Radio Moscow – “Radio Moscow” (2007) — 8/10   Leave a comment

Background:

Not much to tell here, to be frank. Three guys who liked to play the blues came together and formed a power trio after the style of the 60s which came to be known as “Radio Moscow”. This album was their debut.

The album:

The name of the band, the cover art, and the style of music they purport (“Psychedelic-Blues music for your soul”) combine and make them sound like just another indie band that puts out acoustic, chorused tracks and plays exclusively in Pacific Northwest coffee shops. However, just playing the opening track to the album helps one realize a simple fact about this spectacular band.

It’s Cream, no coffee.

Wordplay aside, it’s easy to feel the influence of Clapton’s supergroup in just the opening track. That “wacka-wacka” guitar noise, the colorful psychedelia of the total sound, and so forth ooze sixties so hard they make Bryan Adams wish he’d ONLY written about that decade.

And then the loudness descends, settles down (so to speak), and leads into the first actual track on the album, “Frustrating Sound”. I like the fuzz. Love the fuzz, actually. But it’s just a tad too muffled for my taste. Still, they’re keeping the psychedelic blues train rolling, and anyone would feel like they took a time machine hovercraft thingy to a 1968 pub in southeastern England. “Lucky Dutch”, or “Luckydutch”, as it has often been stylized, is much the same way, with a spectacular set of solos that feel inspired by Page and Beck as much as by Clapton.

“Lick Skillet” is up next, starting with acoustic picks, practically after the style of Leadbelly himself, and a bit of slide. And then it morphs into a godly, heavy blues instrumental (returning to the homey sound of an acoustic now and then). At this point, a fair question would be, “Okay, so we know you guys are good at blues, and I love Cream’s style, or Hendrix’s style, or any blend thereof, as much as the next guy, but what are you bringing to the table? 

This is a fair question. These three performers are spectacular at what they do, they play the blues in a manner it has nary been played in decades–all due respect to The Black Keys and Jack White, I love them, but their style is far from the psych-blues fusion seen rising from grass roots in England in the late 60s. However, for all their songwriting, for all of their impossibly powerful grasp on the blues as it “should be played”, subjectively speaking, what boundary are they breaking? The best I can describe the band to other people is, “Well, they’re basically Cream, if they were a bit heavier. Think Ian Paice instead of Ginger Baker, and keep Clapton, but throw in Hendrix and Beck for good measure.” They are only really describable in terms of past bands they seem to seek to emulate.

Their music is wonderful. This album is what I like in an album. It’s cohesive, and it’s good. But it’s a bit too much like a class activity where you’d have to modify the Mandelbrot set or something to form a different fractal–that is, it’s both too self-similar and too similar to something we’ve already seen or heard. I give the album an 8 for it’s spectacular musicianship, the likes of which I honestly might never hope to emulate, but it falls just short of falling just short of perfection because of a lacking originality. I loved Cream, but I also like to listen to other things.

Addendum: this criticism above isn’t fair to apply to “Ordovician Fauna”. But substitute in any 60s band that experimented in Indian music and it is. Same for “Deep Blue Sea” and any acoustic blues great.

Posted September 7, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

Led Zeppelin – Presence (1976) — 9.5/10   Leave a comment

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This is a bit of a cop-out album. I’ve heard this before. A lot. I don’t really need to listen to it.

Background:

Led Zeppelin, in late 1975, was coming off the high of being the biggest rock band in the world. Physical Graffiti had just been released, they’d had their famous Earls Court concert and, just before, a big, big tour of North America, with many more planned for the future.

But, in August 1975, Robert Plant, while on the Greek island of Rhodes, became involved in a serious car accident which nearly cost him his life and left him wheelchair-bound for a good period. Page’s addiction to heroin and Bonham’s alcoholism began to grow more forceful in their lives. The band members were against the wall.

During this tumultuous period of upheaval, the band wrote and recorded this “cry from the depths”–Presence–with the guitar dubs being done in one night, and the whole album seeing completion in a small period during November.

The album itself:

I’d like to start off by saying this album was far from my favorite for a while. It grows on you, you know.

Anyway, the album opens with this winding guitar riff, falling into this powerful groove that forms the backbone of “Achilles Last Stand”, which I’d call (with “Since I’ve Been Loving You” from III) the band’s best overall performance on a song. Bonham is, as Dave Grohl has described him overall, “teetering on the edge of a cliff”. Jones is in perfect sync, helping bring this already formidable rhythm section to new heights. Page’s guitar work dominates the track, and, impressively, sounds like the musical manifestation of war. Plant’s vocal ability was in a somewhat steady decline after ’73 and ’75, but he brings it all over “Achilles”. Energy, awesomeness–all you could want in an album opener, and it sets the stage well for the rest.

The song descends with another riff at the end, just similar enough to the opening to make you wonder if that’s what the opening sounded like, but just different enough to make you feel crazy. Then, a crashing G power chord and a slightly swung, off-kilter beat set the stage for “For Your Life”, something a bit more introspective than what we’d be used to. They’re oft criticized for misogyny, and it does occasionally make their material hard to listen to, especially in this age of social progression, but as becomes plain, the little misogyny in this album is used to do one of:

1. Show past beliefs and why they were wrong
2. Be a part of “Royal Orleans”

Back to the song, though–Plant does his best, keeping in mind his wheelchair, the rhythm section is fan-fabula-tastic, and parts like at 2:08, when the heavy riff in A (and later in G) comes in, make me wonder whether it was heroin or magic Page was shooting. It is, as the kids say, heavy as hell.

Then “Royal Orleans”, the only filler on the album. I do like the music, but the lyrics…describe John Paul Jones accidentally burning a hotel room to smithereens with a marijuana joint while asleep next to a transsexual prostitute. There’s so much “no” going on that I have to dock this album its only half point, and it’s not the transsexual part. Still, the riff is neat, and the heaviness present before, though intangibly so, is still there.

Then this spacey guitar comes through, and Plant moans and groans out an imitation. Back to the blues, ladies and gents. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is something of their tribute to their eponymous albums of ages long past, except with less “that woman ain’t been treatin’ me right” and more symbolism and introspection. Also, Bonham is ridiculous on this track (SO MANY CYMBALS), and Plant’s harmonica solo is to die for.

Then, the lesser known material. “Candy Store Rock” starts with this 50’s rock riff on steroids. Page manages to take an older genre of rock ‘n’ roll, closer to the heart of country, and make it sound fresh, and, frankly, awesome as can be. I must also, again, comment on the rhythm section–I almost wonder if a lack of keyboard focus is what drew Jones to be so much more awesome on the bass than anywhere except II.

“Hots On For Nowhere” is similarly rife with bass and blues, rather as “Nobody’s Fault” was. The solo is one of the most interesting parts of the song, there’s a few polyrhythms going on here, and all four band members are in great harmony, as the song morphs from the beginning sounds to the energized folk riff it becomes. (“HEY BABE, HEY BABE, HEY BABE, I LOST MY WAY”)

And now, for something quite like what avid Led Zeppelin listeners have heard before, but also quite different. A 6/8 slow blues song in the key of C minor. “Tea for One”, at first, sounds basically like an edgier “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. But there’s so much more to it. The vaguely polyrhythmic beginning, the lyrical maturity (it’s not as blatantly sexist as their early blues), the guitar work on the track, everything. “Tea for One”, a spectacular track by all involved, from the rhythms of Jones and Bonzo to the leads of Page and Plant, deserves a name of its own; it’s as identical to “SIBLY” as “SIBLY” is to “I Can’t Quit You Baby”. This track is the epitome of a “cry from the depths”, as Plant called the album.

What can I say about it as a whole? There is an advantage do doing all the guitar in one night–the guitar is uniform, and that tone, Plant’s wailing and introspective lyrics, and the powerful rhythm section are the threads that tie Presence together. A beautiful example of an album, with accessibility, seperability, and unity all in one. If you want to blame anything for less than a perfect score, blame “Royal Orleans” for relating an anecdote that just kills the maturity. 9.5/10, and next to Led Zeppelin II, my favorite Zep album.

Posted August 10, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

Audioslave – Audioslave (2002) — 9.5/10   Leave a comment

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Whoa, two posts in twenty-four hours? UNPRECEDENTED.

Background:

Zack de la Rocha left Rage Against The Machine in 2001 for solo projects, and the band was, essentially, rendered defunct by his departure until they could find a new vocalist. So, they found Chris Cornell of the 80s/90s grunge rock band Soundgarden, and melded their musical interests into this sort of lovechild of blues, grunge, funk, metal, and rock that became Audioslave. After lots of managerial strife, they released this, the debut album, to a waiting crowd.

The album:

Tom Morello starts off the album with some of his trademark guitar experimentation: “Cochise” opens with this strange sort of clicking, almost helicopter-like in sound, before abruptly throwing its metalfunk at us.

That’s not to say that’s all this album is, though. Chris Cornell’s writing is poetic and majestic, Tom’s guitar work is intricate and mystifying, and the rhythm section of Wilk and Commerford is nigh as impressive as Bonham and JPJ in decades past. In fact, this album has a very Zeppelin-y feel to it, or a Sabbath-y one; it would nary be out of place in the 70s, as each song, light like “Bring Em Back Alive” or heavy like “Show Me How to Live”, has that indescribable vintage character.

As for the album itself, it’s very near flawless. They keep a simple four-piece set-up, but they make it so much more. The tracks have a “separate unity” matched only by the greatest: Graceland and its ilk, that is. Each track is unique enough to retain interest for ages, but is similar enough to the others to sound like Audioslave (and especially Audioslave (get it? I made a joke about formatting)). It’s not perfect, but it is very near it.

I’d recommend this to any listener of alt rock, or rock in general, or music in general. It’s got what I would consider a relatively wide appeal, and it’s not just RATM with Chris Cornell; it’s Audioslave, and that means so much more. 9.5/10, and bravo.

Posted August 5, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

Jack White – Blunderbuss (2012) — 8.5/10   Leave a comment

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If you couldn’t tell by now, the numbers for ratings are relatively arbitrary. But I do mean them.

Background:

You’ve all heard of The White Stripes, right? Or The Raconteurs? The Dead Weather? Well, Jack White was a pivotal member of these three bands, and has a distinctive driving sound to his vocals and guitar work that’s almost instantly recognizable. He’s been going through a bit of a tough time lately, though, and from that stems the material laid out on this album, something totally different from that which he’s done before.

The album:

We are brought in by a very simple electric piano riff that becomes “Missing Pieces”–a song about a lover who left, or so I gathered, anyway. I’m not sure if it’s any objective quality about the song or just my fascination with the sound of an electric piano that’s making that opener among my favorites by Jack ever.

The song ends rather abruptly, and we’re taken out of the nigh-synthy haze by a jarring electric riff: DU-NU-NU-NUH, DU-NU-NU-NUH. “Sixteen Saltines” is a beautiful song, one that morphs, one that shifts, but one that manages to remain coherent and cohesive. Also, it’s one that causes me to type “DU-NU-NU-NUH” like an idiot.

Then, as one spirals through the album’s meat and potatoes, a question bubbles to the front of one’s mind: just what in the hell is Jack, that grandmaster of garage, that king of crunch, doing? Why, he’s doing what any sane man does in a break-up–he uses his Mixolydian VII chords and writes a folk song or two. Or ten. Or just under ten, as the second half of the album has him experimenting in weird places.

But I’m not Rolling Stone, nor do I wish to resemble them. I’m not at all averse to this. Jack White is exploring some really neat stuff in this album, from something coming out of a musical (“On and On and On”) to acoustic anthems (“Blunderbuss”, the title track). Jack, I don’t care what you do with your guitar, just as long as you do it well.

Let me tell you, you do it fantastically. This album isn’t my idea of a perfect album; that is to say, it’s not Graceland, or Abbey Road, or Secret Treaties, but there is definitely cohesion, and there isn’t a song I hate on this LP.

I give it an 8.5 out of 10 for being awesome. If you’ve heard The White Stripes, listen to this album. If you haven’t, still listen to this album and smack yourself for never even having heard “Seven Nation Army”, find the nearest available way to listen to Elephant and relax for a day. Blunderbuss is no blunder.

Posted August 4, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

Paul Simon – Graceland (1986) — 10/10   Leave a comment

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Background:

Paul Simon achieved his initial fame in the United States playing as a member of the famous duo Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s, playing chiefly folk music. Afterwards, they broke up, leaving Simon to a moderately successful solo career, but on the release of his “Hearts and Bones” album in 1983 and its own limited commercial and critical reception, he was in a bit of a slump.

One day, he decided to listen to an instrumental called “Gumboots” by the Boyoyo Boys. This was the turning point–having found a new musical inspiration, he wrote lyrics to the song, and would later sing it over a new accompaniment by the Boyoyo Boys; this track would be the fourth on a new album called Graceland.

Having been so inspired, Simon then took a plane to South Africa to record with local and Western artists alike in Johannesburg,playing and singing with such American writers as Linda Ronstadt, and local South African groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Betwixt accusations of plagiarism by Los Lobos and of breaking the cultural boycott on apartheid South Africa, he released the album in 1986, accompanied by a single from the album, “You Can Call Me Al”, a music video from the single featuring Simon and Chevy Chase for airing on MTV, and Simon’s warmest commercial and critical reception to date.

This album:

Graceland is an epic eclectic experience, blending pop, gospel, zydeco, rock, a cappella, and the many musical traditions of South Africa. The opening track is the initially-metrically-confusing “The Boy In The Bubble”, a sort of ode to the Information Age as Simon saw from the vantage point of the mid-80s. A perfect opener, mind, having energy and power, while still easy enough to let you in to hear the rest of the album.

Then, the title track. One of the few times when I’ve heard music clearly represent indescribably complex emotions. The song itself is about a man who has lost his love, and is travelling on a sort of pilgrimage to the fabled home of Elvis, at Graceland in Tennessee, with his son. The very song itself seems to evoke that feeling, of love, loss, and hope, as he travels with poor boys, pilgrims, and families, with ghosts and empty sockets.

Through a few more tracks, all of which are spectacular and unique, to the famed single “You Can Call Me Al”, with a spectacular spunk about it, and a synth riff that could draw a smile from “The Thinker”.

And as one winds down through this album, with its pop songs like “You Can Call Me Al” or (sort of) “Graceland”, its more 80s-y tracks like “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”, “Crazy Love, Vol. 2″ or “The Boy in the Bubble”, its American “roots” style music, like “That Was Your Mother” or “Under African Skies”, or its more African-influenced tracks, notably “Gumboots”, “Homeless”, or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, one begins to realize something. Though Simon is bravely mixing all these different styles, all these different genres, into one album, they all have this unifying undertone to them, this rich warmth that they all share.

This, dear readers, is the model for what an album should be. So richly unique, so amazingly experimental, pushing a few boundaries here and there, with every song its own unique gem; but when you zoom out, you can tell they were all made for this album–the gems aren’t just gems, but are rather all set in the effin’ British Crown Jewels.

And, as a bonus, the album is extremely accessible. Anyone, anywhere, can and likely will enjoy the hell out of this album. I would, therefore, recommend it to everyone.

It is these criteria–the perfection and uniqueness of the individual songs, the construction and connection of the album itself, and its ability to be listened to by all people of all ages and walks of life, that makes this album truly perfect. 10/10, and in my top 5 ever.

Posted July 31, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium (2003) — 9/10   Leave a comment

A good album to start with.

Background:

The Mars Volta are an El Paso-based progressive rock group that blends the “traditional” (used loosely) progressive sound typical of, say, King Crimson or Dream Theater, a heavier rock sound like Led Zeppelin, and musical traditions of the American Southwest, as affected by Mexico. If you’ve never listened to them, I recommend the 4-minute radio edit of “L’Via L’Viaquez” to get an idea of what you’re getting into.

This album:

De-Loused in the Comatorium is the debut by The Mars Volta, and (of course) features their opening lineup, including drummer Jon Theodore. Objectively, it’d be easiest to describe this album as having a reeeeally heavy sound, thick guitar parts, and intricate rhythmic structures.

First, let’s look at technical skill–not a truly important point (The Beatles were NOT especially good at playing their instruments, Ringo excepted; their talent for writing made them what they are)–but an interesting one, nonetheless. To start, their drummer, Jon Theodore, is a force to be reckoned with. He does things to the kit that sound impossible and mind-bending, and can create a groove while going crazy, as he is wont to do, in such a way that gives seasoned drummers like Ian Paice a run for their money. As well, the guitar work, while not particularly solo-heavy, is formidable. Parts of this album sound as though a wall of guitars is being fronted against the eardrum, and their guitarists know what they’re doing.

Next, a look at the songs themselves. They’re all spectacular demonstrations of this talent and of the lyrical and instrumental songwriting capabilities of the members of the band, and weave through musical intricacies rare in this past decade. The main focal points of the album appear to be the “Esp”s: “Inertiatic Esp” and “Cicatriz Esp”, along with “Take The Veil Cerpin Taxt”, to a degree. These three are hugely different, yet possess something of an overarching sound that makes them feel united.

That last part leads me into the construction of the album itself: it’s beautiful. It fulfills what an album is supposed to be: not a collection of songs, but a musical statement in and of itself. This whole album is united sonically, musically, by an indescribable common thread, and is actually indivisible; that is to say, you can’t listen to “Inertiatic Esp” without the context provided by “Son et Lumiere”. That’s the only weakness of the album’s construction. In my mind, the perfect album is both woven together perfectly by musical similarities, as this one is, but is also separable, such that no song needs the context of the others to be

In that sense, the similarities and inseparability of the songs on this album make the album function much like a song. As such, the album isn’t very accessible to people not accustomed to sitting down and really listening to the music. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend the album to the average listener.

Overall, I’d give this album a 9/10, with it falling short in the areas of separability and accessibility, but being, from a musical perspective, pretty perfect.

Also, Jon Theodore makes me pretty happy. But, that’s just me.

Posted July 28, 2012 by farglenargle in Uncategorized

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