Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul McCartney 4: Red Rose Speedway

Determined to prove that Wings was no fluke, Paul added Henry McCullough on lead guitar, and the band spent 1972 on the road, putting out odd singles and getting busted for possession. None of those singles were included on Red Rose Speedway when it finally appeared, just like in the Beatle days. That’s too bad, as some of those singles would have made this album better than it is, as it isn’t very good.
“Big Barn Bed” springs full-blown from its teaser on Ram, having developed nicely into an actual song. Despite the heavy syrup, “My Love” is the classic missing from his last three albums. It’s still great today, especially that guitar solo, but fueled the fire for those who said Paul didn’t rock. Another Ram leftover, “Get On The Right Thing”, follows nicely with good dynamics, and Linda’s vocals aren’t even that obtrusive. “One More Kiss” is an unmemorable trifle, and would be rewritten to much better effect six years later as “Baby’s Request”. “Little Lamb Dragonfly” is another in what would be a long line of multi-sectioned transplants. He puts his soul into the arrangement, with lots of 12-string guitars and dramatic shifts, but by this point he’d already written a few too many songs about sheep.
The rest of the album just doesn’t go anywhere, and takes its sweet time to boot. “Single Pigeon” has some great if fleeting moments based around nice piano modulations, but such moments can’t sustain it. The same can be said for “When The Night”, which commits misdemeanors by having each of the lines echoed, exposing their emptiness in the process. It’s another shame, since that piano part at the beginning seems to portend so much before delivering so little. “Loup (1st Indian On The Moon)” is based around chanting and underwater guitar, and is a pointless jam. There is a subtle tip of the hat in the middle to Pink Floyd, who were recording The Dark Side Of The Moon down the hall. The final “Medley” interestingly takes four song snatches, none of them very interesting, and brings them all together at the end, when it makes sense and makes good music. Unfortunately it’s too late, and much too long a journey to endure. (Coincidentally, Paul has two separate songs called “Hold Me Tight” in his catalog, and neither of them were worth writing twice.)
As a whole, Red Rose Speedway really isn’t a horrible album, but it just doesn’t get the mixture correct. One thing this album truly lacks is balls, which Wings could pull off onstage and on some of those singles. (The CD includes three contemporary B-sides: “I Lie Around”, “Country Dreamer” and “The Mess”, only the latter of which rocks.) While “My Love” helped, and the album was a chart success, Paul’s potential seemed to be dimming. He did take the opportunity to put his name on the spine in front of Wings, in the hope that people would pay more attention knowing whose band it was. It didn’t make a difference.

Paul McCartney & Wings Red Rose Speedway (1973)—
1989 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, September 26, 2008

Who 7: Who’s Next

The Who premiered a handful of new songs on stage all through 1970, which were to be the basis of the next album, then just an EP to tide the fans over once a theme started to emerge. Then, once Pete decided he didn’t like the EP songs on stage either, they waited for the next batch of songs to materialize. And they did, though they didn’t exactly arrive as originally planned.
Considering that it came out of the bunt that was Pete’s long-gestating Lifehouse epic (a dystopian foretelling of the Internet), Who’s Next shouldn’t be as good as it is. But having failed at a big concept, the band took the best of what they had for a single album. The economic approach is to be commended, as they ended up with an amazing record.
The otherworldly tones of “Baba O’Riley” start us off and it’s ages before other instruments come in. When they do, they crackle, right up to the violin solo (which Roger Daltrey would eventually emulate on the harmonica in years to come). “Bargain” sneaks in, with another powerful vocal from Roger, interrupted by Pete’s midsection. All the car ads can’t take this song away. “Love Ain’t For Keeping” mixes it up with two minutes of acoustic rock, slapped away by the humor of “My Wife”. (This is the only song that had nothing to do with Lifehouse, and it’s not even one of John Entwistle’s best songs, but it’s so tough.) “The Song Is Over” was originally the Lifehouse finale; here it’s driven by the great Nicky Hopkins on piano and more traded verses, with the final couplet coming from “Pure And Easy”. (Its slightly Leslied guitar brings to mind early-‘70s TV ads depicting rainy afternoons in Central Park.)
“Getting In Tune” is a beautiful song that also works very well outside the Lifehouse concept. “Goin’ Mobile” is also better than it deserves, with great synth effects pushing it along. It’s a good song for driving fast in any weather. “Behind Blue Eyes” gives us a rest for a few minutes before picking up and shutting down again. Some great dynamics on this one. Then, like “Baba O’Riley”, the finale starts on one chord, with those rippling lines taking us to another place. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is a tour de force for everyone here, and this album couldn’t end any other way. (Listen right before the synth solo and you can hear the last few strums of the acoustic guitar from Pete’s demo.) Keith Moon’s drums come exploding back, Roger screams, and they proceed to beat the end senseless.
The current, remastered CD includes some extra tracks from the album sessions that don’t detract from the original nine-song set. As that was satisfactory, the Deluxe Edition smacked of exploitation but turned out to be a grand slam, and a very pleasant surprise. Those of us looking for Lifehouse (or at least cleaner versions of “Here For More”, “When I Was A Boy” and the live B-side of “Baby Don’t You Do It”, contemporary B-sides still unavailable on CD) remained disappointed. But instead, we got loaded up with plenty else. The nine album tracks were remastered from the original tapes for the first alleged time, followed by some extended bonus tracks from the 1995 CD. The second disc consists of 74 minutes from one of the band’s experimental concerts when the Lifehouse concept was still a possibility. Neither bonus section attempts to improve on the original album; they simply give a larger picture of how it came about. (If you’re really hungry, there was a box set that includes two full CDs of Pete’s original one-man-band demos for the project, including a 10-minute version of the “Baba O’Riley” backing track that’s simply intoxicating. But as long as you have those nine original songs, you’re set.)

The Who Who’s Next (1971)—5
1995 remaster: same as 1971, plus 7 extra tracks
2003 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 20 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elvis Costello 17: Brutal Youth

1994 was a very busy year for Elvis. Along with the new and rare tracks added to reissues of his older albums and contributions to just about every “tribute” album released that year, there was a new album to tour behind. This was an especially big deal, because while Brutal Youth didn’t have them on every track, the tour featured the long-awaited reunion of the Attractions. Even the album’s red and black-and-white color scheme—plus the occasional appearance of old pal Nick Lowe—suggested we were picking up where Blood & Chocolate left off.
That would have been nice, but as could be expected from an eight-year absence, the results were slightly more tentative. It was originally intended as a noisy album, but as the sessions developed and progressed, the songs were given more space. However, that space is framed by the murky, noisy production by occasional collaborator Mitchell Froom, who tends to treat bass as an underwater effect and percussion as the sound of drums being thrown down a flight of stairs. If you can get past that, the songs hold up, for the most part.
“Pony St.” begins with a raindrop piano line for a strong opener, followed by the stark attack of “Kinder Murder”. “This Is Hell” extends the sci-fi/absurdist commentary of his last album, while the piano-and-vocal “Favourite Hour” reflects his baroque education. “20% Amnesia” is another angry attack on British politics; a more affectionate view of home appears in “London’s Brilliant Parade”. Many have lauded “Just About Glad” as being another lyrical classic, but these ears feel he’s trying too hard to be clever, with a delivery bordering on smug. That said, “Rocking Horse Road” is a fresh take on the usual chord changes, and “All The Rage” is an incredibly satisfying riposte to critics.
The fans liked the album, but it didn’t break any sales records, despite a world tour and several TV appearances. Critics were more excited about seeing the Attractions onstage again, but a growing rift between the Singer and The Bass Player probably had a lot to with the selection of bonus tracks on the reissue, which consisted of a few demos and B-sides that illustrate the development of the project from cacophonous experiments to their final draft. These tracks—particularly a full band take on “Favourite Hour” and a breathtaking early version of “You Tripped At Every Step”—help you appreciate the songs underneath the clutter.

Elvis Costello Brutal Youth (1994)—
2002 Rhino: same as 1994, plus 15 extra tracks

Monday, September 22, 2008

Beatles 18: 1962-1966 and 1967-1970

By early 1973, bootleg Beatles hits collections had already begun appearing, one of which was even advertised on TV. Apple and Capitol struck fast, allegedly deputizing John and George to approve two official retrospectives. Released alongside new Paul and George LPs, 1962-1966 and 1967-1970 were very well received, having been so well done.
Each two-record set neatly sums up the two eras, with generous helpings of all the hit singles and key album tracks. The sequencing is faithfully chronological to the British release schedule, giving context and flow to songs people had already grown to love. Lyrics for all the songs are included, while the covers put the dormant Get Back idea to good use. The albums were very handy for the Brits, with some songs appearing on albums for the first time, but they were made for the American market, which snapped both up to the top of the charts. (An insert in both albums revived the “exclusive” exhortations of early Capitol liner notes, giving 45, LP, cassette and 8-track discographies for the group and solo projects, along with a chart saying which songs came from which albums. Somebody goofed, as “A Hard Day’s Night” and “From Me To You” are listed as being from the Help! album, referring to the instrumental non-Beatle versions on that soundtrack. Also, “Help!” itself is preceded by the “James Bond Theme” from the same album.)
The Red and Blue albums, as they came to be called, stayed popular over the years, giving new-generation Beatle fans born too late a place to start their collections. The resolution of various lawsuits paved the way for their release on CD in 1993 amid much complaint over the cost vs. disc space, which was understandable. The Red album includes 26 tracks and totals 66 minutes, while the Blue has 28 tracks for nearly 100 minutes of music. Both were issued as double CDs at thirty dollars apiece. While the Red could have fit onto one CD, Apple decided to go for consistency, arguing that the value was in the songs. After all, what could one add or take away?

The Beatles 1962-1966 (1973)—5
The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)—5

Friday, September 19, 2008

Elvis Costello 16: The Juliet Letters

In that brief early-‘90s period before grunge embraced punk and new wave was something to mock, Elvis Costello was hardly popular. His general disfavor was not helped when pundits got wind of his next project: an original song cycle with a string quartet. To make matters worse, the theme of the project was letters written to a fictional character, Shakespeare’s Juliet. While it screamed pretension on paper, the biggest surprise for the people who took the time to listen to it was that it was pretty good.
Beginning with an overture of sorts, The Juliet Letters gave Elvis a chance to stretch both his compositional legs as well as his voice. The nasty sneer of his early work shows up only rarely, giving way instead to a loud, bold croon that invariably ends in some kind of vibrato. Juliet, thankfully, doesn’t appear in all twenty songs, but most share the common theme of confession and revelation, from love letters (“Taking My Life In Your Hands”, “Who Do You Think You Are?”) to angry, humorous diatribes (“Swine”, “I Almost Had A Weakness”). Death looms large over the proceedings, in the form of suicide notes (“Dead Letter”, “Dear Sweet Filthy World”), voices from beyond the grave (“Romeo’s Séance”, “The First To Leave”) and even a postcard from a soldier (“I Thought I’d Write To Juliet”). Other current events get a nod in “This Sad Burlesque” and “Damnation’s Cellar”, while “This Offer Is Unrepeatable” takes the form of junk mail. The subdued yet grand finale, “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” makes for a somber farewell.
Once you get past the arrangements—most of which follow the increasingly quavering vocal closely—you’ve got some classic Costello that could easily translate to his rock albums, but even he hasn’t bothered. The most obvious choice would be the undeniably catchy “Jacksons, Monk And Rowe”, which is just begging for a Pete Thomas backbeat and Steve Nieve arrangement.
Despite its relative success for a classical album, The Juliet Letters was criticized for years, acknowledged in Elvis’s grumpy notes for the 2006 reissue. (It probably didn’t help matters that his other big releases of 1993 were the first wave of reissues of his first three albums, along with an album’s worth of songs he and his then-wife wrote in a weekend for fading pop tart Wendy James.) Rhino’s bonus disc thoughtfully includes some more collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet, along with some modern classical and jazz collaborations that complement the main album better than they would any other. All in all, it’s good rainy day/Sunday morning music, though one does long for a rhythm section after one play through.

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet The Juliet Letters (1993)—4
2006 Rhino: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who 6: Live At Leeds

Live At Leeds has been called the best live album of all time, and Everybody’s Dummy is inclined to agree. It’s a raw performance that sweats heat and dust particles. Its original six-song form was just enough, abridged just like the bootlegs it was designed to imitate. To finally release the whole concert only made it better, but let’s start at the beginning.
“Young Man Blues” falls out of the speakers, all controlled chaos. There’s some joking before a powerful short version of “Substitute”, then the best version of “Summertime Blues” and the mindwarp of “Shakin’ All Over”. Side one is just as long as the first song on side two, 15 minutes of “My Generation” that trawl through “See Me Feel Me”, “Listening To You”, “Sparks”, what would become “Naked Eye” and plenty other riffs. “Magic Bus” plows one note into the ground and that’s the album.
25 years later, the expanded Live At Leeds was the opening shot in the band’s reissue program. As it turned out, the original six songs were a small part of the show, which really began with “Heaven And Hell” (still a great opener, even if John did redub his first vocal for the reissue), then into “I Can’t Explain”. A quick hello, then a cover of “Fortune Teller” goes right into “Tattoo”, of all things. Pete’s intro to “Young Man Blues” is included, with pertinent puncturing from the back by Keith. “Substitute” was their trip through their few hit singles, including “Happy Jack” (which had appeared mislabeled on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack) and “I’m A Boy”. This is followed by a pretty powerful “A Quick One”, which set up the Tommy portion of the show. Only “Amazing Journey/Sparks” is included from the 18-song sequence, and it’s really all you need. Then we get the end of the original album, in order, with the scream edited out of “My Generation” for no good reason and the backwards snippet reinserted from “Magic Bus”. But that’s why you save your LPs.
Fan outcry and a quest for profit inspired the Deluxe Edition of the complete Leeds concert, which put the Tommy portion on a second disc with the rest of the show (plus some spoken extras) on the first. The thing is, Tommy at Leeds wasn’t that good. They could rarely get that first chord right, Pete was always out of tune by the middle, and Roger usually blew the first note of “See Me Feel Me” as well. (Actually, he did get it right at Woodstock, but since Pete and Roger hate the recording of that show, it’s likely to remain unofficial.) “Pinball Wizard” is OK, but several vocal parts were fixed 30 years after the fact, and not as successfully as John’s job on the first reissue.
To add further insult to injury, the concert’s fortieth anniversary was “celebrated” with an even more expanded edition, including the 2001 Deluxe Edition, a new vinyl copy of the original six tracks, a bonus 45 of the “Summertime Blues”/“Heaven & Hell” single, and surprisingly, the complete Hull concert from the day after the original Leeds show. For this, the producers flew in John’s bass tracks from Leeds for the first four songs, which is what kept them from issuing the concert in the first place. Then, two years after all the hardcore fans bought the big set, Live At Hull was issued by itself.
If you want the complete Leeds concert as performed, and can stand the crackles, there’s a bootleg. But for sheer entertainment, stick with the 1995 version. It smokes.

The Who Live At Leeds (1970)—5
1995 remaster: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks
2001 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 18 extra tracks
2010 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collectors’ Edition: same as 2001, plus 32 extra tracks

Monday, September 15, 2008

Led Zeppelin 6: Physical Graffiti

The inevitable double album—which came about when Zep had too much for a single and wanted to let out some worthy leftovers—could have been slapped with the “self-indulgent” tag, but they rose to the occasion. Physical Graffiti is one of those rare cases when four sides of music contain zero filler, with a flow from start to finish.
“Custard Pie” starts it off with a rocket, a slightly huskier vocal from Plant and a gurgling clavinet in the back to keep it funky. “The Rover” is heavy to please the kids, but always sounds like the tape is slowing down by the end. “In My Time Of Dying” is a blues extension that works much better than it ought to. Once it gets rolling, it’s impossible not to be carried along.
“Houses Of The Holy” is the title track that never was, an inferior cousin to “Misty Mountain Hop”. “Trampled Underfoot” has even more funk and stink, and has also grown a lot over the years. “Kashmir” is the quintessential eight minutes in the canon. “Stairway” may be their most successful offspring, but “Kashmir” is Zeppelin’s proudest achievement. Those first four seconds, that deceptive meter (over two or four), the fake horns and strings, those extended held notes and its immortal use in Fast Times At Ridgemont High make it work on several levels. How many people have bought Zeppelin IV only to be confused when “Kashmir” wasn’t on it?
Side three is perfect. “In The Light” creeps in, with all the delay effects, symphonic sections and that majestic layered ending. “Bron-Yr-Aur” is also suitably pastoral, and quite a variation on the same old chords. Very pretty. “Down By The Seaside” almost doesn’t sound like them, but it’s got a dreamy, accurate seaside quality to it. The “ah” sections at the choruses and the “twist” interlude work every time. But if we had to choose an absolute favorite Led Zeppelin song, it would be “Ten Years Gone”. The opening is aching, right along with the lyrics about certain wounds that never heal, the middle section, right up to the “did you ever” bridge—again, a perfect album side.
After that, the rest is almost anticlimactic. “Night Flight” is notable for the mention of “mother” (as opposed to “mama”) and is a fairly inoffensive pop song. “The Wanton Song” is another version of “The Rover”, a lumpen riff that doesn’t go anywhere except for the Leslie effect on the solo. “Boogie With Stu” is a rewrite of “Ooh! My Head” by Richie Valens, featuring Ian Stewart on piano; convenient since he’d driven the Stones’ mobile studio over for their use. “Black Country Woman” is the second blues song in a row, starting off like their own acoustic thing but with that kickdrum pounding through your chest. But all is not lost. “Sick Again” is sublime, especially with that chord in the key of H at the beginning. Some great layers here. The song and the album end with a resounding thud just like Zoso. Whew.
Even if you buy this album just for “Kashmir”, you’ll find lots of other moments to enjoy. Take the time to take it in, and you’ll be rewarded. (Speaking of which, the Deluxe Edition added another two sides’ worth of working takes, the most striking being “Everybody Makes It Through”, which eventually became “In The Light”. If this mix is to be believed, they dropped in the verses once rewriting them. The drier mixes, particularly of “Houses Of The Holy” and “Trampled Underfoot”—here called “Brandy & Coke”—bring out the nuances of the vocals as well as various instruments, while the “rough orchestra mix” of “Kashmir” still blurs the answer as to which brass and strings are real and which are Mellotron. Hats off to John Paul Jones, and for the mandolin on “Boogie With Stu” too.)

Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti (1975)—4
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1975, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Lennon 4: Some Time In New York City

Just as Paul was trying his fans’ patience, John seemed to lose the plot around the same time. Some Time In New York City was lambasted when it came out, and if one doesn’t know the events behind some of the lyrics, they may seem confusing. (Come to think of it, even after researching the events, they still seem pretty pointless.) There was a lot going on in the world in 1972, so John took some of his pet peeves and beat them into the ground for forty minutes, alternating vocals with Yoko.
For starters, “Woman Is The Nigger Of The World”, which not only opens the album but was issued as a single, was banned from airplay for the title alone. (This perhaps drove the point home even further, which was that while John’s new radical friends may have wanted freedom of expression, he noticed that didn’t necessarily apply to their old ladies.) “Sisters O Sisters” is pleasant reggae, with a charming if silly vocal by Yoko. “Attica State” is an angry rocker with both Lennons yelling along. “Born In A Prison” isn’t about to convert anyone into thinking Yoko’s a poet, but the bridge has a nice melody with John joining in. “New York City” is an updated “Ballad of John And Yoko” and the album’s most successful snapshot; had it been the single it might have helped sell the album.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” actually has some passion to it, for it got John’s Irish up; this continues on the slightly softer “Luck Of The Irish” which still gets played every St. Patrick’s Day on certain FM radio stations. “John Sinclair” is fun if only for trying to keep up with every “gotta” in the chorus. Despite a tender melody and stirring arrangement, “Angela” doesn’t approach its potential. (Perhaps if the lyrics had been about something other than a revolutionary figure most people don’t remember three decades on…) Yoko drags it all home against its will with “We’re All Water”, further proof that not all poetry makes good songs and not all sentences make good poetry.
But wait! There’s more! You paid for it, so you might as well listen to the second disc. Technically a separate entity, Live Jam was included in the package with a dollar added to the regular list price. (John initially wanted to issue it on its own, and thankfully, smarter heads prevailed.) Starting with the “long-awaited” Plastic Ono Supergroup performance from December of 1969, any excitement at hearing two Beatles (George was in there somewhere) live on stage together for the first time in years is trampled by the plodding version of “Cold Turkey” and the relentless horror of “Don’t Worry Kyoko”.
The other side, recorded at the Fillmore East in June 1971 with Frank Zappa and the Mothers, starts out promisingly with “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)”, but degenerates into more shenanigans that perhaps should have been left inside a bag and not miked. Once you’ve studied Zappa a little more it’s interesting to hear what Yoko does all over “King Kong”; then your opinion is affected by how much you liked the Flo & Eddie era. (An alternate mix of the same material prepared by Zappa surfaced in 1992, with such telling titles as “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono”.) If you don’t listen to side two of the Toronto LP that much, you probably won’t go back to this either. Whatever impact the first disc may have had is irreparably blemished by the load of crap on the second. (The album was remastered and reissued in 2005 on a single disc, which added both sides of the “Happy Xmas” single and cut all of the Zappa material save “Well”. Unfortunately, the 1969 tracks were also preserved. The 2010 Signature edition restored the original 2-LP lineup.)
Lyrically challenging and musically frustrating, the only upside of the whole affair was that John played a few live shows with backing band Elephant’s Memory. But otherwise he retreated to Greenwich Village, scared of what the government was doing to him.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono Some Time In New York City (1972)—
2005 remaster: same as 1972, plus 2 extra tracks (and minus 3 original tracks)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Neil Young 14: Decade

Decade is an ambitious, sprawling retrospective for its time that got pushed around a year while Neil sorted out the Stars/Chrome mess. Originally a three-record set, it anticipates the box set genre by including rare tracks, the big hits, album cuts and artist-penned notes for each track. Every album is represented (with the notable exclusion of Time Fades Away) along with tracks by Buffalo Springfield, CSNY and even the Stills-Young band for balance. The sequencing is more or less chronological, and flows nicely through all six sides. For brevity’s sake we’ll discuss just the rare tracks here.
The set begins with “Down To The Wire”, a Springfield outtake that loomed large in their legend. “Sugar Mountain” was a B-side to about 12 of his singles before finally being albumized here. It’s still great, and a good teaser for the hours of live acoustic performances he’s sitting on in his vaults. While previously available on the CSNY So Far compilation, “Ohio” is included here in its original and best single version. “Winterlong” had been around since 1969, was recorded in the On The Beach era, and inexplicably left aside until now. It’s still one of his most enduring tracks. “Deep Forbidden Lake” comes from the same cloth as “Star Of Bethlehem”; most likely from Homegrown, it’s very pleasant soft country. “Love Is A Rose” is an unnecessary rewrite of “Dance, Dance, Dance”, which he used to do in his acoustic shows and recorded by Crazy Horse for their album. It’s easily surpassed by “Campaigner”, a sympathetic look at the deposed Nixon by a man who had a lot to do with taking him out not much earlier.
Decade is an excellent place for anyone to start, giving a generous sampling from each of his albums while leaving some gems to be uncovered by those willing to dig for them. He would not be as prolific over the next ten years, which is one reason why a proposed Decade II turned into the Archives project, which took another three decades and then some.

Neil Young Decade (1977)—4

Monday, September 8, 2008

Neil Young 13: American Stars ‘N Bars

Everybody’s Dummy will take the daring stance that American Stars ‘N Bars is nowhere near as good as Chrome Dreams, the shelved album it replaced. Oddly enough, all of side two of American Stars ‘N Bars was originally on Chrome Dreams in roughly the same order. And because the original lineup includes songs that would become key elements of later classics, its cancellation may prove Neil’s instincts were correct. With any luck the missing songs will all surface one way or another one day.
None of the hokey country songs on side one really stand out. “The Old Country Waltz” starts lazily, and “Saddle Up The Palomino” and “Bite The Bullet” (pornographic references notwithstanding) are both pretty dopey. “Hey Babe” has a pleasant lilt that would improve on his next album, and “Hold Back The Tears” is especially disappointing once you’ve heard the original take from Chrome Dreams.
Side two presents an odd mix of songs. “Star Of Bethlehem” is a Homegrown outtake that leaves us wondering if the rest of that shelved album is as good. (That this album teases us about two unreleased projects is just cruel.) “Will To Love” is a one-off homemade tape transformed into a big production in the studio; as a result it’s incredibly hard to hear. “Like A Hurricane” is still one of his absolute best, and no amount of Classic Rock Radio airplay will ever diminish it. Repetitive as it is, it’s always a live crowd-pleaser, but this original released take is still the benchmark for all the others. While not from the same sessions, “Homegrown” is the lost title track to that lost album, and undermines our desire to hear what’s left in the can. In this context it’s pro-pot, but he’s managed to make it more of a patriotic anthem for his Farm Aid activities. (For some reason, the same take ends both sides of the cassette version, giving the false impression that it was intentional.)
It’s a shame that this album is so underwhelming, considering everything available that was left off. It’s a minor, less interesting piece of the puzzle, with its best two tracks about to appear on a satisfying compilation. It’s still one of his lesser releases, but not as dull a listen as has been previously thought.

Neil Young American Stars ‘N Bars (1977)—3

Friday, September 5, 2008

Who 5: Tommy

It’s hard to talk about Tommy. The album, songs and concept were a big gamble that paid off thanks to the power of the performance, making the band stars. The newly converted shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves drawn into the murky plot, sympathizing for the poor boy. They would do well to avoid the 1975 film; despite full involvement from the band, the lurid images and sheer ugliness of the characters will permeate your thoughts to the point that subsequent plays of the album will be tainted.
Nonetheless, the first notes of the “Overture” bring to mind the old Maxell tape commercial with the guy blown back in his chair. It’s an incredible, impressive piece of music for a 23-year-old kid to have put together. “1921”, called “You Didn’t Hear It” on the US release, is a very pretty song, even if we don’t know who’s talking which line. (Even the libretto doesn’t help matters much.) With “Amazing Journey” we finally hear Roger’s voice. The song serves as more commentary than plot development, then “Sparks” crashes in before sliding into the familiar theme first heard on “Rael” from Sell Out. “Eyesight To The Blind” is a pretty sneaky way to get one of Pete’s favorite Mose Allison blues covers into the plot, and becomes a Who song in the process. (It sets up “Acid Queen”, which for some reason doesn’t follow until the next side.)
“Christmas” crashes into side two, redeemed by the “Tommy, can you hear me?” section and the arrival of the “See Me Feel Me” theme. “Cousin Kevin” is just as frightening as we’d expect from John, and the mood darkens with the further abuse of the “Acid Queen”. “Underture” is basically a ten-minute extension of “Sparks”, and if you can listen past the first four minutes without zoning out, it’s quite rewarding. (Pete’s original sketch sequence listed several links to illustrate Tommy’s experiences via pinball, his frustrated parents’ violence and familial abuse; more than likely these tracks would have been excerpted from “Underture”.)
Side three begins with Tommy’s night under the sick supervision of Uncle Ernie, an experience that’s thankfully wiped away by “Pinball Wizard”. Written as a joke, without any artistic impetus outside of getting a good review, it may be one of the best songs on the album. “There’s A Doctor” is a 20-second pause to the next great song, “Go To The Mirror”. It works on several levels—good dialogue, powerful backing track and fantastic dynamics. The faster stroll through “See Me Feel Me” and the first appearance of “Listening To You” keep it moving. “Tommy Can You Hear Me” goes on far too long, on the way to “Smash The Mirror”, a jazzy composition that teasingly ends just as it gets interesting. “Sensation” combines flower power and Meher Baba into a song that he’d rewrite much better down the road.
“Miracle Cure” kicks off side four, possibly the least satisfying portion of the album. “Sally Simpson” works as a morality tale outside of Tommy, while “I’m Free” would eventually move up to better illustrate the cure. “Welcome” comes out of the same hippy-dippy cloth as “Sensation”, with some interesting ambience along the way. But just as we’re settling in, “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” blasts everything with color, followed by the epic but ultimately anticlimactic ending in “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: his audience revolts, Tommy regresses, but then what?
Due to varying CD standards and tape availability, it wasn’t until 2003’s Deluxe Edition — the fourth CD reissue in the history of the format — that a “definitive” reproduction was available, yet people still argue about it. Disc One presents the album in its original 1969 mix, and the 5.1 SACD surround mix includes some extra elements, like a slightly longer “Sparks” and an extended “Pinball Wizard”. “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You” is finally indexed as the final track, though Pete had to be persuaded not to swap “Welcome” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp”. The short second disc includes negligible instrumental outtakes and some (but not enough) of Pete’s demos, but gets points for including the long-missing “Dogs Part Two” B-side and a superior studio version of “Young Man Blues”. “Tommy Can You Hear Me” appears as an electric instrumental with an ending that seems to fit the “violent” plot point; the otherwise discarded “Trying To Get Through” has a similar ending. Most of the demo choices used here are odd, being either short or ones that had been available before. “Amazing Journey” appears stripped of the futuristic effects and backwards loops, as heard on the bootlegs, that truly illustrate both the journey and Pete’s interest in electronics.
Ten years later, having already given the “Super Deluxe” treatment to a couple of their other albums, Tommy got a fifth rollout, with yet another remaster of the original LP, a 5.1 version on Blu-ray, a disc with all of Pete’s demos (finally, plus “Trying To Get Through” and “Young Man Blues”) and another disc presenting so-called “live bootleg” performances of the album, mostly from 1969, but some from 1976. (A two-disc version was also released, containing the album and the bootleg disc.) Because a thick book and poster were involved, fans had to shell out $100 and rising for it.
All of this activity detracts from the original story, which grew out of the band to have a life of its own. Tommy is still an incredible album, without which Pete couldn’t have gone on to write some of his absolutely finest songs. (We can’t stress this enough: you’re better off without the movie. Stick to the album.)

The Who Tommy (1969)—4
2003 Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 17 extra tracks
2013 Super Deluxe Edition: same as 1969, plus 46 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Led Zeppelin 5: Houses Of The Holy

Two years—an eternity in those days—after the apex of “Stairway To Heaven”, here was another weird-looking cover and eight more songs that cover a gamut of styles, adding a few more along the way. Houses Of The Holy takes up the challenge of The Follow-Up, and succeeds in spades.
The fanfare of “The Song Remains The Same” lasts for what seems like minutes, then Plant comes in like he’s coming off a hit of helium. It winds up again towards the end, and ends on that great unresolved chord just hanging there. Which leads us into “The Rain Song”. This one is absolutely gorgeous, from end to end—the guitars, vocals, fake strings. It’s not uncommon to have an out-of-body experience when listening to this, with absolutely no stimulants or chemicals. Then with a “blang-a-dang-a-dang” it’s “Over The Hills And Far Away”, which starts like that, then picks up with a fury. Tons of hair metal anthems would open just like this, just so the guitarist could then toss the acoustic stage right when he’s through with it. The theme surfaces again at the end with a harpsichord, and everything is perfect. Then it’s off to James Brown territory with “The Crunge”, an incredibly stupid, yet endearingly catchy song. (Allegedly the band wanted to include a chart with dance steps for this song, and it’s too bad they didn’t.)
“Dancing Days” starts side two in a similar way to Zoso, with an almost psychedelic theme and words about flower power. The siren-like sections are just nifty. “D’yer Mak’er” is a hit single ‘50s parody halfway between reggae and ska that shouldn’t work but does. (It’s near the top of the list of rock songs that either no one knows the name or mispronounces it when they do. Such is the mystique of Zeppelin.) “No Quarter” continues the Viking motif from earlier albums, with nightmarish keyboards and a guitar solo that’s almost an afterthought and buzzes right through the middle. “The Ocean” has a trademark riff, echoey drums and a universal lyric, but the best part of the song—outside of the telephone ringing and squeaky kick pedal enhanced by CD technology—is the exhilarating doo-wop ending. And despite all the other musical homages and pastiches on this album, this is their first album to end without a straight blues tune.
For the first time they actually gave one of their albums an actual title, but even if they did call it Led Zeppelin V it would be fitting. (And while the title isn’t printed anywhere on the stark and mysterious cover, at least they stopped the Chicago method before it got silly.) Lyrics for all the songs are included, though they’re not always correct. But if this was the follow-up to the smash hit, they didn’t disappoint. The band was only getting better. (The mildly chintzy Deluxe Edition offers alternate versions of every song save “D’yer Mak’er”; the most striking differences are heard in the vocal-less mixes of “The Song Remains The Same”, “Over The Hills And Far Away” and “No Quarter”.)

Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy (1973)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1973, plus 7 extra tracks

Monday, September 1, 2008

Elvis Costello 15: Mighty Like A Rose

With the success of “Veronica” driving the sales of his last album, Elvis had a hit on his hands. An attempt to record with the Attractions failed, so he went back to the studio with many of the session cats who’d helped on Spike and on the road. Many EC obsessives hated Mighty Like A Rose upon release, lumping in how much they hated his new look—long frizzy hair and an unkempt beard that brought to mind a Hasidic Jerry Garcia. To this day the album still divides fans, despite its obvious improvement over the chaotic Spike. This time the variety of styles is much more cohesive, helped by a liberal dose of Costello-brand bile.
“The Other Side Of Summer” opens the proceedings with a big Beach Boys production, complete with harmonies and Spector touches. The irony is deflated by the clanky “Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)”, a apocalyptic rant whose sole redeeming quality is to give Jim Keltner songwriting royalties for the drum loop. “How To Be Dumb” brings things back to normal, with a diatribe against Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, who’d used his downtime to write a book about his life as a musician (though it’s hard to say why Elvis was so pissed, since the worst thing the book says about his is that he suffered from aviophobia). “Invasion Hit Parade” is an angry response to that year’s Gulf War, and sadly makes just as much sense today. “All Grown Up” and “Harpies Bizarre” recall the baroque sound of Imperial Bedroom, while “After The Fall” is an uncanny Leonard Cohen homage.
The second half of the album has just as many peaks; “So Like Candy” is as aching a McCartney collaboration as “Playboy To A Man” is silly. “Sweet Pear” goes a step further with a nod to “Don’t Let Me Down” and includes Elvis’s only labored guitar solo. “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4” provides a grand finale, its chorus of horns, banjo and toy piano leading a march into the sunset out of the man’s most passionate vocal to date.
Mighty Like A Rose found nowhere near the success of his previous album, and was unfairly maligned as the decade went on. Rhino’s treatment of the album added some excellent live tracks and leftovers, along with some home demos that can best be described as “orchestrated”. The album still holds up a decade and a half on, even though he’s never gone back to the beard look.

Elvis Costello Mighty Like A Rose (1991)—4
2002 Rhino: same as 1991, plus 17 extra tracks