Archive for the ‘Classic Albums’ Category

€9.99 is usually a bit more than I like to pay for my bargain bin CDs, but having just moved office to the financial district, and after spending several zen-like hours waiting for the tech crowd to fix the network and my broken computer, I found myself riding the Eason’s escalator to the top floor, which is mostly taken up by one of the branches of Tower records and, among other things has the best selection of jazz that I’m aware of in this country (but more of that elsewhere). Once there, of course I had to buy something.

I’ve never considered myself a Dead Head. I probably saw them half a dozen times from the early to late 70s, mainly because that was what everybody else was doing that night. I liked them well enough, but I wasn’t really into the band the way some people were and I know I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have at the time. I’m not sure, but that may make me a bit unusual considering the time and place. The Dead seemed to be a band that you either loved or knew about in name only. Even at the peak of their commercial popularity in the mid 70s, when “Terrapin Station” and “Shakedown Street” were released (some of you may recall this as the “Disco Dead” era), the outsiders who went to see them didn’t really appreciate what they had signed on for. For example, The Grateful Dead were famous for their all-night music marathons that required no support act. Yet one morning after, I heard tell of a young woman who walked out of the concert when the support band came on to do a second set!

Their name probably did them no favors in attracting the uninitiated. Even now I meet people who think that The Grateful Dead must have been a heavy metal band or, more likely, some psychedelic, acid-ridden collective. Indeed, they did like to run to excess in that 60s sort of experimental way with extended solos, odd chord and time changes, and 20 minute two-man drum solos against guitar feedback. One listen to their 1969 album “Live Dead” (get it?) proves that.

But at their core, the Grateful Dead were really a band in the style of what has lately become known as Americana; electric country/rock/folk music (emphasis with this album on the country rock) that almost never fit comfortably on top 40 radio. Even to someone like me who, at that time, was more interested in a well-produced mainstream pop or rock tune, they had songs that stuck in the brain. Besides the album’s legendary status, it was on the strength of three such songs that I purchased this CD; the acoustic, country-picking, happy-go-lucky “Friend of the Devil”, the upbeat, easy-going “Sugar Magnolia”, and the boogie-shuffle road trip “Truckin”, arguably their biggest “hit”. If you’re not familiar with any of these tracks then you might want to consider plugging the gap in your musical knowledge base.

The surprise for me on listening to the entire CD was that all the songs stand up to those classic tracks. “American Beauty” is proably the most accessible album the Dead ever released, and perhaps their best. (For my money, “Workingman’s Dead” runs a close second, and “Terrapin Station” is also a strong contender.) You can rack this album comfortably between the The Eagles and The Band. If it’s not as polished as the former then it’s certainly smoother than the latter. It’s no fluke that “American Beauty” was featured on an episode of VH-1’s Classic Albums.

The band is loose and in top form here with their three lead singers; Gerry Garcia, Bob Weir, lead and rhythm guitarists respectively, and keyboardist Pigpen (Ron Mckernan) all taking their turns at singing and songwriting. They are aided lyrically (as usual) by Robert Hunter. The arrangements sound deceptively spontaneous yet obviously well rehearsed. The harmonies will set your spine a-tingling. Phil Lesh shows why he’s held in such high regard as a bass guitarist.

I probably sound like some old 60s geezer reminiscing about the past, but it might interest you to know that I’ve met any number of people young enough to be my children who are more familiar with this band than I am. It’s time for you to dispense with your preconceptions and buy this album. Now!

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It was 1969 when a band called Chicago Transit Authority hung out their wood shingle via the cover artwork for their first album. I was 14 at the time and up until then, for me anyway, “good” pop music mainly consisted of guitar-based bands with a bit of keyboards thrown in – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash. And of course, all that was great but this was something completely different.

It was pop music by virtue of the fact that there were no fewer than four songs from this double album that were in regular radio rotation. It was also serious Music with a capital ‘M’, and not in the arty-farty sense, like some of the technically astute but soulless jazz-rock outfits of the era. Although CTA could arguably be labelled jazz/rock/blues fusion, it built on the best elements of all those traditions in a way that made their work sound authentic, not compromised as happened with so many other attempts at fusion. Chicago gave the impression that they could play whatever they wanted, and play it well.

Without being told, we knew that these guys were trained musicians, that their music was arranged in the classic sense of the word, and that those arrangements were “composed” and played from charts onto which the lads had placed all those dots on staffs themselves. Songs had definite beginnings, middles and ends, often changing mood, direction and time signature while working their way from start to finish. Until then it was convenient to be able to read music. Chicago made it cool. This was music you could take home and play for your parents. What’s that dad? Yeah, I guess the guitar is a little loud. But mom, the horns are supposed to sound a little dissonant there. It doesn’t sound “off”, it’s in 5/4! Yes! I know that’s a recording of demonstrators chanting at the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago! Oh…nevermind!!!

CTA was a septet with a three-piece horn section: Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on woodwinds. In Terry Kath they had a guitarist who could hold his own with the better known guitar heroes of the day. Producer James William Guercio went so far as to claim that Hendrix “idolized” Kath. At this time the band featured two lead singers with distinct musical personalities, a fact that contributed greatly to their versatility. Robert Lamm (keyboards) lent his clear vocal tones to the songs, most of which he wrote at the time, while Kath handled the raw, gritty, blues and rock material (It was on subsequent albums that bass guitarist Peter Cetera started to take the lead vocal spot). Holding it together rhythmically was drummer Danny Seraphine. Yet Chicago wasn’t so much a band of talented individuals as much as it was a singular working collective with a unified face.

The first track on the album, simply entitled “Introduction” serves as a microcosm of everything that comes after. It begins as full tilt R&B with a classic horn riff leading into Terry Kath’s raw vocal welcoming you to the band while admitting that they’re “just a little nervous”, the track suddenly changes time signature, twice, to let the horns jazz it up a bit, downshifts into a slow groove with another time change and a melodic trumpet solo, builds back towards the beginning to give Kath a turn at some aggressive guitar work then, after a brief horn section interlude, comes full circle to the third verse – all in 6:35.

Then Robert Lamm takes over for three hits in a row. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” was their first big hit despite the fact that it begins with free form solo piano that leads smoothly into a 4/4, 5/4 intro before bopping along melodically to an existential lyric. This is followed by “Beginnings”, a moderate-tempo love song that has the legs to go for nearly 8 minutes. Of course, this was 1969, so if you wanted to hear more than the three minute radio edit of either of these songs you just had to buy the album. After that comes “Questions 67 and 68”, a classical-tinged love song despite its somewhat unique title, and at 3:21 the shortest track on the album.

A fourth single release comes in the album’s second half on what, with the vinyl release, I came to think of as the Terry Kath side. It’s a blistering rendition of “I’m a Man” that, for me, outdoes the original by The Spencer Davis group to become the definitive version of the song.

The only bum track here is “Free Form Guitar”, where Terry Kath plays exactly what it says on the label (hey, even The Beatles’ White Album had Revolution #9). But the consistent quality of the rest of the album makes up for this blemish, and on CD it’s easy to skip over.

For a brief time through the early 70s Chicago took their auspicious beginning and kept running from strength to strength, releasing two more double albums (“Chicago II” and “Chicago III”) that increased their critical standing while broadening their musical range. For example, Chicago II contains “Colour My World”, arguably the most snogtastic slow dance number of the 70s, and also “25 or 6 To 4″, featuring Lamm’s indecipherable, psychedelic lyrics along with wall-to-wall jet-fuelled guitar mayhem from Kath having more creative ideas in one song than most guitar bands do on an entire album. Then they did it all again, Live at Carnegie Hall, for what was released as a four record set entitled…”Chicago IV” (what else?).

I lost interest in the band when “Chicago V” was released. They were as good as they ever were but I was disappointed with the album for two reasons, which in retrospect are quite daft. (Give me a break. I was in high school.)

  1. After three double albums and one quadruple album, they downsized by releasing their first single album. This gave me the false impression that they were running out of gas. Never mind that it was their 11th piece of vinyl in four years.
  2. “Saturday In The Park” – their most sugar-coated pop single at that time (and certainly not their last!). If releasing a single album lowered expectations regarding the quantity of their output, this track lowered them regarding street cred. Compared to what they had done up until then, it was Chicago-lite, pure pop with little or no sense of adventure. Of course, the rest of the album was full of great sounds, but this is the song that was played over and over again on the radio, thereby giving a lopsided impression about the entertainment commodity that Chicago seemed to be turning into. Yet one more example of why radio can’t be trusted.

Although it might not be so apparent on this side of the Atlantic, Chicago is still going strong with original members Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider. They released “Chicago XXX” in March 2006. Terry Kath was a member until he died as the result of an accidental gunshot wound, shortly after Chicago XI was released. Cetera left after “Chicago XVII” to pursue a successful solo career. Seraphine left after “Chicago XIX” and now runs a production company called Street Sense.

Nobody strangles a Les Paul like Neil Young. I mean that in a good way. It’s tempting to say that this is the sole raison d’etre for his 1990 album “Ragged Glory”, because it’s what you take away from a first listening. Almost every song on this album is a vehicle for guitar playing that sounds like it’s wrenched from the depths of the soul with the Bigsby tremolo bar working overtime and a sustained feedback coda more often than not. And there’s no more suitable band to aid and abet him in this than Crazy Horse bashing away behind. Though firmly rooted in that fringe country/rock landscape where he dwells, this album is a prime example of why Mr. Young became known as the grandfather…er, godfather of grunge in the 90s.

It’s getting hard to remember if there even was a time when old Mr. Young didn’t sound like a crusty geezer with a heart of gold. True to form, the lyrics here are direct and pragmatic. There are no “hits” and there are times when several minutes elapse before the next verse comes along, but most of them are worth waiting for. Throughout the album we get observations about break ups, friends selling out, driving down the road alone and why does he keep f-!#in’ up. We also get love, hope, revelation and the sense that there are still some things that make life worth living, even pleasurable.

For example the first track, “Country Home”, which might have sounded like a benignly pleasant country ditty in someone else’s band, attests to how he’s not too put out by other environments but is happier living on the outskirts, thank you very much. “Love to Burn”, clocking in with two verses at ten minutes flat, captures painful details of marital dissolution and how if we want love we need to find it within ourselves. Overall it’s a hard-edged, life-affirming journey; rough magic for people of a certain age who may still like to play a bit of air guitar when no one is looking.

Those who are of the opinion that Neil Young is better represented by his more acoustic, Harvest/Moon side need not enter here. But if, like me, you also like him loud and live (though in the studio this time) this is the album for you.

I love a good practical joke, especially when it’s harmless, serendipitous and I’m not the victim. One afternoon during my sophomore year at Westfield State College I was lounging on the sofa in an apartment I shared with a friend of mine. It being a warm day in early spring, my roommate was sitting on the picnic table just outside the front door. All the windows were open and Pink Floyd’s relatively new album, “Wish You Were Here” was cranked up to 11 on the stereo in his bedroom so that the entire quadrant could here it easily (regardless of whether they wanted to). He hadn’t heard this album before. I had. David Gilmour was cranking out those tasteful, meaty guitar licks at the end of “Have A Cigar” with the rest of the band giving it loads behind him when suddenly the sound of the entire band sucked up into itself, imploding from full, rich stadium volume to the small, thin tone of a tiny transistor radio. Of course, I knew this passage was coming. My roommate didn’t. He suddenly burst through the front door, leapt over the couch and ran into his bedroom to see how badly my album had damaged his stereo. And we had a good laugh, eventually.

Ah, the joys of hearing a well produced album for the first time. No one could produce albums like the Floyd did in the 70s. 30 years later no one has.

“Wish You Were Here” was the follow up to 1973’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, the album that brought Pink Floyd from cult status to the mainstream echelon in one big leap of sonic cinema. Like that album, it was full of cutting-edge instrumental sounds interspersed with incidental recordings of tape machines, party chat, desert wind and tiny radios, all of which worked together as the soundtrack for a film that existed only in your head. Unlike that album, there were fewer than half as many songs despite the fact that it was a few minutes longer.

I remember the first time I heard Parts I through V of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. It was on WAAF, back in the days when you could get away with playing a 13 1/2 minute track on FM radio without losing your audience. Good thing too, because my initial reaction was “Where’s the beef?” (Something we used to say in those days, which meant something like: this form has no substance.) The majority of the track is an improbably long, slow, minimalist build to what is essentially a three-minute song. Parts VI through IX, which contain the final verse, close the album and complete the song to clock in at a total 26 minutes, fading out nearly as gradually as it faded in. You should be aware that this was in the days before iPods, Face Book and gaming consoles. We had a bit more of an attention span and a lot more time on our hands. So we listened to it again and again and again, and it grew on us with each revolution around the turntable.

The beef, as it were, was the sins of the music BUSINESS and it’s effect on one poor crazy diamond in particular: Syd Barrett. Or something like that, I think. The title track seemed to bridge the gap between where the band was, successful but having to deal with the industry characters depicted in “Welcome To The Machine” and “Have a Cigar”, and Diamond Syd, the tortured artist who was lost to them. Like any great Shakespearean tragedy, those three tracks form the dramatic/musical peak at the centre of the album. Plus they balance it out with the more radio-friendly, intelligent rock that we expected after “Dark Side Of The Moon”.

Is it a self-indulgent album? Surely. Were Pink Floyd starting to come apart at the seams? Probably. Is it any good? Yes. It may not be as flashy as it’s predecessor, but if you let yourself go along with it, it’s a compelling auditory experience you just can’t get anywhere else. And that Gilmour lad sure can play guitar.