Album Review #7: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

Songs For Swingin' Lovers! cover

The second Sinatra album on the list so far, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is much different from it’s predecessor, In the Wee Small Hours. It’s much more upbeat and cheerful, in contrast with his previous record, which showed a much more gloomy and introspective atmosphere. While I still prefer the former album, this one’s still an outstanding album in it’s own right.

As with the preceding record, the instrumentals are by far the album’s strongest point. However, the album puts less of an emphasis on Disney-score-like strings and more on a jazzy, somewhat uptempo style. Lyrically, it’s also much less of a downer. Instead of focusing on loneliness and bitter break-ups, Sinatra sings about feelings of love and joy. It still has quite a few moments of emotion, however, with particular note going to “We’ll Be Together Again.” It’s kind of difficult to pick stand-out tracks on this album, seeing as they’re all great. Sinatra may not have written his own lyrics, but he still found a way to inject each of his performances with huge amounts of passion. I’m not usually one to exaggerate, but he might just have been the greatest Pop artist of the decade.

Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! is quite simply an incredible record. The singing is great, the instrumentation is superb, and it’s just a great listen start-to-finish. I couldn’t recommend this one more.

Next Up: The “Chirping” Crickets by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

Album Review #6: This is Fats Domino! by Fats Domino (1956)

This is Fats Domino cover

First off, let me say something: the book has a major error in the entry for this album. It lists the wrong title, citing the admittedly confusingly similar album This is Fats!, released a year after the correct album, This is Fats Domino!. The track listing and accompanying short essay is for the correctly titled album, so that will be the album I review here. Hopefully this will be the only major error made in this book, but I’m only six albums in at this point, so that’s difficult to say.

Anyways, this album didn’t impress me as much as I had hoped. It’s a quality album, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t make that much of an impact on me. The opening track, “Blueberry Hill”, is very good, with great jazz instrumentation and a memorable vocal performance. It was one of his biggest hits, and for good reason too. However, this is one of those albums that sadly makes the huge mistake of making the best track the first track, and a lot of the following songs just don’t meet the expectations that “Blueberry Hill” sets. There are still quite a few good songs though, such as “What’s the Reason I’m Not Pleasing You”, “Reelin’ and Rockin'”, “Poor Poor Me”, and the instrumental “The Fat Man’s Hop”. The instrumentation is very good throughout, with particular note going to the piano, saxophone and percussion.

Overall, I wasn’t quite disappointed, but I wasn’t quite impressed either. I don’t have a positive or negative opinion. I’m just kind of indifferent, to be honest. There were several good tracks, but it just didn’t really do much for me. What are your thoughts?

Next up: Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! by Frank Sinatra (1956)

Book Review #3: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Under the Volcano cover

Under the Volcano is one of those books that you cannot simply read casually. It’s the kind of novel that requires you to take a short pause after each paragraph and really think about what you just read. It’s truly dense and packed to the bursting point with symbolism and hidden meaning, and if that isn’t your kind of thing, you will probably strongly dislike this book. Otherwise, you’re in for a real treat.

The book details the various activities of Geoffrey Firmin, his ex-wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh, over the course of a single day, namely, the Day of the Dead, in the city of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on the thoughts and actions of one of the characters, and every one of them has a distinct way of thinking. The narrative is frequently sidetracked and taken on tangents by the characters thoughts. In one rather extreme example, Hugh spends almost the entire forty-page chapter lounging in a pool chair and reminiscing on his life. In that respect, Under the Volcano is very Ulysses-like, even if it is miles easier in terms of writing.

Speaking of writing, Lowry’s narrative voice is great, if at points confusing and overly complex. His writing is eloquent and often poetic. He really knows how to take the emotions and thoughts of his characters and beautifully put them to paper. That’s not to say his style isn’t very difficult to understand. Sentences are multi-layered, strangely worded and very long-winded. A basic understanding of Spanish also helps, as there is quite a bit of dialog and other phrases that require that you have at least a small grasp on the language. While I certainly don’t consider any of that a negative, it does require an extra level of concentration for pretty much the entirety of the novel. If you aren’t up for that, I wouldn’t recommend you read it.

So to conclude, this is a very intricate, powerful and thought-provoking novel. If you are willing to put in the effort to really give it a thorough reading and analysis, it’s a hugely rewarding undertaking. Malcolm Lowry has certainly written a masterpiece here, just one that not everyone will enjoy, per se. I certainly enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it. Just know what you’re getting into.

Next Up: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (1953)

Album Review #5: Ellington at Newport by Duke Ellington (1956)

Ellington at Newport

There are two versions of this album: the original release, which is an abridged version, and the re-release, which contains the full concert performance. I believe the full version to be far superior, if only for the original’s omission of the finale “Skin Deep”, one of the best moments of the entire concert. For this review I will be reviewing the complete version.

With that out of the way, let me just say that this is one of the greatest jazz albums I have ever heard. Every instrument compliments every other almost perfectly. The saxophones are incredible sounding, the trumpets are energetic and filled with life, the quiet and reserved bass takes the background adding great amounts of subtlety, and the drums keep the beat but still manage to stand out. Every performance is almost perfect. Heck, the audience loved it so much that they refused to let it end! That’s right, the last fifteen minutes or so of the album were unplanned, and are only present because the crowd wouldn’t let them stop. 

As the longest album I’ve reviewed so far at just over an hour and twenty minutes, it definitely doesn’t feel that long. The music is so good that you really just get lost in it, and before you know it, it’s over. I would say that every track was great, but there were definitely some standouts. The three-part suite of “Festival Junction”, “Blues to Be There” and “Newport Up” are truly great. “Festival Junction” is eight minutes, but the jazz instrumentation is so good that the length becomes irrelevant. “Newport Up” is fast and exiting, and bounds with energy. “Diminuendo in Blue” is the longest track, at fourteen minutes, and right in the middle is possibly one of the best saxophone solos ever put to record. The record ends with “Skin Deep”, a nine minute attempt to please the raving adoration of the crowd, and mostly consists of an outstanding drum solo that truly ends the show on an amazing note.

This has been one of the best albums I have reviewed so far. I’ve never listened to much jazz before beginning this project, but after this album, I am seriously regretting that. I would make this album required listening for any fan of jazz or really music in general, just make sure you’re getting the full experience with the complete edition.

Next Up: This Is Fats Domino by Fats Domino (1956)

Reading Update: Halfway Through Under the Volcano

Halfway there! So far, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry has been outstanding. It’s quite the depressing read, but Lowry’s writing and characterization is incredible. As for the plot so far, one of the things I have noticed is that it is very sparse in terms of actual plot events. For example, the main character Geoffrey, a.k.a. The Consul, at one point spends almost twenty pages simply having an idle chat with his neighbor while they do yardwork. He doesn’t really accomplish anything in doing so, and the reader might be left wondering what the point of the entire scene was, but that’s the point, or so I can tell. It’s not a novel about action, but rather introspection. It’s about gazing inwards, rather than outwards. What gets done, and not much has at this point, doesn’t matter. What matters is the inner conflict and anguished thoughts of the characters, as they lounge around, ride horses down nature trails, and generally just bathe in their own sorrow and depression.

So far from what I can tell about the book, one of the main themes is misunderstanding. None of the characters really seem to know each other, even family and close friends. Geoffrey’s doctor keeps nagging him about giving up his drinking habits, and the reader can clearly see, as is usually the case with severe alcoholism, that it’s nowhere near as easy as just putting down the whiskey and quitting.  His doctor, however, doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is for him. Hugh, his half-brother, is another good example of a disconnect between people and their understanding of each other. In one particular scene, written from Hugh’s point of view, the narrative makes frequent jumps between his rambling, aimless inner monologue and the conversation that he’s having with Geoffrey as he helps him shave. It’s very clear that Hugh is not at all engaged in the conversation, as when the book jumps back to his thoughts, his mind is occupied with something completely different and unrelated.

So, two-hundred pages in, I can already tell that this is an incredible book. It’s very character-driven, with almost no actual action to be spoken of, but Malcolm Lowry pulls that off masterfully, giving a detailed and incredibly sad portrait of his character’s inner struggles. Needless to say, I am highly enjoying this novel, and will probably place it very high in my rankings. The review should be up in about a week, see you then!

Album Review #4: The Wildest! by Louis Prima (1956)

The Wildest! by Louis Prima 1956

This album will make you feel good whether you like it or not. The songs featured here are filled with an almost tangible feeling of energy. If you’re a fan of jazzy swing and ridiculous levels of catchyness, this is the album for you.

The record starts off with a medley of two songs: “Just A Gigolo” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody”. It’s got great rhythm, kept by the drums as well as the piano/bass combo. It’s this combo of bass and steady piano rhythm that really makes the song, and it also happens to reappear on a few other tracks later in the album. One element that really sticks out is Louis’ distinctive singing style, although it is heavily borrowed from Louis Armstrong. His singing just fits very well with the jazzy instrumentation.

Some other album highlights include the Jazz instrumental “Body and Soul”, as well as the fast, peppy call-and-response song “Oh Marie”. The album ends with the almost bizarrely out of place “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You”, an almost comedically callous and cold song about, well, being really happy that someone’s dead. All with the same cheery, upbeat instrumentation as the rest of the album, to top it all off. Strangely, it kind of works. It’s a good song, and it still seems to fit with the rest of the record despite it’s dissonant lyrical subject.

Simply put, I enjoyed the crap out of this album. It’s got great, catchy songs, great vocal delivery, and is just the right length to top it off, at just over thirty minutes long. I would highly recommend that you listen to it, you might just find yourself enjoying the crap out of it as well.

Next Up: Ellington At Newport 1956 by Duke Ellington (1956)

Album Review #3: Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers (1956)

Tragic Songs of Life by Louvin Brothers

I’m going to be perfectly honest; this album left me underwhelmed. While there were a few things that I enjoyed about it, it just seemed a little… bland. The different tracks just sounded like each other, and while the lyrics were generally pretty good, the music itself was just lacking.

The Louvin Brothers are considerably big names in the world of Country. Tragic Songs of Life is thought of as a landmark album in the genre, along with their 1959 record Satan is Real. However, while I can see the importance of this album, it just didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I’m not that experienced in the genre of Country music, but I still enjoy it as much as I enjoy pretty much any other music; I have always held the belief that there is amazing music to be found in every genre. The guitar is enjoyable to listen to, particularly the riffs usually kicking off each song, and Charlie and Iva’s vocal harmonies are admittedly incredible; I would go as far to say that the singing is by far the best part of the record. However, the Brothers’ personal lives prove to be much more interesting than the music itself.

You see, Iva “Louvin” Loudermilk was what you would call an incredibly unstable human being. An extreme alcoholic and womanizer with borderline dangerous anger issues, his flaws were so severe that it was sometimes even dangerous to work with him. His behavior reached a horrifying peak when he attempted to strangle his third wife with a phone cord, which prompted her to shoot him multiple times in the chest in self-defense. Miraculously, after a presumably long time in recovery, he survived. In 1963, his brother Charlie finally decided to split with his brother and start a solo career, distancing himself from Iva. Two years later in 1965, Iva was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Ironically, Iva was currently wanted on a DUI charge.

So with all of this as a backdrop, it’s a little bit jarring to listen to the album and hear such stable, calm and traditional songs. Even if the lyrics are occasionally very dark (“Knoxville Girl” is particularly messed up, coldly and casually recounting a murder, and with pretty much no explanation as to why) the sound of the music itself really offsets that. The emotions being expressed through the lyrics are just cancelled out by the frankly dull instrumentals.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this album. The songs just didn’t sound that inspired, and while the singing and harmony itself was excellent, the rest just doesn’t seem to meet the same quality. The songs all seem to sound similar to each other, and even if the lyrics are often good, it really doesn’t make up for the negatives. If you aren’t a diehard Country fan, I wouldn’t recommend this album.

Next Up: The Wildest!, by Louis Prima (1956)

Album Review #2: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)

In the Wee Small Hours Sinatra Cover

I was pleasantly surprised by this album. As the oldest album on the list, it holds up incredibly well. The writing, instrumentals and vocals are all borderline perfect. It’s also a very sad and melancholy record, being mostly inspired by a particularly nasty breakup with his wife Ava Gardner.

The music itself is without a doubt my favorite part of this album. The strings, horns, and and occasional bells all work together to create a truly sublime score that sounds straight out of the most well-orchestrated classic Disney film you can imagine. Listening to this album is like having silk, milk and honey injected directly into your eardrums. …Actually, that sounds horrifying. Never mind, bad example.

This was a difficult and emotional album for Sinatra to make, and it shows. The lyrics are sad, the vocals are soulful and the album as a whole just gives off an incredible sorrowful vibe. Most of the songs are about loneliness, isolation and often unrequited love, which makes sense, as the album was mainly inspired by his recent separation with his wife, Ava. The emotions in this album are real and strong, and it’s easy to tell.

So overall, this was a very good album. The combination of absolutely incredible instrumentation, lyrics and vocal performances make this a truly unforgettable album A true masterpiece that you should absolutely listen to.

Next Up: Tragic Songs of Life by the Louvin Brothers (1956)

Book Review #2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Midnight's Children cover

This book was absolutely incredible. I’m not really even sure what to say. It consistently blew me away, and Rushdie’s writing is some of the best I’ve ever read.

First off, so much happens in these 450 pages that it feels at least twice as long as it actually is (and in this case, that is not a bad thing). Over the course of this book, you witness the history of an entire family tree over half a century, with the history of an entire subcontinent as the backdrop. It’s definitely a lot to swallow, but that’s probably the book’s strongest point. More than any other book I’ve ever read (possibly even more than the Lord of the Rings), when you read this book, you are truly immersed in the story’s world. A huge list of characters, a ton of detail, historical context… All of these work together to create a novel that truly sucks you in and completely wraps you up in the story.

Rushdie’s writing is great as well. His prose is the kind that’s enjoyable to read but incredibly intelligent at the same time. You can tell how smart he is just by reading a paragraph of his writing. And while there are some things that take getting used to, such as his tendency to omit commas when listing things and his frequent overuse of ellipsis, his prose is outstanding nonetheless.

Overall, I was very, very impressed by this book. Salman Rushdie is a true genius and one of the greatest writers of the last century. If you’re even slightly interested, I would absolutely recommend this book.

Next Up: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Album Review #1: Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis Self titled 1956

We start off this monster of an album list with a true classic: the world’s first taste of the King of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. I’ll have to admit, I was very surprised by this album. As my first taste of classic 50’s rock n’ roll, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it or if I would simply find myself uninterested. But this album really surpassed my expectations; the fast songs were incredibly catchy, the slow songs were incredibly well-performed, and altogether it was just a very solid album.

No album is without its flaws, however. I noticed several inconsistencies with volume and audio quality; on some tracks Elvis sounded almost like he decided to start singing away from the mic mid-song for no particular reason, and a couple tracks were of a noticeably lower audio quality than the rest. This didn’t really have much of an impact on the listening experience, though. The tracks were just too strong for something like that to have an impact on the album’s quality.

The opening track, “Blue Suede Shoes”, is a great kick-off, with an energetic performance and great guitar and drums to back it up. The album’s many slow ballads are heart-felt and and well-sung, and are split up with fast rocking tracks in between to keep up the pace. The best of these is definitely “Tutti Frutti”, an incredibly peppy and upbeat Little Richard cover that really bounds with energy (however, the original is still superior, in my opinion). “Blue Moon” is another highlight, but in a different way. It’s very minimalistic, stripped down and slow-moving, but great nonetheless.

Overall, I enjoyed this album very much, and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in classic rock n’ roll.

Next Up: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra (1955)