Friday, December 15, 2017

Bob Dylan 63: Trouble No More

After he publicly embraced Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and began using his stage and albums to tell everyone about it, it took some time for fans to “get it”. The common belief is that he got Jesus out of his system after three albums, but close perusal of the songs he’s written over the last four decades prove that he’s still concerned about the end times, holy wrath and judgement, and other mysteries of faith. His approach changed, but he really didn’t.
Anyway, Bob’s so-called “born again” years continue to perplex longtime fans as well as newcomers, so a Bootleg Series volume devoted to the period makes sense from a marketing standpoint. While the recordings on those three albums vary from a quality standpoint, he also toured constantly with a stellar band backing him up, giving the songs room to breathe and grow. Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981, in all its incarnations, consists largely of live recordings in terrific sound.
And here’s where it gets a little annoying for the consumer. As they’ve done lately, the volume is available as a two-CD set, as well as an eight-CD box with a DVD and books. The cheap set is all live, taken from concerts covering three calendar years, with a few duplicates of songs from different shows, and a small handful of songs that never made it to albums. The larger set includes those discs, plus two more discs of “rare and unreleased” studio outtakes, rehearsals, and live performances, including even more new-to-the-official-canon songs. There’s also two discs’ worth of selections from an April 1980 residency in Toronto, plus a full show from July 1981 in London on two more CDs. (And if you bought the set through Bob’s website, you got another concert from November 1979 on another two CDs.) Taken all together you have six versions each of “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, four of “Solid Rock”, and two or three versions of several others of the period.
Of the new material on the two-CD version, “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” is nice to hear in decent quality. As a song it’s preferable to “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”, which struggles under its New Orleans groove. “Blessed Is The Name” is actually better when the ladies sing. And we get earlier versions of “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind” before he heavily revised the lyrics.
The big box does indeed provide some real gems, like the live versions of “Slow Train” and “Do Right To Me Baby” from early in his conversion. The virtual concerts nicely show not only how well the band rode the dynamics, but we also get to hear appreciative audiences, despite the legend. The alternate studio takes are occasionally illuminating, like the passionate first reading of “Pressing On”. Some of the unreleased songs aren’t very exciting lyrically, though “I Will Love Him” and “Jesus Is The One” are a little overt but well played, and “Thief On The Cross”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Cover Down, Pray Through” just plain rock. Rather than the take issued as a B-side and available nowhere else, we get take one of “Trouble In Mind”, and “Ye Shall Be Changed” is repeated from the first Bootleg Series box. The 1981 concert is interesting for how he mixed earlier material with the Christian material, but unfortunately he’d already developed that whiny tendency to spout the lyrics rather than sing them.
The two-CD version of Trouble No More should suffice for all but the most rabid listeners. None of Bob’s sermonizing between songs is included, nor any of the opening sets of gospel from the rotating set of backing vocalists, but when we do hear them, they fit rather than dominate. Yet we maintain that a happy medium could have been achieved, had they simply added the “rare and unreleased” discs to the two live ones for a single, comprehensive package; not too big, not too small. Sometimes we think they’re intentionally ignoring us.

Bob Dylan Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981 (2017)—

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rolling Stones 50: On Air

Two decades after every other band of their caliber (and several of lesser) released authorized compilations of recordings from their live BBC appearances, the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world finally got around to beating the bootleggers with their own. The main purpose of On Air (not the band’s most imaginative title, since others got to it first) was to tie in with a hardcover book of the same title that documented their TV and radio spots throughout the ‘60s. However, because the scope is limited to radio recordings only, the audio artifact only goes up to 1965.
And that’s fine, because most of the tracks included come from the period when they were still considered blues interpreters. Only a small handful of Jagger/Richards compositions are included, the rest of the selections being expected Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, plus other songs similar to the ones that filled up their first handful of albums. Throughout we get to hear that great rhythm section, sending Bill Wyman some due and royalties, as well as Brian Jones blowing harp.
It’s not complete, nor does it have a set chronology. That means that one of the earliest recordings (“Come On”) is followed by one of the last (“Satisfaction”, of course), and bouncing around from there. We can also hear their hopes of being blue purists dashed slightly by the screams of the girls in the audience for the theater performances.
Of course, there’s more than one version of this available; an 18-track single disc seems pointless when the double CD adds another 14. Four of the tracks were included on a vinyl EP with the super deluxe GRRR! set, but the real appeal, of course, are the eight songs that were never on any other Stones album ever. “Fannie Mae” and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” are both serviceable tracks that would have fit on any of them. “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Memphis Tennessee” were done better by the Beatles, though even Mick doesn’t know who “took the message and wrote it on the wall” in the latter. “Beautiful Delilah” was a common Chuck Berry cover, but rare for them. “Cops And Robbers” is good silly fun, and everybody played “Hi Heel Sneakers” back then. “Crackin’ Up” is noted as one of the “new” songs to the canon, even though we do like the hot take already on Love You Live.
As can be expected, the sound quality varies due to whatever source tapes they could get. The first couple of tunes on the second or “bonus” disc are particularly grainy, but luckily the quality improves from there. In the end, it’s a long overdue addition to the wall, and as the liner notes suggest, interesting to compare to their last album.

The Rolling Stones On Air (2017)—

Friday, December 8, 2017

Kinks 10: Village Green Preservation Society

Ray Davies wasn’t the only songwriter of his generation obsessed with the simpler setting of childhood, but he was easily the most prolific. Having already filtered his talent through character-driven songs, he put a tune written for the previous Kinks album in the bullpen and set to work on building a concept around it. A 12-track sequence was planned and cancelled, while other singles came and went, and eventually an album with 15 songs appeared with the grand title The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society.
Its lack of commercial success upon original release, in America as well as Britain, has had a lot to with its current status among rock snobs and other elitists for being Ray Davies’ greatest accomplishment. While it is a concept album, it’s not a rock opera with a set narrative. Rather, it’s merely a collection of songs inspired by the idea of that quaint English tradition of the town square, where humble citizens would gather for community and whatnot. Much like the Shire for Tolkien fans, it’s a portrait of an idyllic place that was then slowly fading away thanks to postwar industry; indeed, even Ray isn’t looking at the scenery through rose-colored glasses. And no matter; the village green may have had its flaws and drawbacks, but it was home, and less scary than the Big Black Smoke.
The title track perfectly sums up the attitude of the album, celebrating and mocking traditional values at the same time. With its inspired use of rhymes (with tough words like “consortium”, “affinity” and the like) it’s such a great song that coming up with a whole album to live up to it would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet “Do You Remember Walter” lives up to challenge, an open letter to a childhood friend, lamenting their distance while accepting it. Spotlighting a theme that will be revisited at the album’s end, “Picture Book” has such an infectious riff that Green Day managed to steal it. Then we come to one of the album’s few named characters; “Johnny Thunder” is the local bad boy, but the pretty chordal riff in a style Pete Townshend also enjoyed seems to be at odds with the image of the tough guy on his motorbike. “Last Of The Steam Powered Trains” is basically a rewrite of “Smokestack Lightning”, but takes a clever metaphor to fit in with the theme of changing times. It even picks up momentum as it passes, and ends at a faster tempo than started. Clever. It’s easy to consider “Big Sky” a rumination on theology; is the title character “looking down on all the people” some kind of deity, or simply an astronomical entity incapable of emotion? Similarly, “Sitting By The Riverside” is supposed to evoke a pastoral occasion, but the merry-go-round-broke-down freakout after each verse intrudes on the dream.
One might also assume that “Animal Farm” was suggested by the novel of the same name, ten years before Roger Waters ran with the idea. However, here it’s simply Ray wishing to return to a simpler life, living among (or even as one of) those creatures without a care. “Village Green” is the older track that was the seed for the album, and while it’s a little busy, it still reinforces the theme of the album without being redundant. He makes reference to leaving to find fame and fortune, then uses the lady he’s scolding in “Starstruck” to perhaps point the finger back at himself. Then we come to what in retrospect seems to be the only psychedelic track in the Kinks kanon (sorry, had to do it). “Phenomenal Cat” seems more suited to Syd Barrett than a more “straight” writer than Ray, especially with the sped-up vocals, and it’s more jarring when we get to the music hall spoof of “All Of My Friends Were There”, which foretold some of Ray’s less impressive live appearances thanks to various medications. With “Wicked Annabella”, about a local witch legend, Brother Dave finally gets a lead vocal on a dirty track suited for him, down to the biscuit-tin drums. “Monica” describes another woman of the town, in this case the hooker with a heart of gold. There is a mild island feel, but the “I-I shall die” section always wins. Finally, “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” (“to prove that they really existed”) means something so different in the modern age of the selfie where everything must be documented, but the message remains: being involved in life is preferable to just looking at it.
As many of the tracks weren’t designed to be singles, Village Green Preservation Society isn’t the easiest listen, and takes some patience to appreciate. Without a linear tale to tell, it’s a challenge to determine what the songs have to do with each other, except that they came out of Ray’s brain and he said they were all connected. But once the songs become more familiar, and one marvels at the arrangements—most of the keyboards courtesy of good old Nicky Hopkins, and tasteful use of the Mellotron to simulate orchestral instruments rather than make noises—it’s understandable that so many people wish they could live there year-round. (Those so enamored will want to nab the imported three-CD deluxe edition, which includes stereo and mono versions of the album and the songs bumped for the original release, plus alternate mixes and many of the singles and cast-offs recorded during the same period.)

The Kinks The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1969)—4

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pretenders 9: Viva El Amor

After two decades and only six albums, the idea of the Pretenders in 1999 seemed silly. But the near-comeback via Last Of The Independents kept those involved willing to stick around for Chrissie Hynde’s next batch of songs, some of which were, again, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
At first sample, ¡Viva El Amor! seems stuck between contemporary beats and anonymous backings, which happens when you pit producers like Stephen Hague and Stephen Street against each other. “Popstar” is a snotty insult of the latest wave of girl singers, with robotic drums and a late cameo by David Johansen. The highly catchy “Human” was better, and a cover of an obscure song from a few years before by Divinyls (whose singer Christine Amphlett was Chrissie Hynde’s only competition in the awesome bangs department). “From The Heart Down” threatens to waver to sappiness, but The Duke Quartet returns from their cameo on Isle Of View to add strings right around the guitar solo, making it quite affecting. “Nails In The Road” is the first great guitar song on the album, a hidden gem, but even though “Who’s Who” is the second song in a row to reference a “queue”, it’s a little on the wimpy side. “Dragway 42” is more of a production than a song, something of a Mideastern travelogue, but the Duke Quartet neatly adds nightmarish accents to Chrissie’s fine vocal.
“Baby’s Breath” is a snotty riposte to a lackluster lover, with some confusing meter jumps. “One More Time” sounds like another run-of-the-mill torch song, but again, her vocal range is astounding. “Legalise Me” is a good pounding rocker that gives guest star Jeff Beck (no slouch when it comes to bangs, either) a change to blow his pyrotechnics everywhere. Then the mysterious “Samurai” manages to slow down the proceedings somewhere between a memory and a hallucination. Her perfect Spanish rendition of a Cuban folk song is given the pre-encore spot, before the mildly dreamy ode to the “Biker” lifestyle, which features the Duke Quartet again.
While the lamentable Get Close was an embarrassing display of Chrissie going soft, the equally venom-free ¡Viva El Amor! is a fine serving of mature, vulnerable pop, for lack of a better term we can’t invent. Perhaps because we expected so little, it is indeed a pleasant surprise, and well worth spending time around.

Pretenders ¡Viva El Amor! (1999)—

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mott The Hoople 6: Mott

After David Bowie glitted off to his next musical obsession, the newly popular Mott The Hoople were back to making their own records their own way. Mott was a return to the “straight” sound of their Atlantic years, though we do detect some leftover Mick Ronson influence on Mick Ralphs’ solos. (Also, they were down to a quartet, Verden Allen having tired of having his songs passed over.)
The album is mostly pounding rockers with a few quieter, moodier pieces, and both approaches have their hits and misses. “All The Way From Memphis” is a perfect opener, with the same notes hit for fourteen seconds and a terrific shout-along chorus. “Whizz Kid” pummels past with little subtlety, but we will allow that some of the backing vocals in the verses are right out of Bowie. And we don’t know why the song stops on a dime, returning for a few seconds way in the distance. Starting with a grand dramatic intro, “Hymn For The Dudes” soon quiets down too, and would appear to be another response to their perceived success. Then it’s back to the stomp for “Honaloochie Boogie” with its long vowel and oddly processed vocals, and “Violence” is pretty obnoxious, with an incongruous violin (ha!) over the chorus.
“Drivin’ Sister” is more mindless boogie framed by obvious sound effects, but then there’s “Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich)”, which seemingly references one of the band’s last gigs before Bowie supposedly rescued them. It’s gentle and a little sad, and very sweet. Up to this point we’ve only heard from Ian Hunter’s mouth, with Mick Ralphs limited to just one lead vocal. “I’m A Cadillac” works car clichés over a couple of familiar hooks, but the best part is when it morphs into “El Camino Dolo Roso”, a sneaky instrumental that gains a lot of momentum. Finally, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” is just plain odd, trilling with mandolins, and fretting over some kind of Freudian dilemma.
While more solid than All The Young Dudes, Mott is merely serviceable rock in a familiar setting. The boys were back on track. It wouldn’t last, of course.

Mott The Hoople Mott (1973)—3
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lou Reed 12: The Bells

In an anomaly for his catalog, The Bells found Lou Reed sharing songwriting credits. While the lyrics were all his, the music was developed with band members, jazzman Don Cherry, and Nils Lofgren of all people. Like his last two albums, it was recorded in that German binaural system that was supposed to be the most authentic you-are-there reproduction. That may have been necessary considering his continued reliance on a guitar synthesizer that created sheets of sound, which might even have been just fine if Lou didn’t go out of his way to make it such a chore to listen to not what he had to say, but how he said it.
On “Stupid Man”, he crams a whole lot of lyrics into a decent template that goes too fast for him to get the words out. By contrast, the perverted three-word groove of “Disco Mystic” even makes it into his published anthology of complete lyrics. The dense doo-wop of “I Wanna Boogie With You” seems to successfully match mood and message, but then he’s back to the obnoxious bleating in “With You”, not even bothering to separate the tracks. “Looking For Love” has an insistent catchy melody over the pounding rhythm section and piano—plus Marty Fogel, who honks a sax that would be in place on a Graham Parker album—that Lou barely attempts to match. A shame, because not only is it the only song he wrote alone, but it could’ve been a decent hit if performed right. “City Lights” returns him to a deep bass near-croon, over a track smothered in whistles, bells, and similar noisemakers.
The longest songs take up side two, and while each is challenging, they’re superior. “All Through The Night” works a lyric about futility and desperation over a simple boogie groove while (just like in “Kicks”) drinks rattle, dishes clinks, and conversations go on in the background, occasionally rising to drown out the band—a clever audio effect, but frustrating. Despite its strange samba rhythm, “Families” is the most arresting lyric, depicting a conversation between a grown man estranged from his home, studying how the disconnection that causes teens to leave home continues into adulthood, and underscores it. Finally, there’s the title track, a long dirge of an improvisation that pits sax against Don Cherry’s trumpet while Lou mumbles indiscernibly for five minutes. After several threats, the voice finally comes to dominate, in a lyric Lou swears he made up on the spot. Ultimately, it’s hypnotic.
While it was his hallmark, Lou’s seeming insistence on spending the least amount of time perfecting his vocals often worked against his obsession with getting the words and accompaniment absolutely perfect. If he didn’t have a melody, he didn’t bother trying to find one, and that makes The Bells, for all its unique offerings, frustratingly inconsistent.

Lou Reed The Bells (1979)—

Friday, November 24, 2017

Journey 9: Greatest Hits and Time3

While no formal announcement was made, Journey was done, and the label wisely put together a hits compilation. Greatest Hits was fairly comprehensive, focusing solely on the Steve Perry era, leaning heavily on the Jonathan Cain era, and sticking with the ear candy. In addition to all the singles from the albums, what we used to call side one is framed by “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely”, putting them right along side their albumized brothers. Beyond that, the sequence is a grab bag, but at least they save “Be Good To Yourself” for last so you can skip it entirely. Wikipedia tells us, and they’re never wrong, that it’s among the most successful compilation titles by anyone ever, and most of those sales racked up before it was repackaged 18 years on with an extra track.

Since every band got its own box set in the ‘90s, Journey’s turn came right on schedule. The oddly titled Time3 mostly got it right by starting at the very beginning, with a full half-hour of music from the borderline fusion period before Steve Perry came along. To prove the point, a failed track called “Velvet Curtain” is duct-taped onto the completed “Feeling That Way” to show how he transformed it. There aren’t a lot of rarities here, outside of a few B-sides and live tracks since added to reissues of the albums, and some unfinished ideas from the mid-‘80s era. Some of the bigger hits appear in live incarnations, so despite the selection of deeper album cuts, it’s not the definitive Journey package for someone who just wants one title on the shelf.

At the turn of the century, the new trend was the double-disc “Essential” anthology, which was an excuse to regurgitate a hits collection with some deeper cuts. The Essential Journey did just that, basically replicating the Greatest Hits sequence with only a little variety on disc one, with a questionable choice filling up the second. It would be another ten years before Greatest Hits 2 finally offered a decent (and decently priced) companion. In addition to more stuff from the Cain era (and big points for including “Suzanne”) and the FM radio hits and album tracks that stood out on the box set, segues like “Good Morning Girl” into “Stay Awhile” and “Feeling That Way” into “Anytime” were preserved. (We’d’ve dumped “Walks Like A Lady” and “When I Think Of You” for “Natural Thing” and “Edge Of The Blade”, but once again, the phone did not ring.)

Journey Greatest Hits (1988)—4
2006 CD reissue: same as 1988, plus 1 extra track
Journey Time3 (1992)—3
The Essential Journey (2001)—
Greatest Hits 2 (2011)—4