Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Albums of 1973: The Isley Brothers: 3+3


Release Date: August 7, 1973

Members: Ronald Isley (vocals); Ernie Isley (lead guitar); Marvin Isley (bass); O'Kelly Isley (vocals); Rudolph Isley (vocals); Chris Jasper (piano, synth)

Produced by Ronald Isley, Rudolph Isley, O'Kelly Isley

Side One: That Lady; Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight; If You Were There; You Walk Your Way; Listen to the Music

Side Two: What it Comes Down To; Sunshine (Go Away Today); Summer Breeze; The Highways of My Life

The Isley Brothers had a remarkable run of records during the 1970s - and 3+3 was one of their best. Consisting of originals and memorable covers of pop hits, 3+3 is a standout from the crowded year of 1973.

The record opened with "That Lady," an update of their 1964 hit reimagined as 1970s funk. Jimi Hendrix had toured with the Isleys in the mid-1960s, Ernie Isley's guitar on this track took inspiration from Hendrix, earning the group a Top Ten hit. James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" is performed wonderfully as a quiet soul song. "If You Were There" is upbeat and melodic, "Walk Your Way" is gospel inspired. The Isely's took the Doobie Brother's hit "Listen to the Young Music", maintaining its festive spirit while incorporating a synth sound that builds to a memorable fadeout.

"What it Comes Down To" was another hit single highlighted by Chris Jasper's synthesizer. "Sunshine (Go Away Today) was hit for singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards, a post-60s lament, the Isley's expanded on the notion with their moodier version. The Isley's had covered Seals & Croft's "Love the One You're With" a few years before, here the they took on "Summer Breeze", expanding the song to an epic six minutes, adding a note of unease accentuated by distorted guitars. A lovely piano intro opens "The Highways of My Life," an introspective track to close the record.

In its nine tracks 3+3 incorporated a variety of emotion and styles, the production left behind a timeless sound.

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle

Release Date: November 5, 1973

Produced by Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos

Side One: The E Street Shuffle; 4th of July Ashbury Park (Sandy); Kitty's Back; Wild Billy's Circus Story

Side Two: Incident on 57th Street; Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); New York City Serenade

Bruce Springsteen's sophomore record The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Band built upon the homespun sound of his debut Greetings from Ashbury Park. 

"The E Street Shuffle" is lyrically similar to the New Jersey scenes on the first record, a celebratory opener full of consequence. "4th of July Ashbury Park" paints a portrait of a specific moment in time of the Jersey shore, cinematic in its scope with its heightened reality, even sounding archaic with references to "greasers" and "factory girls". The song is addressed to Sandy to whom the singer is confessing a heartbreak, and expressing a sense of time passing that will never return, at least for him. "Kitty's Back" is a bittersweet farewell to another legendary figure who enraptured the imagination of many in an ambitious composition moving from folk, R&B, and gospel. "Wild Billy's Circus Story" eulogizes a traveling circus in a curious hybrid of Dylan and Bradbury. 

Side two featured three 7+ minute epics critics often cite as Springsteen emerging as one of the great American songwriters. "Incident on 57th Street" tells a sprawling tragic love story of "Spanish Johnny" and "Puerto Rican Jane." The theatricality of the song would continues through Springsteen's work during the 1970s. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) is similar in sentiment, with Bruce switching to the first-person perspective. A standout from his early live shows, certain to send the audience out on a high note. "New York City Serenade" is the most abstract lyrically, more kaleidoscopic, and musically the most adventurous. 

While the record sold moderately, critical notices were strong, and it got a lot airplay in the Northeast. It's easy to view Wild & Innocent as mere prelude to Born to Run, but the album stands on its own with its sprawling romanticism and swashbuckling theatrics, one's left with no doubt Bruce and the band left it all on the record. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Paul McCartney and Wings: Band on the Run

Release Date: December 5, 1973

Lineup: Paul McCartney (vocals, bass, guitars, piano, keyboards, percussion); Linda McCartney (vocals, keyboards, percussion); Denny Laine (vocals, guitars)

Produced by Paul McCartney

Side One: Band on the Run; Jet; Bluebird; Mrs. Vanderbilt; Let Me Roll It

Side Two: Mamunia; No Words; Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me); Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five

Band on the Run bookended a challenging and prolific year for Paul McCartney and Wings which began with the release of Red Rose Speedway. In search of creative inspiration, McCartney with band members Linda McCartney and Denny Laine recorded most of the record at EMI studios in Lagos, Nigeria. Planning for days on the beach and recording at night, they instead found the country in political turmoil following a civil war that had ended in 1970 with a military dictatorship in charge. The change of scenery and some of the dangers that came with making the record resulted in a record even McCartney's most begrudging critics praised. 

The album also bore a striking resemblance to the concept records of the late Beatles period, although McCartney never intended it as such, although are recurring romantic themes of escape and adventure. "Band on the Run" opened the record with one of Paul's best songs since the Beatles breakup. Conceived as a mini suite opening with weary guitar melodies, then into a crescendo of resolve, and transitions into an anthemic pop song.

Another FM staple, "Jet" was inspired by the McCartney family dog. The non-sensical lyrics and big production were primed for arena rock shows. "Bluebird" is wonderfully produced and performed, both subdued and fantastical. "Mrs. Vanderbilt" also spans genres from rock-pop to Paul's fondness for writing singalongs. Many noticed "Let Me Roll It" sounded like a John Lennon pastiche, even with lyrics possibly aimed at his old bandmate. Musically, McCartney was proving he could still write rockers with the best of them.

Inspired by a famous hotel in Marrakesh, "Mamunia" has drawn comparisons to "Rain", also similar in sentiment to "Mother Nature's Son." Co-written with Laine, lyrically "No Words" could be on a lounge singer's repertoire but works fine as a pop song. Reportedly written on a dare by Dustin Hoffman, "Picasso's Last Drink" is another mini suite with a reprise of "Jet" and "Mrs. Vanderbilt" tying both sides of the record together (and works as a quirky tribute to the legendary artist). There's a Sci-Fi edge to "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" to close out the record, a bit of prog rock on the fadeout.

Band on the Run never ceases to be entertaining, a retro extravaganza and celebration of '70s pop.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Albums of 1973: The Allman Brothers Band: Brothers and Sisters


Release Date: August 1973

Members: Gregg Allman (vocals, guitar); Dickie Betts (guitars, vocals); Berry Oakley (bass); Jai Johnny Johanson (percussion); Butch Trucks (percussion); Chuck Leavall (pianos, vocals); Lamar Williams (bass)

Produced by Johnny Sandlin

Side One: Wasted Words; Ramblin' Man; Come and Go Blues; Jelly Jelly

Side Two: Southbound; Jessica; Pony Boy

The Allman Brothers Band were recovering from the loss of two founding members of the group, Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley had both died in motorcycle accidents within a year of each other. With some lineup changes and a determination to continue on they recorded Brothers and Sisters through the summer of 1972. It was released a year later to high acclaim. 

"Wasted Words" opens the album on a rollicking note with its blend of blues, rock, and soul that pack a punch and highlights all aspects of the band. "Ramblin' Man" was written by Dickie Betts and became a hit single for the band, even though they were initially reluctant to record it believing it was too much of a departure from their signature sound. The lyrics present a Southern sojourn from one who's been everywhere and seen it all. "Come and Go Blues" was a Gregg Allman composition and achieves a more epic effect in its appraisal of a relationship. "Jelly Jelly" is more in the traditional blues and soul style and breaks into a slightly extended jam. 

Side two opens with two iconic jams: "Southbound" and "Jessica." Both written by Betts, "Southbound" is fueled by an erratic energy and "Jessica" has no lyrics and it doesn't require them, the music is expressive enough. Another Betts composition, "Pony Boy" closes the record. Inspired by Robert Johnson, channels traditional blues and ends the record on a homespun note.

A chaotic tour in 1973 would follow and as the decade progressed the band's output fell off with internal group conflicts and members pursuing their own projects. Brothers and Sisters finds the Allmans at the peak of their powers. 

Monday, July 31, 2023

REM #10: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Release Date: September 9, 1996

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

Produced by Scott Litt & REM

Side One: How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us; The Wake-Up Bomb; New Test Leper; Undertow; E-Bow the Letter; Leave

Side Two: Departure; Bittersweet Me; Be Mine; Binky the Doormat; Zither; So Fast, So Numb; Low Desert; Electrolite

Recorded over the course of their 1995 tour in support of Monster during soundchecks for their shows, New Adventures in Hi-Fi finds REM at the peak of their powers. The sound is REM at their most bold and melodic. A panorama of styles are on display: power pop, punk, New Wave, and jangle rock.

"How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us" opens the record on a reflective note, MIke Mills contributes a hypnotic piano that centers the song along with Stipe's cryptic vocals, "The story is a sad one told many times/The story of my life in trying times." End of century themes are a recurring thread on the record - and the opening track hits an ominous tone at the height of Pax Americana '90s.

"The Wake-Up Bomb" is punk-rock-pop track driven by Buck's guitar, Stipe channeling a manic character, perhaps an extreme version of himself, who wants to accomplish everything fast:

My head's on fire and high esteem
Get drunk and sing along to Queen
Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene
Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything

"New Test Leper" opens with "I can't say that I love Jesus/That would be a hollow claim" and satirizes hollow evangelists dominating the airwaves demanding money and offering deranged hope. "Undertow" features blistering guitars, the narrator confronts his mortality without looking for solace from religion, a defiant secularism. 

Patti Smith, a major influence on REM, joined Stipe on backup vocals on "E-Bow the Letter."  At seven minutes, "Leave" closes side one, with more pulsating guitars and driving synth, the lyrics tell of an intense journey of self-knowledge and a drive to escape the past.

"Departure" pays homage to Cheap Trick, with Stipe channeling mid-70s Todd Rundgren in his vocal. "Bittersweet Me" is another rocker, REM at their best with introspective lyrics that builds. "Be Mine" is more stripped down and builds into a romantic ballad. "Binky the Doormat" borders on Dadaist imagery , "Zither" a subdued instrumental. "So Fast, So Numb" is a surreal pop song directed at someone involved in drugs and leading a chaotic life. "Low Desert" channels the early REM sound, a travelogue of being on the road.

The record closes with one REM's greatest songs, "Electrolite." Stipe spoke of wanting to write a farewell to the 20th Century and a tribute to Los Angeles, inspired by driving along Mulholland Drive. The lyrics namecheck icons of American cinema James Dean. Martin Sheen, and Steve McQueen. Mills contributed the sublime piano track, melancholy and triumphant. The song's closing verse:

Twentieth Century, go to sleep
Really Deep
We Won't Blink

Your eyes are burning holes through me
I'm not scared
I'm outta here
I'm not scared
I'm outta here

REM allowed themselves go epic on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but the exuberance running through it was tempered by a sense of finality. In some ways, it's the Abbey Road of their catalog, a record showcasing the best aspects of the band coming together, channeling both the past and future. Rumors were swirling the band was about to break up, and it would be the final REM record with the original lineup. Bill Berry announced his departure the following year. REM continued as a trio until they officially disbanded in 2011. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Stevie Wonder: Innervisions

Release Date: August 3, 1973

Produced by Stevie Wonder

Side One: Too High; Visions; Living for the City; Golden Lady

Side Two: Higher Ground; Jesus Children of America; All in Love is Fair; Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing; He's Misstra Know-It-All

During the 1970s, Stevie Wonder released one incredible album after another, playing most of the instruments and seamlessly shifting between soul, rock, funk, and jazz. Innervisions belongs on everyone's record shelf.

"Too High" opens the album, a mellow funk song with hints of psychedelia, the story of drug addict in love with an ingenue who's also an addict. "Visions" is even more mellow, imagining a utopia, "where hate's a dream and love forever stands." Understated in its power with its subtle hypnotic melody evoking the moment between wakefulness and sleep. "Living for the City" won two Grammy's, tells a tragic story of a young Black man making his way to New York City as part of the Great Migration only encounter the harsh reality of a racist justice system. "Golden Lady" is a jazzy love song, with Moog and synth, ending side one. 

"Higher Ground" opened side two, another classic that hit #1 on the R&B charts, is a spiritual journey sung with angst and resignation. "Jesus Children of America" is a meditative prayer on the state of 1970s America. "All in Love is Fair" is a more of a pop standard, it became a hit for Barbara Streisand the following year. "Don't You Worry "Bout a Thing" is effortlessly catchy, recovering from the slightly annoying intro (a man tries to impress a woman with worldliness). "He's Misstra Know It All" describes a con-artist, possibly a corrupt politician. The track build gradually from one of foreboding, then gradually bringing the figure down to one of inconsequence. 

Musically, Innervisions is close to perfection, it holds up through an infinite number of listens.. 

Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy


Release Date: July 1973

Members: Denny Dias (guitar); Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (guitar, pedal steel guitar); Walter Becker (bass, harmonica, vocals); Jim Hodder (percussion); Donald Fagan (piano, vocals)

Produced by Gary Katz

Side One: Bodhisattva; Razor Boy; The Boston Rag; Your Gold Teeth

Side Two: Show Biz Kids; My Old School; Pearl of the Quarter; King of the World

Steely Dan's impressive second album Countdown to Ecstasy features their trademark of pristine arrangements and superior musicianship. Lyrically, there's a cinematic flourish with all the tracks spanning many genres from film noir, Sci-Fi, satire, and regionalism. 

"Bodhisattva" has the hallmarks of 50's jukebox rock record by way of a John Coltrane record. The song satirizes trendy 1970s Eastern spirituality on the West Coast. The metaphorical, xylophone punctuated "Razor Boy" creates a mood of dread and exhaustion. Heavy, infectious riffs on "The Boston Rag" describe a figure who may be a petulant child or part of an underworld. "Gold Teeth" is more of a jam track, the electric organs and frantic guitars conjure a heady atmosphere.

"Show Biz Kids" stomps along with a hypnotic chorus and describes surreal scenes in Las Vegas. "My Old School" goes for more of a straightforward narrative, describing a 1969 drug bust at Bard College when Donald Fagan was arrested, Watergate conspirator and Nixon associate G. Gordon Liddy made the arrests. But the girl who turned them in is the central figure of the song, a track could easily be mistaken for a pleasant nostalgia trip. "Pearl of the Quarter" describes a New Orleans scene, more sentimental than the rest. "King of the World" describes a post-Nuclear War world, musically like a '70s Dystopian film soundtrack. 

Musically and thematically adventurous, Countdown to Ecstasy can be read in a few ways, a snide response to prog rock, a proto hipster record, or a series of private jokes. 

The Albums of 1973: The Isley Brothers: 3+3

  Release Date: August 7, 1973 Members: Ronald Isley (vocals); Ernie Isley (lead guitar); Marvin Isley (bass); O'Kelly Isley (vocals); R...