THATS UNDERRATED

Underrated Music

A duo so dynamic they gave Batman and Robin a run for their money.

WHAT: The White Stripes

And they said rock was dead! The White Stripes are a blues rock duo from Detroit active from 1997 until 2011. The White Stripes were known for their keen fashion sense as well as their thunderous blues infused rock. Jack and Meg White complemented each other exquisitely and were able to communicate with each other on an almost subconscious level. Not only have they been one of the best acts of the past decade, The White Stripes also introduced the world to the proficient guitarist Jack White. White's impassioned and deft style of play would surely put a smile on the face of legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, and it did!. As long as Jack White has a guitar in his hand, true rock music still has a pulse.

What makes The White Stripes so special? At first glance you might mistake the twosome for a cutesy coffee shop acoustic duo. That assessment could not be further from the truth. Drummer Meg White pounds the drums like a woman possessed. Lead singer/guitarist Jack White utters a howl from beyond while simultaneously making his guitar sing like an angelic chorus. The band has more in common with hard rock acts, with their Zeppelin-esque guitar solos that rattle the cosmos. This is a power duo if there ever was one. Their heavy blues sonic assault is steeped in the rich history of black blues artists like Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. Throw in a little punk influence such as The Clash and you won't soon forget the eclectic uproar of The White Stripes. That's not to say that they don't have their fair share of ballads. In fact, some of my favorite songs are the more introspective pieces such as The Air Near My Fingers, but even those songs have some sort of wicked piano loop or celestial guitar riff looming around the corner. Their sound is crisp, loud, and energetic all without having a bass player. Yes, it truly is a duo in every sense of the word. Just a drummer and an electric guitar player. Yet, they somehow manage to sound like an orchestra with all of the musicality going on. The synergy between Jack and Meg White is amazing as well. Jack White has often mentioned that he just starts playing and Meg knows exactly where to pick up. Hell, they don't even rehearse set lists. They understand each other on an almost psychic level and it definitely shows. 

And you can't say they aren't interesting. The White Stripes were initially billed as being a brother/sister pair. In reality, Jack White was married to Meg White for several years and by the time they were beginning to gain some success they had already divorced. In the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jack describes the whole sibling thing as being a deliberate tactic so that people would focus on their music instead of wondering about their relationship. Are they together? Can they coexist as exes? They really didn't need any gimmicks to get over like some other bands (remember TATU?) since the music spoke for itself. In an interview with the UK Mirror Jack White was quoted as saying, "Well, I sort of don't trust anybody who doesn't like Led Zeppelin." I agree, and I sort of don't trust anyone who says their favorite band is The Marshall Tucker Band. Really? Really? Your honest to God FAVORITE? The band that warms the cockles of your heart? Really?

Over the course of their career The White Stripes have released six studio albums. The first two albums, 1999's The White Stripes and 2000's De Stijl were raw and had more of a punk sound compared to subsequent albums. Many bands start out as punk acts such as Faith No More and U2, and it can be quite startling to hear how different they sound as the years go by. Evolution my friends. In keeping with that punk vibe, many tracks are barely over two minutes but they pack quite a jolt. Their eponymous debut album is littered with hard hitting riff heavy anthems like the song Screwdriver. The debut album also contained the song Cannon which was based on an old gospel song John the Revelator (as was Depeche Mode's subsequent John the Revelator). Gospel-blues legend Blind Willie Johnson first recorded the song in 1930 and it has since been covered by many artists including being used in a pivotal scene on Sons of Anarchy. (I am only on season two so I really do not want to know any more details than that). Blues musician Son House recorded a popular version in the 1960s that you really appreciate after seeing the film It Might Get Loud. The man was a clap and a voice and a soul. De Stijl continued the quick and to the point nature of The White Stripes debut album with Green Day-esque fast and hard punk such as You're Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl) and Jumble, Jumble. Songs like Hello Operator explore the bands more blues inspired elements with a welcome fervor. 

White Blood Cells was released in 2001 and continued the bands evolution. Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground became one of their most successful hits of that era. However, no White Stripes song at that time would prove to be as successful as Fell in Love with a Girl. The memorable Lego animation music video helped to keep the song constantly playing on music TV stations such as MTV and Canada's MuchMusic. A memorable cover by Joss Stone entitled Fell in Love with a Boy also extended its shelf life. On the other end of the spectrum was the impressive Offend in Every Way which sounded like classic Neil Young right down to its Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) guitar chords. White Blood Cells was where the band really started to take chances and branch out from their punk stylings into a more punk/blues fusion. It was their first real taste of mainstream success, yet they continued to make the albums they wanted to make. It would be the perfect stepping stone to their seminal album Elephant.

2003's Elephant has become the most commercially successful album in The White Stripes catalogue. From the opening powerhouse bass line of Seven Nation Army (ah, the magic of the recording studio...especially when you don't have a bass player...especially when the bass sound isn't even from a bass guitar) to the closing moments of the album, this collection of tunes is a force to be reckoned with. The studio has allowed Jack White's talents to shine even brighter as he integrates various instruments and sounds seamlessly into the already well-oiled White Stripes machine. On Seven Nation Army he adds a sick bass line to some ridiculous electric guitar distortion. The song has even been given a second life as a popular international soccer anthem. Ball and Biscuit is a seven minute epic where he's practically just showing off now. The Air Near My Fingers is my personal favorite as it has pretty much got it all. The song starts with Jack White singing in an almost hushed whisper, a tone he maintains throughout the song. Soon enough the keyboard and drums go into overdrive as the song slowly builds to an explosive conclusion. Elephant is a classic that epitomizes exactly what The White Stripes are capable of.

The White Stripes exhibited a noticeable style switch on (what I like to refer to as the album dedicated to Simon Peter) 2005's Get Behind Me Satan. You still have some stompers like Blue Orchid, which is just so riff heavy and has this great energy to it, particularly Meg slamming the cymbals. It just seemed musically they were open to explore new ground which led to a different kind of album. From the intermittent use of maracas, more reliance on piano (My Doorbell has some great piano parts) and scaled back guitar parts, the album is quite the departure from their signature sound...but it works. Songs like Take, Take, Take and The Denial Twist are proof that it doesn't matter what instruments you put in their hands because they will find a way to carve out great music.

2007's Icky Thump would prove to be their final album and was quite the fitting send off. If I had to pick my favorite White Stripes album from start to finish this is it. They took their bread and butter formula from Elephant (hard hitting guitar driven blues) and combined it with the experimentation on Get Behind Me Satan (there are bagpipes for goodness sakes!) to achieve their most complete album. That guitar riff on Icky Thump is unreal! Conquest is a triumphant little song with a sense of danger that sounds like it should be the theme song to a Quentin Tarantino movie. Rag and Bone tells a story about bargain bin treasure hunting over a sharp bluesy tune. I'm Slowly Turning into You is plain awesomeness. Like the title, the song is a slow progression that reaches a crescendo of  wicked, wicked guitar bombast. Jack White sings with the passion of 1,000 suns to match the guitar blasts. Effect and Cause closes out the album with some of the funniest lyrics I have heard in a long time and is one catchy tune to boot. What a way for The White Stripes to go out on a high note. The culmination of over a decade of perfecting their craft.

The efforts of The White Stripes have been recognized over the years, as they have won a total of six Grammy Awards. I can't help but chuckle when I hear Grammy Awards because I can recall the story of how Jethro Tull won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance over Metallica. Not because I have anything against Jethro Tull (I like both bands), but because that was tantamount to awarding Macarena the award for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. The songs Seven Nation Army, Get Behind Me Satan, and Icky Thump have all received Grammy Awards. In addition to Grammy Awards, the White Stripes impressive catalogue has garnered numerous international awards as well.

You can't say Jack White hasn't kept a busy schedule since The White Stripes ceased performing. In addition to The White Stripes, Mr. White has made numerous appearances in other bands/side projects. He recently released his critically lauded debut solo album Blunderbuss. One need only listen to the cover of Little Willie John's I'm Shakin to be completely and utterly wowed, as it is worth the price of admission alone. He also released two albums with the Raconteurs. Let me rephrase that, two excellent albums with The Raconteurs. The Raconteurs were quite the departure from The White Stripes style (more melodic, and driven by impressive harmonies with singer Brendan Benson) but they put together an impressive collection of songs in a short amount of time. In fact, their song Many Shades of Black was covered by Adele on her debut album 19 (as a bonus track on the 2009 expanded edition). And because that wasn't enough, Jack White also released two albums with The Dead Weather, dueting with singer Alison Mosshart. I am a sucker for bands with two lead singers (Alice in Chains, The Clash, Pink Floyd) so my appreciation for The Dead Weather was only natural.

Jack White was also featured prominently in the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud. I might as well discuss it since I have mentioned it several times already. The documentary followed Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Jack White of The White Stripes, and The Edge of U2. An impressive triumvirate to say the least. I viewed it as The Master, The Adept Student, and The Mad Scientist. Now, I always viewed The Edge as a minimalist, the guy who quite possibly got the most amount of music out of playing the least amount of notes. I had no idea he was so experimental with his techniques, and all of his studio toys were like a scientist's laboratory tools. The film was extremely interesting as we follow each guitarist individually and learn about their influences and distinct style of guitar playing. I had no idea what Jack White's influences were, I just assumed it was the usual suspects like Led Zeppelin, Clapton/Cream, 70s/80s punk, but it was interesting to see how he was influenced even more by some of the old black blues singers such as Son House and Blind Willie Johnson. It was amazing to see just how different their style of play was and how they all had that one guitar they preferred. Eventually all three guitarists meet up to discuss music with all the enthusiasm and curiosity of children playing in a sandbox with their plastic blue shovels (which is every child's unalienable right as the series finale of Rescue Me can attest to). Watching them play together and bust out a guitar trio barrage on In My Time of Dying was a truly special moment. It really is a fascinating documentary with a rich sense of music history, and is well worth checking out.

The White Stripes are one of the most original and compelling musical acts of the last decade. The unfathomable synergy between Jack White and Meg White is something to marvel at. The band was not only a showcase for their combined talents, but it also served as a veritable showcase for the near incomparable guitar talents of Jack White. The White Stripes will be missed but they have already secured their place in the annals of rock history. Jack White continues to release stellar project after stellar project, doing his best to ensure that rock (particularly the blues) is indeed not dead.
 
CHECK THESE OUT: The White Stripes, De Stijl, White Blood Cells, Elephant, Get Behind Me Satan, and Icky Thump on CD. It Might Get Loud on DVD.

Article by Chris Ramirez

"The mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth"

WHAT: Led Zeppelin's Presence

Presence is the penultimate album from Led Zeppelin released in 1976. Three years later they would go on to release their final album, In Through the Out Door, and one year after that they would cease to exist entirely after the 1980 death of drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham. Presence is an unheralded album which contains Led Zeppelin's signature exploding drums and talking guitars alongside Plant's celestial howl, in a tight seven song collection.

Many fans and critics alike group Presence along with the inconsistent final album In Through the Out Door and dismiss it as not being very good and for die-hard fans only. The Led Zeppelin canon is depicted as the first four albums, Physical Graffiti, and Houses of the Holy. Presence deserves a spot next to these albums as well. Plant's vocals are crisp and consistent in quality, the tunes are catchy and memorable, Page and Jones are sharp, and Bonzo does his usual thing. One of the main problems on In Through the Out Door was that Robert Plant's vocals sounded inconsistent. He sounded great on All My Love (certainly their most personal song, about the death of Plant's young son) and sounds as if his voice is fading in and out on In The Evening. Placing Presence and In Through the Out Door at the bottom of Led Zeppelin's catalogue isn't necessarily the worst thing since basically it says they are good but not the masterpieces we are accustomed to the band producing. It is what I like to call the Jackie Brown effect. Jackie Brown was a good movie on its own but it just pales in comparison to Quentin Tarantino's other masterpieces like the Kill Bills, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, etc. 

Presence in my opinion supplanted Led Zeppelin III among the essential Led Zeppelin albums. Led Zeppelin III is exactly what I would refer to as an album for die-hards only. The album opens with the impressive Immigrant Song but alas, it is only a false promise of subsequent stellar quality. The Immigrant Song follows up with some of the weakest Zeppelin songs in their entire catalogue. It is quite the experimental album but not for the better. However, it does have some great tracks interspersed throughout including the bluesy Since I've Been Loving You. Presence just has more emotion, memorable songs, and fittingly... more presence. 

Presence had one of the shortest turnaround times of any Led Zeppelin album and was recorded under unique circumstances. The band pumped the album out in slightly over two weeks since the Rolling Stones needed the studio to record Black and Blue. 
Robert Plant was in a serious car accident while in Greece right before work on the album was to commence. In fact, Plant was in a wheelchair while he recorded the album and was also said to be extremely homesick. Emotions were running at an all time high and it definitely shows on the album. 

The album opens with the song Achilles Last Stand. It is not just one of the best opening tracks on a Led Zeppelin album (along with  Black Dog, Immigrant Song and Whole Lotta Love), but one of the best album openers period. The song is a sweeping epic and Jimmy Page has even called it his favorite song. When I say epic, this song is epic in every sense of the word. Three elements of most epics (according to one definition of epic) are that they are a trilogy or longer, have an extensive backstory, and must encompass years or more. First off, the song can be viewed as being the equivalent of three songs. The average song clocks in at 3:30 and Achilles clocks in at an impressive 10:28, roughly three times the average length of a song. Extensive backstory? The lyrics reference the Greek hero Achilles and the ancient Titan Atlas who held the world on his shoulders. Goes on for years? 10:28 is years in music terms. Page delights with crazy solos that shake the heavens. Bonzo perhaps does his most impressive work ever with his furious drumming that resembles machine guns or perhaps more appropriately, resembles Achilles' Myrmidon army rapping their shields against their breastplates to intimidate their opponents. It is one of the most recognizable techniques that has been adopted by other bands including Metallica on their modern war epic One.

The second track entitled For Your Life is a reflection on rock star temptations. Plant sounds great here. Page plays a looping guitar riff which is expertly accentuated by John Paul Jones' bass. Bonzo keeps the beat with expert precision as usual. The song is extremely catchy, and those riffs will get stuck in your head.

Royal Orleans is a fun little song with more intense drumming and some interesting guitar work. It would be perfect during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, as it captures that carefree spirit perfectly. The song is reportedly about the Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans and an incident involving a transvestite and a hotel room that burned to the ground.

Nobody's Fault But Mine is an interpretation of the blues gospel classic by Blind Willie Johnson. The band changed some of the lyrics around and gave it their own unique spin musically. It is a song about redemption which was appropriate considering all of the inner turmoil the band had to overcome during these recording sessions. Plant's echo chamber-like vocals and Bonzo's fast and furious drumming take center stage here. Plant even unleashes a harmonica solo with such explosive conviction as if his soul depended on it.

Candy Store Rock is the weakest track on the album as there is really just not a whole heck of a lot for Bonzo to do here. Page and Jones are uncharacteristically restrained, and Plant sounds as if he is starting to become uncomfortable sitting in his wheelchair. Oh, and we are treated to such inspired lyrics as, "Oh baby, baby, I got my spoon inside your jar".

Hots On For Nowhere is where the band gets their second wind. While Candy Store Rock was flat and stilted Hots On For Nowhere is playful and energetic. Bonzo is back smacking them cymbals and his energy permeates. Page keeps a nice steady pace then ramps it up like a man possessed. Plant sings an upbeat "la la la" chorus and sounds smooth and invigorated. The song was supposedly about Plant's frustrations with Page and manager Peter Grant since he felt that they were not sensitive enough to the things he was going through. So Plant basically said, "so here is this song I got about how annoying you are and I need you to play on it". Brilliant.

Tea For One closes out the album and is a subdued bluesy number. It is perhaps the longest song with tea in the title at 9:23, a stark contrast to (the man formerly known as) Cat Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman (last seen as the theme song for HBO's brilliant Extras) which clocks in at a whopping 1:01. Its dreamlike subtle guitar sounds incredibly similar to Since I've Been Loving You from Led Zeppelin III. It is a solid blues number which had the potential to be excellent except it just doesn't build towards anything. I just kept waiting for a crescendo like Stairway to Heaven, but it never came. Stairway to Heaven starts off slow and soft and gradually builds until we enter hyperdrive mode where Plant and Page just let all of the emotion and energy rush from their depths. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is another Led Zeppelin song that does a similar thing. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and Guns and Roses' November Rain do this as well. For a more recent example, check out I Appear Missing by Queens of the Stone Age. Tea For One is a slow bluesy tune that builds to...more slow blues. Despite missing out on greatness it was a solid way to end another solid album from Led Zeppelin

If we have learned anything from the movie This Is Spinal Tap it is that drummers are easily replaceable. In the joke that keeps on giving, the band Spinal Tap goes through several ill-fated drummers who die in bizarre ways including a gardening accident and spontaneous combustion. Drummers may be replaceable but great drummers like Keith Moon and John Bonham can never truly be replaced. The Who decided to record two albums after Moon's death with Kenney Jones as his replacement and things just were not the same despite Jones' talents and stellar reputation in the music world (he was drummer for the Faces, a band that included Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and believe it or not Rod Stewart was a real rocker back in the day before he started covering songs your grandmother would love). Roger Daltrey could not have said it any better, "I didn't dislike the guy, but I just felt he wasn't the right drummer for The Who. It's like having the wheel off a Cadillac stuck onto a Rolls Royce. It's a great wheel but it's the wrong one". Moon's presence (there is that word again) was sorely missed. Led Zeppelin decided to go another route and disbanded after the death of John Bonham. They felt that they just were not the same band and could not play at the same level without Bonham's...presence.

Presence is an often overlooked gem that is comparable with the best of Led Zeppelin's work. From the very first moments of album opener Achilles Last Stand we are invited to go on an epic journey with one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Presence would be the last time this power quartet was at the top of their game and is not to be missed for that fact alone.

CHECK THIS ALBUM OUT: Presence

Article by CJ Ramirez

"Mr. Blue Collar"

WHO: Rhymefest

WHAT: Underrated Rapper

Rhymefest is a rapper from Chicago who first gained recognition as co-writer of Kanye West's Grammy winning single Jesus Walks. Mr. Blue Collar (as he is called for his everyman persona) has shifted from songwriter to performer and has released two albums including his amazing debut Blue Collar and a solid sophomore effort in El Che. The man born Che Smith has embraced his humble beginnings and unique flow and has become an exciting new voice in the hip hop world.

Rhymefest has quite the unique rap flow that never ceases to be interesting. A stutter step belies the rapid fire onslaught that follows it. The more I listen to Rhymefest, the more I realize he truly is one of a kind. He really does not sound like anyone else currently out there. I have heard people compare his spit to Ludacris or the GZA but I don't really see that (Now if he was Guerilla Black and somebody said he sounded like Biggie, Yes! Yes he does!). Rhymefest really has his own thing going on, and is able to spit witty barbs in rapid succession like a machine gun rattling off seemingly infinite rounds. His unique flow is part of his charm and helps set him apart from other rap artists.  

In 2006 Rhymefest released his debut album Blue Collar which contained songs from several top producers including Just Blaze, No I.D. and Kanye West. Fellow Chicago rapper Kanye West also performs on two tracks which is like awesomeness squared. Non hip hop fans may not know what that means but it is basically the equivalent of Jimmy Page jamming with Eric Clapton (which almost happened if Clapton had not left The Yardbirds a year before Page joined them). The album opens with the Jimmie J.J. Walker sampling Dynomite which was produced by Just Blaze. Blaze is an uber talented producer whose tracks are instantly recognizable and seem to be brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. The song also contains a line about how Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel if he were alive today which reminded me of the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up". Brand New is like a Kanye West allegory in which Rhymefest jokingly accuses Kanye of giving him an old beat he had laying around so he can save the best beats for himself. Judging by the Kanye produced track Brand New, Kanye did give Rhymefest a catchy Grade A beat but certainly not one of the A+ beats Kanye has on his own albums such as Two Words. He has however given Jay Z a few A+ beats over the years like Takeover.

Producer No I.D. contributes four tracks to the album. The best of which are Fever, Chicago-Rillas and Get Down. 
Fever samples the Little Willie John classic Fever which has been sung by Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Here, producer No I.D. samples a more obscure version, which was recorded by Cuban singer La Lupe. The La Lupe version is off the rails with full on maniacal laughter from the never ending ball of energy La Lupe. Rhymefest raps over this booming beat and keeps pace with its high energy. The La Lupe version of Fever was recently heard on the just cancelled cable series Magic City. Chicago-Rillas keeps things pumping with a catchy and fierce tune. Another No I.D. track Get Down has my favorite beat on the album, a combination of DJ scratch and soul that just gets stuck in your head. Get Down must be one of the most common song names in rap with entries from Cam'ron (Purple Haze), Beanie Sigel (The Reason), and Nas (God's Son) and all of them are quite commendable.

Mark Ronson is the unsung producer of the album. He is perhaps best known for producing smash hits for Amy Winehouse including Rehab and Back to Black. He turns in a yeoman's work while largely flying under the radar. On his first track Devil's Pie, he fuses Rhymefest's rhapsody with garage rock paragons The Strokes' Last Nite. Tell a Story samples New Birth's, You Don't Have to Be Alone which beat sounds incredibly similar to One (Is the Loneliest Number) by Three Dog Night which was originally a Harry Nilsson song. It stands out as a more mellow track with its chorus of la la las. Ronson's final track and the final track on the album is Build Me Up, a cover of The Foundations classic. Rhymefest teams up with O.D.B. and you can tell they are just having a great time here. O.D.B. is as entertaining as ever and his offbeat craziness and sincere passion make for a real fun time. He even keeps singing after the song is over which hilariously prompts Rhymefest to tell him you can stop singing now, the album is over. A fitting conclusion.

The album Blue Collar really is a combination of Rhymefest's interminable energy and hot beats from numerous super producers. The song Bullet, from lesser known producers Emile & Cochise, is the most heartfelt track on the album and tells a captivating trifold story. The first story is about a young kid from the streets who ends up enlisting as a soldier since a life of war provides him a better life than the problems he faces in his poor neighborhood. The second story is of a promiscuous man who beds every woman in sight and has to deal with the consequences of AIDS. The last part of the song warns against street and gang life and how they inevitably end in death. The album has a plethora of fun songs with catchy beats but it is songs like Bullet where the genre truly excels, transcending party anthems and educating and informing.

2010 saw the release of Rhymefest's sophomore album entitled El Che. El Che was a pronounced change from the super producer laden debut of Blue Collar. El Che sports a sound that is much more stripped down and intimate which works quite well with Rhymefest's clever lyrics and effervescent flow. The album starts much like Blue Collar did with a white hot intro in T.M.S. which was produced by Best Kept Secret. You would swear this was a Just Blaze track based on the high energy and insane guitar work in the background. How High is an upbeat track reminiscent of the uplifting Kanye West/Lupe Fiasco track Touch the Sky. Prosperity is my favorite song on the album complete with its hellfire and brimstone minister preaching in the background. The horn infused track has a beat that sounds like something you would hear in Kill Bill. In Truth on You the self-deprecating Rhymefest picks a fight with himself and wins! Chicago is a haunting track with my favorite line on the album, "took the Mario mushroom, oh you big now?". The next track Agony is a nice cool down from the heavy Chicago and sounds like dub music of Sandinista era the Clash. Last Night sounds like the plot to the Hangover rhymed over a soul tinged beat. Give It To Me is another ball of raw energy like opener T.M.S. and features Saigon (yes, that dude from Entourage). Celebration closes out the album in grand style as El sings a beautiful hook alongside Rhymefest's machine gun rap. El Che was another solid album from Rhymefest that further cemented his status as a premiere MC. While it was not the instant classic that Blue Collar was, it was still a strong release by any standards.

Where is Rhymefest? Where did he go? Has he fully embraced his Mr. Blue Collar persona and taken a job at the local post office? Is he a top secret CIA assassin like Chuck Barris of The Gong Show? After dropping two albums he seemed to have just dropped from the face of the earth.  Fear not! In 2011 Rhymefest ran for office as Chicago's 20th ward alderman and garnered an impressive 45% of the vote. More recently Mr. Blue Collar has been doing some great work alongside Kanye West with the Got Bars program for Chicago Youth. Got Bars is a free program focusing on writing and recording music and also includes lesson plans focused on etiquette, exercise, and goal-setting. At the end of the program the students will also be releasing their very own EP. To borrow a line from the incomparable O.D.B., "Wu-Tang is for the children" and apparently Rhymefest is as well. 

Rhymefest is another stellar MC from the explosion of the Chicago rap scene during the mid to late 2000's. He forms a formidable trio with fellow Chicago rappers Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco. While Rhymefest has not released an album in quite some time it is nice to know that he is doing some really meaningful things with his life in addition to his burgeoning rap career. I eagerly anticipate his next musical endeavor. 

CHECK THESE ALBUMS OUT: Blue Collar, El Che

Article by CJ Ramirez



WHO: Faith No More

WHAT: Underrated Band

Faith No More hail from San Francisco California and are one of the most influential rock bands of the past thirty years. The band members include Mike Patton on vocals, Mike Bordin on drums (he also played on Jerry Cantrell's excellent Degradation Trip), Roddy Bottum on keyboards and piano, Billy Gould on bass guitar, and Jon Hudson on lead guitar. Hudson took over lead guitar duties from longtime Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin who I was convinced took off his signature red glasses and, in a Clark Kent to Superman like transformation, became Kim Thayil from Soundgarden. To classify Faith No More as just a hard rock band or alternative rock band would be a gross understatement that only barely scratched the surface of what they were about musically. Their style is a true medley of genre spanning sonic goodness including tracks that easily could have been classified as jazz, rap, soul, punk, funk, heavy metal, hard rock, and alternative rock. 

Faith No More achieved their biggest success in 1990 with the music video for the song Epic. The video received significant play on MTV and is perhaps best remembered for a goldfish flopping around on the floor while the beat box rap from frontman Mike Patton combines effortlessly with Mike Bordin's pounding drums and the heavy guitar riffs of Jim Martin. What may surprise many people is that this was not their first foray into the music scene. In fact, the band had been around since the mid-eighties and even enlisted Courtney Love as a singer although she never recorded a record with them. Faith No More released two albums before Mike Patton was even in the band with their then lead singer Chuck Mosley. 

We Care a Lot was released in 1985 with Chuck Mosley on vocals. Faith No More sounded like your typical punk band on this album as if they were direct disciples of the Sex Pistols. The album is quite raw and unpolished which was to be expected being that it was not a big label release. Mosley does an admirable job on vocals and there are some standout tracks such as title track We Care A Lot, the thrash punk treat of The Jungle, and Mosley even channels his inner Joe Strummer (of The Clash) on a fun little track named Greed. Their follow-up album Introduce Yourself was released in 1987 and while it was a more polished studio album with a crisper sound it did not diverge much from the frenetic punk assault of We Care A Lot. Introduce Yourself, The Crab Song, Anne's Song and Chinese Arithmetic are some of the more memorable tracks. Speaking of Chinese Arithmetic, I kept listening to it over and over again because I could have sworn I heard the rhythm of the chorus " Your friend was young, hung and plastered He never knew his own disaster I think it's good, in fact it was faster Cause it was you that he was after" in some other song. After spending like what seemed like a lifetime of sifting through my albums I had narrowed it down to the theme from the TV show Captain Planet and a song by the Eagles of Death Metal. The chorus on the Eagles of Death Metal (was there ever a more misleading band name? You would think you were listening to hardcore death metal rather than a lighthearted dance-rock band) song I Used To Couldn't Dance Tight Pants sounded similar enough that I was satisfied enough to stop searching. 

Mike Patton replaced Chuck Mosley on vocals in 1989 with the landmark album The Real Thing. If I had to describe his sound it would be described as a cocktail two parts Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers one part (the late) Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone and a dash of that super-kinetic thunderbolt in the AC/DC logo. Mike Patton is a live wire of a frontman with a vocal range that knows no bounds. He can belt out lyrics in a ferocious eviscerating heavy metal growl, beat box on funky tracks, sing on gentle grooves, and even supplement more jazzy tracks with a smooth soulful voice. Chuck Mosley did a good job fronting Faith No More when it was pretty much a punk band with one style. Mike Patton turned this band into something else entirely, something that was so special because it broke all sorts of rules and genre conventions. Patton is one of a kind and is immensely talented and he has allowed these talents to pervade other forms of entertainment. He did some great voice over work in the PS3 and X-Box 360 game The Darkness giving life to an ancient demon that possesses protagonist Jackie Estacado. He has also had roles in the games Portal and Left 4 Dead.

Patton's first album as lead singer was The Real Thing which was released in 1989 and is an instant classic. The song Epic introduced the world to Faith No More and is one of many great tracks on this album. I am not normally a fan of instrumentals and usually just skip them entirely unless they are particularly impressive such as Metallica's Orion or The Call of Ktulu. Woodpecker from Mars is a great instrumental that is extremely heavy yet is still able to remain melodic. Cover songs can also be a mixed bag but Faith No More nails it here with War Pigs. It is always a risk to cover something so classic and beloved like Black Sabbath's War Pigs but Patton is respectful to the spirit of the original while not being afraid to make it his own. Falling to Pieces is my personal favorite track which is so lyrically strong, "Because I'm somewhere in between, My love and my agony, You see I'm somewhere in between, My life is falling to pieces, Somebody put me together" and would have been a great theme song for Humpty Dumpty. Edge of the World is one of their jazziest songs and I could have pictured it being performed at a coffee shop following a performance by Duke Ellington. 

In 1992 the band released the album Angel Dust which is my personal favorite. You really cannot go wrong with any of the Mike Patton era Faith No More albums but Angel Dust was the equivalent of all five Voltron lions coming together (if you don't get that reference trust me, it is EPIC!) . Everything's Ruined has some nice piano work going on in the background and forms an interesting contrast to Patton's beat box vocals. On Kindergarten Mike Patton at one point channels his inner auctioneer, it is one of the best tracks on the album and I would place it slightly behind Midlife Crisis which is lyrical gold, " You're perfect yes it's true, But without me you're only you, your menstruating heart, it ain't bleedin' enough for two". Be Aggressive has a riveting The Phantom of the Opera like organ intro and it's cheerleader chant chorus has been borrowed by several other artists. Land of Sunshine has to be one of the most fun songs ever especially when you find out how the song was composed. The lyrics were taken from actual fortune cookies that Mike Patton had eaten during a sleep deprived night. I am convinced that this band can make great music out of anything. RV is fun as well with some excellent piano work mixed with the feeling of being stuck in a twisted version of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Patton's sound is so different on RV that you barely recognize it is him. 

The 1995 release of King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime continued the trend of diverse tracks. Star A.D. is a funky groove while Take This Bottle has some beautiful piano work and some poignant lyrics. The final Faith No More studio album was 1997's Album of the Year. Last Cup of Sorrow is an incredibly catchy tune and its chimes will be constantly ringing in your head. Ashes to Ashes is one of their heaviest guitar riffs to date which is juxtaposed against uplifting and soulful singing by Patton. Speaking of soulful, She Loves Me Not would have felt right at home on a Tears for Fears album and it only further cemented the band as one of the most varied musical acts.

The band System of a Down owes a huge debt (a Lannister size debt) to Faith No More. Many Faith No More tracks would feel right at home as part of System of a Down's discography. Their sound is clearly inspired by Faith No More's stop and start, loud and soft, oddball style and it shows up in practically every System of a Down track. The songs The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (great title), What a Day, and Ugly in the Morning from Faith No More's album King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime sound like typical System of a Down material. Album of the Year contains several tracks that also sound like System of a Down including the opening track Collision, and one of my favorite tracks Mouth to Mouth. I guess that is a big reason why I like System of a Down. They are similar to Faith No More but different enough since they incorporate more Eastern influences (hooray sitar) and just a little bit more Frank Zappa-esque lunacy.

The band has always received utmost praise from their peers, which reminded me of something Jay Thomas had said to me when I was on his radio show. He referred to former NFL player Curtis Martin as "the running backs running back". He was revered by his peers in the same way that other bands revere Faith No More. They are truly a bands band which doesn't always translate to huge commercial success. A plethora of bands and singers have cited Faith No More as being influential including Alice in Chains, Guns and Roses, Nirvana, Korn, Lady Gaga, Disturbed, and Lacuna Coil to name a few. Marilyn Manson's mOBSCENE and Queens of the Stone Age's Quick and to the Pointless pay homage to the Faith No More song Be Aggressive (which I somehow initially misspelled despite the chorus of the song literally spelling out B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E, D'oh!) as both have cheerleaders cheering in the background.

Faith No More has become one of the most influential bands of their generation. They successfully fused beatbox style raps with soul, funk, jazz, and heavy metal riffs. They deserve to be commended for their fearless experimentation and love of making unique music even if it wasn't mainstream. The best way to praise their achievements can be found in the fortune cookie inspired lyrics found on their song Land of Sunshine, "Pat yourself on the back and give yourself a handshake". Indeed.

CHECK THESE ALBUMS OUT: The Real Thing, Angel Dust, King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime, Album of the Year

Article by CJ Ramirez




WHO: The Pretty Reckless

WHAT: Underrated Band

The Pretty Reckless are an exciting hard rock band from New York that have created a sonic blend of bluesy rock and power ballads. In just a few years they have released a solid catalogue of hard rock songs. Members of the band include Ben Phillips on lead guitar and backing vocals, Mark Damon on bass guitar, Jamie Perkins on drums, and Taylor Momsen on lead vocals.

Now if lead singer Taylor Momsen looks familiar, that is because she was an actress in some high profile projects. Some may remember her as little Cindy Lou Who from Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (and if somebody had told me that the little blonde girl would be the opening act on a tour by Marilyn Manson I would have said no way!). She also played Jenny Humphrey on Gossip Girl and she had the distinction of being the only likable character on a show filled with spoiled overprivileged brats. I was hoping they would all choke on their Foie Gras except for Jenny Humphrey and of course scene stealer Dorota. She has made quite the transition from acting towards music. After all, this Joan Jett-esque rocker was once a favorite for the role of Hannah Montana!

It is easy to dismiss an actress turned singer. In many instances their celebrity sells tapes instead of their actual talent level. We have already been subjected to multiple Paris Hilton vanity projects and overproduced auto-tune singles from the Real Housewives. My initial impression of The Pretty Reckless was that they cannot possibly be very good. When I heard Make Me Wanna Die for the first time, I was blown away by how great they sounded as a band. It impressed me immensely as it was a hard rocking anthem that had some real energy to it. Momsen did a great job on vocals here and the swirling guitars and relentless drums were a delight to the senses. What was even more impressive was that Taylor Momsen had such a great singing voice without all of the studio tricks propping it up. Today, almost anyone can be made to sound good with all of the studio tricks and techniques available. For example, Axl Rose sounded fantastic on the Chinese Democracy album but when I saw him sing live at Madison Square Garden I could not believe it was the same singer. I caught an acoustic performance of The Pretty Reckless on one of those Canadian Much Music stations and was floored by how great a voice she had when the sound was stripped down. She sings quite beautifully and her passionate sound hints at the raw emotions beneath the surface. Her voice is quite versatile and she can switch between a mellow Fiona Apple type moan to a shrieking Joan Jett banshee wail with the ease of a seasoned veteran. 

Each band needs a secret weapon. The Who had the distinct bass of John "The Ox" Entwistle. Alice In Chains had Jerry Cantrell who could harmonize with Layne Staley so perfectly. This band is no exception and their secret weapon manifests itself in the form of guitarist Ben Phillips. Not only is he adept at creating sonic "shake the heavens" riffs, he also is the perfect partner in crime for Momsen. He does a fantastic job of backing vocals on several tracks most notably on their single Make Me Wanna Die. Where he truly shines however is on the song Cold Blooded where he does a duet with Momsen. Phillips is a talented singer in his own right and his voice complements Momsen utterly. The interplay between these two is something to witness and is prevalent throughout their first album Light Me Up and on their follow up EP Hit Me Like a Man.

Light Me Up was released in February of 2011. The streamlined eleven track album has very sleek production values courtesy of producer Kato Khandwala. Momsen and her bandmates keep things fresh throughout the album by employing a number of distinct styles. My Medicine starts things off and don't be fooled by the sweet sounding intro as Momsen and company quickly roar into some hard rock fury. Since You're Gone continues this power chord assault with chugging guitars and banging drums. Make Me Wanna Die has some great backing vocals, reminiscent of Evanescence's Bring Me to Life (referring to the effectiveness of the backing vocals, not the sound of the song). The title track Light Me Up is a more mellow rocker and is quite melodic and also a bit lighter than the darker subject matter of other tracks. Zombie is my favorite song on the album. Momsen alternates between low moan and high pitched wail as she delivers a scathing commentary for all those who have pushed her beyond her limits. Has there ever really been a bad song with zombie in the title? Ozzy Osbourne's Zombie Stomp, the Cranberries song Zombie (strangely enough, i don't think Rob Zombie has ever released a song with zombie in the title, and Call of the Zombie doesn't count because it is like all of 30 seconds and is spoken word although he did release some back during the White Zombie days but that was a different band so it doesn't count either). The trend of good Zombie songs continues here with Zombie by The Pretty Reckless. Just Tonight is a beautiful song that I would have predicted as a major radio hit. Miss Nothing is a smashing hard rocker much like Make Me Wanna Die and the next track Goin' Down. Nothing Left to Lose was quite a departure from the hard rock assault present on many of the previous songs. Momsen here sounds eerily similar to Lady Gaga (like on one of her slower songs like You and I) and it could have easily been a single on one of her bajillion selling albums. This just speaks to Momsen's versatility and abilities as a lead singer. You and Factory Girl close out the album and provide a nice one two punch of contrasting styles. The song You will lure you into a sense of serenity with its combination of cello and violins while Factory Girl will smack you right back in the face with its boisterous energy. Light Me Up is a seminal album that was a great starting point for a very talented band. 

The Pretty Reckless followed up on their grand debut with the release of the Hit Me Like a Man EP in 2012. The five song EP assaults us like a molotov cocktail, quick and explosive in all of its fiery glory. There are two live versions of the previously released songs Make Me Wanna Die and  Since You're Gone. Both tracks contain substantial verve from a very energetic crowd. Momsen as well shows great intensity in these live performances. Besides, who doesn't like a singalong? There are three new songs including Hit Me Like A Man, Under the Water, and Cold Blooded. Hit Me Like a Man is a tour de force rocker and has gotten some significant radio play. Under The Water starts gently then crescendos to a booming climax with Momsen's vocals as the primary catalyst. Cold Blooded, the fantastic duet between guitarist Ben Phillips and singer Taylor Momsen is the pinnacle of a very tight collection of tunes. There is an acoustic version floating around as well which is worth seeking out for a great bluesy vibe. Their new album Going To Hell is due out soon and if the first single Follow Me Down is any indication, it will be another stellar effort from the group.

The Pretty Reckless are one heck of a band and deserve much more exposure and acclaim. The interplay between guitarist Ben Phillips and lead singer Taylor Momsen makes this far from just another hard rock band. Rock music may be dead but The Pretty Reckless are doing their damnedest to give it a pulse once again.

CHECK THESE ALBUMS OUT: Light Me Up, Hit Me Like A Man EP, Going to Hell (coming soon)

Article by CJ Ramirez



WHO: Queens of the Stone Age

WHAT: Underrated Band

WHY: Queens of the Stone Age is an American hard rock band from California. Their eclectic sound and fearless experimentation have made them one of the most exciting bands in the world. Queens of the Stone Age have released stellar album after stellar album since 1998. Their origins extend even further back to the band Kyuss.

I first became aware of Queens of the Stone Age when their radio hit "No One Knows" debuted. I enjoyed the incredibly catchy song while being completely unaware that they had already been around for several albums. After catching up on those, I also found out that they were linked to a critically acclaimed band called Kyuss. It reminded me of my introduction to The Clash. I remember finding out they sang "Rock the Casbah" and thinking of how much I enjoyed that eighties one-hit wonder band. I was surprised to find out that in fact they were a legendary band with several classic albums and I soon became a huge fan of their entire catalogue. Kyuss was a critically acclaimed hard rock outfit from the California desert. The lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme, played lead guitar and former Queens bassist Nick Oliveri played bass alongside John Garcia's howling wail. They created some truly great music together over the course of about five years. Kyuss released several highly praised albums and their style can be seen as a big influence on Queens of the Stone Age. 

The style of Queens of the Stone Age is characterized by chugging guitars, and heavy drums. Josh Homme has a very recognizable style of guitar play. However, this is most certainly not just Kyuss 2.0. Queens will occasionally evoke the Kyuss sound, which was like the love child of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but there is much more experimentation going on. Frequently you will listen to two songs on the album and wonder if you are listening to the same band. Sometimes it sounds like swirling guitars and pounding drums, other times it will sound like robots and heavy machinery. This is part of their appeal, no two songs sound the same. They are not afraid to switch up their style and experiment. They do a lot of instrumental experimentation as well utilizing tambourines, keyboards, horns, string sections, and even the beloved cowbell (okay it was a jam block if you really want to get that technical) to name a few.

The band is also not afraid to enlist the help of their friends as well. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame is a part-time member of the band and plays drums on several tracks. Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan is also a part-time member and sings lead vocals on several tracks across numerous albums. Other guest contributors span the gamut of music. ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons played guitar on "Burn the Witch". Alain Johannes and the late Natasha Shneider of Eleven have played on several tracks. As far as guest vocals, they include Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Brody Dalle of the Distillers and Spinnerette, and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes.

Speaking of vocals, in addition to playing lead guitar Josh Homme is also the lead singer of the band. I'll admit, it took me a while to get used to his vocal style. It sounds like a cross between a ghost and a 50's crooner. It was such a stark contrast to the swirling guitars and banging drums that it took me by surprise. I have  since come to really appreciate his style precisely because it is such a contrast to the music. It has become the perfect fusion of two disparate parts that just work so well together. The band has always been unconventional and Josh's voice is no exception. It has allowed for some unique and fascinating recordings. Even the bands name doesn't seem to fit at first, but it couldn't be a more perfect match.

Apparently the band got their name from producer Chris Goss. The name was a perfect fit that the band wholly embraced. They described The Kings of the Stone Age as a moniker that would have been too macho. They said that The Kings of the Stone Age had axes and wrestled. The Queens of the Stone Age hang out with the king's girlfriends while they wrestled. This fits their style perfectly, a style everyone can enjoy. As they said, "heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls". And vice versa. This diverse appreciation was evidenced by a performance I saw of them some years back at Lollapalooza which was headlined by Jane's Addiction. Queens put on a great set and man, woman, child, and animal alike were going wild for them.

Josh Homme also has the golden touch when it comes to his other musical endeavors. He is involved in numerous side-projects of which I have yet to find one I didn't thoroughly enjoy. Every few years he gets together with a bunch of his friends and they hang out in the California desert and just start recording stuff under the name Desert Sessions. How cool is that? He has also contributed to other projects in various ways. He has played drums on the Eagles of Death Metal albums under the alias Carlo Von Sexron, played rhythm guitar for the Screaming Trees for a few years during their live shows, and sang lead vocals for Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl on drums and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame on bass. His wife Brody Dalle also released an excellent album with new band Spinnerette produced by longtime Queens of the Stone Age contributor Alain Johannes. Despite all of this success, Josh and the band have not been immune to adversity.

Bassist Nick Oliveri was a key holdover from the Kyuss days. He played on two of their first three albums and even provided lead vocals on several notable tracks. Nick was known as being an uncontrollable wild man, the life of the party and a great bass player. He was allegedly fired from the band for his hard partying ways. Nick is definitely missed but as any Queens fan knows, change has always been a part of this band and the parts have always been incredibly fluid. Josh is not afraid to step into the background and let others take the lead, he just wants to make good music. Mark Lanegan has sang, Dave Grohl has played drums, whatever it took to get the best sound. The band has also had a number of hit radio songs which received a great deal of airplay specifically the mesmerizing "No One Knows". Despite that, according to the RIAA the band has never gone platinum in the US. I am surprised that such an interesting and exciting band has only gone gold and has not reached the platinum apex.

Queens of the Stone Age is one of the most unique and exciting bands on the planet. They have followed up their great work in Kyuss by evolving into a more complex and diverse sound. Hopefully their upcoming album ...Like Clockwork will introduce them to a legion of new fans.

CHECK THESE ALBUMS OUT: Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age EP, Queens of the Stone Age, Rated R (not to be confused with Rihanna's fourth album of the same name), Songs for the Deaf, Lullabies to Paralyze, Era Vulgaris, ...Like Clockwork

Article by CJ Ramirez


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