Saturday, June 11, 2011

You're invisible now; you got no secrets to conceal...

Bob Dylan

While Bob Dylan has been in the backdrop of my musical awareness for my entire life, but I've never taken time to deliberately give him a listen.  I've never been a huge fan of folksy/blues stuff -- my father is fond of blues, but a lot of the stuff I've heard him playing over the years are... er... not really my cup of tea.  (Sorry Dad!)

I was surprised, then, that I enjoyed this album so much.

Dylan's lyrics are fantastic.  He doesn't have the greatest singing voice in the world, but what he has to say is so interesting that it just pulls you in to listen.  He combines different instruments and musical elements to bring variety to his songs.  Though I do like the first few tracks backed by the band better than the solo acoustics, the entire album is very good.

I'm hard-pressed to pick a favorite here, but it's probably between "Tombstone Blues" and "Ballad of a Thin Man".  While "Tombstone Blues" is, at its heart, an absurdist illustration of the state of the country at the time... I like it just on face value alone.  It's got a catchy, fast pace and very solid guitar.

"Ballad of a Thin Man" is anchored by a somber, nearly funereal piano that lends gravity to the sneering sarcasm of the song.  This is the most musically complex track on the album, and the organ counterpart to the contributes to the mix in an interesting way -- it acts as a second voice backing up Dylan's as he mocks "Mr. Jones".

This is one album I had to borrow, but I'm thinking of buying it for my own collection.  A very good listen.  Next up is another from The Beatles -- Rubber Soul.

Monday, May 30, 2011

And in her eyes you see nothing; no sign of love behind her tears...

The Beatles

Revolver was The Beatles' seventh album, and marked a pronounced shift in the band's sound as a whole.  Revolver was released nearly on the heels of Rubber Soul, but the two albums have very different sounds -- we hear here the introduction of a much stronger electric guitar sound vs. the more prevalent acoustic guitar on all of their previous albums.  Some psychedelic influence is here as well -- Revolver's chief achievement is bringing what we now consider the classic '60's sound to the forefront of popular attention.  The album is a landmark for The Beatles.  From there on out, they would transform their legacy into one of a group that relentlessly experimented and innovated in the studio.

"Taxman", the lead track, featuring a wonderfully rhythmic bass line and an energetic guitar solo that immediately hooks the listener.  The album then segues into the deceptively simple, "Eleanor Rigby", my personal favorite track.  The lyrics are rife with imagery, and the string backing is wonderfully executed.  "For No One" is a bittersweet melody about the end of a relationship, and is also an excellent track.  The plucky piano on "I Want to Tell You" is catchy and has a tendency to get stuck in your brain -- in a good way.

I am not a fan of "Here, There and Everywhere".  The lyrics are sweet, but the song is far too sleepy for my tastes.  I was unsurprised to learn that this was one of the tracks where McCartney was deliberately trying to emulate the Beach Boys.  "I'm Only Sleeping" is also sub-par... it feels like a song about nothing, penned by Lennon to extend the length of the album.

Overall, Revolver has a nice cohesiveness to it that was absent on The Beatles' earlier albums.  It's a very easy listen -- probably the best album for someone unfamiliar with the band to pick up to get into them, because we hear a solid display of the range of what they are capable of producing.  A very solid album.

Next up is Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

We could live forever tonight...

The Beach Boys

I've really delayed writing this one up because I get inexplicably tired every time I listen to the Beach Boys.  No matter how interesting the background music is, for some reason I find the vocals soporific.  The lyrics are bland and boring.  I wanted to do justice to what really is an influential album -- but I'm just not feeling it.

I really tried to listen actively.  It's nice that the entire album is a nice, cohesive package... it's something that is written to be a cohesive listening experience, not something that was necessarily written to crank out singles.  There are some neat baselines, and even though it doesn't always work, I admire Brian Wilson's quest to find new an unusual sound elements to complement the more traditional instruments and vocals.  But I told myself I wouldn't force myself to write huge posts if I just wasn't in to the album... so, there you have it.  I've read that diehard fans say this album is "an acquired taste", but honestly, after a couple listens, I don't hear anything here amazing enough to press me to keep listening to develop a more refined Beach Boys friendly palate.

Next up is Revolver, by The Beatles... another album I've got on my computer, so I should be quicker to post.  Now if you'll excuse me, I re-listened to Pet Sounds while writing, so it's time to take a nap.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering...

The Beatles

Okay, so it's a bit hard to start on a challenge to expand my musical horizons with an album that I've heard many, many times. To get a fresher perspective, I did some background reading on how the album was conceptualized.

Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club band was The Beatles' eighth album, and was ultimately the band's declaration that they were done being the world-touring, matching suit-wearing group of guys that has composed each of their prior records.  They had originally aimed for a release that focused on songs themed around childhood and everyday life -- Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever were released as singles ahead of time with this theme in mind. The plan was scrapped in favor of a suggestion that they establish an alternate identity -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- where each Beatle could adopt a separate personality and produce songs without worrying whether or not they "sounded like Beatles songs".

This plan was also scrapped, but remnants of both concepts remain on the album. "When I'm Sixty-Four" follows the original everyday life theme, and we hear the alternate band theme emerge in the personage of "Billy Shears", Ringo Starr's character and the leader of the fictitious band.

This is a solid album, but definitely not my favorite of The Beatles' many offerings.  (I'm partial to Abbey Road, which appears a little farther down the list.)  Between giving it a closer listen, and doing some research, it is my opinion that this album attained the number one position for it's influence on the rest of popular music rather than its individual merits.  Being a child of the era of overabundant technology, I can't really hear this album the way it sounded in comparison to other contemporary releases, but I can appreciate the influence of the innovation.

When one of the Beatles had an idea, they just went for it.  I may not love George Harrison's sitar-heavy "Within You Without You", but I can appreciate its importance in helping to bring western attention to Indian culture.  Ringo Starr said of the album, "The greatest thing about the band was that whoever had the best idea — it didn't matter who — that was the one we'd use. No one was standing on their ego, saying, 'Well, it's mine,' and getting possessive."  The whole album is just thoroughly enjoyable creative exuberance.

"A Day in the Life", to me, is the standout track here.  I love the way John Lennon and Paul McCartney's verses, while different, still compliment each other nicely while weaving in and out of the orchestral parts.  From the slow opening strumming of a solo guitar to the closeout cacophony of a single thundering chord, this is my favorite song of the album.

The more I hear "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", the more it grows on me.  There are so many different sounds working together in the background... it's very richly layered, and gives you the impression of wandering along a large fairground while hearing snatches of different music as you wander amongst the tents and exhibits.  I also love the fact that John Lennon pulled most of the lyrics directly off of an old circus promo poster.

I love the completeness the album gets from starting with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and having a reprise as the penultimate track.  Even though they didn't stick with either of the original themes proposed for the album, it's a neat way of tying everything together.

Phew!  That was a bit more verbose than I intended, but hopefully not unreadable? (:

Next up on the music list: Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

Challenge Accepted.

Two or three days ago, I had a silly idea.

I've always been very interested in music -- I don't have more than a rudimentary command of any instrument, but having music in my life has always been a comfort.  It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how bad you're feeling, you can pull out that perfect album, slip on your headphones, and drown out the world for a bit till things feel less glum.  Music can be so many things!  It's an escape, a stimulus for creativity, a comfort when you're down, or a motivator when you need to get moving.  I've got a huge shelf full of several albums, and my hard drive is chock-full of even more tracks.

However, lately, I've felt like my listening has grown a little stagnant.  I love going to concerts and checking out new bands, but I haven't had the money to spend to do so very frequently.  So, in an attempt to expand my listening horizons... I've posed myself a challenge.

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine compiled a list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  Now, taking on all 500 is a bit more than I care to bite off and chew at the moment -- I may end up having to buy where I can't borrow and beg.  I've decided, instead, to start with the top 100 and see what happens from there.

But that's not all.  A month and a half ago, I stumbled upon a list compiled of 100 books that should be required reading.  And you know what?  I'm going to read all of those, too, damnit.

All silliness aside, I'm rather excited to begin.  Even though I've read many of these books and listened to several of the albums, I'm going to give them all another listen/read, and use this blog to jot down my thoughts.  I've decided I'm not going to write any formal review -- who the hell cares what some random chick on the internet thinks about such well-recognized works -- but I'm hoping this blog will keep me motivated to finish the challenge, and perhaps even reignite the spark of my interest in writing.

Conveniently, The Beatles hold 4 of the top 10 spots, and I've got all of their albums on my computer... so I will start right away with album number one, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  As for books, I've read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice before, but don't have a copy handy, so that one will have to wait till I can run to the library.

If anyone wants to play along at home, I'd be interested in hearing your impressions as well.  Look for my first post soon!