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 “Lazarus” 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 artists, and most importantly, those who have bought his records. He writes and records some of the most adventurous 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 something 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 doesn’t 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.

The Kickstand Band – Puppy Love

My sister-in-law is an artist. She teaches sculpture at Wayne State University in Detroit. There are cities in Michigan that have her sculptures on permanent display. She has done exhibitions at art galleries across the United States. I am very proud of her. I am also thankful to her for being responsible for my discovering The Kickstand Band – in a roundabout way.

A little over a year ago, my sister-in-law was doing an exhibit at the opening of the 333 Midland gallery in Highland Park, near Detroit (you should Google it, it is really cool). They had bands playing there. And while I do appreciate visual art, I am by my nature, drawn to music. And there were local bands there. One of the bands was The Kickstand Band. I loved their stage presence and more importantly, their sound. So I went up to meet them afterwards and support them by buying some of their music. I was astonished to find they had their debut album, “Puppy Love”, on CD and vinyl. Of course, I had to buy the vinyl record – it’s always my first choice.

Having just seen The Kickstand Band play live, I already knew their sound. DIY/indie pop and power chords with great boy/girl vocal harmonies. Listening more closely, once I had the record playing at home, I could also hear influences of doo-wop, surf music, punk, and of course, Motown – they are from Detroit after all.

And then there’s the album cover. As if to flaunt the DIY attitude, the cover of “Puppy Love” is a picture that would feel right at home on the “Awkward Family Photos” website (you should Google that too)

I can’t help but hope The Kickstand Band get a break somewhere down the line. They deserve it. Their music is a joy to listen to. It’s as unique as it is addicting. Not overly abrasive but still rebellious. I will be keeping eye and ear out for them.

Huey Lewis and the News – Sports

“Sports”, the third album from Huey Lewis and the News is one of the best albums to come out of the ’80s.

I honestly can not understand how anyone can not like this album. It is chock full of infectious songs with great hooks that combined blues, soul, and a little doo-wop with ’80s pop and rock. Then, as a bonus, they even do a cover of an old Hank Williams song, “Honky Tonk Blues”. It’s no wonder this record became their most successful album ever. I mean, what wasn’t there to like?

Yet…

I remember being being on a first date with a girl in the late ’80s and at one point in the evening she said that she didn’t like Huey Lewis because she thought he was too commercial. I didn’t argue my point (not a good thing to do on a first date) but at the end of the evening, I took her home, and like a good gent, gave her a kiss and said goodnight. I never saw her again after that night.

I wonder what ever happened to her.

…No I don’t.

Styx – The Grand Illusion

As I think it was for many back in 1977, “The Grand Illusion” was my introduction to the music of Styx. This album hooked me right away because of its extensive use of the use of synthesizers throughout it. Dennis DeYoung was an incredibly talented keyboardist and knew how to fully take advantage of the synthesizers to expand his creative ability. Because of the synths, Styx had elements of prog similar to Emerson Lake and Palmer. A big difference though, was that they had three singers, all with very distinctly different voices, allowing them to add impressive vocal arrangements to their songs. Then there was James Young and Tommy Shaw, who had distinctly different playing styles that gave Styx a versatility that few bands could equal. Gluing all this versatility together was the rhythm section of the Panozzo brothers, John on drums and Chuck on bass.

But the thing that made “The Grand Illusion” such a good album was the songs themselves. There is not a mediocre track on this album. Perfectly arranged and neither overly polished or too raw, it was a near perfect combination of pop, prog, and hard rock. It’s no wonder this was the album that broke Styx into the mainstream. And then there were the lyrics. If it was Styx’s music that initially hooked me, it was the lyrics that reeled me in. Sometimes they were insightful. Sometimes mystical. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes scathing. Always deeply meaningful. It’s no wonder that Styx will always be one of my favorite bands and “The Grand Illusion” will always be my favorite album by them. Although there’s also “Pieces of Eight”…

Liberace – The Best of Liberace

Many people today have heard of Liberace. Most who have, know of the flamboyance of his appearance and performances. But most have never listened to his music. If you have never listened to Liberace, you owe it to your ears to do so. He was one of the most incredible pianists you will ever hear.

Liberace came into popularity in the 1950’s, when rock and roll was just forming. Rock and roll at that time was stripped down and fairly basic, built upon the foundation of black Southern blues performers. But Liberace was not rock and roll, nor did he ever try to be. I don’t think he ever tried to be anything other than what he was best at being – a virtuoso and an entertainer.

Pop, classical, and even jazz and latin, Liberace could play it better than anyone. But that style of playing didn’t fit in with rock and roll. At least not until the emergence of progressive rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Had he been born two decades later, Liberace would have been as highly regarded in the world of rock as that genre’s most notorious keyboardists. He would have been another Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Instead, his virtuosity is resigned to the memories of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Then again, I suppose the same fate will be bestowed upon the keyboard wizards of my era. Many younger people today have only heard the names Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson – legends in the original age of vinyl.

But I know there will always be a few who will dig into the past for the music from before their time. The music that influenced their musical heroes, and their heroes. I know that if they keep digging, they will eventually discover Liberace, and when they do, I know they will be compelled to listen to it undistracted. And when the music stops and silence befalls their ears, they will utter only one word: “Wow” – because it is at that moment that they will discover and know the virtuoso that was Liberace.

Pretenders

I first discovered The Pretenders around 1983. 

Well, not really. 

I had heard the song “Brass in Pocket” years before. It was all over MTV in 1980. I liked the song, but it didn’t impress me enough to run out and get the eponymous debut album by The Pretenders, but it was memorable enough for me to store it in my gray matter for later reference.

Jump forward three years. I’m in the Army, on temporary duty at Fort McCoy Wisconsin. Most of my fellow soldiers there are into Motley CruĂ«, Poison, Judas Priest, AC/DC and other hard rock and metal bands. All those bands had their moments, AC/DC more than the rest, but my personal taste was looking for something different; something more original. On a whim I picked up the debut album by The Pretenders. I didn’t know if I’d like it but I knew I wouldn’t hate it from what I heard from the one song I remembered. I just knew I wanted something that wasn’t the same old same old. I have to say, that was one of the best spur-of-the-moment choices I ever made musically. 

The Pretenders’ debut album was a lot more punk rock infused than what I had expected – quite a departure from “Brass in Pocket”, but you could still tell it was the same band. There was an attitude; and that attitude was Chrissie Hynde’s vocals. They reminded me of a hip, punk rock version of Karen Carpenter. James Honeyman Scott’s guitar was…absolutely unique is the only description that comes to mind. Simplistically punk, but totally improvisational. Martin Chambers drums varied between Power-punk and reggae rhythms. All of this was glued together by Pete Farndons’ guiding bass-lines that, like in any great rhythm section, adapted perfectly to the drum beats without the slightest hint of reservation or abandonment. 

This was Punk and pop rolled into one, before anyone had ever thought of combining the two extremes. The Pretenders made the combination work, and the formula was followed by many, many bands to follow.

Unfortunately, after The Pretenders second album, Pete Faradon would be kicked out of the band because of problems with his increased drug abuse. James Honeyman Scott would die two days later from a drug overdose. In the aftermath, the Pretenders released an impressive third album, “Learning To Crawl”. But they would never again achieve the chemistry that existed on their first two albums. Absolute punk-pop masterpieces.

Ultravox – Vienna

New Wave Music started in the late 70s. It took the DIY attitude of punk and made it more accessible. Instead of using over driven guitars and rants, New Wave bands broke the rules with wild guitar effects, synthesizers, and unconventional vocal stylings in ways that cut against the grain of traditional rock and pop music just like punk rock did. But it added to it, a musical diversity and commercial accessibility punk rock, by its very nature, lacked. 

Ultravox was a perfect example of what New Wave music embodied. With its heavy use of synthesizers and layers of effects on the guitars, accompanied by Bill Currie’s violin and viola and Midge Ure’s versatile voice, Ultravox intentionally tried to defy classification. 

On their fourth album, Vienna, Ultravox built lush audio soundscapes that soared around inside your head and then crashed, or sometimes floated you away to a place of beauty and serenity, but not for too long, before taking off again. 

Sometimes the songs take you down a dark alley with a mysterious stranger you admire and fear at the same time. Other times, they try to entice you into indulgence and excess. Vienna is that rare album that can paint pictures with sound. Just close your eyes and listen. You’ll be amazed at what your ears can see.

Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Released in 2011, Ceremonials was the second album for Florence and the Machine. It debuted at number one on the UK charts and was nominated for two Grammys that same year. 

Although the production is fuller and more soulful than their first album, the lyrics delivered by Florence Welch’s distinct and powerful voice still feel intimate and personal. She sings with such a sense of urgency, you can’t help but feel these are songs that she needs to get out from inside her.

Almost all the songs on Ceremonials contains multiple layers, making it one of those albums that you can hear something new on even after numerous listenings. Many of the songs on the album incorporate the use of a full choir and harp, at times giving them a lush feeling, while others feel heavier and slightly darker. I can’t help but think of Kate Bush with a touch of Siouxsie And The Banshees mixed in for good measure.

Journey – Infinity

Infinity was a turning point for Journey. Formed by three former members of Santana, they had started out as a progressive rock band, with songs that focused on rhythmic changes and virtuosity. Keyboardist Greg Rollie assumed all lead vocals. Unfortunately, more structured and formatted radio in the mid-to-late seventies was starting to make progressive rock more of a niche genre than something that was commercially viable. 

In 1978, for their fourth album, Journey decided to add a new lead singer to change their sound, making it more commercially marketable. Although they retained the foundations of progressive rock in their music, with the addition of Steve Perry as frontman, Journey’s songs became shorter and more concise, focusing more on vocal harmonies and melody, while still displaying the virtuosity possessed by the individual members.

Adding Perry as lead singer proved to be a masterstroke for the band. Infinity brought in more fans who were in-tune to popular music, without totally alienating the progressive rock fans that Journey had already established. Infinity became their breakout album. Journey would follow it up with a string of numerous multi-platinum albums and would go on to become one of the most successful bands of the ’80s.

Many people are unaware that Journey ever existed without Steve Perry as the lead vocalist and think Infinity was there first, not their fourth album.

Infinity will forever hold a special place in my memories because it was the first album I ever owned. Before that, it was strictly 8-track tapes for me.

Journey was also the first big concert I ever went to. There would be many, many more to follow.

What was your first album? 
What was your first concert?