smooth cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” is also excellent.

But what makes the record so interesting to me is the collaboration with Nile Rodgers (of Chic) producing and playing rhythm guitar and Stevie Ray Vaughan playing lead guitar. Bowie had been impressed with SRV while watching him at what was a minor version of Dylan’s Newport gig, at least for the blues world. So he grabbed him for the record. SRV was a supercharged blues virtuoso, but didn’t really play much else outside of his comfort zone. Which is why his playing is so interesting here, because this is most definitely not a blues record (despite Bowie’s command to “put on your red shoes and dance the blues” in the title track.) Vaughan, usually so sure of himself in his own element, struggles to fit his playing into these songs. And that struggle is fascinating to hear. Then you throw in Rodgers’s funky rhythm playing under that. It is a rather disjointed but interesting guitar sound throughout the record.

What To Listen To: Again, ANCIANT will take issue with some of my claims here I’m sure, but I would recommend most of his 70’s output. Bowie boldly jumped genre to genre in the 70’s, and really mastered all of them. You can’t go wrong with Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Station To Station and ‘Heroes’ especially. For some reason, I am a huge fan of the coked-out Diamond Dogs. ANICIANT will tell you that Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno, Low, is the greatest record ever recorded. It is pretty awesome. Obviously from my essay, I love Let’s Dance. The two disc Best of Bowie does a great job collecting his most famous songs.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Cuteness

I haven't posted some cuteness for awhile, so here is some.

ABOVE: Finding the ever elusive Easter eggs

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dez's Top Rock/Pop Artists: #29 - Jimi Hendrix

What Could Have Been...
I don’t really need to explain Jimi Hendrix’s greatness. Do I? It has been proclaimed for decades, the fact that he was only on the scene for four short years, only releasing three studio, one live and one compilation album during his lifetime. His work with The Experience stands as a Rock & Roll monolith, with Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland each a masterpiece and landmark record. The live, post-Experience excursion of Band of Gypsys was released as a transitional toss-off at the time, but since it was comprised of all new material and hinted at Jimi’s new direction, it is also essential (even though nothing on it is as transcendently great as his first three records, save the slowburn of “Machine Gun”). Fortunately for us, Jimi was a prolific studio hound, and he recorded miles of tape. To this day we still get a steady stream of previously unheard material released, some of it remarkably good, as deep as we have now delved into the vaults.

That is what I want to focus on here. Jimi’s posthumous recording life, especially the record that he was preparing at the time of his death. First, a little background. Many artists of Jimi’s generation were not too business savvy. They were desperate to make it, and often signed predatory recording and management deals just for a shot at the big time. It's not like they had the money to hire lawyers to review the deals. But even by the industry’s and time period’s standards, Jimi was more careless than most. He would sign conflicting contracts with multiple studios and companies, with little regard to the effects on his career. In fact, that is the only reason Band of Gypsys was ever released, he had signed some forgotten contract years prior, and with his fame cresting the holder of the contract came out of the woodwork to collect. So Jimi agreed to release a live record of some new material he was tinkering with in order to fulfill the contract. Little did he know that it would be his sole live record (out of many now on the market) that he would ever get to personally authorize. And it was one that he was less than enthused about, releasing it mainly to avoid a lawsuit.

After his death, the legal labyrinth that he had inflicted upon himself wrecked havoc for over a decade on his recorded legacy. The Cry of Love, War Heroes, Rainbow Bridge, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning, Voodoo Soup…these are just the most infamous posthumous releases that took his work-in-progress recordings and various unreleased tracks, doctored them up and “finished” them with studio musicians who had never even met the man, and were released in the 70’s and 80’s. Fortunately, Hendrix’s family eventually stepped in and bought out the rights to all of his remaining recordings, pulled all of these faux records from the shelves, and attempted to bring some much needed order to his posthumous releases.

I have to say they have done a great job. South Saturn Delta, Valleys of Neptune, West Coast Seattle Boy, Jimi Blues, The BBC Sessions and various live recordings are all worthwhile for the Hendrix collector. But by far the most significant is First Rays of the New Rising Sun. This record is as close as we will ever get to what was going to be Hendrix’s next record. Jimi was incredibly ambitious about his next step in his evolution, making his death that much more of a tragic loss. With the Experience disbanded and behind him, he was prepping a double record that would boldly emphasize R&B, soul, blues and jazz roots featuring Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and U.S. Army buddy / Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox as the core of his new band; yet supercharging them with his unique brand of psychedelic rock. Recall that Hendrix started his career as a session and road musician backing the likes of Little Richard and King Curtis, so he had deep roots in R&B and soul music.

ABOVE: First Rays of the New Rising Sun is the best guess we have of what Hendrix's next record would have sounded like

Hendrix had many tunes that were in-progress at the time of his demise. Some (“EZ Rider,” “Freedom,” “Angel,” “In From the Storm”) sound near completion and are probably very close to what he would have eventually released, while others were still clearly in their working phase. Nobody knows, of course, what Hendrix’s next record would have been. While working on this stuff, he was allegedly also in serious discussions with Miles Davis regarding a collaboration. (Listen to Miles’s stuff from the period (In a Silent Way, Jack Johnson, Bitches Brew, etc.) and you can definitely imagine how a Hendrix-Miles record would have worked and possibly blown our collective minds.) But much of the material on FROTRS is what he was most seriously prepping for the next record. What you’ve got are tunes with deeper grooves than before rooted in soul music with Hendrix’s ever inventive jamming on top, as he worked out the lyrics and song structures. I think that Hendrix would have taken this rock/soul/R&B hybrid to a new place, forever changing the genres. Some of this material matches his Experience material in quality, and remember that these were still works in progress.

Rock has many “what if’s,” but this is one of the more tantalizing ones. We throw around the word “genius” way too loosely, but Jimi Hendrix was one of our true musical pioneers/geniuses who fundamentally changed the landscape. What would have Hendrix done to the music we call rock had he been able to produce thirty years of work vs. just four?

ABOVE: Here is "Freedom," one of his more finished songs for the record he was recording at the time of his death. It still features his superlative guitar work, of course, but what is different is the deeper groove rooted in soul and R&B

ABOVE: Then there is something like "Angel," which is beautiful new cosmic soul music

What to Listen To:
Obviously, his three Experience records are foundations for any rock collection. Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland are must haves. First Rays of the New Rising Sun is the best of the posthumous collections, and the best approximation of his new direction at the time of his death. If you are weak sauce and want a hits compilation, the once flooded market of Hendrix compilations has now been narrowed to essentially two, since the others have been pulled from shelves by the Hendrix family: Smash Hits (the concise hits collection issued during Hendrix’s lifetime) and Experience Hendrix. Of those two, go with Experience Hendrix because it has broader coverage. As far as live material, there is so much out there. Over ten live albums are readily available. I like Live at Monterrey (probaby his most significant live performance, career-wise) and Live at Winterland. The BBC Sessions has many revelations and is loads of fun.

Monday, June 13, 2011

I Was Wrong (Thank God)

"But this Mavs team is different." Year after year, if you Dallas fans say that enough times, then the law of averages states that you are bound to be right sometime. I guess this year's Dallas Mavericks was, in fact, different. I am no Mavs fan, but I hate the Miami Heat, so I was rooting for Dallas. As distasteful as that is for me to do. LeBron's Decision, the assertion that by assembling two or three supermen you can win the championship (vs. assembling a real team), the Championship celebration they held before the pre-season even started, whiny Bosh...all of those things pushed me into Dallas's camp. I am pleased to see some veterans who have toiled for years get their day in the sun. Dirk obviously, but also Kidd and Marion. (Not happy for Terry, though, he's a douche.) So, congratulations Mavs Nation. You have staved off the Evil Empire for all of us who appreciate team basketball at least for one more year.

ABOVE: I guess this pre-season celebration was for the Eastern Conference title, and not the NBA one? Because that is as far as you got, a-holes.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dez's Rock/Pop List: #30 - The Cure

Fall, 1992.
I had always bought into the caricature of Cure audiences as wimpy, goth, black-eyelinered, pasty kids on the perpetual verge of suicide. Perhaps there is some truth to that. So I was a bit hesitant when my friend Willis, whose taste in music I always respect, suggested that we go to a Cure concert up at the Woodlands Pavillion, just outside of Houston. This was senior year in high school, and I was all about testosterone-fueled classic rock at that point. Willis was a Cure fan (and not goth, did not wear eye-liner, and was not suicidal). He knew that his best play was to present the suggestion in the guise of a joke. "Let's go and make fun of the pasty and morose fans." It worked.

An odd group assembled for the evening. Willis and I were joined by Eric and Johannes. I cannot remember whose idea it was, but somebody thought it prudent that we all put on eyeliner and do our our hair a la Cure leader, Robert Smith, here...

I do remember Willis arguing convincingly that if we did not do this, then we would really stand out. My girlfriend at the time came over and assisted with our make-up and hair. We arrived at the venue, and of course, nobody looked like us. This was 1992, so most people were wandering around in flannel shirts. Eric was fairly oblivious, Johannes and I did not really care and thought it quite amusing and tried to play up our goth roles, but Willis, who takes great care with his appearance and general presentation, was horrified. And of course, the worst happened (for him). We ran into some other people from our school, and Willis desperately tried to explain that we were being ironic and making fun of the entire Cure ethos.

ABOVE: Photographic evidence. Dez and his amigos prepare to attend The Cure show

But that is all secondary. The real point here is that I started the evening considering this band and show a joke, and left the concert loving Robert Smith's teetering melancholy to joy musical mood swings. Under the substantial amounts of eyeliner, distorion (this was the Wish tour, afterall) and gothic posturing lay a band with unbeatable pop and melodic sense. Robert Smith is one of the great underrated pop songwriters. Yes, he has made entire albums of brilliant gothic gloom (Faith, Pornography, Disentegration), but to get a sense of his true gift, head for the singles. There is where you will find some of the greatest pop music of the last 30 years. Glorious stuff of masterful construction, incessant hooks and brimming with emotion.

What To Listen To:
As stated above, the neophyte needs to head straight for the two singles collections, Staring at the Sea covers the late 70's to mid-80's, while Galore covers the rest of the 80's to the mid-90's (by the way, their material since the mid-90's is quite good as well). If you want to explore further, Disentegration is their towering, gothic masterpiece. The Head on the Door is an earlier milestone.

Friday, June 10, 2011

This Summer's List

Another summer, another definitive, completely objective list from Dez. Longtime GNABB readers know that I like to throw up a list of some sort each summer. There have been mini-lists at other times, but the big guns tend to come out over the summer. So far I've given you Dez's: Top 100 Albums, Top 50 Movies and Presidential Rankings.

Rolling Stone Magazine recently published their updated 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list. If you read the intro in the issue, it explains more precisely that it is their 100 Greatest Artists of the Rock and Roll Era, which better explains some of their omissions. The list was compiled by polling a panel of "experts," a mixture of artists, producers, critics, and other music insiders. They first published their list in 2004, and then updated it in 2011. My friends over at Future Rock Legends have conveniently posted both lists side by side if you want to see the results, here.

Of course, that got me thinking, who would make my list? So I present you with Dez's Favorite Rock and Roll Artists. More details about the list:

1. This will be more interesting than just standard bios and discographies. I have wanted to stretch my writing skills, so I will try and focus on an interesting aspect of the artist, controversy, particular era or album, memory associated with them or something else specific. I want to try and write interesting essays inspired by or associated with the artists vs. giving you a Wikipedia-like entry. Two of my regular readers and good friends, JMW and ANCIANT, are writers by trade. I am not. But I figure that since I am most comfortable writing about music, that was the best place to try to stretch myself a little bit.

2. All joking aside, this list is purely subjective. I am giving you the artists that have given me the most enjoyment and challenged me or inspired me so far in my nearly 40 years of existence.

3. I've listened to them for awhile. I will not have newer discoveries here, they have to have been with me for awhile to be able to view them in perspective.

4. I chose Rock/Pop because as I was ranking them, I was having difficulty really comparing Mozart or Miles Davis to my #1 pick, Wham. (OK, not really. Wham! is not on my list). But it was just easier and more fair to set other genres like jazz, blues, soul and classical (all of which I also really love, but do not have that direct connection with) aside and just focus on Rock and Roll. So this is not just "Rock and Roll Era," this is Rock and Pop.

5. I am limiting it to 30 artists. I could easily give you 100 and still leave off artists that I love, but you don't want to read 100 essays. I figured 30 was a good number, enough to be somewhat representative, but not overkill. Please understand that I am leaving off artists who still mean a great deal to me, who at different times I have obsessively listened to. I considered just doing 11 of them, because as I was ranking I found that #'s 1-11 immediately and easily fell into place, but I struggled more with ranking #'s 12-30. But thirty works.

I will post about other things as well, as I know not everyone obsesses over music as I do, and this blog is supposed to be about a variety of topics. Alright, first entry coming soon.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Fun For Toddlers and Potheads Alike

As a relatively new parent, I am still discovering all that there is to offer in children's entertainment. In meeting with several other new mothers, my wife noticed that many of them raved about this TV show called Yo Gabba Gabba on the Nick, Jr. network. We pulled up a few episodes On Demand, and my daughter went wild. Loved it. Immediately started dancing around the living room to the catchy music. Honestly, I could not tell who was enjoying the show more, my daughter or my wife.

It is nothing new to create children's entetainment that also has appeal for adults (go back to the Muppets in the 70's), But YGG takes it to a new level. It plays like a very pleasant acid trip, with strange but endearing characters...

ABOVE: Some of you non-parents may recognize these characters from a recent great car commercial.

In conducting a little research, I found that YGG is quite popular on college campuses as well. Not surprising. With the funky visuals, great modern sounding music, strange but child-friendly and instructive scenarios, and hip special guests (Jack Black, The Shins, Andy Samberg, Tony Hawk, The Roots, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, etc.), I can see the appeal. The show was co-created by lead singer Christian Jacobs of the band Aquabats, which explains a lot.

ABOVE: Here's "Party In My Tummy"

Last weekend we went to visit and stay with some friends in Houston (who don't have any kids), and once we started to tell them about YGG, they told us that they watch it all the time (usually while enjoying an adult substance). I guess that is the sign of a great kids show, adults and toddlers both get into it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Yes I Can

I have found my latest musical obsession, and it is the experimental, Krautrock band Can. They were one of those bands that had minimal mainstream success, but who greatly influenced a ton of people. Artists who have claimed to have been influenced by Can include David Bowie, Radiohead, Talking Heads, The Fall, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd. and Brian Eno, to name just a few. How to describe Can's music? Wikipedia lists the following genres in their entry: "Krautrock, Experimental Rock, Progressive Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Ambient, Avant-Garde, Electronic Music." That's about right. And if you listen to their first couple of albums, you could also add punk to that genre list.

I have heard of Can for years, but only recently actually tried listening to them. For about a week now, I have not wanted to hear anything else. It is Can all the time. I was playing it in class this last week of school, and I was pleased that at least five different students (all male, all musicians) approached me and asked me what we were listening to, and wanted to learn more. Can lecture followed.

ABOVE: 1973's Future Days is a landmark ambient album, but never boring like so much ambient music can be

They formed in the late 60's with their core of West German musicians who were influenced by the avant-garde art movement in New York (Warhol and Velvet Underground especially). Their first couple of records were good and very interesting, but their flat out brilliant releases came between 1971-74. They recorded throughout the 70's and reunited briefly in the late 80's, but the early 70's is the peak with four groundbreaking albums: Tago Mago (1971), Ege Bamyasi (1972), Future Days (1973) and Soon Over Babaluma (1974). It is these four records that I have been listening to incessantly for almost a week now. My daughter is starting to dig them as well, especially Future Days. While all of those genres previously mentioned are present in some fashion, I would most directly compare this stuff to what Miles Davis was doing around the same time, but more rhythmic and melodic and less jarring that Miles's most challenging fusion stuff.

Can worked in what they called "spontaneous composition," which is slightly different than straight improvisation. They would improvise and collectively compose on the spot just by playing together a lot. Sometimes an improvisation would go on for hours at a time, and then later they would strip away elements and edit the improvisations in the mixing room to make the "songs" for their albums (which is exactly how Miles Davis worked during the same period. Davis and his bands would play for hours at a time, and then producer Teo Maceo would take the results and edit them for albums). One legendary Can concert in Berlin featured improvisations that went on for over 6 hours. Now that, my friends, is getting your money's worth! It was so intense working in Can that original vocalist Malcolm Mooney left, supposedly, in part because his therapist told him that working with Can was driving him insane.

ABOVE: Tago Mago features bold, epic, experimental jams

While guitarist Michael Karoli is outstanding and quite versatile, and while vocalists Mooney and later Damo Suzuki broke ground vocally (Suzuki never wrote down his lyrics, treating the vocals as another improvising instrument and making them up on the spot. Suzuki would sometimes sing in English, sometimes Japanese, and sometimes in pure jibberish. Check him out especially on Future Days, where his spare vocals are mixed deep in the sound and fade in and out without pattern. It is brilliant stuff), and founder/keyboardist Irmin Schmidt should be considered a founding father of experimental electronic music...what makes Can so great to me are bassist/effects engineer Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebeziet. The percussion can be minimalist at times, yet quite subtle and intricate at other times. It is the interplay between Czukay and Liebeziet that makes 20 minute tunes like "Halleluwah" (from Tago Mago) so mesmerizing and even hypnotic.

Tago Mago is long, intense and often grooves madly. Ege Bamyasi is shorter, but no less intense, and may even groove deeper. Future Days is simply gorgeous and a landmark in ambient music, and clearly influenced Bowie and Eno in their Berlin Trilogy. Soon Over Babaluma steps up the electronic experiments, yet also maintains the ever important groove.

For something a little different, open up some Can.