Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dave Brubeck - Brubeck Plays Brubeck (1956)

I've only ever known Dave Brubeck in the context of his most famous group, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, so it was a bit of a surprise for me to discover that he had a solo album, Brubeck Plays Brubeck. Once I put it the CD, I was further surprised to discover that not only was it a solo album, but it was truly just Brubeck and his piano. Having been acclimatized to hearing him--and perhaps most jazz--in the context of arrangements for groups, it was a bit surprising to hear a truly solo performance. However, once I gave the album a couple listens to sink in, there was a lot of enjoyment in the simplicity of the included pieces.

In nine tracks, Brubeck covers a surprising amount of ground. The opening track, "Swing Bells", is possibly the most unorthodox composition/improvisation on the album, which is why Brubeck Plays Brubeck might seem particularly surprising at first. It opens with some complex improvised melodies which don't really follow any formal key structure before the piece finds itself, Brubeck adding in the left hand accompaniment as it develops into a pleasant jazzy tune. In some ways, we are witnessing the discovery of the song on the track and so while it might be one of the least immediately accessible on the album, it ends up being one of the most revealing too.

Other tracks, like the second, "Walkin' Line" and "The Duke" (a tribute to Duke Ellington), demonstrate a more prepared approach. The former creates a steady bassline on a blues scale for the melody to play around, while the latter's crescendic chords and dancing melodies betray a great deal of forethought.

While many of the pieces are relatively simple, this is a Brubeck effort, so more complex works are included. "Two-Piece Contention", like "Swing Bells", is such a work, broken up into three distinct segments--opening with a two-line approach were the left melody plays in unison and then the left hand answering the right on occasion, before changing into a more swinging grove, but never losing sight of the double-line unison melody. The piece then slows down a bit before accelerating to more rapid tempo. This might seem disjointed in description, but the piece stays well unified thanks to the call back to the initial melody line.

With lovely moments like "When I Was Young" and "One Moment Worth Years" crossed with more dramatic ones like "Weep No More" atop the more challenging pieces, Brubeck Plays Brubeck, I think, provides a lot scope for what the man was capable of, even without the collaboration and backing of his fellow quartet members. And even if it takes a moment to get used to the more solitary sound, and excepting some slightly indulgent moments on the more dramatic pieces, Brubeck Plays Brubeck is a wonderful little moment with the artist himself. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Swing Bells
  2. Walkin' Line
  3. In Your Own Sweet Way
  4. Two-Part Contention
  5. Weep No More
  6. The Duke
  7. When I Was Young
  8. One Moment Worth Years
  9. The Waltz

Links:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Velvet Underground - Loaded (1970)

With the lineup of The Velvet Underground mostly stable since their eponymous third album, it's no surprise that band largely continues on with the more straightforward rock music from that previous album on their fourth, Loaded. Loaded would also prove to be the band's final original album and although it doesn't have the wild experimental tension of their original two albums, it is appropriately loaded with a solid set of songs, courtesy of Lou Reed and company.

Musically, Loaded fits right in with the band's contemporaries, while retaining Reed's particular tendencies for tender vocals and contrasted raggedness. Opening track "Who Loves the Sun" is not a far stretch from "Candy Says", in mood, even if the track has a larger chorus that bends more towards the kind of harmonies that The Beatles were championing since Rubber Soul. However, the mid-tempo beat really helps push the album forward into its sequential hits: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll".

"Sweet Jane" opens up with Reed in a talk-song, which chugs along, hints of what's to come with the first title chorus. As the track moves along, Reed becomes increasingly animated and Doug Yule joins in on supporting the chorus. By the time of the song's final bridge, the infectiousness of Reed and Yule's yell-singing encourages singing along with some fine fat synth accents. "Rock & Roll" is the kind of straightforward rock tune that is enhanced by Reed's talk-song vocals and great accents, like when he double emphasizes "fine" in falsetto before leading into an energetic guitar solo, with a more tempered contrasting solo.

Much of the rest of the album is this kind of fine rock and roll with a few shifts towards more contemplative or melancholy, especially when Yule takes over vocal duties on tracks like the opener, "Who Loves the Sun", "New Age" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'". The one exception for Yule leads is the fast charging folk rock meets boogie woogie of "Lonesome Cowboy Bill", which boasts some country-style guitarwork.

Not unlike their third album, Loaded, doesn't quite hit the same highs as their more experimental initial works, but nevertheless remains a fine rock album, packed to the brim with highly enjoyable rock songs. And that easily makes it worth listening to, especially for fans of mainstream classic rock. 8/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Who Loves the Sun
  2. Sweet Jane
  3. Rock & Roll
  4. Cool It Down
  5. New Age
  6. Head Held High
  7. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
  8. I Found a Reason
  9. Train Round the Bend
  10. Oh! Sweet Nuthin'

Links:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz Goes to College (1954)

Only knowing The Dave Brubeck Quartet from Time Out, I really had no idea what to expect when I first put Jazz Goes to College on. I thought I was going to get a more experimental play with the jazz of the era, but instead I got a live album filled with some wonderful cool jazz, which I learned that Brubeck had a hand in popularizing on the West Coast.

These performances are primarily culled from a show at the University of Michigan, with the exception of "Out of Nowhere" (University of Cincinnati) and "Le Souk" (Oberlin College, Ohio), explaining the title. The included selections include original and contemporary material and, appropriate to the traditions of jazz, include plenty of lengthy improvised passages.

This is most notable on the Brubeck and Desmond-devised opening track, "Balcony Rock", which is a series of improvised, but related, pieces tied together into a single performance. It plays at a fairly cool tempo and gives a lot of space to highlight both Desmond's tendency towards tempered, exacting alto sax and Brubeck's often thick, complex chords. Over the course of twelve minutes, the duo, plus their stalwart rhythm section of Bob Bates and Joe Dodge, manage to entertain the audience, who break into active applause throughout the performance, particularly when the quartet edges into the blues.

The collection also includes more aggressive work, like the original "Le Souk", with Bates hard at work on the bass, Desmond summoning some Middle East influenced modalities and Brubeck crashing in on the piano and burning the house down with a rather fiery solo.

Though not well schooled in jazz, I recognized the Quartet's take on "Take the 'A' Train", which was best known by being Duke Ellington's signature tune. In the Quartet's format, it gives a lot of space for Desmond in particular to play on his sax, again contrasting his cleaner, smoother sound with Brubeck's dense piano work and Dodge does some particularly fun work on the drums here with the presence of an emphatic bass drum.

The most compelling aspect of Jazz Goes to College is its live recording nature. The interplay of the band with each other, especially as Desmond and Brubeck trade off on solos, and the more subtle ways that the rhythm section play off of their soloists enact a kind of chemistry that I never noticed on the studio album of Time Out. It's not the kind of clean polished work that I was used to, but perhaps more compelling because of how organic the performances sound and how the presence of the audience often echoes my own sentiments as I listen as well.

This is the Quartet's debut on Columbia and clearly a promising start on the label. I would hazard to guess that Jazz Goes to College is an essential recording for those interested in Brubeck and Desmond's output to get. It's fantastic. 9/10.

Tracklist:

  1. Balcony Rock
  2. Out of Nowhere
  3. Le Souk
  4. Take the "A" Train
  5. The Song Is You
  6. Don't Worry 'Bout Me
  7. I Want to Be Happy

Links:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dave Brubeck - Original Album Classics

It was the sale that got me. I have Brubeck's Time Out and I really liked it so when I saw this collection on the cheap alongside its sister, I figured that it would be hard to lose. Granted, I wasn't really that familiar with Brubeck's discography outside of Time Out, but he was a pretty popular figure in the cool jazz scene and at the price ($5.99) I was paying for five albums, it was probably a really solid value I was getting, even if some of them turned out to be duds, so I bought it blind.

What you get are the five original albums in CD format in cardboard sleeves that replicate the original vinyl covers put inside a larger, better constructed cardboard sleeve. It's a great space saver compared to jewel cases, although like digipaks, you do risk damage to the art if you're not careful with your media. But since the existing CD releases of these albums didn't have many frills anyway, you're really not losing much by going this much more economical route.

One thing that is questionable about this set, at least when compared to the similar Original Album Classics for The Dave Brubeck Quartet is that this is credited to just Dave Brubeck, even though only one of its five albums is a solo album, the rest being released under the quartet, so it's not quite what you expect. It would have made much more sense to simply call it "Volume 2". But that's the only real complaint I could muster for this set.

Individual releases probably would have more legible liner notes and essays and possibly bonus tracks and the like. This set is fairly barebones, but again, I don't think you're missing too much with these particular albums as a lot of catalog jazz releases tend to be fairly barebones to begin with. As such, I have to like this set because it's a great value, compact and gets you a whole lot of Dave Brubeck for a very reasonable price. If you're a fan and you don't have any of these albums or even just one of them, this is a pretty good deal. If you're just getting into Brubeck, you should probably start with the other collection since Time Out is pretty much the album that Brubeck is best known for, but should you want to branch out from there, this is a fine choice of collection to purchase, even if it isn't quite tied together in terms of theme as its sister set. 7/10.

Contents:

  • Dave Brubeck - Brubeck Plays Brubeck
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Brandenberg Gate: Revisited
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Gone with the Wind
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz Goes to College
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet - Jazz Impressions of New York

Links:

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland (1968)

For The Jimi Hendrix Experience's third and final album, Electric Ladyland, the group's founding producer, Chas Chandler moved on, leaving the production of the album in the hands of Hendrix. Delving further into the experimentation with production techniques and song types he explored in Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love, we end up with a diverse album that stretches experimentation on some tracks while exploring tradition and polishing songwriting on others. But regardless of which direction the tracks go, they are united by Hendrix's potent guitar and stunning songcraft, making Electric Ladyland perhaps the band's unbridled best and a fitting swan song for the trio.

The studio experimentation is pretty obvious from the first track, "...And the Gods Made Love", which is simply a sound-noise experience as Hendrix goes to town on the knobs and sliders, the sound taking advantage of the stereo format and shifting from speaker to speaker. This leads into the introductory title track, welcoming the listener into its psychedelic world, with Hendrix backing himself in falsetto against this guitar's floating atmospherics.

Hendrix uses a wah-wah to accent "Burning of the Midnight", which is backed by a fantastic chorus and using effects to shape his guitar like a harpsichord on a fantastic aural journey. And then there's the truly epic "1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)", a nearly fourteen minute journey packed with impressive work on the guitar and behind the sound boards, with echoes and dubbing with effects while Hendrix drops an impressive vocal, drifting from march to psychedelic space exploration to an extended jazz run that melts back into rock. It's one of the most impressive experimental tracks from this era of rock and still stands its ground today as a bastion of what can be done within the boundaries of popular music.

But one of the reasons why Electric Ladyland works so well as an album is that it doesn't just drift off towards the border of the avante garde. Rather, the album is grounded in sounds both contemporary and traditional, with "Crosstown Traffic" giving the album that jolt of mainstream rock oomph and Noel Redding's "Little Miss Strange" bringing the group back into Britpop. But even Redding's track features the immense guitarwork and production of Hendrix, tying its sound to the overall album's, keeping the odd track from sounding like it doesn't belong in the set.

And just like with past albums, Electric Ladyland also blends this experimentation and raw musical potency with traditional musical forms, including the fifteen minute long slow jam blues of "Voodoo Chile", which shifts around in genre itself to include jazzier sections, thanks to Mitch Mitchell's fantastic drumming. The lengthy virtuoso instrumental section that comprises much of the recording is compelling enough to compel or demand cheers, whether added through production or actual recordings from an in-studio audience. And the track inspires "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", which is a guitar tour-de-force.

What's more, in reaching to the past, Hendrix appropriately covers Earl King's, "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)", transforming it from R&B to rock and roll. Even more memorable is the transformation of Bob Dylan's folk rock "All Along the Watchtower" into fire, from its crashing opening chords and Hendrix's all too familiar guitar intro to Hendrix's impassioned vocal delivery.

And I think both the freedom of Hendrix's music as well as the creative oversight given to him when he became producer, to push for fantastic takes as well as go wild behind the boards, is what makes Electric Ladyland such a compelling album. It's all given form and voice thanks to the trio's consistent collaboration, but largely due to Hendrix's presence in all of the music. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with this album, goes places where no one has before, and these are places that everyone who loves music will want to go since. But their discovery on Electric Ladyland is so immense that it's hard not to think of it as a perfect rock album, taking the past and the present and blending it with the musical future in this unforgettable musical experience. 10/10.

Tracklist:

  1. ...And the Gods Made Love
  2. Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)
  3. Crosstown Traffic
  4. Voodoo Chile
  5. Little Miss Strange
  6. Long Hot Summer Night
  7. Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)
  8. Gypsy Eyes
  9. Burning of the Midnight Lamp
  10. Rainy Day, Dream Away
  11. 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
  12. Moon, Turn the Tides... Gently Gently Away
  13. Still Raining, Still Dreaming
  14. House Burning Down
  15. All Along the Watchtower
  16. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Links:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Glen Check - Youth! (2013)

The 80's--and now '90's--inspired party doesn't stop with Glen Check's second album. It's a double disc effort, and it's pretty much a non-stop run of fun from the moment you put in the first disc until you make your way through the final non-hidden track on the second. The double album does raise a serious question about why it was broken up into two discs, but aside from CD switch, Youth! manages to capture an effusive joyfulness in its music that makes it an irrepressibly good time.

Like its predecessors, Youth! is heavily soaked in '80's and early '90's music. The lead single and opening track of the second disc, "Young Generation" snaps forward on a guitar riff that's a cousin to the snappy riff from Michael Jackson's "Black or White" while children's voices chime "Oh Yeah! / Woo!", before interpolating the guitar over a buzzing echoed digital effect and the thumping electronic beat pushes the track forward steadily, synth strings slashing in at just the right time for the needed break.

And like "Young Generation", the rest of Youth! is filled with tracks that exude a bright positivity, directed through claps, hooky guitar riffs, thumping 80's drums, and an endless chorus of strings. After the seemingly epic start to the album with "The Match Open", in some ways the successor to Haute Couture's "The Naked Sun", Youth! gets started with upbeat "Pacific". The following track, "Summer Hearts", is a bit more mellow, riding along on a double-downstrum guitar that has plenty of bounce to counteract the more reflective singing, which, like every other track by Glen Check, is digitally processed, and weaves itself into the tapestry of the music as a vehicle for delivering melody and atmosphere more than meaning through lyrics.

That said, I'm not fully sold on what the two disc division is supposed to accomplish, considering that each disc is only the length of an EP. The total running time of both discs is just over forty minutes, meaning that it would have easily fit on a single disc. There is a bit of a division in terms of arrangements with the first disc being a bit more band-oriented in its construction, conjuring memories of 80's alt-dance bands of yore while the second disc appears to be more synth-driven, running a bit more funky, like "I've Got This Feeling", with its funky guitar and synth hits evoking the turn towards the 90's music as an inspiration.

"Brooklyn", like "Young Generation", is a much more electronic construct with its repeated vocal samples, chopped, cut, looped, and crashing into other samples before a flanged up electric guitar solo bursts in like it was straight from Daft Punk's Human After All. Perhaps the music on the second disc runs a bit more stylish and funky than the bright dance pop of the first disc, so the point is use the disc swap break to reset and prepare for the change in tone and arrangement. At the same time, I think that could easily have been accomplished by an instrumental break track like the hidden track, with its New Jack Swing rhythms and synth hits, those synth hits actually reminding me of Seo Taiji and the Boys' breakthrough hit, "난 알아요".

But really, my one criticism about the whole album is really that it makes me have to change discs in order to listen to it all, which I suppose means that I have such a good time listening to the music that even that break feels like too much. And after listening to each disc on repeat, I have to say that Youth! gives me such an immense amount of sunny pop joy that it's hard to find much else to criticize. I suppose some of the song constructions are as repetitive as any other kind of dance music and Youth! is more of a refinement and careful growth of Glen Check's sound, rather than anything revolutionary, but when their music works so well, it works.

So if you like Glen Check, you will like Youth! If you like good pop music, you will like Youth! If you like '80's and early '90's dance or synth pop, you will like Glen Check. They certainly got me dancing like a crazy person in my car with this album and made an hour and twenty minute long commute surprisingly joyful. And that's something. 9/10.

Tracklist:

Disc 1:

  1. The Match Open
  2. Pacific
  3. Summer Hearts
  4. Youth in Revolt
  5. Paint It Gold
  6. Anthem for the Wild Souls

Disc 2:

  1. Young Generation
  2. I've Got This Feeling
  3. Brooklyn
  4. The Coast
  5. Jordan
  6. [untitled]

Note: The untitled sixth track on disc 2 is a hidden track and only available on the disc version of Youth!

Links:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold as Love (1967)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience's debut album, Are You Experienced, was a force. A whirlwind of psychedelia, guitar bravado, and rock roots that formed one of the most significant rock albums in music history. The trio were quick to follow up their debut with their sophomore effort, Axis: Bold as Love, within the same year, releasing it seven months after Are You Experienced.

Probably rolling high from the energy of their first album, the Experience presents thirteen more tracks on Axis that range from good to spectacular. However, in some was Axis is a bit more mellow, no longer emphasizing bravura guitar explosiveness and seemingly with a great focus on song and albumcraft, capturing a kind of extraterrestrial theme that was hinted at the debut's "Third Stone from the Sun" for many of the tracks. This is evident from the album's intro, "EXP" and the following alien POV song, "Up in the Skies".

That's not to say that there aren't moments where the band rocks out, like on fiery "Spanish Castle Magic" or the rumbling "Little Miss Lover". "If 6 Was 9" is a great piece of psychedelic rock, with its lumbering, start-stop band hits as Hendrix explores the world turning upside down.

Mitchell and Noel Redding have a slightly bigger vocal presence on Axis as well, backing on the chorus of the more pop-sounding "Wait Until Tomorrow" and Redding himself leads "She's So Fine".

Some of the best tracks on the album are the more bluesy rockers, like the classic "Little Wing", as well as the ballads. "Castles Made of Sand" features some wonderfully reflective lyrics, showing Hendrix's lyrical depth. "One Rainy Wish" is a great lead in to "Bold as Love" with its focus on colors, but it also has this great ramp up from ballad into a rocker with some wonderful bluesy guitarwork from Jimi. And then there's the title track, which personifies a variety of colors, taking the listener on a trip through a bright colorful world of music, Hendrix declaring that they are all "bold as love" on chorus title call, surfing along a sea of shimmering guitarwork, Mitchell and Redding providing an appropriately expressive canvas of rhythms for the colorful music.

It's a fitting track to end the album as it has bits of just about everything that makes the album great. That said, after the near revolutionary nature of Are You Experienced, Axis feels more of an incremental development, with Hendrix refining his songwriting and production in bits. And with so much more emphasis on those still developing elements, some of the explosiveness and energy of Are You Experienced isn't quite present here, making it not quite as strong as the album that preceded it and possibly not as developed as the one that follows. But that doesn't stop Axis: Bold as Love from being a great album and that it certainly is. 9/10.

Tracklist:

  1. EXP
  2. Up from the Skies
  3. Spanish Castle Magic
  4. Wait Until Tomorrow
  5. Ain't No Telling
  6. Little Wing
  7. If 6 Was 9
  8. You Got Me Floating
  9. Castles Made of Sand
  10. She's So Fine
  11. One Rainy Wish
  12. Little Miss Lover
  13. Bold as Love

Links: