Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Elvis Costello 4: Get Happy!!

Armed Forces was successful, but a handful of PR mistakes collided to derail any momentum Elvis Costello had gained in America. With the exception of a few scattered singles, his career never recovered on this side of the pond.
Back home in the UK, he kept busy producing the first album by The Specials, then decamped to Holland with the Attractions to work on his next album. This time the influence was a stack of Motown and Stax 45s, with the ska and dub sounds of the Specials hanging over the edges. With ten songs crammed onto each side, Get Happy!! delivers a hell of a bang for your buck.
Despite the misleading back cover listing, “Love For Tender” sets the pace with pointed puns and breakneck speed, followed by the contrast of the softer “Opportunity”. Such give and take between styles continues throughout the side, with no noticeable repetition. Nearly every song has something to offer: “The Imposter” would give him a pseudonym down the road; “Possession” and “New Amsterdam” ape the Beatles without stealing; “King Horse” and “Clowntime Is Over” are soul showstoppers; and “High Fidelity” takes his wordplay to even higher levels. And that’s just side one.
Side two is virtually bookended by a couple of obscure Sam & Dave covers, surrounding some dub-tinged arrangements (“Black And White World”, “B Movie”, “Human Touch”) and more soul (“Motel Matches”, “5ive Gears In Reverse”, “Temptation”). But the true finale is the pointed, passionate “Riot Act”, the angry suicide note that closes the album.
While the original LP boasted twenty tracks, each of the reissues has trumpeted a similar abundance. The 1994 version is packed to capacity, adding ten B-sides and/or demos, plus an unlisted snippet of the demo for “Love For Tender”, which cuts off abruptly. The 2003 version included a whopping fifty tracks on two discs—the original LP on one, with the 1994 bonuses (including the complete “Love For Tender” demo) and additional outtakes, demos and live tracks on the other. The extras give a glimpse at more of the influences that shaped the album, as well as some one-man-band tracks that kept collectors busy. But taken on its own, Get Happy!! is truly one of his best.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Get Happy!! (1980)—5
1994 Rykodisc: same as 1980, plus 11 extra tracks
2003 Rhino: same as 1994, plus 19 extra tracks

Friday, April 25, 2008

Elvis Costello 3: Armed Forces

At this point in his two-year career, Elvis Costello was poised for worldwide superstardom. The novelty of his name had dissipated casual listeners, and his output was keeping up the pace of his tours. And then, as the man himself has said, he screwed it up completely.
Armed Forces is the product of several trips across America in a tour bus, with such disparate sounds as Iggy Pop and ABBA in the tape deck providing the soundtrack to the observations from the window seat. The brilliance begins in the first track, “Accidents Will Happen”, the opening line of which is “Oh, I just don’t know where to begin.” (This is his third album in a row that starts off with his voice alone for a few notes.) “Busy Bodies”, “Big Boys” and “Green Shirt” are further dizzying feats of wordplay. The pop touches (such as the “Dancing Queen”-inspired intro to “Oliver’s Army” and the Beatlesque ending to “Party Girl”) keep the album from being as abrasive as This Year’s Model, but there’s still plenty of anger bubbling beneath the shiny surface. There are a few more keyboard sounds in the mix, and the lyrics are as nasty as ever. (After all, the original title of the album was Emotional Fascism.)
So far, Armed Forces has only been reissued twice, though it’s early. The 1993 Rykodisc version followed the UK sequence, with the hideous “Sunday’s Best” in the middle of what was side two, followed by “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” (originally added at the end of the US LP in an excellent swap), some B-sides and the three tracks from the Live At Hollywood High EP that had been included with the first pressings of the LP. The 2002 Rhino version follows the Rykodisc sequence up through “Peace, Love And Understanding” on one disc, with the Ryko bonus tracks, additional outtakes and further recordings from the Hollywood High concert in their original sequence.
As far as the original album is concerned, the nod goes to the US version, which also sported a different cover to the UK version’s marauding elephants. Anyone would take such an anthemic closer as “Peace, Love And Understanding” (written by pal and producer Nick Lowe) over “Sunday’s Best”. But with all the different versions, Armed Forces is still classic power pop.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions Armed Forces (1979)—4
1993 Rykodisc: same as 1979, plus 9 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 9 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Elvis Costello 2: This Year’s Model

Now armed with a band of his own, Elvis Costello hurdled the sophomore jinx with a set of songs inspired by a new life on the road, the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath and a rhyming dictionary. This Year’s Model offers much of the same approach as My Aim Is True, but gets heat from the three guys who were arguably the best backing band on the planet. The two Thomases (Bruce on bass, Pete on drums) were not brothers, but were locked as tight as any rhythm section should be. Classically trained Steve Nieve, barely out of his teens, colors the stereo picture with manic organ swirls and occasional piano. And of course, they had those incredible songs to play with.
This album runs the gamut from punk energy (“No Action”, the paradoxical “You Belong To Me” and the dizzying “Lipstick Vogue”) to catchy pop (“This Year’s Girl”, “Little Triggers” and “Lip Service”) with a few anthems in between (“Pump It Up”, “Radio, Radio”, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea”). The urgency of the music matches the attack in the vocals, helped by the simple, highly competent production. Whether taken song by song or as a whole, the album is a satisfying listen. Elvis still performs these songs onstage today, and for good reason.
While his debut startled listeners, it’s arguably this album that gets held up as his greatest success, and the one against which any of his other “rock” albums are matched.
In a disturbing trend, This Year’s Model has also been reissued three times, none of which fill the CD to capacity. The 1993 Rykodisc version followed the UK sequence, with “Chelsea” and “Night Rally”, followed by “Radio, Radio” (added to the US LP at the expense of those two) plus two B-sides and three demos. The 2002 Rhino version followed the same sequence as the Ryko up through “Radio, Radio” on one disc, and added the extra Ryko tracks and seven other live tracks and demos on the other. The 2008 Hip-O “Deluxe Edition” confusingly included the same contents of the Ryko version (along with a couple of Rhino tracks and a few others that had been bonus tracks on a different album altogether) on one disc, paired with disc containing a complete 1978 concert. As nice as the bonuses are for collectors, they’re merely a footnote to those 11 (or 12) tracks.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions This Year’s Model (1978)—5
1993 Rykodisc: same as 1978, plus 7 extra tracks
2002 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 7 extra tracks
2008 Hip-O Deluxe Edition: same as 1993, plus 22 extra tracks

Friday, April 18, 2008

Beatles 9: Yesterday And Today

It’s safe to say that over the years, most people have been more interested in collecting various versions of this album’s sleeve in various states than they have been in actually listening to the contents. Without going into immense detail, some bright bulb at Capitol actually went along with the band’s notion that cover art depicting the lovable moptops in bloody smocks and maniacal grins holding slabs of raw meat and burnt, decapitated baby dolls was a good idea. Within days, “Yesterday”…And Today was redistributed with a cover photo that was just as hideous, but for less lurid reasons.
All this back story tends to overshadow the fact that it’s still an interesting album. The single pairing of “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” got simultaneous worldwide release at Christmas, but their non-appearance on the American Rubber Soul proves that the Capitol marketing department was not ruled by any set strategy or logic; hence it’s nice to have them here. “Nowhere Man” had been pulled from the British Rubber Soul for use as a late-winter single, and it was included with the previous summer’s “Yesterday” (not released as a single in the UK until 1976) and their Ringo-sung B-sides (“Act Naturally” and “What Goes On”) on the album as well.
Using those remainders from Help! and Rubber Soul, plus the previous holiday single and three tracks from the upcoming Revolver, this album covers a wide spectrum, from experimental Pop Art to the slush of the title tune. It’s those new tracks—“I’m Only Sleeping”, “Dr. Robert” and “And Your Bird Can Sing”, all three surreal Lennon compositions making their worldwide debut here—that give this album its edge. Add the stellar chromium shine of “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone”, and “Yesterday”…And Today forms a bridge of sorts between Rubber Soul and Revolver. (However, Capitol took a gamble by not including “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”, the current worldwide single.) For all that, it manages to succeed. Even if some of the songs were over a year old.
Those who did appreciate the album for its musical merit certainly welcomed its inclusion in the 2014 “U.S. Albums” rollout. Not only did it include all the songs in both mono and stereo, but it also came with a sticker of the first cover, making it a neat mini-replica.

The Beatles “Yesterday”…And Today (1966)—4
UK CD equivalent: Help!/Rubber Soul/Revolver/Past Masters

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nick Drake 3: Pink Moon

The music on Pink Moon, Nick Drake’s stark third album, is generated by only his vocal and guitar, with one brief and simple added piano passage. The words are just as stark, but that’s not to say the images displayed are clear-cut.
The deceptively cheery opening of the title track lulls the listener into a pastoral country scene (extended in the famous Volkswagen commercial). His moon is foreboding, hinting at certain doom; whatever it is, all he tells us is that it’s “gonna get ye all”. Something’s about to go wrong, and it’s not going to be pleasant. “Place To Be” has a pretty swingset opening, suggesting a wistful longing for the simplicity and carefree, lazy days of childhood, where he was shielded from the “truth hanging from the door”. What starts out as a reverie of youth is transformed after the variation in the interlude into either pining for an estranged lover (if you’re a romantic) or the pit of addiction (if you’re not). “Road” is a repetitive guitar piece, with an equally repetitive vocal. He asserts that he knows the sun isn’t shining, so don’t try to tell him otherwise. Easily one of his best, “Which Will” is an example of a list that works. It’s quite a heartbreaking portrait of the jilted lover asking simply where his beloved will go, do and choose now that her life doesn’t revolve around him. By the end the questions become firm, almost scornful; less a query and more of a challenge.
As instrumentals go, “Horn” is brief, simple and highly effective. As an interlude, it distracts us from what’s next, another minor-key worrisome admission. “Things Behind The Sun” starts ambiguously with a suspended 2nd chord, the type that could go into a major key, but here chooses the minor instead. The mood alternates between reassurance and caution, telling himself to guard against change but stay open for beauty, to cover weakness and show strength despite what others say. “The movement in your brain sends you out into the rain” suggests the possibility of exploring the outside world to escape the downward spiral of isolation, but it also hints of teetering on an insanity so potentially dangerous to others that he’s best locked away.
Things aren’t much sunnier on the second side. “Know” on paper is as black as it gets here. This is the closest he gets to blues, and it’s more Delta than Chicago. “Parasite” has a very common chord sequence with voicings that pull it above mere reiteration. The city he documented on Bryter Layter has left him beaten and feeling truly in the way, not insignificant enough to just be ignored, but swatted aside, yet he feels no empathy for people hanging themselves with “rope too short” or dealing with their own day-to-day problems.
“Ride” has an almost rocking quality that could easily accommodate a ticking high-hat and snare with “Taxman” bass in an arrangement. It’s an interesting juxtaposition on the side: the “Parasite” is asking for a “Free Ride”. “Harvest Breed” is similar to “Road” and “Horn”, existing just long enough to create a transition. Whatever the harvest breed is, it conjures up images of autumn, and end of the years when living things are cut down or dying, “falling fast and falling free”. “From The Morning” is just as beautiful in its own way as “Northern Sky”, and ends the album on the same glimpse of hope. He looks at the entire day and finds beauty in every moment, in every aspect of every light and shadow, providing a soothing finale to an unsettling record.
The story behind this album is that he recorded it, and dropped it off at the label office for them to press and release. At barely 28½ minutes it still manages to hold your interest, but its economy would be something everyone should emulate. More “artists” should strive for this kind of perfection.

Nick Drake Pink Moon (1972)—

Friday, April 11, 2008

Nick Drake 2: Bryter Layter

Having documented his experiences at Cambridge and the English countryside on his debut, Nick Drake turned his eye to London. What he found there was alternately enlightening and confusing.
Bryter Layter opens much like his first album, with delicate fingerpicking and warm strings. The instrumental “Introduction” has themes that will turn up two songs later; on further listening you realize the guitar stays the same, while the strings bring the actual melody, the type of thing Brian Wilson would have done. “Hazey Jane II” is the first real song, and weaker than its namesake later on the side. The breathless vocals with the car-horn brass show that he’s definitely in another place. He’s unsure of his footing, but in the second half of the song he tries to get his bearings and settle in. In “At The Chime Of A City Clock”, he’s still wandering the city streets, then chooses to “stay indoors, beneath the floors” since most people consider him “either weird or lonely”. There’s a very effective change after the second chorus, setting us up for the third, quieter chorus and the climax of the final chorus.
“One Of These Things First” starts out as a meditation on karma and reincarnation, but soon turns into a list instead of a song, barely redeemed by the more effective middle section. “Hazey Jane I” comes in cascading, soon joined by the strings. It’s a very gentle song despite the urgency of the guitar, and just gorgeous all the way through.
Side two begins with the title track, another instrumental. It’s neither as dramatic nor moving as the “Introduction”, leaving one wishing for more to grab onto. “Fly” chimes in with a lovely stairstep guitar figure echoed by John Cale’s perfect viola. The words are pleading, with music that gives the sensation of falling or sinking. Notice how he strains at every “please”, and relaxes for every “now” or “come”.
The only recording of Nick playing an electric guitar, the jazzy “Poor Boy” also seems to be more of a list, but the half-mocking backing vocals (also the only backing vocals in his catalog) keep the song rolling for six-plus minutes without dragging. “Northern Sky” is one of his loveliest songs, and one of the most hopeful. After all the discomfort of adjusting to the city and the people he’s met and missed, he still finds someone he thinks he can trust, wants to trust. The keyboards color the song beautifully, especially the poignant middle section. One might think it really is going to get brighter later.
But “Sunday” creeps in with a hint of concern, the minor key and flute carrying this third instrumental, closing the album. A slight buildup hints at a turn for the better, then a pause, but it’s back to the sad, quiet theme from before.
Where the first album was mostly down, ending with a hint of bemusement, Bryter Layter nearly suggests that change is good, but still ending warily. The instrumentals and the similarities between songs give the mistaken impression that it just doesn’t have the same breadth and spectrum as Five Leaves Left. But it truly works better as a whole entity, and the best tracks are illuminated by those around them.

Nick Drake Bryter Layter (1970)—

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nick Drake 1: Five Leaves Left

Nick Drake took elements of a variety of influences, from Dylan folk to English guitar, jazz to classical, yet emerged with something somewhat indescribable, something that has to be heard to be appreciated. Five Leaves Left, his debut album, is an excellent place for the curious to start, and tough to resist.
The opening song, “Time Has Told Me”, is a perfect introduction to Nick Drake. So many of the elements of what he’s about are contained in these four minutes, from the intricate picking to his trademark third-beat phrasing. It’s a deceptively hopeful song, with underpinnings of forbidding amidst the declaration that the narrator has found his soulmate. Equally mysterious is “River Man”, which lopes along in and out of C and C minor in 5/4. We hear strings for the first time, and the effect is very river-like, with sweeping and urgent yet subtle movements. “Three Hours” is almost Indian in flavor, with its droning undercurrent, alternate-tempo midsection and conga from a guy who’d one day play with the Stones. Already three songs in, we’ve heard music that is incredibly unique and different.
“Way To Blue” follows, with its dramatic, somber string accompaniment that still provides something of a lift. “Day Is Done” is one of his rare songs performed in standard tuning. The song is flat out negative, with the despair and edgy regret that comes with an unfulfilled day. The strings come to a halt with a slight ritard, closing side one.
“Cello Song” starts side two, and builds a string at a time until suddenly shifting into a new theme on which the rest of the song lies. It’s similar to “Time Has Told Me” in its reassuring hopefulness to the owner of the pale, frail, strange face who he sees as far away from him, but able to lift him to a place in the cloud.
“The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” is very much in the fey Donovan mode, with a shrill flute in the mix. (The Mary Jane here could be a woman, or what he was smoking; biographers lean towards the latter.) Despite its jaunty, almost vaudeville accompaniment, “Man In A Shed” is a fable as old as the hills. This may be his most blatant statement of pining, but it’s hardly the saddest. “Fruit Tree” also starts with a slowly building figure that turns into something else entirely. This rumination on fame, notoriety and lasting memory is rather profound for a 20-year-old that hadn’t become close to a star at this point.
“Saturday Sun”, with its piano suggesting last call, finishes the album. He lived much of his life in a climate where it rains everyday, sometimes several times on the hour. The sun is a virtual wake-up call, with people rubbing their eyes, realizing what’s changed, what’s gone, what’s really happening. The silly couplet at the end (and you can hear him smiling through his vocal) glides though the jazzy rhythm section, and the album floats away.
Five Leaves Left is subtle, yet shows a lot of breadth and depth in its simplicity. That’s not to say it’s simple; it just is what it is and nothing is wasted. It is a nearly perfect album.

Nick Drake Five Leaves Left (1969)—

Friday, April 4, 2008

Beatles 8: Rubber Soul

While this was the first American Beatle album to have a cover and title identical to its British counterpart, the similarity ends there. The US version of Rubber Soul takes ten songs from the UK version (including “Wait”, which had actually been dusted off from the Help! sessions) and replaces each side’s opener (“Drive My Car” and “What Goes On”, neither of which are much of a loss) with a superior orphan from the British Help! (“I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “It’s Only Love”). This is still the way most Americans like to hear Rubber Soul, as the replacements complement the other pot-scented, acoustic numbers.
Ron Schaumburg, author of Growing Up With The Beatles, called Rubber Soul their “wood and smoke” album, for the images it generates of “deep-colored, paneled rooms and warm fires, of wine and haze”. That remains true today, as the new, unique sounds and experimentation—quite groundbreaking for the time—still shine throughout the edited version. But while the English were getting used to having two Harrison compositions per LP, the American thinning process limits George’s input to one (“Think For Yourself”, instead of the superior “If I Needed Someone”); “Nowhere Man” also went under the knife. (Also, “I’m Looking Through You” begins with two brief false starts; for this reason the intro on the CD, based of course on the British version, always sounds funny to American listeners.)
So while any version Rubber Soul is undeniably important, there is a lot of affection for the American version. (After all, it was also the version that inspired Brian Wilson to record Pet Sounds.) If you bought the CD before 2014, you got the 14-track British version, as the Beatles intended; the 12-track American version was available only in a pricey box released in 2006, until its “U.S. Albums” release eight years later. Either way, you’d still get “Norwegian Wood”, “You Won’t See Me”, “Michelle”, “Girl”, “In My Life”, “Run For Your Life” and the other songs above. And you’d get to hear an incredibly mature statement, from a bunch of kids barely in their mid-20s, that’s well worthy of all the praise it’s received as time goes on.

The Beatles Rubber Soul (1965)—5
UK CD equivalent: Help!/Rubber Soul