The Youngbloods – Elephant Mountain

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Known primarily as a folk rock group, The Youngbloods branch out with their third album. Released in 1969 on RCA Records, Elephant Mountain shows dramatic growth from the band’s earlier efforts. Between the second and third album, Jerry Corbit, the lead guitarist and songwriter, departed the band, leaving Jesse Colin Young to take the reins as de facto leader. This personnel change combined with the physical move from New York City to Marin County, CA, led to a change in direction for The Youngbloods. Elephant Mountain incorporates a variety of sounds and styles into the band’s traditional repertoire. The Youngbloods’s folk and jug band roots are complemented with edgy blues guitar riffs, jazz-infused improvisational instrumentals and pop rock harmonies. For example, the opening riff of “Sham” is something that sounds like it could come straight off a hard blues rock album. While the song is remarkably different from most of their earlier material, it seems to fit nicely with this new identity. Also building on this new identity is the song “Smug.” This song is a psychedelic pop song that seems to come directly from the streets of 1960s San Francisco. Despite the somber title and subject matter, the song sounds happy and idyllic and uses vocal studio effects common with this bubblegum pop-style of music. Even on earlier albums, it was evident that these musicians were talented instrumentalists, but on Elephant Mountain they really show their colors. There are several instrumental songs including “On Sir Francis Drake” and “Trillium” that demonstrate the band’s jazz-infused improvisational skills. “On Sir Francis Drake” in particular seems to allow each band member room to experiment and grow, making for an extremely groovy jazz rock song that no one would expect from a folk rock group born in Greenwich Village. For those that might be thinking that The Youngbloods seem to have lost touch with their folksy roots––do not fear. The Youngbloods perform a variety of very solid tunes that would be much more likely to attract fans of their traditional music. The opening song on the album, “Darkness, Darkness” is a solid folk/bluegrass number written by Jesse Colin Young that features Charlie Daniels (of The Charlie Daniels Band fame) on the fiddle. In addition to playing fiddle on “Darkness, Darkness,” Charlie Daniels also produced this album, so there are plenty of folk/country/bluegrass tones throughout the album. “Darkness, Darkness” is particularly somber, but the style and musicianship makes for a phenomenal opening track. “Rain Song” and “Black Mountain Breakdown” are also songs that will appeal to the more folk-loving fans of The Youngbloods. “Rain Song” actually still features Jerry Corbit, as it was recorded before he left the band. Thus, the song is not unlike much of the band’s earlier works. Although the album features a lot of growth and development, it is not so far from the band’s roots as to upset fans of previous albums. The album starts with a nice layer of folk rock and then incorporates these new sounds and styles throughout the album. Old fans and new alike will find something to enjoy, although given the variety of styles, it is likely that each listener may find one or two songs they don’t prefer. When all is said and done, Elephant Mountain is a solid third album, worthy of picking up at your next visit to the record store.  B+

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The Best of 2013

Since I’ve had the opportunity to review so many albums this year, I thought it might be fun to try and make a top ten list. This list represents the ten albums that have stuck with me the most this year––the ones that not only sound good on a first or second listen but also on a third, fourth or fifth listen. These are albums that I return to time and again, and I’ve done my best to narrow it down to ten.

 

10. Reflections by Terry Knight and the Pack –– This album is Bob Dylan meets psychedelic garage rock. Although it clearly rips of major bands of the mid-60s, Reflections is, in its own way, beautiful and innovative. [original review: January 2013]

9. Now and Then by Michael Rabon & the Five Americans –– This album is perfect for the 60s psychedelic rock enthusiast. They masterfully blend mainstream rock ‘n’ roll with the San Francisco subculture of the 60s. [original review: December 2012]

8. The Mugwumps by The Mugwumps –– A collaborative group of future rock gods including Grace Slick blends folk, pop and rock in a catchy and pleasing way. This album grows on you the more you listen to it. [original review: April 2013]

7. A Long Time Comin’ by The Electric Flag –– This albums seeps blues rock with every guitar riff. It is one of the most technically impressive albums reviewed on this blog; Mike Bloomfield may be one of the most underrated guitarists ever. [original review: July 2013]

6. The American Breed by The American Breed –– Despite their bizarre album cover, these jazz-influenced rockers bring style and surprise with every note. They even blend a bit of psychedelic rock with their jazz style. [original review: June 2013]

5. Competition Coupe by The Astronauts –– This album is the epitome of American hot rod music. Their up-tempo surf rock style is the foundation for garage rock and protopunk for years to come. [original review: December 2013]

4. Electric Comic Book by Blues Magoos –– This album is a blend of psychedelic rock and blues that could have only come from the 60s. It’s creative and smart and will leave you itching for more. [original review: December 2012]

3. Projections by The Blues Project –– As their name suggests, The Blues Project is deep with soulful blues numbers ranging from covers to originals. Either way, their sound is always fresh and always worthwhile. [original review: December 2012]

2. It Ain’t Me Babe by The Turtles –– This album is the quintessential folk pop album with covers from the great Bob Dylan and a couple originals thrown in as well. Everything is beautifully composed and leaves you aching for more. [original review: September 2013]

1. Back Door Men by The Shadows of Knight –– Everything about this album is perfect––from the song selection, to the guitars, to the tempo. This album is protopunk, garage rock and blues wrapped in the spirit of underground 60s music. [original review: March 2013]

The Electric Flag – A Long Time Comin’

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Combining blues, rock, soul, pop, R & B, rockabilly, psychedelic, and jazz, The Electric Flag’s A Long Time Comin’ is a cross section of the middle 60s. Released on Columbia in 1968, this debut album brings musical diversity to a whole new level. Touting such future stars as Jimi Hendrix’s future drummer (Buddy Miles), Bob Dylan’s bassist (Harvey Brooks), and one of the most respected guitarists of all time (Michael Bloomfield), The Electric Flag’s short but sweet tenure laid the foundation for some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest musicians. While the band’s plethora of musical styles makes them difficult to categorize, this variety allows them the freedom genre-bending, genre-bashing, and just plain experimentation. For example, the song “Wine” is a traditional rockabilly number infused with the energy of soul music. Picture James Brown singing with Bill Haley’s Comets playing backup. And it sounds great! This sort of fearless experimentation allows each band member to bring his strength to the table without being overwhelmed by all of the others. Many of the songs start off as seemingly predictable pop rock numbers only to become suddenly infused with a few blues guitar licks or a psychedelic sounding keyboard. Although the band’s experimentation is not always successful and can even be less than satisfactory on some tracks, overall the members show a willingness to grow with each and learn from each other’s strength. The band’s experimental nature comes to a pinnacle with the 9-minute epic, “Another Country.” This song comprises the band’s variety of styles segueing from psychedelic ambiance to smooth jazz to blues guitar and into depths than can only be described as unclassifiable. Perhaps the best way of defining the band’s sound is a quote on the subject from the man behind the phenomenal guitar riffs, Michael Bloomfield. “I think of it as the music in the air, on the air, in the streets; blues, soul, country, rock, religious music, traffic, crowds, street sounds and field sounds, the sound of people and silence.” But wait! for those of you who may be feeling turned off by all the talk of genre-crossing, there is still a gem here for you. “Texas” is a blues number that can only be described as godlike. This is the track that would give The Electric Flag credibility with even the highest of blues masters. It is pure Texas blues as only Texas blues can be. Whether you prefer the pure blues sound or the 60s experimental blues and soul rock, there’s no denying that these musicians are talented. From here, many of them would go on to play with the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll history. In 2003, Bloomfield was listed as the 22nd greatest guitarist of all time in Rolling Stone magazine. After hearing this album you’ll understand why.  B+

The Box Tops – Dimensions

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The main reason I picked up this album is because of the cover. It’s one of those covers that just screams 60s psychedelic music, so I bought it. Dimensions is the last album The Box Tops would release. (They later released a reunion album, Tear Off!, in 1998 after a 30-year hiatus.) The album was released in 1969 by Bell Records. While all of the members of the band stayed in the music industry after The Box Tops’ breakup, none of them would ever find such success again. The band reunited in the late 90s and toured together throughout the early 2000s. The first song on Dimensions is perhaps their most popular. “Soul Deep” is a classic on oldies stations of today. It’s a classic example of the blue-eyed soul that The Box Tops became famous for. It’s a very radio-friendly song: nothing too risky, something for everyone. The next song is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” It’s a great song to cover for a soul band. They generally stick true to Dylan’s rendition. “Midnight Angel” follows with the first dose of psychedelic injected into the album. While it’s not as well known as the first two songs, it’s the most experimental and interesting of the three. “Together” is a love song that is another solid blue-eyed soul song. It’s not particularly unique or complex, but it’s makes for a good oldies jam. The next song, “I’ll Hold Out My Hand” is similar to the previous in both its sound and context. It’s a classic oldies love song, a little too cookie-cutter perhaps. The final song on the first side of the album is “I Must Be the Devil.” This song was so Chicago-style bluesy that I was shocked to find out it’s not a cover of a blues master. It’s an original jam written by Alex Chilton, the lead guitar player. It’s a slow, sweet love-makin’ sound: a perfect way to close the first side. Speaking of love makin’––”Sweet Cream Ladies,” a song supporting prostitutes, opens up side two of the album. Although it promotes an idea perhaps ahead of its time, the song is truly beautiful in its simple, repetitive approach to a psychedelic beat. This song gets the second side started off in the right direction. “(The) Happy Song” comes exactly as advertised. It’s an upbeat melody that will make you sway your hips and put a smile on your face. The next song, “Ain’t No Way” is a cover of Neil Diamond. It has more horns and more blues than Neil’s rendition. Actually, that’s an understatement: it blows Neil’s version out of the water. The final song of the album, “Rock Me Baby” is the reason this album is on this blog. It’s a psychedelic bluesy jam. This song shows off the depth of the musicians’ ability. They display their ability to improvise and groove with each other. It’s by far the best song on the album. Although the album is very good without this song, “Rock Me Baby” just takes it up another level. Overall the album gets better the deeper you get into it. A couple of the songs on side one might be a little too radio friendly for fans of this blog, but the album gets bluesier and better as it progresses. The album has a thin but audible psychedelic sprinkling throughout: just enough to make psychedelic rock/pop fans happy to own it. If you like this blog, buy this album.  A-

Michael Rabon & the Five Americans – Now and Then

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I picked up Michael Rabon & the Five Americans’ (often referred to as just The Five Americans) Now and Then on a recommendation. This double album, which would be their last, was released by Abnak in 1968. They had three previous albums released to varying degrees of mild success. Shortly after releasing this album, the band disbanded, and they all went their separate ways: most to careers out of the music industry. The cool thing about this band is that they never reunited, so they only existed for a very brief time between 1965–1969. This band is truly an underground 60s garage band, as this album was never converted to CD nor is it available on iTunes. That being said, I don’t know why not. This album opens up with a high energy garage-based tune, “I See the Light–’69.” This song is actually a reprise of their earlier 1966 song. A perfect choice to begin the album; it’s one of the best songs on the album. “A Taste of Livin'” follows as another song with a great beat. The third song of the album, “Molly Black,” is a fine song that shows off the bands psychedelic skills. It’s a bluesy psychedelic journey reminiscent of Cream. Michael Rabon & the Five Americans continue the psychedelic blues with “Medusa.” This song demonstrates the bands improvisational skills, at least to a small degree. “A Change on You” follows as a soulful blues track that even flirts with protopunk. This versatile song is perhaps my favorite of the album. Unfortunately, side one ends on a bit of a sour note: “Jondel” slows the pace far too dramatically with a psychedelic repetition. Despite this slight blip, the first side of this double album is truly remarkable considering it comes from a band of such obscurity. Side two begins with the blues number “Ignert Woman.” Besides the fact that it’s no 21st century PC, this song is really a great song. It, too, shows off the bands improvisational skills. “Ignert Woman” is followed by “Amavi,” a short little soft tune that has a nice beat and melody. It does well to keep the album’s fast tempo while perhaps lightening the mood a little. “Big Sur” is the third song on side two, and it does not disappoint. A very solid 60s heartbreak song. The next song is “Red Cape,” a song that starts of simple and repetitive but grows into a complex number. Another solid tune with not much to complain about. Unfortunately, the final song of this side is again not up to par with rest of the album. “8 to 5 Man” is an example of good songwriting; however, it’s musical composition leaves much to ask for. The song is drowned in a groaning keyboard; I’m not sure what they were thinking with this one. Never fear, side three picks things back up again with “Virginia Girl,” a pop rock song with a little psychedelic influence. It’s a pretty catchy and fun tune. “7:30 Guided Tour” follows as a true psychedelic song. This song sounds like it comes straight from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fans of that album and the psychedelic era will absolutely love this song. “Pink Lemonade” also carries a heavy psychedelic vibe, but isn’t as strong as “7:30 Guided Tour.” The next song, “Peace and Love,” is a song that sounds exactly like you’d expect it to. It’s very cliché 60s hippie rock, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. There’s a couple cool riffs in it too. Really a fun song, despite the stereotypes. “You’re in Love” closes out side three, and it’s a really nice 60s love song. “She’s Too Good To Me” opens up the final side of this double album. It’s not near as good as the previous love song––”You’re in Love,” but it’s okay. “Generation Gap,” the second song of side four, is a bit of a conundrum. It’s perhaps the best song on the album, but at the same time it’s the most unoriginal. It’s a blatant rip-off of The Who’s “My Generation,” but if you’re going to rip-off a song, you couldn’t really pick a better one. “God Didn’t Smile on Me” isn’t as excellent as the rest of the album, especially coming after “Generation Gap,” but they can’t all be perfect. “Disneyland” is not only the strangest song on this album, but perhaps one of the strangest songs I’ve heard in a while. It sounds like Disney paid them to write it for a promotional video. That being said, if you can get past the original weirdness, it’s kind of fun and does have a little psychedelic undertone. This epic double album closes with “Scrooge,” a song that really completes the album by getting back to their garage rock roots. Really a great song to bring things home. Overall, this album is really powerful. Sometimes double albums can lose steam, but this one goes the distance. There were a few songs that could use reworking or perhaps replacing, but the sound of the album was very positive overall. This double album helps map the band’s career by growing from garage rock songs to blues and psychedelic rock songs. The band shows its versatility and magnitude and time after time impresses the listener. The only other problem with the album is that it seemed to lack in creativity too often. The band seems to have mastered imitating 60s powerhouses like The Beatles, The Who, and Cream, but unfortunately, they never seem to find a sound that is truly their own. Perhaps this is why the band, despite being great musicians who can produce a beautiful and cohesive album, were never launched into that elusive stardom. And perhaps this lack of originality is why I don’t feel comfortable giving the album an A.  B+

The Blues Project – Projections

ImageFor my next album review, I’ve decided to go with Projections from the Greenwich Village band The Blues Project. Released by Verve in 1966, this is the band’s first studio album after releasing a live cut titled Live at The Cafe Au Go Go. This would end up being the band’s only studio album with this original lineup, though a few more were released with varying lineups. Interestingly, two of the members would later go on to found Blood, Sweat & Tears, but please don’t let that influence your opinion of The Blues Project, because they have quite different sounds. As the name implies, The Blues Project has a strong blues base, but they are also heavily invested in psychedelic rock. The first track, “I Can’t Keep from Crying,” comes out swinging with a wild psychedelic blues rock sound sure to get your heart racing. After the bluesy power of the first track, “Steve’s Song” brings you back down with a light psychedelic tune with a heavy flute. Fans of The Moody Blues will love this song due to its similar progressive psychedelic sound. A cover of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” harkens back to that early rock ‘n’ roll sound for the album’s third track. This number is my personal favorite: it takes that raw electric sound of Chuck Berry and gives it a hardened 60s edge. The final track of side one is a cover of Muddy Waters’s “Two Trains Running.” This lengthy cover is entrenched in the rhythmic blues sound of the Deep South’s earliest blues masters. This 11-and-a-half minute song shows off the band’s improvisational skills and demonstrates why they are considered one of the earliest jam bands. Fans of southern blues and/or jam bands will love this tribute, but those who aren’t may want to go ahead and flip the record. The first track of side two, “Wake Me, Shake Me,” is the band’s attempt to move towards a more radio friendly garage rock style. It’s a very solid tune. “Cheryl’s Going Home” follows as another psychedelically influenced blues rock song. For the third track, “Flute Thing” is an instrumental number similar in style to “Steve’s Song” except with even more flute. Lovers of that pure psychedelic sound will have their hearts melted. “Caress Me Baby” is a cover of another Mississippi blues master, Jimmy Reed (who is also coincidentally covered on the previously reviewed Blues Magoos album Electric Comic Book). This song runs with that same rhythmic blues sound as “Two Trains Running.” It’s a beautiful blues love song with a great harmonica solo. To wrap up the album, The Blues Project goes with a radio friendly “Fly Away” that could easily be mistaken as a tune from The Beatles’s middle years (Rubber Soul-Revolver). It’s a spectacular song that should have brought them more fame than it did. For the blues rock or psychedelic rock fan this album is an absolute must. It’s an incredible adventure into the very heart of 60s underground music and well worth going out of your way to find it.  A