30/06/2019: “For The Love Of God” by Steve Vai

Steve Vai was a disciple of Frank Zappa, and there’s a great deal of the Zappa style in his playing. But Vai has surpassed Zappa in terms of technically ability, if not in the sheer creativity, prolific output, and innovation which remains the sole domain of a select few like Frank Zappa.

“For The Love Of God” is Steve Vai’s masterpiece. It was apparently written during a 10 day fast, which fits with the spiritual nature of the song.

The album version runs to 6 minutes, and the most popular live recording goes to 9. This is Vai really allowing himself the space to solo, without having to cut anything away.

The backing track is actually quite unremarkable, a cliched although pleasant soft rock stroller. This is probably intentional. The star of the song is Steve Vai’s guitar, so it’s only natural he wants all attention focused on that.

The solo was rated number 29 on Guitar World’s reader survey top 100 guitar solos.

“For The Love Of God” was released in 1990 on the album Passion & Warfare. 

27/05/2019: “Out Of Limits” by The Marketts

I love a bit of surfer music. It has a set of distinctive guitar styles, reliably energetic rhythm sections, and usually a fair amount of horns and other assorted musical accoutrements.

The Marketts are distinctive for their rather space inspired instrumentation, using organs to produce pretty cosmic sounds. This leads to music that is possibly more tense and paranoid than many other surf groups.

“Out Of Limits” starts with a nervous guitar riff, chiming uneasily with the background, before a more assertive hook kicks in, to play alongside a menacing horn refrain.

Then the organ flares into action, setting a more relaxed pace before the guitar jumps back in.

The song was released in 1963, and shot to number 3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1964. Since instrumental surf music was a relatively short lived phenomenon, the Marketts did well to have a hit near the beginning with “Surfer’s Stomp” in 1961, and this one just as the sound was starting to fade.

15/03/2019: “The Jitterbug Waltz” by Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins is surely one of the best guitarists of all time. Not just for his technical ability, but for his ability to turn the guitar into an emotional weapon.

When wielded by him, the guitar truly transcends its nature as a lump of wood with six metal strings, and becomes more like a paintbrush.

“The Jitterbug” for example, is for me highly evocative of Hawaii. It’s got that distinctive twang and bend common to a certain type of Hawaiian song. In fairness, that style is well known in certain varieties of Country music as well.

Country music is really the tradition in which Chet Atkins is most firmly rooted. He does do a lot of Jazz as well, which is where this song is from. This is his interpretation of the 1942 song by Fats Waller and His Rhythm, which is very different, not least because it’s driven by a Hammond organ.

Chet Atkins’ version of the song was released in 1951 as a single.

There are a few versions around, but I like this one best!

So bewitching!

21/02/2019: Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) by Santana

Carlos Santana has a way of playing the guitar which is almost a fingerprint. There are certainly other smooth, Latin influenced guitarists out there, and many of the other top guitarists would be able to play the stuff technically speaking.

But he has his own style, a smooth and slightly exotic sound crafted for a South American sunset.

Santana is the name of the band he has most often played in, and it’s there where the Latin influence tends to come in, through the skilful use of percussion.

“Europa” is a very beautiful song. As it’s an instrumental, it really brings Carlos Santana’s guitar mastery to the fore, such that the rest of the song becomes a warm and buttery support structure for the dulcet tones of the guitar.

The latter half of the song is much faster, and the various elements of the song click into place. The bass jives confidently, the organ remains steadfastly harmonious, the drums kick into another gear. It’s an epic piece of work.

The song was released in 1976 on the album Amigos.

Extraordinary!

17/11/2018: “A Taste Of Honey” by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass

Herb Alpert was by no means alone for his time in his use of brass ensembles in a funky way.

But he was definitely good at it. More than a few hits have emanated from Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass.

“A Taste Of Honey” is a song that’s been around. It exists in various incarnations, both with vocals and without, including a 1963 version by the Beatles.

The original was written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow. It was for a 1960 play of the same name, which was an American version of an English play from 1958.

There were a variety of covers before Herb Alpert’s, but his was by far and away the most famous, winning four Grammy awards in ’66 and got to #7 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

The song begins with an entrancing, tranquil riff, before dropping into the jaunty main section. The main hook is joyous and exuberant, and the rhythm sections seems to easily keep pace. The bassline is not so much a walking one as a jogging one, and the drums have a pleasing shuffle to them.

One of the things that makes this song so cool, in my opinion, is that little breakdown at the end of the main sections, where all the parts hit together in a tidal wave of good vibes!

The song was released on the 1965 album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights,  renowned for it’s fruity cover, featured at the top of this post.

Almost a perfect little song if that was ever a thing…

 

25/08/2018: “Ghetto Kyote” by Treble Clef

Grime. Even the name of the genre is ugly. It brings to mind decaying and forgotten concrete jungles with no hope, everything grey and forlorn.

But the reality is different. There’s a vibrancy to the scene, and sometimes a sort of gritty post-industrial beauty too. Ruff Squad, for example, used a lot of startlingly touching instrumentals on their tracks.

“Ghetto Kyote” is an instantly recognisable anthem to many who follow or have followed Grime music. From a collection of distorted, lo-fi samples, Treble Clef creates a haunting beat, with a piercing flute-y sino-grime synth, a minimalist beat, and only one other synth apart from the bass.

It’s one of the best examples of Grime producers creating songs that are far greater than the sum of their parts.

The song was released first as a limited white label in 2005 under the Kamikaze crew name, then saw a bigger release with Kano and Katie Pearl vocalling it in 2006. Treble Clef’s bandcamp page says it was first released 2004 so it was probably floating around for a bit beforehand as a dubplate.

The vinyl saw a reissue in 2014 but is still very much a prized record.

Matchless in its class.

11/08/2018: “Midnight In A Perfect World” by DJ Shadow

Hip Hop music is often built around sampling. The producers find a cool drum pattern on one old record, a riff on another which they can manipulate, and maybe some vocals.

It’s an art that creates patchwork songs, made up of many of the best elements of other songs. Due to the origins of Hip Hop in the black communities of the U.S.A, the records sampled tend to be old funk and soul records.

On the 1996 album Endtroducing…, DJ Shadow elevates the art of sampling to stratospheric levels.

Although DJ Shadow didn’t actually make any of the music on the album, instead taking parts of other songs and stitching them together, there’s something special about the way he pieces together obscure samples to create masterpieces.

“Midnight In A Perfect World” was the lead single from that album, and is based primarily around two songs: “The Human Abstract” by David Axelrod (1969), which provides the main piano, and “Sekoilu Seestyy” by Pekka Pohjola, which is where he got the flanging pad which fills out the track.

There are various other elements of course, such as the vocals and the drums; but those two are the most obvious.

The song is a rich world of its own to get lost in, with the wistful piano and the rich, washed out chords underlying it. The drums are slow and purposeful. It’s an eclectic soulful tour de force in the world of instrumental hip hop, and sampling culture more generally.

Sensational sampling!

29/05/2018: “Heavy Duty” by Herman Chin Loy

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Herman Chin Loy, along with producers such as a King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry, was one of the first dub musicians.

Aquarius Dub was released in 1973. This makes it one of the earliest dub albums, although it isn’t as famous as cuts such as Blackboard Jungle Dub by Lee Scratch Perry.

“Heavy Duty” is a dub of “Songs My Mother Used To Sing To Me” by Dennis Brown. The bassline is a very catchy and upbeat one, augmented by a trumpet which darts in and out of the spaces left by the bass and drums.

The song goes by in a flash once you get into the groove. Classic dub vibes!

22/04/2018: “Dub Fire” by Aswad

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Aswad are one of the more famous British reggae bands. Originating from London, their members had Jamaican heritage but grew up in England.

Released on 1982’s A New Chapter of Dub, “Dub Fire” is a dub version of Aswad’s Love Fire. It isn’t that the lyrics are bad or anything like that; the dub version is just better. There’s more going on and the greatness of the track really shines through. A better vocal version is Dennis Brown’s “Promised Land”, which came out the year after in 1983.

I couldn’t even say what my favourite part of the song is. The bassline is phenomenal, and unusual for a dub song. It has a warp to it almost reminiscent of dubstep. The piano that kicks in halfway has a powerful impact. The brass section is timeless, in both its forms. Listen to the song and you’ll see what I mean, as the song has two versions of the main melody on display.

Taken altogether it’s simply amazing.

17/04/2018: “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” by Augustus Pablo

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King Tubby tends to turn everything he touches into gold. This is no exception. To those who are unfamiliar with the dub tradition in reggae music, it essentially means instrumental reggae tracks mixed so that the bass and drums stand out, with other elements of the song dropping in and out of the mix, with lots of reverb applied to give the whole thing an airy, spaced out feel. King Tubby is widely regarded as the originator of this style, and his studio’s work remains some of the best dub even to this day.

Augustus Pablo is perhaps best known for his playing of the melodica, which he does incredibly well. The melodica is perhaps best described as a harmonica with a keyboard, and is quite popular in reggae more generally, in large part due to Pablo.

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“King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown” is a dub version of “Baby I Love You So” by Jacob Miller, and was released first in 1974, and also on the 1976 album of the same name, which is probably one of the best albums ever made!

As with many great dub songs, the bassline is effortlessly catchy and drives the song forward, as the guitar parts dart in and out, the drums clatter and echo, the melodica stabbing and sliding intermittently. You can hear Jacob Miller’s voice at times as well, adding to the mix. The parts of the song mesh together wonderfully, creating a true dub masterpiece. Brilliant stuff!