Friday, May 22, 2015

Sting 12: The Last Ship

Following the lute album and the bone thrown at the Christmas market—plus a Police reunion in between—Sting continued to court irrelevance, first with an album and tour called Symphonicities, based around tepid symphonic arrangements of music that didn’t demand reinterpretation. Then came 25 Years, a box set that, outside of a DVD with a concert from 2005, offered zero rarities.
So while the groans the greeted the news that he’d written a Broadway musical weren’t exactly deafening, knowing that The Last Ship was partially inspired by The Soul Cages didn’t dispel the dread either. That said, it’s not bad, especially since we’ve long since stopped expecting anything from him.
The album (and subsequent stage production) explores the lives, loves and losses in a town in economic decline. Because he’s singing in character, we have to put up with lots of accents and voices that would serve the music better were they done straight, or at least without affectation. The title track is a good demonstration, a good melody, subdued arrangement but pompous, stagey delivery. But we’re a sucker for Northumbrian pipes, so the track wins. Not so the button accordion on “Dead Man’s Boots”. “And Yet” courts a cool pop arrangement with seagull effects, though something like “August Winds” is directly descended from his lute album. “Language Of Birds”, co-written with co-producer Rob Mathes, makes lyrical and musical references to soul cages and island of souls, but does not need the spoken interlude at all. “Practical Arrangement” was dropped for the show, and although it’s a pretty blatant stab at a “show tune”, it still works as a song.
The same can almost be said for “The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance”, which sounds a lot like the story-heavy songs Mark Knopfler still puts on his albums (and sings better, in his natural voice). The near-jig “Ballad Of The Great Eastern” is an ensemble composition, and gets better as it loses the generic touches, but there’s a story, so there’s more narration. It comes off as an aural setup for “What Have You Got”, a rousing knees-up (think “God That’s Good” from Sweeney Todd) featuring vocalist Jimmy Nail, who would star in the show itself. “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” is self-explanatory, but effective, and in the same vein as “So To Speak”, which is a duet (of course), only making us wish that Becky Unthank would sing the whole thing by itself. The closing reprise of the title track reminds us that it is, after, a show.
The Broadway version of the show has already closed, but if history tells us anything, The Last Ship will be flogged on other boards. (The deluxe version of the album alone will appeal to AC/DC fans, as it features among its five extra songs two vocal performances by Brian Johnson, without his trademark shriek.) It’s unlikely that Sting will ever do another “normal” album, and the mind shudders at the prospect of further musicals, but at least The Last Ship is tolerable, more so than anything else he’s done in the last twenty years.

Sting The Last Ship (2013)—3

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joni Mitchell 11: Mingus

Joni’s quest to be taken seriously as a musician hit a personal high when she began collaborating with legendary jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Although he died before their joint album could be finished, the irascible legend did provide her some music to embellish with lyrics and arrangements, resulting in the album named for him.
Mingus is as challenging as any post-Blue Joni album, leaning heavily on the contributions of players more commonly associated with the likes of Weather Report. The album begins with an audio-verité snippet from a birthday party, and various Mingus “raps” are inserted as transitions throughout the album. They do provide some context, with his spirited conversation contrasting with the mostly low-key fusion jazz.
“God Must Be A Boogie Man” is the first real song, Jaco Pastorius on bass with Joni’s guitar providing the rhythm, though the nasal group holler of the title sullies the mood. “A Chair In The Sky” is dominated at first by Herbie Hancock’s electric piano, but soon Wayne Shorter on sax joins the combo as the players (and singer) fill up the sound picture. At this point she can still hit those high notes too. “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsay” is percussively played on her acoustic, but the sound of wolves howling through it distracts from the vocals. It does provide something of an effect of playing your guitar out on the lonesome prairie. “Sweet Sucker Dance” is a lengthy poetic rumination, and the festivities finally pick up on “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines”, with a spirited horn arrangement by Jaco and Joni’s scat-style vocals. Arguably the most daring piece is the last, the now-standard “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” given new lyrics by Joni, sticking to the original melody.
“Dry Cleaner”, “The Wolf” and some of the raps aside, Mingus is an easy album to listen to, but difficult to retain. While nothing will have you reaching for the skip button (or tone arm), it demands patience, and sometimes that’s not possible.

Joni Mitchell Mingus (1979)—3

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tears For Fears 2: Songs From The Big Chair

If we had the knack of predicting what would be a hit song, we’d be a lot wealthier today. We’d also could’ve been able to explain how the second album by Tears For Fears became such a mega-success worldwide. And deservedly so.
A title like Songs From The Big Chair is just begging for interpretation, even after the photogenic duo (not quite as dreamy as Wham!, but still) explained that it was yet another reference to psychotherapy. Videos helped too, though it wasn’t until their third single that America (and MTV) took notice. Simply enough, in the two years since their debut, they’d progressed from a borderline techno outfit to a band, melding modern sounds with more organic ones.
A programmed drum pattern provides a few bars of restraint before “Shout” crashes in, its chorus repeated for maximum retention while a lengthy guitar solo sees the song out. (There’s a lot of guitar on this album, keeping the sound fresh.) A saxophone dominates “The Working Hour”, from the slow intro to the motifs between the verses. One of the few songs on the album that wasn’t a single, it’s a good bridge to “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”, which also uses guitar along with the programmed sounds. A sampled swell of strings introduces “Mothers Talk”, possibly the most dated track here, and arguably the low point.
The saxophone returns to color “I Believe”, an overwrought but still moving piano ballad that sets up the mini-suite that comes next. “Broken” is an upbeat dance track without vocals until the near end, bringing in a motif and quote from “Head Over Heels”, the third (and best) single with the wackiest video. The single version ends with the final “time flies”, but the album segues into a live excerpt of “Broken”. As the applause fades, “Listen” creeps in, the most experimental track lyrically, since there aren’t that many, not counting the Spanish phrase that these ears still hear as “comb-be-on-a-chickie-na-na-poopa-say”.
This is a cursory summary of the album, mostly because the best-known songs are so well known we can’t add much. But while the singles were all good, Songs From The Big Chair holds together very well as an album, a continuous listening experience. Its stature as one of the most popular albums of the ‘80s is displayed by its three reissues in three different decades—first adding a few B-sides as bonus tracks, then a two-CD Deluxe Edition with even more remixes and alternates, and most recently a Super Deluxe Edition with four CDs covering all the related songs in multiple versions (including live recordings and BBC performances) plus DVDs with 5.1 audio and video content. So if you can’t get enough of all those hit singles, have at it.

Tears For Fears Songs From The Big Chair (1985)—4
1999 remastered CD: same as 1985, plus 7 extra tracks
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1985, plus 20 extra tracks
2013 Super Deluxe 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1999, plus 44 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Replacements 2: Stink

Beginning with the sound of a hapless Minneapolis cop attempting to shut down a party, only to be rebuffed by a profane young Dave Pirner, this EP presents eight loud, mostly fast, punk examples of the Replacements’ current offerings. Keeping with their self-deprecating nature, they called it Stink, and made the cover look like they stamped it themselves, then stepped on the jackets.
Westerberg isn’t there yet, but he’s learning to be clever, following “F^ck School” two songs later with “God Damn Job”. “White And Lazy” and “Dope Smokin’ Moron” are pretty direct messages too, and if you listen long enough you can hear melodies and discern lyrics. “Kids Don’t Follow” and “Stuck In The Middle” are pop songs played very fast, “Go” has a passable groove (and most resembles an actual song), then “Gimme Noise” aptly slams everything shut.
If you’re looking for snotty hardcore, you can do worse than Stink. It is only 15 minutes long, which is good since that’s about the maximum tolerance for music of this ilk. Because everything gets expanded these days, the CD adds another 11 minutes, in the form of the centerfold tribute “Staples In Her Stomach”, covers of “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Rock Around The Clock”, and a solo demo of “You’re Getting Married” (referred to as “legendary” on the promo sticker), which almost sounds sensitive.

The Replacements Stink (1982)—2
2008 CD reissue: same as 1982, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, May 8, 2015

Smithereens 2: Green Thoughts

Their first album was something of a slow burner, so the Smithereens were able to keep the momentum going for their follow-up. Green Thoughts finds the boys mining familiar territory — harder power pop, with arrangements that skirt within a hair of outright plagiarism. In other words, just what the people wanted.
“Only A Memory” (its chorus stolen from the melody of Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock ‘N Roll Woman”) burns on a slow riff, and a similar sound drives “House We Used To Live In”. “Something New” cleverly takes its title and sound from American Beatles albums circa 1964, and its opening hook from the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” — all in less than two minutes. As sunny as that sounds, it’s still another song of heartbreak, as is “The World We Know”, another stomper, and perhaps another nod to the past, in this case a mid-‘60s Sinatra album. The moody “Especially For You” (which of course was the title of their first album) is built on piano and saxophone accents, and an effective side-closer.
Things turn back up on “Drown In My Own Tears”, something of a radio hit around certain parts. “Deep Black” has a cool near-Leslie guitar part playing off an acoustic, and is also a sunnier arrangement than the lyrics would suggest. You’d expect Pat DiNizio to write a song with a girl’s name in it, and that would be “Elaine”, where he reminds us yet again how lonely he is. The near-swirling production of “Spellbound” doesn’t go too overboard nicely uses the second middle-eight for a guitar solo, justifying its four-minute length. “If The Sun Doesn’t Shine” sports high harmonies and a tinkling harpsichord right out of the Beach Boys for welcome relief, and the closing title track provides another opportunity for a distinct riff.
Just as before, Don Dixon produced, echoing his work with R.E.M., and all the tracks on Green Thoughts are toe-tapping and hummable. Yet for all their homage to the “old days”, the album sports enough sheen to keep it sounding right up to date, and not dated today.

The Smithereens Green Thoughts (1988)—4

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Journey 3: Evolution

The only evolution on the album called Evolution is that Journey had a new drummer in jazz cat Steve Smith, Aynsley Dunbar having moved across San Francisco to pound the skins for Jefferson Starship. Otherwise, it’s the same formula that saved the band on the last album: arena-friendly anthems produced by Roy Thomas Baker.
There’s something of an overture in “Majestic”, a flutter of acoustic strings beaten aside by heavy chords and wordless vocals. “Too Late” is the requisite cautionary tale for one living too fast, too free, not to be confused with the dire warnings in “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”. On the original LP and some CDs the a cappella ending segues immediately to the similar opening for “City Of The Angels” (hey, it worked for the last album). “When You’re Alone (It Ain’t Easy)” says all it needs to say within and without the parentheses. Luckily, Steve Perry knew the importance of keeping things “Sweet And Simple”, and that song is a better use for his pen and high octaves.
As they were apparently paid by the apostrophe, “Lovin’ You Is Easy” doesn’t seem like much at first, but there are some good changes in the chorus, continued under the solo, and there’s a nice piano break too. “Just The Same Way” lets Gregg Rolie take a lead vocal, supported prominently by Perry until he elbows him aside for the bridge. “Do You Recall” doesn’t sound like it took that long to write, but just like side two of the last album we have a crossfade into the next track. “Daydream” is slower than the rest of the album, so it’s longer, and some of the synth patterns are more jarring than evocative. Finally, “Lady Luck” is a heavy track that’s better than its lyrics.
So again, Evolution is more of an affirmation, as Journey knew what would keep the cash rolling in. The singles were good, and some of the more boneheaded tracks don't hold water, but as long as they kept to the script they’d be fine. And they were.

Journey Evolution (1979)—3

Friday, May 1, 2015

Grateful Dead 1: The Grateful Dead

The official Grateful Dead catalog consists of 13 studio albums, with almost as many live albums and a couple of compilations released concurrently through 1995. Even before Jerry Garcia died that year, they’d already begun issuing live albums from the thousands of concerts already taped and traded by their rabid following, and today there are well over 100 different live titles available for physical purchase on CD, and/or streaming or download.
Navigating those waters without previous experience is nearly impossible, considering that they average about six “new” releases a year, with no chronological framework, and will likely keep doing so as long as people are around to buy them. A true Deadhead has to have everything, and that includes the original catalog described in the first line above. Many of those people have long since ingested those albums (no pun intended, but we’ll take it anyway), and by the band’s renaissance in the mid-‘80s, the cassette was the general platform for listening, being portable with room for a joint or a tab in the case too. The quality of a traded bootleg would vary, but the official albums provide a consistency for a framework, and that’s where we’re going to start. (Should an archival release supplement a previously existing document, we’ll mention that. After all, we’re here to help.)
Their self-titled debut is very much a product of its time, a psychedelic boogie jam mixing up blues, bluegrass, folk and rock ‘n roll, some genres more obvious than others. At this point they were a quintet, including members credited as Bill the Drummer, Pigpen, and Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia. A cheesy organ is as prominent as guitar, and the man who’d write most of their lyrics has yet to make the scene; most of the songs are covers, and they’d continue to lean on those and more for the rest of their career. Still, many elements of their sound are clearly in place, particularly the vocals and Phil Lesh’s distinctive bass.
“The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” should immediately conjure images of tie-dye and swirling dresses; very much a pop song, it ends on a chord of dissonance. Teenage Bob Weir takes over for Jesse Fuller’s “Beat It On Down The Line”, while Pigpen growls “Good Morning Little School Girl”. “Cold Rain And Snow” stands out for its spiraling guitar and organ lines, much better than the gallop through “Sitting On Top Of The World”. Garcia gets solo credit for writing “Cream Puff War”, with verses that sound to these ears like Arthur Lee.
“Morning Dew” was covered by a lot of people, and this is pretty much the standard arrangement, though Jerry gets just as worked up as anyone. “New, New Minglewood Blues” brings back the swirling blues, while “Viola Lee Blues” comes closest to the Dead their fans would come to love, starting with a simple blues structure, jamming on it for ten minutes, escalating in speed and slowing down for a resolution.
In the larger context, The Grateful Dead can easily be described as embryonic, if only because they hadn’t figured out how to translate their live sound to the studio. Most of the songs would remain staples of their shows, so it’s a good place to start. (The expanded CD, first released as part of a box set, restores some tracks to their unedited lengths and adds outtakes, an edit of “Viola Lee Blues” and a 23-minute live version of same.)

The Grateful Dead The Grateful Dead (1967)—3
2003 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 6 extra tracks