Tuesday, May 31, 2011

499: Albert King - Born Under A Bad Sign

Original Release Year: 1967
Label: Stax

Albert King is someone I had never heard of.  I read up on him, saw that he was an influential blues guitarist, and figured that since MOG didn't have this record, I'd go ahead and purchase the vinyl version.  The copy I purchased is the 1998 reissue on the Sundazed label, and includes two bonus tracks not available on the original record.

King is notable for his style of playing, which involves playing a right-handed guitar left handed (this, of course, sounds very confusing).  Born Under A Bad Sign was considered to have modernized blues, and had a significant influence on the next generation of guitarists.

As far as the music, I really like the playing.  Albert didn't have a voice as powerful as, say, Buddy Guy, but it is still soulful.  The classic bass lines and horn and wind arrangements provide a nice backdrop for King's emotive lead guitar parts, which speak almost as clearly as his voice.  The solos take up just the amount of space; the notes aren't all crammed in there like you sometimes hear when some very technically skilled guitarists play.  In "I Almost Lost My Mind," we are even treated to flute leads during the vocal parts, instead of the standard guitar.

"Personal Manager" contains one of the most emotive guitar solos I've heard in a long time.  This song might as well be a clinic on soloing; I'd strongly recommend listening to this if you're interested in soloing (in any instrument).

King even has enough good taste to put down the guitar completely for his beautiful, somewhat jazzy rendition of Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You."  Not only does giving the saxophone the lead suit the song well, but it also demonstrates a little diversity.

I'm not particularly educated about blues in general... In fact, I know almost nothing about blues... But I can say, this is some of the best blues I've heard.  It might be there's a whole assortment of better blues albums out there, but at this juncture, I'd say it is a welcome addition to my record collection.

Here's a video of Albert playing "Born Under A Bad Sign." I can't tell for sure, but it looks like he's even playing with an injured finger:


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Record swap meet in Phoenix

This morning we went to the record swap meet in Phoenix.  And I would say I came back with quite the haul.

At the swap meet, I purchased the following:
Rolling Stones - Some Girls
Rolling Stones - Made in the Shade
Billy Joel - The Bridge
Billy Joel - Streetlife Serenade
Billy Joel - Piano Man
Jethro Tull - Minstrel in the Gallery
Led Zeppelin - IV
Led Zeppelin - Presence
Led Zeppelin - Coda
The Who - Tommy
Waylon Jennings - What Goes Around Comes Around
Waylon Jennings - Ol' Waylon
Waylon Jennings - Dreaming My Dreams
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Pendulum
Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - Deja Vu
Deep Purple - Perfect Strangers

Afterwards, we stopped by Zia, Tracks in Wax, and Stinkweeds.

At Zia:
The Decemberists - The Tain / 5 Songs EPs
The Decemberists -  Castaways and Cutouts

At Tracks in Wax:
Neil Young - Trans
Neil Young - Everybody's Rockin'
Billy Joel - The Nylon Curtain
Billy Joel - Glass Houses
Billy Joel - The Stranger
Billy Joel - 52nd Street
Rolling Stones - Tattoo You

Finally, at Stinkweeds:
Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA
Adrian Belew - Lone Rhino
Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy
Okkervil River - The Stage Names
Okkervil River - "The President's Dead"
Okkervil River - Down the River of Golden Dreams

That's a total of 32 records.  Wow.  The price tag was considerably less than on Record Store Day, however.

Friday, May 20, 2011

498: ZZ Top - Tres Hombres

Well, I didn't have anything to do tonight (for some reason, my Friday evenings tend to be the most boring), so I decided to listen to another one of the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums.  MOG didn't have Albert King's Born Under A Bad Sign, so I had to skip it and move to the next (I'll get back to Mr. King eventually; I ordered the album on vinyl).  That would be ZZ Top's third album, Tres Hombres.

Release Date: July 26, 1973
Label: London

I'm not real familiar with ZZ Top, but I have heard a couple of their hits on classic rock radio over the years.  They also made an appearance on The Simpsons, when Bart runs into them and says, "Hey, you're ZZ Top! You guys rock!" One of the band members replies, "Eh, maybe a little."

Three songs in, I agree with them.  They do rock...a little.  They have a bit of a hard rock sound, with strong rhythm, and somewhat of a blues influence.  The first four tracks are all upbeat blues rock songs, with what I would call a typical ZZ Top sound.  There were no surprises there.  "Master of Sparks" was the first I really liked.

"Hot, Blue and Righteous," the last track on the front side, is the first ballad.  It is a typical, pedestrian ballad, and at just over three minutes, is not given nearly enough to develop like a ballad properly should.

The back side starts well, with "Move Me On Down The Line."  This is a driving rock song, with an excellent lead guitar part and the type of riffs you would expect from a good 70s hard rock song.  Again, at two and a half minutes, this song could have been so much more.

The overall sound of this album is a bit too muddy for my tastes.  The vocals are fairly low in the mix, and the rhythm guitar has a very low tone, muddled tone.  This seems to be fairly common in this type of music.

The middle track on the back, "La Grange," is an excellent track, and one of the aforementioned hits.  This song never had much of a melody, but it does have excellent drumming, and, in my opinion, one of the greatest riffs in rock music.  You know the one: bahda da da da da d daah daah....

The album ends with "Sheik," a lighter song with a fairly loose feel and a little bit of jamming, and a straight-up blues song, "Have You Heard?"

This is a record that I consider very listenable, but unessential.  They are a very typical blues rock band, without any major innovation or creative genius.  The singing is nothing to write home about, but they have proven that they can come up with some great riffs.  The back side is far superior to the front, so if you check it out, focus your energy on that.

1Waitin' for the Bus2:59
2Jesus Just Left Chicago3:29
3Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers3:23
4Master of Sparks3:33
5Hot, Blue and Righteous3:14
6Move Me on Down the Line2:30
7Precious and Grace3:09
8La Grange3:51
10Have You Heard?3:14

Two stars.  I am really temped to give them an extra star or two, just because of those awesome beards.


Let's talk about King Crimson

A couple years ago, it was revealed that many older King Crimson albums would be remixed and reissued, with Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) creating the remixes as well as 5.1 surround sound mixes, and Robert Fripp overseeing the whole project. I am a huge fan of both Wilson and Crimson, so it is a little odd that I waited until a month ago to finally purchase these (it probably coincides with my recent purchase of a surround sound system).

And boy am I glad I did. Surround sound takes these albums to a whole new level, especially the first four albums, with their rich textures, subtle complexions, and varied (and sometimes crowded) instrumentation. You start to notice the horns, strings, keyboards, and other instruments that sometimes get lost behind the guitars or vocals in the stereo mixes. Wilson managed to place you right in the middle of the room with the band, and the only word to describe it is "transcendent."

This has, of course, managed to rekindle my love for the King Crimson way of doing things (this is a reference to something Fripp once said: to paraphrase, "King Crimson is not so much a band, as it is a way of doing things").

King Crimson has had countless lineups, and relative stability was only achieved once the 80s incarnation began. In fact, every member of the original lineup besides Fripp had departed by the time the second album was recorded. Fripp has been the only constant (though Adrian Belew has been in every lineup since the 80s incarnation).

I first heard King Crimson at their concert in 2001. Yes, I went to their concert without having heard them. This is because my friend was a Led Zeppelin fanatic, and John Paul Jones was the opening act. I had heard nothing but good things about The Crimso, and was not disappointed. I still remember the concert fairly well (it was just the second concert I ever went to). I actually have a recording of it somewhere in my closet. The lineup was Fripp, Belew, Trey Gunn (on Warr guitar), and Pat Mastelotto (drums). I believe they opened with "Dangerous Curves." They played several tracks which would in time become favorites... "Dinosaur." "Frame By Frame." "Into The Frying Pan." "Three of a Perfect Pair." "Thela Hun Ginjeet." "Elephant Talk." It was a great show. I don't recall any pre-Belew material being performed, but I liked it.

King Crimson might be the most unique and eclectic band ever to achieve mainstream success. Audiences were just more open to that sort of the thing in the 70s; I don't think anything they did would fly nowadays.

With all of that said, I would like to use this as a venue in which to rank all of King Crimson's albums. This is always a difficult task when you have a band with several great albums.

Lizard (1970)
Lizard was King Crimson's third album, and their second in 1970.  Only Fripp remained from the recording of Poseidon (though a couple session musicians from those sessions joined as full time band members for Lizard).  In a way, the band that recorded Lizard did not exist prior to this, and it would cease to exist afterwards when everybody but Fripp and Collins subsequently quit.  Lizard has the most jazz influence of any Crimson album, and might also be the most bizarre.  The front side has four normal-length songs, all of which are weird.  My favorite is "Happy Family," a strange, coded song about the dissolution of The Beatles.  The entire back side is a 20+ minute epic divided into four movements (one of which is further divided into three sections), and featuring my favorite english horn solo ever.  Lizard is an album you either hate or can't live without.

Islands (1971)
This is one I would've had a lot lower before hearing the surround sound version.  Islands is King Crimson's most mellow album, and most delicate.  Boz Burrell had taken over lead vocal and bass duties, and again, we have a new lineup that would never record another album.  The highlight here is the second track, Sailor's Tale, which builds persistently throughout the song.  Due to its soft nature, Islands is probably not for everyone, but along with Lizard, it is one of King Crimson's most distinct albums.

Red (1974)
For awhile, Red was my favorite King Crimson album.  It is one of their most focused, and heaviest, of any era.  For this album, King Crimson had been reduced to a trio of just Fripp, John Whetton, and Bill Bruford.  It is the first album to feature almost no acoustic guitar, and only "Providence" is improvised (and it is one of their best improvised tracks).  "One More Red Nightmare" and the instrumental "Red" are two of the loudest tracks they've done.  I will say, however, that of the five albums that have been remixed in 5.1, this is the one that benefits least (although the DVD does come with a cool half hour 70s video of a radio show the band did).

In The Court of the Crimson King (1969)
This is King Crimson's first, and possibly most popular, album.  The four composed tracks, "21st Century Schizoid Man," "Epitaph," "I Talk to the Wind," and the title track, are all excellent.  What brings the album down for me is "Moonchild," most of which is a free-form improvisation that really falls apart before too long. It really is a chore to listen to.

Thrak (1994)
Thrak was the first album in KC's third major incarnation.  This was the era of the "double trio", with Belew and Fripp on guitar, Trey Gunn and Tony Levin on bass, and Mastelotto and Bill Bruford on drums.  This lineup would prove too much to handle, but they did create one heck of an album, before "fraKctalizing" into several improvisational subgroups, and then being pared down a bit.  Thrak has what I consider to be King Crimson's best "normal" songs ("Dinosaur," "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream," "One Time," "People," and "Walking On Air"). Some of these are catchy, and some of them have awesome bass grooves.

Starless and Bible Black (1974)
Starless and Bible Black was the second to last album of the 70s incarnation, and most of it was recorded live.  It has some great songs in "The Great Deceiver," "Lament," and "The Night Watch," and one of Fripp's most impressive guitar parts (the one he said was his most difficult to play) in "Fractured."

Discipline (1981)
Discipline was the first album after a six year hiatus, and the first with Adrian Belew as lead singer.  This new King Crimson fully incorporated the 80s new wave style.  In general, I'm not a huge fan of 80s King Crimson, but it's hard not to appreciate an album with "Elephant Talk," "Frame By Frame," and "Thela Hun Ginjeet."  Definitely my favorite 80s King Crimson.

In The Wake of Poseidon (1970)
This was King Crimson's second album, and at this time, the band still consisted of most of the original members.  It is stylistically similar to its predecessor; as such, it doesn't really stand out amongst the rest of the King Crimson albums.  The music is quality, though.

The Power To Believe (2003)
The Power To Believe is, as of right now, King Crimson's most recent album.  A few of the songs were found on the Level 5 Tour CD ("Dangerous Curves" and "Level Five") and Happy With What You Have To Be Happy With EP ("Happy..." and "Eyes Wide Open").  That just leaves "The Facts of Life" and some instrumental tracks as the only real new material here.  The album is solid, and flows well.

The ConstruKction of Light (2000)
TCoL is an album that should be better.  All of the songs are good, and the instrumentals ("FraKctured" and "Larks' Tongues in Aspic IV") are excellent.  However, the sounds seems a little muddy, and the album comes across a little flat.  The version of the title track found on Level Five is superior to the one here.

Beat (1982)
Beat was inspired by the beat poetry movement.  I haven't gotten deep enough into the lyrics to really appreciate that fact, but needless to say, this is another 80s album, and like Discipline, it has that 80s feel.  Still, there are some good songs.  "Neal and Jack and Me" is good, "Heartbeat" is one of their more popular songs from the era, and "Neurotica" is nice and frenzied.  "Requiem" is a nice, long jam that works pretty well for me.  It's a solid album, but the 80s was, for me, the worst era.

Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)
The last of the 80s albums, TPP is probably my least favorite of the era.  The title track is top notch, "Man With An Open Heart" is one of my favorite 80s KC songs, and "Industry" is an interesting, and quite original, instrumental.  Out of the 80s albums, this is, however, the one I get least excited about.

Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)
This is where I get controversial.  Most people like Larks' Tongues in Aspic, it was one of King Crimson's most successful albums, and many people consider it their favorite.  I actually find this one difficult to digest.  The thirteen-and-a-half minute opening track, "Larks' Tongues in Aspic Pt. I," seems to completely lack direction.  It has the feel of a loosely improvised studio jam (though it may have been composed).  I like a good jam, but this one just doesn't do much for me.  The second track, "Book of Saturdays," is a nice little tune, but not special.  The fourth track, "Easy Money," is good, but is more loud than textured.  The last two tracks, both instrumental, are both pretty good.  "Exiles," the third track, is really the only track here that I consider spectacular; this one would have to be included among King Crimson's best.  When I'm actually listening to Larks' Tongues, I almost always enjoy it, but I rarely get the urge to listen to it instead of one of the other 70s albums.

Really, all of these albums are good, and about half of them are spectacular.  King Crimson is one of the most creative and interesting rock bands ever to achieve mainstream success, and that is best exemplified by their body of work in the 1970s.  The 80s, 90s, and 00s still gave us quality King Crimson, but it wasn't the same band, and it wasn't as special.  Whether you are totally unfamiliar with their brand of progressive rock, or you are an ardent fan, these albums will always provide you with new discoveries.

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Release: Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open

Release Date: May 10, 2011
Label: Nonesuch

Here's a little preview into the future... It is May 9th, and I am listening to an album which does not come out until May 10th.  It's not time travel; for some reason, MOG already has it available to stream.

I decided I wanted to listen to this for a few reasons:

(a) I have a man crush on Chris Thile.  From Nickel Creek, to Punch Brothers, to his more traditional solo work, everything this guy is involved in is good.  Thile is known for his prowess on the mandolin, and his kinda-like-Thom-Yorke-but-less-harsh voice, but his most appealing attribute in my mind is his creativity (and his proclivity for performing bluegrass covers of Radiohead songs is pretty cool, too).  Punch Brothers is one of the most exciting bands around today.

(b) Chris Thile and Michael Daves have a Friday morning time slot on the main stage at Telluride next month.  I figure I ought to familiarize myself with their material, in order to make the show more enjoyable.

(c) I downloaded the free mp3 they offered a few weeks back of their rendition of "My Little Girl in Tennessee," and I quite liked it.

Before I heard the "Little Girl" mp3, I thought this would be a traditional bluegrass band, with a guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo, and maybe a fiddle.  Presumably, Thile and Daves would be the creative force, and hire studio musicians to play the other parts.  I noticed right away that the song is a true duet: it is no more than Thile on mandolin, Daves on guitar, and both singing harmony.  This immediately made the project a little more interesting to me.

A few songs in, I realized that, while this is stylistically similar to traditional bluegrass, there are a few elements that make this somewhat more interesting than your local bluegrass band.  First of all, the arrangements can be very chaotic.  I am more than a little impressed with Daves' guitar playing, and as much as I like Thile, I think the guitar work is what makes this work.  A few songs in, the playing reaches such a blistering pace that you think there's no way they'll be able to hold it together, but amazingly, they do.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have slow, peaceful songs like "Bury Me Beneath The Willow," with relatively sparse, and more disciplined, instrumentation.  Amazingly, at both ends of the spectrum, it doesn't feel like the instrumentation is lacking; the guitar and mandolin do a more than adequate job at creating a sound that is both melodic and percussive.

It should be noted that everything here is essentially a cover; several of the songs are traditional, and several more are originally written by Flatt, Scruggs, and Monroe, among others.  There are no originals; none of Thile's interesting prog-grass inventions.  Just two very talented musicians offering their own interpretations of old bluegrass and traditional standards.  It could be said that this allows them to focus more on the technical aspects of the music, and less on formulating lyrics and melodies.

Rabbit in the Log from Chris Thile & Michael Daves on Vimeo.

An album like this needs to be placed in its proper context to be really appreciated.  This album is not breaking any new ground; it's not a display of songwriting genius; it's virtually impossible to bond with this album on any emotional level.  Where this succeeds is as an exhibition of extraordinary guitar and mandolin technique, and perfectly matched vocal harmonies; and in that light, it is a lot of fun.  There is not a bad cut here (although 16 tracks may be a few too many).  I don't feel that, without it, my collection is lacking something, but I sure as heck enjoy listening to it.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Visit to Bookmans

I like to visit new purveyors of vinyl records.  I've already perused the selections at StinkweedsHoodlumsZia, and Rockzone.  Today I decided check out Bookmans in Mesa.

Cool store.  Lots of books, an electronics section, games and puzzles, CDs, and, of course, vinyl records.  I found their selection to be OK, with a few things I haven't seen elsewhere.  The condition of the records seems to be pretty good in general.  They did tend to be a little on the expensive side, with most of the used records going for $4-$6 (rather than the $3 most records sell for at Hoodlums and Zia).

The first record I picked out was King Crimson's Beat.  This is the second album by the band's 80s lineup, and the only King Crimson album I have never owned in some form or other (I have owned some King Crimson albums in multiple forms).  It was selling for $6, but I went for it anyhow.

Next, I looked for Neil Young records, as I am wont to do whenever I visit a record store.  They had Re-Ac-Tor and Comes A Time, both for $6.  I initially picked up both, but decided to show some discipline, and kept only Comes A Time.

I proceeded to look for Creedence Clearwater Revival records, but all they had was the John Fogerty album Centerfield for $4.  I picked it up.

Next, I found Robert Plant's Pictures At Eleven.  I see this album at every single record store I ever visit, and usually multiple copies.  I bought it anyways.  We'll see if there's a reason everybody is apparently trying to get rid of theirs.

Finally, I decided to see if they had a copy of Paul Simon's Graceland.  They did.

For these five records, I paid $24 plus tax, which is a little more than I might pay at Hoodlums, but still reasonable.

I suspect I'll be paying more visits to Bookmans.  Especially considering how many Willie Nelson albums they had.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On The Loudness War

I have my music player on shuffle, and the song "My Companjera" by Gogol Bordello came on.  I like this song, and many of the other songs on that album, but I have to turn down my player two notches (the same applies to my car).  This is only noticeable, or course, when it's in a mix of other songs.

I hate this.

I'm sure you already know about dynamic range compression.  This is when during mixing, they dampen the sound waves with large amplitude, and then increase the volume of all the waves.  This has the effect of making the entire song sound louder, at the expense of the aural fidelity of the music.

When I turn the volume down on "My Companjera," it sounds roughly the same volume as the other songs I'm listening to.  However, those other songs still have more "space" left at the loud end of the range, so they have the opportunity to surprise me with, say, a relatively louder guitar part.

In some extreme cases, such as Metallica's Death Magnetic album (which is the poster child of the loudness war), the producer made it so loud that the sound waves exceeded the dynamic range of the medium, resulting in clipping (which sounds like distortion).  Interestingly, Death Magnetic and Gogol Bordello's Transcontinental Hustle were both produced by Rick Rubin, which is not a coincidence.

I am no audiophile, but even I can appreciate the value of leaving the dynamic range intact.  One of my favorite musicians, Steven Wilson, produced his own Porcupine Tree albums, as well as the excellent 2009 remasters of the early King Crimson albums.  All of these albums sound quieter than most other albums in my collection, and I typically even turn the volume up a couple notches.  The extra dynamics add a whole other dimension to these albums.

And finally, a note on format.  A friend was asking me the other day if vinyl really does sound better than CDs.  I responded with a very long-winded and overly technical way of saying "it depends," as a lot depends on your speakers, your record player, your cartridge, your stylus, etc.  However, there is one advantage inherent to vinyl (which I didn't consider at the time of that conversation), which is an actual limitation to the most common digital formats: vinyl has no limitation on dynamic range at the lower end.  If the bumps within the grooves are smaller, the volume is lower.  That's all there is to it.  (There is a limitation at the upper end, as bumps too large can cause the needle to jump out of the groove, though this could be abated somewhat by altering the setup.)

Case in point: While listening to The Flaming Lips' Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, I was simultaneously recording it into a .wav file.  I believe it was the track "Plastic Jesus" where I could clearly hear soft vocals coming out of my stereo; when I played it back on the computer, however, I could not hear much of anything, and my mp3s of this track are nothing more than a few incoherent noises barely audible over the background static from the headphones.  It is, of course, possible for me to amplify the audio input as it is recorded, but this is tantamount to reducing the dynamic range.

This is what makes it such a pleasure to listen to my Carl Orff Carmina Burana vinyl.  The loud parts are loud, and even thunderous, and the quiet parts are soft and serene.  If I transferred this recording to a digital format, I'm not sure I'd even be able to hear half of it.

To summarize, I love dynamics.  I don't remember if someone else said this, or if I made it up by myself, but good music is defined not by the noise, but by the silence.  I can't wait for the loudness war to end.