Thursday, November 30, 2006

Discography: Led Zeppelin

It's probably cheating to write this, but I'm trying to get back into the swing of posting, so I thought I'd try something easy and accessible. There's no question that Zeppelin is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Standing alone, with no thought given to influence, these records stand up today. On top of that their influence is almost unparalleled (exceeded perhaps only by the Beatles). They were far from the "lead balloon" they were predicted to be. There should be no real surprises here.

Led Zeppelin I (1969)
Zeppelin I is perhaps the definitive blues rock album as they tackle a pair of Willie Dixon covers among some of their bluesiest originals. Still, it's not just a rehashing of standard blues. They add varying degrees of other genres, particularly psychedelia, that makes their first effort a great album in its own right rather than just a foreshadowing of future greatness.
Rating: 9/10

Led Zeppelin II (1969)
With their second release, Zeppelin made the prototype for the bluesy hard rock album. Once again, they imbued the album with trippiness, with a break in the middle for the albums two weakest and most straightforward songs ("Livin' Lovin' Maid" and "Heartbreaker"). In a sense, those two tracks might say the most about the album. How great must it be when two songs of that calibre are the low points?
Rating: 10/10

Led Zeppelin III (1970)
III is arguably Zeppelin's most cohesive album although it's folk tendencies tend to put off a lot of their dumber "fans." This album is as creative, albeit not as varied, as Houses of the Holy, but it's far more subtle. It runs from hard rock to folk to pyschedelia to blues as if each is the band's prefered genre. While it may be their best album, it is definitely my favorite.
Rating: 10/10

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
A little more hard rock oriented than III, Led Zeppelin IV seems to be widely seen as the band's crowing achievment and for good reason. There are two songs that I generally think I don't want to hear ("Rock n Roll" and "When the Levee Breaks") until I do hear them and remember that they're great songs. Musically, IV falls somewhere beteen II and III, but quality-wise, it's maybe just a tad shy, almost immeasurably, of those two. It might suffer most from the sheer amount of airplay that "Stairway," "Black Dog" and "Rock n Roll" get (although I never turn them off no matter how many times they get played).
Rating: 10/10

Houses of the Holy (1973)
While IV is often seen as their best album, Houses of the Holy probably actually is their best. It's a hair less cohesive than III, but it pushes the limits of what a rock band can do far more, much like the Beatles did on Revolver or the Who did on Who's Next. Had Zeppelin only released this album, their mark on rock music would still be staggering.
Rating: 10/10

Physical Grafitti (1975)
What could be better than one LP of Houses of the Holy? One would think it would be two LPs of Houses of the Holy, but that's not the case. Physical Grafitti is an ambitious undertaking but ends up being Zeppelin's first album with filler. Still, there are some amazing moments from the epic "Kashmir" to the whimsical "Down by the Seaside." Don't get me wrong, Physical Grafitti is not a failure. They pushed the limits and succeeded even if not fully. There's certainly more than one LP of great music on the album, but they couldn't quite stretch it to a full two.
Rating: 9/10

Prescence (1976)
Prescence is neither as ambitious as Physical Grafitti nor as cohesive as Houses of the Holy, but it probably suffers most from being a Led Zeppelin album. It would likely receive great reviews had it been a Bad Company record. But it had to live up to Zeppelin standards, not just rock standards. True, they were running out of steam to some extent here, but they still delivered. Even the weaker tracks like "Hots on for Nowhere" and "Candy Store Rock" aren't throwaways and they do show that the band wasn't content to sit still. There's good energy on Prescence, but even it's best moments don't match the energy they consistently had on the first five albums.
Rating: 7/10

In Through the Out Door (1979)
I take a slightly different view of In Through the Out Door than I suspect most people do. It's treated as their final album as though they were on the verge of calling it a day when they recorded it. However, it's only their last record because John Bonham called it a day. In light of this, I like to see In Through the Out Door as a transitional album. They were pushing their sound once again, with the heavy keyboards in the thick of the now more traditional hard rock they'd helped to establish. A lot of hard rock/heavy metal bands of the 80s incorporated keyboards much in the way that Zepellin does on this album (versus the more classical leaning work of Jon Lord in Deep Purple). Unfortunately, the transition was cut short and Zepellin's imitators were only capable of copying and not anticipating where In Through the Out Door would lead.
Rating: 8/10

Led Zeppelin also released two live albums: The Song Remains the Same and How the West Was Won. The best way to deal with these two is to simply say that, after 27 years, the latter finally gives Zeppelin fans what they'd hoped for with the former.

Another aside about Zeppelin that is worth mentioning is that when they released the BBC Sessions, they included a previously unreleased gem in "The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair." Along with the "Immigrant Song" b-side, "Hey Hey What Can I Do," this is one of the best testements to Led Zeppelin's greatness. Both of these songs would not only have made it on the album for another band, they probably would have been singles.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Live: Valencia, Over It, Punchline and Spitalfield

November 8, 2006, The Ottobar, Baltimore, MD

I caught this show the other night with a friend. I'd heard of the last three bands and heard random tracks, but I wasn't particularly familiar with anyone on the bill that night. The theme of the night was formula, which bands used one and who did it well and who did it poorly.

There was another band (Boys Like Girls), but we arrived just after they finished. I'm usually pretty disappointed when I miss a band, because you never know what you're gonna get. By the time Valencia got a couple songs into their set, I began to suspect we hadn't missed much if the two bands had anything in common. As a matter of fact, it didn't take Valencia long to make me wish we'd run a little bit later that we had. We should have stopped to get some dinner. Anywhere would have been fine, because a bad dinner would have better than Valencia. They were completely competent musicians. They were tight and sharp. The harmonies in the sing-along choruses were as perfect as live music allows. They jumped around. They posed for the audience. Everything was perfect. And that's what really sucked about them. They went to the library and checked out books from the How-To-Be-Emo self-help section and they followed it to the letter. They even had a song about a "really difficult time we went through." Maybe we should invent a new term for this stuff. Call it maudlin-core. What Valencia did, they did perfectly. Unfortunately, it was perfectly worthless. They are the Loverboy of emo: Everything is by the book, making it hollow, dull and just generally limp.

Over It came on next. What's interesting is that they were the biggest band on the bill. After they played, I figured out why they played third and not last: their average fan had a curfew to meet. After Over It played, 2/3 of the club cleared out and we could actually tell that we weren't the only two people there old enough to drink. These kids that left after Over It were a generally clean crowd too, much closer to what I saw the time someone talked me into seeing Hootie and the Blowfish (give me a break, it was free!) than to what I find at the kind of show I typically see. That's fine, but it was also a pretty non-responsive crowd despite clearly being there to see this band. Over It did their best to get the fans excited. They put on a solid show and had a lot of energy on stage. But they suffered from the same reliance on formula that Valencia did, only Over It did it better. If Valencia is Loverboy, than Over It is Bon Jovi.

There was a decided shift after the first two bands. The crowd changed. The bands changed. The mood changed. Valencia and Over It were essentially pop bands, with a whine. Much like modern country is pop with a twang or hair metal was pop with a guitar solo. The self-conscious, forced performances of Valencia and Over It gave way to a more relaxed and satifying atmosphere.

Punchline isn't a great band, but they were a refreshing change after the formula and polish that preceded them. As a matter of fact, it was the looseness of their set, with bits of improvisation and a genuine good spirit, that made them so much better live than on their latest album, 37 Everywhere. There was no posturing, no posing and best of all no text book to their set. There was a little too much banter for my taste, but at least it was down to earth and funny. Just when I was ready to blow the night off as a waste, Punchline saved it. They made the time and money I spent at the Ottobar that night worth it. I can't say I'd suggest running out and buying their album, but they're definitely worth catching if you get the chance. They were the first band of the night that played for the music, not for themselves.

The night finished up with Spitalfield who fell somewhere between the straightforward honesty of Punchline and the rehearsed polish of Over It. By the time they came on, the audience had diminished to maybe 20-30 people, but Spitalfield played like it was a packed club. That's the sign of a good band. They play their music for its sake and it doesn't matter how many people are there. They were tight throughout, varying between moody emo-ballads and fast hardcore-ish rock. While they didn't have Punchline's ability to connect, they certainly focused on the music more than the image. They also get a bonus for forgoing the encore, especially considering the crowd's minimal enthusiasm. It was a shame they didn't get better a better reception. I believed them when they played and that alone is so much more than I could say for Valencia who the crowd couldn't get enough of. Spitalfield and Punchline breathed a lot of life into a quickly suffocating evening of music and I thank them for that. Otherwise, it would have been a long evening of making fun of how fake Valencia came across or how Over It's singer reminds me of Richard Simmons. Those jokes would have worn thin almost as quickly as the bands they're about.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Review: Joe Lally - There to Here

Label: Dischord

Released: October 10, 2006

Joe Lally's first solo release is largely an album of rhythms. Although there is occasionally other instrumentation, most of the songs are bass, percussion and vocals (and even the vocals are more rhythmic than melodic). In most cases, this would make for a pretty dull album of self-indulgent fluff, but not so on There to Here. Much as he did with Fugazi, Lally keeps the rhythms compelling at every turn. The drums are thin and sharp under Lally's fluid bass lines. His vocals use cadence more than melody in a way that elludes even most hip-hop artists and brings attention to the seriousness of his words. The structure and instrumentation of the songs certainly take them outside of mainstream music, yet the album isn't a tough listen. Most albums of this nature would be a challenge to get inside to appreciate, but this one draws you in almost as if it had pop hooks.

Rating: 8.0 / 10