RAY BARRETTO – Acid (1968)

Review by: Ali Ghoneim
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

When a Latin jazz musician releases an album called Acid — in 1968 no less — you would be forgiven for assuming it combines latin music with psychedelic rock. You would be forgiven, but you’d still be wrong. Not a hint, lick or indeed dab of psychedelia is on the entire thing (the eight minute long improvisation of Espiritu Libre comes close, but when the improv is this dry, it’s just called jazz). The only psychedelic thing about the album isn’t even on the album, it’s on the cover. What a waste of psychedelic font.

Not that Acid is a straightforward latin jazz record. It does draw influence from 60s soul/rock and tries to give them a latin spin, but the end result doesn’t really transform these genres in any significant way. A Deeper Shade of Soul sounds like a medley of covers rather than anything truly transcending typical soul. In fact, its melodies seem to be snatched from Twist and Shout and Summer Nights. The Soul Drummers is a bit of a slog except for that section near the end when the horns kick into high gear. And while Mercy, Mercy, Baby is a pretty good song, everything cool about it has nothing to do with the fact that Ray is belting your stock 60s soul/rock lyrics over latin percussion. Finally, Teacher of Love is Ray’s unconvincing attempt at hippy rock lyrics, not that actual hippy rock lyrics are all that convincing in the first place. Here’s a sampling:

I come to my class tonight
Don’t be late or you’ll be left behind
Cause I’m the loving loving man
I’m the teacher of love
(teacher won’t you teach me tonight!)

Stupendous. (That means it’s stupid, right?)

Where the album really shines is on its more straightforward latin tracks. All of the songs were written by Ray Barretto, a percussionist, but the real stars on display here are in the horn section. Just listen to the explosive horn riff that opens the first and best track, El Nuevo Barretto. It is the definition of a pick-me-up. Once that groove kicks, it’s hard to not let yourself be transported to a more pleasant state of mind. Think this is the kind of music George Clinton meant when he coined the term “mood control”. 

MESSER CHUPS – Surf Riders From the Swamp Lagoon (2011)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Alex Alex

The album’s very first note strikes me as particularly familiar. That rich defiant reverberating guitar sound… where have I heard that before? A tune plays in my head but I can’t remember the name, it’s an instrumental… Found it! It’s 1958’s Rebel-‘Rouser by Duane Eddy, the master of twang.

Just like Duane Eddy back in the 50’s, Messer Chups seem to build their career mostly upon instrumentals, though Eddy’s were essentially rockabilly while the Chups’ are fundamentally surf rock. Eddy’s recordings almost always sounded like soundtracks for some Western film, even when they weren’t. Similarly, Messer Chups sound like a soundtrack for some old B movie. There’s an obvious reason for this: most of this album’s melodies are drawn from old films, tv shows or albums (some are instantly recognizable, others are more obscure).

What’s interesting is how all these tunes are reinterpreted and fitted into the Chups’ own twisted scenery. Swamp Lagoon is definitely not the Beach Boys’ sunny California. This is a darker, weirder and more adventurous world which sounds just like if the B52s were throwing a party in Planet Claire for the creature from the Black Lagoon.

CAT STEVENS – Foreigner (1973)

Review by: Jimm Derby
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

This album was the fourth one released after Stevens’ “comeback” that started in 1970 with the Tea For the Tillerman, an album whose hit single “Wild World” served as a template for that album and its follow-up, Teaser and the Firecat: Acoustic-driven, folksy pop songs with questing, spiritual lyrics and gruff, passionate vocals. The hooks were not obvious, but the real magic was in the interplay of acoustic guitars, string bass, and gospel piano, with touches of Eastern and Mediterranean folk elements and melodies. With his 1972 record Catch Bull at Four he moved into a more ambitious modern sound, with synthesizers, drums, and bigger themes. The hit single from that album was Sitting, and as its title suggests, was a simpler, more meditative song than before, and songs like Angelsea and Can’t Keep It In evince a more overt spirituality that was permeating the music.
 
With Foreigner, Stevens continues with the keyboard-driven, broader sound, and makes his most ambitious track ever with the 18-minute title suite. Like most extended multi-part pieces, the lyrics are all over the place, and it drags a bit in spots, but it moves fairly quickly through the sections. The themes are mostly in the pastoral, gospel pop style, although my favorite was the last “heaven must have programmed you” section, which is a nice spritely piano pop riff repeated over and over. The opening lyrics “There are no words” seems a bit ironic; there are many words over the course of the suite, but the general gist seems to be that Cat is the foreigner, not in the social sense but spiritually, which is in tune with his general progression. He bemoans the vanity of wealth and the pop star lifestyle, and genuinely wants some kind of experience that will bring him home. Overall, I am impressed he attempted to put together a “magnum opus,” but the form doesn’t suit him, like his early cover paintings, his songs are snapshots, not panoramas or landscapes.
 
As for the other four tracks, “The Hurt” was a single and actually has a cool message that “I didn’t know about love until I was hurt,” but it has less spark than the big hits. “How Many Times” wonders about hygiene and shoe maintenance in the midst of habitual behavior, a bit slow and draggy. “Later” has one of his angriest vocals and has more of the mundane musings (“Maybe I’ll fold your clothes later!”) with gospel backup singers and driving piano. And the strange “100 I Dream” has a mystical feel with some liquid guitars and obscure lyrics.
 
This record is a bit of an oddball in his catalog. The others have colorful artwork, at least one hit single, catchy, enigmatic titles and seem to have more going on. The stark, monochromatic photo and minimalistic title belie the “faux-epic” feel within, and I had actually forgotten this record existed before doing this review. As such, it doesn’t stand with his best work, but it’s not a disappointment, either; I guess I’ll stick with my Greatest Hits and Tillerman as my go-to’s for now.

EISLEY – Currents (2013)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Nina Anatchkova

Eisley is a Texan band formed by four siblings and their cousin. They seem to put a lot of effort upon each song’s textures, and that’s one of the strengths of the album. The overall sound strongly reminds me of Florence + The Machine, especially in songs like “Real World”.
There are some really delightful moments in the album. Take for example the superb opening track built upon different layers of acoustic and electric guitar lines; the melody of the “come lay under my wing” line in “Drink The Water”, mimicked by a piano all along the song; or the gorgeous piano arpeggios in “Shelter”.
I’m usually a big supporter of “albums” as integral works of art which should be listened from beginning to end to understand each song in its context. However, in this case the fact that most of the tracks share the same mood and tempo means that, when listened thoroughly, the album may appear quite unexciting at some point. This problem is accentuated by the limitations of the singing: while the lead singer (or are there more than one lead?) is a perfectly capable one, it’s not a particularly versatile or dynamic voice. For these reasons, I believe these songs are much better appreciated when listened apart from the album, isolated or alternated with other artists contrasting songs.
Overall, Currents is a beautifully crafted indie pop-folk-rock album; a nice listening experience, and I would surely return to some of its songs.

GÉNESIS – Génesis (1974)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

Génesis, whose name should not be confused with the classic British prog-rock group’s, is a 1970s Colombian band who obviously took part of the inspiration from folksy late 60s psychedelia (something in the vein of Traffic or Spooky Tooth) and the other part from Colombian ethnic music (which itself is most probably a cross between Latin American and Native American tunes and rhythms). This 1974 self-titled offering is the band’s sophomore album and it is… an okay-to-good record. Yes, for some reason, this is pretty much the only adequate epithet I can come up with. It’s pleasant, it has nice melodies and professional musicianship, yet it is hardly anything groundbreaking or even in any way unique, apart from the fact that the album is incredibly short (only 24 minutes!) but they managed to cram 8 songs and 1 bluesy instrumental into this short running time. To be perfectly frank, after the first listen I was going to dismiss the album as generic and derivative, however these tunes grew on me on subsequent listens, and I really enjoyed the authentic American atmosphere. The album’s flow is smooth, with more folk-rock in the first half and more atmospheric “Native American” tracks (that flute-driven sound is pretty cool!) in the second half of the album. The only element that is deserving to be deemed ‘bad’ here is definitely the production – unfortunately, the album’s sound is muddy and somewhat muffled to the point that you can hardly hear some of the instruments sometimes. In some weird way this reminded me of early efforts by my favourite Russian band Aquarium who had similar production problems early on in their career, so my guess is that, like Aquarium, Génesis probably just did not have good equipment to record on. The parallels, however, do not end there – Génesis’s brand of folk-rock is at times eerily similar to what the Soviet rockers tried to do, albeit a decade later. One track that sounded especially familiar to my Russian ear was Sueñas, Quieres, Dices – listen to Aquarium’s early stuff and you’ll get what I mean.

Overall – I’m not sure I will ever return to this band, but the experience was enjoyable and rewarding.

BURNING – Madrid (1978)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

“En La Elipa nací y Ventas es mi reino, y para tu papá, nena, soy como un mal sueño.”

From the streets of La Elipa in post-francoist Spain came Burning, delivering ‘good old rock and roll’ to the madrileño public with their debut album. Lyrically, the album ranges from common rock and roll rebellion (“Sábado noche con mi chica voy a salir, cogeré el coche díselo a papa…”) to more local references (“Tendrás que sentir las caricias de Madrid sobre tu piel”) and slang (“voy hacerte un coco y chulearte la piba por el morro”).

Musically, we find piano driven rock and roll in ‘Rock’n’roll Mama’, a power ballad in ‘Lujuria’, and even an attempt at a multi-section epic in the closing track. There’s also some hints of glam rock here and there. However, for most of the songs, the main musical influence is clear, too clear: The Rolling Stones. Swap the singer for a Mick Jagger impersonator in some of these songs and you would easily end up with a Rolling Stones tribute band. All right, I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but not too much. In tracks like ‘Madrid’ or ‘Mientelas’ they channel the Stones’ sound and attitude in a very close way, at least instrumentally. In ‘Hey Nena’ they even imitate the background vocal “woo woo’s” of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

That’s not to say this band just copies and does not deserve your attention. Burning’s debut may not be innovative, but it succeeds at its purpose. This band is really good at what they’re doing. They avoid the artificiality and dullness of sound of which many late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s attempts of recreating classic rock and roll and rhythm and blues suffer. These songs are fun and spirited and the album is completely enjoyable. The album is pretty consistent but if I’ll have to choose a highlight it would probably be the opening track with its catchy chorus: “Ah no, sin vivir en Madrid no lo entenderás”. I’ve never lived in Madrid and I may not fully understand what this men are singing about; but I believe their message is getting through pretty well anyway (and if it’s not, nevermind. This is good rock music).

THE KINKS – Preservation: Act 1 (1973)

Review by: Graham Warnken
Album assigned by: Alejandro Muñoz G

I had never actually listened to The Kinks before outside of a few isolated songs, so I was excited to do my first full album by them. Unfortunately, I think I’m forced to agree with the mostly negative reception it’s gotten.

The production is uniformly wonderful, which is a big plus, and musically a lot of the songs are pleasing enough. If there’s a plot to this rock opera, however, I can’t see one. Worse yet, the lyrics are utterly grating. Davies wants to be a cutting satirist but he paints with far too broad a brush and far too simple a sentiment to come off as anything other than smarmy a lot of the time. Where Randy Newman’s satire is horrifyingly cruel because it’s laced with empathy and pity, Davies clearly considers himself above most of the people he’s describing and treats them as such. It’s not amusing, it’s obnoxious.

As said above, I mildly enjoyed a good deal of the album’s melodies, but they can’t rescue it from the lyrics for me. Having seen that this is generally considered the beginning of the end for the band, though, it won’t deter me from eventually seeking out their earlier work.