Friday, January 31, 2014

Flashback Friday: Laughing Stock by Talk Talk

Hi everyone,

Remember Talk Talk? They were an 80's synth-pop band, initially posed as an "angst-y" version of Duran Duran by EMI records. They had a string of popular albums in the 80's, with hits like "Talk Talk", "It's A Shame", "Life's What You Make It", and "It's My Life". Because of their early successes, they were increasingly allowed to chart their own course - which they did in a way that nobody expected. Eventually, they would ditch the synth-pop trappings, and explore the world of orchestral ambient jazz. This experimentation culminated in 1988's Spirit Of Eden - after which, they parted ways with an increasingly frustrated EMI.

This is where Laughing Stock comes in. This is their final album as a band, recorded for Polydor in 1991. It continues the radical rethink introduced on Spirit Of Eden and, to some critics, represents the pinnacle of their work. Technically, it's a rock album, but it also sits at the intersection of ambient music and jazz.

You can listen to it here:
Laughing Stock by Talk Talk (Xbox Music)

This is not an "immediate" record. I know it's a lot to ask, but you may need to set a aside a little time to listen to it, before making a final judgment. I found that headphones can help a lot during the initial listens. Also - you may want to concentrate on the 2nd and 3rd tracks - Ascension Day & After The Flood - as a starting point. They're sequenced to fit together, and they're how I'd introduce the album to someone.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

P.S. In case you don't know, you don't need a subscription to listen to Xbox Music - just a Microsoft LiveID. I think you get 10 free hours of music a month.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Flashback Friday: Aerial Ballet by Nilsson

For this edition of Flashback Friday, I'd like to showcase the album "Aerial Ballet" by Nilsson.

You can listen to it on Xbox Live here:
Aerial Ballet by Nilsson (Xbox Music)

Harry Nilsson - who usually went by his last name on his albums - was born in poverty in NYC. He escaped to California and by the late 60's was working in the computer department of a bank. During this time, he was also writing songs for hire, and was discovered by the Monkees. At this point, his performance skills and his near three octave vocal range led to a recording contract with RCA and close friendships with most of rock royalty, including the Beatles.

Nilsson then proceeded to chart one of the most idiosyncratic careers in rock history - from writing children's movies to being thrown out of bars with John Lennon - without ever performing a live concert. I'll leave the rest of his biography to the excellent DVD "Who is Harry Nilsson?" and concentrate on this album, which was his second for RCA.

His first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) was quite the product of its time - slightly psychedelic, slightly vaudevillian - think Sgt. Pepper's, but orchestral and all by one person. By Aerial Ballet (1968), Nilsson had sharpened his songwriting, ditched the odd cover songs, and delivered his first really amazing song "One" - which was a hit for Three Dog Night, not him. His hit song on this album was "Everybody's Talkin'" - which was, of course the one song he didn't write.

This is a strange album, to be sure. You might find it almost "too pop". That's not because it was recorded in 1968 - even then, it felt out of time compared to contemporary albums like the White Album. Nilsson belonged to an earlier "tin-pan-alley" style of songwriting that fell into favor about then. Concentrate on his elaborate multi-tracked harmony vocals - all done by him - and his use of melody and song arranging. Also - notice how biting the lyrics are from time to time and the odd sense of humor that goes with it.

This bitterness and odd humor would eventually dominate his songwriting thru the rest of the 70's - especially after his breakthrough album Nilsson Schmilsson, which is the last of his "normal" records. In addition, Nilsson tried to out scream John Lennon on their joint album and permanently destroyed his vocal range - his final albums are almost unrecognizable as the work of the artist who cut this record.

But - ignore all that for now. Instead, give a listen to this relic from a simpler time, and imagine where "Rock Music" would have gone had more people been able to follow his lead.

And, of course, feel free to post comments below.

(Side note: The last three songs on the Xbox Live version are not from this album - they're bonus tracks Nilsson recorded about the same time. You may recognize one of them from TV...)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Flashback Friday: Numb by Hammerbox

Hi everyone,

I thought I'd try something. Every Friday, give or take a few, I'll do a quick write-up on an album from a band that was overlooked and is worthy of reinvestigation. Also - I'll try to pick albums that are available for free streaming over Xbox Music.

For my inaugural piece, I thought I'd discuss the album Numb by the band Hammerbox.

You can listen to it here:
Numb by Hammerbox (Xbox Music)

Hammerbox were part of the Seattle grunge revolution of the 90's, but - unlike Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam - they had more to do with the punk rock crowd that included The Gits, Nirvana and Mudhoney.

Their first album - the self-titled Hammerbox - came out on C/Z records and established their lead singer, Carrie Akre, as a force to be reckoned with. This album attracted the attention of A&M records who teamed them with Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn for their sophomore album Numb (1992). The pairing didn't quite work as well as it should have, but it's still a strong album, and worthy of a revisit.

Sadly - even with A&M's increased market presence - the album only sold to the Seattle faithful, and the band disbanded shortly thereafter.

The album leans more towards the metallic side of punk, but it's not metal. Call it fast moving rock, tightly played, with a melodic edge. Couple that with Carrie's expressive vocals (to borrow a phrase from AllMusic's review), and that'll give you a sense of what you're in for.

Give it a spin, and let me know what you think in the comments below.