Archive for February, 2015

ledzep

If I was to build a Mount Rushmore of rock and roll, my Washington and Lincoln selections would be easy: The Beatles on one hand and Led Zeppelin on the other. The other two slots probably would change by my mood (Stones, the Who, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Guns N Roses, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Metallica, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers and countless others would joggle for position). But always the Beatles, followed by the mighty Zep at the top.

As you can imagine, when Jimmy Page announced he was reissuing the entire canon last year with pristine upgraded sound for the digital age, I was thrilled. And as the campaign is now just past the midway point, I can tell you these reissues are well worth the investment.

Even if there wasn’t a bonus companion disc tacked to each issue (we’ll discuss the merits of those in a bit), the supreme upgrade in sound makes the reissues a must-buy for the devoted Zeppelin fan.

I didn’t really have a huge problem with the way they sounded before (Page had previously remastered the albums back in the 90s) but simply put, this classic music has never sounded better. And it’s not even close.

It feels like the band is right in the room with you, and you can hear nuances not detectable before. Masterful work by Page, as the project came to fruition when he listened to the catalogue on MP3 and decided his 90s remasters weren’t holding up to modern technology. He seemed to feel it made a juggernaut sound sterile, maybe even lifeless. No such problem now (and again, I never really had a problem with the old remasters, but can now say the new remasters blow them out of the water).

Which brings me to Physical Graffiti, re-released this week to coincide with the album’s 40th anniversary, almost to the date. Physical Graffiti has always been my favorite Zep album, much like The Beatles’ White Album tops my Fab Four list and Exile On Main Street is near the top of my Stones list. Double albums of your favorite artists? What’s not to love?

When the band recorded the album, they had eight blazing new tracks ready to go. Only problem was, the running time was a bit longer than an LP called for. So, instead of cutting a song or editing songs to make them fit, Page and company scoured their previous three records for quality outtakes. In other words, stuff left off the earlier releases. Among the leftovers were tracks like the pretty “Down by the Seaside,” recorded during the sessions for IV, but not really fitting with any of the tracks that went on that album. Another ‘oldie’ was the fun romp “Boogie with Stu,” a piano-driven boogie with Rolling Stones session man extraordinaire Ian Stewart. Another outtake which mysteriously didn’t make the cut of a previous record was the classic “Houses of the Holy.” I mean, this band was on such a hot streak, it didn’t have room for the title song of the previous record (1973’s Houses of the Holy).

You might think the combination of older and newer sessions might make for a jarring listen, yet the album flows wonderfully. The first disc shows the band at the peak of its hard rock powers. Kicking off with the killer “Custard Pie”, the album is off to a rip-roaring start. “The Rover” was another Houses of the Holy outtake, featuring an underrated riff, strong vocals and the always kick-ass drumming of the late, great John Bonham.

Speaking of Bonzo, he really brought the thunder on the next track “In My Time of Dying,” an 11-minute slow-burning, then suddenly fiery death blues, where a pleading Robert Plant begs Jesus for entrance into heaven. This one sends chills down the spine, from Plant’s wails, Bonham’s powerful fills and Page’s caterwauling guitar assault, it’s one of my favorite Zep tracks, and that’s saying something.

Side Two (of the original LP for all you kiddies out there) continues the assault, although “Houses of the Holy” is a much more upbeat number than Dying was. How this was left off the previous album, I’ll never know, but that album’s loss is Physical Graffiti’s gain. Up next is “Trampled Under Foot,” chosen as the single off the album in the U.S. You can see why. With bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones absolutely killing it on clavinet, this sounds like classic Stevie Wonder, but on a heavy dose of steroids. Raunchy Plant lyrics and vocals add to the procedings, which lead into Disc 1’s epic closer, “Kashmir.” One of the band’s signature songs, the mid-eastern flavor and instantly recognizable Page riff make this one a standard of classic rock radio.

Disc Two is less rocking, more introspective and experimental at times, but still outstanding.

Jone’s synthesizer provides the drone intro to “In the Light,” a multi-faceted composition with several key changes and tempo changes, yet always coherent. The instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” was a leftover from the 1970 sessions for Led Zeppelin III, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Fits better here than it would have on that album, which was loaded with acoustic pieces on Side 2. That leads us into the aforementioned “Down by the Seaside” which is about as pretty a ditty the band ever constructed. Almost sounds like a different band entirely, but the next track completely blows that one away. “Ten Years Gone” is a sorrowful tale of loss with heartfelt Plant vocals and the always amazing guitar work of Page making this perhaps my favorite Zep ballad.

The remainder of the album finds the band having a bit more fun, from the cheerful “Night Flight” to “Boogie With Stu” serving notice. There are also a few more riff-based rock powerhouses in “The Wanton Song” and “Sick Again” and the acoustic tongue-in-cheek blues of “Black Country Woman.” Not a bad song in the bunch and several stone-cold classics. One of my all-time favorite albums.

As for the bonus material, it’s kind of been hit or miss with these Zep reissues. I honestly think Page is saving the true gems for the reissue of 1982’s Coda, which was an odds and sods compilation to begin with (released two years after Bonham’s death). I mean, not too many people will be clamoring for a reissue of that one, so I’m betting he’s holding off some interesting material for the companion disk on that one. The bonus material for these classic albums hasn’t been bad, it just hasn’t been all that interesting either. What you often get are alternate mixes, with barely noticeable differences. One exception is “Everybody Makes it Through,” an early version of “In the Light” which has different lyrics and a completely different structure, while still boasting elements of what went on the official release. I actually prefer this version because it’s a bit more powerful (and also because “In the Light” wasn’t my favorite Zep tune to begin with, although still good of course). The alternate early version of “Sick Again” kicks ass, as in this early instrumental form, you really hear the major riffage going on. Overall, I’ve liked this companion disc more than the other albums (although the ones for II and III were pretty good, too), and I’m hoping for better outtakes to come in the final three releases (Presence, In Through the Out Door and Coda). Overall, this is a must have for any Zep fan or hard rock enthusiast.

Making a concerted effort to get my blog back up and running on a more consistent basis (I had gone a full year between posts before last night’s Mets post). I’ll try to play catch-up with some of the recent albums I’ve purchased. So instead of more in-depth single reviews, I’ll try to sum them up in capsule format.

Marilyn Manson: The Pale Emperor

I kind of lost interest in the shock rocker’s career about a decade or so ago. Think the last album I owned by him was 2007’s Eat Me, Drink Me, and I wasn’t too impressed. The last album I really enjoyed from him was 2000’s Holy Wood (In the Valley of the Shadow of Death). But I read some positive advance reviews and sampled a couple tracks, deciding to give it a whirl. I’m glad I did. It’s a concise 10-song effort. Extremely raw (some of the vocal tracks were done in one take, giving the album a live feel at times). Not a bad track here and some great ones (Deep Six, The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles, Worship My Wreck, Cupid Carries a Gun). A welcome return to form. Sod rating: ****

Pink Floyd: The Endless River

Billed as the final album of the mighty Floyd, the album’s genesis came from the sessions of the band’s previous effort, 1994’s The Division Bell. While working on that one, the band recorded hours of unreleased ambient instrumental tracks. At one point, they considered releasing some of that material as The Big Spliff, a kind of companion piece to The Division Bell. That idea was ultimately rejected, and the music sat on the shelf for years. Following the death of keyboard player Richard Wright, remaining band members David Gilmour and Nick Mason revisited the material, hoping to use some of it for a final album, a kind of tribute to Wright. They also recorded some new music for the project, and a new Pink Floyd album was born. The album is mostly instrumental (as The Big Spliff was intended to be) with several keyboard pieces where Wright is showcased. There are spots where the majesty and excitement of the old Floyd shine through (the bouncy Allons-y reminds me of Run Like Hell from The Wall). Gilmour always shines on guitar, and the album has a pleasant flow. Definitely not one for the download generation, it needs to be listened to start to finish. Still, I felt it would have benefitted from a few more fully fleshed-out songs (the album closer Louder than Words is the only song with a lead vocal from Gilmour, only a few of the tracks have any vocals at all). Even 3-4 vocal tracks would have been nice and made it feel more like a Floyd album than a movie soundtrack of some kind. It’s not their best work, but it’s a pleasant listen and a fond farewell. Sod rating: *** 1/2

Fall Out Boy: American Beauty, American Pyscho

Fall Out Boy has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, at least until recently. They never rocked all that hard, and were too poppy to really be considered punk (they made Green Day look like Sex Pistols), but they always had an ear for pop songcraft and created some memorable tunes (and song titles, who else could write a hit song called This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race?). After 2008’s Folie a Deux flopped in comparison to some of their earlier albums (I thought it was a fine effort), they took a five-year hiatus. They returned with 2013’s Save Rock and Roll, which spawned the comeback single My Songs (Know What You Did in the Dark). That was an ok effort, liked the single and a couple other songs, but not much stuck. The new album keeps swinging them into a contemporary pop direction (guess that may be the only way rock bands can be played on the radio these days). And while there are a few catchy tunes (the lead single Centuries and it’s sampling of Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner gets stuck in your head), there’s not a ton of originality here. The song Uma Thurman is built off the riff from the Munsters theme song. The title track samples Motley Crue’s Too Fast for Love. I’ve listened to the album four times, and I’m just not all that fond of it. Not bad, but not memorable. Sod rating: ** 1/2

Spring training is upon us.mets

It’s been seven long years (six seasons to be exact) since the Mets last posted a winning record or flirted with the playoffs.

During that time, the Madoff scandal happened, reducing the Mets crooked owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon into penny-pinching Moneyball enthusiasts.

The organization has embraced a slow (and I do mean slothlike) rebuilding process under general manager Sandy Alderson, which has produced the best Mets farm system I can remember in quite some time. There is pitching depth galore, and because of that, the Mets made just two pitching-related moves outside the organization this offseason, both minor ones – adding Sean Gilmartin in the Rule 5 draft and Duane Below on a minor-league deal to shore up the left-handed relief corps.

The position prospects are coming along as well, but what about the big-league team? Is this the year they finally inch past .500 and contend for a playoff spot?

I believe so on the first count (improving three wins from last year’s 79-83 record would get them past .500), but not so sure on the second count.

By my estimation, 85 wins gets you at least on the periphery of that second wild card spot. But did the Mets do enough this offseason to jump by at least six wins (and they’d probably need more than that to actually make the playoffs)?

I don’t think so, and that’s frustrating. This offseason has been one of severe inactivity, a calling card of the Alderson regime. While I love what he and his three assistant GMs have done with the minor leagues, they seem to take an overcautious approach with the big club, always feigning interest but never jumping into the fray.

What’s strange about the approach this offseason is they jumped right in, signing Michael Cuddyer the first day of free agency. Was this a good move? Only if the guy stays healthy, which at age 36, is a big if.

He’s a quality big-league hitter, but to acquire him through free agency, the Mets forfeited a first-round pick in next year’s draft. I’m not a miser with the draft picks. I think you can forfeit a first-rounder from time to time for the right guy. But an aging slugger with poor defensive skills, buoyed the last few years by Coors Field, just doesn’t seem to be that guy.

I’ll eat my words if he hits .330 and knocks in 90 runs, but this move seems risky to me.

Secondly, the Mets kept talking all offseason about wanted to add a shortstop. They failed in that regard miserably, but this might not be a bad thing if Wilmer Flores runs with the job. I believe in him as an offensive player. The defense is a big question mark.

They also wanted to upgrade the lefty relief corps. Bringing in Gilmartin and Below (along with Scott Rice and youngsters Jack Leathersich and Dario Alvarez) gives you a bunch of options, none of them very proven. And if Josh Edgin regresses, you may not have a reliable lefty in the pen. I would have brought in a quality veteran to battle for one of those spots.

They also targeted a lefty-mashing RH bat for the bench, and they did so theoretically with John Mayberry Jr. Never been a Mayberry fan, although he has hit lefties well over the course of his career. Had they waited, a guy like Dayan Viciedo would have been a nice choice (as he is now a free agent after being cut by the White Sox). Younger and big-time power.

The Mets have a glut of starting pitchers. With the return of ace Matt Harvey, they essentially have six men for five spots (even more when you count prospects Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Rafael Montero, who are all knocking on the door). They’ve been pursuing trades for Dillon Gee, but really should have had Gee, Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon on the market and seen if they could have gotten anything useful. Even Montero. Just don’t think Gee was going to fetch them much, and it seems like Sandy wanted too much for him. He’s a nice back-end starter, and an affordable one, but he’s probably not going to get you an impact big-league piece or even a high-end prospect in return. Probably a midrange prospect is all you’ll get. Now the Mets go into spring with Gee on the outside looking in. Just think with the depth the Mets have on the mound, he (or Niese or Colon) could have and should have been moved.

To compound matters, the Nationals (who made the Mets their bitch last year) continue to get better, as did the Marlins. With the Braves and Phillies in rebuild mode, the Mets missed a golden opportunity to make a bold statement.

Does the team have the talent to make the playoffs? Yes, especially if Harvey comes back to be the ace we know he can be. Teaming up with Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom and fellow young gun Zach Wheeler and if guys like Syndergaard and Matz pan out, the Mets could have a dominant rotation for years to come.

But this year, you’re banking on a bounce-back year from the declining David Wright. Same goes for Curtis Granderson. You need Cuddyer to stay healthy and come close to replicating his Rockies numbers. You need another 30-homer season from Lucas Duda. Youngsters like Flores, Juan Lagares and Travis d’Arnaud need to take steps forward. Just a lot of question marks offensively. And when you factor in the idiotic managing of Terry Collins, I see the team falling short. 83-79 finish is my prediction and a battle with the Marlins for second in the division.