Monday, January 28, 2008

The Top Ten Musical Guilty Pleasures

PART ONE OF THREE

Perplexio, the owner of a blog I read regularly named The Review Revue, recently challenged me to post an article listing my favorite musical guilty pleasures after he recently posted his personal Top Twenty.

Wikipedia accurately defines the term "guilty pleasure" as follows: "A guilty pleasure is known as something one considers pleasurable despite it being mainly received negatively or looked down on by a majority of society. References to guilty pleasures are often used in terms of the arts and entertainment, such as music, film, and television and other aspects of popular culture."

My number one all time guilty pleasure will be covered in a separate article as Bloggerhythms first post in February. So keeping Wikipedia's definition in mind, here, in the approximate chronological order I discovered them, are nine of my top ten guilty pleasures.

Herman's Hermits
Lead singer Peter Noone (Herman) and his band were part of the "cute" division of the original British Invasion. The Hermits appealed to rock music fans, mostly girls, who thought that Herman was adorable and The Rolling Stones were too evil looking. Even Paul McCartney looked sinister by comparison. The Hermits weren't particularly talented, and there is even some question about whether the band actually played on most of their own records, but their producer, Mickey Most, knew what he was doing in the studio using Noone and the band to produce many lightweight but fun little ditties. Hit singles released under their name in the mid-sixties included, "I'm Into Something Good," "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat," "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter," "I'm Leaning On A Lamppost," and what is probably their most famous song, "There's a Kind Of Hush." My favorites included their sprightly remake of "Silhouettes," "She's A Must To Avoid," and "No Milk Today." They had a handful of other hit singles including "Dandy," a song they stole from Ray Davies and The Kinks.

The Monkees
Much of what can be said about Herman's Hermits also applies to Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork but The Monkees had far more talent than The Hermits. Sometimes they were even allowed to play on their records and write their own songs. They were more than capable musicians but the controlling powers behind the scenes wanted to make sure their music and image were packaged to the world in a specific way because TV ratings and record sales were paramount. To their credit the band eventually grew to resent their image and rebelled. Over the decades their famous TV show has made them such major icons of 60s pop culture that today they are now considered cool by many of the same detractors who used to criticize them as as the "Pre-Fab Four" and they are now seen as candidates for the Rock n' Roll Hall Of Fame. In 2008 I can still listen to "Stepping Stone" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" with a big smile on my face.

The Monkees fans were mostly girls who gave up on The Beatles whose music had become less innocent and more sophisticated by 1966. Both The Monkees debut single "Last Train To Clarksville" and their TV show were unleashed on the world the same year The Beatles released their superb hit single, "Eleanor Rigby," and the album it came from, the very LSD and Indian influenced Revolver.

Three Dog Night
During their heyday Three Dog Night were mostly a guilty pleasure in the eyes of music critics and the snobs who ate up their words. The Dogs committed the two biggest musical crimes of the 70s: they didn’t write their own songs and they were a quintessential singles band. The rest of us, who apparently didn’t know any better, were fans. They had an unusual lineup consisting of three lead singers who didn’t play any instruments and a permanent four piece backing band whose individual names I actually knew at one time. Vocalists Cory Wells, Danny Hutton, and Chuck Negron could sing rock and blue-eyed soul with the best in the best business, they often featured great harmonies, and they were impeccable ballad singers. Negron’s lead vocal on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s "Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer" is spectacular. Late in their career they proved the critics right by selling tons of the hideous children’s anthem "Black and White," a sin from which they never recovered. Three Dog Night seems to be a forgotten group today even though they were one of the most popular bands of the first half of the 70s.

The Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
The Bee Gees are not a guilty pleasure but their soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever is. I not only loathed disco music I loathed the entire disco scene as well but there is something special about this huge hit from that soundtrack that I still can't resist. The song proves how much more talent The Bee Gees had than your standard, run-of-the-mill disco artist. It doesn't sound like most other disco records and it's far superior instrumentally. It doesn't have that monotonous, droning, electric bass and drum beat that every other disco song overused. There is no doubt about it, "Stayin' Alive" truly is a very cool song.

Chicago - Hot Streets
Let me start off by stating that the original version of Chicago were not, and should never be considered, a guilty pleasure. However, by the time they got to 1978's Hot Streets, their twelfth album and first without Terry Kath, they had long since given up trying to create arty records and evolved into a well oiled hit machine. I hated this album when it came out because I believed it was a total sellout. Today I view Hot Streets quite differently as you can read here in a full review of the album. It would be Chicago's last good record for sixteen years.

Michael Jackson - Thriller
Unlike most of the music discussed on this list Thriller was an album that was universally critically acclaimed because it's loaded with great songs. Even a rock 'n roller like me bought this album when it came out in 1982. Why then is it a guilty pleasure? The answer is simple. It's by Michael Jackson, a man who has sunk so low in the public's opinion that it truly has become an embarrassment to say you like this album or even acknowledge the man's existence. Today you have to separate Jackson from the music to fully appreciate Thriller.

Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On
Yes, it's the famous song from the 1997 movie Titanic. It's very melodramatic and everything you are supposed to hate about Ms. Dion but I love both the song and her performance. The movie and song complement each other perfectly.

Savage Garden Live At The Mann Center For The Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA, July 22, 1999
No, I'm not a fan. Anybody who records a song like "I Knew I Loved You" can't be all good but since they also recorded the spunky "I Want You" they can't be all bad either. Why do I consider them a guilty pleasure when I only know the names of about four of their songs? Because in the summer of 1999, I took my daughter to her very first rock concert. It was Savage Garden at the excellent outdoor venue, The Mann Center For The Performing Arts in Philadelphia and, much to my surprise, I didn't hate them. In fact I had quite a pleasant evening. Of course my daughter loved the show by her favorite band from her high school years. While the music was geared toward teenagers it was professionally done by a band who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and succeeded nicely. However, if I've heard Savage Garden more than once since that night it has been by accident.

The Corrs
The Corrs last CD, Home was my favorite release of 2006. Returning to their Irish folk roots finally provided them with some much needed street cred. If they continue to mine the Celtic songbook in lieu of their penchant for producing slick, often over-produced pop they may have to be removed form this list. Here is the complete review of Home.

Coming Up Next: Part Two - My Ultimate Guilty Pleasure.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sea Wolf - Leaves In The River (2007)

Sea Wolf's first full length CD, Leaves In The River, is one of 2007's best and therefore it's not surprising that two of it's songs, "Winter Windows" and "You're A Wolf," are in heavy rotation on adult alternative radio. The band, named after a Jack London novel, follows in the steps of artists such as Five for Fighting, Iron & Wine, and World Party, meaning they are essentially the work of one singer-songwriter who organizes a band to record and play music as needed to satisfy his current muse.

Before you consume even one line of the lyrics on this CD you'll be immediately taken in by the melodies, vocals, and instrumental arrangements of Sea Wolf's mastermind Alex Brown Church. Intentionally or not he and producer Phil Ek crafted this CD to sound like Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues singing lead for another band that Ek produces, The Shins.

Rock n' roll is not supposed to be pretty but it seldom sounds prettier than Leaves In The River. However, don't let the music fool you because the arrangements hide the seriousness, and often the darkness, of the songs. Lyrically "Winter Windows" is anything but pretty. It's about a suffering, dysfunctional man attempting to survive a suffering, dysfunctional family. The protagonist of "Black Dirt" is bleeding and dying in the street after being shot by someone who is probably an angry lover. The meaning of You're A Wolf" is obscured by its own lyrics. Church may consciously be making music that contradicts the tone of his lyrics in order to make the songs more accessible. Otherwise the weight of his words may be too heavy for some listeners.

I hope that Church is a happier person than his songs indicate. It would be a shame to listen to him suffer like this on future releases. Even so, this is a fine work from a newcomer who has the potential to be a master at what he does.

Visit Sea Wolf's website.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eagles - Long Road Out Of Eden (2007)

Long Road Out Of Eden made me realize just how much I missed the Eagles. Throughout the 70s my favorite Eagle, Glen Frey, his sparring partner and friend Don Henley, and all of their various band mates, created a classic sound that with the exception of their last full length studio album, The Long Run, never wore out its welcome. Readers of this article will have to understand that I came to this new double disc CD expecting to like it and I'm happy to report that I was not disappointed. The Eagles vocal harmonies are perfect as usual and so is their classic 70s sound that was loved by so many of us. They are still one of the few rock bands who can do ballads without sounding sappy.

Long Road Out Of Eden's back story has been chronicled in many news publications around the world. The Eagles have sold millions of copies of the CD largely because of their exclusive deal with Walmart that succeeded despite heavy criticism that the band sold their souls to the devil. It's a sentiment I agree with completely. Henley, especially, comes off as a hypocrite because he sings about our "soul-sucking" culture on "Business As Usual" knowing full well he was selling his music through a retailer who has a reputation for sucking the souls out of their poor employees. Henley has always been the Eagles social conscience and that is what makes the Walmart deal so disconcerting. However, once you get by the moral contradictions and actually delve into his songs you will notice that he makes many valid points. Those of you who know where the Garden of Eden was supposed to be located will appreciate the title track's name as a thinly veiled disguise for Henley's views on ending the war in Iraq. He is ticked off and he wants the whole world to know it.

There are many highlights. The acappella "No More Walks In The Wood" opens the album and conjures up visions of "Seven Bridges Road." The made for radio "How Long" sounds like classic early Eagles. There are smooth ballads such as "I Love To Watch A Woman Dance" and the melodically entrancing "What Do I Do With My Heart" that harkens back to the grand tradition of "Best Of My Love." "Waiting In the Weeds" shows Henley's softer side. Frey's pleasant instrumental with the forward looking title of "I Dreamed There Was No War" is especially sad following on the heels of the angry title track. There is much, much, more.

As usual both Henley and Frey are the dominant personalities but it is still surprising to see Timothy B. Schmidt and Joe Walsh, stars in their own right, willing to accept such a low profile even though their contributions helped make the album a success. Schmidt's fine lead and harmony vocals and Walsh's distinctive guitar color the arrangements nicely.

Listeners who automatically assume that a band's new songs are "not as good as the old stuff" need to think again and spend the necessary time it takes to fully digest this CD. I guarantee you will come away thinking that the Eagles should not have taken twenty-nine years off between studio albums.

In addition to Walmart the CD is also available through Amazon.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios - Jim Cogan and William Clark (2003)

Temples Of Sound is a great book! I delved into it gradually during my spare time over a period of a year, and even re-read much of it on a recent vacation because I read the first parts of it so long ago. Temples Of Sound offers the reader fifteen chapters about the great American recording studios, how they came to be, how they rose to their great heights, and where they are today. Most of these studios began in the 1950s or early 60s but others, including Miami's Criterion Studios and Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios came to prominence in the 70s.

The intriguing thing about this book is that no matter what kind of music was recorded in these "temples" there seemed to be one common factor among most of them. Many of the great studios were started from scratch by young entrepreneurs who were naive about the music business. Most of the studios were makeshift in nature, housed in stark old buildings that frequently needed massive rehabilitation, and built on tenuous economic circumstances. Most of the recording engineers, who you will find out are more important characters in shaping these places than many of us realized, improvised and learned their craft on the fly as they recorded some of the biggest hits in American pop music history.

Great stories abound. Nat King Cole's popularity was almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of Capitol Records. We witnessed the second-coming of Frank Sinatra and how he and Nelson Riddle made some of the world's greatest vocal and orchestral records together. We were with Brian Wilson as he created his masterpiece, Pet Sounds in a small cramped studio. We visited Sam Phillips as he put together one of the most famous and influential labels of them all, Sun Records. The story of Berry Gordy's Motown Records is one of the most fascinating. The rise and fall of Stax-Volt is another. Ahmet Ertugen, Jerry Wexler, and their Atlantic Records empire are deservedly chronicled here as is Van Gelder, New Jersey's great jazz studio.

One of the best examples of how many of these studios improvised as they went along occurred at Sigma Sound. Whenever anybody used the soda machine in the hall outside the studio it would create an audible buzz in the control room that could be heard on the records. Because no one was able to find the cause of this problem a red light was installed on the machine that would automatically turn on when a recording session was taking place warning anyone so inclined not to use it.

The only quibble I have regarding the book were the discussions about the equipment used at particular sessions. Most readers will not know, nor understand, the nuances of a specific brand of microphone in relationship to another, nor do they care. This technical talk is not for everybody but that is only a small part of each history.

Author William Clark writes for TV and is a playwright and songwriter. His co-author, Jim Cogan, is a recording engineer who has overseen many great jazz recordings. Quincy Jones wrote the foreword.

Temples Of Sound is strictly about the great American studios. Don't expect anything about The Beatles, Abbey Road, or any other British artist unless they recorded in The United States. Cream recorded for Atlantic and Australia's Bee Gees worked at Criterion.

Those of you interested in the history of pop music, and how many of the greatest hits of all time were born, need to read this book.