Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Westerberg 1: 14 Songs

After the end of the Replacements, Paul Westerberg sobered up and laid low for a while. His first musical contributions appeared on the timely Singles soundtrack, wherein “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting For Somebody” (the latter of which had even more variations in the film itself) jockeyed for attention among all the hot Seattle grunge music that sold it.
Advance critical acclaim raised high hopes for his first actual solo album under his own name, and the label had such high regard for 14 Songs that, in a fad of the time, it was simultaneously released in a limited edition as a cloth-bound book with pictures and an interview. However, it wasn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, nor was it ultimately received as one. (Besides, Tommy Stinson had already carried the torch, and ably, on his own.)
“Dice Behind Your Shades” sums up the weakness of the album. It’s a good song, and highly catchy, with trademark wordplay, but it’s just one of several on the album that can’t stand out. If anything, it sounds like a reconstituted track from All Shook Down. At worst, it hides the splendor of a song like “Things”, which on the surface relies on the barest of finger variations, but—given time and space outside the context of the album—reveals itself as a profound personal statement about, well, the things that he does and which define him.
A softie at heart, songs like “Runaway Wind” and the home demos “Even Here We Are” and “Black Eyed Susan” try to convey his tender side, but overall it’s the rockers that succeed. “Knockin’ On Mine” goes a long way on one chord, while “World Class Fad” is just plain snotty, and we mean that in a good way. “Silver Naked Ladies” features Ian MacLagan on piano and the auteur himself on saxophone, and not badly either. “Something Is Me” has some good lines, but tries too hard.
We want to like this album, but we’d rather listen to what came before. However, a major plus for 14 Songs, and keeps it somewhat interesting, is that he plays all the electric guitar, providing all the fills, rhythm, and solos that sparkled on all those ‘Mats albums. At least that hadn’t changed.

Paul Westerberg 14 Songs (1993)—3

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bash & Pop: Friday Night Is Killing Me

After the Replacements stumbled to a close, it was surprising that of all the members, the first real solo project was from drummer Chris Mars. Horseshoes And Hand Grenades contained 14 songs, written and performed by Mars, with the exception of the bass and help from members of Soul Asylum on three tracks. The songs are catchy, guitar-based alterna-pop-rock, marred only by the sad fact that he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It was easy to read pointed barbs at his former bandmates within the lyrics, and he’d go further with the title of his next, equally harmless album, 75% Less Fat. (More consistent was guitarist Slim Dunlap’s The Old New Me, putting him back in the Stonesy bar band mode he was made to play.)
Yet while the band’s auteur kept close to his vest, it was Tommy Stinson who made the most of the Mats’ legacy by picking up where they’d left off. He grabbed Steve Foley, the band’s last touring drummer, who conveniently had a brother who played bass. Tommy switched to guitar, recruited another six-stringer, and thus Bash & Pop was born.
Friday Night Is Killing Me shows just how much he learned following Paul Westerberg around for a decade. The songs fall into basic buckets; straightforward rock with clever lyrics (“Never Aim To Please”, “Tickled To Tears”, the title track, “Tiny Pieces”) and noisy stompers (“Hang Ups”, “Loose Ends”, “One More Time”, “Fast & Hard”, “He Means It”), all drawn up from Stones and Faces blueprints. Each side ends with a wistful acoustic strum (“Nothing”, “First Steps”) The overall sound is crisp and clean, following on from All Shook Down. And while Tommy doesn’t have the greatest voice either, he’s got charm and he’s having fun—something sorely lacking from the ‘Mats’ last days.
Two dozen years after the album came and went, it was reissued by the same label that had been busy curating the Big Star legacy. The obligatory bonus disc is loaded with demos and alternate versions, plus a few contemporary B-sides and strays, including “Making Me Sick” from the Clerks soundtrack. Perfect for the obsessives among us, but at the very least it gives the album another chance at exposure.

Bash & Pop Friday Night Is Killing Me (1993)—
2017 CD reissue: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, November 10, 2017

Who 26: Maximum As & Bs

Part of the music industry’s money-making strategy for the second decade of the 21st century was to reprint anything and everything on limited-edition vinyl in multiple colors and at exorbitant prices, while still not allowing returns from retailers. Every now and then they’d get clever, but a lot of the time the attention to reproductive detail resulted in products that were nice to look at, but not necessarily convenient to listen to, particularly in the modern era of immediate digital access.
The business team behind the The Who are clearly no dopes when it comes to recycling, and one of their recent, more clever projects involved four chronological box sets offering replicas of the band’s original 45s, with accurate labels and picture sleeves where applicable. The audio has since been compiled and issued in a five-CD set called Maximum As & Bs. While we extend kudos for the correct non-use of apostrophes, and it’s great to finally have some of their so-called lost tracks handy again, it would have fit on four CDs, and not a few tracks appear for the umpteenth time.
Three short years ago, the Who Hits 50 set included most of these A-sides, yet this box does tell the story fairly well. Beginning with the first High Numbers record, it goes through the band’s singles in order. Since half of the debut album was milked for the charts, those tracks nicely frame both versions of “Circles”, even including the then-unreleased “Instant Party Mixture” as well as “Waltz For A Pig”, the Graham Bond Organisation track credited to “The Who Orchestra” for legal reasons. Repetitions are few, so “Circles” doesn’t appear again as part of the Ready Steady Who EP, also included in context.
The milking continues in the Tommy era, so a few of those album tracks appear in jarring edits, and again in re-recordings for the movie soundtrack. But even for a band who learned early on that the album format was their strength, some of their lesser-known gems finally resurface (read: everything from 1970 through 1973). Then we hear the band’s overall output quality diminish alongside its quantity, with fewer rarities. Album cuts were used for B-sides, and outside of “Bony Moronie” from 1971, the live tracks included here come from the 1982 and 1989 Keith-less tours. Then it’s a big leap to the two new songs from 2004, and the Wire & Glass EP from two years later. Finally, there’s “Be Lucky” from that last compilation, and yet another stereo remix of “I Can’t Explain” to complete the circle.
With 90 tracks lasting five hours, there’s certainly a lot of music here, and the plethora of distinct mixes on Maximum As & Bs makes quibbling over what wasn’t included exactly that. Plus, it beats having to get up and flip or replace the record every three minutes.

The Who Maximum As & Bs: The Complete Singles (2017)—

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rush 11: Signals

Each new album increased their popularity, and inducted new Rush fans into the fold. But if there was any doubt that Rush were the patron saints of the high school parking lot, the first track on Signals—released in time for the fall semester—dispelled it.
As with the previous album, a synthesizer dominates, setting a standard for the band’s new next phase. It’s a catchy riff, with nice open suspensions and slight minor modifications, and then the lyrics start. Tying in with the zoning map on the back cover, “Subdivisions” expertly nails the alienation felt by the average North American suburban teenage boy, many of whom may well have been Rush fans. The song doesn’t treat the turmoil as petty or insignificant, nor does it encourage violence or revolution. The band knew their audience, because they remembered what it was like to be that audience.
It’s a good start to the album, which does manage to keep up. “The Analog Kid” is built on a circular guitar riff, and further explores the dreams of a teenage boy, only scratching the surface. “Chemistry” begins with chords reminiscent of their early work, with a little “Vital Signs” thrown in, plus rare lyrical contributions from all three band members that likely would have made some sense to the kids struggling through science class. In contrast with the track earlier, “Digital Man” paints another archetypical portrait, with lots of guitars over a jazzy rhythm.
Reggae influences continue on “The Weapon”, which, while part of the in-progress “Fear” trilogy, isn’t really that scary. As further proof that they knew their fan base, “New World Man” was literally written to fill space, as a measure to keep the cassette sides equal. Besides being one of the better tracks here, it also became something of a hit. A sobering meditation on the loss of creativity, “Losing It” is possibly the least Rush-like track, beginning with synth parts off a Journey album and an electric violin contributed by a guy who would one day be best known for working with k.d. lang. And after years of exploring science fiction in their lyrics, “Countdown” is a factual account of the band’s experience watching the launch of the Columbia space shuttle.
While not as universally appealing as Moving Pictures, Signals provided a worthy follow-up for the growing fan base to wear out in their tape decks. Hindsight shows the worrisome encroachment of synthesizers into the band’s onstage arsenal, but the best songs are still highlights.

Rush Signals (1982)—

Friday, November 3, 2017

Oasis 5: Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

The bad grammar somehow fitting, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants presents a still-defiant Oasis, somewhat bruised following their fall from infallibility but still determined to rock. Having lost two members, the band relied more on loops and samples to create their music. That’s not so much of a stretch, considering Noel Gallagher sang on a hit single by the Chemical Brothers. It’s still derivative of an earlier decade, but at least the trip-hop influence doesn’t hurt one’s ears like Be Here Now did.
Right out of the gate, “Fuckin’ In The Bushes” shows off the new sound, though it isn’t much more than a collage. Based around a “Funky Drummer”-type sample, complete with vinyl crackles, the new sound is also presented ably on “Go Let It Out”, which was the first single, though the Mellotron is out of place. The second single, “Who Feels Love?”, is way too long and a little too psychedelic, with backwards guitars and sitars, and a melody that sounds too much like earlier, better Oasis tracks. Plus, the hippy-dippy sentiment doesn’t sound convincing coming out of Liam’s mouth or Noel’s hand. “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” manages to combine an AC/DC stomp with “Roadhouse Blues”—stupid, but still fun, until the 30-second farting synth at the end. Surprisingly good is “Little James”, Liam Gallagher’s first recorded composition and written for his son. Even more impressive is the production, incorporating “Don’t Look Back In Anger” piano, though the “Hey Jude” ending goes (again) a little long.
“Gas Panic!” returns us to India before floating on another psychedelic bed, and by now we wish they’d pick up the tempo a hair (one of the downsides of quitting coke, to be sure). Still, Noel sings two further slow songs in a row: “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” is another feather in his vocal cap, while “Sunday Morning Call” is a more elaborate production. Together they provide respite from Liam’s rasp. “I Can See A Liar” is a wonderful glam stomp, with a few hints of the Cult in the riff, for a terrific shot of energy. And that’s good, because “Roll It Over” just drags until the end.
For all the imperfections and indulgences, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is still not as indulgent as Be Here Now, and manages to hold interest. Being relatively tight, it’s a welcome return to form quality-wise on par with the first two Oasis albums. But we must add one final gripe: if you’re going to book legendary vocalists P.P. Arnold and Linda Lewis, give them something to do besides sing “ah” buried in the mix.

Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000)—3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 23: High Hopes

Having decided he could create albums anywhere and anytime, Bruce went the Tattoo You route by raiding his outtakes vault. However, while the Stones managed to create a great album from their leftovers, Bruce only ended up with a plateful of table scraps on High Hopes, a desperate title to be sure.
Some songs had appeared in earlier incarnations. The title track had been part of the E Street Band reunion sessions two decades earlier; it’s a cover, so he can’t be blamed for the lazy chorus, but he should have known better about the horns. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was introduced on the reunion tour and released on the 2001 live album, and is just as long here, but still good. Tom Morello played guitar on half the album, and sings some of the verses on the too-long, too-loud rock remake of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. (He also allegedly suggested all the covers that were included. “Just Like Fire Would” was originally recorded by a punk band, but here it’s all Bruce. Similarly, “Dream Baby Dream” was originally by synth-punk duo Suicide, and becomes an aching prayer.)
“Harry’s Place” was likely left off The Rising in favor of “Mary’s Place”, which is no better. “Down In The Hole” begins low-key like a Devils & Dust track, but picks up with crazy samples and sound effects, just as “Heaven’s Wall” opens with a gospel chant and beats a “raise your hand” motif into submission. “Frankie Fell In Love” is a nice throwback to his character songs from the ‘70s, and “The Wall” a nice memorial to Vietnam veterans. But “This Is Your Sword” is an unconvincing call to arms, and “Hunter Of Invisible Game”, while lilting, lopes aimlessly.
While some of the songs are certainly worth saving from obscurity, the album as a whole fails. Perhaps as proof that he’s no longer his best editor, an EP called American Beauty appeared for Record Store Day and online streaming, containing four songs easily as good if not better than anything on High Hopes. The title track and “Hurry Up Sundown” are rousing arena rockers, “Mary Mary” a sweet strum, and “Hey Blue Eyes” a deceptively pretty tune about wartime atrocity.

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes (2014)—2
Bruce Springsteen
American Beauty (2014)—3

Friday, October 27, 2017

Bob Weir 1: Ace

Of the Grateful Dead’s front men, Bob Weir was always the most basic musically. His songs had a tendency toward good-time boogie, with no rampant experimental characteristics. It was a good balance for a live show, since the songs were simple enough to learn, but as the only selections on an album, things can get a little dull. Unless, of course, you love to boogie.
Ace is a Bob Weir solo in name only, as the basic band on every track is the Grateful Dead; moreover, it serves as the premier of new keyboards guy Keith Godchaux, along with his wife Donna on backing vocals. “Greatest Story Ever Told” leaps out of the gate with a war whoop and exactly the type of rhythm Deadheads live for. Thanks to lyrics by Robert Hunter, the story is interesting. “Black-Throated Wind” has a different sound thanks to lyrics from Weir’s friend John Barlow, the stumbly meter, and prominent horn section, but “Walk In The Sunshine” is just plain dippy even for him. “Playing In The Band” had already appeared on the “Skull & Roses” album, here it’s nearly twice as long and more intricate, thanks to the competent piano.
The true hidden gem of the album is “Looks Like Rain”, with its perfectly heartbroken vocal, a complementary pedal steel from Jerry, and a string arrangement of all things. It’s a wonder this hasn’t been covered by more people. It could be because its effect is flattened by the goofy mariachi horns on “Mexicali Blues”—a decent saloon tune, but oh, that incessant “da-dat-dat”. “One More Saturday Night” would also be a band staple; here’s it’s just more boogie in the mode set by “Greatest Story”. With its multi-faceted lyrics and possible interpretations, “Cassidy” makes for a very effective closer.
Take the best parts of Ace and shuffle them with the vocal highlights from Garcia’s solo album from earlier in the year, and you’d have a pretty strong ’72 Dead studio album. Instead, indulgence reigned the day, even for these guys. As it is, there’s enough good on it to outweigh the rest, so it works. Meanwhile, two of the songs (“Playing In The Band” and “Greatest Story”) would appear later the same year on Mickey Hart’s solo album Rolling Thunder, which went even further away from the traditional Dead sound. Despite the appearances of most of the Dead, the album incorporates contributions from members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and other Frisco musicians, the Tower of Power horns, and two well-known tabla players to his own percussion to present something of a world music fusion.

Bob Weir Ace (1972)—3