Empire by Queensryche

Empire by Queensrÿche

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Empire by QueensrycheThe progressive metal band Queensrÿche reached their commercial peak in 1990 with the release of their double-length LP, Empire. This fourth overall album by the quintet from Washington state, reached triple-platinum in sales, spawned several radio hits, and received a Grammy nomination. The group, which is known for sound re-invention and experimentation, may have taken their boldest step yet by stripping away much of their heavy metal elements in order to concentrate heavier on songcraft.

Queensrÿche was founded in the late 1970s by guitarists Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo, who were later joined by bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield in 1980. A year later, the group recorded a demo tape with the assistance of vocalist Geoff Tate, who was a member of a rival band in the Seattle area. After two years of circulating the demo tape, it was finally released as a self-titled EP in 1983, leading to the group’s signing with EMI shortly after. In 1984, the group travelled to London to record their first full-length album, The Warning, which was released in September of that year. Rage For Order followed in 1986, leading to Operation: Mindcrime, a narrative concept album that reaped much critical success upon its release in 1988. This, combined with relentless touring, set the band up for their breakthrough success.

For Empire, the group brought in producer Peter Collins, most famous for working with Rush on a couple of their mid-eighties albums. Together, the band and producer worked to split the difference between popular hard rock and progressive-flavored metal. Although only eleven tracks, nine of these are in excess of five minutes in duration, pushing the overall length to double-album length on vinyl.


Empire by Queensrÿche
Released: August 20, 1990 (EMI)
Produced by: Peter Collins
Recorded: Vancouver Studios, Vancouver, & Triad Studios, Redmond, WA, Spring 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Best I Can
The Thin Line
Jet City Woman
Della Brown
Another Rainy Night (Without You)
Empire
Resistance
Silent Lucidity
Hand On Heart
One and Only
Anybody Listening?
Geoff Tate
Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Chris DeGarmo
Guitars, Keyboards
Michael Wilton
Guitars
Eddie Jackson
Bass, Vocals
Scott Rockenfield
Drums, Percussion
 
Empire by Queensrÿche

Written by DeGarmo, “Best I Can”, launches the album with a dramatic synth intro and spoken vocals until these give way to a choppy synth piano with choir-like vocals in the intro to the first verse. The lyrics examine overcoming odds while suffering a physical handicap. “The Thin Line” is a riff-driven rocker with heavy bass presence by Jackson during the verses, and impressive guitar leads later on. A driving track with accessible riffs and hooks, “Jet City Woman” talks about coming home to family after a long road trip. Written by Tate for his flight attendant wife, this straight-ahead hard rocker was released as a single and reached the Top 40 in the UK.

Empire‘s original second side is where the album starts to get interesting. “Della Brown” is built on the funky bass rudiments with choppy drum beats, reserved guitar motifs and a fine lead melody. While it never leaves its pace or temperament through its seven minute duration, it does employ many long lead and effects sections. This is followed by three tracks which showcase Wilton’s writing and playing. “Another Rainy Night (Without You)” starts with harmonized guitars and settles into a standard, steady rock track, which reached #7 on the Mainstream Rock charts. The title song starts with some answering machine effects and breaks into a groove which is heavier than the preceding tracks. “Empire” is about drug trafficking and the bridge section is complete with a telephone-like voice reading statistics of law enforcement spending versus other expenditures. “Resistance” is heavier yet, at least through the intro. Here, Tate provides high register vocals and the track is also a bit of a showcase for Rockenfield.

The album’s most popular track is also its finest. “Silent Lucidity” starts with DeGarmo’s picked acoustic accompanied by Tate’s fine, reserved vocals. Very mellow with rich production throughout, the song really takes off with the tension-building lead guitar, complete with spoken vocal effects, making the whole thing sad and beautiful at once. The biggest hit for the band, “Silent Lucidity” peaked at #9 on the Billboard singles chart and topped the Album Rock Tracks chart.

“Hand On Heart” features duo guitars and bass along with an interesting arrangement which surrounds the basic rock format, while “One and Only” is a choppy rocker that has a bit of a Journey-vibe to it. Rounding out the album is “Anybody Listening?”, a dark-tinged track that is slow and methodical for maximum dramatic effect. The arrangement weaves in and out of prog rock and metallic ballad modes and includes a slight, fretless bass, which adds a nice effect to close everything out.

Empire peaked at number 7 in the US and sparked a massive headline tour for Queensrÿche. While the group had continued success through the early nineties, they would not peak at this level again.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Bossanova by Pixies

Bossanova by Pixies

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Bossanova by PixiesOne who appreciates an album which flows in a seamless order from track to track will not be happy with Bosanova, a collection of short tracks that change radically from one track to the next. The third studio album by Pixies, the album’s original material was written by frontman Black Francis. The sound includes elements of punk, new wave, Brit pop, surf rock and 60s pyschedelia. Although the album only reached #70 in the US, it fared much better in the UK, reaching the Top 5 on their charts.

The group formed in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1984 when Francis began jamming with guitarist Joey Santiago. In early 1986, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering joined to round out the quartet which chose their name from randomly arriving at “pixies” in the dictionary. In 1988, the band recorded and released their critically acclaimed first full-length album, Surfer Rosa. Producer Gil Norton produced their second full album, Doolittle, which employed a much cleaner sound than the debut but found similar critical acclaim.

In early 1990, the band members relocated to Los Angeles to write an record the album. With little time to rehearse along with a few some studio issues, some of the material may have been underdeveloped. While Francis admitting to writing lyrics on napkins just “five minutes” before he sang on some of the tracks, he has also stated that this is his favorite Pixies album.


Bossanova by Pixies
Released: August 13, 1990 (Elecktra)
Produced by: Gil Norton
Recorded: Hollywood, Berlin, & London, 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Cecilia Ann
Rock Music
Velouria
Allison
Is She Weird
Ana
All Over the World
Dig for Fire
Down to the Well
Happening
Blown Away
Hang Wire
Stormy Weather
Havalina
Black Francis
Lead Vocals, Guitars
Joey Santaigo
Guitarss
Kim Deal
Bass, Vocals
David Lovering
Drums, Percussion
 
Bossanova by Pixies

The surf-infused “Cecilia Ann”, written by Frosty Horton and Steve Hoffman, is a cool instrumental with heavy distorted guitars by Santaigo. This is followed by “Rock Music”, a literal screed with more than its share of distortion and feedback effects in its less-than-two-minute duration. In contrast, the vocals are smooth and the music is subtle on “Velouria”. The song also features s subtle theremin by guest Robert F. Brunner. “Velouria” was the first single by Pixies to reach the UK Top 40.

“Allison” is an extremely short, almost pop song which seems like the start of a something that was abandoned when one’s attention span was diverted. “Is She Weird” is built on Deal’s driving bass and bright guitar riffs in the verses, while “Ana” is a spacey ballad with fine guitars over the odd chord structures and breathy vocals, all compressed into 129 seconds. The longest track on the album, “All Over the World” has a real new wave feel with the drums of Lovering right up front, along with harmonized vocals in the verses. This track is one of the few with a proper mid section, and it is laced with distant, spoken vocals behind the dueling guitar chops which lead to the outro of the track.

“Dig for Fire” is another interesting track with choppy but entertaining phrases and Talking Heads-like lead vocals. This song is almost danceable in comparison to other tracks and it peaked at #11 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. After the emo drone of “Down to the Well”, the eclectic track “The Happening” starts as a dance track built with punk toppings but takes a quick and drastic turn during the first chorus and never really returns to its roots. “Blown Away” is a spacey, sixties type rock with upbeat rhythms and distant vocals and guitars, while “Hang Wire” returns to the new wave and gives the album its title;

Every morning and everyday, I’ll bossanova with ya…”

“Stormy Weather” is measured and sing-songing with Santiago’s bluesy guitars cutting through> The entirety of lyrics is one repeated line, offered in different variations much like the Beatles’ “You Know My Name, Look Up My Number”. Rounding out the album, “Havalina” is a fine sonic piece with bright guitar chords and duo vocals in the distance by Francis and Deal.

A year after Bossanova, the band released their final album before Francis abruptly announced that Pixies was finished as a band (with no explanation) in early 1993.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Extreme II, Pornograffitti by Extreme

Extreme II: Pornograffitti
by Extreme

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Extreme II, Pornograffitti by ExtremeThe rock quartet Extreme reached their popular climax with Extreme II: Pornograffitti. Sub-titled “A Funked Up Fairy Tale”, the album is a quasi-concept album with loosely-related songs that explore themes of sex and vice with lyrics primarily written by lead vocalist Gary Cherone. Musically, the album is dominated by the guitar textures and techniques of co-composer Nuno Bettencourt. The double-platinum selling result was an album which peaked at #10 on the Billboard album charts.

Extreme was formed in suburban Boston in 1985 by Cherone and drummer Paul Geary. Bettencourt and bassist Pat Badger were in rival bands and the four met after an altercation among the groups backstage at a multi-band local concert. Starting in 1986, the band gradually developed a strong local following and, during this time, Cherone and Bettencourt composed several original songs. They were signed to A&M Records in 1988 and recorded and released their self-titled debut album in 1989.

For their second album, veteran rock producer Michael Wagener was brought in. A mixture of funk, pop and hair metal sounds, the group’s hard sound was heavily influenced by Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. However, the group is not done any great favors by the production style, which buries some of the finer elements of the playing in favor of the mind-numb beats and top-end “shearness”. Also, the band tries to take some kind of social stand or social commentary, which often comes off as adolescent, shallow or both. Ironically, it was two of the tracks which bucked these sonic and lyrical trends that became the band’s most successful.


Extreme II: Pornograffitti by Extreme
Released: August 7, 1990 (A&M)
Produced by: Michael Wagener & Nuno Bettencourt
Recorded: Scream Studios, Studio City, CA, 1990
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Decadence Dance
Li’l Jack Horny
When I’m President
Get the Funk Out
More Than Words
Money (In God We Trust)
It ‘s a Monster
Pornograffitti
When I First Kissed You
Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?)
He-Man Woman Hater
Song for Love
Hole Hearted
Gary Cherone
Lead Vocals
Nuno Bettencourt
Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Pat Badger
Bass, Vocals
Paul Geary
Drums, Percussion
 
Extreme II Pornograffitti

The album begins with “Decadence Dance”, which gives the listener a good sampling of what’s to follow both musically and thematically. Released as a single, the opener was a minor success in the UK, peaking at #36. “Li’l Jack Horny” features intro guitar harmonics for melodic effect by Bettencourt before he changes direction with a strong, bluesy riff. A fine track overall with good melody of lyrics that use nursery rhymes and fables, the song borrowed its title from the six member “Li’l Jack Horn Section”, who performs on this track and “Get the Funk Out”. The latter track is driven by the bass pattern of Badger and features Pat Travers on co-lead vocals.

“More Than Words” is a fine finger-picked ballad where Cherone and Bettencourt are free to fully display their talents at the fullest. For how over-produced most of the rest of the album is, the sparse arrangement here is a brilliant break in the action, and worked well to make this a quasi-classic. Lyrically, the song examines the diminished meaning of phrase “I love you”, as actions speak louder. The song became a #1 smash on the Billboard charts in the US. The subsequent single, “Hole Hearted”, another acoustic track, was also successful, rising to No. 4 on the same popular music chart.

Extreme II: Pornograffitti has some weak moments through the middle of the album. “Money (in God We Trust)” starts with a slight dialogue about the tooth fairy before the upbeat core tries to be anthemic and preachy at the same time. Not very original or interesting and, in fact, the hook borrows heavily from AC/DC’s “What Do You Do for Money Honey”. Likewise, “It’s a Monster” 4:28 – really covers no new ground at all and, while the title track “Pornograffitti” begins with some blistering guitar riffs by Bettencourt and eventually settles into a rudiment-fused groove with steady beat, it really amounts to more Van Halen-style cloning.

The second break from form, “When I First Kissed You”, is jazzy piano ballad, completely sans guitar. Here, Badger appears to be using a stand-up, double bass which adds to the song’s feel of authenticity as well along with the fine orchestral strings over the bridge. “Suzi (Wants Her All Day What?)” is another hard rock narrative, while “He-Man Woman Hater” includes an excellent guitar intro that borrows from “Flight of the Bumblebee” with Bettencourt’s guitar accompanied by rapid, percussive tapping by Geary. Dweezil Zappa makes a cameo with the cartoonish voice of the title character. This is followed by “Song for Love”, a slow ballad with a dark feel throughout.

The album concludes with its finest track, “Hole Hearted”, which lifts the mood tremendously following the droning previous track. A stomp built on the ringing 12-string acoustic of Bettencourt, this track also has some of the finest melodies by Cherone, accompanied during the pre-chorus and chorus. The song is pure pop majesty and never needs to embellish on its simple arrangement to exude its pure rock energy. The fourth and final single from the album, “Hole Hearted” reached #4 on the US charts.

For his proficient playing on Extreme II: Pornograffitti, Bettencourt was named “Most Valuable Player” of 1991 by Guitar World magazine. The band followed up with the album III Sides to Every Story in 1992, but it failed to sell nearly as well. More than two decades later, Extreme performed Pornograffiti in its entirety on their 2014 tour.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Social Distortion

Social Distortion

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Social DistortionAfter working for over a decade to refine their sound, Social Distortion finally got their opportunity for a major label release in 1990. Their third overall album, Social Distortion,  displays the group’s unique mixture of blues and rockabilly flavored punk rock. Led by primary composer and vocalist Mike Ness, the group found the time and resources to find their true sound. They also found themselves fortuitous beneficiaries of a changing musical environment, which was growing more receptive to alternative sounds.

Social Distortion was formed in 1978 by Ness and guitarist Dennis Danell. By 1981, the group released their first of many singles, which was followed by their debut album, Mommy’s Little Monster in 1983, released on their own independent label. After a brief hiatus in the mid eighties, the band reformed with new members John Maurer on bass and Christopher Reece on drums and released their second album, Prison Bound in 1988.

After signing with Epic Records in 1989, the band returned to the studio with producer Dave Jerden. Now armed with more time and money than ever before, Social Distortion worked out a lean and powerful sound, partially influenced nearly in equal parts by The Ramones and by Johnny Cash.


Social Distortion by Social Distortion
Released: March 27, 1990 (Epic)
Produced by: Dave Jerden
Recorded: Track Record in North Hollywood, CA, August–October 1989
Track Listing Group Musicians
So Far Away
Let It Be Me
Story of My Life
Sick Boys
Ring of Fire
Ball and Chain
It Coulda Been Me
She’s a Knockout
A Place in My Heart
Drug Train
Mike Ness – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Dennis Danell – Guitars
John Maurer – Bass, Vocals
Christopher Reece – Drums, Percussion
 
Social Distortion

Social Distortion begins with the track “So Far Away”, written by Ness and Maurer. The two guitar riff attack with rapid rhythms highlights a very simple song structure, while the clear lyrical message gives song its head wagging creds. “Let It Be Me” is pure, raw, punk straight from the seventies and a good overall energetic performance highlighted by the creative way Ness drawls out the main title hook, all very adolescent and rebellious while still being apt musically. “Story of My Life” is one of the more melodic tracks with root rock n roll elements and nice backing vocals and medleys.

While entertaining enough, “Sick Boys” is really nothing new in its musical approach, just a bunch of Na Na Na’s to make it sing-along-able. The fully punked-out cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” subtly lets the main melody ring out through the distortion and is vastly entertaining even if it falls far short of the original 1966 masterpiece. The song was a minor hit, reaching #25 on the Modern Rock Tracks. Another hit radio , “Ball and Chain” features bright music which is contrasted by rough vocals, but they melodic enough to make it all work.

Coming down the stretch, the album gets only stronger. “It Coulda Been Me” is notable because of its fine harmonica interludes and a great lead later, while maintaining a sound that is very catchy and accessible. A long, upbeat drum leads into “She’s a Knockout”, a song which tilts towards heavy blues rock, at least musically. After a false stop halfway through, the whole song repeats again, virtually verbatim. “A Place in My Heart” is one of many tracks on this album which have a standard, love song-type title while actually being upbeat and intense. “Drug Train” is a bluesy romp to close the album, with excellent playing by each member, while sparse but effective lyrically. With a good harmonica and slight blues guitar leads, this track ends the album on a high note.

While Social Distortion only peaked at #128, it did remain on the album charts for over 20 weeks. More importantly, it set the band up for more success through the nineties and influenced a new sub-genre known as “cow punk”.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan

Bringing It All Back Home
by Bob Dylan

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Bringing It All Back Home by Bob DylanPerhaps the most lyrically potent album ever, Bob Dylan delivered a masterpiece with his fifth overall album, Bringing It All Back Home, released 50 years ago today on March 22, 1965. On this record, Dylan’s lyrics became more stylistic and surreal, with the composer employing stream-of-consciousness rants influenced by dreams and the result of isolated and intense writing binges. Most impressively, the words are striking and profound and persist in their relevance a half century later, as it personifies the absolute reach for the ultimate heights even if it risks an ultimate fall. Musically, this album featured Dylan’s first “electric” recordings as he worked with a full backing arrangement on the tracks on the first side. While the album’s second side features traditional acoustic folk songs, there is a steady vibe that unifies the album from end to end and makes it an indisputable work of art as a whole.

While they remained firmly within the realm of folk music, the very titles of Dylan’s 1964 albums (The Times They Are a’ Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan) signaled that the composer may traverse the strict standards of folk music, even if they simultaneously established Dylan as the leading folk performer of his generation. He retreated to Woodstock, NY during much of the summer of 1964, along with fellow folk singer and then-girlfriend Joan Baez. According to Baez, Dylan would stand at a typewriter in the corner of a room, “tapping away relentlessly for hours.” In late August 1964, Dylan had a private meeting with The Beatles in New York City which apparently had a radical effect on both the artistic entities.

Later in the year, Dylan and producer Tom Wilson began experimenting with techniques of fusing rock and folk music. After a few failed attempts at overdubbing electric backing tracks to existing acoustic recordings, the composer and producer brought in a full band for sessions in January 1965. Here, for the first time, Dylan employed his unique method of rapidly “teaching” each individual session man (who had no prior awareness of the material being recorded) exactly he wanted their individual part to be. Amazingly, the entire album was recorded in just a few days, with the entire second side recorded on January 15, 1965.

Those songs recorded for the second side were intentionally stripped down, usually with just Dylan and his acoustic guitar/harmonica accompanied by one other single player to add the slightest bit of flavoring and counter-melody to the otherwise raw tracks. While the production team could have easily released full “electric” versions of every track on this final album, it is rather ingenious the way the second side was presented as almost a natural bridge between Dylan’s previous work and the new direction he was heading, even on the first side of this very album.


Bringing It All Back Home by Bob Dylan
Released: March 22, 1965 (Columbia)
Produced by: Tom Wilson
Recorded: Columbia Recording Studios, New York City, January, 1965
Side One Side Two
Subterranean Homesick Blues
She Belongs to Me
Maggie’s Farm
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Outlaw Blues
On the Road Again
Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
Mr. Tambourine Man
Gates of Eden
It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
Primary Musicians
Bob Dylan – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica
Al Gorgoni – Guitar
Kenny Rankin – Guitar
Paul Griffin – Piano, Keyboards
William E. Lee – Bass
Bobby Gregg – Drums

Looking at the second side first, it begins with the oldest song on the album, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, written over a year before the album’s release and performed many times through 1964. This well-crafted folk song with highly poetic lyrics, features Dylan’s acoustic nicely complimented by the slightest electric guide guitar of Bruce Langhorne. Less than a month after its release on Bringing It All Back Home, The Byrds released their own interpretation of the song, which reached number one on the Billboard charts and helped spawn their debut album of the same name. Lyrically, the song was influenced by French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, and Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini with focus on a central muse who has been interpreted as anyone from an American Indian shaman to Jesus Christ. Of course, the similarities to an LSD trip cannot be disregarded;

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves of the haunted frightened trees, out to the windy beach far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow / Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow…”

“Gates of Eden” is nine verses of pure folk intensity, where Dylan commands full attention as he tells fables and fortunes about universal and existential stories, with Dylan performing the entire song solo end to end. This song was also written in late June or July 1964, and has clear religious overtones with the Biblical location of pure peace and serenity within a turbulant universe. With little variation throughout its five minute duration, Dylan masterfully commands total attention during each autonomous viginette, with a single harmonica note separating each verse and alerting to a new start. Further, the lyrics describe historical and mythical figures alike;

With a time-rusted compass blade, Aladdin and his lamp sits with utopian hermit monks, side saddle on the golden calf and on their promises of paradise you will not hear a laugh all except inside the gates of Eden…”

The most haunting and pure dark folk track on the album, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” best displays the pure genius of Dylan with a song that is a perfect message both musically and, most especially lyrically. First performed live in October, 1964, this grim masterpiece features Dylan’s best acoustic performance (with no harmonica!) as well as some of his most memorable lyrical images, which express the composer’s rants against hypocrisy, commercialism, institutionalism, and contemporary politics and, decades later, Dylan has named this track as one that means the most to him. After the brilliant cascade of lyrical genius, the track concludes with the most profound line of all;

And if my thought-dreams could been seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine, but it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only…”

The album concludes with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” which, despite its name, is a much brighter acoustic song than anything else on side two and has an almost electric vibe. William E. Lee offers refrained but interesting bass guitar to the acoustic strumming and dynamic melodies of Dylan’s vocals. The song’s subject may have been the folk protest movement in general or Baez in particular, or even both. In any case, this offers a perfect conclusion to Bringing It All Back Home and leaves an almost deafening reverberation in the listener’s ear after the song concludes.

Rolling back to the beginning, this brilliant album has a rather unpolished start as the intro to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is slightly cut off. However, once this song fully launches, it never relents for one single moment, with its only real flaw being that it ends too soon. Here Dylan blends the musical influences of Chuck Berry and Woody Guthrie along with a lyrical style similar to the writings of Jack Kerouac. Released as a single ahead of the album, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” became Dylan’s first Top 40 hit in the US, as well as a the Top 10 hit in the UK. Dylan employs a completely different vocal style on “She Belongs to Me”, a much smoother song musically than the opening track. While his vocalizing has long been the subject of debate and some derision, it is really quite amazing how Dylan can shift gears from track to track. Musically, a gently strummed acoustic is complemented by the picked electric guitar of Langhorne along with a subtle rhythm track and Dylan also executes a few of his finest harmonica leads on this song.

Bob Dylan

“Maggie’s Farm” may very well be the ultimate counter-counterculture song, exposing some of the hypocrisies of a rebellion against “the establishment” while implementing even stricter standards within itself. Armed with some of his more brutal lyrics, Dylan unambiguously screeds through this explicit poetry and clarion declaration of independence. Essentially, this is an announcement of his musical transformation, which found further importance when Dylan performed it as the opening tune during his defiant electric set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in August of that year.

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more / Well, I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them, they sing while you slave and I just get bored, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more…”

As cynical as the previous tracks are, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” completely pivots in the opposite direction, almost like an extremist love song. The very title (a mathematical equation which results in “absolutely unlimited love”) indicates the complete offering of one’s existence to a significant other, in this case Dylan’s future wife Sara Lowndes. Another complete departure for Dylan is “Outlaw Blues”, a rollicking, bluesy and about as heavy as rock and roll came in 1965. In fact, this song could, at once, be a true ancestor to bluesy jam bands as well as the hard rock and heavy metal which arrived a half a decade later. With “On the Road Again”, Dylan takes a large step forward both musically and lyrically. This strong rock/blues track with especially potent drums by Bobby Gregg, contain lyrics written in the spirit of Kerouac’s novel On the Road but with a definite original edge;

Well, there’s fist fights in the kitchen, enough to make me cry / The mailman comes in and even he’s gotta take a side / Even the butler, he’s got something to prove / Then you ask why I don’t live here, Honey, how come you don’t move?”

The album’s first side ends with a bit of levity in the false start of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”. Once the song really kicks in, it employs a true stream-of-consciousness and may have the most surreal lyrics on the album. The song’s title alludes to the track “Bob Dylan’s Dream” from his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but as an almost satirical sequel to that serious folk song.

Upon its release, Bringing It All Back Home reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic and has continued to grow in stature and importance in the half century since its release. Later in 1965, Dylan would record and release another masterpiece, Highway 61 Revisited, an album Classic Rock Review will examine on August 30th, the 50th anniversary of that album’s release.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of 1965 albums.

1965 Page
 

The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon

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
 
The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon

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.

Paul Simon

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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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Facelift by Alice In Chains

Facelift by Alice In Chains

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Facelift by Alice In ChainsAlice In Chains released an impressive debut album in 1990 with Facelift. Some have given this record the distinction of being the first “grunge” record to be certified platinum, although we may stipulate that this album is not strictly “grunge”. The group has a strong heavy metal pedigree, which shines through the otherwise methodical and moody tunes. In all, Facelift is full of tracks which are heavy, melodic and dark and it (unintentionally) became the wellspring for musical trends to come.

The group originated when vocalist (and then drummer) Layne Staley met guitarist Jerry Cantrell at a Seattle rehearsal studio in the mid eighties. The two struggling musicians instantly bonded and worked on several musical projects together before Alice In Chains fully formed. In 1988, the group recorded a demo which eventually made its way to Columbia Records‘ A&R department and representative Nick Terzo, who set up an appointment with label president Don Ienner. Based on The Treehouse Tapes, Ienner signed Alice in Chains to that label in 1989.

After the release and success of an EP earlier in 1990, the label fast tracked the production of the debut album with producer Dave Jerden. Mainly recorded at London Bridge Studio, Cantrell felt that the album’s moody aura was a direct result of the feel of Seattle. Meanwhile, drummer Sean Kinney claims he recorded the album with a broken hand because he didn’t want to miss the group’s “first big break.”


Facelift by Alice In Chains
Released: August 21, 1990 (Columbia)
Produced by: Dave Jerden
Recorded: London Bridge Studio, Seattle & Capitol Recording Studio, Hollywood, December 1989-April 1990
Track Listing Group Musicians
We Die Young
Man In the Box
Sea of Sorrow
Bleed the Freak
I Can’t Remember
Love, Hate, Love
It Ain’t Like That
Sunshine
Put You Down
Confusion
I Know Somethin (‘Bout You)
Real Thing
Layne Staley – Lead Vocals
Jerry Cantrell – Guitars, Vocals
Mike Starr – Bass, Vocals
Sean Kinney – Drums, Percussion, Piano

 
Facelift by Alice In Chains

The opening track “We Die Young” comes in as a standard hard rock song with a just a bit of vocal and lyrical edge. Cantrell wrote the song when he observed on a bus some “9 or 10 year-olds with beepers to deal drugs”. This track, which originated on the group’s earlier studio EP, clocks in at just two and a half minutes and ends just as aprubtly as it begins.

The true gem of Facelift comes early on with “Man In the Box”. The track employs simple but masterful sonic expressions and a steady drive which could uniformly cut through Staley’s lead vocals. Cantrell uses a talk box effect with bassist Mike Starr holding down the bottom end of the grinding riff. Released as a single in 1991, this became the signature song of the band’s early career and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992.

 
Kinney’s choppy piano complements Cantrell’s slide guitar notes during the deceptive beginning of the beat and rhythm driven “Sea of Sorrow”. The song peaked at number 27 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks and was a moderate radio hit. “Bleed the Freak” is the first somewhat weak track on the album, with the vocals a bit whiny, while “I Can’t Remember” extends the preceding track but with a darker, more foreboding feel. The body of this latter song uses timing for maximum effect, even if the song never really accelerates from its slow and deliberate pace.

The heart of the album contains some of the more diverse tracks. The extremely slow “Love, Hate, Love” features some competing riffs that somehow end at the same place during the sparse but effective verses, while the choruses are even more impressive due to Staley’s soaring vocal melody as he wails through lyrics of standard love fair. Cantrell offers some Wah-Wah effects on “It Ain’t Like That”, which has strong elements of traditional eighties heavy metal, but with the dark overtones that tilt it towards grunge. A bright chorus of guitars make the verse section of “Sunshine” unlike anything else on the album, although this track’s chorus is a little more straight-forward hard rock, with Cantrell singing some smooth backing vocals behind Staley’s raspy throat. “Put You Down” is good-time hard rock musically, in a style reminiscent of our review of Damn Yankees.

Alice In Chains

The final three tracks are all excellent and work to close the album very strongly. The slow, moody, stream-of-consciousness that starts off “Confusion” is complemented by an odd chord progression that adds to the overall effect. Co-written by Starr, who adds enough low-end bass punch, this song builds nicely in intensity through the chorus and is one of the few tracks to have a proper lead guitar and it is bluesy and effective for this fine song. “I Know Somethin (Bout You)” has a very funky intro by Cantrell and Starr. Masterfully odd timings throughout make this one of the more entertaining tracks along with the complex vocal patterns during the chorus hooks, which help build the song to a climax before its abrupt ending. “Real Thing” is a bit of  traditional blues mixed with straight-forward heavy rock. Like tracks earlier on the album, the sonic textures carry the day on this closer which works to elevate the album to the classic level.

Facelift barely missed the Top 40 on the album charts and was far from an instant success, selling less than 40,000 copies in its first six months. But there is still little doubt that, with this album, Alice In Chains was a blazing a trail for the deluge of change that was about to come to the music scene.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Damn Yankees album cover

Damn Yankees

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Damn Yankees album coverBefore its swift exit from the mainstream rock scene in 1991, “hair metal” had its last hurrah during the year 1990. Perhaps the apex of this final phase was the self-titled debut album by the super group, Damn Yankees, which brought together three musicians from different rock outfits, each of whom had tremendous success in the years and decades previous to Damn Yankees. The result was a double platinum commercial success which spawned several radio and charting hits.

Vocalist and guitarist Ted Nugent had been performing live since 1958 and found some mainstream success with his band, the Amboy Dukes, in the late sixties and early seventies. However, when Nugent launched his solo career the mid seventies, he found his greatest success with three multi-platinum albums in consecutive years 1975, 1976, 1977. During that same era, bassist and vocalist Jack Blades formed the funk band Rubicon, which had a few minor hits before breaking up in 1979. The following year, Blades formed a band called “Ranger”, which morphed into “The Rangers” and ultimately, Night Ranger. The group had tremendous success through the 80’s, selling millions of albums and charting several hit singles. Tommy Shaw joined the established Chicago group, Styx, in late 1975 as second guitarist and co-lead vocalist. Over the next eight years, the group had tremendous success, including the standout albums, The Grand Illusion, in 1977 and, Paradise Theatre, in 1981. However, Shaw grew increasingly dissatisfied with the direction of the group’s music towards pop ballads and theatrical role playing, so he left Styx to pursue a solo career which yielded three albums in the late eighties.

Damn Yankees was formed in 1989, with drummer Michael Cartellone (who had played in the final stages of Shaw’s solo band) rounding out the quartet. Some of the material on this album was brought in by individual members, but most was composed collaboratively in the studio. Producer Ron Nevison also brought in multiple session musician to enrich the music and allow the three vocalists to concentrate on melodies and harmonies.


Damn Yankees by Damn Yankees
Released: February 22, 1990 (Warner Bros.)
Produced by: Ron Nevison
Recorded: A&M Studios, Hollywood, CA & Can-Am Studios, Tarzana, CA, 1989-90
Track Listing Group Musicians
Coming of Age
Bad Reputation
Runaway
High Enough
Damn Yankees
Come Again
Mystified
Rock City
Tell Me How You Want It
Piledriver
Tommy Shaw – Guitars, Vocals
Ted Nugent – Guitars, Vocals
Jack Blades – Bass, Vocals
Michael Cartellone – Drums
 
Damn Yankees

The album starts with the hit, “Coming of Age”, which sets the pace for the slick, polished, hard rock sound of the album. Blades brought this popular song with him into Damn Yankees, which features catchy, chanting vocal motifs, accented by accent by Nugent’s choppy riffs, which all worked to make this perfect for pop and rock radio alike. “Bad Reputation” follows in the same vein as a pure riff-driven raunch, unambiguous lyrically and not too far from that musically – steady beat throughout – nice bridge with complex vocal patterns before song returns with Nugent’s blistering lead. After some cool deadened guitar notes in the intro, “Runaway” launches into a full-fledged pop rocker. Led by Shaw’s lead vocals, the song contains nice complements throughout, including some sparse but tactical keyboards by session man Steve Freeman.

The album’s best track is also its most popular. “High Enough” is a ballad which starts and ends with a string ensemble put together by Nevison with strummed acoustic during initial verse. Shaw’s high harmonies perfectly complement Blades’ lead vocals on this track filled with harmonic bliss, both vocally and musically. Further, there is enough arrangement variation to make this Top 5 hit a true classic from the album.

Damn Yankees‘s title song has an Aerosmith-like feel in its riffing, but a much different vibe once the vocals come in. The mid section of this track is dominated by Nugent, with several wild effects through the guitar lead and lead vocals over the bridge. “Come Again” is a folk ballad by Shaw which reflects some of the arena ballads by Styx. Beginning with a picked acoustic during the verse, this song continuously builds in a moody but melodic track that is contrasted by Nugent’s frenzied guitar riffs. “Mystified” starts with some great blues elements, including some slide guitar over initial porch-stomp verses. The song soon turns into a more standard rock drive, but maintains the great blues harmonics during Nugent’s soaring lead, making this the last real highlight of the album.

The remaining three tracks are not the strongest. “Rock City” a bit of frivolous number, only really there for the mind-numbed partier, making it one of the weaker numbers on the album. Led by the strong but standard drumming of Cartellone and the fine vocal harmonies, “Tell Me How You Want It”, is a track which has all the elements of a hit song in 1990, but never reached that plateau. Nugent’s “Piledriver”,  is almost a direct rip-off of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” in its sonic approach. That’s not to say that Nugent’s guitar is not impressive – it is – but the comic breakdown in the middle of this blistering lead is a bit over the top. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining way to wrap up the album.

Damn Yankees reached the Top 20 on the Billboard album charts and remained a hit well into 1991. The group went on a successful world tour and returned with a 1992 follow-up album Don’t Tread, which was a minor hit on its own. In 1994, Nugent left the group, with Shaw & Blades releasing a single album as a duet before ending the short run of Damn Yankees.

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1990 images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1990 albums.

Gaucho by Steely Dan

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

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Remain In Light by Talking Heads

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 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food, 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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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 35th anniversary of 1980 albums.

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