Album of The Week: The Best of Trojan Rock Steady, Vol. 1

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Listen to “The Best of Trojan Rock Steady” by scrolling down (opens in Spotify)

If you live in a snowy place, like I do, let me make a suggestion: listen to more Jamaican music this winter. It’s an island with a wonderfully rhythmic and diverse musical past, and nothing kicks winter blues faster than music from a place many of us identify with eternal summer.

I understand if you’re a little gun-shy on Jamaican music—if you feel like you just can’t hear a Bob Marley song again without flashing back to college. But reducing an entire nation’s musical output to one (admittedly pivotal) figure would be like only listening to Elvis when you wanted to hear some American music. There’s a heck of a lot more out there, and if you had the time and the cash, you could happily spend a lifetime diving thorough musty stacks of 45s in some Kingston record store to discover it all. (And by “you” in that preceding sentence, I do, of course, mean “me.)

That’s why Trojan Record’s “Best of” series is so great: these discs provide a crash course in part of Jamaica’s musical history. Each album generally centers around a particular theme or genre, and provides a great diving board to help you plunge into a different sound.

The Best of Trojan Rock Steady vol. 1 is my favorite so far. Rock steady was a musical precursor to reggae popular in the mid 1960s. It was a little less frenetic than the ska music that preceded it, and a lot of reggae artists, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, played rocksteady before they began to develop reggae. What this means is that you have a familiar rhythmic structure, but with enough differences to draw your ears in: exquisite vocal harmonies, great horn lines, and more than a pinch of Motown influence.

Most of the names on here aren’t ones you’ve likely heard before, but it hardly matters. The performances are uniformly excellent and singularly quirky, from The Ethiopians’ subtle sound effects on “Train to Skaville”—produced by the singers themselves—to the mindlessly catchy hook of The Jamaicans’ “Ba Ba Boom.”

Of all the gems on the album, Phyllis Dillon’s song “Perfidia” sparkles brighter than the rest. Not only is it the only track on the album with a woman singing lead, but it’s also written in an almost absurdly poetic, refined register: the refrain is “Oh perfidious one, goodbye.” Listen to the way the expected major chord progression skews minor at 0:28, the way Dillon says “sock it to me, baby” just before the break. What about that weird spoken bridge? Bob Marley can’t top that.

Besides the perpetual motion of the upstroked guitar parts, these recordings all share this great analog warmth. They sound earthy and a little dusty, sort of squishy and fuzzy. You can hear the limits of mid-60s Jamaican recording technology, and I love that. This is a collection that oozes atmosphere.

I think there’s so much here to listen to, and it’s a refreshing change from Legend or whatever other Bob Marley album you automatically reach for. The album will help steer you in the right direction if you want more of this sort of thing—Desmond Dekker and Lee “Scratch” Perry are both essential names that you may have missed in the shadow of Marley.

But the sun’s out now, so crank up the heat and slap on some tanning oil: summer’s here to stay.

 

Song of the Week: It Won’t Be Long, The Beatles

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Click Here to Listen to “It Won’t Be Long,” by the Beatles

 

It’s been a while since a song has moved me to spontaneous blogging, but I’ve listened to “It Won’t Be Long” like eight times today and enough is enough.

I think the modern listener tends to forget how scandalous the Beatles were, especially early in their career. Of course, this had a lot to do with the way they looked, but it’s undeniable that many thought the music just a little too raunchy for polite listening. And with a song like “It Won’t Be Long,” you can’t blame them. Hormones explode off this track. It’s jumpy and insistent, with those “yeahs” driving the tension higher and higher. Even the tempo is a bit unseemly—so fast!

Even now, the track crackles with energy. The more I listened to it today, and I mean this in all sincerity, the more I imagined the Sex Pistols covering it. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, and it’s rhythmically insistent. Although the Beatles will always run circles around Johnny Rotten and co. for sheer musicianship, there’s a certain brash, borderline annoying quality to this song that’s very punk.

Yet as simple as it is, the key to the song nevertheless reveals that the Beatles showed a shrewd understanding of songcraft from the beginning. The song owes most of its endorphin rush to the repeated shift between the calmer verses and the raved-up chorus, which gives the listener a chance to catch their breath while providing enough interest to hold attention, even if the song is barely a hair longer than two minutes. Compare it with something like the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” which gets a little boring after the initial two-chord excitement.

This particular track was apparently mostly a John Lennon composition, even though it was credited Lennon/McCartney. When I learned this (scant minutes ago!), it didn’t shock me. It seems to me that early on Lennon drove most of the band’s harder, faster numbers. His early vocals far outstrip McCartney’s for sheer grit, and he absolutely howls through this one, with the double tracking making it particularly effective. The entire band responds to this, but Ringo does particularly well at managing the shift in energy between the verses and the chorus—listen to those fills!

Song of the Week: Cry to Me, Solomon Burke

Scroll Down to Listen to “Cry to Me,” by Solomon Burke (plays in Spotify)

Now I can’t pretend to any music nerd cred on this one—though the song was originally released on Atlantic, I heard it when I went to go see Guy Ritchie’s remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (It was also, Wikipedia tells me, in Dirty Dancing). I knew of Solomon Burke beforehand, but hand’t explored much of his catalogue. For the average listener, he’s frankly a second-tier star, and maybe with good reason. Well, apart from this song.

It’s everything you could want from an early ‘60s song. It hits that ideal spot between Motown pop, rock & roll, and the Muscle Shoals sound. That glorious space in the recording and luscious reverb date the track without making it sound kitschy. It’s been called “proto-soul,” which is accurate but misleading because it implies that it’s not a fully-fledged musical statement in its own right.

Of course the standout is Burke’s voice, which is a lovely instrument—it incites while the music soothes, keeping that hint of internal tension you need to keep a song compelling. It’s the give-and-take that makes the song so strong, and Burke avoids the tendency of Otis Redding and other “shouters” to overwhelm the band.

Spin it at your next swingin’ get-together, hepcat.

Song of the Week: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones

Scroll down to listen to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones (Plays in Spotify)

It’s 2001. I am nine years old and sitting in the car with my father. It’s summer, and we’re in the parking lot across from Congress Park. The windows are down and the interior of the car exhales a hot, stale breath. The radio is on.

A song starts playing that I’ve heard on the station before—I recognize the fuzzy guitar and the singer’s distinct voice. I like it, especially the rubbery, echo-y parts after the singer is done with each line. So I decide to ask a question.

“Dad, who sings this song?” I ask.

“That’s the Rolling Stones.”

For the first time, I try hard to remember the answer.

Five years later, I am standing in the middle school library in front of a quarter of the eighth grade. Beside me are four friends, equipped with guitar, drums, bass, and microphones. We have never ever played in front of people before. The drummer counts us in as we touch pick to string and hit that riff.

“Satisfaction” is no longer my favorite Rolling Stones song, and I don’t care much anymore about the lyrics or the riff. It remains, however, my first and most important aural madeleine. This song contains so much—it’s a song of beginnings, of milestones, of childhood and middle school and my old guitar amp and the brown carpet in the library and my dad’s 1998 Volkswagen Jetta. It belongs to the Rolling Stones, and it belongs to the 1960s, but it also belongs to me. It is embedded in my very being.

So please, just play it. One time. For me.

Song of the Week: Mama Talk To Your Daughter, Magic Sam

Click Here to Listen to “Mama Talk To Your Daughter,” by Magic Sam

J.B. Lenoir (who originally wrote this song), George Thorogood, Johnny Winter, and everyone else who have ever recorded this song deliver the first line as follows: “Mama, Mama, please talk to your daughter for me.” Then what follows is a pretty typical 12-bar blues, shrugging through a few verses, a guitar solo, etc. But now listen to Magic Sam’s version.

For whatever reason, when he went to record he delivered the line totally different, cramming in four repetitions of the word “Mama” before the band thumps in behind him. And I think it’s those two extra repetitions that make Magic Sam’s version pulse with life while the other versions plonk along.

Because his take begins with that bare vocal track, it starts the recording with a very exciting moment of vulnerability. Sam sounds frazzled—right on the edge or even a little past it as he stumbles over the words. Johnny Winter and George Thorogood sing like they’re only in it for the chance to take a guitar solo, which is the problem with about 75% of blues records. A charismatic vocalist (Mike Mattison, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thorton among others) is essential to good blues music. But Magic Sam has charisma, and he has passion—or at least does a better job faking it.

Now we’re going to get a little more abstract. I have a feeling this level of thought didn’t go into Magic Sam’s decision to say a word four-plus times instead of just two, but regardless, the repetition does a very clever thing. There’s a powerful motion in stillness, in repetition; listen to Bill Withers on “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The trick is that if you repeat something enough times, like the “toy boat” tongue twister, you begin to disassociate the sounds from the words, which creates a great abstract sound. In Magic Sam’s case, singing high and close so that he overloads the mic a bit, those first four words come across as a blast of sound not unlike the guitar breaks at :54 and 1:55, which are also made up of the same lick repeated again and again. J.B. Lenoir’s original uses this guitar lick too, but in his case it sounds uncreative rather than intentional—because Lenoir’s vocal doesn’t mirror the guitar in the same way Magic Sam does. That repetition strips away all other elements leaves rhythm and groove, super-charging Magic Sam’s version and justifying his sobriquet.

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.

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!

Song of the Week: “54-46 Was My Number,” Toots and the Maytals


Click here to listen to “54-46 Was My Number,” by Toots and the Maytals

Jamaica is well known for a couple things, among them rum and reggae. Some types of rum that are known worldwide, like Appleton Estate or Myers’s. They’re justifiably famous products, but a little predictable.

Then there’s the other stuff—kept under the counter or dripping from a still in the hills. It doesn’t have the same kind of name brand recognition, but if you’re getting a little bored with Appleton or Myers’s, it can be just the thing to spice your night up. Funkier, dirtier, a little more complex.

As with rum, so with reggae. Bob Marley is Appleton Estate—omnipresent and rightfully respected. Toots Hibbert and his band the Maytals is Wray and Nephew White, a type of overproof rum that is popular in Jamaica but doesn’t have the same type of appeal elsewhere. It’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.

“54-46 Was My Number” hits like a double shot. Hibbert starts with a soul-style phrasing on the opening line, which has a touch of gospel theater about it. When the band comes in with the archetypical steady, thumping rhythm, they sound rawer and a little more primal than Marley and the Wailers, particularly Hibbert’s vocal, which owes more to Otis Redding than anyone else. The squelchy, reverb-heavy guitar and late ‘60s organ sound (is that the riff from “Palisades Park” played in half-time at 2:30?) also give it more variety than the typical listener might expect from a reggae song.

More than any other genre except perhaps for funk, reggae is all about tuning into a groove and then riding it through. It’s not always dedicated to Dylanesque imagery or blistering guitar solos so much as a constant smooshing of a primal rhythmic button. Toots and the Maytals do this very well. The breaks, “give it to me…one time” and so on, might seem gimmicky, but they’re stop-time technique. You don’t really appreciate the rhythm until it’s snatched away from you. And Hibbert’s scatting over the last half of the track could read like filler, but it’s oddly compelling. His vocal improvisations further emphasize the offbeat, creating the organic pulse that’s so essential to reggae.

There’s a lot more nooks and crannies to explore in reggae—and a lot more interesting artists to sample. There’s nothing wrong with Bob Marley, but if he’s the only name you know, you’ll miss out on some seriously good stuff. So while there’s a time and a place for your Appleton Estate, or God forbid, Captain Morgan, never be afraid to ask for what the locals are drinking. You’ll be happy you did.

Song of the Week: Baby Please Don’t Go, Them

 Click Here to Listen to “Baby Please Don’t Go,” by Them

Start with the basics: this isn’t a Van Morrison original. American bluesman Big Joe Williams first made “Baby Please Don’t Go” a hit in 1935, and since then everyone under the sun and their sister has covered it. This version, though, released as a single by Van Morrison’s band Them in 1964, is the best there is, and that statements rests firmly on the shoulders of one note.

If you’re familiar with the song, you already know which one I’m talking about—it’s the one 6 seconds in that is so out, so unbelievably wrong that it causes vertigo. It’s rancid, offensive, tense—a note so rotten not even the mangiest dog would take a snap at it. But you need the note, because this one note creates all the tension in the song’s main riff. Without it, there’s no glorious release twelve seconds later when the band kicks in. The note makes the song, and it’s a Them innovation—Big Joe Williams’ version doesn’t have it, and the John Lee Hooker version that Morrison probably first heard doesn’t have it either.

“The note” aside, the whole arrangement is urgent and unsettling. Most of the song’s forward momentum is provided by the percussive bass part, giving it a heavy proto-metal heartbeat that the drums alone can’t produce. And there’s the ubiquitous keening mid-60s Farfisa organ sound (an instrument that conjures the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” released in May ’64), as well as that mournful bass solo during the breakdown at 1:20.

Van’s voice here is raw, nasal, and grating, kind of like Bob Dylan with a sore throat. Though he recorded this at age 19, you can hear how Van’s particular expressive vocal style would develop if you tune in to his subtly shifting inflections in the breakdown. Although it hints at a beginning, it also marks a definite end, as “Baby Please” is probably one of the hardest-edged vocal performances he would give for the rest of his career. Nothing else in his solo catalogue bristles with the same kind of attitude.

Compared with the American blues versions, Them read the song on a different emotional level. They turn a mournful song about a lover leaving into a stinging rebuke, a vicious middle finger with an undercurrent of loss. This is, essentially, what the British Invasion did for American music in a microcosm: the source material gets pumped full of electricity, teen angst, and a certain irreverence, and thrown back in your face.

It’s telling that all other versions of this song that I’ve heard are modeled on the Them interpretation. But none of them come close. They’re either too fast (AC/DC), too long (Rolling Stones & Muddy Waters) or too self-indulgent (Ted Nugent). The only one I’ve ever heard come close is from a London band called Ay Ducane, but in terms of sheer innovation and groove, no one can touch Them.

Song of the Week: All Day and All of the Night, the Kinks

Click Here to Listen to All Day and All of the Night by the Kinks

Even amidst all the music in 1964, this song was a breed apart: a phosphorescent photon screaming through inky dark. It took a lot to make the Rolling Stones sound tame, but I think the Kinks managed to do it. “All Day and All of the Night” is everything polite people feared about rock & roll: savage, untamed, relentless.

It wasn’t the first time the Kinks had experimented with distortion—“You Really Got Me” had been released a few months earlier, but I think “All Day” is stronger. Stretches of “You Really Got Me” are just drums and tambourine—as if to give you some breathing room from the two-chord guitar part, and though the harmonies are ragged, they’re not anything more dangerous than the Beatles’ version of “Twist & Shout.”

In “All Day,” by contrast, the guitar doesn’t let up, and the simple addition of the third missing chord gives the whole song a sense of menace that the harmonically safe “You Really Got Me” doesn’t have. The guitar solo, even more than in the prior song, seems to be structured around making as much noise and playing as fast as possible, and the vocals are snarly and bratty in a way that even Mick Jagger couldn’t muster. Another point in its favor: Van Halen never covered “All Day.”

More importantly for young musicians, it’s a dead simple song. Anyone can learn to play it and play it loud—even today, it’s an enduring favorite with beginning guitarists (though maybe not that solo). And that’s where the real power of this song lies. You can hear “All Day and All of the Night” in those first opening chords to the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” or in Sid Vicious’ whine on “God Save the Queen.” This is the Song That Launched a Thousand Bands.

So for the sake of historical importance, and to experience rock & roll at its most visceral, please turn your speakers way the hell up before you hit the link.