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Would You Believe – The Unforgettable Album

30 Apr

Would You Believe

I write the title of this post in partial jest because most music lovers have never heard of Billy Nicholls’ obscure album Would You Believe, but once you do listen to this album you cannot forget it. What is so tremendously intriguing about this album? What if I told you that the personnel enlisted for the recording of this album oozes with a plethora of British musical talent that you never realized took part in the creation of this lost masterpiece? Would you believe?

Would You Believe was conceived as the British response to Pet Sounds – as ostensibly evidenced by the similar colors (green and yellow) on the album cover and the wavy psychedelic wording. When you delve into the music, though, it does not at all resemble the airy surf psychedelia mastered by the Beach Boys. Instead, the listener receives a glimpse of the height of British psychedelic perfection, a combination of seemingly light sounds that actually represent a subtle grittiness featuring diverse instrumentation, swooning vocals, and heavy percussion. In a way, Would You Believe, which was released in 1968, represents a consistent bridge with the transition to early 70s British progressive blues-influenced rock. Oddly enough, the individuals who took part in the recording of this album played a huge role in this future music.

Andrew Loog Oldham, manager and producer of the Rolling Stones from 1963-1967, conceived this album and recruited Billy Nicholls, a teenage staff writer for Oldham’s Immediate Records, to take the lead role. Nicholls composed most of the tracks, except for the title track, “Would You Believe.” So who took part in the recording of the 12-track psychedelic pop album? Let’s see if you recognize the drowned-out secondary vocal in “Would You Believe.”

If you guessed Steve Marriott, you are correct! That’s right, that is Steve Marriott, the frontman of Small Faces and Humble Pie. The attempts to hide his vocal only add to the nonsensical humor it provides. In some sense, the song is a bit of a mess,  a jumbled concoction of eccentric instrumentation and even more eccentric vocals, but the abstruse combination of gibberish combined with a folk breakdown and baroque pop works well.

Who else is playing in the background? Future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones provides bass on the album with Ronnie Lane (of Small Faces and Faces). Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley combined with Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones for percussion, and session keyboard king Nicky Hopkins combined with Small Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and future Elton John collaborator Caleb Quaye. Not a bad lineup, right?

Enjoy one more piece, “It Brings Me Down”!

Live at The Cafe Au Go Go – The Blues Project

25 Apr

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During a four-day stretch of concerts in November of 1965 at the revered Cafe Au Go Go, a band of New York-based blues musicians recorded its first album. The club, which was the first New York venue for the Grateful Dead, also featured an often weekly collection of uber-talented blues artists entitled the Blues Project. I mention the Dead because the Blues Project was known as the New York response to the Grateful Dead, which was also a collection of incredibly talented blues musicians. Unfortunately, the Blues Project lacked the staying power and fell into 60s music history – although two members did form Blood Sweat & Tears. I bring the band back today on the Music Court because the debut live collection of covers is a sparkling example of true 60s blues music that engendered the propagation of the genre stateside.

The Blues Project was a jam band at its finest. The album was actually a cut version of several longer covers of famous blues songs like “Back Door Man” and “Goin’ Down Louisiana.” These covers were fresh and inspirational, as several British blues musicians would also come to cover these songs with similar aptitude. The big three members of the Blues Project were guitarists Danny Kalb (also vocals) and Steve Katz and organist Al Kooper. Tommy Flanders kicked in some vocals, and the band also included Andy Kulberg on bass and Roy Blumenfeld on drums. Al Kooper actually joined the group after its failed audition for Columbia Records; Kooper was a session musician and liked what he heard. It didn’t take long for the band to secure a record deal with Verve Records and record its first album. 

So, let’s talk a bit about Live at the Cafe Au Go Go. One of the interesting components of the album is that it blends classic 60s folk with pre-60s blues. For example, The Blues Project performs a version of “Violets of Dawn,” a piece by Greenwich Village folk staple Eric Andersen.

The piece is quintessential psychedelic folk, which was developing at the time with bands like the Byrds. The mellow song features a bright guitar that provides a consistent lead while the percussion and bass hold down the subdued rhythm. It’s the type of song that does not stand out to the listener but easily flows like a narrow stream. It’s hard to believe that the next track on Side 2 of the album is a version of Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” which sounds like this:

Just a killer version of this classic. It moves with vigor: effortless percussion, whining blues guitar, efficient bass, and fitting vocals. It is gritty and more true to real rock n’ roll blues. It also demonstrates The Blues Project’s ability to successfully swap between folk and rocking blues with ease. A truly talented band that deserved more listerners and success.

 

The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

26 Jul

It was announced this week that Arcade Fire have completed work on their forth albums. Details are sadly short on the ground, but it will be the follow-up to The Suburbs, one of the most critically-acclaimed and sadly forgotten albums of the last few years.

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Whereas their classic 2004 album Funeral was a bombastic ode to childhood, the Suburbs saw the band looking back at their own adolescence through the prism of the places where members Win and Will Butler grew up, the suburbs of Texas. The first few songs capture the uncertainty and boredom of being a teenager in a world ruled by adults, while still managing to create a radio hit in Ready to Start. There’s a heavy sense of nostalgia weighing down on them, a childhood that’s been irreversibly lost.

From there, the album skips on a couple of years. The children – friends, siblings, lovers? – of the early chapters have grown up and are returning home after ‘the markets crashed’ in 2008. The only thing worse than yearning for your youth is having your illusions about it shattered, but that’s what happens. The climax as the album is a two part song called Sprawl. The first one is a mournful, barely musical dirge in which the protagonist attempts to find his old home in the dark and fails, while in the second Win Butler’s wife Régine Chassagne gets to display her vocal talents in an ABBA-inspired track about the daily 9-5 grinding you down. The contrast beautifully sums up the album’s complex and mature themes.

There are a dozen more things I could rave about, from the constant threat of an apocalyptic war that hangs over the early tracks, the clever symbolism of light and darkness throughout or the way it manages to make big statements without ever coming off as pretentious. After the emotionally barren music that we are so often offered nowadays, an album that asks so many personal questions about you comes as a shock.

Full disclosure – it may not be the genre-defining masterpiece I imagine it to be. It may just be the tales of leaving your childhood home struck a chord with me at a time when I was beginning university, leaving a permanent imprint, but that’s exactly what good music should do. It should say the things you can’t and explain the world to you.

Before They Were Young Dudes – Mott the Hoople

9 Jan
Mott The Hoople (1969/70)

Mott The Hoople (1969/70)

Mott the Hoople may forever be linked with their glam-rock anthem “All The Young Dudes,” but some of their best material was released before David Bowie produced their seminal album and provided them with their breakthrough hit. A month before the turn of the decade, Mott the Hoople released their eponymous first album and it helped garner the band a cult following in the UK and even the United States. The album, though, remains unrecognized, as does much of Mott the Hoople’s work prior to All The Young Dudes was released in 1972, and while this is understandable (despite the fact that the majority of the band’s seven albums was released prior to 1972) it is not defensible. Mott the Hoople, released a month before the turn of the decade, features a diverse assortment of rock music that should achieve more recognition.

For most, the story of Mott the Hoople starts in 1972 with the band in discord. After the trio of albums released after their debut received negative reviews and did not sell well, the band seriously considered splitting up. Glam-rock superstar, David Bowie, a fan of Mott the Hoople, pleaded to the band to not traverse the River Styx. He offered them “Suffragette City” and when Mott the Hoople declined, Bowie gave them “All the Young Dudes,” a song he penned, and proceeded to produce the album of the same name. The album was awesome (and well-received), and the band dove head first into the Glam rock genre.

But let’s go back to the debut album. The group was ostensibly formed in 1966 (under a different name), but Mott the Hoople didn’t really start until Ian Hunter joined the band as lead singer/pianist. Mott the Hoople was recorded in a week, and the album features several covers, hard-rock hits, and, well, good Bob Dylan impersonations. Let me explain.

The first track on the 8-track album is a guitar-fueled instrumental cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”

It’s a three-minute rocker drenched in pedal-aided distortion and classic mid-70s flavor. Mid-70s flavor? I thought this album was released in 1969. It was. I’d argue that the album sounds more like a mid-70s, rock n’ roll-inspired compilation. This is, of course, where Mott the Hoople would end up prior to disbanding. In a sense, they inspired their later material, but in doing so I believe they helped inspire other bands. Listen to this.

You can really hear two styles duking it out in “Rock and Roll Queen,” the fifth track on Mott the Hoople. On one side you can hear bits and pieces of the blues-inspired psychedelic rock that clearly influenced Mott the Hoople’s sound. This, though, is covered up by the conventional 70’s heavy blues sound. You could just as easily hear this piece recorded by Bad Company, which was founded in 1973. Hmm…I wonder why… Well, the song also features a killer guitar solo by Mick Ralphs. Ralphs left Mott the Hoople in 1973 to start a new supergroup with his friend Paul Rodgers. The group’s name was Bad Company.

“Backsliding Fearlessly” is “The Times They Are A Changin.” Okay, it’s not exactly a Dylan song, but it certainly is an ode to Bob Dylan. It’s an excellent song, though; my favorite song on the album. It also represents why I love this album. There is such variety. It is a blend of fading 60s influences and the emerging powerful sound of 70s heavy rock. So, when we talk of Mott the Hoople, let it not just be about all the young dudes.

Singing The Natch’l Blues

3 Apr

The Natch'l Blues (1968)

Henry Saint Clair Fredericks Jr. has been a musician since birth. His mother sang in a Harlem, New York, gospel choir and his father was a piano player and jazz arranger. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Fredericks Jr. grew up with a keen ear for music – preferring Jazz and World Music. After his father died in an accident, his mother remarried, and at 13, his stepfather introduced him to guitar which became his instrument of comfort. In the late 50s he changed his stage name to Taj Mahal – citing Gandhi as an inspiration – and began playing music more regularly (pairing this love with his equal skill for farming).

Taj Mahal fused blues with world music and quickly became an inspirational musician. He has released 25 studio albums (and several live albums) over an ongoing 40-year-career. He has won three Grammy Awards, been featured on several albums, and he has also been in films – including Blues Brothers 2000. His career has been among some of the most industrious musicians AND he oozes with bluesy talent. Here is my question. Why is Taj Mahal not more universally recognized as the tremendous musician he is? And, yes, he has a great and faithful fanbase, but I think he deserves even more recognition.

I first saw Taj Mahal on PBS. Yes, PBS. After the Rolling Stones finally sucked in the pride and released footage from their Rock And Roll Circus, PBS featured the footage in one of their package sets. Taj Mahal was there in dark Lennon-like shades, a gold-colored vest, and a beige cowboy hat. He played “Ain’t That a Lotta Love” from the 1968 album (his second solo) The Natch’l Blues.

The Natch’l Blues is a nine-track album featuring Taj Mahal, session extraordinaire Jesse Ed Davis, bassist Gary Gilmore, drummers Chuck Blackwell and Earl Palmer (another session extraordinaire), and Al Kooper (later a member of Blood Sweat and Tears). The music is a blend of rock-infused, grunty blues and southern soul. Each track is worth an individual mention, but I am going to point out two for your enjoyment.

This is footage of “Aint That A Lot of Love” from the Rolling Stones Rock N’ Roll Circus. The defined bass riff is jumpy, the guitar composed, and Taj Mahal’s voice loose and passionate. It is Southern Rock/Blues at its finest – a gruntier and harder version of something the Allman Brothers would create. The music actually sounds to me like a combination of Capricorn and STAX records. It is most definitely a product of late 60’s blues (a genre that Eric Clapton was thriving in at the time). The footage is also fantastic.

“Corinna” is relaxed, but still a good example of the blues/soul mix that Taj Mahal excelled in creating. The harmonica and steel-bodied guitar blend together like ice cream and chocolate syrup and Taj Mahal’s voice accentuates the songs draw.

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