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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Johannes Brahms, "Violin Sonatas, Opp. 78, 100, 108"

Johannes Brahms
"Violin Sonatas, Opp. 78, 100, 108"
Decca (1967)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

I have constantly commented during our looks at Brahms— with the addendum that I may be too unfamiliar with classical music to recognize the essential and minute details —that I find him to be rather conservative. I don't know what I should be expecting, but I just don't hear the 'oomph' present in Beethoven, nor the range of moods we heard in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. The composer's three violin sonatas offer a more diverse view of his tastes however, at least certainly in comparison to his sonatas for cello.
The most striking is the second movement of his Violin Sonata no. 2 in A Major. Titled "Andante tranquillo-Vivace-Andante-Vivace di più-Andante-Vivace," it's easy to tell that the guy is cramming a lot of parts into one roughly seven-minute piece of music. The opening andante travels at a moderate pace, carrying the pleasant themes of the opening movement. "Vivace," as its name implies (to all you Romance language readers out there), is an especially ebullient movement, so much so that it almost seems like comic relief compared the andantes. Brahms was reportedly in a good mood at the time of Sonata no. 2, and it shows.

Although no. 2 is interesting for its shocking revelations regarding Brahms' personality (to us noobs, at least), Sonata no. 1 in G Major best displays his range as a composer, following a singular theme. The theme set by the piano in opening movement, "Vivace ma non troppo," evokes the sound of rainfall, and hence the piece has become known as the "Rain Sonata." The official title only includes "G Major" because that's the key that the first movement follows. By the time Brahms reaches movement three, "Allegro molt moderato," the sonata is in G minor, drastically changing the mood of the piece. The theme of rainfall is present throughout: What begins as a gentle shower in the form of quiet, twinkling keys becomes an angrier storm, based on the volume of performer Julius Katchen.

I'm somewhat stealing Tom Moon's point in this paragraph, but most of his entry on this album was dedicated to praising the chemistry of Katchen and violinist Josef Suk. The form presented on this record is the "violin sonata," and traditionally the titular instrument serves as the main attraction. Brahms takes a more balanced approach to the form however, even labeling Sonata no. 2 as being for "piano and violin"— the placement of piano at the fore indicating the instrument's importance in the piece.

So far, from the Brahms I've listened to, I find his violin sonatas the most enjoyable. The range and themes used in these compositions make them one part of the Brahms repertoire that even a rookie like me can appreciate right off.

INTERESTING FACT: Pianist Julius Katchen, a renowned performer of Brahms, was also just totally awesome. One tidbit we found: He and his wife were collectors of netsuke, a practical Japanese sculpture that men used to anchor small storage baskets on their belts. His collection was sold at auction in 2005-'06 for $2.2 million dollars.

Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 2 in A major ('Thun'), Op. 100: Andante tranquillo, Vivace by Daniel Barenboim & Itzhak Perlman on Grooveshark

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Kraftwerk, "Autobahn"

Philips (1974)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Krautrock is an ambiguous term, conceived during the late '60s as a term to describe the rock 'n' roll that was coming out of Germany. And that was it. Many have now adopted Kraftwerk as the flag-bearers for the "official" sound of Krautrock, which is far from accurate, but also not entirely wrong. After all, the bands in central Europe were more eager to split from the blues-based rock that English and American bands were producing. This experimental nature created plenty of oddball bands (such as Can, whom we've already seen), which included a number of groups that incorporated electronic elements. Kraftwerk is the flag bearer for these groups, to be sure.

Autobahn is widely credited as the album that would define the sound Kraftwerk is now known for (the group had released three previous albums that fell more into the more "traditional" Krautrock sound). The band hadn't completely phased out organic instruments yet —you'll hear guitar, flutes and violin from time to time— but they had phased everything else (bad pun). Synths, electric keys and Moog bass abound.

The defining moment however is the electric percussion of Wolfgang Flür. Kraftwerk didn't invent electric percussion, but it did invent its own. The band is renowned for building instruments of all varieties, and they custom built all the percussion on this album themselves, and it makes a noticeable difference between the previous album, Ralf und Florian, and Autobahn.

This isn't a concept album, but rather an album made up of conceptual songs. The title track was meant to simulate the sensations of driving down Germany's famous motorway, and at 22:43 in length, it gives the opportunity to experience every emotion that driving brings. The thrill of cruising with the top down speeds up to mimic the renowned speed limit of the title highway. Tone shifts replicate the sound of cars whizzing by in the other direction, and the carnival-esque theme that arrives near the end of the track could be the dashboard radio, providing a soundtrack of its own.

The album's other four tracks, although much shorter than Side A, come with themes far from that of driving. The "Kometmelodie" duo mix creepy sci-fi synthesizers with more upbeat melodies to present different outlooks on space. "Mitternacht" echoes with eerie chords like a forest in the middle of the night, and "Morgenpaziergang" wakes up as the warmer morning after.

Autobahn wasn't Kraftwerk's biggest album, but it was certainly the album that led to what's been a massively influential career. If you find yourself bothered by what some consider to be a robotic personality from the band's later music, you're probably best sticking with this one.

INTERESTING FACT: There are many legends about Kraftwerk, as they've secluded themselves well from the media. Ralf Hütter, the group's vocalist and main electronic organizer, is factually an active bicyclist. A legend is that the group would drop him off 100 miles from shows so that he could bike the rest of the way. It's been confirmed that it's happened before, even if not for every show.

Kraftwerk-Autobahn by Kraftwerk on Grooveshark

Friday, October 18, 2013

Johannes Brahms, "The Four Symphonies"

Johannes Brahms
"The Four Symphonies"
RCA (1983)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Johannes Brahms was to classical music what LeBron James was to basketball. Just like James was being compared to Michael Jordan while he was still in high school, Brahms was touted as being the heir to Beethoven's mantle...the King of classical. The composer didn't appreciate the comparisons, and why should he? As complimentary as it may seem, that's a heck of a lot of pressure. Beethoven was (and is) largely hailed as the greatest mind in the history of music, and Brahms, born six years following the former's death, was just expected to take over that role? That aspect of his prospects explains plenty about the crafting of his four symphonies.

The first feature it explains is his pace. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies during his lifetime, and Brahms only four. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor took the composer 21 years to complete. He debuted his second, Symphony No. 2 in D Major a little more than a year later. The painstaking process behind the first is attributed to the pressure he felt from those behind the Beethoven comparisons, and trying to ensure that everything was picture perfect.

So of course, when No. 1 debuted, everyone compared it to Beethoven's Ninth. And when Brahms debuted the more lighthearted No. 2, critics compared it to Beethoven's Sixth. Brahms could not win. Admittedly, the composer was rather conservative in style, which might explain why he stuck to his/Beethoven's guns when composing his symphonies, versus experimenting similar to his contemporary and "rival," Richard Wagner.

There's something of an "Old Hollywood" charm when listening to Brahms' first two symphonies…something of a fairy tale in nature. The dark undertones of No. 1 play like the scary forest of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, and the cheery flute theme from the opening Allegro of No. 2 resonates of Little Red Riding Hood walking through the woods (pre-wolf of course). The seeming familiarity of the music — and my less-than-thorough of classical music — kind of make these opening symphonies a touch boring to me (although I encourage more competent readers to tell me why I'm wrong in the comments section).

Brahms' Symphony No. 4 amps up the experimentation however. The second movement, Andante Moderato, features horns in the Phrygian mode, lending an Eastern European air. Most curious, in a pleasing way, is the use of the triangle for flair during the Allegro Giocoso. It invited me to bob my head, a sensation rare in classical music from any composer.

My girlfriend, far more knowledgable on the subject than I, tells me that Brahms is a safe choice for more conservative fans of the form. For the most part, his symphonies lead me to agree. The problem for me is that the beauty here most likely lies in its subtleties, which are beyond what my poor ear can catch.

INTERESTING FACT: Brahms' pal Joseph Joachim used the motto "frei aber einsam" (free but lonely). Brahms was 50 and single when Symphony no. 3 debuted, and he incorporated a motto of the notes F-A-F throughout. The acronym stood for "frei aber froh," or "free but happy."

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73: Allegro non troppo by South German Philharmonic Orchestra and Hans Swarowsky on Grooveshark

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Yardbirds, "The Yardbirds" (AKA "Roger The Engineer")

The Yardbirds
"The Yardbirds"
Columbia (1966)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

The Yardbirds are a classic example of the-band-everyone's-heard-of-even-if-you-can't-name-one-song-by-them. One reason why the group is definitely worth your time: The Yardbirds were to guitarists what USC used to be for quarterbacks; every axeman that spent a stint in the band became an essential part of the instrument's history. By which I mean Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Heard of them?

None of them were ever in the band at the same time of course, and that kind of worked out. Although listening to those three jam would've been awesome, it just wasn't plausible at the time. Clapton, the first of the three to play with the 'Birds, was a blues fundamentalist. Page took Clapton's blues and some of The Who's bombast on his way toward a career with Led Zeppelin. Beck was the middleman between those eventual legends, and although respected as a guitar god himself, far fewer music fans recognize why, as they do with Clapton and Page. Realistically, it's Beck's approach that produced the Yardbird's most identifiable sound.

Clapton initially left the band in 1965 when the group moved further toward the burgeoning psychedelic movement. Beck jumped in for one year and about 1.5 albums, "Roger The Engineer" being the most notable. If you want to hear Beck shredding and screwing around with a dozen pedals, you'll have to look elsewhere, because he dedicates himself entirely to the desired effect of the psychedelic style during "Roger."

First, understand the approach to recording a good psychedelic album circa '65: Versus recording the whole band in one fell swoop (a rather Clapton-ian move), a producer could create a psychedelic effect by recording each instrument individually and cutting it together using newfangled stereo so that different instruments play from different channels, and sometimes slightly out of sync to emulate the off-kilter sensations of psychedelic drugs. Consider Beck's simple blues lick during "The Nazz Is Blue." With all the input coming at different volumes from different direction, there's a sense of disarray. Couple that with occasional exotic instruments such as the sitar ("Ever Since The World Began") and a trip is guaranteed.

Beck's commitment to his role in this acid-machine deserves recognition. "Turn Into Earth" features some of his most intense shredding, and yet his guitar is at such a low volume behind the rest of the sound wall that the listener could easily miss it. He gets plenty of opportunities to show off with solos throughout the album, but Beck fades out just as skillfully as he blows out. For the best example of regular ol' noodling, check out the instrumental "Jeff's Boogie."

When you argue with your buddies over who the best guitarist of all time is, no one will blink if Clapton, Page or Beck are nominated. It'll be more impressive when you explain to them why Beck trumps Clapton and Page as the best guitarist The Yardbirds ever had.

INTERESTING FACT: Chris Dreja, the rhythm guitarist for The Yardbirds, was later invited by friend Jimmy Page to play bass in the latter's new band. Dreja was more artistically minded (he drew the doodle of "Roger" on the cover of "Roger The Engineer") and declined, deciding to pursue a career in photography. He shot the image on the reverse of the new band's first album: "Led Zeppelin."

I Can't Make Your Way [The Stereo Album] by The Yardbirds on Grooveshark

Friday, September 20, 2013

Johannes Brahms, "Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Opp. 38, 99, 108"

Johannes Brahms
"Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Opp. 38, 99, 108"
Sony Classical (1992)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Moon is wise to open the stretch of Johannes Brahms' compositions with "Sonatas for Cello and Piano," and particularly wise to choose a version played by pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. For one, Ma is the closest thing to a rock star that classical music has right now, what with playing at presidential inaugurations and whatnot. Obviously, to be one of the few classical musicians that an average American has heard of, you're probably pretty qualified for the job. Hence we can enter the world of Brahms with a point of reference.

The interesting thing is that these sonatas (Ops. 38, 99 and 108) were most likely not meant to showcase the cello, or at least not meant for the cello to overshadow the piano. Brahms himself was a skilled pianist, and it stands to reason that he would draft sonatas to display his own talent. There's a famous anecdote where an accompanist complains that the composer is playing too loudly and blocking out his own instrument, to which Brahms reportedly replied "lucky for you."

Ax is no slouch (not only because his last name is "Ax"), but he makes sure to give Ma his fair share of spotlight. It may seem odd that one instrument could hog the attention during a two-instrument sonata with a predetermined composition, but of all instruments, the piano has that ability. More often than not, the pianist interprets pace and emphasis. In Brahms' case, the cellist is expected to follow suit. This wasn't Ma and Ax's first time at the rodeo together however, which explains why this recording flows so well. They might not know in advance what the other is thinking, but they've got a better sense than most.

Even if my theory is correct and Brahms wrote these sonatas for his own showboating, he left plenty of room for the cellist to wiggle. Although Ops. 38 and 108 are in minor keys, the traditional allegro openings don't allow for dreariness. The pair takes turns running during "Allegro Vivace," the opening number to Op. 99, and shifting between upbeat and downbeat paces. Ax plays a tremolo-style of piano, which is essentially a classy way of saying "saloon-style." The sonata, in F-major, slows down for an adagio, and then picks up for another allegro, "Allegro Passionato." I found the latter to be the most exciting portion of the three sonatas presented, and was a little bummed when it ended on the more introspective "Allegro Molto." As you can probably tell, I am neither Brahms nor a genius.

I draw issue with Moon's claims that simpler is the best way to get someone interested in classical music. I know that Vivaldi and all his Baroqueness drew my initial attention to the form. But if you have to start with two-person sonatas, might as well make it Ma and Ax. We'll see how complex Brahms works for beginners in two entries, with his four symphonies.

INTERESTING FACT: I wasn't kidding when I said AxMa (my celebrity relationship name for the pair) played together a lot. Ax has won five Grammys, all of them for recordings done with Ma. Ma has won 16 Grammys.

Sonata For Cello & Piano In F, Op. 99 - 3. Allegro Passionato, Trio by Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax on Grooveshark

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pink Floyd, "The Wall"

Pink Floyd
"The Wall"
Harvest (1979)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

I sympathize with the writer from Melody Maker magazine who was tasked with reviewing Pink Floyd's "The Wall" when it debuted during 1979. "I'm not sure whether it's brilliant or terrible, but I find it utterly compelling," he wrote. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's ever terrible, but it certainly has flashes of brilliance, or at least the potential for brilliance. By now, popular culture has deemed "The Wall" to be a triumph, and that's tough to fight. Rolling Stone ranks it the no. 87 album of all time, and Rolling Stone reads like the Bible to some. Worth the praise? Definitely worth the argument at least.

Much of the conflict revolves around the traditional prog-rock argument: Is it too much? Pink Floyd has dodged the ire of traditionalist critics better than say, Rush, because its instrumental approach has never been overbearing. They continue said approach during "The Wall." Sure, sides C and D are filled with orchestral supplements, and anyone who knows the "Another Brick In The Wall" sequence remembers the use of sound effects. Despite the multitude of instrumental ideas in play, the music is never too dense, nor the time signatures too odd during "The Wall" for a casual listener. The album references itself throughout, such as with the famous bass line from "Brick," helping to unify the concept behind the record.

"The Wall" is overambitious in its conceptual scope however. Roger Waters will tell you the backstory of him spitting on a fan, but that only covers a snippet of what's revealed during the album. Side A serves as a biography for the bassist/vocalist, containing famous singles like "Another Brick in The Wall" (parts one and two), and "Mother," which describes the overbearing care of his own following his father's death during World War II. Side B details the marital troubles of Pink, the rock star representing Waters (although he was happily married at the time), and Side C describes Pink's retreat behind "The Wall," best narrated by the marvelous single "Comfortably Numb." As a collective, these three chapters work well to personify Waters' concept of building a wall to block out humanity, and the negative effects of doing so.

Side D is the mystery however. Pink imagines himself a fascist, raging against the "queers,""coons" and "Jews." He wakes from the nightmare wanting to avoid such a situation of course, but the dream lasts a good five tracks. What can a listener glean from it? Building a wall builds hate for humanity, sure, but does it lead to genocide?

Waters touches on a number of personal beliefs during "The Wall:" objections to methods within the educational system, sending troops overseas, money-isn't-everything themes. He wanted to say a lot, but he could have said it all in a lot less time. There are five great singles on the album that get frequent radio play still, and the B-sides ain't bad either. But "The Wall" could do without many of the minute and two-minute tracks that literally serve only to fill gaps.

Of course, I'm sure the fans who sell out Waters' ongoing "The Wall" tour disagree.

Pink may have torn down his wall by the end of the album, but "The Wall" never came down between the rest of Pink Floyd. The good news is that David Gilmour threw all the good solo ideas he had left into "Comfortably Numb." The bad news is that there hasn't been a band equalling Floyd's epic scope since.

INTERESTING FACT: Bob Geldof is famous for founding Band Aid and World Aid, as well as writing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" for other, more famous artists to sing. He also starred as Pink in the film version of the album, released in 1982.

Comfortably Numb by Roger Waters on Grooveshark (not the original, alas. But a pretty good live version that Waters feels is OK to share on the internet apparently)

Monday, September 2, 2013

Boys of The Lough, "Live At Passim"

Boys of The Lough
"Live At Passim"
Philo (1975)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

It's hasn't been too long since we looked at a Celtic revival band, so you'll forgive me if most of my observations about "Live at Passim" by the Boys of The Lough are made comparing them to The Bothy Band, featured several posts ago.

Obvious difference between the two acts: vocals, and the frequency of them. The Bothy Band features a variety of vocal approaches over a variety of song-types, whether its group vocals during jigs and reels, or a lone voice recounting a woeful tale. The Boys of The Lough seem to consider singing and music playing as two separate concepts, not meant to be mixed. Only one track features any vocals and instruments at the same time ("The Hound and Hare"), and even that's for a brief period only. During the rest of the sung tracks, one voice (Robin Morton) performs solo on topics both comical ("General Guinness" about beer during wartime, or "The Darling Baby" about a father's struggles putting an infant to bed) and depressing ("The Flower of Magherally" or "The Shores of Lough Bran").

This comparison point alone makes The Bothy Band a better starting point for newcomers to Gaelic music, in my opinion, but credit should be given to the Boys of The Lough for taking the more historically accurate route. Most of the instrumental reels and jigs played by the group are clumped into medleys with similar songs, a characteristic of musical performances in Scotland and Ireland. Again, this observation is based on limited research, so I won't claim it as fact.

The Boys certainly have fewer members helping to fill the many spots open for instruments in traditional Celtic music than the Bothy Band did. It seems that Morton, who handled vocals alone, serves as the wildcard, filling instruments as the band finds necessary. His primary instrument is the concertina (the simpler ancestor of the accordion), but he adds the traditional percussion of the bodhran as well. Bless Morton's heart for singing and bringing some comic relief to the act, but as with the Bothy Band, The Boys are at their bests when keeping the instrumentals lively. Aly Bain is the only fiddle and that works out fine. Keep an ear out for Dave Richardson's mandolin…it can be easy to miss when he's not taking a solo.

If you've only time to listen to one Celtic album from my last ten posts, make it "Old Hag You Have Killed Me" by The Bothy Band. I don't know any bylaws of traditional gaelic forms that make one band better than the other, but Bothy carries a bit more flair, and fewer song titles to memorize.

INTERESTING FACT: If you're like me, what's Irish and what's Scottish is tough to tell on "Live at Passim" (I'm Polish). Still a little peculiar that Morton, an Irishman, would later found Temple Records to record primarily Scottish music.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Morrissey, "Vauxhall and I"

"Vauxhall and I"
Parlophone (1994)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

There's something about being a mope that makes music critically acclaimed. This is a huge generalization, but sometimes I wonder if some artists (Radiohead, The Arcade Fire) would sound as great as they do without being so dour. At the top of everybody's list for being a downer has to be Morrissey. When a metaphor is made for inducing suicidal thoughts, Morrissey is the go-to stereotype. Few held it against him during the recording of "Vauxhall and I" however.

Leading up to the album, Nigel Thomas (his manager), Tim Broad (his video director) and Mick Ronson (his producer) died. You can question the closeness of relationships between some artists and these positions, but Morrissey's pallet can handle few human beings. If these guys were trusted in their roles within the vocalist's circle, you know the relationship was tight.

Naturally, Morrissey took an ironically upbeat approach to "Vauxhall" (upbeat by his standards of course). The album follows a similar path to that of his previous effort, "Your Arsenal," which had been produced by Ronson. The prevalence of guitars makes "Vauxhall" a more straightforward rocker than his earlier solo albums and work with The Smiths. Not only are the guitars prevalent, they're dense as well. Every non-ballad track features at least one electric and acoustic guitar working in tandem. "Hold On To Your Friends" shows just how many guitars he was willing to layer. It sounds like something Ronson would have been game for. After all, he was the guitarist for Bowie's big-music era, such as "Ziggy Stardust."

Morissey himself doesn't play much guitar however. If you're into the music of the former Smith, you're there for the voice and the lyrics. No matter how many guitars are stuffed into a track, producer Steve Lillywhite takes care to ensure Morrissey's vocals stand alone. Songs such as "Now My Heart Is Full" and "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" exemplify both aspects of Morrissey's skills. Consider his approach to a gal (or guy for all we know) who doesn't reciprocate during the latter song: "I'm not part of your mind's central landscape." A convolution like that packs more consternation than a simple "why don't you love me" (at least in my opinion). Listen to the breathy closing of every phrase he utters, and feel his frustration. The dude's got Robert Smith's pathos plus vocal talent to spare (Morrissey hates Robert Smith).

Morrissey would mope even more on albums both earlier and latter, so "Vauxhall and I" serves as a nice entry point for those not anointed. 1001 Albums You Must Hear praised the album for downgrading the density from "Your Arsenal," but there are plenty of instruments filling "Vauxhall." Not as ethereal as some would have you believe.

INTERESTING FACT: Vauxhall is a neighborhood in central London, noted for containing the headquarters for the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6). Anyone worth their cinematic salt knows that MI6 employs one James Bond.

The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get by Morrissey on Grooveshark

Thursday, August 15, 2013

David Bowie, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars"

David Bowie
"The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars"
RCA (1972)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Hair metal is tedious because there's so much sugar. One wicked guitar solo is great, but they all start running together. For every "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," there's the rest of Poison's oeuvre. The same criticism can be applied to bad glam rock. Sometimes it just seemed that the outfits were directing the music, and not vice-versa. David Bowie was not a terrible case of this, but his earliest albums, i.e. "Space Oddity," revolve around a single and being odd. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" found Bowie channeling both artistic and conceptual direction together for the first time.

Is "Ziggy Stardust" fully salient as a concept album? No, but when you've got a collection of solid songs, a linear narrative is optional (as with one of my favorite bands, Mastodon). Just as a primer, here's the plot: Ziggy (Bowie) is an alien that lands on Earth, which has five years left before its destruction, to be a rock star. Through a possibly psychedelic vision he foresees the coming of "starmen," a message that Earth takes to be a hopeful sign. Ziggy lives the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, imagining himself a prophet, which leads his band to hate him. In the end, his fans kill him onstage, possibly angry that the Earth is still going to be destroyed by a black hole.

Do you notice anything in this sci-fi narrative that could be applied to a real rock star's life? It's a fact that Bowie enjoyed his drugs as much as the next, and his sexual escapades are more legendary than the typical rocker's (because they involve dudes as well). The rest we just have to hypothesize. Did Bowie wrestle with his ambition and ego? Look at him then and look at him now. I'd say yes, he was probably a tad larger than life in 1972.

Bowie draws mighty things out of both his arrogance and humbled regret. For the former, check out "Moonage Daydream," a track I interpret to be Ziggy telling the Earth of his potential. Lyrics aside, notice how the glam grandiosity builds up as the song continues. What starts as straightforward rocker, with guitar, drums and piano, later adds a horn section, then a string section, then Mick Ronson caps it off with that awesome guitar solo we discussed. The highlight however is the chorus, where Bowie and his backing vocalists tell the world to keep an eye on him. It has the effect Bowie (and Ziggy) desired. If he were to deliver that hook in person for me, I don't see how I could look away.

"Ziggy Stardust" (the song, not the album) does the opposite to demonstrate Ziggy's mortality. Presumably told by one of the Spiders, the track details how unbearable the rock star has become, resulting in the bandmates sabotaging his act by breaking his hands. Some big chords open, but a less dense acoustic guitar plucks the riff throughout. The drums are focused, not raucous. The solo from "Guitar Hero" isn't there. This is minimalist compared to the maximalist of "Moonage," reflecting a change in attitude for both the character singing and the musician writing the song.

And of course there's "Suffragette City" for those looking for the party anthem, albeit it's terribly misplaced right before closer "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide." I'm not going to lie that Bowie's new grasp of concept made the rest of his albums this good. Because most weren't, and some were just bad. But you can't say that he didn't have a plan, even if it was a bizarre plan. It's a trait he would pass on to Iggy Pop when the pair became buds.

INTERESTING FACT: So some relation of Bowie had a child and decided that the star should be its godparent. Fair enough. Not cool, however, was making the child's name include "Ziggy-Stardust." Poor kid.

Moonage Daydream by David Bowie on Grooveshark

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Soft Boys, "Underwater Moonlight"

The Soft Boys
"Underwater Moonlight"
Armageddon (1980)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

There's something about alternative music that makes it so rock 'n' roll is no longer just that. It's got to be college rock or neo-psychedelia, or something along those lines. Or, in the case of "Underwater Moonlight" by The Soft Boys, some combination of those things. But definitely not just rock 'n' roll, heaven forbid.

Let's look at what might make this album psychedelic in the eyes of 1001 Albums writer Rob Morton. Where he hears "swirling guitars" during "I Wanna Destroy You," I hear just the opposite: a fairly straightforward chorus backed by fairly straightforward guitar. At the very end of the song where the instruments start losing focus, but the album never reaches the truly trippy guitar washes of say, Pink Floyd. The sitar, a popular instrument for the psychedelic movement, makes an appearance during "Positive Vibrations," but it's used for melodic purposes, not to create drone.

One aspect that might fool a listener into referring to Soft Boys as "psychedelic" (one of the most used and misused words in music criticism. It's like when people say "ironic" constantly. Ninety percent of the time it's not ironic) is the absurdity of the lyrics. "I Wanna Destroy You" is one of the few songs with an obvious message. Absurdity isn't a complaint. Here's my favorite, from "I'm Insanely Jealous of You": "It comes on pretty quick, just like a crocodile in search of a mirage, across the undulating sand."

When I listen to the album all the way through, I feel that much of this record is power pop. Even if you can't understand the verses (in lyrics or meaning), some of these hooks are just too catchy to be considered far from rock 'n' roll. "Positive Vibrations" is nearly Merseybeat. "I Wanna Destroy You" packs an aggressive message, but the hook is a chorus of vocals singing the title in a style reminiscent of '70s acts such as Foreigner and ELO. The rising hooks of "Tonight" (again with falsetto help) and "Underwater Moonlight" would help this album fit with less discerning classic rock listeners.

Of course, the main thing that separates rock like this from the stuff you hear on the radio is intention. Band leader Robyn Hitchcock didn't want to appeal to the popular audience, so he didn't. It's a similar story with REM as we'll see later with "Murmur." No reason that stuff couldn't be mainstream popular, but the band chose to market itself through the smaller, more independent radio stations. The difference is that huge audiences eventually found REM, and "Underwater Moonlight" would be The Soft Boys' second and last record.

INTERESTING FACT: Plenty of interesting places where bands have cut records. The Soft Boys had their rehearsals in a boathouse on the River Cam in Cambridge. Surprising there was no Gordon Lightfoot-style nautical narratives.

10 - Underwater Moonlight (The Soft Boys - Underwater Moonlight) () by The Soft Boys on Grooveshark