Friday, September 4, 2015

Smithereens 3: 11

The cover suggests a nod to the film Ocean’s Eleven (the Rat Pack one, years before the 21st century reboot) while most rock fans would take the title as a Spinal Tap reference. With 11, the Smithereens were able to keep up their track record three albums running.
As ever, it’s all about riffs, volume and melody, so “A Girl Like You” and “Blues Before And After” are pinned to muscular hooks. “Blue Period” sports a chamber pop string quartet, a harpsichord solo influenced by “In My Life” and—wait for it—Belinda Carlisle on harmonies. But good as they are, “Baby Be Good” and “Room Without A View” already sound like other Smithereens songs—“Listen To Me Girl” and “House We Used To Live In” respectively—a trend that becomes more apparent for the duration of the album.
“Yesterday Girl” is pretty snappy, even if it does share several elements with the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, which they already covered on their first EP. “Cut Flowers” is the only song on the album with a co-writing credit, and perhaps Jim Babjak’s input is what helps make the song so good. Some would suggest it’s the backing vocals by the Honeys, a group better known as Brian Wilson’s ex-wife, ex-sister-in-law and ex-cousin-in-law. Speaking of which, the name “William Wilson” is a cross between the California auteur and an Edgar Allen Poe protagonist, and it’s a pretty busy song for such an obscure narrative. Keeping with the retro references, “Maria Elena” was also the name of Buddy Holly’s wife, and while it references a few song titles, the catchiness is more Pat DiNizio than Holly. Despite the Beatles ‘65-style intro, “Kiss Your Tears Away” is a midtempo lullaby with a prominent Coral sitar.
There’s a lot to like on 11, but it’s not as strong as the first two, and not just because those had all the good ideas. Consumers thought differently, and bought enough copies of the album to keep the band on the road for another year.

The Smithereens 11 (1989)—3

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Replacements 3: Hootenanny

The Replacements were ever determined to wipe their noses in the direction of anyone who’d take them seriously. The cover graphics and liner notes on Hootenanny are a diversion tactic, demonstrated immediately by the shambolic title track, wherein the band members swap instruments.
From there it’s another see-saw ride between punk thrash and tuneful attempts at pop. “Run It” is about the joys of ignoring traffic signals, but “Color Me Impressed” is Paul Westerberg’s first great rock song, and “Willpower” demonstrates how they’d figured out dynamics in the studio (as demonstrated by “Go” on the Stink EP). And then there’s “Take Me Down To The Hospital”, a boogie shuffle with actual cries of pain. There’s a reference to blisters on fingers at the end, a good setup for the last song on the side. The credit for “Mr. Whirly” reads “mostly stolen”, and indeed, it begins with the intro of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, devotes a verse to “The Twist”, and finishes with an extemporaneous section devoted to the title sung to the tune of “Oh! Darling”.
Side two tries to cover more ground. Westerberg’s solo-with-drum-machine “Within Your Reach” was hailed at the time for its depth, but now it just sounds as dated as that drum machine. (And reminds one of the less wincey moments of Say Anything.) “Buck Hill” is a fairly competent instrumental, while “Lovelines” consists of Westerberg reading the personals, harmonized, over a cool groove. “You Lose” and “Hayday” straddle that see-saw, while the unamplified “Treatment Bound” comes closest to an actual hootenanny.
With just a little more polish, Hootenanny would be more than obnoxious, but they weren’t there yet. That’s why we can’t give it a passing grade. (The expanded CD gets points for adding “Lookin’ For Ya”, plus a fast remake of “Johnny’s Gonna Die” and a better rehearsed “Treatment Bound”.)

The Replacements Hootenanny (1983)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, August 28, 2015

Journey 4: Departure

In the tradition of one-word titles that meant nothing, Departure continued the successful Journey formula, even retaining the same lineup (for now anyway).
“Any Way You Want It” will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Caddyshack more than once; its arena bombast is taken down by “Walks Like A Lady”, a much more subdued track in an R&B shuffle, Neal Schon playing tastier licks than his usual high-speed flurries. Lest anybody forgot about him, Gregg Rolie sings lead on “Someday Soon”, with Steve Perry providing the counterpart, just like on Infinity. It’s a better mix than “People And Places”, where Neal takes the verse against Steve, while the Hammond organ conjures memories of Joe Cocker and Led Zeppelin. “Precious Time” pits “Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” guitar against harmonica, and nearly redeems the side.
Just as side one exploded from the first second, side two gets a great boost from the power-hitting “Where Were You”, which is needed before “I’m Crying”, an overwrought stomping weeper nicely elbowed out of the way by “Line Of Fire”. Here, all the instruments play the same melody as the vocal, in unison, but without sounding ponderous. The bridge still reminds us of “Lido Shuffle”, and we could do without the gunshot effect. The only real departure on the album is the title track, 38 seconds of ambient guitar layers in a different key to the similarly brief track it sets up, the orchestrated after-the-lovin’ plaint of “Good Morning Girl”. Presumably she heard this and determined to take off without eating breakfast, as it’s followed by “Stay Awhile”, shouted from the balcony of his pad at the back of her screeching car. Maybe she came back or he got over her long enough to string together the uncomfortable food metaphors in “Homemade Love”.
Despite having only one real hit single, Departure delivers equal doses of boogie and crooning to please the fans, with plenty of songs they’d take on tour. For its third CD reissue, there were two bonus tracks: “Natural Thing”, a wonderful leftover from the sessions featuring Steve’s best Sam Cooke impression later used as a B-side, and “Little Girl”, the most accessible song from Dream, After Dream, a 1980 soundtrack to a Japanese film nobody has ever seen, ever. Both had appeared on other compilations, but they fit very well here, both contextually and chronologically.

Journey Departure (1980)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Grateful Dead 2: Anthem Of The Sun

As the Dead gained notoriety for their free-form live performances, they faced the challenge of translating that energy to albums. Apparently they didn’t have the pull at the label to just release a live album, nor the technical ability to record something of releasable quality. Therefore, Anthem Of The Sun consisted of various live recordings edited and embellished in the studio, with all the locations dutifully listed on the back cover.
While the album can seem random at points, there is structure within. “That’s It For The Other One” begins with a plaintive Garcia melody, eventually exploding into a jam that leads into another melody led by Bob Weir, back to the Garcia part and ending with a very avant-garde collage of prepared piano and percussion. Because the track is listed as having four parts, the listener can have fun trying to guess where each one lies. The seamless transition to “New Potato Caboose”, another lengthy jam, might be hard to spot, while the shorter “Born Cross-Eyed” had been a single. Either way, without clear breaks between tracks, the listener might be surprised when the side ends.
Side two lists only two tracks, which were often played together anyway. “Alligator” sports a prominent kazoo at the start, which is gratefully retired not to far into the song. Piano from new member Tom Constanten better fills out the first half of the song, before the switch to a live performance, exhortations for audience members to clap their hands, instrumental solos and more consolidated boogie. Sharp ears will recognize the melody from Donovan’s “There Is A Mountain”, soon to be appropriated by the Allman Brothers. Despite its title, “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)” is possibly closest to the blues influences on the first album, being an extensive exploration on the single idea of something a gypsy woman said. It ends the album with extensive feedback, which would be a feature of future live albums, often listed as a separate track.
While ramshackle, Anthem Of The Sun does hold together as an album, hinting at how they really sounded in their true element. These songs would only develop further in performance, as the bonus tracks on the expanded CD demonstrate. (For those seeking the original shows that were used to make up the album, some of those have become officially available, and are listed below.)

The Grateful Dead Anthem Of The Sun (1968)—3
2003 CD reissue: same as 1967, plus 4 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick's Picks Vol. 22 (2001)
     • Download Series Vol. 6 (2005)
     • Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2 (2009)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rush 5: All The World’s A Stage

In the ‘70s, bands released double live albums. It was the law, and we can count on one hand the bands that didn’t conform.
For all their individual philosophies, Rush followed rules, and so All The World’s A Stage captures them in the wake of 2112 in front of an appreciative hometown crowd. They wisely begin with some of their more compact radio hits—“Fly By Night” somehow melding into “In The Mood”, complete with cowbell. The dynamics within “Lakeside Park” make a good transition to the abbreviated performance of the “2112” suite (which is just as well, since it’s unlikely they would have allowed Alex Lifeson to tune his guitar at length to approximate the “Discovery” section). Besides, they had to make way for twelve minutes’ worth of “By-Tor And The Snow Dog”. A medley of “Working Man” and “Finding My Way” sets a five-minute drum solo by Neil Peart, introduced by Geddy Lee as “The Professor”. Throughout, the sound is clean, Geddy’s Rickenbacker punching through the mix and the crowd’s cheering and whistling. If there’s an embarrassing moment on the album, it would only be the final seconds where we can hear the band “congratulating” each other for a great show, and slamming a door.
The band viewed All The World’s A Stage as a transition to their next chapter, which would likely be revealed soon enough. For now, they seemed to have found their way.

Rush All The World’s A Stage (1976)—3

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Paul Buchanan: Mid Air

Blue Nile fans have learned to take any crumb from the band whenever they can get it, since one never knows when we’ll hear from them again. But most songwriters insist that when the muse deigns to strike, it’s best to do what she says.
Paul Buchanan has long been the face and voice of the band, both musically and promotionally, so a solo album is a surprising move. Mid Air is a expectedly quiet set of sad songs, mostly based on the piano with very little ornamentation. Many of the songs sound alike, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. His lyrics have always been about mood more than meaning, and since there’s usually some sort of ache involved, the meaning becomes the mood.
The title track, “Half A World” and “Cars In The Garden” would have been welcome interludes on any Blue Nile album, while “Newsroom”, the shortest of these short songs, shows the first derivation from the same octave. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the percussion that isn’t on “Buy A Motor Car”, and “Two Children” manages to shift focus and delivery in each verse. “Tuesday” begins with a melody familiar from several Lionel Richie ballads, but he finds his own by the end of the first verse. The pretty instrumental “Fin De Si├Ęcle” provides a break from the spoken heartbreak, and “After Dark”, which tops out at a whopping four minutes, ends with a hint of his trademark “yeah yeah” and a touch of trumpet.
Mid Air seems like a set of demos, and that’s fine. That alone keeps it from falling victim to the comparatively heavy-handed production that made the last two Blue Nile albums less than perfect. If the fourteen tracks here aren’t enough, one can always seek out the double-disc version, which adds another ten variations and exclusives. And if eight years is all we have to wait for another album from Paul Buchanan, so be it. Hopefully he’ll still be around.

Paul Buchanan Mid Air (2012)—3

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bruce Springsteen 17: Devils & Dust

After thirty years in the business, Bruce Springsteen was finally confident to follow his own path, wherever it took him. While predominantly solo and acoustic, Devils & Dust isn’t as easily shoehorned into the same category as Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, but it would likely feel that way for anybody who jumped back on the bandwagon after The Rising. Chances are, however, they’d get into this album faster.
What helps is the sequencing, so that there’s never danger of getting stuck in a rut. The title track builds from a quiet strum to a fleshed-out track, leading well into the driving rock in “All The Way Home”. It’s a startling switch to the dusty landscape and blatant sex in “Reno”, and back to the more conventional “Long Time Comin’” (wherein he still intends to “get buck naked”). “Black Cowboys” and “Maria’s Bed” stay on the quiet side, until the latter bursts its seams with mandolins, chanted backup vocals and a country echo of “Mary’s Place”.
The second half of the album isn’t as well-paced, staying mostly within the same tempo and intensity. “Silver Palomino” continues the country theme, and there’s something in “Jesus Was An Only Son” that sounds like Tom Waits. “Leah” is a simple love song, and “The Hitter” seems most like a descendant of Nebraska, with the boxer talking to his ma. One song with a lot of potential is “All I’m Thinkin’ About”, another love song but sung in a near-falsetto with a hushed backing. Just as hushed, but more complicated, is “Metamoros Banks”, following a traveler’s journey backwards, so Bruce says, from his demise to the hope that made him set out.
Devils & Dust succeeds as a departure from the Springsteen norm. Only one E Streeter is here, and it isn’t Clarence, while his main foil is co-producer Brendan O’Brien. Steve Jordan plays whatever drums are heard, and of course Patti’s everywhere. It takes a while to sink in, but ultimately satisfies.

Bruce Springsteen Devils & Dust (2005)—