Monday, April 24, 2017

Matt's Favorite Summer Albums: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold as Love (1967)

In artistic depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, their power is often conveyed through multiplication of arms, legs, and heads.  Jimi Hendrix's choice of this style for the cover art of Axis: Bold as Love made his sophomore record a bold statement before it even hit the turntable.  Nestled squarely between the noisy blues assault of Are You Experienced and the distant psychedelic horizons of Electric Ladyland, Axis: Bold as Love saw Hendrix assert himself as the world's all-powerful leader into uncharted musical territory.  Hendrix was so far ahead of the game that his legend only continues to grow with time.  During his run in the mid-60s he couldn't have been seen as anything less than an otherworldly force, seemingly boundless in capability.  We’re going back almost 50 years for this one, but it’s an album that still sounds about 50,000 years ahead of its time.

Jimi’s R&B influences are most apparent here, with songs such as Up From the Skies, You Got Me Floatin’, and Little Miss Lover featuring delicate play of dynamics at work with fun, bouncy rhythms and swaggering vocals beneath the roaring feedback and in-your-face live production. This juxtaposition is especially potent on Wait Until Tomorrow: possibly the most perfect pop song Hendrix ever wrote without sacrificing any of his freewheeling nature.

The main event though is of course the guitar work, with Hendrix laying down some of his most aggressive studio playing. Spanish Castle Magic is a bolt of unbridled electric energy, and If 6 Was 9 smolders and snarls like a cornered dog. Meanwhile Little Wing reigns immortal with his most emotive and dynamic soloing (recorded using a spinning "leslie" speaker cabinet), and Castles Made of Sand uses a blues structure to anchor groundbreaking exploration in backwards tape echo and looping effects. It all comes to an explosive breaking point during the passionate title track. Bold as Love is a workout of muscular guitar and chest-thumping chorus, coming to a brief false-ending. At that point, with a phased out drum fill, Bold as Love transcends time and space via incendiary lead guitar melodies that give way to a soaring sea of effects and distortion, ending the album as a crashing wave.

It is becoming increasingly true that no matter what happens in the music world, Jimi Hendrix will always sound fresh and new. It is what made him so groundbreaking at the time, and the reason why his music still resonates today. His crest-of-the-wave sound and approach seems like it hit a natural stride with this album, giving it a sense of excitement and fun throughout- perfect for summer.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Matts Favorite Summer Albums: Tame Impala - Currents (2015)

[Just about five years ago I posted My Top Ten Summer Albums. Those albums still remain in constant rotation during the warm months, but I have been looking forward to doing a followup article for some time. A handful of albums have since jumped out at me enough to write about, so I've decided it's time for part two. There are less entries in this batch, and the writeups turned out to be longer, so it seemed appropriate to roll them out one at a time. Anyway, off we go...]

For his followup to 2012’s guitar-heavy masterpiece Lonerism, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker resolved to incorporate more R&B influences into his brand of psychedelia in pursuit of a more danceable, pop-oriented sound.  Along the way he transcended the thematic loneliness and isolation of Lonerism and its predecessor Innerspeaker to settle into a groove within the greater flow of life.  I’m not well-versed enough on Parker’s personal life to call Currents a breakup album, but in a sense it certainly plays like one. Rather than dwelling on loss, it focuses on the reclamation of oneself.   Parker steps back from the puzzle and gains a view of the picture it is forming.  Under the taking of such a perfectionist and music obsessive this all leads to a nearly perfect, universally enjoyable, defining work.

As they’ve always done, Tame Impala evokes the spirit of 1960's psychedelic rock in such an authentic and confident manner that it never sounds nostalgic or derivative.  Currents ramps up the modernism, giving the overall sound the timeless nature of a dream.  Basslines thump and throb, guitars mesh with synthesizers to alternate between soaring leads and gritty low grooves, and processed vocals become an ethereal instrument of their own. 

Parker works all of this push-and-pull into his unique mold of impeccable songcraft.  In his trademarked falsetto croon he ruminates on personal change and transcendence.  Album opener Let it Happen immediately evokes the background of the album’s cover, a network of pathways representing the world’s infinite perpetuation and the constant sensory barrage of life ("it's always around me, all this noise...").  We all have the tendency to tune it out, either for the purpose of fighting against it in pursuit of one's one end, or for letting it carry us away in apathy.  As it turns out, life lies within that flow, and the only solution is to jump in.  Upon doing so one comes the realization that they were "ready all along".  Yes I’m Changing emphasizes the other half of the cover art: the splashes of color and rippling aftereffects created by each individual’s actions and perspective.  By accepting that "life is moving" he is able to stop hiding and manifest "another version of (him)self".  With these two songs, and throughout the album as a whole, Parker presents the universe as an unstoppable force while recognizing that same power in himself. By virtue of simply living as part of the universe, he holds all of its power, able through his decisions and actions to alter its very fabric beyond any possible comprehension – simultaneously likewise for every individual in any given moment: "There's a world out there and it's calling my name/and it's calling your's too".  On Eventually, Parker seems to reach a sublime contentment in this realization of infinite eternity, even in the face of the toughest decisions. 

Currents is primarily an album about coming into one’s own via surrender to the bigger picture and the present moment.  True to this theme, Parker’s vocals surface opportunistically, before giving way to infectious beats and overwhelming waves of sound.  The start/stop rhythms are reminiscent of both vintage R&B and modern electronic/dance music, around which otherworldly guitars swirl with the freedom of not having to carry the track.  Parker has an uncanny knack for managing noise and the space between.  On Currents they are two sides of the same coin, rising to perfect crescendos at the most organic moments. 

Currents greatest strength is the timeless ease of its experience.  Through its free-flowing melodicism it becomes a soundtrack to the world unfolding around oneself.  Every part is integral, giving the overall product a profound sense of oneness. All of life is right here, and there is nothing to do but live it.   In that, Currents becomes an encapsulation of summer itself.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mindfulness Themes in Brian Fallon's "Painkillers"

     This album came out during a pretty weird time in my life, and I ruined it for myself a bit by listening to it constantly for several weeks... I didn’t know it then, but I think part of the reason it had such an impact on me was because it introduced many ideas I would learn about later through mindfulness.
     For Brian Fallon, Painkillers came on the heels of not only the breakup of his band The Gaslight Anthem, but also the divorce of his wife of ten years. Given this context, Fallon sounds remarkably content and at-peace on the record. I think he accomplishes this by maintaining a perspective just outside himself for much of the album. He sings past-tense love songs of loss, regret, and mistakes like he’s flipping through old photo albums. On Nobody Wins he likens a past relationship to a “past life”. While allowing nostalgia to surface, Fallon remains keenly aware that it is a feeling for his recollection of the time. It exists entirely as a jumble of memories, an experience entirely of his own mind’s creation. And just like that, he lets it go ("If I never see you again/You can blame it on the wind"). Throughout the album he makes no judgement of himself or his circumstances, only an acceptance of the perpetual ebb and flow of life. On earlier Gaslight records he may have clung desperately to burning bridges or let himself bleed out in grief. Instead he sits back, aware of his scars but forgetting about them under the warmth of the present moment.
     Conveyed lyrically, this all carries the risk of coming off as amateurish zen-posturing. Thankfully, in the hands of a singer-songwriter as relatable and genuine as Brian Fallon it never feels less than authentic. This is an album about learning to smile at the world in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty. That’s all mindfulness really is in the first place.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Matt's Favorite Summer Albums: The Gaslight Anthem - Sink or Swim (2007)

Just about five years ago I posted My Top Ten Summer Albums.  Those albums still remain in constant rotation during the warm months, but I have been looking forward to doing a followup article for some time.  A handful of albums have since jumped out at me enough to write about, so I've decided it's time for part two.  There are less entries in this batch, and the writeups turned out to be longer, so it seemed appropriate to roll them out one at a time.  Anyway, off we go...]

Alright, yeah, I could find a way to work any Gaslight album into any list.  They resonate with me in a way that no other band probably ever will.  Their intense debut LP is flawed in all the right ways, and its go-for-broke attitude makes for a fitting soundtrack to the finite window of infinite possibility that is proverbially summer.

The songwriting that would go on to define Gaslight Anthem is in its rawest form on Sink or Swim, but the unbridled urgency and desperation with which they storm out of the gates shines as the band’s backbone.  From the moment Boomboxes and Dictionaries kicks in, the album rages like a nautical storm that never lets up.  I Coul’da Been a Contender makes no secret early on what you’re in for- “There’s a dirty wind blowing in…/it’s heads or tails and heart attacks and broken dreams tonight”.  This is a storm of nostalgia and regret and desire and discontent and Brian Fallon charges headlong into it because he knows it’s all that he’s got. 

Along the way muscular guitar rhythms are juxtaposed with open-wound vulnerability.  Through brutal honesty and Springsteenian imagery, Fallon places himself as well as the listener in the underdog role of a fleeting moment where everything is magnified.  He has an insatiable lust for life, desirous of everything at the same time.  This makes his writing and persona refreshing and vital, but is a mindset which breeds suffering.  He channels haunting memories and indecision into visceral outbursts before leaving himself to bleed out in the album’s more plaintive moments (The Navesink Banks).  Fallon finds cathartic solace in late-album standout I’da Called You Woody, Joe.  Effectively a love song to punk rock, “I’da Called…” recounts Brian’s experience of first listening to The Clash.  It perfectly depicts the life-affirming magic brought by connecting with the perfect music when you need it most.  It is here that the clouds begin to part.  The scathing We’re Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner plays like a breaking point, with Brian ultimately cutting his losses.  As the ending gang-vocals ring out, they sound like a declaration of temporary victory in an unseen, internal war (“It’s alright man, I’m only bleeding man/stay hungry, stay free, and do the best you can”).  The harmonica and acoustic guitar that usher in closing track Red at Night provide a jarring change of pace, and signify that the storm, for now, is over.   The lyrics gradually morph from “Ain’t nobody got the blues like me” into “Ain’t nobody got a blessing like mine”, as Fallon seems to find the willingness to accept the bad with the good (“Seems a blessing’s so hard to see sometimes/Got a little clearer ‘bout dusk that night”).  As the old saying goes: “red sky at night, sailor’s delight”.  It closes the album on an optimistic note, the type of anti-closure with which the best summers always seem to end. 

This is not the confident, polished band that would release The ’59 Sound a year later and serve at the forefront of modern punk for the next several years.  This is the sound of a young band laying everything out, right here and right now.  Sink or Swim is what it sounds like making the leap to go after what you want because you’ve got nothing to lose.  There is naivety in idealism and the album sometimes seems to get caught in its own wake, but in its vulnerability there is authenticity.  This is the sound of a heart on the sleeve of a fist in the air.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Out of The Ditch: The Mindful Perspective of Neil Young's Zuma

[This piece is part of an ongoing series about mindfulness in music.  I initially intended for this to be a ten-album list, but quickly found the subject to be too broad while simultaneously too restrictive.  Mindfulness is an intrinsic aspect of consciousness, and while indirect references to it are everywhere, it rarely serves as a primary topic.  Furthermore, the experience of music is a mindful activity in and of itself...leading to the infamous meditator's paradox of "thinking about thinking".  In the spirit of circumventing that rabbit hole,   I chose to focus on one album at a time, and more closely examine any mindful aspects therein.  Since I've come to mindfully accept that I cannot write anything without it eventually being about Neil Young, I figured that would be a good place to start.]

1972’s Harvest put Neil Young at the top of the world.  The chart-topping record, particularly lead single Heart of Gold, made a mellow, lovelorn incarnation of Neil into a ubiquitous cultural figure.  Its astronomical success and the drug-related deaths of bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry shortly thereafter provoked Neil into making a now-characteristic musical 180.  In his own words, Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road.  Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch”.  His ensuing albums served as a boozy, drawn-out exorcism of grief and guilt.  Young formed a temporary backing band dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers, and messily confronted his demons on tape.  Perpetually drunk, he became increasingly reclusive and volatile during the recording of Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.  The albums consist almost entirely of first-take recordings, done using a mobile studio situated outside the drunken benders that were the band’s recording sessions.  We’re not going to polish this up” he told guitarist Nils Lofgren, “we’re going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go.  I want people to see it how it is”.  Meanwhile on a disastrous arena tour, audiences expecting the country-folk acoustic troubadour of Harvest were instead thrown into a scattershot electric assault.  The experience is captured in the live album Time Fades Away.  By all accounts, Young spent this tumultuous period seemingly hell-bent on sinking himself as far down as he could go.  Although the resulting output was critically panned at the time, it is now widely appreciated for its recklessness and earnest darkness.  In tune with his own assessment, the three albums have become affectionately known as “The Ditch Trilogy”.  Having endured three years in his own personal hell, by 1975 Neil would reform Crazy Horse with new guitarist Frank Sampedro and emerge from the ditch with Zuma.

Zuma is named after a famous beach in Malibu, where Neil resided during the album’s development.  The sunny surroundings, reincarnation of Crazy Horse, and the presence of free-spirited and enthusiastic Sampedro (nicknamed “Poncho”) gave the album an aura of brightness and rejuvenation.  “Somehow I feel like I’ve surfaced out of some kind of murk”, Neil told Cameron Crowe in a 1975 interview.  This sense of clarity and acceptance features prominently throughout the record.  Even on the imagery-drenched guitar meanderings of Danger Bird and Cortez the Killer, Neil displays a renewed level of focus and momentum.  Like the surfers at Zuma Beach, Young catches the wave of Crazy Horse’s freewheeling garage-rock style.  This concentrated momentum makes for an album that is planted firmly in the here and now, infinitely receptive to the moment.

On the breezy, country-tinged Lookin’ for a Love, Neil envisions himself on a beach that he “walks along sometimes”.  It is there that he meets his hypothetical love, and “never stops to think of any other time”.  The song subverts the expected themes of longing and desire by emphasizing the potential for love, rather than any presence or absence of it.  Instead of dwelling on the imaginary relationship, Neil’s lyrics focus on “the sun hitting the water and the mountains meeting the sand”, and remembering to “live and make the best of what he sees”.  As much as he looks forward to meeting this girl, he doesn’t care how long it takes, and acknowledges that “she’ll be nothing like he pictures her to be”.  It is a feeling of content anticipation, left to be exactly as it is – uninvaded by thought or judgment. 

This mindful stance is also taken regarding the past in Don’t Cry No Tears.  When faced with the thought of old love now unrequited, Neil opts out of jealousy by accepting that it has nothing to do with him anymore, deciding to leave it as is.  True love ain’t too hard to see,” he says, leaving no reason to dwell on it.  As Zuma’s opening track, it may as well represent a personal awakening from the preceding period of darkness.    

This isn’t to say Neil’s got it all figured out.  Pardon My Heart illustrates the futility of a coasting relationship (where one isn’t giving/and one pretends to receive).  In its own way, Stupid Girl laments an inability to absolve the suffering of others.  Neil seems reluctant in pegging the titular character as stupid as she misses opportunities for self-actualization because she can’t “forget about remembering”.  Meanwhile Barstool Blues seems to be a cryptic take on the confusing struggle with thought and consciousness.  Right in the middle of an album where Neil seems to have found contentment, he can’t help but look over his shoulder and wonder if it’s real. 

This confusion and uncertainty comes up directly but briefly in closing track Through My Sails.  No solution or explanation is offered by the sparse lyrics.  Instead the ideas are carried off onto the breeze by easy harmonies and buoyant acoustics.  Love had been an understated recurring theme throughout the album, yet its final mention is simply that “love takes care”.  In that is found serenity, and there doesn’t need to be anything more.

With the dissipation of the post-Harvest darkness, Zuma carries a profound sense of leaning back into the world.  There is still some unease, but it no longer carries any weight.  The positive outlook of taking the present moment at face value overshadows any doubt and discontent.  Zuma is about accepting the wreckage of a dark period, and the decision to move forward from it. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Throwback Album of the Week: Black Sabbath - Sabotage

Although it was not their last album with Ozzy, Sabotage very much plays as the breaking point for original-lineup Sabbath.  Already the heaviest band on earth, struggles with drug addiction and legal issues with their record label created the perfect storm for their fifth album to reach unheard of levels of volatility, heaviness, and experimentation.  On Sabotage, overblown grandiosity coexists with outright aggression, and unpredictability reigns supreme.  I was about 14 when a borrowed copy from my dad’s vinyl collection became the first rock music to legitimately scare me.  I haven’t been able to get enough ever since. 

Lead song Hole in the Sky is one of the band’s most immediate rockers, and the churning, perpetual rhythm of Symptom of the Universe laid the foundation for the upcoming "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" and is often credited with initiating the thrash metal aesthetic.  These guys had always been scary, but it’s clear from the beginning of Sabotage that now they’re pissed off.  While their earlier material preferred to lurch about in dark atmospherics, Sabotage’s opening tracks are straight downhill; less menacing than they are pummeling and overbearing.  It starts getting weird with the aptly-named side-one closer Megalomania.  The track grinds its way into larger-than-life territory via Ozzy’s coked-out obsession with tracking his vocals several times over and drummer Bill Ward’s similar deal with “backwards cymbal” and other effects.  The band had never sounded more unhinged, yet it all seems to fit.  Megalomania does not surpass a snail’s pace until nearly four minutes in, instead alternating between sullen laments and depraved cries of agony- all seeming to come from unfathomable depths of murk.  By the time the song kicks into gear halfway through, you know you’re at the mercy of a madman.  The band clearly hits a stride though, delivering their familiar aesthetic with bursting immediacy and edge.

Side two opens with The Thrill of it All, which begins as a solid riff-based track but very quickly grows out of itself to the point of pomposity.  The song is okay, it just becomes too bouncy and light for the albums context, sounding much more like what Ozzy would go on to do with his solo career (a trap also succumbed to by later song Am I Going Insane).  However, it gives way to the gloriously devilish Supertzar; a grinding instrumental that immediately restores all of the evilness that Sabbath had built their legacy upon.  Tony Iommi unleashes one of his darkest guitar riffs, only to be dramatically harmonized by a catholic-esque choir.  On a promising album that threatened to blow itself out of proportion, Supertzar is brilliantly placed, taking the top off while simultaneously bringing the band back to its roots in a big way. 

The albums final epic The Writ opens with a droning bassline before giving way to a jarringly hostile verse section; which lyrically seems to depict the wrongdoing of the band’s record label at the time.  Whatever the case, The Writ ends Sabotage in remarkably fitting fashion.  The track plays as much too overblown for the band’s own good, while also devastatingly suffocating in its heaviness.  It should also be noted that during the song’s midsection I used to be absolutely sure that Ozzy was chanting “Matt…” which increased its impact tenfold...  I still choose to believe, though it apparently is “rat”

Due to circumstances in and out of their responsibility, Black Sabbath was clearly a band spiraling out of control in the mid-70s.  This clearly had an effect on the making of Sabotage.  Although the album certainly has its missteps, overall it uses the surrounding tension to forge a new approach which at several points thrusts the band to the pinnacle of their powers.  By virtue of their own personal undoings as well as unfortunate legal struggles, Black Sabbath solidified their status as heavy metal pioneers with 1975's Sabotage, laying the aggressive and suffocating foundation for thrash, progressive, and doom metal music yet to come.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

ALBUM REVIEW: Brian Fallon - Painkillers (2016)

Ten years ago The Gaslight Anthem burst onto the punk rock radar with their no-holds-barred anthems of urgency and desperation.  They played the songs for Kerouac’s mad ones, “mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”.  Five albums and one breakup later, frontman Brian Fallon reinterprets these themes through content nostalgia on his debut solo album Painkillers.  

Fallon’s style has always been of earnest authenticity, and Painkillers allows him to truly stretch his legs as a songwriter.  While upbeat and energetic, these are songs built around acoustic progressions and sparse arrangements which leave Fallon plenty of room to say everything he needs to.  There is a general sense of loss to the album, but no evident grief.  Instead Fallon seems to achieve an almost zen-like optimism, the kind of liberation that shines through when the weight of grieving is relieved.  This is especially cathartic on the barroom stomp-along Smoke (“you just became something like some smoke that I tried too hard to hold”) and mid-album standout Nobody Wins, on which he offers a toast to an old love in case he’s already seen her for the last time.  Painkillers is full of this type of warm, past-tense love song.  Fallon seems to be looking back with a smile at the things he spent a decade singing about aggressively pursuing with Gaslight, which now rest behind him in memory.  This is a man who’s chased enough ghosts to know that you can’t always ‘end up the lucky ones’, and sometimes it’s okay to blame it on the wind. 

It has always been easy to compare Brian Fallon to his fellow Jersey-boy influence Bruce Springsteen.  The likening holds true on lead single A Wonderful Life, with its driving rhythm, layered guitars and percussion, and an absolutely massive “woah-oh” laden chorus.  The remaining tracks however tend to leave the grandiosity behind in favor of more Tom Petty-esque down-to-earth confessionals and simple, breezy accompaniment.  Fallon has always displayed some folk leanings in his songwriting, and without Gaslight’s power his new batch of songs sways towards straight-up Americana.  Whether or not that is a good thing is a matter of personal preference, but there’s no doubting that Fallon is firmly in his own element.  He navigates the rustic, wide-open song structures with his heart on his sleeve; every lyric and twangy electric guitar lead carries weight and meaning.  The presence of familiar elements to his lyrical style (girls, radios, old cars, “bleeding” as a metaphor for passion and emotion) give him an auteur type quality.   

Overall, it’s hard not to feel like Painkillers is the album that Brian Fallon was always destined to make.  After a decade of singing for the aforementioned mad ones, desire has turned to abandonment yet Fallon’s idyllic version of America and rock and roll underdog dreams persist.  Painkillers is an album about coming to peace with the past, and appreciating it for the empowering freedom of remaining true to oneself.  Fallon understands the pain that sometimes comes with having an insatiable lust for life, and his optimistic spirit shines bright for anyone who has found themselves having to go it alone.  

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