Sunday, August 29, 2010

Music of the spheres

Back in the 1980s there was a classical music FM station in Tulsa that always closed their broadcast day with an a capella Russian choral piece. Sometimes late at night I would have the radio on that station just so that could be the last thing I heard before falling asleep. Pure serenity and peacefulness.

What does that have to do with a blog about power pop? Everything really. For in the rock universe we have our own vocal prayer, that never-duplicated combination of Brian Wilson at the top of his game and the peerless harmonies of the Beach Boys. From the aborted Smile project circa 66/67, here is Our Prayer to lull you off into a night of peaceful contended sleep.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The words have all been writ by one before me

How many rock'n'roll bands had a resident poet who was a non-performing member? I can think of only one - Procol Harum - and what a fine band they were. It took me many years to really turn on to them. I purchased Grand Hotel when it came out in 1973, and although I quite liked it I did not seek out further PH music. Little did I know that the group had radically changed by that point. The original guitarist Robin Trower had departed just prior to GH, and the groups' second (and possibly finest) songwriter Matthew Fisher had left after producing their third album A Salty Dog in 1969.

By 1973 only lead singer/songwriter Gary Brooker and drummer B. J. Wilson remained as original performing members. Poet Keith Reid continued on as lyricist, and his darkly disturbing words were a key link between the old and new lineups. With Fisher and Trower gone, Gary Brooker was now the undisputed leader. His distinctive vocals, songwriting craftsmanship, and powerful piano pounding kept the group going strong well into the mid 70s. But for me the original lineup was unsurpassable. With Trower's white hot guitar interjections a'la Hendrix and Fisher's gentle lead vocals and baroque Hammand organ counterpoint, this band was unique among its peers. Sometimes lumped in the "prog rock" bailywick, PH was really much more than that.

The closing number on A Salty Dog is Pilgrim's Progress. The third and last Fisher written composition on the album, it begins with his signature Hammond organ sound accompanying his sweet soft vocals. If ever there was a song that makes me take a long look back at my life, this would be it. The lyrics are introspective and full of truth. Damn - this song sends shivers down my spine.

A few things I wish to point out:
  • B. J. Wilson's drumming. I rank him up there with Keith Moon and Ringo. Never was a better percussion man.
  • Fisher's uncanny ability to write a melody that could have come out of a Bach cantata
  • The absolutely stunning beauty of that melody
  • The sound of the Hammond
  • The touching story arc and the realization that life really is a big circle
  • The opening of the piano-driven coda, and B. J.'s entrance therein
  • The hand claps in the closing section
  • The Beach Boys-esque vocal harmony at the end

In starting out I thought to go exploring
and set my foot upon the nearest road
In vain I looked to find the promised turning
but only saw how far I was from home

In searching I forsook the paths of learning
and sought instead to find some pirate's gold
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me
and still no hidden truths could I unfold

Saturday, August 14, 2010

This Is All You Will Every Be

Speaking of bands that were buried by the onslaught of grunge in the early nineties, The Posies rank near the top of my favorite bands of the last twenty years. Other than their first odd but endearing new wave-ish LP, every record since then has remained on my frequent playlist. The bass player and drummer positions were revolving doors throughout the first ten years, then the group went on several sabbaticals under the billing of a break-up. But the co-lead vocalists and songwriters Ken Stringfellow and John Auer keep drifting back together. They have a penchant for beautiful close harmonies a'la the Byrds and Hollies. Coupled with their fine guitar work and songwriting abilities, they were asked by Alex Chilton to join him and Jody Stephens for the third and last edition of Big Star.

Frosting On The Beater hit the record shelves in 1993. Unlike their pop-filled sophomore effort Dear 23, FOTB contains a definite movement towards a harder rock sound. It is filled with moments of grandeur as well as some of their finest melodies up to that time. Definite Door has a possible sci-fi premise with hints about "another dimension", but underneath it really seems to be about a life out of control. Heavenly harmonies come in with the second section of the bridge at 0:56, then around 1:24 an instrumental interlude kicks out the jams. The simple bass line alone is worth the price of admission. It knocks me in the gut every time I hear it.

Keeping track of the eyesight streaming
Isn't part of the regimen
Many hours of sleepless dreaming
Unaware of the mess you're in
And if you didn't have a clue
You probably never will
And all the things you didn't do
Will inundate you still...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Everything I Need To Know

The current post over at the PowerPop blog reminded me just how much I love The Small Faces. Just as they reached their peak with Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, they splintered when lead singer Steve Marriott left to join Humble Pie. That album has a unique construction, with hard rockers and music hall tunes on side one, while the flip is a philosophical journey of a character named Happiness Stan, and is told as a fairy tale.

Here is the fabulously soul-drenched Afterglow from side one. I love everything about this song - the initial comical acoustic opening, the Hammond organ sound, Marriott's vocal pyrotechnics from a whisper to a scream, Kenny Jones' powerful drumming, and the way the song builds each time to the furious chorus. They were an amazing band at this point in the career.