All-Time Classics #1: Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

For the first entry in my All-Time Greats series of album reviews, we’re going to talk about what I personally consider to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded: Stevie Wonder’s legendary 1976 double-plus-EP album Songs in the Key of Life. At just over 100 minutes in length, there is no shortage of material to discuss, let alone highlight favorites from, but I believe that this masterpiece deserves to have every last minute discussed, praised, criticized, and immortalized. Consisting of two LPs and a bonus “A Little Somethings Extra” EP, this record takes the listener on an unparalleled musical odyssey encompassing a cornucopia of musical styles, moods, and ideas. You’ll always discover something entirely new to love about this album almost every time you hear it all the way through, and there is simply so much artistic genius on display here that multiple listens are practically required. This record deserves every single bit of praise and adoration it has received over the years, and no matter how much I write about it, I’ll never really be able to do the music justice. But I might as well try!

The album opens with a slow-burning, soulful peace ballad, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” It’s one of the album’s longer cuts, but every second is pure ear-candy. Beautiful vocal harmonies, subdued percussion, and gorgeous synthesizers populate this track’s patient but powerful runtime, gently easing the audience into the following experience in, dare I say it, wonderful fashion. Alright, I apologize, that was pretty terrible. I will refrain from any name-based puns for the remainder of this review. Anyways, the boundaries between organic and synthetic instrumentation is blurred constantly throughout this album’s runtime, with electronic instruments creating breathtaking, warm and organic-feeling soundscapes on the following tracks, “Have a Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land.” The former puts lyrics of faith and inspiration over an incredibly cool, hypnotic, gurgling keyboard track with the usual incredible backup singing, while the second sees Wonder singing solo about life in a poverty-stricken ghetto, calling for action regarding inner-city living conditions and lawmaker’s indifference towards the plights of marginalized populations facing such dire situations. What truly makes the track, however, is the fabulous synthetic string-section providing the track’s instrumentation. Miraculously, Wonder somehow manages to make fake strings work even better than real ones would have, and the result is an unforgettable slice of ear-pleasing and politically charged songwriting that would be the clear standout track on any other album. However, this is Stevie Wonder we’re talking about, so of course this is followed by yet another near-perfect track, the dizzying instrumental “Contusion.” Mike Sembello’s guitar playing on this track is just pure technical perfection, playing complex yet captivating solos and riffs throughout. The wordless vocals that come in about halfway through are also a great touch, making what would have been a nice instrumental interlude into an outstanding piece in its own right. The album then segues into “Sir Duke.” Dear. God. This freakin’ song. I can’t even begin to get across how stupidly happy this song makes me. Hell, it might just be my favorite out of all 21 of this album’s tracks. There are very, very few songs ever written that I would consider perfect, and “Sir Duke” is up there near the top of even that selective group. The lyrics are about Duke Ellington, but honestly I don’t really even care what the lyrics are about; they could be about anything and this song would still be absolute perfection. This is in that rare league of songs that are so damn happy they actually make me cry. I’m not ashamed to admit that this song gets me all choked up nearly every time I hear it. I seriously don’t think any other song I’ve ever heard has actually made me cry real tears of joy before. Maybe I’m just a mess, but this song just gets to me in the best possible way.

Side 2 kicks off with “I Wish,” a cool, groovy ode to childhood with a bassline to kill for. Stevie’s singing is flawless here, but then again, isn’t it always? After this is the calm, subdued ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” We all know this by now, but I just need to say it again: Stevie Wonder’s chorus and hook-writing skills are almost completely unparalleled in the entire world of music. It may seem like I’m hyping his talents up a bit too much, but in all honesty I believe this guy to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I simply can’t stress enough how good he is at writing a moving, captivating, unforgettable song. “Pastime Paradise” is a trance-like rhythmic jam that makes you feel a bit disoriented, but definitely in a good way. I find this album somewhat exhausting to listen to sometimes for the simple fact that every single song is so damn good that there just isn’t any cooldown time. You don’t get a break, because the very next song is just as good, and then the next one after that, and so on. There are just too many incredible songs here. How he managed to write so many songs that are good enough to be any other artist’s defining song of their entire career, and put them all on the same album is just boggling to the mind. “Summer Soft” is one of the defining examples of how exhaustingly enjoyable this album can be to listen to sometimes. This album has a bit of a habit to create an awesome, goosebump-raising moment and then just hold you there, for an extended period of time. For example, in “Summer Soft,” we have the choruses, where he creates this incredible musical moment, and then escalates it, repeatedly, to an almost self-parodic degree, and the result is a song that’s so awesome it’s actually difficult to get through. And finally, the first LP is closed off with “Ordinary Pain,” a calmly depressing number with an energy-filled extended coda delivered by the incredibly vocally talented Shirley Brewer. After getting through these first 10 tracks, you may think to yourself “if I’m just under halfway through this thing, how could it possibly follow this up with anything even remotely up to the standard of quality this first group of tracks has set?” Well… let’s just say the second LP is more than up to that standard of quality. Oh boy, is it. You’re just too much, Stevie. Gimme a break with all this incredible music, man.

stevie wonder rockhalldotcom

Image source: rockhall.com

The second LP is where Stevie really breaks out the big guns. Of the seven tracks on the LP, only two are under six minutes: that being “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” a tri-lingual synthetic keyboard ballad, and “If It’s Magic,” a brief and haunting piece featuring only vocals and harp, played by Dorothy Ashby.  The LP starts with “Isn’t She Lovely,” a tear-jerking, ultra-heartwarming ode to his newly-born baby daughter. The song features an iconic harmonica line and some of the most impassioned vocals on the entire record, with the second half being occupied by homemade tape recordings of his daughter cooing, struggling to form words, refusing to get in the bath, and generally just being absolutely adorable. The following track, “Joy Inside My Tears,” is both one of the album’s most repetitive and moving cuts. The verse-to-chorus ratio on this one is definitely skewed, with a majority of the track consisting of a seemingly endless chant of the main chorus. On paper this may seem like it would get incredibly tiresome pretty quickly, but in execution, it only gets more profound and emotional with each repetition. Every time the chorus begins again, it seems to get more emotionally intense, which results in all six minutes of this track being some of the most deeply riveting you can find on this record. This is directly followed up with the longest track of the album, “Black Man,” at over eight minutes in length. This track features some of the record’s most potent and rousing political lyrics, consisting mainly of a list of scientific, historical and cultural achievements by people of color that have been largely swept under the rug and forgotten by your typical history class. This track somehow manages to make the listener happy and angry simultaneously, with the lyrics feeling like an incredible celebration of these people’s contributions to the world, but also demonstrating that a good number of these people’s names have been for the most part forgotten by the general population. Names such as Daniel Hale Williams, first person to perform a successful heart surgery, Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, and Crispus Attucks, first known person to die for the American flag, are listed off in succession, all with an accompanying unspoken question of why these are not names we are all familiar with. This song is truly a highlight on a record of highlights, standing out even next to the other excellent tracks on display.

Next up are the two sub-six-minute tracks mentioned earlier. While these two are great in their own right, they do still feel somewhat like interludes: simple warmups for the two slices of pure bliss to follow. “As” and “Another Star” are somewhat similar to each other, but by virtue of being back to back to each other, they serve as a sort of combined epic finale to the record. I tend to talk about the two as if they were one long song, because in my opinion they just beg to be listened to together. Both songs are over 7 minutes, and combined they are the ultimate fifteen-minute funky freakout to end the album proper. Don’t even start listening unless you plan on hearing the whole thing, because once you start, the driving, repetitive backup vocals and jamming instrumentals make it utterly impossible to pause. Truly, Stevie couldn’t have ended this journey in a better fashion. There are, however, four additional tracks found on the “A Little Somethings Extra” EP that was included with the album. Overall these tracks are of a high quality, with “Saturn” giving us a cinematic and dramatic ballad, “Ebony Eyes” providing a goofy romp of a love song that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “All Day Sucker” creating an incredible, groovy rhythm that begs to be danced to, and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” ending the selection of bonus content with a relaxing, chilled-out instrumental that evokes a night spent with family, watching fireflies from the front porch. These songs are all great, but I wouldn’t consider them part of the album proper. They’re intended more as a little extra treat after the main course, and I think they serve that purpose beautifully.

A 100-minute album with no filler whatsoever is a rare thing indeed, but Stevie Wonder accomplished that feat and so much more with this masterpiece of a record. I’ve said just about all I have to say about this utter classic, so I’ll end this debut All-Time Greats review with this: yes, this album is long as hell, and yes, sitting down and listening to the whole thing is an undertaking, but I truly believe that every fan of music should take the time to accept this album into their listening repertoire. It’s a multi-faceted, emotional and joyous ride from start to finish, and Songs in the Key of Life gets the highest recommendation I can give.

What do you think of this album? I’d love to know, so please, leave your thoughts in the comments!

Forgotten Gems #1: Cell-Scape by Melt-Banana (2003)

Cell-Scape, Melt-Banana

Here on Forgotten Gems, we’re starting out with a strange one. Japanese noise-rock band Melt-Banana is truly the musical incarnation of Douglas Adams’ Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster, and will, by their very nature, likely never achieve any conventional kind of popularity or success. Since the day they formed in 1992, they have set out to make music that will disorient, bewilder, and possibly even terrify the listener with simply ludicrous volumes, harsh and screeching guitar/electronic effects, and a vocal style delivered by frontwoman Yasuko Onuki that I can only describe as a hyperactive cartoon character on at least three different kinds of stimulants. Their 2003 album Cell-Scape, while admittedly “tamer” (if that’s a word that can even be applied to this band) than their frankly horrifying 90’s output, it is still an entire sonic universe away from what the average listener would consider easy-listening, and for that, I just love it.

“Phantasmagoria” starts off the album with a relatively calm and slow ambient intro, but do not let them fool you. Immediately the listener is pummeled in the face by the opening roar of “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand.” I believe the first couple seconds of this song is a good gauge of whether or not you’ll enjoy the ensuing 30 minutes of barely controlled chaos. If you hate it and it makes your ears bleed, maybe don’t proceed. If you love it and it makes your ears bleed, then boy are you in for a treat. I would be remiss not to bring up frankly how ridiculously awesome Ichirou Agata’s guitar-work is, on this album especially. He gets otherworldly sounds out of his guitar that that defy verbal explanation and practically require hearing firsthand. Seriously, he’s one of my all-time favorite guitarists for a very good reason. The song builds with a hypnotic bassline, hard and robotic drum machine loop, and Agata’s incredible noise-glissandos.

And then the vocals kick in.

Yasuko Onuki’s vocals are the stuff of myth. It is absolutely a “love-it or hate-it” style that takes some getting used to, and are completely different from almost every other vocalist in all of music. I’ve already described her vocals as sounding like a cartoon character on stimulants, but if you haven’t heard it before, you really don’t know what you’re getting into. But I believe that it is her voice that transforms Melt-Banana from a pretty-good but not-so-memorable noise band into the playful, exhilarating and mind-destroying entity we all know and love them as. Her energetic style permeates through the bizarre whirlwinds of songs that are “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun” and my personal favorite “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up.” Every explosion of guitar and drums is accentuated by Onuki’s weirdly cheery-sounding yelps and squawks. Melt-Banana wouldn’t be half of the amazingness that it is without Yasuko Onuki at the helm, and every single song she takes part in is simply a joy to listen to.

melt banana, wwwdotorlandoweeklydotcom

Left: Yasuko Onuki. Right: Ichirou Agata. Image source: orlandoweekly.com

This whole album in general is just that: a pure joy. Sure, it’s unyielding, ridiculously loud and harsh, and almost completely inacessible to any mainstream audience. But if you can get used to the noise elements and the unorthodox approach to vocals, you’ll find that this album is a thrill ride unlike most you’ll ever be able to find. And hey, after 30 minutes of exhaustion, they were even kind enough to give the listener a nice instrumental ambient outro to cool back down to. This album is absolutely not for everyone, but if you can acquire that taste, you’ll uncover an experience that you won’t forget. Now get this album the love and attention that it deserves.

Favorite Tracks: “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up,” “If it is the Deep Sea, I Can See You There,” “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun,” “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand”

Album Review #40: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

Live at the Apollo, James Brown

I’m back, everyone! Terribly sorry about the unannounced hiatus. I fully intend on making my posts much more frequent than they have been.

James Brown was known as “the hardest working man in show buisness.” After all, he played a gig almost every single night, (and sometimes even multiple times in a single day,) and the concept of a “break” was pretty much completely alien to him. So for a single 30-minute concert, performed at the Apollo Theater in 1962, to consistently rise above all other sets of the man’s entire career and frequently place on lists of “greatest live albums ever”, it has to be something truly special. Well, worry not, because this album more than lives up to the endless hype. You know you’ve got a hell of an album on your hands when the only complaint you can think of regarding it is that it’s just too short. At just over 32 minutes, it almost always leaves the listener unsatisfied and wanting more. But hey, an album sure can do worse when its only drawback is that there just isn’t enough of it.

Side A

The album starts with a passionate intro from Fats Gonder. He lists off all the songs on the setlist, each one punctuated by a burst of brass that increases in pitch each successive time, creating an awesome sense of buildup and anticipation. After his opening, the band launches into a cool yet crazy-energetic instrumental, with the guitar alternating with the brass section with a great call-and-response style. After a minute of this, the man himself, James Brown, steps up to the microphone and screams out the opening lines to the first song, “I’ll Go Crazy,” with an astonishing raw power only he could pull off. The guitar strums out the opening chords, before the song finally kicks off with hypnotic arpeggios and excellent singing from both Brown and his underrated backup singers. This is probably the single catchiest song on the record, with flawless hooks, melodies, and instrumentals that all work together perfectly to create what is possibly the perfect R&B song. They then seamlessly transition into the next track, “Try Me,” which is much more subdued and calm, but still just as enjoyable as the first. Putting these two tracks right next to each other does a great job of emphasizing Brown’s emotional range: he can sing and scream the loud-and-exciting songs and soulful-and-tender songs with equal effortless proficiency. From this track until the end of the side, there is a brief ten-second bridge between each song performed by the brass section that really serves to maintain the momentum between each song. Because of this, the whole side feels like a sort of epic suite, with even the quiet and calm tracks acquiring a feeling of tension and anticipation. After “Try Me” comes “Think,” a short and rambunctious song with a chaotic rhythm and a jaw-dropping sense of power throughout. Brown’s vocals on this track are barely-coherent and really come off as more of a background to the instruments—unusual for this album, as his singing is usually so demanding of attention that he becomes the centerpiece of any one song—but honestly, in this instance, it really works. His vocals here perfectly complement the unhinged nature of the track. Next comes another slow ballad, “I Don’t Mind,” opening with a very understated, barely audible organ in the background that gives the song a strange, calming-yet-tense vibe that really makes the track stand out among the rest. As always, Brown’s vocals make the song, with an impressive level of sheer intensity delivered in a quiet tone. Even when he brings out the trademark scream, it’s quiet and incredibly controlled. This whole track is, simply put, a masterclass in restraint.

James Brown clickamericana[dot]com

James Brown delivering a riveting vocal performance. Image source: clickamericana.com

Side B

The album’s second half kicks off with the showstopper, the ten-minute soulful blues jam, “Lost Someone.” This is the reason this album is still remembered all these years later, and is frankly worth the price of admission alone. It’s incredible length (which, by the way, is a third of the entire album’s running time) doesn’t hold it down at all: in fact I would argue that it wouldn’t even work with a shorter time frame. It’s an excellent example of repetition in music done right. The band plays, for the most part, the same bassline and trumpet part repeatedly, but with minute variations that keep it engaging, and, of course, James Brown’s once again jaw-dropping vocal performance. His voice really does carry this entire album, and on this track especially he imbues every line with passion. His singing is captivating, emotional, and engaging to no end. The audience simply can’t contain their excitement here, screaming and shouting with him along the way, with James even calling for some screams himself in a brilliant moment of call-and-response. After this ten-minute behemoth, the band transitions into a rapidly-changing medley of several songs, all packed into six minutes of time. Where “Lost Someone” was expansive and took it’s time, this medley moves from melody to melody faster than the listener can even keep track of it. In perfect honesty, I don’t like this track nearly as much as I do the rest of the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great. It’s just that all of the musical ideas aren’t given nearly enough time to develop, and while I recognize that it’s a medley of preexisting songs, I just think it would’ve done better if it had given the song snippets a little more room to breathe. The vocals and band are just as captivating as they are on the rest of the album, but this track still stands out as an “alright” point in an album of incredibles. The album ends on a high note with the classic “Night Train,” with its instantly-recognizable brass part and a truly exhilarating bass and rhythm.

And just like that, the album’s over. Like I said before, the only bad thing I can say about this record is that there just isn’t enough of it. It’s one of the greatest live recordings ever put to record, and if you’ve never listened to this non-stop thrill ride before, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Let me know what you thought of the album, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Favorite Tracks: “Lost Someone,” “I’ll Go Crazy,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Think”

9/10 (by the way, starting with this review, I’ve decided to start giving albums numerical ratings out of ten! Let me know what you think about this, I’d really love to know.)

Next Up: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1963)

 

Album Review #39: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus (1963)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus

It’s about time we got around to Charles Mingus. Truly one of the greats of the world of jazz, his bass playing was unparalleled and his composing was mind-blowing. With this album, released 1963, he took the already well-respected genre of jazz and brought it to a level of challenge, aggression and complexity almost unheard-of by his peers and contemporaries. At the time, jazz was a lot of things: it was soft, gentle and soothing, it was loud, exciting and danceable. But until Mingus, it was never angry or even scary. With this masterpiece, Charles Mingus confronted the jazz scene with a mind-boggling opus of constant movement, frantic performances and musical concepts that until that point in music history had only been touched upon by some of classical’s great composers. Put simply, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a complete game-changer for not just jazz, but popular music as a whole, filled with innovations, surprises and a style/structure that ensures it an incredible re-listening potential. (It is important to note, however, that a previous album of his, Mingus Ah Um, is just as highly regarded by critics, but for some baffling reason was sadly not included in this book. There’s a good chance I’ll get around to talking about that one sometime soon, but for now, Black Saint is more than deserving of our full attention.)

Side A

Track-by-track wise, this is a difficult album to review. It isn’t quite split into “tracks” per se, but rather into four continuous movements like some sort of modern-day jazz symphony. The whole record is intended as a single piece, so you can’t really have a “favorite track” here. I’ll at least try to analyse it, however, so let’s begin with the first of four movements, “Solo Dancer.” The opening to this album is just fantastic in every way. It starts off slowly and gradually, punctuated with buzzing notes from a roaring tuba played by Don Butterfield with a brilliant, distinctive timbre. Over the first few minutes the elements pile on and build in speed and intensity, ever-so-patiently stirring up a maddening whirlwind of sound that is both daunting and completely breathtaking to hear. Most of the album is improvised, but every performer on display has clearly mastered their craft to the peak of their abilities, and every solo is exhilarating. The second movement, “Duet Solo Dancers,” starts off much more mellow than the previous track, with a gentle piano intro and easy-going tempo and melody. Then, about two minutes in, it takes a turn for the menacing, with a slow one-two rhythm that stomps up and down, speeding up and building to a massive, disorganized crescendo that wields an energy so great that it leaves listeners speechless. The movement’s last couple minutes return to the main melody of the opening movement, which I actually quite like as it serves to further strengthen the full album as one long piece intended to be experienced as one. The final movement of Side A, “Group Dancers,” opens with another piano solo, but this time much more dark and ominous than the last. When the flutes come in with their swift, light but still slightly sinister melody, they give the impression of pirouetting ballet dancers, and the effect is strangely beautiful and awe-inspiring. Then comes what is honestly one of my absolute favorite parts of this record: Jay Berliner’s flamenco-style acoustic guitar work. With its angry, rapid and hypnotic strumming that reflects Latin Jazz, it’s a definite highlight of the album in my personal opinion. Although it only appears briefly in this movement, don’t you worry, because it’ll make a glorious return on Side B. Speaking of which…

Charles Mingus likesuccess[dot]com

Mingus and his legendary bass. Image source: likesuccess.com

Side B

“Trio and Group Dancers” starts off the record’s second half with a familiar motif from earlier in the record. Let me stress that when he does this, it is not a mark of laziness, but rather it helps to give the album a strong sense of continuity. It makes the album truly feel like one continuous symphony rather than a collection of tracks, and the effect is wonderful. After a few minutes of as-always well performed variations on the theme, it segues into another brilliant guitar solo. Berliner’s playing style simply demands attention, hence why his guitar usually shows up solo on this record: he’s just so good that his presence would distract from everyone else playing. The couple of times he does collaborate with another instrumentalist, it is usually only a duet, either that or everyone else just gets ultra-quiet as if in awe. The rest of the movement is dominated by a lengthy, improvised piano solo, expertly performed by the auteur himself, Charles Mingus. Every piano solo on display in this record is excellent, but this one takes the cake, making expert use of every second it has and refusing to lose the listener’s attention for a second. The fifth movement that follows, “Single Solos and Group Dance,” continues building on the momentum of the previous movement, once again finding unique ways to riff on the recurring motif. The guitar makes a return, this time accompanied by an easy-to-miss marimba. It isn’t as shy this time, participating with the band to great effect. Over the next few minutes the music grows deranged and unhinged, making a ruckus and chaotically beating the time signature into submission. The line between this movement and the final movement, “Group and Solo Dance,” is a little blurred, and I’m not actually quite sure where one ends and the other begins, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter much. The album works much better as a single piece anyways. It closes with one final rendition of the original opening melody from the first movement, serving as a brilliant bookend to an often hectic, crazy, but constantly masterful album.

So I guess you can probably tell what I think of this one. What can I say? I loved it to no end. It’s probably my favorite jazz album on the list so far, and it’s an album I can absolutely see myself revisiting years down the line. It may seem intimidating at first, but it is a consistently exciting, engaging, and enthralling recording that knows what it’s doing and does it damn well. All I can say is that you need to hear it, and it will probably take me a long, long time before I find a better jazz album.

Favorite Tracks: “Movement C: Group Dancers,” “Movement D: Trio and Group Dancers,” “Movement A: Solo Dancer”

Next Up: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

Album Review #38: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Live at the Harlem Square Club (v. 1), Sam Cooke

This album is a bit of an interesting one, in that despite it being widely considered a classic 60’s record, it wasn’t actually given an official release until 1985. You can thank the geniuses at RCA Records, who apparently thought the recording was “too rough and gritty” for Sam Cooke’s clean pop image. This would eventually prove to be one of the most baffling record label decisions of all time, as it would become an immediate classic almost as soon as it left the archives 22 years later. The album really is quite astonishing, being without a doubt the greatest showcase of Cooke’s out-of-studio abilities of his entire tragically short career. We may never truly be able to understand record label executive’s thinking, but we can sure understand that they kept from the masses a true classic of live rock and R&B.

Side A

The album kicks off with an incredible intro of roaring, growling saxophone before “Mr. Soul” is introduced onto the stage. He takes a moment getting the crowd riled up before launching into the first song on the setlist: “Feel It.” The music on this record is loose, even a little sloppy, but this style serves the music very well. The energy in his voice is tangible, and the strumming of the guitar and bashing of the drums work together beautifully to create a loud, foot-stomping sound that would make any crowd go crazy. Next up is “Chain Gang,” punctuated by angry grunts and a ridiculously catchy vocal melody. The instrumentals are more of the same, but that’s not really a negative, as they just work so well with pretty much any song Cooke sings. It’s on this track that he first brings audience participation into the mix, with the crowd providing the song’s signature grunts throughout the second half. After that comes a song that’s much more sweet and gentle, the love ballad “Cupid.” I really can’t stress enough just how well Cooke’s voice promotes the music his band plays: be it loud and fast or soft and tender, he pulls it off with utter perfection on pretty much every track. This is even further exemplified by the following track, “It’s All Right / For Sentimental Reasons.” This is probably my favorite of the album’s nine songs. “Is everybody in favor of getting romantic?” Cooke calls to the crowd, with a resounding yes from the crowd. He starts it off with a spoken intro before jumping into his rough-but-powerful vocals, delivering each lyric with emotion and care. “Oh, I like this song!” he interjects between lines, and boy does it show. Probably the best part comes in the track’s second half, where the audience starts shouting out his lines for him. I don’t blame them one bit: his performance is simply so engrossing that, were I there in the crowd that night, I don’t think I’d be able to control my excitement either. The side wraps up with one last fast-and-exciting song, “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and the sheer momentum he’s built up by this point in the set is frankly astounding. The messy but highly enjoyable backing band is in full swing here, accompanying Cooke’s electrifying vocals with pure excellence. He can barely even contain himself onstage, and it’s with this track that I think his sheer talent for live performance is best on display.

Sam Cooke thoughtontracks[dot]com

Cooke in the recording booth, coffee in hand. Image source: thoughtontracks.com

Side B

The record’s second side starts with “Somebody Have Mercy,” yet another passionate track with vocals sung with Gospel levels of emotion. The tense buildup of the second half is great, and its euphoric, explosive climax is simply one of the record’s finest moments. The song then seamlessly transitions into the next, “Bring it on Home to Me,” which takes the previous song’s energy and maintains it incredibly well. Cooke’s vocal melodies are truly one of R&B’s greatest, and this is one of the best places to hear it. The crowd’s still loving it, once again participating in the music with call-and-response shouting and the best sounding singing a large unorganized crowd is capable of pulling off. Up next is “Nothing Can Change This Love.” It’s short compared to the surrounding tracks, but it still proves itself to be a sweet and memorable pop tune that shines bright despite being sandwiched between much more prominent tracks. The final track of the setlist is “Having a Party.” It closes the album off excellently, although the fact that it closes the album off at all could be seen as a negative. “I don’t wanna quit!” he shouts, and you can tell the audience shares the sentiment. This is a performance that you just don’t want to end.

Just over a year after this live album was recorded, tragedy struck. To this day, the circumstances remain shrouded in mystery, but all that is known for sure about what happened can be summarized as the following. On December 11th, 1964, Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Hotel in Los Angeles, was confronted by Sam Cooke, who burst into her office half naked, seemingly in a daze. Franklin believed he was going to attack her, and in response pulled out a gun and shot Cooke in the chest. She maintained her stance that it was in self-defense, but many to this day refuse to believe her version of the story. Firstly, there were no witnesses other than Bertha Franklin herself. Secondly and perhaps most damningly of all, Cooke’s body was found to have been badly beaten in the autopsy report. To this day nobody knows the truth of what really happened, and both sides carry valid points and arguments. Either way, fans were utterly horrified and distraught. 200,000 people attended Sam Cooke’s funeral a week later, and he remains regarded as one of R&B’s greatest talents.

In spite of the tragedy that loomed in the near future, this live recording remains an engrossing document of a man at the absolute peak of his musical talents. Live at the Harlem Square Club is one of the greatest live recordings of the decade, and any fan of classic rock and R&B owes it to themself to give this record a good listen. This one has my top recommendation.

Favorite Tracks: “It’s All Right / For Sentimental Reasons,” “Somebody Have Mercy,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” ” Feel It,” “Bring it on Home to Me”

Next Up: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus (1963)

Album Review #37: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Nothing quite like having to review a Christmas album in April, is there?

The genre of holiday-specific music has such a stigma surrounding it. I’m not saying I don’t completely understand it. It’s just that through all of the ad-nauseum overplaying of the same three to four standards for almost three whole months every year, it can be hard to remember that, when taken at face value, they’re not at all bad songs. The tragedy of Christmas music is, sadly, that for most people, these songs have been overplayed to the point that hearing a couple notes out of their melody is enough to trigger flashbacks. So in spite of all this, my mission for this review is to give these holiday staples a fair, unbiased assessment, and judge them without any of the knee-jerk reactions they tend to get three-quarters of each year. You ready? Alright, let’s do this.

“White Christmas.” This is a great start to the album, performed by Darlene Love. Her voice is beautiful, and the pulsating, rhythmic instrumentation is excellent. The lyrics aren’t really that relatable for me personally, having to suffer through the hell that is the Midwestern Winter every year, but I can see where they’re coming from. Grass is always greener on the other side, after all. “Frosty the Snowman.” Alright, this one can spark revulsion in a lot of people, and I will admit I personally find it to be one of the album’s weaker tracks, but at least it’s somewhat catchy. It’s not my least favorite holiday standard, but it’s down there. At least The Ronettes’ rendition has personality. “The Bells of St. Mary,” performed by Bob B. Soxx and The Blue Jeans, isn’t that bad, with a pretty impressive vocal performance from Mr. Soxx himself, and an almost angelic chorus backing him. Next up is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,”  performed by The Crystals. I know it’s a pretty tired joke at this point, but I still can’t help but find the lyrics to be somewhat disturbing. Seriously, the lyrics make Mr. Claus out to be some sort of all-seeing Orwellian dictator, and the cheery melodies only somehow make it even more mildly unsettling. Oh well, at least The Crystals have great harmony. After that comes “Sleigh Ride.” I’ll admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for this one. The main melody is just damn catchy, and I can’t deny that this is one Christmas song I don’t mind hearing outside of the typical holiday season. Last on Side A is “Marshmallow World,” which is probably my favorite track off of the album. Performed once again by Darlene Love, it’s just stupidly catchy, with a pretty great saxophone solo to boot. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard it before the least out of all of them, but this one just strikes me as the album’s highest point.

Phil Spector, eltrochilero(dot)com

Phil Spector looking cool in his producer’s booth. Image source: eltrochilero.com

Side B starts off strong with my second favorite track off the album, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Sung by The Ronettes, it’s got a really interesting melody, with a great harmony from the instruments and backup singers. After that’s The Crystals’ rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which, I’m sad to say, isn’t really anything special. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just how many times I’ve heard it before, but it just doesn’t seem to do that much to set it apart from the slew of other versions by countless other artists. It isn’t bad, not at all, but it just doesn’t stand out to me as much as the songs it’s surrounded by. “Winter Wonderland,” performed once again by Darlene Love, is excellent, with a superb chorus and great plucked strings. Strangely, it seems to have a subtly more lo-fi aesthetic to it compared to surrounding tracks. I’m not sure if it’s done intentionally on Spector’s part, but either way it makes it sound even better. “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” is up next, and The Crystals give their usual great choir-of-singers treatment to it, accompanied by some great percussion, as well as a trumpet interlude. Darlene Love has one last hurrah with “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” with probably her best vocal performance of the album, backed by some great instrumental harmony to boot. The saxophones on this one are awesome, not to mention the piano part. Finally, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans reappear for the final time for “Here Comes Santa Claus.” His vocals are pretty good, and the backup singers are alright, but overall, this one just doesn’t stand out as much as the others. The track that precedes it kind of overshadows it, and sadly, I would say that this one is one of the record’s more forgettable tracks. The album is closed off by a nice little spoken word thank-you note delivered by Spector himself, backed by an instrumental “Silent Night.” He seems really proud of everyone involved, and he’s really, really happy you bought his album this Christmas season.

Probably the most significant aspect of this album is its production style. Dubbed the “Wall of Sound,” it was Spector’s trademark. It involved mastering the record so that it sounded like every instrument came together as one, heavy sound, and it was virtually unheard-of at the time. I personally think it sounds incredible, and although the sound can be somewhat polarizing for some, you can’t deny the influence it had on the world of music. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was heavily impacted by this style, even naming A Christmas Gift for You as his favorite album of all time. The style can even be heard in genres and bands decades in the future, with shoegaze bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, many metal bands, and pretty much the entirety of popular music to at least a small extent. Phil Spector’s musical vision changed the whole of music, and no matter what you think of his work, you can’t deny his massive importance.

So, yeah. Now for the elephant in the room. Yep, it’s no secret that Phil wasn’t exactly the most stable person in the production buisness. In fact, he threatened both The Ramones and Leonard Cohen at gunpoint during the production of their respective albums, and working with him was almost never a pleasant experience for anyone involved. This all culminated in 2009, when he was charged with the second-degree murder of Lana Clarkson on his estate. He is currently serving his sentance of 19-years-to-life in prison. So it comes as no surprise that, for many people, enjoying his life’s work can be a little difficult. I generally do a pretty good job of separating the art from the artist, but I have to admit that in this case, even just hearing him speak is a little bit on the uncomfortable side. If you can’t separate the music from the person, that’s totally understandable. I understand that this album is a pretty bad double-whammy of a hard-sell, being an album of Christmas music produced by a convicted murderer. But if you can somehow see past all that, you’ll find a pretty revolutionary catchy pop album. I just don’t blame you at all for steering clear.

Favorite Tracks: “Marshmallow Land,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland”

Next Up: Live at the Harlem Square Club by Sam Cooke (1963)

Album Review #36: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan (1963)

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

This is one of those albums that’s difficult to talk about. Bob Dylan is simply one of the most important musicians of all time, full stop. I mean, how exactly do you go about writing a review of a Nobel prize laureate’s greatest masterpiece? There isn’t a single track on this thing that doesn’t have something huge to say about the human spirit, and each of Dylan’s lyrics are perfectly written to deliver said messages. With nothing but an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a whiny, nasally voice, he managed to make one of the most culturally significant, emotional and timeless albums of all time, thanks almost solely to the sheer power and brilliance of his songwriting. This is one of those records that should simply be made required listening for the entire human race, and that’s an honor that only a handful of albums have ever been worthy of.

As by far the most acclaimed and popular album of Mr. Dylan’s acoustic era, this album can be a bit hard to approach. My advice for a first time listener is to just sit back, forget about the status the record holds, and just listen to the lyrics as they come. Don’t think too hard about them, at least not on your first listen: just hear them and let their emotion and power do their thing. The beauty of the songwriting here is that, unlike a lot of his later work, the lyrics aren’t that hard to understand. They say what they mean, and they’re strong enough on their own to have an impact without much of a hidden meaning or symbolism behind them. He knows exactly how to get you sad, angry and happy with nothing but a good melody and a stroke of the pen. His guitar work doesn’t hurt either: the excellent chord progressions and rhythmic strumming are a perfect chaser for his lyrics, and his guitar proves itself to be more than enough instrumentation necessary to hold the entire record up on its own. His harmonica is great too: on the tracks where it shows up, it serves as a nice (although rather shrill at points) partner to his guitar, blowing out short bursts of improvised harmony that glue together the song quite well. All said, his lyrics really are the true star of the show here. Listening to this masterpiece, it’s difficult to deny that he deserved that Nobel Prize in Literature moreso than almost any other singer-songwriter of the 20th century.

Bob Dylan 1963, nprdotcom

Dylan c. 1963. Image source: npr.com

In terms of individual tracks, this record is positively jam-packed with classics. Right off the bat we have “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of Dylan’s most world-famous songs. It’s lyrics are a powerful indictment of war and fighting in all of its forms, and it retains its poignancy and relevancy even to this day. Telling of this album’s excellency, then, that it isn’t even close to the album’s best track. The album’s third track, “Masters of War,” is chilling and filled with pure rage so strong you can feel it in your stomach. It’s probably the album’s most direct and un-subtle anti-war statement, and it’s all the better for it. The pure hatred in his voice is almost startling, and if you aren’t at least a little angry and/or upset by the end of it, you’re either a robot or just didn’t pay it that much attention. Then there’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” I honestly don’t even know if I have the writing prowess to communicate the qualities of this song, so I’ll just say that it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, and you just need to experience it. There are a few other great tracks worth mentioning too: “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is a darkly humorous account of the end-times, and “Oxford Town” is a brief, depressing picture of segregation and racism on college campuses.  Really though, every track on this album is important and deserves recognition. Dylan didn’t waste a single song when making this album, and all 50 minutes of it still feel fresh today.

This is just one of those albums. It’s hard to talk about, because I don’t want to overhype it, but at the same time, it’s wholeheartedly deserving of said hype. It’s the perfect showcase of Bob Dylan’s songwriting ability, not to mention his guitar playing, and is one of the most essential records of the folk genre, right up there with Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It’s an album that was both timely in 1963 when it came out and timeless and relevant even today, almost 55 years after its release. It retains its sense of urgency and relevancy through (for the most part) refraining to reference contemporary figures and events, and in doing so, it creates a politically charged, powerful and still-applicable record that can be repeatedly discovered and loved by each generation to come.

Favorite Tracks: “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Masters of War,” “Talkin’ World War III Blues,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town”

Next Up: A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963)