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Old 01-01-2015, 10:57 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Fleetwood Mac - Mystery To Me (1973)

"It's the same kind of story / That seems to come down from long ago / Two friends having coffee together / When something flies by their window / It might be out on that lawn / Which is wide, at least half of a playing field. / Because there's no explaining what your imagination / Can make you see and feel..."

Fleetwood Mac are as famous as famous gets. And for most folks, the journey starts in the mid 70's with their self-titled or at that commercial juggernaut known as Rumours. In retrospect though, Mick Fleetwood's circus act was actually a whole lot more interesting before Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham joined the fray, specifically in that brief period of '71 through '73 when eccentric guitarist Bob Welch was part of the grand equation. Sure, record execs would joke that Fleetwood Mac could expect to cover their electric bills but little else on the middling strength of their album sales based on prior releases, but we all know who had the last laugh in the end.

In any case, Bob had a hard set of shoes to fill: founding frontman Peter Green had left the building and the band was constantly on the verge of falling apart on tour. Despite constant setbacks, Welch and keyboardist/songwriter Christine McVie pulled together for several albums, the best and last of which is the subject of this review. It wasn't a big seller, but of the many albums which laid the bedrock for the yacht rock sound that became popular in the later part of the decade, Mystery To Me is perhaps my favorite. You can already hear hints of the pop superstardom that was to come for these guys, but there's a delicious laidback strangeness on songs like the self-explanatory 'Hypnotized' and the groovy chamber pop of 'Keep On Going' that sounds a million miles away from the sound these guys went for in their platinum years, and I honestly kinda wish they had kept going in this direction on future material.


Perhaps the most surreal moment for me was when I first heard the song 'Somebody'. the vocals and the chord progression sounds like Steely Dan circa The Royal Scam, another classic album that wouldn't be born for a couple years yet. Welch may not have been made for stadiums, but he was one hell of a prescient songwriter.

This particular lineup of the 'Mac would mostly carry over into 1974's Heroes Are Hard To Find, perhaps the band's strangest and darkest album and the last of its "kind" before Welch quit the band and took his knack for blending accessible and experimental with him. He's been dead a few years now too, which means the opportunity for a reunion of a pre-Nicks lineup is effectively impossible. Damn it!

In conclusion though, my main motivation for talking about this album is to demonstrate that there really is a spectrum in all styles, no matter your preference. Whether its post-punk or dubstep or, of course, yacht rock...well, there's the fluffiest of the fluff and there's also stuff that tries to be a lot more than a succession of hooks and pure formula or an adherence to the expectations of the converted. This is one that falls into the second category in most respects, and there are others on my Westocoast-AOR essential listening list that follow suit. 2015 here we come!



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Old 01-11-2015, 10:30 PM   #12 (permalink)
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In his dream that was not a dream, the Pacific coastline was congested in strange, translucent metal that swam the bright blue skies. His car was flying, propelled by energies unknown to him. The hood was down, the wind roaring in his ears as a gorgeous song filled his mind like a glass. Sparkling waves of sound, each chord sustained indefinitely above the waterline, a distant supercity wavering like a mirage where the horizon was clearest. His joy knew no bounds, and his journey went on and on without an end. Sailing through the skies to a divine soundtrack....

And then, without warning, Koko was awake in the present and the song was already out of memory. Disappointed and left with a feeling of melancholy that was hard to put into words, he remembered he was seated along with countless others on an international flight to Okinawa, Japan.

"The women over there are the best," Amadeus had told him the following morning after his run in with Leroy. "There's some very promising artists over there, and I've already made a few calls. You'll be meeting our rep over there and get the lay of the land. Find someone we can do an English recording for that will dominate smooth music for the next few years!"

He had laughed alongside his boss at that moment, but Koko wasn't quite as thrilled on the inside. He would have preferred Europe before Japan or Korea or, God forbid, The Philippines.

"This is your captain speaking. We are three hours out from Iejima Airport. Skies are clear, turbulance is minimal. Thank you for choosing Republic Airlines".

It was a slightly odd feeling having to think of someone else as "captain" for any length of time, especially when you'd owned your own boat as long as Koko had. That being said, this flight has passed like a cloud over the sea and soon he would smell a new surf and behold a beautiful new place he had never been before.

With thoughts like that floating in his mind, Koko peacefully drifted off to sleep again for the final leg of the journey, hoping to once again be thrown into that dream beyond memory...

Greeen Linez - Hibiscus Pacific (from Things That Fade, 2012)

A purely instrumental, heavenly slice of hi-tech yacht rock from the modern age. Warm beds of synth bounce along to a gated reverb drum sample, accompanied by something resembling a tropical xylophone that weaves in and out of the mix like some lost Californian specter. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff. It's a song equally Westcoast-AOR and the beach pop of 80's Japan, a genre I'll be delving into in future installments of this journal. For now though, make do with this electronic music duo and their uncanny ability to evoke smooth music's sunkissed past in all its glory.
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Old 01-12-2015, 05:01 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Hey man! Congrats on a well-deserved award!
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Old 01-16-2015, 11:24 PM   #14 (permalink)
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^ Thank you sir: twas an unexpected boon.

Adrian Gurvitz - Sweet Vendetta (1979)

"When the twilight breeze has fallen soft upon a windy sea / I watch a star whose beam's so soft its blinding me to be..."

Famous for his time as lead guitarist and frontman of legendary psychedelic rock band Gun and his role in groups like Three Man Army in the first part of the 70's, I can say with dead certainty that Gurvitz's initial contributions to the music world could be felt in the subsequent tuneage of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Rob Halford. He's a wicked good axeman and songwriter: at one point Chris Welch from Melody Maker even voted him as one of the ten best guitarists of all time.

It must have been quite a surprise to many, then, when Gurvitz brought in 75% of the classic Toto lineup to help him put together his first solo outing at the end of the decade, 1979's Sweet Vendetta, resulting in an album that had a lot more in common with George Duke and Earth, Wind & Fire than the hard rock and proto-metal that defined this guy for nearly a decade up until this point. And even more surprisingly....the guy is a born yacht rocker. Smooth as butter on toast but twice as awesome!

Basically, this is groovy 70's boat disco with a distinct R&B edge. But considering the lineup behind the music here (Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on orchestration, Steve Porcaro on keys, David Hungate on bass, etc.) and the prominent horn ensemble throughout most of the songs here....well, its hard to say exactly what "style" this record truly falls under. There's Westcoast all over this baby. It also does a lot of different things under its funk-oriented umbrella, and that just goes to show you how confident Gurvitz was in these tunes before he ever brought in the big guns to studio.

There's a fair amount of jazz-fusion touches everywhere, especially the second half of the magnificent 'Put A Little Love (In Life's Heart)' and the rip-roaring fuzzbox finale of the shuffling 'Free Ride'. Elaborate, beautiful funk-lite. There's also a high level of sophistication going on in the arrangements, most noticeably on the dancefloor ready 'Love Space' and the light as a feather jazz-rock of 'The Wonder Of It All', which reminds me a lot of Chicago or BS&T at their most melodic.

As mentioned earlier, the closest peers I'd say Gurvitz has in this arena would be Philip Bailey from Earth, Wind & Fire or former Mothers Of Invention keyboardist George Duke. Like them, Gurvitz possesses a multifaceted vocal approach with a noticeable falsetto at the upper end of his abilities, and a strong grasp on his chosen aesthetic that gives the album a cohesive mood even as the diversity remains a big plus from cut to cut. A rare sense of balance permeates: he's a guitar virtuoso, but he lets the songs breathe and retain multiple dynamics in overall instrumentation.

In conclusion, this is one of those subtle gems from the latter part of the era that got lost in the shuffle, and I'm glad to present it here tonight as part of the Extravaganza. If they ever sported disco balls on deck in San Francisco, this was probably on the needle.


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Old 01-25-2015, 05:39 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Now that you're mentioning members of Toto, I'm waiting for a Toto album to appear on here
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Old 01-27-2015, 10:08 PM   #16 (permalink)
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Now that you're mentioning members of Toto, I'm waiting for a Toto album to appear on here
I've got a fun one in mind for them: may even do two.

Anywho...


As you've probably noticed based on the reviews and some of the songs I've highlighted so far, there's actually a wider umbrella than you'd think as far as what qualifies as "yacht rock" is concerned. To that end, I thought I'd do a post highlighting the five major style/genre variations within the smooth music world for educational purposes. And now, without delay...

1. Soft Rock

The earliest form of what people normally associate with the yacht rock moniker, pioneered in the late 60's in part by people like Carole King, The Carpenters and Todd Rundgren but eventually associated primarily with acts like Seals & Crofts, Stephen Bishop and Andrew Gold. The roots of soft rock, of course, lie in a mix of folk and Motown R&B with a touch of Brill Building popcraft, along with samba and bossa nova to a lesser degree. Primarily acoustic with no embellishment, though you'll occasionally hear a sax, bongos, etc. in a lot of songs as the mid 70's came in full swing.



2. "Yacht" Rock itself

Soft rock with keyboards, electric guitar and a big emphasis on more nautical or beach-y atmosphere, as well as the cornerstone genre that this journal revolves around. Peaked in popular consciousness from 1977 through 1985 before falling into obscurity. Elements of this music continued to proliferate in R&B and some forms of "chill" out electronica over the following decade, but with the success of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and other modern artists, the genre has seen something of a rebirth in recent years, along with Westcoast-AOR to a lesser degree. Key songs in this style include 'Steal Away' by Robbie Dupree, 'What A Fool Believes' by The Doobie Brothers and 'Sailing' by Christopher Cross.




3. Westcoast-AOR

Where yacht rock meets the more adventurous territories of jazz-fusion and prog. rock comes Westcoast-AOR, pioneered by bands like Ambrosia, Toto and Steely Dan in the mid to late-70's. Typified by jazzier, more expansive arrangements, big choruses, obtuse lyrical content and sleek production, this is my favorite subset of yacht rock by a country mile. Albums, songs and artists in this style tend to feature L.A.'s biggest and brightest session musicians of the 70's and 80's, especially guitarists like Michael Landau and Steve Lukather. A few key albums in this style include Aja by Steely Dan, Storm At Sunup by Gino Vannelli, Life Beyond L.A. by Ambrosia and (Forever In The) Arms Of Love by Karizma.



4. "Post" Disco

As the 70's came to a close and the 80's went into full swing, many R&B, funk and disco artists began hiring or co-writing with big producers and session players from L.A. to "get with the times". The result was a blend of yacht rock and Westcoast sensibilities and the dancefloor grooveage of past eras. The most commercially successful result of this process, of course, is Michael Jackson's 'Thriller', which featured all the members of Toto plus a large number of other guests and songwriting contributors from other L.A. natives. Jay Graydon in particular was a huge contributor to this trend, co-writing a lot of material with Earth, Wind & Fire, DeBarge and guys like Al Jarreau. A few key songs that represent this subset include 'Someone' by El Debarge, 'After The Love Is Gone' by EW&F, 'You (Are The Light)' by George Duke and 'Mornin' by Al Jarreau.




5. City Pop

Japan's answer to yacht rock and Westcoast-AOR basically, but with a heavier influence from 60's sunshine pop and acts like the Beach Boys. The 80's was Japan's golden era of economic prosperity, and the upbeat keyboard/guitar led beach-pop of that era's idols was the soundtrack to life in Tokyo for nearly a decade and a half. The best stuff in this style, however, is material produced by key songwriters such as Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu -- both of whom are also incredibly skilled guitarists, vocalists and producers all in one. I'll be getting more in-depth on this particular subset on a later post, but key albums in this genre include Melodies by Tatsuro Yamashita, All Is Vanity by Toshiki Kadomatsu, First Light by Mokoto Matsushita and Adventure by Kikuchi Momoko.


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Old 02-08-2015, 03:41 PM   #17 (permalink)
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Steely Dan - Aja (1977)

"On the counter / By your keys / Was a book of numbers / And your remedies. / One of these / Will surely screen out the sorrow / But where are you tomorrow...?"

A landmark in music production and one of the best albums ever made in any style or genre, Aja is the bona fide king of Californian smooth & yacht-friendly jazz rock. Hell, if I had a list somewhere of essential albums in regards to this thread, you'd find this sucker near or at the top. Like Thriller, The White Album and a couple of key others throughout the music industry's history, you get a taste of perfection here that will people will probably still be referencing and listening to long after I'm dead.

I won't spend too much time on the background of the album here, as I've already posted the Classic Albums documentary piece on it and the background of each song is extensively covered over on Wikipedia and other places. Among some of the more interesting factoids, however, include Jay Graydon being chosen over Eddie Van Halen and many other greats who auditioned for the guitar solo in 'Peg', which is also the song that got Michael McDonald his big breakout in the 'biz, which subsequently opened the door for him into The Doobie Brothers.

All that being said, Aja is usually the first thing that comes to mind for most people when it comes to albums that "sound realllllly fuckin' good on my $3000+ home theater". The dynamics, mixing and general instrumental clarity are phenomenal to an extent where even some of your favorite death and black metal musicians have probably studied it at one point.

That being said, if there was one chink in the armor of an album bordering on perfection, its the fact that I feel it was frontloaded. 'Black Cow' is a slippery groove-laden love-gone-wrong crime narrative, leading into the languid but pitch perfect title track where Wayne Shorter steals the show about five minutes in on tenor sax. You then get the rather telling 'Deacon Blues' [They got a name for the winners in the world /And I want a name when I lose], and of course there's 'Peg' and 'Josie' with their surreal choruses and horn sections right out of the Chicago playbook. It's 'Home At Last' and 'I Got The News' that prove to be the weakest of the seven cuts overall: the former has some killer Clavinet, and on other albums they'd be the best songs on the set...but here, they're sort of shoved awkwardly together on Side B and feel more like opening acts to 'Josie', which is a killer closer.


Aja would go Platinum faster than you could say Larry Carlton, outclassed in '77 on the charts only by Rumours (Fleetwood Mac) and The Stranger (Billy Joel), setting a new standard for the industry and proving that jazz-fusion and pop music weren't necessarily incompatible or that audiences were allergic to sophistication on their FM stations. Donald Fagen was a more biting lyricist and frontman than American audiences were typically exposed to, a loveable sleaze who sounded closer to Tom Waits than Tom Jones in the voice department. Still, his quips and near-nightmarish commentary on the more apathetic and demoralizing aspects of professional life in L.A. continues to resonate decades later.

The last of the "classic" Dan albums would come a few years later in the form of Gaucho, an album that took the obsessive perfectionism of Aja into even odder waters, but for all intents and purposes the yacht rock emperor was coronated in 1977...and still he reigns.


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Old 02-20-2015, 11:38 PM   #18 (permalink)
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Chris Rainbow - White Trails (1979)

"Everybody wants tomorrow / Nobody likes today.."

Before becoming one of the key frontmen for The Alan Parsons Project at the beginning of the 80's, Scotland-based singer/songwriter Christopher James Harley, AKA Chris Rainbow, crafted three solo endeavors that took the best ideas and production flairs of The Beach Boys and integrated them into his own proggy, yacht rocking musical sensibilities...with ridiculously good, awe-inspiring results often sprouting up all over.

Of those three masterpieces, third and final 1979 solo release White Trails is the closest sonically to a literal yacht-rock album: it has the lush, larger-than-life atmosphere of his 1978 sophomore experiment Looking Over My Shoulder, but with stronger hooks and deeper grooves than the more splintered 1975 debut Home Of The Brave. The supporting cast is pretty impressive too: big names include future Toto drummer Simon Phillips and the ever-prolific Manfred Mann Earth Band frontman Chris Thompson on backing vox. Their talents, of course, are on full display throughout this gorgeous album.

This is one of those rare cases where the standouts are going to vary wildly from listener to listener: for me the late night groove of 'Love You Eternally', with its punchy verses and shimmering backing ooh's and aahs, and the jazzy waltzing title track are pure perfection. Throw in the colossal ambience of closing cut 'In Love With Love' or the snarky shuffle of 'Street Wise' and you've got a recipe that hits the spot in more ways than one. Even the stuff that isn't instant classic material has something interesting going on, such as the acoustic, vaguely Yes-ish 'Song Of The Earth' and the starstruck balldeering of 'Don't Take The Night Away'. Eight tracks just fly by like nothing on an album like this I suppose.


All that being said, Chris Rainbow's connections to the yacht rock world of L.A. are almost all second degree: he would later work with Jon Anderson on some of his solo material, who would then later hire the guys in Toto to be part of his backing band on 1988's In The City Of Angels. The real connection, therefore, is mostly aesthetic: this is the sort of quality beach tuneage that Brian Wilson would have been cooking up if things hadn't turned so sour for the surfer boys from Cali after the early 70's. Perhaps it could even be argued that Chris actually surpassed Wilson as an architect of atmosphere by this point in the game, though that's just me being indignant in regards to the lack of exposure and overall acclaim Rainbow got during his heyday.

At the very least, what we have here sounds more like a true successor to the Boys' more adventurous peak era than Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue (R.I.P.), and makes for some great yacht soundtracking to boot. I honestly can't recommend it enough!
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Old 02-21-2015, 11:12 AM   #19 (permalink)
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Re: Aja

Awesome album. A masterpiece. Deserves all the accolades.

Despise it.

Every time you are in a supermarket, shopping mall, elevator, etc. and hear smooth jazz versions of great songs you can blame Aja for all of that.
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Old 02-21-2015, 12:38 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Re: Aja

Awesome album. A masterpiece. Deserves all the accolades.

Despise it.

Every time you are in a supermarket, shopping mall, elevator, etc. and hear smooth jazz versions of great songs you can blame Aja for all of that.
Aja is a pretty smooth record, but it had nothing to do with smooth jazz's rise in the 80's and beyond. That being said, I shall point you to one of the real culprits:

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