Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paul McCartney 11: Back To The Egg

It was a new label for Paul in the States—is that why there was no poster or lyrics?—and two new Wings joined up just in time to help out. In the days when punk was still a fresh news item, Back To The Egg was designed for progressive FM radio, with an emphasis on the Rock, and an edge that had seemed to be missing from his sillier love songs. (Despite the success of the disco-flavored single “Goodnight Tonight”, it wasn’t included.)
The opening track, “Reception”, is bound to bewilder American ears that aren’t familiar with all the sounds from the different countries fading in and out of British radio. But the bass line is funky, and those keyboards are pretty sci-fi as well. “Getting Closer” continues the rock feel, and like most of his recent heavy singles, sank on the charts. “We’re Open Tonight” repeats the same theme over and over, but is done soon enough. (If you’ve been listening exceptionally closely, you may discern a theme to the album: that of getting back to basics and back on the road. It’s not obvious.) “Spin It On” is Paul’s salute to speed metal. Good luck trying to understand the words. “Again And Again And Again” is Denny’s, while it could have been Paul writing for all we knew. “Old Siam, Sir” is also impenetrable, but has enough attitude to make it good, especially those breaks. (Also released as a single, it too tanked.) “Arrow Through Me” has a smooth funk sheen to nicely end the side.
“Rockestra Theme” is performed en masse by two dozen all-star invitees set up around the studio like an orchestra. It was a good idea, and the tunes he wrote fit like a glove, even if you couldn’t pick out anyone’s particular style. “To You” gets major demerits for these lyrics: “What if it happened to you/Get it out of my shoes/You’re stepping on my toes/Get it out of my nose”. But it does rock, particular the synthed-up guitar solo. A couple more ‘look! It’s a medley!’s follow. “After The Ball” is half-finished, while “Million Miles” has us standing at the side of a fjord with a concertina. “Winter Rose” has you checking your needle, as his voice sounds so scratchy. It’s nice by itself, but when added to “Love Awake” it gets lifted. There’s even a “snow” reference to hearken back too. Very nice. “The Broadcast” is a lovely classical melody that’s about as repetitive as “We’re Open Tonight”, only with poems on top of it, apropos of nothing. (Has the “theme” revealed itself yet? Don’t worry, it won’t.) “So Glad To See You Here” has the Rockestra again, with yet another reference to “We’re Open Tonight”. “Baby’s Request” is another music hall saloon song, and while it doesn’t Rock, ends it all neatly and as a nice add-on as the big show’s encore.
Back To The Egg got lambasted at the time. America’s record-buying market had long succumbed to the idea that singles promote albums, so the public didn’t know what to expect. Columbia didn’t know what to do with it either, and they didn’t promote it further than they had to. (One nasty review even says the cover depicts Paulie staring glumly at his career having fallen through a hole in the floor into the vacuum of outer space.) While it should have appeased those of his ready-made consumers who said he’d been getting soft, it just confused the public as a whole. What some call diversity, others call bandwagon jumping. It’s held up just fine for those willing to give it a chance. (The CD adds the excellent B-side “Daytime Nightime Suffering”, plus both sides of the most annoying Xmas single in music history: the execrable “Wonderful Christmastime” and the instrumental “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reggae”.)

Wings Back To The Egg (1979)—
1989 CD reissue: same as 1979, plus 3 extra tracks

Monday, December 29, 2008

George Harrison 8: George Harrison

Don’t be alarmed by his poodle perm on the cover, disturbing as it is. George Harrison surfaced what seemed like ages after his last album, in an era when only Paul seemed to be worthy of our wallets. It turned out George was worth our time and money this go-round.
The opening notes of “Love Comes To Everyone” are encouraging, and the rest of the song is just as good. There’s lots of guitars, and he found a decent synth sound in Steve Winwood’s Oberheim. A fantastic start. “Not Guilty” is a softer, nearly note-for-note version of one of the more famous Beatles outtakes. Its slow fade at the end sets us up for another rewrite, the slightly successful “Here Comes The Moon”. While nowhere near as universal as its predecessor, it uses a sinuous electric piano bed to support the upside-down acoustic guitar line. On its own, it’s right on target. “Soft-Hearted Hana” starts with the atmosphere of his favorite local pub before leading us on a lysergic trip through vaudeville, complete with fluctuating tape speed towards the end of the song. The side closes with the charming “Blow Away”, proving he could really write a hit single when he wanted to. It’s also a very happy song for a change.
A racing car revs up in the left channel and zooms over to the right to start “Faster”, a tribute to his new buddies at Brands Hatch. “Dark Sweet Lady” is a fairly overt song for his new wife, with Hawaiian undercurrents aplenty. “Your Love Is Forever” is just gorgeous all over: an open tuning that doesn’t drone, with melodies and harmonies just packed with real emotion. George has always layered his own backing vocals on his albums, and always in such an unobtrusive manner that they’re often ignored. This is another one of his love songs that could apply to any object you wish. “Soft Touch” may not necessarily be about his young son, but it’s still catchy. The album ends on a strong, upbeat level with “If You Believe”, co-written with Dream Weaver and longtime Harrison session rat Gary Wright.
On its own, it’s not much, but coming after the last few, it has endured. From start to finish George Harrison is an enjoyable listen, and doesn’t embarrass even in the slightest. At the time it didn’t get any respect—it was a really bad hairdo—but it’s certainly aged the best out of any of his mid-to-late ‘70s albums. Overall, it’s a genuinely enjoyable listen, since he seems so content with his current situation. Coming from Paul, this mood would have started to grate. Coming from George, it was a welcome sensation.

George Harrison George Harrison (1979)—
2004 Dark Horse Years reissue: same as 1979, plus 1 extra track

Friday, December 26, 2008

Paul McCartney 10: Wings Greatest

Since he was about to jump ship to Columbia for a lot of money, EMI put out a Wings hits album. Even though not all of the tracks are technically Wings songs, Wings Greatest proves Paul’s point that he’d moved on from his previous band. And with otherwise unalbumized singles adding up to nearly an hour of music, it was a worthy purchase for its time.
One of those singles kicks off the set. “Another Day” was originally a teaser from the Ram sessions, a portrait of Eleanor Rigby as a modern lonely secretary. It may not have been that exciting on the first listen, but hasn’t grown too annoying in the meantime. “Live And Let Die” was a big deal both as a movie theme when James Bond films were really big deals, and also as Paul’s first collaboration with George Martin in over three years. It’s another case of Paul writing a song quickly without worrying about the words. (“And in this ever-changing world in which we live in”? Yeesh.) “Junior’s Farm” is a great rocker about a card game or something; all those guitars, that ending—another of his more underrated tracks. This was Jimmy McCulloch’s first appearance on a Wings record, and listening to it now just shows off what a great guitarist he was. “Hi Hi Hi” was an early attempt of Paul’s trying to come off as a rebel, and it worked, suggestive lyrics and all. “Mull Of Kintyre” did nothing in the States, but managed to break the record for the most copies sold in the UK. (The previous champion? “She Loves You”. Paul’s record would stand until “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, which features his voice on its B-side.) It’s a nice three-chord pub singalong, complete with bagpipes. As for the rest, not all of the hits are here, but the ones that do appear in their longer album tracks. (And while there were no lyrics in the package, he did include yet another two-sided poster.)
For telling the story up to this point, Wings Greatest succeeds. It’s since been surpassed by other compilations, but it’s still a nice artifact from the days before McCartney could be accused of shilling empty “product”.

Wings Wings Greatest (1978)—4

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Beatles 21: Christmas Album

Every Christmas from 1963 to 1969, the official Beatles Fan Club sent its members a specially recorded flexi-disc, consisting of dialogue, comedy and exclusive music from the boys. Ranging from four to eight minutes, they were always a nice holiday surprise for the fans every year, along with the hit single and new album they hoped to find underneath their trees. In 1970, after the group had splintered for good, fans received an actual LP, consisting of all those flexi-discs, with a clever retrospective cover to boot.
In addition to being a lot of fun, The Beatles’ Christmas Album provides a fairly descriptive arc of their career. 1963’s message is excited and fresh, with the boys breathlessly thanking their fans for making them famous. 1964’s greeting is similar, but with a bit more wry humor sneaking in between the songs and speeches. By 1965, they’re just as exhausted as they are restless to do something new, making the humor even more pointed (doubtlessly helped by all the pot they were smoking). The turning point arrives in 1966, where the straight talk is replaced with a collection of short skits, bookended by the original “Everywhere It’s Christmas” and featuring the unique performance of “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back”.
1967’s message takes the idea further, combining a Monty Python-esque sendup of BBC programming with the slightly psychedelic group original “Christmas Time Is Here Again!” interspersed in and out, along with such other jingles as “Plenty Of Jam Jars” and “Get Wonderlust For Your Trousers”. It was the last of the collaborative fan greetings; 1968’s disc—complete with an appearance by Tiny Tim—was recorded by each Beatle separately and edited together after the fact, as was the John-and-Yoko-heavy 1969 message. Even so, their personalities are consistent: Paul is musical; Ringo is a clown; George thanks their closest friends for sticking with them; and John is consumed with his public personal life.
Since EMI has the rights to holiday-themed songs by John, Paul, and George, logic would suggest that an official Beatles Christmas CD, expanded or not, would be a perennial holiday best seller. As it is, these seven tracks, a continuously entertaining 45 minutes of speech, skits and song, lead the short list of Beatle recordings fans would like to see officially released, and their continual non-appearance remains a mystery. Except for a three-minute montage based around “Christmas Time Is Here Again!” included on a mid-‘90s CD single, a severe edit of the 1963 message that snuck out on iTunes in 2010, and two further minutes buried on Spotify five years after that, none of these messages have been in print or distributed since 1970. Instead, its continual absence from legitimate shelves has led to The Beatles’ Christmas Album being endlessly counterfeited and pirated over the years. Some of the better-packaged bootlegs contain all of the messages in pristine sound, with various relevant outtakes to fill up the disc. With just a little digging around cyberspace, these can be heard and enjoyed all year long.
(Footnote: even if the Fabs didn’t have much use for each other in the new decade, they retained fond memories of these little gestures for the fans. John and Yoko prepared a segment for a possible 1970 message just in case, followed a year later by the original “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, which is probably being played on a radio station somewhere at this very moment. Also doubtlessly saturating the airwaves today is “Wonderful Christmastime”, Paul’s contribution to the genre, which has been wearing out its welcome since 1979. George’s “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was a 1974 single, and Ringo recorded a whole album of rock ‘n roll holiday tunes in 1999.)

The Beatles The Beatles’ Christmas Album (1970)—4
Current CD equivalent: none

Monday, December 22, 2008

Paul McCartney 9: London Town

Just when we were getting used to this new lineup of Wings, Paul and Linda didn’t make it through the sessions before being pared back to three. Denny Laine had been the only constant thus far, and they kindly rewarded him by including his picture on the cover and letting him sing and write more.
Much of London Town was recorded on a boat in the Caribbean where they could presumably smoke pot in peace, yet the bulk of the music still has a more continental flair to it. The title track has been described as the lost song from a Broadway show. It’s not unpleasant. One would think this has the other two guys on it, since the drums and screaming lead guitars sound too, well, polished. “Café On The Left Bank” takes us to Paris for some more foreign intrigue. “I’m Carrying” is too sweet for its own damn good. “Backwards Traveller” doesn’t do anything, and neither does the “Cuff Link” that’s about as clever as its title. “Children Children” is a nice kids’ song, but sits too close to the Michael Jackson homage “Girlfriend”. Paul wrote it for him, let him use it and began an acquaintance that would bite him in the ass in ten short years. The midsection with its nasty guitar solo salvages the tune. “I’ve Had Enough” is the first rocker here that would have worked onstage. But it’s pretty pointless.
“With A Little Luck” is too long, despite the creative use of the synthesizers. This was classic McCartney tailor-made for AM radio, except for his insistence on including the word “damn”. At the same time, “Famous Groupies” went right over most kids’ heads. It seems odd that Paul would sing about groupies at this stage in his career, not having seen one in over a decade; maybe the roadies had good stories. “Deliver Your Children” was a mild radio hit, another folk departure for Denny. “Name And Address” has a Sun rockabilly flavor to it, and though it was recorded before the death of Elvis Presley, it’s a fitting tribute. It also winds down to a halt right when it should and after the album has already worn thin. “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” does just that, sadly, and “Morse Moose And The Grey Goose” is his most pointless song since “Loup”. The first minute or so is good in a “Beware My Love” kind of way, but it just leaves the listener stranded in the middle of the sea.
With its poster, lyrics and custom labels, fans were getting spoiled with the packaging. Too bad the album doesn’t stand up to repeated listening. London Town was his longest album yet, so we get a lot of music packed into the grooves, but the recipe doesn’t seem prepared correctly. Not enough salt? The good moments were starting to become farther between, if not necessarily fewer. (The CD includes the rocking and risqué “Girls’ School”, a contemporary B-side. We will discuss the A-side shortly.)

Wings London Town (1978)—
1989 CD reissue: same as 1978, plus 1 extra track

Friday, December 19, 2008

Beatles 20: The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl

It had been common knowledge for years that the boys’ concerts at the Hollywood Bowl were professionally recorded, yet had sat in the can due to the equivalent sound levels of Beatle vocals (when the mikes worked), instruments and several thousand fans. By 1977, great strides had been made in sound separation, so George Martin sat down with tapes from one 1964 show and two 1965 shows, and managed to combine them into a fairly cohesive unit just over half an hour. Although the result of the combination was something of a compromise, thanks of the quality of the recording compared to audience tapes of other shows, The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl has endured as a definitive document of a time long past.
Of course, there were plenty of other live performances captured for posterity, at the very least visually. The 1965 Shea Stadium concert and a few 1966 Tokyo concerts were expertly filmed and broadcast, and most of their final show from Candlestick Park in 1966 has been circulating for years. But for reasons known only to Apple, none of these have been cleared for official release, either on audio or video. (There is another entity of live recordings that have managed to sneak into the racks of legitimate record dealers. The 1962 Hamburg tapes began their interminable saturation around the same time as the Hollywood Bowl set. The first release on the Lingasong label usually gets mentioned in the official discographies; the music itself is nothing special, while it has its moments, again, as a historical artifact.)
It took nearly four full decades for the Hollywood Bowl album to be re-released, and then as a tie-in with a major motion picture helmed by Opie Cunningham. Decent-sounding bootlegs had demonstrated the occasional sloppy performance, repetition and equipment malfunction throughout each of the performances, though only the most naïve of Beatlemaniacs would expect Apple to issue a complete show from either year, at any price. Instead, the 1977 album was reissued in its original hodgepodge sequence, remixed from better quality tapes to bring out more of the music, with four extra songs tacked on at the end (one of which had already appeared on a CD single in the Anthology era). Even the original cover, with its understated charm, was changed to hype the movie.
Nitpicking aside, the music is great, right from the abbreviated blast through “Twist And Shout”. Six of the songs are covers, songs they’d been playing for years. We can already hear waning enthusiasm on the parts of John and George, but their attitude didn’t dilute their strumming capabilities. George’s 12-string Rickenbacker dominates the 1964 tracks, and boy, does it shimmer. John always seemed to screw up the lyrics to “Help!”, but listen to Paul’s bass while he’s singing “All My Loving”, and marvel at the power of “Things We Said Today”. To this day we don’t know why, of all the songs they could’ve chosen, “Baby’s In Black” was a staple of their set, but there it is and there the new album ends—much too quickly, just like their concerts.

The Beatles The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl (1977)—
2016 Live At The Hollywood Bowl: same as 1977, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Paul McCartney 8: Wings Over America

By now Paul had truly emerged as the champion, to the point where younger fans might not have been aware he was in a band before Wings. Just in time for Christmas, Wings Over America contained a blemish-free version of every song performed on Paul’s first American visit in ten years. And the crowds went wild. (Supposedly there was some studio tinkering between the recording and mixing stages, but this has not been authenticated.) It’s a good package, even if most of the songs sound identical to the album versions. The original six sides are neatly divided, with piano sections, acoustic sections, Beatle detours and “our new album”.
Appropriately the “Venus And Mars/Rock Show” medley starts it all, going directly into “Jet” when we least expect it. It’s a good rocking start to the set. Side two starts with the version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” that was released as a single, complete with extended ending. It was the best choice. “Lady Madonna” and “The Long And Winding Road” excite the crowds, before the pyrotechnics of “Live And Let Die”.
Side three is acoustic. “Picasso’s Last Words” is started, going into Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory” sung by Denny for some reason. A few more Beatle hits round out the side. Denny also gets to sing his Moody Blues hit “Go Now”, amidst some more piano songs on side four.
Side five is devoted to the new album, with four strong choices for the crowd: the hits “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs”, Denny’s “Time To Hide” and a blistering “Beware My Love”. Side six is back to the rocking encores. “Hi Hi Hi” makes its first album appearance, as does “Soily”, a Wings live staple for years, never included on any other album.
The packaging of Wings Over America was quite complex, with custom sleeves, labels and posters, and the album as a whole is a good souvenir of a good night out. One truly gets a sense of the excitement of seeing one of the biggest bands of the Seventies that also happened to feature a Beatle. And the official Wings horn section doesn’t get in the way at all.
Its popularity among fans probably had something to do with why it was unveiled as part of the ongoing Paul McCartney Archive Collection in 2013. This time there was only a standard two-CD package with no extras, unless you bought it from Best Buy, where you got a third disc with eight slightly shaky songs recorded on the tour at the Cow Palace. That was also an extra in the Deluxe Edition box, which also added the Wings Over The World TV special on a DVD, three thick books and other ephemera. (Meanwhile, the Rockshow feature film was concurrently issued as a separate DVD.) Interestingly, after all that effort to establish Wings as an entity unto itself, the spine for the CD now plainly lists the artist as Paul McCartney and Wings.

Wings Wings Over America (1976)—
2013 Archive Collection: same as 1976 (Deluxe Edition adds 8 extra tracks and DVD)

Monday, December 15, 2008

George Harrison 7: Best Of and Thirty-Three & ⅓

Capitol had just begun the repackaging campaign, plus George was on his way to Warner Bros. by way of A&M. So they decided to seize the moment and exploit George’s continuing commercial status. In their minds, The Best Of George Harrison would include Beatles songs so they put seven of them on side one, none of them rare, some already repackaged. Side two includes all of his solo A-sides save “Ding Dong”, though it did include the studio version of “Bangla Desh”. Even Ringo got a full (albeit short) two sides to himself, but he’d actually had more hits. This was just a quick holiday cash-in to compete with his next “real” album.

Originally intended to coincide with his 33⅓rd birthday, Thirty-Three & ⅓ was trumpeted at the time as his best album since his first. Today, it’s hard to see why. Granted, the songs are back to a tempo that gets your toes tapping, but several years on it has dated badly, just as Paul’s contemporary disco arrangements have. “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” may have been started in 1969, but the recording is all 1976 thump. “Dear One” is a more pleasant hymn, but the synthesizer torpedoes it. “Beautiful Girl” was intended for All Things Must Pass, and gives support for the idea that he really ought to consider the other songs he never finished for that album. “This Song” is one of his best, a fantastic defense of his writing process that, at the time, had been costing him money and leaving him in litigation. Here again is the humor that had been so lacking of late. “See Yourself” also dates from the Maharishi era, but stumbles around too much to be appreciated.
“It’s What You Value” is filled with hooks and a very enthusiastic vocal, but goes nowhere. “True Love” is soaked in what had become George’s trademark sound, but is actually a Cole Porter tune. (In all seriousness, George should be commended for exposing his listeners to all kinds of music they’d otherwise ignore.) “Pure Smokey” is a retread of the last album’s “Ooh Baby”, literally thanking God for Smokey Robinson. “Crackerbox Palace” is the other hit, and a catchy one; the arrangement for once actually enhances the song. “Learning How To Love You” closes us out, and he finally gets the sound he wanted on the last album right. The jazz chords fit the vocal, and the guitar solo is virtuosic without showboating. But do you really feel like hearing the whole album again?
Besides producing others and helping out friends, George stayed busy for most of the ‘70s, and had let the public hear quite a bit of music. But the promise he seemed to exude when finally allowed to shine on his own six short years earlier seemed to dim. Despite his continued success, his laissez-faire attitude towards the pop business was about to take serious root.

George Harrison The Best Of George Harrison (1976)—4
Current CD availability: none
George Harrison Thirty-Three & ⅓ (1976)—
2004 Dark Horse Years reissue: same as 1976, plus 1 extra track

Friday, December 12, 2008

Beatles 19: Rock ‘N’ Roll Music and Love Songs

While the Beatles’ individual recording contracts expired in 1976, EMI retained the rights to the band’s recordings, and so began the next wave of sporadic catalog raidings. But now they had the added marketing challenge of getting fans to buy songs they had already. So each of the original singles—which had never been deleted—got a shiny new picture sleeve, and the Rock ‘N’ Roll Music collection came out just in time to cash in on the Helter Skelter TV movie about the Manson trials. In a year where Paul was defending his tendency toward silly love songs all the way to #1, here was a two-record set designed to prove that the boys could rock. Funnily enough, the bulk of the songs come from 1963 and 1964, when they were considered a “pop combo”, with a handful of much “heavier” songs on side four coming from the later years. Moreover, many of the songs were covers. For collectors, only a few songs were repeated from the Red and Blue albums, plus this was the very first LP appearance of “I’m Down”. Purists cried foul at the contemporary mix by George Martin, while the artwork leaned too close to ‘50s Happy Days nostalgia. John had supposedly offered to do a cover, yet Capitol declined, which is a shame. (The album was later split up into two budget LPs with new but nearly identical covers, and sold pretty well in the wake of John’s murder.)

Another two-record rehash appeared in 1977, and just in time for Christmas too. Love Songs was to serve as the other side to the rock ‘n roll, but the novelty was starting to wane. Eight out of 25 tracks were on the Red or Blue albums, and come to think of it, picking out specific Beatles songs as examples of love songs is about as logical as picking rock ‘n roll songs. The packaging had a faux-leather motif, and a thick book with all the lyrics in calligraphy added to the candy bar/photo album idea that had been beaten into the ground already by Chicago. The famous Richard Avedon photo on the emblem, gatefold and poster was retouched so Paul’s head is bigger than the others (he being the only Beatle still signed to EMI in 1977).

Both albums garner a satisfactory rating solely on the basis of the music within. Neither of these collections has been retooled for CD and probably never will be. Nor should they be.

The Beatles Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (1976)—3
Current CD equivalent: none
The Beatles Love Songs (1977)—3
Current CD equivalent: none

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paul McCartney 7: Wings At The Speed Of Sound

Somehow Paul managed to throw together another album in between touring various countries around the world. The packaging on Wings At The Speed Of Sound wasn’t as lavish as on its predecessors, except for the custom labels, and he gave half the space on the rest of the album to the other band members. He’d been trying to prove to the world that Wings was a band for five years, and now he had the clout to do it.
“Let ‘Em In” is an awfully tedious song that managed to be a hit anyway, and we’re still not sure why it works. Most of the people mentioned are McCartney family members. Denny Laine sings “The Note You Never Wrote”, a spooky tale that is interesting despite itself. The jaunty “She’s My Baby” follows, and it’s also grown over the years. “Beware My Love” fades up from this, with an early acoustic vocal section as a diversion, then wham! This one was made for the stage. It’s got a relentless, driving power to it, and the band sounds great. “Wino Junko” is Jimmy McCulloch’s second, and ultimately, last writing contribution to Wings. Both songs warned against drug abuse; considering he would die of an overdose within two years it’s odd he didn’t take his own advice.
“Silly Love Songs” has 1976 slathered all over it, and is one of those songs you can’t help liking. The bass line pulls you right along, and all the sections weave nicely at the end. This is Paul sticking his tongue out at the critics, and getting a blockbuster #1 hit in the process. Linda sings “Cook Of The House” to nobody’s pleasure but Paul’s, followed by Denny’s own “Time To Hide”, which would also work well on stage; another stomper with heavy wah-wah guitar. Joe English gets to sing “Must Do Something About It”; he’s about as unique a singer as he is a drummer. (It’s interesting to see which songs Paul kept for himself, isn’t it?) “San Ferry Anne” is insignificant, and simply refuses. But “Warm And Beautiful” is another sneaky underrated one, extending the “Maybe I’m Amazed” theme both musically and lyrically. An elegant if anticlimactic end to a schizophrenic album.
A world tour was underway when this hit the stores, and the setlist leaned heavily on this and Venus And Mars. The best songs on stage were also used well as hit singles. Wings At The Speed Of Sound was a monster hit, but was also an obvious rush job, and has not improved with age as a whole. Paul had started to follow trends instead of setting them, so that increasingly his albums didn’t transcend eras or genres as they depended so much on contemporary production styles.
The first CD version of the album included three anachronistic bonuses: the B-side “Sally G” and both sides of the Country Hams single, all recorded in Nashville in 1974 and originally released the same year. These have since been appended to Venus And Mars, so the bonus audio on 2014’s Speed Of Sound Archive Collection is entirely previously unreleased. At 21 minutes, it’s also too short, but we get piano demos of four songs, Paul’s guide vocal for “Must Do Something About It” and, most interestingly, a take of “Beware My Love” with John Bonham on drums. At first he seems restrained, but once that foot starts going you know it’s him.

Wings Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976)—3
1989 CD reissue: same as 1976, plus 3 extra tracks
2014 Archive Collection: same as 1976, plus 7 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds DVD)

Monday, December 8, 2008

John Lennon 8: Shaved Fish

John had made some mutterings about a new album, but never got around to recording anything. Instead, he stayed home and let his contract finish with a hits collection. Shaved Fish was the first gap-filling Lennon compilation, and the one that is still the model for all the others that have come since. What we have here is a very well-rounded look at John’s solo career, which at the time of original release was only six years long. (Each of the songs had been singles, although “Stand By Me” was not included.)
The idea of bookending the album with short, different excerpts of “Give Peace A Chance” is interesting, but most of us would prefer to have the complete single version. After an almost pastoral opening, it’s jarring to have “Cold Turkey” blast through one’s head. John was irritated that the Beatles didn’t want this to be their single—and can you blame them?—but it’s still a key document of his autobiography in song. “Instant Karma!”, distorted as it is, is still a joyful number, and a strong candidate for anyone’s fantasy late-1970 Beatle album. “Power To The People” always seemed out of place, though it’s intriguing to hear him change his mind about revolution yet again. Side one ends with the single edits of “Mother” and “Woman Is The…”, while side two is all album tracks with the exception of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. Since 1980 this, like “Imagine”, has come close to wearing out its welcome every December, but it’s still such a nice song with such a neat production (listen for the stings playing “Silent Night” over the second chorus). Several folks have recorded their own carbon copy versions, but there’s no beating the original. The fade here is smothered by a cacophonous segment of “Give Peace A Chance” from the 1972 One-to-One concerts. (And if you’re keeping score, “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” appears in a slightly shorter single edit.)
In 1975 we had no idea this would be his last release for five years, nor would we imagine it would be the second to last release in John’s lifetime, which only adds to its stature. It is very convenient to have these singles here, for they add to the flow of the running order. Other compilations since released are more complete, but this still was the first. (It fits comfortably on one side of a 90-minute blank tape too, which is also convenient.)

John Lennon Shaved Fish (1975)—4

Friday, December 5, 2008

George Harrison 6: Extra Texture

Arriving barely ten months after the Dark Horse album and tour, it was almost a shock to hear from George so soon. Extra Texture came complete with two grinning photos (one of which was knowingly captioned “OHNOTHIMAGEN”) and a cover designed to resemble the feel of a basketball, suggesting that he was enjoying this cockamamie business after all. However, that’s not the impression one gets listening to the actual album.
Easily, the best track is “You”, left over from the same Ronnie Spector sessions that had spawned “Try Some Buy Some”. This is an incredibly simple song, but it’s so pretty and such a great production it’s a success. (And he knew this too, which is why he added another thirty seconds of it at the start of side two.) From there, it’s straight downhill, hitting tree trunks and rocks along the way. “The Answer’s At The End” is another Frankie Crisp-inspired plea for understanding that is buried, like the rest of the album, underneath a plodding arrangement. “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” is the first of his occasional rewrites. It’s very similar to the far superior “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but pales in its shadow, being much more forced with a burping Moog bass part borrowed from “Jive Talkin’”. “Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You)” is an inaudible salute to Smokey Robinson, and while “World Of Stone” aspires to emulate the Spectorisms of All Things Must Pass, it misses widely.
The aforementioned “A Bit More Of You” fades into “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”. Perhaps he was so consumed by the one of whom he was thinking that he couldn’t write better lyrics. “Tired Of Midnight Blue” is a step in the right direction, but its arrangement sounds so much like the rest of the clinkers here that it’s too late. “Grey Cloudy Lies” also can’t get us out of the driveway, so we’re stuck with the in-joke of “His Name Is Legs (Ladies & Gentlemen)”. The protagonist—and guest vocalist—is supposed to be one hilarious fellow, but this does nothing to illustrate it, taking six minutes to boot.
Most of the songs on Extra Texture are upbeat in a smooth soul manner, with a lot of romance on his mind. But outside of “You”, there is little of any lasting value on this collection. He neatly finished off his obligation to Apple, and said goodbye with an eaten-away logo. Despite its occasional subtitle (“Read All About It”), the album doesn’t inspire much interest today. When the Harrison estate finally got around to reissuing it in the next century, the only value-add even they could find was an unreleased re-recording of “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying) produced by the poor man’s Jeff Lynne, Dave Stewart.

George Harrison Extra Texture (1975)—2
2014 Apple Years reissue: same as 1975, plus 1 extra track

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Paul McCartney 6: Venus And Mars

His confidence restored (and Capitol’s too, as they re-signed him with a pile of cash they didn’t offer the Other Three after Apple folded), Paul picked up a lead guitarist with a similar name to the last one and two drummers in rapid succession. Venus And Mars is more of a rock album, and had a little more input from the new members. (He also reverted the band name to just Wings and racked up a pile of 45-only tracks that would be welcome in an album context.)
The proceedings start like his concerts would, with the almost pastoral title track colliding into the stomping “Rock Show”. Can you name any other song that mentions Jimmy Page? The “oi” section, silly as it is, still brings a smile and the piano part at the end almost makes up for the voiceover. “Love In Song” sneaks up on you, and it’s achingly gorgeous. It’s one of those underrated classics that he manages to put on every album. “You Gave Me The Answer” fits in with his music hall tunes from ‘67 and ‘68, and is real sweet. From there we go to the Marvel Comics world of “Magneto And Titanium Man”, and one of his best album sides ends with the FM rock of “Letting Go” (there’s that Rickenbacker bass).
Side two isn’t nearly as strong. “Venus And Mars (Reprise)” puts us in space with the “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt”. Denny Laine sings this one, and it makes absolutely no sense, but it was designed to Rock so that will have to do. Jimmy McCulloch sings his own “Medicine Jar” (more on that topic later), a very heavy tune. “Call Me Back Again” tries in vain to recapture the “Oh! Darling” sound; the production makes up for it. If he wrote it just to play it on stage, that makes sense, since he was doing all he could to avoid the Beatles songs as much as he could. After an interminable fadeout, what sounds like a Wolfman Jack impression but probably isn’t goes from speaker to speaker right into “Listen To What The Man Said”. This is another classic McCartney song, though to this day we still don’t know who the man is or what he’s telling us. The saxophone is a lot of fun, and coming from someone who hates saxophones and Tom Scott as a rule, that means something. The panoramic ending takes us right into “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”, yet another example of Paul fitting two unrelated songs together because he can. The joke at the end of this album is the theme to the British soap opera “Crossroads”, which sounds like it might as well be a McCartney melody. “And that’s basically it.”
Venus And Mars set out to Rock, so it succeeds on that score. Putting all the pieces together it makes mathematical sense, but doesn’t seem to inspire many listens these days. Paul now had enough tunes and a heavy-hitting band to take on the road for the sole purpose of ruling the coliseums for the next 18 months. Also, following the lead of Band On The Run, this one upped the ante with two posters, stickers, gatefold and lyrics; the CD didn’t have those but added some later B-sides recorded around the same time.
The Archive Collection filled in a lot of the extra work and music that led up to the eventual album, starting with the excellent “Junior’s Farm”/“Sally G” single. Both had been recorded in Nashville, along with an instrumental single released under the moniker The Country Hams. Other B-sides and single mixes are mingled with demos of “Let’s Love” and “4th Of July”, both given away to other singers, and a rocking take of “Soily”.

Wings Venus And Mars (1975)—
1988 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2014 Archive Collection: same as 1975, plus 13 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds DVD)

Monday, December 1, 2008

John Lennon 7: Rock ‘N’ Roll

The existence of this album necessitates some background. By the time Mind Games had come out, John was already in LA drinking heavily and trying to record his favorite moldy oldies with Phil Spector. After that went badly, he wrote the songs that became Walls And Bridges and moved back to New York. The oldies project was more or less in limbo, and this album probably wouldn’t have come out when it did if not for some further odd turns of events. But once he’d decided to finish it for good, the remainder of the recordings went relatively quickly. The result was a surprisingly cohesive mix of the LA debacle and the NY fix-it job.
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” kicks us off fairly simply. (It also happens to be one of the songs John was singing the day he met Paul.) “Stand By Me” follows; it’s this version of that has become the pop standard most people know and love. His trademark reggae-strumming style (see “A Day In The Life”) sets the pace, and he turns in one of his greatest vocals ever, cementing his as one of the best voices in rock. “Ain’t That A Shame” and “Slippin’ And Slidin’” are fantastic, and the two medleys are effective yet faithful juxtapositions, but it’s the other twisty ones that still raise eyebrows. Most, but not all, of these tracks can be blamed on Spector, who thought it would be a good idea to slow down these tunes to dirge tempo. The percussion effects, like the cowbells and that thudding sound straight out of “Rock On” by David Essex, may have worked in the ‘70s, but only annoy ears today. “Do You Want To Dance” sounds like Bette Midler, and that’s not meant kindly. “Bony Moronie” just doesn’t work at anything less than top speed. “Just Because” was Phil’s idea (John hadn’t heard it before the first sessions), but John finished it at the New York sessions, effectively saying goodbye to that crazy show business.
Rock ‘N’ Roll doesn’t get as much play as his others, mostly because it’s so disjointed and partly because it’s not insightful lyrically. But his heart is in every note, which makes it above average. He probably could have recorded five more albums’ worth of his favorite songs from his youth, but again, this didn’t turn out like he’d envisioned it, and was essentially released to combat a marginally legal bootleg. (The 2004 CD reissue boasts improved sound, a handful of photos, nothing more in the way of liner notes, and dubious extra tracks: three songs from side one of the 1986 compilation Menlove Ave. and an faded-in reprise of “Just Because” seemingly included for name-checking the Other Three.)

John Lennon Rock ‘N’ Roll (1975)—3
2004 remaster: same as 1975, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, November 28, 2008

Neil Young 19: Trans

Obviously needing some kind of inspiration, Neil signed a new contract with onetime associate David Geffen, and went off to Hawaii to start an album to be called Island In The Sun. Halfway through he changed tack and started working with synthesizers and vocoders, ending up with a hodgepodge of a mess supported by various players cherry-picked from previous bands. The resulting Trans suffers from contemporary sheen that sounded dated a year later, as well as the use of Stephen Stills percussionist Joe Lala—always a bad idea.
“Little Thing Called Love” is a congenial stab at a Neil Young song that doesn’t work, but it’s put here to prepare us for what comes next. “Computer Age” has some cool chords amidst the techno effects, but the pseudo-operatic vocals fail. “We R In Control” is laughably bad. “Transformer Man” is the highlight of the album, with operatic vocals that actually enhance the melody. “Computer Cowboy” starts out with promise, but is just awful.
“Hold On To Your Love”, combined with the other similarly titled songs, doesn’t inspire any need to hear the rest of the abandoned Island In The Sun project. “Sample And Hold” makes its point early—it’s literally about computer dating—then beats it senseless. The remake of “Mr. Soul” sounds like a demo to see if his new equipment worked. “Like An Inca” takes back the original Island In The Sun idea and mixes it with his Indian infatuation, but again, it just doesn’t do anything. Can we still blame it on Joe Lala?
To appreciate where he was coming from with the whole computer idea, we must consider that the album was a reaction to living with a child who couldn’t communicate in the traditional fashion. But that doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy. Fans were perplexed, critics were nasty, and his new record company was already getting nervous.

Neil Young Trans (1982)—2

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Neil Young 18: Re-ac-tor

Nobody outside his immediate circle knew it, but music wasn’t at the forefront of Neil’s mind in the early ‘80s. He and his wife were busy trying to raise a non-communicative palsy-stricken child. The desperation they felt on a daily basis was reflected in the odd albums that surfaced periodically.
Re-ac-tor has a lot going for it; Crazy Horse, for one. It’s a rock album all the way through, but for the most part it just doesn’t do anything. “Opera Star” uses the F-word for the first time on a Neil album. “Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze” apparently about two label executives. But “T-Bone” is an awfully nasty trick. It’s the same riff over and over, with the same seven words repeated on top of it for nine minutes. What’s worse, the track starts mid-progress, so you know they’d been playing it a while. “Get Back On It” has a piano, which breaks up the monotony a bit. That’s the first side.
“Southern Pacific” offers a little more variety, and as a train song, would work slightly better a few years down the road in the Farm Aid format. “Motor City” sounds too much like everything else to stand out. “Rapid Transit” uses a cool riff and stammering effects so we remember it. “Shots” is probably the best tune here, a complete assault that is the polar opposite to the acoustic version first heard in the Rust Never Sleeps era.
Another one of the “Missing 6”, Re-ac-tor was allowed to get dusty before finally appearing on CD in the new century. It didn’t help.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Re-ac-tor (1981)—

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pete Townshend 2: Rough Mix

This exceptionally likable album is an underappreciated gem in the Who-related canon. Recorded between their last great album and Keith Moon’s last gasp, Rough Mix is a joint effort coming out of a favor from Pete for Ronnie Lane, and provides a pleasant distraction from the heavier subjects Pete had come to tackle. A lot of that influence came from Ronnie, who’d been indulging his gypsy musician longings since the demise of the Faces. Only two songs here appear to be true collaborations: the instrumental title track which serves as a base for a smoking Eric Clapton solo; and the closing cover of “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”, a tribute of sorts to Meher Baba, their personal guru. However, their individual contributions sit comfortably together, giving the proceedings the air of a pleasant afternoon pub conversation between friends.
Of Pete’s songs, the orchestrated “Street In The City” hasn’t aged well, but the rest rank with his best: the rocking “My Baby Gives It Away”, featuring Charlie Watts on drums; the searching “Keep Me Turning”; the self-deflating “Misunderstood”; and the sinewy “Heart To Hang Onto”, wherein he trades verses with Ronnie, giving the album a needed boost towards the end. Who fans will love Pete’s songs, of course, but for the newcomer, Ronnie’s tracks will be a nice surprise, from the jaunty “Nowhere To Run” and “Catmelody” to the sweet and pretty “Annie”.
Rough Mix is a minor yet pleasant album that consistently rewards future listens. Pete’s own affection for the album showed with the deluxe treatment it got upon its remastering in 2006, which includes a DVD layer with a mini-documentary, tons of photos from the sessions and a SACD audio mix of the tracks, complete with a full ending for “Annie” with jokey in-studio comments about the last chord. Of the bonus tracks, two are Ronnie’s and another, “Good Question”, is a full band version of the instrumental previously known as “Brrr”, which fanatics knew from Scoop.

Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane Rough Mix (1977)—4
2006 DualDisc reissue: same as 1977, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, November 21, 2008

Who 12: The Who By Numbers

As the seventies rolled on, Pete slaved over the Tommy soundtrack, began losing his hair and—gasp!—turned 30. These were all pretty traumatic events, so he was pretty pissed off. He wrote a pile of songs that clearly illustrated his frustration with his station in life. The Who took the best of them and turned what could have been a Townshend solo album into their last good album, The Who By Numbers.
“Slip Kid” is apparently a Lifehouse demo with lyrics that sound like Quadrophenia’s Jimmy is still wandering the railway platform. “Squeeze Box” was a joke that, to Pete’s horror, the band took as their own and the public made a hit. “However Much I Booze” is an overt statement of pointlessness from its author, while “Dreaming From The Waist” takes the same basic structure but has a bit more going for it to get the frustration across. “Imagine A Man” works on several levels—apocalyptic, personal, pleading. What it actually means is vague, but Roger puts just enough into it to make it compelling.
John starts side two with “Success Story”, another sardonic look at the pitfalls of fame that fits perfectly with the themes of the rest of the album. This goes into the pretty-on-the-surface “They Are All In Love”; when you dig in you find a nasty song about said pitfalls. “Blue Red And Grey” takes Pete out on the terraces with his ukulele before wondering “How Many Friends” he’s really got. “In A Hand Or A Face” takes a riff heard earlier on the idiotic B-side “Wasp Man” and takes us down and down the drain.
It may be hard to relate to a good deal of The Who By Numbers if you can’t figure what’s made Pete so mad. But it’s a grower, with fantastic performances all around, not to mention excellent, timeless production by Glyn Johns and good old Nicky Hopkins on piano. Plus, it’s got that great cover art. After all that came later, this was a pinnacle the band has never been able to scale again. (Apparently there were no studio outtakes, so the reissued CD adds some live tracks from the era. The band still had their moments, but with Keith’s decline they couldn’t maintain the grandeur they’d enjoyed years before.)

The Who The Who By Numbers (1975)—4
1996 remaster: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Elvis Costello 22: North

Despite a career spent dabbling in countless musical styles, whenever Elvis put out an album that didn’t include another clone of “Pump It Up”, it got slammed. North had the honor of being named on lists for both the best and the worst albums of 2003 in Entertainment Weekly. The key complaint raised there, and all over the Internet, is that the album doesn’t have any melodies, which is horse-hockey. North is full of melodies, and gorgeous ones too, with arrangements are closer to such classic torch song collections as Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely.
Though he was quick to say otherwise, the album was written and recorded in the wake of his separation and subsequent divorce from his (second) wife of 17 years, followed by his romance with Diana Krall, a respected singer/pianist known for her reverent versions of jazz standards (not unlike the contents of this album). Whatever the inspiration, it’s still a haunting song cycle examining the arc from love lost to love found.
After a swirl of strings that functions as a prelude, “You Left Me In The Dark” is a fairly straightforward statement of melancholy solitude. “Someone Took The Words Away” goes even deeper, with an extended sax solo that brings to mind Tom Waits’ beatnik era. “When Did I Stop Dreaming?” breaks out of the startled mood with an arrangement worthy of Tony Bennett, followed by the brief but effective “You Turned To Me”. “Fallen”, the album’s best song, evokes the images of leaves falling from trees, with a plea for “someone to shake me loose” out of despair. “When It Sings” is loaded with clever rhymes and oblique wordplay, accompanied by punctuating strings.
“Still” is a rare display of tenderness from a guy known for songs about jealousy. Lest we feel we’re eavesdropping, he chooses to hold his joy close to his chest in “Let Me Tell You About Her”, featuring rhymes straight out of Cole Porter. “Can You Be True?” goes back to Sinatra territory, and “When Green Eyes Turn Blue” has all the hallmarks of a Big Finish, from its grand arrangement and dramatic strings to the perfect ending. But the last word goes to “I’m In The Mood Again”, in which the narrator slings his coat over his shoulder, his hat at a jaunty angle, and wanders among the lampposts out of Manhattan, happy again. (There was a title track of sorts, only available via a download ticket. It’s just as well; the song—like two others included as bonus tracks overseas—is more of an afterthought or B-side that really doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. )
North is a successful experiment, and fine accompaniment for dusky autumn evenings with a bottle of red wine. This was not the first time he’d put so many low-key ballads together; every album from his first (remember “Alison”?) has had its share. Its closest relative in the canon would be Painted From Memory, another album that pissed off many in his fan base. Those who gave it a chance—and to this day it still divides the faithful—were happy to have it.

Elvis Costello North (2003)—4

Monday, November 17, 2008

Elvis Costello 21: When I Was Cruel

Outside of a few songs written for soundtracks, Elvis’s biggest project at the close of the century was producing an album for opera singer Anna Sofie von Otter, which nobody but Costello fans bought. There were a few new Costello compositions on there, but they’re rendered by a renowned soprano instead of the snarl we’d grown to love.
Finally, after the better part of four years, news of a new album emerged, with the promise of something loud and a tour with two-thirds of the Attractions, now dubbed the Imposters. Yet somehow something was missing. Or was there simply not enough variety? The over-hyped When I Was Cruel features distracting drum machines, dissonant free jazz, a lot of ranting and precious little melody.
There are highlights to be found: the rocking autobiography “45”; “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s A Doll Revolution)”, apparently written for a proposed TV show about a female pop group that solves crimes; the biting “Alibi”, which recalled Elvis at his angry best; and the impenetrable but snappy “My Little Blue Window”. Those, however, were balanced badly by such masterworks as “Spooky Girlfriend” (which would have been better left to No Doubt), the twin litanies of the title track and “Episode Of Blonde”, two similar yet different stabs at a song called “Dust” and other songs that prove it wasn’t enough for Elvis to be loud; he had to be good, too.
The album got varying reviews, from praises to pans, and the bonus of the Cruel Smile curio by year’s end didn’t help. A collection of contemporary B-sides—mostly odd remixes—and live tracks, it was nearly redeemed by the inclusion of the original When I Was Cruel title track that had been scratched in favor of the plodding rewrite, along with “Oh Well”, which had already been issued in some countries. (Also, Rhino had started their re-release program, with similar bonus discs added to the albums proper, so there was plenty of other Elvis in 2002 to enjoy if this didn’t float your boat.) But at least he was working again.

Elvis Costello When I Was Cruel (2002)—
Elvis Costello & The Imposters Cruel Smile (2002)—2

Friday, November 14, 2008

Who 11: Odds & Sods

Their last two album releases were literal and figurative looks back, and while Pete and Roger were busy scoring and starring in the Tommy film, John compiled Odds & Sods, an album that served to clear up the rarities closet. It didn’t scratch the surface, of course, but at least it brought some of the better unreleased tracks out that had previously been sentenced to obscurity.
“Postcard” is a weary snapshot from the road, based on John’s usual chromatic riffs. By the end of the song you can’t imagine why anyone would want to be in a band. “Now I’m A Farmer” is an oddity that started in the pre-Tommy period, but it doesn’t seem to be about anything but growing weed. “Put The Money Down” is a tough leftover from the post-Lifehouse sessions, and would have been a good single from the 1972 album that wasn’t finished. “Little Billy” comes from the post-Sell Out period wherein they started writing singles too long for advertisements. “Too Much Of Anything” was a key part of the Lifehouse story, whereas “Glow Girl” manages to bridge “Rael” (from Sell Out) and Tommy.
“Pure And Easy” is the Who’s version of the song heard on Pete’s solo album, and the best song left off of Who’s Next; in this context it’s just another song. “Faith In Something Bigger” is from 1968, just before Pete found Baba. “I’m The Face” deflates this search, as it was the band’s first single (as the High Numbers). “Naked Eye” developed out of the lengthy “My Generation” jams, the like of which had been captured on Live At Leeds; this studio recording isn’t as good as the versions that arose out of those jams. And the classic “Long Live Rock” drags it all home.
Odds & Sods was a sprawling yet satisfying album, made even more so when it was resequenced chronologically for the 1990s reissue series, complete with more leftovers. However, the compilers had already shot themselves in the feet for allowing some of the original Odds & Sods tracks to be included on reissues of other albums, so the potential for the ultimate mop-up CD missed the mark. (They also chose some sloppy alternates to versions that would have been more welcome.) Still, we got rarities from their entire career up to 1974, including an early audition acetate, two Eddie Cochran covers recorded for Sell Out, and interesting rejects from Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia adding up to 75 minutes of fun, with liner notes. It could have been better, had some of the tracks not doubled up already (notably on Sell Out). But then again, nobody owed the fans anything.

The Who Odds & Sods (1974)—
1996 remaster: same as 1974, plus 12 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Led Zeppelin 10: Coda

While Page and Plant had already moved on with their own solo careers after Zeppelin ended, they still tried to give their old band proper closure. Coda was really an afterthought, a kind of “this is all we’ve got”, and while that’s not a completely correct statement, it’s fitting.
“We’re Gonna Groove” is a funky rave-up from a live performance, with the crowd mixed out. Plant’s vocals are buried beneath guitars and contemporary overdubs. “Poor Tom” is an acoustic-based experiment that would have worked as a B-side if they put out singles. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a burning live version that whets one’s appetite for more live stuff. “Walter’s Walk” is a pile of sludge from the Houses Of The Holy sessions, notable for sharing the riff used at the start of “Tea For One”.
Side two has much stronger material, with three tracks from the tail end of the In Through The Out Door sessions that were nearly issued as an EP while the band was still intact. “Ozone Baby” has a multilayered riff and an infectious lyric. “Darlene” is driven by the piano in two parts, the second being a boogie not unlike the doo-wop half of “The Ocean”. Included as a tribute to Bonham, “Bonzo’s Montreux” is a detour of a drum solo “treated” by Page with harmonizers and melodic effects that make it sound like steel drums singing “Whole Lotta Love”. “Wearing And Tearing” was the key tune from these final sessions, considered near-punk by the band. What it lacks in style it makes up in attitude. This is speed metal at its zaniest, with Plant screaming for “medication” over a fantastic production. It ends the project on a high note.
On the face of it, Coda should only be procured after all the others, but not ignored completely. It was a commercial success, if hardly satisfying at 33 minutes. Future CD reissues merely replicated the eight-song sequence, but for 1993’s Complete Studio Recordings box set, the Coda disc included four of the rare tracks from the other two box sets, which certainly added to both its total playing time and the overall listening experience. Still, it left the fan hungry for more of the studio tracks that had discreetly trickled out over the years.
Page kept the mystique in place for a long time, until finally expanding each of the studio albums in brisk order, reissuing all nine studio albums in the space of fourteen months. Coda was given the most love of all, adding over an hour’s worth (on not one but two companion discs) of alternate mixes and especially outtakes that were blatantly missing from the Deluxe Editions of the albums on which they were most expected. Highlights include “Sugar Mama”, a raveup from the first album sessions, re-recordings of “Four Sticks” and “Friends” with native Bombay instrumentation, an early take of “When The Levee Breaks” with the arrangement in place but months before they found the right stairwell for the drums, the funky Zeppelin III outtake “St. Tristan’s Sword”, an equally funky rough mix of “The Wanton Song”, and another variation on “Everybody Makes It Through”, a.k.a. “In The Light”. (The rare tracks from the box sets appeared here, rightfully, save the one that was also left off the BBC collection, to much teeth-gnashing around these parts.)

Led Zeppelin Coda (1982)—3
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1982, plus 15 extra tracks

Monday, November 10, 2008

Neil Young 17: Hawks & Doves

Neil finished the seventies on top. Then this happened. Hawks & Doves tries to do the same acoustic/electric flip-flop as Rust Never Sleeps, but instead doubles the mix/country pairing of American Stars ‘N Bars, though not as well.
It starts out promisingly enough. Side one has some castoffs from the mid-’70s thrown together in a way that fits. “Little Wing” is not the Hendrix tune, but pretty and light. “The Old Homestead” is a spooky saga, apparently recorded in the On The Beach era. (It’s even got a guy playing a saw!) While “Thrasher” was supposedly about CSNY, this has a character asking why he rides “that crazy horse”. Great lyrics, scary accompaniment, very cool. “Lost In Space” is a cute little experiment, with a non-linear structure, impenetrable words and a Munchkin chorus. “Captain Kennedy” is yet another Chrome Dreams leftover, very reminiscent of “New Mama” (from Tonight’s The Night) but somewhat less personal.
That’s a nice enough start, but then we get the generic soundalike country on side two. “Stayin’ Power” is the best, but it’s all downhill from here. “Union Man” is funny the first time through but never again, and the flag-waving of the title track would turn up again in his Farm Aid phase.
Even with the crazy solo experiments of the first side, the sum of Hawks & Doves equals less than the parts. And it’s only half an hour long in total to boot. Pointedly, it was out of print for several years—as one of the infamous “Missing 6”—before finally arriving on CD in 2003, overshadowed by On The Beach.

Neil Young Hawks & Doves (1980)—

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Robert Plant 1: Pictures At Eleven

The first year after the official demise of Led Zeppelin was fairly quiet. Then Jimmy Page released his soundtrack to the hideous Charles Bronson film Death Wish II, followed a few months later by Robert Plant’s first solo album. Pictures At Eleven sported a fashionable haircut, a Strat-heavy guitar player in Robbie Blunt and Phil Collins on drums, making for a very radio-friendly set.
As would be expected, the songs seemed to be something of a progression from the last Zeppelin album, with more synthesizers and a few vocals that explored Plant’s Arabic influences. Right away the stomp of “Burning Down One Side” pleased fans hungry for that old sound, with Robert in good voice. “Moonlight In Samosa” immediately offers quieter contrast, but its fake Spanish motif doesn’t convince. “Pledge Pin” immediately speeds back the pace with a modern riff and rhythm highlighting Phil’s rototoms, giving way for an extended sax break halfway through to the fade. With guest drummer Cozy Powell pounding away on the kit for eight minutes, “Slow Dancer” revives the mideastern melody of “Kashmir” without sounding at all like a ripoff. (If anything, it predicts the sound of Deep Purple’s comeback a few years down the road.)
On side two, “Worse Than Detroit” is a return to straightforward rock, with lots of slide and a verse sung to a telephone operator, but coming to a dead halt for a seemingly unrelated guitar and harmonica break. After five straight songs with heavy drums, “Fat Lip” gets its rhythm from a machine, sounding more like a demo. “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” comes off slightly overwrought at first, but becomes a favorite after enough plays, and a better version of the mood attempted with “Moonlight In Samosa”. (It’s also one of the few examples on the album of the song title actually used in the lyrics.) Finally, “Mystery Title” recycles the sound of “Pledge Pin” and “Worse Than Detroit” for a noisy conclusion.
Pictures At Eleven provides a good template for Robert to work on now that he didn’t have his old band anymore. It’s no masterpiece, but the songs are inoffensive, and it sure was comforting to hear that voice again. As his journey brought him to more non-commercial areas in the years to come, the album’s quality would become even more apparent. (Speaking of which, it took a whole 25 years until the remastered CD added, alongside a negligible live track, the underappreciated B-side “Far Post”, a terrific song that got its biggest exposure — about three seconds’ worth — in the film White Nights. It’s especially welcome as a closer, coming right after “Mystery Title”.)

Robert Plant Pictures At Eleven (1982)—3
2007 remastered CD: same as 1982, plus 2 extra tracks

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Jimmy Page 1: Death Wish II

After Led Zeppelin announced their breakup following the death of John Bonham, everything was quiet except the rumor mill. Amazingly the first of the survivors to surface was Jimmy Page, and in an unlikely fashion.
Death Wish II was the unexpected (after eight years) sequel to the notorious original thriller starring Charles Bronson. Now it was the ‘80s, his loved ones were still getting raped and murdered, and only he could avenge them. And this time, his theme music would be provided by Jimmy, with the soundtrack on Swan Song Records. Considering his last attempt to score a film didn’t get too far, he at least made the effort to buckle down this time.
“Who’s To Blame”, the opening track and main theme from the opening credits, sports a stomp and feel akin to “In The Evening” from In Through The Out Door, so that’s not too unexpected. Dave Mattacks, most famous from Fairport Convention, ably pounds the kit with Bonham-like power, but rather than Robert Plant’s familiar wail, we get Chris Farlowe, who has an extremely blustery, distracting voice. Being a soundtrack, vocals take a back seat to instrumental atmospheres, such as what we hear on “The Chase”. The credits on the inner sleeve are very helpful in noting who’s playing on what part of which track, particularly when it’s one of Jimmy’s synthesizers. Suspense is heightened and sustained, accordingly. “City Sirens” is sung weedily by Gordon Edwards, who played in the Swan Song incarnation of the Pretty Things, and is little more than a two-minute sketch of a song that might have been developed further in a band setting. And because it’s a soundtrack, tracks get titles like “Jam Sandwich”, which is little more than a riff. “Carole’s Theme” is pretty in its sadness, pretty when he plays the theme himself on acoustic. Another orchestral flourish leads to “The Release”, a decent theme for the closing credits, strangely ending side one.
Much of what’s left is further atmosphere. “Hotel Rats And Photostats” combines two sections, including what sounds like a fretless bass in a harbinger of things to come. More interesting is “Shadow In The City”, full of harmonics, bowed guitars and Theremin, and likely refugees from his unfinished Lucifer Rising soundtrack of ten years before. “Jill’s Theme” seemingly refers to the actress and not a character, and it’s a double shame that her theme is another tense orchestral demonstration. In contrast, “Prelude” (adapted from a Chopin piece but not credited that way) is a perfect showcase for Jimmy’s style, playing the teary melody over sympathetic keys and rhythm section. But then there’s “Big Band, Sax, And Violence”, which uses canned brass to represent the sound of the title. Finally, there’s a fairly generic rocker in the form of “Hypnotizing Ways (Oh Mamma)”, Farlowe’s vocals mixed thankfully low.
Being all we heard from Jimmy Page in those wilderness years, the Death Wish II soundtrack wasn’t immediately encouraging. Anyone who paid to see the film because of the connection would have been confronted by graphic violence and gang rapes, and subsequent playings of the album only bring them back. Still, it has it moments, specifically the Chopin prelude and one or two of the instrumentals, but it’s still not much easier to recommend than the actual film. (The album has been long out of print since its original release, with only Japan approving a CD in the late ‘90s. Jimmy himself distributed a pricey vinyl-only version via his website in 2011, deleting “Big Band, Sax, And Violence” and adding “Main Theme” at the end.)

Jimmy Page Death Wish II: The Original Soundtrack (1982)—2

Friday, November 7, 2008

George Harrison 5: Dark Horse

“Shaky” is a kind word for this collection, thrown together over three weeks for release a full 18 months after his last album to coincide with a tour for which he was not prepared. (Having had such accolades for the Bangla Desh concerts, he took a mutated version of it across America for Thanksgiving. There were several problems with this: having an extended Shankar section in the middle of the set sent most folks to the bathroom; Billy Preston using his ego to fill any parts of the stage not already dwarfed by his afro; Tom Scott; George trying to distract us from his hoarse voice with a rack full of hideous plaid pants.)
The Dark Horse album itself isn’t all it could have been. A quick glance at the lyrics forebodes of more sermonizing and half-baked Frankie Crisp proverbs. The opening “Hari’s On Tour (Express)” is a forecast of everything that would be wrong with his next batch of albums, but in this case, it’s a sterile instrumental featuring the insipid LA Express wimp-jazz ensemble. The first real song, “Simply Shady”, sounds like George is singing in the bathroom, but it’s just an effect to cover the rasp of his throat. There’s an odd reference to Sexy Sadie, and it’s not a bad tune. “So Sad” is easily the best song on the album, with plenty of 12-string guitars and time changes to fit with his other classics. Even his shot voice can’t torpedo this one. “Bye Bye Love” may well have been assembled during a drunken spree; whatever the reason, its inclusion is ill-advised. It was embarrassing enough to hear John and Paul slapping each other on successive albums, but here was George naming names over his wife running off with Eric Clapton. (Considering those are his future wife’s eyes peeking at us from the label of side two, he’s not winning much sympathy.) “Maya Love” is supposed to be a clever pun but somehow the song refuses to stick.
“Ding Dong; Ding Dong” is pretty sour for a Christmas song, though it may have inspired Paul to write a song about his own doorbell. (That would be “Let ‘Em In”. And when you include “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Sentimental Journey”, you’ve got the concept EP that never was!) “Dark Horse” has some potential, but coming this late in the program, it’s sunk by the vocal. As a single it was a safe choice, sounding very much like the last album. It’s rare to hear George using the first person in this manner. “Far East Man” was written with Ron Wood, with a sarcastic dedication to Frank Sinatra at the start. Had it been recorded by the Stylistics with different words, this could have been a Hey Love soul classic. “It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna)” closes it all out with too many flutes and a chant with none of the universal charm that made “My Sweet Lord” so popular.
Much of his late-Beatles backlog had already been recorded, with the exception of some gems that had been demoed in 1970 only to be shelved for upwards of forty years and counting. Why these lifeless songs got preference over more developed material is a mystery he’d refuse to ever answer. Despite several attempts with an open mind, Dark Horse may have actually gotten worse over the years.
The album waited a long time before getting its requisite reissue from the Harrison estate; it dutifully included the B-side “I Don’t Care Anymore”, a truly sullen castoff from the album sessions, which, despite its tone, deserved to be heard again. (An acoustic demo of the album’s title track was the only other bonus.)

George Harrison Dark Horse (1974)—
2014 Apple Years reissue: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

John Lennon 6: Walls And Bridges

M
aybe one needs personal turmoil to create fine art after all. While Walls And Bridges was the first effort by John in years that didn’t have Yoko’s direct involvement, that’s not to say she had no influence on it. These are songs from the gut, the aftermath of an alcoholic bender, alternately anguished and angry.
“Going Down On Love” starts off in a similar way to “I Found Out” (from Plastic Ono Band) in the way the voice sings along with the guitar. While it’s got several sections seemingly stuck together, for the most part they succeed, especially “somebody please please please help me”. “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” is the mindless single, where John’s voice meshes perfectly with Elton John’s and one begins to get really tired of saxophones. “Old Dirt Road” was written with Harry Nilsson but is very similar to an oldie called “Cool Clear Water”; it’s very pretty, especially Jesse Ed Davis’s underwater guitar and the Nicky Hopkins piano, whatever it’s about. “What You Got” is fairly straightforward, but all the funk unfortunately adds to the dated sound of the album today. “Bless You” is incredibly gracious towards the woman who left him all alone, right down to the very subtle switch in the third verse that refers to her new lover. This tone of resigned acceptance is crushed by the howling that starts off “Scared”, a thoroughly frightening tune that also recalls Plastic Ono Band with its pounding, unrelenting piano.
“#9 Dream” starts off side two, and is one of his best. Its dreamy quality is very close to “Strawberry Fields”, but this is a pleasant sleep as opposed to a nightmare. “Surprise Surprise (Sweet Bird Of Paradox)” was supposedly inspired by his newfound bachelorhood. The cowbell and especially the “sweet-sweet” at the fade bring to mind “Drive My Car”. “Steel And Glass” seeps up from the sewer much like the subject of the song (allegedly latter-day Beatle manager Allen Klein). The verses are great and nasty, but what exactly does “steel and glass” refer to? Office buildings? The production is suitably eerie, with Jesse Ed’s gurgling guitar and all. “Beef Jerky” is a full-fledged but anticlimactic instrumental, related to “Meat City” from the last album with its occasional tempo twists and turns. John didn’t do instrumentals often, and this is why. “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down And Out)” is another example of how he could take the simplest chords and make complete unique statements around them. (This tune should prove to the critics that his songs don’t only apply to himself; after all, it’s true, everybody does love you when you’re six foot in the ground.) He whistles his way off under the streetlamps, coat slung over his shoulder. In order to leave us with some levity, the album ends with a short stab at “Ya Ya”, with Julian playing drums badly.
Walls And Bridges is still a satisfying album today, with more meat to it than Mind Games had. He waited until he had something to say, and the result was something of a comeback. It was great to hear he could still write songs, plus his sense of humor is all over the packaging. But outside of two detours through his past, this would be John’s last new album for six years. (The remaster added one live track already available elsewhere, a negligible alternate take and an interview snippet. Yoko also altered the packaging, which took the cover even further away from the clever fold-out aspects of the original LP jacket. 2010’s Signature Edition rectified this somewhat, albeit without any extra tracks.)

John Lennon Walls And Bridges (1974)—
2005 remaster: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks

Monday, November 3, 2008

Led Zeppelin 9: In Through The Out Door

In the three years since their last album, the music scene had changed drastically, with the competing advents of punk and disco. Bands like Zeppelin didn’t fare well among the trendier kids, but as the record labels were happy to find, it was the not-so-trendy kids that bought In Through The Out Door in droves. You should never rule out the power of the high school parking lot.
Much of the album took the influence of John Paul Jones, who’d been experimenting more with keyboards and synthesizers, which are everywhere but used much more musically than as ear candy. Plant comes out of the gate with a deeper, more aggressive voice on “In The Evening”. The spooky sounds bridge nicely from old songs into this stealth-heavy approach. The middle section is a classic Zep transition before going back to the synths. But there’s still a lot of old-fashioned rock to be heard: “South Bound Saurez” has piano driving it, as does “Fool In The Rain”, albeit with a mid-song trip to Brazil. By this point in the album Page has stepped up in the writing. “Hot Dog” ends the side, a hysterical cowpunk song with an intentionally sloppy guitar solo.
Every Zeppelin album has to have an epic, and “Carouselambra” is this one’s. It’s synth-driven from start to finish, in multiparts that introduce themselves, step back, remerge and evolve. And it’s impossible to understand a single word of it. “All My Love” is their first chick song in ten years, with nice classical segments. It’s probably playing on the radio somewhere right now, through its eternal fade. “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a slow dirge with a fake string motif throughout, ending fittingly on an unresolved chord.
In Through The Out Door was a strong return after a long absence, and hinted that the band still had some life in them, no matter what anyone said. Keeping in step with their legendary mystique, the album was packaged with six different cover variations, but because each came in a paper bag, you didn’t know which cover you got until you unwrapped the cellophane. (The Deluxe Edition, unlike previous CDs, also sported a paper bag, but only one cover variation. Meanwhile, the bonus disc presented an alternate mix of the album, with only negligible differences, most noticeable on the beginning of “In the Evening” and here and there on “Carouselambra”.)
The album wasn’t an immediate success, but Zeppelin seemed determined to forge ahead. They were even playing decent live shows across Europe, and were planning to come to America when forty shots of vodka got the better of their drummer, causing the band to quietly call it quits as the decade closed. But as with all legendary rock bands, the story wasn’t quite over.

Led Zeppelin In Through The Out Door (1979)—4
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1979, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, October 31, 2008

Led Zeppelin 8: The Song Remains The Same

Though it’s called the soundtrack for the film, The Song Remains The Same isn’t. There’s an entire website dedicated to picking apart all the edits on the album and whether or not they match the ones in the movie; plus there are songs on the album that aren’t in the film and vice versa. As a representation of live Zeppelin—and the only band-sanctioned live release for over two decades—it’s just okay, and not great.
Side one is easily the most listenable, since it has four songs—the opening “Rock And Roll”, the odd choice of “Celebration Day” and the twin delight of the title track and “The Rain Song”. The 27-minute version of “Dazed And Confused” makes more sense in the context of the film, but without that it’s noise, and a whole side’s worth to boot. (Although, lo and behold, one of the tangents shows off one of the key riffs that would become “Achilles Last Stand”.) On side three, “No Quarter” is okay, but the live “Stairway” is pretentious. “Moby Dick” is dull even for a drum solo and “Whole Lotta Love” serves mostly as a springboard for a medley.
Having been filmed and recorded three years previously, it was already out of date upon its release, but at least the movie gave audiences a chance to actually see the band. Also, since the band had fallen into a period of inactivity, the album kept them on the charts. But as an official document designed to stop the bootleggers, it only spurred further production. Nonetheless, if you had everything else, you had to have this too.
The band ignored The Song Remains The Same for a full thirty years, not including any of it in the box sets or updated CD reissues until Jimmy Page finally prepared a remastered CD version (alongside an upgraded DVD of the film) in 2007. Resequenced to match the film—and original setlist, for the most part—the new version added excellent versions of “Black Dog”, “Over The Hills And Far Away”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, “The Ocean” and “Heartbreaker” to a whole new soundtrack, combining to provide a much better flow all around. It’s not the same album as before, and it’s still not the definitive live document, and still full of edits, but at least the reissue earned repeat, loud listens. (As for the film, it defies any consensus of an essential document, guilty pleasure, embarrassing indulgence or stoner’s delight. In true alignment with the album title, some things will never change.)

Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same (1976)—
2007 CD reissue: “same” as 1976, plus 6 extra tracks