Headphone Commute's Album Reviews
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!
I may not be a fan of rockabilly or outlaw country music, but I'm can appreciate this amazing live recording from the Folsom State Prison, in California. I've already mentioned my enthusiasm for all live performances, but this record takes it to a whole other level! Also, apparently, during one of the rehearsal sessions the then California governor Ronald Reagan, visited the band and offered his encouragement. I don't even need to close my eyes to picture myself in the crowd with all the yelling and the hooting! But I did look up a photo of Cash sitting on the stage with his guitar looking over a hall filled with inmates. Somebody get the man some water before he chokes on those cocaine blues! I even love the fact that Cash played a song composed by an inmate Glen Sherley (who later became popular and eventually committed suicide). This may be the quintessential record that revitalized Johnny's career and I'm glad that I got to hear it! More like this, please!
Nothing awakes my fear of death louder than being reminded of it in every which way I turn. Especially in music. You're born, you live, [you create], and you die. All of the accolades along the way, and then, at best there is a mural on the wall, painted in your honour. I know that it's a morbid thought, but that's what drives me to compose, and then in turn attempt to listen to what others have already said, with words, with music, and their presence. Such is the case with Leonard Cohen, who passed not long ago [November 2016], with eighty-two rotations of this rock and with the time it's given him to leave us with his contributions. Leonard's songs are very simple and heartfelt. It's more about poetry than it is about musical progression. Cohen, after all, was a published author and poet before he was a songwriter. Nevertheless, the execution of contemporary and baroque folk music is spot on. A good example of this is "The Stranger Song" or the eponymous "Sister of Mercy" featured in Robert Altman's film "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" from which the Leeds band took its name later in the 80s. Not sure if folk music will ever remain prominently in my repertoire, but nevertheless, so far I'd rather listen to Leonard Cohen than Bob Dylan.
Hmmm. So my first reaction to this third [and final] studio album by Jimi is a bit weak. I'm a bit annoyed by what I think is an overly generous usage of stereo imaging [again, relative to albums I've heard from others _and_ him in this context], as it is slightly distracting with all of that inverted phasing, over-saturated chorus, and hard ping-pong panning. I get that it was all about studio experimentation and using flanging as one of the up-and-coming techniques, but this was just a bit too much on my ears. Also, the range of genres here, from funk to r&b to jams that just go on for 15 minutes is not what I was initially prepared for. Expectations again, huh? The album did grow on me a bit. That being said, I feel like Electric Ladyland is more of a stoner rock album than the tripped-out psychedelic rock - it's slow on the burn, a bit hazy, and very much grounded, like a dorm-room morning weekend high. I'm not saying that any of it is a bad thing - it's just not what I'd picture playing loud on a stage at Woodstock, and perhaps that is exactly the point behind this concept double album. It's still Jimi though, right? So how can you go wrong with his raw and raunchy style, especially when he's laying down those sensual vocals on those smooth dreamy blues? I've spent nearly two weeks with this one, folks, and it's time to move on!