Monthly Archives: December 2013

DEFENDING AXL ROSE: Part 2 “Shackler’s Revenge”

Welcome to part two of a fourteen part series in which I go track-by-track through CHINESE DEMOCRACY. It’s been over two years since I did the first installment on the first song…but I’m back defending Axl Rose!

I’d heard several songs off CHINESE DEMOCRACY prior to the album’s official November 2008 release, but “Shackler’s Revenge” was the first officially-Axl-sanctioned track I heard. The song was previewed in the Harmonix rhythm game Rock Band 2, which came out a month before CHINESE DEMOCRACY was released. I remember playing the game for hours the day it came out trying to unlock the song. When I finally got a chance to play “Shackler’s Revenge” I was pretty disappointed. Unlike the rough leaked tracks I’d heard, “Shackler’s Revenge” had a gritty industrial feel. I was also taken aback by the song’s production, which was busier than most hard rock songs. This negative reaction was repeated when I bought the album a month later.

For the record: not my score, not my Xbox ID, and not screen cap.

For the record: not my score, not my Xbox ID, and not screen cap.

Five years and many listens later, I like “Shackler’s Revenge” much more than I did when I first heard it in Rock Band. That said, this track is probably the most over-stuffed/produced track on the album. Everything about “Shackler’s Revenge” is big. The song has the most credited writers of any song on the album (five in case you were wondering). The song has multiple guitar solos and multiple guitarists. And despite this largeness, the song is the second shortest track on the record, clocking in at three and a half-minutes in length.

The track is an epic, aggressive romp through burning fields of an apocalyptic hard rock landscape. The song might not have struck me as very Guns N’ Roses-like the first time I heard it, but “Shackler’s Revenge” actually has all the main ingredients of a great GNR song. The song features lead and backing vocals from Axl, where are layered on multiple tracks creating a creepy Axl-choir. “Shackler’s Revenge” is angry and defiant with an absolute killer chorus that seems to wag a finger at all of Axl’s doubters.

GNR’s songs are also known for their guitar and “Shackler’s Revenge” does not disappoint on this end. The song features interesting guitar work from the avant-garde guitarist Buckethead and the band’s other guitarist Bumblefoot. I’m not 100% sure which one of these guitarists did the solos, but they’re fantastically explosive. I also really like the dying Galaga machine-like quality of the guitar tone.

The song’s dark, apocalyptic nature recalls the band’s previous “Oh My God.” That track, which came out on the END OF DAYS soundtrack in 1999, almost seems like a proto-“Shackler’s Revenge.” Axl has publically stated that “Oh My God” was released unfinished due to time constraints relating to the release of the film End of Days. A comparison of the two tracks is a fascinating: both have an aggressive, industrial metal feel but whereas “Oh My God” seems to be an endless gushing rant, “Shackler’s Revenge” has a methodical, demonic groove. The more refined “Shackler’s Revenge” is a testament to Axl’s tireless perfectionism. I’m not a big fan of sub-genre that the song mines, but the song has grown on me over the years. That said, releasing “Shackler’s Revenge” as the album’s first single was probably a mistake. From a business perspective, it makes sense to release the shorter more dynamic track but for my money the album’s third track “Better” would have made a better single (pun intended.

But I’ll write more about that when in the next installment of my track-by-track review of CHINESE DEMOCRACY.

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Amazing Soul Rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Changes”

Soul-singer Charles Bradley made a big splash a few years ago with his album NO TIME FOR DREAMING.  You might recall that album got a lot of attention due in part to two really interesting covers. One was a version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and the other was a fantastic rendition of Nirvana’s “Stay Away.”

Well Bradley is back and so are his oddball covers! This time he chose Black Sabbath’s “Changes.”  I’d love this guy for nothing else but his song choices were it not for the fact that every single time he does one of these covers he knocks it right out of the park.  His version of “Changes” is amazing.  I’m not even sure it’s fair to call his version a cover because he damn near makes the song his.  Charles Bradley’s latest album VICTIM OF LOVE came out and I sorely need hear it, even though this song isn’t on it.  Apparently his version of “Changes” was a Record Store Day exclusive single.  Either way, more attention needs to be given to this guy, he’s great.

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Black Vendetta vs. Online Music Critics

As part of the Defending Axl Rose 2.0 initiative I’ve taken to social media to increase my site hits.   Facebook has successfully monetized itself in regards to brand promotion and no longer offers much in the way of free promotion for us little guys.  I decided to start using Twitter and Reddit to get the message out about my posts, and for the most part it’s been successful.  I find that Twitter is cool because you often have a chance to actually connect with bands/artists.  There’s a gent I’ve started following calling himself Review Rhino who tweet 140 character reviews of songs that bands send him.  Recently he managed to ruffle the feathers of a struggling band calling themselves Black Vendetta.  They’ve had a back-and-forth exchange that I got in the middle of quite by accident.

Here is Review Rhino’s review of the band’s song “Tennis Girl”:

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Now, that might seem like a harsh review, but there are a couple of factors one needs to take into account.  Firstly, Review Rhino has 140 characters by which to mention the track name, the band, a brief review, and then give a numerical score.  There’s no pussyfooting around because there’s no space for Review Rhino to gently say “I don’t like your song.”  The second thing that you must consider is that Review Rhino does not seek out songs to review, instead bands willingly send their songs in for review.  As you can imagine, Black Vendetta weren’t thrilled by the review, but the band really got upset when Review Rhino tweeted his “best” and “worst” tracks of the month:

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Now, even though I don’t want to side with someone complaining about a bad review, I can see Black Vendetta’s point.  I struggle to keep it positive here at Defending Axl Rose, and tend to shy away from things like “worst of” lists because it’s easier to just be positive.  That said, I can see Review Rhino’s point of view, too.  The market is saturated with a lot of mediocre, delusional people making a god-awful ruckus.  For the record this is how I got involved:

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There’s a lot more after that, Black Vendetta goes on and on about how unfair it is to pick on unsigned bands.  He/she/they also take time to point out that they have a degree in journalism…it’s really very unfortunate.  This is the part of being a critic that’s a frankly a little scary to me.  I’ve been getting lots of requests to review things lately, and some of what people want me to review/write about isn’t very good.  Unlike Review Rhino, I don’t have the stones to play Simon Cowell and crush someone’s dreams.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem telling you that the latest Megadeath album is an utter piece of garbage.  Or that I have desperately tried and failed to listen to all of Black Sabbath’s latest album 13 more than thirteen times.  I’m just not sure I could tell that to an unsigned indie like Black Vendetta.

However, as the saying goes: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  This Twitter thread got me interested in Black Vendetta’s song “Tennis Girl.”  So I fired up Spotify to see if the band was streamable, and sure enough they were! So I listened to “Tennis Girl,” and so can you! I’d like to give the band a chance and put it to a Highly-Unscientific Rock Poll: Does “Tennis Girl” by Black Vendetta suck or not?

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Happy Birthday Keith Richards!

Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday.  It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die.  Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive.  There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.

Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.”  That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics.  It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none.  What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs.  Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album.  This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr.  But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.

Keith is 70 and doesn't look a day over 700.

Keith is 70 and doesn’t look a day over 700.

Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice?  No.  But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks.  When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice.  Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation.  Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity.  I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.

To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs.  These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart.  Here’s to 70 great years!

My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs

1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS.  First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff.  The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts.  At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time.  So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.”  It’s a badass song.

2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET.  This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live.  It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason.  Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes.  This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.

3.  “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER.  This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song.  The song’s a slow burn with a  great groove.  This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.

4.  “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED.  Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist.  In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest.  I still get chills when I hear it to this day.

5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP.  A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep.  Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.

6.  “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU.  People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it.  Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.

7.  “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP.  Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song.  Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.

8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS.  A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar.  Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling.  I think it’s the world-weary voice.  Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.

9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow.  Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.

10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG.  The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals.  It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song.  The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.

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Classic Albums Revisited: GORILLAZ

The brainchild of Brit-pop wunderkind Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz appeared to be a side-project wrapped in a marketing gimmick.  A fake band of anime monkey-kids, are you joking? I distinctly remember thinking Gorillaz was all flash and no substance when the band’s music video for “Clint Eastwood” was all over MTV.  Eventually I sat down and listened to GORILLAZ and to my surprise, the music was stranger than I’d been lead to believe from that first single.  The songs skewed heavily towards electronica and hip-hop, two genres I wasn’t particularly fond of at the time.  I gave up on the album after only one listen and didn’t return to it again until after the band’s second album came out.  I think my biggest gripe with the record was a matter of expectation.  I’d been sold an album by the dude from Blur…but GORILLAZ turned out to be far removed from the classic Brit-pop mold.

Since that first listen I’ve decided that the album’s fusion of genres, the thing that initially turned me off, is ultimately what makes GORILLAZ such a monumental masterwork.  In addition, the first Gorillaz album was my gateway to hip-hop/rap: this album literally expanded my horizons.

Gorillaz Album Art

While the fake band aspect of Gorillaz might seem like just a ploy, I think it’s an integral part of how GORILLAZ  ended up being so special.   Free from the shackles of Blur, Albarn’s little side-project was a ticket to artistic freedom.  Surrounded by a small army of producers, musicians, and rappers, Albarn  felt more comfortable operating in a skin that wasn’t his own.  The goofy cartoon facade allowed him to let his freak flag fly.  It also expanded the very definition of who “the band” was, allowing for more people to participate in the recording of the album than a typical four piece band.  GORILLAZ opens with “Re-Hash,” a song that sends up the notion of pursuing fame and money.  I find it no coincidence that of all the songs on the album, “Re-Hash” is the one that sounds the most like Blur.    From the beginning of the album, Albarn is casting aside his former artistic identity.  After this opening the album descends into Trip-Hop, a fusion of hip-hop and electronica.

The mournful “Tomorrow Comes Today” reflects the loneliness and frustration of being constantly in the public eye, as well as dissatisfaction with the digital age.  Like “Re-Hash,” this song is seems to be a commentary on Albarn’s time in Blur.  Next, the solemn “New Genius (Brother)” fuses a mixture of soul and hip-hop with an ethereal production.  The mysteriously misanthropic lyrics add to the song’s creepy feeling.   Listening to “New Genius” is like taking a slow boat ride with a quiet, angry ghost.  This ghostly quality is carried over into the next song, the single “Clint Eastwood.”

“Clint Eastwood” works as a great single because the band was able to distill the band’s cross-cultural fusion into a tasty pop treat.  With Albarn’s indie-rock hook and Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s rapping how could the song not have been a massive hit? Add a visually striking music video and you have the makings of a monster.  When the video premiered I remember having great difficulty going more than a few hours without seeing it on TV.  And while not as daring or genre bending as some of GORILLAZ’s other tracks, “Clint Eastwood” gently lowers your defenses while at the same time serving as fair warning for what the rest of the album would contain.

“Man Research (Clapper)” comes next, and for me this is where the album truly starts to get interesting.   This droning dance track is lyrically very dark (“to kill the model from my front door”) but features an upbeat tempo and a screeching “yeah!” refrain that belies the song’s violent purpose.  The quick, but effective “Punk” follows, blasting the listener out of the techno trance of “Man Research (Clapper”)”.  A surprisingly straightforward punk song, “Punk” adds yet another genre to an already complex album.

Once again the album quickly changes gears:  “Sound Check (Gravity)” opens with Albarn softly lamenting gravity before descending into a cold, electronica groove of looping samples and record scratches.  The effect is disarming, especially when Albarn sings with himself near the end of song—his depressed lower register doing a duet with his falsetto.  The song ends and GORILLAZ offers up “Double Bass,” the album’s only instrumental.  Like the title suggests, the song is a spacey, bass heavy little ditty.  And while it’s the closest thing to filler on the album, this song is also one of my favorite tracks.  In fact, I wish that there were more short instrumental interludes like “Double Bass” on GORILLAZ.

“Double Bass” makes a great transition into “Rock The House,”  the second rap-heavy track that features Del tha Funkee Homosapien.  The repeated horn loop, taken from a jazz song called “Modesty Blaise,” and the carefree lyrics make “Rock The House” the first truly fun song on the album.  This lightness remains for several more tracks, such as the dubbed out “19-2000″ and the Spanish(?) “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).”  The second single off the album, “19-2000” is notable for featuring Japanese singer/guitarist Miho Hatori.  Her presences adds yet another cultural touch to an already global album.

GORILLAZ then begins to descend back into darkness, first with the moody “Starshine” and then with the up-beat sounding but depressing “Slow Country.”  The album then goes full-on dark with the aggressive “M1 A1,” a punky companion to the earlier “Punk.”   It is here that album officially ends, however different regions got different bonus tracks tacked onto the end.  The U.S. version of the album continues with the reggae/ska-tinged “Dracula” which full of both funk and gloom.  The album then wraps up with the East-meets-West mash-up “Left Hand Suzuki Method.” The song’s title, a reference to a famous Japanese method of Violin instruction, echoes the philosophy of GORILLAZ: taking the usual manner of making music and doing it just a little different.  The album’s emotional shape, a parabola of dark to light and back again to dark, gives the album more concept than many so-called concept albums.

What could have been a goofy one-off ended up being the most artistic album of Albarn’s career.  Gorillaz liquid line-up allowed the band to grow and morph several times over on both the album and on subsequent records.  Always keen on staying one step ahead of mass-market appeal, Albarn’s first Gorillaz  record succeeded in being edgy, diverse, and fun.  The album is weird without being weird for the sake of being weird, something that future Gorillaz records would wind up becoming.  I think the level of innovation and artistic daring on display on the album is somewhat lost to history.  Compare GORILLAZ to the top two best selling albums of 2001, HYBRID THEORY by Linkin Park or HOT SHOT by Shaggy, and suddenly the fearless daring of Albarn’s album becomes apparent.

The legacy of GORILLAZ is a world in which genres such as rap, rock, and world music flourish and feed off each other’s creativity in the mainstream.  I’m not suggesting that GORILLAZ was the first time all of these styles commingled, but I do think it was the first successful commercial and artistic fusion of so many different styles and cultures.   And while the lines of genre weren’t forever torn asunder, they were moved to brilliant effect.

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WORLD PSYCHEDELIC CLASSICS #5: WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR?

One of my favorite parts of a new Tarantino film is the soundtrack.  I’m not sure how the legendary director finds time to be an expert on obscure cinema and pop music, but his films always feature interesting songs.  Besides reinventing classic hits of yesterday, Tarantino has an amazing knack for digging up forgotten gems by artists I’ve never heard of.  The Luaka Bop label does something similar, releasing a staggering assortment of amazing re-issues from grossly overlooked musicians from across the globe.

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WORLD PSYCHEDELIC CLASSICS #5: WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? is a fantastic record.  Actually scratch that, it’s a mind-blowing record.  It’s the kind of thing that sounds too good to be true: the greatest cuts from a reclusive Nigerian funkmaster, recorded at the height of his power in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.  There’s a whole thrilling behind-the-scenes story behind this re-issue but it’s really too involved to get into here.  If you’re interested I highly suggest you check out this article on the subject at NPR’s website.  The short version is: you’ve never heard of William Onyeabor because he quit the music business to be a crazy religious zealot.

But I’m not as concerned with the man as I am with the music.   I’ll let his God pass judgment on William Onyeabor’s soul; his funk on the other hand, I can pass a fair amount of judgment.  When I first heard WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? I thought it was a brand new album and not a re-issue.  The music sounds like a fresh, contemporary take on classic 1970’s funk.  Onyeabor’s music, while being very much rooted in funk, has a generous helping of psychedelic flourishes.  These psychedelic flourishes, along with a keen sense of innovation, is what sets this music apart from other funk recordings of the period.  The only modern equivalent to Onyeabor’s sound that I can come up with is Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.  Imagine the more playful Flaming Lips tunes covered by Funkadelic and you’re on the right path to reaching Onyeabor’s sound.

The songs are long-form grooves that ebb and flow into glorious Technicolor flourishes.  Onyeabor has a gentle, self-assured voice that helps take the sting out of his strange, droning lyrics.  The best example being on “Atomic Bomb” in which he professes that he’s going to explode like the titular bomb.  The proto-electronica/trance of “Good Name” becomes all the more hypnotic with his “nobody, nobody, nobody” chant.  While Onyeabor’s vocal-styling may not be earth-shakingly innovative, it’s really the only part of his music that isn’t.

I can totally understand how this music was overlooked globally when it was initially released—Onyeabor was clearly ahead of his time.  Check out the opening of “Let’s Fall In Love,” sure it’s rooted in late 1970’s disco but there’s a cold, computer-like quality clearly predicts the coming rise of techno music.  The layers of synthesizer and saxophone meld into something strange and beautiful.  It staggers my mind this guy was making music like this in the year 1983.  The level of sophistication on display all over WHO IS WILLIAM ONYEABOR? makes one wonder what would have happened had Onyeabor continued to make music? There nine tracks, taken from eight albums, paint a fascinating what-if? scenario.

Definitely take a moment to listen to “Let’s Fall In Love” and “Atomic Bomb.”  Let the songs wash over you, and keep in mind that these songs, as fresh as they sound are over 30 years old.

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Dancing Days Are Here Again: Led Zeppelin Now on Spotify

This week one of the biggest bands in rock history was added to Spotify.  Yes, friends Led Zeppelin is available to stream!  I worry that I talk about Spotify a bit too much, but it’s been a godsend for me.  The ability to stream a wide swath of popular music has allowed me to dig deeper than I would if I had to go out and buy CD’s.  I never was a fan of illegally downloading music, though I did dabble with that in the past.

Spotify may not pay artists the way traditional album sales would, but I’d argue that the exposure the service gives band is worth it’s weight in gold.  I may have slowed down my consumption of records, but more importantly I’m a fan of more artists, from more genres than ever before.

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Led Zeppelin being on Spotify makes me happy for two reasons.  Firstly, I just moved and all my CD’s are packed away in boxes.  Meaning I’ve been living a horrible Zep-free life. Now I can hop on my computer, or smartphone, and instantly be in Led Zeppelin nirvana. Secondly, having the band’s entire catalogue available at my fingertips will finally allow me to explore the band’s last two albums.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never heard 1976’s PRESENCE or 1979’s swan song (pun intended) IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR.  Sure, I’ve heard a few cuts of each album on the radio, but I’ve never heard them all the way through.  It’s basically like I’ve got new Led Zeppelin to listen to!

A few years back, my local Best Buy had a mega-sale on Led Zeppelin albums and I snapped up everything up to PHYSICAL GRAFFITI.  Why did I stop there?  Well, even though the CD’s were dirt cheap, Mrs. Defending Axl Rose isn’t the biggest fan of my expansive CD collection…so I stopped where everyone said the band stopped being good. But as I sit here, typing this listening to IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR, I can assuredly tell you that Led Zeppelin were good all the way to the bitter end.  Would I have had this epiphany without a streaming music service in my life?  Probably, though it would have taken me years to work my way back to Zeppelin.   If you’ve never fully explored the Led Zeppelin catalogue or if you’re an old-fan like me who haven’t listened to them in years, take some time and explore the band on Spotify.

My Top 10 Led Zeppelin Tracks (1969-1975)

1.  “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” off LED ZEPPELIN III.  This is my all-time favorite Zeppelin song.  I love the homespun feel of this song, it’s like a campfire song…Led Zeppelin-style.

2. “Living Loving Maid [She’s Just  A Woman]” off LED ZEPPELIN II.  Repeat after me: love the riff.  Killer, killer riff.

3. “The Ocean” off HOUSES OF THE HOLY.  Have Robert Plant’s super-high vocals ever been higher?  Every time I go to a concert and look back on the swell of faces I think of Plant singing to his “ocean.”

4.  “Going To California” off LED ZEPPELIN IV.  The entire fourth LED ZEPPELIN album is amazing (everyone knows that) but if I had to pick one song that I love the most from that record it would be “Going to California.”  While the rest of the album rages, this song is the quite eye of the hurricane.  The song gets bonus points for being about Joni Mitchell.

5. “Kashmir” off PHYSICAL GRAFFITI.  A wonderfully weird, and powerfully heavy track.  It’s a shame that most kids know it as “that Puff Daddy song.”  *Shudder*

6.  “Communication Breakdown” off LED ZEPPELIN.   The first Led Zeppelin album is more blues-oriented than most people discovering the band after that fact might expect. But while Zeppelin might have pioneered hard rock/heavy metal, they really were just bluesmen.  “Communication Breakdown” is a wonderful fusion of blues and hard rock the band would later use to dominate the world.

7.  “Immigrant Song” off LED ZEPPELIN III.  Elves and hobbits are nice, but it’s when Zeppelin sing about Vikings that my heart soars.  Truly this song is the hammer of the gods.  

8. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” B-Side to “Immigrant Song.”  This is probably the least-known song on this list (and not currently available on Spotify) but man, do I love it.

9.  “D’yer Mak’er” off HOUSES OF THE HOLY.  Funky.  This song is funky.  It also features a great vocal performance from Page.  Took me many years to learn that this song pokes fun of the way British people say “Jamaica.”  Which of course explains the reggae-ish vibe the song has.

10.   “Moby Dick” off LED ZEPPELIN II.  Come to Led Zeppelin for the killer Jimmy Page riffs and the stellar Robert Plant vocals…stay for John Bonham’s drumming.  Why on Earth don’t more drummers try to sound like Bonham?  He’s the greatest rock drummer of all time.  Period.  The song starts with some fun guitar licks and then devolves into an extended drum solo.  The genesis of the tune is that it began as something used during the live shows to give the rest of the band a break.  “Moby Dick” on record is over 4 minutes long, but Bonham would sometimes play a ten minute version live.

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FLOATING OUT TO SEE By Gringo Star

Atlanta-based rockers Gringo Star returned this year with their third album FLOATING OUT TO SEE.  The band endured a couple of serious changes since their last album, COUNT YER LUCKY STARS came out in 2011.  For starters, the band lost one member/songwriter.  Then the band decided to forgo the usual studio/label process and instead record and distribute FLOATING OUT TO SEE for themselves.  So much change was bound to be reflected in the band’s new music.  That said, FLOATING OUT TO SEE marks a dramatic change for the band.

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Perhaps change is the wrong word, call it instead an evolution. FLOATING OUT TO SEE takes the psychedelic elements found on COUNT YER LUCKY STARS and increases them greatly.  Gringo Star continues to be influenced by the British-invasion era rock bands, but sonically the band is more spacey and expansive on FLOATING OUT TO SEE.  Though Gringo Star still reminds me of The Kinks, on FLOATING OUT TO SEE its as though The Kinks are playing 20,000 leagues under the sea.  The production has a murky, dreamlike quality that married with the sometimes-surreal lyrics make FLOATING OUT TO SEE a wacked-out beach party.

From the chirpy evanescence of “Find A Love” to the gloomy “100 Miles,” FLOATING OUT TO SEE covers a lot of sonic ground in a very short amount of time.  The album’s concentrated quality does mean that it takes a few listens before the album gives up all its hooky-secrets.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that FLOATING OUT TO SEE lacks the immediacy of its predecessor.  Tracks that do immediately stand out, however, are “Peephole” and “Going Way Out.”  The former feels like a classic Ray Davies track with its jangled tale of neighborhood paranoia.  Likewise, “Going Way Out” recalls the dreamy popscape of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream,” it’s a fantastic song that sounds even better in the dark with headphones.  In fact, I’d encourage you to listen to the album at least once with headphones.

The album overall has a very chill vibe.  But that’s not to say that FLOATING OUT TO SEE is totally laid back and tranquil.  The garage rocker “Taller” gallops and the edgier “Look For More” has a thumping, brash Tame Impala-like quality that I really dig.   Really the complaint one could lob against Gringo Star is that for an album with 13 tracks, it runs a tad short at just over 35 minutes.  Sometimes less is more, but I’d really have liked for FLOATING OUT SEE to last just a little longer.

Change can be a scary thing, but Gringo Star has weathered it nicely.  On FLOATING OUT TO SEE they’ve crafted a solid album during a period of what could only have been chaotic and uncertain.  Hopefully the band will continue to grow and get us another batch of exciting material sooner, rather than later.

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New Jellyfish Live Album Released Today

All I want for Christmas this year is Omnivore Record’s Jellyfish live album RADIO JELLYFISH.  Jellyfish were a super-talented, super-overlooked power-pop band from the mid-1990’s.  The band has built up a massive cult following over the years, which isn’t a surprise once you give a listen to either BELLYBUTTON or SPILT MILK.

Someone please buy this for me!

Someone please buy this for me!

Omnivore Records has been slowly giving us what we’ve all wanted: new Jellyfish releases.  They released both of the band’s albums sans-vocals earlier in the year…but this live record is on a whole other level.  RADIO JELLYFISH contains ten acoustic live tracks recorded in 1993 during the band’s SPILT MILK tour.  Of the album’s ten tracks, only one has been previously released. This is not the first Jellyfish live album, that would be LIVE AT BOGARTS which was recently released, but RADIO JELLYFISH being 100% acoustic really intrigues me.

If you’re a fan, check out the label’s trailer for the record and then run over to Omnivore’s website and order your copy.  I guarantee that this thing will sell-out quickly.

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ROCK ‘N READ: THE WRECKING CREW

Kent Hartman’s book The Wrecking Crew is one of those books I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a long time.  Well, I finally got off my duff and read it, and I’m glad I did.  The book is about the dirty little secret of 1960’s music industry wherein a group of ultra-talent studio musicians secretly played on a great majority of rock ‘n roll records.  This group, known as The Wrecking Crew, was not credited on the liner notes of the records they played. Thus, the public was none the wiser that it wasn’t their favorite band playing on their records.

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The Monkees are a well-known example of a band that used The Wrecking Crew.  People perhaps unfairly give The Monkees a hard time because they weren’t playing their own instruments.  Well it turns out, there was a lot of that going around in the 1960’s.   Bands you might not expect, like The Byrds, used The Wrecking Crew.  Record labels had two motivations for using The Wrecking Crew over the actual bands, although really both reasons just come down to money.

The first reason a separate band was used due to simple logistics.  Bands out on tour would have to stop touring in order to venture back into the studio and record.  The Wrecking Crew acted as the recording band, while the band the band’s public face remained on the road.  Secondly, The Wrecking Crew, and musicians like them, were used because a majority of rockers couldn’t play their instruments very well.  At the time, record companies looked down on rock music, and didn’t understand it.  They treated rock recordings like they did jazz or classical music and thought the recordings should be perfect.  Hence, The Wrecking Crew was brought in.

Hartman’s book focuses on a handful of Wrecking Crew musicians, chiefly the more famous members like drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell.  I was really surprised to find out that Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a highly respected guitarist prior to hitting it big with his solo career.  I knew he’d essentially joined The Beach Boys touring band, but I had no idea he played on most of the top hits for the 1960’s.  The Wrecking Crew were all over the radio, playing on hits by diverse acts such as The Mamas & The Papas, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

It’s unnerving how the Wrecking Crew, while highly paid, weren’t credited for playing on the records they worked on.  Had I been writing about music at the time (as a fan), I would have foolishly thought The Monkees were playing their own instruments.  As I read the book, I kept waiting for the public to find out and become outraged, but that never happened.  Instead, what ended up happening was that as rock evolved a more authentic, rough sound was prized making the technically superior Wrecking Crew unneeded.   The Beatles also had something to do with the demise of the practice of studio musicians subbing for the actual band.  After the Fab Four hit it big, most bands wanted to write and play your own instruments.

The Wrecking Crew is an interesting read but I found the structure of the book somewhat clumsy. Rather use a straight chronological framework Hartman jumps back and forth through time.  The chapters themselves follow a chronology, but within each one Hartman tends of pick a player and give us his back story, which often gives us information we either already know or will be told again in another chapter.  It’s a little nit-pick, but I guess I would have preferred one chapter where we just got everyone’s backstory out-of-the-way, then moved on with the various recordings.  Also, the Wrecking Crew was a pretty large group of people, but the book really only focuses on a few, which was a little disappointing.  I realize not everyone is going to be as interested in the Wrecking Crew’s trumpet players than say, their drummers, but I would have liked a little more diversity in the band members as the book is mainly about guitarists and drummers.

I found it interesting how collaborative the recording process was as time and again members of the Wrecking Crew wound up actually contributing to the writing of songs as well as playing.  I was really surprised when this happened in the chapter devoted to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album.  I still can’t believe that such talented, famous artists would allow regular working-musicians to tinker with their albums.  But time and again Hartman shows us that The Wrecking Crew were more than just musicians, they were the best hired guns in the business.

The book recounts some really interesting nuggets of rock trivia, and is chock-full of juicy insider tidbits.  Most of the really interesting chapters revolve around producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, two titans of the studio who really used The Wrecking Crew to their full potential.  The Wrecking Crew is brimming with really interesting anecdotes.  Some of my favorite from the book are:

  • Leon Russell getting pulled over in his new Cadillac by the LAPD and being told to get a “real” job (he was making way more than the cop).
  • Phil Spector’s bodyguards using hand signals to let an angry musician know that Phil had a gun in the studio.                                                                    
  • Unsure how to end “Layla” Eric Clapton overheard drummer Jim Gordon noodling on the piano and decided to use the drummer’s mini-composition to close out the song.  Gordon later when nuts and murdered his mom—that’s write, the guy playing piano at the end of “Layla” stabbed his mother to death.

I highly recommend The Wrecking Crew to anyone with even a passing interest in early rock music and the music business of the 1960’s. The book’s a nice, quick read and would make a great gift for any music fan.

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