The Beastie Boys – Check Your Head

ARTIST: The Beastie Boys 

TITLE: Check Your Head

YEAR RELEASED: 1992

CHART ACTION:  #10 US, #106 UK

SINGLES: Pass the Mic (#47 UK), So Whatcha Want (#93 US, #21 Alternative, #122 R&B), Jimmy James (#55 UK), Gratitude, Professor Booty, Something’s Got to Give

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: Funky Boss, The Maestro

LINEUP: King Ad-Rock, MCA, Mike D, Money Mark Nishita. Mario Caldato produced. Biz Markie did a vocal, and various percussionists helped.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: The Beasties evolve again, adding their own instruments into their highly-sampled tracks.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: The Beastie Boys started as a punk band, back in the day, and even after they moved to hip-hop they still had a punk ethos. So after playing their own backing for a couple of tracks on Paul’s Boutique, they created more songs that utilized their own instruments on bass, guitar and drums. (MCA a/k/a Adam Yauch really loves to use pedal effects on his bass). Augmented by keyboardist Mark Nishita and other percussionists (congas and what not), the Beasties add a bit funk and Latin rhythms into their songs.

Meanwhile, they continued to experiment with sounds and samples, and while they weren’t as snotty and misanthropic as before, tracks like “So Whatcha Want” and “Pass the Mic” had plenty of their old attitude. And then, as the album winds down, “Namaste” shines a light on MCA’s journey to Buddhism and peace.

This is an ambitious project and encompasses quite a bit of musical territory. The number of instrumentals really shows the Beasties as serious about their musical chops. It’s not as fantastic as Paul’s Boutique but is impressive just the same.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: Caldato was the third producer in three albums for the Beasties, though he did engineer quite a bit of Paul’s Boutique

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: Yes, a Japanese version and then a big Deluxe version.

 GRADE: A: It’s not Paul’s Boutique, but it’s still pretty fantastic.

Love – Da Capo

ARTIST: Love 

TITLE: Da Capo

YEAR RELEASED: 1967

CHART ACTION:  #80

SINGLES: 7 and 7 Is (#33), She Comes in Colors, Que Vida

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: Orange Skies

LINEUP: Arthur Lee, Brian MacLean, Johnny Echols, Ken Forssi, Snoopy Pfisterer, Tjay Cantrelli, Michael Stuart

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: Second album from LA scensters reveals a lot about themselves and their eclecticism.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: The second album from Love shows a band that was confident in many motifs. The big single (“7 and 7 Is”) was hard rock for 1966, “Que Vida” was an amalgam of styles, and “Orange Skies” and “She Comes in Colors” were brilliant sunshine pop.

The first side was a brilliant 1967 psychedelic pop-rock record. I’d maybe resequence it, but that’s a quibble. Then there’s the second side.

“Revelations” was the only cut on side two. Dylan and Zappa had done in 1966, but those were on double albums. Here, Love devoted an entire side to a rambling, long, jam that started out with Bach, and then incorporated Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. It had everything a 60’s psychedelic band threw at their audiences – drum solos, woodwind excursions, harmonicas, guitar solos, meandering jams. The works.

After such a brilliant side one, it was such a come down to flip the record over. That wouldn’t be a problem on their next album.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: Snoopy Pfisterer moved to harpsichord and keyboards for this album from drums, instruments he was much more comfortable in playing.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: A reissue with mono and stereo mixes.

GRADE: B: Six fantastic tracks on side one (even if the sequencing is a bit off for me), then that jam on side two.

Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness

ARTIST: Smashing Pumpkins

TITLE: Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness 

YEAR RELEASED: 1995

CHART ACTION:  US #1, UK #4

SINGLES: Bullet with Butterfly Wings (#22 US, #2 Alternative, #4 Mainstream, #20 UK), 1979 (#12 US, #1 Alternative, #1 Mainstream, #16 UK), Zero (#49 Airplay, #9 Alternative, #15 Mainstream), Tonight Tonight (#36 US, #5 Alternative, #4 Mainstream, #7 UK), Thirty-Three (#39 US, #2 Alternative, #18 Mainstream, #21 UK)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: X.Y.U., Muzzle

LINEUP: Billy Corgan, D’Arcy Wretzsky, James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlain. Greg Leisz played pedal steel.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: A L-O-N-G record with some masterful songs, and some songs that needed pruning.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: You talk about bloat? You thought the Smashing Pumpkins last album was too long and hard to get through at once? Well, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

This double CD (28 tracks, originally thought of 32 early on out of 56 they considered after recording about 70 or so, and 30 on the original vinyl version) has a wide array of tracks in both length and motif.

This is where Billy Corgan and his mates break out of their alt-rock motif and dabble in chamber pop, acoustic folky songs, prog rock epics, and guitar freakouts. Many of the songs are classics – touchstones of the mid-90’s. The deep cuts were interesting and revelatory. They were all over radio and MTV.

Yet, for all the accolades and sales, this record could use a good whacking at times. A lot of the songs go about a minute too long, sometimes two minutes. The quieter tracks aren’t sequenced in a way where they would be most effective – they get lost in the noise. I don’t know if I’d trim a track myself but a couple could go missing without being a big loss.

Corgan thought of this as a concept record about a teenage day in the life, and despite this being his concept for once the entire band contributed arrangements, solos, and played their instruments. It does sound like more collaboration instead of being a one man gang, for sure. 

But this is an album that is tough to listen to all at once, simply because it’s just way too long. The extended endings on many songs make one say ‘get ON with it’.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: One of the outtakes was a pastiche of about 70 songs that they demoed and / or considered for the album.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: Yes, of course. The original vinyl version had two extra tracks. They released another version with lots of extras and demos and a live DVD.

 GRADE: A-: I don’t know if it deserves to be cut down to a single album, because of the breadth, but an editor was really needed on some tracks for it to earn an A.

Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

ARTIST: Smashing Pumpkins 

TITLE: Siamese Dream

YEAR RELEASED: 1993

CHART ACTION:  US #10, UK #4

SINGLES: Cherub Rock (#7 Alternative, #23 Mainstream, #31 UK), Today (#103 US, #4 Alternative, #28 Mainstream, #44 UK), Disarm (#48 Airplay, #8 Alternative, #5 Mainstream, #11 UK, Rocket (#28 Mainstream. #89 UK)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: Starboy, Mayonaise

LINEUP: Billy Corgan, D’Arcy Wretzsky, James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlain. Mike Mills played piano on a track. Eric Remschneider and David Ragsdale played the string parts.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: The album that put the Pumpkins on the map, and still a favorite of Generation X today.

 SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: The first thing you notice about Siamese Dream is the guitar sound. THE guitar sound that made Billy Corgan famous. Yes it was all over Gish, but here, it’s layered and layered to an inch of its life. Producer Butch Vig and Corgan constructed a monolith of sound. There are pages on the ‘net and videos about that tone

Then there’s the songs. Here’s where Billy and the Pumpkins perfect (or steal) the famous Pixies Loud-Soft-Loud (or Soft-Loud-Soft, depending). The songs here are long, sprawling discourses – mostly on mental health and other assorted issues. There’s some dialing back of the alt-rock pummeling, with two tracks (famously “Disarm”) being string-driven, and songs like “Today” which crank down the urgency to bring some emotional heft.

Most of the songs are very familiar to the Gen X Alt-Rock masses, but before writing this review I had to wonder when I played the whole thing through. It just seems like it goes on forever, with many tracks (five) over five minutes long, and others just seem long. Some of those long cuts seem a bit ponderous and momentum-stalling.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: This took a long time and was way over budget. There are conflicting reports on how much James Iha and D’Arcy actually played on the record.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: Yes, with lots of bonus tracks and demos.

GRADE: A-: It’s an alt-rock touchstone, but it’s got its flaws and needed some pruning.

Electric Light Orchestra – Eldorado

ARTIST: Electric Light Orchestra

TITLE: Eldorado

YEAR RELEASED: 1974

CHART ACTION:  #16

SINGLES: Can’t Get It Out of My Head (#9), Boy Blue

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: Only if you’re an ELO lifer

LINEUP: Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy. Mike de Albuquerque left during the recording but was on a few tracks. Mike Edwards, Mik Kaminski, and Hugh McDowell were credited string players, but Lynne hired an orchestra, so good luck picking them out. Peter Forbes-Robinson did a voice over.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: A concept album about a dreamer gave ELO its first true US hit.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: After a few years of hits in the UK and being an album-rock artist in the US, ELO got its first US hit (and saw it’s UK chart fortunes disappear) in “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”, a nice slice of baroque pop with an orchestra.

The rest of the album was similar, with a shoulda been hit in “Boy Blue” and melodies and orchestrations on every song. It was a concept album, beginning and ending with an overture and a finale. Lynne’s devotion to Beatle melodies comes right to the front, as many cuts sound right from the back pages of Lennon / McCartney’s book of melodies backed by an orchestra. One track, “Mister Kingdom”, is close to an outright appropriation of “Across the Universe” in places.

The sound, with a full orchestra, is much improved, but the synthesizers of Richard Tandy seem obtrusive at times, with odd settings of buzzes and effects where a nice piano or organ setting would have been better. The overall sound makes this a much better listen for casual ELO fans who want to explore beyond the hits.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: de Albuquerque left during the sessions as he felt life on the road was taking away from his family time. Kelly Groucutt joined during the tour for the album and the classic ELO lineup was solidified. Also, the honest to goodness, the full album title is Eldorado: A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: Yes, with a long version of the “Eldorado” suite and tiny snippet of a song.

 GRADE: B: On this album, ELO almost puts all of their elements together. Almost.

My Bloody Valentine – Gilder / Tremolo

ARTIST: My Bloody Valentine

TITLE: Gilder / Tremolo

YEAR RELEASED: 1990; 1991

CHART ACTION:  Glider : #2 UK, Tremolo: #1 UK

SINGLES: Soon (#41 UK), To Here Knows When (#29 UK)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: No

LINEUP: Kevin Shields, Billinda Butcher, Colm Ó Cíosóig, Deb Googe

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: Two Eps released between albums that prepped the sound that My Bloody Valentine was going to unleash on the world, and introduced Kevin Shields’ unique tremolo guitar technique.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: Glider and Tremolo were apt names for these two Eps (yeah, breaking the rules a bit but they fit together nicely). During the tour and after their first album, Kevin Shields had fully developed his tremolo-guitar technique, where he plays chords while manipulating his tremolo bar, and has a lot of vibrato in his guitar effect as well. The result is, as some put it, a ‘glide’.

The effect is quite noticeable on the track “Glider” where it does sound like the record is warped. The tracks really dig into the tremolo effect, and mostly punt the vocals back to where they’re a melodic hint in the back of the mix, while the guitars move back and forth between channels, and in your ears. “To Here Knows When” made the Top 30 in the UK without any semblance of a traditional song structure, just guitar noise in front of ethereal vocals by Billinda Butcher.They also experimented with drones and raga sounds as well.

These Eps were an agreed to stopgap by the band and Creation Records as it was taking forever to record their next album. It whetted everyone’s appetite and launched even more shoegaze acts in the UK. 

NOTES & MINUTIAE: At this time Shields became immersed in the sound and production of the band. Tremolo was supposed to be seven songs, but three instrumentals were added as codas to the tracks so it fit in the definition of a 12” single or EP

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: There were stand alone singles as well as these Eps, and “Soon” and “Glider” were re-mixed for a 12” version.

 GRADE: B+: A couple cuts don’t quite make the grade but these are important Eps in MBV’s development.

My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything

ARTIST: My Bloody Valentine 

TITLE: Isn’t Anything

YEAR RELEASED: 1988

CHART ACTION:  #61 UK, #1 UK Indie

SINGLES: Feed Me With Your Kiss (#2 UK Indie), Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: Not really, no.

LINEUP: Kevin Shields, Billinda Butcher, Colm Ó Cíosóig, Deb Googe

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: After a few years of mucking about, My Bloody Valentine signs to Creation and gets carte blanche after their first single for the label was a hit.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: Beating the indie bushes, moving from noisy pop to C-86 jangle, My Bloody Valentine were developing their revolutionary sound all the while. Creation signed them and they released “You Made Me Realise”, a landmark of guitar layers, feedback, and hazy production that kickstarted shoegaze.

When it came time for the album, Creation Records said, “more of the weird stuff”. And so, the My Bloody Valentine sound emerged. Taking notes from the Jesus and Mary Chain, and adding even more dissonance, MBV became unique among all shoegaze and UK indie rock.

Basically, it’s distortion, layers and layers of guitar and guitar riffs that are usually bent or used a slide or something out of the ordinary. Meanwhile the vocals had nice melodies, and harmonies, but they were mixed in the back. Sometimes so far back it was hard to hear the words.

The effect was a collage of noise that was noticeable even in the quietest songs. But in tracks like “All I Need”, “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, and “Sueisfine”, the music moves, the noise envelops, and the concept of song is altered.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: Unlike later MBV albums, this was recorded in two weeks in Wales.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: They had a noisy instrumental single appended to some US copies and later releases.

 GRADE: A-: Obviously not for everyone. It’s a landmark though in UK indie rock as it kicked off shoegaze and introduced layered guitar noise as an instrument in of itself.

War – Anthology: 1970-1994

ARTIST: War 

TITLE: Anthology 1970-1994

YEAR RELEASED: Compilation

CHART ACTION:  None

SINGLES: Top 20: Spill the Wine (#3 US), All Day Music (#35 US, #18 R&B), Slippin’ Into Darkness (#16 US, #12 R&B), The World Is a Ghetto (#7 US, #3 R&B), Cisco Kid (#2 US, #5 R&B), Gypsy Man (#8 US, #6 R&B), Me and Baby Brother (#15 US, #18 R&B, #21 UK), Ballero (#33 US, #17 R&B), Why Can’t We Be Friends? (#6 US, #9 R&B), Low Rider (#7 US, #1 R&B, #12 UK), Summer (#7 US, #4 R&B), LA Sunshine (#45 US, #2 R&B), Galaxy (#39 US, #5 R&B, #14 UK), You Got the Power (#66 US, #18 R&B, #58 UK), Outlaw (#94 US, #13 R&B)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: They covered Tobacco Road. Who didn’t?.

LINEUP: Howard Scott, Lee Oskar, Papa Dee Allen, Charles Miller, BB Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan, Harold Ray Brown. Eric Burdon peaced out after two albums (for the best). Others came in after their glory days.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: LA socially conscious soul band discovered by Eric Burdon and producer Jerry Goldstein sheds Burdon after two records, and becomes an chart mainstay for the 70’s

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: Playing around LA for most of the 60’s, War (then known as Nightshift) was brought on to back Eric Burdon on his next venture. Burdon brought in Danish harmonica player Lee Oskar, who soon became an integral part of their sound.

Burdon left mid-tour after two albums because of health reasons, but War kept chugging along. Their second album after Burdon left established their popularity, and through most of the 70’s were mainstays in the R&B charts, and making some impact in crossing over.

The unique sound of War was fueled by congas along with drums, mixed with the combo of sax and harmonica, over the typical funk bass, drums, and keyboards. They had a tendency to jam and extend on the albums (and live, their mid-70’s live double had SEVEN tracks spread over four sides), but a collection like this distills their meanderings to a pretty concise package, at least for the songs.

They’re an important and vital group, as shown by the number of samples of War material in hip-hop now. A large collection is warranted, but this dips too much into their 80s and 90s material, which diminishes the impact of their key period.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: When Goldstein and Burdon found them, they were backing football player Deacon Jones in clubs around LA.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: No, but in 2003 there was another comp called “The Very Best of War”, which has many of the same cuts. However, they truncate some of the songs even more (for better or worse).

 GRADE: A-: Their 70’s work is so critical to R&B and hip-hop, I can safely exile the later stuff and still be happy with this grade.

? and the Mysterians – Cameo-Parkway: The Best of ? and the Mysterians

ARTIST: ? and the Mysterians 

TITLE: Cameo-Parkway: The Best of ? and the Mysterians

YEAR RELEASED: Compilation

CHART ACTION:  None

SINGLES: 96 Tears (#1 US, #37 UK), I Need Somebody (#22 US), Can’t Get Enough of You Baby (#56 US), Girl (You Capitvate Me) (#98 US), Do Something to Me (#110 US)

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: They cover Shout.

LINEUP: Rudy Martinez (“?”). Frankie Rodriguez, Bobby Balderrama, Eddie Serrato, Frank Lugo. Fernando Aguilar played bass on their first single.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: Sons of migrant workers hit #1 with their organ drenched track “96 Tears” and become legends.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: After gigging around Saginaw and vicinity for a couple of years, ? and the Mysterians went into the studio and recorded a single for a small local label. A station in Windsor, Ontario, started to play both sides, Cameo-Parkway licensed it, and “96 Tears (backed with “Midnight Hour” – an original) rocketed to #1.

They then had to make an album, and because they had been gigging for a while, definitely had the songs ready for it. Then a follow up was needed, and they duly cranked out another pretty good album. It was a better album, but didn’t have THAT hit, so it flopped. Overall, they covered just four songs out of 23 on their albums, which for a garage band was definitely unusual, and refreshing.

This compilation combines their two Cameo-Parkway albums, and their follow up single before the label went bust (allegedly taking their royalties with it). While 96 Tears (#66) had the hit, Action was a more cohesive, tighter, and tougher album. It showed more of the garage side of the band. Had “Girl (You Captivate Me)” received its proper attention, they may have been able to make farfisa hits for a while.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: “Can’t Get Enough of You” is the song that Smashmouth had a big hit with in the 90’s. It originally was a Four Seasons track.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: No

 GRADE: B+ This captivates me.

Squeeze – Sweets From a Stranger

ARTIST: Squeeze 

TITLE: Sweets From a Stranger

YEAR RELEASED: 1982

CHART ACTION:  #32 US, #20 UK

SINGLES: Black Coffee in Bed (#103 US, #26 Mainstream, #51 UK), When the Hangover Strikes, I’ve Returned

OTHER SONGS YOU MAY KNOW: In Quintessence

LINEUP: Glenn Tillbrook, Chris Difford, John Bentley, Don Snow, Gilson Lavis

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT: Paul Carrack leaves, Difford and Tillbrook don’t have the songs, and while they have a video on heavy rotation, no one is really happy about the record, much less the band.

SOME WORDS, PHRASES AND CLAUSES ABOUT THIS RECORD: Almost every track on Sweets From a Stranger seems like it’s been done before. Maybe not by Squeeze, but there isn’t a lot of originality here. You have new wave sounding tracks, arty rock songs that sound a little Broadway-esque, and classic guitar-oriented pop songs. Only “Black Coffee in Bed” rises above the déjà vu feeling of the songs.

This even extends to lyrics, where Chris Difford mines the familiar themes of drinking and cheating, but without the originality and verve before. Glenn Tillbrook tries hard but gets too fancy by half on some tracks, and on others the tunes just seem a bit flat. The production didn’t help either – it was a bit busy in places and didn’t let the songs breathe.

“Black Coffee in Bed” was a classic, and MTV played the video like crazy in 1982 (even with Gilson Lavis dropping a drumstick). It’s not a bad album, but quite disappointing when measured by the preceding three Squeeze records. After this, they released a ‘final’ single (the brilliant “Annie Get Your Gun”) and split up for a bit. When they came back, their sound had morphed.

NOTES & MINUTIAE: Some songs sounded like musical theatre tracks, and yes, Difford and Tillbrook did mount a short-lived musical in London in 1983.

IS THERE A DELUXE VERSION: Outtakes, demos, and “Annie Get Your Gun (#40 Mainstream, #43 UK)

 GRADE: B- A disappointment to say the least.