Kronomyth 1.0: CHERRYPICKING. History will show that The Beatles died with a confused whimper. The album that should have come before (Let It Be), came after, and any hopes of a peaceful afterlife were thrown into disarray by McCartney, a collection of musical sketches that offered only tantalizing glimpses of the band’s former greatness. Maybe the future wouldn’t sound like Paul screwing around in a home studio, John and Yoko screaming and George’s imaginary soundtracks, but it sure seemed that way until All Things Must Pass and John’s Plastic Ono Band arrived. It’s probably fair to say that no Paul McCartney album has been so pored over and cherrypicked as his first. The album does contain a few songs that could have easily found their way on the next Beatles album, and I suppose half the fun of listening to McCartney is imagining what “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night” would have sounded like with the contributions of John, Paul and George. More than half of the album, however, is throwaway junk (ironically, “Junk” isn’t one of them—in fact, it might be one of his prettiest melodies ever). As an experiment in do-it-yourself home studio recording, McCartney reveals Paul to be a passable guitarist but an inept drummer (Ringo made it look easy, didn’t he?). Linda provides vocal harmonies in a few places, and if she’s not always exactly on key, just be thankful that she didn’t push for her own album (coughko). Although Paul would try harder on later albums (more or less), his career (with and without Wings) has largely been marked by its self-imposed exile and resulting stunted development. More than any of the other Beatles, Paul has sought the path of a true solo artist since leaving the group. It’s a lonely road sometimes, occasionally quiet and unremarkable, but you’ll see and hear things along the way that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Fela doesn’t seem to have as a much on his mind on Open & Close—a new dance and people who don’t do their jobs correctly dominate the discussion—but there’s a lot happening in the music. The most significant change occurs in the guitar chairs, as Fela employs two guitarists for the first time (Tutu Srunmu on rhythm guitar, Ohiri Akigbe on tenor guitar) to give the arrangements an added texture and richness. Fela also contributes a lot of musical ideas on top of the music with his loose, semaphore-styled keyboard playing. (Is it just me, or does he sound like he’s wearing mittens when he plays?) If Na Poi was a step back in terms of musical development, Open & Close is clearly a step forward. The opening moments of “Swegbe And Pako Part 1” slow down the Afrobeat sound and arrive at something completely new, before pursuing a more distinctive groove, and it’s this kind of experimentation that makes Open & Close an exciting discovery for Fela’s fans. With some lineup tweaks along the way, Africa ’70 had grown even stronger; bass player Ayo Azenabor, while not as pronounced as his predecessor, has a certain nimbleness that blends nicely with the sounds around him. The closing “Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo” is the only overtly political track, recounting a military uprising against colonial rule, but even here the mood is upbeat and light on its feet. The pervading feel on Open & Close is one of confidence and professionalism. Some of Fela’s albums felt like hurried first takes. Open & Close, by contrast, feels well rehearsed and is nearly perfectly executed. Here, the music takes center stage while the politics take a brief rest, resulting in one of his most refreshing records.
Kronomyth 5.0: WONDEROUS STORIES. It’s a cruel madness that goads me in this Sisyphean task (another day boulder, another day wiser) and leaves me crushed by my own shortcomings as a critic. There are no new words, nor novel arrangements of them, that will tease any insight from Tale Spinnin’ not already examined, illustrated and catalogued by more clinical and patient minds than mine. Nothing I add will advance your curiosity an inch, I’m afraid. Mysterious Traveller had been a fascinating travelogue, a point I somehow never get around to mentioning in my review of it (as worthless as the common words it uses). Tale Spinnin’ is another journey of sound, sometimes through lush landscapes, ingenious and indigenous. The Shorter-Zawinul expedition expands the search party with Brazilian percussionist Alyrio Lima, drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and the mysterious presence of The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), a towering altar to the new electronic gods of the digital jungle. The electronics prove to be nothing more than a big, expensive bug zapper, crackling and buzzing in the background, but Ngudu is an important addition, giving the rhythm section a much-needed snap not heard since, well, never. Highlights this time include “Man In The Green Shirt,” a classic in the making that invariably invites the words “joyful” and “exuberant” onto the printed page, the sexy/funky “Between The Thighs” (dreams of “Cucumber Slumber”) and the middle eastern exotica of “Badia.” For Zawinul, the creative process involved composition and re-composition; a middle might become a new beginning, for example, if it told a better story. Tale Spinnin’ is best approached as a collection of musical stories, featuring rich settings that the listener can inhabit. The dynamic between Shorter and Zawinul is interesting here, musician and mad scientist, as Z mixes all manner of sound into his alchemical creations and Shorter carries the melodies unbruised through the turbulence. The albums from Mysterious Traveller through Heavy Weather represent the band’s most fertile musical phase; all four should be collected, cherished and championed. And, now, I have a tub to clean…
Kronomyth 7.0: THE END OF THE ROAD? Start with a guitar riff that cracks like thunder. Add an irresistible beat that hits on the two and fours like a hammer. Mix in a bottom end that’s as smooth as butter. Heat it up with the hellacious vocals of Bon Scott and top it all of with a brief, brilliant guitar solo that keeps you hungry for more. Highway To Hell is the perfect formula for how to make a great rock and roll album. AC/DC had released great albums before this, but Highway took it to a higher level. The first side of music is one of the most powerful plastic faces in rock and roll history, from the breathtaking beginning of “Highway To Hell” through Bon’s sexually charged “Beating Around The Bush.” The production team of Robert Lange and Tony Platt does a stellar job of cleaning up the band’s act, at least from a sonic perspective. The space between the instruments gives the music a clarity lacking on their last album, Powerage. The record labels had less success cleaning up the band’s message; Highway To Hell is as unrepentantly dirty and profane as anything the band had recorded. (As a Christian, this would seem to present a conflict. I reconcile it by remembering that God uses all things for his glory. For more on that matter, see Proverbs 18:7.) It’s hard nowadays to separate this music from the myth of Bon Scott, who died before the band’s next album. Is Highway To Hell the best album that Bon released with the band? In some ways, yes, although I could just as easily champion his performances on Let There Be Rock or Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. But it would be a mistake to think that Bon left on a high note. His final words on record are a dated (though typically topical) reference to Robin Williams’ Mork character, his final moments were spent passed out in a car. Highway To Hell is one record where myth and music don’t intersect neatly; it’s a great rock and roll album that deserved a great encore—and got one, but with a different singer on stage.
The critical consensus is that the five records that Stills released on Atlantic (six if you count Stills Live) represent his best work. No argument there. Where I tend to part ways with critics is in the put-down of Stills 2 as inferior to the works before (Stephen Stills) and after (Manassas). It is not the beneficiary of stockpiled songs; only “Change Partners” and “Know You Got To Run” are leftovers, to my knowledge anyway. Second albums are often disappointing for this reason. But Stills 2 doesn’t back down from the challenge; it charges into the breach with a dozen new songs that offer something for everyone: ravers (“Relaxing Town”), CSN-styled harmonies (“Singin’ Call”), the blues (“Open Secret”), guitar duels (“Fishes And Scorpions”) and a smartly arranged return to the old buffalo hunting grounds on “Bluebird Revisited.” Honestly, I think these songs stack up fine against the material on the double-album Manassas and rise above Down The Road. As with his first record, Stills invites some of the world’s best guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia and a young Nils Lofgren) and more than holds his own in their esteemed company. While the first album had a genuine hit to rally around, Stills 2 has more surprises in store: the retro raver “Marianne” (it’s a shame Stephen Stills and Steve Miller didn’t play together), the funked-up blues of “Nothin’ To Do But Today,” the sweet southern sound of “Sugar Babe.” Unfortunately, it was “Change Partners” that was tapped as the first single, and listeners may have compared it to “Love The One You’re With” and extrapolated the album’s quality from that single data point, which would be a mistake. On Stills 2, I hear Stephen Stills growing more comfortable as a singer, songwriter and arranger. I know, I did pick on Stills for his lackluster performance on 4-Way Street but, as Stills 2 shows, he’s still a significant talent when fully engaged.
Power to the people, right on! Not the people in power, or the people who voted for the people in power, but those other people. No, not the lazy ones who didn’t vote. To the right of them. The malcontents who voted for the wrong guy last time. Those people. Seems like a good idea in theory, and then one day you wake up and pumpkinhead is president. I never liked the politics of this song. Power is a gun, and you can argue endlessly that it’s a deterrent and not a weapon, but no one ever uses it that way. Musically, this song is another of John’s anthems, and I didn’t enjoy any of those except “Woman Is The Nigger of the World.” Brilliant track, that. The B side was Yoko Ono’s controversial “Open Your Box,” which was banned in the UK. The US single featured a different song in its place, “Touch Me” from Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. “Open Your Box” and “Touch Me” are both pretty amazing avant-garde compositions and make a strong case for considering Yoko as a serious artist. It’s too bad she began writing pop songs instead, since her strengths clearly lie in the field of musique concrète.
Kronomyth 1.0: TALES OF BRAVE MEDIOCRATES. If I tell you that Eric Clapton’s first solo album is a disappointment, remember that much was expected of the man in 1970. He was the pre-eminent guitarist of the times, the hero of several supergroups (Cream, Bind Faith and, soon, Derek and the Dominos), not to mention his session work with The Beatles. Yet there was the sense that Clapton was shrinking from his own stardom, much as Paul McCartney had done after the breakup of The Beatles. Clapton’s decision to tour with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett was a curious choice given his previously high profile, and his newfound interest in groups like The Band seemed worlds away from the center stage of Cream. In nearly every way, Eric Clapton is an extension of his engagement with the Bramletts, featuring the same players with Bonnie cowriting most of the material and Delaney producing and arranging it. With time, it became clear that many of the interests explored on Eric Clapton (John Cale, soul, a facility for catchy pop songs) genuinely reflect the man, but at the time it seemed unnaturally modest and deliberately circumspect compared to the grand scale of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire. That’s not to say the album was a complete disappointment; it did produce three legitimate singles (including the classic “Let It Rain” and “After Midnight”), and stands head and shoulders above the half-finished McCartney. Yet the fact remains that Clapton generated more energy and intensity with the blues in a power trio setting than he does with an eight-piece group behind him. Eric Clapton marks the beginning of a new chapter, and while many people breathlessly awaited the sequel to Cream (and found it in Derek), a new story was being written that would eventually render those works fantastic footnotes.
Kronomyth 6.0: WITH SILENT TONGUE AND AWESTRUCK SOUL. On rainy days, this is my umbrella. Saint Dominic’s Preview is a shelter from the crude thunder of modernity. Like all of Van’s classic works, it opens with a joyful embrace, “Jackie Wilson Said,” three minutes of Heaven if ever there was on this giant elemental orb. What follows are strolls through the gardens of ancient God (“Redwood Tree,” “Gypsy”), musical meditations (“Listen To The Lion,” “Almost Independence Day”) and Van as human camera (“Saint Dominic’s Preview”). Morrison’s music again seems effortless, flowing from a natural place like a clear spring of pure inspiration. There’s a feeling of, not just empathy, but community in the music, as though every musician and backing singer were tuned into the same frequency. That’s been part of Morrison’s enigma since Astral Weeks, this unspoken language carried in sound that seems part muse, part spirit. While SDP follows a similar road as Tupelo Honey, it forks at the 11-minute “Listen To The Lion,” a perfect embodiment of Morrison’s soulful, mystical approach to music. An earlier version of this song dates back to the Moondance sessions, but its appearance here several years later is providential, as Morrison was more comfortable in his genius at this stage. I’ve often found myself comparing Van Morrison to Bob Dylan, although the differences here are more striking than the similarities. Dylan’s lyrics were delivered at boiling point, while Morrison lets his ideas simmer on “Listen To The Lion” and “Almost Independence Day” through the use of repetitive phrases. This effect creates an air of solemnity, almost prayer-like, as Morrison’s voice re-examines the words from multiple angles. In a sense, the best Van Morrison albums are like a walk in the woods; natural beauty floods the senses as we stroll and, suddenly, we’re arrested by some sunlit scene, silent and awestruck.
“…That was my album in that sense that I started to come out of my shyness and contribute more.” – Chris Hillman, recalling Younger Than Yesterday in an interview with Richie Unterberger.
Kronomyth 4.0: THIRD DIMENSION. Country rock and Chris Hillman both “arrive” on Younger Than Yesterday. Produced by Gary Usher (fresh from Gene Clark’s first album), the band’s fourth album features an array of psychedelic effects including reversed tapes and electronic sounds that place it at the cutting edge of the post-Revolver landscape. Hillman makes a strong and immediate impression on Younger Than Yesterday with “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star (cowritten with Jim McGuinn) and the minor key harmonies of “Have You Seen Her Face” (influenced by Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen A Face” perhaps). The influence of The Beatles reappears on Hillmans’ “Thoughts And Words.” The erstwhile silent partner in The Byrds also contributes two country rock songs that would foreshadow the band’s future direction, “The Girl With No Name” and “Time Between.” (Appearances by Vern Gosdin and Clarence White suggest that The Byrds were still connected to Gene Clark in spirit.) Younger Than Yesterday also marked a return to Bob Dylan’s rich body of work (“My Back Pages”) and the inclusion of some very good—and, in the case of “Mind Gardens,” very strange—songs from David Crosby. “Everybody’s Been Burned” is one of the best things Crosby has ever done, and “Why” (one of two tracks cowritten with McGuinn) is arguably the catchiest song on the album. Critics seem to have a higher opinion of this album that their last, Fifth Dimension, although I don’t see one as inferior to the other, just different. Fifth Dimension still showed the traces of folk music, while Yesterday looks forward to country rock. Both have strong psychedelic undertones and while Fifth Dimension reached higher highs, Yesterday is more consistently excellent.
Kronomyth 11.0: STAR TREK. Herbie Hancock continued his experiments in fusion by mixing jazz, funk and electronic space music on Crossings. While I find it to be the most “difficult” of his Warner Bros. albums, it’s still a worthwhile journey for jazz adventurers. The new wrinkle in the music is the Moog synthesizer, featured here in extensive studio overdubs provided by Dr. Patrick Gleeson. The Moog is treated as a fourth wind on “Quasar,” appearing in duets with flute (Benny Maupin) and trumpet (Eddie Henderson). It plays an even more prominent role on the closing “Water Torture,” creating an ambient jazz soundscape that sounds more than a little like the music of Tangerine Dream. The electronic sounds are more subtle on the side-long “Sleeping Giant,” which provides the centerpiece of Crossings. You’ll hear it bubbling under the surface during the percussion introduction, drifting in and out during the softer passages and even (I believe) creating a “snoring” effect close to the 18-minute mark. “Sleeping Giant” shifts between waking and sleeping sections, with some exploratory jazz in between but only a minimal use of horns, and even then mostly saxophone from Maupin. The mix splits the horns between the left (Priester), center (Henderson) and right (Maupin) channels, which to my mind prevents their sounds from properly blending. Buster Williams also seems lost in the arrangements; his funky sensibilities are sorely missing most of the time (although HH shows he can create plenty of funk on his own about 11 minutes into the song). “Quasar” clearly benefits by the addition of electronics; subtract that element and what you have is a very basic, almost boring, jazz song. Initially, I was a bit confused by Crossings. The Hancock albums up to this point had been revelatory. Crossings, by comparison, seemed more like a good gimmick; space jazz that, on close inspection, was a little light on substance. Or maybe it’s just that the rest of the sextet seems lost in outer space. (Interestingly, Herbie’s album covers seem to be in a sort of time shift; Crossings looks like Mwandishi sounds, and Sextant looks like Crossings sounds.)