Music

Sgt Pepper – 50 Years On

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sgt pepperWhen I first heard the news that there was going to be a new improved release of Sgt Pepper, my first reaction was “so what”.  How can anyone improve what is arguably the greatest album of all time, released by the greatest band of all time, who were at the top of the creative peak and is well known to be their crowning achievement.  If you are a child of the 70’s, you grew up listening to ALBUMS, track by track, front to back, over and over, and you would rate the release as a whole achievement, not based on one great song or two.  And, if you are like me, you reluctantly shifted from an album oriented way of listening to music to a song methodology thanks to streaming services and the shuffle play feature on our phones.  Finally, if you are like me, a child who grew up listening to music in the 1970’s, you miss being able to sit down and listen to an album from start to finish, without being interrupted by songs from other artists, commercials, or a text or call interrupting you.

There are few albums in music that are as sacred as Sgt Pepper. Many of us, heck, all of us that love music and love or appreciate the Beatles, know this album probably as much as any album in our collections.  Within its 40 minutes we know every note, and if the songs are ever played out of order, we know it immediately.  I remember reading an article years ago that published the proposed song order of Sgt Pepper, and I then listened to the songs in that order.  It didn’t work for me.  It didn’t make sense. The songs seemed out of place from each other.  Sgt Pepper, like many of our favorite classic albums, are perfect because of the way they are, and the way we have been listening to them for decades.

 Curiosity got the better of me, so I ordered the newly remastered version of Sgt Pepper.   I didn’t convert the tracks to a compressed MP3 format, and instead listened to the CD beginning to end in my car and my home stereo.  Over and over again, just like the old days.  This is a brand new stereo mix of the original mono recordings (more on that in a minute), and I have to tell you, this sounds like a totally different album.  You have heard these songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and they have never sounded more present, more real, than ever before. 

 I am totally amazed how much better the sound and music of this version is compared to previous releases.  The clarity difference is the first thing I noticed.  Ringo’s drums are much more present (there are fills of his in A Day In The Life I had never noticed before).  McCartney’s bass playing is more pronounced and more complex than I ever imagined, and the guitars are more alive and more raw, and everyone’s vocals are clearer than ever before.  Everything if fuller and better balanced.  The mix, as Giles Martin has said, is what the band sounded like in the studio. 

 This release reveals fresh wonders, nuances and improvements fans who are familiar with the work will immediately notice, especially the ‘bottom’ end of the sound.  There is simply put, more punch to the songs. The songs jump out at you like you are hearing them for the first time.

Getting Better has an aggression that I had never heard before, and A Day In The Life just rings for repeat, repeat, repeat. And the title track is just crazy frantic, with McCartney’s lead guitar in the forefront mashing out chords.

 After listening to this nonstop for a few weeks, I was curious how Giles Martin (he is George Martin’s son by the way) was able to create what is essentially almost a new album from 50 year old original recordings.   I learned that the technology of 1967 limited the band to 4 track analog recordings, totally different from the virtual unlimited number of tracks artists can use today.  When the four tracks were filled up with music the engineer would mix them down to a single track and transfer that to another four track recorder and work from there. That that process was repeated over and over for each tune, and with each transfer some sound quality was forfeited, but being 1967 they had no choice. 

 Luckily, all generations of the four-track session tapes were archived, so for the new “Sgt. Pepper’s” the engineers mixed direct from all of the first generation session masters, and as has been mentioned the difference is like night and day.  Martin had access to every last spool of tape from the sessions, and he used them to create the masterpiece and the best sounding version of this album that I have ever heard. 

 So, the question is whether or not greatness can be improved, and in this case the answer is a resounding yes!   Get your hands on this, don’t convert it to MP3, and listen to it properly with no distractions the way we used to do as teenagers (sitting on the floor or bed in our rooms, doing nothing but listening to the music), and enjoy every single second of this.  Everything, from start to finish, song by song, note by note, just seems more together than ever before.  We know Sgt Pepper as their crowning achievement, and they would still release some amazing music in the few years they had left (White Album, Abbey Road) but Sgt Pepper shows them as a band at the top of their game, playing sounds together in way they never would again, and today we get to listen to it again, in ways we never thought possible years ago.

Bravo Mr Martin.  Bravo.

Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway – Review

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Freedom Highway

I am admittedly a sucker for female singers. Dusty Springfield, Adele, Annie Haslam, Laura Nyro, Sara Bareilles, Linda Ronstadt, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Annie Lenox, are just a few of the female voices that I can listen to all day. I am adding Rhiannon Giddens to this list right now. I am not a big fan of traditional country-blues old-time music, and the first time I had even heard of her was on her outstanding contribution to Lost On The River, The New Basement Tapes, and the song Spanish Mary.

I had read some reviews a few weeks ago about her latest solo release, Freedom Highway, and despite not sampling a single track I decided to blindly order it. I WAS NOT DISAPPOINTED.

Her wiki page shows her genres to be folk, bluegrass, country, gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and American. So, what could go wrong? Well, in this case ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

This release has an incredible range of sounds and styles, all integrated into a cohesive tracklist that ranges from sensual and emotional jazz to sharp and blazing R’n’B with a semi rapped verse in the middle of one of the songs. Some of the songs hit you right away, and others rely on an understated semi-acoustic approach that deftly showcase her impressive vocal skills. Not only are these songs great, they sneak up on you when you least expect it and get even better. From a content standpoint, she sings about the history of America’s fight against racism and her powerful songs here are based on vivid, true stories from the slavery era against classic blues, and civil rights songs from the 60s.

For me, the standout tracks are Birmingham Sunday (protest song written by Richard Farina), and the shuffle of Better Get It Right The First Time, a song about a young black man doing all the right things, going to college, etc, only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (which includes a rap verse from her nephew). The aforementioned Birmingham Sunday, for me, is where this release hits a high note and just keeps going. Birmingham Sunday is a piano driven anthem that starts slowly, and just keeps building until it hits an emotional climax. The first time I heard it I had to play it again I was so moved, so impressed by the musical package that it is, and then I listened to it again. It is that good. In fact, this whole release is that good, and I highly recommend it.

How We Listen To And Discover Music Has Changed

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Lately I have been reading a bit about the Grateful Dead final Fare Thee Well performances this summer in the Bay area and Chicago’s Soldier Field.  Rather than continue to fade away, they are ending with the remaining four members and help from some great friends.

I remember the first time I truly listened to their music and finally became a fan.  It was the fall of 1977, my freshman year at college, and I was partying with another guy down the hall and he played side four of their Skulls and Roses (informal name) album.  Warf Rat is first, which I thought was pretty cool, but then comes the Not Fade Away/Going Down The Road combo with the jam in the middle.  I was blown away.  I had never before heard such intricate guitar interplay and call and response work between Garcia and Weir,  and this converted me from a casual to a real fan of their music.

Thinking back to my high school and college days, it was easy to find other music geeks like myself just by keeping your ears open.  The size of your record (or tape) collection did matter in those days.  When you went into someone’s dorm room or apartment, you would immediately know if they were like you or not based on the number of albums they had.  You could search through someone’s collection and talk about different groups, liner notes, band evolutions, etc, because it was easy to find a common ground of communication.  And, instead of doing five other things at once, we actually sat down together and LISTENED to music without doing anything else.

Enter the digital age, and now everyone has a better music collection than the one I carefully and painstakingly cultivated and built over 40 years of listening to all kinds of amazing (and sometimes horrible) music.  The playing field is level now.   My music collection is no longer a badge of honor.  The good news is that you can find pretty much any selection of music ever made with a few clicks of a mouse or a few swipes on a phone.  The bad news is that we have lost a way of identifying ourselves by the music we listen to, and separating the music lovers from the casual listeners.  We have no way of recognizing one another because we all share the same generic easy to find music collection.  We cannot flip through a collection and instantly bond with the guy who lives down the hall from us.

The good news is that it is easy to find and discover new music.  The bad news is we have taken people out of the equation.  Sure, we can all write online reviews, and we can click to find “if you liked band x, check out band y” recommendations.  But who doesn’t remember the joy of telling a new friend “hey, check this out” while you put another record on the turntable or a tape in the player, and the two of you immediately bonded over the thrill of a musical introduction.

I am not sure which time of music collection and listening was better.  Sure, it is easy now, and connecting with others is still possible, but I think it is more sterile.  It is online, through screen names and user names, etc, and rarely do we ever meet in real life, and when we do those meetings are awkwardly uncomfortable as some people want to retreat back behind the safety of their keyboards and put their earbuds back on.  Consuming music has always been a central part of my being, and helped shape me to who I am today.   I very much enjoy the ability to quickly find music to listen to, and the portability of it is beyond the wildest dreams of anyone from 20 or 30 years ago, but I miss the old social aspect and personal touch of listening to and finding new music.  It may be easier to find and listen to music today, and easier to socially connect, but are these connections real or are they an illusion.  Time will tell.

In the meantime, love live rock.

Springsteen Nassau 1980 – The Little Brother All Grown Up

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As great at the Nassau show is, I always considered it the little brother to the great 1978 Darkness shows such as Passaic, Winterland, Agora, the Roxy, and  Atlanta (all radio broadcasts, well booted, and known to fans as Winterland Night, Passaic Night, Summertime Bruce, and Roxy Night).  For many of us, we can hear a moment in one of these and know exactly what show is being played. “Bootleggers, roll your tapes” is from Roxy, and “vomiting in your girl’s purse” was from the Agora show.  They are like old friends that never lose our love.

Springsteen Nassau

I never felt the same way about Nassau Night, the great 12/31/1980 show that many consider one of Springsteen’s greatest performances.  It’s an amazing show, 38 songs played in just under 4 hours.  While I always thought the Darkness shows were emotionally focused, intense, and tight, Nassau always seemed bigger and less intimate to me. I didn’t have the same emotional connection as I did the ’78 shows. The band had moved to arenas, the thematic pattern of the show had changed, the crowds were bigger, and the shows were longer and just bigger.  The performances are outstanding, but my connection to it was not the same.  Compared to the concise and focused Darkness shows, the River shows were a marathon collection of highs and lows, emotional mood swings, before finally ending with a frenzied encore set that left the fans and band exhausted.

With the release of 12/31/1980 Nassau show as part of his live concert series, I finally admit that this show is close to being an equal to those great 1978 shows. The band is well seasoned and running on all cylinders from start to finish.  Yes, it is a sprawl compared to the tightness of the Darkness shows.   Running almost 4 hours, Nassau contains most of The River, along with fan favorites from prior tours and a few covers.  The performances are outstanding, and the mix of old and new songs gives the listener time to really listen to what is being performed.  Only Springsteen would have a “mini-set” in the middle of the show that would be considered a “beer-run/bathroom break” today:  playing three slow songs in a row.  But, when Fade Away, The Price You Pay, and Wreck On The Highway are played here, the emotional intensity and intimacy with the audience is second to none at the time.

Compared to today, 1980 is almost the dark ages with the way information flows. Today, you get home from a show and within hours someone has already posted a recording online.  Back then bootlegs were purchased at flea markets and “underground” record stores.  Despite this, the crowd warmly receives Rendezvous (never released) and is already singing the first verse to Hungry Heart (prompted by Bruce).  I know it was his first “hit” single, but the song was only two months old from the time it was released. I remember being at one of the Landover MD shows the month before and people were singing the first verse already.

Bruce himself has said that “the best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with”.  His music has always been the soundtrack of my life, and shows like Nassau are moments in time that can never be replaced.  Springsteen and the E Street Band have been captivating me for over 40 years and I have no intention of ending this relationship with them and the music they present to me. This series of live releases give us the chance to go back, and dust off those cobwebs and remember the way our lives used to be, how much we have changed since then, and how much we are still the same.

“At the end of every hard day, people find some reason to believe”.

“Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive”.

Amen Bruce, Amen.

Music And Me

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There are few things more important than music in my life.  Breathing, health, family and friends will always be on the top of my list, but after that there is music.  Music is the very essence of who I am and I cannot ever live without it.

Music has been with me for as long as I remember.  I started playing the piano at the age of 5, and remember buying my first records at 11 or 12 years old.  I cannot imagine driving in my car, exercising, or performing any other passive function without listening to music.  As I write this article I am listening to music.  It is all around me, and I am always thinking about it.

Music is the way I express myself, and moves me in ways that I cannot accurately describe.   Without any warning, music can make me laugh or cry, lighten my mood, move me, it can remind me, and inspire me like nothing else.

The the right sound at the right time, in the right situation, affects me like almost nothing else in my life.  The other day How Can I Be Sure by The Rascals shuffled on my phone and the beauty of the song hit my emotional center with such force that I was close to tears, brought on by the beautiful lyrics and amazing instrumentation behind the words.  Similarly, while driving the other day I Don’t Want To Go Home by Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes came on and it lifted my spirit as I thought about summer, the beach, youth, and anything but the 18 degree temperature outside.

I am very open minded about music and listen to so many different genres that when someone asks me what type of music I like best I am unable to answer them.  Bruce Springsteen is my favorite artist (I have seen him over 60 times and am not ready to end that ride),  and if I had to make a list of other favorites the Beatles would be number two, but after that things get rather confusing.  For example the last 12 songs I have listened to on my iphone are:

 

  1. REM – Driver 8
  2. Grateful Dead – Big Railroad Blues
  3. Genesis – Ripples
  4. Rush – Subdivisions
  5. Springsteen – Streets Of Fire (Live ’78, Passaic)
  6. O.A.R – Shattered (Turn The Car Around)
  7. Bob Dylan – Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
  8. The Band – Get Up Jake
  9. Pearl Jam – I Am Mine (Live)
  10. Phish – Ghost
  11. The Verve Pipe – Colorful
  12. Linkin Park – Bleed It Out

So, you can imagine my lack of surprise when some of my friends call me a music snob.  You can imagine how hard it is for me to make a mix CD for friends.  I like so much, and have so much material to draw from (close to 1000 cd’s, a few hundred albums sitting in a closet, and over 6000 tracks on my itunes library) that choosing the “right” songs for a mix is an impossible labor of love that totally depends on the mood I am in.

In a future article I will write about the social side of music, what that means to me, and how it has changed for me over the last 40 years.  I will talk about how in the old days your collection took up a wall in a room (and organizing it, if you did,, was a labor of love) and today it may fit into a hard drive the size of your hand.  I will talk about how I have shifted from an album oriented approach to listening to music to a track approach, how streaming makes exposure to  music much easier, and how all of this is good and sometimes limiting to how we share and listen to music.

Thank for listening.  If you love music as much as I do, I hope you found this article interesting.

And remember, it is possible to “learn more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”.

 

Masks, Lies, & Faking It

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Kurt Cobain said that “the worst crime is faking it”.  When Nirvana was active I was not a big fan, but I have grown to enjoy their music, appreciate their legacy, and influence on countless other bands. It is hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since he took his own life.

This post could be about Nirvana and music, or about women faking it in bed, but it is NOT about either of them.

This post is about masks.  Not Halloween masks, but the masks we wear daily.

We all wear them. Don’t lie and say this does not apply to you. This applies to nobody specific but everybody in general.  I am as guilty as everyone, and use one of those multi-layered rock solid locking masks sold at the high-end mask stores (not the cheap one sold on late-night television).

Our masks are on every day, from the moment we engage with people, until we settle down at night with a book or in front of the television. We could be having a horrible morning, after a fight with our spouse or we are worried about our kid’s schoolwork, but when a co-worker asks “How’s it going?” we always respond “Good!”  To do otherwise would be to go against social norms and admit that something is bothering us and that life is not peachy keen perfect.

Masks are our protection.  They are comfortable and behind them is safety. They allow us to look and feel better than we actually do.  Masks are the force field that keeps people at arm’s length and away from our troubles. Our masks allow people to only see the public persona that we have constructed for ourselves.  We can live and act like everything is fine, and nobody can see the bad and ugly parts of our lives.

But this is a lie.  A safe lie, but a lie nonetheless.   Our masks allow us to deny to ourselves and others how we really feel.  It is much easier (and safer) to make believe everything is great, than to admit that we have a problem, or are troubled by something.

It is easy to be a faker and make believe that everything is OK.  It is a lot harder to be honest with how we feel, and that starts with how we feel about ourselves.  Living life the safe way is easy, and our masks help keep us safe.  Taking a chance and taking our masks off a little bit takes courage, but allows us to be who we want to be.

I am trying to peel some of my layers off. It’s scary, but I will let you know how it goes.

 

I Miss Albums

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I miss albums.

I miss…..
• being able to admire the artwork, read the liner notes and the lyrics while listening to the songs.
• being able to drop the needle and play (reference to Springsteen’s Mary’s Place intentional).
• taking the cleaner and wiping the record clean before each play, and cleaning the stylus with the little brush.
• going to a friend’s house (or a dorm room) and browsing their record collection and becoming instant friends because it was obvious that our tastes in music were similar. They also had a copy of Love’s Forever Changes, or the cover of Bitches Brew was worn and frayed, or At The Fillmore East never seemed to make its way back into the stack, or they just didn’t know how to categorize the Beatles solo albums (put at the end of the Beatles section or alphabetize like all the other artists).
• the days of playing an album and friends or neighbors would hear it and we would bond some more and talk about the music and other stuff and we would then listen to something else, and it would morph into listening to something new and different.
• those days when I would make a mix tape and it would take me hours (if not days) and I would have albums scattered all over the floor as I tried to make that perfect running order.

I still have my albums. They haven’t been played in over 25 years (since I started re-booting my collection with CD’s). But I still have them and I don’t want to let them go just yet.

I like how CD’s don’t scratch, and sound clean, though not as ‘rich’ as an album. I appreciate how they take up less room, and how I can put 5 of them in the player and be entertained for hours. I like how easy it is to travel with them and play them in my car (as opposed to making a ‘car tape’). I like how I can display my CD collection in two wall units in our living room and it doesn’t take over the whole room (like my album collection used to).

I still listen to my CD’s, at home, and in the car.

I like being able to find out information about any CD or a song or an artist in seconds. Google and Amazon are my friend.

I love my Itunes library, with 6000+ songs that give me a wealth of music to listen to in an instant. I can make a mix CD or a playlist in a fraction of the time it used to take to make a mix tape (it may be easier, but it is not as much fun).

I love my 64 Gig Ipod Classic and my Iphone. I can listen to any song at any time whenever I want wherever I am, and I can do it quickly and without much thought, and I can put my headphones on and block out the world and isolate myself and nobody will know what I am listening to and it’s my music and you can’t have it. The person at the table next to me at Starbucks is doing the same, and I don’t care what they are listening to. It can’t be as good as what I am listening to. We would never have the same taste in music.

I miss albums……….