Friday, December 2, 2016

David Bowie 36: Lazarus

In addition to recording what turned out to be his last album, the other thing David Bowie was working on the year nobody knew he had terminal cancer was a stage musical based on the character he played in the wacky 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. If the liner notes are to be believed, the cast recording for Lazarus took place the morning the world found out he was gone.
The musical becomes something of a Bowie revue, pulling together over a dozen tunes from his career, some well-known (“Changes”, “All The Young Dudes”), some not as much (“It’s No Game”, “This Is Not America”), some more recent (“Valentine’s Day”, the title song), and three previously unheard. There’s a rock combo for the backing, with Bowie saxes, and if you ever wanted to hear the guy from Dexter and the subject of How I Met Your Mother sing Bowie, here’s your chance. Try as they might, the men can’t help but add Bowie inflections to their delivery, while Sophia Anne Caruso’s solo spots are pure Broadway kiddie schmaltz. The newer songs stick to the templates on The Next Day and Blackstar, but some of the older ones get arrangements that aren’t exactly karaoke. (Presumably key to the plot are snippets of Ricky Nelson singing “Hello Mary Lou” and Bowie’s own recording of “Sound And Vision”.)
The big deal here, of course, is Bowie’s own versions of those three new songs, added on a bonus disc along with his rendition of the title song, providing 12 precious additional minutes of music as another kind of farewell. “No Plan” is moody and melodramatic; “Killing A Little Time” is edgy and clattery; “When I Met You” is romantic and anthemic. All are up to the quality and spirit of the last two albums, and will likely be dissected over the years to come in the absence of any other recordings from his final years. At least they weren’t tacked onto a “special deluxe” reissue of Blackstar, which would have forced us to buy that album again, and would arguably have messed with its unity. (The rating below is for the new songs, as we’re casting—yeah, we said it—the musical versions aside.)

Lazarus: Original New York Cast Recording (2016)—3

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Cat Stevens 7: Buddha And The Chocolate Box

The ‘70s moved along, and slowly enveloped many performers in its slick wake. Cat Stevens was still searching, the title of his new album reflecting the subliminal pull of the spiritual and the sensual. Buddha And The Chocolate Box is similarly pulled between reflective music and contemporary touches, without any resolution. The smart move was to revert to songs as opposed to a suite, but he was enamored with arrangements, so the songs themselves are either slathered in backing vocals or punched along by the rhythm.
Right away, “Music” would be a decent if naïve plea for how to achieve universal harmony, but apparently his definition of “sweet music” involves lots and lots of cowbell. “Oh Very Young” was the hit single, and fits in thematically with the message of those wonderful acoustic albums, but the arrangement paved the way for Al Stewart’s handful of hit singles a few years away. The long-awaited acoustic finally comes to the fore on “Sun/C79”, which appears to be something of a forced medley—the first part an ode to nature, before seeming to evolve into a narrative about a groupie told to the issue of their encounter. With its downright odd pop culture references, “Ghost Town” has some nice passages in between the Old West saloon touches, which seem more parodic than evocative. “Jesus” is a misleading title, seeing as the second verse is about Buddha, and shouldn’t he get equal billing too?
That simple message is swatted away by “Ready”, an overly lusty exhortation, but then “King Of Trees” comes in with a gentler piano and something of a chorale arrangement for yet another celebration of a vague guru figure. “A Bad Penny” is stuck between the chamber-pop ‘60s with its harpsichord and horns, but the rolling drums keep it from being that kind of a throwback, and render the kiss-off message even more confusing. “Home In The Sky” could be a lot better were it not for another (self-overdubbed) chorale part and a busy baroque organ.
There are good songs on Buddha And The Chocolate Box, but they’re buried beneath a thick layer of velvet and velour. With few exceptions, his strength is shown to lie in the simple, and because he kept chasing “bigger” ideas over three albums and counting, we can’t give this a better rating than we have.

Cat Stevens Buddha And The Chocolate Box (1974)—

Friday, November 25, 2016

Elton John 3: Tumbleweed Connection

The third time was the charm, and with Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John (and Bernie Taupin, to whom he was joined at the hip) hit on the formula that would sustain him for the next five years and nearly twice as many albums, and rightfully so. Here was an album that played up the mythology of the American West, as seen by a couple of kids from England. Even the cover photo, rustic as it is, was captured at a British Rail station.
“Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun” plays on that mythology right away, the simple combo supporting the pounding piano and Leon Russell-style vocal. But then “Come Down In Time” appears on the back of a plucked harp and reeds, a song of waiting and wondering amidst a wash of strings, and a wonderfully unresolved ending. It’s back to the theme for “Country Comfort”, its fiddle and steel guitar touches making it both akin and superior to Rod Stewart’s earlier cover. The Western theme continues on “Son Of Your Father”, a morality tale about a duel on a farm, the authenticity dashed by the first line’s reference to a “tramline”, but still in the established feel. The geography shifts slightly east to the Civil War South in “My Father’s Gun”, which is supremely elevated by its soulful chorus.
It’s not clear whether the narrator of “Where To Now, St. Peter?” is the father of the previous song, the son reaching the same end, or a doomed soldier in another war altogether. The ingredients are basic—piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and a lead played both with a wah-wah pedal and through a Leslie speaker—but it’s that soaring vocal and subtle choir of well-paced high notes that carry it. In a similar placing and mood to side one, “Love Song” was not written by Elton or Bernie, but sung in a gentle duet with the song’s actual author, Lesley Duncan, with fingerpicking that recall John Lennon’s softer contributions to the White Album. Continuing the programming style, “Amoreena” puts us back in the lazy country, laughing fit to burst upon each other. The piano work is hardly lazy, those rolling chords more than just rhythm. “Talking Old Soldiers” is just voice and piano, sung in the form of a conversation, and reveals the album as not just a celebration of the Old West, but as a war protest. “Burn Down The Mission” is the closing epic, another dense Taupin lyrics that surpasses comprehension, but it’s the key and tempo changes Elton brought to the song that make it so good.
Tumbleweed Connection arrived only six months after the previous album, indicative of the speed of output that would follow. It’s also indicative of the quality of music we’d come to expect from Elton John, and why we care about him today. This train wouldn’t stop for long. (There were only two proper outtakes from the album: the sensitive “Into The Old Man’s Shoes”, which was used as a B-side, and “Madman Across The Water”, which wouldn’t have fit the theme of the album anyway and would be re-recorded for a future project. Both appeared on the expanded CD and eventual Deluxe Edition; the latter filled out its bonus disc with demos of some of the album’s tracks and a BBC session.)

Elton John Tumbleweed Connection (1970)—4
1995 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Morphine 4: Like Swimming

Morphine made a big-label jump in time for their next album, but there’s very little on Like Swimming that deviates from their norm. There is, however, variety from track to track, so the listener can’t get too comfortable.
A lovely snippet called “Lilah” opens the album, plowed aside by “Potion”. “I Know You (Pt. III)”, following on from the two on Good, is very much in their comfort zone. That could almost be said for “Early To Bed” and its noir sentiments, except for the keyboard blasts straight off a Prince album. “Wishing Well” is all slide bass and layered sax, and the title track has a nice touch in the way of a fingerpicked acoustic down in the mix. The fuzz comes out on “Murder For The Money”, switching between Velvet Underground grunge and Morphine groove, and from here the music really begins to seesaw.
The most eerily poignant track is “French Fries W/Pepper”, a clever autobiography that predicts where he’ll be in a few years’ time (hopefully drinking red wine and eating the delicacy in the title). “Empty Box” is a mystery involving the mail, but not in a Velvet Underground way. The backing in “Eleven O’Clock” is crazily insistent, and still matching the barest of lyrics, then it’s back down to the usual mood for “Hanging On A Curtain”, with the barest Mellotron cello. With its electronic backing, “Swing It Low” sounds like nothing else on the album; as it turns out, it was taken from a Sandman solo project.
Like Swimming may have been set up to rake in that Spielberg-backed money, but there’s no real standout along the lines of the last two albums. That said, sometimes there’s no shame in preaching to the converted.

Morphine Like Swimming (1997)—3

Friday, November 18, 2016

Band 10: Jericho

The surviving members of the Band who weren’t Robbie Robertson had been stumbling along for a while, playing whatever shows they could, and getting a few handouts via Ringo’s All-Starr Band and such high-profile gatherings as Roger Waters’ restaging of The Wall in Berlin and Bobfest. While many of their complaints about Robbie Robertson may have been well-founded, the truth of the matter is that they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire with the songs they were writing, since they hadn’t appeared to have written any.
For proof, consider the contents of Jericho, the first Robbie-less Band album that took several years and too many guest musicians to bring together. Of the dozen songs here, only two have writing contributions from any of the original members, and we’ll get to those. Along with covers of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters songs, there’s a version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” featuring two of the Hooters, and, even stranger, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, which most of the world hadn’t heard until the first Bootleg Series box, and we’re betting the boys in the Band hadn’t either.
Just in case the legacy didn’t speak for itself, a good deal of the budget went to Peter Max for a painting of the Big Pink house. Their original producer John Simon gets partial credit for doing that here, and just so nobody could get away without shedding a tear, there are back-to-back tributes to Richard Manuel. “Too Soon Gone” was written by Jules Shear and the piano player who was in the band before Richard, and replaced him later, only to die himself before Jericho was finished. It’s followed by “Country Boy”, a lonesome lament sung by Richard himself.
Outside of their voices and instruments, songwriting credits go to Levon Helm on exactly two songs: “The Caves Of Jericho”, a mine tragedy obviously Xeroxed from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Move To Japan”, an embarrassing protest of consumerism that’s more obnoxious than clever. He’s much more suited to the honky tonk of “Remedy” and “Stuff You Gotta Watch” than Rick Danko is on “Amazon (River Of Dreams)” which relies far too much on rain forest sound effects.
Yet amazingly, Jericho is enjoyable. Levon and Rick can still sing, and Garth knows where to put his keyboards and horns. But too many tracks demand to be skipped, so it’s only for the faithful, who’d probably endure the other two Band albums of the ‘90s, but we just can’t.

The Band Jericho (1993)—

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Van Morrison 31: Back On Top

A switch of labels meant that yet again, a new Van Morrison CD was touted as “a return to his classic sound!” Even the title Back On Top suggests wishful thinking, and while the album did okay chartwise, a lot of that had to do with the promotional push—Point Blank being a blues-based label distributed by Virgin.
Indeed, the opening “Goin’ Down Geneva” is a pretty dirty blues, far away from the smooth jazz of recent years. “Philosopher’s Stone” immediately hits the brakes, suggesting not so much the quest for alchemy but a pointed reference to the previous year’s archival release, and sure enough Brian Kennedy is right there on top of the mix, where he’ll sit for the rest of the album. “In The Midnight” is even quieter, with a tasty Mick Green guitar solo, and thankfully Brian Kennedy doesn’t turn up until the very end. The title track packs a little more punch, thanks to Pee Wee Ellis on sax, but then it’s another meditation about “When The Leaves Come Falling Down”. It’s pretty, but he’d already proved the thesis 13 years earlier.
“High Summer” turns the clock back a few months, and finds our hero with the harmonica stuck in his mouth and mumbling the lyrics. “Reminds Me Of You” hearkens back to mid-‘60s soul, a decent hymn of heartbreak ruined, again, by Brian Kennedy. Right when we think he’s keeping the complaints about show business to a minimum, “New Biography” is a direct hit on an actual book that had been published, with lots of spitting p’s and his first recorded acknowledgment of the Internet. More Sam Cooke-isms color “Precious Time”, which crams several clichés into an admittedly snappy tune. And just as the first half ended, the finale comes with a midtempo reverie on a “Golden Autumn Day”. (We checked carefully, but found no reference to any garden wet with rain.) The last few moments of the album, which focus on the simple strings arrangement, are lovely.
There’s more life than usual on Back On Top, and the energy helps a lot, where other albums merely crawled along. One can almost forgive Brian Kennedy.

Van Morrison Back On Top (1999)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1999, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kinks 7: Face To Face

The Stones had Between The Buttons, a thoroughly British album nobody knows about today, but they wouldn’t’ve got there were it not for The Kinks. Face To Face, with its exploding head Carnaby Street cover and song content, is the first album they made that fits in with what all Ray Davies’ disciples see as his mission to preserve the Empire for future generations. (He was merely writing songs, of course, but we’re not about to let facts get in the way of mythology.)
After a relevant sound effect, Dave gets the first track (again) with “Party Line”, a song that makes no sense in this century, much less decade. “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” works as a lonesome track, though it wouldn’t be years before anybody knew this was another plea to an older Davies sister, who would go on to inspire future Kinks works. “Dandy” was also a hit for Herman’s Hermits, a good pick being a portrait of a still-dedicated follower of fashion. “Too Much On My Mind” presents another portrait of the artist in distress, decorated by a gentle harpsichord courtesy of Nicky Hopkins. He also gets to play the flourish on the next track, a tribute to a “Session Man” much like himself. Nicky gets to add better color to “Rainy Day In June” (along with lots of thunder effects), a very advanced track that doesn’t deviate from a single bass note (or tonal, or drone, what have you) but still conveys an image. That makes “House In The Country”, social comment notwithstanding, almost a break in the tension with its barrelhouse piano and Dave’s leads borrowed from Chuck Berry.
While it’s supposed to suggest rolling waves, the opening of “Holiday In Waikiki” more evokes a draining sink or flushing toilet on half-speed. But that’s incidental compared to the bent surf homage of the lyrics and guitar. More social comment comes in “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale”, wherein the well-respected man has to sell his house. In case “Dandy” didn’t do it for you on side one, “Fancy” crosses British chamber pop with Indian drone wonderfully. “Little Miss Queen Of Darkness” builds a trad-jazz pastiche on a barely in-tune acoustic, then Dave takes over “You’re Lookin’ Fine” for a welcome bit of variety (Ray must not have felt comfortable being so brazen). One could be forgiven for thinking the entire album was a setup for “Sunny Afternoon”, the big single from the summer before. This is almost the prelude to “Most Exclusive Residence”, though we have a little more sympathy for the well-respected man on this track. But lest we get too serious, “I’ll Remember” is a simple fare-thee-well, combining Ray’s Ricky Ricardo homage in dropping the “g” from “everything” and Dave’s lead part, which would inspire the incidental music for The Prisoner.
Some accounts call Face To Face a concept album, but outside of sound effects, good luck finding a story. Instead, these are terrific songs that would have had the Beatles and Stones on their collective toes. It’s their secret weapon, an album nobody mentions, but those who do positively revere. Recent repackages (all imports, but easy enough to find) add contemporary singles, B-sides and unreleased tracks of dubious vintage, but this might be one of those albums that’s best left alone.

The Kinks Face To Face (1966)—4