Never For Ever

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Album: Never for Ever

Artist: Kate Bush

Released: September 8th, 1980

Highlights: Babooshka, Delius, Army Dreamers, Breathing

Although not yet twenty when she sat down to put together her debut, Kate Bush was confident enough in her artistic vision to make sure that those around her – be them record engineers or executives in suits – became aware that she would fight to take ownership of her career. It is not that she did not appreciate the helping hands of the people who, amazed by her talent, played a key role in getting her a contract as well as in shaping her initial recordings, a cast of major rock figures that included Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It is just that Kate knew that her ideas were so personal and unique that she would have to not only overcome a high degree of resistance, but also take control of the whole creative process in order to make her idealized musical concepts materialize as accurately as possible.

Case in point, when the initial single of her first album was being prepared, the record company pushed for the good yet standard-sounding “James and the Cold Gun” to be picked; Bush, however, famously stood her ground and made a case for the selection of the more ambitious “Wuthering Heights” instead, a daring choice that paid off when the song climbed to the top of the charts, stayed there for four weeks, and went on to become a pop classic. Despite the evident proof of her artistic tact, complete control over her work would take a bit longer to come. Kate’s debut, “The Kick Inside” was naturally not produced by her. Meanwhile, due to pressure from the label, which wanted to ride on the existing wave of success, the follow-up (“Lionheart) would be made too quickly. As such, the singer was not given enough time to develop fresh ideas, having to use older tunes and recycle the sound of “The Kick Inside”.

But then came “Never for Ever”. Released two years after “Lionheart”, it marks the moment when Kate Bush takes over, therefore emerging like the turning point that would down the line enable the creation of historical out-of-the-box classics like “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Besides writing the tunes and performing them, Bush also produces the album alongside Jon Kelly; creates most of the arrangements; and plays, in addition to her usual piano, a horde of different synthesizers. These are all considerable shifts, but more important than what is written on the record’s credits is how it sounds like, and the change is absolutely notable.

“The Kick Inside” and “Lionheart” were tastefully produced. Yet, despite Kate’s eccentricity, which channels her pop songwriting into artistic performances, these records ultimately sounded like pop albums from the 1970s. It is a characteristic that makes them be true to when they were made; at the same time, though, such trait threatens to turn Kate Bush into just another run-of-the-mill pop act. “Never for Ever”, on the other hand, runs no such risk. Sure, to a contemporary listener there are a few synthesizer textures and vocal arrangements that will seem dated, but “Never for Ever” sounds thoroughly unique as it hops from genre to genre or pulls them together to form weird little babies. Here, Kate drinks from classical music, progressive pop, and rock to land on a fabric that is much truer to her essence, consequently highlighting the theatrical aspects of her music, which manages to be simultaneously appropriate for a stage, a cabaret, and a chamber.

Naturally, the production cannot be solely credited for the artistic leap of “Never for Ever”, as in many instances it is the nature of the compositions themselves that ends up calling for a different treatment. Nowhere in her first two albums had Kate written anything as sparse as “Delius”, as operatic as “The Infant Kiss”, and as filled with movements as “Breathing”. Because of that, the first is so ethereal that it seems to anticipate the dream pop of the Cocteau Twins, with nearly indecipherable vocal inflections included, by at least one year, and that description is also quite suitable for “Blow Away”, the next track in the album’s sequence; meanwhile, the second starts like a piano ballad before quickly revealing it is actually a dramatic orchestrated piece that might as well have been extracted from the key emotional scene of a musical; and the third is a series of beautifully disjointed passages which slowly rise to catharsis connected by the same overall melody, hence coming off as mini-suite.

Interestingly, in many instances the unusual constructions presented by the songs are a reflection of the equally unique themes Kate brings to the table, meaning that they work like musical representations of the lyrics. “Egypt” boasts a dream-like aura and is backed by a guitar soloing notes that immediately recall the country; yet, it features a haunting chaotic coda that nods to the conflicts and poverty present in a nation that is idealized as a touristic destination by many. “The Wedding List”, inspired by the movie “The Bride Wore Black”, has a woman going on a killing rampage as she searches for the five men who killed the groom on the day they were to be married, and as the driving verses depict her vengeful intents, the foggy choruses show how the press and public perceive her quest. “Army Dreamers” is brilliantly arranged and sung like a lullaby, but its marching waltz progression underscores the suffering of a mother who lost her young son when he was called upon to fight a war. And the junction of beauty and horror that the alternating passages of “Breathing” have serves to speak of a baby that will be born into a world poisoned with nuclear fallout.

Most of the eleven songs that make up the album follow this pattern of structural flexibility, which is greatly responsible for giving “Never for Ever” the progressive soul that best defines, but in the midst of this complexity, Kate also opens up a bit of space for more direct tunes. Despite the pronounced fretless bass that gives its piano-led verses a jazz undertone, “Babooshka” is pure pop glory straight from the 1980s, with an energetic performance by Kate’s band and well-placed synthesizers adorning it nicely. “All We Ever Look For” may have kooky instrumentation (including whistling) and a weird break with sound effects, but it is a controlled slice of psychedelia. Finally, “Violin”, which is best described as a fast-paced rock tune accompanied by the titular instrument, shows that the singer – who was admired by none other than John Lydon himself – was perhaps not totally immune to the punk phenomenon.

Truthfully, not everything in “Never for Ever” works. “Egypt” is clever conceptually, but it lacks a melodic hook to make it worth it. “The Wedding List” is one of those moments when Kate’s eccentric spirit gets the best of her, as the tune feels convoluted. And such oddity also affects “Violin”, in which her unique tongue-in-cheek vocal approach to the song flirts with annoyance or parody. Rough spots such as these cause “Never for Ever” to fall below the upper echelon of Kate Bush’s work, meaning that although it is an essential part of her discography, it is no match for what would follow, especially “The Dreaming” and “Hounds of Love”. Yet, it will forever remain as the moment when the little girl from Devon started to stretch her arms widely enough to control all aspects of her work, kicking off the transformation from singer to musical legend that would soon come.

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Presence

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Album: Presence

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 31st, 1976

Highlights: Achilles Last Stand, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Tea for One

As one of the pioneers of hard rock, Led Zeppelin were never strangers to heaviness. However, accompanying the godly blasts produced by the instruments of Page, Jones, and Bonham, there were always elements that added interesting nuances to the mighty pounding. The frequent notable influence of blues singers-songwriters brought a soulful emotional layer to the table and lent the band’s sound an irresistible sway that had been left untouched by most British groups not named The Rolling Stones. Plant’s high-pitched roars and sensual stage presence diluted some of the pure testosterone that emanated from the moments when the band went for full-blast rock and roll. And the gift Page and Jones had to, respectively, play the acoustic guitar and all sorts of keyboards let Led Zeppelin stretch past hard rock with some success and frequency.

It is a combination that, from “Led Zeppelin” to “Physical Graffiti”, yielded wondrous results, for it allowed the band to seamlessly tackle explosive bursts of – up until then – unforeseen power like “Communication Breakdown” as well as flirts with progressive rock of the scale of “In the Light” and moving orchestral folk balladry such as “The Rain Song”. Led Zeppelin, then, far beyond being among the most consistent groups of the era, were also – quietly – one of the most versatile; a quality that often goes sadly unsung even amidst the considerable amount of compliments thrown at the quartet.

“Presence”, however, shifts that balance completely. Mostly gestated by Plant and Page while they were away from Jones and Bonham, and made during a period in which the singer (recovering from an accident) was far from being in complete health, the album is – perhaps – the closest the world would ever get to a Jimmy Page solo record until the release of 1988’s “Outrider”. From the first to the seventh song, it is an unfiltered display of hard rock acrobatics, and given its focus on electricity, its absence of mellow moments, and the fact it boasts no keyboards whatsoever and only one instance of barely audible acoustic-guitar playing, “Presence” also happens to safely qualify as the heaviest Led Zeppelin album.

It is a label that is undeniably appealing. Yet, sheer weight does not exactly automatically translate into notable quality, and it is in that aspect that “Presence” falters. Aside from the marching epic that is “Achilles Last Stand” and the slow-burning blues of “Tea for One”, which bookend the track listing, the dryness in arrangements, the similarity in pace, and the homogeneity in the guitar tones that permeate “Presence” make all of the other cuts merge into one another, an accusation that can not be made regarding any other record in the band’s discography, not even the irregular duo of “Houses of the Holy” and “In Through the Out Door”, which often stumble due to a colorfulness that “Presence” could have used. Such lack of variety undeniably hurts it, but the main culprit in this particular case has got to be the songwriting.

Where Page and Plant had once gelled into an entity that operated in perfect synergy, “Presence” shows the pair having trouble to join their parts into a cohesive unit. Jimmy’s guitar parts, by all means the backbones of the tunes, offer the usual technical prowess that is accentuated by overdubs deployed with the taste and care of a maestro. They are, however, more complex than those of any other Led Zeppelin album, featuring a horde of licks and phrases that do not allow them to stand in place for too long. If on one hand that is a trait that keeps the instrumental portion of “Presence” playful, interesting, and dynamic inside the tight confines in which it operates, it is also an architecture that puts a considerable degree of pressure on Plant to come up with melodies that are not only good, but also suiting to the guitar fireworks of Page. The singer, sadly, does not pull off any of those tasks.

Fortunately, the failures are not simultaneous. The individual melodies are either lackluster or at odds with the backing track, never the two at the same time; and on at least two songs, “Achilles Last Stand” and “Tea for One”, they make it unscathed to the finish line, with the caveat that the latter is a less inspired rewrite of the classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. It is hard to say whether Page or Plant is most at fault: the guitarist could have dialed down on the complexity without losing his usual flair; the singer could have been more inspired; or his voice, which had lost a good part of its higher range by 1976, could have left the door open for wider melodic opportunities had it retained its original greatness. But the fact of the matter is that it feels “Presence” could have benefited from tighter cooperation between the parts involved.

All is not lost, though. Even if, many times, threatening to be average, the album is never truly bad. Page, Jones, and Bonham are masterful as usual, and although Led Zeppelin records have historically thrived on the quality of their sound, the band’s instrumentalists were never captured quite as vividly as they were in “Presence”, which merges a straightforwardness that nearly speaks to the ethos of garage rock with all the high-budget gloss and studio trickery that Page loved to employ. The balance between bass, drums, and guitars is impeccable, with all instruments sounding absolutely huge and clear without ever overpowering one another; as such, the proficiency of those three guys with their respective tools of work could not possibly have been made more evident.

Furthermore, in spite of how the songwriting quality is the lowest of any Led Zeppelin album, “Presence” does hide a trio of gems: “Achilles Last Stand” is, clocking in at ten minutes, the band’s best epic track, offering historical performances by Page and – especially – Bonham; “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a thrilling stop-and-start tune that boasts a wicked harmonica solo; and “Tea for One”, though not exactly fresh, brings about the much-needed sexy blues sway that is sadly missing from the rest of the work. Inserted within a catalog that includes monsters of the height of “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”, it is easy – and fair – to see “Presence” as a minor work, one in which the natural cracks of creative exhaustion following relentless writing and touring were starting to appear very blatantly; and that comparison risks leading many to label it as a downright bad album. “Presence”, however, is enjoyable, for although the Page and Plant magic of other releases was not so strong anymore, it was still carrying enough force to uncover a few notable moments. And with players like Jones and Bonham to back it up, even the lesser products of that match become worthwhile to a degree.

In The Wake Of Poseidon

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Album: In the Wake of Poseidon

Artist: King Crimson

Released: May 15th, 1970

Highlights: Pictures of a City, Cadence and Cascade, In the Wake of Poseidon

Attached to King Crimson’s debut is a story that is all too familiar to many albums of the era, especially to those that dared to tread into somewhat unfamiliar territory. Upon its 1969 release, “In the Court of the Crimson King” garnered mixed reviews that ranged from comments praising its blend of traditional European music with classic rock in the building of epic progressive tunes to critical pieces that labeled the band’s junction of those same elements as utterly disposable and silly. With time, however, the general perception on the record shifted to a much fairer angle, as slowly but surely it earned a position as one of the cornerstones of the genre to which it belongs and also as, quite simply, one of the greatest albums of all time.

It is hard to say exactly how much of that initial irregular reception affected the group; as possibly one may argue that, if showered with praise and commercial success right then, King Crimson would become – from the get go – a stable entity. But the fact of the matter is that by the time the band went into the studio to assemble their second work, “In the Wake of Poseidon”, the line-up of “In the Court of the Crimson King” had evaporated. Vocalist and bassist Greg Lake had left to form the trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer; while drummer Michael Giles as well as Ian McDonald, who was the one responsible for the woodwinds that were so vital to the sonority of the debut, had quit shortly after the group’s first American tour.

Therefore, even though both Lake and Giles do contribute to “In the Wake of Poseidon” as session musicians, with the former singing in all but one track and with the latter being behind the kit whenever the instrument is called upon, a great portion of the album’s musical decisions fell on the shoulders of guitarist Robert Fripp, who together with lyricist Peter Sinfield appear as the sole de facto members of King Crimson on the album’s credits. And perhaps it is from such personnel turmoil that “In the Wake of Poseidon” gains its most distinctive characteristic, for rather than presenting a notable evolution in sound when compared to its predecessor, it actually comes off like the product of a band that has not had the time to evolve.

In fact, such lack of evolution is so blatant that – as its title points out – “In the Wake of Poseidon” feels a whole lot like a copy of “In the Court of the Crimson King”. As if the albums had been made using the very same mold, parallels can be traced between most of their major tracks. “Pictures of a City”, for instance, works as the album’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, since it boasts most of the features of that classic: distorted vocals, a pounding riff that – grounded on blues – would not feel out of place in a heavy metal record, accompanying horns that add to the volume of the music whilst giving the track a slight jazzy edge, and a lengthy instrumental break that toys with tempo shifts and leaves plenty of space for Fripp to execute his signature guitar magic.

“Cadence and Cascade”, meanwhile, is a counterpart to “I Talk to the Wind”, not just because it is the quiet ballad that follows the hectic opener, but due to how it feels like it comes from a different time, as it could have been easily written by a medieval bard sitting in a garden surrounded by folkloric creatures; this time around, though, instead of being plugged into the electricity as he gently picks strings in the midst of such idyllic scene, the musician has gone appropriately acoustic. Finally, the title song is another take on the musical theme of “Epitaph”: a slow and relatively long tune whose sad and dramatic melody gains epic contours thanks to the usage of a mellotron to emulate the effect of a sweeping orchestra.

Still, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is not totally about recycling ideas, even if a very big part of it indeed is. Thus, drops of originality do appear. For starters, the album uses three small acoustic and vocal numbers titled “Peace” as bookends to its sides; given their size, though, they are more of a neat feature than a considerable artistic change. On a more significant scale, there is “Cat Food”, which combines a freestyling piano, loose guitar lines, and energetic playful vocals that occasionally harmonize to take King Crimson into the realms of improvisational jazz, elevating a tune that could be dynamited by its silly lyrics into the status of a noteworthy cut. At the same time, and on a much more negative note, there is “The Devil’s Triangle”, an eleven-minute three-part instrumental that slowly builds chaos around marching drums and loud mellotrons but that goes absolutely nowhere, drawing comparisons to the ten-minute woodwind noodling that closes out “Moonchild” from “In the Court of the Crimson King” as a moment when the band traveled way too far into progressive indulgence.

Despite its problems regarding both matters of originality and the existence of a lengthy song that does not justify its presence, “In the Wake of Poseidon” is still strong due to the simple fact that most of it is very enjoyable. Surely, “Pictures of a City” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” do not hold a candle to the tunes that inspired them, but not many do. The first, however, is an absolute thrill whether it is rocking or spiraling out of control; while the second is grand and moving in equal parts. “Cadence and Cascade”, on the other hand, is a huge step-up over the already excellent “I Talk to the Wind”, for besides exhibiting a more tasteful arrangement that tones down on the flutes, it simply overpowers that track on the strength of its vastly superior and utterly gorgeous melody. And to top it all off, “Cat Food” is stupid but fun.

To many groups of the era, the meager months that separated the sessions of “In the Court of the Crimson King” from those of “In the Wake of Poseidon” would have been enough to guarantee noteworthy musical evolution. To King Crimson, though, that interval was used by the band to completely fall apart. As such, regardless of general artistic stagnation and a glaring repeated misstep, it is a bit of a miracle that the album was not only finalized but that it came out as great as it did, showing that – as much of the rock world would come to realize later on – tenacity and talent are two of the essential components that power the genius of Robert Fripp and the ever-daring musical moves of King Crimson.

New Skin For The Old Ceremony

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Album: New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Artist: Leonard Cohen

Released: August 11th, 1974

Highlights: Chelsea Hotel #2, There Is a War, Who by Fire, Leaving Green Sleeves

Famously, Canadian poet Leonard Cohen only added the titles of singer and songwriter to his list of occupations relatively late in life. For while many musicians start their careers in the field right as they bid farewell to their teen years, with many of them going on to write their masterpieces before the age of 30, Cohen only published his first album when he was slightly over that mark. His 1967 debut, humbly titled “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, was recorded and released by the time he was 33, and every single one of the notes that are part of it seems to announce its nature as the work of a man who was thoroughly confident in one area whilst being slightly insecure in another.

The words of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” are those of a battered veteran who has learned his craft quite well, as they entwine religion, sex, love, and women into a fabric that is so whole they seem like one subject; and they achieve that while landing with the emotional impact of a mallet being swung by an angry brokenhearted god and with the taste of a connoisseur who has been through the finest-written pieces of poetry. Contrarily, the somewhat naive instrumentation that accompanies them as well as the stiff singing that airs the verses reveal a musician that was still coming to grips with his newfound role. And in one way or another, the two albums that would quickly follow that striking debut would capture that balance in an ever-shifting state, as Cohen continued to exhibit stunning mastery over words and growing comfort in the shoes of a singer.

“New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is the fourth album of Cohen’s career, and also the last piece of his early folk-based works, and – arriving three years after its predecessor, “Songs of Love and Hate” – it seems to mark the point when he acquired a confidence in his musicianship that matched the one he held in relation to his poetry. That is not to say, of course, that the musical greatness of “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is comparable to the excellence of its verses; for that to be so, Cohen would need to have the nose for melody displayed by the likes of Dylan and Young, which would – given his effective pen – almost immediately make him the best songwriter of all time. That, however, is not the case. But in “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” it is easy to see that he has grown in guitar-playing and singing.

On the two fronts, it is notable how Cohen abandons his former rigidity, often a sign of insecurity, for a looser approach. In his acoustic playing, he alternates between picking and strumming, sometimes within the same track; toys around with changes of tempo; and never falls back into the recurring Spanish-guitar patterns that, due to their sheer lack of variety, held back a few tunes of his first three albums. In his singing, meanwhile, listeners will come across revelatory energy and emotion, as Cohen will – with some frequency – step out of his otherwise monotonic grumble to utter words as if he were feeling real pain or anger, emerging, therefore, as a victim of anguish rather than a mere narrator of dark emotional tragedy.

That relentless sullenness, which is missing, had obviously served its purpose quite well in the three albums that preceded “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, as it made Cohen come off like a man who had been through so much that the damage caused by the experiences he went through had simultaneously blessed him with endless wisdom and cursed him into becoming a powerless ghost. Its absence here, though, lends the album very vivid colors. “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” is, obviously, neither cheery nor optimistic; there is hardly room in the vocabulary of Leonard Cohen for such positivity. It is, however, warm and – in some weird ways – even playful.

In “Is This What You Wanted”, where he uses an avalanche of metaphors to compare himself unfavorably to his partner, he sounds like a brokenhearted drunk who occasionally finds enough clarity to broadcast frustration. In “Chelsea Hotel #2” he beautifully recalls a quick sexual encounter, trying to hide his blatant longing with rehearsed indifference. In “Lover Lover Lover” he alternates a confrontational conversation with God and a defeated call for a lover who is gone. In “Field Commander Cohen”, a similar variation appears, as Cohen uses a marching strum to talk about his surrealistically heroic life in the army before reverting to a soft picking that reveals he has run away from battle and now rests in bed with a woman while his peers die. In “Why Don’t You Try” he dabbles into an almost humorous meeting of jazz and music hall to depict an argument between a couple.

In “There Is a War” he, sometimes in dissatisfaction and sometimes in acceptance, concludes war is a natural and continuous part of human society. In “A Singer Must Die” he addresses critics in a mocking and self-deprecating tone. In “I Tried to Leave You” he offers a fun take on how long-term relationships can become inescapable prisons. In “Who By Fire”, the gloomiest cut on the record, he draws from a Hebrew prayer to look at the numerous ways in which one might meet the inevitable fate of death. In “Take This Longing”, where he comes the closest to the Cohen of the first three records, he coldly despairs and humiliates himself in front of a woman who refuses to love him, asking for her affection even if it is temporary and fake. And in “Leaving Green Sleeves” he pulls off the same act, with the difference that his plea is loud and anguished instead of silent and depressed.

The result of that myriad of feelings and, most importantly, tones, is the most colorful album of the first portion of Cohen’s glorious career. And despite the fact “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” does not contain any lyrical achievements that are comparable to the finest poetic moments of “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, “Songs from a Room”, and “Songs of Love and Hate”, it makes up for that disadvantage with singing and playing that display greater confidence; with melodies that are more pronounced; with arrangements that are richer than those seen in the opening trilogy; and with production choices that are more consistent and tasteful. Allied with Cohen’s unfaltering word-craft, which is always far above average, those virtues make “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” shine, establishing it as one of the best works of the poet-turned-songwriter.

Hejira

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Album: Hejira

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: November 22nd, 1976

Highlights: Coyote, Amelia, Hejira, Song for Sharon, Refuge of the Roads

During a very short period of time between 1975 and 1976, Joni Mitchell took a total of three road trips across the United States. In the first, she was part of the festive gypsy-like caravan that was Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. In the second, she led her own tour for the promotion of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which would be cut short due to internal strife in her band. And in the third and final leg of her adventure, the folk singer – going from coast to coast – crossed the country twice, moving from Los Angeles to Maine in the company of a few friends and then driving all the way back to California alone through Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

With all the feelings, meetings, separations, little celebrations, occasions of lonely contemplation, and experiences that are so intricately connected to the act of stepping on the road, it is only to be expected that a sensitive and observant artist of the caliber of Mitchell would use those remarkable moments as the raw material of her ultimate craft: songs. And in that sense, “Hejira”, the album she recorded shortly after those trips, confirms the forecast, for it reads very much like a travelogue, as its nine tunes serve as brief windows into one or more key instants that marked not only her journey, but her wandering spirit as well.

Albums for or about road trips were not exactly new in 1976, and they have appeared in such abundance both before and after that year that they could easily constitute a genre of their own. However, in addition to the notable quality of its cuts, which exhibit one of history’s greatest songwriters at the peak of her powers, there is a softness and delicacy to the soul of “Hejira” that set it apart from the crowd. Surely, while Joni chronicles her exploits, the mundane friction between rubber and asphalt is vividly present, and physical distances, human longing, and earthly matters form a considerable part of the record’s contents. Nevertheless, the road in “Hejira” is also spiritual, working like a standalone realm isolated from daily stress that allows those who give themselves to its endlessness to escape worries, confront inner demons, acquire knowledge, and live episodes that can be safely left behind in the black-and-white infinity of the roads.

The credit for that thematic achievement has to be shared between many parts. It can be given to the unparalleled craftsmanship Joni has regarding putting words together. It can be attributed to her flawless angelic voice. And it can be linked to a singing style that alternates playfulness, honesty, vulnerability, and thoughtfulness. Above it all, though, it has to be laid at the feet of her production work, because “Hejira” sounds absolutely aural, as if all of its parts were gliding in the very thin line that separates what is real from what is spiritual. Its guitar work, be it electric or acoustic, is pure yet pervasive, feeling strong but threatening to elude one’s touch if they try to capture it; its bass lines are prominent, especially when handled by the legendary Jaco Pastorius, who solos tastefully over Joni’s steady strums; and all other instruments delicately float around those two central pieces.

That transcendent soundscape carried by “Hejira” gives muscle to music that finds balance between refinement and accessibility. In Joni Mitchell’s career arch, the album stands right at the point that separates her initial run of records centered on plain folk and flowery pop from the wild experiments in jazz she would later take on; as such, even if it does carry, to an even larger degree, the stylistic and structural sophistication that began to appear in its two predecessors (“Court and Spark” and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), “Hejira” still clicks as a universally appealing piece.

There are, of course, punctual challenges to be found along the way, and they mainly arise from the stronger leaning towards jazz presented by “Hejira”. The songs are mostly long, with the two shortest of the bunch clocking in at four minutes. Moreover, all of them lack a chorus, either relying on single sentences that serve as hooks or just being formed by lengthy sequences of verses that are propelled by cyclical instrumentation. Consequently, their flexibility and the fuel that keeps them engaging throughout their duration come, instead, in the minor instrumental and arrangement variations that occur every once in a while; in Mitchell’s signature knack for twisting melodic lines as she sees fit; and in the lyrics. And as far as that last particular item goes, “Hejira” is an inexhaustible trove of treasures, treading both on specific episodes and philosophical contemplations.

“Coyote” addresses, with fondness, the separation from a former lover who also happened to be a womanizer. “Amelia” sees the singer talking and comparing herself to lost aviator Amelia Earhart; feeling comfortable with their mutual position as strong independent women who undertook – each for their own reasons – lonely journeys, Mitchell opens up about subjects that trouble her. “Furry Sings the Blues” recalls Joni’s encounter with blues legend Furry Lewis in a poorly kept Beale Street. “A Strange Boy” narrates an affair she had with a man in his thirties who still lived with his parents. “Hejira” covers the reasons why Mitchell broke up with her boyfriend and drummer during the tour supporting “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. “Song for Sharon”, in ten magnificent verses, is a letter to a friend, and in it Joni approaches the subject of marriage: a dream that she has nurtured since childhood but that has always eluded her. “Black Crow” explores four ways in which she is a whole lot like the titular bird. And “Blue Motel Room” gives listeners a glimpse into one of the many lonesome nights Mitchell had while on the road, as she contemplates the empty room around her while longing for a distant lover.

In that context, the stunning closer “Refuge of the Roads” is the perfect final chapter to a flawless travelogue. Encompassing multiple meetings she had during her trip, Joni Mitchell concludes her portrait of the roads that cross the United States – or any other country, for that matter – as sacred spaces where remarkable human experiences, be of the bitter or of the sweet kind, take place. As she travels through thoughts, smiles, tears, and the warm embrace of those she cares about, though, Mitchell does not lose sight of how her journey – regardless of the emotional weight it may contain – is ultimately an insignificant one amidst the immensity of the highways, of the country, of the world, and of life itself.

And as the bass of Jaco Pastorius keeps on ringing as “Hejira” comes to a close, listeners are reminded that the roads Mitchell – and many others – traveled by are still out there, and that as the record plays, the encounters and contemplations that happen in them are, in a regenerated state, still unfolding at that very minute. Because, sure, the roads seem endless; however, they do hold a final destination for everyone, and it is only thanks to the cyclical ways of the universe that the stories that have them as a scenario repeat themselves infinitely with slightly altered details. And for as long as they occur, “Hejira” will be their spiritual soundtrack.

In Through The Out Door

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Album: In Through the Out Door

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: August 15th, 1979

Highlights: In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, I’m Gonna Crawl

Albums that are produced by fractured groups do not always necessarily suffer from such a context, as rock history has plenty of examples of records made amongst turmoil – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – that, nevertheless, found greatness amidst personal chaos. Sadly, “In Through the Out Door”, by the giants of Led Zeppelin, is not one of those positive instances. Famously, as the work that would turn out to be band’s final release due to the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham just one year later was being put together, the English hard rockers were broken into two camps.

While bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant were clean and fully committed to the project, despite the fact the latter was suffering from the recent loss of his young son, guitarist and main songwriter Jimmy Page as well as Bonham himself were struggling with substance abuse. As such, it is easy to attribute much of the surprising irregularity of “In Through the Out Door” to that state of affairs, because with Page – their main creative force – failing to be his usual productive self, it fell on the shoulders of Jones and Plant to guide much of the album in composition and arrangement, with the pair getting full writing credits in two of the record’s seven cuts and with the bassist – previously a rare sight as a songwriter – having his name, alongside those of Page and Plant, attached to the other five tunes.

The shift in the gravitational center of Led Zeppelin’s creative process can be heard clearly, because where the group’s first seven records featured Page’s guitar as their leading instrument, in “In Through the Out Door” it is the synthesizer of Jones that takes the spotlight. With the exception of the excellent “Fool in the Rain” and the passable “Hot Dog”, a tongue-in-cheek jab at rockabilly which at least turns out better than the band’s shots at reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and funk (“The Crunge”) seen in “Houses of the Holy”, the tool that was used as the immaculate backing to inventive exercises on hard rock suddenly gets to carry songs all the way to the finish line. And, unfortunately, it reveals it is not totally up to that task.

Nowhere is that notion clearer than in the ten-minute “Carouselambra”, where the band tries to create yet another lengthy track of epic size and magnitude, in the vein of classics such as “In My Time of Dying” and “Achilles Last Stand”, only for it to become dull before the conclusion of its first ninety seconds due to the lack of inspiration of its synthesized hook and the clunky, almost non-existent, melody of Plant’s vocals. Surely, along the trip, it tries to – in an almost progressive fashion – shift in tone and go through distinct phases, but the more it contorts itself the more awkward it gets and the more blatant its problems become.

Although problematic, “In Through the Out Door” is not to be thrown away in its entirety. Certainly, there are consistent annoyances that run through it, like the lackluster guitar solos Page executes and the fact Plant’s voice is in a weird limbo between his signature wails and his solemn lower register, being unable to find any of those edges and standing – instead – on an awkward middle ground that does not seem right for any of the songs save for “Fool in the Rain”. Still, there are bright spots.

Opener “In the Evening” succeeds where “Carouselambra” fails, as its nearly seven minutes are well spent creating a song that has a psychedelic edge and displays urgent power, perhaps because – for it – Page bothered to come up with a mighty guitar riff that is worthy of the band. Meanwhile, “Fool in the Rain” is a sunny and stylistic oddity for Led Zeppelin; a playful and light song about the despair of a guy waiting for his date at the wrong place without realizing it, the tune features clever interplay the piano of Jones and the guitar of Page, and contains a samba-inspired shuffle where Bonham proves why he is constantly ranked as the best rock drummer of all time. And as a final highlight, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a relaxed slow-paced blues that locks on a perfect balance between synthesizer and guitar to create an atmosphere of pain, tension, lust, and anguishing love.

Ultimately, what these tracks reveal is that for “In Through the Out Door” to have worked as a whole, Led Zeppelin would have had to build it via the same approach employed in their first seven works; that is, through cooperation. Page’s state of mind during the album’s recording harmed far more than the songwriting, because even his usually stellar production work feels sloppy, as the balance between the instruments and Plant’s voice feels off in pretty much all tracks, and better arrangements or a firmer sound could have done big favors to decent tunes such as the straight rock of “South Bound Saurez”, and the sweet synth-based ballad of “All My Love”, whose lyrics were written by Plant to his deceased son.

However, given the context that surrounded it, Led Zeppelin’s usual balance of forces and creative collaborations does not show up in “In Through the Out Door”. The musical shift the album proposes, whether purposely or not, is an interesting one, for if the band had continued, one can only hope they would have moved forward stylistically. Unfortunately, the fate of Bonham and the band’s admirable decision to refuse to go on without their friend turned what could have been seen as an interesting transition record that had the potential to pave the way to more masterpieces into an irregular farewell that clearly displays the band was not working together.

All Mod Cons

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Album: All Mod Cons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 3rd, 1978

Highlights: To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time), Mr. Clean, ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

No other band had as much of an influence over the mod revival movement that took place in the United Kingdom during the late 70s as The Jam did. And, of course, no revival of note could happen without the execution of some sort of alteration on the subculture that is being brought back to life. For the group formed by Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton, and Rick Buckler, the extra ingredient they employed in the reanimation of the comatose mod genre was none other than punk. The original mods – namely, The Who and the Small Faces – had built their tunes on what the 50s and 60s had brought forth in terms of R&B, pop, and soul.

Comparatively, with one extra decade of musical history behind them, The Jam had the opportunity to drink from those same sources while giving them an energetic and rough edge that English punk rockers had proven to be a viable commercial alternative. As such, with their feet firmly set on two major musical currents from two distinct eras, Weller and his peers crafted a sound that had the shambolic honesty of The Clash’s early phase and simultaneously boasted a killer instinct that allowed it to bite on major pop hooks as soon as they hit the water.

Punk with pop affectations was by no means new, as both the Ramones and The Clash had – each to a degree – dabbled in that realm. However, it was the mod inspiration that set The Jam apart. Their aggression, though certainly powerful, landed with sweet notes thanks to their melodic inclinations, cleaner production values, and a instrumentation that knew how to kick and punch as well as it knew how to create mellower moments; and much of their career was spent traversing a bridge that led them further away from punk and progressively closer to pop.

As the third piece of a six-album arc, “All Mod Cons” stands numerically towards the middle of that journey; however, in many ways, it feels like its true beginning. “In the City” and “This Is the Modern World” were solid records with a lot to say musically and lyrically; yet, in between them, little to no evolution is perceived, as in both the band appears not to be confident enough to truly merge the movements that had influenced them. In “All Mod Cons”, contrarily, the gear unmistakably shifts, as Paul Weller merges anger and sweetness to build a record of power pop that carries a pocket knife under its immaculate clothing, being as prepared to charm as it is to attack.

In “All Mod Cons” The Jam does not completely abandon punk: the opening title song clocks in at under eighty seconds and shows Paul Weller complaining about the fact their label will surely drop them if they fail to deliver a hit this time around; “Billy Hunt” is so fast-paced it can make one’s head spin; and “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street”, which looks at how cultural degradation and the disintegration of freedom walk hand in hand, has as its main hook a simple catchy riff that would have been right at home in The Clash’s debut record.

However, signs that the pop vein is finally standing in equal footing alongside the band’s aggressive tendencies abound. “English Rose” is a sweet, yet perhaps a bit too flat, folk ballad whose lyrics are smart enough to make one wonder whether Weller is writing a love letter to his home country or to a girl; “Fly” also ventures into balladry, but gains energy in how the acoustic picking of its verses makes way for an electric chorus; “It’s Too Bad” is so poppy it could have been on an early The Beatles LP if not for the bitterness of its words; and “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” are masterpieces of dynamics. The former matches moments when Weller, over gentle guitar-playing, looks smitten by the delights of fame only to eventually break down into explosions of frustration when the condemns the emptiness of it all; and the latter, one of the best tunes of the era, grows ever more pulsating and paranoid as it travels through its five-minute length, going silent when the protagonist reveals his fear of being beat down by thugs hanging around the station and speeding up when he is in fact struck into unconsciousness.

“All Mod Cons” is filled with those moments of power pop delight: they come in how The Jam mixes fierce riffs with ringing arpeggios that recall the work of Elvis Costello in “My Aim is True”; in how the record’s melodies are strong and smooth in equal parts; and in how the band targets accessibility without compromising candidness. It is not all about aesthetic beauty, though, as Weller infuses brains into his songwriting as well. Social and political matters still are of great importance to the singer, but here, inspired by Ray Davies, as the inclusion of a frantic take on The Kink’s “David Watts” indicates, he goes all out on character studies, whether it is the middle-class smugness of the protagonist of “Mr. Clean”, which makes Weller so mad he resorts to threatening the man’s integrity; the loss of individuality perceived by the narrator of “In the Crowd”; and the miserable members of English society that lead such dull lives that the only relief they find is in their imagination, as seen in both “Billy Hunt” and “The Place I Love”.

More than providing social insight through music, the acidity generated by themes such as those solidify The Jam’s position as a band that had the political concerns of their biggest punk influence, The Clash, but approached them via a very different pair of lenses while carrying these ideas to a poppier spectrum. It is a blend that allowed the group to stay in perfect consonance with the two cultural phenomenons they drank from in order to build their sound, and “All Mod Cons” marks the moment when these branches were truly merged into a full-fledged musical concept.

As You Were

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Album: As You Were

Artist: Liam Gallagher

Released: October 6th, 2017

Highlights: Wall of Glass, Paper Crown, For What It’s Worth, Chinatown

Following the disbanding of Oasis in 2009, it was common knowledge among fans and music aficionados alike that, out of the two warring Gallagher brothers, Noel would most likely be the one to do better on his own. Surely, Liam – via his voice and behavior – embodied a lot of the coolness, and rock and roll recklessness upon Oasis was built; however, as great as his interpretations might have been, he was – ultimately – a singer who lent voice to the creative work of Noel, whose pen and paper gave birth to many of the greatest anthems of the nineties. It was not shocking, then, that while Noel was able to achieve solid critical acclaim while fronting his own band (Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds), Liam struggled to find solid footing with Beady Eye, in which he and other former members of Oasis were left with the task of filling up full albums with fresh material, something they never had to do as a part of the Britpop phenomenon.

After the implosion of Beady Eye, it seems Liam – armed with extra maturity and knowledge – was able to learn two very valuable lessons: first, that with his strong personality, perhaps more stability can be found in a solo career; second, that even though his own songwriting eventually yields shiny gems (such as “Songbird” from Oasis’ “Heathen Chemistry”), he needs collaborators to help him through the ordeal of writing a full album. Those two reasons alone make “As You Were” be remarkable: almost a decade after Oasis exploded as spectacularly as everyone thought they eventually would, the signature voice of the band is once more featured in a record of solid rock songs that will put listeners back in touch with his confrontational persona while also giving them a glimpse of a more sober and older version of Liam Gallagher.

Like Noel has done while fronting the High Flying Birds, Liam never quite treads back towards the bombastic rock sound of Oasis; a rather wise decision given the past cannot be reproduced and the world of music is vast enough to house many new possibilities. Still, through a few hooks (such as the ones found on the choruses of the beautifully layered ballad “For What It’s Worth” and of the pounding “Wall of Glass”) and guitar-oriented pieces (“You Better Run”, “I Get By”, and “Come Back to Me”) he gets pretty close to channeling some Oasis-like vibes, even if the rockers lean towards the generic and passable. It is quite pleasant, though, to see Liam drop his thick outer shell and let vulnerability and more personal songwriting shine through in cuts like the fully acoustic “Chinatown”; in the quiet yet grandiose “Universal Gleam”, where he sings of acquired wisdom; and in “When I’m in Need”, where Liam and Noel’s biggest influence (The Beatles) is clearly perceived from a melodic and lyrical standpoint.

In fact, nodding towards his idols is something Liam does quite a lot in “As You Were”, as he has perhaps seen the freedom of a solo effort as a chance to pay the due respects to those he feels deserve it. Through the record, he either quotes or downright names Neil Young, Joy Division, The Kinks, Talking Heads, Grateful Dead, and others; there is even space for mentioning the title of the second record of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (“Chasing Yesterday”) even though in that instance the reference is more likely meant as a stab rather than a homage. Overall, “As You Were” is surprisingly good, albeit not great. The tracks Liam penned on his own, with the exception of “Universal Gleam”, certainly fall behind those in which he had the help of collaborators: they are not bad, but they fail to impress. Moreover, like his brother, Liam is rather irregular and sometimes too obvious as a lyricist. Nevertheless, the fact that, on the closing days of 2017, the main voice of Oasis has unexpectedly emerged with an album that holds a good amount of excellent tunes is a satisfying gift to the music world.

Wonderful Wonderful

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Album: Wonderful Wonderful

Artist: The Killers

Released: September 22th, 2017

Highlights: Run for Cover, Tyson vs. Douglas, Some Kind of Love, The Calling

It seems that, on the roadmap of many bands where one more prominent figure stands out from the rest of the group, there lies a record that will be labeled by critics and fans alike as a solo effort disguised, by superficial branding, as a collective creative product. In a way, The Killers could have been immune to that recurring theme; after all, numerous of the band’s songwriting credits have been historically shared between Brandon Flowers and some of the other guys. On the other hand, the fact not-so-devoted The Killers’ fans would be hard-pressed to name the band’s instrumentalists says a lot about Flowers’ towering presence and dominance. After four records, though, the scales seem to have tipped and the time has finally come for the album that feels a whole lot like the result of a solitary endeavor: “Wonderful Wonderful”.

Truth be told, the names of Keuning, Stoermer, and Vannucci – the first one to a lesser degree – do appear attached to the record’s tracks. However, the guitarist, bassist, and drummer of The Killers rarely make themselves be heard; without exception, their performances are not the anchoring point of any of the tunes: when they do show up, they merely complement the musical landscape that surrounds Flowers’ lyrics. As a consequence, “Wonderful Wonderful” feels like a sequel to Flower’s solo incursions into synthpop territory rather than a continuation of The Killers’ last record, “Battle Born”. That statement, on its own, is not detrimental to the record. In fact, running through “Wonderful Wonderful”, there is a powerful introspective and personal lyrical tendency that is not present anywhere else in The Killers’ discography, and most of the tunes do pack good melodies that rest on top of layered keyboards that are usually used in the construction of powerful ballads, with the cheery disco leading single “The Man” being an upbeat exception to the norm.

What is telling about “Wonderful Wonderful”, though, is that its best cuts emerge when The Killers are operating in their bread-and-butter territory. “Run for Cover” and “Tyson vs. Douglas” do feature prominent keyboards that are integrated into the music’s fabric nicely, but they employ those elements to fuel The Killers’ usual mixture of tense verses and extravagant sweeping choruses, and it works wonderfully well; “The Calling”, meanwhile, achieves greatness by taking a bluesy groove and guitar licks and adapting them to the band’s sound. Everywhere else, Brandon Flowers is treading too close to anthemic stadium-sized U2 ambitions for comfort; sure, sounding huge and being unfamiliar with the word constraint has always been The Killers’ defining trait, but those two pieces used to be employed in the building of songs with a distinctive character instead of tracks that seem to have been manufactured so that a tasteful The Edge guitar solo is inserted in the chorus and bridge.

With that being said, “Wonderful Wonderful” is not a bad album. Following Dave Keuning’s announcement he will not be touring with The Killers in support of the record, one could assume the old adage of creative differences between band members could be the reason why it lacks a distinctive flavor. Regardless of empty and futile suspicions, though, “Wonderful Wonderful” rarely fails despite the generic soul of many of its tracks. It is clearly a work into which Flowers – armed with a pen, his voice, and his keyboards – poured his heart and soul, and it shows. Hopefully, however, it will serve The Killers as a brief pit-stop on the way to a new sound rather than a place where a prolonged stay will take place.

Berlin

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Album: Berlin

Artist: Lou Reed

Released: July 1st, 1973

Highlights: Men of Good Fortune, Caroline Says II, The Kids, The Bed

Much of the rightful praise earned by The Velvet Underground, the band that introduced the musical and songwriting talent of Lou Reed to the world, comes from how the group was able to balance aggressive rock and roll with a knack for bold experimentation that verged on avant-garde. And that mixture always had a clear source, Lou Reed and John Cale, the act’s two creative driving forces during its first couple of albums; artists who represented, respectively, those two veins that guided The Velvet Underground through their pioneering trail in the back alleys of rock music. It comes as no shock, then, that without Cale, Reed would take the band into a more straightforward – yet brilliant – path during their final two releases (“The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded”) and start his solo career with a pair of works of stripped down rock and roll. That stream of borderline mainstream music, though, would come to an end with “Berlin”, his third solo project following the departure from the legendary band he had birthed.

Upon its release, “Berlin” was unique within the Reed canon for many reasons; first and foremost, though, its distinctive vibe originated in its theatrical nature. It is devoid of tracks that have the pop appeal of “Satellite of Love”; likewise, it lacks the thrilling rock of “Sweet Jane”. Instead, it tells a sordid tale that, save for its modern setting, would not be out of place on a Shakespearean stage; and it does so with music that comes off far more like accompanying pieces to a scene that plays out under the spotlights than regular tracks found on an album from its decade. Through the ten songs, listeners view Jim and Caroline meet and start their love story (“Berlin”); watch their relationship deteriorate (“Caroline Says I”); get a glimpse into the couple’s drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”); contemplate Caroline’s journey into prostitution and Jim’s fear of losing control over her (“Oh, Jim”); become witnesses to brutal domestic violence (“Caroline Says II”); see the children be taken away from them (“The Kids”); and gaze as Caroline kills herself and Jim is left to think about his past and future (“The Bed”).

Reed tells that brutal story as if he were reading the classifieds of a New York newspaper, which makes the awfully sad tale sound completely commonplace. In a way, Lou is telling his audience life is like that for some people, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Such a mundane tone creates an intriguing dichotomy: it makes listeners passively accept what is being portrayed, connecting with the conformist nature human beings have programmed into their genes; at the same time, by doing so, it amplifies the sorrow found in the plot, for only in a disturbingly twisted world and in the mind of a disgustingly cold person would such a fate as the one of Caroline trigger indifference. “Berlin”, therefore, is psychologically masterful, and the conversational tone of Reed’s lyrics and singing is an artistic statement.

“Berlin” is Lou Reed exploring an experimental side he had lost when Cale left The Velvet Underground, and in a way it is Reed finding a distinguished style of songwriting and singing he would tackle through his career. “Berlin” is Reed reaching a new level of idiosyncrasy he had yet to find on his own. It is not thoroughly brilliant, as its instrumentation alternates between tracks that are too busy and disjointed (“Lady Day”) and songs that are monotonic acoustic dirges (“The Bed”) that while emotionally poignant do not present enough shifts and hooks to remain engaging through their running time. However, it is entirely powerful and invariably thought-provoking. For the good and for the bad, it is impossible not to have a strong opinion about it, which may have been Reed’s goal when he chose to talk about the sordid lives of those who live on the fringes of society; those who succumb to the harshness of the world.