1/17/19 Rush – 2112

Three unrelated events over the past month all tied to this seminal 1976 rock/prog album for me. 

  1. Over Christmas break, my friend Keith Kodish raved to me about a cover of the song “Tears” that the band Alice in Chains had recorded for Rush’s 40th Anniversary re-release of 2112 (Although I’ll likely be deaf, I do hope to live 93 more years so I can buy the holographic –or whatever technology exists in the next century– version that comes out in the year 2112.). I had heard the song before (because I’m a huge fan), but was pleasantly reminded of what a great cover it was.
  2. My coworker Mick, who normally sings cheesy 80s songs by artists like Bryan Adams and Michael McDonald, out of nowhere started singing, “You have entered the twilight zone, beyond this world strange things are known…” from the song “Twilight Zone.” Which I probably don’t have to say, is from the album 2112.
  3. I follow a group on Facebook called “Prog Magazine Readers” which is where old white guys go to complain about how there are no bands as good as early Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson anymore. Most of the posts in the group are a variation of: “Classic Album from (year between 1666-1978): the greatest album ever recorded or an overrated piece of shite? Discuss.” Today, one of these geezers picked Rush’s 2112 as the album to berate.

So, whilst stringing up cable ties to hundreds of video and audio cables at my job, I put on 2112, for, likely the 2112th time.

It’s not even in the top 3 of my favorite Rush albums. But goddamn if listening to it this afternoon didn’t make my day about 2112% better. If you were to force me to rank my favorite Rush albums right this second (and even the second you are reading this), I would have to push 2112 up to the top 3. Anyone who says their top 3 albums are always the same, that this highly subjective listing isn’t as variable as the weather, is either a liar, lives in a bubble or is simply a rigid, unfeeling human.

What I love about 2112, is that the album is a microcosm of everything that Rush has recorded. There’s the epic, 20-minute title track, synonymous with so many prog-rock concept albums (some might use the word bloat – I’m not one of them). Then, on side 2 (or the rest of the album, to the CD/streaming crowd), we get a wide range of fairly short songs, touching on a variety of musical genres.  In fact, of the five songs on side B, none is longer than 4 minutes. I don’t think Rush ever recorded an album before or since with 5 songs that brief.

It’s side B that, in my opinion, brings 2112 to the top tier of their recorded output. “A Passage to Bangkok” is a catchy, Asian-tinged rock song that celebrates all the cities of the world that offer the best weed. “The Twilight Zone” is a mid-tempo, slightly-creepy, ode to the classic TV series. It reminds me a bit of Blue Oyster Cult, if you take out Geddy Lee’s high-pitched (some might say screechy – I’m not one of them) vocals. “Lessons” is a sweet, acoustic tune, one of only a few ever written by guitarist Alex Lifeson, about, well, learning lessons. “Tears” which I mentioned above, is the first true ballad and love song Rush would record in their oeuvre. And the side ends with a future crowd favorite, “Something For Nothing,” a classic, hard-rocking song about a topic that gets repeated attention on most every album since: freewill and taking responsibility for one’s own life.

If you know me, you are probably surprised that it took me 17 days into this project to include Rush. But, really, all I’m doing is following the Signals. (Yes, that is a reference to another Rush album, which is also a top candidate for top 3 Rush albums, as well for receiving the 365 album treatment in a later entry.)

 

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1/16/19 Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light

The 14th Annual Tibet House Benefit Concert2018 had several excellent covers albums where the tributing artist took great, iconic songs and gave them new life, new textures, and in some cases, new meanings.

I wrote about one of these albums here when I talked about Ty Segall’s spectacular Fudge Sandwich album. I could have written about Meshell Ndegeocello’s equally transformative covers album, “Ventriloquism,” instead. I’ll probably just save that one for a couple weeks from now!:) I’ve got tickets to see her perform live in a couple months, so maybe that will be when I write about her fantastic covers of songs by Prince, TLC, Leonard Cohen, Whodini and more.

I could also write about Tribute albums, which are more specialized covers albums, where a single band or artist is given the “I’m not worthy” treatment. Angelique Kidjo’s latest takes this one step further. It’s a song for song remake of a singular album. In this case, that album is Talking Heads’ 1980 classic, Remain in Light.

Remain in Light was famous for taking the Heads’ previous, minimally instrumented sound and filling it up with layers of percussion, horns and other instrumentation. There had been hints at those sounds in earlier Talking Heads albums (Fear of Music especially), but never to the levels that Remain in Light brought.

Angelique Kidjo takes that big band approach and ups it several notches. The angular edges have been rounded and given fuller hips on this version. I don’t want to say she’s shaped it more into a woman, but it’s not inaccurate. Angelique’s vocals and those of her female backup singers give these songs a richer vocal range.

Some songs don’t vary a ton from the original, while others are expanded and rearranged in ways where you sometimes forget what song you are listening to. Not in a bad way, not at all. She makes these songs her own, while honoring the songwriting of the source material. “Once in A Lifetime” is now a massive African party, replete with horns a-plenty and a talking drum solo. “Houses in Motion” takes the original’s dangerous grooves and turns it into a a sexy, sinewy meditation.

I listen to this album and picture David Byrne sitting in his living room, this album playing on his fancy turntable, a glass of zinfandel in his hand, smiling and nodding.

1/15/19 Beulah -The Coast Is Never Clear

beulahSo, I think I’m gonna post links to the albums I mention here when I find them on YouTube. Cause I’m nice like that.

Beulah was my favorite band from approximately 1999-2001.

But I have a hard time explaining why. A lot of it had to do with my life at the time. I had just moved into a nice apartment in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. I had a job I loved filming world music artists performing in concert and in interviews and then got to edit short video profiles using new software from Apple called Final Cut Pro. These videos would be posted to the web and people with more advanced modems could play them back with RealPlayer.

There was a strong alternative pop scene going on at the time. Bands like Cake and Spoon and Belle and Sebastian and Death Cab For Cutie were putting out great records. There was a palpable excitement in the songwriting. Horns were big, but the trumpet seemed to play a main role, featured heavily in both Cake and Beulah.

Beulah had released When Your Heartstrings Break in 1999 and I had thought that was the perfect album. The band had mastered a unique brand of catchy, sing-along melodies with deceptively dark lyrics. It’s a technique as old as the bible, but when done right, which isn’t easy, it hits all the sweet spots.

Cut to two years later. The dot-com bubble has burst. Everyone (especially in the Bay Area) has been laid off. Including me. George W. Bush has become president. And then, on the day Beulah’s third album The Coast is Never Clear is released, 9/11 occurs.

The band had been positioned to break through to the masses. Buzz around the album was widespread. Although a critical darling, Beulah’s particular brand of sunny/sad anthems didn’t fit with the times. But for me, The Coast is Never Clear was the perfect response to the seemingly constant barrage of horribleness in the news. It was saying, “there will always be another hardship to overcome, so appreciate the good times and prepare for the tough times.”

I’m clearly reading too much into it, but it was 18 years ago, so give me some embellishment room. The fact of the matter is that every single song on The Coast is Never Clear is a winner. If I have to pick one favorite, I’d go with “Gene Autry” because of it’s earwormy chorus that goes “everybody drowns, sad and lonely.” You start singing it out loud before you realize you are on a crowded train.

Now that I think of it, this band could have been named I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness.

 

1/14/19 I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Dust

i-love-you-but-ive-chosen-darkness-608x608Around a decade ago I started to add a little something extra when telling my wife how much she means to me.

“I love you,” I would say and she would respond in kind. Then after a second or two I’d get a mischievous look on my face and continue: “But I’ve chosen darkness.”

After the first time, I explained to her that I’d just discovered a new band with the unique name I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness; we both agreed it was an amazing name for a band. I didn’t really know much about them at the time, other than they sounded a bit like The Cure from their late 80s epic, Disintegration period mixed with a bit of Talk Talk. In other words, they straddled the place where goth met cinematic soundscapes. It was dark and brooding, but also lush and uplifting. Just like the qualities their band name evokes.

I had forgotten about them, having not heard anything about the band in a long while. But then, after saying “I love you” to my wife before bed, I said the words “but I’ve chosen darkness,” for the first time in years. And so I looked them up.

The band is from Austin, Texas and they’ve been together since 2001. They only have two albums. The most recent, Dust, was released in 2014. So it makes sense that they’d slipped my radar in recent times. I was pretty sure I never heard Dust, so I added it to my phone and hopped on BART for the commute to work. I was (re)hooked within seconds. The album is intensely hypnotic. Repeating, interlocking guitar lines swirl within each other like braids. A distant blanket of keyboard haze hovers over the melodies. The vocals are strong, melodic and assured but with just the right amount of emotional yearning. It doesn’t ever feel depressing to me, but I can see how the album might be the soundtrack for a struggling mind.

I am not sure of the lyrical content, but I assume by the song titles that the choosing darkness part is more the focus here. “Stay Awake,” “Come Undone,” “You Are Dead To Me,” and “The Sun Burns Out” are just a sampling of the album’s 10 tracks. The musicianship on the album is stellar. The way all the instruments fit together is a sort of magic. It’s like a soundtrack for the psyche. “Stay Awake” demonstrates this perfectly, though really, all the songs do. The lead track, “Faust” is a propulsive journey

The band they remind me of the most is also from Austin, Texas — Explosions in the Sky. EitS is an instrumental band, one who composes music for movies. But both bands create music that is extremely cinematic, with a transformative power.

Darkness/Love; yin-yang; this band knows that opposites work best when working together. I really hope they are busy recording new music, cause the world needs more than two albums from them.

If this is all we get from them, I’ll deal with it. As I’m sure I’ll continue to annoy my wife when I tell her I love her and then, after just the right pause, add “but I’ve chosen darkness.”

1/13/19 Britney Spears – In The Zone

tooth

My first adult tooth extraction occurred the summer of 2007. It was my bottom right corner (do mouths have corners?) molar and I decided to sign up with some dental surgery center in downtown Oakland I’d never heard of before and which didn’t have the best rating on Yelp. But it was much cheaper (like 500 dollars cheaper) than the more reputable Berkeley Oral Surgery that had 5 glowing yellow stars. I mean, pulling out a tooth was pulling out a tooth and as long as the temporary pain in my mouth faded before the pain from the (lack of teeth) in my bank account, then it’s all good, right?

I was the only one in the waiting room when I arrived. That didn’t seem like a good sign. I signed some form, probably agreeing that if I ended up with no teeth at the end of the day, I wouldn’t sue them. A pleasantly warm dental assistant quickly took me to the back, leading me into a large room with a fancy reclining dental chair and a bunch of familiar looking dental instruments, monitors and light on a reticulating arm. The doctor (I want to say his name was Dr. Fong, but that sounds racist, even though it might have been his name. He was Chinese, which makes it sound even more racist. Also I have a friend named Mike Fong, so clearly I’m not racist!) seemed to be in his mid 40s, was friendly and along with the usual local anesthetic, offered me nitrous oxide, and a set of wireless headphones from which I could choose between a variety of musical styles. Most of the music choices — jazz, classical, soul/R&B — were too quiet and downtempo to drown out the inevitable cacophony of drills and suctions and cracking of teeth that were to occur (as I was about to find out). The only channel that seemed lively enough to distract me from the sounds of torture was the Britney Spears channel.

I never felt strongly pro or con about Britney Spears. There were several songs in her oeuvre (I think she would appreciate that term) that I even liked a fair bit. “Oops I Did it Again” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” were truly excellent, catchy pop songs. And the song above, “Toxic,” to me, is a sonic masterpiece. I’m not convinced Britney had much to do with the songwriting of it (she didn’t write it), and the production of Bloodshy and Avant with the 1950s spy-movie sound effects and string arrangements are what keep me coming back to this song over and over.

I was pretty sure that I’d had my molar bludgeoned from my face to Britney’s 2003 album, In The Zone. Though I was quite high on nitrous so maybe I was listening to Edith Piaf. But I’m pretty sure it was that album and I can recall thinking to myself, when the best song on the album “Toxic” came on for the 2nd time, “Hey diseased tooth in my mouth — I’m addicted to you, but I know that you’re toxic.” And then one last enamel blasting crunch and it was gone.

There are a few other songs on In The Zone worth listening to, “Showdown” and “Outrageous” for two. But really, nothing reaches the dizzying heights of “Toxic.” Perhaps when the time comes that I need to have another tooth extracted from my face, I’ll be proactive and load my phone with an honorary Britney mix to give to the kind doc. Or maybe I’ll just play “Toxic” on repeat.

1/12/19 Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – Black Times

Seun Kuti, to those who don’t know, is the youngest son of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Egypt 80 is the band Fela had playing behind him, during a good portion of his career in the 70s and 80s. Seun has recorded with his late father’s band for his last four albums. I’m not sure how old the members are but it’s hard to imagine there being more talented, tasteful, masterful musicians he could have chosen instead.

I’m certainly no scholar in Afrobeat, not in the slightest. I can’t tell you how much this album mirrors a particular album of his father’s. I can say that there seems to be a heightened urgency in the messages and lyrics of Black Times, a title that what clearly not chosen lightly. This is an album of revolution, as expressed in the very first song, “Last Revolutionary,” whose chorus repeats, “‘Til we’re free, you and me, there’ll never be a last revolutionary.” It’s a message of defiance and unity, themes found throughout this brilliant album. Other songs are a bit more lyrically biting, like “Corporate Public Control Department” and “African Dreams.” The latter in particular, under a slower, Reggae-tinged groove is a message to the youth of his country not to fall under the false spell of “television, chasing the American dream.”

Every song on Black Times is essential. I’m essentially choosing one of the shorter songs below simply because of time’s sake. I could have picked the 9 minute title track, which has guest star Carlos Santana adding some recognizably tasteful licks throughout. I could choose the hypnotic, frenetic “Kuku Kee Me” which will make you get up and shake everything you got. I considered the almost 8 minute track, “Bad Man Lighter,” whose infectious grooves will not let go. But I’m going with “Struggle Sounds” with its addictive baritone sax melodic line that opens the song and shows off everything that Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 are capable of. It’s a musical melange of Kuti’s greatest talents.

1/11/19 Twin Peaks – Down in Heaven

twin_peaks_07_1107_718_90Thanks to my friend Swan Welsh for this inadvertent suggestion for today’s album listen.

Swan happened to post on Facebook this morning (or whenever he posted it – this morning is when I saw it) his love for the great Chicago rock and roll band, Twin Peaks. And rock and roll band seems to be the most apt descriptor I can come up with.

You listen to any of their albums, but especially their 2016 release, Down in Heaven, and you’ll find yourself asking, “Wait, is this a rerelease from the late ’60?” Maybe a lost Rolling Stones track (likely asked during the slippery ballad, “Wanted You”)? And then another song will come on and you’ll say, wait, is this a Kinks outtake?

Clearly Twin Peaks is heavily influenced by British Invasion bands, but if that were their only recognizable sound, they would be no more than a nostalgia act, rather than a band that summons the past and brings it to the present. Obviously, The Stones are big influencers, but if you can pull off reminding the listener of Exile on Main Street without any of the songs sounding like any one song from that seminal album, then you’ve done something quite special.

And these dudes are in their 20s and 30s! And this is only their 3rd album. I would bet that if I played this to someone else my age (early 50s) or older they would guess this to be a band that has been around for decades. And are likely contemporaries of us old farts. But no, they are our kids. And sometimes the kids can do the adults game better than we can — the still have that youthful spirit and can stay up all night drinking without having to lay in bed for a week afterward.

This is garage rock with an open garage door. Meaning, it’s got grit and grime, but it’s also got air; you can breathe in it, you can breath it in.

The songs are catchy, they are immediately familiar. So, yeah, maybe they are a nostalgia act. But not in the derivative sense. For me, they are reminder of a time, during the late 60s through the mid-70s, when the musical landscape was a veritable garden of riches.

Twin Peaks are nostalgic, in that they conjure up the good vibes that many of our early great rock and roll bands instilled in us, but hopefully they’ve learned not to take on their precursor’s widespread drug-use and infidelity. They look like such sweet boys.