Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rock of Ages: Elton John - "Talking Old Soldiers" (1971)

Elton John sometimes gets a bad wrap for not writing the lyrics he sings. To me, it's a much harder task taking someone's words and putting them to music that fits just right. Elton John and Bernie Taupin's career is huge and spans hundreds of styles. One of my favorite Elton John moments is his album Tumbleweed Connection. The record is old west meets Civil War themed Americana. Songs of riverboats, civil war and burning missions, an American songwriter's spirit of the South gets wonderful arrangements from a Brit. Strange, yet beguiling and fantastic. On no other recording is this stark, lonely landscape of a torn apart country is best captured on the stripped down track "Talking Old Soldiers." It's set up as a conversation between two men at a bar. Clearly shattered by the loss of so many friends and driven to drink alone, the two gentleman share a beer and a conversation. Sounds pretty straightforward, but Elton John utilizes his amazing ability to build emotion through his piano and deliver an outstanding vocal performance that is spine tingling.

Elton John has many songs that follow in a similar style. Story songs, even a story of a brief encounter like "Talking Old Soldiers" are where is skills as a piano player excel. When the emotions in the conversation build, the music parallels these welling up emotions with loud clangs and bassy piano chords. It's nothing short of breathtaking. Elton controls the mood with his voice and his piano playing and does perfect justice to Taupin's lyrics. It's a little song that packs a big punch and is utterly unforgettable. Tumbleweed Connection is triumphant and "Talking Old Soldiers" is it's peak.

Up Next: After a long delay in posting, In The Wake returns with The Faces

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stones - "Sister Morphine" (1971)

The Rolling Stones are yet one of the many bands that have such a catalog of amazing tracks that picking just one is harsh. It's no doubt, however, that Sticky Fingers has the best selection to choose a best from. On this album, a song they wrote the music for Maryanne Faithful sticks out to me as a masterwork in style and swagger with a touch of torment. "Sister Morphine" is a Stones track that stands above their usual rock and roll bad boy nature and looks into the soul of a tortured addict. Faithful's words seem more harrowing when delivered from Mick Jagger's tortured croon. The music is hazy and bluesy and puts you in the moment of feeling the reality of someone with an addiction problem. Desperation and despair. Isolation and longing.

The Stones at this point lost one of their original members, had an awful time at Altamont and witnessed an end of an era. Sticky Fingers definitely takes the band in a new direction of sorts which would be fully realized on the next record, Exile on Main Street. They were always grounded in the gritty side of the blues, but they dropped the British Invasion feel for a more raw and solid sound. "Sister Morphine" is this sound realized in a desperate sound. The Stones rock swagger subsides here a bit for something much more breathtaking, but it isn't without its moments of gritty guitar work and Mick Jagger showing his many shades of vocalizing. One of many stand-out Stones tracks.

Up Next: Elton John ignores all the others, he's got his memories

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Rock of Ages: Flower Travellin' Band - "Satori Part 1" (1971)

The 70's had many a great changes in music. Metal and psych rock was one of those movements that was born out of the early 70s and one band from the far east came out and released an amazingly awesome album that a friend of mine turned me onto recently. That band is the Flower Travellin' Band and that album is Satori. The record is druggy and epic with riffs that could end any stoner metal head's life and epic rocking that Black Sabbath could envy. Their music was short lived, but recently they have made it back and finally toured in the USA. "Satori, Pt. 1" is a triumphant blast of sludging riffage with howling moans care of Akira "Joe" Yamanaka. He is Japans answer to Robert Plant. When Yamanaka screams at the beginning of the song, you are sent into a destructive riff that starts slow and then picks up the pace. It is structured much like anything off of Black Sabbath's self titled record. Quite awesome.

The sheer power this band exutes is impressive. The rhythm section pounds forth with massive force while the guitars wail with some effects driven sounds but mostly clean with just some minor distortion. The pacing is slow and heavy with doomy vocals that sway and howl. When the music picks up, the vocals howl and it follows this formula throughout the first movement of Satori. The band has changed a lot since this album. They are back with a new record in 2008 and it's funkier and jazzier than the drugged out doomy stoner rock of Satori, but they still can rock these songs. "Satori Part 1" just shows the raw power the band has and the command of their instruments and their song structures. Epic rock at its best is always something I enjoy, and Flower Travellin' Band produces results.

Up Next: The Stones wrote this song for someone else, but they do it better

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Rock of Ages: David Bowie - "Life on Mars?" (1971)

Bowie is easily one of the greatest and most elusive artists of all time. His style has changed over the years frequently, yet almost every endeavor he embarks on leads to some amazing moments. His 1971 album Hunky Dory may be his most conventional record. A mixture of the glam rock to come and in beautiful psych pop, it really showcases more so than other records his range on one coherent disc. As is stated in the song "The Bewlay Brothers," Bowie is "Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature." The highlight of this album, which is used to perfection in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bowie's "Life on Mars?" is a mythically beautiful acheivment in pop music. I was always a fan of Bowie since a kid, but I must admit that my interest in diving deeper came from seeing The Life Aquatic and hearing such an amazing sweeping song. It came clear to me that there was a whole lot of stuff I had yet to hear. My parents only had a few Bowie records so I was more or less in tune with the compilation they had and the amazing Station to Station. Thanks to Wes Anderson for launching a huge renewed interest in one of my favorite artists from growing up.

What makes this track stand out to me is it's piano driven melody and Bowie's vocal performance. The sweeping orchestrations on the track add an amazing element of bombastic theatrics that bring the song to such great heights. Lyrically its cryptic as per usual Bowie, but something deep within the poetic nature of this song, Bowie describes the wanderlust and the excitement of the unknown in a very passionate and romantic way. "Life on Mars?" invaded my life and has never let go. The immediate enrapturing effect of the song still resonates every time that I hear the track. It stands as a cinematic track as well as a track that just hypnotizes the listener. Pick up Hunky Dory and await the greatness of "Life on Mars?" Life altering.

Up Next: Japanese Psych Rock care of Flower Travellin' Band

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Rock of Ages: The Temptations - "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" (1971)

Motown is one of the greatest musical institutions of all time. And in it's heydey, the music was superb, the performances were stellar and the amount of amazing songs. The Temptations were easily one of the most eclectic and important of these groups. Especially in the 70's, the Temps changed a lot from their "My Girl" days. More complex orchestrations, funkier vibes and still beautiful singing care of the members extreme diversity in range and scope. A personal favorite of mine is the Eddie Kendricks led "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me.)" It may not be the best Temps song, but as this list will waver from obvious transcendent rock songs to more personal ones, it fits the bill. A romantic haze is emitted from the musical talents of The Funk Brothers, who have played on countless Motown tracks. The orchestration also sets the mood of a daydream thanks to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Helmed by Eddie Kendricks on vocals, its sumptuous and sweet love song.

The Temptations are one of the many bands that have so many fantastic songs, its hard to ever choose one. In fact, I could waiver easily on which is my favorite Temps track week to week. Just so happens that this song constantly hits the right chord for me. And as far as Motown goes, a lot of the credit goes to the various songwriters, such as Norman Whitfield, Barret Strong, Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Also, credit is greatly needed to be given to The Funk Brothers, who have played as the Motown Sounds backing band for almost every artist on tons of tracks. An amazing documentary about them, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, sheds light on the mysterious back-up to the great voices, such as the Temps. Fantastic pop music, indeed.

Up Next: Bowie's in space?