Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Love: Forever Changes; The Sound of 1967

Love started out as a house band at Bido Lito's, which was located in an alley off Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. By the time their self-titled album was released on Elektra records they had already built up a strong local following. Love's music was a mixture of the British Invasion sound (most particularly The Rolling Stones) mixed with the L.A. folk rock of The Byrds, except having more of a dark sinister edge to it. They were also one of the first integrated groups, as two of their members, including vocalist and band leader Arthur Lee and guitarist Johny Echols, were African Americans.

The legacy of Love lies largely in the summer of love 1967, when they released their two most well known albums De Capo and Forever Changes. De Capo marked the end of Love's sounding like The Byrds, as they were replaced by melodic art songs with a jazzy and classical influence. Songs like "She Comes In Colors," "Stephanie Knows Who," and to the garage rock "7 and 7 Is" showcased Love's new musical style, which they were starting to turn towards. Still after De Capo, Love seemed to be on a downward spiral, as they were taking far too many drugs and not focusing on touring or recording their next album. It got to the point where Bruce Botnik brought in session musicians to record for Love. The band was so horrified that after just two songs with the session musicians they got rid of them, and in a tearful state pulled themselves together one last time to make one of the greatest records in rock history, Forever Changes.

Love: Forever Changes Album Cover

Love guitarist Bryan MacLean, who had been a roadie for the band prior to joining as a guitarist, stepped up to become a big songwriter alongside Arthur Lee. MacLean wrote the leadoff track on Forever Changes "Alone Again Or," which was actually the only hit off the album. With its flamenco break in the middle and layers of acoustic guitars and saxophone playing, "Alone Again Or" has come to be known as Love's most renowned recording. MacLean seemed to point the song in two directions, as his lyrics focused on "being in love with everyone and I think people are the greatest fun," while he would go on to say, "and I will be alone again tonight with you." This song proved that MacLean could write material right along the lines of the genius of Arthur Lee, as these two would power out all the great songs on Forever Changes. Love's producer and Engineer for Elektra Records Bruce Botnick comments in Richie Unterberger's book Eight Miles High, "Bryan brought another sensibility, as deep as what Arthur was writing, but coming from a different direction. He was very sensitive."

Forever Changes would come to be known for its cult status more than for its sales, as critics would hail it as a landmark album for a band and also a testament for something musicians could only capture once but never again touch upon in their recording careers. The album was surprisingly more popular in the United Kingdom then in America, but Love still had a cult following in places like L.A., where they were considered to be a cutting edge band just like The Doors. One of the reasons Love was never popular in the rest of America was their constant refusal to tour and support themselves as a band, as they scarcely played any shows in the 1960s outside of L.A. One of the reasons why Forever Changes was such a great album was it found Love getting back to its original folk rock roots as opposed to the 19-minute unfocused rambling of "Revelation" that was the only song on side two of the De Capo LP. As writer Richie Unterberger says in Eight Miles High, "Acoustic folk rock flavorings would resurface with a vengeance on late 1967's Forever Changes, a classic fusion of seductive melodies and gentle, shimmering guitar strums, with opaque psychedelic lyrics and Arthur Lee's choked Johnny Mathis with an intellect crooning. The Latin influenced fox hunting horns and brass added to the seductive oddity of a dreamy folk rock masterpiece. Every listen reveals new shades of good and evil struggling for the soul of Arthur Lee and the sunset strip hippiedom."

Arthur Lee; the vocalist and band leader of Love

Arthur Lee's lyrics on Forever Changes were extremely captivating and went along well with the glistening string arrangements. A great example of this is the second song on the album "A House Is Not A Motel." The song begins with wonderful acoustic strumming and then Arthur Lee's soothing voice comes in, "At my house I've got no shackles. You can come and look if you want to. In the halls you'll see the mantles. Where the light shines dim all around you, and the streets are paved with gold and if someone asks you, you can call my name." The third song off the album "Andmoreagain" is even more of an emotional ballad which, as Unterberber writes is, "so pretty on the surface, that it took awhile to get to the sad questioning, sometimes bitter observations underneath. The lyrics had a surrealistic ambiance quite different than Dylan's but rewarding and intriguing for those who took up the challenge of mulling over their meaning."

Other songs that really stood out on Forever Changes were "Old Man" and "The Red Telephone," which are built around interwoven acoustic guitars and subtle orchestration that is a sharp contrast to the sharp electric guitars that dominated Love's first two records. The lyrics in "Red Telephone Line," became Arthur Lee's most famous lines as he commented to Rolling Stone in 2003 , "When I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words." "Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die. I'll feel much better on the other side."

Drugs were undoubtably ruining the band around the time Forever Changes was released, as both Bryan MacLean and Arthur Lee were addicted to heroin. writes about the album, "While Arthur Lee and Bryan McLean wrote some of their most enduring songs for the album, the lovely melodies and inspired arrangements can't disguise an air of malaise that permeates the sessions. A certain amount of this reflects the angst of a group undergoing some severe internal strife, but Forever Changes is also an album that heralds the last days of a golden age and anticipates the growing ugliness that would dominate the counterculture in 1968 and 1969; images of violence and war haunt "A House Is Not a Motel," and the street scenes of "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hillsdale" reflects a jaded mindset that flower power could not ease."

"The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This," was another beautiful composition off Forever Changes, and its lyrics vividly depicted what it was like living in the summer of love in 1967. "Hummingbirds hum, why do they hum. Little girls wearing pigtails in the morning, in the morning. La da da, da da da da. Merry-go-rounds are going around in and all over the town in the morning, in the morning. La da da, da da da da. Summertime's here and look over there, flowers everywhere in the morning, in the morning. La da da, da da da da." The last song on Forever Changes "You Set The Scene," was the only other single released on the album besides "Alone Again, Or," and despite the fact it was not a success on the charts it was undoubtably one of the best songs off the album. The song goes through several complex transitions and is definitely the start of what would become rock operas. Especially the ending where Arthur Lee goes into the final three verses and the bridge of the song singing:

"This is the time and life that I am living and I'll face each day with a smile. For the time that I've been given's such a little while and the things that I must do consist of more than style. There are places that I am going. This is the only thing that I am sure of and that's all that lives is gonna die. And there'll always be some people here to wonder why. And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye. There'll be time for you to put yourself on. Everything I've seen needs rearranging and for anyone who thinks it's strange, then you should be the first to want to make this change. And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game, do you like the part you're playing?"

Love never were able to re-generate the same kind of amazing album after Forever Changes was released, and Bryan MacLean soon departed from the band leaving Arthur Lee as the band's lone star. As Allmusic writes about the band's songs that definitely capture the state they were in, "The promise of the psychedelic experience decays into hard drug abuse in "Live and Let Live," and even gentle numbers like "Andmoreagain" and "Old Man" sound elegiac, as if the ghosts of Chicago and Altamont were visible over the horizon as Love looked back to brief moments of warmth." The article goes on to comment, "Forever Changes is inarguably Love's masterpiece and an album of enduring beauty, but it's also one of the few major works of its era that saw the dark clouds looming on the cultural horizon, and the result was music that was as prescient as it was compelling." It is hard to believe when you hear Forever Changes that Love would never be able to recapture the magic that was on that record, but as producer Bruce Botnik is quoted in Eight Miles High, 'The band was really at the end of the road by the time Forever Changes came out. It was really Arthur and Bryan's record. The other guys were just sidemen. Some of us have a short run. Some of us have a long run. Some of us have something to say in a very short period of time." The following albums Love released were much more hard rock and the folk rock component along with its classical acoustic melodies were all but forgotten. None of these subsequent recordings Arthur Lee composed with different musicians were well received, and his genius craft as a songwriter was somehow gone. Forever Changes may not have sold that well either but at least critics regarded it as a great album, and it is still thought of as one of the best psychedelic rock albums of all time, even being ranked #40 on the Top 500 Albums of all time in Rolling Stone. As Unterberger writes, "Forever Changes, in spite of its modest impact at the time of its 1967 release, became the biggest cult album of all time, its following just growing and growing through subsequent decades and generations. Several great folk rock/psych records have been discussed in this chapter and the preceding one such as Jefferson Airplane-Surrealistic Pillow, The Byrds Younger Than Yesterday, and Buffalo Springfield-Again. But Love-Forever Changes may be the greatest of them all."

What happened to the members of Love in their lives after the 1960s ended is extremely sad when you consider the promise they once showed as musicians. Arthur Lee did absolutely nothing in the 1980s, withdrawing from the public eye and caring for his father who was dying from cancer. Lee was also arrested in California on three separate occasions, one for assault, another for drug possession and possession of an illegal firearm. He served six years in prison during the late 90s as part of the California "three strikes you're out" rule, and refused to have any visitors or contact with anyone whom he had known while incarcerated. Bryan MacLean died of an unexpected heart attack in 1998, while Lee was in jail forever ending any possibility of an original Love reunion. Arthur Lee was finally released from prison in 2001 and immediately began making up for lost years by reforming Love with original guitarist Johnny Echols. The band began performing Forever Changes in its entirety at live performances and toured all over the U.S, Europe and Australia, even releasing a 35th Anniversary Live Forever Changes album from UCLA in 2003. Love could have kept touring and bringing fans back to that special time and place they were a part of but Arthur Lee's health would not permit it as he had been diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia and died in 2006 in Memphis, Tennessee. Despite the fact Love no longer exist we will always have that music to hang on to, and if we listen to it and connect with it, it will always remain a part of us.

Arthur Lee with his good friend and fellow genius musician of the 1960s Jimi Hendrix photograph: Jeff Eisen

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Elliot Smith New Moon Review

Elliot Smith’s newest album New Moon has been posthumously released in 2007. Written and recorded between 1994 and 1997, New Moon offers two discs of unreleased material, that Smith mostly recorded by himself with a four track recorder. Some of Elliot Smith’s songs on this album sound a lot like the songs on his self titled Elliot Smith album or even Either/Or back when he was on the Kill Rock Stars record label before signing to Dreamworks and producing his albums heavily with intruments on albums like XO and Figure 8. This album was recorded in the height of Smith’s musical recording productivity as all twenty four songs on this album had never been released during his lifetime amazingly enough and plenty of them are better then the material that was on his debut album Roman Candle.

The opening track “Angel In The Snow,” has that sad, quiet sweetness of Elliot’s voice that recall many of his other best songs, along with the clean strumming of the acoustic guitar. The second song on the album “Talking To Mary,” is said to be about Elliot’s mother whom he had a rocky relationship with growing up in Texas. Smith sings this song in his usual soft pensively brooding voice “Taking to Mary, you know you don’t have to shout. She can hear what you’re thinking like you were saying it right out loud. Sure she sees behind that dirty look. It was her that followed down every step and turn you took.” Other songs recall similar themes in other Smith albums such as being a junkie, or “Going out in my car, straight to the bar where my sweattie pours the beer,” in “New Monkey.” Smith paints pictures of both hope and depression in “New Monkey,” closing out the song with the verse, “Anything is better than nothing.”

The best song on New Moon is “Looking Over My Shoulder,” with its great guitar hook and Smith’s incredible harmony in his voice. As states, “It’s catchy in that monotonously melodic kind of way Smith knew how to do best.” Smith sings the song with a slight anger in his voice, “You’re always coming over with all your friends and all their opinions I don’t want to know. And I’m looking over my shoulder, booking away with nowhere to go.”

The next song on the album “Going Nowhere,” follows a similar theme to “Looking Over My Shoulder,” in the sense that Elliot seems lost somewhere with nowhere to go and nobody to turn to. According to allmusic “There is a depth in New Moon that is more than pure sadness, that reveals a kind of self pity for Smith’s subject.” The lyrics in “Going Nowhere,” seem more sentimental of Smith longing for a more innocent time in his life full of an old lover, daydreams and old records, where things were more simple.

“The clock moved a quarter of a turn. The time it took a cigarette to burn. She said you got a lot of things to learn. Going nowhere…The steps made a pattern I'd never seen. I felt like a kid of six or seventeen. I was off in some empty day dream. Going nowhere.
It's dead and gone matter of fact. Maybe for the best, said some things you can't take back. The old records sitting on the floor. The ones I can't put on anymore. He walked over to her like before. Going nowhere.”

Elliot Smith strumming his acoustic guitar at a live show

The end of Disc One of New Moon features the original version of “Miss Misery” the song that launched Elliot Smith into stardom when he re-recorded a second more produced version for Gus Van Zant’s 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Smith was eventually nominated for an Oscar for the song and played at the Academy Awards wearing a sharp white suit. Disc Two is not nearly as strong as Disc One of New Moon as it features the song “Either/Or” which is also the name of Smith’s third album that helped get him signed to a major record label Dreamworks. Also a rendition of Ray Charles’s “Georgia, Georgia” sounds alright but not nearly on the same caliber as some of Smith’s recordings that made it on his studio albums. The same can be said for his alternate rendition of “Pretty Mary K,” which would eventually be re-recorded and sound much better being released on 2000’s Figure 8. While New Moon may not be Elliot Smith’s best recorded album, lacking some of the musical complexity that made some of his later material such as XO and From A Basement On The Hill two of his best albums, allmusic does point out that Smith’s songs were far more positive in these early 90s recordings, than they would later be towards the end of Smith’s life as he battled depression, as well as serious drug addiction and alcoholism. Allmusic writes, “That’s the overall feeling that New Moon gives, a sense of opportunity, of possibility, of life within the bleak reality. The album portrays a more stable Smith and promises something brilliant to come, full of words and chords that will touch thousands, alluding to the future and the past, but mostly, in its own quiet way, screaming to show off the immense talents of one man and his songs.” In this sense it is quite fitting that New Moon may be the last album of original Elliot Smith material to ever be released.

Elliot Smith playing "Miss Misery" live at the Oscars in 1997

Marcy Payground Concert Preview

This Sunday Marcy Playground will be playing The Red Devil Lounge on Polk St. in San Francisco. Marcy Playground may be best known for their 1998 radio smash hit “Sex and Candy” which was on their self titled debut album. “Sex and Candy” absolutely blew up the charts when it was first released, as it spent fifteen weeks at number 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks charts. Eventually Marcy Playground the album went platinum and two other hit singles were released, “St. Joe and His School Bus” and “Sherry Fraser.” Marcy Playground were highly influenced by nineties grunge music, especially their vocalist John Wozniac, who claims Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had a huge influence on him. Wozniac went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA at the height of when the Grunge movement was penetrating Seattle, so he was more than exposed to the great music coming out of the Northwest side of America.
Marcy Playground songs run in different styles and tones throughout their incredible debut album. Some of of Wozniac’s songs have a folk element to them, while others have undertones that they could be childrens songs. Some are just plain drug references, such as the first song on the album “Poppies,” and “Opium.” In “Ancient Walls Of Flowers” the sound of psychedelia makes an appearance as Wozniac sings,

“Ancient walls of flowers tumbling down, black cat petals and a smiling clown. I like to keep to keep them in a jar inside. Just enough to mess my mind inside. But I never heard you calling from the sun. Did you ever care to to shoot your silver gun. No one ever heard you calling from the moon. Did you ever care to sing your free love to.”

Such lyrics as these paint a picture that many of the songs Marcy Playground sound like. It is not surprising that the cover of the album featured a dummy face of a man with yellow flowers circling around his head in what vividly shows you what type of psychedelic songs will be on the album.

The Marcy Playground debut record cover.

While Marcy Playground may not have done much since the release of that 1998 debut album that promised so much for this future band, they should not be missed at The Red Devil Lounge. Their last two albums “Shapeshifter,” and “MP3” have not sold nearly as well as their debut album but something about this band still remains relevant today. Maybe it is because they are actually better than a lot of the other bands out there dominating the current pop music charts. They bring back good memories of a time in the late 90s when you could show up to a festival and Marcy Playground would be somewhere in the middle of the bill of a ton of great alternative acts and they were just one of a ton of great bands back then, but today we lack a lot of that great music that was coming out in that time in America.