In our first couple of installments of “For the Record,” the purpose of the exercise was to listen, with fresh ears, to a series of albums that are considered classic or legendary. And we had so much fun with it that we decided to make it a regular monthly feature. But this is about more than simply listening to older albums for the first time. Going into an album for the first time without any prejudice or expectations is already nearly impossible in an age where albums leak far before their street dates. But when something has existed and circulated, with decades of acclaim no less, entering without preconceptions becomes even more difficult.
The funny thing about our album experiments, however, is how often we’re completely caught by surprise. To some degree, we might guess that we’d enjoy an album by King Crimson or Funkadelic, but that doesn’t prevent the experience from being altogether surprising. Certainly, the prejudice or the expectations might exist going into the listening session, but in the end, those expectations often mean very little. Quite simply, we let the music speak for itself, and share our thoughts.
This month, we have a slightly more atypical selection of albums, in that few of them have the same kind of historically monolithic quality as In the Court of the Crimson King or Black Sabbath. Rather, we have in our new round of candidates a “lost” ’60s pop masterpiece, a thrash metal classic, an album of rhythmic funk from a Tropicália pioneer, a California folk gem and a fusion of jazz and rock in one mellow package. Our panelists this month are Ernest Simpson, Tom Lee and Jeff Terich.
The Millennium – Begin (Columbia, 1968)
Ernest: I was directed to Begina couple of years ago by a friend who was in love with ’60s music. I listened to a few songs, but never really gave it the time it deserved. I did the same with another album he pointed out, Sagittarius’ Present Tense, an album pretty much made by the same two guys, Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher. How these guys didn’t get to be hugely known musical heroes, I’ll never know. Aside from these two albums, Usher produced The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, wait for it, in the same year! Boettcher’s sunny pop harmonies and experiments with studio techniques predated Pet Sounds. But, that studio experimentation had a cost. Begin, as gorgeous as it is, was the most expensive album Columbia had released and it was nearly impossible to perform live, thus the album was considered a failure. It is now considered a lost classic, though it’s been reissued several times, and rightly so. Songs like “5 A.M.” and “I’m With You” are perfect examples of the genius songwriting of this underrated group. At the core of every song is melody and harmony, but each is differently ornamented with varying instruments, such as xylophones, horns, harpsichord, or a nicely timed sound effect. The other amazing thing about Begin is that the other members of the group are, amazingly so, even more criminally unheralded, and hearing the songs penned by Lee Mallory and Michael Fennelly makes me realize that this was one hell of a group.
Tom: Proclaimed ‘lost classics’ are conducive to a natural hope and trepidation. The idea of something every bit as great as a Forever Changes and of similar vintage sets an appealing but oft-elusive standard. The good news is that Begin lives up to the hype. It polishes offbeat pop and psychedelic sounds to a near spectral shine with an occasionally maniacal twist. “To Claudia on Thursday” resonates like some crazy amalgamation of the Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, Moon Safari and The Soft Bulletin. “It’s You” has the appearance of a White Album song taken through the set of “Get Kowalski” while Dark Night of The Soul plays in the background. Few songs brim with the bewitched contentment of “Some Sunny Day.” Begin deserves all the exposure that comes its way.
Jeff: It’s funny, before starting this round of first-listens, I had never actually heard of The Millennium before. And I had more or less assumed that this was some obscure psychedelic relic that was lost to the ages. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the album was actually still in print, on vinyl no less, and that Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher actually had a variety of other connections in 1960s California rock groups, from The Byrds to San Diego garage rockers The Music Machine. In any case, Begin, whether truly obscure or just a few decades late in receiving its kudos, is a gorgeous and layered album beautiful and dazzling enough to go toe-to-toe against some of the better known classics from the era. And for that matter, there’s a pretty wide variety of sounds here, from the Brazilian-inspired rhythms of “To Claudia on Thursday,” to the psychedelic haze of “I Just Want to Be Your Friend” and the breezy balladry of “There Is No More To Say.” The fact that Begin is in high enough demand to warrant reissues more than 40 years after its release speaks volumes about it as a classic album, but I’m still going to go out on a limb and say not enough people have heard this incredible record.
Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky (Asylum, 1974)
Ernest: There was a time when I wondered about the appeal of Jackson Browne. To me, it was like being a fanatic of Treat Williams films, passionate about vanilla ice cream, and having a favorite color of beige. You’d think being someone who has had numerous failed relationships, wallows in the past, and spent most of his life in Southern California would immediately take to Browne’s poetic soft-rock. Well, sometimes I guess you have to leave home in order to find it again. Late for the Sky is not Browne’s first album, but it’s one that fans say is his best. It’s hard to argue. The album does not contain his biggest hits, such as “Take it Easy,” which he co-wrote with Glenn Frey, “Running on Empty,” “Somebody’s Baby” or “These Days,” which he originally wrote for Nico. However, it is his most introspective, heartfelt and cohesive. Hearing Jackson Browne’s voice and soothing compositions might not be incredibly exciting, but it is like taking a refreshing hot shower, then immediately slipping into a set of fresh sheets just out of the dryer. It’s that soothing.
Tom: Late for the Sky is typical of well produced, folk-tinged rock records of its era. At first glance, it seems an apt tonic for those who like equitable doses of syrup with their sorrow, with some exquisite lead guitar on display. The title track will appeal to devotees of the more battle scarred offerings from Jagger/Richards and Ryan Adams’ Gold. “For a Dancer” wraps depression in an ornate quilt. Don’t be deceived though. Major curve balls are thrown. “Walking Slow” is near perfect 9 p.m. driving music to start a vacation. “The Road and Sky” is full-blown, supremely clichéd Evel Kneivel meets Chuck Berry American rock’n'roll at its most brilliant. Jackson wants to “hotwire reality.” I approached this record scared of a prolonged moderate torture circus without the wit or humor to entertain. I needn’t have worried. Parts of Late for the Sky were magnitudes less maudlin and far more fun than expected. Like Gold by the aforementioned Adams, this record breaks up the sad songs with great effect.
Jeff: The longer I listen to music, and the longer that god-awful production is an accepted, or even respected aesthetic, the more I tend to gravitate to music with stellar sound. In recent months I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the 1970s, primarily because musicians were putting out such lush, wonderfully produced recordings, whether we’re talking about Fleetwood Mac or Neil Young. Sure, the records were a lot more expensive to make, but even if you don’t like the music, you have to hand it to the craft in making the albums. Now, I had never really listened to much Jackson Browne prior to this, other than hearing his handful of hit songs, but my first listen of Late for the Sky not only confirms my premise, but has easily won me over because of it. Browne is a good songwriter, that’s for certain. But there’s a warmth and richness to these songs that make them that much more enjoyable. It’s a fairly subdued folk-rock album, with traces of country and rock ‘n’ roll. And while Browne has a very specific sound, he changes it up enough to keep the album’s flow interesting. Gilmore Girls‘ Lane Kim had every right to defend Browne – this is good stuff.
Jorge Ben – Africa Brasil (Philips, 1976)
Ernest: I cannot speak about this album from any position of knowledge or authority. Brazilian music is a big gap in my experience. But, this choice of my brother’s is just one step in filling that gap. Africa Brasil is pretty incredible. It isn’t at all what I expected. Namely, it’s one of the better funk-based albums I’ve heard. I love the backup vocals, especially in tracks such as “Xica da Silva.” Africa Brasil is an orgy of styles, an early rave of funk, disco, samba, and soul. I enjoyed every last minute of it. So, send me more please…
Tom: It’s actually refreshing to come to something with complete ignorance of the genre. The musicianship is exceptional (especially the bass!), but also evocative. “O Plebeu” is wonderfully breezy. Without anything of worth in terms of critical analysis to submit, I will try to state my admiration succinctly. Africa Brasil is superb. I plan to re-listen, and would highly recommend it.
Jeff: I’ve long had a strong affinity for Brazilian music, from the bossanova of Antonio Carlos Jobim to the Tropicália style made famous by the likes of Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes. Jorge Ben, likewise, was a major player in Tropicália, and even wrote “A Minha Menina,” which Os Mutantes turned into an incredible psychedelic samba. However, Ben has tackled a variety of genres throughout his long career, which spans up to the present day. In the ’70s, however, he released a series of albums that many consider his best, in particular Africa Brasil. The album, true to its title, combines African and Brazilian elements, but that only tells part of the story. More than anything, it’s a psychedelic funk rock record, and one that’s amazing from start to finish. “Umbabarauma” rocks almost as hard as it grooves, while “Xica da Silva” has a sexy allure. And “Taj Mahal” might sound a bit familiar as well – Rod Stewart nicked the chorus melody for “D’ya Think I’m Sexy.” This is easily my favorite album from this round, and one of my favorite For the Record discoveries overall.
Steely Dan – Aja (ABC, 1977)
Ernest: It all seemed so perfect. I love rock. I love jazz. I’m a fan of clever, literate lyrics. I even love it when bands take their names from modern avant-garde literature. So, why oh why can I not seem to appreciate Steely Dan as much as others claim they should be appreciated? Even when I do, I can’t even seem to get that right. Case in point, “Peg.” I love this song. It’s catchy, memorable, has a nice funk vibe to it, and was even sampled by De La Soul. Yet apparently, Dan fans aren’t overly keen on the band’s more accessible tracks, “Peg” being a prime example. Here’s the thing. There are times that I love a good live show, and times when I just want to hear the studio tracks. The studio allows you to polish the imperfections, to meticulously build the perfect song construction. This is exactly what Steely Dan has done. Aja is considered the masterpiece, an awesome display of studio wizardry. But, except for a few nice turns of phrase (“I crawl like a viper / through these suburban streets / make love to these women / languid and bittersweet“), and a cold and distanced appreciation of musical ability, Aja does nothing for me. I’ve tried, numerous times, but I just can’t make it work. Considering their popularity, the fault lies not with them, but with me.
Tom: Aja sounds well executed. Lacking any pre-disposition towards or against Steely Dan, I simply expected something vaguely soft-rock tinged. The surprise lay with the strong pop aesthetic underpinning a brace of the universally sumptuous arrangements. “Black Cow” is impeccably unassuming with lush nods to Motown and lounge jazz. “Peg” surprisingly recalls Daft Punk’s Discovery. There isn’t a trace of edge to this music, but Steely Dan accomplishes a difficult task. Faultlessness overrides non-description and the quality of the arrangements suffices. As with Reign in Blood, there are many areas where Aja departs from my everyday choice of listening material. Criticizing the album on this basis would be missing the point. At its most clinical, Aja is flaw free music to precede a stressful undertaking. Relax…end of.
Jeff: About ten years ago, a friend of a friend lent me his copy of Steely Dan’s Gaucho, after telling me that it was one of his all time favorite albums, along with some latter day Cat Stevens and other curiosities foreign to my teenage ears. Yet when I listened to it, I was immediately repelled. I found the music truly objectionable for a variety of reasons, some intangible, some obvious. It was too sterile, too slick, too…old. And I don’t mean that it was from a bygone era, but that it simply couldn’t appeal to someone of my age. Ten years later, listening to Aja for the first time, I don’t have quite the same reaction, but I still have trouble actually enjoying Steely Dan, and for most of the same reasons. While many credit the band for pioneering “jazz-rock” (a dubious honor to begin with), what the band essentially creates here is the rock equivalent of lite jazz. Of course, it’s a very ’70s-brand of lite jazz, with some likewise lightly funky elements, and a liberal sprinkling of Rhodes (which, is the best part about the album). It’s a well-performed and produced album, one that’s an accomplishment of musicianship. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t enough for the album to earn my praise. For a band named after a dildo in a Burroughs novel, this is almost shockingly tame.
Slayer – Reign in Blood (American, 1986)
Ernest: Since its appearance in 1986, Reign in Blood has essentially made shouting “Slayer!” as ubiquitous as “Free Bird!” In the burgeoning field of speed / thrash metal, Slayer was unparalleled, or so I had heard. My experiments with other bands in the genre (see my take on Metallica’s Master of Puppes) didn’t yield much success, but I’m always willing to try again. Two things influenced my initial impressions: the lyrical content and the punk influences. Songs about cannibalism, Satan, and Josef Mengele are understandably dark, but so dark they almost become cartoonish. Therein lies some of the appeal, or, if taken seriously, cause for alarm. Whereas albums released around the same time by Metallica, Megadeth and other speed metal bands are definitely and unmistakably metal, Reign in Blood is steeped in punk, specifically west coast hardcore. In my mind, this made the music far more interesting. There are times when songs on the album tend to blend, to become one long breakneck series of chords, and that can be exhausting, but closing with “Raining Blood” tends to make up for any homogeneity.
Tom: I already had some familiarity with Reign in Blood. Many of my best school friends are metalheads. After hearing this in full several times over various sittings at different houses during the ’90s, re-visitation comes with nostalgia. Slayer always commanded a degree of my respect by virtue of sheer extremity. They just sound that little bit heavier and faster than most, and are miles easier to sit through than some of the nü-metal groups I had on rotation prior to the millennium. “Angel of Death” is still impressive and endearingly overblown. Reign In Blood exemplifies a genre which I rarely choose to listen to. Fans of thrash metal will most probably already own the record, and newcomers will find it an indicative and immediate introduction.
Jeff: Opinions vary on which of the big four thrash metal bands are truly the kings of the genre. But while Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax each have their defenders, it’s pretty clear that the right answer is Slayer. Oh, sure, Metallica and Megadeth released a series of influential and epic metal albums, and Anthrax even broke some genre boundaries. But Slayer just kicks a little more ass. Reign In Blood is a certified scorcher, an album in which all 10 tracks move at speeds unsafe for highway or even airspace travel. The primary reason for this is the influence of punk rock on the band’s music. Despite better production values and screaming solos, there’s actually not too much of a leap from this to a band like Black Flag or The Germs. When you factor in the Satanist imagery and songs that run the gamut from sacrilegious to horrific, you’ve got the makings of the genre’s most notorious band. But all shock value aside, Slayer is simply super fun to listen to, and for that matter, their sense of humor is underrated. When two married friends of mine announced they were having their first child, two of my other friends bought him a Slayer onesie. I have hope for the future.