Friday, December 30, 2011

Police 3: Zenyatta Mondatta

The boys recorded their third album very quickly, and Zenyatta Mondatta was both surprisingly good and a surprise hit. While still retaining the white reggae of the first two, they finally began to stretch, bringing in synthesizers for a few tracks.
An automated hum is the first thing we hear as “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” creeps in, along with its famous lyric about a schoolteacher beset by temptation. (At least they appeared to be having fun in the video.) “Driven To Tears” provides something of a political statement, with an amazingly discordant solo and a tense instrumental section before the final resolution. “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around” immediately follows, giving something of an answer to the questions asked. The reggae reaches ska speed for “Canary In A Coalmine”, a song with high-pitched vocals, thick lyrics and a demand to pogo. “Voices Inside My Head” is virtually a one-chord jam, and we finally hear from another band member on “Bombs Away”, and we notice that Sting tends to overemphasize Stewart Copeland’s melodies.
People often point to “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” as a stupid lyric, but that was the point. As simple as it is, at least it’s got a cool bridge. “Behind My Camel” is a gratingly repetitive instrumental tinged with horror that actually won a Grammy. The beat comes back for “Man In A Suitcase”, but slows way, way down for “Shadows In The Rain”. And it all ends with another confusing instrumental, “The Other Way Of Stopping”.
Though it runs out of steam at the end, there’s a enough good in Zenyatta Mondatta to make it worthy of repeat listens. The band were never quite happy with it, however, and would return to a few of the songs in the future, as we shall soon see.

The Police Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)—3

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Byrds 7: Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde

Somehow The Byrds were still a band with a record deal, and Roger McGuinn felt responsible for keeping the brand going, even after he was the only original member left. Having convinced session pal Clarence White to stick around, they recruited a rhythm section schooled in country music and equally adept at singing harmonies.
As indicated by the schizophrenia in its title, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde shows Roger McGuinn at a crossroads, trying to find a direction out of the several that interested him, from rock to country to space. But with an eye on safe commercialism, he took all the lead vocals on the album. (After all, what’s the point of keeping the store open if customers don’t recognize the guy behind the counter?)
Another sure stab at preserving the brand came with the opening track, a fuzz-tinged cover of “This Wheel’s On Fire”, yet another Dylan song from the Basement Tapes that consumers would certainly have recognized from the Band’s version the previous year (or even the UK hit by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, later redone for the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous, but we’re getting WAY off track here). Whatever menace they’ve laid down is pushed aside for “Old Blue”, the ancient folk song about a dead dog. “Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me” is about as straight Nashville as one can get, though we could do without the constant harmonica in the back. Pushed along by a booming tympani, “Child Of The Universe” was also the closing theme to the hideous Candy, known to most as Ringo Starr’s first film appearance without the other Beatles and to everyone else as one of the worst star-studded movies ever foisted upon the public. The main verse section is interesting in a psychedelic way, but the chorus is held hostage to the booming. (The unused title song sits in the middle of side two, and it’s not much better.) “Nashville West” is an instrumental showcase for Clarence White, which is just fine until somebody yells “YEE-HOO!” and it becomes a parody.
One of the last legacies Gram Parsons left the band was “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”, a middle finger to everyone in Nashville who’d rejected Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. “King Apathy III” straddles a couple of meters, not sure if it wants to rock or swing, and the sections don’t even fit; maybe that’s supposed to illustrate apathy. “Bad Night At The Whiskey” succeed by standing relatively still, letting its heavy rock beat churn beneath multi-layered harmonies. Unfortunately, they couldn’t leave well enough alone; the closing “medley” crams a verse from “My Back Pages” up against a stiff blues jam ending with “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, concluding with a set-ending “we’ll be right back”.
Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde has its moments, but they simply don’t string together well. If anything, it serves as a statement of determination and perseverance, and Clarence White shines throughout, despite the material. Apparently not much was left over from the album sessions, as the 1997 upgrade sports two tracks from the box set and three negligible alternate takes to those on the album.

The Byrds Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969)—2
1997 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, December 26, 2011

Big Star 5: In Space

After a decade of sporadic gigs (fueling continued interest in their tiny catalog) the reconstituted Big Star put out a new album in the middle of the second Bush administration. In Space is a Big Star album in name only, in that the players are the two Posies who joined Alex and Jody in 1993. In fact, Alex does not dominate the proceedings, and on the handful of songs that are certainly his, the sound is more like the schizophrenic R&B of his post-‘70s solo work. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you like that sort of thing.)
The album is frontloaded with a handful of songs that do conjure the spirit of the band as people would like to remember them. “Dony” has a ragged edge and is catchy despite itself. “Lady Sweet” is the Posies version of the sound they’d like to hear. They harmonize with Jody on “Best Chance We’ve Ever Had”, and do a Beach Boys homage for “Turn My Back On The Sun”. Then Alex takes over for six minutes of silly funk in “Love Revolution”, a re-write of “Tighten Up” complete with calls to his “brothers and sisters” and a horn section. Thankfully, the old sound returns to Jody for “February’s Quiet”.
Alex wants the crowd to dance, which is obvious on his delivery of “Mine Exclusively”, a song that pre-dates even the Box Tops. The sound (and attitude) continues of “A Whole New Thing”, which pushes the irony in its beat-combo arrangement. “Aria, Largo” is hamfisted arrangement of a 400-year-old classical piece played on stiff guitar and bored drums. “Hung Up With Summer” sounds like it was recorded immediately afterwards, with a lot of the same guitar tones. “Do You Wanna Make It” is lyrically minimalist, conjuring memories of the Wonders as they toured the country’s finest state fairs. And it all comes to a sloppy end on “Makeover”, a jam with rambling “lyrics” cribbed from beauty ads. (It’s probably Paul Westerberg’s favorite track.)
In Space is not going to satisfy anyone’s dream of a fourth Big Star album, and the jury’s out as to whether anyone would care if not for the brand name on the label. At less than forty minutes, it delivers for about half. The Posies sound thrilled to be involved, but the real joy of the album comes from Jody Stephens, an exceptional and highly underrated rock drummer. His fills never fail to raise an eyebrow.

Big Star In Space (2005)—

Friday, December 23, 2011

Frank Zappa 1: Freak Out!

Something to consider about Frank Zappa’s first album is how much of his eventual career can be traced to it. It’s all here: influences from classical and avant-garde to doo-wop, extended guitar solos, “shocking” subject matter, and contempt for his audience, based on the assumption that they only care about commercial fluff and teenage heartbreak. Freak Out! was an incredibly bold debut for its time, as double albums were not common in 1966, even for established artists, and certainly not for a rock band’s debut.
The spine may have credited the album to The Mothers Of Invention, but a glance at the credits make it all too clear that Frank was in charge, especially from his “helpful” liner notes. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” should have been proof that this wasn’t your average band, even when followed by the kiss-off in “I Ain’t Got No Heart”. “Who Are The Brain Police?” ushers in the weird, questioning authority and fixating on plastic and chrome. “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” is greasy doo-wop, and “How Could I Be Such A Fool” less so. “Motherly Love” is a more catchy come-on from the band.
“Wowie Zowie” goes out of its way to be dumb, complete with xylophone. Another trio of “safe songs” attempts to appeal to the masses: “You Didn't Try To Call Me”, “Any Way The Wind Blows” and “I’m Not Satisfied” would have easily made it on radio. But “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” deflates it all with a smirk.
The first two sides on their own straddled the way-in and the way-out, but the second disc in the set makes a solid left turn. “Trouble Every Day” is his first major political work, as well as a chance to stretch on the guitar. Then he calls in the rest of the band to get crazy for “Help, I’m A Rock” (and its virtual coda, “It Can’t Happen Here”). The craziness continues for the entirety of side four with a free jam (which Frank always maintained was unfinished) called “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”.
Zappa freaks may not agree on everything, but they probably like Freak Out!. It’s generally everyone’s introduction, whether they bought it in 1966 or came across it later. And since Frank was so concerned with continuity and historical context, it’s still a good place to start.
The album’s importance to his estate (a rather controlling outfit called the Zappa Family Trust, or ZFT) was underscored by the release of an archival entity called The MOFO Project/Object, “MOFO” being a handy acronym for “Making Of Freak Out”. Typical of the ZFT, it was available in two configurations, both featuring music not heard on the other, forcing fans to buy both (or procure them by nefarious means). Both featured the “original stereo vinyl mix” of the album on disc one, and filled the balance of space with a variety of basic tracks and vocal takes that illuminate some elements of the instruments and utterances hidden after the original fades. His ability with an Xacto knife shows in the various mixes and edits of “Help I’m A Rock” and “Monster Magnet”, but the outtake “Groupie Bang Bang” would never have passed muster back then; besides being a fairly pedestrian Bo Diddley homage, the lyrics are a little too pointed, but for conceptual continuity purposes, they point the way to both the Flo & Eddie era and one of the subplots of Joe’s Garage. Interview snippets and later mixes fulfill the promise of being an “audio documentary”, while segments of a live performance at the Fillmore Auditorium the week the album came out prove that despite the use of studio musicians, including Carol Kaye on 12-string and various horns and strings on the album proper, the Mothers were actually a decent R&B combo.

The Mothers Of Invention Freak Out! (1966)—4

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lou Reed 20: Magic And Loss

Following on from the elegy for Andy Warhol, Lou began to be more consumed by thoughts of death. This was nothing new to a man who chronicled drug disasters his entire career, but now people he loved were succumbing to the vagaries of age. The main impetuses for Magic And Loss were songwriter Doc Pomus and someone named Rita. (It has been suggested that the latter was either Rotten Rita, one of the Warhol crowd, or even the infamous Rachel, who’d graced some of his album covers in the ‘70s.) Rob Wasserman (bass) and Mike Rathke (guitar) return from New York, but here the drums are supplied by Michael Blair, who’s better known as a percussionist and a noisy one at that, as evidenced by his work with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Still, that minimal approach keeps the sound clean and direct.
“Dorita” provides something of an overture before “What’s Good” provides a litany of observations of life and the lack thereof. “Power And Glory” appears twice—first as a lowkey track featuring the voice of the Legendary Little Jimmy Scott, and again as an out-and-out rocker. Both songs provide strange allegories and the horror at watching the effects of chemotherapy. “Magician” provides something of a contrast, sung from the point of view of the patient. Lou’s perspective returns on “Sword Of Damocles”, but he didn’t figure out what the melody was supposed to be before singing it, which is probably why Billy Corgan thought he could steal it for “Disarm”. “Goodby Mass” is pretty straightforward, capturing the sadness and futility one might feel at a funeral, while “Cremation” reiterates the usual metaphors about death.
“Dreamin’” sports one of his better developed melodies, to the point where the simple chorus doesn’t deflate the emotion of the memories within the words. Using all three chords, “No Chance” is another song from the hospital waiting room, but “Warrior King” needs only two chords to wish for the power to choose who lives and who dies. The most striking track is “Harry’s Circumcision”, a black monologue in the vein of “The Gift”, this one detailing a failed suicide. “Gassed And Stoked” takes the music down to one chord with the quickest change to A, only the title doesn’t match with the idea in the lyrics. By the time the title track closes the program, we’re just a little weary.
Lou saw Magic And Loss as a major work, giving each song title a descriptive literary subtitle (“The Thesis”, “Regret”, “Revenge” etc.) and promoting the album with performances of the songs in order. It’s not as catchy as New York, which is understandable considering the subject matter, nor is it a go-to party album, but at the cusp of the grunge era, it stands out as a cerebral effort in an otherwise non-cerebral field.

Lou Reed Magic And Loss (1992)—3

Monday, December 19, 2011

Badfinger 6: Wish You Were Here

For any other band, the prospect of creating three full-length albums to be released within a twelve-month period would be daunting, if not impossible, but most bands weren’t Badfinger. What’s even more amazing is that not only did they accomplish this Sisyphean feat, but they got better with each new LP.
Wish You Were Here is the peak of a busy period, an album where all cylinders were firing at maximum. It delivers on the power-pop promise of No Dice and Straight Up, without getting too sentimental, and letting Joey Molland shred on lead throughout.
“Just A Chance” is classic Pete Ham, and “Your So Fine” (just one example of their grammatical anarchy) is a catchy Mike Gibbins song sung by Joey, with excellent harmonies. Joey’s concerns with the future of the band drive “Got To Get Out Of Here”. But the one-two punch of shimmering gem “Know One Knows” and the multi-layered “Dennis”—the closest thing to an emotional piano ballad here, sung to a mischievous child—proves that Pete Ham was the living amalgam of Lennon and McCartney. (The final minute-and-a-half is exhilarating, in the way the bass walks over the piano, and subtly mixed harmonies support the lead vocal.)
The band’s skill at combining ideas frames the second side of the album, with a pair of “medleys” unfairly compared to those on Abbey Road. True, “In The Meantime/Some Other Time” does fade in on a discordant orchestra, but soon develops into a driving minor-key rocker. (Credit producer Chris Thomas for the fantastic sound throughout the album.) “Love Time” is a little on the wimpy side for Joey, but at least it’s heartfelt. Tommy’s only real contribution is “King Of The Load (T)”, which sounds like another song we can’t place, is firmly entrenched in the ‘70s by the electric piano, and doesn’t explain what the letter T is for, unless that’s the first initial of the roadie in question. “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke” is constructed as a grand finale, with frustrations over the state of the band still managing to convey a sense of triumph over adversity.
So as great as it is, how has this album managed to be so overlooked all these years? Well, not only was it released a full eight months before the Pink Floyd album of the same name, Wish You Were Here was also pulled from distribution before said Floyd album came out. The wheeling and dealing that had brought the band to Warner Bros. caught up with their crooked management, leaving the boys in the middle with the most to lose. They were already rushed back into the studio to record yet another album, to be titled Head First. And that April, at the magical age of 27, Pete Ham hung himself.

Badfinger Wish You Were Here (1974)—4

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tom Waits 13: The Early Years

There had been something of a lull since “the Island trilogy”, during which Our Hero made a few movies and started some lawsuits but produced precious little music. Meanwhile, his first manager reactivated his old Bizarre label and started licensing things via Rhino Records. That’s how two CDs of early recordings by Tom Waits, which predated even Closing Time, managed to sneak into reputable shops before the artist turned his attorneys on the case like so many rabid dogs. (It may well have been one of the few cases he’s lost, as the music is still in print today.)
These are not all demos, as might be imagined. There’s a band on some of the tracks, but time has lost their names. At this point (1971), he’s sticking to guitar half the time and staying within the confines of the real folk blues. That’s where otherwise lost-to-the ages songs like “Goin’ Down Slow”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Poncho’s Lament” fit. “Had Me A Girl” was obviously designed to make people in the coffeehouses chuckle, as would the more pointed “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute”, a fairly accurate portrait of the average entertainer.
For familiar fans, it’s interesting to hear “Ice Cream Man” taken at its slower pace, while “Virginia Ave.” and “Midnight Lullabye” come fully formed. The version of “Little Trip To Heaven” is even lovelier than the “official” take, even considering the whistled solo. Historians will gravitate towards the first appearance of a protagonist named Frank, but this is more than likely coincidental. And proof that he was ahead of his time comes in the form of “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again”.

Whoever compiled these collections put the best tracks on the first volume, as the follow-up, while obviously dictated by sales, grasps at straws. This is illustrated by the preponderance of more familiar song titles. That said, it’s doubtful anyone will gravitate towards these versions of “Ol’ ‘55” or “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”. “Shiver Me Timbers” hasn’t yet gained the melancholy so heavy. “Mockin’ Bird” has promise, but can’t get past the first two lines. But “So It Goes” puts him firmly in the realm of other New Dylans of the John Prine cloth, and “Diamonds On My Windshield” shows his grasp of beatnik music at this primitive phase. And the appearance of a solo acoustic “Blue Skies” only makes us wish the lush B-side was more readily available.
Taken together, the two volumes of The Early Years provide an alternate view of Tom Waits, showing where he came from. Perhaps he finds these preliminary sketches to be embarrassing—neither are listed on his official website—but really, there’s been a lot worse stuff magnetted to refrigerators over the years.

Tom Waits The Early Years Volume One (1991)—3
Tom Waits The Early Years Vol. 2 (1993)—

Monday, December 12, 2011

R.E.M. 11: New Adventures In Hi-Fi

The band undertook a massive tour in support of their worst album to date, during which three of the four members had to be hospitalized, none of whom were Peter Buck. Still, having enjoyed a long absence for a once heavy-traveled combo, they made the most of their time by recording new songs in dressing rooms and at soundchecks. This method had been deployed in the past to some success by Jackson Browne and Lou Reed, but for New Adventures In Hi-Fi, which arrived just short of a year after Monster, the band was quick to cite hipper references like Radiohead and Neil Young’s Time Fades Away.
At just over an hour, it’s too long for a single album, and too short for a double, suggesting that it should have been trimmed by about a third. The opening track, “How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us” doesn’t live up to its title, and how could it? “The Wake-Up Bomb” returns to the glam sound of Monster, “New Test Leper” doesn’t catch hold, and “Undertow” is a noisy jam with lyrics. “E-Bow The Letter” gets its title from the gizmo Peter Buck uses to get the drone sound on his guitar, and a big deal was made by having their idol Patti Smith bleat over the chorus. Despite its melancholy intro, “Leave” is driven by a persistent siren that wears out its welcome as soon as the vocal starts. Unfortunately, it goes for another six minutes, until you’re sick of the riff too.
Things improve slightly on the second half of the album, beginning with “Departure”. One of the first good tracks, it’s also one of the few songs on the album that evokes the feeling of a band on tour, with its expansive riffing that’s a close cousin to “Me In Honey”, and a chorus not too far removed from one of the extended hooks in ELO’s “Do Ya”. “Bittersweet Me” is also very well developed, and made for a good single, even though people weren’t buying those anymore. Like everything else here, “Be Mine” ends up going a little too long, but rumbles around its basic format with enough muffled vocals to be enticing. “Binky The Doormat” has something of a circus sound to it, fitting for a song supposedly inspired by the movie Shakes The Clown. The “choruses” get louder, with a nice balance of Stipe mumbling his words and Mills repeating “go away”. They’d had some decent instrumentals on their albums in the past, but “Zither” should have been left as a B-side. “So Fast, So Numb” seems to be more finger-pointing at either the slacker generation or celebrity casualties, and “Low Desert” brings us back to the water-treading of the first part of the album. At least we end on a high point, with the familiar piano sound of “Electrolite”.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was a valiant effort to start and finish an album quickly, but it’s hardly a triumph. Besides being too long as a whole, half of the tracks break the five-minute mark. Many of the songs sound unfinished, as if Stipe spewed a bunch of lyrics on top of existing jams after the fact. That might have worked for R.E.M. at one time, but it doesn’t always here. However, they were starting to remember how they used to make records, but we had no way of knowing their best work was behind them.

R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)—

Friday, December 9, 2011

Badfinger 5: Badfinger

Having said goodbye to Apple, the label that introduced them to the world at large, Badfinger found themselves shackled to a punishing recording schedule on a new label. While they were eager to do whatever it took to “make it”, they were in the position of having to come up with a brand new album mere months after completing Ass.
Given this background, it’s surprising that Badfinger is as good as it is. It’s evenly balanced between the three main singers, all of whom contribute superior, tuneful tracks. Pete Ham is back in his element, and his songs here are as good as any in his arsenal. “I Miss You” borders on the too sweet, but “Shine On” evokes a Wellie-shod ride through the green hills of the UK. Joey’s “Love Is Easy” fulfills the boogie quotient, and he’s supposedly the subject of “Song For A Lost Friend”, a title that can’t help but be suggestive. A minute of audio-verité bridges “Why Don’t We Talk?”, and the first side closes with “Island”, a toughly played love song from Joey.
Maybe it was because they were trying for a fresh start, but there’s something completely alien about “Matted Spam”, from the title to the prominent horn section. Tommy continues his questioning in “Where Do We Go From Here?”, and with Mike’s excellent “My Heart Goes Out”, it’s obvious that the band was obsessed with the uncertainty in their lives, and justifiably so. But leave it to Pete Ham to take that knotted brow and turn it into something as genuinely loving as “Lonely You”. Joey’s frustration closes the album, first with the slow-burning “Give It Up”, then with the frenetic snapshot of “Andy Norris”.
As good as Badfinger is, it wasn’t going to change their fortunes any. Which is too bad, since it was a decent album. Its limited availability over the years has certainly been a hindrance, and even CD versions have been rare, but it is currently available as a legal download from the usual sources, which should help.

Badfinger Badfinger (1974)—

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ben Folds 8: Supersunnyspeedgraphic

Way back in the lull following the live album, Ben started issuing a series of five-song CD EPs available via direct mail order or digital download, in the spirit of how bands used to put out singles. These were said to be contenders for what would eventually be his next album, but while a few would soon get regular rotation on stage, only one would turn up on his next real album.
Of the three, the first EP is still the most satisfying. Speed Graphic kicks off with a fantastic cover of “In Between Days”, to the point where we think an whole album’s worth of “Ben Plays The Cure” could make that band’s catalog more palatable. “Give Judy My Notice” appears in a piano-and-voice version that’s just as nice as the one that made it to Songs For Silverman. “Protection” has a jazzy, Steely Dan feel; this escalates for “Dog”, mostly notable for the phone conversation with his wife at the end of the song. And “Wandering” is likely to be on anyone’s list of sappy Folds favorites.
Sunny 16 arrived on schedule a few months later. This time the cover was “Songs Of Love” by the Divine Comedy, and the other songs were, well, okay. “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You” is the upbeat snide song; “You’ve Got To Learn To Live With What You Are” goes for Elton John territory; “All You Can Eat” puts a four-letter word in the chorus for shock effect; and “Rock Star” combines elements of all three.
It was almost a year before Super D completed the trilogy, and it’s the weakest of the series. Maybe the extra time convinced him to save the good stuff for the album proper, so this was merely the leftovers? Two covers frame the set: a faithful recreation of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” by glam-rockers The Darkness, and a two-year-old live version of “Them That Got” by Ray Charles. “Kalamazoo” wanders along until a “disco string section” interrupts the middle, “Adelaide” seems an odd tribute to the city, while “Rent A Cop” is an obvious joke song.

After finishing the promotion for Silverman, it was time for another stopgap. He did come through somewhat on the original promise by compiling a sampler from the EPs, with the incentive that most were remixed and/or augmented slightly. From the fifteen contenders, Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP includes two songs from Speed Graphic, four from Sunny 16 and three from Super D. In addition, one song from his collaboration with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller, a track from his soundtrack to Over The Hedge and best of all, his uniquely melodic cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” round out the set. (He did not, however, include anything from 2005’s Songs For Goldfish, a collection of live tracks and oddities released via the same channels as the EPs.) It’s still geared towards diehard fans anyway, most of whom were more excited about a real followup album. And then they could tread water while the next distraction came along.

Ben Folds Speed Graphic (2003)—4
Ben Folds Sunny 16 (2003)—3
Ben Folds Super D (2004)—
Ben Folds Songs For Goldfish (2005)—3
Ben Folds Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP (2006)—3

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Frank Zappa: General Disclaimer

In the coming weeks, Everybody’s Dummy will begin a series of reviews involving the music of Frank Zappa. In the interests of full disclosure, we submit the following.
I am not a Zappa expert, nor do I pretend to be, nor do I plan to be. There are lots of places on the Interwebs where people can argue about which touring band did the best version of “Pound For A Brown” or whether Scott Thunes isn’t fit to tie Arthur Barrow’s shoes or that the Flo & Eddie years were the best. Prior to his death, my knowledge of the man was limited to:
• a few Saturday Night Live performances;
• the rare occasions when FM radio played a track but it was usually “Valley Girl”, “Dancin’ Fool”, “Joe’s Garage”, “Montana” or “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”;
• his testimony in Congress during the PMRC hearings; and
The Real Frank Zappa Book. That said...
I have listened to every commercially-available-through-the-year-2000 Zappa album at least once, and some more than that. These include everything from Freak Out! past The Yellow Shark up to the Rykodisc releases of Läther and Mystery Disc. Such things became possible when one managed a CD store in a suburban town with a rabid Zappa fan base even before the sad events of December 1993, after which, in an attempt to educate myself, so began the journey. In the process I heard a lot of music I came to love, and a lot that just plain irritated me. Not all of his best stuff is limited to the early stuff, just as not all of it takes overt detours into shock value and songs about oral and/or anal sex. Some of it is obnoxious crap. Much of it is original and inimitable.
Everybody’s Dummy will not commit to chronicling each of the 62 or so albums he saw released, nor all 29 and counting of the posthumous vault dispatches thus far. We will, as ever, simply try to put some of these albums and/or collections into perspective for those who, maybe like me back in the mid-‘90s, simply wanted to know what the fuss was about. How far we’ll get is yet to be known.
So if you’re a Zappa expert (translated: anyone who knows these albums better than I do, which isn’t tough to achieve) and you think I’m full of it, consider the above. And by all means, please comment or complain about any of the posts where you see fit. I’m eager to learn.
If that doesn’t work for you, then consider this dialogue exchange from Uncle Meat:
“I can’t tell when you’re telling the truth—”
“I’m not.”
“How do I know anything you’ve said to me is—”
“You don’t.”
As always, thanks for reading. Hopefully you’ll find it to be an interesting ride. And don’t forget: Music is the best.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Police 2: Reggatta de Blanc

In keeping with the brand image, the second album by the Police didn’t deviate much from their established standard. However, as often happens with a second album, it’s clear that Reggatta de Blanc required a little more work to be complete. Circumstances dictated that the band be fairly democratic, with several compositions credited to Stewart Copeland and the one-in-all disclaimer “all noises by the Police”.
Despite trawling the clichéd theme of an isolated individual following some kind of disaster, “Message In A Bottle” was catchy enough to be a bit, and added another guitar riff to be passed along like a cherished secret code among listeners. The title track—another made-up foreign-sounding phrase meaning “white reggae” but still conveying a seabound image—is another excellent distillation of the band’s sound, complete with wordless vocals. “It’s Alright For You” retains some of the snottiness from the first album, just as “Bring On The Night” expresses a level of nihilism. Unfortunately, “Deathwish” doesn’t really take off at all.
The promise of the album title is reinforced on side two. “Walking On The Moon” provides another singalong, much more cheerful than “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”. In between there’s “On Any Other Day”, written and sung by the band’s monotonic drummer, and not the last time the band would present a suburban nightmare. He’s also responsible for “Contact”, which is nearly as musically interesting as “Does Everyone Stare”, a truly hidden gem based around a broken-finger piano part. The mix changes in time for a repeat of the first verse, expanding the sound without doubling it. However, the closing “No Time This Time”, while a good tune, deserves a better vocal than it got.
There’s enough quality on Reggatta de Blanc to make it worthwhile as a whole, but the Police were basically treading water. Some stretching would be necessary for the band to keep from repeating themselves.

The Police Reggatta de Blanc (1979)—3

Friday, December 2, 2011

Badfinger 4: Ass

Outside of the former Beatles (and Yoko Ono), Badfinger stayed on Apple Records longer than anyone else. Their loyalty even extended to recording at the Apple Studio in the basement of 3 Savile Row, something only George bothered to do in the ‘70s.
Of the band, Pete Ham was always the most loyal, and he wears his emotion on the sleeve of “Apple Of My Eye”, the sweetly sad farewell that opens Ass and would be the last non-Beatle single on the label. It’s a promising start to an ultimately disjointed album, pulled together from several sessions and one where Joey Molland dominates. The most rockin’ member of the group, his contributions lean toward heavier sounds and plenty of lead guitars, right out front on “Constitution”. “Get Away” and “The Winner” are rather pedestrian boogie numbers with lazy lyrics, but “Icicles” stands out with its infectious melody and anachronistic backwards guitar. Oddly, “I Can Love You” sounds more like the type of song Pete Ham would write; Pete’s only other contribution is the moody “Timeless”, which builds slowly from a piano piece to a grand finale along the lines of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.
Tom Evans is equally quiet on the album, but his two contributions are gems. “Blind Owl” is a toe-tapping rocker made for the stage, while “When I Say” is as sweet as any of his love songs. Somehow Mike Gibbins got to add a song, but any chance “Cowboy” had is sunk by the annoying wobble-board sound effect in the front of the mix, and the square-dance asides in the break.
Led away by the giant carrot on the cover, Badfinger would resurface soon enough. But that’s another chapter in their sad story. Ass is merely adequate, overlooked upon release and usually only mentioned in passing. It only got limited release on CD in the ‘90s, with only one bonus track but thorough liner notes. (The 2010 reissue included more outtakes, plus others made available for download-only.)

Badfinger Ass (1973)—3
1996 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 1 extra track
2010 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 5 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lou Reed 19: Songs For Drella

Lou was on a career high with New York from the year before, so a reunion with John Cale was certain to get attention. The excuse was a piece commissioned to celebrate the life of Andy Warhol, so they jumped at it. Songs For Drella got excellent reviews from the usual arty quarters, but would it translate to an album? More to the point, how would it be received as a Lou album, since Cale wasn’t exactly a sales magnet?
The album is a song cycle, mostly sung from “Andy’s” point of view. He starts out trying to escape his “Small Town”, then going to The Big City to establish an “Open House” policy. “Style It Takes” is sung by John, with sympathetic vocals from Lou at the very end, and it’s one of the more successful descriptions of Andy’s approach. The two of them battle on guitar and piano to demonstrate “Work”, wherein Lou recounts some of their conversations. “Trouble With Classicists” frames a quiet rant, and Lou follows it with the more obvious “Starlight”, wherein he delivers an intensity we wouldn’t expect from Andy. “Faces And Names” is much quieter, and we’re starting to think John understood Andy better than Lou.
Indeed, “Images” is relentless, to express the idea of repetition, but “Slip Away” (helpfully subtitled “A Warning”) demonstrates the foreboding that is explained away in “It Wasn’t Me”, where the blame is pushed to others. Something of a plot arrives in “I Believe”, a fairly frank description of Andy getting shot (an event overshadowed in the news by the same thing happening to Bobby Kennedy). This is also where Lou’s guilt over not visiting him in the hospital begins to dominate the lyrics. “Nobody But You” features Lou on acoustic for the first time in a long while, but it’s a three-chord song with Cale playing a percolating bassline on the keyboard. The abrupt ending is an excellent a setup for “A Dream”, a monologue composed by Lou and recited by John in an emulation of Andy’s infamous diaries. This piece is mesmerizing, as the longer it goes the more it perfectly expresses his perceived loneliness, particularly in his anger at Lou. The despair intensifies as the piece comes to a close, so it’s a jarring switch to “Forever Changed”, based around the metaphor of a train, one that actually appears to slow down at the song’s end. After all that, “Hello It’s Me” seems more like the kind of song that would sit by itself on an album. Some of the rhymes seem a little forced, but the closing “goodbye Andy” never fails to catch in your throat.
The idea of these two guys working together for the first time in over twenty years was very enticing, and Songs For Drella delivers very stark listening, with a few great songs amidst some real cringers. But if you’re expecting a Velvet Underground album, you’ll be disappointed. It really is an art piece, conceived as a theater presentation. It’s the sound of a guy with a guitar looking at a guy on keyboards talking about a guy they knew. Lou gets to shred here and there, but even he knows that his chops are merely window dressing to Cale’s fingers. It’s a curio, not likely to be appreciated outside the fan base. (To appeal to them a limited edition was packaged like a jewel case-sized book with a fuzzy cover. Like velvet. Get it?) At least Lou lost the mullet in the process.

Lou Reed & John Cale Songs For Drella (1990)—

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flying Burrito Brothers 1: The Gilded Palace Of Sin

Gram Parsons was only in the “new” Byrds long enough to spearhead the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Even before that album was released, he had left the band, soon to be followed by Chris Hillman, and together they formed the Flying Burrito Brothers.
This outfit expanded on the country tendencies of the Byrds by infusing it with a distinct rock sound, best summed up by the fuzz tone used by pedal steel guitarist “Sneeky Pete” Kleinow, which cuts through even the corniest tracks like a saw. On top of it all, Parsons and Hillman croon like the Everly Brothers. This blend appears at the top of The Gilded Palace Of Sin on “Christine’s Tune” (later retitled “Devil In Disguise”).
Their approach to country was anything but orthodox, as even the straighter sounding songs can be deceptive. The wonderfully melodic “Sin City” skewers the LA music scene, while the jaunty “My Uncle” concerns draft evasion while a mandolin trills away. “Wheels” and “Juanita” celebrate, respectively, the open road and the redemption of a teenage girl. “Do You Know How It Feels?” is relatively straight, setting us up for the closing, slightly surreal monologue about a “Hippie Boy”, complete with a chorus of “Peace In The Valley”.
Each side gets its own unique centerpiece as well. On the first, there’s a pair of Memphis R&B covers, “Do Right Woman” and “The Dark End Of The Street”, which had been hits just a few years before and would later feature in The Commitments. Side two has two songs that were apparently written so fast that they barely got titles. “Hot Burrito #1” is a lovelorn lament later claimed by Elvis Costello as “I’m Your Toy”. “Hot Burrito #2” isn’t as easy to sum up except for the insistence on love and the exasperated “Jesus Christ!” at the end of each chorus.
The Gilded Palace Of Sin is one of those albums that gets better with each listen, coming across as so effortless and easy. And as with most things involving Gram Parsons, it wouldn’t last.

The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)—4

Friday, November 25, 2011

Big Star 4: Columbia

Thanks largely to Rykodisc—and the rest of the world catching up—Big Star was suddenly a big deal. Just in time to ride the nostalgic wave, some enterprising organizers of a college “springfest” in Missouri managed to convince the touring Alex Chilton to bring drummer Jody Stephens in for a gig, supplemented by two of the Posies, who were one of the grunge era’s most devout Big Star disciples. Released within six months of this “reunion show”, which took place in the afternoon and in a tent, Columbia is nearly as sloppy as the other live album, but the energy coming from the Posies (who likely knew the songs backwards and forwards) makes for one hot recording.
It’s hard to tell which guitar is which, since both go awry at one point or another, but Jody is positively solid behind his kit, as well as on the two songs he sings. The Posies handle some of the tougher vocals, along with a reverent “I Am The Cosmos” in honor of Chris. A couple of songs from Third add variety, as do a couple of standby covers from the old days, T.Rex’s “Baby Strange” and Todd Rundgren’s “Slut”. Still, the focus is on the most rockin’, toe-tappin’ crowd-pleasers. This was not the time or place to drag Alex through “Big Black Car”.
Alex would continue to release the occasional quirky solo album, and reunite with the Box Tops a few times. Jody Stephens went back to managing Ardent Studios and playing the occasional session for the likes of Matthew Sweet (signed to the same label that released Columbia) and Golden Smog. And from time to time, they’d call the guys from the Posies and play a few shows as Big Star. (One of these, from October 1994, was professionally filmed, recorded, and vaulted for 20 years. Captured at the end of a tour, Live In Memphis is a better-performed version of the Missouri show, with the addition of “Jesus Christ”, “The Girl From Ipanema”, and even “Big Black Car”.)
So although it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event, Columbia made for a neat souvenir. But it didn’t present the entire show, as evidenced by the photo of the set list inside the packaging. Dumber still, BMG Special Products put out a CD with five of the released tracks as part of their “Extended Versions” bargain bin series. When Record Store Day became a thing, some bright bulb decided to press the complete concert on vinyl as Complete Columbia, as well as make it available for streaming. Now fans whose parents hadn’t even met at time of the show could truly hear it all, from the stumble through “Thirteen” to the ramshackle encores of “Jeepster”, “Kansas City” and “Duke Of Earl”.

Big Star Columbia: Live At Missouri University 4/25/93 (1993)—
2016 Complete Columbia vinyl reissue: same as 1993, plus 7 extra tracks
Big Star Live In Memphis (2014)—3

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Police 1: Outlandos d’Amour

The Police were an odd lot, even for a power trio. American drummer Stewart Copeland and a singer/bassist named Sting seemed to stand much taller than guitarist Andy Summers, who’s about ten years older than the other two. All three came from jazz fusion backgrounds, but the times dictated a punk attitude and approach. That’s one reason why Outlandos d’Amour has something of a DIY vibe, in the cover art anyway.
The music isn’t that complicated either, even given the members’ prog-rock credentials. “Next To You” is tailor-made for pogoing, before “So Lonely” veers between a reggae verse and double-time chorus. With Sting’s high-pitched vocal and those odd guitar chords, “Roxanne” was likely most people’s introduction to the band. “Hole In My Life” and “Can’t Stand Losing You” became anthems for lovelorn kids everywhere.
One thing that comes to mind listening to the album after all these years—after Sting spent all that time being concerned about rainforests and whatnot—was that the Police once recorded “silly” songs. The Sting we know today would never have a song like “Peanuts” on one of his solo albums, much less sing it. In that light, songs like “Truth Hits Everybody” and even “Born In The 50s” gave them the image of a smart band. Such a label is hard to stick in light of “Be My Girl – Sally”, in which a simple pop chant frames the nursery rhyme-style ode to a blowup doll. (The novelty gets thinner considering that Roxy Music had already covered that subject five years earlier.)
While the band would evolve over time, much of their typical sound is in place on Outlandos d’Amour, almost encapsulated by “Masoko Tanga”, a near-instrumental jam for slashing guitar, melodic bass, reggae-tinged drums and nonsense vocals. Because of its quality and simplicity, it’s still a fine debut, and a nice diversion from some of the comparatively heavier things to come from the band.

The Police Outlandos d’Amour (1978)—

Monday, November 21, 2011

Peter Gabriel 13: New Blood

Now things were starting to get a little out of control. Having enjoyed the kudos for Scratch My Back, Peter got the idea to extend the orchestral remake approach to—wait for it—his own songs. This was hardly a new concept, for people as widespread as Sting and Spinal Tap had gone this route, and it was a worrying trend when once-vital performers saw the remake idea as fresh. The fact of the matter was that they simply couldn’t be bothered write a new album’s worth of tunes. Or maybe it’s the fault of the generation who put them on the map, who’d grown up to be wary of anything unfamiliar.
At any rate, and as might be expected, New Blood is exceptionally concocted, with great care given to both the new arrangements and capturing the sound. It’s an album for diehard fans, who will likely get much more out of it than the casual listener. Some of the tracks actually provide a new perspective; “San Jacinto” in particular is given a sweeping arrangement with a chilly piano intro reminiscent of Tubular Bells, and moves smoothly into its own coda. Without its booming drums, “Intruder” is very different, and scarier. “Darkness” is just as unsettling in this format too. Two songs from his Millennial Ovo project might spur interest in that obscure CD, even though one is an instrumental (and a lovely one at that).
But much of the album comes off more like background music. Most of “Rhythm Of The Heat” isn’t that different from the song, until the big climax happens, sounding less like a tribal ritual than a movie soundtrack. “In Your Eyes” is much too urgent, and comes off like a stalker. “Red Rain” is given a brass-heavy treatment that misses on the tension, and “Don’t Give Up” is sung with a woman who trills like a cartoon bird. (He duets with his daughter Melanie on two other tracks for a superior blend.) A “bonus” rendition of “Solsbury Hill” is preceded by five minutes of ambient sound actually recorded on location, which is a great idea until if you like listening to wind blowing.
New Blood is certainly harmless, but it’s just a shame that so much time was put into something that still comes off as a distraction. In fact, a disc of the tracks without any vocals, included in the “deluxe edition”, is almost preferable, as some of the pieces work best that way, like “Mercy Street”; otherwise that song isn’t any more riveting than the original version.

Peter Gabriel New Blood (2011)—3

Friday, November 18, 2011

Badfinger 3: Straight Up

Perhaps it’s because he didn’t live long enough for people to say otherwise, but the general consensus is that Pete Ham was a pretty nice guy. Maybe too nice, since history has shown that you’ve pretty much gotta be something of a prick to make it in the music business.
His image has always been that of an extremely talented man who loved making music, and loyal to a fault. These qualities are best exhibited by the opening track on Straight Up, “Take It All”. The song came about after the Concert for Bangla Desh; Badfinger was part of the onstage band, strumming along on acoustics and percussion. Then, when George Harrison stepped forward to play “Here Comes The Sun”, he asked Pete to play the song alongside him. Apparently Tom and Joey (incidentally, both Liverpudlians) were extremely jealous that Pete got his own moment in the spotlight, and gave him crap for it. Pete’s response was “Take It All”, an absolutely gracious statement, free of ego. It’s a wonderful song, and just another moment that makes his story so heartbreaking.
It’s also a great opener for a fantastic album. Straight Up had a difficult birth, starting with a pile of scrapped sessions, continuing with George Harrison as producer. When the Concert for Bangla Desh took up his time, the album was completed with Todd Rundgren. There’s not a clunker in the set. It goes right from “Take It All” to the power pop classic “Baby Blue” and its wonderful interlocking guitars. A mini-suite of “Money” and “Flying” displays their talent for piecing together fragments into a cohesive production. “I’d Die Babe” is sneakily Beatlesque, and the majestic “Name Of The Game” gets a big sound out of only a few instruments, with Pete’s simple piano solo buried in the mix before the fade.
Joey dominates the credits on side two with three excellent songs, depicting life on the road in “Suitcase”, fingerpicking folk on “Sweet Tuesday Morning” and straight up (sorry) rock on “Sometimes”. Pete’s “Perfection” and Tommy’s “It’s Over” show off the band’s versatility, but the real centerpiece is “Day After Day”, another Pete Ham masterpiece, right down to the angelic harmonies, twin slide leads and nice piano touches from Leon Russell.
Reviews of Straight Up were mixed at the time, which is astounding considering that the same album led several wish lists until its eventual CD release in the ‘90s. The new power pop generation could finally hear the roots of Teenage Fanclub and Jellyfish in pristine quality, and the band gained even more overdue praise. Even the requisite bonus tracks were interesting, including some early alternate takes and the shimmering single mix of “Baby Blue”. Some of those bonuses were carried over to the next CD, while others were relegated to download-only status in favor of other outtakes. Taken all together, it’s now possible to compile the earlier version of the album, and it’s clear that redoing it was the smart move. Straight Up was a four-star album when we began typing this, but has since been upgraded. Justifiably.

Badfinger Straight Up (1972)—
1993 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rolling Stones 41: Live Licks

In an amazing turn of events, the Stones broke pattern somewhat by issuing a live album as a follow-up to a hits collection, which itself had followed a live album! They’re nothing if not innovative.
Live Licks gets its title from the tour supporting the Forty Licks collection, and it’s to their credit that it’s not simply all the songs from that album played live. That would be silly, of course. They only pulled that trick for the first disc, which serves up eleven of their Classic Rock radio staples, the newest of which was over twenty years old, with the key addition of Sheryl Crow on “Honky Tonk Women”. (We’ll pause while you try to contain your excitement.) And the man who said he wouldn’t be singing “Satisfaction” in his forties is doing it at 60.
The second disc is slightly more interesting, with three—three!—solo vocals by Keith, some deeper catalog selections, a few choice covers and a guest appearance by gargantuan legend Solomon Burke on “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, to which most people will respond, “Hey, they’re doing a Blues Brothers song.” It’s still the more interesting of the two discs.
Live Licks sounds good, of course, with technology helping Chuck Leavell and Bobby Keys replicate the sounds of the records. The boys sound great and the band is tight. But by now we’ve been used to seeing the “post-production” credit in the liner notes of a live Stones album, so who knows how much tweaking happened between the performances and the CD pressing? It remains just another souvenir, and one that certainly wasn’t purchased by everyone who’d bought a ticket on this crazy 14-month tour. If you were there, you probably had a great time. If not, the excitement doesn’t likely surface.
And what’s a Stones album without a little controversy? To ensure their stature as the world’s favorite dirty old men next to Hugh Hefner, Live Licks was released in some of the more liberated countries worldwide with an uncensored cover, showing the lovely lady riding the tongue topless. In the US we were left to wonder what was under the bikini. Hot-cha!

Rolling Stones Live Licks (2004)—3

Monday, November 14, 2011

Willis Alan Ramsey: Willis Alan Ramsey

Considering the billions of albums that have been released over the years, it’s safe to say that the ones that have endured and sustained the artists’ careers are in the minority, while the rest have languished in obscurity since their release. Of that majority are performers that came and went, sometimes achieving one-hit wonder status and currently residing in the “where are they now” file.
Some of those one-hit wonders are due to external circumstances; Jeff Buckley only had one album out before he drowned, while Robert Johnson was already dead before anyone had heard of him. There’s the hypothesis that if Elvis Presley had disappeared after only recording the Sun sessions, we’d be talking of him in much different tones today.
Then there’s Willis Alan Ramsey, a Texas singer-songwriter who recorded exactly one eponymous album nearly forty years ago, and hasn’t been in much of a rush to do another one, despite continual rumors and pleas.
The album straddles the lines between country, folk and bluegrass; you can hear Leon Russell (who plays on the album and signed him to his Shelter label) in his twangy croon, and Lyle Lovett (who idolized him and eventually collaborated with him) in his alternately wry and tender songwriting.
“Ballad Of Spider John” follows the tradition of “young guy writing as an old man” while staying original. “Muskrat Candlelight” likely kept him flush for several years, thanks to the hit versions by America and Captain & Tennille. It doesn’t induce as much wincing here, with a nice touch on the vibraphone. The jaunty “Geraldine And The Honeybee” and “Wishbone” simmer with Okie charm, followed up by “Satin Sheets”, sly and ironic considering his eventual shunning of the spotlight (best line: “Praise the Lord and pass the mescaline”). But “Goodbye Old Missoula” is the one you’ll be humming long after the side ends.
Side two is more overtly country, with the fiddle sawing through “Painted Lady”, the swampy “Watermelon Man” and the tribute to Woody Guthrie in “Boy From Oklahoma”. The super-sweet “Angel Eyes” is probably the best song ever written with that title, and to leave things on a high note, “Northeast Texas Women” puts you amidst a front porch hoe-down.
A track-by-track synopsis doesn’t suffice here, mostly because we feel we haven’t been able to do them justice. Each of the songs are striking in their own way, and Willis Alan Ramsey remains an album that any singer-songwriter would be proud of were it the only physical evidence of their work.

Willis Alan Ramsey Willis Alan Ramsey (1972)—4

Friday, November 11, 2011

Byrds 6: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

The original Byrds were now down to two: McGuinn and Hillman. Still saddled with a record contract, they regrouped with a couple of new members and some grand ideas. Instead, they followed the post-psychedelic hangover of 1968 by going back to basics. Anchored by multi-instrumentalist trust fund brat Gram Parsons, the band more or less invented country-rock with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
Neither veteran brought an original composition to the album, but being the Byrds, they do frame the set with two Bob Dylan songs (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered”) recently unearthed from the Basement Tapes. The rest are straight arrangements of traditional songs, bluegrass favorites and even an R&B cover, a wonderfully pretty “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. Throughout, the songs are colored by rolling piano, banjo, pedal steel guitar and not a single Rickenbacker. McGuinn still took center stage as the leader, and even without his old granny glasses he could still carry a tune—so much so that for either legal or personal reasons he overdubbed his lead vocal on a few tracks that were originally cut with Gram Parsons singing.
That Parsons guy tended to make a pretty big impression on everyone he met; supposedly he was the one who turned the Byrds ship into this particular harbor. “You’re Still On My Mind” is a good drinkin’ song, and “Life In Prison” fits the same stereotype. His best moments on the album are on his own songs; “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now” (even sung by McGuinn) became immediate genre classics. And although mostly relegated to bass and mandolin duties, Hillman indulges his bluegrass roots with strongly sung performances of “I Am A Pilgrim” and “Blue Canadian Rockies”.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was not an immediate hit, but became a touchstone once more rock musicians began incorporating country sounds into their work. Its importance in the history of the Byrds was underscored by the inclusion of the original Gram Parsons vocals on the three songs McGuinn tinkered with on the band’s 1990 box set. It’s also the only one of their albums to be given its own “deluxe” expansion past a single CD. The Legacy Edition includes the three Parsons vocals originally featured on the box set, along with the standard outtakes, a bunch of early Parsons tracks and a whole pile of rehearsal takes on a second disc, but ignores five of the bonus rehearsals on the 1997 CD, so completists have to have both.
The album does show something of a progression through their first five, and while the Byrds continued as a band for another five years, they really weren’t the same band. Only Roger McGuinn was left, and he built a new unit around the amazing speedy picking of a kid named Clarence White. There would be some definite highlights over the next handful of albums—“Ballad Of Easy Rider” and “Chestnut Mare” to name two—and they still maintained a rabid fan base, but people seeking the jingle-jangle sound of the original band would be disappointed. (Besides, David Crosby was doing pretty well with his new friends anyway.)

The Byrds Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)—4
1997 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 8 extra tracks
2003 Legacy Edition: same as 1967, plus 28 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Badfinger 2: No Dice

Having added the photogenic Joey Molland on lead guitar, Badfinger became a rock band (as opposed to a pop group). They weren’t able to escape the Beatle comparisons, especially being the only rock band on the Apple label, which had to promote No Dice alongside the other five Beatle solo projects that had been released in 1970. It also didn’t help when one of their songs was called “Love Me Do”, and another is a dead ringer for “Oh! Darling”.
But they do benefit from the jolt of electricity, with “I Can’t Take It” leaping from the speakers, and the stellar power pop of “No Matter What”, one of the greatest rock songs of all time, as the first single. “Better Days” chugs along amid an excellent guitar frame, and “Watford John” is a rollicking boogie-woogie.
Pete Ham starts to emerge as the hidden genius in the band, thanks to the sentimental “Midnight Caller” and the verse portion of “Without You”; the chorus was added by Tom Evans, and soon became a worldwide hit in a syrupy arrangement under Harry Nilsson’s added ache. “Blodwyn” is a nice dose of Welsh folk, and “We’re For The Dark” gets a touch of strings to help it along. Not to be outdone, drummer Mike Gibbins was responsible for the riveting “It Had To Be”.
No Dice is a decent album, and holds together as one, which is why it gets an edge in its rating. It was a moderate hit as well, partially from the Beatle connection and mostly because of “No Matter What”, and was one of the most anticipated reissues of the initial CD era. Of course, only one of the bonus tracks on that ended up on the 2010 CD, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the 12-track album proper.

Badfinger No Dice (1970)—
1992 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks
2010 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 5 extra tracks

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ben Folds 7: Songs For Silverman

It was a longish time before his second solo album. There had been a few EPs (which we’ll get to soon enough), a live album and a project for William Shatner, but a real Ben Folds album gained the stature of a grand statement in its absence. To make things even wackier, there was a core band of bass and drums on every track. So why had the Five disbanded if that was Ben’s preferred sound?
Most of the Songs For Silverman veer towards the more serious side, as opposed to the snarky geek rock that had been his hallmark for the previous decade. He gets most of the comedy out of the way early; “Bastard” might have been a self-portrait, if not a more biting portrait of Stan from the last album. Its trips through various time signatures keep you guessing. “You To Thank” is another biting portrait, this time of a marriage that perhaps shouldn’t have been celebrated. A trip through America’s heartland inspired “Jesusland”, which he soon performed with an “arena rock” arrangement on tour, but that only distracted from the song’s message, as wonderful as the sound was. The Elton John homage “Landed” is a good barometer for the sound of this album; it even had a mix with Paul Buckmaster strings to support the “Levon”-style piano approach. One of his best songs, it’s basically a phone call from someone who’s just escaped a stifling relationship. Before things get too heavy, he sings “Gracie” for his daughter, a charming lullabye with a childlike hook.
The anti-love songs continue with “Trusted”, a blunt portrait of division, and “Give Judy My Notice”, a gorgeous kiss-off. “Late” is a tribute to recently deceased songwriter Elliot Smith, and works only because of that knowledge. The remainder of the album is dedicated to some very vague songs, thick with possibility of interpretation. “Sentimental Guy” is a slight self-portrait (maybe) and “Time” gets a boost from lovely harmonies, including the voice of one Al Yankovic. The big enigma is “Prison Food”, with lyrics presumably about another impending breakup without illuminating the title; here the harmonies on the bridge resemble those of Pink Floyd (thanks to his British drummer).
Songs For Silverman takes a while to sink in, and as good as some of the individual tracks are, it does work best as a whole. Hindsight has explained a lot, as despite the loving dedication and photos of the woman, Ben was on the verge of divorcing his third(!) wife. This knowledge only makes the subject matter more uncomfortable to consider, but it’s doubtful he was trying to make his own Blood On The Tracks or Here, My Dear.

Ben Folds Songs For Silverman (2005)—

Friday, November 4, 2011

Tom Waits 12: Big Time

Despite the theatrical genesis of Franks Wild Years, it was never made into a narrative movie. Instead, Tom’s tour behind the album was filmed and cut with a few performance art pieces, and released as Big Time. With the band basically crowded around the industrial light bulb hung from his mike stand, it makes for a straining watch.
At least the music is entertaining. A smattering of selections were included on the companion soundtrack album, and provides a nice sampler of songs culled mostly from his Island tenure. In the live format, Tom’s able to emote a little more, giving some life to things like “Way Down In The Hole”, while infusing “Cold Cold Ground” and “Time” with the tenderness they deserve. Even with its jokey non sequitur prelude, “Train Song” is just as sad as its album version.
There are some departures to keep things interesting. “Red Shoes” is rescued from ‘70s obscurity, and “Strange Weather” makes its Waits debut, having already been covered by Marianne Faithfull, deep into her own Kurt Weill phase. “Falling Down” is a studio recording; nearly a pop song, we can’t help wondering if the demolished hotel mentioned in the lyrics is a reference to his old home in the Tropicana. “Telephone Call From Istanbul” is sped up, and runs away from the chorus to quote “Chantilly Lace”. Throughout, his crackerjack junkyard ensemble keeps up with his every spit and gargle.
It’s not the best representation of a Waits concert, but given that he was about to take a ten-year sabbatical from the stage, Big Time had to suffice.

Tom Waits Big Time (1988)—3
1988 CD version: same as LP, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Van Morrison 4: Tupelo Honey

Life in the sticks was certainly agreeing with Van, based on the sunny, bucolic photos adorning the sleeve of Tupelo Honey. Here we see the country squire, long-haired, bearded and developing a gut, wandering along wooded lanes with horses, his lady and a cat.
His R&B approach gets a little country color, thanks to the occasional appearance of a pedal steel guitar, but it still has to cut through the Caledonia soul. “Wild Night” was the big hit, with its percolating bass line, but it’s “Straight To Your Heart (Like A Cannonball)” that grabs your ears. “Old Old Woodstock” and “Starting A New Life” celebrate home and family, and “You’re My Woman” is an overt love song, building from basic verses to the repetitive cadences that would pepper his live performances.
The lovely title track is a high point, and it’s a credit to its simplicity that we only just noticed that it’s melodically identical to “Crazy Love” from Moondance (Van’s “conceptual continuity” rivaling that of Frank Zappa). “I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)” is even happier still, while “When That Evening Sun Goes Down” manages to distill Nashville Skyline into three minutes. There’s even something of an epic finale in “Moonshine Whiskey”, which alternates between a barn dance waltz and an uptempo jig, revving up for the big finish.
Listening to the album, one doesn’t hear any echoes of the discomfort that began to set in following the end of the Sixties. Instead, life seemed pretty good. As happy as Tupelo Honey is, Van apparently didn’t enjoy making the album, as he had just moved to Marin County, leaving Old Old Woodstock to the hippies who didn’t have a map to Max Yasgur’s farm. He doth protest too much, because he certainly sounds in the mood for love here.

Van Morrison Tupelo Honey (1971)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, October 31, 2011

R.E.M. 10: Monster

Their audience was growing up, and that sometimes means things get left behind. Looking back we really do think that R.E.M.’s rot set in when Michael Stipe started shaving his head—sometime between the last video filmed for Automatic For The People and the first video filmed for its highly anticipated and ultimately disappointing follow-up.
Full disclosure: the first thing we heard from this album was catching the last few seconds of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” on MTV, back when they used to play music videos in between Rocking the Vote and Real World marathons. The thing is, we didn’t know it was R.E.M; we saw the bald guy and just assumed it was Midnight Oil.
It was, and still is a pretty good tune, complete with garbled lyrics and a backwards guitar solo. It certainly rocks, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Monster is a striking contrast to its mostly acoustic predecessor, and it’s been suggested that the deaths of friends Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix fueled the anger that inspired them to turn up the volume. Whatever the truth is, the album is an assault, and it hurts.
The same tremolo guitar continues throughout the album, starting with “Crush With Eyeliner” and its unfortunate cameo by Thurston Moore, itself a gesture that if you don’t get it, you’re just not cool. “King Of Comedy” sputters along with a monotonic vocal and flat drumming. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” sounds like a work in progress, with typical arpeggios and a lack of melody. “Star 69” is a step in the right direction, a straight-ahead punk rocker with a title that too many people get, lessening any mystery. Critics pointed to “Strange Currencies” as a relative of “Everybody Hurts”, which is lazy. It appears to be something of a love song.
The same can be said for “Tongue”, sung in an unfortunate falsetto over piano and organ. It wanders along before finally petering out. “Bang And Blame” is the bastard child of “Losing My Religion” and “Orange Crush”, which is probably why it’s catchy. (Actually, we wouldn’t mind hearing more of the snippet that appears before the next song, “I Took Your Name”, which sounds too much like everything else on the album.) “Let Me In” is supposed to be the Cobain tribute, but why aren’t there any drums? “Circus Envy” would benefit from a mix that reduces the snottiness quotient on the guitars. “You” is a decent closer (they were always good at those) but again, the pulsating fuzz is a distraction.
We’re not alone in our disdain of Monster; you can find several duplicate copies of it in any used CD rack. We have tried to like this album and have failed miserably. It’s possible that these songs would stand out better if they weren’t all on the same album; taken all together they make a noisy mess. There are people who still stand behind this album, but we can’t.

R.E.M. Monster (1994)—2

Friday, October 28, 2011

William Shatner: The Transformed Man and Has Been

There are several theories as to how it happened, but whatever the real story, William Shatner did indeed record an album at the height of Star Trek’s original prime-time run. Unlike other TV stars, he didn’t attempt to sing on the album, instead using his theater-trained voice to recite words over a not-so-hip backing. (By contrast, Leonard Nimoy put out five albums in the late ‘60s, and sang on each one of them.)
Shatner intended The Transformed Man to explain a journey of sorts, illustrated by juxtapositions of poetry and Shakespeare soliloquys with modern pop lyrics. The theater pieces are pompous enough, but he sounds a little drunk on “It Was A Very Good Year” and “How Insensitive”, and downright crazed on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (still the greatest-ever version of that song, if only for the final three seconds).
The album wasn’t a hit in the slightest, but gained notoriety over the years as an example of what ego and possible proximity to hallucinogenics can achieve. Once Rhino Records included a couple of tracks on their first Golden Throats album of actors singing badly, it was plucked from obscurity, much to its creator’s chagrin.
So is it really a bad album? That’s a matter of opinion. We feel that it belongs in the “so bad it’s good” category, and used to enjoy playing it on late nights at the CD store to see what customers would stay and who would leave. (The same experiment was performed using Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.)

Once Bill decided to embrace his camp status, he started making the rounds of snarky comedy shows working his monologue magic, and used his status as the Priceline spokesman to do a series of ads in a faux-coffeehouse setting with Ben Folds in the band behind him. When he was approached by a Rhino offshoot to do another album, Shatner turned the tables by not only agreeing, but embracing the chance to make a sequel of sorts.
Has Been once again features the man on the microphone, but speaking mostly his own words. Ben Folds produced the album, wrote the music, and fostered the other selections—like the opening track, a hilarious cover of Pulp’s “Common People” that turns into a duet with Joe Jackson halfway through. Brad Paisley stopped writing songs about fishing long enough to contribute “Real”, a profound meditation on public image. And novelist Nick Hornby provided the lyric for the melancholy “That’s Me Trying”, one side of a conversation with an estranged daughter with choruses filled out by Folds and Aimee Mann.
In fact, most of Shatner’s lyrics reflect his thoughts about aging and his own fame, particularly on “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, “You’ll Have Time” and the goofy title track. A trio of songs about romance follow the harrowing “What Have You Done?”, wherein he recounts discovering his wife’s drowned corpse in their swimming pool. “I Can’t Get Behind That”, a rant shouted with Henry Rollins, provides excellent comic relief.
Half of Has Been is great, and the rest not so, but where else can you hear Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins and Bill Shatner in the same place? Best of all, it gives the man a chance to rise above the caricatures and actually move the listener.

William Shatner The Transformed Man (1968)—3
William Shatner Has Been (2004)—3

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Byrds 5: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The band’s fifth album in three years shows the Byrds to be something of a parallel to the Rolling Stones at the time. (Wait just a second and we’ll explain.) Just as Younger Than Yesterday and Between The Buttons came out in that netherland of 1967 before Sgt. Pepper, The Notorious Byrd Brothers documents the down side of the Summer of Love, as did Their Satanic Majesties Request. (See? That wasn’t such a stretch, was it?)
One truly notorious aspect of this album even has its own page on Snopes, the urban legend debunking website. David Crosby was fired from the band before the album was finished, and while he does appear on it, the cover only shows Hillman, McGuinn, Clarke and a horse. Crosby insists the horse was there deliberately to represent him, but we have to agree with McGuinn, who said that if it was really intentional, the other end of the horse would have been depicted.
But even more notorious is that while many pundits have gone out of their way to praise this album as a masterpiece, we’re not going to do that. The album is forced and disjointed, and too many of the songs sound too much alike for them to stand out, with a few exceptions that only underscore the shakiness of the set.
“Artificial Energy” sports acidic horns and a sped-up vocal for a song explicitly about drugs, but the real Byrds-like emerges in “Goin’ Back”, a wistful wish for the simplicity of childhood from the pens of Goffin and King. Chris Hillman’s “Natural Harmony” ends up sounding more like the Crosby songs on the album, which we’ll get to soon. “Draft Morning” is a better contrast to “Goin’ Back”, in its explicit glimpse of a soldier in the trenches; the sound effects are a matter of personal taste. The defiant stance continues in “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, another Goffin/King song and one that would become something of a hippie anthem. After the sound of a slamming door, McGuinn comes in to sing a baroque ode to London in “Get To You”.
Many of the songs on the first side are cross-faded, and that continues on the second. “Change Is Now” is a basic drone around the 12-string, with a double-time detour through a pedal-steel. “Old John Robertson” is included in a different mix than on the single, and it only underscores the exclusion of “Lady Friend”, for no other reason than to spite Crosby. Instead, he’s represented by “Tribal Gathering”, a pale rewrite of “Renaissance Fair”, and “Dolphin’s Smile”, the brevity of which doesn’t hint at the struggles they had recording it. (Seven minutes of an argument among the band members while they were trying to figure out how to play the damn thing are hidden at the end of the expanded CD. They all end up sounding like a-holes, and Mike Clarke’s ambivalence explains why Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon are credited with drums on the album.) And of course, McGuinn had to include another sci-fi song in the form of “Space Odyssey”, which beat out the Kubrick film by about three months, and sported the prominent use of a Moog synthesizer.
Considering how much struggle went into recording the album, it’s a shame there aren’t more interesting outtakes on the expanded CD. Beyond a Moog instrumental and a take of a song Chris Hillman would use in a later collaboration, plus a couple of alternate takes, the biggest revelation is Crosby’s classic “Triad”, which would never make it to one of his own albums until a live recording with his next band. But that’s another story. We still can’t point to The Notorious Byrd Brothers as the Byrds’ best, especially considering what was coming next. It remains a shaky collection of stubborn songs.

The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)—
1997 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 6 extra tracks

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tom Waits 11: Franks Wild Years

Soon after releasing Rain Dogs, Tom threw himself into a new form of expression. In between a couple of arty film roles, he worked on expanding one transitional track from Swordfishtrombones into a full-fledged musical play—with actors and everything—telling the story of the rise and fall of a shifty guy named Frank. By the time it became an album, Franks Wild Years had evolved from the story as seen briefly on a Chicago stage to a hard-to-follow album that relied more on sound than narrative.
A key part of his arsenal now included a miniature bullhorn, which combined with his falsetto to make the lyrics even raspier. “Hang On St. Christopher” opens the album in another automobile, giving way to the first of two versions of “Straight To The Top”. “Blow Wind Blow” has a clean production for a change, but the Captain Beefheart influence turns “Temptation” into a nightmare. The first thing approaching a classic is “Innocent When You Dream”, first heard in a “barroom” arrangement to accent its singalong quality. “I’ll Be Gone” relies too much on a rooster for its percussion. “Yesterday Is Here” is nice and simple, mostly around his own reverbed guitar, but then he wanders around the flute setting on a Mellotron for about a minute to bury the melody of “Please Wake Me Up”, eventually giving way to a much dreamier organ solo. “Franks Theme” (for some reason he doesn’t rate an apostrophe) ends the first act with a prayer for a decent night’s sleep.
“More Than Rain” has been more effectively covered by others; here it sounds like he’s singing along to an acetate. “Way Down In The Hole” is a preacher’s rant over a single bass line and the same two saxophone notes, but with wonderfully typical Marc Ribot guitar solos. He does a wonderful attempt at Sinatra phrasing, and nearly the tone, on the “Vegas” version of “Straight To The Top”, which builds up to a grand crescendo before the nightmare returns on the organ and the Ethel Mermanisms of “I’ll Take New York”. It’s never been clear what “Telephone Call From Istanbul” has to do with anything, but it wins points for the following couplets: “Will you sell me one of those if I shave my head/Get me out of town is what Fireball said/Never trust a man in a blue trench coat/Never drive a car when you're dead”. We also like the too-short organ solo. “Cold Cold Ground” seems like a title he would have used already, but here it’s a nice little country song. He finally returns to the piano for the hapless “Train Song”, and “Innocent When You Dream” returns on a 78 to remind us of all that’s been lost.
It could be that the parts of Franks Wild Years are greater than the whole, but coming after the excellence of his last two albums, it was something of a letdown. We were told there was a story in between the songs, but how Frank went from burning his house down to bragging of fame and fortune before dying on a park bench doesn’t come through. (Plus, he’d already summed up the whole arc better and briefer in “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”.)

Tom Waits Franks Wild Years (1987)—2

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lou Reed 18: New York

Despite the mild increase of interest in the Velvet Underground, Lou spent much of the ‘80s mostly underwhelming listeners with so-so albums. 1984’s joyously stupid single “I Love You Suzanne” and even a track on the fairly commercial White Nights soundtrack notwithstanding, most people in those days would have best associated him with a TV ad for Honda scooters.
Therefore, it was easy to be skeptical of New York—until you heard it. It was an especially big deal on a radio station like the late great WNEW-FM, who played it cut by cut with the man in the studio one night, even taking calls from listeners. (The lucky few who tuned in for the whole broadcast may recall hearing the last caller they took on the air, nervously gushing about Lou’s work, stumbling through a question about Lester Bangs and thanking him for writing “Sad Song”. “Oh, thanks, that’s one I like too,” said Lou.)
Following the lead of previous returns to form, the music consisted of his guitar in one speaker, another in the other, plus bass and drums. The lyrics read like the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and are still as clever as they were timely. It’s allegedly sequenced in the order the songs were recorded, and designed to be listened to in one sitting. It helps, of course, that the songs are so good that they don’t merely combine for an onslaught of negativity. Much of it sports the grime and grit of the city’s streets, but there’s some tenderness in there too.
With a couple of chords captured mid-strum, “Romeo Had Juliette” mixes a street romance with criminal commentary, then it’s off to the “Halloween Parade”, which explicitly points out the effects of AIDS on the city. “Dirty Blvd.” was the single, and includes the album’s first reference to “the Statue of Bigotry”; the poetry is continued on the metronomic “Endless Cycle”. He finally turns it up for “There Is No Time”, a call for revolution. (Another highlight of his radio visit was his suggestion that reviving public hangings in Central Park would be an excellent crime deterrent.) Environmental concerns dominate the quieter “Last Great American Whale”, complete with Moe Tucker on percussion. And the frightening concept of Lou as a dad is broached for “Beginning Of A Great Adventure”.
Generally a list is a lazy lyric, but “Busload Of Faith” works as both a song and a message. “Sick Of You” is a twisted look at the news that’s not as outlandish as it could be, particularly in comparison to the tensions chronicled in “Hold On”. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” covers the hypocrisy of racism, not only from the gentleman in the title but from the Pope and Jesse Jackson. The plight of the homeless Vietnam vet is raised for “Xmas In February”, and he summons all his anger for “Strawman”. “Dime Store Mystery” provides a striking finale, comparing the last thoughts of Andy Warhol to those of Jesus Christ as depicted in a recent Scorsese film.
Any summary of the album will fall short of the sensory experience, of course. A lot of rock legends put out albums in 1989 that re-established them commercially and critically, but not only was New York one of the first albums released that year, it was also one of the best. He kept it simple and he kept it real. Amazingly—and sadly—the lyrical content doesn’t seem dated at all. His new label was pretty pleased with it too.

Lou Reed New York (1989)—5