Friday, November 30, 2012

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Jimi Hendrix

This week Jimi Hendrix would have been 70 years old.  He has been dead for over 40 years and yet he is still recognized as the gold standard for rock guitar players.  For a guy who completed only three studio albums in his lifetime, he definitely made an enormous impact as a guitar player.  Two generations of musicians who have followed him ask the same question – how’d he do that?

The hands – Much has been said about how big Hendrix’s hands were.  I’ve read accounts where his hands have been described as “freakishly large.”  As a guy with normal-sized hands with short, stubby fingers, I know it would be a huge advantage to have large hands with long, skinny fingers to play guitar.  There are notes one can reach with longer fingers than one can with short fingers.  He could stretch well over 5 frets during some chord progressions. He could wrap those huge hands around the Strat neck and fret with his thumb.  I imagine he also had a grip the strength of a gorilla to be able to make those long, skinny fingers do the things to the strings that he wanted them to do.  I’m thinking this because he could bend the hell out of his strings.  Don’t misunderstand – there are plenty of guitarists with relatively small hands (Angus Young, EVH, Danny Gatton, Randy Rhoads, etc) who play extremely well.  Hendrix had big hands and took advantage of that fact.

He was also somewhat ambidextrous.  He played left-handed, but I’ve seen pictures of him writing with his right hand.  Legend has it that his father taught him to play guitar right-handed because it was thought to be left-handed was a sign of the Devil.  So in his father’s presence he would play right handed, but when Al Hendrix was out of sight, Jimi would switch to playing lefty.   As a lefty he would play a right-handed Strat upside down so the thin strings would be closest to him.  Albert King would do the same thing with his Gibson Flying V.  One can imagine the unusual chord shapes this would cause, but I suspect that contributed to the uniqueness of his sound.

The sound – Hendrix used several different devices to alter his sound.  One was the Octavia fuzz box.  This thing had a frequency-doubling circuitry that could synthesize a second note an octave higher that what was played.  He first used the Octavia on Purple Haze and Fire.  Hendrix used a Univox Uni-vibe that was a chorus/rotating speaker simulator the he started using in 1969.  Then there’s the wah-wah.  He first heard the wah-wah when Eric Clapton used it on Tales of Brave Ulysses.  After he added the wah-wah to his arsenal, Hendrix took it much further than Clapton ever would.  The best example of this can be found on Voodoo Child [Slight Return].  Don’t forget the whammy bar – Hendrix practically invented the “dive bomb” with his whammy bar.

The amps – usually Marshalls.  Jimi drove his amps pretty hard – he usually had them at full volume all the time.  He was hell on amps; he went through a lot of them.  He also used Sunns, Fender Twins, Fender Dual Showmans, but from1968 onward he was almost exclusively a Marshall guy.   He would use a 100-watt Super Lead driving 2 4x12 cabinets, but eventually he would use three Super Leads driving six 4x12s.  With this much power and the effects he used, his controlled use of distortion and feedback, no wonder his Strat sounded like no other.

The Solos – I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to praise Jimi Hendrix’s solo prowess.  Billy Gibbons had a phrase that I think described his otherworldly playing – “he was a true Martian.”

Rhythm – Though known for his jaw-dropping leads, Hendrix was a fantastic rhythm guitar player.  For proof, listen to Little Wing, The Wind Cries Mary, Wait Until Tomorrow, Drifting.

Influences – Hendrix had several influences – Buddy Guy [blues], Curtis Mayfield [R&B], and Wes Montgomery [jazz].  Other influences were Albert King, Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters – Jimi loved the blues.  Before he hit the big time, he was a sideman for R&B acts like Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, the Impressions [just to name a few].  He once stated that before he went to England, Bob Dylan as a big inspiration.  After Chas Chandler discovered him and moved him to the UK, he absorbed the psychedelic sounds of 1966 London.  Hendrix also had a fascination with science fiction, especially the thought of the existence of alien life.  Add all of these influences to a fertile imagination and tremendous ability, and you have the otherworldly sounds Jimi Hendrix.

Showmanship – Hendrix was legendary for playing behind his head, behind his back, between his legs, and with his teeth.  He famously upstaged The Who’s on-stage destruction at Monterey by setting his guitar on fire. 

The Posthumous Jimi Hendrix – Engineer Eddie Kramer, who played a big part in getting the sounds Hendrix heard in his head down on tape, said that whenever Jimi wasn’t on the road he was in the studio.  His first two albums [Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold as Love] were produced by Chas Chandler.  Chandler taught him a lot about using a recording studio efficiently [studio time was then and still is expensive] as both of those albums took about two weeks to record.  But when he got around to recording Electric Ladyland, he took his time, much to the annoyance of Chandler and bassist Noel Redding.  He was meticulous at getting the sounds he wanted.  As creative as he was, Hendrix was prodigious in his output, though much of it was released only after his death. 

During the last year of his life Hendrix was overflowing with ideas.  He was working on an album under the working title First Rays of the New Rising Sun.  It was to be a double album like Electric Ladyland, but fate intervened and it was not to be.  Much of this output was unfinished, but to my ears unfinished Hendrix was a lot better than the final product of mere mortals.  The first posthumous album was The Cry of Love.  It didn’t have all the songs Hendrix would’ve wanted on his First Rays project.  Some songs were cherry picked from those sessions and released on subsequent posthumous releases [Rainbow Bridge, War Heroes].  Producer Alan Douglas somehow [some would say fraudulently] gained control over Hendrix’s outtakes.  He took songs recorded by Hendrix, removed parts recorded by Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, and replaced those tracks with others recorded by musicians Jimi Hendrix had never met nor worked with [Sacrilege!].  This resulted in such releases as Loose Ends, Crash Landing, Midnight Lightning and Voodoo Soup.  Knowing that some original material was deleted by Douglas, I didn’t buy any of those, so I can’t testify to their musical quality.  I won’t slam something I haven’t heard, but on principle I couldn’t buy them while knowing what Alan Douglas did to the music.

After Jimi’s father and step-sister finally got control over Jimi’s recorded legacy from Alan Douglas, the Experience Hendrix LLC put together the best attempt at reconstructing First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the results of which saw the light of day in 1997.   Another album of similar material, South Saturn Delta, also came out in 1997.  Eddie Kramer got the original two-track master tapes and did a wonderful job restoring all the stuff that Alan Douglas cut, and the remasters sound remarkable.  He also did a great remastering job on Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland.  Experience Hendrix also put out an expanded Band of Gypsys live album titled Live at the Fillmore East.  Eddie Kramer and John McDermott are still finding things to release.   They put out Valleys of Neptune in 2010, and next year we’ll see  People, Hell & Angels.  I’ll probably get both of them.  He’s pretty productive for having been dead for 42 years…I’m hoping that someday the show the Jimi Hendrix Experience did with Traffic at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1969 will see daylight. 

Tony’s favorite Hendrix – For me, two songs stand out above all the rest, and they’re both from Electric LadylandAll Along the Watchtower and Voodoo Child [Slight Return].  If I hear one, I have to hear the other.

Tony’s iPod playlist:
Are You Experienced?Purple Haze, Manic Depression, Hey Joe, Love or Confusion, I Don’t Live Today, The Wind Cries Mary, Fire, Third Stone From the Sun, Foxey Lady, Are You Experienced?, Stone Free, Red House

Axis: Bold as LoveSpanish Castle Magic, Wait Until Tomorrow, Little Wing, If 6 Was 9, You Got Me Floatin’, One Rainy Wish, Bold as Love

Electric Ladyland - Have You Ever Been [To Electric Ladyland], Crosstown Traffic, Voodoo Chile, Gypsy Eyes, Burning of the Midnight Lamp, 1983...[A Merman I Should Turn to Be]/Moon, Turn the Tide Gently, Gently Away, House Burning Down, All Along the Watchtower, Voodoo Child [Slight Return]

Band of Gypsys/Live at the Fillmore EastMachine Gun, Hear My Train A’ Comin’

First Rays of the New Rising SunFreedom, Drifting, Ezy Ryder, Room Full of Mirrors, Izabella, Angel, Hey Baby [New Rising Sun], Earth Blues, In From the Storm

South Saturn Delta Look Over Yonder, Here He Comes [Lover Man], Message to the Universe [Message to Love], Bleeding Heart, Pali Gap

Live at MontereyWild Thing

Experience Hendrix - The Star Spangled Banner

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Rolling Stones - Established 1962

The Rolling Stones and I have something in common – we were both “established” in 1962.  I saw a documentary on the Stones on HBO a couple of nights ago – Crossfire Hurricane.  It was a good documentary, though it didn’t go into the years after 1981.  So while I was watching I thought “there’s a blog I need to update.  A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about what I thought were really cool Rolling Stones songs.  The criterion was simple -  if you never tire of hearing the song, then it’s cool.  It’s the kind of song you want to have stuck in your head.  My first list was thirty four songs, but after looking at the list I noticed a few glaring omissions.

Here are my updated picks, in no order whatsoever – fifty songs for fifty years of rock ;n roll.

Gimme Shelter [Let It Bleed, 1969] – There are no words to describe the coolness of Gimme Shelter. It’s so cool that Keith once recorded it live for a B-side for one of his own singles [Eileen if you’re looking…]. This song is Keith Richards’ vision of the apocalypse. Merry Clayton did the female vocals. They were so good that this song is primarily for what she is known. Once you hear the arpeggioed beginning, you know something ominous is about to happen.

Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – Play this one back-to-back [this one first] with Sister Morphine. The classic Keith Richards human-riff rhythm playing sets the table, and then keeps the song going while first Bobby Keys delivers a blistering sax solo, to be followed by Mick Taylor soloing out of his mind. By the time it’s over after seven minutes of jamming, you think the song was over too soon. It ends with you wanting more.

Sister Morphine [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – This song is best heard while driving around Los Angeles at night. If you can’t get to LA, just turn off all the lights, sit back and enjoy this very dark overdose tale. The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears/Tell me, Sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here? What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face? Sticky Fingers has lots of songs with a drug reference or two. Ry Cooder plays the slide guitar, Jack Nitzsche on piano. Both of these contributions contribute to the scary atmosphere [which seems to work better for me after dark].

Live With Me [Let It Bleed, 1969] – What makes this song cool? It starts with the very first notes played on the bass by Keith Richards. When he felt like it, he'd relieve Bill Wyman of the bass and play it himself. This is one of those times. The bass is very prominent in the mix – it’s like he’s playing “lead bass.” Bobby Keys takes the solo instead of one of the guitar players. Live With Me is one of the first songs recorded with Mick Taylor. Mick Jagger’s lyrics are about as racy as they come. This song was never released as a single [not in the US anyway], but it should have been. In my humble opinion, the only song better than this from Let It Bleed is Gimme Shelter.

Stray Cat Blues [Beggars Banquet, 1968] – Before Live With Me, there was this tale of backstage debauchery with under-aged girls. This is Mick Jagger at his sleaziest. He was 25 when he first sang it – now he’s 69 [ew...]. About the only thing missing from the lyrics are the words “would you like some candy little girl?” Keith Richards played all the guitars, and I think he played the bass as well.

No Expectations [Beggars Banquet, 1968] – Brian Jones played a very good acoustic slide here. It’s one of the last best things he did before he left Planet Earth. Nicky Hopkins accompanies with an understated piano that doesn’t get in Brian Jones’ way. The song has the feel of an old-time blues classic.

You Got the Silver [Let It Bleed, 1969] – Keith Richards takes the lead vocal for the first time on this tune. Critic Richie Unterberger from Allmusic describes this song as the closest the Stones would get to the roots of acoustic home-down blues. I disagree – it could be the flip side to No Expectations. Keith performs it on-stage today, and without a guitar! Ron Wood plays acoustic slide on the Shine a Light version.

Sweet Virginia [Exile on Main St, 1972] – the Stones go country. Here the influence of Gram Parsons emerges [he might even be in the chorus]. Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes…

Turd on the Run [Exile on Main St, 1972] – no particular reason – I just like the song, and it segues into…

Ventilator Blues [Exile on Main St, 1972] – I think of all the songs on Exile this one captures the essence of the whole thing.

Salt of the Earth [Beggars Banquet, 1968] - The last song from Beggars Banquet, I remember Mick & Keith played this at the Concert for New York after 9/11.  The original from Beggars Banquet sounded both country and blues at the same time [to me anyway].  Keith played the slide because Brian Jones didn't show up.

Street Fighting Man [Beggars Banquet, 1968] – This one is inspired by riots in London and Paris during the summer of 1968. The cool factor - the song sounds electric, but in fact the only electric instrument was the bass. Keith played an acoustic guitar into an overloaded cassette player that gave it a metallic sound, and Brian Jones provided the sitar and tambura. The rhythm section was solid. The drums were very loud and in your face. It’s a very good song that starts off Beggars Banquet.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash [single – 1968] – This one was recorded during the Beggars Banquet sessions but released only as a single. It took me many years to figure out what Mick Jagger was singing. I could not for the life of me decipher the words. But then Al Gore invented the Internet, and presto…instant comprehension! What makes this song cool – the riff. It’s one of the most indestructible riffs in rock music, like Sunshine of Your Love or Smoke on the Water. Once you hear the riff, you never forget it.

Honky Tonk Women [single, 1969] - I think this is the first of many songs Keith Richards used the "open G" that he admitted to ripping off from Ry Cooder.  Who knew the Stones could be so country?  This song has the beefy horns that would partially define the Stones sound in the early 1970s.

Get Off of My Cloud [December's Children, 1965] - How does one follow-up a monster hit like Satisfaction?  You write a song that expresses the desire to be left alone, like this one.  The line about living on the 99th floor of his block didn't make any sense to me until the first time I went to the UK.  When I found the words “building” and “block” were interchangeable, it made perfect sense.  That’s one tall block he lived in…

Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby? [single, 1966] - This is the first Stones song to use horns.  It definitely sounds like it is of its time, not that there's anything wrong with that.   It's a strange one but I like it anyway.

Little Red Rooster [single, 1964] - This is the only cover on my list. The Stones started out as a blues band [if Brian Jones had it his way, they would have stayed a blues band], as this homage to Howlin' Wolf demonstrates.  Brian Jones' slide playing is brilliant.  The Stones would later release a live version on Flashpoint in 1991.  Eric Clapton stole the show, and Jagger knew it.  Look at the video [about the 3:00 mark] - Jagger's expression speaks volumes.

You Can't Always Get What You Want [Let It Bleed, 1969] - The story of everyone's lives...  The choir part is so...British.

Sympathy for the Devil [Beggars Banquet, 1968] - IMHO, these are Jagger's best lyrics.  The studio version from Beggars Banquet was ok, but I like the version from the live Get Yer Ya-Yas Out better.  After Lucifer talks of all his misdeeds throughout history, here's the bit I like -

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I'm in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste, um yeah

Midnight Rambler [Let It Bleed, 1969] - Have you heard about the Boston Strangler?  Why Mick Jagger chose Albert DeSalvo as inspiration for a song baffles me, but a cool song came out of it. Keith referred to this as a "blues opera."  Keith plays a slide, which he rarely does.  But seeing as how Brian Jones was no longer a functional musician he had little choice.  I like all the time changes.

The Last Time [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – This is the first big UK single written by Mick & Keith. The reason for this song’s coolness is the same as Jumpin’ Jack Flash – the riff. It digs into your ear and stays there for several years.

Play With Fire [B side, 1965] - This was the flip side of The Last Time - these two songs couldn't be more different.  There's just an acoustic guitar, tambourine, and a harpsichord {?!?). The singer is not very impressed with his girl's diamonds, pretty clothes, the chauffeurs, the whole high society lifesyle.  He's not trying to hide his disdain.  Perhaps this is where the Stones' misogyny begins...

Paint It Black [Aftermath, 1966] – Another great riff, but with a twist; Brian Jones plays the riff on a sitar, which gives the song a Middle Eastern flair. This song has death written all over it - I see a line of cars and they're all painted black…With flowers and my love both never to come back…I could not foresee this thing happening to you…You’ll find it at the end of Full Metal Jacket.

Under My Thumb [Aftermath, 1966] – This is the musical equivalent of The Taming of the Shrew. Brian Jones shows off his musical versatility again by playing the signature riff of this song on marimbas.

2000 Light Years From Home [Their Satanic Majesties Request, 1967] – the Stones succeed at getting trippy. It’s a bit dated, with Brian Jones getting to show off on the mellotron. This is the furthest that the Stones would stray from their blues roots, a mistake they would correct with Beggar’s Banquet. But despite the album’s flaws, I love this song.

Satisfaction [Out Of Our Heads, 1965] – Do I really need to explain this one? Even my mother liked this one. This is probably the best rock-and-roll song ever done. Period. End of discussion.

Bitch [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - the riff, the horns, Charlie Watts kicking the band’s ass.

Moonlight Mile [Sticky Fingers, 1971] - one of the best ballads the Stones ever recorded about life as a rock star on the road. It closes Sticky Fingers.

Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – a country ballad written originally by Keith about him missing his son Marlon. This is one of two country songs on the album, the other one being Dead Flowers.

Dancing With Mr D [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This is the leadoff song from the first of the Junky Trilogy, Goats Head Soup. The song begins and ends with a riff that repeats often throughout the song. Mick Taylor plays a stinging electric slide as well as the bass. Charlie is flawless as always. Mick Jagger’s lyrics allude to dalliance with death: Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clinging and thick/But I know his name, he's called Mr. D/And one of these days, he's going to set you free. I wonder if Keith’s descent into full-blown heroin addiction prompted this song.

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) [Goats Head Soup, 1973] – This song tells two stories: the accidental shooting in New York of a ten-year-old boy, and a ten-year-old girl dying in an alley of a drug overdose. Billy Preston plays clavinet on the intro, then is joined by Mick Taylor playing wah-wah guitar in unison. Keith plays the bass. But what makes the song standout from other Stones songs is the horns. Usually they’d have Bobby Keys’ sax, but this song uses sax and trumpet giving the horns a beefier sound. Underneath it all is Keith’s bass playing holding down the fort while Mick Taylor plays one of his many lyrical solos.

Time Waits For No One [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – There are two cool songs on It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll; this is one of them. Why is this song cool? Mick Taylor. Like Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, Mick Taylor starts his solo about 2/3 of the way through the song and carries it to the end. He just carries the song, period.  Jagger should have given him credit for writing the song, but Mick being Mick he didn’t.  I think this is why Mick Taylor left the band.

Hand of Fate [Black and Blue, 1976] – After finishing Exile on Main St, the Stones recorded three more albums which I have dubbed The Junkie Trilogy. I gave these albums this name because they were made as Keith Richards slipped deeper and deeper into the grips of heroin addiction. This had the effect of Mick Jagger taking over as the Stones’ musical director. Mick Taylor left the band after the release of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll [the second of the Junkie Trilogy], so the Stones used several lead players to make Black and Blue, the third and last Junkie Trilogy installment. Who else but the Stones would use recording sessions as auditions for a departed guitarist? American Wayne Perkins did the honors on this song. His solos are as fluid and blistering as anything Mick Taylor laid down during his tenure in the band. In fact, the first time I heard it I thought it was Mick Taylor. The ever-present Keith Richards rhythm playing locks in tightly with Charlie Watts. Hand of Fate is without a doubt the best song from Black and Blue.

Fingerprint File [It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1974] – This is the other cool song from It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, the second installment of The Junkie Trilogy. Mick Jagger plays the heavily-phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the guitar with the wah-wah pedal, Mick Taylor plays the bass, Bill Wyman on synthesizers, and Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins also join in the fun. The lyrics express paranoia about wiretapping and other FBI surveillance activity, which actually did happen to John Lennon. The funky/dance sound of this song is so uncharacteristic of the Stones one has to put it in the “cool” category.

Thru and Thru [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – Another Keith vocal, quiet and menacing, this one sounds like it was recorded in a small blues club after hours. There’s minimal instrumentation – one or two guitars, piano, bass & drums. Keith uses that nasty rhythm tone of his again. Why is this one cool? It appeared on The Sopranos, dammit. What could be cooler?

Too Much Blood [Undercover, 1983] – This song has Mick Jagger written all over it. It’s a horn-driven dance song where Mick Jagger laments the amount of violence depicted in pop culture [wanna dance, wanna sing, wanna bust up everything…]. Consider this pseudo-rap from Sir Mick:

Did you ever see "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"? Horrible, wasn't it. You know, people ask me "is it really true where you live in Texas, is that really true what they do around there, people?" I say, "yea, every time I drive through the crossroads I get scared, there's a bloke running round with a fucking chain saw. Oh! Oh! oh No, he's gonna cut off, Oh no. Don't saw off me leg, don't saw off me arm.

Ok, it might not fit any definition of “cool,” but it’s damn funny and that’s good enough.

One Hit (To The Body) [Dirty Work, 1986] – This is the lead-off track from Dirty Work. This was recorded at a time when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards couldn’t stand to be in the same room. The cause of so much discontent? Mick Jagger wanting a solo career. Keith’s guitar tone throughout is big, nasty, loud and very angry. Ron Wood’s acoustic backing cuts through the noise like the Grim Reaper wielding a scythe. Jimmy Page provides all the solo work. Mick Jagger spits out the lyrics with much vitriol. Put all these pieces together and you’ve got a very aggressive track. The video that was filmed for this song barely disguises the ill-will between Mick & Keith. This is a great song from an otherwise crappy album.

Worried About You [Tattoo You, 1981] – This was an outtake from Black and Blue. I can’t figure out why it was an outtake because this song is far better than Black and Blue [with the exception of Hand of Fate]. This is a “sleeper” track on Tattoo You. Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend were the singles that got all the radio airplay. Worried About You sticks out from the rest of Tattoo You, but in a good way. As with Hand of Fate, Wayne Perkins provides the soloing. That’s the bit that sticks out for the listener because when you hear it, you know immediately it isn’t Keith or Ron playing the solo. Neither of those guys could play as fluidly as what you hear Wayne Perkins doing on this song.

Almost Hear You Sigh [Steel Wheels, 1989] – This one is a leftover from Keith’s Talk Is Cheap album from 1988. A song about a difficult breakup, this one is a very melodic, medium tempo song with an acoustic guitar solo from Keith. It also has the classic Keith Richards rhythm guitar sound that I have no idea how to replicate. Charlie’s timekeeping is flawless.

Slipping Away [Steel Wheels, 1989] – Keith sings! I guess having done Talk Is Cheap the year before gave Keith the confidence to sing more on Stones albums. Both Slipping Away and Almost Hear You Sigh are excellent ballads. Both songs are tearjerkers without a doubt – a sign of a great song.

Love Is Strong [Voodoo Lounge, 1994] – this slow, snaky song kicks off Voodoo Lounge. To me it sounds a lot like Keith’s Wicked As It Seems from his second solo album [Main Offender]. Where Steel Wheels had a fairly slick production, Voodoo Lounge sounded like the producer [Don Was] was trying to get back to the Exile on Main Street sound. It has the same dry, sparse sound of Keith’s Main Offender, which is ok with me.

Low Down [Bridges to Babylon, 1997] – on Bridges to Babylon, there were really two albums in one. Mick worked with the Chemical Brothers [he was always trying to get the latest club sounds onto a Stones album], and Keith worked with Rob Fraboni to keep the Stones doing what they do best. This one is one of the Fraboni tracks. Big, beefy horns, and Keith’s snarling rhythm guitar – just what a good Stones song needs. How does he get that sound? I know he plays in Open G with only five strings, but he has a very distinct sound I would kill for.

It Won’t Take Long [A Bigger Bang, 2005] – see Low Down, only without the horns. Keith and Ron Wood practice their ancient form of weaving.

Miss You [Some Girls, 1978] - Sure, it's a disco song with the four-on-the-floor bass drum, but so what?  I always thought the part in the middle [the whole "I was walking Central Park, singing after dark..." bit] was what made the song anyway.

When the Whip Comes Down [Some Girls, 1978] - Some Girls was the first Stones album after Keith kicked heroin.  The musical "whip" here is Charlie Watts.  The Keith Richards/Ron Wood guitar tandem begins to click here.

Before They Make Me Run [Some Girls, 1978] - Keith's defiant commentary about his 1977 heroin bust in Toronto.

Beast of Burden [Some Girls, 1978] - When the Stones played in Boulder in 1981, Mick Jagger dedicated this to all the women in Boulder.  The Stones got really good at doing the slow ballads.  This is one of them.

Waiting on a Friend [Tattoo You, 1981] - I read somewhere this was a Goats Head Soup outtake.  This song always reminds me of the time I spent in Boulder, which was a tough learning experience but I discovered a new world.  It didn't get worn out like Start Me Up.  An interesting note:  the video for this song was filmed at the same building depicted on the cover of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti.

If You Can't Rock Me [It's Only Rock 'n Roll, 1974] - If you can't rock me, somebody sayeth Mick Jagger.  It has a cool groove to it.

Hey Negrita [Black and Blue, 1976] - Keith Richards once said the Black and Blue album was about auditioning guitar players to replace Mick Taylor, who left after It's Only Rock 'n Roll.  Here the Stones try their hand at reggae.  The songwriting is credited to Jagger/Richards with "inspiration by Ron Wood."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill/Americana

I admit it - my first reaction to hearing about Neil Young & Crazy Horse putting out a collection of songs that I learned in grade school was “WTF?”  After that, I wondered “why?”  But being a longtime NY fan, my curiosity got the better of me and I bought a copy of Americana at the same time I bought Psychedelic Pill.  What the hell, why not?  It’s NY & Crazy Horse – what could go wrong?  Then I remembered these were the same guys who made Life and Re*ac*tor, neither of which are works for which they’d want to be remembered.

So I put the CD on in the car, and I heard the music to Oh Susannah and thought to myself “I’ve heard this before…”  Then it occurred to me – they “borrowed” the tune from Venus [think the Shocking Blues, or even Bananarama] and sang Oh Susannah over it.  Odd as that may sound it worked out pretty well.  NY and Frank Sampedro sliced and diced with their guitars, while bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina were locked in like the nine years they spent apart hadn’t happened.  Clementine and Jesus’ Chariot have the same kind of Indian beat as F*#kin’ Up [from Ragged Glory] and Goin’ Home [from Are You Passionate?].  Tom Dula is the same song as Tom Dooley, though the Crazy Horse arrangement isn’t quite what the Kingston Trio had in mind in the 1950s.  Gallows Pole does not resemble what Led Zeppelin did in any way.  Until I bought Americana, I never heard High Flyin’ Bird, so I have nothing to compare it to.  Now that I have, I’m reminded of another cover done by NY & Crazy Horse – Farmer John.  These songs are ok, but they just strike me as…odd.  After having my mind completely blown by these songs, NY and company go acoustic with Wayfaring Stranger.  They did an excellent job with this one.

The Silhouettes’ Get a Job is a very odd choice for the Horse treatment.  Crazy Horse was a doo wop group long before they ever picked up any instruments, but never in my weirdest dreams did I think NY would give a doo wop song [or any of these other songs] the garage band.   Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land does not fare well here, nor does God Save the Queen.  I was a bit disappointed when I heard God Save the Queen and it wasn’t the Sex Pistols’ song.  I thought it would be cool for NY to sing a Johnny Rotten song thirty-five years after singing about Johnny Rotten, but it was not to be.

Why Neil Young opted to release Americana I haven’t a clue, but I’ve long since given up trying to figure out what motivates him.  He’s notorious for scrapping entire albums at the last minute [Chrome Dreams anyone?], and releasing some off-the-wall stuff [Everybody’s Rocking, Trans, etc]. If the purpose of Americana was for NY & Crazy Horse to get re-acquainted, that’s ok – I get that, but did the public have to be clued in?  This could have stayed in Neil’s private collection and nobody would miss it.  Americana did serve a purpose – it got the band warmed up to produce something good - I just didn’t have to hear it.

Best cuts – Oh Susannah, Wayfaring Stranger.  The rest – meh... File Americana with Life – for completists only.

Forty-two years ago Neil Young appeared on an album called Déjà Vu with Crosby, Stills & Nash.  Here it is in 2012, NY and Crazy Horse released Psychedelic Pill. There is definitely a feeling that the music contained therein is something I’ve heard before.  I know that will read like a slam on NY, but Psychedelic Pill is the album some of us have been waiting for over twenty years for him to make.  It’s a hell of a lot better than his last effort with Crazy Horse [the 2003 concept album Greendale].  To borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, this is a good thing. On Psychedelic Pill there are two kinds of songs – short, pleasant songs that might get played on the radio, and monster epic jams, of which there are three.  As with all NY & Crazy Horse albums, the less NY sings and the more the band plays, the better the album.

Driftin’ Back – Musically this is a neat song – it lasts for almost 28 minutes (!).  It starts with NY on acoustic guitar, but then as he’s “driftin’ back” into time, Crazy Horse comes out of the haze and lays down the groove NY will play over.  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come roaring out of the fog – goody!  While the Horse is laying down the groove, NY gets to improvise quite a bit.  Lyrically he’s still the cranky “old man.”  On 2009’s Fork in the Road he complained how downloaded music “sounds like shit.”  On Driftin’ Back he’s still complaining [while plugging his memoir Waging Heavy Peace] about how crappy music sounds today – Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now/Write about them in my book/Worry that you can’t hear me now…When you hear my song now/ You only get five percent/ You used to get it all…He also bitches about the corporatization of art - I used to dig Picasso/ Then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper…He repeats I’m driftin’ back so much I thought it was like a mantra the first time I heard it – and guess what, it is!  He even says as much. 

Psychedelic Pill - I’ve heard the song Psychedelic Pill twice before – Sign of Love from 2010’s Le Noise, and Dirty Old Man from 2007’s Chrome Dreams II.  All three songs have the same riff.  On the new album it’s presented twice – with and without phasing so you can pick and choose which version you like.  If he was John Fogerty instead of Neil Young, he would be sued by Saul Zaentz for sounding like himself.  But if you can’t copy yourself, who can you copy?  I like it anyway.  For the record, I go for the phased version.

Ramada Inn – The second of three epic jams on Psychedelic Pill, this one looks at an old married couple who’ve been through it all [raising kids, alcoholism, the normal ups and downs of married life, etc]. 

Born in OntarioHelpless gets an electrified sequel.  Here he admits to writing songs "to make sense of my inner rage."  He likes to write happy songs but sometimes things piss him off [Ohio, Living With War, etc].

Twisted Road – NY pays homage to three of his musical heroes – Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.  After each time NY sings the chorus Walkin’ with devil on a twisted road/listen to the Dead on the radio/That old time music used to soothe my soul/If I ever get home I’m gonna let the good times roll…you hear the riff from the Dead’s Friend of the Devil.  He dreams of singing in a place where he “first saw Roy,” and he remembers what a joy it was to hear Dylan sing “how does it feel” for the first time.  Here’s a man who definitely yearns for radio the way things used to be, when DJs played what they wanted to play and not what their corporate masters want them to play.

She’s Always Dancing – At over eight minutes this would normally be considered a “long” song, but with NY everything is relative.  Since three songs on Psychedelic Pill clock in over 16 minutes, this one is a short song in comparison.  I’m not sure if NY is playing the same song as the rest of the band, but somehow it works.  It has an interesting a capella beginning, then suddenly the band fades in with all guns blazing.

For the Love of Man – NY’s ode to his son Ben.  Crazy Horse slows it down, turns down the volume and the whole thing still works.  This is probably the most poignant song I’ve heard from NY in awhile.

Walk Like a Giant – Eureka!  This takes me back to the time of Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust.  This has Cortez the Killer, Like a Hurricane, Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black], and Tonight’s The Night all rolled into one.  Barrages of feedback and distortion abound like they did on those recordings from that previous era.  NY comments on his status in the rock world many years ago and compares that to what he feels it is today - I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf on the stream...He comments on the idealism from his youth and how the real world crushed that idealism - Me and some of my friends/We were gonna to save the world/We were trying to make it better/We were ready save the world/But the weather changed and white got stained and it fell apart/And it broke my heart...This echoes the same sentiment he expressed on Just Singing a Song from 2009’s Fork in the Road [Just singin’ a song won’t change the world...].  This from the same guy who dedicated an entire album to raging against the Iraq War – that’s quite a revelation to make.  At the end, Ralph Molina pounds his drums as if to sound like a walking giant.  After awhile the rest of the band joins in the “walking giant” noise.

Psychedelic Pill is NY & Crazy Horse’s best album since 1994’s Sleeps With Angels, and very good album in its own right.  It is an album of the type I thought he would never make again.  Even though there are lyrical themes and music passages that give one a sense of déjà vu, Psychedelic Pill is still worth every penny you spend.  It belongs with other greats like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Zuma, Ragged Glory, the aforementioned Sleeps With Angels, and Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust – a must for any Neil Young collection.