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