Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Billy Joel 15: Greatest Hits Vol. III

Seemingly retired from the pop scene, the final Billy Joel release of the ‘90s was a compilation. Being a single-disc sequel to the double set from 1985, it got the imaginative title of Greatest Hits Vol. III, cleverly allowing Sony to repackage both together in a box with a fourth “music and conversation” disc. But anyway.
Two of the songs (“Keeping The Faith” and “An Innocent Man”) predate the previous hits collection, but as they were actual hits, that’s a good thing. The rest of the program isn’t as obvious. We move chronologically through the albums yet to be anthologized, with eyebrow raisers like “Baby Grand” and “Leningrad” among the more expected radio fodder. “Shameless” is included, most likely as a nod to the Garth Brooks version. Similarly, we suspect “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”, “And So It Goes” and “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” made the cut for more sentimental than commercial reasons. (Really, would you call any song that missed the top 40 a “hit”?)
The album did offer something new to fans who already had the albums: three new songs, all covers, all on the slow side. “To Make You Feel My Love” was the debut of a new Dylan song, a whole month ahead of Bob’s own version, complete with harmonica solo. (And of course, Garth Brooks had to go ahead and record his own version the following year.) “Hey Girl” is a Goffin/King tune, given a lush blue-eyed soul arrangement. Finally, “Light As The Breeze” recasts a Leonard Cohen song as an R&B showstopper, investing it with way more melody than Leonard could’ve.
If anything, Greatest Hits Vol. III proves that even if Billy Joel didn’t write any more songs himself, he could easily build a cash cow out of covers. Hey, it worked for Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow, to name two. That he hasn’t done so is a big point in the integrity column.

Billy Joel Greatest Hits Vol. III (1997)—

Friday, August 29, 2014

Coldplay 4: Viva La Vida

Seemingly unstoppable, Coldplay made the smart move with their fourth album, employing Brian Eno as full-fledged producer. Therefore, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is their Unforgettable Fire, wherein the band attempts to stretch their fans’ expectations with different soundscapes from those that filled their first three albums. (They even changed their font, breaking from the Albertus typeface familiar from The Prisoner.)
Viva La Vida flows like a true album, to be heard in sequence. Ten tracks are listed, but many of them have distinct or even unlisted sections, showing off the variety and keeping the tedium at a minimum. It’s immediately more satisfying than X&Y, and remains so.
Floating in on a soothing loop, “Life In Technicolor” is something of a rousing overture before the darker, mysterious “Cemeteries Of London”. A brief piano piece provides a bridge to “Lost!”, heavy on organ and handclaps but still catchy. In other words, typical Coldplay, but not a retread. “42” is three songs in one, none of which seem to illuminate any kind of Douglas Adams reference. A “Scientist”-like opening section threatens to turn into one of their “big” numbers until giving way to a treated guitar section à la Radiohead, which turns into a more straightforward tune, then reverting to a variation on the opening part. But the feeling stays up on the driving “Lovers In Japan”, which shares its track with the much quieter “Reign Of Love”, treated very much in the manner of Eno.
The most exhilarating moment of the album is unlisted, but “Chinese Sleep Chant” is three minutes of shoe-gazing splendor with muffled vocals that reminds one of Echo and the Bunnymen. Because it arrives at the four-minute mark of “Yes”, children of the digital age will be forced to (gasp!) rewind. Despite its melodic similarity to too many songs from the history of composition, “Viva La Vida” still inspires, its combination of tympani, strings and hammer-on-church-bell providing the big single the band needed to sell the album. “Violet Hill” fades in on a Blue Nile hum, before crashing through topical verses at odds with their “if you love me” tags. A moment of studio verité sets up the lilting “Strawberry Swing”, processed guitar loops dominating tribal drums. Finally, “Death And All His Friends” moves from a quiet piano meditation to a more typical arena rocker, and ending with a lengthy version of the loop that began the album, another hidden song called “The Escapist”.
In true U2 style, there were leftovers, which were duly added to a re-release of the album by year’s end. However, in a nice gesture to those who didn’t want to buy the whole thing again, Prospekt's March was made available as a separate, attractively priced EP. More of a supplement than a side three, it underscores how wise they were to make Viva La Vida as compact as it is.
“Life In Technicolor II” appears with lyrics, including the omnipresent phrase “now my feet won’t touch the ground”, which is also the title of the EP’s acoustic closer. “Postcards From Far Away” is 45 seconds of piano (oddly not shoehorned within another track), giving way to the more mainstream “Glass Of Water” and “Rainy Day”, both redeemed by their choruses and tricky rhythms. Somewhat lost in all the energy is the title track, a pretty song tagged at the end with a piece called “Poppyfields”. Two of the tracks are retreads: “Lovers In Japan” is remixed without the “Reign Of Love” section, while “Lost+” answers the prayers of those who thought the album track needed a Jay-Z rap to make it truly exceptional. (For the rest of us, it’s a harbinger of doom. A solo piano version, dubbed “Lost?”, closed the iTunes version of Viva La Vida, and would have been welcome here.)

Coldplay Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends (2008)—4
Coldplay Prospekt's March (2008)—3

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Suzanne Vega 8: Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles

After nearly thirty years and eight albums, Suzanne Vega still has the same clear alto. Clean living is most likely the reason, but taking lengthy breaks between releases most likely helps. Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles follows a seven-year absence of new material, finding her in familiar territory, parables and medieval imagery, with several songs hinting at a Tarot influence.
The album starts strong and stays strong, if brief. “Crack In The Wall” is loaded with poetic metaphors, while the poppier “Fool’s Complaint” is of a musical piece with “When Heroes Go Down” and “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May”. “I Never Wear White” melds a bold statement with a punk riff lifted from “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”. Things finally go quiet for “Portrait Of The Knight Of Wands”, its delicate finger-picking turning to waltz-time in the bridge but not repeating it over the coda. The one everybody talks about is “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain”, thanks to its 50 Cent sample, nod to Macklamore and hip-hop rhythm. We can excuse the Arabian strings, but hearing Our Heroine bust rhymes and exclaim “for real” is just plain jarring.
Syncopated handclaps make “Jacob And The Angel” a continuation of the Eastern theme, but only for a couple of minutes. “Silver Bridge” would appear to be an elegy for her father-in-law, though that’s only an assumption from the dedication and a Google search for the name. (A better, more universal tribute ends in the album in the form of “Horizon (There Is A Road)”, written for Vaclev Havel.) Two songs about stoicism appear back to back; “Song Of The Stoic” is called out as an update of “Luka”, being a monologue by a now-adult victim of abuse, while “Laying On Of Hands” ponders the healing power of Mother Teresa, switching neatly into a faster “Stoic 2” section.
For the first time in a long time, she’s gone back to letting the songs speak for themselves. For the most part, they steer clear of gimmicks, keeping the arrangements simple and clear. Her main collaborator is Gerry Leonard, who brought with him a few other alumni of David Bowie sessions. That’s not to say the album sounds like Bowie, but that Leonard does know a thing or two about sonics, and Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles will not disappoint fans.

Suzanne Vega Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles (2014)—

Friday, August 22, 2014

Jethro Tull 5: Thick As A Brick

We’ve tried to maintain something of a style and approach here, so when something like Thick As A Brick comes out of the bullpen, it’s a challenge to discuss it in our usual fashion. The reason is the obvious one: the album consists of a single “song” over two sides of an LP.
It’s a pretty clever idea, and presented well: an epic poem penned by a precocious youngster, forming the centerpiece of a local newspaper folded into the record’s packaging (complete with crossword puzzle, obituaries, classified ads, and even a review of the album itself). That alone begs comparisons to Monty Python, but then the band went ahead and set said poem to music, then took it on tour, perpetuating the in-joke to those seeking a concept album.
Taken all together, Thick As A Brick is an archetypal Jethro Tull album, encompassing folk and jazz, bombast and the deflation thereof, but nothing in the way of blues. And to call it a 42-minute song isn’t entirely correct; it’s several themes linked and repeated. One wonders if any of the repeats involved any Bitches Brew-style loop editing.
The beginning states the central theme, a fingerpicked acoustic and flute supporting the vocal, which says, “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out”. Okay then, we’ll just lift the needle, hit the stop button, whatever. But we like this little piece, so we’ll leave it on. Two verses and choruses make the song familiar, setting up the inevitable bridge. Were this a standard rock song, a third verse would follow a solo, but instead the theme reverts to a minor key, there’s a slight fade, and then everything scatters. “See there a son is born,” and he will be again and again.
For the rest of side one the music shifts between heavy riffing like any prog album (which was the idea) and madrigal-type strumming that began the side. The Hammond organ and piano are prominent, so fans of Aqualung will feel right at home. The acoustic guitar is incredibly crisp. And of course, there’s the flute. Lots of flute.
Because it was designed to be heard as two sides, the first half ends with an echo effect on a theme. The second half comes in on a sinister wind, that effected theme peeks through, then the son is born, again, just in time for… the drum solo! This was a nice gesture for Barriemore Barlow, their newest band member, but they throw in some more riffs and muffled conversation to keep the spotlight from shining too brightly. (A phone even rings a few times, which would feature on stage. And the symphony orchestra does show up before time runs out.) The established themes follow and intertwine, marching to the end. Which it does, finally, just as it began.
One thing that leaps out, and we’ve said this before, if not every time we’ve discussed a prog-rock album, is just how tight and precise the band is. The different themes do fit and flow without ever seeming tacked on. Because of this, Thick As A Brick does sustain itself for the entire program, making it a successful concept album. (We’ll also aver that Tubular Bells wouldn’t have happened without it.) That said, it’s easy to tune out unless you’re sitting with the paper in your lap reading along.

Jethro Tull Thick As A Brick (1972)—3

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Neil Young 51: CSNY 1974

In the summer of 1974, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young embarked on a massive tour that brought their particular brand of singer-songwriterness to stadiums packed to the gills with ticket-buyers. Since their previous tour (and album together), roughly 12 albums’ worth of material had been released between the four of them, in addition to all the stuff Neil still had on deck. Supported by the crack rhythm section of Tim Drummond on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums (with Stills buddy Joe Lala on congas and cowbell), each show lasted for three hours on average, all four anxious to get as many of their own songs in. (Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.)
In the decades since then, the tour has been remembered for its excess, both pharmaceutical and egotistical. Even the participants have expressed varying memories about the experience. Graham Nash, in his role as self-appointed archivist, took up the task of re-assessing the tour from the vantage point of the shows that were professionally recorded, and it only took him about five years to finish it.
In its triple-CD-plus-DVD package, CSNY 1974 offers 40 songs from 10 shows, culled from the 77 different songs played throughout the tour. The program is split into three sets, roughly corresponding to a typical show. (We wouldn’t put it past Rhino to issue a “complete” box of all ten shows start to finish, à la what they’ve been doing with the Grateful Dead lately.) The “First Set” is full band electric; the “Second Set” is mostly “wooden music”, acoustic and solo; the “Third Set” brings the rhythm section back in full.
Nash has admitted to tweaking the tapes here and there, fixing harmonies and notes, and flying in other parts of the same track to smooth over a rough patch, so we’ll leave it up to other scholars to identify what songs came from where. For all his work, Stills sounds pretty ragged, to the point where his singing is unintelligible. His attempts to sound “soulful” often come off garbled; even when he’s playing guitar, a certain amount of showboating takes over when finesse is preferred. In contrast, Crosby is spot on at all times, and Nash is just happy to be there. For all his contrariness, Neil’s quite the team player, happily contributing harmonies, lead guitar and/or piano on the others’ tunes.
The big excitement (for Neil fans, anyway) is the first official release of several songs yet to be otherwise collected. “Traces” is a highlight of the first disc, in all its brevity, as is “On The Beach”, the title track of his solo album just in stores. The second disc has the most surprises, with a early duet of “Long My You Run” with Stills preceding the one-off “Goodbye Dick”, itself a slight variation of “Mellow My Mind” on the banjo, which follows complete with CSN harmonies and an extra line. “Love Art Blues” and “Hawaiian Sunrise” are nice to have in some form, personal as they are. The third disc has a terrific “Don’t Be Denied” (making its digital debut in any legal form) with an extra verse from its Time Fades Away incarnation, an intense “Revolution Blues” and, best of all, the mesmerizing “Pushed It Over The End”, showcasing the band and singers deftly navigating all those shifts from 5/8 to 4/4 over eight minutes.
Along with a thick booklet crammed with photos, quotes and instrumental credits, CSNY 1974 does provide, literally, hours of entertainment. Whatever surgery was performed to make it sound good took; it probably helps that the recordings were made towards the end of the tour, when most of the kinks had been worked out, and for the most part, the band cooks. Hopefully this will fan the fire for Neil’s Archives Vol. 2, which should straddle and overlap this era, should it ever come out.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young CSNY 1974 (2014)—

Friday, August 15, 2014

Crowded House 7: Intriguer

The last Crowded House album to date is another one in name only. While Intriguer does feature the core quartet established by the previous album (and tour) on all tracks, it’s still more in the style of Neil Finn’s solo work, hermetically sealed and lacking the wackiness that made their ‘80s work so addictive.
“Saturday Sun” is terrific, and the best track to start the album. The verses and choruses are equally catchy, and slightly akin to some of the better U2 tracks from this century. Things gradually revert from there. Both “Archer’s Arrows” and “Amsterdam” plod along between their inevitably catchy choruses. “Either Side Of The World” is toe-tapping yet soft, and just when you think the song’s over it goes to outer space for a minute and returning for a reprise of sorts. “Falling Dove” is a pleasant, pensive strum, but there are already too many of those on the album.
The second half is just as tentative, beginning with “Isolation”. This features Neil’s wife Sharon on a few verses, and switches abruptly to a chaotic finish. That makes a good setup for “Twice If You’re Lucky”, a highly welcome pop anthem, and the straight-ahead simplicity of “Inside Out”. “Even If” returns to the melancholy musing, while “Elephants” gets its spacy feel from guest Greg Leisz on pedal steel. (iTunes purchasers get the option of a deluxe edition with “Turn It Around” as a slightly snappier finale, along with a pile of videos.)
The general consensus on Intriguer is that repeat listens are ultimately rewarding, and that is true, but wouldn’t you rather not have to live with something until the point where you can appreciate it? Its relative brevity at 40 minutes does help with the familiarity. We were even shocked to find ourselves wishing brother Tim had been included for some counterpoint. If this is the last we’ll have under the Crowded House brand, at least it doesn’t take anything away from those first few poppy gems.

Crowded House Intriguer (2010)—3

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Smiths 2: Hatful Of Hollow

It displays an awful lot of hubris for a band to issue an LP of rarities as their second album, but in the Smiths’ case, it worked. Hatful Of Hollow crams 16 tracks onto two sides of an LP, alternating between singles, their B-sides and BBC recordings. The quantity of music is more than justified by their quality.
UK record-buyers and artists alike staunchly supported the single as statements just as important as an album, even as late as 1984. The dizzying “William, It Was Really Nothing” is an exercise in brevity, as is its B-side “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”, both classics on their own. But those who sprang for the 12-inch single got the monster that is “How Soon Is Now?”, included here in its six-minute splendor of tremolo and whine. (A favorite moment: “Whistle While You Work” whistled, naturally, about four minutes in.) “Hand In Glove” re-appears in its single mix, the biggest difference being the fade-in opening and fade-out ending. “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” transcends its potential as a target with a perfect arrangement, while “Girl Afraid” (again, 12-inch only) expertly paints the men-are-from-Mars dilemma.
The BBC takes generally pre-date the versions on the album, and because they’re recorded better, sound better. “What Difference Does It Make?” has even more punk energy, while “This Charming Man” is played slightly jauntier, but not necessarily better. “Still Ill” has an incongruous harmonica over the drum intro and outro; likewise, stripped of the piano and organ, “Reel Around The Fountain” crackles and builds tension on its own. “You’ve Got Everything Now” doesn’t break the tie, unfortunately.
That leaves a handful of songs that fans weren’t necessarily getting for the second time, unless they taped them off the radio. “These Things Take Time” is a great performance, well constructed, and should have gone on the debut. “Handsome Devil” is taken at a furious pace with little subtlety (“let me get my hands on your mammary glands” indeed). Musically, it’s a minor-key version of “This Charming Man”; sing the lyrics for that one over this and you’ll find they match up well. “Accept Yourself” is the first and last time Morrissey would offer anything resembling a chin-up pep talk, while the band keeps up with itself over some tempo changes. Contrast that with the somber subject matter of “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”, here in its only recorded incarnation, and one that really spotlights the band’s use of dynamics. How he could come up with such a deep lyric is explained by its being adapted from one of his favorite plays. A personal favorite is “Back To The Old House”, electric in its B-side guise, but here a gorgeous acoustic meditation, and a better match for the melancholy lyrics.
Hatful Of Hollow wouldn’t be released in the US for another ten years, after the band’s catalog had already become somewhat muddled. We’ve tried to stick with American chronologies throughout the history of this blog, but in a case like this we feel we can justify the exception—and particularly when it was such a popular import to begin with. Despite its repetition, it’s superior to their first album, and comes much better recommended.

The Smiths Hatful Of Hollow (1984)—