CLASSIX REVIEW: Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling”

Once More With Feeling is a remarkable accomplishment, a well written musical, and an excellent dramatic episode of one of the greatest shows of all time.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a supernatural teen drama that ran from 1997 to 2003. Launching impressive careers for TV veterans like Alyson Hannigan and David Boreanaz and bolstering the profiles of late 90’s superstars like Sarah Michelle Gellar, the show became a cult classic almost immediately. Most notably, the show was created by future Avengers director, Joss Whedon, who is still one of the most interesting and creative directors in the world. The season six episode, Once More With Feeling is one of the most beloved episodes in the series, telling the story of a demon coming to Buffy’s home of Sunnydale with the power to make everyone in the city burst into song, singing and dancing until they spontaneously combust. The premise is, of course, as silly as they come, but Whedon’s remarkable ability to toe the line between self-referential sarcasm and genuine heart makes this one of the best episode’s in television history.

The soundtrack begins with the very strong “Going Through the Motions,” and immediately, expectations are defied. Sarah Michelle Gellar, though she has very little experience in music of any kind, gives an excellent performance on this opener as well as climaxing number, “Something to Sing About,” near the end of the record. Her voice is simple and clean and quite emotive to boot.

However, she’s not the only cast member who showcases impressive vocal skill on this album. Amber Benson brings a soft sentimentality to Tara’s parts in “Under Your Spell,” and later in her duet with Anthony Stewart Head as Giles. Movie musical veteran Hinton Battle is brought on to pay the antagonist, a well dressed, lounge singing demon named Sweet who’s smooth baritone on “What You Feel,” is infectious. Perhaps the best performance of all is James Marsters’ work as Spike on “Rest In Peace,” which channels his gruff voice and Spike’s rock and roll personality into one of the most genuinely enjoyable moments on the soundtrack.

Even when tracks lack excellent lead vocalists, or even a vocalist at all, the campy but well performed instrumentals are extremely impressive. “Dawn’s Lament,” and “Dawn’s Ballet,” are much better when watching the episode as Michelle Trachtenberg’s ballet background makes for some captivating choreography, but the instrumentation itself allows these songs to stand on their own as well.

There are also a handful of hilarious skit songs littered throughout. Tracks like “The Mustard,” and “The Parking Ticket,” are generally used within the context of the episode to expand the world, but they don’t loose their witty qualities when the visual is lost. They’re also very well performed by talented vocalists.

When the lyrics aren’t sardonically comical, they’re genuinely heartfelt. This is one of the most interesting decisions made by the creative team as this episode is not treated as a through away. Instead, the musical format allows characters to break into emotional soliloquies which are quite important to the show’s overarching narrative. “I’ll Never Tell,” finds Xander and Anya singing very frankly about their hesitation to get married and foreshadows more issues to come, while “Standing,” performed beautifully by Anthony Stewart Head, sees Giles admitting to himself and the audience that he must eventually leave Buffy on her own and abandon her for her own good. And of course, “Coda,” closes the episode with Buffy and Spike romantically locking lips for the first time.

This is all outweighed however by the handful of ensemble pieces which are nothing short of sheer perfection. From the quirky comedy of “I’ve Got a Theory,” to the reflective drama of “Walk Through the Fire,” and of course the triumphant finish of “Where Do We Go From Here,” these tracks are this episode’s bread and butter. The show is packed with so many beloved and relatable characters and having worked together for six years by this point, their chemistry is palpable, bubbling over in every line. When fans remember this episode fondly, while most enjoy the heart and talent on display in other cuts, its these feel good ensemble pieces that steal the show.

Once More With Feeling is still celebrated to this day as an achievement in modern television, and for good reason. The episode took an astounding amount of work from every member of the cast, crew, and creative team. Writing, learning, and executing a fully fledged musical in the short time frame allotted to record an episode of network television is no easy task, but it was accomplished because every single person involved, but behind the scenes and even including the fans, loved this show just that much.

Once More With Feeling is a remarkable accomplishment, a well written musical, and an excellent dramatic episode of one of the greatest shows of all time.

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CLASSIX REVIEW: Extreme’s Pornograffitti

Pornograffitti is an infinitely listenable and technically marvelous album that still holds up to this day, nearly 30 years later.

Extreme is a hard rock band from Boston Massachusetts. They’re generally considered one of the later members of the 80’s hair metal movement, though the majority of their success came in the 1990’s and saw them mixing elements of alternative and grunge rock into their work.   They debuted in 1989 with a self-titled LP after signing with A&M Records. The album found some mild success in the US and was enough to justify a follow up the following year, originally titled Extreme II: Pornograffitti, but eventually shortened to simply Pornograffitti. The album’s leading singles struggled to gain traction, as did the album upon initial release, but after the band released “More Than Words,” as a single, only to have it jet to number one on the billboard charts, they took off in the mainstream. Pornograffitti went double platinum receiving near universal acclaim, and for good reason.

While the album is obviously dripping with hair metal indulgence, there’s an often understated amount of genre crossing as well. “Get the Funk Out,” features a full horn section and heavy funk and Motown influences, while “When I First Kissed You,” is a Sinatra-esque croon that, while slightly tongue in cheek, hits most of the beats of the genre. The album as a whole utilizes musical tricks like syncopation from outside the metal genre to give the songs a more danceable quality.

There’s also a fairly large instrumental pallet on this album. “Li’l Jack Horny,” brings brass instrumentation into the fold in a more subtle way than “Get the Funk Out,” by using the power to bolster the guitar on the choruses. Additionally, the acoustic guitar on the closer, “Hole Hearted,” is an excellent change of pace at the end of the fairly long runtime.

Lyrically, there’s a certain sardonic comedy in much of Extreme’s writing that is somewhat ahead of its time. “When I’m President,” for example, is darkly comical, playing the large problems faced by the world as small and easily solved issues. The plan laid out for peace in the Middle East is particularly hilarious. “Money,” on the other hand, mocks the modern materialist culture quite effectively, especially with the tooth fairy skit intro.

The bass and drums, while often ignored when discussing this record, are actually quite excellent. On some of less flashy cuts like “Suzi,” or “It,” it really becomes clear that Paul Geary and Pat Badger are giving it there all on drums and bass respectively. The drums are relatively simple but perfectly mixed and explosively played, while the bass is rattling and adds a lot by simply following the guitar riffs.

Of course, Gary Cherone’s vocal work just can’t be ignored. On each of the 13 tracks, he really lays it all out in each performance, creating an exciting experience. Not only is he able to absolutely wail on songs like the title track, where his efforts rival that of even the best long-haired, metal icons from the 80’s, but he’s extremely versatile. On a song like “More Than Words,” it’s precisely Cherone’s ability to switch gears that makes it all work.

Above all this, however, Pornograffitti is an absolute master class of electric guitar from one of the best instrumentalists who ever lived, Nuno Bettencourt. Of course there are face-melting solos on nearly every track, one of my favorites of which comes near the end on “Song for Love,” but Nuno’s true talent comes in laying of extremely complex and lightning fast riffs across every song. Tracks like the opener, “Decadence Dance,” or my personal favorite piece, “He-Man Woman Hater,” live and die by Bettencourt’s excellent ear for melody and his undeniable ability to deliver each riff with precision and excitement.

As it nears its 30th anniversary, Extreme’s sophomore effort is every bit as incredible as it was on release. It’s drenched in 80’s attitude and indulgence while simultaneously featuring some of the most proficient and creative instrumental work of the 1990’s. The release fell at an odd time for rock music, just months before the grunge movement would take shock the world and transform the rock landscape, and because of this, it is all too often forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

Pornograffitti is an infinitely listenable and technically marvelous album that still holds up to this day, nearly 30 years later.

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2EjHq16

CLASSIX REVIEW: Tom T. Hall’s “In Search of a Song”

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

Tom T. Hall is a country and bluegrass icon from Olive Hill, Kentucky. He debuted with two albums in 1969 and two more in 1970, all released on Mercury Records, who’m he’d work with all the way through the mid-90’s. He was known as “the Storyteller,” among fans because of his ability to weave narratives throughout each of his songs, and by the early 70’s, he was a staple in the country music world. 

He was also known for what he called “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural areas not unlike his small hometown. On these trips, he’d take notes and have conversations with locals in order to get a feel for the area he was visiting. Later, he’d reopen his notes and begin to write music, attempting to capture the spirit of the towns he’d just visited. This became a common practice in Hall’s music, certainly playing a role in the continually high quality of his output over his many years, but his skill as an author and story teller simply can’t be ignored. He would go on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in late 2018, but before all of that, the year was 1971 when Tom T. Hall would release In Search of a Song. It’s the first full album to have resulted from one of his song-hunting trips and hailed as one of the best country and bluegrass records of all time, but is it all that good? Let’s discuss.

The album’s best quality comes in Hall’s lyricism, particularly when he’s telling a story. Tracks like “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” and “The Little Lady Preacher,” carry direct narratives, one of which is quite moving and the latter a bit comical. The ability to weave a storyline across verses is somewhat lost in modern country music, but Hall was one of the best to ever do it. His rhyme schemes are simple and his stories are remarkably descriptive, not to mention inthralling.

While the traditional narrative structures are interesting, he also has a talent for what I would call descriptive narrative. On tracks like my favorite on the album, “Trip to Hyden,” “A Million Miles to the City,” or “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Hall uses storylines to provide description of and commentary on the area he writes about. The story becomes cursory to the experience, and thanks to the fantastically visual writing, listeners are able to experience the towns and people first themselves.

In addition to these two styles, each track is decorated with Tom’s unique sense of humor. The most obvious and well known example of this comes on “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” but tracks like “Ramona’s Revenge,” and “Tulsa Telephone Book,” are colored with subtle jokes and comedy throughout. His real skill as a lyricist shows in the way his humor and personality permeate every aspect of every track. Hall is always able to use himself as a sympathetic main character, or at least narrator, thanks to the many jokes and relatable thoughts he expresses throughout.

On top of all this, the instrumentation is fantastic. From the howling harmonica on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” to the sweet guitar on “Second Hand Flowers,” and even the surprising rock influences on “L.A. Blues,” each track is perfectly played by a talented cast of musicians, many of whom are Nashville legends in their own right and fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a veritable who’s who of 70’s Nashville studio musicians and each of them does fantastic work on In Search of a Song.

Ultimately, In Search of a Song is one of the best country/bluegrass records of all time. Thanks to talented instrumentalists and an uncanny talent for lyricism, Tom T. Hall was able to craft a truly unique piece of country music that is still hailed to this day for it’s storytelling qualities.

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

CLASSIX REVIEW: In the Wee Small Hours

Before Nirvana was selling out clubs all over the country or Michael Jackson was moonwalking at the Super Bowl, before Beatlemania swept the hearts of swooning young girls or Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips were deemed to sexual for television, before all this, Frank Sinatra captured the hearts of teens all over the country with piercing blue eyes and the smoothest baritone they’d ever heard. He was an absolute rock star, the first of his kind, but when the 1950’s rolled around, Sinatra was in quite a slump.

His recent records hadn’t found the same success they once had and the traditional pop formula, that of releasing collections of fun singles aimed at capturing the juke box market, seemed to be turning on him. He was on the verge of falling to the background behind younger, more exciting acts. Additionally, he was in the midst of a very public divorce from Ava Gardner, his second wife and a cultural legend in her own right. In short, Frank was at his lowest point, both professionally and personally.

In response, like the icon he was, Sinatra hit the studio along with arranger Nelson Riddle for his ninth studio LP, In The Wee Small Hours. What we were given was a vulnerable, soul-baring project that set Sinatra on course to be one of the most successful artists of all time, virtually invented the concept album, and forged the path for popular music to a respected art form.

The album is most notable for a few classic Sinatra tracks. Namely, the opener “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Both of these tracks feature emotionally compelling performances from the man himself, along with lyrics that speak of heartbreak and loss.

Another very important key to this album’s success is the instrumentation. Riddle’s arrangements are warm and dynamic in a way that is well ahead of his time. The dreamy simplicity of tracks like “Can’t We Be Friends?” and “Ill Wind,” is simply gorgeous. On the other hand, when the orchestra gets a chance to be powerful and bombastic tracks like “Last Night When We Were Young,” or the closer, “This Love of Mine,” they are there emphatically.

Of course, the album is nothing without the leading man, and Sinatra turns in one of the best performances of his career. He’s sweet and tender on tracks like, “Deep in a Dream,” and “Glad To Be Happy.” He’s cold and distant on “Mood Indigo,” and “I’ll Be Around.” He’s almost playful on tracks like “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

Sinatra runs the gamut of human emotion on this record, and he’s at his best on the album’s highlight, “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Here, he bares his heart for listeners in a way that simply hadn’t ever been done before. It’s said that Sinatra broke down in tears after recording this song, and it’s a believable story because every second of his performance is simply breathtaking. He boldly pours out everything that was wrong with his life in one track, and perhaps it was this honesty that lead to the album’s overwhelming after-effect.

In the Wee Small Hours was one of the first non-classical albums to be released on the more respected 12” vinyl format as apposed to the traditional format of two 10” records which was used for pop music at the time. In one album, Frank Sinatra forged the modern album into existence, creating a collection of thematically linked tracks in contrast to earlier pop albums, which were just a group of successful singles sent to jukeboxes. Additionally, the album set off a resurgence for Sinatra which would set him up as one of the most respected vocalists that ever lived. 

Frank Sinatra is an icon like we’d never seen before and likely never will again and he would’ve never become who he was without In the Wee Small Hours.

HEAR IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS: https://open.spotify.com/album/3GmwKB1tgPZgXeRJZSm9WX

CLASSIX REVIEW: Huey Lewis and The News – Sports

Sports is one of the most successful albums of all times and it only takes one listen realize why.

Huey Lewis and The News formed in the late 70’s and released their self-titled debut in 1980.  After their sophomore album, Picture This peaked at number 12 on the billboard charts with the very successful single, “Do You Believe in Love,” the group hit the studio and quickly wrote and recorded material for a third release. Unfortunately, the record was delayed by complications on the part of the label. Finally, in September of 1983, Huey Lewis and the News released Sports.

The album is one of the most successful of all time. It’s certified platinum in four countries including diamond status in Canada and a seven time Platinum certification in the United States. It was also mentioned by Christian Bale in an iconic scene in the 2000 film, American Psycho. Lewis became an icon of the mid 80’s music scene and one of the best selling rock artists of all time. But is Sports really that good? The short answer is yes.

The album is a bombastic ride through the heights of 80’s pop-rock which is built one excellent bones and outlines. The lead guitar, for example, is extremely well played on tracks like the opener, “Heart of Rock n Roll,” and “Walking On a Thin Line.” In these tracks and throughout, the lead guitar takes charge with a commanding tone and great timing, creating some of the most memorable riffs of the era, and even gives way to a few killer solos.

The drumming is perfect as well, staying on cymbals and building on the explosive style of arrangements. Tracks like “Finally Found a Home,” and “You Crack Me Up,” are made infinitely better by strong drumming that highlights the choruses and holds to driving rhythms throughout verses. 

Even the keys get a chance to take the lead a few times on the album, particularly in the closer, a cover of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues.” Across the entire runtime, the keys are not only extremely well performed, but they’re used to great effect. The synth leads on tracks like “Heart and Soul,” aid in the Sports’ overall feel and would come to be a defining staple of the 1980’s.

Beyond the bare bones, there is also quite a respectable instrumental pallet from the wailing harmonica on “Bad is Bad,” to the bombastic horn section that pops up sporadically throughout as an impenetrable wave of power that adds something to every track. It’s this pallet and focus on booming arrangements which would be more influential than any other element of the band’s sound.

Above all this, though, Sports is most notable as a wonderfully enjoyable high point of the simplicity and indulgence which characterizes the vast majority of 1980’s pop culture. It’s no accident that two of Huey Lewis and the News’ biggest hits came from the soundtrack for Back to the Future. They are the perfect example of the most enjoyable aspects of the era thanks to excellent songwriting and ear worm hooks, elevated by great instrumentation. Tracks like “I Want a New Drug,” and “If This Is It,” are immortal classics for this very reason and they serve as fantastic highlights to an already awesome album.

Now, 35 years after its release, Sports is one of the most indelible in rock history. It’s a cornerstone of the pop-rock movement that characterized the majority of the 80’s and it served to move the music industry from the angrier, more thoughtful times of the 70’s to the glitzy, exciting times of the 80’s.

  Sports is one of the most successful albums of all times and it only takes one listen realize why.