Friday, February 5, 2016

Frank Zappa 28: Joe's Garage

Like many of Frank’s grand statements, Joe’s Garage has a lot to say, but its message is spoiled by his overall delivery. It didn’t take too much of a stretch of his own imagination to take the seed idea of a garage band playing simple music into a dystopian future where music was banned, and record executives sodomized each other as well as anyone or anything in the vicinity of the internment camp where they were housed. And Frank’s view was that if you couldn’t handle the story, then you’re part of the problem.
Anyone who reads this blog will likely agree with Frank that music is the best, just as they would agree that suppression of music is a tragedy, particularly when enforced by so-called elected officials. We also use music to escape reality, and you can’t always do that when listening to the vocalization of “a cross between an industrial vacuum cleaner and a chrome piggy bank with marital aids stuck all over its body” subjected to urophilia. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as that doesn’t happen until Act II. Huh? Let us explain.
Joe’s Garage was issued in two parts: Act I, a single disc followed a few months later by a double album, Acts II & III. Since the dawn of the digital era, they’ve been packaged in a two-CD set, with the only notation of where successive acts begin found in the liner notes, so the story can be ingested all at once.
“The Central Scrutinizer” makes his entrance in something of an overture, delivering the first of many commentaries in a loud accented whisper through a megaphone. The title track stands very well on its own, not just for the wonderful illustration of the repetitive limitations of a garage band, but for the debut of Ike Willis, who would voice many of Frank’s lyrics for the rest of the man’s life, and quite soulfully, too. Speaking of which, Dale Bozzio (later of Missing Persons) makes her tuneless debut on “Catholic Girls”, a dirty joke that would have fit in the context of Sheik Yerbouti, musically even. Here, it’s a setup for “Crew Slut”, essentially an update of “Road Ladies” but with more descriptive directions and a lot nastier overall. It’s an ordinary blues shuffle, contrasted with the disco pop of “Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt”, featuring Frank at his most lecherous. (In case you were wondering about the plot, Joe’s girlfriend Mary stood him up at the CYO dance, ended up with the roadies of a band in town, who used her up and left her at a bar where a wet T-shirt contest could potentially earn her money to get “home”. Because, in Frank’s world, that’s what girls do.) What was originally called “Toad-O-Line” on the LP has been changed to “On The Bus” since, though the first three notes of this extended solo still seem to quote “Hold The Line” by Toto. The Scrutinizer informs us that news of Mary’s adventures upset Joe so much that he responded in kind, his experience leading him to ask the immortal question, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, which otherwise taints a decent backing. This gave Frank an excuse to finally include “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” on an album, albeit in an inferior reggae version.
Act II begins in the Church of Appliantology, led by L. Ron Hoover, which is still pretty clever. Hoover and Joe’s dialogue makes up the lyrics of “A Token Of My Extreme”, which had been an instrumental piece for about five years. While he’s at it, Frank revives “Stick It Out”, an old Flo & Eddie routine sung in German, then in English, and just as obscene in both languages. He also introduces Sy Borg, the appliance mentioned in the second paragraph above, whose demise comes at the end of a nine-minute jazz-reggae groove. Slightly less excruciating is “Dong Work For Yuda”, an inside joke about a Zappa roadie who mangled the English language. Here it’s used to illustrate the type of deviants Joe met in the prison where he was sent for destroying Sy, and sets up “Keep It Greasey”, the furthest thing from vague, but ending in a fantastic five-minute solo. In the realm of Joe’s story, these guitar solos are the only things that keep him going while he finishes his sentence, looking forward to life “Outside Now”.
Act III is arguably the best portion, consisting of four long tracks and a lot of soloing. “He Used To Cut The Grass” informs us that Joe is out of prison, but music is now illegal so he can only continue imagining the sounds in his head. Luckily for us, not only are solos worthy of posterity, but the band, which now included Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, could keep with Frank. They get a lot of room to stretch on “Packard Goose”, an angry diatribe against journalists (with a couple of birds flipped to “Joe” and “Mo”, who we read as two of the executives who’d signed him to Reprise Records way back when). Now we have arrived at perhaps the greatest nine minutes in Frank’s career, the positively gorgeous “Watermelon In Easter Hay”. Over a sleepy 9/4 rhythm, trilling vibraphones, sitar-like guitar and strolling bass, Frank bends his strings in a way that’s alternately crying and triumphant. The album could have ended there, but he needs a “stupid song” for the closing credits; hence “A Little Green Rosetta” is the literal icing on this cake.
Obviously, Joe’s story was very important to Frank, who felt sodomized (symbolically, anyway) by a cruel world where his music was misunderstood and censored. What sinks Joe’s Garage and keeps it from regular rotation are the lyrics. Most of his guitar solos were transferred in via xenochrony, which helps boost the second half of the program considerably, were it not for the story. If he had only let the songs he had stand alone, without stringing them together with a theme and narration, there’s a chance it would have been better than it is, and worthy of the praise people heap on it.
Still, we do crack up every time that canned police siren appears in the mix.

Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage Act I (1979)—2
Frank Zappa Joe’s Garage Acts II & III (1979)—2

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Marshall Crenshaw 2: Field Day

His first album being such a fresh kick, there was a lot of pressure for Marshall Crenshaw’s follow-up. Field Day keeps most of the recipe without being a carbon copy.
Smart students of rock ‘n roll know you’re supposed to start the album with the lead single, and that’s why “Whenever You’re On My Mind” is such a great opener. There’s the opening riff, which is vocalized in the verses and along with the solo, and the classic chorus. “Our Town” and “One More Reason” gallop along, though the words get a little lost in Steve Lillywhite’s boomy production. (Then again, the engineer was Scott Litt, just a few years away from dealing with Michael Stipe’s mumbling for R.E.M.) “Try” doesn’t really sink in, but pay attention to the litany of impossible tasks he’ll undergo for “One Day With You”.
Remember how great the first side began? Side two does the same with “For Her Love”, with another infectious riff and a tasty lick that forms both the middle eight and the coda. “Monday Morning Rock” is a mildly salacious sentiment from such a clean-cut kid, someone we associate more with the lovelorn fella in “All I Know Right Now”. While it’s no “Soldier Of Love”, “What Time Is It?” revives a little-known early-‘60s doo-wop side via a nice baritone guitar. And somehow the processed drum echoes at the end of “Hold It” provide a nice conclusion.
One wonders if the artiste would strip some of the echo from Field Day given the chance today. (There is something of a precedent for that.) Luckily for him the songs are still pretty good, and at least he didn’t take a complete dive on his sophomore effort.

Marshall Crenshaw Field Day (1983)—3

Friday, January 29, 2016

David Bowie 35: Blackstar

First of all, this is not an obituary. If you want one, look elsewhere.
Second of all, forget all the noise about Blackstar being a jazz album. Bowie played sax before he played guitar, and that instrument has featured on practically every album he’s ever made, whether he’s played it or got somebody else too. This is a Bowie album, and can be classified as rock if you need a genre to label it. (In fact, two songs, “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” and its B-side, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”, have been either re-recorded or remixed to sound less like free jazz.)
Third of all, even though the actual title is ★, Blackstar is a lot easier to type, just like we’d alternately refer to Led Zeppelin IV as Zoso and The Artist Who’s Once Again Known As Prince is called just that.
While we’re at it, death has been one of Bowie’s go-to subject matters for practically every album he’s made, going back as far as “Please Mr. Gravedigger”, through obvious songs like “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide”, deep cuts like “Time”, covers like “My Death”, and so forth. To say he predicted his own demise down to the day is a bit of a stretch, but a sense of his own mortality likely had a lot to do with why he laid low for the better part of this century.
Blackstar is a daring release, sticking with the minimalistic graphics approach from The Next Day (which still seems like a “new” album, which just goes to show what three years can mean in a career like Bowie’s). Musically, it’s most reminiscent of that album, and Heathen, but good luck figuring out what the words really “mean”. Best of all, with its seven songs totaling 41 minutes, it’s easy to ingest, and hear again.
The title track, which comes in at a whopping ten minutes, fades in to introduce a clattering of electronic drums and a Mideastern melody speaking of some foreign village wherein lies, in “the center of it all,” not the Milford Plaza but “your eyes”. There are a few big accents, and a digital scramble brings us to another location on the planet where the title becomes a main motif in the form a grand ballad that Bowie could write in his sleep, and has. After a few minutes of that, the opening section is repeated over the new tempo until then end. After a few odd inhales, “’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is upbeat, with a not-quite-jungle arrangement. Easily the most striking song on the album, “Lazarus” was also the best choice to promote the album upon release. Considering that the song shares a title with a Bowie-sanctioned Broadway musical based on The Man Who Fell To Earth, the lyrics can be taken both in and out of that context.
“Sue” had already been used to promote the most recent hits collection, but sounds better here among her siblings. “Girl Loves Me” seems designed to provoke, from its parental advisory-baiting hook and lyrics that sound like Alex and his droogs. Opening with a slow piano and sax, “Dollar Days” switches from latter-day Pink Floyd to a more recognizable Bowie lament once the voice kicks in. It carries on in that vein until a provocative crossfade into “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, the upbeat conclusion, complete with echoes of the harmonica from “A New Career In A New Town” and other sounds that touch on so many stages of his catalog. Its final seconds seem both resolved and unresolved.
Blackstar will never considered as another mere chapter in Bowie’s catalog, which is too bad, since it already showed promise in the 48 or so hours people had to experience it without time’s definitive stamp. Again, its relatively short length invites multiple repeat plays, and thus more opportunity for the elements to reveal themselves. Too many of the lyrics seem foreboding, but that can’t be helped. As far as he was concerned, his next musical adventure would happen whenever it did.

David Bowie (2016)—3

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Robyn Hitchcock 30: The Man Upstairs

Here’s something different from Robyn Hitchcock: an album that’s half covers, familiar and not so, and half originals. The big eyebrow-raiser is that it was produced by Joe Boyd, who these days tends to avoid anything that’s not considered “world music”. Nor does it mine the catalog of artists most associated with Boyd; the choice of songs is all the artist’s.
Most versions of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You” have been reverent, and while this isn’t Robyn’s first recording of it, the muffled bass, strings piano and high harmonies give it a quiet elegance. Similarly, he’s long admired Roxy Music’s Avalon album, and “To Turn You On” sticks to their arrangement, even the key change in the middle. The Doors’ “Crystal Ship” isn’t a big stretch for him either, with a pianist filling in some of the holes; enjoyment of any of these will be enhanced by familiarity. Occasional touring buddy Grant Lee Phillips gets a nod with “Don’t Look Down”, while “Ferries” is a cover of a song by a Norwegian band called I Was A King, with the song’s own writer providing harmonies (as she does throughout the album).
His own songs are a mixed bag. “San Francisco Patrol” is one of the loveliest and therefore unlikely songs to be inspired by a Dirty Harry movie. “Comme Toujours” seesaws between French and English and is a nicer version of a song he’s recorded already. “Trouble In Your Blood” is also quite slow and pretty, but not dull. “Recalling The Truth” isn’t as pretty, but brings everything to an unresolved end. Unfortunately, “Somebody To Break Your Heart” completely breaks from the mood, and is the album’s sore thumb.
Faithful readers have marveled at how we can stay interested in an artist whose most provocative work was decades ago. Part of it comes from an unspoken agreement with a man we’ve never met; as long as he keeps making albums that aren’t horrible, we’ll listen. And maybe, just maybe, one day something will come out of him that absolutely stuns.

Robyn Hitchcock The Man Upstairs (2014)—3

Friday, January 22, 2016

Lou Reed 6: Metal Machine Music

Speed and alcohol are a dangerous mix, so we’re told, and perhaps it took a well-read individual like Lou Reed, who purported to keep a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference around to consult on what he was ingesting, to survive such fuel and maintain a career. Being a staunch contrarian, he also seemed determined to deflect any false praise that came his way.
Metal Machine Music helped to accomplish that. Over an hour of multi-tracked guitar feedback filling four sides of vinyl, this album was either a middle finger to his label and the unsuspecting public, an advanced musical experiment that said public was too stupid to comprehend, or an expensive joke. (Actually, considering that the recording costs amounted to whatever the master tape cost plus the electricity consumed, it was easily his cheapest album to produce.) At various times, both upon release and in retrospect, Lou insisted that classical motifs were hidden within the frequencies, and that he wanted it to be released on Red Seal, RCA’s classical arm.
Despite the rock star pose, the cover proclaims it to be “an electronic instrumental composition”, and lists the equipment involved on the back. But make no mistake: this is an album of feedback, recorded at various speeds and mixed in stereo. Of all the people on the planet who have claimed to have listened to the whole thing—and your humble correspondent has, if only to complete this review (thanks, Spotify!), and we did notice something like a classical melody seven minutes into side three—the only two claims that cannot be refuted are those of Lou himself, though he could’ve left the room at any time whilst recording or mixing, and Bob Ludwig, who had the privileged task of mastering it for release.
There are much more palatable recordings that incorporate feedback than Metal Machine Music, and noise rock remains a viable genre today. Just ask any fans of Sonic Youth or Limp Bizkit. The album has its fans, not least of them Lester Bangs, and it was even given an official CD release on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Sadly, digital technology could not replicate the original fourth side’s locked groove, which kept the sound going ad infinitum, or until the needle was lifted.

Lou Reed Metal Machine Music (1975)—1

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mott The Hoople 1: Mott The Hoople

While they’re best known for a song David Bowie gave them, Mott The Hoople had already recorded four albums and disbanded before that happened. Going back to those early albums for perspective, it’s easy to hear what Bowie heard in them, even if they weren’t for everybody.
Their self-titled debut begins with a raucous instrumental cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, with Mick Ralphs’ wah-wah taking the lead. That gives an idea of their power and volume, but it’s the next track (another cover) that demonstrates the template. “At The Crossroads” was originally recorded a few months earlier by the Sir Douglas Quintet, and Mott’s version uses the same template of guitar, bass, drums, piano and organ, with Ian Hunter’s drawl giving away shades of Dylan. It’s even more apparent on “Laugh At Me”, which had been Sonny Bono’s first solo hit; it starts tentatively and builds to a two-chord frenzy over six minutes, with voices chanting the band’s name a la the “woo-woo”s on “Sympathy For The Devil”. “Backsliding Fearlessly”, the first original song here, solidifies what we’re hearing: Blonde On Blonde crossed with Jimmy Miller’s Stones productions.
The Stones sound comes forward on “Rock And Roll Queen”, and may well have been an influence on “Bitch”. “Rabbit Foot And Toby Time” is a basic two-minute jam that bursts into “Half Moon Bay”, another lengthy variation on side one’s themes (piano arpeggios in 6/8) until about halfway through where it turns into a pseudo-classical fugue. This is why some say the band’s dual keyboards are more reminiscent of Procol Harum, another band named by producer Guy Stevens. Once that’s out of the way, it’s back to the original theme, played eternally through the fade. Finally, “Wrath And Roll” presents the last two minutes of the jam begun in “You Really Got Me”, ending with glorious cacophony.
Mott The Hoople doesn’t have a lot of variety, but sometimes rock ‘n roll has to be boneheadedly simple. If you need something complex, stare all you like at the Escher print used on the cover.

Mott The Hoople Mott The Hoople (1969)—

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bob Dylan 58: The Cutting Edge

Nearly a generation after it began, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series continues to answer the dreams of fans, while adding to their nightmares. For the third year in a row, the compilers confounded all expectations, upping the ante each time.
In the annals of rock, the eighteen months of creativity that resulted in Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde (as well as, by extension, the performance still referred to as the Albert Hall concert) are paralleled by few other artists. Outtakes from those albums have already been highlights of previous Bootleg Series installments, but now, in an astounding prequel to the complete Basement Tapes, and following three different “anniversary” or “copyright extension” collections, only with a lot more fanfare and easier availability, every recorded note of Dylan’s studio sessions in 1965 and 1966 has been presented to any discerning fan with six hundred bucks to spare. (Knowing full well that 18 CDs of multiple takes are too much for lots of people, there’s a six-CD distillation that still includes the complete evolution of “Like A Rolling Stone”, and a two-CD sampler that whittles 19 hours of tape down to two and a half.)
Unlike the Beatles, or Brian Wilson, who were busy pioneering their own recording techniques on different continents and coasts, Bob viewed the studio as another performance. Every song was recorded live, whether by himself or a room full of musicians. The lyrics would even change slightly, sometimes to match the dynamics of the song in progress. Overdubs or inserts were minimal, so whenever a take broke down, they started from the top. It becomes apparent why many takes were passed over for the ones that made the final cut, and the listener is often frustrated by hearing musicians from fifty years ago not quite getting the sound Bob hears in his head, and we’ve had imprinted on our brains.
That said, when the pistons were firing, Bob could work quickly. Bringing It All Back Home was recorded in three days, most of the first scrapped for later takes, often because they sound too much like Another Side Of Bob Dylan, which he was trying to get past. Two fine outtakes reappear here—“I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “Farewell Angelina”—and we hear his growing impatience with producer Tom Wilson. Amazingly, the false start of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” comes from day one, and tacked onto a band take from a day later. (And while Bob does laugh, the hooting we hear is Wilson.) He was also coming to grips with having a band trying to keep up with him; earlier stabs at “Mr. Tambourine Man” involve a drummer. Much time was spent on “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” in a bid for a pop hit, wisely left off the album.
Once paired with new producer Bob Johnston for Highway 61 Revisited, he was a little more productive, and that album was recorded in three chunks of sessions. He never did figure out what to do with “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence”, which always sounded like a pale copy of “Outlaw Blues”, but at least he found the germs of other lyrics in it. It’s nice to hear “Queen Jane Approximately” before the guitar went out of tune, and fun to hear everybody crack up at the first use of the police whistle on “Highway 61 Revisited”. We get to experience “Desolation Row” as it passes through several rock arrangements, any of which are worthy of the final product.
The guys soon known as The Band were part of the first sessions for Blonde On Blonde, where things like “Jet Pilot” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” were begun and abandoned. A couple of rocky “Visions Of Johanna” attempts still have promise, but a frustrating day spent on “She’s Your Lover Now” pretty much guaranteed why Bob never went back to it (though a few piano-based rehearsals predict the arrangement of “Dear Landlord”). Only Robbie Robertson was brought to Nashville, where local guys (directed by Al Kooper, or so he’d have us believe) helped whip the rest into place. Even that wasn’t easy going, as too many misfires on “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” prove, particularly the ones with the knock-knock-car horn-“who’s there” intro. Even “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was still in the running at this point, but ignored once “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” arose. Amazingly, six of the album’s 14 songs were nailed in the final 25-hour session.
The final disc of the massive set is devoted to hotel room recordings, as depicted in D.A. Pennebaker films of the time; the segments from 1966 are fascinating, with Bob finding his way through song ideas with Robbie. And those who bought the big package got an added bonus via download: 50th Anniversary Collection 1965 presented another 15 hours of music in the form of ten acoustic concerts, four partially electric concerts (including Levon Helm on drums before he bailed) and other performances. The two-CD “best of” will leave you wanting more, so the six-CD set just might fill the average appetite.

Bob Dylan The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 12 (2015)—4