Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland

Jimi Hendrix died on this date 42 years ago, and it's about time I wrote something about him.  Are You Experienced from the Jimi Hendrix Experience was one of the best debut albums in the history of rock, and its follow up Axis: Bold As Love was definitely not a sophomore slump.  How does one top these albums?  In 1968, Jimi Hendrix did just that when he created his masterpiece, Electric Ladyland.  Jimi and his producer/manager Chas Chandler had a falling out over Jimi’s work habits.  The album started in London like the previous two albums, but then production moved to New York.  Jimi liked to invite friends to the studio, and they usually came by.  Jimi would entertain his friends rather than get any work done, much to Chandler’s annoyance.  When Chandler quit the project, Jimi took the production reins himself and indulged his every sonic fantasy that he could given the technology of the time.  Luckily for him he had a sympathetic engineer in Eddie Kramer who had shared Jimi’s vision of sonic perfection.  Electric Ladyland saw Jimi expand beyond the power trio format of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience.  For the first time, Jimi collaborated with other musicians besides Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell.  Jimi was a perfectionist who liked to record many takes of the same song, much to the annoyance of bassist Noel Redding.  Electric Ladyland took several months to complete, but the results are well worth the time spent to create it.  Given all the sounds Hendrix got out of his gear using various amps, pedals, feedback and overdubs, Electric Ladyland is a sonic goldmine.  He covers a lot of musical bases – soul, jazz, blues, and psychedelic rock.

The songs:
And The Gods Made Love – This opens the album the same way EXP did for Axis: Bold As Love.  Completely unnecessary, but Hendrix wanted to play with his studio toys.

Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) – Hendrix plays soul.  Hendrix was insecure of his singing voice, but given this soulful piece dedicated to the “electric ladies” of his life, he needn’t have been.

Crosstown Traffic – A fast-tempo, stomping track with the Experience that’s a bit of a shock after Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland).  And yes, that is a kazoo playing along with the guitar parts.  He sings to a woman who is “hard to get through,” just like a traffic jam.

Voodoo Chile – Jimi goes to the Delta and takes Steve Winwood and Jack Casady along for the ride.  This is 15 minutes of live-in-the-studio jam that lyrically goes to “the outskirts of infinity” and “Jupiter’s sulphur mines,” but this is pure blues.  Mitch Mitchell’s playing is simply spectacular on this jam.  It sounds like it was recorded after an all-nighter at a New York club [it probably was].  A shorter version can be found on Jimi Hendrix: Blues.

Little Miss Strange – The Noel Redding song on Electric Ladyland.  It’s interesting to hear Hendrix play guitar and not have to sing while doing it.  During the making of Electric Ladyland things were beginning to sour between Hendrix and bassist Noel Redding.  This song may have been included to keep Noel happy for the time being.  This being a Noel Redding song it feels a bit out of place compared to the rest of the album.

Long Hot Summer Night – Of all the songs on Electric Ladyland, to me this one is the most forgettable.  Just my opinion…

Come On (Let The Good Times Roll) – One of two covers on Electric Ladyland.  This is a gem from bluesman Earl King.  It’s not bad, but not essential either.  Stevie Ray Vaughan covered this one on Soul to Soul.  He called his version Come On Part III – the Earl King original was Part I, this Hendrix cover was version two, and his own version was Part III.

Gypsy Eyes – When I first bought Electric Ladyland in college, this was the headphone song given all the panning between the stereo channels.  I've always loved it.  I pictured him singing it to a girl with big brown eyes.  Very psychedelic!

Burning of the Midnight Lamp – This is another blast of psychedelia from Hendrix which boasts a cool combination of harpsichord and wah-wah guitar.

Rainy Day, Dream Away and Still Raining, Still Dreaming – As Neil Young would once say about his own music, this is all the same song.  Jimi split it into two parts to bookend 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/ Moon, Turn The Tides…gently, gently away. I made a mix CD one time and spliced both together – they fit perfectly.  Michael Finnigan [later of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame] plays the organ here, Buddy Miles is on drums.  This is a jazzy, laid-back groove where he gives the wah-wah pedal quite a workout.  This piece is not really essential, but it does give a peek into Hendrix’s interest in jazz.

1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) – Jimi uses the studio as an instrument to make this hallucinogenic dream his most trippy sound collage.  This 14-minute excursion into science fiction is Hendrix at his most cosmic.  Jimi plays the bass solo.  Chris Wood from Traffic lent his flute talents here.

Moon, Turn The Tides…gently, gently away – this is another sound effects thing that Hendrix tacked onto the end of 1983.  It gives 1983 a soft landing.

House Burning Down – Jimi takes a stab at social commentary.  Here he wonders why black people who are rioting in the streets of America’s big cities are setting their own neighborhoods on fire.  His guitar sounds like it is on fire at the very end.

All Along The Watchtower – This is the definitive version of Bob Dylan’s vision of the apocalypse.  Even Dylan said he likes the Hendrix version better than his own.  Dave Mason from Traffic played the acoustic 12-string, while Jimi himself played the bass.  Dave Mason originally played the bass on the song since Noel Redding walked out of the session [he liked Dylan’s original better], but Hendrix thought he could do better.  I can’t argue with the results.  His three-part solo [slide/wah-wah/straight – 2:00-2:50] is perfect.  The stereo panning of this solo bounces around the inside of your head.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – This is a great way to end an album.  Just when you thought All Along the Watchtower would be hard to match, Hendrix came up with this.  Unlike the blues jam of Voodoo Chile, this one is a much faster-paced reprise that featured just the Experience.  The wah-wah drenched intro is iconic.  Like All Along the Watchtower, the soloing is panned all over the place and it too bounces around your head.  Stevie Ray Vaughan had the balls to cover this on Couldn’t Stand the Weather and did a masterful job doing so.

How could Hendrix possibly top Electric Ladyland?  He couldn’t – this was the artistic peak.  After the tour to support this album, the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up.   His next outing would be Band of Gypsys, a live LP recorded New Year’s Eve 1969 over which he had no artistic control due a contract dispute with another producer and another record label.  Jimi fought and beat a drug rap in Toronto, he began construction of his new studio in New York [Electric Lady Studios], and he had to gig like mad to finance both the new studio and his drug trial.  That didn’t leave a whole lot of time for creating another studio album.  Jimi’s studio follow-up to Electric Ladyland, The First Rays of the New Rising Sun, was a work-in-progress at the time of his death. Some of those songs [Freedom, Drifting, Ezy Ryder, Room Full of Mirrors, Bleeding Heart] indicated he was working on a pretty strong follow-up, but since he wasn’t around to finish it we’ll never know if was a true continuation of Jimi Hendrix’s vision.

Electric Ladyland is a must-have for any serious music freak.  It is one my “desert island” discs.  This album cemented Jimi Hendrix’s place at the forefront of rock guitar playing.  Forty four years after its release, guitar heroes of today are still trying to catch up. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why I Like Rush

A long time ago [I was all of 14] I was in San Antonio visiting a friend who used to live nearby when I lived in Ohio.  He was an Air Force brat who moved there because his dad got transferred to Randolph.  He knew I was a music nut, so while I was visiting he turned me on to a group I had never heard before.  There were lots of guitars, the bass was wailing, and the drummer was great.  The only thing was the singing – who was this shrieking chick and why is she screaming like Yoko Ono?  Only it wasn’t a girl, it was Geddy Lee when he was still communicating with bats.  The album was A Farewell to Kings [at that time it was brand new]; the song he played me was Xanadu, complete with Kubla Khan references from Coleridge.  This was during a time when disco was king, so anything that sounded like guys playing real instruments to music that something other than a four-on-the-floor beat was refreshing.  So when I got home I got their 2112 album.  And when it was new, I also got Hemispheres.  Little did I know then that I would still be a Rush fan in the same year when I’m about to turn 50.  After 36 years of listening to them, why do I like these guys?

They’re a power trio.  I love power trios!  Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience established the template for what a power trio should sound like.  Rush stuck with the guitar-bass-drums template with Rush, Fly By Night and Caress of Steel, the little by little they started to alter their sound.  Although they changed their sound through the years, it was still just three guys making the sounds.

The sound.  These guys play with the precision of Pink Floyd and the power of Black Sabbath.  Their arrangements are complex which require a high degree of technical skill to play.  Think of progressive music like Yes or Genesis, only with emphasis on the guitars instead of keyboards and you get the picture.  Like Pink Floyd, what you hear on the record is pretty much what you’re going to hear live, only the bass is a bit more pronounced - they have a thunderous bottom end.  Geddy Lee is a busy guy on-stage – he plays the keys, the bass, pedals, and sings.  When he switches between his instruments the transitions are seamless.  Geddy Lee is a monster bass player.  Lerxst [Alex Lifeson] is not mentioned in the same breath as Beck, Page, Hendrix or any of the other guitar heroes of mythic stature, but he more than holds his own.  He plays both rhythm and lead like Pete Townshend or Tony Iommi.  When he plays lead, the man can shred with the best of them.

Neil Peart.  The best drummer in rock – period.

Lyrics.  Sometimes the lyrics can be spot-on about human existence. Other themes might include science, science fiction, morality, death, dystopian society.  Neil Peart's topics are numerous and various.    Here's a few:

Distant Early Warning is a nod to the fears of the Cold War.
Afterimage is asong about death and is quoted on the inner sleeve of Different Stages.  Neil Peart’s daughter and wife each died within a year of each other, and as a dedicated to them the band quoted the following – “Suddenly...you were gone...from all the lives you left your mark upon..."
Red Barchetta – a car song during a time when cars are banned, like guitars were in 2112.
Subdivisions gets right to the point of the high school experience – either you’re with the cool kids or you weren't.
Limelight deals with feelings being in the spotlight and the difficulties of fame.
Between the Wheels looks at life and the inability to keep time from passing you by.
Red Sector A makes illusions to the Holocaust, a subject that would hit very close to home for Rush since Geddy Lee’s parents are Holocaust survivors.
Nobody’s Hero is a lamentation on the death of a two people – one a friend of Neil Peart who died from AIDS-related complications, the other a girl who was murdered in Neil Peart’s hometown.
The Way the Wind Blows laments the rise of religious fundamentalism everywhere.
Earthshine is about the phenomenon of light reflecting off the Earth back onto the dark part of the moon.
Tom Sawyer - "His mind is not for rent to any god or government" [the individual vs the collective].   I’m still trying to figure out “catch the spirit, catch the spit.” 

Influences [as told in various interviews] - the guys who influenced them are the same guys I listen to, and you can hear these influences in their music.

Alex Lifeson-

1.      Pete Townshend [The Who] - “he taught me how to play rhythm guitar and demonstrated its importance, particularly in a three-piece band.”

2.      Jimmy Page [Led Zeppelin] – “my biggest influence. I wanted to look, think and play like him. Zeppelin had a heavy influence on Rush during our early days. Page’s loose style of playing showed an immense confidence, and there are no rules to his playing.”

3.      Jeff Beck – “If I had to pick a favorite guitarist of all time, it would probably be Jeff Beck. The notes he squeezes out of that thing with a whammy bar, a volume control knob and his fingers are simply incredible.”

4.      David Gilmour [Pink Floyd] – “I also had a meeting with David Gilmour when he was here. It was the first time I’d seen him play. I went back to say hello, and he was a very engaging, charming guy. We talked a lot about the power of the acoustic in terms of writing, because it doesn’t lie. It tells you straight up whether an idea has merit.”

Geddy Lee

1.      Chris Squire [Yes] – “I’d never heard a bass player placed so upfront in the mix. Chris Squire hadsuch a driving, aggressive sound… Squire’s melodies were brilliant, and they were definitely out there.” 

2.      Jack Casady [Jefferson Airplane] – “His tone was very different from other American bassists; it was edgier, and his riffs were really challenging — they aggressively pushed the songs along. I like when a bass player gets a little pushy and won’t keep his place. He steps out of line, but in a great way.”

3.      Jack Bruce [Cream] – “Cream were one of my favorite bands, and a very influential band to me when we first started out. Alex felt the same way; we used to play a lot of Cream songs.”  He “wasn’t content to be a bottom-end, stayin'-the-background bassist.  He’s playing a Gibson bass obviously too loud, to where it’s distorting the speakers. But it gave him this aggressive sound and a kind of spidery tone, and I love everything about it.”

4.      John Entwistle [The Who] - "John Entwistle was a bit more overt and flashier than Jack [Casady]     was. John Entwistle, especially on “My Generation,” just threw it all out there, and for a young bass player that was so admirable and ballsy and audacious."

Humor –Geddy Lee doesn’t use on-stage amps; he runs his bass directly through the front-of-house sound.   So what does he use to occupy this space that should be taken by stacks of amps?  Coin-operated clothes dryers or rotisserie chicken ovens.  During the Test For Echo tour, he had a fully-stocked household refrigerator there [stocked with Molsons or Labatt’s].  I read he also had a sausage maker for the last Time Machine tour.  I was watching the R30 DVD and saw these clothes dryers on his side of the stage and thought “what the hell are they doing there?”  That’s when I found out he doesn’t use on-stage amps.  And to make this seem even more strange, be they clothes dryers or chicken ovens, they’re miked!

Alex Lifeson is a pretty funny guy too.  As I watched the Rush in Rio DVD toward the end of playing La Villa Strangiato, Lerxst stepped up to the mike and started a nonsensical stream-of-consciousness  ramble to introduce the band.  He referred to Geddy as “the Guy from Ipanema,” at which time Geddy started playing The Girl From Ipanema.  The audience ate it up – I laughed myself silly.  On Lerxst’s solo project Victor, he did a “song” called Shut Up Shutting Up.  The “vocals” are his wife and her girlfriend yapping at each about men, all the while Lerxst keeps yelling at them to “shut up!”

Concepts – Their latest album, Clockwork Angels, is a concept album [their first] in its entirety.  To borrow from my last blog about Rush:  “In a young man's quest to follow his dreams, he is caught between the grandiose forces of order and chaos. He travels across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy, with lost cities, pirates, anarchists, exotic carnivals, and a rigid malevolent Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.”    

2112 [1976] is a full album side story of a guy who discovers music, despite the efforts of dictatorial priests of the Solar Federation who frown on such relics of their collective past.  The priests don’t like the guy’s discovery, and destroy the thing with “wires that vibrate and give music.”  The whole piece is a tale of the pursuit of individual freedom.

Cygnus X-1 is divided into two “books” that appear on different albums – Book I- The Voyage [A Farewell to Kings – 1977] and Book II-Hemispheres [Hemispheres – 1978].  Cygnus X-1 tells of a space explorer who is sucked into a black hole.  The explorer ended up in a world called Olympus, where he witnesses struggles between those who follow Apollo [the logical thinkers] and the people who follow Dionysus [the emotional people].  He is horrified by the lack of balance, the polarization of the people.  After Apollo and Dionysus hear the explorer’s silent screams, the deem him Cygnus, the god of balance.

Fear was originally three songs over three consecutive albums [Witch Hunt (Part III) - Moving Pictures (1981), The Weapon (Part II) - Signals (1982), The Enemy Within (Part I) - Grace Under Pressure (1984)].  Rush added Part IV [Freeze] on Vapor Trails.  Neil Peart once said that the idea he got for this series was something he heard from an old man about how the biggest motivating force in a person’s life isn’t money, possessions, or love, but by fear.  Each of the parts of Fear deals with a certain aspect of fear – the things that scare people [The Enemy Within], how anything that scares someone can be used against him/her [The Weapon], and the mob mentality [Witch Hunt].  Part IV [Freeze] is the fine line between running away from one’s fears and facing them down head-on.

Instrumentals – In Neil Peart, Rush has one of rock’s more cerebral lyricists, but sometimes it’s best to just let the music do the talking.  Rush is one of the few bands to record instrumentals.  Sometimes they work very well [YYZ from Moving Pictures, The Main Monkey Business from Snakes & Arrows], other times not so much [Where's My Thing? from Roll the Bones], but at least they do them.  La Villa Strangiato from Hemispheres is simply astounding.  Most bands won’t even try such a thing.

Mid-course corrections.  For Rush, anything worth doing is worth overdoing.  After the science fiction epics that graced 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, they opted to slim down their arrangements to make their music more accessible to a wider audience [some would call that “selling out” – Geddy Lee called it a need to “come out of the fog and put down something concrete”].   The immediate results [Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures] speak for themselves about the wisdom of that decision.  After Grace Under Pressure, they went too far with the keyboards.  I can’t listen to Power Windows or Hold Your Fire.  Luckily they saw they strayed too far from their roots as a classic power trio.  I think Lerxst put his foot down about wanting to get back to guitar-based rock.  The producer they hired for Presto and Roll the Bones [Rupert Hine] was somewhat aghast that a guitar band smothered their music in keyboards.  Those two albums were more guitar-oriented, but they lacked balls.  By that, I mean the productions were thin-sounding, tinny, and had no bottom end.  Enter Kevin Shirley, who prodded the band to record “old school” – use analog recording equipment, get away from the electronic drums, digital recording, use vintage guitars/amps.  The result of this collaboration was Counterparts, one of my favorites.  Vapor Trails was too loud, mastered too high, and had all of its dynamics crushed out of it, especially anything with an acoustic guitar.  Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels fixed all of those problems.  Throughout their history Rush have been able to see when they’ve gone too far in a certain direction and make a correction.  It’s like they actually hear and act on criticisms from their fans – very refreshing.

Live Albums.  Rush has put out eight live albums to date.  I have six of them [A Show of Hands, Different Stages, Rush in Rio, R30, Snakes & Arrows Live, Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland].  Different Stages is unique – the first two discs document the Counterparts and Test For Echo tours.  A third disc captures them in 1978 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, so you have a nice “then and now” comparison.  They play with the same precision in a live setting that they do in the studio, but you know it’s live.  From Different Stages on to the present, their live sound is captured well – bottom end and all.  The separation between the instruments is very clean.  To hear them play La Villa Strangiato live [as heard on Rush in Rio and Time Machine] is especially impressive when one considers they had to record it originally for Hemispheres in three parts instead of all in one go. 

The songs I like:
Rush [1974] – Finding My Way, Working Man
Fly By Night [1975] – Anthem, By Tor & the Snow Dog
Caress of Steel [1975] - Bastille Day, The Necromancer
2112 [1976] – 2112, A Passage to Bangkok, Tears
A Farewell to Kings [1977] –  Cygnus X-1 Book I-The Voyage, Xanadu
Hemispheres [1978] – La Villa Strangiato [instrumental], Cygnus X-1 Book II-Hemispheres, The Trees
Permanent Waves [1980] – The whole thing
Moving Pictures [1981] – the whole thing
Signals [1982] – Subdivisions, The Analog Kid, Digital Man, The Weapon [Fear Part II], New World Man
Grace Under Pressure [1984] – Distant Early Warning, Red Sector A, The Enemy Within [Part I], Red Lenses, Between the Wheels
Power Windows [1985] –Mystic Rhythms
Hold Your Fire [1987] – Force Ten
Presto [1989] – Show Don’t Tell
Roll the Bones [1991] – Ghost of a Chance, Bravado
Counterparts [1993] – Animate, Stick It Out, Nobody’s Hero, Between Sun & Moon, Leave That Thing Alone [instrumental], Alien Shore, Cold Fire, Cut to the Chase, Everyday Glory
Test for Echo [1996] – Test for Echo, Driven, Half the World, Limbo [instrumental], Totem, Carve Away the Stone
Vapor Trails [2002] – Earthshine, One Little Victory
Snakes and Arrows [2007] – Far Cry, Armor and Sword, Spindrift, The Main Monkey Business [instrumental],  The Larger Bowl, The Way the Wind Blows, Hope [instrumental – Alex Lifeson solo guitar], Bravest Face, Malignant Narcissism [instrumental], We Hold On
Clockwork Angels [2012] – the whole thing.

Note:  I don’t have a copy of their covers EP, Feedback.  I’ve heard four of the songs [Heart Full of Soul, The Seeker, Crossroads, and Summertime Blues] on R30.  They aren’t bad – they’re just faithful covers of songs from their musical heroes.  Heart Full of Soul was different as it was done acoustically on R30.  It’s very weird to hear a band that utilizes so much technology to unplug.

They endure.  The band has been around since 1968.  Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee were still teenagers when the band formed.  In that time, many genres have come and gone – punk, New Wave, disco, grunge, boy bands, etc – but Rush has done their own thing and have endured.  They went on a 5-year hiatus after Neil Peart lost his daughter and his wife, but they came back when Neil was ready and they continue to endure.  They’ve made progressive music even though music critics over these many years don’t hide their disdain for anything progressive.  They still have their fans from way back when, and now the children of those fans wave the Rush flag.