Saturday, October 03, 2015

Album Review: V.A.S.T. - Visual Audio Sensory Theater

I remember when I first heard V.A.S.T.---aka Jon Crosby's solo project---on the radio.  It was 1998, I was still in high school, and as I was laying in bed late on a Sunday night, I was listening to a radio show called hardDrive with Lou Brutus on my clock radio.  When the lead single, 'Touched,' was broadcast on the program, I quickly took note, as I hadn't ever heard of anything quite like that at the time.  The song contained acoustic guitar, plus Benedictine Monks, plus hard industrial sounds reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails, plus orchestral accompaniment.  Indeed, it was quite different from the hard hitting sounds of Korn, Rob Zombie, and Monster Magnet receiving heavy airplay at that time.

Afterward, I recall going to a faraway mall two hours away and buying the album.  On the way home, as my mother drove, I remember popping the self-titled disc into my CD-Walkman and finding myself engrossed by just how distinctive and diverse all the tracks were.  For example, 'Dirty Hole' is comprised of several layers systematically building atop one another, not the least of which includes those same Monk chants and Cathedral pipe organ.   And 'Three Doors' beautifully meshes Industrial Pop with the Classical canon.  And 'Here' is probably one of the coolest, cinematic-sounding openings to an album in recent times.

I have posted a few YouTube videos featuring a few of the great tracks from this album.  In descending order, they are 'Touched,' 'Three Doors,' and 'Here.'  Feel free to stream them and enjoy the greatness that is Visual Audio Sensory Theater, one of my favorite under-the-radar albums of the 90s.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Forgotten Gems: Jay Ferguson + Spirit

Last weekend, while picking through crates of vinyl at an Antique Jamboree, I was beckoned by the thunderous call of Jay Ferguson's Thunder Island.

It was on sale for a buck.  And although a bit dusty and well-played -- particularly the title track -- it was well worth the investment.  Thunder Island is, of course, a classic album of the Yacht Rock era.  

Heck, even if the record had been missing, the cover photo is easily worth the dollar alone...

For those uninitiated, the single "Thunder Island" is a tasty - albeit cheesy - relic of '70s soft rock.  The instantly recognizable guitar hook and "doo doo doo doo!" backing vocals suck you right in from the get-go.

The song has a Jimmy Buffet-meets-Eagles vibe to it; a song for rockin' out while sipping margaritas in some tropical paradise.  And it's fitting, because The Eagles' Joe Walsh contributed his guitar chops to much of the album.

Thunder Island was Ferguson's second, and most successful, solo outing after performing with bands such as Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne.

Now, let's dig a little deeper and discuss Spirit -- an immensely talented, yet largely forgotten band of the late '60s-'70s.

Spirit formed in 1967 with Ferguson and 15-year-old Randy California (who had been in an earlier band with Jimi Hendrix) at the songwriting helm.  Spirit's 1968 debut album was as an eclectic a mix of musical styles as any of their contemporaries, mixing hard rock with jazz, blues, country and folk.

While Ferguson wrote most of the debut's tracks, California contributed the acoustic ballad, "Taurus" -- an instrumental piece that inspired the intro to Led Zeppelin's epic "Stairway to Heaven".

While the band (in some formation) would go on to record 11 albums between 1968 and 1977, their only single to reach the Top 40 would be the 1968 follow-up, "I Got a Line On You".

"I Got a Line On You" is a hard-driving rocker with a great chorus.  It has all the workings to be a classic, but for some reason has gotten a bit lost amongst the other great singles of its time.

The band split in different directions over the next decade.  California and Ferguson each went the solo route, while other members branched out to bands including Nazareth, Heart and Firefall.

Spirit did reform in various incarnations into the early '90s.  In 1997, California was swimming in Hawaii with his family when he was tragically swept into a riptide and never seen again.

A critically heralded and ambitiously innovative band during their heyday, Spirit lives on today through their recordings, which I'd recommend looking up.  

Below is a video for "I Got a Line On You" from the band's brief reunion in 1984.  **Bonus: check out guitarist Skunk Baxter (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) jamming out in the back!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Torres - 'Strange Hellos'

'Strange Hellos' by Torres could possibly be summed up as "angsty noir."

The beginning of the tune seems to materialize straight out of the bar prominently featured in the second season of True Detective, before building up to a full-frontal sonic assault.  There is a hint of Jefferson Airplane's 'White Rabbit' as well.

Checkout the video to 'Strange Hellos' below:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Behind the Sample: The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy"

"Super Nintendo. Sega Genesis.  When I was dead broke, man I couldn't picture this."

It was all a dream for Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.

The hip/hop artist took the rap world by storm in 1994 with the release of his monumental single, "Juicy" - a personalized rags-to-riches tale that went on to sell more than a half million copies and secured his status as one of the biggest rap stars in history.  It's been called one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time by critics from Rolling Stone to The Source.

Biggie was, as his name implied, a large man. And he was a man with big dreams, who details his struggle and aspirations in "Juicy".  The song discusses his childhood ambition to become a famous rapper, and to escape from his impoverished Brooklyn upbringing.  In "Juicy", Biggie name-drops many of the artists who inspired him as a youth, including Heavy D - one of the first overweight rappers to find mainstream success.

In his early teens, Biggie started dealing drugs and found himself in and out of a jail cell, but his sights were always set on music stardom.

The opening of the song openly declares it's dedication, " all the teachers who said I'd never amount to nothin'".  Sure, many of the lyrics read like a laundry list of his lavish possessions, but for every boast he makes, he juxtaposes it with a hardship it took to get there.

The deepest message of the song lies within the chorus -- "You know very well who you are, don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars..."

It's one of the most uplifting choruses in hip/hop, speaking to all of those other kids who grow up with nothing more than a dream.

The Notorious B.I.G.'s life was cut tragically short when he was killed in a 1997 drive-by shooting, but his music - and his dream - proudly lives on.


But let it be known that the musical sample for "Juicy" dates back more than a decade earlier...

In 1983, the funk/soul group Mtume - named after founder James Mtume - released a track called "Juicy Fruit".

Mtume, an accomplished percussionist who'd previously toured with Miles Davis, formed his namesake group in the late '70s.  The band reached their height of popularity with "Juicy Fruit" - a midtempo track that proved immensely successful on R&B stations and dance clubs.  While the single never quite reached the Top 40, it still sold more than a million copies.

The popularity of "Juicy Fruit" established it as a staple in the hip/hop sampling community and has lived on successfully in various incarnations in the 30+ years since its release.  For a full list of artists who've sampled it, visit the song's Wikipedia entry.

"Cuz if ya don't know, now ya know..."

You can watch the videos to The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" and Mtume's "Juicy Fruit" below:

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Toadies - 'Away'

Toadies came in like a lion and went out like a lamb during the mid-nineties.  Dominating alt-fm radio play in 1995, the Texas band's marquee single, 'Possum Kingdom,' proved to be its Tour de Force.  The band never replicated the commercial success it enjoyed as a result of that track, even though the song's iconic call-to-action--"SO HELP ME JESUS"--remains embedded in the minds of even the most casual listener of rock radio today.

Despite the epic reach of 'Possum Kingdom,' Rubberneck nevertheless featured several other really solid punk and grunge laced anthems.  Of course 'Tyler' comes to mind, an absolutely great song which slowly builds as it relays a story set in Tyler, Texas.  And 'Backslider' was one of  Rubberneck's more punk-based of tunes.

But there is a track which is one of the band's more overlooked deep cuts:  'Away.'  Similar to 'Possum Kingdom,' 'Away' liberally borrows from the Pixies, implementing a loud-quiet-loud-quiet song structure that drives toward the ultimate pleading choral hook:  WHEN I'M AWAY , I KNOW IN MY HEART THERE IS A HEAVEEENNNN!!

Relive the greatness of this track by watching 'Away' by Toadies in the video player below:

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Zac Brown Band Feat. Chris Cornell - 'Heavy is the Head'

I never expected Grunge kingpin Chris Cornell to join forces with a country band.  But the pairing of Cornell with the Zac Brown Band is surprisingly decent.  Indeed, the match-up results in a solid Southern Rock jam.  And Cornell's unique vibrato enhances Brown's otherwise chicken-fried vocals (yes, that pun WAS intended).

Watch Zac Brown Band perform 'Heavy is the Head' with Chris Cornell live on SNL in the video player below: