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3 Albums That Changed My Life (First in a periodic series, when I feel like writing about them)

I don’t much go for those games on Facebook where you’re asked to list albums - “with no explanation” that you appreciate and all the tagging that encourages other people to join in. I didn’t like chain mail the old-fashioned postage stamp way. In similar fashion I don’t like being cajoled into playing social media chain mail, either. Yeah, call me a crank.

That being noted, I like reading some of the lists. For today’s blogging, here’s a list that requires no forwarding or tagging. However, feel free to comment on my list or respond back with you own if so moved. There are no rules. Yes - I provide my explanations. This is not a ranked list. Number 3 could easily be number 1 and so forth. Record label is listed in parenthesis. Here we go:

1) Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers - Free For All (Blue Note): Art Blakey might very well be my favorite jazz musician of all time. As the leading light of the Jazz Messengers (a multi-decade training ground for many jazz luminaries), Blakey brought a thunderous, gloriously musical cacophony to hard bop, and a delicate, swinging touch when the music called for it.

 Free For All

Recorded in 1964 and released a year later by Blue Note Records, Free For All presents the Messengers at their most muscular, forceful and fantastic. I think of this record has “heavy metal bop” even more so than “hard bop”. The lineup is one of Blakey’s very best: Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, piano ably comped by Cedar Walton, and furious bass lines deployed by the legendary Reggie Workman. Blakey is absolutely cataclysmic as he works the drum kit.

There are four tracks present on the issued release: “Free For All”, “Hammer Head”, “The Core”, and “Pensativa”. The latter track presents a more playful latin feel. The three preceding it are relentless. 

What did I learn from this record? Play with heart as if your life depended on it.

2) Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica (Straight/Reprise): I read a lot about this record as a teenager who was (and is) heavily into Frank Zappa. However, I never saw it anywhere until I found it in the bins of WHEI radio (Heidelberg College) where I soon was playing selections from this record on air.

Trout Mask Replica

 Don Van Vliet (“Captain Beefheart) was not a trained musician, although a naturally talented blues singer who emulated Howlin' Wolf. By the time of this, their third LP (a double album), Van Vliet fully realized an angular, avant-garde vision for a blues form uniquely his own. Delta blues, free jazz (of sorts) and poetry collide and bounce within an ominous storm of dissonance and random constructions. The album was produced by Zappa, who was apparently awe struck that such seemingly deconstructed “songs” were actually carefully composed, rehearsed and then recorded pretty much straight through without many re-takes. As it turned out, Van Vliet would play random passages on a piano (again, he had no training on the instrument), and would have drummer John French tape record passages that Van Vliet liked the most. The dedicated French would transcribe these passages into written scores, and the band members steadfastly rehearsed their parts. Remarkable.

 A caveat: Trout Mask Replica is most assuredly NOT the album for first time Beefheart listeners (Try “Safe As Milk” or “Clear Spot” for that mission). For the adventurer, though, this album is an absolute must.

 With 28 tracks, there’s a LOT of information here, and it takes a hearty soul to sit through it all. Yet, I’ve listened to this album straight through and I always learn something along the way.

The first three tracks alone are worth checking out: “Frownland”, “The Dust Blows Forward and The Dust Blows Back”, and “Dachau Blues”. “Moonlight in Vermont” is perhaps the best known selection from the LP. Side Two in its entirely is too spectacular for me to go on in detail, but I’ll give “Dali’s Car” a special mention.

All this, and you get band members with stage/recording names like “Drumbo”, “Zoot Horn Rollo”, “Rockette Morton”, “Antennae Jimmy Semens”, and “The Mascara Snake” and you know you’re in for a life changing experience.

What did I learn from this record? NOTHING can stop you from expressing your art IN THE WAY YOU THAT PLEASES YOU. Your artistic limits are your own. Do it your way.

3) Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (SST). Picture this, if you will. 1984... This author is sitting in the Heidelberg College library reading an issue of Rolling Stone and comes across a five-star review of a double album by a speed-punk band out of Minneapolis. The cover of three silhouettes walking among a trash heap of old automobiles was eye-catching enough. The description of the music was all the more enticing. 

 Zen ArcadeNow, I was in rural Ohio with no money to buy records, and finding such an LP at the local mall was out of the question. Huey Lewis and The News dominated the charts. As such, it took some time for me to finally get my hands on Zen Arcade, and it did not disappoint.

Bob Mould and Grant Hart (guitarist and drummer, respectively) both sang and wrote their own songs. Greg Norton played manic bass guitar. The aural turbulence belies the fact that there are actual melodies present throughout (well, except when Mould is basically screaming on tracks like “Pride”). Add in a few oddments like the chanting “Hare Krishna” and the album closing “Reoccurring Dreams” (proof positive that punk CAN BE psychedelic) and you have a masterpiece on your hands.

What did I learn from this record? Noise and melody are not mutually exclusive. A good song is a good song no matter what genre.

Comments Section

Zen Arcade is a great choice. Songs and Stories is the Husker Du album that really opened my ears.

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