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Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010
“Like a Rolling Stone” perfectly embodies the heads-is-tails uncertainty of modern life, now and in long-ago 1965. More than just lyrically articulating the rock and roll mindset of liberation and risk, it contains the multitudes, distilling the collective experience of millions of lives caught, then and now, in the crossfire hurricane of modern life.

First in 2004 and again earlier this year, Rolling Stone placed Bob Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone” at the top of its highly subjective listing of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Given the name of the magazine, it’s easy to find an association there that rewards skeptics and cynics suspicious of such deification. But in the years since its releas —as a single in July 1965, and as part of the game-changing album Highway 61 Revisited later that August—the song’s more than held its own as an expression of rock’s foundational ethos of freedom amid chaos, a crystalline document of the times. Whatever times you happen to choose.


Times like these. Some will say trying to find a connection between an apparently angry, vituperative rock song of 45 years ago and the year 2010 is a stretch. But listening to the song with ears attuned to the present day, the perilous state of the American economy, and the general sense of misfortune and dread that blankets this country, “Like a Rolling Stone” is as vital and insistent today as it was in the summer of 1965.


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Thursday, Sep 23, 2010
The album is a phenomenal format, don’t get me wrong, but there was something truly magical about Motown, the Brill Building, and the British Invasion simultaneously giving you the best two minutes and 30 seconds they had.

In the glory age of rock music (mid 1960s-early 1970s), the single was conceptualized as its own entity, separate from long-playing records. Particularly in Britain (where arguably the best music was being made), the album was a unified unit, not to be disjointed by an out-of-place single. Bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones crafted their most commercially-appealing work for the singles market and AM radio airplay, leaving their more “artistic” exploration to the long-playing format. Led Zeppelin honored this distinction to such an extent that the group did not officially release singles from its monolithic albums (some of the band’s songs were released as singles without its consent). American labels, constantly thinking about ensuring profits, often insisted on including singles on albums or reconfigured the albums themselves (see the American versions of the early Stones and Beatles LPs). Along with the rock titans from across the Atlantic, American artists like the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Byrds crafted radio ready 7” sides between LPs as well.


This notion of between-album major works must have both excited and jaded listeners. This business model ensured constant saturation from your favorite bands. Imagine obtaining Rubber Soul in December 1965 and hearing the “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single only six months later—which itself was merely a stopgap until Revolver’s August 1966 release. This kind of output is remarkable considering major contemporary artists routinely take a half-decade to release follow ups. The great rock bands of the ‘60s were so prolific that many of their albums stand up as the greatest of the genre while lacking their most popular concurrent works. Imagine “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” replacing “Within You, Without You” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” on the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How nicely would Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited look with “Positively 4th Street” replacing “From a Buick 6”?


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Wednesday, Sep 8, 2010
The awake, aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries, the sort capable of communication that transcends language and explanation.

The year 1959 was a watershed for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history—which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and Charles Mingus’ Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music, all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman, who created the provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.


Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music and as a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. Each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated; it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins—representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.


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Thursday, Sep 2, 2010
Most of the Clash's music videos were no-frills performance clips. The reason was simple: the Clash owned the stage.

You ever have one of those periods where you decide to re-explore a band you haven’t really listened to in years and end up remembering why you loved them in the first place? Right now I’m on a very big Clash kick, something I haven’t experienced since roughly my junior year of high school (my fondest Clash-related memory of that period being cooped up indoors rocking out to the live CD From Here to Eternity during a summer family trip to Florida). Consequently, I’ve been making the rounds around YouTube the last few weeks in search of all things Clash in order to help satiate my renewed hunger for works of the legendary punk rock quartet. Viewing the group’s virtual promo reel, it’s plain that the Clash wasn’t the most conceptual group when it came to making music videos. Aside from the notable exception of the kooky “Rock the Casbah”, the British group’s videography is predominantly focused on performance clips. That’s certainly not a problem, given the Clash’s renown as one of the most exhilarating live groups of its era.


Unsurprisingly, the video for the Clash’s 1978 single “Tommy Gun” (taken from the group’s underrated second album Give ‘Em Enough Rope, a.k.a. “The First Attempt to Break America, via Lots of Hard Rock Guitars”) is a no-frills performance piece, devoted solely to presenting the band playing its damnedest on stage, the only concession to visual flair being a backdrop of assorted national flags.  Fuck the fancy set designs, this is punk rock. Despite its occasionally obscured cinematography (which seems dead-set on avoiding full-body shots of guitarist Joe Strummer as much as possible) and some of the song’s own deficiencies (with all its fits and showboating chord crashes, it’s essentially one long intro, albeit a striking one), all four members of the Clash overcome any flaws the clip contains by virtue of being so powerfully charismatic, demanding the viewer’s attention via the unbridled passion and sheer awesomeness they exude even when miming to a prerecorded track. In short, the Clash show how punks can be proper rock gods.


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Monday, Aug 30, 2010
Sound Affects' Between the Grooves look at the solo career of Paul McCartney concludes for now with a peek at his second album Ram (1971), courtesy of that album's first single.

After the success of the “Another Day” single and the Ram album, it was time for Paul and Linda McCartney to release another single. This time, Paul accepted the American method of releasing album tracks, so “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was issued with fellow album track, “Too Many People”.


Some people are of the opinion that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because of the line “Hands across the water / Heads across the sky” and because of World War II Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr. While McCartney has stated that the song’s Halsey was inspired by the real-life Admiral Halsey, the chorus’ lyrics were actually inspired by WW2’s American aid programs. The “Uncle Albert” parts were actually based on Paul’s own Uncle Albert, a man who had the strange habit of only quoting Bible verses when he was drunk. Instead of trying to make a cohesive meaning of the track, it is better to think of it as a combination of several songs. All of the background vocals were improvised during the recording by Linda, thus giving her both a songwriting and a producing credit.


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