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. 

Monday, June 15, 2020

Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti (1975)

Release Date: February 24, 1975

Active Members: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham

Produced by Jimmy Page

Side One: Custard Pie; The Rover; In My Time of Dying

Side Two: Houses of the Holy; Trampled Under Foot; Kashmir

Side Three: In the Light; Bron-Yr-Aur; Down by the Seaside; Ten Years Gone

Side Four: Night Flight; The Wanton Song; Boogie with Stu; Black Country Woman; Sick Again

Led Zeppelin's 1975 double album Physical Graffiti marked a creative peak for the band, displaying a range of styles with valuable contributions from all involved. Everything that's great about Led Zeppelin can be found on this album, from their bombastic blues driven rock to mystical folk. About half of the songs were outtakes from previous albums, reworked and given new life on this fantastic record.

"Custard Pie" opens the record on a hard rocking note, their trademark blues on steroids featuring an exuberant harmonica solo by Plant. "The Rover" points the way to 80s metal with its vague Sci-Fi landscape and industrial sound. The eleven minute "In My Time of Dying" muses on youth and death, in another feat of epic powerhouse rock. "Houses of the Holy" is a more melodic track, a smooth listen and a come on to Satan's daughter adding a Gothic overtone. "Trampled Under Foot" was inspired by Funk, hard driving and aggressive. "Kashmir" became on of the definitive Zeppelin tracks, inspired by a desert drive Jimmy Page took through Morocco. Its hypnotic rhythms showed off the band's versatility as recording artists.

The second disc begins with the staggering "In the Light," which is more in the prog rock tradition with its synth driven rhythm celebrating pagan themes of nature worship, as if attempting to conjure some ancient magic. "Bron-Yr-Aur" is a soft acoustic folk song, serving as an interlude. "Down by the Seaside"  is another pastoral in the Neil Young mode, Plant's vocal is especially pleasant here. "Ten Years Gone" is an onslaught of surreal riffs, a distant cousin to "Kashmir." 

"Night Flight" is a more traditional rock song with more irresistible riffs. "The Wanton Song" talks of witchcraft, while "Boogie With Stu" is another hypnotic retro blues/rock featuring Ian Stewart on piano. "Black Country Women" hints at exhaustion with life on the road. The closing track "Sick Again" reflects on the sorrows of decadent life when surrounded by groupies. The backstage antics of Led Zeppelin are well covered in Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis.

The double album holds a certain mystique in rock history, the Holy Grail many bands aspired to. Physical Graffiti is one of the masterworks in that tradition, not weighed down by excess nor pretentiousness. The music speaks for itself.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Albums of 1972: Exile on Main Street

Release Date: May 12, 1972

Active Members: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts

Produced by Jimmy Miller

Side One: Rocks Off; Rip This Joint; Shake Your Hips; Casino Boogie; Tumbling Dice

Side Two: Sweet Virginia; Torn and Frayed; Sweet Black Angel; Loving Cup

Side Three: Happy; Turd on the Run; Ventilator Blues; I Just Want to See His Face; Let it Loose

Side Four: All Down the Line; Stop Breaking Down; Shine a Light; Soul Survivor

Recorded over a three year period in shifting locales including London, Paris (living as tax exiles), to L.A. Exile on Main Street has earned a reputation as the THE STONES album. One explanation for its legendary status could be that it marked the end of an era for the Stones and rock music. The changing musical landscape of the 1970s would allow for a multitude of varying reactions and counter-reactions to the 1960s, staging the cultural divides of the coming decades. Exile on Main Street stands as en enticing marker that's not yet frozen in amber, but suffused with an everlasting vibrancy. 

The album gets off to a rousing start with "Rocks Off", setting the tone for the album's themes: decadence, desire, ennui, exhaustion, and desperation. "Rip This Joint" and "Shake Your Hips" both get to the misty origins of rock and roll. "Casino Boogie" is a call back to the band's R&B roots. "Tumbling Dice" is a signature song on the record with memorable riffs and melodic background vocals. "Sweet Virginia" is drenched in blues and gospel with a memorable chorus - used to great effect in Rian Johnson's 2019 film Knives Out. "Torn and Frayed" was inspired by the country rock of Gram Parsons. "Sweet Black Angel" is a stealth political song, inspired by activist Angela Davis. Jagger's slurred hillbilly lyrics masking its commentary on racial justice. The first disc ends with the soulful balladry of "Loving Cup," not unlike what The Faces were doing at the time. Like any great Stones it builds to a splendid crescendo with a horn section and barrel house piano.

Keith Richards memorably took over on lead vocals with "Happy", a hypnotic rocker. "Turd on the Run," "Ventilator Blues," and "I Just Want to See His Face" form something of a suite and evoke the heady atmosphere from which the album sprang. "Let it Loose" and "All Down the Line" fit more into the classical Stones song category, great rock and roll that would be imitated over and over again."Stop Breaking Down" was written by blues legend Robert Johnson featuring the Stones doing their best to channel the blues. "Shine a Light" and "Soul Survivor" are a welcome one-two punch to end Exile on Main Street, leaving one with the sense of coming through a soul draining ordeal, maybe not yet redeemed, but still alive. 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Peter Laughner: Box Set

In 2019 SmogVeil Records released a 5 disc set in vinyl (also available in CD and streaming) of Peter Laughner's recordings. Laughner (1952-1977) was a key figure of the Cleveland music scene during the 1970s, playing in numerous bands including the legendary Rocket from the Tombs. Although Laughner never recorded a proper album
, he left an indelible mark on the era.

Laughner (pronounced LOCK-NER) remains a something of a cult figure. Fans of Wilco will know Jeff Tweedy lifted his chorus for "Misunderstood" from Laughner's own rock and roll epic "Amphetamine." Laughner's presence also haunts The Cultural Dictionary of Punk by Nicholas Rombes, one of the best books on the era.  Determined to be the next Lou Reed, Laughner wrote rock criticism for Creem Magazine and started several bands, a few of which went on to long careers, most notably Pere Ubu.

This five disc retrospective provides a panorama of Laughner's music consisting mostly of live recordings. As a performer Laughner was self-effacing and displayed a range of styles. The mid-1970s music scene in Cleveland as a forerunner to punk. Bands like The Electric Eels and Rocket from the Tombs, created a nihilistic sound forged inside basement clubs embracing an age of decline and diminished expectations, a sound The Sex Pistols would popularize on their earthshaking 1976 album Never Mind the Bollocks

The first disc, Fat City Jive, features Laughner performing for local radio stations around Cleveland in September and November of 1972 with his band The Wolverines. These sets are mostly country and folk. Bob Dylan and Lou Reed covers are also interspersed throughout, including spirited renditions of Dylan's "Please Mrs. Henry" and "Love Minus Zero (No Limit)." Terry Hartman's sad and soulful "Drunkard's Lament" is also on the disc. Thomas Pynchon fans will be pleased to hear Laughner praise the novel V and the haunting song he performs from the book, "The Eyes of a New York Woman."

Disc 2, One of the Boys features live performances from 1974-75 throughout Northeast Ohio.  Consisting mostly of Velvet Underground covers including "Rock and Roll,"Heroin," and "White Light/White Heat." There's also "One of the Boys" by Mott the Hoople and "All Along the Watchtower" from Bob Dylan, which Laughner introduced by saying, "here's an apocalyptic vision for your Saturday night." These performances are sonic, almost operatic, somewhere between The Who and and what would become known as Punk.

Disc 3, Pledging My Time, features a collection of mostly acoustic home recordings, mostly written by Laughner. The lyrics are poetic, clearly influenced by Dylan and Lou Reed. "Baudelaire" is reminiscent of Dylan's "Visions of Johanna", "Down at the Bar" could be a Velvet Underground song. Robert Johnson's "32-20 Blues" appears with the introduction, "it's a really phallic song." Also included are the tender ballads "Sylvia Plath," "(My sister sold her heart to) the Junkman," and the melancholy Cleveland themed "Rain on the City."

The fourth disc Rock it Down features additional live cuts. "Ain't it Fun" was written by Laughner and Gene O'Conner for Rocket in the Tombs, later recorded by the Dead Boys. The version here is more rooted in the Blues, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors than what would become punk. "Amphetamine" from the "Ann Arbor Tapes" is toned down from the versions floating around youtube over the years, but it's a striking rock epic, in Peter's words, "a song about the place where the river catches on fire."

The fifth disc Nocturnal Digressions features the final recordings of Laughner, performed the night before he died in his bedroom. As accounts of Laughner from his former wife Charlotte Pressler and friend Lester Bangs attest, his refusal to stop drinking alcohol destroyed his health (he died from Pancreatitis). So these recordings are especially tragic and intimate, off the cuff and buoyant including "Slim Slow Slider," "Blank Generation," and "Pale Blue Eyes." "See No Evil," another Television song, is unforgettable. 

The "what if" questions for Laughner are tempting to consider, but mere speculation. A few years younger than Bruce Springsteen, both started out as regional figures and shared a belief in the transcendent power of rock and roll, but not in the macho or spaced out spiritual sense. It was in the music's power to evolve and provide personal liberation, a new poetry. These recordings trace the evolution of an artist with a truncated trajectory embedded with the spirit of a specific time and place. 

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 Jo...