A batch of Cross Rhythms reviewers consider the merits of 25 mainstream albums
Continued from page 1
Let Love Rule
Sounding for all the world like it was recorded 20 years earlier, American rock star Lenny Kravitz's 1989 debut album caught the attention of music lovers the world over in an age of consumerist electronic pop and introspective indie bands. Having experienced rejection from record labels, Kravitz set about recording his breakthrough album in his own inimitable style and, with his penchant for vintage instruments, valve amps and analogue recording equipment, the end result was simultaneously nostalgic and pioneering. Performing most of the instrumental duties himself (with some virtuoso help from saxophonist Karl Denson and Henry Hirsch on piano and Hammond), Kravitz cooks up a veritable banquet of spontaneity and energy that kicks off with the slow burning "Sitting On Top Of The World" before getting into the groove with the anthemic title track. Only three tracks in, proceedings turned into an impromptu jam session culminating in "Freedom Train" - a funk fest of fuzz guitars and boxy drums reminiscent of Sly And The Family Stone. And therein lies the secret to Kravitz's success - never one to disguise his reliance on his musical heroes, he all but name checks luminaries such as Prince in the vocal delivery of "Let Love Rule", Hendrix in the guitar solo of "Fear" and the Beatles in the idealistic "I Build This Garden For Us" whilst references to Stevie Wonder, Lennon and others are reverently scattered throughout. Claiming to be a born again Christian at the time 'Let Love Rule' was recorded, there are plenty of unmistakable references to faith ranging from a desolate and personal cry to his Lord in "Be", the use of part of the Lord's prayer in "I Build This Garden For Us" and, perhaps most notably, the almost evangelistic "Rosemary" which encourages the eponymous girl to receive Christ in order to get eternal life and relief from her mountainous problems. Puzzlingly, given the clarity of this message, Kravitz muddies the waters by including the F word in the otherwise great rant against racism "Mr Cab Driver" but this perhaps reflects the singer's self-confessed battles against worldliness - not least addictions to sex and drugs - that seem to have raged throughout his life. Whilst Kravitz has often been criticised for being cliché heavy, and it's certainly true he doesn't always push the envelope lyrically ("it's time to take a stand/brothers and sisters join hands" anyone?), the sheer gusto and passion with which he executes his art make this album as fresh today as the moment it was released.
Master Of Puppets
Through my late teens and early 20s there was a very simple answer to the question 'What is your favourite album of all time'. I wanted to answer with a Christian album but for pure epic metal brilliance nothing touched 'Master Of Puppets'. After two sterling earlier releases the band had hit their apex with number three - James Hetfield's vocals had never sounded stronger, Kirk Hammett was now fully established as lead guitarist and taking it to new levels, Cliff Burton had peaked at just the right time (and sadly died not long after the recording) and Lars Ulrich is their drummer. Right from the word go this album grabs you by the proverbials with the pounding riffage of "Battery"; then it's onto the title track, which remains the closest thing to hard music perfection I think anyone is ever likely to hear. I could go on about every single track with similar gusto as there's not a dud on the album, "Sanitarium" (for example) is one of the finest thrash tunes ever produced and "Orion" builds into an instrumental of incomparable quality. Recently a book was published entitled The Day Metallica Came To Church, the concept being that God can speak to us through everything. Everything? Really? In my opinion I'd certainly say it's true that the sacred/secular divide can often be unhelpful and that God can speak through many art-forms that aren't branded as 'Christian' but does God speak through Glee, Dancing On Ice or the Daily Star? Metallica do in fact have an interesting spiritual journey: at the time of this album James Hetfield (the main songwriter) was rejecting his Christian Science upbringing and was seen (along with the rest of the band) embracing the rock and roll lifestyle. "Leper Messiah" on this LP and "The God That Failed" on their 1991 self-titled album both show faith in a negative light. But as time went on he'd cleaned up his act and was found referencing matters of belief in a much more positive light. Many believe he has converted in much the same way as former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine (best known as the brains behind Megadeth) has but ultimately only James knows. All I know is that four very gifted musicians and writers all peaked in the mid-'80s and left behind the nearest thing to THE perfect heavy metal album.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Welcome To The Pleasuredome
Pop music historians still argue about how much of this album's monumental success was down to the catchy yet simple compositions of singers Paul Rutherford and Holly Johnson; how much was due to the groundbreaking hi-tech production work of Art Of Noise/Buggles mastermind Trevor Horn; and how much was created by the merciless hyper-promotion of one time music journalist Paul Morley. In a BBC review Daryl Easlea wrote how the group "united the scally-side of Liverpool with the city's arty, eyeliner wing - there was an aesthete, a cuddly dancer and 'the lads'. The group's humour, ideas and sexual deviance gave Horn and Morley more than enough raw material to play with." In terms of production values 'Welcome To The Pleasuredome' was truly a groundbreaking album with gargantuan drum beats, deliciously funky bass lines and mammoth synthesizer blasts while the title track was, if truth be told, a chunk of prog rock for the '80s (and which even includes Steve Howe from Yes playing some acoustic guitar on it). But despite all the sparkling studio dexterity demonstrated by Horn the thing most people remember about Frankie Goes To Hollywood is their forays into gay sex lyrics. Track 12 "Krisco Kisses" is one of those but it was the chart-topping single "Relax" which brought them notoriety and a mega hit. When I played "Relax" on a Lyrics Of The Top 10 seminar at Greenbelt and had the temerity to suggest that its salacious lyric ran contrary to the moral injunctions of the Bible it brought down upon me the wrath of a couple of gay members of the Greenbelt committee. 26 years on I still hold to the conviction that such morally warped lyrics should have no place in the record collections of believers seeking to live an authentic Christian life.
John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett
John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett
Otway and Barrett have always been spoken of in that order which perhaps tells us something of their relationship. Back in 1977 Wild Willy Barrett was an acclaimed folk and bluegrass musician on the local circuit and John Otway was a dustman with a dream. It's a long story and Otway's autobiography Cor Baby That's Really Me is recommended reading. Somehow or other Otway persuaded Barrett to provide the backing for his songs. Pete Townsend took an interest and produced some tracks and local star Barron Anthony of The Barron Knights lent a hand as well and as it was 1977 sheer enthusiasm took them into the charts with "Cor Baby That's Really Free". Although he does not have the strongest singing voice John Otway is not and has never been a punk. On this album he comes across as an old romantic several years before the New Romantics struck gold and Wild Willy can play anything with strings. Once we learn to love Otway's vocal failings or at least ignore them there is a great deal to admire on this debut. Wild Willy's skills stand out and there is some imaginative drumming going on behind. But the highlight is the material. Otway can write a tune and put on a performance. So we have the folk-punk of "Murder Man" and "Louisa On A Horse" (and "horse" here somehow rhymes with "cross" as she rides past local landmark Whiteleaf Cross), the rocking "Racing Cars" about Otway's chauffeur Jet Spotter - Jeff Potter to his friends - complete with name-check for rising Aylesbury face Magenta DeVine, the first hit "Really Free" although in its original semi-acoustic form and the follow-up flop, "Geneve", again in a different version to the Walt Disney Mix which Wild Willy (by now livid) refused to have anything to do with when it was released. "Geneve" is, in my book at least, one of the very finest ballads of unrequited love and if ever it was covered by someone who could do it justice would become a standard. But then that would not be Otway. "Really Free" in its punk-rock form made the lower reaches of the Top 30 in 1977 but it was not until 25 years later that Otway once again troubled the chart compilers.
The Beach Boys
For those of us of a certain age the timeless pop singles written by Brian Wilson and sung by his band of brothers, friends and cousins have defined summer - but it was not always thus. The pop single in the early 1960s was disposable: here today, replaced by the next big thing tomorrow so by 1974 many of the 20 golden greats on this compilation had become somewhat obscure. I do not know which marketing executive at Capitol Records thought of issuing this double album but, boy, did he (or she) hit pay-dirt. The colourful cover is, er, quaint and rather misleading as it pictures the Boys in their hirsute glory of the mid 1970s not as the fresh faced not long left off being teenaged boys who had somehow conquered the recording studio, indeed the entire industry, and changed the course of pop music. There are no liner notes to give us a context and no information about what the Boys had been up to since breaking away from Capitol Records (and could this repackaging of past glories have been a spiteful spoiling tactic?). The running order is chronological so we travel from "Surfin Safari" (May 1962) with its primitive garage band feel to the glorious "Good Vibrations" (October 1966). Think about these dates for just one cotton-picking moment: in four years Brian Wilson had gone from the bish-bash of "Surfin' Safari" to a candidate for the greatest single ever recorded. Actually, "Good Vibrations" does not belong on this collection, either thematically or chronologically but, no doubt, its illustrious presence helped to shift a few more units. Track 19 is "All Summer Long", a wonderful teenage hymn to summer fun from 1964 which marked Brian's last visit to the beach until "Do It Again" in 1968. In the meantime he turned his attention to the perfect pop album with 'Pet Sounds' before crashing and burning with 'Smile'. "Good Vibrations" was written during the 'Pet Sounds' sessions but intended for 'Smile' but there lies another story for a different review. The themes of 'Endless Summer' are surfing ("Catch A Wave"), girls ("California Girls"), both together ("Surfer Girl"), cars ("Little Deuce Coupe") and "Fun, Fun, Fun" all the way. Even when things go wrong (as in "Girl Don't Tell Me") we have the feeling that they will kiss and make up in the end. And yet there is a down side: "Don't Worry Baby" has an achingly beautiful melody but it is about a fatal car race, "Let Him Run Wild" sees our young hero going off the rails, and "In My Room" hints at the emotional turmoil that Brian Wilson was experiencing even at his creative zenith. But we should not use our hindsight to read too much into what are three minute pop songs to be listened to on AM radio. And yet. . . each is a gem that other composers would have killed to have written; we have not even mentioned "I Get Around" and "Help Me Rhonda". Truly, 'Endless Summer' contains 20 golden greats (but that is a different collection). And yet, 'Endless Summer' was a massive hit: number one in the US album chart where it remained for five years - outselling by a distance all the new material that the Beach Boys were producing and crushing the creativity of the Wilson brothers. For most pop lovers The Beach Boys will remain the 'Endless Summer' band: a great legacy and some timeless songs and yet there is so much more to America's favourites.
Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
It was stunning records like this that led me to write a book about the Sound Of Philadelphia. The Blue Notes had been on the periphery of the Philly scene for years, starting off as old school doowoppers. But it was when they allowed their drummer Teddy Pendergrass access to the lead vocal mic that they finally had in place a line up that brilliant producers, composers and founders of Philadelphia International Records Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were able to lead them to platinum selling paydirt. In retrospect, the Blue Notes switching to Teddy's churchy style of singing was just how another '50s doowop group, the Dells, updated their sound for soul success when Marvin Junior took over lead vocals. Like Marvin, Teddy's rasping, gasping, declamatory approach came straight out of '50s gospel quartets and, set against some lush harmonies and flamboyantly dramatic arrangements played with aplomb by the MFSB session men, was a captivating sound. Several of the songs here, like the eight and a half minute opener "I Miss You" and Morris Bailey's "Ebony Woman", are good. But it's the solemn ballad "If You Don't Know Me By Now" which shows Pendergrass, Gamble and Huff at their absolute finest. Though the song was of course later to be given a vastly inferior run through by the ridiculously overrated Simply Red, this towering original fully deserves its million selling status. On the song, Teddy, the ardent though wearied lover, tries one last time to convince his woman that their life together has a future. Such passionate melodrama is at the heart of real soul music and this is as soulful, and moving, as soul gets. Sadly, Teddy's solo career took him into male sex symbol territory before a terrible accident all but ended his career. The fact that the last thing he recorded was "O Happy Day" for the 'Songs 4 Worship: Soul' project leaves us hoping that the soul star came to faith in the God who gave him such exceptional vocal abilities.
In the unlikely event of you hearing the music without being told the identity of the artist I think you may struggle to guess that this is indeed the Beach Boys, who, in 1971, were contemplating dropping the "Boys" part of the name to show that they had grown up. Part of the masterplan put in place by new manager Jack Rieley was to record an album on environmental issues to be called 'Landlocked'. Thus we open with "Don't Go Near The Water" that bubbles along quite merrily with a cheerful tune that is at odds with the sombre if somewhat portentous lyrics about ecological aftermaths. Note the use of a new-fangled Moog synthesiser played as an instrument in its own right rather than as a surrogate string section. Next up is one of Carl Wilson's finest moments both as singer and songwriter: "Long Promised Road". This is a genuine AOR pop rocker with a short and very sweet guitar solo that is a million miles from the Dick Dale style surf twang of the 1960s Beach Boy sound. Next is a whimsical piece of nonsense by Al Jardine: "Take A Load Off Your Feet" which is surely the best ever ode to podiatry. Brian and Dennis Wilson are conspicuous by their absence. Brian's touring stand-in, Bruce Johnston gives us song number four and, in the process, provided himself with his own pension fund: "Disney Girls" is a nostalgic look back at a California that was already just a memory and also a lovely melody that has been much covered. Side One closes with Mike Love's re-working of Leiber & Stoller's "Riot In Cell Block Nine" with new lyrics to reflect the anti Vietnam War riot at Kent State University the previous year: "Student Demonstration Time". It rocks along with sirens screaming and Love's voice processed to sound like a police bullhorn. It must have sounded very right-on and hip in 1971 but today is just an historical curiosity. Side Two continues the collection of solo songs with a mystical Carl giving us "Feel Flows" that is beautiful but incomprehensible, Alan offers us a folk-tinged "Welfare Song (Looking At Tomorrow)" and then Brian finally shows his hand. Or does he? Brian Wilson is a complex individual with his own sense of humour. His first song is the quirky "Day In The Life Of A Tree" that is intoned by manager Rieley. Personally I think the song would have been perfect for Dennis; Rieley says he was told he was just laying down a guide vocal and was surprised when Brian told him it was to be issued and, as ever with the Brian, there is a perfect tune in there and the coda busts into life like a tree budding in spring. And then we get what could be the most beautiful suicide note ever written: "'Til I Die". As a glimpse into the writer's mind it shows a deeply troubled man who, despite his problems, can still write achingly beautiful music. And then we reach the title track. It was a record company executive who suggested raiding the archives and attaching the unreleased 'Smile' song "Surf's Up" to the new release. It just so happens that said executive was none other than the lyricist Van Dyke Parks. He got his way, in spite of Brian's horrified reaction, and the album duly went on to sell sufficient copies to chart on both sides of the Atlantic. "Surf's Up" the song is a beautiful, shimmering thing of wonder and Van Dyke's lyrics are perfect even if they are perfectly incomprehensible. Shoe-horning another 'Smile' song, "Child Is Father To The Man" as a coda makes musical sense even if it reduces two potential classics into one. But does "Surf's Up" the song belong on 'Surf's Up' the album? Not really but without it the proposed 'Landlocked' would have sunk without trace and that would have been a shame as there is much to enjoy here. Even in their decline the Beach Boys were always worth hearing.
The Main Ingredient
For a brief period this trio of New York harmonisers made some of the greatest sweet soul records around and in Donald McPherson had one of the best, and most underrated, lead singers of all time. Their hits included "You've Been My Inspiration", a cover of the Impressions' "I'm So Proud" and "Spinning Around (I Must Be Falling In Love)". With producer Bert DeCoteaux enveloping Donald's achingly expressive tenor in rich orchestral arrangements every bit as good as the dramatic studio concoctions Thom Bell put together for a host of Philadelphia acts, and an unerring ability to choose top rate songs. The Main Ingredient were a fine group. For my money, the best song of all on 'Tasteful Soul' is "Look At Me", a gem of a David Gates composition originally recorded by Gates' Bread group. With a plaintive arrangement from DeCoteaux featuring haunting woodwind, McPherson brings out all the reflective sadness of the lyrics ("Look at me I'm fading into the floor/And wonder if I'm living anymore"). In view of the song's gloomy reflection of man's mortality it was particularly poignant that in less than a year of the song being recorded, Donald McPherson should be dead, after contracting leukaemia. The stunned group brought in a new lead singer, Cuba Gooding (father of the well known actor who starred in such movies as The Fighting Temptations), and enjoyed a string of new hits. But it was the McPherson-led group who made the biggest impact on this reviewer.
Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon's first release following the break-up of the Beatles proved to be in stark contrast to his previous work within the confines of his old band. Gone were the multicolour aural landscapes and poetic licence of "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "I Am The Walrus" only to be replaced by stripped-bare instrumentation and some bitingly honest lyricism that would provide the template for much of Lennon's subsequent solo work. This eponymous album features Lennon alternately on piano and distorted guitar duties accompanied by Ringo Starr and Klaus Voorman (drums and bass respectively) and was released in 1970 after Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono undertook primal therapy, the controversial treatment developed by American psychotherapist Dr Arthur Janov which argued that childhood traumas can be eliminated by re-experiencing the incidents in question and fully expressing the pain - most famously by screaming - in the here and now. In Lennon's case, his childhood demons revolved around the death of his mother at the hands of a drunk driver, his father's absenteeism and the rejection and isolation brought on by both factors. Having found the courage to confront his sufferings through Janov's treatment, the songwriter decided to do what came naturally and expressed his pent-up emotion, anger and hurt through his music. In fact, Lennon wastes no time in getting down to business with the opener "Mother" which sees him candidly vent the pain suffered due to the loss of his parents before repeatedly screaming out with increased ferocity the refrain of "Mama don't go/Daddy come back" which, to this day, remains one of the most severe and affecting expressions of emotional pain in musical history. Elsewhere, a range of feelings and subjects are tackled with the placid "Hold On" expressing hope and "Isolation" conveying the singer's vulnerability whilst the ruthless "I Found Out" contains an outpouring of ire that made previous opinionated statements such as "Revolution" sound like lullabies. Denouncing belief in the likes of Christ and Krishna, Lennon uses "I Found Out" to hint that faith in one's self is the only plausible solution to life's problems. This train of thought is carried forward in "God" which sees Lennon confidently claim that God is only a figment of the imagination before systematically rejecting belief in anything except himself and Yoko. Elsewhere, the somewhat contrived social comment of "Working Class Hero" - which includes some unnecessary expletives - and the chilling closing snippet "My Mummy's Dead" add fuel to the fire of this relentless hotbed of candour. Whilst, like its creator, this release has more than its fair share of angst, anger and arrogance, there are also some memorably tender moments that show Lennon's less caustic side. For instance, the beautifully understated "Love" - complete with a timeless contribution from legendary producer Phil Spector on piano - continues the over-riding theme of Lennon's past work whilst the acoustic "Look At Me" sees Lennon gently turning to his lover for answers as to the purpose of his existence. To this day, this collection of demo-like songs remains fresh, occasionally shocking and always sincere and, whilst as a Christian there is very little to agree with in terms of its opinions, one has to step back and admire the risk that Lennon took in choosing to release such an divulging and exposed piece of work to launch his solo career.
Raining In My Heart
This was one of the first albums I ever bought. It had a terribly inept sleeve design, the title track is a cod Louisiana ballad which remains as excruciating today as it was in 1961; and bluesman Slim Harpo has a strange singing-through-the-nose style even more irritating than Dylan. Yet despite these defects, the best cuts on this set are as brilliant as when they were recorded back in the '50s. Pride of place here goes to the two songs which were Slim's first single release in 1957 "I'm A King Bee" and "I Got Love If You Want It". Despite these blues gems being mauled by all manner of lesser talents during Britain's beat group era, no one got close to reproducing Slim's hypnotic droning vocals and the delicious drive by a bunch of choice sidemen put together by producer/record label owner Jay Miller in his Crowley, Louisiana studio. Although Slim blew a bit of harmonica himself it was the talents of mouth harp virtuoso Lazy Lester which added true greatness to Harpo's sound and tracks like "Blues Hangover" and "Moody Blues" (yep, the British band copped the name) are magnificent. Later in his career Slim was to hit with more singles like "Baby Scratch My Back" and "Shake Your Hips". But it's these early recordings which connected the most with me.
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Look It's The Moonglows
Secular music history has a habit of writing the Church out of its accounts on how different styles came into being. Jazz is supposed to have begun in the brothels of New Orleans rather than the improvised worship of the 19th century rural church. Similarly, doowop supposedly emerged fully formed onto urban America's street corners and subways. In fact, the cool vocal harmony sounds of doowop are directly descended from the pre-war jubilee gospel groups and there are hundreds of jubilee recordings made in the '30s featuring wurpaburbing bass singers and high, mellifluous lead singers. But leaving aside such things, no one can argue that in the '50s doowop was there, along with the emergent rock'n'roll as a compelling sound vying for the attention of teenage audiences both black and white. It was in the early '50s that doowop existed at its quintessentially best and the Moonglows, out of Cleveland, were right up there with the top harmonisers warbling their eerily solemn tales of teenage love. This compilation captures many of their best moments with lead singer Bobby Lester showing what a master of phrasing he was when he transformed an old Tin Pan Alley ditty "Penny Arcade" into something special while the Moonglows' version of the old ballad "Blue Velvet" is definitive and far outstripped the later version by Bobby Vinton. But the stone classic of this set is "The Ten Commandments Of Love", a hit in 1958 originally credited Harvey & The Moonglows. Harvey was, of course, Harvey Fuqua, who was later to marry into the Berry Gordy dynasty and becoming a hit songwriter and producer for Motown Records. Here he demonstrates doowop's religious origins by re-writing the set of Commandments Moses received in favour of romantic and sentimental platitudes ("Thou Shalt never love another", "Go through life wearing a smile"). Some may wince at the cod-religious atmosphere complete with bass voice recitation. But with Harvey's marvellous mellifluous lead and droning backup from the guys it remains a doowop classic.
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