Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

7 Classic Downers

Posted by on January 11th, 2013

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Perusing through my CD collection recently , I noticed there were several that I seldom, if ever, listened to anymore.  I thought about it for a while, and decided that the common denominator is that they’re all downers.  They’re like musical dementors; when I listen to them they seem suck out the light and joy out of the world.  Maybe I should get rid of them, but they’re all actually good, so I’m loath to.  Well at any rate, here are the seven best downer CDs in my collection.  It’s interesting to note that the majority were released in the 90s, and the rest in the 70s.  Two depressive decades, I guess.

Plastic Ono Band1. John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band
Lennon’s first proper post-Beatles solo album must have been a shock to his fans.  It’s very spare, with lots of space, and is filled with angst.  It’s often called his Primal Scream album, because it came out of his primal scream therapy.  And because he lets loose with some blood-curdling screams and cries, particularly on “Mother”, which is guaranteed to bring you down if you have any parental abandonment issues at all.  “Working Class Hero” is a snarling Dylanesque indictment of those who hurt him in childhood, dropping a couple of F-bombs on the way.  And in “God” he says “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and then proceeds to tell us “the dream is over”.  Finally, the album ends with “My Mummy’s Dead”.  Happy happy joy joy.  There are a few bright spots on the album, particularly “Love”, but the overall effect is a giant buzz kill after the highs of the Beatles era.  Sometimes I blame this album for unleashing all the angsty (and often whiny)  confessional albums that we have had to endure since (several of which are on this list).  The dream is over, indeed.

The Wall2. Pink Floyd – The Wall
The Wall is Pink Floyd’s last great album, and the last one made with all four “classic” members.  After Roger Waters assumed complete control of the band, the lyrics (and vocals) became increasingly strident.  The album has a lot going for it; it’s a relatively coherent rock opera, has some classic songs, is loaded with symbolism and a lot of food for thought.  It’s also very dark and very, very serious.  Despite some faint attempts at black humor in “The Trial”, this album is bleak, indeed.  Main character Pink can’t catch a break; his father is killed in World War II, his mother is seriously overprotective, his teachers at school are sadistic, his wife cheats on him, and he goes violently crazy.  And that’s just in the first half!  In the second half he wallows in ennui, gets pumped fulled of drugs, becomes a fascist, abuses his fans, and…well, you get the idea.  A double album of this stuff is an emotional double-whammy to us sensitive types.  And the movie is even more depressing.

Sea Change3. Beck – Sea Change
Sea Change
is a breakup album par excellence; Beck had just broken up with his longtime girlfriend.  For a brief moment, he stopped hiding behind cryptic lyrics and sampled grooves and revealed himself as a very earnest and plain-spoken singer/songwriter.  “These days I barely get by/I don’t even try”, he sings in the album opener “Golden Age”.  Even more poignantly, in “Guess I’m Doing Fine”, he confesses, “It’s only lies I’m living/It’s only tears I’m crying/It’s only you I’m losing/Guess I’m doing fine”.  Sonically this is the most achingly beautiful record he ever recorded; it’s got a folkish bent with plenty of acoustic guitars and pianos, and everything is so crisp and clear it’s almost crystalline.  Several tracks also feature lush strings arranged by Beck’s father David Campbell.  The effect is heartbreak couched in rich satins and silks.  But heartbreak still hurts, and there’s not a smile to be had here.

OK Computer4. Radiohead – OK Computer
It’s difficult for me to put my finger on exactly what is so disquieting about OK Computer.  Maybe it’s the random noise and distortion that makes some of tracks sound like broadcasts from another planet.  Maybe it’s the eerie intensity of Thom Yorke’s vocals.  Maybe it’s the unexpectedly disturbing and violent imagery that emerges from even the most upbeat-sounding songs:  “Crushed like a bug in the ground”, “the crackle of pigskin”, “a handshake, some carbon monoxide”, “open up your skull, I’ll be there”.  The lyrics are filled with non sequiturs and give the impression that we’re listening to someone slowly sliding into madness.  There’s no joy to be had here; in “Airbag” we are told “I’m amazed that I survived/An airbag saved my life” but it doesn’t sound like a cause for celebration, and perhaps the most musically joyful-sounding song is called “Let Down”.  This is perhaps an album the Beatles might have produced after being held in a gulag for a couple of decades; tuneful, catchy, psychotic, and utterly ominous.

Welcome to My Nightmare5. Alice Cooper – Welcome to My Nightmare
This is the first solo album by Alice Cooper the man, as opposed to Alice Cooper the band.  He collaborated with producer Bob Ezrin (who also produced The Wall) to consolidate his image as the epitome of shock rock in these dark and macabre tales.  There are a lot of goodies here:  the slinky title track and the pro-feminist “Only Women Bleed” are two standouts.  And Vincent Price provides a campily sinister intro to “The Black Widow”.  There’s also a feeble attempt at a successor to “School’s Out”, called “The Department of Youth”.  The more disturbing second side kicks off with the darkly humorous and totally icky “Cold Ethyl”, but it’s the following trio of related songs that make for disturbing listening.  Sung from the point of view of the character “Steven”, they’re a peek into a murderous and twisted mind.  Despite the up and downs of this often inventive album, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth.

In Utero6. Nirvana – In Utero
Nirvana’s last studio album was not exactly a pick-me-up when it first came out:  lyrics like “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” and “rape me, my friend” are decidedly dark.  But following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, it became an abrasive tombstone.  It’s the sound of an angry, unhappy man who can’t come to terms with life.  For every gem of a song here, there is a blast of raging noise.  As on previous releases, the lyrics are fragmented, often seemingly nonsensical.  In fact, they make better sense if you mishear them.  But occasionally they are clearly autobiographical, as on the opening track, “Serve the Servants”:  “Teenage angst has paid off well”, Cobain sings, “Now I’m bored and old”.  To me it doesn’t sound like he ever left the teenage angst behind.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness7. Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
For me, this album has aged less well than any of the others on this list.  I confess that I haven’t even listened to it for years.  I will further confess that I think Billy Corgan is an ass.  However, when it first came out, I thought it was brilliant.  It’s sprawling and unfocused, but there are a lot of good tunes here: “Tonight, Tonight”, “1979”, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, just to name three.  “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans” is just as beautiful as it sounds.  But even at best the lyrics tend toward the pretentious, and there is also a lot of angsty whining which is made more strident by Corgan’s tinny voice.  I’m talking about “Zero”, “X.Y.U.” and others which are just vehicles for venting bile.  Somehow Corgan can make a line like “Into the eyes of the jackal I say ‘ka-boom'” sound deadly serious, but I think this album would have been much stronger and more enjoyable by editing out the tantrums.  It’s no fun listening to someone feeling sorry for themselves for the better part of 28 songs.

 

Review: Broken Open

Posted by on December 14th, 2012

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I discovered Skip Regan this week while Googling something else entirely.  When I saw that he mentioned Hendrix and the Beatles, I decided to give the first song I saw, “Evolution” a try.  Then I had to listen to another.  And another.  It didn’t take long for me to decide I wanted to buy his latest album, Broken Open, released in 2009.  His music is indeed a blend of Beatlesque vocals and Hendrix-influenced guitar over a driving beat.  It’s very tuneful, full of hooks, and adorned by lush harmonies and expertly-played guitar licks.  His voice reminds me a bit of Ty Tabor from King’s X in that it’s on the trebly side, very smooth, and most of the time kind of mellow.  Check out Skip’s music on his website, www.skipregan.com.  If you like this kind of music, you may find it as irresistible as I did.  And check out the rest of his site; he’s a man of many talents and interests, including meditation, stomp boxes, website design, and photography.  Standout tracks: “Distraction”, “If Only”, “All I Can Do”.

Influences: My Top 15 Album Picks

Posted by on October 19th, 2012

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As Chameleon Red gears up to record the follow-up to Transposition, I’ve been getting back in touch with some of my influences to get grounded and to dream big.  In that spirit, here are my selections for the 15 greatest rock albums.

1.       The Beatles – Revolver
This is the Beatles at their best; the most focused and yet diverse collection of songs the band ever released.  You get scorching rock (“Taxman”), beautiful pop (“Here, There, and Everywhere”), raga (“Love You To”), a children’s sing-along (“Yellow Submarine”), and far-out psychedelia (“Tomorrow Never Knows”).  All this while they were still touring!

 

2.       The Beatles – Abbey Road
The band had all but fallen apart, they were moving in different directions, and yet…this, the last album they recorded together, was one of their strongest efforts.  Lennon and McCartney shine, as usual, but Harrison finally becomes their equal with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”, and even Starr proves he’s no one-trick pony with “Octopus’ Garden”.  But it’s side two’s medley, beginning with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and ending with “The End”, that lifts the album to greatness.

3.       Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
The snare that kicks off “Like a Rolling Stone” is the sound of Bob kicking the door down and storming into your house with sharp and acidic tales of the absurdities of modern society.  And just like Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man”, something’s happening here but we don’t quite know what it is.

 

4.       Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
This sprawling double album proves once and for all that Jimi was more than a guitar hero, he was a great songwriter and lyricist.  My favorite track is “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, a strange sci-fi epic that makes you feel you’re sinking beneath the depths of the ocean.  “So down and down and down and down and down and down we go…”

 

5.       Led Zeppelin – (Untitled)
This is the album with the four strange symbols on the cover, the one with “Stairway to Heaven”.  Yes, we’ve heard these songs a million times on classic rock radio, but they’re still great.  That’s why they play them over and over again.

 

 

6.       The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Forget about “Surfin’ In the USA”…this is the Beach Boys as they were never heard before, with ethereal melodies, complex chords, and introspective lyrics.  Brian Wilson is at his creative height, before drugs and mental illness take him out for a few decades.

 

7.       Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Yeah, Dark Side of the Moon is great, but I think this is better.  The last time the Floyd really worked together instead of being a Roger Waters vehicle, their instrumental freak outs are never better than in the extended “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.

 

8.       Neil Young – After the Gold Rush
This is Neil before he began segregating his acoustic and electric proclivities onto different album sides or even different albums.  Most of the album is more acoustically-based, but you have “Southern Man” and “When You Dance I Can Really Love” to break things up.  And even though there are a couple of inconsequential fragments here, I think his songwriting was at the top of its form.

 

9.       Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle
It’s not really kosher to include a greatest-hits collection here, but it’s my list!  CCR was, first and last, a great singles band, and this collection proves it once and for all.  We’re only left wondering how a group of California boys could transform themselves so convincingly into the shamans of swamp-rock.

 

10.   Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight
Again, another greatest hits, this one included with the defense that they really didn’t make albums in those days.  This collection of the best of the first Poet Laureate of Rock and Roll makes a strong case for revisiting just who the real King was.

 

11.   Nirvana – Nevermind
This album blew away the hair metal of the previous decade and reminded us why we loved hard rock in the first place.  The hook-filled melodies disguised and in some ways, transcended the raw and disturbing lyrical vision underneath.  Classic and tragic.

 

12.   Queen – A Night At the Opera
Named for the classic Marx Brothers movie, this is Queen at their most focused and diverse.  Not only do you get “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but a seesaw between bone-crunching rock, lovely ballads, and kitschy romps through rooty-tooty pop music.  God Save the Queen, indeed.

 

13.   The Doors – The Doors
What other band could start out with a bossa nova and end with an Oedipal nightmare?  The organ may sound a little cheesy to modern ears, but nobody conjured up dark visions with more conviction than the Doors.

 

 

14.   Beck – Mutations
In a way, this is the most unassuming of Beck’s albums.  For once, he dispenses with the cut-and-paste hip-hop distractions and plays music with his band.  Every song is great, and the tone is less monotonous than the lusher-sounding Sea Change.  We get country, tropicalia, raga-rock, and 60s-influenced ballads before the whole thing is punctured by the hidden final track, the psychedelic fuzz-guitar attack of “Diamond Bollocks”.

15.   Radiohead – OK Computer
This album, the greatest thing Radiohead ever did, manages to be melodic, hummable, psychotic, and deeply disturbing.  Like the car wreck in the first track, “Airbag”, we are horrified, yet can’t look away.

Review: Vicki Genfan Live

Posted by on October 12th, 2012

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After watching Vicki Genfan play guitar live, I felt like giving the instrument up.  She is a wizard of the acoustic guitar, playing a rhythmic, often two-handed style that seems effortless; picking out a bass line, percussion and chords all at once, she sounds like three guitarists playing at the same time.  How she can do all that and sing at the same time is beyond me.  Her voice is bluesy and expressive, sometimes husky, sometimes soaring.  Live was recorded at the Open Strings Festival 2002 in Osnabrück, Germany, where I’m sure she wowed the audience like she does everywhere.  The eleven tracks of the album are a good introduction to Vicki’s intense and varied style.  She throws jazz, soul, blues, funk, and folk together in a huge bowl and mixes it up for your listening pleasure.  Ten of the eleven tracks are original; the songs with vocals seem very personal and sung with great conviction, while the instrumentals are dazzling displays of her virtuosity.  The eleventh track is a unique, powerful cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”.  I highly recommend this album; you’ve never heard anything like Vicki Genfan, but when you do, you’ll want to hear more.

Visit Vicki’s website at vickigenfan.com.

Review: My Heart’s in New Orleans

Posted by on September 14th, 2012

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Vicki D'Salle - My Heart's in New Orleans“Let the good times roll!” sings Vicki D’Salle in the tune of the same name.  I would suggest putting on her CD, My Heart’s in New Orleans, to get the good times rolling.  Ms. D’Salle lays down the boogie-woogie with nimble fingers and a dark-brown voice that effortlessly evokes the Big Easy even for those (like me) who’ve never been there.  The CD is about evenly split between instrumental and vocal music; the instrumentation is sparse, with only piano, bass and drums on most tunes.  But the piano makes a big sound; Vicki’s one of those players who make virtuosity sound effortless.  When she takes the mike, her sultry delivery makes it clear that even if her man did her wrong, she got the last laugh.  My Heart’s in New Orleans is a rollicking, jazzy, bluesy, often bawdy, set that will set you movin’ and groovin’.  Standout tunes: “Stormy Weather” and “Let the Good Times Roll”.

Check out Vicky D’Salle at http://www.vickidsalle.com/.

Review: 1971

Posted by on September 7th, 2012

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A little clarification before we get rolling on the reviews.  I’m not going to worry so much about when an album came out or even if the band that made it is still together; the intent is to introduce our blog readers to good independent music, whenever and by whomever it was made.  I’m going to try to only review albums that are obtainable in some form on the Internet, and will probably only review stuff I like.

1971 by 1971Now then.  I saw 1971 perform live several times a few years ago and liked what I heard.  I stumbled upon their eponymous CD in my wife’s collection a while back, and thought it’d be fun to give it a listen.  It was like seeing old friends after a long absence; it’s a credit to lead singer/guitarist/drummer David Pope’s songwriting skill that many of the songs had fastened their hooks into my brain.  The album as a whole is acoustic-driven with the ambience of a back-porch pickin’ party, cohesive but with more emphasis on feel than technique.   Ably backed by the harmonies and instrumental skills of bassist Robert Peets and lead guitarist Brett Hale, Pope’s tales of heartbreak, hangover, religious anguish and family troubles are the perfect companions for world-weary late nights.  Standout track: “Hail Mary”.  The album is available for purchase on CDBaby.com.