Friday, February 28, 2014

Music Review - Magical Mystery Tour - The Beatles

Magical Mystery Tour continues where Sgt. Peppers leaves off, blending in a huge variety of instruments and effects to make a kaleidoscope of sound. I really liked this one growing up though lately I've had a diminished opinion of the album, probably because I saw the film/TV special that initiated the creation of these songs. It's bad. Real bad. The kind of bad that was surely influenced by the drugs people were ingesting during that era.

But in hearing the album again I'm reminded that the music itself is quite good. Classic, even. There's the introductory fanfare of the title song followed by the somber "The Fool on the Hill" which contrasts a lilting flute against an earthy bass harmonica, a kind of sequel to "Nowhere Man". I always liked the flanged drums that are the focal point of "Blue Jay Way" but didn't care much for the instrumental that preceeded it. "Hello Goodbye", with it's simple lyrics and cheerful melody, not to mention it's abundant use of reverb, is another great "gateway" song for kids. While you're listening make sure you pay attention to Paul's ultra-bouncy bass line! Speaking of great bass lines, how about that "Baby You're A Rich Man" with the crazy, noodling synth tone? Everyone loves "All You Need Is Love" and maybe I've heard it too often but it never really grabbed me. I mean, I like it and all, with it's horns and harpsichord and cello and sweet strings, but its a non-realistic utopian prelude to "Imagine" lyrically and musically it's much too repetative for my tastes.

Now on to the three songs that comprise the meat!

"Penny Lane" is pure nostalgia. Lovely, blissful nostalgia. It's got bells, a flute, instantly recognizable horns, piano and a whopper of a walking bass line! It's a very strong McCartney song filled with easily digestible but complex musical choices* but Lennon deals him a one-two punch with...

Who can forget the stomping, chanting beat of "I Am The Walrus" with it's bizarre non-sequitur lyrics? Apparently Lennon was trying to write the most confusing lyrics he could muster and he certainly succeeded. Also unusual is that for the first two minutes the song is in true stero but after that it switches to a "faked" stereo because of studio limitations. Such choppiness wouldn't be tolerated even by a local band these days but back then, with things permanently commmited to tape that would take days to fix, such things were commonplace. It's not a bug, it's a feature.

It took forty-five hours to record "Strawberry Fields Forever." To me, that's just overkill. I mean, I can make a BABY in far less time... well, at least my part. But I digress. This is the song where Lennon liked two versions, a dreamy one and a rockier one, so he asked the engineer to figure out how to combine the two despite them being in different tempos and keys. And what a glorious mish mash it is! At the one minute mark the dream is interrupted by Ringo going donkey kong on the drums followed by crusty cellos... pure bliss!

* He's a clever one, that McCartney.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the big kahuna, the one music critics fawn over and write books about and blah blah blah. So much has been written about this album it seems almost a waste to spit out more words so I'll try to keep this brief.

Back in 1967 bands didn't have massive walls of amps. The biggest, baddest, most powerful amp at their disposal was specially designed "super-loud" 100 watt Vox amps*. Sure, they had a dozen or so on the stage with them but with all the screaming teens they still couldn't hear themselves play. And so the decision was made to send a virtual band on the road in their place, hence the imaginary Sgt. Pepper.

So into the studio they went, freed to create music they didn't have to recreate live. The band was also involved in a kind of music arms race with The Beach Boys and their album Pet Sounds, a remarkable album and incidentally the only Beach Boys album I enjoy. I found that in making notes for writing this review I kept writing "great bass line" on almost every song. Then I discovered that the session bass player on Pet Sounds, Carol Kaye, spurred McCartney to expand the melodic nature of his bass parts.

Without the constraints of live performance the band includes horns, lots of keyboard instruments, non-western instruments, harps, string orchestras and sound effects. Oh, and a kazoo. The result is a massive leap in tone colors, like going from black and white to modern color digital "film." Nowhere is this more evident than in "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." As a child I would marvel at the odd, magical words like "plasticine" and "looking glass eyes", only later finding out that this was clay and mirrors.

I suppose I could gush about every song but I'll hit the highlights, at least for me. "Getting Better" is made all the better by Lennon's foil of "It couldn't get no worse" to McCartney's saccharine optimism. "She's Leaving Home" is so horribly hopeless and depressing, a far cry from the simple love pop songs of just a few years earlier. The harpsichord and sparse sound of "Fixing A Hole" and the mesmerizing, swirling carnival sounds of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are also strong childhood memories. With CDs and digital music, it's so much easier to hit the skip button on "Within You and Without You" whereas before I'd have to move the record arm to "When I'm Sixty-Four." I also loved the rough rhythm of "Good Morning Good Morning", which is written in a variety of time signatures. Apparently it was so unique in its time that the session horn players had a difficult time following along, hence the sloppy playing. And who can forget the lilting piano solo on Lovely Rita? Not I, said the fly.

And then there's "A Day in the Life." If ever there is an epic song on an epic album, it's "A Day in the Life." It's a great song, though my young mind couldn't really wrap around it, instead just basking in the rich vocal reverb, the orchestral build up, the many different turns the songs takes and the resounding final piano chord.

Also recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions are the amazing "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", stupendous songs which were included on the American version of Magical Mystery Tour.

* For great info on the bands state of the art period gear as well as what guitars each used, etc. see Beatles Gear.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Penguin Point Review - Chicken Strip Basket

Everything lined up perfectly for a trip through the local Penguin Point on my way home and I had a coupon for a Chicken Strip basket (see above). I grabbed two cups o' ketchup inside the store and hurried out to my car so the employees wouldn't see me taking a picture. The items were piping hot, though I've never been around a hot pipe, and I dug into the fries first. Crinkly and deep fried. No complaints here! Then the dinner roll, which is just like I remember them being as a child. Nothing special but nothing bad. They provided one plastic tub of plastic margarine goop which went back into the bag. I ate a few bites and figured that was enough of the gummy white bread so I put the rest in the bag.

Three chicken strips and a container of slaw remained. There was no wee cups of BBQ sauce included and no offer of any kind of sauce was made inside so the chicken strips would have to be eaten plain. The things I endure for this blog. I'm no fan of slaw but figured that since I'm doing a review that I should at least take a bite. A small bite. I looked for a fork or a spoon, of which they included neither... only a knife. Odd. Well, a knife of slaw is about all I'd want to eat anyway so I opened the lid and instead of icky slaw the wee styrofoam container contained GRAVY!!!

I think I heard angels sing.

White gravy with flecks of pepper! It was like opening a present at Christmas that you are sure contains socks but instead houses an Android*. I was literally stunned for a few moments. You can bet that I dug the rest of that dinner roll out of the bag for a hot dip! The crunchy, crispy chicken strips were also baptized. T'was a meal highly recommended!!!

Why don't more fast food restaurants offer gravy as an option? Imagine how great a Wendy's baked potato would be drowning in gravy? Or maybe some gravy to give your hashbrown a dip? Deep fry that burger, toss on some gravy (over the fries too) and you've got a poor mans Fried Steak!

*Or an iPod if you're one of those Apple die-hards.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Revolver

And now it's time for Revolver, the 1966 album that critics site at the start of The Beatles' "middle" period. An amazing about of growth had occurred in the three years since the band recorded their first album so to arbitratily pick an album, or even to come up with a term such as "middle period" is, well, very much something only a music critic would do. I plead guilty.

I remember also having Revolver at my disposal growing up and being intrigued by it's weird psychedelic cover. I think it warped me but in a good way. The album is also much more electric and rock than Rubber Soul as well as being much more experimental, both in terms of studio use and songwriting. What continues is the mix of world-weary songs, both musically and lyrically, with upbeat peppy numbers.

Having grown up with the U.S. version of the record I missed out on hearing three songs until I purchased the CD in 1987. And no, I wasn't one of those people waiting outside music stores until midnight... never much seen the point in that. Of these missing songs is "Doctor Robert," a song I don't care much for even today, and "I'm Only Sleeping," a solid Lennon song with typical ear candy vocal harmonies. And then there's "And Your Bird Can Sing," one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs. Whoever made the decision to leave this off the album proper should have, er, something horrible done to them.

What else is on this platter? Only the ultimate, iconic Ringo song, "Yellow Submarine," every child's gateway drug into The Beatles. "Got To Get You Into My Life" is one step away from Motown and the round, goosy bass line of "Taxman" should win some kind of award. Or at least qualify for a tax credit. "Good Day Sunshine" is pure optimism, making me feel like I was walking around jauntily on a sunny summer day with every listen. There's lots of piano on this album, adding tone colors and making it seem much bigger than four guys with guitars. "For No One" is just such an example, a seemingly simple song of love lost. Add in the yearning do-wop of "Here, There, and Everywhere" and you've got the perfect album for a love-starved twelve year old kid who is just learning phrases like "unrequited love."

No, I haven't forgotten "Eleanor Rigby", another classic Beatles song. It's a sore spot with me because I was the caller on a radio station with the right answer (it's the only Beatles song where none of the four actually played on it, those duties being carried out by a double string quartet) but the guy answering the phone dropped my call after confirming my answer and I never got my prize. Oh well. This lovely and lonely song is absolutely haunting, but you already know that. Growing up I liked the choppy stereo with the verse vocals panned hard right, only later learning that stereo was new at the time so these mixes were given throw-away priority and this hard panning was experimental. So what. I still like it. Sue me, taxman.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Rubber Soul

I'm trying to remember exactly where I first dipped my toe into The Beatles. It's either the movie Yellow Submarine and accompanying record (whose side two was also my introduction to classical and film music) or the red and blue double-album sets by Capital that contained all their singles. It's odd how I can't rememeber if we owned the red set, the blue set, or both. There's so much of my childhood that I can't remember but that's another story for another time.

What I DO remember, though, is having the album Rubber Soul at my disposal. What a great introduction to The Beatles! What a great introduction to music that isn't sung by Big Bird!

Created in 1965, Rubber Soul is their second album without cover songs and was the first to be recorded as a single time instead of piecemeal in stolen patches in between touring or filming. The luxury to focus, plus two years of studio experience and being pawns of the music industry, resulted in a darker, more cynical album with the boys trading in pure pop for folk rock. Gone are the simple boy-girl love songs, replaced instead by songs that better reflect the complexity of real life relationships.

It's a chicken-and-egg thing to decide if I was drawn to this melancholy sounds of this album because I was a lonely kid or if music like this made me melancholy. But melancholy is quite a fitting label for this album. In the jaded "Nowhere Man" you can almost hear the band pleading for a break in their touring schedule, that is if you listen close enough through the gorgeous vocal harmonies. "Norwegian Wood" is also a bit dour and I understand it was Lennon trying to tell his current wife or girlfriend of an affair. Then there's Lennon's "Girl" with its unorthodox but essential long, deep breath and the retrospective "In My Life" is pure nostalgia. And finally "Michelle" is the very definition of "bittersweet."

On the upside is "The Word" with that great western melody line during the bridge and "Think For Yourself" whose delicious fuzz guitar is almost flatulent. Ringo apparently taps on a matchbook on "I'm Looking Through You" which is punctuated by stabbing organs and who can listen to "Drive My Car" without shouting for "MORE COWBELL"?

Also recorded during these sessions, but released as singles, are "Day Tripper" and "We Can Work It Out", both seriously amazing pieces of songcraft. Can you tell that I like this album? I expect great things from these lads!

And speaking of lads, how about a fantabulous cover of "We Can Work It Out" by PFR and Phil Keaggy? Take it away, boys!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Help!

Help! is, of course, another movie soundtrack. For me, this is when the band gets consistently interesting. Incorporating more acoustic guitar as well as, in one song each, a flute, bongos, guiro and a string quartet, the band is obviously stretching in the studio and enjoying the flexability that four tracks can offer.

The songs are also increasingly infused with folk music while still retaining their infectious pop roots. Lyrically the band is also testing the waters, treading on themes not traditionally found in pop music.

Let's start with the title track, shall we? What other pop song from 1965 is an urgent plea for help? This is a full year ahead of Pet Sounds and possibly helped spur the creative "arms race" between Wilson and The Beatles. Lyrics like "Help me if you can, I'm feeling down" were a few decades ahead of Trent Reznor. Pairing desperate lyrics with an upbeat, catchy melody was also a few decades ahead of They Might Be Giants. Lennon had originally written the song in a less peppy format but changed it due to pressure to have an upbeat single. Thanks to YouTube, you can hear a snippet of his original demo. It's interesting but I prefer the version that I've heard all my life. I'm a creature of habit.

"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" has also been a longtime favorite of mine, partially due to it's 3/4 time signature. "Ticket To Ride" is another song firmly established in the classic Beatles cannon. Ya gotta love that choppy drum beat! Another personal B-list favorite is "I've Just Seen A Face." It's simple and catchy, a brief 2:07 that gets right to the point. Other very strong non-hits are "You Like Me Too Much" with it's prominent piano part and "Tell Me What You See." Even "Act Naturally", the Ringo song, is pretty durned good!

And then there's "Yesterday," one of the most played and covered songs in the history of mankind. Normally if I hear a song too many times I get sick of it but oddly, I can still enjoy this one.

With only two covers, expanding experimentation in the studio, and an album chock full of great-to-amazing songs (aside from the covers) Help! is a very respectable endeavor.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Beatles For Sale

I always thought that Beatles For Sale was recorded before Hard Days Night. For one thing it has a similar title as the first two albums. It also has lots of cover songs while Hard Days Night has none. And though this is blasphemy to rabid Beatles fans I'm willing to admit that the originals on this one are a bit on the weak side. Being a guy who just enjoys the music and isn't really into all the geeky trivia bits I never really looked into details on these early albums. Heck, I still have to think a bit to remember if Rubber Soul is before Revolver. But in writing this series I've needed to do a smidgeon of research, that being Wikipedia, the modern day version of cracking open an Encyclopedia Britannica. What I found was the reason for this weakness and apparent backward step: Beatles For Sale began recording about a week after they finished recording Hard Days Night, thus using up all their A-quality originals and forcing the band to return to covers to fill out the album. Plus it's their fourth album in twenty-one months. Sure, they were short albums, about thirty minutes each compared to today when anything under forty-five minutes leaves me feeling ripped off. Add in constant touring and it's safe to say that the boys were tapped out and well in need of a break.

So how about those originals? For starters there's the amazing "Eight Days A Week" with yet another phenomenal walking bass line. "Every Little Thing" is a nice song featuring piano and timpani, a rarity on pop records. "I'm a Loser" is jaunty despite the subject matter, another song that other bands love to cover. I've always had a soft spot for the morose "Follow the Sun" and especially like the vocal harmonies in the chorus. And then there's... well, there's not much. I mean, "No Reply" is pretty good but none of the other originals strike any chords in me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Hard Days Night

With Hard Day's Night things start to get really interesting. The iconic opening chord of the album and title track, long debated as to it's actual structure (but confirmed by George as being a Fadd9 with a high D played by McCartney) announces that something has changed. Some of the change is the absence of any covers, a very good thing in my book. Also leading the charge is George's Rickenbacker twelve string which adds a chimey tone throughout. Often Paul will double his bass line with the piano, expanding the sonic palate in a subtle but satisfying way. The songs are also a bit more sophisticated than the simple jingles found on the first two albums.

And then there's the cowbell on the title track. I need say no more.

There are a number of hits, including "Can't Buy Me Love", "I Should Have Known Better" (which sports Lennon's harmonica) and the suave "And I Love Her" which is totally made my George's Spanish flavored melody line. But even the non-hits exhibit a kind of self-respect, like they know they are strong stuff but only pale next to the sprinkling of timeless classics. No filler. Who can refuse to fall under the spell of the gentle melody of "If I Fell"? Or how about the heart-wrenching two-party vocal harmonies in "Things We Said Today"? Even "Tell Me Why", which sounds like it could have been off the first two albums, has a greater depth thanks to the bands progression in the studio.

NOW it only gets better from here!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - With The Beatles

I was wrong about things only getting better from here.

With The Beatles was recorded a mere four months after Meet The Beatles and to my ears, they used their best originals on their first album. Eight originals on this one and six covers. Of the eight, the bestest is “All My Loving” which totally slays. I love the walking bass line so much that I actually learned it and am able to play it well enough that it has become one of my few “Guitar Center” songs. You know what I’m talking about… the little riff or song you practice to death so that when you go to Guitar Center and plug in a guitar and lay down some killer bit and everyone thinks you’re amazing and they start offering you product endorsements. I’ve actually never played “All My Loving” in a Guitar Center or any other song. Well, I did awkwardly strum on an acoustic for a few minutes until some kid interrupted by solitude and started jamming away with HIS Guitar Center song so I left.

But anyway… “It Won’t Be Long” is raucous and energetic enough but it lacks a clear hook in the melody. “All I’ve Gotta Do” has a nice vocal harmony part (so nice that J. Geils Band lifted it for their song “Desire” off the Love Stinks album) but otherwise there’s not much to speak of. Well, there’s the covers “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Please Mr. Postman” which are decent but in my book covers don’t count. At least this album sold well for the boys and allowed them to continue making records.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Please Please Me

Hey kids! It's time for yet another series!

Last fall I picked up a copy of Beatles Rockband for the Wii for a mere thirty bucks. While I have no interest in "playing" a plastic guitar I've long thought that the plastic drums could be used as a kind of first step in learning proper drums, helping to develop muscle memory and whatnot. So every now and then I head down to the basement and set things up for twenty minutes of faux-drum mania. Fun stuff!

I hearing these songs again, songs that are meshed with my personal history, I thought it might be enjoyable to listen to all of their albums again.

So here goes...

Please Please Me

I've never been a fan of their pre-Revolver albums. While I generally like the originals on these early works there are far too many covers for my tastes. But that's how they did things back then. Consider that for their first album they weren't THE BEATLES (gasp, squeal, prostrate yourself) but were rather just some young band that showed promise and some success with their audience. Sir George Martin, who was not yet a Sir, took a fancy to them and brought them into the studio to see if this live success could be captured on vinyl.

Please Please Me was recorded in a single day and was essentially a live recording of their set with very few overdubs. There are seven covers and seven originals. Of these seven originals four are all-out home runs! "I Saw Her Standing There" kicks off the album with loads of energy. The prominent bass line is admittedly 100% stolen from the Chuck Berry song "Talkin' 'Bout You" but they make it their own. For some reason the well written "Do You Want To Know A Secret" seems to be a bit more mature in form than the other originals but I can't put my finger on why. The title track is a superb song with fantastic vocal harmonies and lots of variety in the little musical turnarounds between the verses that keep the song from being overly simple. “Love Me Do” is another song to be adorned with Lennon’s gritty harmonica plus a basic but fun to play bass line holding everything together. There’s a definite charm in this song in that the vocals and the harmonica, while musically pleasing, are not shined to a high gloss of perfection. For some reason people love “Twist and Shout” but I find it boring and repetitive. Unless it’s played at a wedding and I’ve loosed up a bit.

I’m tempted to say that the album is better than I remember it but that’s only because of these four very strong songs. I will say that it’s a very good first album and that things only get better from here.