Headphone Commute's Album Reviews
I've already heard an album from Simon & Garfunkel on this list and was impressed with their ability to execute in such a personal and genuine way. I was enthused further with Bookends, where the music is even more delightful in many different ways while fusing the psychedelic and folk-rock elements in a poignant, earnest, and very much sophisticated manner. It kind of makes me want to hear their other songs, including the soundtrack for The Graduate which hit the streets in January of 1968 [and now I want to watch the film with Dustin Hoffman]. In terms of new sounds, on "Old Friends" we hear a very nice orchestral arrangement with strings and a xylophone, and on "Save the Life of My Child" there's even an appearance of the Moog! This is all while the duo, who met in the elementary school, and have already gone through a few on-and-off creative disagreements, were riding the wave of "Mrs. Robinson". The duo still lean towards a slight political stance, a conceptual storyline around a lifetime and plenty of studio experimentation inspired [again, again, and again] by Sgt. Peppers. "Voices of Old People" is a nice time capsule which simultaneously reflects and predicts the future for us all. Oh, and yes, Richard Avedon's cover photo made this an iconic record instantly recognizable on the shelves.
Before the appearance of the Who's "Tommy," there was "S.F. Sorrow", hailed as the very first rock opera, which, through the various mishaps attributed to the label's poor marketing and distribution has never had much success on the charts. Neither, for that matter, did the band, which recorded this fourth album at the Abbey Road Studios while the Beatles were working on their "White Album". I have to admit, the mix is a bit difficult to listen to on headphones, with its super hard panning and wide phasing effects (wish there was a mono mix!), but on the hi-fi it's light, clear, and fun, featuring all of that British psychedelia and studio effects invented a year prior with the helping hand of Peter Mew behind the mixing board. I hear the Beatles influence [again], but this time the execution is of much higher quality. I've listened to the album numerous times, with the last rotation complemented by following along with the liner notes, which is extremely important, as the actual story of S.F. Sorrow from birth to his demise is mostly told between the songs in text. The spoken storytelling can also be found on the band's "Resurrection" performance of the album live at Abbey Road 40 years later.
Another album on the Atco label, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, and, now that I've played it, of course, I remember the 17-minute jam which started off as a drunken rumble of "In the Garden of Eden" and turned into "one of the most influential" hard rock songs for all the heavy metal bands to come. It is indeed the highlight of the album (occupying the entire second side of the record), and although the harder renditions of the ballads like "Flowers and Beads" or "My Mirage" eventually grow on you, they're not as memorable as the celebrated and now a historic jam. That being said, perhaps what's celebrated on here is more about the unconformity to the standards of the time than the implied musicianship, since if you listen closely and deconstruct the structure of the track, there's not much really happening here [unless you're high], and perhaps, just maybe, it could have been just as great as its 3-minute single version. I do like the Vox Continental organ and the main riff though, but after three full playthroughs of the entire track, not sure I'll be able to withstand it another time.
Oh man, I swear, the more obscure the artist or the record on this list, the more I end up falling in love with it. In this case, I meet Malcolm John Rebennack, who takes on a persona of Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper, the voodoo medicine man from New Orleans, selling you sonic talismans to cure any illness and aural amulets to protect you from the evil reaches of all that soulless pop. This is some trippy psychedelic swamp rock drenched in smokey blues with a touch of Creole zydeco performing at a ceremony in the middle of the night. "Rebennack inhabits his character fully, delivering Creole French and slang English effortlessly in the grain of his half-spoken, half-sung voice. He is high priest and trickster, capable of blessing, cursing, and conning." The album features some eclectic instrumentation: "wafting reverbed mandolins, hand drums, a bubbling bassline, blues harmonica, skeletal electric guitar, and a swaying backing chorus that blurs the line between gospel and soul." I'm definitely adding this gem to my collection!
And here is an example of an album that I'm absolutely grateful to have heard thanks to this list! Who are The United States of America and what exactly am I listening to? It's like a deranged version of Sgt. Pepper's mixed with even more psychedelia and experimentation from the likes of Zappa, Pink Floyd, and Jefferson Airplane! The music is whimsical, hallucinatory, and super groovy. There are even electronic "devices" on the album, such as custom-made oscillators and "variable wave shape generators modulating one another." The band was founded by Joseph Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz and went on to get signed to Columbia through their friend David Rubinson for this one and only record! Byrd, by the way, studied composition in Stanford in the 60s, where he met La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Later on, he relocated to New York City and continued his studies with Morton Feldman and John Cage, reportedly becoming Cage's last student. Byrd became a member of the Communist Party and started focusing on concept art forms. In 1967 he aimed to form "an avant-garde political/musical rock group with the idea of combining electronic sound (not electronic music)... musical/political radicalism... [and] performance art." All this, and much more, on this amazing record! I just may have to seek it out on vinyl after all!
Pretending to sound like a live recording [except the last two truly live tracks], Cheap Thrills is the second and last studio album from this San Francisco psychedelic rock band, with Janis Joplin as a lead singer, before she went off on her solo career. Janis practically makes the band, even though, prior to signing her, Peter Albin played with future Grateful Dead founders, Jerry Garcia and Ron McKernan. This is an excellent culmination of psychedelia, blues, and hard rock! The album showcases the energy of the band first witnessed at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 [I highly recommend you dig up and watch the same-titled documentary of the festival], and finally captured by producer John Simon for Columbia, after a less successful self-titled debut on Mainstream. Here are the poignant covers of "Summertime", "Piece of My Heart", and, of course, "Ball and Chain", plus the incredible album art by the one and only Robert Crumb [with a little Hell's Angels seal of approval and a depiction of a crowd selling smack, speed, acid and lids]. I have to absolutely agree with the following quote: "Nobody had ever heard singing as emotional, as desperate, as determined, or as loud as Joplin's, and Cheap Thrills was her greatest moment." A true time-capsule of the sound of the late 60s in Frisco. A must for any musical history buff! I also ended up playing "Live At Winterland '68" which was actually released nearly 30 years later!
This is the fifth and most critically acclaimed album by the Byrds, and although I now clearly recognize the distinct stylistic approach of the band [which I previously attributed to a watered-down Beatles influence], I'm still, sadly, not on board with the group. I guess I'm just not that big on all the near-perfect all-male ethereal harmonies quietly serenading me in a stereo field among the sounds of a pedal steel guitar. The psychedelic influence is definitely waning on this one, even as the studio effects abound, and the group is starting to evolve their folk-rock compositions into the country-influenced rock. I suppose I would imagine one listening to this more on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, while sitting outside of a wooden red barn among the dense cornfields, chewing on tobacco and sipping ice tea, rather than during the acid-induced trip at a wet and muddy Woodstock [although the band did perform at the Monterey Pop Festival and spewed out comments on the JFK assassination and benefits of LSD... for which Crosby was subsequently kicked out of the group by other members]. Even the very first performance of the Moog synthesizer is not really holding my attention, although I did enjoy its brief appearance on "Space Oddysey" [and the bonus "Moog Raga" instrumental on the 1997 CD reissue]. The most interesting thing about this album is its consistent tonality and execution, even as the band members are ripping each other apart behind the scenes during the recording - the only thing you will find most journalists covering during this release.
Blue Cheer is hard, raw, and dirty. Is this the very first appearance of heavy metal? From the distorted guitars to the heavy-hitting chords, to the power lead vocals, and the very primitive-sounding recording, the San Francisco trio of Dickie Peterson, Randy Holden, and Paul Whaley turn even the most common-sounding B.B. King blues into hard rockers. Named after a variety of LSD (which in turn was named after a laundry detergent), Blue Cheer is credited with the development of stoner rock, doom metal, and grunge - and listening to Vincebus Eruptum you can tell why. The tracks on here are spacious, with individual channels hard-panned in stereo, dissected into the early metal elements with plenty of room for each instrument to breathe. Everything on here is grimy, in that loud, oversaturated way: crashing cymbals, thick basslines, and the nearly screaming vocals - not a headphone experience exactly, but a noisy lo-fi, speaker blast! The less polished, the more authentic the sound! The ending is fantastic! Totally digging it!
Aretha Franklin died exactly a year ago, but as a high school drop-out, a friend of Sam Cooke and Martin Luther King Jr., she's lived a pretty vivid life, rising from a broken family of Memphis, Buffalo and Detroit to a height of "The Queen of Soul" coronation. If you want to be inspired about something this Sunday morning, listen to the Lady Soul tell it like it is, from the hit R&B single "Chain of Fools" to the soft rock and soul of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" [a song written expressly for her by Gerry Goffin and Carole King]. More civil-rights anthems on this one with the Sweet Inspirations backing (featuring Whitney Houston's mom again, Cissy), and... did I spot Eric Clapton playing the lead guitar on "Good To Me As I Am To You"? Some really good Memphis southern soul on this record, all around, and, I do feel thankful for being able to hear the authenticated studio quality masters, courtesy of Tidal.
Thought I'd put it on out of curiosity for a little taste, but now I'm here writing about this second album by a New York City singer and pianist, Laura Nyro, and yet I still have no idea who she is! I can't even tell what genre this is. Is it jazz? A bit of blue-eyed soul? Is it the emergence of soft rock? It's like a super early version of Sade but in the 60s. Nyro's got a super wide range, but it's a lot more resonant than I would prefer (I'm partial to the silky whispers versus throated howls). I hear the making of Motown, and I also hear some Streisand as the influence, who, although should be already into at least 10 albums by 1968, still hasn't come up on these lists. Instead, it's Laura Nyro. I totally recognize how ignorant all of the above may sound if Nyro has been part of someone's desert island soundtrack for the last half a century, but I'm brand new to this artist and I tell it how it is, without preconceived notions. Still -- I dig it!