Friday, 14 December 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #25: Foreigner - "Double Vision"

Foreigner: Double Vision

Here's a comparison for all the hipsters and the Gen-Y kids: Foreigner are to the late 1970s and 1980s as Nickelback are to the early 21st Century. For a lot of people, they are bland, boring, uninspired, insipid, generic, ordinary, cookie-cutter, and any other adjectives you can think of that hint at a band turning out the same old faceless crap as a number of other similar bands do, designed to sell as many records as possible.

And, like Nickelback, a hell of a lot of people like Foreigner's music. So you think everybody in 1979 was playing "London Calling" and "Unknown Pleasures" in their car and at parties? Buuuuzzzzzzzzz. WRONG! This was the stuff that people were playing then, and it sold millions of copies.

Unlike Nickelback however, Foreigner have moments where they can actually write a good song. They also have a singer who can carry a tune with considerable skill, even if Lou Gramm has a similar hairstyle to Nickelback's awful frontman Chad Kroeger.

I have some history with this record. With hindsight, it marks the time early in 1992 when I should have spent an extra three bucks and purchased Metallica's self titled LP on double vinyl - or something similar that would have some collectors value by now - instead of this from the same half price bin in my local record store. However, for a period, I gave this album a good whack at the time, and really I can't say my opinion of it has improved all that much.

Still, there are some moments here that are worthy of consideration. On most of the tracks, however, the lyrics can, at best, be described as insipid. But, at least in most cases they are carried along by some nice guitar riffs and some soaring vocals from Lou Gramm.

When Gramm steps back from the microphone and lets guitarist Mick Jones (not the Clash guitarist, sadly) have a go, that's when the album takes a nose-dive. Of his two songs here, one is barely passable ("Back Where You Belong") and one is purely execrable ("I've Been Waiting So Long"). Even the formless and pointless instrumental "Tramontane" trumps this pile of crap.

The easy option is to blame commercial, classic rock radio for playing the hell out of "Hot Blooded", but then if the song wasn't so catchy and accessible, they wouldn't play it at all. Despite some of the lyrics being cringeworthy, that guitar riff is classic. I bet you're humming it in your head as you read this.

"Blue Morning, Blue Day" is a lost classic - the layers of sounds, the riff (of course), the interweaving piano and synth lines and descending melody line are moody and broody. "Double Vision" has another great riff, along with "Lonely Children". Both chug along with some compulsion making them worth a listen.

"You're all I Am" has a history with me that I really don't wish to revisit. It is one of the band's earlier attempts at power-ballad grandeur that they would go on to etch into the brains of millions of listeners (some unwillingly!) in the 1980s.

The rest of the tracks I haven't mentioned are ok, but they are really nothing special. They're average slabs of arena-ready rock that don't really stay in your head after they've finished playing.

I class this album as a "stepping stone" onto other things. You can't work out that something sucks until you've got something to compare it to. As one gets older and their tastes develop, one either tends to reflect back on records from the past with rose coloured glasses or with abject horror and embarrassment. I reflect on this album with neither; I thought this was only really a 6 or 7 out of 10 record from the outset. There are songs on here that I genuinely like, but I'm happy to listen to them divorced from the LP they originally belonged to...

The album, via Spotify, is provided below. Have a listen and make up your own mind. Leave me a comment if agree, or don't agree on my assessment of it. Either way, enjoy.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #24: The Kinks - "Lola vs Powerman and the Money-go-Round"

It's amazing the lasting impression some people leave on you. Oftentimes I remember people by their taste in music. Most of the albums in my 100 LPs shortlist I can remember not only time and place where I first heard them, but also who introduced me to it.

Once upon a time I had a high school girlfriend, whose father was Scottish. I've always believed you could learn a lot about a person from their music collection. With that criteria in mind, then ol' Jimmy must have been a nutter* - His taste ranged from Highland accordion sounds of Jimmy Shand through to the Sex Pistols!
* no disrespect intended.

He was an easy bloke to get along with. He loved his music, and that was half the battle won as far as I was concerned. He'd crack me up with his stinging critiques of my then-faves Pearl Jam and Guns n' Roses. He'd regale me with stories of the time he saw The Kinks in Glasgow at the height the "scream" years: when the noise of the hysterical screaming girls was so loud you couldn't hear the band.

Obviously, having seen the band live as a young working man, he'd probably have one or two Kinks records kicking about. Aside from a greatest hits compilation LP, "Lola vs Powerman..." was the one LP of the bands voluminous discography that he had. In the early 90s, Kinks LPs were available but they were not commonly stocked in stores. Even so, this album struck me as an odd and obscure choice. I'd never seen it before in a record shop (not that that means anything), nor had I heard anything from it aside from the two radio singles "Lola" and "Apeman". Looking at it, I thought the front cover looked like crap. Jimmy insisted, as he often did in his thick Glasgow brogue, that it was "brilliant".

It turns out that the man was an astute judge. Upon deeper listening and through further reading, this record really is brilliant. It is rich in sonic detail and scathing in its commentary on the reality of life in the music industry.

The songs, mind you, are also great. You could take a track out here and there and it will still be listenable, but it makes more sense within the concept of the record. A lot of the songs are hints of the stylistic direction the band was to take in the future. Songs like "The Contenders", "Denmark Street" and "A Long Way From Home" have country leanings which would take root in the albums that came immediately after this one, like "Muswell Hillbillies". "Powerman, "Top Of The Pops" and "Rats" are scorching rockers. "The Money-go-round" is a hilarious little music-hall styled track about who gets the spoils of royalties and the like. "Strangers" is a song so beautiful it may just be the best song the band has ever written.

Over time I played this album many, many times since then and even now I still find so much to gain from listening to it. And every time I play it, I still think about when and where I first heard it, who I was with and what we may, or may not, have been doing at the time...

Meanwhile, time goes on, the tape I recorded it on wore out and I bought the CD reissue with bonus tracks. People come and go. Relationships end. I haven't seen Jimmy (or his daughter for that matter) in well over 10 years, but I recently heard through the social media grapevine that he died last year - well before his time, in my view. I present the "Powerman..." LP for your listening pleasure below, in tribute to him.


Kinks, The - Lola vs The Powerman and The Money-Go-Round by David Kowalski on Grooveshark

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Long Forgotten Art of the Mix Tape Pt 2

Around about the year 2000, I was signed up to a e-mailing list (remember those?) for followers of a band I liked at the time.  A member of the mailing list asked for interested people to swap mix tapes with him.  I took the bait and signed on, just to see what would happen.

I sent the first one to this guy.  It was all Australian music - recent stuff on side A, classics on Side B.  He sent one back with an interesting mix but all stuff that was being played on national station Triple J at the time.  I asked a few times for feedback on the first one I sent, and about all I got in return was something like "I've heard most of those songs before.  I really wanna hear some stuff that I've never heard before".

I didn't really get a feel for the kind of music this guy liked.  I really wanted him to give me a clearer indication of whether he liked Side A or Side B of my original tape more, and his tape seemed fairly homogeneous in terms of style and age of music. In general, for the follow up I had very little to go on.

I decided to pick examples of music from the furthest reaches of my collection, where no two songs were alike and the genre would change rapidly from one song to the next without warning.  It was designed to show off the length and breadth of my collection; to give him an example of the direction our compilation conversations could go in.  What you ended up with amounts to something like "The Music Appreciation Lesson From Hell".

Starting with late 1960s funk, we went through 16th Century lute music, surf, Delta Blues, Avant-Jazz, Reggae, Hardcore Punk, Jazz Fusion, African-Funk, Indian Classical, Avant Garde Mouth Music, Prog Rock, Icy Synth explorations, Hick country, 1930s British Pop, Latin Rock and more.

I used a 120 minute cassette.  I recorded all the selections to two Minidiscs (one for each side of the tape), and made the necessary fades, edits and sequence changes on the disks before recording them to tape.  I carefully annotated each song in a letter and sent it off in the post....

...this was the tape that killed the deal.  I never heard back from him.  Either it never reached him, or he listened to it once and freaked out so badly that he would never get in touch again for fear of another insanity-laced sonic barrage.  I've since lost the annotations, but I kept the Mini-discs and later, circa 2005, added bonus tracks and burnt them to CD for my own listening pleasure.

The one thing that we can be sure is that my music collection in 2000 is pretty tame compared to what it is now.  Still, I think it's a pretty impressive feat to make such an eclectic collection and to have it frighten the hell out of people...well, I don't know that for sure, but it sounds good, so I'll stick to it.  I'm sure Henry Rollins would approve.

Here for your appraisal is an online version of that Mix Tape.

Some tracks appear in alternate versions, such as "Survival" by Osibisa, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by Iron Butterfly and "21st Century Schizoid Man" by King Crimson.  One song that originally appears on the tape "El Cielo" by Sky (The band featuring classical guitarist John Williams and Herbie Flowers) doesn't exist on any of the streaming services that I can find, so I have substituted it for a bonus track that I added to my CD copy "Kreuzspiel for Oboe, Bass Clarinet, Piano and Percussion" by Karlheinz Stockhausen.


The Long Forgotten art of the Mix Tape PT 1

Image source: Hometown Hip Hop

At the moment, BBC 6Music is celebrating 50 Years of the Cassette. Also, they presented a nice program on The Disappearing Art of the Mix Tape.

These programs really got me thinking just how much I miss receiving mix tapes, or Mix CDs or mix-minidiscs as much as I miss making them.  They're not wrong in calling the process an art-form.  There is a lot of effort and preparation that goes into making one of them.

In the days of Tape, and Mini-disc for that matter, you had to record all the songs in real time. On tape it wasn't easy to change the order of the songs, so you needed to predetermine the running order before you start.

Oftentimes, you were left with a small amount of tape at the end of each side and you'd hunt high and low to find the perfect short song to fill the gap.  This used to happen to me all the time as I always had a rough idea what I wanted to include and in what order, but I'd create the tape on the fly.

I think of the idea of a mix tape as a personally custom made product for someone whom you have a great deal of respect for.  Indeed, the amount of time spent on creating the perfect selection of songs just for the listening pleasure of that person is, in my view, a wise use of your time.  Then of course, there is the selection of the compilation title, the artwork (if any)...


In the 1980s, the music industry tried to tell us that "Home Taping is killing music".  Dubious legal status aside, personally I think that mix tapes did more good for the music industry than almost anything the industry at large ever did for music - even now.

Mix Tapes were in fact a musical endorsement - or an advertisement, if you will - from a hardcore music fan to someone else.  The selection of music therein was personally chosen for the recipient as the creator thought the music was worthy of a listen.  The added bonus for some people was that they may be exposed to music that they'd probably never listen to otherwise, and with it comes the seal of approval from someone you trust.  That selection of songs would, in many cases, inspire the listener to purchase the music for themselves in an effort to delve deeper into an artists catalog, after having a small taste on a mix tape.  Or, you would hunt down the album especially as the tape would eventually wear out, or even break.

With Mini-disc and CD there is still a lot of thought that goes into the track selection, but the sequence can be fluid, or indeed changed and reset before it is committed permanently to the media.

These days, iTunes, Spotify, Deezer and other streaming services have taken the "media" out of making mix tapes.  You get the same music, and indeed you would get to hear more music and different sorts of music than you would normally, but you don't get the lovingly crafted product in your hands than you would with a mix tape.  It just lacks some of the romance, and the coolness factor.  Plus, you can have an online playlist that goes for many hours at a time.  At least with a tape you were limited to 90 minutes, or 120 if you were really keen.

I've long retired my Mini-disc player and my tape-deck.  I've kept some tapes for posterity, and the devices to play them on, and one day I'll resurrect them for the sake of nostalgia, or for shits and giggles.  Still, it's another form of communication that is being lost amongst the digital shuffle of today's busy online world.  Sure I miss making up tapes for people, but most of my mates and I would have trouble finding enough time to make one properly these days!

C'est la vie, I suppose.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

R.I.P. Dave Brubeck

It is with a heavy heart that today I reflect on the genius that was Dave Brubeck. One day away from his 92nd birthday, he passed away of heart failure on the 5th December 2012. The man had a good innings, to make 91, but it is still sad to think that one of the greats is no longer making music.

Before the hyperbole gets overpowering, let's look at Dave's accomplishments. Probably his biggest accomplishment is that he introduced jazz to many generations of audiences who previously would never have listened to a jazz album. There are a lot of people who know of only one jazz piece and can hum the first few bars flawlessly: that piece is "Take Five".

Dave was derided for most of his early career as being a white-bread version of the real (read: "African American") thing we know as Jazz. He was derided by classical musicians in conservatories for playing Jazz. And yet, he developed a grass-roots following among hip college students by playing ceaseless shows on college campuses. Some colleges went as far as locking up their hallowed grand pianos as they dare not let the fingers of a frivolous jazzman touch the instrument, and they let him have an out-of-tune upright to play on instead. Regardless, his famous Quartet wowed the audiences wherever they played.

Dave also introduced the concept of odd time signatures into Jazz, which was something that had never happened before. Most jazz is played in common time (4/4) or waltz time (3/4). Dave turned a swinging tune in 5/4 ("Take Five") into a top 10 pop hit and a standard in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. He paved the way for later sonic adventurists like The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever to try playing in ambitious time signatures.

He also introduced harmonic and rhythmic ideas from other cultures into his work, thus creating a form of "World Music" before such a term was invented. The classic "Blue Rondo a la Turk" borrows a tune from Mozart and applies a Turkish rhythmic pattern in 9/8 before retreating into a swinging 4/4 section and then back to the hectic rhythms of the first section. It is, to this day, compelling, exciting music that still gives me goosebumps some 20 years after I'd first heard it.

Prior to Brubeck, my image of jazz was of four or five blokes at a market day or a community festival, all dressed identically in straw botas and red-and-white striped shirts all bashing out bland and faceless trad-jazz with no invention to it. Either that, or it was the big-band swing of Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller. Brubeck showed me that jazz was so much more than the done-to-death stylings of Glenn Miller's "In The Mood".

I'd heard "Unsquare Dance" on a retrospective chart-hits style radio show once when I was about 13. I had never anything like it. It's a piece in 7/4, but the rhythmic idea of the piece is so straight forward that it hooks you in immediately. These days pretty much every music student in high school listens to this piece to learn about time signatures, but my first hearing was outside of that environment and it blew my little teenaged mind. Brubeck became the standard by which I'd heard jazz from then on. Anything I could find that had a Brubeck song on it I relentlessly pursued. The more of his work I heard, the more I felt that Jazz was a music worth listening to, and that one just had to find the right strain of it. In my case West Coast Cool, small ensemble, jazz-rock fusion and post-bop were my styles.

I have collected many Brubeck records and all of them are great listens. Not one sounds the same as the next. "Time Out" is obviously the go-to record for anyone curious about his music, but its explicit sequel "Time Further Out" is equally as worthy, and I would advise not listening to one without the other. He has made many other great albums in the form of genre experiments such as:

  • "Dave Digs Disney" where he takes on pieces like "Someday My Prince Will Come"

  • "Gone With The Wind" where he tackles classics from the deep south such as "Camptown Races", "Short'nin Bread" and "Ol' Man River"

  • "Brubeck Plays Brubeck" which is a solo piano album of improvisations around various themes - no doubt this was a major inspiration to the work of Keith Jarrett.

and culture studies on albums such as:

  • "Jazz Impressions of Japan"

  • "Jazz Impressions of Eurasia"

  • "Jazz Impressions of New York"

as well as the copious live albums on college campuses and other odd locations, such as the late 1967 LP "Jackpot" which was recorded with a dubiously tuned piano among the poker machines in a Casino.

Whether I want to be musically stimulated and challenged, or whether I want to be entertained or I want to chill out, Brubeck's work is perfect. There is so much to gain from listening to his work. The world of music, and indeed planet Earth in general, is a better place for his contributions.

Thanks for the music, Dave. May you rest in peace.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

100 LPs Shortlist #23: Stone Temple Pilots - "Tiny Music..."

In defense of the Stone Temple Pilots...

...early in their career they were chided and derided for being a third-rate Pearl Jam knock-off.  This is somewhat true, especially when using their first LP as exhibit A, your honour.  To be fair, the record had a few good moments, but it was largely a pretentious and overwrought affair, as if they were trying too hard to prove a point.  It also contains a track called "Wet My Bed" which in my view is one of the greatest wastes of studio resources ever, but the less said about that, the better.

Their second record, "Purple", blew the band into the stratosphere, and rightly so.  They stripped back their pretentions, lead singer Scott Weiland found the soul in his voice and the De Leo brothers proved themselves able to create timeless riffs and melodies.

Onto album number three, whose full title is the ridiculous "Tiny Music...Songs from The Vatican Gift Shop". Given the widespread reporting of lead singer Weiland's appetite for hard drugs at the time, just from the title you could almost assume this would be a document of a band imploding under a narcotic haze.

What prevents this record from being so is the genius behind the compositions.  Rob and Dean De Leo really shine on this album, with chunky riffs and ever more elastic grooves which make the album so enjoyable.  Of course, Scott's lyrics indicate that an intervention would be forthcoming; his lyrics are so impenetrable I defy anyone to explain what they mean.

After all, what the hell does "So keep your bankroll lottery, eat your salad day deathbed motorcade" actually mean anyway?  One could probably add that to the long list of nonsense pop lyrics along with "Oom-papa-ooh-mow-mow" and "Dah-doo-doo-doo De dah-dah-dah".  Lucky it bounces along throughout "Tripping On A Hole In A Paper Heart" on the back of a cool descending melody and a beautifully crunchy guitar line and a galloping rhythm.

Among its 12 tracks there are two short instrumental throwaways, but the actual songs are killer.  It's all smooth sailing with 6 amazing songs in a row starting at track 2 ("Pop's Love Suicide") and kinda hits the breaks a bit at "Art School Girl" which is the first really odd excursion on the LP.  Its schizoid nature is split between an odd-Bowie-esque pop section, a Noise-pop excursion that would be at home on a My Bloody Valentine LP and a rather empty, dreamy sequence.

The mellow songs on here are revelatory - the warm jazz-inflected tune "And So I Know" is very different from what we normally expect from STP, and "Adhesive" is a stadium anthem in waiting.

Track 12 is "Seven Caged Tigers" and it has the aforementioned "elastic" groove to it.  A mate of mine at the time used to refer to it as "glide" music - to this day I have no idea why.  This could be the ancestor in terms of sound and feel to later mainstream pap like "Cumbersome" by 7Mary3.

The influence of David Bowie on this album is everywhere.  Lyrical references to "Station to Station" as well as borrowing from the Glam stomp of the Ziggy Stardust era are all over this album; none moreso than in the lead single "Big Bang Baby".  You have to get your influence from somewhere, and there are worse places to start than Bowie, I can assure you...

At the time of release, it stood out as being different in its sound and approach.  A lot of lesser bands pilfered the sound and style of this record without actually adding anything of substance to it.  In my view, this is the Pilots high point, and it was the last time they were so thoroughly consistent on an album.

Check out the LP below in Spotify.  Enjoy.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

November 2012 Playlist

It's the first day of the new month. In the northern hemisphere it is the beginning of winter. Down here in Australia it is the first day of summer and it is a hot one!

This means that the latest monthly playlist is now ready to roll. It's perfect for random play, with a healthy mixture of classics, fun tunes, new tunes and the most obscure songs ever.

212 songs, 12 hours of music including but not limited to:

  • an Amusing parody of two distinct bands all at once by Beatallica
  • Classics from Cream, Roy Orbison, Todd Rundgren and Focus
  • Single b-sides from Daddy Cool, Blondie and Kyuss
  • Thrashers to bang your head to by Zeke, Impulse Manslaughter and Sunk Loto
  • Latest release tunes from Soundgarden, Alt-J, Bob Evans and Django Django
  • Stuff to make you smile from the Arrogant Worms, Songs to Wear Pants To and Heywood Banks

and heaps more.

Remember, if it wasn't worth your time, it wouldn't be here.

Check it out and, most of all, Enjoy!