Setting Sons


Album: Setting Sons

Artist: The Jam

Released: November 16th, 1979

Highlights: Thick as Thieves, Wasteland, Burning Sky, The Eton Riffles

Like many other great bands, The Jam nailed the process of making a record right out of the gate, as their debut, “In the City”, is deservingly held in very high regard. However, it can be argued that the trio’s work in that first effort falls onto a bit of an odd middle-ground: it is by all means a fantastic and classic start, but one would not be criticized for saying the group had yet to find a voice at that point. The reason for that, of course, has to do with the timing of its release and the nature of its content: coming out in 1977, at the height of the punk fever and one month following The Clash’s debut, the album’s focus on punchy power-chord riffs and its touches of political thought meant that Paul Weller’s gang was too close to their peers for comfort. And because of that, although “In the City” certainly speaks volumes about the singer and guitarist’s knack for songwriting through its hooks, the record still runs the risk of being seen as a product that emulated the music of its time to a larger-than-desirable degree.

By the release of “Setting Sons”, however, the notion that The Jam could not break away from the crowd had been blown to pieces: not thanks their second album, “This Is the Modern World”, which had actually worked towards giving even more voice to their critics; but due to their third effort, “All Mod Cons”. In it, Weller emerged like a punk version of The Kinks’ Ray Davies; that is, someone who is able to make resounding points – in his case, political – via a nigh literary look at British characters and situations. To boot, he and his band had risen to the occasion and delivered a more nuanced musical package, because, sure, there was still plenty of punk rock in there: a better term does not exist to describe the iconic riff of “A Bomb in Wardour Street”. But, at the end of the day, the album opened itself to the influence of new wave and power pop, hinting at the future adventurous spirit that The Jam would display.

As the follow-up to that album, “Setting Sons” expands on that growth: if “All Mod Cons” was flexible, this forth chapter threatens to be eclectic. It is not a radical departure from the past: it does not flirt with post-punk and experimentation in the same way that its successor, “Sound Affects”, would do; and it certainly does not jump into funk and soul like The Jam’s farewell, “The Gift”. As such, when it is all said and done, punk prevails, guitars get the spotlight, and Weller is still rather angry at a number of different targets. But “Setting Sons” showcases a firmer grasp on the ideas that began being explored in “All Mod Cons”, to the point it is possible to say that if the band did indeed find their voice in their third record, in this one they polished it into its finest version.

Simply put, everything in “Setting Sons” shows a greater degree of maturity and inspiration. Paul Weller comes off as a man on a major songwriting streak: there is not a tune in the bunch that goes by without a hook that emits an iconic vibe; therefore, to unaware listeners, this is one of those albums where it is hard to tell what was a hit and what was not. Moreover, in lyrical matters, new topics have emerged while old ones have been enhanced. In the group of fresh subjects, “Thick as Thieves” and “Burning Sky” are tales about lost childhood friendships, but where the former paints the situation in a sad romantic light, the latter goes for a colder approach. Meanwhile, in the set of recurring ideas, there is “Smithers-Jones”, penned by bassist Bruce Foxton, which is an achievement in recreating the dullness of corporate life with beautiful music; and “The Eton Riffles”, which is likely The Jam’s most famous political statement: a brutal criticism of the British class system that looks at the privilege and nasty behavior of those who can afford to go to the country’s best schools.

That is not all, though, because the musical aspect of “Setting Sons” is also incredibly noteworthy. The instrumentation, arrangements, and production are much richer than before, and it is precisely through them that the album manages to surpass “All Mod Cons” in sheer flexibility. At times, the lushness is so considerable that listeners would be excused for thinking they are going through a British guitar pop album from the 1960s, written by forgotten contemporaries of The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles. This is the type of sound The Jam was aiming for here, and although trying to stand beside those giants is no easy task, the band pulls it off – after all, they were in the process of becoming legends themselves. And the benefit of that strategy is astounding because no other punk band was going down that particular road, as those dinosaurs of the past were usually seen by the movement – at least publically – as figures to be avoided. As such, what The Jam cooks here is mostly original.

Yes, there are songs in “Setting Sons” that could have been present in “All Mod Cons” or even “In the City” without feeling like abrupt deviations: opener “Girl on the Phone” is an incredibly catchy slice of punk that flirts with light romantic pop; and “Saturday’s Kids” has pounding riffs, dirty guitars, and an ironic sing-along chorus. But everywhere else, the music is more dynamic. “Thick as Thieves” and “Wasteland” are the definition of anthemic: songs without choruses that keep building in sadness and melodic beauty to a cathartic release. “Private Hell” may concern personal matters, but it sounds like punk apocalypse. “Little Boy Soldiers” manages to be operatic in how it packs different movements in a little more than three minutes. “Burning Sky” is more straightforward, but it uses the looseness of the letter format of its lyrics to equally include numerous melodic shifts that form a punk epic. “Smithers-Jones” is an orchestrated piece of baroque pop that inevitably recalls “Eleanor Rigby”. And “The Eton Riffles” has The Jam employing the album’s instrumental fullness to assemble their heaviest song ever: an angry all-out guitar assault that also happens to be incredibly catchy.

“Setting Sons” is not perfect. Originally conceived as a concept album about a group of three friends who meet again as adults after a non-specified war, the record was not able to deliver on that promise due to a rushed recording schedule. As a consequence, only fragments of that idea survive, in tunes like “Thick as Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, and “Little Boy Soldiers”. But truth be told, that problem does not actually hurt the album, as it will go by unnoticed to those who are not aware of that background. What harms it are little irregularities that, in some cases, are a result of how it had to be put together more quickly than anticipated: “Girl on the Phone” is fantastic and “Saturday’s Kids” is decent, but they do not gel well with the other tracks; “Little Boy Soldiers” is a clever idea that does not quite stick the landing; and the inclusion of the fun cover of the soul classic “Heatwave” to close the record is, like the appearance of “Girl on the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids”, a clear attempt to fill up space.

Yet, “Setting Sons” remains a wonderful achievement that marks a unique encounter between punk rock, new wave, and British guitar pop. And although the race for the title of The Jam’s best album is a hard one due to the consistency of the band’s short discography, their fourth release emerges as a worthy candidate: Paul Weller never wrote such an incredible batch of songs and the group never sounded as sure of their voice as they did here, especially because the trio would go on to disband without having enough time to fully polish the musical direction in which they would go after this album. Because of those qualities, “Setting Sons” should be an essential part of any punk rock, new wave, and guitar pop discography: it exists at the edge of those three sub-genres, and it masters them with class. There are not many other records that can make that claim.




Album: Moondance

Artist: Van Morrison

Released: January 27th, 1970

Highlights: And It Stoned Me, Caravan, Into the Mystic, Brand New Day

In the case of most versatile songwriters, it takes a little while for them to show the different styles they can produce with their pen, which makes the whole process of change feel like natural artistic evolution rather than inherent eclecticism. Bob Dylan did not go from folk troubadour to electric beatnik poet in a day; Nick Cave’s transition from hellish gospel to heavenly balladry took more than half a decade; and Tom Waits spent quite a few years as the drunkard who plays sad songs for lonely souls at the local piano bar before becoming the circus leader of a haunted carnival of freaks, degenerates, and outcasts. In Van Morrison’s case, however, that versatility came more quickly, as each one of his first three works reveals a slightly distinct facet of his craft.

His awkwardly titled debut, “Blowing Your Mind!”, still carried the smell of blues and rock, especially in the long-winded highlight of “T.B. Sheets”; and these elements were undoubtedly linked to the fact Van had just left behind his Belfast band, Them. The follow-up, “Astral Weeks”, was folk rock that stretched its muscles via free-flowing jazz influences, as most of the songs crossed the five-minute threshold by engaging in organic emotional and philosophical journeys that made Van look like a man who decided to tape his search for musical catharsis or spiritual revelation. “Moondance”, meanwhile, abandons the pretensions that elevated its predecessor to the masterpiece status to show that the man from Northern Ireland could pull off radio-friendly soft rock.

Whether calculated or not, the move was understandable. “Blowing Your Mind!” had achieved success via the single “Brown Eyed Girl”, but it had hardly left a mark as a complete work. Meanwhile, “Astral Weeks”, as mighty and revered as it may be, looked like commercial suicide by an artist that was far from being established, since the meandering character of its tunes – be them long or brief – meant they were about the trip instead of the destination; as such, they did not produce any hook that was significant or immediate enough to make the album catch the ears of the general public. In that sense, it is easy to look at “Moondance” as some sort of compromise; a time when Van gave in to external forces because he felt this was a pivotal moment in his career: either he could commercially deliver in his promise as an artist or he would likely not get any other opportunities.

Yet, it is not all that simple. In a sense, “Moondance” could be compared to what Joni Mitchell would pull off four years later in “Court and Spark”. After all, both albums display very artistic and idiosyncratic songwriters that had previously challenged musical conventions presenting a work that, superficially, could feel excessively conformist. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and like it would happen in “Court and Spark”, the greatness of “Moondance” is evident to anyone listening to it, but the elements that make it stand out in the midst of a flood of radio-friendly soft rock released during the 1970s – which is a fad that it partially helped create – are so sneaky that some who come into contact with the record might not even notice it to the point they are able to articulate it in words.

For starters, however, it is important to address the obvious: “Moondance” is beloved because it is an astonishing collection of great songs. If it were not so quaint, it could be one of those classic albums in rock history that could deceive listeners into thinking they bought a collection of greatest hits. Through the record’s thirty-eight minutes and ten tracks, Van Morrison simply does not miss, delivering a sequence of great choruses, an abundance of marvelous hooks, and a trove of emotionally meaningful moments that are catapulted to the sky thanks to beautiful arrangements as well as great performances by both Van and his band. The album’s soft nature means it never engages listeners too directly, but pretty much all of its tracks quietly envelop one’s brain until they begin to unconsciously sing along to the endless amount of verses that seem to have been built for that very purpose.

But the ultimate secret of “Moondance” is that, in a way, it does not completely abandon the spirit of “Astral Weeks”. In lyrics, Van once again emerges as a man who likes to write about moments of delight; those little simple events, often missed by most, that are capable of elevating the human soul to some sort of higher ground. And again, he finds these gateways to transcendence in nature (“And It Stoned Me”), music (“Caravan”), and love (“Into the Mystic”). He seems to be out in a search for borderline miraculous occurrences, and the songs lyrically and musically somehow capture this particular state of mind. Unlike it happened in “Astral Weeks”, Van will not take listeners on a seven-minute emotional journey about the beautiful girl he used to see walking down Cyprus Avenue as a teen. Instead, “Moondance” feels like an abbreviated version of that quest, either because it has learned a shorter path to delight or because it opted to focus on the transcendence that follows the long meditation.

What matters is that this approach brings a great degree of spontaneity to these concise tracks, and its success in “Moondance” makes it unsurprising this unchained impulse would become a concept that is intimately tied to Morrison as an artist. This freedom is everywhere here, albeit in a more restrained mode than in “Astral Weeks”. In the title song, where the record embraces jazz, there is a prevalent feeling of improvisation, especially in the walking bass line and in the woodwinds. In “Caravan”, the start-and-stop chorus seems to show Van testing his band, because the hook that signals the movement is used irregularly through the track to great effect. The transition between verse and chorus in “Into the Mystic” is so seamless it comes off like an organic transformation done on the spot. “Come Running” is the kind of joyful free-flowing southern shuffle that could have been executed by The Allman Brothers Band. “These Dreams of You” is loose and very well-played acoustic blues. “Brand New Day” has Van trading lines with his female backing singers in its cathartic chorus. “Everyone” has a hook so simple it appears to be ad-libbed. And the lalalalas of “Glad Tidings”, which also show up in “Caravan”, have got to be a spontaneous product of sheer happiness.

Immersed in this feel-good environment, “Moondance” absolutely grooves, because – as it has often been the case in his career – Van Morrison anchors his folk softness in the rhythm of the black music he admired, especially R&B, jazz, and soul. Therefore, both the album’s light and more energetic moments gain very tasteful power. Horns bring an extra dose of spiritual elevation to the chorus of the acoustic ballad “It Stoned Me”, the soul backing singers add beauty to the fragile whispered infatuation of “Crazy Love” as well as to the nigh gospel revelation of “Brand New Day”, and the thick rhythm section causes the title track, “Come Running”, and “These Dreams of You” to swing. Surrounded by these sounds, captured by its infinite hooks, and stunned by its marvelous songwriting, “Moondance” becomes impossible to resist. And perhaps that was Van Morrison’s plan all along, because by condensing the soul-searching without abandoning his identity, the invitation of “Astral Weeks” turns almost into an intimation for us to see life through his eyes. Consequently, “Moondance” is nothing short of revelatory.


Court And Spark


Album: Court and Spark

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: January 17th, 1974

Highlights: Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Car on a Hill, Raised on Robbery

To a point, Joni Mitchell was a clear representative of the hippie dream of the 1960s. Starting her career towards the tail end of that decade, the Canadian singer-songwriter crafted her music in the folk tradition that was such an integral part of that movement. It is true that Joni was rarely a political creature, therefore shying away from writing the kind of material that would lead her genre contemporary Bob Dylan to, much to his horror, be seen as the voice of that generation. Yet, through her demeanor, through her fashion sense, through the imagery evoked by her gentle compositions, and through the randomness of timing, Mitchell’s early folk work is certainly a staple of those pivotal and culturally active years.

At the same time, though, it was easy to see her talent was way too big to be contained solely within that scope. She may have written “Woodstock”, the timeless anthem that will forever stand as an immaculate depiction of the legendary festival and its attendees, but besides famously not singing at the event, the tune is narrated by an outsider that is looking in, as if Joni herself were aware she was not entirely a part of the hippie scene. And anyone who listened carefully to her folk ballads was bound to agree, because her usage of unconventional tunings, the free-flowing nature of her melodies, the vivid scenes she painted with her lyrics, the conversational tones adopted by her characters, and the subject matter of her songs did not belong to the counterculture of the 1960s; they were very much her own.

All of that is to say that Joni Mitchell was never one to adhere to conventions. One may try to label her young self as a hippie folk singer, but doing so is overlooking the depth of what she was pulling off. Not surprisingly, then, given the nature of her artistry, a similar reasoning applies to her 1974 release, “Court and Spark”. Word on the street has it that Joni’s sixth studio work is also her most mainstream one, and there is surely data to back that up: the record received a double platinum certification and is her best-selling work; furthermore, its second single, “Help Me”, was the highest-charting song of a career that spanned four decades. Any observer, consequently, would be tempted to view the album as a direct shot at the commercial tendencies of the time.

Such an evaluation would not be completely wrong. Before “Court and Spark”, Mitchell had already occasionally abandoned the quirky inflections she threw into her folk to pen memorable tracks of blatant accessibility, like “Big Yellow Taxi”, “The Circle Game”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Woodstock”. But “Court and Spark” tips the scale into that direction more heavily than ever, because rather than making a concession to a wide audience in one or two scattershot tunes, it opts to open the floodgates: out of its eleven tracks, four are so immediately catchy that they ought to be featured in any list ranking Joni’s ten most popular songs. Yet, there is much more to “Court and Spark” than the inescapable hooks of “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris”, “Car on a Hill”, and “Raised on Robbery”.

After five albums of elegant and sophisticated folk, “Court and Spark” sees Mitchell starting to open herself up to the genre that would define the later half of her career: jazz. As it happens with early flirts, though, what emerges out of “Court and Spark” is a shy touch. The wild experimentation of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, the epic scale of “Hejira”, and the total dive into jazz seen in “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” are still on the horizon. “Court and Spark”, instead, is a pop album whose acoustic heart is gently decorated with jazz instrumentation, which is a description that should suffice to explain its success.

However, as it is usually the case with Joni Mitchell, there is a catch. At its most accessible, “Court and Spark” is rich, layered, warm, and catchy. Its meticulously crafted pop sits on a soothing web that recalls the California sound pioneered by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, making it nothing but appropriate that Mitchell’s life in Los Angeles clearly influences many of the record’s lyrics. But an attentive listener will realize the catchiness of “Court and Spark” is not a given; in fact, it is sort of miraculous. Its tunes, especially those on the album’s first half, are so brief that the whole work threatens to come off as a uniform suite rather than a record of straightforward pop; and the unconventional structures of the tracks themselves further enhances that notion, subtly implying that it is not only the instrumentation of jazz that Joni is bringing to the table: she is also taking advantage of the genre’s spontaneous soul.

Examples of that wild aura abound. “Help Me” may have been a major hit, but it lacks a chorus completely, leaving its main hook to come out of the titular exclamation that opens its three of its four verses. The title track, contrarily, does have a chorus of exquisite quality, but it only shows up once, splitting the four verses that constitute it right in the middle. “People’s Parties” and “Same Situation”, the former acoustic and the latter piano-centered, feel like two parts of a mini-opera, serving as prime examples of Joni’s ability to slowly build free-flowing and almost conversational melodies to peaks of emotional grandeur. “Down to You” is equally operatic, embracing – in its five minutes – multiple passages, including an orchestrated break. “Just Like This Train” may have a more traditional structure, but there is nothing orthodox about its melody, and its jazzy sound proves to be a perfect company to the more playful side of Joni’s songwriting. And like “Help Me”, “Trouble Child” is rather sneaky in hiding its hook, saving it to the end of its two final verses.

As such, it is a mistake to look at “Court and Spark” like the usual moment when a major idiosyncratic artist makes concessions in their work in order to get a taste of commercial glory. The truth is that despite its chart performance, there is little about it that is typical: from Joni’s decision to stick a riveting rock and roll song (“Raised on Robbery”) and a wacky tongue-in-cheek jazz cover (“Twisted”) in the record’s track list to the fact the album documents the early stages of her experimentation with jazz. “Court and Spark” is not one of those works that is naturally successful because of what it contains; it is actually miraculously successful in spite of what it contains. And what it has is the work of a musical genius, one that while concocting her own version of the California sound finds the time to write four hits without ever abandoning her sophisticated and unique songwriting gift. “Court and Spark” proves that playing around with jazz was perfect for Joni Mitchell, and although the road ahead had one higher peak to offer, if “Court and Spark” had been all that had come out of the journey, it would have already made it worth it.




Album: 154

Artist: Wire

Released: September 23rd, 1979

Highlights: I Should Have Known Better, The 15th, On Returning, Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3

Much like The Stooges, the MC5, the Sex Pistols, and the New York Dolls, Wire was a punk rock band that rather than fading away slowly, burned out quickly. In their case, the interval between 1976 and 1979 was all that it took for the quartet to burst into the scene, put out three influential records, and call it a day. Sure, anyone who knows of the group’s history will point out that they would eventually return into the fray nearly one decade later in 1987 and go on to publish more than a dozen new works. However, by the time of their comeback, not only was the whole punk rock explosion a distant sight in the rear-view mirror, but Wire itself was – naturally – quite a different band.

Unlike their short-lived punk rock peers, which used their brief careers in the genre to pound mercilessly at the same style of music, Wire went the other way and took advantage of their concise classic run to cover a lot of ground. Their legendary debut, “Pink Flag”, was not just purely punk to the core; somehow launching into twenty-one tunes in thirty-five minutes, the album was actually defined as the genre’s operatic suite. Released only a few months later, “Chairs Missing” was still quite direct and focused, but it had firmer song structures and – more notably – a heavy dosage of experimentation in dark sparse songs that signaled post-punk was the new tendency in rock.

Coming out one year later and serving as the third piece of that puzzle, “154” – a number that refers to the amount of shows the band had played up to that point – is another type of animal altogether. A quick glance at the duration of the record’s thirteen tracks is enough to reveal that Wire is, here, dabbling into material that is rather different: none of the tunes are shorter than two minutes and more than half of them go over the three-minute mark, which is – for those who had written “Pink Flag” – the equivalent to progressive rock running time. Of course, such lengths could indicate Wire has actually become a standard rock band that writes normal songs, but listening to “154” reveals that is far from the case. This is an album that is more artistically ambitious than all of those that preceded it, digging even deeper in the experimental direction of its predecessors.

“154”, similarly to “Chairs Missing”, can be safely labeled as a post-punk album. There is a deal of irresistible pop catchiness to it, which does the favor of bringing accessible counterpoints to its otherwise mostly confrontational nature, but through most of the way the record checks all of the boxes expected out of the more somber spectrum of the style. “154” is cold, dark, industrial, disturbing, and distant. It does not display these qualities to the extreme of contemporaries like Joy Division or The Cure, because Wire simply does not have the serious and dramatic artistic inspirations of Ian Curtis or Robert Smith. Nevertheless, those defining elements are certainly in the package, albeit in a very distinct format, which ends up doing the album a whole lot of good.

Ultimately, what makes “154” unique is the same set of ingredients that turned “Chairs Missing” into a notable work, with the difference being that they appear more prominently this time around. This is threatening and mechanical post-punk that goes hard on synthesizers, keyboards, and – especially – guitar effects to create a peculiar atmosphere. But instead of going for such oppressive environment via the meticulously constructed path taken by other post-punk bands of the sort, Wire shuns those approaches and bets on a more basic road. What the band is doing here is essentially taking the do-it-yourself punk ethos and applying them to somber post-punk. Although much of the material is daring, nothing is pulled off in a musically ambitious way. “154” is, therefore, as basic, raw, and stripped down as it gets, using that punk spirit not to play fast-paced rock and roll, but to create experimental music.

In general, the best cuts in the album are those that match wild sonic trips with strong melodies, serving as a perfect middle ground between straightforward punk and boundary-pushing music. “I Should Have Known Better” is a cavernous track that anticipates the early releases of Echo & the Bunnymen; with cold narrated verses that reach subdued despair in the hooky chorus, it moves forward at a mechanical pace, with the song’s central beat being mostly provided by the guitars, as the drums focus on adorning the ominous soundscape with clicks. “The 15th” is melodically gorgeous; built on a layer made up of a pair of guitars, one quite clean that plays arpeggios and another drenched in noise that forms the base, the track uses synthesizers to put together what is the closest Wire has ever gotten to a post-punk ballad. With sparse instrumentation, the lengthy “A Touching Display” plods in a threatening way with dissonant guitars and drones that make it a distant offspring of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”. “On Returning” follows with a fast-paced progression filled with alien keyboard sounds that frantically build to a culminating emotional release. And similarly drenched in effects, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W3” is a lighter poppier tune that flirts with new wave.

On the more purely experimental side, none of the tunes match the greatness of these five songs, but interesting results emerge nonetheless. “Two People In a Room” has a relentless paranoid groove that, in two minutes, features talking, shouting, and an attempt at a more melodic passage. Likewise, “Single K.O.”, which carries an iconic riff as its central hook, shows the members of Wire are still masters at packing unpredictable undefined structures into short running times, given this is a free-flowing composition that keeps attaching itself to different melodies as seconds pass. Finally, “Blessed State”, probably the album’s only relaxing song, has entwining guitars that – in a less technically proficient way – recall Television, since the two play contrasting arpeggio-based lines that clash in beautiful synergy.

As it happened with “Chairs Missing”, however, the downfall of “154” and the factor that keeps it away from being an equal to “Pink Flag” is the fact that Wire’s experimental detours – as commendable and inspiring as they were – fail to be totally productive with a considerable frequency. “The Other Window” and “Indirect Enquiries” are horror movie material of surrealistic musical quality, but are not exactly appealing as songs from a studio record. “Once Is Enough” and “40 Versions” have potential thanks to their interesting guitar lines, the former heavy and the latter nigh electronic, but disintegrate into chaos before they are able to build on their ideas. Lastly, “A Mutual Friend” reaches a satisfying melodic conclusion, but it takes a while wandering through dull experimentation to get there. Because of these weaker moments, “154” is far from being the stone-cold classic it could have been given the stylistic uniqueness of its construction. However, be it due to its influence on future generations or as a consequence of the bridge it builds between punk rock and avant-garde music, listening to it is not just generally enjoyable, but also key in understanding the changes rock went through when the spark of punk started to fade.


Give ‘Em Enough Rope


Album: Give ‘Em Enough Rope

Artist: The Clash

Released: November 10th, 1978

Highlights: Safe European Home, English Civil War, Tommy Gun, Stay Free

Although strong and significant, the punk rock movement did not last for too long, with most of its representatives either burning out spectacularly or abandoning the boat quickly. In hindsight, it was not a surprising turn of events. After all, while the fast, furious, and reckless ethos of the genre created an environment that fueled the self-destructive behavior of many of its artist, its stylistic limitations – and the public outcry coming from the faithful who saw any new sounds as betrayal – chained musicians to a very tight scope that must have felt like a large ball and chain to those who wanted to explore their musicality more thoroughly. From the very start, however, even if qualifying as a punk band, The Clash seemed neither bound for a wreckage nor willing to pay too much attention to the constraints of that prison.

Even though their third record, “London Calling”, is generally considered to be the moment when the group turned their backs on the punk phenomenon, there had been – prior to that point – plenty of signs that The Clash did not care about the style’s rules. Their 1977 debut, for instance, which was absolutely filled with the roughness of the English genre, carried “Police and Thieves”, a reggae cover that rather than transforming the Caribbean rhythm, respected its characteristics and relaxed tempo. Meanwhile, midway through 1978, the band would release a single – the fantastic “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” – that took the flirtation one step further by actually mixing punk and reggae not only in sound, but also in theme, as the tune recounts a day when Joe Strummer went to the titular club to catch popular Jamaican artists.

Compared to the eclecticism of “London Calling”, which would come one year later, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is rather tame when it comes to musical evolution. In fact, many are bound to label it as a punk record, which is not entirely out of the mark. Nevertheless, even if it does so far more lightly than “Police and Thieves” and “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, the album reconfirms the reality hinted at by both of those tracks, which is that Strummer, Jones, Simonon, and Headon – whether because they understood punk was limiting or because they refused to stand still – were not the kind of guys to dwell in the same place for far too long.

In a way, the change presented by “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” can be easy to miss, for – as a whole – the record is even louder and more aggressive than its rebellious predecessor, “The Clash”. Vocally, Joe Strummer, likely the most genuinely angry and politically engaged man in punk rock, takes the reins in nine of the album’s ten songs, and although frequently drowned by the sound and fury of the instruments, he alternates moments when he sounds bitter with sequences when he comes off as utterly wrathful. As a consequence, Mick Jones, the guy with a pocket full of melodies that lean towards the pop and a softer voice, only gets one chance – which is unquestionably taken advantage of – to shine at the mic. More significantly, however, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is simply an album that was produced to slay, as where in “The Clash” the instrumentation came off as if it were being played in a tacky garage; in their sophomore work, the boys seem to be on a stage with mighty amplifiers.

Filled with fierce riffs that attack as directly as possible, whilst not forgetting that energetic punk spirit, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” could qualify as a hard rock work. Jones, displaying a better sense of the unique ringing guitar leads that he unleashed in “The Clash”, comes up with another strong set of lines that hold a sweeping quality. Headon’s drums sound gigantic and cutting. Simonon’s bass is thick, clear, and creative. The rhythm guitars deliver heavy pounding punches. And, in the middle of it all, Strummer shouts so his message can be heard, as he approaches both critical worldwide matters, such as misguided foreign policies and terrorism, to local themes, like the state of the punk rock scene. It is a mixture that turns tunes like the fast and explosive “Safe European Home”; the marching “English Civil War”; and Tommy Gun, with drum fills that emulate the sound of shooting, into some of the heaviest and most vicious tracks the band ever produced. And, though not up to the same quality standard, “Last Gang in Town”, in which the whole band cooks a massive groove, and “Guns on the Roof”, which borrows the riff from “Clash City Rockers”, are a thrill as well.

As consistently loud as it may be, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is not devoid of moments that, much like “Police and Thieves” on the debut, stick out rhythmically from the pack to blatantly reveal The Clash were not purely about punk. And further proving the band’s flexibility, they all land incredibly. “Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad”, featuring a playful loose piano, is a shuffle that provides a sarcastic look at a major drug bust that took place in Wales. Even if electric, “All the Young Punks” is nearly a ballad; boasting a yearning melody and sweet backing vocals by Jones, it is a homage to the band itself, analyzing their role as trailblazers and even defending their signing of a contract with a major label. At last, “Stay Free” is the record’s climax: written by Jones to a friend who had been arrested, it reads like an honest heartfelt letter and sounds like a pop rock anthem, with four verses that build to a cathartic chorus in which – hoping his buddy is free and part of the crowd – he urges the guy to have a drink on him.

Crushed, in the band’s discography, between one classic debut and a third effort that is repeatedly ranked among the ten best records of all time, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” is often seen as a second-rate The Clash album, and two of its tunes – “Drug-Stabbing Time” and “Cheapskates” – give support to these arguments, as they do lack inspiration and feel like lesser tracks that got left out of “The Clash” for not being as good as the rest of the compositions. The status the band’s second effort carries, though, is more revealing of the group’s value than of its quality, because many are the artists that would kill for a work like “Give ‘Em Enough Rope”: one that does not rest on the laurels of its greatly praised predecessor and fearlessly challenges expectations, preparing the crowd for the wild musical trip that was imminent.



Album: Ass

Artist: Badfinger

Released: November 26th, 1973

Highlights: Apple of My Eye, When I Say, I Can Love You, Timeless

It is impossible to write about Badfinger without at least making a passing mention at the dark cloud that hangs over the course of the group’s career. Active since the early 60s under a different name, the band’s talent did not go unnoticed by famous British rockers of the time, with The Who as well as The Yardbirds securing the quartet as an opening act, and The Kinks’ Ray Davies auditioning to produce them. Badfinger’s greatest claim to fame before they ever put out a full-length album, though, was the fact they were the first band to sign a contract with The Beatles’ own label, Apple, and such a magnificent nod of approval from the biggest name in the rock and roll game certainly generated a lot of expectations regarding what they would achieve.

It does not take long for one to listen to some of the best cuts by Badfinger and realize why The Fab Four saw so much promise in them. The boys could play tastefully; they could harmonize beautifully; they possessed an innocent hard-working demeanor; and in both Tom Evans and Pete Ham they had two great songwriters who, each with his personal signature, displayed a knack for crafting accessible pop rock gems with universally likable melodies. In constitution and in style, parallels between them and The Beatles were inevitable; however, while the boys from Liverpool were able to achieve constant success and deliver a string of groundbreaking records, Badfinger remained an eternal promise.

Certainly, there were a few hits here and there; moreover, the two albums that directly precede “Ass” got their fair share of critical acclaim. Sadly, though, amidst bad breaks and poor managerial decisions, the second of which would directly lead to the heartbreaking suicides of both Evans and Ham, Badfinger never had enough time and peace to acquire the traction their talent indicated they would inevitably attain. In a way, following the consistent and very good duo of “No Dice” and “Straight Up”, “Ass” offers the early signs of the fall, marking the start of a generally descending curve the group would never recover from.

“Ass” begins to materialize a change, and such a move was arguably necessary for Badfinger. As good as they were, “No Dice” and “Straight Up” struggled to surpass a certain quality threshold because they often had problems getting away from the middle of the road. The greatness seen in tunes like “Without You”, “Name of the Game”, and “Day After Day” was undeniable; their charm is so natural, their melodies are so impeccable, and their capacity to move is so timeless that it is surprising to think they did not exist before 1970. In their hooks, harmonies, and smoothness, though, Badfinger was still lacking the spark that opens the doors towards the kind of utter excellence only achieved by a select few; the one that stylishly breaks into new irresistible grounds that audiences did not even know they wanted to be introduced to. To make a The Beatles’ parallel: Badfinger was looking for its “Rubber Soul”.

“Ass”, unfortunately, is certainly not comparable to The Fab Four’s sixth studio work. In theory, at least, Badfinger had the tools to make a leap of a similar magnitude. With “Ass”, though, they seem to jump the wrong way. Produced amidst a good deal of confusion, the album’s ten cuts bring quite a surprise to anyone looking at their credits. Half of the songs featured in the record are written neither by Evans nor Ham, but by guitarist Joey Molland, who – up to that point – had already penned a handful of tracks but remained a tertiary creative force within the band. And given drummer Mike Gibbins is responsible for one tune of his own, that means just four of the songs in “Ass” come from Badfinger’s greatest writers. That configuration would, of course, not be a problem if the contributions of Molland and Gibbins were excellent. Unfortunately, they simply do not live up to the group’s usual standards.

“Cowboy”, by Gibbins, is an amateurish slab at country rock. Meanwhile, sequenced one after the other, “The Winner”, “Blind Owl”, and “Constitution” are loud, electric, and utterly generic. With the first and the last being by Molland and the middle one by an uninspired Evans, they flounder in their attempt to rock out. “Constitution” is particularly embarrassing for awkwardly verging on testosterone-infused hard rock, driving home – very clearly – the point that Badfinger was indeed made for the softest spectrum of pop rock. Molland, however, does deliver three tunes that are – in different levels – praiseworthy: the exciting “Get Away”, which is bouncy rock and roll accompanied by a wild guitar and a brass section; “Icicles”, a simple and decent ballad that stumbles in its verses but succeeds in its chorus; and the spectacular “I Can Love You”, which carries the classic Badfinger sound but that instead of operating in the usual intimate atmosphere, feels absolutely grand thanks to its arrangement and melody.

In fact, as proof that “Ass” is a bit of a misguided shot at change, most of its best moments are found when the band is doing what they did in “No Dice” and “Straight Up”; that is, executing some good old power pop balladry. Other than “I Can Love You”, such instances come to the surface in both Pete Ham’s “Apple of My Eye”, the opener and a surprisingly sweet farewell letter to The Beatles’ label, as Badfinger was getting ready to move to Warner Bros.; and Tom Evan’s “When I Say”, which uses great harmonies, touching melodies, and a nice brief solo to check all of the boxes to get the Badfinger stamp. The exception to that rule is closer “Timeless”, a Pete Ham composition that breaks the rules and is resoundingly successful. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, it is a dark, slow, and dramatic piece that drinks from progressive music in its usage of the flute and in the three-minute solo that ends it, and from hard rock in the vicious guitar riffs of its chorus.

Had it been more like “Timeless” and less like “Constitution”, the change that begins to be executed in “Ass” could have produced good results. As it was put out, though, the album feels like an unfortunate turn towards music that is louder and more electric. It is a decision that rather than finding Badfinger an extra layer of personality winds up corroding a good part of the band’s charm; and it is a mistake that, due to the prevalence of Joey Molland’s compositions, feels like it could have been avoided if Tom Evans and Pete Ham had either been given more room to operate or been a more active part of the album’s construction. And much to the loss of the rock genre, the first and brutally talented formation of Badfinger would not have much time left to correct the course.

Goats Head Soup


Album: Goats Head Soup

Artist: The Rolling Stones

Released: August 31st, 1973

Highlights: Dancing with Mr. D, 100 Years Ago, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Angie

From the get go, the odds were heavily stacked against “Goats Head Soup”. After all, between 1968 and 1972, The Rolling Stones had reached the peak of their creative powers and, in the process, the band had mounted what is likely the most legendary run of albums in rock and roll history. Made up of “Beggars Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers”, and “Exile on Main St.”, it was sequence of works that drank from Chuck Berry and other stars of the genre as well as from a large number of blues legends, learned the basics of what they had done, revamped the rhythms they employed, and introduced them to a large new audience that – otherwise – would probably have remained unaware of the greatness of those American musicians.

Because it is not a nigh flawless classic that stands as a mandatory stop for anyone looking to get a hang of what exactly rock music is, “Goats Head Soup” marks the end of that run. It is the comedown following the transcendence. It is an absolutely normal album that does not get even close to the landmark status of its four predecessors. With so much spectacular material released, and with so much history written, in such a small amount of time, it is easy to look at the fact “Goats Head Soup” is not utterly stellar as the product either of creative exhaustion or from how, after abusing drugs for so long, the group’s vices had finally taken their toll on the five British lads.

It is impossible to say for sure if those claims are valid, and the substance-abuse take is particularly questionable because not even the mythological narcotics-related events of the “Exile on Main St.” era were able to stop Jagger and Richards from creating a masterpiece. What is undeniably true is that “Goats Head Soup” is the beginning of a transition; the starting point of a journey that would have The Rolling Stones slowly cleaning the dirt, blood, sweat, sex, and booze of their blues influences until their arrival at the pure – and very much lifeless and mundane – rock sound that would mark a lot of the rest of their career. But “Goats Head Soup” hangs onto the lifeline not only because, as an early stage of the transition, a huge part of the filthiness remained, but also because Jagger and Richards were still writing well whilst Mick Taylor (the not-so-secret weapon of the band’s classic period) persisted as a contributor despite the troubles he endured in the hands of his two most famous peers.

“Goats Head Soup” is different because where the four major works that preceded it might as well have been made inside an hermetically sealed chamber in which only roots American music existed, their successor has a far more cosmopolitan character. Mostly recorded in Jamaica, which according to Richards was one of the only countries in which he was allowed to live at the time, the album incorporates local musicians, African percussions, and funk sounds (courtesy of a clavinet that is very prominent on two tracks) into the cauldron of The Rolling Stones’ circus. These elements contribute to taming some of the band’s dirty debauchery and adding a surprising layer of sleekness to the music, and although – as one might expect – such trait occasionally damages the album, it also takes the band to interesting new grounds.

The distinctive aura of “Goats Head Soup” is visible from the get-go, as “Dancing with Mr. D”, even if built over one catchy riff, gains unique dark contours in its mid-tempo and in its chant-like chorus, which play around with The Rolling Stones’ supposed satanist image. “100 Years Ago” goes the other way and brings funk to the table, starting with a beautiful melody delivered over a leading clavinet before evolving into a fast jam that has Mick Taylor shining on guitar. Carried by a piano, “Coming Down Again” is a gorgeous ballad that has Richards singing while his guitar decorates the track with rainy descending effects created with a wah-wah pedal. “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” has a signature The Rolling Stones rocking groove, with horns included, that flirts with funk thanks to the reappearance of the clavinet. And “Angie” closes out the first side with the band’s most famous acoustic number: one of the few instances in the group’s discography that has Jagger genuinely evoking feelings of heartbreak.

Meanwhile, bookending the second half of “Goats Head Soup” are two rock and roll tunes that are the closest the band gets to their traditional sound. “Silver Train” and “Star Star” are blatantly inspired by the swinging steady rhythms of Chuck Berry (especially the latter), but the results they produce are rather different, for where the first is too clean for its own sake and comes off as a track Jagger and Richards could have penned on autopilot in spite of some interesting guitar-playing and the clever usage of the harmonica to simulate a train’s whistle, the second is simply a thrill. Between those two numbers are another three cuts that display “Goats Head Soup” is attempting to break away from the past.

Although being a blues-based loop consisting of two changing lines and a simple chorus, “Hide Your Love” finds personality in the bouncy piano that leads it, in the free-flowing lead guitar by Taylor that accompanies it, and in how it slowly builds to catharsis by having the intensity of Jaggers’ voice rise and by bringing new instrumental elements to the fray as the track progresses. “Winter” is – by that point – The Rolling Stones’ lushest ballad, evoking the coldness of the season via its moving melody and the nicely arranged strings that close it. Finally, “Can You Hear the Music” feels like an improvised jam (with horns, guitars, keyboards, percussion, and even a flute) that, though not completely great, does carry one or two inspired moments.

There is no doubt “Goats Head Soup” could have been a better work. Its tracks are somewhat unevenly distributed along its two sides, with all of the best ones being contained in the album’s first half. More gravely, its infamously murky production is a considerable mistake, because although the gloss it adds does further help the record stand on his own, it also ends up creating a layer of mist that separates listeners from The Rolling Stones, therefore diminishing the power of the group’s rawness and characteristic interplay. Yet, even with those issues and one or two moments that flirt with the lackluster, “Goats Head Soup” is a strong album that has been unfairly – but understandably – debased by its predecessors, and anyone listening to it either with no knowledge of the context of its release or without expecting it to have the same impact as its older brothers is likely to see it for what it is.

The Cars


Album: The Cars

Artist: The Cars

Released: June 6th, 1978

Highlights: Just What I Needed, Bye Bye Love, Moving in Stereo, All Mixed Up

Although by no means the strongest track to be found in The Cars’ 1978 self-titled debut, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is probably the record’s most well-known song. And it also happens to be the tune that best summarizes the band’s overall sound. Sung by a young man stuck in the painful situation of watching the girl he once dated – and who very much still has a strong pull over his heart – become his best friend’s one and only, the cut strikes a balance that only a group like The Cars could pull off. Quietly, in the left channel, a standard rock and roll riff plays along, anchoring the whole composition in the tradition of Chuck Berry and Little Richard while also lending it a forward energetic motion that contrasts with the rest of its controlled instrumentation. Despite that notable pillar, though, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is certainly not a rock and roll song, just like The Cars are not a rock and roll band.

Sure, you could dance to “My Best Friend’s Girl”, and the hand-claps and playful solo that appear at one point could cause one to mistake it for a Buddy Holly cover. But The Cars decorate the rough heart of Ric Ocasek’s straightforward compositions with so much sleekness that the nine tunes their first work contains mutate in their journey from the paper to the tape; originally intended as rock songs, they sneak up on listeners as delightfully catchy pop gems. It is, of course, not an original concept: as part of the new wave movement, by 1978, both Blondie and Elvis Costello – to name two popular examples – had already put that formula to use at least a handful of times, and the results had been mostly stellar. The Cars, though, operate on a slightly different level.

Likely as a result of the presence of producer Roy Thomas Baker, who was behind the board for many of the records that constituted Queen’s run of greatness, “The Cars” is characterized by multi-tracked harmonies so blatantly operatic that they could lead the British quartet to sue for plagiarism. Regardless of feeling out-of-place for the most part, as their scope is just too bombastic for the punk spirit of a huge slice of the material, they do work towards augmenting a handful of songs that are somewhat more complex, like the closer “All Mixed Up”, which slowly builds to a grand catharsis. However, given that element is the product of external influence rather than internal concoction, the tools in which one can find the truly inherent portion of The Cars’ personality – and certainly the pieces that contribute the most to their excellence – are elsewhere.

The guitars, courtesy of Elliot Easton and Ric Ocasek, are wonderfully eclectic, being able to freely move between punk rock crunch, power pop jangle, heavy metal riffing, and sweeping power chords, sometimes within the same short song; Easton’s leads, in particular, are stellar, as he constantly breaks into solos that – in spite of their clear technical proficiency – are subdued enough to serve the tracks whilst succeeding in thrilling with a rate that is utterly rare. The fact The Cars possess two vocalists, Ocasek himself and Benjamin Orr, only serves to augment that elasticity, as the former takes on the role of the do-it-yourself punk who would never be allowed close to a microphone outside of the genre while the latter is the smoothly confident womanizer who seems to have been born to front a rock band.

The Cars’ secret weapon, though, is keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who pours synthesized gloss into the music. It is his playing that forms the pop veil that distracts audiences from directly concluding the band drinks as much from the rock and roll bible as The Ramones did. It is his equipment that turns The Cars into a new wave outfit that took the wrong turn on some Boston alley, ended up crash landing many decades into the future, and stumbled upon a time-controlling deity that allowed them to return to their original era as long as they gave the world a taste of what was to come. If some of the tracks that appear in their debut were used as the fake repertoire for the forged band of a science-fiction flick, an audience that is unaware of who The Cars are would never question the authenticity of the material or label it as a relic from the end of the seventies.

Truth be told, there are a few moments that could give the disguise away. “I’m in Touch with Your World”, which is – by a good margin – the weakest song in the album, is a tense, paranoid, and rhythmic track that takes a jab at what the Talking Heads did in their first record; “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight”, meanwhile, bumps into the cheesiness found in the worst rock products of the turn of that decade thanks to how it is partially sunk under the weight of its exaggerated harmonies, which are simply too large for the kind of tune it is. Mostly, though, The Cars fly down a lit-up futuristic highway with the style of a Corvette.

“Good Times Roll” moves forward steadily, slowly, and hypnotically. “Just What I Needed”, initially carried by a firm beat that soon afterwards gains extra propulsion due to the emergence of Hawkes’ synthesizers, speeds up to a glorious chorus. “Don’t Cha Stop” is frantic and finds cleverness in how it swaps the guitar licks between its verses, which would usually be formed by a pounding riff in the hands of a less inventive band, with a catchy jangle. “Bye Bye Love” also goes for arpeggios, but in its case that style of guitar-playing is used as a delicate element that contrasts with a crunchy and immediate chorus. And “Moving in Stereo” relies so heavily on keyboards that it comes off as a piece of psychedelic synthpop, describing one weird trip that has the protagonist of the song stuck in a nightmarish landscape where his consciousness and body have become separated.

Through all those twists and turns, The Cars never lose sight of the importance of a good hook, whether it is instrumental or vocal. And, for that reason, their self-titled album has often been seen as one of those first works that are so consistent that they feel like a collection of greatest hits. To a point, it is a good evaluation, because even “I’m in Touch with Your World” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” hold value and immediacy; on the other hand, debuts of the sort tend to stand tall in the discographies of the groups that produced them, and The Cars would actually go on to put together a few albums that would, on the heels of sharper writing and cleaner execution, be at least as good as their first act. Independently from sticking completely or not, that label is certainly appropriate. What is most important, however, is that The Cars’ sound comes from an era humanity has yet to reach; and in it, rock and roll – a genre that continually seems to be on the verge of extinction – has continued to exist, even if under the guise of synthesizer-drenched pop.



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


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.