Monday, December 28, 2009

En Vogue - Funky Divas (1992) (320)

En Vogue are only one on a long list of great R & B girl groups from the nineties. Their second album, Funky Divas, is a throwback to a time when pop R&B had instrumentation and harmonies, not rap beats and guest verses. Not that I mind some of today's popular R&B hits, but the music of En Vogue and their peers, such as SWV, Zhane, TLC, and a slew of others was empowering, sex-positive, funky, and light. They also wield sludge hammers. Highlights of this album are the singles, "My Lovin (You're Never Gonna Get It)" and "Free Your Mind", as well as two Aretha Franklin covers, which make up for a pretty disappointing rendition of "Yesterday".

1. This Is Your Life
2. My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)
3. Hip Hop Lover
4. Free Your Mind
5. Desire
6. Giving Him Something He Can Feel
7. It Ain't Over Till The Fat Lady Sings
8. Give It Up, Turn It Loose
9. Yesterday
10. Hooked on Your Love
11. Love Don't Love You
12. What Is Love?
13. Thanks/Prayer


Monday, December 21, 2009

Mastodon - Blood Mountain (2006) (320)

"The hero of the gods,
the crossing of the threshold,
the belly of the whale,
refusal to return."

Maybe the coolest opening lyrics to a metal album, ever.

How does a band one-up themselves after they put out a concept album based on Moby Dick? Mastodon's brilliant 2004 album, Leviathan, brought the group to more mainstream consciousness, and is in a way a departure of their previous sound. Earlier releases, such as 2002's Remission as well as their Call of the Mastodon compilation embrace a more abrasive, chaotic, and when it comes down to it, heavier sound. Through the years their style became more eclectic, and some might say smarter, including complex arrangements and time signature changes. The band today sounds little like when they began.

But to address my first question, Mastodon followed Leviathan with 2006's Blood Mountain, disregarding any existing folklore in favor of creating their own mythical world. The listener must "guide a truth, prevail, and RIDE!!!" in search of the Crystal Skull (without Indiana Jones, no less), heed the word of the Cysquatch, and journey through the Colony of Birchmen. Very Lord of the Rings, right? Well metal and Tolkien are commonly associated (Middle Earth has provided band names for groups such as Gorgoroth and Amon Amarth).

The compositions of Blood Mountain are musically-challenging but accessible to the listener. Mastodon's time signature changes seem effortless, playing cool riffs and grooves in 7/8 and 6/8. Drummer Brann Dailor is a solid rhythmic enforcer who can keep time and go apeshit on the kit at the same time. The tempos are diverse, from the frantic "The Wolf Is Loose" to the sludging "Sleeping Giant", to the moody album closer, "Pendulous Skin". To me Blood Mountain is the middleground between Mastodon's early sound and their next album, 2009's Crack the Skye, which leaned towards a classic rock sound. Mastodon are seen as a band that appeals to people who don't even like heavy metal, and Blood Mountain might be the right place to start.


1. The Wolf Is Loose
2. Crystal Skull
3. Sleeping Giant
4. Capillarian Crest
5. Circle Of Cysquatch
6. Bladecatcher
7. Colony Of Birchmen
8. Hunters Of The Sky
9. Hand Of Stone
10. This Mortal Soil
11. Siberian Divide
12. Pendulous Skin


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) (320)

The term "indie rock" can throw people for a loop, especially in a day and age which emphasizes the expression of everybody's "independent" or "individual" spirit for the whole world to perceive. Most, however, think of the 1990s as the golden age for a certain "indie" or, I cringe at the term, "college rock" sound which has since scattered to include almost anyone playing unique (read: everyone). This was the heyday of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sebadoh, and a slew of others including the pioneer indie threesome, Yo La Tengo. This gem of an album sounds like 1997e for this reason, but still rules, going from noisy lo-fi rocking on songs like "Sugarcube" and "Green Arrow", to slow heart-wrenchers like "Damage" and "Shadows", to perfectly imperfect pop songwriting on "Stockholm Syndrome" and "Autumn Sweater". Other highlights are the shoegaze Beach Boys cover,"Little Honda" and the slightly odd revamp of Anita Bryan's "My Little Corner of the World", which has far surpassed the originally in popularity. The album is a striking example of an indie band at its fullest coherency, riding the waves of shoegazey distortion, downright rock and roll, feelingsy pop and electronic soundspheres.


1. Return to Hot Chicken
2. Moby Octopad
3. Sugarcube
4. Damage
5. Deeper into Movies
6. Shadows
7. Stockholm Syndrome
8. Autumn Sweater
9. Little Honda
10. Green Arrow
11. One PM Again
12. The Lie and How We Told It
13. Center of Gravity
14. Spec Bebop
15. We're an American Band
16. My Little Corner of the World


Thursday, December 17, 2009

John Coltrane - Lush Life (1958) (320)

The recording of John Coltrane's Lush Life took place in three sessions, two in 1957 and one in 1958. The first three tracks are performed in a trio setting, beginning with the ballad "Like Someone In Love". Here Trane combines a slow, smooth tone with fast melodic runs. The second number, "I Love You", opens with an exotic drum and bass rhythm. Bassist Earl May and drummer Arthur Taylor move between this rhythm for Trane's melody and straight swing for the improvisation. After the third piece, "Trane's Slo Blues", Lush Life moves in a new direction. Trane's arrangement of the Billy Strayhorn piece is much longer than the other selections on the album, and features solos from pianist Red Garland and trumpeter Donald Byrd. The rhythm section explores different ways of playing under the improvisers, sometimes with very minimal accompaniment. Lush Life is a fantastic example of Trane's mastery of straight-ahead chord changes.


1. Like Someone In Love
2. I Love You
3. Trane's Slo Blues
4. Lush Life
5. I Hear A Rhapsody


John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
On #1-3
Earl May, bass
Arthur Taylor, drums

Other selections:
Donald Byrd, trumpet (#4)
Red Garland, piano
Paul Chambers, bass
Louis Hayes, drums (#4)
Albert "Tootie" Heath, drums (#5)

Supervision by Bob Weinstock
Recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ on May 31 (#5) and August 16 (1-3), 1957; January 10, 1958 (4).

Mastering - Joe Tarantino (Fantasy Studios, Berkeley)
Cover photo - Esmond Edwards

Prestige PRSA-7188-6


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Temptations - Solid Rock (1972) (320)

There's some disagreement about whether The Temptations were ever able to rock the psychedelic soul sound that Norman Whitfield insisted on when producing some of their albums in this era. Although the singers themselves were never really that into it, it doesn't show in records like this and Pschedelic Shack. The lineup for Solid Rock features the glaring absence of vocalists Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, the former who had broken down from alcoholism-related complications and the latter who had been the complement to increasing tension with Whitfield and the label. Richard Street and Damon Harris tried to fill the shoes, but the vocals are outshined by the funky psychedelic solos and swell sounds that characterize much of the album. Indeed, one occasionally tires of the relentless falsetto. Yet the singing shines through on "What It Is" and "Take a Look Around", and the cover of "Ain't No Sunshine" is one of the better renditions that tune has seen (and there are many). The whole album seems torn between two thoughts, the psychedlic funk which Whitfield was forcing the singers to embrace and the friendly grooves they rightly own, like "It's Summer". Regardless, it's a pity that the drama surrounding the album (bitterness towards Kendricks is almost tangible in "Superstar") has led many listeners to discount one of my first favorite Temptations records. Do give it a shot.


1. Take a Look Around
2. Ain't No Sunshine
3. Stop The War Now
4. What It Is
5. Smooth Sailing From Now On
6. Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)
7. It's Summer
8. The End Of Our Road

Gordy, 1972


Sunday, December 6, 2009

John Coltrane - Giant Steps (1960) (320)

Giant Steps might be the best showcase for Coltrane's virtuosity and incredible harmonic vocabulary. Trane burns through the title track, a piece with a chord progression so complex that it has become infamous over the years, and since dubbed "Coltrane changes". His solo in "Giant Steps" seems effortless despite the difficult progression and fast tempo. Contrast this with his playing in "Naima", a ballad Trane wrote for his first wife, Juanita Naima (he married Alice in the mid-60's). The recording sessions of Giant Steps span a couple months of 1959, and Coltrane uses several different lineups.


1. Giant Steps
2. Cousin Mary
3. Countdown
4. Spiral
5. Syeeda's Song Flute
6. Naima
7. Mr. P.C.
8. Giant Steps (Alternate Version 1)
9. Naima (Alternate Version 1)
10. Cousin Mary (Alternate Take)
11. Countdown (Alternate Take)
12. Syeeda's Song Flute (Alternate Take)
13. Giant Steps (Alternate Version 2)
14. Naima (Alternate Version 2)
15. Giant Steps (Alternate Take)



Recorded May 4 and May 5, 1959: main take tracks 1–5, 7; alternative take tracks 10–12, and additional alternative track 15.

John Coltrane — tenor saxophone
Tommy Flanagan — piano
Paul Chambers — bass
Art Taylor — drums

Recorded December 2, 1959: main take track 6

Wynton Kelly — piano
Jimmy Cobb — drums

Recorded April 1 (March 26 according to Rhino liner notes) 1959: alternative tracks 8 and 9, and additional alternative tracks 13 and 14

Cedar Walton — piano
Lex Humphries — drums

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cam'ron - Purple Haze (2004) (320)

Remember when Dipset was running shit? When purple furs accompanied "no homo" and vice versa? When 8th graders in Harlem imagined a better educational system? Although the Diplomats released plenty of ill-conceived, even downright irrational music throughout the years (Dipset X-Mas for starters) the shiny, anthemic style which Cam and his crew perfected is at its peak on this album. Cam'ron's extended and at times bizarre rhyme choices are in delicious harmony with the absolutely ludicrous claims regarding a) cocaine and b) wealth. Almost every track is a winner, but highlights include pre-asshole Kanye production on "Down and Out" and "Dipset Forever", the anthem-turned-storytelling-rap track "Harlem Streets", the gallant "Killa Cam" and of course the single that started more than a year's hype, "Get 'Em Girls". This album is also a reminder why hip hop skits are at once unbearable and necessary (e.g. "I'm A Chicken Head")


1. Intro
2. More Gangsta Music (feat. Juelz Santana)
3. Get Down
4. Welcome to Purple Haze (Skit)
5. Killa Cam
6. Leave Me Alone pt. 2
7. Down and Out (feat. Kanye West & Syleena Johnson)
8. Harlem Streets
9. Rude Boy (Skit)
10. Girls (feat. Mona Lisa)
11. I'm A Chicken Head (Skit)
12. Soap Opera
13. O.T. (Skit)
14. Bubble Music
15. More Reasons (feat. Jaheim)
16. The Block (Skit)
17. The Dope Man (feat. Jim Jones)
18. Family Ties (feat. Nicole Wray)
19. Adrenaline (feat. Twista & Psycho Drama)
20. Hey Lady (feat. Freekey Zeekey)
21. Shake (feat. J.R. Writer)
22. Get 'Em Girls (feat. J.R. Writer)
23. Dipset Forever
24. Take 'Em To Church (feat. Juelz Santana & Un Kasa)