Sunday, February 23, 2014

Rebel Yell

Billy Idol - Rebel Yell - 1983

The VVers have had this one in the collection for a while, but it took an impending, no expectations concert at Wolf Trap to get us really spinning it.  Billy and company totally delivered at that show as does this excellent LP.  Before this album, VVer #1 used to think of Billy Idol as a singles kind of guy.  Great radio tracks from uninteresting full lengths.   Still, he's very likable and, having seen him play live at the 2005 HFStival once before, this VVer was compelled to check out some of his early releases.

Billy breaks "punk" into the mainstream by singing with a hint of Elvis, and more than a few dashes of Jerry Lee Lewis.  His snarl and scream is equaled out by a low pitched, conversational delivery.  As a frontman it's his contrasting between howling and crooning that makes him stand out.  Axe-man Steve Stevens and producer Keith Forsey reunite on Rebel Yell, the follow-up to Idol's self titled first LP.  The title track is a screeching, opening single with Stevens' blistering guitar torching everything in its path.  It has so much propulsive energy and catchy hooks that it almost totally overshadows the remainder of the album.  That said, it would be a crime not to survey the other great material here.  The jazzy and seductive "Eyes Without a Face" has the requisite synths and keyboard hand-claps you would expect from an 80's hit.  To just mention the hand-claps is not doing this song justice.  It is in fact the synth hand-claps that make the song.  No hand-claps = "Song Without a Soul."  According to VVer #2, "when I think of hand-claps tracks, I think of this song."  We dig the hand-claps.  Got it!?!  What's more, the peak of the track has a rap like portion done over a shredding, slow riff which then careens into a weird siren squeak.  It's gnarly.  Stevens' guitarmanshipness (new word!) shows an amazing capacity for pop and heaviness from moment to moment.

Don't let Stevens' guitar riffage or Idol's yells mislead you however; there is a fair amount of 80's fluff on this album, especially heard on "Blue Highway" -- also known as the most forgettable song on the album.  Rebel Yell has some upbeat tinkling guitars peppering the songs -- almost like a harp at times.  Side B songs "Flesh for Fantasy," "Catch My Fall," and "Do Not Stand in the Shadows" all share this continuity of tone.  Add in some nicely rounded guitar bends, Billy's oohs and ahhs, and some majestic synth percussion and you've got pop rock of the 80's.  The chug-a-lug tempo of "Do Not Stand in the Shadows" will possess you with the urge to do your best Clair Standish dance.  (Interesting that Keith Forsey also produced the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club.)  The track is laced with Stevens' pyrotechnics along with glimpses of 50's do-wop flip-flopping with heavy metal.  It's an odd combo that works surprisingly well.  Lyrically Billy keeps it lean.  It's easy to sing along with, not too deep, and generally fun.  Exception to this is "Dead Next Door," a super slow ballad that comes on like a lullaby... about dead people?  It's a strange way to close out the album considering the thunderous start.  They play it 100% straight.

A million hair metal slow dances later and you have to wonder how they pull off all the merging styles.  Sure, pure punk fans won't be swayed.  Billy and company break way to many rules for that.  Just look at how pretty the glamour shot photos are!  Metal fans were also likely confounded.  Pop folks looking at the colorful and in your face album cover were probably the most curious and confused.  "What is this?"  To better understand how it all works one must only look at Billy's background coming from the original English punk movement, first as a fan, but shortly afterwards fronting the defining late 70's group Generation X.  They were punk in many ways, but also felt a tremendous influence from 60's pop and a massive pull towards glam rock and what would become 80's hair metal.  Such a blend could only work if you were a sneering, spiked blonde haired, leather clad bastard.

Of note on the inner sleeve and LP the sides are labeled 3 and 4.  An implication that Billy, Steve, and Keith were merely continuing their work from the generally fun but inferior first album; continuing the work and massively improving upon it.  There are a few moments on Rebel Yell that border on corn, but the bulk here is instant classic.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy

Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy - 1954

Starting off this stellar record is "St. Louis Blues."  You won't be able to get enough of this rendition.  We play it again and again.  The horns churn up a rocking tempo for this dusky number.  Clocking in at nearly nine minutes it is full of frequent back-and-forth vocals.  Jazz vocals usually don't make the cut for the VVers, especially not female vocals.  However, the W. C. Handy classics played by Louis Armstrong and his band set the scene for some flawless bluesy-jazz singing.  Besides Armstrong's always-pleasing, grizzly voice and distinct personality, credit must go to frequent collaborator, Velma Middleton.  Her rich old-timey voice (it probably didn't sound "old-timey" then) is the perfect accompaniment for Armstrong's tooting trumpet.  Although it's "the blues," it sure does sound like these two singers are having a grand time.  Speaking of Armstrong's trumpet, it is powerful enough to provide a narrative in most of the songs; lyrics aren't needed.

"Yellow Dog Blues" follows with a slow start that gradually morphs into a closing "Cha cha cha chaaaaaaaaah, tooot!"  A swinging version of "Loveless Love" is about as "oldie but goodie" sounding as they get, reminiscent of "When the Saints Go Marching In."  There are some slower tracks as well to even out the tempo like "Aunt Hagar's Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" (seven of eleven tracks on this albums have "Blues" in their title, so you know it's the blues).  What is clear in these songs is that every piece of the music is played with purpose.  Bleating horns or piano flourishes are integral parts of the whole, not just there just to fill out the songs.  "Long Gone" is just a fun one, full of story-telling and even laughing during the lyrics.  You can hear the rest of the band in the background "Whoo-yeah!" -- the modern equivalent of getting juiced for a guitar solo -- when Louis and company are set to rip into a finale.  These guys are pumped up!  There's an up-tempo, walking bassline that leads into a drum solo on the quick and tight "Ole Miss" that is about as catchy an anything these VVers have ever listened to.

Back cover notes, by celebrated producer George Avakian, are solid.  They are dense.  Possibly even printed in 4 pt font.  Regardless, if you have to use a magnifying glass, the back cover gives exacting back story of the songs that Armstrong chose from Handy's collection.  It's good stuff, but not for this blog.

Hard to believe this record is 60 years old this year.  The recording has aged extremely well -- sounding just a lively as when it was first committed to wax.  Full disclosure is that we haven't knowingly heard any of Handy's music before.  We are really just taking this album for what it is.  A masterpiece of composition, talent, and energy.  It is a joyous blues classic.