Key To Music Grades

A - You will never be whole without it
B - Highly recommended
C - Flawed, but still pretty good
D - It's your money, not mine
F - Why couldn't this have been burned in Fahrenheit 451?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Kinks - Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)

I know a few people who love the Kinks. I know a few who hate them. I know a few who haven't a clue who in the Sarah Palin they are by name, yet have heard "Lola" a billion times or any of the several covers Van Halen has done of their songs ("You Really Got Me," "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?," "Dancing In The Street"). So where, you might ask, do I stand? Well, I think Ray Davies is a solid songwriter, but whose penchant for large themes and minute storytelling is a wee bit messy. Musically, I think the Kinks have a wide variety of interesting riffs and melody changes, but whose total sound is a bit homogenized and therefore makes it difficult for me to remember much. The Kinks are very much like an exercise in the dual existence of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity insofar as they can't seem to make the tiniest of the tiny mesh with the grandest of the grand. And that's precisely why no Kinks record will ever receive a B grade or higher, since not a one are essential; they feature a few excellent songs and are otherwise comprised of a continuum of sameness. This is not to say the records are bad, either; in fact, I don't think the Kinks have many bad songs at all; they simply don't have too many great ones.

Therefore, let's get specific. Arthur is a concept album; it's long-winded and cumbersome, like an old horse with three legs trotting uphill. I actually tried to really listen to the lyrics on this one and like most rock lyricists, Ray hopes by being descriptive that you'll garner the broader idea. Great job, Ray. The British Empire is declining and I can feel it in every note of this slightly upbeat mid-tempo music you're singing along to. "Shangri-La" is amazing; if every song was like this, I might not have written the aforementioned. Beautiful acoustics and chord changings, a great harpsichord backdrop, nifty interludes, a powerful chorus, eclectic guitar-work -- and it feels epic, even though its five minutes. But for five minutes, "Shangri-La" carries more potency than the entirety of the album. "Victoria" is a solid rocker; but beyond that, everything else is pretty good and I would not be able to name any other songs, even under threat of no more Guinness. There's a reason these guys never became as huge as they could have and also why they've never been completely forgotten -- and sometimes impossible to form an opinion of! Ergo, expect my reviews of their subsequent albums to be eerily similar to this one, and also expect me to avoid doing so for as long as possible. C+

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Pogues - Red Roses For Me (1984)

With anything Irish, there's always an element of "what the fuck?" wherever we happen to show our pasty freckled faces, so it should be of surprise to no one that the Pogues are invariably multifaceted in this respect. I mean, really, myself and Master Cianan are ample enough of a problem to the world, jettisoning our delectable snark or poo onto unsuspecting citizens like drunken clowns; can you imagine an army of like replicates? Madness... Joking aside, because I've gone completely off subject, the Pogues meld traditional Irish folk melodies and harmonies with a potent musical ferocity akin to the punk of the Sex Pistols, courtesy of resident lyricist/vocalist Shane MacGowan. That's right: this is Irish folk music that will grab you by the throat and crush it. Don't believe me? Imagine a perfectly symmetrical box. Then listen to "Waxie's Dargle." Is the box still there, or has it turn into a collapsed squiggle of lines? I admit for some the thick slurring of seeming vocables may be a bit much at first, but who would you rather recite you lyrical poetry: a drooling drunken Dionysus or a sober stoic Antisthenes? MacGowan's no whiskey tenor, and his occasional gruffness might repel some, but that's the price you pay for singing it honest. Other faves: "Transmetropolitan," "Streams Of Whiskey," "Greenland Whale Fisheries," etc. Oh, "Battle Of Brisbane, too. You can only fault yourself for not listening to this hereafter. B

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Grand Funk Railroad - Caught In The Act (1975)

They've been revered on the Simpsons, broke the Beatles attendance record at Shea Stadium and had the chutzpah to imply that they were America's band. Meanwhile, critics loathed the lilies out of them and their rapid ascension to superstardom deflated just as quickly. So why, pray tell? Well, because these guys -- musically -- are pretty bad. Like many bands, past and present, they had a dozen great songs scattered across amazingly awful albums; but where other bands fizzled, Grand Funk proved that it really is all in the timing. For one, they had a genuine raw energetic live act; secondly, they unabashedly positioned themselves as not-British Invasion; and furthermore, they wrote a fucking ton of songs and released a gazillion and one albums within a few short years. Like the pop bands of today, they realized that constant exposure, for good or for bad, will give you perhaps a few more miles out of the galllon. Mix it all up, swish it around in your mouth and pick only the choice morsels from your teeth, and what you get is this live gem, Caught In The Act.

Ever wonder why Homer says, “You guys don’t know Grand Funk? The wild shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner? The bone-rattling bass of Mel Schacher? The competent drumwork of Don Brewer?” Well, this is the album for you. I personally think Mel Schacher is the main attraction; he plays the bass like he's the lead guitarist. But otherwise, this album is all about heart. No one is ever going to put Mark Farner on a list of even the 100,000 greatest guitarists, real or fictional; and no one is going to practice their chops over Don Brewer's simplistic drum lines? But who cares? This is simplistic, soulful rock in perhaps its greatest setting: a live concert. How else could these guys do a better version of "Gimme Shelter" than the Stones? Its fucking meaty, that's why, whereas the original is just a touch stilted. So gather all ye round, my fellow rock 'n' rollers, play some "Footstompin' Music," eat yourself some "Black Licorice" and come on and ride the railroad, one more time. Oh, and do not, I repeat, do not defer to the studio equivalents. You will be sorely disappointed. A