The Rockets – Back Talk

The Rockets share a story that is unfortunately common with many rock bands.  They were a band that was loaded with talent but just never got that one big break.

Made up primarily of former members from Mitch Ryder’s Detroit Wheels and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes, The Rockets’ first independent album, “Love Transfusion” was noticed by the major labels and they signed a record deal shortly after its release.  Their self titled major label debut was a hard rocking record that recieved little promotion from the record company.  Still, it sold exceptionally regionally around the Detroit area and was played regularly on the local radio stations but only had moderate success nationally.  It was the same story for their second album, “No Ballads”, although it fared slightly behind their debut in sales. For their Third album, “Back Talk”, The Rockets employed Aerosmith producer Jack Douglas to sit in the control Room. The album should have been a huge success for them. However After again receiving no promotion, its sales were minimal outside of the Detroit area.  They would release one more studio album after “Back Talk” and also an incredible live album recorded at the Royal Oak Theater, near Detroit, before throwing in the towel.

All of The Rockets’ records had a gritty and aggressive yet soulful sound that made them stand out and really embodied what Detroit is all about.

I picked this album up  while I was  In the Army, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I had no idea at the time that The Rockets had even come out with a new album. I immediately bought it.  When I played it for the first time in the barracks, I was surprised when a couple buddies who weren’t from Detriot, asked me if that was “The Rockets” and commented that they thought the were great,  One of the guys had first heard them when he was stationed in Germany. He said they were pretty popular over there. That made me feel proud for my favorite ho.etown band.

I listened to The Rockets a lot when I was in the Army. Whenever I felt homesick, they reminded me of Detroit.

John Cougar Mellancamp – Scarecrow

You would be hard pressed to find an album with more heart than “Scarecrow” by John Cougar Mellencamp.

Growing up in rural Indiana, Mellencamp went back to his roots for the songs on “Scarecrow”, taking inspiration from his the changes he saw happening to his hometown and its nearby farms. Sometimes it was proud, as in “Small Town”, and at others it was sentimental, like on  “Minutes to Memories”. But the album was most moving with the scathing picture it painted of the family farms that were unable to survive against the huge corporations on the opening song, “Rain on the Scarecrow”. Where Mellencamp sings of a heartland that had lost its heart.

The songs on “Scarecrow” struck a chord across America and it became one of Mellencamp’s most popular and memorable albums.

Shortly after the success of “Scarecrow”, Mellencamp would form “Farm Aid” along with country star Willie Nelson. The non-profit organization put on a series of benefit concerts to raise money that brought financial relief to many struggling American  farms. He remains an active advocate to rural America to this day.

The Allman Brothers Band – Eat A Peach

There will never be another band like The Allman Brothers Band. Nor will there ever be an album quite like “Eat a Peach”.  One of the original jam bands, The Allmam Brothers seamlessly blended the Southern rock and blues akin to their Georgia roots with jazz infused improvisations that showcased the talents of the band’s members.

“Eat a Peach” was The Allman Brothers Band’s third studio album and second live album. It was a double album that contained two sides of almost all studio material and two sides of all live material recorded at the original Filmore Theater in San Francisco.

Two sides of live material taken up by one song, aptly titled “Mountain Jam”, which clocks in at just under forty minutes.

Most typical bands would have laid out the two parts of “Mountain Jam” back to back on subsequent sides. But the Allman Brothers Band are anything but typical. After closing out side one with the tender love song “Melissa”, side two kicks off the first half of “Mountain Jam” which fades out after an unfogettable drum and tympani solo by Butch Trucks. Instead of picking up where that leaves off, side three opens with a couple other live tracks, including the classic “One Way Out”, moves into more studio recordings and closes out with the beautiful instrumental “Little Martha”.

Side four picks up where “Mountain Jam” left off on side two, starting off where the drum solo transitions into Berry Oakley’s bass solo. Dual guitar solos by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts lead into an all member jam crescendo that closes an incredible jam on an incredible double album by an incredible jam band.

One of the original jam bands.

 

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.

 

Crack The Sky

When I’m surfing the Internet, I read a lot about bands I’ve heard of. The other day, I ran across an article titled “The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of”.  Now I have heard of a lot of obscure bands, so I was intrigued.

The band of topic was “Crack The Sky” and no, I had never heard of them.  I was further intrigued. It turns out Rolling Stone magazine declared Crack The Sky’s 1975 eponymous album “the best debut album of the year”. I was even more intrigued. I also ran across a 2015 post where “Crack The Sky” was included as one of the 50 greatest prog albums of all time by the same publication. I was beyond intrigued. I had to listen to this intriguing band from Vermont that never really gained popularity outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

I found a copy of “Crack the Sky” for sale on Discogs and immediately bought it. And so here I  sit listening to a band I’ve never heard of.

…And I am more than beyond intrigued. I am impressed…and amazed….

I am amazed that Crack the Sky never made it beyond their local popularity. They had it all: vocal arrangements falling in line with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the musicianship of Yes,  the pop appeal of Styx, the complexity of Focus, and the contrasting dark lyrics yet bright music of Steely Dan.

From what I am hearing on their debut album, Crack The Sky  is a band that is…what’s the word? …

…Intriguing.

I am intrigued to hear more by them.

Stanley Clarke

Jazz fusion is a style I need to add more of into my record collection.

When one thinks of Stanley Clarke, they think of two things: bass and jazz fusion music. Stanley Clarke is probably the person most singularly responsible for bringing recognition to bass as a lead instrument instead of just part of the rhythm section. Jazz fusion, with its freeform breakaway jamming style was absolutely the best fit for Clarke’s playing style. He is absolutely amazing to listen to.

Stanley Clarke recorded this self titled album – his second solo effort – while he was still in the band “Return to Forever” with Chick Corea. “Return to Forever” was a great fusion band, that for the most part, focused on traditional instrumentation. Usually, guitar or keys were the lead instruments. On Clarke’s solo efforts, it was all about the instrument he played. It was all about the bass.

Side one consists of more tradtional jazz fusion. That is, if one can really call any jazz fusion “traditional”. It’s really a style That’s all about playing what you feel and feeling what you play. Listening to Stanley Clarke, it’s evident that he feels it.

“Spanish Phases for Strings and Bass” kicks off side two with a combination of neo-classical and Latin music. That’s followed by the four part jazz fusion masterppiece “Life Suite”, which can be best described with one word: “epic”.

I think the reason I don’t have more jazz fusion in my collection Is because to me, jazz has always been a style of music that should be heard, and seen, performed live. But that doesn’t mean it can’t make for a great studio recording. Stanley Clarke proves that here.

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.

The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot

In the 1970s there were some bands that were against using synthesizers in their music, pining that they were artificial or inauthentic instruments. Then there were others who used synths extensively, feeling they opened new doors of musical possibilities. The Alan Parsons Project embraced synthesizers along with traditional rock band instruments and orchestral and choral arrangements to create incredible works of musical art.

Released in 1977, “I Robot” was the second album by the Alan Parsons Project. It was a concept album based loosely on a book of the same name, written by science fiction author Isiaac Asimov.

Conceptually, “I Robot” tells the story of man’s cretion of machines with artificial intelegence that eventually overtake him as the dominant species on earth. It closes with an instumental titled “Genesis Ch. 1, V. 32” alluding to a continuation of the biblical story of creation, only this time it is man who has created robot in his own image.

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.