Even More Rock Album Mini-Reviews

Even More Rock Album Mini-Reviews

Written by Frank Doris

In Issue 150 I listed my 150 desert island favorite rock albums, and followed up with a selection of reviews from that list in Issue 151 and Issue 166. I realized the list is mostly a trip down memory lane, because, as noted in previous installments, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with favorite albums I first heard, from when I was a teenager to around when I hit the untrustworthy age of 30. (Well, not really, but remember when we were young enough to take the saying “don’t trust anyone over 30” seriously?)

Thanks for the memories is a saying I do take to heart. When I was a kid, my friends and I would never have dreamed that the music we grew up with would continue to have such influence 50 years later – or that some of the bands would still be touring! Rock on.

Be-Bop Deluxe, Axe Victim

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Bill Nelson is one of the most underrated and brilliant rock guitarists to ever walk the planet, with a fluid, melodic and virtuosic style that leaves most pentatonic-scale weedeelee-wee guitarists in the red-shifted interstellar dust. There are those who prefer the Stevie Ray Vaughan style of blues rock, and those like me who’d rather listen to more out-there guitarists like Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, Phil Manzanera…and Bill Nelson. 1974’s Axe Victim showed Nelson throwing down the guitaristic gauntlet straight out of the gate with the classic title track; his showcase, “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape”; and “Night Creatures,” a wistful reflection of the glam-rock age. Nelson hadn’t quite come into his own in terms of songwriting, which is uneven here, but man, that guitar playing. If you dig rock guitar and have never heard Nelson, your life is not yet complete. The sound is really good too, if not quite audiophile-demo quality.

Be-Bop Deluxe, Futurama

It took me a while to get into Be-Bop Deluxe because I thought they’d be a rockabilly band, not my favorite genre though I’m not immune to its go-cat-go charms. Bzzzt! Wrong! Futurama finds the band delving more deeply into, no surprise given the title, science-fiction and dream-world themes and imagery. Nelson and the band’s playing is less raw, more refined and elegant, with a thick, chewy, bottomless guitar tone. The songwriting has stepped up, with “Maid In Heaven” “Music In Dreamland” and the majestic “Sister Seagull” standing as Be-Bop classic of classics.

Be-Bop Deluxe, Sunburst Finish

If the first two albums were good, 1976’s Sunburst Finish is off the Krell 10-times-10-times-10 meter. This stunning collection of songs has it all – memorable melodies, rocking ensemble playing by Nelson, Andy Clark (keyboards), Charles Tumahai (bass, vocals) and Simon Fox (drums), rich production, and a mix of otherworldly and down-to-earth lyrics. Nelson’s guitar playing…good lord. At the time Bill Nelson was hailed as the next guitar hero, but he walked away from it all at the height of Be-Bop Deluxe’s career. That said, since then he’s released more than 100 albums, and that’s not a typo. If he’d only recorded this one album, his place in guitar-legend history would still be assured. “Fair Exchange” is a hyperdrive opener, “Ships In the Night” showcases the individual talents of the band members in a fun, frolicking number, and “Life In the Air Age” manages to be wistful about the future before it happens.

Then, there’s the breathtaking “Crying to the Sky.” I remember reading a review in Trouser Press where the writer (it might have been Ira Kaplan) said that the guitar solo was the greatest anyone had ever played or will ever play, or words to that effect.

For an in-depth look at Be-Bop Deluxe, check out John Seetoo’s article in Issue 155.

New Order, Substance

This 1985 collection is a best-of from these electronic dancefloor kings and queens, collecting early essential tracks like “Ceremony” and “Everything’s Gone Green” with smash hits like “Shellshock” and “Blue Monday,” one of the most powerful and influential club tracks of all time (you’ve heard it on that Volvo commercial). The songwriting is uneven at best, but the great songs, like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Perfect Kiss” are absolutely stunning, with Bernard Sumner’s warbly vocals and minimalist jagged guitar riding perfectly on top of a pounding tempest of synths and electronic and acoustic drums. My original US vinyl 2-LP set has sensational, demonstration-quality sound. You want to show off your audio system? Play “Blue Monday” and make sure you don’t blow your woofers – but the original CD version is utterly terrible, with anemic bass, and the various other versions I’ve heard are inconsistent, as are the plethora of remixes out there. But find a good version of “Perfect Kiss” (I recommend the one on New Order’s Substance collection) turn it up and prepare to be wowed. (Unfortunately this YouTube clip is a pale sonic shadow of what this sounds like in high-res or vinyl):


The third album by The Spinners is a smooth helping of R&B heaven. (OK, this is a best-of rock list, but I like this album too much to exclude it.) Produced by Philly Soul architect Thom Bell, this album has the smash hits “I’ll Be Around,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and the sublime “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love.” The production is lush but not over the top; the vocals are tight and beyond soulful. I should have gone with one of their greatest hits compilations – life is not complete without hearing the group’s electrifying “It’s a Shame” – but Spinners has sentimental value to me for introducing me to the band on vinyl and for containing some favorite earlier hits. The sound quality is excellent. And how can you not love Ronnie Baker’s bass guitar work on “I’ll Be Around?”

The Beatles, Revolver

In the wake of the recent Revolver remixes and all the ink that’s been spilled about them (including articles by Jay Jay French in Issue 177 and Issue 176), now seems like a good time to comment on the now-fashionable sentiment that Revolver is in fact the best Beatles album, eclipsing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which has appeared on more best albums of all time lists than anyone can keep track of. Though it’s really kind of impossible to pick a “best” Beatles album, if I have to, it’s Revolver, and I’m not jumping on some revisionist bandwagon; I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The songs are extraordinary, and kaleidoscopically varied, and part of the DNA of more than one generation: do I really need to go into a play-by-play about the brilliance of songs like “Taxman,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “For No One,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and something as utterly gorgeous as ”Eleanor Rigby?” The Beatles’ spirit and inventiveness and sheer level of playing as a rock band are unstoppable here. Whenever I hear the dual-guitars of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” I still shake my head in wonderment, and one doesn’t need drugs to be hypnotized by “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

I’m just going to come out and say it: I think the Beatles peaked with Revolver, and that the best album of 1967 was Love’s Forever Changes.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

All that said, only a fool would argue that Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t an era-defining landmark. Those who were around during the Summer of 1967 can tell you its influence back then was remarkable. Our lives haven’t been the same since. It really was part of a social revolution – people simply didn’t look like that before the Summer of Love, nor listen to music like that: “rock,” as opposed to “rock and roll,” really came into its FM-radio own in 1967. Looking back, I’m struck by the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s seems more whimsical than cosmic, with songs like “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” more than counterbalancing heavyweights like “Within You Without You” and the undeniable mind blowing genius of “A Day In the Life.”

If you had to send one album from 1967, a year that also gave us Are You Experienced, the Doors’ debut, and John Wesley Harding, on a satellite to an advanced alien world, yeah, this would be the one.

The Beatles, Rubber Soul

But Rubber Soul is so much fun to listen to! C’mon, “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “If I Needed Someone,” “The Word”: just flat-out irresistible. “Norwegian Wood” is the song every aspiring songwriter wishes they’d written, “In My Life” strikes a perfect balance between sentiment and sentimental (forgive me for indulging in critic-speak), and the rest of this 1965 album…”Michelle,” “It’s Only Love,” “I’m Looking Through You”…what’s not to love? Though I forgot how “What Goes On” goes.

Ultimately, for me, the bottom line with the Beatles is: how did they do it? How did they record more than 200 songs, most of which would be a career-defining hit for anyone else? Something like that will never happen again.

Motown 1’s, Various Artists

I’m cheating again with including another compilation album, but is anyone going to deny the greatness (mostly) of this collection, and these songs? Aside from a couple of clunkers – “Endless Love” doesn’t do it for this rocker, and why include Michael McDonald’s version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” when Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s original is untoppable, except maybe by Diana Ross – Motown 1’s (hey, I didn’t proofread the cover art) is a stupefyingly fantastic collection of Motown’s greatest hits, which means some of the greatest singles of all time. (Listing all my Motown favorites, or anyone’s, would make an article in itself.) Rather than blather on, why don’t I just list them, as the list speaks for itself?

“Please, Mr. Postman” – The Marvelettes
“(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” – Martha and the Vandellas
“My Guy” – Mary Wells
“My Girl” – The Temptations
“Where Did Our Love Go” – The Supremes
“Stop! In the Name of Love” – The Supremes
“Shotgun” – Junior Walker and the All-Stars
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” – Four Tops
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” – Stevie Wonder
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” – The Temptations
“Reach Out I’ll Be There” – Four Tops
“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” – Marvin Gays and Tammi Terrell
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – Marvin Gaye
“I Want You Back” – The Jackson 5
“War” – Edwin Starr
“The Tears of a Clown” – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye
“Let’s Get It On” – Marvin Gaye
“Love Machine (Part 1)” – The Miracles
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston
“Three Times a Lady” – Commodores
“Rhythm of the Night” – DeBarge
“I’ll Make Love to You” – Boyz II Men
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Michael McDonald

Leonard Cohen, The Essential Leonard Cohen

You, know, writing about these albums, I’m really starting to feel out of my league. What can you say about artists like Leonard Cohen that hasn’t already been said? Well, I’d like to think he would want me to try. I’m cheating yet again by including a greatest hits compilation rather than any individual album, but that’s because of how I’ve heard Leonard Cohen over the decades: ”Suzanne” in a college dorm room, “Joan of Arc” on a cold, high dark night at Harry Pearson’s house on the Infinity IRS system, Jennifer Warnes’ version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” at 50 audio shows that have all melded into one, and “Hallelujah”…well, I can’t remember when or where I first heard it…it simply is. When I first heard Cohen I didn’t think his voice or his arrangements were much, although what breathing human would not be gripped by the feeling of “Suzanne” even if you didn’t understand a word he was saying? Perhaps it goes without saying that over time, I’ve grown to find his music crucial. My mom loved him too, so these days it’s hard for me to listen to him without either smiling or getting choked up, or both.

Jeff Beck Group, Rough and Ready

Of course, Jeff Beck is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Of course, the George Martin-produced Blow By Blow is rightfully acclaimed as a landmark of jazz/rock/instrumental fusion. There’s no denying the raw power of Beck’s playing in the Yardbirds and in defining guitar moments like “Shapes of Things.” Beck’s use of the tremolo (actually vibrato) bar of the Fender Stratocaster alone is enough to secure him in the pantheon of rock guitar greats. But my personal favorite is 1971’s Rough and Ready, where he’s joined by vocalist Bobby Tench, keyboardist Max Middleton, Clive Chaman on bass and Cozy Powell on drums. The soulful (if hardly profound) rock songs, Tench’s gritty vocals, Middleton’s lushly satisfying Rhodes and piano playing and the rhythm section’s pounding drive are the perfect complement to Beck’s ripping guitar work.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced

When I was first learning to play the guitar, I remember talking with a drummer friend on the school bus about guitar players. He asked if I’d heard of Jimi Hendrix and I said no. He freaked out and replied, “What? You want to be a guitar player and you haven’t heard Hendrix?” I think this was 1968 (I remember the conversation better than the year; the album debuted in 1967), and I asked my parents to get me Are You Experienced for Hanukkah/Christmas.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to hear. I thought “playing the guitar” was stuff like the Ventures, folkie chord strumming, cowboy twangin’. The first dissonant fuzzed-out notes of “Purple Haze” hit, and I literally could not comprehend what I was hearing. What was he playing? How was he getting those sounds: sirens, flying saucers, echoes from the deep, buzzing alien creatures? It was completely beyond my experience, otherworldly.

I’m still trying to figure out how Hendrix got those beautiful, mesmerizing and terrifying sounds. So is a good portion of the rest of the guitar world. We know the ingredients: a Fender Stratocaster played upside down and strung lefty, an Arbiter Fuzz Face, a VOX wah wah, a Uni-Vibe, a Marshall stack and other big, loud amps, an octave pedal, engineer Eddie Kramer, effects designer Roger Mayer, a background in R&B and hard knocks, the indispensable talents of bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell… But his touch, his feel, his unerring sense of rhythm and phrasing, and Hendrix’ indefinable mojo, that sound, are something no one else will ever duplicate. To say nothing of stratospherically great songs like “Manic Depression,” “I Don’t Live Today,” “Fire” and “Third Stone from the Sun.” My head is spinning just thinking about them. And to think that Hendrix didn’t think much of himself as a singer and that one of my friend’s wives calls Hendrix “boy’s noise.”

Well…his influence and impact on electric guitar playing is staggering. It’s undeniable: electric guitar playing can be sharply defined into two eras, Before Hendrix, and After Hendrix.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland

While it has its transcendent moments – has an album ever come to a more powerful conclusion than the trifecta of “House Burning Down,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”)? – the songs aren’t nearly as strong as on Are You Experienced, and in like the Beatles’ “White Album,” I think this double-LP would have been better as a single album. (Sacrilege, I know.) Still…the guitar sounds are, in the true sense of the word, incredible, and the power and the majesty of the music when at its best, undeniable. What guitar player or musician hasn’t shaken their head in awe at Hendrix’s playing here?

Perhaps some of you have noticed that I skipped the Experience’s Axis: Bold as Love. I won’t say that I don’t like it, but – OK, for the most part, I don’t like it. Mostly because what guitar players and maybe others will find an asinine reason: it’s the album where Hendrix seemingly discovered the “in-between” or “out of phase” pickup selector settings of the Stratocaster, and overused it throughout the album. (Technically, this setting isn’t out of phase, but in guitarland it’s become commonly-used, like the grammatically unfortunate “end result.”) For examples of this sound, listen to Mark Knopfler’s guitar on Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” or Steve Miller’s on “Rock ‘n Me,” a song that will never make any favorites list of mine. Or maybe I’m just getting old, kvetching about pickup selector settings. I’ll just listen to the wah wah pedal on Electric Ladyland’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” to snap myself out of it.

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