Archive for February, 2012

“Spectrum” by Billy Cobham (1973)

The first major jazz artist to incorporate rock elements into jazz playing was Miles Davis, whose “Filles de Kilimanjaro” in 1968 hinted at what would become one of his greatest achievements, the following year’s “In a Silent Way.”

Davis’ floating cast of musicians served as the proving ground for what would become the Who’s Who of jazz-rock fusion, including Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira and British guitarist John McLaughlin.

Columbia Records, Davis’ label, was quick to sign the band McLaughlin founded in 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The quintet he formed – with Jan Hammer on keyboards, Jerry Goodman on violin, Rick Laird on bass and Billy Cobham on drums – played astonishingly intricate instrumentals at a volume associated more closely with Blue Cheer or Black Sabbath than anything having to do with jazz.

The original Mahavishnu Orchestra, unfortunately, lasted only a couple of years, and toward the end of that run, the percussionist recorded his first solo album.

“Spectrum” is one of the crowning achievements in fusion, with Cobham choosing wisely for his fellow musicians: Hammer, Lee Sklar on bass and the late Joe Farrell on woodwinds.

On guitar was a kid who’d started in the rock ‘n’ roll milieu, the late Tommy Bolin. The Sioux City, Iowa, native had played in a Colorado band called Zephyr before forming his own fusion group, Energy. He later replaced Domenic Troiano (who’d replaced Joe Walsh) in the James Gang.

Bolin met Cobham through former Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. And the guitarist, just 22 at the time, met the expectations Billy had come to expect by working with McLaughlin.

Chris Jisi and Mark Bosch wrote about the resulting collaboration in a 1988 article for Guitar World magazine:

“‘Spectrum’ was, according to Hammer, an almost completely spontaneous jam. For Bolin, it turned out to be much more than that: It earned him long-desired recognition and is probably his most widely known recorded work. An integral stepping stone in intertwining the rock and jazz idioms, ‘Spectrum’ struts with smoky jazz/rock/funk grooves, setting the pace for Bolin’s white-hot guitar excursions. Although Cobham handed out charts, Bolin did not read music. Instead, he was told chord changes and fed melodies off of which he and Hammer played. As a result, his raw energy blends effectively with the technical parts played by the other musicians.”

OK, that’s the guitarist’s standpoint. The project belonged to the percussionist, though, and he responded with a songwriting and instrumental effort that solidified his reputation as fusion’s pre-eminent drummer.

The six tracks on “Spectrum,” three of which open with fluid percussion solos, are uniformly listenable, unlike some of the more esoteric elements of jazz-rock at the time. For example, the opener, “Quadrant 4,” remains one of the best-known exercises in fusion, with Bolin’s scorching guitar duetting with Cobham’s high-energy drumming to lead into a memorably stuttering melody augmented by Hammer’s keyboards.

The album reaches its summit, as does possibly fusion in general, with “Stratus,” the most nearly perfect marriage of jazz and rock. The song became a staple in Bolin’s repertoire for the three years he had remaining after the release of “Spectrum.”

Unfortunately for its fans, “Spectrum” turned out to be purely a one-off collaboration. Cobham later joined forces with keyboard player George Duke, fresh from his stint with Frank Zappa’s band, for some enjoyable mid-’70s recordings. Hammer teamed up with Jeff Beck for the height of the legendary guitarist’s fusion period, and in the ’80s, the Czech keyboardist became a full-fledged star with his theme song for the hit TV series “Miami Vice.” (For the record, I have yet to see an episode.)

Bolin eventually replaced Richie Blackmore in Deep Purple, then OD’d in Miami after opening for Beck.

The fusion of jazz and rock peaked shortly after the release of “Spectrum.” The genre still has many adherents to this day, but they’re going to have to search long and hard to find something as listenable and enjoyable as Billy Cobham’s debut.

“Fear of Music” by Talking Heads (1979)

The so-called New Wave didn’t appeal to me when it gained popularity in the late ’70s, mainly because I was under the impression that anything recorded after, say, 1969 wasn’t worth a listen.

If you’ve been following this list, you might think that’s still my opinion. But I have expanded my horizons …

One of the newer bands I did enjoy at the time was Talking Heads. When “Fear of Music” came out, I noticed it was produced by Brian Eno, whose work I’d gotten to know through his collaborations with David Bowie. So I decided to give the album a try.

During the ensuing decades, I’ve come to have great respect for the work of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison and the inimitable Martina Weymouth. The band’s first four albums are considered to be landmarks in the evolution of rock music.

But most critics consider “Fear of Music,” the third album, to be a cut slightly below the other three.

I guess there’s some merit to that opinion. “Talking Heads ’77” and “More Songs About Building and Food” exhibit the lean side of the band’s formative years, with their stark instrumentation providing a fitting complement to Byrne’s neurotic vocal stylings.

The lion’s share of critics consider “Remain in Light,” the fourth album, to be Talking Heads’ magnum opus, as it melds the band’s initial quirkiness with African-inspired rhythms for a successful exercise in Worldbeat.

“Fear of Music” bridges the two styles, not quite abandoning the earlier motifs while not quite mastering the newer ones.

Supposedly.

Maybe because it’s as focused as the other three albums cited, “Fear of Music” makes for a fascinating listen, from the polyrhythmic opener “I Zimbra” to the suitably spooky closer, “Drugs.”

Most the album, in fact, projects an atmosphere of eeriness, extending the paranoid worldview that Byrne introduced with “Psycho Killer.”

“Air,” for example, addresses the state of the environment: “What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection that I needed?/Air can hurt you, too/Some people say not to worry about the air/Some people don’t know shit about the air.”

“Animals” doesn’t paint non-humans as man’s best friends: “They’re never there when you need them/They’re never there when you call them.”

And even a source of Byrne’s livelihood gets the creepy treatment on “Electric Guitar”: “This is a crime against the state/This is the verdict they reach/Never listen to electric guitar.”

The album’s dark overtones reach their apogee on the minor hit “Life During Wartime,” which seems to ring more true with each passing year: “Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock/We blended in with the crowd/We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines/I know that ain’t allowed.”

One seeming respite for the gloominess is “Heaven,” probably best known as the duet played by Byrne and Weymouth in Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” The relatively melodic tune turns out to tell the story of a bar where “nothing, nothing ever happens.”

In the world created by “Fear of Music,” the real Heaven just might be a place where nothing happens.

“White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground (1968)

One of the many effective gags in “This Is Spinal Tap” is Nigel Tufnel and his amplifier that “goes to 11.”

A decade and a half before Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer came up the Spinal Tap concept, an actual rock band was in the studio, pushing their amplification to its absolute limit.

The Velvet Underground first gained notoriety as part of Andy Warhol’s multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable, with German chanteuse Nico (the late Christa Päffgen) adding a stunning visual element to the band.

Sometime around the release of the debut “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the band parted ways with Warhol and Nico. The remaining members – Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker and the late Sterling Morrison – started exploring a more conventional musical direction, as evidenced by demos that later appeared on the all-encompassing box set “Peel Slowly and See.”

But when the Velvet Underground entered the studio in September 1967, Reed and company decided to see how far they could push the envelope when it came to making noise.

That was nothing new in the Velvets’ repertoire. Another “Peel Slowly and See” track, “Melody Laughter,” is an excerpt of the type of distorted improvisations the band often veered into during performances.

The resulting album, “White Light/White Heat,” sounds absolutely nothing like anything that preceded it, an amalgam of loud guitar, at one point even louder keyboards, thoroughly bizarre lyrics and the sound of a project with which existing recording technology couldn’t really cope.

The late Tom Wilson, who had made his name working with such acts as Boby Dylan and the Mothers of Invention, took on production duties (has he had for “Sunday Morning,” the most sonically advanced song on the debut). But he was lucky to capture much of anything on tape that wasn’t pure distortion.

The album opens with the title track, which picks up where “Heroin” from the debut left off, a narrative about intravenous amphetamine use with suitably rush-inducing guitar riffs. The song later became a vehicle for extended jamming, as best captured on the live compilation “1969.”

Cale’s contribution is “The Gift,” which basically is his short story accompanied by chaotic instrumentation. That fits the subject matter well: Cale’s narrative tells the tale of a young man who mails himself to his girlfriend’s house, with less-than-deal results.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation” mainly features the relatively dulcet vocals of Cale, with Reed’s rougher-edged commentary popping up here and there. The lyrics tell of a transvestite who’s undergoing a certain type of operation, when: “The ether tube’s leaking, says someone who’s sloppy/The patient, it seems, is not so well sleeping/The screams echo off the walls.”

“Here She Comes Now,” credited to all four Velvets, is by far the album’s most straightforward song, a relatively soft number with oblique lyrics that, in the most elemental analysis, might just refer to a female orgasm.

Side Two of the LP kicks off with Reed’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” a slice of heavy rock during which Reed cuts loose with a couple of piercing guitar solos that seem to pay no attention to rhythm or chord structure. The woman referenced in the title appears to be deceased, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s made it thus far through “White Light/White Heat.”

The album concludes with one of rock’s groundbreaking performances: Seventeen minutes’ worth of “Sister Ray.”

The band decided to record the song in one take, live in the studio, with Reed and Morrison on guitars and Cale playing organ through a guitar amp. The results, as Reed explains in an interview for a publication called The Stranger:

“When we did ‘Sister Ray,’ we turned up to 10 flat-out, leakage all over the place. (Wilson) asked us when it would end. We didn’t know. We were doing the whole heavy-metal trip back then. If ‘Sister Ray’ isn’t an example of heavy metal, I don’t know what is.”

About the lyrical content, he says, “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”

Sex, drugs and (distorted) rock ‘n’ roll. That was the Velvet Underground, turning it up as far as it would go.

“Forever Changes” by Love (1967)

When the Doors were getting their start in the mid-’60s Los Angeles music scene, their aspiration was to become as big as Love.

Of course, Jim Morrison and company reached that goal after their second single, “Light My Fire,” shot to the top of the charts in 1967. By comparison, the best showing by Love was “Seven and Seven Is,” a burst of garage-meets-psychedelia that peaked at No. 33 the previous year.

And so it went for the Elektra labelmates. The Doors remain one of the most readily identifiable bands in rock history, while Love is a footnote, albeit a well-respected one.

The story of Love starts with the late Arthur Lee, whose early musical credits include writing a song called “My Diary” that was recorded by an obscure singer named Rosa Lee Brooks; it would be utterly forgotten today except for the identity of her guitarist, one James Marshall Hendrix.

Lee formed his own band, the Byrds-influenced Grass Roots, but changed the name to Love after another band appropriated the first choice. Love was an early interracial band, with the black Lee and guitarist Johnny Echols joined by white musicians, including the late Bryan MacLean, also on guitar.

The band scored a minor hit with a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “My Little Red Book,” which in a roundabout way ended up forming the basis for Pink Floyd’s instrumental “Interstellar Overdrive.” “My Little Red Book” appeared on the debut “Love” (1966), which generally featured a harder-edged sound than most folk-rock albums of the time.

Love’s sound gained more complexity on “Da Capo” (1967), which along with “Seven and Seven Is” also features such outstanding tracks as “Stephanie Knows Who,” later covered by the Move; MacLean’s introspective “Orange Skies”; and the LP-side-length “Revelation” (originally titled “John Lee Hooker”), based on a jam that Love had been doing since its early days.

“Da Capo” peaked at No. 80 on the billboard charts, a poor showing compared with the Doors’ debut album and “Strange Days,” both of which made the Top 3.

Sessions for Love’s third album began with some of L.A’s crack studio musicians backing Lee on his compositions “Andmoreagain” and “The Daily Planet,” a strong indicator that he was seeking an increasingly sophisticated sound for his material.

The rest of the band did play on the other tracks of what eventually constituted “Forever Changes,” but they were complemented by strings, horns and other flourishes that took the band into a whole new dimension musically, even if the musicians’ physical appearances were standard for the time. As John Einarson quoted Lee in “Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love”:

“I walked into the studio and took a seat in one of the chairs. I must have been there at least 45 minutes when one of the classical musicians said, ‘If this guy Arthur Lee doesn’t show up soon, I’m leaving.’ I said, ‘I’m Arthur.’ Most of them, if not all of them, couldn’t believe their eyes. This black hippie guy is Arthur Lee?”

When “Forever Changes” was released in November 1967, many listeners probably had to ignore their preconceptions, too. The album certainly has its basis in rock, but many of the songs veer into Baroque territory, with the extra instrumentation complementing Lee’s ambitious lyrics.

The opener actually is a MacLean composition, “Alone Again Or,” which also was released as a single. It sets the tone for “Forever Changes” with its highly orchestrated arrangement, including a section with a mariachi band.

Lee’s “A House Is Not a Motel” rocks out considerably more, with a churning riff backing such words as “And the water turns to blood, and if you don’t think so/Go turn on your tub, and it’s mixed with mud/You’ll see it turn to gray.”

Arthur also was imaginative with his titles, as evidenced by “Andmoreagain,” “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale” and “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This.”

Perhaps the highlights of “Forever Changes” are the final two tracks: “Bummer in the Summer,” a two-chord rocker chronicling the demise of a Lee love affair, and “You Set the Scene,” a mini-suite of musical ideas that takes a less direct approach to encapsulating a relationship.

For all the later praise heaped upon “Forever Changes” – it, for example, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame – it made a negligible impression on the American charts. As a result, Lee follow through on what he’d started during the album’s first session by firing the rest of the band and starting over in 1968.

Although the revamped Love had its moments, it never came close to reaching the creative heights of “Forever Changes.”

And for many listeners, neither did the Doors.

“After Bathing at Baxter’s” by Jefferson Airplane (1967)

Following the success of its breakthrough single, “Somebody to Love,” Jefferson Airplane entered the studio in May 1967 to record its third album.

After “White Rabbit” hit the Top 10, too, RCA Victor was eager to cash in on further Airplane success. So the company pretty much gave the band carte blanche for the next batch of what the executives hoped would be hits.

The first single from the resulting album, “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” didn’t even make the Top 40. Even to listeners who were feeding their heads, so to speak, the song must have sounded as weird as its title. Starting with a blast of feedback, “Pooneil” launches into fuzztone-driven, primordial hard rock and ponderous lyrics: “If you were a bird and you lived very high/You’d lean on the wind when the breeze came by/Say to the wind as it took you away/That’s where I wanted to go today.”

RCA would have preferred to release a Grace Slick-sung track, following her elevation to superstar status with the year’s previous hits. But her “Two Heads” wound up as the B-side to “Pooneil,” as Slick’s composition is even more arcane: A Middle East-flavored melody frames lyrics like “Wearing your comb like an ax in your head, listening for signs of life/Children are sucking on stone and lead, and chasing their hoops with a knife.”

No matter the era in which that was written, it’s just plain bizarre.

As is most of “After Bathing With Baxter’s,” which was released in November 1967 after the Airplane blew through about $80,000 of RCA’s money in studio time. That was 10 times as much as the cost of its predecessor, “Surrealistic Pillow.”

“Baxter’s” is presented as a series of suites, which isn’t an entirely accurate portrayal, as unrelated songs merely segue into one another other. The opener, “Pooneil,” careens into a short sound collage concocted by the band’s drummer, the late Spencer Dryden, called “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly” and inspired by some of Frank Zappa’s more avant-garde material.

“Value” wraps up with the words of wisdom “No man is an island … He’s a peninsula!” as the opening of “Young Girl Sunday Blues” bubbles up for Marty Balin’s only lead vocal on the album.

Balin, the band’s featured singer in its early days, had been pushed into the background by mid-1967, with the Airplane’s co-founder, Paul Kantner, dominating the songwriting. Along with “Pooneil,” Kantner contributed “Wild Tyme (H), a paean to the anything-goes San Francisco scene with the key line, “I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet”; “Martha,” inspired by a girl who hung out with fellow Bay Area band Quicksilver Messenger Service; “Watch Her Ride,” relatively atonal love song that nonetheless was released as the album’s second single; and the closing “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon,” with its reference to “acid, incense and balloons.”

Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen contributes “The Last Wall of the Castle” as his first Airplane songwriting effort; he eschews his blues roots to keep up with the absurdities being perpetuated by Kantner.

Speaking of whom, Grace drew on another literary figure for her other “Baxter’s” composition. Following Lewis Carroll for “White Rabbit,” she chose James Joyce for “rejoyce,” a song that’s every bit as strange as you’d expect from something based on the tale of Bloom in “Ulysses.”

“Baxter’s” contains one more track: nearly 10 minutes’ worth of a late-night jam by Kaukonen, Dryden and bass player Jack Casady. The instrumental was dubbed “Spare Chaynge,” based more or less on the constant mantra of many a youngster wandering around San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the alleged Summer of Love.

Jefferson Airplane reined in the insanity a bit for its subsequent releases, leaving “After Bathing at Baxter’s” as a lasting document of major experimentation by a major rock band at an appropriate time and place.

It’s a challenging listen, but an honest one. As Casady is quoted as saying in Jeff Tamarkin’s “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Fight of Jefferson Airplane”:

“To us, (‘Baxter’s’) was a performance and artistic success because, as spoiled little brats, we got to do whatever we wanted to do. But I say ‘spoiled little brats’ with a certain amount of fondness.”

“Marquee Moon” by Television (1977)

Back in the day, your typical rock star had a certain look about him: Picture Robert Plant or Mick Jagger, or David Bowie or Elton John. They either made the stereotype or fit the mold.

The first time I saw the cover of Television’s debut album, “Marquee Moon,” I thought something along the lines of, what the (expletive deleted). Punk Rock or New Wave or whatever they wanted to label it hadn’t quite caught on yet in Harrisburg, PA. So seeing the stark Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Tom Verlaine (né Miller), Richard Lloyd, Billy Ficca and Fred (not Sonic) Smith wasn’t going to make me plunk down $6 to take the album home.

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the genius behind the quartet, which recorded only two LPs in its original incarnation before Verlaine decided he’d be better off in a solo capacity. While his subsequent albums that i’ve heard are enjoyable, they don’t quite measure up to what he did with Television.

“Marquee Moon” actually is neither Punk nor New Wave; it’s much more musically complex than either of those genres have to offer. Because Verlaine and company hung out with a lot of those types – he dated Patti Smith for a while, and Richard Hell was in an embryonic version of Television – his music generally was assigned to a certain category. But listen to the music, and you’ll hear a lot more than the usual three-chord thrash.

Let’s cite the title track, which is one of the more complex songs of the era. Each of the musicians plays a subtly different motif, melding together to utterly the basic 12 bars of rock ‘n’ roll to that point. Each plays slightly off the beat from one another, creating a fascinating tapestry.

Verlaine’s singing might be an acquired taste, but his scratcy, higher-range voice rings true compared with the processed vocalizing that’s prevalent today. In fact, I usually cite him among my favorite singers, with the likes of Lou Reed, David Byrne and Jerry Garcia: guys who lack/lacked golden voices but convey their material superbly.

That being said, the guitar playing of Verlaine and Lloyd is what makes “Marquee Moon,” the album and particularly the title track, a huge cut above most of Television’s contemporaries. They famously steer clear of traditional rock chord changes, opting instead for scales that simultaneously sound familiar and off the beaten path, creating a sound that for all intents and purposes hasn’t been duplicated.

Beyond the title track, the other seven songs live up to the established standard, albeit in a more familiar rock ‘n’ roll vein: from the riff-driven “See No Evil” to the more introspective “Venus” to the minor-key epic of a closer, “Torn Curtain.” And the reissued CD adds some essential material, included the band’s debut single, “Little Johnny Jewel (Parts 1 & 2),” an integral release in the context of the New York City music scene in 1976.

OK, I’ll admit my musical horizons weren’t broad enough to embrace “Marquee Moon” in 1977. But 35 years later, I highly recommend it to anyone who has a sense of adventure … which, of course, is the title of Television’s second album.

“Elephant” by the White Stripes (2003)

During the recent Grammy Awards show, I opted instead to watch Jefferson Starship and The Contemporary Youth Orchestra on HDNet Concerts.

Yes, I heard a few chuckles when I mentioned that in the office the next day. But I could sing along with the Starship songs. I’ll guarantee I had no clue whatsoever about anything that was going on at the Grammys.

I’m a dinosaur. What can I say?

I didn’t watch the Grammys in 2004, either, but I was very familiar with one of the winners, for Best Alternative Music Album.

“Elephant” was the White Stripes’ fourth album and major-label debut, and Jack White made the most of the opportunity to make him and sister Meg major rock stars.

I’d heard of Jack as a damned good guitar player but had no idea about his prowess until I heard it for myself. Carrying the musical load in a classic power trio, with bass and drums, is difficult enough. Doing so with the backing of a minimalist percussionist is one exceptional feat.

Oh, and I’m not the only dinosaur. To quote Chuck Klosterman in Spin magazine: “Elephant was recorded entirely on pre-1963 analog equipment, and it sounds like heavy metal for the Great Depression. … Like his idol Bob Dylan, Jack White starts everything on the page, letting the lyrics, and the ever-shifting persona they articulate, shape the music.”

So Jack reached back to the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll for his 21st-century masterpiece.

“Elephant” opens with a song that also won a Grammy, for Best Rock Song: “Seven Nation Army” If you watch Penn State football, you’ve heard the band play the aggressive main riff when the Nittany Lions are on a drive; in fact, it’s become an anthem of sorts around the world, at sporting events and beyond. Including Arab Spring.

The lyrics certainly convey a strong sense of defiance: “I’m going to Wichita, far from this opera for evermore/I’m gonna work the straw, make the sweat drip out of every pore/And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding/Right before the lord.”

Dylan might’ve been envious …

The other 13 songs on “Elephant” might not have such an international impact, but each is effective in its own way, as the Whites explore a variety of styles.

That includes the blues, which Jack blasts in a fury of bravado during “Ball and Biscuit.” (Yeah, that’s shown up in Captain Morgan commercials. Yuck.) He conjures the spirit of Muddy Waters and company by proclaiming himself “the seventh son,” then continues with pure macho swagger: “You read it in the newspaper, ask your girlfriends and see if they know/That my strength is tenfold girl/And I’ll let you see if you want to before you go.”

Muddy would’ve been proud …

Jack can express vulnerability, too, such as in “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” and “The Hardest Button to Button.” And he has a sense of humor, as evidenced by “It’s True That We Love One Another,” which plays out as a conversation between Jack, Meg and British singer Holly Golightly:

“Jack I think your pulling my leg, and I think maybe I better ask Meg/Meg do you think Jack really loves me? You know, I don’t care because Jack really bugs me/Why don’t you ask him now? Well I would, but Meg, I really just don’t know how/Just say ‘Jack, do you adore me?’ Well I would Holly but love really bores me”

Meg, by the way, does her debut as lead vocalist with “In the Cold, Cold Night.” Her voice has been compared to that of the late Christa Päffgen, better known as Nico of Velvet Underground fame. Yet more connections to the ’60s!

Maybe I’ll try to pay more attention to the current state of music so that I can prep for the 2013 Grammys. But unless another “Elephant” comes along, the odds of me watching something like Jefferson Starship again are much better.