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Blast From the Past

Paul McCartney "Wild Life"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

Paul McCartney’s Wild Life is, to many, considered an iconic failure. By the standards of the day, it was. McCartney had just completed his run as front man for the biggest rock band in the world, and there he was with a seemingly half-baked record that did not have any clear singles. Famously, he threw the record out of his window in frustration at the launch party. Critics and fans alike symbolically did the same. It would be decades before this album even saw widespread release. In 1992, as McCartney’s entire collection made its way onto CD, so did Wild Life. It is now available on streaming services and elsewhere, but it is still commonly overlooked by Sir Paul’s more critically acclaimed records like Ram, Tug of War, and McCartney II.

It may bear the most similarity to McCartney, the record that came a year before. This too was a heavily stripped down, roots oriented record that confused critics and fans. However, it yielded “Maybe I’m Amazed”, one of Paul’s most beloved tunes. It sits in between instrumental riffs and songs like “Teddy Boy”.

After the Beatles ceased to exist, its four musical innovators were burned out and frustrated, because they felt as though they had been creatively stifled. Each came out with a record that was unapologetically their own, and made a point of doing things that they were not allowed to during their time in the supergroup. (Note John Lennon screaming ‘cookie!’ in the middle of “Hold On”)

Paul revered country-centric music that he grew up with, and many of his most noted tunes featured these themes during his run with the Beatles. However, John Lennon had little interest in these songs, and openly mocked them.

He was also anxious to make this new music as quickly as possible, perhaps with the intention of putting it out before Lennon was able to put out his own record. This led him to produce Wild Life himself under a pseudonym, resulting in the strange warped vocals that are synonymous with the album.

None of this was totally intentional, but the homegrown sound of the record was extremely innovative, and in my mind, this record has a lot of merit.

For one thing, it features some of McCartney’s best chops on the bass, and many great melodic ideas that stand apart from his later solo work. The use of the organ gives the record a totally new sound.

“I Am Your Singer” is as terrifying as it is beautiful. The warped vocals make you feel as though your computer is a broken record player, and the stoned-out lead guitar makes “Crimson and Clover” sound conventional.

You might not love this album, especially if you love other McCartney work. However, any serious Beatles fan or McCartney diehard ought to hear this, if only as a strange and fascinating piece of Fab Four history.

Standout Tracks:

“Bip Bop”

“Love is Strange”

“Wild Life”

“I Am Your Singer”




Frank Zappa "We're Only in It for the Money"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

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A lot can be said about Frank Zappa’s 1968 satire, “We're Only in It for the Money”. For starters, if you look closely, Jimi Hendrix is on the cover, and he was actually there, because he was friends with Zappa. Vocals from Eric Clapton are featured in one of the album’s skits. Villains, killers, and LBJ are hidden in the crowd. To top it off, there is thunder in the sky, mocking the joy and perfection of Sgt. Peppers and his Lonely Hearts Club Band.

While that Beatles album is widely considered perfect, there is nothing perfect about this album. It is a perfect disaster, but in the best way possible. In fine Zappa form, it carelessly wanders from one idea to the next, painting a large picture of dissatisfaction and resentment of the increasingly fraudulent free love culture that took over the nation. Zappa did not do drugs, identified as a staunch Libertarian, and deeply resented what he saw as high-flying ideals of the left. This may shock many, who also remember him for naming his daughter ‘Moon Beam’.

As a studio artist in San Francisco in 1968, he demanded total perfection from studio players, who were often ill-prepared for his totalitarian studio tendencies. There are a few noted instances where he demanded that his musicians play in time signatures that were either baffling or outright impossible.

Zappa saw his operation as a fine tuned machine, and felt that his players were paid handsomely. They could either tolerate his high demands, or find other work.

All of this was totally foreign to a culture of free loving, acid-tripping, commune living, long haired dudes who were perhaps more accustomed to the jug band fun of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Zappa felt that youth culture was being commodified and sold, and he thought that The Beatles were a symbol of this excess.

When the album was finally coming to fruition, as the story goes, he called Paul McCartney to explain the project and ask permission to use the satirical cover. McCartney told him that this was an issue to take up with the label, who staunchly objected to Zappa’s album art. This delayed the release of the album for five months.

In between bewildering vocal breaks lie heavily rhythmic, totally ruthless, and incredibly angry songs like “Harry, You’re a Beast”, which lay hippie culture to waste for its excesses and flaws.

“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body” is a mockery of the Sgt. Pepper’s medley that instead tells hippies that their children are ‘poor unfortunate victims of lies [they] believe.’

“Flower Punk” tells the story of a middle-aged man who tunes in and drops out, ‘playing his bongos in the sand.’

We often are saturated with images of free loving spirits in light clothing, hand in hand preaching love against war. We remember Woodstock, as John Sebastian, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix played songs that were heard around the world. We’re Only In it for the Money is essential, because it paints a more complete picture of a country where conservatives would soon retake the White House, where counter protesters with clubs shocked peace marches, and, to be frank, where hippie culture was to many nothing more than a fashion trend.

This unapologetic concept album laid the groundwork for Zappa to pursue his career of cynical rejectionism.

Yet, despite the anger that drives the album, it is funny, smart, enjoyable, and, when it chooses to be, easy to approach.

Zappa fans often muse about the albums you give a non-believer to get them hooked. This is an album that I often preach when asked.


Standout Tracks:

“Absolutely Free”

“Who Needs the Peace Corps”

“Harry, You’re a Beast”

“Flower Punk”

“Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”




Chicano Batman "Cycles of Existential Rhyme"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

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Chicano Batman’s Cycles of Existential Rhyme, to me, represents one of those rare moments when everything goes completely as planned. There is so much that can be said about this album, which, I will make no attempt to hide, is one of my all time favorites. The cover is a clear homage to the Door’s Waiting for the Sun, and the band’s influence is clear through whirling organs on the title track. Ironically, this was one of the Doors albums that did not prominently feature the instrument, but there are other clear influences. Dreamy, romantic, and ultra-poetic lyricism dominates Chicano Batman’s album.

What makes it so fun is that half of the tracks are in Spanish, and half are in English. The group flows effortlessly between these two languages in an enviable way, creating profound poetry back and forth.

The album has highs and lows, but in a way it functions like one great big jam, with each track flowing into the next with a sort of reserved logic.

Influences are everywhere: in interviews, the band has cited everyone from Frank Zappa to Metallica to Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and these sporadic ideas are expressed throughout the recording.

I won’t make any secret of it: these guys are my heroes. I can only name a few modern artists who make me this excited. Their most recent album, Freedom is Free, is excellent and represents clear growth for the group, but this 2014 album will always amaze me for its innovative blend of sounds.

It moves anywhere from the brassy funking fun of “El Frio II” to the majorly mellow, aptly titled, “Stoned Soul Picnic”. There are some tracks, like “She Lives On My Block” that I can listen to anytime, but there is no bad place to start on this album.

Bardo Martinez has a voice like a classic crooner, and it can rarely hide his infectious optimism. Eduardo Arenas’s bass lines are incredibly distinct, and they create a full sound for the recordings.

Each spicy, bouncing track on this album is more infectious than the next. How much fun can four guys with a bunch of instruments possibly have?

The group did a Tiny Desk concert, which gives a great insight into their sound, you can find the video below.

Everyone has their guilty pleasure. Some people love sweets, or fast food once a week, or things far worse. Mine is Chicano Batman.

Standout Tracks:

“Cycles of Existential Rhyme”

“She Lives on My Block”

“El Jalapeno”

“Bilbao”

“Amor Verde”

Yussef Kamaal "Black Focus"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

I often like to focus on music from long ago in this column, however, Yuseef Kamaal’s Black Focus from 2016 is so exceptional that I feel as though it deserves recognition. The album is not only unlike anything that I have heard in recent years, but it is also truly unlike almost anything from the era that it most accurately pays homage to.

In the early 1970’s, talented bebop and blue Jazz players such as Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Albert Ayler, and Miles Davis shifted away from the tightly constructed sounds that they had created for so long and began thinking more freely. Journey in Satchidananda, Thembi, Bitches Brew, and Music is the Healing Force of the World, these are all albums that are loosely bound into the strange category known as Free Jazz.

Enter the British concept called Yuseef Kamaal, who, nearly 50 years later, begin creating music that has profound similarities to the great creative experiments that came so long ago.

Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi (1971) is perhaps the closest direct comparison, but this is not a throwback album. I believe that it is very much a product of its time.

It relies on modern electronic technologies to create many of its strangest sounds, and while I am no audiophile, the recording is distinctly modern.

However, all of these thoughts are unrelated to the sound itself.

The album opens with “Black Focus,” a deep groove that functions like a battle between kicking drums, a mean bass line, and a highly capable trumpet player. Beautiful electronic key patterns provide calm in the midst of the storm.

Next, “Strings of Light” spotlights wicked basslines and punishing drum licks, showing the group’s ability to do a lot with a little.

“Remembrance” furthers this notion, and it is perhaps the most minimal track on the album.

Even during the most relaxed and introspective moments on the recording, Yuseef Kamal is able to create a diverse range of thoughts and ideas that project masterfully.

A track like “Lowrider” feels like something made for the Bay City Rollers while still displaying the group’s knack for grooving.

On the right day, at the right time, this album is fantastic to listen to, from front to back. I highly recommend it.

 

Standout Tracks:

“Strings of Light”

“Remembrance”

“Lowrider”

“Joint 17”

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Cortex "Troupeau Bleu"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

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Cortex was everything jazz-funk fusion could have ever hoped to be. Their music was tightly arranged, with imaginative improvisations and not a note out of place. It was uplifting, with dance-worthy tunes, but it was also highly experimental and at times pensive and otherworldly.

Troupeau Bleu (1975) was the first album created by the trio under this name. It was recorded in two days. The album begins with “La Rue”, meaning ‘the street’, a song that symbolizes the incredible uniqueness of the album as a whole. The way I see it, a trio of sounds gives the album it’s extra-terrestrial quality. Bumping, ever changing bass lines, sputtering drum patterns, and a female lead singer whose operatic falsettos carry these heavy street-beats into the sky.

Of course, this is an unfair assessment in light of the man who virtually conceived the whole thing. Alain Mion was a renowned French pianist whose virtuosic solos challenged any of the great players of the day. He is still active, and even continues to play many of the arrangements that he wrote for Cortex. He took the young Moog synthesizer places it had seldom been before.

Yet, even for a talented player with a plethora of other notable studio albums (Pheno Men, Cortex, Vol. 2, Pourquoi) Troupeau Bleu represents an extreme high, a point of total euphoria. Few other fusion albums create such a distinctive sound and ride it in so many different directions.

The album dances between pensive piano compositions that are reminiscent of David Axelrod and tight funk arrangements that almost evoke “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”.

Perhaps the tallest order on the album is the spaced-out “Huit Octobre 1971”. Here, the vocalist rides various tides in an arrangement that could be mistaken for a true opera if it wasn’t for the heavy basslines and funky drum breaks that sat beneath those stunning jumps. The track is complete with movements, where tempo and structure change completely without warning. A willing listener will be rewarded for sticking this track out.

One notable willing listener was Daniel Dumile, MF DOOM, who sampled this track on “One Beer”.

I found this album during my senior year of high school on Mr. Bongo’s website. I was blown away, because my knowledge of music was so limited in those days, and I didn’t know that non-U.S. releases could achieve this depth. Frankly, I didn’t know how little I knew.

This album inspired me to dig deeper. It motivated me to scroll through Mr. Bongo, YouTube, and Spotify for hours and hours, looking for new albums and artists to paralyze me the way that this album did.

Two years and hundreds of songs later, I still am awestruck each time I put this album on and dive back into the unconventional, deep groove experiments on this 1975 masterpiece.

  Alain Mion, circa 1978.

Alain Mion, circa 1978.

Standout tracks:

“La Rue”

“Prélude à Go Round”

“Huit octobre 1971”

“Sabbat 1-3”

John Coltrane "Interstellar Space"

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

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John Coltrane is known as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He played longer solos than Miles Davis on Kind of Blue, created A Love Supreme, and constantly pushed jazz in an increasingly experimental direction during his short and prolific life. His life ended unexpectedly in 1967, and he would not live to see the impact of his experiments.

His last year of life was spent touring and cutting records in the studio. It was during this time that he created Interstellar Space, an album which would not be released until 1974.

By the time the album was printed, the landscape of jazz had changed dramatically, and ironically, this record, which was so profoundly cutting-edge, seemed to fit well with some of the sounds of the day such as Corea’s Circle and McCoy Tyner’s Extensions. It stood almost completely alone at the time it was recorded, and the release date somewhat obscures this fact.

By the end, Coltrane was so free that he had lost many allies. His original drummer left, calling John’s new sound ‘noise’, and his ingenious wife Alice played keys. A Newport performance in 1966 shocked jazz audiences, and this was only a small preview of what was to come. By 1967, the only musicians still playing with Coltrane had an undying vision for his genius.

No musical terminology can express the sounds on Interstellar Space. They are simultaneously unorganized and completely logical; foreign to the ear yet totally energizing.

This album was my first step off the diving board. I thought I had listened to free Jazz before I heard this album, but I was paralyzed by what I was hearing. I remember turning the lights off in my dorm room and turning the volume as loud as it would go on my speakers. The music was energy in its purest form.

It is worth noting that Rasheid Ali’s shocking spasmodic drumming is both as free and as innovative as Coltrane’s solos. Without Ali’s vision, this album would not have been possible and it certainly would not reached the incredible level of terror that it does. He was virtually the only man up for the task of matching Coltrane’s imagination and energy.

Each composition begins with a small pattern of bells and shakers, and then Coltrane ‘enters his spaceship’, as many have said, moving in any which direction he pleases.

I listen to this album and think of Charlie Parker, whose free flowing improvisations captured a young John Coltrane and helped him create his own vision.

To me this album is another stop on Parker’s train.
These were two men with troubled lives and short careers who challenged the character of the genre they helped define.

What is so profound about Coltrane is how much control he had over his instrument. When you listen to second takes of compositions that sound completely improvised, you hear him deviate slightly but maintain the nuances of his darting and chaotic solos.

This was the work of a genius who had transcended the Cool Blue that he helped define, and even the free-flowing nature of his magnum opus, A Love Supreme.

I listen to this album and wonder what would have been next for John Coltrane. How much freer could he possibly have gone? Would he have returned to a more structured sound?

The only way for us to speculate is to look at the things created by those in his orbit.

Pharoah Sanders, his prodige, turned to instruments from around the world and created albums like Karma and Thembi. Journey In Satchidananda, an album credited to Alice Coltrane but featuring Sanders, seems like a logical progression from the unforgiving sounds of Interstellar Space, if that is even possible.

But any guessing is only speculation. John Coltrane dictated both where he went and where jazz went with each step further from convention. Interstellar Space offers a clue as to where the legend may have gone, but nothing more.

It was a final Giant Step taken by a jazz titan.

Standout Tracks:

“Mars”

“Jupiter”

“Leo”

Kenneth Anger and Nostalgia

Hannah Morrison

By Jacob Newman

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Very few would commonly connect Gay pride, 50’s nostalgia, avant-garde film, and motorcycle culture. Kenneth Anger did so regularly, through a variety of strange and beautiful films. Today I will be celebrating the masterpiece that is Scorpio Rising (1963)

Ignoring any technical cinematic innovations, this film was noted for something which would become standard in film but at the time was not well understood: a 1950’s revival soundtrack. Anger’s film features songs that you have certainly heard many times, but you have not heard them used in this way, and you have never considered the great darkness that they hid in their pleas and snarls.

The movie was made in the early 60’s and thus, the era that Anger was celebrating was hardly gone by the time he was active.

However, he was doing something significant: celebrating a culture that was clearly gone by the time he was active, even in a matter of years.

The 1950’s were high wired, plagued by the end of one war and the beginning of a new and confusing one. The popular music of this period was happy but often laced with double meanings and deeper emotions than the artists were allowed to convey in a strictly conservative society.

As musicians began openly experimenting in the 1960’s, Anger made the intriguing choice to rely on music that had fallen out of fashion. Why?

Anger was well connected. He was so revered by the counterculture that he rejected a soundtrack made by Led Zeppelin for his film Lucifer Rising. Mick Jagger created an electronic soundtrack for one of his films, and in a strange twist, a convicted member of the Manson Family scored an Anger film. He was a regular Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, where Marilyn Manson was an honorary priest.

But none of those new rebels could convey the longing that artists like The Angels and Claudine Clark did in the retro music that Mr. Anger decided to use in his film.

A repressive society and a highly censored music industry created a unique challenge for popular artists in the 1950’s. They had to express their desires and intentions in discreet ways through acceptable language. This meant that the Ronettes used heavy eye shadow to creatively imply their rebellious intentions, and others had to sing with heightened passion to show that there was meaning beyond their happy-go-lucky lyrics.

Lucifer Rising has a unique challenge: it intends to mock a highly repressive society by portraying a group of menaces who make no attempt to conform to high cultural demands while utilizing slap happy 50’s pop music to show that stranger things lurked below the surface of those seemingly innocent recordings.

“My Boyfriend’s Back” seems sinister as the trio claps to the beat when juxtaposed with images of the rough-and tough biker gang in the film. If David Lynch didn’t make “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton terrifying enough for you in his film of the same name, try hearing it while watching a man clean a motorcycle with the angel of death hovering above him. Kris Jensen’s “Torture” has an eerie quality on it’s own, but as Anger’s unapologetic gang rides in the short film, a tune that already may have left you wondering about it’s real meaning is even more bewildering.

The strongest connection that Mr. Anger creates is with Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights”. As he plays this song, the Gay biker gang enters a barn for a party, and Anger superimposes images of Jesus Christ and his disciples entering a different barn for a meeting of their own, suggesting that the two aren’t so far off.

This image was offensive to many in the era, and I would imagine that this has not changed. The film was so offensive, in fact, that police ripped the film from projectors in the Bay Area when it was first screened, and it became one of the avant-garde films in the 60’s which would define obscenity and free artists down the road to exercise their imagination as they pleased.

In a sense the film achieved the stated goal of the avant-garde, which loosely translates to ‘front battleline’. The film pushed the guard forward, freeing artistic soldiers to follow with pride.

It’s depiction of gay men as proud and heroic was almost unprecedented, and at a time when Hell’s Angels were terrifying the West Coast, a biker gang was not exactly sympathetic.

In this way it was an important film, but I believe that it’s soundtrack was a large part of it’s legacy.

After this film, American Graffiti, The Big Chill, Forrest Gump, and many films in between would utilize the complex and seemingly joyous sounds of Wall of Sound pop to create a sense of joy and serenity.

But few others saw so much sorrow and strangeness in songs that represented pure bliss to most untrained ears.

Standout Tracks:

“My Boyfriend’s Back”

“Party Lights”

“Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)”

“Point of No Return”