Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra: The Ballads of Irving Berlin

Review #44
Artist: The Melachrino Strings and Orchestra
Title: The Ballads of Irving Berlin
Format: LP
Label: RCA Victor
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

Filed under "B" for Berlin (because I will never be looking for "Melachrino Strings" when I'm looking for something to listen to), this is yet another of the free records from my dad. This one I kept because I like Irving Berlin songs, even though I had no idea what the Melachrino Strings and Orchestra versions would sound like.

Turns out the answer is "sort of boring." It's all instrumental and, not surprisingly, mostly strings (although the somewhat strange cover featuring a woman in the woods surrounded mostly by wind instruments might suggest otherwise). This reminds me of a sort of nondescript score to a late 1950s or early 1960s film. Maybe something with Audrey Hepburn in it. It has that sort of feel to it. I guess it's something you might play at a certain type of cocktail party or something. Don't get me wrong, the tunes are still good (standouts are the medley featuring "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" and "Cheek to Cheek"), but these are just not the most compelling versions.

One thing that is pretty entertaining is the plug for "dyanagroove" records on the back of the cover, in which it is explained why dynagroove records are superior to other varieties: "highly ingenious computers--'electronic brains'--have been introduced to audio for the first time. These remarkable new electronic devices and processes grew out of an intense research program which produced notable advances in virtually every step of the recording science."

I'm sure they did. The "electronic brains" of 1964 were very sophisticated indeed, as was, I'm sure, the blurb writer's understanding of the music recording process.

Ok, just one more record before I review some punk rock again!

Total songs listened: 563

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pat Benatar: In the Heat of the Night

Review # 43
Artist: Pat Benatar
Title: In the Heat of the Night
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1979
Songs: 10

I'm back for more Pat Benatar, with her album preceding the one I wrote about in review #42. I wouldn't describe this as greatly different from the follow-up, although I do think "Heartbreaker" is a better tune than "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," so as far as the radio hit goes, this record has one up on Crimes of Passion. Otherwise, this is more cheesey, over the top songs about love and lust, as well as some cliches about how gritty urban life can be that are the lyrical equivalent of the smokey pool hall featured in so many music videos in the 1980s.

All of that said, I actually like  this record a little better than Crimes of Passion, the reason for this being that it's actually a little MORE over-the-top and cheesey. If I'm going to listen to over-produced hard rock from the late 70s and and early 80s, I want as much silliness and false bravado as possible, because that what makes this music fun to listen to from time to time. There's definitely a bit more of this going on here than on the follow-up. From the "I've got a bad attitude" feel of "No You Don't," the swagger of "Heartbreaker," the soaring emotionality of the power ballad "Don't Let It Show," and the sex-symbol posturing of "Rated X," this album is about drama, bravado, and cheese from beginning to end. It's got less thematic complexity than high school poetry but it's a lot more fun to listen to.

I would also be remiss here not to mention the ridiculous outfit that Benatar wears on the album cover, best appreciated on the back of the sleeve, where she is positioned "seductively" with one foot up on a radiator heater in a pose that looks nearly as uncomfortable as it does unnatural. The halter-top and puffy pants combo (or is it overalls?) is really a piece of work. With the heavy eye-liner, she sort of vaguely resembles a goth version Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin. Don't you mess around with her.

In short, this is some good cheese if you're in the mood for that. It is innovative one way--this record nailed 80s cheese in 1979. Perhaps it was influential in this respect, as the cliches found herein were repeated frequently in the decade that followed.

Total songs listened: 551

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pat Benatar: Crimes of Passion

Review # 42
Artist: Pat Benatar
Title: Crimes of Passion
Format: LP
Label: Chrysalis
Year: 1980
Songs: 10

Another free record I've never listened to all the way through before today, Pat Benatar's Crimes of Passion is mostly the kind of fun '80s hard rock cheese that I enjoy for a couple of songs and then wish something else would come on. This came to my collection via a friend's uncle. I think he must have lived in Japan for a time, because this, like several of the other records I ended up with when my old housemate moved out, is the Japanese version.  It only differs in that there's a band of paper around the jacket with Japanese characters on it, so it's not really all that special or different, but sort of interesting I suppose.

The record is made up mostly of songs of love and lust, with Benatar's powerful voice dramatically singing some fairly ill conceived lyrics (e.g. "You're a real tough cookie with a bad history, of breaking little hearts like the one in me..." is that reall the best rhyme they could come up with?) over a competent metal-ish band. The one thematic exception to this is "Hell is for Children," a song about child abuse which was apparently somewhat controversial in its time. While not the best written song, the delivery of it feels a little more heartfelt than some of the other material, and it is interesting as the one topical song on a record otherwise known for chart hits like "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "Treat Me Right."

I don't really have a lot to say about this record, because I don't feel that strongly about it one way or the other. While the musicianship is competent, nothing really stands out as excellent or particularly innovative, but I don't hate it either.  It's mostly just kind of silly and might be fun to play (at least part of) at a party some time.

Here's "Hell is For Children," if you haven't heard it and want to check out the one somewhat serious song on the record.

Total songs listened: 541

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jeff Beck: Truth

Review # 41
Artist: Jeff Beck
Title: Truth
Format: LP
Label: Epic
Year: 1968
Songs: 10

Jeff Beck's Truth is a record I got free in a big pile of LPs from my dad. I decided to keep this because I had heard the artist's name around for years and didn't really know what he was about. I didn't get around to listening to it today.

Jeff Beck, if you don't already know, was a member of the Yardbirds, and this record sounds a fair amount like some of the Yardbirds output, including a cover of "Shapes of Things," a Yardbirds song from which, I would have to conclude, the melody for Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" chorus was more of less ripped off  completely. But that's neither here nor there.

This LP features ten songs that can mostly be characterized as that late 1960s heavy blues that would provide the foundation for heavy metal rock. Along with the Yardbirds, I would compare this to some Led Zeppelin I've heard, but without so much of the screechy singing (vocals here being provided by Rod Stewart, who I must begrudgingly admit doesn't really sound too bad on this record). Jeff Beck's guitar is the centerpiece of this collection of songs, made up of both original songs and much older numbers such as "Old Man River" and even "Greensleeves." And there's no doubt that Beck is a phenomenal guitarists. I think he'd hold up fine in a three-way battle between himself, Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. The proficiency evident on this records is unquestionable if you know anything about guitar playing.

That said, this record doesn't do anything deep for me. I love classic blues, but this kind of heavy proto-metal blues has just never been something I've been able to get into. It kind of makes me feel tired. Truth avoids many of the pitfalls of music like this that I often criticize--it doesn't have the obnoxious screeching vocals of a Led Zeppelin album, and there doesn't seem to be too much of what I would describe as guitar wankery that seems to exist only for the self gratification of the guitarist (perhaps a little, though). So it doesn't irritate me like some bands from the genre often do. But it doesn't resonate with me either. At the end of the day, I guess this is just a subjective aesthetic preference, because there's nothing wrong with this record at all if you like music that sounds like this. I would go so far as to say it is one of the better ones I've heard, in the genre. But try as I might, I don't really like it very much.

Total songs listened: 531

Monday, September 19, 2011

New Record! Count Basie: The Best of Count Basie

Review # 40
Artist: Count Basie and his orchestra
Title: The Best of Count Basie
Format: LP (X2)
Label: Decca
Year: ?
Songs: 24

Hello readers! I'm back from my honeymoon and back to reviewing records! Today I'm listening to a record I bought shortly before I left but didn't get a chance to listen to until today, Decca's double LP best of collection for Count Basie. I picked this up on the advice of my buddy Colin, who seldom steers me wrong on anything. This was no exception. While a number of the tracks on this overlap with the previously reviewed French Count Basie LP (See review # 27), this was still a good purchase at $3.

For one thing, unlike the French best of collection I reviewed previously, this record has extensive liner notes I can actually read, written by Stanley Dance. The cover of this LP is gatefold, and within are several pictures of Basie and his band as well as several pages detailing how the group formed and their rise from a locally successful band in Kansas City to a jazz phenomenon in Chicago. There's also some discussion of Basie's style of arranging tunes. Basie, according to the writer, was the master of stripping down songs to their basic elements and riffing on these simplified versions. Thus, even when he played other people's songs, they became his own as he took the bits that he liked, stripped them down, and built up from there, not unlike the folk tradition of borrowing melodic or lyrical lines from other songs and making them one's own. My knowledge of jazz isn't deep enough that I could have come to this conclusion on my own, but after reading this and listening to the record, I can really hear it. Basie's version of "Honeysuckle Rose," for instance, is recognizable as a version of that song, but has little in common in with other versions I've heard, leaving out some of the most recognizable bits of the song, and transforming the others into something  that, while not entirely different, feels like a Basie composition. The liner notes also include a chronology of the band's personnel.

The music here is also fantastic. The record includes hits like "One O'Clock Jump" and "Swinging The Blues" that make me wish I could play jazz. These tunes are mostly instrumental, but Jimmy Rushing contributes his bellowing, bluesy vocal to a handful of the songs, and Helen Humes also appears on "Blame it on My Last Affair," adding an Ella Fitzgerald-esqe vocal.These two LPs are filled with foot-tapping swing jazz numbers that are full of energy and are just plain cool. The timing is perfect, the band all clearly consummate professionals, yet at the same time they manage to sound like they're just out there having the time of their lives. I could listen to this collection of songs all day long. If you're getting into jazz and don't have any Count Basie in your collection, I think this double LP would be hard to beat.

Here's "Honeysuckle Rose." See if you can hear what Dance is talking about with regard to Basie's arrangements.

Total songs listened: 521

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Review: 39
Artist: The Beatles
Title: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1967
Songs: 12

What can I say about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that hasn't been said 50 times already? This record is regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time. It's complex, inventive, and full of memorable songs. It is arguably one of the first concept albums (although the extent to which it actually is a concept album is debated to this day). There are dozens of rumors surrounding it, some involving the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney had died, others surrounding the Beatles' supposed intention to change their name to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. More capable writers than I have tread all of this ground numerous times, so I will not.

Likewise, I'm sure that most (or all) potential readers of this blog have heard this record many times (who hasn't?) so there's no need for me to describe the songs themselves in detail. Again, there's nothing for me to say that the interested reader doesn't already know or couldn't find in one of the many books and documentaries about the Beatles. So, I will not do this either.

Instead, I'd like to share some thoughts about how this record came into my life and the importance it has held for me over the last 15 years.

When I was a teenager, as I've written already (see my review of Hey Jude), the Beatles were the band that made me want to listen to rock music. At first though, I really preferred their early stuff. My musical pallet was not very sophisticated yet, and the catchy pop-rock of the first five or so Beatles records made more sense to me than the complex and unusual sounds found on the later records I had heard, like Revolver and Abbey Road. Then in the summer of 1996 I was going to garage sales with my dad in Spokane, Washington, and came across a Sgt. Pepper LP in a $1 box. I had never heard this record yet up to this point in my life. I didn't even have a record player at the time, but my parents' friends did, so that evening I recorded it on to one side of a cassette tape. The sounds I heard on this LP as I lay next to the speakers on the floor of their basement blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. I was captivated. I lay giving it my full attention until it was over, then played it again. It was perfect pop, but mixed with some of the strangest sounds I had ever heard. It was only a few days later that I got Magical Mystery Tour on cd from the library. I recorded this on the other side of the cassette and for several weeks, it didn't leave my tape player. I just turned the tape over and over, soaking in these two records. They became deeply embedded in my musical psyche and also became the standard by which, for some years, all other music was judged, and none could live up to.

After I heard this record, I was forever converted to a fan of the later Beatles records, and started trying to find other things that sounded like Sgt. Pepper. It was not long after this that I figured out Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel. These new sounds expanded my mental horizons and changed my worldview. It was a dollar well spent. I still own that same copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I still hear new sounds each time I play it.

That wraps up the Beatles LPs. The rest of their catalogue I have on cds and a couple of 7 inches, so next time we'll be moving on to different musical terrain as I cross the 500 song line. But it will probably be a couple of weeks before I have time to post again. Starting in late September, look for a return to several posts a week.

Until then, I'll sign off with this clip from the Yellow Submarine film in which the Beatles win the day and defeat the Blue Meanies by singing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Total songs listened: 497