Friday, December 7, 2012

#139: Rolling Stones - Aftermath (1966)

There are two types of good albums, there are graboids (named, of course, after the Tremors movie) or creepers. Graboids grab you off the bat and don't let go, it doesn't matter if you're sitting on top of a tire, on the top of a building, or hiding in your basement - it's gonna getcha. Creepers are albums that you don't necessarily love on your first listen, but the more you listen the more you're sucked in. Graboids are albums you wish you wrote, they are completely up your alley. Creepers, however, force themselves to resonate with you. They have the potential to have more of a lasting impact on the listener because it's (previous to hearing the record) outside the listener's usual spectrum. The Stones are creepers, they're growing on me.

Under My Thumb
This song is not only the best song on the album, it's also symbolically the pinnacle of the record. A lot of the other songs have a similar vibe, but this brings all the parts together perfectly. It's blended so well, it provides a great counter melody with the marimba, I love the riff on the guitars, the melody is phenomenal, and Jagger is really, really starting to grow on me.

Flight 505
The amount of reverb on the piano at the beginning of this track is ridiculous. It makes it so you can hear the rock piano that's going on underneath it, but it doesn't rock - it's a lot more subdued. I adore how much the Stones incorporate the blues, but I particularly love the mesh and blend of rock, pop, and blues. One particular thing I think the Stones improved on this album is the harmonies. They're much more seamless  they're more felt than heard and their placement is spot on.

Out of Time
I love the fact that they're using the marimba so freely on this record. It's by far the best use of a marimba on any rock album I've ever heard. I've always enjoyed the White Stripes "The Nurse", but the Stones keeps the instrument on an even level as the others. The marimba provides such contrast to the guitars and it works much better than I would have ever anticipated. Jagger is one hell of a vocalist, the way he changes the pronunciations of words in order to make the sound more appealing is amazing.

All in all, I really, really enjoyed it. There's not one area in which this album did not greatly improve over the previous albums. The Stones are creepers but 'Aftermath' did grab me a bit. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe this record is a hybrid. Maybe it's a creepoid.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#137: The Mothers of Invention - Freak Out (1966)

The Mothers are a band from California in which Frank Zappa débuted. The band's sound can be classified as progressive rock or experimental rock. In 1970, Zappa formed a different line up, this time with former members of the Turtles. In 1971, a fan shot a flare during a concert and destroyed the band's equipment, burning the casino to the ground. The song "Smoke on the Water" was written about this event. A few weeks later using rented equipment, The Mothers played again but Zappa was injured on stage when a fan pushed him into the orchestral pit below. Unable to tour for a year and a half, Zappa focused on writing and after the hiatus he created a final line up for '73 - '75. This is the second rock double album, after Dylan's Blonde on Blonde.

Who Are the Brain Police?
So far this track has the best vocals on the album. To put it gently, the vocals are a bit rough throughout and I can understand how this type of music has a market - I'm just not part of that target. At many times the vocals feel flat, or off. I can appreciate that they're doing something very different and unique, in fact I applaud it. However, just because something pushes musical boundaries doesn't make it good. To make a very generic point about these reviews: Who the fuck am I? I have no right to judge these musicians who have a billion times more success than I ever will. This is just one simple man's opinion that doesn't matter. That being said, I still don't dig it.

Go Cry On Somebody Else's Shoulder
This track has an old school 50's vibe to it, the harmonies and bass create a very "Earth Angel"-ish type feel. In contrast to the vocals on the previous tracks I love these, they have soul, they have emotion, I can't say enough for them. It's not necessarily better than any 50's tracks, but it's very true, very genuine to it. They add their own particular spin to it and it works. I really enjoyed it.

How Could I Be Such a Fool?
I probably sound like a man who's impossible to please. After the first two tracks the album really changed, I thought the vocals were much better and musically it was a stronger record. Musically the Mothers are very different from their predecessors and I'm sure it set them apart. You can hear hints of other popular bands of the time such as the Byrds. I particularly love the horns on this track, the whole this is good - it's just not quite doing it for me.

All in all, there were other songs I didn't care for (vocally) than the first few (see: Wowie Zowie). I wouldn't be surprised if this album was a big predecessor to punk music. It's not a bad album and I wished I liked it, but I just didn't. There were some flashes of brilliance but just not enough of it. That being said, I'd like to hear more Zappa. There's plenty of talent underneath it all, tons of musical ingenuity. While I may not have enjoyed this particular instance of his music, I'm sure he grew from it and there's plenty of really amazing stuff down the line.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#136: Jessie J - Who You Are (2011)

It's refreshing to see a pop artist who writes their own music. Jessie J got her start as a writer, writing for artists such as Chris Brown and Miley Cyrus (Party in the USA). While neither of those artists are on my radar, I appreciate the fact that Jessie J has her stamp on this record - she's not recreating some else's. What drew me to Jessie J was two things: her song, 'Domino' and how unique she is. Stylistically she sets herself apart from the pack.

Price Tag
I'm still surprised this song didn't do better on the charts. Granted, it was her first chart topper and it débuted at #1, but it's a well crafted, feel good pop song designed to dominate pop radio. It's light, and it's fluff, but it's fun. The lyrics and message are worn out but the music breaths new life into them. It's got a reggae feel to it and regardless how many times you've heard it, it's fun to sing along to. B.O.B. is featured on the track and while I may not listen to rap, he makes me think about reconsidering. Usually rap breaks in pop songs are awful and jarring, however, here's it's natural and fitting.

I wish the entire album was more like this and 'Mama Knows Best'. I love the Maroon 5 type funk guitars and the piano is superb. The piano is sparse, think, and provides a lot of soul. Jessie J has got a set of lungs on her, she's gifted. While at times the album is clearly a "vocal album" where the vocalist is the absolute focus, Jessie J pulls it back on this track (well... for her). She has plenty of moments where she showcases her voice but she doesn't fill every moment with trills and vocal exercises. I think the reason I dislike some of the ad libs so much is because they remind me very much of Mariah Carey. I get it, you can sing really well. The real question is: what's more important, showing off your voice or making sure the song is the best it can be regardless of your talent? 

Now here's a chart that didn't do nearly well enough on the charts, it peaked at #6. This is one of the best pop tracks I've heard in a very, very long time. The guitar rocks, the drums push, and the vocals are incredible. This is the perfect setting for Jessie J's vocals. The feel-good-ish-ness of the track masks the crummy lyrics, but then again who cares? That's the point of pop radio, isn't it? This song is one of my dirty little secrets along with, 'Only Girl in the World' by Rihanna. They're just songs that I have no right to sing along with as loud as I do.

All in all, it's not really my cup of tea. At times her lyrics indicate either arrested development, accidental over generalization, or a desire to reach a very young audience. Then again, she was only 23 when she released this album. After listening to the album, I can say that the image that she portrays is not a façade. Her vocal style is just as unique as her style. There's no doubt she can write an amazing pop song, however, the rest of the album (other than the tracks above) failed to do it for me. A perfect example of it's duality is 'Who's Laughing Now', I absolutely adore the opening - it's unique, fresh, and endearing. However, the rest of the song is cringe worthy. Overall, it may not gel with me at times but she's very honest with who she is and that's something I can get behind.

Monday, December 3, 2012

#135: Paul Revere and the Raiders - Midnight Rider (1966)

At first I started to wonder if Paul Revere had considered the Google ramifications of choosing his name. SO I went to Google only to discover that his given name is 'Paul Revere Dick' and then I thought he made the right choice. 'Paul Revere and Raiders' has a better ring to it than 'Paul Dick and the Raiders'.

I'm not sure what I expected to hear, but wow this guy has a voice on him. It's sultry, soulful, and it rocks. Musically the song vamps a lot but it really allows the focus to stay on Revere. While the song could be redone today and would absolutely rock, it still holds it own all these years later. It's an incredibly solid track. Definitely worth the listen if you've never heard of this group before.

(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone
Paul Revere and the Raiders sound like a mish-mash of several other bands. If I had to pick a band their most similar to, I'd have to choose the Zombies - except these guys rock a little more with a little less focus on harmonies. The album uses excessive vamping and for the most part it's very effective, especially when it kicks into a different phrase. It's good but it doesn't grab me quite like 'Kicks' did.

There She Goes
Now this song uses a ton of harmonies. It's got a very different feel to it, ditching part of the rock for a little more folk. However, it's the vocals that really make the track. I'm a sucker for vocals singing horn parts. Rhythmically and musically it varies a lot more each phrase stands on it's own. It's short, sweet, and to the point but it's also one of the best tracks on the album.

All in all, I fell in love with them on the first track and then slowly fell out of love throughout the album. Don't get me wrong, the album is solid throughout, but the record starts out at the top of the mountain and then slowly descends. I debated taking off points for the voice over at the end (reminded me of the nightmare that was Phil Spector's 'Silent Night') but decided against it. As the vocals stopped, I listened to the music and the harmonies and I realized that taking off points would be childish. Then, moments later, the same voice over started to replay in it's entirety. So I took off two points.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

#134: Jason Mraz - Mr. A-Z (2005)

I decided to review back to back Mraz albums both as a test to see if I enjoy the format better, and more importantly to find the precise moment of growth between albums. I think his first two albums (this being the second) are much more similar to each other than his other records. During the touring of this album, Jason opened for Tracy Chapman, Alanis Morissette, and even a few dates for the stones.

Geek in the Pink
It's laundry day. It's an amazingly fun song. The guitar is smooth yet funky, the bass is dirty and wet, and the rhodes is silky and chill. It's incredibly well produced. There's so much going on and yet it all fits so well. However, as always, it's Mraz's vocals that really push this track. The lyrics are sharp and to the point and they flow perfectly from phrase to phrase. When you think of Mraz what songs do you think of? 'I'm Yours', 'The Remedy', 'I Won't Give Up'? This song will challenge that idea of what Mraz does as a musician. When I think of Mraz, this is the first track I think of. It's a bit left of normal for him but it's also the perfect culmination of all his best traits.

Did You Get My Message?
What an amazing track. I honestly forgot how good this album was. I remember all these songs so vividly and yet I'm still entranced by every moment. The harmonies are both subdued and expertly placed. I'm not huge on duets but Mraz has two of my absolute favorites, this track and 'Lucky'. Then again, this isn't a normal duet. It's has very upbeat, rock feel to it. Mraz is the master of one of the lost arts: good ad libbing. Throughout the album, but particularly on this track from 2:10 - 2:19 showcases just how good of a musician he is. As a listener, I already love the song but this nonsense he sings becomes my favorite part of the track. In writing this review I finally discovered who provides the amazing female vocals, it's none other than the wonderful, talented Rachael Yamagata.

Please Don't Tell Her
One of my absolute favorite Mraz songs. As I get older, I enjoy listening to oddly specific lyrics. It makes the story much more vivid, more real, more believable. He could throw in several lies to spice it up and I wouldn't care a bit. The music is solid and as always the melody is just incredibly well crafted. I enjoy the standard Mraz quick lyrics flowing in and out but the musical emotion on this track is unparalleled to any other on the record. Then after a flurry of specific lyrics you get this absolute universal gem: "Please don't tell her, that I've been meaning to miss her... Because I don't."

All in all, the man simply doesn't get enough credit. Music like this shouldn't be classified as pop, only because in this era pop has a few negative connotations to it. Sure, it's pop - but the musicianship is excellent. Not only are the songs better on this album than his début, it's also incredibly more consistent. The worst tracks on this album still provide a very enjoyable listen.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

#133: The Mamas and the Papas - If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears (1966)

The Mamas and the Papas only recorded from 1965 to 1968 (with a reunion in '71), but during this span they released six albums spawning 11 Top 40 singles. We've all heard "California Dreaming" and many of us have heard, "Monday, Monday" despite our age, but it's the quality of the rest of the album that I'm really excited to hear. I was surprised to read that the album cover had to be adjusted because the original featured a toilet next to the tub and it was considered "indecent". Oh, how the times have changed.

Straight Shooter
What a cool track, it's got this great groove to it and the vocals are locked in. When I think of the Mamas and the Papas this is not what I think of. However, if the rest of the album is similar to this - I'm in for an absolute treat. The bass line is very McCartney-ish, it rocks and flows so incredibly well. I really, really dig the blend of the vocals, they have some moments in the song that's absolutely sweet.

Somebody Groovy
I'm surprised at just how good the Mamas and the Papas are musically. I've always pictured them as a vocal group, but the musicians they have behind them are top notch. John Phillips is the the songwriter for the group and he does an absolutely wonderful job. The record is vibrant and open and the writing is very pop but it also contains a lot of depth.

The 'In' Crowd
A very bluesy type cover ends the album. I admire not only Phillips' song writing but also his ability to pass his ego to the side to do a few cover tracks. He could have just as easily used the original as a ghost song but instead they take a great song and put their own spin on it.

All in all, this album is unique in comparison with it's predecessors. I've got to say that I'm very pleasantly surprised with this record. I didn't expect to hear anything quite this good, now it makes sense why people are still familiar with the Mamas and the Papas name all these years later. While I very much enjoyed each song, they all had their moments that were just incredible: a great bass line, an amazing harmony, or a big hook. Their début album is scary good and I look forward to the next record.