Pazz and Jop 1971 – #20

Jethro Tull – Aqualung

We end our journey through 1971 with this, umm, classic. It’s hard to be objective about Jethro Tull: everything about them cries out pretension, from the name (taken from an agriculturist who died in 1741) to the prominence of flute in their music to the image I have never been able to clear from my memory banks of Ian Anderson in tights looking like a demented Pan. The whole thing is ripe for parody, and maybe that’s part of the problem: I’ve seen too many things over the years making fun of Tull-like bands to take the real thing very seriously.

But the real problem is that it simply isn’t very memorable. As I listened to this for a second time, I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. I don’t really dislike any of this, but that’s because I don’t have much of a reaction to it at all. Yeah, the flute is unique for a rock record, there are some lovely piano bits, the guitar definitely rocks, and I give a shit about almost none of it. I can imagine lots of effort being put into interpreting the profundities found on the lyric sheet, but I can’t be bothered to try. No one track stands out enough to call it my favourite, and there is nothing here worth hating. It just is. And so 1971 ends with a whimper. That 1972 will begin with a bang is an understatement.

(I thought about leaving out the Spotify link since I can’t recommend this record, but figured that if you wanted to punish yourself, it’s not my place to get in the way.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, May 8, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #18 (tied)

Procol Harum – Broken Barricades

When you think of Procol Harum, if you think of them at all, it is of the mystical beauty of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (easily a top 100 all-time rock song, and I will wrestle to the death (or at least until we’re both really, really tired and bored) anyone who disagrees) or whatever the hell “Conquistador” is getting at. Those are pretty different tunes, and knowing nothing about the band coming into this, it did not surprise me to learn there was by 1971 an internal tension as to what they were and would become. The album is kind of schizophrenic, switching in disjointed fashion from track to track. (Track 2 practically gave me vertigo, it so differed from its predecessor.) The rockers really rock, the mellow songs are often beautiful (though not all that interesting, other than the lovely strings, horns and gentle piano of “Luskus Delph”), and none of it seems to fit together all that well. For all that each song brings, the album doesn’t feel like a big experience, but rather a collection of really nice smaller ones.

My favourites are the rocking bookends of “Simple Sister” and “Poor Mohammed”. In the former, the stretch from (roughly) 2:38 to 5:05 is awe-inspiring: starting with a simple bass riff and light drums, elements are added bit by bit to amp up the intensity, remaining grounded by the original instruments. It’s how an epic should sound. The latter is a sort of southern rocker, with possibly the only coherent lyrics on the record, though, man, they could sure use a better vocalist on this one (the lead guitarist was given the chance to, umm, shine). The lyrics on other tunes, though certainly unique and memorable, are often nonsensical (“Baby sandwich soaped for comfort”? “Your baking breath breeds body ‘x’”?). I loved the piano on the bluesy  “Memorial Drive” (a sort of honky tonk feel) and “Playmate of the Mouth” (banging away in the background), though organ, the instrument the average listener most associates with the band, is largely absent (likely because the current organist was also their bass player). Also pleasing is a sort-of percussion jam session on “Power Failure” (though I didn’t much care for the song overall, and the part I like definitely feels out of place), and there is some fantastic guitar work throughout. In the end, a band I always thought of as a one- (or maybe two-, depending on how you feel about “Conquistador”) trick pony just maybe has enough tricks to make a further dip into their catalog worthwhile.

(This is another one I listened to on YouTube, but Spotify at least has a version of my favourite track for your listening pleasure.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, May 1, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #18 (tied)

Randy Newman – Randy Newman/Live

There are prettier voices and far more virtuosic ivory ticklers, and his style is so consistent as to seem mannered and worthy of parody all these years later. So it is easy to forget what a great songwriter he is. It’s no surprise he ended up writing for the movies, given his pedigree (two of his uncles are legendary Hollywood composers) and penchant for storytelling. A lot of his songs take the perspective of someone other than himself, so you can see how not-very-bright people could get upset with a song like “Yellow Man” if you think too hard on what he’s saying and not the way he’s saying it. It would get him in trouble in 1978 with his one hit, “Short People” (one of three great humourous hits from that weird year, the others being, of course, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and Steve Martin’s “King Tut”).

That reliable style can be a bit much over a full record, so it helps that this checks in at a brisk 32 minutes over 14 tracks. All the fat has been trimmed off this album. “Tickle Me” is a delight, probably my favourite song here, and a sharp comment on a dying relationship (“You won’t have to talk to me and I won’t have to talk to you”), as is “Lonely at the Top”, which would make more sense coming from Frank Sinatra, who rejected it (Frank was not known for having a sense of humour about himself), although it would then seem pompous rather than funny. “I’ll Be Home” is beautiful, revelling in it’s simplicity (and check out Barbra Streisand’s version to get around the baggage of Newman’s voice), there is a powerful pathos to “Cowboy”, and “I Think Its Going to Rain Today” is another favourite. Newman might best be appreciated in small doses, and this is about as small as something can get and still be called an LP with any degree of honesty.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 25, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #17

Mahavishnu Orchestra – The Inner Mounting Flame

As we move down the list, some strange records start to turn up. That’s to be expected – it takes less consensus on an album’s merits to be voted the 17th best of a year as compared to anything higher ranked. Which brings me to this enormous mess of an LP. This is where my limitations as a reviewer come to full bloom, because I don’t even have the language to talk about this in a way that means anything (this will be a common refrain as we encounter anything that attaches the word “jazz” to itself), as opposed to more popular music, where I can connect it to other things I know well (like “that time when Kanye West lost his mind” (pretty much everything after “Graduation”) or “that time Garth Brooks thought growing a soul patch made him cool” (you know)).

It’s definitely an album that requires immersive and focussed listening for a newbie to make sense of: listen #1 on earbuds while walking in my neighbourhood left me confused, but listen #2 on my couch with big Bose headphones allowed me to hear more of the nuances (while still being very confused). I don’t know what this is supposed to be – it’s labelled jazz fusion, but the guitar rocks as hard as anything I’ve heard during this journey through 1971. (It makes a bit more sense now that I see Kamasi Washington, possibly the only jazz artist who I’ve ever listened to with actual intent, is also considered a jazz fusionist.) I can’t even begin to consider recommending this, because I don’t know what this is. But I will definitely listen to it again, because sometimes my need to understand something prevails over all common sense. Those who know me best will not be surprised by this.

(Also, do check out Kamasi Washington, you will not regret it (or maybe you will, I don’t know, I’m just rambling here). Start with “Harmony of Difference”, which is how I was first exposed to his brilliance.)

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 24, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 -#16

Grateful Dead – Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses)

I have aggressively resisted the Grateful Dead for pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of their existence, for two reasons. First, the passion of their fan base is anathema to my broader tastes when it comes to art. Second, I mostly just shrugged at what I did hear through passive exposure (though I owned a 45 of their 1987 hit “Touch of Grey”, I was buying just about everything that made the charts back then, and rarely played it). (Also, 45s were the worst – I don’t need (well, I do, but that’s a different conversation) to be doing interval training while listening to music.) I can’t say there’s much chance of me seeking out other of their records, but after more shrugging initially, I ended up enjoying this album. It’s odd for a live record in that you are barely aware of the presence of an audience. I couldn’t find the answer (Google, you failed me!) but it would have been on brand to ask for quiet to enhance the quality of much-encouraged bootleg recordings. 

As for the songs themselves, the five-minute eight-second long drum solo at the beginning of “The Other One” was more interesting than any five-minute eight-second long drum solo deserves to be. This turns out to be noteworthy, because the Dead had two drummers until two months before the first of these tracks was recorded, so it seems someone took the opportunity to show off. Their poppy cover of “Me and Bobby McGee” is a delight (Kristofferson was EVERYWHERE in 1971), as is their faithful rendering of “Johnny B. Goode”, and I enjoyed the original “Wharf Rat”. You definitely come away understanding how much fun it might have been to see them live – there’s no better way to listen to an 18-minute song than stoned and in the company of fellow travellers. The Dead were as much a religion as a rock band, and this seems like a pretty decent introduction to their creed.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 24, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #15

Jeff Beck Group – Rough and Ready

I don’t think I’ll remember much about this record a month from now, but it was a (mostly) fun listen while it was on. It’s a messy record, a mishmash of rock, jazz, blues and soul influences that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. (Or maybe that’s exactly what it wants to be.) I know of Beck as a guitar god, and my first thought when I hear mention of him is his 1985 video for “Ambitious”, with its Murderer’s Row of B- and C-list celebrities (including Donny Osmond, who channeled George Michael’s look – and an unexpected assist from Peter Gabriel – into a comeback a few years later). So, of course, there’s a lot of great guitar playing, though it sometimes seems to serve no point other than to remind you that “Holy shit, Jeff Beck can really play!” The piano and drums are what stand out mostly (the instrumental centrepiece “Max’s Tune” is a showcase for the former) and my predilection for solid bass playing is frequently rewarded, but the vocalist is just a howler without much nuance in his delivery (sort of a discount bin David Clayton-Thomas was my initial impression). The lyrics are about as unremarkable as such things can be, with not a single phrase making an impression. Taken together, we are left with a record that is pleasing to the ear without making much of a dent on the soul.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 21, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #14

Joni Mitchell – Blue

My wife does not like Joni Mitchell’s music at all. I don’t feel quite the same (I owned on cassette and enjoyed often her 1988 sort-of comeback “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”), but in deference to the love of my life, I usually skip her tunes when they come up on a Spotify playlist. The problem is her voice: there are those too frequent moments when it sounds like a small bird is being gently murdered. She can never quite shake herself of the need to aim for those higher notes, even though the sound doesn’t really change, it just feels strained. I thus came to this with a lot of resistance, though half the tracks here were familiar from long passive exposure.

The songwriting cannot be faulted. I know next-to-nothing about Mitchell and her career arc, but would be unsurprised to learn she was a favourite of desperate artsy girls and boys lying stoned in dorm rooms trying to figure their shit out. There’s a nakedness to her confessional lyrics, a leaving-it-all-out-there (Kris Kristofferson supposedly told her to “keep something to yourself”) approach to her art that should draw young aesthetes to her. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet” just gutted me with that sense of desperate desire for another person that we all – if we’re both lucky and cursed – have felt. (And, weirdly, the strain in her voice works for this song.) I especially liked the songs where it is Joni and her piano (except “My Old Man”, which is a microcosm of the things that can make her a difficult listen) or guitar, and when she combines those and reins in somewhat the vocal tics, the results are sublime, as in “Blue” and “River”. “Little Green” was new to me, and I love this gentle song about the daughter she gave up for adoption. In the end, while I won’t be playing this regularly – I would like to stay married, for one thing – I can see myself coming back to it, all alone and wallowing in Joni.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 18, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 -#12 (tied)

Janis Joplin – Pearl

(Weirdly, it just occurred to me after doing this for the past two months that this is the 50th anniversary year of all these records. Ah, such a keen observer, I am.)

We finally come to a record I’ve listened to before. This was only a few months ago, after I read an incredibly sweet letter that she wrote to her family shortly before she became a star. (Check out “More Letters of Note” if you’re curious.) I thought it was fine, but didn’t remember much about it. My (now evolved) method with these mostly unfamiliar albums is to play them once to get over the strangeness (a lesson learned from Sly and the Family Stone), then again later with more attentiveness. When I listened on Tuesday past, I thought it was mostly meh. I don’t feel that way anymore. 

It’s an unfinished record – “Buried Alive in the Blues” is an instrumental because she died before her vocals could be recorded – which lends a bit of “what if?” to the proceedings. I think she was really a soul singer at heart, with several covers here of songs from Black artists and writers. Her voice is truly unique, which might explain why so few female artists of note have covered these songs over the past 50 years. There’s a bit of tension between her often howling vocals and the smooth playing of her Canadian (!) backing band that makes for a nice counterpoint. The piano especially stands out on a number of tracks, in particular on the powerful closer “Get It While You Can”, where the interplay between singer and band reaches its fulfilment. (Very different from the Howard Tate original, or the poppy posthumously released version from Chris Cornell.)

Other favourites are “Cry Baby”, which sounds in places like a relic from the 1950s. (It turns out to be a cover of a pretty decent 1963 hit from Garnet Mimms & the Enchanters. Check out the original for an object lesson in what happens when a good song ultimately finds the right singer. Mimms may be a forgotten great – she also covers his “My Baby” here.) “A Woman Left Lonely”, my favourite track, is more restrained (by Janis’ standards), almost tear-jerking, with a delightful instrumental bridge between the two verses that feels like it was part of a montage in “The Big Chill”. (Imagine the gloomy, sexless Jeff Goldblum staring into the camera.) (Also, props to Cat Power for taking this on, though her version is kind of lame.) “Half Moon” is a busy song, almost funky (pre-funk?), with surprisingly gentle vocals in places that brought to mind Fiona Apple. And, of course, there’s “Me and Bobby McGee”, known even to people living under a rock, which made me want to check out more Kris Kristofferson songs. There really isn’t a track here that I don’t like, and the record grows with each replay as I’m writing this. A good reminder to not always trust first impressions.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 17, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #12 (tied)

Carole King – Tapestry

The list has been light on female artists, but that’s about to change. I first heard of Carole King when I was 9 or 10 and read in the Guinness Book of World Records that this was the biggest selling album of all time. I couldn’t believe that anyone could outsell The Beatles or Elvis Presley. She is one of my wife’s favourites, and I’ve certainly been familiar with her work over the years – I already knew more than half the songs here (though maybe not her version – King’s considerable success as a performer probably ranks second to her achievements as a writer for others), but never once gave them a careful and respectful listen.

The problem with visiting the past is I’ve heard so many imitators over the years that it’s hard to define what made this so great in 1971. That’s where the unfamiliar tunes become so helpful in making sense of an album’s merits: you get to recreate the (in this case) 1971 experience of putting the needle on the record and settling in for the ride. The soulful “Way Over Yonder” stands out (shocked to learn this has never been covered by a major black female artist, though Blessid Union of Souls killed it on a tribute album). Her slowed-down “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” highlights the song’s pathos (and it was a bit of a rush to hear James Taylor on the chorus). “Smackwater Jack” is a high energy rollick with a bluesy (for King, anyway) feel. I was sort of annoyed by “Tapestry”, but I’ll chalk that up to my natural aversion to songs that seem to be working too hard to convey some deeper analysis of the mysteries of life. (It’s pop music, for God’s sake.) But what an ending. I felt actual chills (goose-bumpy, nipple-stiffening, who opened a window in January? chills) when she sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. King wrote it, but the chutzpah involved in taking on a song OWNED by Aretha is the ultimate sign of an artist in complete control and brimming with confidence. I also sort of love that she put a TON of money in her ex-husband’s pockets by covering three songs that they wrote together. Those royalty cheques must have felt a bit like a stabbing to Gerry Goffin. What a power move. Well played, Carole. Well played.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 11, 2021)

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #11

The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up

I didn’t know the Beach Boys were still a thing in 1971. This album falls between the hits-keep-coming era and the Brian-Wilson-is-a-crazy-recluse era. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of these songs, even live (I saw them at Sherkston in 1984, and roughly 10 years later at Canada’s Wonderland). I’ve also never played an entire Beach Boys record before (hits collections don’t count), revealing yet another gap in my listening career (“Pet Sounds” will accompany me on this morning’s walk), so it’s hard to put the record into context. Standouts were “Long Promised Road” and “Disney Girls”, the latter one of several tracks that make me wonder if Ben Folds played this on repeat during his formative years. (Need to reread his quite excellent autobiography, I guess.) There’s an overly earnest and not even slightly subtle political bent to some tracks, but, being the Beach Boys, it’s still a lot of fun. These include “Student Demonstration Time”, built on a fairly basic blues riff that is still a shocker because it’s coming from the bloody Beach Boys. Brian gets weird at the end with the title track (well, all three of his compositions here are pretty quirky), and despite having read Brian’s own explanation of the lyrics, I don’t think I can really trust him. It’s a beautiful tune that rewards repeat listening (I’m up to 6), with a stirring closing part that echoes “Good Vibrations”. Overall, a nice way to start a Saturday morning.

UPDATE: So, “Pet Sounds” kicks serious ass. I’m not surprised: not only is it consistently ranked among the greatest albums ever, but it also includes my all-time Beach Boys #1 “God Only Knows” (I could honestly sing the chorus to my wife (and probably have) – it’s a near-perfect pop song, and I could never fully trust the judgment of anyone who disagrees) and a certifiable Top 5 in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. Definitely being filed in the re-listen category.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 10, 2021)