Tag Archives: 1976

The Modern Lovers, by The Modern Lovers – Album #132

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The Modern Lovers (Spotify Link)
1976, Beserkley Records. Producer: Robert Appere, John Cale, Allan Mason.
In My Collection: Dubbed Tape, 1993; CD, 1994.

(5 min read)

IN A NUTSHELL: The Modern Lovers, by The Modern Lovers, is a record that may not be well-known by the general public, but is revered by critics and musicians alike. Singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman writes simple, catchy songs that pack an emotional wallop. His heart-on-his-sleeve, woe-is-me take on relationships is at the forefront of the album, but I prefer the songs that celebrate his quirky outlook on life. The record gets a bit monotonous, but the band is excellent and the grooves don’t stop, and that’s enough to carry me through multiple listens.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 80

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Growing up in a small town in the 70s and 80s, new things were usually presented as scary. When the SooperDooperLooper opened at Hershey Park, in 1977, many kids I knew said their parents wouldn’t let them ride it. But it wasn’t because it was the first roller coaster at the park to send you upside down through a loop. It was because – apparently – this new, fancy, expensive ride was actually being run by … a computer! Nobody was going to trust their kids’ lives to some mindless electronic robot thing! (This same fear of computers was why for years my mom cut up her ATM cards and instead went inside the bank to visit a teller. I don’t think she concerned herself with whether or not the teller was relying on a computer.)

In my town, new ideas were always judged to be inferior to old ideas. Then, after enough time had passed, somehow the new idea became established among the old. In this way the culture in my area was always a year or two (at least) behind the times. It wasn’t just computers that caught on late. Fashion, haircuts, music … my town resisted every cultural change. I’d watch movies and TV shows and think “Nobody I know dresses like that,” and 18 months later everybody was. For this reason, I grew my mullet years after Bono did.

My friend Josh was very much resistant to new ideas. He scoffed at new styles, mocked most changes and identified almost any new idea as simply a fad, not built to last. His music choices reflected this traditionalism – through graduation (1985) he listened to Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi Hendrix only. (And maybe one Stevie Ray Vaughn album.) His assessments could be spot-on, as when he assured me during our senior year of high school that the new Robert Plant/Jimmy Page collaboration most certainly would NOT be as good as Led Zeppelin.

When he got to college, his musical tastes started to broaden. I had been a secret R.E.M. fan for years, but Josh discovered them in college (a few years after their 1982 debut EP, Chronic Town, so right on time) and our musical bond tightened. Around this time we started sharing new music – cassettes, through the mail. He was the first person to share a Mudhoney song with me. He loaned me my first Husker Du CD. And he sent me a tape of The Modern Lovers.

Granted, this was nearly 20 years after the record was released, after two other monumentally more successful bands featuring Modern Lovers members had already broken up. But the music still sounded fresh and bouncy and interesting, and just like my years-too-late mullet, I rocked the CD proudly. It was new music to me.

But even by the time I got the record, it was new music to many people. The band wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) a well known act. The Modern Lovers was one of those records by which record store clerk snobs judged less-enlightened customers. The band is in league with acts like Big Star or The Soft Boys or The Raincoats, artists that rarely, if ever, got radio airplay, didn’t sell many records, who most folks never heard of, but whose legacy grew thanks to the constant mentions by music critics and appreciative later artists.

So in this case, my hometown wasn’t much later than anybody else in getting on the bandwagon. And it’s easy to see why The Modern Lovers wasn’t a big hit record. The singer can’t sing very well, the songs are not flashy, the sounds are quite basic. However, there’s an infectious groove that runs through every song, and there’s an earnestness, a soul, that’s audible in singer/songwriter/bandleader Jonathan Richman’s vocals. It’s a record that makes you want to hear it again and again. And with every listen you think, “Why do I like this song so much? There’s not much to it – there has to be more going on here …”

Take, for example, the unofficial State Song of Massachusetts, “Roadrunner.”

It’s a two-chord song with barely a melody that repeats forever, and yet … it has such a groove! Jerry Harrison’s organ sometimes tootles above the chords, but other than that there’s not much going on. It’s just Jonathan Richman’s charisma and David Robinson’s beat and somehow that’s enough. Of course the lyrics, a paean to the Bay State and rock and roll, are full of childlike enthusiasm for Route 128 and Stop and Shop. It goes to show you don’t need much to make a great song.

Jonathan Richman idolized Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and so he was probably familiar with Reed’s quote about Rock and Roll: “One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” Take a song like “Old World,” a salute to days past. It’s basically one chord having a brief dalliance with a second chord. Yet it has enough of a drive, with cool drumming from Robinson, and guitar to make it bop along nicely. Then there’s “Astral Plane,” which has the same musical features but adds a cool guitar duet at 1:20. Richman’s sad-sack delivery (on “Astral Plane” the theme is poor luck with girls, which recurs on The Modern Lovers) helps give the songs an identity. They can become repetitive over an album’s worth, but individually they really kick ass.

Richman and the boys eschew that second chord on what is perhaps their most famous song, “Pablo Picasso.”

It’s (somewhat) well-known because it was featured in the 1984 film Repo-Man, as performed by Burning Sensations. The Modern Lovers’ version is so much better because it leans into the dark, bluesy riff. Plus, Richman’s woeful voice communicates the frustration of being the outsider, the guy who’s bound to get called an asshole by girls, and not understanding why. And there are gorgeous dueling guitars throughout, including some noises that would make Sonic Youth proud.

“Pablo Picasso” has a slow groove, and Richman turns things down even more on “Girlfriend.” It’s a sad, beautiful song about this young dork who thinks he’ll never find a girlfriend. And as a former young dork who thought he’d never find a girlfriend, it really resonates. (Plus there are more Boston references!) Richman never shies away from exposing his vulnerabilities, as on the lament “I’m Straight.” In it, he complains to his love interest about her current boyfriend, “Hippy Johnny,” who can’t take the world unless he’s stoned. Richman can’t understand why this guy would ever be a superior choice – another sentiment to which I, who vehemently avoided alcohol and drugs as a teenager (to my social life’s detriment), could relate.

Then there’s the haunting “Hospital.”

It’s a love-letter to an ex who’s currently laid up. It almost seems stalker-ish – I get the sense that the woman is unconscious and if she knew he was there she’d be pissed. There’s a fine line between shlubby loser and restraining-order-recipient. But what is clear about this song – and many of these Modern Lovers songs – is that it’s easy to see why they didn’t catch on in their day. I mean, nobody is confusing this stuff, lyrically or sonically, with “We’re an American Band.”

Sometimes Richman does give his loneliness more of a backbeat, as in the groovy “Someone I Care About.” In a similar vein is the one-chord rocker (it does include a couple other chords in the chorus) “She Cracked,” in which once again our hero doesn’t get the girl. But he never gets too down about it – in “Dignified & Old” he sings that despite being lonesome, he’ll keep on living.

The regrets and woefulness can get to be a bit much. I prefer the pieces about other aspects of his life. For example, how much he likes the “Modern World.”

It’s got excellent guitar throughout as Richman paints a lovely picture of early 70s Boston – Boylston St., Route 9, and a plea for her to “drop out of BU!” And the Modern Lovers, as usual, provide great backing shouts. I also dig the 60s-style, organ bounce of “Government Center.” There’s no word of Richman’s love life, just a quirky salute to the office drones.

It’s these fun songs that are the reason I love the record. Richman’s pinings for indifferent women get to be a bit monotonous after a while. As good as the songs sound, at times they seem almost indistinguishable, interchangeable. I like to put this album on in a mix with other records so that I can enjoy each song without having to consider how similar it is to the previous one. Still, it is a record I return to. To this day I’ll ride the SooperDooperLooper, ignoring my friends’ moms’ worries. And I still listen to The Modern Lovers.

TRACK LISTING (1989 CD Reissue by Rhino Records):
Roadrunner
Astral Plane
Old World
Pablo Picasso
I’m Straight
Dignified and Old
She Cracked
Hospital
Someone I Care About
Girl Friend
Modern World
Government Center

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Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder – Album #131

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Songs in the Key of Life (Spotify Link)
1976, Tamla Records. Producer: Stevie Wonder.
In My Collection: CD, 1997.

(Five Minute Read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Songs in the Key of Life, by Stevie Wonder, is a record that is one of my favorites of all time, perhaps the best of all time. (Which long time readers will know I’m loathe to pronounce.) But I didn’t realize its greatness until just recently. I needed to live 55 years to understand the brilliance of what this 26-year-old kid was saying. His melodies, grooves, and inventiveness are unparalleled. He plays most of the instruments on most songs, or assembles amazing musicians to back him up. It’s hard to believe he can remain consistent over 21 songs, but Wonder truly does.

THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10

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It kind of makes sense to me that London Calling, by The Clash, is my all-time, Number 1 favorite album. It’s got a variety of styles of songs, and all of them are memorable and catchy. It’s got songs with pointed messages, but also songs of fun, anger, laughter, sadness … it’s an album about being a human. Plus the songs just kick ass. An album like that has to be my favorite.

I got into The Clash in my 20s, when I still didn’t know much, but sure felt a lot. The visceral connection I made with London Calling was built largely on that young person’s sense of wanting to break free, to be an individual, to carve a new path in that 50- or 60-year (we hope) forest of uncertainty that lay ahead. The songs inspired because they tapped into what I was feeling at the time, and those feelings have remained with me all the way into my mid-50s.

Songs in the Key of Life is similarly a collection of memorable songs of varied styles, all about being a human (as the title clearly indicates!), but I realize now that even if I’d listened to Songs in the Key of Life as much as I did London Calling in my young adulthood, it might not have been a contender for Number 1. I didn’t dive deeply into this classic until recently, during the pandemic, and now I know that I needed to hear it as a middle-aged man, on the downward slope of a career, with kids about fully-grown, and visualizing grandparenthood with my wife (not soon … eventually!) to recognize it as a Favorite Album Contender. Clearly Top 5. It’s a masterpiece of music that, frankly, I worry I won’t be able to do justice writing about.

Stevie Wonder is one of those titanic cultural figures in America who seems unreal, magical – like a classic fictional character who has somehow come to life. He’s like Babe Ruth or Marilyn Monroe, a familiar name and image that kids probably recognize long before realizing who he is or what he’s done. His popular songs are legion, and he’s cranked them out since he was a pre-teen!

As a kid in the 70s I heard his songs all over the radio, even the tiny AM station in my town. I was shocked by his long braids and bobbling head, but I loved the songs. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “For Once In My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” … And I definitely remember him winning all of those Grammy awards (including 3 in 4 years for Album of the Year) because his picture was featured prominently in my copy of The Guiness Book of Records. But in all my life, I’d never bought a Stevie Wonder album!

I was late to Songs in the Key of Life. Of course I knew it was a vaunted work of art, and heard the hits innumerable times, but I didn’t purchase it until I was around 30. A guy in a car with me on the way to a picnic, a brother of a friend of my wife, was extolling the virtues of the record. He was much younger than me, a professional musician, and he went on and on about the genius of the record. Based on this, I bought the CD soon after. But I didn’t listen to it very much. I liked the songs, but they didn’t really connect.

But at some point during the pandemic I decided I needed to check out some albums I had that were widely respected but that hadn’t made my Top 100 list. Songs in the Key of Life was the first one I dove into. I’m still in it. I may be forever – possibly because there are 21 (!) songs on the album! (Including the bonus EP Something Extra, which was packaged along with the original album.) There’s no way I can discuss all 21 songs without this post being 100,000 words long (or 1000 words longer than my usual post), so I’ll pick a few. I hope I hit your favorites!

As I’ve grown to middle age I’ve become much more of a softie. (Not to say I was ever particularly hard.) Random experiences and memories nearly (or more than nearly) cause a few joyful, loving tears to flow almost daily now that I’ve passed a certain age. Everything about life seems special these days, and “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the album opener, is a song that probably wouldn’t have registered too deeply 20 years ago. But it does now.

Of all Wonder’s genius-level musical gifts (he’s listed as “musician” on the credits, and plays every instrument on many of the songs, including this one) his strongest, yet most overlooked, may be his ability to write melodies. After the beautiful gospel-choir opening (sung entirely by Wonder), the song’s ranging melody immediately hooks itself into your brain. Layers of organ and synth have little curlicues of notes, filigree that rewards repeated listens, and the synth bass tumbles beneath it all. Then there are the words – a gentle admonishment to the world to extend some love and kindness to each other. It’s a simple yet profound message, and his incredible voice sells it and removes any hint of sentimental staleness. And he allows the song to linger for a full 7 minutes, improvising amazing vocals throughout. It’s a great album kickoff.

Next he gets groovy on another message of love for those going through tough times, “Have a Talk With God.” Look, it’s not advice I’ll take to heart, but I appreciate his empathy. His harmonica could be enough to convert me, though, especially how it sits atop the sounds he generates on all those synths. It’s a terrific headphone song. He gets even funkier on the awesome instrumental “Contusion,” with a full band featuring lead guitar from future “Maniac” Michael Sambello.

Rounding out perhaps the best 6 songs to ever open an album are the all-time numbers “Village Ghetto Land,” “Sir Duke,” and “I Wish.” “Village Ghetto Land” is a picture of life among America’s forgotten neighborhoods. It’s brilliantly set against a synthetic string quartet, giving it a regal tone that belies its downtrodden characters. “I Wish” is probably my favorite song on the album.

That unforgettable, bubbling bass line by Nathan Watts opens the song (and I swear there’s a synth doubling it), and an organ joins in before Raymond Pounds’ swinging drums tie it all together. That bass groove carries the song, but steering everything is Stevie’s brilliant melody and lyrics full of childhood memories that connect with anyone who ever was a kid. The horn section is masterful, the song infectious. No wonder it hit #1 on the singles chart!

But maybe my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life is one I devoted an entire post to very early on in this site’s existence, then wrote about some more recently. The amazing “Sir Duke,” one of my favorites as a fourth-grader, one of my favorites now. Just listen, I can’t say more about it. I’ll just move onto the next song.

So we’re six songs in and Wonder still hasn’t graced us with a love song? He finally does with “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and it doesn’t disappoint. The piano and drums (that hi-hat!), both played by Wonder, are excellent. Once again, the melody and lyrics are perfect. (It’s so charming that he doesn’t want to bore his love by telling her he loves her!) This should be an American Standard, if it isn’t already. “Pastime Paradise” is an American Standard thanks, in part, to goofball Coolio’s global smash hit from 1995, “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

A synth-string section, similar to “Village Ghetto Land,” predominates. But set against African drums, percussion, Hare Krishna bells and voices, and a gospel choir, it takes on a different feel. It’s a song with a groove that has no drum kit. It builds brilliantly toward a final gong. The message is love and a higher power. “Summer Soft” and “Ordinary Pain” are a lovely pair of songs. “Summer Soft” has great chord changes, a cool groove and memorable lyrics. “Ordinary Pain” starts out as a rather pedestrian number, but at 2:42 it transforms into a nasty funk workout!

Okay, I already called out two others as my favorite song on Songs in the Key of Life, but “Isn’t She Lovely” makes me want to reconsider those picks.

I made the mistake of associating this song with the birth of my now-18-year-old daughter, which means that when events happen in her life – like, say, getting accepted to her top college choice – and then I randomly hear this song a day later, I burst into uncontrollable tears. Somehow, Stevie Wonder, playing all the instruments, weaves into the song the immeasurable, indescribable joy and love that are a part of parenthood. I don’t know how he does it! From the baby sounds at the opening, to the recording of his baby daughter, Aisha, at bath time during the extended harmonica solo, to the lyrics about the wonder of parenthood, the song just exudes joy.

And that extended, 4 minute harmonica solo!! It’s amazing – perhaps a bit too long, but it’s like hearing a new parent gush about their infant. You understand and let them go on as much as they want. Oh, and did I mention that the organ and synth bass throughout are brilliant?

There is just so much joy in this record, joy that I couldn’t have appreciated as a boneheaded 24-year-old. I had no idea about childbirth, of course, but also couldn’t comprehend long-lasting love. So a slow jam like “Joy Inside My Tears” just fits naturally next to the upbeat numbers. What connects it are lyrics that are thoughtful and wise. A slow jam, with a cool synth bass, it’s not a song about sex. It’s about the deep love and the emotions that come with making a life together with another human, and it’s gorgeous. He also sings of the simple joy of singing on “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” sung in English, Spanish, and Zulu! Once again, Wonder’s synth-bass is outstanding, and his vocals are simply outstanding.

Then there’s my other favorite song on the record – I think it’s the fourth one I’ve called my favorite? – “Black Man.” It’s a joyful celebration of America’s greatest strength – it’s diversity – with lyrics that might get it banned by whiney-baby white people who are so embarrassed by their history they’re trying to prevent it being told.

If it was simply a list of accomplishments it would be a pretty boring song. But it’s also a masterclass in drumming and keyboards, and as usual Wonder nails the vocals. Then – coolest of all – at about 5:25, a breakdown section and ridiculous synth solo serves as an introduction to a call/response that brings chills. Teachers call out questions, and students respond with the names and racial identity of each. It may make the bigoted parents of little white kids uncomfortable, but it’s brilliant.

“As” is another favorite.

It starts out sounding like an 80s light Adult Contempt number – not really my style. But it picks up quickly, and hits one of the best choruses ever at 0:48. The backing chorus is terrific, and Herbie Hancock helps out on keys, playing a killer solo. The lyrics are kind of a summary of the entire album, an expression of what life is all about. I’m struck by how similar this record is to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, not in its sounds, but with its many styles and guest artists. Stevie lets the song run on, and the band is having a blast to the very end. I also have to mention the vocals at 3:45! Excellent!

If It’s Magic,” is a lovely, spare, timeless love song featuring jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. And the record seems to close with “Another Star” another full band effort, this time with a Latin feel. George Benson is featured on guitar, and Stevie plays some great drums, as usual. There are horns, timbales, a flute solo, a backing chorus, all in support of a song of loss that sounds like a celebration.

So that’s a pretty good effort, no? Song after song, hit after hit, and nary a dud in the bunch. So what did Mr. Wonder do? He included an EP along with the record, called A Something’s Extra, with four more great songs!

Saturn, a sad song about getting away as humans destroy the planet really hits close to home, as I consider the world current generations are leaving our grandkids. So much for paying it forward.

“We can’t trust you when you take a stand\ With a gun and bible in your hand/ And the cold expression on your face/ Saying give us what we want or we’ll destroy.” It does end hopefully with the sounds of a jumprope game – presumably played on a planet far away. “Ebony Eyes” is a fun, rolling almost music hall number about a beautiful woman. It’s kind of a toss away number, but his piano and vocals make it fun, as do the cool sounds and vocal manipulations throughout.

All Day Sucker” is one more great funk groove featuring both Snuffy Walden & Michael Sambello on lead guitar. “Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)” is a chill instrumental with a lengthy display of Wonder’s harmonica virtuosity. It’s a perfect ending number, simple and reflective.

Holy cow, I can’t believe I wrote about that entire record. It’s an incredible work of art (the album, not my writing!!). It makes me look back at my life in wonder (no pun intended) and appreciation, and look ahead with anticipation. These songs truly are in the key of life, and they make you realize that while some tunes in that key are better than others, there are no wrong notes. Excellent work, Mr. Wonder! I wonder what amazing music of yours I may learn to love in my 70s?

TRACK LISTING:
Love’s in Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Isn’t She Lovely
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star
Bonus EP Something Extra
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Going Evening (My Mama’s Call)

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Song #1009*: “Sir Duke,” by Stevie Wonder

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Sir Duke,” single from the 1976 Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life.
Fun, amazing, joyful.

(3 minute read)

*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.

~ ~ ~

This will be a ridiculous post, right? A post even less necessary than all my other posts, which are just some random, aging Gen-Xer talking about music he likes. Every now and then I might tell you about some music or act you’ve never heard of. Maybe I’ll make you reconsider a band or album that you’ve overlooked. But clearly there’s nothing imperative in reading about why a fifty-three-year-old white American guy likes Pink Floyd, for example.

But today’s post is even less essential. I’m explaining that I like the Stevie Wonder song “Sir Duke,” which is akin to writing a piece explaining that I like candy. It’s not really going to reach off the screen and grab you, is it? But still, allow me to say that “Sir Duke” is fricking amazing.

I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it, probably in 1977 sometime near the end of 4th grade. By then I had about a year of trombone lessons under my belt, and as a member of the Ebenezer Elementary School band, I tried desperately to get Mr. Fox, the director, to approve my request for the ensemble to play “Sir Duke” the next year. Mercifully, he did not grant that request.

Listen to the horns throughout the song. That introduction, to the bursts in the pre-chorus (0:40), to the riffs during the chorus (0:52), to the amazing post-chorus run that everyone wishes they could whistle (1:04). Please note, that riff is doubled by the bass guitar! Imagine this song played by a bunch of 9- and 10-year olds just learning to play their instruments. (I point out the bass guitar because the trombone is a bass instrument in a tuba-less elementary school band, which means my little right arm would’ve been flailing around like I had St. Vitus’ Dance.)

Imagine beginner percussionists, standing behind snare drums and bass drums, or with cymbals strapped to palms, or dangling a lonely triangle. They couldn’t keep up with that beat that shifts effortlessly from swing to rock. And while a concert band doesn’t have a vocalist, who’s going to play that melody line that ranges so wide, yet has subtleties like the nice descending chromatic scale, for example when he sings “There’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo/ and the king of all Sir Duke!” You think a cornet or clarinet player in braces is going to handle that?

How would this assembly of novices convey the pure joy that is this song? And without even singing! One might imagine a youthful chorus pulling together a passable, abridged version of “Sir Duke.” They’d have to cut out some of those ending “feel it all over” lines, sure. And most of the swinging syncopation would have to be flattened out. It might sound thin, accompanied only by Miss Radocinovich on that clanky upright piano. Still, I think they could pull it off. But “Sir Duke” played by an elementary band?

It all would’ve been horrible, right? I’ve always thought so.

But looking back I think most concert-goers would have enjoyed it. It’s such a beloved, joyful song that most parents and grandparents would be happy to hear it lovingly butchered by their struggling youth. Obviously, the main point of the song is to celebrate and remember the history of jazz and its fabulous musicians. But another point of the song, in both lyrics and sound, is that music itself is a celebration. It’s a world within itself, a language we all understand. An audience at a children’s band concert would be there to hear the new speakers, to watch them begin to enter this world, and to start to form nascent bonds with the pioneers of the past.

“Sir Duke” is amazing. I don’t think it would’ve been harmed at all by the Ebenezer Elementary School band playing a dreadful version of it. I think it would have been wonderful to hear (once). But I’m still glad I didn’t have to learn that trombone part.

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43rd Favorite: The Royal Scam, by Steely Dan

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The Royal Scam. Steely Dan.
1976, ABC Records. Producer: Gary Katz.
Purchased, 1985.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriters/maestros Walter Becker and Donald Fagen once again create jazz-influenced rock (or rock-influenced jazz?) and make it great by hiring the best studio musicians around. On this album, the pair turns loose several excellent guitarists who make the album a joy for a guitar fan like me. It’s sometimes funky, sometimes mellow, but always full of amazing drums, bass and guitar. And Fagen’s distinctive voice carries each song, making it a terrific listen time and time again.

NEW: Read some background next, below the line ↓ … Or skip right to the album review!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I love to be impressed. When I see some amazing performance or incredible demonstration by some other human – whether it’s artistic or scientific or weird or silly – I get excited. I get a buzz, a vibration, and I’m happy all day. I tell my friends. A lot. Too much. In fact, I become that gushing, annoying, blathering friend who tells you so many times how amazing something is that you end up thinking “I never want to see that thing, just ’cause he was so annoying about it.”

Because I love the feeling of being impressed, I probably get impressed too easily. I have to be careful that I don’t fall for hype. (I may or may not have exclaimed in the early aughts that The Vines were going to be a household name.) But I try to be discerning – as much as I’m impressed by, say, the career of The Coen Brothers, I was able to recognize that Hail, Caesar! was crap. (But only after I saw it on opening weekend.)

Certain people and events and performances have impressed me so much that I carry that feeling of wonder at what I’ve seen around with me to this day. Even things I saw as a child have stuck with me. Here is a list of some of the people, events, performances that spring to mind when I think of what’s impressed me over the years.

Bo Jackson. Holy moley. He was an all star in two professional sports. And while he did strike out too much in his baseball career, that just means he was ahead of his time! (Or, possibly, that he was a better hitter than we thought!) He played during a time when I wasn’t following either MLB or the NFL very closely, but he was so supremely impressive that I still remember where I was when I heard he wouldn’t play football or baseball ever again; and I remember having a long conversation about it with another person who didn’t follow sports, who was also shocked by the news. Watch the ESPN 30 For 30 about him to get a sense of why he was so impressive. It wasn’t just his feats, it was also his humility.

The Monty Python Long Name Sketch. Since I first saw Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS as an eleven year old I’ve been impressed by almost everything I’ve seen them do. But for the combination of humor and smarts and just sheer “Holy crap! How’d they do that??!” astonishment, there is little to compare with the feature on Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumble-meyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitzweimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönendanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. As with many sketches, this one doesn’t finish as strongly as it begins, but seeing the boys repeat that name over and over – I thought my 13 year old head was gonna explode! And I still feel that way about it.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. This lengthy novel is by no means my favorite book, however it was the most IMPRESSIVE book I’ve read. It combined history, future, science, engineering, politics, finance and the computer revolution into a generation-spanning story about … security. That’s right, he made the mundane details of security – codes, passwords, locks – fascinating by including them in a spellbinding mystery. The breadth and depth of Stephenson’s knowledge, and his ability to bring it all together into a fast-paced 1,000-page (gasp) novel was, well, impressive!

Julia (my wife). (Self-portrait, age 8.) I’ve known her for 24 years, and I’m still impressed almost every day. She can do anything – from planning, cooking food for and hosting a party for 100 people to winning every game we play. Mother, potter, gardener, environmental expert … there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s about the best athlete I’ve ever known, too. Played lacrosse with the men in college; and at her brother’s pre-wedding golf outing hit a straight drive down the fairway on the first golf swing she ever took, then beat half the guys there despite never playing the game before. (I did beat her by a couple strokes.)

Penn and Teller. Back in college in the late 80s I probably annoyed more people, and turned off more potential fans, over this duo than anyone else on this list. I know that because I was once told by a college roommate, “Shut the fuck up about Penn & Teller already, okay?!” They were funny, they were different, they were smart, they were amazing … I saw them first on David Letterman, saw them live in 1992, and continue to catch their act on TV and computer whenever I can.

Brittany Howard. It was my sister who first sent me a text asking if I’d heard Alabama Shakes yet. Then I found a link to their breakthrough song, “Hold On,” and I watched a radio station performance of it a million and a half times, and I was hooked. I saw the band in concert and they did not disappoint. Brittany plays guitar, she belts and wails, her band plays bluesy rock … The band’s second album, Sound and Color, is even better than the first.

Star Wars. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when it was released, so I was even more easily impressed then than I am today. And even though I wasn’t really a space-kid, and I’d never been interested in shows like Star Trek or Space:1999, the fighting and effects and action of Star Wars blew me away. (Plus, it’s the only movie my dad ever took me to see, so that’s another reason I loved it.) The feeling was short-lived, though: by the time The Empire Strikes Back was released, I wasn’t even interested in seeing it.

Others Receiving Votes: 1) Live shows of Pearl Jam, Guided By Voices, Buffalo Tom, Elvis Costello and The Attractions (Fabulous Spinning Songbook). 2) Jackie Chan. 3) Gary Gulman. 4) Lady GaGa (because of Howard Stern performances and appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

Steely Dan. The first time I heard Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. Actually, let me rephrase that: the first time I heard a song written by Steely Dan, I thought they were scary. In the 70s, those simpler times before ads for in-home catheters and new, weird pharmaceuticals filled the television airwaves, companies like K-Tel and Ronco sold compilation albums via TV commercials, just like Sham-Wow® and Flex Seal®. My sisters and I were big-time consumers of these records. We didn’t care that they were lousy compilations, featuring either a) the original songs cut down to two-and-a-half minutes to cram as many as possible onto one LP; or b) the songs “as recorded by” studio musicians. In both cases, the deal from the record company was this: “you give us a couple of bucks, we’ll give you crappy versions of your favorite songs.” My sisters and I thought it was a bargain.

Some of these albums had catchy names, like Get It On! or Sound Explosion. We bought those albums, and we also bought the more mundanely titled Today’s Greatest Hits, which featured hit songs as performed by some dudes called “The Realistics,” and a mis-titled version of Steely Dan’s big hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” For some reason the 7 year old me found that song – with its minor key, lyrical warning and use of some instrument called a “Flapamba” – quite spooky.

As I’ve written before, I got into Steely Dan by finding the album Aja in my eldest sister’s record collection. The band seemed adult and mysterious and they played catchy tunes. I eventually listened more closely to the musicians and was blown away by their virtuosity. Songwriters/bandleaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hired the best studio musicians around and drove them mercilessly to achieve brilliance in their performance. I began buying Steely Dan albums, then went to college and met Dr. Dave, who was equally enamored with the musicianship on display – particularly the guitar work. They quickly became one more thing we bonded over.

The Royal Scam bowled me over right away, with a catchy song I’d heard on AOR radio a few times but hadn’t paid close attention to, “Kid Charlemagne.”

The opening drums and slightly dissonant electric piano opening the song provide a sense of anticipation. Then Fagen starts singing, and Chuck Rainey’s funky bass line begins. One aspect of Steely Dan music that’s often overlooked is the fact that they have many truly funky songs, and hiring musicians like Rainey is one of the reasons why. His bass line propels the song with just enough bounce and space; (check out the 6 seconds beginning at 0:40 to hear for yourself!) and together with drummer Bernard Purdie makes the song swing. Fagen himself was voted as the sixth most funkiest white boy in music, ahead of Justin Timberlake (!), in Complex magazine, and the touches he and two other keyboardists add – seemingly stray chords here and there – embellish the groove-fest. But the song kicks into top gear when Larry Carlton’s guitar enters the fray, at about 2:00. His solo that follows, beginning about 2:18, is angular and brilliant, sounding like it’s done only on the “black notes” of a keyboard (and given my lack of musical knowledge, maybe it is!). When the third verse begins, Carlton continues soloing behind the rest of the song, finishing with a fury beginning about 3:50. The funky drums and bass and the scorching guitar – if you’ve read any other posts of mine, you know these are the great triumvirate of musical excellence for me. Add in Fagen’s great phrasing on terrific lyrics about an aging LSD manufacturer, and it’s no wonder this is one of my favorite all-time songs.

Another exhibit in the Steely Dan Funk-orama is the terrific “Green Earrings,” a song so excellent the band needed TWO guitar players to perform the solos!

It’s another Chuck Rainey groove, with genius submerged but evident in its apparent simplicity. He and Purdie again work together perfectly. Where “Kid Charlemagne” had a sort of gritty feel, “Green Earrings” has more of a mellow groove, but the guitar work by Denny Dias and Elliott Randall is just as wonderful as Carlton’s. The song is more or less a jazz piece written to showcase the soloing of the pair. While many Steely Dan songs’ lyrics are spare or confusing, these seem like they were made up on the spot just to keep the song from being an instrumental. (The song “The Fez,” seemingly about condoms, also follows this path.) Two mellow solos, one around 2:06, and a second around 2:30 are jazzy but tough, giving a song a lift out of Yacht Rock territory. As does the outro solo, beginning about 3:19. The guitar touches throughout the song, such as the barely arpeggiated chords following the words “Greek” and “medallions,” at around 1:10, make me very happy.

There’s a groove to Steely Dan even in the songs that aren’t as upbeat. For example, “The Caves of Altamira,” a meditation on the role of art, and humankind’s innate desire to create. It’s a mellow song with sweet chord progressions that sound very much like jazz to my untrained ears, particularly the passage that links the chorus back to the verse, for example at 1:12. (Read more here to see what one trained person thinks.) Rainey and Purdie funk up the chorus quite nicely, but it’s very much a horn-based song, and I’m less interested in sax solos than I am in guitar solos.

Steely Dan bring the guitar for damn sure in the song “Don’t Take Me Alive,” another favorite of mine that once again features the fabulous Larry Carlton on guitar.

From the very beginning this song is all about the guitar, with a nasty opening chord and a dirty-sounding solo. It’s a song about a dangerous criminal on the run, sung from the perspective of the criminal who crossed his old man back in Oregon. The melody, rather perversely, is very much a catchy sing-along, inviting the listener to belt out about his “case of dynamite.” Carlton adds nice guitar touches throughout, and his snaky little solo at about 3 minutes signals a breakdown, the type Dan throws into many songs, and that always sound useful, not lazy. Carlton subtly solos along to a satisfying end.

With so many excellent studio musicians on board, it’s not surprising that Becker and Fagen would want to feature them, and the perfect song for this showcasing is the odd and brilliant “Sign In Stranger.”

A major part of rock and jazz music is improvised soloing, and this piece features the late Paul Griffin on piano and Elliot Randall on guitar, dueling within verses in a song about a distant land (planet??) filled with gangsters. It’s got a laid-back bounce, with plenty of space for cool fills and noodles by the pair. Griffin’s piano in verse 1 is nice, but I get a big smile every time I hear Randall enter on guitar at 0:45. Each verse adds background vocals, building to the “just another scurvy brother” line at 2:46 (a favorite of mine and Dr. Dave’s!), where Griffin throws in a terrific piano solo, only to be outdone again (in my opinion; I’m a guitar guy) by Randall beginning at 3:37. The way Griffin and Randall work together throughout the piece is amazing: conjuring a yo-yo; answering a reference to Turkish union dues – despite the fact that nobody knows what that means. It’s evident on “Sign In Stranger” why Fagen and Becker hired the best musicians.

Steely Dan’s lyrics are oftentimes inscrutable, but they are frequently funny, as well. The funniest lyrics on this album are from the excellent, reggae-ish, talk-box fueled “Haitian Divorce.”

The song tells the story of lovers “Babs and Clean Willie,” whose love burned hot, but faded quickly – sending Babs to the island where, well, let’s just say seeds are sewn. The feature solo this time is by Dean Parks, playing a squonky guitar that sounds terrific (even though some jazz purists don’t agree.) Fagen’s vocals are particularly good on this one, on a melody with quite a range. The song is kind of goofy, but it still hit the top 20 in the U.K. And I like it despite/because of the goofiness!

The Royal Scam ends with two mid-tempo songs. “Everything You Did,” is a bitter confrontation with a cheating lover. It has great guitar from Larry Carlton (of course!), and a sly reference to country-rockers The Eagles. The title track is a swirling, sinister lament about the difficulties of immigrants in a new land. It’s a lengthy piece, with solo trumpet and strong backing vocals, and it ends the album on a dark note: not negative, just dark.

I remain impressed by both Steely Dan and The Royal Scam. I don’t require that albums feature either excellent musicianship or jazz chops to make my list of favorites. But Steely Dan do have both, and they put them together in a funky, groovy style that I love. On top of it all, on The Royal Scam they set the bar high for guitar-based rock, with songs that feature both the power and the grace of the electric guitar. I will always love to be impressed, and I’ll find something new to impress the shit out of me tomorrow. But I’m sure I’ll always remain blown away by Becker and Fagen.

The Royal Scam
TRACK LISTING:
“Kid Charlemagne”
“The Caves of Altamira”
“Don’t Take Me Alive”
“Sign In Stranger”
“The Fez”
“Green Earrings”
“Haitian Divorce”
“Everything You Did”
“The Royal Scam”

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69th Favorite: Jailbreak, by Thin Lizzy

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Jailbreak. Thin Lizzy.
1976, Mercury Records. Producer: Jon Alcock.
Gift ca. 2003.

jailbreak album

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL: A Classic Rock touchstone, featuring a song you’ve heard everywhere. Leader Phil Lynott writes stories about people searching and backs them up with powerful dual guitars. It’s another case of guitars, melody and drumming – the typical story for my favorite records. And nobody’s more surprised it’s in the top 70 than me!!
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Have you ever taken on a “simple project” around the house? If you have, garageI’ll bet the initial idea you had was easily described in one simple sentence. “I’m going to clean out the garage.” No matter how cluttered and messy your garage is, you could easily conjure images in your head of “before” and “after” scenarios and imagine the work needed in between the two: “I’ll lug some stuff out, I’ll pack some stuff in boxes, I’ll put it all back inside, I’ll go drink a beer.” This is the stage of the project at which the wise folks among you will take a considered look the level of clutter in your garage and decide that the apparent quick, direct path to completion – “lug, pack, restore, beer” – is a fantasy, and just skip ahead to that beer.

In reality, the path to completion on virtually ANY project is never quick and direct. Using garage cleaning as an example, we’ll start with the “lugging” phase. Before you can lug that cardboard box of shopping cart wheels that you got for a dollar at that flea market – (Remember that feeling? “Don’t worry, honey! All these wheels for a dollar?! – I’ll make some fun things for the kids!”) – you’re going to have to take it off the top of that ugly dresser garage 2that your spouse got for free from the side of the road – (Remember that feeling? “You’re never going to refinish that thing! Who cares if it’s free, we don’t need it!”) – but to get close enough to the box you’ll have to lean across the old snowblower – the one you didn’t get rid of when you bought the “new snowblower” because “parts!” – and that means you won’t have the right angle to get your hands under the box of wheels, which – as you’ll recall from the near-disaster of placing the box on top of the old dresser – is REQUIRED because the packing tape holding the bottom of that box together is about 60% scuffed off the box, meaning that box is just waiting to vomit 23 two-pound wheels all over everything the moment it’s lifted. But you can’t move the old snowblower because it’s helping to stabilize the ugly dresser, so if it moves, the whole mess comes down.

will hunting
You’re going to have to solve about 14 of these mensa-admission level logic problems, spelunkand do so within 30 minutes if you expect to have any shot of keeping this to a single-day project. And as you spelunk your way through the caverns of junk you’ve amassed over the years, it may be helpful for you to consider this: if your garage has this much crap in it, and it’s so poorly organized, what makes you think it’s worthwhile to even try to make a fresh start of it? This project is already a failure.project fail

As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” And who can argue with that? The point is that just as the simple steps of “lug, pack, restore, beer” are a wild underestimation of the project of cleaning a garage, most personal projects are far more complex, and require many more decisions, than can adequately be planned out in one’s head, and therefore – as Burns so eloquently put it – gang aft agley.

Take, for example, a hypothetical plan to … let’s say … listen to all of your CDs and then rank them and select the top hundred favorites to write about in a blog you’ll update regularly. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? daffyLet’s make it simpler by saying you have pretty many CDs, but by no means an exhaustive list of classic albums from the past 50 years, or the number that a typical audiophile would have. So maybe you have, say, 357 CDs. This is the point at which – again, if you were a wise individual – you would say to yourself, “Okay, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll get to it some day,” and then you’d go get that beer. Because this is a problem destined to gang aft agley.

The biggest agleying issue I’ve faced has been just how friggin’ long it takes for me to put together a goddam post!!! That’s due to two things: 1) I have a full time job and a family; and 2) I’m a windbag, with no editor.

blahThe lengthy time to post causes a secondary, more abstract – yet possibly larger – problem: I finished listening to all my CDs in late 2013, so my list is stuck in time. I’ve bought a few records since then, some of which could be Top-100 level albums. But now that my list is complete, there’s no way to integrate these new records into it. If The Stooges’ Raw Power, which I recently got, would be, say #37, then each album lower than that would bump down one. Since I’m now writing #69, I’d have 30 albums on this website out of order. Additionally, my #100 is now #101, and so should be removed from the list. Listen, it’s taken me this long to get here, I can’t just suddenly decide to add MORE RECORDS to the project!!!

So I can’t add any new records – the list is “As-Of-January-2014,” and that’s just how it has to be. But there’s also a BIGGER issue with the list: it assumes that the decisions I made about each record were actually ACCURATE at the time I listened! Let’s take a quick look at the process I used for making my list.

carradioI listened to my CDs in my car on my way traveling to and from work. I recognize factory-installed sound systems on 2007 Toyota Corollas aren’t exactly the highest fidelity, audiophile quality systems on which to hear music. However, I have a life. I couldn’t spend 25-grand on state-of-the-art sonic accessories, quit my job and sequester myself away from my family for six months while I worked on my artistic masterpiece. Besides, my car is where I hear most music anyway, and this method leveled the playing field for comparing music by ensuring they’d all be heard on the same lousy system.

I selected CDs randomly and listened to each only once (again, I have a life), gave it a rating of one through five, and jotted a few notes about what I liked. That’s not a lot of information upon which to build a serious case for the merits of one album vs. others. So that’s a source of error.

favorite thingBut the biggest source of error in my evaluation of my records was the algorithm I developed for translating my 5-points-plus-notes evaluation system into a measure of “Favorite.” The algorithm is this: I just sort of went with what I felt. Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t trying to find the BEST, I was trying to find my FAVORITES. There were a few records that I recognized as excellent works of artistic vision and inherent merit that just, you know, didn’t do it for me. Then there were records that I recognized were probably not going to wind up on many critics’ lists that I just LOVED! There were a few records I’d rarely listened to that blew my socks off in that one listen. But it’s hard to make a case that a record I’d heard once or twice should be considered a “favorite.” It was a struggle, and I spent a few weeks arranging and rearranging the albums into what I hoped was the most precise list possible.

Until – at a certain point – I decided: Who gives a shit? It’s a fucking made up list of pop records that a few caseydozen friends are pretending to read! And so I didn’t put more thought into it. There are bound to be records misplaced throughout the list, right? I don’t listen to the albums again until I’m ready to write about them, at which time I get a chance to confirm whether I still agree with placement.

The biggest placement error on the list so far has been The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, which landed at the rather lowly level of number 95. I’ve listened to that record a lot in the time since I published the post and it has certainly climbed my list of favorites since then. I’m guessing it would now fall somewhere in the top 35 … but there’s nothing I can do about it now. True, it sucks, and I’ve been in a back and forth with The Rolling Stones’ lawyers about it, but as I’ve explained in several phone calls with Mick and Charlie the list is set.

thin lizzy bandNumber 69 on my list, the excellent Jailbreak, by vastly under-appreciated Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, is probably my next biggest mistake. But their lawyers won’t be contacting me: you see, I think this one should be lower on the list – maybe in the 90s, or even in the dreaded “Buffalo Bill Near-Miss List” of record numbers 101-110. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great!

Thin Lizzy is a band whose name I knew before I ever knew any of their songs. thin lizzy logoThey’re one of those 70s bands with a distinctive, stylized script logo that I’d often seen sewn onto the denim jackets of some of the scary rocker kids around my town. I didn’t know that I knew one of their songs until sometime in Middle School when I realized they sang the catchy, oft-played 70s rocker “The Boys Are Back in Town.” That song always sounded Southern Rock to me, and so I just figured they were a bunch of white guys from Alabama or Florida or some other place I’d never live in a million years making kickass double-guitar boogie rock. I was quite surprised to learn sometime later that they’re actually Irish, and led by an Irish black man, Phil Lynott.

phillynott fingerPhil Lynott played bass guitar and sang for Thin Lizzy, and he wrote most of the songs as well. I watched a documentary about the band, and he seems to have been a quintessential sad, brilliant artist. His reputation in Ireland is immense, and he is held in esteem there as “Ireland’s First Rock Star.” I didn’t know any of this information when I heard their songs on the radio. AOR radio used to play the songs “The Boys are Back In Town” and “Jail Break” in the 70s and 80s, but given Scary Rocker Kids‘ love of them, I always figured they were some metal band. I got the first inkling that I may be interested in them when I lived with my punk rock friend Eric, and I noticed he owned a copy of Jailbreak. At some point in the 2000s, the band I’ve played in since the late 80s, JB and The So-Called Cells – featuring the phenomenal Dr. Dave on lead guitar – decided to play “The Boys are Back in Town,” and Dr. Dave loaned me the CD so I could learn my part. I listened to the other songs as well and thought, “this is a great friggin’ record!!”

back coverI didn’t listen to it much in the next several years, but when it came time to work on this project, I duly pulled it from its sleeve in one of my nerd-binders full of CDs and brought it to the Corolla for an official listen. In that one listen, I was blown away. I don’t know if it was the traffic that day, the weather, the blend of the morning’s coffee, or what, but after one listen I gave it exceptionally high marks. But when it came time to look at all my ratings of all my records, and compare them with each other, I realized that I didn’t remember much about Jailbreak. As highly as I had rated it – a rating that may have landed it in the top 20 based on number and comments alone – when I looked at it next to some other albums I loved, I just couldn’t justify placing it so high up on the list. When everything shook out, it landed here at 69. So there you are.

And it is definitely the kind of music I tend to really like! Jailbreak is full of dual-guitar majesty, fantastic drumming, and strong melodies – confirming yet again that guitar, drums and melody are the way to my musical heart. The album opens with the riff-rocker title track, “Jailbreak.”

The standard M.O. for 70s hard rock songwriting is on display, and it’s a fine, fine example. Led Zeppelin were masters of it; AC/DC has made a 45 year career out of it. Aerosmith, too. It’s a two-step process: 1) take a cool-sounding guitar riff; and 2) build a song around it. What makes this one interesting are the little things happening around the riff. For example, a lot of cool wah-wah guitar – first heard right around the 15 second mark. brian downeyAnd the drumming by Brian Downey, with lots of fills and hi-hat flourishes, and techniques that aren’t flashy but are kind of mind-blowing on repeated listens – like the fill around 43 seconds to lead into the first chorus. Lynott has a distinctive, growly voice and he uses it well throughout the song and the album. In this song, as in many on the album, he takes on the persona of a character and describes his circumstances. The tale of breaking out of prison is one that connected strongly with teens in the 70s – and probably of any era. There’s a nifty instrumental breakdown starting at about 2:13 that sounds like the rock band version of a jailbreak – even without the sirens that are added to the track. It’s a strong, very cool opener on this underrated album.

The biggest draw for me about the album may be the twin guitars played by Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. One of the best examples of their cool-sounding interplay is the song “Angel From the Coast.”

“Dual guitars” in classic guitar rock, as heard in bands from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Judas Priest,thin lizzy guitars 2 are typically featured two ways: 1) playing the same riff, but in harmony; or 2) playing two separate parts. Gorham and Robertson do both throughout the record. On “Angel From the Coast” one riff starts off the song, and the second guitar comes in at 7 seconds with a separate counter-riff. Later, around 1:26, their harmony work is featured in a guitar solo (duet?), which by 1:42 turns into a true back-and-forth between guitars. They sound great together, like they’re having fun playing off one another, before they dive back into the opening riffs. Anytime a band features two guitars doing things like this, I’m going to give them a good, long listen – as will others: I think noted guitarist and former cover-band player Eddie Van Halen may have lifted the main riff for one of his songs. Lynott’s voice is rocking as ever on (dare I say? Bob Dylan-esque) lyrics with sad imagery of desperate people. This Angel From the Coast appears to be a heroin shipment.

The band’s most famous song, “The Boys are Back in Town,” also features excellent dual-guitar interplay, along with some excellent bass work by Lynott.

I think this song warrants its place as a 70s hard rock mainstay, still heard and played in 2016. thin lizzy band 3 It’s a cool sounding jam, and its lyrics are in the typical Phil Lynott style – taking the point of view of someone and telling a tale. What I find interesting about the narrator in this case is that he’s apart from the action, describing someone else’s deeds. One gets the feeling that the narrator isn’t really part of the gang of boys who are coming back to town this summer, but just a local admirer. I’ve heard rumors that the song is about Viet Nam vets returning home, but I’ve also heard Lynott wrote it about the band’s rowdy fans. Either way, it’s a song that’s established itself in popular culture to a degree that could easily sour it for some people. but the fact it’s been overplayed doesn’t change the fact that it’s an excellent song!

Lynott’s storytelling lyrics are also on display in the softer, slightly jazzy “Romeo and the Lonely Girl.”

I particularly enjoy Brian Downey’s drumming on this song, which features his tight rolls and distinctive fills.phil lynott Also, there’s a terrific guitar solo that I’m not sure which of the stellar guitarists plays. Another bouncy, less rock and roll song is the breezy “Running Back,” which is not about Walter Payton or Jim Brown, but is a musician’s lament of leaving love behind to hit the road. It’s a song direct from the 70s, with a chill electric piano and a blaring sax solo which – to my ears – really neuter a potentially great rock number. Another soft number, albeit with great, subtle guitar work from Gorham and Robertson, is “Fight or Fall,” a call for unity in the vein of The Youngbloods’ 60s hit “Get Together.” The rocker “Emerald” is a shout out to the ancient tribes of Ireland, and “Warriors” is a boastful 70s riff-rocker. The album shows that Lynott was a versatile talent, a songwriter with a knack for melody and lyrics, and also a terrific bass player and singer.

Thin Lizzy was a great band, and Jailbreak would have been a very good record with just those songs I’ve listed. But what I think inspired me to rate it so highly is “Cowboy Song,” one of my all-time favorite songs. I don’t know if it’s the great riff – played in harmony by both guitars and bass – or the sad Desperado lyrics, but something about this song connects with me.

If you click on that video, be sure to listen at least well past the 44 second mark, the point at which the song’s riff starts. thin lizzy band 2It’s a simple musical figure, but it’s super-catchy and has a yearning quality that suits the wanderer’s perspective of the lyrics. Lynott’s voice is expressive, and there’s a tinge of sadness – he clearly relates to roaming the land, taking whatever gigs he can find, while he searches for that woman he once knew. It’s a song I could listen to on repeat, a song I’d likely place on a CD to take on a deserted island. It’s a song that speaks to me loudly enough to bump a very good album up to a top 70 album!

So, look. We all make mistakes in life. But we don’t have to regret all our mistakes. I love Jailbreak, and I’ll keep listening to it. Ranking it at #69 may have been an error, but it’s certainly better than dropping a box of shopping cart wheels on a snowblower. And how many mistakes in life can we say that about??

TRACK LISTING
Jailbreak
Angel From The Coast
Running Back
Romeo and the Lonely Girl
Warriors
The Boys are Back in Town
Fight or Fall
Cowboy Song
Emerald

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