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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008

After recently hearing for the first time the manic Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long”, I realized that I needed to absorb their entire catalogue and write about it. So this is my attempt at it, beginning with the start of Please Please Me and ending at the conclusion of Let It Be. Wish me luck.


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It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity. Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, unison vocals, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, hand claps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). 


The songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a burgeoning talent that still isn’t sure how to creatively occupy all its designated space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n’ roll into something distinctly its own.


Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early ‘60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. So perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the-sheets.


So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n’ roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There”.


Tagged as: the beatles
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Tuesday, Sep 9, 2008

The LP Cover Lover blog is always worth checking out, but today’s post, a scan of the front and back of a children’s record from Mao-era China called I Am a Sunflower, is exceptional. All along, I’ve struggled through my life without realizing my childhood was bereft of such sing-alongs as “Little Red Guards Attend a Repudiation Meeting” and “Criticize Lin Piao and Discredit Him Completely”.


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Monday, Sep 8, 2008
Beyond World War III is not a lost classic so much as one that was never found—and hopefully that can change.

Party Music for the Apocalypse: Mikey Dread’s Beyond World War III


If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts. Notably, many music fans have heard Mikey Dread even if they own zero reggae albums. As the ‘70’s came to a close, two things were difficult to deny: reggae’s golden era was over, and The Clash were, as many people acknowledged, the only band that mattered. Of course, The Clash’s kitchen-sink approach (which reached its apotheosis—for better or worse still a ceaseless debate amongst fans—on their fourth album Sandinista!) included the embrace of reggae, first evidenced in their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” from their first album. It made all the sense in the world for Mikey Dread to enter their world, which he did when he became the opening act on their tour. Shortly after, they hit the studio and collaborated on the single “Bankrobber”. Mikey Dread’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over the aforementioned Sandinista and at this point, it’s fair to conclude that his street-cred, both in reggae and rock circles, was beyond reproof.


With this experience, and bubbling with confidence, he returned to the studio to work on Beyond World War III. All of the albums in this series have featured vocal trios, and one duo, who represent the highest level of harmonizing skills. Finally, here is a record that features one singer—but not one voice. Mikey Dread, the dub master, multi-tracks himself to create a constant chorus that manages to sound fresh and clean. Unlike the glorious murkiness of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s productions, Dread’s sound is crystalline and unencumbered. Each sound from every instrument, each word (sung, chanted, spoken) is precise and perfect. And that voice! Regrettably, Mikey Dread rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great reggae singers, at least in part because he’s appropriately celebrated for his production skills. Allow me to make a case that his name should enter that conversation, with the most convincing testimonial being Beyond World War III.


This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. Words won’t be minced here: this is an outright masterpiece, as close to sublime in its way as any of the other albums discussed so far. Importantly, like the other albums, this one can, and should, easily appeal to casual fans of reggae music. Indeed, like the others, this one truly is recommended to anyone who listens to music, period.


The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive (“Break Down The Walls”) and at times jovial (“The Jumping Master” which features Dread giving approbatory shout-outs to his bandmates and his young apprentice, Scientist, and even name-dropping original “jumping master” Spiderman). The ebullient “Rocker’s Delight” dates back to the Sandinista! sessions, and the spoken word title track anticipates the concerns about nuclear confrontation that dominated the next decade. The most arresting, and timeless track is “Mental Slavery”, which catalogs some of the societal inhumanity that was about to fester in the ‘80s—and beyond:


How can we survive in times like these
When prices rise and wages freeze?


Mikey was around to see things get worse, and the more things remain the same, the more compelling his message becomes. He left us, way too soon, this past year. His legacy is not in dispute, but his legend is still underappreciated. Beyond World War III is his greatest gift, and it’s one that keeps giving.


Tagged as: dub, mikey dread, reggae
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Saturday, Sep 6, 2008

To be honest, I still have doubts about Metallica’s upcoming Death Magnetic. Yes, I’m waiting patiently to pull the wrapper off and reveal my middle school years within the grooves of a beautiful piece of wax. I want so badly, as I’m sure the remains of the fans that stuck with Metallica do as well (those that are still wrapped up in Napster need not comment), to make this record the soundtrack to everything mundane in my existence. Didn’t we all pull out Kill Em’ All and Ride the Lightning and pretended we ruled the world for an hour of mayhem?


If not, you never understood Metallica and the nostalgia and power their significant recordings (which is debatable, I’ll let you pick) meant to people. But, as we can see, from the likes of “The Day That Never Comes”, we are prepared for a revival. But in order for this revival to take place, one must have faith in Metallica. Frankly, I’ve heard countless examples across the Net of people doing nothing but “expecting the worst”. Well, chances are you’ve moved on and this record isn’t for you. When I had the honor of seeing the band for the first time this summer—I realized this was no joke. Not to any of those fans, or not to me. There were songs I hadn’t heard in years but still remembered every word and every feeling that went along with them. That’s a band with staying power.


After first listen of the new single, “The Day That Never Comes”—the doubt crept in… until the clock struck 2:50 when Lars and Kirk provided a transition into which the next six minutes built into classic Metallica mayhem. But this isn’t exactly old Metallica. This is a new Metallica playing with a youthful revivalism that struck their aging bones. The epic solos, the guitar trade-offs, the driving beat, it’s all there. It’s all fresh. It’s all Metallica.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The twelfth, and final, episode of Season Two of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, September 4, at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is what all 11 of the previous amazing lineups were preparing viewers for: Brian Wilson, Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. All three performers are living, writing, singing proof that talent is often a family affair.


Brian Wilson opens the show discussing how Rubber Soul impressed him so greatly that he went on to write “God Only Knows” because of it. Brian Wilson’s band is made up of members of the Wondermints, among several other musicians. It’s clear from the between song banter that this group of people, Brian included, is very comfortable together, and it’s even clearer once the performances begin, that this is the rare, perfect musical combination. So it’s only fitting the band should have some of the most perfect compositions to perform. “Sloop John B” is up first, and after a false start for a piano problem, it swells until the various voices mingling threaten to carry the viewer away on a wave of goodwill. Yeah, it’s not supposed to be an uplifting tune, but Wilson’s arrangement—and his obvious pleasure at hearing it fill that room—can’t help but buoy you.


“Southern California”, comes from this year’s That Lucky Old Sun, and is an ode to Wilson’s home and his past. It’s a truly touching and beautiful song, and has that uniquely timeless quality of the very best Brian Wilson songs, in that it could’ve been released 40 years ago or 40 years from now, and it would still be just as gorgeous. The vocal harmonies, of course, are stunning. And that brings us to “God Only Knows”, which is Wilson’s favorite song for its “pretty melody and meaningful lyrics”. It has a lingering transcendence in this performance, which actually seems to add to the ambience of Abbey Road studios, rather than drawing from it. It’s a hauntingly beautiful effect.


Martha Wainwright steps up next with “Bleeding All Over You”, “Cheating Me” and “Coming Tonight” from her most recent release, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. “Bleeding All Over You”, from which the album takes its name, is a song about unrequited love and the way it can still haunt you even after you’ve moved on. Despite its subject matter, it’s a hummable, strummable tune made all the more catchy by Wainwright’s infectious vocal delivery.


“Cheating Me” is a harder, darker, but no less contagious in its chorus. “Coming Tonight” has a false start as well, but once the song gets going again, it begins to appear that this episode isn’t so much about the stars, the performances or this particular lineup’s genetics, but about the sheer songwriting prowess.


Teddy Thompson begins his segment by referring to his parentage (“My mom is Linda Thompson… she’s like the British Museum, my dad’s more like the vault down below where they keep all the stuff they don’t show you!”). Thompson gives us “In My Arms” and “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” from his latest album, A Piece of What You Need. “In My Arms” is a song which Thompson claims is the first of his that has ever made him want to move to it, but dancing isn’t his inclination. However, if it’s yours, you’re going to love this song. It’s got that mid-‘60s girl-group rhythm, a great bit of organ and some fabulous “oooohs” from Thompson. It will make you believe, as Thompson sort of intended, that A Piece of What You Need is a happy record. “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” is another of the performances in this episode that point to these artist being grouped together for their enviable abilities to write songs just like this one. And Thompson’s voice on this is particularly strong.


The brilliant second season of Live from Abbey Road comes to a close with Thompson dueting with Wainwright. They are friends from way back, so the rehearsal and pre-performance banter come off as completely natural. When they begin their stripped down, almost sad, and, yes, haunting cover version of “We Can Work it Out”, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also quite an impressive way to end a very impressive season. Let’s hope season three of Live from Abbey Road has even more world class artists and wonderful lineups to come.


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