The Pineapple Thief – Your Wilderness

Even though I had never heard anything by The Pineapple Thief, I had been wanting to pick up something by them for a while. I had read some good things about them and they were referenced a lot by other bands I liked. But the clincher that got me to pick up “Your Wilderness”, was Gavin Harrison jumping on board as their drummer.

Gavin Harrison is one of those rare drummers who plays the drums not to merely rhythmically hold songs together, but like my other favorite drummers, Harrison approaches the drums as another instrument that adds to the composition – not just underlying, but overlaying the architecture of the music. Although he is not as well-known, I hold Gavin Harrison in the same league as Bill Bruford of Yes and Neal Peart of Rush.

This album takes influences from numerous bands that are notoriously unique. If I had to pick three that most prominently shined through, it would be The Flaming Lips, Porcupine Tree, and early Radiohead. There are elements of many others, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with those bands since rec of them are masters at combining a diverse combination of musical influences into something totally original.

I love albums that focus around a central theme. Maybe that’s why I liked this album so much on the first listen. All of the songs seem to revolve around losing that one special love in your life and not realizing that it was your own shortcomings that tore things apart until it was too late. It’s a theme encapsulated in the lyrics in the opening track, “In Exile”: “Don’t be afraid to miss me / Don’t be afraid to hate me”. It’s also a sentiment that is sadly and romantically reminisced in “Where We Stood” the song that brings the whole emotional tug-of-war of this album to its inevitable open closure: “I don’t remember if we stood up there / I don’t remember if we stood”. This is a somber album and for the most part the music fits that mood. In all honesty, the playing is much more laid back than I expected, only breaking out a with some serious jamming on a couple rare occasions. But then, this is an album that is all about composition and song structure and making the listener feel this is a personal story. Their own personal story.

“Your Wilderness” is everything I had hoped for based on what I had heard about The Pineapple Thief. It is definitely a progressive rock album. But it is not one founded only on early prog. In a true progressive tradition, “Your Wilderness” is a musical collection built upon the influences of post-progressive rock bands that were influenced by the original prog rockers – an end result that is as inspiring and impressionable as the music that inpired and made an impression on it.

Blackfoot – Strikes

Released in 1979, Blackfoot’s third album, “Strikes”, was one of their biggest commercial successes. The band had two big hits off the album, “Highway Song” and “Train Train” the latter of which was written by lead guitarist Rick Medlocke’s grandfather Shorty Medlocke, who also played the harmonica introduction to the song.

“Train Train” wasn’t the first time the then 69 year Medlocke had appeared on a Blackfoot album – he had played banjo on their debut album in 1975. It wouldn’t be the last either, nor would it be the ‘Train Train” be the last time he would write songs for Blackfoot. Shorty co-wrote “Fox Chase” on the band’s follow-up album “Tomcattin'” and wrote “Rattlesnake Rock ‘n’ Roller”, on Blackfoot’s fifth album “Marauder” The song was another hit for the hard rock/southern rock band. Sadly, Shorty would pass away in 1982.

Although they were from Jacksonville Florida, Blackfoot’s third album had a couple distinct Detroit connections. First, the album was recorded in Ann Arbor, near the Motor City and home to the University of Michigan. Secondly, the harmonica heard within the song “Train Train” was played by Cub Koda, a former member of the Detroit band Brownsville Station.

ZZ Top – Degüello

“Degüello” was the sixth album by ZZ Top and the first from the “little band from Texas” that graced my record collection. It wouldn’t be the last.

The album was the first for them on the Warner Brothers record label and the last of their purely Texas blues and boogie albums. Even though its follow-up “El Loco” still had a strong emphasis on ZZ Top’s traditional sound, it also had many songs that were geared in a hard rock and synth sound. A style that would almost totally overtake the band’s eighth album, “Eliminator”.

Although “Elimnator” remains ZZ Top’s most successful album, “Degüello” is my personal favorite. Like its predecessors, it is grounded in hard rocking blues riffs and solos it also has deeper groove to it than any other ZZ Top album. That groove is augmented in places by “The Lone Wolf Horns” which is in reality the three band members, Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard, picking up baritone, tenor, and alto saxophones instead of their usual guitar, bass, and drums.

“Degüello” is Spanish for “no quarter” which means to take no prisoners. I think they chose that name for the album because their previous records had not been the commercial successes they had hoped for or felt they deserved, and usually received, at best, lukewarm reviews from most critics. On “Degüello”, ZZ Top seemed to be refreshed by being signed to a new record label and went all in with a “take no prisoners” attitude that resulted in what is, in my opinion, their best work.

Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills

While most people today probably think Janis Joplin performed the song “Piece of my Heart” they’re wrong. It’s true, Janice did sing lead vocals, but the song was actually performed by a band Janis Joplin was in, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Those who know the album and the band that recorded it still might have some misconceptions about it. The album comes across as being almost entirely live tracks. The cover even says “live material recorded at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium”. However, only one song off the album, “Ball and Chain”, was actually recorded live. The rest of the songs just had audience overdubs put in to make them sound live. The album even kicks off with an introduction by Bill Graham that by today’s standards would probably be considered politically incorrect: “Four gentleman and one great, great broad, ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company.'”

Like “Piece of My Heart” the rest of “Cheap Thrills” is filled with mostly blues laden rockers that are played as passionately as they are sung by Janis. There is a little psychedelic sound that also creeps in from time to time (this was 1968 after all) most notably on “Oh Sweet Mary”, although the closing “Ball and Chain” is a great combination of the two.

I was turned on to the this album by my mom when I was 6 years old. She loved Janis Joplin. My dad however, could not stand her. Some of my earliest memories of music are listening to Janis Joplin with my mom. She had great taste in music.

R.E.O. Speedwagon – R.E.O. T.W.O.

As the name implies, “R.E O. T.W.O.” was R.E.O. Speedwagon’s second album. It was also the first with lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and contributing songwriter Kevin Cronin.

Although their 1972 sophomore effort didn’t have any hit singles and had lackluster sales at first, it still made a mark for the band. Five of its eight songs would make it onto their 1977 live album “You Get What You Play For”, which marked the beginning of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s phenomenal success. That live album also sparked an interest in the band’s back catalog which propelled the sales of “R.E.0. T.W.O.” to eventually go gold.

Although there are many, T.W.O. of my favorite highlights from this album are R.E.O.’s recruiting of legendary sax player Boots Randolph (best known for his song “Yakety Sax” which became the theme song to “The Benny Hill Show”) to augment their sound on the Chuck Berry cover “Little Queenie”, and the politically charged “Golden Country”. That last song, with its extended guitar soloing by lead guitarist Gary Richrath and great keys by Neal Doughty (one of the most underappreciated keyboardists in rock and roll in my opinion) make it the perfect closer to one of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s best albums.

Alice Cooper – Billion Dollar Babies

Alice Cooper was a band, and later a solo artist (but that’s another story I already talked about earlier) that was known not only for their music, but also for their stage theatrics. To record collectors, they are also known for some pretty cool album packaging – an art form that totally lost its impact with the smaller CD format.Billion Dollar Babies was a prime example.

Alice Cooper’s sixth album was styled to look like an oversized alligator skin wallet. Stored inside it was an oversized billion dollar bill that featured the band’s picture in the center. Also, the inside left side of the gatefold cover was perforated so you could punch out trading card sized cards of the band. The album credits were hidden behind the punch-outs.

The album theme was focused around the band’s amazement that in only a couple of years, they had gone from being a totally broke and struggling band to one of the most successful acts in rock and roll at that time. The album packaging was one of the most unique and memorable by Alice Cooper, or any other band, yet it was not their most iconic (but that’s another story I will talk about sometime later).

The Worst Of The Jefferson Airplane

Man, if ever there was an appropriate title to an album…

This isn’t it.

I have to admit, some of the songs on “The Worst Of The Jefferson Airplane” do sound a little dated, but I happen to enjoy the combination of rock, folk, psychedelic, and bohemian sounds that it has. As if it were actually a “Best of…” album, it includes all of The Jefferson Airplane’s hits from 1966 to 1969.

Hmm…makes me wonder…maybe the title was all in jest.

Rising to fame from the mid 1960s Jefferson Airplane continued to have hits into the next two decades…sort of.

In the seventies, the members of the Jefferson Airplane had a falling out. Some of the band members decided to continue as Jefferson Airplane. The other members sued them over the use of the use of the name, claiming it wasn’t the same band without them. So the remaining members changed the band’s name to Jefferson Starship.

HA! TAKE THAT!

The eighties saw another falling out with the band. Again, lawsuits were filed to prevent the continued use of the band’s name. And in the “we did it before, we can do it again” spirit, the remaining members of Jefferson Starship changed their name and became simply Starship.

HA! TAKE THAT!

They continue to perform under that name today.

The Look – We’re Gonna Rock

There once was a time when radio stations weren’t interested in a homogenized sound, and even promoted local bands by playing them during prime listening times. That was how I discovered The Look.

After the release of their debut album, “We’re Gonna Rock” in 1981, The Look seemed poised for national, even worldwide fame. They had a national hit single with the title track from their debut album. The video for that same song was getting regular airplay on MTV, making them the first Detroit area band to be played regularly on the fledgling cable TV station. They were getting lots of local radio air time at Detroit radio stations WRIF, WABX, and WWWW (W4). And they were opening concerts for the likes of Cheap Trick, The Kinks, John Cougar Mellencamp, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, and the J. Geils Band. It looked like they were going to be the next big thing from Detroit.

Unfortunately, that never happened. Because of the shifting focus of local radio stations to have a more nationally familiar sound as they were bought up by large broadcasting conglomerates, their playlists started catering to national hits, with very little emphasis on local talent, and The Look faded away nationally after only a couple incredible albums that never achieved the recognition they were worthy of.

The Look was inducted into The Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2016. It was an honor they well deserved.

But they also deserved so much more.

Genesis – Three Sides Live

Whenever I listen to “Three Sides Live”, I cant help but wonder why Genesis chose that as the album’s name, since it was only partially relevant.

When it was released in the United States in 1982, “Three Sides Live” seemed a perfectly descriptive name. It was a double album, so there were four sides – three sides were recorded live and one was studio recorded B-sides and songs from an earlier EP.  So…”Three Sides Live”…Yeah, I get it.

The thing is, when Genesis released “Three Sides Live” at the same time in their native England (as well as in the rest of the U.K. and Europe) the five studio songs on side four were replaced by three more live songs, so all four sides on the record were from live performances. I can’t help but wonder if everyone on the other side of the pond went “‘Three Sides Live’…Yeah…I don’t get it.”

I have both versions of “Three Sides Live”, but only the U.S. version on vinyl.  My U.K. version is on CD, which makes the title even more irrelevant since there aren’t even three sides, let alone three sides live. Either way, both versions have some great music on the fourth side.

 

Roxy Music – Avalon

Even though their seven previous albums had exhibited Roxy Music as one of the most versatile groups in modern music – a band that was never afraid to explore new musical ideas – “Avalon” was a departure from anything they had done before. When I first heard it, it was like nothing like I had expected. I don’t really know what I expected.  But this wasn’t it.

“Avalon” with its ebb and flow of synths, guitars, and sax, combined with Brian Ferry’s seductive vocals is a sensual rock masterpiece. Like a good brandy or bottle of wine, the songs are simple in their initial presentation but full of complexity – and inexplicably intoxicating.

“Avalon” is an album you can crank up and jam to when you’re by yourself or hanging with friends. It’s also the perfect choice for a romantic, candle-lit evening with the one you love. It is easily, the most versatile album in Roxy Music’s catalog.