Tag Archives: John Lennon

Classic Albums Revisited: REVOLVER

REVOLVER, The Beatles seventh studio album, just celebrated an impressive 50th anniversary earlier this month. Last night I sat down with my son and listened to in its entirety for the first time in many years. Growing up, REVOLVER was my very first Beatles album. It was one of two CD’s my parents owned for many years which means this is The Beatles album I am most familiar with. Because it was the first time my son Warren had heard an entire Beatles album, I decided to try my best to listen with new ears, not an easy task for an old Beatle-fan like myself.

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For starters, I was surprised at how clean and modern REVOLVER sounds. Sure, this type of rock music isn’t what’s in vogue today, the album could still have easily been released today. I know that this isn’t a new revelation, and is, in fact, the chief aspect that makes The Beatles and their work still so relevant. But I was still nonetheless impressed with how well REVOLVER holds up. I also noted, maybe for the first time, what a fantastic bridge album REVOLVER is between the early “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” Beatles and the drugged out later period. The band is still trading on their moptop image/sound but there is a clear effort to craft songs that are both sonically diverse and that cover meaningful topics outside of merely wanting to hold a girl’s hand and/or being in love. There are, history tells us, several factors that contributed heavily to this evolution in the band’s sound. The first is, of course, the band’s exposure to Bob Dylan, which began a sea change in the band’s writing on RUBBER SOUL released the year before. Lennon, in particular, was increasingly trying to say more with his music thanks to Dylan’s influence. Drugs, specifically LSD, and the psychedelic counter-culture movement also played a tremendous influence on the band and REVOLVER. Lastly, I’d also say that George Harrison meeting Ravi Shankar, how expanded upon and improved Harrison’s sitar playing during the summer of 1966 also heavily influenced REVOLVER.

REVOLVER might also best be described as Harrison’s coming out party. Though his best Beatles-era songs are arguably on ABBEY ROAD, I would argue that it is REVOLVER where it becomes apparent that Harrison is just as good a songwriter as Lennon-McCartney. It’s worth noting that this is the first (and only) time that a Harrison-penned song opens a Beatles album. And what an interesting choice “Taxman” is when you consider the song’s subject matter. This is the first time The Beatles get political and it’s not about war but rather their pocketbooks! I’m not sure I would be aware of the tax situation in the UK during this period of history were in not for this song and The Rolling Stones eventual decision to be tax exiles during the recording of EXILE ON MAIN ST. Interestingly enough, unlike many protest/political songs of the era, “Taxman” is probably the closest song to remain topical even to listeners today.

Though largely considered to be the pop Beatle, the one with the keenest commercial sensibilities, even Paul McCartney gets serious on REVOLVER. True, McCartney (like Lennon) had been maturing in his songwriting with each successive album, REVOLVER features one of his darkest songs ever, “Eleanor Rigby.” Though the song was written in conjunction with Lennon, who often gets credit for being the more artistically-serious Beatle, McCartney came up with the impetus for the song. Listening to “Eleanor Rigby” with fresh ears, I was struck at how hopeless the song’s characters are. That McCartney, a wealthy young rock star, would write such a sensitive song about ordinary, lonely people is still surprising to me. Though the similarly melancholy ballad “Yesterday” gets the lion’s share of accolades, I think “Eleanor Rigby” is the better song. The arrangement is more complicated and the lyrics are more evocative. Without devolving into a simplistic story-song, “Eleanor Rigby” manages to paint the listener a few sad vignettes that cut to the very heart of loneliness and the plight of people society at large has forgotten about. Sure, the song is a bit dramatic, perhaps even a bit melodramatic, but I still get chills listening to the track’s mournful strings.

The Beatles dipped their toes into psychedelic music with “I’m Only Sleeping.” A John Lennon song about the joys of staying in bed, the song features reversed or “backward” guitar tracks, a touchstone of psychedelic music, and has an overall druggy feel to it. The song is one of the few Beatles songs that feature an explicit outsider perspective (“I’m a Loser” might be considered a proto-outsider song, “The Fool on the Hill” is a notable example, as is “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”). Was the world judging Lennon because all he wanted to do was sleep or is the song really about drugs (like most things)? It’s difficult to say. During this period Lennon did reportedly enjoy getting high and staying in bed, but I’ve also read that McCartney had to frequently rouse his writing partner from bed before working on their songs. Also worth noting, the interview Lennon gave around this time in which he famously declared The Beatles “bigger than Jesus” was part of an article that contains a quote from a friend of Lennon’s who declared him the “laziest man in England.” So perhaps “I’m Only Sleeping” really is just about napping in bed. Either way, the song’s inventive use of studio trickery was foreshadowing to surreal sounds the band would capture later on REVOLVER (and in their subsequent albums).

“Love You To” is Harrison’s best song on REVOLVER and one of the most daring songs the band ever produced. Though he’d used the sitar on RUBBER SOUL, to great effect on “Norwegian Wood,” it was this track where Harrison truly brought Indian music to the band’s sound. Using a sitar, a tabla (hand drum), tanpura (a special rhythm instrument), and Harrison created a sound that no doubt sounded otherworldly to the majority of Western listeners of the time. Besides launching a whole new phase of the band’s creative life, “Love You To” single-handedly popularized the genre of World Music. A mix of philosophical noodling and romantic love, the track was the undoubtedly the most sexual song the band had recorded up to that point. Harrison repeatedly states “I’ll make love to you/if you want me to” in the chorus of the song.

Another key influence on The Beatles was Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who’s ghost is all over McCartney’s “Here, There and Everywhere.” The most obvious Wilson-trademark found in the song are the ethereal backing vocals. But the core of the song, being in love and having that love make you a better person is almost a reflection of the themes found in Wilson’s own “God Only Knows.” Though the songs were written and recorded around the same time, this can’t be accidental, can it? A more nuanced and mature love song, “Here, There and Everywhere” takes a larger view of the impact of romantic love beyond the early pleasures of love’s first blush (like most early Beatles love songs). The track is less about how love makes one feel and more about the impact love has on one’s outlook. I think that this song is probably a better example of The Beatles doing a Beach Boys-esque song than “Back in the USSR,” which is just straight parody. The song is nothing but further proof that the band didn’t exist in a vacuum and took cues from the work their peers (besides Dylan).

I can’t tell you how crushed I was when I first learned that “Yellow Submarine” wasn’t actually written by Ringo. The rule for 99.999% of Beatles songs is that whoever is singing lead wrote the track. Sadly, Ringo only wrote two songs during his time with The Beatles, “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden.” The song is a fanciful kiddie track that began life as McCartney trying to write both a song for Ringo to sing and a Donovan-esque number. To McCartney’s credit, even though the song is pretty much nonsense, it works wonderfully with Ringo at the helm (pun intended). That this song would later go on to inspire a super-trippy animated film is just icing on the cake. I’d like to hear McCartney sing this one, though I have a hard time imagining what that would be like. It’s odd that two of Ringo’s best known Beatles songs involve the ocean, but then again England is an island and Liverpool is a port city so I suppose it’s not so odd that the boys would have a healthy interest in the sea. I love the song’s goofy little extras, like the crashing wave sound and the ringing bell. Ringo play-acting as a sailor in between verses is also a really nice touch that adds to the song’s theatrical, almost pop-up book-like quality. The Beatles dabbled in so many genres that I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that they ventured into kids music.

“She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are both ostensibly a dialogue taking place between a man (Lennon) and a woman. “She Said She Said” has a real druggy (acid?) feel to it in which neither party can properly connect or articulate a feeling that they are having. Though the “I know what it’s like to be dead” is definitely the proclamation of chemically altered mind, “I know what it is to be sad” is very real thought/feeling. The juxtaposition between the two has always fascinated me. Is the communication breakdown between the two parties the result of drugs or gender? Who can say? Further complicating matters are the fact that the song was inspired by Henry Fonda, who famously told Lennon at a party “I know what it’s like to be dead.” The song pairs nicely with “And Your Bird Can Sing” which is an indictment against materialism over a personal connection. Both songs share an awesome, iconic opening guitar riff (though “And Your Bird Can Sing” edges out “She Said She Said” in this department). In his book All We Are Saying, author David Sheff quotes Lennon as being dismissive of the song, essentially calling it all style and no substance. I disagree and think Lennon was doing what Lennon often did and disparaged his older work in favor of whatever thing he was doing at the time. The I’ve always really enjoyed the line “You say you’ve seen Seven Wonders/and your bird is green.” That image always stuck with me and I picked up on that line again when I re-listened to the record.

Similarly, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” are very similar McCartney tracks that feel almost like throwbacks to a quainter, simpler time. “Good Day Sunshine” has a very old-timey feel to it, both in its simplicity and with it’s twinkling piano and optimism. In fact, the track wouldn’t be entirely out of place on The Kinks magnum opus VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY. The shining horns on “Got to Get You Into My Life” has a similar effect, though “Got to Get You Into My Life” features a much rougher-sounding vocal performance from McCartney. It’s almost an R&B song and was famously covered by Earth, Wind, & Fire in 1978, so apparently I’m not the only one to pick up on this fact. Paul McCartney has gone on the record to state that “Got to Get You Into My Life” is about marijuana, which I find both perplexing and oddly satisfying. Both tracks share a youthful optimism and exuberance that an older version of the band probably couldn’t pull off. McCartney would later revisit this type of old-fashioned/throwback on The White Album (“Martha My Dear” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) with diminished results.

“For No One” is one of the band’s most poignant and bare-bones songs. Detailing the end of a relationship, Paul McCartney’s song perfectly captures the sadness one feels when you realize the love is gone. Tastefully understated, the song is memorable for its achingly sad french horn solo near the end. The line “a love that should have lasted years” sounds less accusatory the older I get, which I get is an outside quality that I am bringing to the song. And yet, part of me can’t help but think that McCartney’s choice of words aid this phenomenon by being just a touch vague enough to avoid implying fault on either party. Even Lennon, who could be McCartney’s toughest critic, was a fan of “For No One.” Again, this is another track that lives in the shadow of “Yesterday,” even though I think it does essentially the same thing but better.

Much like “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the song “Dr. Robert” was about drugs. Though the latter was more obviously about drugs than the former, it’s still a bit of a secret drug song. A bit cornball in comparison to many of the band’s other drug songs, “Dr. Robert” is important because it’s ostensibly about the doctor that supplied the band with their first acid trip (a dentist who laced the band’s coffee with the drug after dinner one evening). This track is most notable (in my opinion) for the almost hypnotic quality applied to the lyrics”well, well well you’re feeling fine.” Despite not being as colorful as the band’s later substance songs, this one key feature of the song puts above most other songs of a similar theme recorded by other artists at the time.

The last Harrison-penned song on REVOLVER, “I Want To Tell You” is almost a rallying cry for his creativity. While not exactly stifled, Harrison also didn’t receive the full support of McCartney and Lennon when it came to his songs. “I Want To Tell You” is all about having a tremendous torrent of things to say and the struggle with which Harrison (and really all of us) have trying to express ourselves. There’s a dash of mysticism running through the song, no doubt an influence from his intense studying of all things Eastern. “I Want To Tell You” is a great song because even though it covers a very heady, intellectual topic, the song is still very humble in its presentation (almost low-key in many respects). While not Harrison’s best song, I’d say it was the most emblematic of who he was as an artist and as an individual: highly intellectual with a down-to-earth quality, mystical with an aura of practicality.

The final track on the album is also the best. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a tour de force and easily in my top 5 of all-time Beatles songs. Everything about this song is crafted perfectly, from the odd effect place on Lennon’s vocals to the Indian-influenced drum pattern that Ringo uses. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is probably the first truly great studio track from a band that would soon go on to do nothing but fantastic studio-driven tracks. Using looping tape, The Beatles create an otherworldly soundscape that must have scared the crap out of all the kids tripping on acid the first time they put REVOLVER on. That this is the track to close the album makes the songs feel like an odd, beautiful sunset. The strange, mystical poetry of Lennon’s lyrics are as just a good as anything the man ever wrote. I’m sure this song is highly regarded, but I feel like his later works like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more lauded. And I find that sad in a way, because “Tomorrow Never Knows” is easily the equal of both of those tracks.

Perhaps I don’t run in the right crowds, but I feel like REVOLVER is almost a forgotten masterpiece by The Beatles. RUBBER SOUL is usually the transitional Beatles record that gets the most attention, which is a shame because I think REVOLVER is the superior album. Straddling the line perfectly between both periods of the band’s creative life, REVOLVER has everything one thinks of when they think of The Beatles.

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The Life of Pablo by Kanye West

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This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I love Kanye West. Both the music and the man. This is a rock blog but over the past 10 years or so I’ve warmed to hip-hop, thanks largely in part to the works of Mr. West. I totally get why most people don’t like the persona of Kanye West: he’s brash, arrogant, and sexist. Defending Axl Rose has never been about Axl Rose, but instead about the artists like Rose who operate on a completely different level than 99.999% of the rest of us. These exceptional artists have a vision and spend their lives struggling to bring that vision in its pure, uncompromised, form to the masses. They push boundaries in genre and offer us a window into both the artist and ourselves. Kanye West is a genius on the same level as Brian Wilson. Do I cringe when he belittles Taylor Swift or goes on Twitter and proclaims Bill Cosby “innocent”? Hell yes I do. But Kanye doesn’t really hurt anyone but himself so I forgive him. The music is so good I can overlook his faults.

THE LIFE OF PABLO has been on my must-listen list back when it was called SWISH and WAVES.  When it came out last month, on the Jay-Z backed music streaming service Tidal, I downloaded the Tidal app and contemplated canceling my beloved Spotify subscription just so I could hear the record. I waited, with bated-fanboy breath, for Yeezus to announce when the non-Tidal world would get an opportunity to hear his latest masterpiece. Then the confusion began: the album’s physical sale was delayed and then it was scrapped. West proclaimed his album would never be fore sale on Twitter, despite the fact that he’d already given it away sort of by issuing download codes to the people who attended his NYC fashion show where the album debuted. Now there’s word that Kanye is still editing/changing the album, thus making THE LIFE OF PABLO the Star Wars of rap albums (Kanye = George Lucas).

This review has two paragraphs defending the man and giving context to the release of the album because that’s the only way to interface with Kanye’s music. One can’t like or dislike these tracks without taking the performance art piece that is Kanye West in as a whole. He’s worked (famously) with Paul McCartney and no doubt sees himself as a modern-day John Lennon, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Kanye West is really the modern-day Yoko Ono (Ono the artist not the Beatle girlfriend).

THE LIFE OF PABLO opens with gospel “Ultralight Beam.” An epic, beautiful track that begins with West’s 4 year old daughter praising Jesus and then builds to a rapturous choir. This song, about as unconventional as a pop song could be, works on a pure emotional level. I’m 100% agnostic but by the time Chance the Rapper comes in near the end I feel like a true Believer. The album descends from the opener’s lofty heights rollercoasting up and down a few times and bottoms out on “FML.” Here is what all the Kanye haters seem to miss about him: he’s not only his own worst enemy, he’s also his biggest critic. “FML” is about how he fucks up his own life. The song is about West’s troubles with infidelity, which is also touched on in “30 Hours” where West feels jealous because he finds himself on the wrong end of an open-relationship (one that he admits he insisted on having). “Real Friends” continues the tradition of “Runaway” and paints West as a workaholic loner who lives in a cold, friendless world. “Wolves” is another somber track where West gives insight into what it’s like to be a solitary figure against the whole of the world. You can’t help but feel sorry for they guy, even when later he compares himself and Kim to Mary and Joseph (yes, that Mary and Joseph).

Of course no review of THE LIFE OF PABLO would be complete without discussing “Famous,” the song where he throws gasoline on his feud with Taylor Swift. I don’t believe Kanye’s assertion that he “made that bitch famous,” but I do think that Swift has greatly benefited from her association with West. Just like Batman needs the Joker, Swift provides the perfect heroic foil to West’s exaggerated douchebag persona. That West has chosen to rag on America’s sweetheart and the music world’s biggest, most popular modern artist isn’t surprising. He’s jealous of her and like the third grade boy tugging his classmates ponytails; he’s picking on her because he likes her. It’s a shame West mars an otherwise perfect song with such a cringeworthy verse. Rihanna and the Sister Nancy sample are such a killer combo and balance West’s tough guy rapping.

My current favorite track, however, is probably the most-Kanye track of all-time. Title “I Love Kanye,” the song is a 43 second song that is just West with no musical accompaniment. The lyrics speak for themselves:

“I miss the old Kanye, straight from the ‘Go Kanye
Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye
I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye
I gotta to say at that time I’d like to meet Kanye
See I invented Kanye, it wasn’t any Kanyes
And now I look and look around and there’s so many Kanyes
I used to love Kanye, I used to love Kanye
I even had the pink polo, I thought I was Kanye
What if Kanye made a song about Kanye
Called “I Miss The Old Kanye,” man that would be so Kanye
That’s all it was Kanye, we still love Kanye
And I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”

The track ends with West laughing, and it’s a pretty good punchline, but there’s a lot of naked, personal honesty in this song. I don’t see Kanye as the arrogant asshole he’d like us to believe he his. Nor do I view him as the villain his detractors make him out to be. For me, Kanye West is a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. If he was an oblvious asshole even his biggest fans couldn’t forgive him (myself included). But Kanye is acutely aware of his failings and I think would genuinely like to be the good guy.

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There are no big radio-friendly tracks on THE LIFE OF PABLO. There is no “Gold Digger” or “Touch the Sky” on this record. Even if you hate Kanye and despise rap if you’re a music fan you have to respect that he’s one of the only (if not the only) mainstream artist who make albums. The album as a cohesive, artistic whole has been absent from the modern music scene for nearly 10 years (give or take). But the fact that Kanye agonizes over things like track sequences on his records makes this music fan happy. Don’t listen haphazardly to THE LIFE OF PABLO, instead take it track by track as God…I mean Kanye intended. Then when you’re done go online and seek out the endless stream of “I Love Kanye” remixes that have mushroomed all over the Internet.

I had to torrent this album, which is a real bummer. Hopefully something will change and THE LIFE OF PABLO will become commercially available in a wider-release. Though his mental state may be deteriorating, West’s ability to create intricate, interesting music is only getting stronger.

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Happy Easter (War Is Coming)

For all my egg-dyeing peeps out there (pun intended):

 

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Beatles For Sale: My Rant Against The American Reissued Beatle Albums

Last month The Beatles American albums were re-issued in a large, expensive boxset. Back in 2009, when the remastered CD’s were issued, I gladly handed over my hard-earned currency for better packaging and most importantly, higher sound quality. While no doubt an opportunity to get my money again, the remastered Beatles albums gave me something I didn’t already have: better sound.  The sound quality, especially on the first few albums was vastly superior. Rather than shitty fake stereo mixes, fans were given pure mono as God, and George Martin, had intended.

"All you need is ca$h"-The Rutles

“All you need is ca$h”-The Rutles

These American re-issues are another story altogether. As far as I’m concerned, this is a disgusting money-grab with no redemptive quality for fans. The Beatles so-called American catalog exists because of corporate greed, which is the same motivating factor behind that bastardization’s re-issue. For those of you unfamiliar with what happened to the Fab Four’s albums in America, buckle-up because it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

In 1963, after failing to break into the US, The Beatles were poised to finally conquer the Yankees. Capitol Records, the American counterpart to the band’s UK label EMI, was sitting on small pile of Beatle records. Rather than do the logical thing (i.e. issue the albums as they had been issued in England), Capitol decided to issue all new albums. Instead of releasing albums with 14 songs, as they’d done in England, The Beatles American albums were comprised of 12 songs.  And instead of simply cutting the number of songs down, the songs were swapped around in a confusing jumble.

Another major issue was The Beatles singles. In England it was considered bad form to sell people one song twice, so any song issued as a single was never included on major albums. Thus, songs like “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” were never included on any British Beatles album.  Since this was not the practice in the US, Capitol Records reconfigured the American Beatle albums to include the band’s popular hit singles.

Further clouding the waters, a small independent label called Vee-Jay had the American rights to the band’s first album from 1963 to 1964. Vee-Jay got the rights to this material after Capitol Records initially passed on the Beatles in America. Thus, the band’s album PLEASE PLEASE ME was being circulated prior to Capitol’s involvement as INTRODUCING…THE BEATLES.

That’s how the American Beatles catalog got so messed up. This is how we got records like THE BEATLES IV which contains songs from BEATLES FOR SALE, HELP!, and music from the “Ticket To Ride” single. All of the Beatles records up to 1967’s SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEART’S CLUB BAND are a confusing mosaic of the band’s British output. The madness (mostly) ended with SGT. PEPPER due to the band’s insistence that their albums appear the same everywhere due to the artistic vision they had for that album’s concept.

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The American albums became something of a footnote when they were abandoned completely in the 1980’s when the band’s albums were first put onto CD. Were American fans puzzled when the British albums were released digitally? I’m sure they were, but that was decades ago. In the meantime, people like myself grew up only knowing the proper British albums. Which brings me back to the American reissued albums: who is this supposed to appeal to? Who is supposed to be forking over their money for these? Older fans who might actually remember these albums have by now long adapted to the British releases. Younger fans have never known anything but the British albums. And at this juncture in history, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Beatle fans who wish to own the band’s music already do…and anyone buying the band’s records for the first time would surely buy the recognizable, iconic, British albums.

It felt strange rebuying the albums in 2009, but at least I was getting something new with the improved fidelity. But let’s be honest, the 2009 remasters were a double-dip, plain and simple.  So if the 2009 digital remasters, which I’d argue are worth the money, were a double-dip then these American reissued albums are a triple-dip. This is a product aimed squarely at the hardcore Beatle fan, the one that has to own everything with the band’s name on it.  This is a product meant to be purchased and placed on a shelf still in it’s plastic wrap.

Perhaps if I had the money, and the inclination to continue hoarding physical media, I would fall into that camp/trap. But alas, an 800 mile-cross-country move has changed the way I look at money and the owning of material goods. With this American albums reissue, The Beatles have crossed over into the horrible George Lucas/Star Wars money-grab territory.

I’m a Beatles super-fan, I’ve owned multiple copies of each of these records. Hell, I’ve owned LET IT BE in four different formats (cassette tape, vinyl LP, original CD, remastered CD).  But even as a superfan, I can see no reason to own these reissued American releases.  I don’t need different, less-iconic artwork and a swapped around track listing. In short, I don’t need these albums. I never knew them and I don’t feel it necessary to start now.

This reissue ruffles my feathers because it smacks of desperation—the last act of a band with nothing left to sell me. But that’s not true, there is one thing I’d love to buy from The Beatles. One thing that I’ve never experienced that the band continues to deny me. I speak of the lost documentary Let It Be, the legendary film the band made while writing and recording LET IT BE the album. I’ve never seen this footage, largely because it captures the breakup of the band and paints the musicians in a less-than-favorable light.

I understand that I have capitalism to thank for my Beatles albums, and that their corporate masters have every right to keep selling the same material from now until doomsday. But I wish they’d exhaust the vaults completely before they just pump out the same material over and over.

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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 Gringo Star 7″ Hints At The Shape of Things To Come

Atlanta indie rockers Gringo Star released two new songs last week.  You know what that means…there’s gonna be a new album next year! I’m excited   because I absolutely loved the band’s last record THANK YER LUCK Y STARS. I was a bit troubled to learn that the band lost a member and are now just a three-piece, however the new songs are really great.  Apparently the band’s been writing, recording, and producing all their new songs by themselves which is always intriguing.

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The two new songs, “Going Way Out” and “Taller” are just as catchy and murky as the songs on THANK YER LUCKY STARS.  I especially like “Going Way Out” which is a cross between a gloomy Dick Dale song and John Lennon’s “#9 Dream.”The band’s official website promises a new album in early 2013 and a tour!  Hopefully they’ll swing by St. Louis so I can properly check them out.

 

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George Harrison’s Final Masterpiece: BRAINWASHED

I still can’t believe that George Harrison has been dead for 10 years. It seems like only yesterday we lost him. Of all The Beatles, I think George has the strongest, and more overlooked solo material. Paul and John always stole the limelight while they were together and in their solo careers they continued to overshadow poor George, which is a shame because he had a bunch of really sublime songs.  His first solo record, the first solo record from any Beatle, ALL THINGS MUST PASS is stupendous work that is probably one of the finest rock albums of all time.

After his triumphant first release George put out a bunch of really strong, but mostly ignored records in the 1970’s and then slowed his output to only 3 records in the 1980’s. There were two awesome Traveling Wilbury records and 1987’s CLOUD NINE, the nothing. When George died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, my first thought was a selfish one: no more George Harrison songs. Thankfully, George was hard at work on a new record right up till his death. He finished most of the recording and left detailed notes behind so that Jeffy Lynne and his son Dhani Harrison could finish the record.

brainwashed

Posthumous releases are, quiet frankly, pretty shitty normally. Think about it: you’re dying are you really going to do your best work? But amazingly BRAINWASHED turned out to not only be a good record, but one of George’s best. In fact, I’d say it’s nearly tied with ALL THINGS MUST PASSED.  And the only reason ALL THINGS edges it out in my mind is because it’s a double album and thus, has more songs.

So what makes BRAINWASHED so good? For starters, the songwriting. Harrison learned songwriting from arguably the two greatest songwriters of all time so of course he was going to be able to write a good song. Besides being immediately accessible and catchy, the songs on BRAINWASHED all have a very down-to-earth feel. While not a concept album, the album’s songs all tend to be about assessing one’s life. That shouldn’t come as any big surprise considering that Harrison was knocking on death’s door. But whereas my death-album would be a series of pathetic screams of “Dear God not me!” George not only puts on a brave face, but appears beautifully serene in the face of his end. Entire books could be written about Harrison’s spirituality, and while I’ve heard many people question just exactly what he believed (and how strongly he believed it) there’s no arguing that whatever he let into his heart gave him a tremendous amount of strength and comfort. How do I know? It’s all here, persevered forever on BRAINWASHED.

The album opens with the playfully philosophical “Any Road” which points out that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. It’s a great song to open the album; its footloose and breezy attitude encourages the listen to embark on an adventure, any adventure. “Looking For My Life” is the first in a series of songs where George turns inward and examines his life. It’s a song about being through the wringer and separated from God but not really knowing it until things get rough. All of the problems raised by “Looking For My Life” are immediately answered in the very next song, “The Rising Sun.” Through spiritual re-birth and the actual re-birth of the day George found the answer to his problems. “The Rising Sun” is such a beautiful, hope-filled song I can’t believe it was penned by a man who knew he wouldn’t live to see many more sunrises. And don’t get me started on that slide guitar, has there ever been a more beautiful sound than George playing slide guitar? It’s Harrison’s signature guitar tone and on “The Rising Sun” in particular it’s used to great effect.

glowing inner light

The album’s single, “Stuck Inside A Cloud,” is ironically the records biggest downer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song, but it’s a depressing final single.   “Stuck Inside A Cloud” seems to be about a lasting, incurable depression brought about (or perhaps causing?) a break-up. I think it might also be a metaphor for how disconnected we all are.

One of the most interesting songs, especially when I first heard BRAINWASHED was “Run So Far.” I had a strange bit of déjà vu where I was able to predict all the lyrics. I thought I was going insane until I was finally able to figure out where it was I’d heard the song before: Eric Clapton’s 1989 solo effort JOUNREYMAN. George wrote the song and gave it to his friend/wife-stealer and then waited a decade to record it himself. I must say, I like George’s version better, but only for the same reason I always prefer Dylan’s version of his songs: it’s always better to hear it from the author.

There’s a nice bit of whimsy near the end with a cover of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on which George plays the ukulele. I smile every time I hear this song, mostly because I know that had a very special place in George’s heart. He and John Lennon famously bonded over the ukulele. George’s choice in instrument adds a jaunty-nautical feel to the song. It’s probably my favorite version of this song.

The album concludes with “Brainwashed,” George’s final ode to God, whom he loved so dearly. Of all the songs on BRAINWASHED, “Brainwashed” feels the most like a Traveling Wilburys song. I’m not sure if it’s the songs humor (his grandma was brainwashed while working for the mob?) or the excessive Jeff Lynne production, but until the song transforms into the prayer “Namah Parvait” it could have easily fit on the Wilburys VOLUME 3.

George began his solo career with a phenomenal album and he thankfully was able to finish his solo career with a phenomenal album.  I’ve read that BRAINWASHED was a bit of a disappointment commercially, which is a real shame and one of the reasons I decided to write this post.  If you like The Beatles, rainy day music, hope in a hopeless world, ukuleles, top-notch songwriting, strong hooks, slide guitar, and Eastern chanting you owe it to yourself to check out BRAINWASHED.

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“So High” by Guided By Voices

Have you ever fallen deeply in love with a song?  I think we all have at some point in our lives.  I’ve been head-over heels in love with “So High” by Guided By Voices for months now.  It’s not on any of their albums, but rather was released as a B-side to the “Doughnut For A Snowman” single.  I found it one day while trolling around on Spotify, as I often do to kill time.

GBV is one of my all-time favorite bands, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that I feel so strongly about one of their songs…but my love for“So High” feels strange because the song is less than one minute long.  If you know anything about lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard, you know that length is not one of his strengths.  His tunes, which are catchy as hell, are nearly always tragically too short.  In fact, the rather tossed off, unfinished nature of the band’s songs is probably the #1 reason they’re not a household name.

“So High” indeed.

The A-side of the single, “Doughnut For A Snowman,” appears on the band’s first comeback album LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY, which came out earlier this year (side note: can you believe has put out 3 awesome albums this year?).  That song begins with a gradual fade-in of what is actually the tail end of “So High.”   For whatever reason, “So High” didn’t make it onto the album.  The song seems to be related to “Doughnut For A Snowman,” so why was it left off the record? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

Anyway, maybe it’s my love of cast-off, discarded things, but strange fact that a (very) small part of the song is on the record really piqued my interest.  So I listened to “So High” probably 10 times in a row, and before I realized it: I was in love with it.  The song has a cozy, campfire feel.  I love the cheap, plastic recorder/flute in the song, I think it’s adorable.

The lyrics, while nonsensical are also very charming and full of warmth.  As you’re hearing it, the song seems to be about something, something really philosophical and important.  But it’s not.  Which is pretty funny because that’s kinda what it’s like to actually be so high.

Dashed off in under a minute, Pollard’s “So High” is like a short hug from a long lost friend I never knew I always missed.   The song is like roasting marshmallows on the banks of a glow-in-the-dark lake with your best friend while John Lennon drunkenly plays you an unfinished Beatles song.  It’s chocolate cake on the beach.  It’s probably my favorite song of 2012.  It’s 43-seconds long.

Please take a listen:

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“Imagine A Jump”: The Greatest Van Halen/John Lennon Mash-Up

Last week while I was bunkered down in New York City, waiting for Hurricane Sandy to do her worst, my wife’s best-friend Becky bravely sacrificed her iPhone’s battery so that we might have some tunes by candlelight.  I love going through people’s iTunes, I find it a nice way to both get to know AND judge the shit out of someone.  My iTunes is an atrocious mix of the best and worst of rock, pop, jazz, country, and blues music.  There’s things in it that I’m proud of…and a lot that I’d rather you just skip over.

Imagine there’s no Red Rocker.

Becky’s iPhone was filled with a lot of her favorite bands: Green Day and Barenaked Ladies.  Not exactly my cup of tea, but I’d say I like both those bands enough.  Anyway, as I browsed her iTunes, I noted that she had Van Halen’s “Jump” one her phone twice: once from the album 1984 (GREAT album by the way) and again from a Greatest Hits compilation.  I laughed and pointed this out.  She had an explantation, but there was no need: “Jump” is great song so why NOT have it on your phone?

Becky loves it when I take pics of her sleeping, that’s why we’re such good friends.

Becky also had a large quantity of The Beatles on her phone, as well as some John Lennon solo stuff. That got me thinking, had Becky heard Mighty Mike’s “Imagine A Jump”? She hadn’t, and it really bummed me out.  Mighty Mike is this French DJ that does mind-blowingly awesome mash-ups.  Seriously.  Before Mighty Mike, I thought DJ’s and mash-ups were lame, but this guy’s Queen/Michael Jackson mash-ups changed my mind.

I strongly urge you to go on his blog and download/listen to all his songs, there’s not a single bad one in the bunch.

“Imagine A Jump” is one of Mighty Mike’s best.  It’s the acapella/vocals of Van Halen’s “Jump” merged with the hauntingly simple piano of John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.”  The best part? The (slowed down) vocals actually work with “Imagine.”  The upbeat, devil-may-care Van Halen song is transformed into a downbeat, depressing ode to suicide and desperation.  I know that doesn’t sound particularly fun but it’s actually a cheeky bit of fun.

This is amazing. Thank you Mighty Mike:

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LONERISM by Tame Impala

Australian daytrippers Tame Impala burst onto the collective consciousness in 2010 with their fantastic debut album INNERSPEAKER.  That record, which I once described as perfect Sunday morning chill-out music, set the bar pretty high for the band.  I honestly didn’t expect to hear from Tame Impala so quickly, especially after lead singer/songwriter Kevin Parker released an album of similarly psychedelic (but far woolier) tunes under the name Pond in March of this year.  Much to my delight, however, Tame Impala is back with their new album LONERISM.

In case your’re wondering, the sign on the gate reads: “Dogs, even on a leash, are not admitted beyond this point.”

What I find most interesting about the album is that it’s both a leap forward and a step back.  Sonically, the album is lightyears ahead of INNERSPEAKER, which itself was hovering at the very finge of our soloar system.  The band pushes the band’s sound even further into space with it’s  heavier use of synthesizers.  Parker has said in interviews that LONERISM is more prog/indulgent that the last record.  And while that typically is a negative, in this case the songs on LONERISM run wild without running completely away (the longest song clocks in at just over six minutes).  The band’s vast, spaced-out sound is pushed to the limits on such tracks as “Mind Mischief” and “Apocalypse Dreams.”  Both tracks sound like a calmer, mellower, less cartoon version of The Flaming Lips.  LONERISM also recalls Todd Rundgren, whom the band has cited as a major influence.

That said, LONERISM is also a bit of step back in that lyrically the majority of the songs deal with personal issues of loneliness, isolation, and social awkwardness.  The best example of this is the woe-is-me jam “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” in which Parker sings about being alone and only thinking he’s happy. This material would probably seem whiny, self-pitying, and immature except that it’s swathed in a big bouncy beat.  The trippy vibe takes an emo kids lament and transforms it into the inner musings of a stoned philosophy major.  The albums themes of isolation are also represented on the album’s cover, which is a photo taken by Parker at a French public park.  I think the shot of the happy people viewed through the bars works best with “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?”  Tame Impala was smart to both expand their telescope sonically while at the same time write more personal songs. It keeps the band from floating away entirely into the stratosphere where the listener is unable to relate to them.

Sitting amongst the green.

Special mention should be made concerning the band, specifically Kevin Parker’s affinity for John Lennon.  John Lennon’s ghost looms large on LONERISM, specifically on the albums best songs “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” “Sun’s Coming Up,” and “Elephant”.  Parker’s vocals eerily channel the former Beatle throughout the album, but on “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” sound like a lost PLASTIC ONO BAND track.  “Sun’s Coming Up” sounds like a sleepy/boozy Lennon demo for one of his piano ballads. “Elephant” which is my favorite track on the album, sounds like “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” merged with “I Am The Walrus.”  It’s a lumbering rocker that wouldn’t stick out too much on MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR.   The homage/influence of Lennon will probably turn off as many people as it switches on.  I don’t think it’s 100% fair to give Tame Impala too much grief about this because:

1. The dude can’t help who he sounds like

and

2. There are worse things to be like than John Lennon.  Do Tame Impala rip off The Beatles? No.  Do they re-invent the wheel? No, but what they create vast sonic murals of trippy space rock and they do it well–end of story.

Ah. Freak. Out.

Tame Impala have forged a solid second record with all the big, epic sound you’d expect from the band that brought us INNERSPEAKER.  However, more than just delivering more of the same, the band has stretched their legs and dug a little deeper for LONERISM.  The album, while not as top-to-bottom perfect as INNERSPEAKER, still manages to capture the imagination and delight the listener.  To say that LONERISM is a headphones album would be the understatement of the year.  Switch off the lights, pop in your ear buds, and close your eyes.

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