Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Supremes Album (Part 3)

Rating and reviewing the final nine Supremes studio albums from 1970's New Ways but Love Stays through 1976's Mary, Scherrie, and Susaye, and selecting the best hits packages and live discs from the group! These discs might hail from the post-Diana Ross years, but don't let that prevent you from taking a look at this column! This era produced much of the most criminally underrated music in their entire catalog.  

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Albums from the Lost and Found: Tales of Mystery and Imagination

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

                                                       Original 1976 cover

                                                       Original 1976 cover

Alan Parsons became a part of rock history before he ever made his first album, having served as the assistant engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road and the head engineer behind Pink Floyd’s masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons would shortly after try his hand at producing, going on to produce several big-selling albums for singer-songwriter Al Stewart (including Modern Times, Year of the Cat, and Time Passages) and early discs from Ambrosia (who would go on to soft-rock superstardom with “How Much I Feel” and “Biggest Part of Me”) and John Miles, as well as the enduring Top Five single “Magic” by ‘70s one-hit-wonders Pilot. (“Oh, oh, it’s magic, you know / Never believe it’s not so!”)

By the mid-‘70s, Parsons – who, similar to fellow producer Quincy Jones, seldom ever actually sang lead vocals on any of his own self-billed records, usually confining himself musically to the role of arranger and keyboard wizard – was sufficiently confident in his abilities as a writer and performer to turn the spotlight on himself and consequently formed the Alan Parsons Project with Eric Woolfson. Naturally, with Parsons’ background as one of the most renowned engineers in the business, the pair’s albums were consistently textbook-worthy examples of sound and production at its finest, and it’s not surprising that the band’s catalog has been a magnet for audiophiles of all kinds, 1977’s I Robot (based on the Isaac Asimov book of the same name) becoming one of the most wildly-popular titles in Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s ongoing series of original-master-recording reissues.

 The band’s very model was rather revolutionary for its time, in fact: neither of the band’s two fixed and principal members opted to be the group’s full-time vocalist, in spite of Woolfson being a fine vocalist with a warm baritone. Instead, the band creatively decided to employ a deliberately-ever-rotating cast of lead vocalists. [Naturally, such a construct would make touring a bit of a challenge, but the Alan Parsons Project was always intended to be little more than a studio experiment, and, true to its nature, the band didn’t make its concert debut until the dawn of the Nineties, surprisingly enough!] Over the years, the Project would employ such notable names as the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Steve Harley, Pilot’s Dave Paton, the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker as lead singers. But the voice behind most of the band’s hit singles was typically either that of Woolfson himself (at Arista’s insistence, Woolfson would gradually take on more of the vocal duties over the years to help give the band a recognizable trademark at radio) or that of frequent Parsons collaborator Lenny Zakatek, who sings lead on their hits “Games People Play,” “Damned If I Do,” and “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.”

The conceptual album that would serve as their debut, 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, their lone release on 20th Century Records before signing to Arista, nearly matched the band’s unique lineup in sheer adventurousness and ambition. The album – the most heavily prog-influenced album the pair would ever make together – is a thematic affair comprised exclusively of musical adaptations of poems and short stories from Edgar Allen Poe. It’s certainly an unusual concept for any act to make their debut with, never mind one that doesn’t even tour, so you have to suspect that 20th Century fretted over how they might be able to sell the disc, but Parsons’ reputation went a long way towards stoking listeners’ curiosity.   

The disc has a moderately confusing release history, not in the least since the cover art was changed when the disc was reissued in 1977. The original cover was restored when the album finally came out on CD in 1987, but the album itself had been modified significantly, as Parsons had gone back to update and modernize the production, add additional instrumentation, and even add narration from the legendary Orson Welles! Some purists understandably howled, but the changes arguably made the album even more captivating. (Fans of the original were later placated when Mobile Fidelity released an audiophile CD reissue of the original 1976 masters in 1994. In 2007, Universal would issue a double-disc deluxe version of the album that contained both the 1976 and 1987 versions for side-by-side comparison along with eight rarities.)

                                            Revised cover, 1977 reissue

                                            Revised cover, 1977 reissue

The album’s complicated history aside, its actual musical content is stunning. Parsons and Woolfson cleverly and wisely enlist Parsons’ production clients as backing musicians, so all the members of both Pilot and Ambrosia are utilized here. [Strangely enough, neither Pilot’s lead singer (David Paton) nor Ambrosia’s (David Pack) are employed as lead vocalists here and are instead featured almost exclusively as guitarists.] There are two featured instrumentals here, the album-opening “A Dream Within a Dream” and the sixteen-minute tour de force “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the latter of which sports acoustic guitar work from future Wings member Laurence Juber, lush orchestrations conducted and arranged by Andrew Powell (the producer of Kate Bush’s debut disc The Kick Inside), and, on the 1987 remix, dramatic narration from Welles.

But it’s the vocal tracks that arguably make the biggest impression here, not in the least due to the great cast of talent the pair has recruited to their cause. The Hollies’ Terry Sylvester takes the mike on the closing cut, “To One in Paradise,” and also shares lead on “The Cask of Amontillado.” The enigmatic and wildly influential Arthur Brown – the eccentric former leader of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who came just one spot shy of topping the U.S. singles charts in 1968 with their lone hit, “Fire” – unexpectedly resurfaces to fittingly provide lead vocals on the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which is every bit as terrifying here in musical form as the Poe poem itself is in literary form. Parsons himself takes a rare lead vocal – albeit through a vocoder – alongside famed actor Leonard Whiting (the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet) on “The Raven.”

Most memorable of all, though, is the straightforward-yet-punchy art-rock of “(The System of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” one of the more lyrically unlikely Top 40 hits of the ‘70s. (It just snuck onto the survey, peaking at #37.) The track is so well-performed that it’s hard to pinpoint what the most dynamic element of the recording is. Woolfson’s keyboard work defines the word “bouncy,” while the members of Pilot (particularly drummer Stuart Tosh and guitarist Ian Bairnson) do a remarkable job of keeping along and punch up the track a great deal with their assertive playing.  Jack Harris, meanwhile, contributes some attention-grabbingly low-pitched backing vocals to great atmospheric effect and guest vocalist John Miles injects just the right amount of soul into his delivery. [Miles would soon have a hit of his very own, his 1977 Rupert Holmes-produced disc Stranger in the City spawning a U.S. Top 40 single in “Slow Down.”]   

For a band that never actually appeared in concert, the Project would ultimately rack up an almost staggering number of hits – they’d have eight Top 40 hits in all, four of them Top Twenty hits. Their biggest hit is the Woolfson-sung 1982 Number Three hit “Eye in the Sky” from the album of the same name, but as sizable a hit though that title cut was, it’s not even the most ubiquitous track from that disc these days – the album-opening instrumental, “Sirius,” has become a common fixture at sports events worldwide, even being regularly utilized by the Chicago Bulls during the ‘90s as background music for the introduction of its starting lineup.       

The Great (Live) Albums: Radiohead’s ‘I Might Be Wrong’

The Great (Live) Albums is our new bimonthly column taking a look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in to an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

IMightBeWrong_front.jpg

I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, Radiohead (2001, Parlophone/Capitol)

Writing about music is new territory for me. I’ve always been a fan, of course. But until now my blogging background has centered solely on the topic of movies. The truth is, when I pitched Great Albums Majordomo B. Lambusta on the idea for this column, I honestly wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. After all, I’m not really a musician (unless fumbling Peavey-practice-amp covers of “Miserlou” count) and I don’t know anything about music theory (just what I remember as third-chair French horn in our awful high school’s awful band, 20 long years ago.)

I was afraid I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to properly unpack what it was I actually liked about the albums I’d be writing about. But now that I’ve done it a bit, it’s clear that thinking critically about music really isn’t that different from thinking critically about film. And when writing about movies, the thing I’m most drawn to is atmosphere. The same goes for music.

Atmosphere—how a piece of art feels and whether or not that feeling is clearly and consistently sustained—is way more interesting, in my opinion, than characters or plot. It’s why I revere filmmakers like David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Their stories may make little logical sense, but they make perfect emotional sense, honing in on indescribable psychological states and acutely reproducing them with pictures and sound.

This, I think, is also why I love Radiohead. The Oxford eggheads—frontman Thom Yorke, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, drummer Phil Selway, and bassist Colin Greenwood—are fucking great at conjuring atmosphere, using dense soundscapes and atypical song structures, along with nonspecifically ominous word-salad nonsense lyrics, to summon an all-encompassing vision of nerdy, numbed-out dystopia. Such world building is achievement enough in the studio. But it’s the band’s ability to stay true to each song’s sonic intent while simultaneously injecting an extra layer of twitchy, thrilling energy for live performance that truly strikes me as impressive.

The album's not-very-legible back cover. Artsy, no?

The album's not-very-legible back cover. Artsy, no?

I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings—released in 2001 and collecting performances of seven Kid A and Amnesiac tracks, plus one comparatively upbeat acoustic outlier—presents the best of Radiohead’s prescient early-‘aughts future-panic in one slim, approachable package. It also, not for nothing, TOTALLY ROCKS.

Recorded at various dates along the band’s 2001 tour, I Might Be Wrong—named after the world-destroying Amnesiac track that absolutely crushes here—falls into a unique live-album subgenre. It’s neither a condensed survey of a single performance (as was our last entry), nor a cherry-picked selection of tracks spanning the group’s entire career. It’s probably best to think of Wrong as a “best-of” this particular tour/era: arguably Radiohead’s peak as a commercial force, critical darling, and—most importantly—concert draw.

The album opens with everyone’s favorite itchy-sweater funk banger, “The National Anthem.” The thing that really strikes me about this leadoff track (and throughout the record) is the separation in the mix. Far from being crushed into the same static-soup sound-wave spectrum, Radiohead is able to reproduce the studio track’s bottom-end crunch while foregrounding the song’s persistently creepy, Theremin-esque high tone, sustained high in the atmosphere for basically the song’s entire runtime.

Track #2 is the titular “I Might Be Wrong,” which might as well be a Big Black song for all its metallic grind and muscular pessimism. I’m also not sure if that’s actually Phil Selway playing the kit or some sort of mechanical contraption, but either way it’s the kind of drum sound that, past a certain volume level, can really put a lot of stress on the sternum.

Wrong then stretches out for a moody two-song suite of mid-tempo dread: “Morning Bell,” and “Like Spinning Plates.” On Amnesiac, “Plates” unspools as a Twin Peaks-inspired backwards-masking nightmare. But here, the band plays it straight, unearthing a beautifully sad piano bed for Yorke’s unprocessed voice to soar above. I’ll always prefer this version of “Plates” to its studio equivalent, which I think holds true for all of the Amnesiac tracks represented here, if not necessarily those from Kid A.

After the electro-minded “Idioteque” the album’s peak moment finally arrives: a discursive an improvisatory “Everything in Its Right Place,” stretched out to nearly eight minutes of looping and layering, pitch-shifting Yorke’s voice to create a buzzing locust-swarm chant of the lyric, “There are/Two colors/In my head.The effect is utterly hypnotic. If anything, it reminds me of modernist composer Steve Reich’s early tape-loop milestone “It’s Gonna Rain,” forebodingly reinvented for the new millennium.

“Everything” gives way to “Dollars and Cents”—sort of an aural callback to the “Morning Bell”/“Like Spinning Plates” one-two punch from earlier. And then, something completely different to wrap things up: the simple, sweet uplift of “True Love Waits.” Featuring some heavy stadium-amplified acoustic strumming and Yorke’s folkie crooning, it’s an odd button to end the record on. Especially since the song wouldn’t appear on a proper Radiohead album until 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and in a much different form. But it’s a cathartic end to 35 straight minutes of doom and gloom—a breath of fresh air, gulped down deeply and appreciatively. In other words: atmosphere worth breathing in.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)