Friday, December 19, 2014

Beach Boys 15: Christmas Album

Like any red-blooded American boy, Brian Wilson loved Christmas. Likely influenced by Phil Spector’s album as well as their own “Little Saint Nick” from the year before (think a thematic cross between a little Deuce Coupe and a certain sleigh), The Beach Boys' Christmas Album was released a month after their live album, Capitol having zero qualms about loading up the shelves with their artists.
Five of the songs are Brian Wilson originals, played (most likely) by the band themselves. “Little Saint Nick” is still the best meld of the holiday spirit and the band’s brand. “The Man With All The Toys” has a jarring hiccup of a supporting part, “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Christmas Baby” present Mike at his most nasal, while Al is credited with lead on “Christmas Day”. Outside of the occasional quote in a guitar solo, these are pop tunes with specific lyrics. Based on these it’s just as well that Brian didn’t try to write a whole album of Christmas songs, else his nervous breakdown might’ve been sooner or more severe.
To complete the album, the rest of the program consists of holiday favorites given lush, Four Freshman-style arrangements, much more typical of Johnny Mathis. Brian sings a couple of the prettier ones alone, but they all come together for the likes of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, the latter with an unfortunate “circus” motif in between verses. They give their best blend to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, and bury some a cappella gymnastics under Dennis’s “special” spoken message over “Auld Lang Syne”.
Despite the promise of side one, this is not a rockin’ Christmas album, yet it does provide an interesting transition to the more advanced music Brian would create in 1965. The album never really went out of print, and even appeared on CD a few times with varying bonus tracks. At the end of the ‘90s, Ultimate Christmas more than doubled the original lineup with further extras, most notably “Child Of Winter”, a standalone single from 1974, and selections from the band’s aborted 1977 Christmas album. One of these, “Santa’s Got An Airplane”, updated the mode of travel with help of the unfinished late-‘60s track “Loop De Loop”. “Winter Symphony” is a promising Brian Wilson that could stand to be slower and not as busy. There’s even a rare Dennis Wilson recording for that cult base. As with most Beach Boys music post-Endless Summer, these later tracks are simply not as strong as the prime material from the original era. (Their a cappella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, the B-side to “Little Saint Nick”, hasn’t been included on any of the CDs since 1991.)

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)—3

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sting 11: If On A Winter’s Night

Way back in 1985, as the singles from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles piled up, Sting recorded an arrangement of the relatively obscure carol “Gabriel’s Message” as a B-side. It gained more exposure a couple of years later as part of the first Very Special Christmas charity album, and with its sparse presentation, even with layered vocals, it has remained a welcome holiday favorite.
The same song opens If On A Winter’s Night…, but it’s a brand new performance that sets the tone for the rest of this not-exactly-Yuletide-themed album. He uses the same breathy, sonorous tone that made his lute album such a tough listen; in the days of vinyl, you’d check the player to make sure it was at the correct speed. The photos of him with his masculine, full beard as he stands in a bulky sweater — reminding one of that professor character Will Ferrell used to play on SNL, talking about his “lover” and gorging himself on goat meat — contemplating either the snow outside or the guitar in his hand, give the game away.
These songs just seem so overdone, even with such humble instrumentation. Even when he does something relatively straight, like the old chestnut “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”, he sinks it with a four-line monologue in the middle that would embarrass Barry White. His wordless vocal interlude on “The Snow It Melts The Soonest” is therefore welcome, as it doesn’t sound like he’s doing a character, or auditioning for a movie role, as demonstrated by his lugubrious reading of “Now Winter Comes Slowly”. “The Burning Babe” comes closest to the Sting of old, with jazzy drums, soprano sax and a decent vocal.
The gushing liner notes, describing how and why the album was recorded, don’t really give much insight as to why he chose what he chose other than they sounded like winter songs. He re-does “The Hounds Of Winter” from his last good album, for no other reason as that one word in the title, or maybe to ensure some publishing royalties. As most of these are traditional songs, he could use the coin. Speaking of which, “Soul Cake” is the wassail song as established by Peter, Paul & Mary; “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” is not the Donovan song, as that would have been a stretch.
All the way through If On A Winter’s Night… is the nagging thought, “This would be so much nicer if he wasn’t on it.” If you’re looking for yuletide music with an English folk lilt, this isn’t it. As a Christmas album it falls short, and as a Sting album it’s just too precious. Better it be considered a winter album; musically, of course, it’s lovely, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. Subtle hurdy-gurdy, Northumbrian pipes, delicately plucked guitars and other gentle touches often show the potential so often stomped over like so much snow from boots out in the hall. It’s therefore best enjoyed in the background when you’ve finished shoveling out your driveway, since it won’t inspire you beforehand.

Sting If On A Winter’s Night… (2009)—

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stomu Yamashta: Go

Steve Winwood was relatively quiet in the years following the end of Traffic, before gearing up for the solo career that would ultimately bring him a higher love. His first real project was a rather adventurous one, and one that still dwells in relative obscurity today.
A truly odd gathering of musicians, Go was billed as a collaboration between Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, Winwood and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, in that order. As if that wasn’t enough, their eponymous album also included contributions from Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze on synthesizers, Pat Thrall and Al DiMeola on lead guitars, Junior Marvin from Bob Marley’s Wailers on rhythm, Traffic’s Rosko Gee on bass, backing vocals by Thunderthighs, and string arrangements from none other than Paul Buckmaster. Taken all together, Go melds jazz fusion, synth prog, and even, given the year, disco for an end result that should fail horribly, but doesn’t.
Like all concept albums, good or bad, there’s a story, which isn’t easy to follow considering that it begins on side two. Lyrics for all tracks save one are credited to Michael Quartermain, if that is his real name. And even once you get the story (travel through space and time, good vs. evil, what is the nature of man, how can you mend a broken heart and so forth) you don’t really care; it’s the music that matters.
A suitably spacey intro brings in “Solitude”, which turns into “Nature” in time for Winwood’s first, tentative vocal. Similarly, “Air Over” is a setup for “Crossing The Line”, a more straightforward rock song. “Man Of Leo” is pretty dated funk, but some typical tasty Hammond organ work, melding to DiMeola’s solo workout for “Stellar”, punctuated by seemingly random clanging that will inspire fans of Blazing Saddles to exclaim “The sheriff is near!” The story presumably ends with the extended extraterrestrial effects of “Space Theme”.
Lots more space sounds dominate side two, through “Carnival” which is meant to evoke Stravinsky, but might be better appreciated with “Atom Heart Mother” or “Saucerful Of Secrets” as a point of reference. Winwood returns halfway through the side with some truly mushmouthed vocals on “Ghost Machine”, a brisk number that ends almost as quickly. “Surf Spin” floats around to set up “Time Is Here”, an aimless jam for a “seize the day” message, while “Winner/Loser”, credited solely to Winwood, has a contemporary Elton John vibe, but also sounds the most like the natural follow-up to the last Traffic album.
Most of the participants would go on to perform and release the suite (in its correct order, with extended solos) for the self-explanatory Go — Live From Paris, and most save Winwood would return on Go Too. The albums have appeared on CD, sometimes combined into a complete set, but the original LP, with its wonky sequence and booklet, is still preferred.

Stomu Yamashta/Steve Winwood/Michael Shrieve Go (1976)—3

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jethro Tull 6: Living In The Past

Now that they’d gotten very far away from their roots, it was time for Jethro Tull to look back. Living In The Past first arrived in a thick cardboard package, like old 78s used to, with a booklet of photos showing how the band had changed from album to album. Along with familiar hit singles from the albums, various non-album tracks helped sweep up anything that might have gone missing, and demonstrate their progress—particularly in America, where some songs were making their vinyl debut.
Beginning appropriately with “Song For Jeffrey”, several early singles get wider exposure, from what sounds like an electric mandolin on “Love Story” and the reverent yet cautionary “Christmas Song”. The collection’s title track has since become an FM radio staple, if one can imagine a 5/4 tune with a flute part that quotes from “You Really Got Me” becoming a hit. “Driving Song” is a blues shuffle, and “Bourée” represents the second album.
The sinister “Sweet Dream”, made more unsettling by the trumpets, gives way to the more swinging “Singing All Day”. “Teacher” represents Benefit, while “Witch’s Promise” points to the English folk sound where they were headed next. The Americans could now enjoy the tightly intricate “Alive And Well And Living In” (in place of “Inside”), more so than the celeste-driven “Just Trying To Be”.
What was side three presents two selections from a Carnegie Hall concert, and recorded very cleanly, we might add. “By Kind Permission Of” is a mostly-solo piano medley of familiar classical themes and blues clichés, joined here and there by Ian’s flute, the band coming in at the very end. “Dharma For One” is extended for even more soloing.
Sporting the appetizing image of “the excrement bubbles”, “Wond’ring Again” was a predecessor to “Wond’ring Aloud” from Aqualung; here it’s followed by “Hymn 43” from that album, while the Brits got “Locomotive Breath”, which would have been preferred. The balance of the set presents the Life Is A Long Song EP; the title track, the nostalgic “Up The ‘Pool” and the grateful “Nursie” make it a less labored alternative to the sound of Thick As A Brick, while “Dr. Bogenbroom” and the instrumental “For Later” pick up the pace in between.
Because of the differences between the UK and US lineups, and future attempts to squeeze everything onto a single CD, several editions of Living In The Past have emerged over the years. But whatever the sequence, the first-time listener (guilty) will be pleasantly surprised at the new sounds, the “hits” kept to a minimum. And because it covers the arc of five albums, there’s not a lot of sameness over the two LPs.

Jethro Tull Living In The Past (1972)—

Friday, December 5, 2014

The New Basement Tapes: Lost On The River

Given the development of this unique little album, it’s bound to confuse people who aren’t obsessed with Bob Dylan or any of the participants. (Especially since its release was arguably overshadowed by a product more important to those obsessed.) Basically, it’s new music written to suit a pile of handwritten lyrics most likely dating from prior to the recordings known for years as The Basement Tapes. (Something similar happened in the ‘90s with unused Woody Guthrie lyrics, so there’s another precedent.) The project was driven by T Bone Burnett, so ultimately, it’s a T Bone Burnett album, familiar to anyone who’s heard the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack or Raising Sand, the stellar meeting of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The New Basement Tapes is the name given to the collective, these song gathered under the title Lost On The River.
They’re not trying to recapture the basement sound of “Million Dollar Bash” or “Please Mrs. Henry”, but living within the country, blues and Appalachian folk that people like Greil Marcus insist inspired the original sessions. Banjo and fiddle courtesy of Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops make this a distinct slice of Americana, and that’s considering that two Brits—Burnett buddy Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford on leave from Mumford & Sons—are involved. Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes round out the group, and everybody swaps instruments when one is needed. (Of course, there’s a deluxe version with five more songs, one per band member.)
As per his recent work, Elvis tends to over-emote and spit. “Six Months In Kansas City” is two songs stuck together, encouraging shouted asides from the rest of the group, but still fares better than “Married To My Hack”. “Golden Tom—Silver Judas” could go on his “Sugarcane” albums, and the lovely melody on his version of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#12”) makes it the keeper of his contributions. (It was a smart move to record several versions of each song to inspire collaboration, and certainly to set up a possible sequel already in the can should demand arise, but the mind shivers at the possibility of stabs at “Hidee Hidee Ho” that didn’t make the first cut.)
Elvis is arguably the biggest “name” here, but he doesn’t nudge aside the lesser-known players. If anything, this album will expose people to them. Jim James already made a stamp as a Dylan interpreter from his appearance in the surreal faux-biopic I’m Not There. Arguably, his songs sound the most like potential Dylan songs, given his voice’s similarity to the Nashville croon. “Down On The Bottom” builds well, while “Nothing To It” is both jaunty and rocking, infused with a wonderful fuzz.
The original basement sessions were a pointed boys’ club, so having a woman sing on these also makes it separate from that established norm. At first appearance Rhiannon Giddens reminds the listener of Natalie Merchant, who appeared on the Billy Bragg and Wilco collaborations on the Guthrie material, but that comparison is grossly unfair considering how much more she offers. She infuses “Spanish Mary” with a melody that Bob would have been happy to pinch himself (and if he keeps making albums, he still might). And her closing take of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#20”) is pleasingly spooky. Taylor Goldsmith’s “Liberty Street” also recalls the Bragg/Wilco project, only because it’s so damn gorgeous, while “Card Shark” sounds uncannily like early Bruce Cockburn. Marcus Mumford’s offerings sound a lot like what’s thus far brought him a fan base; “Kansas City” and “Stranger” are his standouts, the latter a welcome example of Dylan wordplay.
But even though Dylan was the spark for the project, and he did endorse it while keeping his distance, the album is best appreciated out of that context, and for that, it succeeds. To get a better appreciation for their accomplishment, the Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued documentary is rather illuminating, though the staged recreations of the events of 1967 inspire more winces than wonder.

The New Basement Tapes Lost On The River (2014)—4

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

David Bowie 30: Nothing Has Changed

Celebrating fifty years of media manipulation, the Nothing Has Changed compilations capped a fertile period of activity for David Bowie, in which he got lots of press but only appeared in public via the videos for his well-received The Next Day album. We say “compilations” plural because, in an echo of the Best Of Bowie deluge of a different version appearing depending on what country you bought it in, this new set appeared at least three ways, each with a different cover: a three-CD set in reverse chronological order, a two-CD in forward order, and a two-LP version that jumps all over the place. Besides being a nod to the Changes albums (and song) from the RCA years, when it comes to repackaging, nothing has changed.
To entice the Bowie nut who has everything already, many of the songs appear in various edits or remixes. That’s fine if you want the Pet Shop Boys hijack of “Hallo Spaceboy” or the condensed single of “‘Heroes’”, but Bowie’s propensity to release multiple remixes of the same song makes only slightly more sense than the Stones. (Speaking of which, is there anyone out there who thinks the Jagger duet on “Dancing In The Street” belongs on anything purporting to be his “best”?) Nothing from the Tin Machine era is included, leaving a gap but also keeping the sound consistent between the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s.
With all the repetition, there are some interesting, truly rare tracks. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a lengthy croon over an edgy jazz traffic jam, not unlike Elvis Costello’s experiments in the same Herrmannesque territory. Touted as a “brand new song recorded specially” for the set, he needn’t have bothered. Much more exciting are “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “Your Turn To Drive” and particularly “Shadow Man” from the unreleased Toy album, begging the question of whether that will ever be released on its own. And for those of us who don’t have anything from before “Space Oddity”, a handful of early singles (sorry, no “Laughing Gnome”) enables the selections to span fifty years.
As ever with these things, Nothing Has Changed is a good Bowie set for the newcomer, and frustrating for the longtime fan. But at least the Stones didn’t put out another hits album this year.

David Bowie Nothing Has Changed (2014)—4

Friday, November 28, 2014

Waterboys 1: The Waterboys

The brain child of one Mike Scott, an earnest young man equally obsessed with romantic poetry and pop music, the band known as The Waterboys went through a variety of styles and even more permutations in a relatively short time without ever truly catching on in the States outside of what used to be considered alternative radio. For the first few albums anyway, there was a consistency, best described by the eventual song title “The Big Music”. In the early ‘80s, this was a style comparable to that of U2 and Big Country, suggesting that the smaller countries in the British Isles were about to take over music. (They didn’t, but it was nice while it lasted.)
The Waterboys is pretty solid for a mostly one-man band effort recorded across different sessions. The trilling “December” is an unlikely Christmas song, so much so that it needn’t be limited to just one time of year. “A Girl Called Johnny” was the first single, sporting the distinctive sax of the even more distinctively named Anthony Thistlethwaite, who would be the most consistent Waterboy through most of their career. “It Should Have Been You” is the most traditionally constructed song, if a bit overwrought vocally. “The Girl In The Swing” isn’t much, but its 6/8 time nicely matches the image of the title.
His piano playing is a lot more interesting than the plodding style from later albums, as demonstrated on the meandering yet mesmerizing “Gala”, which any other producer would have edited severely. From time to time the drum machine gets a little robotic, as on “The Three Day Man”, yet the one track with a full band, the pointedly defiant “I Will Not Follow”, not exactly a riposte to those Irish boys, sounds the most like vintage ‘80s. Speaking of which, “Savage Earth Heart” isn’t too far removed from Dublin either; while another long solo performance, one can hear the potential to sound bigger and better with a full band.
The Waterboys appeared in North America first as a five-song mini-album, before becoming standard worldwide with eight songs. With the rejigging of the catalog, it’s since been expanded with a few B-sides, unreleased tracks and “Gala” extended to its full 9½-minute length. It remains an impressive debut.

The Waterboys The Waterboys (1983)—3
2002 CD remaster: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks