Monday, November 30, 2009

Rolling Stones 9: Between The Buttons

For a band with as high a profile as the Rolling Stones, it seems odd that Between The Buttons would be such an overlooked album. It doesn’t feature in most pantheons of classic Stones albums, and isn’t considered “notorious”. But those who don’t know about it are missing out on something special.
Between The Buttons appeared in early 1967, in that wacky period before Sgt. Pepper decided everything had to be psychedelic. It follows on the promise of Aftermath, by including lots of unusual instruments—like recorders, Hammond organ and brass bands—on twelve new Jagger/Richards compositions. They’re further than ever from their blues roots, but it seems the band had been listening to such peers as the Kinks, along with lots of Bob Dylan. To confuse matters, the American version shared only the cover with the British edition, with a few juggled tracks and two key substitutions that would resurface soon enough in a typical case of label shenanigans.
Beginning with “Let’s Spend The Night Together” should be reason enough for this album to be popular. These days the lyrics don’t seem that risqué at all, and the piano is infectious. “Yesterday’s Papers” brings back the previous album’s misogyny and vibraphone, then the piano returns for “Ruby Tuesday”, still a wonderfully tender single. “Connection” is an excellent Chuck Berry pastiche, nicely echoed by “Miss Amanda Jones” on side two. “She Smiled Sweetly” is a rare outlet for Keith on the church organ, and the music hall feel of “Cool, Calm & Collected” finishes the side after a kazoo solo and an increasing tempo that threatens to burn onto the label.
The second side keeps it rocking. “All Sold Out” gives Charlie a chance to flail around the kit, while he’s powerfully restrained on “My Obsession”. Both tracks also feature nicely layered harmonies. “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” is the only song we can think of equally influenced by Blonde On Blonde and Winnie-The-Pooh, its Dylanesque delivery punctuated by non-blues harmonica and a hint of nursery rhyme. “Complicated” is slightly ordinary, redeemed by more updated Chuck Berry-isms in “Miss Amanda Jones”, but both form mere stepping stones to the grand finale. “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” owes an even bigger debt to that recent Dylan album, with the drunken horns and a tuba solo. Keith sings lead for the first time, and just when you think it’s ready to fade, Mick adds a spoken farewell section. A wonderful way to go.
Between The Buttons did okay on the charts, their main competition being the Monkees. If anything, the album sold on the heels of the “Ruby Tuesday”/“Let’s Spend The Night Together” single, which was left off the British version in favor of two other tracks. Both versions are in print on CD today. Which version you should get depends on how many times you already own that single on numerous Stones hits collections.

The Rolling Stones Between The Buttons (1967)—4

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rolling Stones 8: Got Live If You Want It!

While anxiously waiting for the next real Stones album, the band’s American label took a hint as well as a title from a British EP. While three of those tracks had already been scattered on a couple of U.S.-only albums, the band were convinced to record a few shows on their current British tour for a full-length live album. And just like that, Got Live If You Want It! happened.
Well, not exactly. While the sources for the recordings used have been documented, many of the tracks sound just too clean to be really, really live. The technology to capture each of the instruments, microphones and drums on a stage, usually through a crappy PA system, as clear as they sound here simply didn’t exist yet. And when you add in all those screaming girls, the math just doesn’t work out.
That said, the band does display energy, especially Charlie, who drives “Under My Thumb”, complete with that post-chorus tag they’d still use in 1969, right into “Get Off Of My Cloud”. The momentum crashes for a sadly out-of-tune “Lady Jane”, so maybe this really was captured live on stage in front of an adoring audience. And when was the last time you heard an electric dulcimer? Proof of studio trickery does exist, however, as both “I’m Loving You Too Long” and “Fortune Teller” were studio tracks doctored with screams to sound live just for this album. (The originals of both can be found today on More Hot Rocks.)
Speaking of trickery, somebody had the bright idea to start side two with a tease of “Satisfaction” before cutting to the actual performance of “The Last Time”. In other words, no, the band did not really goad the audience that way. “19th Nervous Breakdown” is fairly powerful, “Time On My Side” off-pitch, and “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” really fuzzy and distorted, so maybe it’s just the backing vocals that were touched up. “I’m Alright” is different from the one on the EP (and Out Of Our Heads here), and still an odd way to kill two minutes mid-show. “Satisfaction” fades before the audience does, who keep screaming through the “God Save The Queen” recording piped through the theater at the end.
Because it was part of the original American canon, Got Live If You Want It! is available for purchase today, with only slightly less atrocious sound than before. If anything, it proves that the Stones tradition of pushing a questionable live album on the unsuspecting public wasn’t their idea in the first place. You really can skip it.

The Rolling Stones Got Live If You Want It! (1966)—2

Friday, November 27, 2009

U2 7: Rattle And Hum

Unfortunately, having become truly superstars, U2 got caught up in the wake of their incredible success and popularity. The faithful still hung on their every word, but with Rattle And Hum—a double album and companion to their feature film—they were in danger of wearing out their welcome.
Like the film, the album began simply as a collection of live recordings produced by Jimmy Iovine, who’d done the same on Under A Blood Red Sky. But as the project ballooned and the band’s fascination with American rock icons grew, the album turned into less of a soundtrack than a follow-up to The Joshua Tree, to which it sadly pales.
The live tracks are performed well, as long as you can stand Bono’s extrapolations. “Helter Skelter” and “All Along The Watchtower” are unnecessary covers, but “Pride” and “Bullet The Blue Sky” are a little better. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is augmented by a gospel choir, but based on the film footage, it’s tough to tell if they actually appeared onstage with the band, or were grafted on in the studio. “Silver And Gold” makes its first appearance on a U2 album, though the B-side and Sun City versions are preferable.
The new songs are another odd mix. The Edge sings a poem called “Van Diemen’s Land”, with a voice that sounds uncannily like Don Johnson. “Hawkmoon 269” and “Love Rescue Me” are too-long collaborations with Bob Dylan. “Angel Of Harlem” is little more than namedropping of references Bono doesn’t understand, but somehow it was a hit. Equally baffling is the popularity of “When Love Comes To Town”, a two-chord lumber written for and featuring B.B. King, who’s obviously a good sport. “God Part II” is another rushed list, written both in response to John Lennon’s song of the same name and the recent trash biography by Albert Goldman. At least there’s some relief with “Heartland”, a Joshua Tree outtake that thankfully revives the Eno/Lanois sound, and the closing “All I Want Is You” has a sweep and passion that almost makes up for what has gone before.
Rattle And Hum seemed so much more important at the time, but the excitement didn’t last. They were getting too big, and something needed to be done if they were going to remain relevant.

U2 Rattle And Hum (1988)—2

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

U2 6: The Joshua Tree

Decades after the fact, it’s apparent this is where everything changed for U2. They’d been slowly building up to something that would make such an impact, and boy, did they. In 1987, The Joshua Tree was everywhere, much like, we’d dare to say, Sgt. Pepper had been twenty years earlier.
Also with this album, Bono gave himself license to become even more pompous and self-important, and set him and the other guys up for parody. Luckily for everyone involved, the album was—and is—pretty good. It builds on the work started with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois on The Unforgettable Fire, filling out the sound a bit and adding some American dust.
The three hits appear at the top, fading in with the galloping fanfare of “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” conjuring images of the self-deprecating video of the boys wandering around Las Vegas, and of course, “With Or Without You”. After that, “Bullet The Blue Sky” originally seemed out of place, but it delivers an excellent contrast. Closing a very good album side is another song about heroin. “Running To Stand Still” is probably the one most people would skip, but the acoustic blues and “ha la la la de day” refrains provide something of a relief to the attack of the previous track.
“Red Hill Mining Town” starts side two, and it probably means something to a few people in Dublin, but the chorus cuts through the murk to make it something worth hearing out of whatever context it’s in. “In God’s Country” manages to keep us interested over two chords, but it’s still a little weak. At the time, “Trip Through Your Wires” seemed adventurous—Bono’s blowing a harmonica!—but in the wake of their next album and film, you can see where they started to get a little ahead of themselves. “One Tree Hill” is the Personal Statement, but they fill it with enough of their anthemic sound to make people care.
That’s pretty much where the album stops, but there are two more songs, so we have to talk about them. “Exit” is the Dark Ballad, supposedly inspired by Gary Gilmore, while “Mothers Of The Disappeared” takes it back to the commercial sound, albeit with a song about Argentinean victims. This might suggest that the parts don’t quite equal the sum. But The Joshua Tree still a good album and quite justifiably the one that made people notice.
The band kindly added excellent additional songs two at a time to each of the singles — albeit at 33 1/3, making them tough to play on jukeboxes. These were all made available on the bonus disc of the 20th Anniversary Edition, alongside outtakes and working tracks. Ten years later, the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition supplemented the album with most of a Madison Square Garden concert that spawned the “gospel” version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Recorded in the fall of 1987, after the album had taken over the world, the band had become too big for even themselves. (The so-called Super Deluxe Edition had that, along with a disc of “newly commissioned” remixes and all but one of the bonuses from the 20th Anniversary Edition, replacing a single mix with two unreleased alternate mixes.)

U2 The Joshua Tree (1987)—4
2007 20th Anniversary Edition: same as 1987, plus 14 extra tracks
2017 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1987, plus 17 extra tracks
2017 30th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition: same as 2007, plus 25 extra tracks (and minus 1 track)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Brian Eno 6: Before And After Science

Eno took a long time to release a proper follow-up to Another Green World, but that’s not to say he wasn’t busy, as evidenced by his various collaborations, as well as Discreet Music. He gained more mainstream notice by appearing heavily on two David Bowie albums within a year’s space, and some of that influence shows up on Before And After Science. Supposedly culled from sessions producing over a hundred compositions, these ten songs run a gamut of styles while conveying a cohesive mood.
Side one is almost funky, beginning with the bass-heavy “No One Receiving” and pulling out the synths for “Backwater”. “Kurt’s Rejoinder” comes at a fast pace, and we finally get a Green World-style respite with “Energy Fools The Magician”. “King’s Lead Hat”, besides being incredibly catchy, is an anagram for a band he’d soon spend several albums producing.
Side two begins with another pop song, the gentler and extremely melodic “Here He Comes”. And from here, Eno paints an aural picture of a wide, open seascape that’s as calming as it is mysterious. “Julie With…” is a moving snapshot that still raises debate over what’s actually taken place, built over slow minor chords and ending with a melancholy guitar solo. “By This River” saddens the mood even more, with an almost child-like piano part carrying through courtesy of his new friends, the German duo Cluster. (More on them later.) “Through Hollow Lands” follows its counterpart on the first side with another instrumental, this one dedicated to minimalist pianist Harold Budd. (More on him later, too.) And just like the credits for a science fiction movie about friendly aliens, “Spider And I” fades in and out on a wish and a dream.
It’s the second side that makes Before And After Science a truly grand finale for such a busy period. Eno’s first four “rock” albums are a complete entity, complementing each other so well that to enjoy one is to enjoy them all together. And while he had more albums up his sleeve, it would be a long time before we’d hear him sing again.

Brian Eno Before And After Science (1977)—4

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Brian Eno 4: Discreet Music

While he’d yet to find a label for the genre, Brian Eno was fascinated by the dual concepts of music that was both self-generating and capable of being part of a larger environment. The back cover of Discreet Music, which put him closer to achieving these ideas, goes into much better depth of explaining how as well as why he created this album.
Side one, which shares the album’s title, is a 30-minute mix of synthesizer loops he’d created for Robert Fripp to extemporize upon. The tones are fairly basic, simple flute sounds and low winds. The notes are few, alternating within the same key and pitch, going in and out of the overall mix to provide a pleasant accompaniment to any number of non-arduous activities. Because it’s so long, it often seems on the verge of fading away, only to return. It’s probably best experienced at home, with the windows open to hear birds singing and rain falling, as Eno’s inspiration for the piece happened to include.
Side two purports to present another approach to his self-generating thesis. Here he takes one of the most well-known, copied pieces of music in the history of written scores, and has a classic string ensemble disassemble it three different ways. We recognize the first notes of Pachelbel’s Canon from the start, only to have it slowly evolve into long, drawn-out extensions of the notes. The second section allows spurts of the melody to appear and sustain, while the third, by design, renders the score past the point of recognition.
Coming smack-dab amidst Eno’s “pop” albums, Discreet Music is alternatively distracting and challenging. Where side one has its merit, side two is collectively a matter of personal taste; if anything, it’s unique to hear Eno “music” played by acoustic, unamplified and untreated instruments. The album is best appreciated as part of his big picture, after all else has been absorbed.

Brian Eno Discreet Music (1975)—3

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rolling Stones 7: Aftermath

Aftermath is the first “real” Stones album, the one that showcases the band as we would come to accept them. All the songs are credited to Jagger-Richards (whether or not they were the actual writers). Brian Jones, having lost his power to keep them strictly a blues band, stretches out on several exotic instruments. And Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts keep everything tied down in the back.
Of course, the misogyny is out in full force; Mick did have an image to keep, after all. The opening notes of “Paint It, Black” hint at the current Indian influence before giving way to the blatant nastiness of “Stupid Girl”. Brian shines again on “Lady Jane”, contributing the dulcimer and probably the harpsichord. It’s a very gentle song, until you pay attention to the lyrics. Brian’s marimbas drive “Under My Thumb”, another cruel song still played by the band today. “Doncha Bother Me” is a successful marriage of Chicago blues and swinging London. “Think” features several guitar parts, from the strummed acoustic to the “Satisfaction” fuzz tone; an underrated track.
“Flight 505” starts the second side with a boogie piano solo from sixth Stone Ian Stewart before turning into an otherwise ordinary song with a trick ending worthy of Pete Townshend. “High And Dry” is a country blues that sounds like it was written five minutes before it was recorded. They would do this style better in the future. “It’s Not Easy” isn’t much, but “I Am Waiting” is the hidden gem here, a fine example of mid-‘60s British chamber pop and a killer bridge. The mood turns completely with “Goin’ Home”, a track notorious for being rock ‘n roll’s first lengthy album track. Unfortunately, Mick can’t sustain us over the eleven-plus minutes here; he’d learn the secret of dynamics soon enough.
Aftermath is the Stones learning how to compete on the album charts in an era when fans wanted more substance for their dollar. The British version, which came out a couple of months earlier with a different cover and different tracks (naturally), offered even more value, clocking 53 minutes against the 42 on the American. Somebody at ABKCO understood this album’s importance, as both the US and UK versions are available today on CD, should you wish to compare them.

The Rolling Stones Aftermath (1966)—3

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rolling Stones 6: Big Hits

In two years’ time, the Stones had released five albums in America, compared to three in the UK (where there were more songs exclusive to EPs and 45s). These had some great tracks and actual hit singles, of course, but with the possible exception of their debut, those LPs were increasingly chaotic, with arbitrary sequencing and consisting of a strange menu of covers, tentative songwriting attempts and incongruous “live” recordings punctuated by screaming girls. And for the completist, several but not all of those B-sides and EP tracks were scattered throughout, leaving little continuity.
In that time they’d also evolved from an R&B combo to actual competition to the Beatles in the songwriting category. So in many ways their first “great” album, and a much better place to soak up all the history up to 1966, is Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass). This collection brings together practically all the snotty songs we love: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “The Last Time”, “Get Off Of My Cloud”, “19th Nervous Breakdown” and so forth. A few not-quite-hits like “Tell Me”, “Play With Fire” and “Good Times, Bad Times” and key covers including “Not Fade Away”, “Time Is On My Side” (here in its “guitar intro” incarnation) and “It’s All Over Now” round out the set, and if you’re feeling sensitive, there’s always “As Tears Go By”. The LP even came with a full-size booklet of dreamy photos. (Naturally, the British version, which came out eight months later, had different tracks and a different cover.)
If you love the Stones, you’re going to want those first five albums anyway. But for a starting point, Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) does the job well. And there’s nary a clunker in the set.

The Rolling Stones Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) (1966)—4

Monday, November 16, 2009

U2 5: The Unforgettable Fire

For their fourth full-length album, U2 wanted to try something different. Rather than the dependable sound Steve Lillywhite gave their previous albums, they turned to a more atmospheric sound picture. The band most likely knew Brian Eno’s production work from his collaborations with David Bowie and Talking Heads; Eno convinced them to also work with his sidekick Daniel Lanois, with whom he’d recently been exploring more “ambient” recordings.
When The Unforgettable Fire appeared, critics pounced on the murky chaos evidenced in the opening track, “A Sort Of Homecoming”. Had they waited, they could have been carried away by the chorus. They were much kinder to the first, obvious single, “Pride (In The Name Of Love”. This was what sold the album to the public, who knew a hit when they heard one. (Unfortunately, nobody told Bono that Martin Luther King was killed in the evening, and not the “early morning [of] April 4”.) “Wire” turns the Lillywhite sound inside out, from the harmonic guitar riff through the trebly funk bass to the double-time drums. The title track is a surprise, a showcase for the Edge on piano, Bono’s passionate vocal and the near-orchestral treatments, likely courtesy of Eno and Lanois. The track is one of the band’s best. The first side closes with “Promenade”, more of a musical poem than a song.
Similarly, the second side begins with a sketch, the atmospheric “4th of July” built around improvised bass and guitar. Unlike the title, it inspires visions of snowy fields at dusk. “Bad” would become another surprise for the band. Built mostly around two chords, it starts quietly and builds through two crescendos under covert lyrics about heroin addiction. “Indian Summer Sky” seems to echo “Wire” on the previous side, another insistent drum-driven sung under angry vocals. “Elvis Presley And America” also came under fire as “indulgent”; the stream-of-consciousness vocal wanders over a slowed-down early mix of “A Sort Of Homecoming”, yet still manages to hold your interest. (Though we’re still not sure what the hell it has do with Elvis Presley or America.) The album ends with the simple “MLK”, another tribute to the subject of “Pride”.
The album was a worldwide hit, and added to the band’s growing mystique in the US—so much so that some B-sides and live tracks were hurriedly issued the following summer as the Wide Awake In America EP. Driven by a powerful performance of “Bad”, it became a huge hit in the wake of Live Aid. A rearranged “A Sort Of Homecoming” brought out the strengths of that song, and the outtakes “The Three Sunrises” and “Love Comes Tumbling” also got airplay.
The EP was included in full on the 25th anniversary edition of the album, alongside remixes and other B-sides of the period that further explore the collaboration with Eno and Lanois. The band’s affection for the album is also evident by their finally completing two tracks from the sessions.
Hindsight being what it is, The Unforgettable Fire has long since escaped its tag as an indulgent experiment to be appreciated as a terrific album. And they were just getting started.

U2 The Unforgettable Fire (1984)—
2009 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 16 extra tracks

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rolling Stones 5: December’s Children

For all their progress musically, the Rolling Stones were still considered product and nothing more. London Records had to get another LP on the shelves for the Xmas season, and that’s how December’s Children (an enigmatic title made even more obscure with the subtitle “And Everybody’s”) happened.
They started with a pile of tunes up for grabs from the British version of Out Of Our Heads. “She Said Yeah” is a glorious minute and a half of fuzz, from the same guy who wrote “Slow Down” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”. “Talkin’ About You” is one of their less obvious Chuck Berry covers, given a more soul-oriented groove. And the slightly psychedelic “I’m Free” would go on to be one of their more unlikely stage favorites, though we wonder why they didn’t bother to redo that out-of-sync tambourine.
Because it was the law, two recent singles, the terrific “Get Off Of My Cloud” and the acquired taste “As Tears Go By”, had to be included on the album. The same went for their respective B-sides: “The Singer Not The Song”, which proves how difficult it is to keep two 12-strings in tune with each other, and “Gotta Get Away”, the inspiration for “Laugh” by the Monkees, as well as their own live arrangement for “Under My Thumb”. But the pickings then grew slim, which is how a demo of “Blue Turns To Grey” ended up there, along with two more songs from that live British EP, Muddy Waters’ “Look What You’ve Done” from Chess the year before, and “You Better Move On”, an Arthur Alexander slow burner that was already two years old at this point.
But even for such a mixed bag, December’s Children does have some decent music, and even more confident songwriting from Mick and Keith, making it a gamble that works. They were a good band that was only getting better.

The Rolling Stones December’s Children (And Everybody’s) (1965)—

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brian Eno 3: Another Green World

With his third album, Eno truly hit on a combination that encapsulated his legacy. Another Green World contains not only futuristic pop songs, but several vocal-less tracks that spotlight the “textures” that would make him a producer in demand. While some famous friends—like John Cale, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins—are on hand to add to the sonic picture, Eno is responsible for most of the instruments, many listed in the credits more for their descriptive qualities than their actual names. When there are vocals, the lyrics are more minimal and simplistic, for lack of a better term, than ever.
Those tracks with vocals are all winners. “Sky Saw” sports a repetitive riff that sounds like its title, and two sets of vocals. “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Golden Hours” are impenetrable but fascinating. “I’ll Come Running” is the closest thing in his canon to a love song; who wouldn’t fall for someone pledging to tie your shoes? “Everything Merges With The Night” nearly ends the proceedings with another calm sensation, but for the actual finale.
But in between, the instrumentals provide counterpoints all the way through. In most cases, the tracks fade in as well as out, giving the impressions that we’ve either happened upon them, or perhaps they’re passing by us. The mysterious “In Dark Trees”, in particular, is juxtaposed with the grand “The Big Ship” for some widely diverse moods. The title track is absolutely gorgeous and far too short. “Little Fishes” and “Becalmed” are extremely accurate titles, while “Sombre Reptiles” and “Over Fire Island” are suggestive in their own way. “Zawinul/Lava” nods at the jazz keyboard legend, mixing simple piano lines over a quiet rhythm section and what sound like animal shrieks. And instead of the calm mentioned earlier, the “Spirits Drifting” in the closing track don’t seem at all benign.
So wherever this green world is, the space music provided on this album seems fitting. Another Green World covers all the bases, and nothing else in his discography matches it. So it’s a great place to start, but you won’t find anything else like it in the catalog.

Eno Another Green World (1975)—4

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brian Eno 2: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)

Now firmly a solo artist, Eno strove forward with Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), based around (so he said) a series of postcards about the Chinese Revolution and featuring, unlike the last album, the same band throughout all the tracks. This gives the album a certain continuity not immediately recognizable to those of us who hadn’t seen the postcards.
“Burning Airlines Give You So Much More” and “Back In Judy’s Jungle” seem to want to set up some kind of story, but it isn’t getting anywhere. “The Fat Lady Of Limbourg” derails any possibility of a plot, with a lyric that’s out front and teases up to the denouement. It’s at this point that “Mother Whale Eyeless” rises above the obscurity for a song that serves to unite us all. “The Great Pretender” ends the side with a fading “cricket menace” designed to drive the listener mad.
It’s the second side where the album truly takes off. “Third Uncle” would be appropriated by Bauhaus for their entire career, but his version includes mumbled lyrics, an incessant beat and a guitar solo that’s absolute genius. “Put A Straw Under Baby” takes things down a notch, a lovely nursery rhyme with backing from the notoriously untalented Portsmouth Sinfonia. “The True Wheel” features a gloriously repetitive solo from Phil Manzanera over three chords in off meter and the first mention of an entity called the 801. “China My China” reminds us of the alleged concept, and a wonderful typewriter interlude after the line “to pay percussion over solos.” A lengthy silence precedes the title track, which serves as a deceptively calm soundtrack to mountain climbing.
Not as strong as his first, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) still offers sounds that are far ahead of where others were at the time. Its tentative beginning is more than redeemed by the bulk of the remainder, and it serves as a worthy chapter in his story. He was gaining a reputation as something of an intelligent oddball, but he was about to evolve again, with some of his best work still to come.

Eno Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)—

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brian Eno 1: Here Come The Warm Jets

Musicians often say they feel most creative when trying something new on their proficient instrument or attempting to bring something coherent out of an instrument they’ve never played before. Unfamiliarity with the rules, so to speak, frees them from sticking to a prescribed structure, and lets them try things they wouldn’t had they “known better”.
Brian Eno’s genius has been that his instrument of proficiency is the recording medium itself, and by using musical implements in various ways and then treating them in the mixing process, the end result on the listener’s home stereo has been some of the most influential music of the last thirty-odd years.
He first gained notoriety adding sound color to the performance of Roxy Music, and he soon after went “solo”, releasing records under his own name and as collaborations with other, similar thinking artists. Much of his output since the ‘70s has been under the guise of producer, working with such performers as David Bowie, Devo, Talking Heads, U2 and, most recently, James and Coldplay.
His first solo sojourn was an experiment with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, with the guitarist soloing over tape loops controlled by Eno. Not too long afterward appeared Here Come The Warm Jets, a proper Eno solo album filled with ten tracks not too far removed from what people would expect from Roxy Music, a band that strove to marry the ‘50s and the ‘80s in the ‘70s.
Here Come The Warm Jets is an exciting collection of fractured pop songs, all performed by various musicians cast for each track as Eno saw fit. From the start, the lyrics seem almost secondary, existing only to prop up the tracks themselves. The opening “Needles In The Camel’s Eye” is propelled by a driving riff courtesy of guitarist Phil Manzanera and (especially) Chris Spedding. Indeed, on this track the words are inconsequential. “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch” considers a love triangle with a man who can either breathe or fart fire, depending on what you’ve read. Fripp returns on “Baby’s On Fire”, a tour de force for his guitar. “Cindy Tells Me” is something of a doo-wop number translated to the N.O.W. generation, and a descending piano sequence takes “Driving Me Backwards” to the center groove.
A different piano takes over side two, with its longing to be “On Some Faraway Beach”. This track builds and builds, then recedes nearly to its starting point, followed by the rantings about “Blank Flank”, who served to bring the protagonists to submission. “Dead Finks Don’t Talk” seems to be another swipe at Bryan Ferry, and it degenerates into to the very basic “Some Of The Are Old”. The title track, supposedly an ode to urination, brings it all full circle with a driving beat much like the album opener.
Here Come The Warm Jets is a very satisfying slice of futuristic music that still seems anachronistic today. True to his acumen, it’s unclear as to how much of the finished product came from the spontaneous contributions of the players and what came from Eno’s own head. Whatever the genesis, it continues to be exciting listening.

Eno Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)—4

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rolling Stones 4: Out Of Our Heads

The terrific title of Out Of Our Heads appeared on an album in America ahead of the UK, which always seemed to be slow in catching up. (The cover photo was already a year old, and one of the last times Mick would allow himself to be shoved out of the spotlight.) The Stones were still relying on covers to fill up their shows, but they were also finally writing songs that would be the envy of their competitors.
Considering that this album includes both “The Last Time” and a little ditty called “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is usually enough to put it in the pantheon of masterpieces, but those who do have overlooked the filler. “I’m Alright” is a hash of “Shout” recorded live for a British EP and stuck here for no reason. “The Under Assistant West Coat Promotion Man” is an in-joke that should have stayed a B-side. Another flip, “The Spider And The Fly”, is a little better, both as a blues pastiche and a song. And “One More Try” also wouldn’t come out in the UK for another six years.
One tune much too good to stay buried is “Play With Fire”, a stripped-down performance with spooky harpsichord by Jack Nitzsche, that lay the groundwork for every chauvinistic Stones track to follow. As good as they are, “Mercy Mercy”, “Hitch Hike”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Good Times” and “Cry To Me” were all recent hits by the likes of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. It’s clear, however, that Mick’s voice was improving as he tried to emulate those soul legends.
While still a hodgepodge, Out Of Our Heads shows improvement, but since “Satisfaction” is available on about twelve other Stones compilations, it’s not as essential as it once was. (To confuse the CD buyer even further, it’s available today in both its US and UK incarnations—the latter sporting the cover used later on the US-only December’s Children, bending the space-time continuum even further.)

The Rolling Stones Out Of Our Heads (1965)—

Friday, November 6, 2009

Paul McCartney 22: Paul Is Live

The title and artwork aside (pretty funny!), Paul Is Live basically served to collect money from folks who’d been scarfing up bootlegs from his most recent tour anyway. In contrast to the previous concert souvenir, this was shorter, more of a grab bag that didn’t include every song performed—most likely because there would be too much repetition from Tripping The Live Fantastic, but that doesn’t excuse four routine retreads from Wings Over America. We do get the first performances of “Penny Lane” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, some more oldies and key tracks from Off The Ground, a couple of soundcheck improvisations, and a Chet Atkins tribute from Robbie McIntosh, but it just isn’t the kind of album that demanded repeated listenings.
We can understand why this album exists, but it just came too soon after the previous tour and album. The Rolling Stones had been in a greedy lather-rinse-repeat cycle of a new album followed by a big tour, commemorated by a live album, so it was disappointing that Paul was that aware of his own selling power. Expertly played, every song is heartily applauded—but so what? (And if you’re wondering, the dog on the cover is not the original Martha, who would have been about 27 if she were still alive.)

Paul McCartney Paul Is Live (1993)—3

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Paul McCartney 21: Off The Ground

Paul rang in 1993 by announcing a new album and a new world tour with the same band as last time (save the new drummer). As one of the few legends of his generation to be active past the age of 50, we weren’t expecting to be blown away. And that’s a good thing, ‘cos we weren’t. Off The Ground is a pleasant, inoffensive collection with a fairly basic sound not unlike the old Wings albums.
The title track is intended to be a rousing opener, if a little sterile. “Looking For Changes” is the first of many songs here about the environment. (Did you know the McCartneys are a vegetarian family? Well, they’ll remind you just in case you hadn’t heard.) “Hope Of Deliverance” has a lot of driving acoustic guitars with an almost calypso feel, and luckily the album improves from here on. “Mistress And Maid” is a baroque soap opera piece written with Elvis Costello and while, like all of his Elvis songs, is written too high for him to sing, it survives the vocal approach. “I Owe It All To You” is a pretty obvious thank you to Linda, with some tasteful, moody guitar interplay. It never gets as bad as it threatens. Everyone we know absolutely hates “Biker Like An Icon”, mostly because the lyrics are so idiotic, but give us that chorus any day of the week.
“Peace In The Neighbourhood” is in keeping with the midtempo feel of the album, which has really started to flow at this point. “Golden Earth Girl” is a musical and lyrical extension of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Warm And Beautiful”, with real nice use of oboe and clarinet. “The Lovers That Never Were” is another Costello drama, with a pounding ¾ meter. While it’s very similar to “Mistress And Maid”, both of these are better than either “Don’t Be Careless Love” or “You Want Her Too” from Flowers In The Dirt so we’ll keep them. “Get Out Of My Way” is calculated Rock, intended to show off the guitarists, complete with fake ending. It’s okay here, but would wear out its welcome on stage. “Winedark Open Sea” takes us back to the Wings vibe of the earlier tracks with an extended ending that doesn’t get tedious. And we still love the big finale “C’mon People” despite ourselves. There’s a lot of political nonsense in the air here, but the orchestral arrangement by George Martin (especially the “ba-ba BA-ba-ba, BAM!” in the middle) and the mild psychedelic march tempo are a lock. And in true Wings spirit we get a not-so-hidden track, supposedly written in India in 1968, a reminder to be “Cosmically Conscious”. (Well, George wasn’t reminding us, so thanks, Paul.)
Taken on its own, Off The Ground isn’t remarkable, but as the dim luster of Flowers In The Dirt had already faded, this was a huge improvement in comparison. While certainly not close to his best post-Beatles work, it’s an underrated collection that deserved kinder attention. It still does.

Paul McCartney Off The Ground (1993)—

Monday, November 2, 2009

George Harrison 13: Live In Japan

One of the more baffling questions of the rock era is this: If your best friend ran away with your wife, would you still hang out with him? George’s friendship with Eric Clapton has long been the cause of head-scratching among us plebes. Whether it was respect or the promise of easy cash, somehow Eric managed to talk George into touring the Far East in 1991. Eric supplied the band—the same crew who’d brought him several Grammys for his Unplugged show—and George only had to bring a couple of guitars and his choice of songs.
Since George never played any other dates outside that original itinerary, the only souvenir we were allowed was Live In Japan, two discs’ worth of a typical concert from the tour. Interestingly, he plays eight Beatles songs, with little touches like the recorded count-in for “Taxman” and the missing verse of “Piggies”. The remainder covers all the hits from throughout his solo career, ending with “Roll Over Beethoven”. There were occasional surprises, like “Old Brown Shoe” and “Cheer Down”, but for the most part he goes with songs well inside the vernacular. The songs hold up, and the band plays everything competently, as we’d expect they would.
It’s nice to hear George in a live atmosphere again, and he almost seems to be enjoying himself, even giving the crowd an occasional “arigato”. For the longest time Live In Japan was the closest thing to a career retrospective, and it gave Warners some dough from songs they never owned. (And just to show he cared, the credited producers for the set are Spike and Nelson Wilbury.)

George Harrison Live In Japan (1992)—

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Rolling Stones 3: Now!

The Stones were already being set up as the dirtier alternative to the comparatively clean-cut Fab Four, and their third American LP only helped that assumption. The band’s albums sported increasingly cryptic liner notes by their manager, who saw his charges as A Clockwork Orange come to life. The Rolling Stones, Now! uses the same doggerel on the back of their second British LP, recommending that purchasers mug blind beggars for the cash needed to buy the album. The horror, indeed.
So besides giving collectors variations to hoard, is the album any good? That depends on your taste. It begins as a mirror of their second British album (which used the photo from 12 x 5), but soon goes other places to make up for songs already used. Mick and Keith were still learning to write songs, so the band’s act remained something of a rhythm and blues revue, exemplified by “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”. “Down Home Girl”, despite its Stonesy title, is a cover featuring Jack Nitzsche on piano, while “You Can’t Catch Me” is the album’s requisite Chuck Berry tune. “Heart Of Stone” is a decent Jagger/Richards composition (particularly in comparison to “What A Shame” and “Off The Hook”), and Bo Diddley’s “Mona” is the last American holdout from the first British LP.
“Down The Road Apiece” is a good slice from the Chess sessions the previous year, a song older than every Stone save Bill. “Pain In My Heart” and “Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’” are decent versions of recent R&B hits, but nothing special, while “Little Red Rooster”, with its expressive Brian Jones fills, was an unlikely #1 in the UK. Finally, “Surprise Surprise”, already farmed out to a compilation in the UK, wouldn’t appear on a proper British Stones release for another five years. It’s a fairly ordinary twelve-bar until the hook at the end of each verse.
The band clearly hadn’t mastered the album process yet, and they weren’t helped by a record label still focused on marketing to screaming girls and teen mags. But to survive in the wave of the British Invasion, bands had to endure and adapt, and that applied to the Stones, too.

The Rolling Stones The Rolling Stones, Now! (1965)—3