Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review #31: Physical Graffiti

Today, I posted a new podcast episode, so I figured I should have the blog be coordinated with the podcast named after it!

Once upon a time, the mid-1970s to be precise, there was this little band called Led Zeppelin who ruled the world like tyrants, blazing paths to the top of the carts and exploding concert venues across the world like nobody else had or will do in the future. This troupe of musicians included Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards [pianos, organs and the like], John Bonham on drums and [the only one whose name didn’t start with a ‘j’] Robert Plant on vocals.
Every now and then, they would get up and say ‘Hey, maybe we should make an album.’ Then, they quickly went into the studio and bam…another #1 on the charts. However, the album of today’s discussion was not just another one of those albums. This one was HUGE! It had a whopping total of fifteen tracks on it, far surpassing the previous record for tracks on a Led Zep album (which was ten, on
LZIII). However, when you look at the liner notes, you realize that just eight of these tracks were specifically recorded for this album and some of the older recordings were nearly five years old at the time!
The album I’m talking about is, of course, the lead balloon’s only studio double album. [Yes, I know no one calls them the ‘lead balloon’ but I think it’s funny, so go with it!] It carries the title of
PHYSICAL GRAFFITI…and here’s the review….
The set kicks off with Custard Pie, with has one of the coolest intros to kick off a Led Zep album. Plant’s vocals are great and I love Page’s guitar here, augmented by an incredible Jones keyboard line. Bonham’s drumming is as rhythmic as ever. Oh, that harmonica part, too…wonderful! The song is an awesome opening and pretty much sums up the proceedings from the get-go.
The Rover is a severely underrated track that appears on no compilation. If they didn’t come up with ‘Custard Pie’, this would have been a suitable opener. Even as the first ‘archival track’ on the album (it was recorded in 1972), it does seem a little weird. Still, it shows there versatility (especially Plant’s excellent, winding vocals) and that they hadn’t really changed in three years.
In My Time Of Dying, the band’s longest track (stretching on to an incredible 11:04), follows to close the first side. It is a strange workout of the old blues tune ‘Jesus Make Up My Dyin’ Bed’ by Blind Willie Johnson that bears almost no resemblance to the original. Dylan also covered it on his debut album in a more traditional manner (plus, he dropped the ‘g’ from the title). As with all of LZ’s long songs (this being the longest) it is absolutely fascinating how they keep us interested. They never feel like jam tracks because Page is always keeping the band moving and doing different things. I think this is probably one of the strong points of Zeppelin. Around three and a half minutes in, the song completely shifts gears and we desire to hear where the guitar will take us next. Then, listen to Bonham’s drumming at 4:44 and then right behind Page’s guitar at around five minutes. Now, that’s the stuff that makes this band special.
To start side two, there is Houses Of The Holy, another archival number that carries the title to their previous album. It sounds like it should have been there and definitely sounds like it would have been more welcome on that platter than this one. Can you imagine this ending side one of Houses… instead of ‘The Crunge’? (Granted, I like that song, but this one is much better!)
Trampled Under Foot, the single, is next. This is another great one, showcasing Jones keyboard work. It is not a leftover from anything and I love it. It’s easily one of my favorite tracks on the set and was definitely worthy of being the single.
Next is Kashmir. This is one of the Led Zep songs played to death, although nowhere near the status of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (probably the most overrated song of all time). If there is any irony to the song, it’s that is sort of seems similar to the synthesizer-heavy stuff on the (wonderful) In Through The Out Door and that though Jones seems to be a driving force of the track, he is the one band member not to get writing credit on the song. Although Bonham does get credit, I don’t think he has much of a presence in the song. Granted, he is a key part, but still, it’s nowhere near the power and grace we hear in ‘In My Time Of Dying’.
Whether you have to open the sleeve and put on another record or open up your CD player, it doesn’t matter because the second disc still opens with In The Light. This is definitely the strangest opening for a Led Zep track. By the time we finally get going, which is around two minutes in, we’re pretty much ready to get on with it! Still, you have to admit, the keyboard work by Jones is incredible. I love the ending sequence and Plant’s vocals are really mind-blowing here.
Following that is the quick Bron – Yr – Aur. It is a simple guitar piece by Page and is just as beautiful as it gets. It’s a wonderful piece, but learning that it had been in the vaults since 1970 is a little disheartening.
Down By The Seaside is a fun, laid-back track, with a wobbly-sounding guitar that perfectly fits the mood of this archival track (it was recorded in 1971). It’s nothing really to go nuts about, but the tempo change for the break in the middle is nifty and shows the incredibly versatility of the group.
Next is Ten Years Gone that closes out the third side and is the last of the long songs. (Although, compared to Led Zep standards, is 6:31 really long?) This is a lovely track, highlighted by a great guitar part (aren’t they all?) and some fantastic drumming (isn’t there fantastic drumming on all the tracks?). I really like the second half of the song, particularly Plant’s clear vocals and that moment when they melt into Page’s guitar at about the 3:50 mark.
Night Flight opens the final side and I love this track! It just sums up everything that’s cool about Led Zep to me. Plant’s vocals are engaging and Page’s guitar is winding and circular to the point of making you dizzy. Jones’s bass is clearer here than on any other track and his keyboard doesn’t seem to take too much away from his other instrument! Of course, Bonzo’s drumming is incredible, especially in the opening and throughout the song. Still…there’s something unsettling about it…Oh! I know…it was recorded in 1971!
Another track from 1971, The Wanton Song is next. It features a wonderfully humorous backwards guitar part.
Next is the throwaway Boogie With Stu, yet another track from 1971! There’s really no point to it, with Plant’s vocal echo-drenched and although it is a nice ode to the rock of old, it doesn’t really fit.
Black Country Woman, the b-side to the ‘Trampled Under Foot’ 45, is a fun, stomping (literally; listen to Bonham’s drumming!) acoustic track. I’m not really sure it was such a good idea to make this the flip-side, considering there are a hell of a lot of stronger tracks, but whatever. They never cared about singles, so why should we? (Especially thirty-odd years later.)
Sick Again is a fun closer, and was actually recorded for the album. Plant’s vocals are barely discernible and it feels like Page’s guitar is the lead vocalist! Bonham’s drumming is in-your face and could easily give you head trauma if your volume is up loud enough! It is a great closer to a great album…right?
Wrong…this is nowhere near a great album…it doesn’t even touch the plateau that LZ4, and Houses occupy like China and Russia’s permanent chair on the UN security council. Great albums are great albums because they are great albums, not simply a great set of great songs. Now, say if Jimmy Page made an album of just the eight songs they recorded for this album. You’d have there one hell of an album, but he went above and beyond here for some reason. Then, you might say ‘Well, Dan, obviously you can’t have an album of only eight songs.’ Then, I’d say ‘Uh, look at more than half of Led Zep’s other LPs. Most of them were only eight tracks and the last two only had seven tracks!’
Still, if Page didn’t do what he did, we wouldn’t get ‘Night Flight’, ‘Bron – Yr – Aur’ and ‘Houses of the Holy’.
The artwork is intricate, but Atlantic/Swan Song’s CD issue carries none of that over. It just has the outer-cover and shots of the covers for each record in black and white! How cheap!
So, in conclusion, would Led Zep history be any different if he went for a single disc? No, because the set was still a number one seller and still moves units today. It’s just that they would have one more great album on the list of ‘great albums’.

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