Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jeff Beck - Truth

Jeff Beck isn't your typical guitar god. I've been digging into classic rock for years now, and though his name pops up again and again it's taken me a while to finally arrive at an album with his name on it. The album in question, Truth, was his commercial breakthrough and is part of a tide of albums that took rock's love affair with the blues and turned up the sonic attack, leading the charge in the evolution towards heavy metal. Other albums in that group? Oh, just the early work of Led Zeppelin and Cream. You know... albums that are generally much higher on the Classic Rock journey hitlist.

I imagine Beck has remained more of an enigma because he is a natural sideman. He doesn't sing lead on Truth, that would be Rod Stewart. Beck, therefore, is like a classic rock version of a jazz musician. His name is on the album, but he's more than willing to run his band like a quartet. On an album of rock songs, not instrumentals (there are only two here), how often is the guitarist the spotlight? Not often. This leads to this sense of supremely qualified anonymity around Beck. Oh, one more bit about the band: the bassist on the album is Ronnie Wood, who later joined Stewart in his band Faces before joining a band called the Rolling Stones in the '70s. There's some serious talent here. I should have heard this album sooner.

While Stewart sings over some heavy blues-rock riffs, Beck steps in often with tasteful power. He is a perfect compliment for Stewart; there aren't lulls in the music between lyrics. Songs like "Let Me Love You" and "Morning Dew" have an unending propulsion in the back-and-forth between Stewart's rasping voice and Beck's wailing guitar. The pulse slows for Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me", a blues cover recorded a year before Led Zeppelin put their cover on their debut album (and instigated a feud between Beck and his ex-Yardbirds mate Jimmy Page, who incidentally appears later on the album.) Beck's cover is brief, though, a quick burst of fiery down-tempo blues where Led Zeppelin lets the song boil over six minutes in length.

The next song takes Truth far from the proto-heavy metal rock and turns headlong straight into the Beck-as-jazz-ringleader metaphor. The band transforms the Kern/Hammerstein standard "Ol' Man River" into a simmering blues dirge. Stewart gives a heartfelt rock vocal on par with Janis Joplin's more famous cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" while Wood's bass plumbs the depth of the famous showtune's melody over epic tumbling timpani courtesy of The Who's Keith Moon. It's a stunner of a cover, and easily feels like the classic rock version of jazz's tradition of reinterpreting classic standards.

Following the covers train, Beck turns the clock back even further to traditional folk songs with a delicate acoustic "Greensleeves." Then, after an original blues track, turns to classical reinterpretation with "Beck's Bolero." This single was recorded before the rest of the album proper, and features an entirely different all-star classic rock lineup. Keith Moon returns to bang out the bolero rhythm with increasing intensity while Beck trades guitar licks with Jimmy Page as dual lead guitars (again, recorded before their feud.) The track builds quickly into a fuzz-laden freakout, and I suppose what it lacks in musicality it makes up for influence. "Beck's Bolero" gets credit from many sources for being a defining development in both heavy metal and progressive rock, so my misgivings aren't without respect. It's a bit of a flatly-recorded mess, but who am I to argue with its status as groundbreaker?

After a lengthy excursion with straight blues in "Blues Deluxe", Beck ends with another Willie Dixon cover, "I Ain't Superstitious." This was the one track from Truth I'd heard prior to the rest of the album (it was one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitar Songs) and it's a rollicking good time. It's also the one vocal number where Beck actually overtakes Stewart's singing consistently; the words just provide the form over which Beck's guitar whelps and whines all over the song.

The 2006 re-issue has six bonus tracks, featured in the Lala widget but which I won't touch here. At it's core, Truth is a worthy entry in the classic rock canon. If it isn't as ensconced in my mind like Led Zeppelin's debut, well I'm giving it time. It's a late entry, but every bit as worthy.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Four on the Floor

"Four on the Floor" is a new feature to this blog, which is a Lala playlist over there in the right-side column. It's a playlist that will be constantly rotating, consisting simply of four songs that I've been listening to a lot lately. As you can see, they have little to do with each other stylistically. The only common thread they have is that I've listened to them a lot and they've been on my mind lately. I hope you enjoy the frequently random selections from my library, as this playlist will be another chance for me to share the music I love with you, the readers.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson

In jazz, it seems, all roads lead to Miles.

One of the first jazz albums I ever listened to was Miles' Kind of Blue. As an entryway into the world of jazz, it's nearly perfect. The idioms of the genre are laid out quickly and executed to perfection; long pieces built around simple progressions with individual solos arcing over and around the groove by each member of the band one by one. As a form, its inherently understandable, and that ease of recognition made me quickly understand that Kind of Blue is a masterpiece.

My next step with Miles, from all that I had read, had to be Bitches Brew. Its one of those epochal albums, all-important and impossibly critically acclaimed. It also was an album I was horribly ill-prepared for, and so impenetrable that I deleted it from my library without finishing it. The form was gone (I realize that's the point), and I couldn't follow the artistry. I decided that I disliked it and haven't returned since. I've added other Miles albums to my library, the most relevant of which here is In a Silent Way. I didn't struggle with that one because its formlessness wasn't an obstacle; with the ambiance allowing the music to shift through different paces, I was able to let myself go. I've found it to be great music for falling asleep to late at night. Am I a Jazz impurist? Perhaps. C'est la vie.

I realize, of course, the brashness of the dismissal of Bitches Brew but when I wrote, "all roads lead to Miles", I meant it. I have since dabbled with fusion in more accessible forms (the "Fusion FM" radio station in Grand Theft Auto IV, unlikely a source for music it may be, has become my favorite in the game.) I've also since become well-versed in the blues, especially as filtered through '60s and '70s classic rock. When I first read about A Tribute to Jack Johnson and its place in Miles' canon as the bluesiest, hardest-rocking recording of his fusion era, it piqued my interest. When I read the anecdote that Miles was late for the session, leading guitarist (and fusion hero) John McLaughlin to start playing around with a riff and gathering the band into a full-swing jam by the time Davis arrived, only to see him promptly join in and lay down what became the opening number, "Right Off," I had to give it a listen. I'm a sucker for a good anecdote.

I'm pleased to say that filtering Miles through the blues gained me entrance into Tribute. The first eleven minutes of "Right Off" are a blast. Settling into a Silent Way-esque ambient stretch provides a change of pace (inevitable in a 26-minute track), before Herbie Hancock steps in with a slow-burning farfisa organ solo taking us through the back stretch. "Right Off" isn't the bluesiest blues or the hardest-rockin' rock jam I've heard, nor is it the most energetic or blistering jazz number I've heard, but it succeeds on its own terms nonetheless.

The second side, "Yesternow", doesn't go for the blistering blues like "Right Off", but instead lays down a funky groove worthy of Parliament. This tracks' meanderings are more laid back (hey, funk's all about the groove) and have a more consistent flow. For the pace change here Miles actually brings back a section of "Shhh/Peaceful" from Silent Way, which is only conceptually bizarre but surprisingly effective, before heading into the home stretch of another funk groove, this one bluesier than the first.

As for me, musically, it's all good. Not transcendent, but my biggest qualm isn't in the music. It's the side-length tracks. I understand their length, but it doesn't mean I find a 25-minute listen any less impractical than it is. I fear A Tribute to Jack Johnson will fall into my category of albums and tracks too long to listen to regularly, but I'm ok with that. I'm glad to have met this Tribute, and expect to give it a few go's every now and then when the mood strikes. And if it's paved one more stretch in my road back to Bitches Brew, well I look forward to the opportunity to climb that mountain again. No promises, but at least I feel like I'm preparing myself better for the next try.

Statement of Purpose

Welcome, readers, to the journey of the Aural Vagabond.

A young man from Boston, now living in New York City, I wanted to create an outlet for my habit of unceasingly listening to music, new and old. Combining my ever-expanding musical tastes with my penchant for writing, I came to create the blog you are reading now.

There will be many different aspects to this site, as there are many different reasons I listen to music (and, presumably, many different reasons you do too.) The most straight-forward aspect will be album reviews. I am not a professional critic, so I won't be reviewing all the new albums as they are released. Instead, my reviews will center mainly on the new albums I purchase and rent from my local library (my two main modes of acquisition, although streaming off the internet is up-and-coming in my personal practice.) Sometimes I will get my hands on the latest album and I'll post reviews as timely as I can, but for the most part this blog isn't focused on the weekly output of new album reviews. Instead, expect reviews from all eras and genres as I expand ever-outward in my journey.

One feature I will begin writing will be, "Playback," which will consist of reviews of albums I've had in my collection for a long time, and the focus of those reviews will be not just musical but also contextual. Some Playback entries will have direct references to my life when I first listened to the albums, as some are inextricably tied to times and spaces. Within Playback I also intend to fully review the catalogs of some of the artists whose entire discography I possess. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, the Beatles, and U2 are the largest individual discographies I have, and hopefully Playback will get a chance to examine theirs and more as I continue this blog.

I also will begin a series of smaller entries, which will have less form than Playback and as such will be nameless for now, based on reviews of individual songs. One strand I'm following as a guide in my journey is the history of the Billboard Charts, and in many cases these present artists for whom only a few (if not one) songs will suffice in my exploration. One-hit wonders will abound here, but sometimes there will be artists I just have no interest in besides their hit(s).

Other projects will surely follow, but for now let this post light my way for the coming future. As the blog builds, I hope to build a readership that will not only follow me in my journey but also guide me along to new and as-yet-unconsidered destinations. I'm ready to set sail.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vampire Weekend - Contra

On their debut album, Vampire Weekend name-checked Peter Gabriel. On their second album, they actually begin to sound like him.

Much has been written about these quirky hipster college kids and their cute, slightly afrobeat-influenced band. They made a splash kicking off 2008 with one of the first albums to be released of that year and repeat that timing in 2010. Contra arrives with lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig still writing twee-er-than-thou lyrics and the rest of the band chiming in with their shouted rhythmic "ay!"'s over some choruses. The major difference with Contra is that Vampire Weekend seem to be "maturing."

Songs on Vampire Weekend seemed to unspool with the chaotic energy of a band (no matter how staid compared to their peers) recording their first big splash of a debut album. Here, the songs don't have that energy at all. Opener "Horchata", the first song the blogosphere was exposed to from this set, sounds almost microscopically designed to present Vampire Weekend's "next step." The previous album's African tinge morphs into a Caribbean twinge. It seems like they shifted parts of their sound in a new direction, but the parts they didn't shift don't feel like a foundation. It's akin to moving only the black squares of a checkers board; experimenting with their sound without giving the experiment form.

So here we have synthesized beats (on more than a few tracks.) We have a murkier production, especially in the Brian Eno-lite ambience of "I Think Ur a Contra." It's these influences that make Vampire Weekend remind one of Peter Gabriel, only without the songcraft or vocal chops of the British worldbeat mystic. "I Think Ur a Contra" is also notable as being more down-tempo than any of the songs from their first record, a repeated occurrence on the album. Some songs on Contra are successful ("Taxi Cab", the best song on the new album, is the only one that sounds like it's a unified whole while simultaneously being good.) Most aren't. Perhaps it's the sophomore slump; one can only hope the half-formed experimentation yields a better whole next time, leaving a worthy mistake in its tread for this second album.

Where individual songs succeed, they only serve to provide the overriding criticism of the new album. "Taxi Cab"'s delicate, Magnetic Fields-like piano lilt reveals an emotional grace lacking in the other songs. "Horchata"'s tropical joy overshadows colder, bleaker soundscapes on the other upbeat tunes. "Run"'s punchy rhythms leaves the punk drive of the lead single, "Cousins", in the dust simply by sounding appropriate within its song. There are worthy songs on Contra, just not as many as on Vampire Weekend. So then there is hope for this band, as they are still young and this is just their second album. They may not become who we expected them to when their first album hit, but let's hope they get better than where this album shows them heading.