I’ve been wanting to compile a list of my 100 favorite rock albums of all time to share with ClassicRockMusicBlog.com’s readers and as a guide for possible holiday gift ideas for the music lover in your life. If pressed into a corner, these would be my desert island discs. I’m sure I left something out, but here goes: In no certain order, my favorite 100 albums are:

  1. Bob Dylan and The Band, The Basement Tapes Complete
  2. Bob Dylan, Modern Times
  3. Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol 8
  4. The Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street
  5. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
  6. Neil Young, After The Gold Rush
  7. Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night
  8. Neil Young, On The Beach
  9. Love, Forever Changes
  10.  The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers
  11. Uriah Heep, Demons And Wizards
  12. Focus, Focus 3
  13. Jade Warrior, Last Autumn’s Dream
  14. King Crimson, Starless And Bible Black
  15. King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King
  16. King Crimson, Larks Tongues In Aspic
  17. Pink Floyd, Relics
  18. Genesis, Nursery Cryme
  19. Genesis, Foxtrot
  20. Genesis, Trespass
  21. The Moody Blues, Days Of Future Passed
  22. Rory Gallagher, Photo-Finish
  23. Diesel, Watts In A Tank
  24. Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection
  25. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass
  26. Stu Nunnery, Stu Nunnery
  27. Buffalo Springfield, Again
  28. James Taylor, Mud Slime Slim And The Blue Horizon
  29. Journey, Next
  30. Black Sabbath, Sabotage
  31. Jimmie Spheeris, Isle Of View
  32. Jimmie Spheeris, The Dragon Is Dancing
  33. Richard Thompson, Henry The Human Fly
  34. Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight
  35. Willis Alan Ramsey, Willis Alan Ramsey
  36. Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece
  37. Aerosmith, Rocks
  38. Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti
  39. Jethro Tull, Benefit
  40. Gentle Giant, Gentle Giant
  41. Camel, The Snow Goose
  42. Caravan, In The Land Of Grey And Pink
  43. Gamma, Gamma 2
  44. Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado
  45. Frank Zappa, One Size Fits All
  46. Nazareth, No Mean City
  47. Blue Oyster Cult, Cultosaurus Erectus
  48. Iron Maiden, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son
  49. Savatage, Hall Of The Mountain King
  50. UFO, Obsession
  51. AC/DC, Powerage
  52. Marillion, Marbles
  53. Kansas, Leftoverture
  54. Joni Mitchell, For The Roses
  55. Miles Davis, Bitches Brew
  56. Deep Purple, Purpendicular
  57. Saxon, Power And The Glory
  58. Metal Church, Metal Church
  59. Dio, Holy Diver
  60. Allman Brothers Band, Live Atlanta International Pop Festival
  61. Jackson Browne, Late For The Sky
  62. Bruce Cockburn, Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws
  63. Phish, Rift
  64. Cheap Trick, Rockford
  65. Scorpions, In Trance
  66. Fastway, Fastway
  67. Triumph, Just A Game
  68. Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush, What’s Next
  69. Good Rats, From Rats To Riches
  70. Pat Travers, Putting It Straight
  71. Rush, Permanent Waves
  72. The Jayhawks, Tomorrow The Green Grass
  73. The Zombies, Odessey And Oracle
  74. Big Star, Radio City
  75. Husker Du, Flip Your Wig
  76. Poco, Deliverin’/Crazy Eyes
  77. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Trilogy
  78. Old 97’s, Too Far To Care
  79. Honeydogs, Seen A Ghost
  80. Triumvirat, Spartacus
  81. Strawbs, Grave New World
  82. Fairport Convention, Liege & Lief
  83. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story
  84. Hawk, African Day
  85. The Black Crowes, Lost Crowes
  86. The Black Crowes, Amorica
  87. Thin Lizzy, Black Rose
  88. Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Kate & Anna McGarrigle
  89. Metallica, Ride The Lightning
  90. Blackfoot, Marauder
  91. Nektar, Remember The Future
  92. Kiss, Alive!
  93. Judas Priest, Hell Bent For Leather
  94. Yes, Yessongs
  95. Asia, Asia
  96. Bob Seger System, Mongrel
  97. Gordon Lightfoot, Don Quixote
  98. David Bowie, Low
  99. The Beach Boys, The Smile Sessions
  100. Dead Heroes Club, A Time Of Shadow

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Please consider making a donation to Stu Nunnery’s Kickstarter campaign and share this with your friends.There are 13 days left and the goal has yet to be met. Every dollar counts.  Let’s help a deserving artist get back to making music! Thank you!

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The amazing story of singer/songwriter Stu Nunnery has been well documented here at ClassicRockMusicBlog.com. I first interviewed Stu back in 2008 and again in 2013 when I learned that Stu was planning on making a musical comeback decades after being dealt multiple setbacks. Let’s help him get there. Please visit his Kickstarter page and consider making a donation.

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Tom Verlaine – Dreamtime

by TW on May 5, 2014

Tom Verlaine Dreamtime 300x295 Tom Verlaine   Dreamtime

Tom Verlaine – Dreamtime

The band Television is the dividing line among punk music fans. They are either the “most punk” or “least punk” of the old school, 1970s American artists, depending on what you like about “punk” mainly. To me, Television fits right alongside Talking Heads, and even some of the Ohio groups such as Pere Ubu and Devo, in that they were coming at not just punk, but music in general, from an entirely new direction. While the angular, mechanical rhythms of these groups were once considered an essential element of punk rock, time has dulled the “pogo” influence of that breed of punker, to the point that modern day fans of punk music may likely not consider Television to be a punk band at all! Thankfully, Television’s singer/guitarist, Tom Verlaine has never lived according to labels. After Television’s dissolution in 1978, he embarked on a solo career that’s not really afforded him the respect that should be bestowed on the founding father of a specific genre, however. Much of his catalog is out of print, including what may be his best solo album, his second, 1981’s Dreamtime. Originally released by Warner Brothers, I’ve managed to rustle up a pricey 2008 version on Collector’s Choice that includes no bonus cuts, but does include some reflections from the sessions’ musicians in the CD booklet’s liner notes.

Dreamtime is a clutch of songs that were recorded over two different studio sessions and while contending with a disintegrating batch of tapes. Verlaine’s guests are all familiar to fans of the emerging New York music scene – Patti Smith Group’s Bruce Brody on keyboards, Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, the mighty Fred “Sonic” Smith on bass, and Rich Teeter of The Dictators and Twisted Sister filling in on drums when Daugherty was unavailable. Lead lines and “response” guitars are played by Ritchie Fliegler, who supports Verlaine’s solos and main guitar framework to the tracks. Like much of Verlaine’s solo work, its accomplishments are not revealed through casual listening. Give yourself about 37 or 38 minutes to sit back and dig in in one sitting and here’s what you’ll find.

Lead cut, “There’s A Reason,” featuring Verlaine’s distinctive voice, sort of an even more nervous version of David Byrne’s, includes wave after wave of six-string mutilations. Ears that expect this kind of damage and ferocity to only appear amid squelching, metallic workouts will not know quite to make of this. Verlaine’s avoidance of unnecessary distortion allows for the listener to more easily discern the individual notes and noises he’s spewing, though his virtuosity is unexpected and a bit shocking. The guitar sound is at times only slightly more “dirty” on “Penetration,” which reads lyrically, as many of the best punk songs do, as a song of confused sexuality – not so much in the “who am I gonna do it to” way, but more the “how exactly do I go about doing this” way, instead.   Layer after layer of guitar is applied to the track, all with different effects employed. When Verlaine does opt to add some buzz to the mix, the responsible guitar is precise, and no buzz is left unattended for too very long. He’s merely playing his instrument, and in the unconventional way that’s made him famous. Though occasionally sounding loose, it’s evident that nothing that wasn’t orchestrated made the final cut.

“Always” rocks it out a bit more (Teeter on drums) as Verlaine assumes a delivery similar to Ric Ocasek, using keyboards to lighten the mood, and builds the guitar stack throughout. Later on, “Fragile” may be used as the word to describe Verlaine’s vocals as easily as they describe the mental state of the singer. The guitars chime behind the grandfather clock tick of the rhythm section. The song that’s best regarded by fans and the performers alike is buried as Track 8 on the disc, “A Future In Noise. The guitars shimmer while trying to rebel, but Verlaine beats them back into line, and his interplay with Fliegler recalls some of Marquee Moon’s more thrilling battles.

Dreamtime is a very difficult album to characterize, which is likely why it fell flat despite the frenzy surrounding punk’s popularity during the dawn of the ‘80s. It’s also not a record for the casual fan of, well, anything. It’s one of those albums like David Bowie’s or Lou Reed’s from the same period, which require active involvement from the listener before the genius is revealed. While Verlaine’s lyrics aren’t as impressive as those of the aforementioned artists, it’s his mastery of the guitar that comes to light when we pay the attention he requires of us. If this blog entry didn’t stir up tons of interest, you may want to wait to see if Dreamtime ever becomes available in a more affordable format, as even the reissue is now out of print and sure to set you back at least $30 (if you can find one in playable condition, that is). In any case, don’t let the works of Tom Verlaine slip into obscurity, if you can help it. While not possessing an enormous back catalog, what he has chosen to release remains vital and revelatory.

- Mark Polzin

 

 Tom Verlaine   Dreamtime

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Ozzy Osbourne No Rest For The Wicked 300x300 Ozzy Osbourne   No Rest For The Wicked

Ozzy Osbourne – No Rest For The Wicked

The Prince of Darkness was in a bit of a pickle in 1988. Having released two albums (Bark At The Moon and the abominable The Ultimate Sin) employing the highly underrated Jake E. Lee on lead guitar, and a baffling double live set (Tribute) with material featuring the late Randy Rhoads, all appearances pointed to an unavoidable career downslide. Enter: 21-year old guitar phenom Zakk Wylde, and the rest is history. Produced by the able team of Roy Thomas Baker and Keith Olsen, No Rest For The Wicked marked the point where Ozzy was able to turn his notoriety into superstardom, and I credit that ascendance nearly exclusively to Mr. Wylde. I’ll explain.

Kicking off with the blistering condemnation of televangelist Jimmy Swaggert (among others), “Miracle Man” announces that Ozzy had rounded up not only another collection of solid material, but he had the perfect foil now in tow for his onstage antics. After all, if you’ve reduced your act to soaking the front rows of your audience with squirt guns, you’d better have something for those folks further back, who aren’t devastatingly inebriated, to listen to while you clown around. Although bassist Bob Daisley, whose songwriting is now known to be the secret ingredient to most of Ozzy’s studio albums, was sacked, yet again, by Ozzy’s management (read: Sharon) shortly after the album was recorded, his mighty and inventive riffs contain the guts of the songs and allow Wylde to, well, go wild. The “band” featured on this album is rounded out by the late Randy Castillo on drums, and the venerable John Sinclair (Uriah Heep, Savoy Brown, The Cult, among many others) on keyboards.

The brutality of Wlyde’s playing is something that was lacking in that of his predecessors, Rhoads, Lee, and even Brad Gillis. In fact, his now distinctive style can be said to have, along with the style of Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell, so heavily influenced the playing of heavy metal guitarists that followed in their wake that what we now consider to be “metal” would be an entirely different beast had they not been around. I’d like to put this challenge out to our readers – please let me know if you think Zakk Wylde’s playing is derivative of anyone else’s. I can honestly mark a time in metal history that separates the pre-Wylde guitarists from the post-Wylde. While Wylde credits Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen with showing him the way, his innovations are truly his own, even this early in his career. His music with his own band, Black Label Society, takes this metal onslaught and blends it with elements of southern rock and (to some extent) prog rock in a way that makes the hardiest of bikers stand up and pump their fists. Ponder this while you give “”Devil’s Daughter” a spin. The work-out endured through Wylde’s shredding has to be nearly as difficult as a stint on the weight bench of which he is also fond.

“Crazy Babies” is also found on side one of this ancient cassette tape of mine. I marvel at how Baker and Olsen, though not known for handling extremely heavy albums, are able to give Wylde the room he needs and can also capture his performances in such a crisp and unsullied manner. We should also give them credit for how they’ve recorded Ozzy’s vocals. As his fans realize, his range is not exactly expansive. We’re taken with the character of his delivery, rather than any gymnastics he attempts, and he proves to be his own best harmonizer. Check the backing track on “Breaking All The Rules” for evidence, if you doubt me. It takes some doing to make a choir of Ozzys sound like a choir of Freddie Mercurys, but this is as close as it gets.

Just like we’ve been trained to sit through the credits of the latest big-budget action flicks for “secret hidden bonus content,” you need to do the same when listening to this album. Don’t pay attention to the track listing, or rather; add one more on the end. The extra, “Hero,” appears magically after the blistering “Demon Alcohol” at the record’s end. It’s as fine a song as any that were properly listed on the jacket and label, and features some of Ozzy’s best vocals, but I’m a little confused as to why it was included in this way. It couldn’t even be used as a selling point for a particular format (say, if they left it off of the vinyl, but included it on the cassette to encourage tape sales) because no one but those who bought it knew it was there, and even then, didn’t know its name. I guess Ozzy just works in mysterious ways.

Ozzy Osbourne studio albums can pose a challenge to those without some facts to aid in their purchase. You can’t go wrong with either Blizzard Of Ozz or Diary Of A Madman, which both feature jaw-dropping playing by Randy Rhoads. Bark At The Moon definitely has its moments, but No Rest For The Wicked and No More Tears, both featuring Wylde, are perhaps more consistent collections and present what is considered to be Ozzy’s “classic” sound. Both of these records hold up over the decades, which can’t also be said for The Ultimate Sin, with its hair-metal-with-keyboards sheen ruining the mix. And, after giving a listen, if you find the guitars to be more entrancing than the singing, go track down some Black Label Society to see what Wylde does when given complete control. While it all started here, Wylde has blasted off into other directions since in order to keep BLS fans surprised and entertained as well. Ozzy’s new material since Wylde has left the band? Well, he was on a damn good Black Sabbath album recently…

- Mark Polzin

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Roy Orbison Black White Night 300x300 Roy Orbison   A Black and White Night Live

Roy Orbison and Friends – A Black and White Night Live

I’ve always had a great appreciation for the voice of Roy Orbison.  Yet I, like many my age, didn’t really start to learn more about his music until he’d seen a hearty career resurgence in the few years just prior to his death.  There was no shortage of established musicians eager to contribute in some way to Roy’s return to the spotlight, thus he was involved in several projects that actually didn’t make it into the hands of his fans until after Roy was gone.  One of those projects saw life both before and after Roy’s passing in the form of a television broadcast and later as a live DVD and CD.  I’m talking about the famous Black and White Night Live event, of course, and I thought I’d take an opportunity to chew up some of your bandwidth to tell you about it.

Before traveling with The Wilburys and well before investigating a Mystery Girl, Orbison worked with the illustrious T Bone Burnett on a live showcase of Orbison’s classic repertoire supported by who’s who roster of rockabilly and rock and roll legends.  This single show, captured first for posterity in an HBO/Cinemax event entitled “A Black and White Night,” was taped September 30, 1987, and saw its initial broadcast January 3, 1988.  This was one of Burnett’s first forays into wrangling dozens of musicians together for a specific project, giving him practice for later gigs such as the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis.  Thankfully, Burnett has a knack for keeping artists on task without having the whole affair devolve into some sort of embarrassing, post-award Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “jam,” and he’s easily able to direct the participants to using their talents to pay tribute to the royalty in their presence.

This could have turned into some sort of ego-fest, with each musician trying to outdo the other in their reverence, but luckily that wasn’t the case.  Seeing the list of those involved, that’s a more amazing feat than you’d think.  Aside from Orbison and Burnett on guitars and vocals, the stage was filled with the TCB Band (Elvis Presley’s legendary backing ensemble), featuring the white hot James Burton on guitar, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Jerry Scheff on upright bass, and Ronnie Tutt on drums.  The remaining space was taken by “guest” musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits, as well as Coral Reefer Band alumnus Michael Utley on keyboards, and master percussionist, Alex Acuña.  To attempt to duplicate the splendid vocal arrangements on Orbison’s studio recordings, Burnett employed J. D. Souther, k. d. lang, Steven Soles, Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, and Bonnie Raitt.  If you’ve heard this recording, you know that Burnett and Orbison succeeded, and even exceeded many of the heights attained on those early ‘60s Monument Records sessions.  Let’s give a closer listen to some of the highlights.

First I need to let you know that my CD copy of Black and White Night is the original 1989 Virgin Records release, which differs from the more recent Sony version in its slightly different track list and running order.  That stated, both versions begin with the most perfect set-up for the night’s affair – “Only The Lonely.”  The song exemplifies Orbison’s secret approach to songwriting in that he separates himself from the more “macho” points of view to focus on the heartbroken.  This take is likely the reason that Orbison was so easily able to connect to female fans who found more in common with his search for the proper description of his emotions than with contemporary views of women as not much more than victims of conquest.  This live version really feels like a train set in motion; it’s pretty cool when it first gets rolling, but wait ‘til you see what it’s like when it gets up to speed!  Kudos must especially be given to Souther and Browne for their most complimentary of voices.

A somewhat plodding “Dream Baby” gives the TCB Band an opportunity to strut their stuff.  Scheff’s dusty bottom end lends support to Burton’s weepy fills and a stellar background vocal arrangement (lang, Warnes, and Raitt are fantastic together on the “Sha-la-la-la”s and the “Ah uh-huh”s).  This combo also excels on the widescreen epic “Crying.”  Orbison’s voice is at its most heart-rending above the tropical flavors of Utley and Acuña and the sweeping strings.  If you recall, Orbison’s voice drifts just slightly off-key on the song’s final note of the studio release, but there’s no such problem here.  That’s what 25 years of live performance will do for you – you get better or you get out of the biz – and Orbison is happy to show us how it was meant to be done the first time around.

I remember Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou” so much better than the original, but that just goes to show you I’m a child of the ‘70s, not the ‘60s.  When Orbison took control of his hit once more, he made it his own as much as was possible.  Of course, the arrangement is bigger due to the large cast of participants, but its Orbison’s male perspective that changes our understanding of the tale.  It’s just one more of those songs that future generations will remark upon hearing, “Roy Orbison wrote this one too?”  Roy also hearkens back to his time trying to cash in as a rising rockabilly star before finding fame with his ballads.  “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You” is the album’s best evidence of Roy’s willingness to “rock out” in the way he does it best.  Again, Burton shows his flexibility and mastery over early rock and roll stylings by flexing his rhythm guitar muscle in-between spiky, little solos.

All the Orbison hits you remember are here: “Leah,” “Running Scared,” “It’s Over,” “Oh Pretty Woman,” even “Mean Woman Blues,” “Candy Man,” and “Ooby Dooby” – 16 tracks in all on the Virgin version, 17 on Sony’s.  You’ll want to use this as a launching point for acquiring other Orbison material from this period that you’ve missed, such as Class Of ’55 (1985, featuring Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis),  Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988), and Roy’s own Mystery Girl (1989, now seeing a 25-year anniversary reissue).  Although Black and White Night didn’t see a commercial release until nearly a year after Orbison’s death, it’s the best testament to both his fans’ (famous and otherwise) undying loyalty and also Roy’s own feelings at being loved.  If you’re going to go, go out with a bang, and that’s exactly the way Roy Orbison left us.  If only all musicians had such an opportunity to relive and reinvent their careers before calling it a day.  Black and White Night thus serves as a perfect celebration of the works of one of America’s best pop songwriters, in that it’s not only a deep bow to the past, but a sweeping aside of the stage curtain for a legend with a few more songs left to sing to his audience before saying “Goodnight.”

-Mark Polzin

 

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Jimmy Page Robert Plant Walking Into Clarksdale 300x300 Jimmy Page and Robert Plant   Walking Into Clarksdale

Jimmy Page & Robert Plant – Walking Into Clarksdale

I can’t recall what I had going on when the main songwriters from the band Led Zeppelin, vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, decided to make an attempt at a reunion during the mid- to late ‘90s, but I was obviously not paying attention.  I seem to remember a “rock radio single” or two being released, but I don’t remember hearing anything else from the duo’s only studio album of new material since the 1980 break-up of Zep, 1998’s Walking Into Clarksdale on the Mercury label.  I’m not really lamenting that the reunion didn’t turn into something more full blown, as Robert Plant’s solo material in the years following has been incredible.  But just what was it about this album and its live predecessor, No Quarter that held Plant’s interest briefly, but couldn’t keep him around longer?  Now that I’ve just added Clarksdale to my collection, let’s see if I can’t find some answers.

Re-introducing Page and Plant to the masses begins with one of those “rock radio hits,” “Shining In The Light,” the lead track on the CD.  To my ears, the song fits in well with the Zeppelin catalog, but it’s not some sort of first wave of a heavy metal onslaught.  Those familiar with Zeppelin’s recordings, not just the radio hits, will know that the band had nearly as many acoustic-based numbers as they did rockers.  Therefore, the acoustic guitar setting up the rest of the song does not alienate the converted, but may prevent those looking for the next “Rock and Roll” or “Black Dog” to keep on surfing.  I have a quibble about the drum sound as well.  While it’s next to impossible to find a percussionist that can keep to the metronomic pace set by the late John Bonham, I don’t know why the drums on this song sound as if they were played by a robot with faulty wiring.  We can only blame Page and Plant, who produced the album, or Steve Albini, who engineered the thing, and we can only question their motives.  We can’t fault the performer, the late Michael Lee, because I imagine that he and bassist Charlie Jones were just damned glad to be sitting in with some legends.  Although the rhythm section shares songwriting credits with Page and Plant, I doubt either of the younger musicians was calling too many shots.

The other “rock radio hit” that I’d heard was the highly unusual “Most High,” which shows up as track 6 on the CD.  This song is more interesting than the other single due to Page’s dark and surprising chord changes as well as the Middle Eastern instruments featured alongside the conventional rock sounds.  Think of when you used to hear the song “Kashmir” on the radio, and you found it to be exotic, unnerving, and possibly a bit frightening.  That same vibe is captured with “Most High.”  The musicians just keep on playing, despite producing a song that may be considered to be too noisy to Western ears, and certainly unlike anything being played on the radio in The States.  I don’t know if we’ve now absorbed enough elements of other world cultures that we can’t get as creeped out as we were decades ago, but “Most High” certainly does make its best attempt to unsettle the listener.

The tilted blues via The Cure that comprises the album’s title track is one more good example of how Page and Plant delight in circumventing conventions.  Reminiscent of some of the start-stop cuts on Led Zeppelin’s Presence album; it demonstrates that both Page and Plant felt they had plenty of new ideas to expand upon should they continue on the reunion path.  The song does beg questions, however, and these same questions likely weighed on Plant’s mind as well.  Where can you take this music?  Does it just keep growing and growing until the band has to tour stadiums in order to satisfy the audience?  And does that happen sooner rather than later because this band consists of half of the band (and associated fame of) Led Zeppelin.  With these thoughts staring Plant down, he knew that he’d have to scale everything back until he was once again performing to audiences of a size that felt more comfortable to him.  With Jimmy Page sharing the bill, that was going to be impossible.  You can almost hear those thoughts crossing Plant’s mind as the album wears on.

But the duo does choose to go out on a high note.  The album’s last two cuts are two of the best.  “House Of Love” is another one of those blues askew songs that Page seems to have in limitless supply.  Again, the drums are a little annoying as they approximate an industrial rhythm, and never do start to sound organic before the song ends.  But Page’s cascading changes and Plant’s exploration of his range are two elements that remind us why we’re still interested in hearing what these artists are up to after all those years.  “Sons Of Freedon” gives drummer Lee the break he was waiting for, and the odd, Bonzo-esque rhythm comes blasting out.  Page’s highly unconventional directions and Plant’s ramble without rhythm provide for a “Crunge”-like feel to the track, and leave us excited for anything that may follow.

Unfortunately, there was nothing to follow.  All the money in the world cannot persuade Robert Plant to tour behind the Led Zeppelin banner once more.  And, seriously, why would we want him to?  The style of music that he performs these days is a far cry from the Caligulan excesses trotted around the globe when Led Zeppelin was at their peak.  What he’s doing these days is very engaging, and certainly more heartfelt than the songs he’s being begged to sing again.  I applaud him for not bowing to pressure and refusing to grab the easy paycheck.

Page and Plant’s body of work to this point stands for itself.  We should be thankful that the duo was open-minded enough to give it one last go-round, and that Walking Into Clarksdale is neither an embarrassment, nor a rehash.  On the right day, you might find that some of this material stands well along deep album tracks from Led Zeppelin.  Yet you’ll also realize the obvious, just as did Robert Plant.  You can’t try to maneuver circumstances to replicate the success reached by Led Zeppelin in the 1970s.  That trick is doomed to failure.  Instead, we should kick back and thank the boys for getting it right in the first place all those years ago.  So few bands can even make that claim.  

- Mark Polzin

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Roy Orbison The Monument Singles Collection 1960 1964 300x274 Roy Orbison   The Monument Singles Collection (1960 1964)

Roy Orbison – The Monument Singles Collection (1960 – 1964)

I don’t usually take the time to write about greatest hits packages.  It’s not that I don’t like them, but it’s more like “here are all the songs you might possibly know by this artist” – big deal, not much of a story.  But I’ll make an exception to that rule if there’s something very outstanding about the package.  As I’ve been writing about the legendary Roy Orbison lately, it feels like the right time to tell you about one of those extraordinary packages.  The Monument Singles Collection (1960 – 1964) was released in 2011 on Sony’s Legacy label in celebration of what would have been Roy’s 75th birthday.  A two-CD, one DVD set, it collects Roy’ biggest hits of his career, which coincided with his stint at Fred Foster’s Monument label.  Disc 1 collects all the A-sides from this period, while disc two corrals the B-sides, very orderly and also (mostly) chronologically.  The DVD is a real treat, as it features concert footage of Roy in his heyday (such footage is typically under ownership by European companies), tearing it up in front of a gymnasium full of Dutch fans as presented on the television show, Combo on March 25, 1965.  To top it off, the package includes a booklet listing production credits, recording dates, release dates, chart positions, and musician credits for each track.  Let’s dive in and give a closer listen to the material.

As you may know, stereo recordings were in a theoretical development stage in the early ‘60s, so mono recordings were really the only way to go.  There had been problems in trying to adapt mono recordings for stereo systems in the past, which sometimes drastically altered the sound of the mix.  Instead of making that same mistake, Sony presents these recordings in stunning mono!  Flatter than stereo, true, but this is the way we remember these songs to sound, so why mess with perfection?

Disc 1, the A-sides, runs down an incredible list of 20 singles of varying success, all remarkably sung by our hero from Wink, Texas.  Leading off with “Uptown,” the rockin’ country shuffle featuring the unmistakable Floyd Cramer tickling the ivories, we’re reminded that such a string of hits is really only attributed to a few artists in rock history.  Think of “Blue Angel”, where Cramer is joined by another legendary session performer in Boots Randolph, their sax and piano add flourish while Roy takes a breath, the gorgeous string arrangement sighing behind them.  Or the chilling “It’s Over,” Roy’s plea for acceptance of the reality of a lost love.  The song, like so many others by Orbison, allows the listener to paint their own picture of a man on the verge of breaking down, lending cinematic characteristics to pop songs.  While Roy’s penchant for this kind of romantic drama is evident, what’s also on display is the sheer variety of these singles.  From rockabilly to ballads, from up-tempo blues to lusty, sexy lion growls, Roy liked to mix it up, and all of us benefitted from his flexibility, talent, and sense of humor.

Disc 2, the B-sides, is where we really start to learn about this material.  I was unfamiliar with all but a handful of these tunes, so it felt like I was privileged to crack open a vault containing hidden treasures when first giving a listen.  But those wise souls who bought the singles on 45 rpm,  50 or so years ago knew these songs all too well.  Great finds for me include “Here Comes That Song Again,” the flipside to 1960’s “Only The Lonely”.  I often wonder if a coin toss decided which song became the single and which the B-side, because “That Song Again,” with Boots and Floyd and the strings, and similar sad guy lyrics, could have instead climbed to #2 had that coin flipped otherwise.  Dig also Roy’s take on the Gene Pitney swinger “Today’s Teardrops,” originally backing “Blue Angel” in 1960.  Some of the musician credits are missing here, but the song includes wicked, little sax and guitar solos in a very perfectly produced attempt at another hit.

That “Summer Song,” backing the non-charting single “Lana,” in June of ‘61, was not chosen as the A-side is a complete mystery to me.  Roy may have been trying to diversify his output to radio, but “Summer Song” ranks right alongside “It’s Over” and “Crying” when it comes to his brand of big-stringed sadness.  Monument followed the flop quickly with what became a double-sided single in “Crying/Candy Man” later that month.  Both songs remained fixtures of Roy’s live set until his death, and definitively proved that Roy’s B’s were almost as good as his A’s.  A conundrum is found later on the disc in “Distant Drums,” listed as the B-side for both 1961’s “Let The Good Times Roll” and 1963’s “Falling,”  As “Distant Drums” wasn’t recorded until 1963, I question the accuracy of the package’s archivists, but that’s neither here nor there.  It’s a neat song, and I could agree with Monument’s decision to use its military parade through the tropics sound on two different releases, if that’s how it actually happened.

“Only with You,” paired with “Goodnight” in January of 1965 was, I believe, the last single released by Monument.  Roy’s delivery is strong, but I detect that both he and the musicians had fallen victim to formula, hence the single’s failure.  And that may have been what marked the end of the relationship between Orbison and Monument, that it’s damn hard to hop off of the big hit treadmill to walk a different path for a change.  Some spice to the mix could have kept the artist-label bond stronger, but alas, it was not to be.  A couple of other songs to marvel over are found in Roy’s take on the Stephen Foster classic, “Beautiful Dreamer,” the B-side to 1963’s “Pretty Paper.”  This is Roy in full-on crooner mode – a lullaby more gorgeous than the sappiest songs in his catalog.  Roy also made an attempt at popularizing a new dance craze in “The Bug” released alongside 1959’s “Paper Boy.”  Alright, it wasn’t quite up to the standards of “The Twist,” and sounded a heck of a lot like “Splish Splash,” but it’s a fun nugget to unearth.

Lastly, we turn to the DVD content.  Although only 25 minutes in length, Roy and his band crank out 9 songs in that time, and apparently held scores of Dutch teenagers in rapt attention throughout.  This isn’t a full run-through of the set, as it’s edited to list song titles before the performances, and spends quite a bit of time ogling the expressions of the subdued audience.  Understand also that Roy and his band considered themselves to be highly professional, so you won’t see anyone going off the rails and busting into a flaming guitar solo or anything.  The band is tight after playing these songs hundreds of times, and it’s evident that the set didn’t vary from night to night.  With that in mind, it’s pretty damn cool to hear Roy work his way through Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” with such a solid rhythm section behind him.  You can also just about see the goosebumps rising when the band brings it down low during “Dream Baby.”  And Roy won’t leave until he’s brought a chill with a heart-stopping rendition of “It’s Over” and a rousing “Oh, Pretty Woman” with goofy-looking, but vocally sound keyboardist, Bill Dees lending harmonies.

In the 21st Century, this is the way to best enjoy these blasts from the past.  The only way to do it better would be to take your turntable with you in a time machine so you could seek out the original 45s and hear them in the context in which they were released.  Yeah, I’m fresh out of time machines too.  Therefore, you and I can instead thank Sony for presenting so much more than another run of the mill “best of” set.  I think I’ll go give these another spin, this time in celebration of Roy’s, what would it be, 78th birthday.  Cheers!

-Mark Polzin 

 

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Jethro Tull – Crest Of A Knave

by TW on April 10, 2014

Jethro Tull Crest Of A Knave 300x295 Jethro Tull   Crest Of A Knave

 

Jethro Tull – Crest Of A Knave

I’ve finally added an album to my collection that contains some historical significance for all music fans, not just longtime Tull fans like me.  You see, 1987’s Crest Of A Knave actually won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock or Heavy Metal Performance, defeating the album that was considered a shoe-in, even by the members of Jethro Tull and their record label at the time, Chrysalis, Metallica’s …And Justice For All.  I was big on both records, having recently discovered speed metal and having followed Tull since I was in grade school.  But frankly, in retrospect, there are significant problems with both albums that should have prevented either from receiving Grammy honors.  The better hard rock album of the two is clearly Metallica’s, but that’s because I wouldn’t, even on the angriest of days, consider any of Jethro Tull’s albums to be “hard rock,” and definitely not “heavy metal.”  So, what makes this record historically significant is that it’s Exhibit A that the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences is a complete pile of crap and they don’t really take on the responsibilities that you’d expect an organization wielding such a name to assume.  They want to tell you which records are the best, but they don’t really even care.  Taste is subjective, so make your own judgments, and ignore the Grammys.  If you’re going to buy Jethro Tull albums, do it because you like Jethro Tull music, not because they were handed this dubious award.

That being said, Crest Of A Knave is a solid Tull album, fitting comfortably alongside other ‘80s, synthesizer-driven albums from the group, now consisting of vocalist/flautist/acoustic guitarist, Ian Anderson, lead guitarist, Martin Barre, and bassist, Dave Pegg.  My failure to pick this one up sooner than 2014 is embarrassing, so I’ll try to make amends by offering a more accurate description than the one offered by NARAS.

Starting way back in 1979, Ian Anderson had started toying with the idea of abandoning the name “Jethro Tull,” largely because his own musical ideas were beginning to conflict with what he himself considered to be the band’s sound, and also because the line-up of that band was changing significantly.  Programmable synthesizers seemed to offer a solution for replicating keyboard parts in the live setting for both of the departing keyboardists, but Anderson’s sound experiments led to those synthesizers contributing sounds that were not familiar to longtime Tull fans.  What to do?  Those of us that stuck by the band through this time realize that Anderson just embraced the change, as did the band’s fans, but the group’s widespread appeal began to diminish.  Fair weather fans took a pass.  Nearly a decade on, and following a three-year gap since the previous studio album, Crest Of A Knave was released to mixed reviews.

“Steel Monkey” leads the pack of 10 songs listed on the 2005 EMI CD version, which includes the bonus cut “Part Of The Machine,” not found on the original vinyl.  If you didn’t know this was a Jethro Tull song, that likely wouldn’t be your first guess as “Steel Monkey” gets swinging.  The electronic rhythm track, while gelling nicely with the lower register of Anderson’s voice and Barre’s strangled solos, probably felt very modern at the time, but now just sounds dated.  This kind of update was also applied to contemporaries such as Dire Straits and ZZ Top to similar effect.  Great music was created by all of these artists at this time, but most of the organic pulse was sacrificed in order to do so.  And yet underneath it all are Anderson’s insightful lyrics discussing, of all things, construction workers.  Despite the electronics, Anderson’s charisma permeates and draws us in deeper.

“Farm On The Freeway” follows, and continues Anderson’s preoccupation with American blue collar workers.  This time the focus is on the common landowner’s dilemma.  When the land itself is the single most valuable thing that the famer owns, is it wise to sell in order to increase one’s personal wealth?  Questions of birthright and what constitutes true ownership burrow to the surface amidst Anderson’s recitation of the line, “Now all I got left is a check and a pickup truck.”  This is the kind of writing that has kept Tull fans engaged for decades – outstanding!  The electronics are held in check as well, helping to emphasize the philosophical battle being waged in the protagonist’s mind.  “She Said She Was A Dancer” provides one more example of the way Anderson tames his lyrics to introduce us to fascinating characters that we’ll never hear from again.  This time, two flirting drunks dance around each other, and the truth, over cocktails.  Their conversation reveals only what they’d like uncovered, leaving far more questions than answers as the couple bid their adieu at the song’s end.

“Mountain Men” also starts us down a path of serious reflection, this time about modern warfare.  There was a time, decades and centuries past, when enlisting in Her Royal Majesty’s service was a romantic and adventurous proposition.  But as the world grew smaller, and the lives of its citizens across the globe were shown to be more similar than first believed, we need to ask if that noble service to the crown was truly right.  The song’s protagonist has some nagging doubts as to whether he was actually in service to God and Country, or someone else’s business concerns.

The original release closed with another lyrical topic familiar to Tull fans – a train.  “Raising Steam” draws parallels to a locomotive building energy and someone heading out into the world to accomplish a dangerous set of tasks.  Anderson’s positioning of technology amidst dusty, grimy workers sets the tone, encouraging use of society’s advancements and cautioning us on its cost.

There’s nothing all that exceptional about Crest Of A Knave, aside from the fact that it’s the 16th studio album from a band with a number of excellent studio albums.  Knave will not leave the listener with the same sense of awe that follows exposure to Aqualung, Minstrel In The Gallery, or even the criminally overlooked Songs From The Wood.  In fact, it’s that “woody” sound, accomplished only with the use of acoustic instruments and analog technology, for which Jethro Tull is best remembered.  We can therefore forgive Anderson, Barre, and Pegg for trying something new in an attempt to steer clear of being pigeon-holed.  The performances, lyrics, and vocal delivery will always be excellent, whether given NARAS acknowledgment or not.

- Mark Polzin

 

 

  

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Jesus Christ Superstar

by TW on April 7, 2014

Jesus Christ Superstar 300x300 Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar (1970 Decca Records)

Taking a look at my calendar and then outside…then back to my calendar, and things don’t seem to jibe.  Winter will never end in Wisconsin despite our dreams of a spring thaw.  So, we think warm thoughts and try to remember what spring was all about.  We turn to our record collections for something to take our minds off of the latest snow event.  Let’s see, the next holiday coming up is Easter.  Easter?!?  I’m going to have a tough time finding an album with an Easter theme, but I’ve succeeded, and it’s a cracker!  The season means different things to different people.  To some, it’s the promise of the return of a savior.  To others, it’s ducks, bonnets, bunnies, and plastic grass.  To the unfortunate, it’s a time to stock up on allergy relief medication.  Jesus Christ Superstar is an album that nods to the first group’s version of Easter, which is great because an album’s worth of sneezing or quacking wouldn’t allow for a very favorable review.

21-year old Andrew Lloyd Webber and 25-year old Tim Rice had a brainstorm.  They wanted to create a “rock and roll” musical that told the biblical story of Jesus Christ from the point of view of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  But they didn’t have the funds for a full stage production.  Right!  Jesus…Judas…rock musical.  And these dudes were in their 20s?  It’s all true, including their plan to record the musical as an album in the hopes it would lure funding for a bigger production.  Some pooh-poohed the idea, but who’s laughing now?  Certainly not Webber and Rice’s bankers!  And so it began, the casting and preparation of what could easily have turned out to be a huge waste of time and money.  But they did find folks at Decca Records to be game, and the details began to solidify.

To the fella in our audience that’s wise-cracking about me reviewing a recording of a musical for a classic rock website: Read on, brother!  You’re about to be shocked!  What I mean by that is that the works of the cast and primary musicians on this record are VERY well-known to fans of classic rock.  The album lists their names on the back cover credits, and in the beautiful 28-page libretto included in the record’s original packaging, but only a few of them are easily recognizable.  First up, the role of Christ himself, and this is where you get your first shock, is played by none other than Deep Purple’s eardrum-busting lead vocalist Ian Gillan.  And don’t scoff, Purp fans, this is seriously one of the best things Gillan has ever lent a scream to.  The tale’s villain and observer, Judas, is played by none other than Murray Head (yes, the guy who sang “One Night In Bangkok” for the musical Chess by Tim Rice and Benny and Bjorn from Abba).  Jesus’ companion and confused love interest, Mary Magdalene, is played by Yvonne Elliman, who had a Top 40 hit with a song from the record, the ballad with a double meaning, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.”

So far, the only rocker on board is Gillan.  Read further to find that the part of King Herod is played by Mike D’abo, who was the second fellow to serve as the lead vocalist in the band Manfred Mann, and sang lead on “Mighty Quinn.”  Victor Brox’s turn as Caiaphas is maybe the biggest surprise.  Not only is his performance spectacular and edgy, he was moonlighting from his job as a premier British blues singer, second in popularity (but not delivery) only to John Mayall.  The part of Simon Zealotes brings another surprise as it’s ably handled by Johnny Gustafson, a well-established bass player who’s done stints with the Ian Gillan Band, and Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, but is best remembered for delivering the goods on Roxy Music’s “Love Is The Drug” later in the decade.  The best surprise, as far as the vocalists go, is saved for last.  The part of the High Priest was played by a guy named Paul Raven, which was one of the first stage names used before he became famous (and then very infamous) under the name Gary Glitter.  No kidding.

This was supposed to be a “rock musical,” so alongside the orchestra were a few musicians who knew exactly how to rock out.  There was a core group of musicians featured throughout the recording, as well as dozens of support musicians and background vocalists.  That core group may also be remembered as Joe Cocker’s Grease Band: Neil Hubbard and Henry McCullough on guitars, Bruce Rowland on drums, and Allan Spenner on bass.  Keyboards were provided by Peter Robinson, who’d done work later with Brand X and some Genesis side projects, as well as Bryan Ferry and Stealer’s Wheel.  All in all, their performances are great, despite the inability to improvise on the score.  It’s a bit difficult to pick out exactly who plays what, and that’s further complicated by the laundry list of extras in the studio.  Amongst the better-known are British jazz bassist, Jeff Clyne, future Soft Machine alumnae, Karl Jenkins on piano and John Marshall on drums, and veteran guitarist Chris Spedding.  The “rock” elements sound somewhat dated at times, but quaintly so.  I blame Webber for this, not the musicians, as he seems to have composed in the style of the time, rather than attempting to craft something more timeless.

It’s not really necessary for me to break this record down by specific tracks.  This is a full story, subdivided into 23 segments, which happen to be individual songs.  Much of it won’t make sense when taken out of context, so you’ll really want to listen straight through.  And, don’t worry about needing to be religious in order to understand, or in sensing sacrilege at some of the elements if this story is part of your faith.  One thing that Webber and Rice tried to do, successfully so, is to make the story something that anyone regardless of religious affiliation can appreciate.  Stodgy, old church-goers with an absolute adherence to the precision of ritual weren’t the target audience anyway, and there’s likely none matching that description reading this blog.  This is the story of “the Passion of Christ,” which is probably fairly well-known to even the heathens amongst us (Heathen #1 is the guy typing this blog entry).  No one’s trying to convert anyone to a set of beliefs here; they’re just trying to tell a familiar tale from a different point of view and in a very unique manner.

2012 saw an updated reissue of this album.  I haven’t heard it so that I can make a comparison, so I’m relying on my 1970, double album vinyl copy for the details.  I’m not sure if that re-release was some sort of 42nd anniversary deal, or what, but I’m glad to see that the music is still available and is getting the clean-up treatment.  I do wonder if a younger generation can appreciate the music as I did, but I hope they’ll give it a listen.  Besides, what else are you going to listen to when it’s almost Easter and you want something “seasonal.”  Well, more seasonal than the snow, or ice rain, or wayward polar vortex is making it feel outside, that is. 

-Mark Polzin

 

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