Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

Time for controversial claim of the day #1:
The Kinks are better than The Beatles - to my ears, anyway.

Of course, this is like comparing Greek gods, nearly equal in might but catering to different needs. I don't like to say anything disparaging about The Beatles for fear of misinterpretation, but right up to their (bitter) end, their success was fueled by pop songs. Their best moments, to me, were when they deviated from that. Notable examples include "Blue Jay Way," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Dig A Pony," and so on and so on. I can take or leave "Hello, Goodbye," but dammit, it sold!

With The Kinks, and my own experience with fellow Kinks fans, is that we are all united by our love of what would constitute the band's greatest hits. We can all agree upon "You Really Got Me" or "Lola" as being terrific songs penned by a genius lyricist/songwriter, Ray Davies. From there, we have a select batch of albums we can say are enjoyable and great introductions to this band: what John Mendelssohn called "the three greatest consecutive albums of their time," (or words to that effect, to borrow one of his oft-repeated phrases) those three being Something Else By The Kinks (1967), The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), and Arthur, Or The Decline & Fall Of The British Empire (1969).

From there, all bets are off. One guy can love The Kinks' 60's stuff but hate the Lola album for being too cynical (if memory serves, John Mendelssohn meets this description) or doing a massive piss-take on their "out-there" releases in the early 1970's, wherein Ray Davies did his best to make The Kinks sound like any other band but The Kinks. Tom Kitts, who wrote an amazing book on Ray Davies, I'm Not Like Everybody Else, devoted most of a chapter to their 1986 album Think Visual, spending as much time on it as he did their universally-praised classics.

I know that due to my own dislike of Nathan Rabin (and others) starting off their online reviews with significant passages of their life story I've promised to not be overtly autobiographical, but if any exception is due it's this one. My senior project for my individualized major in Rock & Roll History was a mini-thesis on The Kinks. For just under a year, all I did in my free time was read, re-listen, and write Kinks. Definitely a labor of love, but totally worth it. Professor Kitts' book was one of my primary resources, due in no small part that not only is his book on Ray Davies/The Kinks extraordinary, his is the only book to have an academic standpoint. While I'm at it, Doug Hinman's day-by-day chronicle (I'm not kidding - day by day) of The Kinks' career, All Day And All Of The Night was indispensable to me, as well. Just the facts, but facts researched down to the nauseating details that I love.

My point is that I really, really like The Kinks. Which brings me to controversial claim of the day #2:
Ray Davies is the best songwriter to come from England and even gives Bob Dylan a run for his money.

Again, these guys are so high up in the stratosphere of talent that we can only estimate whose head his further in the clouds. Here comes the cliche fan tirade, but his music spoke to me. When I first picked up The Kinks' Greatest Hits (Rhino Records, 1989) in sixth grade, I loved it on a visceral level. That guitar on those early singles stills sounds raw and potent today. After I'd grown a little more I took notice of the lyrics.

One particular favorite of mine is in the early song "Something Better Beginning," a nice shimmering ballad from their second album, Kinda Kinks. In the bridge, Ray sings what I consider the most honest and realistic love lyric, ever:

"I never thought I'd love like this until I met you I found something I thought I'd never have The only time I feel alive is when I'm with you I wonder how long it will last..."

It's great, but real - "Wow, you've altered my perspective and made me feel great...but for how long?" I am in complete agreement with Frank Zappa's assertive dislike of love songs when he said something along the lines of, "They want to you believe love is the end. Love is the beginning!" (With that in mind, we can only wonder what sort of love songs could have come out of the mustachioed one's pen...)

Ray seemed to champion the downtrodden and the misfits of society. Paul McCartney was keen to dedicate songs to his sheepdog in the meanwhile. Ray wrote about these elements because he could identify from them. He was a downtrodden misfit growing up, and in many respects he's been a downtrodden misfit within the music industry - and I say this as a high compliment. (See also: Zappa, Frank; The Residents; Beefheart, Captain.)

Without going into any detail, those who know me can see why I identified with his music so much - "I don't fit in but I don't stand out," indeed - growing up in a shitty, clique-driven small town isn't exactly the most welcoming environment for anyone aspiring to one day leave and never look back. (That day is actually less than a month away for me, by the way.)

His songwriting is also laced with observations. One would think he spends most of his time sitting and watching people, studying their habits, and writing about them. As I've learned, a lot of the songs that seem like character sketches of some unknowing sap are in fact abstractions of Ray's own persona. Not all of the time, but most of the time. And when they aren't, he's generally mocking or lampooning someone else - "A Well Respected Man," "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion," "The Poseur" - with a razor's edge.

Socially aware and hip to the climates of change that have come, gone, and stayed since 1964, Ray has generally avoided overt politics. The big exception is the Preservation saga, his true masterpiece, though I'm quick to acknowledge its potential for being unpalatable to the average listener. Sure, Village Green is almost too obvious of a choice to be the subject of my first Kinks write-up, but on its 348th listen I've found it still only gets better, still worthy of all the praise it didn't get the first time around.

Without further ado, go brew yourself a cup of tea, get out your own copy of The Village Green Preservation Society, and read on.

01. The Village Green Preservation Society [9]
A catchy, anthemic, mid-tempo number that serves as an overture for the rest of the album. The old ways must be preserved and protected, lest they be forgotten. It's a charming, earnest message, but the song takes a little too long for my taste to build up. There's a great live treatment of it on video of them doing it with a brass ensemble augmenting them, giving the song the touch of majesty it just doesn't quite attain in this incarnation.

02. Do You Remember Walter? [10]
On first listen I thought this one had quite a lyrical kick to it, as Ray wonders whatever became of his old childhood friend Walter. He retells their pastimes of smoking cigarettes in the backyard, playing cricket, and their overambitious plans to sail the oceans and "fight the world so we'd be free."

"You were just an echo of a world I knew so long ago..."

We all have those ghosts from our past, someone who was in our life for only a season, and then went away. What I interpreted as cynicism at age 13 I have come to recognize nine years later as being deadly accurate, when Ray says not only would Walter not recognize him, "I'll bet you're fat and married / And you're always home in bed by half past 8 / And if I talked about old times you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say..." I'm quoting him so much because he says it way better in verse than I ever could in prose.

At the song's coda, he finds some consolation with the fact that "People often change, but memories of people can remain..." Beautiful, poignant, and not like anything else from its time. We're still waiting for The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" to lead us in a call to arms in a "Revolution" against the oppressive bourgeois swine who reign over us, as the contemporary messages of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles seemed to claim. But in the meantime we're all remembering our childhood friends who have become complete bores while our own lives have only gotten all the more interesting.
03. Picture Book [10]
Please, please, PLEASE refrain from wanting to buy an HP printer during this song! Again showing what a stark contrast they were to their peers, the song opens with Ray and Dave asking for us to "Picture yourself when you're gettin' old," not exactly the easiest thought for a generation eager to take over the world to contemplate. The book of photographs serves as a reminder of the events of your life, of events that predated you, seeing your parents young "out boozing with their friends." Nostalgia seems to be the dominant theme on this album, but (and I think this is the point) for an era that may have only existed in those photographs. My favorite thing about this song is that these fairly reflective lyrics, with a hint of sadness ("Those days when you were happy...") are set to one of Ray's bounciest musical backdrops. He had a knack for doing that sort of thing.

04. Johnny Thunder [10]
There is something Dylanesque about this song, save for the bridges, that makes me think this song wouldn't have been too out of place on John Wesley Harding. It's a simple portrait of a guy who lives by his own set of rules, and "Though everybody tried their best / Old Johnny vowed he would never, ever end up like the rest." This motorcycle-riding rebel would be dusted off for another song all his own, "One Of The Survivors," on Preservation Act One for no real reason at all other than to make a fun rock and roll song. The original "Johnny Thunder" rolls along with a sense of awe and with some gorgeous harmonies from the band.

05. Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains [10]
I love The Kinks, and I love Howlin' Wolf, so to hear The Kinks' twist on "Smokestack Lightning" is a real delight. Never mind that, given the song's placement on the album we can only assume it's Johnny Thunder's own declaration of independence. He's the last of his kind - "All this peaceful livin' is drivin' me insane!" - and alternately proud and desperate sounding. During the solo the band speeds up and then stops, as if to catch their breath, before going through the final verse at breakneck speed, like a train picking up speed. Great song, giving a musical weight to a mainly pastoral, relaxed sounding album.

06. Big Sky [10]
Unlike midphase Who (think Sell Out through around Quadrophenia) or George Harrison's later songs, there isn't much spirituality to be found in the music of The Kinks. "Big Sky" is, from what I can tell, the only point where Ray Davies makes even an oblique reference to God. The way the Big Sky of the title is presented is that of the Deist's perspective of God, a greater being who created everything by way of science and just sat back for the free show. "Big Sky's too occupied...Big Sky's too big to cry...too big to see people like you and me."

Anyway, the musical accompaniment is as ethereal as its subject. Mick Avory's drumming gives the song a wholloping edge. Dave harmonizes excellently with Ray, as usual. Another great song, fairly unique for its time and unique even for its creator.

07. Sitting By The Riverside [10]
I keep describing this album as being a beautiful one, because it is. Driven by an accordion (in 1968, it probably sounded very un-Kink-like, but in 2009 it just sits as the first of many uses of it. Ray Davies used it fantastically on "The Morphine Song" on his 2008 album Working Man's Cafe) the song seems to flow along like carnival music. The melody as he sings "Now I'm free and the world's at my feet" is one of the most beautiful passages Ray has ever composed. The song gentle enough until after the second verse when a swirl of sound effects fades in, including organ and I swear someone dragging a guitar pick (or maybe just their fingernail) across the strings of a piano. We are returned to normalcy for the third verse, but the unique instrumental bridge returns before the song's final tag. A testament to Davies' skills as a musical composer, not just lyrics, but also as a producer.

08. Animal Farm [9]

For the longest time, this song didn't do much for me. It starts side B, but I don't think it's a good choice of an opener. Lyrically, I could always dig it, but I always thought the production wasn't so hot. Then I heard it in mono. In stereo it was a bit echoey, way too "treated"-sounding for my liking. It sounded pretty bad. But in mono it sounds crisp, its intro actually discernible. Not surprisingly, that deftly sums up the differences between the mono mix of this album verses its stereo counterpart.

Original Kinks bassist Peter Quaife is convinced this is one of the best songs Ray's ever written. I have to (respectfully) disagree, but it's pretty good. Perhaps it's just the title...Ray is a very literate man, so I couldn't help but think it was possibly a political song in the Orwellian sense.

Oh, well, Ray's revisiting of Village Green would turn into three albums' worth (one single-LP, one double album) of Orwellian madness with Preservation Act One (1973) and Preservation Act Two (1974).

09. Village Green [10]

The next song on this wonderful album is the song that kick-started this entire project way back in late 1966. Hot on the heels of Face To Face, their first truly great album, they quickly recorded "Dead End Street" (the subject of one of my thesis chapters), a fairly bleak but charming "we're all in this together" glimpse at England's working class. No doubt this song came out of a similar mindset.

The instrumentation on this is perfect. Harpsichord, low brass, and a lead line on one of my favorite orchestral instruments, the oft-underused oboe. The oboe plays a lovely countermelody to the prechorus. As the chorus is repeated, an array of pizzicato strings come in. Its use of non-band instruments doesn't weigh the song down but instead gives it a perfect atmosphere of baroque, Elizabethan days. Fitting, as the song's narrator reflects upon missing his hometown and learning his high school crush has married. A love song in one of the most unconventional least until "Lola."

10. Starstruck [11]
It was hard to just pick one favorite off this album, but it has to be this one almost by default. In a word: Mellotron. The eerie whine throughout the song is this now-obscure keyboard instrument. The Mellotron would play tape loops to a designated pitch. On this song, the Mellotron is being played with a string voice. On the intro to "Strawberry Fields Forever," easily the most notable use of the Mellotron in popular song, it is set to a flute voice. It's a cool instrument, but notoriously difficult to maintain, heavy and fragile, making travel difficult.

This is Ray Davies doing pop music at its most elegant. With the tight band performance and overdubs of handclaps and extra percussion, this song should have been a hit. But since the record-buying public, if we walk away from all this knowing one thing it's this, are all quite stupid, this was not the case. I've got a link to the song, which I feel speaks for itself.

11. Phenomenal Cat [10]
Oh, hey, cool, more Mellotron! This time it's set for the flute voice, after a brief intro by real flutes. A semi-psychedelic nursery rhyme, it's about a cat who learns the secret of our existence, gains eternal life, and decides to sit in a tree and eat forever. It might be a little silly and trite, but it sounds great sonically.

12. All Of My Friends Were There [8.5]

This song, the only "dud" on this album, would have been more at home on a release in 1966, where on the Face To Face album or as a b-side to one of their singles. It's a good slice of Ray Davies' sense of comedy, a tale of a drunken performance and the ensuing embarrassment (hence the title), and it is a funny song. (I personally try to avoid this song in the days/hours leading up to a public speaking engagement as a bit of superstition.) But it just sounds out of place here. On Face To Face, this could have garnered a 9.5 or a 10 easily, but here it sounds like yesterday's papers.

13. Wicked Annabella [10]
On one end of the spectrum of psychedelic music is the playful Alice In Wonderland type of stuff that can be heard on "Phenomenal Cat" or so much of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but on the other end? I've never done acid - and don't want to - but it's pretty well-discussed that there are good trips...and then there are bad trips. The good trips give us these Technicolor worlds like "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" by The Status Quo or early Pink Floyd on a good day and absolute garbage like "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" by Procul Harum on the bad days. The bad trips give us these nightmarish glimpses of mysticism, the surreal, and our own deepest fears. Perfect examples are "2,000 Light Years From Home" off The Rolling Stones' attempt at Pepper, Their Satanic Majesties Request and this song.

This song is downright sinister. Its lead vocal from Dave Davies, run through some sort of filter, sounds like the Devil himself especially in that final verse. Musically, Mick plays the drum intro like it's the start of a Voodoo dance. The guitar line during the verses is G#-F#-E, with the E being the lowest chord possible on a six-string guitar without tuning down. It sounds amazing. While "All Of My Friends Were There" sticks out like a sore thumb, this song, although it is musically heavy and the theoretical anti-"Village Green Preservation Society", it somehow works. Listen closely in the song's coda for Dave's evil laughter.

I dare you to listen to this in the dark.

This was also the first song I ever played on my drum set, but you don't care about that sort of information, do you? I even knew to turn off my snare to get the sound right.

14. Monica [7.5]
"All Of My Friends Were There" sounds like 1966 Kinks, for sure. But "Monica," though I do like it, sounds like 1963 album B-side Beatles. Sprinkled with Calypso seasoning, the song just doesn't work on this album. Ray's vocals also aren't terrific on the lead parts, though when he sings against himself in the "I-yi should die" part he sounds good. This one is just kind of there, not an awful song, but certainly not any of the heart-stopping beauties we've already heard.

15. People Take Pictures Of Each Other [9]
Just as bouncy as "Picture Book," but lyrically it's a giant piss-take on the nostalgia Ray has been waxing for the past 39 minutes. When Mick Avory kicks the drums into motion, the song runs like clockwork. Re-listening to it, it's almost cynical on the subject of people preserving their own memories through photographs - "Just to prove that they really existed," "Of the time when they mattered to someone." The bigger message, that we're all going to die and somewhere down the line we'll just be faces in photographs rotting away somewhere, is an unsettling notion. Missing a point for being too damn short!

"Don't show me no more, please," indeed. A nice way to end one of the best albums ever.

Subtotal: 96.3% A

Replayability Factor: 3
This album is great, damn close to perfection, and as I was listening to "People Take Pictures Of Each Other" on my iTunes, it was immediately followed up by "The Village Green Preservation Society" once again, as I have the mono and stereo albums back-to-back. And yet I wasn't inclined to turn it off. I can literally hear this album back to back without complaint.

Consistency Factor: 3
You're lucky there's enough Kinks fans on YouTube to make this album readily available to you, otherwise I'd say if you don't have it you need to go out right now and BUY IT! If you want quintessential Kinks, the album that could be used to define the genius of their lead songwriter and the musical talent of The Kinks as a band, this is it.

External Factors: 2
Self-producing an entire album for the first time, and with their commercial success on the wane in the US, Ray decided to go for broke and produce this. I won't deny its enormous lack of commercial potential. We don't even have village greens here in the United States. But that's what makes it so good - hearing it, you begin to feel for the songs' subjects. You feel just a little more English listening to The Kinks.

Total: 104.3% A+


01. Wonderboy [9.5]
The Kinks do their best to sound like Davy Jones of The Monkees. I wasn't nuts about this one for a long time, until I found out Ray wrote this about his eagerness to have a son of his own, then it took on a whole new level of meaning for me. Now I think it's charming and cute in all the right ways. I'd like a boy of my own someday, so I feel for him.

Ironically, I believe Ray's only produced girls! Apparently John Lennon was crazy about this song. Frankly, I'm not too surprised that this song was not a hit.

02. Polly [9]
I've seen this one listed as "Polly," "Pretty Polly," "Pollyanna," and "Pretty Pollyanna" on various compilations I've come across. For now, I'll just call it "Polly." John Mendelssohn likens this to an early Who song. I happen to agree, the way it builds up - sort of like "Happy Jack" - during the verses to a rollicking fun chorus.

01. Days [11]
One of Ray's finest moments as a songwriter, hands-down one of the best breakup songs ever. It's got a haunting blast of Mellotron during its bridges, just perfect. The lyrics are delicate and sensitive, thanking his now ex-lover for the days she gave him - "Days I'll remember all my life" - and for the effect she had on him, in the best way possible. Yet another example of Ray taking the idea of a love song and giving it his own unique treatment. One of the band's best moments of the 1960's, although no one bought it when it was first released, just another in a series of travesties involving the stupidity of the record-buying public and their neglect of The Kinks.

02. She's Got Everything [11]
Move over, "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane," there's an even better British single out there. At least by my bizarre standards. On one side, you have a perfect ballad. On its flipside, you have The Kinks at their most rambunctious. The recording itself is two years old by this point, but it serves to help mark the passing of time for a band that worked in eras. In the same vein as a lot of their early singles, but with the addition of ace keyboardist Nicky Hopkins going just as crazy on the ivories as Dave is on his fretboard - I LOVE THE SOLO HERE - and the fact that the song shifts and changes makes it known that this isn't 1964, and the band has grown up. Terrific rocker.

And now for my third and final controversial claim of the day:
As much as I love The Kinks and this album, I personally feel they've done better.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Rolling Stones - Aftermath (1966)

My initial reaction to this album was disappointment, but alas, that came by using The Beatles as the standard. This is what happens when an album is hyped up as being "The Rolling Stones' Revolver." Groundbreaking for The Beatles means the westward wind was diverted east and the sun has stood still. Groundbreaking for The Kinks means the most thought-provoking introspective poetry to come out of England since Wilfred Owen or Rudyard Kipling. Groundbreaking for The Who is a spiritual experience. Groundbreaking for The Rolling Stones is that they did an album of all-original songs.

I say this with a bit of joking derision, but also much affection. John and Paul could hiccup and a decent song would tumble out. For Dylan or Davies it wasn't second nature to them, it was their first nature. In the case of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, their manager locked them in a drawing room until they'd written a song. It was a bit more of a challenge for them, and their early work shows a clear line of development and improvement as songwriters. Their successes and failures got released, from early masterpieces like "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)" to slightly airheaded (but really well-produced) stuff like "Play With Fire."

Mick and Keith could always fall back on the blues, or even somewhat contemporary R&B tunes, on their albums. They did a cover of Barrett Strong's "Money," and while The Beatles' version is a thumping romp, The Stones are downright menacing. Their demand for money - and lots of it - might as well be the musical version of getting mugged. They even did a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Hitch-Hike." I would hate to call it a crutch for the band, but it always seemed like a safety zone for them. They had seven songs in the can for an album? Add five covers and the album's a done deal.

Ok, so it was a crutch...but it's also what made them unique. I've said this before, but The Beatles weren't a blues band. Their version of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" is given the full Bo Diddley treatment, turning a fairly pristine pop song into sounding like a blues song from yesteryear. And Mick Jagger is a terrific blues singer. The Yardbirds were the second-greatest blues band in England, but not because of their singer, Keith Relf; what put them on the map was their succession of guitarists.

That said, it only dawned on me one of the last times I listened to Aftermath that expecting Dylanesque lyrics over a shimmering sonic backdrop with The Rolling Stones is like expecting an album of doo-wop standards by The Kinks (now, Neil or Zappa, that's another story...). Yes, Dylan had some impact on The Rolling Stones - "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is a pretty good example of this. But their roots were deep in the soil of the blues, soul, and to a surprisingly equal extent American country music.

What I'm building up to is that side B of Aftermath used to strike me as slightly unimpressive, by and large. But in the years that have passed since my initial listen - again, thanks to some twat who calls himself a journalist I was expecting another Revolver - it's come to me that this album is the logical development of the music that inspired them in the first place. They were finally able to write a proper blues song themselves and give it their own edge in the same way they'd been doing with Howlin' Wolf numbers. It's not like The Rolling Stones would ever start sounding like The Beatles out of the blue.

Oh...right - Between The Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Touche. Perhaps that's why Aftermath feels the odd man out of their innovative works from the mid-60's. I consider these three albums to make up a trilogy, in the same manner as Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver - let me qualify this claim - in that they began to challenge their established sound and songwriting. Would they have ever thought to use a xylophone on a record in 1963? Doubt it.

There's some terrific Rolling Stones moments on this record, with some of Mick and Keith's greatest songs all captured here, but the album is tossed askew by one mammoth of a tune that depending on who you ask is either a major distraction or a step in the development of more progressive rock and roll. I'm of the former school of thought. It's also a pretty long album for its time - 53 minutes - but as far as I am concerned, 11 of those minutes should have stayed on the cutting room floor. (Then again, if that had been the case, the song in question would be enshrined as the great lost Stones epic. Oh, fans...we're so fickle, so stupid...)

Since we're at an album that was markedly different in the US than it was in the UK, let me just reiterate that in these instances I always regard the UK version as the standard. This is the one with the artist-approved track listing and mixes. (Well, for the most part, let's leave the mono versus stereo debate for a rainy day. No, let's actually save that debate for monsoon season.) Thankfully, the differences are minor with The Who and The Kinks. With the latter, the US-only records have been considered obsolete since they went out of print. One of the few times The Kinks' period of obscurity in the United States worked in their favor.

I can't get behind anyone claiming the superiority of one of the American versions of a Rolling Stones album, or for that matter The Beatles (just wait till I do Rubber Soul!) because the UK albums give you more bang for your buck. There are fourteen tracks on the UK version of Aftermath. Somewhere in the Atlantic, in transit to the States, a whopping five songs seemed to fall off the boat and be replaced by "Paint It Black," their latest single. I love "Paint It Black." I think it's one of the band's greatest songs, period. But in the UK, singles wouldn't often grace LP's.

Oh, and the four songs that got lost on the voyage to the US? They were "Mother's Little Helper," "Out Of Time," "Take It Or Leave It," and "What To Do." I can't imagine the album without any of them!

Ironically, the US version runs about 11 minutes shorter. I can think of another tune that I would have rather had on the chopping block, one running just about that length. Strange...

01. Mother's Little Helper [10]
What I love about the early Rolling Stones is their image, however contrived and cooked up by Andrew Loog Oldham it might have been, as these snotty anti-authoritarians. This is a full-out attack on the middle-aged and the middle-classed, the same people who wanted to see Mick and Keith and Brian go to jail for a long, long time during the drug trials of the next year while at the same time popping pills to endure the drudgeries of their own lives. This was pretty heavy stuff in 1966, and it still is today. Drug culture is frowned upon by the mainstream, but cut to commercial and they're trying to sell you a pill for restless leg syndrome. Antidepressants have caused suicides, but damn those who go down the destructive path of drug use!

Now, I say this as a fan of neither. You'd be hard-pressed to get me to take something for a headache. But I certainly see the hypocrisy of pill-poppers lining the pockets of the drug companies who look down their collective noses at people who are doing the exact same thing on the opposite side of the law.

This is a great nose-thumbing opener. What sounds like a sitar in this song is just a heavily effected slide guitar, probably an electric twelve-string. I love how the song starts: "What a drag it is getting old..." before the rest of group joins in. Nice, bouncy drums and bass by the second-best rhythm section of all time. (Number one being Duck Dunn and Al Jackson Jr. from Booker T. & The MG's.) It should probably be mentioned that the Stones had never made a record this sonically innovative by this point. I can only imagine how it felt to hear this when it first came out.

02. Stupid Girl [10]
Don't be duped by any overtly p.c. reviews you see, this song is not misogynistic or sexist. (Don't worry, when they DO take a misogynistic or sexist voice, I'll call it out.) Maybe it's because I've met more than a few girls that I could easily dedicate this song to. I know I stated earlier that one shouldn't look too hard for traces of Dylan in the Stones, but the carnivalesque organ that leads this song sounds straight off of "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Positively 4th Street."

Whether you're a Stones neophyte or a hardcore fan, I strongly recommend Keno's Rolling Stones website. In fact, his homepage has links to his sites on The Rolling Stones, classic rock polls, John Lennon, and Hound Dog Taylor. I've talked to him before via email - seeing as he runs a website I'm sure I was just another bullet point in his inbox - and he seems like a very nice guy.

(I've had at least one bad online run-in with a webmaster for a site dedicated to one of my favorite bands. Won't say WHO the band or site in question was, other than that I CAN'T EXPLAIN how upsetting his stand-offish behavior was to me and I WON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN to believe that in contacting a site-runner that we're automatically friends because of our mutual love of a band...though that is how it should be.)

Anyway, doing what I normally do for these reviews involves having the album pulled up on iTunes and double-checking the song's lyrics. In the case of The Rolling Stones, Mick either mumbles or the recording is just so damn murky (I'm looking at you, Exile On Main Street!) that you can't tell what he's singing. Reading the lyrics at Keno's site, I was surprised to see a transcription of the vocalizations in the song's middle section. I'd always though it was just a percussive "chop! chop!" to keep time or something. They're in fact saying "Shut up, shut up!" again and again, making this song that much cooler.

03. Lady Jane [10]
I'd always loved this song since I first heard it, thinking it as a nice little medieval/baroque ballad. But hearing Neil Young's "Borrowed Tune" (in which he mentions that the borrowed tune is from the Stones), which is based on the melody of "Lady Jane," the sheer beauty of the melody was made all the more apparent to me. Listening to Aftermath end to end for the first time in a long time last night, "Lady Jane" sent chills down my spine. It's a gorgeous, haunting song, with the harpsichord and Brian Jones' dulcimer giving the song its centuries-old flavor. Not bad for a pair of kids raised on the blues!

04. Under My Thumb [10]
Ok, I will readily admit, this song is sexist. But as with this song or "Brown Sugar" or "Some Girls," one must raise the issue of how likely it is that the song is being delivered in a voice. Frank Zappa's "Bobby Brown Goes Down" was from the perspective of the type of white, upper-class male he hated - you hear "I got a cheerleader here / Wants to help with my paper / Let her do all the work / 'N maybe later I'll rape her" and know it's a joke.

Is this to be meant in the same way? I don't know. I sure hope so. You look at the ladies in Mick Jagger's life: Anita Pallenberg, Chrissie Shrimpton, Marianne Faithfull, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall...these are all pretty tough, independent women. To ease the mood, Brian Jones was quite an asshole to Anita Pallenberg, who he also dated for a while, prompting Keith (apparently a knight in shining armor - I'm not kidding!) to steal her from him. Ms. Pallenberg has gone on record stating Keith was the nicest and the best lover. I don't think Keith would have shared songwriting credit on a deliberately sexist song.

Hopefully that issue can be laid to rest...

This is a good song. No, this is a great song. Musically, it's catchy and quite well-produced, with the handclaps, a fuzzed-out bass, and Brian Jones on marimba. (A marimba being a tuned percussion instrument like the xylophone but with wooden keys, oddly enough giving it a fairly wooden, resonant tone.) That fuzz bass sounds great, forty-three (!) years later.

As a sidenote, it is interesting seeing Brian Jones trying to look cool and defiant while playing the dulcimer and the marimba in these videos. I'm rough on the guy because of how willfully he squandered his own talent until he became a washed-up flake; it says something to be in the same band as Keith Richards and get kicked out for doing too many drugs.

05. Doncha Bother Me [9]
After knocking it out of the park with four back-to-back classic Stones pieces, this song might sound like a streak-stopping dud. But I like it a lot. I consider it like a note for the listener, musically, saying, "It's okay, we're messing around with fuzz tones and dulcimers and harpsichords and marimbas, but we've not forgotten our beloved blues!" It was recorded alongside most of the rest of this album, meaning during the same sessions that yielded "Lady Jane" and "I Am Waiting," they ripped and roared through this tune.

It sounds like it should be some old Howlin' Wolf tune they dusted off, but it's a Jagger/Richards composition, with its sneering slide guitar line, rattling percussion, Charlie's cymbals on the bridge adding a good (but short-lived) dose of noise, and a great harmonica line. This song would have been perfect if they'd gone through the chorus one last time with Charlie keeping time on his kit as it fades out, but that's just me. Still a great tune, able to hold its own against the heavyweights on the rest of side A.

06. Going Home [3]
Ok, this is a pretty divisive piece. This closes out the first side of the album, and it is a full eleven minute, fifteen second blues/jam that I find more than a few issues with. For me, it hovers over the rest of the album like a black cloud, so let's just roll up our sleeves and get dirty on this one.

This song should be fading out into oblivion around the three-minute, forty-five second mark. But it doesn't. It just keeps going. Unfortunately, throughout this first portion of the song, it seems to be building up...but to what? Well, nothing, really.

Most days I'm not in the mood to sit down and soak all 675 seconds of it. With the album's running time of 53 minutes, it could have done just fine without this meandering workout. Richie Unterberger, writing for AllMusic, nails it in his review of this track: "There's the sense of the track getting drawn out more for the purposes of adding to its length than to make necessary musical and lyrical points, verging on clumsiness..."

This song also set a bad, bad precedent in rock music: the idea that a song can be of extended length simply because you want it to be. Take a song that should theoretically last three to four minutes, but stretch it out to seven minutes. Or ten. Or fill up an LP side (roughly 23 minutes). Don't get me wrong, I can think of another 11-minute long song - Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" - that is perfect in almost every regard. But Dylan's a lyricist, and he doesn't waste a second. It isn't of that length because of a meandering blues jam.

In all fairness, I could see myself defending this song in another context, or even in another mood. When you play with a band, you can get a good thing going and not really want to stop, and it's a Hell of a lot of fun. Tragically, having both participated in and witnessed this, it's only fun if you're part of it or if it's there, right in front of you. Otherwise, it's a yawn-fest.

And this, friends, is why I don't like jam bands. Music shouldn't feel like it's just there. Or at least the best music shouldn't just feel like it's there, unless you're listening to an ambient record, where that is the objective of it. Anyway, this song is a major distraction. It actually gets better in the last two or three minutes of it, but by that point you've sat through eight or nine minutes of so-so material. By which point just about anything would sound like blessed relief, it doesn't seem worth it, and even then it would sound horribly out of context without the last nine minutes before it.

In short, as my criteria for a 3 states, "Bad. Next time you hear the album, you will definitely skip this one. It downright annoys you." Look no further.

Can't wait till I unearth a 2 or, God help us all, a 1! Guarantee you that if it will come from any artist I've reviewed so far, it will most likely be The Rolling Stones. When they're good, they are ON, but when they're not so good...yikes...

07. Flight 505 [9.5]
Remember my spiel about the second halves of early Beatle records getting a bum rap? Aftermath seems to suffer a similar fate, with all but one of the big tracks, known by the slightly-more-than-casual fans, gracing the A-side. If you're going to make an album, try to keep it paced in terms of quality. Front-load it with all your best tunes and the rest of your record will just seem...dull to most listeners.

Side B of this album isn't the stomping ground of the titans, no, but to enjoy it my advice is to take a break, then come back to it. Besides, on CD, "Flight 505" is a breath of fresh air after "Going Home." The most innovative stuff you've heard, with a nice throwback to their roots by way of "Doncha Bother Me," and Side B takes these two extremes and fuses them together.

If it sounds like I'm making a big deal about sides, it's because I am. It's a lost art form of sequencing and pacing songs to make a listenable whole. I'm also doing my damndest to defend the latter half of this record, probably due to my own initial blowing-off of it when I first hear the album five and a half years ago. (God, it's already been that long?)

"Flight 505" is a straight-up rock tune, twisted by the piano intro that sounds like it was recorded two doors down. Lots of ambient-sounding echo. Lyrically, it's funny, a tale of a man who decides to escape his old life - though nothing is really amiss with it - and hops Flight 505. The punchline comes when his plane crashes. To me, it's like their own comment on the growing idea of escapism throughout popular music, of their entire generation wondering what it's all about and ditching their old lives for no real reason at all to pursue the answer. This sums up their own cynicism towards it. Then again, they could have just sat down and decided to write a song with a funny ending. I don't know, I wasn't there. But it's a really good song.

08. High And Dry [8]
Interesting use of the compressed cymbals as a timekeeping device, but at the same time it borders on being irritating. Musically, it shows the band just as much in tune with country music - traditional white American music - as they were with blues, which was traditional black American music. As far as I can recall, this is their first real foray into anything resembling country, though hardly the last. And not quite the best.

09. Out Of Time [9.5]
I initially gave this one a lower score due to my preference for the version found on their odds and sods collection, Metamorphosis. That version was a different backing track, with strings, tambourine, and Mick's presence serving only as guiding vocal for friend Chris Farlowe, who had a minor hit with it. Hearing that version first, I always thought this one seemed just a little off, with its organ and marimba arrangements - and no strings.

Then I gave it a thorough re-listening and and realized I used to be a complete idiot.

Two things: first, the version on Metamorphosis is all session musicians. It's worth hearing this version to hear Charlie's distinct drumming style and the backing harmonies by Keith, Brian, and (I think) Mick. Second, the reason I didn't like this song in early 2004 is now the reason I find it enjoyable. It's dominated by the organ and marimba, sure, but I now think it's brilliant. This is the song as they'd intended to do it, and not only is it catchy, there's an extra verse here not found on the Metamorphosis version.

Though this song was sheared off the US version of Aftermath, it did resurface on the US-only compilation Flowers, albeit in a slightly truncated form. (Flowers caught the US up on songs removed from the records, making it seem like a useless release now, right? Wrong - it has three songs not available anywhere else: "Ride On Baby," "Sittin' On A Fence," and their cover of "My Girl." All of which are impressive.)

10. It's Not Easy [8.5]
This song sort of grooves by, like an R&B tune from Memphis, with an organ and fuzz bass where the brass section on a Stax record might otherwise have been. I can scoff at the lyric "It's not easy, it's hard..." for being one of the dumbest lines ever, but are the lyrics to "Soul Man" pure philosophic bliss? No. But it sounds pretty good.

11. I Am Waiting [11]
Then comes this one, out of nowhere among Mick and Keith's self-penned (successful) attempts at Motown and Stax tunes.

The song is lonely, nervous, brooding on the verses, then angry and passionate on the bridges. For my money one of the most beautiful songs they've ever done, giving "Ruby Tuesday" and "Moonlight Mile" some heavy competition. A whiff of the sounds of the mysterious East can be found in Charlie's "thump-thump" at the beginning of each measure, before going into his gentlest swing beat on the bridges. They clearly heard Rubber Soul, taking that English approach to folk and giving it a mood, lyric, and feel all their own, with only some residue of Beatles or Dylan on the edges.

12. Take It Or Leave It [10]
I can picture Otis Redding singing this. It's a beautiful ballad and in a perfect world this would be just as venerated as the classics on the A-side of this record. Though they would have you believe otherwise, the organ, finger cymbals, and acoustic guitars on this song are indicative of a tender side to these guys.

Just listen to it. It speaks for itself. (And with that, I give you the shortest description I will ever write for a song earning a ten.)

13. Think [8.5]
The intro makes it sound like the rest of the song would be clumsy Kingston Trio-esque folk, but once it gets off the ground, we've got another R&B-inspired rocker. Another case where the fuzz guitar is subbing for the brass section we would hear if this had been a James Brown tune, although he did a song on his own called "Think" which is pretty damn good in its own right. Is the song anything special? No, though I am impressed that they could write something that sounds like it would have come out on Stax Records just a year before.

14. What To Do [9]
The Rolling Stones were a little slow on the ending-the-album-with-something-memorable bandwagon, but this isn't a terrible song. Just kind of an afterthought as an ending track. It seems like it could go on for another minute or so and make an even deeper impression - in contrast to side A ending with a song that could have lost about seven minutes and been decent - and I would say along with "Doncha Bother Me" it's their most unadorned vamp of R&B on the album. No fuzz guitars, no odd instrumentation, no swirling Highway 61 Revisited organ part, but it shuffles and bounces along like no other. Too short.

Subtotal: 90.0% A-

Replayability Factor: 3
In this day and age, we can merely press a button and skip over the 11-minute cure for insomnia that graces the slot of track 6 on the CD. I'm going so far as to let it slide that there is a pretty bad song on this record. Otherwise, this is a great, solid collection of all-original songs by The Rolling Stones. Their dependency on blues and soul covers has been overcome by this point. Their dependency on other things was just starting.

Consistency Factor: 2.5
Is this the first Stones album you should run out and buy? I don't really's sort of in this weird turf of being both essential and nondescript that it straddles being a 3 and a 2. On the one hand, I don't think this album holds up as well as Between The Buttons, which I consider their best. But it took Aftermath for Between The Buttons to exist. Never mind they've had a long enough career that they've got quite a few worthy entry points, much like Zappa. As an intro to the Brian Jones-era Stones, I would suggest this one and/or Between The Buttons, but at the same time these are radical departures from the earlier yeah. When in doubt, add a decimal point and a five.

External Factors: 2
"Going Home" aside, much respect is due to Mick and Keith for writing thirteen fantastic songs and making an album out of them. The experimentation with new sounds is not only admirable, but successful. And the fact that they could write their own blues or soul numbers (I'm serious, there are quite a few moments on side B of the record that they sound like a Motown act or someone on Stax or King Records) alongside their own brand of sardonic, boisterous rock and roll duly earns them the title of "artists" in my book.

Total: 97.5% A+

01. 19th Nervous Breakdown [9.5]
Aftermath was released in mid-April of 1966; this single preceded it by two and a half months. This song is great fun, in the same accusatory, insulting vein as "Mother's Little Helper" or "Stupid Girl," with plenty of noisy guitar and bass. That torrent of lyrics in each verse? Someone must have heard "Subterranean Homesick Blues," itself inspired by Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." I wouldn't consider it as outstanding as "Get Off My Cloud" or the next single, it seems to get a little lost at points, but it's still a Hell of a romp.

02. As Tears Go By [2.5]
You should know by now I don't like making oblique comparisons between one musician and another. But this is The Rolling Stones' version of "Yesterday," and I'm saying it with a bit of contempt (for both songs, actually). They wrote it for Marianne Faithfull, whose own version is a tuneless wonder in and of itself, though she looks cute singing it:

Their own version doesn't fair much better. Sure, Mick is actually able to change to pitch of his voice to form notes, unlike the lady who would soon become his regular girlfriend...but it's awful. Drenched in the high fructose corn syrup of sappy string production - the exact sound The Beatles wanted George Martin to (successfully) avoid on "Yesterday" - this is not The Stones' proudest moment. Far from.

01. Paint It, Black [11]
Essential Stones. Moody, "I want it painted black" wouldn't sound to out of place coming from Nico (or Lou Reed, for that matter), and with just a peppering of the Eastern influences George Harrison had immersed himself in. The Stones might have been hip and cynical to most trends, quickly shaking off flower power with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," but they had to give pause for the droning beauty of the sitar. They were able to incorporate it here better than The Beatles did with "Norwegian Wood," as far as I'm concerned. Strong, powerful song in all respects. Oh, and Charlie Watts' tom-toms sound like they're heralding the Apocalypse itself...for the other side.

Note the comma in the official title. Keith said before someone at the record label did that, and he never figured out why. Also note that any other time I type it out, I neglect the comma. Most people forget it anyway and wouldn't even notice.

02. Long, Long While [3]
For the great, self-composed ventures into soul found on Aftermath, this one is a step backwards. It's drowsy and half-assed...a perfect b-side, in the sense that the flipside of a single is typically a song too crummy even for an album. They've done better, and one would have thought with the classic slice of Rolling Stones that is "Paint It Black" as the a-side that the song it's paired with would be just a little better than this.

01. Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow? [11]
I don't know how other fans feel about this song, but I think it's, manic good fun. Lots of feedback, close-miked brass making it sound all the more claustrophobic and chaotic. I love this song.

02. Who's Driving Your Plane? [6.5]
One might think the song is musically a little incongruous, dated...but the vocals are given a good swathe of echo. Not a particularly strong song, at all, but it is well-produced.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Beatles - With The Beatles (1963)

How do you rate a pop record, especially when it's an early 1960's pop record by a band that would shortly tilt Earth's axis, to put it in as non-hyperbolic of a manner as possible? You've all seen I don't use the same measuring stick with The Mothers that I used with, say, The Monkees. But the latter didn't go on to do great things, nor did it elevate to sheer sonic bliss - though the soundtrack for their film Head (1968) is quite out there, in spite of its 25 minute running time. Hell, the last two albums he did with the band, Mike Nesmith was keeping his best songs for his first solo record. We call that the George Harrison syndrome (although the two were in slightly different positions.)

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that I love With The Beatles. On paper, it may seem like I shouldn't, and that's fine. But it isn't changing my opinion of the record. The first thing to acknowledge is that a comparison between this, their second album, and something like Revolver or Abbey Road is nonsense. Same guys, sure, but in the six years (only six years, might I add) between this album and their last recording sessions they, with some help from Mr. Dylan, changed the paradigm of what pop music could, should, and would be.

My affection for the album is the quality of the music, not some Beatles apologist who stands behind every single thing they did. (This coming from someone who defends Let It Be as their most honest record since the early days, but that's a different debate for another entry.) Some people do that, though, and with few exceptions I find it downright annoying. People defend some of the rubbish that made it onto The Beatles Anthology discs with one of my all-time favorite cop-out lines, "Maybe, but it's THE BEATLES!"

I must have missed the part where they all ascended to Heaven one dreary afternoon in 1970.

I love With The Beatles because as my dad put it, this was a pretty good rundown of what the boys had been doing on stage. Maybe not the Lennon/McCartney originals, but they're raucous and rowdy enough to fit right in alongside some Motown covers and some Chuck Berry. It is a lively album, full of the charm and energy that made The Beatles so damn appealing to their fellow countrymen, the US, then the rest of the world. That's what marred Please Please Me, the fact that the originals were by and large weak, while the songs they did cover (making an obvious exception for "Twist And Shout" and "Baby It's You") were throwaways. At least I think so. I can even say I strongly dislike their first album.

No fear of the so-called sophomore slump here; re-listening to it this afternoon it at times felt like I was listening to a mix of "favorite early Beatles tunes."

It's hard thinking about this album in the same pantheon as the titans of their post-Dylan phase, so I don't. This is how a lot of music lovers get hung up - not just Beatle fans - is that the same criteria they have for a certain artist becomes the bar for everyone else. I used to do this with The Beatles, later The Kinks, and later Zappa. (Yeah, Zappa!) Only in fairly obvious or noteworthy instances would I dare to liken an album by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, or The Who to a contemporaneous Beatles release. To call The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society "their Sgt. Pepper" is the friendliest insult one could make about the album. Making a direct comparison will set up expectations, and when someone reads this and buys Village Green and hears a bunch of songs about England with some Mellotron, harpsichord, and baroque-sounding orchestral arrangements on one (and only one) song, they're bound to be disappointed.

Further explanation is required: "Like The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, The Kinks put out what is arguably their artistic zenith with Village Green." The comparison is about the weight of the album artistically, making no comparison regarding the music. Use rhetoric carefully in criticism and appreciation of music.

Lesson in expository writing over.

None of their peers had great debut albums. The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Kinks would be making their first LP's in 1964. The Who wouldn't be too far behind in 1965. They all have one thing in common: their first albums are all pretty lousy. That's without comparing The Kinks (1964) to Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround (1970). These albums aren't good, period, with their singles and the stray excellent album track interrupted by filler. The Beatles weren't that different, they just had the luxury of being first in their league. (At least chronologically. I'm more of a Kinks fan myself.)

The Beatles cut their teeth on the largely sub-par Please Please Me when at the same time The Rolling Stones were the house band at the Crawdaddy Club (it was in fact on George Harrison's suggestion that Dick Rowe from Decca checked them out), The Kinks were called The Ravens, and The Who were The Detours. Actually, let me rephrase that. The Beatles cut their teeth from 1960 to 1961, playing for hours on end held up by beer and amphetamines keeping the crowd happy at strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany. (Not so cute and cuddly now, are they?) From there, they became the talk of Liverpool. Then the talk of Scotland. Then the talk of all Northern England. They'd been together in some form since 1957, making their prehistory much more mythic and legendary than the year or two it took from the formation of what would become The Rolling Stones to their first big hit.

Having flushed a bad first album out of their system, recording it in one marathon 12-hour session, The Beatles opted for covers that weren't top of the pops hits released just weeks before they went into the studio. The songs they cover here were road-tested favorites of theirs and their dedicated followers. (Dedicated what? Sorry, wrong band...) With this, we see sides of the band grossly underrepresented (if memory serves, almost completely overlooked?) on the first album: their love for 1950's rock and roll and of Motown. They pay homage to their idols, and deftly so.

This isn't to disparage the originals. John and Paul kicked into high gear on this one, marked by the increased sense of songwriting on the inter-album singles "From Me To You" and "She Loves You." In short, they got better. Of the fourteen tracks, seven are Lennon/McCartney originals, one is George Harrison's premiere as a songwriter, and six are covers.

From a recording standpoint, having more time in the studio certainly helped. With Please Please Me the only chance they had for an overdub was laying down those all-important hand claps on "I Saw Her Standing There" and others. With The Beatles marked the introduction of what I consider to be one of the greatest sonic effects that can be added to a record: double-tracked vocals.

For those of you unfamiliar with recording processes, here goes: the tapes used on the professional level have tracks, as few as two and by the time The Beatles recorded their final album 16, though the numbers have skyrocketed since then. Suppose the band was using four-track tape. One track would be reserved for the drums and bass. One track would be for vocals. One track would be for the guitars. These three tracks would be recorded simultaneously as the band played in real time. Then they would go back into the studio, and listening to the existing three tracks as a guide, record extra parts, be it percussion, keyboards, or another vocal line.

The double-tracked vocals on this album aren't harmony. They are singing the exact same notes. Layered together this creates a distinct, fuller sound. It's a bit time-consuming to nail a near-replica of the original performance (hence Automatic Double-Tracking, but I'll save that for Revolver. Yes, The Beatles pioneered that, too, on top of transforming the Western World as we know it.), and I always like hearing the slight lack of sync. You can't do the same performance twice, but it sounds really cool. Like repeat echo or something.

Enough claptrap. On with the show.

01. It Won't Be Long [10]
If I can convert anyone to being a Beatles fan, great. But if you still hate The Beatles, you have to admit, they always knew how to open an album. On the first record it was the iconic, "One, two, three, FAH!" of "I Saw Her Standing There." With this one, it's John's opening cry of "IT WON'T BE LONG, YEAH!" before the call and response with the group. Ear-catching. The melodic structure of the verses tends to go downward, suggesting a bit of melancholy.

No guitar solo on this one, but a great bridge, repeated once more for good measure. If you're ever in a Beatles cover band, this would be one Hell of a set-opener. Did I mention these cats could also harmonize really well together, too? Because they do.

02. All I've Got To Do [9.5]
I should also mention that The Beatles also knew how to sequence an album. After a certain point, they for sure had a say in the track order of their albums; I'm not sure about this one. I know they didn't on the first album. But whether it was the boys' call or that of producer George Martin, following the token raucous opener with this one was a great move. It gives the audience a chance to sit back and just breathe.

John Lennon later admitted this was his attempt at a Smokey Robinson-esque number. That staggered drum pattern sounds straight out of Benny Benjamin's kit over at Motown. The song ends with the melody of the verse being hummed rather than sung, breaking the potential predictability of a song of this caliber. Hence the high rating. It's a terrific song, with the rules bent just enough for it to be unique for its time.

03. All My Loving [10]
Iconic Paul McCartney, iconic Beatles. This was the song they played first on their Ed Sullivan appearance, making this America's first introduction to The Beatles. As of this writing, the song is 46 years old, but it hasn't lost a day. A long time ago, Dad sat me down and played this song as an example of what a rhythm guitarist does. During the verses, the straight triplets you hear are John. Must have killed the guy's wrists! (Though not as much as Dave Davies' primordial licks on those early Kinks records, but still.) During the "All my loving / I will send to you..." the accented notes, played on the off-beat, that too is John.

Great Chet Atkins-inspired solo from George, on what could only have been a hollow-bodied guitar. Striking melody, great drumming from that human metronome, Mr. Ringo Starr.

04. Don't Bother Me [11]
You know how earlier I said this felt like a "best of Beatles" mix? It was these two songs back-to-back that led me to this notion. Great Middle Eastern percussion on this song, and while no one would have thought in 1963 the composer of this song would play the sitar on a pop record and become a devout Hindu, it certainly showed George's interest in the exotic was there from the get-go.

George is my favorite Beatle. It shouldn't be much of a shock that it isn't Paul. He's a terrific singer, but too often he comes across as lightweight. To his great credit, Paul is always the one who seems to have an ace up his sleeve - "Helter Skelter" seems to come out of nowhere on The Beatles (The White Album) after his last song on the record, the ultra-wimpy "Mother Nature's Son" - and ready to unleash the showstopper on a Beatles album. I do hold him in high regard.

I've had several people assume John was my favorite Beatle. He was, of course, the de facto leader of the band in their formative years and this was propagated in their public image as well. To me, though, it seems John was always holding back on these early albums. He wasn't nuts about writing pop songs all the time, yet he still did them. They were good, but it took the influence of Dylan to free him up artistically. Even then, his first attempts to be himself as a songwriter ("I'm A Loser," "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away,") come off as being maybe a little too derivative. From there, John, God bless him, was always in a phase. His pot 'n Dylan phase. His LSD phase. His heroin phase. Primal scream. The utopian. The politico. The man separated from his wife. Househusband. And now martyr, an image he would have scoffed at on a good day and torn apart in an obscenity-laden rant on a bad one.

With George, it's deceivingly simple: there's early, moody "quiet Beatle" George, as evidenced here; the dark-humored one on "Taxman"; eventually become the mystical one. Let's see...moody, dark-humored, mystical...I wonder just what the inherent appeal is to me with all this!

This song is terrific. He forced himself to write it. I've noticed in a lot of Beatle literature that critics and authors are quite keen on towing this party line of "George didn't do any songs of merit until Revolver." I've seen it stretched to as late as The White Album and even Abbey Road, their final recorded work. To begin, prior to Revolver George had all of five songs on Beatle albums - "Don't Bother Me," "I Need You," "You Like Me Too Much," "Think For Yourself," and "If I Needed Someone" - barely enough for an EP.

Further, one must consider that he was in a rather unenviable spot. He was second fiddle to two of the most talented - but also egotistical - songwriters in England. In any other band, and this is my own supposition, George's songs could very well have been held in high esteem. This role of being the "dark horse" of the band stuck with him. He even titled his 1974 album Dark Horse. Moreover, many bands had "dark horses" of their own, often overshadowed by the main songwriters - John Entwistle of The Who, Dave Davies of The Kinks, Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones, even when Neil Young was in Buffalo Springfield.

Strictly as a matter of taste - this is, after all, a site dedicated to a very subjective treatment of art, and my opinion is the underlying force behind all this anyway, isn't it? - I like this song best on this album. I like the song's feel, the lyrical matter, and it's got a great but short guitar solo.

This song serves as proof that the critics who are quick to lambast George's early efforts as a songwriter are, for lack of a better term, full of shit.

05. Little Child [8]
Riding the crest of these first four songs, we step into a tightly-coiled pile of filler. But in the case of this band/album, even the filler is pretty damn good! This song wouldn't be too out of place on an early Stones record - we'll actually talk a bit more about them later - and was influenced by what the boys heard in the blues clubs of London, where they had set up residency. Is it a terrific song? Hardly. Is it a danceable slice of Swinging London after a dip in the Mersey River? Oh, Hell yeah.

06. Till There Was You [6.5]
If "Don't Bother Me" serves as a trace indicator of what George was capable of, with his love of Eastern flavors and dark keys/tones, then this song sets a similar precedent for Paul and his occasional delving into pure, unadulterated schmaltz. A showtune from The Music Man, their performance of this song could be seen as a way of presenting themselves to those 25 and older in England (and the US) as harmless and able to acknowledge and respect their elders in the same way the idolized Little Richard, Elvis, and Chuck Berry.

I don't hate this tune, and I understand why it was on the record. I even understand why they chose this song to play at the Royal Command Performance in front of the Queen and later on Ed Sullivan. Paul sings it well, and George's fingerpicked solo on a nylon-string acoustic is done tenderly. The song is a good performance, you don't hear it and picture the other three glancing at the clock on the wall midway through...but it certainly isn't my thing.

Of course, having hindsight on our side, knowing what was to come with "Honey Pie," "When I'm 64," and "Good Day Sunshine," for better or for worse (I happen to love all three of those songs) this ditty stands as a sign of things to come.

07. Please Mr. Postman [9]
A great Motown cover, delivered with a good deal of energy, moreso than on the original by The Marvelettes, where they almost sound like they're being propped up to sing it through. As a drummer, I'm also a sucker for songs or even moments within songs where everything but the drums drop out. With Ringo's surf-style beat of "one-TWO-TWO, three-FOUR" (if my awful description is of no help, chew on the first few bars of "That Thing You Do" for an example), it's even better.

It may be a song originally done by a girl group, but at least here (unlike "Boys" on the last record) they made sure to change the gender of the song's subject. They do it earnestly, not at all tongue-in-cheek like "Oh, we're doing this song!". The Beatles loved Motown, and it shows here, bested only by one other Motown cover. Funny enough, it closes the other side of this album...

08. Roll Over Beethoven [10]
Did I mention The Beatles were also really good at opening an album's b-side? Although John was the biggest Chuck Berry fan in the group, George enjoys the lead vocals on this one. I would never say this to Mr. Berry's face - he'd probably throw a punch at me (I'm not kidding, either. After a show once Keith Richards went backstage to meet Chuck, and as he was approaching him, Berry threw a punch at Keith because he didn't recognize him!) - but I happen to like The Beatles' versions of his songs better. They do them faster, and recording technology was able to capture every nuance of the performance.

John would eventually have his moment in the sun leading The Beatles at breakneck speed through another Berry cover, "Rock & Roll Music," on 1964's Beatles For Sale. If you're really interested in hearing more Beatles doing Berry, it's been fairly well-documented on the 1994 release The Beatles BBC Sessions, with John doing "Too Much Monkey Business," "Memphis, Tennessee," and "Johnny B. Goode."

09. Hold Me Tight [8.5]
A bitchin' little riff drives this song, that and the hand claps on each beat, giving this song a sense of insistence. It might be eliminated in the first rounds of "best of Beatles" mixtapes or CD's, as it is repetitive and a bit slight, but they sound like they're having a blast. Same category as "Little Child." It's there to dance to, so you really shouldn't take it to heart. (Yet another Kinks quote? Damn, guess I know who I'm doing next on this site!)

10. You Really Got A Hold On Me [9]
Ah, the other side of Motown. Well, counting the final track, the other other side. "Please Mr. Postman" was catchy girl pop, but this is a deliciously tender ballad done by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. I almost feel this should be on side A in place of "All I've Got To Do," which would go here. It makes sense - hear their treatment of Smokey, then hear John's attempt to recreate that type of songwriting.

Of note is that during the verses, John does something unique on this record - he uses the chance to double track his vocals to harmonize with himself, singing both the high and low part. That says something. Paul could have done the high part with John on low, or John could have sung high and had George sing low (the other two do harmonize with him on the song's hook and choruses), but John wanted to do it all himself, showing how much love and affection he had for the song.

One of the many great what-ifs to ponder upon, besides the obvious "what if so-and-so hadn't died when they did" or "so and so hadn't broken up", comes out of this song. What if The Beatles had taken more of a hold on soul music, to the point that it inspired their songwriting? It happened with The Rolling Stones, but their roots were distinctly in black music - they loved blues, so they would naturally be at least interested in soul.

Ray Davies of The Kinks loved the rock 'n roll of the 1950's, but also enjoyed trad jazz (a British version of Dixieland). The bluesiest performer he like was Big Bill Broonzy, who was just as much jazz as he was blues. (At least I think.) The Who's first album is dominated with James Brown covers...and it's pretty bad, to the point that my dad considers it hilarious.

The allure of this song to The Beatles didn't solely rest in it being a touch of soul music. At the end of the day, they did the song because they loved it, nothing more, nothing less. Their influences weren't unlike Ray's, where it was fifties rock, but instead of jazz it was skiffle music that turned them on to music in the first place, which itself is rooted in country and folk. In his course on The Beatles, Glenn Gass remarked several times that there were two things The Beatles weren't great at. The first is jamming. I've heard enough outtakes (*cough* did he actually say that? He's acquired outtakes illegally? *cough*) to attest to this fact. The second - again, I agree - is being a blues band.

Perhaps it's best that they didn't veer off into becoming a soul-oriented R&B act. The Rolling Stones did a damn good job on their own. On a tangentially related note, Apple recording act Badfinger were heavily influenced by Motown and Stax songs, as much as they were influenced by The Beatles and The Kinks. This really shows through on their first album, recorded as The Iveys, Maybe Tomorrow.

11. I Wanna Be Your Man [8.5]
The greatest filler track of all time. It really is fun to rag on Ringo, though of course with notes of admiration and respect. He isn't a great singer - though I'm quick to defend his drumming capability. John and Paul knew this, and would cater to/around that fact. This song was in fact written for The Rolling Stones. It's got that sense to put this lightly...Neanderthalic love songness that it would be perfect for the early Stones. It was also simple and repetitive enough to work for Ringo.

The Rolling Stones can be seen here doing their version. You think I like ripping on Davy Jones or Ringo? With the Stones, take that and multiply it by ten - in the clip, Brian Jones tries to sing like a black bluesman but sounds like he's got a throat infection while serving up an out-of-place-but-good slide solo, while Keith looks as Beatlesque as humanly possible. Never again would he appear so charming, so happy, so...sentient.

12. Devil In Her Heart [9.5]
Another unique influence on the boys is Latin-infused music, heard here and "Mr. Moonlight" on Beatles For Sale. George sets his own personal record for "most vocal appearances" on this album. Another cover, this was part of their stage set for some time. It can be heard on the legendary Live At The Starclub, Hamburg 1962 album if you're interested in hearing what bootlegs sounded like in the 1960's. Another song with a great feel, sort of a moody island vibe.

13. Not A Second Time [10]
A great number of critics I've read seem quick, besides to trash anything George did before Abbey Road and after All Things Must Pass, to poo-poo a lot of the material on the flipsides of their pre-Rubber Soul albums. It doesn't help that with A Hard Day's Night and Help! the A-sides of the albums are songs from the respective movies. The Beatles are so well-known and well-respected (enough with the damn Kinks references, author!) that it's hard to imagine them having "underrated" or "oft-overlooked" songs...but they do, and they can be found on the B-sides of their early albums.

"Not A Second Time" is a mini-masterpiece, lost among the covers and second-tier Lennon/McCartney compositions as well as the anticipation for the album's closing number. There's something perfect, yet disconcerting, about the low grumbles of piano throughout the song (played by George Martin), then comes the solo - after only the first verse/chorus pairing - and instead of it being George laying down a nice melodic line on guitar, it's the low, grim piano notes duplicating the melody. This shift in the traditional songwriting formula of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/solo/bridge/chorus/chorus was pretty radical for its time.

Listen closely to the fadeout, around the 1:59 mark, and you'll hear the separate vocal tracks singing different things. It's an aesthetic error, yes, but in this post-everything era it somehow fits with the rest of the song.

14. Money [10]
Did I mention The Beatles also knew how to close an album? First "Twist And Shout," now this? It's hard to fathom first of all that the people out there who declare a hatred for The Beatles, but more importantly that these people have done enough research to fully back their claim. Sure, I hate a lot of the songs on 1, I'll be the first to admit that a band's "greatest hits" hardly, if ever, constitutes their "best of." Example: "I Am The Walrus" didn't get to number one on the charts, so it's not on 1. But dammit if "Hello, Goodbye" isn't on there.

Ergo, if you hate The Beatles:
1.) You're an idiot.
2.) You haven't listened closely enough, if at all.
3.) In saying you hate The Beatles, you are in a sense denying their influence. So with that being the case, any album you have by a band with self-penned numbers you should probably go ahead and throw away. Anything you've heard with automatic double tracking you shouldn't listen to. Oh, and don't even think of picking up a guitar.
4.) You're still an idiot.

This song...don't quite know how to put it into words. The other other side of Motown beyond the ballads and the pop is stuff like this. The Beatles gussied it up and gave it a true balls to the wall treatment. John's at his rawest vocally and the rest of the band keeps up perfectly. A great contender for the 11 status.

What a way to end a record. Classic Beatles.

Subtotal: 92.5% A-

Replayability Factor: 3
My criteria for a 3 being an album that can be played "anytime, anyplace, anywhere?" Look no further. Having a bad day? Make it good. Having a good day? Make it great! This album always gets me tapping my foot, singing along, usually repeating "Don't Bother Me" and "Money" an extra time or six for good measure. This is what a replayable album sounds like.

Consistency Factor: 3
Consistency and The Beatles is hard to define, as they did nothing but get better and better until they ceased to be. How many other bands can you say that about? So, yes, this is (MUCH) better than the album that preceded it, if that serves as your definition for consistency within The Beatles oeuvre. Compared to Abbey Road it's a toss-off of a garage rock album, so using that as the measure doesn't quite work.

Anyway, Please Please Me was an introduction, a warm-up act. On this, as I've mentioned before, they did nothing more than commit their typical setlist to record, so there's far more of the band being comfortable with themselves on this album. For all practical purposes, this should have been their first album. This is the album that put them on the map and ensured the public they wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.

External Factors: 2
The usage of double-tracking on so many of the vocals is a really cool sound. George Martin, who had previously produced classical records and comedy albums, is really beginning to flex his muscles as the so-called "fifth Beatle," appearing on a number of the songs and it seems helping to make the songs even better, using the piano on "Not A Second Time" as an example.

Total: 100.5% A+

I've promised to address singles, and while I didn't quite do that with The Monkees, dammit I'm doing it with The Beatles!

01. From Me To You [10]
Since it isn't an album but a single release, a rating of 11, let alone bothering to find a "final rating" is a bit silly. Anyway, if this had been on Please Please Me (I volunteer the sacrifice of "Ask Me Why" for it to have a spot on the album!) it would have been the 11 track. It's deliciously catchy, but the key change in that bridge showed a sophistication - whether John and Paul knew it or not - that had been absent from their previous songs. The harmonica isn't overbearing here as it is on "Love Me Do." And sure, it's repetitive, but it's a pop single. What are you expecting, "Subterranean Homesick Blues?"

02. Thank You Girl [2.5]
Perhaps the disdain for album B-sides come from the pitiful b-sides they had on their early singles. This is pretty damn bad, with a fairly inane melody, poor rhymes, and stupid lyrics. There's good pop tunes (see "From Me To You"), and then there's bad pop tunes. Thankfully, The Beatles decided to give an example of each on the same piece of vinyl. Nice echo on the vocals...but that's all the good I can say here. That and it ends, but even the ending kind of sucks. You're expecting one final stinger note, but it never comes.

Hearing this song again for the first time in a while, it seems that in The Kinks' attempts to emulate The Beatles on their first album and pre-"You Really Got Me" singles, it's not the rip-n-roll of "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Twist And Shout" they went after, but shit-showers like this one.

01. She Loves You [11]
Oh, sod it, this one deserves an eleven - I write the rules here, therefore I can break them. If you don't like it, I'm sure Nathan Rabin over at The A.V. Club has some self-righteous, self-important horseshit for your type of sheep to read. Are you sure there isn't a book by Chuck Klosterman you've not picked up yet, the one where he celebrates crap culture?

Now you've done it, I'm hyperventilating. Not really. Anyway, back to what matters.

Can the phrase "Classic Beatles" become overused? This is the very definition of it, an orgasm of a pop song. I'm a fan of the song being in second person - "You think you lost your love / Well I saw her yesterday-ee-yay / It's you she's thinking of / And she told me what to say-ee-yay" - unconventional, but it works. And that chorus is hammered out each time like it's the most important thing in the world. If I may step out of character into sappy, airheaded romantic mode, being in love is one of the most important things in the world, so it only makes sense. I swear with each time they return to the "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!" it gets louder and harder.

Classic Beatles? Um, duh. But that's letting this song off easy. How about instead a glimmering example of how they were able to set the world on fire? That sounds about right.

02. I'll Get You [5]
Man, this song is hard to like. But it's also hard to hate. The problem with this song is that it's half great. With some treatment this could have been an a-side or an outstanding album track. But the reasons it isn't great are heavy stones around its neck. The verses are strong, lyrically and melodically. It's a good message - I don't have you now, I can imagine it and it's great, but I'll get you in the end. But John's harmonies on the "Oh yeah!"s that punctuate the song are just...ugly. I don't know how else to define it, other than froggish. And during the bridge he sounds pretty bad, too. The song's intro sounds phoned in, slothlike, like they were on take number 276 (HA! A Who reference!) and the harmonica just doesn't stop at all. It's annoyingly intrusive and intrusively annoying.

A perfect example of a 5 on my rating scale. This could have been something - fine, I'll say it - it coulda been a contender! But it just...isn't.

01. I Wanna Hold Your Hand [9]
This captures everything that made The Beatles great, and as the title suggests, without any misgivings of their sexual modesty. Like "From Me To You," it's got the notable key change into the bridge, but it falls a little short of the energy of "She Loves You." It's also repetitive as Hell. Still, that intro still gives me chills. To me, it says, "Help is on the way! Our heroes will liberate you from Dion and Fabian and all of the garbage that made rock and roll boring since the end of the 1950's!" This was the song that went to number one in America, laying down a red carpet for The Beatles.

And, to use a real cliche, the rest is history.

02. This Boy [10]
Bingo! Nailed it! A b side that doesn't suck! Not only does it not suck, for my money it's better than the a side. However you feel in the comparison, this song stands out as being a terrific song. Paul, George, and John do a great three-part harmony on the verses before Paul and George step back for John to take the song into the stratosphere in one of his greatest early vocal performances. They wrote it with a girl group in mind, but it's so much better than they'd planned. A gorgeous, tender verse with an impassioned bridge for the pop music record books.

It's with this that I'd like to end my entry by bestowing the honor of inducting With The Beatles, with its cumulative score of 100.5%, as the inaugural (official) member of The 100 Plus Club, with One Size Fits All by Frank Zappa & The Mothers being the first recipient, with a cumulative score of 100.8%.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Neil Young - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)

It seems the greatest artists of all time can have their careers divided into trilogies, or even have their best works sorted into groups of three. The Beatles had a great one-two-three punch of Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver, maturing rock and roll and readying it for psychedelia alongside Dylan's own electric trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde.

Though I can bicker to no end about this (and I'm sure I'm not alone), The Kinks' string of
Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall of The British Empire) is regarded by the heavily opinionated Kinks writer John Mendelssohn as a trilogy. On one hand, I see where he's coming from - three distinctly British records, musically timeless, and each equally approachable and palatable without any overt anger or vitriol towards anything other than "the man."

Dylan's career can almost completely be broken down into a series of trilogies, with the occasional odd one out - his first album is almost all cover tunes, but then came
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin', and Another Side Of Bob Dylan, these three being the albums that turned the world onto Dylan. Then came the electric trilogy. Then came the roots trilogy of John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning, allowing for the odd one out of the almost unanimously-panned crapfest of Self Portrait.

After a spell on the sidelines, his "divorce trilogy" came out -
Planet Waves, the fantastic Blood On The Tracks, and Desire, though Glenn Gass suggested in his course on Bob that Street Legal is just as much part of this set, being the first album he did after his divorce from Sarah Lownes-Dylan. Then came the Jesus trilogy - Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot Of Love - love them or hate them. His last string of albums are considered part of a latter-day grouping of mature albums by one of rock's most revered elder statesmen.

Aside from Dylan, Neil Young stands out to me as the one artist who can be defined by trilogies (even with the odd fourth record, making a tetralogy). He had gained acclaim as a member of Buffalo Springfield, which had also featured a young Stephen Stills and Richie Furay (later to form Poco along with Jim Messina...less said about that guy the better, unless of course "Your Mama Don't Dance" is your kind of thing.) Unfortunately, Buffalo Springfield was marred by in-fighting and the fact that they were never able to capture their stage sound in the studio.

His first trilogy (throwing in his 1968 debut
Neil Young to form a tetralogy) of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush (1970), and Harvest (1972) forms a story arc of sorts. Neil makes a name for himself as a solo artist, with the greatest garage band in the world (Crazy Horse) backing him on the first two, able to promote himself further as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, before finally recording a fairly slick-sounding country/folk/singer-songwriter album in Nashville (Harvest) with a bunch of session players, which in turn becomes the greatest-selling album of 1972.

As he said, success "put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there." (Neil Young,
Decade liner notes, 1977.) The so-called "ditch trilogy" makes up what I consider his best work: the rough 'n raucous live album Time Fades Away (1973), the schizophrenic On The Beach (1974), and the so-depressing-it-sat-for-two-years-before-it-got-released-but-it's-a-fucking-masterpiece Tonight's The Night (1975), the most haunting, harrowing, and desolate album of the 1970's, the brutal murder, embalming, and burial of the spirit behind the 1960's. It probably didn't help that his friend/Crazy Horse collaborator Danny Whitten overdosed on heroin purchased with money Neil gave him to help him get clean.

Once he was back on his feet artistically, Zuma (1975) embodied this feeling that the dark times were over. He reunited Crazy Horse for a great, rocking album, additionally marked by Neil's development as a guitar hero. After a stint with Stephen Stills as The Stills-Young Band, the 1977 hodge-podge American Stars & Bars featured a side of shit-kicking country music and another side's worth of bitchin' guitar rock, including the sublime "Like A Hurricane." It's as if that album was a collection of extra songs from Zuma and the country/folk Comes A Time (1978), the odd man out in what could have been a trilogy. This "trilogy" ends with Rust Never Sleeps, a eulogy for the classic rock era; one side of the LP was beautifully done acoustic folk/rock, representing the best of Comes A Time, while side B showed Crazy Horse playing in a previously-unheard balls to the wall style, taking their primitive style and making it leaner, with "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)" featuring the most distorted guitar sound you could possibly play on the radio without it being called noise rock.

I could keep going, but the album at hand is by this point waving and yelling, "Um, hello?! What about ME?" with perfect reason. Let me preface the rest of this discussion by saying that I love Neil Young. Aside from Link Wray and Dave Davies, he stands as my favorite guitarist - noisy minimalism does a lot more for me than seeing Eddie Van Halen or even Jimmy Page wanking their ways up and down a fretboard.

To put it simply, to get your point across, would you stand in the middle of a riot and deliver a well-written piece of rhetoric or light a molotov cocktail and lob it at a(n unoccupied) bus? It isn't difficult to see where I stand on the issue. Neil also has a great sense of tone on guitar, right alongside Rick Nielsen with the sounds he's capable of making, whether it's that aching squeal on "Like A Hurricane" or the farting buzzsaw of "Hey, Hey, My, My," I hear his playing and hear beauty.

Neil also has a flair for deeply personal lyrics. He's got a brand of artistic honesty - see the ditch trilogy - that pulls at the heart, all his own, separate from the poetic approaches of Dylan and Ray Davies, just as intense as John Lennon's debut album at his personal low points, and just as mystical as George Harrison with his sense of romance. I've met a few people who bitch about Neil's singing voice...I fail to see the problem, much like Dylan as a singer. People, I listen to The Residents, Captain Beefheart, and Masonna. (Not a typo - Masonna is a noise artist from Japan. If you can listen to him, consider yourself my newest friend. Special thanks to Dan Crall for the introduction.) With that, I can listen to pretty much anything else.

Pretty much. That's a pretty vague caveat. Some tones just strike my ears as offensive - for example, I HATE the sound of the clarinet in almost any setting - while the stuff we're not supposed to like - feedback, the atonal shrieking of an out-of-tune (or burning) guitar - I think sounds great! Maybe now would also be a good opportunity to say I am a fairly weird guy.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere stands as a very solid album. It is musically entertaining, consistent (for the most part), and it set the standard for his career. Isn't that what we look for in a good album? It's hard to describe an album I rank fairly high without this turning into a handjob convention. I'll just let the songs speak for themselves.

01. Cinnamon Girl [11]
This is essential Neil. Using a heavy guitar tuning of DADGBD, the song crunches from the get-go, contrasted by the beautiful two part harmony sung by Neil and Danny Whitten (Neil on the low part, Danny on high.) Ralph Molina is a great powerhouse of a drummer, with his hi-hat and ride cymbals sounding like instruments all their own. I don't think this guy ever played a fill in his life, but that's hardly the mark of a bad drummer. In fact, it arguably takes more talent to play like that than it does to play like a bat out of Hell sitting in a dynamite pond.

It also bears mentioning that the guitar solo at the end is just one note. Therein lies the power of minimalism.

02. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [9.5]
Too short! Again with a great Danny Whitten harmony, the lyrics tell a good story of escaping to "nowhere." It's just right where a guitar solo would come in had this song been on, say, Zuma, followed by a repeat of the chorus, it fades out. I'm sure this song is fantastic on stage.

03. Round And Round (It Won't Be Long) [5.5]
The great fun of these first two songs is almost interrupted by this folk/country ballad. Neil would do a whole album of songs in the style of this one called Comes A Time, which seems like a bunch of Crazy Horse tunes minus Crazy Horse and the perpetual female backing vocals, sharing as much or even more airtime than the song's composer's own voice. Plug this song in, get Danny, Ralph, and Billy Talbot (the bassist from Crazy Horse) to do their thing, and you might have a great song. At the very least, a good song. Just not this.

To be fair, it's a good melody. It's just too repetitive. The chorus repeat of "Round and round..." doesn't help to remedy this quality of the song.

04. Down By The River [10]
Oh, HELL yes! This brooding rock song takes its time, and in the best way possible. Two electric guitars lead the song in. Billy and Ralph enter the fray without much fanfare before Neil starts the verse. The beautiful pre-chorus leads into the chorus at 1:10 with a muted drop of feedback (keep in mind, this was 1969, before Sonic Youth but after Jimi Hendrix - needless to say, that above linked clip of Pete Townshend making his guitar squeal at Woodstock was at the time not considered a sound one's guitar should make), transitioning into the chorus with a touch of majestic irreverence. And that chorus! If I didn't love "Cinnamon Girl" for reminding me of the girl I intend to marry, this would have easily been the 11 on this record.

The song thumps along for 9 minutes and 15 seconds, ending side A with an epic rock song.

05. The Losing End (When You're On) [7.5]
Hardly a filler tune, it just seems aloof among the rest of the titans of this album. An odd choice to start side B of this record. This song would have been welcome on Comes A Time, or even Harvest. I don't know...this one is just kind of there, not unlike "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" on the next album.

06. Running Dry (Requiem For The Rockets) [10]
Now I know just why "The Losing End" seems like a lost child of a song, sandwiched between "Down By The River" and this haunting, borderline lo-fi elegaic masterpiece of shame, regret, and sadness. The best songwriters can own up to their own failings as humans, and this song nails it. The violin weeps through the song, briefly double-tracked in the middle portion, which in tandem with Neil's mournful melody makes this sound like something centuries old. This wouldn't have been out of place, lyrically, in the ditch trilogy; its musical offspring is "Will To Love" off American Stars & Bars, a similarly moody acoustic ballad with an equally odd, off-center feel that makes it disturbing with little in the way of studio trickery.

07. Cowgirl In The Sand [10]
One could assume that two extended guitar exercises would be monotonous on the same album (I'm looking at Frank Zappa's Zoot Allures as a fine example proving this theory), but other than the fact that they are long and have plenty of guitar work worth fawning over, they are quite different. It isn't until we're almost at the two-minute mark that Neil starts singing. If anyone finds his voice annoying, look towards his delivery on this. He is able to hit some high notes without cracking. Much goes to Billy for laying down a remarkable bassline, especially during Neil's solos. Yet another classic Neil Young song - and on an album with only seven tracks, this is something quite noteworthy.

Subtotal: 90.7% A-

Replayability Factor: 2
A great album to have on in the car, plenty of “classic rock” essence to it, and for my money the heaviest of what I consider his first trilogy. A great introduction to a great artist, but it’s hard to sit and concentrate during the big guitar solos on every single listen. The 2 I’m awarding for this is hardly a sign of this record being a slouch, as it’s no crime to have music on to get lost in.

Consistency Factor: 2.5
This became the benchmark for later albums being considered a “return to form, in the style of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, though I personally don’t like that phrase all that much. Still, clich├ęd as it sounds, for a “return to form” to be an album driven by heavy, thumping rockers and the occasional beautifully arranged ballad, you could do far worse. It's really hard to ponder what the "average" Neil Young record is. On one end of the spectrum is an album like this, and on the opposite end is Harvest, with plenty of head-scratching albums in the middle (including a techno album, rockabilly, the bipolar Rust Never Sleeps, and even lean R&B featuring Booker T. & The MG's as his backing band) that makes him hard to peg down. But Neil's refusal to be pegged down is one of his most endearing qualities.

This album gets its 2.5, first of all, for being a good album, but for being diverse enough in only seven songs for being a fine example of Neil flexing all of his songwriting muscles, from hard rock to country to folk. Little bits of the career to come is here on this album. I honestly don't think he'd ever have such a broad palette on a single album ever again, hardly a criticism for the rest of his career, but a mighty comment for this album.

External Factors: 1
Just a year after leaving Buffalo Springfield, Neil’s second album overcame the threat of the “sophomore slump” – mainly because his first album wasn’t that popular, to the point that this writer thought this was his debut – and showed his flexibility as a folk balladeer and as one of the leading precursors to grunge, all on the same record. Different moments from his future were foreseen on this album. Unfortunately, Neil’s had a bit of an inconsistent career, so when it’s good it’s fucking on…but when it doesn’t succeed it stands out. On its weakest track, it's overlong, and while it can’t always be back-to-back tens, this veering into extended and repetitive country-stuff is a predecessor to the weak spots on Harvest, American Stars ‘N Bars, Comes A Time, etc. However, this album marks the debut of Crazy Horse, a great backing band; no bullshit, no frills, just good playing. This album doesn't sound dated - it isn't too slick or too bleak - and it could just as easily have been recorded last week.


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