Saturday, March 31, 2007

Head Hunters (1973)

"Chameleon" I guess nobody can ever accuse Herbie Hancock of proceeding without commercial instincts. Here, with "Rockit," even when he was still with Blue Note, he has never shown much fear of appearing shallow, but just plows on with what he's got and whatever is out there, whether it's disco or the jazz-rock fusion or whatever. So caveat and all that. There may not be a lot of what you might call substance here, but it just sounds so cool -- or, failing that, so cheesy cool -- that it's hard not to forgive it any crassness. It's just fun to listen to and to have playing in your living room. In fact, I really wish I had a mask like the one he's wearing on the cover.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Big Fun (1974)

"Great Expectations" Some weird stories for me with this one. The first time I bought it, as a used album a couple years after its release, I didn't discover until I got it home that it was caked with some gritty substance -- sand, probably, or maybe salt. I'd never encountered anything like it before (or since). The surface noise was outrageous and I could only imagine what it was doing to the stylus. Then, years later, buying it as a CD, a record store clerk became abnormally excited that I was purchasing it. "Oh boy," he kept saying enthusiastically. "Big fun. Big fun!!" Just about anything from a record store clerk needs to be taken as sarcasm on some level, but he seemed sincere enough about it, and in fact I think it made me like these Miles Davis slabs even more. Not that they aren't perfectly fine all on their own. They are. But human psychology -- I'm starting to think it's nothing but a joke.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Live-Evil (1971)

"What I Say" Maybe it's just me but practically 40 years on this sounds as fresh, potent, and compelling as ever. The titling strategies of Miles Davis here may be a bit eccentric, not to say tipped over into the unblinkingly weird, with "Sivad" and "Selim," respectively, kicking off both album side 1s and CDs. And while it's approximately here that he begins his evolving sojourn toward a street cred that may have lived only in his mind, looking forward to the exercises of On the Corner, its cover graphics continued the themes of liberation begun with Bitches Brew, here turned somewhat inside out. Either that, or Columbia wanted to make the most of its relationship with unmistakable cover artist Mati Klarwein, who they also went to for the cover of Santana's Abraxas.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

In a Silent Way (1969)

"Shhh/Peaceful" Great slabs of Miles Davis, 20/25/30-minute jams uninterrupted at a time sometimes even more, all day jazz deep into the night, an indulgence since I was a teen, and it all starts approximately here. Not that this is typical -- in fact, it's more the oddity compared to what followed. As Miles chased his legend into the '70s the rhythms came forward far more than anything here, while harsh and brittle shards of electric guitar battled the rippling electric piano keyboards for supremacy. Miles's own solos never changed much, in terms of quality, as lyrical and poignant as ever. But this is before all of that and not nearly as unruly. It's a study in improvisation, set pieces all quiet and hushed and subtle, the groping among the players almost too painful to bear. Until suddenly everything falls into place, a discovery is made like a sunrise in sound, and they all fall onto it, devour it. Then the beauty is almost too painful to bear.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fear of Music (1979)

"Animals" Another Eno production, and personally my favorite of all Talking Heads albums, it must be said this is also the place where David Byrne's hubris problem first really rears its dispretty head. The anxious, yelping neurotic remains front and center, but these songs are funny, practically every one, and in a wiseacre way that's no product of a high-strung personality. There's a sardonic edge: heaven is a place where nothing happens; animals, eating nuts and berries, are making a fool of us; the smell of home cooking in Memphis, Tennessee, is only the river (it's only the river). "Air," "Paper," "Electric Guitar": the titles alone are willfully simple, setting up the gags sprinkled liberally throughout. That, of course, is not to undercut or deny the walloping soundscapes here, the free-wheeling experimental strategies (the effect of the vocal track on "Drugs," I've heard, was achieved by Byrne taking to the streets and running for blocks and then recording while still out of breath), and, heh indeed, the brilliant counterpoint of the laughs and the anxiety baked right into the songwriting. Not to be missed.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)

"Found a Job" Enter Brian Eno, in a uniquely prolific phase of his own career, who would become a source of controversy among Talking Heads fans. For better or worse, he did wonders for David Byrne's self-esteem even as he "ruined the band" in the estimation of many. Me, I'm not so sure about that. As much as I've always liked the debut, I think this one's even better. I don't see that producer Eno imposed anything on them, but rather helped them find the confidence to keep moving toward the spry funk band they always had in them. As the title implies, song content remains mostly disaffected and quirky, but they take on Al Green (with mixed results, though it's probably their best-known song), loosen up, and even rock out here and there. In retrospect, it's a band on the rise, with a trajectory that might take them anywhere.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

"New Feeling" As it happens, my initial sense of '70s punk-rock was largely based on "Anarchy in the U.K.," a few sightings of the Ramones, Ultravox circa Ha! Ha! Ha!, and this debut from what turned out to be -- what should have been recognized even with this as -- an art-rock outfit of highly sensitive intellectual filigree. Probably safer and more accurate to catalog them all as "new wave" -- "Anarchy," after all, for all its rage and outrage, remains perhaps the most hummable pop tune of all from the Sex Pistols. But whatever. The basic shtick here is radically stripped down 2 guitars bass drums w/ occasional keyboard rock 'n' roll in support of quick and quirky verse-chorus-verse mostly non-love pop vignettes delivered by a painfully self-conscious neurotic with guaranteed damp palms. Yeah, you could sing to it start to finish. Yeah, it's all perfectly unthreatening aw-shucks innocence, even when they implore the psycho killer Why? "Hip to be square" years before that went mainstream. And perfectly charming, every second of the way through.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pretzel Logic (1974)

"Pretzel Logic" 316.512.606 Becker and Fagen travel further into the wilds of jazz -- "Parker's Band" name-checks the bop master and "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" covers Duke Ellington -- but at the same time these baby boomers just can't help themselves, they live and breathe in the pop medium. No Steely Dan album before or since would have as many songs so short. "Through With Buzz" alone clocks in at 1:34, and it's worthy. Beneath the cynical affectations of "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" pumps a tender heart. And "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," another softy, was their biggest hit. From here on out the pair moved ever closer to unadulterated hipster pretensions, sans the note of self-mockery, and increasingly abandoned the sweet songwriting, although pop songwriters this good can never entirely abandon that. This is the one to get if you're going to get only one. All their strengths are on display in a potent package: the jazz/beat faux exhaustion inflected by pop sentiment (or is that the other way around?), allusive lyrics that get the story told, dead-on humor, and first-rate musicianship.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

"Bodhisattva" 316.509.604 With this, Steely Dan rocketed up high on my all-star cavalcade list of favorites and there they stayed for several years. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, still pretending to be a band at this point, were all jazz and beats (as in San Francisco beatniks) affectation somehow compressed impossibly into perfect pop music, not only radio-ready but radio-worthy and etched into the immortal canons of Billboard. An obligatory name derivation courtesy William Burroughs, lyrics that "didn't make sense" or got all eastern on you, something that sounded like hard bop played on electric guitars: At the time owning the albums could feel like a ticket to a hipster paradise where Charlie Parker never died and Duke Ellington never aged and Chet Baker always went on the nod. Some things you can't change. I guess they've got horns in there but it never would have even mattered if they didn't.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

some housekeeping notes

Over the months of this blog I've received some requests to boost bitrate and/or switch file format from *.m4a. So you know, plans are in the works for both. I need to upgrade a 5+-year-old system and look forward, among other things, to a hard drive the size of a galaxy. Patience, please. It's not easy for me either.

On another tip, maybe I shouldn't have to say this but I will: It's not my intention to get in the way of any artist and his or her living (although I admit I'm less interested in protecting estates of artists who have died, e.g., Frankie Lymon, Billie Holiday, Kurt Cobain, but that's beside the point). As with home taping, this sharing is essentially word-of-mouth promotion, the most effective kind of promotion, the kind of promotion you can't buy. It's not stealing. Stealing is more like when you trick an artist into signing away his or her publishing rights. Or charge everything -- EVERYTHING -- back to the artist.

Perhaps as economic unit, I understand the argument a little better with albums, which is why I'm not much troubled by or often in a hurry to correct low bitrate, file format, or inadvertent missing tracks. (I mean, come on, you are getting it free.) But that said, I don't agree with the argument. All the people I've ever known who share digitized music now or made and traded tapes back in the day are without exception the same people who spend the most money on music. In fact, in some cases their loved ones consider the amount of money they spend a serious problem.

The fact is, most artists make most of their money from live performances and merchandising and not sales of recorded material. And, personally, I believe that given the choice between making a quarter (or dime, or dollar, or whatever they get from a unit sale now) and being heard, most would choose the latter. (I'm not sure that's true of some artists, such as Metallica, who I've never been able to hear the same way since they went all pissy. Not that they were ever such a priority.)

So, please, go to the shows of the artists you like. Clap loudly. Buy a t-shirt. If they have a website where you can download and provide money to them directly, visit it frequently. And help your friends hear the music and see the wisdom of your ways, so the artist's audience continues to grow.

I'd also like to say something about the blogroll (in the right column). At one time I meant to highlight the many, many great music blogs out there as well as make music available myself, but uploading and downloading are basically a zero-sum deal and so my travels for online music have not been as extensive as before I started doing this. Plus my storage device is closing on full. But I keep the blogroll up to date, use it regularly to make my rounds, check to see they have not stopped posting, and switch in new and interesting ones as I find them. A few are directories and the rest are divided about evenly between song and album offerings. I have made much happy use of all of them and encourage you to do the same. They're good.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Wizard, A True Star (1973)

"Zen Archer" 316.506.601 From "We Gotta Get You a Woman" to Nearly Human (and maybe beyond, but by then I'd lost interest), Todd Rundgren worked an exhilarating and exasperating ability to mix up achingly beautiful fragments of pop and creditable soul turns with an unfortunate tendency toward prog noodling and rank, pointless mimicry. He's always been a studio wonk, but with talent to burn the flash of melodic and emotional brilliance worked its way even into his album-side workouts with Utopia, making a good deal of his output in the '70s worthwhile. Though there are Something/Anything partisans aplenty, it's an album with which I never connected. I think this is his best, annoying handful of 1:something throwaways notwithstanding. With sound effects and heavy production everywhere, a 10-minute soul medley, "explicit lyrics" '70s style (the parental warning presumably refers to "Rock and Roll Pussy" and/or "When the Shit Hits the Fans," oh good grief), and any number of coulda woulda shoulda pop smashes ("Sometimes I Don't Know What to Feel," "I Don't Want to Tie You Down," "You Don't Have to Camp Around," "Just One Victory"), it's rarely less than perfectly winning.

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