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Rock and Roll Feature: L.A. Woman, the Final Doors Album with Jim Morrison
This is the twenty-seventh in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Well it's time for the Rock and Roll Feature for the month of May 2009... Let's feature one of the greatest band to come out of Los Angeles of all times: The Doors!.
For me, being raised on classic rock, the Doors are another one of those bands that were always sort of floating around in my head. Right now I can't remember the first song of their's I heard, but I do remember the first time I listened to a "Best of" collection and being amazed by just how many of the tracks seemed immediately familiar. It took a little time, but eventually I added the entire Doors catalog to my collection and am continually enthralled by their work to this day.
That story probably rings true of a lot of rock and roll fans out there who weren't around in the 60s, because the Doors seem to be ridiculously well known. Their legend, and especially the legend of charismatic front man Jim Morrison, proceeds them to this day with rock enthusiasts young and old. Yet there were only a sparse 6 studio albums of material with the original lineup intact. Of those 6 album, each Doors fan probably has their own personal favorite. I'm partial to Strange Days personally, as well as the album I chose for this month's feature: L.A. Woman.
Truthfully, I could have easily picked this album for one reason alone. The one reason? Recorded in 1970 and released in early 1971, this was the band's final album with Jim Morrison. In fact, it was during the mixing that Morrison took his now famous trip to Paris, where he subsequently was found dead of a drug overdose. The timing alone is more than enough to give this album cultural significance... the last recordings of a legendary rock and roll front man, lyricist and poet. I think there's a little more to it than just that though. L.A. Woman is a compelling work start to finish and one that I think really highlights everything that makes the Doors one of the best bands of all time.
They start off kinda funky with "The Changeling", a song that like so many began as part of Morrison's poetry. With jabs of guitar, later emphasized by the wah pedal, and the obligatory Doors keyboard flourishes, you have a song that will not only get your toes tappin' but also ranks right up there with some of the band's most well known hits. Speaking of hits... "Love Her Madly" follows next. The layered guitar parts, rock and roll beat and bit of honky-tonk piano make it easy to see why this song remains one of the Doors most well known of all time.
A side of this band that has probably gone a little overlooked if you're only familiar with "Best of" sets etc, is just how great a rough little blues band they really were. Back to back blues burners will certainly drive that fact home for you though, and so we have "Been Down So Long" and "Cars Hiss By My Window". The former is gritty and rough with slinky slide guitar lines leading the way, while the latter is more pulled back, dark, seductive and smoky. Both are great reminders of the bluesier side of the Doors and especially the talent of Jim Morrison as a singer... plenty of gruff soul from Jim on these numbers. I'm especially fond of "Cars Hiss By My Window" because it just seems so authentic and raw... like the band just sitting around jamming.
Then we have another classic, "L.A. Woman," which just so happens might be my favorite Doors song of all time. A driving beat, backed by equally driving guitar and keyboard parts lay the groundwork for Morrison's rapid paced, almost beat poet style, vocals. When the guitars hit that crunchy chord at the end of each verse, and later as they build to climax, it has such a weight behind it. That weight... grit... raw energy... combined with the band's rougher moments is a big part of why many rock enthusiasts, myself included, list the Doors not only as part of the hard rock movement alongside bands like Cream and Zeppelin, but also as one of the first proto punk bands. It's also interesting to note that the earlier bluesy numbers, along with another bluesy track later, "Crawling King Snake", also seem to sonically tie the Doors towards more modern movements like the punk-blues styles of the White Stripes and Black Keys, due to how rough and minimal they are.
"L'america" is another interesting one that might surprise you if you're only familiar with the hits from this band. It's twisted, mystic flavored guitar leads and marching beat, placed alongside more lighthearted traditional rock and roll styled breaks provide for a sharp contrast. The result is very psychedelic, but not dream like... trippy, but not ethereal... sort of creepy actually, but cool. "Hyacinth House" on the other hand is more floating and melodic, but also has just the slightest touch of country earthiness to it's guitar lines, keeping it grounded.
The band breaks out more blues with a cover of John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake." Like I said, it's easy to see a little bit of the modern punk-blues movement in some of these tracks, but I find that especially true of this one. It's wickedly raw and minimal, and when Robbie Krieger kicks in those guitar leads, they're spontaneous, biting and grating... slight hints at noisier styles. It's a great cover, but it's also obvious that the Doors left their own stamp upon it while also hinting at a lot of where rock and roll came from and what it would offer up years after they were gone from the scene.
"The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat)" also started as a Morrison poem, one that shows up at live shows long before this album. Here they morph it into an almost hypnotic track with a minimal pulsing beat that is punctuated by small flourishes with a touch of cabaret, some great rough edged guitar leads and moody keyboard blasts and melody lines. This one is another personal favorite of mine and I especially like how it contrasts to some of the live versions that exist.
Then we come to what is probably the most immediately recognizable Doors song of all time... their "Stairway to Heaven" if you will... "Riders On the Storm". When most people think of the Doors, I'm pretty sure this is the song that comes to mind (I guess "Light My Fire" is a good candidate for that title as well... let the debate rage!)... and with good reason. It's seven plus minutes of melodic psychedelia complete with the sounds of the storm and haunting keyboard and guitar work throughout... an engrossing sonic landscape that weaves different musical threads together to create the feel of the storm all around you. It's an engulfing experience, albeit a subtle one, that epitomizes the band's ability to create texture to enhance mood... something that they demonstrated even with their first album with songs like "The End". It's an amazing piece without a doubt and one that begs for quality headphones.
And with that we conclude the final release of the Doors with Jim Morrison.
It's a compelling album for sure, but also one that I really believe touches on everything I love about this band. The poetry, raw energy, psychedelia... the bluesy base... the soul charisma and engaging songs... it's all there. They would continue to record two more highly underrated albums without Morrison, and they're good listens as well, but personally when I compare them to this one, it seems to immediately raise the question of what this band could have been had Jim lived. Maybe that's why so many fans chose to leave the Doors legacy with this album.
To me L.A. Woman it's a fitting final tribute to the original chemistry that made the band so good while the original Doors lineup was intact, and to the charisma and talent of Jim Morrison. It may not be their most cohesive work or their "best", but I feel that this album thoroughly demonstrates exactly what makes this band so great and so influential to this very day.
And when it comes down to it, L.A. Woman is just a great album to listen to as well... great rock and roll start to finish.
If you're completely new to the Doors, I highly recommend you start at their first album and work your way through. You can start at this album and work your way backwards too I guess. In either case there are only 6 (if you want to stick to the "Morrison albums") to get through. Although each is a standout in it's own way, personally I believe to really get a handle on this band you have to see where they started and where they ended and trace that lineage. I also recommend that course of action to anyone who has only been exposed to the hits from this band... there's a lot more great music to be found within their catalog.
If you're a longtime Doors fan, well then you already know about this album and all the rest. Still, take another listen as you just might find something new... you never know. In fact, if you haven't already, try and find the extended versions (or box sets) of this or any of the other albums. I think you'll find some great b-sides that will interest even someone who's thoroughly familiar with the original releases.
Also, although they were not the focus on this piece, I'd also recommend everyone who's interested to also take a listen to the two albums that the band released without Morrison. It may be strange to hear the Doors without their usual baritone leading the way, but there's still some good music on those works none the less and they are highly underrated.
Oh and while you're at it... if you have any doubts about connecting them with the later punk movement maybe you've never heard them live. You owe it to yourself to check out some of the live recordings floating around. They're psychedelic and artistic (what with all the poetry), but also startlingly raw and primal, very much like the early punk artists who would follow... great stuff.
As for right now, let's go put on L.A. Woman, turn it up, and listen to the final tribute to the original lineup of the Doors and Jim Morrison.
You can find this album directly from Amazon here: L.A. Woman