1975: Emmylou Harris - Pieces of the Sky
Gram Parsons was like a musical Easter Bunny. He jumped onto the scene, and before we even realized what he left for us, he was gone. All we have now is a tiny amount of always-welcome eggs he left for anyone willing to look. From The International Submarine Band to the majority of records made by his main protégé, Emmylou Harris, we find albums and songs that spread a sense of free-wheelin’ beauty and life rarely found in any musician's legacy. We find artists who walk the same line as he did -- musicians who stroll down the halls of music history, respectful of the past but determined to have their own songs fill the same jukeboxes; music that fits into his dreams of a glorious stew of past, present rock ‘n’ roll, country, and R&B he termed “Cosmic American Music.”
Ms. Harris walked this very tightrope with her major label debut, Pieces of the Sky, an album as achingly beautiful as a sunrise and as mournful as a sunset. The album feels like you’re going to a log cabin home, sitting on rolling acres of land in rural California, drinking a few glasses of wine with Harris, and then sitting back to listen to her beautiful, fragile voice as she mines the playlist in her head. These are songs you can tell she loves, and you never forget it, you never doubt it. And once you feel sufficiently placed within the classics of country and western music, she attempts to pull you toward new ground by following Parsons’ lead and goading country music, the large lumbering beast that it is, to a new kind of sound, a sound unafraid of change and rhythm & blues and boys with mop-top haircuts.
The rollicking rendition of Rodney Crowell’s “Bluebird Wine” kicks off the album, and it's like a fountain of youth. Which is one of the most surprising and ultimately rewarding aspects of this album. No matter how many classic songs spin by, no matter how respectful everything is to the dusty LPs of yesteryear, this album always sounds fresh and alive. Like a child’s first step or a pimply faced kid's first power chord, you get the desire to always keep moving, to stay alive, to keep on truckin’ no matter what life throws at you.
Believe me, life got thrown at Emmylou, and this album revels in it. Since she was dealing with the recent death of her aforementioned mentor Gram Parsons, it's no surprise that these ten songs resemble therapy sessions, from the brand new start of “Bluebird Wine,” to the depression of “Too Far Gone,” to the drunken apathy of “Bottle Let Me Down” (which is, by the way, an awesome version of the Merle Haggard tune). By the time the fourth track of side one begins, you miss Gram yourself. Meanwhile, “Boulder to Birmingham” is such an overwhelmingly gorgeous song that it can’t do anything but break your cold hipster heart at least a little.
Harris learned well from Parsons, and it shows. She does what few artists can and swiftly runs through classic songs like Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” or The Louvin Brother’s “If I Could Only Win Your Love” with a loving devotion as only a person who truly needed this music can. She never tries to outdo the originals, yet these renditions are unmistakably hers, and hers alone. Her cover of The Beatles’ “For No One” flows by with more sadness and longing and regret than Paul or John could ever muster. It’s a cover that adds a freshness to an album that already feels like a winner from track one.
Finally Pieces of the Sky concludes with “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” and Harris’ crown begins to rest peacefully on her head. Whether that silver dollar is one that picks a couple of her songs on a trusty Wurlitzer or the honky-tonk she sings, she deserves her crown, and this album was the start of her rule.
1970: The Stooges - Fun House
by James Ubaghs (age 17), brother of [Charles Ubaghs->http://www.tinymixtapes.com/_Charles-Ubaghs_]
How do you begin a review of something as monumental as The Stooges Fun House, arguably their crowning achievement? I don’t know how to start that review but I will say this: Fun House is a fucking badass rock and roll album.
In an era of spineless, hollow sentimentally, and nice serious musicians making nice serious music (that’s still boring no matter how weird it’s trying to be) Fun House makes my little 17 year old mind explode. It’s daring, it’s innovative while remaining entirely tangible. It makes a tired old genre seem rife with limitless possibilities, and simply put, it rocks.
Opener “ Down on the Street” sets the tone for a consistent 37 minutes of raw rock roll. A deceptively simple but violently effective rhythm section stomps along, with Ron Asheton’s brilliantly simplistic guitar lines driving it all forward. Iggy Pop gives possibly his best performance ever recorded. His irreverent lyrics “Out of my mind on Saturday night…I feel all right” are delivered with awe inspiring passion and his singing/un-hinged screaming manage to give an untold depth to what could merely be idiotic at the hands of another singer.
No single song stands out like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on their debut but instead each song complements the album as a whole, constantly building in momentum until it explodes into the savage cacophonous wall (and attached apartment block) of sound in the album closer, “ L.A bBues,” that escalates the rest of the album to it’s logical conclusion.
Sadly they don’t make ‘em as great as they used to. In fact they never did make them this good, because I have a strong suspicion that punk rock never managed to match the brilliance of this zygote.
Instead of lamenting on this predicament like a poor emo kid steadily carving nice little geometric shapes into the side of my arm I find myself filled with a new urge. Besides the urge to fuck and get wasted, I feel the urge to go out and make my own Fun House. It’ll probably amount to nothing but I’m going to do it anyway.
What the hell are you going to do?
[Editor’s Note: I’m so proud of my little brother]
1995: Self - Subliminal Plastic Motives
By Jessica Roth (age 12) and Samuel Roth (age 11), cousins of [Plastique Song->http://www.www.tinymixtapes.com/_Plastique-Song_]
SELF kicks off with "Borateen," a great head banging rave type song, all my friends can dance to it too. Sounding a lot like a young synthesizing Incubus, it plays with many different riffs, which Mike Mahaffey makes it all interesting. Dancing to "Sophomore' is way too easy, it reminds my mom of an old Boston song called “Tribe” but I think it has a little Weezer in it. Lyrics are clear, kids really like that. Something you can sing to a good deal. The layering of Mike's own brand of music is cool, makes me (and my brother) wonder how he'd actually sound in a concert. So much mixing... what would he actually play? What would he choose to bring to the stage? Just push a button.
Track three, "Stewardess" is good. Some super high soft vocals we weren't crazy about and a little too Foo Fighters repetitiveness going on. "So Low" is one of the best tracks on the CD. Got up and danced, listening to it made me feel like I was at a party. Has right amount of high vocals mixed with a crashing rock beat... loved it. This song could be longer. Two songs that didn't do it for me were "Marathon Shirt" and "Lucid Anne." These tracks should be replaced with more of the good stuff, like in "Canon." This track (7) sticks! Listen to this! Teens love this stuff. If Mike wants to sell CDs he needs to keep mixing in this genre.
"Missed the friction" and "super" are just okay, nothing to write home about. "Mother nature's fault" has some great lyrics and pauses in the song that make the track memorable. Twinge of All American Rejects infused in this song, liked it quite a bit. The voice mix sounds cool.
Jazzy swing turn in "Big Important Nothing". This track is funky... not sure what Mike is trying to show us, way out of the pop rock style that the CD is mostly comprised of. More Buble' than Mahaffey. Good tune though. Than back to what the CD is about, "Lost my Senses" rocks out. Partially sounds like my cousin Ben's band Ace and Artemis, which rocks (by the way). More of this please.
Check this CD out by SELF, then check out my favs "So Low," “Canon," "Mother Nature's Fault" and "Lost my Senses".
2007: Joe Meek - Vampire, Cowboys, Spacemen, & Spooks
Think that crack-afro sporting, B-movie actress murderer Phil Spector is crazy? Yeah, I suppose he is, but Joe Meek has him beat across the board. He was a maverick pioneer of independent music, invented way more shit in the studio, and quite probably killed more people than old Phil. After you hear his story though, you’ll know he earned it the whole way. Why a major motion picture has yet to be made about him is beyond me. [Editor's note: A play about Joe Meek entitled Telstar: The Joe Meek Story ran in London’s West End in 2005.]
Born under the star Robert George Meek in 1929, Joe’s life long love (and hate) affair with music began when a brief stint in the Royal Air Force as a radio operator peaked his interest in outer space and the limitless possibilities of electronic sound. In his early twenties, he got a job with the Midlands Electric Board, which allowed him to gather up and begin creating gear, including a disc cutter. From there, he found work as a sound engineer for independent studios and started to make his name in the business, both as an innovative genius and as someone difficult to work with. Being forced out of a lucrative Landsdowne partnership by one Denis Preston would turn out to be something of a blessing in disguise.
In early 1960, Meek co-founded Triumph Records and disappointingly produced his first top 10 single, “Angela Jones” by Michael Cox. The disappointment here is based on the fact that it may have been a number one if the mom & pop pressing plants of the day – to which his self-supported label was completely dependant upon – could have kept ahead of demand. That year, Meek arguably created the first concept album as the guiding force behind the “Outer Space A Music Fantasy” theme for Rod Freeman & the Blue Men’s I Hear a New World, which was also remarkably ahead of its time in regards to its use of homemade electronic sound. Triumph did not last long as a label, but important lessons had been learned and new ground was constantly being broken.
It was around the time of Triumph’s fizzling when Joe figured out that, since he didn’t have the muscle to commercially back a hit, he could find far easier success by signing artists himself then merely leasing their material to major labels for a tidy profit. This shift was convenient since his next and by far most successful enterprise was to build a home studio above a leather-goods store and become more independent than ever while proving himself capable of scoring several UK number one hits. Hell, he basically kicked off the British Invasion by producing the Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which was the first British record to hit the top of the US Hot 100, winning an Ivor Novello Award in the process. However, by the time The Beatles started experimenting with psychedelics, the hits started drying up. Meek’s unique flavor of Saturday morning Cowboys & Injuns cartoon rock was starting to be viewed as camp by a maturing generation that demanded a socio-political consciousness more relevant to their lives.
Times were changing and he fell into a cycle of drugs, paranoia (believing Decca had microphones in his studio’s wallpaper to steal ideas), rage, depression, and obsession with paranormal and occult activities. He believed his hero, Buddy Holly, and others who broke on through to the other side were trying to contact him from beyond the grave; he would record graveyards to try and hear the dead, but instead got a talking cat meowing for help. Having been brought up on charges of homosexuality earlier in the '60s – just being gay was illegal back then – which meant the pigs had free reign to pester and blackmail him, while his finances scattered to the wind under frail legal structures (he was unable to earn any royalties from “Telstar” in his lifetime due to an ultimately failed plagiarism suit). In January of ’67, the body of a former associate of Meek was discovered in a suitcase, leaving the police to declare they’d be brutally interrogating all known homosexuals in the UK. With no foreseeable good news on the horizon, Joe shot his landlady and himself with a single-barrel shotgun borrowed from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt on February 3rd, exactly eight years to the day after Buddy Holly went down with Richie Valens in his lap.
During the 245 singles (of which 45 cracked the top 50) and assorted albums he’d put his distinctive stamp on, he basically created the modern methods of compression, echo, reverb, sampling, multiple overdubbing on a two track, and the seemingly obvious process of recording individual pieces of a song separately, then arranging them together into a single composition. This was actually a big step forward from just putting a mic in the middle of a jam and hoping for the best, as was the fashion for the first half century of recording when they had to record directly onto vinyl in one live take.
Vampire, Cowboys, Spacemen, & Spooks is one of a few Meek compilations being released at once, though this one focuses specifically on his purely emotive instrumental work. Joe had very particular views concerning the use of the human voice as a musical instrument. After all, this is the man who walked into a Rod Stewart recording session screaming with his fingers knuckle deep in his ears until Rod stopped singing and left, while refusing to work with the Beatles (whom he considered “just a bunch of noise”), David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones. Aldous Huxley said, “after silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music” and I’m sure Meek would agree. His thematic subject matter certainly clung to the realms of the ineffable, and that sphere is given supreme definition here with some 60 tracks on two CDs.
Many of his most renowned hits are here, including a rare studio mix of the previously mentioned “Telstar” and other Tornados rarities, but the focus of this collection is on creating a whole picture of the man. Half a dozen previously unreleased tracks have now fulfilled their destiny, such as the sweetly sorrowful “Moon Rocket” by Roger Lavern & The Microns – which samples a take off before smoothing out on a rollicking, adventurous beat with a disembodied piano keeping the timing out front – as well as a raucous Animals blues version of “Besame Mucho” by Dave Roland. The lone vocal track (not counting the odd “doo-doo-doo ooooh-aaaah” chorus and the forgettable Dauphine Street Six number “Shenandoah”) shows Meek’s vision of complimentary vocals with his self-titled orchestra’s “Cry My Heart,” where at least a three-part harmony hammers home a bleak tale of love lost, but that’s a real rarity here. The emphasis is on ideas and themes, not mere words. Tracks like The Thunderbolts’ “Lost Planet” and the Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire” presuppose electronica, hip-hop and their future fusions with rock in and of themselves alone, and covers like the aforementioned “Besame Mucho” and The Saints’ version of “Wipeout” always add something vital and refreshing.
Granted, all 60 cuts can’t be winners, but the collection paints a clear picture of a tragically undervalued genius. Being mostly without words, there’s not much obstructing our emotional impression of the man and his many achievements in the early-to-mid '60s. He’s the reason why these recording have aged so well and, what’s more, provide an essential link in the chain for any music fan with an interest in history. Everything in the charts today owes this man a reach-around.
2007: The Dragons - BFI
Well, fuck me if this isn’t one of the most interesting releases of the year. See, I make it a point to download anything Ninja Tune puts out, so I gave this Dragons thing a shot as soon as it became available online. I was immediately impressed by their new signing as the sprawling psychedelic masterpiece before me sounded nothing like what I was used to from the label, heavy in live-played vintage keyboards and double-tracked, AM radio vocals. When I investigated further on my way to purchase said release, I discovered quite the story.
Much to my surprise, BFI was actually recorded by the Dragon brothers at the tail end 1969 and early the following year. Doug, Daryl, and Dennis were the sons of a symphony conductor and a soprano opera singer, and thus from good musical stock. Living in Malibu and gigging around L.A. exposed their minds to the surreal sounds of The Doors, The Byrds, and Jefferson Airplane, but their urge to add something to the West Coast cannon was only igniting. They called in a favor from a friend at Sunwest Recording Studios in Hollywood and laid down the album then known only as Blue Forces Intelligence, or BFI for short. However, none of the majors were particularly interested in balls trippin’ psychedelia at the time and were unable (or unwilling) to hear a hit in the project, so no one would touch it.
Thus, BFI’s master tapes got shoved in a drawer somewhere and forgotten for 37 years. The three boys would find work as session musicians, ending up in The Beach Boys’ backing band for a while, before splitting off in their own directions. Doug garnered a modest fan base as a touring artist in early '80s Australia before moving to Hawaii. Daryl would indeed score several major hits as The Captain with Toni Tennille. Dennis built a moderately successful career as a producer, working with Captain Daryl as well as Cheech & Chong and the Surf Punks (also performing as their drummer). It was only thanks to a crate digging expedition that Strictly Kev/DJ Food was made aware of The Dragons via an obscure surf movie soundtrack and, in turn, Ninja Tune. Otherwise, we’d still be at square on, and I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.
This is a truly remarkable album for too many reasons to count. BFI is as fresh and vivid today as it was the day Jabba froze it in carbonite. “Food For My Soul” is a jive piece of West Coast psych-pop soul, crucial not only for its inclusion on the last DJ Food instalment in the Solid Steel mix series, but for its obvious hit potential. A potential that reveals an utter lack of foresight shown by labels before I was born. “Are You There” borrows some heavy Doors and Santana (minus Carlos’ guitar) style for a mid-tempo expression of relationship dissatisfaction, with Edwin Starr like vocals, that could have been an easy follow-up single. Their use of keyboards, synths, and organs, as well as phasing and samples filtered through jazz, rock, and pop structures of the day perhaps came a couple years too late for the psyche prom, but the skill and vision present deserves its proper place in history. I mean, they printed Metal Machine Music as soon as it was recorded just a handful of years later and it was just a pile of noise with a name attached. At least Ninja Tune has finally made the effort to set things right. The karma wheel has been realigned... for now.
1994: Kurious Jorge - A Constipated Monkey
Amalgam Digital is one of the most exciting projects to come along in hip-hop since the MPC2000. I mean, there’s just so much music coming out every week, and there has been for decades, so it’s tragically easy to fall through the cracks unless it all goes perfectly. Following their well-noted success in resurrecting the obviously still-viable careers of The Jugganots and Smiley Da Ghetto Child, they’ve now turned their Lazarus glare unto New York’s Jorge Alvarez. Looks like another sure winner, as far as I’m concerned.
This plucky Puerto Rican/Cuban Latino burst onto the scene way back in 1994 with his Sony debut. Despite featuring the same vein of quirky samples and, with the exception of some mild but standard homophobia, socially uplifting words that simultaneously worked wonders for Fu-Schnickens, A Constipated Monkey was released a couple years too late, and a pop world gathering interest in mean-spirited, joyless gangsta rap allowed sales to quickly stagnate. Consequently, Kurious Jorge got the boot from Sony, walking entirely away from the bidnezz shortly thereafter.
Snap to 2007, and Amalgam has an action plan on the go. With a two-album deal in his pocket and the blazing hot MF DOOM in the studio (Jorge was featured on DOOM's Operation: Doomsday), Kurious Jorge is set to make his sophomore record over a decade after his premiere. Just to remind you about the quality of character in store for that release, we are now treated to a well-deserved reissue of A Constipated Monkey, his under-appreciated debut.
For those who can remember 1994, all the beats on this album are of the exact flavor you loved to roll with. Over time, styles may have changed to a more synthetic sound, but they never really improved upon the old boom-bap, especially when you’ve got some crazy, canned soul horn samples on that shit. Hieroglyphics’ Casual and the notorious MF Grimm’s appearance on “Baby Bust It” is an aural anomaly and clear highlight, with some Asian strings, a moaning funk bassline, and a gettin’-jiggy-with-it chorus, oozing a blunted haze through any stuffy atmosphere. Pete Nice, DJ Lord Sear, and The Beatnuts also stamp their incredible sounds and personalities onto the product. Is that a Go! Team sample I hear on “Nicole”? 5th Dimension? Oh, no, they di’n’t! Break yo’ self, fools: this is a necessary reminder of rap’s Golden Age.