Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fifteen Albums I Always Need In The Car

These are the albums that, when I review them, will come with a warning of hyperbolic language.

These are the albums that have gotten me through rough times, good times, desperate times.

These are the albums that changed my life.

These are the albums that make me love music.

These are the albums that make me love life.

15. Heaven Tonight - Cheap Trick (1978)
14. Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones (1971)
13. Tonight's The Night - Neil Young (1975)
12. Sell Out - The Who (1967)
11. Help! / Rubber Soul / Revolver - The Beatles (1965 / 1965 / 1966)
10. Sleepwalker - The Kinks (1977)
09. The Third Reich & Roll - The Residents (1976)
08. Highway 61 Revisited / Blonde On Blonde - Bob Dylan (1965 / 1966)
07. Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround, Part One - The Kinks (1970)
06. Rust Never Sleeps - Neil Young (1979)
05. The Beatles - The Beatles (1968)
04. Preservation - The Kinks (1973/1974)
03. Time Fades Away - Neil Young (1973)
02. Bringing It All Back Home - Bob Dylan (1965)
01. Tommy - The Who (1969)

Additionally: I'd like to add that, after some thinking - and the fact that One Size Fits All earned over a 100 - that there should be an elite club of sorts for albums that are so damn good their scores, with the "factors" intact, are over 100. This shall be called the 100 Plus Club. I can already tell you it will include all of the artists on this list...and others.

--- Alex

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Mothers Of Invention - One Size Fits All (1975)

With this being the final studio album released by The Mothers - whether they knew it or not - leader/songwriter Frank Zappa pulled out all the stops to make not only one of the best albums of his enormous catalog (55 by the time he passed away in 1993; his posthumous releases thrown in makes it 84 and counting...), but one of the best albums of the 1970's.

In spite of his prowess as a composer, performer, and singer, oddly enough Zappa was never able to sing and play guitar at the same time. As this album features what I consider to be his breakout as a guitar hero*, he is reliant largely on keyboardist George Duke and sax/flute man Napoleon Murphy Brock - with a cameo by Zappa's idol, Johnny "Guitar" Watson on two tracks - to handle the vocal duties. George and Napoleon have great, distinct voices, both of them setting the precedent of Frank featuring African-American musicians in his band in prominent roles.** (This may sound like something Michael Scott on The Office would point out, but it really was rare in the 1970's that a band would be integrated. It still sort of is.)

This lineup of the band - known as "The Roxy Band" due to their outstanding performance(s) on the live Roxy & Elsewhere double LP from 1974 - fit together perfectly as a tight sextet of Frank on guitar, Duke, Brock, Tom Fowler on bass, Chester Thompson (later of Genesis) on drums, and the incomparable Ruth Underwood on percussion. I love Roxy, but having a band with two drummers, trumpet, trombone, an extra synth player, and a second-string guitarist - shades of the bloating of the original Mothers' lineup - is too much to take on the road without bleeding money.

Frank did his best to showcase the talent of these musicians, all from conservatory and/or jazz backgrounds, often writing compositions of extraordinary difficulty in rhythmic or melodic structure just to see if they can do it. In the best of these examples - "T'Mershi Duween," "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing"*** - Zappa and company pound out a gorgeous melody and make it seem pretty damn easy to play. At worst - "Kung Fu" off The Lost Episodes immediately comes to mind - it's well-performed, but tricky to get into. You can't whistle it.

Zappa checks that material in at the door, and while there are some intricate passages here and there, this is a very accessible, catchy, and solid album. At times rocking, at times beautiful. However, Zappa's band lineup changed with (almost) every single album he put out. By the time the album was ready (Zappa's liner notes in the original LP are dated "Easter 1975"), he was on tour with The Mothers once again, but with Ruth gone, Chester replaced with a young Terry Bozzio (his most manic, aggressive drummer), and he'd reunited with his on-again, off-again friend Captain Beefheart. By the time the album came out, that tour was already over.

Each of Zappa's albums, I could argue moreso than any other artist, represent a specific point in time. The band you hear on Freak Out! (1966) is added to and subtracted from by the time of Absolutely Free (1967), giving each album its own distinct flavor. For me, this appeal (and his endurance) is what makes the music of Frank Zappa so great. Didn't like this album? Fine, here's another! Didn't like those - more of a classical fan? Jazz? It's all there.

Few other albums capture such a great, specific point in time as deftly as One Size Fits All. This is a band that loved a challenge, under the watchful eye (and mustache) of a man who loved to challenge his musicians.

01. Inca Roads [11]
This is iconic Zappa. The band is operating on all cylinders with one of his best album-opening tracks (again, given the breadth of his catalog, this is a distinct honor). Maybe now would be a good time to point out that lyrics aren't always as important in FZ's songs as, say, his political stuff or his critiques on society. George Duke, who by his own admission was not a singer before he joined The Mothers, gives a great performance, even if the lyrics are about aliens visiting the Incas. Whatever - it sounds fantastic. Great guitar solo. The audio you hear on the record is from the above-linked video, except for the solo, which was extracted from another live performance from Helsinki. (Yes, they were that tight that they could nail the same song at the same tempo, night after night.) I'm so glad this video exists, otherwise you'd be led to believe both Chester and Ruth - especially Ruth - had eight arms each. One of Zappa's greatest songs, and certainly one of his defining tunes from the 1970's.

02. Can't Afford No Shoes [9]
A rollicking number, with tight harmonies between Frank, Duke, and Brock. It's way too short for my liking - there is some beauty bubbling underneath the surface in those harmonies on the chorus. Great guitar solo, as well.

03. Sofa #1 [10]
A beautiful waltzing instrumental, with some neat effected bass by Tom. Duke uses an otherwordly synth voice to provide an ethereal atmosphere. There's some good drum runs by Chester near the end as the song climaxes. This song will return again at the end of the album, though the sung melody on that one can be heard here on the piano. It says something that Frank did this song on the In New York album, saying in the liner notes that no one bought the original record and wanted to give it another go. That's Zappa's way of saying he really liked it.

04. Po-Jama People [6]
There is something about this one that I've just never liked. Zappa unveils what would become a staple of his later records, where he sings really close into the microphone - you can almost hear the spit - but it's not that I don't like. I have always thought the lyrics were a little dumb, breaking down society into different types of pajamas. Given his previous assertion on Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970) that "Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourself," it's a bit daft for him to say everyone else is a po-jama person, who are in turn boring him to pieces. The solo is great, though.

05. Florentine Pogen [10]
Opening side B, this is Napoleon's moment in the spotlight on vocals. For all of George's soul, Napoleon has an equally unique, slightly gravelly, slightly smooth voice. He had ripped it up on "Cheepnis" off Roxy the year before, and he does just as great of a job here. It's slower, but the decreased tempo gives the song a chance to be heavier. Chester's fills throughout are spot on, as are those insanely fast bits Ruth plays on her assorted instruments. Seeing it on video, I was amazed to see that the sound at 0:47 is not a flute but in fact Napoleon's own voice. I'm also pleased to report that while he isn't singing he is dancing his ass off, without once ever sounding out of breath. When it was originally recorded, "Florentine Pogen" went on for another four minutes - it can be seen/heard on The Dub Room Special! DVD/CD, thankfully.

06. Evelyn, A Modified Dog [7.5]
Even at his silliest - as on this tune - Zappa still has something up his sleeve. The references to "pan-chromatic resonance" from the voices within a piano is a nod to his 1967/1968 avant-classical masterpiece, Lumpy Gravy, which featured an orchestra, some stray rock fragments, and dialog recorded from within the inside of a piano, with the sustain pedal anchored down. Otherwise, it's a build-up to a bit of Zappaesque absurdism, like a "shaggy dog story" (no pun intended), where all this description of a dog and its surroundings climaxes with...

"Arf, she said."

07. San Ber'dino [10]
The segue is perfect, as The Mothers rock and roll their way through a bit of autobiographical information - though with Zappa's sense of the bizarre, making it just off-kilter enough that the uninitiated^ won't get it - before an extended coda with the great Johnny "Guitar" Watson on what Frank credits as "Flambe Vocals." It would seem overlong if it weren't done so well. This was the one - and sadly only - song from this album to be included on Rykodisc's 1995 compilation Strictly Commercial. Normally, I'm not one for compilations, but in the case of someone whose discography stares at you like a ziggurat, it's almost necessary, especially growing up in a town where the five people who have actually heard of Zappa know him as little more than the writer of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" or "Valley Girl." The harmonica is credited to one "Bloodshot Rollin' Red," a pseudonym for the man behind my favorite pseudonymous rockstar, Captain Beefheart. I would have loved to have seen the sessions for this number.

08. Andy [10]
Johnny features again, this time more prominently. A book came out a few years back by a groupie-turned-musician named Nigey Lennon. She and Frank had (by all other accounts) a brief fling, but her book stretched it out to span the first half of the 1970's. I'm not so sure about that, but I don't dismiss her claim. I also won't completely rule out that the lyrics - "Is there anything good inside of you? / If there is I really wanna know!" - are about her. Anyway, this song modulates and shifts as many times as The Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away" in less time, starting off as a funky march, a creepy sort of whispered segment, gutbucket R&B, a catchy chorus, an instrumental passage with some sci-fi organ, Duke singing over something that could pass as disco in some circuits, before building up to the final chorus (a different one), brought full circle by Watson. A fantastic musical tour de force.

09. Sofa #2 [10]
The cool late-night majesty of "Sofa #1" is revisited with lyrics, with Duke singing the verses, and Zappa (later with others) doing the response - in German. There is a history to this song, dating back to the second incarnation of The Mothers from 1970-1971. "Sofa" was part of a suite of several songs. This one and "Stick It Out" (off 1979's Joe's Garage Acts II And III) saw a reworking and proper release. The rest stayed in the can. I wasn't that fond of the suite when I heard it, but it's still really cool to know that Zappa could, at any given point, whip out a song several years old and have it be completely new for most of the audience. A good closer for a terrific album.

Subtotal: 92.78%

Replayability Factor: +3
Not every Zappa album is this palatable. In fact, I could say "Zappa" and "palatable" are words that don't belong together all that often. This makes for one well-crafted exception.

Consistency Factor: +3
One Size Fits All stands as one of a few Zappa albums I could recommend as a "first purchase" for a curious fan - and if you call yourself a fan and don't own this album you are not a fan! (It's one of those.)

External Factors: +2
The arrangements are great, George and Napoleon are such good singers - and J.G. Watson is a welcome surprise, and the band itself is tight. It isn't marred by the dreaded sounds of the 1980's that loomed ahead, it doesn't sound too thin or too thick, and the ability for Frank to use live pieces and make them sound like studio-quality recordings is no small feat, either.

FINAL SCORE: 100.8% A+

* For the Zappa geeks, yes, I acknowledge and adore Frank's earlier guitar work on "Stuff Up The Cracks," "Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich," "Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown," "Willie The Pimp," "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama," etc. But what gives One Size Fits All the status as his "breakout" as a guitar man is that nearly every song allows for a solo from Frank.

** Though Don "Sugarcane" Harris enjoyed some spots with The Mothers and Frank's short-lived Hot Rats band, it really started with Duke and Brock, followed in the late 70's and throughout the 80's with Ray White and the ever-present Ike Willis.

*** In spite of the seemingly off-putting song title(s), bear in mind Zappa had a knack for giving his instrumental compositions silly or just plain crude names. See also: "I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth," "G-Spot Tornado," "Alien Orifice." All sublime tunes...just don't leave these albums out when the grandparents come over. (Voice of experience, people.)

^ I say "uninitiated" with a bit of contempt, having had more than my share of run-ins with people who have taken the Zappa class at IU or just pretend to be fans when all they've got is a best of and a fairly predictable handful. They'll like a song, but have no idea what it's about. There's no way around this without being a dick, but owning 10% of someone's recorded output isn't fandom. With Zappa, this is something to dive into. Head first.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Monkees - Headquarters (1967)

Yes, those Monkees. Don't be so quick to write them off - they all truly had musical experience under their belt before auditioning for a spot in the Prefabricated Four. Micky Dolenz grew up in a musical household (though, no, he was not a drummer before he became a Monkee.)

Peter Tork was a folkie from Greenwich Village. He and buddy Stephen Stills auditioned together - Stills was rejected due to his receded hairline and, hygiene. Stills went on to be a member of Buffalo Springfield (whose discography I just picked up a few days ago) before forming the supergroup-that-no-one-really-calls-a-supergroup-because-they-weren't-made-up-of-British-blues-players with David Crosby (of The Byrds) and Graham Nash (The Hollies), later adding Stills' former Buffalo Springfield cohort, Neil Young.

Davy Jones had made his bones (rhyme slightly intentional) portraying the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night The Beatles introduced America to the 1960's. He had also released some singles as David Jones.

Michael Nesmith, who I will admit is my favorite Monkee, had some minor chart success with some singles released under the pseudonym "Michael Blessing." Thankfully, he dropped the moniker - Nesmith is a pretty damn cool name. (I can't deny the presence of subjectivity - this is a site of my own personal opinions - but I will try my best to avoid the hyperbolic while discussing his songs. See also: George Harrison, Dave Davies, and other assorted "underdogs.")

That said, The Monkees were created as LA's response to The Beatles. Sure, they did A Hard Day's Night and Help! (the latter a heavier influence on The Monkees television program), but LA was/is the vortex of the American entertainment industry: film, music, television. As a commercial product, they sang pop songs, concocted by some of the greatest songwriters in the business. Nesmith was able to squeeze in two of his own, in all fairness.

And no, they did not play their own instruments - though Mike did play guitar on his songs and let Peter sit in with the phalanx of crack sessionmen (and women, in the case of bassist Carol Kaye). This may sound like some sort of cardinal sin - THEY DON'T PLAY THEIR OWN INSTRUMENTS? BLASPHEMY! - but no one seems to care that members of The Wrecking Crew, the nickname given for this collective of top-tier players, are the same players you hear on, say, Pet Sounds...

I'll admit, I'm quick to defend this notion as reason to hate The Monkees. When the story was broken that The Monkees didn't play their own instruments (revealed by the vicious UK tabloids while they were on tour, no less), they became the subject of great scrutiny. It went under the radar that this was common practice in Los Angeles. The Beatles had set a remarkably high benchmark. Hell, if you were a band in the UK, you only used sessionmen as extra talent: witness Nicky Hopkins' keyboard playing with The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Beatles. It was different if you were Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, The Byrds - or how about the Motown artists? The Supremes were singers, not players.

"The press went into a full-scale war against us, talking about how 'The Monkees are four guys who have no credits, no credibility whatsoever and have been trying to trick us into believing they are a rock band.' Number one, not only was this not the case, the reverse was true. Number two, for the press to report with genuine alarm that the Monkees were not a real rock band was looney tunes. It was one of the great goofball moments of the media, but it stuck."
--- Mike Nesmith

Glenn Gass pointed out that for younger Beatle fans - with The Monkees TV show debuting just thirteen days after The Beatles' final concert in San Francisco - this would be a safety zone. "Strawberry Fields Forever" too weird? That's fine, there's still The Monkees - sounding just as good as The Beatles did before they grew those scary mustaches and wearing funny clothes. There isn't as much absurdism to Frank Zappa's observation that The Monkees were "the most honest band in LA" as one would think.

To begin, after a power struggle with pop music mogul Don Kirshner - who knew what formula worked and wanted little more than lather, rinse, repeat from his Monkees; they were artists, and they weren't the trained apes Kirshner hoped them to be - the band set out to show the world that they could play their own instruments by doing just that on their third record, Headquarters. (Note: the details for the tiff with Kirshner are fascinating, from the fact that the band didn't even know their second album had been released, having to buy it themselves at a record shop while on the road, to Kirshner's desperate bid to make Davy Jones a solo star.)

Headquarters is just as unique and [nearly as] experimental as a lot of the LA "scene" artists of the time, making major exceptions for Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Mothers Of Invention, and (though I hate them to a passion post-1968) The Doors. I'm thinking more along the lines of Love, The Leaves, The Grass Roots, Spirit, etc., bands largely lost to the sands of time (or their hits being relegated to some shitty "SONGS OF THE SIXTIES" compilation.) It's still poppy, but they must have been conscious that these needed to be songs that could fit into the TV show.

It probably didn't hurt that Micky and Mike both visited The Beatles in the studio while working on Pepper. Nesmith is famously seen next to Lennon during the home film of "A Day In The Life." Don't expect sheer sonic ecstasy - they sought to keep this recording fairly organic, just the four of them with the occasional sessionman/men to augment the four. It's just guitar, bass, drums, percussion (tambourine/maraca, etc.), keyboards, and on one song cello and French horn. The Who would take this approach to its limits with Tommy, though it was still a mere glimmer in its composer's eye by this point in early 1967.

The absence of studio pros on virtually all of this record also leaves The Monkees themselves exposed - Peter Tork is not a fantastic singer, but his vocal part is brief; similarly, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, both talented vocalists, aren't the best musicians in the world. Dolenz's drumming is simple and at times unsteady. His parts had to be spliced together from multiple takes on some songs to get a solid track.

And then there's Davy Jones, who I truly do like just a little less than I like making fun of. The five-foot-three Englishman best known as the token "cute one," or at least the one shaking a tambourine in one hand and a set of maracas in the other on the TV show. On stage, he could sub for Micky on the drums or do bass while Peter played organ (or vice versa). Unfortunately, his musicianship level is...competent. Just competent. He can shake the tambourine like it's Rubber Soul...but that's about it. Then there's the fact that as the "cute one," he by association sings the "cute songs." The poppermost of the poppermost.

Still, there's some great songs here. Mike knocks it out of the park with each of his three compositions, all of which he sings. Personally, I like his voice a lot. It's got a distinct, warm, "Howdy folks, I'm from Texas" timbre to it. Each of these songs are different from one another, though. He may love country music - there's plenty examples of that to be found - but he loves poetry more, making his songs more than mere pop. His weirdest is yet to come by this album, but given his two songs on their eponymous debut fit his Texan mold like latex, and his one solo spot on More Of The Monkees fell into the same ilk - albeit whipped by the producer into a pop marshmallow, like most of that awful album - these three tunes must have been an eye-opener for all zero of the non-12 year olds who bought the records at the time.

[To his credit, Nesmith did bring us "Mary, Mary" on that second album.]

Overall, how you like the album hinges upon how much or how little you loved the factory-produced pop of their first two albums. That, and whether you judge music by its intent, quality, or content. This isn't The Monkees "as nature intended," to lift a phrase from the back of the Let It Be album. This is The Monkees "as is," which has more pleasant surprises than disappointments.

[Lead Vocal: Mike Nesmith]
The "Taxman" count-in spoof is a little goofy, but the song is a four-to-the-floor country-rock stomp driven by...a banjo? Aren't I supposed to hate country music, unless it's being performed by someone who died young due to their own stupidity, or at the very least hung out with Dylan?* Played by Peter Tork, it works really well. A very strong opening number.

02. I'll Spend My Life With You [10]
[Lead Vocal: Micky Dolenz]
There's an unreleased electric version of this floating around the bonus track circuit. It's interesting to compare the original (from what I call their "factory" era) with this. The original is just as sweet, but it sounds like Micky doing an expert job on another in a series of Tommy Boyce / Bobby Hart compositions. (Boyce and Hart wrote "Last Train To Clarksville," and if memory serves were to function in an almost Lennon/McCartney role as songwriters for the group.) But here, the dulcet nature of the song is enhanced by a more tender approach, with a 12-string acoustic, a rattling tambourine, electric bass, and some great extra touches from Mike on steel guitar.

[Again with praising the country elements? What is wrong with me? This ain't Sweetheart Of The Rodeo!*]

Micky makes it his own song. There's such a personal delivery, between his singing and the sparse but perfect musical arrangement, that makes the lyrics mean a little more than normal. One of the best moments on this album, hands-down.

03. Forget That Girl [7.5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy Jones]
Oh, Davy... In all fairness, this seemingly sugary ditty was penned by Chip Douglas, an ex-Turtle who not only produced this album but played bass when Peter was on keys and Davy was desperately needed to save the world with his maracas. [Incidentally, Davy is also credited with playing "jawbone." What the fuck is a jawbone? Oh, wait...never mind. That's disgusting.] Chip talks in the CD liner notes about how he wrote this song as a way of getting over a nasty break-up. For Davy - and this is where he differentiates from Micky as a singer - there isn't that much emotion here. Taken as second person, where Davy is urging "you" to forget that girl, he's like a friend who you'd rather have just comfort you instead of tell you the brutal truth. Taken as a message to one's self...he could have been better.

04. Band 6 [8]
Yep. They did it. A Monkees instrumental. It's a snippet from a goofing-around session (for some reason I'm reticent to say it was a jam session...) in which they attempted to figure out the Warner Brothers theme song from all those Looney Tunes shorts. It's not long, and it's really not that impressive. But you've got to admire the effort. Plus, it sounds like they're having fun. If only some fictionalized version of this event had been on the show...

[Lead Vocal: Mike]
Personally, I think it's a bit surprising that the first Monkee we would hear twice is Mike. Then again, in keeping with The Beatles parallel, George's songs are presented in a similar fashion on Revolver. This one isn't too far removed from "You Told Me," but as a band performance there's a lot more force behind it, and that bridge is as majestic as a four-to-the-floor country-rock stomp can get. This is one of a few songs from this album I distinctly recall seeing done on the TV show.

06. Shades Of Gray [10]
[Lead Vocal: Davy, Peter Tork]
This Mann/Weil number almost got an 8, simply because of Peter's vocal line. He just doesn't have a strong voice. At least not in a tender setting. But then I realized that, like Mike's compositions, he'd previously been featured singing on just one other song, and as little more than an extension of his on-screen persona: that of the dumb, lovable Ringo type.

[The song is called "Your Auntie Grizelda," and it's not bad...but when he finally brought his own real compositions to the table and sang, they were amazing! Unfortunately, this was also on his last album before quitting in early 1969. Go check out "Your Auntie Grizelda" - it's on YouTube. It has to be. This is The Monkees. They had a TV show, you know.]

That said, for Peter to even take a stab at singing delicately is quite an advance. What already put the song in high regard is how well Davy does as a singer. By his own admission, he's more comfortable singing in a more baritone-oriented range as opposed to the Peter Noone-esque stuff you hear on the singles. It's also a real melancholy number, and not because of a breakup or acne or because you slept in too late and missed The Monkees show on Saturday morning, brought to you by Kellogg's.

"When the world and I were young,
Just yesterday,
Life was just a simple game
A child could play

It was easy then to tell right from wrong,
Easy then to tell weak from strong,
When a man should stand and fight,
Or just go along

But today there is no day or night
Today there is no dark or light
Today there is no black or white -
Only shades of gray

I remember when the answer
Seemed so clear
We had never lived without or tasted fear

It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate
The foolish from the wise..."

That's some worldly wise stuff right there. Their lyrics? No. Do they make it their own? Deftly.

07. I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind [5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy]
Then there's this one. Davy sounds perfectly at home here in a song that, if one were to dub in a brass section and then scratch the tape to all Hell, could have been a pop standard in 1924. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the brass section, and Davy Jones has resurrected the innocent waifish boy voice once again. So it goes.

08. For Pete's Sake [8.5]
[Lead Vocal: Micky]
Written by Peter Tork, and what a cool riff! Even those little stabs from the organ sound cool. This song would play over the TV show's end credits in its second (and last) season, albeit with that horrible, abrupt chopping-block sound editing that marred so many early James Bond films, television programs, and most gratingly, "Give 'em the song again!" in Blow-Up.** My brother pointed out the lyrics in the bridge sound like a Sunday school lesson. It is a bit preachy, and with a lot of those Eastern-influenced "Love is understanding...What we have to be is free..." peppered throughout it could only have been written in the 1960's. The song is also a little repetitive. But it's a good one, just the same.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
This is one weird song. That riff on the steel guitar shouldn't be a riff, but it is, creating an unsettling ambience. The song pauses twice, once to introduce the rest of the group, and again with the piano playing at a slow tempo before picking back up. Lyrically, it's a Boyce/Hart collaboration about a bank employee who, on the day of his retirement, makes off with all the money. It's a funny story, set to some creepy music. I can only imagine how different the original song Boyce and Hart had in mind was. Probably nowhere near this.

10. Sunny Girlfriend [11]
[Lead Vocal: Mike]
And yet they one-up themselves further with Mike's final contribution to the disc. It's upbeat, with a good dose - pun fully intended - of psychedelia injected in. The lyrics are [don't laugh] among my favorite lyrics on the nature of love itself, the realistic cynicism of Ray Davies notwithstanding.

"She can make you slow while making your mind move fast."

"Oh, while I'm sleeping
Then she comes creeping
Into my thoughts at night
Gazing down through eyes
As bright as wonder"

"She can send you on your way to everywhere
She's only started after you think that she is there.
She's my sunny girlfriend,
And she just doesn't care."

This sums up falling in love for me optimistically, while at the same time using this awkward double talk to describe how love can penetrate your thoughts and slow you down while speeding you up at the same time - just that euphoric craziness that doesn't come often.*** A perfect song.

11. Zilch [8]
"Mr. Dobolena, Mr. Bob Dobolena"
"China clipper calling on the meter"
"Never mind the furthermore; the plea is self defense"
"It is of my opinion that the people are intending"
These four nonsense phrases, uttered and repeated ad nauseum by The Monkees - the band that brought you "I'm A Believer" - are the entire song. At first, I thought it was stupid. Then I realized if this had been a piece on Lumpy Gravy or The White Album I would have fawned over it as a slice of mad genius. It's goofy - maybe to a slight fault - but goofy as opposed to tailor-made to suit the needs of an imaginary 12 year old girl named Debbie? I'll take goofy any day.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
Something about this one annoys me...oh, that's right. This song clearly developed out of a jam. And it cannot be stressed enough that beating out The Beatles by a nose for "Worst Jam Band Of All Time" is The Monkees. Basic rock and roll chord progression and structure, really thin guitar sound (mind you, this is with pals Jerry Yester of The Lovin' Spoonful and Keith Allison of Paul Revere & The Raiders, the best garage band this side of Crazy Horse guesting on guitar along with Mike), and lyrics that are pure nonsense. Micky commented that the line "The grass is always greener growin' on the other side" was a marijuana reference. Considering the demographic buying this album, that alone saved it from a 3 rating.

The extra half point came from the quip "Andy you're a dandy, you don't seem to make no sense," about Andy Warhol. These guys weren't idiots. They appreciated art and culture...and I, too, find Mr. Warhol to have been an exploitative, sadistic Svengali who created a mythology about himself in an effort to become the most overrated artist. Ever. His sole contribution to society worth half a damn was giving The Velvet Underground their break. Otherwise, Valerie Solanas should have aimed higher.

[Geez...even I'm a little shocked by that one.]

13. Early Morning Blues And Greens [9.5]
[Lead Vocal: Davy]
Meanwhile, back to The Monkees, Davy turns in a fine performance of a moody backdrop that perfectly evokes a hazy morning - regardless of season - and nothing happens. Nothing at all. Great lyrics. They, too, are about almost nothing. Diane Hildebrand, herself a bit of an enigma, wrote these lyrics. [Curiously, she also brought us "Your Auntie Grizelda."] The only hint of anything is the final line about "sleep[ing] alone again tonight," hinting at some sense of loneliness. Davy does a great job of this, and the instrumentation is damn near perfect, but this is one of those songs that I don't think anyone but the composer could/should comfortably sing. This could have been a great singer-songwriter tune.

[Lead Vocal: Micky]
This is Micky's songwriting debut, and what a first impression! It starts off with a foreboding timpani, which fades quickly, replaced with a jaunty piano-driven verse, in turn replaced with some shouting vocals and the underlying tension of the timpani keeping time. In a word, schizophrenic. In another series of words, Micky should have written more songs.

A Randy Scouse Git is slang for, respectively, "horny," "Liverpool native," and "twerp." When asked to come up with an alternate title for its appearance on a single, Micky chose "Alternate Title." And that's what they went with. Only in the sixties, eh?

Subtotal: 88.9%

Replayability Factor: +3
This album doesn't just play well because of its experimental merits. The songs are terrific - "No Time" and "I Can't Get Her Off Of My Mind" excluded, but even those aren't horrible - and even when they are getting a little weird, the pop sensibilities stay intact.

Consistency Factor: +3
If you were to just pick one Monkees album, it’s essentially between this and the next record, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones, Ltd. That one carries the experimental and psychedelic edges hinted at on Headquarters. It couldn't have happened without this one first. It's also worth noting that this album was #1 for a week, displaced by Sgt. Pepper, where the two sat atop the charts for 11 straight weeks, a fitting summary of the American record-buying public: hip kids ready to expand their collective consciousness and teenyboppers.

It's a tie between this one and the next for the best Monkees record. Lord knows they're both short enough to fit onto one disc. Seriously, I've taken shits longer than the time it takes to listen to this album - it's only 30 minutes.

External Factors: +2
I’m willing to look past it being too short – especially in the age of bonus tracks and the Headquarters Sessions box I fully intend to purchase when I actually have some money to my name – and instead appreciate it as The Monkees being a real band, warts and all. Peter’s singing is a bit flat, Davy’s songs are a wee bit too cutesy for my tastes, they couldn't jam their way out of a strawberry patch, and those pseudo avant-garde tracks are on the silly side…but this was released as a straight-up pop album. That's both cool and admirable.

[I’d like to see something like “Zilch” on a pop record today.]

Lastly, this was the only time they'd approach themselves as a real band in the studio so seriously. From here on out, Micky doesn't play drums in the studio - he apparently tired of it. Eventually, as they began to produce their own records, they each functioned on their own, occasionally pairing up, but not without a few other guys to play along. It was a short-lived phase, but they responded to the skeptics with aplomb. That's got to mean something.


* This would be a joke. I likes some country music just fine. What I have a problem with is the veneration of anything Gram Parsons touched...and the fucking Band. I hate The Band. Let the record state that plainly and clearly. I am as entitled to my opinions as you are to your own. I'm also not above agreeing to disagree. Just don't make me sit through "Hickory Wind" or "The Weight."

** What? Haven't seen it? Stop what you're doing right now and go see it! I'm really big on making connections, even if they may seem esoteric to the uninitiated. To me, it's my subtle push for you, the reader, if you don't get the reference, to go, "Hmm...I'll have to check that out some time." If you do get the reference, it's a little reward. But by no means do I intend to condescend to the rest of you. Anyway, I'm not Dennis Miller. I don't want to say something and have you say, "I don't get it," only for me to scoff and move on. I wants you to get it!

*** Now would also be a good time to mention I have a penchant for sappy romanticism. Not in a Barry Manilow sense, but more like I've actually thought long and hard about love in the context of well-written lyrics.

Turns out The Monkees aren't as easy to track down on YouTube. The current holders of their catalog, Rhino Records, is owned by Warner Music Group, the same crooks who almost bankrupted Frank Zappa, derailed Dave Davies' solo career, and turned Badfinger's Pete Ham to suicide.

Warner Music Group won't do an official channel of the songs they are striking off of YouTube. Thankfully, in the instances where a Monkees performance is taken from a bad VHS, it's slightly sped up or potentially a different mix in the show.

Dear Warner Music Group,

Fuck yourselves.

---Alex DiBlasi

Don't agree? Leave a comment!

New? Check out my entry on how I rate my records!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cheap Trick - All Shook Up (1980)

One further addendum to my maybe-too-in-depth outline of how I rate albums is that there won't be too much rhyme or reason to my selection of who/what I rate. (Case in point: this review.) Additionally, songs that are "just a little too short" have been bumped up to being 9's as opposed to 8's, though songs I feel are overly long are 8's or - if it's really bad - worse. I say this because feeling a song is too short means you like it enough to hear more of it. Just the opposite can be said for a song wearing out its proverbial welcome.

Beatles producer George Martin teamed up with Cheap Trick to make this record. Cheap Trick's early career, from their second album In Color And In Black And White (1977) onwards, is almost like following a path, starting with a-little-too-slick power pop on In Color (1977), evolving into power pop with balls (not to mention the greatest-sounding synthesizer of the 1970's) on Heaven Tonight (1978), and ending with ballsy power pop with an at times experimental bent on Dream Police (1979). All Shook Up would be a step further into a less radio-ready sound, and who better to helm it than the granddaddy of envelop-pushing within the mainstream? (Well, Todd Rundgren, but that's later... No, seriously, Todd would produce a Trick album in 1983.)

So the resulting album is the Sgt. Pepper of the era of arena rock, setting a new precedent for how albums are conceived, structured, and recorded yet again...right? to put's a letdown, if those are the expectations one has in mind. Any anticipated comparison to The Beatles is a guaranteed ticket to disappointment. That said, since the Fab Four split in 1970, Martin continued to produce albums and compose. He produced The Mahavishnu Orchestra's first foray into the incorporation of symphonic textures on Apocalypse (1974), Jeff Beck's groundbreaking Blow By Blow (1975), and his 1976 follow-up Wired (1976), all well-received and greatly praised albums. At the same time, Martin produced a string of albums for America (the band - not the nation) with middling to poor critical reception. 

(I'm not an America fan, but I'll wager that no matter how good or bad the songs are, the albums sound good from a sonic perspective.)

Thankfully, the album's shortcomings - few in number - are no fault of Mr. Martin's. Some of the songs just aren't as good.

But enough about the flaws - on its own, All Shook Up is a great album. "Stop This Game," "World's Greatest Lover," and "Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination)" all incorporate symphonic elements. In the case of "Stop This Game," the orchestra plays where a synth line may have been on one of the previous two records. It works quite well, providing an edge not unlike an artist using a new color for the first time. The new sound(s) keep(s) the music fresh.

 "World's Greatest Lover" is enhanced by a string arrangement; being a ballad, the idea of string arrangements can trigger the "syrupy sweet" red alert, but not in the hands of George Martin. Keep in mind this is the man who brought us "Yesterday," "Eleanor Rigby," and "Hey Jude," all top-rate pop songs with classical arrangements. "Go For The Throat" uses a glockenspiel in certain sections, subtly generating a sense of tension. It succeeds in its aims.

When the band is hammering out good old rock songs, they sound terrific. "Just Got Back" opens with a blasting drum cadence, interrupting the "A Day In The Life" sustained piano note at the end of "Stop This Game" to great effect. Martin takes what makes Cheap Trick such a bitchin' band - Robin Zander's seemingly infinite vocal range, Rick Nielsen's electric filigrees on guitar, Tom Petersson's unique 12-string bass sound, and Bun E. Carlos' powerhouse drumming - and amps it up. Even on the songs where it's a little overproduced and the extra layers of guitars seem to add nothing crucial to the song, they still sound like they're having a blast. The Beatles employed their share of overdubs and it sounded great.

It's an interesting, and enjoyable, venture for the band musically. But is it a step in a new direction, or a fun distraction? For me, it's the latter. I think it sounds good, but production-wise (whether they asked for it or it just came with Martin manning the console) it strives too much for the Beatlesque. How you feel about it is your own call - I personally feel it's like seeing Rick Nielsen trade in his ball-cap, bow tie, and cardigan for a day-glo marching band uniform.

(Don't agree? Leave a comment!)

01. Stop This Game [9]
Well-orchestrated, the band turns in a tight performance, too. Its placement on the album is questionable. Perhaps it's the 27-second fade-in before the singing starts...or the fact that the fade-in is parallel to the ending of Pepper: a sustained piano note. The melody is quite good, and the chorus is good, even if you can't whistle it. Great song? Yes. Great kick-off track? Not quite...maybe for side B. It just doesn't have the drive of other album-starters like "Hello There," "Surrender," and "Dream Police." Hell, their debut record had two opening tracks: it had side A and side one - clever, yes? - to keep listeners from thinking one half of the whole is inferior. Both songs, "ELO Kiddies" and "Hot Love," are great album openers.

02. Just Got Back [9]
As if to deflate any aura of pomposity from the orchestrations and Beatle nods on the opening cut - hey, maybe "Stop This Game" was the start-off for a reason! - the decay of the piano is cut off by a battery of drums, with a song that would have been hands down (for me) the best choice for an album opener. (Wait, maybe there's a lesson in this about suspending our expectations - further proof that Cheap Trick is a more cerebral band than the mullet-rock trash they constantly get lumped in with like Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Styx.) In fact, this song has opened their live shows before, in place of "Hello There." My only gripe? Too short.

03. Baby Loves To Rock [9]
A solid rocker, its verses anchored on a nod to The Yardbirds' 1966 b-side "Psycho Daisies." Beyond the fact that The Yardbirds had been relegated to "THIS IS THE BAND THAT HAD ERIC CLAPTON, JEFF BECK, AND JIMMY PAGE" and "THIS IS THE BAND THAT BECAME LED ZEPPELIN"-stickered compilation LP's - thus making the musical nod a hip one - the chorus and bridge are good enough to make this more than just a copy. During the bridge, put on some headphones and listen for the sound effects accompanying each line - "Not in Russia!" is paired with an aircraft "Back In The USSR" being about a plane flight. (This is a Beatle reference I can dig!) Also got to love Robin's inability to say "sex" in that second verse, turning teen sexual angst/frustration into a memorable stutter.

04. Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try [10]
A great power-pop song...but not like they'd done before. It had a 
catchy intro riff, but the verse makes a shift in tempo that one 
doesn't normally hear in a pop song. Robin's vocals on the second 
half of the verses sound like they were delivered with a sneer, 
while the chorus - based on the intro riff - makes this the catchiest 
song on the album so far. Great break-up song, this one.

05. World's Greatest Lover [11]
All those things I said about Cheap Trick trying maybe a little 
too hard to get outside themselves and sound like The Beatles? 
That doesn't apply to this song. Even without the strings, this song 
stands on its own, lyrically and melodically. It feels like one of 
those Beatle tunes where Paul wrote most of it, with John doing 
the bridge, and a great guitar solo to end it with the delicate but
melodic touch from George. It even plods along on the piano like 
solo Lennon ("Imagine") or McCartney ("Maybe I'm Amazed"). 
Beautiful ballad, and a perfect example of Rick Nielsen's ability to 
play excellent solos and Robin's amazing chops as a singer.

06. High Priest Of Rhythmic Noise [10]
Were it not for "World's Greatest Lover" being such a show-
stopper, this would be my favorite cut on the album. Kicking off side 
B of the record with sheer madness, this isn't the Cheap Trick 
you heard on the radio. No, this is "Surrender" on speed...with a 
robot on guest vocals (actually Rick talking through a vocoder). 
The song modulates between Rick's synthesized speech, Robin's 
sung half of the verse, and the rocking chorus. There's also some 
truly demented piano work going on in the background - a 
contrast to the patterned, layered string synths of albums past. Bottom 
line on this song: wow...these guys have a weird side...and I like 

07. Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down [5]
...but then they take a shit in your hand with this Led Zeppelin-
meets-AC/DC crapfest. What the Hell are all these lyrics but a 
series of song titles, from "Long Tall Sally" to "Highway To Hell" 
and "Johnny B. Goode?" This is one instance where Robin's 
ability to sing up higher than most of us males works against him, as 
his attempts to sound like Robert Plant and Bon Scott (singers I 
already find grating) are somehow worse than either of them. The 
song's redeeming quality is the sheer absurdism in the break, 
where some dialog delivered by a basso British man (could it be "Big" 
George himself?) 
"I'm wishing to live longer aided by the supreme healing force of music. It most definitely overcomes all weakening aspects of the body. I've felt quite lost and distraught without those wonderful vinyl productions. I'm convinced it's an addiction, too. I feel just great again - thanks, Geoffrey!"
It's buried a little in the mix, throwing the song just enough off-kilter to not sound like the standard brainless fare on which this song is modeled.

08. I Love You Honey But I Hate Your Friends [4.5]
Artistically, I'd say this is just as annoying as "Love Comes A-Tumblin' Down," but the extra .5 is deducted for having such a dumb title - not even parenthesis could have saved this one - and consequently lyrics about as bright as the artist they're mimicking, this time latter-day Rolling Stones (bearing in mind this is 1980, with The Rolling Stones having under half of their existence - but two-thirds of their studio discography - behind them.) Unfortunately, it's not good latter-day Rolling Stones. It's side B doldrums Rolling Stones...[I'm tempted to insert a crack here about how maybe it's artistic statement about side B of an LP, but I won't.] It's repetitive and annoying. Funny enough, just like The Rolling Stones, it's pretty damn hard to figure out what is being sung. You're not missing much. The redeeming quality of this song is the bizarre piano interlude heralded by Robin's proclamation "Let's dance!"

09. Go For The Throat (Use Your Own Imagination) [10]
The side B doldrums that befell All Shook Up is saved by this song. As an angry counterpoint to the sadness on "Can't Stop It But I'm Gonna Try," "Go For The Throat" has Bun E. Carlos channeling Keith Moon on his drum runs during the chorus, with some Beefheartian syncopated-but-patterned playing on the chorus. The electric piano is a welcome addition, and Tom's bass has never sounded nastier or meaner than it does here. When the bridge comes and the band locks into a solid rock groove there is a feeling of reprieve from the rest of the song - this statement meant in a loving, complimentary way.

10. Who D'King [7.5]
I love Bun E. Carlos. I think he's terrific, and his drumming style possesses a certain character and finesse that influenced my own playing - tempered, not taking up as much sonic space as a Mitch Mitchell or any of those quadruplet-worshipping modern drummers - but when he has songwriting credit on a song, my own filler warning light comes on. It's a bunch of syncopated drum beats, interlocking and sounding almost tribal, stopping only for a chant of "Who d' king of d' whole wide world?" The latter repeat of "Whooooo da? Whoooo da? Who-da, who-da? Who-da, who-da?", first of all, sounds a LOT better than it reads, and second - if one didn't bother to make out the sparse lyrics - wouldn't be out of place hidden amongst a stack of ethnomusicological tapes. While this song smacks of being inconsequential, it's actually pretty cool, saved by the subtle humor ("We be d'king of the d' whole wide world!") and willingness to experiment beyond the milieu of Western music as we know it.

Subtotal: 85

Replayability Factor: +2 
I couldn't just sit and listen to this one all the time - at least not while Dream Police is within arm's reach - but it isn't too much of any one emotion or sentiment to put me off from only listening to it while "in a certain mood." 

Consistency Factor: +1
This album suffers from being in the shadow of four mammoth studio albums and one powerhouse of a live album - little brother syndrome - but it unfortunately fulfills that role. Dream Police truly was a peak; just because it's a step down doesn't mean it's an awful album, but if you had never heard Cheap Trick before I wouldn't tell you to run out and buy this one first. Maybe fifth or sixth, after the first five albums. 

External Factors: +1
As a drawback, the album is overproduced at times. On the plus side, this stands out as the most experimental record Cheap Trick did. So it doesn't make it the best, but one must respect the risk(s) taken. It's unique in a good way.



PS - sorry the format's screwed up here, visually. I tried fixing it, but it got worse.

New? Check out my entry on how I rate my records!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Back From An Extended Vacation

Well, well, well, well, well...
Been a while, hasn't it?

Of all the things to be suggested to me last spring by my IMP committee, doing a blog exclusively dedicated to music reviews (and other stuff - note the proposed series of video game reviews that kicked this sucker off...) was a bit naive. How many new blogs are created daily? How many blogs are already out there?

Short of having an actual website, there isn't much in terms of structuring and organizing this page as anything other than a blog with seemingly random album reviews.

And yet now that I've graduated and I'm done...I'm back. Weird, isn't it?

I have a few objectives with this site:
1.) To review albums. (More below.)
2.) To do an episode-by-episode review of Monty Python's Flying Circus, ideally one a week for 45 weeks.
3.) NOTHING PERSONAL, NOTHING POLITICAL. It's one thing to say, "Many years ago I heard this album on a car trip with my Dad." No, no, that's totally acceptable. It's something else to say, "This album makes me think of how my parents are in the throes of a bitter divorce and I'm sad about it!" An obvious exception should be made if an album has had a significant impact on you - if London Calling is the reason you bought a guitar, or if Bringing It All Back Home inspired you to start writing songs, whatever - that's fine.

It's also one thing to say, "The political message of Preservation Act Two resonates just as strongly in post-9/11 society as it did in the era of Vietnam and Watergate when it was first released." It's something else to say, "The political message of Preservation Act Two resonates just as much today, in a fractured political landscape of illegal wars and covert CIA interrogation tactics. The corrupt capitalist of Mr. Flash and the wicked theocratic dictator Mr. Black each represent the two sides of George W. Bush."

To hit reason #3 first before going on about #1, I hate reading articles where it's got so much more to do with the author than the actual content. Nathan Rabin of the A.V. Club is a prime offender, and it irritates the shit out of me. He'll explain that he didn't catch The Office during its original airtime because of such-and-such, so he watched it on his DVR at 4AM on Friday, never mind the incessant references to the show's characters as "office drones" whose lives are pure "monotony" punctuated by the events we see on the program. It's an obnoxiously snooty attitude to have, considering what he gets paid to do.

Additionally, as far as I'm concerned, if you're writing a review, no one reading it gives a shit about your personal life, good, bad, ugly, whatever. Okay, be fair, the first review one writes after, say, the birth of their child or another major life event? Yes, by all means, have it in all caps for Heaven's sake. In any other case, though, shut the Hell up.

Actually, for the thing about album reviews...that just needs to be a separate thing altogether.

See the entry just below this one for details.

Album Ratings: Just The Facts

This is my section of disclaimers and assorted information for my album reviews. Any questions, please leave a comment for me and I'll respond within the thread attached to this entry and/or revise this entry itself.

Part One: Format
I aim for a simple format: write a little bit about the album as a whole, then do a song-by-song rating and ranking system, discussed in Part Two of this entry. It's my own pledge to not go into painstakingly researched details about every day of the recording process, etc. Sometimes a bit of background is necessary. Sometimes a bit about the album's inception/creation is essential. Sometimes the album's (at least initial) critical reception is worth knowing.

The main thrust is that an album is the end product of a collection of songs. Is the album itself uneven? Is side A better than side B?^ An album is a whole, an experience. Once home tape recorders were widely available, the mixtape was born. Then came the mix CD. Now there's the iPod playlist...and so on and so on.

With the song-by-song breakdown, I'll have a little bit to say about each song. I won't analyze or go into philosophical depth, just simple aesthetic comments/critiques.

Part One And A Half: What About Singles?
In writing album reviews, there is the sticky issue of non-album tracks released as singles. With some artists, like The Kinks, the singles are now included as bonus tracks on CD reissues. The Beatles' singles were collected into a two-CD compilation called Past Masters. The Rolling Stones have had a few different permutations of this.

The Who gets even messier, as their singles aren't included as bonus tracks - "Substitute," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "I'm A Boy," "The Seeker" - but instead are found only on best of/greatest hits compilations. Shitty business move to make die-hard Who fans shill out 20 bucks for three songs on a Greatest Hits package. In some instances, their b-sides are impossible to track down, some found only on import-only rarities collections from the late 1980's with significantly inferior sonic quality than the digitally remastered stuff.

Bottom line on this one - if a single is contemporaneously adjacent to an album, that is to say it was recorded at the same time, it will be included with it. Example: "Day Tripper" / "We Can Work It Out" being recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions, even sharing the same release date.

If a single is a standalone, that is, the song was recorded exclusively as a single and was not from sessions for an album, it will be included in the review of the studio album proceeding it. Example: "The Seeker" by The Who is in this weird middle ground between Tommy (1969) and Who's Next (1971), a standalone single release. It will be included in the review of Who's Next. In an instance such as this, the songs from the single will not be considered part of the adjacent album, nor will it be counted in the album's final rating.

Part One And Two Thirds: What About Live Albums?
I'm still grappling with this one. On the one hand, there are more than a few live albums boasting all-new material, like Neil Young's Time Fades Away (1973) or any number of Zappa's stuff. But a lot of live albums can be little more than a "Best Of" collection with cheering, applause, and onstage banter between songs, like One For The Road by The Kinks (1980) or any number of Zappa's stuff. I don't hold any sort of grudge against them, but they're just...different.

If it's a great performance and showcases the talents of the musicians in front of an audience, fantastic. But if it's your fourth live album within a single decade (I'm looking at you, Neil...The Rolling Stones, too!) and there's little in the way of new songs, I will probably tear it to shreds. Or if it's extremely obvious there's been some overdubbage on what's marketed as a "live" album. That's almost immediate disqualification.

This is exceptionally irritating with Zappa, where sometimes it can be interesting as well as entertaining to hear how "The Torture Never Stops" sounded in 1975 (on an official live release) and its gradual evolution - rearranging it while on the road (one such night can be heard on yet another official live release) - into what you hear in the studio version on Zoot Allures (1976). Then you can hear how he does it with a wind/brass section on Zappa In New York (1978). But then you hear it again and again throughout the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series and it abounds on the I've heard...

Part One And Three Quarters: Will You Review Any Bootlegs?
No. That's for you to explore on your own. Plenty abounds for all sorts of artists. But do not, repeat, DO NOT ask me for a hook-up! Tape-swapping is cool, but that's only if I know you in person. That's all I have to say about that.

Part One And Four Fifths: What About Bonus Tracks That Aren't Singles?
I will talk about them, but they won't be counted towards the total final grade for the album. For the CD reissue, yes, but not for the original album.

Part Two: Rating Algorithm
Each song is given a rating on a one to ten scale. I allow myself decimal points, but only in multiples of .5, so a song can fall just short of perfection and have a 9.5. No smaller than that, though. Wouldn't want to start messing with a 9.1 here and an 8.4 there.

12 - The best song by a particular artist. (One per artist!*)
11 - The best song on a particular album, essentially a 10 with just a little extra.**
10 - Masterpiece. There is nothing you dislike about this song. It makes you feel better.
9 - Excellent. Not as iconic, but a strong contender for a "Best Of" compilation any day. Also reserved for songs that would be 10's but are just too short. I differentiate this from it being too long; if you feel a song is too short, that means you want to hear more of it. If a song is too long, that indicates it has worn out its welcome.
8 - Great. Missing just that one thing, whether it's too long (though if it's excessively long it could end up a 7) or it needed a guitar solo (didn't need it but had one anyway).
7 - Good. If you had "Best Of" volume II, it might find its way on there. More than a flaw or two in the song.
6 - Fair. Could have been worse, but they've done better. Maybe it sounds better live?
5 - Sub-par. You can think of how the song could have been made into at least a 7. Maybe it just has a top-notch chorus, catchy as Hell, or just melodically strong.
4 - Mediocre. Maybe it's got a really good verse, bridge, or solo, but the rest of it just doesn't hold up.
3 - Bad. Next time you hear the album, you will definitely skip this one. It downright annoys you.
2 - Really, really bad. You can't even define what's wrong with it, other than that it was released and/or conceived by a human being and not a denizen of Hell itself.
1 - Abysmal. Sitting through it even once is torture. This is to be rarely used - a 1 has to be so bad that your entire opinion of the album is swayed by it. Granted, an album that would feature a 1 is either horribly inconsistent or already of less than desirable quality, where 5's and 6's abound.

Once I've got that total, there's additional factors to consider:
1.) Can it be listened to again and again? ("Anytime. Anyplace. Anywhere," add three points; "I can put it on as background music and not feel compelled to skip any songs," add two; "Yes, but in certain moods/situations," add one point. "No," add none.)
2.) Is it good compared to the best of this particular artist? ("It's quintessential [insert name here]!", add three. "Maybe not the first album of [insert name here]'s stuff I'd recommend, but it's near the top of the list," add two. "Get it once you've got the best," add one. "It's really one for the die-hards," add none. "If this had been the first album by [insert name here] I'd heard, I wouldn't have liked them," subtract one.)
3.) Are there external factors that boost or hurt the album overall, like it being too short, over-produced, under-produced, groundbreaking in its production, etc.? (If they are positive, add two. If there's both, add one. If they are negative, subtract one. If there's none, add one.)

With these extra points added to my initial total, I divide the result by the number of tracks on the album - like an average.

If the album is a CD reissue with bonus tracks, I provide a final score for the original album with the above factors included, then one for the complete CD with the above factors intact.

Songs of somewhat inconsequential value (the 12-second long "Miracle Cure" on Tommy, the five "Announcement" tracks throughout Preservation Act Two) are considered null and neither hinder or help the album's overall score.

Part Two And A Half: How Do You Rate A Song?
Aesthetically speaking, I place a lot of value on how a song - or even a whole album - feels, whether it's an end result of excellent lyrics, elegant instrumentation and arrangements, or even its merits as an artistic experiment. I will go on record saying Neil Young and Bob Dylan do not have smooth, pretty voices like Paul McCartney or Robin Zander (of Cheap Trick), but I still like their voices. There's a distinct character, an honesty to it, that makes them just as good of singers - in their own way - as McCartney or whoever.

Using a similar example, McCartney may have a lovely singing voice with a broad range, but Paul McCartney is not exactly known for his lyrical depth. Unless of course you rank his own "Silly Love Songs" with "Like A Rolling Stone." If you do, that's cool...but you honestly won't like my site. But dammit if he can't write a catchy melody. Zappa, when he isn't writing social satire, sometimes serves up lyrics that he himself dismissed as being necessary if only to ensure the sheer chance of getting radio play. However, Zappa is a fine composer, with a great sense of melody, progressions, and tone.

Likewise, The Residents can half both ugly music and nonsensical lyrics. But I still love it.

That's what the music we love the most does to us. Inspire us to think differently, or to just think, period; inspire us to create, or at least be a little more bold; inspire us to be strong when it seems almost impossible. Then there's the stuff that just sounds good. We like the way it makes us feel.

Music is art. Something like Sgt. Pepper might be like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while Time Fades Away is like Edvard Munch's The Scream, Zappa is like a collage by Hannah Hoch, The Residents are like a Jackson Pollock painting, etc. Whatever you're into, just enjoy it for what it is - your own definition of beauty.

^ Don't worry, I'm not a vinyl purist. Those people need to get over themselves. (I get it, you're rich and can afford a huge record collection and buy a brand-spanking-new record player, too cool for MP3's and whatnot. Some people may dig your attitude, but to the rest of us, you're a pretentious ass.)
If I'm writing about an album that saw its original release in the vinyl era (roughly up until the mid 1980's), I will specify where side A ends and side B begins. Artists and/or producers sequence their albums a certain way, it is not an arbitrary process. They are meant to flow from beginning to end, barring the sixty-second intermission where one would be flipping over the record. But even then, as one of my rock history professors pointed out, when you finish the first side of a record, you're presented with a choice of whether to keep going or not. Anyway, before this turns into a full rant I'll end this here.

* I say "artist" so as to create a loophole within bands with more than one songwriter. For The Beatles, I have a favorite song by each of them. (Ok, so Ringo only wrote two songs...sadly, I don't think either of them merit 12's.) This allows a little breathing room in The Who, too, as I love John Entwistle's songs just as much as I do Pete Townshend's.

** Since, unless it's a single, my favorite song by an artist would logically be my favorite song on an album, my second favorite song on that album would receive the 11.