Saturday, October 03, 2015

Album Review: V.A.S.T. - Visual Audio Sensory Theater

I remember when I first heard V.A.S.T.---aka Jon Crosby's solo project---on the radio.  It was 1998, I was still in high school, and as I was laying in bed late on a Sunday night, I was listening to a radio show called hardDrive with Lou Brutus on my clock radio.  When the lead single, 'Touched,' was broadcast on the program, I quickly took note, as I hadn't ever heard of anything quite like that at the time.  The song contained acoustic guitar, plus Benedictine Monks, plus hard industrial sounds reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, plus orchestral accompaniment.  Indeed, it was quite different from the hard hitting sounds of Korn, Rob Zombie, and Monster Magnet receiving heavy airplay at that time.

Afterward, I recall going to a faraway mall two hours away and buying the album.  On the way home, as my mother drove, I remember popping the self-titled disc into my CD-Walkman and finding myself engrossed by just how distinctive and diverse all the tracks were.  For example, 'Dirty Hole' is comprised of several layers systematically building atop one another, not the least of which includes those same Monk chants and Cathedral pipe organ.   And 'Three Doors' beautifully meshes Industrial Pop with the Classical canon.  And 'Here' is probably one of the coolest, cinematic-sounding openings to an album in recent times.

I have posted a few YouTube videos featuring a few of the great tracks from this album.  In descending order, they are 'Touched,' 'Three Doors,' and 'Here.'  Feel free to stream them and enjoy the greatness that is Visual Audio Sensory Theater, one of my favorite under-the-radar albums of the 90s.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Forgotten Gems: Jay Ferguson + Spirit

Last weekend, while picking through crates of vinyl at an Antique Jamboree, I was beckoned by the thunderous call of Jay Ferguson's Thunder Island.

It was on sale for a buck.  And although a bit dusty and well-played -- particularly the title track -- it was well worth the investment.  Thunder Island is, of course, a classic album of the Yacht Rock era.  

Heck, even if the record had been missing, the cover photo is easily worth the dollar alone...

For those uninitiated, the single "Thunder Island" is a tasty - albeit cheesy - relic of '70s soft rock.  The instantly recognizable guitar hook and "doo doo doo doo!" backing vocals suck you right in from the get-go.

The song has a Jimmy Buffet-meets-Eagles vibe to it; a song for rockin' out while sipping margaritas in some tropical paradise.  And it's fitting, because The Eagles' Joe Walsh contributed his guitar chops to much of the album.

Thunder Island was Ferguson's second, and most successful, solo outing after performing with bands such as Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne.

Now, let's dig a little deeper and discuss Spirit -- an immensely talented, yet largely forgotten band of the late '60s-'70s.

Spirit formed in 1967 with Ferguson and 15-year-old Randy California (who had been in an earlier band with Jimi Hendrix) at the songwriting helm.  Spirit's 1968 debut album was as an eclectic a mix of musical styles as any of their contemporaries, mixing hard rock with jazz, blues, country and folk.

While Ferguson wrote most of the debut's tracks, California contributed the acoustic ballad, "Taurus" -- an instrumental piece that inspired the intro to Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway to Heaven".

While the band (in some formation) would go on to record 11 albums between 1968 and 1977, their only single to reach the Top 40 would be the 1968 follow-up, "I Got a Line On You".

"I Got a Line On You" is a hard-driving rocker with a great chorus.  It has all the workings to be a classic, but for some reason has gotten a bit lost amongst the other great singles of its time.

The band split in different directions over the next decade.  California and Ferguson each went the solo route, while other members branched out to bands including Nazareth, Heart and Firefall.

Spirit did reform in various incarnations into the early '90s.  In 1997, California was swimming in Hawaii with his family when he was tragically swept into a riptide and never seen again.

A critically heralded and ambitiously innovative band during their heyday, Spirit lives on today through their recordings, which I'd recommend looking up.  

Below is a video for "I Got a Line On You" from the band's brief reunion in 1984.  **Bonus: check out guitarist Skunk Baxter (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) jamming out in the back!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Torres - 'Strange Hellos'

'Strange Hellos' by Torres could possibly be summed up as "angsty noir."

The beginning of the tune seems to materialize straight out of the bar prominently featured in the second season of True Detective, before building up to a full-frontal sonic assault.  There is a hint of Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' as well.

Checkout the video to 'Strange Hellos' below:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Behind the Sample: The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy"

"Super Nintendo. Sega Genesis.  When I was dead broke, man I couldn't picture this."

It was all a dream for Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.

The hip/hop artist took the rap world by storm in 1994 with the release of his monumental single, "Juicy" - a personalized rags-to-riches tale that went on to sell more than a half million copies and secured his status as one of the biggest rap stars in history.  It's been called one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time by critics from Rolling Stone to The Source.

Biggie was, as his name implied, a large man. And he was a man with big dreams, who details his struggle and aspirations in "Juicy".  The song discusses his childhood ambition to become a famous rapper, and to escape from his impoverished Brooklyn upbringing.  In "Juicy", Biggie name-drops many of the artists who inspired him as a youth, including Heavy D - one of the first overweight rappers to find mainstream success.

In his early teens, Biggie started dealing drugs and found himself in and out of a jail cell, but his sights were always set on music stardom.

The opening of the song openly declares it's dedication, " all the teachers who said I'd never amount to nothin'".  Sure, many of the lyrics read like a laundry list of his lavish possessions, but for every boast he makes, he juxtaposes it with a hardship it took to get there.

The deepest message of the song lies within the chorus -- "You know very well who you are, don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars..."

It's one of the most uplifting choruses in hip/hop, speaking to all of those other kids who grow up with nothing more than a dream.

The Notorious B.I.G.'s life was cut tragically short when he was killed in a 1997 drive-by shooting, but his music - and his dream - proudly lives on.


But let it be known that the musical sample for "Juicy" dates back more than a decade earlier...

In 1983, the funk/soul group Mtume - named after founder James Mtume - released a track called "Juicy Fruit".

Mtume, an accomplished percussionist who'd previously toured with Miles Davis, formed his namesake group in the late '70s.  The band reached their height of popularity with "Juicy Fruit" - a midtempo track that proved immensely successful on R&B stations and dance clubs.  While the single never quite reached the Top 40, it still sold more than a million copies.

The popularity of "Juicy Fruit" established it as a staple in the hip/hop sampling community and has lived on successfully in various incarnations in the 30+ years since its release.  For a full list of artists who've sampled it, visit the song's Wikipedia entry.

"Cuz if ya don't know, now ya know..."

You can watch the videos to The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" and Mtume's "Juicy Fruit" below:

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Toadies - 'Away'

Toadies came in like a lion and went out like a lamb during the mid-nineties.  Dominating alt-fm radio play in 1995, the Texas band's marquee single, 'Possum Kingdom,' proved to be its Tour de Force.  The band never replicated the commercial success it enjoyed as a result of that track, even though the song's iconic call-to-action--"SO HELP ME JESUS"--remains embedded in the minds of even the most casual listener of rock radio today.

Despite the epic reach of 'Possum Kingdom,' Rubberneck nevertheless featured several other really solid punk and grunge laced anthems.  Of course 'Tyler' comes to mind, an absolutely great song which slowly builds as it relays a story set in Tyler, Texas.  And 'Backslider' was one of  Rubberneck's more punk-based of tunes.

But there is a track which is one of the band's more overlooked deep cuts:  'Away.'  Similar to 'Possum Kingdom,' 'Away' liberally borrows from the Pixies, implementing a loud-quiet-loud-quiet song structure that drives toward the ultimate pleading choral hook:  WHEN I'M AWAY , I KNOW IN MY HEART THERE IS A HEAVEEENNNN!!

Relive the greatness of this track by watching 'Away' by Toadies in the video player below:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Zac Brown Band Feat. Chris Cornell - 'Heavy is the Head'

I never expected Grunge kingpin Chris Cornell to join forces with a country band.  But the pairing of Cornell with the Zac Brown Band is surprisingly decent.  Indeed, the match-up results in a solid Southern Rock jam.  And Cornell's unique vibrato enhances Brown's otherwise chicken-fried vocals (yes, that pun WAS intended).

Watch Zac Brown Band perform 'Heavy is the Head' with Chris Cornell live on SNL in the video player below:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Robert DeLong - 'Long Way Down'

'Long Way Down' by Robert DeLong is a clever amalgam of electronica, hip hop, rock, and pop.  It oscillates between both wooden and balladeering vocals, with some auto-tune sprinkled inbetween. A very chilled cadence serves as a reassuring beat all-throughout.  The end result is irresistible.

Stream the audio to 'Long Way Down' in the player below:

Meg Myers - 'Desire'

Probably one of the more visceral singles currently on alt-rock rotation, 'Desire' is the brilliant siren from Tennessee-born Meg Myers.

Why is the song so great?

First, it blends just the right amount of industrial beats with focused, intense lyrical stylings.

Second, the melody is--plain and simple--sensual and seductive;  indeed, the narrator exclaims, very plaintively, 'I want to f*** you.'

Third, the track's tenor and attitude serve as the very embodiment of its title:  desire.  The meter of the lyrics and arrangement is one of concentration and fixation all throughout the entire production.

Watch the video for 'Desire' in the music player below:  

St. Lucia - 'Elevate'

Capturing the Zeitgeist of current indie rock, St. Lucia's 'Elevate' is heavy on the synth rhythms and light on the pop hooks.  In fact, just a few bars of the beginning may lead you to believe you are watching a classic John Hughes film.  

There are other bands that also implement the sound:  Bear Hands and Future Islands are just a couple. Nevertheless, 'Elevate' is still a quality single.  It even has a sound reminiscent of Miami Sound Machine at the end.  (Yes, that's a good thing).  

Stream the video to 'Elevate' in the player below:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sam Smith - 'I'm Not the Only One'

British sensation Sam Smith made incredible inroads with American audiences in 2014 with his epic ‘Stay with Me.’  In fact, it was near impossible not to walk in public without hearing the song blasted someplace, whether it be the local mall, aquatic center, park, or public square.

There is no doubt that ‘Stay with Me’ is one of the most soulful pop productions of the last decade.  Yet, ‘I’m Not the Only One’ strikes a different, but just as powerful chord, with Yours Truly.

Maybe it’s the subject matter featuring a narrator who is deeply hurt?  Maybe it’s the wonderful instrumental accompaniments?   Or maybe it’s just the sheer fact that Sam Smith is a damned good vocalist??  

In any event, ‘I’m Not the Only One’ resonates in an equally valuable, but very different, way as ‘Stay with Me’ did. 

You can watch the video to ‘I’m Not the Only One’ in the player below:

Hozier - 'Take Me to Church'

Hozier—born Andrew Hozier-Byrne—presents a modern day Gospel with his contemporary masterpiece, ‘Take Me to Church.’ 

The Irishman recently performed ‘Take Me to Church’ on SNL, and he brought down the house.  The song effortlessly brings together blues, Gospel, soul, and rock.  Indeed, it is refreshing to hear an electric guitar-driven alternative track in an era dominated lately by synth, computers, acoustic instruments, and light percussion. 

Beyond the music, the lyrics are deeply powerful and moving.  One choral stanza reads:
           "Take me to Church;  I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies;                              I’ll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife; Offer me that deathless                  death; Good God, let me give you my life."
And when Hozier sings these words, he belts them out with passion and heart.  It may take a few spins for the words to connect to the listener, but once they do, you’ll feel you’ve, in fact, been taken to church.

Watch the SNL performance of ‘Take Me to Church’ in the player below.  (If you want to watch the official video instead, click here):

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Limp Bizkit - 'Rearranged'

Limp Bizkit is often minimized as self-indulgent: making music for the mere sake of mentioning their own name in their recordings.  Sure, they do utter the words “Limp Bizkit” in several of their songs.  And Fred Durst seemed pretty into himself during the band’s heyday.  

Nevertheless, the band produced some iconic songs and videos emblematic of the late-nineties.

Of course, everyone had ‘Nookie’ burned into their brains in 1999.  But Significant Other contained some other great gems.  Among them was ‘Rearranged,’ a seemingly mellow rap-rock track with an arc that travels from chill to raucous in the span of about four minutes. 

The video for ‘Rearranged’ follows the band’s faux arrest, referred to in the video for ‘Nookie.'   Interestingly, it featured Matt Pinfield, the former MTV VeeJay and host.  He plays a judge who sentences the band to death.  Subsequent to that, the band rocks out with their cocks out in the death chamber, playing to the death as the room floods with milk and drowns them. 

The final scene shows the group in what is presumed to be Heaven, having been drowned, when Fred Durst says, “If this were Heaven, I’d be kicking it with Method Man.”  The video cuts to a “To be continued” title screen, setting the stage for the band’s following single, ‘N 2 Gether Now,’ which featured Method Man prominently. 

'Rearranged' was reportedly one of guitarist Wes Borland's favorite tunes of the band's to play.  Indeed, it is one of the undersigned's cherished tracks from the band as well.  

Watch the video to ‘Rearranged’ in the video player below:

Album Review: Godsmack - 'Godsmack'

In 1998, Godsmack was panned as a bunch of Alice in Chains rip-off artists.  Notably, the debut album’s ‘Someone in London’ could have served as sequel to AIC’s ‘Sludge Factory.’  (It also didn’t help that the band shared its name, sans space, with a track from Dirt).   But, for the most part, the Boston band survived off of its own unique energy, as its sound was just hard enough to remove it from the neo-grunge criticisms prevalent of the day. 

Led by Track 2’s ‘Whatever,’ Godsmack shoved its way unto rock and alternative radio with a vengeance.  Angry, pounding, thrashing—yet melodic and slightly poppy—‘Whatever’ served as an anthem for alienated Millennials coming of age in the late-nineties.  Indeed the song’s oft-repeated lyric, “better fuckin’ go away!’ spoke directly to the cohort’s misanthropic attitudes and overall angst. 

Moon Baby’ served as an interesting first track; it features a clip of Neil Armstrong’s famous quote just before the band launches into a driving cut sprinkled with exoticism and mysticism. 

‘Time Bomb’ harmlessly begins like a typical Depeche Mode synth-rock melody before vocalist Sully Erna screams, “I am in living hell; makes me wonder if I’m alive.”  His vocals, of course, are accented by robust guitar and drum work.

Many of the remaining tracks on the album fit within a similar framework:  Sully Erna projects guttural vocals whilst the rest of the band presents thrashing guitars and thumping drums and bass.  The final track, however, departs sharply from this paradigm. 

Godsmack’s final offering, ‘Voodoo,’ is a stripped down tribal chant that, not surprisingly, shares a similar structure with AIC’s ‘Angry Chair.’ But what separates ‘Voodoo’ from ‘Angry Chair’ is an earnest vocal, layered upon sobering acoustic drums and a steady, yet stripped down, bass guitar.  It also contains the same mysticism and exoticism ‘Moon Baby’ serves up—only tenfold. 

As a whole, Godsmack’s debut was a solid premiere, offering true rock fans a great alternative to the emo and pop-punk offerings prevalent of the day.  And 16 years later, it’s still a great album to pop into the ole CD player when you need just a little extra motivation to make it through the day.  

Steve's rating:  4 out of 5 stars.  

Watch Godsmack's live performance of 'Time Bomb' from 2000's Ozzfest in the player below:

Friday, September 05, 2014

George Thorogood and the Destroyers - 'I Drink Alone'

Here's a throwback Thursday post, inspired by a nightcap of rye whiskey (and by my fellow contributor Steve's closet favorite radio station, 95 KGGO).

There's something about pop culture that takes what's inherently cool, and then twists it and repackages it until it doesn't seem cool any longer.  A cliché.  That was always my relationship with George Thorogood and the Destroyers' biggest hit, "Bad to the Bone".

Granted, that song came out a whole year before I was born, but I grew up feeling like it was an "ode to being cool" that was really just pretty corny.

It's the type of song that's reserved for Harley Davidson rallies... no, not a Hell's Angels gathering, but more like an aging gang of American flag bandana-wearing financial planners who take a weekend to ride to Sturgis and drink one Michelob Ultra, because it has fewer calories and is still rather refreshing.

I even had a pair of boxer shorts as a kid that my mom bought from Pamida (anyone still with me?) that was covered in cartoonish skeletons and had a waistband that read, "Bad to the Bone".

You get my point.  But apparently I didn't get my own point recently when I found myself completely and utterly sucked in by one of G.T. and the Destroyers' other singles, "I Drink Alone".

There I was, cruising down a stretch of rural highway, when I quite randomly decided to switch to some classic FM rock radio.

I'd heard the song before, but I'd forgotten just how cool it actually was.  The dirty, blues-rock vibe of the song is undeniable.  Thorogood's voice has that distinctive grit and wail that really nails it on this song. The lyrics are simple, but witty and funny and delivered to perfection.  And then there's that saxophone solo. Seriously, what else do you need?  By the end of the song, I felt like I was Patrick Swayze doing flying kicks in Roadhouse.  It was invigorating.

The moral of this story is that much of what surrounds us deserves a fresh lease on life.  Take something old and look at it in a new way. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.

Here's the video for "I Drink Alone" by George Thorogood and the Destroyers: