I am not sure that when I started this Something For The Weekend series of reviews, I would have imagined to get to episode #50. I must confess I had a tremendous pleasure doing so, especially during that weird year we just experienced. Loving music with all my heart and soul, I realised this is probably a never-ending thing and that I will keep on putting my modest contribution by reviewing many more records for a long period of time. So, for episode #50, ladies and gentlemen, I give you a very special one this time.
Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On“ – 1971
To describe this record as a very special one would not surprise anyone. But although this is indeed one of the most important releases of all times, this is a record which is very close to my heart as well. First of all, it looks I have always heard ”What’s Going On” since very young. I still have in my music collection the ‘musicassette’ (as it was called then) that my father bought in the UK and although I did not have a very clear understanding of it all, being a very young boy, I clearly remember listening to these songs in the car while travelling. Then, I have no shame to confess that I am what I am thanks to this incredible 30th November, 1985 New Musical Express issue which I received just a couple of weeks after starting my subscription. For UK readers, you need to understand that reading the NME while growing up in France at the time was one of the few possibilities to get news about great music… This issue made me discover all the greats from Roxy Music to Van Morrison, from Television to Bob Dylan or again from The Clash to Sly And The Family Stone (full list here). And which record was voted as best one ever by the 1985 NME writers? Well, I guess you know…
I recommend to those not really familiar with Marvin Gaye to dig further in all his music production as this is a fascinating one. After starting as a session drummer for Tamla Motown, he went on recording fantastic singles in the 1960’s, either solo or duetting with female partners, the most amazing being the legendary Tammi Terrell who unfortunately died too young from a brain tumour. Marvin Gaye never really recovered from it ; these sad news plus an unhappy marriage with Berry Gordy‘s sister and stories he got from his brother Franck coming back from the Vietnam War were reasons to bring to the world such a masterful record. ”What’s Going On” is an extraordinary piece of work on different levels. For a start, the lyrics and themes (poverty, war, racial inequalities, ecology) are very much the same as today…although it was released fifty years ago. Then, the flow of the record is very peculiar and the production has not aged at all: tracks are often blurred into one another, which gives a dreamy feeling. Finally, Marvin Gaye’s voice is beautiful and very moving, while the many musicians playing throughout are immense. His career until his sad passing in 1984 would bring other extraordinary songs and albums but his personal life would become so difficult to deal with that he would never climb such musical heights…but who would? A record to listen to again and again.
Format: Cassette/CD/LP&CD 40th Anniversary Reissue Box SetBought in: 1971/1993/2011 To be noted: Although new comers to this album should definitely listen to the classic version that was released in 1971, I recommend to fans to discover the so-called Detroit Mix which brings a new perspective… especially regarding the way his NFL Detroit Lions buddies are recorded! Rating: 10.5/10
This week, we will review a hidden gem from a mysterious artist.
Bobbie Gentry – “The Delta Sweete“ – 1968
Bobbie Gentry has always been a enigmatic person in the music business to say the least… Born Roberta Streeter in the great Mississippi State, she took her music alias while singing with country male artists everywhere in the United States. Her very singular voice and talent quickly put her above her stage buddies and she had the chance of being able to release a 7” in 1967 with ”Mississippi Delta”. However, DJ’s were all more intrigued by the B-side ”Ode to Billie Joe” which became a worldwide phenomena, covered by hundreds of musicians. I must confess this song remains today one of the best of all times, either by the beauty of the music, the quality of her voice or again the lyrics which remain a mystery until now (what made Billie Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge by the way?).
”Bobbie Gentry performs The Delta Sweete” is her second album and an amazing effort it is. First of all, her voice is a gorgeous thing throughout those twelve tracks. Then, the musicianship is extraordinary in the country soul style one can find in many of these great musicians from the Southern States of the USA, like Tony Joe White or The Allman Brothers Band for instance. However, one must admit it goes beyond this peculiar style of music as the whole album is overall very ambitious, adding up orchestra’s strings on many of the songs. Last but not least, each song’s lyrics mean one thing or another, depending on the day or the mood of the listener. Bobbie Gentry made a few less interesting records afterwards and decided to get out of public life from the mid 70’s onwards, which makes this LP a very specific item.
Format: LP Bought in: 2020 To be noted: This extraordinary record has been reissued in 2020 and the LP version is particularly worth the purchase. I also recommend as a companion piece Mercury Rev‘s ”Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited”. Released in 2019, the great American band invited female singers (Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Laetitia Sadier, Beth Orton, Phoebe Bridgers, and so on…) to recreate this major opus, each singing one song. Rating: 8.5/10
For Easter Monday, we will extend the concept of this weekend review and celebrate a truly great record by one of my favourite American bands of these times.
Wilco – “Sky Blue Sky“ – 2007
Those familiar with this blog know for sure my love for Wilco‘s music and his lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy as well. He is one of these artists I follow with each release and although his solo records and collaborations are very often excellent and interesting, his best work can probably be found in the context of Wilco. Jeff Tweedy first founded cult Americana band Uncle Tupelo with Jay Farrar in the late 80’s. After three albums, the latter left the band and the remaining musicians kept on making music together, therefore creating one of the most musical singular experiences of our times. Debut 1995 album “A.M” was ok but few had imagined their second (and double) LP (1996’s “Being There“) would be such a masterpiece. Very much influenced by the sounds of The Rolling Stones‘ “Exile On Main Street“, this is the record that made them go from an interesting project to a major band. All subsequent albums have been excellent, with a special mention to their fourth effort (2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot“), whose complicated creation is well described in the moving “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” documentary movie.
Released in 2007, “Sky Blue Sky” is their sixth studio album (out of eleven so far). Although this is generally not the critics’ natural choice of recommendation, it is this blog’s favourite album from that great band. More precisely, this is the album in which I personally find the best balance between traditional American songwriting (a la Neil Young to try to give an idea about influences) and…something else which is difficult to describe but probably comes from their more experimental side. The band was also evolving at the time and getting to their now classic line up, welcoming multi instrumentalist Pat Sansone and extraordinary guitarist Nels Cline. The latter really gave a new dynamic to the band from then onwards and the way he plays throughout this album is phenomenal. Adding to that the way Jeff Tweedy’s voice was becoming more mature and moving…and this gives you one of the best records released since the start of the century. Discover this band and you will be rewarded for life.
Format: CD Bought in: 2007 To be noted: “Impossible Germany” and “Hate It Here” are those two songs I hope to experience when catching Wilco on stage. Listen to Ethan Hawke explaining why the latter is so great to his son in Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” and you will get it all… Rating: 9.5/10
Talking Heads probably are one of my favourite bands ever so I guess the time has come to review one of their records.
Talking Heads – “Remain In Light“ – 1980
Founded by the trio of David Byrne on vocals and guitar, Tina Weymouth on bass and Chris Frantz on drums, Talking Heads really started to make a name of themselves when they joined the New York music scene in the mid-70’s and welcomed excellent fourth band member Jerry Harrison on guitar. It is rather interesting by the way that they are associated with the NY CBGB’s scene as they were…different in their style of music or in the way they used to dress for instance. They were very quickly one of the first rock bands to include funky or tribal sounds in their music, while keeping this weird distance in lyrics or sharp guitar-playing.
“Remain In Light” is their fourth studio album out of eight in a career which went from 1977 until 1989 and potentially the most famous one, thanks to its awesome single “Once In A Lifetime“. There is no such thing as a weak Talking Heads album and I guess everyone has their own favourite. Talking Heads were collaborating on this album for the third and final time with their friend and producer Brian Eno, which made hardcore fans describing this album more like a Byrne/Eno effort rather than a band one. I am not sure this is so and to me the majority of these eight tracks are probably the ones I would play to anyone not familiar with their music to explain what they were about. Songs such as “Born Under Punches” or again “Houses In Motion” definitely represent the best rock-funk-afrobeat fusion one could dream of, thanks to the fantastic contribution of guitarist extraordinaire Adrian Belew. This is an instant classic and anyone not willing to move their bodies on such amazing numbers is probably dead… For all of you LCD Soundsystem fans, this is also an album to listen to, such a strong influence it has been on that excellent band.
Format: CD Bought in: 1999 To be noted: When life goes back to normal, catching David Byrne on Broadway in his American Utopia show is very much recommended for those eager to hear a few of these Talking Heads tracks. Rating: 9.5/10
This week, we will celebrate the genius of Sylvester Stewart and his beautiful band.
Sly and the Family Stone – “Higher“ – 2013
Sly Stone, né Sylvester Stewart, is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and one does not count the tens of musicians influenced by the great man and his band. The most obvious one is of course Prince but there are plenty of others from funk masters Earth, Wind and Fire to post-punk bands like Magazine or The Colourfield or again hip-hop bands like De La Soul who used a couple of Sly and the Family Stone tracks for their first classic album. Originally from Texas, Sly really started to make a name of himself and his siblings while growing up in California. The ‘family’ label was a real one as brother Freddie and sister Rosie were part of the band as well. However, by ‘family’, one could also include band members like the great Larry Graham Jr. on bass and Cynthia Robinson on trumpet. Sly was also one of the first band leaders to include black and white musicians, which brought their unique pop and funky sound to new levels. The term ‘genius’ is too often used to my taste but in the specific case of Sly Stone, it is probably the right one as he brought a new personal style of music to the world, mixing traditional funk and soul music with rock and pop.
“Higher” is a 4-CD box set released in 2013 and, as often so with such products, it is a joy for fans but may appear too long and complex to digest for those not familiar with the music of the band. This is why I suggest for newcomers to get acquainted first with the band through the excellent ‘The Essential Sly and the Family Stone‘ compilation where one will find and enjoy all the major tracks and hits. If then you feel it may be one of your favourite bands – that was definitely so for me as they were ranked # 62 in my top 100 done in 2012 – you need to buy this box set, having in mind the book is full of amazing pictures and is also a great reading. The 4 CD’s (there is also a vinyl version) are organised through a chronological order, from the R’n’B beginnings of the early 60’s to the final interesting recordings of the late 70’s. The peak period is definitely the 1968-1973 one, with the two major events that were their extraordinary performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival and the 1971 release of their best album ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On‘, with classic songs such as ‘Family Affair‘ or ‘Runnin’ Away‘. Although still alive, Sylvester Stewart disappeared from our world since the 80’s for the usual reasons (drugs, mental health, bad entourage,…) but he should be cherished and rewarded for all the joy his music gave to the world.
Format: 4-CD Box Set Bought in: 2014 To be noted: De La Soul sampled ‘Crossword Puzzle‘ for their ‘Say No Go‘ track, which can be found in their classic ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ classic 1989 debut album. Rating: 9.0/10
As the proud Captain Kirk, leader of the Enterprise crew, would say: “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before“!
William Shatner – “Has Been“ – 2004
Indeed, for the majority of us, William Shatner is famous for being the one and only Captain Kirk from the Star Trek Series. His musical skills are probably less known, which is a pity as his records are really….different from everything one is used to listen to. His first release occurred in 1968 and became a sort of cult classics in the years to come, thanks to weird covers or William Shakespeare‘s readings. “Has Been” is actually the second record he released in 2004 when he was 73 years old. Since then, he made a few other records on different themes (Space, Xmas, Blues) and one has to admit the man is amazing when one thinks he will be ninety next month!
What do we have with “Has Been” then? By far his best album, you are going to enter a strange world with completely different moods from one track to another, going from moody jazz atmospheres to punk ones or again experimental ones. I know it should not work at all…but it does and it is actually a tremendous, funny and sometimes very moving record. Will Shatner is of course very much there throughout the album but the driving force behind is Ben Folds, who is as good as a producer as he is as leader of his band The Ben Folds Five. If you are a fan of Brit Pop, Pulp‘s ‘Common People‘ cover and opening track will get you in the mood, so fantastic it is, thanks in particular to the way Joe Jackson sings the chorus. There are other excellent guests on this record, like Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins, Adrian Belew or again British writer Nick Hornby (composer of the great ‘That’s Me Trying‘ song) and they are all here to bring something else and interact with William Shatner. I personally hate comedy or so-called funny records so please do not take this album as a joke…although you may have a good laugh sometimes.
Format: CD Bought in: 2006 To be noted: Leonard Nimoy, alias Mr. Spoke, also made a few…different records. “Spaced Out“, a Shatner & Nimoy compilation is strongly recommended. Rating: 8.5/10
This week, first of a short series about my three favourite American bands of the 21st century so far. Let’s start with Spoon.
Spoon – “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga“ – 2007
Those following this blog on a regular basis may not be surprised to get this review about Spoon. I must even confess I can be considered as a major fan and that I eagerly follow any of their new releases. I did a complete review of their studio records in 2017, which you can read anytime for your pleasure! They come from Austin, Tx, one of my favourite locations on Earth and with leader/singer/composer Britt Daniel, they have one of the most interesting musical figures of our times. They released their first record in 1996 and one has to admit their first efforts were nice but difficult to differentiate from other bands heavily influenced by Pixies at the time. What is fascinating though is how their music kept on evolving and progressing, eventually making them quite a unique band.
“Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” is their sixth record and probably their masterpiece, although once again they kept on making fantastic records since then, regularly praised in our end of the year lists or in our records of the month reviews. If you are not familiar with the music of Spoon, first listens may appear deceptive and even quite standard. One has to be patient and after a couple of extra listens, one will start to understand why this blog is so enthusiastic about this band. Their sound, polished through the expert hands and brain of excellent drummer and band member Jim Eno, give a particular attention to details. One could find various influences on this record, like for instance Elvis Costello And The Attractions or again German bands of the 70’s. But what makes Spoon an amazing band is the balance between their craftsmen’s work and their gifted skill for melodies. All ten tracks are winners and there is not a single week moment. To be discovered at any cost if not done yet.
Format: LP Bought in: 2019 (nicer than the mp3 which I loaded in 2007…). To be noted: The picture on the cover is that of American artist Lee Bontecou, shot by Italian photographer Ugo Molas in 1963. Rating: 10/10
I guess the time has come to review one of the best albums made by one of my favourite artists of all times…
Elliott Smith – “Figure 8“ – 2000
“Acclaimed indie singer/songwriter with an affecting presence and evocative lyricism who died tragically young” (All Music). I would not be able to better describe Elliott Smith and his art. I must confess that, despite his music probably representing to me everything I like either in terms of subtle lyrics, melodies, arrangements or again this mix of softness and power, it is always difficult to listen to his records as it brings a sort of constant sadness about his life. It must sound stupid but I even asked myself the question about what I could have done as a fan of his music. I know it does not make sense and that people suffering from depression are what they are… After spending the first part of his complicated youth in different US cities, Elliott Smith made a name of himself within the Portland, OR scene, as a member of rock band Heatmiser and also with his first beautiful solo albums. Through word of mouth, Gus Van Sant asked him to contribute to the soundtrack of his “Good Will Hunting” movie, which gave a surreal exposure to Elliott Smith at the 1998 Oscar awards ceremony (video below).
“Figure 8” is his fifth record and the last one that was released when he was still alive. His six albums are all recommended, although I personally cannot get enough of the 1998/2000 sequence (“Either/Or“, “XO” and “Figure 8“). On this record, at a time when his mental health and addiction to drugs were bringing him down, he actually was at his best artistically speaking. Partially recorded at the prestigious Abbey Road studios in London, he succeeded in including his obsession with The Beatles in his songs, creating a beautiful mix of ‘now’ music with strong past influences. This is no secret that “The White Album” was his favourite piece of music and the influences can clearly be found in “Figure 8“. Although there are a few musical guests on the record, like for instance the excellent Pete Thomas on drums (member of Elvis Costello & The Attractions), Elliott Smith is the one playing the majority of the different instruments. He was a very talented musician for sure but also a sublime and moving lyricist. Songs like ‘Son Of Sam‘, ‘Everything Means Nothing To Me‘ or again ‘Happiness‘ are masterpieces as far as I am concerned and should be listened to on a regular basis. If not done yet, do not miss this record and the rest of what he released in a relatively short period of time.
Format: CD Bought in: 2000. To be noted: Figure 8 is a famous move amongst skaters and could be interpreted as a never-ending desire for perfection. The painting shown on the cover is still there on a wall in Los Angeles and has become a sort of memorial for those who want to pay tribute to this great artist. Rating: 10/10
This week, it is finally time for this blog to mention one of the best British musicians of the last thirty years. His new album will be with us next week so I thought it would make sense to review his previous studio effort.
Steven Wilson – “To The Bone“ – 2017
Steven Wilson does not necessarily look like your typical rock’n’roll beast. If one were to characterize him, he would be better described as a music fan, interested in sounds, tapes, loops but moreover in all types of music. He made a name of himself as the leader of the excellent Porcupine Tree in a genre that can be described as prog rock, closed to the hearts of those Pink Floyd or King Crimson fans. This label is not untrue but a bit lazy, having in mind music reviewers and the general audience like to stick musicians and their art in very well defined boxes…which is not all what this blog is about. Steven Wilson is actually interested in all kinds of music from jazz rock and heavy metal to soul and indie rock. He has been playing since the last decade under his own name and the more it goes, the bigger his success is (and the more diverse is music is).
“To The Bone” was released in August 2017 and you will not find this record anywhere in my previous reviews… The main reason why is that its first listens gives a sense of lack of consistency…which is actually totally wrong. All tracks are indeed different and could exist in their own world. The overall intention he had was to pay homage to the great artists of his youth, like for instance Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush or again Tears For Fears. One can spot their influences and a track like the amazing “Permanating” could easily have been included on “Songs From The Big Chair” for instance. But once again it would be lazy not to listen to this record for what it is. At one hour of music, its eleven tracks display a phenomenal level of musicianship, thanks to its guests (specific mention to gorgeous Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb) but the real star of the show here is Steven Wilson and his exceptional guitar-playing skills. A few tracks like opener “To The Bone” (co-written with XTC‘s Andy Partridge) or again “Detonation” are really amongst the best songs of the latest years. I must confess having an unstoppable need to play air guitar when listening to this record! I am supposed to catch him live in September so fingers crossed…
Format: CD Bought in: 2020. To be noted: Michka Assayas’ “Very Good Trip” is probably one of the best music radio show currently available ; he recently did a specific program on Steven Wilson which is highly recommended. Rating: 9.0/10
You may know Brian Eno for formerly being a key member of the gorgeous Roxy Music or through his production work for David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads or Coldplay amongst others but the great man has also made a bunch of fantastic records under his own name, including this one.
Brian Eno – “Another Green World“ – 1975
Brian Eno really made a name of himself as a prime member of Roxy Music in the early 70’s.Very often dressed on stage with women’s clothes and making an impression with his long blonde hair, he was the one bringing these weird synth sounds to the first two albums and basically changing what music would be in the years to come. Things were not to last and both his and Bryan Ferry‘s personalities were too different to make it a long term project. Brian Eno then left the band and was smart enough to confirm their 3rd album “Stranded” was his favourite…although he was already out. For music lovers, it meant that at the end of the day they still had Roxy Music as their favourite band (and what a band that was!) and an amazing new solo artist to follow. Brian Eno did not really cut the umbilical cord with his previous Roxy Music partners and for instance guitarist Phil Manzanera remained one of his best partners in crime for years to come. He released two fantastic albums in succession in 1974 which everyone should listen to if not done yet (“Here Come The Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)“) in which he showed his talents as a singer and composer.
“Another Green World” is Brian Eno’s third record and probably his most important one, thanks to the evolution of the music he was playing at the time. Although this is not something one spontaneously registers while listening to it, there are actually nine tracks out of fourteen without lyrics, making it a real milestone for what Brian Eno would be famous for later in his career, i.e. so-called ‘ambient music’. I could describe the instruments played, the studios used or again the few prestigious guests like Robert Fripp on guitar, John Cale on viola or again Phil Collins on drums but these are mere details in light of the big picture. “Another Green World” is before all Brian Eno’s brainchild, bringing ideas and an overall sense of dreamy mood I guess you will certainly feel in this record. This is very rare to feel such a balance in music and to me Brian Eno reached something closed to perfection here. It looks I am not the only one to think the same, as confirmed in 2016 Pitchfork review. Discover and enjoy!
Format: LP Bought in: 2018 (after getting it on tape in the 80’s..and in CD in 1998). To be noted: There is a dedicated book in the great 33 1/3 series about this album (#67). Hugely recommended for those who want to dig further. Rating: 9.5/10