Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: What It Means To Me

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When I was in Grade 10, my high school got a recording studio. That studio would be my sanctuary for the remainder of my time there, and it would be demolished a year after I left. Our music teacher, Mr. Love, was tasked with constructing a class that taught the basics of recording hardware and software, and I enjoyed the class so much that I wound up taking it twice. And while the skills and techniques I developed in that class have been invaluable to me as a musician, they weren’t the most important thing I took away from that class. I can still remember the day Mr. Love gathered us all in the music room for a brief history lesson. It was a day that changed my life forever. It was the day I first heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As I recall, the majority of the lesson consisted of his reading off of the album’s Wikipedia page. Specifically, he went through all of the crazy and innovative recording techniques used to make that album, like cutting up a bunch of tape loops and randomly splicing them together on Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. He played us Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. I was captivated, and so I went and bought a copy of the album.

Listening to Sgt. Pepper from start to finish for the first time was, without a doubt, one the most defining moments of my life. A lot of people scoff at the idea that a piece of art can have that profound an effect on somebody. It’s just music, after all. I’d argue that you can make that sort of reductionist point about any part of the human experience. Everything we experience as conscious beings is nothing more than a sequence of neurons firing. We’re the ones who fool ourselves into thinking any of this stuff has meaning. And nothing encapsulates the idea of imbuing meaning into this meaningless universe more than art.

Art has the potential to make you feel powerful emotions. The snarky optimism of Getting Better assures us that no matter how difficult life may seem, it can always, well, get better (it can’t get no worse!). The loneliness of the protagonist in She’s Leaving Home makes us weep on the inside, but the string arrangement shows us that there’s beauty in misery. And the ominous orchestral swell that concludes the album fills us with awe and leaves us deeply unsettled until the finality of that last chord reminds us that even in this vast and terrifying universe, we can always find a place to call home.

Art has the power to expand your mind. Sgt. Pepper captures the Beatles at their creative and experimental peak. The album’s sonic experiments were a rejection of the idea that there are limitations to creative expression. The album overcomes the restraints of genre (the songs range from music hall to baroque pop to psychedelia), culture and ideology (Within You Without You draws influence from Eastern culture both musically and philosophically), and even technology (thanks to the ingenuity of the mixing, the album’s creative vision didn’t have to yield to the limitations of four-track recording). Sgt. Pepper encourages us to think outside of the box, to break through all barriers and achieve the impossible.

But, most importantly of all, art has the power to inspire. Sgt. Pepper has inspired me as a musician, encouraging me to draw influences from a wide variety of musical genres and experiment with unorthodox recording, song-writing, and production techniques. Sgt. Pepper has inspired me as a musicophile, serving as a gateway drug to the in-depth musical exploration that transformed me into the obsessive music geek that I am today. But beyond all that, Sgt. Pepper has informed everything that I do in my life creatively, be that as a musician, as an author, or even just as a person. The idea that someone can create a work of art that resonates with somebody so deeply so many years later serves as the backbone for my personal philosophy. John Lennon died over 20 years before I was born, and yet, through his music, I have connected with him on a much deeper level than I have with most people. Our society rarely encourages us to completely open up to anyone but our closest friends and family. Art rejects that notion; it encourages an intimacy that’s universal and all-encompassing. It connects us not only across the globe, but across time.

Embracing art can change your life. I wasn’t the happiest person in my undergrad days (very few of us were). But no matter how bad I felt, I always noticed that listening to The Beatles put me in a good mood. So, one day, I decided to listen to everything they’d ever recorded—to go through all of their music chronologically. And, sure enough, everything started getting better. When I ran out of Beatles albums to listen to, I needed more. I started exploring other bands from the 60s and 70s. Then I started revisiting modern music. I ventured deeper and deeper down the musical rabbit hole, and somewhere along the way, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

I made it my goal in life to leave behind something that can affect somebody as deeply as this music has affected me, long after I’m gone. That Sgt. Pepper is still changing lives 50 years after it was recorded is a testament to how powerful music—and art as a whole—really is.

Today, I can’t say with certainty that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still my favourite album, or even my favourite Beatles album (I prefer The White Album now). But no album has been more influential on my development as a person. When Mr. Love passed away a couple years ago, one of the first things I did upon hearing the news was listen to Sgt. Pepper. Because even though he’s gone, even though John Lennon, George Harrison, and now George Martin are gone, that connection that comes from the music we shared and continue to share is stronger than ever.

So happy 50th anniversary to the greatest album ever recorded. Happy 50th anniversary to the album that changed not only my life, but also the lives of so many others. Here’s to another 50 years of Billy Shears, Rita the meter maid, and, of course, Henry the horse.

The Monkees – Headquarters

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Part I: The Background

This right here is the stuff of rock and roll legend. The Monkees were originally conceived as a manufactured pop group to star in a TV show that capitalized on the success of The Beatles and their peers. Not only were the bulk of the songs written by professional songwriters like Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but the backing tracks were, for the most part, laid down by session musicians. That all changed with Headquarters; Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter ceased to be mere performers and became a real band. That’s not to say the Monkees—especially Mike and Peter—didn’t have any musical chops prior to gaining creative control. But I believe Micky summed it up best: “The Monkees really becoming a band was like the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.”

 

Part II: The Music

You Told Me: The album kicks off with a Mike Nesmith tune in which he demonstrates his flawless capability to merge country rock with psychedelic pop. Peter plays the banjo throughout the track, while the rest of the group provides flowery harmonies in the background. The song, like many other on the album, features Micky on drums. His drumming, while lacking polish, is passable enough that it doesn’t stand out. RATING: 7/10

I’ll Spend My Life With You: The fusion of country rock and psychedelia is sustained throughout the second track, a lighthearted love song that lacks any percussion save for Davy’s tambourine. Peter’s twinkling celeste solo accentuates the song’s doe-eyed innocence. This is typical fanfare for the Boyce and Hart song writing duo, and would’ve just as easily fit in on either of the previous albums. RATING: 7.5/10

Forget That Girl: Chip Douglas, who plays bass throughout the album, penned this dreamy tune—the guitar arpeggios and wistful sighs paired with Davy’s breathy vocal send the listener into a bit of a haze. Micky’s drums are buried quite low in the mix—perhaps this was an effort to hide his imperfections, but it winds up serving the song stylistically. From the Motown-esque bassline that begins the song to the mesmerizing backing vocals, this song’s bursting with pop sensibilities. RATING: 8/10

Band 6: So remember how I mentioned that The Monkees weren’t exactly used to functioning as a full-fledged band? Well this track’s a play on that concept—it’s a brief skit that showcases the band working out their kinks. Micky, in particular, has trouble keeping in time with the rest of the band. They finally manage to perform the Looney Tunes theme at the end of the skit, signifying their metamorphosis from imitators to the real thing. RATING: 2/3

You Just May Be The One: While Mike’s psychedelic wordplay is impeccable, he’s always been at his best when at his most country. Everything likeable about his compositions, from the varied rhythms to the memorable melodies to the show-stealing hooks, is compiled here into one of his finest offerings. As in the best of songs, it’s hard to tell which is the better hook: the playful verses or the harmony-drenched middle-eight. RATING: 9.5/10

Shades of Gray: A breathtaking ballad to rival the likes of the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By”. Micky, Davy, and Peter all take turns singing leads on this exploration of morality. The song is a reflection on the disillusionment that comes with growing old and discovering that life isn’t as clear-cut as one was led to believe. We’ve got all of the trappings of a sentimental mid-sixties ballad: shining harmonies, solemn cellos, and even a French horn solo. The song features some of the strongest melodies in The Monkees’ catalogue, and it’s the simplicity of the lyrics that make them so powerful: “But today there is no day or night / Today there is no dark or light / Today there is no black or white / Only shades of gray.” RATING: 10/10

I Can’t Get Her Off Of My Mind: Here’s Davy at his most McCartney-esque. This decidedly British tune features a tack piano (basically a piano that sounds like a harpsichord). From a production standpoint, the song winds up sounding quite bare (and the piano really grates on the nerves). There’s an earlier version recorded the previous year that sounds much better. RATING: 4.5/10

For Pete’s Sake: An anthem for the summer of love. This wound up becoming the closing theme for the TV show. The lyrics, despite preaching love and understanding, remain quite shallow, much like the comparable “The Word” by the Beatles. This song comes across as an attempt to appeal to the hippie counterculture—perhaps a plea by the band to be taken more seriously as artists rather than as frivolous pop stars. Does it succeed? Who cares—it’s damn catchy. RATING: 7.5/10

Mr. Webster: This song tells the story of the titular Mr. Webster—a banker who, despite having thwarted many a robbery over the course of his career, is taken for granted by his employer, Mr. Frizby. Frizby throws a retirement party for Webster, who doesn’t show and reveals in a letter that he has made off with all of the bank’s money. Webster maintains a façade of normalcy, and that same restraint manifests in Micky’s vocal, though there is a darker undercurrent to the music, which represents Webster’s suppressed frustration. RATING: 8/10

Sunny Girlfriend: There’s only one Nesmith composition on the Monkees’ six classic albums that falls flat, and it’s this one. This one’s more grounded in rock and roll than in country, though there are some folksy harmonies towards the end. But it never quite manages to establish a melody, and as a result fails to leave an impression. RATING: 5/10

Zilch: A highly rhythmic spoken-word piece in which the Monkees mutter nonsense phrases over top of one another. Their voices are layered onto the track one by one, each time adding to the song’s rhythmical texture. The second half of the piece repeats the same, albeit twice as fast—the song descends into chaos as they stumble over their words and wind up uttering gibberish. And yes, it’s every bit as awesome as it sounds. RATING: 3/3

No Time: Micky’s line from the previous track (“Never mind the furthermore, the plea is self-defence) resurfaces here. “No Time” is pure, unfiltered rock and roll, though one does have to question whether Micky can pull off a rough enough vocal tone to be taken seriously on a song like this. Regardless, it’s all in good fun—there’s even a callout to The Beatles’ “Honey Don’t”, with Micky quoting the line “Rock on George for Ringo, one time.” RATING: 6/10

Early Morning Blues and Greens: This song encapsulates that feeling of winding down at the end of a crazy journey. Every time I hear this song, I can’t help but imagine a much more adventurous—and much more psychedelic—album preceding it than the one we’ve got here. There’s a bit of an observational, Ray Davies–style lyric going on, and Davy’s vocal is appropriately mellow. RATING: 7.5/10

Randy Scouse Git: Known in Britain as “Alternate Title”—the original title means horny idiot from Liverpool. Not only is this the first Micky Dolenz–penned track to appear on a Monkees album, it’s also the best. The lyrics demonstrate the clash between generations. The verses are frivolous and at times nonsensical, detailing the aftermath of a party and working in yet another reference to The Beatles: “The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor.” The verses have a jaunty, music hall flavour, making it that much more shocking when Micky starts slamming away on the timpani and shouting the chorus. The chorus embodies the voice of the older generation, decrying that the youth ought to conform to be more like them: “Why don’t you cut your hair? / Why don’t you live up there? Why don’t you do what I do, see what I feel when I care?” The final verse is sung in scat vocals before the timpani transitions us into one final, explosive iteration of the chorus. If you ask me, there isn’t a finer song in the entire Monkees songbook. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: While I’m usually critical of band photos, this time I’ll let it slide. The cover depicts the four Monkees and nothing else; it’s symbolic of the fact that this is a self-contained album (or at least as close as they ever got to releasing one). So even if the album could have benefited from some more experimental production, it accomplishes the task of putting the band front and centre. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: It’s the spirit that counts. No, this isn’t some art rock magnum opus, but The Monkees fought long and hard to gain creative control over their musical output and to be able to play on their own records. And if that isn’t commendable, I don’t know what is. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: Many consider this to be the band’s strongest album. There’s never really a dull moment. But it’s definitely not the most cohesive. It lacks thematic unity, and even the tone shifts jarringly from one song to the next. Don’t get me wrong—the sequencing is spectacular. Every song is exactly where it should be on the album. It’s just that they don’t necessarily all belong on the same album. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: If we’re going to single out one of the Monkees’ albums as their best, this is it. But more important is what this album represents: the strive for artistic credibility. If your new to the Monkees, start your journey here. You won’t be disappointed.

FINAL SCORE: 76

 

 

 

 

 

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?

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Part I: The Background

Virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix—known for, among other things, playing his guitar behind his back and with his teeth (not simultaneously, of course)—played with a number of R&B groups before the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Most notably, he served as the guitarist for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. After struggling to make it in the R&B scene, one fateful night, former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was now scouting talent, showed up at the club in which Jimi was performing, having been recommended to do so by Keith Richards’ then girlfriend. Impressed by Jimi’s talent, he took Jimi under his wing. Working together, they recruited Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums), and thus, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born. The band’s debut LP, like many 60s albums, exists in two configurations: the UK version and the US version. The US version excises Red House, Can You See Me, and Remember from the running order in favour of Purple Haze, Hey Joe, and The Wind Cries Mary. The album is, without a doubt, one of the landmark albums of the psychedelic era and of the 60s as a whole.

 

Part II: The Music

Foxy Lady: In many ways, this song’s a perfect summation of everything that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was. It’s a funky, blues-influenced psychedelic rock tune with an edgy, muddy sound. The melodic hook lies in the guitar riff rather than in the vocals—Hendrix doesn’t so much song as he does talk the lyrics in a tone that’s simultaneously aggressive and suggested. There’s an intense urgency to the rhythm guitar, and while Hendrix does deliver a solo steeped in the blues tradition, he never overindulges. RATING: 8/10

Manic Depression: While most lyricists would fill a song about depression with complex metaphors and dense imagery, Jimi’s lyrics are rather on the nose here. That’s because the song probably isn’t actually about depression—the third verse reveals this to be nothing more than a bluesy song about heartbreak: “Woman so weary, the sweet cause in vain / You make love, you break love, it’s all the same.” Though the vocal is more melodic, once again, the hook lies in the guitar riff. RATING: 7/10

Red House: Twangy, almost metallic guitar screeches segue into a full-on twelve-bar blues. Jimi simultaneously shows off his chops while settling into a comfortable groove; while his unorthodox guitar licks bend and twist in unexpected ways, you can tell that he feels right at home playing the blues. The lyrics tell a funny little story about a man on the outs with his woman, who at the end of the song decides to turn to her sister for comfort instead. RATING: 7.5/10

Can You See Me: For a nice change of pace, the vocals take to the forefront. “Can You See Me” is a hard-rocking tune that bridges the gap between rhythm and blues and psychedelic rock. Mitch’s drumming stands out here more than anything else. The vocal, however, is scarcely melodic; at its core, this is still very much a blues song. RATING: 6.5/10

Love or Confusion: Psychedelic rock in its rawest, purest form, from the Eastern-influenced drone that kicks off the song, to the cosmic imagery pervasive throughout the lyrics, to the hazy, echoey production. If only Noel could’ve harmonized with Jimi; the latter’s bare vocal just barely manages to carry the tune. RATING: 7.5/10

I Don’t Live Today: Are we sure this one isn’t Manic Depression? For such a downer of a song, this one’s sure got a lot of energy—the refrain of “I don’t live today” is one of the most heavy-hitting on the entire album. The guitar during the solo almost sounds as if it’s being played underwater. The last (and best) third of the song descends into chaos as Jimi experiments with feedback. His dreary voice delivers monologues every now and then as the music fades in and out: “There ain’t no life nowhere.” RATING: 8.5/10

May This Be Love: While “I Don’t Live Today” is the most exciting track on the album, “May This Be Love” is the most pleasant. It’s the strongest track melodically, though the lack of an interesting progression during the middle eight feels like a squandered opportunity. The song’s lyrical imagery is centred around a waterfall. While waterfalls are inherently chaotic, when viewed from afar, the waterfall evokes a feeling of tranquility: “I can see my rainbow calling me / Through the mist of my waterfall.” This album is preoccupied with that duality of bliss and chaos, of love and confusion, of mania and depression. RATING: 7.5/10

Fire: And we’re back in business with another hard-rocking psychedelic tune. Noel and Jimi trade call-and-response vocals during the quite catchy hook. Apparently, the song was inspired by Jimi warming himself by the fireplace in Noel’s mother’s home after a show, but that of course doesn’t mean the lyrics aren’t also sexual in nature: “You say your mum ain’t home / It isn’t my concern / Just come play with me and you won’t get burned.” RATING: 7/10

Third Stone from the Sun: This is a drawn-out, experimental psychedelic piece that starts off quite well but quickly descends into that chaos. Ultimately, this is a jazzy psychedelic jam, though there are some nice mellow bits near the beginning. Once again, it’s that juxtaposition of calm and chaotic. Jimi and Chas deliver bits of science fiction oriented dialogue throughout. RATING: 5.5/10

Remember: This song wants very hard to be a pop song but is too constrained by its bluesy backbone to fully realize its potential. Nevertheless, this brief injection of melody is much appreciated. The banality of the lyrics, however, works against the song’s appeal—yeah, we get it, your mockingbird doesn’t sing anymore now that your love has left you. RATING: 6/10

Are You Experienced?: The title track is decidedly psychedelic, featuring an Eastern drone and reversed drum hits. Jimi’s solo is as incoherent as the solo on The Byrds’ Eight Miles High. And like all the best psychedelic tunes, it’s about love and drugs. The song’s closing line sums it all up very well, I think: “Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.” RATING: 9/10

 

Part III: The Album

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Aesthetic: This album’s raw sound perfectly captures the band’s bluesy, psychedelic aesthetic. The production manages to sound “out there” without relying on complex instrumentation or all the other varied bells and whistles of the mid-sixties era. The album cover comes in two variants: the darker, drearier UK cover, and the brighter, colourful US cover. The US cover much better encapsulates the feel of the album. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: From a song writing perspective, as mentioned previously, this album isn’t as forward thinking as those of Jimi’s contemporaries. But while the songs may be basic at their core, the trio’s unique sound and enthusiastic performances elevate this album to one of the definitive offerings of the psychedelic era. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: Here’s where the album falls short. I’ve discussed in detail the elements that make each of the individual songs rewarding upon closer inspection. But Are You Experienced? just doesn’t manage to remain fresh and engaging enough for its duration to provide that rewarding album experience. The bluesy tunes can blend together for long stretches without any apparent hooks jumping out at you. SCORE: 5/10

CLOSING REMARKS:

An interesting question to pose is whether a talented guitarist with a blues background is capable of producing an album-length work that holds together on the merit of its song writing. While Jimi is undoubtedly leagues ahead as a guitarist, the compositions on this album aren’t exactly top-notch. Rolling Stone magazine’s Jon Landau, a bit unfairly, wrote in his 1967 review of the album that “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s total precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics too often get in the way.” I’d argue that the appeal lies in the sonic textures, and in the theme of duality (calm vs chaotic) that recurs throughout the album. Either way, this album represents the birth of a legend. My recommendation is to pick up the CD, since it features not only the UK album but also the related singles and B-sides.

FINAL SCORE: 71

 

Bloo Burds – Post Personality World

Bloo Burds - Post Personality World - cover

 

This one’s not so much a review as it is an announcement. I recently released an album of my own. It’s primarily an 80s style synthpop album, though there are elements of eurodance and hip hop as well. Outside of mastering and some guest features, it was made entirely by me in my bedroom. The album’s available on a variety of sites including:

Bandcamp

Spotify

iTunes (and Apple Music)

Google Play

Tidal

 

Just wanted to make a quick announcement about that. I’ve got (a lot) more reviews coming soon.

 

The Turtles – Happy Together

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Part I: The Background

The Turtles’ third LP, Happy Together, came not long after the release of the single of the same name, which was the group’s biggest hit since their 1965 cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe”. The album is a solid demonstration of the group’s pop rock leanings, with a hint of a psychedelic influence creeping in every now and then. Howard Kaylan wrote three of the album’s tracks, as did the Bonner and Gordon songwriting duo, who penned the title track.

 

Part II: The Music

Makin’ My Mind Up: A peppy horn arrangement kicks off the album on a vibrant note. It’s the upbeat drum patterns and the enthusiastic handclaps that give this song its joyous feel. The backing vocals definitely have a psychedelic resonance to them. Lyrically, this is a pretty straightforward pop song in which the singer pledges to elope with his beloved. The track’s youthful optimism, however, seems a little out of touch with some of the more substantial lyrical content of the time. Sure, the summer of love was all about preaching, well, love, but this sort of doe-eyed love song feels like it would have fit in better with the musical climate a year or two prior. RATING: 8/10

Guide for the Married Man: This almost comes across as a novelty song, and with good reason. This is the title track for a 1967 film of the same name. The horn-touting arrangement and echo-drenched backing vocals add texture to the upbeat tune, though the string arrangement does come across as a bit sappy. RATING: 4/10

Think I’ll Run Away: Here, on the other hand, the strings help to set the pensive mood. “Think I’ll Run Away” is a moody, introspective track with one of the album’s best melodies, though the chorus seems to hover lazily on the spot. The singer here is disillusioned with their mundane life, longing for something to break up the sense of monotony: “No wonder why I feel so bored / Each day’s like the one before.” In that sense, the fact that the chorus fails to go anywhere interesting has a thematic resonance, as the singer feels stifled and constrained just like the music itself. Finally, the song ends with a shift to a darker, more mysterious tone as the singer departs into the unknown. RATING: 9/10

The Walking Song: Another song about disillusionment. This time, the singer goes for a walk and encounters a woman who feels stifled by her meaningless office job and considers her life a waste of time. He then encounters a rich man who thinks life’s all about making money and who criticizes the youth for squandering their time. The singer is depressed by the perspectives of these two individuals, until he encounters a young girl who hands him a flower and tells him that the answer is love and friendship. The lyrics here are much more in tune with the zeitgeist of the time, even if the song is a bit silly overall. RATING: 5.5/10

Me About You: The droning bassline is the most interesting element of this track. It’s another love song and not a particularly interesting one at that. There’s a trumpet line that is very vaguely reminiscent of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. Nothing else about this track strikes me as memorable. RATING: 3/10

Happy Together: One of the best-known hits of the 60s and an anthem for the summer of love. The song famously beat out “Penny Lane” for the number one spot in the charts. And what’s not to love here? It’s got a lively arrangement, with glorious horns that blast during the chorus. It’s got an infectious, bouncy rhythm that persists throughout. It’s got that catchy dynamic contrast between the verses and the chorus—Kaylan effects a breathy vocal tone during the verses and then shifts to a louder, more chest-driven sound during the chorus. And there’s something very dark about the understated guitar lick and ghostly backing vocals that lurk beneath the verses. It’s that contrast between the content of the lyrics and the tone of the music that really makes this song a pop masterpiece. RATING: 9.5/10

She’d Rather Be With Me: Another upbeat track (there sure are a lot of those), this one with a bit of a Motown groove. If only the lyrics weren’t so cheesy. The singer goes on and on about how committed he and his girlfriend are to each other. “Me oh my, lucky guy is what I am / Tell you why, you’ll understand / She don’t fly although she can.” The only thing that really stands out here is the key change that occurs about halfway through the track. Oh, and the cowbell. Who doesn’t love some cowbell? RATING: 5/10

Too Young To Be One: This has to be one of the most bizarre bits of sequencing ever. Okay, remember how that last song was all about commitment? Well it looks like the singer has had a change of heart. Now he’s telling his girl that they were naïve and foolish to have rushed into things too quickly and that they are, in fact, not ready for that sort of commitment. The melody is wistful, but it also has a playfulness to it—again, it’s that contrast between the content and form of the track that makes it grab your attention. The undeniable highlight is the instrumental breakdown around the one-minute mark; it’s got a nice swing groove to it. RATING: 8/10

Person Without A Care: Add this to the list of playful tunes that don’t really take themselves to seriously. This one was penned by the band’s own guitarist, Al Nichol. The song’s almost British in its jolliness. Of note here are the reversed claps that kick in roughly halfway through the song. RATING: 3/10

Like The Seasons: And now for a change of pace. This acoustic ballad stands in stark contrast to the bulk of the album, what with the singer’s melancholy musings on heartbreak. Sprinkle in some tasteful strings and a baroque-sounding harpsichord, and you’ve got a nice hidden gem, though it does feel like something is missing to complete this rather bare-boned track. RATING: 6.5/10

Rugs of Woods and Flowers: Well. If this isn’t one of the most unexpected closing tracks I’ve ever encountered on an album. “Rugs of Woods and Flowers” is a bizarre, over-the-top theatrical piece. Kaylan effects an operatic vocal style in this comedic ode to manliness. It’s more silly than it is genuinely funny, but if you can look past the absurdity of it all, you can’t help but commend how adventurous this song is. It’s definitely… unique. RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The production definitely does have its moments—the reversed claps in “Person Without A Care” for instance. The fully orchestrated arrangements are a huge plus, particularly on the opening and closing songs. The album cover’s got a sense of humour: it depicts a group of uptight folks dressed in fancy black suits contrasted with the colourful Turtles lazing about in the foreground. SCORE: 3/5

Artistic Merit: Though this is a pretty straightforward pop album, it does have its sombre, introspective moments. There are a number of songs, however, that do feel like fluff. Overall, this album isn’t really meant to be anything other than fun. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: I’m not sure whether I want to praise or condemn whoever thought it was a good idea to put “She’d Rather Be With Me” and “Too Young To Be One” back to back. Setting that aside, this is one of those albums that really revolves around its singles—look past them and you’ll find a decent collection of songs that don’t really mesh together in any meaningful or engaging sort of way. SCORE: 2/10

CLOSING REMARKS: If you’re looking for an album that has all the magic and pop craftsmanship of the title track, you’ve come to the wrong place. What you’ll get instead is decent collection of tunes that highlight both the strengths and the weaknesses of the group.

FINAL SCORE: 55

 

 

 

 

 

Donovan – Mellow Yellow

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Part I: The Background

1966’s Sunshine Superman saw Donovan really come into his own as a songwriter and as a leader of the psychedelic movement. Mellow Yellow sees him stepping even further away from his folk roots and capturing a wide variety of mid-sixties pop flavours. Like the album that preceded it, Mellow Yellow wasn’t released in the UK due to the dispute between Epic Records (his then current label in the US) and Pye Records (whom he was still signed to in the UK, and who also had distribution rights for his material in the US via Warner Brothers).

 

Part II: The Music

Mellow Yellow: The title track is one of Donovan’s best-known hits, and for good reason. It’s a catchy pop tune with a mellow vibe that lives up to its name. The songs revolves around a pulsing guitar riff that seems to bounce along playfully—the drum beat, despite its straightforward nature, manages to feel loose and unconstrained rather than rigid. Donovan strikes upon another great melody with this tune, and his sly whisper of “quite rightly” is a hook in its own right. And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the “electrical banana” mentioned in the song allegedly refers to a vibrator. RATING: 9.5/10

Writer In The Sun: The woodwind section that begins this baroque-pop influenced track is breathtaking in its wistful serenity. Donovan paints a bleak picture of an artist reminiscing about days gone by: “The days of wine and roses are distant days for me.” Donovan’s knack for poignant psychedelic imagery in his lyrics really shines through, with phrases like “I ponder the moon in a silver spoon” and “Lemon circles swim in the tea.” Everything about this track—the lyrics, the arrangement, the melodies—evokes a melancholy sense of nostalgia. RATING: 10/10

Sand and Foam: One of the more folk-leaning tracks on the record, “Sand and Foam” transports the listener to the exotic landscape of Mexico. The song is technically about a past romance (“I dug you digging me in Mexico”) but the lyrics instead focus on the various things going on around the lovers, like submarines surfacing, grasshoppers creaking, and a girl trimming a lamp. The bare arrangement consists of just Donovan and his acoustic guitar, allowing his lyrics to shine through as he once again uses a poetic flair to draw the listener into the scene. And of course, as always, his vocal delivery draws your attention—one particularly alluring line is as follows: “Sitting in a chair of bamboo, sipping grenadine.” RATING: 6/10

The Observation: Donovan the cool cat. This song has a real beat poetry vibe to it—most likely due to the jazzy arrangement. In fact, the arrangement is the real draw here; composition-wise, this isn’t one of the more memorable tracks on the album. But when a song’s got a strong vibe, and that vibe has such a slick execution, you can’t help but vibe along. Donovan’s lyrics here consist of various sketches of the American lifestyle as he takes a page out of Ray Davies’ book, focusing on the mundane monotony of the everyday. RATING: 6.5/10

Bleak City Woman: This song’s got all the attitude of the previous one plus a great tune to back it up. At first, the song seems to have a bit of a Bob Dylan influence (think Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), but at its core, it’s really entrenched in jazz. The only drawback is that Donovan’s voice is a little too soft and sugary to really be taken seriously over a track like this—perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s unfairly remembered as a lightweight pop singer, despite having tunes like these. RATING: 9/10

House of Jansch: Another acoustic folk tune, this one with a bluesy feel. It’s not unappealing sonically, but the song lacks a distinct hook—even the chord progression seems to meander. The lyrics here prove a challenge to parse—the singer seems to want to connect with a girl and be a father to her child (so in a way it’s a love song to both the mother and the child), but then you’ve got lines like “Dragonfly he sleeps till dawn” and “Crystal ball is what I wish for you” that require a great deal of interpretation in order to relate back to the narrative of the piece. RATING: 5.5/10

Young Girl Blues: Easily the best track on the album from a lyrical perspective, “Young Girl Blues” is a haunting depiction of a lonely young girl. While “Mellow Yellow” had a seemingly nonsense lyric that may have been tied to sexuality, Donovan touches on (no pun intended) the subject of masturbation quite explicitly here: “Yourself you touch / But not too much / You hear it’s degrading.” The song’s downright depressing—the subject of the song lives an empty life without any meaning to it, drowning in the shallowness of her social circle, with friends who strive to live a life in the limelight. It only becomes clear towards the end of the song that the singer is being critical of the girl who doesn’t fully realize just how miserable her life is: “If you had any sense / You’d maybe go away for a few days.” RATING: 10/10

Museum: Jimmy Page plays on this (and he’s not the only Zeppelin member to play on this album—John Paul Jones contributed to the title track). “Museum” is a safe, simple pop song. It was covered by Herman’s Hermits; I think that says everything you need to know about it. Well, almost everything. This is a shameless rewrite of “Sunshine Superman”. Seriously. Sing the lyrics to “Sunshine Superman” over this—it fits perfectly. RATING: 4/10

Hampstead Incident: This song’s got both a descending chromatic bassline like AND a harpsichord, so you already know I love it. It shares a chord progression with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but unfortunately the melody isn’t quite as strong. But this songs boasts the most fully realized arrangement on the album, featuring a wailing string section that underpins the song’s melancholy mood. RATING: 8/10

Sunny South Kensington: Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere near as good as the track preceding it. “Hampstead Incident” would’ve been a brilliant album closer. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad track. It’s another upbeat, observational track with a nice groove to it. But does it deserve to be the album closer? RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The album cover, which portrays a woman peering at the listener through what is effectively a window, is satisfying in its own right (even if the beige that makes up the backdrop is a little bare), but it doesn’t effectively capture the varying moods of this album. Ditto for the title—naming the album after the poppy title track would have served to move copies but not to solidify Donovan’s reputation as a serious artist. The production on this album, however, is stellar—you get that pristine mid-60s sound here. SCORE: 3/5

Artistic Merit: The highs here surpass the highs of Sunshine Superman, and Donovan’s music reaches new depths here both in the arrangements and in the lyrical quality. It’s a shame that the album is overshadowed by a straightforward pop tune, because there’s so much more here worthy of recognition. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: As a whole, the album doesn’t hold together quite as well as Sunshine Superman. The sequencing isn’t terrible—it’s more that this album’s a cluster of tunes that don’t really fit together in any meaningful sort of way. The album’s a pleasant listening experience straight through, but you wouldn’t lose anything if you put the album on shuffle. SCORE: 4/10

CLOSING REMARKS: As a songwriter, Donovan was on par with many of the lead innovators of the 60s, and this album is proof of that. This is really a transitional album—we see Donovan steering away from the sounds with which he’d established his career and seeking a new voice. And though there’s a little fumbling along the way, this album isn’t one you want to overlook.

FINAL SCORE: 71

 

Aly & AJ – Into The Rush

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Part I: The Background

By 2005, the Michalka sisters had already landed a handful of television and film roles, with Aly Michalka most notably starring as Keely on Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future. Like many other Disney Channel stars, Aly was also musically inclined. But rather than embarking on a career as a solo artist, she formed a duo with her sister AJ, and together they signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records. A year prior, Disney star Hilary Duff released and recorded a cover of The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” with her sister Haylie. But while the Duff sisters’ duet wasn’t much more than a gimmick, Aly and AJ Michalka’s creative chemistry made them a standout music act, and their knack for songwriting along with their unique vocal blend made them one of the few Disney Channel artists who deserved to be taken seriously. “Into The Rush” is, very much, a teen pop album, but the songwriting and performances hint at something much greater; even on their debut, Aly & AJ were beginning to break free from the aura of prefabrication that surrounded so many of their peers. The initial release contained 14 tracks, but in 2006, a 17-track deluxe edition of the album was released, with rerecorded versions of the songs “Something More” and “Collapsed” in addition to a few more recent compositions, including the single “Chemicals React”. The deluxe edition is, by far, the definitive version of the album, so that’s the one we’re going to be looking at.

 

Part II: The Music

Chemicals React: The deluxe edition of the album kicks off with the single Chemicals React, hands-down the strongest track on the album. The sentimental guitar arpeggios during the Aly’s verse evokes that magical feeling of being head-over-heels in love, while the choruses are bursting with pop punk energy. And from that point on, the song becomes a rock song; the electric guitar sticks around for AJ’s verse, and the pop rock aesthetic doesn’t let up during the middle eight. This is very much a teenaged love song; it’s a song about falling in love so hard that you’re terrified out of your mind, that it feels like you’re, well, “walking on broken glass” or “drifting out to the sea.” Sure, there’s an abundance of lyrical clichés: “But the planets all aligned / When you looked into my eyes.” But there are also a couple of neat images to contrast those clichés: “Kaleidoscope of colours / Turning hopes on fire.” In terms of aesthetic, this song is textbook mid-2000s, and, hey, I’ve got a soft spot for that era. Sue me. RATING: 10/10

Shine: This song displays Aly & AJ’s artistic versatility. During the verses, this song’s decidedly an R&B song, and the girls pull off the vocal style flawlessly. The pre-chorus, a dreamy acoustic breakdown, features an even more compelling melody, though it’s the radiant, rippling chorus that knocks this song out of the park (or is it the thrilling key shift at the end of the song?). The song’s lyrically ambiguous: is it about romantic love? Friendship? Or is it a Christian rock song? Either way, it’s a concise, masterfully-crafted tune with enough melody and texture that it never feels schmaltzy despite having some heavy adult contemporary leanings. RATING: 9/10

Never Far Behind: This sounds like the type of song you’d hear on a YA movie soundtrack. The verses have a slightly haunting feel to them, largely due to the piano overlaid on top of the acoustic guitar. Once again, the chorus transitions into full-on pop rock, this time with an Avril Lavigne flavour. Another solid composition with a slick arrangement and memorable melodies. RATING: 8/10

Something More: The original version of this song is has a very sappy, adult contemporary–leaning arrangement, though the power pop chorus offers a welcome contrast to the verses. The newer version has much livelier verses, which are backed by another R&B-influenced drum beat; the contrast between the verses and choruses carries over from the previous version, and this time, the song work’s a lot better. But this is typical Disney pop—quality, yes, but nothing particularly noteworthy here. RATING: 6.5/10

Collapsed: While “Something More” was an improvement over the original, the same can’t be said for “Collapsed”. The original just has more attitude; the electric guitar riff during the chorus is much more engaging than the muted chords in the newer version. The original also has a some nice synth parts that adds some nice texture to the arrangement. But I did say we’re reviewing the deluxe edition, didn’t I? I guess I’ll have to dock some points for misguided meddling. RATING: 6/10

Rush: This hard-rocking teen pop anthem opens the standard edition of the album. The same tactics are in play here: soft acoustic pluckings backed by processed drums during the verses, which gradually crescendo into an explosive pop rock chorus. It’s a song about being comfortable in your own skin, and while the message may be delivered in a manner that might seem elementary to more mature ears, you have to remember that this is music for tweens: “Don’t let nobody tell you your life is over / Be every colour that you are.” RATING: 7.5/10

No One: An acoustic ballad that crosses that line into soft-rock/adult-contemporary territory (isn’t it odd how frequently that phrase keeps popping up in a review of what’s supposed to be a teen pop album?). The chorus lacks a distinctive hook or a contrasting arrangement, so the song seems to meander. This is a very 90s-sounding tune. Nothing above average here. RATING: 3.5/10

On the Ride: Thankfully, we get another pop rock song here. There’s the slightest hint of a country rock vibe to this one. The chorus boasts another standout melody (and AJ’s solo vocal tag at the end of the choruses provides an additional hook—there’s a distinctness to her voice that makes her vocals the more interesting of the two). In “On the Ride” we get another lyrically ambiguous tune. It’s definitely an inspirational song: “Always knowing we’re gonna be fine / Feeling great and feeling alive / Never coming down from this mountain we’re on.” The vagueness of the lyrics makes the message of the song easily applicable to whatever the listener’s going through. A bit of a cop-out, but effective nonetheless. RATING: 7/10

In a Second: Here’s another acoustic ballad, and this one’s much better than the last one. The acoustic guitar and gentle vocals give the song a dreamy feel, and the high notes really resonate during the chorus. Shame about the sappy, straightforward lyrics. The aesthetic really shines here; the arrangement and the simple harmonies get you feeling all sentimental, elevating an otherwise mediocre composition. RATING: 6.5/10

Speak for Myself: This time, we’ve got a pop rock song from start to finish. Actually, there’s a bit of an alternative vibe going on. The drums in particular have a very crisp sound. “Speak For Myself” is another positive message song, so it’s hit or miss depending on whether or not you can tolerate that sort of thing. RATING: 5/10

Out of the Blue: Yet another formulaic pop rock tune, but one with some solid melodies to back it up. Of the songs that constitute the back half of this album, this one’s got one of the catchier choruses. It’s a song about a boy who’s dumped the singer because she doesn’t live up to the opinion of his friends—a typical teenaged scenario, I suppose. So the lyrics are a bit angsty. Try to ignore them. The tune’s all right. RATING: 6.5/10

I Am One of Them: This is a tough one. I commend Aly & AJ for writing this song, but I can’t say that I like it very much either. The lyrics take priority here. The song’s about child kidnappings; the singer laments the fates of these children while realizing that she’s just like them, and therefore just as vulnerable. It establishes a link between the victims and the singer (as well as the audience); it discourages turning a blind eye to the suffering of our peers. The simultaneously reflective and confrontational lyrics really make you feel something. So it feels petty to grumble about the melodies. Then again, perhaps that’s intentional—this is the sort of song you’re supposed to listen to rather than sing along to, so a catchy hook would detract from the message. In the booklet that comes with the CD, Aly & AJ dedicate the album “to all of the missing children and to the memory of the ones who are no longer with us.” RATING: 6/10

Sticks and Stones: This is the only song that’s truly worth sticking around for after you’re through with the front half of the album. It’s an anti-bullying song with lyrics that reflect a desperate sense of helplessness… at first. The chorus turns the song on its head, twice. “Sticks and stones won’t break my soul / Get out of the way, I’m invincible / Throw them down, ’cause the one you want’s not around.” First, the singer defiantly declares that they won’t let anyone bring them down, refusing to be the victim any longer. But then they reach out to their tormentor, implying that bullies are only lashing out because they themselves are in pain. That’s not a unique sentiment, but there’s something powerful about the way the lyrics phrase it—particularly the “throw them down” bit that plays around with the sticks and stones metaphor. This song also has another excellent AJ vocal hook—there’s something really unique about the vocal tone she produces when she sings “not for gain” just before the second iteration of the chorus. That’s easily my favourite couple of seconds on the entire album.  RATING: 9/10

Protecting Me: An ode to somebody who’s always there for you. Kind of dull, this one. At least the actions here are reciprocal: at the end of the song, the lyrics change from “you’ll protect me” to “I’ll protect you”. That’s probably the only redeeming quality to this otherwise forgettable song. RATING: 3/10

Slow Down: The last original composition on the album is convincingly pop punk—you could easily imagine, say, Paramore performing this song. Aly & AJ can really rock, and this song doesn’t disappoint. It doesn’t quite live up to the front half of the album, but it’s a decent album track at least. RATING: 5/10

Do You Believe In Magic: Ugh. I don’t hold this against Aly & AJ themselves; reimagining these classic tunes for an audience of preteens is trademark Disney MO. This one was recorded for the movie “Now You See It…” starring Aly. It’s mostly awful. Sunshine pop made sickening by a modern arrangement. Can we move on yet? RATING: 2/10

Walking On Sunshine: This one was for “Herbie: Fully Loaded”. You know, that crappy Lindsay Lohan film that left a blot on one of my favourite film series from my childhood. Anyway, this cover isn’t as bad. I mean, this was a cheesy song to begin with. At least Aly & AJ bring a little energy to the table this time. And look—Disney sprung for some horns! RATING: 3/10

 

PART III: The Album

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Aesthetic: The production’s quite interesting—especially on the deluxe edition. It takes elements of soft rock, pop rock, pop punk, and R&B and throws them all together into something polished and made to be easily accessible. Despite that, there is a bit of a rough edge to the album when you compare it to what some of Aly & AJ’s peers were putting out at the time. The repetitive arrangements and song structures do become a little stale towards the end of the album, however. Neither the standard nor deluxe edition album cover is memorable; they both look like greatest hits covers. “Into the Rush” is an evocative title though. I’m not sure the album lives up to it. SCORE: 2/5

Artistic Merit: The girls are budding artists here—there are hints scattered throughout the album at what they become, but the album is still very grounded within that teen pop/rock sound. SCORE: 1/5

Flow: This album’s got none. Whoever compiled the deluxe edition deserves to be fired. The new recordings easily outshine the rest of the album. So when you stack all of them at the beginning of the album, followed directly by the lead single, you end up with an overwhelmingly top-heavy album. I’m always tempted to stop listening after “Rush” is over. What I will say for the sequencing, though, is that it does a good job of balancing the ballads with the more rock-oriented tracks, preventing the album from falling into too much of a lull. Unfortunately, ending the album with two subpar cover tracks completely destroys any integrity it might’ve otherwise had. SCORE: 1/10

CLOSING REMARKS: When you listen to this album, what you hear is potential. There are a fair number of standout tracks, and the filler isn’t particularly offensive. Aly & AJ refuse to fall into the pop star mould, instead speaking from their hearts and making creative choices that wound up preventing them from becoming pop sensations like, say, Miley Cyrus, but ultimately led them down the road to becoming much better artists.

FINAL SCORE: 53

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

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Part I: The Background

The Velvet Underground was formed by Lou Reed and John Cale in 1965; the pair had previously played together in a short-lived band called The Primitives. A residency in Greenwich Village’s Café Bizzare led to a fateful meeting with visual artist Andy Warhol. In addition to helping manage the band, Warhol suggested that they recruit a singer named Nico, who had previously worked with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to record a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’”. While Warhol was credited as producer for the album, Cale was largely responsible for the album’s sound, while Lou Reed’s dark lyrical subject matter made the album one of one of the most influential albums of the 60s, even if it wasn’t a commercial hit. The album is steeply rooted in that raw, unpolished garage rock sound and serves as one of the precursors to the punk rock genre. I’m sure you’ve all heard the famous Brian Eno quote by now: “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”

 

Part II: The Music

Sunday Morning: Talk about a misleading opening track. The album kicks off with “Sunday Morning”, a mellow pop tune with a twinkling celesta. But it’s also one of those songs where the music contrasts the misery of the lyrics: “It’s just the wasted years so close behind.” The tranquility is juxtaposed with a sense of paranoia, which is reportedly what the “Watch out, the world’s behind you” line is getting at. Nowhere else on the album does Reed sing like this. The reverb on his voice gives the vocal a dreamy quality. It’s the opposite of a lullaby. A gentle nudging into wakefulness—that fleeting moment of peace when you’ve just woken up before the world catches up with you. RATING: 10/10

I’m Waiting For The Man: Now this is more along the lines of what you can expect from Reed and company: raw, messy, muddied-up garage rock. What really brings the basic rock and roll riff that serves as the song’s foundation to life is the murky texture of the heavily distorted guitars. Cale pounds away at the piano throughout. Oh, and did I mention it’s a song about a guy going to meet his drug dealer? Reed’s vocals here are much more conversational—he barely sings at all, and that contributes to the song’s rough aesthetic. It’s a rude awakening compared to the album opener. This song perfectly encapsulates the more boisterous, rebellious side of the rock and roll aesthetic, and as such, it’s an engaging listen despite the absence of melody. RATING: 8.5/10

Femme Fatale: Nico takes the lead vocal on this downbeat pop tune, built on top of a wistful guitar lick. The song’s about Edie Sedgwick, a model who featured in some of Warhol’s work. You get a lazy vibe listening to this one—the slow-moving rhythm lulls you into a bit of a haze. The track doesn’t stand out melodically, nor is there anything particularly outstanding about Nico’s singing here. Reed’s lyrics are simultaneously critical or the song’s titular maneater and of the foolish men who line up to have their hearts broken. RATING:8/10

Venus In Furs: Lou Reed could play the psychedelic game, and well. A strong Eastern influence sets this song apart—there’s a consistent drone throughout the bulk of the piece, which features Cale on electric viola. The lyrics touch on sadomasochism (“Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather / Whiplash girlchild in the dark”), but also have a bit of poetic depth to them (“I could sleep for a thousand years / A thousand dreams that would awake me”). The depth here comes from the aesthetic of the recording rather than the composition itself—of the two drone influenced tunes on the album, this is definitely the weaker. RATING: 7.5/10

Run Run Run: This one’s another garage rock tune and another drug song. I’ve got to give this one bonus points for the wildly disoriented guitar solo. Reed resumes his talk-singing here, though this time the song’s got a nicely harmonized hook. It’s songs like these that inspired legions of imitators; it’s hard-rocking, back-to-basics approach is awesome in its simplicity. RATING: 8.5/10

All Tomorrow’s Parties: One of the album’s best tracks. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also features a psychedelic drone, accentuated by some haphazard, drug-hazed guitar work. The songs has a distinct piano sound that was achieved by placing paper clips between the strings. Nico nails the vocal here with her odd enunciation and sombre tone. I’ve seen a few different interpretations of Reed’s lyrics, and I’m not quite sure what to ultimately make of them, but they are evocative to say the least. They reference the Monday’s Child nursery rhyme, marrying childhood innocence with psychedelic indulgence and the fickleness of youth. RATING: 10/10

Heroin: This is the other contender for the best cut off the album. The song both lyrically and musically depicts the experience of getting high. The steady drum beat increases during the choruses to represent the sense of elevation achieved from the drug, while the verses drift lazily as the singer reflects the emptiness of modern life. Reed doesn’t denounce the drug; he simply paints a vivid picture of the altered state it induces, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. This is another one of those songs that’s beautiful in its simplicity—there are only a couple of alternating chords here. RATING: 10/10

There She Goes Again: Here’s a bit of a stylistic shift—this is the sort of R&B-influenced pop rock song you’d expect from a British invasion group. John Cale and Sterling Morison further emulate the style with their harmonized backing vocals. After the heaviness of the previous two tracks, it’s nice to get something a little more fun and lighthearted—the song allows for a bit a breather. And it’s not a bad tune either. RATING: 6.5/10

I’ll Be Your Mirror: Nico gently sings the vocals on this song, another mellow pop number and one of the few optimistic songs on the album. The singer assures her lover that she can see through to the goodness in him, even if he himself is unable to see it. The harmonies on the tag are a nice touch—the song is definitely accessible, though its melodies aren’t as memorable as some of the other pop tunes on the album. RATING: 7/10

The Black Angel’s Death Song: Psychedelic poetry set to a screeching electric viola. The jarring lack of anything tuneful means that the listener may grow weary of the song over the course of its three minutes—to get something out of this one, you’ve got to delve deep into the lyrics, a task that proves difficult consider Reed himself admitted that there isn’t any particular meaning to them (though there is an abundance of violent imagery, with references to cuts, sacrifices, and bleeding razors). This sort of artistic piece, I feel, is best appreciated from a distance. RATING: 5.5/10

European Son: The song concludes with its lengthiest track—this garage rock tune spans a full seven minutes. Reed rattles off the lyrics over the frantic beat until the one-minute mark. The song is then interrupted by the thunderous roar of a lion. This remainder of the song is an energetic, raucous instrumental jam that rarely settles on anything resembling melodic—the song’s 100% attitude. And while I appreciate the manner in which it encapsulates the carefree feel of rock and roll, I don’t know if I can bear a full seven minutes of it. RATING: 4/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The aesthetic is what makes this album. The production has a raw, unpolished sound to it that presented a stark contrast to the excessive studio gimmickry of the mid sixties. This is essentially an eponymous album, so I can’t really dock points for the unimaginative title. And Andy Warhol was behind this, so of course the cover is as iconic as the album itself. SCORE: 5/5

Artistic Merit: This is one of the wildest, most out-of-place albums of the sixties. It’s no big surprise this wasn’t a smash hit at the time. Reed isn’t afraid to touch on taboo subjects with his lyrics nor is the rest of the band afraid to explore dissonance and cacophony with their music. SCORE: 5/5

Flow: The album alternates between bare-bones proto-punk garage rock, mellow, dreamy pop, and boisterous psychedelia. There is a consistent feel to the song writing, and Reed’s lyrics definitely tie the album together, even if the album isn’t all that cohesive a listen. The album is, however, a bit top-heavy—Side B doesn’t have much to offer in terms of standout tracks, and in fact, once I’ve heard Heroin I’m just about ready to call it a day. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: The great thing about the progression of popular music is that the albums that are worthy of accolade tend to receive their due in time, even if they aren’t appreciated at their time of release. It’s clear why the album inspired so many of its listeners to pick up an instrument; the Velvet Underground convince you not only that you can do this music thing too, but that you can do it well. Even at its simplest, this album is an impressive piece of music, and therein lies its charm.

FINAL SCORE: 78

 

The Byrds – Younger Than Yesterday

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Part I: The Background

The Byrds’ fourth studio album, the follow up to 1966’s Fifth Dimension, dispenses even further with the group’s folk foundations as they tread further and further into the realm of psychedelia. The album also sees them revisit another Bob Dylan song—this time the anti-protest song “My Back Pages”—despite the majority of the songs being penned by the band themselves (bassist Chris Hillman contributes the largest number of compositions, with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby providing the remainder). Record producer Gary Usher, known for his early collaborations with the Beach Boys (he most notably co-wrote the lyrics to “In My Room”) teamed up with the band and helped them explore new sounds and possibilities in the recording studio. Younger Than Yesterday may not have been as beloved as the band’s previous albums at the time, but along with their next album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, it represents the band at their creative and experimental peak.

 

Part II: The Music

So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star: The album opens with its lead single and the most enduring track on the album. McGuinn provides a jaded critique of the manufactured nature of the music industry—reportedly the song is written in response to the popularity of The Monkees, who at the time hadn’t yet begun writing their own songs or playing their own instruments. The band’s trademark folk harmonies kick in as McGuinn laments the fact that the entertainment business favours image over talent: “And with your hair swung right / And your pants too tight / It’s gonna be all right.” The song features a crowd of screaming fans—the incorporation of sound effects into studio recordings was something of a trend during the psychedelic era. “In a week or two, when you make the charts / The girls will tear you apart,” McGuinn sings—being a rock star is more about the “star” than it is about the “rock”. The song has just as much pop appeal as a Monkees hit; the singsong melodies and traditional strong structure are perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. McGuinn himself, however, claims that the lyrics are meant to be taken at face value; the song is meant to inspire a generation of aspiring rock musicians to chase their dreams. Regardless of the meaning, this tight composition kicks off the album with a whole lot of energy. RATING: 9/10

Have You Seen Her Face: This Chris Hillman composition emulates the popular mid-60s Merseybeat sound. The entire song is sung in harmony; it captures that Lennon-McCartney magic (both melodies are equally compelling on their own) with a sprinkle of the Hollies. The guitar work is chocked full of attitude and much more coherent than the drugged-out haze of “Eight Miles High”. RATING: 9/10

C.T.A.-102: The melody here emulates a radio station jingle, though the song is a little more complex than that; CTA-102 is a quasar, a bright celestial body that happens to be a source of radio waves, that some believed to be evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. Electronic oscillators simulate the sound of extraterrestrial transmissions, and the song concludes with incoherent alien babble as the crew aboard a UFO happens to catch the signal of the song being broadcast. This is one of those songs where the experimental elements (the oscillators and sound effects) are detrimental. C.T.A.-102 isn’t as rewarding a song as it is a sonic experiment. RATING: 6/10

Renaissance Fair: Crosby and McGuinn team up for this psychedelia-tinged folk number; a hazy sketch of the titular renaissance fair (an outdoor gathering recreating the sights and sounds of the Rennaisance era). The constant refrain of “I think that maybe I’m dreaming” blurs the line between re-enactment and reality. The glorification of the Renaissance era with its “cinnamon and spices” and “kaleidoscope of colours” reflects a desire to return to a simpler time—a rejection of the modern era. The arrangement is a bit of a missed opportunity; a bit of Renaissance-era instrumentation could’ve achieved a much more vivid evocation of the period. RATING: 7.5/10

Time Between: A country song, foreshadowing the group’s transition into a country rock at the tail end of the decade (songwriter Chris Hillman was one of the key figures in the rise of the genre). Despite this being Hillman’s first attempt at song writing, the bouncy tune boasts single-worthy melodies. RATING: 7.5/10

Everybody’s Been Burned: Solemn, sensitive David Crosby at his finest. The rising chromatic guitar picking creates a sombre atmosphere that breaks through the dreary haze and morphs into a thing of beauty halfway through the song. It’s one of Crosby’s earliest compositions, dating back to 1962, and was originally envisioned as a torch song (a mournful lament of lost love). RATING: 8.5/10

Thoughts and Words: This song is a melodic precursor to George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. The chorus presents a sudden shift to more of a rock and roll aesthetic—a similar effect can be heard on The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”. A backmasked sitar interlude serves as the song’s climax. RATING: 9/10

Mind Gardens: One of Crosby’s weaker offerings. This droning acoustic piece fails to establish a melody, relying instead on backmasking and psychedelic imagery for depth. Crosby reportedly fought to have the composition included on the album, believing it to be a work of art. He would continue to butt heads with the rest of the band, resulting in his eventual departure. RATING: 4/10

My Back Pages: I want to say this is an unnecessary cover. Dylan’s version is perfectly melodic—unlike some of The Byrds’ earlier Dylan covers, they don’t really have much interpretive work to do here. But it’s still one of Dylan’s best, and thus the resulting cover is a pleasure to listen to. The album gets its title from the song’s core sentiment that disassociating oneself with the protest scene represents a return to the carefree days of youth. RATING: 7/10

The Girl With No Name: Another country rock number. It’s a fun little tune, but ultimately it lacks a hook and fails to be as memorable as “Time Between”. Probably the weakest song on the album. RATING: 5.5/10

Why: The album closes out with a Crosby song, this one previously released as the B-side to “Eight Miles High”. Impressed by the music of Ravi Shankar, Crosby sought to emulate the Indian raga with this song, though unlike George Harrison, Crosby chose not to implement traditional Indian instrumentation in the recording of the track. Originally, the song was meant to describe Crosby’s mother’s authoritativeness: “Keep saying no to me since I was a baby.” The idea was rejected, and the song was reshaped to be about a young girl restrained by her overbearing mother. The song skilfully weaves rock together with raga. Towards the end of the song, Crosby delivers one of the most powerful lyrics on the album: “Say it’s a dead old world, dull and unforgiving / I don’t know where you live, but you’re not living.” All in all, an excellent album closer. RATING: 8.5/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The album cover isn’t as striking as the cover for Fifth Dimension, though the grainy texture, which obscures the playful photo of the band, does make for an interesting image. Aesthetically, the album is best described as restrained psychedelia; though the production is daring, it never really crosses that line into wild and unhinged. When you consider how the idea of psychedelic inhibition is intrinsically linked with the notion of childhood freedom, the title takes Dylan’s notion of rejecting the seriousness of adulthood while adapting it for the psychedelic era. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: The album only contains a single cover song, and as a Bob Dylan song it isn’t that out of place on a Byrds album anyway. The rest of the songs display an artistic growth on behalf of all members of the group—the album sees the band taking a step forward both in songwriting and in studio experimentation. Didn’t I already say that the album represents the band at their creative peak? SCORE: 5/5

Flow: The album isn’t really mean to be a cohesive work. It’s varied stylistically, with influences ranging from British invasion–style pop rock to country to Indian raga. The songs are concise, and even during its weaker moments the album never truly feel like it’s losing any steam. Younger Than Yesterday is probably the most satisfying Byrds album start to finish. SCORE: 7/10

CLOSING REMARKS: The greatest of albums are the ones that stand the test of time. It speaks volumes that Younger Than Yesterday is widely regarded as one of the band’s strongest efforts nowadays. This is also one of the earliest albums to consider country rock as a musical possibility. The band’s experimentation would continue with their next album, in which they’d explore an even wider range of musical influences, but this album is just as worthy of your attention.

FINAL SCORE: 75