Monday, April 16, 2012

QUEEN: QUEEN II (1974)


QUEEN: QUEEN II (1974)
14/15
1. Procession; 2. Father to Son; 3. White Queen (As It Began); 4. Some Day One Day; 5. The Loser In the End; 6. Ogre Battle; 7. The Fairy Teller's Master Stroke; 8. Nevermore; 9. March of the Black Queen; 10. Funny How Love Is; 11. Seven Seas of Rhye
Best song: OGRE BATTLE

Every band has that album that, although it's one of the least known by the general public, is revered by a segment of fans, usually due to a combination of a small difference from a band's established sound (while still unmistakably them) and lack of radio hits. Just to throw out some random examples, for Pink Floyd, it's Animals, for Dire Straits it's Love Over Gold, for Genesis it could be basically any album from their first decade. For Queen, a group where every album from their third on has contributed a number of radio standards that have infiltrated the public conscious, that album is Queen II, and, true to form for such albums, it's one of their best. Like the debut, it's unmistakably Queen, but it's darker, heavier, and proggier than the Queen many are used to. Hell, this stuff could be considered prog metal, if such a term had existed in 1974. In fact, Queen were actually pioneers of that particular genre weird as that might sound, but consider the fact that Dream Theater has covered some of their early songs and it doesn't sound all that different. If only they'd covered "Bicycle Race" or something, now THAT would've been amusing. But I digress.

Anyway, this album is some short of concept album, what with Side 1 being the "White Side" (bluegrass) and Side 2 being the "Black Side" (hip-hop). Seriously, though, the only real concept seems to be that May's songs are all on the White Side, with Taylor's thrown in at the end, and Mercury gets the suite of sorts that makes up the Black Side. And I guess it all takes place in Rhye, and it's a battle of good and evil or something, it really doesn't matter. Queen lyrics as a whole don't really matter that much, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

After the minute-long "Procession," the album gets going with "Father to Son," a multi-parted monster from May with some great Freddie singing and some monstrous heavy riffing by  Brian in the middle section, the song doesn't get boring at all despite lasting over six minutes. "White Queen (As It Began)" mellows things out a little with Freddie showing off his more tender side (he can pretty much sing anything, but thank God he never tried to rap), with more great guitar work (including some harder lines in the middle), and Brian gets his first lead vocal on "Some Day One Day." He's obviously no Freddie, but he has a good voice that provides a nice change of pace. He actually sounds closer to Freddie than Paul Rodgers, if you'll indulge me in beating that dead horse again. And at the end, there's actually three different guitar solos dubbed over each other! How cool is that? The White Side ends with Taylor's much-maligned "The Loser In the End," but I must admit that I absolutely love it. That echoey drum part at the beginning is worth the price of admission by itself, and the song, while admittedly somewhat derivative, does have a strong melody. It's actually one of the more single-ready songs on the album, if Roger hadn't sung it I'm sure it would've been released as one.

As great as the White Side is, though, Freddie's Black Side is where the real meat of this album is. The highlight is the opening "Ogre Battle," with an almost thrash riff and some more great singing. So what if it's about a goddamn ogre battle, which could theoretically sound fruity as hell, this song rocks like a motherfucker. And Freddie composed it on acoustic guitar? My mind is blown every time I read that. "The Fairy-Teller's Master Stroke" allows Mr. Mercury to indulge in some of his more...fey tendencies, and "Nevermore" is absolutely heartbreakingly sung even if, again, the lyrics don't fully make sense, but these two songs are basically the warm-up for "March of the Black Queen." I guess Freddie realized early in the writing period that he had about 12 different song ideas that weren't going anywhere, so he just kinda smashed them all together into six and a half minutes. This song had too many overdubs to play fully live (the uptempo section about 4 minutes in was part of a medley), but it's definitely the proto-"Bohemian Rhapsody" and is just as amazing as that implies.  Freddie uses about six different voices, and the instrumentalists all do a great job switching between the sections. This includes Freddie, who's actually a damn good pianist--he wouldn't be a household name or anything, but he could've found work as a keyboard player. "Funny How Love Is" features more cool vocal overdubs, and then we finally get to the "hit" of the album (it was a bit of a flop, but it has since become beloved), "Seven Seas of Rhye" which I guess sums up everything that's happened on the side. The way the songs all run together gives the side a real sense of cohesiveness, even though in reality I suspect that they have fuckall to do with each other. Either way, it's a pretty amazing bit of music.

Even more than the debut, this shows off a side of Queen that radio listeners might not be familiar with, but is all the more worth checking out for it. There's not a single song that even approaches weak, and although it's hard to realize just how groundbreaking some of this must have sounded in 1974. One more thing--since I couldn't find anywhere else to mention him, props to John Deacon for his work on this album, contributing some great bass runs and also providing much of the acoustic guitar lines. He'll start writing next album, but for now, he's serving his purpose well. Proof that just because a band isn't technically a "democracy" that all the members can't have a large impact. Anyway, this is probably my second favorite Queen album, and it's nice for my music snobbery to realize that even though I'm listening to Queen, I'm still listening to songs none of my friends have ever heard.

PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE (1971)


PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE (1971)
13/15
1. One of These Days; 2. A Pillow of Winds; 3. Fearless; 4. San Tropez; 5. Seamus; 6. Echoes
Best song: ECHOES

NOW we're talking! Second time's the charm for the prog inclination of Pink Floyd--taking the lessons learned from making Atom Heart Mother, the group reconvened and created their first post-Syd masterpiece. Notably, for now the group was done splitting off and doing solo songs--only San Tropez is credited solely to one band member here. The group has also hardened up their sound somewhat, as "One of These Days" and parts of "Echoes" are among the most rocking tracks in the group's history. Finally, they keep the weird experiments to a minimum, only "Seamus," starring a singing dog named Seamus, is one final throwback to the bizarre shit on their last few albums. It's pretty dumb, but it's over in a scant 2:16 and then the album moves onto "Echoes." Plus, if nothing else, a reworked version of the song created a pretty cool visual in the Live at Pompeii film, so there's that at least.

Obviously, the album is best known for its opening and closing tracks, but this is understandable as they take up almost a half hour and are absolute classics, but the other three non-"Seamus" tracks on Side 1 are pretty great, too. "A Pillow of Winds" is, shockingly, a beautiful acoustic love song with some pleasant Gilmour vocals. Even better is the fan favorite "Fearless"--good God what a riff on that song! Some of Roger's best lyrics excellently sung by Dave, and one of Floyd's few experiments with conventional song structure is a real winner. It's an absolute travesty that this song isn't clogging up the airwaves along with Floyd's better known hits. Maybe the football (the gay kind) chanting at the end could've been shortened a little bit, but I don't care. Finally, Roger's utterly bizarre "San Tropez" sounds like Jimmy Buffett (although I don't think he was a thing yet in '71) and features him sounding happy, something that will become more and more rare, but this song is proof that he didn't just pop out of the womb wanting to slit his wrists. Love Rick's brief piano solo, too.

Great as these songs are, though, they're not the main attraction. What everyone's here for is "One of These Days" and "Echoes." The songs are really the beginning of the classic "Pink Floyd sound," and I'd say that they perfected them on later albums, but there really isn't a hell of a lot that needs to be perfected. "One of These Days" starts out with an amazing bass groove (played by both Roger and Dave) that lasts for over three minutes but never gets boring, and then Nick Mason justifies not being replaced with a computer by...saying his most important vocal line as if he were a computer. Nah, I kid, his "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces!" line is genuinely threatening (it scared the hell out of my mom the first time I played this song for her), and then Dave diddles around on his guitar for awhile, and then the song's over. I'm surprised it isn't used in more movie soundtracks when something ominous is supposed to be happening, especially under its Japanese title--"Blow Wind! Call Forth Storm!" No, I don't have a clue as to why, it just is.

And if you thought THAT was amazing, just flip over to side 2, or wait for your iPod to go to the next song, and be prepared for 23 and a half minutes of aural delight. Wheras "Atom Heart Mother" had good ideas but was overlong, I would not lose ONE SECOND of "Echoes." That's right, I'm fine with the whale song/torture section being as long as it is, and that's the only part that ANYONE should have any misgivings about (I'll accept that it could be shortened by 2 minutes, after that, you're wrong and fuck you).  That opening "ping" is an absolutely iconic moment, of course, and Dave and Rick finally get around to showing what a powerful vocal force they can be when they harmonize together, delivering maritime-themed lyrics that fit the tone of the song perfectly. Dave takes multiple great solos, there's an awesome "funk" section (it's not really funky at all, but this is Pink fucking Floyd we're talking about), the triumphant buildup out of the "depths" of the noise section into the final verse, and finally the fantastic coda. I could go on, but you really need to hear this song for yourself. A highlight of the band's amazing career.

So now the band is truly getting somewhere, and is easily recognizable as the band that will shoot to international stardom in two short years. If you like Dark Side and haven't heard this, rectify that mistake immediately, and you'll be so thankful, you'll want to send me large amounts of money. I guarantee it so much that if you don't, I'll send YOU money.*

*Guarantee will not be honored.

PINK FLOYD: RELICS (1971)


PINK FLOYD: RELICS (1971)
No rating (compilation)
1. Arnold Layne; 2. Interstellar Overdrive; 3. See Emily Play; 4. Remember a Day; 5. Paintbox; 6. Julia Dream; 7. Careful With That Axe, Eugene; 8. Cirrus Minor; 9. The Nile Song; 10. Biding My Time; 11. Bike
Best song: SEE EMILY PLAY

Compilation thrown together during the Meddle sessions which for years was the easiest place to get some of the early singles that never made it onto an album, an entertaining throwback to the pre-Internet years when hearing "See Emily Play" was actually a sort of accomplishment Floyd fans worked towards (I presume, I wasn't alive back then). Now that the Internet exists there's no good reason for anybody not to have any of these songs, but this is as good a place as any to talk about the non-album stuff. I'm also gonna be discussing the other early singles that never made an album (thankfully, since the band didn't actually release UK singles after "Point Me At the Sky" flopped, they cut this shit out).

The main attractions here are, of course, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," the songs that briefly made Syd-era Floyd a pop sensation despite the former being banned by the Beeb for being about a transvestite. What is it with the Beeb and wanting to ban everything in the least bit controversial? For that matter, what the hell's the British obsession with transvestites? Great song, though, and "Emily" is even better. My favorite moment is that strange five-second harpsichord(?) break after the first verse, but the feedback guitar solo is pretty cool, too. Rick's "Paintbox" (the b-side to the third single, "Apples and Oranges") is pretty great, as well, especially those cool drum fills. One of my favorite Rick songs, and one that deserves more recognition. Particularly notable are the antisocial lyrics already popping up in Rick's writing (pun not intended). Unfortunately, Roger's "Julia Dream" is uneventful if pleasant, and the studio version of "Careful With That Axe, Eugene," despite being shorter than the Ummagumma version by a good 3 minutes, isn't a tenth as interesting. The buildup seems rushed, the scream is mediocre, and the middle section isn't as intense. Bleh. Luckily, though, there's the otherwise unavailable "Biding My Time" a lounge music(!) piece written and sung by Roger (!!) featuring Rick playing trombone and Dave throwing down some blistering leads. Originally from their onstage Man and the Journey suite (which mainly consisted of re-titlings of old songs thrown into some vague concept), it sounds nothing like Pink Floyd as anyone knows them but is a hoot in spite of, or perhaps because of that.

I might as well point out the other songs from this era here, too--the most essential is "Arnold Layne" b-side "Candy and a Currant Bun." Originally this was titled "Let's Roll Another One," the powers that be had them edit the song to eliminate  the drug references (why coke-addled record execs are so against drug references is beyond me), but Syd slipped in the line "please just fuck with me" into the first chorus. You have to listen for it (he really says "falk," if we're being technical), but once you hear it once you can't un-hear it. Was this the first use of "fuck" on an officially released single? Any information would be greatly appreciated. Also, Roger busts out his scream for the first time here. Syd's final single for the group, "Apples and Oranges" is well-written but overproduced to hell, that midsection with all the high-pitched voices DEFINITELY didn't need to be there. Also notable is the awful promo video, shot after Dave had joined the band, where Roger does an awful job lip-synching (in his defense, it might just seem so terrible because I know it's not him actually singing). Rick's "It Would Be So Nice," the a-side to "Julia Dream," is also overproduced all to hell, but at least this time it was an act of self-sabotage, supposedly after the song was recorded Rick locked himself in the studio and overdubbed his vocals and keys into absolute oblivion where the song just becomes a mess, even though the song itself is fairly decent, if still one of Rick's lesser efforts ("Paintbox" should've been an a-side!) Finally, the Waters/Gilmour effort "Point Me At The Sky" flopped so badly that the band didn't release a British single for 11 years, but it's a good song, despite yet more shitty production on the outro, this time trying to make a rather straightforward guitar solo sound psychedelic. Also of note are two unreleased by highly available Syd songs, "Scream Thy Last Scream" and "Vegetable Man." The former has a surprisingly decent vocal turn from Nick Mason and some crazy guitar solos, while the latter sounds almost punkish and features some almost uncomfortably self-aware lyrics. The only reason I can think of that they never bothered to officially release these is that anyone who would want them already has the fucking things.

So, yeah, this compilation itself is a little unnecessary, but you do need most of these songs. I recommend finding them in whatever way you can (my legal team would like me to note here that I do not endorse illegal downloading in any shape or form, if that shape or form involves me getting in trouble. Which it won't, so go nuts).

THE KINKS: LOLA VS. POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND (PART ONE) (1970)


THE KINKS: LOLA VS. POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND (PART ONE)
12/15
1. introduction; 2. The Contenders; 3. Strangers; 4. Denmark Street; 5. Get Back In Line; 6. Lola; 7. Top of the Pops; 8. The Moneygoround; 9. This Time Tomorrow; 10. A Long Way From Home; 11. Rats; 12. Apeman; 13. Powerman; 14. Got To Be Free
Best song: LOLA (duh)

After the complete triumph that was Arthur, it's obvious that there was going to be a little bit of a comedown. Don't get me wrong, Lola is still a very good album, it's just not as amazing as what came before it, and the genericism I first hinted at in my Arthur review has began to set in a little. The American touring ban had been lifted, and, although this might be pure speculation on my part, it seems as if Ray was willing to give up a bit of the band's distinctive Britishness to try to make inroads across the pond. Again, this largely works, and I give the album a freaking 12, just saying not to make the mistake I did and consider this the most important Kinks album to get because it's the one with "Lola" on it.

Now, of course, going after the radio did pay some dividends with the absolutely magnificent "Lola." It's the one Kinks song that everyone knows (even "You Really Got Me" might be better known in the Van Halen version), and man does it deserve it. It's not my absolute favorite song by the band, of course, but it's rare enough that a band's biggest, most well-known song even makes my top 5. This is one of those songs that I'd heard since I was like five years old, and I still remember the shock when I realized exactly what it was about! Even beyond the risqué (for 1970, at least) subject matter, who can deny the opening chords Ray plays on his National Steel guitar (to make many more appearances)? The album's other hit single, "Apeman," is basically "Lola" with island rhythms, but it's still pretty great. Ray's island accent is pretty terrible (and since when did Jamaica have apes anyway? That's always bugged the hell out of me), but it has another set of great lyrics. I especially love how, for the single version, he had to  re-record "the air pollution is a-foggin' up my eyes" because foggin' sounded too much like "fuckin'". To tell you the truth, I'm not convinced he isn't saying "fucking." Crafty bastard. Of course, "Lola" had to be re-recorded because it referenced fucking Coca-Cola (changed to cherry cola), so God knows what the BBC was thinking (then again, they were so busy objecting to the "advertising" they missed the whole transvestite thing, so I guess that's in the band's favor).

Now, outside of the singles, the rest of the album is a rather loose concept album about how the record companies suck the soul out of their artists and turn them into automated machines. Of course, in 2012 writing about this topic is about as original as making jokes about record company execs snorting a lot of cocaine, and only a complete fucking hack would actually try to mine material out of that well, but in 1970 there was still a lot of uncharted ground to cover. Now, the actual song "Lola" has fuckall to do with the actual plot as far as I can tell--Cap'n Marvel hypothesized that it was actually the fictional band's big hit song, which makes the most sense to me, or maybe being in the music biz just gets you access to lots of trannies. And coke. Other than that, the plot plays out pretty much how you'd expect--guys leaves home, bums around London for awhile, gets a big hit, discovers the execs don't actually care about him as an artist and are all coke-snorting pieces of shit, plans to break free and finally does. Ray and Dave, who returns from songwriting exile with "Strangers" and "Rats," really more or less make it work though.

"Introduction" and "The Contenders" are more scene-setters than anything, but Dave's haggard "Strangers" is a real highlight. Lines like "If I live too long I'm afraid I'll die" aren't quite as profound as he probably intended, but his worn vocals really make the song. Dave's other contribution, the proto-punk "Rats," has one of the band's greatest riffs and another great melody. Among Ray's other highlights, "The Moneygoround" is a fun little music-hall jaunt about how everybody's cashing in on the group's success, and the closing "Got To Be Free" makes for a nice triumphant end. The real highlight, though, is "Powerman" which marries a set of great riffs to an awesome chorus melody. I especially like the Dave-sung bridge section. Finally, "Get Back In Line" is too slow and draggy for me to want to listen to it often, but it does have excellent lyrics.

The other songs aren't bad, it just seems like Ray was more interested in setting up his little plot than he was in making interesting stand-alone songs. "Denmark Street" exists solely for this purpose, but at least it's short, which "Top of the Pops" defiantly isn't--the middle riffing section (which was apparently "borrowed", though I've never heard where it came from) drags on for way too long, and overall, you know exactly where he's going with this long before he finally gets to the point in the last verse. The goofy voice he uses for the exec kind of makes up for it though. "This Time Tomorrow" is a song that I feel should be a highlight, but has just never clicked fully for me for some reason, and "A Long Way From Home" is basically just Ray's vocals and a lot of atmosphere. Luckily both are good, but this is a harbinger of the artistic missteps Ray would make in the mid-70s.

I don't want it to seem like I dislike this album, I very much enjoy it. It's just that it has some problems that the albums that preceded it didn't really have, and is the germination of some of the band's worse later-career tendencies. On the other hand, this is the one with "Lola" on it, which alone makes it worthwhile, and there's some other prime Kinks material here. Don't make it your first purchase, but don't avoid it either. 

Oh, and if you were wondering, there never was a Part 2, so don't worry about trying to find it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

QUEEN: QUEEN (1973)


QUEEN: QUEEN (1973)
12/15
1. Keep Yourself Alive; 2. Doing All Right; 3. Great King Rat; 4. My Fairy King; 5. Liar; 6. The Night Comes Down; 7. Modern Times Rock and Roll; 8. Son and Daughter; 9. Jesus; 10. Seven Seas of Rhye… [bonus track]: 11. Mad the Swine
Best song: LIAR

I've always been kind of suspicious of people who don't like Queen. I mean, yeah, I'm sure there are plenty of legitimate reasons to hate the band, and I'd be happy for somebody to tell me how much of an idiot I am, but I dunno--a person's opinions on Queen just kind of sum up which side of the music snob line they are for me--can they still mix it with the plebes on occasion, or are they already off in the gilded castle? Have some fun every once in awhile, people! Not that I really care one way or the other, this just seemed like as good a way to introduce the band as any, and warning those looking for some good old-fashioned Queen bashing to turn back now (or sit back and wait for the Hot Space review, whichever is more convenient).

Now, for the vast majority of people who know Queen through classic rock radio and one of the approximately 7,238 compilations available for purchase at your local Wal-Mart (mine was Greatest Hits I and II packaged together), the vast majority of these songs are going to look rather unfamiliar to you, and you're in for a hell of a time once you actually push play! Now, most of the Queen trademarks are already here--Freddie Mercury already sounds like a physical God, Brian May already figured out how to overdub himself  20 times so he can simulate an entire orchestra, John Deacon was already spending most of the time kind of hanging out in the background before occasionally doing something mindblowing, and Roger Taylor's ability to sing and drum simultaneously better than just about anyone is already making me probably overrate his abilities at both. What you may not know, however, is that those bursts of hard rock that Queen occasionally showed on their later mega-hits? Yeah, they started out sounding that way pretty much all the time. Even more interesting to me as that they were also somewhat of a prog-influenced band--quite a few of these songs have like three million different sections for Freddie to show off his vocals and Brian to show off his effects pedals, and the other two to show they can keep up. Like I said, it's still easily recognizable as Queen (unless your Queen experience started with The Game), but it's just a different side of the band than what many are used to. And it's bloody great!

The album's "hit" (it flopped, but later became a fan favorite) is the May-penned opener "Keep Yourself Alive," and right away the Queen mission statement is out in full force--anthemic chorus, inspiring hooks, big guitars. That opening echo-section is just fantastic, and Taylor throws in a cool groovy drum solo around the two-minute mark, and that bridge where Taylor and May both toss out a line is pretty neat. Even better, though, is the album's centerpiece, the six-and-a-half minute "Liar," an absolute monster of a song that has more great melodies and guitar lines that you can shake a stick at. One of the things the band did really well from the get-go was realizing when they had a good idea, but not one that could sustain a whole song, and finding some way to combine a bunch of short ideas into a great song. Mr. John Deacon also makes himself known with a nifty little bass solo, the vocal harmonies are all over the freaking place, and Freddie is Freddie. The guy was simply one of, if not the, greatest frontmen ever, and the mere presence of his vocals can elevate even the very worst Queen songs to somewhat tolerability (OK, maybe not "Body Language"). That's not a swipe at Brian and Roger, by the way, unless we're talking about Queen+Paul Rodgers (or whatever asshole they're doing it with now...Adam Fucking Lambert??? Somebody kill me), in which it's a swipe with extreme prejudice. For now, though, I tend to enjoy their vocal turns just fine, like Taylor's "Modern Times Rock and Roll" here on this album. Sure it's only a buck fifty, and isn't terribly original (that's just one of Roger's shortcomings as a songwriter that you have to either accept or not, I'm personally mostly fine with it), but it's got a good melody. The heaviest number of the album is the magnificent "Son and Daughter." Freddie sounds downright pissed off on this one, spitting out bile-infused lines like "The world expects a man, to buckle down and shovel shit" with aplomb, and of course there's that immortal "I...WANT...YOU...to be woman!" chorus. Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot call yourselves Queen fans and not hear this album.

The rest of the album isn't as heavy as those, but it still has it's moments. "Great King Rat" is almost as multi-sectioned as "Liar" and almost as good, and probably has May's best solo on the album. The lyrics are over-the-top, yeah, but this is frigging Queen we're talking about, what do you expect? Apparently, Freddie had created a fantasy land he called Rhye, and most of the songs he wrote from the first few albums take place there. Whatever, nobody listens to Queen for the fucking lyrics, so who cares? Now, the verses to "My Fairy King" are like the gayest thing I've ever heard in my life, but I really enjoy song. Freddie grabbed his surname from the line "Mother Mercury calls to me," which is pretty cool. The ballad-like "Doing All Right" has another infectious melody, and inexplicably starts to rock out halfway through (the transitions could be smoother, but I like both sections), and apparently earned co-writer Tim Staffel (who was bassist/vocalist with Brian and Roger in pre-Queen band Smile) a decent royalty check. Songwriting's where the money's at, folks.

The rest of the album isn't quite as great. "The Night Comes Down" is another decent ballad, but isn't that interesting, and "Jesus," while I can't really pinpoint what's wrong with it, is pretty much the weakest song on here. And no, I have nothing against religious songs, so that's not the problem. I must say, though, that the unfinished instrumental snippet of "Seven Seas of Rhye" was a rather dumb way to end the album, but most CD reissues rectify this by adding the fantastic b-side "Mad the Swine." Maybe this is why I don't particularly care for "Jesus," because this song does the religious thing so much better. I am completely flummoxed as to why this song got the axe--great bassline under the acoustic verses.

So, maybe it's not what everyone expects from Queen, but that means that even haters should give it a try to see where the band came from. No, it doesn't have all of the radio favorites that later albums would have, but it is a solid hard rock album, and hey, it's nice to hear a different side of a favorite band sometimes, isn't it?

ARTIST INTRODUCTION: QUEEN

(clockwise from left: Taylor, May, Deacon, Mercury)
ARTIST INTRODUCTION: QUEEN
Freddie Mercury--Lead vocals, keyboards, occasional guitar
Brian May--Lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, occasional bass
Roger Taylor--drums, vocals, keyboards, occasional guitar and bass
John Deacon--bass, keyboards, guitars, live backing vocals
Well, that was easy for once! Note that I do not have the 2011 reissues with the "bonus EPs," but those are mostly alternate/live takes. Any actual songs I've probably scavenged out for myself, so I'll still be covering them, but they will not figure into the album score.

Friday, April 13, 2012

PINK FLOYD--ATOM HEART MOTHER (1970)


PINK FLOYD: ATOM HEART MOTHER (1970)
10/15
1. Atom Heart Mother; 2. If; 3. Summer 68; 4. Fat Old Sun; 5. Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast
Best song: SUMMER 68

First of all, this album has like the most awesome album cover in the history of mankind. Is there anything more awesome than Lulubelle the cow? The story goes that Roger, wanting to change the band's image, told album artist Storm Thorgerson to go out and photograph the least trippy thing he could find, and Storm happened upon Lulubelle. Supposedly the record company execs pitched a hissy fit, asking him if he was trying to destroy this record company, but that just shows more proof that all record company execs are fucking morons and should cede their jobs to web reviewers. Or they could just send me like, half their salary and I'll quit bitching. I mean, sure, I can understand why they need that cocaine sculpture of themselves, but their entire family? Selfish pricks.

Anyway, the boys still really didn't have a clue what they were doing, but you can't deny their ambition. Pink Floyd goes prog on this one, and they didn't waste time diving in headfirst into their new style, even though they realized they didn't fully have the chops or the songwriting acumen for it yet. This being 1970, they were right in the middle of that brief window where it was not only acceptable, but perfectly encouraged to cart in a symphony orchestra to help you realize your artistic vision, so the Floyd rented an orchestra and a conductor/co-composor (Ron Geesin) and set to work composing the 23-minute title track. Now, it's far from brilliant and is obscenely overlong--they could have cut it down to at least 15 without losing anything substantial--but it's certainly a noble effort. First, props should be given to Waters and Mason, not exactly the most lauded players in the world, for doing the entire rhythm section in one take--apparently, orchestras, composers, cow photos, and the execs' crippling cocaine habits ate up the entire budget so they couldn't afford to overdub it. Now, it's not like the rhythm section does anything spectacular, but they don't get in the way, either, and you try to play drums for (a significant portion of ) 23 minutes straight without fucking up. Anyway, the main orchestral themes are good (I especially like the "Father's Shout" portion), and Gilmour gets in several great solos, but the noise section is rather stupid and the whole thing just runs out of gas long before it actually ends. Now, kudos to the band for even managing to make this rather radical style shift work for as long as they do--something like this couldn't have been easy, and they get full props for even being willing to try this. Personally, I feel that at some point they should've at least tried to incorporate an actual "song" into the piece, just to see if it worked, but this is fine for a first shot. And it paves the way for what would happen on the next album…

Side 2 is also a bit of a mixed bag. We return to the "Ummagumma" studio idea of everyone writing their own songs ("Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" was largely Nick's idea, and he recorded the actual sound effects), but it works much better this time around. For one, everyone decided to write actual songs. Roger's "If" is the most notable appearance of the depressed Roger we'd all come to know and love in a few years, and it shows a lyrical maturity far past anything else he had written so far. He also gives a beautifully restrained, effective vocal performance, and the guitar breaks are wonderful. Even better, though, is Rick's "Summer 68." At first it seemed rather clumsy to me because he didn't even bother making the lyrics rhyme until the penultimate couplet, but eventually I realized I didn't give a fuck, the song is that good. Honestly, now I think it's better that he didn't try to shoehorn in some crappy rhymes and stuck to his honest feelings about how impersonal groupie sex is. Yes, I realize that sounds completely ridiculous on paper, but listen to the song, it's great. I also dig the return of the horns playing one of the themes from the title track. Too bad Rick would soon quit contributing his own songs (I may be forgetting something, but I believe this is his final lyric credit with the band), because this is truly fantastic.

Too bad the rest of the side doesn't quite hold up. Gilmour's "Fat Old Sun" is quite pleasant, and is certainly his best vocal effort so far (especially in the "sing to me" section), and although the song would become a live favorite I just never really feel the urge to listen to this version. Maybe because live version have more to offer in the way of guitar heroics and I feel inevitably disappointed by this version? Dave plays the bass and drums on this song, for those who care about useless Floyd trivia (so, me and about six other people, all of whom probably already know). Finally, the album closes with the ridiculous "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast." Like the title track, this one in no way deserves to last for all of its running time, and the gimmick of roadie Alan Stiles talking about eating his breakfast gets less and less funny each time you hear it (and it wasn't exactly a gutbuster the first time), but I genuinely like most of the instrumental themes the band comes up with. I rarely want to actually hear it, but it's not a bad way to end the album all in all.

So, this is a transitional effort, and not everything works, but it paves the way for what would come later. It's not an album I want to hear very often outside of "If" and "Summer 68," but I also believe that without Atom Heart Mother there would be no Dark Side of the Moon, and for that, I give it a 10.

Oh! This album also reached #1 in the UK, something neither Dark Side nor The Wall managed to do! Floyd were still an unknown cult band in the US, but they were big enough in their homeland now that somewhere, a record company exec managed to get a solid coke sculpture of his favorite puppy.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

THE KINKS--ARTHUR (1969)


THE KINKS: ARTHUR (OR, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE) (1969)
15/15
1. Victoria; 2. Yes Sir, No Sir; 3. Some Mother's Son; 4. Drivin'; 5. Brainwashed; 6. Australia; 7. Shangri-La; 8. Mr. Churchill Says; 9. She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina; 10. Young and Innocent Days; 11. Nothing to Say; 12. Arthur
Best song: VICTORIA or ARTHUR

No less than The Kinks' (and Ray Davies') complete masterpiece. This is an absolutely amazing album, Ray's first (and best) attempt at a rock opera, and intended for a movie that, unfortunately, was never made. It's the saga of the life of an average British person, and damn is it fucking amazing, if incredibly depressing. Arthur is born in the Victorian era, goes to war, comes back, starts a family, his kids move to Australia, and he dies alone, ostensibly rich but actually quite poor in his "Shangri-La." But hey, he was right all along, don'cha know it?

So, yeah, this is a pretty damn bleak picture of British life! But, that only serves to make the album even better. Pete Quaife is gone for good on the bass, and gone with him is any sense of the Kinks being an actual band, other than a vehicle for Ray Davies' ego (with some occasional temperance from his brother). Yeah, Ray and Mick Avory remained friends, and Ray and Dave continued to despise each other, but the Kinks as an actual band unit went bye-bye with Pete. While this would lead to some fucking retarded decisions eventually, for now things are peachy! Now, some fans bemoan this album as it veers away from some of the Britpop styles of the past three albums and towards more of a proto-arena rock sound that would eventually awash the band in (very good, professional) genericism, but obviously this sound was a fuck of a lot fresher in 1969, and I'm not gonna lie, I kinda detest the term "arena rock" just used as a negative (which I'll probably bitch about more in my Sleepwalker review). The good news is, that, even though he doesn't write or sing anything for the first time, Dave's guitar is MUCH more active than it has been on the last few albums, and the album actually ROCKS for most of the time, instead of sporadically. Take the opener, "Victoria." Holy FUCK is that an amazing opener!!! Great riff, great lyrics, great hook, great solo, great screams by Dave over the last verse! Great goddamn song! They don't make 'em like that anymore. Yeah, I know some people dislike the "dopey" vocal performance that Ray uses throughout the album, most notably on "Victoria' and "Mr. Churchill Says" (I guess it's supposed to symbolize a government official or some other douche in power), but I think they're quite an effective device for Ray to get across that he's not voicing his own opinions in these segments. So "Victoria" sets our scene of a young man born in the uptight Victorian era--and then he grows up and goes off to war. So "Yes Sir No Sir" describes a soldier's point of view of being told what to do by his commanding officer, and it's effective. Not as effective as the following "Some Mother's Son," though--a harrowing portrait of the fact that every  soldier killed in battle, regardless of their allegiance, is in fact some mother's son. Sure, it's easy to dehumanize the enemy and make them bastards hellbent on destroying freedom, but that's some 18-year-old kid who just got shot! Some mother's son lies in a grave! Depressing.

Back in England, things get a little better for Arthur, as he goes "Driving" with his new girlfriend, and may I say that this song has a cool guitar solo? Cuz it does. Then we move onto "Brainwashed," and there ain't a whole lot I can say about "Brainwashed," cause it's pretty much the perfect punk song written years before punk was invented. Okay, the horn section isn't too punk rock, but that riff Dave (or Ray, who gives a fuck?) throws down halfway through the song might be the single greatest guitar moment in the whole Kinks catalog. The song has a great lyric too--Arthur thinks he's all hot shit, but the government's just making him think that so they can continue to put him down. Governments are bastards, but I guess we need 'em. But this ain't a political blog, so I'll move onto the somewhat reviled "Australia." The main song part is mainly liked, as it's basically a travelogue for Arthur's kids moving off to Australia, where opportunities are available for all walks of life, but most people hate the four-minute psychedelic guitar-led jam (which sounds WAY more drug-influenced than 99% of the Kinks' catalog). Fuck 'em, this section is fantastic, I never get bored listening to it. AWESOME Dave soloing in this section. Oh, and the "bubble" noise is used in "Postcard" by The Who in the part about Australia. How fucking cool is that? Seriously, listen to the jam again, sure, the Kinks aren't suited to do this all the time, but once in a career it's worth doing! Learn to love it.

So flipping the vinyl over, as we would have had to do back in the old days, we get to "Shangri-La," which is probably the best description of the life of a guy like Arthur that there is. Yeah, his life may kinda suck, but he's got his Shangri-La! Except said shangri- la is really a prison, which is really depressing but also true. From that we move onto "Mr. Churchill Says"--more great Dave soloing, and "She's Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina," which has some of the best lyrics on the album and the finest moments in Mick Avory's career. Simply stellar. For the next two songs, the album dips from orgasmically fantastic to just really fucking good, but although the nostalgia "Young and Innocent Days" is a bit of a bore, and even though "Nothing To Say" is a bit overlong despite the good lyrics about Arthur's kids not having time for him anymore, they serve their purpose quite well. What goes far beyond serving its purpose is the closing title track. I honestly think the closing repetition manages to out-"Hey Jude" "Hey Jude," and the song just has an awesome riff, melody, and chorus. Arthur may not have lived the perfect life, and the life for the average British person may be depressing, but they pull through, don't'cha know it?

So that's your perfect Kinks album! Even though Ray would fly off the handle with concept albums in later years, this is nothing short of brilliant, and everybody needs to listen to it! Long live the Kinks, long live Arthur, long live Arthur. Amazing album that everybody needs to hear.

Monday, March 26, 2012

THE POLICE--MESSAGE IN A BOX


THE POLICE: MESSAGE IN A BOX: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1993)
No rating (compilation)
For complete track listing, see here. The following is a listing of the unreleased studio tracks, which the bulk of this review will focus on
1. Fall Out; 2. Nothing Achieving; 3. Dead End Job; 4. Landlord; 5. Visions of the Night; 6. Friends; 7. A Sermon; 8. Shambelle; 9. Flexible Strategies; 10. Low Life; 11. How Stupid Mr. Bates; 12. A Kind of Loving; 13. Someone To Talk To; 14. I Burn For You; 15. Once Upon a Daydream
Best song: among the unreleased tracks, SOMEONE TO TALK TO

If you want (almost) every single thing The Police ever officially released, look no further than this 4-disc box set, which you can buy at your nearest record store or steal at your nearest wireless hot spot! It has all 5 studio albums, plus all of the group's non-album b-sides and a smattering of live tracks that also appeared as b-sides. The live tracks are all decently performed, but aren't really revelatory in any way, even if "Man In a Suitcase" is much better when performed at a fast pace. Also included are a mono remix of "The Bed's Too Big Without You" (pointless) and the '86 remix of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" (terrible), but it's still worth it to get all five albums and some great b-sides all in one convenient package (although if you actually listen to the albums on CD, be warned that Regatta is split between two discs, which is obviously annoying).

Anyway, the albums are obviously all great, but I've already talked about those, so let's look at the 15 studio tracks that never made it onto an album, shall we? Leading off this collection is both sides of the group's first single, featuring original guitarist Henry Padovani. "Fall Out" and "Nothing Achieving" are pretty basic punk songs written by Copeland, but they're catchy and Sting gives enthusiastic vocal performances on both. Copeland also played rhythm guitar on the songs, so Henry literally has fifteen seconds of fame playing two brief guitar solos, and they're fine for this type of song, but nobody but the most hardcore devotee to the punk aesthetic is gonna mourn his loss. We're introduced to Andy Summers on the fun group-credited b-side to "Can't Stand Losing You," "Dead End Job," and it's one of the best "punk" number the group ever did. Continuing onto the Regatta-era songs, the Copeland/Sting collaboration "Landlord" is a relative throwaway, but Sting's "Visions of the Night" is great and probably the closest the band ever came to doing a pure hard rock song. From the Zenyatta era there's Andy's "Friends," a spoken word piece about cannibalism using the "Behind My Camel" guitar tone, giving ample proof (as if any more was needed after "Sally" and "Mother") that Andy is a very weird dude. Love the song, though, and wish it had made the album instead of "Behind My Camel." Stew's "A Sermon" isn't up to his best work, but that "There's no excuse, for the people you've abused" section has a great hook.

Things get a little iffier when we reach the Ghost outtakes. Andy's instrumental "Shambelle" is interesting but overlong, and Sting's "Low Life" is fine, but "Flexible Strategies" absolutely sucks. Not as much as a couple of songs the band recorded for the Brimstone and Treacle soundtrack though--"How Stupid Mr. Bates" and "A Kind of Loving" are EASILY the worst songs in the Police catalog--no interesting instrumentation and bizarre, annoying screaming make me wish they would just end already every time I try to listen to them. "I Burn For You," included in the film but later used as the UK "Wrapped Around Your Finger" b-side, is significantly better, but not as good as the other two Synchronicity b-sides. "Once Upon a Daydream" has a cool ethereal atmosphere in its Summers-penned music, and the lyrics, about getting revenge on a girlfriend's father for beating her and killing her unborn baby, are incredibly chilling. Best of all, though, is Andy's "Someone To Talk To." He doesn't really sing the song, it's more of a mumble, but I've grown so accustomed to how he performs it that I'm glad Sting refused. And just when the endless repetitions of the chorus are becoming monotonous, he starts throwing out a bunch of cool guitar lines. Now, I like "Mother," but the fact that it was on Synchronicity and "Someone To Talk To" was relegated to b-side status makes me rather suspicious that Sting didn't want Andy's best work on an actual album (maybe he didn't want a repeat of "Omegaman"?). Anyway, great song.

I admit that none of these songs, except maybe "Fall Out," would really be considered essential listening, but if you want to get all the albums anyway, why not just get the boxed set? Most of the songs are good, and all the crappy ones are bunched together at the end of Disc 3 anyway. Worth trying to find.

THE POLICE--SYNCHRONICITY


THE POLICE: SYNCHRONICITY (1983)
13/15
1. Synchronicity I; 2. Walking in Your Footsteps; 3. Oh My God; 4. Mother; 5. Miss Gradenko; 6. Synchronicity II; 7. Every Breath You Take; 8. King of Pain; 9. Wrapped Around Your Finger; 10. Tea in the Sahara; 11. Murder By Numbers
Best song: SYNCHRONICITY II

So here it is, the album that both turned the band from a bunch of fairly well-known and well-regarded former punks into international pop superstars, the album that won the band a Grammy for something other than their instrumentals. It's also the album that killed the band. And other than Abbey Road, it's probably the best final album before a breakup not brought about by a member's death out there. Yeah, there are some problems--just from listening to this album, you'd have absolutely no idea why I and most other reviews blow our collective loads over Stewart Copeland's drumming, as he mostly sticks to just providing the backbeat and nothing more, and Andy is only sporadically involved (when he is, though, he's often the best thing about the song). However, the quality of songs presented here more than make up for this flaw. Sting may have sold his soul to the devil to do it, but he made a pretty spectacular pop album (in fairness to the man, I've heard from many reputable sources that his first solo album is actually quite good. I do plan to get it one day, but I'm pretty backlogged on new stuff to listen to right now).

Now everybody knows about that hit-packed second side, but right now I wanna talk about the rather more maligned first side. Most people give props to the two title tracks (although often not nearly as much as they deserve), but the middle four songs have to be the most reviled stretch in the Police discography, which utterly mystifies me. I'd MUCH rather listen to these songs than most of the mid section of Ghost ("Rehumanize Yourself" being the obvious exception). "Walking in Your Footsteps" and "Oh My God" are interesting compositions, people! Not as focused as the pop songs later in the album, but all the more fun in the way they kind of sprawl. I never want to skip these tracks. No, they're not the best songs Sting ever wrote for the band, but they're hardly the worst, either. People like "Hungry For You" and don't like these? The fuck? "Footsteps" in particular is a pretty damn awesome song, it's got a great chorus and lyrics about dinosaurs! I guess the fact that I'm 18 and writing reviews of classic rock bands means I'm rather attracted to dinosaurs. And "Oh My God" has the final awesome Sting bassline, some of Stew's most alive drumming on the album, and a bizarre repeat of a quote of "Magic" ("It's a big enough umbrella, but it's always me that ends up getting wet"). Good songs, ladies and gentlemen! Don't let the anti-hype go to your heads!

Oh, and then there's Andy's "Mother"! Let's talk about "Mother" for a bit! From reading reviews talking about how unlistenable this damn song before actually hearing it, I assumed it was gonna on the level be a  Yoko Ono-esque screamfest or nails on a chalkboard or fucking Radio Disney or something. I mean, yeah, Andy's scream-singing on the track is hardly "good" in the traditional sense of the word, and I guess I can see why it puts some people off, but to me it's really successful in capturing the paranoid vibe he was after. The lyrics (not about Andy's mom, supposedly she was rather amused by the song) aren't the most profound thing ever put to paper, but "Every girl that I go out with becomes my mother in the end" in particular is a decent line, and I'm sure there are people who can relate to the tribulations of the protagonist of this song (full disclaimer: not me, my mother and I have a great relationship). Come on, I can't be the only one who can imagine this being sung by Buster Bluth on Arrested Development, can I? And the vaguely Eastern backing music is pretty cool too! I'm not saying the song's genius or anything, but it's severely underrated, as is Stew's "Miss Gradenko." I can see somebody hating "Mother," I guess, but I absolutely for the life of me cannot see why people hate "Miss Gradenko." It's got an absolutely amazing chorus--seriously, I think's it's the catchiest song on the whole album! And the guitar solo is pretty damn great, too--nice to hear Andy occasionally play something more traditional, even though I love him for his experimentation. A perfect two-minute pop song, and most people either just dismiss it or completely trash it, even going so far as to say that it (along with "Mother") ruing a perfect album. Are folks just trained to hate anything not credited to the main songwriter of a band, or what? I love most of Copeland's contributions to The Police discography, enough that he's the only member of the band that I have any solo work from (his album as Klark Kent is good! I'll review it one day!). Come on, there must be somebody else out there who agrees with me…

Okay, though, that's about enough about why you should love the songs you don't know or don't like, now let's talk about why you should love the ones you do! This album, as everyone knows, is responsible for three absolute MONSTER hits (and a somewhat lesser one in "Synchronicity II), and defines the Police sound to the general public to this day, despite how blatantly erroneous that is. I admit, even though I loved these songs when I heard them on the radio, I wasn't eager to check out the band because I figured, like most people, that they were a "singles band." I was obviously very mistaken, and I can see why some Police fans resent the songs for drawing the bulk of the attention given to the band (and casting the group as both an 80s pop group and Sting's backing band), but that doesn't change the fact that "Every Breath You Take," "King of Pain," and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are great songs. So they have a little bit of an adult contemporary influence, who freaking cares? Are there any actual adult contemporary songs that have as badass of a guitar sound as "Every Breath You Take"? And maybe I'm just a sucker for lyrical dissonance, but I love the fact that it's a stalker song dressed up as a love song. Can you believe that people actually use this as a wedding song? Christ, people can be fucking stupid--I just have no idea how this can happen. Yeah, the chorus alone I can see being interpreted as vaguely romantic (although still fucking creepy) if about a spouse, but it's not like the lyrics to the rest of the song are hard to discern--the vocals are right on top of the mix! And it's not exactly cloaked in metaphor, the lyrics are pretty damn straightforward that the singer is pretty fucked up. If someone told me they were watching every breath I took, I'd  either go straight to the authorities or enjoy a night with her and then go straight to the authorities, to be determined on a case to case basis. God, people who dance to this song at their weddings are almost as stupid as people who hate "Miss Gradenko." One of the best pop songs of the 80s, for sure. "King of Pain" is hardly any worse, though, although lacking the awesome guitar work it has an even more epic chorus. "Wrapped Around Your Finger" suffers just a tiny bit from being the last in the series of awesome songs, so the fact that it's not quite as great as the four (yes, four) songs before it stands out, but that sure as shit doesn't mean it sucks! And "Murder By Numbers" (with Summers-written music) provides a nice dose of black humor to the album. I can see finding it a little dull, but I love black humor way to much to condemn the song. So "Tea in the Sahara" veers a bit too close to generic AC for my tastes, I'm fine with that. It means I don't have to call the pop one my favorite Police album.

Great as all those other songs are, there's still the matter of the title tracks. "Synchronicity I" is a great little tune to open the album, and I love listening to it, but I must admit that it does get overshadowed by its more well-known sequel to me (and the rest of the world). Yeah, I know I said "Message in a Bottle" was the best Police song, and "Does Everybody Stare" has the best lyrics, but hey, I lied. "Synchronicity II" is simply amazing, and is the track that really got me into the band in the first place. Sting turns in the performance of the career, and holy shit the lyrics are great. Don't even try to write songs about the underlying troubles in your average suburban household, people, you're not gonna top this one. Andy's guitar squawks and squeals along and provides a great underpinning to Sting's paranoid ravings, and credit where credit is due, I've given the man shit occasionally in these reviews, but the vocals on this song are simply amazing. Of course, due to repeated listenings to the song, I'll never be able to learn the actual Synchronicty theory without equating it to the Loch Ness Monster, but I don't care about that.

Yeah, this is a pop album, but it's a pop masterpiece. "Tea in the Sahara" and my annoyance over the decreased power of Stew's drumming keeps this from a 14, but it's dangerously close, and maybe in due time I'll bump it up. Any album this popular is bound to get some backlash, but this is one of those cases where the public got it right. Of course, when the band tried to reconvene, Stew broke his collarbone and he and Sting couldn't agree on which drum machine to use, so they broke up until touring in 2007. Fortunately, though, they went out on a high note, and the band's name was free from the mud its frontman's would get dragged through. Any rock collection without all 5 Police albums is sorely lacking.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

THE POLICE--GHOST IN THE MACHINE

THE POLICE: GHOST IN THE MACHINE (1981)
12/15
1. Spirits in the Material World; 2. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic; 3. Invisible Sun; 4. Hungry For You (J'aurais Toujours Faim de Toi); 5. Demolition Man; 6. Too Much Information; 7. Rehumanize Yourself; 8. One World (Not Three); 9. Omegaman; 10. Secret Journey; 11. Darkness
Best song: EVERY LITTLE THING SHE DOES IS MAGIC

Okay, this one's just fucking spastic. It begins with one of the best stretches of hit singles in the group's career, showcasing a rather dark pop sound, advances its way through a bizarre sax-led groove, and then ends with a return to the dark pop. The opening and closing trio are fantastic, but I'm not exactly sold on the murky middle. Also of note is that the band largely abandoned the power trio sound of their first three records (which they were already starting to move away from on Zenyatta) in favor of layers of synths, synth horns, and Sting-played sax. I don't really have a problem with this, as for the most part these elements are used well, but this is when the band stops being a band and Andy and Stew begin to be relegated to Sting's backing band (Andy himself has complained that the squabbles really started with this album). Thankfully, they are still involved enough in the sound enough to make a difference, and the best songs after the opening three were actually penned by Andy and Stew.

Those opening three songs, though...goddamn. "Spirits in the Material World" is certainly a product of its time with its focus on synths rather than guitar, but it's a great song, so who cares? I might occasionally bemoan that the synths on this album (and the next one) tend to relegate Andy's awesome guitar textures into the background on some songs, but at least the synths themselves don't really sound all that dated. It's a great opener, but it's small potatoes compared to what comes next--"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" might just be the perfect piano-based pop song. The piano, played by session player Jean Roussel, carries the song nicely, Stew provides some nice drumming, and Andy isn't that active, but still makes his presence known. And holy SHIT that melody! The verse and chorus melodies are actually quite distinct from each other, but flow together perfectly. If you're not humming this song for days after listening to it, than there's something wrong with you! I know that some people consider this "too pop" for any "respectable" artist, but to me anyway that just comes across as ridiculously fucking pretentious. I love "complicated," "artsy" music as much as the next guy (actually a hell of a lot more, if "the next guy" is just some dude off the street), but come on, a good song is a good song, and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is a great song, as is the dark, brooding "Invisible Sun." The latter track features probably the best lyrics on the album, about life in a war-torn country, and is just a wonderfully haunting song.

So ends the first chunk of the album, and we now enter into the middle, funk-influenced groove section of the disc. The catalyst for this section seems to be that Mr. Sumner bought himself a saxophone and wanted to show the world he could play it, but the saxes are just sort of there, providing the texture that could just as easily be provided by synths (or, even better, by Andy's guitar!). It's not distracting or anything, and doesn't rape my eardrums like a lot of 80s sax does, but Sting is MUCH better as a bassist, as the overlong but interesting "Demolition Man" aptly shows. "Too Much Information" has a good hook, so it can stick around, but "One World (Not Three)" suffers from the fact that the old "repeat the chorus over and over again" songwriting crutch from the first album is back, but now it's preachy and socially conscious. Fuck me! I liked Sting better when he was just a singer and bassist who seemed to have a lot of trouble with women, not some god sax player who was trying to solve the world's problems. I mean, I don't even hate the song, it's quite decent and I could maybe even call it good if it was shortened by over a minute, but it's the song in the Police catalog that most shows why people might despise the guy. It's not a complete write-off, though--the complete write-off is "Hungry For You." Now, I quit French my junior year of high school because I didn't give a rat's ass and the teacher was too hard, and have barely spoken it since, but even I can tell he's butchering the pronunciations. And it's not interesting musically, either--just a simple sax riff and bassline that repeats for the entire song. What the hell is the point? To put the album over 40 minutes? This is EASILY the worst song on a Police studio album, and is, along with "Born in the 50s" one of the only two I actively dislike. I know it seems like I'm bitching a lot about this segment, but it just seems rather pointless to me, and the fact that all the songs here pretty much sound the same. The groove just interesting enough to sustain itself for 20 minutes straight.

The midsection does have one real winner (along with the good-but-not-great "Demolition Man" and "Too Much Information"--with the former shortened by about a minute and "One World" and "Hungry For You" axed, I'd actually love this stretch just as much as the rest of the album) in the Copeland collaboration "Rehumanize Yourself." Not only is it a succinct 3:10, it has the best lyrics of this section of the album. I guess since he was rewriting something Stew brought to him, Sting had to make sure what he came up with was REAL good. It's also the only song in this part that is actually melodically strong all the way through without becoming dull, which is kind of something I expect from The Police.

 But whatever, the album jumps back to greatness again with the final three tracks. "Omegaman" is the first and only time Sting would deign to sing a lyric written by Andy, and actually the record company was considering it as a single before Sting threw a hissy fit. I hate to look like I'm siding with a record company executive, but occasionally they can pull their heads out of their likely cocaine-filled asses long enough to recognize a great song. Seriously, "Omegaman" has the second best hook on the album! Who knows what gems Andy was hiding that he never presented to the band because Sting wouldn't sing them. Makes me want to check out his pop solo album. "Secret Journey" has the most interesting guitar work on the album, and for once really feels like a track the whole band worked on, like in the old days, while Stew's "Darkness" brings things to a relaxing close. "I wish I'd never woke up this morning/Life was easy, when it was boring," the song says, and we've all felt that way at some point or another. The quality of Andy and Stew's tracks on here actually makes me curious about some parallel universe where the Police were a democracy, and how history would have viewed them. On the other hand, there's very few Sting-written songs I want replaced, so I can't complain.

So, yeah, that middle part of the album is somewhat misguided, although even it has it's moments, and the opening and closing trios are both some of the best Police moments to be found. There is still a bit of filler, although this time it's because they overextend good songs instead of writing pointless ones, "One World" is somewhat annoying but OK, and "Hungry For You" sucks but is less than three minutes long. Despite how much I bitched, I still really do enjoy this album just as much as the rest of the band's discography, and hey, if you can get into the sax groove, I see no reason why it shouldn't be somebody's favorite. A solid 12 it is, as the number of classics means I can't rate it lower than Zenyatta, even with a bit of weaker material.

Oh! And the album cover is easily the band's best. I admit I had to read about it online to notice that the digital blips form a profile of each of the band members, but cut me some slack, I don't have an actual physical copy of the album to look at it. It's pretty fuckin' cool.

THE POLICE: ZENYATTA MONDATTA


THE POLICE: ZENYATTA MONDATTA (1980)
12/15
1. Don't Stand So Close To Me; 2. Driven To Tears; 3. When The World Is Running Down You Make The Best Of What's Still Around; 4. Canary In a Coalmine; 5. Voices Inside My Head; 6. Bombs Away; 7. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da; 8. Behind My Camel; 9. Man In a Suitcase; 10. Shadows in the Rain; 11. The Other Way of Stopping
Best song: DON'T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME

This is my least favorite of the Police albums, but it's still great! Also, I've seen several reviewers rank it as their best, which means there's never gonna be a consensus about their best album--I've seen all of their albums ranked best by a web reviewer except Ghost in the Machines, and there's no reason why that one won't be one day. People always like to think of the Police as a singles band, but that's only true in the sense that the singles were usually the best songs on the album, not in the sense that they had two hit singles and a bunch of filler. In fact, this is the only album by the band where I see filler as a serious problem, and even then they can be somewhat excused for it. As with Regatta, this album was recorded under a time crunch--they finished it the day they started their world tour! Unfortunately, Regatta could be made up of songwriting snippets Sting and Stew had had laying around for several years, but Zenyatta doesn't have that luxury. This leads to two instrumentals that are the very definition of filler, as well as a slightly smaller number of all time Police classics. Don't get me wrong, neither Andy's "Behind My Camel" or Stew's "The Other Way of Stopping" are terrible--the former has those cool treated guitar tones, and the latter has a pretty intense midsection, but overall they would have been much better if their best moments had been incorporated into actual songs. I still prefer them to "Born in the 50s," though! "Behind My Camel" netted the band another Grammy, though, (kinda funny that a band most known for their pop hits won two Grammies for their instrumentals!), even though Sting refused to play on it and even buried the tape in the backyard of the studio, leaving Summers to go dig it up and play a bass track. The quasi-instrumental "Voices inside my Head," while still somewhat pointless and a little overlong, is significantly better, though. Finally, while I'm still in complaint mode, "Man In a Suitcase" is way too slow and lethargic to work as the Outlandos throwback the band clearly intended it to be, and other groups have done the travelogue thing better. At least it's short.

Enough with my bitching, though, I mean, for all that, I still give the fuckin' thing a 12! Everyone's heard "Don't Stand So Close For Me," and for good reason, it's one of those instant classic songs that could raise the score of an album containing some of the worst pieces of excrement ever recorded. Hell, put it at the end of an album containing nothing  else but Justin Bieber, a few Mike and the Mechanics hits, a bunch of Yoko Ono scream-fests an extended version of Floyd's "A New Machine," and Yes's "Angkor Wat" featuring even more Cambodian poetry, and prevent me from skipping ahead, knowing that "Don't Stand So Close To Me" is at the end might prevent me from shooting myself halfway through. What I'm trying to say is that it's a great song. Interesting synth textures, great lyrics, catchy melody--the opening synthscape shows that the band had adeptly moved into more of a New Wave style than reggae or punk, and they still knew how to make great music.

Obviously, none of the rest of the album scales those heights, but there's some other good stuff. "Driven to Tears" signals the emergence of a socially conscious Sting, and while socially conscious Sting can be incredibly annoying (I mean, really, who's gonna take advice from a guy who calls himself Sting? That's almost as dumb as getting advice from a guy who calls himself Bono!), this is a great song. Awesome bassline, and a really good groove. "When the World Is Running Down You Make The Best of What's Still Around" has another great chorus, although the verses aren't as memorable and I have to penalize the song slightly for making me write out that damn title. "Canary in a Coalmine" and Stew's "Bombs Away" are both enormously fun, infectious pop songs, especially the former, and both have the good sense to end before they get annoying. "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da" is one of the band's lesser singles, in my view, but it's still a Police single and is thus a great song. Sting gives a fantastic vocal performance, but it just doesn't captivate me as most of their singles do.

The album's real sleeper, buried in the album's otherwise useless final third, has to be the wonderfully atmospheric "Shadows in the Rain." It can take a few listens to really sink in, but eventually you'll be sucked in by the atmosphere of the song. Decent lyrics, too, and a nice "hypnotic' vocal performance. Man, though, this was a tough album for me to grade. On one hand, it seems like too high a grade to give to an album that's almost a third filler, but then I remember how awesome the rest of the album is and start to think I'm underrating it. So a 12 it is...the band's worst album, but certainly worth checking out. Hey, it may end up being your favorite.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

THE POLICE--REGATTA DE BLANC


THE POLICE: REGATTA DE BLANC (1979)
14/15
1. Message in a Bottle; 2. Regatta de Blanc; 3. It's Alright For You; 4. Bring on the Night; 5. Deathwish; 6. Walking on the Moon; 7. On Any Other Day; 8. The Bed's Too Big Without You; 9. Contact; 10. Does Everyone Stare; 11. No Time This Time
Best song: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

The second Police album is my personal favorite, but, as can be expected when a band releases only five albums, there's hardly a consensus, especially when a band is so consistent. Every Police album is pretty great, but Regatta is the only one on which I consider every song to be great. Okay, "Deathwish" falls a little short of greatness, as it's the only song here that I can't effortlessly start humming, but it's still a fine song. The radical tempo changes seem to indicate that the song evolved out of a group jam (and the fact that everybody gets a writing credit only supports this theory), which explains why it falls slightly short. But whatever, I'm not here to talk about the A- level song, I'm here to talk about the other ten songs on this baby!

The best Police album starts out with the best Police song, the undeniable classic "Message in a Bottle." The lyrics capture the feeling of isolation perfectly, the chorus is catchy as all get-out, and the band figured out how to solve their ending problem--underpin the endless repetition of a phrase (not the title, for once!) with some great Andy Summers guitar licks! Without the continued bleating of "Sending out an SOS," the guitar parts would seem rather boring, and without the guitar the singing would get old fast, but they work perfectly together. "Walking on the Moon" is another undeniable classic--absolutely fantastic atmosphere on that track. On paper, a line like "hoping that my legs don't break, walking on the moon" seems just ridiculously stupid, but it just works on the album--Sting's vocal performance really sells the song. The Police are like that a lot for me actually--they seem to have a lot of songs and ideas that if I just heard about them, I would hate, but I actually end up loving them! That's a sign of a great band, and proof that Sting, at least at one point, had the ability to use his vocals to really make a song great. I still have no idea what the hell his accent is supposed to be.

The "white reggae" alluded to in the album's title is most prominent in "Bring on the Night" and "The Bed's Too Big Without You." "Bring on the Night" has interesting lyrics from the point of view of a condemned man, and "Bed" has a fascinating guitar line that seems to come out of nowhere and flit between speakers. Really neat production trick by Andy, who, despite a lack of truly memorable solos on the album, and really a lack of true riffs, is always an important presence with his constant use of inventive textures and tones--he's the perfect example of a guitarist who supplements his bandmates instead of drawing attention to himself. Closer "No Time This Time" ends the album on a rocking note, with yet another impeccable melody. It's a song that could easily be construed as filler if it weren't so great.

This is also the closest the band ever came to releasing a democratic album, with only five of eleven songs credited to Sting alone, although ,as per usual, he gets both singles. Besides the afore-mentioned "Deathwish," the group collaborates on the instrumental "Regatta de Blanc," featuring some absolutely ferocious Stew drumming and netting the band a well-deserved Grammy. The Grammys are a complete sack of shit, especially considering that this was the year that The Wall lost to Christopher fucking Cross, but occasionally they stumble ass-backwards into getting it right. The song actually developed from a live jam the band inserted into "Can't Stand Losing You," and I'm glad they decided to record it in the studio. Stew gets four songs on the album (one of them, "It's Alright for You," a Sting co-write), and, perhaps surprisingly, all of them are great! The reason for more democracy is that the album was recorded in a rush, and the band had a severe lack of material (they even considered re-recording first single "Fall Out," and I would actually be interested to hear what Andy, who wasn't in the band back then, would do with it), but you'd hardly know it from listening to this album. "It's Alright for You" and "Contact" fulfill the role of rockers on the album. They aren't what I come to the album for, but damned if I don't enjoy them when they're on. "Contact" in particular has a great riff.

The other two Stew songs don't really fit the white reggae of the album, and while this might annoy some people, I find them to be a nice diversion. Copeland actually sings "On Any Other Day," and while he can't actually sing worth a shit, Sting's dramatic vocal style wouldn't have worked with the jerky melody at all. The basic concept of the song can be summed up in the introduction, where Stew deadpans, "You want something corny? You got it!" and the song certainly lives up to it, playing the most shitty day imaginable for laughs. Also, just a note to those who might want to say that the song is homophobic because one of the complaints is "My fine young son has turned out gay"--in the context of the song, it's just that the guy doesn't want to deal with the revelation on a day when his daughter ran away, he finds out his wife has been cheating on him, and he cuts off his fucking fingers in the car door! It would be okay on any other day! Also, remember the song is over 30 years old--today, we could debate rather or not somebody's son being gay is even something that they'd have to deal with, but for 1979 it's not at all unreasonable. The son has terrible timing, anyway, just because he's an asshole fucker doesn't give him the right to be a fucking asshole! Okay, I'm sorry for that...Prindle makes it seem so effortless! Anyway, if you like "On Any Other Day," check out Copeland's solo work under the name Klark Kent--it sounds exactly like it!

Copeland's real winner, though, is "Does Everyone Stare," which is probably the best song he ever wrote (I haven't heard any of his non-Kent solo work, so I can't say for sure). The first awesome thing is how the first verse is actually the original demo, just Stew singing over some rudimentary piano chords, tape hiss and all. An inexplicable opera singer marks the transition to Sting taking over the vocals and actual produced music coming in behind him. The song is just a great peon to socially awkward losers everywhere--as a card-carrying member of that particular sect, this is one of the best ruminations on a hopeless crush that I've heard. It doesn't take itself too seriously ("I change my clothes ten times before I take you on a date"), but isn't a complete mockery either, and, thank God, doesn't turn into a complete wangst-fest like so many like-minded songs do. Besides, the final verse is just about perfect:  "I'm gonna write you a sonnet but I don't know where to start/I'm so used to laughing at the things in my heart/Last of all I'm sorry 'cos you never asked for this/I can see I'm not your type and my shots will always miss, always miss!" I've been there, believe me. I know this is an almost ludicrous opinion, but the single best verse of lyrics in a Police song (except maybe "Synchronicity II") was written by Stewart Copeland. Hell, I'm even thankful that the coda goes on a bit too long, so I don't lose my fucking mind and decide it's the best song on the album.

So, unless you for some reason find the concept of "white reggae" to be offensive, you really should get this album. It has "Message in a Bottle," "Walking on the Moon," and you get to hear Stewart Copeland sing! What more can a person ask out of an album?