Friday, September 19, 2014

Frank Zappa 23: Zappa In New York

At this point the Zappa catalog becomes even tougher to navigate. A break in the release schedule was precipitated by various lawsuits, which also affected what he put out and how. Four records’ worth of material were prepared, then combined into a single package, then supposedly split up again. (The actual chronology is moot for the time being.)
The first of these related (or not) albums was Zappa In New York, a live two-record set culled from a set of concerts that closed out 1976. The album was further “tampered with” against Frank’s wishes, and as the current, Zappa-approved CD edition not only restores those edited portions but expands the original by about 40 minutes, that’s the sequence we’re going to examine.
Only a couple of years on from his last live album, Zappa’s band had evolved yet again, with basically only Ruth Underwood still hanging on. He had several vocalists who could also play instruments to his satisfaction, including guitarist Ray White; drummer Terry Bozzio was put forth as the teenage heartthrob star, but his singing is only slightly less grating than Flo & Eddie, since there’s only one of him. He gets the spotlight early on, voicing the parts of the devil in the puerile parable “Titties & Beer”. A lengthy instrumental extrapolation on “Cruisin’ For Burgers” shows off his compositional prowess, as does the so-called “sensitive instrumental ballad for late-nite easy listening”, the unfortunately named “I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth”. (And therein lies the problem with post-‘60s Zappa: anytime you want to admire him as a composer, he has to go and deflate it with “humor”, under the impression that such activity was what his audience demanded.)
Left off most pressings of the LP but included here, “Punky’s Whips” begins with a setup from guest MC Don Pardo, explaining how Bozzio became entranced by a photo of a guitarist from an otherwise forgettable band. The drummer duly sings of his predicament, in a voice ranging from raspy to nasal, in between excellent interplay between horn section and guitar (and a well-timed quote from “Isn’t It Romantic”). Less taxing and not as “provocative”, “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?” is funky and complicated before spewing a variety of derogatory terms. Don Pardo is brought back to introduce “The Illinois Enema Bandit”, the fresh-as-that-day’s-headlines story of an armed robber who provided an extra “service” for his female victims. Naturally, Frank finds it hilarious, else he wouldn’t have written, arranged, performed, recorded and released a song about it. Again, the solo is preferable to deciding whether, as the song suggests, the women enjoyed it.
“I’m The Slime” gets a welcome, enthusiastic performance from Mr. Pardo, before a solo sets up “Pound For A Brown”, with a lengthy synth solo, ending abruptly for the faux-sci-fi soundtrack “Manx Needs Women”. This segues neatly into the complicated drum solo section of “The Black Page”, which reappears later in an alternate arrangement. Perhaps to give the audience some relief from such a complicated piece, the band performs the rare (for then, anyway) B-side “Big Leg Emma”. This version of “Sofa” sounds like the closing theme from Saturday Night Live, which makes sense since some of that band makes up the horn section. The last half-hour of the set is devoted to two tracks. “The Torture Never Stops” is well played, without the distraction of the “recreational activities” from the studio version. “The Purple Lagoon/Approximate” originally took up side four of the album, and features some very jazzy solos from the Brecker Brothers and bass player Patrick O’Hearn. Ultimately, it’s the music that puts Zappa In New York solidly in the plus column. Whether truly live or enhanced later, the performances on the album stand out much better than the humor.

Zappa Zappa In New York (1978)—3
1991 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

U2 17: Songs Of Innocence

What a surprise—after five years’ worth of red herrings, U2 “released” their next album at an iTunes event, essentially giving it free of charge to half a billion accounts worldwide, six weeks before its official release date. Songs Of Innocence was available to anyone with access to the iCloud; reactions ranged from ecstatic, particularly among the band’s champions, to offended, in the view of those who felt such an “imposition” was an invasion of privacy.
Despite the artless cover, the “digital booklet” offers copious song credits and lyrics, several pages of “thanks to”, and a kind of stream-of-consciousness liner note about the album’s influences. Seeing such names as Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer raises a red flag along the lines of Rattle And Hum’s evocation of other icons, but the songs are better than that, and thankfully, don’t include anything that can be associated with the Spiderman musical.
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” would be just fine without its dedication in the subtitle, particularly because the song doesn’t resemble the Ramones in any way (in fact, the clicking sticks remind us more of “Antmusic”). Ending with a decisive power chord slash, it sets up the comparatively quieter “Every Breaking Wave”, which soon builds into a classic U2 anthem. “California (There Is No End To Love)” is possibly their most effective ode to an American city yet, mostly because it dwells more on the subtitle. Even the “vocal chorale” at the start only hints at the Beach Boys rather than emulating them directly, unless you count the cello flourish here and there. “Song For Someone” appears to try too hard at first, but soon wins over the listener with, again, the “classic” sound and welcome Edge harmonies. “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is not the first time Bono’s written about his mother, but the knowledge makes some of the lyrics a little Oedipal. Sounding a little too much like songs from the more recent albums, this one could have used some more work. But it’s followed by “Volcano”, the first “dumb” song along the lines of “Vertigo” or “Get On Your Boots” on the album.
The anti-terrorism tirade “Raised By Wolves” is the most experimental sounding track. We could do without the “vocal effects”, particularly on a song with such a personal source, and the title phrase doesn’t sound so natural coming out of his mouth, but it’s another track that evokes their early sound, or at least that earlier decade. Another throwback of sorts is “Cedarwood Road”, both lyrical and in the glockenspiel that suggests a musical rewrite of “Electrical Storm”, one of their least notable singles. One reviewer called “Sleep Like A Baby Tonight” a portrait of a pedophilic priest, which isn’t obvious in the lyrics, but it’s still an unsettling listen. (There’s a clever use of a keyboard that sounds like an Omnichord, even though Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno aren’t involved at all.) While dedicated to Joe Strummer, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” doesn’t sound like any Clash song we’ve ever heard, except in its seeming evocation of street violence. Consequently, “The Troubles” isn’t about Ireland, but inner conflict. A female vocalist is prominent, reminding us of a latter-day Duran Duran hit or a movie soundtrack bid. (Hey, at least it wasn’t Rihanna or somebody trendy like that.) There’s a quick fade on the guitar solo, and just like that, it’s over.
Songs Of Innocence is U2’s best work of the century, succeeding because it doesn’t try to do anything, but that’s not to say it’s a triumph. They’re of the stature now that any new album gets the “best work since” tag that the Stones have held for thirty years now, and have long been stuck, if not a moment they can’t get out of, then in the uncomfortable position of having to compete with their own legacy. By not laboring too much over the presentation—though we can’t figure out why it takes so many producers to create an album that sounds like a unified distillation of the band’s entire career—they seem to have been more concerned with “writing songs” than “creating sonics”. It’s not too long, and besides… it was free.

U2 Songs Of Innocence (2014)—

Friday, September 12, 2014

Mark Knopfler 5: Shangri-La

The new century was already seeing an upswing in Knopfler solo albums, but perhaps a motorcycle accident spurred him into more frequent releases. Whatever the real story, Shangri-La presented another hour’s worth of generic Knopfler noodling, most of the songs interchangeable with each other.
His penchant for storytelling is to be admired, but the music doesn’t always seem to match whatever the tale is, whether it’s an elegy for Elvis Presley’s movie career (“Back To Tupelo”) or the genius of McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc (“Boom, Like That”). “Donegan’s Gone” pays tribute to the recently departed skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, and no points for guessing the subject matter of “Song For Sonny Liston”.
Still, a few tracks stand out. “Our Shangri-La” and “Postcards From Paraguay” do successfully evoke a tropical scene, just as “The Trawlerman’s Song” sounds like a sea shanty. The late-night saloon setting of “Stand Up Guy” makes reference to a doctor, while the why “Don’t Crash The Ambulance” would seem to come from a personal place as well. The ironic country lament “Whoop De Doo” and the tender lullaby of “All That Matters” are easily the best songs here.
Sure, Shangri-La is nice, but we’re tired of using that adjective to describe a Mark Knopfler album. The near-title track does have a good extended ending, but it barely comes halfway into the program, making even the sequencing seem arbitrary. There was a time when his music truly stirred and painted pictures; this is just going through the motions.

Mark Knopfler Shangri-La (2004)—2

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Joe Jackson 18: The Duke

Well, that didn’t last long. Maybe he‘d gotten songwriting out of his system, as Joe’s next major work was a tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, with new arrangements, complete with an all-star cast of special guests. Cue crickets.
While there’s no questioning the importance of the music examined on The Duke, it’s almost as if Joe is determined to prove to the world that they, not he, were wrong to dismiss such earlier celebrity train wrecks as Night Music and Heaven & Hell. Having already proven his talent with jazz throughout his career, and specifically on Jumpin’ Jive, did he really think the world wanted to hear what could do with Steve Vai and Iggy Pop at his disposal?
Stylistically, it’s all over the map. The opener is smooth jazz punctuated by Vai’s noodlings. Several tracks are driven by the rhythm section of Christian McBride on bass and ?uestlove on drums (in addition to other Roots here and there) with JJ favorite Sue Hadjopolous on percussion. Vocals appear, sometimes from Joe, once from Sharon Jones, but also from Sufi and Brazilian singers for authenticity if not comprehension. Some tracks combine different pieces into one, and much of it sounds like Steely Dan, and not in a good way either.
And two decades into the new century, he’s still using canned synthesizer sounds over more progressive sounds. The big closer of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” samples Ellington’s own voice and flatulent effects, with Iggy Pop bringing nothing to the table, but not taking over the stage, thankfully. One wishes Joe had kept it simple, but he didn’t. “Mood Indigo”, for example, is way more labored than his earlier rendition. Yet there’s a wonderful moment of a “Satin Doll” medley where it’s just his piano striding through the melody.
The lesson to be learned? Go dig up the originals and marvel at the genius of the real thing. That’s a much better tribute.

Joe Jackson The Duke (2012)—2

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bruce Springsteen 15: The Rising

Purportedly, within weeks of the attacks on September 11, Bruce Springsteen was driving down by the Jersey shore when a guy in the car next to him rolled down his window and called out, “We need you!”
While Bruce has never had the level of hubris of, say, Bono, he did still mean something to the people of New York who grew up on his music, and likely only enjoyed a handful of songs he put out in the ‘90s. Now it was a new century and the world had changed, and as he’d already put the E Street Band back together for a tour following Tracks (documented on the obligatory live album and DVD), it was time to rock out again.
The songs on The Rising resonate with the multitude of emotions following 9/11, and work best when they use the E Street Band, which now included both Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, and of course Patti Scialfa. Also prominent is violinist Soozie Tyrell, and because it’s a Brendan O’Brien production, it’s not so much live-sounding as it is decorated.
The first six songs are all solid, one after another, well paced and contrasted. The harpsichord and strings at the start of “Lonesome Day” are a red herring, as it soon turns into exactly what the guy on the shore wanted. It takes a lot of balls to put a song called “Nothing Man” on an album produced by the guy who worked with Pearl Jam, but he pulls it off. “Into The Fire” and “Empty Sky” seem overtly related to current events, but not blatantly, while “Countin’ On A Miracle” and “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” are just the type of apostrophed rockers that fill stadiums. You have to listen for Clarence Clemons, but he’s in there, just not blasting over every fade.
The wheels come off 25 minutes in, on track 7. “Worlds Apart” has a melody and chord structure right out of his late ‘70s songbook, but we can handle only so much Middle Eastern effects and choirs when Sting uses them, and they sound just out of place here. Even worse is “Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)”, heavy on hip-hop loops and modern R&B. “Further On (Up The Road)” is ordinary rock by numbers and “The Fuse” is little more than a spruced-up demo.
Things do get back on track on “Mary’s Place”, with another red herring of a Mellencamp intro; while it’s about twice as long as it should be, the song’s “let’s have a party” sentiment provides the same relief as similar songs on The River, needed here more than ever. “You’re Missing” is moving but not mawkish, while the title track still stirs chills and thrills, even without delving into the lyrics. “Paradise” is a dour detour into Ghost Of Tom Joad territory. And finally, “My City Of Ruins”, completed before the attacks but a fitting end, borrows liberally from Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”, but most people will think of “The Weight”.
Bruce has always written about struggle, hope, despair, and persevering despite it all, so even outside of the context of the times, The Rising for the most part succeeds. Take out the chunk of misses in the middle and tighten a few of the fades—the songs are all longer than they need be anyway—and it would rank with his best. It was still his best album in 15 years.

Bruce Springsteen The Rising (2002)—

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Billy Joel 15: Greatest Hits Vol. III

Seemingly retired from the pop scene, the final Billy Joel release of the ‘90s was a compilation. Being a single-disc sequel to the double set from 1985, it got the imaginative title of Greatest Hits Vol. III, cleverly allowing Sony to repackage both together in a box with a fourth “music and conversation” disc. But anyway.
Two of the songs (“Keeping The Faith” and “An Innocent Man”) predate the previous hits collection, but as they were actual hits, that’s a good thing. The rest of the program isn’t as obvious. We move chronologically through the albums yet to be anthologized, with eyebrow raisers like “Baby Grand” and “Leningrad” among the more expected radio fodder. “Shameless” is included, most likely as a nod to the Garth Brooks version. Similarly, we suspect “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”, “And So It Goes” and “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” made the cut for more sentimental than commercial reasons. (Really, would you call any song that missed the top 40 a “hit”?)
The album did offer something new to fans who already had the albums: three new songs, all covers, all on the slow side. “To Make You Feel My Love” was the debut of a new Dylan song, a whole month ahead of Bob’s own version, complete with harmonica solo. (And of course, Garth Brooks had to go ahead and record his own version the following year.) “Hey Girl” is a Goffin/King tune, given a lush blue-eyed soul arrangement. Finally, “Light As The Breeze” recasts a Leonard Cohen song as an R&B showstopper, investing it with way more melody than Leonard could’ve.
If anything, Greatest Hits Vol. III proves that even if Billy Joel didn’t write any more songs himself, he could easily build a cash cow out of covers. Hey, it worked for Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow, to name two. That he hasn’t done so is a big point in the integrity column.

Billy Joel Greatest Hits Vol. III (1997)—

Friday, August 29, 2014

Coldplay 4: Viva La Vida

With the world at their disposal, Coldplay made the smart move with their fourth album, employing Brian Eno as full-fledged producer. Therefore, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is their Unforgettable Fire, wherein the band attempts to stretch their fans’ expectations with different soundscapes from those that filled their first three albums. (They even changed their font, breaking from the Albertus typeface familiar from The Prisoner.)
Viva La Vida flows like a true album, to be heard in sequence. Ten tracks are listed, but many of them have distinct or even unlisted sections, showing off the variety and keeping the tedium at a minimum. It’s immediately more satisfying than X&Y, and remains so.
Floating in on a soothing loop, “Life In Technicolor” is something of a rousing overture before the darker, mysterious “Cemeteries Of London”. A brief piano piece provides a bridge to “Lost!”, heavy on organ and handclaps but still catchy. In other words, typical Coldplay, but not a retread. “42” is three songs in one, none of which seem to illuminate any kind of Douglas Adams reference. A “Scientist”-like opening section threatens to turn into one of their “big” numbers until giving way to a treated guitar section √† la Radiohead, which turns into a more straightforward tune, then reverting to a variation on the opening part. But the feeling stays up on the driving “Lovers In Japan”, which shares its track with the much quieter “Reign Of Love”, treated very much in the manner of Eno.
The most exhilarating moment of the album is unlisted, but “Chinese Sleep Chant” is three minutes of shoe-gazing splendor with muffled vocals that reminds one of Echo and the Bunnymen. Because it arrives at the four-minute mark of “Yes”, children of the digital age will be forced to (gasp!) rewind. Despite its melodic similarity to too many songs from the history of composition, “Viva La Vida” still inspires, its combination of tympani, strings and hammer-on-church-bell providing the big single the band needed to sell the album. “Violet Hill” fades in on a Blue Nile hum, before crashing through topical verses at odds with their “if you love me” tags. A moment of studio verit√© sets up the lilting “Strawberry Swing”, processed guitar loops dominating tribal drums. Finally, “Death And All His Friends” moves from a quiet piano meditation to a more typical arena rocker, and ending with a lengthy version of the loop that began the album, another hidden song called “The Escapist”.
In true U2 style, there were leftovers, which were duly added to a re-release of the album by year’s end. However, in a nice gesture to those who didn’t want to buy the whole thing again, Prospekt's March was made available as a separate, attractively priced EP. More of a supplement than a side three, it underscores how wise they were to make Viva La Vida as compact as it is.
“Life In Technicolor II” appears with lyrics, including the omnipresent phrase “now my feet won’t touch the ground”, which is also the title of the EP’s acoustic closer. “Postcards From Far Away” is 45 seconds of piano (oddly not shoehorned within another track), giving way to the more mainstream “Glass Of Water” and “Rainy Day”, both redeemed by their choruses and tricky rhythms. Somewhat lost in all the energy is the title track, a pretty song tagged at the end with a piece called “Poppyfields”. Two of the tracks are retreads: “Lovers In Japan” is remixed without the “Reign Of Love” section, while “Lost+” answers the prayers of those who thought the album track needed a Jay-Z rap to make it truly exceptional. (For the rest of us, it’s a harbinger of doom. A solo piano version, dubbed “Lost?”, closed the iTunes version of Viva La Vida, and would have been welcome here.)

Coldplay Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (2008)—4
Coldplay Prospekt's March (2008)—3