Week 42 (Just A Band 2)

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III (1970)

Led_Zeppelin_-_Led_Zeppelin_III

Bottom Line Up Front: This is a 5.0 out of 5 stars album. This quote sums up the awesomeness of this album perfectly:

“Hey, I believe in God, man. I’ve seen him, I’ve felt his power. He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!” -Nick Andopolis, Freaks and Geeks, Pilot Episode

Well, maybe it doesn’t, but I’ve been waiting over a year to review a Led Zeppelin album so I could use that quote. So we’re just going to roll with it. You might have noticed Freaks and Geeks references in past reviews because the show is just filled to the brim with awesome music. If you are a music enthusiast and haven’t seen the show, you are really missing out. Alright, enough about the show. Let’s get back to Zeppelin. It is a review about them after all.

Artist BackgroundWell, here we go again. I try to summarize an incredible band in a very limited amount of space. I swear I’m going to just start copy and pasting a link to the Wikipedia page. This is our second, and equally important, UK group for the Just a Band series. Zeppelin formed in London in 1968. The band was formed out of the ashes of The Yardbirds, as The New Yardbirds, to finish up some concert commitments the band had leftover. The name was axed quickly, as the Yardbirds moniker was only agreed upon by the former members, to use for those last couple concerts. After changing their name to Led Zeppelin, they quickly scored a contract with Atlantic sight unseen, which is pretty impressive. The band consists of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. All four of these guys were incredibly influential on the rock genre for their respective roles in the band. “Among the greatest ever” is a term that gets thrown around often with these guys and with good reason. All members, except Bonham, are still alive. Unfortunately, John Bonham died in 1980 of a pulmonary edema caused by alcohol-related asphyxia. I really don’t like that description of it. It sounds like it came from a medical textbook. Led Zeppelin did not live some kind of Harvard textbook lifestyle. They lived (some say invented) the rock & roll lifestyle. They were famous for trashing hotel rooms. No, I’m sorry, trashing entire floors of the hotels they stayed at while on tour. A better fitting description of his death is he choked on his vomit after passing out from drinking 40 units of vodka. That’s how he went out. I don’t know what issues he was dealing with at the time that would cause him to drink so much, but it was an incredibly tragic lost. Zeppelin broke up after his death, but, before that time, they managed to be one of the most important rock bands ever. They are the second best selling band in the US with 111 million sales, and every album they put out reached the Billboard Top 10. Finally, every episode in season 5 of That 70’s Show is named after one of their songs. If that doesn’t show how important they were, I don’t know what does.

Album Background: First off, I just want to say people who grew up in the late 60’s/early 70’s are spoiled rotten when it comes to album releases. I touched on this earlier with the Grateful Dead releasing two incredible albums in such a short time period as being mind blowing to me. Led Zeppelin I through IV came in the very short span of 1969 to 1971. Houses of the Holy ****ing ****! We’re you people in your bedroom just swimming in a pile of amazing records ala Scrooge McDuck?

Led Zeppelin III is, obviously, their third album. It was released in 1970 and has a runtime of 43 minutes. Much of the album was composed in Wales where Plant and Page were taking a break from the strenuous touring schedule. The cottage they stayed in is named Bron-Yr-Aur, which means “golden hill” in Welsh. It’s pretty evident that the location had a great deal of influence on the band since it was included as part of the name for two of their songs. It’s no coincidence that spending a couple months in a cottage with no electricity or running water lead to an abundance of acoustic material. This drastic change in style confused both critics and the public alike, but it also earned them newfound progressive rock fans. Despite the initial mixed response, people eventually realized just how amazing and important this album was for the band and to music in general.

I just want to quickly mention the album sleeve because, at first glance, it’s a bunch of random flight-themed images on a white background. However, upon closer inspection, there exists a small disc of similar images behind it. By rotating it, you can change the layout of the front. This type of art, known as volvelle, was included in the album design by Jimmy Page and Zacron, an artist who had been working with rotating graphics for several years prior. I was actually unaware of this fact until I bought the 2014 Deluxe Remastered CD specifically for this review and turned it myself. It’s very freaking cool and definitely some of the most interesting album art I own. Here’s what the rotatable disc looks like so you don’t have to tear apart your own:

Led_Zeppelin_III_volvelle_

Favorite Track: There really is so freaking much to love on this album. This is a difficult decision. I will go on the record as saying that Since I’ve Been Loving You is the most impressive song on the album by far. I’ll touch on it under the What Works section of this review. It will probably be referenced multiple times given how amazing it is. However, my favorite track has to be Gallows Pole. If there was one song that routinely stuck out over the week, it was this song. It starts out soft with a simple acoustic riff and Plant singing the opening lyrics. Then, Plant turns it up a notch belting out the ever memorable, “Hangman! Hangman!” just as the mandolin kicks in. That caught my attention every single time when I was in the car. The gradual build up in this song is just amazing as the electric bass is added in shortly after.  Finally, they introduce the banjo and drums right as things just start getting crazy. Although, it’s crazy in a great way because of the gradual introduction of each part of the song. Imagine if the song started the way it sounds at about the 3:30 mark. It would be completely overwhelming. Yet, with how Zeppelin did it, it’s pure genius.

What’s interesting about this song is it’s actually based off a famous folk song, The Maid Freed from the Gallows, that is hundreds of years old and has been sung in the many regions of Europe with countless variations. Led Zeppelin wasn’t the only ones to record the song in modern times either. Most notably, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter recorded it as The Gallis Pole in the 1930s, and Bob Dylan recorded it in 1963 as Seven Curses. There are a lot of variations, even between these three versions. Regardless, the basic story is a person, often female but not always, begging for someone to buy their freedom from execution by bribing an official of the courts. Not only do circumstances change between versions, but so does the perspective from which the tale is told. Sometimes the bribe works and sometimes, like in Gallows Pole, it sadly does not. Despite the choice to go with the more sad ending, it’s still an incredible song.

What Works: 

  • Plant I am in awe of Robert Plant’s singing on this album. Obviously, his very famous wailing is a key part of that, but there is so much more. I especially love how playful he is with his phrasing of the lyrics. The way he approaches the verses, which does not quite match up with the obvious way of doing it, results in a very distinct style. I also love the dynamics in his singing. He’s not afraid to switch up between loud and soft, even within a single line of a lyric. Finally, I love his use of repetition. He masterfully knows exactly when and where to repeat a small phrase or even a single word. On Since I’ve Been Loving You, Plant starts repeating words and phrases very heavily towards the end. Most notably for me the “seven, seven, seven” which contrasts to the opening line of the song in which seven is only said once. This resulted in an image of a slot machine popping into my head. Could it be a reference to getting lucky with the woman? It probably was not his intention, but it resulted in an interesting allusion nonetheless. What it does do, and I’m sure this was the intention, is dramatically increase the emotional intensity of the lyrics.
  • Page There is no Zeppelin without Page. In reality, that applies to all the members, but that doesn’t make him any less critical. In Since I’ve Been Loving You, Page delivers this incredibly badass guitar solo that is critical to amping up the intensity of the song as it progresses. Besides solos, Page delivers so many now famous guitar riffs throughout the tracks on this album. He is one of the greatest guitarists to ever live, after all.
  • Accidents One of the best accidents to ever happen in a studio occured on this album. The beginning of Celebration Day was actually supposed to start with a Bonham drum solo, but an engineer accidentally deleted that portion. Instead, they seamlessly connected Friends with Celebration Day, with the Moog synthesizer, using the drone found at the distinctly sounding end of Friends. It sounds brilliant. I was amazed it was a “fix” for a studio screw up.
  • Darkness By the end of my final listen, I was completely surrounded in darkness. As the album progressed, I gradually began removing light sources from the room. First, I shut off the light. Then, I began turning off monitors. Finally, I held my hand over my eyes to remove the last little bit. Why? Was the light distracting? Actually, it was. If you ever really want to listen to an album, and I mean REALLY listen to an album, grab a pair of good headphones and go sit in a dark room by yourself. By cutting off all of your other senses, you can focus on the music with laser precision. I swear to you, your music will never sound better than it sounds in your sensory deprivation zone. Zeppelin III is so beautifully crafted and complex that, yes, the light was getting in the way of my growing need to fully appreciate everything they did with this album. The acoustic songs on this album, like That’s The Way, are incredibly beautiful and beg for your ear’s full attention.

What Doesn’t:

  • Lyrics I am not saying the lyrics are bad. The lyrics are freaking amazing. Well, they are freaking amazing when they don’t get lost in the music. Zeppelin lyrics tend to fade into the background incredibly easy for me in their mid/uptempo songs. I don’t know if it’s because there is just so much awesomeness going on at once or maybe it’s the way Plant enunciated on those faster songs, but I tend to miss out on a lot of good stuff. Immigrant Song, for example, has some seriously kick-ass lyrics that are historically important to the genre of heavy metal since the song started the viking/heavy metal connection. “Hammer of the gods” is an incredibly famous line from the song. I totally missed that line all these years until I read about it. This also explains why I tend to heavily favor their slower acoustic songs from their discography, where their lyrics do not have such tough competition for my attention. Maybe this is more a personal problem than Led Zeppelin’s fault. I would be interested to know if anybody else experiences this dilemma with their music.

In Conclusion: I would have to say if you are going to listen to the album, then sit down and listen to it. There are so many amazing things happening on this album. You might not notice that Since I’ve Been Loving You is the shortest seven and a half minute song ever recorded. The time passes so incredibly fast because it can keep your attention the entire time. I had no idea the song was that long until I looked at the playlist. You also might miss out on the craziness of the wah wah vocals for Hats Off to (Roy) Harper. Or you could completely miss that they basically restart the song over again toward the end of Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. Maybe you’ll miss any one of the numerous false endings or wonderfully syncopated rhythms found throughout the album. Why purposely deny yourself all of this awesomeness because you decided to multitask and passively listen to it instead? Led Zeppelin deserves better than that. You deserve better than that.

Music Video Links:
I couldn’t find any official music videos for the original release. You can find some live stuff recorded later if you look on YouTube.

Streaming/Purchase Links:
Xbox Music

Spotify
Google Play Music
Amazon Music
iTunes

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

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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
W
ikipedia Album
Facebook
Twitter
Official Site