Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Krautrock’

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis

The exploration of my record collection continues.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987) Here’s the moment where everything came together for the Maniacs, and for my money is their finest album. Our Time in Eden sold more copies and had bigger singles but none of that success would have been possible without the creative breakthroughs on In My Tribe. There’s not a bad song on the album. Opener “What’s the Matter Here” so effortless and graceful it takes a few dozen listens to figure out Natale Merchant is singing about child abuse. It’s the perfect balance of poignance without being preachy. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe pops up to provide countermelody vocals on “A Campfire Song.” I believe this is the first time Stipe and Merchant duet on record. Their voices complement each other so well I’ve always longed for a full duets album. Jerome Augustyniak’s percussion arrangement on a cover of Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” gives the song a fresh spin while staying true to the hopeful spirit of the original. The album ends with “Verdi Cries,” an achingly nostalgic look back at a European holiday and the anonymous tourist who played “Aida” every day from his room. Merchant’s wordless chorus and the string arrangement by David Campbell (Beck’s dad) end this perfect album on the perfect note.

The Beach Boys – Ten Years of Harmony (compilation) Contrary to popular perception, the Beach Boys made a tremendous amount of great music after Pet Sounds. Consistent with popular perception, the Beach Boys created several boatloads of embarrassing drek during that same era. Ten Years of Harmony collects the highlights from the 1970s. Not everything here is gold. “It’s a Beautiful Day” is a forced, mawkish attempt of a song that used to roll effortlessly out of the group during their heyday. Despite this misstep, there are enough stellar moments across the two platters to make this an essential addition to any Beach Boys collection. Think of it as a bookend to the stellar Endless Summer compilation. Bonus points to the producers for not tacking on any live versions of their early hits.

Teisco – Musiche de Teisco (compilation) A clerk in a record shop in Seattle recommended this album, so I added it to my pile. Hopefully by now I established that if the price is low and the cover intriguing, I will absolutely take a chance on an album. This is a collection of Italian electronic music recorded between 1975 and 1980. Imagine Pink Floyd as a Krautrock band and you’re pretty close. I have no idea why the covers depicts a person playing guitar when most of the music here is keyboard-based.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971) I went whole-hog when I discovered the Rolling Stones, evangelizing the band as if they were some obscure group. In the midst of this fervor, my family gathered at my grandparents. We were all watching some movie on television when a commercial came on advertising a Stones hit collection. I was mortified to see the song “Bitch” roll across the screen amongst other hits like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” My fear was that some familial authority would connect my newfound love of the band with the distaste of “Bitch” and place the Stones off limit. It seemed like “Bitch” scrolled across the screen three times as often as any other song title. Thankfully, the crisis existed only in my mind and no one said a word.

This anniversary edition of Stick Fingers features two versions of “Bitch.” The one we all know and love is on the first record, while an extended version graces the bonus disc. An extra two minutes of horns grooving over that great Keith Richards guitar riff ain’t a band thing at all. The bonus disc also includes a version of “Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton on slide guitar. The horns are removed from the track to give Slowhand’s snoozy playing more prominence and Mick Jagger’s racist lyrics are pushed up in the mix. Yes, the zipper on the cover works.

TV on the Radio – Return to Cookie Mountain (2006) The last time TV on the Radio performed in Kansas City was almost five years ago to the day. The first time I saw them, in support of this, their third album, was also in March. They always play intense compact sets, around 75 to 80 minutes in length. Return to Cookie Mountain, the album and the tour, were what cemented my TVOTR fandom. Opener “I Was a Lover” sounds like a chopped and screwed version of a My Bloody Valentine track with haunting falsetto vocals over the top. “Wolf Like Me,” a straight-up rock song about turning into a werewolf, sounds like something destined for a budget Halloween album but never fails to get my blood pumping. Having David Bowie sing on “Provence” was the ultimate seal of approval at the time. Now it sounds more like providence.

Steve Earle – Train a Comin’ (1994) Country singer Steve Earle emerged from incarceration with little going for him. After an existence as a songwriter for hire, Earle shot up his chance at mainstream country success with the Nashville machine behind him. An unassuming, acoustic album, Train a Comin’ opens the second chapter of Earle’s career, spurning the muscle of Music Row for a less lucrative but uncompromised existence as a six-string troubadour and songwriter extraordinaire. He’s been releasing an album about every 18 months ever since (and stopping through town almost as frequently).

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) R.E.M.’s third album is an outlier in their catalog. It doesn’t have the jangle or mystique of Murmur and Reckoning, doesn’t punch as hard as Lifes (sic) Rich Pageant and doesn’t have the commercial breakthroughs like Document. But being the odd duck isn’t a bad thing. The album doesn’t pull me in until the second song, “Maps and Legends,” which is followed by “Driver 8,” the big single. The second side is even better, opening with “Can’t Get There from Here” (with punchy horns foreshadowing “Finest Worksong” on Document). Peter Buck’s great guitar line is pushed to the front of the mix on “Green Grow the Rushes,” intentionally burying Michael Stipe’s vocals in the back. “Kohoutek” is a great performance and the acoustic “Wendel Gee” closes things off. Stipe’s lyrics are as inscrutable as ever, so I can’t really tell you what any of these songs are about, but they sound great going by.

Read Full Post »