Laura Nyro – More Than A New Discovery

laura_nyro_-_more_than_a_new_discovery

Part I: The Background

Laura Nyro got her start as a songwriter rather than a performer—her first big break came when she wrote the song “And When I Die” for folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Around the same time, she managed to land a recording contract, resulting in her debut album. She had a bit of a Bob Dylan thing going on at the time: a handful of songs from the album became better known for their cover versions. Aside from the aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary cover, other artists to cover her compositions included The 5th Dimension and Barbra Streisand. The album was rereleased with a resequenced track order in 1973 under the title “The First Songs” to capitalize on Nyro’s newfound fame. Nyro herself wasn’t too fond of the album—as she had little creative control at the time, she had little say in the arrangements. This resulted in a very straightforward, pop-oriented sound, though it’s evident from Nyro’s performances on the album that she would be better suited to more adventurous, complex song structures and musical ideas.

 

Part II: The Music

Goodbye Joe: The album opens with one of its best tracks: a mellow yet cheery parting song. A soulful organ and enthusiastic horns bring a brightness to the sound, as they do on the majority of the album’s tracks. The song’s a straightforward pop number with a great melody and accessible lyrics. It ends with a bit of tension as Nyro’s refrain of “goodbye Joe” repeats until the fadeout, leaving the chord progression unresolved. RATING: 9/10

Billy’s Blues: A moody jazz song with a great vocal and a dreary atmosphere. We’re starting to see a bit of versatility here; Nyro sounds just as authentic in a jazz setting as she does in a pop setting. Again, the lyrics aren’t deep—did we really need to be told that “Some folks have it good / And some folks have it no good.” Rather, this song is a sketch—it evokes a glum, wistful mood and it does so very convincingly. RATING: 7/10

And When I Die: And here’s one of the happiest songs about dying I’ve ever heard. The singer confronts their own mortality with an optimistic outlook: “When I die, and when I’m gone / There’ll be one child born in the world to carry on.” It’s also a song about freedom, both in life and in death: “I can swear there ain’t no heaven / But I pray there ain’t no hell.” The song’s so upbeat and hopeful that it’s contagious. You’ll find considerably more attitude here than you will on the Peter, Paul and Mary version. RATING: 8/10

Stoney End: This one’s a bit of a tossup—I think Barbra Streisand’s rendition has the edge here. There’s also a 1968 recording by a singer named Peggy Lipton—it’s not quite as good, but is worth checking out nevertheless. Anyway, Nyro’s vocals here are the highlight—particularly when she dips into head voice to sing “Cradle me / Momma cradle me again.” There’s a vulnerability that really shines through. The song’s a bit of a downer if you pay attention the lyrics: the first verse is about disillusionment, the second about heartbreak, and the third about stormy weather (a bit of an anti-climax). “Stoney End” clearly means rock bottom (duh), and the disheartened singer begs for a second chance at life. While I prefer the arrangement on the Streisand version, Nyro’s vocals are more emotionally potent. RATING: 10/10

Lazy Susan: The reversion to jazz style might not be as welcome here were it not for Nyro’s keen sense of melody. This song is downright mesmerizing. It’s also lyrically dense, with vivid images like the following: “Courted and cradled by heaven and hillside / Sun-fried black-eyed Sue.” There’s a neat little twist at the end, where Johnny—presumably the guy the singer has “lost and loved” as stated in the first line—seems to have moved on with Lazy Susan. It introduces an interesting tonal shift to the piece; what appears to be sympathy towards the lonely figure of Lazy Susan is actually veiled bitterness. RATING: 9/10

Hands Off The Man: Also known as “Flim Flam Man”, as it was titled on the reissue. It’s the most memorable track on the album, thanks in part to the satisfying harmonies during the chorus. It warns of a sketchy character—the titular Flim Flam man—who’s a bit of a con artist, even though he’s got so much charm he can pay his rent with it. You have to wonder if there’s a real life basis for this character, though the song is more playful than it is bitter. Melody, harmony, the whole package really. Great song. RATING: 10/10

Wedding Bell Blues: Another standout track—so much so that this was bumped up to album opener on the reissue. Reportedly, Nyro’s original vision for the song was much more ambitious; she wanted the song to consist of several rhythmically distinct sections, but this idea was vetoed by her arranger. And while it’s fun to imagine what might have been, “Wedding Bell Blues”—in which the singer laments the fact that their beloved just will not pop the question—is nevertheless a great song. RATING: 9/10

Buy And Sell: The album kind of tapers off from here on out. This is another jazzy number, but it lacks the raw emotionality and melodic sensibility of the previous offerings. The atmosphere is very noir, and the evocative lyrics, which seem to suggest that just about everything in life is a commodity, are the song’s saving grace. RATING: 4/10

He’s A Runner: This one’s a bit of a slog. As always, Nyro delivers a stellar vocal performance. But there’s not much substance to this song—the arrangement is stiff and the melodies understated. It’s about a man who just can’t commit, but it lacks the usual sense of wit and vivid poetry that breathes life into these slower songs. RATING: 2/10

Blowing Away: This album’s major flaw is that the arrangements become stale after a while. I can see why Nyro was frustrated with the album’s direction—there are basically two clusters of songs here: the slow, jazzy ones, and the upbeat pop ones. This is the latter, and were Nyro not such a great songwriter, there would be very little to sustain the album by this point. Still, this ode to a lover feels like a lesser effort compared to some of the earlier tracks. RATING: 6/10

I Never Meant to Hurt You: An apologetic track, though we never do find out what it is the singer did to hurt her lover. We only get vague hints: “Why did I do things I never meant to do? / Why did I speak so carelessly?” This track is buried at the end of the album here, and rightly so. That said, there is a regretful sense of sorrow to the vocal, and the slow-down at the end of the song mimics the singer breaking down into tears. RATING: 5/10

California Shoeshine Boys: The album ends on a light-hearted note—a song about fickle boys and the heartbreak they leave in their wake. They actually went for something a little different with the arrangement this time; you’ll notice a folk influence in the arrangement and playing. It’s a welcome change of pace, even if it isn’t one of the stronger compositions. RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

r-2379539-1390936957-6551-jpeg

Aesthetic: Neither of the album covers strike me as memorable, though the original does encapsulate the singer-songwriter aura much better than the reissue. While the pop-oriented production does have a level of polish, it gets to be a bit of a drag towards the end of the album. The original title, “More Than A New Discovery”, is probably the best of the bunch, but even that is a bit of a mouthful. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: Laura Nyro’s songwriting and vocal performances here hint at a much greater talent than is allowed to be on display. This is very much a pop album, though the songs here were worthy of much more than the very safe, commercial arrangements they wound up with. SCORE: 2/5

Flow: I said before that there are two types of songs on this album: the jazzy ones and the poppy ones. The problem is they don’t fit together very well, nor are the songs sequenced in a way that eases the listener from one emotional state to the next. Some of the transitions can be quite jarring, actually. While the album’s sound isn’t sustainable, since the album clocks in at about 35 minutes it doesn’t really feel like it overstays its welcome either. SCORE: 3/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I haven’t gotten around to listening to the album using the reissue’s sequencing—perhaps that makes for a better listen. Regardless, the album’s a suitable introduction to a great artistic talent. So think of this one as a promise of good things yet to come, yeah?

FINAL SCORE: 64

Advertisements

The Supremes – The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland

supremes-sing-hdh

Part I: The Background

The Motown songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland were responsible for the majority of the Supremes’ biggest hits (“Baby Love”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Come See About Me”, and “Stop! In The Name of Love”, just to name a few). Following the success of their previous album, The Supremes A-Go-Go, the group recorded an album with all of the songs composed by HDH, some of those being originals and some of those being covers of songs originally recorded by other artists. The resulting album marked the end of an era: following this album, Florence Ballard would depart from the group and the relationships between the members would grow strained as Diana Ross moved further and further into the spotlight (with the group changing its name to Diana Ross and the Supremes). The album is composed both of new compositions and of older recordings, with the oldest dating back as far as three years prior. So this is one last hoorah for the classic Supremes, though of course their sound had already begun to evolve by this point, and the influences of mid-sixties musical experimentation are evident on a select number of the album’s tracks.

 

Part II: The Music

You Keep Me Hangin’ On: A single-note guitar lick pans back and forth, evoking the sound of Morse code (an effect which would be revisited by the group with the song “Reflections”). The organ is decidedly psychedelic, and though the punchy drums have that typical Motown feel (it is still the Funk Brothers—Motown’s arsenal of session musicians—performing, after all), the beat is a little more laid back than usual, welcoming the listener into a new era of inhibition. The two sections of the song contrast more than is usual for a Supremes song, and the verses are much more adventurous as far as the chord progression is concerned (while there aren’t any unexpected turns, the song travels from chord to chord quite a bit before returning to the chorus, adding a level of complexity to the song writing). Diana’s vocals definitely sound double-tracked, adding a bit of punch to the floatier moments of the song. My favourite moment comes one minute and sixteen seconds into the song, where Florence’s vocals come to the forefront (I’m predictable like that). Overall, a very worthy addition to the parade of HDH-penned Supremes hits. RATING: 9/10

You’re Gone (But Always In My Heart): As far as slower, melancholy Supremes songs go, this is run of the mill. You can feel the sense of longing both in Diana’s delicate sentimentality and in the sulking brass section (the playing really has this deflated, disheartened quality to it). The musical style here verges on traditional pop. It’s not a memorable song though; you’ll probably forget all about it as soon as it ends. RATING: 5.5/10

Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone: Speaking of predictability—harpsichord! You know this one’s getting a high score. The arrangement also a vibrant string section, with the overall sound falling halfway between baroque pop and bubblegum pop. The backing vocals are vaguely psychedelic. Another nice touch is the emphatic spoken word sections—it’s nice to see a bit of attitude to contrast Diana’s usual honeyed vocal tone. And while it’s the arrangement that does the trick for me, that’s not to say this isn’t an impressive composition. Not that we didn’t already know Dozier and the Holland brothers had an incredible sense of melody. RATING: 9.5/10

Mother You, Smother You: This feels like a retread—it attempts to recall the magic of “Baby Love,” albeit this song’s a bit more sappy. But this song sees the Supremes doing what they do best; it’s a fun, catchy pop song with a swinging rhythm and an instantly memorable melody. This is one of the older tracks, isn’t it? RATING: 6.5/10

I Guess I’ll Always Love You: One of the more recent recordings, this song was originally recorded by the Isley Brothers. The song occupies a middle ground between more orchestral-influenced instrumentation and the trademark Motown sound. It’s probably one of the most upbeat songs on the album. And since it was written by the usual trio anyway, it’s not like it’s any more of a cover than the other songs are. Or at least I didn’t think so until I heard the original. This is literally just Diana, Florence, and Mary singing over the same backing track that the Isley Brothers used. So on the one hand, it’s a lazy effort with an unengaging lead vocal. One the other hand, it’s a catchy tune, so who cares? RATING: 6/10

I’ll Turn To Stone: This could’ve easily been a single if it had been released a couple years earlier; it demonstrates HDH’s top-notch pop sensibilities. There’s nothing arrangement-wise to distinguish this track from the previous two. But with a killer melody and some decent vocals, you don’t really miss the experimentation that the album opening track deceived us into thinking we’d be getting. RATING: 7/10

It’s The Same Old Song: A Four Tops cover. Well… we get a different backing track this time. But it seriously lacks the punch and vibrancy of the original: the instrumental has been whittled down to a bopping bubblegum style. The tempo has been increased considerably from the original version in an effort to give the cover some distinctiveness. Unfortunately, the sax solo winds up being laughable as a result. But yeah, attuning the instrumental to suit the voices of the Supremes was a commendable effort. RATING: 5/10

Going Down For The Third Time: Diana seems to have woken up: she delivers a fiercer vocal lead this time around. The lyrics equate love with drowning, perhaps unoriginally, but there are a few standout images scattered here and there: “I’m like a ship all alone on a raging sea.” The horns during the pre-chorus section feel much more insistent as the singer makes her plea: “Bring back that love we knew / Darling let me live again.” “Going Down For The Third Time” isn’t as exciting as the singles, but it’s a quality album track composed in a similar vein. RATING: 8/10

Love Is In Our Hearts: And then this disappointment. I’m willing to bet this is another one of the older cuts—the melody feels very early-sixties. This bright-eyed, optimistic lovebirds song doesn’t hold a candle lyrically or musically to the stronger offerings on this album. Easily identifiable filler. RATING: 2.5/10

Remove This Doubt: With its sweeping string section, trickling piano arpeggios, and gloomy atmosphere, this song is completely and utterly out of place here. Don’t get me wrong—this is an amazing song. But it would’ve been more at home on I Hear A Symphony. I thought we’d established that the bulk of this album was going to hearken back to that classic Supremes sound? The backing vocals, which echo Diana’s emotive lead, are downright eerie—this is clearly the hidden gem of the album. RATING: 9/10

There’s No Stopping Us Now: Yeah, so here’s the thing. After that last song, I’m really not in the mood to go back to the standard Supremes fanfare. At least until the second time we get to the chorus, when I get sucked into that magic all over again. This song definitely suffers as a result of the album sequencing—I’d have made this the second track, or at least put it somewhere on Side A. Hell, literally anywhere other than where it actually got placed. The singer declares to her lover that together they can take on the world (that’s not literally in the lyrics, but that’s the gist of them), and the instrumental is appropriately confident and optimistic. The melody isn’t as memorable the melodies of the hits the song attempts to emulate, but if you can’t get enough of classic-era Supremes, you’ll like this one. RATING: 7/10

Love Is Like A Heat Wave: One of my biggest musical pet peeves is when an album ends with a cover song. The album closer is the last thing the listener hears; it should leave them mesmerized by what they just heard and eager to go back and listen again. When you throw someone else’s song at the end of your album, unless you’ve done a hell of a lot to make it your own, you’re squandering that opportunity. Consider this opportunity squandered. RATING: 3/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The monotone album cover completely fails to capture the essence of this album (I think they were going for a goldish hue—the Supremes themselves look like statuettes). It might’ve worked for a greatest hits collection, but for a full-fledged (er… one-third-fledged) studio album, it just doesn’t cut it. I’m conflicted about the title. Sure, the album is exactly what it says on the tin. But two other albums in the Supremes’ discography use the same title format: The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop and The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart. When you see an album title like that, you infer that the group is going to be interpreting songs from, well, somebody else’s songbook. And while that’s technically what this is, the Holland-Dozier-Holland song writing team were just as much a part of the Supremes as the girls themselves. So you end up with what sounds like a cover album but is really the most self-contained album the group ever put out. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: The newer tracks on the album do have a bit of an experimental edge to them, pushing the boundaries ever so slightly for this particular flavour of pop music. But the compilers of the album had to go and undo all of that by tossing a bunch of old throwaway tracks into the mix. Ultimately, this comes across as more of a compilation than an album. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: I say this album’s a compilation because it sounds like one. While there is a consistency to the core Supremes sound, the album’s really all over the place in terms of the arrangements and song writing techniques. And whose awful idea was it to hide one of the more impressive pop-oriented tracks after the most emotionally moving song on the album? And whose awful idea was it to end with a cover? SCORE: 2/10

CLOSING REMARKS:

You could make an argument for this being the last real Supremes album. The Holland-Dozier-Holland song writing team stuck around for one more album (Reflections) before packing it up and departing from Motown records, sure. But subsequent albums abandoned that classic Supremes sound in favour of a more current sound. And of course, this was the last album of original material to feature Florence Ballard as a member. And she was arguably the heart of the group. So enjoy this album for what it is: the end of an era.

FINAL SCORE: 58

 

 

The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons

betweenthebuttonsuk

Part I: The Background

Between the Buttons sees the Rolling Stones at perhaps their most experimental, barring their subsequent effort, Their Satanic Majesties Request. The album is easily the stronger of the two projects. It was recorded at the height of mid-sixties experimentation, and the complex backing tracks employed the use of many overdubs and mix-downs. Brian Jones was still heavily involved with the band during this period, and he drove them to explore new sounds through varied textures and instrumentation. This album sees the Stones embracing both psychedelia and their British roots. The American version of the album differed from the UK version in that it included the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday” in favour of “Back Street Girl” and “Please Go Home”.

 

Part II: The Music

Yesterday’s Papers: This album’s such an oddity in that it’s very un-Stones-like. Just look at this album opener for example. The steady backbeat, heavy bass guitar, and graceful vibraphone give the song a Motown sort of feel, while the harpsichord, played by frequent Phil Spector collaborator Jack Nitzche, and the falsetto backing vocals add a mid-sixties trippy vibe to the song. Atypical of the Stones, many of the songs on this album aren’t very riff driven. “Yesterday’s Papers” is no exception—Keith Richards’ guitar is just another element that adds texture to the composition rather than calling attention to itself. Lyrically, the song portrays romantic relationships as a transient, fickle thing thing—yesterday’s girl is old news, and the singer moves on to the next girl just as people move on to the latest trends. After all, the sixties were a time of constant evolution and of exploring new and exciting things: “I’m living a life of constant change / Every day means the turn of a page.” RATING: 8.5/10

My Obsession: This one’s a bit more of a straightforward rocker, though Richards’ guitar still isn’t as prominent as it usually is; rather, the song revolves around Charlie Watts’ drumming. The song features some exquisite, drawn-out, psychedelic harmonies. Otherwise, the songwriting here isn’t all that distinguishable from the typical mid-sixties Stones fanfare; the song wouldn’t be all that out of place on their previous effort, Aftermath. I should also probably mention that Brian Wilson claims this is his favourite Stones song. Not a bad choice, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of the highlights of the album. RATING: 8/10

Back Street Girl: This baroque pop waltz, however, is. An accordion adds a little romantic flair to the song, distinguishing it from its gloomier predecessor, “Lady Jane”. Contrasting the beauty of the arrangement are some pretty stuck-up lyrics: now matter how sweetly Jagger sings the song, it’s still a singer addressing a mistress who’s below his station (“You’re rather common and course anyway”) and putting her in her place. There’s a very strong eighteenth-century feel both lyrically and sonically, though the illusion is sort of broken when Jagger sings, “Please never ring on the phone.” Regardless, it’s one of the better songs on the album. It doesn’t feature on the American version, and that’s a real shame. RATING: 9/10

Connection: Connection is danceable rocker with a steady Motown beat. Although the song isn’t very adventurous musically, the melody takes a few unexpected turns, keeping the listener engaged. This song not only has the same energy as “My Obsession”, but it also succeeds in all the places that that song doesn’t. Sonically, there’s not very much that’s psychedelic about this song. There’s a bit of drug-related subject matter when we get to the line “My bags, they get a very close inspection / I wonder why it is that they suspect them,” but that’s about it. Lyrically, the song isn’t that impressive—it prioritizes maintaining its central rhyme scheme over evocative imagery. It’s a good thing, then, that the rhythm is so infectious. RATING: 9/10

She Smiled Sweetly: Jagger employs a more sentimental tone here. Altogether, his vocals come across as a little forced and unnatural. Actually, he sounds congested—perhaps he had a cold during the recording of this song. A solemn church organ rings out in the background (I wouldn’t quite say it’s matrimonial), with the rhythm section filling out the bulk of the instrumental. It’s a pensive tune with a soulful element to it that just further goes to show how varied this album is stylistically. RATING: 7.5/10

Cool, Calm and Collected: A jaunty—and very British—music hall–inspired romp with an Eastern influence during the chorus. Like a handful of songs on the album, it’s bitter towards its female subject; this one’s about a manipulative woman who puts on a façade in order to get what she wants. The third verse, however, provides a hint of redemption: the woman does seem to be a little insecure, but she is determined not to let it show: “But behind she is not without care / But she sweeps it right under her hair.” Oh, and there’s a kazoo solo. It’s songs like these that prove that the Stones were just as capable of expressing British eccentricity as Paul McCartney and Ray Davies. RATING: 10/10

All Sold Out: This is a nice little fusion of old and new. At its core, this song is par for the course for the early Stones, but the psychedelic harmonies and out of tune woodwind (a bit of research seems to suggest it was a recorder) at least attempt to update the rock and roll sound for the psychedelic era. Unfortunately, the stereo mix for this song is absolutely dreadful—it’s congested and imbalanced to the point that it becomes uncomfortable to listen to. Actually, the mono version doesn’t sound much better to me. RATING: 7/10

Please Go Home: A bit of experimental feedback at the beginning of this song doesn’t do much to save it from being a cacophonous mess. Very oddly, the Stones contrast a Buddy Holly inspired rocker with some pretty psychedelic delay effects and guitar tones—and is that a theremin I hear? Still, no amount of studio trickery can make this song anything more than average. RATING: 5.5/10

Who’s Been Sleeping Here?: This is totally a Bob Dylan impersonation (and not a bad one at that). The singer’s under the impression that his girl has been unfaithful to him, and in his attempt to find out with whom, he runs through an extensive (and ridiculous) list of possible suspects, including “the noseless old newsboy” and “the old British brigadier”. It’s a humorous, harmonica-heavy tune with allusions to Goldilocks. RATING: 6/10

Complicated: Now we’re talking. Psychedelic organ, raunchy beat, sinister melody—this really is my favourite era for the Stones. And a little fuzz guitar never hurts. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this song with “Cool, Calm and Collected”; the two songs are quite similar lyrically, though the aggression manifests more so in the music here rather than in the lyrics, I’d say. RATING: 9/10

Miss Amanda Jones: This song begins as a pretty straightforward rocker (albeit with a bit of parlor piano brightening up the sound) before diving into one of my favourite hooks on a Rolling Stones album: “Hey girl, don’t you realize the money invested in you? / Hey girl, you just got to find someone who’ll really pull your family through.” This song’s a much more fleshed-out character sketch—the titular Amanda Jones is supposedly a young lady of nobility who seems to just want to party. She hasn’t yet had her “coming out” (i.e. she hasn’t made her public debut yet), so we can imagine the character as a rowdy youth who isn’t living up to the expectations of her well-to-do family. I’m no usually big on straightforward rockers, but that chorus is just so damn catchy! RATING: 10/10

Something Happened to Me Yesterday: The Stones go full-on music hall for the album closer (recall what I was saying earlier about British eccentricity). There’s not really any way to deny that this one’s a drug song: “It’s really rather drippy / But something also trippy / Something happened to me yesterday.” Brian Jones provides a delightful brass band interlude, while Richards gets his first ever lead vocal during the chorus. Jagger signs off at the end of the song via a brief spoken passage reminiscent of that of a radio broadcast. For a band that spent so much time imitating Americans, the Stones sure were a riot when they embraced their Britishness. This is the most fully-conceptualized song on the album and a perfect closer to one of the most underrated entries in the Stones’ discography. RATING: 10/10

American Version: As I mentioned earlier, the American version of the album swapped out two of the tracks for the concurrent singles. I’m not going to count these songs towards the album’s final score, but since I won’t get to talk about them anywhere else, I may as well take the opportunity.

Let’s Spend the Night Together: Probably one of the best rockers the Stones put out during Brian Jones’ tenure in the band. As a song about sex, it was controversial at the time (when the band performed it on the Ed Sullivan show, they were forced to change the lyrics to “let’s spend some time together”). It’s pretty straightforward in terms of instrumentation, though as usual, Brian Jones’ droning organ really fills out the sound in the back half of the song, improving an already impressive tune (let’s not downplay the talents of Jagger and Richards as songwriters). RATING: 9/10

Ruby Tuesday: This psychedelic/baroque pop piece not only boasts one of the most memorable melodies in the Stones’ catalogue, but also some of the best instrumentation. Brian Jones contributes a fluttering recorder part as while Bill Wyman and Keith Richards play a solemn double bass line. The lyrics are an evocative piece of semi-psychedelic poetry that still manage to convey a clear narrative (the song is about a free spirit that the singer is enamoured with—there are contrasting reports about the real-life inspiration for the song, one of which being Richards’ girlfriend Linda, who had become involved with none other than Jimi Hendrix). It’s the timeless melody and the stunning arrangement that make this song such an emotional trip. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The songs were incredibly produced, though occasionally they become a bit muddled, as the band really only had 4-track recorders at their disposal. The new textures and sounds that they tried to capture really make this album stand out from the rest of their discography; I’d say never was Brian Jones’ presence more felt than in this album’s aesthetic. I’ve always liked the album cover; the band appears in a blurry haze, created by a camera filter. I’m not really sure what “Between the Buttons” is supposed to mean, but it winds up being pretty appropriate, as the album lies somewhere in between the more R&B-inspired rock and roll of the band’s previous albums and the chaotic, drug-addled mess that was to follow. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: Despite being a few years removed from their classic period, this album is surprisingly solid. It demonstrates a versatility that would never again be seen throughout the career. The experimentation here never becomes excessive or indulgent. You might say that this is their answer to Revolver. Even so, there are an abundance of moments where the band slips back into their comfort zone, churning out straightforward rock and roll numbers. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: While the stylistic variation makes for an album that isn’t flawlessly cohesive, I’ve never considered that to be much of a fault. The frequent shifts in tone and atmosphere keep you engaged with the album from start to finish; there isn’t an excess of dull moments on this record, nor do the songs ever really start to feel repetitive (a symptom that would plague many a later day Rolling Stones album). SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I’m one of the rare Stones fans who prefers their 60s output to their 70s output, and this is the best of the bunch. In combination with singles like “Ruby Tuesday” and “She’s A Rainbow”, this album proves that the Stones were more than capable of playing the experimental/psychedelic game, they just happened to go a little overboard. Between the Buttons is pretty overlooked compared to the band’s more well-known output (of course it is: the UK version of the album doesn’t even have any singles on it!). But it’s definitely an album that’s deserving of your attention, especially if you’re into mid-sixties baroque pop and psychedelia.

FINAL SCORE: 80

 

 

 

 

 

The Monkees – More of the Monkees

mi0000030504

Part I: The Background

The Monkees released their sophomore effort (or rather, their sophomore effort was released) while their TV show was at the height of its popularity. Musically, the album doesn’t differ all that much from their debut—the ripple effect of 1967 had yet to begin during the album’s recording sessions, and so the album isn’t really all that tinged in psychedelia and out-there soundscapes. That said, it is a decent pop album, even though the group wouldn’t begin to (or be given permission to) realise their artistic potential until their next album (and much like on their debut, the instrumentation here is primarily handled by studio musicians). Boyce and Hart once again make contributions in the way of songwriting (though they don’t dominate this album like they did the last one), and so do a few other big names: Sandy Linzer (known for his work with The Four Seasons), songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and of course Neil Diamond, who penned the band’s most well-known hit, “I’m a Believer”.

Around the time of the album’s release, the Monkees were beginning to fight back against their management to be allowed to perform as an actual band. Up until then, they’d been refused any sort of artistic freedom and were obliged to merely fill their contractual roles. This album is no exception—it was culled from a series of studio recordings without any intervention from the band themselves. Apparently, they didn’t even know about the album until they saw it in a record shop. Mike Nesmith, the budding songwriter of the group, was the most vocal in his displeasure with the album, calling it “the worst album in the history of the world”. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as that.

 

Part II: The Album

She: I said that the album isn’t steeped in psychedelia, but the harmonies, sonic textures, and melodies on this album are nevertheless fitting for the year they were released. “She” kicks off the album full of promise. It’s a groovy pop song with bright, emotive vocals from Dolenz. Steady electric guitar chords give the verses a linear, regimented sort of feel, while the middle eight gives way into a looser, more relaxed rhythm, followed by a melodic yet tonally lackluster organ solo. It’s a great album opener, but far from one of the most interesting tracks in the band’s oeuvre. RATING: 7/10

When Love Comes Knocking (At Your Door): Sappy, sentimental Davy Jones. But the chord progression takes a number of unexpected and refreshing turns, and therein lies the beauty of the song (there’s even a chromatic descent—you know how much I love those!). The twinkling in the background adds an almost dreamlike quality to the bouncy, starry-eyed tune. Oh, and here’s a tip: if you hear Davy Jones singing in a saccharine sort of way, don’t pay too much attention to the lyrics—doing so will only hamper your enjoyment. RATING: 7.5/10

Mary Mary: The first of Nesmith’s contributions to the album. Oddly, this is more of a straightforward rock and roller (Nesmith’s songs usually have more of a country-influence to them). Dolenz provides a laid-back lead vocal here on this altogether uninspired track—the song lacks the adventurous chord shifts of some of the other songs, and it feels rather sluggish. Rockers should not feel sluggish. RATING: 5/10

Hold On Girl: Now this is more like it—and I’m not just saying that because of the baroque-influenced keyboard part. But these hazy, somewhat ominous arpeggios are exactly what I associate with this era of music. The chorus provides a sense of relief, as we transition into something more dreamy and gentle. The music perfectly fits the lyrical content too: the tension during the verses emphasizes the sense of disorientation and glumness of the girl who’s had her heart broken while the reassuring tone of the chorus is reassuring and offers a sense of hope: “Now that we are together / Things are gonna be better.” RATING: 9/10

Your Auntie Grizelda: Structurally, this is a blues song, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing; it’s so boisterous and colourful. A fuzz guitar mimics the bassline here, adding a bit of a psychedelic edge to the song. The lyrics are about the titular self-righteous, overbearing aunt of the singer’s paramour—it’s played for laughs, of course, though the song is simultaneously a desperate plea and a solemn warning to the girl, who, much to the singer’s dismay, seems to be taking after her aunt. Peter Tork was the perfect choice for vocalist here; I’ve always thought there was something comical about his conversational singing voice (and that’s not meant to be a slight). The silly, over-the-top vocal improvisations during the instrumental breakdown, however, I could do without. RATING: 8/10

(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone: We’re getting a bit more psychedelic now. One of the heavier cuts on the album, “Steppin’ Stone” remains pretty static musically, effecting a sort of drone. The instrumentation and vocals are full of attitude—there’s a real edge to this song. The singer demands to be acknowledged—this is the youth protesting the establishment in attempt to gain their rightful place in the world. Some studio experimentation would’ve improved this one though—potent though it is, it does ultimately fall a little flat. RATING: 6.5/10

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow): Yeah, this is unimpressive album filler. This Neil Diamond–penned track features a dynamic shift during the chorus, but offers little much else of interest. The steady beat, accentuated by handclaps, is the most appealing aspect of the song. Davy’s breathy I love you’s at the end, however, are cringeworth enough to derail the track entirely. RATING: 3/10

The Kind Of Girl I Could Love: Okay, this is trademark Nesmith. Country twang, infectious Peggy Sue–like rhythm, and a whole lot of melody. An underwhelming guitar solo is one apparent flaw, but it doesn’t really detract from the song much. More than anything, this song’s a promise of great things to come from a developing songwriter. The “You do something to my soul that no one’s ever done” section is easily the highlight of the song. RATING: 8/10

The Day We Fall In Love: Don’t let the modulated opening to this song fool you; this is not a good song. This is the antithesis of a good song. Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to get Davy to speak the lyrics in an overly-intimate, breathy tone? (That’s a rhetorical question; I know exactly what they were trying to do with this song.) The tragedy here is that the instrumental, sappy though it is, isn’t actually all that bad. Shame about those vocals. I wouldn’t even go so far as to call this a spoken word piece. Absolutely awful. RATING: 1/10

Sometime In The Morning: This is a bit of an odd one out—lyrically, this song’s much more mature than the rest of the album. The singer’s reflecting on how being in love with this person has opened their eyes to all the beauty of the world; it’s a really pretty song, penned by Goffin and King. The guitar arpeggios have a weightless, serene feel to them here—the smitten sense of wonder really comes through in the music. Dolenz’ vocals here are delicate and sensitive to fully convey the potency of the lyrics. RATING: 8/10

Laugh: The penultimate song on the album has a very Monkees sort of feel to it, from the playful instrumental to the seemingly innocuous lyrics that are actually critical in nature when you break them down (the song’s basically saying that everything kind of sucks, but no one’s really paying attention because they’re too absorbed in the music, which serves as a form of escapism). There’s even a bit of Beatlesque snark here: “Laugh when you go to a party / And you can’t tell the boys from the girls”. But, if you’ll notice, I don’t really have much else to say about this one. RATING: 6/10

I’m A Believer: Is it blasphemy to say that I don’t really like this song? Like most people my age, my first exposure to this song was through the awful Smashmouth cover. Then I learned it was a Monkees song. Then I learned it was actually a Neil Diamond song. Okay, I can see why this was such a big hit. But it’s just so lacking in energy: Dolenz’s vocals are downright lazy and the beat just sort of bops along. It’s danceable, sure, but it’s hardly exciting. The melody is timeless, I suppose. All in all, it’s not a bad song to be known for, but it’s hardly the pinnacle of the Monkees’ discography. RATING: 7/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: Let’s be honest, there wasn’t much thought put into this, was there? The album sells because of the Monkees brand, and that’s that. The cover is bland an unappealing with an ugly photo of the band set against a pukey green. “More of the Monkees” is a lazy title. It is apt though—there’s really nothing musically that distinguishes the songs here from those on the first album. The two are completely interchangeable. SCORE: 1/5

Artistic Merit: The bare minimum, in this case brought to the table by the various collaborators rather than the band themselves. At this point, the Monkees were still very much a manufactured band, and this was a manufactured pop album. It’s not a bad one, but there’s not much to impress here beyond a handful of catchy tunes. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: The album’s listenable in the sense that the songs all have a similar aesthetic, but as I’ve already mentioned, so did the ones on the last album. This isn’t so much an album as it is a collection of songs to be released as singles and featured on the TV show. I mean, I say that like it’s some sort of revelation but it’s not—that’s just a fact. The songs were recorded for the show, the album was compiled for a quick buck (seriously, look it up). SCORE: 3/10

CLOSING REMARKS: I’ve criticized this album for not being all that forward-looking, but that’s really a bit of unfair; it’s not like there wasn’t pop music in 1967. There was plenty of it, and as far as 1967 pop goes, I’m not sure it gets much better than the Monkees. And while the later albums are a lot better, the first two albums are really what the whole Monkees mythos is built upon. At any rate, don’t pass this one up just because it isn’t an artistic masterpiece—as I hope I’ve made clear, there’s plenty here to merit a listen.

FINAL SCORE: 55

 

 

 

 

 

The Doors – The Doors

thedoorsthedoorsalbumcover

Part I: The Background

The Doors’ self-titled debut album officially marked the beginning of one of the greatest years in the history of popular music. The majority of the album consisted of songs culled from their then-current live set. While a number of albums released the previous year laid the groundwork for psychedelic experimentation, The Doors were really one of the first major groups to take psychedelia and turn it into a full-fledged musical genre. While the album did employ the use of overdubbing, the instrumentation is contained primarily to the four-piece band themselves—unlike some of the wildly experimental works of the time, the songs on this album could be performed live. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much lead-up to the album, with its biggest single “Light My Fire” not having been released until months after the album was already out. What The Doors brought to the table was not only their fresh new sound, but also a healthy dose of attitude and charisma, thanks largely to lead vocalist and frontman, Jim Morrison.

 

Part II: The Music

Break On Through (To The Other Side): Their debut single opens the album. The song’s appeal comes from the dynamic contrast between the swinging, bossa nova–style verses that gradually crescendo into a boisterous, raucous roar—Morrison shouts out the chorus, breaking free from his restraints and tapping into something primal. The real key to The Doors’ sound, however, was Ray Manzarek’s organ, and I find his solo here a little underwhelming—only towards the end of the track does he really let loose, but as his organ is buried low in the mix at this point, he doesn’t exactly break on through. RATING: 8/10

Soul Kitchen: Morrison employs the same technique here, reserving his vocal outbursts for the chorus to create dynamic contrast but also emphasizing his lyrics—Morrison, after all, was a great poet. We get a sequence of confused images as Morrison navigates through a hazy, late-night landscape (but of course, you can read into the lyrics much deeper than their surface-level interpretations): “The cars crawl past all stuffed with eyes / Street lights shed their hollow glow.” A lot of The Doors’ output is best appreciated as poetry set to music; the band settles into a steady groove here, allowing Morrison’s vocals to take the spotlight. RATING: 6/10

The Crystal Ship: Manzarek’s organ takes on a funereal quality in this eerie song. The creepy verses give way to an ethereal instrumental interlude—one of the most breathtaking moments on the album. The song carries a heavy emotional weight, with Morrison’s lyrics reflecting on a lost love, though what the titular crystal ship signifies is anyone’s guess—perhaps it hints at a life of indulgence (“a thousand girls / a thousand thrills”) which may seem appealing at first (we are attracted to the shimmer of the crystal) but is, ultimately hollow (a crystal, at the end of the day, is transparent). Or perhaps the singer would rather escape his reality (“I’d rather fly”) than deal with the emotional turmoil of everyday existence, which the subject of the song seems to favour (“You’d rather cry”). I’ve always felt that psychedelic music is at its best when it’s simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and this song definitely pulls off that juxtaposition. RATING: 9/10

Twentieth Century Fox: This one’s a little less abstract—it’s a caustic portrait of the shallowness of the eponymous twentieth century fox, the modern gal. Her obsession with superficiality leads to a sort of bliss, as she is oblivious to the harsh realities of the world around her: “No tears, no fears / No ruined years, no clocks.” But Morrison twists the image around here—rather than portraying the character as sheltered within a little bubble, she remains liberated while keeping the world itself “locked up inside a plastic box.” Musically, the song treads the same ground as the song preceding it, that is until the “No tears, no fears” section, in which Manzarek amps up the psychedelia with an arpeggiated organ lick. Kreiger’s guitar solo, which follows, returns the track to its more traditional rock and roll roots. RATING: 7/10

Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar): One of the two cover songs on the album (the song dates back to the 1920s) also happens to be arguably its best—this is The Doors at their trippiest. Alabama Song has all the trappings of a cabaret-style romp while Manzarek adds a carnivalesque psychedelic texture to the song with the pitter patter of his marxophone (look it up—it’s a really neat sounding instrument). Really, the song sounds exactly like the kind of thing you’d expect to hear while riding a carousel, and it’s just as fun. The Doors successfully make the song their own, and it’d blend in perfectly with the rest of the album if it weren’t such a standout track. RATING: 10/10

Light My Fire: The Doors’ biggest song perfectly captures their essence: it’s psychedelic, but Morrison’s stylized, reverb-drenched vocals also have a crooning quality reminiscent of Elvis. The extended organ solo here hints at the excesses of psychedelia, while the double entendre of the lyrics blend sexuality with drug culture: “You know we couldn’t get much higher / Come on baby light my fire.” As such, “Light My Fire” is one of the defining songs of the 1960s and one of the prototypical psychedelic masterpieces. RATING: 10/10

Back Door Man: This hard-rocking bluesy number marks a bit of a departure from the rest of the album—Manzarek and Morrison rein in their performances here, allowing guitarist Robby Kreiger and drummer John Densmore to dominate the soundstage. It’s a decent cover, chocked full of attitude, but ultimately this wouldn’t be out of place on any early- to mid-60s album. RATING: 6/10

I Looked At You: Speaking of which, swap out Morrison for your favourite 1960s British vocalist and subtract Manzarek’s keyboards and you’d have what could easily be a Merseybeat-era rock song. Okay, the “too late” section does have that unexpected, chromatic sense of dissonance that wouldn’t come into prominence until the mid-60s. At the very least, the song sounds more 1966 than 1967. “I Looked At You” is one of the catchier tunes on the album melodically, however, and probably could have passed for a single. RATING: 7/10

End of the Night: Here’s that sinister aspect of psychedelia rearing its head again—the delay on the organ and the music box–like twinkling create a suspenseful, phantasmagorical atmosphere. Even the guitar solo here seems like a distant dream—a hazy, haunting vision from afar. The song begins to hint at some of the more experimental sounds and textures the band would dabble in on their next album. RATING 8/10

Take It As It Comes: Here’s one last psychedelic romp. “Take It As It Comes” has a swagger that not even the Stones could pull off at this point in time and a keen sense of melody to boot. But the highlight of the song is the organ—the song arguably features Manzarek’s most energetic, engaging performance on the album. The lyrics are once again steeped in double entendre, conflating the philosophical and the metaphysical with the sexual. RATING: 8/10

The End: This nearly 12-minute-long epic that closes out the album takes the listener on a transcendent, psychedelic journey. It begins innocuously enough, with Morrison delivering some introspective lyrics in a smooth, musical tone over a subdued instrumental. The funereal piece—with the organ droning on in the background—repeatedly swells and settles, leaving the listener in suspense. The lyrics become more and more abstract: “Ride the snake / He’s old and his skin is cold.” The song then transitions into a spoken-word section, featuring Morrison’s interpretation of Oedipus in which his vocals rise into an unintelligible growl, which is followed by dissonant guitar plucking before the piece settles back into a steady groove. But the song then quickly descends into chaos, with Morrison repeating the word “fuck” over and over again rhythmically while the music becomes increasingly frantic before the song finally ends back where it began: “This is the end / My only friend, the end.” This dramatic, evolving piece serves as the perfect end to an amazing album. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: Simple though it may be, the album cover is iconic. I love how it captures the sinister, psychedelic mood of the album without having to rely on any sort of lens flare or distortion gimmick. And The Doors didn’t really get more Doors-esque than on their debut album, so the name is fitting here. This isn’t a heavily-produced album, at least not in the excessive over-the-top sort of way as would become the norm for the late 60s. But the production serves the album well. SCORE: 5/5

Artistic Merit: The Doors weren’t compromising in their artistic merit, but despite being one of the progenitors of the psychedelic rock sound, this album isn’t as out there some of their later work—as I’ve already mentioned, a handful of the album’s songs wouldn’t have been out of place a year or two prior to its release. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: The album does have a cohesive sound that remains constant for its duration. There aren’t really any moments where the album seems to drag either—certain songs outshine others, but even at its weakest moments the album remains above average. The sequencing for the most part saves the heavier songs for the end of the album, though there’s always enough variation between the tunes to keep the listener interested. SCORE: 8/10

CLOSING REMARKS: This is one of the all-time great psychedelic albums and is a must-listen for any fan of the genre. Even if some of the songs aren’t all that mind-blowing structurally and melodically, the sound of the band alone is enough to make this one hell of a listen. And the album also boasts a fair number of classics.

FINAL SCORE: 82