Tag Archives: Classic Albums

Classic Album Reviews: The Pogues — Rum, Sodomy & the Lash (1985)


By 1985, punk rock was storming off in all sorts of musical directions. There was proto-punk, country-punk, art-punk, dance-punk, and hardcore-punk. One of the more interesting sub-genres was Irish or Celtic-Punk. Irish Punk was thought of as Irish folk songs or Irish folk-inspired songs revved up to a punk like speed. Locally, the band Boiled in Lead was a fantastic purveyor of traditional Irish music with a punk sensibility. Nationally, however, The Pogues were front in center and Rum, Sodomy & the Lash was the album you had to have if you were into Irish or Punk music.

The Pogues were a perfect Irish band: You had the lead singer, Shane MacGowan - skinny, horrible teeth, hard drinking, gravelly voice; a band with upwards of 7 to 10 members, depending on who was sober or healthy at the time, and a bunch of traditional Irish songs. The album was a blast with songs about drinkin', bleak industrial city living, Jessie James, war, lovers who left, and drinking. The album kicks off with The Sickbed of Cuchulainn an Irish romper sing-along. Dirty Old Town is exactly about what the title says: what it is like living in an old industrial-era city that is crumbling around you. The songs open with the classic line: "I met my love by the gas works wall..." You get the picture.

Other favorites include Sally MacLennane which again is fast, fiesty sing-along. I'm sure this was sung at many going away parties. The highlight of the album is The Band Played Waltzing Matilda which describes an Australian's horrifying experience fighting the Turks in WWI. One of the strongest anti-war songs ever written and it makes me think sadly of our soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan with broken bodies, never again able to dance.

The album is a fun, singable, danceable ride. The musicians are top notch and the songs are a great combination of old and new Irish songs. A bunch of these songs would be perfect for any party tape, wedding dance, or just to listen to get the blood pumpin'. For that reason Rum, Sodomy & the Lash I consider a classic album.  What do you think?



Classic Album Reviews: Weezer — Pinkerton (1996)

As Bootsy likes to remind me, Weezer basically sucks these days.  Sure they’ll have a decent song here or there (Hashpipe anyone?) but one could argue that they’ve been mailing it in for a while (Hurley…really?).  However, Weezer still has a decent fan base, a base built on their first release and ironically enough, it’s follow up, Pinkerton.  At its core Pinkerton is basically about love, sex, disillusionment, and relationships. However it is written from the perspective of a young man struggling with fame and its impact on having mature relationships with the opposite sex.

When Pinkerton first came out in 1996 it was considered a big disappointment. Fresh off the heels of the “Blue” album, which included the novelty hit and video Buddy Holly, Weezer’s second album seemed to fall into the sophomore slump category. There wasn’t a quirky hit like Buddy Holly or The Sweater Song and the first released single, El Scorcho, was musically hard to listen, sing along, or dance to. The whole album had a harder edge to it and some of the songs seemed to be in a minor key, which also made it difficult to immediately embrace.  In fact Rolling Stone readers voted it the 3rd worse album of 1996.  The album’s negative reception was hard on the band (mainly Rivers Coumo) and it took five years for Weezer to get back into the studio.

The love/relationship songs on Pinkerton are written from the perspective of someone immature in handling relationships. As young men, instead of showing vulnerability, we tend to act cocky, acting like it doesn’t matter, that there’s always another chick to conquer. The singer is befuddled, as men usually are when dealing with the opposite sex, but it’s covered by boastfulness. Tired of Sex is a classic example. The song is about how much tail he’s getting and that it’s all soooo boring. He’s both boasting and wanting something more. Getchoo is a song about a guy who has done his girl wrong but now is surprised she’s not coming back. Why Bother takes it one step backward: He knows he’s going to get hurt in the end, why even start the relationship?  It’s just not worth it. It’s a tact many young guys take when deciding whether to enter into a relationship or continue to hang with their bros.

Vulnerability does sneak in toward the end of the album. Across the Sea is about a fan in Japan who would be a perfect girlfriend if she didn’t live so far away (plus there are some bonus mother issues thrown in to boot). Pink Triangle is about falling in love with someone who is unavailable (in this case a lesbian). This song contains the classic line “Everyone’s a little queer, why can’t she be a little straight.”  Finally in the album’s second to last song the singer finally finds someone he can settle down with.  But it’s a little nerve wracking, he doesn’t want to get his heart broke. The last verse really sums it up:

I'm shaking at your touch/I like you way too much/My baby, I'm afraid I'm falling for you/And I'd do about anything to get the hell out alive/Or maybe I would rather settle down with you.

Despite its initial negative reaction, the album has grown in stature over the last 16 years and is now considered a classic and regarded as Weezer’s best album.  In 2002, Rolling Stone readers, just six years after saying it was the 3rd worse album of 1996, voted it the 16th best album of all time!  Other music publications have placed it in their top albums of the 90’s lists.  Unfortunately for their fans, Weezer has not reached the heights suggested by Pinkerton and are more than willing to put out albums of lesser and lesser quality.

Classic Album Reviews: Let’s Go Scare Al — Gear Daddies (1988)

Besides having the coolest name ever for an album (well maybe one behind The Replacement’s Tim) and having the saddest, scariest looking clown to ever grace an album cover, Let’s Go Scare Al is a classic album full of countryish songs about loveable losers, drinking, small towns, heartbreak, drinking, and drinking. An album like this could only be performed by Minnesotans: Its unpretentious, simple, self-deprecating, and chock full of meaning behind its sparse vocabulary.

I almost included both Let’s Go Scare Al and Billy’s Live Bait as one review because they are similar albums covering similar stories. The music doesn’t change much between the two albums nor does the subject matter. But I landed squarely with Let’s Go Scare Al, because of the album name (especially as a debut album) and because it really introduced the Gear Daddies to a broader audience (they had been playing in local bars for a good year or so before this album came out and demo tapes were being passed around left and right). Now some 25 years after it’s been released we still look forward to the occasional reunion show by the band.

As I mentioned above, musically these songs are pretty simple. It’s basic country rock with no outstanding guitar or vocal work. Structurally the songs are pretty simple as well with the time-tested verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, bridge, verse 3 (or repeat verse 1) and chorus organization. What makes the songs special is the songwriting. Even if you haven’t actually lived what’s being described in the song, you can identify with what the singer is saying. For instance Statue of Jesus opens with this verse:

I’m sittin’ downtown cryin’ ‘neath the statue of Jesus
Both of us so lonely and cold, hope no one can see us
I know I’m drunk here but I don’t think that he cares
Surely he must understand these crosses that I bear
So I’m sittin’ downtown cryin’ ‘neath the statue of Jesus

Now, I’ve never sat under a statue of Jesus crying, but if I ever did, I’m pretty sure that song would sum up pretty how I felt. Heavy Metal Boyz is another song that describes perfectly what it is like being a teenager living in a small town, whether it’s a rural area or a suburb. I’m sure there are many, many women who can identify with Boys Will Be Boys and tell me one person who hasn’t Drank so Much that They Just Feel Stupid?

After all these songs of too much drinking, lives gone astray, broken hearts, and shitty jobs the singer hasn’t given up. The last song, Strength, has the singer asking for strength to do what’s right, to “change this fucked up life of mine.” Surely if the singer can still want to change things, to make things better, so can we. We don’t know if he’ll get there but at least he’s trying.

Classic Album Review: Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty — The Grateful Dead (1970)


I know I am cheating by including two albums here but Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were recorded about five months apart and in total clock in at just under 70 minutes, which today could fit on one CD. More importantly these two albums are quite similar musically as they cover folk, blues, Appalachia, as well as country and western in a way that is still fresh some 40 years later. Furthermore, along with The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, these albums ushered in a new era of country-rock that would flourish throughout the 1970’s and is still being felt today.

Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were huge departures from the Grateful Dead of the 1960’s. Gone was the psychedelica that anchored the San Francisco hippie music scene and in its place the Dead explored traditional-flavored American music with lyrics that were more winsome than mind blowing. However it was these two albums that propelled the Grateful Dead into the mainstream and created a band personae that went way beyond the cult following of the Dead’s early career. The fact that at least four songs from these  albums can still be heard on classic rock radio station such as KQRS (and occasionally on The Current) is a testament to each album's staying power and popularity.

Workingman’s Dead came out in June 1970 and must have been a huge surprise to Dead fans. Uncle John’s Band kicks-off the album and although it is somewhat trippy, it was much more country than anything else previously from the Dead. This song has personal resonance too as it was played at my friend Bill Fadell's funeral. The second song, High Times, is practically Jerry singing acapella with just a bluesy guitar in the background. Cumberland Blues comes straight out of the West Virginny coal mines, while Casey Jones is an acid-washed, country-tinged bluesy train song.

If fans thought that Workingman's Dead was a one album fluke, American Beauty, which came out only five or so months later, quickly disabused them of that notion. The album starts with one of the singularly most beautiful songs ever written – Box of Rain – which was written and sang by Phil Lesh for his dying father. It’s a song about a son trying to understand the meaning of life in the face of his father’s death. Friend of the Devil, Sugar Magnolia, and especially Ripple (all of which became concert favorites of Deadheads for the next 25 years) are songs that could easily be found on an album from an old-timey folker or from a smart ass alt-country band from Austin, Texas. The songs are that timeless. The album ends with Attics of My Life and its beautiful 3-part harmony and of course the fan (and KQ) favorite Truckin.’ With Truckin’ the Dead look back and close the door on the 60’s with the now classic line “What a long, strange trip it’s been."

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t musically spare country or folk songs with guitar and rhythm section consigned to the background. No, the songs are highly textured with most have at least three guitars, mandolins, etc., playing different parts. It’s pretty heady stuff and I think most Dead fans, then and now, could get their freak on with both these albums. Another highlight is the harmonies. Most of the songs on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty have at least 2-part, if not 3-part harmonies and Jerry was never in better voice. Garcia’s guitar work is stellar and the rhythm section is top notch, especially during the “boogie” songs such as Cumberland Blues and New Speedway Boogie. These aren't two sides of one album either. Workingman is a little bluesier, Beauty a little more folk and country.

As I mentioned above, these albums, for better or worse, ushered in the era of country rock and bands such as the Eagles, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, etc., would shortly become mainstays on the American pop charts. However, these two albums are as vital and influential today as they were some 42 years ago and are one of the reasons why the Grateful Dead became such cultural icons. The Dead deservedly have earned their hippie jam band reputation and their fans can be a little much but if you can get past those stereotypes, I think you will find Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty quite wonderful albums.

Classic Album Review: Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)


Hey did you hear that last week was the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind?  As usual the media tends to go overboard on these anniversaries but it’s hard to underplay the impact Nevermind had on music and popular culture. When Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as number one on the album charts in early 1992 there was a shudder in the time-space continuum of popular culture. The impact continues today. A while back I’m pretty sure I heard the Decemberists’ O' Valencia over the in-store PA system at a Home Depot. That plain and simple would never have happened without Nevermind.

Even though I was in my late 20’s when Nevermind came out, I still thought it absolutely rocked and I ate up every song. The first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit I was floored that something like that was actually being played over commercial radio. That song created such a buzz and you couldn't help either asking or being asked “have you heard that Nirvana album? It’s amazing, you gotta hear it.” Nevermind really did opened the floodgates to a popular acceptance of what became known as alternative music and drove a stake through the heart of hair bands such as Whitesnake, Poison, and Skid Row. Out the door was music that was sold as hedonistic party music and in came introspective, angst-ridden songs. Ennui became a word on every rock critic’s spell check.

But one could blather on forever on Nevermind’s “impact” and over the last couple of weeks just about everyone has.  However the number one reason Nevermind had such a big impact is that practically every song on the album was great. In most cases a band will release an album that has a huge break-out song on it but the rest of the album is flaccid at best. Not the case with Nevermind. From the opening song that everyone knows, followed by In Bloom and Come As You Are, you were hooked. Teen Spirit isn’t even the hardest rockin’ song on the album as Breed, Territorial Pissings, Drain You, Lounge Act, and Stay Away are fast, guitar-heavy songs that forcibly propel the listener to the end of the album. Breed and Territorial Pissings are classic punks songs that will still be exhilarating some 50 years from now.

Kurt Cobain’s guitar work is usually overshadowed by his songwriting but there are serious riffs on display here. Dave Grohl’s drumming really anchors every song along with Novoselic’s bass work. Like listening to Husker Du, I was surprised that such cacophony could come out of only three instruments. To the indiscriminate listener, it sounds like a bunch of noise. But if you take the time to listen, the melody is there and at times it’s quite complex.

Of course everyone knows the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain and it was only a matter of time before alternative music got co-opted by Madison Avenue (Heck a few years back the opening riff to Breed was used in a baseball video game commercial). But when Nevermind came out, not only was it thrilling to listen to, but it was also satisfying as finally decent music was considered popular and being exposed to a larger population.  And 20 years later, while I don’t play it nearly as much as I used to, I still get goosebumps when I hear those opening guitar chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Classic Album Reviews: R.E.M. — Murmur (1983)


It’s hard to describe how much a breath of fresh air Murmur was in 1983. Punk was a spent force and spandex clad hair bands were beginning their mighty popular rise -- a force that would go unabated  for over 10 years (thanks Nirvana!) As with most 20 year olds college kids at the time, I was discovering all the punk and post-punk I missed living as a teenager in suburban flyover land. However there wasn’t much that was new, that I could call my own. Then came Murmur.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard Murmur but I do remember being pretty much an early adopter of the band. It really was something that you never heard before. Finally a band that belonged to you and your friends and not to a bunch of jaded old punks, self-important baby boomers, or long-haired hippies. Critics talked about “jangly” guitars like the Byrds but I never heard that. It was dreamy, atmospheric with lyrics that were indecipherable and the lyrics you could hear didn’t make any sense. Here is the first verse of Radio Free Europe:

Beside yourself if radio's gonna stay.
Reason: it could polish up the grey.
Put that, put that, put that up your wall
That this isn't country at all

Don’t worry Michael Stipe doesn’t know what it means either.

Any band can do dreamy and atmospheric but what makes someone want to listen over and over again is that the songs have to be good, even if you can’t understand the lyrics, and Murmur is full of good songs. Radio Free Europe was the big hit of course even if Cities 97 has played it to death. Pilgrimage, Talk About the Passion, and Shaking Through have always been favorites. Catapult has a perfect bass guitar and drum opening that’s never been done before or since. Mike Mills was the most accomplished musician at the time the album was recorded (bring it you Pete Buck defenders!)  and you can tell as the bass work is exquisite. Michael Stipe’s voice really is a 4th instrument and the arcane lyrics add to the moodiness.

A great example of Stipe’s vocal work is in Talk about the Passion. During the end of the second verse there are strings accompanying Peter Buck’s guitar.  It repeats its refrain and then Stipe’s vocal humming comes in right with the strings and you literally cannot tell where the strings end and the vocals begin. Truly an amazing song. Peter Buck’s guitar on Shaking Through is simple yet adds a complexity to the song as it complements the vocals and a piano.

I’ve enjoyed this album for nearly 30 years and I cannot even think of not having it for another 30, it’s simply that good. The songs have many layers and can be uplifting when you need a jolt or quiet when you need some introspection time. You can focus on a specific musician or have the songs wash over you like a shower.  Regardless of what kind of music you like, this is one album that crosses genres and should be in everyone’s collection.


Classic Album Review — The Pretenders (1979)


Although this album was released in 1979, I really didn’t hear it until 1981, however it came at a key point in my life. In 1981, popular music generally sucked and I was tired of the Journeys, Styx, and Bad Companys, etc., that ruled the airways. I had basically given up listening to what was popular at the time and was more interested in stuff from the 60’s. Then I heard Pretenders. For the first time I heard music that was really good but wasn’t being played on the radio or talked about a whole lot in popular culture. Hearing this album opened my ears (and my eyes) to a whole (what was then) new subculture of cool, cool music.

The album kicks off with Precious and right from the beginning you know you are in for a thrill ride. Crissie Hynde's tough-chick-in-a-red-leather-jacket spin on the whole Madonna-Whore thing is evident throughout the album but this song just oozes sexuality. Remember this is 1981 (for me) and girls didn’t sing in rock bands generally, and they sure as heck didn’t say "Not me baby, I'm too precious...ah F**k Off!" like Crissie Hynde does at the end of this song. Tattoed Love Boys and especially The Wait were also in-your-face, sexually-charged rockers. In fact The Wait still gives me goosebumps some 30 years later (although the single version is even rawer than the version found on the album – yes I have both versions).

The album wasn’t all just rockin’ guitars and drums as songs like Kid, Stop Your Sobbin’ and Brass in Pocket were all pretty good songs at a slower tempo. Stop Your Sobbin’ and Brass and Pocket were especially nice because the co-eds liked them too -- which is important when you’re in college trying to impress the ladies with your record collection.

Musically this album is pretty advanced for a debut. James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar work really anchors the album and his style is still being copied today but the star of the show was Crissie Hynde. She was tough and vulnerable: the kind of girl who would take your legs off on a Saturday night, but also someone you could bring home to your mother on a Sunday afternoon.

This album saved me musically and without it I’d probably be into the Dave Mathews Band or be excited about the fact that Genesis has a new box set. For that reason Pretenders gets to kick off my review of classic rock albums.