Friday, July 3, 2015

Jeff Beck 1: Truth

Besides being one of the most inventive, uncompromising guitarists of his generation, Jeff Beck is to be commended for having the same hairstyle for fifty years. One need only look at Nigel Tufnel to see the man’s influence.
After parting with the Yardbirds, the young axeman struck out for a solo career, but there was just one problem: he couldn’t sing. This is evident from his first single, the so-goofy-it’s-great “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, a record that included a more enduring B-side. The follow-up, “Tallyman”, wasn’t as embarrassing, nor as good.
Once it was established where his strengths lay, he put together a band that would attempt to set a precedent for a new kind of rock, balancing heaviness and lightness within the same song. A raspy kid named Rod Stewart would be his singer, bringing along Micky Waller on drums, while a chameleon named Ron Wood, already a guitarist on his own, would play bass. This lineup would record “I’ve Been Drinking”—used as the B-side to Beck’s instrumental butchering of the schlock classic “Love Is Blue”—before going on to record an album proper (incidentally, at Abbey Road in the weeks immediately before the Beatles started the White Album).
Truth is a likable hodgepodge of an LP, complete with self-deprecating notes from the man whose name graced the cover. It begins with a slowed down, groovy version of “Shapes Of Things”, which gives both Rod and Jeff a chance to show what they do best. “Let Me Love You” is one of those electric blues standards that everyone has to do at one point or another, while “Morning Dew” was the current folk equivalent, albeit with Jeff mangling the wah-wah pedal while an “unknown Scottish bloke” plays bagpipes. “You Shook Me” would be redone—some would say stolen—by Led Zeppelin a year later, complete with John Paul Jones on organ. Here it’s merely two and a half minutes, grinding to a quick close described as “my guitar being sick”. A more subdued organ, with Keith Moon on tympani, drives a cover of “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat.
If the listener wasn’t completely confused by now, the solo acoustic “Greensleeves”, precisely finger-picked, shows Jeff to be more than just flash. “Rock My Plimsoul” is another generic blues, better for the guitar than the lyrics. A nice addition is “Beck’s Bolero”, originally the B-side to his first single. Alongside the instrumental melody, we have Jimmy Page strumming an electric 12-string, John Paul Jones playing bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Keith Moon on drums with a terrific howl a minute and a half in. Such catharsis is a memory for most of “Blues Deluxe”, yet another rote blues augmented by obvious added applause effects to give it that “club” feel. Finally, there’s “I Ain’t Superstitious”, a great nasty blues made even more diabolical by being in the key of F, especially difficult for bass players.
The abundance of blues tracks makes Truth less than perfect, but at least they’re spread out for variety, so the album manages to float well above the Mendoza line. Later reissues would pair it with the next Jeff Beck Group album, but today it can be found on its own with a pile of bonus tracks, including all the singles, and earlier versions of some of the album cuts.

Jeff Beck Truth (1968)—4

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Small Faces: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake

Speaking of British bands with messy catalogs, Small Faces began as a genuine mod R&B combo before sliding into psychedelia. Besides being contemporaries of The Who, bass player Ronnie Lane would go on to collaborate many times with Pete Townshend, and drummer Kenney Jones would get the unenviable task of replacing Keith Moon. (Pianist slash organist Ian “Mac” McLagan would also marry Keith’s ex-wife, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.) Ronnie sang from time to time, but guitarist and lead singer Steve Marriott was likely the “star”, and not just because Paul Weller’s been copying his haircut for decades.
Their not-really-a-concept-album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake usually shows up on lists of classic albums nobody knows but everyone should hear, even without its original unique packaging based on a tobacco tin. Taking its cue from the previous year’s hit single “Itchycoo Park”, it combines Hammond-heavy swirly music with acoustic strums and music-hall silliness—and that’s just side one. The instrumental title track is something of an overture, always on the verge of becoming something bigger; they even put strings on it. Despite its loungey send-up beginning, “Afterglow Of Your Love” soon turns into a powerful Marriott belter. There’s a quick segue to “Long Agos And Worlds Apart”, sung by Mac, which has the same clap-along rhythm as the pub singalong “Rene” (rhymes with beanie) and its extended jam ending. “Song For A Baker” is a groovy rocker sung by Ronnie, before Steve comes back on the exceptionally catchy “Lazy Sunday”, delivered in a thicker Cockney accent than that of “Rene” and would one day be worn of its welcome by Phil Collins. (We’ll credit Glyn Johns for why the album sounds so good, from the flanging effects to the well-placed vocal interjections, very similar to what he’d already done for Traffic.)
Side two is where things get really wacky, with all of the songs strung together by a gobbledygook fairy tale about “Happiness Stan” looking for the moon. The narrator will remind newcomers of Michael Palin, and the side does sound like a parody, except that this was the source. The story itself is just that, hiding no real mysteries or message, except that Stan finds himself “Rollin’ Over” to greet “The Hungry Intruder”, a fly who grows giant enough to take him on “The Journey” to the cave home of “Mad John”, who tells Stan that life is as simple as “Happydaystoytown”. Of course. The songs would likely stand on their own without the narration, but it’s a gimmick that works.
Aside of the novelty of the presentation, two things stand out from Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. First is Ian McLagan’s mastery of the electric piano, a touch rivaled only by Nicky Hopkins. Then there’s Kenney Jones’ drumming. How could a guy this inventive and tight go on to become the Who’s metronome? (Because of the differences in mixes unique to different countries, several reissues of the album have offered mono and stereo versions, along with outtakes, but as long as the 12-song sequence is intact, anything else is gravy.)

Small Faces Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968)—3

Friday, June 26, 2015

Yardbirds: Little Games

As with most of the British blues boom bands, balancing integrity with teenybopper appeal, the Yardbirds catalog is a mess. At one time or another one could find all their “classic” songs on one collection or another, but often they’re mixed with multiple takes of various blues covers. Their main consistency through all the changes was singer Keith Relf, he of the bleach-blonde bowl cut and surprisingly nasal voice. He’s the one singing on the hits, no matter which of the legendary guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and of course, Top Topham—who passed through the organization is playing. Chances are, if it gets airplay today, Beck is playing lead. (The drummer is always Jim McCarty, but good luck picking him out.)
Rather than try to navigate through the albums that once existed and may be in print today (though that day might come), a good place to dive in is near the end, with Little Games. At this point the band was down to a quarter, with Jimmy Page on lead. Given his experience playing countless sessions for potential pop hits, he was probably the best person yet able to handle the more commercial material foisted upon the band by producer Mickie Most, while still flirting with experimentalism. As it is, the album presents what Jimmy was doing immediately before Led Zeppelin, and demonstrates what led to it.
The title track bears an simple, repetitive bar chord attack, with some signature Page leads and a cello arrangement for that chamber pop feel, provided by one John Paul Jones. “Smile On Me” is a fairly simple blues, played in two tempos depending on the section; think “The Lemon Song” without the power. Then there’s Page’s solo acoustic showpiece, “White Summer”, accompanied by tabla and oboe, which led to countless Zeppelin ideas. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” sports a couple of chords in the intro that will be heard again on “The Song Remains The Same”, along with the first instance of Page’s violin bow technique. The potential of that approach to create spooky sounds is taken further on the psychedelic “Glimpses”, complete with tape loops, sound effects, distorted voices and Relf’s Gregorian-style chant on top (a genre he’d been courting for years).
The blues return on “Drinking Muddy Water”, a blatant rewrite of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, with Ian Stewart on piano, while “No Excess Baggage”, while strong, is another misplace pop song. The band’s view of the material thrust upon them is best demonstrated on the nutty rearrangement of “Stealing, Stealing”, the old jug band chestnut; here, the part of the washboard is tackled by somebody blowing raspberries. “Only The Black Rose” is very English folk, which is where Relf would go next, albeit with only two chords. “Little Soldier Boy” is another in a line of protest songs disguised as a nursery rhyme; rather than hire a trumpet player, that part is played by a vocal imitation.
The album’s lack of sales ultimately played a part in the band dissolving, leaving Page to take charge of his future, and boy, did he. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Little Games has had a few reissues, starting with 1992’s Little Games Sessions & More. This double CD presented the original album in excellent sound, with session chat and alternate mixes, and also attempted to complete the picture with further Page-related recordings of the period. These include the excellent B-sides “Puzzles” and “Think About It”, and less impressive A-sides, such as “Ten Little Indians”, “Ha Ha Said The Clown” and “Goodnight Sweet Josephine”. A few tracks by Together, Relf and McCarty’s next project, take some of the spotlight off of Page. (Later reissues kept it down to one disc, tacking on some of the singles and sometimes BBC sessions, including unique takes on Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and even an early incarnation of “Dazed And Confused”.)

The Yardbirds Little Games (1967)—3

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Doors 2: Strange Days

Less than nine months after the release of their debut, which still had legs, the second Doors album appeared. Strange Days follows the same formula as the first album, being instrumentally similar, and concluding with another lengthy, show-stopping epic. (The cover did try to make a departure, using a motley collection of street performers and freaks cavorting in an alley, while a tiny poster of the band with the album title is tucked in on the edge. Clever.)
The title track has enough “strangeness” to make it an effective and disorienting opener, setting a tone of darkness for the next 35 minutes. Robbie is credited with writing “You’re Lost Little Girl”, built as it is on his intricate guitar parts, and nothing special in the way of lyrics. “Love Me Two Times” is also credited to Robbie, as he likely came up with the riff; again, the lyrics aren’t much, but there’s a harpsichord in place of the organ for variety. “Unhappy Girl” is dominated by loopy slide and backwards effects, over before you know it. Jim was very proud of “Horse Latitudes”, a frightening piece of poetry backed by discordant sounds of the band, making the return of the loopy slide on “Moonlight Drive” something of a comfort.
“People Are Strange” is another catchy single despite its depressing message, and helped by the tricky ending. The insistent “My Eyes Have Seen You” is contradictorily followed by the moodier “I Can’t See Your Face In My Mind”, both fairly slight in comparison to “When The Music’s Over”. While not as pointedly provocative as “The End”, it still features many oft-repeated Morrison couplets and good dynamic contributions from the band, making it as much of a group performance as a showcase for Jim’s prose. And assuming you can stand the sound of the organ, a better song.
As with most sophomore albums following a classic debut, Strange Days had to catch up to a lot, but there are and were enough songs in their repertoire to keep it consistent. They were still able to concentrate on the music without the distractions that would soon take over their celebrity.

The Doors Strange Days (1967)—
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1967, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jon Kanis: All-American Mongrel Boy

A musician, journalist, video archivist, visual artist, DJ, tour manager and probably a bunch of other things, Jon Kanis has been toiling in the entertainment industry for over 25 years. His experiences and observations have been collected in an anthology, Encyclopedia Walking: Pop Culture & The Alchemy Of Rock ‘N Roll.* The virtual soundtrack to that tome could well be All-American Mongrel Boy (1989-2014), which collects a dizzying array of recordings from various self-made demos, EPs, CDs and collaborations covering that period. The songs on this CD represent only a fraction of those listed in the sprawling discographical appendix of the book.
The music runs the gamut from college rock through adult alternative to whatever label can be applied to that created by those born on the cusp of Baby Boomers and Gen X, touching on folk, country and even avant-prog along the way. His voice combines Roger McGuinn twang with Peter Case smoke, a drawl as comfortable as a baggy wool sweater. With contributions from people better known as right-hand men for Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson, when it comes to six degrees, Kevin Bacon’s got nothing on this guy.
Kanis wrote all the songs himself, naturally, including such clever turns of phrase as “Where Is Joe Strummer When You Need Him?” and “It Is & It Isn’t”. The spirit of creation shines in a couple of collaborations from Steel Bridge Songfest, an annual collective songwriting festival. Others have pointed out how well “Dweller On The Threshold” evokes early Elton John, and we’ll add that it does so without a prominent piano. The lyrics are smart without being patronizing, and the instrumentals “A.C. In Michigan” and “The Return Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” aren’t just background music.
All-American Mongrel Boy is a testament to the so-called struggling musician working under the radar of fame and fortune, and an inspiration to anyone with talent to burn and songs nobody’s heard—yet. Chances are he’s written another pile of songs since publishing his book, so this could conceivably be Volume One of his archives.

Jon Kanis All-American Mongrel Boy (1989-2014) (2014)—

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

World Party 1: Private Revolution

If Karl Wallinger had done nothing but play keyboards on “The Whole Of The Moon” by the Waterboys, he would still be respected around these parts. However, he learned fairly quickly that he wouldn’t be able to collaborate with Mike Scott on his own terms, so he recorded something of his own one-man band project called World Party, which turned into a real live Pinocchio when he had a worldwide hit.
“Ship Of Fools”—subtitled in some places as “Save Me From Tomorrow”, after the hook in the chorus—was an infectious surprise in the darkening winter months of 1986 to 1987, a strolling piano sub-boogie with a vocal that sounded like Jagger channeling Dylan. It was one of the better developed tracks on Private Revolution, which spilled his other obvious influence, that of the recently de-Revolutioned Prince. Drum machines had only progressed so far at that point, and that dated sound colors both the title track and “Making Love (To The World)”. The blatant homage is mostly out of the way with those, so the lengthy follow-up single “All Come True” delivers more mystery in only a few chords. “Dance Of The Hoppy Lads” is a brief instrumental before the smooth soul of “It Can Be Beautiful (Sometimes)”.
Dylan dominates side two, from the outright parody of “The Ballad Of The Little Man” to the straight cover of “All I Really Want To Do”. In between is the countryish “Hawaiian Island World”, notable now mostly for the debut backing vocals (and one scream) by one Sinead O’Connor. The song “World Party” likely came before the band had name, with a chorus borrowed from the Beatles. Finally, “It’s All Mine” lopes through an ecological lament, but only if you’re paying attention to the lyrics.
Private Revolution would sound better today if it were produced better, but that’s assuming that more sophisticated instruments wouldn’t subtract from the charm. It would have been easy to expect this to be a one-hit wonder, and maybe he’s faded into the background, but Karl Wallinger would have a lot more to offer, in his own sweet time.

World Party Private Revolution (1986)—

Friday, June 12, 2015

Waterboys 3: This Is The Sea

By now The Waterboys were practically a full-fledged band, with most of the previous contributors abetted by Steve Wickham on violin and young Chris Whitten, who packs a wallop all over the place. Always in search of what he called “The Big Music”, on This Is The Sea Mike Scott found it.
The lengthy opening of “Don’t Bang The Drum” is meant to recall Sketches Of Spain but comes closer to a bullfight. When the song proper crashes in, the drum is indeed banged, Mike Scott shouting his words and occasionally “whoo”-ing along the sax. The greatest song they recorded to date, if ever, is “The Whole Of The Moon”, loaded with poetic imagery and a majestic arrangement that incorporates horns and an angelic vocal descant. Even thinking of the sound effect after “you came like a comet” brings chills. Easily one of the best non-mainstream songs of the decade. From there the fragment called “Spirit” seems even more anticlimactic, and “The Pan Within” a little automatic but still stirring.
Side two wanders a bit, from the heavy “Medicine Bow” to the sung poem/tirade “Old England”. “Be My Enemy” chops up a sample “from a Prince bootleg” before turning into a gallop a la “Tombstone Blues” with a Dylanesque snarl to boot. “Trumpets” wants to be a tender love song, and while it doesn’t use the actual instrument, the constant blare of the sax doesn’t help the seduction. But the title track pulls everything together, a hypnotic Wall of Sound strum evoking crashing waves for a big finish.
Having achieved his best album yet, it would be a while before Mike Scott would approach this sound again. Those seeking more of the same should seek out the double-disc expansion, including B-sides, extended takes and other sounds from the dozens of tracks originating from the original sessions. If that’s not enough, a later disc called In A Special Place is subtitled “The Piano Demos For This Is The Sea”, offering just that.

The Waterboys This Is The Sea (1985)—
2004 remastered edition: same as 1985, plus 14 extra tracks