Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Frank Zappa 31: You Are What You Is

In between tours, Frank installed a state-of-the-art studio in the basement of his house, and proceeded to spent most of his time there. The first album recorded (or at least finished) at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen was You Are What You Is, four sides of snide commentary on the state of America under the new Reagan regime. (No points for guessing he wasn’t in favor of much of it.)
Picking on dumb kids was old hat for Frank, and “Teen-age Wind” updates it to the era where they’d sniff glue, follow Grateful Dead concerts and even “go to a midnite show of 200 Motels!” And who should turn up in the next track but Jimmy Carl Black in his Lonesome Cowboy Burt guise, claiming to be “Harder Than Your Husband” (“to get along with”). As a country pastiche it’s far too complicated chord-wise. “Doreen” is basically a doo-wop song sped up and translated to a hard rock arrangement; one wonders if a “straight” version exists. “Goblin Girl” used to get occasional radio play around Halloween, but if any program directors listened to the actual lyrics they might have thought twice. The end of the track has some bits of “Doreen” layered on top, with some “pachuco” references from old Mothers albums, then it’s a quick cut to “Theme From The 3rd Movement Of Sinister Footwear”, a complicated guitar solo subsequently overdubbed.
Side two is a suite of sorts, beginning as another satire along the lines of “Dancin’ Fool” but takes a tragic turn before ending with more irreverence. “Society Pages” describes a doyen of suburbia, whose son would grow up to proclaim, “I’m A Beautiful Guy”. The Greek chorus reminds him that “Beauty Knows No Pain”, but he’s preoccupied with “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth”. Modeled on the woman from a one-time perfume commercial who also shovels a certain substance into her similarly oversized nose, leading to her premature demise and interment, where her vapid friends stand around asking “Any Downers?” (It’s too bad, as it’s a good riff.) Somehow Frank manages to tie this to a celebration of the “Conehead”, as seen on Saturday Night Live. The title track got some attention when its video was glimpsed on an episode of Beavis & Butthead—the original clip wouldn’t have been aired back in the day, given its depiction of Reagan in an electric chair and lyrics about “white” guys trying to be “black” and vice versa. Somehow this leads into “Mudd Club”, already immortalized by Talking Heads, played in a style hemispheres away than the music normally associated with the place. Somehow he decides that this would be a good place to lambaste the church (and the government) in “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”—a great track on its own—which continues on “Dumb All Over”, an extended rap in a mild Central Scrutinizer voice.
Even his concept couldn’t be contained on one side, so we get more of that final chant at the top of “Heavenly Bank Account”, which predicts a decades’ worth of crooked televangelists. Somehow this leads to a portrait of a “Suicide Chump”, who wants to end it all but is too scared to. A savior arrives in the form of an overweight girl, of whom the young man quickly tires and threatens to pummel; hence the refrain of “Jumbo Go Away”. “If Only She Woulda” works in the two most common chords from “Light My Fire” as a bridge explaining how the chump’s life got even worse. “Drafted Again” is an adaptation of a Zappa single from the year before, notable now for featuring the vocal stylings of 14-year-old Moon Zappa and six-year-old Ahmet.
Most Zappa fanatics seem to think well of You Are What You Is. These days it sounds very slick, even coming from the days before digital recording took its hold on Frank. Steve Vai is all over the album, providing a distraction from the negativity. Many of the tracks could stand find by themselves, but by insisting on weaving everything together (you know, ‘cos he was such a genius at “conceptual continuity”) they don’t get enough of a chance to breathe. Somehow.

Frank Zappa You Are What You Is (1981)—

Friday, March 17, 2017

Talking Heads 1: 77

Say the name “Talking Heads” and most people will think of a sweaty guy in a big white suit. David Byrne was indeed the voice and face of the band for most of their tenure, often to the detriment of other members. The rhythm section was (and still is) married to each other: self-taught bass player Tina Weymouth and mighty white drummer Chris Frantz. An early secret weapon was Jerry Harrison, who not only played guitar and keyboards, but brought some true indie cred being an original member of the Modern Lovers.
Talking Heads weren’t punk per se, and new wave hadn’t been coined yet, but their angular attack on the pop music form fit right alongside Television in the CBGB scene, forming a perfect square with the Ramones and Blondie. As is the case with many bands starting out, their first album stands somewhat apart from what would come after, mostly because they hadn’t landed on a certain producer yet.
Throughout Talking Heads: 77, David Byrne twitches, yodels and hiccups his way through lyrics that could best be described as “quirky”, sometimes hitting the notes, too. Even four decades later, it’s hard to tell if his persona is manufactured or authentic. (See? Rivers Cuomo isn’t such an innovator after all.)
The music is equally quirky, and sometimes just plain goofy. Even past its title, “Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town” features a steel drum solo. “New Feeling” pogoes along while David has a conniption, while “Tentative Decisions” starts slinky before finding a military march and singalong chorus of sorts. “Happy Day” follows the same musical structure of verse, pre-chorus and chorus, but with dreamy keyboards and bells, and one still expects the same lyrics on the chorus. For simple geek rock, it’s tough to beat “Who Is It?”, made more striking when followed by “No Compassion”, which seems to stop about three times before its actual end.
Side two seems to have more immediately catchy tracks, beginning with “The Book I Read”, which could even pass for a love song. “Don’t Worry About The Government” is more along the lines of a stereotypical Byrne lyric, even with the trilling mandolin effect. “First Week/Last Week… Carefree” utilizes marimbas and percussion for a quasi-tropical sound, with a saxophone that seems to predict Haircut 100, and a prominent “i-yi-yi-yi” hook that is used much better on the next track. That would be “Psycho Killer”, still the best song on the album and the best use of both Byrne persona and band sound. Whatever concern any listener may get from that dark portrait is easily brushed aside by the infectious silliness of “Pulled Up”.
Talking Heads: 77 does improve with familiarity, and there are people out there who think this is one of the greatest debuts by any band ever. Personally, we’re more into Television. (True to tradition, their first single wasn’t included on their first album, but today you can get an expanded CD that includes “Love -> Buildings On Fire” and marvel at the mariachi horns, along with some other B-sides and outtakes.)

Talking Heads Talking Heads: 77 (1977)—3
2005 CD reissue: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Smithereens 6: God Save The Smithereens

Towards the end of last century, new record labels were popping up left and right. Some were subsidiaries of the majors, and despite their best intentions would be all but wiped out once the majors began consolidating. But many were affiliated with some of the more independent distributors, and were run by music geeks who wanted to give some of their old heroes a fresh outlet.
One of these labels was Velvel, which began as a vanity label for the former head of Columbia Records, but soon spearheaded some comprehensive Kinks reissues. It also released Pat DiNizio’s little-heard solo album, and greenlit a new full-fledged Smithereens album.
After five years of no hits, constant gigging, and quite possibly the detour provided by that solo album, God Save The Smithereens isn’t a complete return to form, but wisely avoids any gimmicks. It’s simply a pile of tracks that sound like the band, with crackling drums, loud guitars, and DiNizio’s usual dour croon. “She’s Got A Way” gets a spirited backing the title deserves, before the left turn of “House At The End Of The World”, a collaboration with the otherwise little-known Carrie Akre. “Everything Changes”, “Flowers In The Blood” and “Someday” follow the usual sad path, but “The Long Loneliness” hints at something more upbeat. It’s probably as slow as it is, as any faster it would end up a lot shorter than 1:39.
There’s something a little jazzy about “The Age Of Innocence”, and not just because of the trombone and its being followed by a take on “Gloomy Sunday”. “I Believe” is up there with any of their best tunes, and “All Revved Up” manages to evoke the Beach Boys without being obvious. “Even If I Never Get Back Home” has a nice backwards guitar part at the end, and both “Try” and “The Last Good Time” deviate just enough to sound fresh (for them), sporting chords that hint at dissonance but manage to work.
Given the fluctuating appeal of power pop at that time, God Save The Smithereens could have been welcomed, and even a hit. It wasn’t. The band wouldn’t release a new album for several years, save a few gimmicks we may or may not get to. (For no reason we can determine, the album was reissued in a Deluxe Edition some six years later, augmented not only by some unreleased demos, but Pat DiNizio’s album on a second disc, with live performances and demos tacked at the end of that.)

The Smithereens God Save The Smithereens
 (1999)—3
2005 Deluxe Edition: same as 1999, plus 27 extra tracks

Friday, March 10, 2017

Brian Eno 5: Live Collaborations

Some would call it a short attention span, while others would insist that it was part of his quest for something new, but the truth of the matter is that Brian Eno didn’t stay in one place for long. From time to time he’d be coaxed onto a stage, even going on a brief tour with a backup band supporting his first album. Bootlegs of usually short lengths go in and out of circulation, lately under the title Dali’s Car; of most interest is an early version of “I’ll Come Running” with different lyrics, based on a riff out of “Baby’s On Fire”.
Soon afterwards, attracted by the other performers involved, Eno took part in a one-off showcase featuring singer-guitarist Kevin Ayers, as well as John Cale and Nico, both late of Eno’s beloved Velvet Underground. The performance by the combo (dubbed ACNE from their collective surnames, an acronym sure to appeal to Eno’s fondness for wordplay) was released later in the year as June 1, 1974. Eno starts the album with “Driving Me Backwards” and “Baby’s On Fire”, supported by Cale and Ayers’ backing band, and sticks around for Cale’s dark cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” and Nico’s even more harrowing take on the Doors’ “The End”, with only her see-sawing harmonium below her voice. The other side of the album is devoted to Ayers, whose voice has its own issues with pitch. (Not included on the album was Nico’s rendition of the German national anthem, including the verses usually left out following the demise of the Nazis.)

Following some appearances with Robert Fripp, Eno’s next high-profile extracurricular performances were with a group headed by fellow Roxy Musician Phil Manzanera. The 801 got their name from an Eno song lyric, and he takes the lead vocal on the majority of 801 Live. The suitably somber “Lagrima” leads into “TNK”, a wonderfully arranged cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, followed by two rearranged pieces from the Manzanera catalog, dovetailing into Eno’s own “Sombre Reptiles”. “Baby’s On Fire” gets a funky makeover, complete with the aforementioned riff, before Phil’s “Diamond Head” instrumental from the album of the same name. A crash through “Miss Shapiro” from the same album leads into the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, and it all comes down to a reverent “Third Uncle”.
Of the two, 801 Live is pretty solid, and more accessible to a broad audience than the cult sounds of Ayers, Cale and Nico. While the 1974 show has yet to be expanded, the 801 has been upgraded twice: first to add two more Eno songs between what were sides one and two, and again with a bonus disc of rehearsals from a few days earlier.

Kevin Ayers–John Cale–Eno–Nico June 1, 1974 (1974)—3
801 801 Live (1976)—
1999 CD reissue: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2009 Collector’s Edition: same as 1999, plus 12 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Tears For Fears 7: Saturnine Martial & Lunatic

Before the expanded CD reissue became ubiquitous, the rarities album was the common (not to mention cheapest) method for gathering various castoffs outside of a band’s more easily acquirable releases. The Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. are just a few artists whose “B-sides” albums rank up with their better work, but the arithmetic doesn’t always compute for everyone.
Saturnine Martial & Lunatic arrived at an odd time for Tears For Fears fans, released by the label that dropped them before another label released the album they’d finished, which didn’t exactly set the world on simmer. And while TFF had amassed a pile of rarities over the years, there’s usually a reason why something is a B-side. For example, “The Big Chair” isn’t the lost title track from that album, but an instrumental experiment featuring sound bites from the movie Sybil, which inspired it. A little better is “When In Love With A Blind Man”, but only because it shares a melody and piano part with “The Working Hour”. “Pharaohs” seems like another odd experiment, but turns out to be a slow instrumental of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” with a shipping forecast on top.
A third of the tracks come from the Roland-only era, like “New Star”, even made it to a movie soundtrack. And it wouldn’t be a rarities collection without wacky covers—in this case, “Sad Song” by Robert Wyatt and Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” in a carbon copy. But by including some very self-deprecating liner notes and ending with “The Way You Are”, a top 30 single they didn’t even include on their hits album because they hated it so much, the overall mood here is an album that can be left aside.

Tears For Fears Saturnine Martial & Lunatic (1996)—2

Friday, March 3, 2017

Sting 13: 57th & 9th

Surprise! Sting rocks again! Dreams come true! Prayers are answered!
All this would be cause for celebration if electric guitar and drums permeated throughout 57th & 9th, but they don’t. While they are more prominent for the first time in 20 years, they still take a back seat to his close-miked breathy voice, which in hindsight has been one of the real problems of most of his work in this century.
Case in point: both “50,000” and “Down, Down, Down”—tracks 2 and 3—begin with driving riffs and steady rhythms, but he pulls the plug on the momentum with each verse, only turning it up on the choruses. And the chorus of “Down, Down, Down” is a little too close to that of the opening track, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” (which makes reference to “a winter’s night”, which is either coincidence or a particularly snarky reference to a previous album).
If it sounds like we’re picking on the guy, it’s because he should know better. For all his talk of the “spontaneity” that went into this album of “rock ‘n roll”, it still sounds just as labored as his efforts to write a song in 9/8 or in French. While the first three tracks have moments, we have to wait until “One Fine Day” for an effortlessly, thoroughly catchy tune, albeit one about the endangered environment. “Pretty Young Soldier” is musically smooth as well, even if the lyric about a medieval woman enlisting with not-so-ironic results is a little tired.
“Petrol Head” is the one attempt to really Rock, but his delivery works against the labored (and inconsistently mixed) automotive metaphors. Things get really quiet on “Heading South On The Great North Road”, something of an elegy for the departed (along with “50,000”) with only the patient Dominic Miller on guitar. As mentioned elsewhere, “If You Can’t Love Me” does indeed echo some of the jazz touches from his first solo albums, building infectious tension and genuine anguish. The traveling theme continues on “Inshallah”, a refugee’s prayer and a risky move in these contentious times, but that’s what he does. Finally there’s the voice from beyond in “The Empty Chair”, a subtle benediction inspired by death.
Perhaps it’s best to approach 57th & 9th not as a Sting album, but as just an album, with no legacy hanging over it. There are good songs here, and excellent performances. He just needs to redo the vocals.

Sting 57th & 9th (2016)—3

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Joni Mitchell 15: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

The wrong title can curse an album at worst, but it can be just as annoying when it’s used against artist. Roger Waters, for example, had a field day with A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, recorded by the band he thought he’d ended. So what are we to expect from Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm, which suggests something so temporary it might not have happened?
This is Joni still amid in the ‘80s, and all the electronics the decade brought forth. Even as sophisticated as the technology got, it still doesn’t fit her. This is not to suggest that she shouldn’t try, but it’s hard to believe she thought these sounds were worth capturing. Sometimes technology can be a means to an end, but when it dominates, it should be effective. The last album had a somewhat successful experiment involving a cigarette machine; the equivalent here is the bed of recordings from TV ads used to illustrate “The Reoccurring Dream”. It makes the point about empty commercialism, but also has us trying to change the channel.
Yet again she feels the need to employ guest celebrity vocalists, two of whom were on the same label: Peter Gabriel gets to duet on “My Secret Place”, since he’d donated his studio, and Don Henley is prominent on “Snakes And Ladders”. Billy Idol trots out his standard whoops and barks on “Dancin’ Clown”, complete with shredding from Steve Stevens and a shorter, just as uncomfortable cameo from Tom Petty. Iron Eyes Cody contributes the Native American chanting on “Lakota”, despite his likely Italian heritage. Willie Nelson duets on “Cool Water”, an update of the old cowboy song. The lack of original material is another bad sign, as the album ends with “A Bird That Whistles”, a.k.a. her interpretation of “Corrina, Corrina”. Performed on acoustic, with only Wayne Shorter doing bird impressions on the sax, it’s also the best track on the album.
Just as jarring is the fact that the first two tracks were originally written for use in American Anthem, which led the wave of movies about male gymnasts. That partially explains the reference to being “born and raised in New York City” on the otherwise enjoyable “My Secret Place”, and the quest for winning a trophy in “Number One”. Political songs fit better; “The Tea-Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” considers the possibility of romance during wartime, while “The Beat Of Black Wings” not only gives the album its title but relates a conversation with a shattered Vietnam vet.
The guest stars brought Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm some airplay, but seeing as the album appeared in the racks around the same time as her back catalog was made available on CD—and at the “Super Saver” price point—those would have been a much better investment for new fans diving in.

Joni Mitchell Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988)—2