I'm behind schedule this week...and my editors are furious (note to self: this may be early signs of schizophrenia). This was a great week in music--with one album that has been at the top of my list for a long while, and an album I'd never heard before.
Also, I went to Chicago to visit my younger brother Josiah and his wife Becki. I'd been there once when I was a pre-teen, but never again since. I was surprised by how much I liked the city--how beautiful its architecture, Lake Michigan, etc. I didn't realize there were great cities out there that didn't begin with "New" and end with "York".
I'm taking the rest of this week off of work to focus on recording more of my third album: Held Momentarily. So far I have the final mix for 4 songs in, the fifth song almost ready to be mixed, and five other songs at various stages of undress. In other words, I'm reaching the half-way point with the record--as I'm approaching the half-way point of this list as well. Almost 50 records down. Who knew.
58: The Rolling Stones -- Beggar's Banquet (1968)
As I mentioned after listening to Sticky Fingers (#64), I have never had much knowledge of The Rolling Stones. I had chalked them up as another band that I wouldn't really like--based on next to nothing, perhaps, beside an inexplicable loathing of their tongue logo. It's just not a design that compels one to take their music seriously.
I watched the great documentary Crossfire Hurricane (currently available on HBO Go). It is a solid entry point to The Rolling Stones at the height of their fame, covering a wide expanse from their never-humble beginnings, the making of Beggar's Banquet, the death of Brian Jones, the addition (and subsequent subtraction) of Mick Taylor, the horror of Altamont, the replacement's replacement Ronnie Wood, all the way up to their current string of successful concerts. I've watched a good deal of music documentaries this year. One thing I've noticed about many of them is how they whitewash the stars--hide their egomania, drug-use, etc. Crossfire Hurricane is remarkable in its raucous authenticity and warts-and-all portrayal.
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The music here is more rootsy and bluesy than I typically like. I really enjoyed this album for the way it surmounted my expectations once again--even though on a song-by-song basis, I prefer Sticky Fingers.
I really like Sympathy For The Devil. The beauty of songs like No Expectations is so unquestionable that I almost take it for granted. On some of the songs, I can hear a direct influence on bands like The Avett Brothers and their ilk--especially Dear Doctor. I enjoy the Dylanesque Jigsaw Puzzle, especially Brian Jones' unexpected mellotron lines. The documentary helped me see the context and power of the song Street Fighting Man--again I like Brian Jones' nonsensical contribution of the sitar, which I didn't really hear until I listened for it. I'm surprised by the Stones' stylistic diversity going from more rocking songs to rootsier bluesy songs, like Prodigal Son, and yet the Brits more than pull it off, faux American accent considered.
Based on the documentary, and the little I knew about them beforehand, it seems like the Stones played up their bad-boy/black-hat/Beatles-alternative shtick. All of that, in combination with Jagger's inimitable chicken dance showmanship and Keith Richards' death-wish-drug-habit, would mean nothing if they didn't have the musicianship and intelligence that is deeply inherent in their songs.
57: Stevie Wonder -- Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
This massive double album was finally released the September following my birth. This isn't my favorite Stevie album, but that is not to say that it doesn't have many, many moments of perfection and genius. Maybe the sheer size of it is more than I've been able to acclimate to as of yet.
I like Stevie at his more intimate. In this album, it is clear that he is intent to make bold statements...and change the whole idea of albums, the recording process, and popular music.
I read the 33 1/3 book for this album several months ago, and really enjoyed it. I was struck by how much Stevie sacrificed for his music, how driven and single-minded he was. It is obvious when you look at it this way to realize that no one can sustain that. We look at artists like Stevie or Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, or even The Rolling Stones and wonder why they aren't making music now that is as relevant as their seminal records. How can anyone sustain that? Name any exemplar in any field that has been able to sustain the kind of zeitgeist-tapped success and I guarantee it's a very short list--and some thievery (or pacts with Satan) may have been involved.
I also watched the Classic Albums episode for this album which was again one of the best I've seen. You can see it in its entirety below (#freeYa'll). For more Stevie context still, check out 10 Things You Never Knew About Stevie Wonder.
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Now to the music.
Those background harmonies? From the first five seconds? Perfection. Love's In Need Of Love Today could be seen as sappy, but as true today as it was almost 40 years ago. The meditative vamp of the last four and a half minutes of the song takes some audacity to pull off. Or maybe it works more because of its sincerity than its audacity. Who else could pull off starting a double-album with a 7 minute song, almost 2/3 of which is so highly repetitive? My favorite moment: at 5:23 that super-smooth downward run of "hey-ee-ey-ee-ey..." that ends with "bring it down a little. love is very peaceful, so bring it down a little" followed by crazy vocal ad-libs doubled with the Rhodes.
Have A Talk With God is one of my favorite Stevie songs. Period. It doesn't go too far into theology--just a simple reminder to connect with your spirituality. It is a suggestion rarely referenced in popular culture--its genius in that it's all tucked in a super funky track. Again, it's interesting to realize that Stevie chose to sequence this at the front of this album.
Contusion is allegedly Stevie's only musical allusion to the car accident that left him with a scar over his right eye and almost took his life--that did take away his sense of smell, and temporarily his sense of taste. This is especially interesting when you realize that he chose to do this with a complex and mostly joyful instrumental. The background vocals that start at 2:15 are some of my favorites of all time.
I had forgotten about the song Summer Soft--another one of my favorites. The only thing I don't love so much about the song is its many modulations (key changes) in the end. The first time it happens, it's the only right thing--a natural release. To my taste, a little of that goes a long way.
Speaking of a favorite that has flaws: Ordinary Pain. Stevie is the king of melody and harmony (and, let's face it, almost everything else). At 2:42 when the ending vamp comes in, it's a funky, gritty, shadow-self of the first half of the song. To me, the vamp just goes on for at least a minute too long.
Joy Inside My Tears again does the extended vamp thing, but more successfully.
If It's Magic? If? This song is magic. On the documentary, listen for an alternate version with an interesting piano part--though the final harp accompaniment is the magical pairing. My favorite moment? At 2:31, the way Stevie says "like".
As--with yet another super extended vamp. But it is beautiful, powerful, and right.
The close of the fourth side, and "proper ending" of the album is the latin-drenched Another Star. Again, it's the background vocals that prove to be touchstones for any singer. La-la-la-la-la, indeed.
The last 4 songs on the album were considered an EP, a third record sub-titled A Somethings' Extra. The "extra" songs here are some of the strongest for me. They are more bite-sized, and I like that. Saturn is one of my favorites. Ebony Eyes is a fresh and funky change of pace, I love the heavily filtered background vocals, and then the talkbox/vocoder. Because Stevie is so rhythmically and technologically advanced , his songs like All Day Sucker still sound super relevant.
The 21st and final track of the work as a whole is the second instrumental, Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call). I don't love instrumentals--but this one, like Contusion before it, is an exception. It so perfectly resolves the vibe Stevie (and his musicians) spent an hour and 45 minutes creating.
Will either of these albums change your life? I don't know. I think Songs In The Key Of Life may have changed mine when I heard it more than 15 years ago. I can say Stevie's 70's period changed my life (I devoured them all at once), but can't say if it was SITKOL alone that did it.
Beggar's Banquet is an interesting counterpoint to SITKOL. As obsessive and audacious as Stevie's record was, with new technologies acquired and harnessed in the aim of studio progress, Beggar's Banquet seems tossed off, its aim capturing simple and rustic moments of brilliance in the studio. Maybe if you are the more understated type, Beggar's Banquet can alter your trajectory too. I hope it does. We could all use some fresh lenses.
56: Elvis Presley -- Elvis Presley (1956) 55: The Jimi Hendrix Experience -- Electric Ladyland (1968)