Friday, November 27, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #3: The Band, "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" (Robbie Robertson)

Available on: The Band (1969)
Solo bits: 2:52-3:39

If Robbie Robertson comes to be considered the guitar hero he deserves to be and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" becomes his representative track, it will be in spite of Robertson's protests. A guitarist/songwriter who could play loosely with economic use of character while retaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the disparate elements that would play a roll in rock music (i.e. country, blues, gospel), he makes perfect sense as a foil for someone like Bob Dylan, whom he played with during his fabled electric tour of the mid-60s. During this time, as Robertson put it, the chances to show off were plentiful, and Robertson's chops were such that he would have made mincemeat of any normal front man who was not Dylan. When the Band finally broke with Dylan and set up shop in Big Pink, Robertson made the crucial decision of jettisoning guitar solos altogether in favor of a type of songwriting that would sound homier and more authentic than what he observed in the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it also could have been the catalyst in making Robertson the de facto leader of a group whose original strength was that they were all powerfully capable musicians and songwriters. Maybe if Robertson was less disturbed by the sort of guitar playing being utilized by Jefferson Airplane and the like, he wouldn't have gotten burned out as fast. But that's a subject for another thesis.

The Band is, in case you didn't know, an amazing band. Truly, one of the best this world has ever seen and ever will see. In fact, I wager I listen to their first three albums Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright more than I have any Dylan album, which I realize puts me into a minority. People talk about the Beatles as an insane cross-section of talented individuals, but in terms of sheer musicality and individuality, it's difficult to beat Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon fucking Helm. In addition, they are also one of the coolest- looking bands. Anyway, Robertson must have realized this early on, that no matter how much he worked, he still wouldn't be considered the Band leader. So, he had to assert his dominance in other ways. He wrote most of the songs, and slowly phased out the songwriting contributions of his fellow band members, for instance (even though he couldn't sing). However, this obviously wasn't good enough, as Robertson was merely considered to be doing his part in what was still ostensibly a democracy: though he wrote all the songs, he didn't sing lead on any of them (unlike the rest of them, sans Hudson), and he didn't play anything besides guitar. He was a good-looking guy, but nothing compared to the paragon of manliness that is Levon Helm (again, I'm editorializing). He compensated by bogarting all of Scorsese's interview time in The Last Waltz and placing himself squarely in the middle of the stage, even though, I repeat, he didn't sing. This is obviously a man in a conscious, anxious battle with his own ego.

I say all this because that's exactly what the guitar solo at the end of "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" sounds like--that is, a battle with ego. Throughout the entirety of The Band, wonderful album as it is, there is a conspicuous absence of solos, although Robertson offers several brilliant lead lines in songs like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "When You Awake" in lieu of this. On the last two songs, Robertson breaks this formula. "The Unfaithful Servant" has an acoustic solo at the end. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but it's bracing enough and serves as a nice counterpoint to Danko's affected aches. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," the following song, is another creature entirely. This is a mode of songwriting that has no serious precedent as far as I can tell, especially in how the chorus is so spare and minimal as opposed to the verses. I have a theory that this song may have influenced the Pixies in some way. I know everyone talks about how they were the first to employ the quiet verse/loud chorus formula, but these same people fail to mention how Frank Black flipped that structure around in songs like "No. 13 Baby," where Santiago stops playing and all that's left is Kim Deal's bass and Dave Lovering's drums. Obviously this is far more harmonically complex and utilizes a lot of techniques the Pixies never used, but the point still stands.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" is one of those storytelling songs Robertson was so fond of in those days. This one is about a farmer who has a tough time making it but survives due to his union membership, or something. Richard Manuel, the late pianist, sings it at a lower register than what we are used to. Levon Helm contributes some brilliant drumming, particularly during the chorus when he pauses and then taps the high-hat for a snaky-sounding effect. Hudson is somewhere in the back, pumping on the organ. Rick Danko plays the bass, clipped and deliberate as usual. But it's Robertson who is the obvious center of the song. Throughout, he plays guitar fills that almost seem like the start of solos, but then retreats. It's a great moment when the chorus comes along and Robertson reduces his playing to single notes, in tandem with Danko; it's the sort of moment where he deliberately underplays for fear of breaking into self-indulgence.

The solo itself is one of those album-capping solos that I am particularly fond of. Yet even here, Robertson deliberately underplays. Given where it's placed in the song and how Robertson has set up the dynamics so far, this makes perfect sense. It's the kind of solo that's meant to sound quiet, but that doesn't mean it's any less intense. In fact, Robertson ratchets up the tension by trying to maintain that sort of feeling instead of going into all sorts of crazy directions. You can tell that some notes are barely being plucked, but it never seems like he's playing a wrong note. In interviews, Robertson has noted how hard it was to play a solo like that, which depends both on perfect timing and an insane sense of dynamics, and it seems here that he found the perfect medium between showing off his blooze skills from the Dylan days and acting like the socially responsible songwriter he obviously wants to be. Therein lies the tension, and therein lies the success of the solo.

I particularly like the end, where the instruments start picking up again, and Robertson plays two notes in tandem before breaking off into more familiar territory. The song ends so abruptly that you wonder where Robertson could have gone from there, but something tells that this isn't a situation, like "Little Wing," where the song is simply the victim of bad editing. Everything has a purpose, and it makes you appreciate the minute beforehand that much more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Critical Beatdown: Round Two

Gucci Mane feat. Plies, "Wasted"
NS: I was originally embarrassed to note that I only know Gucci Mane through a verse he did on Big Boi's beautiful "Shine Blockas," but this anodyne example of shallow, corporate rap doesn't make me think I've missed that much. The beat is okay, the kind of thing Lil Wayne could leverage into something better on his next mixtape. 2/5

AM: A rarity--an ode to getting drunk as dumb and fun as the real thing. Attention minors: there is no such thing as a "Ghetto Public Service Announcement," so take Gucci's pronouncements with a grain of salt, or at least a glass of water. 4/5

Beach House, "Norway"

NS: Beach House could be blamed for not showing much depth in their trafficking of woozy soundscapes, but one can't argue with effective wooze, accompanied this time by vocals that really showcase the best of both singers. Top-notch songsmithing. 4/5

AM: Beach House always sounded out-of-focus, but now they're gone blissfully out-of-tune. If Vic and Alex are going to keep releasing killer first singles like this, I'm going to continue buying their albums the day they come out. 4.5/5

Califone, "Funeral Singers"
NS: Nothing Califone does these days seems as cool as Heron King Blues, but that's okay. The singer-songwriter angle is redeemed, as in the Beach House song, with odd male-female harmonizing, plus some gnarled electric guitar. 3.5/5

AM: They sound rootsy, and they sound worn-out. Neil Young this ain't, but Califone prove there's still plenty of gas left in the tank, if a bit of rust around the wheels. 3.5/5

Timbaland Feat. Nelly Furtado & SoShy, "Morning After Dark"
NS: I'm ambivalent about Timbaland's increasingly digitized direction--songs like this don't carry the luster of early work but this certainly deserves to be the biggest thing on the radio when contrasted with the latest Gaga or Cyrus. It's all about the chorus with this one, and it is a lustrous chorus. 3.5/5

AM: Shock Value's embarrassing moments--and they were legion--were redeemed by their creator's bug-eyed sense of humor and talent behind the boards. Here, Timbo autotunes himself beyond recognition and chases trends, rather than creating them. Just generic. 2/5

Bob Dylan, "Must Be Santa"
NS: It surely is predictably embarrassing, but what else can one say? Dylan-the-singer is worse than ever, he's performing a rather chintzy song written by someone else, and his accordion-laden arrangement is a deadly combination of obnoxious and unmemorable. 0.5/5

AM: Gonna be honest: I don't hate this. Dylan, who apparently has been sipping from the same cup as Gucci Mane, blusters his way through a song that, it must be said, has considerably more vigor than the entirety of Together Through Life. He's one of a kind, he can't help it. 2.5/5

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #2: Pavement, "The Hexx" (Stephen Malkmus)

Available On: Terror Twilight (1999)
Solo bits: 3:36-4:28

I like to think that Stephen Malkmus became a great lead guitarist and soloist without even realizing it. In several interviews, particularly in Pavement's early days, Malkmus would talk about how the majority of guitarists he most admired were rhythm guitarists, and he felt his own inner jamminess was unremarkable by comparison. Of course this didn't stop Malkmus from playing extended guitar solos that became longer and more conventional as his career progressed (his recent solo album Real Emotional Trash is the culmination of all these disparate Dead and Television influences manifesting themselves in long, awesome yet empty guitar solos). This mirrored Pavement's rise from Fall-influenced indie stalwart to modern classic rockers. Malkmus was always in charge of Pavement (really, someone try to convince me that Spiral Stairs did anything), and by acting as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, he set himself up as a Hendrix type as opposed to, say, a Mark E. Smith.

Malkmus was also, of course, way too laconic and guarded onstage to act as if he was the guitar genius that he was. As a result, he's not generally thought of as a guitar hero, at least not compared to other 90's stalwarts like Kurt Cobain, Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields, Doug Martsch, and a few others. What these guitarists all have in common is that they all tried in different ways to act like they weren't guitar heroes--but really, they probably knew they were, and took their role as an opportunity to fuck with audience expectations of guitar heroics. In terms of sheer ability, Malkmus could play as well as any of them, save perhaps Coxon and Greenwood. There are many cases of Malkmus' guitar genius at work on even the earliest of Pavement albums, but for me his crowning achievement is the second-to-last song on their last album Terror Twilight, which is entitled "The Hexx."

"The Hexx" stands out, as the title might suggest, as Pavement's spookiest song, a swirling dirge with an odd riff at the center that transforms into a righteous if obscure chorus. Placed as it is on Terror Twilight, it has an odd cleansing effect, given how tuneful and even pleasant the rest of the album sounds (Pavement was in full-fledged pop mode by this point). In fact, I'm surprised that this song even exists, given how puzzling and atonal the main riff is. However, several listens have confirmed to me that it works perfectly within the context of the song, and is in fact a very good example of Malkmus transforming odd noodlings into beautiful songs that automatically strike the listener as classic tunes. This is a gift that few possess.

The song starts out with the aforementioned riff, played by Malkmus, who also starts off singing about "Capistrano swallow" and God swallowing peoples' radars and stuff like that. Eventually the drums and bass kick in, as well as another guitar, although its purpose in the mix is negligible in my opinion until the very end of the song. After working through some very Pavement-sounding lyrics, the riff dissolves into some delicious chord changes, wherein Malkmus aches, "but I...I, I...saw you...reeling in the parking lot," with the "parking lot" part being reinforced by a sharper, more typical riff. After that business is done, Malkmus whispers something that sounds like, "for the pauper's grave," and the chords disappear into the stratosphere, leaving the arch-angular riff to fend for itself again. More nondescript noises are piled on. The drums come back, and finally, out of the ether, Malkmus plays his solo.

The first thing one will notice is that this is a remarkably bluesy solo for a song whose structure seems so ostensibly anti-blues: there's no real tonal center to hold onto, but Malkmus somehow manages to fit in a whole minute of perfectly-controlled blues playing. It sounds like he is playing laconically at first, and he never really gets around to building up speed, but somehow he manages to bypass that and ratchet up the tension simply by playing tiny, perfectly considered groups of notes that never really overlap with each other. Malkmus isn't afraid to wail on the same note over and over, nor is he really concerned with going up and down the fret board. He finds a happy medium, and plays his heart out without coming across as either showy or bored. The end of the solo is really nothing more than an arpeggio that remains constant through the growing sea of noise, and even as it changes around him, he once again finds the tonal center before breaking with it altogether and leading to the triumphal finish.

It's possible with solos like "The Hexx" that you won't really get it the first time you hear it. I know I didn't. It's such a small work of art that it's barely noticeable, especially on an album so full of good moments, but if you pay attention long enough, you see that Malkmus managed to challenge the entire entire idea of what a solo must sound like and where it should fit in, and for this, someone must recognize this beautiful moment for what it is. Listen to it five times in a row, and I guarantee you will know what I mean. Sometimes great expression means facing the challenges your own work faces in a way people won't immediately recognize.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love It To Death

I was delighted to find this recently, and not because it's especially good. It's a Replacements cover of an Alice Cooper tune, and it literalized a realization that I'd been stumbling towards for the past couple months--that the great Alice Cooper song "I'm Eighteen" provided a blueprint for The Replacements.

I'm no Cooper expert--the early 70's work seems to get love--but I always associated the guy with cheesiness. Cheesy rock songs, cheesy makeup, cheesy movie cameos, cheesy everything. It seemed like an act designed to exploit adolescent boys.

But "Eighteen" is another matter. If you haven't heard it recently, take another listen (this six-minute version is the one you want to hear, and the one I'll discuss). It's a beast of a song. Cooper and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce aim for the jugular and annihilate it. The central riff is unreasonably epic, and the wild soloing sounds like an electrical storm. Weather metaphors are all I can come up with to describe the mood--it sounds like clouds scraping the sky, lightning with nowhere to strike.

And Cooper nails the vocals. He doesn't start until almost a minute in, when he begins raging wordlessly. The first line is perfect: "I got to get out of this place." His solution, "running in outer space," isn't great, but then there's no escaping teenage angst when you're in the thick of it. The narrator's embrace of his adolescence--he doesn't just like being eighteen, he loves it--is the most ambiguous lyric, but Cooper's delivery strongly suggests that this embrace is a misanthropic one. Indeed, in spite of its attendant problems, the hormones that dominate an eighteen year-old boy do make him feel very much alive. And "I'm Eighteen" crackles with uncommon vitality, all these years later.

Fans of Cooper's contemporaries Big Star would do well to give "I'm Eighteen" a listen. The song turns Chilton and Bell's youthful melancholy inside out, lashing out with no clear target. Chilton only ever sounded like a threat to himself, but Cooper sounds like a menace to society.

Both artists were working against the grain, however, by retaining as their subject matter the lives of American teenagers. By the early 1970's most of rock and roll had left behind the puppy love and heartbreak of doo-wop and early 60's pop in favor of more "mature" fare. Think about The Beatles: everything about the band had transformed radically between Please Please Me and Abbey Road, and the Fab Four were a bellwether throughout their career.* The years after their break-up saw a proliferation of singer-songwriters and politically conscious R&B stars, now somewhat freer to release what they wanted. In any case, a lot of the albums we valorize from that era sound like they were made for adults.

Alice Cooper and Big Star weren't making music for adults. Still, their songwriting benefited from the growing up of rock. Both bands' visions of adolescence were grim--a wounded rage, in Cooper's case, a deep melancholy, in Big Star's--in a way that songs rarely had been.

Both of these qualities would later manifest themselves in Paul Westerberg's songwriting (with a big assist, one presumes, from Peter Jesperson). The Cooper connection is undeniable. The wildcat guitar on "I'm Eighteen" actually sounds like Bob Stinson, and may well have influenced him. The lyrics on "Eighteen" too sound like a direct predecessor to The Replacements. One of the reasons I've dismissed Cooper is that he frequently sounds like he's playacting. Not so here: he plays his part in "Eighteen" with such conviction and reckless abandon that I'm convinced The Birthday Party were listening. But that's off-topic. I hear something of the confrontational but hurt "Unsatsified" in "Eighteen." As a lyricist, Westerberg followed Chilton much more vocally, but it's Cooper who animates his earlier, angrier work.

Paul Westerberg would also, of course, pen some startlingly original and true rock and roll, but everything has roots. The real-time molotov cocktail of "I'm Eighteen" is one root. It's also a fantastic song in its own right.

*The mere existence of James Brown disproves this assertion, but it's true enough to function as an example here

We're Gonna Groove

There's no way to preface this except thusly: prepare for a massive JPJ geek-out.

Two momentous events this coming Tuesday: one, of course, being the publication of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, the former vice presidential candidate's memoir of early years spent siphoning superpowers from her fellow mutants. More importantly, the Rockaliser-endorsed supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, a band that does not deny the existence of evolution, will drop their eponymous debut officially, a week after the entire album was leaked by the band and put on Youtube.

I've been listening to the album quite a lot in the last week, but I've yet to try and review the thing because I am honestly too overwhelmed. I also feel as if I lack a certain critical distance, seeing as I dearly, dearly love all the members of this band and was fairly certain that they would pull together a monster of an album. I was right.

Supergroups have a sketchy history, to say the least: for every awesome act like the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, you get a Chickenfoot or a Velvet Revolver. It goes without saying that even the most talented musicians won't necessarily gel together as a group, but reading about Them Crooked Vultures, it seemed to me to be very unlikely that they wouldn't sound awesome together. Obviously Grohl and Homme already work supremely well together (QOTSA was never better than in Songs For The Deaf). Grohl is the biggest power-hitter since Bonham passed away (and they seriously should have gotten him to play at the Led Zeppelin reunion this past year instead of Bonham's underwhelming son Jason). Homme, meanwhile, is the master of low-key (and low-C) riff blues, with a sense of rhythm and style that puts him more or less ahead of every other hard rock guitarist this decade. And John Paul Jones is, of course, the kind of guy who makes already good music seem severely better. So the fact that this album is good is not shocking.

Forgive me if I devolve into Jack Black-style paroxysms and start exhorting about "the redeeming power of ROCK!" or whatever. When you come across tunes as good as this, you want to share them with the world.

1. "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Grohl begins the album with a deceptively laid-back beat, accompanied by some gnarly but by no means extraordinary slide work (think "In My Time of Dying"). The first three minutes continue this rather boilerplate hard-blues pattern, with Homme singing typical nonsense. Then, at roughly 2:45, the song morphs into what basically amounts to headbanger crack. It's not the most smooth of transitions, but when the change comes, the musicians coil together like three snakes in a big snake orgy, and the groove is basically unstoppable. It evolves from slightly flaccid into a straight barnstormer, with the last 20 seconds really standing out.

2. "Mind Eraser, No Chaser." Yeah, there are a lot of song titles like these. This was one of the songs that was leaked a bit earlier than the rest of the album, and it provides a good introduction to Them Crooked Vultures' more rhythmically tricky MO. John Paul Jones' bass line sounds at first almost assembly-line snug, but when the chorus happens, he is as game as the rest of the band in going in and out of lockstep. I should admit that I won't concentrate on Homme's lyrics very much because they are his usual sort of discombobulated come-ons that lack any sort of internal structure. Nevertheless, I like his singing, and I was pleased to hear Grohl back him up on vocals during the chorus, something that I don't think happened at all in Songs For The Deaf (for shame!). The electronic effects in the middle don't work so well, but love the oompah number at the end.

3. "New Fang." This was one of the songs we discussed in our first "Critical Beatdown" column. I gave it 4.5 stars at the time, and while I'll stick with that rating, I think the song works far, far better as an album track than a standalone single. The tricked-out slide guitar works through the bridges like a knife through butter, but Homme's fat rhythm-playing is in its way even more impressive. And again, JPJ is just a machine on tracks like this.

4. "Dead End Friends." Whereas this song at least sounds the most like a single, while at the same time it's also the most Queensy. If you want to classify any of these songs to who is obviously the most dominant instrumental force, this one is unquestionably Homme's. It's still limber and intelligent rock, which probably deserves to be fleshed out more. Maybe I'm just so overwhelmed by the tricky rhythms and relentless Grohl-pummeling that songs like these seem less impressive by comparison.

5. "Elephants." Apt song title. Insane knife-edge rhythms and riffs, all threatening to come apart at any moment (and probably would with musicians of lesser caliber). None of the song is as exciting as the first thirty seconds or so, making this kind of the inverse, dynamically, of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Still, we get the first of what are about five extremely Zeppelin-sounding moments, with what I guess qualifies as the chorus, utilizing some beautiful descending harmonies courtesy of Homme. Then it picks up again, and ends in a rather perfect, adrenaline-soaked denouement.

6. "Scumbag Blues." Nominally a blues piece by any standard, with a chorus that sounds like a 4/4 remix of the Mission: Impossible theme, "Scumbag Blues" is such a musically tense enterprise that I can imagine casual Zeppelin or Nirvana fans finding this suffocating by comparison. The aforementioned chorus helps, but damn if those three people aren't just clearly and cogently in sync, in the best possible way. With time changes that out-math even Zeppelin's most complicated stuff, it's even made more bizarre by the fact that John Paul Jones decides to add a "Trampled Underfoot"-style funk keyboard solo in the middle of this punishing riffery. Does it work? Absolutely. But it's also kind of terrifying.

7. "Bandoliers." Along with "Dead End Friends," this is the most straight-ahead "modern rock" one will find on the album. It is strongly, strongly reminiscent of a certain breed of post-punk that became popular in the mid-'00s--think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol for the most obvious comparisons. The only difference being that the former never had a bassist and the latter never had a bassist who went all over the fret board as Jones does here. There's some very nice Dave Grohl moments toward the minute, where he gets some time to trick up the beat and really nail home some grooves. Jones once again proves his magic with some keyboard work similar to "In The Evening" (we shall see its like again).

8. "Reptiles." If "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I" was crack for headbangers, "Reptiles" is just crack for Zeppelin fans in general. Particularly the type of fan who listens to Presence and In Through the Out Door on a regular basis (me). Part "Travelin' Riverside Blues" and part "South Bound Saurez" (I know, hardly the most indicative tracks, but you seriously have to hear it), "Reptiles" is awash in Jimmy Page chimy slide overdubs and a Bonham-esque steadiness that evokes his playing in "The Ocean." And the chorus is simply one of the best on the album, a slide-infused pastoral chugger with sweet harmonies, and Jones basically mangling his bass. I believe there is also some backwards guitar somewhere in here. The one thing that isn't very Zeppelin-sounding is Homme's vocals, which are actually kind of diabolical and scary (we shall see their like again, as well).

9. "Interlude With Ludes." This is, as it suggests, a brief respite from eight tracks of power-trio punishment. Although Grohl provides some very spacey and avant-garde drum fills, the music is obviously a John Paul Jones keyboard creation, and while it's not something I would probably listen to on its own, it is sublime as far as "interludes" go. If you can handle how obviously silly the song is deliberately meant to be, you're more likely to appreciate the "la la la" vocals and Jones' tricked-out keytar.

10. "Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up." At first it sounds like a more typical Queens (or even Kyuss) riff-grinder, with Homme up to his usual detuned tricks. But the chorus is something different. There's the falsettos, for one thing, but John Paul Jones seems to be behind an orchestra of noises, in addition to his note-perfect bass-playing. I'm afraid I'm already forgetting my rule of not gushing too much, but I defy you to just concentrate on John Paul Jones, to appreciate how dynamic and yet how stealthy he is. I always knew this guy was one of the best, but maybe he truly deserves to be ranked on top. Also notable: a longer-than-usual solo from Homme, which is more of an excuse for the three of them to stretch out their time-keeping skills simultaneously. 99% of the time, this is surely sketchy, but with these three, it's a foregone conclusion that this will work. This is a song with a breakdown that truly rules.

11. "Caligulove." Despite the awesome title, the song isn't quite up to that standard. Whereas most other tracks are a bit more fleet-footed, this is, well, traditional. Which is not to say that there aren't some odd dynamic shifts and instrumental passages. Here, we get what sounds like a marimba, plus some more eastern-infused keyboard playing from Mr. Jones. I would guess Caligula would find a song like "Scumbag Blues" more to his flavor. This is less a song than a collection of cool parts that at times are ill-fitting.

12. "Gunman." Grohl, Homme and Jones may have invented a whole new genre of malevolent Halloween party blues. With a riff that is aptly described by Youtube user "MetroidOOx" as "wuh wo wow wu waga waga wau woo!", this is the kind of groove that is often described by respectable critics as "shit-hot." Grohl gets a brilliant moment to himself, keeping time aided by what seems like electronically-treated drums straight out his contributions to Nine Inch Nails. But it's really about the awesome detuned riffing, one of Homme's best pure guitar moments ever. I have no idea how he would play this live--it sounds like some phaser/wah-wah action--but I would really, really like to see it.

13. "Spinning In Daffodils." First, Jones breaks out a romantic-flavored piano opening that absolutely rips (as we should know by now he always does), which segues into some Dave Grohl tom-playing that sounds briefly like Bonham's intro to "In The Evening." The rest of the song is basically a mighty Queens-type riff. Queens of the Stone Age albums almost always end with these slower blues-riff scorchers, and this album isn't different. I must say, part of the awesomeness of this song has to do with the fact that Homme is singing a song about dancing in daffodils, and it makes me want to do the same. It does get kind of repetitive after a while. Nevertheless: beautiful final 30 seconds.

Overall, I give this album an A+ for effort, and an A+ for execution! I know it must seem like I am extremely easy to please, but I would suggest holding your criticisms until you actually listen to the album. Which, again, comes out on Tuesday. I expect a litany of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I"-related neck injuries by this time next week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Oops. Realized today that, in a logic-defying movie, Rolling Stone awarded U2's pro-footwear 2009 album No Line On The Horizon five stars. That brings the number of five-star 00's albums up to twelve, not eleven. It also means that RS doled out fifteen stars to the awful triumvirate of Goddess In The Doorway, Working On A Dream, and Horizon. Oops!

In other news, simulacrum of a rock band Aerosmith announced today that Steven Tyler has quit. Let's hope the rest of the band follows suit. It appears that Honkin' On Bobo will stand as Aerosmith's swan song...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #1: Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain" (Eddie Hazel)

In an effort to both consolidate my writing and add more content to this blog, I'm going to occasionally copy blog posts from a different project I was working on that involved talking about guitar solos I liked a lot. I think it's legal, since I wrote it in the first place. Over the next couple of weeks I'll unload what I have so far, and hopefully in the future I will keep this as a recurring feature (unless it is of interest to no one).

My first post was on "Maggot Brain." You'll excuse the length--the writing here was culled from a longer piece written my freshman year of college when I had this idea to write a full-length biography of Eddie Hazel. Didn't get past the prognosticating stage but I did end up writing a lot of stuff, some of which is below.

By the way, Eddie's mother Grace Cook died a few months ago. One can't help but play "Maggot Brain" in a different light now.
Available on: Maggot Brain (1971)
Solo Bits: 1:15-10:19
Making "Maggot Brain" my inaugural choice, my candidate for solo par excellence, was not as hard a decision as I thought it might be. In actuality, it was the only logical place I could start, for several reasons. First and primary among them is that I know this song (as well as the rest of the album) inside and out as a result of a failed attempt at writing a biography of Eddie Hazel a few years back. Also, it is a very long and intense solo that's well-regarded by guitarists of all stripes, particularly by Hendrix acolytes, 80's indie rockers (it was once covered by J. Mascis & The Fog with Mike Watt), and alternative jam bands (Ween wrote a tribute to Hazel entitled "A Tear For Eddie," that did a decent job of imitating the hypnotic qualities of Hazel's playing). It's also probably singlehandedly responsible for Hazel's reputation, which is unfair considering his playing was always excellent, but at least it's the kind of thing that gets Funkadelic noticed in outlets like Rolling Stone. And what's more, the song is nothing more than extended guitar solo, bookended by brief monologues from George Clinton.

It's kind of a famous story in P-funk lore, and, for once, the evidence shows that the incident in question probably happened: after working out the basic idea for the track, George Clinton told Eddie Hazel to "play like your mama just died," and he did exactly that. For the ten minutes and eighteen seconds that constitute this track, Eddie Hazel attacks, commands, and distorts one's emotions in a way only few artists can claim to do. Throughout the rest of his recording career, going through his solo album Games, Dames, & Guitar Things (which I recommend if you can get a copy from Rhino), he would contribute uniformly excellent guitar leads, alternately dazzling in their technical ability and emotionally taxing, yet in the end it all comes down to "Maggot Brain." Few artists have been so defined by one book, or one painting, or one movie, let alone one ten-minute electric guitar solo. It is his ultimate triumph and, considering his later output, his tragedy.

The only instruments heard on this song, other than guitar, are a muted keyboard and an occasional, reverb-heavy snare hit. As far as I know, it is as austere a recording as had been yet attempted by George Clinton, a far cry from the sort of work he would do later, with 40+ members on stage at any given time, including the guy that works the flashlight. When Eddie's guitar comes in at 1:14, it sounds tired, dismissive. He plays small clusters of notes, leaving gaps where one recognizes how empty the recording sounds without his guitar front and center. He starts playing faster, slowly piling on the effects. Within the next five minutes he goes through all the stages of grieving for his lost mother: anger, denial, helplessness, acceptance. His guitar sounds, at different times, like it's crying, screaming, talking, laughing. At points he starts playing incredibly fast clusters of notes, as if losing control of his mind or his ability to live, but then pulls back, anchoring what few notes he plays in a wash of reverb. Like Hendrix, Hazel's playing runs counter to the notion of masturbatory satisfaction that came to typify guitarists of succeeding decades (even the good ones). It sounds like a genuine attempt at exorcism.

The little echoes you hear (or at least think you hear), make you feel things long after they have actually been played, but then at a certain point the other instruments drop out completely. Eddie keeps playing, employing more of what would stereotypically be called "funk" playing (palm-muting, rigorous rhythyms), which is funny given that he has no rhythm section to work off of. The result is an emotional lull. He's not hitting the high notes he normally hits, which means maybe he's in the middle of pondering something, or maybe he's in denial. In any case, in a jarring move, the back instruments come back, and Eddie is back where he started.

During the early reign of Funkadelic, this would be Eddie's solo showcase onstage, where he would emerge from a manufactured purple fog dressed in some garish pimp's outfit with a Les Paul guitar, letting all the manufactured pain bubble for the crowd to drink up. He would look intently at his guitar and move his head, cringing and bobbing along with what he was playing. Who knows what was going through his head when he played it? I was never able to see him play the song live, so I will never know firsthand what sort of reactions he could wring out of people by playing certain notes, but I know he could make people cry, and there's a short list of guitarists who could do that.

Critics of popular music tend to throw around the word "virtuoso" pretty liberally when referring to musical artists of a particular expressive power. Certainly Eddie Hazel is often tagged with this admittedly well-intentioned compliment, but doing so does a disservice to the amount of craft and imagination he was able to put into his playing. Eddie Hazel was no "virtuoso," at least not by the terms that virtuosity is often defined (like most rhythm & blues guitarists of the time, he was not one to notate his music, nor was he likely to play lightning fast scalar solos or indulge in fret-tapping)--he was simply a blues guitarist, and the more one looks at the Steve Vais and Joe Satrianis of the world, the more it becomes abundantly clear that blues playing has nothing to do with virtuosity. I don't think I'm generalizing when I say that electric blues playing has never been about playing fast or effortlessly--on the contrary, it's about striving, sweating, desperately searching for some sort of truth or happiness in the form of a well-placed note, upon which the blues player realizes that this note is far from perfect, and the journey must continue. The tone of melancholy that pervade 99% of guitar blues is, at its basest level, the guitarist struggling to achieve transcendence, possibly as a way of communicating with his or her audience, possibly as a way of keeping the hell hound temporarily off the trail.

I run the risk of not being sufficiently specific. On a purely technical level, and Hazel is as perfect an example as one can think of, blues guitarists often use fairly simple patterns and often involve the same notes played over and over again. What gives the guitar a special edge over many blues instruments is that, as a string instrument, it allows the player to bend the string and therefore slightly change the pitch, which simultaneously provides the player with two advantages: first, it can give the note a more interesting "crying" tone, moving the pitch back and forth as if it was a weeping baby, and second, it allows the guitarist to cover up for any mistake by bending the note to a more pleasing pitch. From the earliest delta blues records to Led Zeppelin, even untrained ears can pick up moments on studio albums where the guitarist flubs a note and quickly covers it up by bending it or moving it back to the original note.

Professional musicians wouldn't like to admit it, but it's pretty easy for even a novice guitarist to play a convincingly "bluesy" solo if he sticks to the same three or four notes in a particular pattern (I submit Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" as the absolute nadir of bendy three-note solos). But in the end, it's not about that. Great blues guitarists have personality and vocabulary that they make their own--they might play the same three notes over and over, but it's three notes that no one else would play in that particular way at that particular time. There's a reason one can tell that it's clearly Hazel and not fellow Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton playing the solo on, say, "Red Hot Mama," and it comes down to the fact that listeners learn to notice the particular choices that great, unique guitarists can make, even on the dime.

Eddie Hazel was a master and should continue to be respected as such. His later drug addiction didn't really do him any favors, and I think he could have exceeded "Maggot Brain" had he not become so dependent, but who knows? "Maggot Brain" is as austere, thoughtful, and emotionally riveting as any extended solo I have ever heard.