Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An A, a B, & a C

Since I'm now seven months and over three hundred discs into this project I'm obviously not going to go back and review all of those albums. I've already, though briefly, covered the Beatles and I'm planning on a major, multiple post write up about David Bowie (51 discs, took me a month). In the meantime I will post some reviews of a few high lights, in of course, alphabetical order.

The Apes of God ~ Edge of Arrival
I first discovered the Apes of God while working at WRIU. The unusual packaging of this disc made it stand out from the scores of other discs at the station and when I listened to it I was thrilled to find this wonderfully bizarre music. The vocals (primarily Gilbert Marhoefer) are almost entirely spoken word owing more to sprechtimme than to beatniks or rappers. The highly poetic lyrics tend to have an apocolyptical flair to them. For example, "You have been ruled by a warthog, but it has always been this way." in Starting Over In Purity or the angry growling of the title line in "Why can't Lansberry get his mail?" Musically the group is even harder to pin down. The overall texture is that of an electronically created music, although sprinkled thoughout with various woodwinds (clarinet, sax, bassoon). They seem to be less concerned with writing songs as with creating moods. It seems to me that the lyrics always come first and that the music is there a) to reinforce the words and b) because people don't buy poetry albums. Definitely an odd-ball disc, but worth it if you like outsider music.

The Bad Plus
When I started my listening project I also tried keeping a journal with a review of every disc I listened to. Didn't last too long, but I had this to say about the Bad Plus.
"Everyone needs to listen to the Bad Plus now. They are a jazz piano trio that functions more like a rock band than a jazz group. David King's rhythms are certainly closer to rock than jazz, Ethan Iverson absolutely pummels his piano to elicit sounds I didn't think were possible, and Reid Anderson grounds the whole sound while giving it yet another set of balls. Their choice of cover tunes reflects the rock-like approach, notably Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Black Sabbath's Iron Man. But hearing jazz versions of heavy metal and grunge songs is not a mere novelty. They delve into the heart of these songs to find the spirit (if you will) that makes the originals so exciting. And these covers are not the only points of interest on these albums. Their original songs carry the same energy and power. This is a truly amazing band that is obviously working hard at what they do."
I don't have much to add to that. All of their albums are amazing so I'm having a hard time recommending one over the other. My only other comment is that Prehensile Dream (first track on Suspicious Activity?) will kick you in the nuts, and I mean that in the good way.

And for C, a touch of the absurd..

If I Were A Carpenter A tribute to the Carpenters
Now, all sorts of arguements could be made about the "proper" filing of this disc. As a "Various Artists" disc it could go under "V." I also have other compilations filed by name in which case this would go under "I." I chose to file it under Carpenters, because that's where I would most likely look for it. Anyway...

First of all, a tribute to the Carpenters is a funny thing. Most of the songs they were famous for were covers. Richard Carpenter recieves writing credits on only three of the fourteen songs here. However, this disc contains several excellent versions of these songs by some first-rate alt-rock bands from the mid-nineties (wOOt - high hyphen count - wOOt!) Although as with any compilation, they're not all gems. Shonen Knife's version of Top Of The World ends up as a novelty because of the whole can't pronounce L's thing (world=worrd). I've always hated The Cranberries and their version of Bacharach's Close To You does nothing to change this opinion. And anyone who has only ever heard either the Carpenters or Babes in Toyland perform Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft should do themselves a favor and hunt down the original Klaatu version. (In fact, I think I'm going to take a break from my main listening, currently Miles Davis ~ Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel and put on the first Klaatu album. Ah, there now that's better...)

On the plus side: Matthew Sweet ~ Let Me Be The One, Sheryl Crow ~ Solitaire, American Music Club ~ Goodbye To Love. Cracker's version of Rainy Days & Mondays really gets at the heart of the inherent sadness of this song. The one song, however, that is worth the price of admission alone is Sonic Youth covering Leon Russell's Superstar. This is an example of a cover that not only surpasses the original, but becomes the definitive version. Period. End of story. I dare you to find a better version of this song. This song has been giving me shivers since this album came out almost thirteen years ago.

Well, that should do it for today. Happy listening!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Some British group...

The first group that I was able to listen to a complete discography by was the Beatles. Now, a lifetime could be spent hunting down every scrap of tape in which one of the lads may have farted into a microphone, so let me make some clarification. I used the official discography as stated at thebeatles.com, and only up through Let It Be, subsequent releases, while official, were after the group disbanded. I did make one slight variation from their list (which is based solely on UK releases) which was to add Magical Mystery Tour (technically a US only album). Counting the so-called White Album as two, the band released fourteen albums in seven years. Not a bad rate of production. It is also a very interesting arc to follow, in part because it was such a short period of time. So, here's my impressions of that catalogue (in chronological order, of course).

Please, Please, Me & With the Beatles. One of the first things my research clarified was the ordering of these two albums. I had always thought of Meet the Beatles as being the first album. Turns out that while it is the first US release, the title is a bastardization of the second UK release, With the Beatles. The two albums (Please.. & With..) seemed interchangable, and not all that revolutionary. Both are solid Pop-Rock albums strongly rooted in the music of the era. They still have a fairly large pecentage of cover songs on each (both contain six covers and eight originals). One thing that did strike me (if you will forgive the pun) was the power of Ringo's drumming. He is often ridiculed and over-looked because of his later flamboyances, but these early discs show that he truly was the "beat" that helped make the "Beat"les so popular in the beginning.

Next up is the soundtrack to A Hard Day's Night. This is the first album comprised of all original songs, and starts to point towards things ahead. The writing is more sophisticated than on the first two albums. It also shows the Lennon/McCartney team finding their own voice, rather than imitating other artists.

The next two albums, Beatles For Sale, and Help! see a return to more cover material (in fact Sale contains the same 6 to 8 ratio of the first two albums). The originals continue to mature, reflecting the exhaustion of being super stars. And then things get interesting.

Nobody who's going to read this needs me to tell them that Rubber Soul & Revolver are two of the most beautiful Pop-Rock albums of the 1960's. Scratch that, of all time. Again the lads return to all original material, and the songwriting is so solid that one might start to think they could do no wrong.

I had a funny reaction to Sgt. Pepper's. My reaction was, "OK lads, take Pet Sounds off the turntable..." Upon this listening it really struck me just how much they were influenced by that album. Certain songs (Mr. Kite springs to mind) sound as if they snuck into Brian Wilson's studio, stole some master tapes and slapped their own lyrics over the backing tracks. This album also marks a new lyrical direction for the group. Allow me to back-track a bit..

Overall I identify three main lyrical approaches for the Beatles, which evolved over their seven years together. Early on they were writing essentially "Teen" lyrics. Songs like Seventeen & I Wanna Hold Your Hand are prime examples of this. Teenage love in all its glory. As the band matured they began writing more "Adult" lyrics. In My Life, For No One, songs of disillusionment, lost love, the ennui of growing older, of trying to understand your place in the world. The third stage, which begins with Pepper's, and comes to it's ultimate conclusion on Yellow Submarine, are songs that have essentially become "Children's" music. These are the songs we first glom onto when, as youngsters, we discover these funny looking records in our parents music collections, and we hear these funny little songs about walruses and submarines. It should be noted that these eras do overlap, and that by the end they returned primarily to the "Adult" lyrics.

Not much to say about Magical Mystery Tour. Goofy psychedelia. Funny costumes. A few good songs.

The so-called White Album has always been my favorite Beatles album, which is kind of like cheating since it's two discs. The entire scope of what makes the Beatles great is contained on these discs. Four lads gettin' down to some serious business in one of the best recording studios of the times. I'll end my comments here so as to refrain from gushing.

Yellow Submarine. Yawn. Don't bother.

Abbey Road can no doubt be seen as the top of the arc. The band are at their peak as an ensemble, the songwriting is superb, the performances are spot-on, the lyrics are heart-breaking. But you probably already knew that.

And finally, Let It Be, which is advice they should have taken. Had they left us with the previous album as their last they could have ended on a high note. Instead they chose to show us a band coming apart at the seams. One thing the album does illustrate is that had they continued as the Beatles through the seventies they would have really sucked bad. They would have become overblown stadium parodies of themselves (gee kids, can we think of any other sixties bands that fit this description?) While there are some good songs from these sessions, all in all it's a good thing the boys did decide to "Let It Be."

So, after all of that, what do I have to say about the Beatles? For one, they wrote some of the catchiest songs of all time. During the time I spent listening to their catalogue, and for weeks after, I had nothing but Beatles songs stuck in my head. Overall I found the ride fascinating. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to all fourteen studio albums in order. It's an amazing journey that will only take you about ten hours of your time. Hell, take the day off work and do it all in one sitting!

Friday, February 23, 2007

Listening Project(s)

Last July I was looking over my 1200+ cd collection and realized that I owned discs that I didn't even know what they were, discs I had forgotten I had, discs I had never listened to, and discs that simply hadn't been listened to for many years. So, I decided to attempt to listen to them all, in alpha-chronological order. Seven months into the project and I just hit "D." (As I write this I'm listening to Miles Davis ~ Miles Ahead) My current estimate is that this will take me three years to complete. Many interesting things have happened as I've inched my way forward in this project. There's the re-evaluation of artists: "I can't believe I used to like Anthrax!" " Why don't I have more Add N to (X)?" There has also been an educational aspect to the project. I've always been pretty good about keeping chronological order within artist, but this has made me take the time to research and re-organise my collection. And in the process of doing that I've learned numerous things about these musicians. Also, hearing an artist develop over a period of time has been fascinating to me, but more on that point in a bit. The biggest change this listening project has brought about is it has created a whole new way of life (or at least listening) for me.

"What is this guy talking about?" you may ask. Well, I have decided to primarily eliminate what I'm calling "choice based listening." I have decided to set up multiple listening projects, in addition to the main one mentioned above, and virtually all of my listening will be one or the other of these projects. Each project will have its specific guide lines (ex: my car listening is all local, Rhode Island, bands in alpha-chronological order). I will be allowing myself up to five albums per week that are not part of any given project. This creates a space where I can listen to new discs and accommodates those times when I just have to listen to Charles Ives or Sol.Illaquists of Sound. I will also have some degree of "choice" regarding which project I listen to at any given time, but not as to which album is next in its particular queue.

So, here's a run down of my current and proposed projects:

The Main Project: is the one mentioned above. Listening to my entire CD collection in alpha-chronological order. (begun 7/15/06)

Leonard Cohen (completed): This project was done with my roommate Christopher. We listened to all of Cohen's albums in chronological order. I'll post on this later...

Elvis Costello: Again, this project is with Christopher. Listening to Costello's catalogue in chronological order. Currently on Armed Forces.

Local (RI): As mentioned above, all of my car listening is dedicated to local bands from Rhode Island (with some southern Mass included)

Classical/Opera (chronological): This one is a beast that will require some serious research before it can get underway. Christopher has a 400+ disc classical & opera collection that I'm planning to organize chronologically. Gregorian Chants to Pierre Boulez. wOOt! wOOt!

Bob Dylan: I've never liked Mr. Zimmerman, however I've heard tell that some people do. I feel that if I'm going to undertake all of these projects I owe it to Bob to listen to his music, although I must say, I'm not quite sure why.

My Vinyl: Can I really make it though nine Jackie Gleason Presents albums?

iTunes: currently 37.5GB worth of music. Alphabetical by song perhaps?

After all I've said so far, I will simply end with this statement:
This blog is dedicated to chronicling my listening projects. Enjoy!