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)—

Friday, August 8, 2014

Bad Company 7: 10 From 6

Classic Rock radio became an actual format in 1985, right around the time when the compact disc became more of a mainstream consumer commodity. Helped along by the mild success of The Firm’s first album, Atlantic put a minimum of marketing expertise behind the first ever Bad Company best-of. With a genius title derived from the simple fact that its ten songs were culled from their six-album catalog, and artwork that redefined spare, it’s likely that most people of a certain generation were exposed to Badco thanks to 10 From 6 blasting from somebody’s car radio.
A more accurate title for the album would be 10 From 5, since Burnin’ Sky went unrepresented, not even by the title track, which is the only good song on that album. In fact, considering the weight of songs from the debut and Straight Shooter, it could even be called 6 From 2, as 4 From 1 is really nit-picking, even for us.
No matter what advertising wizard put it together, it’s still a solid set of tunes. Where else could they start but with “Can’t Get Enough”, and getting the overplayed “Feel Like Makin’ Love” and “Shooting Star” out of the way on the first side, split by “Run With The Pack” and capping it with the potboiler of “Movin’ On”? Side two begins with “Bad Company”, jumping ahead to “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” and the criminally underappreciated “Electric Land”. “Ready For Love” brings it down, just as “Live For The Music” provides a strange choice for a curtain call.
According to the RIAA, 10 From 6 hasn’t been as successful as the albums it samples, but it’s still preferable to anything released by the band’s late-‘80s hair-metal incarnation, which didn’t include Paul Rodgers, and sometimes boasted only two original members. (This bastard stepchild of the band’s first album featured artwork that looked a little like 10 From 6 but mostly resembled the then-popular-but-waning Swatch wristwatches. There’s no smoke without a fire, indeed.) Finally, to celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary, a two-CD set appeared featuring most of the hits, album cuts and rarities, a couple of new recordings, and thankfully, not a single song from the non-Rodgers years. It got points for including “Burnin’ Sky”, but left off a few key tracks, like “Electric Land”. (Customers of the Best Buy chain may have noticed a CD called The Hits, which does include both “Burnin’ Sky” and “Electric Land”, but only six other tracks.)
So here’s a proposal: we update the original 10 From 6 album by adding six songs — “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad”, “Deal With The Preacher”, “Silver, Blue & Gold”, “Young Blood”, “Burnin’ Sky” and “Oh, Atlanta” — to the original sequence and call it 16 From 6. Simple, right? Just make sure we’re thanked in the liner notes.

Bad Company 10 From 6 (1985)—4
Bad Company The ‘Original’ Bad Co. Anthology (1999)—

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tom Petty 19: Hypnotic Eye

With and without his Heartbreakers, Tom Petty has become such a fixture in the pantheon that four years between albums doesn’t seem that much a big deal. Of course, if you’re gonna take that much time, it helps for any new album to be good.
Hypnotic Eye continues on from the middling Mojo, most tracks taken in a rockin’ tempo with solid riffs. If the notes are to be believed, it was recorded in spurts over a three-year period. Advance word and other review call it a return to the so-called classic Heartbreakers sound, which isn’t entirely correct. Rather, the simple drums bring to mind the peppier songs on Full Moon Fever. Still, there is something of a ‘70s vibe, like a lot of other songs on the radio back then. It also clocks in at a compact 45 minutes, just like a record should.
“American Dream Plan B” is a complicated title for a fairly basic rocker based on the “China Grove” hook played backwards. Luckily the chorus adds a little color. Mike Campbell gets co-writing credit for just one track, the groovy boogie of “Fault Lines” “Red River” and “All That You Carry” are both excellent versions of the same song, though we prefer the chorus of the latter; in between is the low-key “Full Grown Boy”, a jazzier mellow blues. The “snarl” that pundits have championed turns up in “Power Drunk”, which does sound like the early stuff.
“Forgotten Man” gallops along over a Bo Diddley riff, and seems to be one of the few songs about relationships, as opposed to the State of the World. Another is “Sins Of My Youth”, which would be mistaken for a Mark Knopfler solo track if not for Tom’s vocal. “U Get Me High” recycles a Wildflowers-era title for a song that should get airplay on stations not scared away by the connotation. “Burnt Out Town” would be the earliest recording here, coming closely off the blues idea of the last album, and Tom using his mushmouthed redneck delivery to its fullest, but not quite meeting the challenge of the rhymes. But the best is saved for last. With its plaintive piano intro, one thinks “Shadow People” will be a grand ballad, but then band comes in, and Tom’s found yet another original way to play the same four chords and keep it fresh. That little guitar part is perfect, and this is probably why people say it sounds retro.
So why isn’t Hypnotic Eye a classic along the lines of Damn The Torpedoes? Two reasons. First, there’s no jangle anywhere, just riffs in a blues scale. Secondly, and this is key, so much so that it explains what’s been missing from the puzzle for 20 years: Steve Ferrone doesn’t play fills. Ever. Stan Lynch used to, constantly, and while singing harmonies, and we’ll always miss him. (Meanwhile, Scott Thurston’s job seems to be throwing in a harmonica here and there, along with unnoticeable rhythm guitar, yet they still spell his name wrong in the booklet.) Benmont Tench adds more color than he seemed to on the last album; that element, along with Mike Campbell, keeps the band grounded. In all, it’s still toe-tapping enough to merit repeat listens.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Hypnotic Eye (2014)—

Friday, August 1, 2014

Allman Brothers 5: Brothers And Sisters

Their career had barely started when the Allman Brothers Band seemed truly cursed. Already adjusting to life without one member, now they had to contend with the death of under-appreciated bass player Berry Oakley in a motorcycle wreck all too similar to Duane’s. They had already begun recording their next album, and continued with a new bass player, as well as the now-legendary Chuck Leavell on piano to take some pressure off Gregg, who was preoccupied with his own album anyway. Amidst this disorder, Dickey Betts took over and ran the show for the better part of the next 17 years.
As their first single LP in a while, as well as containing no live material, Brothers And Sisters is forced to compare with what’s come before, and with different weapons in their arsenal. Four of the tracks are credited to Dickey alone, with Gregg writing two. One of those is “Wasted Words”, a great opener lyrically and musically, showing how well Dickey had progressed on slide guitar. But right when you’re settling in for a decent listen, here comes “Ramblin’ Man”, one of the band’s biggest hits and least representative of them at their best. Whatever your opinion of southern rock, this song paved the way; after four decades of exposure these ears can only tolerate the well-sculpted second half, with those precise guitar harmonies from Dickey and guest Les Dudek. “Come And Go Blues” is Gregg’s only other contributed composition, with shades of Bobby Whitlock from the Layla album. It’s got the hallmarks of a good long jam, but ends too abruptly. In its place is “Jelly Jelly”, an arrangement of a song from several different sources in the “Stormy Monday” mode that sounds a lot longer than it is. It too fades, having us wonder what we missed.
Returning to the brevity of their first albums, side two has three songs, each very different, all written by Dickey, or so the label says. “Southbound” is decent boogie with lots of piano, and the last time we’ll hear Gregg’s voice on the album. “Jessica” is the other most recognized song here, a lengthy instrumental that sits at the intersection of “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “Revival”. It’s almost impossible not to smile while it plays. Finally, “Pony Boy” is an acoustic hoedown in the style of Robert Johnson, ably supported by Chuck, no Gregg or Jaimoe in sight.
Brothers And Sisters can’t help but to be less than stellar; as it was, the wheels had certainly come off the band, and wouldn’t return until a guy named Warren Haynes came into the picture. To be fair, Dickey holds his own and anybody else’s with the guitar duties, and Chuck Leavell was an excellent addition to the mix. Arriving alongside the first Lynyrd Skynyrd album and riding the southern rock wave through the rest of the decade, its popularity seemingly justified the release of a 40th anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, bolstered by a disc of jams and rehearsals plus two discs with a Winterland performance showing off the new lineup.

The Allman Brothers Band Brothers And Sisters (1973)—3

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joy Division 3: Still

To deal with the loss of their friend, singer and main lyricist, the rest of Joy Division simply went back to work making music. The trio morphed into New Order, using the smoother voice of guitarist Bernard Sumner, and added the drummer’s girlfriend on keyboards to take some of the pressure off their new singer. The band’s first single, “Ceremony”, was a new recording of a song played live at the final Joy Division show, a gig memorialized on two sides of a double album, Still.
It’s another Joy Division album with a title that could be taken any number of ways, the most common assumption being that it was intended to combat bootlegs. Indeed, the other two sides collected studio outtakes, mostly from the time of the first album and subsequent singles, but none of their extraneous singles save one rare compilation track. (The eventual CD that left out one live track, unlisted on the LP to begin with.)
The outtakes are interesting in their own way, but it’s often clear why they were unreleased in the first place. It may well have been pointed out that the melody for “Something Must Break” is identical to the Perry Mason theme. Meanwhile, on “The Ice Age”, the repeated chorus “I’m living in the ice age” sounds more like “I’m really, really angry”. “The Sound Of Music” is the most recent studio cut, and naturally sounds more developed than the other tracks, (with the possible exception of “Glass”, from the first sampler that included the band’s music). Allegedly the surviving members applied some “post-production” sweetening to these tracks, but they’re still pretty rough.
As a document, the live half does show off the energy of the band, while underscoring their drawbacks—the bass has no oomph, drums rush and slow down, fingers miss frets and the synth goes way off-key for a full minute of “Decades”. The rest is hit or miss, “Ceremony” starting halfway through, yet leading smoothly into “Shadowplay”. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but performances like “New Dawn Fades” and “Transmission” predict early U2. And it’s almost fitting that the last song of the show, “Digital”, was also the first-ever Joy Division song released, providing a true bookend for Ian’s career. (The studio half ends with an encore cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” from a month before; it’s pretty sloppy, but does show some humor when Ian makes a “Louie Louie” reference at the end.)
Since it was never intended to be the final Joy Division album, it shouldn’t be treated as such, but should only be considered as an addendum. And as New Order would evolve and dominate the ‘80s techno scene, the legend of Joy Division would only grow, and inspire further epitaphs.

Joy Division Still (1981)—3