The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel

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The Nylon Curtain by Billy JoelAfter much commercial success with his previous albums, Billy Joel really branched out to new musical territory on his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. On this album, the artist ventures out towards more electronic instrumentation, richer compositional arrangements as well as more complex lyrical content. Joel has called this album one of his most ambitious efforts and has often stated that he is most proud of this recording.

The great success of the chart-topping pop/rock albums The Stranger, 52nd Street and Glass Houses led to Joel being labeled a balladeer or even a soft rocker. For The Nylon Curtain, Joel tried his hand at topical songs and was decidedly more ambitious in his use of the recording studio.

Along with producer Phil Ramone, Joel set out to forge a sonic masterpiece during the Fall of 1981, spending much more time in the studio then on previous efforts and employing brand new digital recording techniques. Joel maintained many of his backing band members, including guitarists David Brown and Russell Javors along with his longtime rhythm section, bassist Doug Stegmeyer and drummer Liberty DeVitto. However, several session players were also employed to provide extra synthesizers, strings, horns and percussion during the rich production.

 


The Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel
Released: September 23, 1982 (Columbia)
Produced by: Phil Ramone
Recorded: A&R Recording and Media Sound Studios, New York City, Spring 1982
Side One Side Two
Allentown
Laura
Pressure
Goodnight Saigon
She’s Right on Time
A Room of Our Own
Surprises
Scandinavian Skies
Where’s the Orchestra?
Primary Musicians
Billy Joel – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Guitar
David Brown – Lead Guitar
Russell Javors – Rhythm Guitar
Doug Stegmeyer – Bass
Liberty DeVitto – Drums & Percussion

 

The pleasant, choppy piano tune aura, complete with industrial sound effects, masks the frustrating stories embedded in the opening track “Allentown”. The song plays like a theatrical diddy, especially during the quasi-dramatic bridge section and its combo with the real themes of blue collar manufacturing towns (not just the Pennsylvania city it is named for) made it a universal theme. The brilliant track “Laura” follows with Joel delivering a John Lennon-like quality vocally during the verses and the guitarists presenting some George Harrison-like guitar motifs during the dramatic choruses. Lyrically, this song is superb in describing a totally dysfunctional relationship with all the biting energy of the day’s most vicious punk rock while utilizing incredible melody and sonic drama.

The hit song “Pressure” is a totally unique new wave rocker within Billy Joel’s collection. It is musically cutting edge with sharp synths throughout and a mechanical, biting drum beat. The lyrics speak of the dichotomy between philosophical outlook and actual real life grew out of an episode of writer’s block Joel was feeling one day in his New York apartment. The extended track “Goodnight Saigon” completes the original first side as a heart-wrenching, haunting, brilliantly descriptive ballad about the plight of those serving in Vietnam. This song is beautifully simple with a piano motif mixed between acoustic verses and it eventually builds to a chorus crescendo with marching drums. During this part live, Joel would frequently enlist local veterans to perform onstage.

“She’s Right on Time” is a pleasant pop tune that has a quasi-Christmas theme. Joel uses several melodic vocal sections and a depth of vocals to give everything a strong, live feel. “A Room of Our Own” is the most easy going track on the album, with a down-home rock and roll feel and strong drums and some creative bass by DeVitto and Stegmeyer respectively. “Surprises” feel like another quasi-tribute to Lennon, at least vocally. While the electric piano and synths are pure eighties in sound, this track has enough gentle and melancholy vibe to make it a forgotten classic.

Billy Joel, 1982

The climactic point of the second side comes with “Scandinavian Skies”, from its really pointed and dramatic intro, through the plethora of sonic treats and production throughout. Joel’s sweet melodic vocals are placed above a really cool drum shuffle with subtle piano and synths during this song’s ‘A’ sections, while the synths of guest Rob Mounsey are much more up front and dramatic during the ‘B’ sections. The lyrics speak of a journey and several opaque incidents in many Northern European locales. The closing ballad “Where’s the Orchestra?” is almost an afterthought after the climactic previous tune, but it does feature some nice little flourishes on sax and clarinet by Eddie Daniels to accompany Joel’s simple piano and vocals.

While not as commercially successful as Joel’s previous albums, The Nylon Curtain was still a smash by any measure, reaching the Top 10 on the albums charts and selling over two million copies in the U.S. alone. Joel went in the opposite direction for his next album, An Innocent Man in 1983, which had a much lighter tone as a tribute to R&B and doo wop music of the fifties and sixties.

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Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson

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Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry NilssonThe seventh studio album by Harry Nilsson, the music on 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson unfolds almost like a television variety show with its incredible diversity in musical style. The most commercially successful work of Nilsson’s career, the album was his first to fully delve into the pop/rock realm as it features a vast array of mature pop ranging from tin pan alley to contemporary rock.

With a musical career that dated back to the late fifties, Nilsson began to have some real success as a songwriter in 1963 when he wrote a songs for artists like Little Richard and producers like Phil Spector. His debut album, Spotlight on Nilsson was released in 1966 with album releases coming in rapid succession over the next several years but with very modest commercial success. However, Nilsson’s multi-octave vocals caught the ear of Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor who introduced his music to the band. By 1968, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were citing Nilsson as one of their favorite American artists. Nilsson’s first commercial breakthrough came when his rendition of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin'” was featured in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, becoming a Top 10 hit and leading to a subsequent Grammy Award.

Nilsson Schmilsson was produced by Richard Perry, who enlisted top-notch players to back Nilsson. This includes bassist Klaus Voormann, formally of Manfred Mann’s band, and drummer Jim Gordon who had recently been involved with Derek and the Dominos. The album was recorded at Trident Studios in London.

 


Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson
Released: November 13, 1971 (RCA/Victor)
Produced by: Jimmy Page
Recorded: Trident Studios, London, June 1971
Side One Side Two
Gotta Get Up
Driving Along
Early in the Morning
The Moonbeam Song
Down
Without You
Coconut
Let the Good Times Roll
Jump Into the Fire
I’ll Never Leave You
Primary Musicians
Harry Nilsson – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
John Uribe – Guitars
Klaus Voormann – Bass, Guitar
Jim Gordon – Drums, Percussion

 

The ten-song album features three covers and seven Nilsson originals including its first two tracks. “Gotta Get Up” is a theatrical pop/rocker driven by Nilsson’s bouncy piano, complete with a rich arrangement including slight horns and other elements packed into this song of less than two and a half minutes. The acoustic “Driving Along” follows and works well as an early seventies soft rocker with rich vocals, slight horns and a Mellotron by Perry. The album’s first cover is “Early in the Morning”, originally a late 1940s Cuban-influenced track by Louis Jordan. On this version, Nilsson nearly performs solo with a choppy reverb laden organ and extraordinarily soulful lead vocals.

“The Moonbeam Song” features slowly strummed acoustic topped by soft vocals soon accompanied by a rich backing chorus. The poetic verse structure of this song is atypical, with elongated lines at times to extenuate the overall feel. On the moderate piano rocker “Down”, Nilsson’s strained vocals and Jim Keltner‘s potent drum beats drive home the central theme strongly to finish the first side. The pop-oriented second side begins with the chart-topping cover of “Without You”, originally composed and released by Badfinger for their No Dice LP. Here, Nilsson took an incredibly dramatic ballad and made it even more emotional and melancholy as he uses his voice to max potential and performs both parts of the original duet by Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Further, the orchestration of Paul Buckmaster made this an almost operatic piece.

Harry Nilsson

Following the emotional drama of “Without You”, comes the light and nearly frivolous “Coconut”. Here, a finger-picked acoustic riff starts the rotating and persistent percussion, which does not change through the entire duration of this quirky Caribbean hit. The cover of Shirley and Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll” has a genuine Southern feel throughout with bouncy piano, a fine harmonica lead and slight slide guitar by John Uribe interjected between vocal lines. In contrast, the rocker “Jump Into the Fire” is built on a de-tuned bass groove by Herbie Flowers and well-treated vocals which sound unlike anything else on the album. The slow and simple piano ballad, “I’ll Never Leave You”, wraps things up with many instances of pleasant sonic additives throughout.

Nilsson Schmilsson was nominated for several Grammy awards with the song “Without You” winning for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In an attempt to build on this success, Nilsson followed with a couple of spin-offs, Son of Schmilsson in 1972 and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night in 1973, but neither of these were received nearly as well critically or commercially.

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Fire of Unknown Origin
by Blue Öyster Cult

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Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster CultFire of Unknown Origin was released during an era when Blue Öyster Cult fully embraced their mythical “cult” status amoung hard rock fans, a feature of early eighties coolness which propelled them higher than they probably deserved. Still, this album is a quality jam of non-pretentious rock which still sounds pretty potent three and a half decades later. The songs on Fire of Unknown Origin are clearly theatrical, which may suggest an intended concept work. However, a closer listen proves that this is not the case, it is simply a collection of rock songs.

The New York based quintet was prolific in recording and touring through the early 1970s before their breakthrough fourth album, Agents of Fortune in 1976, which featured the group’s trademark hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”. The group followed with the studio albums Spectres in 1977, Mirrors in 1977, and Cultösaurus Erectus in 1980, as well as the multi-platinum selling live album, Some Enchanted Evening in 1978. These albums all received a fair amount of critical acclaim but differing levels of commercial success.

The group’s eighth studio album, Fire of Unknown Origin was produced by Martin Birch and took a noted pivot towards the use of more synthesizers and other New Wave elements. Concurrently, the band’s sound also become even more theatrical with the lyrics more mysterious and cunning.


Fire of Unknown Origin by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: July, 1981 (Columbia)
Produced by: Martin Birch
Recorded: Kingdom Sound Studios, New York & The Automatt, San Francisco, 1981
Side One Side Two
Fire of Unknown Origin
Burnin’ for You
Veteran of the Psychic Wars
Sole Survivor
Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver
Vengeance (The Pact)
After Dark
Joan Crawford
Don’t Turn Your Back
Band Musicians
Eric Bloom – Guitars, Vocals
Donald Roeser – Guitars, Bass, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Keyboards
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Vocals
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Keyboards, Vocals

 

The album’s title song was co-written by longtime collaborator, Patti Smith. “Fire of Unknown Origin” is a pure eighties funk/pop song, complete with the keyboards of Allen Lanier as co-lead instrument. The track features an interesting groove with a good level of intensity and motion, highlighted by the excellent dual guitar lead above the animated, hi-hat infused drums of Albert Bouchard. “Burnin’ for You” is THE Blue Oyster Cult classic from their later era. Everything comes together on this composition by Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, from the layered flanged-out intro guitars to the rich intro vocal chorus to classic bass riff by Joe Bouchard in the verses under smooth vocals by Roeser. An early MTV video favorite, this song spent three weeks in the Top 40 and topped the Billboard Top Tracks chart.

The intense and dramatic “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” was co-written by vocalist and guitarist Eric Bloom with British author Michael Moorcock. This intense and dramatic mini-suite is ushered in by a theatrical drum beat with Bloom’s vocals working well with the descending synth patterns. “Sole Survivor” kicks off with a cool bass and slightly treated vocals by Bloom during the highly melodic verses. The choruses have a strong hook, giving the song an overall sense of variety and style in spite of some cheesy but fun electronic effects during the final verse. “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” matches its title as a heavier track than anything on the first side, probably pretty potent for its day but, in retrospect, about at the same level as your garden variety hair band anthem.

Blue Oyster Cult

The album’s second side “Vengeance (The Pact)” was written by the Bouchard brothers and features a smooth intro with choppy rock verses. This track has interesting music and melodic passages throughout its multiple distinct parts. “After Dark” starts with a punk-flavored drum shuffle with New Wave-like bass, guitars, and keyboards on top, making this the most “modern” sounding track on the album. Starting with an extended solo concert piano section, “Joan Crawford” is the controversial track on the album as it unabashedly tries to cash in on the “Mommie Dearest” phenomena of the day. This track does break into a decent rock groove with rapid piano accompanied by choppy guitar riffs and really does fit in with the other theatrical themes on the album. “Don’t Turn Your Back” comes in directly from “Joan Crawford” and settles into a unique vibe built by beats in odd measures, a jazzy bass line and smooth vocal melodies and harmonies. This closer still has strong rock elements, especially through the drums and guitar lead, but is ultimately in a sub-genre that is hard to identify, which makes it truly original.

Fire of Unknown Origin reached the Top 30 on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be the final studio album with the band’s original lineup for seven years, a duration in which Blue Öyster Cult lost much of its commercial momentum, making this 1981 album their high water mark.

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Agents of Fortune by
Blue Oyster Cult

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Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster CultThe most commercially successful album of the group’s career, the platinum selling Agents of Fortune is a diverse and interesting (albeit a bit incohesive) album by Blue Oyster Cult. Musically, this fourth album from the New York based quintet branched out from the dark and mysterious strain of heavy metal toward more pop-oriented, synth-drenched, arena style rock. Quite ironically, this album yielded the band’s most indelible single, which is a track that advances Blue Oyster Cult’s traditional musical approach rather than one which capitulates to popular trends.

Following the 1972 release of their self titled debut album, the group went on an extensive tour while simultaneously writing material for their next album, Tyranny and Mutation. This sophomore effort included the first of the band’s many collaborations with composer Patti Smith. The group’s third album, Secret Treaties in 1974 was the first to receive positive mainstream critical acclaim and launched the band into headlining status for the first time in their major label career.

Three producers collaborated on Agents of Fortune, Sandy Pearlman, Murray Krugman, and David Lucas along with engineer Shelly Yakus. The compositions on the album were dispersed among four of the five group members as well as some outside composers such as Smith, which made for an extremely diverse sequence in both sound and style as the album progresses.

 


Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult
Released: May 21, 1976 (Columbia)
Produced by: Murray Krugman, Sandy Pearlman & David Lucas
Recorded: The Record Plant, New York City, 1975–76
Side One Side Two
This Ain’t the Summer of Love
True Confessions
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper
E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)
The Revenge of Vera Gemini
Sinful Love
Tattoo Vampire
Morning Final
Tenderloin
Debbie Denise
Band Musicians
Eric Bloom – Guitars, Percussion, Vocals
Donald Roesar – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Allen Lanier – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Joe Bouchard – Bass, Piano, Vocals
Albert Bouchard – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

 

The album begins on a sober, if not cynical, note to reflect the darker mood of the mid 1970s with,”This Ain’t the Summer of Love”, co-written by drummer Albert Bouchard. While musically this is rather typical pop/rock with a slightly harder edge, it has been suggested that this song forecasts the rage and thematic subject matter of punk rock. “True Confessions” was composed and sung by guitarist and keyboardist Allen Lanier. It is much brighter than the opener as a piano driven tune with an electric guitar trailing close behind to form a Randy Newman-type vibe with choppy rhythms.

Continuing the vast diversity of the album is the dark and smooth classic “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, the group’s biggest chart success and the only Top 10 single. Written by lead guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and primarily built around his ringing guitar riff. The lyrics are clearly about death, an odd choice of subject matter and arrangement to work for a mainstream audience, but this one certainly caught fire. The song is also notable for Bouchard’s consistent use of cowbell (later parodied on this classic Saturday Night Live skit) and a dynamic middle section which diverts into Roesar’s theatrical, feedback-laden guitar lead.

“E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)” starts with the infectious talk-box drenched riff, complemented by a choppy piano. On this track, Roesar’s vocals are dry and cool in contrast to the upbeat musical riffs, beats and rhythms. The lead section starts with wild synth effects to give life to the spacey lyrics, a line of which gives the album its title. Co-written by Smith, “The Revenge of Vera Gemini” finishes side one as a smooth, unique, interesting, and entertaining track with some spoken and sung female backing vocals under smooth musical arrangements and upbeat rhythms.

Blue Oyster Cult in1976

The album’s original second side starts with two of its weaker tracks. “Sinful Love” is a pale attempt at pop/soul with its only redeeming traits being a good guitar lead and consistent animated bass by Joe Bouchard. “Tattoo Vampire” continues the theatrical sequence but with a much harder rock approach, led by the guitars and lead vocals of Eric Bloom. Agents of Fortune does finish very strong, starting with Joe Bouchard’s “Morning Final”, which starts with a squealing guitar lead before settling into a funk groove accented by melodic injections through the verse sections and later musical rudiment sections featuring multiple keyboards. On “Tenderloin”, the bass motors along with calm synths/piano on top and very unique lead vocals by Bloom. “Debbie Denise” closes the album as a pleasant and moderate pop ballad which tries to pack in a bit too much variety of instrumentation and tempo.

Agents of Fortune reached the Top 30 on the Pop Albums chart and launched the band into an even larger concert attraction, where the Blue Oyster Cult indulged in a state-of-the-art laser light show to accompany their music. Through the next half decade, the group’s popularity continued to grow with more album and live success, reaching its peak just before Albert Bouchard left the group in the early 1980s.

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Do You Believe in Magic
by The Lovin’ Spoonful

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Do You Believe In Magic by The Lovin SpoonfulThe Lovin Spoonful had a meteoric career which climaxed shortly after it began in the mid 1960s. Do You Believe in Magic is the 1965 debut album by the group. It displays an incredible diversity of styles, ranging from folk to blues to country, bluegrass, and jug band. Led by composer and vocalist John Sebastian, this debut contains tracks which are equal parts original and innovative along with a healthy amount of reinterpreted standards  traversing many American genres.

Sebastian grew up as the son of a studio session harmonica player (of the same name) and he launched his own music career playing the folk circuit in Greenwich Village, New York City in the early 1960s. Along with guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two future members of The Mamas and The Papas, Sebastian formed a group called The Mugwumps in 1964. Later bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler joined Sebastian and Yanovsky to form The Lovin’ Spoonful. Starting in 1965, the group began recording for Elektra Records before Kama Sutra Records exercised a previous option to sign the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Beyond the 12 tracks which appear on Do You Believe In Magic, the band recorded some of their biggest hit singles in 1965. Sebastian’s “Daydream” is a moderate pop/folk song which reached #2 in both the US and the UK. The rock-oriented chart topper “Summer In the City” was written by Sebastian and Boone and features a signature Hohner electric piano, further expanding the group’s palette.


Do You Believe In Magic by The Lovin Spoonful
Released: November 26, 1965 (Kama Sutra)
Produced by: Erik Jacobsen
Recorded:June-September, 1965
Side One Side Two
Do You Believe In Magic
Blues In the Bottle
Sportin’ Life
My Gal
You Baby
Fishin’ Blues
Did You Ever Have to…
Make up Your Mind?
Wild About My Lovin’
The Other Side of This Life
Younger Girl
On the Road Again
Night Owl Blues
Primary Musicians
John Sebastian – Guitars, Keyboards. Vocals
Zal Yanovsky – Guitars
Steve Boone – Bass, Vocals
Joe Butler – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The album aptly begins with its title song, “Do You Believe In Magic”, an upbeat folk tune with nicely layered guitars and a backing vocal chorus provided by Yanovsky and Butler. Thematically, the “magic” is about the power of music and this certainly resonated in 1965 as this, oft-covered, debut single from the group reached the Top 10 in the US.

As was the custom for debut albums of the time, the bulk of Do You Believe In Magic is cover songs, including the remainder of the original first side. “Blues in the Bottle” features bending, descending notes with Sebastian’s vocals being deep and rustic. “Sportin’ Life” is a slower blues number with some legitimate lead guitars for that genre, while “My Gal” is a fun, rocked up folk song about an alcoholic girlfriend who can “get drunk on shoe polish”. Co-written by Phil Spector, Barry Mann and, Cynthia Weil, “You Baby” is a somber, crooning folk song centering on the vocals, sort of in the realm of Roy Orbison with good mixture of guitar riffs. “Fishin’ Blues” closes out the side by adding a blue grass dimension to the group’s sound, with Sebastian’s vocals matching the country mood and Yanovsky’s consistent pick/slide guitar overtones bring the tune to a new level.

The Lovin Spoonful in 1965

A picked guitar intro gives way to a bright organ rhythm on Sebastian’s “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” with the singer adding vocals with a dynamic range. The second single released from the album, this song reached #2 on the American Billboard charts in 1966. “Wild About My Lovin'” follows as a simple blues track with a moderate rhythm and beat, with the philosophical “Other Side of This Life” featuring a good bass-driven rhythm by Boone.

The album finishes strong with three Sebastian originals, starting with the romantic ballad, “Younger Girl”. “On the Road Again”, is one of the harder rocking songs – in the manor of traditional rock and roll, at least – not too much in way of substance, but a fun song nonetheless. The closing instrumental, “Night Owl Blues”, is the only one credited to all four band members. It is led by a proficient harmonica through the first section, where Sebastian shows off his talent on this instrument for the first time (he would later do some memorable harp for other artists like The Doors), later followed by a quality lead guitar section by Yanovsky, complemented by some ever intensive playing by the rhythm section.

Do You Believe in Magic reached the Top 10 on the album charts and sparked an avalanche of further hit singles, albums and soundtrack themes over the next two years. Yanovsky departed from the band in mid-1967, followed by Sebastian’s decision to go solo in early 1968, which effectively ended The Lovin’ Spoonful.

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The Rhythm of the Saints
by Paul Simon

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The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul SimonEver the artist searching for a new, authentic sound, Paul Simon went to Brazil and employed the heavily percussive samba known as Batucada for his 1990 album, The Rhythm of the Saints. Here Simon fuses his witty pop and folk roots with Latin musical and rhythm techniques by employing nearly 70 session musicians. Beyond the vast number of Latin and African musicians, Simon also brought in contemporary musicians such as guitarist J.J. Cale, drummer Steve Gadd and vocalist Kim Wilson.

The album’s conception came on the heels of Simon’s tremendous success with Graceland, the 1986 release where he worked with South African musicians and vocalists. This gave the composer a taste of world music which he chose to pursue again for his next project starting in the late eighties. While maintaining some musicians from the Graceland sessions, such as the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, most of the backing musicians were from Latin America such as the popular Grupo Cultural Olodum.

Simon produced the album and first recorded most of the rhythm tracks in Rio de Janeiro, starting in December 1989. Guitarist Vincent Nguini performed on several of the tracks as well as helped out with several of the arrangements (and has remained a member of Simon’s band ever since). Overdubs were recorded and the album was mixed at The Hit Factory in New York City in mid 1990.


The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon
Released: October 16, 1990 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Paul Simon
Recorded: Rio de Janero, Brazil, December 1989–June 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
The Obvious Child
Can’t Run But
The Coast
Proof
Further To Fly
She Moves On
Born At the Right Time
The Cool, Cool River
Spirit Voices
The Rhythm of the Saints
Paul Simon – Lead Vocals, Guitars
J.J.Cale – Guitars
Naná Vasconcelos – Percussion

Although not originally intended to do so, “The Obvious Child” starts The Rhythm of the Saints off. As the lead single from this decidedly non-pop-oriented album, the label insisted that it be placed first on the album, (against Simon’s own wishes) and the track went on to be Simon’s final Top 20 hit. The military-type drums were recorded live in an outdoor square and add much contrast to the chanting vocals by Simon above strummed acoustic. The second track, “Can’t Run But”, is built on much more subtle rhythms, a xylophone, and a subtle bass, all too calm and cool against Simon’s signature rapid vocals. There is a slight bluesy guitar in the distance making this reminiscent of some of the Police’s more extravagant tracks, with lyrics that deal with the 1986 Chernobyl incident.

“The Coast” was co-written Nguini and starts with subtle hand drums, like a jungle rhythm in the distance. This song is built on brightly picked electric guitar with notes that nicely squeeze out and builds with some brass before relinquishing to a percussive chorus and starting over again. “Proof” contains good, strong brass horn accents over complex but subtle rhythms that topically rotate through an almost-digital like arpreggio while the bass rhythm uses simple 4/4 duo beats. There are also good vocal variations and plenty of interesting instrumental interludes. “Further to Fly” is more bass driven and almost jazzy in approach, but not quite as rewarding as the previous tracks, seeming like a more improvised, rehearsal-like track.

“She Moves On” may be the first song which reflects the folk roots of Simon, albeit it does have some jazzy bass, horns, and smooth guitars and (of course) a chorus of percussion. Written about Simon’s ex-wife, actress Carrie Fisher, this lover’s lament brilliantly incorporates a female chorus for a single line with great effect. “Born at the Right Time” is just as interesting, with bright guitars, bass, accordion, and a catchy melody which makes this one of the more accessible songs on the album. In contrast, “The Cool, Cool River” is one of the more modern sounding tracks, especially during the verses and kind of takes a left turn in feel and tempo during the ‘B’ sections.

Coming down the stretch, “Spirit Voices” is more music oriented than most of the tracks with a few complementing guitars and a wild fretless bass under Simon’s whimsical vocals. Co-written by Brazilian songwriter Milton Nascimento, this track is uplifting overall. The title track “The Rhythm of the Saints” finishes off the album and, like the title suggests, the percussive orchestra returns with a vengeance to the point of nearly overwhelming the light guitar, bass, and vocals of Simon. The later call and response vocals between Simon and a chorus are almost spiritual in nature.

It is hard to surmise whether The Rhythm of the Saints has an over-exuberance of percussion which distracts from the core song craft or if the opposite is true, meaning these track may not have been quite as interesting without the arrangements. In any case, this album was a critical and commercial success all over the world and yet another high water mark in the long and brilliant career of Paul Simon.

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Gaucho by Steely Dan

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Gaucho by Steely DanSteely Dan had a smooth and steady upward climb through their heyday in the 1970s, with an album-a-year released for six straight years and each gaining in popularity. The group’s seventh album however, 1980’s Gaucho, proved to be a laborious project which was plagued by personal, legal, and creative problems. When finally complete, the album is a quasi-concept of interrelated tracks with frank lyrical themes and simple (or at least simple for this band) rhythms and musical structures.

After the tremendous success of 1977’s Aja, the group’s core duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to migrate from Los Angeles back to their native New York City to record a follow-up album with producer Gary Katz. However, their perfectionism in recording did not translate well for New York session musicians when recordings began in 1978. Despite using over 40 studio musicians during a year of intense recording, Fagen and Becker were still not satisfied and spent in excess of $100,000 extra just on innovative processing of the drum beats alone. Further complicating the process, the recording of a song intended for the album called “The Second Arrangement” was accidently erased in 1979 and had to be replaced by another track late in the process. The album’s mixing sessions were no less intensive, expensive, and time consuming.

While recording the album, the group’s label was involved in a merger, which caused some legal static and prevented Becker and Fagen from changing labels. Also during this time, Becker was hit by a car and broke his leg, resulting in extensive hospitalization. Becker also battled substance abuse and his girlfriend tragically died of a drug overdose in early 1980. Gaucho was finally released in November 1980, over three years after its predecessor.


Gaucho by Steely Dan
Released: November 21, 1980 (MCA)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, 1978-1980
Side One Side Two
Babylon Sisters
Hey Nineteen
Glamour Profession
Gaucho
Time Out of Mind
My Rival
Third World Man
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Piano, Synths, Vocals
Rob Mounsey – Piano, Keyboards
Steve Khan – Guitars

The album opener, “Babylon Sisters” ,comes in with a cool, slow and deliberate rhythm with some embellishment by the electric piano of Don Grolnick. Subtle horns and reggae elements sneak in just prior to the commencement of the first verse, along with the famous “Purdie Shuffle” by drumming legend Bernard Purdie. The album’s lyrical pace is also set here with simple but profound lines like “here comes those Santa Ana winds again.”

“Hey Nineteen” is one of the finest sonic pieces ever, and where the group’s meticulous production really pays off. A simple but completely infectious beat is complemented with each subtle instrument finding its own space, while the lyrics lightly discuss the disconnect between a thirty-something and a nineteen-year-old trying to make a go but finding little in common. The song peaked at #10, making it the last major hit for Steely Dan. The first side ends weakly with “Glamour Profession”, a song with a close to moderate disco beat and slight funk and soul elements, but very little movement in its seven and a half minutes.

With the title track, “Gaucho”, the album gets back on track. Driven by a sax riff in the intro and interludes and great bass by Becker, who also later adds a potent guitar lead to conclude the song. Steely Dan was sued by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, for “borrowing” a bit from one of his songs. Fagen and Becker relented, making this the only song with a writing credit beyond those two. “Time Out of Mind” is poppy and catchy with a main chorus hook that builds nicely. However, the lyrical content is much darker with an unabashed celebration of one’s first experience with heroin. “My Rival” is almost like a movie or television soundtrack with storytelling lyrics of determination and interesting sonic qualities with an interspersing old-fashioned Hammond organ and modern square-font synth being used. The album closes with “Third World Man”, a slow and deliberate track which is  darker than the other material on the album.

In spite of its tortured conception, Gaucho was another solid hit for Steely Dan, reaching the Top Ten in the US and winning the 1981 Grammy Award for its engineering. However, the turmoil of the preceding years proved to be the breaking point and the group disbanded in mid 1981 and did not release another album for almost two solid decades.

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Classic Rock Review 1980 promo

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.

Remain In Light
by Talking Heads

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Remain In Light by Talking HeadsRemain In Light is far from your typical rock album. In fact, a case might be made that it is not really a rock album at all. However, this widely acclaimed fourth studio album by Talking Heads is important in its creative approach and originality as well as a firm statement by the group that they were much more than a simple, New York, post-punk band. Remain In Light is filled with experimental African polyrhythms along with a series of samples and loops, all performed by the four group members and additional session musicians.

Talking Heads began as “The Artistics” in 1974 at the Rhode Island School of Design where three of its permanent members attended, including the couple Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, who played bass and drums respectively. Eventually the group migrated to New York City and played their first proper gig as “Talking Heads” at the famed CBGB in 1975. Over the next two years, the group gained a following which led to their signing with Sire Records. During each of the final three years of the 1970s, the group recorded and released Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings, and Fear of Music, each achieving higher acclaim and popularity. The most recent of these albums was produced by Brian Eno, who stayed on board for this fourth album.

Remain In Light was conceived when the members of Talking Heads wanted to make a more music and rhythm oriented album, in part to dispel notions of that the group was just a backing for frontman and chief lyricist David Byrne. Initial recordings were made in Nassau, the Bahamas, with instrumental sessions that experimented with the communal African recording methods. For his part, Byrne provided inspired lyrics from literature on Africa and re-invented his vocal style to match the free-associative feel of the compositions.


Remain In Light by Talking Heads
Released: October 8, 1980 (Sire)
Produced by: Brian Eno
Recorded: Compass Point Studios, Nassau & Sigma Sound Studios, New York, July–August 1980
Side One Side Two
Born Under Punches (Heat Goes On)
Crosseyed and Painless
The Great Curve
Once in a Lifetime
Houses in Motion
Seen and Not Seen
Listening Wind
The Overload
Group Musicians
David Byrne – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion
Jerry Harrison – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Tina Weymouth – Bass, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals
Chris Frantz – Drums, Keyboards, Percussion, Vocals

While none of the compositions include chord changes and instead rely on the use of different harmonics and notes, the first side contains the more rhythmic songs with good sound loops, albeit excessively repetitive. The opener “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is pure techno funk and never deviates from a 10-second sequence acting as a canvas for the vocals. “Crosseyed and Painless” is more dance-oriented than the opener and, although the chorus vocals are very melodic, this track is built predominantly as a club track. Lyrically this track discusses the paranoia and alienation of urban life. “The Great Curve” features layered, multi-part vocals over hyper rhythms and a rich horn section. The song and side ends with an interesting, droning, synthesiser-treated guitar solo by Adrian Belew.

The second side of Remain In Light features more introspective songs, commencing with most popular on this album and one of the most popular in the band’s career catalog. “Once In a Lifetime” has a refreshing refrain and is the most musically interesting thus far. While Weymouth’s basic bass pattern never changes, the other musicians play brilliantly, with Frantz adding good drum fills and guitarist Jerry Harrison laying down brilliant funk and rock guitar licks. For his part, Eno composed the vocal melody for the chorus after originally expressing reservations about the song. Released as the first single from the album, the song peaked at #14 on the UK Singles Chart in 1981.

“Houses in Motion” contains a spoken introduction and later fine chorus vocals, with the music a bit more interesting than similar tracks on the first side. Conversely, “Seen and Not Seen” is almost psychedelic, as Byrne speaks seemingly declarative statements above a clapping rhythm motif with many synth interjections. “Listening Wind” is almost a new wave pop song, features some Arabic music elements, while the closing track “The Overload” is a doomy rock track with haunting sound effects and somber, chanting verse vocals. This last track almost has a Pink Floyd quality to it, taking a different approach than any previous track on this album, but is also similar in its repetition as it slowly fades away into oblivion.

Remain In Light peaked in the Top 20 in the the US and was nearly as successful in the UK, eventually selling over a million copies worldwide. In order to replicate its thick rhythms, Talking Heads expanded to 9 stage members for the subsequent tour. Following this, the group went into an extended hiatus before returning for several more successful albums through the eighties.

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Classic Rock Review 1980 promo

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.

 

The Last In Line by Dio

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The Last In Line by DioAfter stints in several rock groups, Ronnie James Dio found his popular groove in the early eighties with the founding of the group, Dio. Although this band was named after the veteran vocalist and songwriter, it was approached as a true rock group with each member contributing to the original compositions. Dio’s second release, The Last In Line, was released in mid 1984 and reached great critical acclaim within the rock and metal community. The album was also a mainstream crossover hit, reaching the Top 10 on several album charts fueled by three tracks which landed in the Top 10 of the American Mainstream Rock tracks chart.

Dio’s music career began way back in 1957, when he founded the band, The Vegas Kings, as a teenager in his hometown of Cortland, New York. This group went through various changes in name and personnel through the 1960s, with a few singles released along the way. In 1967, that group transformed into The Electric Elves, later shortening its name to Elf. Through the early seventies, Elf recorded three albums and toured with major acts such as Deep Purple. When Ritchie Blackmore left that group to form Rainbow in 1975, he recruited members of Elf, including Dio. While with Rainbow, Dio wrote most of the lyrics for the first three albums. However, when given the opportunity to replace Ozzy Osbourne in the legendary Black Sabbath, Dio jumped ship in 1979. Three years later, disagreements within that band resulted in the departure of Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, who formed Dio in October 1982. The following May, the band released their debut album, Holy Diver, which featured two MTV hits.

The original quartet of Dio included Vivian Campbell on guitar and Jimmy Bain on bass. Later on keyboardist Claude Schnell was recruited for live shows and ultimately became a permanent member of the band.


The Last In Line by Dio
Released: July 2, 1984 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Ronnie James Dio
Recorded: Caribou Ranch, Colorado, 1984
Side One Side Two
We Rock
The Last In Line
Breathless
I Speed at Night
One Night In the City
Evil Eyes
Mystery
Eat Your Heart Out
Egypt (The Chains Are On)
Group Musicians
Ronnie James Dio – Lead Vocals, Keyboards  |  Vivian Campbell – Guitars
Jimmy Bain – Bass  |  Vinny Appice – Drums, Percussion

The Last In Line followed the same basic pattern as Holy Diver, leading these albums to later be packaged together. The album comes in strong with “We Rock”, led by the frenzied drums by Appice throughout, including a beat-driven post lead section. Co-written by bassist Bain, the most quality track on the album is the title track, “The Last in Line”. The laid back intro section allows for a nice setup to the driving song proper, with its steady and heavy approach. However, it is Dio’s philosophical and fascinating lyrics that shine brightest on this track, finding the line between good and evil like a heavy metal counterpart to “Hotel California”,

We don’t come along, we are fire, we are strong, we’re the hand that writes and quickly moves away…”

“Breathless” sounds much like Rainbow-era material, built on the interesting riffing by Campbell and the melodic hooks by Dio. “I Speed at Night” may be the most overtly concocted tune (perhaps to take advantage of the recent success of Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55”). In any case, this is not a good showcase for Dio and Appice. The side one closer “One Night In the City” is heavy pop, starting with a couple of interesting riff sections before it breaks into pristine rock with repeatable hooks. “Evil Eyes” forges the high-end 80’s heavy rock where Campbell adds some of his finest guitar work during the brief verses and frantic, hammer-on lead.

“Mystery” is the most accessible song on the album and a true Dio classic. Everything comes together on this collaboration between Dio and Bain, as it is melodic and musically sweet, with a hook, guitar lead, and keyboard riff that it puts in firmly within the boundaries of pop/rock radio. “Eat Your Heart Out” follows as one last accessible hard rock song and a true band collaboration with good rock rudiments. The album closer “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” adds a theatrical and dramatic element to the album with opening wind effects and a slow and deliberative thumping in the verses.

Within two months of its release, The Last In Line was certified Gold and would later go on to become the first Dio album to be certified Platinum. A third album followed soon in 1985, along with more later in the decade, but the group would not again achieve this level of success.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of 1984 albums.

1984 Images

 

Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan

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Pretzel Logic by Steely DanAt first glance, Steely Dan‘s third album, Pretzel Logic, may seem almost too short and efficient. Many of the songs do not even reach three minutes in length and the album as a whole barely surpasses the threshold beyond EP territory. However, after a few listens you realize that this may be the true genius of the album after all. Composers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker started their studio practice of employing scores of session musicians to record just the right part, phrase or note so that not a moment is wasted on filler. By expertly mixing pop, rock, and jazz intricacies into direct and succinct album tracks, the duo found a sonic sweet spot for the mid seventies. This allowed them to proliferate on pop radio while hardly ever seeing the light of public performances.

Following the success of Steely Dan’s debut Can’t Buy a Thrill, the group felt that the 1973 follow-up Countdown to Ecstasy was rushed and incomplete due to their hectic touring schedule not allowing time to develop the material properly. As a consequence, that second album did not receive good critical or commercial marks. Further, after the departure of front man David Palmer, Fagen was the sole lead singer, a role he did not like performing live.

When the band entered The Village Recorder studio with producer Gary Katz in late 1973, they decided to write material without regard to live performances. Fagen and Becker also decided to use many Los Angeles-based studio musicians, something that eventually led to the departure of all remaining “band” members and solidifying Steely Dan as a duo for the rest of their career. Also, following the release of Pretzel Logic in 1974 when the group ceased performing live and focused on studio recording exclusively.


Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan
Released: February 20, 1974 (ABC)
Produced by: Gary Katz
Recorded: The Village Recorder, Santa Monica, CA, October 1973-January 1974
Side One Side Two
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Night by Night
Any Major Dude Will Tell You
Barrytown
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
Parker’s Band
Through with Buzz
Pretzel Logic
With a Gun
Charlie Freak
Monkey In Your Soul
Primary Musicians
Donald Fagen – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Saxophone
Walter Becker – Bass, Guitars, Vocals
Jeff Baxter – Guitars
Denny Dias – Guitars
Jim Gordon – Drums

 

The album begins with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, which would become the biggest hit of Steely Dan’s career, topping out at number four on the pop charts. Musically, this is about as smooth as any song by the band, led by the simple piano line of Michael Omartian and great samba-inspired drums and percussion by Jim Gordon. During the lead and bridge section, the song morphs from jazz to rock seamlessly and the rather obscure lyrics tend to add to the overall mystique of this unique song (although artist Rikki Ducornet believes it was inspired by Fagen approaching her at a college party years earlier).

The choppy rock rhythm and spectrum of brass intervals of “Night by Night” is followed by the cools and somber “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”. Starting with a brightly strummed acoustic that soon settles into an electric piano groove with electric guitar overtones, this latter song offers great little guitar riffs between the verses composed of uplifting lyrics of encouragement;

Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again
When the demon is at your door, in the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you…”

The oldest composition on the album, Fagen’s “Barrytown” is lyric driven with a moderate piano backing, not all that complex but with good melody and arrangement. Named for a small upstate New York town near the duo’s alma mater, the song is a satirical look at the small town class system. The first side concludes with the only cover and instrumental on Pretzel Logic, Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”. This modern interpretation, features the indelible pedal guitar lead by Jeff Baxter, who emulated a mute-trombone solo masterfully. The rest of the piece pleasantly moves through many differing lead sections before returning to Baxter’s guitar to finish things up.

“Parker’s Band” contains much movement as a funky track with rock overtones. Perhaps the highlight of this track is the dual drums by Gordon and Jeff Porcaro, which are potent and flawless. “Through With Buzz” is a short, almost psychedelic piece driven by mesmerizing piano and a strong string presence. This is another example of how the Katz and the group gets everything out the door with extreme efficiency in this lyrical proclamation of a resolution. The title track, “Pretzel Logic”, contains a slow electric piano groove and verse vocals which are the most blues based of any on the album of the same name. This song contains lyrics that are cryptic, driving rhythms and grooves, a pretty respectable guitar lead by Becker, and is also the only song on the second side which exceeds three minutes in length.

The album’s final stretch features three very short tracks of differing styles. “With a Gun” is like an upbeat Western with strummed fast acoustic, Tex-Mex styled electric riffs, and a strong, Country-influenced drum beat. “Charlie Freak” features a descending piano run, which the vocals mimic with simple, storied lyrics of a downtrodden man who pawns his ring to the protagonist at a discounted price to buy the drug fix that ultimately does him in. The closer “Monkey in Your Soul” features the coolest of grooves, with an electric piano and clavichord accented by horns between the verses and a Motown-like clap to end the album on an upbeat note.

Pretzel Logic reached the Top Ten on the album charts and remains one of the group’s most critically acclaimed releases. Two of many session players used on this album (Jeff Porcaro and David Paich) went on to form the group Toto and Becker and Fagen continued the formula of using the best possible musicians on several more fine albums through the 1970s.

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1974 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of 1974 albums.