Tony Williams, Civilization

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Tony Williams, Civilization

Tony Williams – Civilization

1987 – Blue Note Records

 

You can’t go wrong with Tony Williams in any stage of his career. He is one of the biggest names in jazz drumming history for good reason. His playing is instantly recognizable and I admire that he just put it all out there. Tony’s dynamic range was remarkable and he had no fear of really slamming a cymbal when the time called for it. This album is interesting for a few reasons: One is the stellar band he assembled (Wallace Roney, Billy Pierce, Mulgrew Miller, and Charnette Moffett), second is the interesting artwork, and third is that he wrote all the pieces performed. I think Williams is remembered for his sideman work (which was revolutionary) and not always thought about in terms of his composition chops. Listening to a song like “Warrior” showcases him wearing the composition cap. The melody is catchy, the chordal structure feels great, and the breaks sound awesome. You can tell that he wrote the drum part as a complement to the melody. Some of the fills and building that he does during the melody really makes the song pop. If I see some more late career Williams albums around, I’ll be sure to pick them up. It is very interesting to hear all the talents that he had to offer. I suggest you search out these albums as well.

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The Who, the Who by Numbers

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The Who, the Who by Numbers

The Who – The Who By Numbers

1975 – MCA Records

 

With the entire canon of Who material to sort through, I’m sure that this album gets looked over by many. There is only one “hit” on here: “Squeeze Box”, and it departs from what people would expect form this band. That being said, overlooking this album is definitely a mistake. There is a lot of great material here. One thing that stands out to me is that Keith Moon plays a more restrained role here. His normal style is over the top, full of fills, and unhinged. While there are hints of that style, “However Much I Booze”, overall his playing more straight ahead. What you would expect from a drummer in a rock band. On one hand, it is nice to hear him play this way, and on another, I miss the craziness. This album as a whole seems more restrained, and as a result, seems more sophisticated. Pete Townsend commented that it was an introspective album and by doing a little research, it seems like the band was disengaged from this album when they were recording. That really doesn’t come across in the music. It sounds great to me. There are songs like “Imagine a Man”, “Blue Red and Grey” and “How Many Friends” that seems to come out of left field for the Who. I wouldn’t expect these tunes to come from the band that brought you “Baba O’Reilly” but they work perfectly. The cover art is a cartoon of the band and drawn by John Entwistle (who comes up with some really great bass-lines throughout this album as well). This may be my favorite Who album (maybe tied with Tommy) and it should be listened to. If you are looking for a different side of a classic band, make sure to listen to this album, you won’t be disappointed.

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Keith Jarrett, El Juicio

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Keith Jarrett, El Juicio

Keith Jarrett – El Juicio (the Judgement)

1975 – Atlantic Recording Company

 

When your backing band is Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, you really can’t go wrong. This group has a few recordings together, and their cohesion shows here. There are so many aspects that I could look at this album from, but I think I’m going to look at it through the bass. Charlie Haden is a madman. He has times where he hits one note multiple times, moves it chromatically up and down, builds and releases tension throughout others solos. He lays such a solid foundation that everyone is clear where they are at all times, no matter how much moving around he is doing. Even in spots where there is no clear beat, he pulls the band together and makes everything sound planned and written out. His groove is unbelievable and he always seems to know when to play, what to play, and when to leave space. The drums and bass sound like they are one. This kind of musical divinity doesn’t happen very often. The way that Motian and Haden push and pull the pulse (between the two of them and with the others) is a masterclass in itself. Listening to this album, it sounds like they were all having a fun time playing. The songs are interesting, the musicianship is excellent, and the cover art is awesome. Pick this one up if you find it, I grabbed it for $2.99, so that tells me it is pretty readily available to find. You won’t be disappointed with the purchase!

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Radiohead, In Rainbows

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Radiohead, In Rainbows

Radiohead – In Rainbows

2007 – XL Recordings

 

This is a great album. There is no denying that, and much has been written in that regard. I’m going to take a different approach with this post. I am going to focus in on one element that solidifies the entire album for me: the ride cymbal. I think it is a combination of the way it was recorded and mixed and that it is probably a really nice cymbal makes it a shining point of this LP. It cuts through the mix on a few of the songs and adds a brightness that might be lacking without it. Radiohead can get a little melancholy, even when their songs are upbeat, and I think the ride cymbal keeps adds a bit of freshness to it. Listen to “Reckoner”. The cymbal work here is sublime, the melody moves along behind the beat, there are strings that set a mood, and then the cymbal rings out on top, letting you know everything is alright. Near the end, when the guitar chords break down with just the bass and drums, you feel like the clouds have been lifted, and I think a lot of that is because of the cymbal. The next time you listen through this album, pay attention to the ride. You may hear what I’m talking about, or you may think I’m crazy, either way, you’ll be listening to a great album. Enjoy!

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Gary Burton, the New Quartet

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Gary Burton, the New Quartet

Gary Burton – The New Quartet

1973 – ECM Records

 

The early 70s were an interesting time for jazz. Groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report were melding jazz composition with the aggressiveness of rock music. Prog groups were sprouting up and doing a similar thing. The group on this album seems to be trying to fit into that mold a bit, but they lean more towards traditional jazz than rock music. The playing is excellent; with Mick Goodrick, Abe Laboriel, and Harry Blazer, you kind of can’t go wrong.  There is a nice mix of tunes here from a bunch of different composers, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Gordon Beck, Gary Burton, Carla Bley, and Mike Gibbs, but there is a definite continuity that runs throughout the album. “Mallet Man” was the first track I’d heard of this album, back in college. We played it in a jazz combo and I remember it being pretty difficult (luckily I was on drums so I didn’t have to worry about hitting all the changes for soloing). Nevertheless, it stands up to me even today. Lots of songs that I’ve played, or enjoyed, in the past don’t stand up with time or I grow sick of them, but this tune definitely is interesting time and time again. Some really nice playing all around. I only have one reservation about this album. Near the end of the second side, during a really cool piece, they all hit chords and play around on them. During one such chord, Gary plays a few seconds of “Deck the Halls”. It really ruins the mood for me. As a young jazzer, I probably would have loved that and found it super cool, but as I’ve grown, I find that kind of thing to be pretty corny. But it is but a small moment on an otherwise great album, so I can let that go and just enjoy.

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Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

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Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East

1971 – Carpricorn

 

Bluesy Southern rock should only be played on vinyl. There is something about the cracks and pops that adds so much to this music. I’d listened to this album before, both digitally and on CD, but when I was at a friend’s house and heard the vinyl, I knew I had never really heard it. Dropping the needle and hearing the slide guitar on “Statesboro Blues” gets you ready for the entire double album. With the extended soloing and great musicianship, there are some nice moments scattered throughout the two discs. Being a live album, it truly is a testament to this time in the band’s history. It is a living documentation of their development at that point. This was two years into the bands career, which is amazing to think of, as we know of them now as a fixture in classic rock history. At this point, they were just beginning. They had their sound, if not solidified, at least etched out very early in their career. Even more important that that though, is the music is really fun to listen to. It lends itself to cranking up really loudly and getting some housework done. My personal favorite is “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”. Do yourself a favor and check this album out if you get the chance.

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Carla Bley, Social Studies

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Carla Bley, Social Studies

Carla Bley – Social Studies

1981 – WATT/ECM

 

Carla Bley is one of the great jazz composers/arrangers of all time. Her work is wide, varied, and deep. I picked up this album without knowing of it just because I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. All her albums offer something interesting to the listener. One of my favorite tracks here is “Valse Sinistre”, which is exactly what it sounds like; a creepy, sinister waltz. The way that Bley arranged for tuba and euphonium, without them playing over the other while playing complementary, is great.  Other than the composition and arrangement, the trombone is the star of the album for me. Gary Valente is a great player that can be heard on a lot of Bley’s recordings, as well as the George Russell Big Band. His solos are creative, interesting, and hold their own on top of the moving compositions. Steve Swallow also has some great moments on this LP as well. Overall, this is an album worth checking out. The playing from all the musicians is great, the arrangements are interesting, and the vibe created is awesome. Soon I will be covering Bley’s Escalator over the Hill album, and I think I am going to break it into a few weeks (it’s a triple LP!). Stay tuned for that, in the meantime, check out some of her other work and enjoy!

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Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet, Stone Water

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Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet, Stone Water

Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet – Stone Water

2000 – Okka Disk

 

For those familiar with Brotzmann’s music, this album will fall in line with expectations, but for those who have never heard this music may be shocked. It is definitely not for everyone, and not for the faint of heart. That being said, I love it. Brotzmann’s music is an assault on the senses. It defies what is conventionally thought of as music, in a good way. This album is not one to be put on in the background as a soundtrack to your life, it needs to be played while you are giving it your full attention. The interactions between musicians are brilliant. There are points where the whole band is playing, following their own trail, but little parts match up between some of them, focusing the listener into a thread. There is a point during the second side of the album where one of the drummers and one of the bassists (there are two of each), join together and give the only hint of a conventional beat throughout the set. It only works because it sits beneath the madness that is happening above it, and the other musicians keep doing their own thing. This mastery of improvisation isn’t something that is comes along very often. The balance of following your own ideas and interacting/reacting to other’s ideas is on full display here. Being confident in your playing so that you don’t have to react to everything going on around you is a tenant of the music here. And, honestly, it is part of what makes working with ten musicians successful. If everyone just reacted to everyone else, this would be a boring album and not very cohesive. The dissonance brings everything together. Do yourself a favor, sit back, put this album on, and let it sink in.

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Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

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Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble

2014 – Prawn Songs

 

I had the pleasure to see this album performed live when it came out. The setup on stage almost looked as if they were performing in the middle of a cartoon. There were inflatable mushrooms, Oompa Loompas with oversized heads that danced around, and the whole band was in costume. This all took place around Halloween, and it was once of the creepiest, odd, and entertaining shows I’ve ever seen. The vinyl is great, but it can’t hold up to the live show. One thing that I really appreciate about this album, though, is the use of an expanded band, the Fungi Ensemble. Mike Dillon, on mallets, and Sam Bass, on cello, round out this album beautifully. When a band, such as Primus, has been churning out great music for decades with the same musical lineup, adding other instruments can shake things up and lead them in different directions.  The use of cello and mallets on this album takes the weird tunes and arrangements and gives them a creepy vibe, which is perfect. For an album like this, where a set of tunes are being covered, there needs to be something unique about it. I am not interested in hearing a band do their best imitation of another band, I would rather hear the original. For a covers album to work, it needs to have its own take on the tunes. This album definitely does that. There are some nice chord substitutions and embellishments on the melodies that honor the original, but takes it to a supremely Primus-y place. This probably isn’t everyday listening, but it is great to throw on once in a while, especially when you have some people over that haven’t heard it. Definitely worth a listen!

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Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood

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Jethro Tull, Songs from the Wood

Jethro Tull – Songs from the Wood

1977 – Chrysalis

 

Although this is my first time writing about Jethro Tull in this blog, it is definitely not my first time enjoying them on vinyl. My collection has a decent amount of Tull releases, but this album is my favorite. I love prog rock from England. While a lot of the prog rock out of the US has a jazz influence on it, the European prog bands took a more classical/renaissance approach to it. Lutes and orchestra bells, folk melodies, and interesting instrumentation dominate bands like Jethro Tulls’ sound. Of course there are jazz influences here too, but the English folk hits harder.  I know it’s a little corny, but I love me some rock flute. The musicianship and songwriting on this album are awesome. Time signatures change constantly, but the transitions are smooth. On top of that, the tunes are catchy. Their unique instrumentation gets them stuck in your head. This album was part of a trilogy where Tull got really into folk melodies, with “Heavy Horses” and “Stormwatch”, but I’ve always gravitated towards this album more than the others. There is something so simple, yet complex, about these tunes. As I’ve stated, they have catchy melodies, but are complicated musically, which is a hard combination to hit. Tull was on top of their game when this came out, so if you haven’t heard much of them, I would definitely suggest starting with “Songs from the Wood”. Enjoy!

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Steve Reich, Tehillim

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Steve Reich, Tehillim

Steve Reich - Tehillim

1982 - ECM

 

Steve Reich has a way of using density that I haven’t heard from anyone else. There are no breaks in most of his music, but the way he uses repetition makes it seem as though there is space. By slowly changing aspects of the repeated patterns, he shifts what your brain is expecting, but he does it in such a slow manner that you sometimes don’t realize it is happening.  It is easy to zone out while listening and stay completely focused at the same time. You get so engaged in what is happening that it becomes your consciousness, a space that your entire world revolves around. As time ticks by, the fast passages seem to slow as you become more familiar with the patterns. This piece, though, does have actual tempo changes that flow seamlessly together. The harmonies and chordal movement keeps you engaged throughout and the way that pitched percussion creeps in near the end of the piece is a treat to hear. This would probably be a good record to have someone listen to as an introduction to Reich’s music.

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Case, Lang, Veirs

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Case, Lang, Veirs

Case/Land/Veirs

2016 – ANTI

 

This is an album that has a supergroup status that extends to the backing band. Obviously, k.d. Lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs are all great musicians with decades of experience, so it would make sense that when they got together, the session musicians would be top notch. Glenn Kotche (from Wilco) is on drums, Rob Burger (from one of my favorite groups, Tin Hat Trio) on keyboards, Ralph Carney (from hundreds of albums, including many Tom Waits’) on horns, Tim Young (who has played with everyone, including Beck and Mike Patton) on guitar, and Sebastion Steinberg (from Soul Coughing) on bass. With this amount of experience on one album, I had high expectations. Luckily, I was not disappointed. No one overplays, everything is tasteful, and there is a unified sound throughout. Case, Lang, and Veirs all take turns with vocals and harmonize really well together, never overpowering each other. The album almost sounds like it came from the 50s at points, and sounds very modern at others. Somehow it is unified and doesn’t sound disjointed. Their songwriting is great. Each tune can stand on its own and still falls in line with the others. The vinyl itself is a translucent orange, so that is cool too. This is definitely one to check out!

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Odetta at Carnegie Hall

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Odetta at Carnegie Hall

Odetta – at Carnegie Hall

1960 – Vanguard

 

A friend let me borrow this album recently and I have to admit that I had never heard of Odetta before this. The music is great, her singing and guitar playing are super entertaining. Doing some quick research shows she was a huge influence on the folk scene of the 60s, with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin being fans. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the queen of American folk music. It is probably appropriate that I am writing about this in February, Black History Month. I may not be the most educated about folk music, but I thought I knew the big players, but apparently I did not. Why are the white artists that cited her as an influence common names, but Odetta is not? Janis Joplin (who I wrote about recently) has become a cultural reference, just one of those names that everyone has heard of and knows something about, but I don’t feel like Odetta has reached the same notoriety. It seems reasonable that I may not know the major musicians in Indian or Chinese history, but to not know one right here in America doesn’t sit right with me. We all need to make sure that we are looking outside our immediate culture, and what is comfortable to us, to search out great art. It is not something that is necessarily going to be shown to you, you need to reach out to find it.

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Janis Joplin, Pearl

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Janis Joplin, Pearl

Janis Joplin – Pearl

1971 – Columbia

 

Janis Joplin is an artist that I’ve heard over the years, recognized her famous songs, but never really dug into her catalog. When I came across this album in a dollar bin, I knew it was time to check her out. I had heard of her in connection with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company so seeing that her backing band here is called Full Tilt Boogie confused me, as I’d never heard this name before. Apparently, her management convinced her to fire the Holding Company and she put together a new backing band,  Full Tilt Boogie. They all sound great here, I especially like the piano player, Richard Bell. He plays some really cool lines and flows in and out of the tracks, making them fuller and more memorable. This was Joplin’s last album, passing before it was released. There is one track “Buried Alive in the Blues” that remains an instrumental because Joplin never had a chance to record the vocals over it. She was a force to be reckoned with, her vocals are so forceful and her arrangements are great. She definitely found her niche, fronting bluesy rock groups. Her voice is perfect for that, although listening through, she may have been able to front a big band with some conviction. It sounds like she is pouring her soul into the songs, which is what you want from a singer. There is so much showmanship that comes through on the vinyl that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see her live. In fact, I am going to check out some live videos of her now, which is what I would suggest you do as well!

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Erykah Badu, Baduizm

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Erykah Badu, Baduizm

Erykah Badu – Baduizm

1997 – Kedar

 

How have I not written about this one yet! Badu consistently puts out great albums, “Baduizm” included. I didn’t realize until doing a bit of research that this album was her first. It would be an accomplishment to put this out at the end of a long career, but to hit it on your first release is something special. Badu uses her voice as an instrument. If you took her lines and replaced them (with the same intonation and feel) with a saxophone, this would still be a completely engrossing album. She pushes and pulls the beat, dancing around it, but never losing it. She clearly spent a lot of time working on her craft, finding her sound. Seeing her live, she creates arrangements on the spot, conducting the band to stop and start. I am in no way qualified to comment on the lyrics, but there is a lot of great stuff going on there too. Musically, I really love the sparseness of the instruments and their feel. The vinyl I have doesn’t include all the tracks from the CD release, which is disappointing because one of the missing tracks has Ron Carter on bass. It’s fine though, because the tracks that made it to the LP are awesome. I’m going to have to expand my Badu vinyl collection so I can write about her again. In the meantime, listen to as much of her stuff as you can!

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Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die

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Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die

Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die

2017 – International Anthem

 

This album landed a spot on many "best of" lists for 2017. With its long form composition, engaging playing, and beautiful artwork, it deserved the recognition. A lot has been written about “Fly or Die” regarding those topics so I thought it might be interesting to talk about one aspect that I found compelling. Jaimie is a brilliant player; technique (normal and extended), feel, and blend are all present in her playing, and she could do anything that she would want to. But throughout the album, she chooses points to stick with one note, repeating it and messing with the attack and time. I love it! The confidence that she has in her playing, and her ears are so in tune with what is happening around her that she plays exactly what makes the music better. She could have done crazy runs up and down the register, but decided what would impact more would be to hit one note and use it to accent the other players. This would seem, on the surface, to put her to the back of the ensemble in the moment, but it doesn’t. She stays front and center. She plays with such conviction that it would be impossible to interpret her playing as anything but lead (unless she wants you to). Great album, great playing, great composition, great artwork,…do you need more? Go buy it!

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Ralph Towner and Gary Burton, Matchbook

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Ralph Towner and Gary Burton, Matchbook

Ralph Towner and Gary Burton – Matchbook

1975 – ECM

 

Vibraphone/Guitar duos are a particular favorite of mine (having put out two albums of that kind myself). The mixture of (in this case) acoustic guitar and vibraphone is a special one. With no amplification or effects, this album strips away any place for the musicians to hide. They both play beautifully throughout both sides. The tunes “Icarus” and “Aurora” are my favorite from this collaboration. In “Icarus”, the chords have an air of mystery surrounding them. They take their time to unfold and change all while drawing the listener in. I don’t know if this song would work better with a whole band. The space and malleability that is created by these two instruments adds a depth to the tune that would, in opposition to conventional thought, could be destroyed by more voices. “Aurora” starts with a super catchy A section that builds into a triumphant B. It sounds like Towner overdubbed some melody lines over his chords for the B, which sounds great. It’s not over the top or showy, it just fits the energy of the tune. (If he didn’t overdub that and did it live, I would love to see a video!) There is a second album that they did together that I may review at another point, but for now, definitely check Matchbook out.

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Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Third Decade

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Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Third Decade

Art Ensemble of Chicago – the Third Decade

1985 – ECM Records

 

This album takes its time (in a good way) to get going. It hints at the main theme for the first tune and takes a few minutes for it to kick into the beat. Even when it kicks in, it is a medium tempo waltz that sits behind the beat. The band, at this point in their career, had nothing to prove, they just wanted to make great music. When music doesn’t have to rely on speed or technical virtuosity, but can still captivate, it should be in your collection. Don’t get me wrong, from reading this blog it should be clear that I love complex/technical music, but there is something special about a band that chooses to take a more sophisticated route when they could literally do anything they want. “Funky AECO” has such a good feel and bassline that my thirteen month old started bobbing her head when it came on! Outside of the music itself, the album cover is super cool. Great music and packaging make this album a great example of why I love vinyl. An LP is a statement, it conveys more than a streamed version of the same album ever could. The act of pulling the vinyl out of the jacket, putting it on the turntable, dropping the needle, then sitting and reading over the liner notes is a great pleasure. It makes me pay more attention to the music. By flipping the record and reading the notes, you become a part of it. You are brought into the music in a way that can’t be done by listening piecewise to different tracks. It’s an experience, so stop reading and immerse yourself in a great album now! I suggest Art Ensemble of Chicago.

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Ben Folds, So There (Part II, Chamber Rock)

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Ben Folds, So There (Part II, Chamber Rock)

Ben Folds – So There (Part II, Chamber Rock)

2015 – New West Records

 

I’ve already discussed the second disc of this album, which featured a Concerto and now it is time to look a little bit into the chamber rock songs that comprise the first disc. Something that jumps out at me when listening through is the way Folds juxtaposes the conventional and odd uses of instruments. There are plenty of times where instruments are used for percussive means rather than melodic. Bows are scraped across for accents and tremolos are played for atmosphere. The arrangement of all the instruments sound fantastic. Some songs are slower, some faster, but all have a cohesive quality that makes the album flow very nicely. There is a passing chord in the track “So There” that is the quintessential Folds moment. He goes from a C chord to an F/A passing through a Fsus/Bb chord. Just moving the bass note down is so supremely satisfying. I am going to have to go back through his other songs and see where a similar tactic is used, of which I will report. I really enjoy all these tracks (save “F10-D-A”, which only tries to destroy the musicality and seriousness of the rest of the LP). Overall though, check out any of Ben Folds’ albums, there is always something that is worth listening to.

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Carole King, Tapestry

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Carole King, Tapestry

Carole King - Tapestry

1971 – Ode Records

 

This is one of those albums that should (and probably is) in everyone’s collection. Between 1955 and 1999, King wrote or co-wrote 118 Billboard charting hits! Let that sink in…118 songs on the charts. That is incredible. Not only is she a seriously talented songwriter, her singing and piano skills are great. Although Tapestry is only her second album, the songs and performance have more sophistication than many artists’ later career albums. Those years writing songs for others before she recorded under her own name definitely gave her the experience needed to produce a beautiful, fully formed album.  The music is expertly played and the recording sounds like the band is in your living room. That being said, there is nothing really complex, harmony and arrangement wise. I have found this with a few different rock albums from the 70s, there is nothing that jumps out at me in terms of the complicated music that I usually gravitate towards. There must be something about the whole of all the elements together that appeals to me. Perhaps it is that I grew up with his music, my parents like the songwriters from that era. For this album in particular though, it may be the case that some of these songs were done by other artists and became hits. Their versions are very different than King’s versions, which is interesting. I like hearing different arrangements of the same songs. Good songwriting is good songwriting. The songs can be done in different ways, but if the base material is great, the song will come through. I’ll keep diving into these 70s songwriter albums from time to time to see if I can get any clarity on what is behind their appeal. Perhaps it is better not to know and to just enjoy the album for what it is. I know that’s what I am doing with Tapestry. It is a great album that you need to listen to again and again.

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