Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Eric Clapton & J.J. Cale: chilled blues at its finest

I guess there are not many people who haven’t heard of Eric Clapton. One of the best known musicians around, considered one of the best guitarists ever and the only three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: once as a solo artist and separately as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream. Not bad, huh? I could write a huge text about his life, his drug addiction problems, friendship with Jimi Hendrix and so on, but that’d be rather boring. Plus, although I’m a fairly big fan of his music, I haven’t listened to quite a few of his CDs, and I only listen to others as “background music”. This is why, despite I’m writing about certain bands in a chronological order, I’ll only write about specific Clapton albums (I can think about five right now, but who knows).

Maybe not so many people know about J.J. Cale. One of Clapton’s biggest influences, something that becomes evident in Slowhand, and not only because Clapton covers Cale’s Cocaine there. Yes, I also thought the song was from Clapton at first, but a few years ago I found out about this guy who seemed to prefer solitude and stayed away from the spotlight. I’m not going to lie, I’m not Cale’s biggest fan, I like his music but I usually just let it play in the background while I concentrate on other stuff. However his chilled style is pleasant to the ear, and he was a big influence to other musicians, including, as I said, Clapton.

He was an interesting one, Cale. As I said, he preferred to stay away from the spotlight: he hardly ever toured (he got his main income from royalties) and he lived in a caravan for long periods of time. During his concerts, he would face the rest of the band, and not his fans, to improve the interaction with the other musicians. He also liked to record his music alone, as he could also handle all this sound software stuff. Musician, producer and engineer.

Another little story:  in the 2005 documentary film To Tulsa and Back he recounts the story of being offered the opportunity to appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to promote the song, which would have moved it higher on the charts. Cale declined when told he could not bring his band to the taping and would be required to lip-sync the words

It’s not hard to imagine Cale sitting on a chair just outside of a house next to an endless dusty road. His wife used to say that there was nothing better than sitting on the porch at sunset, opening a few beers and listening Cale’s guitar playing. Laid back blues at its best, a low voice that mingled with his smooth guitar playing and made both things almost become one. A huge influence for Clapton, Dire Straits, Joaquín Sabina (a well known Spanish songwriter) and some others, and yet he didn’t really acknowledge it. He joked and insisted that he didn’t feel special; once, he said he did the same thing as Britney Spears but without getting naked. Cale, m’boy, I get chills when I hear Britney Spears’ name and yours in the same sentence, and not in a good way... there’s a huge difference, it’s the night and the day.

It was exactly five years ago, when while visiting a friend in France I went to a CD shop and bought four of them, including a joint effort by Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale, The Road to Escondido. And I think now is a good time to write something about this album, as J.J. Cale sadly passed away almost a year ago of heart failure, the 26th of July 2013. Escondido, which means “hidden” in Spanish, is, by the way, a town near where Cale lived at that time.

The album was originally going to be just Clapton’s, with Cale as a producer, but it soon morphed into a joint effort. Again, Cale’s influence is so obvious here; it’s amazing to hear both sing and play in an almost identical way. Perfect music for a hot Saturday afternoon, or for a long roadtrip.

There’s not much more to say, really. Almost all the songs are Cale’s, except for Three Little Girls (sweet one, by the way), which is Clapton’s, Hard to Thrill, by Clapton and John Mayer, and Sporting Life Blues, by Brownie McGhee. My personal favourite may be Who Am I Telling You?, but the whole album is extremely solid, with very fine laid back blues which has almost the same speed throughout the whole thing (except maybe for the extremely slow Sporting Life Blues and the rather fast Dead End Road). Here’s the link for a playlist that contains the whole album, and also separate links for some of the songs... I hope you enjoy this masterpiece as much as I do. By the way, the album won the Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.

Bonus track: for some reson I can't explain, this is my favourite J.J. Cale song, a perfect example of his laid back style. It just lifts my spirits. I would have loved to listen to him play this some hot dry afternoon in a quiet place. Rest In Peace, John Weldon Cale.

Actually, you may be interested in listening to the original version of Cocaine.

Here's the link to the blog's facebook page in case you feel like discussing music.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Iron Maiden (I): an excellent debut

As well as not being an electronic music fan, I’ve never been a big metalhead either. When I was a child and an early teenager, I simply detested those fast drums and loud guitars. Even now, I usually prefer other music styles. Softer, calmer, with other instruments.

Still, since I was 19, I started listening to some hard rock and heavy metal, and, although not as often as those first couple of years, I still do it sometimes. There were basically two bands that changed my mind about metal. The first one is Nightwish, which made it relatively easy because of the classical music influence they have, and well, truth be told Tarja Turunen’s beautiful voice also helped. I guess I’ll eventually write about that band.

The other band it a pretty obvious choice when the topic of heavy metal music arises... Iron Maiden. Classic. I remember being much younger and feeling rather disturbed by those monsters I could see on their CD covers. Back then, I’m sure nobody would have been able to convince me those guys weren’t satanics who just shouted and roughly manhandled their guitars. Oh boy, I was so wrong. I don’t really know why I gave them a chance, I just remember listening to The Number of the Beast and being very, very surprised.

After this little introduction, let’s properly talk about them. The band was formed on Christmas Day 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, one of the only two band members, along with Dave Murray (who joined a bit later) who have been in every album. As always, I’m not really going to focus on the lineup, and even less at this point, where band members came and went. Although I’ll mention, as a funny note, that at some point in 1977 they recruited a guitarist, Bob Sawyer, who was fired for embarrassing the band onstage by pretending to play guitar with his teeth. In November 1978 the band hired Paul Di’Anno, who would be the singer on the first two Iron Maiden albums.

On New Year’s eve 1978, Iron Maiden recorded a four song demo, which was presented to the manager of a heavy metal club called Bandwagon Heavy Metal Soundhouse. The guy, Neal Kay, liked it and played it regularly, and one of the songs, Prowler, which actually opens their first album, went to number 1 in the Soundhouse charts. Another copy was acquired by the man who would shortly become the band’s manager, Rod Smallwood. They released the demo on their own record label as The Soundhouse Tapes, with three songs (Strange World was excluded). Within weeks, all five thousand copies were sold. The lineup for the first album was completed in December 1979, when guitarist Dennis Stratton and drummer Clive Burr joined the band.

And, at last, we’re here, in 1980. Iron Maiden’s first album, called... again, Iron Maiden. Although the band itself has criticized the quality of the album’s production, it debuted at number 4 in the UK Albums Chart, which is not precisely bad, I’d say. We may be talking about a heavy metal band here, but, mostly because of Di’Anno’s raspy voice, this is more like heavy punk. However, Harris has stated that the band “despised everything about punk”. Iron Maiden’s music is certainly much more complex, with intricate passages and sudden tempo changes.

A very good example is Phantom of the Opera, which is, along with Strange World, my favourite song on the album, and one of Harris’s personal favourites too. A seven minute epic played with real passion in which everything’s excellent: Di’Anno’s voice, the instrumental bits, Harris’s bass and backing vocals, the aforementioned tempo changes... it gives me goosebumps.

There are more tempo changing songs, such as Remember Tomorrow, and also their first instrumental, Transylvania. Some of the songs are rather punky, like Prowler, Sanctuary, Running Free, Charlotte the Harlot or the title track, Iron Maiden. Still,  they’re more complex and changing, and I like them much better than “regular” punk, of which I always get tired extremely fast. I find Prowler, Running Free (cool drums, by the way) and Iron Maiden especially catchy.

Harris wrote most of the material on the album, and there’s only one song in which he had no input, as Dave Murray composed Charlotte the Harlot on his own. A punky song, as I said, at least at some points, although it also features some sudden changes which totally differentiate it from that genre. Charlotte is supposed to be a fictional prostitute, however Murray stated that the song is based on a true story. I’ve read somewhere that Charlotte is supposed an old girlfriend of Murray, but it was probably some random youtube comment, so who knows.

Finally, Strange World is, as I said, one of my favourite songs on this album. For those who think Iron Maiden is about shouting, playing the guitar fast and loud and stuff like that... damn, this is almost sweet. A slow song, with Di’Anno’s raspiness miraculously gone from his voice and reaching unexpected high tones. Beautiful. A wonderful album, which would be topped very rarely by the band.

P.S: about the "monsters" I could see on their album covers... I soon learned, of course, that it was the band's mascot, Eddie, who appeared on every one.

Bonus track: Nightwish also have a song called The Phantom of the Opera, although it's a different one. Still great, anyway.

And finally, if you have suggestions or want to discuss music or whatever, go here.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Jethro Tull (V): their most underrated album

After the success of Thick as a Brick, Jethro Tull decided to get serious. Yeah, let’s do another concept album, why not? But hey guys, no goofing around this time, we had Thick as a Brick for that, let’s be deep and stuff. That’s what they said. Or something like that, I guess.

1973 saw the release of A Passion Play, which is a very interesting album because I think most of the critics could have shoved what they wrote up their, hm, ahem, yes that. Ok, I should respect other people’s opinions, my apologies. But in short, the album got negative reviews in general (although it peaked the charts in the States), and my review is almost ass-licking positive. Well, maybe that’s not the word I’m looking for, but in the last couple of years my enthusiasm for this album has grown exponentially.

True, true, I have to admit I didn’t like the album at first. I found it (almost very) dull. I think I even wrote somewhere in youtube that I’d never really be a fan. It’s not an easy listen, it’s dense, thick, thick as a brick (here I am, grinning like an idiot because of the easy reference), you can see folk, jazz and rock influences mixed the way only Jethro Tull can do it. However, after, I think, three listens, I fell deeply in love with it. It’s totally unique, it doesn’t repeat itself and the lyrics, yeah, the stuff I usually ignore, are magnificent.

Here's the whole album:

Ian Anderson is apparently not very fond of it, judging by what he said in 1999: "With Thick As A Brick, we took the idea of the concept album and had some fun with it. Now we thought it was time to do something a bit more serious and make an album that wasn't a spoof and wasn't meant to be fun. We ended up going to record the album at Chateau D'Herouville, in France, where people like Elton John and Cat Stevens had made records. Our original plan was not to make another concept album. The project started off as a collection of songs, including two that ended up going onto our next album, War Child: 'Bungle in the Jungle' and 'Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day).' A certain theme had begun to emerge among the songs - how the animal life is mirrored in the dog-eat-dog world of human society - but the project just wasn't working out. So we abandoned what we'd done and went back to England.

Back home, I ended up almost completely rewriting all of the material we'd worked on in France, and this became 'A Passion Play'. The concept grew out of wondering about the possible choices one might face after death. It was a dark album, just as we had intended, but it was missing some of the fun and variety that was in Thick As A Brick. The critics savaged us. Chris Welch of Melody Maker and Bob Hilburn at the Los Angeles Times wrote really negative reviews that everybody jumped on and reprinted or based their own reviews on. It really snowballed from there, and we got a fair old pasting for that one. On reflection, the album is a bit one-dimensional. It's certainly not one of my favorites, although it has become something of a cult album with some fans."

Also, from the same interview: "... it's just not really appreciated at the time, a bit too contrived, a little bit too heavy-handed, but looking back on it with the passing of the years, you can be a little bit more generous in the way that you view it and the way you listen to it, and I guess that's how I feel about Passion Play. There are two thirds of it which are actually okay. It's just heavy going to play, which is why, I think, we very rarely play any bits of it.

"I think for me the problem with it, if there was a problem, was that the humour that was there on Thick As A Brick was not there on Passion Play. I think because a lot of the humour had been knocked out of us after a year of being away, touring, living in Switzerland, rehearsing, then recording in France, then finally coming back to England and starting all over again to rehearse and record virtually all-new material. That kind of took a lot of the humour out of it. I think, for me, looking back on it, that's the thing that's missing from Passion Play. It's a little bit too deadpan. It doesn't have that kind of slightly irreverent and humorous kind of little interludes or moments of light relief that would make it more listenable."

On the other hand, Martin Barre apparently likes it more: "I think that, out of all the records that we have made, more people talk about Passion Play than a lot of albums. It's a memorable album. I think it's an important album; I think that the difficult thing was going back to England, having scrapped a whole album. Months and months of work, and the terrible thing, for [Ian] more than for anybody else, was having to then completely start again, and rewrite, re-record, relearn, re-rehearse. But I think it was a good album, and the tour, and the sort of theatrics that came with the tour, were quite a memorable period."

Before I go further, and to clarify Ian Anderson’s words, I should say that previous to this album, the band started another one, recorded at Château d’Hérouville, near Paris, but apparently the sound quality was so awful that they decided to go back to England and start from the beginning. Still, there are many similarities between A Passion Play and that embryo, which was released almost twenty years later as the Château d’Isaster Tapes (sounds like the kind of pun I’d do, and this is not necessarily a compliment... nah, it’s ok), the first half of the album Nightcap. I’ll eventually get there, about ten posts later.

Back to the album. Musically, as I said, it doesn’t repeat itself, with the drawback (I personally don’t really mind) that there’s not a part that really gets stuck in your mind. The whole thing flows smoothly, with beautiful instrumental bits here and there, and Anderson’s flute rocking all over the place, as always. By the way, he also plays the sax here. Genius. I do miss a bit of Barre’s guitar sometimes, as he doesn’t really have any especially rocking solos... the album is more of a continuous team effort. Then there’s The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, which is in the middle of the album and is just absurd, but I love it for some reason. I guess I’m biased. Whatever, the video is fun, and the music’s actually still good. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond has some fun here narrating this short story.

If I had to choose a specific part of the album, I’d choose what appears in The Best of Jethro Tull as A Passion Play Edit #8, although it’s a tough decision. On the other hand, it looks like the band ran out of ideas in the end, as the last five minutes of the album are notably worse than the rest.

Although the lyrics are often unclear, it seems more or less obvious that A Passion Play talks, in short, about a man called Ronnie Pilgrim, who dies, goes to Heaven, doesn’t like it, goes to Hell, doesn’t like it and finally decides he just wants to live. Ok that was a lame way to put it, but you know what, if you want a really good analysis of the lyrics, go here:

On the top left corner you can find the different sections: introduction, the story, acts one, two, three and four (with The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles in the middle), and some more interesting information and opinions. Of course, this analysis is just an opinion, but I find it very convincing, and it shows the greatness of the lyrics.

One short example: probably my favourite moment of the album, lyrically speaking.

Here's the everlasting rub
Neither am I good nor bad
I’d give up my halo for a horn and
The horn for the hat I once had.

And here’s the explanation given on this website:

'There's the rub' - a Shakespearean phrase (from 'Hamlet') connoting the core of a dilemma. Ronnie, like most people, isn't purely good or bad, so doesn't really fit into either Heaven or Hell. The halo of a virtuous soul isn't appropriate, but nor are the horns of a 'damned' soul. In fact, he'd rather just be alive again, as he used to be - a plain old hat would be best.

I strongly recommend you to read the whole thing. It will take some time, but it’s really worth it and helps properly enjoy this album.

This is it for this post, I guess. In conclusion, I’d say this is an album most people don’t like at first (and many people don’t like it at second, third, fourth, two hundredth, either), but man can it grow on you! And, as always, here's the facebook page for this blog.