Monday, February 28, 2011

Roxy Music: Avalon

Ten years after their debut, Roxy Music had come a long way from their initial image as “the ‘50s meets the ‘80s in the ‘70s.” Even without the greasy pompadour and space-age costumes, Bryan Ferry was still one of the suavest guys ever to stalk a stage in a rumpled silk suit, looking like he’d hurriedly gotten dressed following a backstage encounter.
The band had always been about style, so their transition to a smooth, post-disco adult contemporary sound wasn’t that surprising. Their journey culminated on Avalon, a lush and classy recording that showcases the band’s strengths—down to a trio with Ferry, Andy Mackay on sax and the inimitable Phil Manzanera on guitar, with well-chosen session guys.
The opening single, “More Than This”, gained a new following after its use in the Bill Murray vehicle Lost In Translation, but that only underscored its reputation as a stirring, enigmatic song. In fact, a good deal of the album puts impressionistic images into grooves, so that the sound is more important than any possible message. “The Space Between” demonstrates this with its mix of drum machines and real drums, saxophones and riff guitars underneath blurry vocals. The title track is perhaps the most overt portrayal of the singer as lounge lizard, accented by the cooing of a female vocalist. “India” doesn’t sound like the country it’s supposed to describe, but just as the music seems about to go somewhere, it’s interrupted by the flourish that opens “While My Heart Is Still Beating”.
The album’s slick production value made it especially popular the year it came out, as the CD format provided a gapless listening experience over the LP—all the better for a yuppie’s makeout session. “The Main Thing” keeps up the tension through to the lengthy introduction that sets up “Take A Chance With Me”, all the way through “To Turn You On”. The heavy tremolo on the synth and vocals makes a nice match for the simple changes of “True To Life”. The closing “Tara”, a quiet sax solo over seashore sound effects, makes for a nice finish.
While Avalon is the last studio album credited to Roxy Music, it still provided a seamless transition into Ferry’s late-‘80s solo work. This itself was no shocker either; after all, he’d been releasing intermittent solo albums, mostly consisting of covers, throughout the band’s tenure. And while Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera have shown up from time to time, if this album was indeed their swansong, it was a great way to go out.

Roxy Music Avalon (1982)—4

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Roger Waters 3: Amused To Death

Undeterred in his quest to strive forward without his former bandmates, Roger Waters first mounted an all-star performance of The Wall in recently liberated Berlin. “All-star” is up to personal preference, with appearances by the Scorpions, Van Morrison, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Cyndi Lauper and of course, Jerry Hall.
In the absence of the other guys, he went back to work at an album kicking around since the end of the Radio K.A.O.S. tour. Amused To Death started out as a continuation of that story, but morphed in the process into a more general rumination on the effects of mass media, and how it’s dumbed down society. Without a linear plot to shackle its progress, the listener doesn’t feel forced into trying to follow whatever story is buried between the lines and within the obligatory sound effects. Naturally, war is still front and center of his main complaints, framing the program with an interview with a veteran of the First World War, and mixing in references to recent battles in the Gulf and Tianenmen Square.
Having already used Eric Clapton, this time he turned to Jeff Beck to have a distinctive lead guitarist in the absence of David Gilmour. (Steve Lukather from Toto shows up too, among other “special guests”.) After the opening montage, “What God Wants” combines pounding drums, a one-note theme and a list-style lyric, but there are a couple of bridges that weave in a decent transition. An abrupt switch to “Perfect Sense Part I” wanders for a while underneath a backwards message—kind of futile when most listeners wouldn’t have a way to decipher it on their cassette or CD players. The vocals make a welcome switch to the soulful voice of P.P. Arnold (reminiscent of “Home” from K.A.O.S.) “Part II” of the song then becomes a setup for a Marv Albert commentary on an oil rig attack, complete with cheering crowd effects, continuing over the “In The Flesh”-style arrangement (booming drums again, and Hammond organ) of “The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range”. “Late Home Tonight” marries an acoustic guitar to chirping bird effects for hardly the first time in a Waters anti-war statement. “Too Much Rope” even gets Floydian towards the end, but his delivery works against the novelty of profanity to keep it from being catchy.
“What God Wants Part II” continues the litany of the first part, without much variation; “Part III” has a nod to “Echoes”, then works around the bridges from the first part at a mournful tempo. Don Henley shows up to duet on “Watching TV”, an otherwise excellent attempt to humanize the Chinese massacre that’s undermined by the title and repeated references to the victim having “yellow” skin. Something of a dark Dire Straits song, “Three Wishes” takes far too long to deliver its theme (surprise! The singer forgot to wish for love) and the vocal effects on the genie’s voice are distracting. “It’s A Miracle” is even slower, wandering for eight minutes before culminating in a rant against Andrew Lloyd Webber. Finally, the title track works in a mood similar to “The Tide Is Turning”, but with a much less hopeful theme.
While not exactly uplifting, Amused To Death is certainly the least annoying of his non-Floyd albums. The thing is, unlike the band he left, he wasn’t able to devise songs with memorable hooks. Also, being designed for the CD format, it’s lengthy at 72 minutes, with individual tracks in the six- to nine-minute range. It could easily have been shorter, but just as Roger insists on singing his own lyrics (P.P. Arnold on “Perfect Sense Part II” notwithstanding) he’s never been his own best editor.
It must have irked him no end to see the album only sell a million copies, while the other guys made a mint two years later with The Division Bell. In the decades since this album, he’s only released a handful of new songs, concentrating instead on an opera and various restagings of The Wall.

Roger Waters Amused To Death (1992)—3

Friday, February 25, 2011

George Michael: Listen Without Prejudice

While it took the second Wham! album to make George Michael a household name, he’d had a pretty busy couple of years in the spotlight. Yet despite his success, and perhaps thanks to some controversy along the way, he just wasn’t happy, as evidenced by all the photos of him sporting a knotted brow.
He obviously wanted to be taken seriously as An Artist, as opposed to the pretty boy with the tight jeans and stubble. Therefore, the marketing campaign for his sophomore solo album, the dangerously titled Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, was stark and simple, with barely a photo of the boy anywhere. The music, he warned, was a little more subdued as well. But it really wasn’t that much a departure, considering such slow jams as “Father Figure” and “Kissing A Fool” had been among the several hit singles from Faith. There was, however, a whole lotta acoustic guitar on the album, mixed as high as the “Funky Drummer” samples that drive the faster songs.
Still, those seeking another fun CD to listen to on the way to aerobics class would have been a little impatient, and that’s their loss. The focus is on melody and message, as evidenced by the first single, the lovely and dare we say Beatlesque “Praying For Time”, slathered in guitars and bathroom tile echo. Chances are they skipped ahead to “Freedom! ‘90”, which separated itself from the earlier Wham! song by concentrating on his own beefs. (The risqué supermodel-heavy video helped distract from the angst.) A reverent cover of the obscure Stevie Wonder song “They Won’t Go When I Go” adds to the feeling of defiance, and the preaching continues on “Something To Say”, which today seems to have inspired Extreme’s “Hole Hearted”. The jazzy “Cowboys And Angels” was probably just too long for people to grasp, smooth as it is.
“Waiting For That Day” might have been a bigger hit if it hadn’t quoted from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, thus jettisoning half the royalties to Allen Klein. Similarly, the anti-war sentiments of “Mother’s Pride” jarred with the patriotism during the Gulf War. Another upbeat acoustic track, “Heal The Pain”, made more sense some eighteen years later when it was rerecorded as a duet with Paul McCartney; here the layered voices can distract. “Soul Free” brings back the beats, before an even more understated reprise of “Waiting” closes the big statement.
Already pissed off at his label, George was even more irritated when Listen Without Prejudice failed to sell by the bucketful, prompting him to shelve plans for a more upbeat Vol. 2 and pout about the injustice of it all for several years. While he would put out the occasional single, he made more headlines for his fights with the label and the various policemen who caught him misbehaving in public restrooms. Meanwhile, now that Faith has been expanded in a deluxe remaster, perhaps some of the curious will take the opportunity to truly listen, with or without prejudice, to its troubled follow-up. Given the chance, it deserves to emerge as a collection of excellent, caricature-free pop, and a lot better than they might expect.

George Michael Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990)—

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rolling Stones 37: Rock And Roll Circus

Way back in 1968, around the time of the original release of Beggars Banquet, the Stones decided to promote it with a TV special built around the concept of a variety show, with guest performances and their own mini-concert set. It was then shelved immediately after filming completed, ensuring that Rock And Roll Circus became one of the most legendary unreleased projects of the rock era.
Its legend only grew when one of the performances, the Who playing a fantastic version of “A Quick One”, was included in their 1979 movie The Kids Are Alright. With its status as a notoriously incomplete event, it was particularly surprising when the film (and matching CD) was released intact a good 28 years after the original taping.
It was worth the wait. Rock And Roll Circus is an amazing snapshot in time, showing the Stones at a key place in their development, playing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and four songs from Beggars Banquet, and previewing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Even Brian Jones played with enthusiasm, adding some slide guitar despite one hand in a cast. (He’d be dead the following July; indeed the liner notes make mention of all the participants who’d passed on in the interim.) And of course, we always like hearing Nicky Hopkins play piano.
The guests are revealing, as well. Taj Mahal wasn’t well known anywhere yet, and Jethro Tull still sounds like a blues band. Marianne Faithfull sings one song sweetly, and the Who did indeed blow everyone else off the stage with their definitive take on “A Quick One”. The most surprising performance was that of a supergroup involving Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keith on bass backing John Lennon for a rendition of “Yer Blues” from the just-released White Album. Unfortunately, the same combo continues playing behind Yoko Ono, in a sloppy jam you’ll be happy to skip.
When it finally came out, Rock And Roll Circus did indeed live up to its hyped legend. One only wishes that the bands could have played more songs, and longer. But what’s there is what there was, and the program flows nicely on CD. Finally.

The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus (1996)—4

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rolling Stones 36: Stripped

Since they’d just finished another world tour, obviously it was time for another live Stones album. In a not entirely original move, they stayed away from a typical arena-rock souvenir, choosing instead to use tracks from smaller club dates and live-in-the-studio recordings. (Perhaps this way they could also get away with the occasional overdub?) Stripped—not exactly Unplugged, but a more ribald title—turned out to be a surprisingly good album, leaning as it does on rarer songs and more intimate performances.
The album is mixed in such a way that all the disparate sources blend into one. A certainly in-concert “Street Fighting Man” leads into a faithful cover of “Like A Rolling Stone”, complete with harp solos. In fact, Mick’s harp helps drive “Not Fade Away”, which isn’t all that different from when they’d recorded it thirty years earlier. “Shine A Light” gets a response from some crowd somewhere, with Chuck Leavell’s piano dancing over the acoustic guitars. “The Spider And The Fly” and “I’m Free” are unexpected trips back to Swinging London, while another version of “Wild Horses” provides a shift in dynamics.
The idea of an acoustic strum whilst visiting the past continues on “Let It Bleed” and “Dead Flowers”, while “Slipping Away” (sung by Keith, from Steel Wheels) is the album’s only recent cut. “Angie” is taken pretty straight, with canned strings supporting Mick’s lack of range. A trio of bluesy numbers closes the set: “Love In Vain” (complete with audio-verité false start), “Sweet Virginia” and the return of saxman Bobby Keys, and the album’s other new song, Willie Dixon’s “Little Baby”.
Stripped provides a nice diversion for both the live album genre and the Stones live album category, portraying these aging geezers as masters of their craft, who knew the value and importance of shutting up and playing in an industry where music was becoming more processed and easier to manipulate. That said, it’s not the type of album that would rise above any of their other recent work. (And of course, other recent live recordings would find their way to CD singles around the world, causing much gnashing of teeth among collectors.)

The Rolling Stones Stripped (1995)—3

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paul McCartney 30: Electric Arguments

Maybe passing the magical age of 64 inspired Paul to keep striking whenever the iron got hot. Whatever the secret, he managed to release new albums at his fastest pace in years. But of course, there was a twist, since his newest one would be released under the Fireman moniker, the name given to his collaboration with producer Youth. Unlike the first two Fireman collaborations, which were basically indulgent ambient techno exercises, Electric Arguments actually sounds like a McCartney album, for the simple reasons that it has songs—you know, with vocals and lyrics and everything. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Best of all, he nicely stacks the songs at the top of the order. “Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight” begins with a sampled harp riff before crashing through in stop time with a sound that fans said recalled “Helter Skelter”. Whether or not he’s as angry as he sounds (most people pointed at his ex-wife) will probably never be known. The brief “Two Magpies” recalls “3 Legs” from Ram, on its way to the glorious “Sing The Changes”. “Travelling Light” is a Mellotron-heavy piece that floats for about four minutes before the “chorus” arrives, but it’s worth the wait. The mood is interrupted by “Highway”, an overt attempt to rock, and the canned harmonica effect starts to get annoying at this point. “Light From Your Lighthouse” is another quickie like “Two Magpies”, with a few lines borrowed from “Midnight Special”. While it only goes to a second chord during the choruses, “Sun Is Shining” is still incredibly catchy, and the celebratory “Dance ‘Til We’re High” sounds like one of the best ‘80s songs he could have written.
From there, much of the remainder is more on the ambient side, occasionally punctuated by a vocal. They don’t sound all that different to stand out that much, unfortunately, but at least there’s an attempt to pick up the tempo near the end of the disc. And while the last track is listed as being ten minutes, it’s really only five, with three minutes of silence before another Enoesque segment rumbles in from outer space.
He could have very easily gotten away with calling Electric Arguments a McCartney album rather than hiding it behind the Fireman pseudonym. But this way, because we didn’t expect much, we were very impressed, much more so than we might have been otherwise.

The Fireman Electric Arguments (2008)—

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Robert Plant 8: Sixty Six To Timbuktu

Dreamland got more critical acclaim than huge sales, but was enough of a hit (in Europe) for Robert to compile his first solo career retrospective. Sixty Six To Timbuktu was a two-CD set, the first concentrating on hits and near-hits, while the second compiled pre-fame tracks, soundtrack contributions, rarities and more.
The average listener would be happy enough with the first disc, except that it ignores Pictures Of Eleven completely, and only includes “Big Log” from The Principle Of Moments. That means no “Burning Down One Side” or “In The Mood”. But a whopping five cuts from Fate Of Nations and a few from Dreamland mingle nicely with the likes of “Sea Of Love”, “Tall Cool One” and “Ship Of Fools”. Obviously, he’s going more for feel than ego.
His detailed liner notes, affectionate to both his journey and everyone he met along the way, help illustrate the choices on the second disc. This isn’t a mopping-up of all his rarities—“Far Post” would have been a great inclusion, though “Dirt In A Hole” from the international versions of Dreamland is welcome—but it does cover a wide swath of sounds as suggested by the title. Beginning with a handful of pre-Zeppelin recordings, including covers of “You Better Run”, “For What It’s Worth” and “Hey Joe” (the latter two in a band with young John Bonham on drums), we get to hear the development of his voice. Then it jumps ahead to the ‘80s and the so-called Phil Collins era, with a few oldies recorded for soundtracks and the big thing of the ‘90s, the tribute album. A couple of the experiments that led up to his late-‘80s sound help add to the story, for better or worse. After getting rockabilly out of his system, he took these opportunities to explore his interest in world music and several tracks related to Moby Grape and/or Skip Spence.
This is the stuff that he’s really proud of, and you can tell by his delivery. The thing is, the man has such a great voice, you can almost forgive the dated experiments for things like “21 Years” or “Life Begin Again” with the Afro Celt Sound System, where it’s just him and a backing. A long way from the 18-year-old kid doing covers, and pointedly away from the guy in the women’s blouses singing with Led Zeppelin.
So Sixty Six To Timbuktu is hardly a hits collection, and destined to only be of interest to diehard fans. And with about two-and-a-half hours to take in, it’s unlikely that either disc will stay in the rotation more than, say, the albums that spawned some of the hits. (To drive that particular point home, the only other anthology to date of Plant’s solo work has been the Nine Lives box set, which included each of his solo albums, including The Honeydrippers, with bonus tracks and a DVD.)

Robert Plant Sixty Six To Timbuktu (2003)—3

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pink Floyd 16: A Momentary Lapse Of Reason

While preparing his next solo album, Roger Waters declared that Pink Floyd was over, only to watch the bandmates he left behind carry on for another decade with two wildly successful albums and a handful of even more lucrative tours under the same moniker he tried to quash.
He had a point, of course, having felt that the brand had a high standard to upkeep, thanks to his megalomaniacal hold over the concepts driving their most recent albums and tours. But David Gilmour had ideas too, and once he hooked up with Nick Mason to help him record his third solo album, they decided that since Roger had “left the band”, in their view anyway, they were free to keep going. Knowing full well that a new Pink Floyd album would be a better, faster sell, they brought in Wall co-producer Bob Ezrin and orchestrated the conditional return of Rick Wright to help make it happen.
But putting a photo inside the gatefold and rejigging the credits aren’t enough to make A Momentary Lapse Of Reason sound anything like classic Floyd. Nick’s and Rick’s contributions are minimal, with the drums handled by the likes of Jim Keltner and Carmine Appice, and most of the keyboards having been finished by the time Rick came back. (Nick did tackle some of the sound effects, as he had on The Dark Side Of The Moon.)
The opening “Signs Of Life” is a spooky instrumental accompanied by the sound of a boat being rowed. Any calm is blasted away by the hit single “Learning To Fly”, supposedly an allegory for life without Roger but more specifically more literal than that. The canned percussion and keyboards sounded dated even for 1987. “The Dogs Of War” is even muddier, starting with a robotic beat and culminating in a sax solo, in an attempt to remind us of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here. The lyrics aren’t about to convert anyone to pacifism, either. “One Slip” has its moments, thanks to constantly rising melodies and changes, but the video game-like sounds at the beginning don’t fit at all, except to suggest a bomb about to go off. The concern for the state of the world on the slightly better “On The Turning Away” comes closest yet to the Floyd sound, but goes too far by including a mass choir on the final choruses.
The second side isn’t much better. “Yet Another Movie” takes forever to get going, and doesn’t do much when it does except give Gilmour a chance to solo over loud drums. The placeholder instrumental “Round And Around” pretty much does exactly that, but it would have been nicer to have more of that than the jarring “A New Machine”, which is split in two parts for unknown reasons. In the middle comes the lengthy instrumental “Terminal Frost”, which is fine until the saxophones take over. The big finale of “Sorrow” seems to have been written for the sole purpose of playing it in stadiums, starting from the opening guitar, which was actually recorded at top volume in one.
As Roger would ruefully point out, the title alone of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason illustrates what’s wrong with this album. Perhaps if it had stayed a Gilmour solo album, David wouldn’t have felt so compelled to make it so overblown. But record-buyers didn’t care, and bought the album and concert seats by the millions, leading to the following year’s double live album Delicate Sound Of Thunder, which alternated new songs with predictable Floyd classics played blandly and impeccably by an eleven-piece band. Roger could only stew over the aftermath of his less lucrative Radio K.A.O.S. concept album and tour, which did a better job of demonstrating its antiwar theme, albeit via yet another non-communicative paraplegic protagonist.

Pink Floyd A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987)—2
Pink Floyd Delicate Sound Of Thunder (1988)—2

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Roger Waters 2: Radio K.A.O.S.

Roger’s biggest complaint (well, one of them, anyway) about the “new” Pink Floyd (read: performing without him) was the quality of the lyrics. While he was always good at coming up with overall concepts, just having a pile of words doesn’t make a song unless there’s music to match. Coming as it did just months before the reconstituted Floyd’s own album, his next Big Idea had barely a chance to compete anyway.
Radio K.A.O.S. tells the story of—surprise surprise!—a traumatized individual cut off from society, not unlike a certain deaf, dumb and blind kid or, say, a jaded rock star who’s built a symbolic wall around himself. This time out, the individual in question is a paraplegic vegetable, albeit one who can communicate via “radio waves” and a speech synthesizer. His concerns about his unemployed brother, Maggie Thatcher’s policies and the silenced Welsh Male Voice Choirs lead him to hack into certain computers to simulate a nuclear war (which you might recall from the movie War Games).
There are various themes running around here, though it’s impossible to take the album without the overarching story. What’s more, “Billy” converses in between the songs with legendary LA DJ Jim Ladd, turning the album into a faux-radio broadcast (much like another Who album). Sometimes the songs are sung by Billy, sometimes they’re about Billy.
The plot is spelled out in the album art, but there’s not enough within the songs to enhance it. That makes the last part of the album so anticlimactic: we know there’s “Four Minutes” until the world explodes, so the song of the same name is merely aural decoration, and not that frightening.
Enough complaints about the non-commerciality of The Pros And Cons Of Hitchhiking must’ve sunk in, because the majority of the songs are delivered in a slick but not wholly sterile contemporary rock style. He even includes the Japanese flute everyone was putting on their albums in those days. Unfortunately, while the songs have a wide variety of chord changes, he still didn’t write any melodies outside of a three-note range, rasping his list-style lyrics like Mark Knopfler with a head cold. “Who Needs Information” is one of the better songs; it’s just too bad that it’s shackled to the story. “Home” has a great middle eight that’s dwarfed by the lazy litany around it. “The Tide Is Turning” does offer something in the way of hope, and in the form of an actual song worth hearing again. (Written in the aftermath of Live Aid, it would also close his restaging of The Wall in Berlin following the unification of Germany.)
One does wonder how this stuff would possibly sound if played by his old band, or if it would be any better. Radio K.A.O.S. was supported by a tour, of course, that included some of the music left off the album for space considerations. One wonders why, since it seemed so important at the time, he hasn’t since bolstered the album with more of the music intended to tell the story. The album his nemeses put out may have been fake Floyd, but Roger’s insistence on working alone took him too far away from a sound that might have helped sell more than a handful of copies. Put together, the two Floyd-related albums sum up the blandness of the 1987 Classic Rock scene, soon to be overshadowed by hair metal.

Roger Waters Radio K.A.O.S. (1987)—2

Friday, February 11, 2011

Rolling Stones 35: Voodoo Lounge

In the five years since Steel Wheels the Stones had toured the world, lost their bass player and indulged in solo projects. They also signed with Virgin Records, who prepared to reissue their post-1971 albums with improved sound and better packaging. (For some reason they also issued the Jump Back compilation in late 1993 everywhere but America, which had to wait a decade for it. Basically an update of Rewind, it included some singles from Dirty Work and Steel Wheels, and—just in case you missed them—“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”.)
When it came to recording their new album, the band turned to strangely dreadlocked producer Don Was to run the show. But while he is also a bass player, they contracted Darryl Jones to take the job onstage and on the album, with Charlie’s approval. Despite the changes, Voodoo Lounge still sounded more like a Stones album than Mick probably wanted.
Although recorded and marketed in the CD era, its 62-minute running time made it the equivalent of a double album, and while it’s no Exile On Main St., it still translates to four albeit short LP sides. The first part re-establishes them as a rock band, beginning with the smoky “Love Is Strong” and continuing through the trademark riffs of “You Got Me Rocking” and “Sparks Will Fly”. Then it’s something of a trip back in time, with four songs that echo past eras, but without sounding intentional or embarrassing. “The Worst” is a Keith country mumble, and “New Faces” features a prominent harpsichord. “Moon Is Up” pairs pounding drums with a Leslied guitar over some catchy changes. The big ballad is the piano-based “Out Of Tears”, which even has subtle strings and a nice slide solo from Ronnie.
Then it’s back to more basic, if silly rockers, starting with the archetypal “I Go Wild”. We can’t imagine Mick spent more than two minutes on the lyrics for “Brand New Car”, though the horns don’t get too much in the way. “Sweethearts Together” has a Tex-Mex feel that jars next to the James Brown-heavy “Suck On The Jugular”, which is the closest Mick gets to dancing. “Blinded By Rainbows” is another quiet one, juxtaposing lyrics that border on political with an ambiguous chorus, just like the similarly titled “Blinded By Love” from Steel Wheels, but “Baby Break It Down” happily brings back some midtempo rock. And since everybody loves Keith, he gets to warble another classic in “Thru And Thru”, recorded with just Darryl and Charlie. “Mean Disposition”, not included on the LP for some reason, returns us to the sound of the first three tracks.
While it runs out of steam towards the end, in Voodoo Lounge the Stones had an album that at least had some staying power. The production has not dated at all, and some of the songs still sound pretty good. A few songs could have been left off and they’d still have a decent set, but apparently that just wasn’t in the business plan.

Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge (1994)—

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

David Bowie 31: Heathen

Another label change set up Bowie’s next album, but the big news on Heathen was the return to the fold of producer/creative foil Tony Visconti. Sure enough, the album was his strongest in years. Much of the content seemed to be influenced by the aftermath of 9/11, though Bowie insisted most of it was in the can before that. (Indeed, some was even left over from sessions for the aborted Toy project, which was to present new compositions alongside rerecorded songs he originally did back in the pre-“Space Oddity” days.)
Overall, the sound mixes nods to his Berlin era with a cold, claustrophobic atmosphere and ruminations on a world in turmoil. “Sunday” begins the album with a spooky synth and a slow vocal, reporting that “nothing remains” and “everything has changed”. Similarly, “5:15 The Angels Have Come” and “Heathen (The Rays)” follow each narrator through a city where the trains are late and the sky is made of glass. The demand for “A Better Future” gets an edge when you consider the song is sung from the point of view of his young daughter.
“Slip Away” is an odd tribute of sorts to the obscure cult favorite, the Uncle Floyd TV show, with a gorgeous chorus and arrangement to match, complete with Stylophone. “Slow Burn” turns up the volume, boasting a searing lead guitar literally phoned in by Pete Townshend. The success of “Afraid” and “I Would Be Your Slave” depends on our mood, while “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” revives the best elements of his mid-‘80s pop sound; we especially like the nod to “Absolute Beginners” on one of the bridges.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bowie album without weird covers, and Heathen offers three: “Cactus” by the Pixies, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” from the first Neil Young album, and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is his long overdue nod to the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Heathen was a very pleasant surprise, and easily his most consistent collection since the first Tin Machine album. He successfully combined some of his recent “sounds”, from pensive to electronic, and it looked like the 21st century was going to be another fruitful period for him. (The first version came with a strange little bonus disc, with two contemporary remixes and two re-recordings—“Panic In Detroit” from 1979, which had already been on Ryko’s Lodger reissue, and “Conversation Piece”, an excellent early B-side redone during the Toy sessions. It’s merely a curio that doesn’t add or subtract from the main program at all.)

David Bowie Heathen (2002)—
2007 limited 2CD edition: same as 2002, plus 10 extra tracks

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bob Dylan 51: The Witmark Demos

Perhaps not to follow any release pattern except to accompany the box set of the mono versions of his albums, the next Bootleg Series came from a specific yet fruitful early period in Bob’s career. Recorded largely as publishing demos to ensure proper royalty payments, The Witmark Demos presents a variety of Dylan originals played simply to get them copyrighted. And since he was coming out with new material faster than he could put them on his albums, this enabled other singers—fellow folkies, mostly—to borrow an otherwise unknown Dylan composition for their own releases.
With the exception of the handful of tracks that had appeared on previous Bootleg Series volumes, these are not merely carbon copies of songs on his albums. Words change and arrangements are simpler, to the point where they could be considered alternate takes. He throws in the occasional aside and isn’t careful about precise tuning, as these are performances, not sessions, and certainly up until the last 1964 recordings, were merely “official” versions of the latest additions to his coffeehouse setlists.
Obviously not everything was recorded for the express purpose of having people cover them. A song like “I Shall Be Free” (different from the version heard on Freewheelin’) was most likely laid down so that no other basket-passer could take the song and make it his or her own. (Bob knew all too well how easy it was to appropriate somebody else’s song.) “Boots Of Spanish Leather” shows how close he was to its inspiration, and “Girl From The North Country”, which immediately follows, demonstrates how he was able to dilute his true feelings into two different songs based on the same borrowed melody.
Many of these tracks had indeed snuck out as bootlegs over the years, so it’s nice to have some of them placed in the canon within context. But alternate takes of familiar songs aren’t enough to guarantee sales, so the inclusion of fifteen songs making their first official debut makes The Witmark Demos even more exciting. A few of these fall into the “protest” category, but it’s always interesting to hear “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, two songs that were never really captured in the studio to the composer’s taste. (Or maybe he was too close to them.) Even “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, which he didn’t write, had evolved from its original recording to include new verses. One song that stands out is “Gypsy Lou”, simply because it’s the type of thing he’d already left behind. It could be that by recording it, he was hoping for some of that publishing bling. Which only confirms what people have said all along: he’s a pretty smart guy.

Bob Dylan The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964—The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 (2010)—

Friday, February 4, 2011

U2 14: Best Of 1990-2000

Following their ongoing success in the new century, The Best Of 1990-2000 did its best to bring the U2 story up to date. This time, the hits were a little less obvious, with only four real albums from which to choose. No matter the context, each of the hits from Achtung Baby still soar, alongside such other favorites as “Stay”, “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In A Moment”.
As part of their continual desire to remix everything in multiples, three tracks from Pop appear in new albeit decent mixes. Even “Numb” was updated for some reason, in a mix that brings Larry’s backing vocals up front. The album also collected such strays as “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” from a Batman movie, “The Hands That Built America” from a recent Scorsese film, and an edit of the majestic “Miss Sarajevo” from the Passengers project. And of course, there was the token “new song”, the underwhelming “Electrical Storm”, which appeared in two mixes. We’re not sure what “The First Time” from Zooropa is doing on here; it wasn’t a single, but it’s a nice enough song. Maybe they just wanted it to mirror the similar sounding “All I Want Is You”, which closed the first volume.
As with its predecessor, a limited edition bonus disc of B-sides was included (along with a 4-track DVD promoting the companion video compilation) with initial pressings. Here the pool of possibilities was even stranger to navigate, with all the different mixes that had filled up so many CD singles since Achtung Baby. While such unique songs as “Lady With The Spinning Head”, “Salome” and “North And South Of The River” were welcome, whether we needed extended, occasionally unrecognizable versions of “Lemon”, “Discotheque”, “Mysterious Ways” and other dancefloor clearers was up to personal taste. (And the techno-rap version of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”? From whom were they stealing that back?) Meanwhile, the Passengers track and eventual B-side “Your Blue Room” was included, but “Slow Dancing” and such one-offs as “Night And Day” and Bono’s crazy duet with Frank Sinatra on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” were left aside. Perhaps they’ll appear on any number of Deluxe Editions someday.

U2 The Best Of 1990-2000 (2002)—4

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Paul McCartney 29: Memory Almost Full

For his next trick, Paul recorded another original classical piece, the churchy Ecce Cor Meum, then boldly left Capitol Records for the first time since 1979, choosing to let Starbucks promote his latest release worldwide. Memory Almost Full is an old/new affair of sorts, being that it completed some tracks he’d started before recording what turned out to be 2005’s excellent Chaos And Creation In The Backyard. The result isn’t bad, but it follows his tradition of including a few cringe-causing moments amidst some new potential classics.
“Dance Tonight” could be one of the latter, a simple happy song he wrote reportedly while watching his young daughter enjoy the noodling on his new mandolin. A little more elaborate is “Ever Present Past”, which always seems to be on the verge of saying something but never quite does. “See Your Sunshine” hearkens back to his early ‘80s pop sound, and for that alone, it seems more like a song for Linda than his current wife, no matter what he insists. A mournful piece for strings brackets “Only Mama Knows”, which seems mostly an excuse to rock and work the word “godforsaken” into the lyrics as much as possible. The gloomy “You Tell Me” acknowledges his age, as will another track to be discussed. “Mr. Bellamy” is downright odd, sung from the points of view of a man on a ledge and the people below. The final minute of the track is given over to a wandering pastiche of piano, acoustic and clarinet. “Gratitude” has a forced R&B delivery that isn’t very convincing.
Much was made at the time of the suite of songs that, while written and recorded as separate entities, were sequenced in the style of Abbey Road but come off more like those on Red Rose Speedway. (Unlike most of the album, which he played all by himself, four of the five were recorded with his touring band.) “Vintage Clothes” has a nice Beach Boys break in the middle. “That Was Me” is a look back that unfortunately comes off as a little pompous, but it’s replaced by the nicer “Feet In The Clouds”. Suddenly, however, “House Of Wax” revives the classic Wings sound for something of a detour into a horror movie. But it’s “The End Of The End” that’s the most striking song here, an actual rumination on his own funeral, beautiful and sad at the same time. “Nod Your Head” tries to diffuse the gloom with a loud, throwaway track. What most people didn’t realize was that, in the spirit of “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” via “Please Please Me”, it’s not so much a song as a blatant plea for oral sex.
Memory Almost Full got decent reviews, and the Starbucks connection helped it sell by the bucketful, but neither he nor his new record company were kind to the fans lining up to buy it. It was first issued as a single CD, and also in a deluxe package that wouldn’t fit alongside the other McCartney CDs in your rack and included a second disc with three extra songs—an instrumental, an actual song and a mishmash that predicted his next move somewhat—and an interview about the album. Then, just in time for Xmas, a “special edition” in a standard-size case included the album plus the three extra songs on a CD, plus a DVD with video clips and whatnot. Had they just gone with that version, everything would have been fine.

Paul McCartney Memory Almost Full (2007)—