Monday, January 31, 2011

Tom Waits 5: Foreign Affairs

Tom Waits’ capabilities as a storyteller continued on Foreign Affairs, which follows many of the approaches of Small Change. Drunken stumbles alternate with sweet melodies and truly unique turns of phrase.
The simple “Cinny’s Waltz” is a nice instrumental before the barroom lament for “Muriel”. But whatever he felt for that girl doesn’t keep him from hitting on Bette Midler throughout “I Never Talk To Strangers”. The duet goes flat a few times, but it’s still a masterful stream of conversation. Something of a detour occurs with the evocation of On The Road in “Jack & Neal”, its story swaggering into a chorus from “California Here I Come”. But after all that he’s still stuck in the bar, raising a glass alongside “A Sight For Sore Eyes” who just walked in.
The truly cinematic “Potter’s Field” is a nearly nine-minute monologue scored like a movie, complete with dramatic pauses and crescendos. Not the easiest of listening, but truly fascinating. Even more successful is “Burma Shave”, a tale of two people escaping nowhere only to find their common doom, with a simple bluesy piano punctuated only at the end by a startling trumpet. The mood is unfortunately broken by “Barber Shop”, one of the few Waits songs that seems to take place in daylight. Instead of the bar, here the old-timers meet for a haircut. The closing near title track, however, is one of his greatest pieces of poetry, bearing little of the weight of slang, but evoking the wonder of wanderlust.
Ultimately, Foreign Affairs finds Waits beginning to repeat himself, just as it can be tiring to listen to the same old drunk. But such experiments as “Potter’s Field” and “Burma Shave” show that he had the potential to develop, and maybe he was meant to be in movies after all.

Tom Waits Foreign Affairs (1977)—3

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pete Yorn: Musicforthemorningafter

Once college alternative stopped being either, it became harder to pigeonhole different bands by a catch-all label. So how can we describe Pete Yorn, a handsome singer-songwriter from New Jersey who doesn’t overtly sound like Bruce Springsteen (or John Bongiovi, for that matter)? It might be mainstream rock, if that existed anymore. He’s not whiny or histrionic enough to be considered emo. In another time he might have been considered to be folk-rock, with a pendulum that swings pretty deep into either camp.
Whatever you want to call him, there’s no denying that Musicforthemorningafter, his debut album, is damn catchy. Largely a one-man band affair, it was recorded with a handful of friends swapping the guitars, basses, drums and keyboards, but without sounding like a homemade job. Real drums mix with programmed sounds for a full spectrum of sound, and each of the tracks is as unique as the typefaces used for the lyrics of each of the songs.
The first three tracks alone deliver a solid beginning: the chugging “Life On A Chain”, “Strange Condition”, which goes through an early key modulation without rushing, and “Just Another” with its achy chorus guaranteed to make the girls swoon. Among the other highlights are the woozy “Lose You”, “On Your Side” (popular for scene changes on any number of MTV reality shows) and the closing “Simonize”, which manages to channel the ghost of Chris Bell, predicting his cover of “I Am The Cosmos” by eight years.
And those are the best ones—we haven’t even mentioned “Murray” or “For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is)” or “June”. All the tunes are toe-tappingly memorable, with lyrics alternately obtuse and direct, so that to best demonstrate the appeal of this album, you’ll most likely reach for the play button once the silence kicks in at the CD’s end. But of course, there’s a hidden track, so if you’re not careful you could miss it. Or not.
As good as Musicforthemorningafter is, it’s possible he put all his best eggs in that first basket. 2003’s Day I Forgot had its moments, but the third part of the so-called trilogy, Nightcrawler, had nothing to offer outside a faithful cover of Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation”. His next two albums have been largely ignored in favor of the collaboration with Scarlett Johansson, who’s a lot easier on the eyes than she is the ears.
A 10th Anniversary Edition of Musicforthemorningafter was released in 2011, with a second disc full of a radio performance and some rarities. But as long as the original can be found in your local used CD bin, there’s really no need to go all out.

Pete Yorn Musicforthemorningafter (2001)—4

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Roger Waters 1: The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking

Immediately after unleashing The Final Cut, Roger went back to the studio to record his first solo album, originally concocted back before The Wall. What eventually emerged as The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking had been rejected by the other Floyds as “too personal”, and no matter how many times one listens to it, they were right.
At least the concept is intriguing: following the dream/nightmares of a man in the pre-dawn hours, presented in real time, and each of the songs is time-stamped. For roughly 42 minutes Roger muses over the same I-iv motif in 12/8 meter; sound effects and dialogue snippets abound, and if there’s a story in here, it’s not linear. He’s driving with his wife, they pick up a pair of hitchhikers and he attempts intercourse with one of them. His guilt is repaid by an attack by Arab terrorists who assault his wife, so he imagines himself away at Oktoberfest. He makes an attempt to save his marriage by moving out to the country, which soon goes awry. Then poof! He himself is a hitchhiker, eventually realizes that his problems aren’t that different from the rest of humanity, feels better, wakes up scared and is relieved to find his wife sleeping by his side.
With only a few exceptions, it’s one long song. Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder said it best: “You could count the actual melodies here on Mickey Mouse’s fingers.” The ones that stand out are recycled from “Mother”, “The Final Cut”, “In The Flesh” and “The Fletcher Memorial Home”, and the effect isn’t so much clever self-reference but laziness and lack of inspiration. “Sexual Revolution” attempts to provide a beat, but it turns out this was a Wall reject. He delivers “Go Fishing” so histrionically it’s no wonder she left him in the country. The title track is catchy, but the cryptic references to Yoko Ono, Dick Tracy and Shane only make it seem like another dream. The song everyone likes is “Every Stranger’s Eyes”, which is mostly one of his litany lists, but has enough of a decent backing to make it soar.
At least the album is “Floydian” in its presentation. He uses most of the supporting players from The Final Cut, with the key additions of Eric Clapton (for a Strat tone, and a thumb of the nose to David Gilmour) and David Sanborn, whose squawking sax underscores his discomfort anytime thinks get dark. He took Clapton on the road to present the album and key songs from his past in a multimedia extravaganza. But ultimately, The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking is just plain uncomfortable, leaving the listener in a bad mood and likely to lash out at unsuspecting friends and family. And if anyone can explain what exactly those pros and cons are, we’d love to know.

Roger Waters The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking (1984)—2

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

David Gilmour 2: About Face

In the year following the last Floyd album, the band’s two creative leads took their own paths away from the band. Roger Waters recorded his first bona fide solo album, The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking, an impenetrable song cycle about a nightmare in real time, most notable for featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar throughout, along with all the non-Floyd musicians from The Final Cut.
David Gilmour’s own album was, as would be expected, much more accessible. About Face is simply a collection of songs that resembled his band’s more radio-friendly moments. A variety of session cats provide the support, and Floydian touches persist, particularly on the intentionally overblown instrumental “Let’s Get Metaphysical”, where his distorto guitar is backed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
In general, the songwriting is much more consistent than the alternating vocals and instrumentals of his first solo album. In fact, two tracks feature lyrics by Pete Townshend, just to be on the safe side. “Love On The Air” is almost romantic, with a pretty melody and typically obtuse concept, while “All Lovers Are Deranged” is an all-out rocker.
There’s a good deal of breadth on the album as well. “Murder” takes a plaintive English folk melody and extends it into one of the better songs about the death of John Lennon. Another highlight, “You Know I’m Right”, is a clever slap at Roger that eerily predicts his behavior by a few years. Just to show that Roger wasn’t the only one concerned about war and mortality, “Cruise”, “Near The End” and “Out Of The Blue” consider the futility of life from a variety of angles.
Unfortunately, About Face does suffer from the polish common to many ‘80s albums, particularly on the synth-heavy “Until We Sleep”, and “Blue Light”, which has way too many horns. But as a product, a listenable album that’s worth playing, fans wouldn’t be disappointed.

David Gilmour About Face (1984)—

Monday, January 24, 2011

Led Zeppelin 13: How The West Was Won

Ever since The Song Remains The Same soundtrack was released, Jimmy Page had talked about possibly putting together a live album that he felt would better represent the band in concert. But for the longest time, there were only those 1973 performances, one song on Coda and one on the box set to demonstrate the band’s live show. Then, BBC Sessions filled in the gaps bigtime with recordings from 1969 and 1971.
Perhaps due to the daunting task of going through so many different tapes—as the plethora of bootlegs covering the band’s career certainly attests—Page decided to limit such an overview to filmed performances to make up a deluxe retrospective DVD package. While mixing the sound for those, he came across two shows recorded on the 1972 American tour, just after they’d finished recording Houses Of The Holy. The result was How The West Was Won.
While both shows are sourced over three CDs, the sequencing results in a much more enjoyable listening experience than The Song Remains The Same had. Starting with “LA Drone” as a kind of fanfare, the band kicks into “Immigrant Song” and doesn’t let up. “Stairway To Heaven” hadn’t worn out its welcome yet, and the acoustic songs that close the first disc are both intimate and fun. The second disc is dominated by a mammoth “Dazed And Confused”, which includes substantial explorations of “Walter’s Walk” and “The Crunge”, and a lengthy “Moby Dick”. “Whole Lotta Love” with an R&B medley starts the third disc, but three shorter songs end the proceedings.
How The West Was Won is a wonderful album, and a very pleasant surprise, if sparsely packaged, but a nice surprise (along with the DVD, which is just as essential for fanatics). The band sounds in mostly good spirits throughout, and sound especially enthusiastic about the new songs that would eventually appear on Houses Of The Holy the following year. Best of all, Page and Bonham had yet to be debilitated by the drugs and alcohol that affected later tours. If this is the only archival live recording Page will authorize, it will do just fine.

Led Zeppelin How The West Was Won (2003)—4

Friday, January 21, 2011

David Bowie 30: Bowie At The Beeb and All Saints

As many artists had seen their old BBC Radio performances repackaged for consumers throughout the ‘90s, Bowie was an obvious candidate for similar treatment, having made several appearances on the station on his way up to discovering himself. A sampler appeared earlier in the decade (right around the time of various issues of the Santa Monica radio simulcast from 1972), but it wasn’t until 2000 when the real thing appeared.
Bowie At The Beeb is an impressive collection, with two full discs offering selections from all his known (and available) radio appearances, starting from the pre-Ziggy era and moving all the way up to the heyday, with only a few omissions for contextual sake. (There was a glitch on the first copies, which had the same version of “Ziggy Stardust” included twice; the label thoughtfully sent a single-track CD with the correct version to anyone who e-mailed a request for one.) If anything, it may give people reason to seek out some of those early albums.
In addition, most of an excellent fan-club performance from 2000 was included as a bonus of sorts on set’s initial release. With a crackerjack band helping cover his entire career, and even including some odd choices as “This Is Not America” and “Absolute Beginners”, it puts his work in a new light.

Bowie also took the opportunity of a new century to look back in another way. Having already marketed separate hits collections roughly covering the periods previously summarized by the Changes albums, his more obscure instrumental work was highlighted on All Saints. This interesting idea stemmed from a Christmas gift the man himself gave to friends a few years earlier; while that was a two-disc set, the official version collected the key tracks from Low and “Heroes”, along with surprises from The Buddha Of Suburbia, bonus tracks from the Berlin era and even one of the movements from the Low Symphony as interpreted by Philip Glass. The result was a disc full of background music, and that’s meant in a good way.

David Bowie Bowie At The Beeb (2000)—
David Bowie All Saints (2001)—4

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Robyn Hitchcock 13: You & Oblivion

The Egyptians quietly disbanded following the tour supporting Respect. Something of a farewell snuck out as The Kershaw Sessions, a collection of performances for BBC Radio going back to the mid-‘80s. Some of these tunes are pleasant variations on the album versions, and many of the later ones incorporate the “acoustic techno” format of the ‘90s. Two unreleased covers—Bob Dylan’s “Open The Door, Homer” and an a cappella “Banana Boat Song”—plus the extended live intro on “Madonna Of The Wasps” make it nice to have.
Then, in 1995, Rhino embarked upon a daring program reissuing all of Robyn’s pre-A&M albums (plus Eye), fleshed out with bonus tracks, remixes and liner notes. In addition to cleaning up what had become an unwieldy catalog spread across various labels and editions, the most exciting and enduring development out of the reissue series was You & Oblivion, which presents 22 generally unknown songs, recorded mostly solo and acoustic, some as demos and some not, in the early to mid-‘80s. It doesn’t have a green cover, but it might as well, seeing as it fits alongside I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye for pleasant listening.
“You’ve Got” starts nice, with great lyrics, as does “Don’t You”. “Birdshead”, which had been heard previously as a live B-side, has Peter Buck’s guitar, while “She Reached For A Light” basically an experiment to write a song with one chord. “Victorian Squid” borders on hilarious, yet “Captain Dry” would be better presented as “Clean Steve”. “Mr. Rock ‘N’ Roll” has a foreboding melody surpassed by the lovely “August Hair”. “Take Your Knife Out Of My Back” is another in a long line of great titles, only this time the song lives up to it. “Surgery” was available occasionally as a magazine flexi-disc, but it still sounds unfinished.
While not credited as such “Polly On The Shore” is an old sea chantey, which finds a close relative in “Fiend Before The Shrine” two tracks later. Meanwhile, “Aether” starts a sequence of several weaker songs, though there’s a good line in “Keeping Still” about chickens wanting human soup, and the gorgeous “September Cones” and “Ghost Ship” (continuing the sea theme, and previously heard as a snippet on Globe Of Frogs) are two absolute gems.
Despite running out of steam at the end, there’s a plethora of riches here, all of which sound contemporary to each other, though that subliminal child’s voice, mixed low betwixt the tracks, can be unsettling at times.
When Yep Roc picked up the catalog twelve years later, You & Oblivion was not included, and all but nine of the tracks were farmed out as bonus tracks to various albums, making it something of a deleted collector’s item. Which was pretty much the opposite of what Rhino had tried to do with their reissue campaign.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians The Kershaw Sessions (1994)—
Robyn Hitchcock You & Oblivion (1995)—4
Current CD availability: none

Monday, January 17, 2011

Tom Waits 4: Small Change

His confidence bolstered by a European tour and increasing accolades, the next Tom Waits album proved to be his best yet. Small Change continued the barroom feel, with a healthy supply of Beat references and, for the first time, full orchestration on some tracks.
Immediately, the sound on the opening track is a departure. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is less commonly known by its subtitle (“Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen”) than its chorus, which borrows from the Australian standard “Waltzing Matilda”. The song, with its gorgeous string accompaniment, wanders through vivid imagery thanks to the poetry of the lyrics. “Step Right Up” is a trip in the other direction, its content spat out like the late-night TV commercials from which the words are derived. It’s back to the bar for “Jitterbug Boy”, a rambling monologue of a braggart, before “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” brings back the dreamer from “San Diego Serenade”. All of the sides styles collide in the fabulous “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”, juxtaposing the puns from Nighthawks At The Diner with a genius backing.
Side two mirrors the first slightly, beginning with the tearjerking “Invitation To The Blues”. Part conversation and part observation, it’s a perfect portrait of a loser falling in love with a waitress. Speaking of which, “Pasties And A G-String” follows the narrator out of the bar next door to the strip club, embodied by the type depicted on the album cover. Suitably rebuffed, he returns to the rail to boast of a “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart”, in between an odd quote from “As Time Goes By”, and “The One That Got Away” is lamented by a finger-snapping hipster. A murder scene leads to a vivid description of the surrounding neighborhood in the title track, but rather than end on such a down note, the hopeful “I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work” shows another side of the type of person who might be up in the pre-dawn hours.
The songs on Small Change may cover a lot of the same territory, but Waits makes up for it with enough variety in the arrangements. In the process he set himself a standard that would be tough to maintain for a career, but for now, he’d recorded his best album.

Tom Waits Small Change (1976)—4

Friday, January 14, 2011

U2 13: All That You Can’t Leave Behind

After a decade of dance experiments, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was hailed upon release for being something of a return to U2’s straight rock sound. That should have been a good thing for longtime fans tired of sifting through remixes in search of a decent song. But while the album definitely sounded like the U2 of old, unfortunately it sounds a little too much like the U2 of old.
The boys are still masters of track sequencing, starting off with “Beautiful Day”, an okay single that somehow got swept up into post-9/11 patriotism. Dangling preposition aside, “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” is up there with their best, something of a “Don’t Give Up” for the new millennium. “Elevation” is a fun one, even though the delivery of the words (“a MOLE/digging in a HOLE”) reminds us of an old Bloom County strip we’ll link to as soon as we can find it online. “Walk On” and “Kite” reach for that big stadium sound, the former another statement of support, and the latter an acknowledgement of the passage of time.
The rest of the album pretty much plummets from there. “In A Little While” takes a Hendrixian riff, the type Pearl Jam would use, and stretches it into little more than a demo. “Wild Honey” is another departure, a mostly acoustic duet for Bono and The Edge. “Peace On Earth” might have made it as a Christmas song, but the lyrics are too pointedly connected to a genocide to be a radio staple. Similarly, “When I Look At The World” is just too sappy. “New York” should have been left to Lou Reed, while “Grace”, the quiet finale, sounds more like a Daniel Lanois track (after all, he coproduced the album with Brian Eno) than a U2 composition.
Even if the boys were “normal” again, there’s still plenty of posing in everything that comes out of Bono’s mouth. His voice sounds weary on most of the tracks, and the lyrics just aren’t there. Maybe they were tired of trying to turn the music world on its ear. They certainly can’t be blamed for that. All That You Can’t Leave Behind fills the prescription just fine, and was rewarded with steady sales, sellout shows and raves from fans. But in the end, the album is just plain ordinary, and that’s something we never expected to say about U2.

U2 All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)—3

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pink Floyd 15: The Final Cut

Roger’s irritation over the way the film version of The Wall came out was soon trumped by his rage over the Falklands War. The pent-up emotions he had reliving his father’s death in World War II on the big screen had already spilled into the new music he’d provided for the film, which then expanded into a song cycle recorded and released as the next Pink Floyd album.
Or was it? The Final Cut is basically a Waters solo album featuring contributions by David Gilmour and Nick Mason, Rick Wright having been jettisoned as soon as they finished the Wall tour. Much of the music is slow and mournful, as one might expect from a requiem, Roger’s cutting vocals often supported simply by piano, an acoustic guitar and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. But there’s enough Gilmour on guitar scattered throughout to remind you whose name is on the spine of the jacket.
As happened with The Wall, the album uses lots of sound effects to help illustrate the story somewhat. “The Post War Dream” rumbles in over the news on a radio broadcast to indict “Maggie” Thatcher for both starting the war as well as allowing British warships to be built in Japan instead of at home. (Clearly, there’s no pleasing this guy.) “Your Possible Pasts”, “One Of The Few” and “The Hero’s Return” are sung from the point of view of the schoolmaster in The Wall, but that isn’t exactly clear until you’ve seen the promo clips for the album. Once that starts to sink in, it’s easier to appreciate “The Gunner’s Dream”, which documents the final thoughts of a soldier as he’s blown out of the sky. As the last notes fade and follow us into the pub round the corner, “Paranoid Eyes” only underscores the lingering pain.
An excellent demonstration of the sonic details on display comes in “Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert”, followed by a near-nursery rhyme, which leads into the horror of “The Fletcher Memorial Home”. In something of a twist on Dylan’s “Masters Of War”, Roger imagines all these corrupt leaders being housed in an old-folks’ home, before subjecting them to Hitler’s Final Solution. Besides being one of the more memorable songs on the album, Gilmour’s solo is suitably wrenching. “Southampton Dock” provides something of an interlude into the title track, wherein Roger talks directly to the audience (or his shrink, as the video would suggest) and suggests that tearing down the wall on the last album didn’t solve any of his neuroses. Then, quite rudely, “Not Now John” interrupts with Gilmour’s only vocal on the album, a hard Floydian rocker from the point of view of factory workers, with wonderfully out-of-place female backing vocals and ending with another Waters list. The comparatively pastoral “Two Suns In The Sunset” imagines the end coming in the form of a nuclear explosion.
The Final Cut is not easy listening in the slightest, dripping as it does with anger and tears, but it would arguably be the last time Roger came up with a concept so accessible while being so personal. Over time the strengths of the album emerge, as do the recurring musical themes that tie the songs together. And even if the other two guys in the band felt like afterthoughts, they certainly gave it their all.
While some may consider it tampering, the current CD version includes “When The Tigers Broke Free” from the film of The Wall inserted in the middle of what used to be side one. The song had finally appeared on the Echoes compilation, but its inclusion on The Final Cut is fitting, as it details the actual events surrounding the death of Roger’s “Daddy” on the beaches of Anzio. While very slow, the lyrics are as matter-of-fact as they are heartbreaking.

Pink Floyd The Final Cut (1983)—4
2004 CD rerelease: same as 1983, plus 1 extra track

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pink Floyd 14: Great Dance Songs, Works and Echoes

The chronology thus far makes this a good place to discuss the various Pink Floyd collections that have cropped up over the years. For a band who thrived as much as they did in the album format, one could be forgiven for thinking that a “greatest hits” album may not be the easiest thing to compile, but compile they did. And did. And did again.

Following the success of The Wall, the Floyd’s current label decided to put out a hits album of sorts. Cheekily titled A Collection Of Great Dance Songs, it’s something of an arbitrary collection of album tracks that may have been familiar to FM radio listeners. Starting with “One Of These Days” from Meddle, it sports a re-recording of “Money” and the complete “Sheep” from Animals. An excellent edit of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” covers most of the first half to include all the verses before fading into “Wish You Were Here”. And “Another Brick In The Wall (Part II)” features the clean opening plus the schoolmaster’s coda. Yet despite the alternate mixes, it’s basically a sampler, and not a replacement for the LPs.

Not to be outdone, the band’s former American label soon put out Works, which also begins with “One Of These Days” before traveling back to the Syd days of “See Emily Play” and “Arnold Layne”. “Fearless” and “Free Four” show off their jaunty acoustic side, while “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Several Species Of Furry Animals” appeal to the freaks. “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” oddly end the first side, and the true rarity “Embryo” closes the set. That, plus various crossfades and alternate mixes make it interesting for fans, while newcomers will enjoy the earlier, lesser-known tracks.

While the band members fought with each other through the nineties, their entry in the box set category was simply Shine On, which offered seven of their thirteen albums to date, plus the exclusive Early Singles, half of which had appeared on Relics. A much better overview of the band came in 2001 with the release of Echoes, offering over two-and-a-half hours of Floyd classics and deep cuts, some edited and/or crossfaded, covering nearly all the bases. Syd is featured on five tracks (as well as opening and closing the set), there are a few cuts from the two post-Roger albums, and there’s even the first CD appearance of “When The Tigers Broke Free” from the film of The Wall.

When the band started reissuing the albums again—and in some cases, expanding them—ten years later, a single-disc best of was commissioned, cheekily titled A Foot In The Door. Naturally it leans heavily on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, plus “See Emily Play” and a track each from the two non-Waters albums. The strangest inclusion is “The Fletcher Memorial Home”; a great song, but hardly a radio-friendly toe-tapper. Of all the compilations, Echoes is still the best place to start. (Of course, you could also go whole hog with either of two box sets of all fourteen studio albums, released only four years apart.)

Pink Floyd A Collection Of Great Dance Songs (1981)—3
Pink Floyd Works (1983)—4
Pink Floyd Shine On (1992)—4
Pink Floyd Echoes: The Best Of Pink Floyd (2001)—4
Pink Floyd The Best Of Pink Floyd: A Foot In The Door (2011)—

Friday, January 7, 2011

Tom Waits 3: Nighthawks At The Diner

As Tom’s reputation grew, part of his early dues involved warming up for such people as Frank Zappa, who had about as much use for him as the audience did. But he did gain attention as something of a comedian, a raconteur, and a real character. So he recorded his next album live in the studio cafĂ©-style, with a small audience of friends egging him on. (His producer says they had checkered tables with bowls of potato chips, and even had a stripper as the opening act.)
Nighthawks At The Diner presents his latest, Beat-inspired material in a relaxed setting that gives him and the band plenty of room to breathe. Several of the cuts are indexed as introductions to the successive songs, and in many cases they’re more entertaining than the songs themselves. As he sets up each performance, he spews a variety of hipster puns and wisecracks. (The best are those before “Eggs And Sausage”, where he describes the less-than-savory ingredients of the food in his beloved diners, and “Better Off Without A Wife”, a sly endorsement of solitude and self-pleasure.)
Sometimes the songs even live up to their introductions. In addition to the two mentioned above, “Emotional Weather Report” and “Warm Beer And Cold Women” offer hungover wordplay that in some cases you don’t “get” until he’s into his next line. The trouble is, it’s hard to keep up with him sometimes. As vivid as “Nighthawk Postcards (On Easy Street)” is, at eleven minutes of rambling prose that only rhymes on every other syllable it’s easy to be distracted. “Putnam County” is similarly dense, until you realize he’s describing a redneck bar in Tennessee, hundreds of miles away from seedy L.A.
Since he’s playing to a crowd, there aren’t any real tearjerkers like the ones on his first two albums, unless you count “Nobody”. The most surprising song is “Big Joe And Phantom 309”, an urban legend about a truck driver borrowed from Red Sovine and later appropriated by Pee-Wee Herman.
There’s a lot to take in on Nighthawks At The Diner, but for the most part it’s time well spent, since you can get something new out of the monologues—and even the actual songs—with each listen. He’d started to settle into his adopted role as the tipsy troubadour telling the truth from the wrong side of the tracks, shining a light on the other side of the Me Decade.

Tom Waits Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)—3

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Mark Knopfler 1: Screenplaying

Not too long after the last Dire Straits studio album, Mark Knopfler compiled a collection of some of the film music work he’d done, focusing on four films, the soundtracks for which were all still in print. Screenplaying is arranged for feel more than history, making it a nice listen indeed.
Beginning with five tracks from 1984’s Cal, the mood is set with a distinctly Irish influence, with Uillean pipes and tin whistle accompanying Knopfler’s guitar and quiet accompaniment from some Dire Straits regulars. “Irish Boy” and “The Long Road” in particular provide a welcome contrast to the boomy sound of Brothers In Arms.
While Knopfler is credited as its composer, the entire soundtrack for 1989’s Last Exit To Brooklyn was performed solely by keyboard player Guy Fletcher, who joined the band in 1984 and has worked with Knopfler ever since. Here the harsh imagery of the film is illustrated by more pastoral if mournful passages.
“Pastoral” is a good word for the music from 1987’s The Princess Bride, arguably the music most recognizable to the average consumer. Five excerpts from the film evoke the adventure of the plot, with a few variations on the one song from the film, “Storybook Love”, which is not included in its vocal incarnation.
Overseas, however, it was his 1983 score for the Scottish film Local Hero that put him on the path to film composing. Some of its more Adult Contemporary cuts are included—namely “Boomtown” and anything featuring Mike Brecker’s saxophone—but thankfully the program ends with “Going Home”, which also closed Alchemy, as it did many Dire Straits concerts over the years.
In a few years’ time Mark Knopfler would release his first real solo album. He’s put out a handful of song-based albums since the turn of the century, alongside the occasional soundtrack work, so it doesn’t look like Dire Straits will return anytime soon. In the ears of consumers, he quit the band while he was ahead. So in many ways, Screenplaying serves as an epilogue to the Dire Straits story—a footnote, perhaps, but another perspective on what he was doing when the band was at its biggest.

Mark Knopfler Screenplaying (1993)—

Monday, January 3, 2011

Todd Rundgren 9: Faithful

It was time for another song-based solo album, but Todd still needed a concept to keep him interested. Faithful got most of its notoriety for side one, note-for-note covers of classic records from the sixties.
Of course, being Todd, he just doesn’t tackle songs he likes—he picks those that originally came out of meticulous production. Which is why we get covers of “Good Vibrations”, two Beatle songs, and songs by Hendrix, Dylan and the Yardbirds. His point seems to be “I’m just as good as those guys, only now I have the technology to let me work faster!” Still, sixties nostalgia wasn’t exactly fashionable in 1976, so his decision to record these songs was certainly unique for the time.
Side two offers six originals, immediately more accessible than anything on his last three albums with or without Utopia (who play on the album in their latest incarnation). “Black Or White” begins with an intriguing guitar part that unfortunately descends in to a heavy rocker. “Love Of The Common Man” is all ‘70s pop, a style that would soon be called yacht rock. An interesting mix of reggae and salsa music, complete with bird whistles, “When I Pray” provides some toe tapping, thanks to a repeated wordless refrain that covers whatever the point of the song is. “ClichĂ©” delivers on the promise of that brief guitar heard at the top of the side, and the Philly soul gets an even longer workout on “The Verb ‘To Love’”, though that crazy cocktail piano solo would keep anyone from confusing this with Hall & Oates. But the sublime mood gets punctured by “Boogies (Hamburger Hell)”, a dopey joke song in support of vegetarians.
If he was trying to win back a mainstream audience, Faithful was the way to do it. But he was putting out material at breakneck speed, leading us to wonder whether he really needed to release absolutely every new idea he had.

Todd Rundgren Faithful (1976)—3