Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Holiday break

First, if you haven't visited milady's blog of late, Jenn is walking away, for a while at least, maybe forever. We've developed a great relationship in RL, but it all started here on the blogs, and I'll miss her writing, even though we see each other everyday.

There are a few things we need to work out as a couple, and a few more to work out with the kids as a family. Mostly it's just part of the growing pains associated with an evolving relationship. The main thing is that any growing relationship requires time and effort, which will have an impact upon this corner of the blogosphere as well.

Basically, I'm at a stage where I need to concentrate more of my efforts on real-life stuff for the time being. Not that I've spent all that much time at writing, but there comes a time that you have to look at the unproductive things you do online. We've all wasted time online, I think - hours spent in forums and comment threads where the conversations circle around and around and end up nowhere, hopping from link to link and finding you've just burnt a couple of hours without really learning anything new, and plenty of other vices you can think of. For me, I feel I'm at a point that for in order for this blog to continue, I need to spend less time reading junk, and learn to use the limited time I have online more wisely.

This is not the end. But I'm not planning to do any posting apart from perhaps a couple of Beatles posts during the holiday season. I just need time to focus, remind myself that my real-life relationships come first, and make a few adjustments that will ensure that I can continue to do this for years to come.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and I hope your holidays are enjoyable and festive. Thank you again for the attention you've given me over the last three-plus years.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Over the top

These things are supposed to be extinct. The amateurs have all left for Facebook, and the big kids never played to begin with. But Jeni, who runs Down River Drivel, is such a nice lady that I can't turn her down on this. Her writing on the goings-on around her central Pennsylvania home are always entertaining, and I've enjoyed our various e-mail correspondences.

In order to participate in the "Over The Top" meme, you simply answer the following set of questions with one-word answers. It looks easy, but sometimes you have to give it some thought in order to come up with just one word. Those who complete the exercise get to proudly display the award seen at the top of the post, which I will take out to the shed to store with the rest of the junk proudly display in the Poll Hill trophy case once this scrolls off the front page.

Here we go, kids.

1. Where is your cell phone? Charging

2. Your hair? Graying

3. Your mother? Illinois

4. Your favorite food? Steak

5. Your dream last night? Unmemorable

6. Your favorite drink? Beer

7. Your dream/goal? Serenity

8. What room are you in? Living

9. Your hobby? Reading

10. Your fear? Uncertainty

11. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Retired

12. Where were you last night? Lab

13. Something that you aren’t? Wealthy

14. Muffins? Biscuits

15. Wish list item? Add-on

16. Where did you grow up? Everywhere

17. Last thing you did? Showered

18. What are you wearing? T-shirt

19. Your TV? News

20. Your pets? Various

21. Friends? Interesting

22. Your life? Contented

23. Your mood? Relaxed

24. Missing someone? Yes

25. Vehicle? Impala

26. Something you’re not wearing? Necktie

27. Your favorite store? Bookstore

28. Your favorite color? Blue

29. When was the last time you laughed? Today

30. Last time you cried? Recently

31. Your best friend? Jenn

32. One place that I go to over and over? Work

33. One person who emails me regularly? Jeff

34. Favorite place to eat? Buffet

OK, that was easy.

And, guess what! Y'all can do it too! Anyone who wants to can take this to their blog and answer the... Uh, hello? Is this thing on? Bueller?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Album project: Revolver

The Beatles, Revolver (1966): All of the creative strands that The Beatles had been diligently collecting over the past months came together in a dazzling whole in 1966 with the release of an album considered by many as the greatest of all time. John, Paul, George, and Ringo had reached a pinnacle achieved by few popular artists, and they began to use their success to leverage independence from the music industry machinery. They used the first three months of 1966 to take a well-earned break, returning to the studio in April refreshed and concentrated at the peak of their creative powers.

The first fruits from these sessions released to the public were found on the single "Paperback Writer"/"Rain". A dichotomy seemed to be forming in the Lennon-McCartney partnership where Paul was responsible for keeping the group at the top of the charts, while John expanded listeners' perceptions with ever-imaginative flights of whimsy. "Paperback Writer" features an imaginative vocal arrangement, one of the Fab Four's most powerful riffs, and a newly boosted bass sound. Allegedly, Lennon demanded a bass sound as powerful as on the Wilson Pickett records he was listening to. "Rain" previewed some of the recording tricks that would surface later on Revolver. Of particular note was the use of backwards vocal tracks. According to Lennon, "After we'd done the session on that particular song—it ended at about four or five in the morning—I went home with a tape to see what else you could do with it. And I was sort of very tired, you know, not knowing what I was doing, and I just happened to put it on my own tape recorder and it came out backwards. And I liked it better. So that's how it happened."

The "Paperback Writer" clip features stills from The Beatles' performance of the song on the venerable UK TV series Top Of The Pops. This was the Fab Four's only live TOTP appearance; the tape was unceremoniously erased by the BBC in the 70's.

Revolver was the product of an unprecedented 300 hours of work in the studio, as The Beatles and producer George Martin used their clout to camp out in the EMI studios for whatever amount of time they required, without regard for the label's schedules. This allowed the Fab Four all the time they needed to develop their increasingly complex songwriting ideas, as well as allowing themselves to take advantage of the latest in recording technology. They were particularly fond of automatic double tracking, which used two linked tape recorders to create an automatically doubled vocal track. This innovation, along with use of backwards tapes and a wide range of instrumentation, from sitars to string quartets, greatly expanded the band's musical palette.

The first surprise on Revolver is that it opens with a George Harrison composition. The snarling "Taxman" is George's complaint about the British tax system, backed up by an aggressive guitar solo from McCartney. Those hearing the LP for the first time in 1966 might have though that "Taxman" was signaling a return to the earlier, raw sounds of Beatles For Sale, and would have been surprised by the strings opening the next track. "Eleanor Rigby", with its classical overtones, broke more new ground for The Beatles and rock music in general. McCartney's then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, had interested Paul in classical music, and he had taken an interest in Vivaldi's work for string quartets. "Eleanor Rigby" uses two string quartets, the parts doubled, playing a George Martin-composed score. McCartney came up with the basic idea for the song, with the other Beatles assisting in its final composition. The song's protagonists originally had different names, as McCartney explained: "I was sitting at the piano when I thought of it. The first few bars just came to me, and I got this name in my head... 'Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church'. I don't know why. I couldn't think of much more so I put it away for a day. Then the name Father McCartney came to me, and all the lonely people. But I thought that people would think it was supposed to be about my Dad sitting knitting his socks. Dad's a happy lad. So I went through the telephone book and I got the name McKenzie."

In many ways, Revolver is as much a coming-of-age album for McCartney as Rubber Soul was for Lennon. The fabled songwriting partnership was breaking up; as John was pursuing his increasingly psychedelic visions, Paul was honing a descriptive songwriting style that often produced brilliant results, but at times would come off as embarrassingly trite. McCartney hits the mark every time on Revolver. The punchy brass on "Got To Get You Into My Life" was Paul's homage to Motown; as a tribute to The Beatles' enduring popularity, it reached the Top Ten when finally released as a single in 1976. "Good Day Sunshine" was endearingly optimistic, the warmth of "Here, There, And Everywhere" recalls The Beach Boys, and "For No One", with its distinctive French horn solo, details the breakup of a relationship. He also was primarily responsible for "Yellow Submarine". Although essentially a children's tune, notably in Ringo Starr's treatment of the vocal, it was also inspired by an LSD trip of Lennon's and Harrison's.

For the first time, George Harrison contributes three compositions to a Beatles album. Along with "Taxman", he also adds the straightforward rocker "I Want To Tell You", with lyrics that refer to George's difficulties in putting his feelings into words. But on "Love You To", Harrison takes his craft to a higher level. The track highlights his interest in Indian music forms, establishing an exotic sound that would become a trademark of future Beatles recordings, and of much of George's solo career as well. Harrison by this point had become an adept sitar player, aided by an apprenticeship with virtuoso Ravi Shankar that would help give Harrison a mastery of the instrument achieved by few Westerners.

John Lennon's tracks reflect his continuing search for self-fulfillment, which had taken him to psychedelia and LSD-inspired explorations of his mind. Lennon downplayed the influence drug-taking had on his songwriting, saying "The drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. They don't make you write any better. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid." LSD was, though, figuring implicitly in much of John's songwriting at this point, and explicitly in some of his tunes. The uptempo "Dr. Robert" referred to a drug dealer, while "She Said She Said", with its swirling guitars and agile drum patterns (this is the track to play anyone who tries to tell you Ringo Starr was a mediocre drummer) was inspired by an acid trip the group took with Peter Fonda where the actor kept repeating the words "I know what it's like to be dead". Lennon closes Revolver with the remarkable "Tomorrow Never Knows", a trippy mix of tape loops, psychedelic guitars, and multi-tracked vocals rooted in Indian music. Lennon told George Martin that he wanted the song to sound like a hundred chanting monks. The lyrics were inspired by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner's The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to McCartney, John and Paul were browsing in a bookstore when they saw the book. John noted the lines "When in doubt, relax, turn off your mind, float downstream". Paul said that John bought the book, went home, dropped LSD, and proceeded to follow those instructions to the letter.

For me, it's a tough call whether Revolver or Rubber Soul is the greatest Beatles album. The songs on the former are more direct, and the progress the band makes is breathtaking. But it's hard to deny the grand sweep of Revolver, its diversity of musical forms, and the undeniable mark the LP left upon nearly everything that followed it during the rest of the decade. Few creative artists in any genre have ever reached the creative peak these two discs represent. Although much popular music is forgotten within months of its creation, The Beatles, with Rubber Soul and Revolver, created works that will endure in the minds and hearts of music lovers many generations from now.

(Edited 11/13.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Album project: Rubber Soul

The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965): The Beatles emerged at a time when the shelf life of pop music acts was usually measured in months - if a group was particularly good and/or lucky, they might hang around for a couple of years. The Fab Four were not only determined to remain at the top of the charts for as long as they could, but they were also striving to break free of the pop song conventions that limited them to simple boy-girl love songs. They were impressed by Bob Dylan's sweeping command of lyrical subjects, and also took note of how British Invasion contemporaries like The Rolling Stones and The Who were finding success with sounds that were closer to their roots in American blues and R&B. The Beatles responded to these challenges with Rubber Soul, the group's first fully mature work and a great artistic leap forward that paved the way for other rock artists beginning to regard their output as more than collections of simple pop songs.

Once again, The Beatles had to meet a deadline in order to have new product ready for the holiday season. During the recording of Rubber Soul, though, the group was able to settle down in the studio somewhat to work on their material, as opposed to the practice of recent albums that had been recorded on the fly during breaks from touring and movie-making. This enabled The Beatles to experiment with various sound ideas and studio tricks, such as George Harrison's work on sitar on "Norwegian Wood" (Harrison had picked up the sitar while filming Help!) and George Martin's piano solo on "In My Life", which was recorded at half-speed and then sped up to sound like a harpsichord. Then there were less-sophisticated tricks, such as Ringo Starr keeping time by tapping a matchbook on "I'm Looking Through You".

"Drive My Car" opens Rubber Soul with the acerbic wit that had become a Beatles trademark. The next track, "Norwegian Wood", is a John Lennon tour de force. Lennon's moodiness, his melancholy at living his life in the fishbowl of fame, had seeped into some of the tracks on Beatles For Sale and Help!. On Rubber Soul, it bursts into the open, shaped by the lessons he had learned from Dylan. "Norwegian Wood" shows that John has matured as a storyteller, an oblique tale of a furtive sexual encounter and/or marijuana use, with a magnificent assist from Harrison's sitar. John said, "Norwegian Wood" is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I'd always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair ... but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn't tell. But I can't remember any specific woman it had to do with."

John's wistful remembrances were at the heart of "In My Life", while his troubled self-image becomes fully apparent on "Nowhere Man". Sweetened by McCartney and Harrison's harmonies, the song became a US hit. "The Word" is an ode to brotherly love, and "Run For Your Life", the disc's closer, is a particularly mean-spirited example of Lennon's jealous-guy pose. In later years John would say that "Run For Your Life" is the song he most regretted writing.

Some of Rubber Soul's highlights are found in the great strides made by George Harrison as a musician and songwriter. He contributes a ringing, folk-influenced solo on "Nowhere Man", burbling guitar parts on "Michelle", and gives drive to rockers like "You Won't See Me" and "Run For Your Life". He also makes his strongest contributions as a writer to date, the cheery "If I Needed Someone" and the self-explanatory "Think For Yourself". Ringo Starr also gets part of a songwriting credit, with Lennon and McCartney on the country-rocker "What Goes On", which Ringo also sings.

Paul McCartney's contributions to Rubber Soul were a bit more subdued. Tracks like "I'm Looking Through You" ("white-boy blues", as Steve Earle describes it) and "You Won't See Me" provide much of the soul of the LP's title. Paul's best-known moment here is "Michelle", where in his trademark romantic fashion he pours his heart out to a French girl who can't understand his words of love. "Michelle" won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967 and has since become one of McCartney's most recognized standards. (The video, although it has a vintage feel, actually is from Paul's Wings period, but it's still good.)

Once again there are differences in the US version, leaving off four tracks that would later make it to Yesterday and Today, while tacking on two cuts left over from the UK version of Help! Some of The Beatles' teenybopper fans didn't quite know what to make of the more complex Rubber Soul at first, and although the LP was an instant million-seller like the previous ones, it did cause a bit of confusion among the Fab Four's young fan base that was used to love songs. But Rubber Soul's remarkable depth expanded the group's appeal to older, more sophisticated audiences, and its stature has continued to grow over time. It is today regarded justifiably by rock fans and critics alike as one of the greatest albums of all time.

With the release of Rubber Soul came one of The Beatles' most remarkable singles yet, the double A-sided "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper". The former is a classic example of Lennon and McCartney's collaborative style. John described it: "You've got Paul writing, 'We can work it out / We can work it out'—real optimistic, y'know, and me, impatient: 'Life is very short, and there's no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend.'" "Day Tripper" is on another level entirely. The Lennon-composed guitar hook is one of their instantly-recognized triumphs. Although Lennon wrote most of the song, McCartney sings lead, doubled by Lennon in the last verse, as well as contributing a deep bass groove. Harrison comes through with a sunny guitar break that is reinforced by the "ah-ah-ahhs" of the bridge. Part California, part blue-eyed soul, part British hard rock, "Day Tripper" is a remarkable three-minute blast that wraps up all The Beatles' influences in a neat three-minute package and delivers a knockout punch.

Following Rubber Soul's release, The Beatles spent the first three months of 1966 taking a much-needed break from three years of non-stop touring and recording. They spent much of that time smoking pot and experimenting with their new psychedelic discovery, LSD. Their minds expanded and altered by regular drug use, the Fab Four set out to explore the musical frontiers opened by the success of Rubber Soul.