Roxy Music – Avalon

Even though thier seven previous albums had exhibited Roxy Music as one of the most versitile 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 thier 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.

The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour

This marks the 200th post to my blog. I feel a need to make it about an exceptional album.

In 1967 color TV was a big deal. So were The Beatles. What better combination could there have been then, than to make a colour movie for the telly featuring their music and, of course starring the fab four themselves?

The hour long programme had to be originally broadcast in black and white when the BBC first aired it on boxing day (the day after Christmas in the U.K.). However, it aired again in colour a couple weeks later.

Although the album soundtrack to the film was well received, the movie itself – a story of a bus trip across England and the bizarre events that occur on it – was not. Probably because the film had a psychedelic feel to it that was not appreciated by elder viewer. Opinion of the movie changed as time passed and both are now considered classics.

The album came in a gatefold cover that included a 24 page full color book with scenes from the movie. Because of the original packaging, “Magical Mystery Tour” is an album that could never be presented effectively when released decades later on the smaller CD format.

One of the things I find interesting about the Magical Mystery Tour album packaging is that the album the cover uses the American spelling of color when referring to the book inside, but the book itself uses the British spelling of colour when referencing the movie.

Madonna

I first heard Madonna on a radio station from Clarksville Tennessee, and was immediately intrigued. I could tell she wasn’t common to the rock and roll that I grew up with, and still listened to almost exclusively at that time, but that is what I was looking for – or should I say, listening for – at the time.

The different musical tastes that many of my friends in the Army had were making me want to branch out and experience new styles that I HA previously ignorr d. Reggae, country, jazz, pop, funk, electronic, and even disco (but that was pushing it for me) started to influence my musical tastes, and consqueently, my record collection.  I suddenly realized how much I had been limiting my musical palette, so I decided that every now and then, I would buy an album by an artist that was outside of my comfort zone.

“Borderline” was the first song that I ever heard by Madonna. When I did, I somehow knew that she was not a one-hit-wonder. I could tell that she was someone who was going to to be a big star. I had no idea at the time, just how big.

Madonna’s debut album became my record collection’s point of entrance into ’80s pop and dance music. In all honesty, I don’t think I could have picked a better entry point. Although the music on it was blatantly designed for the dance floors in the New York club scene (and consequently dance clubs across the U.S.) it offered up so much more than that of its peers. With only one album under her belt, Madonna had already changed the music industry forever. A trend she would continue with her future records.

When I first heard Madonna, I thought she was from New York. After all, that’s where she first hit it big – in its club scene, where her songs quickly became some of the most popular.  It wasn’t until a year or two after I owned this album that I learned she was actually, like me, from the suburbs right outside Detroit. She had to move away to New York in order to get the break she deserved. I always thought it was somewhat appropriate that I discovered her music while living far away from our the Motor City which we both called home.

Queen – The Game

Queen is one of the most versatile and creative rock bands ever.  Freddie Mercury has an incredible vocal range and knows how to use it.  Brian May’s guitar extravagance in both tonal qualities and technical ability are unequaled. Roger Taylor has a unique drumming style that is immediately recognizable (for one, he loves to play the hi-hat just slightly behind the snare drum making it sound like one elongated beat) and John Deacon is absolutely solid on bass. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, they were a band that was never afraid to try anything new. Except for synthesizers.

Queen always seemed staunchly defiant to synths. Not to the point of ever talking negatively about them. But they did make a point on their first six albums to somewhere in the liner notes, point out that “no synths” were used on the albums.

Quite honestly, on those early Queen albums, synthesizers weren’t missed. It was actually quite amazing some of the sounds Brian May could wring out of a guitar, making tones and sonic  fluctuations that many bands would need to use a synthesizer to even come close to.  Then again the guy was a thesis away from a doctorate in astrophysics when Queen’s success took off, and did all his own guitar electronics, so it wasn’t that surprising that he could be pretty amazing. (He did finally write his thesis and receive his doctorate in 2007, and has since co-authored a book on the origins of the universe).

I don’t think any of my close friends would be surprised to know that I love reading liner notes on albums.  I could say “the more the merrier” but that would be untrue.  I don’t necessarily  want to have the back cover or inner sleve plastered in paragraphs of text, but it’s nice to have some interesting information about the songs or the band or the recording sessions – and lyrics are always nice. It’s all about the balance.

When I heard the opening to Queen’s seventh studio album, I knew – there was no doubt in my mind – I mean, Brian May could do some amazing things on guitar – but that was a synthesizer. And as I read the liner notes, there it was in black and white: “This album includes the first appearance of  a Synthesizer (an Oberhein OBX) on a Queen album“.

There were no apologies or explanations given . Then again, none were really needed. Queen never denounced the use of synths. They just made it clear to those who paid close attention, that they didn’t use them. On “The Game”, they made it clear to that same crowd that on this album they were going to start.

The use of synthesizers didn’t ruin “The Game” – it made it a stronger album. Synthesizers allowed Queen to expand their sound beyond where they had gone before.

“The Game” went on to be one of Queen’s most successful albums, and one of my personal favorites by them. That’s in part, because they chose to use synths on it. “The Game” wouldn’t sound the same without them. Queen just had to know how to use them but not over do it. After all, it’s all about the balance.

 

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

Normally, when I buy a new album I like to listen to it a couple times before I write down my thoughts on it. But I wanted to try something new this time, so here goes…

I’d heard of Lana Del Rey from many people I know. I also saw her name pop up in the music news from time to time.  Really, if you are into music today, it’s impossible to at least not know her name. I had the opportunity to sample a couple tracks off her second album but never heard any of the songs on it in their entirety.  I was almost flying blind buying this album.  I knew this was the kind of album I would need to listen to for the first time when I was in the mood for something new. I only hoped that I would like it.

I want to state here that I won’t write anything here about an album I don’t like. I hate reading negative reviews, because, by their nature, reviews are always subjective to the critic’s opinion. If a reviewer doesn’t like an album they should write about something else. Be positive. I have listened many albums that others have hated, and loved them; and vice versa. If I don’t like an album, I simply wont write it here.

That said, you’re reading this, so I obviously like what I am hearing, otherwise I wouldn’t still be writing and this album would be shelved for a future listening. (I never give an album only one chance).

The title track, which opens “Born to Die”, grabbed me right away. Absolutely beautiful lyrics; and the music is hypnotizing and invigorating at the same time.  I’m finding the rest of the album that way as well. There’s an influence of hip hop which in overdose, I don’t care for. But here, Lana Del Rey finds the perfect balance between it and jazz and pop, with a feel of…what is it … … …baroque? It’s that touch of contrast that makes her music so unique.

Ornate on top but subdued underneath. Extravagant but simply stated. Only a true artist could do this music. Someone who’s not afraid to break new ground.

Okay. Side two…

There’s influence of Kate Bush here, as well as Amy Winehouse. Maybe that’s why I’m digging this album so much.

I’m not a big fan of the f-bombs on “Radio” though.  Not that I’m against swearing on an album if it feels appropriate. In this song, it feels kind of forced though – like she wanted to get that “parental advisory” sticker to enhance sales. It’s a great song and although the f-bombs don’t ruin it, they do detract from it bit. Their verbal force would have been more appropriate in the following song, “Carmen”.  Still, the songs on the flip side so far do not disappoint. Even if the closing song, “This is What Makes Us Girls”, disappoints me, I will have no regrets about buying this album. The last time I enjoyed a new album this much was when I heard “Lungs” by Florence And the Machine.

I know this is an album I will listen to many, many times.  Buying it was a great gamble that paid off.

Oh, by the way, the closing song did not disappoint.

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Sometimes I wonder if I got it all wrong….

Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Arcade Fire  when they first came onto the music scene in 2004. Maybe my expectations were too high after hearing raves about their debut, “Funeral”. To me, it was good…but…meh.  I figured they were a one or two album album band destined to mediocrity. I was wrong.

I mostly use word of mouth and the Internet to check out new bands (I’m not a big fan of the  local commercial radio stations today). Thirteen years later, I was still hearing a lot of talk about Arcade Fire. So I went online and listened to them again and found a lot of songs really hit home with me, especially from their 2010 album “The Suburbs”. So much so, that I figured I’d pick up a copy of “The Suburbs” to listen to the album as a whole. It was one of the best musical decisions I have ever made.

Listening to the songs on “The Suburbs” mixed with tracks from other albums, I could tell it was going to be a good album. But the whole is so much better than its parts. This album is a creative masterpiece. The songs are themed around living in the suburbs – the good, the bad, and the mediocre, offering up the lyrics with diverse but uniquely identifiable arrangements.

After listening to “The Suburbs”, I will definitely be giving other Arcade Fire a closer listen. I wouldn’t be surprised if another album from them ends up in my collection. Maybe I should give “Funeral” another listen. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Arcade Fire’s originality when I first heard it.

Maybe I got it all wrong.

Steven Wilson – Transience

Four time Grammy nominee Steven Wilson is one of the most creatively talented recording artists around today. Yet so many people have not really heard of him.  If you happen to fall into that category, the album “Transience” is a great place to start.

Consisting of three sides of music recorded between 2003 and 2015 (the fourth album side is etched with lyrics to one of the songs) “Transience” is a collection of songs taken mostly from Steven Wilson’s previous solo albums. Three of them are reworked exclusively for this album and differ noticeably from their original incarnations. There is also a new re-recording of the song “Lazerus” which was previously recorded by Wilson’s former band Porcupine Tree.

If you haven’t given any of Steven Wilson’s music a listen, you owe it to yourself to do so. He has received praise from critics, numerous other musical artsts, and most importantly, those who have bought his records. He writes and records some of the most adventerous music being produced today. Sometimes intricate and complex, it quite often falls outside of the mainstream, but in no way does that mean his music is extreme or excessive.

The songs on “Transience” are selections that fall more in line with modern contemporary music. This is music that departs from the commonplace and defies being a mere musical backdrop. This is an album that is enticing and unique. It demands to be listened to; not just once but over and over. Because, as with all of Steven Wilson’s albums,  there always seems to be somthing new to hear.

Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (white vinyl)

Fleetwood Mac’s 11th album, “Rumors”, is one of the best selling albums of all time.  It has sold over 40 million copies and is one of the only albums to give Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” a run for its money as the all time best selling album ever.

The album was recorded in a tumultuous period Fleetwood Mac’s history. There were members of the band having relationships with other members – sometimes multiple members. This caused a lot of tension in the studio.   But it was that tension between the band members that caused huge spark of creativity and resulted in an incredible work of art that stands the test of time. “Rumours” sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1977.

Not surprisingly, given the personal conflicts going on within the band, most of the lyrics “Rumors” are introspective poetry that speaks of love, relationships, and emotions.

This edition of “Rumors” is a limited edition, pressed on white vinyl. There is no reason albums need to be pressed on black vinyl other than that’s the way it was always done. The color of the vinyl doesnt affect the sound quality so every now and then, limited runs of albums are pressed on colored vinyl. They usually cost a little more, but every now and then I have to splurge. After all, colored vinyl is cool.

REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity

Sellout.

That was a word a lot of people used to describe “Hi Infidelity”, the 9th studio album by REO Speedwagon. And in many ways it was. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Towards the end of the 70s, REO Speedwagon’s albums began to take on more of a pop sound then their earlier, harder rocking albums. A trend that was brought to fruition on “Hi Infidelity”. The thing is though, when you really listen to it, this record rocks just as hard and any of its predecessors. Sometimes more so. It just did it with a bit more polish.

In their early incarnation, REO Speedwagon was anything but a pop band. They were a hard rocking Midwestern American band with highly talented musicians. Gary Richrath was a phenomenal guitarist and Neil Doughty was absolutely one of the most underrated keyboardists ever, as was Alan Gratzer on drums. Despite their talent and some great songs, true success seemed to elude REO Speedwagon, album after album, in their early days.

So they spruced up their sound a bit, to make it more accessible, and started throwing a slow ballad or two on each new album. And voila! Hit records. The great thing was, they still wrote songs that allowed Gary Richrath and Neil Doughty to really cut loose. Hidden under the hood of the pop gloss on “Hi Infidelity” are some of the best riffs and solos in the REO Speedwagon canon.

The formula on “Hi Infidelity” absolutely worked worked for REO. Even though it was absolutely a pop album, especially when compared to their early material, “Hi Infidelity” never alienated REO’s early fan base because it’s still rocked hard. Yet the album gained them a new pop fan base. The album ended up becoming their most successful album ever, selling over 10 million copies and topping the Billboard charts in 1981. It also earned them their first number one single, the obligatory slow ballad “Keep on Loving You”.

“Hi Infidelity” was the record that finally, after eight previous albums, earned REO Speedwagon the success they had so long deserved but had constantly been denied, while still letting them keep their musical integrity. Call it a sellout if you want. I call it REO Speedwagon at their finest.

Asia

I remember picking up Asia’s debut, self titled album without ever hearing a song on it. The only thing I knew about the band was who was in it – and that was enough for me. Carl Palmer, the drummer from Emerson Lake and Palmer; Geoffrey Downes and Steve Howe, keyboardist and guitarist respectively from Yes, and John Wetton bassist and vocalist from King Crimson. For members from three of my favorite bands. 

I also remember that when I first heard Asia, I was initially, somewhat disappointed. To me, this was the supergroup to end all supergroups. And in a way it was – just not in the way I expected. This was the ’80s. This was the time of pop and polish – and reverb. Progressive rock was waning in popularity. Gone were the epics that took up an entire side of an album. Gone were the extended solos. The songs on Asia were short and concise compositions – songs designed to be hits. And there were many hits on this album. 

After repeated listenings, I learned to appreciate this album for what it was. The members of Asia, having been in some of the most successful bands in the ’70s, wanted to have a successful album. They also wanted to keep their integrity as musicians and songwriters. Mission accomplished. Asia was the marriage of  ’70s prog and ’80s pop music.

Listening to Asia’s first album now, I realize what a significant record it is. Although it has a somewhat overproduced, distinctly 1980s production style to it, which I am typically not a huge fan of, the musicianship on this album is exceptional. Typical to prog-rock, many of the songs mix loud and soft passages, tempo shifts, and interesting chord chages. Those elements were just more subtle than before, and mixed in with a bit of pop and polish – and reverb. Asia is a great album for what it was: a record that marked a turning point in rock and roll, for better or for worse.