Miles Davis – Agharta


Miles DavisAgharta CBS/Sony SOPJ 92-93 (1975)

Miles Davis’ fusion period came to a head on Agharta.  His music was still melding rock and jazz.  It had become a more dense, ominous melange over the course of the last five years or so.  This is one of those albums that really encapsulates something essential about the tenor of the times.  It represents the tipping point, doing away with what has gone as far as it can, making way for something, anything.  The most indelible quality of this music is that it presents something that must be confronted.  It makes a certain imposition on its listeners–strange, foreboding vibrations with a tightly controlled and disciplined form.  That’s the key to this album.

The times were tumultuous, and Davis’ music reflected them.  Politically and socially a number of crass moves made this apparent to the observant.  President Nixon–the crook–had (illegally) taken the country off the gold standard, just to snatch away the legitimate progress other nations had been making.  The freedom (civil rights) movement had concluded a decade ago, and its gains were proving to be rather paltry.  Jim Crow racial segregation wasn’t explicit anymore but was still quite prevalent.  Cities were still de facto segregated, and jobs were not opening up, blacks were still poor.  The courts did step in to halt lynchings and similar racial terrorism of the most brazen sort.  Black militancy was waning, and as it did few lasting, tangible results beyond those of the ostensibly peaceful freedom movement remained.  In the broader view, these were the mere beginnings of a new order orchestrated from behind the proverbial closed doors, with jobs going elsewhere (offshoring), increasing financialization and de-industrialization across the whole economy.  The political right had yet to begin mass incarceration to obscure the removal of domestic job openings to locations abroad, though.  Women were gaining a greater say in Western society.  What did it all mean?  Well, in Davis’ music, you get a little taste of it all, without any firm conclusions.  Some major things were on the table.  Follow-through wasn’t always there though.  What else could he do after this but go into retirement?  Davis’ seclusion in his home in the coming years would be society writ large (Davis effectively retired from music for six years beginning just a few months after this live recording was made).  It would be up to the punks (still called merely “new wave” at the time) to carry the torch the rest of the way.  Not that Davis had a connection to that directly, but his stepping away from music after this was a call to action, and a lot of punks responded.  The idea that Miles was going to hold hands and drag along followers is the absurdity that his retirement rejects.  It is up to the rest of us jokers to get up with it and do something.  So in that context the absolutely funky rhythms of this music are appropriate.  Listen to this, well get up offa that thing.  By the way, this album’s title references a mythical (?) city said to reside at the Earth’s core.  It’s sort of a gnostic, Valentian conception of esoteric, utopian, secret wisdom.

At the time, it would have been easy to say, “what is this shit?”  Yes, it’s still easy to say that.  But, the more difficult proposition is to go back to this, dig deep, and maybe come to terms with some real progress found here.  Pete Cosey‘s guitar maybe isn’t just transposed Hendrix flash, but something that floats on looser moorings, free to access the full power of noise, even if it didn’t stay in that territory long.   Take a long, hard listen to this, and find a bunch of musicians able to play so much stuff independently at the same time, with a riveting sense of common purpose to attune their varied interests with space-age precision.  What makes this different from the more playful and sparring qualities of the various early 70s fusion albums the man made, is the sense of weariness, the last-ditch effort this represents.  What next?  Indeed.

Black Flag – Loose Nut

Loose Nut

Black FlagLoose Nut SST 035 (1985)

There is a real blue collar/working class attitude on Loose Nut.  Maybe that was always present in Black Flag’s music.  But this album taps into a really angry version of it.  Take “Annihilate This Week.”  It is about just getting through the week, beating back the drudgery and routine with alcohol and cigarettes.  It sums up the attitude of lots of people I used to work with at stupid minimum wage jobs, enjoying the time spent doing work that actually did accomplish something, however small and faceless, by taking up a low-rent kind of hedonism.  But maybe they take the low-rent hedonism as the focus more than getting something done along the way, not seeing anything beyond the week.

“Bastard in Love” is a great love song.  The title alone conveys that being “in love” is when social obligations are suspended.  But in this case, some “bastard” is just using this as an excuse for shitty, abusive behavior that masks narcissistic self-pity.  Meanwhile the song’s narrator is isolated, taking a more authentic view of love, but finds his view unwanted, and is stuck with pain.  The best part of the song is just repeating the epithet, “bastard…in lo__ove”.  It is the insistence of somebody pushing their stupid shitty relationship into other people’s faces.  Just a few lines of the song convey this perfectly.

There is nothing innovative about how this album sounds.  It basically adopts the sort of metal/hard rock sound that much of the working class (at least the men) in the USA listened to around 1985.  There also isn’t a whole lot of space separating Loose Nut from the sort of bluesy 1970s hard rock that was probably still on a lot of jukeboxes at the time, either, in bars that weren’t really about listening to music as much as drinking and meeting up with pals.  Yet it still hits pretty hard.  The guitar plays a more restrained role that in years past.  The riffs are often predictable progressions, but they cut loose in angular, eccentric solos, with dissonant resolutions all over “This Is Good,” and in a few other brief patches.  Loose Nut was the last time the mighty Flag summoned any real power in the recording studio.  The band’s demise was just around the corner.

Yet the most curious juxtaposition of Loose Nut is that it invites feminine perspective ever so slightly.  Kira complained about the role of the group’s sole female member, but the lyrics at least accept a position of non-dominance, even as those words are delivered with a solid roar against aggressive guitar and rhythms.  The macho perspective is consistently mocked across the album.  Maybe it isn’t transcended, but there are strides to counteract it.  Yes, maybe more could have been done.  There was still more happening in that regard on this Black Flag effort than in most hard rock of the late 1980s.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti

Physical Graffiti

Led ZeppelinPhysical Graffiti Swan Song SSK 89400 (1975)

Led Zeppelin were never a band with a high degree of artistic integrity.  They were always a band designed to succeed by catering to what audiences wanted.  It should come as no surprise that they updated their approach through the 1970s, and with 1975’s Physical Graffiti they had adopted some funk and proto-disco into their sound.  It works.  Although all of the best-known hits are on the first disc, disc two cruises by without any hiccups.  This is state-of-the-art 1970s hard rock, with every imaginable form of studio effect used to its advantage.  Probably the band’s best album.

The Harder They Come Soundtrack

The Harder They Come

Various ArtistsThe Harder They Come Mango MLPS 9202 (1972)

The 1972 movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff depicted the seedy realities and distorted dreams of impoverished Jamaicans. The soundtrack reflected some of the best music coming off the island at that time. Featuring some of reggae’s finest artists of the day and more than a few classic songs, The Harder They Come is a classic reggae record.

Artists work through their problems in song. The Melodians run with the gospel harmonies of “Rivers of Babylon” followed by Jimmy Cliff’s epic “Many Rivers to Cross.” The miserable conditions portrayed in Desmond Dekker’s “(007) Shanty Town” contemplate some of the disastrous effects of England’s colonialism. Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” clings to the hope that things will change.

Getting permission for The Slickers to use the song “Johnny Too Bad,” one writer was found underground and the other on death row. Probably the best metaphor for the movie and soundtrack, The Slickers portray the distorted dreams of the man in the street. Ultra-cool posturing of the rude bwoys (hired thugs in ganja trade) in the movie turns from a means to the ends themselves. The soundtrack further stresses the straight and narrow way. “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Rivers of Babylon,” and “Pressure Drop” look up from the depths to the bright light of day these people believe is out there.

“Pressure Drop” by Toots & the Maytals is a highlight among many highlights on the soundtrack. The slightly mysterious lyrics brace for a stormy change on its way. Toots Hibbert can sing with the best of ‘em. His love for soul music, particularly his Otis Redding influence, provides soaring effects.

Songs blend into the storyline in the movie. Ivan, Jimmy Cliff’s character in the movie, becomes somewhat of a recording star with his song “The Harder They Come.” After a hip recording session, he visits a sound system (a traveling dance party) hosted by Prince Buster. This is a rare dramatization of the roots of hip-hop, where sound system deejays would toast (basically rap) over records.

The world still didn’t know much about reggae when this record/movie came out (with the slight exception of Desmond Dekker’s 1969 international hit “Israelites”). The high-energy ska of the 60s gave way to the simpler but more soulful reggae (by way of rocksteady or whatever you want to call the intermediate stuff). These grooves make conversion easy. The larger world was ready for reggae.

This soundtrack is worth checking out, as is the movie. It features ten classic reggae songs (plus alternate mixes of the two Jimmy Cliff songs). The many artists represented give a good cross-section of reggae styles. Though the songs are not very politically charged, they work for the movie. The unique flavor of Jamaica comes through these simple songs.

Sun Ra – Secrets of the Sun

Secrets of the Sun

Sun Ra & His Solar ArkestraSecrets of the Sun El Saturn GH 9954-E/F (1965)

At an exhibit on space exploration at Chicago’s Science & Industry Museum, off a ways from near-advertisement “exhibits” about what your friendly neighborhood petrochemical company does for you and the glories of genetically modified frankenfoods, a corner of a sign reads: “‘Space Is The Place’ – Sun Ra”.  If you want to understand why that’s a true statement, just take a listen to Secrets of the Sun.

Sun Ra’s best albums tend to be ones that focus on a single one of his many interests.  Secrets of the Sun is a moderately experimental effort that puts on display a lot of the things Ra was working with in the late 1950s and early/mid 1960s, with a decidedly sci-fi exotica feel to everything.  The solos aren’t always as intriguing as they could be.  Still, this was one of the more listenable of Ra’s albums to date.

The CD reissue of the album is great because it features “Flight to Mars”, a track intended as side two of an album that was never released.  It’s a pre-psychedelic masterpiece of Ra’s 1960s period.  I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best tracks of his early/mid 60s period.

Dizzy Gillespie – At Newport

At Newport

Dizzy GillespieAt Newport Verve MG V-8242 (1957)

At Newport comes from a July 6, 1957 performance at the Newport [Rhode Island] Jazz Festival. As be-bop split into hard bop on the east coast and cool out west, Dizzy Gillespie went his own way. He developed a big band Afro-Cuban style. The bohemian hipster image of the 40s be-bopper gave way to a new, more familial feel.

The opener “Dizzy’s Blues” features a drenching blues solo by Wynton Kelly on keys, complete with Dizzy shouting along in the background. There is still be-bop structure present. This is truly a shining example of the classic jazz format. Diz had recently returned from a U.S. State Department-sponsored world tour (to spread American culture), where a young Quincy Jones produced some stunning arrangements still in use.

Dizzy Gillespie was a bold man on the trumpet. He could blast away endlessly in his upper register, as on the Latin boogaloo of “Manteca.” Dizzy’s talent was so immense that his improvisational style went outside most other players’ range (not even the likes of Miles Davis could keep up). His late-50s work showed him exploring both his past and the roots of his people. You get everything here. “School Days” even shakes things up with Diz doing some spoken word/singing.

The CD reissue adds three phenomenal bonus tracks (and I would recommend this re-issue over the original), two of which feature Mary Lou Williams bouncing along on piano. Williams performs selections from her “Zodiac Suite” plus “Carioca.” Her career spanned decades and her style constantly evolved. Along with Diz, Williams was one of the great jazz teachers, influencing countless legions of performers. She blends into Gillespie’s band effortlessly and if Diz didn’t announce it, you would never know she was coming out of semi-retirement. The additional tracks with Williams add quite a bit to the album, by providing complex solos from yet another superstar.

Eighteen-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan gets some solo time on the bonus track “A Night In Tunisia” (solo time being valuable when you back a legend like Diz). The young Morgan can’t cut Diz, but his talent is still obvious. It is stellar songs that distinguish this set. An early rendition of Benny Golson’s standard, “I Remember Clifford” mellows the pace of the album. They rejoice, but not without some sadness.

In the heart of the beat movement, Diz found probably the most popular appeal of his entire career. This is Diz still at his peak.

Grateful Dead – Live/Dead


Grateful DeadLive/Dead Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 2WS-1830 (1969)

Live/Dead was the Grateful Dead’s first live album and is still one of their greatest. The group was at its peak and a classic lineup was still intact: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Tom “T.C.” Constanten, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Supposedly released to pay off a debt to their record company amassed when recording Aoxomoxoa, Live/Dead has since proved its own worth many times over.

The Dead in the late 1960s were more comfortable with themselves as a band than in earlier years. They had a symbiotic relationship going where each member’s contributions sparked even more creative output. Three songs in the middle of this double-disc album are a good as any Grateful Dead on record (the myriad of bootleg material included). “Saint Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and “Turn On Your Lovelight” capture the Dead at their most daring and impassioned. I think just those three songs alone make this album well worth a listen.    There is something almost sinister about this album that seems to have only really surfaced here, never to return.  That’s a shame.  While there are other good (even very good) live Dead albums, this is one of the few to have any of the anarchistic flavor of the late 60s. Into the 70s and beyond, when Dead live sets started coming out without almost a kind of regularity, the emphasis on easygoing songs seemed to take attention away from the abandon of pure performance.

On the other hand, this album feels like it goes just beyond their previous releases.  Where earlier Dead studio albums (with the exception of the live/studio hybrid Anthem of the Sun) tried too hard to be something they weren’t, Live/Dead is more direct and to the point.  It makes the case for the Grateful Dead being one of the great live rock bands of the late 60s. This is the album that established the Dead’s reputation as a fan’s band. It avoids pretentiousness by simply showcasing the music that enthralled their fans at live performances. Too often live material is a note-for-note rehash of what you’ve already heard, and little more than a way to bilk die-hard fans for a few more dollars. This was almost unthinkable for the Dead (overlooking many ill-conceived post-1973 diversions). Early on, they seemed to have made music to have fun themselves. Taking chances wasn’t optional. Live/Dead is a glimpse into a time when things weren’t perfect but the essence of the feeling had lots of potential. Though it marked the end of the Dead’s early period–they next moved to a country-rock style–the album is fluid and unapologetic.

Bob Dylan – Hard Rain

Hard Rain

Bob DylanHard Rain Columbia PC 34349 (1976)

So, why is he shouting?  Some good songs, of course, but still pointless.  If you want to hear Dylan being crushed by the forces of evil, well, maybe then this is the album for you.  I can accept Self Portrait as some kind of prank on his fans, Planet Waves as something simply lazy, but this?  This is Bob Dylan’s defeat.  I know some people look to Dylan as a counter-cultural icon, but I prefer to think of him in as someone carried along by the same wave as the rest of the movement in the 60s.  Hunter S. Thompson wrote how with the right set of eyes you could look West and see the high water mark, where that wave crested and rolled back.  Hard Rain is that near-tsunami rolling back and crashing somewhere East against the opposite shore.  Dylan seems exasperated, at a loss with what to do to juggle artistic and commercial concerns, and plain worn out by that process.  He sure has worse albums out there.  Yet this suggested that Dylan was probably going to focus on bland, clichéd approaches to music during the rest of his career, which often proved to be the case.

Bob Dylan – Planet Waves

Planet Waves

Bob DylanPlanet Waves Asylum 7E-1003 (1974)

Planet Waves was a return to more stripped-down folk music, like John Wesley Harding.  Dylan is backed by The Band.  While this was his most commercially successful album to date, it has not aged particularly well.  Harbingers of things to come were the rather shoddy under-production and unenthusiastic performances.  A kind of laziness in the recording process made its first appearance here (setting aside Self Portrait).  This album did mark a thematic shift, with a mixture of nostalgic yearning (“Forever Young,” “On a Night Like This,” “You Angel You”) on the one hand, and rolling anger and melancholy (“Going, Going, Gone,” “Dirge”) on the other.  There are definitely a lot of songs that seem to reference Dylan’s marriage, which was headed for divorce in a few years.

Like a lot of other 1970s Dylan albums, Planet Waves has some fairly good songwriting, even if the songwriting falls short of the best Dylan was capable of.  But he just doesn’t find the right “sound” most of the time.  Some describe the problem as the songs being half-formed.  It’s also a matter of over-producing the record to compensate for a lack of engagement with the material up front.  Anyway, this one feels disappointing because it is so immediately apparent that this could have been a really good record.  Sadly it ends up being a somewhat mediocre one.  At its best, this comes across as a warm-up for the following year’s bitter and angry classic Blood on the Tracks.