Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 2)

Aaaand we’re back. Let’s delve into side 2 of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, their finest moment as a band and one of my favorite records ever. If you’re (Brian) jonesing for more Stones, check out Matt Fogelson’s review of Exile on Main St. here.

Side Two

6. Funk and soul drummers will occasionally talk about a groove that they “can’t turn loose.” What they mean by that is that the rhythm has a momentum of its own, and the player seems to lose control. They zone out and the physical act of producing those sounds takes over. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens on “Midnight Rambler.” It is a blues locomotive. It’s not as clever as the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but it’s not meant to be. While the Beatles got more cerebral over the course of their career, the Stones, if anything, got even less. Like a crocodile, that de-evolution has allowed them to survive.

7. “You Got the Silver” was the first time Keith Richards had ever been given a full lead vocal on a Rolling Stones album. That in and of itself is fairly remarkable. By 1969, Mick Jagger was certainly established as the only lead singer of the Rolling Stones, and to give Keith his own lead vocal almost seems against the rules. Which, luckily, is also very rock & roll. And it’s a good thing they chose to break the rules, because this is perhaps one of the most empathetic vocals on the album. Keith doesn’t have a good voice, but he has one that is true and full of pathos. The Stones are not generally a great band for lyrics, but these are some of the most well-wrought on the album: “Hey baby/What’s in your eyes/I see them shining/Like airplane lights.” Or a lyric as simple as “You got my heart/You got my soul/You got the silver/You got the gold.” It’s a sensitive, perfectly pitched performance, which builds up into a rocking coda.

8. “Monkey Man” begins with nebulous piano/guitar interplay which vaguely echoes “Gimme Shelter” before Keith Richards and Charlie Watts push it aside with a literal one-two punch at 00:21. Guitar and drums are in the driver’s seat until the bridge at 2:35, which sounds huge and orchestral, despite the fact that no new instruments are introduced. Mick Jagger cuts the bridge short at 3:13, with a re-entrance so pained you can hear the spit on the microphone. Playing around with the sonic space of this track—really dry, close mic’d guitars vs. the lush, expansive piano sounds—creates a great give and take, almost like the track is expanding and contracting as it goes along. It’s not anything new, but it is thoughtful and well done.

9. Finally, inevitably, we get to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is the loudest, most decadent, most complex song of the lot. The use of the choir is sublime and subversive—turning the Man’s institutions against him—the French horn is beautiful, and the rest of the band in fine form. The little details never fail to impress me in this tune, like the way Mick over-enunciates his “t’s” in the first verse, mocking the choir, or how the choir fades out as the organ fades in on the final vamp. I think it’s some of producer Jimmy Miller’s finest work, hands down. “Get What You Want” has been called the Stones’ response to “Hey Jude,” and that’s certainly evident. But, again, while the Beatles get more complex throughout the song, the Stones again get more elemental, stripping the song to its barest elements before building it back up.   Most importantly, it contrasts with Let It Bleed‘s opening message. The album begins on a dark, uncertain note, and over the course of the next half-hour goes through jilted love and serial killers. But its final message is one of dogged hope and practical optimism. I can’t think of a better way to end the album—and the decade—than that.

Let it Bleed is a guide to rock & roll in all the forms it was and ever will be: the symphonic, the gutbucket, the poignant and the sexy. I come back to this album again and again because to me, this is what the music is supposed to sound like. Please bury me with a copy.

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Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 1)


I wanted to start a little dialogue on what makes the Rolling Stones so great, so I challenged Matt Fogelson of Fine Tuning to talk about his favorite album, Exile on Main St, while I talked about Let it Bleed. Matt writes a hell of a blog, and you should check out his thoughts here.

Why are the Rolling Stones the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World? Is it because they’re all old as dirt and still touring 50 years after they first got together? No. Is it because Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have transcended their human forms and become archetypes in their own lives? No.

It is simply because they play rock & roll better than any other band. They are not the fastest, they are not the most talented, and they are not the flashiest. But as a band, they have the best handle on what rock & roll music is supposed to sound like: organic, slightly sloppy. Rollicking, a touch boozy, hopped up on sex and cigarettes. They are the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World because they may actually be the Only Rock & Roll Band in the World.

The Beatles played rock & roll, but not much after Rubber Soul. Led Zeppelin played rock—rock & roll’s heavier, angrier cousin. But the Rolling Stones have always just done rock & roll, and on this one album, 1969’s Let it Bleed, they not only played rock & roll, but played it with all its possible shadings: melancholy country, speed-freak blues, symphonic excess.

It is my favorite Rolling Stones album, and maybe even my favorite album ever.

And when I say it’s my favorite album, I mean that both a set of songs and as a physical object: the disc, the cover art. The cover is weird, to say the least. Cake toppers in the shape of the band, a clock, pizza. Hmm. Then flip to the back. The whole arrangement is wrecked. Record broken, tape pulled out, cake toppers scattered all to hell. One slice pizza, one slice cake removed. The message is clear: take your twee, ordered existence and shove it. Oh, and give me a slice of that damn pizza.

Then, the inside sleeve, black ink printed on lavender paper, a color so delicate that it can’t help but seem decadent. And what does it say, after the credits and right under the “boys in the back room?” All caps, bold type: THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.

Before we even get to the music, the Stones have just done a master class in rock & roll aesthetics. It is a both a sneering, over-the-top, caveman product coupled with a self-consciousness, chummy and informal.

Side One

1. “Gimme Shelter,” the album’s opener, has rightly been pegged as one of the 60’s definitive songs. It captures the zeitgeist at the end of an era, where innocence and optimism were starting to give way to darker impulses and excesses—rape, murder, as background vocalist Merry Clayton screams. What I think is a little under-celebrated about this track, though, is the intro. It actually seems to fade in, which is an unusual choice even today, and gives the listener the impression that they have opened a door and interrupted an elemental something that has always been in progress.

My favorite moment, though, comes at 3:03. Right after Merry Clayton’s famous voice crack at about 3:01-3:02, you can hear Mick Jagger in the background go “Whoo!” (Listen on headphones and turn it up—might take you a couple passes, but I promise it’s there.) That’s the kind of organic, slightly sloppy detail that makes this album such a winner.

Right around the time of Let It Bleed’s release. Brian Jones, second from left, would die soon after the album’s completion. Conspiracy theories galore abound.

2. The next song cuts a beautiful contrast to the scope and power of “Gimme Shelter.” That’s another part of this record’s appeal, at least for me: each track presents something a little different from its predecessor, and that contrast heightens the appeal of each new song. “Love in Vain” is one of the most sensitive, intimate performances the Stones ever laid down. It’s not so much a rock & roll song as pure country blues, a tribute to rock & roll’s roots and just one of the ways that the Stones manage to keep touch with those elements on the record. The Beatles put out Abbey Road just days before Let it Bleed was released, and from this microcosm, it’s hard to imagine two more different records—“Love in Vain” is resolutely traditional rather than modern.

3. The case of “Country Honk” is a curious one. It would appear to be a re-working of “Honky Tonk Women,” which was released in July 1969, but in reality, this country-rock version was recorded first, back in March. After “Honky Tonk Women” was released as a single, this prototype version found its way onto Let it Bleed. Why?

The simple answer is that it was probably intended as album filler. But its inclusion offers a great window onto the band’s creative process, and plays around with the notion of an “unplugged” version a good twenty years before MTV started using the term. It’s an atmospheric track that almost convinces you that it was recorded on a Mississippi street corner, an illusion helped by another great off-the-cuff Mick Jagger performance in the introduction.

4. When I first deciphered the lyrics to “Live With Me” in my tender pre-teenage years, I knew without a doubt that this was not one I should play in the car with my parents. This song is unrepentantly dirty, with a nasty, strutting groove. The bass intro alone is enough to loosen your belt, and you expect to discover a hickey on your neck by the time the song explodes in a fearsome Bobby Keys saxophone solo. Like some much of this album, it’s a lesson on another part of rock & roll’s DNA: sex is ingrained in the music (just look up the origins of the term “rock & roll,” why dontcha?), and the Stones provide a potent reminder here.

5. If I have to admit that there’s a weak song on this album, I’ll throw “Let it Bleed” to the lions. Like “Country Honk,” it was probably intended as filler. It’s fine, but not exceptional, and seems like it was written just so the album could have a title track. There is, though, one redeeming moment. The lyric “I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement/when you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea” has always struck me as a weird and beautiful piece of imagery. I think it’s something about the contrast of metal and tea—inorganic and organic. Make of it what you will.

Phew! That’s it for side one–tune back in next week, and I’ll flip the album over and discuss side two…serial killers, monkeys, and a boy’s choir await!

Album of the Week: Too Much Fun, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

There’s a school of thinking that says in order to find out if you like an artist, or to develop an appreciation for one, you need to pick an album, any album, and jump right in.

But what happens if you start learning about Van Morrison by listening to Astral Weeks? What if, God forbid, you try to develop a taste for the Rolling Stones by starting with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request? You’ll get a false reading: Astral Weeks is a hard album to wrap your head around, even for diehard fans, and Satanic Majesty’s is just plain bad.

Enter the greatest hits album. They’re the perfect gateway into a band’s back catalog, (and I’m sure the 2 or 3 record label executives left on the planet are vigorously nodding), and allow you to get a feel for an artist’s entire career rather than just one moment. But with some bands, I find you don’t need much more than the greatest hits album. And that’s not a criticism–sometimes you just hit gold on the first try. I love this album, and I can’t imagine I’ll find another one by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen that I’ll ever like more. In fact, I listened to this on a car ride to Connecticut last week, and I sang along with every word. Every last one.

Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, and enjoyed decent popularity for the next 10 years or so. Michigan might seem like a weird place for a country band, but then Commander Cody was definitely a weird country band. Rather than straightforward outlaw country or the polished Nashville sound, the band was rooted much more in Western swing, boogie-woogie, and early rock & roll, and they delivered it all with manic energy and giant ‘70s mutton chops. There’s definitely a dose of hippie sensibility mixed up in there too, from their infamously wacky cover art to their country laments about running out of weed (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”).

Most of the songs on the disc are covers of songs by artists that I’ve never heard of. Say whatever else you will, but the band had a fantastic ear for a forgotten gem, and they were adept at taking old songs and reinvigorating them for a new audience.

The obvious place to point you is track three, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was the band’s biggest hit. If you like Cake and John McCrea, George Frayne’s spoken delivery won’t bother you a bit. Even if it does, there’s so much to keep you entertained here that you won’t focus on it for long. Apart from the explosive riff, which is so hard that even the great Bill Kirchen doesn’t even play it clean every time (check the sour note at 0:54), there is some truly innovative playing from fiddle player Andy Stein and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper. Between the two of them, they produce all the sound effects on the track—squealing tires, police sirens, horns.

Yep, that’s a country band alright.

The band’s version of Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock” is another keeper, propelled by Andy Stein’s bleating baritone sax and Bill Kirchen’s glassy-toned solo, which keeps the rockabilly spirit of Cochran’s version but amps it up with a full-band sound. For me, it’s the definitive reading of this song—the one I heard first and the one I keep coming back to.

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” probably sounds much more outré today than it did when Tex Williams and Merle Travis first recorded it in 1947. Lyrically, it’s not particularly pro- or anti-smoking, but instead makes the point that it’s an awfully inconvenient habit: “them nicotine slaves they’re all the same/at a pettin’ party or a poker game/everything’s gotta stop when you smoke that cigarette.” This is Commander Cody and the Airmen at their best: a tight, full-band sound, layered instrumentation that veers off into jazz (the tricky interval leaps around the 3:00 mark), and a slightly naughty sense of humor.

Speaking of, the next track, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” features the f-word twenty-four times throughout the track—not something you’re used to hearing in an otherwise-forgotten, rather racist country song from 1937, but the band hits it with gusto (though they thankfully leave the racist bits out). The real star, though, is Andy Stein’s perfect intro solo, which, when combined with the steel guitar backing him, sums up the strange musical fusion that is Western swing—part country, part jazz.

To be fair, these songs are about the most clichéd country tropes out there. There’s plenty about women, a few about various vices, and a few about trucks. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to brush these songs off as not particularly inspired, and some are downright cringe-worthy if you go into them with the wrong attitude. “Mama Hated Diesels,” for example, reveals a tragic tale about a broken family and the hard existence of the long-haul trucker. There’s crying, a spoken interlude, and a dead mother. But the song is so over the top, so tawdry, that you can’t help but set the music snob hat aside for a minute and just weep in your Miller High Life. It’s true country cornball, and you can either brush it off or bask in its full B-movie glow.

Cornball or not, ironic or not, I take a real pleasure in these songs and the way this band plays them. I don’t know if I’d call the album “Too Much Fun” per say, but it’s certainly close.

 

 

PS–If you’re jonesing for more, head on over to Medium.com, where another Commander Cody fan (don’t worry, he’s from Texas, so he’s legit) and I wax philosophic about Commander Cody & co.

 

Album of the Week: Middle Brother, Middle Brother

This is the best rock & roll album to come out in the past five years. It may not be the most groundbreaking or the best-known, but for me it is the purest distillation of what rock & roll is. It’s an album that is boozy and crude in some places, frustrated and lonely in others, propelled by guitar solos, backbeats, and background vocals. It’s not over-produced, and no one sounds like they’re trying too hard. But that doesn’t mean the songs don’t pack a wallop. In fact, they hit harder because they sound organic and vulnerable. Middle Brother sounds like you’re sitting in on a particularly good jam session in someone’s crappy apartment, where everyone has played with everyone else for years and you got handed you a drink when you walked in.

If you’re familiar with a certain corner of the rock neighborhood, the names here will be familiar. Taylor Goldsmith, John McCauley, and Matt Vasquez all play in other bands (Dawes, Deer Tick, and Delta Spirit, respectively). Those other bands are good, but I haven’t heard much out of them that can rival Middle Brother. It’s the rare supergroup that manages to have a distinct identity outside of their members’ other projects. There are overtones of a Dawes record, or a Deer Tick album, but at the end of the day, it’s a Middle Brother album and nothing else.

Matt Vasquez’s “Blue Eyes” is the song that always catches me first. There’s wiry electric guitars right up front with piano for sonic balance and a bass that pulses but doesn’t drive. It’s the kind of mid-tempo rocker that you don’t hear much anymore outside of old Neil Young records. For me, though, it’s Vasquez’s lyrics that keep me coming back. He has a creative way with the most tired rock & roll tropes: “I’ve been looking for some time/in a world full of pennies for my dime/but it ain’t easy to find/a girl like you to be mine.” And like the best lyricists, he has a talent for providing sparse description that allows the reader to fill in the blanks, ultimately producing more powerful images than he could write. “She’s a Southern girl without a drawl/she’s a good girl who wears black bras/the only one who could make me crawl/but she’s too sweet to force me.” If you want an argument for rock & roll as poetry, you might start there.

The album starts in a state of melancholy, but “Middle Brother” (no, not the band, no not the album, but the song) reminds us of two things. First, that life is not all pining over lost loves, and second, that a good record needs variety if it is going to satisfy. This track starts with time-tested elements—bass lines, handclaps, and tambourines, and boogies with them all over the place. The guitar solo is Chuck Berry-inspired, with double stops and chromatic slides, and the piano break is pure barrelhouse. The song doesn’t need a rhythm guitar or much of a drumbeat to maintain momentum—it’s like a weird perpetual motion rock & roll engine. The lyrics are about a total loser who manages to get through life even though he brings everything crashing down behind him. He’s the kind of guy you can’t help but like, even though the back of his junky ’78 GTO is filled with beer cans.

It’s worth pointing out that another ingredient for a great rock & roll record is the ability to pull stylistic influences from different places without slavishly copying that style of music. “Thanks for Nothing” could be a lost country song from the ’70s, while “Someday” has a great Motown feel to it, a pinch of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” and an early Beatles harmony. “Portland,” the only cover on the disc, could pass for a folk song, but John McCauley, who sounds like he eats cigarette butts, gives it the same ragged edge the original had. Goldsmith rounds out the backing vocals, giving great texture and contrast to the track’s vocal section.

This looks like maybe I took it, but I promise I just found it on the internet.

And as fun as songs like “Someday,” or “Me Me Me” are, it’s true that darker feelings are never too far away on this record. “Mom and Dad,” a McCauley number, provides a frank look at the grind of touring: “Mama gave her camera to her little star/all she gets are pictures of hotels and bars/no Big Ben/no Statue of Liberty.” For all the mythologized freedom of the open road and the rock star lifestyle, the main character fully lives “in other people’s hands.” “No control, no lack of shit for free,” McCauley sings, just before a brooding, distorted guitar comes in. The irony is that the only balm is the same thing that causes the pain: music.

Finally, inevitably, we get to “Million Dollar Bill.” Goldsmith previously recorded it with Dawes, but it comes into its own here. It is without exaggeration one of my favorite love songs of all time, quiet, mournful, bittersweet. The band does the right thing by dividing the lead vocal among all three singers, which creates musical interest and speaks to the theme’s universality. It’s a simple song, devoid of the big guitars and bass lines that you find on the more upbeat tracks. Like a gemstone, it remains unadorned and beautiful.

I have listened to this album a lot since a friend first gave it to me in 2011. I now have it on pretty much every medium except for cassette tape, and that’s only because they didn’t make one. I have shared its songs with friends and with lovers, in cars and in dorm rooms up and down the eastern seaboard. I even shared them with two strangers on a street corner last weekend, when they asked me what the song I’d just finished playing was and where they could hear it again. That’s the kind of reaction I aim for since I wrote the first Vintage Voltage post a year ago today. I hope it’s worked.

 

Album of the Week: Two Shoes, The Cat Empire

Cat-Empire_Two-ShoesThere’s two sides to this album. I know that sounds a little obvious, but that’s not really what I mean. Yes, there’s an A-side and a B-side, but there’s also two currents at work throughout the whole recording.

Two Shoes is both an accessible album of fun, upbeat songs and a display of intensely literate musicianship with a remarkable variety of influences. It’s this duality, this push and pull, that keeps me coming back to this album. The best way to understand this dynamic might be just to listen right away to track 8, “Party Started,” and then track 7, “Sol y Sombra.” I know, I know, it’s out of order, but bear with me.

“Party Started,” is a song about, well, getting a party started. It begins with a turntable solo—yes, really—about eighteen seconds of a man going “wicky-wicky” with a record. Though if that’s all you hear there, you’re already missing something. Jamshid Khadiwhala isn’t just making noise. There’s phrasing, pitch, note choices. I didn’t even know you could do that before I listened to this album.

But don’t take it too seriously right now. You can’t. This song samples Olive Oyl, for God’s sake—listen for her going “Bluto!” every now and then. There’s that great underlying electric piano line throughout the whole thing, and then in place of verse three, singer and trumpet player Harry James Angus raps. Here’s a lyrical sample: “Chillin’ at the club, pimpin’ with my money/Well, actually, my parties are more like/Chillin’ in the sun with tea and milk and honey.” The last verse is mostly spelling. For sheer musical variety, you can’t beat it—every second brings something surprising and fun, and that sheer variety keeps it playful.

Now “Sol y Sombra.” It’s a six-minute long jazz song, and a complete left turn from what you just heard. It’s got a Latin groove with polyrhythmic percussion, and the piano solo break at 2:11 veers quickly into hard jazz territory, as Ollie McGill jumps out and back into the song’s harmonic structure repeatedly around 2:40. There’s a Latin horn section with clave patterns in the rhythm section at 4:40. This isn’t easy stuff, and certainly not what I would expect from people who were just advising me on the last song that they will “extend their alliance to anyone who likes to just sit back and chitchat/maybe have a jam, spit scats and eat biscuits.”

The disc's back cover. The US version of the album subs in "The Chariot" for "Misère" (track 6)

The disc’s back cover. The US version of the album subs in “The Chariot” for “Misèrere” (track 6)

I mean, come on. Isn’t that cool?

If my music nerd argument hasn’t convinced you, let me try a purely emotional one. Next, cue up “Sly,” “Two Shoes,” and then “The Car Song.”

When the brass kicks in on “Sly” at 0:09, I can’t help but smile as it crescendos. I can’t help smile either at the nonsense lyrics that Harry Angus sings at 1:16. I can’t help but smile when vocalist Felix Reibl asks me politely to “do the monkey shuffle/rock it with a funk stride/do the late checkout with the do not disturb sign outside.” When I get done listening to this song, my face is sore—it’s joyful noise in the purest sense of the term.

“The Car Song” sounds best on a sunny day, especially if you’re feeling a little crappy about the direction your life is headed in. Lyrically, it’s a reminder to live in the moment the best that you can, with an eye towards a bright future. I really didn’t like Harry’s voice the first time I heard it, so give it a couple listens to grow on you. There’s very subtle phrasing going on there, just like when he plays trumpet, and he doesn’t let the actual words get in the way of the flow of sound. The real beauty, though, is that he sounds entirely like himself. He’s not trying to change anything about his tone to fit someone else’s definition of a good voice. He just lets it go. And then there’s that breakdown at the 3:00 mark. Lethal.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like “Two Shoes.” If you don’t, that’s just fine, but there’s something about the Pink Panther-esque intro and the singalong chorus that’s tough not to like. I can’t really explain it. Can you?

Phew, ok. I’ll try my best to stop gushing for a moment about the incredible depth, humor, and sophistication of the songs to praise the album on a slightly more cohesive level.

Two Shoes was the band’s second full-length album. For many bands, the second record is the toughest one to make. “You have your whole life to make your first album,” the saying goes, but only about two years max to repeat the phenomenon, and many band’s second albums never live up to their first. In this case, though, Two Shoes actually surpasses The Cat Empire. It is a more literate, more polished record, as well as a more focused one—the group’s slightly schizophrenic stylistic tendencies on their first album (which includes, honestly, a klezmer song) are here harnessed and streamlined to reflect the band’s surroundings in Havana, where they recorded the album.

And you can hear it—the Latin rhythmic complexity is there, as is the wonderfully warm horn section. Despite the fact that it was made in the same room where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded, it’s by no means a record of Cuban music. This is what’s supposed to happen when you make a record on location—the sounds that surround you should slip into the songs without overwhelming them, the same way you would substitute local spices into a dish you’d been making for years. It’s the same phenomenon that happens on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it’s a really tricky thing to do well. The Rolling Stones’ Goat Head Soup, for example, was recorded in Jamaica, but sounds like it could have been cut in West Sussex.

Like the Stones, though, The Cat Empire can’t sound like anything but themselves. They have a stylistic blend and a group dynamic that can’t be replicated. Much like with Chris Thile and Michael Daves’ album, though, the true defining element isn’t in the music at all, but in the way the group plays it. They sound happy, excited and focused—the best versions of themselves. More than anything else, that’s what this album is about. It’s about celebrating the best version of yourself, whatever that may be. Nobody’s perfect, The Cat Empire says, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it.