Thursday, February 12, 2015

Big Joe Turner - Shout, Rattle, and Roll (1938-1954/2005)

I don't rightly know why I have this album. George reviewed it a few years back, and I decided I should probably have at least one collection of something like this. I saw it fairly cheap on Amazon – no longer the case, by the way – and so I picked it up. And that's how I found myself with a 4 CD, 100 song box set of Big Joe Turner's material.

And you know what? I don't regret it. I don't listen to it except in portions, of course, but even the one or two times that I listened to it in one hour chunks, it never got annoying or boring. This is amazing to me, since it's basically just the same old dude bellowing over piano-and-brass dominated “jump blues” (or whatever you want to call it). Big Joe Turner himself had basically nothing to do with the actual creation of this material, usually just singing and having no writing or playing credits. It's tempting to use the Elvis Argument here and say “Well, the material may be good, but Big Joe Turner doesn't deserve any credit as he was little more than a personality to attach the work of others.” However, that line of reasoning is also subject to the Elvis Counter-Argument, which states “He may have had little to do with the creation of the material, but would the material have existed if Big Joe Turner had not?”

I don't know the answer to these questions, but certain things seem apparent to me. One is that the people who played for Big Joe Turner were thoroughly excellent, always varying up the samey material enough to make even the most redundant and unnecessary tracks sound unique. Another is that there is no doubt in my mind how much of an influence this particular type of blues had on rock music. The opening “Roll 'Em Pete” sounds like piano based Jerry Lee Lewis style rock and roll over 15 years before that time, just a little bit calmer and more restrained.

Highlights are difficult to pick out, but I'd have to point out the ones which break from the blues formula and presage rock in certain ways. The frenetic – and electric guitar based! - “I Don't Dig It” is excellent, for example, as are both parts of “Around The Clock,” which certainly informs Chuck Berry's “Reelin' and Rockin'” in very obvious ways. “Bump Miss Suzie” is another great upbeat Little Richard style number, and “Honey Hush” is basically the exact same song as the later, much more epoch defining “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” I have to guess the latter met much greater success than the original because of the lyrics – sexual innuendo as opposed to the excessively violent misogynistic lyrics of the former. Not that “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” isn't also misogynistic, it's just that nobody heard that because of the fun “let's dance!” mode of the chorus.

Really, the only section I'm not fond of are the slow ballads that Turner suddenly became obsessed with in the early-50's. He had a big hit during this period (“Chains of Love”) but the lumpy blues ballads just aren't very interesting in the hands of Big Joe Turner and his sidemen. Still, this is just a small section at the beginning of the fourth disc and is hardly cause for complaint.

I'm hardly an expert on this kind of music, but I know what I like, and for the most part, I find this collection pretty enjoyable. It's hardly my favorite thing in the world to listen to, but it's a nice little package of one of the more influential big band blues artists of his day, and if you're interested in this type of music for either historical or enjoyment purposes, you could probably do a lot worse than Big Joe Turner. Pick up a similar collection if you're interested.

Rating: N/A

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings (1936-1937/1990)

Poor Robert Johnson. First he sold his soul to Satan at the crossroads to be a great musician and died young as a result, and then he becomes my go-to example for “influential, but difficult to digest” blues artist. Two tragedies of equal gravity and importance befall one man!

In my old review here, I tried to make a case for this collection being enjoyable in addition to important and admirable. Sadly, I really think I was just fooling myself, because Robert Johnson is just so wildly important that I wanted this collection to be as entertaining as, say, Blind Willie Johnson's. But it really just isn't the case.

Robert Johnson is probably the most important guitarist who ever lived, at least, in the fields of blues, rock, and all of its children, which includes most of popular music. He codified the “five man band” guitarist, playing rhythm, lead, and bass on one acoustic guitar while singing and tapping his foot. In addition, he set in stone many of the blues licks we take for granted today as pretty much always existing, not to mention, perhaps most importantly, the bass line. The prototypical rock and roll boogie bass line that just popped into your head when you read the first half of that sentence was, well, maybe not exactly invented by Robert Johnson, but first applied in this way to this type of music and served as the wellspring from which every other artist drew it.

Unfortunately, about half of his songs or more are set to the exact same blues melody, with licks that we in the modern world have heard ten thousand times, and that, combined with the stupid sequencing of this collection, makes this an excruciating listen. For some reason that I can't fathom, all of the alternate takes are placed right next to their “originals.” I can understand including them for historical purposes, but why not put them all on the second disc together or something? It makes an already monotonous listen even more monolithic.

None of this is Robert Johnson's fault. These were all released as singles and never meant to be listened to all at one time. The concept of a full length album was a barely cogent one at the time, certainly not for the likes of Delta blues artists. The playing on all of the tracks is immaculate, completely worthy of all of the adulation heaped upon him. It's too bad I can't listen to more than a couple of songs at a time without growing incredibly bored.

There are a few tracks which deviate from the standard Robert Johnson template, and taking the frantic “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” the folksy “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” or the goofy ragtime of “They're Red Hot” and combining them with a few of the other more interesting tracks could form a perfectly listenable and enjoyable single album, I'm sure. Overall, though, you're better off seeking out the innumerable covers people have done of these songs, as they tend to pull out the hidden beauty or power of the track in a way that Robert Johnson's single-minded musical philosophy tends to obfuscate.

My recommendation would be to take a listen to a few of the more important songs if you're so inclined, just to see where it all started, but don't force feed yourself this compilation just because you feel like you have to enjoy it out of some sort of objective musical integrity. Acknowledging the importance and influence of Robert Johnson's musical output and respecting it for what it is qualifies more than enough.

Rating: N/A

Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1927-1930/1993)

There are a lot of important blues guitarists out there from the first half of the 20th century, but oftentimes, the only reason to listen to them is for the necessity of historical context and understanding where certain techniques and influences come from. It's not their fault, but they tend to be not very enjoyable to our modern ears, both due to the melodies and once innovative playing styles being beaten into the ground since then, in addition to the fact that they were never intended to be listened to all in one sitting as the compilations provide them. However, I insist that Blind Willie Johnson is a huge exception to this rule, as his material manages to be interesting enough to still hold up even today, almost 90 years later.

It's impossible to overstate Blind Willie Johnson's importance, as basically every slide guitarist has aped his every move. It's surprising, then, that he still does it better than any of them. His proto-Tom Waits bluesman's growl combines with his slithering slide riffs to form some unforgettable gospel-blues experiences. His original version of “Nobody's Fault But Mine” still blows all other versions out of the water, and the entire first half of this collection is one classic after another.

To try and name check every song or continuously praise them with some variation of “awesome guitar playing, moving vocals, etc.” would be ridiculous. I will say that “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)” shows that he can create haunting, evocative pictures with just his guitar and some humming/moaning, no true vocals required. I'll also say that his material is less effective when he drops his false growl and takes the bottleneck off his finger, but it's a testament to the man's talent and, quite frankly, sheer power that even then the tracks are still quite captivating and enjoyable. The only track I don't really like is “Can't Nobody Hide From God,” which is literally just three minutes of repeating the title in a round with his wife and gets old very fast.

Other than that one misstep, even all bunched together as 30 tracks over the course of 90 minutes, I can honestly say this collection never wears me down. Each song is independently enjoyable and different enough from the ones that surround it for it to never be wearying. And Blind Willie Johnson's charisma is a hook all its own. As I said before, the key word here is “power,” and while I may not sympathize with his religious views, well, I don't sympathize with Bob Marley's or George Harrison's either, and it's never hindered my enjoyment of their material. This is one blues legend who can be not only appreciated, but thoroughly enjoyed. By all means, if you haven't heard this compilation yet, and you have the faintest interest in blues or gospel, pick this up. You won't regret it.

Rating: N/A

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (2011)

Best Song: Helplessness Blues

It's become something of a cliché. A band or musician releases a critically acclaimed album, and they suddenly decide that this must mean they are Important Artists With Something To Say (TM) (IAWSTS for short). Sometimes these important things are personal in nature, sometimes political or societal. Sometimes this doesn't affect the material at all, but more often it either leads to bloated pretension and underwritten songs, or, if you're lucky, if they handle this urge well, they'll get some extra inspiration and make some of the best work of their careers. Fortunately for us, Robin Pecknold managed to hit the latter.

And it is Robin Pecknold – in the Sun Giant review, I said it might not be entirely fair to say that Robin Pecknold is the whole band, but at the time of Helplessness Blues, it definitely is. The band is more or less dissolved – many people who were in Fleet Foxes contributed to this album, but nobody seems to be credited as an actual band member, simply as glorified session musicians for Robin Pecknold's artistic vision.

Whereas in the past, Fleet Foxes mostly adhered to folk mannerisms without much that hit on your emotional centers, Helplessness Blues is a very personal album for Robin Pecknold. Instead of idolizing Fairport Convention, Robin Pecknold turns to more intimate groups like Simon & Garfunkel and ups the Beach Boys pop influence and vocal harmonies a bit. The result is an album that is honestly right up there with the best of its influences, and for being such a personal album, it never comes across as overbearing, obnoxious, or self pitying. The lyrics are mostly great, which is good because Robin Pecknold's vocals are pushed way up front. The extra inspiration he's obviously feeling gives the album a strong emotional component without sacrificing any of the strong melodicity or genial sound of the previous efforts, giving Fleet Foxes the missing component that pushes them from “very good” to “great.”

The opening lines of “Montezuma,” sung over a couple of heavily reverbed, but lovely acoustic guitar lines, immediately make the purpose of Helplessness Blues clear - “So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” The rest of the tune is a classic in its own right, but don't think the album is all sparse acoustic introspection. No, Robin Pecknold is too smart for that – the following “Bedouin Dresses” with its attractive fiddle line and the bouncy groove of “Battery Kinzie” show that he's not letting the arrangements fall by the wayside at all.

“Sim Sala Bim” has a great vocal melody, and an even better instrumental coda. “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” is 2 minutes of gorgeous Beach Boys style vocal harmonies, followed by a tense harpsichord driven tune with some very pretty flute here and there. “The Cascades” is actually a surprisingly good instrumental that perfectly paints the image of its title. The mandolin driven ballad “Lorelei” is somewhat of a rewrite of “4th Time Around” by Bob Dylan (which was already a take off on “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles), but Robin Pecknold adds his own unique brand to it, and the “I was old news to you then” refrain can be a real tearjerker.

“Someone You'd Admire” is just Robin Pecknold and his guitar, but it's very effective and moving, as is the closing “Grown Ocean.” The only songs which aren't quite up to snuff are the just kinda decent “Blue Spotted Tail” and the “Argument” part of “The Shrine/An Argument.” The first 5 minutes or so of the song are great, actually, and very haunting, but the dissonant sax jumble which makes up the “Argument” portion just doesn't do it for me. I know what it's supposed to symbolize, I'm not an idiot, but with all of the sheer beauty on Helplessness Blues, the dissonance just sort of comes out of nowhere and really doesn't belong on the album.

And that brings us to the big classic, the title track. I said in my Sun Giant review that “Mykonos” might be Fleet Foxes' best song, but man, it's a tight race between that one and “Helplessness Blues,” and on second thought, I think this one wins out. This is the only track in the Fleet Foxes' canon which can almost be called a protest song, and while that might sound like a negative thing, the lyrics are excellent, as Robin Pecknold combines the social, the personal, the anthemic, and the humble in a way that is normally reserved for Bob Dylan. It starts off quietly before exploding into an energetic strumfest, and the vocal melody is just the right mix of questioning and desperate, and catchy as hell. Then, a few minutes in, the song slows down and makes the most beautiful transition I've heard yet from Fleet Foxes, to the hymn-like “If I had an orchard” section, with the most gorgeous vocal harmonies I think I've heard this side of The Beach Boys. It's an absolutely heartbreaking composition, somehow both uplifting and saddening almost in a Soft Bulletin way, and if you're unmoved by it, I find it hard to believe that you have a soul.

Helplessness Blues is the culmination of Fleet Foxes' career, and it seems like Robin Pecknold might realize it too, since he has ceased musical activities since then, returning to college. He poured his heart and soul, and much of his time and effort, into this album, losing his girlfriend and many of his friends in the process – his girlfriend actually came back to him after she heard the album, realizing to what fantastic ends his efforts had been used. While it's true that doesn't necessarily mean a good album would be created (see Bon Iver), with a man as talented as Robin Pecknold, all of the effort and love he poured into Helplessness Blues are very evident and push it into the realm of greatness, solidifying him as one of the most incredible songwriters of the past 10 years.

There's a small bit of filler, and different tiers of greatness on the album – if everything had the same level of inspiration as the title track, this would get a 15 easily – and the album does have a very atmospheric and samey quality that can cause some ending fatigue. Still, these are just reasons I'm not giving it the highest score, and I actually waver on a 13 or a 14 here. Ultimately, I'll settle on a very strong 13, only missing it due to a small bit of monotony and the fact that I really don't enjoy “An Argument.” This is a modern classic, one that takes some time to grow and appreciate, but ends up being a beautiful and emotional masterpiece. If you found the debut and the EP a little cold and detached, look here for the antidote.

Rating: 13/15

Monday, January 5, 2015

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

Best Song: Ragged Wood

Lineup Change:

Robin Pecknold – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Songwriting
Skyler Skjelset – Lead Guitar
Casey Wescott – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Craig Curran – Bass, Vocals
Nicholas Peterson – Drums, Vocals


Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut made them the indie heroes of the moment, the next Big New Thing in 2008, along with Vampire Weekend, and this was completely deserved. If you've heard Sun Giant, you more or less know what to expect here – folk-rock and pop in the style of Fairport Convention or Lindisfarne or whoever, but with more emphasis on melody and vocal harmonies. The arrangements are more intricate, I suppose, but overall this is just an extension of what you've already heard on Sun Giant.

“Sun It Rises” really lives up to its title, with its grand organ sound, epic guitar lines, and gradual buildup to a folk-rock harmony-drenched explosion that really sounds like the breaking of dawn. “Ragged Wood” is another great example of the more detailed arrangements, as it has three distinct sections, moving from a jaunty folk jig, to a harmony drenched midsection, and then the great “Tell me anything you want/Any old lie you choose” and electric guitar lines closing it off. All three segments of the song are among the best ideas on the album, and they all interact well with each other.

“Your Protector” and “He Doesn't Know Why” are more great, epic folk tunes, filled with fantastic harmonies and lovely melodies. The latter even has a short piano tune that caps it off, and while it doesn't belong at all, it's positively gorgeous and I couldn't imagine the song without it. Sometimes they'll latch onto something more repetitive and mantra-like, and while “Quiet Houses” doesn't do much for me, as it's a little bit too repetitious, the single “White Winter Hymnal” is a fun little round that I enjoy greatly.

Occasionally, they'll try their hand at something a little more intimate, little more than Robin Pecknold and his guitar. “Oliver James” is kind of underwhelming as a closer, though it's still fine enough, like “English Son” off Sun Giant, but “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” proves that he can do this kind of thing and come out with a winner. The only tracks which really let the album down at all are “Meadowlarks” and “Heard Them Stirring”, which bookmark “Your Protector.” “Meadowlarks” is another song that's mostly just Robin Pecknold and his guitar, and it seems a little underwritten. It passes through one ear and out the other. “Heard Them Stirring” is a pleasant enough instrumental and all, but instrumentals really aren't this band's strong suit.

Fleet Foxes' debut is a very fine album that's unfortunately received some backlash in response to all the hype. I've seen a lot of criticism along the lines of “Yeah, the sound is nice and genial and all, but there's no meat to it. It's all style and no substance.” I really only hear this on “Heard Them Stirring”, “Meadowlarks,” and “Quiet Houses,” which are very pretty but don't stick much to your ribs. The rest, though, is filled with lots of great melodic and arrangement ideas, beautiful vocal harmonies, and just all around solid songwriting. If that's not meat, I don't know what is.

It's not the greatest album on earth or anything. It might not even be the best album of 2008, though I'm having trouble naming a better one – maybe Third by Portishead – but I'm just really not into this whole “Other people overrated this album, therefore I should dismiss it entirely” mentality that so many people seem to have. Overall, a very solid entry into the annals of modern folk and indie music, and while it may not deserve all of the accolades it's been given, it definitely deserves most of them.

Rating: 12/15

Monday, December 29, 2014

Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant EP (2008)

Best Song: Mykonos


Robin Pecknold – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Songwriting
Skyler Skjelset – Lead Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
Casey Wescott – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Christian Wargo – Bass, Vocals
Nicholas Peterson – Drums, Vocals


Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about good modern folk.

Fleet Foxes burst onto the national music scene in 2008, after becoming much beloved critical sensations in their hometown of Seattle. Their locally produced limited run debut EP, released in 2006, is sadly out of print, but a few months before becoming indie darlings with their debut LP, they released the Sun Giant EP, so let's start there.

Sun Giant is the perfect starting point, since it showcases virtually all of their strengths. While I don't think it's totally fair to say that Robin Pecknold is Fleet Foxes, he is the sole songwriter and lead singer for all of their songs. It's essentially Fairport Convention style folk rock with gorgeous Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Acoustic guitars and harmonies typically dominate the mix, with the occasional jangly or sharp electric guitar crashing in, usually at climactic or tension building/releasing moments. The only sign that Fleet Foxes are from the 2000's are some of the guitar tones employed occasionally.

The only thing holding Sun Giant back is its short length, because the material is pretty universally fantastic. The opening mostly a capella title track immediately showcases their remarkably beautiful harmonies, and the following “Drops in the River” and “English House” are great, hooky, lush folk rock. “Mykonos” is the main reason to own this EP, as it might possibly be the best song they ever did. It's the first truly epic track in the Fleet Foxes canon, with a great verse and chorus melody building up the tension to be released in the battle charge sounded by the “Brother, you don't need to turn me away” section. The closing “Innocent Son” is probably the weakest track, as it's a bit too mellow without being as pretty as the other material, but it's still quite genial and pleasant.

All in all, this is a very promising start to Fleet Foxes' musical career, and I don't see why lovers of 60's and 70's folk rock, or classic pop/rock in general, wouldn't greatly enjoy this. If you already own and enjoy Fleet Foxes' debut and haven't bothered exploring the band past that – which is the case for many people – this is essentially more of the same. If you haven't bothered getting into them at all, there's nothing wrong with starting here.

Rating: 11/15

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bon Iver - Bon Iver (2011)

Best Song: Holocene

Credit where credit is due – the self-titled is not a retread of For Emma. Justin Vernon recruited bandmates and turned Bon Iver into an actual band. For better or worse, they predictably went in a folk-pop direction, but unpredictably decided to produce Bon Iver to sound more or less like 80's adult contemporary music. You can call it whatever you want, but it definitely qualifies as artistic...movement. I don't know if “progression” is entirely the right word.

It's also terrible. Bon Iver doesn't suck like For Emma did – it sucks in new and interesting ways. The songwriting and production decisions here mean the sound is much more varied and less monotonous than on the debut, but it also means that half the songs make me want to vomit, as they're drenched in 80's puke-synths, reverb, and frighteningly generic saxophone sections. These sections and songs are uncomfortably married with banjos, pedal steel, and slide guitar, forming a fusion created in the bowels of hell by Satan himself, who gave it to Bon Iver, because even he's not cruel enough to unleash it upon the world. I've never heard an album quite like this one, and I hope that I never do again.

It's shockingly not all bad. When they cut down on the horrible keyboards and saxes, some beauty does occasionally come through. There's even a song I like on here! “Holocene” is actually both quite beautiful and quite memorable. Of course, it goes on too long, because God forbid there be something from the mind of Justin Vernon I can enjoy without criticizing, but it's enjoyable, and that nagging acoustic guitar line and lovely “I can see for miles, miles, miles” refrain are alright in my book.

There are a few more songs that are decent, so let's talk about them as well before we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I'm actually ok with the opening “Perth” - it's not as beautiful as it thinks it is, and Justin Vernon's falsetto is still annoying, but I like the slide guitar and the martial rhythms, so while I'll never listen to it again, it can stick around. “Towers” is an altogether decent, unadorned folk-pop song that sounds like a lesser Fleet Foxes number or something, if Robin Pecknold inhaled a bunch of helium.

“Minnesota, WI” has that nice “never gonna break” refrain, and the rest doesn't offend me, although it's not very memorable. And finally, “Calgary” starts off like I'm going to hate it, with those ear-bleeding synths kicking things off, but they go away pretty quickly, and there's nice buildup of tension followed by the song circling back around to the beginning, but with guitars playing the part the keyboards played. That's quite psychologically satisfying.

The rest is some of the most offensively bad material I've ever had the displeasure of hearing. “Michicant” starts off alright, but then the generic adult-contemporary synths and the squishy drum sound kick in, and by the time the inevitable sax part comes along, I'm ready to hurl. It's like a slow build up of horror, but completely unintentional. The following “Hinnom, TX” is so drenched in reverb, I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to be listening to, but I can tell you that every solitary second of it sounds gross. “Wash” appears to be some sort of social experiment in how long the average person can listen to the same two piano notes repeated over and over again before indicting Bon Iver for breach of social contract, and “Lisbon, OH” is a 90 second synth instrumental that's just as bad as it sounds.

Ok, what in the actual fuck is “Beth/Rest”?! No, seriously, what am I hearing?? It''s like, layers of 80's puke synths that somehow sound worse than all of the others on the album. On top of all of this is Justin Vernon's voice auto-tuned (?!) to sound like a God damn robot. And, if that wasn't enough, a saxophone arrangement that would make even Kenny G vomit in disgust. And it's 5 minutes long. Am I being trolled? Is Bon Iver trolling me? Because “Beth/Rest” is so offensively horrible, it's almost funny. Almost. This is by far the worst song in my entire collection, and might very well be the worst song I've ever heard in my life. I'm not even using hyperbole here – I legitimately cannot think of a worse song, and I've heard a lot of music. Oh, and fuck you to the guy on Youtube who pointed out that “Beth/Rest” kind of sounds like the Super Mario 64 Underwater theme. Now I can basically never play one of my favorite games ever again.

...Ok, that time I was using hyperbole.

Honestly, “Beth/Rest” leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, I'm tempted to give Bon Iver the worst possible grade just on principle, but that wouldn't really be fair. I guess. So “Holocene” is a pretty good song, and a couple of the others are kinda halfway decent, but the album on the whole is just such a bad combination of ideas, it ends up being incredibly disgusting, and I feel like I need a shower just from hearing it. I used to like it better than For Emma for the good material at the beginning, but I don't know anymore. It's an album that's only gotten worse every time I've listened to it. The “pretty good”ness of “Holocene” and the inoffensiveness of some other tracks is nowhere near enough to counterbalance the bad material, including the worst damn song ever written. I don't know what to do with this, so I'll just go with my gut. Get “Holocene” if you want to hear the only good Bon Iver song. You know what to do with the rest.

Rating: 5/15