Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Welcome To The Terrordome (1990) – Public Enemy

The cornerstone of 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet, “Welcome To The Terrordome” is a barrage of confrontation interspersed with an assortment of samples, creating a state of constant agitation. Chuck D’s voice is authoritative in its delivery, urgent in its protests, defiant in its denouncements. His vocal flow employs subtle shifts in meter to manipulate verses across measures in a stream-of-consciousness purge.

In the wake of his group’s controversial dismissal of, and ambiguous dissociation from, Professor Griff following his homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, “Terrordome” is Chuck D’s forum to vent. He is brazen in his thinly veiled rebuke of Judaism, and chastises those who failed to back him during the Griff controversy, resorting to the hyperbole of race betrayal. To vindicate his aggression, he invokes the (then recent) 1989 racially-infused slaying in Bensonhurst and 1989 riot at Greekfest in Virginia Beach. To his credit, he promotes intellectual counterstrikes instead of physical retribution in the “intellectual Vietnam.”

Chuck D has a few bones to pick. Whether one agrees with his rhetoric or not, the listener is compelled to lend him an ear.

  • Listen to "Welcome To The Terrordome" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Saturday, January 28, 2006

    Shilo (1968) – Neil Diamond

    (Part One of the Mine Ears Have Heard The Glory of the Banging of the Drum tetralogy)

    What makes this remembrance of an imaginary childhood friend so noteworthy? The exceptionally-recorded drums. In this regard, the re-recorded version which appears on Velvet Gloves And Spit/His 12 Greatest Hits is superior to the Just For You version (although Neil endearingly calling out “Shilo . . . Shilo. . . .” at the end of the earlier version is a nice touch not found in the later version. Yet another version of the song released as a single achieves a middle ground between the two). The left channel finds a crisp hi-hat foremost in the mix; sharing that confined space, the crack of a snare resonates while tom-toms cavort and scuttle. In the right channel, a tambourine briskly keeps time on the two-and-four. A piano, guitar and bass introduce the melodic hook, then part to carry out their customary functions.

    Lyrically, “Shilo” finds a man reflecting upon his lot in life, consoling himself by revisiting his lonesome childhood. Ignored by his peers and neglected by his father, the child was left to dream up a playmate. This becomes the status quo in adulthood as a girlfriend eventually abandons him as well. He accepts the inevitable: a companionless existence . . . and a reunion with Shilo. Diamond’s vocals, tinged with a doleful whine, effectively elict empathy even from those who grew up with fulfilling personal relationships.

    But back to those drums. They sit so prominently in the mix that they become the featured instrument. Spry fills discharged by session drummers are so rarely the main attraction in this day and age. God bless that session drummer.

  • Listen to "Shilo" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "Brooklyn Roads" (1968) – Neil Diamond
  • A View To A Kill (1985) – Duran Duran

    In an unusual development, Duran Duran’s classic lineup actually recorded one of the best songs of their half-decade existence shortly before they split into Power Station and Arcadia, not to reunite until 2001. “A View To A Kill” stands as the only James Bond title song to reach #1 on the U.S. charts to date—a notable feat given some of its predecessors (“Thunderball,” “Live and Let Die,” “Nobody Does It Better,” “For Your Eyes Only”).

    As the scene unfolds, Andy Taylor’s guitar detonates amidst a cadre of drums, courtesy of Roger Taylor, that boom like heavy artillery clearing a path for an orchestral cavalcade to create a diversion while John Taylor’s bass slinks down a hidden staircase in reconnaissance. Against Nick Rhodes’ veil of synthesizers peppered with ripples of staccato guitar, Simon LeBon weaves a plot of espionage and assassination entangled with deadly romance. Filtered samples of Fairlight CMI orchestra hits are scattered about in a smoke-and-mirror subterfuge. LeBon’s impassioned wail culminates in impetuous abandon en route to accomplishing the mission. Ultimately, all components of the coalition manifest to spring the trap, but we must question whether all escaped unscathed as the guitar fizzles out.

  • Listen to "A View To A Kill" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Weightlifting (2004) - Trashcan Sinatras

    With a tranquil beauty reflected in both its lyrics and music, “Weightlifting” is a tastefully understated ode to recreational vehicular transit, the rediscovery of a pasttime neglected. The bass guitar locks in tandem with the kick drum to establish a leisurely pace of travel, as half notes are casually tossed from the guitar on alternating downbeats and left to linger. Displaying artistry in vocal interpretation, Francis Reader inserts a pause while referring to “the rushed . . . hours / the endless lives,” as if to mock the demands that crammed schedules impose upon a hectic life. Reader extols the therapeutic virtues of driving as a diversion, as it relieves the burdens which weigh upon the soul. Background falsetto “la la la la las waft gorgeously in the ambiance, and chiming guitars interlace, as the spirit is renewed.

  • Listen to "Weightlifting" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Sunday, January 22, 2006

    The Midnight Sun Will Never Set (1958) – Sarah Vaughan (Dorcas Cochran/Quincy Jones/Henri Salvador)

    For anyone who has wandered the night contemplating a past love, or at least has imagined doing so, this beautiful composition speaks directly to the heart. Quincy Jones’ arrangement is masterful. Vibes gently reverberate in silvery ripples to a plaintive rhythm plucked out on double bass. A piano softly sprinkles stardust along a desolate pathway. Clarinets and flutes join the lament. Strings slowly rise to cushion each lonely footstep. And then, there is the voice. Sassy. The Divine One. Miss Sarah Vaughan. Her smooth voice wafts in to console and comfort, if only by re-living the birth of a romance long ago, confessing that its embers still illuminate her heart. The glow of a midnight sun; a torch still carried; a summer love extinguished–we need not be given much detail to understand the sentiment which haunts her. She effortlessly glides from note to note as if traversing the moonlit cityscape in search of an explanation why she “can’t eclipse / the lips I still desire.” As is often the case, the reward is in the pining.

  • Listen to "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Cars (1979) – Gary Numan

    Viewed as a metaphor for increasing isolation in private spaces, “Cars” portends a loss of humanity. Rather than rely on austere computerized minimalism, Gary Numan instead utilizes rigid musicality to create a futuristic environment. Even before his mechanical singsong vocals activate, Numan successfully evokes robotism through a rigid MiniMoog riff that fidgets in tandem with the bassline. A cutting Polymoog serves as hovercraft escort to the gates of the city, where we soon become privy to an automaton extolling the virtues of life within his vehicle. Or is it the voice of a mad scientist who creates cyborgs, yearning for human interaction? Dual synthesizers coalesce and bifurcate, bathed in vintage analog warmth. Sustained notes, ever-so-slightly dissonant, leave the listener suspended in anticipation of their ascending and descending musical divergence.

    A soundtrack for a reclusive future, “Cars” pervades your pearl white Audi RSQ, as I, Robot chases you through the streets of downtown metropolis.

  • Listen to "Cars" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Amphibious Assault (1968) – Leonard Nimoy

    Inextricably intertwined with his persona as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, and gifted with one of the greatest voices in entertainment, Leonard Nimoy embraced his Vulcan alter-ego in such recordings as “Highly Illogical,” “The Difference Between Us,” and “Where It’s At.” “Amphibious Assault,” an anti-Vietnam War commentary, remains pertinent even today, given the general lack of serious protest against the war in Iraq by a privileged society that carries on with its own concerns. It could easily be a narrative by Spock—the First Officer—or Nimoy—the recording artist; either way, “Amphibious Assault” commandeers the imagination with its surrealistic whimsy.

    A military scenario opens the vignette, Nimoy’s stoic elocution impressing the gravity of the situation. Regal French horns, a Vox-amped guitar, and a military snare stamp an insignia of ‘60s primetime drama. An amphibious craft prepares to attack enemy shores. Oddly enough, on that same craft, a soirée for high-ranking military officers is in full swing. Cue cocktail music, serving as a backdrop for mingling socialites. A hydraulic ramp lowers to release a lone soldier, momentarily diverting the attention of the partygoers, who watch the soldier run laboriously onto the beach, his heavy breathing filled with purpose and fear. A single gunshot rings out . . . silence. The military fanfare, lounge band, and conviviality resume, as the warcraft abandons the slain soldier on the beach–a sacrificial deposit in the name of democracy.

    Delightfully bizarre.

  • Not available from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "Once I Smiled" (1968) - Leonard Nimoy
  • Casimir Pulaski Day (2005) – Sufjan Stevens

    Quite simply one of the most poignant songs ever written, “Casimir Pulaski Day” has the ability to touch even those who have never lost a close loved one. Such is the songwriting gift of Sufjan Stevens. His description of life’s mundane details that often go unnoticed serve as a universal reference point of the human condition. Immediately, Stevens drops the bombshell of cancer. While in less capable hands the subject matter would reek of an appeal to cheap sympathy, Stevens is so adept at finding the beauty in unremarkable situations or occurrences that allow the listener to ascribe personal feelings, that he effortlessly wrenches our hearts with his tenuous susurrations. He appeals to our own experiences, recalling the minutiae of a burgeoning relationship, and very specific factual details which suggest a broader backstory we are free to construct for ourselves: the initial flirtation; strife between a father and his daughter over a boy who isn’t good enough; moments of emotional collapse.

    Perhaps the song’s greatest attribute is the acknowledgement of pain, doubt and questioning in moments of tribulation that test one’s Christian faith. After his loved one’s passing, Stevens examines his beliefs, revealing an obedient sarcasm or perhaps joyless praise. Knowing that his grief is necessary to foster spiritual growth, he accepts his personal cross to bear, acknowledging Christ’s sacrifice: “All the glory when He took our place / but He took my shoulders and He shook my face / and He takes and He takes and He takes.” In the end, only one completely devoid of emotion could resist a welling tear, a sigh to release the blunt pang of empathy.

  • Listen to "Casimir Pulaski Day" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." (2005)– Sufjan Stevens
  • Saturday, January 21, 2006

    FBLA (1990) – Helmet

    Helmet was one of the first bands to understand how to fuse a dropped-D tuning with syncopated beats in a caustic onslaught, resulting in their mind-blowing debut Strap It On. In this regard, “FBLA” assaults the ears and churns the bowels with a virulent vengeance. John Stanier assails his snare and pummels his kick drum with what sounds like a sledgehammer and a club, throwing down beats that alternately push and drag the tempo. Page Hamilton’s antagonistic growl is a perfectly affected snarl of aggression, an omen that his head is about to explode in a cathartic discharge. Hamilton’s and Peter Mengede’s guitar tone so predominantly occupy the midrange frequencies, that it sounds like the audio equivalent of crackers—dry, crunchy and brittle. Although the predominant riff is simple—your standard “great white shark-approaches-unsuspecting-victim” cue—the accomplishment is how powerful it sounds when two guitars and a bass play it in unison, utilizing abrupt rests to build tension, then jolting the detritus out of the lacuna. Guitars screech and flutter intermittently like taloned birds of prey in attack mode. Hamilton’s punctuated barks culminate in a sonic thrashing on the pavement, exorcising a pertinacious demon. The instrumental bridge is a weltering behemoth steamrolling its way to a predator’s feast—the churn and turmoil of abrasive guitars scything a path through the jungles of Lost. A strident guitar “solo” slices through the din with a caterwaul like a Chimera heralding Armageddon, convulsing until violent riffing repeatedly throws uppercuts and right hooks to finish it off.

  • Listen to "FBLA" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "Crisis King" (1997) – Helmet
  • Magic (1980) – Olivia Newton-John

    Olivia Newton-John’s silky smooth voice remains one of the purest in the history of pop music, suffused with a delicate charm that triggers synaptic euphoria. As such, “Magic” is apt to conjure mental snapshots imprinted years ago, perhaps of sauntering the mall as if in Xanadu, stopping to grab an Orange Julius and a slice of Perry’s Pizza before placing quarters across the top of the Dragon’s Lair console, maybe roller skating later at the rink with an ice cold Tab in hand. This soundtrack for carefree summer days exploits some of the most lethal chord changes ever committed to tape, perplexing in their cunning asymmetry amid a slithering hi-hat, a bass line that slinks around the root note, and a guitar that slings notes exotic to the chord. With its fluid melody, the verse weaves through a labyrinth, oozing mysticism and seduction, whilst Olivia coaxes us to overcome our myopia in seeking to fulfill our aspirations; she is the muse come to inspire us with her perspicacity, to actualize our dreams. Tom-toms scurry across the path before us—mischievous creatures scampering to conceal themselves in the fringes. The soul swoons and scales the auricular topography in a melodious migration of chromatic alchemy. Finally, we reach our destination to see if she makes good on her promises.

  • Listen to "Magic" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • Planet Rock (1982) – Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force

    The festivities begin with Afrika Bambaataa inciting the party from what sounds like the inside of a metal garbage can. (Reverb turned to about ½?) He then abdicates the mic to the Soul. Sonic. Force . . . who assume their M.C. duties in a waggish powwow. Most impressive about this jam is that—despite its sparse arrangement of Roland TR-808 and bass synth, with an occasional cyborg voice, orchestral synth or space effect sprinkled in—it is the most influential composition in hip-hop, melding electronic programming, recognizable synth hooks and zingy rapping with the stark atmospheric vacuum of space. Perhaps its simplicity rouses the primal urge to get loose. Much of its appeal can be attributed to the fact that it sounds like music emanating from a nightclub on the rings of Saturn, but equal credit goes to producer Arthur Baker and musician John Robie for devising this cosmic opus. The Bonus Beats and Instrumental version are just as essential, showcasing the beat in its minimalism, closing out the event with robotic “shout-outs” to various cities.

    This, THE seminal electro-funk jam, owes an unpayable debt to Kraftwerk. While it has been well-documented that “Planet Rock” features the synth refrain from Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express,” less attention has been paid to the fact that it utilized the exact same beat from Kraftwerk’s “Numbers”—including a variation of the stuttering triplet hi-hat pattern that clasps and releases—as well as finding inspiration for the “ichi, ni, san, shi” call-and-response. Said beat was copied so much in ‘80s electro-funk/hip-hop via “Planet Rock” that Kraftwerk should have made a fortune on publishing.

  • Listen to "Planet Rock" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "Looking For The Perfect Beat" (1983) – Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force
  • You Belong With Us (1999) – My Favorite

    Andrea Vaughn was blessed with the voice of an angel; Michael Grace Jr., the pen of a sage. Together they spearheaded My Favorite, a relatively obscure yet absolutely essential band from Long Island, NY in the late ‘90s to mid ‘00s. Vaughn left My Favorite in 2005 for as yet undisclosed reasons, but it seemed almost appropriate in a tragic sense for the band to meet a precipitous demise rather than risk expiring in obsolescence. “You Belong With Us” soundtracks a pariah’s embrace of the throes of suburban alienation, where the kids are comfortably numb and the detectives have gone missing.

    A gentle synthesizer arpeggio slowly drifts in the darkness alongside an erratic heartbeat of modulating filtered bleeps, as drums throb a funeral processional à la The Cure circa Pornography. A guitar softly fluctuates, holding watch in the background like lit torches flickering in the distance that obscure the faces of their bearers. A saxophone, equal parts MIDI and actual woodwind, prepares us for the ceremony. Delicate notes cascade from a piano—celestial objects capitulating to the gravitational pull of a collapsing star. Andrea beckons us, her exquisite siren song gently indicting, confessing and exhorting: “[B]ut you have only stolen your party dress / and us, our synthesizers / In these towns that despise us / tonight the stars disguise us, synchronize us . . . You belong with us. . . .” She knows nocturnal mysteries hold the power to transform and renew: “Everything old is new tonight / Everyone young is blue tonight.” Perhaps having been hoodwinked, we are persuaded to enter into the conspiracy, whatever folly may await. The distinct signature of a Zoom™ effects pedal abandons us at the rendezvous, where the syndicate proceeds to initiate us into their criminal world.

  • Listen to "You Belong With Us" and purchase from iTunes Music Store.
  • See also "17 Berlin" (1999) – My Favorite