Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Albums of 1971: Three Dog Night: Harmony


Release Date: September 30, 1971

Active Members: Michael Allsup (guitar); Jimmy Greenspoon (keyboards); Danny Hutton (vocals); Chuck Negron (vocals); Joe Schermie (bass); Floyd Sneed (drums); Cory Wells (vocals)

Produced by Richard Podolor

Track List: Never Been to Spain; My Impersonal Life; An Old Fashioned Love Song; Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer; Jam; You; Night in the City; Murder In My Heart for the Judge; The Family of Man; Intro Poem: Mistakes and Illusions/Peace of Mind

Chances are if you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s your Dad would have a Three Dog Night album somewhere in his record stack. A highly successful band from 1968-75 with 21 Top Forty hits including three number ones, Three Dog Night became one of the bedrock bands of FM oldies radio. They were also unusual, at least from today's perspective, in that they primarily recorded songs written by other artists, not only popularizing the songs but also the singer/songwriters. The three lead vocalists Danny Hutton, Chuck Negron, and Cory Wells were the constant members with a constantly shifting lineup of musicians through the years.

Their seventh studio album Harmony was no exception, highlighting the songwriting of Hoyt Axton and Paul Williams, Axton's "Joy to the World" had been been a major hit in the spring of '71. Harmony opened with Axton's "Never Been to Spain," a narrator lamenting his lack of travel experience but still finding joy in the environment around him. Cory Wells performed a soulful vocal set to a rollicking bar band theatrics in support. "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song" written by Williams playfully satirizes love song theatrics performed with soul and hint of psychedelia by Three Dog Night (it's gotta be a karaoke favorite). "The Family of Man" (written by Paul Williams/Jack Conrad) looks at the future with trepidation with its focus on ecological concerns (slightly sounds like The Beatles song "It's All Too Much").

"My Impersonal Life" is a power ballad of introspection, "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" by Stevie Wonder as sung by Negron turns into classic rock/soul ballad. "Jam' and "You" are somewhat less memorable, but Joni Mitchell's "Night in the City" recalls 60s pop with its countercultural mood. Moby Grape's "Murder in My Heart for the Judge" borders on hard rock. The album ends with a poem set to the piano, not the worst way to close out a record. 

Harmony is a fun album, a sort of variety show showcasing some of the finest songwriting, vocals, and musicianship of the era. Do we need a Three Dog Night these days? With music continually fragmenting into multiple genres, could a band popularize songwriters who need a boost? 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Albums of 1971: Graham Nash: Songs For Beginners

Release Date: May 28, 1971

Written and Produced by Graham Nash

Contributors: Pretty much everyone on the California scene at that time! (David Crosby, Rita Coolidge, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and many more)

Side One: Military Madness; Better Days; Wounded Bird; I Used to Be a King; Be Yourself (Co-written with Terry Reid)

Side Two: Simple Man; Man in the Mirror; There's Only One; Sleep Song; Chicago; We Can Change the World

All members of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young released solo records in 1971. Songs for Beginners marked the solo debut of Graham Nash who had written many hits for The Hollies including "On a Carousal" and "Carrie Ann." Deja Vu from 1970 had proved a massive hit for CSNY and skyrocketed the careers of all four members. Song for Beginners benefitted from a parade of the best session musicians on the West Coast dropping in to make contributions. The tracks on the record are mostly personal with a few commenting on the political scene, the personal and political converge nicely on the opening track "Military Madness."

The melodic intro opens with an autobiographical verse:

In an upstairs room in Blackpool
By the side of a northern sea
The army had my father
And my mother was having me

In the next verse Nash reflects on moving to America in the midst of the Vietnam War and seeing its emotional toll on his generation and a "solitary sadness" creeping over him. In the next verse he reflects:

And after the wars are over
And the body count is finally filed
I hope the The Man discovers
What's driving the people wild

It's a sentiment that connects to any time period, living in war or pandemic.

"Chicago" and its refrain "We Can Change the World" reflect on the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Chicago 8 trial. The song presents those events as a precipice for a generation, "We can change the world/it's dying/to get better." Nash was in Chicago for the convention which adds a personal touch to the universal message common to music of this era. 

Nash had been in a relationship with Joni Mitchell and many of the songs reflect on its end. "Better Days" is about the sadness of it ending, but accepts the other is moving on. "Wounded Bird" is an acoustic number addressed to Stephen Stills, was also dealing with a breakup. "I Used to be a King" reflects on loss, building from a morose mood to an uplifting coda. The introspection of "Be Yourself" sounds similar to a Neil Young song era is the best produced track on the album.

"Simple Man" and "Sleep Song" are both gentle songs of longing, "Man in the Mirror" reflects on how to live and the tension between turning inward out outward. "There's Only One" muses on the fate of his generation with a sense of trepidation and hope.

Songs for Beginners stands alongside all the great music coming emerging from the west coast during the early 1970s. The album proved influential on many indie rock bands evidenced by the tribute album recorded in 2010 that featured Robin Pecknold, Bonnie Prince Billy,  and Vetiver. Graham's daughter Nile Nash performed "Wounded Bird."

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Albums of 1971: The Staple Singers: The Staple Swingers

Release Date: June 15, 1971

Active Members: Cleotha Staples, Mavis Staples and Yvonne Staples (lead and backing vocals) Roebuck "Pops" Staples (vocals, guitar); Terry Manning (guitar)

Produced by Al Bell

Side One: This Is A Perfect World; What's Your Thing; You've Got to Earn It; You're Gonna Make Me Cry; Little Boy; How Do You Move a Mountain

Side Two: Almost; I'm A Lover; Love is Plentiful; Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na- Boom Boom); I Like the Things About You; Give a Hand, Take a Hand

The Staple Singers had been making records since the early 1950s, based in Chicago they established themselves as a masterful gospel recording artists and eventually transitioned into pop and soul. Their 1971 LP The Staple Swingers featured a few changes with a new producer in Al Bell who recorded the rhythm tracks at Muscle Shoals and Yvonne Staples replacing her brother Pervis who had enlisted in the army. The result is an upbeat record during a tumultuous era with the Civil Rights Movement splintering, the Vietnam War still raging, Nixon's divisive brand of politics, and the rise of Black Power.

"This Is A Perfect World' calls for unity, the gospel infused message the world is indeed perfect but people mess it up for petty reasons. An adventurous opening track with elements of pop, soul, and gospel. "America the Beautiful" is mixed into the bridges to comment on the sense of optimism and trepidation about going forward. "What's Your Thing" also builds into an anthem connecting social justice, love, and faith. The refrain goes:

My Thing is love
My thing is freedom, well
My thing is piece
What's Your Thing?

"You've Got To Earn It" was a Temptations song, the Staples version puts the horns up front with vocals providing an edge absent in the Temptations original. A gospel infused lament of loss "You're Gonna Make Me Cry" builds to a nice crescendo. "Little Boy" features Pops on lead vocals provides advice to the younger generation coming up. "How Do You Move a Mountain" juxtaposes having faith in the face of the insurmountable challenges presented by the world. 

"Almost" opens with a haunting intro of staccato horns and builds up to a meditation on loss. "I'm A Lover" and "Love Is Plentiful" are both in the same vein, upbeat and celebratory. "Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na boom boom)" continues with the positive vibes, "I Like the Things About You" is in more a swamp rock style to switch up the pace. The closing track, "Give a Hand, Take a Hand" was written by the Gibb brothers Maurice and Barry is gentle, reassuring, hopeful. 

While The Staple Swingers did not produce a hit single in 1971 ("Heavy Makes You Happy" peaked at #27), The Staple Singers would score a #1 the following year with "I'll Take You There." Despite not producing a hit, the album was well produced with inspired vocals throughout. The hopeful themes on the album never shy away from the realities facing America. The final result might be a safe record, but one full of great music. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Albums of 1971: Lee Moses: Time and Place

Track Listing:

1) Time and Place 2) Got That Will 3) What You Don't Want Me to Be 4) California Dreaming 5) Every Boy and Girl 6) Hey Joe 7) Free At Last 8) Would You Give Up Everything 9) Adorable One

Now considered one of the finest soul LP's of the 1970s, Time and Place would be the only album Lee Moses (1941-1998) ever recorded. A fixture of the Atlantic music scene and later a session musician in New York City during the mid 1960s, Moses was a peer of Jimi Hendrix and many noted similarities in their guitar playing styles. Moses also had a distinct vocal style comparable Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett that's also on display throughout Time and Place

The record gets off to a fantastic start with "Time and Place" featuring a melodic bass line and horns. Pioneering funk band The Ohio Players from Dayton appear on many of the tracks with Moses's own band The Disciples. "Got That Will" name drops many of the famous soul bands of the day from Sly and the Family Stone to The Allman Brothers, with Moses promising to join their ranks. "What You Don't Want Me to Be" is soulful and psychedelic with Moses delivering an impassioned performance. Next is a version of "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and the Papas, slowed down into a wearier and haunting interpretation. "Every Boy and Girl" is a quiet ballad of loss. 

A cover of Hendrix's "Hey Joe" slows the heavy rock of the original version into a groove that gradually builds. "Free at Last" pays homage to Martin Luther King and reflects on the Civil Rights Movement with a subtle mournful tone. "Would You Give Up Everything" and "Adorable One" both address love and sacrifice, the closing track is especially poignant with an epic vibe of longing and things coming to an end. 

Despite its high quality Time and Place failed to gain traction. By the mid-1970s Moses had left the music business, although it was believed he would sometimes make appearances at clubs around Atlanta. Information remains scant on Moses's later life, but the common word most attributed to his music and life is enigmatic. Time and Place become a highly sought after cult album for collectors, but was finally reissued in 2016, while in 2019 a more fuller collection of his recordings, mostly consisting of singles and B-sides, was released appropriately titled How Long Must I Wait.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Albums of 1970: Paul McCartney: McCartney

Release Date: April 17, 1970

Produced by Paul McCartney

Contributors: Linda McCartney (vocals)

Side One: The Lovely Linda; That Would Be Something; Valentine Day; Every Night; Hot as Sun/Glasses; Junk; Man We Was Lonely

Side Two: Oo You; Momma Miss America; Teddy Boy; Singalong Junk; Maybe I'm Amazed; Kreen-Akore

With his former bandmates releasing heavy going solo records in 1970, Paul went in the opposite direction. McCartney features Paul on all the instruments with backup vocals contributed by his wife Linda. If George on All Things Must Pass and John on Plastic Ono Band were rebelling against the idea of The Beatles in their own way, Paul was taking the concept further. A mélange of pop songs and instrumentals with gleefully inane lyrics, McCartney got a cool reception, but has aged well and remains influential. 

"The Lovely Linda" begins the album on a cheerful note. Paul was open about his depression and loss of confidence after The Beatles ended, crediting Linda with giving him a sense of purpose. "That Would Be Something" has Paul channeling Elvis in a primal rock song, minimal production and the sheer power of the guitar, vocal, and spare lyrics. "Valentine Day" is a rocking instrumental, fragmented, but effective. The cathartic "Every Night" expresses Paul's disoriented state of mind as the Beatles were ending and finding refuge in peace and quintessence of home life. "Hot as Sun/Glasses" is more of an Avant Garde pop showcases on the White Album, while "Junk" also veers to the experimental side with its dada lyrics and melancholy vocal. "Man We Was Lonely" features Paul and Linda on duet, country western in sentiment and style.

"Oo You" builds a complete track out of a riff, "Momma Miss America" a piano driven instrumental that builds into a guitar solo. These two songs that would never make it on a Beatles record, therefore the liberating vibe. "Teddy Boy" was recorded by The Beatles for the Let it Be sessions but vetoed by the rest. Granted, not on the level of "Eleanor Rigby", but McCartney had a knack for creating fictional characters. "Singalong Junk" is a reprise of "Junk", sort of a lounge act version. "Maybe I'm Amazed" was a hit single and considered one of Paul's greatest love songs, soulful and in the moment. The song was used on The Simpsons, including a "hidden message" vegetarian recipe. "Kreen-Akore" sounds like a parody of the Abbey Road melody, ending the album on an idiosyncratic note. 

All Things Must Pass and Plastic Ono Band are both great, but they can be exhausting. McCartney is a fun collection of songs and reminder The Beatles at their best were comical, smart, and experimental. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Albums of 1970: John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band

Release Date: December 11, 1970

Produced by Phil Spector

Contributors: Klaus Voormann (Bass), Ringo Starr (Drums)

Side One: Mother; Hold On; I Found Out; Working Class Hero; Isolation

Side Two: Remember; Love; Well Well Well; Look at Me; God; My Mummy's Dead

Plastic Ono Band is John Lennon at his most rawest and emotionally honest. A far cry from the Beatles records, the album attempted to come to terms with his painful past. On the closing track "God" when Lennon pronounces "I don't believe in Beatles," he's deferring the dreams of the 1960s to another time, a farewell to limitless idealism The Beatles represented and accepting hard truths, while bracing for struggles ahead.

With spare production featuring a guitar, drum, piano, and bass, the music is minimal and direct. After undergoing Primal Scream therapy under the direction of psychologist Arthur Janov, Lennon was dealing with childhood traumas. The opening track "Mother" is about being abandoned by his parents. Raised by his aunt, Lennon did not establish a relationship with his Mom until he was a teenager, only to lose her (she was killed by a drunk driver). His father, a merchant seaman, only reached out when his son became famous. As the song progresses Lennon begins to scream the lyrics, daring to make the listener uncomfortable in his search for catharsis. 

"Hold on John" breaks the gloom of "Mother" with John offering himself and listeners some encouragement, even imitating Sesame Street character "Cookie Monster". The final verse still resonates:

When you're by yourself

And there's no one else

You just have yourself

And you tell yourself

Just to hold on

"I Found Out" echoes "Sexy Sadie" from the White Album, only it's more acidic in tone. Rejecting both organized religion and New Age spirituality, Lennon declares "ain't no Jesus gonna come from the sky" and "there ain't no guru who can see through your eyes." 

Following "I Found Out" comes arguably the most political song Lennon ever wrote "Working Class Hero." The acoustic guitar drone and Lennon's angry, despairing lyrics deal with how the ruling class manipulates working people through various means. It can be through physical abuse at home or school, or through psychological methods:

When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years

Then they expect you to pick a career

Or they will send you off to war to kill your fellow man. Despite gains made towards a more just society, Lennon sees little progress, "you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see." One could throw the charge of hypocrisy at Lennon, of all the Beatles he came from the most affluent of families. And he benefitted from the capitalist system, which allowed him to live a comfortable materialist lifestyle. Still, the sentiment and power of the song, especially in a time period when the ruling elites continue to wage class war on working people.

Side one ends with "Isolation," another meditation on Lennon's raw state of mind and pessimism about the world. Feeling disconnected and disillusioned, pointing his finger at the metaphorical figure responsible for all the pain in the world, but with a tinge of empathy:

I don't expect you to understand

After you've caused so much pain

But then again, you're not to blame

You're just a human, a victim of the insane

"Remember" features John pounding the piano with Ringo's steady drumbeat. Inspired by the Primal Scream therapy, with stark lyrics dealing with childhood dreams crashing down, promises unfulfilled. Respites featuring a doo-wop aside eases the tension, but inevitably ends with an explosion and Lennon screaming "Remember the Fifth of November!"

"Love" is song of solace and a continuation of the Beatles classic "All You Need is Love." Inspired by his relationship with Yoko Ono, his wife and primary collaborator at the time, hopeful but layered with a fractured beauty in the melody. "Well Well Well" suggested punk and grunge before each were fashionable, with Lennon playing a blistering guitar describing daily life with Yoko. One also gets a sense of self loathing in the song, perhaps expressing a frustration with his inability to change himself much less the world. "Look at Me" is a quiet acoustic number Lennon wrote during a trip to India in 1968, introspective and gentle. 

"God" reiterated the ideas explored in "I Found Out," expanding the themes into an anthem against hero-worship. Guided by a mournful piano Lennon declares "the dream is over" and goes on to list various political, religious, and cultural figures he no longer believes in. The message to listeners; Start thinking for yourselves. Stop seeking leaders with selfish agendas. "My Mummy's Dead" serves as a coda, a 49 second fragment of a song with John musing on his Mom Julia, providing a bookend to the record. 

Plastic Ono Band resonates 50 years later. Glancing at youtube comments, many compare the album to Kurt Cobain. No doubt true, but Nirvana is part of history now as well. The raw emotions Lennon explores on the album have the sense of immediacy, juxtaposing personal turmoil with the that of the world. Lennon realized he could not change the world, but he could change himself. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Release Date: September 28, 1976

Produced by Stevie Wonder

Side One: Love's in Need of Love Today; Have a Talk With God; Village Ghetto Land; Contusion; Sir Duke

Side Two: I Wish; Knocks Me Off My Feet; Pastime Paradise; Summer Soft; Ordinary Pain

Side Three: Isn't She Lovely; Joy Inside My Tears; Black Man

Side Four: Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing; If It's Magic; As; Another Star

Songs in the Key of Life was the culmination of a succession of Stevie Wonder albums that earned critical and popular acclaim during the mid 1970s.

The album begins with "Love's in Need of Love Today," a song desperately needed in 2020 but anytime really, an anthem against hate and bitterness. A seven minute track full of rich harmony and prescient sentiments. The spiritual and wonderfully "Have a Talk With God" also speaks to loneliness and feeling overwhelmed. "Village Ghetto Land" paints a grim portrait of the inner city, one of starvation, violence, and grief. It's a vision of a place without love. "Contusion" is an instrumental track that serves as a nice interlude into "Sir Duke." A celebration of music as a universal language of hope, Wonder also pays tribute to musicians of the past, "Sir Duke" was Duke Ellington. Driven by horns and Wonder's stirring vocal, the song is an expression of pure joy.

Side two starts out with "I Wish" which recalls Stevie's trouble making days from childhood. Although he gave adults a hard time and realizes it was wrong, it sure was "outta sight" at the time and asks, "Why did those days ever have to go?" "Knocks Me Off My Feet" is a straight up love song that builds up with more stirring harmonies. The influential "Pastime Paradise" looks at the world and laments how many would prefer to live in the past. But many also live in a future paradise, imagining and working towards a better world. "Summer Soft" goes through the cycle of the year through the lens of heartbreak and how the seasons influence our moods. "Ordinary Pain" begins as typically male point of view broken heart lament, but then breaks into funk driven response from the female perspective sung by Shirley Brewer with some harsh truths about the man's wrong headed expectations about the relationship, "go tell your sad sob story."

"Isn't She Lovely" was written for Wonder's young daughter Aisha and instantly become a pop standard. "Joy Inside My Tears" is a soulful that turns into an extended jam of gratefulness. "Black Man" is another song with a progressive message, a call for a more inclusive history, reminding all to remember the accomplishments of all cultures and races throughout history. 

"Ngiculela" is sung in Spanish, Zulu, and English. Like "Love's in Need of Love" the song imagines world harmony set to a catchy calypso beat. "If It's Magic" is almost minimal with a spare arrangement of a harmonica and harp. "As" is a seven minute track celebrating unconditional love that evolves into celebratory encapsulation of all the themes of joy, peace, and understanding on the record. The exuberant final track "Another Star" topped Disco and Easy Listening Charts and lets the album fade out on a mellow note. 

Songs in the Key of Life demands repeated plays. It's melodic production and poignant themes are timeless. It's upbeat, but never shies away from reality or falls into a false optimism. The music never sounds dated, sounding more vibrant than ever. 

The Albums of 1971: Three Dog Night: Harmony

  Release Date: September 30, 1971 Active Members: Michael Allsup (guitar); Jimmy Greenspoon (keyboards); Danny Hutton (vocals); Chuck Negro...