Friday, June 15, 2018

Paul Simon 8: Hearts And Bones

A professional reunion with Art Garfunkel didn’t last long enough to result in a new Simon & Garfunkel album, so the album that did come out was credited to Paul Simon alone. Hearts And Bones was well-received critically, but its quality didn’t ring too many cash registers.
These days it’s easy to see why, as the tunes weren’t exactly radio-friendly, and after an exhausting tour with Artie he wasn’t about to go back on the road. Even his voice sounds weary on these tracks. Plus, his never-ending quest for inspiration via non-traditional sounds meant an unfortunate reliance on the trends of the time. “When Numbers Get Serious” and “Cars Are Cars” would both benefit from less busy, non-contemporary arrangements. Neither version of “Think Too Much” is very appealing, though the one labeled “(b)”, which comes first is less irritating, its calypso arrangement notwithstanding, than the faster “(a)” take.
However, the good outweighs the bad here. “Allergies” has a vocoder-type effect and electronic handclaps that still complement the fretful lyrics, as does the high-speed guitar solo from Al DiMeola. The title track and “Train In The Distance” are both pretty, understated reflections on his then-current wife and his first wife, respectively, both delivered with universal sentiments that make them gems in the catalog. “Song About The Moon” is something of a grower, with a “Slip Slidin’ Away”-style lope and a simple lyric espousing simplicity. On the other hand, “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The Way” is supposed to be a cipher, stretching to connect the surreal painter with classic doo-wop combo references. It could go nowhere else on the album, so closing with “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (debuted two years earlier in Central Park) is not only reverent, but gains a mournful coda for strings with winds composed by Philip Glass, ending abruptly for optimal effect.
Ever since Hearts And Bones came out, fans have wondered how the songs would have sounded with Artie singing on them. (A few had been tried on their tour, but any Garfunkel contributions to the sessions were left aside during the final mix.) Much as we’d like to hear those for history’s sake, we’re just as interested in hearing stripped-down versions of the more trying songs. The eventual reissue included four bonus tracks along those lines; outside of “Shelter Of Your Arms”, which shares some lyrics with “When Numbers Get Serious”, the demos of “Train In The Distance” and “Rene And Georgette” sound pretty close to the final cuts, while “Johnny Ace” has a resolved ending on guitar. And it’s still a sad song.

Paul Simon Hearts And Bones (1983)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Brian Eno 13: Nerve Net and My Squelchy Life

If there’s a holy grail in the Eno catalog, My Squelchy Life was it. Said to be a pop album, his first real solo vocal release since the late ‘70s, it was announced, delayed, and disappeared. In its place arrived Nerve Net, an edgy, off-putting set that didn’t so much break new ground as walk over what his disciples had done in his absence. Neither industrial nor techno, it struggled to catch fire with new fans or old.
For most of the album, vocals are used more for atmosphere than lyrical content. “Wire Shock” is designed for the dance floor, as is “What Actually Happened?”, wherein the vocoder disguises a narrative of sexual assault. “Fractal Zoom” and “Ali Click” were each subject to multiple remixes, the latter likely due to its use of the “Manchester beat” via EMF.
And therein lies part of our problem with the album, and the time in which it appeared: the remix. All of a sudden there wasn’t a definite version of anything. Every track with any kind of beat was given over to some engineer who would rejig it into something different yet the same. It made an expensive hobby even more so when a fan was driven to track down everything. It also made for a confusing listening experience when an album would include another version of a track, as Nerve Net does. After “Distributed Being” featuring Robert Fripp and John Paul Jones, the album ends with not just “Web”, a six-minute drone, but an even longer alternate mix, together pushing the program needlessly over an hour.
But in this century, when everything old is new again, the world can re-assess Nerve Net in the form of a deluxe expanded CD that includes—ta-da!—My Squelchy Life as the bonus disc. The album wasn’t completely lost, of course; three of the tracks made it to Nerve Net (one under a different title), others were on CD singles and the occasional soundtrack, while a further five were a selling point for 1993’s Vocal box. And now, dare we say, it’s easier to appreciate Nerve Net as part of the bigger picture—well, sort of. “My Squelchy Life” and “Juju Space Jazz” are just as off-kilter here, while “The Roil, The Choke” emerges better from a weird spoken piece into a lush, harmonic treat. “I Fall Up”, with its insistent “more volts! I’m sucking the juice from the generator!” hook is a great opener, and “The Harness” is an extremely melodic follower. The “moon piano” solo piece called “Decentre”, labeled “Appendix” on the Nerve Net sleeve, turns out to have been “Little Apricot” on Squelchy. Still, tracks like “Tutti Forgetti” and “Everybody’s Mother” are just as jarring as what did come out on Nerve Net.
Taken together, these albums now present a more satisfying follow-up to the collaboration with John Cale of only a few years before. But it also shows that in the ‘90s, Eno was more content working with sounds, not songs, and would rather let the likes of U2 and James use his talents for theirs.

Brian Eno Nerve Net (1992)—
2014 expanded edition: same as 1992, plus 11 extra tracks CD

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jeff Beck 6: Blow By Blow

It took him long enough, but Jeff Beck finally figured out that he could record albums without a singer. Blow By Blow was recorded with a young rhythm section and Max Middleton from the second Jeff Beck Group.
The sound is a departure from the heavy rock of earlier Beck albums, leaning more on funk and now sounding more like fusion, beginning with “You Know What I Mean”, a James Brown strut filtered through the new decade. Especially notable on an album produced by George Martin, the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” gets a nutty approach, with a reggae groove and, to help identify the song, a few lines “sung” through a talkbox effect usually associated with Peter Frampton. It’s a sound that seems to suggest the title of the next track, “Constipated Duck”, which doesn’t sound like one. For such a great title, it’s fairly brief before fading into “Air Blower” (called “AIR Blower” on pre-CD pressings, we assume as a nod to the studio where the album was recorded), an uptempo jam that slows down dramatically towards the end, leading into the extremely jazzy “Scatterbrain”, a furious fusion with tight precision and even a sympathetic string arrangement.
Stevie Wonder dominates the start of side two, first with “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” played beautifully and mournfully by Beck, and the highly funky “Thelonius”, with the man himself on clavinet (and more constipated duck sounds). After Max Middleton’s “Freeway Jam”, with its catchy hook and breezy groove, it’s back to a more dramatic sound. “Diamond Dust” is a haunting piece in 5/4, the guitar, piano, and strings complementing each other on a beautiful melody. (Interestingly, the song was written by a guitarist in a band featuring most of the former members of the second Jeff Beck Group.)
It’s not easy to write about an instrumental album, particularly one where the nuances are more abstract. Still, Blow By Blow finally shows Jeff Beck thriving, successfully making his way on his own terms. Not quite jazz, certainly not rock, just Jeff Beck.

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow (1975)—

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 5: In Light Syrup

The ‘90s saw the explosion of movie soundtracks boasting contributions from the dozens of alterna-rock bands then jockeying for attention. It was a cheap way for the usual labels to front-load their retail cash-ins without having to license expensive tracks from elsewhere, and even when a movie didn’t do that well, the bands’ fans would have scarf the CDs up for that rare track they didn’t have.
At the same time, certain television shows had reached obsessive levels amongst their viewership that even they managed to inspire “soundtrack” albums. Thusly, devotees of shows like Friends, Ally McBeal, and even The X-Files could proudly display their allegiances with a simple jewel case.
These types of marketing partly explain how Toad The Wet Sprocket, after four albums with moderate sales, managed to amass enough tracks to fill up an album-length rarities compilation as a stopgap whilst recording their next album. Cheekily titled In Light Syrup, in a nod to the nutritional content might find in a can of fruit cocktail, it’s a decent set of soundtrack cast-offs, bonus tracks from CD singles (we used to call them B-sides), and a few nuggets previously known only to fan club members who treasured the occasional cassettes the band sent out.
These weren’t throwaways so much as songs they really did work on, but felt didn’t fit with the rest of the songs that were released on albums. (Or maybe they couldn’t find better titles than “All In All”, “All Right”, and “All She Said” once “All I Want” became their hit.) The soundtrack songs come first, and we do recall “Brother” and “Good Intentions” getting local airplay. Things get interesting once we dig deeper, such as the mild XTC influence on “Hobbit On The Rocks” and the even goofier “Janitor”. Musically, “So Alive” and “Chicken” sound like early U2, and other songs give more attention to Todd Nichols, who plays second fiddle even here.
Most of the tunes on In Light Syrup were recorded in the vicinity of Fear and Dulcinea, so there is a consistency in the sound. So while it’s very much for the fans trying to play catch-up, it’s also a worthy addition to the catalog. As the better mop-up sets should be.

Toad The Wet Sprocket In Light Syrup (1995)—3

Friday, June 1, 2018

CSN 5: Live It Up

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse, Crosby, Stills & Nash managed to underperform to the least of their senses, if not their abilities. The embarrassment of Live It Up begins with the cover art, depicting giant hot dogs being roasted on the moon. That should be enough to keep the album far from the cash register, but people bought it anyway. Whether they enjoyed the noisy, unsuited production values remains an equal mystery.
The liner notes helpfully pinpoint the dates each of the songs were committed to posterity; for the most part the recordings came immediately in the wake of the underwhelming release of American Dream, proving that they didn’t pay attention to their own bad reviews. The hideous title track was contributed by constant sideman Joe Vitale and recorded as far back as 1986, which is only part of the problem, but it’s followed “If Anybody Had A Heart”, penned by buddies J.D. Souther and Danny Kortchmar, supposedly featuring Roger McGuinn on 12-string, and first heard over the closing credits of that same year’s About Last Night (aka Demi Moore’s finest nude scenes before the implants). Stills steps forward with two polar opposites. “Tomboy” is another Latin-tinged drag, while “Haven’t We Lost Enough” is a very appealing and welcome acoustic tune, even though it was written with the singer from REO Speedwagon. Crosby and Nash team up on “Yours And Mine”, which pleads for someone, someone to think of the children. (Guest star: Branford Marsalis on sax, what else?)
After that downer, Stills and Nash bring back the “carnivále!” atmosphere for the unnecessarily parenthesed “(Got To Keep) Open”, with Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordion somewhere in there. Nash thought well enough of the drummer from Go West to spearhead the inclusion of “Straight Line” (guest star: Peter Frampton!), followed by his own “House Of Broken Dreams”. “Arrows” is a Crosby collaboration with buddy Michael Hedges, who doesn’t appear on the track, perhaps to make room for Branford Marsalis again. This tune would have been a low light on any Hedges album, which might explain how it got here instead. Finally, there’s “After The Dolphin”, which is not about the endangered mammal for once, but refers to a pub destroyed during World War I. A different angle for an anti-war statement, but badly tied to a synth program that jars with the canned radio reports.
So that’s one decent song out of ten, and surprisingly, the best thing Stills did all decade. The rest of Live It Up is beyond defense, and deserves to be buried.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Live It Up (1990)—1

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Mick Jagger 4: Goddess In The Doorway

After a fairly successful renaissance of the Stones for the close of the century, Mick decided it was time for a solo album. For his fourth time out he seemed to have grasped an idea of what would justify a detour from his regular band, but that doesn’t mean he should have bothered. Goddess In The Doorway finds him as obsessed as ever with sounding contemporary, tapping younger talents (we’ll get to those) but still relying on guitar work here and there from the likes of Joe Perry and Pete Townshend.
“Visions Of Paradise” is guilty-pleasure pop, a collaboration with the guy from Matchbox 20, so we’ll blame him for the less convincing parts. Bono is brought in for “Joy”, which relies mostly on two chords with a few diversions, and slathered with a gospel choir for that faux-spiritual feel. Something about “Dancing In The Starlight” sounds like we’ve heard it twice already, but it does have a killer chorus. “God Gave Me Everything” is basically a one-man Lenny Kravitz production with Mick singing, but then it’s followed with the mild modern R&B of “Hide Away”, which Keith might have made more reggae were he allowed to; instead we get Wyclef Jean. “Don’t Call Me Up” is the sensitive ballad with a title that sounds too familiar, and subject matter to match.
Besides being inscrutable, the title track suffers from a edgy pace and Mideastern touches already overused by Sting. “Lucky Day” isn’t too far removed from “Anybody Seen My Baby”; that this dance beat reminds one of a Stones track might define irony if we still knew what that was. “Everybody Getting High” is just plain stupid, as is the hurt posturing in “Gun”. “Too Far Gone” isn’t too bad, except that he opens by stating he doesn’t like nostalgia, then goes on to lament how the modern world has paved over his youth and technology has all but obliterated nature. A decent editor might have helped him get his message straight. “Brand New Set Of Rules” seems to suggest that he’s matured somewhat, on a track that’s better than the lyrics. (Two of his daughters are credited on backup vocals; presumably they’re the ones adding the “ooh-ooh” parts in the middle?) For some reason a “cocktail version” of the title track is hidden at the end, which actually sounds more interesting than the real thing.
This album notoriously got five stars in Rolling Stone magazine, an accolade seriously undermined when you consider it came from the highly suspect “journalistic integrity” of Jann Wenner. Clearly a favor was being paid, because this was hardly the apex of the man’s life’s work. Mick is very good at one thing, and that’s not to say that he’s a one-trick pony, but he’d be better served by trying a real departure from the average if he wants respect outside the Stones. Goddess In The Doorway isn’t embarrassing, but it just doesn’t make it.

Mick Jagger Goddess In The Doorway (2001)—

Friday, May 25, 2018

Elton John 7: Honky Château

Right on schedule, Elton, Bernie, and the band went off to the Château d'Hérouville outside Paris, where all the hip ‘70s stars would record, to complete another full-length album. Despite the somber bearded face and gray tones on the wallet-style cover, Honky Château is light and accessible, so much so that some of the tracks are ubiquitous.
A clever title, “Honky Cat” is an early indication of his pop sound, with a honking horn section over a New Orleans groove. “Mellow” goes back to the singer-songwriter sound of the last few albums, but goes on a little long with the organ solo in the middle that lasts through the end. Then there’s “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself”, which is something of a monologue about “teenage blues”, sung with absolutely no sympathy for the self-involved narrator. “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Band shows up to tap-dance, as he would, and we’re still not sure why. “Susie (Dramas)” is another Taupin lyric inspired by Americana, set to a rocking beat we’ve heard before. Things slow down again for “Rocket Man”, here given its full subtitle (“I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time”). Notably, this is the first appearance of David Hentschel on synthesizer, where he’d stay for the time being.
“Salvation” has a mild gospel feel, via the lyrics and the mass chorus vocals, and while the sentiment is a bit trite, the chorus has a good hook, which is the real point. The idea continues on “Slave”, which seems to match the lament of a pre-Civil War “servant”, but the backing is almost inappropriate, more concerned with geography than the message. It’s back to more basic needs on “Amy”, a song of lust for a woman of the same name; as with the song that occupies the same spot on side one, there is a guest star, this time Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin. One of the pair’s more surprising anthems, “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” is a moving, enduring tribute to New York City, with a wonderfully subtle harmony on the first couplet in the chorus. If you’re looking for deep meaning, don’t bother digging too far into “Hercules”, which appears to be about a woman who loves a cat (or “cat”, this being 1972) of the same name. That Elton took that as his legal middle name during the gestation of the album may only be a coincidence.
And that’s it—no concept, just songs. Honky Château gets points for relying solely on the Elton John Band, solid as they were. We prefer the “heavier” tone of the previous two studio albums, but it’s still worthy, and not at all fluffy. (The eventual reissue added one bonus track, an incredibly fast version of “Slave” that, despite its lack of reverence, is miles better than the album version.)

Elton John Honky Château (1972)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 1 extra track