Thursday, April 30, 2009

David Bowie 9: David Live

The ambitious tour that followed Diamond Dogs was soon overtaken by the Philly sound, epitomized by the backing vocalists, squealing sax and wah-wah guitars all over David Live. There are a few good renditions here, but the overall effect is about as seasick as his pallor on the jacket photos. The visuals of the stage don’t translate to vinyl, and the Spiders are sorely missed.
Mike Garson’s tinkling piano brings in “1984”, supposedly the overture for the production. “Rebel Rebel” is dominated by the “yi-yi” backing vocals from that odd single mix, but then it’s a detour through “Moonage Daydream”; Earl Slick’s good, but he’s no Mick Ronson, and David Sanborn’s sax dominates. The complete “Sweet Thing” suite is a highlight of the side, assuming you already like that song.
The piano outro leads into “Changes”, wherein the children are no longer spit on, but something that rhymes with it. “Suffragette City” is a crowd-pleaser, but the Latin twist on “Aladdin Sane” makes the piano solo even more out of place. “All The Young Dudes” makes its first appearance on a Bowie album; Mott the Hoople’s version still wins. Once again, a side closes with a winner, this time in “Cracked Actor”.
“Rock ‘N Roll With Me” proves its concert potential, and even “Watch That Man” sounds good with this band. A cover of “Knock On Wood” today brings to mind either Amii Stewart’s disco version or the one from Road House; amazingly, this was the single. “Diamond Dogs” has that same flutter effect from the album; the sleeve acknowledged that some post-production sweetening was applied to beef up the sound, and this is one obvious example.
“Big Brother” keeps the concept going, complete with a reprise “Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family”. He’s pretty hoarse by the time of “Width Of A Circle”, a bold addition to the setlist, and “The Jean Genie” is basically removed of its strut. Finally, and most likely because he didn’t know how else to end, “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide” is the finale.
It’s been suggested that the release of David Live was enforced by the label simply to make some of their cash back from the tour. As a current snapshot of Bowie’s image it was accurate, but one wishes the portrait were more flattering. Subsequent reissues haven’t changed that opinion. Rykodisc added two tracks plus band intros to the set; these included the obscure cover “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” and “Time”, which gives Mike Garson another showcase for stumbling over the piano. The 2005 reissue added two more songs (“Space Oddity” sung through a telephone and the live take of “Panic In Detroit” used as a B-side) and placed everything in the original setlist order. These additions admittedly beef up the second half of the show, but only just.
By the time he’d left the planet for good, the Record Store Day phenomenon enabled the labels to release a dizzyingly increasing variety of rare material, most of which was rare simply because they hadn’t existed yet. Perhaps not to have too much similar live material in the box set commemorating the period between Ziggy and Berlin, the estate authorized a standalone release of Cracked Actor, which presented an oft-booted show from two months after the ones used for David Live. On its way to evolving into the “Philly Dogs” era, the rhythm section is different and much busier, Mike Garson is the only pianist, and Carlos Alomar has joined on rhythm guitar, as have several singers from the sessions for the next studio album. The band’s a little tighter, the recording’s a little hotter, and two new songs take the place of four that were dropped. “It’s Gonna Be Me” ultimately would not make said album in progress, while “John I’m Only Dancing (Again)” (eventually issued as a single after he was past it) now closes the show, coming after “Rock ‘N Roll Suicide” and leaving the proceedings completely amped up.

David Bowie David Live (1974)—2
1991 Rykodisc: same as 1974, plus 3 extra tracks
2005 Virgin: same as 1991, plus 2 extra tracks
Bowie Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74) (2017)—

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bob Dylan 6: Highway 61 Revisited

Once upon a time, recording artists were expected to put out two albums within a calendar year, along with a couple of unrelated singles. So it’s astonishing to consider that something as solid as Highway 61 Revisited arrived within months of his first “electric” album, helped along by a hit single at the unprecedented length of six minutes.
Our favorite story about “Like A Rolling Stone” is from John Hiatt, who said he heard the song for the first time on the car radio while his mother was in the store. It was such an experience, he says, that he was afraid she wouldn’t recognize him when she got back to the car. The intro remains unparalleled, starting from that dangerous snare crack. But if you’re tired of that, “Tombstone Blues” is a fantastic driving song with an insistent F# chord and stinging lead line all the way through. The lyrics make no sense, but his snotty vocal is infectious. “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is a deceptive title for a sleepy song. While it started life as a driving rocker, here it’s got a loping beat that makes good use of those long-held notes. “From A Buick 6” fits the same useless task as “Outlaw Blues” on the previous album, and the side ends with “Ballad Of A Thin Man” (better known as “you know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”), a nasty putdown built on a tack piano. Obviously this was a man you did not want to annoy.
Side two gets off to a shaky start with “Queen Jane Approximately”, which would have a lot more to recommend if he’d bothered to tune the guitars first. It’s too bad, as the performance doesn’t go justice to the words and chords. The title track is a scream, and gets points for replacing the harmonica with a police whistle right out of Looney Tunes. Truly hysterical. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is not as entrenched in the theater of the absurd as the rest of the album, but fills the slower verses with some pretty impenetrable imagery. Then it’s time for the grand finale, the litany of “Desolation Row”. Its Mexican guitar part gives no hint how long it will go on, and there’s only a harmonica break before the very last verse. (Another favorite story: Dylan gave an “interview” to Playboy in 1966 where he conspired with the writer to come up with incredibly obscure and outlandish answers to the questions. One of the gems involved his desire to change the national anthem from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “Desolation Row”. We have a wonderful mental image of people rising for eleven minutes to sing it at the start of every baseball game: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…”)
We will be lambasted for not giving this album five stars; it was decided to downgrade it because of “Buick” and “Queen Jane”. But they do fit in the bigger picture, and all together Highway 61 Revisited gives you an idea how this 24-year-old kid changed the face of pop music. He was clearly on a roll.

Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited (1965)—

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bob Dylan 5: Bringing It All Back Home

For those of you keeping score, this is the album where Dylan went electric, as the pundits like to say. But if you’re not ready for that, take comfort in this: Lyrically Bringing It All Back Home continues his progression from folksinger to poet, underscored by the use of a full rock combo on the first side, with slight accents on the second.
The acoustic guitar strums alone for a split second, then the band comes crashing in. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is still remarkable after forty-plus years, a proud son of “Too Much Monkey Business” and father of “Pump It Up” (and, unfortunately, “Wild Wild West” by Escape Club). The volume goes down for “She Belongs To Me”, a deceptive portrait of a lady in the blues structure but with a twist. “Maggie’s Farm” is a protest song for those who want one, via the theater of the absurd. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is an underrated gem. The vocal is lovely, matching the words, and a good example to use for people who think all Dylan did was whine. “Outlaw Blues” pushes its luck, noisy for the sake of it, but “On The Road Again” is an improvement, with a great punch line on each verse. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes the melody from “Motorpsycho Nitemare” on the previous album, and tells another story of a man lost in a new world. The laughter at the start makes the track succeed.
It’s been said that side two continues the “electric” idea in the songs, which leap forward to parts uncharted. “Mr. Tambourine Man” would be done better by the Byrds, as would become common, but they only used one verse. (And of course, William Shatner recorded the definitive version himself, based on the Byrds arrangement.) “Gates Of Eden” is never sure what key it should be in, but it’s just a setup for the epic “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. There’s always something new to discover in these verses, constituting an angry torrent of disappointment against all kinds of ugliness. After all that, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is almost pleasant. While still a classic Dylan kiss-off, it’s a great end to an amazing journey.
Bringing It All Back Home may have upset the folkies, but it brought him to the level of pop idol, and encouraged the direction of the next eighteen months. Even the cover was pretty cool.

Bob Dylan Bringing It All Back Home (1965)—

Friday, April 24, 2009

Neil Young 29: Sleeps With Angels

After meeting them at Bobfest, Neil toured with Booker T & The MGs while the Unplugged set sold somewhat like hotcakes but more like eggs. The grunge movement rose and fell, and took Kurt Cobain with it. Neil’s only public response was the Sleeps With Angels album. He did not tour, did no interviews, and certainly didn’t answer when people asked how it felt to have your lyrics quoted in a suicide note. The music would just have to speak for itself.
The hour-long journey through the dark begins with the frailty of “My Heart”, the tack piano plinking along while the wind outside blows open the doors of the saloon. “Prime Of Life” nearly derails the mood with the flute (real, not synthesized) but the effects and some of the voices help keep it afloat. “Driveby” is incredibly slow and sad. It’s great. The title track is all distortion and doom, supposedly written directly about the Cobains and not even trying to make sense of it all. “Western Hero” recalls Harvest Moon, and it’s classic Neil. It’s not clear who or what the hero represents, or when he walked the earth. “Change Your Mind” takes its direction from “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Like A Hurricane”, but while the ten-minute Ragged Glory songs and “Touch The Night” failed, this gets the recipe exactly right. For 14½ minutes he warns us not to let another day go by without the magic power of love.
“Blue Eden” starts the second half of the album with a spooky back alley rattle that sounds like part of Arc. It reflects and repeats some of the lyrics in “Change Your Mind” without redundancy. “Safeway Cart” occupies the same desolate space with the despair of “Driveby” thrown in. You can see and hear the shopping cart rolling across the dirty lot. “Train Of Love” is the same tune (and possibly the same backing track) as “Western Hero”. The way he sings “I’ll always be a part of you” is just heartbreaking. “Piece Of Crap” exists just to blow the dust off the tombstones before we can leave. Having forced Crazy Horse to follow him as virtual pallbearers for the previous fifty minutes, he gives them free rein to bash away, yelling “Piece of crap!” with and at him. Hysterical. “A Dream That Can Last” neatly bookends the set with similar instrumentation to that of “My Heart”. The slow dance in this song sounds like a perfect bed to the closing credits to a movie or a Rankin-Bass holiday cartoon, and the harmonica at the end is perfect. And then it’s over.
In years to come Sleeps With Angels may well emerge as one of his absolute best works. There is a bad mood set, but it’s not tedious. He probably wouldn’t want us to listen to this at 10:30 in the morning either.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Sleeps With Angels (1994)—4

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bob Dylan 4: Another Side Of Bob Dylan

Having firmly typecast himself as a dour troubadour, Bob took a left turn with his next collection of songs. Another Side Of Bob Dylan—which got its title from his producer, against the artist’s instinct—was recorded in a single night over several bottles of Beaujolais, and leans heavily more towards love songs and imagery, pointedly away from social commentary. It remains one of his best.
The jaunty opener “All I Really Want To Do” uses a rhyming dictionary to tell the jokes, and you can hear him laughing in between verses. This was an easy cover for the next year’s folk-rockers. “Black Crow Blues” is a sloppy piano blues, using that instrument for the first time on a Dylan LP. The haunting “Spanish Harlem Incident” is rich with summer heat, evoking scenes of young men on city street corners once upon a time. Those looking for a Big Statement would have their hands full with “Chimes Of Freedom”. It takes some patience as his voice loses the path, but there is some incredible imagery in all those words. To defuse the gravitas comes “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, which improves on its predecessor two albums earlier with a better riff (learned in England) and much funnier lines. Closing out the side is “To Ramona”, another tender love song that demonstrates the man’s impeccable phrasing.
Side one begins with “Motorpsycho Nitemare”, which drags out the old traveling salesman story with some contemporary pop culture and a melody that you’ll hear again. You’ll also find yourself picking up the various non sequitirs before long. Similarly, “My Back Pages” takes the “Hattie Carroll” melody from the last album and adds new words; it would be done better in a definitive version by the Byrds after both they and he had moved on from this point. The masterful “I Don’t Believe You” takes a wry look at the aftermath of a one-night stand, and is very clever coming oddly enough from the man’s jilted point of view. While lambasted by several authors for its unnecessary airing of dirty laundry, “Ballad In Plain D” is a remarkable composition with lines so alternatively tender and aching. The final verse makes it all worthwhile. But after those eight minutes of heartbreak, it’s the narrator who comes out on top, as “It Ain’t Me Babe” ends the album on a defiant note.
Another Side Of Bob Dylan may not have pleased people hoping he’d continue to explain the world to them, but it has endured as a collection of songs from that brief period amidst his journey from protest singer to absurdist visionary. Crack a bottle of cheap wine, open the windows, and let the songs unfold from the speakers. Give in to the simplicity of the songs, and you’ll want to go back again and again.

Bob Dylan Another Side Of Bob Dylan (1964)—4

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bob Dylan 3: The Times They Are A-Changin’

On his third album, Bob was deep into the role of protest singer. There’s something rough about the bleak cover shot that is mirrored in the words. And that doesn’t even call into account the ones on the back cover, which give a clue to his next direction. The Times They Are A-Changin’ isn’t easy listening, but is a successful progression to his next stage.
The title track isn’t about to convert anyone who doesn’t like his voice, but it’s still one of his better protest songs. To this day it evokes a mood of change, however futile. “Ballad Of Hollis Brown” is a stark painting, and you can almost feel the wind blowing through the dead weeds. Years later it would give inspiration to the plight of the family farmer. “With God On Our Side” isn’t an easy listen, as he keeps changing speeds, but the point is well made. Just so you know he’s not all about sloganeering, “One Too Many Mornings” takes a detour towards a city bedroom, and paints as bleak a portrait as any other on this album. (And it took no less a sage than George Starostin to point out that the melody is identical to that of the title track.) “North Country Blues” paints another sad portrait of poverty, this time from the view of a young woman in a mining town.
“Only A Pawn In Their Game” tells of the murder of the head of the NAACP. As another of his civil rights anthems, he was starting to get pigeonholed as a civil rights activist. This notion is immediately dispelled by “Boots Of Spanish Leather”, which takes the melody of “Girl From The North Country” and expands it into a compelling tale of separation. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking song that begins as a conversation, and then suddenly and pointedly she stops answering when it’s her turn. The final lines will catch in your heartstrings. While “When The Ship Comes In” seems almost Biblical, according to Joan Baez it’s a tale of imagined retribution against a nasty hotel clerk who didn’t like how Bob was dressed; somehow it works on all levels. “Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” may be just another protest song, but it explores so many more levels. Even if we don’t have all the facts—maybe William Zantzinger didn’t really hit her with a cane, and why should we assume that she was black and he was white?—the scene he lays out is all too real to ignore. And “Restless Farewell” is just that, another edgy litany.
Even if you think of The Times They Are A-Changin’ as just another protest album, it’s still a good one. But there’s enough on here that contrasts that stark face on the cover to suggest that the kids had something else to say. And he would.

Bob Dylan The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)—4

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bob Dylan 2: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

Now we’re getting somewhere. This set the tone for at least a couple of years, from the sly visions in the lyrics to the homespun photo of Our Hero arm in arm with his long-haired lady on a snowy Greenwich Village street. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was his breakthrough, loaded with songs that still get cheers today whenever anybody does them.
“Blowin’ In The Wind” opens the side, and is probably why people love this album. Even after decades of saturation, the nine questions it asks can still provoke thought if one takes the time to consider them. “Girl From The North Country” uses fairly standard changes with a variation on the “Scarborough Fair” theme. It’s heartbreaking. Then we get “Masters Of War”, which is one angry little number, and still relevant today. “Down The Highway” is a straightforward blues song in open (out of) tuning. “Bob Dylan’s Blues” doesn’t have much to offer, but it’s just a stopgap on the way to the epic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Bob’s quoted in the liner notes suggesting that each line could be the opening to another song, and he’s right. Instead it provides a litany of imagery straight out of the Bible or Kerouac.
Side two has a tough act to follow, and it succeeds. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” uses a fast picking, probably courtesy of Bruce Langhorne, to accompany the kiss-off words. “Bob Dylan’s Dream” is more worthy of a namecheck in the title than its “Blues” counterpart, as the content goes a lot deeper than just one man’s dream. It’s a truly heartbreaking song of regret, thinking back to simpler times with lost friends that seem so far away. “Oxford Town” is a matter-of-fact protest song about race relations, but with a jaunty melody that belies the serious tone. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” has its moments, but doesn’t always warrant repeat listens. It’s still one of his better attempts at the genre. “Corrina, Corrina” is one of the few tracks released from the many sessions for this album—which took an entire year—featuring a “combo” backing; his sweet tone is a nice detour as well. “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance” seems an odd choice, as it’s a cover, and he did the song better with different words on his debut. “I Shall Be Free” gives a final shot at comedy, not contained by the other talking blues songs. And it fades away to the inner groove.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan goes a long way towards establishing him as a writer, even if the tunes and words are still very derivative of the usual folk repertoire. His growing fan base was able to watch him grow as well, as they wore out the grooves of this record. It’s a good leap forward from his first album, and he’d continue to explore the protest niche in the meantime.

Bob Dylan The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)—

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bob Dylan 1: Bob Dylan

As with many debut albums, Bob Dylan’s first full-length doesn’t necessarily have the same sound that made him famous. However, nearly half a century on, it fits squarely within the big picture as described by the rest of his catalog. Bob Dylan tries to cover a lot of ground, ending up something of a hodgepodge of blues and folk standards. It probably wasn’t too different from what the other Greenwich Village rats were up to, so whatever made him stand out so much doesn’t quite translate to wax.
“You’re No Good” starts the album on a jaunty note, with a harmonica solo in a different key; it must have been a crowd-pleaser and succeeds here. “Talkin’ New York” is his own composition, but that’s pushing it. The talking blues is fairly public domain as it is, the only difference being the words the singer adds—and many of these were taken from other songs. The best song on the album is “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”. He may well have first heard it from Ric Von Schmidt, but it’s the freshest thing here. The obvious debt is made clear in “Song To Woody”, which takes a familiar Woody Guthrie motif and turns it into a tribute to his mentor.
Barely twenty years old when the album was recorded, he had already adopted a husky tone to his voice that belied his youth rock ‘n roll adolescence. The smooth face on the album cover is an odd contrast to the man singing “Fixin’ To Die”, “In My Time Of Dyin’” (later covered by Led Zeppelin), “House Of The Risin’ Sun” (soon to be covered by the Animals) and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. More successful are the more traditional “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O”, and for a good example of his control before too many cigarettes, check out the held yodel note in “Freight Train Blues”.
If you’re looking for surreal wordplay, Bob Dylan isn’t the place to start. However, if you’ve enjoyed his folk and blues explorations, the likes of which have featured regularly in his live performances since the early ‘90s, it will make a lot more sense.

Bob Dylan Bob Dylan (1962)—3

Monday, April 13, 2009

Neil Young 28: Lucky Thirteen and Unplugged

Since Neil had become so economically viable of late, it was hardly surprising when Geffen decided to cash in, and fast. Lucky Thirteen served to “sum up” the Geffen years. On the good side it has some rarities and alternates; on the bad side, the songs aren’t that good, the set doesn’t gel, and the first of many references to “The Neil Young Archives” only brought fans to the end of their tethers waiting for him to throw open the gates already.
The rarities are mixed at best. One’s enjoyment of the eight-minute version of “Sample And Hold” depends on how much one doesn’t hate the short version. “Depression Blues” is inoffensive if barely memorable, left over from the initial Old Ways sessions. “Get Gone” and “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” show how confusing the Shocking Pinks portions of his shows must have seemed. Several puzzling choices of album tracks follow, with some live Bluenotes tracks to finish us off. “Ain’t It The Truth” is supposedly one of his earliest songs, and this version of “This Note’s For You” runs rings around the album track. And it’s the only track here that one absolutely must have.

Meanwhile, to promote Harvest Moon, he made several stabs at televised unplugged-type concerts. The last attempt was the best, and while perhaps it wasn’t really necessary, Unplugged still gets points for variety, rarity and quality. “The Old Laughing Lady” is performed almost jauntily, making it more like “Sugar Mountain” than the walking nightmare of the original track. “Mr. Soul” is reassessed in a drop-D modal tuning with harmonica that transforms it into a Delta blues number. “World On A String” is an odd choice, as is the first official release of “Stringman”, done identically to the shelved 1976 recording. “Like A Hurricane” appears in its Dracula-pump organ guise before it wore out its welcome. The rest of the band, including several luminaries from the past, comes out for the Harvest Moon numbers plus a fascinating take on “Transformer Man”.
He’d been following his scattered muse through solo shows for years, and he found it on a good night. Strikingly crowd-pleasing and Neil-pleasing, the album also shows what the Unplugged series once strove for before it turned into a tired joke.

Neil Young Lucky Thirteen (1993)—
Neil Young Unplugged (1993)—

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paul McCartney 14: Pipes Of Peace

It made perfect sense—war and peace, right? The follow-up to the successful Tug Of War, Pipes Of Peace came out in time for Christmas 1983 with a heavy emphasis on the duets with Michael Jackson, just when he was the biggest performer in the world hands down. Paul had already sung with Wacko Jacko on Thriller; and Tug Of War sported two tracks featuring a Motown legend, so this does too. We’ll get to those.
The title track starts in a similar fashion to its counterpart, but gets derailed ere long by nursery-rhyme melodies and a children’s choir juxtaposed over Indian drums. At least the video had something to recommend it, but the song still sounds forced all these years later. “Say Say Say” has a lot more Michael than Macca, which probably explains its success, and it manages to be danceable without dating itself. (In the reverse of “Pipes”, the song is easier to swallow than the video.) And here’s where it all starts to really sink. “The Other Me” and “Keep Under Cover” barely have enough on their own to even turn into something worthwhile. Perhaps if he’d taken parts of each…no, that wouldn’t work either. “So Bad” might have been better served if he gave it to Jacko, or anyone else who wouldn’t sound so silly singing so high. To induce vomiting, seek out any of his interviews where he describes putting “boy I love you” in the lyrics to either humiliate or include his five-year-old son.
“The Man” seems to be about someone very important, but damned if we can figure out who that is. “Sweetest Little Show” runs into “Average Person”, and both are equally condescending and aggravating. “Hey Hey” is a dopey instrumental written with jazz cat Stanley Clarke, who wasn’t in a hurry to put it on any of his own albums. “Tug Of Peace” tries to unite the two big themes, and like some arranged marriages, succeeds only in wasting the time and attention of everyone involved. Luckily, “Though Our Love” is that One McCartney Song per album we’ve come to count on. Just gorgeous—but it’s too late. We’re already really pissed off.
Pipes Of Peace was easily his worst album in ten years. Some of these tracks were left over from the Tug Of War sessions, and it’s obvious why they weren’t used there. The better ones also appear in demo form on the Archive Collection bonus disc, along with a new remix of “Say Say Say”, the undeniably catchy “Ode To A Koala Bear”, and a few other underdone tracks from the same period. Of course, that didn’t stop the PR machine from touting Pipes Of Peace as an ‘80s classic, which it’s not. If we were in charge of these things, we’d’ve at least combined it with the new songs he’d earmarked for his first major motion picture (which we’ll discuss in due time), rather than padding out two mediocre albums for the streaming generation. But this is what happens to performers who have spent decades doing anything they want. And in Paul’s case, it would only get worse.

Paul McCartney Pipes Of Peace (1983)—
2015 Archive Collection: same as 1983, plus 9 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds DVD)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

John Lennon 10: The John Lennon Collection

Just in time for Christmas 1982, Geffen had managed to license some EMI-owned songs to add to their Double Fantasy tracks for a “new” Lennon album, with an air of sheer commercialism dancing around its existence. That being said, as an LP The John Lennon Collection succeeds in that it includes the complete single version of “Give Peace A Chance”; it also utilizes a slightly remixed “Love”, the minimalist beauty from Plastic Ono Band. Side two begins strongly with “Imagine” and “Jealous Guy”, then retreads most of John’s half of Double Fantasy, all radio hits save “Dear Yoko”. (“Oh Yoko!” would have been a better choice but perhaps not as economically feasible for Geffen at the time.)
The Estate redeemed itself with the 1989 CD reissue by including the original single version of “Happy Xmas” (with correct printed lyrics), plus “Stand By Me” and the previously unalbumized B-side “Move Over Ms. L”. “Cold Turkey” rounds things out, if ending the disc on a harsh note. “Dear Yoko” still should have hit the scrap heap, and couldn’t they have added “Nobody Told Me”? Nonetheless, the music’s still good, and the Estate would go through more compilations in their quest for the “definitive” collection.

John Lennon The John Lennon Collection (1982)—4
1989 CD reissue: same as 1982, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pete Townshend 6: White City

Both Pete and Roger put out solo albums in 1985 that got airplay on stations hungry for Who music; Roger had even made time for a solo album in 1984 that sank like a rock. Two songs in particular kept Roger in the spotlight—“After The Fire”, which Pete wrote after the Live Aid reunion, soars despite a puzzling reference to Dom DeLuise, and “Under A Raging Moon” was supposed to call up the spirit of Keith with a muddling all-star drum solo.
But Pete’s White City got more attention, as it was subtitled “A Novel” and had an impenetrable straight-to-video film to go with it. Whatever story he hoped to tell—something having to do with apartheid as experienced on a council estate—is luckily overshadowed by some good music. “Give Blood” is an angry, turbulent song propelled by drums and repeating guitars. “Brilliant Blues” is pleasant enough, followed by the white rap of “Face The Face”. “Hiding Out” is poppy, and the side drags to an end with “Secondhand Love”, which got radio play despite being so average.
“Crashing By Design” kicks off the second side well, but gets dashed by a calypso detour and the allegory of “I Am Secure”. “White City Fighting” is an excellent collaboration with David Gilmour, even though it doesn’t seem to explain the plot any. “Come To Mama” is in two parts—a lengthy intro and another prose exercise—and ends the album oddly.
The main problem with the album is that there’s not enough “music” to enjoy it as a collection of songs, and not enough explanation to pass it off as a story. Those factors together make White City feel incomplete. Was he pressured to keep it a single album? Or were the ideas left over from the sessions simply not good enough?
Several years later Pete posted his original script for the film on his website. It covered many of the themes that would color much of his writing over the next two decades, including separated spouses, regret for one’s actions and hallucinatory conversations with oneself as a child. When combined with the story on the back cover, it unfortunately illuminates the filming process more than the film itself. In the end, trying to find a story within White City accomplishes nothing. You’d be better off simply enjoying the music. (The 2006 reissue included an odd mix of extras: “Night School”, which was never completed for the film despite being featured in a “making-of” segment; a pointless extended mix of “Hiding Out”; and a cover of the English Beat’s “Save It For Later”, one of Pete’s favorites.)

Pete Townshend White City: A Novel (1985)—3
2006 remaster: same as 1985, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, April 3, 2009

Neil Young 27: Harvest Moon

A year after blowing our ears out, Neil came from the other end of the spectrum with Harvest Moon. Touted as the long-awaited sequel to Harvest, it did use many of the same musicians and made some direct references, but was a lot closer to Comes A Time in that it has little electric edge.
“Unknown Legend” is pleasant enough, a story of a waitress with a nice open-air feeling from riding the Harley. While we can’t decide if “From Hank To Hendrix” refers to Marvin or Williams, it’s an engaging tune about keeping relationships and love fresh after many years. “You And Me” is the most blatant echo of the past. Its chords are similar to “Old Man”, plus a key couplet had prefaced “I Am A Child” on a bootleg from 1971. Proving that good things come to those who wait, it’s good he took the time to finish this one. The title track is just lovely, illustrated by him happily dancing with Pegi in the video. “War Of Man” features the famous D modal tuning, and actually got airplay despite its pointed, anti-war lyrics.
“One Of These Days” had been around for a few years—he did a great version at the piano onstage in 1989—but it’s a nice look back at some old friends, some of whom were still playing with him. “Such A Woman” gets a dreamy Jack Nietzsche arrangement to show the positive side of “Expecting To Fly”; this partnership would work best the following year with “Philadelphia”. “Old King” pissed off a rather vocal segment of the audiences at his warm-up shows that year. (It’s about his dog, for crying out loud.) “Dreamin’ Man” is a very pretty song that took us the better part of ten years to realize is about a stalker. “Natural Beauty” ends the album similarly to “Mother Earth”: extraneous sound effects implore the preservation of the environment and keeping things as they are.
Harvest Moon is very easy listening, and that’s not a bad thing. It is the most satisfying of all his soft-country experiments of the previous twenty years, with something anyone could appreciate. At this point, he could do whatever he wanted and still sell records. Not only was it a tonic for two years of Crazy Horse and feedback, but a commercial slam-dunk: a return to the MOR country sound people waited twenty years for, not realizing he hadn’t really abandoned it.

Neil Young Harvest Moon (1992)—

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

George Harrison 10: Gone Troppo

Another Harrison album came and went with barely any notice. George didn’t care, Warner Bros. didn’t care, and radio didn’t care. Gone Troppo would almost be worth discussing if it were a phenomenally bad record, or surprisingly good. Unfortunately for the consumer, it’s neither.
“Wake Up My Love” was the single, another nod to the contemporary sound of Elton John. It was not a hit, unfortunately, since it’s pleasant enough. “That’s The Way It Goes” is also pleasant, featuring the bass voice of Willie Greene, who is also used extensively on the doo-wop cover “I Really Love You”. George had lately been putting odd covers on his LPs, and usually surprised us with his canny choices, but not here. “Greece” is an unfinished instrumental; there’s supposed to be some clever wordplay here and there, but the vocals are mixed so low they’re tough to decipher. “Gone Troppo” has a quirky island motif, with a hook that seems very close to that interlude before “Beware My Love” by Wings. Well, at least he doesn’t sound as grumpy.
“Mystical One” has some nice hooks that just aren’t sharp enough to stick. The same can be said for “Unknown Delight”, but at least this one has some touches reminiscent of the George Harrison album. “Baby Don’t Run Away” sounds odd coming out of his mouth. This would have had more emotional effect had he finished the song; as it is it seems more like a barely fleshed-out synth demo. “Dream Away” was first heard over the closing credits of the Python-related film Time Bandits. The best part is the chorus, which is always on the verge of meaning something, yet stays just out of grasp. “Circles” was another orphan from 1968, and one of his most depressing melodies.
And with that, we wouldn’t hear from him again for five full years. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this album. There’s also nothing right with it. He seemed to be stuck back in his mid-’70s hole, with all the antiseptic qualities of that era. At least, unlike many rock legends, he didn’t bother making a hideous album in 1983 or 1984.

George Harrison Gone Troppo (1982)—2
2004 Dark Horse Years reissue: same as 1982, plus 1 extra track