February 27, 2008

Make You Sweat

Quite frankly, I have never had much of an appreciation for live albums, or at least not enough to feel compelled to include them in any best-of rock and pop lists. My lack of enthusiasm for this type of album stems from various considerations and prejudices: they inevitably seem more geared for die-hard fans; they appear more as filler or fan-appeasement material during extended album production hiatuses; generally they seem to lack elements of cohesion as they include songs from all parts of an artist’s career; they are so-well planned or controlled that they rarely capture anything unique or historical – different or stunning interpretations of well-known songs, an extremely memorable or moving performance with a distinct crowd feel or reaction, etc.; and they can easily fall into cliché tricks such as documenting the crowd sing the chorus parts in unison of well known songs, particularly at the end of a set.

Off the top of my head, I could probably only name a handful of performances that, in my mind, do break from the norm and would warrant special canonical status. Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers, and Nirvana immediately pop into my head. Well, after recently listening to Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 for the first time, I would quickly and easily add Sam Cooke’s name to this narrow list.

The recording has a lot of elements working in its favor, many of which help the album transcend mere fantastic live album status and join the list of legendary rock n roll moments and all-time great albums. First, the album was released at a time when the album format was still in its early stages, or far from the album as art concept that was developed in an extremely creative manner towards the end of the decade. So, releasing a concert recording as an album often represented a more than adequate or even better substitute for the standard studio album, which was often filled with singles and cover filler, especially in the R&B world. Indeed, a concert album in the case of a great and often-touring soul singer probably represented more accurately the talents of the artist at hand. This is clearly the case with Sam Cooke.

Another impressive element of Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is how the venue and performance display a unique intimacy and energy, which lend itself to the extremely cohesive nature of the musical performance. Listen to how the Harlem Square Club bustles with audience movement and feedback, on the one hand, and how you can discern certain movements of Sam as he moves around stage, claps his hands, or speaks to the audience, on the other. You can almost feel the sweat dripping off of Sam as he cajoles the crowd into twisting or heeding his advice on love and forgiveness. Also, the recording gives a good sense of the proximity of the tightly playing band in relation to Sam. Much of this closeness is probably due to the effectiveness of the technical recording (placement of mics, sound quality, etc.), which captures so many sonic nuances of the performance. It’s hard not to feel like you have been transported to the venue and are standing just several feet from the stage.

With regards to audience participation, it’s interesting to note how they cheer and applaud, but never in a uniform and prolonged manner like many of us are accustomed to hearing at the end of a song in other standard concerts. Here, the enthusiasm of the crowd is measured more by the crackle of voices in response to Sam’s singing or talking – essentially, the “amens” of the choir or parishioners as they praise the words of Sam the preacher man – and the movement of bodies (probably in dance movement) around what I imagine to be club tables. These are different times with different reactions based on a different style of show, and the album so dutifully documents these moments and gestures.

The immediacy of the music is what gives the album its cohesive feel. Here you have Sam and his well rehearsed band moving from one song to another with extreme ease, with one song seemingly blending into another. Sam knows his audience, the type of venue, and, consequently, and the importance of keeping the rhythm going and the song introductions humorous, soulful, or enticingly passionate. Ultimately, the tightness of the music exudes an infectious quality, which has the listener quickly moving his/her body in unison with the beat and in response to the singing. When the album finally concludes, it feels like the ride has been too short.

In the end, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 represents not only a snapshot of an artist at his peak in terms of performance, but an important historical document that captures the feel of a unique style of concert in a period seemingly far away from today. While I have listened to only a handful of live albums in my lifetime, I nevertheless feel rather confident in speculating that few live albums can match the importance and feel encompassed in Sam Cooke’s terrific performance. Taking it one step further, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is probably one of the most important R&B musical documents of both its era and of all time, which automatically gives the recording elite album status.
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Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Sam Cooke, Rolling Stone Magazine's #443

exile staff consensus: Top 400 album

the breakdown:
3.5 cannons - eurowags
2.0 cannons - venerableseed
1.5 cannons - polchic

the essays:
NEW POST (scroll back up)
2/27 @ noon - Sam Cooke makes Wags sweat. Just try and listen to the album without perspiring. We dare you.
2/19 @ 9 a.m. - Sam Cooke, the sixties, and segregation.

the introduction:
Fourteen live albums make the Rolling Stone 500 list but Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is the only one not to have been released within a year of its recording. Cooke's legendary January 12 Miami, Florida performance did not see the light of day until 1985!

The obvious question is why did it take so long to appear?

Cooke's Live at the Copa album was released shortly before his December 1964 murder but was the antithesis to Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963. At the Copa was recorded in an upscale conservative establishment in front of a largely white audience. Neither Cooke nor his audience seem energetic, excited, or legendary and for 21 years At the Copa served as the only audio documentation of a man history widely honors as the greatest soul singer of all time. How could "the greatest" have so little soul? Those who had seen Cooke in person attested to his brilliance but the was no evidence. Enter Live at the Harlem Square, 1963.

Its been just over 45 years since Cooke's Harlem Square performance. Does the album hold up? Should it rank in the top 15 live rock albums of all time? Does it belong in the canon? Let's find out.

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February 26, 2008

Cali Dreaming

Beck’s Odelay is pure 1990s southern California (or at least what I imagine it to be since I only first stepped foot in the state in 2007). It’s innocuous Hollywood strip or Venice Beach hipsterness with its mélange of self-professed freaks, aimless troubadours, and skateboard thrashers painting the laidback horizon. It’s the thrift store threads with a collage of artistic allusions to choose from for its irreverential dialogue in a retro piano bar.

I can’t help listen to Odelay and be reminded of some of the cultural landscape that pervaded the decade. Movies that immediately come to mind are Get Shorty and A Life Less Ordinary, flicks set in Cali and that borrow heavily from Elmore Leonard’s style of making the slightly sleazy and criminal elements of the world both cool and comical, all in a laidback and quirky setting. In fact, the latter film effectively uses Beck’s song “Deadweight”. The hipster criminal element of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, with its Vegas hipsterness not so removed from that of southern Cali, also seems somewhat connected to the mid-1990s Beck vibe. Although not necessarily influenced by Beck, sunny-music producing 1990s artists like Sheryl Crow, Smashmouth, and Sugar Ray don’t seem that far removed from elements of Odelay’s sonic collage – alt country pop, fuzzy organ sounds, etc. Of course, it’s hard not to be reminded of The Beastie Boys’ move to Cali to join Capitol Records and to record Paul’s Boutique along with The Dust Brothers, key collaborators on Odelay as well.

The mention of these sensory and cultural links is merely to demonstrate how Odelay seems distinctly set in a place and a time. That is not to say, however, that the music is dated and tarnished some 10+ years after its first original release. In fact, the album possesses a unique energy and an ever-changing internal identity that makes the music coquettishly elusive, yet ultimately attractive. Its leftfield antics and mind-bending lyricism, all within a broad socially acceptable domain (i.e. without the dangers of actual drug consumption or delinquent acts), certainly give the music a unique and lingering charm that invites repeated listens.

When Odelay was first released, I was passively aware of the music. “Where It’s At” was played ad naseum on radio and in live TV performances. Other tracks got plenty of airplay and the album was a hit among many friends and acquaintances. For some reason – probably because I was cynical of the hipsterness set on a large audience scale – I intentionally ignored the album. Listening to it now, I can’t help but be rather impressed and disappointed that I didn’t give it a fair chance back in the day.

Sure, it’s hard not to take notice of the massive production trickery that go into several of the songs and that give them an amusingly schizo feel. But, it’s the seemingly more straightforward parts in other songs – the countrified slide guitar on “Lord Only Knows” and the chorus of “Sissyneck”, the repetitive funky beat and Doors-esque organ on “The New Pollution”, the languid gait of the guitar on “Jack-ass”, the folksy “Ramshackle” – that give the album that extra edge and credibility, that is, the conviction that this stream-of-consciousness mumbling singer actually knows what he is doing and has some soul. These more straightforward elements no doubt feed the sterling production on Beck’s just as impressive Mutations album.

Does it matter that I have no idea what the hell the guy is saying? Not at all. Sure, I guess trying to decipher the lyrics could be somewhat annoying for those that value the words. I, on the other hand, usually consider lyrics in a secondary fashion, only considering them once I have determined the value or attractiveness of the music. In the case of Odelay, I am definitely attracted, which should lead to some consideration of the words. But, you know, when it is this fun listening to the sounds and feel of an album, the guy could be talking about apple strudel and bird watching, for all I care.

So, some 10+ years after Odelay’s original favorable impression on the pop and rock landscape, it is still pretty easy to see why this album is considered one of the more important albums of the decade.

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February 25, 2008


Odelay, Beck, Rolling Stone Magazine's #462

exile staff consensus: Top 200 album

the breakdown:
3.5 cannons -eurowags, lenbarker
3.0 cannons - venerableseed

the essays:
2/27 @ 9 a.m. - Beck brings eurowags back over the pond to California. With today's record euro conversion rate to the dollar his money will go far.
2/13 @ noon - Odelay is hip and not edgy? How could that be?
2/8 @ 2 p.m. - Nonsense Nonsense Nonsense!

2/6 @ 9 a.m. - I wonder what I missed way back in 1996.

(some of) the album:

the introduction:
Perfect welcoming catchy melodies. Easy listening sounds. Dada-ist lyrics. Hurricane Novocane derelicts, puzzles, pagans, devil's haircuts, jackasses, strange invitations, discos quebrados, Sergio Valentes, Sassoons, hand-me-downs, flypaper towns, lily-white cavity crazes, leperous faces, garbage man trees, odelays, and, of course, two turntables and a microphone.

Beck's precocious magnum opus Odelay dropped on June 18, 1996, manna from the heavens to an unsuspecting hipster world still yearning for the next Paul's Boutique and a perfect pop treat to the needy MTV-watching masses. Even those who fell in between these extremes found the album irresistible, a perfect fun soundtrack for a breezy carefree age where everything seemed to be going right. An inclusive melange that could be seamlessly played on any radio station, r&b, alternative, pop, hip-hop, adult contemporary, whatever.

Just last week, on January 29, the Odelay - Deluxe Reissue was released giving us a perfect time to listen again and recapture the magic.

Check back here for more posts, but in the meantime be sure to browse the online encyclopedia of Beck, http://www.whiskeyclone.net, which could possibly be the internet's most exhaustive musical artist overview.

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February 18, 2008


Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali, 1964A live album must capture a point in time and make that point both specific and eternal. The album sounds and vision must be a perfect representation of that year but the crowd, its mood, and their excitement must be universal and immediately understandable. You must be transported in time and say "That was an amazing show. If that concert happened tomorrow in my hometown I would be there and pay whatever amount."


Sam Cooke invented soul sometime in the late 1950's or at least that's what his 2000 Box Set titled The Man Who Invented Soul suggests. Sure, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and many other lesser known artists make their own creation claims but Cooke's Promethean status does ring more true than false. Unlike the others Cooke owns a seemingly endless string of terrific singles that charted on both the white and r&b charts. His third single, the 1957 "You Send Me", knocked Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock" from it seven-week-long number one perch. This event was no anomaly; Sam Cooke's perfect voice and beautiful songs were every bit the King's equal.

In 1960 signed with RCA garnering a $100,000 advance ($700,000 in 2008 terms). In the same year baseball's top earner, Ted Williams, made only $90,000. Sam Cooke was bigger than baseball.

He took that money and started his own record label in 1961; a pioneering move for any artist at the time. The crossover hits kept coming and in 1963 RCA recorded one of his concerts at the Miami, Florida's Harlem Square Club. Their inspiration was surely James Brown's 1963 Live at the Apollo Theatre recording which unexpectedly became a runaway commercial success. (Check out Cashbox Magazine's year-end list for 1963. How out of place is #25 Live at the Apollo?) Could Sam Cooke's Harlem Square Club performance repeat the JB phenomenon? We never were able to find out. Cooke's Harlem Square recordings were bagged and didn't see the light of day until 22 years later.

Harlem Square's 1985 release saw significant fanfare. Critics hailed Cooke's resurrected grittiness, tense sexuality, and hoarse frenzy. New York Times critic Jon Pareles named it the year's second best album wedging it between R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction and Husker Dü's Zen Arcade. Suddenly, it was argued, the public had heard the real Sam Cooke. Only, in 1985, the public was too busy watching Witness and seeing Harrison Ford fall in love with Kelly McGillis while Cooke's enchantingly saccharine "Wonderful World" played in the background. Which perfect side of Sam Cooke had really reappeared?


When I listen to Harlem Square what year does it sound like? 1963 or 1985 or is it transcendent? None of the above. Harlem Square sounds even older than 1963. It doesn't capture JFK, Dr. No, the Beatles, progressive politics and Camelot. Instead, it sounds like segregation and that was more Eisenhower, Little Rock, and the 50's, right? Wrong. My history is mistaken.

1963 was the high tide in the establishment South's pro-segregation battle. Newly elected Alabama governor George Wallace proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!" the same January week that Harlem Square was recorded and in June of the same year stood in the schoolhouse door of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent black enrollment. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From Birmingham Jail that April and gave his I Have A Dream Speech that August. Medgar Evers was murdered that June. In October Sam Cooke and his band were arrested for attempting to check into a whites-only Louisiana motel. He subsequently wrote his greatest song, "A Change is Gonna Come".

The hopeful, steadfast, strength of "A Change is Gonna Come", however, doesn't appear on Harlem Square. The album feels resigned to guarded emotions and grudgingly accepting of its segregated milieu especially when heard alongside its defiant, end-of-the-world-level orgasmic Live at the Apollo contemporary. Harlem Square itself isn't sad. Cooke doesn't sound sad, relaxed and tired yes but not sad. And while his and his band's soulfulness and passion is unquestionable the album makes me very sad. The crowd screams and responds to Cooke's calls but they sound muted; there's something missing in their eagerness. Despite Cooke's soothing voice and loving melodies the room feels tight, steamy, and full of tension.

The concert marks a distinct moment in time but it's a time I hope never happens again. The 1963 South is not a place I would ever want to relate to and Harlem Square is not a concert that I would have wanted to be at. Harlem Square may sound old and dated to these young ears but that is a wonderful thing. The older segregation seems the better this country has become. Let it sound 45 years old, let it sound 100 years old, let the past die, and let the future continue.
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February 13, 2008

Two of These Things Don't Belong

Odelay is an absolutely loveable album. Sure, there are some funny, goofy lyrics that might be about weird or dark things or emotions but on the whole it's adult contemporary radio-ready. Would my mom like it? Not as much as she likes Lauryn Hill's Miseducation or Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt but yeah. At the same time Odelay is lo-o-o-o-ved by your hipster friends, the pitchforkerati. The in-the-know kids love it, hell they made music videos for Odelay's hits ushering in a new era of quirky as cool.

All that got me to wondering: how many classic album rank low on the edginess factor a/k/a the would-my-mom-like-it factor but simultaneously rank high on the hipsterness factor a/k/a the do-the-cool-kids-like it factor. If you smell a chart coming then you're nose is keen.

So on the chart above are all the albums we've listened to so far. The hipsterness quotient was decided by where the album appeared in pitchforkmedia.com's best albums of their respective decade while the edginess was more subjective. For the edginess rating I played songs from the album for my mom and decided on the rating by her facial expression of comfort (not edgy) or disgust (edgy).

For the most part, there is a direct corollary between hipsterness and edginess as the general upward moving diagonal shows. In fact there are no albums, so far, other than Odelay which fit in the lower right quadrant! Similarly, only The Battle of Los Angeles appears in the upper left quadrant.

Despite our small sample selection it seems that the key to making a classic canonical album is to balance the factors of hipsterness and edginess. Or something like that.

But where does this leave our two outsiders? Why are they such anomalies? In the case of The Battle of Los Angeles I think that its aggressive politics both offended and alienated the moderate pragmatists who, at the time of the album's release, were doing pretty well financially and socially. Who needs the system torn down when internet speculation is making us all rich? Who needs anger when we've had four years of peace and prosperity?

Odelay, I postulated was both a harbinger and product of this peace and prosperity. It was also an accurate depiction of exterior world. Unlike OK Computer whose unprecedented millennial angst seems ridiculous in historical perspective. Nevertheless that album is the one that is remembered as the best of the 90's. It follows the above chart's pattern of canonization perfectly.

I disliked Odelay and The Battle of Los Angeles greatly when they were released, albeit for widely disparate reasons. But on my contemporary re-listens they've been the two albums that have surprised me the most and the ones that have, oddly enough, made me the happiest.
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February 8, 2008

Odelay's Lyrics Were Nonsense...Impossible!

So Beck has finally admitted that Odelay's lyrics were "utter nonsense". We all suspected it; we all probably even wished it were true. Now if only Michael Stipe would admit the same thing. Or Bob Dylan. Or (posthusmously) John Lennon. Or Stephen Malkmus. Or Ghostface Killah. Or (posthusmously) Arthur Lee. Or (posthusmously???) Jim Morrison. Or George Clinton. This list could go on on and on and on. Let's make it so!

Who is your favorite nonsense rock/rap/r&b lyricist and who should should be added to the above list?

Just hit the old comment button and put in your two cents.

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February 6, 2008

False Pre-Millennium Tension

Odelay's bright sing-songy choruses. The spontaneously planned and fun Dust Brothers samples. The hip-hop beats and alt-country melodies. Diminutive Beck at the MTV Video Music Awards decked out in playful cowboy gear strumming his guitar on top of Radio City Music Hall. They all seemed so contrived so obvious so fake and so boring at the time. 1996 wasn't supposed to be Odelay.

These were the times of romantic pre-millennium tension. 1995's hip-hop masterpieces were bottom-of-the-ocean dark affairs: Mobb Deep's The Infamous, Raekwon's ...Cuban Links, and the GZA's Liquid Swords. Were the Dust Brothers still living in Paul's Boutique? Hadn't they heard of this new hybrid affair called trip-hop and its brooding paragons Portishead, Tricky, Moby, Bjork, and DJ Shadow? The great rock albums, Radiohead's The Bends, PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love were similarly epic, angsty, and anxious. The Smashing Pumpkins' newest album title even included the words "The Infinite Sadness." In 1995, Alanis Morisette's screaming retribution ruled the pop charts, TLC's maddeningly depressing aim-low anthem "Waterfalls" ruled the r&b and MTV video playlist airways. Those albums were the times. Those albums were its mood.

Then came Odelay on June 18, 1996 and the mood changed. The music became more poppy, the times got lighter, things became more hopeful. The Village Voice's 1995 single of the year was Coolio's uber-maudlin "Gangsta's Paradise"; in 1997 the title went to Hanson's "MmmBop," incidentally another Dust Brothers production.

The United States was changing as well both politically and economically. The 1996 Presidential election was expected to be a close affair. A year earlier, Newt Gingrich's Contract With America based -Republican Revolution swept itself into power, conquering both the House and the Senate. The economy was on a downtown, reactionary politics ruled the day, and the young hopeful President from Hope was bound to be replaced by a 73-year-old career Senator who had publicly opposed LBJ's plan for a Great Society in the same year Meet the Beatles was released: 1964.

But the assumed 1997 United States was different, the doomsaying predictions had not come true. Trip-hop would not be the background music. Gingrich had been disposed and his wave of paranoid politics abandoned. Clinton was overwhelmingly re-elected and a tech-based economic boom had begun.

When I listen to Odelay today I hear this (sea) change of thought and American ethos. It's a joyful album that's inclusive, positive, diverse, and exceedingly boom-ready. It's the thrill of your first internet surfing experience, circa 1996 on a dial-up connection. It's slow, promising, surprise laden, fast, not too deep, full of wonder, without limitation, and ultimately very familiar.

Odelay is a welcoming and nonthreatening melange of that crazy world around you. The myriad random voices and musical styles don't attack your sensibilities, they just join the party. Despite the random, purposefully abstract lyrics the album had no edginess; Bob Dole would even like this album! Beware Andrews Sisters. At the same time so did your friends. The goth friends, the jock friends, your hipster friends, the entire range of John Hughes-characters friends.

I wish I had appreciated Odelay more in 1996, but I wish I had appreciated the United States more then too.
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