Friday, March 26, 2010

1001 Albums...#6 - The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life

First off, let me just say that I have never heard of the Louvin Brothers. In all honesty I wouldn't be surprised if a fair amount of people my age haven't. The album Tragic Songs of Life was released in 1956 and is filled with some of the purest country music you'll probably ever hear. The album is filled with songs that tell tragic stories (hence the album title) of lost love, death, and even murder. What is truly interesting is that while the lyrics are about some incredibly heartbreaking things, the music is almost always happy sounding and with an upbeat tempo. I wonder if country music does it this way as a general rule so that there is always a slight optimism attached to counteract the gloomy reality of the the lyrics.

In regards to the music itself, the Louvin Brothers have two of the purest country voices I've heard in a while and their vocal harmony is about as flawless as you can get. The backing band is solid and is mixed well for this style of country music. Speaking of style, if you liked the music from O Brother Where Art Thou then you will probably like this album quite a bit. However, where this differs from O Brother Where Art Thou is in the variety of what you are hearing. The Louvin Brothers basically play the same two rhythms during their songs. "Boom-chuck" and "boom-chuck-chuck". This really isn't that much of a negative because the vocals and lyrics are quite unique in each song, but it may become annoying if you aren't really crazy about this genre of music.

Verdict: This is a great album in that it showcases great vocal harmony and poignant storytelling, and because of that, this is album needs to be heard. You may not like it. It may be too repetitive or you may even dislike the singing, but even so you should hear this album. Every songwriter should study these songs thoroughly and any self-respecting country or folk artist should own this album and memorize the songs. The Louvin Brothers are the real deal, and are a real hoot to listen to. Check them out. You won't be sorry.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

1001 Albums...#5 - Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Recorded in between 1949 and 1950, Birth of the Cool displays Miles Davis' transition from traditional Bebop to the style known as "cool jazz". While the bebop influence is clear throughout the album, the arrangements lend themselves to an almost classical vibe. The songs on the album are interesting, experimental, and showcase some of the greatest jazz musicians that have ever lived.

Simply put, the Miles Davis Nonet does not disappoint.

While you won't hear the tightest ensemble playing, or even the most in-tune playing, you will still be blown away by how well these guys know the language of jazz. From the fast solos to the mellow night music, this album screams of authenticity. While listening through this grouping of tunes, I began to wonder if the Nonet could have cared less about being the next big thing or making millions of dollars in record sales. It seems to me that this is pure musical experimentation, which seems to be what Miles Davis was all about throughout his entire career. While some of his later albums are a little too experimental for my taste, this album balances listen-ability for the listener, and experimental creativity for the artist very well.

Verdict: Overall, this is a great jazz album and should be heard before you kick the bucket. The musicianship is top notch, and the arrangements are incredibly well put together. If you want a primer to "cool jazz" this just may be it. There is only one song that has vocals in it, so those of you who aren't used to straight instrumental albums may have a harder time appreciating what is going on, but it is still worth a listen. This is music that suits you night owls perfectly. Great overall album, but again it may be a little too much musically for people with no experience listening to jazz.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

1001 Albums...#4 - Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swingin' Lovers

One year after In The Wee Small Hours Frank Sinatra recorded Songs For Swingin' Lovers which, in my personal opinion, is an overall masterpiece in this genre of music.

Vocally, Frank is right on target. On the album In The Wee Small Hours his presentation was not nearly as solid. I heard hardly any pitch issues whatsoever, and the scooping issues noted on the last album were definitely done more tastefully and far less often. Frank's voice is ridiculously easy to listen to. Throughout this entire album, which has a "let's have fun because we are in love" theme, it sounds as though Frank is not even trying at all. This gives the album a conversational feel that is really fun to listen to.

Each arrangement on this album is well put together, and the backing band is flawless. Musically, the album was fun to listen to, but about 3/4 of the way through, my attention began to falter a bit. When an artist does something well, it is easy to do that one thing over and over again. It feels good to the performer and it feels good to the audience. It's comfortable and easy. However, while this albums is very enjoyable to the ear, the songs are so similar in style that they almost blend together into one long vocal jazz odyssey. While this can get a little tedious, it isn't all bad. If you like one of the songs on this album, you most definitely will like the album in its entirety.

Verdict: This one is easy. If you are a fan of Frank Sinatra, you should definitely listen to this before you die. If not, you should still listen to it, but it may become boring about midway through. My recommendation is to listen to this album as background music. Lyrically it's not all that special, but the smoothness in Frank's voice mixed with the great arrangements is well worth the price of admission.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

1001 Albums...#3 - Elvis Presley: Self Titled

Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. I just have to come out and say it. This album is not his best work.

Made in 1956, Elvis' self titled debut is somewhat of a mess. It starts off well with the well known tune "Blue Suede Shoes" and then takes a severe nose dive into musical Sheol. As I have been going through these last few albums, I write down notes on each of the songs detailing my impressions, good and bad. Needless to say, I wrote down a lot of negative comments while listening to the album. From track 2 to track 12, Elvis' vocals were all over the place. This was definitely not the refined vocal presentation most of us are familiar with. Considering this was his debut album, I will cut him some slack. The producers may have asked him to try different styles of singing on each tune, and that's fine, but most of the choices are just plain horrible. During these 11 songs (track 2-12), Elvis' voice sounds shaky, pitchy, and the character of his voice changes so frequently that I didn't even know who I was listening to at one point. If the album rested on these 11 songs as the foundation for Elvis' talent, than in my opinion it would have been nothing to write home about.

Thankfully, "Heartbreak Hotel" comes in and changes everything. This is Elvis in his true form. The band is doing things that are musically interesting and Elvis has more presence in his voice than in any of the prior tunes with the exception of "Blue Suede Shoes". From this point on, the album is incredible. It is almost as if the Elvis impersonator that did the middle portion of the album "left the building" and the real Elvis has finally arrived. His voice is spot on and I found myself actually wanting to listen to him more once the album was over. Without these last six songs, I'm not sure I would have finished the album with that impression.

Verdict: Halfway through the album I would have told you, "Skip this one. You'll die happy." However, the last six songs changed my mind, slightly. I find myself in somewhat of a pickle. Considering there are 18 songs on this album and I can only stand behind 7 of them, I'm not sure that I can recommend the whole album, and since this is list is called 1001 Albums You Must Listen To Before You Die, I'm not sure what to do with it. Is it a must? Not really considering you can listen to the good songs on other more quality albums, but at the same time, it is Elvis' debut recording which deserves a listen because of it's historical significance. You can listen to this one yourself and judge, but if you never hear Elvis' debut album as a whole, I don't personally think you're missing much.


Monday, March 22, 2010

1001 Albums...#2 - Duke Ellington at Newport 1956

If you have never heard of Duke Ellington, you may need to expand your musical horizons a bit. Wikipedia has it right by labeling him as "one of the greatest figures in the history of jazz". This album displays not only his chops as a composer and band leader, but also the charisma that he and his big band brought to a live performance. This album was recorded during Duke Ellington's revival into public view and what a welcome back this must have been for Ellington and his band.

The album begins with the Star Spangled Banner (of all things) played by Ellington's big band, and to be quite honest, it was nothing fancy. From there on out though, the mood really changes. After a few moderate tunes, the band really picks up the pace. The trumpet soloist on most of the album is Cat Anderson, and my goodness can he play. Not only was he a great straight ahead player, but he really knew how to squeal! On this note I do want to mention that the mixing on this album is not the best. Granted, it is a live recording and who knows what type of recording setup they had going, but there are times where the trumpet is so loud that the rest of the band is inaudible! Also, during the vocal numbers you can barely hear the singer which almost defeats the purpose of including them on the album. On the other hand, most people who are listening to this live show could probably care less about vocals and would probably rather hear all the nuances and technical mastery that Ellington's band displays in each and every tune.

The pure standout for me on this album was the tune Diminuendo In Blue which was as boisterous and exciting as big band playing can get. One of the endearing aspects of this album is that you can hear the crowd yelling with pleasure and affirmation during each of the solos on the album (of which there are many). However on this tune in particular the crowd becomes so carried away that the track following Diminuendo In Blue is called "Pandemonium" which is basically the crowd screaming for more while Ellington tries to calm them down. This made the album fun to listen to and it really felt like I was right there. I couldn't help but wonder what a fun time every one must have had, both in the crowd and on the stage.

Verdict: So, should you listen to this album before you die? Most definitely. Will you enjoy the whole thing? Maybe, maybe not. For jazz heads this is a must. However, I consider myself to be a jazz lover and even I can grow a little weary when each tune is 6-8 and sometimes 14 minutes long! Listen to Skin Deep without a drummer's mindset and your ADD may just kick into high gear. This is classic big band jazz that needs to be heard by everyone. The only issues that I have are in regards to the overall mix of the album and that it may not be accessible to everyone. However it still should be listened to for the historical reference and for the enjoyment of listening to some truly incredible musicians that deserve to be heard.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

1001 Albums...#1 - Frank Sinatra: In The Wee Small Hours

The first album on the list is Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours released in 1955. The album is a concept album and generally hovers over the theme of lament and lost love. Here are my overall impressions.

This album has classy and impressive arrangements in both the vocal and instrumental parts. Frank is THE crooner, scoops and all. His voice pours out like honey and is suited perfectly for this style of music. However, he rarely gets to a note without sliding up to it, especially on the higher parts of the melody. This is not necessarily a negative though as it adds character and a raw quality that is missing in our modern day world of auto tuned vocals. The album is well pieced together, but may be difficult for the modern listener to sit through without doing something else at the same time. Most of the songs begin to sound very similar, which could become incredibly boring to listen to if you aren't actively trying to hear all of the nuances in each song. For the everyday listener, this album would be perfect background music while conversing with friends over dinner and maybe a nice bottle of wine. On the other hand, for the musically inclined this is definitely an album to listen to with full attention both vocally and instrumentally.

Verdict: This is truly a classic and should be heard at least once before you die. Enjoy it with friends or as relaxing background music after a long day. If you are looking for musical variety on a single album however, look elsewhere.


1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: An Attempt

I stumbled across a website that lists the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. I am going to do my best to listen to an album each day for the next year or so with possible breaks in between. After listening to the album I will give a brief review and possibly rate it as well. I am notorious for not finishing what I start, but this could be fun and will no doubt be an "ear opening" experience. The first album on the list is Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours released in 1955. I am really enjoying it so far and will write out a short review later today.

My goal here is to really give these albums the attention they deserve so I may need to listen a few times in order to give a proper review. I will try to get some time later today to finish this one up, or I may truly begin this whole fiasco tomorrow. We'll see...