Friday, December 31, 2010

Pink Floyd 13: The Wall

In another about-face, the next Pink Floyd album was their most ambitious yet, a two-record set made up of 26 relatively short (for the band) tracks documenting the life and neuroses of a rock star named Pink Floyd who shuts himself off from the world. But rather than getting shocked into isolation early on like Tommy, the protagonist of The Wall builds his defenses slowly over the first two sides.
The story itself is relatively easy to follow, despite the scribbled lyrics on the inner sleeves, but luckily the music makes up for any shortcomings. “In The Flesh?” blasts out with some of the heaviest rock they’d ever played, providing something of an overture. “The Thin Ice” sets up the main “Another Brick In The Wall” suite, lamenting the loss of Pink’s father and lambasting the educational system via a maddening disco beat. The side ends deceptively sweetly with a conversation with his “Mother”.
“Goodbye Blue Sky” reinforces the war theme over a sad acoustic backing. “Empty Spaces” practically stops before it starts, made more confusing by the extra lyrics (and a complete song) not included on the album. The band gets heavy on “Young Lust” (aka “Ooh I Need A Dirty Woman”) before the phone call that sets up the nightmarish mind movie of “One Of My Turns”. Pink’s remorse is displayed in the woefully dissonant “Don’t Leave Me Now”, giving way to the anger of the final “Another Brick” segment and the resignation in “Goodbye Cruel World”.
The wall now complete, side three takes place almost entirely inside Pink’s head with the TV on. “Hey You” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” reflect his immediate regret at shutting himself off, taking inventory in “Nobody Home”, which combines references to Syd Barrett with soundbites from Gomer Pyle. Perhaps that is supposed to set up the World War II sentiments of “Vera” and “Bring The Boys Back Home”; nonetheless they’re soon forgotten as “Comfortably Numb” brings him back to the present while Gilmour plays two masterful solos.
Having been more or less revived, Pink imagines the Beach Boys singing “The Show Must Go On” and he takes the stage “In The Flesh”, with alternate lyrics baiting the crowd whose chant of “Pink Floyd!” soon turns to “Hammer!” The ensuing riot supposedly takes place in “Run Like Hell”, but the lyrics don’t seem to add much to the plot. “Waiting For The Worms” continues the menace despite some doo-wop interludes, and then, apparently having had enough, Pink decides to “Stop”, subjecting himself to the degradation of “The Trial”. Colored like a Gilbert & Sullivan song, it expertly delivers the testimony of the schoolmaster, wife and mother before the judge gives his verdict over the “Another Brick” melody. And finally, the clarinets come in for life “Outside The Wall”, and the cycle begins anew.
The Wall soon became somewhat of a rite of passage for suburban white kids. Early adopters could knowingly wink at each other, watching when someone heard it for the first time then let it stay in constant rotation in their tape deck. After all, the first thing you hear on the album is the second part of the sentence that’s cut off at the end of the album—an endless cycle, a mobius loop, a Geordian knot, a dog chasing its tail. Images from the film also play into one’s perspective when the songs go by, which isn’t always a good thing. (The tour, which was so huge it could only visit five cities, was perhaps a better presentation of the story, eventually released as a live album two decades later.) Still, it’s something of a testament to the writers that despite the content, a handful of the tracks became so popular on Classic Rock radio, and no coincidence that most of those were sung by David Gilmour. In the end, The Wall is something one grows out of, but could lead you to pick up the rest of their albums, and therefore discover some less obvious treasure.
When the catalog was revamped for a new decade, The Wall got the deluxe treatment alongside Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. The Experience Edition got a disc of demos, but the Immersion Edition went all out with two discs of demos, plus the Is There Anybody Out There? live album. The demos themselves show how far Roger was from the final presentation before others helped him put it all into shape. A few alternate band recordings, such as what would turn into “Young Lust” and “Comfortably Numb”, as well as tracks from The Final Cut and Roger’s eventual solo debut, are fascinating. The program ends, fittingly, with David’s instrumental sketches for “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell”. After all, Roger couldn’t have done it without him.

Pink Floyd The Wall (1979)—4
2012 Experience Edition: same as 1979, plus 27 extra tracks
2012 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 37 extra tracks, 2-CD live album and DVD

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Velvet Underground 4: Loaded

By the time of their contract with the Atlantic offshoot Cotillion, Lou and the band decided to make a conscious effort to achieve mass appeal. Hence, their next album was designed to be Loaded with radio-friendly hits.
And for the most part, it is. This of course is the album with both “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll” on it, both songs that became staples of Classic Rock radio long before the format had been finalized.
But whether by Lou’s growing indifference or his decision to let Doug Yule sing some of the songs, it doesn’t have the edge that made the Velvet Underground so… well, edgy. “Who Loves The Sun” is a catchy opener, but here the arrangement makes it sound like the Monkees. (How could Lou have approved that fey a cappella break in the middle?) “Cool It Down” exudes a New York swagger, with Lou harmonizing with himself. The potentially epic “New Age” could have been one of his better story songs had he only sang it himself. (And indeed, he used to, with different lyrics, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.)
It’s been said that the album was completed without Lou’s input, and the snippet of vocal that leads into “Head Held High” would suggest that it was supposed to follow “I Found A Reason”, which ends on the same note two tracks later. Both are half-decent songs, “Head Held High” a good rocker and “I Found A Reason” nice doo-wop. In the middle is “Lonesome Cowboy Bill”, which doesn’t fit at all. “Train Round The Bend” is an excuse to write a song around a tremolo guitar, while “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” is a long song similar to the end of side one, with a guitar sounding more like Dave Mason.
Loaded was a nice try, but ultimately it pales in comparison to their other studio albums. Besides, with Moe Tucker out on maternity leave, the drums just sound wrong when played by anyone else. Nonetheless, critics have raved over it since its release, and its legend grew when compared to live recordings from the same period. After the band’s 1995 box set included some outtakes from the sessions, Rhino (which had gained access to the LP through their association with Atlantic) unveiled a “Fully Loaded Edition” to flesh out the story. “Sweet Jane”, “Rock & Roll” and “New Age” were restored to their original lengths, alongside several alternate mixes, demos and rehearsals of the songs. It also included full band versions of such later Lou solo classics as “Satellite Of Love”, “Sad Song” and “Oh Gin”, plus further attempts at “Ocean”, “Ride Into The Sun” and other “lost” VU favorites. (Admittedly it’s nitpicking, but as we’d gotten so used to the edited version of “Sweet Jane” over the years, it would have been nice to include that somewhere in the package. After all, Lou himself has barely sung that lost verse since 1969.)
All but one of those extras were included as part of the band’s 45th Anniversary Edition series. The other three discs consisted of a promotional mono mix of the album (including the “short” versions of “Sweet Jane” and “New Age”), single mixes, an abridged selection of music from the final Max’s Kansas City show, and a fascinating if frustrating bootleg of a May 1970 Philadelphia gig. Fascinating because the band played as a trio, without Moe, though Doug played drums on three songs; frustrating because the sound is atrocious.

The Velvet Underground Loaded (1970)—3
1997 Fully Loaded Edition: same as 1970, plus 22 extra tracks
2015 Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus 65 extra tracks (and DVD)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tom Waits 2: The Heart Of Saturday Night

For his second album, Tom Waits moved deeper into cool-cat jazz territory, for a distinctly anachronistic sound. The Heart Of Saturday Night is a mix of finger-snapping riffs and a few slower standards that would help establish his growing reputation as a premier American songwriter.
The “jazz” on this album isn’t the fusion that had become popular around this time, nor was it even bebop. The sound here is more like the type of forties throwbacks Bette Midler would popularize (in fact, hers and Tom’s paths would cross from time to time). Piano and upright bass anchor most of the songs, with a few horns and strings added for color.
“New Coat Of Paint” begins our evening on the town, a mood interrupted by the pensive paradoxes in “San Diego Serenade”, then it’s back to the established sound with “Semi Suite”, the first of many tributes to the long-distance truck driver. If you came in at the back end of his catalog, you could be forgiven for expecting “Shiver Me Timbers” to sound like Popeye; here it’s a simple wish to sail away from one’s troubles. “Diamonds On My Windshield” puts him back on the highway, but the title track keeps it all local.
Side two takes a turn towards feeling sorry for oneself in bars. First he’s “Fumbling With The Blues”, begging “Please Call Me, Baby”. Then he’s stuck in a “Depot, Depot”, and “Drunk On The Moon”. There are some nice moments here to be sure, particularly on the two slower laments, but he’d’ve been better off sticking to two songs instead of stretching them into four. But all is redeemed at the end of the night, watching “The Ghosts Of Saturday Night” from the point of view of its subtitle, “After Hours At Napoleone’s Pizza House”. It’s a poetic perspective that would be even more pronounced on his next album.
While The Heart Of Saturday Night has its moments, it does suffer from second album syndrome, in that he used the best items from his backlog on his first. He’s still finding his way here, and would continue to do so.

Tom Waits The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974)—

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Keith Richards 2: Main Offender

Another Stones lull made way for the return of the X-Pensive Winos. While Main Offender offered more of the same formula as Keith’s first, and best solo album — plus or minus some reggae and R&B — for some reason it just doesn’t have the breadth, excitement and enjoyability as Talk Is Cheap.
Not to say it’s bad, in the least. Mick’s desire to keep the Stones hip and contemporary only kept Keith true to his roots and the guitar. The first three tracks alone are excellent; “999” is nice and dirty, “Wicked As It Seems” would be reworked as the opener of the next Stones album, and “Eileen” makes for one peppy love song in the mode of “She’s So Cold”. But things slow down big time on “Words Of Wonder”, six-and-a-half minutes of lazy reggae, and “Yap Yap” doesn’t quite catch either.
What we’d call side two is competent, nbut not stellar. “Bodytalks” compiles some stray riffs, and is mostly notable for Sarah Dash’s sultry cooing just under the mix. “Hate It When You Leave” extends the soul feel of “Make No Mistake” with some vintage-sounding horns and winds, just as “Runnin’ Too Deep” and “Will But You Won’t” are from the same cloth as “Take It So Hard”. “Demon” limps along to a close.
Main Offender was not a big seller, and while Keith would always get a song or three to sing on future Stones albums, here on out he limited his solo work to the occasional guest appearance. (Many years later the Vintage Vinos collection would serve to sum up these albums, leaning heavily on Talk Is Cheap, with only three songs from Main Offender. While also tying in with his autobiography, by then the big draw was “Hurricane”, a short acoustic tune credited to Jagger/Richards previously available as a giveaway.)

Keith Richards Main Offender (1992)—3
Keith Richards Vintage Vinos (2012)—

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bob Dylan 50: Christmas In The Heart

The second quickie release from Bob Dylan in the same calendar year was even more surprising than Together Through Life. Early word that Dylan, of all people, was doing a Christmas album fueled skeptics on its own, but with a title like Christmas In The Heart and a cover right out of Currier & Ives, it had to be a hoax, right?
It wasn’t. Christmas In The Heart really is a full-fledged collection of Bob’s takes on tried-and-true holiday favorites, just like they used to make, full of odes to Santa and sleigh riding, as well as bona fide hymns and carols. Its release was greeted with equal amounts of surprise, derision and fawning, and if you’ve got nothing better to do, you can scour the interwebs for all the pros and cons about the album. But here’s the deal: he obviously knows these songs inside and out, having already devoted two full hours to the genre on his radio show. Each of the tracks brings to mind such classic Christmas LPs by the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. That’s not to say he sounds like those people; it’s the spirit that pervades. (After all, Jesus came from a Jewish family too.)
Of course, any hope for a smooth listen disappears halfway through the second line of “Here Comes Santa Claus” where Our Hero stumbles on a note you’d think he’d be able to hit. Likewise, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” deserve much better deliveries than Bob seems able to here. He also must have decided that “The Little Drummer Boy” wasn’t supposed to provide actual rhythm, choosing instead to run all over the timing.
Still, these red flags shouldn’t dissuade fans from picking up the album. He’s perfectly suited for “Christmas Island” and “The Christmas Blues”, and “Must Be Santa”, where he rhymes the names of four reindeer with those of eight recent presidents, is an absolute riot. (Better yet, watch the video, which should make even the screwiest Scrooge crack a smile.)
All the songs on Christmas In The Heart are played straightforward, and were probably recorded very quickly with little thought given to whether any should be tried in a key more suited to Bob’s current, extremely limited range. The accordion is kept to a minimum, and the “mixed voices” add a nice counterpoint throughout. Best of all, there’s nothing of the pretension you hear on, for instance, Sting’s yuletide album, which came out the same season. It’s just supposed to be fun. And it is. Besides, all proceeds of sales from are intended to feed the hungry, which is a pretty nice move in these troubled times. So don’t expect much and enjoy it while you can. After all, it’s only once a year.

Bob Dylan Christmas In The Heart (2009)—3

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bob Dylan 49: Together Through Life

Bob’s next new album came as something of a surprise, recorded and released very quickly, and with a relatively short break since the last new one. Together Through Life is a compositional collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who’d previously blessed Bob with “Silvio” (fair enough) and “The Ugliest Girl In The World” (not a good sign). With a lot of accordion, courtesy of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, the album has something of a Tex-Mex feel, but somehow just doesn’t stick.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” sets the tone with an unfortunate prophecy, as much of what follows lopes along the same dusty territory, song after song. “Life Is Hard” seems like an attempt to croon, but “My Wife’s Home Town” merely puts new words to a Willie Dixon blues, redeemed only by the cackle near the end. Similarly, “If You Ever Go To Houston” is a lazy rewrite of “Midnight Special”. “Forgetful Heart” shows some signs of life, bringing back some of the regret of Time Out Of Mind and some excellent imagery for a change.
“Jolene” isn’t the Dolly Parton song, but merely gives him an excuse to rhyme the name with “I’m the king and you’re my queen,” which we suppose puts it in line with some of the eyebrow raisers on Nashville Skyline. “This Dream Of You” is the only track credited to Dylan alone, and it’s a little better, but just goes on too long. “Shake Shake Mama” is average blues played for decades, but the slightly optimistic “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” could very well have been influenced by the previous fall’s presidential election. (Bob endorsed Obama, in case you were wondering.) However, that feeling doesn’t last with the litany of woes in “It’s All Good”, which chugs down the track, taking him away again.
Ultimately, Together Through Life is a disappointment. It’s not as bad as his mid-‘80s work, but there’s just not a lot of excitement here. Plus, his voice is more cracked than ever, and the incessant accordion doesn’t help break up the monotony any. It remains to be seen just how much of the words are Hunter’s and how much are Dylan’s, but the math would suggest that not a lot of thought was put into any of these. At the very least, he had new songs he could play live, at any of his hundred-plus shows every year. However, if you’re looking for a grand statement, this ain’t it.

Bob Dylan Together Through Life (2009)—

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bob Dylan 48: Tell Tale Signs

Having experienced something of a critical renaissance, the eighth volume in Bob’s Bootleg Series took a more recent look back. While not arranged even remotely chronologically, Tell Tale Signs picks up roughly where the first Bootleg Series box set left off, covering embryonic takes and unreleased songs from the better Dylan albums of the previous twenty years, plus a few soundtrack items here and there. This reassessment of his progress shows that for the most part, he’s still got talents to tap, particularly if he keeps his touring band around.
Many of the studio takes come from the two albums produced by Daniel Lanois. Oh Mercy is represented by six tracks, including a simple acoustic-with-harmonica demo of “Most Of The Time”. What sounds like a rehearsal of “Can’t Wait” has a great vocal and live room sound. “Born In Time” is nicer than the inferior take recorded a year later for Under The Red Sky and it’s equally interesting to hear early stabs on “Dignity” and “Series Of Dreams”, songs which were drastically remixed before their eventual release down the road.
Two versions of “Mississippi” from the Time Out Of Mind period show how much the song changed over time. “Dreamin’ Of You”, despite a good band performance, sports lyrics that were later spun off into such superior songs as “Standing In The Doorway” and “Not Dark Yet”. The same can be said for “Marchin’ To The City”, which starts out in church but turns into “’Till I Fell In Love With You”. The lovely “Red River Shore” would have only added to an already long album, but you can hear a foreboding of his Tex-Mex style.
Interestingly, there’s nothing from the “Love And Theft” era, suggesting that everything already appeared worth having. Instead, we get a burning live version of “High Water” that’s miles away from the back porch original, and a staticky take on “Lonesome Day Blues”. He must have been similarly pleased with Modern Times, as only “Someday Baby” is featured, in a take that sounds less like “Trouble No More” and more like a Lanois production, plus an earlier version of “Ain’t Talkin’” with different lyrics.
As he was able to spin the occasional odd track onto a movie soundtrack, a few of those (but not all) are collected here. “Tell Ol’ Bill” bubbles with a menace, while “Can’t Escape From You”, listed as “written for a film that was never made”, boasts an amazing twist on his usual gravel. “‘Cross The Green Mountain” is a long but pretty relic of the Civil War.
Coming on the heels of the redundant DYLAN compilation, which covered the same old ground as pretty much every other hits collection put together, Tell Tale Signs was mostly a nice collection to have. But in a truly annoying move by some sadist at either the label or his office, a third disc of outtakes was made available as part of a very pricey limited-edition package, creating the potential for bootlegs of bootlegs. Among the gems included here are a fascinating live rearrangement of “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, further alternates of “Most Of The Time”, “Born In Time” and, oddly, “Marchin’ To The City”, and a third version of “Mississippi”.

Bob Dylan Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8—Rare And Unreleased 1989-2006 (2008)—

Friday, December 17, 2010

Beatles 29: 1 and Love

With John’s and George’s respective catalogs getting the occasional remastered treatment, and both Paul and Ringo still recording and touring, nobody in charge was about to let their original band be forgotten. Every now and then there was a “new” release, and each was met with equal shares of excitement and disdain.
Just in time for what someone termed the “Beatle-lennium”, most of the year 2000 was spent building up to the release of the official Anthology book, followed by the band’s first hits collection compiled specifically for CD. Simply titled 1, it included 27 songs that hit the top spot on the pop charts in either the UK or the US; naturally, some favorites were left off which annoyed some people no end. The packaging contains a testimonial from George Martin, plus depictions of various 45 sleeves from around the world and some chart info. (We’d hoped the liner notes would be more thorough, but perhaps the timely launch of the Beatles.com website was intended to hold all the extras.) The bright red artwork reminds one of the 1962-1966 collection, and left our mouths watering for a blue-covered 2, or at least a companion DVD with all the promo videos. (That only took fifteen years, suggesting that the project has been completed to its fullest extent.)

One of the last things George apparently did before he died was to get the Cirque du Soleil on board for a Beatles extravaganza in Vegas, and convince the other two plus Yoko it was a good idea. Eventually called Love, the show debuted in 2006 to the full endorsement of Paul, Ringo and the widows. More interesting to attendees were the liberal use of music extracted from the original multitrack tapes by George Martin (in what he said yet again would be his final production job) and his son Giles. These weren’t simple remixes along the lines of Rock ‘N’ Roll Music or the Yellow Submarine Songtrack—these were bona fide 21st-century mashups, the like of which had been keeping copyright lawyers busy for most of the decade. The album listed 36 titles within 26 tracks, yet the Martins said they mixed elements from over a hundred songs; we will not attempt to identify them all here. After all, the fun is finding them all yourself.
Bird noises introduce a vocals-only mix of “Because”, followed by key elements from “A Day In The Life”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The End”. “Glass Onion” includes some acoustic guitar from “Things We Said Today”. “I Am The Walrus” gets a new stereo remix including the orchestral count-in heard for the first time ever. One of the more successful experiments combines “Drive My Car” with “What You’re Doing”, along with “Savoy Truffle” saxes and various segments of “The Word” weaved in and out. Since it is a circus show, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!” gets a new mix with the guitars (and more organ) from “She’s So Heavy” over the closing waltz section, plus some “Helter Skelter” vocals at the end. The intro of “Blackbird” is shoehorned less than successfully onto “Yesterday”.
After another previously unheard count-in by John, “Strawberry Fields Forever” gets a fascinating treatment that seems to emulate his demo plus each of the completed takes in turn, then combines a variety of elements all over the end drums. “Within You Without You” gets a great new face by simply adding the drums and effects from “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and goes nicely into a “star-like” effect chopping up the opening of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The strings from “Good Night” are added almost tearjerkingly to the first verse of “Octopus’s Garden”, with sound effects from “Yellow Submarine” bubbling underneath, even after the song proper continues. “Lady Madonna” replaces the sax solo with the riff from “Hey Bulldog”, Clapton’s solo from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Billy’s organ (again) from “She’s So Heavy”.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” takes the demo from Anthology 3 and adds a new George Martin string arrangement. Thankfully, “Hey Jude” isn’t the full seven minutes, but they do kill some of the orchestra to pull out a buried McCartney bassline for a more prominent ending. The true finale is “All You Need Is Love”, with two Christmas presents on the fade: the “Johnny Rhythm” sign-off from the 1965 flexi, and laughter and applause from the 1966 flexi. Which only makes us angry that they’re still not available officially. (The iTunes version of the album, which became available in February 2011, added exclusive versions of “Fool On The Hill” and “Girl”, both of which lean heavily on the same tamboura drone.)
While it’s easy to cry foul at messing with history, some of the juxtapositions were pretty cool. And it’s always nice to find a new Beatles album under the Christmas tree.

The Beatles 1 (2000)—5
The Beatles Love (2006)—4

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

David Gilmour 1: David Gilmour

While Roger Waters stewed over the pitfalls of stadium rock and labored over two very personal potential concept albums, David Gilmour took off with a couple of friends to record his first solo album. Using a core rhythm section along with his own instrumental contributions, the result was a lean, satisfying listen.
David Gilmour sports vocals on only half the tunes, with the others showcasing the guitar sound kids have come to love. “Mihalis” and “Short And Sweet”, for example, use the same delayed D-strums that would eventually anchor “Run Like Hell”. The best, and most Floydian song, the radio hit “There’s No Way Out Of Here”, wasn’t even written by him. “Cry From The Street” gives him a chance to stretch outside a Waters lyric, while “So Far Away”, anchored by a piano, is just lovely. The instrumentals “Raise My Rent” and “It’s Deafinitely” [sic] bookend “No Way” to deliver some tougher sounds, while “I Can’t Breathe Anymore” begins quietly enough before exploding into a big finish.
It would be a long time before he considered himself anything of a worthy lyricist, and most of his efforts here aren’t very exciting. That only makes the guitar work more welcome, and on David Gilmour he certainly lets the music do the talking. Without a concept to tie all the tracks together, it’s an underrated album that provides some respite from the more ponderous entries in the Floyd-related catalog.

David Gilmour David Gilmour (1978)—

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bob Dylan 47: Modern Times

While Modern Times sounds fine upon first listen, it hasn’t achieved the stature alongside Bob’s previous two. There’s a warmth to the performance, and in his piano playing, and a near-swagger in his delivery. He sounds very confident without being arrogant. The production is more like “Love And Theft” than Time Out Of Mind, but that’s fine; there’s still a progression. Melodies abound, amid more lifting from standard blues songs and other sources. (Apparently having gotten away with plagiarizing from obscure Japanese novels, he decided to go all out and replicate the folk tradition of “borrowing”.)
Much of the album is based on the blues. “Thunder On The Mountain” is a nice shuffle that mentions Alicia Keys in the second verse for some reason, but “Someday Baby” is a rewrite of “Trouble No More”. Similarly, “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” doesn’t even bother changing the title. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” seems a little redundant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, since he’d already written the definitive response four years early with “High Water” on his last album.
What are more successful are the songs that sound like they could have been sung by Bing Crosby, particularly the lovely “When The Deal Goes Down”. “Spirit On The Water” and “Beyond The Horizon” suggest a sleepy lope in the days of the pioneers, while “Nettie Moore”, with its seemingly shifting meter, could have come from the Civil War era. “Ain’t Talkin’” gets singled out as a grand epic, but the one-note delivery keeps it from sinking in properly.
He’s definitely learned to work with his voice, and it fits the stuff he’s singing. Too many classic rock singers destroy their voices early on and sound like a shell of what they used to be, and can’t sing their old material. In Bob’s case, he stopped yelling like he did through most of the ‘80s, and has gotten more comfortable in the lower register. That’s kept his voice from getting worse over the past twenty years. (Then again, it couldn’t get much worse anyway.)
Here’s something else to consider—the albums in the “trilogy” of Time Out Of Mind, “Love And Theft” and Modern Times were all released over a nine-year period. That’s roughly the same difference between Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks, and between Desire and Infidels. Except that this time, he made each installment worth something. He’s waited until he has something to say, and records on his own terms. And that will likely be his M.O. until he goes down under the ground.

Bob Dylan Modern Times (2006)—3

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tom Waits 1: Closing Time

He arrived in the wave of early-‘70s singer-songwriters who critics pounced upon as candidates for “the new Dylan”. Instead of the hyper-sensitive breed as demonstrated by James Taylor and Jackson Browne, these were loners with a gift for wordplay sounding way older than their years. The first album cover by Tom Waits, aptly titled Closing Time, depicts a barroom troubadour sporting a wild head of hair and jazzman’s Van Dyke. But unlike a certain fellow from New Jersey, who emerged around the same time, his journey would be along a decidedly less beaten path, well away from stadiums and hockey arenas.
“Ol’ ‘55”, which kicks off the album, would also kick off his career via a cover by labelmates The Eagles. It’s very simple on the surface, just a song about driving a car (like that guy from Jersey), but go a little deeper and it would seem the singer has just gotten laid. However, there’s a melancholy in the delivery, which will become more evident on “Grapefruit Moon” and “Rosie”, and undercuts the kiss-off in “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)”. “Lonely” is a minimalist rumination over some tearjerking chords, but the triumph of his songwriting comes in “Martha”, a phone call from a senior citizen to the girl he left behind forty years before.
Clearly his influences are not exactly contemporary. “Ice Cream Man” takes its cue from a jump-blues number, despite its celeste intro, and “Midnight Lullabye” evokes nursery rhyme imagery. The title track, an instrumental, needs no words to convey the emotion.
Indeed, most of the songs on Closing Time all sound like they could take place at 3 a.m. somewhere, where the bartenders, patrons and the piano player are all tired but not sleepy, knowing they don’t have to go home (if they have one) but they can’t stay here. “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” comes directly from the barstool, staring at a pretty face across a crowded room through each round of drinks. “Virginia Avenue” is just as glum, but “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” is one of the sweetest bride-and-groom-first-dance candidates we’ve ever heard.
Closing Time is great late-night listening as a whole, and individual songs work any time of day. However, it sounds very little like the man Tom Waits would become, though the elements on which he’d base his career are all in place.

Tom Waits Closing Time (1973)—4

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dire Straits 7: On Every Street

Having conquered the world’s stadiums and arenas, Mark Knopfler put Dire Straits out to pasture for six years while he worked on soundtracks and vanity projects. Two of these appeared in close proximity in 1990—first from a country blues outfit dubbed The Notting Hillbillies, previewed by a very Dire Straits-like single in “Your Own Sweet Way”, and then by a collaboration with Chet Atkins. Neck & Neck offered some adult contemporary country music played by twenty agile fingers, mixed up with some cinematic instrumentals. These country endeavors would add new color to a bona fide Dire Straits album that finally appeared the following year.
On Every Street strives to tame the big sound of Brothers In Arms, only slightly updated for the new decade. In a few cases, his lyrical skills seem to have returned, but having had such success with the likes of “Money For Nothing”, he’s content to limit the scope to catchphrases and thin jokes. Hence “Calling Elvis”, which parrots various Presley song titles, tackling televangelism in “Ticket To Heaven”, the ode to indulgence in “Heavy Fuel” and “My Parties”, a spoof of a supposedly typical rich guy.
Sometimes the music works: the title track is fairly subdued before a wonderful guitar coda takes over for the big finish. And even some of the more overtly country numbers, like “The Bug” and “When It Comes To You”, would go on to become hits for other people. But for the most part, such as on “Fade To Black” and “The Planet Of New Orleans”, the sound is very adult contemporary, not even approaching rock. “You And Your Friend” and “Iron Hand” have lots of tasty guitar, but they’re supported by thick synth beds that date them. That was fine for those who came on board in 1985, but disappointing for fans of the first four.
Still, On Every Street was a huge hit around the globe, and was followed by a massive world tour, documented on the underwhelming On The Night. Since then, the only releases under the Dire Straits name have been numerous hits collections, and the excellent Live At The BBC. This late-century surprise combines a 1978 live recording of most of the first album (including the rarity “What’s The Matter Baby”, which sounds like a blueprint for “Lady Writer”) with a 1981 TV performance of “Tunnel Of Love”, complete with both intros, that is worth the twelve minutes even after his guitar has gone way out of tune.

Dire Straits On Every Street (1991)—3
Dire Straits On The Night (1993)—2
Dire Straits Live At The BBC (1996)—

Monday, December 6, 2010

Velvet Underground 3: The Velvet Underground

As loud as their second album was, their third went into the other direction. Perhaps to reassert themselves, having shed two of the people that made their first album so unique, they went the self-titled route. (Or maybe it was an homage to the actual title of the White Album. Who knows?)
The other big change was that John Cale was out of the band, replaced by one Doug Yule who, in addition to playing bass and piano and singing, provided a more malleable foil for Lou to push to do his bidding.
Both of these changes are apparent from the first notes heard on The Velvet Underground. “Candy Says” is a melancholy doo-wop number about a drag queen, sung by Doug, who gives the subject a sweeter delivery than Lou could. “What Goes On” brings on the drums, a good jam over three or four chords, with plenty of room for a stinging lead and a bed of Hammond organ. The lyrical twists and poetry in “Some Kinda Love” still fascinate, despite the metronomic cowbell driving it. The tender classic “Pale Blue Eyes” is something of a love song, sung by Lou, asserting himself as the voice of the band. When combined with the prayer that is “Jesus”, it’s hard to believe this is the same band from the first two albums.
Side two continues to play with our expectations. “Beginning To See The Light” jangles along through three distinct sections—typical of the “boogie” songs Lou was writing at the time—that could have been songs all their own, but combined successfully here. One of the albums lesser-known tracks, but one of the best, is “I’m Set Free”, which alternates elation with an uncomfortable sense of futility over a wonderful strum. “That’s The Story Of My Life” is very brief, stopping only long enough for a quick solo, before letting “The Murder Mystery” take over. This challenging track features all four Velvets on dueling vocals, Lou and Sterling spitting out their parts, and then Doug and Moe crooning their own. You can spend hours trying to figure out all the words and how they alternate, but nine minutes is usually enough for anyone. The jaunty “After Hours”, sung by Moe, provides a respite and a finale.
The Velvet Underground doesn’t deliver the same decadence as its predecessors, but goes to show that they were much more than simple noisemakers doing Andy Warhol’s bidding. In fact, they were even starting to sound like a real band.
Two stereo mixes of the album were issued; the one supervised by Lou and favoring his vocal and guitar was dubbed “the closet mix”. While it takes a keen ear to tell the difference, the standard version of the album does have some longer edits, particularly on “What Goes On” and “Some Kinda Love”. The 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition of the album included both, plus a third, mono mix, a disc of later 1969 recordings already sampled on the VU and Another View albums in different mixes, and two discs of live recordings from the Matrix in San Francisco, some of which had been tapped for 1969 Live and The Quine Tapes, and would eventually emerge, in toto, on their own. (A two-disc Deluxe Edition offered the standard, non-“closet” mix and a disc of “highlights” from the Matrix shows, but c’mon, who’d settle for that?)

The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground (1969)—
2014 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 12 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 43 tracks)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pink Floyd 12: Animals

With each album and tour, Roger Waters had started to assert himself as the brains behind Pink Floyd, pushing himself as the lyricist and conceptual genius. His heavy hand becomes especially dominant on Animals, an album inspired by, ironically, the indictment of totalitarianism in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. While that novel portrayed various species in differing roles, in Roger’s view, we’re all either dogs, sheep or pigs.
Much like their last album, the music is bookended by a single theme, but in the reverse; here the bookends are brief, while the real songs are longer, yet still compelling. After the simple introduction of “Pigs On The Wing (Part 1)”, “Dogs” runs for seventeen fascinating minutes, from the opening acoustic flourishes through David Gilmour’s vocal and heavy solos. After the slower middle section, you can hear the dogs barking, but it takes a trained ear to tell when Roger takes over the verses. Even the use of yet another list—something Roger would resort to for the rest of his career—to close the track can’t kill the power of this one.
While the title of “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” suggests that each verse describes someone unique, it’s not apparent how they stand out, outside of Roger’s disdain. The spooky organ leads through the verses into a grooving middle section, with plenty of guitar-as-pig effects. “Sheep” begins with the nearly pastoral sounds of bleating underneath a ping-ponging electric piano, before the beat gets more insistent and the music more scary. A mid-section featuring a buried parody of the 23rd Psalm gives way to another verse, before a triumphant coda anchored by a descending guitar riff that David would recycle a few times on other albums. The album comes full circle with the affectionate sentiment of “Pigs On The Wing (Part 2)”.
Because of the heavy preaching and longer tracks, Animals doesn’t get as much attention as other Floyd albums. However, that also means it hasn’t been overplayed on the radio except at three in the morning on those stations that still have deejays. But despite what might have been happening inside the band, the Floyd certainly clicked musically here, making Animals a continually rewarding listen.

Pink Floyd Animals (1977)—4

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Todd Rundgren 8: Another Live

Todd’s concerts with Utopia were incredibly ambitious affairs, utilizing as many as three keyboard players who could also juggle other instruments as needed. But they were also fun, interspersing some of his “hits” in between lengthy prog workouts while adorned in feathers. Another Live offers a sampler of sorts, looking back while striving forward.
As was not uncommon at the time, the album contains live recordings of songs that had not been released in any other form, so the listener gets a fresh perspective alongside the audience at the shows (save those who may have been following the tour from stop to stop). “Another Life”, as one might expect, considers reincarnation, amidst a complicated arrangement that incorporates a trumpet for some reason. “The Wheel” is an acoustic departure, offering a respite from the frenetic sounds we’ve come to expect from Utopia. The band gets loud again for “The Seven Rays”, which seem to have replaced (or evolved from) his interest in chakras.
Side two fades in mid-performance during a sinister introduction to the instrumental “Mister Triscuits”. Then the real fun starts. A faithful version of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story melds into a smoking take of “Heavy Metal Kids”. Particularly striking is the cover of the trash-rock classic “Do Ya”, three years after it had been a B-side by the Move, but a full year before Jeff Lynne re-recorded it in ELO. And of course, “Just One Victory”, the grand finale on A Wizard, A True Star, serves the same purpose here.
With most of the tracks relatively short and the whole album totaling only 45 minutes—compared to the hour-long slabs of plastic that had been his norm—Another Live certainly provides a slightly more digestible glimpse of Todd’s latest incarnation. At the same time, it seems like the end of a chapter. Or was it?

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia Another Live (1975)—

Monday, November 29, 2010

David Bowie 29: ‘hours...’

Bowie was certainly one of the first artists to embrace the Internet as a social tool as well as a promotional one. His next stunt was to have a contest wherein one of his subscribers would write lyrics for a song he’d then record for his next album. He made good on the offer, too.
‘hours…’ was hailed by some as a return to the Hunky Dory era, but don’t let that fool you. While the overall sound is more low-key and reflective, and his shaggy haircut was impressive for a guy his age, was he happy? For the most part he sounds pensive, a little melancholy, and the tempo isn’t anywhere as frenetic as his last two albums.
The immediate low-key sound of “Thursday’s Child” heralds the return of the Bowie croon, and if only there were less Holly Palmer in the mix. While his take on the Thunderclap Newman song would probably be welcome, this particular song with the title “Something In The Air” isn’t, tethered to his wobbly vocal. “Survive”, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” and “Seven” all mine the same depressed territory, though the latter track has a melody that sticks.
Things pick up a bit in the second half, starting with “What’s Really Happening?”, written by the aforementioned contest winner. It does give the album the kick it needs, as shown in “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell”, a nod to an old Iggy Pop song. “New Angels Of Promise” and “The Dreamers” stay upbeat, but in the middle comes “Brilliant Adventure”, an instrumental cut from the same cloth as side two of “Heroes” and tracks like “Crystal Japan”.
‘hours…’ isn’t very exciting, but it’s not awful. But after three full decades in the business, it would have been nice if Bowie still wowed us. As it turns out, many of these songs were originally written for the soundtrack of a video game, which shows where his head was at. (Some of those versions appear on the bonus disc of the reissue, alongside demos, remixes and outtakes. Clearly, he was full of ideas.)

David Bowie ‘hours…’ (1999)—
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1999, plus 17 extra tracks

Friday, November 26, 2010

Velvet Underground 2: White Light/White Heat

Nico was gone, and the band carried on. To make up for her absence, they turned the volume up to 11 and didn’t hardly let up at all on White Light/White Heat.
The title track is an amphetamine onslaught, all distorted with quasi-doo-wop vocals up until the big blast of a finish in two minutes fifty—just right for Top 40 radio! The full-on promise of “Waiting For The Man” and “European Son” gets multiplied here. “The Gift” provides a much different listening experience entirely, split into extreme stereo with the two-chord jam on one side, and John Cale’s recitation of Lou’s short story of the rise and fall of Waldo and Marsha in the other. Best of all, it doesn’t get stale on repeat listens. A less penetrable tale is told in “Lady Godiva’s Operation”, where the vocals and vocalizations swap over a near-baroque backing, an approach that continues on “Here She Comes Now”, the quietest song on the album.
Which isn’t saying much, because side two isn’t quiet at all. “I Heard Her Call My Name” is a mere prelude of constantly soloing guitars over a relentless beat and lyrics that almost seem like an afterthought. You can just barely hear the chord changes beneath the guitar. But it’s only a setup for “Sister Ray”. These seventeen minutes of three chords have influenced more than their share of bands, but few can match the steady metronomic beat under the battle between the organ and guitars. It’s not easy listening, and it’s either loved or hated. But if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want more.
White Light/White Heat can be seen as the antidote to the Summer of Love, starting off a tumultuous year with an assault to the senses. It would be the last true collaboration between Reed and Cale for twenty years, which is too bad, because they work together so well here. In only two albums, this band managed to create a sound that has been so influential in the over forty years since it happened. So much so that the participants have been trying to live up to it ever since.
With impeccable timing, Lou Reed left the planet just after approving the expanded editions of the album, giving the project a publicity boost. The Deluxe Edition added the five songs featuring Cale familiar from VU and Another View, an alternate “I Heard Her Call My Name” and a never-before-heard early take of “Beginning To See The Light”. The legendary April 1967 concert at the Gymnasium is included as well, rather than appearing as part of their stillborn “Bootleg Series”. (The Super Deluxe Edition had all that plus a big book, and a third disc with mono mixes, single mixes and new vocal- and instrument-only mixes of “The Gift”.)

The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat (1968)—4
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as 1968, plus 14 extra tracks (45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition adds another 10 tracks)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pink Floyd 11: Wish You Were Here

So Pink Floyd were officially worldwide superstars. Now what? Certainly that’s what their new American label wanted to know, and luckily for everyone involved, the band found their way into another exploration of the concepts they’d successfully mined on their big hit. Wish You Were Here is a return to the fabric of the sidelong composition balanced with shorter tracks, but here the idea of an eternal loop is accomplished by splitting the magnum opus in half, with the shorter songs in between.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is that opus, listed as being in nine parts that are pretty easy to identify if you’re paying attention. It begins with some thick synthesizers, eventually joined by a bluesy guitar. Then a four-note phrase appears to stand the hairs on your neck. Another instrumental section eventually leads into the vocal, which takes two verses before giving way to a sax solo. The overwhelming feeling of futility is underscored by the mechanized pulse that drives “Welcome To The Machine”, which for some reason turns into a spaceship landing at a cocktail party.
“Have A Cigar” (a.k.a. the one that goes “Oh by the way which one’s Pink?”) delivers a similar funk feel as “Money” on the last album, but this particular slap at the music biz is sung by folkie Roy Harper. Another whooshing effect gives way to the title track, coming first from a radio speaker before springing to full stereo splendor with the acoustic guitar. The wind returns to blow the song away, leaving the remainder of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in its place. A slide guitar picks up the pace, skidding all over before bringing us back to the verse and a chorus, followed by a longer exploration of the forlorn arpeggios heard near the end of the first half. An altogether different theme closes the piece, resolving on a major chord.
Thanks to Classic Rock radio, Wish You Were Here is another Pink Floyd album that has suffered from over-saturation, as the three shorter songs are still in heavy rotation. But the brilliance of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” holds everything together, and makes it worth hearing the “hits” again.
Naturally, thanks to the album’s commercial popularity, it too was blessed with expansion in the screw-the-economy-let’s-rerelease-everything-a-third-or-fourth-time climate of the 21st century. The Experience Edition adds an interesting selection of music. Three more songs from the Wembley show already mined for the 2011 Dark Side sets appear, including “Raving And Drooling” and “You’ve Gotta Be Crazy”, which would be retooled for Animals. The balance is given over to three embryonic tracks: a snippet from the abandoned “Household Objects” project, an early mix of “Have A Cigar” before Roy Harper walked in, and a lengthy “Wish You Were Here” with a clean intro and the famous buried violin solo by Stéphane Grappelli. (Those who sprung for the Immersion Edition got all that plus quad mixes, surround mixes and concert background films on two DVDs. And a book. And a scarf. And a bag of marbles. And some beer coasters. And other stuff.)

Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here (1975)—4
2011 Experience Edition: same as 1975, plus 6 extra tracks
2011 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 2 DVDs and 1 Blu-Ray

Monday, November 22, 2010

Todd Rundgren 7: Initiation

Utopia may have been an outlet for some of Todd Rundgren’s more ambitious musical experiments, but he was still considering himself as a solo entity on its own. Initiation offers a typical grab bag of styles, yet just as determined to test the endurance of his rabid fan base.
“Real Man” is a pop song and obvious single, heavy on keyboards with plenty of soul. However, “Born To Synthesize” takes its soul a little too seriously, an a cappella performance treated with echo and phasing that distracts from the “message”. Before anyone took him to be too far above tangible matters, “The Death Of Rock And Roll” turns up the guitar to complain about critics who complain about him, who “get [their] records for nothin’ and call each other names”. The questioning continues in “Eastern Intrigue”, which namechecks almost as many deity candidates as it does tempos and meters. It still makes a smooth transition to the title track, which hearkens back to the Utopia album, despite a saxophone solo by David Sanborn. “Fair Warning” brings back the Philly sound with a near-Hey Love Soul Classics arrangement, complete with a fake Barry White monologue at the top and a reprise of “Real Man” for the fade.
The fair warning and goodbye stated on side one becomes particularly prophetic on side two, a 35-minute instrumental simply titled “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”. Mostly performed on synthesizers, it comes in three parts (played out of order) with an intro and outro and pretty heavy sounding subtitles with seemingly Hindu connotations about the seven chakras, until you notice that section two of part one is subtitled “Bam, Bham, Mam, Yam, Ram, Lam, Thank You, Mahm”. It’s all very well constructed, with a few catchy sections and themes that seem to recur, but somehow we get the feeling that it was composed to give him something to meditate to.
With Initiation, Todd’s still determined to see who’ll keep with him; clearly he didn’t have time for people seeking catchy hits. The sound of the album didn’t help; with over half an hour crammed onto each side, the sleeve came with a warning that if you had a less-than-pristine needle the output would suffer. He even suggested taping the album and listening to that instead (horrors!). Maybe he needed to edit himself, because more doesn’t necessarily equal more here.

Todd Rundgren Initiation (1975)—2

Friday, November 19, 2010

David Bowie 28: Earthling

In a demonstration of the philosophy that fast work equals better results, Earthling appeared with little warning. Recorded very quickly (for Bowie) with his touring band, it was released within a month of his 50th birthday. Apparently the new sound he liked was called “jungle”. While still steeped in modern dance culture, by sticking to songs he ended up with an album that didn’t need a lot of attention to enjoy.
“Little Wonder” was a striking first single, driven by all that speedy percussion, a great Cockney vocal and lyrics that mention all seven dwarves. “Looking For Satellites” doesn’t have much in the way of words, but it moves along with a typically out-there Reeves Gabrels guitar solo. More sped-up percussion drives “Battle For Britain (The Letter)”—there’s that good ol’ Cockney voice again—with a great chorus to match and another Mike Garson interlude. (Our favorite part is the high-speed digital scanning before the track catches up with the chorus.) “Seven Years In Tibet” finally gives us a slowish song, with elements of his past in the saxophone and what sounds like a stylophone.
With that driving F-to-G riff, “Dead Man Walking” is hypnotic enough, but particularly worth seeking out is the acoustic version as performed on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, “Telling Lies”, despite having been released early as an Internet-only single, sounds a little too much like some of the other jungle tracks. Similarly, “The Last Thing You Should Do” comes off as more of a groove than a song. “I’m Afraid Of Americans” got all the attention thanks to Trent Reznor’s appearance in the video (as well as his remixes of the song, some of which are naturally included on the expanded reissue). And yes, it’s a pretty catchy tune. The album ends strangely with the dated synths on “Law (Earthling On Fire)”, which does nothing so much as remind us of some of the less horrible moments on Black Tie White Noise.
Between recording, touring and running his own interactive website, Bowie was having the time of his life. His creativity is obvious on Earthling, leading back to that age-old question, “What’ll he do next?” Even if you didn’t like all the stops on his journey, at least he was keeping it interesting.

David Bowie Earthling (1997)—3
2005 limited 2CD edition: same as 1997, plus 13 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

David Bowie 27: Outside

A common misconception is that Brian Eno produced the albums in Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy. He didn’t; he merely co-wrote and performed on them. Therefore it was A Big Deal when Outside was announced. The first of three projected collaborations (the other two albums never materialized), it was supposed to be a projection into the future with a story about “art-crime”; instead it came off as an elaborate inside joke. For the most part it’s a harsh, jarring muddle, without a lot of memorable melody amidst all the texture and spoken interludes. The homemade artwork, most likely created on Bowie’s Power Mac, didn’t help explain anything.
In addition to Eno, the album brought together a handful of names from Bowie’s past, from Carlos Alomar to Tin Machine’s Reeves Gabrels, along with more recent collaborator Erdil Kizilcay. Pianist Mike Garson gets to do his thing all over “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, which was a single, and “A Small Plot Of Land”, which features a compelling vocal unfortunately fighting against three different accompaniments.
“Hallo Spaceboy” is one decent track, an excellent meld of power and melody. Another is “Strangers When We Meet”, a complete remake of the Buddha Of Suburbia track and the album’s closer. “The Motel” builds over six minutes from a moody Garson piece to a full-fledged song with a slow yet driving beat. “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” seems to want to push the story along, with some catchy choruses, but it just goes too long without really going anywhere.
There’s probably a good album buried inside Outside, but it’s just not that easy to hear. Whatever the grand concept was is simply not easy to follow, even with the narration on a disc crammed to capacity. Bowie seemed happy to let the Eno hype and his association with yet another record label drive the initial promotional push, and was able to ride the back of Nine Inch Nails, whose abrasive style seemed to resonate with self-flagellating goth posers in the nineties. (Naturally, Trent Reznor loved the album, and his remixes of various tracks feature on the two-CD reissue.)

David Bowie Outside (1995)—2
2004 limited 2CD edition: same as 1995, plus 14 extra tracks

Monday, November 15, 2010

Neil Young 44: Archives Vol. 1

Pigs flew, hell froze over and the first set of Neil’s Archives finally came out, looking not all that different than from what had been rumored. A true multimedia experience, the hoopla centered around the most deluxe version, that being the Blu-Ray edition, wherein the listener could scroll through the information on each disc while any track played. This version—as well as the DVD edition, with all the content but not the ease-of-access—was also chock full of extra video and audio files, photos and memorabilia, with a thick book and even the Journey Through The Past film on its own disc.
As a gesture to those fans who couldn’t swing the two hundred plus dollars for the Blu-Ray or DVD version (plus whatever it cost for a player to hear it on), Neil also made Archives Vol. 1 available as an eight-CD set—just the music, no visuals, outside of a slim booklet detailing track info.
The set begins appropriately with a few tracks by his first band The Squires, who apparently thought of themselves as a surf outfit. Once he started writing and singing his own songs, it’s clear that the Beatles were a big influence. We get to hear early versions of songs, such as “I Wonder” (which would become “Don’t Cry No Tears” on Zuma). Before we know it he’s in Buffalo Springfield and a few repeats from their box set are bolstered by the long-lost “Slowly Burning” and “Sell Out”.
The second disc (Topanga 1) covers the sessions for his first solo album, including alternate mixes and early versions of “Birds” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”. Then he meets Crazy Horse and starts working on that album. But first he does a club tour, which provides the basis for the Live From The Riverboat disc. Recorded within weeks of the Canterbury House show, his mood here seems a little cranky. Perhaps it’s the presence of Springfield bass player Bruce Palmer in the crowd? Whatever the case, he does a few different songs from his debut, an unfinished song called “1956 Bubblegum Disaster” and the “Whisky Boot Hill” section of what would become “Country Girl”.
Topanga 2 finishes Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and begins After The Gold Rush, but with a detour into Déjà Vu. Here we get the legendary outtakes “Everybody’s Alone”, “Dance Dance Dance” and “It Might Have Been”, plus “Sea Of Madness” with CSN. The Fillmore East and Massey Hall discs bookend Topanga 3, wherein Neil finishes After The Gold Rush (but leaves “Wonderin’” in the can) and tours (again) with CSN.
He’s truly hit his stride by the North Country disc, which covers the widespread recording sessions for Harvest. Highlights include “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and “Journey Through The Past” with the Stray Gators, the first release of “War Song” since 1972 and an alternate mix of “Soldier”. (We also get the 15-minute version of “Words” that took up one side of Journey Through The Past.)
It’s an ambitious project, and one can be happy for Neil that he was finally able to see it come to fruition in a form he approved. It is, however, far from perfect. For starters, not all of the CDs are filled to capacity; this is likely to mirror the contents of the Blu-Ray or DVD, which would be full of all the extras. While outtakes abound, it doesn’t include every song from each of his solo albums up to 1972. Chronologically, “Love In Mind” from Time Fades Away belongs on disc eight, but as Neil has disowned that album, the version of the song on the Massey Hall disc should suffice. And of course, those who’d already bought the recent Fillmore East and Massey Hall CDs would be irritated that they’re here again. But hey, we’d been warned. And he didn’t owe us a damn thing. Beyond that, the interminable countdown has begun for Volume 2.

Neil Young Archives Volume 1: 1963-1972 (2009)—4

Friday, November 12, 2010

Velvet Underground 1: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The going cliché was that while the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many copies of their albums, everyone who did went out and formed their own band. While this has yet to be proven, it is safe to say that for the better part of two decades, all anyone knew about the band’s music came from Lou Reed albums, the occasional cover and the raves of critics.
A good deal of that changed in 1985, when PolyGram vault guru Bill Levenson pushed for the reissue of the band’s first three (long out-of-print) LPs, along with a collection of outtakes. All four albums were hyped by the usual critics (Kurt Loder going so far as to contribute liner notes to the common inner sleeve) but the overwhelming favorite was the debut, credited as always to the band plus the extra singer they’d picked up along the way.
The Velvet Underground & Nico treads a line between catchy ‘60s pop and what would eventually be called punk. Despite being hailed as a decadent band, “Sunday Morning” begins with a celeste, of all things, before an especially breathy Lou Reed vocal takes over. (It was, after all, his band.) Things get a little gritty with “I’m Waiting For The Man”, a fairly overt description of scoring dope. Nico finally shows up on “Femme Fatale”, something of a German doo-wop number, and a lovely song despite the attack on its subject. It’s a brief respite before “Venus In Furs”, featuring John Cale’s viola in full scrape over sado-masochistic references. More drugs turn up in “Run Run Run”, a perfectly snotty song just this side of melodic. Nico returns for the elegant yet foreboding “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, one of their most mesmerizing numbers.
Just in case you thought they were just another garage band, side two kicks off with the extremely blatant “Heroin”, which goes out of its way to describe the rush of the drug via the tempo and viola. But the pop returns for “There She Goes Again”, which could have been a hit single, and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, which couldn’t have been since they let Nico sing it. The last two songs are certainly non-commercial, straight out of the art world. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” puts rapid-fire lyrics under a seesawing viola, and the band finally gets to replicate their live sound with the full-on assault of “European Son”.
As with many things he put his name to, The Velvet Underground & Nico gained most of its notoriety over the years due to Andy Warhol’s cover design and blatant production credit, emblazoned below the banana that peeled Colorforms-style. He may have designed the cover, but the actual producer was Tom Wilson, who’d recently worked with Frank Zappa after having been bounced from Bob Dylan’s sessions. Whoever was behind the desk, the overall sound comes straight from the heads and hands of the band itself, with all the grime in place. It was an astounding debut, and certainly ahead of its time.
The album was an excellent candidate for a Deluxe Edition when the Universal label started doing those, and it doesn’t disappoint. It appears in both its original stereo and mono mixes, having been recorded at a time when mono was still a common seller. Because the label considered the possibility of having hits, four tracks also appear in their single mixes, alongside five VU-related tracks from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album, released later in 1967 to even fewer sales.
Ten years later, Universal continued their “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” policy by issuing a so-called “Super Deluxe” six-disc version of the album. This time the Chelsea Girl tracks on the stereo disc have been replaced by alternate takes, so that the entire Chelsea Girl album is included as the third disc. An early acetate of working mixes is bolstered by a much-booted rehearsal excerpt (including the band playing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” while Lou recites the lyrics of “Venus In Furs” to Nico, who also sings lead on a take of “There She Goes Again”), and a complete concert from November 1966 is spread across the fifth and sixth discs (beginning with the 28-minute “Melody Laughter”, edited down to ten minutes for the Peel Slowly And See box). Essential for fanatics, certainly, but even they would object to having to purchase half of the contents for the third or fourth time.

The Velvet Underground & Nico The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)—
2002 Deluxe Edition: same as 1967, plus 20 extra tracks
2012 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition: same as Deluxe Edition, plus 34 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pink Floyd 10: The Dark Side Of The Moon

Having pioneered space rock and songs that took up a whole album side, it was almost odd for Pink Floyd to deliver a record with tracks of digestible size. But The Dark Side Of The Moon is no ordinary album. Here the band found inspiration in a variety of moods and ideas, loosely connected around the concept of madness, but without making the concept so overt they couldn’t be enjoyed on their own.
As with the rest of their work going forward, the album is something of a loop, where the “beginning” can be considered a continuation on the “end”, as the cycle continues eternally. Here, “Speak To Me” provides something of an overture, mixing a heartbeat with snippets of clocks, cash registers and laughter, before giving way to the dreamy jam in “Breathe”. “On The Run” follows a claustrophobic chase through airports and down highways, over a maddening synthesizer sequence into a terrific explosion. The pealing of bells beginning “Time” are jarring no matter how many times you’ve heard them. This track features David Gilmour at his best vocally and on lead guitar, right to the reprise of “Breathe”. “The Great Gig In The Sky” manages to balance a minor-key piano-led jam with the otherworldly wordless screams of some poor woman.
Side two also brings five songs together in a unified whole. “Money” manages to be funky in 7/4, complete with one of the better sax solos in rock history. “Us And Them” is a tour de force for Rick Wright, with its layers of organ, piano and harmonies about the futility of war. It goes abruptly into “Any Colour You Like”, another minor-seventh to seventh jam as heard in “Breathe” and “Great Gig In The Sky”. A brief interlude resolves itself into “Brain Damage”, which will always be heard in conjunction with “Eclipse”, the first of many examples of Roger Waters turning a random list into a song.
The Dark Side Of The Moon has become such a ubiquitous entity that it almost doesn’t need a review. It was famously a fixture on the Billboard album charts for fifteen years—pretty impressive in the pre-computerized charting era. Even audiophiles whose tastes ran strictly to classical and show tunes had this album simply for the aural experience, which is pretty incredible. One of its songs is likely playing on your local Classic Rock radio station as you read this. If for whatever reason you don’t own it yet, and don’t feel like waiting another hour to hear it on the radio, it tends to get reissued every five years or so, depending on the anniversary or latest trend in sound quality, so you’ll have plenty of chances to pick it up.
Such an occasion happened with yet another rollout of their catalog in 2011, projected to treat each album three ways: Discovery, which is a straight remaster; Experience, which adds an extra disc; and Immersion, which adds even more material, plus books, video and ephemera. Dark Side got the first upgrade, adding a 1974 live performance of the album to the Experience Edition. The Immersion Edition included a third CD with the earlier 1972 Alan Parsons mix, before all the sound effects had been added, and a variety of demos and early live versions. It also included DVDs with the surround-sound and quad mixes, documentaries, concert background films, souvenirs and even a Blu-Ray disc with everything on it.

Pink Floyd The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)—4
2011 Experience Edition: same as 1973, plus 10 extra tracks
2011 Immersion Edition: same as Experience, plus 16 extra tracks, 2 DVDs and 1 Blu-Ray

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rolling Stones 34: Flashpoint

To confirm their position as a major cash cow, the Stones completed their CBS contract with a live album as a souvenir of their recent tours. Of the forty odd songs they played around the world, only twelve are included on Flashpoint. (The CD included two more and various singles had others; unfortunately, “2000 Light Years From Home”, which was pretty cool when they played it at Shea Stadium, was only issued as a B-side.)
As mentioned, the tours were fairly elaborate. Along with inflatable props and tons of scaffolding, the five Stones were accompanied by two keyboard players, backup singers and a full horn section. Despite all the preparation and shows to choose from, like many live albums it was sweetened in the studio during the mixing process.
The hits are here of course, like “Start Me Up” and “Satisfaction”, but there are some surprises, such as “Ruby Tuesday” and “Factory Girl”. “Paint It Black” is predicted by the inclusion of some chatter about the song (right before “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) lifted from side two of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, and Eric Clapton joins on a version of “Little Red Rooster”. For the most part, the songs sound like the records, which was the point of having all those people onstage.
Surprisingly, the band included two brand new studio songs on the album. “Highwire” was a very timely if futile commentary on the Gulf War as it started, while “Sex Drive” is another stupid James Brown takeoff that gave Mick another excuse to put out dance remixes.
Flashpoint was a moderate hit, and about as exciting as Still Life. Even more maddening was the limited red leather-bound edition that included a disc called Collectibles, sporting some of the better recent B-sides and a few remixes. But the most striking aspect of the album is the photo of the band taken at the end of one show: all five are grinning, except for Bill Wyman, whose sad smile and wave foretells his departure from the band. This album represents the last time he would play with the Rolling Stones.

Rolling Stones Flashpoint (1991)—

Friday, November 5, 2010

Dire Straits 6: Brothers In Arms

The previous two Dire Straits albums sport a sublime mix of storytelling and atmospherics, and were much bigger overseas than in America. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, Brothers In Arms tells few stories and buries the few melodies in contemporary mush from a pile of session cats augmenting what used to be a tight little combo. And the lyrics, previously worthy of the pen of a former English teacher, sound dashed off. Despite all this, it sold by the bucketful for the next two years, usually to people with new CD players. (It was also one of the first albums to take advantage of the extended CD playing time, with most tracks longer on cassette and disc than the record. That’s not always a good thing.)
“So Far Away” is mostly inoffensive, if a bit simple, but “Money For Nothing” got all the attention, thanks to its recognizable riff, Sting vocal and early anti-MTV stance. “Walk Of Life” took that grating accordion phrase to endless ESPN highlights reels. “Your Latest Trick” expands on the smooth jazz leanings of the previous album with too much saxophone. “Why Worry” would have been one of the slighter songs on the earlier albums, but here it stands out for its unobtrusiveness.
Side two is concerned with world events and social commentary: “Ride Across The River” and “The Man’s Too Strong” are intriguing enough, but “One World” kills the mood with its dopey arrangement and dopier words (or lack thereof). The title track is a pretty depressing way to finish it all off.
Brothers In Arms was an unlikely candidate for the arena-rock champion of the year, and we’re still not sure how it happened. It has not aged well (mostly because of the DX7 synth effects everywhere) and the hits tend to get lumped in with the usual “hey, remember the ‘80s?” suspects. It’s really too bad, considering how above-average Dire Straits had once been.
The album also fits into our flimsy theory of The First Four, in which a band’s initial four albums follow this pattern:
1) the striking debut, catching all the attention and putting the pressure on;
2) the forced follow-up, usually written on the fly and criticized as a retread;
3) the make-or-break statement of purpose, which takes them into the stratosphere;
4) “we’ve been to the mountaintop, and this is what we saw there”
And after that, the fifth album can confound or please the listener. It’s not a perfect system, but possible demonstrations include R.E.M, U2, Coldplay, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Toad The Wet Sprocket. (One day we’ll have it all worked out.)

Dire Straits Brothers In Arms (1985)—

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dire Straits 5: Twisting By The Pool and Alchemy

Perhaps in response to the heavy work that went into Love Over Gold, Mark Knopfler and the band quickly tossed off a few tracks for an EP that emphasized dancing. “Twisting By The Pool” is a fun number worthy of some of Ray Davies’ similar early-‘80s singles, while “Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts” neatly evokes the trad-jazz pub era. “Two Young Lovers” and “If I Had You” are simple yet toe-tapping. Which, of course, was the point.

Meanwhile, with former Rockpile drummer Terry Williams behind the skins, the band took their show to stadiums. Having reached the part of their career that demanded a double live album, Alchemy ably delivered the hits and album cuts, extended in some cases as befit the concert format. “Once Upon A Time In The West” is brought out for thirteen minutes, and the crowd goes wild. There’s the teaser of the final notes from a performance of “Industrial Disease” just before an excellent “Expresso Love”, while “Romeo And Juliet” seamlessly flows into “Love Over Gold”, but only on the CD. “Private Investigations” isn’t that different from the album version, but “Sultans Of Swing” brings people back to their seats for ten full minutes. “Two Young Lovers” and the theme from the soundtrack of Local Hero provide smiles for the diehards, but perhaps the best performance is “Tunnel Of Love”, which gains a majestic four-minute intro before the Carousel quote, before the song takes over with fantastic grace.

These albums, plus his recent soundtrack work, kept Mark Knopfler’s name in circulation as one of the more sophisticated musicians in an era that, frankly, didn’t have a lot of them. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the EP and the big sound of the live album would soon combine in a way that would be a little surprising, and not completely welcome.

Dire Straits Twisting By The Pool (1983)—3
Current CD availability: none
Dire Straits Alchemy (1984)—
CD version: same as 1984, plus 1 extra track

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rolling Stones 33: Steel Wheels

Miracles do happen, even in the land of the Stones. The boys managed to patch things up, record an album and embark on an ambitious, expensive tour. Some concessions were obviously made: Keith would call the shots for the music, while Mick could handle the promotion. This arrangement was set in place on Steel Wheels.
Right away it’s an improvement over the last couple of albums. “Sad Sad Sad” opens with a blast of guitar, and doesn’t let up on “Mick’s Emotions” (sorry, “Mixed Emotions”), an excellent choice for the first single. They get a little funky without embarrassing themselves on “Terrifying”, but turn it up again on the blazing “Hold On To Your Hat”. “Hearts For Sale” isn’t very memorable, but “Blinded By Love” stands out despite the stupid history lesson, thanks to its gentler sound, reminiscent of their country experiments.
More social commentary appears on “Rock And A Hard Place”, which at least has plenty of guitars but also spawned about 25 dance remixes. “Can’t Be Seen” begins with one of the least Keith-like intros in their catalog, but at least he gets to yell his heart out fresh off his solo tour. Speaking of which, the co-writing credit for Steve Jordan on “Almost Hear You Sigh” suggests that it was a leftover from Talk Is Cheap. Whatever its history, it’s still an excellent slow jam in line with “Beast Of Burden”. A belated nod to Brian Jones comes on “Continental Drift”, a “world music” track where the boys are accompanied by the Master Musicians of Jajouka. It’s an ambitious experiment, and luckily “Break The Spell” does just that with a Chicago blues beat. Once again Keith gets the last word on “Slipping Away”, another in a long series of classics in the spirit of “All About You”, “Coming Down Again” and “Sleep Tonight”.
The excitement over Steel Wheels didn’t last past the tour, but at least they were trying. The album didn’t stink, and doesn’t sound ‘80s-dated two decades on. For that alone, fans could breath a sigh of relief while selling their kidneys to cover the cost of concert seats.

Rolling Stones Steel Wheels (1989)—3