Friday, July 31, 2015

Cat Stevens 3: Tea For The Tillerman

Keeping it simple meant he could move fast, and the second Cat Stevens album in a calendar showed him to improve with time. Tea For The Tillerman includes several enduring, sensitive favorites, as well as some less well-known but still excellent songs.
“Where Do The Children Play?” is a naïve but strong argument defending the planet, simple enough for budding guitarists to master. “Hard Headed Woman” is more complicated and darker, but for backhanded compliments in the form of a breakup speech, it’s tough to beat “Wild World” and its downward scale runs. “Sad Lisa” is a more sensitive portrait of a woman, with a neat Leslie effect on the piano fading in and out of the mix. Even more so, “Miles From Nowhere” teeters between meditative verses and insistent bridges.
Musically, “But I Might Die Tonight” is a little too close to the other three-chord songs on the album, but the lyrics, while list-like, are through provoking and it’s a short tune. Beginning with ambient effects and a catchy chant, “Longer Boats” seems pastoral, but there’s a hint of menace in there (slavery perhaps?). “Into White” runs the gamut of the color spectrum, helped out by the initial-caps on the back cover. “On The Road To Find Out” is one of the best songs about searching to listen to when you’re questioning yourself, just as “Father And Son” explores the generation gap with sympathy. That leaves the title track, a minute-long piano piece that explodes into a big choral part for two words, assuring that the children have indeed found a place to play.
Besides the songwriting, Cat Stevens demonstrates equal skill on the guitar and keyboards throughout Tea For The Tillerman. Plus, he proves that an album doesn’t have to have an electric guitar to rock, as the rhythm section drives the arrangements when called for. He was getting better, and would continue to do so. (The obligatory Deluxe Edition is an odd assortment of demos mixed betwixt both contemporary and later live tracks.)

Cat Stevens Tea For The Tillerman (1970)—
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1970, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Van Morrison 27: Days Like This

Having long given up on artistic statements, Van settled into the role of working musician he’d preferred to tout since he started out. When he did put out a new album, it was with fanfare, but increasingly there wasn’t anything on them that could stand out as a modern classic.
So it was with Days Like This, an hour’s worth of safe adult contemporary fare with horns. Whether by design or because Van knew it would bother people, Brian Kennedy was allowed to echo every other line Van sings throughout the album. We’re spared this on “You Don’t Know Me” and “I’ll Never Be Free”, odd choices of romantic covers sung as duets with his daughter Shana. (Hindsight reminds one of the “Red Ships Of Spain” sketch with the Goulet family on Saturday Night Live.)
The lyrical content of his own songs is alternately predictable and inscrutable. He’s a “Songwriter”, in case you didn’t know, suffering at different times from “Underlying Depression” and “Melancholia”. “Perfect Fit” is an upbeat love song that says nothing new, just like the title track. “Raincheck” is sung over a complicated rhythm with no real indication as to why the narrator goes by the name of the title. “Ancient Highway” wants to badly to be one of his lengthy epics, except that Brian Kennedy’s on it, and once again Van forgets to take the harmonica out of his mouth before he starts singing. Georgie Fame is nowhere to be heard, so that must be Van himself on the Hammond organ solo.
It’s tough to recommend Days Like This except that it’s relatively harmless. If you actually like Brian Kennedy, then this is the album for you. Otherwise, tread carefully.

Van Morrison Days Like This (1995)—3

Friday, July 24, 2015

Stephen Stills 5: Stills

A musician as well-rounded as Stephen Stills runs the risk of trying to do too much, when all he really needs to do is shut up and play. On Stills, his first album under a new contract with Columbia, he did that, for the most part, and the result is rewarding.
“Turn Back The Pages” has a nice lazy rhythm except for whenever the chorus goes to Havana, every time. “My Favorite Changes” sports a circular riff that would be copied by Robyn Hitchcock on occasion, while “My Angel” proves that he was right at home helping out the Bee Gees in their disco phase. Despite the cowbells and wah-wah, “In The Way” is reminiscent of some of the better moments from his first solo album, though we can’t really say how. Similarly, “Love Story” is very much lacking in pretension, and “To Mama From Christopher And The Old Man” is fresh and unlabored.
“First Things First” isn’t very exciting, but it’s short. Much better are “New Mama”, a band arrangement of a Neil Young song that had just finally been released on Tonight’s The Night, and “As I Come Of Age”, an older track with Ringo on drums and Crosby and Nash on harmonies. “Shuffle Just As Bad” is a little ordinary, though it does get away from a shuffle by the end. “Cold Cold World” adds a little mystery to the proceedings, even if we’ve heard the same lead guitar tone on every track thus far. That makes “Myth Of Sisyphus” even better, being a piano-based rumination with organ.
There’s a lot of good on Stills, particularly coming at a point in time when he and his contemporaries were getting rather self-indulgent. It’s a pleasant surprise for anyone who might have written him off by now.

Stephen Stills Stills (1975)—3

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Neil Young 53: The Monsanto Years

Neil sure manages to find things to do instead of releasing the next installment of his Archives. Between writing books and chasing his other hobbies, he’s still writing songs, recording them and releasing them. But once he gets obsessed with something, we’re going to hear about it, and now he’s extended his concern for the family farmer into contempt for corporate greed in general. Ecological concerns are nothing new for him, nor is naming names (“Ohio”, anyone?), but in his life phase as a cranky old man he’s focused on complaining.
On the surface, The Monsanto Years looks like another concept album nobody asked for, like Living With War or Fork In The Road. Whatever the subject matter, it’s only going to work if the music can rise to the occasion. For the most part, the album does. His co-conspirators this time are Promise Of The Real, a combo featuring two of Willie Nelson’s sons, who provide a sloppy, Crazy Horse-style backing. (Think Mirror Ball, which was recorded with Pearl Jam, but with more musical variety.) Lukas Nelson takes most of the lead guitar breaks, and he’s definitely been influenced by his frontman, while brother Micah occasionally puts a bow to the neck of his own Gibson.
Wisely, the album starts with a more universal message in “A New Day For Love”, followed by the Harvest Moon-style strum of “Wolf Moon”. Neil’s voice is more cracked than ever, trying to hit notes he’ll never get. “People Want To Hear About Love” acknowledges the resistance he’ll likely face for these songs, and here’s where the brand names start to pile up. “Big Box” doesn’t feel like eight minutes, balanced as it is with cool changes and a few hooks.
“A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” is a happily stupid stomp with a whistled theme, while “Workin’ Man” comes from another part of the same barn. “Rules Of Change” breaks up the tirade with some welcome poetic metaphors, Neil harmonizing against his own creaky voice. “Monsanto Years” is played in two keys, both too high for Neil to sing, and this is likely where dissenting ears will have had enough. Which would be their loss, as “If I Don’t Know” closes the program with a more personal, less political rumination, framing the album nicely.
The best thing about The Monsanto Years is the band, who support him without fawning. Neil’s stable of go-to musicians have been fighting losing battles with mortality lately, and while we’re still waiting for our phone to ring, it’s good that he’s looking for a musical spark outside of his norm. The album will endure a little better than the ones about the war and cars, but a little condensing and time to polish would have helped keep it from being written off as another distraction.

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real The Monsanto Years (2015)—3

Friday, July 17, 2015

Billy Joel 17: My Lives

While he wasn’t writing new songs, Billy Joel did tour on a regular basis, and his old label was determined to milk the catalog as best they could. Naturally, 2001’s The Essential Billy Joel and 2004’s Piano Man: The Very Best Of Billy Joel didn’t really offer anything not already covered by the other two Greatest Hits volumes, so it was surprising that a box set would be primarily devoted to rarities. You know, like the sets already covering Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, and other letters from the alphabet.
My Lives begins at the beginning, with a couple of demos from his early band The Lost Souls. “My Journey’s End” apes the Beatles, while “Time And Time Again” is Dylan via the Byrds, and both prove why they didn’t make it. The Hassles, a more soul-influenced combo, are represented by two tracks; Billy’s uncomfortable moaning on “You Got Me Hummin’” should never have made the cut. Then there was Attila, the organ-drums duo depicted on their only album cover standing in a meat locker, and represented here by an excerpt of “Amplifier Fire”. All that out of the way, the first disc moves through various recordings labeled as demos, some of which would be recognized as future hits, and a few album tracks to present a wider view of the hitmaker. Some are band performances, some are solo at the piano; standouts include “Oyster Bay”, an early lament that the road to superstardom wasn’t easy, and a simple sketch of “Miami 2017”.
The second disc continues chronologically with fewer demos, but more in the way of rarities and straight album tracks. A decent club performance of “Captain Jack” leads into a demo of “The End Of The World”, a cousin of “Don’t Ask Me Why”, on its way to “Elvis Presley Blvd.”, a Nylon Curtain B-side. A piano-driven live cover of “I’ll Cry Instead” leads into an unfortunate dance remix of “Keeping The Faith” and “Modern Woman”, the worst song from The Bridge. Along the way we hear the original 1983 piano demo of “And So It Goes”, more interesting than “House Of Blue Light”, a Storm Front B-side, and the kids’ song “Nobody Knows But Me”.
By the third disc, it’s clear he’s running out of original ideas; hence the pile of covers, both live and contributed to soundtracks throughout the ‘90s. (Performing “Shout” at Yankee Stadium, after about three minutes of baiting the audience with local references and call-and-response “whoos” is just about the definition of pandering.) The three covers from Greatest Hits Volume III may be contextually important, but they’re hardly rare. Still, there’s no questioning how well his voice is suited to “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “In A Sentimental Mood”. And it took us until hearing “Motorcycle Song” (an early version of “All About Soul”) to realize that the “na-na-na” part is the same as the bridge to “Just The Way You Are”. And truly helps illustrate that the well was dry.
The disc that covers the new millennium is therefore dominated by live versions and twenty minutes’ worth of music from Fantasies & Delusions (which, again, he composed but did not perform). There is, however, a new piece in the form of “Elegy: The Great Peconic”, an orchestral/symphonic/whatever composition that’s lush and familiar. Hidden at the end of the disc is a curious nine-minute conversation at the piano between Billy and Phil Ramone discussing possible promotional exercises for the Glass Houses album.
One has to be a Joel fanatic to appreciate My Lives, so it can be only recommended to that handful of diehards. Anybody else can content themselves with any of the hits collections or live albums that came before or since.

Billy Joel My Lives (2005)—

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jethro Tull 7: A Passion Play

Having convinced the world that their last record was an actual concept album and not merely a parody of one, Jethro Tull went whole hog with the formula and concocted one for real. A Passion Play followed the pattern of one song spread across two sides, only interrupted by a fairy tale. And instead of a newspaper, this time the packaging incorporated a program accompanying the alleged four-act stage performance. This helps change the impression that it’s just one song, as each of the acts is described with titles. However, these index points wouldn’t be fully utilized until the more elaborate CD reissues of recent years, so we’re not about to dissect each section with our usual drudgery.
If you listen long enough, read along with the lyrics and decipher the puns in the program, you might be able to follow the protagonist through his funeral, purgatory, limbo, Heaven, Hell and rebirth. Of course, any story on this scale needs music to carry it through, and A Passion Play has a lot to overcome. Having long abandoned blues, even folk takes a back seat to heavier prog, but the omnipresent flute and vocal tone of the auteur make it all too clear who this band is.
Heartbeats begin side one, which was apparently the law in 1973, giving way to an extended instrumental overture of sorts, Ian Anderson having added saxophones to his wind arsenal. The first song proper is mostly acoustic; “There was a rush along the Fulham Road” will be the most commonly repeated phrase throughout the next forty-odd minutes. The music turns harder as the side progresses, escalating through pointedly theatrical affectations, until another “hush along the Fulham Road” heralds a dance that closes the second act, to be interrupted by “The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles”, narrated by bass player Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond in a broad, silly accent. (This originally ended side one with a “turn the page” sound effect, continuing on side two.)
The interlude is apparently just that, as the story proper picks up where it left off. The music is acoustic-based, but with an influx of synthesizers, making it heavier. A comparatively pastoral interlude is smacked aside by a trebly treated guitar riff, making things heavy yet again. The dénouement comes very close to the end of side two, and the show’s over.
A Passion Play is the most challenging Tull album yet, and the hardest yet to ingest. As there’s not really any “bad” music here, it’s enjoyable, but it can be exhausting trying to keep up with everything. In its current incarnation, with each of the formerly 22-minute sides split into smaller chunks, it’s a lot easier to revisit sections for familiarity.

Jethro Tull A Passion Play (1973)—3

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pete Townshend 14: Classic Quadrophenia and Truancy

Back in 1972, The Who’s Tommy album was re-recorded and staged in an orchestral arrangement with an all-star cast. By the time it was recorded a third time with a different cast for the film, Pete Townshend had already spent 18 months putting together the band’s second released opera, Quadrophenia. While it never had the mainstream profile that Tommy has perpetuated, no thanks in part to the first work’s eventual Broadway success, Quadrophenia is the album that resonates more with Who freaks, and likely reminds its author less of his own troubled childhood.
Still, there’s plenty of gold in those hills, and as the band learned once they started performing it again in the ‘90s, technology has enabled them to recreate the album live on stage. Now that he lives with a classical arranger, it was easy for Pete to spearhead an orchestral version of the album.
Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia (the composer having fallen to Paul McCartney’s tendency to put his own name within the title of a piece) is faithful to the original recording, except that there are no electric guitars, bass or drums. The elaborate synthesizer parts have been replicated and expanded by the orchestra and choir, and Jimmy’s lead vocal is tackled by one Alfie Boe, an operatic tenor (born the year the album first came out) who’s obviously studied Roger Daltrey’s parts closely. Pete himself sings the part of The Godfather, careful not to try the high note on “stutter”, while Phil Daniels, who played Jimmy in the film, appears twice in lines attributed to the dad. And Billy Idol, who was in the all-star performances in 1996, shows up four times as the Ace Face slash Bell Boy.
As the album was deemed “ineligible” for the classical charts, it will remain to be seen if this new incarnation will be anyone introduction to the music, and where that may lead. If you like the original, you won’t hate this, but you’ll likely play the original several times before even thinking about throwing this on.

Shortly thereafter, in advance of another threatened solo catalog overhaul, Pete released his second “hits” album, only two decades after the first one (one decade after a double-disc anthology) and a period of time in which he released virtually no new solo material. Truancy runs chronologically and repeats about half of the original set, ignoring some fan favorites and the one “new” song included then. While some of the substitutions are debatable, any Pete album called “very best of” that doesn’t have “Slit Skirts” is false advertising, plain and simple. That said, the songs are all great, with the Scoop version of “You Came Back” a surprising inclusion. But the key selling point is the two new—yes, brand new—songs designed to entice the gullible. “Guantanamo” is further proof that he needn’t be political to be musically entertaining, and “How Can I Help You”, with its opening motif reminiscent of “Cut My Hair”, is suitably empathetic, and the kind of thing we wish he’d get off his duff and do more of already.

Pete Townshend Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia (2015)—3
Pete Townshend Truancy: The Very Best Of Pete Townshend (2015)—4