Transferring LPs to CD made easy – A guide (by Phil Harland)

Posted on Fri May 30 2008 at 2:04 pm in the category Recording and turntables -- 17 Comments -- Copyright notice

(Last Updated April 2014)

INTRO

You can greatly enlarge your music library for very little cost if you get back into vinyl like I did. I’ve been transferring LP records to digital for about eight years.  If you arrange a very good set-up and take care with your transfers, you can end up with digitized music that sounds just as good as (if not better than) your typical bought CD.  My main stereo includes used Paradigm Studio Reference 100 speakers and a very good amplifier (used Bryston DAC/preamp and amp), which is quite revealing if there are any weaknesses in the transfers.  I have largely eliminated weaknesses with my current set-up and process.

I’ll begin by outlining the key elements in transferring and then also link to several other sites that provide further information. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, but I do want to note what I’ve found to work best.

THE EQUIPMENT AND THE PROCESS

Here is what you need (with some of my comments on each):

1) A very good turntable

  • I use a direct drive Technics SL-1200MK2 (which you can buy new for about $600 or used for about $200). Direct-drive turntables, distinguished from belt-drive, maintain a steady playing speed and prevent what they call wow and flutter (arbitrary speeding up and slowing down). Some audiophiles prefer belt-drives nonetheless, and belt-drives are the most common. (I also have a vintage Dual 1229 turntable in the basement, which would have worked fine but not as well as the Technics).  Another more recent option is to buy a turntable with a USB out specifically designed for transferring (and often with in-built phono preamp).   Since such turntables are quite cheap, they are not likely to produce the quality of sound of the set-up I suggest here.  But they may well be good enough for your purposes.
  • Most turntables will have two RCA connectors (red and white) which plug into the phono input of your amp and a ground wire. It is absolutely essential that you attach that ground wire to the ground connector on the back of your amplifier/receiver (or ground it in some other way), otherwise you will have a loud constant hum from the turntable.

2) An excellent turntable cartridge and needle / stylus

  • I did quite a bit of research on what cartridge and needle provided excellent sound without costing an arm and a leg. At first I ended up with the Audio Technica AT 440MLa (MM), which has what they call an eliptical stylus/needle and which you can buy online for about $100 (list price is about $300).  As of 2010, I have upgraded to the AT 150MLX (similar design to the 440MLa but better), which does make quite a difference in conjunction with a better phono preamp.  That one costs quite a bit more, though.
  • There are two main formats of cartridge: 1/2″ mount and P-Mount. Good turntables generally use 1/2″ mount. There are two main kinds of cartridge-needle combinations: MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil). MC cartridges are “low output” and sometimes require additional set-up requirements and equipment, but if set up properly can provide a lower noise floor (quieter background noise from the record-playing). Nonetheless, a good MM can provide excellent sound and is less complicated in making sure it all works out (I’m told a badly set up MC can sound horrible). A new cartridge and needle needs to be “broken in” for a good number of hours before it hits its peak in sound quality.
  • It is important that you make all of the necessarily adjustments when hooking up the cartridge, including the weight counter-balance, anti-skate setting, and cartridge alignment (on which go here for some free tools including a protractor).  You also want to make sure that the tonearm is parallel with the record surface, which is also known as setting the VTA (vertical tracking angle).

3) A very good amplifier or receiver with proper “Phono” input (and phono pre-amplifier)

  • By “very good” I mean mid-range priced amps by the likes of NAD, Yamaha, or Denon. You must have a proper “phono” input on your amp or receiver since the sound-signal from a turntable needs extra amplification (a built-in “preamp” as they call it).  If you have a good amp already but it doesn’t have a phono input, you can buy a separate turntable preamp. At first, I picked up a used NAD 7155 (from the 1980s) for just $20, which has a good turntable preamp or “soundstage” and also happened to have the ability to switch between MC and MM cartridges. When buying a used amp, you may need to buy a spray bottle of cleaner from Radio Shack to clean the inside of the volume and other nobs (if there is initially static).  In 2010, I have acquired a used Bryston BP 0.5b (basically the same as a Bryston BP 1), which is a standalone phono preamp with volume control.  This has made a significant difference to my rather sensitive ears.  You can pick up an older used Bryston phono preamp for around $200-300.  I am also told that the Bellari phono preamp is a very good, relatively inexpensive one to use.
  • You of course need RCA connectors (your typical stereo connectors) to link the turntable to the amp and to link the amp to the computer’s soundcard (if the soundcard uses a 3.5mm input like a small earphone input, then you need a connector that goes from red/white RCA to 3.5mm plug, which you can get at most computer stores).

4) A computer with an excellent sound card

  • This is, in my opinion, essential if you want CD quality sound from your transfers. You can simply use the built-in soundcard in your computer, but most such soundcards are far inferior to soundcards that were purpose-built for high quality sound. One of the keys here is the analogue to digital converter (ADC) within the sound card.  If the converter within the soundcard is not good or is just average, then you loose a lot when you’re recording.  M-Audio produces many useful audio interfaces for linking your computer to sound equipment, and I chose the M-Audio Audiophile 2496, which has RCA in and out (analogue signal), as well as SPDIF (digital signal). The RCA connectors allow direct connections from stereo equipment.
  • I should mention that I did thorough sound-tests with other equipment before choosing the 2496. I compared my in-built soundcard to the external USB Edirol UA1EX and found that the latter was better but not astoundingly better. I also tried Soundforge’s 24-bit external soundcard and found that it was inferior. I then tried the internal M-Audio 2496 and found it was considerably better that the external Edirol. As the name implies, my soundcard gives me the ability to record at 24-bit (higher quality than a CD’s 16-bit) and with sampling rates up to 96,000 (the quality of DVD audio).

5) Recording: Audacity software

  • Audacity is an excellent, free audio recording program. This allows you to record any sound input into the soundcard device of your computer, in this case sound input from your turntable via your amplifier. You need to go into “Preferences” under “Edit” and click on “Audio I/O” in order to make sure that you have your high-quality soundcard (if you have one) chosen as default.
  • Recording levels: The volume level of the sound from your LP that is going through the amp to your computer will not be at an optimum level (optimum level is a peak of -3 to 0 dB). You want to have a recording come close to but not exceed 0 dB (or, say – 3dB to play it safe) at its loudest moment. Any louder than 0 dB will create a terrible sound in digital music (Audacity warns you of this with a little red mark at the right end of the audio-meter). There are two ways to optimize recording level: (1) Adjust the volume level on some external equipment (e.g. amplifier, external preamplifier) such that the loudest moment on the LP reaches but does not exceed 0 dB on input meter in Audacity. (2) Adjust the volume level after you record by using the “Gain” slider to the left of the picture of your wav recording in Audacity. I find that the latter results in a lowering of the sound quality, in part because you are also adding gain (volume) to any background sound from the turntable or system, such as the equipment’s low running noise (but most others do not notice this as I do). I instead adjust the volume to an optimum level by using the large earphone output on my amplifier as my main out from the amplifier to the computer’s soundcard (which requires a earphone to RCA connector). (The tape-out RCA jacks of an amp cannot have the volume adjusted). Then I simply adjust the volume on the amplifier to arrive at the optimum level. Getting your recordings as close as possible to -3 to 0 dB also helps to have the volume of your recordings come close to those of a typical bought CD (so that you don’t find yourself always having to adjust volume level while listening). Avoid applying a software’s gain equalization feature to groups of files which makes all of your digital songs equal in volume level but may result in loss of detail in the sound quality.
  • Lowering the noise floor.  If you want the best recordings, it is best to spend some time experimenting and lowering the noise floor.  Computer related equipment including DSL modems and monitors can add noise to your recordings if plugged into the same outlet as your turntable and amp or phono preamp.  Also, if you link your computer to another sound system or to a system that is linked to a TV cable or antenna, this can create a low hum (often caused by an electrical groundloop).  The “noise floor” is the overall running noise of the entire system as it would appear when you are recording in audacity with the volume already set to record a record but without lowering the needle to the record (in other words, you have the record player and amp on and have already set the volume to max out at 0dB but you haven’t lowered the needle to play).  At first, my noise floor was about -66 to -63dB (as viewed in Audacity) and then I moved my DSL modem and monitor to another outlet and the noise floor was lowered to -69dB.  Now with my Bryson phono preamp I have lowered things further so that, when I’m set to record maxing at 0dB, my noise floor is usually -74dB to -78dB (before setting down the needle).  This means that more of the small details in the music will have a chance to come through and you’ll have quieter sound in the silent parts of music.  If possible, link between your computer and another sound system using TOSLINK optical cables, which are not susceptible to electrical interference (digital coax and regular RCA cables will transfer noise — my TV antenna, for example, added about 10dB of noise to my recordings before I ensured my TV was utterly independent my main sound system which was connected to my computer, and optical connections between an amp and things that are connected to the TV and its reception cable, such as DVD players, permit this).
  • Recording quality: Audacity by default records at a 32-bit level, which is exceptional (CD’s are 16-bit and you need to change this setting when you export). Leave it at 32-bit unless you have no room on your hard-drive. Before you record, you also need to choose the sample rate or “Project rate (Hz)” as it appears in the Audacity window. CD’s are typically 44100 Hz, so you need to use that rate if you mainly want to burn the recordings to CD. I tend to record at 48000 Hz and then convert to 44100Hz when I need a CD for the car. The bit-depth (e.g. 16 bit vs. 24 bit) is perhaps more important for sound quality, and that comes in at the exporting stage. (By the way, if your soundcard is only 16-bit, then that will be the maximum quality you will get regardless of Audacity’s ability to work at 32-bit and to export at 24-bit).
  • Exporting quality and file formats: The essential stage for maintaining the quality of your recordings is when you export to other formats. Audacity allows you to export to just about every standard audio format, including MP3, FLAC, and WAV (look under “Edit” > “Preferences” > “File Formats” for options).  MP3 is a compressed format which means you loose sound quality (the most obvious loss comes with things like the deterioration of the sound of cymbals) but can fit a lot more on a CD or iPod or whatever.  WAV is an uncompressed format which means that no audio data is compressed or lost, but then it is much larger in size (in terms of the space it takes on your hard-drive or CD).  FLAC is, in a way, ideal, since it uses about half the space of a WAV file without loosing any data or detail in the sound-quality (both audacity and foobar2000 work with FLAC) and it supports “tagging” (attaching artist, date, album, album art info to the files).  With the way hard-drive sizes are going, there is no harm having large files, and if you want high quality recordings work with WAV (or AIFF on a Mac) or FLAC. (You will want to save the individual tracks as FLAC only AFTER you have used Clickrepair, since that program works with WAV only at this point).  Beyond the file format, you need to decide on what bit-depth and sample-rate to export the file at. Because I am going almost completely digital (and not usually producing actual CDs much anymore), I export all of my records at 24-bit and a sample rate of 44100 Hz, which does not take up much more space than 16 bit but does reveal more detail in the music if listened to on a good stereo system with excellent speakers. If you want to burn a CD, however, it will need to be at 16 bit, 44100 Hz. You can always export from Audacity twice for a particular recording, as I often do (once into my official music folder at 24 bit and again into my burn-a-CD folder at 16 bit). For more discussion of 16 bit vs. 24 bit recordings, go here. You will ultimately use Audacity to create track-breaks and to use fade-in and fade-out effects at the beginnings and endings of songs. However, for now you export the entire album in WAV to clean it up in a program called Clickrepair, which is the next step.

6) Restoring or Repairing the recording: Clickrepair software

  • Audacity has some useful functions for cleaning up and preparing the recording of your LP. In the past I often used the “Repair” function under “Effect” to eliminate ticks or clicks that can be heard from an LP (you need to zoom into the image of the wav file). This does work but it is very time-consuming and I generally only aimed for larger clicks.
  • However, there is an astounding program that I only recently discovered that does an incredible job of eliminating virtually all clicks or other faults in the recording without audibly damaging the music itself: Clickrepair. I cannot overstate how essential and effective this inexpensive ($40) program is. It was created by a mathematician / professor in Australia who wanted to transfer his LPs to digital but could not find any program to remove clicks and other artifacts without damaging the music overall. So he designed and created his own program that accurately isolates damaged areas and repairs them. This has even allowed me to salvage some LPs that I considered unusable (I generally only keep and use an LP if it has very limited noise / clicks). To remove clicks and other damaged areas from the recording, you simply “open” up the wav file of the entire album (or tracks using the “Batch” function under “File”) that you exported from Audacity (which can be saved at 16 or 24 bit depths and at various sample rates), adjust certain settings in Clickrepair, and then press “start”. You can then listen to the noise that is being removed to ensure no music is disappearing (e.g. certain drum-beats), listen to the input sound with noise and all, or listen to the cleaned output music (listening to anything slows the program down, however — I now turn “sound output” off since I know what settings are best). The settings I use in Clickrepair are not the defaults: I always leave “Pitch Protection” on (to avoid loss of things like repeated trumpet blasts that can look like clicks in a wav file); I set the “Declick” slider to 30 (unless a record is really bad in which case I put it up to 40); and I set the “Automatic” slider to “Automatic: All” (you may wish to put that at semi-automatic at first just to understand the process). Clickrepair then saves the repaired file (at its original bit depth and sample rate), which can then be imported back into Audacity. Once back in Audacity with the clean file for the entire album, you can then insert track breaks and fade-ins or fade-outs before exporting the individual tracks using “Export multiple” (where you once again need to ensure that the export bit-depth setting is what you want).
    • Here is a sample from an album in quite poor shape (usually I would discard it). This is a recent transfer of Bruce Springsteen’s “Something in the Night” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) which illustrates how well the program works (to save server space, these are mere mp3s):

Before Clickrepair

After Clickrepair

7) Listening to your music: Foobar 2000

  • I have found Foobar 2000 to be the best (free) program for playing music of various sample-rates and bit-depths (it can play 24 bit WAV or FLAC files which things like Realplayer cannot). This player is flexible for “tagging” information to your files (e.g. artist, date, album, track), if you are using MP3 or FLAC (but not WAV), and making various playlists from digital music on your hard-drive. (I used to run an RCA audio cable from the tape-out on the amp attached to my computer to the auxiliary input on the amp of my main stereo in a different room. Lengths of 50ft or less with RCA cables do not significantly lose audio quality to my ears.  As of 2010, I now have a digital to analogue converter — a Cambridge Audio Dacmagic — which is connected with a 50ft optical cord.  This has significantly improved the reproduction in the other room).

OTHER ONLINE RESOURCES

This sounds quite complicated but is actually quite easy once your get things together and run through the process, and the results you get are incredible. My outline here is based on my own experience, but others have far more detailed comments on various stages of the process. Here are a few of the websites I found most useful when I first started:

Kitchener David Gray Concert with player from archive.org

Posted on Mon Jul 5 2010 at 11:35 pm in the category Ethical "bootlegs", Gray, David -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Here again is that David Gray concert I recorded, which you can access in lossless format here, where you will also find the full track listing and other info.  I was happy to see that it’s gotten about 500 downloads so far and one review (four out of five stars), so it’s quite well-received. 

So here is the player for streaming quality (not nearly as good as the FLAC files which you should download if you like what you hear here). The track-listing does not appear with this widget but you can skip ahead songs by simply hitting the skip button to the right of the play button:

The Warner-Reprise Loss Leaders of the 1960s and 1970s – links

Posted on Fri Dec 4 2009 at 11:26 am in the category Forgotten albums -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

The Warner-Reprise Loss Leaders LPs were inexpensive compilation albums (usually 2 discs) aimed at marketing then up and coming artists on the label (e.g. Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, Van Morrison, Mothers of Invention, Jethro Tull, Neil Young) alongside the old staples.  By the 1970s, Dr. Demento was behind the compilation and liner work, so they are also quite entertaining.

The existence of these Warner-Reprise Loss Leaders was entirely new to me, but now that I have acquired seven of them (in immaculate condition from a very generous and friendly local) and have begun looking into them, I thought I would supply you with some interesting links about these compilation albums:

Excellent Shawn Phillips concert in Toronto

Posted on Fri Apr 4 2008 at 10:38 am in the category Concert reviews, Phillips, Shawn -- 7 Comments -- Copyright notice

A while back I blogged on what I considered a forgotten album, which I had found in a bargain bin at the local record store (also see my post on his use of the sitar). I had never heard of Shawn Phillips, despite the fact that his Second Contribution (1969) was certified platinum. Sure I was young in 1969 (just born), but there are plenty of other albums I have from that year and before. I was amazed at this album and began to look into Shawn Phillips further, especially at his own website. There I discovered he now is a trained fireman and sea-rescuer (at the age of 65). I was surprised to find out that he was still touring and clicked on the link, only to find that he was coming to Toronto soon (playing solo)! That concert was last night at “Hugh’s Room“, a small venue in the Highpark area, and I went. I was not sure what to expect, but I was not disappointed in the least.

Shawn Phillips is still a charismatic and capturing performer! Phillips’ guitar playing in incredibly subtle and varied, as are his vocals, which range from the highest to the incredibly low. His vocal range, which is also emotionally evocative, was often noted by commentators in the past and is very noticeable on the albums I have so far (First Contribution [1969], Second Contribution [1969], and Faces [1972]). It is good to see that even forty years later he has not lost this incredible and often haunting voice.

These musical performances were accompanied by some of the most interesting and funny stories I have heard at a concert. Between pieces, Phillips discussed in an entertaining way personal anecdotes and stories ranging from his travels and career in the late-60s to his own current occupation as a sea-rescuer in South Africa. He also mentioned that he now has a live DVD-CD combination out called Shawn Phillips: Living Contribution, which you can purchase on his website, along with his earlier works.

Phillips played for over two hours, and the set included a range of pieces from the late sixties to the present (Phillips is still actively writing and playing, and he mentioned that he has written a total of over 1200 tunes over the years, if I heard him correctly). Phillips made use of about five guitars and his style of performance varied from one tune to the next, which is very desirable in a solo performance like this one. Perhaps most surprising was his sudden shift to a distorted Jimi Hendrix riff as a segue within one tune.

The highlights for me were his performance of several songs that I have become familiar with, including “Lovely lady” (from Contribution) and “The ballad of Casey Deiss” and “Woman of the land” (from Second Contribution). He also performed “Spaceman” from Collaboration (1971), “Blunt and frank” from Do You Wonder (1974), and “Lady in violet” from Transcendence (1978). Another unreleased tune was “Devil’s Highway”, which is based on Phillips’ reaction to the book with that title by Luis Alberto Urrea. Phillips told a story about first meeting Luis and their subsequent friendship. Doing a quick google, I now see a recent review of another Phillips concert by Luis Urrea himself.

I’m very glad I found that LP at the local record store a while back. You can find Phillips tour dates here.

Here is a 1989 (?) performance of “Ballad of Casey Deiss” from youtube:

There’s also a more complete version of that concert (30 minutes) here:

What does Brian Eno to do with emperor Augustus?

Posted on Wed Mar 12 2008 at 9:59 am in the category Ambient, Eno, Brian -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Hat tip to David Meadows who noticed the story on Brian Eno’s involvement with artist Mimmo Paladino in creating the ever-changing ambient music for an artistic display at Rome’s Ara Pacis Museum.

Exposure to Robert Fripp (1979)

Last week I picked up a near-mint LP copy of the original mix of Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure. I find listening to the album, whose main themes orbit suffering, a fascinating experience. Fripp (who is best known for fronting King Crimson) thought of the album as a third in a triology including the albums he produced for Peter Gabriel (2 = “Scratch” [1978]) and for Daryl Hall (Sacred Songs, recorded 1977 but only released in 1980), who both appear on this album as well (along with other guests including Phil Collins on drums and Brian Eno on synths).

The record is, tongue in cheek, Fripp’s most “commercial” offering and it begins with his comments to that effect. Just to show how “commercial” it was, Daryl Hall’s management and record label (RCA) refused to allow Hall’s voice to appear on several songs (in part) for fear of Exposure‘s lack of commercial appeal (on which see the Allmusic article here). I should say that a Fripp-infused Daryl Hall is a Daryl Hall I can listen too, and I’ll be looking for that Fripp-produced album this week.

Several things stand out from my repeated exposures to Fripp’s album in the past few days. The main thing is the way in which the entire album is united by theme, namely exposure to suffering. Interspersed throughout the album’s lyrics or spoken samples are either painful expressions of the inevitability of human suffering (as in Buddhism) or dire warnings of more suffering to come (as in the apocalypse of ancient Judaism or Christianity). This is done in an intriguing way both lyrically and musically.

There’s “You burn me up, I’m a cigarette” with a very down-to-earth expression of suffering in terms of relationships, “Exposure” with its terrifying screams, and Gabriel’s “Here comes the flood” with its apocalyptic warnings of the coming end (on flood imagery and ancient apocalypticism, go here; on Dylan’s use of similar flood imagery, go here). Spoken samples are also built into the songs, as when a scientist speaks of the coming of catastrophic floods in the near future and when someone (a follower of the Buddha?) speaks of the inevitability of suffering, at least in this world.

Perhaps most astounding is the way in which the music itself takes you on a roller-coaster ride that involves the listener in suffering and relief from suffering. The album runs the gamut of genres, from experimental new wave and heavy-metal to soothing ballads and ambient music (reminiscent of Fripp’s ambient work with Brian Eno — I’ll have to post on that soon, since I also managed to find a copy of the LP No Pussyfooting). Quite often, you are moved from harsh and jarring sounds in one track, to a soothing aural experience in the next. The heavy-metal style vocals of Peter Hammil are juxtaposed with the soothing R&B voice of Daryl Hall or the gentle (Joni-Mitchell like) vocals of Terre Roche on some tracks. Yet Roche’s screams of “exposure” found on the title track are both impossible to listen to and impossible to abandon, despite the torture. And one could not ask for a more calm and emotive performance of Peter Gabriel’s “Here comes the flood”, which is stripped of the somewhat over-produced sounds on Gabriel’s debut album and replaced with Gabriel and his piano along with the subtle guitar loops of Frippertronics. Also interspersed throughout are ambient songs which likewise use the Frippertronics tape-loop experimentation begun on Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting.

This is one form of suffering I would recommend.

UPDATE: It seems that the vocal samples involving a scientist’s predictions of the coming flood and the quotation regarding the inevitability of suffering are both by John G. Bennett, a British scientist who combined his scientific views with Eastern religious ideas. Interesting combination.  He started up his own school to teach such things.

Bill Bruford on Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson

Posted on Sat Feb 2 2008 at 8:54 pm in the category 1970s, Bruford, Bill, Genesis, King Crimson, Progressive Rock, Yes -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

I recently took the book Genesis: Chapter and Verse (2007) out of the library. It’s mainly a collection of quotations from each of the band members, as well as collaborators, on various stages in Genesis’ history. There are some interesting things in here.

Bill Bruford, who is best known as the drummer of Yes in the early years and then of King Crimson (on which see my post here), comments on his involvement with Genesis once Phil Collins became lead singer in 1976 (after the departure of Gabriel, on which see my earlier post on Trick of the Tail). Bruford became Genesis’ drummer for the 1976 tour. Seeing that Bruford was, at one point, a member of all three of the most well-known progressive rock bands, it is interesting and somewhat humorous to hear his perspective.

First of all, he comments on how Genesis was viewed in the early days:

I think everybody in Yes and King Crimson thought that Genesis would never make it because they sounded like a combination of the two groups. We thought they might be too late — we’d been there and done it. We saw them along the lines of ‘Genesis are quite fun, but they’ve got a guitarist who sits down like Robert Fripp and a drummer who plays a bit like Bill; the Americans have already had that’. . . (p. 198)

Bruford also comments on the overall atmosphere of each of the three bands in connection with his own less orchestrated style:

I like to wing it a bit on stage, but Genesis were very, very precise. I’m much more accustomed to making it up as I’m going along. . . I’d learnt the tunes from the albums, and if it felt a little different from what Phil would have done, people would look at me and say, ‘Hey, Bill, could you make it sound a bit more like the record?’. . . [N]ot being much of the session type, I didn’t do terribly well at just delivering the parts. In fact, what finally drove me out of rock n’ roll was the repetition. That’s what had separated me from Yes. Why I had found King Crimson so attractive was because they were way more open: ‘Surprise us, go ahead, let’s improvise, terrific.’. . . (p. 198).

The mood in Genesis was such a contrast to the chaos of Yes, where nobody could agree what day of the week it was . . . How we in Yes ever got anything done, I still don’t know (p. 199).

Anyone who has heard an album like King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man knows what Bruford means by improvisation.

Unexpected rock instruments: Sitar

Posted on Sat Jan 12 2008 at 1:19 pm in the category 1960s, Beatles, Harrison, George, Phillips, Shawn, Progressive Rock, Rock instruments -- 1 Comment -- Copyright notice

When one thinks of traditional rock and roll, one generally pictures a band of four and the instruments are usually the drums, bass, guitar, and vocal, as well as some keyboards. (You can also throw in a harmonica and tambourine, if you like). As rock developed into the 1960s, however, a variety of other unexpected instruments came to be used in rock and roll, particularly in connection with progressive rock. This is the first of several posts dealing with the unexpected rock instrument.

The sitar is a stringed instrument with strong resonation that was used since the middle ages in classical Hindustani music in India, as explained in the Wikipedia article. The sitar has a distinctive sound and produces a rich harmony. Before the mid-1960s, it would occur to noone that the sitar could be a rock and roll instrument as well, but that’s what it became.

There were apparently two main performers who first noticed the sitar and began to get others, such as George Harrison, interested in the instrument. In 1965, David Crosby (then of the Byrds) came into contact with the musician and sitarist Ravi Shankar and began to spread the news about classical Indian music.

The second figure was Shawn Phillips, whose Second Contribution was a topic of a previous post here. Phillips himself was more directly responsible for Harrison’s use of the instrument, it seems. Phillips, who had already become familiar with playing the sitar, actually gave George Harrison lessons, as mentioned in a recent interview of Phillips in Modern Guitars Magazine:

Interviewer: I understand that you sang backup on the Beatles “Lovely Rita”. How did you get there and what was that like?

Phillips: Well, hanging out in England and working with Don, you just sort of ran into all these people at the clubs we’d got to like the Speakeasy. We’d run into Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, all these people and gradually you get to know people.

At one point I was giving sitar lessons to George Harrison. He was just getting started with the instrument. We had dinner over at his house, I don’t know how many times, and I’d sit down and give him the pointers I knew and so forth and one day he said, “Why don’t you guys come over and visit the studio? We’re doing this new album.”

We walked in and Paul said, “Hey, why don’t’ you guys sing back up on this tune?”

You don’t think about the fact that you may be making music history. We were just a bunch of guys hanging out.

The sitar was soon to become an important sound of the Beatles as they entered their more interesting, psychedelic stage. “Norwegian wood” on Rubber Soul (1965) was the first use of the sitar on a rock record, it seems, and Harrison would continue to use the sitar along with his continued involvement in Hinduism. You can read a good description of this influence on Harrison’s life in The Guardian obituary. Soon others such as the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones likewise began to incorporate the sitar into their music, as on “Paint it black” (1966).

As to Shawn Phillips, there is an interesting video on Youtube in which Shawn Phillips explains a bit about the sitar and he and Donovan perform on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest show in 1965. Whether this was before or after giving lessons to Harrison, I’m not sure:

There’s also a video there regarding George Harrison’s subsequent lessons with Ravi Shankar:

Motown meets Bayou: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “I heard it through the grapevine” (1970)

Posted on Sat Jan 5 2008 at 11:27 am in the category 1960s, 1970s, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Gaye, Marvin, Soul / Funk / Motown -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: “Heard it through the grapevine” (a half-decent recording of the song on youtube opens up in a new window)

I’ve been listening to a lot of Motown and related (R&B, Soul, Funk) since getting back into vinyl, including the likes of Al Green, Supremes, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, and others. Marvin Gaye has been one of the highlights. The three-disc Anthology gives a great overview of his contributions, including his performance of “I heard it through the grapevine” (1968) , which is definitely a strong point in his repertoire. (The song was also done by Gladys Knight and the Pips the year before.)

What I had forgotten about was perhaps the rockinest (to use my five year old son’s vocabulary) and longest (11 minutes) version of this tune, which, in my opinion, may top any version of the tune. I am referring to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s southern-blues-rock-soaked rendition of 1970 (on the album Cosmo’s Factory).

From the slow-moving bass lines and staccato drumming that initiate the tune to the ever-interesting, rough vocal treatment by John Fogerty and the fine guitar solos, this version keeps my musical interest throughout. The rhythmic interplay of the two basses together with the slow-train-coming beat of the refrain create a trance-like experience in listening to this tune (it helps that it’s 11 minutes long). The final guitar solo that accompanies this swamp blues onslaught brings the whole thing to a perfect culmination, in my opinion.

I am really beginning to appreciate CCR, despite the fact that I might have thought of their music as southern, “old-people” music at one point. Maybe this is because I am an “old person” (read: over 30) now.

For an excellent site about Creedence Clearwater Revival, including discography, lyrics, and guitar riffs, go here. Wikipedia also has some information here. The cover up and to your left is the cover of Bayou Country (1969), which has some other CCR classics including “Bayou country”, “Good golly Miss Molly”, and “Proud Mary”. That one happens to be my favourite of their albums.

Favourite Christmas album: Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Posted on Fri Dec 21 2007 at 11:40 am in the category 1960s, Fitzgerald, Ella, Jazz and Blues -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: Open up the Verve jukebox in a new window (the jukebox will automatically play a snippet of each tune from the album)

Don’t let the strange (though cool-looking) cover with a multi-coloured unicorn eating a flower fool you. This is a Christmas album, and an excellent one!

Don’t get me wrong. I have quite a few favourites to listen to around the Christmas season, including Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (1961). There are times when I like to listen to some traditional carols or some Amy Grant Christmas tune (despite the fact that I would consider anything Amy Grant produces utterly hokey at any other season). Sometimes I even get out the ol’ trumpet and play a few Christmas carols myself, or torture friends by doing a trumpet duet with my friend Jeff. I always like to hear U2′s rendition of “Chistmas baby please come home”, the Eurythmics’ version of “Winter wonderland”, or Sting’s “Gabriel’s message” on A Very Special Christmas (1987). Bells of Dublin (1991) by the Chieftans is another lively and upbeat one with a different sound.

In terms of jazz, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) (or without that cartoon), and I do especially like Diana Krall’s Christmas Songs (2005). But this bluesy and jazzy album by Ella Fitzgerald, which is very well-produced and remastered, wins out in many ways.

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (1960, Verve) opens with a fast paced “Jingle bells” that my five year old son requests to have replayed just about every time we listen to the album (it ends with a memorable “I’m just crazy ’bout horses” line from Ella). The swinging beat stands out it in this song, as it does throughout the tunes, and the not-overdone style of back-up-singing that accompanies Fitzgerald’s smooth but trumpet like vocals is also characteristic of the album as a whole. There are also slower, softer pieces, like “The Christmas song”, in which Ella is accompanied by a vibraphone and some soft-playing saxophones. Vibraphones are also prominent on Ella’s excellent rendition of “White Christmas”. More somber but especially highlighting the range of Ella’s voice is the We Three Kings / O Little Town of Bethlehem medley. The album concludes with an up-beat and swingin’ version of “Christmas island”. This album stands the test of time.

Milli Vanilli-esque?: The Poppyfields’ Alarm’s “45 RPM” hoax (2004)

Posted on Wed Dec 19 2007 at 3:16 pm in the category 1980s, Alarm -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

A while back I posted on the Alarm as part of my ongoing series on bands of the 1980s. A friend of mine, Tony, commented that he remembered a recent incident involving a Milli-Vanilli-like “scam” of sorts in connection with a come-back of the Alarm. Now another reader (Jeff Fulton) of that post has supplied enough information that I could find some articles.

It turns out that, in an attempt to be heard as fresh blood and not as old-folks, the reincarnation of the Alarm (still with Mike Peters at its head) sent a single titled “45 RPM” to high-profile djs in the UK under the band-name “the Poppyfields” (in February 2004). The single began to get significant play as a lively, new, young, retro-punk band. As the following articles also mention, there was a video shot with young fill-ins to accompany the single, which ultimately did hit the UK charts. I couldn’t find that video online, but I did find a video of the Alarm performing “45 RPM” online that you are now listening to (if you clicked play above). Here are a couple of relatively reliable looking pages about it:

Wales Music: In the Poppyfields review

Babble and Beat: Interview with Mike Peters of the Alarm.

The official Alarm site has a few of the news reports about the 45 RPM “scam” posted, including two from Skynews here and here.

Tackiest album cover ever?

Posted on Wed Dec 12 2007 at 3:53 pm in the category Tacky, weird, and funny -- 1 Comment -- Copyright notice

Although I have an appreciation for Quincy Jones’ Big Band Bossa Nova (1964), for instance, letting this cover go by on his own label is just unforgiveable. The funk may not be heavy enough to forgive the Brothers Johnson either.

Bands of the 1980s: The Call (Michael Been)

Posted on Tue Dec 4 2007 at 10:21 am in the category 1980s, Alternative / Experimental, Band, The, Call, The -- 14 Comments -- Copyright notice

The first time I heard the band The Call, it was a tape of Modern Romans (1983) that my friend Sue lent to me. The tune you are listening to now, if you pressed play above, is “The walls came down” from that second album (and, yes, that is Garth Hudson, seated, on keyboards). I remember thinking how raw, direct, and (often) angry the album sounded, and I was intrigued enough to start listening to more (I was about 16 at the time).

I still listen to The Call’s albums and wonder why it is that, unlike some of their contemporaries, the band has been largely forgotten. Clearly they were talented, and their brand of alternative rock involved an interesting combination of musical influences. They also evolved over their career, shifting from this more basic and direct sound to a more mature and well-constructed musical style.

There were also clear signs that a good number of musicians appreciated The Call. Peter Gabriel liked them enough to ask them to open for his “Shock the monkey” tour, as the Wikipedia article points out. Gabriel, Bono of U2, and Jim Kerr of Simple Minds all offered backing vocals on certain albums. Garth Hudson of The Band played keyboards on thefirst few albums, and Robbie Robertson played guitars on the Reconciled (1986) album, which is among the best contributions of The Call.

The album Modern Romans (1983 [out of print and never released on CD]) was a politically charged album about the decadence and decline of western society using the image of debauched Romans (see cover) as the analogy. As a student of the Roman empire, I would not exactly subscribe to this picture of the actual Romans (see the post Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans” or Apart from vomitoriums and orgies, what did the Romans do for us?). But as an album concept and critique of western society, it works. The song you are listening to offers a critique of militarism and Cold War politics in particular with an allusion to the falling walls of Jericho built into the song title and chorus:

Well they blew the horns
And the walls came down.
They’d all been warned
But the walls came down.
I don’t think there are any Russians
There ain’t no Yanks
Just corporate criminals
Playin’ with tanks.
(by Michael Been, 1983)

Although the first three albums have not been released on CD and are out of print, The Walls Came Down: The Best of the Mercury Years (out of print), which can still be found, gathers together the best of these first three.

After a slightly disappointing synthesizer-heavy Scene Beyond Dreams (1984), several excellent albums were to follow beginning with Reconciled (1986) with the better known “Everywhere I go”. There is a sense in which this album represents the maturation of the band. The quieter and more atmospheric Into the Woods (1987) is also a favourite of mine. The lyrics here are still quite serious, intense, and, at times, introspective, as in “It could have been me”:

It could have been me
Lying in that jungle
Out in that heat
Fighting for my life
Dying for nothin’
Feeling a bullet
enter my soul
It could have been me
It could have been me
It could have been me
Living in that prison
Locked in a cage
Damning the walls
Damn the division
Wondering why it had to be me
Well, it could have been you. . .
(by Michael Been, 1987 Neeb Music / Tarka Music).

The follow-up, Let the Day Begin (1989) brought the band momentarily into the spotlight with the title-track, which was number one for a while. However, I find the final album of this era, Red Moon (1990), among the best by this largely forgotten band.

U2 collaborations: Robbie Robertson’s “Sweet Fire of Love” (1987)

Posted on Wed Nov 21 2007 at 10:01 pm in the category 1980s, Band, The, Dylan, Bob, Lanois, Daniel, U2 -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Robbie Robertson’s debut solo album of 1987 is significant for several reasons, including his team-up with U2.First of all, the album reflects Robbie Robertson’s first substantial musical contribution since the dissolution of The Band, whose final performance of 1976 was captured in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Over ten years had passed, and this length of time is reflected in the high quality and significant generic range of the pieces on Robertson’s debut. Robertson (born in Toronto, my hometown) was a key contributor to The Band both in terms of performance — with his guitar being a backbone of The Band’s overall sound — and in terms of writing. Robertson wrote or co-wrote most memorable tunes of this group, including “The Weight”.

The Band and Robertson also have an important page in the history of rock and roll due to their work with Bob Dylan during the tomato-throwing switch-over to electric in the tour of 1965-66 (following on Highway 61 Revisited, with “Like a Rolling Stone”). Also legendary are the tunes they recorded with Dylan in The Basement Tapes (1975), which were recorded in the same era as Dylan’s Planet Waves (1974), also with The Band.

Secondly, Robertson’s first solo piece is significant for collaborations with two soon-to-be superstar icons and a then up-and-coming Canadian producer. In 1986, Peter Gabriel was recording the most popular album of his career, So (1986). Gabriel’s backing vocals for “Fallen Angel” on Robertson’s album made this one of the most memorable pieces on this release. Also in 1986, U2 was recording its monumental The Joshua Tree (1987), and U2 joined Robertson on two main tunes: “Sweet fire of love” and “Testimony”. The collaboration of both Gabriel and U2 likely had something to do with the fact that Robertson’s album was co-produced with Daniel Lanois, who was the main producer for both So and The Joshua Tree. Lanois left his mark on all three albums, which do have the bass-heavy and atmospheric feel characteristic of most Lanois productions (which I like).

“Sweet fire of love” is the better of the collaborations with U2, I would say. The song is heavily marked by the presence of U2. The song opens with the clear, syncopating echo of The Edge’s guitar and Bono soon starts to supply a counterpoint to Robertson’s intense musical cries. It’s not long before Bono is the lead and Robertson supplies the counterpoint. Throughout, the drumming style of Larry Mullen is unmistakable, and the walking bass of Adam Clayton is noticeable as well. Very well done is Robertson’s own guitar playing as the song closes, which complements and duels with the Edge. Bono’s cries of “sweet fire of love” help make this song what it is.

Read more about Robbie Robertson and about The Band (the photo of Robertson above is from that excellent site).


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U2′s Bono on the new song “Wave of Sorrow” (Joshua Tree remastered)

Posted on Wed Nov 14 2007 at 8:55 pm in the category 1980s, U2 -- 2 Comments -- Copyright notice

The release of the remastered edition of Joshua Tree (original 1987) is coming up in a few days and the 2 or 3 disc editions (“deluxe” and “superdeluxe”) include the original B-sides, along with a few previously unreleased songs. One of these songs is “Wave of Sorrow” which, as Bono explains, is based on Bono and his wife’s time working in Ethiopia during famine. In this video (from ILike.com) Bono explains the song and even does his own impromptu performance of it!

I’m looking forward to the remastered edition. The Toronto Exhibition Joshua Tree tour performance is still burned in my memory, so this will all bring back very good memories. It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed! I think I’m still 18.

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Review of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (2007)

Posted on Tue Nov 6 2007 at 12:00 am in the category 2000s, Folk / Bluegrass, Krauss, Alison, Led Zeppelin, Reviews of new CDs -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice


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Listen while your read: Open up the Plant / Krauss “jukebox”

This album involves quite an unexpected team-up. Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, joins one of the most important voices and fiddles in bluegrass music, Alison Krauss. There is a third artist, not mentioned on the cover, who really makes this entire album work so well: T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone Burnett is less known for his own solo work, which is a unique blend of cynical critique with an experimental twist on popular music, and better known for his production. Here he is both producer and musician, as on other albums he has produced (such as the soundtrack for Oh Brother Where Art Thou?).

Although I am not much of a bluegrass man myself, this very well produced and performed album has certainly caught my attention and I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. There are several things that make the album so intriguing (beyond the fact that the lead singer of Led Zeppelin is involved). Perhaps foremost is the variety that is here despite a coherency relating to the genres of bluegrass and American folk. The team performs a range of pieces from the 1950s to the present, including a tune by the Everly Brothers (“Gone gone gone” [1964]), a piece by the Byrd’s Gene Clark (“Polly come home” [1969]), and a remake of a Plant-Page tune, “Please read the letter” (1998).

Although the album sounds quite consistently like bluegrass or folk, there is a nice range of musical styles within this framework, thanks largely to T-Bone Burnett’s work in assembling this band and thanks to his production. Some songs are played solely acoustic (e.g. “Sister Rosetta goes before us”) while others are high on reverb. Some approach rockabilly (“Gone gone gone”) while others have a Celtic feel (“Trampled rose”).

Variety is also there in terms of the vocal focus of each song, with some sung solo by either Plant or Krauss, others as full duets, and still others with one taking the lead while the other backs. The vocal tones of Plant and Krauss blend very well and complement one another in unexpected ways. One rarely hears Plant singing so gently as on this album in tunes like “Killing the blues”, and yet there are others where the vocal range of a Zeppelin album are approached, as in “Fortuneteller”. In “Nothin’”, Plant gently sings a slow-moving tune backed by an unexpected heavy electric guitar and fiddle accompaniment (by Krauss).

There is also humour thrown in at times, as when the innocent-sounding voice of Alison Krauss sings “Let your loss be your lesson” solo:

Once I had myself a good woman
But I just didn’t treat her right
I was always leaving
Living the party life
True love was waiting for me
I was much too blind to see (© Hillgreen Music [BMI]).

The hymn-like “Your long journey” completes the album well with an acoustic sound and banjo — a hymn-singing Robert Plant. The liner notes appropriately joke about teaching an “old dog” new tricks.

The official site for the album is here.

The story behind a song: Haunted by “The Rhythm of the Heat” (Peter Gabriel and Carl Jung)

Posted on Sun Oct 28 2007 at 9:37 am in the category 1980s, Gabriel, Peter, Music and religion, Story behind a song, World music -- 3 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read:

A 1982 live version of Rhythm of the Heat from YouTube

By haunted, I don’t mean in the halloween sense, but in the sense of losing your self entirely to the spirits, of losing your very soul. One of the most haunting and experiential songs I know of is Peter Gabriel’s “Rhythm of the Heat” on his fourth album (also known as Security; © 1982 The David Geffen Company). The low quality live version are listening to now may not do justice to the song, but it is better than nothing. You’ll have to listen to a high quality version of the entire piece (preferably on your own in the complete dark and with the volume considerably high) to understand the full emotional effect of Gabriel’s brilliant work here.

The complete tune opens up slowly with an initial cry by Gabriel and some mysterious distorted voices. The drum beat begins to slowly build at this point, moving towards the first climactic cries of “The rhythm is around me. The rhythm has control. The rhythm is inside me. . . The rhythm has my soul!!” (© 1982 Peter Gabriel Ltd).

Now the drums are incredibly heavy but still slow, backed by a repetitive chant of “the rhythm of the heat” that evokes spirits, or is it demons. The bass and drum combination is now so intense that it brings chills. There’s a hesitation in the song as it quietens, seemingly bringing relief from the intensity. Quietly: “Smash the radio. . . smash the watch. . . smash the camera (cannot steal away the spirits). The rhythm is around me. The rhythm has control. The rhythm is inside me. The rhythm has my soul!” Following on this second wild, piercing, sustained cry, the song now breaks out into an onslaught of African style drumming (by the Ekome Dance Company) that seems to never end. You cannot escape it. The rhythm has your soul.

In some ways, the Surdo and Ghanaian drum sections in this piece indicate Gabriel’s future direction into world music, which would climax, in a way, in his soundtrack, Passion (1989) for The Last Temptation of Christ. That album is saturated with the sounds of the Middle East in particular, but also Africa. Gabriel ultimately founded a record company and studio, called Real World, devoted to promoting bands and music from around the globe, particularly from “developing” countries.

Where did this haunting song, “The Rhythm of the Heat”, come from?

Gabriel’s song is based, in large part, on psychologist C.G. Jung’s autobiographical description of a nocturnal ritual dance (the n’goma) among villagers in the Sudan (in Africa). Carl Jung (1875-1961), as you may or may not know, was an influential psychologist and student of Sigmund Freud. In the autobiographical interviews collected in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), Jung outlines his own fears of the local villagers in a particular area of the Sudan, that, to him, seemed less welcoming than those in previous African villages.

Sixty men, along with women and children, gathered together and lit fires before beginning what Jung labels “savage singing, drumming, and trumpeting” (p. 271). Jung expresses that “I did not know whether I ought to feel pleased or anxious about this mass display”, a statement which reveals a tension to which I turn below. So the uncomfortable Jung decided to join in the dancing, however hesitantly, and was somewhat comforted to notice the approval he received from the villagers for doing so.

As time passed, Jung reports, “the rhythm of the dance and the drumming accelerated” (p. 271). Here Jung begins to reveal his fears in noting that “the natives easily fall into a virtual state of possession. That was the case now. As eleven o’clock approached, their excitement began to get out of bounds. . . The dancers were being transformed into a wild horde, and I became worried about how it would end” (p. 271).

In reading these autobiographical remembrances that inspired Peter Gabriel’s song, I was struck by the tension within Jung’s own description of his experiences in the Sudan. On the one hand, his trip was ostensibly one of studying the human psyche in what he considered its more “primitive”, not-yet-conscious form, something he describes as a “primal darkness” that will only meet light with the dawning of psychological consciousness (something he believed was possessed by the psyches of Europeans). And so Jung seemingly explains away his fear of the possessive tribal dance as a fear of dying by being accidentally stabbed by the swords of the fully involved tribal members in their ecstatic, “possessed” stage. It is a down to earth fear, so he claims.

On further investigation, on the other hand, it seems that his fear may be a fear of becoming part of this collective psychological experience, a concept that he himself had developed in reference to some supposed universal human psychological makeup, and a fear of losing his soul to the possession of the tribal beat. This, I believe, is what Gabriel saw as well. For Jung concludes his story of the tribal dance with a statement of his own profound, personal experiences in Africa. For, as Jung states:

“I had undertaken my African adventure with the secret purpose of escaping from Europe and its complex problems. . . The trip revealed itself as less an investigation of primitive psychology. . . than a probing into the rather embarrassing question: What is going to happen to Jung the psychologist in the wilds of Africa? . . . It became clear to me that this study had been not so much an objective scientific project as an intensely personal one, and that any attempt to go deeper into it touched every possible sore spot in my own psychology” (p. 273).

Here, then, was the “advanced” European academic in fear of having his soul stolen by the “rhythm of the heat”, and yet unable to come to terms with his own fear and unable to analyze himself fully, let alone the supposedly “primitive” villagers.

Happy Halloween.

Peter Gabriel’s official website can be found here. Real World Records can be found here.


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Review of Radiohead’s In Rainbows (2007)

Posted on Mon Oct 22 2007 at 8:43 am in the category 2000s, Alternative / Experimental, Radiohead, Reviews of new CDs -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

In some ways, Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows (2007), is a continuation of their experimentation in recent years, experimentation that continues in interesting new directions. In other ways there are some of the sounds of The Bends (1995), one of my own favourites. So far, the album, which was released October 10, is only available from the band directly through the website at a name-your-price value, something that is freeing these artists from some of the restrictive impact of signing with record companies.

In Rainbows is a very highly produced album with great attention to detail, something that may make reproduction in live shows a trial for the band, I would imagine. The result of this production is a very clean and sharp sound, with percussion, guitar, and other instrumentation often jumping out at the listener in stark ways. Although there’s a bit of ambience as well, it’s hard not to pay complete attention to most tunes on this album when they are playing — this is no music for airports!

Despite having played this album a number of times, I still wonder what’s next as I listen, simply because of the rather non-traditional structures of the songs and the interesting juxtapositions of the different instruments and sounds, both acoustic and electronic, harmonic and dissonant. This is what makes the overall aural experience very intriguing. I sit on the edge of my seat for most tracks on this album, even though I do find the high level of production sometimes lacking in warmth or even emotionally sterile at times (but warmth is not likely what Radiohead was going for on some of these tracks).

The sterility I mentioned may well be intentional. The running lyrical themes of this album, which are also echoed by the music, are futility, darkness, and despair — the end, the singer’s end, is near in just about every tune. If he is not falling off the edge of the earth or going to hell, he’s dead from the neck up or trapped in the prison of his body. The album evokes phantoms and there are times, as in “Nude”, when the vocals are best described as the cries of displaced angels.

When you are listening to “Weird Fishes/Apeggi” it is truly the sounds of the depths that you hear, and Mephistopheles (Satan) is indeed grabbing at you to bring you down to destruction, as in the finale, “Videotape”. Despite the haunting darkness of this album there are moments of light, and the finishing lines suggest that light wins out: “No matter what happens now, I won’t be afraid. Because I know today has been the most perfect day I’ve ever seen.”

There are a number of fast-paced songs here, including “15 Step”, “Bodysnatchers”, and “Weird Fishes / Arpeggi”. It is here that one senses the feel of The Bends at times. The solemn and haunting “15 Step” combines heavy drumming with synthesizers in a sort of sombre harmony. In “Bodysnatchers”, distorted guitar gives way to a whining guitar background reminiscent of tunes on U2′s Achtung Baby.

The slower songs reflect an interesting range of sounds from one track to the next. A highlight of the album, in my view, is “All I need” with its slow cello-like sounds juxtaposed with distorted synthesizers. This gives way to a piano and violin-sounding climax with heavy drumming. Lyrically, here the persona of the singer is a moth trying to get out of the darkness and towards the light, and the music itself suggests some hope in this regard. Also very effective, musically, is “Reckoner”, where the interplay between lead guitar (played as bass) and distant tambourine-like percussion provides the ideal background to the gentle vocal tones that climax in an ambient string orchestral arrangement before returning to the beginning again.

Radiohead’s “Jigsaw” combines acoustic guitar and funky bass in a slow build that leads to a full sound once again more reminiscent of The Bends or OK Computer. Here the statement is made: “What’s the point of instruments. Words are a sawed-off shotgun”. Overall, Radiohead’s In Rainbows proves quite the opposite. It is the rich mix of instrumentation and juxtaposition of various sounds that make it possible to withstand the darkness (or dodge the shotgun) of the album and come out alive. I would recommend this album, as you may have guessed.


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Bruce Springsteen and the bible

Posted on Mon Oct 15 2007 at 10:46 am in the category Music and religion, Springsteen, Bruce -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

In light of my recent discussions of Bruce Springsteen, I should mention that Michael Pitkowsky (a long time fan of the boss) has an interesting post on biblical imagery and narratives in Springsteen’s lyrics: Bruce Springsteen, Genesis, the Bible, and Religion.

New book on U2′s Achtung Baby (33 1/3 series)

Posted on Sun Oct 14 2007 at 4:54 pm in the category 1990s, Music and religion, Reviews of books on music, U2 -- 1 Comment -- Copyright notice

I have been a U2 fan for a good number of years (since about 1983), so I was interested to hear that a book was coming out about the ground-breaking Achtung Baby (1991). I’m also a student of the history of religion, as well as religion and popular culture, so I wasn’t turned off by the notion of looking at religious themes in this album, which does indeed have some of those.

So I requested and received a review copy of Stephen Catanzarite’s Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall (New York: Continuum, 2007). This book is part of a larger series of album-focussed books known as 33 1/3. You can read more about this series on the 33 1/3 blog here. Catanzarite approaches the album track by track, delving into the human relations and religious themes he sees reflected in the music. As he proceeds, he creates fictional narratives, stories about human relationships, that he sees as reflecting a message communicated to him from the tracks on U2′s album. His central argument is that Achtung Baby is a many-faceted reflection on the condition of “fallen” humanity (fallen in the Adam and Eve sense).

I have mixed reactions to this book. On the one hand, this is a well-written piece and there are some insightful observations regarding the lyrical and musical aspects of this experimental album by U2. There are times when Catanzarite describes the musicality and instrumentation of Achtung Baby in an eloquent (if somewhat overstated) way:

“The melodies throughout are simply stunning — and stunningly simple — but cast against, around, and on top of complex arrangements overflowing with guttural howls, jarring chimes, trashy beats, and sheets of decadent noise. The guitar riffs, masterfully rendered and brilliantly layered, and also regularly and deliciously off-kilter. The bass lines are solid but frayed, made all the more engaging by their Anglified funkiness. The beats are straightforward and harsh here, tasteful and restrained there. . . And then there are the voices. The passion and elegance, beauty and grace, desperation and longing, lust and regret, truth and confusion communicated in each and every note vocalized on Achtung Baby prove two important things about music. First, no instrument is more potent or versatile than the human voice. Second, you don’t always have to sing on key to make music of enduring beauty and relevance” (p. 5).

The strengths of the book lie in its lively writing style and in Catanzarite’s ability to offer some interesting insights like these. The final chapter of the book also delves into more of what I would have expected from a book of this type, as Catanzarite discusses the cultural context and influence of the album. More of this cultural analysis, rather than (or at least alongside of) theological reflection, would have strengthened the book, in my view.

There are times when Catanzarite’s own admittedly impressionistic take on Achtung Baby rings true to me (and potentially other listeners), as when he describes “One” as “a love song that reaches beyond romance, a kind of post-modern blues ballad that rises swiftly and powerfully above the banal” (p. 18). He then goes on to a very intriguing and, to me at least, accurate description of the “sonic elements” of this track which match with this overall theme that he identifies.

In some cases, Catanzarite’s tendency to think of religious themes actually does work. In particular, he is on solid ground (and not floating around in heaven somewhere) in identifying religious themes when he explores “Until the End of the World”. After all, this song is, expressly, Judas’ perspective on Jesus’ whole obsession (in Judas view) with the coming end — lighten up, Jesus! It is certainly not far-fetched when we hear Catanzarite stating that the “fuming riff of a panoramic guitar reveals the landscape of damnation” (p. 30) now faced by Judas as he reflects back on what he has done. And in some of the performances of this tune at concerts, Bono (as Judas) takes on the role of Satan himself in the final battle between good (Edge representing God with a sword-like guitar) and evil. Ancient combat myth meets rock and roll.

However, it is the very narrow and specific manner of interpreting Achtung Baby within a religious context that I find, well, restrictive and limiting. I do agree that art is about the viewer’s or listener’s take on things, and that what one person sees or feels, another will not. Nonetheless, this book can be too focussed on one person’s religious take on the album (and less so on the album itself), which makes it hard to identify with it if you do not hold its religious perspectives or presuppositions (namely Christian and, more specifically, modern Catholic). (Particularly problematic for me, for example, were Catanzarite’s a-matter-of-fact statements regarding gender and the “mystery of womanhood”, which reflect a particular modern, though traditional, Catholic perspective on the supposed inherent differences between the sexes). The concept of the entire book is that Achtung Baby represents U2′s (or at least Catanzarite’s) take on the fallen condition of humankind, and Catanzarite frequently quotes from religious writers, including recent popes.

It should be stated that Catanzarite does not do this theologizing by subterfuge. Rather, he opens the work by stating that he will approach things from a religious (Catholic) perspective, and, as he states explicitly, “I have superimposed my own particular narrative over the songs on Achtung Baby” (p.96). This focus on a particular mode of religious interpretation together with the accompanying novelistic tendencies sometimes left me behind and I found it hard to identify with Catanzarite’s take on the album. It’s not that I believe there is a true meaning that everyone must find in Achtung Baby, but there are ways of describing our own individual takes that may be less specific or self-contained, and more in touch with the variety of other takes that are possible in listening to an album like U2′s Achtung Baby. There’s more than religion in Achtung Baby, baby.

UPDATE: Over on the @U2 site, there is another review of the book, as well as an interview with Catanzarite.

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“21st Century Schizoid Man. . . “: King Crimson’s debut (1969)

Posted on Mon Oct 8 2007 at 1:41 am in the category 1960s, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Jazz and Blues, King Crimson, Progressive Rock -- 1 Comment -- Copyright notice

Seldom does an album-cover embody the essence of a song so perfectly (or vice versa), but that is the case with the disturbing cover of King Crimson’s debut album of 1969, the year of my birth (art by Barry Godber). The thing is, An Observation by King Crimson (© 1969 E.G. Music Ltd) is such a mixture of extremely well-constructed and performed pieces that you should not let the cover or the first frightening and experimental, yet intriguing, track scare you away! (How could it with its capturing allure?)”21st century schizoid man” is one of the most intense songs I have ever heard, and it was only in the last month that I heard it for the first time (as far as I can remember) when I picked up a near mint copy of the album at a flea market for a buck fifty (the deal of the 21st century). This piece starts out intense and dominating, with its screaming, electronically altered vocals and throbbing rhythm section. It then segues into a no less intense free jazz saxophone bombardment (the sax was there from the beginning, in case you didn’t notice) followed by a jazz guitar solo that gives you no doubt that this is a progressive rock tune, blending jazz influences in a hard rock onslaught. One might wonder whether or not this was a Charles Mingus piece in the jazz moments (wait for a minute or so into into the track), if not for the electric guitar: “Wednesday night prayer meeting” meets Led Zeppelin.

Yet what is amazing is the way in which the entire album is not overtaken by this opening track. The other tracks on the album demonstrate the experimental range of this team led by Robert Fripp and including Greg Lake as vocalist at this point (soon to be the instrumental vocalist in Emerson, Lake and Palmer). The heavy-duty opening track is followed by an equally complicated but far more subtle tune, “I talk to the wind”, with its flute and clarinet duet, accompanied by the far less terrifying, perhaps comforting, vocals of Greg Lake.

The somehow calming funeral dirge, “Epitaph” (track 3), has a capturing, dramatic build as the world seemingly comes to an end in the final apocalypse. Here acoustic guitars meet somber clarinets and strings as Greg Lake soothingly (somehow) sings: “Confusion will be my epitaph, as I crawl a cracked and broken path. If we make it, we can all sit back and laugh. But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying, Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying”.

Side two finds more experimentation in a lengthy tune (“Moonchild”) followed by the climactic “The court of the Crimson King”. This finale almost demands that you sing along (at least my conscience demands it). Here again there is a sophistication that beats even the most well-written progressive tune by the likes of Yes or ELP, and one could not ask more of the flute solo.

Wikipedia artricle on King Crimson and their albums here.


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Review of Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band’s Magic (2007)

Posted on Wed Oct 3 2007 at 10:28 am in the category Folk Rock, Reviews of new CDs, Springsteen, Bruce -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice
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Listen while your read: Open up the Springsteen Magic webpage in a new window (then click on a track)

In some ways, Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, Magic, which sees the reuniting of the E. Street Band, comes at a high point in Springsteen’s recent career, and this means there are high expectations. Three recent contributions contribute to these high expectations.

First, just recently Springsteen had a very well done solo album of mostly acoustic-based songs, Devil’s and Dust (2005). In many ways, that album represents Springsteen’s great skill in writing and performing emotionally direct and vivid tunes, and in character sketching (on which see my discussion of Welcome to Asbury Park, N.J.). Second, Magic is also the first E. Street Band album since the very coherent and moving album of 2002, The Rising. That album did an amazing job of looking at a crucial and tragic event, 9/11, from a variety of perspectives without terribly oversimplifying the meaning of events such as that. Third, Magic follows up on the foot-stomping, whisky-drinking tribute album to the folk music of Pete Seeger: We Shall Overcome (2006).

How does the newest album match up to this trio of somewhat diverse contributions? There is a sense in which Magic is The Rising part 2, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, Magic is clearly a solid, well-performed rock album that is superior to most other efforts in this area, and I would therefore recommend it. On the other, there are some ways in which this album does not live up to the high expectations and lacks a coherency in theme when compared to The Rising.

There are a number of lively rock tunes on this album beyond “Radio nowhere”, the first single. “You’ll be comin’ down”, “Livin’ in the future”, “I’ll work for your love”, and “Last to die” are all somewhat fast-paced and well-performed tunes with some nuance. However, there are other upbeat pieces that seem clouded. In particular, “Gypsy biker” is difficult to listen to or discern. I’m all for well-placed, heavy percussion within the overall structure of a song, but in this case the drumming assault seems without meaning and becomes annoying to my ears as the song progresses. Springsteen’s vocals and any other instrumentation begin to disappear in these murky waters. “Last to die” is apparently a song of despair with little hope (other songs supply that) which asks: “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake. . . Whose blood will spill, whose heart will break. Who’ll be the last to die”.

There are also some slower paced songs that provide limited variety here and highlight the sounds of piano and (yes, this is an E. Street Band album) chimes (which can also be heard on the livelier songs). “Girls in their summer clothes” is an enjoyable series of vignettes of small town life. The title track, “Magic”, is a slow moving (perhaps too slow) dark song, primarily of despair. The highlight among these, in my view, is the final “Devil’s Arcade” with its slow build. Here the partially despairing lyrics are countered by the clearly hopeful overall effect of the music.

As with many Springsteen albums, including The Rising, the lyrics are stories of both despair and hope, because they are stories of real life. Though I have not yet been captured by the poetry in the way I have been with some of the acoustic albums including Devils and Dust, the writing on this album is generally good.

That’s all I’ll say for now, and perhaps I’ll supplement this review as I listen to this album for a longer stretch. Often my opinions change with more listens. Music I don’t like on the first few listens sometimes become my favourite down the road, and vice versa.

Roberta Flack’s Chapter Two (1970): Reverend Lee

Posted on Sat Sep 29 2007 at 7:57 pm in the category 1970s, Dylan, Bob, Flack, Roberta, Soul / Funk / Motown -- 4 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: “Reverend Lee” (audio)

Roberta Flack is perhaps best known for her influential performance of the song “Killing me softly with his song” back in 1973, recently re-covered by the Fugees (if 1997 is “recent” to anyone else). Flack’s early work, before the years of disco set in and had their deleterious affect, is particularly impressive in terms of her vocal performance and the overall emotional effect of the music. The music really captures you and brings you along for a ride. Flack injects new life into the songs she covers. (Flack herself did not write the music or lyrics, in the early days at least).

I recently picked up her second album, appropriately called Second Chapter (© 1970 Atlantic). And, no, I did not listen to it when I was one year old — but I do now! Flack’s warm, welcoming voice is a pleasure to listen to, and the jazz-soul instrumentation is excellently performed and produced on this album (in other words, the tasteful and understated cover of the album is indicative of the quality overall). Her version of Bob Dylan’s “Just like a woman” is a nice change from the original, as much as I appreciate Dylan.

The song you are listening to now is definitely the outstanding performance on the album, however. “Reverend Lee” was originally written and performed by Gene McDaniel’s in the early 1970s (read a story about him on the Wire). But Flack’s version makes all the difference!

This song tells the tale of a southern pastor struggling with lustful thoughts (in a dream) and, ultimately at least, winning the battle. Here lust is personified as a young woman, “Satan’s daughter”. The association of women with Satan and notions of the woman as temptress unfortunately have a long history in western civilization, which you can read a bit about here (including a reference to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”).
Here are some of the lyrics from “Reverend Lee”:

Reverend Lee, he went to the water
And he prayed to the Lord about old Satan’s daughter
It seems in a dream, child, while he lay sleepin’
She climbed in his bed, starts rubbing and weepin’
Oh, she was twistin’ and turnin’
She was beggin’ and pleadin’
lovin’ and burnin’, pantin’ and breathin’, haah haah
. . .
Reverend Lee, he lifted his arms high
Said, “Heavenly father, take me home to the sky.”
He said, “Lord please don’t test me, not down where she touched me.”
“Oh, my mind is so hazy, Lord, my body is hungry”, oh yeah.
God rolled the thunder, then hurled the lightnin’.
He seemed to be angry, oh, so it was frightenin’.
Thunder grew louder, louder, darkened conditions
Just then a voice said, “God cannot be petitioned.”
Just then the devil emerged from the water, and he said in a dry voice,
“Your God will not barter.”
Reverend Lee ran screamin’ from the water
He was hotly pursued by old Satan’s daughter
“Reverend Lee”, she said. “Reverend Lee, Reverend Lee . . . oh do it to me”.
“Reverend Lee do it to me” (by Eugene McDaniels; Longport, BMI).

Wikipedia has a useful article on Flack, along with a full discography. Roberta Flack has her own official website here.


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Bands of the 1980s: The Alarm

Posted on Mon Sep 24 2007 at 5:13 pm in the category 1980s, Alarm, Alternative / Experimental, Artists / Bands, U2 -- 2 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen as you read: “The Stand” (audio snippet from first self-titled ["Eponymous"] album, © 1983 IRS).

One band that very few seem to remember (at least in North America), even if they were teenagers in the 1980s, is The Alarm (full discography). The Alarm was a contemporary of both U2 and Simple Minds, and there was a fair bit of interaction among members of all three of these bands in the early 80s. Bono was known to appear on stage at Alarm concerts, and vice versa for Mike Peters, the lead singer of The Alarm. The Alarm opened for U2′s War tour in 1983. There was a sense in which The Alarm was Wales’ U2, Simple Minds was Scotland’s U2, and, well, U2 was Ireland’s U2.

All three bands were punk-influenced (as is clear in the Alarm tune you are listening to now and the cover of Declaration [1984] to your right) with a touch of new wave and a Joy-Division-like somberness at times. All formed and began recording in the late 1970s or early 80s. All were played on “alternative” stations, such as CFNY (now “the Edge”) here in the Toronto area.

By 1983, both U2 and the Alarm were known for their politically-charged anthems. U2 and the Alarm were also known as excellent, lively concert performers. I can remember how overwhelmed I felt at one particular Alarm concert at Massey Hall when I was about 16 or 17. The energy at an Alarm concert was hard to match!

Although there are similarities among the three, each nonetheless had its distinctive character (and I’m not just talking about the Alarm’s regretful hair-dos). While U2 went on to mass stardom and Simple Minds continues to have radio play (on retro stations) as a result of their hits (such as “Alive and Kicking”), The Alarm is largely forgotten here in North America. This is the case even though Mike Peters has continued to record both under his own name and with bands such as Coloursound, along with members of the Cult (Bill Duffy) and the Mission (Craig Adams). Most recently, Peters has now formed a new Alarm (official site here — a video will start playing), called “Alarm MMVI”, which charted in the UK with “Superchannel”. The loss of memory of the Alarm is unjustified in some ways.

Listen as you read: “Eye of the Hurricane” (audio snippet)

The Alarm quite quickly progressed from the very basic, punk-influenced marches (and, yes, you can march to just about every early Alarm track) of 1983′s self-titled EP to a more well-refined alternative sound by 1987′s Eye of the Hurricane (© IRS). There are also continuities, though, in the sense that from beginning to end the Alarm had an intriguing sound marked by a combination of both acoustic and electric sounds (harmonica was not uncommon). The new incarnation of the Alarm XXVI harkens back to the 1983 sound more so than 1987, by the way, with its more direct, garage-band sound.

In some ways, the Strength (1985) album was a clear transition from the earlier, more basic sound which was still heard in “Sixty-Eight Guns” (on Declaration [1984]), to the more refined and produced sound of Eye of the Hurricane. This fourth album seemed promising in breaking the band to a larger audience, and it did so to some degree. The single “Rain in the summertime” which you are listening to now did get considerable radio play at the time and hit #6 on the US charts, according to the Wikipedia article. It was a bit harder to get Alarm concert tickets as a result. The album is an interesting combination of acoustic and electric as expected, and yet synthesizers were added and stand out quite prominently here (understandable for 1987). Two more, commercially less-successful albums followed (Change [1989] and Raw [1991]) before the group disbanded. As mentioned, Mike Peters continues to record but is basically unknown in North America, and he has remixed all of the Alarm CDs, adding b-sides and other rareties to each.

UPDATE: Little did I know, but it seems that there have been two, recent documentary-style reality shows by the BBC that follow the daily family life and struggles (including the struggle with cancer) of Mike Peters and his wife and two children. Go to the Alarm “news” section: The Peters’ Family BBC Documentary.


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Post-Gabriel Genesis: A Trick of the Tail (1976)

Posted on Tue Sep 18 2007 at 8:30 am in the category 1970s, Collins, Phil, Gabriel, Peter, Genesis -- 2 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: “Dance on a volcano” (audio snippet)

I have been a fan of Genesis for some years. Just now memories are coming back of earlier days, when I was 13 (1982-83), listening to Genesis on 103 PhD, coming out of Buffalo (for many years when someone referred to a “PhD”, I thought of that station, not some degree that an academic nut might get). That station had weekend “supersets” of three or more songs for each band played and I sat eagerly waiting to record the next set if a favourite came on (Yes, The Police, Pink Floyd, The Band, Foreigner, Led Zep, and others I still listen to were regulars on that station). Thank goodness my older brother, Stephen, had a half-decent stereo in our shared room (but he was beginning to get into Opera of all things!).

Still, in recent years my Genesis fixation had been primarily on the years when Peter Gabriel was lead-singer (the “true” Genesis as some say). There is a sense in which I too began to think of the Gabriel years as Eden and the post-Gabriel years as the Fall along with some others who preferred Gabriel (Gabriel wrote the majority of the lyrics during his time). Selling England by the Pound (1973) is perhaps my favourite among the Gabriel-Genesis albums, and still remains so.

But my views are changing somewhat now that I have been listening more often to later Genesis albums on vinyl (I’ve got just about all of them now, both good and not-so-good). In particular, the two albums immediately following Gabriel’s departure, which were both released in 1976, are consistently impressive and yet distinctive from one another. This is quite a feat considering that they were produced so closely together right after the departure of their lead singer. Both precede the shift from progressive rock to a more pop-based sound that emerged as the band went into the 1980s (the true “Fall”, if you want to put it that way). Memories of the progressive rock days begin to fade following Duke (1980).A Trick of the Tail (© 1976 Atlantic Recording Corporation)

Listen while you read: “Entangled” (audio snippet)

The first post Gabriel album, A Trick of the Tail (© 1976 Atlantic Recording Corporation; Atco SD 36-129), is cohesive and alive! The majority of the tracks are co-written by Rutherford, Banks and Hackett, but Collins is also included as co-composer of two pieces. The heavy, opening prelude that you listened to at the beginning of this post (“Dance on a volcano”) sets the stage for recurring themes that echo throughout the rest of the album and come to completion in the postlude (“Los endos”). The complicated time changes and dramatic movement (as well as some good, heavy drumming) in that opening track find echoes throughout the rest of the album in interesting variations.

Magically, the drummer, Phil Collins, who had no intentions of being the main vocalist, managed to take on the role of lead singer, seemingly without a glitch. At the same time there is not a high likelihood of confusing him with the unique vocal stylings of Gabriel (my wife gets them mixed up nonetheless). Collins may well hit the notes more accurately and cleanly, but Gabriel’s vocals had an unidentifiable mystery to them which few can capture. (For the interesting story about how Collins ended up in this role, see the Wikipedia article). Alongside the heavier tunes are rather calm and medieval sounding tracks, such as “Entangled”, which are reminscient of some more acoustic sounding songs on earlier albums. Overall, this blend of heavy and not-so-heavy provides an even balance for the album as a whole. The lyrics, too, keep things interesting as they return to the sort of fairy tale world of adventures with a medieval spin.

In many ways, the follow-up of the same year, Wind and Wuthering comes across as a darker, more moody, album in terms of both its sound and its lyrics. Still, it is also very impressive when it comes to the band’s overall performance and the intricacies of the music. Both of these albums are among the high-points of progressive rock, which was soon to fall out of vogue. Phil Collins ain’t so bad after all–if you can forgive him “Against all odds” and such (I kid: even “Against all odds” and “Sussudio” have a charm of sorts, at least for someone who grew up in the 1980s, such as myself).


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Latest vinyl finds: From Brian Eno to Art Tatum and Buddy de Franco

Posted on Fri Sep 14 2007 at 7:24 pm in the category Latest vinyl finds -- 1 Comment -- Copyright notice
  • Eric Clapton, Backless (1978).
  • Brian Eno, Before and After Science (1977).
  • Brian Ferry, Another Time, Another Place (1974).
  • Genesis, Live (1974).
  • Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973).
  • Paul Simon, One-Trick Pony (1980).
  • Simple Minds, Life in a Day (1982).
  • Art Tatum, Buddy de Franco, Red Callender, and Bill Douglass, The Tatum Group Masterpieces (1975 [1956]).

Bruce Springsteen’s character sketches: Welcome to Asbury Park N.J. (1973)

Posted on Thu Sep 13 2007 at 9:28 am in the category 1970s, Springsteen, Bruce -- 3 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen as you read (live version of “Lost in the flood”, Hammersmith Odeon, 1975):

With Bruce Springsteen’s new studio album (Magic) due out on October 2nd, what better time is there to post on the boss’s songwriting (official Springsteen website).

I am a relatively new fan of Springsteen. This shift was thanks, in part, to my friend Dan. Dan and a few others of us were sharing a few beers at an academic conference about six years ago when the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version of “Blinded by the light” came on (you know, the version you always hear). Dan stated (perhaps bet his life) that the tune was written by Springsteen and a debate ensued (I didn’t doubt Dan’s clear answer of Springsteen as much as some others did). This inspired me to look into Springsteen further. Sure, I had heard all of the “hits” from Born in the USA — I was fifteen in 1984, after all — and had since become familiar with some of the earlier tunes (Springsteen’s version of “War . . . what is it good for?” was a favourite of mine: my five year old son now breaks into that song out of the blue sometimes–a pacifist’s dream come true). But I did not yet have a full appreciation for Springsteen’s music and, especially, his writing.

That changed quickly once I started listening. I first picked up Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973, © Columbia Records) and was quickly hooked. Little did I know that one of my favourite Bowie tunes, “It’s hard to be a saint in the city” was also on this first of Springsteen’s albums (along with “Blinded by the light”).

The thing that struck me most about the album was the raw and direct way in which Springsteen’s writing and performance draws me into the life situation of the “fictional” characters in his songs. In a realistic way, Springsteen can sketch out (or take on the persona of) a dozen or more characters or life-situations on an album (or sometimes in a song). His performance further brings out the emotions and, often, tragic experience of these characters. His ability to take on a persona and express that person’s life circumstances is impressive, even if this sometimes happens at lightning speed in terms of the lyrics.

Lost in the Flood” is one of those fast-paced character sketches that nonetheless really pulled me in (something, but not all, is lost without hearing the entire performance by Springsteen himself, of course–do listen to the little clip, though):

That pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced
races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy stock super eight
He rides ‘er low on the hip, on the side he’s got Bound For Glory in red, white and blue flash paint
He leans on the hood telling racing stories, the kids call him Jimmy The Saint
Well the blaze and noise boy, he’s gunnin’ that bitch loaded to blastin’ point
He rides head first into a hurricane and disappears into a point
And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell
That is, nothin’ left that you could sell
just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell
And he said “Hey kid, you think that’s oil? Man, that ain’t oil that’s blood”
I wonder what he was thinking when he hit that storm
Or was he just lost in the flood?

Eighth Avenue sailors in satin shirts whisper in the air
Some storefront incarnation of Maria, she’s puttin’ on me the stare
and Bronx’s best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware
Everything stops, you hear five, quick shots, the cops come up for air
And now the whiz-bang gang from uptown, they’re shootin’ up the street
And that cat from the Bronx starts lettin’ loose
but he gets blown right off his feet
And some kid comes blastin’ round the corner but a cop puts him right away
He lays on the street holding his leg screaming something in Spanish
Still breathing when I walked away
And somebody said “Hey man did you see that? His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud”
I wonder what the dude was sayin’ or was he just lost in the flood?
Hey man, did you see that, those poor cats are sure messed up
I wonder what they were gettin’ into, or were they just lost in the flood?

(© Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP) / Columbia Records)

These impressionistic descriptions go well beyond the individual characters to evoke images of an entire setting. I begin to have a feel for some real-life setting from these impressions and I wince when Springsteen utters the unfeeling statements of on-lookers (“that ain’t oil that’s blood”, “His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud”).

I soon went out and bought more CDs but I was more fond of the acoustic ones at first (Nebraska [1982] and Ghost of Tom Joad [1995]), where these character sketches were not comprimised, so to speak, by a band. Even with a band, I did find his memorial album to 9/11 victims, The Rising (2002) particularly evocative in terms of the many different perspectives it takes on this renowned event. His more recent Devils and Dust (2005) was a welcomed return to the more folky and evocative side of Springsteen.

Since I’ve been into vinyl, I’ve been keeping a hawk-eye out for more Springsteen. Born in the USA albums are a dime a dozen, so I had no trouble there. However, I was especially pleased to find a mint copy of the ground-breaking Born to Run (1975), which I will post on soon.


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What is progressive rock?

Posted on Sat Sep 8 2007 at 12:19 pm in the category Genres of music, Progressive Rock -- 4 Comments -- Copyright notice

This blog deals with a variety of musical genres, including progressive rock. Before I begin postings on the likes of Moody Blues, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rush, and others, I thought it would make sense to offer my general sense of what is progressive rock (a.k.a. prog rock or art rock). There are already useful articles online, such as the one at Wikipedia. Here I want briefly to mention the origins and sketch out some key characteristics and common denominators that usually characterize progressive rock. I will by no means be comprehensive here, and you are entitled to your own opinions: please post them in the comments!

Origins

Progressive rock’s origins are primarily in the late 1960s. Prog rock’s climax came in the mid-1970s before it lost out to the flood of punk and new wave (as well as pop) in the late 1970s and early 80s. While progressive rock was complicated and well-thought-out music that also required a high level of musical ability to perform, punk was raw, direct and emotional (though also involving creative artistry nonetheless, of course). In the rock family, prog rock was the twenty-something year old brother with musical training and an even keel; punk was the sixteen year old yelling what he felt and angrily bashing holes in the wall with his guitar.

The two were clearly at odds in many ways and there could only be one winner, at least in the short run. Progressive rock waned. Punk took the short-term spotlight and punk-influenced new wave began heavily influencing pop music generally. Punk, new wave, and pop all shared in common a simple structure and, sometimes, simple lyrics. In some cases prog rock bands decided to shed some of the progressive elements and changed their style to some degree in order to adapt and maintain attention in the pop scene (e.g. Yes’ 90125 ["Owner of a Lonely Heart"] and Genesis albums following Abacab [e.g. "Invisible Touch"]).

Progressive rock is:

Progressive (of course)

Most who apply the term progressive to this style of rock mean that it is musically creative and experimental and that it moved rock forward into new, unexplored areas. One of the main ways in which it was progressive was in its blend or fusion of various types of music and instrumentation.

Fusion

Progressive rock is a fusion of rock with outside influences, particularly classical music, jazz, and blues. In some cases prog rock artists were trained in classical or jazz music and in others they simply appreciated such music and developed interesting ways of incorporating the styles, tempos and overall feel of classical and jazz with a rock twist.

Often this also meant the incorporation of musical instruments beyond the typical rock guitar-bass-drum combo, and sometimes full orchestras were used. The organ and synthesized equivalents were central for several progressive rock bands, including the Moody Blues and Yes. This fusion of influences resulted in quite sophisticated musical structures. Complicated time-changes are especially common.

Thematic

Progressive rock is thematic in at least two ways.

On the one hand, frequently an entire album is (or several albums are) united, in terms of lyrics and music, by a common theme, sometimes known as a “concept album”. The Moody Blues’ groundbreaking Days of Future Past (1967), for instance, was based on an idea for a stage show about one man’s entire day from morning to night. Several Genesis albums of the Gabriel era harken back to idealistic, pastoral images of medieval England, for instance. And numerous Yes albums orbit around an astral fantasy world. Many other progressive rock albums have a fantasy world as the setting for a story they tell.

On the other hand, prog rock is also thematic in that there are variations on a musical theme. As in classical and jazz music, a particular simple tune or chord progression that appears early in a song or album echoes in subsequent sections or tracks with more sophisticated musicality. Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail, for instance, begins and ends with the same basic tune which is also echoed in more subtle ways in various other tracks.

Quite often a prog rock song will be rather lengthy (say 10 minutes or more) with multiple parts and a dramatic build both within that track and throughout the album as a whole. Songs often blend into one another (rather than having those few seconds of silence between tracks–this did not make it particularly radio-friendly). These qualities often go along with the story-telling and theme-building aspects of the music.

That will do for now, and I can always supplement this in the future. In the mean time, please feel free to post your own comments or questions on what is progressive rock.

Forgotten albums: Shawn Phillip’s Second Contribution (1970)

Posted on Thu Sep 6 2007 at 9:43 pm in the category 1970s, Folk Rock, Forgotten albums, Phillips, Shawn, Progressive Rock -- 4 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: “She was waiting . . . ” (audio snippet)

I was browsing through the overload bins at the local record store and came across an intriguing cover with a lone, long-haired guitarist amidst a sea of dried mud. This image caught my attention and I began to wonder whether it was worth spending the .10 to experiment with this one–of course it was!

Shawn Phillips, who to me was an unknown when I picked up the album, was a platinum selling artist with this album in 1970. After looking him up on google, I now see that he continues to produce records alongside his full-time career as a fireman (Wikipedia article here, official website here). Phillips grew frustrated with record companies in the early 70s and decided to do something else with the majority of his time, despite his clear musical talent. The Wikipedia article also notes that he was originally cast as the main lead in Jesus Christ Superstar, but could not fill this role due to touring at the time.

Second Contribution (©1970 Dick James Music Limited) is a very well structured and performed piece, blending a variety of genres of music from basic folk to rock, blues and a little bit of jazz. There is a sense in which one could choose to categorize it as “progressive rock”. Phillip’s vocal range is also notable.

The opening piece (“She was waitin’ for her mother at the station in Torino and you know I love you baby but it’s getting too heavy to laugh“–his song titles can go on) which blends into the second (“Keep on”) illustrates the more full-blown blend of folk rock and orchestral arrangements that characterize a couple of tracks on the album. But I do not find this overdone. There is still a good balance in the music and we do not hear the “wall of sound” that was characteristic of Spector’s orchestral overdubs, for instance. The song builds in a slow yet sure way to its climax when it promptly transitions to the next track (when “Mama, I’m coming home” begins–here I have faded out the song shortly after this transition).

Listen while you read: The ballad of Casey Deiss (audio snippet)

There are also very subtle folk pieces such as “The ballad of Casey Deiss” which incorporates a progression of instruments, one by one (flute, bass, cello, vibraphone–it seems), alongside Phillips and his acoustic guitar. There is an overall calming, medieval atmosphere to the piece and Phillips’ vocals are permitted to stand out. Other pieces on the album further confirm Phillip’s creativity and musical intuition. The album as a whole, with its tracks blending together, has a coherency that is not often found in albums today, notwithstanding the likes of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible.

I highly recommend this forgotten (to me at least) album.


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From Pink Floyd’s mysteries to Led Zeppelin’s “Satanic” music

Posted on Tue Sep 4 2007 at 6:58 pm in the category 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Dylan, Bob, Johnson, Robert, Music and religion -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

There are a number of posts about music, religion, and culture on my academic blog that may be of interest to readers of this one:

The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse

Satanic conspiracies of the 1970s and 1980s (dealing with the supposed and real cases of back-masking)

“Me and the Devil Blues”: Robert Johnson and the crossroads

Pink Floyd, Pompeii, and the Mysteries of Dionysos

Jazz guitar duel of 1976: George Benson vs. Jeff Beck

Posted on Wed Aug 29 2007 at 11:25 am in the category 1970s, Beck, Jeff, Benson, George, Jazz and Blues -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Listen as you read: “Breezin‘” (audio snippet)

Ok, I’ll admit it: I’m biased and the winner is a foregone conclusion. Through the luck of the draw, I recently ended up with two jazz guitar records from the same year (the first for ¢.10 and the other for a mere buck–both in excellent condition with almost no unwanted ticks or crackle).

In one corner (I know I’m mixing fighting metaphors but you get the idea) is George Benson with his album Breezin’ (1976, © Warner Bros. Records Inc.). In terms of Jazz guitar (of the easy listening brand) Benson is perhaps best known for the title track “Breezin‘” . His success with this and other tunes on this album made his crossover to R & B quite smooth and his albums increasingly included lyrics with Benson singing (see the wiki article here).

I don’t think any guitarist familiar with jazz would doubt Benson’s skill and consistency in playing, but this album is definitely heavily marked by its time and the string arrangements seem out of place. It brings me back to childhood in some dentist’s or doctor’s waiting room, in some ways, and you might even suspect you are in an elevator as it now plays. It does have some funky charm, however. In my opinion, Benson will not win this duel.

Listen while your read: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (audio snippet)

Album design copyright CBS Inc.

In the other corner is Jeff Beck with his Jazz fusion album Wired (1976, © CBS Inc.). As a rock guitarist, Jeff Beck has a good pedigree, one could say (official Jeff Beck website). When Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck took the position and he was soon joined by Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame) (see the Rollingstone Yardbirds biography and discography here). The Yardbirds’ music can be considered a sort of psychedelic form of R & B. Beck had difficulty getting along with others in the band and was soon onto his solo career.

Beck primarily went the instrumental root and Wired was his second solo album. As a Jazz fusion album, this one rocks and the range of Beck’s guitar playing is outstanding. Among the calmer tunes is Beck’s excellent cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat“. The range of sounds that Beck can produce with a guitar are particularly noticeable here. The groove is definitely there as well.

Beck’s Wired will definitely remain a staple in my listening while Breezin’ may not (I haven’t taken the time to remove any ticks from Benson’s track as you’ll notice, which is a hint).

Who do you think wins the duel? Post a comment (top of entry) and let me know.


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Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”: Isn’t it a pity?

Posted on Mon Aug 27 2007 at 12:58 pm in the category 1970s, Beatles, Harrison, George -- 2 Comments -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: Beware of darkness (Spectorized) (audio snippet)

Phil Spector’s influence on rock n’ roll cannot be underestimated. His production of several Beatles albums ensured this. Spector‘s style of production (by the mid-late 1960s) with heavy reverberation and very full orchestral arrangements mixed with the original performances and overdubs has sometimes been known as the “wall of sound”. Spector tunes also look like a wall when you see a wave file.

George Harrison’s “Beware of darkness” is a good case in point, since it is available in both fully Spectorized, “wall of sound” form and in more basic, quick run-through form on the CD re-release of 2001. I have mixed feelings about the “wall of sound” approach as my recent re-listen to All Things Must Pass (1970; CD remaster 2001; © Apple/EMI) reminded me.

On the one hand, you are overwhelmed by the fullness of the music and somewhat complicated instrumentation in the Spectorized versions, even if “Beware of darkness” is among the more modestly produced tracks. On the other, you start to yearn for a moment of hesitation or quiet in the music. I like french horns and orchestral arrangements as much as the next guy, but where is Harrison and his guitar? Where is the lyrical and melodic clarity.

Listen while you read: Beware of Darkness (basic) (audio snippet)

Thanks to the CD re-release you do get a taste of what “Beware of darkness” actually is. The more basic version — basic in a good sense, I would say — draws more attention to the emotion in the lyrics and Harrison stands out more fully. You still have the sense of a dramatic build in the song nonetheless. If you get a chance, pick up All Things Must Pass, which is excellent regardless of your view on what Spector did with Harrison’s great performance and writing.


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Peter Gabriel sings in German – 3. Melt (ein deutsches album) (1980)

Posted on Sat Aug 25 2007 at 5:47 pm in the category 1980s, Gabriel, Peter, Genesis, Honorary songs -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

Listen while you read: Biko (audio snippet)

I was lucky enough to find one of Peter Gabriel‘s lesser known albums at the local record store in Waterloo (“Orange Monkey”). After leaving the then well-known Genesis to pursue his solo career in the midPeter Gabriel - ein deutsches album (1980) 1970s, Gabriel went on to create a number of interesting and somewhat experimental albums. For full discography and other info, visit Peter Gabriel’s own official website www.petergabriel.com.

Gabriel’s experimentation went beyond many other contemporaries in that he decided to release his third album (known as “Melt” — none of Peter Gabriel’s first four albums had a title) simultaneously in both English and German, with the subtitle “ein deutsches album (a german album)” (© 1980 Charisma Records Ltd.). This was to be the first of two albums released in this way (the second is known as “Security” 1982).

The German version of Melt is especially interesting if you are familiar with the already excellent album in English. Suddenly things sound new and more intriguing again with the German lyrics. The famous “Games without frontiers” becomes “Spiel ohne Grenzen” and, appropriate to the song, “Du bist nicht wie wir” sounds a little more intimidating in German than “Not one of us”.

With this first German album, Gabriel stuck with the same basic musical tracks and made only modest adjustments here and there, so that the instrumentation sounds mostly identical to the English version. One change that was made is in the song in honour of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko (who died in police custody in September 1977). Here Gabriel substituted a different African song as the lead-in. You can listen to a cleaned-up snippet of this tune here, which will also give you a taste for the German: “Biko” (audio snippet) There are other audio samples from the album on Peter Gabriel’s own site here.

In his next German album of 1982 (Security), however, he was to rework arrangements of the music more considerably. That one’s harder to find in vinyl and I’m anxious to get a hold of it soon. Don’t you dare buy a copy in the Toronto area!


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Welcome to Phil’s Vinyl Addiction!

Posted on Sat Aug 25 2007 at 12:55 pm in the category Blogging -- Comments Off -- Copyright notice

This blog is about music. More specifically it’s about whatever music I happen to be listening to.

It began like this: Recently my wife Cheryl came across some dusty old LP records in the garbage and brought them home as a novelty. She regrets this. Although none of those records were of any use, I decided to find the old turntable and see what other record bargains I might find at used record stores, garage sales and wherever else. It has become an addiction, as Cheryl will attest.

This blog will be a place for me to talk about music, but also about records, turntables, and the process of transferring some from LP to CD with an excellent freeware program called Audacity. I’ll focus my attention on talking about the musicians I’m encountering and expressing my take on the characteristics and development of their music.

My musical interests are somewhat wide within Rock and Jazz, so don’t be surprized if you find me talking about Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, and Jeff Beck alongside of Earth, Wind and Fire, Roberta Flack, and Charles Mingus. When I encounter a record for .25 cents or .50 or a buck I’m far more willing to experiment and give it a try even if I’ve never heard of the musician or band in question. You’ve been forewarned of my seemingly scattered musical interests. The fact that it’s usually records I’ll be talking about means that we’ll be dealing mostly with the 1950s-1980s, but sometimes I’ll talk about some of my more recent CD listening of the 1990s and 2000s.

Come again!