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. 

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #2: You're Gonna Get It

Release Date: May 2, 1978 Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass); Stan...