Linda Ronstadt – What’s New

Transitioning into the ’80s, the sound of popular music was changing. Many poular acts from the ’70s found themselves either adapting to more dance oriented music or risk falling off the musical radar of most people. Never one to follow trends, Linda Ronstadt chose a different road. In 1983, she released an album of pop and vocal jazz standards from the musical era that preceded rock and roll – the music her father listened to when she was growing up. The result was an ulikely album to hit the number 3 position on record charts being dominated by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

I always loved Linda Ronstadt’s voice. She could sing anything and make it her own. Her voice never sounded more beautiful than on her trilogy of albums with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. “What’s New” was the first in that great musical trilogy.

Beautiful music sung by a beautiful lady with a beautiful voice.

Electric Light Orchestra II

In 1973, Electric Light Orchestra had a very different sound from Jeff Lynn’s highly polished production of their late ’70s and ’80s albums. Perhaps the most significant difference was that they hadn’t yet started to use an actual backing orchestra (probably because they couldn’t afford to hire one). Instead, the band used overdubs of the band members playing cellos and violins to create a bigger sound. On some songs, even the overdubbing was skipped, creating a more rock band / string quartet styled sound.

ELO’s early songwriting also took a different approach than their later albums. Even though Roy Wood left ELO before this album was released, his influence is still significantly felt here. Electric Light Orchestra II has a more experimental, progressive rock sound and the production is noticeably less slick than the direction Jeff Lynn took the group in their later years.

I love ELO’s later stuff but once I discovered their early works, I remember wishing they had done more albums like this. A standout track on this record is ELO’s take of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. With the integration of violins and cellos, the version on this album will always be the definitive one to me. Sorry Chuck.

The Black Keys – El Camino

Some records grab you right from the opening riff. “El Camino” by Ohio duo The Black Keys is one of those albums. The rest of the album follows suit, with a driving collection of rough and ready blues rock. Although The Black Keys formed in 2001 and “El Camino”, the band’s seventh album came out ten years later, don’t let that fool you. This is old school garage rock with a modern twist.

If you know anything about classic cars, I know what you’re thinking about the album cover: that is NOT an El Camino. In remembrance of their early days, for this album, The Black Keys wanted to use a picture of a van similar to the one they used to tour in their early days. So why call the album “El Camino”? Well, in Spanish “El camino” means “the Road”. The album title is actually also another nod to their early days since it was on the road touring that The Black Keys earned the musical reputation leading to the success they have today. Also, knowing the “El Camino” is a classic muscle car, the van on the cover was done in jest. The Black Keys knew it would drive the car enthusiasts nuts.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (red vinyl re-issue)

I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show probably more than any other movie; no other movie even comes close. If there wasn’t anything else happening on a late Friday night when I was in high school, you’d find me in the balcony at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe armed with a squirt gun, newspaper, flashlight, rice, and probably a few other items, ready for action.

But my appreciation for The Rocky Horror Picture Show was also about the music. The songs were written by Richard O’Brien, who also plays Riff Raff, made it my favorite movie soundtrack at the time. It still is today, and not because of the nostalgia either. The music is great rock and roll which, like the movie, is filled with sexual tension and kitschy theatrics. The perfect movie and soundtrack for any high school teen.

The Byrds – Greatest Hits

When The Byrds first started out in 1965, they took the sounds of the British invasion and combined it with American folk music made popular by Bob Dylan and others. Their sound was tailored strongly by the jangly tone of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker which became a strong influence a decade later for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They were also known for their distinct vocal harmonies.

The Byrds would later add Eastern world, psychedelic, and country music influences to their sound. These changes caused creative differences within the band leading to David Crosby eventually leaving the group and forming Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young). Numerous other lineup changes would happen down the line, with Roger McGuinn remaining the only consistent member. They eventually disbanded in 1973.

Peter Paul And Mary – 10 Years Together

If you think of Peter, Paul and Mary as a children’s group because of the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, think again. Along with Bob Dylan they brought folk music to the forefront of popular culture. In the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger from the two decades before, their songs were also often subtle sociopolitical commentaries of the changing times of their generation.

They could also arrange three-part vocal harmonies better than any other group before or since. On record, those vocals were mixed to take full advantage of the soundstage that can be created by a properly set up stereo system.

I picked this album at a garage sale not too long ago expecting to listen to a couple of corny songs I remembered from my early youth (mainly the afore-mentioned “Puff the Magic Dragon”) then get rid of it at a used record store, in trade for something else. Just a little childhood nostalgia, nothing more. What I got was a collection of songs written by Dylan, Seeger, and John Denver, as well as PP&M penned gems that are beautifully arranged, performed, and recorded. What I got was a greatest hits album that is a joy to listen to.

Nope. This one’s a keeper.

The J. Geils Band – Love Stinks

Rock and roll was going through some significant changes going into the 1980s. Many bands that had cut their teeth in the ’70s either couldn’t adapt to the newer sound and fell by the wayside or overcompensated and were labeled as sell-outs by their long time fans. For The J. Geils Band the transition was easy. Their style of r&b party rock didn’t need to change much at all to propel them to the top of their popularity and the top of the record charts without alienating any of their fans.

The conversation within the band may very well have gone something like this:

Peter Wolf: “Seth, we need you to start playing more synthesizers instead of just piano and organ.”

Seth Justman: “Okay.”

I don’t know if that’s the way it all went down, but it could’ve been. That’s really all Geils did for “Love Stinks” to become their second most successful album shortly after it was released. Their next album, “Freeze Frame”, would do even better.

Erich Kunzel / Cincinnati Pops Orchestra – Time Warp

When I want to be truly amazed by how good vinyl can sound, “Time Warp” is one of my go-to albums.

Let’s talk about music dynamics, frequency response, and harmonics for a moment. Actually, let’s not. I know enough about that stuff to sound like I know what I’m talking about but It would really mostly BS.

I have no formal training in music and I am a very mediocre guitarist at best. But I have read a little and listened a lot through the decades. I know enough to tell you that on a cheap audio system, a good turntable can sound just as good as a CD or digital download. On a moderate or high-end stereo, it can sound even better. The reason is mainly because the needle vibrating in the groove of a record picks up small non-existing vibrations in between the notes that a laser or electronics can’t. Technically, it’s distortion – an inaccuracy in the music reproduction. If you hear someone saying how vinyl records have a warmer sound tha CDs, that’s what they are talking about. Is the sound of analog vinyl as accurate non-compressed digital? No. Is it better? That depends. It’s a personal thing.

“Time Warp” is an amazingly accurate title to this album because the music on it is a combination of the past, present and future. Starting out with a purely electronic composition by Don Dorsey that will easily rattle the room when turned up, you feel as if you are taking some futuristic jump inside a wormhole, travelling through both time and space. The rest of the album is classical orchestration of selections from a variety of science fiction movies and TV shows. The record closes out with Peter Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, a 19th century composition that most people have come to know as the theme to “2001 A Space Odyssey”. It’s a perfect ending to an incredible musical journey through time and space.

Led Zeppelin – The Song Remais The Same (soundtrack)

In the short time between when I first saw the film “The Song Remains the Same” and bought the double album soundtrack, I didn’t remember the music from the movie well enough to realize all of the differences between the two. Then again, when I first saw the movie, I was probably in a great state of mind for listening to music; not so good for remembering all of it.

I’m not going to go into all the specifics between the music in the film and on the album – you can Google that easily enough – but in a nutshell, there are songs in the movie that didn’t make it to the record and one that’s the other way around. Also some of the same songs on both are not from the same performances. Sure, both the film and soundtrack were recorded in 1976, during three nights of sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York, but Zeppelin liked to make each of their concerts a unique experience for the audience. They always played their songs differently from one night to the next. When I listen to “The Song Remains the Same” today, I cant help but remember all the differences between the songs here and the music in the film. It’s so significant, I don’t know if I even consider this to be the soundtrack to the film; just a great live album.

Frank Marino – Juggernaut

First there was the band Mahogany Rush. Then there was Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Finally it was just Frank Marino.

I suppose the writing is on the wall when your lead guitarist and vocalist start tagging their name in front of the band’s.

Frank Marino is a Canadian rock legend who, much in the style of Hendrix, played a combination of hard rocking blues and jazz guitar. “Juggernaut”, the second solo album by Marino, had a slightly more ’80s feel than his earlier work in the ’70s but still found him staying true to form; doing what he does best. Really, the music didn’t change that much from Mahogany Rush to Frank Marino’s solo material. It’s still some of the best guitar playing you’ll hear on any record.