Hot Tuna – The Phosphorescent Rat

For the past week or so, I’d been wondering which album I should talk about today, this kind of being the “end” of Summer (in Texas, however, that end is not so ceremonious, we probably have about 1 1/2 months left of at least 90 degree temperature). Unfortunately, I kind of exhausted that which I would normally consider “Summer” albums, and I was in no position to listen to anything new to try and get some ideas.

Then I remembered that August 31st was my dad’s birthday, so that made things easy. I’m going to write about Hot Tuna in his memory.

Unfortunately, I kind of already wrote about all of Dad’s favorite albums, so what we’re left with is:

You know what, I don't even know and I don't even want to know. Ha ha wow that cover.

Really though, The Phosphorescent Rat is nowhere near a bad album. It’s basically the transition album between Burgers and America’s Choice, recorded in 1973, just 3 months after Burgers was released.

For certain, this album was the first to make a temporary seperation from the acoustic blues sound that made Hot Tuna such a favorite among music-obsessed hippies like my dad. Not quite a “rampage” album, this album is kind of unique among its brethren as it features all the same musicians and a few of the same sounds as Burgers, with the notable exception of “Papa John” Creach (no, not the guy who owns the pizza chain). Interestingly, if not confusingly, he left Hot Tuna for its ex-band, Jefferson Airplane, which Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (the two central members of Hot Tuna) had just left, at which time the Airplane became Jefferson Starship.

Whew, I hate to bring Jefferson Airplane’s lineup changes into this, but it may be of interest to historians that this album marks the first time our Hot Tuna boys have actually made Hot Tuna a full-time gig.

Something else that may be of interest is that this album sounds almost Airplane-ish in its production standards. There is a noticable gain in echo and a blend of folksy blues music and heavy rock that seems more strange and sometimes even incongruousat times. A good example of this is in the song “Day To Day Out The Window Blues”, which seems like it should be a folky song by its lyrics and tune and the acoustic guitar strumming throughout, but this badass electric guitar solo kind of takes over at some point and sort of swallows everything up.

Of course, I am not really complaining, because the electric guitar has always snuck into Hot Tuna songs in all but their first album. Still, the sense that the meandering electric leads are really taking a front seat in the Hot Tuna vehicle and can appear several times louder than the delicate and awesome acoustic finger-picking and even Jack Casady’s thunderous and yet also delicate bass kind of takes the songs in a direction away from snappy, punchy songs like “Keep On Truckin’ Mama”, and into songs like “In The Kingdom”, in which I swear you can only hear the acoustic guitar if you’re using reasonably nice headphones that can seperate the instruments a little better.

Still, one of the really good things that this album introduces us to is the oft-neglected lyrical prowess of one Jorma Kaukonen. While killing us kindly with guitar solos, he also puts out words like this:

I feel your shimmering eyes into my soul
And your life is all around my time, now don’t you know?
Every time your sunrise drives my night away
It makes my lifetime soar in circles
Like the swallows wheeling in the day
Now our time can start to run
The hourglass has just begun
Life was meant for having fun
As we were meant to be

Which is from the same “In The Kingdom” I was just talking about. That song is really good, by the way, just letting you know.

Really though, you can’t keep a good acoustic guitar down, and in fact the first track I can think of that features only Jorma playing guitar is on this album in a short number called “Seeweed Strut” (sic). The playing on that track is quite grand, and kind of throws me for a loop because it doesn’t even feature bass, oh well.

There are a few other songs that feature some unusual instrumentation, for one, the love song “Living Just For You” heavily features steel drums, which I must admit are not my favorite drums. The humorously named “Soliloquy For 2”, as well as a nice thick cut of distorted bass, features not one trick violinist, but an entire string section! Not to be deterred, of course, the electric guitar comes in for almost half the song for a searing lead part, constructed almost entirely out of high notes.

Now, what I said about the lack of “Keep On Truckin’ Mama”-style hits wasn’t entirely the case. In fact, Hot Tuna’s own godfather Reverend Gary Davis, who you may remember as the original author of “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here” from Burgers, makes another appearance to finish this album out. His song, “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?”, a fine little strutty blues instrumental, is the final track on The Phosphorescent Rat, featuring Jorma and Jack with their old-fashioned acoustic guitar/bass arrangement, with Sammy Piazza on spoons. A lovely throwback to what Hot Tuna was originally all about, if not a little awkward at the end of an album that starts with such a hard-edged sound like on the opening tracks “I See The Light” and especially “Easy Now”.

So yes, this album is kind of the point where I imagine Tuna lost a few of their folkier hippy audience, but good riddance. I love this stuff, even if the word “rampage” doesn’t quite describe it, these guys can do little to no wrong in my mind, and the heavier tracks on The Phosphorescent Rat are actually the stronger ones too, so perhaps it’s best to not look for those glimpses of old Tuna in the mix (as one should never look for old tuna, yuck), and instead dig the fresh, hot sounds. At least, I would be saying that if this were 1973 and there was anyone out there who even knows who Hot Tuna is, much less cares that they once went electric. But you know, I have to fight against these ideas, even if they are much older than I am.

Now I just need to figure out what I’m going to write about for my birthday. Until then, happy albuming!

The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

I find it kind of hard, in this here blog, to really give “double albums” a proper writeup. I guess it’s my tendency to want to talk about every single song and how it fits into a cohesive whole, and well, double albums have twice as many songs. In fact, I was dreading this particular writeup because not only is it a double album, but thanks to the back-breaking amount of work a certain OCD singer put into the whole thing, it’s back-breakingly cohesive and is quite possibly one of the best albums to come out of the 90’s a period where it seemed that everyone had given up on making albums like they used to. Indeed, this album may have been responsible, at least in spirit, so let’s talk about The Smashing Pumpkins’ magnum opus, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness:

There isn't a 20-something alive who hasn't looked at this album and not given a hearty thumbs-upNow, last we left our Billy Corgan and his group of subordinates known as the other members of the band, they had just put out a superbly clean and awesome album called Siamese Dream. For reasons I will probably never understand, Corgan’s response to the success of this album was to lock himself in some kind of receptacle with a pen and paper until he had come out, about a year later, looking starved and having pulled out all his hair, but with 50-something songs that he wanted to jam onto a single recording instead of, you know, spreading it across a few albums.

Ok, so that story was embellished with yarn, but I’ve written 50 songs before, it’s not exactly an exciting process.

What actually wound up going onto the album was 28 songs, neatly split into two sets of 14, and with an overall “concept” of one part of the album being day-time (Dawn To Dusk, with a picture of a sun on the disc) and the second being night-time (Twilight To Starlight, with a picture of a moon).

I am not sure I really latch onto anything in the Dawn To Dusk album that really makes me think of “sunlight” on the first disc, as this is in fact the part of the album upon which some of the darker, angrier music goes. Sure, it starts innocently enough with a gorgeous piano melody (the album’s title track) that introduces us to one of the most grand rock songs to ever use strings, “Tonight, Tonight”, but what’s a song about the night doing on an album portion about the day-time? After that, we’ve got “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, and of course, “Fuck You (An Ode To No One)”. Mind you, this side is a little less angry than a few of the songs that appear on the other side, but perhaps the “cycle of life and death” concept is more apparent if one looks at the lyrics. I don’t really look at the lyrics, but I will say that at least musically the songs on both sides fit together like a glove.

There are a couple of situations where one might be a bit surprised by the changes in instrumentation, for instance, “Love” starts with this distorted synthesizer sound that’s a bit Nine Inch Nails-style, and it’s followed by “Cupid De Locke” which has this almost New Age feel to it with the harp-like instrument that drifts around in the background, but the two songs just kind of flow together. In fact, the song after “Cupid De Locke”, titled “Galapagos”, is a much slower song so the former serves as a sort of segue in sound between the hard-driving and distorted “Love” and the very slow latter portion of the album, which itself is broken up by a nice Siamese Dream throw-back song titled “Muzzle”, before the album slows back down to a “mid afternoon” crawl with “Take Me Down”, which, by the way, is sung by James Iha, proving conclusively that yes, the other band members did have a hand in making this album.

The album’s second half, Twilight To Starlight, is a bit of a puzzle to me sometimes. It starts with a sludgy rock song called “Where Boys Fear To Tread” which is just a slight alteration of “Zero”‘s chord progression, but soon catches up to the other part of the album in terms of rockingness with the next track, “Bodies”, before giving us the mellow, warbly “Thirty-Three”, which is apparently Corgan’s version of a Country song. I appreciate the song because of the number, since I like to collect songs that have numbers for titles or in the titles and put them into numerical playlists. Yeah I’m weird.

I will say that, with songs like “In The Arms Of Sleep”, this side is a little more suitable for night-time listening. I would have said the same thing about the previous half of the album, but actually, listening to the “night” half again, it does make the other side seem like day-time, at least in that it’s a musically “busier” side. One of the laziest, most relaxed Pumpkins song I’ve ever heard, in fact, is “1979”, which comes next on this particular side. I always liked the song, especially it’s little “Be-be-be-be-be” thing that goes on in the background, I remember making fun of that with my cousin when we were kids, it was quite fun. It was the same cousin that introduced me to The Presidents Of The U.S.A., and this is the second album that I heard that intrigued me, so that’s about how far back with this album I go.

After that relaxed song, it’s time to kick things back into high gear into a nightmarish rock song. “Tales Of A Scorched Earth”, which is one of the thickest distorted guitar songs ever (with distorted vocals to match) kind of interrupts the dreamy “1979”, only to make room for the more epic and slow-going “Thru The Eyes Of Ruby”. In that particular way that this album likes to trade intensities with segues, we then get the even more slow-going and acoustic “Stumbleine”, which I quite adore, and then it’s back to rocking with the 7 minute jam “X.Y.U.”.

Just in case you forgot that this album changes like crazy, “We Only Come Out At Night” (again, very appropriate for a “night-time” album, is a synthesizer/autoharp song that is kind of like a Country song from another planet. The autoharp gets thrown away, but the synths stay for “Beautiful”, which is a lovely love (?) song that gives way to the even more Country-like and sentimental “Lily (My One And Only)”.

Finally, we’re taken away by an almost ambient track, “By Starlight”, which has one of those wonderful melancholy (sorry, “mellon collie”) melodies, and the Corgan/Iha-penned “Farewell And Goodnight”.

To be honest with you, I really wanted to write about this album because there are some days wherein you may have 2 hours and 2 minutes of free time, and this album is certainly one of the better ways to spend it. Of course, even if you don’t have that kind of time, you can just turn on an “alternative rock” radio station and hear one of 5 of these songs at just about any time. Seriously, there’s nothing about this album I can really say that isn’t going to be known by just about everyone my age. The radio has been playing these songs every single day since the album came out, and nobody who doesn’t already hate the radio tends to complain about it. Even when I had to listen to the radio every single day at work, when “Tonight, Tonight” made its bi-hourly appearance, it was a sigh of relief for me.

In my personal opinion, an album is made great if even the radio can’t kill it, and this is the only record of the 90’s that has survived such an onslaught.

Richard Thompson – Mirror Blue

You may remember him as the plucky young lead guitarist featured in not one, but two Nick Drake songs, but now we are going to talk at length about Richard Thompson and his album Mirror Blue:

Oh and did I mention he's also an action figure?

Ever since a good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Richard Thompson, I have been rather puzzled over just where to put him in the advanced musical filing system of my mind. Thompson slips around so many genres that it’s hard to pin him down, kind of like nailing Jello to a tree.

On the one hand, he’s a folk artist, through and through. He started out in the quite-popular-if-you’re-into-folk group Fairport Convention which was started back in the 60’s and were known, at least in my mind, as the band that helped support Nick Drake through the troubled times that were basically his entire music career. Still, Richard wasn’t exactly close to Nick and this isn’t about Nick so let’s get back on the topic of Richard.

On the other hand, he’s also a jazzy guitar master who knows all those little scales and modes and techniques to make other guitarists go “Ooooh!” and the general public to go “Oh?” Yes, it seems to me that Richard is definitely a musician’s musician, the envy of all of us who have fancied ourselves “good” at the guitar, particularly that fat one with the hole in the middle. Richard’s particularly good at that one.

So we’ve got folk, and guitar mastery, and deep-baritone English singing. Yes, no whispy, nasally singing for Thompson, absolutely not. The man has a voice that sounds ancient; in fact, it quite took me by surprise to hear for the first time. He also utilizes that wonderful, very English way of singing that conveys this profound sorrow that is equal parts sincere and showy. Coupled with his expert guitar playing, all that’s left to put a big “?” on his style card is the actual music he surrounds himself with.

It has changed over the years, but at least for Mirror Blue, Richard has a kind of sound that seems unique even amongst other musician’s-musician types, particularly in the folk neighborhood. The album is more or less set up to be a rock album; the chord progressions and a lot of the instrumentation gives it away, but there is an abundance of old-tymey acoustic instruments and Thompson’s amazing fingerpicking style, and instead of drumming on a kit, most of the percussion is achieved through various hand drums. Of course, I am all for this because one of the “rock” bands I’m involved in is a lot like that. The periods where the album lapses into more straight-up folk are colored by a lot of obscure instruments that date back to the Renaissance. The result is an album that is simultaneously exciting, grand-sounding, and yet simplistic and the most down-to-earth kind of sound you’d want to hear. Take that, Iron & Wine.

The ¬†album starts out with a deep-toned acoustic blues song called “For The Sake Of Mary”, which is a cool song about the annoying improvements men will go through for the sake of women who are just going to get fat anyway. Ho! I’m kidding, actually I totally relate to this song, and it alludes to some deeper meaning with the last few lines, but we’ll leave that to the scholars.

That song is followed by a song more structured around the pop formula, all the way down to the vocal harmonies on the chorus of “I Can’t Wake Up To Save My Life”. Still, “pop”, in this sense, still utilizes things like autoharp, a kind of strange Eastern sounding keyboard sound, and some damn good lyrics, so donchu worry none.

One of my absolute favorites on the album is “MGB-GT”, which is, of all things, a love song to a car that he has fixed up. The rhythmic singing is probably what does it for me, there is nothing finer than hearing a line like “Well my M-G-B-G-T she’s-a-runner-now” and then following that up with an accordion solo, a guitar solo, a Thing solo (I don’t recognize the instrument) and some really cool deep rhythms. The lyrics are understandable, but since I know nothing about cars and even less about British cars, again, we’ll leave it to the scholars.

Perhaps the thing that’s even weirder to me than the entire sound and style of Richard Thompson is the fact that he’s on the video game Rock Band. The song that is on Rock Band is this melancholic tune called “That’s The Way That It Shows”, and if I played this game, I would definitely want to sing this tune because holy crap what a melody. Still, I find the whole thing kind of weird, a 6 minute Richard Thompson song from Mirror Blue is the last thing I’d expect on that game, but then again they do draw from some rather eclectic sources. Incidentally, this is one of the few songs that actually does feature a full kit drum and electric instruments all around.

The next song, a great little minor-keyed jazzy number called “Easy There, Steady Now”, features another Thompson on the upright bass. It’s Danny Thompson! You may remember him as the plucky young upright bassist who jammed away for Nick Drake’s first album. Well, though I initially padded some of his bass-lines, there’s no denying the man has some chops, and he certainly pulls out some great melodic lines for this particular song.

“King Of Bohemia” is a straightforward folk tune, just Richard and a classical guitar. The vocals are pushed so far forward that Richard’s epic voice is right there, doing it, as Parliament might put it, right in your earhole. I think this is perhaps one of the tracks the “critics” thought of when they panned this album for not having enough reverb. Well, you know my opinions on reverb, it’s a talent replicator. The more natural beauty you have, the less need there is to blur it out with such effects, and thus Thompson’s complete and utter lack of reverb on this and a few other songs is absolutely appropriate.

We enter, for a while, into kind of a rock/blues portion of the album with the boogie ballad “Shane And Dixie” and the downbeat and lead-guitar-tastic “Mingus Eyes”. Both of these songs are great, but possibly my favorite song on the album is next! It’s “I Ride In Your Slipstream”, and it’s another song that’s mainly led by a simple hand-drum and a subtly dressed electric guitar, but mainly it’s that the song has such a driving beat with this wonderful rolling bass-line that gets me so into it. The fact that the chorus is lovely too doesn’t hurt things either.

Again, we get an acoustic ballad, this one a celtic-flavored number about a hippy chick and it’s called “Beeswing”. This is the kind of song one gathers people ’round to tell them a tale, and the song has some interesting ideas to tell as well, and the guitar work is superb, so much so that the other instruments that join in tend to stay out of the way most of the time. This is a good thing.

Winding down the album we have another kind of folk song called “Fast Food”, this one utilizing some strange percussion sounds, really strange guitar sounds,¬†and some humorous lyrics, which lends it this odd charm. I think the song is really appealing, and kind of has a perfect home in the back of the album because it’s not a strong enough track to be a “hit” but when you’re listening to the album all the way through, it’s a nice little surprise.

Just in time for a country/rock song! I actually don’t know if “Mascara Tears” counts as Country, but it certainly reminds me of that style, at least until the chorus, which goes right back into that kind of “how many minor chords can we put in here” style of writing that Thompson enjoys. It’s just a good old-fashioned rock song.

Finally, we have ‘Taking My Business Elsewhere”, which is this dire little melancholy number about being stood up on a date. Kind of a downer note to end the album on, but I can dig it. Eagle-eared listeners may detect a sad little Concertina (kind of a mini-accordion) playing in the background, as if an onlooker to Richard’s restaurant narrative was sitting at another table and spontaneously joined in the pained crooning with his tiny accordion, which is a mental image I think we can all enjoy.

So that, in a rather wordy nutshell, is Richard Thompson’s Mirror Blue. To be perfectly honest with you, it’s the only Thompson album I have listened to so far, but you may color me adequately impressed, and I will certainly be checking out more of his stuff. Until then, have a safe weekend!

Deep Purple – Perfect Strangers

Oh man, so somehow the information was either kept from me or buried underneath the weight of “Oh my God a Beatles video game!”, but I just found out about the remastered Beatles albums that are coming out! For sure, since I technically don’t “own” any Beatles CD’s, I will be purchasing the whole collection. I will probably have to write all of the rest of the albums too in the coming fall, but until then, I am in the mood to write about an influential rock band that has struggled with internal conflicts and breakups and awkward reunions and major clashes of egos… but who?

This logo takes on a whole new meaning when you learn the 'alternate' meaning behind DPAhhh perfect.

Well, when we last left one of my long-standing heroes of rock, Deep Purple Mk II, they had recorded an album called Who Do We Think We Are at what was basically the perfect time to not record an album. What ensued was what should rightfully had been full-on break-up, Beatles-style. That, of course, is exactly what didn’t happen.

When vocalist Ian Gillan left the group in a huff shortly after being fired, bassist Roger Glover followed behind him and Ritchie Blackmore felt his plan to rule the band with an iron fist would go unabated. What Blackmore didn’t expect, however, was that the replacement singer wouldn’t take his crap either, so after a few moderately successful albums tossed out in rapid succession, Blackmore left, leaving just Jon Lord and Ian Paice to keep the band together, and come on, what can a keyboardist and drummer do to keep a rock band together? After the replacement singer left the band literally in tears, the band broke up, after which their 25 year old replacement guitarist died of a drug overdose and, perhaps an even worse fate, Ritchie Blackmore formed the band Rainbow and Ian Gillan took the job replacing Ronnie James Dio as Black Sabbath’s front-man.

Flash forward about 9 years, to the 80’s, a dark age of music that had Rock N’ Roll replaced by synthesizers and cheesy haircuts, where the only way to get an album with guitar heard was if the guitar was made of candy-like plastic with a sound to match. Clearly, this barbaric world of coccaine-fueled decadence needed its rock heroes to come back from the dead (I mean, the other projects) to re-form. Deep Purple heeded the call, perhaps less for the noble reason of reviving rock than because their promoters were interested in cobbling together the Deep Purple money machine out of its most successful parts, despite half of them being broken.

Perfect Strangers is the first of a few albums featuring the rejoined-with-sorcery Mk II lineup. The result? Could be better, to be honest. What do you expect? The band, in its seperate parts, had been in bands that helped shape the terrible sound of the 1980’s hard rock scene, Whitesnake being the worst offender. Despite this, Perfect Stranger manages to be in the upper eschelon of 80’s rock, and even manages to recall a few of the tricks that made Deep Purple the band they used to be.

Despite my insistent poking of fun at the guy, Ritchie Blackmore was mostly responsible for this. Being a man who (unlike Purple’s current guitarist) refused to give in to the plastic guitar trend and instead continued to champion his favorite guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, Blackmore kept a lot of that classic tone. It’s perhaps an irony that Blackmore’s use of the single most recognizable guitar in history could be seen as something of a unique move at this time, but I am hard-pressed to think of another hard rock guitarist that consistently used a Stratocaster all through the 80’s. The best part is that Ritchie seemed to have picked up a few more scales to add some extra technique to his ceaseless noodling. The songs “Under The Gun” and “Mean Streak” are the best examples of this new brand of super-noodling.

The album actually is good, just not stunning. The overall sound is a little slower, more “together” and a bit thicker, with layered guitars and organs and at least 2 Gillans singing at the same time mostly. It lacks the kind of speedy ramshackle solo-tastic sound of the band’s hey-day, but reunions have gone much worse than this. The “hits” of the album, “Knocking At Your Back Door” and “Perfect Strangers” certainly sound like hits, but it’s the more driving, riffy song “A Gypsy’s Kiss” that claims the top spot in my heart, particularly the wonderful guitar/organ duet in the song’s half-point, and dig that crazy guitar solo, more than just super-noodling, it’s about as good as anything Blackmore’s done since “Highway Star”.

There are some slow portions to the album as well, notably the cheese-tastically titled “Wasted Sunsets”. Thankfully, that gives way to another rocker I quite like despite its place in the unloved back of the album, “Hungry Daze”. I think the reason why I love that song so much, and really “A Gypsy’s Kiss” as well, is because they remind me of that great era of video game music in the 90’s, when the Super Nintendo era was ruled by this kind of symphonic metal music, present in the backdrop of every game where you play Dude With Sword and your object is to kill things. Basically, it’s hard for me to say anything truly negative about Perfect Strangers because 90% of the album makes me want to play a shooter or fantasy beat ’em up, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Thus, the Deep Purple reunion album Perfect Strangers was exactly the commercial success that the promoters hoped it would be, it was almost like the good ol’ days! Of course, just like the good ol’ days, the band would immediately start touring harder than bands half their age, and the resulting rest of the albums would be less than stellar, and the whole cycle of band members leaving and coming back would continue.

So yeah, Deep Purple ain’t exactly The Beatles, but at least their long and confusing career is a thing of interest to at least this amused blogger.

Parliament – Mothership Connection

I have a not-so-secret weak spot for the genre of Funk. Perhaps it’s my penchant for all things bass, maybe it’s my desire to listen to music that is weird, fun, or some almagamation of the two, or maybe it’s because of a certain game on the Sega Genesis.

Either way, I love Funk, and there is nothing funkier than Parliament, particularly their fourth album, Mothership Connection:

True story: one of the concepts for this album is that George Clinton thought that it would be a funny idea to have black people in space. When I was a little kid, for some reason I always assumed that Neil Armstrong was a black guy, I still have no idea why. Now, here’s the thing. I have wanted to talk about this album and how groove-tastic and other appropriate portmanteaus this album is, but I do not intend to delve too deep into the album’s history. Here’s why:

Basically, Parliament is one of many bands, featuring all the same members (which is some mystery number between 10 and some hundreds of people), that fits under the umbrella band name P-Funk. To give you some idea of how complicated this band’s personnel is, Mothership Connection has 17 credited singers across its 8 tracks. You can really tell too, particularly with the song “Unfunky UFO”, where there’s gotta be about 5 people singing at the same time at any given time.

The common denominator to all of this madness, right in the center, is the master of all things funky, George Clinton. Not only did he sing lead (exactly how one sings lead among 17 other singers is beyond me) but he also managed this whole debacle. Of course, while this sounds impressive, apparently he wasn’t entirely good at it. For one, members kept dropping out or forming other bands around this one, and for another, just about everything about Parliament and the whole P-Funk thing is more convoluted than their actual music.

So yes, there’s absolutely no way I’m going to go into the band’s history and… oh wait.

Well, it doesn’t matter anyway, because the whole point of this writeup is that Mothership Connection is the go-to Funk album, at least as far as I’m concerned. So let’s get into it:

The whole thing starts off with a false radio station ID for “W.E.F.U.N.K.” by an extraterrestrial, especially funky MC called “Star Child” who, along with Lollipop Man, spend about 7 1/2 minutes preparing you, whether you like it or not, for funk. On top of the insane dialog (containing lots of repeated lines so as to become incorporated into the national slang) we’re introduced to one of my favorite elements of funk, the funky bass-line, provided (perhaps) by Bootsy Collins, who had 1 or 2 bands under the P-Funk umbrella on his own, apparently. The bass for this track is being run through an envelope filter, which is basically the effect that makes instruments sound squishy, and there’s probably some wah (the effect that makes instruments sound like “wah”, if you didn’t know) in there too.

After the first song does its job of “doing it right in your eardrum” (an uncomfortable metaphor if you really think about it), the “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” song starts up the party. The song basically features more of the same narration and squishtastic bass, and a different chorus. The ideas of aliens coming to earth and bringing the funk always takes me back to my childhood, where one of my favorite games was Toejam & Earl on the Sega Genesis. There were two of the games, and both of them played very different, but were both really difficult, very strange, and superbly funky as far as music goes. Clearly, this album was a huge influence on the design of the game, and this song in particular reminds me of the game so much that I could swear I’d heard the actual song before getting this album. That, of course, is impossible, I lived a very sheltered life, I was lucky to have the Genesis.

Speaking of aliens, the song “Unfunky UFO” kind of speeds things up and feels more like a proper song rather than a long, funky narrative. What’s it about? Who cares, it’s the proverbial jam. Anyway, most funk song lyrics are pretty much about funk, especially on this album.

Some funk songs, however, may only concentrate on one or two phrases, and such is the case with the “is there anything besides a chorus in this?” track called “Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication”, a clever play on the old Mary Poppins song, for those who aren’t familiar with Disney’s butchering of the English accent. This song features some pitch-bending synth-tastic solos courtesy of one Bernie Worrell, whose funky synth credits would include songs made up of single words even longer than this one.

Another polyphonic adventure, perhaps the most intense on the album, is “Handcuffs”, which features many vocals, most of which are really great, as the song begs the question “Do I have to put my handcuffs on ya, mama?”

Even if you are personally not too into Funk or just haven’t heard much of it, I am still willing to bet that you have heard “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)”, mostly due to it being the national anthem of funk. Its simple command of “We want the funk, give up the funk” is about as well-known as a phrase can be in music. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for this song alone is easily the same size as the entry for the whole Mothership Connection album, and nearly the size of the article about Parliament. The song is arranged by basically taking 3 different phrases and having them kind of take turns for the song’s 6 minutes.

Finally, we get the final jam of the album, “Night Of The Thumpasorus Peoples”, which despite the band’s credited 17 singers, is closer to being an instrumental than anything. All the song’s phrases are kind of in the back, far behind the synthesizer, which seems only interested in making farty noises. The vocals, besides the one line (which I am too lazy to look up) is soon replaced in favor of tribal chanting, which is just fine with me, to tell you the truth.

So that’s the album. It’s really quite the experience for when you’re in the market for a funky good time. It’s thankfully devoid of any slow R&B jam-style hits and mainly focuses on weird sounds, awesome rhythm, and keeping it funky. Certainly Star Child and his whole crew at W.E.F.U.N.K. did a fine job of accomplishing their stated intention, which is doin’ it to ya in the earhole.

Blur – Blur

Over the past few months of Album Du Jour, I’ve written about most of the major English bands that I have listened to, from The Beatles to Stereophonics, but have always shyed away from talking about Blur and their one album that I’ve heard, Blur.

Well tonight’s the night, so let’s get to it:

It's great to see a band take themselves so literally

I guess the reason is, despite having listened to this album for years, I ran into all kinds of walls trying to describe the thing. It’s guitar-driven melodic Brit-rock, what more do you want from my life?

Well, when time ran out and I had to pick something, I decided to go ahead with it and I did a little research. Yeah this isn’t Dinner: Impossible here, I can be as late to these challenges as I want, as long as I don’t go to bed before writing about an album. Anyways, I realized real quick just what it is about Blur that makes it so hard to describe: it’s indie-inspired!

There’s our problem right there. Apparently this problematic band (what big band from England isn’t problematic?) decided to eschew their establish “brit-pop” hat for a jauntier “American indie-rock” hat (if you want to picture such a hat, just imagine a regular hat but with a moustache and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon) after hearing the band Pavement. Since this was the mid-90’s and he didn’t suck yet, they were also quite inspired by Beck and his DIY brand of noise. All of this would come together to become kind of a re-invention of the band as they incorporated more noise and boring stuff into their music to create an album that, perhaps ironically, was so blurry that they didn’t even have to name it.

Indeed, the sound of the album Blur can be accurately described as such. I actually love this album, but I could not sing you a single line from it besides from that one song. The thing I like about this album is actually something I would normally complain about: the infusion of early indie rock sounds.

The thing about Indie music is that it’s very different in England and America. England does the sound infinitely better (even the hipsters in England are slightly more tolerable), and in America a lot of “indie” music is just poor 35-year-old college students trying to sound like an English band, did you ever notice that a lot of “indie” singers soften their r’s to sound more English? Exactly.

Still, since this is 1997 we’re talking about, neither sides of the Atlantic had not fallen so far from grace that we had to put up with The Ting Tings or Death Cab For Cutie, so being “indie” was by no means a particularly bad thing. The lo-fi, do-it-yourself sound lent itself very well for Blur’s purposes, as they had the good sense to make sure to include melodies, interesting instrumentation, actual experiments in their “experimental” music, and even some hooks.

I have this theory that the English are always going to be better at the dour music game than America. After all, the whole “feel” behind melodic brit-rock is cool breezes against a grayed sky where everyone gets to wear sweaters and scarves and look depressed and culturally significant even though everything is marginally fine. Such a sound is introduced to Blur’s album Blur within the very first track, “Beetlebum”, which is a song that doesn’t seem to be about much, but is all about having a great vocal melody and layers upon layers of cool sounds.

Speaking of vocal melody, I know that Blur singer Damon Albarn’s voice might be more famous on these shores as the lead cartoon in the band Gorillaz, and the probable reason is that, through the gimmicks and rapping, the thing that makes the Gorillaz accessible to people who actually like music (though not all of them) is that Damon has this knack for melody, and a tonal quality to his voice that, combined, makes you simultaneously depressed and yet at ease about it. “Beetlebum” is the first of many great examples on this album of this phenomenon.

After that, of course, is the song that “everyone knows” from Blur, both the band and the album. It’s simply called “Song 2” and if you existed in the late 90’s, you heard the song somewhere. It’s one of the chunkiest distorted messes of a song I have ever heard, all thanks to the combination of 2 very messy yet simple guitar lines, and an antagonistically distorted bass. There’s not much to say about this song, it’s like a minute long and half of the lyrics are “Woo hoo”.

If you didn’t believe what I said earlier about the band being influenced by Beck, just listen to “Country Sad Ballad Man” and then check out Mellow Gold or One Foot In The Grave by Beck. The main difference between the two artists is that every musician in Blur is a better musician than Beck, so a lot of the creative use of noise has been replaced by competent playing. Depending on the day of the week, I would consider this either a good or a bad thing.

“M.O.R.” is much more of an alternative rock song du jour than what we’ve heard by this point, while “On Your Own” utilizes a lot more electronics and “Theme From Retro” sounds like someone was just having too much fun with echo effects and an organ. The song “You’re So Great” is the first to feature guitarist Graham Coxon on vocals, and he quickly proves why I dedicated an entire paragraph to Damon Albarn’s singing. Let’s just put it this way, Graham Coxon is a great guitarist.

“Death Of A Party” is a nice scary song the likes of which only the Brits can bring us. Along with the heavy, synthesized-sounding beat are many layers of bassy and guitar melodies. It’s all-in-all a great song, but can kind of be lost in the “blur” of things, especially since the song after it is another minute-and-a-bit long punk rock track like “Chinese Bombs”. If you thought “Song 2” was distorted, just listen to “Chinese Bombs”, I think they’ve even got the drums hooked up to a pedal.

We’re not done yet though, “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love” is a chunky, slow-going song based, in large part, on repetition. The song is kind of boring, to be honest with you, but history has shown us that it was actually meant to be a B-side and not even on the album proper, as it was just a tune they wrote with which to try out a new studio.

Once we move on to the acoustic strumming of “Look Inside America”, things are really looking up! It’s a very Beatles-esque tune complete with a nice message juxtaposing the idea of things being all right with other ideas like suicide and depression, nice!

We then get an inexplicable but not unwelcome space-rock tune that leans heavily on synthesizers and acoustic guitars (kind of a Bowie move if you ask me) in “Strange News From Another Star”. The Death Star from Star Wars makes an appearance.

We get one more song, for filler, with “Movin’ On” before departing with the song “Essex Dogs”.

“Essex Dogs” is an interesting song, as it starts with a looping guitar sound that sounds like a guitar motor trying to start but not being able to. When things finally do take off, we’re treated to not one, but three songs. I don’t know if it was intended to be 3 songs in one track, or if it is just one long song in 3 parts, and I’m too lazy to look it up. Either way, if you’ve got 12 minutes to spare for a song, this one won’t disappoint too badly, and at least has some really great “guitar noise” segments.

All in all, I like Blur, and I like Blur, but due to inheriting a bit of indie rock’s flagrant boredom, it’s not one I’ll just pick up any old day. The melodies and songwriting, though solid, aren’t really my go-to sound, but I can definitely see where the guys were right in experimenting with a sound unlike what was going on in brit-pop at the time, even if ultimately they’d meet their demise due to the toxic ego issues that drive good bands apart. Hey, at least we’ve got Gorillaz right? Right?

Sparks – Angst In My Pants

It was really hard for me to select a Sparks album from the 80’s that I like enough to single out for a writeup, but you know, since this is my blog and all, maybe I’ll just do all of them. Why not? We’ve got like 3 more months left on this project… wow… 3 more months.

Well, either way, at least for its winning album cover, let’s talk about Angst In My Pants:

There is just so much WHAT going on here that they had to call the WHAT police who should be arriving on the scene to arrest anyone not making sense. WHAT

Seriously, that album cover!

Ok, moving on.

Even though the 80’s were a brand new thing, and Sparks had kind of made their mark as a sort of catchier, somehow-gayer (yet somehow entirely straight) version of Queen, they still had all but perfected the 80’s sound before that decade of musical darkness was even in full swing. This album isn’t exactly the beginning of such a shift in sound, but this is one of my favorite Sparks albums, so I guess it’s going to represent said shift.

Basically, Sparks had a bit of a lineup change, even though history would prove that the “lineup” of Sparks is brothers Russell and Ron Mael, and anyone others in the group are incidental at best. The dudes decided that, basically, the glam thing was running a little long in the tooth and would never really be what it was (they were right, see: Mika, Queen + Paul Rodgers). The band decided to team up with one of the earliest innovators of electronic music, an Italian producer called Giorgio Moroder to make some really ground-breaking electronic albums, of which this is a close follow-up.

So yeah, Angst In My Pants may not have been as ground-breaking and tremendous as the couple of albums that preceded it, but how could you knock an album called “Angst In My Pants”? That title (and let’s not forget the cover) alone would sell the thing for me, but the songs inside, hell, just the song titles inside, are too tempting to pass up.

We’ve got the title track, which lives up to its promise with hilarious lyrics and that nice thumping 1-2 80’s reverb drum beat. I might have complained about those drums on this site before hearing Sparks, but as I covered in one of my earlier writeups, Sparks more-or-less single-handedly changed my mind about “80’s” music, though I will still declare it the Dark Age of Music.

In fact, the next song “I Predict”, wouldn’t be even nearly as awesome if it weren’t for its fist-pumping synthesizer and octave-bass-drenched sound. Thankfully I don’t really have to describe the song in great detail, as some entrepeneuring fan got the video on Youtube. One has to wonder about Ron sometimes…

“I Predict” has such great lyrics though:

You’re gonna take a walk in the rain
And you’re gonna get wet
I predict

You’re gonna eat a bowl of chow mein
And be hungry real soon
I predict

One of the absolute best songs on the album though is the stuttery “Sextown U.S.A.” Really, the song has to be heard to be believed, with its mix of straightforward fast-paced rock and fan-fare-esque keyboard sounds in that typical Ron Mael fashion that is so essential to Sparks standing out among the other bands around in whatever time frame in which they find themselves. The lyrics are the best though, particularly the chorus, which is little more than “Sextown U.S.A., we can go anywhere and it becomes…” repeated forever.

I think also, on a personal note, the fact that the opening synth sounds a lot like an old Nintendo game really warms me to it as well.

After a couple of markedly “darker” tunes, in minor keys and with more swing in the beat, in the form of “Sherlock Holmes” and “Nicotina”, we arrive at the next “big hit”, a song dedicated to one of the most iconic figures in American History: “Mickey Mouse“. This song is one of the catchiest on the albums, and certainly one of the stranger topics I can think of to sing about. Still, just try and not get caught up in that bouncy melody, I fall for it every time.

Following that up is yet another song that would have fit perfectly in the soundtrack to a pre-1990’s video game, “Moustache”. This is one of the most “telling” songs that reveal something about its writer, brother Ron, the one with either the Hitler/Chaplin-esque toothbrush moustache, or the pencil thin one he sports nowadays, and it’s especially telling of the decade where moustaches actually weren’t hideous representations of “IRONIC” hipster culture:

A lady gets a lotta things
She gets a 20 carat ring
She gets the alimony too
She gets to look good in the nude
But there’s one place where they’ve been whipped
Between the nose and upper lip

Which introduces the chorus, which is, of course, the word “Moustache” stuttered and repeated to an almost acutely infectious tune and beat. I can’t get enough of this song, even if moustaches in today’s culture are abhorrent, with exceptions, of course.

After a few more odd ideas, such as “Instant Weight Loss”, which is actually a song about bad relationships (because really the Mael brothers have about 2.3 ounces of body fat between them), and the bizarre “Tarzan And Jane” with its jungle down-beat and apparent combination of singing about the eponymous characters in the context of a high school. I never claimed to understand everything Sparks is all about, you know. This is followed up by another synth-tastic self-depricating number called “The Decline And Fall Of Me”, which is another absolute winner of a title in my book, even if the tune itself is a little bit “back of the album” in terms of quality.

Finally, with its grunting chant of “Don’t let it get me”, we close out the album with… its second single? All right, well this is “Eaten By The Monster Of Love”, and it’s a damn fine song, despite having a little of that “Cotten Eyed Joe” kind of sound creeping in from time to time. Don’t let that deter you, though, that’s just the 80’s for you.

So yes, if you are looking for a good synth-tastic time with a very creative and energetic duo of brothers who don’t mind looking ridiculous sometimes, this is your album, and you should check it out as soon as you can. Until then, we’ll see you later!