Tuesday 5 February 2013

Billy Joel album 5 - The Stranger

The Stranger - 1977
Listening to this album last week was an overwhelming experience. I don't know if that's some kind of cumulative effect of hearing four Billy Joel albums in four days, but I don't think so. I think "The Stranger" is just one of the greatest albums ever, by any artist, and I had forgotten that. Being reminded of it in this context (the chronological album plays and listening with a close ear because I knew I'd be writing a post about it) truly was a little overwhelming.

I'm left with disorganized flashes of thought instead of neat summaries...
- the harmonized saxes in "Movin' Out",
- the piano kicking in at the end of that song reminding me of Layla by Eric Clapton just a little.
- Then "The Stranger" starts and I' m remembering an interview I saw where Billy said the whistling was just a placeholder until they figured out what instrument to put there but they decided to keep the whistle for its haunting quality.
- The lyrics of this song take me back instantly to when I first heard it and I realize that ideas in this song were a part of my maturing process in my twenties, recognizing that many of the people you see every day are just showing you their public mask, and that they (we!) all have "a face that we hide away forever". I got past that in my twenties (as I think many of us do) so what you see is the real me in almost every context now. Billy was 28 when this album came out, so his recognition of this concept is right on the mark for me.
-And how did I forget how awesome the groove is on this song? "The Stranger" is a strong piece of music. I'm listening to this and thinking that I never appreciated how good Doug Stegmeyer really was on the bass. The slap and pop here is subtle, not an easy thing to do, and adds SO much energy.
- Speaking of musicians, that's the incredible jazz saxophonist Phil Woods playing one of the most beautiful sax solos in rock/pop music history on "Just The Way You Are".

This is followed up by "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant", an epic piece clocking in at over seven and a half minutes with not a second of it wasted. Great storytelling, a big tenor sax sound on the solo, a wicked piano solo, a symphonic feel as we change style a few times, not abruptly, but with composed transitions, it all just works so well.

"Vienna" wasn't a favourite of mine early on, but it did become a favourite years later. "Only The Good Die Young" was the song that jumped to the front for me when I first heard the album, and still remains a song I love to this day. "Get It Right The First Time" is another great track, and the album's last song is "Everybody Has A Dream". Although it's my least favourite song on the album, I've got to give Billy credit for putting what amounts to a gospel song on a pop album. After this song ends, we hear a reprise of the opening to "The Stranger". The haunting whistle in E minor fades away to silence.

This album took me a few days to really soak it in, and I did replay a few songs. Give it a listen. Now on to 52nd Street, the first album by Billy Joel that I ever bought.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Billy Joel album 4 - Turnstiles

In May of 1976 Billy Joel released Turnstiles, marking his move from LA back to New York. The opening track ("Say Goodbye To Hollywood") gives away the theme early on and it is cemented by "New York State of Mind" as track 4. The album art even shows him posing at the turnstile entrance to the New York subway system. Not exactly subtle.

My favourite tracks are "All You Wanna Do Is Dance", despite the keyboard steel drums solo and because of the great lyrics and style. I also like "James" even though it is a little bit of a sad song. He is basically writing to an old friend asking him if he's happy after their lives took different turns. ("I went on the road, you pursued an education" and "James, you've been well behaved, you've been working hard. But will you always stay someone else's dream of who you are?"). But the standout tracks are the last three. I'll give some time to the last two in a future album "Songs In The Attic".

"Prelude/Angry Young Man" is a powerhouse of a song, with this crazy cool piano prelude which flies along. I remember getting the piano book of the album years later when I was starting music school at MUN and learning to play that prelude, although never fluidly. But it was my first time discovering music theory concepts out in the wild, not just in a theory book. Things like major 7th chords, and chord inversions, and common tones. Exciting stuff for me at the time. I've already said the album came out in 1976 but I didn't get it until sometime between 1978 and 1980 and I never got that book until a few years after that. More on that next time.

For now, I'll finish with this. Billy may have been happy to get back to New York, but he wrote a great song called "I've Loved These Days". It's the only one I prefer from the studio version here than its live version on "Songs In The Attic". Why? Because of the cool french horn solo. Overall the album is a real step up lyrically, although it would take me several (many?) years to figure that out.

Now here's a bit of trivia. Have a look at the label below. See that picture of a cow and calf? That's the logo of Family Records, the record label owned by Artie Ripp. He's the guy who signed Billy for "Cold Spring Harbor" and then screwed up the mastering process. As part of his deal to let Billy go to Columbia Records, Columbia agreed to put that logo on all the albums and pay Artie Ripp 25 cents per album sold. The guy became a millionaire, partly for being smart enough to sign Billy Joel in the first place, but mostly for being stupid enough to screw up the final mastering of the album.

Next album: The Stranger

Billy Joel Album 3 - Streetlife Serenade

When Billy Joel signed the record contract to record his first album "Cold Spring Harbor", he gave away the farm. Then the record was mastered at the wrong speed and he panicked, figuring he'd signed a multi-year contract with a bunch of idiots (he was right). He changed his name to William Martin and moved from New York to Los Angeles. He got a job in a piano bar, and those experiences led him to write "Piano Man" and the other songs for his second album, now with Columbia Records.

Still in LA, he wrote and released "Streetlife Serenade" in October 1974. There's an interesting commentary on the expectations on a pop musician in the lyrics of "The Entertainer" (I know the game and you'll forget my name, I won't be here in another year, if I don't stay on the charts).

For me the standout tracks are Los Angelenos about the types of people living in LA, The Great Suburban Showdown about returning home, and Souvenir. There are also two instrumentals on here. Root Beer Rag is a fun ragtime piece showcasing Billy's piano playing, and The Mexican Connection, a nice closer to the whole album.

It definitely shows some growth in his lyric writing, and will be followed up by his return to New York with his next album, Turnstiles.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Billy Joel album 1: Cold Spring Harbor, and album 2: Piano Man

On January 18th I started to play all of Billy Joel's albums in chronological order. Here's my thoughts on the first two.

January 18, 2013:
I started a Billy Joel marathon today. I'm going to listen to all his stuff in chronological order. Today I listened to Cold Spring Harbor, his 1971 debut album. The standout track for me is Everybody Loves You Now. I'll keep you posted after each album...

January 19, 2013:
Second album by Billy Joel was the career changing Piano Man, released in November 1973. I finished it yesterday and you might think the title track would be stuck in my mind but it's not. Instead I keep going back to "Worse Comes To Worst", mostly because of the great (okay slightly cheesy but still great) guitar opening from Larry Carlton. Yes, the one and only Larry Carlton was the guitarist on the whole album. Awesome musician.

Anyway, there's a lot of great material on this album, including "Billy The Kid" which features excellent work by the french horns and string section, the beautiful "You're My Home" which ranks up there as one of Billy's best ballads, and the surprisingly enjoyable "Travelin' Prayer". I say surprising because it features more banjo than I normally like in a song but it's a fun song which builds nicely, adding parts gradually.

All in all, it's an album I should listen to more often. Next up is Streetlife Serenade, released a year after Piano Man. Update later or tomorrow.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Happy New Year

It's been a long time since I wrote a blog posting, and one of my new year's resolutions is to get back to blogging on a more regular basis. For my first one this year, I'd like to reflect on two recent gigs I had in two different bands. In one band, I play bass for most of our songs and sing harmony vocals in many of them as well. I also played sax in 4 songs at our early December gig as well as a little bit of keyboard. In the other band I play saxophone exclusively, though I do sing a little bit of background vocals and have been known to pick up a tambourine or hit the congas occasionally. The bands both play rock/pop songs, though the first one I mentioned is mostly guitar based rock from the 80s (think Foreigner, U2, or The Police), while the second band deals more with 60s-80s with an overall lighter sound (think Elton John, Hall & Oates, or Neil Diamond).

If there's one thing that became abundantly clear playing two major gigs within a few weeks of each other in two different bands, it's how much variety your audiences will appreciate. Both groups play songs that the band members themselves like, but both groups also are aware of their audience's wants and needs. We both need enough faster songs to get people dancing, and we need a few ballads to let people have their slow dance. We both played some traditional songs, and we both had great success with lots of positive feedback from our audiences. People need variety in their music, just as we do in our food, our decorations, our clothes, and our television shows.

In both performances, another thing was clear. Audiences appreciate seeing a musician or singer who excels at what they are doing. There were many comments about the fabulous guitar solos, keyboard solos, sax solos, and great vocal work at both gigs. The opportunity to see an excellent singer or musician is not a daily event (or even weekly/monthly!) for most people. Sometimes I hear music on the radio today, and I find that one thing is missing. Excellent musicianship by instrumentalists is certainly not common today. We have a great focus on the singer these days, and to a lesser extent on producers. Top 40 radio is not exactly overflowing with guitar or keyboard solos, let alone any saxophone solos.

As with most things in popular music, this shift in focus is probably cyclical. I expect to see a shift back to the inclusion of the solo break in songs within a few years. All it takes is one big hit to start the trend and a few others to follow, then the shift starts to happen. I actually thought it might have started a little while ago with two sax solos from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but in the first case it was primarily a background riff and in the second they actually went so far as to digitize and/or autotune part of Kenny G's sax solo.

So if you've been listening to a lot of recent music, take a few minutes this week to go back to some older rock. Listen for the solos and let those musicians speak to you without using any words at all. Better yet, go listen to a local band play in a club or at a concert, and take a moment to appreciate the musicians playing live. It's worth it. If you like what you hear, approach the stage after the show and tell them you liked the show. It's worth it to do that too.

Friday 28 September 2012

Why purchase music? Because it counts...

Top 40 music certainly goes through phases, doesn't it? I'll bet if I listed a few songs from the Top 10 in a particular year, you could probably make a reasonable guess as to what year it was to within a decade for sure. At the very least, try for "early" "mid" or "late" and a decade.

Let's try it shall we? How about Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer, Kyrie by Mister Mister, How Will I Know by Whitney Houston, Say You Say Me by Lionel Richie, and That's What Friends Are For by Dionne Warwick and Friends. Think you got it to within a few years? Here's the answer.

Let's try again. Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver, Go Away Little Girl by Donnie Osmond, It's Too Late/I Feel The Earth Move by Carol King, Maggie May by Rod Stewart, and Joy To The World by Three Dog Night. Got it? Check to find out.

One more time. Livin La Vida Loca by Rickie Martin, Every Morning by Sugar Ray, Genie In A Bottle by Christina Aguilera, ...Baby One More Time by Brittany Spears, and Believe by Cher. How did you do?

The point is not to test your trivia. The point is to try and look at patterns of how pop music changes. There's a certain sound to 60s rock and top 40 that defines it, and the same goes for the examples I used above. Compare the five artists in each example. Their music is not the same, but there are certainly similarities. This is as much a business phenomenon as a musical one.

When an artist releases some music that is a bit different than the mainstream, and has a huge hit all of a sudden, it can signal a change in direction. Every record company is going to look for artists already on their roster to see who has a sound similar to this "new big thing" and if they have no one they'll recruit new artists. Within a few months of some groundbreaking hit with a new groove, there'll be a dozen similar acts on your radio. Money talks.

That's why buying music in this age of easily available free music is an important choice. Consider it a vote. With each purchase of a CD or iTunes single, you're telling record companies your opinion. You're telling them what music you like, and you are backing it up with money. Will someone else download different music for free? Sure. Does it count as much to the creators and publishers of music. How can it? While they may be able to track freely downloaded songs and use it to get a picture of the musical landscape, there's no money there, and the massive success of iTunes means that there's a money trail to follow instead. If you owned a record company, which trail would you follow? Consumers who tell you what music they like with their dollar, or those who don't?

Tuesday 14 August 2012

What do you put on your fries?

I've made a point of comparing basic pop music to french fries, but not everyone enjoys their fries the same way. You may add salt, dip them in gravy, or with a bit of ketchup. I like mine with plenty of malt vinegar and a bit of salt. The point is that even french fries can be dressed up in various ways.

Pop songs can be dressed up too. I have a daughter who likes the group One Direction, so I've heard a few of their songs in the car and around the house. In their biggest hit "That's What Makes You Beautiful" there's an interesting drum fill just before the chorus that uses triplets. It's not a big thing, but it's the dash of salt that makes the song a little tastier.

An even better example (gravy anyone?) is the song "Take It Easy" by The Eagles. On the surface it's a pretty basic rock/pop song with a little country flavour, but there are two things which add a lot to the song. First and most obvious is their great layered harmonies. The other thing happens during the introduction. Go ahead a give it a quick listen. Did you feel like the drums were out of sync when they came in? That's because when you hear that very first guitar chord, most people assume it's on the downbeat, or beat 1 of the song. In fact, that first guitar chord happens half a beat earlier on the "and" of beat four. The easiest way to re-program your ears to hear this is to cue the song up and pause it, then count the beat to yourself and hit play around beat four. The first guitar strum plays on the and of four, and the next one is on beat two. Once you start the song by counting this way, the drum fill fits in perfectly. It's a little thing, but combined with the harmonies, it's enough to transform this plate of pop song french fries into poutine.

Bon appetit!