Paul Heinz

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20 Greatest Keyboard Intros

If you’re a music fan and haven’t already heard of Rick Beato, I highly recommend you visit his YouTube channel and poke around a little, or – more likely – so much so that you jeopardize your job and marriage.  Music is a rabbit hole that’s easy to fall into, and Beato makes it all the more enjoyable by relating interesting aspects of music without dumbing things down and without condescension.  Particularly enjoyable is his “What Makes This Song Great”series in which he dissects classic rock songs, isolating tracks and playing along with amazing virtuosity, while revealing what makes the song stand out.

Rick recently made a video of the “20 Greatest Keyboard Intros Ever,” and since I’m a keyboard guy, before watching the video I quickly made my own list, inspired mostly by song intros that I learned (or tried to learn) starting back when I was around twelve years old to – most recently – intros I learned for bands I play in now.  Only three of the songs Beato covered made my list, but I kicked myself for forgetting to include Rush’s Signals and Genesis’s Dancing in the Moonlit Night, both of which I learned back in the early 80s.

Without further ado, here are my Top 20 keyboard Intros that I recall learning over the years:

1)     Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
2)     Foreplay – Boston
3)     Angry Young Man – Billy Joel

These overlap with Beato’s list, all essential inclusions, and although I thought I learned them all when I was a teenager, even performing “Foreplay” in the 1984 Brookfield Central Battle of the Bands, it wasn’t until I reached my 40s that I actually learned how to play these intros correctly.  All are great fun, highly satisfying intros that still mess me up from time to time.  The latter is a bitch to play unless you’re on a grand piano – I’ve found keyboards don’t have the action required for the rapid repeated notes.  Then again, maybe it’s just my playing.

4)     Another Man’s Woman – Supertramp

I could fill my Top 20 list with nothing but Supertramp songs (“From Now On,” “Take the Long Way Home,” etc.), but if I limit it to two, this has to be the other inclusion.  Another wonderful Rick Davies intro.

5)     Levon – Elton John

Buying the Elton John Greatest Hits album in the winter of 1979-1980, followed shortly thereafter by an accompanying piano book, was monumental for me, opening up a whole new world of piano playing that went beyond Michael Aaron lesson books.  I could easily pick twenty Elton John intros for this essay (“Skyline Pigeon,” “Idol,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” etc.), but “Levon” is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

6)     Nobody Home – Pink Floyd

That same winter of 1979-1980, Pink Floyd’s The Wall made its debut, and – prior to me playing by ear more frequently – this was another piano book that inspired me.  This intro isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the melancholy song up so well.  Very tasty.

7)     Fooling Yourself – Styx

For a young keyboardist, this Styx song was highly satisfying, as it was easy to reproduce the original part note for note and even get the synth patch pretty close (often not such an easy task on a four-octave Korg Delta keyboard).  Nothing fancy here, but effective.

8)     Fire in the Hole – Steely Dan
9)     Aja – Steely Dan

My brother challenged me to learn “Fire in the Hole,” and I got it kinda sorta down before moving onto “Aja.”  Today, I could learn these songs with a bit of hard work, but I remember struggling mightily just trying to figure out the opening chord to “Aja.”  I didn’t even know what a major seventh chord was at the time, so I was at a distinct disadvantage!  I remember showing my piano teacher Fred Tesch what I had written out on manuscript paper, and he immediately wrote out a bunch of chords that I needed to master, which subsequently made learning songs a helluva lot easier. 

10)  Trilogy – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
11)  Awaken – Yes

These songs provided a different sort of challenge.  Instead of blues and jazz-based chords, these intros were more classically-influenced, and once the patterns were deciphered, they weren’t too difficult to learn.  The fast runs of “Awaken” are merely suspended chords and pretty easy to play.  But again, they sound really tasty.

12)  Trampled Under Foot – Led Zeppelin

Perhaps an odd one to include, as it’s a whopping two measures long, but in the days when learning a song meant placing down the needle on a record, lifting it, plunking out a few notes on a keyboard, placing the needle back down on the record (but too far to the right, so the fade out of “Houses of the Holy” was still audible), listening, lifting, playing, dropping, listening, lifting, playing, etc., learning even a two-measure intro wasn’t so easy!  Also, not understanding pentatonic and blues scales made it a lot more challenging. 

13)  Jungle Land – Bruce Springsteen

Roy Bittan’s handywork was a lovely work of art to reproduce, not only the intro here but the entire song.  Monumental.

14)  Abacab – Genesis

My high school band took on this song and did a pretty damn good job of it!  Once again, when I relearned this song about five years ago, I realized that my ears hadn’t picked up on a few things back in mid-80s.  YouTube set me straight as it always seems to do.

15)  Target – Joe Jackson
16)  Be My Number Two – Joe Jackson

The former’s Latin-based piano part is probably a joke to those who know the ins and outs of this style of music, but for my young ears in 1982, I didn’t understand what was happening here at all.  It wasn’t until the late 80s that I finally wrote out the parts to figure out the syncopation.  I never did master Latin patterns and rhythms the way I’d like, but I got this Joe Jackson part down pretty well.  “Be My Number Two” was more my speed, and I love hearing what Joe’s done to the middle section lately when he plays live, modulating every two measures or so before resolving back to the original key.

17)  The Way It Is – Bruce Hornsby

I can’t tell you how exciting this song was for a piano player in 1986.  In a decade awash with synth sounds, this was an honest-to-goodness piano track, and playable too!  The solo later in the song required more finesse, but even that was doable.  Bruce put piano back on the map.

18)  Locomotive Breath – Jethro Tull

This is another one I kinda sorta learned until recently, when YouTube came to the rescue.  Slowing things down at half-speed sure makes the faster runs a lot easier to dissect!  I just played this intro last month at a gig and had a lot of fun doing it.

19)   The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Genesis

This gets my vote for the best keyboard intro ever.  In typical Tony Banks fashion, the chord progression here is insanely odd – something I’d never come up with in a million years.  It’s also – like “Angry Young Man” – hard to play (for me, anyhow) without a grand piano, and even then I’ll still mess up the final run.  I learned this intro for a proposed Genesis tribute band that never came to fruition, but it was so much fun to learn.

20)   Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

There’s more to this intro than meets the eye, as after the initial memorably eight bars the piano delves into some interesting voicings that aren’t so easy to hear initially.  This intro captures the mood of the song perfectly.

So there you are – my Top 20 Keyboard Intros.  Oddly absent are any songs by Ben Folds, especially “Philosophy” and “Landed,” but only because I haven’t actually learned those songs.  Why?  I don’t know.  Ben Folds was a breath of fresh air when the debut album came out in 1995, as important to me in my late 20s and early 30s as Elton John was to me in my teens, but I still need to learn the tunes.

Some other honorable mentions:

1)     Sweet Dreams – The Eurythmics
2)     1000 Miles – Vanessa Carlton (it once again put piano back on the map in the 2000s.)
3)     Take on Me – Uh Huh
4)     Waiting for a Girl Like You – Foreigner (read about how Thomas Dolby came up with this intro – amazing!)
5)     Lady Madonna – The Beatles
6)     Don’t Do Me Like That – Tom Petty (the piano is sparse and simple, and the organ is perfect)
7)     Jump – Van Halen (of course)
8)     Atlantic – Keane (man, I love this eerie opening)
9)     The Great Gig in the Sky – Pink Floyd
10) Vienna - Billy Joel
11) Head over Heels - Tears for Fears

Lot of great stuff to choose from!  If you’ve got any others I should have mentioned, send them my way.

Scoring the film "Preheated"

My daughter Sarah’s animated short “Preheated,” which she collaborated on with classmate Luke Snedecor, currently has over 1.7 million hits on YouTube, which means that my film score has now been heard over 1,699,000 times more frequently than all of my other original compositions combined.  That’s the power of getting behind the right project!

Composing my first score was a challenge, and it’s the existence of digital recording that made it even remotely possible.  How the old-timers Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann and the like were able to compose and record amazing scores for live orchestras, all within tight budgets and timelines, is mind-boggling.  I simply don’t understand how they did it.  The advent of soft synths and sequencers has opened up the world of scoring to countless composers who may not even know how to play an instrument, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy process, at least not for a newbie; the six minutes of music for “Preheated” took me about three months to compose and record.

Part of the challenge was getting up to speed on four new pieces of software: the new version of Cakewalk (now free!) by BandLab, Native Instrument’s Komplete 11, Passion Flute by Orange Tree Samples, and ProjectSam’s Swing More.  Sarah, Luke and I had all agreed that the score should incorporate jazzy and big-band elements, so the latter two pieces of software really came in handy, though I learned quickly that even really good software has its limitations.  I sometimes wanted more punch from the trumpets and I had to find workarounds to get the sounds I wanted, but Swing More provided me with a great pallet to choose from, and I was particularly happy with the Dixieland music for the film’s end credits.  Passion Flute was perfect for this project – very easy to use and it responded just the way I needed.

Another challenge was timing.  Sarah and Luke needed every minute of available time to complete the movie, so the final rendering of the film wouldn’t be available until just a few days prior to its debut on May 9th.  I clearly needed to start composing well in advance of this deadline, and this fact led to a lot of editing, as I’d complete a section of music only to find that timing had shifted or had been extended or condensed.  New music had to be created or deleted quickly when three or four seconds were added to or subtracted from the film late in the game. 

The one bit of software that didn’t cut it were the lead string instruments.  Soft synths manage to provide fairly realistic wind instruments sounds, but the expressiveness of viola and violin are really difficult to emulate on a computer, so my friend Uli Widmaier brought over his instruments, spent an hour recording his parts, and we inserted the real thing for a much better product.

Overall, scoring for film was a hell of a lot of fun, and I’m generally pleased with the final result.  I’m even more pleased with the way the film turned out and the wonderful response its garnered.  It’ll be neat to see where the careers of Luke and Sarah lead and whether this short film will one day be looked back on as the beginning of something special.

 Shortly after “Preheated” was made available online, I received an email from a high school music student asking me to describe the process of scoring “Preheated” for her class project.  In case you’re interested, some of my response follows:

I saw the original storyboards for “Preheated” as far back as last fall, and this led me to first compose the film’s climax, the moving theme in 3/4 when the father and boy work together to light the candle.  I incorporated the same theme for the end credits, but switched to a Dixieland band and changed the timing to 4/4 and modulated the key to give it a fun, bouncy lift.

From there I tackled the beginning motif, which then helped guide the rest of the score.  Luke and Sarah decided that the clarinet should more or less represent the boy, and the violin and viola more or less represent the father.  For the first 30 seconds or so, I established an easy-going introductory tune that includes a 7-note motif that’s used throughout the score:  G G# E D E D C#, first with violin in the opening segment, and then with clarinet as the boy comes into full view.

When the downtrodden father enters the frame, the viola begins with an entirely different theme: a weepy, melodramatic tune to represent melancholy, but the 7-note clarinet motif comes into play when the boy tries to get his father's attention, and once again at the end of the section, this time with piano.  None of the other melodies in the section appear again because this is the only section of the film that has a melancholy feel.

When the boy has an idea to make a big birthday celebration, the music picks up into a sort of flute/big-band Latin piece, but because the boy is constantly met with obstacles, the music has to break rhythm regularly.  These were the most difficult sections for me.  For instance, the curiosity at 0:32 conveyed with pizzicato strings, the curiosity at 1:35 expressed with bass and flute primarily, or the confusion conveyed at 2:30 with piano and bass.  These little transitional pieces of music were challenging.  The main sections were much easier.

The "spooky music" section at 1:57 was originally overdone, and I threw in the 7-note theme again – this time with flute – just to keep the audience grounded.  This isn't a horror film after all, and we wanted to keep things anchored in playfulness.

As the boy realizes his predicament, the tempo increases and the instrumentation gets slightly more complicated to increase the tension as he opens the refrigerator and scrounges for something to cool off his hands, once again using a variation of the 7-note them from before, and culminating in a diminished 7th chord run as he struggles to figure out where to put the melted butter.  The piano does a sort of "ah ha!" moment as he discovers that the recipe calls for melted butter, and then again as he sees the melted butter in the bowl.

The boy seems back on track!  I returned to the fun Latin big-band motif, but the boy immediately hits another barrier, ending the music abruptly, and I used an aggressive flute sound to depict frustration (and to add a dose of comedy).  Once again the boy needs to think for a moment, so I composed a quick flute and piano section, playing a sort of flat 2 diminished 7 interval that resolves to the one chord, a phrase that will be used again when the father walks in to see the mess.

Instead of going back to the same Latin big-band theme, I kept the same feel but changed the melody, altered the time signature to 6/4 and made the acoustic guitar the lead instrument.  I can't say why I decided on this except it kept things from getting too repetitive, and the 6/4 rhythm gave it a sort of unsettled feel, like the boy was going to really have to focus to overcome his obstacles.  Even when he hits barriers within this section, I kept the rhythm going to keep the music from having too much of a start/stop start/stop pattern.

As the boy proceeds, things become more hectic and loud, with a few modulations until the boy achieves his goal of making the cake, and then halts abruptly as the father comes back in the room.  The sheepish looking boy is supported by the same 7-note motif with clarinet.  The father's anger is conveyed with the same flat 2 diminished 7 motif discussed a few paragraphs ago.

So there you are!I hope I get another change to score for film one day, and with any luck, it will once again be for my daughter’s creation.Thanks Sarah and Luke for the opportunity

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Albums I Can't Live Without (part 1)

Ever since Rolling Stone began compiling various “best of” musical accomplishments, I’ve often thought of my artistic affinities in terms of lists, much like Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity.  Lists are in some ways the stupidest things imaginable, but they can also be really helpful; it’s nice upon being asked about your favorite bands/albums/songs/movies/books to actually have an answer.  Yes, lists may be a bit contrived (who’s to say what my favorites will be next week), but they provide a lot better answer than “Um…I don’t know, I like a lot of stuff.” 

As long as you approach them as temporary, fickle things, then creating lists can be a healthy and enjoyable endeavor.  They may encourage you to reinvestigate that album that you remember loving, having claimed for years that you loved, but upon further review doesn’t speak to you the way it did twenty years ago.  Just recently I put on the Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, and although I remembered it being one of my favorites, it didn’t rise to the level I expected it to.  Back in 1991 it really grabbed me; now it just calls out politely for my attention.  Paul Simon’s Graceland is another one that no longer excites me the way it once did.  Some art sounds old when it’s old.  Some art never ages. On the flip side, making lists might inspire you to recall an album you’d forgotten about.  In preparation for this blog, I became reacquainted with K.D. Lang’s fabulous 1992 album, Ingénue, and I’ve once again enjoyed listening to her caressing croon.

A few months back I decided to make a list of one hundred albums I can’t live without, but I quickly realized that picking a hundred albums was a bit too easy, allowing me to choose that 1984 Elton John release that really has no business being on anybody’s top anything, but I still kinda dig.  Ten or twenty albums would be far too restrictive, so I settled on fifty, a nice compromise that would allow me to listen and reevaluate each selection without feeling overwhelmed, yet still include a bunch of albums beyond the usual suspects.  But then I struggled with that, so I’m probably going to end up with something like seventy albums. I know, I’m failing at my own self-induced endeavor!

When compiling lists I like to abide by various rules to narrow things down and really home in on what’s important.  Here are mine for the top albums I can’t live without:

1)     I have to listen to all the albums I choose to confirm their inclusion.

2)     I’m sticking with rock and pop. Jazz and classical would be included on my all-time desert island list of records, but I don’t want to go down those rabbit holes right now. It’s hard enough just sifting through my rock records.

3)     No compilation albums of any kind are allowed unless they contain mostly previously unreleased material, which therefore excludes all greatest hits albums and most live albums.

4)     Double albums count for two picks with the following exception: I can choose only two sides if I’d like, allowing me to get dinged for only one selection. The rule is a little silly, because many single CDs released over the past thirty years are long enough to qualify as a double album (say, Rush’s Snakes & Arrows), but I’m sticking with the rule: if it was originally released as a double album, it’s a double; if it was originally released as a single CD, it’s a single.

As I go through my selections, I acknowledge the following:

1)     I’m afraid that my choices are going to be mostly male and almost exclusively white.  What can I say except that this is the narrow lens through which I’ve come to know pop music.

2)     I’m going to seek out variety to accompany me on my desert island.  So, for instance, I’m going to want to have a few angry, edgy albums, a few emotional, weepy albums, a few fun, poppy albums, etc.  I could easily pick five albums each by Yes, Genesis, Ben Folds, Elton John, Randy Newman and Joe Jackson and kinda call it a day, but what fun would that be?

3)     There are many exceptional albums that I acknowledge are among the best ever recorded, but I simply don’t need to hear anymore.  You’ll get no argument from me that Rumours, Purple Rain, Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s fourth are great albums.  I just never want to hear them again.  Like, ever. 

4)     There’s also a bit of a recency effect going on, where albums I was only just turned onto – even if they’re old – sound fresh and exciting to me, though they may one day sound old and stale.  Such is the capricious nature of musical taste.

So there you are.  To get the ball rolling, here are my first ten selections, in no particular order:

Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004).  Wow, what a great pickup at the used CD store.  I’d heard the track “Somewhere Only We Know” on XRT in Chicago several times and liked it, and spying the CD in the “new arrivals” rack for $5 made this purchase a no-brainer.  The album is amazing, with melody overdrive, rich production, and flawless vocals by Tom Chaplin.  The band’s second album, Under the Iron Sea, is terrific too, but the debut still wins the prize for me.  Hard to pick favorites on this one, but “She Has No Time” and “Bedshaped” are among the best.

Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic (1975).  I listened to this album recently along with Rocks and Get Your Wings just to make sure my instincts were correct, and sure enough, the band’s 1975 release continues to be their best.  I like the hits off of Rocks better (“Back in the Saddle,” “Sick as a Dog” and “Last Child” vs. “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk this Way” and “Sweet Emotion”), but the deep cuts on Toys are so damn good, this album wins by a landslide.  What allowed Aerosmith to stand out from other rock bands in the 70s – Foghat, AC/DC, etc – was their willingness to compliment a great rock riff with a significant mood or harmony change.  Case in point: on the song “Uncle Salty,” the band offers a good mid-tempo shuffle with an exciting chorus.  All good.  And then they throw in a surprise – the “ooh, it’s a sunny day outside my window” section, a hypnotic half-time feel with a very interesting sharp 11 in the melody.  This makes all the difference.  There isn’t a bad track on the album, and “You’ve Seen me Crying,” – one of those songs I was too cool to admit liking back in middle school – is a beautiful, heart-wrenching closer.

Innocence Mission – Umbrella (1991).  I fell in love with this band after seeing them on Late Night with David Letterman and attending a concert a few weeks later at the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, and their debut album accompanied a trip to the east coast and back with my friend Todd in March of 1990.  I was really taken with the vulnerable lyrics, the rich, subtle guitar work of Donald Peris, and of course the vocals of his wife, Karen.  When I first listened to their sophomore effort, Umbrella seemed to lack the energy of the band’s debut, but oh how the tracks on this album grab me now, twenty-five years later.  Among my favorite songs ever is “Now in this Hush.”  I listened to it on repeat maybe fifteen successive times while painting my son’s room five or six years ago, and I’ve never tired of it.  Lyrically, the band’s oft-repeating themes of embracing the simple joys of life and eschewing the pursuit of wealth and status speak to me now as much as they did nearly thirty years ago.

Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach (2014).  Running on Empty may be his biggest seller and Late for the Sky may be the critics’ darling, but after reviewing his catalog once more just in case I was off my rocker, I stand by my decision to include Browne’s latest release in my top fifty albums.  I’ve written about this album before, a gem packed with solid melodies and superb musicianship, but what makes this collection of songs stand out are the lyrics, timely and moving, desperate yet hopeful, political yet transcending politics.  I’ve listened to this album more than any other in the past four years, and it will likely be the most recent album I include in my list.

Lyle Lovett – The Road to Ensenada (1996).  This Grammy Award winner for Best Country Album is a masterpiece, one of those rare instances where voters got it right.  The musicianship on this collection is so pristine and tasty – there’s not a note out of place – that the album could have ended up sounding contrived were it not for the songwriting craftsmanship, infused with wit, humor, heartbreak and resignation that gives it universal appeal.  The final song on the album, “The Girl in the Corner,” still gives me chills.

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  You won’t get me to claim that this is a better effort than Rumours, but Tusk provides a richer listening experience for me, partially due to it not being overplayed the way its predecessor was (and is), but also because of its unique and varied content. From the opening track, a very subdued and beautiful “Over and Over,” you know this isn’t doing to be Rumours 2, a wise decision by the dramatic quintet, though I recall seeing cutouts of the double album when it didn’t sell as well as Warner Bros. expected (it still sold 4 million copies).  I’ve often compared this album to the Beatles’ White Album in that it’s experimental and quirky with some terrific pop songs and a few rockers.  My favorite is McVie’s “Brown Eyes,” a hauntingly beautiful song that’s even more hypnotic than the band’s 1973 hit, “Hypnotized.”  This will not be the last album I choose from the amazing musical year of 1979.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995).  My buddy claims that 1995 was when music went bad, but how could this be with Ben Folds Five making their debut and Radiohead releasing this masterpiece?  Critics may worship the band’s subsequent effort, OK Computer, but for my taste it’s their sophomore effort that strikes gold.  I recall exercising on my NordicTrack in fall of 1995 listening to The Bends and being completely blown away with its melodic landscapes.  It still holds up, from the emphatic opening of “Planet Telex,” the spellbinding “Fake Plastic Trees,” to the aching “Black Star,” this album is a tour de force from start to finish, unlike OK Computer, which for me loses steam 2/3rds of the way through.

Company of Thieves – Ordinary Riches (2009).  When I first heard ”Oscar Wilde” on XRT while driving down Roosevelt Avenue in Lombard, I was enthralled, and I was soon thrilled to learn that the rest of this Chicago-based band’s debut album was equally strong.  With Genevieve Schatz’s quirky and mesmerizing vocals and lyrics and Marc Walloch’s superbly tasteful guitar work – with just enough edge when warranted – their first effort really stands out.  I wasn’t the only one who took note of this band; Daryl Hall invited this relatively unknown act to appear on his show, Live from Daryl’s House, in 2009.  “Even in the Dark” gets my vote for the best track on the album.

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life, sides 1 and 2 (1976).  Seeing Wonder in concert three years back, when he performed this album from start to finish, helped me appreciate a release that I’d forgotten about save for the amazing one-two punch of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”  From the opening of choral “oohs,” the album is one of those gems that deftly switches moods without sounding disjointed.  You have Stevie doing is prog-rock fusion thing in “Contusion,” social commentary (and cool sparse arrangements) in “Village Ghetto Land,” a beautiful ballad in “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and – thanks to Coolio and, subsequently, Weird Al Yankovic – a timeless tune in “Pastime Paradise.”  The album loses steam on sides three and four, but those aren’t too shabby either.

So there you have it. Ten down, many more to go. I hope you give a some of these albums a listen, and of course, if you have any that you think I’m crazy not to include, send them my way and I’ll give them a concerted listen.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved