Thursday, April 30, 2009

9 Greatest Albums: Stevie Wonder - 'Innervisions'

Imagine you are preparing for the Singing Olympics. You will be competing against all other singers. The competition goes like this: You don't know what you will sing. It might be rock, it might be opera, it might be R&B, it might be jazz, it might be Broadway, it might be a standard, it might be a folk song.

How the hell do you prepare for these Singing Olympics? (Now that I've imagined them I desperately want them to happen and I want to compete...)

Here is what I would suggest. Put Stevie Wonder's 'Innervisions' on repeat and sing along. If you do that for a year, you will be in great shape. And you will have touched on just about any style you might need to draw on in order to win the Singing Olympics.

Unless of course Stevie himself is entered into the competition.

Then you might as well drop out and watch because you ain't winning. I first heard this album in college and as I wrote about in my reviews of The Who and The Stones, it was still a shock that I would find something I liked in the mainstream. But on closer inspection there is nothing mainstream about this music at all. Sure it is wildly popular but mainstream? Nope. This is experimental, personal, angry, wild, unpredictable, passionate and BIZARRE music.

When you realize that every sound you hear is pretty much being made by Stevie himself, the impact grows. When you know that he fought for creative control and left Motown so that he could stretch away from being the cute kid who played the harmonica, it explodes. 'Living For The City', the famous centerpiece of the album, is shocking TODAY. Imagine how it sounded a mere 5 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.

But let us go back to the imaginary Singing Olympics for a moment, shall we? In 'Living For The City', we hear the Stevie we've all come to know and love. That voice, clear as a bell, opens the song and we settle into it like you settle into your favorite outfit. It is familiar but perfect. Then the song breaks down into a narrative at the center of it, telling the story of a young black man coming to New York and immediately being railroaded into the penal system by a desperate drug dealer and racist cops. When the vocal line comes back in, Stevie Wonder is virtually unrecognizable.

The melody is still there, yes. But it is buried in a bark, a growl, the voice of a man who is unable to even see the difference in skin color that is somehow at the heart of the tragedy he has imagined. His anger is palpable. It drips in every word and Stevie Wonder, the smiling warm-hearted genius is TERRIFYING. The mere tone of his voice has indictment INSIDE of it somehow.

Flip that emotion on its ear and you will have 'All In Love Is Fair' which just might be the single saddest most beautiful recording of Wonders' career. The plaintive pain that informs the vocal arrangement is so perfectly articulated that you barely notice the effort it takes to achieve it. In other words, the Pyramids have an effect simply by being there. You have to force yourself to imagine a moment when they weren't there. And the work that went into them has completely disappeared but for the final product.

Pop this song on when you are in the shower so you won't be embarrassed. I have been PAID to sing professionally and let me tell you...this shit is IMPOSSIBLE. It goes so high, the lyrics are deceptively simple but hard to articulate clearly, and all of it has to be filled to the brim emotionally or else it will sound like a bad Hallmark card opened on a Grandma's birthday. Opening yourself up to the attempt of singing this song is to almost guarantee that you will burst into tears at some point.

Oh, right, let's go back to the fact that he played every instrument on the album. This is literally the music that happens inside of his head. My ex-wife used to say that his stuff sounds ALIEN, as if it were created by a higher power, or an outside force, something beyond humanity.

Stevie Wonder. Perennial Gold Medalist in the Imaginary Singing Olympics. In fact, let's cancel the competition until he decides to hang it up.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

10 Greatest Albums: The Who - 'Who By Numbers'

I blew off The Who in high school. There was no 'Beggar's Banquet' as there was with the Stones. I lumped them in with the establishment rock and roll that I had come to despise. Boy, was I wrong.

Even now it is hard to look at The Who with a fresh perspective. To imagine you'd never heard them, heard of them, knew anything about them at all. If you could create such circumstances you would have some hypnopomp indeed.

My college years were like most, I suppose, intense partying, new people, new experiences. My world centered around the theater department which was a world like any other undergrad world, with maybe a higher percentage of out-of-the-closet gay folks. This was the late '80's the difference between then and now is like the difference between answering machines and cell phones.

My tastes weren't really expanding into more mainstream areas. The new stuff I was hearing was mainly euro-pop like Erasure, New Order, Bronski Beat, etc. I wasn't crazy about this music. It had technical perfection and glossy beats but there seemed to be some sort of hole at the center of it.

Into that atmosphere came a couple of guys. One was actually a high school friend who'd briefly played bass in my band. Joe was a DJ at WRIU and took classes in the theater department. He was a good actor but mainly he enjoyed being behind the scenes. Stage managing, building sets, etc. He and another guy named Bill had similar tastes in music and they became friends.

I still can remember the first night I wound up hanging out with them down by Narragansett Beach. Bill had a huge record collection and we got beer and sat down to enjoy it. While he and Joe had nothing against punk rock, they held The Who, The Stones, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly in as high esteem as I did The Replacements, Husker Du, and The Clash.

Bill went to play a Who record and I made some sort of nasty snorting sound and said something negative. You'd have thought I'd insulted his mother. He and Joe then proceeded to lecture me for (I'm not kidding) an hour and a half about why I was wrong, how full of shit I was, and how I simply did not have the information I needed.

I begrudgingly admitted that I had heard 'My Generation' and maybe 'Pinball Wizard'. To this day I don't like those songs because the shadow of my punk prejudice hangs over them.

Then Bill opened me a Budweiser and played The Who's 'Who By Numbers' from front to back. And by the time it was over I was apologizing to Bill, Joe, and the members of The Who for my ignorance and malarkey.

I also found it ironic that in a year in which I'd been introduced to a whole subset of gay artists that the gayest thing I'd hear would be an album by The Who. To me it is clear that Pete Townshend is struggling to define his sexuality here, chafing at the restriction that fame puts on his interactions with people, and feeling as if the perception that people have of him is at odds with his real truth.

Many have doubted that Townshend ever ventured into any gay relationships. But here is the opening stanza of 'How Many Friends', a blistering self-excoriation that comes at the close of the album.

I'm feelin' so good right now
There's a handsome boy tells me how I changed his past
He buys me a brandy
But could it be he's really just after my ass?

Now, I might be jumping to conclusions, is it me?

In any case, whether he is or he isn't gay, did or didn't sleep with men, the point is that he is introducing the subject matter as a reality unto itself. The greater questions at the heart of the album are all about identity and what happens to a person when they are seen as something that they are not, or as something they desperately want to be but cannot.

This album is one long howl of pain, all dressed up in beautiful melody, bouncing bass lines, pounding drums, and soaring guitar solos. If you didn't know English your basic response might be enthusiasm, or vigor. These songs are calls to action musically. But when you climb inside the lyrics they are a morass of self-doubt, hatred, and questioning.

To a sheltered kid at college it was like a bolt of lightning from the sky. I had been wrong! The Who were as amazing as everyone said. And subversive! And ballsy! At the height of their fame they're singing about getting picked up in a bar by a young guy and being a 'well-fucked sailor'. I mean, are you kidding me? Total bad ass-ness.

In the middle of the album is a small song. It doesn't call much attention to itself but I think it is The Who's finest moment. It is called 'Blue Red and Grey'. I'm going to include the entire lyric sheet here...

Blue, Red and Grey

Some people seem so obsessed with the morning
Get up early just to watch the sun rise
Some people like it more when there's fire in the sky
Worship the sun when it's high
Some people go for those sultry evenings
Sipping cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day

I like every second, so long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It's all right when you're around, rain or shine
I know a crowd who only live after midnight
Their faces always seem so pale
And then there's friends of mine who must have sunlight
They say a suntan never fails
I know a man who works the night shift
He's lucky to get a job and some pay
And I like every minute of the day

I dig every second
I can laugh in the snow and rain
I get a buzz from being cold and wet
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain

And so you see that I'm completely crazy
I even shun the south of France
The people on the hill, they say I'm lazy
But when they sleep, I sing and dance
Some people have to have the sultry evenings
Cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day

I like every minute of the day


I was on the verge of adulthood. But I was still a kid. I had no responsibilities other than finding my favorite party or rehearsing some new play. This hint of optimism in the middle of that dark pool of regret and pain moved me very deeply.

The bravery it takes to say, "Hey, I love EVERY SECOND THAT I'M ALIVE", the determined absence of jaded cynicism in that sentiment, got me through many of my darkest college days, days when I felt like a paint-by-numbers sketch myself, when it felt like I was an outline for others to fill in.

When I had no idea who I really was.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

11 Greatest Albums: The Z-Digs - 'Scared Crows'

A boy watches his father die. He is the youngest of many children and yet he is already somehow the head of the household. He is an odd mix of achiever and artist. His wanderlust led him to the Peace Corps. During his time in Guinea Bissau he happened to read 'The English Patient'. Now, 15 years later, after a world traveling circuitous path, he works for the United Nations helping nations deal with unexploded land mines. If this trajectory were all you paid attention to you would have a lot to unearth.

But there is another side to his story.

In high school he was the wild card guitar player in Fecund Youth. Seemingly from the instant he picked the instrument up he was a lead guitar player. Not everyone has this impulse. I have played guitar now for 20 years and it is still difficult for me to 'solo'. Justin Brady was soloing almost before he knew how to play the damn thing. That's probably why he's so good.

He and I wrote a couple songs in high school, a couple good ones, actually, but he was definitely the George Harrison of our band. He came late and his creativity was not the focal point. He got to college and started his own band where he did most of the writing, music and lyrics. I was shocked (and am still shocked) that he chose a fraternity brother of his to be the singer. I wasn't even considered! Can you imagine? Sure I had no time because I was in 8,000 plays every semester and sure he was a member of the fraternity and I wasn't, but still...shocked I tell you. Shocked.

The Mag 7 was a very good band. But Justin still hadn't taken that final step. Once he bought a 4-track recorder it was only a matter of time. He began singing his own material. And that's when shit went crazy.

It is impossible to describe Justin's voice. In all honesty, it shouldn't work. It's like Neil Young. I still wonder whether Neil can sing or not. Justin is the same way. But the authenticity of that voice paired with the idiosyncratic nature of his songs brought his aesthetic out of hiding. The songs didn't have the same impact with someone else singing the melody.

Little by little he built an album. Most of these songs I'd heard at one time or another. Justin and I would have long bouts of creativity where we wrote, sang, improvised, joked, laughed, you name it. Then a few weeks would go by where I didn't see him and he'd play me what he'd recorded. Often I'd recognize some snippet that he'd come up with on the spot out on the turf farm next to his house or in the backyard down by the river.

At some point I expect Justin to make this music available to the public at large.

I include this album on this list for sentimental reasons, yes. He is my best friend. This album probably spurred my songwriting more than any other because it was a direct friend wrote it. But make no mistake...these are great songs. The production is intricate and balanced even though it is home-made. The emotional scope is vast and I defy anyone to remain unmoved when they hear 'Luka Blooms', the imagined words of a dead father sent back to give his son what he needs.

So, yeah, Justin has saved countless actual lives with the work he has done at the United Nations. That is important. But before he ever became a modern day super hero he had already recorded one hell of a debut album.

Monday, April 27, 2009

12 Greatest Albums: Public Enemy - 'Yo! Bum Rush The Show!'

In 1986 the blackest music I had in my collection was Prince, and as we all know he hails from Planet Purple, not Black America. I listened to angry music made by young white suburban males. And show tunes. What can I say, I was confused.

I spent an awful lot of time flipping through album covers at Ritchie's House of Bargains, the only local record store. I come from Rhode Island, supposedly a bastion of the liberal north east, but if you'd observed the stacks of Ritchie's House of Bargains you'd have thought there needed to be a sit-in.

If 5 black people and 5 white people were in the store at the same time they could browse and never cross paths. It is similar today in that music has fragmented to such a degree but the divisions then were startling.

One day I was in the store and it was empty. Now I remind you that I listened to nothing but punk rock at this point. I had disowned Prince briefly. Rap was a burgeoning force but I dismissed it as bubble-gum and silly and not creative enough. They aren't playing instruments? That ain't music. Drum machines? That ain't music. No singing? That ain't music.

For some reason, on this particular day, these prejudices were not sufficient enough to keep me from flipping through the rap section. I must have been curious enough to eschew my regular post, waiting for the latest Neutral Nation, 7 Seconds, Descendents, Circle Jerks, Meatmen, Dead Kennedys or Verbal Assault record to appear in the stacks.

So there I flip. My contact with rap had been limited to Run D.M.C., The Beastie Boys, The Sugarhill Gang, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 'The Message' had caused a sensation when I was in sixth grade but I wasn't really plugged in to popular music at the time. (See above reference to show tunes...ahem.)

Then an album cover leaped out at me. A bare light bulb glares directly into the lens. 7 young black men dressed in vaguely military gear gather around a turntable. The vibe is that of a group preparing for battle.

And their name was Public Enemy. Now I came from the punk world with band names like Social Distortion, Corrosion of Conformity, Youth Brigade, etc. But Public Enemy? Before I even heard a note I knew that this was way more punk rock than anything I was listening to. Even if I didn't like the music I connected to the attitude.

I spent some of my hard earned money. I worked weekends at Belmont Fruit occasionally and over vacations. Anything I wanted I had to buy on my own. There was one copy of the album in the store.

I got it home and put it on. In punk rock, the bare-bones production allowed the emotional content to be completely direct, unencumbered by studio polish or even songwriting craft. Much the same can be said for 'Yo! Bum Rush The Show!'. I became quite a Public Enemy fan and when you compare this album to their later greats there is a vast difference. This are no bells no whistles all force and beat.

What I liked (and like) about it is that you can hear the determination behind the sound. We only have this drum machine? We can only record for a short period of time due to finances? Don't matter. What we have to say is all that matters. You could play a metronome behind Chuck D and it would be compelling.

The instant his voice bangs out in the opening songs, 'You're Gonna Get Yours' it is clear that this is no mere front-man, no mere performer. He is incapable of a song that isn't politically charged, historic in significance. Even something that seems like a sexist rant against a 'Sophisticated Bitch' is rife with the implication that a weak personality in a black woman has social ramifications unlike those for a white woman. Incredibly challenging and difficult material.

Basically I flipped my lid. And wouldn't you know it? A few of my punk rock compadres showed their true colors (pun intended) in their reaction to the mere possibility of putting these black punks up against the white punks they so revered.

Much like many of the choices I highlight here, there are many caveats. I don't even feel that this is the best pure Public Enemy album. That honor for me would go to 'Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black'. But I will never forget the thrill I got when those manufactured beats came roaring out of my shitty little speakers.

Public Enemy. Just take a second to say the name stripped of your previous knowledge. PUBLIC ENEMY # 1.

I never looked at the world the same way after hearing that album for the first time. How many works of art can say they affected ANYBODY that way? Let alone the millions Public Enemy reached.

Indeed, it took a nation of millions.