Martha and the Vandellas, Heat Wave (1963)

Album Cover of the Week: Martha and the Vandellas, Heat Wave

Christmas is over, and we’re almost into that part of winter where you think it’s never going to end and you’re already tired of it being dark by 5pm. So let’s turn up the heat with this slice of vintage R&B — from 1963, it’s Heat Wave from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, first released on the Gordy Records division of Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas, Heat Wave (1963)

This is the biggest image scan I could find, although it’s not of the original album. That can be identified by the Gordy label that should be on the lower left.

Design-wise, Heat Wave is pretty uncomplicated but it’s very appealing all the same. The white dresses (and gloves!) of the ladies strike a brilliant contrast with the flames. Design and photography credit go to Bernard Yeszin, who worked a number of other Motown album covers in the early ’60s, for artists like Marvin Gaye and the Supremes.


Stevie Wonder - Where I'm Coming From

Album Cover of the Week: Stevie Wonder, Where I’m Coming From

I last showcased an album cover from the great Stevie Wonder when I wrote about Innervisions in 2009. Today I want to go back to the beginning. Not of Wonder’s career, but of his string of all-time classic albums in the 1970s. For today we look at Where I’m Coming From, released on Motown’s Tamla label on April 12, 1971.

Stevie Wonder - Where I'm Coming From

A few things strike me right away about this cover. First is the very bold use of “WONDER” with its many pictures of Stevie. This was the first album where Wonder really was able to assert full creative control over his music, and I think this cover speaks to that.

The second thing is the title — Where I’m Coming From. It’s an unmistakable declaration that this album was intended not to generate profit for Berry Gordy but to let America and the world know what was on Stevie Wonder’s mind in 1971. Lablemate Marvin Gaye would make the same artistic progression just a few weeks later when his landmark What’s Going On album was released.

One odd aspect to this cover — on the original issue at least — was the Wonder Mobile gimmick. Buyers could punch the “WONDER” letters out of the cover and hang them up as a mobile.

I have no information on the album credits for photography or graphic design, so if you do please let me know in the comments.

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Why the Hell Should I Like… post-‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson?

Why the hell should I like… ?” is an experiment of sorts between Popblerd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. What we’re going to attempt to do is to pick 10 songs from our favorite artists — one for which the other has professed dislike or disinterest — and show them why they’re wrong.

Michael JacksonOn June 25th, 2009, the world lost one of the greatest entertainers of all time — Michael Jackson. Although recent history had not been kind to Michael, after his passing it seemed like a light switch went on in the collective mind of the American public and they began to view him with respect again.

Because let’s face it, despite his obvious issues, the man was a one-of-a-kind talent. A fantastic singer, a great dancer, a solid songwriter and producer, and, if you look over the current pop music landscape, certainly the most influential musician of his time.

Unfortunately for Michael, he lost his “cool” card somewhere in the mid ’80s. Once Thriller became a phenomenon, it became uncool to like MJ. He was yesterday’s news. You know the routine — we build people up only to tear them down. So, despite the fact that he put out quite a bit of good music in the twenty-seven years between the release of his landmark album and his tragic death, much of it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Not that he was the only artist to have that problem.

For example, think about Stevie Wonder’s run of classics during the ’70s. Anything he released was going to pale in comparison to Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life, right? It’s why albums like Hotter Than July aren’t regarded as classics, even though they would be had they been recorded by anyone else.

Anyhow, Stevie’s another topic for another time. Let’s go back to the King of Pop. I was challenged to pick ten songs from the post-Thriller era that I felt would most convince someone of the validity of Michael’s later work. Here are the ten songs I came up with.

1. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” (1984) — When big brother Jermaine left Motown and signed with Arista, he figured out pretty quickly how to make a seamless label transition — cut a record with the hottest pop star in the universe, who just happened to be his little brother. “Tell Me I’m Not Dreamin'” is pretty ordinary ’80s synth-funk, but Michael’s vocal performance is positively electric. It sounds like all of the confidence he gained immediately following the success of Thriller manifested itself in his vocals on this song. Jermaine sounds like a guest on his own record. And to add insult to injury, allegedly Michael wouldn’t allow Jermaine and Arista to release this song as a single. It wound up hitting #1 on Billboard’s dance chart and earning a Grammy nomination anyway.

2. “Torture” (1984) — Jermaine’s release from Motown also allowed him to return to the Jacksons after a nine-year absence. “Torture” is the only track on the Victory reunion album to feature a lead vocal from the older brother, and he and Michael’s chemistry is put to much better use on this song. Translation: Michael played nice and didn’t kick his big brother’s ass all over the song.

3. “The Way You Make Me Feel” (1987) — One song that proves Michael’s worth as a singer. I have a relatively boyish speaking/singing voice, and I can’t go near the notes Michael hits here. Almost makes me wonder if certain songs on the Bad album were sped up, seeing as he usually dropped this song (in particular) a step or two when performed live. Still — a stone cold dance groove, at least partially inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home” (at least if you believe Stevie).

4. “Man in the Mirror” (1987) — Interestingly, the song that came to define Michael the most post-Thriller was one of the few songs from that era that he had no hand in writing. He proved himself to be a sympathetic interpreter on songs like these, going for a reflective tone in the verses to straight-out gospel testifyin’ in the song’s coda.

5. “Smooth Criminal” (1987) — You know, I wasn’t so crazy about this song until recently. This was the beginning of Michael doing the whole “singing through clenched teeth” thing that he was so fond of in his later days. Still, great melody and totally danceable, too.

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My favorite music: 1972

If there’s one thing the internet lacks, it’s pointless music lists. So to fill that void, here’s a sampling of my favorite albums from some random year. Let’s say, 1972.

Fleetwood Mac, Bare Trees — Oh sure, I love Rumours as much as the next person. But there’s something about this particular, pre-Buckingham/Nicks incarnation of the band that speaks to me. Bare Trees is a bit uneven in spots but I keep coming back to it just the same. That said, the original version of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” found on this record is far superior to the 1977 hit single version.

Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill — I don’t care if Donald Fagen and Walter Becker want to disown this record, I love it and I know a ton of Dan fans love it. Like all classic Steely Dan records, the hits are only part of the picture. “Fire in the Hole” has a killer hook and an arrangement that presaged their more refined work on Katy Lied. And holy shit, that chorus on “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” is so damn smooooooth.

Chicago, Chicago V — This is the perfect marriage of Chicago’s progressive arty side and their burgeoning pop sensibilities. “A Hit by Varèse” opens the LP and is as angry as the band got back in the day, while this album also boasts the bulletproof “Saturday in the Park.” How’s that for extremes? Peter Cetera, long before he discovered the glory of love, absolutely kills on bass all through this record. What the hell happened to that guy?

Yes, Close to the Edge — One of the crown jewels of progressive rock, bar none. Three songs, 38 minutes of pure bliss. “And You and I” and “Siberian Khatru” are fantastic all on their own, but the centerpiece is the nearly 19-minute title track. It encapsulates all that the genre has to offer musically, driven mainly by Steve Howe’s stabbing guitars, Chris Squire’s meaty, nimble bass, and of course Bill Bruford’s spastic, wrist-snapping percussion.

The Crusaders, Crusaders 1 — No longer the Jazz Crusaders, the newly christened Crusaders were finally free to embrace their funky side. The in-your-face horn section is still present and accounted for, but guitarist Larry Carlton brings a whole new dimension to the group’s sound.

Can, Ege Bamyasi — Even if you think Can would be too out there for your tastes, this album is not to missed. The skittering, insistent beat and nerve-fraying guitar on “Vitamin C” is the highlight of the record, but the whole thing is a case study in how Krautrock need not be scary.

Focus, Focus 3 — Man, what a year for prog rock eh? If you think this Dutch outfit is all about “Hocus Pocus,” you are mistaken. And it turns out that tender Focus (“Love Remembered” and “Focus III“) is just as entrancing and effective as rocking Focus (“Round Goes the Gossip” and “Sylvia”). Jan Akkerman is a guitar god but you almost never his name outside of fan circles anymore.

Genesis, Foxtrot — I can only imagine what a thrill it must have been to hear this band follow up on the promise of Nursery Cryme and just explode creatively. This seminal prog album is book-ended by two of the greatest songs the genre has to offer — “Watcher of the Skies” and “Supper’s Ready.” All of the other tracks (with the exception of “Time Table”) are just as strong.

Neil Young, Harvest — I’m not even that big a Neil Young fan, and this album is a must-own.

Deep Purple, Machine Head — Yeah yeah, “Smoke on the Water” and all that. Thing is, even without that song Machine Head is a stone cold classic. “Highway Star” is one of the few songs about car racing that is every bit as furious musically as it is lyrically. It’s all singer Ian Gillan can do throughout Machine Head to match the sheer intensity of Blackmore, Lord, Glover, and Paice. The album ends with “Space Truckin’,” which sounds like a stupid title but in fact has the riffage and groove to stomp your face into the mud and have you asking for more.

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Listening booth — Mary Wells, “Two Lovers”

Over at Popdose we’re cooking up an exciting new project — a comprehensive overview of the famous Time-Life AM Gold series. Up first is the 1962 entry, which features a whopping 22 songs. One of the early standouts in our discussion seems to be “Two Lovers” by the late, great Mary Wells. It was written and produced by Smokey Robinson, who was well on his way to superstar status with Motown Records.

A 17-year-old Wells signed with Berry Gordy’s Motown in 1960 and had her biggest hit in 1964 with the immortal “My Guy.” She scored one more Top 20 hit the same year and became the first Motown act to perform in the U.K. (opening for an obscure act called the Beatles). Label battles and health problems cut her career short, and she retired from the music business in 1974. She returned later in the decade and had a club hit with 1981’s “Gigolo.”

Wells was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1990 and died of complications from it in 1992. She was 49.

Listen to “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells.

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GFS home movies: Michael McDonald’s This Christmas: Live in Chicago

Having already cultivated a sizable fan base through his work with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, as well as from his solo work, Michael McDonald has spent the better part of the last decade following two different muses – classic Motown/soul and holiday music.  In 2009 he added another entry to the latter with This Christmas, pulled from a concert featuring McDonald and his band in a holiday performance on the PBS concert series Soundstage.  It’s available on CD, but it’s the DVD edition I’m reviewing here.

I’ll just say right up front that if you are already a fan of McDonald and his trademark soulful baritone, you will not be disappointed with This Christmas.  But even if you only have a passing interest in the man and his work, it’s still a good addition to any holiday music collection.  For one, McDonald’s voice is still in damn fine shape as he closes in on 60 years of age.  It may not have quite the elasticity it did back in the day, but it’s obvious he takes good care of his instrument.

Backing up McDonald is a crack group of musicians, all of whom get at least a little bit of time in the spotlight.  The star of the bunch for me is Yvette Preyer, who totally owned on drums and provides excellent backing vocals as well.

The setlist itself is interesting, in that the holiday songs are bookended by a half dozen non-Christmas hits.  The concert starts with “It Keeps You Runnin'”, the Doobies classic that features a much looser arrangement than the original.  That’s followed by a pair of McDonald solo numbers – “I Keep Forgettin'” and “Sweet Freedom”.  They’re both very good, and the latter features a nice guitar solo from Bernie Chiaravalle.

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2010 – The year in recorded musical performances

I really need to find a way to turn music listening into a paying, full-time gig.  Because that’s the only way I could ever hope to have time to take in all the good (and not-so-good) music that comes out every year.  Life really was much simpler when I didn’t even want to make time for anything that wasn’t by Kiss, Rush, or Iron Maiden.  So instead of approaching this as a “Best Albums of 2010” or “Best Music of 2010” list, it’s more of a “My Favorite Albums/Music of 2010 That I Had Time to Listen To” list.  These are the albums that moved me one way or another this year, although obviously this is not (and cannot be) an exhaustive list.  I’m sure lots of really swell records got left off, but that’s why there are other year-end lists on the internet, right?

#10. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [Roc-A-Fella]

I honestly haven’t had enough time with this album to decide if it’s worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it.  The sheer density of the production means anyone claiming to have figured it all out after a few listens is full of shit.  What I can say at this point is that it’s ambitious, hooky in spots, and utterly fascinating.  And hey, anyone who can seamlessly integrate a sample of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” into one of his songs gets love from me.

#9. Deftones, Diamond Eyes [Reprise]

My interest in Deftones pretty much began and ended with White Pony, one of the great metal albums of the decade.  I can’t say why, it just happened.  So on a whim I gave Diamond Eyes a shot, and it instantly recalled White Pony for me.  It’s not quite at that level, as some of the pure aggression and epic scope has been dialed back a bit.  This is understandable given how much the album is informed by a tragic car accident involving bassist Chi Cheng, who was in a coma for several months and is still in a bad way.  That’s not to say Deftones have wussed out, even though some of the songs have a relatively softer edge.  This is still high-octane, adrenalized metal, and well worth your time.

#8. Tame Impala, Innerspeaker [Modular Recordings]

It would be easy to dismiss the debut album from Australian trio Tame Impala as one of the scads of albums released each year that do nothing more than recreate bygone eras of popular music.  Easy, but not really right.  On the surface this is vintage 1960s psychedelic/garage rock with some modern seasoning (it probably doesn’t help that Kevin Parker’s vocals eerily recall John Lennon).  But really this is an album in the true sense – 11 chapters that combine to evoke certain feelings or moods.  The fuzzy guitars and swirling bass lines merely provide the framework with which Tame Impala delivers their vision.  Sure a few more standout hooks or singles would be nice, but I really don’t think this album would be that much better with them.

#7. The Doobie Brothers, World Gone Crazy [HOR Entertainment]

Yes, those Doobie Brothers.  As with most legacy acts, it should go without saying that this is not quite on par with their prime ’70s work.  But really, this is a surprisingly strong effort with no real weak points.  Longtime Doobies Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons have turned in an album of that sounds like good classic rock without being dated.  And hey, longtime producer Ted Templeman is back too!  Michael McDonald even pops in for one track (“Don’t Say Goodbye”), which is one of the strongest.  The inimitable Willie Nelson also joins the festivities.  Seriously, check this out.

#6. Iron Maiden, The Final Frontier [EMI/UME]

I’m still amazed at Iron Maiden’s ability to not only retain a core of longtime fans but win new ones as well.  There is a sizable group of fans who came on board after the end of the band’s golden age (aka the ’80s), and who swear by albums like Brave New World over Piece of Mind.  I always found that a little nuts, but I admired their fierce loyalty.  And with this album those fans have ammo for their arguments.  The Final Frontier, while by no means an all-time classic, is definitely the best post-reunion release from Iron Maiden.  Mid-tempo tracks like “Coming Home” are much more effective than they used to be, and the band manages to experiment a little with the leadoff song, “Satellite 15… The Final Frontier”.  A little more songwriting along the style of the latter would’ve been very welcome, but this album still delivers anything a metal/Maiden fan could want.

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Michael Jackson (Billie Jean)No matter what objectionable things I think he did, no matter what objectionable things I know he did, at this moment I can only look back on Michael Jackson’s half century on this planet and think of the great things he did.  I’ve gone through various stages of love and hate regarding Michael over the years.  But one thing I didn’t consider until today was that I’ve never really known of a musical universe without Michael in it in some fashion.

I had just turned seven when Thriller came out, and I played that album a million times.  Not long after that, maybe around 1984 or 1985, I suddenly decided that anything besides hard rock or heavy metal was garbage.  I trashed my copy of Thriller and never even gave any of his subsequent albums a shot (I had an image to uphold, you know).  But it didn’t stop there, as I became one of the growing numbers of Michael bashers, fueled in large part by the excesses and eccentricities widely reported by the tabloids (some of which were planted by Michael himself, to be fair).  Let’s face it, the man made it awfully easy for people to ridicule him over the last 20 years.

Occasionally a new song snuck past my guard and I briefly reconnected with Michael as an artist – “Leave Me Alone” and “Remember the Time” are two I still look back on with fondness.  But by and large, I continued to put him and his music out of my mind.  But over the last few years I made a conscious effort to judge Michael’s career for the music itself, rather than for the traveling sideshow his life became.  And the thing is, the man made some damn good music, plain and simple.  Whether it was the early years with the Jackson 5 or the one-two punch of Off the Wall and Thriller, Michael could’ve retired many years ago and been assured of his status as a legend.

One of the saddest aspects about Michael’s death to me is that in recent years I think some part of me was hoping for a Comeback (that’s with a capital C) – a great album or concert tour to show that all that talent hadn’t simply wasted away like he obviously had physically.  A part of me wanted him to recapture at least some of his former glory, perhaps more for my sake and the sake of a jaded and cynical public than for his.  It’s some consolation that even in the absence of that Comeback, we’re still left with so much.

So despite all the weirdness, despite all the laughter and jokes at his expense, and despite the sad sight of watching a human being fall apart physically and psychologically over the course of many years, for one day at least I choose to remember Michael Jackson for the legacy of great music and entertainment he leaves behind.

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Album Cover of the Week: Innervisions

In a just world, last night’s Grammy Awards telecast would have been dedicated largely to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Motown Records.  Instead, we got ‘treated’ to Stevie Wonder playing with the Jonas Brothers.  Ugh.

So in an effort to remedy (in whatever small way I can) this musical travesty, I’m presenting not just one of Stevie’s or Motown’s greatest albums, but one of the greatest albums of any genre — 1973’s Innervisions.

Stevie Wonder - Innervisions

Innervisions was not released on the regular Motown label but rather on Tamla, the company Berry Gordy started in 1959 that morphed into Motown.  The album was a monster commercial and artistic triumph for Wonder, who picked up the first of his three Grammys for Album of the Year.

As for the album art, the cover illustration is by Efram Wolff, who produced art for many albums on the 1970s.  The imagery is unmistakable here – Stevie is an oracle of sorts, and depsite his physical blindness he can see clearly the problems of the world.  This outlook is reflected in the album’s lyrics, which take on a distinct politically and socially conscious theme.

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