Friday, April 29, 2016

Genesis 11: Duke

Epic songs were becoming a thing of the past for a lot of bands, and Genesis found a way to rely on their pop sensibilities in order to stay fluid. Some prog tendencies bled over onto Duke, their second full album as a trio—the first three songs are segued musically, and the closing instrumentals reprise earlier themes—but now they’re writing songs that only seem to mean something, and keeping an ear on the pop charts. Nearly all of the songs deal with heartbreak, loneliness or isolation in general.
“Behind The Lines” is a wonderful fanfare, sporting the grand keyboards and dominant bass drone familiar from “Watcher Of The Skies”, with some nice guitar wailing too. The verse could be called funky, and some have, but notice how Phil doubles his voice with a falsetto, and get used to it. A drum machine tinkles out of the song’s fade, leaving Tony’s new digital piano to find its way to a main theme for “Duchess”, and real drums join in to drive the before, during and after story of a onetime singing star. The music’s better than the lyrics, and as the star fades, the drum machine keeps ticking, setting up the brief, sad “Guide Vocal”. Mike Rutherford’s penchant for odd rhythms makes “Man Of Our Times” sound more complicated than it is. Here also is the first instance of Phil singing “tonight, tonight”, as he would for the rest of the century. The chorus makes the song work. “Misunderstanding” was the catchy hit single, but nobody has pointed out that not only is the subject matter nearly identical to that of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain”, but even the main chord progression is a minor variation on the same tune. “Heathaze” is pretty in parts, but goes on too long and is hard to understand.
Almost like a reset button, “Turn It On Again” is a side-starter of power, providing enough weirdness from the old days with an unavoidable hook. “Alone Tonight”, one of the few woe-is-me tracks here not written by Phil, is a little too direct; “Please Don’t Ask” two songs later is even more so, but the music matches the pathos. “Cul-De-Sac” provides some pompous pomp, but the big guns are reserved for the closing not-really-a-suite. With a wash of cymbals and phased guitars not heard since 1974, “Duke’s Travels” then moves to a third-world pattern and then a more straight rhythm that manages to reprise the sole verse of “Guide Vocal” and then an adaptation of “Behind The Lines” suggested by the “Dance Of The Puppets” section of “The Court Of The Crimson King”. (How’s that for carrying the prog torch?) Finally, “Duke’s End” takes us all the way back to that initial fanfare.
With Duke, Genesis was approaching the mainstream. Never really wild men anyway, they’d soon find their way even closer to worldwide domination. The ‘80s were about to change a lot of things.

Genesis Duke (1980)—

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Prince 1: For You

It took a while for Prince to prove himself as the musical genius he knew he was, but he makes a bold statement with his debut album. For You begins with the lush chorale of a title track, several voices layered, all him. In fact, as it would be going forward, he “produced, arranged, composed and performed” the entire contents of the album, at the age of only 19. The original inner sleeve even went ahead and detailed the instruments used on each track.
One-man bands always inspire at least an eyebrow raise, and sometimes they even impress. With its late-‘70s studio production, it’s far from a glorified demo. Much of the album is right in line with disco-funk, dominated by a falsetto voice. “In Love” is heavily synth-driven, with an almost puppy love lyric; maybe he wanted to get that out of the way before the more provocative “Soft And Wet”. The one time he displays a deep voice leaps out of the track. “Crazy You” is brief, smooth and jazzy, and a good diversion before the danceable “Just As Long As We’re Together” is extended to a six-minute jam.
The kid knew how to program albums, so “Baby” kicks off the second side with a strong intro before moving into more of a romantic slow jam with swirling string parts. “My Love Is Forever” covers the same lyrical territory, and is back in line with the dance tracks on side one, but lets a few guitar solos through. Which brings us to “So Blue”, with a hammered bass and acoustic harmonics intro that seems to predict some of the more upbeat Windham Hill albums, and turns into another jazzy piece. He turns the guitars back up for “I’m Yours”, making the track much more aggressive than the lyrics suggest. (“Never have I ever made love before.” Good to know.)
For You is competent, though not striking. Outside of “Soft And Wet”, there’s nothing really “decadent” here, none of the words R abbreviated, and God is the 1st 2 B thanked. (Sorry.) Beyond that, variety would make a difference, and he’d get going on that soon enough.

Prince For You (1978)—

Friday, April 22, 2016

Replacements 5: Tim

Unlike other bands of the time, The Replacements made the leap from indie to major label without losing strength. Tim may look low-budget on the surface, but Paul Westerberg’s songs continued to improve.
If there’s any complaint with the album, it’s the sound. Originally they wanted to work with Alex Chilton, but ended up finishing it with Tommy Ramone. As great as the songs are, the mix sounds rushed and thin. Still, the overt punk thrashers and speedcore jokes of the Twin/Tone years have been left behind in favor of tighter songs. (If you really want more of the ‘Mats at their sloppiest, The Shit Hits The Fans was a limited-release official bootleg, mastered from a Maxell tape, and made available solely on cassette, with apologies. Most of the songs are covers, aborted mid-strum and incomplete due to lack of interest or memory.)
Tim is loaded with classics, beginning with “Hold My Life” and the Chuck Berry flavors in “I’ll Buy” and “Kiss Me On The Bus” (dig the sleigh bells on the last chorus through the end). Where previous country pastiches were too close to juvenile, “Waitress In The Sky” is as clever as it is well-played, and may sound strange to anyone who doesn’t remember when you could smoke on an airplane. “Bastards Of Young” is another in a series of personal theme songs and musical mission statements. If that’s Bob Stinson playing the solo, it’s one of his best. “Left Of The Dial” manages to celebrate college radio, life on the road and long-distance infatuation via a glorious wall of guitars. Equally empathetic is “Little Mascara”, with a good hook and an initially incongruous but ultimate fitting guitar solo.
The songs chosen to close each side are striking. While both are somewhat losers’ anthems, “Swingin Party” looks for solidarity amidst shared discomfort, while “Here Comes A Regular” underscores that even among daytime drunks, each one is on his own. The instrumentation has a lot to do with the messages. “Party” is a band performance; every now and then Westerberg’s voice sounds like Joe Strummer’s in similar environments, and Tommy Stinson’s bass is particularly inventive here. “Regular” is strummed slowly on a high-capoed acoustic, with only the slightest mournful ornamentation over the fade.
They’re not all winners—“Dose Of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” are loud for the sake of being loud, but serve to elevate its brothers, and are mild blips in what is overall a terrific album. Tim has remained a favorite among fans, and can even be credited for the otherwise mystifying appeal of the Goo Goo Dolls. Chances are Johnny Rzeznik snapped up a copy of the Rhino reissue for the bonus tracks, while include include two outtakes of “Can’t Hardly Wait”, one acoustic, one electric (the latter is better), a louder and faster “Kiss Me On The Bus”, and “Nowhere Is My Home”, a terrific track criminally left off the album in the first place.

The Replacements Tim (1985)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1985, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Journey 6: Escape

Remember how they were Captured? Here’s their daring Escape. When it comes to fine cheese, Journey broke the mold, setting the bar for a brand-new decade. Besides inspiring the occasional “E5C 4P3” license plate, this album is chock full of arena-friendly hooks guaranteed to get you shaking your feathered hair.
Let’s do the math—“Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Stone In Love” put your fists in the air. “Who’s Crying Now” and “Open Arms” have you sobbing into your wine cooler. And then there’s the social commentary of “Mother, Father” and the ultimate secret weapon, the still underappreciated “Still They Ride”.
And those are just the singles. Inspired by newcomer Jonathan Cain on the keyboards, Steve Perry and Neal Schon found a guy who could help them craft powerful pop, while still giving room for Neal to shred to his heart’s content. Cain was a competent harmonizer too, but from here on out it’s Perry’s voice that dominates, so no more duets a la Gregg Rolie.
Side one has four of the above singles, but also contains “Keep On Runnin’”, heavy on the riffing and walls of vocals. Side two blows open with the title track, loaded with unconventional chord voicings and tricky time jumps. “Lay It Down” is more style than substance, Perry yodeling a bit too much against the riff. “Dead Or Alive” is just too busy, and something of a rewrite of the much better (and funnier) “Line Of Fire”. And while “Mother, Father” can be a tad melodramatic, the middle solo section is a striking counterpart, and the final minute or so of the track, with its subdominant chords and impossibly high notes, brings chills.
The album always ended with “Open Arms”, which will inspire memories of high school slow dances and the final scene of the most realistic teen sex comedy ever made, The Last American Virgin. Today the expanded CD has four more tracks: the B-side “La Raza Del Sol”, a rock-salsa hybrid that’s not very convincing, and live versions of the album’s three biggest hits recorded on that tour.
If you didn’t get Escape then, you won’t get it now. Lest you wanted something with more balls, back then there was also Loverboy and REO Styxkansas, with dreamy singers and fast-fingered guitarists, who combined with Journey to be the unwitting pioneers of a genre called melodic rock. As it’s not too far from hair metal, you can have it. We’ll take this album. At top volume.

Journey Escape (1981)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1981, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, April 15, 2016

Rush 7: Hemispheres

When we last left the intrepid hero of “Cygnus X-1”, he was spinning through a black hole, both in the story as well as the center of the label of the album. Rush didn’t leave fans hanging for long, devoting the entire first side of Hemispheres to “Cygnus X-1: Book II”.
And what does somebody find on the other side of a black hole? Mount Olympus, of course, where Apollo and Dionysus rule each half of the brain. (Hence the album title, and cover.) Such extremes in loyalty threaten to incite a battle comparable to Armageddon, or so the lyrics would have us believe. The weary traveler’s “silent scream” shakes the opponents out of their stubbornness, and he is anointed “Cygnus, the God of Balance”.
All this happens within the space of 18 minutes, five banded sections of six parts, musically tighter than anything they’ve done yet. This half of the story is also not as tense as the other, even during the “battle”. Synthesizers creep further in, dominating the track from the start, expanding the palette and vista. There’s even a moment of bass harmonics that foreshadow a future favorite, making this album certainly appealing to new fans going backwards.
Few bands still active after a decade of prog suites were still writing them, so in addition to closing the book (sorry) on Cygnus, side two sets up the future pretty well. “Circumstances” is straightforward rock, laden with self-analysis. The kids really liked “The Trees”, from its nursery-rhymey lyrics, intricate guitar picking and tuned wood blocks. It also introduces a key element heretofore buried in their liner notes: humor. This truly comes forth in the album’s finale. While another lengthy instrumental, “La Villa Strangiato” is split in to twelve sections, with such subtitles as “A Lerxst In Wonderland”, “Monsters!”, “The Waltz Of The Shreves” and “A Farewell To Things”—all in-jokes destined to become more elaborate in time. But the piece truly flows, with well-paced dynamics, alternately rocking and sometimes silly. Even the casual listener will recognize the melody of the “Monster!” sections from plenty of classic cartoons.
The balance and restraint on side two help offset the indulgences of side one; for instance, the big flourish after Cygnus is anointed as a god should have ended the suite, but for a quiet postlude better suited to Shakespearean performances than an album side. Nowadays, people will likely stream Hemispheres or listen to the disc in one pass; even so, the structure the band intended has been preserved due to the first half being one long piece.

Rush Hemispheres (1978)—

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Grateful Dead 4: Live/Dead

As far back as the jamming demonstrated by “That’s It For The Other One” on Anthem Of The Sun, the Grateful Dead had been busy developing other suites of songs that also couldn’t be contained by the studio or album format. Luckily for them, by 1969 the double album wasn’t such a luxury, and other bands were issuing live recordings. Hence, Live/Dead was not only an obvious title, but a good place to put their latest opuses.
Everybody in a band has to listen to the other players at all times, and the Dead demonstrated that. When the jams worked, they worked well, and despite all the criticism the band has gotten over the years, they were talented musicians, intuitive and creative together. “Dark Star” stretches for 23 minutes, and although the first few minutes do sound like they’re tuning up as they go, they sail through various peaks and valleys together. Onstage the tune found its way to “St. Stephen”, familiar from the last album, but extended and including a set of lyrics leading into “The Eleven”. This mysterious title becomes less so when one realizes it comes from the piece being in 11/8, not as difficult to boogie to if you try—just think of “Whipping Post”.
That’s a good place for Pigpen to step forward and belt out “Turn On Your Love Light” for 15 minutes. Once a hit single for Bobby Bland, it’s more familiar to kids today who learned it from the six-minute edit on the Dead hits album everybody had. That edit might be preferable for listeners who only take so much Pigpen. While it may be a little slow for those already asleep, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is a good demonstration of their skill on non-standard changes, and seven minutes of mildly controlled “Feedback”, eventually becoming more palatable in time for the harmonized benediction “And We Bid You Goodnight”.
Even given its freeform roots, Live/Dead is their best album yet, truly showing their strengths and what made the music so attractive. Rather than conforming their approach to the album format, the Dead found a way for to make the reverse happen. It’s probably not enough to convince anyone who can’t stand the band, but it’s a lot more inviting that the previous three studio creations.
Having to flip record or tape sides is always a bummer, but digital technology made it possible for Live/Dead to be experienced in one continuous flow. Already a nearly full CD, the eventual remaster had room for only two bonuses: the studio version of “Dark Star” released as a single, and a truly twisted radio ad for the album. (Sadly, the pretty lyrics insert from the original vinyl is not included.) Meanwhile, those seeking the complete shows whence the album came will have some digging ahead of them. The source for “The Eleven” and “Love Light” isn’t available officially as of this writing; everything else can be found throughout the ten-CD version of Fillmore West 1969. And of course, there’s more from that particular period.

The Grateful Dead Live/Dead (1969)—
2003 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 2 extra tracks
         Archival releases of same vintage:
         Live At The Fillmore East 2-11-69 (1997)
         Dick's Picks Vol. 26 (2002)
         Fillmore West 1969: The Complete Recordings (2005)
         Download Series Vol. 12 (2006)
         Road Trips: Vol. 4, No. 1: Big Rock Pow Wow ’69 (2010)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Oasis 1: Definitely Maybe

Once a band has passed into notoriety, it can be tough to go back to their beginnings with an open mind. But a glance through the booklet of Definitely Maybe, the first CD by Oasis, all of their personality is right there: the mod haircuts and styles, Liam Gallagher in a pugilistic pose or staring something down, Noel Gallagher playing guitar and/or mouth-breathing, both Gallaghers looking down their noses, and the other guys sitting around.
The so-called Britpop war hadn’t become a thing yet, so it’s possible to just enjoy the album as a solid collection of songs written by Noel Gallagher. If the legend is true, he heard Liam’s band rehearsing, told them their songs were awful, and promptly took over their repertoire. To his credit, or maybe proof he wasn’t a complete egomaniac, he knew Liam was the cute one, with a nasal whine comparable to Johnny Rotten’s in attitude (turning words like “sunshine” into four syllables), and let him remain the frontman while he stayed on the sidelines playing leads along the other guitarist and bass player, all three staring at their left hands on their fretboards.
The man could write catchy songs, with lyrics more designed to fit than mean anything—after all, the Bee Gees pulled that off for decades—to the point where the ones he stole weren’t immediately apparent. Only after you’ve given up what “Shakermaker” is supposed to be about do you realize that it’s the melody from “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”. More obvious is the T.Rex “Get It On” riff in “Cigarettes & Alcohol”, but Marc Bolan stole that from Chuck Berry anyway.
But depth isn’t everything when the tunes are right there. “Cigarettes & Alcohol” is terrific, and Rod Stewart even covered it a few years later in that brief period when he remembered he used to rock. The message in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” and “Live Forever” is pretty straightforward, so the arrangements make them even more memorable. “Live Forever” gets its boost from the falsetto tag on the choruses as well as the subtle piano buried in the mix (played either by Noel or their rhythm guitarist, consistently credited as “Bonehead”). There’s a truly dotty piano on the break for “Digsy’s Diner”, a song now called “Digsy’s Dinner”. “Up In The Sky” beats the same four-note riff into your head for four minutes, and kudos to whoever decided to add an acoustic guitar to those choruses.
The album was only a few years removed from the Stone Roses, EMF and other perpetuators of the Manchester beat, so “Columbia” and “Supersonic” placed back to back don’t have anyone missing original drummer Tony McCarroll much. “Bring It On Down” shows him off a little better, but by now the overall murk of reverb and tambourine can cause a headache. “Slide Away” recycles a lot of the motifs we’ve heard already for too long, so the acoustic busk of “Married With Children” provides some hope for their future.
Most of Definitely Maybe ended up as singles or B-sides before or after the album came out, so it’s clear they were going for quality. All of those singles had live versions, demos and other tracks from the sessions, which can now be found among the 33 extra tracks collected on 2014’s deluxe three-CD reissue. Some of those feature Noel instead of Liam, giving something of an alternate history. Plus, there’s “Whatever”, a stopgap single before their next album, that both predicts “Don’t Look Back In Anger” and rips off “How Sweet To Be An Idiot” by Neil Innes.

Oasis Definitely Maybe (1994)—