King Crimson – Islands

I was warned about Islands. Ever since I went on a bit of a collection spree with King Crimson, whose albums Larks’ Tongue In Aspic and In The Court Of The Crimson King intrigued me so. The albums made in the band’s unstable time between, oh who am I kidding, they’ve always been unstable. Either way, I was told to avoid this and the nearby album Lizard while I’m at it.

Well, I didn’t listen to any advice on the matter, and now Islands one of my favorite Crimson albums. Eat that, logic and reason:

Really they should have just called the album The Triffid Nebula, in fact I might have to try that, and make the album cover a picture of some islands. Don't steal my hidden idea!!!!I am going to stop short of saying this album is “unique” among King Crimson’s catalogue, because really “unique” kind of goes hand-in-hand with this band. For goodness’ sakes, in the 90’s they toured as a “double trio” with two guitarists, two bassists, and two drummers. In this particular instance, however, they have a different drummer who was only there for this album (who himself replaced a one-album drummer who played on Lizard), and a new bassist/vocalist.

Interestingly, I’m pretty sure that Robert Fripp didn’t really intend for all his singers to also play bass, it’s about half-coincidence that a few of them did. Indeed, the idea to teach new vocalist Boz Burrell how to play the bass in order to be the bassist/vocalist for King Crimson arose more out of not being able to find an actual bassist. Why not? It worked twice before!

Indeed, Boz Burrell made a fine bassist, and in fact his bassy contributions to this album are among my favorite parts of Islands. Perhaps because he suffered from New Guy Syndrome, where he played the parts with an especially large amount of care because he was kind of new at the whole bass thing, or maybe he was just naturally good, or maybe, and this is the most likely scenario, Robert Fripp was such a hard-ass about things that Burrell was just trained extremely well in the short time allotted. Either way, Burrell did so well on the bass that, upon leaving King Crimson directly after this album, he went on to be the bassist for Bad Company, a gig which lasted him the rest of his life, which unfortunately came to an end a couple of years ago.

Boz Burrell was an interesting addition to the group, now that I’ve read up on him a bit. He had some really crazy near-brushes with success; he once auditioned to be the replacement for Roger Daltry when The Who was planning on firing him, and was only thwarted by the fact that they didn’t. He also had a brief solo career wherein he was joined by Ritchie Blackmore, who was just about to start Deep Purple at the time, though he wasn’t asked to join or anything. I guess he would just have to settle for being a member of King Crimson for a while.

Anyways, the actual Islands album is a funny old thing. It starts with a crazy, pounding cello arrangement, which doesn’t seem to just be a trick of the Mellotron, as it has some real scratchy bowing bits that I don’t think were a feature of that particular instrument, but who knows. There is a “double bass” player mentioned in the liner notes. The lyrics to “Formentera Lady” are a poetic thing, mainly describing scenery, and seem to be drawn from The Odyssey by Homer. I’m not entirely sure about this, because I haven’t read the book, but Odysseus makes an appearance, so good enough!

The song is about 10 minutes long and, like most of the album, doesn’t really utilize that much air space “efficiently”, spending in fact the first 2 minutes of the song just noodling around that cello and an oboe. Still, there are at least several minutes’ worth of good music to be heard here, mainly held together by Boz’s solid bass-line (which I believe is just one note throughout) and Ian Wallace’s steady drumming. After the song proper is over, there is more noodling, but this time with all instruments involved aside from the monotone bass (though it does occasionally get a nice fill here and there), and apparently soprano singing from a guest vocalist. Really I wonder if that person got paid for that kind of singing.

The real highlight of the album for me is the second song, “Sailor’s Tale”, which starts right at the end of the previous song with a cymbal hit that is soon fully realized as this wonderful tripping beat complete with a high-octave bass-line that together is just heavenly. The main instrumentation for the first part of the song seems to be Mellotron and saxophones. After that, the electric guitar is pounded upon and the rest of the song slows down to accommodate. Once the instrumentation comes back in and reaches a swell, it starts to switch from major key to minor key in a mode may start to sound familiar to a few of you. Why yes, that is almost exactly the kind of thing Radiohead did for their song “The National Anthem”, this song always seems to me like a 30 year predecessor to Radiohead’s horn-tastic jam. I’d be real hard-pressed to pick a favorite of the two, though.

Anyways, we return to the world of vocals with two tracks that are good but lyrically disturbing. The first is “The Letters”, which features words that I hate to hear in song, one of which is “flesh”, and the context doesn’t help any either:

With quill and silver knife
She carved a poison pen
Wrote to her lover’s wife:
“Your husband’s seed has fed my flesh”

Yeah no thanks. Anyway I don’t want to spoil the ending for you but let’s just say stuff gets melancholy from there. The instrumentation is quite good on this track, however. Even better is the weird bluesy creep-tastic “Ladies Of The Road”, which has a pounding beat in some obscure time signature, Boz singing the touching lyrics in a style that I suppose best demonstrates, in his brief tenure with King Crimson, why he almost replaced one of the most legendary voices in rock music. The lyrics are too naughty to reprint, so I’ll just say it’s a song about the Rock N’ Roll lifestyle, ironically written by a guy (Peter Sinfield) who wasn’t actually in the group (and thus, out on the road) except to write lyrics.

The album then spends about 20 more minutes fading out. Ok, not really, but this is definitely where about 90% of the potential audience for such an album may scratch their heads and eventually wander away. Basically, you’ve got “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls”, which is a classical-flavored instrumental of a humble 4 minute length, and then the title track, which is about a 3 minute song stretched out to nearly 10 minutes by piano-laden classical pieces that people kindly describe as “meditative” and perhaps more bluntly describe as “boring and also boring”. Personally, I grew up on classical music, and in fact I love sparse arrangements, so this is my favorite part of the album, besides the rocking bits.

That is the thing, in order to enjoy Islands, one has to appreciate both rocking bits and slow-as-Christmas bits, because they’re both in top form on this album, and if you took both bits away, all you’re left with is creepy Boz Burrell singing about seducing highschool-age female rock fans. You might as well listen to Motörhead if you want that.

Deep Purple – The House Of Blue Light

Excellent news: I’ve finally been reunited with my Shure SE530 headphones! After procrastinating for months I finally sought out and found my sales receipt and mailed them in. Less than a week later, they sent me a brand new pair. Man, I really should have taken care of that sooner! I was expecting 6 to 8 weeks or something ridiculous.

So now it’s time to celebrate with a really good album, something that really makes these guys scream, something that…

Oh, Deep Purple’s The House Of The Blue Light huh? Yeah… that’s cool I guess.

Don't go in there! It looks like the light for an 80's music video! THE HORROR.... THE HORROR.I’ve said it many times, the 1980’s were not kind to music. Deep Purple, in the two albums they made in the 80’s between breakups, reunions, and then breakups again, managed to go from defying the conventions of the 80’s to fully embracing them.

I’m not sure who to blame here, I mean Perfect Strangers, the predecessor to this album, sold remarkably well, and Deep Purple embarked on one of its most successful tours ever where every show sold out, including the ones they had to add last minute. That album didn’t sound much like the 80’s to me, so they recorded The House Of The Blue Light, apparently with the intention in mind of making an 80’s sounding album, and it sold… well not so well. So do I blame the 80’s for sucking or for Deep Purple for falling for it? Either way, this album isn’t actually that bad, considering all the elements that went into it.

For one, it didn’t take very long for the band to realize that this very lucrative get-together was taking a toll on everyone’s patience even faster than the first time (though not as fast as the band’s second reunion, which spawned one terrible album before the “Mark II” lineup was dissolved forever). For this reason, the album took a long time to make, and a lot of parts had to be re-done.

The thing about re-doing parts in the studio forever is that the free-flowing sense of improvisation and “a group effort” is impossible to maintain. This is not the Deep Purple who recorded “Machine Head”, from which the biggest hits were a song that was improvised on the spot and a song that was nothing more than the ridiculous true story of how that album was recorded.

No, instead what we have is a glitzy but chugging album of homogenized rock, every part played to perfection, but miles away from each other. That is, the album doesn’t have the feel of a group of guys playing together and rocking out. It’s a feeling that might be a bit subtle, but over-production has that effect.

Having said all that, there are some excellent bits to this album. There is a song called “Strangeways” that opens with Ian Gillan singing in 4 part harmony (possibly at the same time?) It has a good sense of arrangement about it, sounding kind of mystical, cheesy, and, well, video gamey. I like music that sounds video gamey, and I just realized I wrote that about a song on Perfect Strangers. Man I don’t even want to count the amount of times I’ve repeated myself on this terrible blog.

Anyway, another highlight happens to be my favorite song, though one that I would normally hate. It’s called “Mitzi Dupree” and it’s about Ian meeting a girl on a flight. One of the lines in the song just kills me, because the titular character asks Gillan “What do you do?” and his reply is “I’m a siiiiiinger in a band” which is delivered with his trademark “rocker” voice. I just love to picture that going down exactly like that in an airplane. If I were Ian Gillan I would always introduce myself by screaming out a line like that. The song is a bit dirty in a delightful way, as Mitzi introduces herself as “The Pinball Queen” and later that she’s “an entertainer”, and well read for yourself:

I said “What is this ‘Queen of the Ping Pong’ business?”
She smiled, “What do you think?
It has no connection with China.”
I said “OooOOOoooOOoh! Have another drink!”
Well i knew right away
That I’d seen her act before
In a room behind a kitchen in Bangkok
And three or four times more in Singapore

That’s actually pretty great, and actually it’s not the only naughty song on the set, certainly “Hard Lovin’ Woman” would have made Spinal Tap quite proud. Nearly every line is just a wonderful euphemism for gettin’ it on with a woman who has clearly had a lot of mileage under her belt.

“Dead Or Alive”, which ends the album, is one of the few songs that are what I would consider close to “original” Deep Purple speed. Unfortunately, like with the rest of this album and the previous album, Ian Paice’s monstrous drumming is kind of just there. There are precious few fills to speak of, and back in the day that guy could throw out already amazing drum-lines with fills that just melt your face. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not thinking about his performance on the black and white “Live In Denmark ’72” video, and believe me that’s a lot of time for a red-blooded totally straight man like me to be thinking about another man with no shirt on.

Anyways, there is one unfortunate thing about this album that unfortunately couldn’t have been helped by anything; Ian Gillan’s voice was all but wrecked by this time. Though he can toss out as many high notes as he ever could, the overall tone of his voice was just permanently set to “squeal” mode. Indeed, this wasn’t such a huge problem on this album, honestly he had worse problems (video hint: JUST LOOK AT HIM), but really, singing like he does and doing hundreds of shows per year is just not something a human should do. I really have to admire the guy and his fluffy hair.

So yes, good album, not great, some funny moments, and now I’m off to listen to even more stuff with my majestic headphones. Until then!

Johnny Cash – One Piece At A Time

Today, despite my initial resistance to it, and the fact that I have like 85% of the songs on it already, I purchased the Cash: The Legend boxset. I’m usually against compilations, but this one was good enough to warrant a purchase, given that it has those few songs I haven’t heard yet, which is less of a brag and more of an admission of obsession.

One of the songs on the first disc is one of Johnny’s #1 hits of the 70’s (kind of a rare thing): “One Piece At A Time”, well, even though that album doesn’t seem to have ever been released on CD (unless I’m mistaken), I happen to have all the songs, so let’s talk about this crazy thing:

PSST! To whoever's in charge here... the scenery! Where's the scenery?!I have only briefly touched on Johnny Cash’s “Obscure Period”, which is to say, his career from about the mid-’70’s through the 80’s. At this time, he didn’t have a whole lot of hits, at least nothing to rival his amazing late 60’s and early 70’s work, but there were occasional glimmers of brilliance that wouldn’t become completely uprooted until his 90’s revival.

The main problem was his label, Columbia, simply not having much interest in him after a few albums came out (probably in the same year) that didn’t sail straight to the top. Johnny never said much about this period, except to say that folks just seemed to forget about him. Of course, he was far from unsuccessful; no matter how unsuccessful his albums sold, he could still entice ticket-goers on his endless tours, and he usually took his poor album sales with his trademark humility and good humor.

In a way, Johnny Cash became sort of a softer performer, middle-aged and sporting some fairly gauche attire by today’s standards (apparently the “Man In Black” had no problem adding tassles from time to time). This might have been a bad way to go out, with a fizzle, but all of us who know our history knows that he was just hiding until the 80’s were over so he could come back and make the same amazing music he’d always made.

A few albums made at the start of the “Obscure Period” are actually pretty great, bearing in mind the more grandfatherly material Cash decided to work with, and One Piece At A Time is one of them. It could be said that the album suffers from being a slight bit toothless, but it spawned a couple of hits that had some very unexpected consequences.

The minor hit of the album, peaking at #29 on the Country charts (yeah I totally never do research around here) was “Sold Out Of Flagpoles”. It’s a pretty good song, and I feel it kind of represents where Cash’s career might have been at that point. The song is mainly just the singer going to a hardware store where the owner, an older man, has kind of free-association mottos for every bad situation, always ending with “…and I’m sold out of flagpoles”. For instance:

I popped the top off a soda pop
Laid a quarter on the bar
I said inflation is a dirty dog
My payday sure ain’t goin’ far
Liberty, said Lonnie, E Pluribus Unum
In God we trust
And I’m sold out of flagpoles

That’s… that’s some pretty good advice there, Lonnie. Actually, I have run into old codgers like this before, and I’m endlessly amused by them. I hope to be one of these human non sequitors when I get old. Heck, maybe I’m that way now, who knows, and I’m sold out of flagpoles.

That whole “older man reflecting on whatever” sentiment is also shared by the opening track “Let There Be Country”, which busily names all of the old country stars and how Johnny (assisted by Shel Silverstein) feels about them. It’s an interesting number, especially considering these are all people Cash personally knew and were legends in their own right, but it mainly stands as Cash’s own testament that he is indeed an old grandpa of Country and that room needs to be made for the new, young kids that were coming up. Little did he realize those kids would be the likes of Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Alan “My Other Truck Is A Truck” Jackson.

Another interesting song that makes its first appearance on this album is the song “Committed To Parkview”, which is an interesting Country song if there ever was one (whether there was one is another topic up for debate). The song is sung from inside an insane asylum, and though insanity makes plenty of appearances in many genres, it’s hardly touched upon in Country, other than the occasional “The boy ain’t right”. The song is very sympathetic, though, and went on to be a pretty decent number on an otherwise strange album called The Highwayman, which featured Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson as The Highwaymen, which I may have to write up some time if forced.

The real kicker for this album, however, is the title piece. Unfortunately, Johnny Cash didn’t actually write “One Piece At A Time”, but it was written for him, so just as well. It tells the story of a Cadillac plant worker who decides he’s going to steal a piece off the assembly line every day until he has enough parts to build his own Cadillac (“one that was long and black”). He starts in ’49 and finally finishes in ’73, and the resulting vehicle, thanks to the changes made to the car over the years, wasn’t quite was he was expecting:

Now, up to now my plan went all right
‘Til we tried to put it all together one night
And that’s when we noticed that something was definitely wrong
The transmission was a ’53
And the motor turned out to be a ’73
And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone

So we drilled it out so that it would fit
And with a little bit of help with an Adapter kit
We had that engine runnin’ just like a song
Now the headlight’ was another sight
We had two on the left and one on the right
But when we pulled out the switch all three of ’em come on

There are a bunch of fairly brilliant gags in the songwriting all through this song, and it’s a generally light-hearted number that went straight to the top of the chart for a little while. Two resulting events make this song kind of stand out among Cash’s hits. For one, an auto parts store owner named Bruce Fitzpatrick actually built this monstrosity, using the song as a model, and it was given to Johnny:

I drove my car to Reno, just to watch it die...The other, even stranger product to come out of this song is an entire musical genre. See, there is a spoken word ham-radio call that Johnny does at the end of the song which is quite funny and goes like this:

Ugh! Yow, RED RYDER
This is the COTTON MOUTH
In the PSYCHO-BILLY CADILLAC Come on
Huh, This is the COTTON MOUTH
And negatory on the cost of this machine there RED RYDER
You might say I went right up to the factory
And picked it up, it’s cheaper that way
Ugh!, what model is it?
Well it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55…

And, of course, the years are rattled off continuously as the song fades away. This is all pretty hilarious, but here’s the thing, that phrase up there? “Psycho-Billy”? That’s the first time those two words were ever uttered together, and in fact it was this song and that particular phrase, which subsequently showed up on a poster for The Cramps, that inspired the band The Meteors to call their fusion of punk and rockabilly “Psychobilly”, and thus an annoying genre of music was born. Weird how that stuff works sometimes.

Anyway, the album is really good, but you’ll never hear it since it was never released on CD. No, like me, you’ll have to put the album together one piece at a time. Fortunately, the really good songs can be heard on various compilations if you have a mind to dig through hundreds of them, or just buying The Legend. Either way, we’ll see you tomorrow!

ApologetiX – Grace Period

Happy birthday to me! If you remember yesterday’s post, and who doesn’t, I challenged the lot of you to come up with an album for me write up on my birthday. Though I got a suggestion for an album I actually really want to listen to (Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues), I couldn’t grab it in time because Zune Marketplace has it, but one of the key songs is missing, so no go there.

So, acting on my promise to instead bring you the absolute worst music I could possibly think of, may I humbly present the very worst that Christian music has to offer, appropriately named ApologetiX, and their 2002 album Grace Period:

The back of the disc is basically full of disclaimers that you can't sue these guys for parodying other music, but they say NOTHING about suing them for the mental anguish you'll suffer from hearing this crap.Before I get into what this is all about, let me first tell a little story about how I found these guys.

My mom, dear sweet woman that she is, used to own a Christian book store that also sold music. This may help to explain what knowledge of the genre I have, because CD’s at that time, for me, were either cheap, free, or just brought home anyway. Though I never heard this CD while it was sitting on the shelf, reading the back made me cringe with sheer terror.

The box advertised, quite plainly, that ApologetiX were a “Christian Parody Band” and that their songs were basically “secular hits” that were lyrically changed to be “humorous” and “about God”. One of these two things is actually true, but both things are horrifying. Of course, you may think “Well Christians have bad ideas all the time, look at the Crusades!”, but here’s the thing: this isn’t the band’s only album, they have 12. At an alarming rate, this band has put out a dozen albums filled to the brim with these songs and they show no sign of slowing down.

Now, I could have easily picked any one of the 12 albums these guys have recorded, but Grace Period is the one I saw in the store, and when I finally did let curiosity get the best of me and obtained it for free and listened to it, well, now I have to relay another story.

It’s been a “thing” of a certain friend of mine to lay claim to knowing the absolute worst music in the history of the world (surprisingly, NOT the same friend who suggested I write up Richard Harris). One night, after I told him that I could probably handle the worst music he could throw my way, he proceeded to take me up on that challenge. He prepared a playlist for me to listen to involving songs that were basically unlistenable. Among the songs chosen, which were very creative as musical weapons, by the way, were as follows:

– A rap song called “Double ****ed By Two Black Studs”, kind of a notoriously filthy rap song featuring terrible everything. I told him it wasn’t any worse than regular rap music.

– A song, about 8 minutes long, of an adult man(?) crying like a little baby (literally screaming “Waaaaaaaaaaaaah”) in either a loop or a very painful continuous session, while other music, most of it terrible, played in the background, and there were some other “disturbing” sounds that I don’t remember. I considered it a worthy song to torture people with, but stuck it out through the entire 8 minutes anyway.

– A song that certain Brazillian psychopaths use as kind of the soundtrack to their deadly knife fights, meant to induce feelings of rage and nervousness. I have very little experience with Brazillian music, so I had previously assumed it all sounded like that.

After many more songs like this, he finally gave up and admitted defeat; it was clear that I could not be musically jarred by normal means. Then my turn came around, in the form of a playlist I put together for him and some other friends called “The Best And Absolute Worst Of Christian Music”, featuring many of the songs from albums I’ve already touched on for the “Best” songs, and with a real two-song kicker for my “worst of the absolute worst” songs. Guess what: both of them are from this album.

The first is the song “I’m A Receiver”, which is a parody not only of “I’m A Believer” by The Monkees, but specifically the Smash Mouth cover, yes, the one you hear in most retail stores as the store’s tribute to whichever employee started a suicidal shooting rampage because of it. Didn’t think that song could get any worse when filtered through the ham-filled mouth of Smash Mouth? Guess again:

I thought God was only Jewish fairy tales (oy!)
Meant for someone else with lots more faith
All my doubts oppressed me, but that’s the way it stayed
Till a voice said, “Honey, call My name”
Then I got His grace, now I’m a receiver

I promise that there have only been maybe 2 instances in my own life that I, the person who made it through 8 minutes of pure musical trolling, have ever made it past that line in that song, and that’s only 30 seconds into it.

The guy can’t sing, for one, and the band can’t play, and being a Christian myself, I am just deeply offended at everything having to do with this. This is music that is so bad it rots you to the core, and get this: there are a total of 20 songs on this album alone just like it.

To represent the worst of Christian music, I only needed to play one more song, “Tom Saw Ya”, a re-imagining of the story of “doubting Thomas” from the Bible, set to the tune and general idea of “Tom Sawyer”, the most famous(ly hated) Rush song. The only redeeming thing about this train wreck is that the guy is so bad at singing in Geddy Lee’s register that he sounds like he’s hurting himself pinching out the chorus lines:

What You prayed about has come to be
It’s what King David said in Psalm 16
Christ is risen: that’s no myth
Just a mystery that’s legit

That it sounds like he’s in nearly as much pain as we are for hearing it is a small comfort, like the idea that the band will somehow be punished for all this because there’s no way that a God who is in any way Awesome will ever approve of this.

Anyway, after both of those songs I have become known among my friends as the King of Bad Music. A dubious title, to be sure, but it’s kind of fun knowing you permanently broke someone’s spirit with a few tunes. I mean, what’s so bad about a song like “Corinthians”, a parody of Linkin Park’s “In The End”, featuring a guy who can’t rap with a guy who can’t sing?

How about “Born Above”, a parody of “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen? They’re all here!

Ok, I’ll stop now with the titles, I’m starting to depress myself.

Another couple of facts about this band:

– They are pioneers of the whole “Don’t you DARE read my lyrics!” mindset usually shared by “comedy” musicians. Their website requires a special code printed on their physical CD in order to access the “lyrics” section of their official website. Sure you can just Google it and save yourself the trouble, but why would you Google something like that? Are you crazy?

– Their magical Wikipedia Entry is almost entirely made up of describing their many lineup changes, as if anybody could ever care. In Wikipedia’s characteristic “unbiased” presentation, not a word is said about the band’s egregiousness, though the idea is implicit throughout.

– A quick Youtube search will reveal that not only do they assault the elderly and stupid with their “cross between Weird Al and Billy Graham” (which I assume means they combine the spiritual relevance of Weird Al with the humor of Billy Graham), but they spend almost half of their set “preaching to the choir” about Jesus. Yeah, I know this is the way most Christian bands operate, especially since their main venues are usually churches, but this particular band is especially hilarious at it, unintentionally I mean.

– This band is the absolute worst thing ever. There is nothing on Heaven or Earth that makes me more uncomfortable than their music. I can even tolerate Diamanda Galas more than these guys, and that noisy troll tries her damn hardest to make you hate her. She does not succeed on the level of ApologetiX merely because her intentions excuse her on at least some level. You will hate yourself, hate life, doubt your religion (even if it’s Atheism because you will want a Hell to exist for these guys to go to), and probably kick your dog or closest family member upon hearing even a few lines of “Smooth Grandmama”, a parody of “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson (I know, I know, I said I’d stop).

Anyway, do yourself a favor and forget you ever read this write-up and do NOT listen to this band, no matter how curious you may be. It took all of the good cheer and wonderful chocolate marble cake I could eat on my birthday to build up the good vibes enough to only hate this album this much, imagine what would happen if one had to talk about this album on any other day?

Happy birthday, everyone.

Poor Old Lu – A Picture Of The Eighth Wonder

SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM AUTHOR: Tomorrow is my 27th birthday, which apparently only happens once in your life (corresponding age and day of the month your birthday lands on), so it’s going to be pretty special. I know we’ve been friends for a while, so I feel no shame in asking you for something. More than anything, for my birthday, I don’t want to have to decide on an album to write, so please comment here or on any other entry the name of an album you’d like to see in lights. If no requests are made (let’s face it, this blog ain’t that popular), I am going to write about the absolute worst album I can think of at that time. Thanks in advance!

Ok, now that it’s Autumn and I’m starting to “feel” the more morose side of music, let’s talk about one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time, ever:

Mom, the eighth wonder looks awful blurry and like the cover of a grunge album....

To understand why I love this album so much, one must understand a little bit about how I “grew into” this style of music. For one, kind of like how I wouldn’t watch anything “serious” or “not animated” when I was a little kid, I refused to listen to anything set to a minor key when I listened to music (unless it was classical). The reason is quite simple, I just liked the brighter side of things, and since my musical experience up to that point was pretty much Classical, Blues (which is usually major key), and Newsboys, there wasn’t anything The Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana or any other “alternative” band could do at that point to please me (my Smashing Pumpkins appreciation wouldn’t manifest until almost 10 years later).

This album came out when I was 13 years old, and though I intially hated it (“You can’t even understand what the guy is saying!”), it became the album that would break me, and open me up to the other 50% of most musical scales.

How did they do it? Well, Poor Old Lu had something that other bands didn’t have, and to this day, I’m not too sure what it was, but I identified the hell with it. Maybe it was just timing, but the first time I heard “Rail” in a good set of headphones, I was hooked on this gloomy rock stuff forever. This, despite being the “final” album before their brief reunion in the album The Waiting Room, this was the first album I heard from the band and would become the basis for how I judged every other “alternative” act, even to this day.

The album, even compared to the already bleak Sin, was dark… very dark, in fact. The band’s songwriter, Scott Hunter, I feel had grown into a more consistent songwriter, and the band really seemed to have this general feeling that they didn’t have to write to be popular because they just weren’t going to be a “popular” group. Hence, the pressure was all but gone to put out a “bankable” product (not that they were ever too concerned with that), so they just let the emotion shine through. And there’s a lot of emotion to be conveyed here.

Unique to Poor Old Lu’s sound, as always, is Scott’s raspy-yet-not-metal voice, which is in top form here. Also to be noted is the stunning production by now-deceased Christian Rock pioneer Gene Eugene (a name you see often in the “good” C. Rock albums, including a few I have already written about like Kosmos Express’ Simulcast) and Aaron Sprinkle, who himself really seemed to find that winning combination of subtle tones and ways to accentuate musicality that made him the in-demand producer he is today. The album sounds gorgeous, is what I’m saying, and that’s not a phrase I use often because it’s kind of gay.

The whole thing starts with “Rail”, the band’s first official foray into songs over 7 minutes long. Its long intro is one of those “perfect” buildups to a mid-tempo rock-out. For what seems like the first time, there are a multitude of guitars layered over each other for this song, but not in that reviled “Wall Of Sound” kind of way, I mean there are anywhere from 2 to 5 guitars all playing different riffs utilizing various tones that kind of sounds like if all the types of guitars you could throw into a grunge-shaped alternative sound all got together and…. uh… played a bunch of notes (we’re keeping it family friendly here at Album Du Jour).

The lyrics to the song set the tone just right. Eschewing a multitude of words for a few simple, yet powerful, lines of spiritual longing, Scott breathes out the following words:

Jesus, tie these hands
I used to think that everything I touched turned gold
But it don’t, it turns cold

And reason guides this man
Like Spring to Fall, and wind and sand
I sway, I sway, I can not stand

What do I do, when I relate to Judas more than you?
And I can’t ever… I can’t ever see the end

Jesus, help me see
It’s not about consequence, it’s peace
And I won’t seek, I won’t seek on my own knees

And Grace is over me
It’s true, I feel, I know it’s real
But will I live what I believe?

I absolutely love those words, and you may remember how I said that, as a Christian songwriter, you can write the worst dirge of all time as long as you have the redemptive last lines? I kind of love that this song turns it right back around into doubting and lets it hang there. Indeed, we’re dealing with some pretty strong stuff here.

After the equally long and powerful play-out (with a clean guitar riff that sends chills down this young reader’s spine), the first “rocker” of the album takes center stage. The song is called “Receive” and it follows along the theme of the first song, dealing with depression, specifically speaking to a youngster, seemingly anyway. Lines like “Made a crown, for the pain, and it falls on your mind like so much rain” and “Check your name, check your head, I’ve heard more joy from some… someone dead” gives way to a chorus that is simply “Receive”. In the storm of fast-moving chords and an awesome beat from Lu’s amazing drummer Jesse Sprinkle, the bridge is one of my favorite parts, featuring Scott growling out the lines “Too close, too far, too insane”.

Indeed, even on an album as dark as these songs have been building up to, it’s good to take a bit of a break, and in fact “A Better Me” is just that. Lyrically, it’s not such a pepper-upper, but the chords are in a major key, with a bubbly guitar effect (either a flanger or fast-set phase shifter) hiding in the background, and a very interesting bridge. The band, particularly Scott Hunter, have gotten down on the song before, but I quite like it. It seems to present an idea that there is a lot that can be accomplished in this world, but not all of it is particularly beneficial for spiritual growth.

Then it’s back to the (more) depressing stuff, and what can be more depressing than a title like “What If Uncle Ben Had Lived?” Of course, one may then realize the titular Uncle Ben is from the Spiderman ethos and in fact this song’s title was taken from a graphic novel of the same name. Still, the song itself is no joking matter. Featuring acoustic guitar played over a droning organ (out of tune with each other, which bugs me but in a way that seems necessary), the song is slow and intentionally trashy sounding. The distorted guitar, run through some kind of oscillating effect, is so distorted that the tones are barely recognizable, which conveys exactly that feeling that something is wrong. Then we hear the lyrics:

Reaching for a star
With my eyes dead on the floor
Racing all the time
My soul can’t take much more

Touch the silent man
Who made himself so low

The breeze is too much for me anymore
(I’ve seen this in people who are weak)
And if I push the blade in deep
Will in break inside of me
In me, in me, in me…

Wow, you may be thinking. Indeed, such a song seems quite hopeless (and is, in fact, the first of *two* songs that refer to suicide), and the simple “Touch the silent man” lines are finished in thought at the very end of the song:

Touch the silent man
Who made himself so low
Make yourself as small
Just He, and I, and all…

Another song that the band seems to get down on is “Joy I Had Was Joy I Sold”, mainly because it was rush-written, in the studio, and kind of just cobbled together out of a few chord changes and some interesting rhythm ideas. I have to say, despite this suspect process of putting together a song, it still stands above about 90% of other alternative rock songs. Just sayin’.

Still, the very first song I ever heard from Poor Old Lu, “Chance For The Chancers”, was also written entirely in the studio. However, unlike “Joy I Had”, this track is one of those songs that just stays with you forever. It is, in fact, one of my absolute favorite songs ever made. It starts with a simple guitar melody in a nice 6/8 time signature, that then switches to 4/4 for the actual song portions. The song is one of those 4-chord “alternative” progressions, but it does everything so right that it’s hard to fault for such behavior. The song is lyrically a plead to someone who is too wrapped up in despair to realize that “Everything is gonna be ok”, and I defy anyone to try and recreate the vocal melody, because it’s deceptively difficult. Indeed, the band really outdid themselves on this particular song with its beat changes and overall “haunting” feel (as described by singer Scott), they couldn’t possibly do any better, right?

Actually, what follows is what I, in any amount of “objective criticism” I can lay claim to, consider to be the best song written in Christian Rock. That’s really saying something since it never even directly refers to God. It’s another song that starts in 6/8, only it stays there this time. The chord progression follows a downward spiral from Am to its 5th, as any good gloomy song should, and it features one of the best guitar solos in the Lu catalog in the bridge, not so much because it’s a technically amazing solo, but because it is the second most despair-ridden thing in this song. The first, of course, are the lyrics:

Choices cloud my head again
Wrapped up in myself instead
And if I fall this time, will it be the last time
For this crime

And anger has more of my soul
Than I ever wished it would hold
And as I let it go, and watch how it grows
It won’t fold

Do I love this world?
Can I breathe beyond here?

The message that is conveyed is one of standing in the same place, in a rut, which is where the despair kind of gets to you. The “as I let it go and watch how it grows” line is referring to sin and how letting it go can cause it to grow, like a weed, and you can see where it’s going from there:

Flowers have grown round my eyes and ears
The soil it soaks all my tears
How I’m tired of standing here
And I’m sick of that heat that’s so near

And if we’re all right
And if we cannot be wrong
Then we needn’t fear
We’re almost there
Like I’m depressed and I hold a gun

Once again, following in the same theme, we see not only depression and torpor, but actual suicidal thoughts (second of 2 scheduled appearances of such in the album). The “If we’re all right” lines are a an amazingly bold statement regarding the attitude that being Christian is enough to be “all right”, like if you’re “saved” then nothing can touch you. The song clearly disagrees:

It’s all the same
Just falling rain
All the more the reason to stay
What is the scene
It’s brown and green
The weeds that grow around my feet

The chorus above is sung once after the second pre-chorus, and again after the solo, but then the most important part of the song brings it home, a repetition of the line above:

And if we’re all right
And if we cannot be wrong
Then we needn’t fear
We’re almost there

Which, isolated at the end of the song, uses the exact same words that, earlier, conveyed a sense of dread, now seem to be hopeful. Indeed, no matter how bad it gets, “We’re almost there”, but only “If we cannot be wrong”, and thus is presented the very core of Christianity: absolute faith constantly racked with guilt and doubt. For that reason, this song kind of represents the song that best gets it right.  The scholars may disagree, but I feel pretty strongly about it, which might explain why this writeup is now over 2200 words with no sign of slowing.

Either way, it’s about time for a fun song. Sure, “Enough” may be in a minor key, but the psuedo-circusy organ blats that form the backbone of the song along with the staccato guitar chords make it at least interesting enough to avoid being gloomy. The bass-line that is layed over the thing, which doesn’t follow the rhythm the way a bass should, is something I strongly approve of. It really makes the song. The words are good, the melody is good, but the bridge is great, and in fact it should be, they’ve used it before. Yes, this is the song that shares the bridge with “Never Said” from Star Studded Super Step, and due to that, is typically joined-at-the-hip with it in live shows. The bridge also features a neat trick involving a rubber rat toy, a lot of delay, and a lot of reverb which kind of has to be heard to be appreciated.

Finally, however, it’s time to close this mother down. First off is one of the very few overt “relationship” songs in Lu’s discography, “Hello Sunny Weather”, which of course is an ironic title. It’s about the pains of growing up and trying to be in a relationship that is growing more and more difficult, I guess. I actually can’t really tell what the song’s about, but it utilizes the great love-song chord progression in a way that really turns itself on its ear. I approve, though this has proven one of the less popular Lu tunes to people who have heard this album and lived to tell me about it.

Finally, we have the aptly-named “Closing Down”. The song is built around those late-night frustrations with life when one can’t sleep because the next day is never going to be better than the last. The song’s ultimate message is to pray, and indeed that’s Poor Old Lu’s calling card with these kinds of songs. The main draw to this song is that it has this amazing crescendo of 3 chords and a cadence that just builds up and builds up until it, well, kind of fades out. Really, a great way to end the album, it leaves you about as sad as it found you, I suppose.

Even now, almost 14 years after first hearing the album, I still get excited to hear it, and count it among the very rare Christian albums that are just good enough to be heard by dirty heathens or just anybody who likes dreary music and has had enough of The Cure (which the Lu boys admit were a major influence on their sound at this point).

Sure the guys broke up pretty quickly after this album was released (perhaps a bit of irony was that they did so right before the beginning of 1997, which was otherwise a very good year for Christian alternative music), and maybe this album isn’t any better than Sin or The Waiting Room, but it still had enough of a profound impact on my own music appreciation to warrant this extra-long entry. After all, if it weren’t for these guys, I might not have opened my mind to the variety of styles and sounds out there, and this blog either wouldn’t exist or would be dedicated to all the bands I listened to before which, trust me, you don’t want to hear about.

Alice Cooper – Love It To Death

Yesterday I mentioned what happens when you take an established musical force and it’s held by gunpoint by a deranged producer, either something really terrible happens (like yesterday’s album), and sometimes something amazing happens. Today we’re going to talk about the latter, in Double-Album-Cover-Vision™:

Oh Alice, that card!Because not knowing where Alice's right hand is makes things SO MUCH NICER.

I went ahead and put up both album covers to see if you too can spot the difference.

Give up?

Alice Cooper’s thumb has been air-brushed out of the second picture, the man was so feared by the pre-Tipper Gore era of concerned parents that just having his thumb somewhere where, if Alice were completely naked, a penis might be, would have probably incited riots and Bible-burning from the clearly retarded kids these parents were raising. Thus, the LP cover was censored for a second print from Warner Bros. Anyway, this is not why I’m talking about this album, though it is one of the more amusing cover-censorship situations out there.

Basically, to my earlier point, Alice Cooper in 1970 was not the top rock act that it was toward the end of Alice Cooper being a band with a singer also called Alice Cooper instead of just a guy called Alice Cooper. The band itself, up to this point, had been another drop in the bucket of psychedelic rock acts that had gotten their start (and, often, finish) between the years of 1967 and ’69. That time, often called “idyllic” by people who can’t get words like that out of their heads, was a pretty good time for psychedelic act since everyone was on drugs, but Alice Cooper’s problem (besides terrible album covers), was that they weren’t a very good psychedelic band. For one, I’m willing to bet that any drug-crazed fiends who purchased the albums were expecting to hear a woman singing (which, if Jefferson Airplane is any indication, was something they vaguely wanted) and might have been disappointed by Alice actually being a dude. There might have been issues with the fact that these albums from what became one of the best hard rock bands ever actually didn’t rock, but you know, that one’s up to the scholars.

Clearly, this fledgling group needed some help, and their previous producer actually hated them. That help would come in the form of a brilliant producer named Bob Ezrin. Recognize that name? Well, avid readers of Album Du Jour may remember the one and only time I wrote about Kiss, and how he was the producer to help THEM through a life-saving third album by whipping them into shape and even threatening to not let their guitarist record the guitar.

Yes, Love It To Death is the first Alice Cooper band to feature Ezrin’s guiding hand. Now, I may have been telling a fib (or “metaphor”, as we in the writing business call it) when I said he held the band at gun-point, but I will say that convincing a psychedelic band to actually be cohesive probably took more than a fair share of beatings, just saying.

Indeed, it turned out that what Alice Cooper needed, as a band, was an image and songs that made any kind of sense. One idea that kind of sort of maybe proved popular for the band was pairing their horror-tinged hard rock with a “bad boy” attitude, hence the album cover above (nothing is better for rock music than controversy, turns out), and thus the Alice Cooper hit machine was finally started up.

It should come as no shock that this album is amazing. Often overlooked for the much more recognizable albums that follow it, there is one undeniable hit that was spawned from this album: “I’m Eighteen”. A song speaking directly to teenagers, the tortured lyrics of a poor soul caught between the frivolities of youth and the expectations of adulthood, believe it or not, really spoke to the kids. Of course, any kids my age who ever saw the TV show Freaks And Geeks would recognize the song as well for reasons of hilarity. The fact that the song is run on a solid engine of an instantly identifiable bluesy guitar riff instead of incoherent instrument noodling kind of helped it along as well.

Which is not to say the album doesn’t have its instrumental noodling, in fact it has some of the longest songs recorded by the band up to that point, particularly the 8 minute “Black Juju”, which stops the entire song half-way through so that Alice Cooper can whisper creepily to you. Now that’s the artist we know and love!

The real highlight of the album is on the B-side called “The Ballad Of Dwight Fry”. Being well-versed in insanity, I can tell you that it’s about a real guy, though not a real “insane” guy, just an actor who played one in the 40’s. Anyway, the song is sung from the perspective of a mental patient, and everything from Alice’s amazing vocal work (including a chilling segment of rapidly screaming “I GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE”) to the spooky instrumentation layered lightly over an actual acoustic ballad makes this song a creepy national wonder.

There are other highlights too, of course, like the short-but-rockin’ “Long Way To Go”, which features some pretty great rhythm segments, including one where the bass(?) being mute-strummed is matched with the drums over a really cool guitar solo. It’s as classic rock as it gets, really, which means it probably never got a lot of recognition among Cooper’s nearly endless string of theatrical horror songs.

One other really great thing about the end of the album is that all the songs bleed together, which is always a move I appreciate. From “The Ballad Of Dwight Fry” a track called “Sun Arise” takes the album out. I have never read an explanation for this song, but from the sounds of it, it kind of seems to be poking fun at The Beach Boys and their effervescent sound by making a kind of dirty rock version of one of their summery songs, there’s even a background vocal that kind of sounds like the theramin, and vocal harmonies all throughout the endless repetition of the chorus. This is my theory, and I think it’s a good one.

Anyway, Love It To Death was the album that introduced the formula that would fuel Alice Cooper’s success for many, many years, as evidenced by the fact that Killer (which I’ve already covered) came out in the same year and did just as well. We have Bob Ezrin to thank for helping make that happen.

Well, that was a nice story, until next time!

Leonard Cohen – Death Of A Ladies’ Man

There are a lot of bad ideas in music, even from music’s greatest artists. Who knows why it happens, perhaps it’s through causality associated with time travel, perhaps musicians aren’t as brilliant as we make them out to be, perhaps it’s because some producers are completely insane and hold artists at gunpoint to get their way with the equally insane music they’re producing. I don’t know, it’s all crazy, but somehow or another, music and poetry legend Leonard Cohen somehow got mixed up with the worst producer in pop music history: Phil Spector. The result is one of Cohen’s most infamous albums:

A title nearly too close to the truth, a haircut nearly too close to a hobbitThis album is, of course, not infamous for its songs or anything (rightfully so), but of the stories, apocryphal or completely true, that follow the album’s recording.

Basically, the best I can piece together the story, from various sources I don’t have time nor energy to cite, all has to do with Cohen’s legendary bad luck with his management.

I really can’t blame the guy, depression does terrible things to people, and Cohen certainly had his problems. After initially finding success with his amazing debut and a cross-genre hit with “Bird On The Wire” from his sophomore release, things started to go kind of sour for the poor poet. Despite Songs Of Love And Hate being some of the most amazing music to ever grace this undeserving planet, and New Skin For The Old Ceremony being very interesting, Cohen was having some legitimate trouble “cranking out the hits”, which was Columbia Records’ only concern. Having just put Johnny Cash on the back shelf for daring not to repeat the hits that made Columbia Records famous, I guess Columbia was feeling especially evil.

Either way, this lack of hits and his reputation for being… well… kind of drab at times, Leonard Cohen was in a pickle. His then-manager, Marty Machat, saw this as a legitimate concern, not only because he was Cohen’s manager and it was kind of his job to be, but also because the two were good friends.

Someone else that Machat represented who was also a problem was a murderous dweeb called Phil Spector. Known by everyone but me, at least until recently, as one of music’s greatest criminal warlords, he’s the man who murdered a Beatles song back in the day (the un-naked version of “Let It Be”) and a woman in recent years, of which he has recently been found guilty and will thankfully be in prison until all his hair falls out:

This is the way he did his hair TO BE ON TRIAL FOR BEING A MURDEROUS FUCKHEAD, can you believe they found this kitten guilty?As you can see, he’s going away for life.

Still, what he did to The Beatles and George Harrison and many other artists was at least seen as ridiculous and evil (at least by the artists themselves) at the time. For this reason, Phil was starting to become something of an unpopular character in music, given that most of his “recording sessions” involved hiring anywhere from 50-800 musicians to build his “Wall Of Sound”, which is basically the equivalent of drowning music in a toilet, and threatening just about everyone around him with guns.

So combining this crazy man with Leonard Cohen sounds like a sure thing, right? Well, apparently that’s what was going through Machat’s mind, along with some poisonous spiders, I assume. See, Warner Bros. was a little peeved by his client, Mr. Spector, who had demanded huge advances on his projects without actually producing anything, so Machat had the brilliant notion to give Spector a project so that he could work his magic and produce an album of hits. I guess he figured that, since Leonard Cohen had not produced any hits recently (instead producing the significantly-less-marketable genius songwriting), he could pair the two, have Spector produce an album for Cohen, ?????, then profit!

Apparently Cohen and Spector hit it off at least enough to get completely wasted and write 15 songs about getting laid. If you thought Cohen wrote some risque material for New Skin For The Old Ceremony, then check out “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On”, mysteriously featuring Bob Dylan on backing vocals, where does HE fit in all this?

Anyway, soon enough, the relationship between the two men soured, what with Phil Spector bringing his militia of heavily-armed friends to the studio, locking Leonard out, using basic scratch-tracks of his vocals, applying his insane army of 50,000 underpaid musicians to apply layer after layer of instrumentation to these tunes that border on retarded, and if Cohen had anything to say about it, there was a gun promptly aimed at his head. I wish I was making all of that stuff up, but look again at that picture of Spector above and tell me that man isn’t capable.

Yes, the album is barely Leonard Cohen, it’s only got a few flourishes of his literary talent, but in a form that is more likened to John Lennon writing a breakfast cereal jingle. The jazzy, funk-laden arrangements are not only cheeseball, but drowned in so much reverb that it made me physically exhausted to listen to even before the first song was over.

Cohen eventually wrote to Machat’s son, explaining that he only did what he did because he was willing to try Spector out as an experiment (so many lives are ruined by “just an experiment”), and because he trusted his manager and friend. He wrote “This album is junk. (…)I never want to see that man Spector again. He is the worst human being I ever met.”

Leonard really wanted the album to be buried, but unfortunately Machat’s hands were tied (and who knows, maybe Phil held a gun to HIS head too), and the “experiment” was eventually picked up and released by Columbia Records (Warner Bros. wouldn’t touch it, imagine that!), and proceeded to do terribly.

Of course, there is a silver lining to this disaster. Leonard eventually shaped up, re-discovered his folk roots, put out the amazing album modestly titled Recent Songs, and his next forays into music, while not successful for another 10 years, would be consistently top-tier, and he would never work with Spector again.

Indeed, he and Machat remained friends after this fiasco, and Machat continued to represent Cohen until his death, at which point Cohen pulled the worst cliché in rock music, he let his girlfriend become his manager. Of course, the lady went completely insane and absconded with Cohen’s entire retirement fund, totalling millions of dollars, and proceeded to smear campaign the aging poet so hard that Google refused to list her blogs. The lack of a retirement fund is the reason Cohen’s out there putting out amazing shows and working so hard at age 75 that he collapsed on stage in Spain, which makes me extremely sad, even if the show I got to see was singularly the most amazing musical thing I have experienced in recent memory.

So yeah, Leonard Cohen has legendary bad luck with management.

As for the album? I’m going to go with Cohen’s word and tell you, it’s a shit album. Seriously, don’t listen to it, it will make you angry.