Santana- Abraxas (1970): 20 January 2020

Santana – Abraxas (1970)

Welcome back to Your Dad’s Car Stereo! Today we’re going to take a listen to an album that hasn’t been on my list of albums to listen to for long but its impact is hard to overstate, Abraxas by Santana. Many people know Santana for his contribution to Rob Thomas’ song “Smooth” in the late 1990s, and a strong subset of that group probably know about his band that performed at Woodstock in 1969, months after their self-titled debut. Abraxas comes hot on the heels of Santana but it comes with a more refined, artistic style. A lot of the songs could be classified as progressive rock for their stylistic fusion across the record and occasionally odd application of solos and musical composition. Prog usually excludes bands like Santana because they didn’t make a traditional rock sound like Yes or Rush, but, arguably, prog rock is all about pushing the boundaries of what we can call rock. Santana did that really well on Abraxas in between creating some more traditional, face-melting rock songs.

This is a mind-blowing album and I’m genuinely surprised that it’s not often mentioned publicly as one of the heavyweights of early 1970s rock. Everyone knows Santana for their few big singles, but are left out in favor of albums by other groups like Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix. Abraxas went platinum five times! How can an album go platinum five times and miss out of the mainstream?! For reference, in 1970, Led Zeppelin III went six-times platinum and Cosmo’s Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Let It Be by The Beatles BOTH went four-times platinum. Abraxas outsold Let It Be. Let that sink in for a second.  

Santana had their hits, two of which feature on this album, but this whole record is a rock and roll journey that keeps giving. The combination of Latin, jazz, and blues elements with rock make this such an interesting album to listen to and will keep you entranced the whole way through. Each song feels like an independent piece but they all work together to create a cohesive piece of music. The guitar work is nothing short of incredible and I have high praise for the early 1970s sound. There’s a lot of keyboard-forward sound on some tracks that was popular for the time, particularly for groups like The Doors, The Yardbirds, and The Animals, but Santana made the traditional rock sound all their own. It’s a little early to start calling this one of the best albums of the year, but I don’t think many albums will get this close to perfect. Please enjoy the iconic, innovative Santana.

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Singing Winds, Crying Beasts: What a way to start an album! If you’ve never listened to Santana before picking this record up and heard this opening you might think that they were a progressive rock group (more on that later), because the Latin sound isn’t immediately apparent and really doesn’t come up much in this song. I love the titling of the song with what the band ended up putting together. Singing winds represented by the chimes with crying beasts represented by the loud guitar intrusions. This is a creative choice to open an album from a creative band and it works really well. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen: Goodness gracious. Santana turned up the heat with “Black Magic Woman” to create a beautiful Latin-inspired, blues rock song. Some singles are big for a reason, and this one deserves all of its attention. It’s a beautiful combination of a soft samba and a shredding guitar track. The back half of the song is “Gypsy Queen” and doesn’t get as much airplay as the front half, but its volume contributes significantly to the juxtaposition against the quieter “Black Magic Woman.” Smoooooooth. Dad’s Rating 10/10

Oye Como Va: The second big hit off of Abraxas was this song, “Oye Como Va.” Continuing the theme from “Black Magic Woman,” there’s a seamless integration of traditional blues rock elements with Lain backing instrumentation. I’ll highlight the keyboard on this song because it absolutely rocks. Not enough bands give the keyboardist a solo, but the playfulness between the keyboardist, Greg Rollie, and Carlos Santana’s solo afterwards is infectious and they play well off of each other. Dad’s Rating 9/10

Incident at Neshabur: I loved “Incident at Neshabur,” and I’d highlight it as one of two really good hidden gems on the album. This is an instrumental track that plays into the progressive rock realm. The keyboard forward sound and odd times signatures, combined with Santana’s samba sound and a sample of an Aretha Franklin song are a perfect blend of prog rock for me and make this a weird little number. I would have been interested to hear a whole album of songs like this. This is a great hidden gem for anyone interested in a different kind of Santana sound and shows great depth of musicianship on the part of the band. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Se a Cabo: I had to skip over “Se a Cabo” a few times writing this album review because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. Objectively, it’s a good rock track that showcases what the band represented with their fusion rock sound. On the other side of that, it doesn’t stand out among the other songs on the record. I think there’s better representations of the ‘Santana sound,’ and “Se a Cabo” gets lost in the mix. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Mother’s Daughter: “Mother’s Daughter” has a whirlwind of an opening that just doesn’t deliver through the rest of the track. I expected a fiery rock song, and while it’s good, it doesn’t live up to initial expectations. It has the same problem that “Se a Cabo” has, it gets lost in the middle of a lot of really good songs. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Samba Pa Ti: “Samba Pa Ti” shows that Santana took inspiration wherever it happened to be found, in this case coming from the jazz saxophone of someone playing outside Carlos Santana’s apartment. They hit the nail on the head trying to make a song that was a cross between a typical Santana-style rock song and a free-form jazz solo. The track is loose and easy going. It’s a very refreshing song in the middle of a complex album and a real joy. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Hope You’re Feeling Better: I’ve never listened to this song before this album review, but it has been on repeat for the past week. This is one of the best hidden gem rock songs on an album I’ve heard yet. It’s a classic rock song that strays from the band’s normal sound, and that may have been what caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting heavy use of fuzz (distortion) knowing Santana’s reputation and legitimately one of the best guitar solos I’ve reviewed. Santana lights up the fretboard on this track. It may be just another classic rock song, but I think this shows how invested the band were in the rock sound, and at the end of the day, they really turned the volume up to 11 here. Dad’s Rating 10/10

El Nicoya: “El Nicoya” is a huge shift away from “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” and I like to think that it shows the other side of the band’s influences. This is a straight Latin song featuring conga drums at the front of the band. When you pair the two songs and think back to the rest of the album where the styles of these two songs were paired together, you come to realize that they did a really good job of putting together styles of music that are fundamentally opposite. Job well done. Dad’s Rating 7/10

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Steely Dan- Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972): 13 January 2020

Steely Dan – Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)

Welcome back to YDCS! It’s been a year since I last covered a Steely Dan album; despite wanting to review one for the past few months, I’ve controlled myself. This week is the week though, we’re taking a listen to Steely Dan’s first studio album, Can’t Buy A Thrill. Known for their cryptic lyrics, complex musical arrangements, and disregard for genre, Steely Dan cemented their sound from the first song on this record. They knew that they wanted to reject everyone’s expectations of what rock music was supposed to sound like and make their own music without compromise. Sometimes it came across as pretentious and others it came across as musically genius, but through all of that, Steely Dan has always had their loyal followers who love that rejection of the norm for the sake of good music. Can’t Buy A Thrill would be their starting point too. Albums would grow to be more experimental and cryptic up until the release of Aja.

I really enjoy Steely Dan, but the band has a problem as far as classic rock is concerned that I will coin the “Steely Dan Problem.” Is their music rock or pop/easy-listening? Each song has to be evaluated separately to get to that truth on their albums. Some are easier than others. “Do It Again” is solidly in the rock camp and “Brooklyn” is solidly in the easy-listening camp. Others like “Dirty Work” are a little more difficult. My criteria for deciding whether it’s rock or not is this: Would I be okay with it if I’m listening to a classic rock radio station, they just finished playing “Communication Breakdown” by the Zep and a Steely Dan song comes on. If I’m okay with that song following the Zep then it’s rock. If it makes me want to switch the channel then it’s not rock.

This sparks a larger conversation about what we can really call rock music. Is Steely Dan a rock band? Most of the time I would say yes. I think that the majority of their work could safely be called rock, however; a lot of the songs that are their most popular would not fall into that rock camp. If we call Steely Dan rock then what does that open us up to? Alternatively, we exclude them from the rock genre, who else are we leaving out? Arguably we would start to leave out people and groups like Jackson Brown, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Marshall Tucker Band, and a lot of the acts on the softer side of rock. I don’t think that’s the right answer. All of those acts have something in common and it pulls us back to a central question:” What’s rock about anyway?”. If you ask me, it’s about pushing boundaries and making new sounds. The Dan have clearly done that, and for that alone I’d be willing to call them a rock group.

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Do It Again: I was 12 the first time I heard “Do It Again.” I remember exactly where I was and I remember thinking it was a Carlos Santana song. I had never heard anything like it before and I was instantly hooked. “Do It Again” was the perfect way for Steely Dan to open their first album and show the world the kind of music that they wanted to make; complex multi-instrumental rock that wouldn’t be bound to traditional influences. The latin flavor is strong on “Do It Again,” and I find myself still amazed at the high degree of musicianship and multi-tracking. Listening to it this time, I noticed more backing instruments than before and they’re all playing these absurdly difficult runs. No one else would think it’s necessary, but it adds greatly to the song. A classic song and great start to the album. Dad’s Rating 10/10

Dirty Work: “Dirty Work” is such a weird song and I love it. The slightly distorted vocal harmony that is hallmark of a recording from the late 60s-early 70s is one of my favorite sounds in music. The Dan was well-known for their tight harmonies and this is one of the best ones in their catalog. Having said that, it is also a prime example of the “Steely Dan Problem” though; is it rock or is it pop? Tough to say on this one, but I put it solidly in the soft rock camp. Maybe that’s so I can rate it higher than I would an easy listening song, but if I heard this on a classic rock radio station, I wouldn’t feel like it’s out of place.  Dad’s Rating 7/10

Kings: “Kings” is one of the best hidden gems in Steely Dan’s discography and is gold mine of depth in lyrics and music. There aren’t many groups that would have the courage to do a song comparing medieval kings of England to drug bosses, but the Dan did it! If the comparison flies by, don’t worry because the song still stands up well on its own. It’s got a great, funky feeling to it and some of the best musical performances on the album. It’s one of my favorite Steely Dan songs and one of my favorite classic rock songs. Dad’s Rating 9/10

Midnite Cruiser: “Midnite Cruiser” is one of the least rocking songs on Can’t Buy A Thrill and about the limit for what I can call rockbefore I have to start classifying songs as easy listening. The song is average but it doesn’t make you want to rock out or push the boundary of the weird jazz fusion-rock that the band was known for. It feels more like an average pop song from the early 1970s than anything else but doesn’t quite cross into the realm of easy listening like some of the songs on this record do. Dad’s Rating 5/10

Only A Fool Would Say That: Now this is some elevator/yacht rock! Just imagine it; standing in an elevator in an office building with an instrumental version of this song playing. It fits so perfectly! Besides that, “Only A Fool” is a tight, latin/jazz-fusion inspired soft rock track. This just feels like a very polished piece with some great moments of jazz inspired guitar solos working to accent the lyrics. “Only A Fool” is on the softer side of rock, but it’s a high point for the album. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Reelin’ In The Years: If you’ve never heard of Steely Dan before, please allow me to introduce you to one of their songs that you might know without knowing it. “Reelin’ In The Years” was one of the most popular songs off this record and still receives heavy airplay. It’s a great rocker of a song, but I actually don’t think it’s one of their best. The Dan was known for complex musical arrangements and cryptic, poetic lyrics. “Reelin’ In The Years” feels like it was written to generate singles sales and I feel like it strays from their principles. It won’t stop me from listening to it, but there’s other songs on this record that are better representations of the band. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Fire In The Hole: As a song, I like “Fire In The Hole.” It has an interesting, free-flowing jazz structure in the solos that makes it great to listen to. The question we need to answer here though is, ‘Does it rock?’ Decidedly not. This is one of the problems with Steely Dan; because they weren’t limited by genre, you get some tracks that are great rockers and others that are more suited for easy listening radio. “Fire In The Hole” is in the latter camp. Dad’s Rating 4/10

Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me): See my comments on “Fire In The Hole.” I actually think this is worse than “Fire In The Hole” because it’s less interesting to listen to. There was some musical complexity to the former that has been replaced with a standard soft folk riff. Skip! Dad’s Rating 3/10

Change Of The Guard: “Change Of The Guard” improves on the last two songs significantly. We have a real rocker here, but it took me a minute to get there. I had to really think about whether this was rock or something else with the forward tambourine, keyboard driven riff and guitar that seems to be more backing vocals than actual guitar, but sure enough it’s rock! This is a track worth listening to in order to better understand Becker and Fagen’s genius and what they wanted the band to be; a laboratory for music. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Turn That Heartbeat Over Again: Skip. This is easy listening and it’s actually dull. It’s not what I expect from Steely Dan and doesn’t fit with the album. This is a real missed opportunity and an unfortunate closer to an otherwise great album. Dad’s Rating 2/10

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David Bowie- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): 6 January 2020

David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

Happy New Year and welcome to the first YDCS of 2020! We’re one year and going strong here and looking forward to another year full of great music. To start off 2020 we’re kicking it back to 1972 with David Bowie’s loose concept rock opera, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Ziggy Stardust wasn’t David Bowie’s first big hit, that honor goes to Hunky Dory, but Ziggy Stardust make him a legend. Widely considered one of the best albums ever written, Ziggy Stardust tells the story of a bisexual, androgynous alien from space come to save the Earth. The story of the main character of the record, Ziggy Stardust, was written after the album was recorded, explaining why some of the songs don’t always appear to continue the story of the hero.

Ziggy Stardust is a tough album to unpack as it is prototypical glam rock. David Bowie was the leader of a movement with this genre-breaker of an album, and bands like KISS, Mott the Hoople, and Roxy Music can all trace their origins to Ziggy Stardust. Looking back at it, I think the album is generally more culturally significant for making David Bowie a relevant entertainer and pioneering a genre than it was for its own music. The album stands up on its own, particularly on its big hits, but the question we have to ask is ‘Do we like the album because it’s a David Bowie album or do we like the album on its own merit?’ Ziggy Stardust crams a lot of passion and a lot of different elements of rock and roll into a fairly short album that features some great singles. I hope you enjoy the adventure of Ziggy Stardust!

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Five Years: I’ll give credit where credit is due, David Bowie knew how to start a record. “Five Years” is a hauntingly beautiful song that immediately capitalizes on the space theme with an ethereal echo that carries through the song. It really sets the stage for a space adventure! My favorite part of this song is the raw emotion in Bowie’s voice though. It’s somewhere between a pleading cry and shout that amplifies through the song. Really a good start! Dad’s Rating 6/10

Soul Love: “Soul Love” takes the album in a funkier, horn-driven direction that wouldn’t work on a lot of albums after a passionate ballad but somehow feels right at home on a space odyssey. It works so well because the soul is present on both songs, just in different ways. Sure, the vocals are powerful on both (more so on “Five Years” than on “Soul Love”) but the soul comes out in the instrumentation here where it comes out in the vocals on the former. Definitely an interesting way to tie two songs together but it works well. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Moonage Daydream: Let’s try to listen to this song outside of the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a minute… Yup. This holds up as a great song even when you do that! It’s the first real rocker that we get to hear on the album and it’s objectively a weird one too. There’s a lot of horn incorporation, a full string orchestra, and big guitar riffs and vocals. It all ties together into a glamorous, shiny song that doesn’t quite feel like it came from Earth. Bowie nailed it. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Starman: If we look at the big hits off Ziggy Stardust they can really be split into “Moonage Daydream,” “Suffragette City,” and this one, “Starman.” “Starman” is my favorite because it shows a more constrained side of Bowie that we don’t get to hear a lot on his record. The instrumentals are really crisp with a very prominent acoustic section and the vocals are insanely difficult but expertly performed. This is a classic rock track that is hard to beat. Dad’s Rating 9/10

It Ain’t Easy: I didn’t initially recognize “It Ain’t Easy” until I got to the chorus, but then it was immediate recognition. I rate this higher than the first two tracks on this album for one reason: Where Bowie only pulled on one source of soul on each of the first two songs, this one relies both on strong, soulful lyrics and a blues inspired guitar riff that elevates it. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Lady Stardust: Holy vocals. Bowie was always known for his singing ability and “Lady Stardust” might be the best example of that on this record. The amount of control and practice that goes into delivering a performance like this are almost immeasurable. Not only is this one of the more popular songs on the record, it’s musically very challenging.  Dad’s Rating 7/10

Star: “Star” is one of the more forgettable songs on the album. It’s one of those that I won’t remember after this review unless I was the world’s biggest David Bowie fan and blends in to a lot of other songs of the early 70s. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t stand out. Dad’s Rating 5/10

Hang On to Yourself: Here’s one of the hidden gems on the record. “Hang On to Yourself” never gets a lot of attention sandwiched between some huge singles, but it’s a great example of the role that glam rock played in uniting old-school rock and roll and the emerging rock sound of the 1970s. This is fun song that’s worth listening to and not glossing over for the big tracks at the end of the record. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Ziggy Stardust: “Ziggy Stardust” is just about everything that I like in a good rock song. It’s progressive and conceptual in the fact that it has science fiction inspired lyrics and gives you the clearest description of the Ziggy Stardust character/David Bowie alter-ego. There are fantastic transitions between lyrical verses and harsh choruses that serve to remind you that this isn’t a song about a normal person, it’s a song about an alien. Fantastic song. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Suffragette City: ‘Hey man.’ “Suffragette City” is such a rocker. I’m not sure how much I can add to a song like this. It’s legendary in its own right and one of Bowie’s most recognizable songs. If you don’t know it then you need to listen to it. If you do know it, then you know what I mean. If this comes on in the car then you’re turning it up. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide: Lyrically, there may be no better way to end an album than with a song about a washed-up rock star. Musically, this is a solid song that is a mix of classic rock and roll and the showman, almost Broadway-like, musical style that Bowie was able to deliver so many songs in, including most of the ones on this record.  Dad’s Rating 6/10

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.