Week 43 (Just A Band 3)

beach_boys-pet_sounds

Artist: Beach Boys
Album: Pet Sounds
Release Year: 1966

My Perspective

Imma let you finish, but Pet Sounds is one of the greatest music albums of all-time. When I say greatest, I literally mean greatest. In many GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) album lists, Pet Sounds is listed at not #7, not #6, not #5, not #4, not #3, but #2 or #1. That’s right. Top 2. I’m sure there exists lists where it is rated lower, but I haven’t seen it happen in any of the lists that I read. That’s how often it is rated at the top. If Pet Sounds was your classmate, they would destroy the curve every single time. And you would curse them under your breath for being so damn good. On top of that, this year is the 50th anniversary which makes this review even more special to me.

I didn’t grow up during the era of the Beach Boys’ original popularity and my knowledge of their ‘80s resurgence is limited to an episode of Full House and a Tom Cruise movie. So while some grew up with them being America’s Band, I honestly didn’t know much about them until later in life. To me, they were that surfer band with some good songs. Actually, my first real interest of the Beach Boys came in college because of the song, Brian Wilson, by the Barenaked Ladies. Why would they make him the subject of the song? What’s so special about him? A lot, actually. Brian Wilson had an incredible influence on the music industry most notably through his innovation in the recording studio. With his complex and eventful life, he is definitely deserving of further investigation. I’m sure you can find numerous biographical videos on YouTube.

Album’s Star Power

What Do You Have to Say for Yourself? Gold Star
This album is going to make you ashamed that you spent a measly $7.99 on your current pair of ear buds or decided your Apple ear buds were “good enough”. This is one of the most beautifully recorded albums in the history of music. Every time I listen to this album, I am blown away with how good it is. It’s also incredibly hard for me to be tired of it, even after listening to it on repeat for multiple weeks. I still continue to notice new things I hadn’t caught previously. There is so much depth here. The way everything is arranged among the numerous gorgeous layers of traditional and non-traditional instruments makes you wish you had spent more money on your audio setup. Your ear is pleading with you, on every note, to give it the most authentic experience possible. Your ear wants to hear it as Mr. Wilson intended it. Every muddled instrument is an ear tragedy. If this album doesn’t make you into an audiophile, nothing will.

One of my favorite moments regarding Brian’s composition skills is on the second track, You Still Believe in Me, where Wilson creates this absolutely wonderful false ending around the two-minute mark. Everything slows down, gets quiet, fewer instruments are playing as the diminuendo comes to an end. You really think the song is over. Everything is indicating this is it and then he starts it all over again with a new diminuendo but with a bicycle horn added into the mix. This repeats several times as it fades out to the real ending. I’ve never tried to make a list of my favorite false endings, but this song would be in the top 3.

Creepy Pasta Beatles = Gold Star
I want to talk about the Beatles, since they are very much a part of the story of Pet Sounds, since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the other album in that Top 2 I spoke of at the beginning of this review. Now, feel free to disagree with me here, but when I listen to the Beatles discography (mostly the early part), I often feel like I’m listening to a stalker or somebody with a very screwed up view on what is a healthy relationship. The Beatles’ Run for Your Life is a perfect example of creepy Beatles lyrics. I’m going to warn you that once that stalker mindset kicks in, a lot of their songs feel creepy, including even the very innocent sounding I Want to Hold your Hand. I often imagine the woman in this song being stalked by the singer and is completely unaware of his feelings. Songs like Run for Your Life are in stark contrast to the relationship exploration done by Brian Wilson in Pet Sounds.

Let’s compare it to Here Today by the Beach Boys, which was released within a year of Run for Your Life. Both of them are post-break up songs from the point of view of a man who just came out of a relationship.

The Beatles start their song off with:

Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or you won’t know where I am

That’s um…that’s seriously messed up. But let’s compare that with Here Today which focuses on the frailty of relationships:

Right now you think that she’s perfection
This time is really an exception

Well you know I hate to be a downer
But I’m the guy she left before you found her

Lennon is hyper focused on punishing the woman for leaving him while Wilson is even apologetic that he is being a little rain cloud in regards to the new relationship, but he feels the need to warn this guy about the potential heartache that might await him.  Similar situations. Two very different songs.

Connecting on a Fundamentally Universal Level Gold Star
First, I want to explain something about music that I despise so you can appreciate what Wilson has done on Pet Sounds. When musicians do this, I hate it to the point that I wish they would walk away from music forever. I call it “pandering by generalization” although there might be a better term for it. And it basically comes down to taking one of two approaches: write a song about some general feeling/event, but never give any specifics about what you are writing about (the “nuke it from orbit” approach). The second way (the “shotgun” approach) is to take the opposite extreme by including every possible freaking combination out there so that one of them is bound to match up with the listener. Everything is designed to appeal to as many people as possible to sell more music. The artistic value of the songs clearly takes a backseat to moving units. See if you notice it in other music you listen to after reading this review.

What’s the opposite of this? The writer having the intelligence to recognize a universally shared experience and being able to share it through a personal perspective. Wilson’s dealing of relationships and coming of age stories never feel like pandering. They feel like a man sharing his specific experiences with the rest of the world and you just happen to be able to relate to it. Going back to Wilson’s You Still Believe in Me, the song is talking about a very specific aspect of a relationship that many people can relate to, even if the song doesn’t fit perfectly with their own experience. And that aspect is being appreciative of the fact that your partner still has confidence in you, despite your numerous relationship failures. I know I’ve been there.

In Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulders), it’s not even an aspect of the relationship, but a single event of two people embraced in silence. We are getting a very specific moment, but it’s a relatable moment of physical contact trumping verbal communication. Outside of relationships, That’s Not Me covers that time in a young person’s life after going out on their own for the first time. They need to discover who they really are or aren’t. You never feel like he is describing anything, but his own life. However, you also connect with that universally shared moment that everyone goes through as they decide what it means to be an adult after leaving their parent’s house. I have so much respect for Brian Wilson as a songwriter.

Instrumentals Gold Star
Let’s Go Away for Awhile and Pet Sounds are two short instrumental tracks on the album. With the lack of lyrics and vocals, it’s up to the instruments to communicate all of the emotion to the listener. For classical music, this is expected. For a pop album, this is daring. This plays with your expectations and, if it fails to be anything short of amazing, you are going to notice it. You’re also going to wonder why they wasted your time with a sub-par track. Fortunately, neither song does this. Instead, both are beautiful arrangements. In Let’s Go Away for Awhile, the play between woodwind, percussion and strings leave me in awe of the sense of anticipation and optimism that is created. Nothing feels out of place and the acoustic fingerprint of each instrument is complimented perfectly, be it the striking drums, the deep bellow of the woodwinds or the waterfalls that flow out of the strings section. It’s wonderful how the different instruments take turns on who is leading the songs and all without creating a traditional melody. It is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Game of Words = Gold Star
One reoccurring theme I noticed in Wilson’s lyrics is his playful use of words. One example is the word: dream. There are two distinct meanings of dream. One relates to dreaming during sleep such as “You would not believe the dream I had last night. You had wooden teeth.” The other relates to hope for the future such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.  In Wouldn’t It Be Nice, the singer spends the entire song discussing the hope of his future together with his significant other as a married coupled and all the great things that await them. This is their dream of the future, and the song ends with the lyrics of “Good night ba-baby, sleep tight, ba-baby” until the songs fades to nothingness, relating back to the dreaming you do when you sleep.

Wilson so articulately conveys the importance of dreams with the verse “You know the more it seems we talk about it, it only makes it worst to live without it, but let’s talk about it” It does not matter how much it hurts to want to fulfill our dreams because keeping our dreams alive is the only way we will fulfill them. This astute commentary goes in contrast with the song’s title, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, which implies a simple nicety, like a comfortable chair rather than this ache of young people wanting to grow up and spend the rest of their lives with each other. This only further illustrates Wilson’s playfulness with the English language.

Final Rating

Gold Star Gold Star Gold Star Gold Star Gold Star

Closing Thoughts

Before I leave you, I highly recommend the stereo version of the album because it helps separate the instruments. I listened to both the mono and stereo while listening to the album on repeat. Stereo felt vastly superior. And I would like to stress that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t sit down and listen to this album with your full attention. There is so much more going on here in terms of sound, composition and lyrics. Pet Sounds was a high mark for the music industry, both in 1966 and for all-time, and it deserves your attention.

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Week 41 (Just A Band 1)

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 5.0 out of 5 stars album. Were you expecting anything else? This album is usually placed in the top two of all-time greatest albums. Not top ten. Not top five. Top two. Let that sink in for a moment. But is it really deserving all of the praise it’s received over the past nearly 50 years? Let’s find out.

Artist BackgroundCan I really properly describe the best selling musicians in the history of the world with a couple paragraphs? Probably not. I’m just going to cover the basics of the early years for people who aren’t completely familiar with the Beatles so they have a starting point to learn more. The Beatles were formed in 1960 in Liverpool, England. The band consists of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The band was together from 1960 to 1970. They started playing in clubs in the UK and Germany, but ultimately caught the eye of their future manager, Brian Epstein. Brian was eventually able to get them a deal with Parlophone. Through Epstein, the Beatles started working with future producer and long time collaborator, George Martin. Martin is often called the fifth Beatle because of his heavy involvement with their albums. He’s also considered by many to be the greatest producer of all-time. From 1963 to 1970, they released 12 major albums in the UK. If you look at all the internal variations, that number skyrockets to 27 albums. Though Beatlemania started in the UK, it quickly came to the US where the arrival at JFK airport and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show became a part of music history. One in three American households watched the Beatles that night. Beatlemania was definitely in full effect. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this incredibly intriguing story, but I need to stop somewhere.

Album Background: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started out as a concept album as evident by the opening tracks and second to last track featuring the fictional band. It ended up covering many genres including, pop, rock, art rock, psychedelic, and even Indian classical music. It lasts about 40 minutes over 13 tracks. It was an instant commercial and critical success. It was influential in more ways than I can possibly count. It’s been described as a pinnacle moment for western culture. Plain and simple, this is the most important album I can possibly review. Honestly, I can’t think of an album that has spawned more conspiracy theories than this one, which included the death, and look-a-like replacement, of Paul McCartney. It’s worth researching the conspiracies and alleged drug references, if you have the time. It’s a very interesting read.

A big reason why this album is so different is because it was born out of the Beatles frustration with touring. This irritation was obviously showing as the polite and restrained Japanese audiences allowed them to hear, first hand, how terrible their lives shows had become. Normally, the screaming audience masked the poor quality of their performance. The Beatles were hitting a breaking point with their relentless international schedule. Once they quit touring, in addition to the reducing a significant source of stress in their lives, they gained an incredible amount of freedom without having to worry about recreating the music during a live show. They could experiment with music in ways they would have never considered before. Another reason for this album’s significance is due to all of the experimentation the Beatles and George Martin were willing to do in terms of audio engineering. They used techniques nobody ever did before when they recorded Sgt. Pepper. I’m barely scratching the surface here, but I need to move on to the rest of the review.

Favorite Track: I contemplated devising a method that would allow one of my cats to pick my favorite track. That seemed liked a better idea than forcing myself to actually pick one track over another in this timeless album as my favorite. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a good, automated, feline-based favorite track chooser. If I ever do, I’m Kickstarting it and in three or four years after my initial delivery date, reviewers around the world will be able to enjoy having their cats pick their favorite track with little to no effort on their part. Crowdsourcing at it’s finest. Until then, I guess I have to pick it myself. My favorite track… on… Sgt. Pepper’s… Lonely Hearts… Club Band… is… Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite. I’ve listened to this album many times before I started listening to it for Project. Lt. Morning so I’m going with weirdness on this pick. It’s just a really interesting song. Let’s start with the inspiration for the song. It’s based on a circus poster from the mid-1800s. Being based on an actual poster, Mr. Kite is a real person. The lyrics of the songs are not a word-for-word transcription of the poster. Rather the words/names on the poster were included in the lyrics. A significant change is that the horse’s name was changed, but who is going to try to make Zanthus work in a song? Henry is a much better name and, of course, it spawned yet another drug controversy. The song was written by Lennon and McCartney, but Lennon was the one who owned the poster.

The audio engineering that went into this song is also interesting as Lennon really wanted a carnival atmosphere to be heard on the song. This lead to Martin trying many different approaches, but ultimately ended up with samples being cut into pieces, then being randomly reassembled after being tossed into the air for the famous carousel music parts found throughout the song. Besides the odd lyrics, I love the contrast created by Lennon’s very straight delivery of the lyrics and the numerous sets of rolling notes created by the randomly spliced tape. They complement each other so perfectly. Lennon’s voice also lends itself very well to the unique lyrics.

What Works: 

  • Yin/Yang One of the most wonderful aspects of this album is how well John Lennon and Paul McCartney complement each other. Though, the duo doesn’t just complement each other on the album level with individual tracks, but also on the song level with individual lyrics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the song, Getting Better. Paul’s bubbling over optimism is wonderfully balanced out with Lennon’s cynicism. As Paul sings out “I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better, a little better all the time”, Lennon counters this so beautifully with “It couldn’t go no worse.” I freaking love it. Another example of where their powers combined make for some of the best music on the planet is A Day in the Life. This song sounds like two songs smashed together because that’s exactly what it is. It is a Lennon song smashed together with a McCartney song, and the resulting piece is far superior then what either one of those songs would have been by themselves. Even after all these years, it still sounds amazing and fresh.
  • Sing-Along With a Little Help From My Friends is one of the greatest sing-along songs ever penned. Does it get any better than “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends, Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends, Oh, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends” for a sing-along chorus? I’m not so sure it does. And we all know Oasis’s Champagne Supernova (my generation’s de facto sing-along song) would not exist without the groundwork laid down by the Beatles. Hell, Oasis wouldn’t even exist without the Beatles, for that matter. Let alone that one song.
  • Weirdness The end of Good Morning Good Morning ends with a bunch of random animal sounds. Why? I have no idea. However, I do know it’s awesome.
  • Quality I listened to the 2009 stereo remastered version of this album for my review. Even if I had an original 1st edition UK pressing on 180 gram vinyl, I can’t really walk around with that in my pocket, now can I? Regardless, I freaking love the sound quality of this album. Every instrument and voice is so distinct. I could pretty much focus on any part of a song and easily tune out the rest of it if I wanted to. The mono version probably sounds better for a traditional hifi setup in your house, but I simply adored the stereo version on my headphones eight days a week.

What Doesn’t:

  • Domestic Violence The line “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her, And kept her apart from the things that she loved” bothered me every time I heard it. I don’t care if it was written in a different time or whatever. That line is fucked. The actual reality of that situation is one of the most despicable things you can possibly do to another human being. It’s never going to be okay with me. Never. My mind just cannot put that at the same level as not liking your school. Feel free to disagree with me.

In Conclusion: As long as this review is, I’ve barely scratched the surface with the Beatles or Sgt. Pepper. There is so much more to write. This is such a good album on so many levels for so many reasons. If for some crazy reason, you haven’t listened to it yet, I urge you to listen to the delightfully weird album that changed everything for modern music. On top of that, you should really peruse their discography. It’s so much fun being able to recognize when the Beatles influences pop up in today’s music. And trust me, they are still popping up.

Music Video Links:
When I’m Sixty-Four (Sort of Official Music Video)
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (Sort of Official Music Video)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Sort of Official Music Video)

Streaming/Purchase Links:
Amazon Music
iTunes

Information Links:
Wikipedia Artist
W
ikipedia Album
Facebook
Twitter
Official Site

Week 38 Review

Angus (Music from the Motion Picture) (1995)

Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 5.0 out of 5 stars album. As the various components aged in the past twenty years, the defining qualities of aroma, color and taste of the album have not only improved but done so dramatically. This album was most likely lost to both critics and consumers in a never ending field of pop punk and alternative rock during its initial release. But in today’s musical landscape, far removed from the mid-nineties, you can see the craftsmen responsible for the selection and fermentation process of the Angus soundtrack were true artisans.

Movie BackgroundAngus is the story of the fat and socially awkward teenager, Angus Bethune, who is trying to come to grips with high school and family life. His sworn enemy is Rick Sanford aka the quarterback who seems to get everything in life handed to him including Angus’s dream girl, Melissa Lefevre. Angus is joined by his best friend, Troy through most of these trials and tribulations. But ultimately it’s up to Angus to decide if he wants to face the dangers and uncertainty that lie ahead at the high school winter dance or walk away from everything and transfer to a science oriented private school. The most noticeable aspects of the movie for me is it contains possibly one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen. The movie did get a DVD release finally so I’m not putting any spoilers here in case somebody wants to watch it. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable high school outcast movie. You’ve probably never heard of this movie because it came out around the same time as other movies focusing on overweight individuals that either earned more money or praise from critics. Personally, I think everybody was just too busy watching Se7en. It now has a strong cult following due to its more accurate portrayal of high school life and is worth checking out.

Album Background: The Angus soundtrack is a short collection of twelve songs mostly in the pop punk and alternative rock genres. It runs about 35 minutes. Like 50 First Dates, which I reviewed earlier, it is missing key tracks from the movie. This time it is Fade Into You by Mazzy Star and Rubella by the Smoking Popes. One surprising aspect of the soundtrack is that while it includes top notch original material from Green Day and Weezer, the first song Weezer submitted was rejected! The song was called Wanda (You’re My Only Love), which Rivers Cuomo later released as part of Alone – The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo. The song closely follows the short story from which the movie is based. It’s very pretty and worth listening to. I’m glad I bought the song while writing this review. I would have loved to hear a proper recording by Weezer though it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen.

Favorite Track: My editor is the entire reason I watched the movie and listened to the soundtrack. Without her, there would be no Angus Bethune in my life. I didn’t even know about the movie until nearly a decade after it was released. Naturally, I consulted her when I had trouble deciding on a favorite track when there were so many strong contenders. My editor put it to me like this: “Yeah, you could go with one of those others. But when I listen to this album, I sit through all the other songs waiting for the last song to come on. It is the reason I listen to this soundtrack.” And she is right. The last song on the album, Am I Wrong by Love Spit Love, is the best track on the album.

Love Spit Love was formed by Richard Butler when the The Psychedelic Furs went on hiatus in 1992. Their odd name comes from a performance art exhibit that was held in New York in 1991. But why does this song standout among the others? What makes it so special? The high school marching band, of course! The marching band was mixed into the original song for the soundtrack. Am I Wrong is featured in the beginning of the film where the marching band is playing their half-time show. The brass, woodwinds and percussion of the band make for a very unique sounding pop song. And they greatly add to the end of the song as the emotional intensity swells in a way that just wouldn’t be possible without the marching band. I consider this song a must listen due to how unique it is and how incredibly well it works, given the odd combination of the mashup that most people would presume to be incompatible.

What Works: 

  • Ramones The Ramones, America’s most famous punk band, aren’t anywhere to be found on the soundtrack but yet they seem to be everywhere. Their influences are clearly heard throughout the album. This is especially with the tracks: Kung-Fu, Jack Names the Planets and Back to You. And that is most definitely a good thing. The choruses become incredibly catchy and a blast to sing along with as a result.
  • Opening The album starts out with Green Day’s J.A.R. (Jason Andrew Relva) which is easily the most popular track on the album. This perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the album as you immediately feel compelled to pogo regardless of your surroundings. I particularly love the end where it get very quiet and the last word of the song is omitted. Not only is it a good start, it has a good ending.
  • Fun Ash’s Kung-Fu is easily the most fun song on the album. Jackie Chan is prominently featured in the lyrics and the song was even used at the end of one of his movies, Rumble in the Bronx. Tim Wheeler wrote the song in five minutes and the band recorded it in one take using The Verve’s equipment who happened to be nearby at the time. That’s amazing to me and a testament to Wheeler’s ability as a writer and musician.
  • Women Several female vocalists are featured on Angus. This includes female vocalists in the bands Dance Hall Crashers, The Muffs and Tilt. To have 25% of the songs on this album include lead female vocalists is pretty awesome given the genres covered are typically heavily dominated by males. It’s nice to see the women get some well deserved recognition. All of the songs with female vocals are excellent.
  • Organization Elliot Cahn and Jeff Saltzman were in charge of this album and they did an amazing job. I would love to shake their hands if I could. The selection of songs and the order in which they were placed is absolutely perfect. I completely agree with the decisions to not include some songs. It would have ruined the perfection that they created when they made the ultimate musical time capsule for 1995. The songs complement each other well and the transition between tempos, genres and even topics is well executed A great example is Pansy Division’s Deep Water, which is about the struggles of growing up an insecure gay teenager. It is the perfect song to use to transition to the Am I Wrong to end the album.

What Doesn’t:

  • Nothing Like so many other 5 star reviews, I couldn’t find a single flaw in this entire album after listening to it for multiple weeks.

In Conclusion: This might be my all-time favorite soundtrack. If not all-time, it is definitely my favorite of what I’ve reviewed so far. If you are looking for an album that is an absolute blast to listen to and doesn’t seem to ever get old, you really can’t go wrong with the Angus soundtrack.

Music Video Links: 
Ash – Jack Names the Planets (Official Video)
Ash – Kung-Fu (Official Video)
Wonderful Opening of Angus featuring Am I Wrong (different from the soundtrack version)

Streaming/Purchase Links:
Amazon Music
iTunes

Google Play

Spotify

Information Links:
W
ikipedia Album

Week 35 Review

Grateful Dead – American Beauty (1970)

Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 5 out of 5 stars album. To really appreciate how good this album is, let me explain how I organize albums by quality into 6 Levels. Keep in mind this has nothing to do with my star ratings.

Level 0: First, we have the lowest level of music. This is any Fall Out Boy album released after they got back together. FOB’s new album, American Beauty/American Psycho, is the perfect example of Level 0. This is music so terrible it makes you disgusted with the entire music industry any time you hear it.

Level 1: Next, we have music that is slightly better, which are songs written by Staind’s frontman, Aaron Lewis. This music can sometimes stand on its own, but you’d rather mix this level of songs with artists who can actually write lyrics that aren’t so generic they could just as easily apply to your cat as they do to you.

Level 2: Above that you have albums you could probably do without, but if you heard them on the bus, you aren’t going to be annoyed by it. You might even like it if you have a particular fondness for a given genre. This is where the majority of music is probably going to fall for most people. Ten years from now you won’t even remember it existed unless you happen to run into it on YouTube when you were looking for that one song by that guy who had a hit that one summer. It had that crazy video with the thing. You know what I’m talking about.

Level 3: Then you have the albums you need to check out. Maybe it’s the next big thing, but probably isn’t. However, it’s got enough attention in general or perhaps a close friend has been raving about it for the past two months that now is the time you should click on the YouTubes and check it out. Regardless, there’s a good chance that it is worth your time. Besides the latest and greatest of music, it could also be a highly influential album from several decades back that only now is getting the recognition it rightfully deserves. Songs like Avalanches – Frontier Psychiatrist come to mind for Level 3.

Level 4: After that is a significant step up in the quality of music. This level is made up of albums that you must listen to before you die. These are classics that have stood the test of time. Even twenty or thirty years later, they are very much relevant and still very much amazing. They often redefine a genre or create whole new ones. They routinely astound a new generation once discovered. Albums like that are usually found on a list with others of a similar caliber. I would place a good chunk of the Beatles’ discography here as well as Led Zeppelin’s.

Level 5: And finally there are what I call Deathbed albums. These are albums so fundamentally perfect they are worthy of being the last music you consume before ceasing to exist in our universe. This is a significantly smaller group than the Must Listen to Before You Die level. It is also a much more personal list as the album has to really resonate with you. The opinions of friends, family and critics cease to matter at this point. What does the music do inside your auditory cerebral cortex after entering your inner ear canal and is transformed into electrical nerve impulses by the hair cells in your cochlea? That’s what matters here. If you forced my back against a wall, I could probably only name a handful of albums that would qualify for this elite category. But American Beauty would without hesitation or contemplation be included.

Artist BackgroundThe Grateful Dead started in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. They were highly influential in the development of the jam band. In 1994, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was a year before they officially ended touring in 1995. They even have one of their concerts from 1977 in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. With a lineup spanning thirty years, there are quite a few band members but the main members include Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan and Bill Kreutzmann. Jerry Garcia is a very well-recognized name in the music world. If a person knows anybody from the band, it’s Jerry. They don’t name ice cream after just anybody. The band earned a cult following of people known as Deadheads who would make every effort to see as many shows as possible. Deadheads have been portrayed as acid dropping, weed smoking hippies who do nothing to benefit society by the media, but an actual analysis of the Deadhead movement paints quite a different picture of their members. Many of them hold professional or white collar jobs, a graduate or college degree and a high level of income. The group experience of a Grateful Dead concert seems to be something quite magical that I wish I could have experienced.  I also like to note that the Grateful Dead were very recording friendly. They even went so far as to set up a section for fans who wanted to record the concert and Garcia is quoted as saying “When we are done with it [the concerts], they can have it.” Thankfully there are still bands around today like Wilco that fully embrace fans recording their concerts.

Album Background: American Beauty is a folk rock album released in late 1970. It has a runtime of about 42 minutes. It was recorded over a period of two months. The most mind blowing thing about this album is that it was recorded and came out the same year as their previous album, Workingman’s Dead. Start thinking about your favorite modern bands. What’s the average time between album? What are the odds of them releasing two full length albums in a year? Now throw on top of that the odds of them putting out back to back critically acclaimed albums that will hold up for decades after. Do you understand now why I am so freaking amazed by American Beauty? If not, let’s throw some statistics at you. It was ranked 258 by Rolling Stone for the 500 greatest Albums of All Time list. NARM placed it 20 in their Definitive 200 Albums list. Not too shabby. While early albums struggled with using the studio to recreate the Dead’s concert experience, American Beauty is some of the finest studio work they ever put out. If you have any interest in starting a musical journey with the Dead, this is absolutely the place to start.

Favorite Track: For the sake of picking one, I will pick one. But don’t expect me to say this is my favorite track next year or even tomorrow. Every track on this album is worthy of being a favorite track. For today, let’s go with the song that got me interested in the Grateful Dead: Box of Rain. I was finally convinced that I must listen to them by the last episode of Freeks and Geeks where the main character, Lindsay Weir, is also introduced to them. There is a very memorable scene where she plays American Beauty in her bedroom. The song was composed by the band’s bassist, Phil Lesh, who composed it for his father who was dying of terminal cancer. In addition, the song is also sung by him and is the first song to feature his vocals. Robert Hunter, who wrote many of the lyrics on this album, also wrote the lyrics for Box of Rain. The song is interesting in terms of lyrics as the song makes no mention of a box of rain until towards the end where it is heavily referenced. Box of rain actually refers to our world. The lyrics are beautifully crafted and emotionally powerful with numerous metaphors of life and the journey towards death in which we all participate. References to water are abound as it is a critical component of life itself. It appropriately ends with the lines “Such a long long time to be gone, And a short time to be there” which masterfully captures our transient reality and hopefully inspires the listener to make the most of our “short time” while we can.

What Works: 

  • Pacing The pacing of this album is great. It does a wonderful job switching between slow and medium tempo songs. I never ever get bored listening to it. Playing American Beauty on repeat was an absolute pleasure.
  • Lyrics The lyrics on this album are phenomenal. While incredibly complex word play is one of the quickest ways to my musical heart, simple words can be equally effective if done right. That is the case here. I’m particularly fond of Friend of the Devil. It tells the story of a man running from the law and the Devil as well.  He is desperately seeking sleep as he spends most of his nights on the run. In addition to missing sleep, he is also missing his loved ones. It paints such a vivid picture. I feel the nervousness of his uncertainty and the wondering of how long can he possibly keep up such a seemingly hopeless task. This is one of many songs where the lyrics include very specific references that give them a sense of reality. Another example of this is Candyman which includes the lyrics “Good Mornin Mr. Benson, I see you’re doin well, If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to Hell” which gets you wondering who is this Mr. Benson? Why is he so important that he should be mentioned by name? Now the song is working on a completely different level.
  • Instruments The playing on this is as equally amazing to me as the vocals. But what I can’t get over is how well the instruments complement the vocals and each other. Every instrument feels critical to making the song what it is. I especially love the guitar parts playing against each other. This observation applies to any of the songs on the album. If you really want to soak this in, listen to the album with a pair of headphones.

What Doesn’t:

Don’t make me laugh. If you think there’s any kind of flaw with this album, you’re out of your damn mind.

In Conclusion: Unfortunately, this experiment is being done alphabetically by album title so it’s going to be many years before I review American Beauty’s sister album, Workingman’s Dead. In case I don’t get to it, I highly recommend you listen to it after you start your love affair with the Grateful Dead classic, American Beauty. If you’re still not convinced you’re missing out on something, go watch the Freaks and Geeks clip again.

In case you weren’t aware, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead this year. They are going to reunite at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 3rd through 5th of this summer. This will be 20 years since they last played a concert together and it will be at the same venue as their last concert!

Music Video Links:
This album predates music videos so I don’t have any to list. There’s some live footage of their concerts on YouTube though if you look.

Streaming/Purchase Links:
Amazon Music
Google Play
iTunes
XBOX Music
Spotify

Information Links:
Wikipedia Artist
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ikipedia Album
Facebook
Twitter
Official Site

Week 28 Review

Steely Dan – Aja (1977)

Bottom Line Up Front: This album is 5 out of 5 stars. Period. End of story. Everyone should absorb Aja into their auditory cortex and enjoy as the other areas of their brain light up like fireworks. If you do not have it in your music collection, your music collection is incomplete. It really is that simple.

Artist Background: Let’s first get this out of the way before we talk about anything else. Steely Dan is named after a dildo from William S. Burroughs‘ 1959 non-linear classic novel Naked Lunch. Now that we know that little fun fact, Steely Dan is basically Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with a collection of session musicians. Originally, the band had more members but these two guys are seriously obsessive about having the perfect sound. And it’s a lot harder to do that if you can’t swap out your musicians on a track by track basis. They even went so far as to use two completely different drum kits in a single song to get the exact sound they wanted. And you can also clearly hear every instrument they feature in their music. Examples like that put Steely Dan in high regards among many audiophiles.

Album Background: How important is this jazz rock record that runs 40 minutes over 7 tracks? So important that it was added to the Library of Congress as part of the United States National Recording Registry for 2010. Aja is the most commercially successful album from the group. It got to number 3 on the US Pop charts. That’s right. Pop charts. Aja is as much pop as it is jazz. I’m not going to list all the musicians involved because it’s a pretty long list. But I highly suggest reading the background of each of them, if you get a chance, to really get an idea of the scope of talent that was involved in the creation of the Aja. And it seems like nothing but their very best was good enough as they auditioned many musicians and even after finding the perfect person for the part, usually many takes were still required. And for those wondering about the cover, that’s a picture of Sayoko Yamaguchi who seems to be Japan’s first international supermodel.

Favorite Track: My favorite track is Deacon Blues. It’s the 3rd track on the album and is 7 minutes and 36 seconds long. I think what put this song over the top for me was the chorus. Not only are the lyrics great, but the way they are delivered is perfect. Just the right amount of backing vocals in the right spots. It also intrigues me that they wrote a song featuring a reference to a college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide. On a side note, the Crimson Tide happen to be ranked #1 in the nation right now. Even the term “Deacon Blues” has a nice ring to it. The sax solo by Pete Christlieb in this song is also fantastic. And should be as the chorus also makes a reference to playing the saxophone. It’s hard to describe this song as anything other than perfection.

What Works: 

  • Engineering The sound recording quality of this album is out of this world. Every morning when I would start it up in my car, the music would catch me off guard because the bass bumped so hard. I don’t know if any rap artists sampled Aja, but they should have. The album did win a Grammy for the quality of the sound recording. Honestly, it would have been a crime for them not to win it. You really can hear every instrument with all the gorgeous details each one provides. All the instruments sound unbelievable. You could listen to the whole album and just focus on what you hear in the background while still enjoying yourself immensely.
  • Solos The solos on this album are epic. The sax solo on the second track, Aja, is probably my favorite. Aja is a good 8 minutes long so they have plenty of time to work in an extended solo performance by jazz legend, Wayne Shorter. I just love the way Wayne plays off of everything going around him. It’s such an incredibly powerful and inspiring solo. I remember just being in awe at a red light on my way to work one morning. It’s that good. On top of that, the drum work by Steve Gadd is brilliant. Especially during Wayne’s solo and the outro where Steve just owns it. The whole album is full of awesome moments like this.
  • Backing Vocals The backing vocals on this album are especially enjoyable. They compliment the main vocals and instruments so well. I know I keep using the word perfect. But there is no other way to describe this album.

I’m not even including a What Doesn’t section. That would be an insult.

In Conclusion: Go listen to this album right now if you’ve never heard it before. Keep in mind, Spotify has an ad-backed free option now. So take advantage. Why are you still reading this? Go! Now!

Music Video Links:
None available. 😦

Streaming/Purchase Links:
Amazon Music
Google Play
iTunes
XBOX Music
Spotify

Information Links:
Wikipedia Artist
W
ikipedia Album
Facebook
Twitter
Official Site