I so enjoyed Jeff’s posts last week that I wrote Sal:
ME: I volunteer to write something for you and would even consider an assignment. Review something you know I'll hate, or something you know I'll like.
Sal: Wanna do something for Wednesday? I have an idea for an assignment. How about I give you three records, two faves of all time and one current that I love and you give them your unabashed takes.
ME: Love to.
The last time I did anything like this was in 1978 when I screened records and wrote capsule reviews for my college (SDSU) radio station. They gave me about a dozen albums to take home. Since I was the new guy, I got all the stuff no one wanted. Fortunately the first record I tried was “Cheap Trick”. I threw on the side starting with “Hot Love”, thinking it might be a T-Rex cover. Thirty seconds in, I stopped it, and put in a cassette.
What followed is still, to me, an astonishing mix of hard rock and melodic craft. I only got through about four of the other records. There is never a shortage of bad music.
Cheap Trick represented the most elusive of beasts. Smart hard rock. It might be splitting hairs to talk about the difference between them and KISS, but for me the chasm is great. They both might be Rock N Roll, but one is art and the other deliberately artless.
Which brings me to part one of my assignment
I’m the least loyal of all fans. I received QUEEN, “Sheer Heart Attack” in 1975 as a high school graduation gift from a friend. We’d heard “Killer Queen” which was getting airplay. They looked like T-Rex, but sounded like 10cc.
I loved the album and played it a million times until “A Night At The Opera” came along. When the one after that turned out to be the same album in a black cover, only slightly worse, I didn’t bite. How can you follow up “Bohemian Rhapsody”? You can’t. By then I was onto other things. I lost touch with Queen.
A few years ago I downloaded 8 Queen albums from some blog I was pillaging. I cherry picked a “Best Of” mix. I was in the car with my then ten year old daughter who kind of liked the Beatles. After 8 minutes, she asked who was playing. “Queen”, I said.
“Please Dad, never play that music again,” her reply so adamant, I didn’t bother asking why.
“Sheer Heart Attack” is one of a handful of records I played to death, and then not at all until after I learned to play guitar. I was amazed how much influence it’s had on me. Brian May is a guitar god. He built his guitar and conquered the world with it. Nobody has better riffs or tone, just ask Jeff Beck.
This album is brilliantly conceived, and paced like a setlist by a working, touring band, when concerts sold albums. “Brighton Rock”, the hard charging opener, has an extended ensemble jam taking up 2/3 of it time. I’m sure this was epic on stage. They can really play.
The finger snaps announce the arrival of “Killer Queen”. They get your attention and hold it all the way to the guitar orchestra at the end. The musicality and attention to every detail shows a band at the top of it’s game. This laid the groundwork for the immense success of “A Night At The Opera”.
They re-wrote “Tenement Funster” for that album as “I’m In Love With My Car”, which is also track 3.
The lyrics, “Yes”-like in their gobbledygook sound like they could mean something, which is good enough for most, but Dylan, it’s not. This is pure artifice, it’s not really about anything. Who cares what Freddie’s singing during “In The Lap Of The Gods” as long as Dr. May keeps dropping those guitar bombs?
“Now I’m Here” is one of the best, most original riff songs I know. It gives “Black Dog” a run for it’s money.
The first time I heard this after 35 years left me speechless. After I picked my jaw off the floor I played it over and over. I ripped it off for a song my band (Foglizard) titled “60% Queen” when we rehearsed it one night.
Again this is paced so everyone gets a rest during “Misfire”, and another view with a chuckle during “Leroy” Brown”, (gee those guys can play anything), setting up the finale with the majestic “She Makes Me” and then “The Lap Of The Gods Revisited”, a big dramatic ending which they took to next level stylistically with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and here ends with a singalong and an actual bang.
“Sheer Heart Attack” aims pretty high, and scores big. Nothing stopping Queen from here. Bravo, guys! It’s musical theater, like the best Alice Cooper.
To further illustrate how little loyalty I have, while The Beatles are at the top of my musical heap, The only Paul McCartney albums I know, owned and played all the way through, are “McCartney”, “Ram”, “Band On The Run”, “Venus And Mars”, and “Flaming Pie”.
At the same time, his influence runs really deep. When I was 13 and mowing the lawn I plotted learning to play guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards well enough to record by myself, which I still do.
I downloaded “New” when it came out. I try to nab something every day so at any time there are dozens of things I need to get to. That’s why I make so many mix cd’s. An attempt to sample everything, and know how to file at least.
I often brag about giving a song only 30 seconds, which I know is stupid, yet it counts for something. I don’t think it’s asking too much to be grabbed within that time span. On this basis I selected the title song for inclusion on the still unfinished “Now That’s What I Call Bullshit 61”. It was the most beatleesque on the surface, which was a mistake. Repeated listening sounded derivative and a little tired.
Another song that drew me in precisely because it sounds different by looking forward. “Appreciate” has programmed drums and processed vocals. For months that’s the only song I listened to, and usually two or three times in a row. (Full disclosure: I have a cd by The Fireman, and also “The Liverpool Sound Collage”, so I know Macca has an interest in EDM) I came to realize that although the drums aren’t live, the fills were somehow familiar, and that’s because they’re mine. I learned them from Ringo and so did Paul!
Anyway close inspection reveals a great artist taking risks and having fun. According to wiki he played most of the instruments, including drums on “Appreciate”, and that cool cigar box he played with Nirvana at Madison Square.
The album rocks out of the box with “Save Us”, but it’s a little unfortunate that the opener is the only throwaway. The verse and chorus are sub-par musically, and frankly pedestrian, until it mercifully pauses before repeating it all again. Skip this one, especially the first time. “Alligator”, produced by Mark Ronson (four producers were used on NEW) is the first great one. It’s dark as “Everybodies got Something To Hide Etc”, and just as clever.
He’s an “admitted road dog” and this is his latest set-list, so it rocks up front, just like “Brighton Rock” on “Sheer Heart Attack”.
“I want someone to save me, when I come home from the zoo/I need somebody who's a sweet communicator/I can give my Alligator to"
I’m not really a word guy, I mostly listen to the voice as another instrument, and I like it if I think it’s telling me the truth, or lying masterfully. I notice a phrase if it’s really good and that lyric is Paul at his best. It does a lot with a little.
I listened, and took notes on Saturday, writing: “Did Macca just use “on my way to work” two songs in a row? Lyrics are a bitch sometimes”
Mellotron becomes “Queenie Eye” and with it’s driving piano surely recalls that band before Wings and it’s obviously deliberate because he pulls “O-U-T spells out” from 1967’s fanclub release “Christmastime Is Here again”.
“Early Days” is about John Lennon. At first you can really hear his age, because the voice is a little rougher than we want, but it actually ends up making it resonate emotionally. By the time he got to “Turn the pain into laughter” I was weepy eyed. One critic complained, saying it was "marred by McCartney's longstanding preoccupation with ensuring everyone knows he was John Lennon's equal".
That little bit of insecurity is essential to his art. John was eternally jealous that Paul’s tended to chart higher. With songs of questionable rockability as “Michelle”.
This time around “New” makes more sense. This is where the art is deep. He puts the big poppy psychedelic beatlesque tune after the weepy John valentine, which in fact contains some genteel bitchiness. I love the Beach Boys homage at the end. Paul famously chomped vegetables at the beginning of “Vegetables” for “SMiLE”.
On “Everybody Out There”, a counter melody in the chorus evokes “Thank-You Girl” for a moment.
The closer “Get Me Out Of Here” is Buddy Holly, blues, and gospel all mixed into a toe tapping smile inducer followed by a hidden track, an introspective piano ballad full of regret and sadness. It’s very moving, he’s either a tremendous liar or telling the truth.
“NEW” is worth the time. Paul is fully engaged and in many ways coming into his own in the 21st Century. I’d say it’s one of the best of his career, and we should all be looking forward to what this monstrous talent comes up with “NEXT”.
While working on this I wondered what would happen if Paul worked with Brian May. Add Dave Grohl on drums and there’s a power trio I’d pay to see.
Sal and I agree on many things. Safe to say everyone reading this probably agrees that The Beatles are great, but as soon as the discussion digresses to John or Paul? Which album? Which song? Consensus becomes more elusive.
Where we seem to differ is that he has a much greater tolerance for pop music and hit records. He’s loyal like a perennial Mets fan. He’ll back a losing team like The Rolling Stones to the very end.
We’re well aware of his fondness for all things Todd. Enthusiasm is infectious, so I try to hear what Sal hears in groups I have just insulted in a comment here on Burning Wood. Sal made me a custom Todd compilation I’m afraid to listen to because I don’t want to tell him how much I don’t like it. That said, today I downloaded yet another version of “Runt” because this supposedly mirrors an earlier version of the album which was inexplicably pulled after a small number had already been delivered. I know this because Sal’s written about it.
I’m an only child, so I didn’t have an older sibling’s records to go through. All I knew was AM radio. When I was about 15 I sent away for “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies”, 3 record Warners “Loss Leader”, to, you know, get “hip” to what the kids were digging. Sure, it had Faces and others familiar, but it also had “Lick My Decals Off, Baby”, by Captain Beefheart, as well as music by Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder, and Randy Newman. It had the opposite effect. Instead of digging what the other kids had I went off into Weirdsville, and have never come back.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never heard a single Hall & Oates album until Friday morning when I downloaded “War Babies” (1974, their third). We were in a hurry to get out of the house and drive up to Connecticut to visit my mom. I had just enough time to find it, download, burn, and get into the car.
I explained my “assignment” to her while we gassed up, and as we drove over the Meadowlands on 95 I put in the cd. Not only had I never heard any of their albums, I was pretty sure I hated what I knew about as much as I could. When I was on college dance floors, “Rich Bitch” bugged the shit out of me, as it was definitely not Rock N Roll, the only music that mattered at the time. And from what I could tell they had a kind of blue eyed Philly soul sound, which to me means lush, and slightly jazzy, a little more “adult” and sophisticated for my taste. I did not follow Bowie into “Fame”, or buy another one of his records until “Low”. I didn’t “get” soul until I “got” Bob Marley and Reggae.
When “War Babies” came out I was deep into “Country Life” by Roxy Music, “The Land Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis”, “Starless And Bible Black” by King Crimson, and “Here Come The Warm Jets”, by Eno, and there was no escaping “Dark Side Of The Moon”. All pretty art damaged, really.
I used to say that my all-time most despised song was “Jinglebell Rock” until an epiphany a few years ago. While in an appliance store I came face to face with a wall of Hall & Oates trying to kill me with my worst nightmare. I snapped, and found the performance pitch perfect and utterly charming. I even found love for Christmas music in general as a result.
So I put my convert’s ears to the test with “War Babies”. It begins with dissonant guitar and cymbal splashes, something I’d expect from the Who until it kicks into territory somewhat anticipated. Blue-eyed Philly soul. I like the song at first and think, “this is going to be okay”, but then realize “Can’t Stop The Music” is about someone forgetting the ending and playing the song too long. Funny. Until the third time around. About 2 minutes in I’m reminded of all the music I didn’t like in the ‘70’s.
“Is It A Star” splits the difference between Pink Floyd and “Mystery To Me” Fleetwood Mac. It’s obvious everyone can really play as it turns into what has to be called “prog” rock.
It is here I make the observation that there are entirely too many keyboards of indeterminate lushness. This is a description I invent for this music. There is not an inch of space here. I’m finding it hard to breathe.
“Beanie G. And The Rose Tattoo” has a bit of melody in the verse which too closely resembles someone else’s which I can almost sing over it. I start to notice bits and pieces of everything popular at that time and wonder who produced this piece of shit?
“You’re Much Too Soon” starts and I’m thinking it’s a cover of “Hello It’s Me”. That’s when I remember seeing something about Todd and Utopia being involved while downloading and it makes perfect sense.
I respect Todd’s musicality and talent. He’s another plays everything guy. He produced “Skylarking”, one of my favorite records, and from what I’ve read can take a lot of credit for that.
I used to subscribe to Stereo Review, and a feature their reviews had, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, and was probably a holdover from reviewing classical records for gear heads, at the top, before the body began there would be two categories:
Performance: (example) Energetic
Recording: (example) Bright
They could get pretty snarky. I remember “Cheap Trick” got “Expensive Trash” for Recording.
My review of “War Babies” would read:
Performance: Tries too hard
But I can’t say it’s a bad record, just deeply flawed. I listened to it with headphones five or six times yesterday and dammit! The refrain from “War Baby Son Of Zorro” stuck in my head this morning. That title suggests I’m lucky not being a “word guy”.This is the yin to “Skylarking”s yang. That is a brilliant combination of elements seamlessy incorporated. This sounds like the mixture didn’t gel properly.
“Better Watch Your Back” is my favorite song because it breathes. It actually has moments of silence in it, with a fine Bo Diddley beat and slide guitar.
“Screaming Through December “ defy’s description. Except in a nutshell it’s everything wrong with this album. It exemplifies “Tries Too Hard” and “Off-putting”. It begins with piano and vocals slathered in so much processing and useless electronics that every time a new sensory assaulter appears I want to say, “Really, Todd, can’t you just leave well enough alone?”
I can’t ignore the first few lines of sub-Springsteen character study, which remind me just how bad story songs can be. I blame Bob Dylan. Soon enough the ballad gets all jazz rock funk with guitar bouncing back and forth between speakers and it reaches a crescendo topped with a ludicrous bit of spoken word. I’m wondering “where are the sound effects?” There’s got to be a radio broadcast or bombs or something. Here it is. It ends with the sound changing speeds like someone dragging their finger at the edge of the record. The sound effects are on the next song.
I’d love to get hold of the session tapes and strip out the bullshit and see if there’s a decent album under all that processed cheese.
I have no clue what “Johnny Gore and the “C” Eaters is about, but except for the irritating production flourishes spends time as pretty good glam-rock, and is a decent closer, almost allowing me to forget the previous mess. Although it clearly owes a great deal to “Diamond Dogs” in an awkward way, like Todd’s infamous feather costumes from this era.
Apparently “War Babies” was such a departure it alienated many of their “blue eyed” soul fans, but it was also their first to chart, reaching number 86 on the Billboard 200.
If you are a fan, this is probably not your favorite Hall & Oates album, that is likely H2O, but maybe it’s your third. You appreciate the quirks and the opportunity to hear like minds throw everything but the kitchen sink at a project.