Thursday, February 16, 2012

YES--YES (1969)

YES--YES (1969)
1.Beyond and Before, 2. I See You; 3. Yesterday and Today; 4. Looking Around; 5. Harold Land; 6. Every Little Thing; 7. Sweetness; 8. Survival

 Why, yes, I am reviewing Yes by Yes. Sorry, couldn't resist. Okay, fine, I probably could have resisted, but I didn't want to. Anyway, this is quite a nice debut album that both sounds exactly like what you'd expect early Yes to sound like and completely different from what they'd develop into. By that I mean that a lot of the group had a lot of the ideas that would turn them into the quintessential prog band, but they had yet to pull them all together. The real star on this album is bassist Chris Squire, whose bass is an important enough part of the sound that it can be considered a second guitar, but drummer Bill Bruford and guitarist Peter Banks' jazz leanings also come to the forefront. Bruford is simply one of the greatest drummers that's ever lived, and he's fantastic right off the back, and while Banks is no Steve Howe his work on this album is consistently enjoyable. Jon Anderson sounds just the same as he always will, with maybe a little more earthiness in his voice here (especially on "Sweetness"), but his lyrics hadn't developed their trademark style yet--there are no shiny flying purple wolfhounds or mountains coming out of the sky, but there are two honest-to-god love songs, "Sweetness" and "Yesterday and Today." I really enjoy both, actually, but they are better as anomalies in the Yes catalog rather than something they would do regularly. Unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of nice things I can say about keyboardist Tony Kaye, who loves playing with his organ a little too much, if you get my drift. Hey, Tony, didn't your mother ever tell you that'll make you go blind? On the other hand, while none of his passages here make me sit up and take notice, he isn't actively annoying me on this one, so whatever. To me it's always sounded like he's trying to ape Deep Purple's Jon Lord, but doesn't quite have the composing talent to make his parts stand out, but again, he's mostly fine here.

The album gets off to a great start with "Beyond and Before," a song Squire had written with a member of his previous band, Mabel Greer's Toy Shop (fuckin' Brits), an excellent bass-driven jazz-rocker. Squire's bass is also the main feature of the closing "Survival," which definitely points the way to the future with its multiple sections. The segues between the rocking intro and the more subdued vocals sections are still a little choppy, but the song still works. The best lyrics on the album are on "Harold Land," about a guy who goes off to fight in a war. Great harmonies on that one, too (Squire and Banks both do a great job on backing vocals throughout, and Jon is Jon). It's a bit naïve, but it's still pretty moving, and it's the only song on the album where I'd consider Kaye's organ work to be anything close to inspired. Side one closer "Looking Around" isn't as immediately memorable to me as the others, but it's still an interesting groove, and I still ultimately like it--it's nice to find a debut album where there's nothing even remotely approaching a bad song! There's not really much more I can say about the aforementioned "Sweetness" and "Yesterday and Today," other than that they don't have the instrumental pyrotechnics of the other songs here, but don't really need them.

There are two covers here, too, of the Byrds' "I See You" and the Beatles' "Every Little Thing," both of which are completely transformed. "Every Little Thing" definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Beatles covers, and one of the few I can think of that I honestly enjoy as much as the original. I particularly love the extended intro, in which the band briefly riffs on "Day Tripper," and Jon does a great job on the vocals. I've never heard the original "I See You," to be fair, but it's hard to imagine that it's much like this! I kind of wish the band had kept doing covers later in their career, as they obviously had quite a knack for turning simple pop songs into long, artsy jams, although admittedly slightly derivative of early Deep Purple in their approach, although this may be because this is where Kaye's Lord-isms are most blatant to me (the fact that I'm the first person I know of to comment on this means that either I've stumbled onto something profound, or that I'm completely full of shit and you shouldn't listen to me. I'd like to think it's the former, but…).

Those who consider all prog and art rock, and Yes in particular, to be pretentious should really check this album out and see how wrong you are. You're wrong about it anyway,  as later albums will bear out, but this is a good start to ease your way into the world of prog. It's not a stone-cold classic like several of the band's later albums, but it's certainly a worthy debut and well worth getting acquainted with, as four out of five members are already showing off their quite sizable talents, and Kaye doesn't really spoil my day either, plus the songwriting, even if it hadn't developed into the classic Yes style, is very strong. It probably won't be your first Yes purchase, but don't make the mistake I made and ignore it for a long time, either.


(not the best picture, I know, but needed to be shared. Besides, it's the first google image result for "Yes classic lineup." back row, l-r: Squire, Howe, Wakeman; front row: Anderson and White, who is clearly moonlighting as either a porn star or a pedophile. Or both)

Note: due to the rather high turnover in the band's lineup, I'm listing which albums the members play on instead of years they were employed. The only live albums I am including are Yessongs, Yesshows, and the Keys to Ascension albums,  any others I review will mention the lineup in the actual review . And, yes, this is pretty fucking ridiculous, especially when it comes to keyboards. There will be a quiz following the lesson.
(yes, I know ABWH isn't technically a Yes album)
Jon Anderson--Lead Vocals; occasional acoustic guitar and keyboards (all except Drama and Fly From Here)
Chris Squire--Bass, backing vocals; occasional keyboards and lead vocals (all except Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe)
Steve Howe--guitar, backing vocals (The Yes Album-Drama, ABWH, Union, Keys to Ascension-present)
Bill Bruford--drums (Yes-Close to the Edge, parts of Yessongs, ABWH, Union)
Tony Kaye--keyboards (Yes, Time and a Word, The Yes Album, 90125, Big Generator, Union, Talk)
Peter Banks--guitar, backing vocals (Yes, Time and a Word)
Rick Wakeman--keyboards (Fragile, Close to the Edge, Yessongs, Tales from Topographic Oceans, Going for the One, Tormato, parts of Yesshows, ABWH, Union, Keys to Ascension 1 and 2, 2004 tour)
Alan White--drums, backing vocals (parts of Yessongs, Tales from Topographic Oceans-present except ABWH)
Patrick Moraz--keyboards (Relayer, parts of Yesshows)
Trevor Horn--lead vocals (Drama), production (90125, parts of Big Generator, Fly From Here)
Geoff Downes--keyboards (Drama, Fly From Here)
Trevor Rabin--guitar, backing vocals; occasional bass, keyboards, and lead vocals (90125, Big Generator, Union, Talk)
Billy Sherwood--keyboards, backing vocals (Open Your Eyes), 2nd guitar, backing vocals (Talk tour, The Ladder)
Igor Khoroshev--keyboards (parts of Open Your Eyes, The Ladder)
Tom Brislin--keyboards (Magnification tour)
Benoit David--Lead vocals (Fly From Here)
Oliver Wakeman--keyboards (2008 tour-pre-Fly From Here 2011 tour, parts of Fly From Here)
Jon Davison--Lead vocals now, apparently. God, I love this band--the drama can be annoying as fuck, but it's never boring.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


1.  Chasing a Bee; 2. Syringe Mouth; 3. Coney Island Cyclone; 4. Blue and Black; 5. Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t' th' Center of Yer Heart; 6. Frittering; 7. Continuous Trucks and Thunder Under a Mother's Smile; 8. Very Sleepy Rivers; 9. Car Wash Hair (The Bee's Chasing Me)

Buffalo, New York's Mercury Rev burst into the underground scene in 1991 with this spectacular debut album, helped in certain circles in no small part due to Jonathan Donahue's association with The Flaming Lips. Fans of the Lips albums he played on (In a Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death in the Future Head) should check this album out for more of the same batshit insane guitar noise that was all over those classics. Bassist Dave Fridmann also produces both bands. However, don't go into this thinking it's just a retread of those Lips albums, though, because Rev frontman David Baker could not be more different from Wayne Coyne--while Coyne could unironically cover "What a Wonderful World" at the end of Priest and make it sound sincere, here Baker sounds like he's one cross-eyed look away from shooting up a public place and get carted off to a psych ward, where he can mutter on about very sleepy rivers all day. His history with the band brings to mind obvious Syd Barrett comparisons--so obvious I was actually mildly surprised to learn that he is apparently perfectly sane. The craziness is only enhanced by the unhinged guitar playing of Donahue and lead guitarist Grasshopper, both of whom largely eschew traditional playing in order to make a fuckload of  feedback noise throughout the album (while Grasshopper would eventually take over most of the guitar duties, here their roles were apparently more or less equal and I have no idea who plays which parts). This could become a giant mess, but fortunately the two men really are masters of their craft--all their noise manages to stay melodic and interesting, and always serves a purpose to the song rather than being noise for the sake of noise. Fridmann and drummer Jimy Chambers hold down the fort nicely, not really drawing attention to themselves positively or negatively, and even though there's supposedly enough flute on here to warrant its own member (Suzanne Thorpe), I'd be hardpressed to actually tell you where any of it is. Okay, there's a little at the end of "Chasing a Bee," but still...

So, the band clearly has an interesting sound, but that wouldn't really be worth much if they couldn't write good songs, and fortunately, the can. "Chasing a Bee" is easily one of my favorite debut album openers by a band, as the group lays down a solid foundation for Baker's deranged mutterings in the verses before building up the intensity while he belts out the chorus. Now, the lyrics don't seem to mean anything in particular, but they're still quite evocative--I can picture this guy muttering to himself inside his padded cell. Look, I may be missing the point by harping on Baker's perceived insanity here, but that's just the impression this album leaves on me and I find it absolutely fascinating. Baker is at his most unhinged on the penultimate "Very Sleepy Rivers," which has a fantastic coda of Baker repeating the title like a mantra (it's supposedly about a serial killer trying to keep himself sane), and "Frittering" has some great instrumental interplay to go along with the ravings. "Syringe Mouth," "Blue and Black," and "Sweet Oddysee…" (sic) are all cut from the same mold, and even if they're a little less great I still enjoy them. Admittedly, "Continuous Trucks…" is a complete waste of tape, but since it's less than a minute it doesn't hang around long enough to piss me off or anything.

Donahue also sings a couple of the songs here, and both of them are fantastic. Now, Jonathan's voice is quite a bit different--it's much higher, and while he would occasionally get annoying on later albums after taking over lead vocals full time, here he provides a nice counterbalance. "Coney Island Cyclone" boasts the closest thing to a normal riff on the album, and makes for a nice, short, comparatively normal pop song to keep proceedings from getting too crazy, and I absolutely love the closing "Car Wash Hair," which is dangerously close to knocking "Chasing a Bee" from the top spot. Great pop chorus on that one--no wonder it was released as the single. While I was a bit put off by this album the first time I heard it, it's definitely worth the time to get into, and is one of my favorite debut albums. The band would have a hard time topping this one in their career (the one time they would is so different in style that it's hard to even compare the two albums), and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in early-90s underground rock.


(if anyone can tell me who's who, it would be greatly appreciated!)

David Baker--Lead vocals (1989-1994)
Jonathan Donahue--guitar, Lead and Backing vocals (1989-present)
Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiack--lead guitar and backing vocals (1989-present)
Dave Fridmann--bass and production (1989-present, studio only after 1993)
Jimy Chambers--drums and percussion (1989-1998)
Suzanne Thorpe--flute (1989-1998)
Jeff Mercel--drums and keyboards (1998-present)
Carlos Anthony Molina--bass (live since 1993, Wikipedia credits both him and Fridmann with bass on their last two albums. I don't have a fucking clue who plays on which songs)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pink Floyd--Ummagumma (1969)

14/15 (live) + 8/15 (studio) /2=11/15
Disc 1 (Live): 1. Astronomy Domine; 2. Careful With That Axe, Eugene; 3. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun; 4. A Saucerful of Secrets
Disc 2 (Studio): 1. Sysyphus, Part 1; 2. Sysyphus, Part 2; 3. Sysyphus, Part 3; 4. Sysyphus, Part 4; 5. Grantchester Meadows; 6. Sever Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooming with a Pict; 7. The Narrow Way (Part 1); 8. The Narrow Way (Part 2); 9. The Narrow Way (Part 3); 10. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Entrance); 11. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Entertainment); 12. The Grand Vizier's Garden Party (Exit)

This one's a double, half live and half studio, but when it was released it was sold for a single album price. Of course now the bastards aren't gonna let you get forty minutes of music for free--you either have to pay full price or just swipe all 80 minutes. So, even though that information is no longer relevant to the buying public, it does put the album into context--either people were buying a live album and getting some studio experiments for free, or they were buying a weird, experimental studio album and also getting some live tracks. Knowing this makes me understand the studio album a lot more, because while Floyd had certainly been experimental before, this is barely anything but experimentation. Now, please understand that I have absolutely nothing against experimentation in rock music, nor do I feel that bands should only stick to established formula--in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The only reason I give the studio disc a relatively low grade is that I prefer experimentation stuck into actual songs, as opposed to just fucking around for the sake of fucking around, but unfortunately, Floyd decided to do the latter here. Each member got half a side of vinyl in which to make their artistic statement, with where they would do all of the playing (Mason cheated by having his wife play flute), but nobody really says anything that couldn't be better said in a band context. Nick Mason's contribution, "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party," is absolutely useless. Sure, the flute in the intro and outro is kind of nice, and I give him props for not wanting to just do a generic drum solo, but the main section mainly consists of some percussion over a bunch of mellotron farts. The actual solo in the last minute is decent (although Mason himself admits in his autobiography that he doesn't like drum solos), but the problem is that, nice guy and great drummer though he may be, Nick just isn't a composer, and an album like this doesn't work if all members of a band can't pull their weight (or, really, even if they can--see ELP's Works). Wright's contribution, "Sysyphus," is his attempt to write a classical piece, and it's somewhat better. Parts of it are genuinely scary-sounding, but I really think this could have been so much more if it were actually developed by the band as a whole, and maybe have an actual song surrounding it. As it stands, I consider the piece to be a mild failure, but a noble one.

Waters, predictably, gets the best song on the studio album with the lovely acoustic number "Grantchester Meadows," but it really didn't need to be seven and a half minutes long. Although the fly getting swatted at the end is pretty cool. His other contribution is a bit...difficult to explain. "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooming with a Pict" sounds exactly like what its unwieldy title implies--the "song" consists of nothing but Roger's voice played sped up and made to sound squeaky making a bunch of indecipherable noises, until the end where there's a long rant in a preview of the teacher voice from The Wall, which is actually pretty funny. It's something that everyone needs to hear once, but very few will either want or need to hear twice. More power to you if you get something from it, but it's a bit too avant-garde for me. Ah well, I guess this whole play by yourself thing is even harder for a bassist to fulfill than a drummer.

Gilmour, then, is the only one who really manages to do something worthwhile with his entire section, entitled "The Narrow Way." It helps that Part 3 is an actual song, complete with Dave playing bass, drums, and keyboards, but it's actually the weakest part of the piece, as his voice is mixed so low that you can barely hear the crappy lyrics, which aren't even printed on the liner notes in my version of the album! Supposedly he begged Roger to write lyrics for him, but the bassist refused. Clearly because he wanted to make Gilmour see that he had the confidence and ability to write for himself, and not at all because he's kind of a dick. No matter, the first two parts are what make this worthwhile--it's mainly Dave fucking around with different types of guitar noise, and provides a nice look at this style from a man whose style is often criticized (though not by me) for being too calculated and "focus-group tested." Not something I want to hear every day, but I always enjoy listening to it.

So there's nothing really earth-shattering on the studio disc, but I don't really care, because the live album is phenomenal. There are but four songs, but of them on "Astronomy Domine" doesn't improve from its studio counterpoint, settling for being different, but almost as good. "Set the Controls" and "A Saucerful of Secrets," on the other hand, are absolutely transformed live--the guitar on the former is actually audible, and the band plays with ten times the energy of the studio version on the latter. These versions so blow away their counterpoints that they make the studio versions sound rather tepid, but that's not even the main attraction. Hell, it's worth paying the price for a double album just to hear this version of the b-side "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" in all of its glory. The song has an absolutely masterful build-up, slowly adding to the intensity until Waters whispers the title at about three minutes in. Unfortunately for him, this Eugene fellow apparently isn't too keen on receiving an axe-safety lecture, because the blood-curdling scream that Waters unleashes puts just about any metal scream I can think of to absolute shame. He actually sounds like he's being chased by a crazy fucking axe murderer! The song goes on to include some great playing before dropping the intensity just as methodically as it was built up, but the scream's what people take away from this, and rightfully so. It's a wonder Roger can even still sing at all, seeing as he had to do that on a nightly basis, and I think there's a reason this song doesn't get played on his solo tours! Simply a marvelous composition, and one that, if you've never heard, you should stop what you're doing and look it up right now. It's that damn good.

So, yeah, the live disc, which is the only official release of the band playing live before The Wall tour until the recent remasters, is absolutely essential for anyone who considers themselves a Floyd fan. As for the studio disc, I rarely feel the need to listen to it, but give it a try and you might find something there. This shouldn't be your first Floyd purchase outside the big three (that should obviously be Animals, and Piper and Meddle are also more important), but you should definitely get it eventually.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Kinks--Something Else By The Kinks (1967)

1. David Watts; 2. Death of a Clown; 3. Two Sisters; 4. No Return; 5. Harry Rag; 6. Tin Soldier Man; 7. Situation Vacant; 8. Love Me Till the Sun Shines; 9. Lazy Old Sun; 10. Afternoon Tea; 11. Funny Face; 12. End of the Season; 13. Waterloo Sunset

It's funny, while I prefer some of the individual songs here to anything on Face to Face, I tend to prefer that one as an album. Thus, I was about to take the easy way out and give them the same grade so I didn't have to think about it, but then I remembered just how much a fucking love the best songs here. Seriously, though, this is another great effort by the band, although the fact that it is mostly downbeat (not really depressed, though) can be a bit off-putting at first, especially as calling this a "rock" album is a bit of a stretch. Add to this the fact that a couple of the songs, "No Return" and "End of the Season," actively refuse to stick in my brain, and it's hard for me to consider this the definitive highlight of the band's career that some do. This latter problem is particularly strange to me, even in the later years when Ray would pump out some absolutely putrid shit, it was all memorable, making those two songs a particularly bizarre aberration in the Kinks catalog. That being said, I could just be forgetting them in the shuffle of everything else here, but I don't even enjoy "No Return" when it's on, so that one at least isn't a very good song. It's nice and short though--that's the biggest advantage 60s pop albums have over prog, if you don't like a song, the damn thing's over soon, instead of pounding a shitty theme into the ground for 10 goddamn minutes...well, actually, I don't usually have that problem with actual classic prog, it's adult contemporary pop sclock masquerading as prog where the real problem comes in. Oh, right, sorry, we're discussing The Kinks here, it's just that I inexplicably decided to listen to Calling All Stations today and had to vent a little. Let's just move on, shall we…  

Luckily, just about everything else  on the album is great. "David Watts" is an interesting fast piano-pop song about wanting to be like the cool kid in school (with more than a little homoeroticism thrown in, probably the only reason Ray was able to get away with the "gay and fancy-free" line in 1967 is because the song sounds so old-timey, everyone just assumed he just meant happy. I know I did at first, and my mind usually jumps to the dirtiest implication available), and it's an absolute stone-cold classic, as is the closing "Waterloo Sunset," which seems to be one of the songs everyone associates with the Kinks. Now, it's not my favorite song by the band, hell, it's not even my favorite on the album, but that doesn't mean it's not an absolutely amazing composition, featuring some of the best lyrics ever in a pop song. I'm also enormously fond of the side 1 closer "Situation Vacant," which has a cool piano line and funny lyrics about a guy's bitchy mother-in-law. Funnily enough, I've read several reviews stating that this song is a relative low point, but I just can't come around to that point of view at all, to me it's a prime piece of Ray Davies songwriting. "Harry Rag" and "Tin Soldier Man" are decent pieces in the British music hall style, and even if neither will ever be a personal favorite, they're quite fun to listen to every once in awhile, as is the pleasant, melodic "Afternoon Tea". And "Lazy Old Sun" is another stab at psychedelia a la "Fancy," and while it's still not the group's forte things are a little better this time out. Ray gives a decent vocal performance, at least. As for "Two Sisters," it's decent while it's on and has good lyrics (nice usage of harpsichord, too), I never listen to it outside of the context of the album. I guess that makes it filler, but it's good filler, so who gives a flying fuck? Not me, especially when he's writing songs like "Waterloo Sunset"--there's a reason that as soon as it was acceptable to make songs longer than three minutes most artists did, since you don't have to come up with as many songs on an album, and can focus on making the best ones great. Not that I'm saying the biggies here should have been extended though--they're three-minute pop perfection, writing longer songs would require tinkering with the songwriting approach. Yeah, that little thesis probably makes a lot more sense in my head.

Great as the Ray songs on this album are, though, it's Dave Davies that comes out as the real winner here. "Funny Face" is relative filler, but damn are the other two songs great, and establish Dave, along with George Harrison and John Entwistle, into my trifecta of the best "secondary" songwriters. "Love Me Till the Sun Shines" is easily the most rocking song on the album, and believe me, it's needed. It has a great melody, and as much as people love to bash on Dave's singing (and it's true that it can be an acquired taste), he has the perfect voice for songs like this. Now this alone would have been a great contribution to the album, but damn if the man (with Ray's help this time) didn't top himself and basically every other pop song ever written with the immortal "Death of a Clown." now, I know that it will raise more than a few eyebrows that I'm naming a Dave Davies song as my favorite Kinks song of all time, but I don't give a fuck. Seriously, this song is just a masterpiece from start to finish. Listen to  how that opening piano line is joined by the strummed acoustic and Dave's haggard vocal and tell me of a song that more evokes the image of a depressed man trying to drink away his problems down at the bar (or pub, I guess I should say). Again, Dave's weary, slightly Dylanesque vocals aren't exactly what one thinks of when they think of "good" singing, but dammit, this song would be nowhere near as effective in the hands of a "good" singer--again, can't you just see this guy, clown makeup still on, throwing back a pint and trying to make the pain go away? It would be easy to make these lyrics seem kind of funny, but the pure emotion expressed here is enough to make me really feel  for this poor sack of shit. The lyrics look kind of dippy on paper, but in the song they serve the exact purpose they need to. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the awesome backing vocals by Rasa Davies (Ray's then-wife). Yeah, yeah, I know this is going from a review into a fanboy wank session, and I sound like I'll need to either find some tissues or change my undies before long, but if there's one song that deserves this gushing, it's "Death of a Clown." I don't know how it stacks up against my favorite prog epics, but it's my favorite pop song, and I doubt  I will ever change my opinion on that.

So yeah, seeing as how this album has both "Death of a Clown" AND  "Waterloo Sunset" on it, the rest of the album could be the fucking 60's equivalent of Justin Bieber and I'd still give it a decent grade. Again, it's not perfect as an album--the middle of both sides sag a bit--but the best stuff on here will make you forget all about the songs that are merely good. Everyone needs to hear this.