Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Waterboys 4: Fisherman's Blues

Ever changing and constantly evolving, the fourth Waterboys album shared only a few components to what went before. Recorded over a period of two years, Fisherman’s Blues was built around the core group of Mike Scott, Anthony Thistlethwaite on sax and Steve Wickham on violin, abetted by traditional instruments picked up while immersed in rural Ireland. The combination was inspiring as it is toe-tapping, and it’s gone on to match “The Whole Of The Moon” as the Waterboys’ best work.
The difference is apparent right away, as we’re treated to an acoustic strum, mandolin trill and fiddle pull, in short order, before Scott whoops his way through the title track. Sometimes the simplest songs can be as mesmerizing as any. The fiddle saws frenetically throughout “We Will Not Be Lovers” for a seven-minute attack, given some relief by the quieter Irish blues of “Strange Boat”. Karl Wallinger’s name appears in the writing credits for “World Party”, bridging the connection to his own project. A cover that shouldn’t work but does is what they did to Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing”, given an appropriate homegrown lilt, the drummer keeping a clockwork pace even through the quotes from “Blackbird”.
Side two is even more Gaelic, beginning with a jig or reel called “Jimmy Hickey’s Waltz” on the CD, and moving to the charming romantic reverie of “And A Bang On The Ear”. “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank” is a better title before it’s learned to be about Hank Williams, though the pairing of the traditional “When Will We Be Married” and “When Ye Go Away”, with its sinewy slide guitar, gets things back on track. After a minute or so of “Dunford’s Fancy”, “The Stolen Child” pairs a recited Yeats poem with Scott’s percussive piano for a stirring finish, via a busked epilogue of “This Land Is Your Land”.
Fisherman’s Blues set a bar that Mike Scott would never really attain again. This was acknowledged in 2001 with the release of Too Close To Heaven, containing ten more songs from the sessions, augmented by a further five when it was released as Fisherman’s Blues Part Two in the US. These tracks are more reminiscent of the Big Music than the Celtic mix, and thus a companion in name only. Still, the 12½-minute title track lives up to the moniker of “epic”. (The original album was bolstered with more folky-sounding tracks on a “Collector’s Edition”, only to be outdone for the album’s 25th anniversary by the seven-disc Fisherman’s Box, collecting all of the sessions in chronological order.)

The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues (1988)—4
2006 Collector’s Edition: same as 1988, plus 14 extra tracks
The Waterboys Fisherman’s Blues Part Two (2001)—3

Friday, October 2, 2015

Lou Reed 5: Sally Can’t Dance

Throughout Lou’s solo career, his most divisive albums upon release continue to do so decades on. His fourth studio album came about in the wake of the glam favorites Transformer and Rock ‘N Roll Animal, and such was his momentum and the fixability of the Billboard charts that Sally Can’t Dance remains his only top ten album.
Of course, just because something’s a hit doesn’t mean it’s good. Take the most commercial aspects of Berlin, and mix them with lyrics designed to provoke more than inspire, and that’s Sally Can’t Dance. There’s even less of a story here, despite the recurrence of one woman’s name. “Ride Sally Ride” continues somewhat musically from the last album, with its piano and horn opening, diminished chords and attempt at melody, but the chorus has nothing to do with Wilson Pickett. “Animal Language” begins with barking and uses both “bow-wow” and “meow” in its choruses. (We are not kidding.) Like a twisted nursery rhyme, a dog and cat meet unfortunate demises, and attempt to get high in the afterworld. A little more palatable is “Baby Face”, a five-minute slow jam for electric piano and jazz guitar, but instead of “Lady Day”, he’s saying “no no no” to this title character. If you want more cowbell, “NY Stars” should hold you over, percolating with a clavinet.
The one song that does stand out is “Kill Your Sons”, and not just because it’s the least sterile. Possibly the most honest song here, it’s an indictment of the shock treatment he underwent as a teenager, and a defense of the drugs he’d done since them. “Ennui” is pretty, but way over the top, with a choir of voices singing the bass line and that lead guitar chiming all the way through. The title track is too funky for anyone’s good, though it does explain why Sally had trouble riding, dancing, or doing most things. Finally, “Billy” is a sympathetic portrait of a high school acquaintance whose life turned out different than Lou’s own, and might be more palatable and affecting if it weren’t for a sax honking its way throughout.
Sally Can’t Dance is only awful in hindsight, when compared to Lou’s best work. Its notoriety precedes itself, and while we can’t recommend it, he would do a lot worse down the road. These days it’s hard to believe he really stood behind the sound of the album, competent as it is. It could almost be anybody’s album, except for Lou’s drowsy vocals.

Lou Reed Sally Can’t Dance (1974)—

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Frank Zappa 27: Orchestral Favorites

Throughout his lifetime, and towards the end of it, Zappa often went on at length about all the problems he had with “real” musicians, and how people in the classical field ignored him, ripped him off, or otherwise disrespected him. (Can’t imagine why they didn’t hit it off right away.) Insult added to injury anytime he financed an orchestral performance himself, paying for the copying, rehearsing and sundry. But that was usually the only way he could get the dots on the paper to be played.
The final album of music owed to his old label, Orchestral Favorites presents most of the rest of the material originally recorded in 1975 for a larger project, then siphoned off, re-edited and shelved. Timing being everything, it was seemingly rush-released in the wake of Sheik Yerbouti; those looking for more of the same humor would have been disappointed. Instead, they’d get a well-recorded representation of Zappa’s composing abilities.
As the title suggests, this is an orchestral album, with no vocals, which alone makes it an improvement on his last released orchestral experiment, 200 Motels, even repeating some themes. “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” bookend the set and take up the most space, striking a balance between grand themes and avant-garde expressionism. “Pedro’s Dowry” was written specifically for the project, and recalls elements of Lumpy Gravy and “Holiday In Berlin”. “Naval Aviation In Art?” is a brief, suspenseful violin piece, and the old standby “Duke Of Prunes” reappears with a ‘70s shuffle and overdubbed guitar solo.
Throughout Orchestral Favorites, horns and strings rub up against percussion, a standard drum kit, harmonicas, electric violins and electronic keyboards. Together, it provides an alternative to the standard menu of filthiness.

Frank Zappa Orchestral Favorites (1979)—3

Friday, September 25, 2015

Joni Mitchell 12: Shadows And Light

Live albums can preserve a key moment in time, or serve to sum up a chapter of an artist’s career. Or sometimes it’s just a way to fulfill contractual obligations. Shadows And Light, Joni’s second double live set, puts her in front of a tight jazz combo, featuring no less than Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias—a long way from that lovelorn folksinger.
The concert was also a video production at the time, evidenced by the introduction, which melds the title track with sound bites from Rebel Without A Cause and Frankie Lymon. Then it’s right into songs from Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Mingus, but only one from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. She’s clearly about the band here, letting “Pat’s Solo” bridge “Amelia” and “Hejira”, just as “Don’s Solo” connects “Black Crow” and “Dreamland”. (You’ll have to get the DVD for “Jaco’s Solo”.) A capella group The Persuasions were on the tour as well, and back her up on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, hinted at in the intro. The only early “hits” here are “Free Man In Paris” and the closing, moody arrangement of “Woodstock”.
The songs benefit from the unified context, and the sound is clean and full, as befits the players and their concern for tone. Shadows And Light ends up being a good entrée into Joni’s less commercial work, capping off a busy decade and setting the stage for one with less activity.

Joni Mitchell Shadows And Light (1980)—

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Robyn Hitchcock 29: Love From London

After thirty years as a solo artist, with a catalog that has sold well into the dozens, Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t inspire more than a raised eyebrow from most people, least of all those who wonder why he gets so much attention from this blog. Admittedly, his heyday is well in the past, but for those still longing for the consistency he supplied in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Love From Londøn comes the closest yet.
First of all, a circular piano part drives “Harry’s Song”, a mysterious number and oddly foreboding opener. “Be Still” is more upbeat, harmonious and pinned by an insistent cello part, while “Stupefied” combines a tabla effect with handclaps and dotty piano. It takes bollocks to write a song called “I Love You” at this late date, and he marries it to a pretty obnoxious backing. More successful is “Devil On A String”, with its college-rock guitar and canned sax.
Besides having a very Hitchcockian title, “Strawberries Dress” could have easily been lifted from an Egyptians album. “Death & Love” are topics he’s covered fully, but here don’t really figure past the title. “Fix You” takes the lyrical hook from the Coldplay song and turns it into a commentary on capitalism (“Now that you’re broke, who’s gonna fix you?”) with a suitably tense backing. “My Rain” is very intricate acoustically and electrically, and matches “Harry’s Song” for the gem of the album. Just to keep things constant, “End Of Time” is a happy sounding song about death, with seashore effects that recall his first solo album and a reprise of what is presumably the album’s title track.
The credits would have us believe that any drums heard on Love From Londøn are computerized, yet the album sounds just as lively as any of his recent work with a human percussionist. We hesitate to give it a higher rating than what we have, but it really is one of his better albums of this century.

Robyn Hitchcock Love From Londøn (2013)—3

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ben Folds 14: So There

String accompaniments have been features of every Ben Folds album, going back to his first with the Five. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that each of the new songs on So There are all accompanied by an ensemble called yMusic, who provide strings, wind and brass accordingly.
With one exception, most of the songs are opaque lyrically, with an overlying effect of melancholy, even on the upbeat ones. “Capable Of Anything” can’t decide if it’s an apology, a rejoinder or a pep talk, and we’re dying to know who inspired the molasses-slow “Not A Fan”. The title track is the most complex, with its lightning piano runs and extended bridge. “Long Way To Go” is a completed version of a snippet dating back to the fake leak of Way To Normal, and the backing to “Phone In A Pool” sounds like something he’s written before. There’s an odd juxtaposition of references in “Yes Man”, which mentions both “click and drag” and a Fotomat; something the amateur photographer in Ben likely meant intentionally. Of course, Mr. Locker Room returns for “F10-D-A” (“with a big fat D… C what it’s like to B”), which is musically interesting, but the joke doesn’t survive the first verse. “I’m Not The Man”, written with actress and former paramour Alicia Witt, is another sad song in a string of several.
That’s just half of the album, and a setup for his very first completed “Concerto For Piano & Orchestra”. Commissioned and performed by the Nashville Symphony, this three-movement piece sounds very American to these ears, and anything with a prominent piano is going to be compared to “Rhapsody In Blue” anyway. Unlike other “rockers do classical” pieces, such as by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson, this piece doesn’t try to marry the genre, nor is it obvious that it’s written by someone without a classical background. So for that, it works.
The listener is left thinking of such low-key conclusions as “Boxing”, “Evaporated” and “The Luckiest”—all nice songs, but an album full of them needs variety. So There lacks a really standout hook, but at least he’s not repeating himself. Too much.

Ben Folds So There (2015)—3

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Paul Simon 1: The Paul Simon Songbook

This album was always a curio, recorded completely solo in London between the first two Simon & Garfunkel albums, and unavailable for the better part of thirty years on the directive of the artiste. He eventually got over it, and now we can wonder what the problem was. After all, hasn’t Paul Simon spent most of his career downplaying his partner’s superior voice and its importance to his songs?
Besides providing alternate versions of what would become several established Simon & Garfunkel favorites, The Paul Simon Songbook presents what was likely his repertoire whilst pounding the cobblestoned streets of London. Two songs had already appeared on the duo’s debut, five would be re-recorded for their second album, and four others would appear in some form on their third. For the pop music student, these are fascinating unplugged demos, and even works in progress.
The actual performances aside, it’s the truly rare material that makes this album so enticing. “A Church Is Burning” is an original protest song, and a good one, not to be confused with “The Sun Is Burning” on the S&G debut. They would perform it in occasional concerts, but for many years this was the only recording ever. “The Side Of A Hill” is mostly unknown, except that several lines would be reworked and used as a counterpoint to the main melody of “Scarborough Fair”. Similarly, “A Simple Desultory Philippic” here substitutes Lyndon Johnson for Robert McNamara in the spoken intro, and sports a markedly different accompaniment, mostly based on “Wake Up Little Susie” with a little “It’s Alright Ma” thrown in. The bridge still apes Dylan, but most of the people throughout the song would be replaced by other, dare we say better, and certainly more recognizable references.
It’s tempting to give The Paul Simon Songbook a higher rating, but only for the novelty of it. Each of the songs are arguably better in their more familiar, arranged incarnations; now that it’s universally available, even in the US of A, complete with two alternate takes, listeners can judge for themselves.

Paul Simon The Paul Simon Songbook (1965)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 2 extra tracks