Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.


Day Thirty-Four: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Safe as Milk

Buddah Records ■ BDS-5001

Released September, 1967
Produced by Richard Perry and Bob Krasnow
Engineered by Hank Cicalo and Gary Marker

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do
  2. Zig Zag Wanderer
  3. Call on Me
  4. Dropout Boogie
  5. I’m Glad
  6. Electricity
  1. Yellow Brick Road
  2. Abba Zaba
  3. Plastic Factory
  4. Where There’s Woman
  5. Grown So Ugly
  6. Autumn’s Child

On the heels of an album for which my college and high school best friend and roommate is responsible, here’s another one that fits that same bill. I’d already mentioned that John started listening to Captain Beefheart in those days, but this is actually the only chunk of it that carried over to me. While he was experimenting with Can, Beefheart, classic 60’s rock (which I grew up on and, for a little while, knew better as a result–though he eclipsed my passing, rudimentary knowledge quickly), and other more experimental music, I was delving further into extreme metal, my obsession with a Japanese band (whose albums were not released on vinyl after about 1989, and would require a complicated process to order on vinyl, nevermind their rarity even in their home country), and periodically picking up much “safer” releases in the same fashion of semi-impulsive, but educated purchases.

While Trout Mask Replica is doubtless the Captain’s most famous work, it has never sat well with me. I’m usually best with such things when I take a deep breath and throw some money at a copy and sit down with a sense of ownership, but I’ve yet to feel that compulsion regarding Trout Mask yet, so it remains dusty on the shelf of memory. Safe as Milk, however, does not suffer the “refuse to wear a headset, sing to the beat of studio leakage instead, leaving vocals out of sync” problem (?) that Trout Mask does. The Zappa connection–a guided run-down of Strictly Commercial from my father pushed me toward listening to the Mothers for the first time many years ago–did lend itself toward trying, but I don’t always have the patience or right state of mind to deal properly with the weirdest of music, believe it or not (all depends on where the line is for you, past which music gets “weird”!)

I would hear songs like “Yellow Brick Road”, “Zig Zag Wanderer”, and “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do” from behind me in the same room on occasion, and eventually they leaked into my consciousness. “Yellow Brick Road”, in particular, I remember starting to click really well. I eventually sucked it up while living up there and picked up the album on CD, and, later, on vinyl, as it was a 180g reissue for a price that was quite reasonable indeed for the MSRP-laden pricing of teensy indie record stores “land-locked” into the mountains without competitors for sixty miles except each other.

The slide guitar that opens “Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes, I Do” makes it clear immediately that the blues were the primary inspiration for the song. The gravel of Beefheart’s (aka Don Van Vliet) voice is entirely appropriate for the music, bringing the right kind of soul to fit the sliding melody’s blues. John French’s drumming is not far off from what appears on recordings of Muddy Waters and Elmore James doing variations on the song best known as Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (which the song is clearly based very directly upon), but it adds just a bit more to the rhythm than usually appeared there. There are conflicting reports as to who is responsible for that slide guitar, as Alex “St. Clair” Snouffer is credited for guitars, but Ry Cooder is known to have played on at least a few tracks, and some think this may be him as well (he is definitively credited as arranging it). It’s the kind of uptempo blues that gets toes tapping uncontrollably, though, and the musicianship is absolutely in the right place for the song. Van Vliet is the star for a reason, though, of course: his voice is not just gravely, it’s vaguely elastic, pulled upward to near cracks at moments, squashed, frog-like at others. It’s never done with the feeling that it’s to make anyone laugh, but there’s no real pretension about it either–just emotive performance.

“Zig Zag Wanderer” is more unique, the guitar no longer slide-based, and Jerry Handley’s bass playing as a near match for it. French plays the snare hits as short rolls, a neat touch that fits the groove of the song very well. When the guitars drop to let Van Vliet sing only with the rhythm section, French switches briefly to direct, single hits instead, that emphasize the space between Van Vliet’s voice and the two remaining instruments. Much like “Sure Nuff ‘n Yes, I Do”, it has the kind of gut-tugging desire for movement and rhythm built into it that is the direct inheritance taken from the blues.

Seemingly somewhat out of place, “Call on Me” is more resonant of other late ’60s rock, with a guitar that sounds vaguely Byrds-ian for much of the track, and a basic rock and roll drum beat. Beefheart’s voice is more distinct in character than a lot of vocalists aimed for in that range of rock at the time, though: the gravel and the push and pull for emotion he takes from his influences in the blues (like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker) are not what pop was aiming for at the time, either, really. The song kicks into a footstomping rhythm briefly throughout, and lets the guitar really shine, not quite soloing, just taking on a bluesy lead.

The first real hint of the possible oddities of Beefheart, “Dropout Boogie” has Van Vliet pushing his down into a strained but powerful and controlled croak. The bassline is almost overpowering, and the extreme fuzz and distortion on the guitar lets it act less as the melody the bass is empowering, and more like a light, shaky glaze on the thumping bass. It’s dirty and rough, but when a piano enters on a similarly intense but more ramshackle rhythm, it’s like the song forgot what it was for a moment, but the bass and guitar remind it. The repetitive lyrics further the idea that this is a song driven purely by rhythm. Van Vliet is credited with the bass (!) marimbas on the song, too, which take it into a sort of peculiar territory as it fades out on the same rhythm, but now underpinned with that bass marimba.

Possibly the weirdest song only because it’s the least weird, “I’m Glad” is one of only a handful of songs credited solely to Van Vliet (many are co-written with Herb Bermann, long thought a myth or joke, but who has since been discovered). The song is practically doo-wop, and calls to mind, in a way, the doo-wop experimentation of Van Vliet’s school friend Zappa, though the attitude and voice Beefheart brings is more directly soulful and pleading. The high-pitched backing vocals are the most reminiscent of the often tongue-in-cheek works Zappa did, but they’re so overshadowed by Beefheart’s excellent vocal, that they become completely reasonable in place, and even logical.

While known for telling, ahem, stories, Van Vliet alleged that the song “Electricity” was responsible for ruining a label contract for the group (it has since been stated this is not the case at all). Bermann, after he was found and interviewed for his role in this, stated that this was a standing poem for him, which Don asked him if he could put to music. The opener seems normal enough, but when the cymbal wash and the rein-pulling guitar pick repetition pulls it to a halt, Beefheart begins singing over the wandering semi-Eastern slide guitar and more cymbal washes, until a tom roll pulls in one of his most notably weird vocal choices: “Eeeeeeelectri–sity” he croaks out over this, dragging that first “E” from the start all the way to the end. As if his voice gets stuck here, he keeps singing in that low, squashed croak for a few more lines, then comes back to his normal voice. A bouncing bassline pulls in a theremin (!), the slide guitar and the most ecstatically brilliant drum feel on an album that is driven by feel. Beefheart allegedly shattered the microphone recording this track (!?), but it’s that push/pull of the slide and drum that sends this thing rocketing into the sky.

Because why not, “Yellow Brick Road” opens with a voice (that of producer Richard Perry) saying in educational-film style: “The following tone is a reference tone, recorded at our operating level,” followed by a wavering electronic theremin-style sound warping up and down. The slide and shuffling, clickety-tap drum beat and Bermann’s weird lyrics call to mind Beefheart wandering down some kind of bizarre fantastic yellow road, describing what he’s seeing. The chorus has a thundering bassline and distant, echoing vocals from Van Vliet himself. And, damn, is this thing catchy and bouncy. It’s still not a wonder it was the first song to stick in my head.

The weirdest song (judging more externally) is definitely the one half-named for a candybar: “Abba Zaba”. A semi-tribal drumbeat is joined by very high, clear, picked guitar and then a variety of extra percussive instruments, and strange, strange lyrics from Van Vliet. The song shifts periodically into only momentary stylistic departures. It’s heavily percussive but for a sort of bridge halfway, wherein an odd instrumental break composed of bass and drum occurs. It’s still very pleasant to listen to, and not totally out of keeping with the album–if you aren’t paying close attention, you could be forgiven for not noticing how odd it is. In the context of blues and rock just slightly contorted by the interests and ideas of Beefheart, a song that is neither but built from those same interest and ideas fits quite well.

Pulling out some great harmonica work, Beefheart opens “Plastic Factory” himself, with a more slow-rolling track, croaking and cracking his way through a description of a factory and why it is not the place for him–lyrically (Bermann, again), this is very in tune with the working class subject matter in plenty of blues stuff, despite the peculiar choice of specifically burning phosphorous and the identification of a “plastic factory” as the location in question. It’s the right voice for Beefheart to accompany his harmonica with, though, of that there’s no doubt. Keep an ear out for the outro, where the the guitars build and drop waves a few times only to leave the harmonica as the last fading sound.

Somewhat reminiscent of the sounds of some of the blues-inflected, semi-experimental (and much “safer”) artists of the same time frame, “Where There’s Woman” is spacious and disjointed, conga drums and lightly echoed, intermittent drum hits are like an extended bluesy jam–somewhat reminiscent of the “Gris-gris” segments of Dr. John’s work (though his first album was not released until the next year–but I wouldn’t have guessed it was an influence anyway). When it reaches the chorus, everyone doubles in speed and energy, no longer leaving space between any parts of performance, the second chorus just building to a relative frenzy.

The guitar that opens “Grown So Ugly” is just tasty blues work (no surprise this one is most definitively credited to Ry Cooder). When Beefheart comes in singing, “I got up this morning”, you hear the instruments answer him, and think it will be some variation on the clichéd blues riff, or perhaps something like the more standard but more often real kind of instrumental answer to a line in the blues. As previously, French carries the beat further, at the end suddenly switching to drag it into a more complex musical phrase, which the guitar and bass follow him through on. Instead of letting his voice crouch low and frog-like, Beefheart floats his voice up at the cracking top of his register, for a lot of the song. In most other respects, it’s structured like many blues songs, though the ringing riffs that make up the latter half are unusual in this context.

The album closes with “Autumn’s Child”, based at open on a simple melody played on guitar and answered in bass. Suddenly backing vocals and theremin (probably) come in: “Go back ten years ago”, like a group shouting a command. The instruments punctuate it, and then go back to more spacious, wandering melodies, that lay the ground for the mid-ranged passionate, blues-hurt singing of Beefheart, themselves abruptly responded to with that (musically) shouted group phrase. A high bassline moves the song along rapidly, the guitars playing shortly, sharply and speeding up the feel even more, but slowed by Beefheart’s voice–well, likely the other way, but it feels as if he’s leading them back to this slower speed.

I felt very restricted by the limitations of my musical knowledge here, but it’s also difficult to express the feel of a well-played blues group, which is all about feel, usually. It’s best to hear it, but it’s good to understand the kind of constructions at play here, however roughly, to know that this is a sort of deviant blues-rock album, but not to lean too heavily on the deviant–likely the most emphatic assumption to make if the name Beefheart means something but not much. This is a very “normal” album, and is often at least semi-shrugged at by Beefheart fans as a result–his challenges and influences related far more to Trout Mask than Safe as Milk, but, for my money, at this point in my life, I’d rather listen to Safe as Milk, and I will most definitely and happily enjoy doing so.

  • Next Up: The Cars – Shake It Up (yes, bit of a jump)

Day Twenty: The Beatles – Abbey Road

Capitol Records ■ SO-383

Released September 26, 1969
Produced by George Martin
Recorded by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald
Assistant Engineering by Alan Parsons

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window¹
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End²
  11. Her Majesty³
 ¹Tracks 3 (“You Never Give Me Your Money”) through 7 (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) are often thought of as a medley
²Somewhat unbeknownst to me, 8 (“Golden Slumbers”) through 10 (“The End”) are also thought of as a medley. It does make sense, though.
³Unlisted on original issue. This pressing does not include it on the outer sleeve, but does list it on the label.
Yesterday, I was tasked–by either the gushing overconvidence in me or sadism practiced upon me by friends and family–with discussing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I’m not sure it turned out all that well, but I felt a bit out of place with it–many people seem to see me as quite knowledgeable musically, but I don’t think that piece of writing bore that out. It tends to make patently obvious my limitations in the music theory sense. The iconic nature of the cover above–along with the overall reputation of the music within it–is not something encouraging insofar as escaping that same trap on this immediately following day. However, it occupies an odd place. The most iconic Beatles album remains Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I would definitely feel about it the way I felt about Pet Sounds: a need to correctly place it in pop history and acknowledge that monolithic and kneejerk placement of it. It’s the sort of thing that’s generally no longer defended–it just is the greatest album of all time, or whatever. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t get addressed in a lengthy way most of the time anymore: it’s mostly the brainwashed kind of “Oh, Sgt. Pepper,” or the “I refuse to be brainwashed” response of “Anything but Sgt. Pepper.” As a result, despite being voted the best Beatles album with some regularity by both aggregated response and individual judgment on many occasions, Abbey Road often appears behind Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, and Rubber Soul in many a list of more general selections (the 1960s, all time, so on). That it is also my own personal favourite Beatles album does me no harm in my comfort.
However, the Beatles have been dissected more widely and thoroughly as a music group (and people) than the Beach Boys ever were, or likely ever will be. The very copy I own of this album has an insert for the Compleat Beatles book, and there’s the career-long Anthology set, the Anthology film set, the Compleat Beatles movie, and whole books that break down any and all recording sessions down to the take. The original liner notes for Past Masters, the non-album singles collections, actually talk about which take and which edits were used for final release, amongst other things. There are a few other bands who experience somewhat similar treatments (obviously, Pet Sounds has had some similar treatment, but much of the rest of the Beach Boys career has not, and the Kinks’ ’60s material has ended up similarly, but the pursuit has languished in the material that was released in the two decades following). The information is widely disseminated, and that the Beatles have a reputation even with those who don’t like them–and not just one for “surf songs”, but for being the best of this, that, or the other for all time.
It doesn’t leave me nervous and wary, but it does leave me to wonder: what information do you include in a self-contained piece on this? Silly trivia that’s old hat to people who look at music trivia, like the fact that this was recorded after Let It Be, despite the fact that Let It Be was released later, or that it was one of the only two Beatles albums officially released only in stereo? All of the nuanced commentary and ultra-specific recording history from Emerick, Martin and the Fab Four themselves? Context, with Yoko Ono and the strain on the band and all the changes and phases and moments that led to this? I’m not inclined to include a lot of that; where it seems appropriate, relevant trivia seems like a reasonable but not necessary thought. Describing the music–as I’m wont to do–seems like a waste of your time (and thus mine), unless it’s to clarify or elaborate on a more abstract or general point.
The album’s opener was part of a double A-side release with the track that follows it (“Something”). It is an extremely recognizable song, one of Lennon’s efforts (though, as always, credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, as was their practice) and in the vein of “Revolution” (the b-side of “Hey Jude”, not “Revolution 1” from The White Album), being rather rough, using distorted guitars and rather spare instrumental backing (though the guitar in “Revolution” is quite loud and constant, it seems to stand out by itself with how it is mixed). While much ado is made about Ringo’s “bad” (or at least banal) drumming, this is one of the tracks that really lets you understand the kind of feel that defined him, as well as letting him branch out into a more unusual beat. 
There are three parts that have always stuck out in the song to me: John’s voice (and he uses the “wilder” one, which emphasizes the connection to “Revolution”, for my ears), Paul’s bass riff, and Ringo’s hissing hi-hat venting of that riff. And that’s really what it feels like: the bass riff moves the song, but its weight needs a bit of a valve to let the rest of the music have some space, and that hiss is that valve–even sounding like one. In talking of Pet Sounds, I mentioned my normal approach of hearing music as a whole cloth, and that is emphatically true with music I’ve heard my entire life, which includes any and all Beatles hits, and many non-hits. The advantage of sitting and listening as this demands means I get to hear things like the wonderful trip across the toms that Ringo takes after that hiss, which is one of my favourite drum sounds in general when used properly. The simple beat he uses under the verses is just that, but the hits are just the right kind to fit the restrained aggression and chilly “cool” of the song. When John sings the last line of the verse and Ringo moves to that heartbeat bass kick, I realize that I really do like his style, however much or little skill it took.
And, of course, Paul’s bass, if you follow it through the song, is actually quite stunning. Driving the song with it in a way that never registered as being all bass to my young ears and just seemed like part of how songs were made–and, in general, it isn’t–is one thing, but the way it rides under the verses, the same riff, smoothed out but still powerful, that is something special.
It’s not much of a secret that, if pressed, I’d have to name George as my favourite Beatle (despite the empathic animated Ringo from Yellow Submarine defining my preference for many years–who of course had only a tenuous link to the real one, though he’s often been called the nicest, most humble and in general the “heart” of the actual Beatles). That means that the general feel of “Something” is one I’ve always found attractive–the fragmented guitar parts that seem to fade in only momentarily in the majority of the song, but that come out so noticeably after the chorus are just brilliantly tasteful. As a lead guitarist he rarely comes off as showy (and it was never his style, even in the years following), and even his solo here is neither the overly technical kind of impressive, nor the more jaw-droppingly soulful kind of solo that comes from the best of the blues: it’s just mood, and the tone and style he relied on–enough that he’s recognizable in his contributed solo on Badfinger’s “Day After Day”. The subtle descent in from Ringo, and the way Paul’s bass trades off and accentuates the song without controlling it–well, rhythm sections were never my strong point in listening, unless I concentrate. I’m realizing what a shame this is as time goes on.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Well, I can’t discuss this–can’t even begin to–without noting that it was the song that apparently broke my friend John on the Beatles. That is, broke him into them. It’s kind of funny, as, name indicating, he’s more of a “John” (as in Lennon) kind of person, taste-wise, and John quite hated the song and thought it was stupid “Granny music”, but John (the one I know myself) liked that the Beatles could be so cheerful about murder. And so they are: it’s not unfair of Lennon to declare this about the song (ever the mediator, Ringo elaborated that it may indeed be “Granny music”, but that this was necessary to help the album be listenable), but the subject matter is a bit odd for a pop musician known for his pop stylings but not known for that kind of ironic tone (at the least, up to this point). The song just bounces along merrily, even the anvil that represents the hammer (played by Ringo on the recorded version, though road manager/assistant Mal Evans can be seen in video playing it on another take) seeming more merry than menacing. The Moog bits, too–I’d never noticed those. Paul plays a short solo after the first chorus on it that wouldn’t be out of place in many a synth-defined album, though he matches it with a piano instead at the second entrance.
“Oh! Darling” is emphatically reminiscent of earlier rock (and preceding genre) music–my thought was more of the music that inspired and was covered by the Beatles themselves, but others have suggested Fats Domino-style R&B, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Still, Paul throws in a “Woo!” that it’s hard not to think of as influenced by Little Richard, of whom they were known to be fans. Paul uses his own “wild” voice, quite deliberately, on the song, and it helps that feeling of rougher, more soulful music that the song inspires. Oddly, Lennon thought Paul sang it poorly–but I’ve always felt his vocal performance was exactly in line with his intention to record “as though [he’d] been performing it on stage all week.”
In terms of songwriting credits, Lennon and McCartney were notoriously dominant in those credits, with Harrison rarely exceeding two credits on an album, though his songs were rarely thought of poorly. Ringo, however, has only two full credits. The first is on The White Album, which should come as no surprise for a sprawling double album that covers absurd amounts of ground. While he actually sang more songs for the Beatles than this (“Yellow Submarine”, “Good Night”, “Boys”, etc), he never got much further with songs he wrote. The second (the one on The White Album is “Don’t Pass Me By”) is actually the next: “Octopus’s Garden”. He wrote the song while away from the others, frustrated with their arguing and general tense mood. It’s very much in keeping with the notions of Ringo as a person and as a songwriter: it’s a bit goofy, as it describes a silly world where he and friends visit an octopus in the garden it builds from found objects, but it’s very warm and cheerful, too. He gives it a nice beat, but a much nicer piano performance on his part. The amusing studio activities of the rest gave it the little “underwater” touches that crop up, like the sound of bubbles, or altered voices.  In some respects, it makes for a nice break from the rest of the album, as Ringo himself apparently did in general: it’s a pleasant sounding song that doesn’t carry the weight of the serious tone in even the other positive songs. It also has some nice guitar from George and John, which never hurts.
I often reference “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a strong indicator of the talent of the Beatles. Fourteen words across nearly eight minutes–and it never gets boring or overly repetitive (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t repeat elements, of course–just that they don’t feel tired). Lennon actually plays the rather tasty lead that follows his own vocal, though George did contribute other guitars, and it only furthers the extremely emotive nature of the track–apparently written to/about Yoko. The desire in Lennon’s voice (and playing) is bare and naked. When the song shifts to the “She’s So Heavy” portion, the guitars are slowed, deliberate and heavy as all hell, the pick seeming to pull at each string with all the energy of desire focused–as much as such a thing can be focused–into each pick of a string, spaced out with the intense restraint needed to keep that focus. And let’s not forget that ending: it’s a shock as John intended, even as it comes out of the wash of the white noise machine, and somehow a brilliant end to Side One, despite its unexpected and sudden nature.
Let’s be honest for a moment: when I decided to name a favourite Beatles album for the first time, it was driven by my love for “Here Comes the Sun”. I’ve already noted my love for George’s songs, his guitar style and sound–though my favourites of his, and indeed favourite Beatles songs were neither singles nor normal album tracks. Still, that defining lick, and the way it seems to sit off in a corner, tiny and quiet but so pretty at the start, and then to seem almost shy in the way he plays it under his vocal, notes almost lost, only to come out clean and clear in the chorus and following it is just…affecting. It’s absolute beauty, and I remember deliberately pulling out the record as one of the few I played on the same turntable and stereo I use now to listen to before a day of high school, lo those many years ago–particularly one morning before school. Harrison even brings the Moog back (which, again, I had not noticed), too, and uses it in a fashion I think one might call a bit more normal–a bit more like an organ or standard electronic keyboard, perhaps, for the most part, though there are some unusual bits here and there. The very subtle orchestral inclusion avoids being overbearing or intrusive, too–which I suppose we can thank Martin for.
“Because” opens with Martin on a harpsichord, playing a melody that always reminds me of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, but quickly becomes much lighter, with the full harmonies the boys use (overdubbed to a full nine “voices”, 3 each from Paul, John and George). Those harmonies are really the focal point of the song: it keeps the whole thing in the air (as does the absence of anything  more than a rather quiet, simple bass from Paul in the rhythm section).
The “Abbey Road Medley” consisting of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” I always forget is a medley myself–and, in truth, that’s something I fear we might lose as we move toward this digital formatting of music. It’s not an issue at all with isolated tracks, or collections of songs meant to be played in an order–but correct transitioning between otherwise delineated tracks is something that can be easily lost or treated poorly, either with non-master crossfades, or with variances in how software chooses to separate tracks. Still, it is a medley, and a listen on vinyl makes that far more abundantly clear. The piano and bass that Paul opens the track with (both are his performances) are an exquisite sound, a kind of sadness in the initial piano bit that is brought up to something more like bittersweet by the bassline. The harmonies on this intro are also wonderful, and create a space for the bass to gain volume and pull the song into its transition, announced by Ringo. And then we get to hear one of my favourite Paul vocal styles, the kind he also uses on “Lady Madonna”–it’s pushed down and sort of strangled into a seeming parody of being straightlaced–or, at least, that’s the impression it always gives me: I always see him pushing his chin down and tucking it in slightly when he sings this way. It makes a kind of sense–there’s a certain musical synergy between the two songs otherwise in some ways. It’s actually a heavily varied song in-and-of itself, with the wind chimes and tape loops Paul includes at various points. If you aren’t familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a huge chunk of the medley, rather than a single song that is part of it.
The movement to “Sun King” is forced for reasons I will get into later, but you wouldn’t know it had to be hacked together for listening, as quiet natural sounds are used to help the overlap. The opening is, interestingly, somewhat tonally similar to “Here Comes the Sun” (that it was originally titled “Here Comes the Sun King” and still includes this phrase doesn’t help), not in a way that feels like a repeat of any kind, but just like a coincidental mirroring. It’s very relaxed, and feels as if it might play over a cartoon vacation in some islands with palm trees, a kind of lilting sway to the guitars.
When it suddenly turns into “Mean Mr. Mustard”, it is simultaneously natural and strange: the tempo shifts so completely, yet so organically, you almost wouldn’t notice, as there’s only a small drum fill from Ringo that carries it, but it’s done at a natural point in the song–you think there’s more of “Sun King” coming, and another song starts playing, and whether the first reaction is “Ah, okay” or “What?” is a toss up.
It’s less disparate, the difference between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, as the tempo is up at a similar rate, though it has a very unusual, very wild, primal drumbeat from Ringo. John is back to his more “distant” style of vocals (a la “Revolution”).
It shows that “Polythene Pam” led directly to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” even as performed, with that pounding drum from Ringo seamlessly transforming into a more typical balance of bass and snare than tom-focused drumming. Paul brings back his “self-harmonizing” approach, which has a very unique and particular sound in the way it seems to create a weird expansion and funnel to his voice that hones in on it for “Didn’t anybody see?”, though the backing vocals of John and George give it that particular twist indicative of their overall unified vocal sound.
“Golden Slumbers” announces the final transitions of the album, with a string-enhanced piano melody, and gentle singing from Paul. It gives the feeling of descent from the album’s climax, and when he turns on the energy, it tells us that things may be winding down, but it isn’t without some energy still behind them. The second moment it seems it will go this way, we’re instead led to “Carry That Weight”, which manages to jump from “Hey Judge”-style chorus and repetition to a piercing horn sting of a bridge to an excellent and intimate–though “big”–solo from George. It’s enough that “Golden Slumbers” was recorded as leading directly into “Carry That Weight”, but after that solo it also calls back to “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which ties the two medleys of songs together. When the horns return again to bring the song back to its own identity, its as if the effect of that horn interruption is doubled.
“The End” is an exciting bit: while it is a clear transition from “Carry That Weight”, it manages to include a pounding opener from Ringo that is answered by a brief guitar riff, leads to another fill from him, one line sung by Paul and then a really, really great solo from Ringo, despite his distaste for them (ever the one to bow to group needs). The song comes back, and then we get a real treat: the three guitarists trade licks. Paul starts off with the sharp points and bends of a more “normal” guitar solo, George follows with the sliding tones he is known for, and John follows with a chunkier, more distorted blast, and they repeat the process. It feels like a trade off, too, which avoids the frustration (for some, at least) of solos designed purely for the purposes of showing off–it feels too much like them playing off each other. There’s a choral, string-backed, dramatic, ending point then: the point at which “The End” feels like The End, with George slipping in one last solo.
But there’s a brief pause, and we get a sudden chord–but it only leads to Paul and a finger picked guitar, singing for just a very brief time and cut off at the end. And that’s it–in some sense, the chronological end of the Beatles, even if Let It Be was yet to be released.
It’s actually very difficult to name a favourite Beatles album. There are no real clunkers (naysayers about the early years, at one point including myself, just need to listen more), but there’s definitely still a greater magic to the albums from about Rubber Soul onward, where more varied instrumentation and ideas were put into play. I’ve always chosen Abbey Road because there’s nothing off-putting (“Revolution 9”, I’m looking at you, and only you–and possibly “All Together Now”). A lot of the great songs weren’t on albums originally in the UK (“Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Rain”, “Revolution”, etc). Each album has some truly excellent songs, too, so there’s not even that feeling of “Okay, but it doesn’t have anything that great…” Other than my admitted cop-out (that I base the decision almost exclusively on “Here Comes the Sun”, which is no way to do this), there’s just a nice variety here, and one that doesn’t go on too long, that has some new and interesting elements, without letting those control everything. It’s a weak explanation, but does it really matter? The point is you can’t narrow it down to one album anyway. Picking one is just a waste of time, as you’d have to watch so much great stuff fall away as you drew it away from the others, you’d start fretting and place it back, and try to repair your little garden of Beatles–don’t really want anything missing, want it all in nice, neat shape with everything in place.
Is that a cheat? Maybe. But it’s the actual truth–it’s like when you ask me my favourite colour. If I’m bored or distracted, I will tell you orange (which apparently makes me weird; it seems that is oft-considered an ugly or terrible colour, I’ve slowly gathered). If I’m feeling sarcastic or overly honest, I just cheat. Indeed, I’ll often tell you my favourite colour is “iridescent”, which isn’t a colour at all. But, if you get something iridescent (often the aim of “favourite colour” questions), you end up with something that displays all the colours in some fashion. So, it’s a cheat, but a sort of honest one–as it gets to the reality of it: it’s a “puppet” favourite. There isn’t a real one in place, at least, not one with the kind of “power” a favourite really has. I feel as though I should make some snarky comment tying that thought into the ending–“Her Majesty”–but I can’t place one. Feel free to create your own.
■ ■ ■ 
Oh, and if you’re curious, those two favourite Beatles/George songs are “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song”. They only appeared on the Yellow Submarine songtrack. I’d blame that movie–which I absolutely love–for this, but those are not segments I like most at all. Indeed, I have a bad habit of wandering away from the ending where “It’s All Too Much” appears. There’s just something about, more than anything, that wailing distortion and that organ riff, and my love for organs is no secret. Which, for those familiar, should make “Only a Northern Song” no kind of surprise, actually.

Day Nineteen: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brother Records/Reprise Records ■  2MS 2083

Released May 16, 1966
[This release: 1972]
Produced by Brian Wilson

“This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That’s Not Me
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day
  6. Let’s Go Away for a While
  7. Sloop John B
  1. God Only Knows
  2. I Know There’s an Answer
  3. Here Today
  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
  5. Pet Sounds
  6. Caroline, No

When I initially put the selection of Beach Boys records I own up to a vote(on vinyl, though the CD set is actually not much different), I debated listing this one as it physically presents itself. Those familiar with the album may notice (probably immediately) that the cover looks a bit strange. Truth is, this is actually a compiled double album, paired with Carl & the Passions – So Tough. It’s a weird looking thing, and one I own as yet another of the doubled (in the case of Pet Sounds, I think tripled or more, really) records my dad let me take. I’d call it the “crown jewel” of that set, but there are albums I like more personally (including my other Beach Boys record, Surf’s Up), but as something to blurt out at others it sounds more like it validates my taste and knowledge.

That said, this is probably the one classic album I own on vinyl that I’m in a bad position to write on. The poll that is still running on the Beatles as of writing indicates my limited selection of their material on vinyl–certainly, it includes their oft-considered best by those who stop and measure (rather than responding by reflex), but it doesn’t include the iconic, name-drop title (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), so there’s a certain measure less pressure. More to the point, that alleged best is also my favourite, so, much along the lines of Pink Floyd, I’m a bit more at ease dealing with it (the equivalent there, if you’re wondering, is Wish You Were Here–less an icon, more a qualified work. Depending on who you ask, of course). Here, I’m in territory I regard similarly to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: albums whose reputations precede them, and who have been so automatically doled out to responses to “What is the best album…” that the question doesn’t even need to be finished. For those bands? For rock music? Some people just list those because it’s “the answer”, some because they sincerely believe it and can explain it, and a handful reject it out of hand primarily because some people do the first.

I don’t much like dealing with albums like these publicly: it puts me in the position of having to establish a clear opinion–which means detangling and cropping off the influence of reputation and the opinion bluffs of those who feel the need to automatically bring the public impression of their taste to the same level, and finally that of those who emphatically feel the need to reject it simply to prove the “honesty” of their opinions. I make a show of acting nervous or intimidated by writing about something written about a million times before, but I’m not writing this for money, so it isn’t as if I need to justify the cost to those who paid. More than anything, I don’t like the segment of that which means I have to tell you something that isn’t obvious. I have a lot of leeway with obscure or semi-obscure items, as the unfamiliar will have nothing to attach to it anyway, and the familiar will be looking for the familiar to find common ground (or to argue against it).

In this case, I’m also left with the opinions of Sir Paul McCartney, of Sir George Martin, in attempting to address an album widely considered one of the most ground-breaking and influential of all time. A response to Rubber Soul and the inspiration for the album I just mentioned three times above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thought in some ways to have been handed by the torch from Rubber Soul–itself given an infusion by the work of Bob Dylan–to carry the music industry out of the 45rpm single market and into the embrace of the 33 1/3 album approach. Those are some long shadows.

But that’s the reason I poll when I can: it means I don’t get to just dodge this, it means I don’t get to run off and happily talk about Surf’s Up and never have to nail down and clarify any thoughts I had, have, or will have about Pet Sounds. Or, it means everyone’s tired of hearing about Pet Sounds and I shouldn’t–if I weren’t directed–try to challenge myself. I know some people aimed for Surf’s Up (it was relatively close!) out of a personal affection, and some because it’s “not Pet Sounds“, in effect. So that’s where we ended up: more wanted to hear my thoughts–or torture me, perhaps–on Pet Sounds. I will do my best to live up, not to the reputation of the album or writing around it, but to be clear and as thoughtful as I can. I have notes (which I only occasionally take) as well as the information I have lingering around already–the Pet Sounds Sessions box set (with liner notes) and the 40th Anniversary stereo/mono dual release (in effect, I own about  6-7 versions of the album, counting the instrumental and vocal-only tracks on the box). Not so that I can just regurgitate Brian’s commentary or that of paid writers who got there first, but so that I can be most accurate regarding instrumentation and techniques involved in creating sounds, moods, tones, and atmospheres that I identify.

Beginning an album with a song that would become a single (though it started as a B-side to “God Only Knows”) was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s, but the totality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, particularly its intro, is still a sort of odd move. The sound of that opening (which apparently no one can confirm the instrumental identity of) that sounds rather like a harp is distinct and recognizable, but suggests nothing of the sounds one expects from the Beach Boys, the song that follows it, or the genre as a whole. Hal Blaine’s lone drum hit shifts the song entirely, and lets the intro fade quickly away, with Brian immediately launching into the chorus with his voice at full power, and the whole band (of session musicians–many with tens of thousands of credits under their belts at this point, and I mean individually) backs him for the rest, with Al, Dennis, Carl, and Mike assisting primarily with Mike taking over for the bridge. It’s a full, powerful song, using accordions, saxophones, mandolins, piano, organ and a variety of more expected instruments to chug along with a kind of energy that does not represent a large chunk of the album. It slows partway through, for just a brief time, which is quite unusual for an earlier pop album, at least in so distinct and constructed a way.

The energy that keeps “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” moving at such a quick clip (a lot if it driven by the accordions) is left behind almost entirely for “You Still Believe in Me”, though the intro is somewhat reminiscent of that song’s own introduction–even down to the bizarre methodology used to achieve the singular instrumental backing for a humming vocalization that seems to reverberate just slightly, but ethereally: album co-writer Tony Asher says one of them was left to crawl into a piano to pluck the strings, while another sat at it to let the notes ring.  As the song proper starts, we’re at a much slower pace than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Brian’s vocal is given a great deal more space: the song is more intimate, more personal. The backing is no less complex, with timpani and harpsichord accompanying the far more expected bass guitar. Backing vocals primarily define the repetition of the song’s title alone, which is useful as it allows for Brian’s “I wanna cry” to take its looping shape as an isolated voice. There are strange touches that hint at its place in psychedelia in this track, too: bike horns and bells seem to drop in from nowhere in particular–not incongruous, yet startlingly odd at the same time.

Brian abstains from lead vocal only a few times on the album, but the first is on “That’s Not Me”, where his cousin Mike Love takes over, the tempo fittingly speeding up (as Mike Love is generally more aligned with the lighter surf songs of the group, which are generally uptempo in line with their “fun” nature). Brian Wilson’s opening on the organ eventually becomes notes that are just held for long periods of time, creating a hum in the background. Tambourines set the half-shuffling beat, strangely filling the middle ground of the song, which is primarily percussive and low end behind Mike’s voice. The song is one of the more drug-like and odd, despite being, in some respects, more conventional. The absent middle space, in particular, gives it a slightly weird feeling.

It’s almost like we have “You Still Believe in Me” Part 2 when “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” comes following in, as Brian returns to lead vocals. The song is slower, sadder, and has the first appearance of strong strings. It’s sweetly sad, though: obviously Brian is addressing someone in pain, but is offering consolation and hope. He asks the listener to listen to his heart beat–and for just a moment, the bass emulates a heartbeat. The bass thrums underneath it all even outside that moment, but the song has a comfortable embrace: it’s spacious, but not cold and filled with empty parts.

Giving the impression of alternating tones, “I’m Waiting for the Day” brings the tempo back up, with the curious choice of a percussive intro, though the use of timpanis gives a bit of variation in pitch, snare hits tweaking the sound just enough to kickstart the song, as if they are the turns of a key to start an engine. And when that engine starts, it’s with an organ’s keys slid across and then hit lightly but rapidly, the melody actually briefly introduced by flutes, but then taken over by violins as Brian begins to sing the verses–acknowledging the hurt of someone abandoned that he is attempting to bring solace to. “I’m waiting for the day that you can love again”, he sings, and the song jumps upward, as does his voice, which takes on a slightly harder edge, though an edge denoting determination rather than threat. The backing vocals–all Brian–move around each other for another of the drums’ moments of not only emphasis, but actual appearance: most of the track is absent the drum kit, though the timpanis do have a relatively strong presence through much of it. A last hushed lead up to “..when you can love again”, gives us a pretty string outro, but the drums don’t seem to want this to happen, and bring the organ, the backing Brians and timpanis back for him to repeat, “You didn’t think/That I could sit around and let you go”, which has that determined, self-confident edge as it fades out.

There are two instrumental tracks on the record, and the first is “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, which would be the end of side one, were it not for the decision to include a studio-unrelated recording (“Sloop John B”). Julius Wechter mans the vibraphones and defines the majority of the track as a result, which builds on a sound only they can provide: both percussive and gentle, melodic and curved but distinct. There are numerous instruments layered behind them, especially a piano that gradually takes over and brings horns with it, a drum fill bringing the song back down to a hush, but one that cannot keep down the string section, which builds the song back to horns, which only build more, to a seemingly unified note, then isolate themselves. A brief appearance from what I believe are temple blocks–echoing in the background behind the vibraphone, the overdubbed strings only gently drawn in the background, but a faux-steel guitar (apparently a Coke bottle on the strings) gives a bit of a rounding to the edges of the song, with more familiar guitars given their place, too. The intermittent drumming that crops up on the album appears again, marking separations in the piece to great effect–the absence of the drums previously is emphasized, yet so is the actual appearance. It’s really a great piece–no surprise Brian is most proud of this one.

The only cover on the album, “Sloop John B” was recorded long before the primary Pet Sounds Sessions, but doesn’t feel as out of place as rumours that it was jammed in suggest (evidence suggests this was actually not the case). The song was a traditional folk one, an arena with which Al Jardine (the only non-family in the original Beach Boys) was most familiar. A metronomic tapping and glockenspiel descends into Brian’s vocal, and slowly other instruments join up, a guitar, a bass, drums briefly, and then more steadily, another voice (Mike Love’s) comes in for the bridge and the chorus, after which, the backing vocals appear briefly in non-verbal form, and by the next chorus, the drums are regular and consistent, all the voices are joined in, enough that the instrumentation disappears entirely for a brief a cappella moment. The drums finally make up for lost time and pound every beat as the song fades, along with Side One.

A huge single for the group, “God Only Knows” opens the second side with French horns and keys, with a bass line linking it to the first verse, where we get to hear Brian’s brother Carl sing lead for the first time on the album. A simpler, wood block/temple block rhythm backs the verses, though a deeper rhythm transitions it to the next verse. When Carl gets to the title of the song, there’s a curious moment as the rhythm is broken and chopped from the steady beat it used previously, quite staccato but for a brief fill on the drums. Backing vocals that flit around each other converge and pitch upward to Carl’s repetition of the title that leads to the second verse. Later the voices of Brian and Mike are recognizable in alternating vocalizations of the title that start a beat off from each other and begin to spiral together, emphasizing the sentiment of the song in general: it’s a bit sad, but with a warmth and brightness at the core–who knows what the singer would be without the addressee, but they are both there right now.

At one point, we might have had “Hang on to Your Ego” next, but the title was changed and we’re instead left with “I Know There’s an Answer”. It’s centered around an intro of mutliple key instruments that lean into their parts, but a buzzing of baritone and tenor saxophones hovers in the background, with the rhythm defined by a tambourine. Any attempt to listen closely only reveals that it’s nearly impossible to pick through all the layers. The choice of baritone saxophone for the solo, backed by banjo is beyond peculiar, and slants the song in a way that a number of songs on the album turn: somewhere that is, on the surface, comforting pop, but something else alongside it.

“It starts with just a little glance now/Right away you’re thinking about romance now” begins “Here Today”, keys pounding rhythm and slowly transitioning melody under Mike Love’s voice, drums and tambourine pounding down each beat as the song moves in, his voice rising slightly and getting somewhat faster paced, until it all falls back down, and the pounding heart of new love is brought back to reality with the reminder: “You’ve got to keep in mind/Love is here today/And it’s gone tomorrow”.

I will forever associate the next song with my best friend in high school and college, who was getting into 1960s music when we lived together, and spent a while with the Beach Boys before I ever did–I could name at least a handful of peculiar injokes we ended up with, but few would make sense to anyone else. Still, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is a track that I think of him referencing the phrase a few times, and so the part that sticks strongest remains the title’s appearance in the lyrics. It’s odd, as it seemed that my friend meant the phrase in the reverse–being born too late, not early–and that moment is out of character, tonally, for the rest of the song. The song is light and airy at first, but there’s an odd temple block construction, and a backing of “Oohs” that seems almost as if it’s mocking or out of step (or rather, pitch) with Brian’s vocal. They even get to share the spotlight without any backing for a moment–it’s hard to tell what feels (quite deliberately) mismatched there: are the backing vocals sadder? Are they just significantly lower? Not harmonized? And then you hear a higher, modulating voice–but it’s not, and that rapidly becomes apparent: it’s the infamous theremin that Brian later made such famous usage of in “Good Vibrations”.

As a title track, “Pet Sounds” is weird. As a track on this album, despite the matching titles, “Pet Sounds” is weird. Ratcheting percussion launches it, hints of guitar that are distorted as if some force has knocked them silly appear, before a lightly wavering guitar line takes control of the piece, horns subtly building it up, but all of them stopped short for a moment. When it returns, the horns push again, seeming to attempt to take control away from the rather “castaway” guitar sound, bongos and tons of other instruments wandering in and out, until one baritone saxophone bleats out the noise that introduces the first large crescendo that comes to define the latter half of the piece.

“Caroline, No” is not necessarily the expected favourite, but it is indeed Brian’s favourite track from the album. A very dry tambourine defines the beat of the song, but is fleshed out with an organ line and Brian’s double-tracked vocals. A lone drum beat echoes at the start of each measure, as Brian pines for a girl who broke his heart. Woodwinds (primarily bass flutes) repeat the melody after Brian’s last vocalization of it, with light accents from the vibraphone we thought we’d heard the last of, until it all fades away. And then it fades back in, but not with the music we know: it’s the ringing bell and whistle of an oncoming train, dogs barking and finally that train passing, rattling the tracks and heading off into the distance amid the last barks of those dogs.

I find it no less difficult now to talk about this album: I found nooks and crannies I’d not heard, I gathered a lot of the elements that bring it lasting respect that I had taken for granted previously, but I’m still left with a central dilemma: how do you recognize brilliance after it is already labelled as such? Can you? Is there some element of self-fulfillment or expectation nascent in any attempt to explore or discuss a work so well-regarded? Can you really give it proper context once its context as brilliant has been determined, affirmed and re-affirmed?

I don’t have answers to any of that. I’ve always enjoyed this album, so it’s not exactly the kind of stretch for me that it is to listen to some albums where I have to take time and understand why anyone likes them in the first place. There’s a production sensibility Brian brought to this that I always found unusual, which is the sort of gauzy haze layered over a lot of it. Maybe it’s the way the vocals are mixed, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded–it’s definitely something around the vocals in general. I listened harder this time and was still left wondering. I found new respect–a lot of it–for the instrumental pieces (which might easily be my favourite parts of this album), as well as reaffirmation of my love for Carl Wilson’s voice over the rest. I found new appreciation for the absurdly brilliant craft and layering of the album. That point, that was brought home. The way that each and every part seems to live and last only for the moments it is to be heard, for where it brings the whole of a song to a conclusion, or a feeling–that is something that almost defines the differing listening styles I know best.

My aforementioned best friend, John (inevitably, at least a few people make repeated appearances if I talk about music) has always heard music “separated”, while I’ve always heard it as a whole cloth. If you do either, it’s difficult not to respect this work. Taken as a whole, an astonishing variety of sounds–recognizably different even without detailed listening–never seem to cause any conflict or confusion about the sound or feeling of any song, other than the kind that is inherent to the subject matter present. If you take the same piece and start to dissect it, you suddenly realize just how complicated that generally delightful sound actually is. Some parts fade shortly after others come in, without ever openly advertising that fact. Some are mixed low or off to the side and serve only to lock into their places and smooth out the whole of it all. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of the way this record is put together, its reputation is undoubtedly deserved. It’s full and lush and varied, yet measured and economic, and all the parts both fit and mesh without exception.

Pet Sounds manages, in some way, to simultaneously run into the realms of psychedlia, art rock, even classical music, and simple pop: lyrically, it’s very innocent and sweet, occasionally even naïve, but never uncomfortably so, as it’s supported by the music so artfully. It’s catchy and bright and nice, and sad in the right parts, but it’s also dense and complicated and experimental and unique. It doesn’t show off the latter at all though: experimentation and complication are used in service of the final pop product. That’s not a common thing: usually you end up with something more like I Robot or Tarot Suite where those other elements make themselves known, perhaps even boast of their presence. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing in those instances–at least not intrinsically–but it’s something amazing to witness those things folded in so neatly there are no seams left.

If you don’t respect this album–and I do say “respect”, as opposed to “like”–you would be well advised, if you intend on expressing a stance on it, or music in many senses, to explore and dissect it anyway, to try to see what makes it tick. While occasionally that metaphor is used to emphasize the idea that you might dissect a living animal and be left with none of the soul or life that drives you to find the driving force in the first place, this is more like a watch or a clock: find the parts and separate them out to understand it, but put them back together, wind it up and watch it go–it won’t miss a beat.

  • Next Up: The Beatles – ?

Day Sixteen: The Band – The Band

Capitol Records ■  STAO-132

Released September 22, 1969
Produced by John Simon
Engineered by John Simon and Robbie Robertson
Mixed by Joe Zagarino and Tony May

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Across the Great Divide
  2. Rag Mama Rag
  3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
  4. When You Awake
  5. Up on Cripple Creek
  6. Whispering Pines
  1. Jemima Surrender
  2. Rockin’ Chair
  3. Look Out Cleveland
  4. Jawbone
  5. The Unfaithful Servant
  6. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

Well, I already had the unenviable task of attempting to talk about AC/DC’s Highway to Hell to interrupt my plan to avoid the trap of exhaustive coverage of classic albums, but hard rock is a genre that, as a whole, receives less attention and writing anyway. It’s sort of a niche market, in its way, even as it has achieved a huge level of mainstream, average-listener kind of success. It still hasn’t really encouraged a bunch of writing or the kind of pontification that truly defines “Best Records Ever Recorded” lists and books (even if it shows up in them, it’s not as often with loads of essays behind it). Now, I’m about to hit a slew of trouble, which begins today with being volunteered to discuss the 1969 sophomore effort from The Band, self-titled, and occasionally referred to (apparently!) as the Brown Album (not to be confused with all the other “Brown Albums”–some more ‘official’).

The Band is a peculiar subject: I am often reluctant to talk about them for fear of either being stuck in a “Who’s on First” routine or being subjected to an onslaught of Robbie Robertson hatred. I came to The Band through Robbie Robertson, as I grew up hearing his first few albums a lot in my childhood. I also get confused, sometimes, about the fact that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is often thought of first with The Band, despite “The Weight” remaining their song with the most penetration and familiarity–though, admittedly, it remains a song not as readily identified as being by The Band if asked of a random non-music-obsessed kind of person. Sometimes, I’m left, then, with the notion that I’m some kind of shallow musical luddite when it comes to the band, resistant to the notion that Robertson didn’t write as much as he’s credited with (for the record, a claim I’m not at all strict about, one way or the other, though I’m inclined to think the totality was certainly a group effort, musically). Let’s really just get this out of the way: this is one of those discussions I really don’t want to get into. As much as I think financially Robertson may have taken more credit (and in a way that gave more financial recompense) credit than was earned, I think the endless slamming (at the least, with regard to music) is unwarranted and a result of “baby-with-the-bathwater” mentalities. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?
Moving on then!
As I rarely process artists I’m unfamiliar with in reading beyond names sticking with me, my first exposure to The Band came with their debut, Music from Big Pink, though I rapidly sped through at least the next few (eventually slacking around Cahoots, a stopping point I’ve never successfully reminded myself to restart from) as I had the immediate access to my dad’s own record collection (which is rather robust, insofar as The Band, for instance). I was still in high school, I’d taken a shine to his Robbie Robertson CDs (all four of his then-released albums, including my probable yearlong affair with 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy), and I was often found parsing through his collection for the songs I’d heard on the radio, associating their artists and listening more heavily–often slowly expanding my listening throughout the albums those songs came from. It’s no surprise then, if one puts all the information mentioned together, that I started with Big Pink, as it’s where “The Weight” came from.
For a long time, The Band was semi-ignored in my personal musical canon. It wasn’t a bad album, it wasn’t an okay album, but it wasn’t one I’d feel myself drawn to. Maybe it’s that brown cover with a monochrome picture of the boys looking dour (except Garth Hudson, anyway),¹ I don’t know. I’d often listen to it in my usual digital way: put on the earliest released track I had by an artist, and let it just play on. I’d enjoy it, but I associated it with “The Night…” and “Up on Cripple Creek”, which I had learned were the big singles/songs from it (“Night” was a bigger hit for Joan Baez though, apparently), and I liked them well enough, but not as much as I did “The Weight” or “Tears of Rage” or “This Wheel’s on Fire”. When I bought this copy–as best I can tell, from the original pressing, thus the duct-and-masking-taped-together look, a condition many of my 40+ year old records share–I was in college, and it was The Band, and it was $3. No, it’s not in fantastic condition as a record, either, but it lacks locked grooves, severe noise or any other major distortions. Just lots of nice pop and crackle.
The band (or The Band, or The Band, take your pick, I guess) opens with “Across the Great Divide”, an anticipatory intro of piano, horns and Richard Manuel’s vocal, the music itself seeming to hold itself back, each note beginning with punch, and then it holds, and in comes Rick Danko’s bass and Levon’s drums, with just a bit of organ that grows to layer the background from Garth. The song begins to bounce along, pressing only at the end of each line of the chorus. It has a swinging–I don’t mean swing music, just swinging–sort of feel that is indicative of the atmosphere of the album as a whole.
Rick Danko’s violin (well, let’s be honest: fiddle) intro almos defines “Rag Mama Rag”, and is just achingly perfect in a way that a handful of moments on this album are. The ragtime-y piano from Hudson replaces it, largely for the majority of the song as Levon sings with dragged syllables over the beat he lays down, becoming a big, well, raggedy over the chorus, drawing out “Rag” and singing “mama” quickly. Rick sings a brief bridge, but the latter half of the song is dominated by Hudson’s restlessly wandering fingers.
There’s always been something vaguely uncomfortable to me about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, but something that is captured in a lot of my reaction to certain segments of Southern culture. I’m eternally grateful to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-By Truckers) and Jason Isbell (formerly of the Drive-By Truckers) for helping me to grapple with this (in ways that would take too long to explain here–we can save that for when I get to records from either). I’m always wary of the kind of romanticism about Old Dixie exhibited here, considering associations–I always have been, even as a child. Yet, like Robbie describing the second time he heard “The South will rise again”, saying it touched him, that he heard a “a pain there, a sadness there”. 
The song has all the right elements for the attitude it conveys: Richard Manuel is back on the keys, and brings the song in from the bottom end, a lick used later to return from the chorus to the verses, and rhythmically carries the song along with Danko’s bass, as the song is all about Levon’s vocals and the story he’s telling–whoever wrote the lyrics, there is no doubt whatsoever that Levon is the right singer–which is about the South, and “the winter of ’65/We were hungry/Just barely alive”. He sings as Virgil Caine, who assists the Confederate Army and talks of the final fall of the Confederacy–with pain and sadness, but the respect and (wounded) pride that defines the feeling that lingers. Robertson’s guitar adds just the right upward bend to his moments–mixed somewhere in the middle, rarely in the front–to give that contrast that defines the tone here, but with a strong attack on each note in the chorus–and that chorus! Levon brings a string of rolls in to a chorus that limps like his drumbeat for the song, even as the Band’s collective voices rise to unison for the chorus. And Levon always leads into it perfectly: the verses have his voice following each beat with a syllable, and then holding on the last word before the rolls and voices carry us up into that sorrowful pride.
Whew. I know I didn’t intend to spend any of this blog writing about a single song, and I just mentioned that song is not a favourite of mine–but it’s so damn well put together!
We get a relief from the tension and loss of “The Night…” with Rick Danko’s vocal lead on “When You Awake”. Rick’s voice isn’t the “angelic” sound of Richard Manuel (and that’s a common adjective for him), though Manuel co-wrote (or wrote, or whatever) this song. It does continue the feeling that “Across the Divide” and “Rag Mama Rag” largely establish: we’re listening to a band playing for some sort of town celebration–all the best players in town coming together to jam out some songs for the close of a harvest festival or something of that nature. It’s not the feel of “quaintness”, it’s the feel of uncorrupted musical performance; there’s something intimate and comfortable about the album, that is represented by a cover photo that isn’t carefully arranged (in feeling), and is very “to the point”–it’s like the collected recordings of a group of musicians not out to be recorded musicians. “Field recordings” of stunning quality, but with a few odd touches of clearly studio-required effect.
Now, The Band are masters of the introduction to songs. “Chest Fever” has one of the most amazing organ parts I’ve ever heard, like Garth Hudson is head of his own church, lost in a fever of–but, I digress. “Chest Fever” isn’t on this album, it’s on Music from Big Pink. Now, “Up on Cripple Creek” is on here, and that intro from Levon’s dry and funky drum and Rick’s ridiculously dirty, funky bassline that is perfectly accented by the upward turns of Robertson’s guitar–fantastic stuff. I always forget that, as it is in keeping with the rest of the song, but it lacks the organ and wah-wah’d clavinette (!) of Hudson, Levon’s vocals and the more appropriately upbeat bass of Danko that defines a chorus that rides its chorus happily. It ends with a great lead from Robbie, too, but has never transcended itself successfully enough for my tastes to call it a “favourite”–just a damn good song, and one I can’t blame anyone else for marking a favourite.
Side One is closed out with “Whispering Pines”, which is probably the best song for a side-closer on the album. It has the falsetto-oriented, wavering vocals of Manuel, as well as a whole slew of keys under it–an electric piano from producer John Simon, organ from Hudson, and piano from Manuel himself. It’s one of the more relaxed songs on the album (thus its quality as side-closer). As is often the case, Manuel’s vocal is vaguely ethereal, the wispiest voice of the group.
Side Two opens us off with the most emphatic guitar riff of the album in “Jemima Surrender” (which I have to admit I can’t help but associate with syrup automatically). The riff seems to try to repeat and emphasize it’s point, as if it is restarting as it goes, being played between every few lines of the verse, but it’s let free to give Robertson room to breathe, instrumentally and throw in some great moments. The song shifts briefly for a bridge that sounds just great, led back into the rest of the song by that riff–only now accented by horns. 
And then, unexpectedly, we hit my favourite swath of the album, starting with “Rockin’ Chair”. Levon moves to mandolin, Hudson to accordion, and the song has the flittering, hanging feeling of much music associated with those instruments, which all fades to an isolated set of deliberately notes picked out by Robertson (with just a little tip of the hat from what I think is Hudson’s accordion). John Simon plays tuba under the whole thing, but it’s all about–for me, at least–the chorus: “Oh, to be home again/Down in ole Virginny/With my very best friend/They call him Ragtime Willie”. While the verses are led by Manuel, the chorus is sung by him, Danko and Levon in unison, with a faltering rhythm that gradually moves to a smooth one that holds and seems to drift off into the air. For reasons I honestly can’t quite fathom, I associate the song with a Warren Zevon favourite–“Play It All Night Long”, even if Zevon is, as ever, darker (by a long stride) and speaking of Alabama, not Virginia. Don’t ask me–something just clicks.
“Look Out Cleveland” has another one of those fantastic moments: it begins with a driving piano intro and a guitar riff that just strikes again and again (like some early rock tracks), before Levon comes in riding his cymbal and a sliding bassline from Danko. But then it turns on a drum fill that stops suddenly on a ringing, open version of that guitar chord, Levon’s cymbal ride only gradually coming back up to volume, as his voice calls out, “Look out Cleveland, the storm is coming through/And it’s runnin’ right up on you”, the ringing guitar chord dropping as it strikes on each beat and is let ring. The verses then turn to a more familiar feel of a band let loose, before that chord comes back again, ringing out and letting that chorus seem to slide upward on a gradually increasing curve toward an apex that is actually a plateau. I really cannot say enough about that chorus–just perfectly done.
I often forget “Jawbone”, as it opens on flittering piano that turns into weird, rising unison vocals from Levon and Manuel and turns to a rather steady, piano driven verse. But the music drops and Manuel gets out “I’m a–” alone before the instruments come back to emphasize the next word: “thief,” and follow him for the rest of the line: “and I dig it”, when the bass and keys seem to get stuck and repeat themselves, the rhythm somehow just perfectly emphatic, and then follow him for the rest of the chorus: “I’m up on a beef, I’m gonna rig it/I’m a thief and I dig it”. That chorus, again, is just something. It tightens my chest, like a welling of pride–a moment that I just love, like a high to be chased, without the risks that a lot of highs can bring. It’s held for just the right amount of time and couched in a solid but otherwise unspectacular song. And, good lord, Manuel, the way he sings those lines–like he poured his whole damn soul into them. And then the chorus drops us at the feet of one of the best solos from Robertson on the entire album, one of the few moments he is given the auditory spotlight, before he blends back in for his tasteful tweaks and licks within the song.
“Unfaithful Servant” is another good side closer, relaxed, with paired saxes from Hudson and Manuel–but the only time Hudson plays a soprano, allowed to run with Manuel’s baritone. And damn if that isn’t the best solo from Robertson on the whole album: high, rapid notes that turn slow and sweet and bend at just the right places, eventually just becoming an exquisite set of notes.
But, of course, “Unfaithful Servant” doesn’t close the album. For a moment, it’s a bit strange: we’ve got this uptempo guitar/key riff, but the first bass hit introduces the hushed–but not whispered–voices of Manuel and Helm, and the hushed, half-muted bass and guitar behind them, Levon eventually pushing a splash of cymbal louder and louder, which reminds us how muted everything is, before it lets him drop an actual beat, which gets us right into the funky, guitar-driven song itself. Hudson’s organ seems to take over, but it all hushes again for that chorus: King Harvest has surely come. And somehow that chorus, to me, is like the Band saying, “Okay, we were trying to end there, but we just had to get one more on here. We just had to play more, we couldn’t help ourselves.”
And that’s the feel overall: it’s a group of musicians, not fighting for a group spotlight, or even individual spotlights musically. It’s a group of skilled players gathered and playing loosely but in a pre-determined fashion. I was inclined, originally, to wag my finger at everyone for dumping an album like this on me–especially when Stage Fright is my favourite Band album (largely attributable to the title track, and a closer that reminds me of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” in some ways). That’s really, I guess, the point of doing those polls: while on some level I want to tell people about things they don’t know about, it’s nice to have myself pushed in a direction I might not have gone in. It makes me listen and pay attention and describe something I wasn’t originally going to. And I get to learn something to–and that’s always fun.
  • Next Up: Baroness – Yellow & Green
¹Left to Right: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson

Day Ten: Leon Russell & Marc Benno [The Asylum Choir] – Asylum Choir II

Shelter Records ■  SW-8910
Released November 15, 1971
(Recorded April, 1969, originally intended for release that year)

Produced by Leon Russell and Marc Benno

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sweet Home Chicago
  2. Down on the Base
  3. Hello Little Friend
  4. Salty Candy
  5. Tryin’ to Stay Alive
  1. …Intro to Rita…
  2. Straight Brother
  3. Learn How to Boogie
  4. Ballad for a Soldier
  5. When You Wish upon a Fag
  6. Lady in Waiting

This is basically cheating, in a sense. While Look Inside the Asylum Choir was originally credited to “The Asylum Choir”, though when its cover art changed it was credited to “Leon Russell and Marc Benno” as this album is. Of course, the labels on that release actually still said “Asylum Choir”. Anyway, the point is, this might technically belong in the “R” section of my alphabet, but out of respect to the original album, I keep it in the A’s–sort of a goofy talisman toward eventually pairing it with its sibling-release. Except in the CDs–there I keep it next to the rest of Russell’s solo output. Which is also where I file One for the Road, credited to Leon and Willie Nelson, as well as The Union, his album from two years back with Elton John. Nothing against Elton or Willie, I just like Leon more (most places file them by the other artists, who are more popular).

If you check out that first link I dropped, you’ll find me talking about both Asylum Choir albums a while back. This is the first of my “extensive collection of a single artist” examples, of which more can be found later on in the alphabet, and that is a decent part of why I’ve already talked about it (and Leon on numerous occasions).
The album was actually recorded long before its release and was only tied up for legal reasons that prevented its release at the time. Despite that, it bears far more resemblance to Leon’s solo records (such as his self-titled one from 1970) than it does to the extremely psychedelic and almost Mothers-y¹ sound of Look Inside the Asylum Choir, which was recorded in ’67 and released in ’68. While many groups or acts, particularly those composed of groups of distinct voices often take sophomore releases as cause to expand their session lineups, Benno and Russell continued to just play the entire set with each other and no one else.
“Sweet Home Chicago” and “Down on the Base” are the semi-swampy (odd for an Okie and a Texan!) sound that defines a lot of Leon’s solo work, with soul-based touches like backing vocals that sound like Marc’s voice pitch-shifted to resemble the backing vocals you might hear in some soul work from the same time frame. Marc’s guitar is in fine form on the opener, and is appealingly clear but simple in the followup, finger picked and sliding up and down the neck to the light thump of the bass, as Leon’s vocals and piano keys dominate the song. “Hello Little Friend” is one of the handful of songs with a writing credit solely given to Leon, and is one of those most reminiscent (if you will) of his later solo work.
“Salty Candy” brings us back more to Look Inside territory, with Marc taking over vocal duties for the first half of each voice, with fiddle accents and effect-laden guitar echoing in the back. “Tryin’ to Stay Alive” has a bit of a false start, which Leon seems to be a fan of doing, and has a nice long instrumental intro. The two of them layer background vocals to give the song another soul twist.
Side Two is significantly longer than Side One, (20:08 versus 13:48) and contains the peculiar bit of “studio chatter” that is Leon asking for the preferred feel of two piano riffs from an unidentified female voice–probably Rita Coolidge, if the tracks’s title (“…Intro to Rita…”) is any indicator. She identifies one of the riffs as “Straight Brother”, which the side launches into immediately thereafter. “Straight Brother” is groove oriented, heavy on the low end and pounding on the rhythmic end. “Learn How to Boogie” is almost exactly what you would expect: boogie piano! It dances along happily, with semi-muffled lead bits from Marc on guitar behind it. “Ballad for a Soldier” is somewhat reminiscent of The Association‘s “Requiem for the Masses” in its subject matter, but entirely different in all other respects. The song has Leon’s trademark upbeat, rollicking piano and is told from the point of view of a soldier, who is puffed up by military movies and the idea of heroics, but finds the reality significantly different, intoning the notion that “we haven’t really won/till all the fighting’s done/and there are no more ballads for the soldiers”. 
“When You Wish upon a Fag,” it should relieve many to know, uses the word in the song as follows: “When your bass player’s flat and your drummer drags/I bet you wish you had a fag”. It seems to balance both the risk–starting the song with “Caution may be harmful to your heart and to your health,” and the chorus making it clear that–yeah, man, it’s bad for you, but I could sure go for one right now, as it would be a real relief. “Lady in Waiting” closes the album with a waltzing rhythm, and the last of Russell’s string of solo writing credits (all three songs ending the album). 
As implied by the fact that I own a lot of Leon Russell, this is a really good album. There’s a lot of crossover in feel around this album and Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which was actually released the same year–and not only starts with a song about location (“Stranger in a Strange Land”) but actually has “Home Sweet Oklahoma”, which is about Leon’s actual home and is titled not far away from the opener of this album. If you aren’t familiar, Leon does have a distinct (some say grating) voice, and his accent is far from hidden: “heard” becomes “hoid”, and “candy” has an exaggerated vowel: “caindy”. That appreciation of origin is somewhat unusual, as his sentiments do not reflect those that his home is known for at all, though Leon’s been an openly religious man, at least (which is very much in keeping with the state’s public face)–his politics are somewhat counter. But then, he was a wild-haired, bearded session musician in the 1960s, so perhaps that’s not entirely unexpected.
¹That’s the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s band in the 60s and periodically thereafter.

Day Nine: The Association – Greatest Hits!

Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records ■  WS 1767
Released December, 1968

Produced by Bones Howe [1,2,3,4,5,9,10,12], The Association [7,13], Curt Boetticher [6,11], and Jerry Yester [8]

Side One: Side Two:
  1. The Time It Is Today
  2. Everything That Touches You
  3. Like Always
  4. Never My Love
  5. Requiem for the Masses
  6. Along Comes Mary
  1. Enter the Young
  2. No Fair at All
  3. Time for Livin’
  4. We Love [Us]
  5. Cherish
  6. Windy
  7. Six Man Band

I’ve never understood this about a lot of compilations, particularly in the 1960s: if you’re going to list every single song on the record on the front, why would you list them in an order different from the order they are actually pressed in? I’d almost suspect it’s a matter of graphic design, but “Like Always” kind of goofs up the formatting at the bottom (and “Windy” being placed above “Cherish” would’ve completed the sort of “arrow” shape better). It’s not really even a quibble, just something I find bizarre.

Out of my father’s collection of doubled records (not to be confused with double LPs) from which I previously mentioned drawing I Robot, I also drew this compilation–that might draw a sigh of relief of confusion from those who know of my general opposition to greatest hits, best ofs, and similar packages. Being progressive rock, The Alan Parsons Project, for all that some of their songs achieved some fame, remain somewhat niche in music history. The Association, on the other hand, had a greatest hits compilation after only three years in existence, though in that time they released four albums and 12 singles, with only four of those being non-album A-sides. Of course, this is because all of those singles peaked in the top 100 for the band, including a B-side (“Requiem for the Masses”). Five were top 10, and two of them were #1s (“Cherish” and “Windy”), with one even squeaking into a #2 spot (“Never My Love”). As such, other than a few exceptions that will be incredibly obvious when I get to them, this is probably the most “mainstream” or familiar album I picked up out of that lot.

I’d be inclined to call it odd that I would hazard a guess that The Association are not familiar to a lot of my generation if the name is thrown at them, but if you look back at the pop charts from days gone by, it’s increasingly obvious that a lot of charting music has not stood the test of time, at least with respect to availability and familiarity to new generations. It becomes humourous, sometimes, when people from my generation try to reach back and compare the popular music of now to then and lament the state of modern music, failing to realize the number of artists they are totally unaware of who topped the charts–plenty far, far more obscure than The Association.

If memory serves, my introduction to the band was via a much later compilation my father passed me, though I also picked up, after snagging the stack of records that included Greatest Hits!, their first and third albums (And Then…Along Comes the Association and Insight Out), the latter at the behest of my father visiting my then-employer during a new year clearance sale. I actually sold that copy of Insight Out for an absurd amount of money as an expanded release was announced–though it was a mono one, and my copy was a stereo one (likely the reason its out of print status was able to remain a price-driver). Even with all of that, I didn’t devote a ton of time to the band, as they always struck me as rather slight and somewhat “folky.” That’s not a fair thing to list as cause to avoid or ignore a band, but it has often been cause for me all the same. Perhaps it’s the association (ahem) it draws with the divergence of taste between myself and my father, as well as an overall indicator of some of our philosophical differences: he grew up–in the sense of high school and college–with this music, and has always identified as a pacifist (while he enjoys Die Hard, he notes that the joy of it is “watching Bruce Willis be a smartass” rather than any action setpieces, a sentiment I’m hard-pressed to disagree with), while I’ve grown up in a culture, and with friends, that is more embracing of violence as entertainment, and has a much stronger seed for aggression in music, as I grew up after heavy metal and punk were long established and even hardcore (punk) and extreme metal (death metal, black metal, etc.) were established.

If I really wanted to stand on this narrative, I’d pretend I went in to listen to this album (that isn’t just a strange grammatical construction: I have a room where I keep my records and my stereo, so I literally did “go in” to listen to it) with trepidation, heavy sighs or other indicators that I was not looking forward to it. I didn’t: there’s an excitement in exploring the releases I haven’t taken time to listen to, which is part of what I get out of all of this. There’s usually a surprise and something more interesting to find here that I might never have realized otherwise. It’s also fair to say that there are a few songs I’d be guaranteed to look forward to and enjoy.

The compilation is not constructed in chronological order at all, nor alphabetical or any other obvious order. “The Time It Is Today” opens Side One with a not-unexpected sound for a band often most reasonably referred to as “sunshine pop” (which is basically what it sounds like) and “baroque pop” (which is basically classically inflected pop music, as you also might expect of it), but then Joe Osborn’s bassline comes in and surprises me: it’s distinct and upfront, acting as a bit of a hook with a lovely slide to it that doesn’t feel at all like the kind of folk-y, harmony-oriented band I usually think of them as. Hal Blaine’s drums focus on the rim to keep the bottom end pretty much clear except for Osborn. It’s a vaguely psychedelic track, that matches the rather great album art it was originally released under and that art’s psychedelic vibe. It is a track from 1968, so it makes some sense.

With my ears now perked, we move on to “Everything That Touches You”, which comes from the same album, which is more in line with the sound I think of the band most far: heavy harmonies for much of the vocal work (which is where the “band” is usually present on the albums, rather than the instruments, many of which are the work of session musicians) and some heavy-handed romanticism. This isn’t too surprising, as the song comes from the pen of Terry Kirkman, one of the group’s leaders over the years, who was also responsible for “Cherish”.

“Like Always” is yet another track from Birthday, and it reminds me strongly of some deep cuts from The Lovin’ Spoonful (another 60’s band, most known for tracks like “Nashville Cats”, “Summer in the City”, “Do You Believe in Magic”, and “Daydream”, which is not to be confused with the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”), with a much looser gait, and vocals from Larry Ramos that are reminiscent of the Spoonful’s John Sebastian, descending through each line with only exception per verse. The lyrics (the song was written by Bob Alcivar, Tony Ortega, Larry Ramos) that have a cheerful down-on-his-luck sentiment that is also reminiscent of Sebastian’s songs.

“Never My Love” brings us back to the overbearing romanticism, middle school dance-feeling of “Everything That Touches You” and a number of Association singles from the 60s. It was written by Don and Dick Addrisi, who never had a hit for themselves as big as this one for the Association. The sentiment is simple–“You ask me if there’ll come a time/When I grow tired of you/Never my love/Never my love”, but the Addrisis, I have to say, manage this with greater aplomb than Kirkman (who does far better on his socially conscious tracks, I feel). The tone bounces appropriately: the expression is obviously to an existing lover, but carries a note of pain at doubt alongside it. It’s one of the few tracks with apparent guitar layers. It ends with a pretty great keyboard solo at the end.

The next track is the one my father was most emphatic to me about the quality of when I was pondering the purchase of Insight Out. It ties a bit back into his pacificism, I suppose, in that it’s a metaphorical song about  lost soldiers in the war occurring at the time, as seen through the story of a fallen matador. It’s a rather breath-taking song: it begins with semi-martial drumrolls before multi-layered, church-choral vocals (in Latin, no less) come in quite beautifully, before Kirkman relays the story of the matador, imploring mothers to turn away from life at home to recognize the loss of their sons, with a chorus that first describes the red blood “flowing thin” from the dying matador, the white of his lifeless skin, and the blue of the sky that was “the last thing that was seen by him”. I imagine you can catch the obvious connection there. Balance is an important thing to me, and this song has it: there’s no mistaking the intent of the song, but it holds up as the allegorical matador just as well. The musical hints Kirkman (who wrote the song) worked in are also clever. The martial drum rolls are later met with forlorn horns that bring to mind the image of somber and funereal moments. The song is longer by a full 40 seconds than the next longest track on the compilation–indeed, it was the longest song they released in all those albums and singles to this point.

Now, it would take a lot to follow up that track, and the compiler did his or her job: “Along Comes Mary” is the next song, which is a real corker of an upbeat track, complete with handclaps. It was written by Tandyn Almer, a friend of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, and has lyrics that race to fit into each line until the title of the song comes in to start the chorus, helping to emphasize the sudden change the appearance of Mary brings to the life of the singer (in this case, James Yester). This marks the first appearance on this compilation of a flute as accent to the music, complete with trills.

Side Two opens with another of Kirkman’s more socially conscious tracks, “Enter the Young”, which first marked the opening of the debut album And Then…Along Comes the Association. The song is basically an endorsement of youth written by a man who was 26 at the time, seeming to then reflect a less self-aggrandizing attitude than one might think the sentiment come from, as that seems to imply a generation still rising as he sings. “Enter the young, yeah/Yeah, they’ve learned to think/Enter the young, yeah/More than you think they think/Not only learned to think, but to care/Not only learned to think, but to dare”.

“No Fair at All” is another of the romantically oriented songs, one written by “Along Comes Mary”‘s lead vocalist, James Yester. It sees the return of a prominent woodwind instrument (not a flute, but my ear is not refined enough at identifying them to be more specific) as solo emphasis for the song.

“Time for Livin'” is another Addrisi brothers single, which has a nice thumping bassline, and some nice bendy guitar bits that act as background accent for more triumphant sort of song, a notion emphasized by the prominent horns behind the chorus. The bassline is prominent again, being allowed to bridge the gap from chorus back to verse with just a little bit of solo playing. Ron Giguere (who wrote “The Time It Is Today”) and Larry Ramos share lead vocal duties on this one, and have less standard voices, which I tend to appreciate.

“We Love [Us]” is titled only “We Love” on the actual sleeve and labels for this compilation, but is titled “We Love Us” on Insight Out, from which it is derived. It’s a Ted Bluechel, Jr. song (making it another written by an actual member of The Association), and it’s yet another of the romantically oriented songs–it gets hard not to stack them against each other, as they are all so overblown in their sentiments (“Her laughing, her crying/Her caring, her sharing/Of my life means more to me/Than all the wealth and fame that fortune brings to me”) and generally more familiar arrangements keep them of a kind. Now, this is one that seems to be married to a harpsichord (!) as the melody-carrying instrument, which is a bit unusual–though I might be mistaken about what type of keys we’re talking about exactly.

“Cherish” is Terry Kirkman’s contribution to the “romantic songs” oeuvre for the band, with another vocal-racing chorus that one hopes is just slightly awkward only because of a drive to rhyme: “You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I had told you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you/You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could mold you/Into someone who could cherish me as much as I cherish you”. It’s a lyric that will make some people more uncomfortable than others, but feels most like an attempt to express the kind of feelings many of us experience–the whole song is really about finding a word that is more accurate than “want” or “need” or even “love” to describe the feelings you have for another person. It does really find its feet with the arrangement, which uses bells, chimes, and vocals to match those, as well as a wonderful set of harmonized vocal acrobatics for the ending of the lines “Cherish is the word I use to describe/All the feeling that I have hiding here for you inside”.

The next song brings us back from the rather syrupy end of the Association with Ruthan Friedman’s “Windy”, which actually has a weird second billing on the album cover for Insight Out (which no pedantic folks have turned to call Insight Out/Windy, oddly enough). We see the return of the keys I remain convinced (probably wrongly) are related to harpsichords, as well as more flute. The rhythm, down to the vocal lines, is toe-tapping and catchy, and has some great background harmonies, with the dips and rise of “Who’s..” beginning the repetitions at the end of the song, which begins to break off in multiple directions at the end.

“Six Man Band” ends the release with the single released closest to the album’s own release, having hit the charts in July of 1968, a few months after Birthday was released. It’s a bit of a shocker for the group, with a heavily distorted guitar playing a clear lead throughout the song, with a great lick sliding up and down the neck, and some finger picking to match. By far the most guitar-dominated track on the album, which falls out to close the song and the album. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for it, but I don’t have that information close to hand (or even in easy reach, so far as I can tell).

There are some excellent tunes on here that anyone and everyone should check out, and a few everybody should know, but taking the whole thing in means you’d better have a high tolerance for sweet, naïve romanticism, or else you may require insulin by the end. The stuff doesn’t bother me when done properly (by which I mean generally lending musicality to the affair), so it doesn’t really get to me much here, but it could easily overload plenty of people I know.

Still, make sure to check out “Along Comes Mary” (which I still think should’ve been their biggest single, but only hit #7), “Windy”, and especially “Requiem for the Masses”.

Next Up: The Asylum Choir – Asylum Choir II