Sunday, February 28, 2010

Soft Boys 1: A Can Of Bees

Unless you were really, really hip in the late ‘70s, chances are you hadn’t heard of The Soft Boys until much later, in the context of being Robyn Hitchcock’s first band, or maybe as the precursor to Katrina & The Waves. At any rate, as their catalog has been reissued for the third time, a summary is overdue.
Not exactly punk and not yet power-pop, they recorded a few singles and EPs before finally completing their first album, and A Can Of Bees comes across as something of an assault. “Give It To The Soft Boys” and “The Pigworker” are based on slightly atonal riffs and Robyn’s highly unmelodic vocalizing; here’s where the influence of Captain Beefheart is most apparent. “Human Music” is a little more tuneful, beginning with a nice guitar motif and continuing under some Byrdsian harmonies. “Leppo And The Jooves” sounds even more like the Robyn people knew in the ‘80s, if only because the song was featured on Gotta Let This Hen Out! The stilted rhythms of “The Rat’s Prayer”, unsurprisingly, recall Syd Barrett.
Mostly instrumental, “Do The Chisel” dares you to dance, as does, in its own way, “Return Of The Sacred Crab”. “Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out” manages to straddle about five different sections while insulting feminists. Oddly, three live tracks end the album: a pretty straight cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey”, the frenetic “School Dinner Blues”, and the even faster “Wading Through A Ventilator”.
When taken within context, A Can Of Bees fits neatly inside the Robyn Hitchcock story, but it certainly startles. Since its first appearance the contents have been shuffled a bit, but now that it’s available again on the Yep Roc label, the original 11-song sequence comes with a download link for nine additional songs from the same period.

The Soft Boys A Can Of Bees (1979)—3
1992 Rykodisc reissue: same as 1979, plus 6 extra tracks
2010 Yep Roc reissue: same as 1979

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tom Petty 13: Echo

Once he seemed to have lost Jeff Lynne’s phone number, one could rely on a certain consistency from Tom Petty. Wildflowers and She’s The One took a little while to sink in, but it was clear that Rick Rubin’s production approach was better suited to the Heartbreakers in general.
Echo is more of the same from TP and the H’s, and is notable for the first recorded lead vocal by lead guitarist Mike Campbell on the gloriously stupid “I Don’t Want To Fight”. And he’s not a bad singer; no worse than Tom, at any rate.
It’s a pretty long disc that should have been whittled down a bit, yet a handful of tunes stand out as sure-to-be classics. The album starts strong with “Room At The Top”, alternating between pensive musings and edgy guitar and clavinet bursts, but soon begins to meander through less inspired songwriting. (Which, naturally, could be expected from a man going through a divorce and literally living in a shack.) “Free Girl Now” was an attempt at an upbeat single, using the same chords as “You Wreck Me”, but is fairly routine. “Swingin’” starts to turn things around, and “Accused Of Love” is almost sunny. It’s the lengthy but not at all plodding title track that is the masterwork here, a fabulous piece of writing with inspired playing from everyone involved. “Won’t Last Long” and “Billy The Kid” show a sense of determination, balanced by the pleasantly petulant “This One’s For Me”.
A reliance on the same old chords does have its drawbacks, however. “About To Give Out” is a close cousin to Wilco’s “Monday”, and if forced, we can even forgive “No More”, a glaring rip-off of the Stones’ “Salt Of The Earth”.
Something’s missing from this album; it could be we miss Stan Lynch. Steve Ferrone is a nice guy and a solid drummer, but he doesn’t have Stan’s rambunctious fire on the kit. (He also doesn’t provide harmonies; that job is now taken by default sixth Heartbreaker Scott Thurston, who never adds anything of value we can discern.)
By reprogramming your CD to ten tracks (1, 6, 7, 8, 3, 13, 10, 11, 12, 5) you get just under forty minutes that would earn a solid four-star rating. But as an entity all its own, Echo fails to resonate.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Echo (1999)—

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brian Eno 9: The Plateaux Of Mirror

After creating the Ambient brand, Brian Eno spent the next few years collaborating closely with Talking Heads, being credited as producing their albums as well as performing and composing as fifth member. So when his next solo album arrived, it was perhaps not such a shock that it too was a collaboration of sorts.
The Plateaux Of Mirror is largely the work of so-called minimalist composer Harold Budd, who plays simple, pretty melodies on the piano while Eno “treats” the performances. There really isn’t much more to this album than that; Harold plays, Eno mixes. But part of Eno’s genius is his ability to both capture a moment on tape, and then create an entire atmosphere around it. That’s just what he does here. In a perfect illustration of such an indescribable album title, these ten tracks place the listener on another planet, in a desert, someplace indisputably solitary. This is music designed for independent ingestion; otherwise it would simply fade into the background, which it does quite well.
While there’s nothing in the title, nor even the typically topographic artwork, to suggest it, the overwhelming mood here is that of a dark, post-dusk landscape covered in snow, with no artificial light except whatever is already in the sky. Perhaps it’s cloudy; it’s certainly cold. Throughout, Harold Budd picks his way through the keys of his piano while Eno channels the output through his mixing board. Each track is distinct yet similar, with one notable exception.
The anomaly here, as well in their work together, is the piece that opens the second half of the album. “Not Yet Remembered” is built around block piano fifths, mixed more cleanly than on the rest of the album. The “verses” are played through twice, and then in the middle section, those trademark wordless Eno vocals are mixed in to provide a sad melodic counterpoint to the chords. Once this height is reached, the verse returns, as the vocals step back to prop up the chords rather than ride them. It’s a moment that stands tall on the album, following and preceding those other snowy pieces, and stands equally tall in Eno’s catalog.
While many would have wished he’d go back to rocking, The Plateaux Of Mirror is an illuminating detour for a man whose musical instrument is the recording studio. It doesn’t garner everyday listening, nor does it do the trick every time, but it is pretty special.
Budd and Eno would attempt to repeat the recipe four years later with The Pearl—outside of the Ambient trademark, but still in the same mold. With a slightly less hissy sound, possibly due to the production credit of one Daniel Lanois, the album follows much of the same pattern as its predecessor, except that it’s less icy, not as distinct, and doesn’t have anything as profound as “Not Yet Remembered”. And we would have been surprised if it did. If anything, it almost sounds “spacey”, for lack of a better word. There was probably a reason for that.

Harold Budd/Brian Eno Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)—
Harold Budd/Brian Eno The Pearl (1984)—2

Monday, February 22, 2010

Brian Eno 8: Music For Films and Airports

Eno’s experiments developing his last two solo albums led him further into truly electronic music, focusing more on keyboards and textures without vocals. A handful of these experiments were issued on a promotional record as “possible soundtracks” for use by directors. Music For Films was eventually released as an actual album, in a cover as stark as its mood. Many of the tracks are understated hums, with only a hint of melody. Most are performed by Eno alone, but some have contribution from such regulars as John Cale, Phil Collins and Percy Jones, suggesting that these could have been some of the alleged hundred or so ideas started for Before And After Science, or even some of the less developed ideas from Another Green World.
Much of the album is truly background music, to be half-ignored while something else commands your attention, but a few tracks stand out. “From The Same Hill” throws some guitar into the mix. “Strange Light” is a nice finale in line with his work with Cluster. The three back-to-back versions of “Sparrowfall” provide a glimpse into his writing process, starting with a basic theme, introducing a counterpoint, and then culminating in a complete combined mini-symphony. Such moments, when they arrive, enliven a less-than-riveting listening experience.

Music For Airports, however, is a triumph. Here Eno starts with simple melodic ideas and repeats them, with only the slightest variation, making for a soothing yet hypnotic listening experience. This was his first album to be dubbed “ambient”, and it set the tone for others who wanted to follow in the same new genre.
In this case, the music is almost pointedly subliminal, with the titles coming from their placement on the vinyl. “1/1” follows a simple descending major-key melody on the piano around until its resolution and repeated choruses, amid some synthesized counterpoints. It’s the longest track on the album, and arguably the most successful. The remainder of side one is taken up by vocal tracks faded in and out as on 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”, albeit “played” here around a wistful minor key.
That idea is extended on the first track on side two. “1/2” supports the “vocals” with a piano accompaniment that sounds like two different hands following each other around the same minor scale. The result brings the idea to a similar fruition as “Sparrowfall”. The final piece includes neither acoustic piano nor voice, but rather some intertwining synth lines that occasionally resemble strings. It’s a long finale, but peaceful.
Music For Airports may or may not have been used in actual airports, but it certainly couldn’t hurt trying it today. It has, however, paved the way for lots of imitators three-plus decades on. (The album’s twentieth anniversary was celebrated by a live recording of the album performed on orchestral instruments by the avant-garde New York ensemble Bang On A Can All-Stars, bringing a human element to the project.)

Brian Eno Music For Films (1978)—3
Brian Eno Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)—4

Friday, February 19, 2010

John Lennon 15: Anthology

After years of backpedaling and increasing bootlegs, the success of the Beatles Anthology convinced all parties involved that a similar box devoted to John would be a lucrative exercise. For the most part, the John Lennon Anthology is chronological, with the occasional inexplicable detour, neatly divided into four sections: “Ascot” covers Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, “New York City” takes us up until “The Lost Weekend”, with “Dakota” covering what would be the end.
As often happens, many of the tracks aren’t that different from the released versions. Case in point: the very first song, a redundant alternate of “Working Class Hero”. But every now and then a track surfaces that’s illuminating. An earlier take of “Isolation” shows how they came up with the best way to nail the middle section. There’s a hilarious run-though of “Remember” that shows him in a light-hearted mood. “God Save Us” and “Do The Oz” are included for completists’ sake, and the latter sounds a lot less hideous on the 2000 Plastic Ono Band reissue.
The second disc nicely includes some songs from various contemporary benefit concerts, as well as the better “Stop the war” take of “Come Together” from the One-to-One show. Two uncompleted home tapes from 1970 show how “Mind Games” was assembled, and we even get John’s guide vocals on a few Ringo tracks. “One Day (At A Time)” is included in an earlier, far superior take with the vocal in a lower register, giving it a much more relaxed and much less panicky approach that would have been improved Mind Games greatly. “Real Love” is on this disc for some reason, and we notice that “Free As A Bird” isn’t included at all.
The third disc expands on the material that went into Menlove Ave., reaching its apex with “Be My Baby” (finally!) and exposing the nadir in several shouting matches with Spector. “Stranger’s Room” is an early blueprint for “I’m Losing You”, and an effective transition to the final disc, which rises to the challenge of actually adding something to the hours upon hours of tapes already out there. High points include the Cheap Trick version of “I’m Losing You”, some dialogue with Sean and an edited “Dear John” which may have been his last recording. “Grow Old With Me” features a George Martin orchestration, recorded after the Threetles had passed on it their own Anthology. The “Something More” section of the fourth disc covers some of the skits and satires he tried while on hiatus, ending with a wistful “It’s Real” snippet. It inspires a sigh when it ends, a sad reminder that the buried treasure will always be finite.
The packaging is certainly pretty, in a soothing light blue sky with clouds motif. The liner notes leave something to be desired, though Yoko’s essays on each period are pretty poignant and, combined with the man’s voice, one is reminded only too clearly that the world just hasn’t been the same since that December night.
As with most archival releases by anyone, Anthology is hardly the place to start if you don’t have anything and everything else. Luckily for the rest of us, not all of the tracks are straight repeats from the Lost Lennon Tapes series, so this is certainly a nice addendum to the bootlegs. (Wonsaponatime is a concurrently released single-disc distillation of the box, and is truly for collectors only.)
There are, again, hours upon hours of other pieces that could have gone on here, but Yoko always has the last word as to what goes into the official documents. Also, with the emphasis on music and enlightening the uninitiated, she didn’t bother with more studio patter and background that would be more insightful to us students. After all, she’s trying to run a business here. (Speaking of which, Lennon Legend came out a year earlier, ostensibly to replace Shaved Fish and The John Lennon Collection. It does take advantage of the longer playing time, and gets points for including two songs from Milk And Honey, but it’s pretty much a retread of those earlier collections. The chronology is a tad strange too. Musically, of course, it’s great, and the overall sound is hotter, so it’s a nice place to start.)

John Lennon Anthology (1998)—

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Wallflowers: The Wallflowers

If you’re a struggling singer-songwriter, your journey to success can be pretty rough. It can be made even more so if you’re already related to a highly respected songwriter, thus raising both the public’s expectations as well as their hesitation. The leader of the Wallflowers knew this, and to his credit, Jakob Dylan has never capitalized on having Peter Himmelman as his brother-in-law.
The band emerged in the wake of the “jam band” explosion of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where lots of long-haired, tie-dyed skinny white kids—like Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors—tried to recapture the Woodstock vibe. The Wallflowers were the only ones with an actual birthright to the hippy-dippy sound; naturally their self-titled debut album sold zero copies. Still, they toured like all hungry bands do, opening up for the likes of 10,000 Maniacs and, yes, the Spin Doctors. Their sets were peppered with such covers as Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and The Band’s “The Weight”, but the highlight was the then-unrecorded “6th Avenue Heartache”, which, lacking the mixed-too-loud harmonies by the guy from Counting Crows, sounded so much better than the version that would sell six million copies of their next album, four years later.
But back in 1992, they couldn’t get arrested, despite a CD with a fresh, live sound, and some pretty decent tunes that betray a distinct Springsteen influence. Piano and organ compete for space under mostly clean guitars in a live mix. One exception would be the single, a nasty little tune called “Ashes To Ashes” anchored by an insistent wah-wah and a lyric we hope isn’t about any actual person.
The other songs aren’t trifles either. Most pass the five-minute mark, and even the seven-, eight- and nine-minute songs are infused with such dynamics that they aren’t at all tedious. On the contrary; “Hollywood” follows a familiar yet fresh chord sequence, and both “Somebody Else’s Money” and “Honeybee” provide intriguing journeys.
The Wallflowers is still in print, though it seems to have been disowned by even its own creator. It may not have the corporate, calculated sound of their more successful albums, but it’s an unjustly overlooked gem that can be easily found on eBay for about a buck.

The Wallflowers The Wallflowers (1992)—

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who 19: Join Together

The vehicle chosen to promote Pete’s new album overshadowed it completely: a full-blown Who reunion tour, where the three surviving original members were augmented by an additional guitarist, stalwart keyboardist Rabbit, and a drummer, percussionist, horn section and backup singers handpicked by Pete. Naturally, it was A Big Deal, which in turn sparked a variety of tie-ins, including a pay-per-view show, radio broadcasts and an inflated live three-record/two-CD set. All featured a complete performance of Tommy—1989 being the twentieth anniversary and all—performed by the 15-piece ensemble.
To its credit, Join Together does include the song of the same name, though we had to check twice to make sure. What’s even more baffling is what was included. Tommy is faithfully reproduced, thankfully without the star turns from the pay-per-view, in mostly the order they played in 1970, with the addition of “Cousin Kevin” to give John two songs, and “Eyesight To The Blind” in the rejigged movie arrangement. It all fits neatly on the first CD, as if they planned it that way.
The second disc is the real head-scratcher. Pete dominates the first handful of tunes, from “Eminence Front” through “Face The Face”. Roger sings “Dig” from The Iron Man, and a sterile “I Can See For Miles” demonstrates why they rarely played it onstage. “A Little Is Enough” and “Rough Boys” are the best Who songs from his first solo album, while “Trick Of The Light” is a left-field showcase for John. Everything is faithfully reproduced, and the sound is admittedly better than that of Who’s Last, but it’s still an album worth playing exactly once.
By the time Join Together appeared in stores, the monetary nature of the tour was all too clear, and nobody was clamoring for a full-fledged reunion involving a new album and subsequent shows. If anything, the best reminder of what they once meant came with the release of their Monterey Pop set, buried within a 4-CD box released in 1992 on Rhino. It’s a good snapshot of a fair-to-middling yet historic performance, right on the verge of their exposure to the US. Still, that half-hour or so of music created before Tommy is more exciting than a 2-CD box designed to spotlight it.

The Who Join Together (1990)—2

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pete Townshend 9: The Iron Man

Even though he’d proved he could be successful with any kind of song, for some reason Pete Townshend decided the only “albums” worth putting out had to have some kind of concept behind them. Coupled with his work as a book editor, this manifested itself in a half-baked album like The Iron Man, based on a children’s book by Ted Hughes.
Grandly subtitled “The Musical by Pete Townshend”, the album might have worked a little better had he chosen to sing all the songs himself, rather than “casting” the roles. As nice as it is to expose new listeners to Nina Simone and John Lee Hooker, they are ultimately distractions for those of us just wanting to hear Pete. And those are at least names we know; it’s difficult to say how much success the likes of Deborah Conway, Cleveland Watkiss and someone known only as “Chyna” (not the wrestler) can attribute to their work here.
The best moments are Pete’s, which can usually be taken outside of any concept. “I Won’t Run Anymore” has potential, as do “All Shall Be Well”, “Was There Life” and “A Fool Says…” The obvious single was “A Friend Is A Friend”, as it sounds most like a Pete song, but the addition of a kids’ chorus is never a good idea, even on a musical meant for children. His brother Simon sings all 42 seconds of “Man Machines”; a longer version included on a later reissue gives the track much more room to breathe.
The “superstar” turns are, frankly, embarrassing. John Lee Hooker gets two songs, neither of which fit his persona. “Over The Top” is expository, but “I Eat Heavy Metal” (with the choir adding “he eats heavy metal” after each line like a horrible Rankin-Bass production) is just plain cartoony. Surely, given his admiration of Miss Simone, he could have provided her with something more meaningful than “Fast Food”, particularly with the choir asserting “she wants food fast” in the Rankin-Bass style.
But most of the attention, of course, was given to the two songs that Roger Daltrey sings, with John Entwistle on bass, making for a Who reunion—on paper anyway. “Dig” is pleasant, if not exactly substantial, but “Fire”, an unrecognizable remake of the old Crazy World of Arthur Brown hit, is just plain stupid, and badly produced to boot, by the same guy whose biggest production credit is for “We Built This City”.
What we really wanted was for Pete to rock; he was certainly able to do that within the murky outline of White City. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he could have done that here too? He maintains today that he was forced to cut a lot of material because the label didn’t want a double album, but it’s hard to believe that we’d be missing anything.
Ultimately, The Iron Man was a resounding disappointment, with a libretto to match. A movie was eventually made, but without Pete’s songs. His dream of creating an actual musical from the material hasn’t quite come to fruition, though he wouldn’t abandon his Broadway dreams just yet.

Pete Townshend The Iron Man (1989)—2
2006 remaster: same as 1989, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, February 12, 2010

Rolling Stones 16: Sticky Fingers

Or, the one with the zipper on the cover. Sticky Fingers is the third in the series of Great Stones Albums, following on from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, and in many ways it’s a completion of the previous two, as the recording sessions overlap.
“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” both come from a trip to Muscle Shoals, Alabama (as seen in the film Gimme Shelter), and show just how much the boys had grown—a classic riff with horns on the former, and a tender acoustic charmer on the latter. On side one, they come on either side of “Sway”, a great lost number with a sinister undertone that would be stolen 20 years later by the Black Crowes. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” starts simply enough with a snotty riff and a few funky verses and choruses, then changes gears for an extended solo guitar section that mutates and eventually resolves. It sounds spontaneous and structured at the same time. He may have only been in the band for a few years, but Mick Taylor more than made his mark on these albums. “You Gotta Move” is also from the Muscle Shoals sessions, and another straight country blues cover.
Side two doesn’t disappoint either. “Bitch” is an underrated classic that probably would have received more airplay with a different title. As ever, Charlie Watts bangs the drums like no one else. “I Got The Blues” is possibly the least impressive of the songs here, except for Billy Preston’s capably brief organ solo and Mick Jagger’s passionate yelling over the end. “Sister Morphine” is the oldest recording here, having been started during the Beggars Banquet era, and mostly written by Marianne Faithfull. Its spooky lyrics set the tone, matched by Ry Cooder’s bottleneck and Jack Nitzsche’s dungeon piano. “Dead Flowers” raises the mood a bit, a signature clever country song that’s a lot nastier than it sounds. The grand finale this time out is “Moonlight Mile”, a pretty thing with a Japanese feel and great atmosphere.
If you ever owned Sticky Fingers on vinyl, chances are you got so much mileage out of it that various other Stones albums have scraped back covers thanks to the zipper. And it’s another one to suggest that 1971 was one of the greatest years ever for rock albums.
Nearly 44 years later, after the band had finished milking their 50th anniversary, Sticky Fingers received the Deluxe Edition treatment. The two-disc expansion offered a few alternates of varying interest (“Brown Sugar” with Eric Clapton, an acoustic mix of “Wild Horses”, a longer “Bitch”) and some live performances. Those who sprung for the more expensive Super Deluxe Edition got a DVD teaser of a 1971 London gig, a book and an official release of the Get Your Leeds Lungs Out bootleg, the source of the obscure “Let It Rock” B-side.

The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers (1971)—5
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1971, plus 10 extra tracks (Super Deluxe adds another 13 tracks and DVD)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bob Dylan 36: The Bootleg Series

Just in time for his 50th(!!!) birthday came the unbelievable announcement that a box set full of previously unreleased Dylan tracks had been sanctioned and approved by both artist and label. Not only would this make Bob the first major artist worthy of two box sets, but the potential to finally hear some of this stuff in best-ever fidelity was enough to make fans drool.
And drool we did, when the bounty was revealed. The Bootleg Series box was dubbed “Volumes 1-3”, subtitled “Rare & Unreleased” from the years 1961 through 1991. Naturally half the stuff—most of the first two discs—comes from the first seven years of his career, but you expected that.
The first disc alone only goes up to 1963, with plenty of outtakes from his first three albums, a few publishing demos and even some live recordings. As many of these were known for years as published lyrics, it can be alternately fascinating and disappointing to hear the music underneath. Highlights include “Hard Times In New York Town”—a great place to start—and “No More Auction Block”, which gives a hint to the inspiration behind “Blowin’ In The Wind”. “House Carpenter” is a scary sea song, “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” is his first real funny song (compared to “Talkin’ Hava Negila Blues”) and “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” may be repetitive but it’s effective. “Quit Your Low Down Ways” might have been left aside had people realized he’d stolen the yodel from Elvis. “Paths Of Victory” is an example of the type of song he’d soon leave behind, and “Moonshiner” is another nice one from the end of the protest era. The disc closes with “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”, a poem read aloud to the Town Hall audience.
Things get very interesting on the second disc. “Seven Curses”, a powerful gallows pole song, and “Eternal Circle” show his increasing depth as a poet. “Suze (The Cough Song)” has a riff similar to “Nashville Skyline Rag”. “Mama You Been On My Mind” is from the end of the Another Side sessions, and it’s beautiful. The equally stunning “Farewell Angelina” comes from the Bringing It All Back Home sessions, and we’re guessing he left it out because he drops his pick halfway through. “Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence” doesn’t live up to the promise of the lyrics we had for 20 years, while “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” is in its faster incarnation than the lazy take from the Highway 61 album. “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is a rehearsal that doesn’t quite make it, yet the phenomenal “She’s Your Lover Now” nearly gets to the end. “I Shall Be Released” was obviously left off the official Basement Tapes since the guitar is so woefully out of tune. We jump all the way ahead to the anticlimactic George Harrison take of “If Not For You”, followed by a lackluster “Wallflower”. “Nobody ‘Cept You” isn’t much of a loss either, but the strangest choices are the alternates of the alternate takes of the New York Blood On The Tracks songs. “Call Letter Blues” turned out to be “Meet Me In The Morning” with different lyrics, and while this mix of “Idiot Wind” is not as aching as the original, it’s still wonderful.
The third disc begins with a different “If You See Her, Say Hello”, then it’s off to Desire country. “Golden Loom” has lots of Emmylou, but “Catfish” is as dull as the ball game it describes. “Seven Days” is a live take from the end of Rolling Thunder. From here it’s a race to the finish. “Ye Shall Be Changed” is the first of the pretty good Christian songs. “You Changed My Life” and “Need A Woman” don’t do much, but “Angelina” has a mystery lacking from those albums. “Someone’s Got A Hold Of My Heart” isn’t much better than the song it became. “Tell Me” is annoying, but “Lord Protect My Child” makes up for it. “Foot Of Pride” is an evil rant, and “Blind Willie McTell” is almost as incredible as the fans would have you think. “When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky” also isn’t any better than the album track, but “Series Of Dreams” is a nice way to end it.
Having three CDs of legendary unreleased material made up for much of the sludge of the previous decade or so. “Farewell Angelina”, “Mama You Been On My Mind” and “She’s Your Lover Now” made The Bootleg Series box worth the price of admission. Knowing that the set was cut down from a proposed four discs made us hope against hope that more volumes, as promised in the booklet, would soon be coming. As it turned out, they would, but we’d have to wait.
The most amazing thing about the set was the knowledge that as good as this stuff was, they weren’t considered worthy of release back when they were originally recorded. Some would say that this was due to Bob being his own worst editor, but the glass-half-full camp prefers to think of it as proof of his genius—even his leftovers are masterpieces.

Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 (1991)—4

Monday, February 8, 2010

Joni Mitchell 4: Blue

Everybody’s Dummy holds a strong reverence for an artist’s First Four, as held up by such performers as Dire Straits and R.E.M., wherein their first four albums are essential (and fit conveniently on two 90-minute Maxells, just right for the average interstate car trip). With Blue, Joni Mitchell joins that pantheon, as if she needed any excuse. Everything that enticed listeners through Song To A Seagull, Clouds and Ladies Of The Canyon appears here, in a familiar package but without any redundancy.
So what’s so great about this album? For one, it’s her last folk album; after this she’d add a rhythm section, horns and more overt jazz touches with varying results, and her voice would begin its multi-octave descent. Blue is Joni as hopeless romantic, taking solace in her piano, guitar and dulcimer. “All I Want” sets it up: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/Looking for something, what can it be?” From there she takes us through several of her moods: the smitten “My Old Man”; the remorse of “Little Green” (written about the child she’d given up for adoption years before); the slightly hedonistic “Carey”; and the surrender of the title track. And that’s only side one.
Side two longs for a return to “California”, then immediately regrets her decision to take “This Flight Tonight”. “River” gets a lot of play thanks to numerous cover versions every December; look for the interpolation of “Jingle Bells” over the end. From here the album takes a decidedly melancholy and voyeuristic turn, closing with “A Case Of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, two songs that seem to be taken directly from conversations.
We mentioned that this was her last folk album; it’s a style to which many of her fans wish she would return. She certainly decided she’d done all she could with that voice, and wanted to move on. Fair enough. We’ve dipped our toes into some of her later albums, but there’s no denying the magic of those first four. In a just world, the angry young women of the ‘90s who worshipped at the shrines of Tori, Ani and Alanis have discovered her by now. Or at least, as one of our correspondents likes to say, adopted themselves a cat.

Joni Mitchell Blue (1971)—

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tom Petty 12: She’s The One

In a fantastic case of “whoops, I made an album,” Petty started with a couple of songs for a movie, and managed to stretch it into a full-length cohesive set by adding a couple of odd covers and some leftovers from Wildflowers.
As happens on all good soundtracks, She’s The One features a few variations on themes. The key song here is “Walls”, which appears in a “Circus” arrangement and again in a more straightforward rock version dubbed “No. 3”. Tom Petty is one of those rare individuals who can not only twist those same four chords into such a classic as “Walls”, but even have two different versions on the album both that good. If you’re listening closely enough, you can even hear it in the brief instrumental “Hope On Board”, pretty as it is.
The other major theme is “Angel Dream”, which we hear first in its “No. 4” incarnation, and again in a slightly stripped down “No. 2” take. It provides a tender, almost hopeful flipside to the questioning of “Walls”.
Overall it’s not the sunniest album, outside of the ode to “California”. “Grew Up Fast” and particularly the brief “Hope You Never” are filled with angry remorse, while “Supernatural Radio” and “Hung Up And Overdue” are epic glances into an unknown future.
As for the covers, they’re an intriguing pair. On “Change The Locks”, he doesn’t have to stretch too far to sound exactly like Lucinda Williams. And Beck’s little-known “Asshole” goes along with the first verse of “Zero From Outer Space” to guarantee the album won’t be played around young children.
She’s The One is an unjustly overlooked chapter in both his canon and that of the Heartbreakers. And despite a few moments, the songs don’t feature all that much in the movie itself. So we must take it for what it is: a pretty decent Heartbreakers album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Songs And Music From The Motion Picture She’s The One (1996)—4

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tom Petty 11: Wildflowers

Tom Petty’s first album for his new label was a solo album, but in name only; Wildflowers features Mike Campbell on every track and Benmont Tench on most of them, with future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone behind the kit in one hell of an audition. (Howie Epstein shows up here and there too. And so does Ringo!) Working with Rick Rubin suited Petty well, with more natural production that fit his simple style better than the boomy Jeff Lynne sound. Even using only three or four chords, he came up with some great new songs.
When we say great, we’re not kidding. “You Wreck Me” is a fun rocker. “It’s Good To Be King” does Mel Brooks proud. “Honey Bee” rides a basic riff down the white line. “Don’t Fade On Me” is a satisfying trip to the swamp. And if he’d only ever written the gorgeous “Wake Up Time” and nothing else in his long career, he could still be proud.
And on top of that, there are ten other songs to keep you busy. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” follows a robotic drum beat through harmonica breaks and a notorious reference to a joint that is still censored on corporate radio. “Only A Broken Heart” is simple and perfect. “Cabin Down Below” and the horn-flavored “House In The Woods” (which hearkens back to George Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” via Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”) make for excellent variety, while “Crawling Back To You” sounds something of a sequel to Springsteen’s “Spirit In The Night”. Other tracks sound like other songs we’ve heard before, but we haven’t placed them yet; hence their success.
While it has more of a produced studio vibe than Full Moon Fever—which was largely concocted in a garage—Wildflowers has a warm, comfortable feel throughout that’s not at all dated, unlike his first so-called solo album. Of course, he toured behind the album with the Heartbreakers. After all, who else could do these songs justice?

Tom Petty Wildflowers (1994)—4

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tom Petty 10: Greatest Hits, Playback and Anthology

After he jumped ship to a new label, Petty’s old label felt entitled to put out a hits album. This being the modern age, of course, sixteen tracks fans already loved and owned were accompanied by two brand new ones. One of them, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, immediately became a huge hit and radio staple for the next fifteen years and counting. (So much so that the Red Hot Chili Peppers were criticized for the similarity of their “Dani California” to “Mary Jane”; Petty didn’t complain much, since he’d gotten away with copping the feel of “Waiting For The Sun” by the Jayhawks.) The other new song was a cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air”—close enough for a carbon copy.
Greatest Hits covered all the bases, despite the absence of anything from Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). It had strong legs for the rest of the century and well into the next one, but when it was reissued in 2008, “Something In The Air” was dropped in favor of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, the Stevie Nicks single featuring the Heartbreakers.

As Petty continued to have success elsewhere, MCA kept digging for gold on their own property. They really stretched themselves for Playback, a six-CD box set with three discs of album tracks, one disc of B-sides and two discs of outtakes. It was a nice idea; each of the discs comes in a little cardboard album-style sleeve with its own title, while the booklet includes an overview, track notes and individual credits. Splitting the tracks up between the familiar and the not-so keep the flow going, and some of the unheard tracks are pretty entertaining, from early Mudcrutch recordings, alternate takes like the original non-Stevie version of “Stop Draggin’” and a pile of final sessions with Stan Lynch for the Greatest Hits album. But none of the discs were filled to capacity; the three non-rarities discs in Playback could have been cut back to two just fine, a few B-sides were AWOL and even the outtakes discs might have worked better as one.

The idea of two discs of hits must have occurred to somebody in marketing, because at the century’s end appeared Anthology: Through The Years, featuring everything from Greatest Hits except “Something In The Air” and various album tracks that hadn’t made it to the box set. Some of the better selections for the time were “Stop Draggin’” (the Stevie version), “Waiting For Tonight” featuring the Bangles (inexcusably left off Full Moon Fever but included on Playback) and “Surrender”, an old Heartbreakers chestnut not recorded to Petty’s satisfaction until 2000.

So if you want to dive into the catalog, your work’s cut out for you. Start with the Greatest Hits or splurge for the Anthology. But that will only take you up to 1993; Petty has yet to authorize a collection of hits from the period to follow.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Greatest Hits (1993)—4
2008 remastered CD: same as 1993, plus 1 extra track (and minus 1 track)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Playback (1995)—
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Anthology: Through The Years (2000)—4