Monday, March 27, 2023

The Albums of 1973: John Cale: Paris 1919

Release Date: February 25, 1973

Personnel: John Cale (Vocals, Piano, Guitar); Lowell George (guitar); Wilton Felder (bass, saxophone); Richie Hayward (drums)

Produced by Chris Thomas

Side One: Child's Christmas in Wales; Hanky Panky Nohow; The Endless Plain of Fortune; AndalucĂ­a; Macbeth

Side Two: Paris 1919; Graham Greene; Half Past France; Antarctica Starts Here

A founding member of The Velvet Underground, John Cale left the band in 1968 and went on to a prolific and acclaimed career as a solo artist and producer. Cale's first two solo albums: Vintage Violence and The Academy in Peril, the former an art pop record, while the latter consisted of sonic landscapes. A 1971 collaboration  with Terry Riley, Church of Anthrax, was also composed of soundscapes. Paris 1919 continued in the art pop mode with pristine arrangements, abstract lyrics, and song titles alluding to 20th Century events and figures.

"Child's Christmas in Wales" is the title of the famous Dylan Thomas story. Cale's version is lavishly produced like a post-modern hymn with dense lyrics layered with vague references to peace, the past, conflict, and religion (recurring motifs on the record). "Hanky Panky Nohow" features more surreal imagery with an exquisite string arrangement. 

"The Endless Plain of Fortune" obliquely alludes to the Boer War, a conflict at the start of the 20th Century (1899-1902) which would foreshadow the brutality of the two world wars. Cale's semi-detached phrasing creates an atmosphere akin to floating above the historical chaos. "AndalucĂ­a" paints a portrait, an evocative love song. "Macbeth" is fast paced and more playful, musing on the events described in the play, reimaging the tragic Scot as a psychedelic character from a Michael Moorcock story.

"Paris 1919" is a baroque pop song with no direct references to peace conference that ended The First World War, except that "the continent's just fallen in disgrace" as an absurd romance plays out. References to "the church" may allude Christianity's influence on European history as staccato strings drive the song. "Graham Greene" follows a vaguely calypso rhythm, following an unnamed protagonist rubbing shoulders with political figures - possibly a spy out of a Greene novel.

"Half Past France" seems to take place in the interwar years, maybe following the spirit of a WWI soldier. Cale narrates the song in a sleepy tone, like a lullaby. "Antarctica Starts Here" tells the story of a fading "movie queen" in the vein of Sunset Boulevard. Cale's whispery vocals here adds to the uncanniness of the entire record. 

All nine tracks on Paris 1919 are magnificently constructed and immersive. Cale creates an entire world in each song rooted in the past - viewed through a cryptic lens. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Hawkwind: Space Ritual


Release Date: May 11, 1973

Members: Dave Brock (guitar); Nik Turner (saxophone, flute); Lemmy (bass, vocals); Dik Mik (electronics); Del Dettmar (synthesizer); Simon King (drums); Bob Calvert (vocals); Stacia (dancer and visual artist)

Produced by Hawkwind

Side One: Earth Calling; Born to Go; Down Through the Night; The Awakening

Side Two: Lord of Light; Black Corridor; Space is Deep; Electronic No. 1

Side Three: Orgone; Upside Down; 10 Seconds to Forever; Brainstorm

Side Four: Seven by Seven; Sonic Attack; Time We Left This World Today; Master of the Universe; Welcome to the Future

Hawkwind stood out as a unique voice in British rock during the 1970s incorporating elements of psychedelia, progressive rock, science fiction, and proto-punk.  Throw all these elements together and one gets "Space Rock." Sci-Fi writer Michael Moorcock often contributed lyrics for Hawkwind; their live performances were improvisational blending technology with poetry. They've built a daunting catalog over the decades (35 albums) with a rotating group of members. 

Hawkwind already released three studio albums prior to their genre defining 1973 live album Space Ritual taken from two concerts performed in December of 1972. The album begins with "Earth Calling," an aural track of spaceship sounds setting up the listener for what's to come. Then the hypnotic and sonic attack of "Born to Go," lyrically about escaping to space as a place to break boundaries, counterculture meets Sci-Fi:

We're breaking out of the shell
We're breaking free
We're hatching our dreams into reality

"Down Through the Night" continues with infectious bass riffs, imagining a space bound crew of immortals in a state of hypersleep. Another poem, "The Awakening" muses on the state of hypersleep and the new form humanity might take, "a clear century of space/away from earth." 

"Lord of Light" has Utopian visions of "from the realms beyond the sun," bass driven with a long saxophone solo. "Black Corridor" is another spaced themed poem, possibly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Space is Deep" combines electric guitar, synth, and more space age poetics, "Electronic No. 1" serves as a synth interlude. 

"Orgone Simulator" borders on industrial-psychedelia rock, the lyrics muse on a futuristic technology (virtual reality) that gives one a sense of omnipotence. "Upside Down" explores the disorienting haze of space travel, all distortion and ennui. Another spoken word track, "10 Seconds of Forever" imagines a space traveler looking back at their life.

"Brainstorm" is evocative of a paranoid astronaut with brooding lyrics about fears of being turned into a machine and losing one's humanity. Musically it's a rush of muscular electronic noise and ethereal landscapes with relentless powder keg drumming.

"Seven by Seven" is Wagnerian in scope and theme. Moorcock contributed verse for "Sonic Attack" a dark vision of space travel and potential future incarnations of humanity. A war song for the space age, "Time We Left This World Today" breaks into chants amidst an electric fog. Nietzsche type lyrics on "Master of the Universe" point the way towards a modern metal sound. "Welcome to the Future" was the final track on the 1973 release (reissues added more tracks) serves as a benediction of sorts from the future.

Space Ritual is a unique experience for those open to it. Hawkwind's aggressive and occasional melodic sound offers a splintered vision of the future. Galactic travel serves as both a means of escape and freedom but could also spell doom for humanity where it will lose itself in technology and repeat the mistakes of the past on a cosmic scale. 


Saturday, March 11, 2023

REM #5: Document

Release Date: August 31, 1987

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Michael Mills (bass, keyboards); Bill Berry (percussion)

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: Finest Worksong; Welcome to the Occupation; Exhuming McCarthy; Disturbance at the Heron House; Strange; It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine); 

Side Two: The One I Love; Fireplace; Lightnin' Hopkins; King of Birds; Oddfellows Local 151

Document marked another step in REM's rise to mainstream recognition, aided by two hit singles "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel fine). 

"Finest Worksong" opens the album, an alt-folk rock song:

The Time to Rise has been engaged
You're better best to rearrange

Unlike their contemporary Billy Bragg who drew directly upon the style of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, REM settled into their own sleek progressivism in response to the Reagan/Thatcher '80s. "Welcome to the Occupation" features oblique references to American diplomacy in Central America, profit, and its consequences. "Exhuming McCarthy" in a similar vein calls out reactionary forces in America which were slightly more stealth in 1987, and far more open and brazen these days. "Disturbance at the Heron House" is sustained by easy going hooks with wry social commentary. "Strange" was a cover of a song by the British punk band Wire, with REM channeling '70s rock with autobiographical lyrics about stage fright.

Maybe the first iconic song REM recorded, "It's the End of the End of the World (as we know it)" features rapid fire lyrics in the vein of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" satirizing late 20th Century Millennialism, with references to the band's own history. It got constant airplay during the '90s and was infamously banned by Clear Channel after 9/11.

Side two opened with another hit single, the anti-love song "The One I Love." "Fireplace" featured a first, a saxophone on an REM record - and a return to more surreal lyrics. "Lighnin' Hopkins" appears to have no connection to the legendary bluesman, other than Stipe's vaguely bluesy vocal. It sounds like New Wave reinterpreting the blues. The meditative "King of Birds" is focused on the musings of an aging man who might be a genius, thematically like the songs on Fables of the Reconstruction. In a similar vein, the closing track "Oddfellows Local 151" returns to the Southern Gothic themes REM had explored on past records - a great addition to the Halloween season.

Document suits the uneasy mood of the late '80s with songs shifting between the ominous and playful. Also highlighting the shifting sensibilities from within the band, one ambitious for fame and radio play, and the other showcasing the band's experimental side. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Al Green: Livin' for You

Release Date: December 6, 1973

Produced by Willie Mitchell

Side One: Livin' for You; Home Again; Free At Last; Let's Get Married; So Good To Be Here

Side Two: Sweet Sixteen; Unchained Melody; My God is Real; Beware

Livin' for You was Al Green's second LP released in 1973 after the masterful Call Me came out in April. Mellower and even experimental in terms of vocals and production, Livin' for You continued to push the boundaries of soul music.

The album opens with the title track is somewhat like "Let's Stay Together," the exquisite production sets the tone for the album. "Home Again" moves from melancholy to elation, while "Free At Last" stays in a steady mid-tempo. In "Let's Get Married" Green vocalizes as if improvising an inner monologue. The good vibes going on "So Good to Be Here" expressing elation at being in the right place. 

"Sweet Sixteen" is slightly menacing in its determination. A restrained version of "Unchained Melody" achieves a vivid effect overall, recorded with a steely confidence by Green and the session musicians. As the title expresses "My God is Real" expresses a fervent belief. At over eight minutes, the closing track "Beware" makes for a sweeping finish. Waves of uncertainty run through this track in a subtle emotional journey.

Livin' For You is timeless in more ways than one, everything from Green's gripping vocals to the production sound as vibrant as ever. The range of emotion and resonance on these songs demands repeated listening. 

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Neil Young: Time Fades Away

Released: October 15, 1973

Produced by Neil Young and Elliot Mazer

Side One: Time Fades Away; Journey Through the Past; Yonder Stands the Sinner; L.A.; Love in Mind

Side Two: Don't Be Denied; The Bridge; Last Dance

Time Fades Away was for a long time considered an obscure live album that provided mere snapshots from Neil Young's early 1973 tour backed by Nashville/LA session musicians The Stray Gators and David Crosby and Graham Nash who joined up on the last leg of the tour. A hectic ordeal for all involved with Neil wearing out his voice and clashing with his new band. Time Fades Away was received poorly upon release and it never got a CD release until very late in the game, but in recent decades its reputation has risen. 

The hard rocking "Time Fades Away" opens the record, a screed against the passing of time as the title suggests. "Journey Through the Past" is a stately piano ballad. Introduced as an "experimental" song, "Yonder Comes the Sinner" is a guitar driven rocker. "L.A.' is dedicated to the "city in the smog" is both weary and sarcastic - the best track on the album. "Love in Mind" is another piano ballad in the vein of Harvest.

Side two relied more on extended jams. "Don't Be Denied" is more mid-tempo weariness while the lyrics are autobiographical with references to Young growing up in Canada and moving to L.A. Another piano ballad with harmonica, "The Bridge" builds towards a catharsis. Running over eight minutes, "Last Dance" meanders and hints at the exhaustion hitting everyone, Neil repeating "No, No, No . ." on the fadeout.

Ragged and rough, the downbeat mode of the record evolves into an eloquent defiance. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Gram Parsons: GP

Released: January 1973

Produced by Gram Parsons and Ric Grech

Side One: Still Feeling Blue; We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning; A Song For You; Streets of Baltimore; She

Side Two: That's All it Took; The New Soft Shoe; Kiss the Children; Cry One More Time; How Much I've Lied; Big Mouth Blues

The music of Gram Parsons (1946-1973) has cast a wide net in rock history in terms of influence. Peers considered him a visionary and every new generation eventually discovers him. 

Parsons was the scion of a wealthy Southern family in Georgia. As a youth he played in various folk bands and got admitted to Harvard but left after one semester. He joined the International Submarine Band which released the album Safe at Home in 1967 which sold poorly. The following year he became an unofficial member of The Byrds for the recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, their highly acclaimed country rock album. From there he joined the The Flying Burrito Brothers who continued to evolve the country rock sound (a term that annoyed Parsons). He was also a close associate of The Rolling Stones and joined them in France for the recording of Exile on Main Street. But his indulgence in drugs and alcohol was too much even for the Stones and got himself banished from their circle. 

GP was recorded in September-October 1972 in Hollywood. Given a solo deal with Warner Bros records, Parsons assembled three members of Elvis Presley's band with Emmylou Harris to join him on vocals - of course Harris went on to an amazing career. More straight up country than his previous work, like his previous albums it sold poorly but received high acclaim. 

In "Still Feeling Blue" Parsons reflects on loneliness after his girl left, lyrically like Neil Young's "Oh Lonesome Me." Parsons and Harris swap verses on the bittersweet "We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning." On "A Song for You" Parsons melancholy vocal is combined with surreal imagery. Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard's "Streets of Baltimore" is covered nicely with Harris and Parsons in duet. "She" is a wonderful recording, a highlight of the record, delightfully in some zone between country and rock. 

A reverential version of "That's All it Took" by George Jones opens the second side, "The New Soft Shoe" is a placid, more laid back ballad. "Kiss the Children" has an estranged husband addressing his wife in a debauched stated, "one more night like this would put me six feet under." "Cry One More Time" is more of an R&B track. Parsons embodies a careless but sincere persona on "How Much I've Had to Lie." "Big Mouth Blues" is fanciful Chuck Berry homage by way of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. 

Any listener of GP will immediately recognize its influence and Parsons unique gifts as a singer/songwriter. He would record one more solo album Grievous Angel, released posthumously in 1974. On September 19, 1973, during one of his trips to Joshua Tree National Park, he overdosed on drugs on alcohol at age 26. A senseless loss that left a pall over the music scene in the decades to come. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Albums of 1973: John Lennon: Mind Games

Release Date: October 29, 1973

Produced by John Lennon

Side One: Mind Games; Tight A$; Aisumasen (I'm Sorry); One Day (At a Time); Bring on the Lucie (Freda Pepple); 

Side Two: Intuition; Out of the Blue; Only People; I Know (I Know); You are Here; Meat City

While the other three former Beatles were finding their footing in 1973, John Lennon was in the midst of personal turmoil. Separated from his wife and creative partner Yoko Ono, he was also trying to attain U.S. citizenship and dealing with FBI surveillance. Recorded hastily over the summer of 1973, Mind Games received mixed reviews and is considered a minor work in Lennon's canon. In saying that, the songs hold up fairly well and provide insight into John's state of mind at the time - and to a certain extent the emerging 1970s culture.

The classic opener "Mind Games" remains one of Lennon's best songs. A lethargic rhythm section sustains the song are buttressed by John's soulful vocal expressing post-Hippy sentiments, inspired by a New Age bestseller of the same title.

"Tight A$" goes for a more retro sound resembling rockabilly with double entendre in the lyrics. "Aisumasen (I'm Sorry)" is directed at Yoko, while on "One Day (At a Time) Lennon sings in a falsetto repeating a self-help mantra in an expression of malaise. A plea for peace, "Bring on the Lucie (Freda People)" fits in well with Lennon's other peace anthems, it was famously used by Alfonso Cuaron to end his 2006 film Children of Men

"Intuition" is another New Age tract as a happy go lucky pop song. "Out of the Blue" glides through various styles, also eccentric in lyric, "like a UFO you came to me." "Only People" could be a commercial jingle for unity, "We don't want no Big Brother scene." Another confessional, "I Know" favors optimism above all else. "You Are Here" has a slight country-western vibe, an underrated track with production reminiscent of George Martin. "Meat City" ends the album, heavier guitars and more biting lyrics end the record on an exuberant note. 

An eclectic collection of songs, Mind Games explores different facets of Lennon's personality and artistic inspirations. 

The Albums of 1973: John Cale: Paris 1919

Release Date: February 25, 1973 Personnel: John Cale (Vocals, Piano, Guitar); Lowell George (guitar); Wilton Felder (bass, saxophone); Richi...