Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jack Grace 2: Drinking Songs For Lovers

Still one of the hardest working men in the business, Jack Grace’s latest album confirms his deserved title as reigning Martini Cowboy. Drinking Songs For Lovers was quietly released last year, as might be expected for an indie release, but was immediately hailed by legendary New York City deejay Vin Scelsa for its excellence. Not bad for a year full of sensory overload.
The production is crisp and the musicianship is tight, from Jack’s multitude of guitars to Daria’s bass; she even gets to do a smooth lead vocal on “Drank Yourself Into A Corner”. The Broken Mariachi Horns (so-billed) build on the Tex-Mex flavor of his last album, particularly on “So Ugly” and “Haven’t Had A Birthday”, and even provide a soulful Stax feel on “True Tonight”. (You want legends? How about John Sebastian and Earl Poole Ball, both on this album?)
As the title would suggest, the songs continue the tradition of country songs about drinking, but without ever sounding redundant. Music is supposed to be fun, so the many songs about overindulgence provide clever wordplay designed to incite whoops and hollers. And it’s amazing that nobody else—country, Western or otherwise—has attempted to write a song about “The Worst Truck Driver”. (At the risk of spoiling it, here’s the best line: “Your stuff would get there faster if you left it on the street.”)
But despite the fun and games, reality hits on the last track, a sentimental tribute the sadly departed Drew Glackin, whose pedal steel can be heard just as the album ends. The sentiment is heartfelt, and the message is universal.
You need a sense of humor to enjoy Drinking Songs For Lovers, so if the lyrics bug you, concentrate on the music instead. That said, the cover is a scream.

Jack Grace Band Drinking Songs For Lovers (2010)—3

Monday, March 28, 2011

The La’s: The La’s

About five years before Oasis brought sunny Britpop back to American shores (and about seven years before we were sorry they’d bothered) an album came out so packed with hooks you’d have to be careful not to get punctured. Yet despite its brilliance, its creator disowned it, despite the well-deserved accolades, and he’s barely performed since.
Granted, the eponymous first album by The La’s came after several years full of singles and performances, while lead singer/songwriter Lee Mavers chased an elusive sound only his head could hear. Apparently it takes a certain kind of genius to resent almost universal accolades for something which he feels he’s unworthy.
Which is too bad for him, because The La’s is indeed a fantastic album, even if they insist they’re nothing more than glorified demos that Steve Lillywhite produced despite not clicking with the band at all. Part of this can be supported by the predominant acoustic rhythm and lead guitars throughout. But that’s not to suggest that the album sounds remotely unfinished. Before the retro Merseybeat sound became fashionable again, it could best be described as what might have happened had Gerry & The Pacemakers been crossed with the Clash and the Sex Pistols.
In true pop fashion, most of the album tracks hover around the two-minute mark, stating their case and moving aside for the next one. “Son Of A Gun” is a perfect way to start, with a Scouse-thick melody sailing over two chords with a near-Latin beat, ending mid-verse in time for “I Can’t Sleep” to crash in with its chords worthy of early Who. And if you’re going to have a song title like “Timeless Melody”, you better make it stick, and this one does. There’s a brief detour with “Liberty Ship”, which tends to wander, but the backing vocals weave in and out effortlessly. And “There She Goes” (a.k.a. The Hit Single) doesn’t even appear until the fifth track, a single verse repeated three times with an instrumental break that leads into the briefest of bridges. Others have covered it, but this is still the definitive version. “Doledrum” sounds like it took about as long to write as it did to record, but it’s so damn catchy.
“Feelin’” begins with a strum oddly reminiscent of the first Violent Femmes album, and sports a repeated riff whose closest cousin seems to be David Lee Roth’s “Goin’ Crazy”. “Way Out” and “I.O.U.” are understated power-pop, layered in vocals and guitars, making the stark Brecht-like “Freedom Song” all the more striking. There’s time for a proto-punk rave-up in “Failure”, which they need to get out of the way before the grand closing opus. “Looking Glass” has it all—a misleading intro, a sensitive quiet verse/loud chorus combo, the wordless freakout and the long ending, which increases in both speed and reverb before the inevitable explosion. (And it comes in just under eight minutes, too.)
Naturally, in the years since the band went on hiatus, there have been rumors of a follow-up to The La’s, and anytime Lee Mavers appears on a stage the music rags get all in a tizzy. The album’s been reissued a few times around the world, generally adding tracks from earlier singles, or previously unreleased versions and mixes from the album sessions. A box set even managed to collect most of these, along with two full discs of live recordings. Clearly, for the completist, there’s plenty out there. But for simple, understated greatness, you can’t go wrong with the album itself.

The La’s The La’s (1990)—5

Friday, March 25, 2011

Paul McCartney 31: Good Evening New York City

Come the 21st century, Paul was more likely to put out a commemorative DVD after each tour, complete with lots of top-heavy cheesecake in between all the thumb-flashing, gushing accolades from celebrities and performance footage. Being the first concert held at the replacement for Shea Stadium, Good Evening New York City was considered worthy of a CD release, sporting both his great band and several repeats from his last live album. (The Best Buy DVD version includes the concert itself as well as his rooftop appearance for the David Letterman show.)
We know Paul’s awfully fond of Band On The Run, since not only do we get a fourth take of “Let Me Roll It” (of all things), he’s decided to add “Mrs. Vandebilt” to the set. A Wings song never tried live before 2008, it only makes us wish he’d pull other nuggets out of that catalog once in a while. At least “Let Me Roll It” gets an extended coda based on Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady”. (Paul knew him, of course.) “Dance Tonight” doesn’t quite translate to the stadium setting, but “Calico Skies” is nicely fleshed out from the album track. It is truly baffling that after all this time, and inclusion on each of his official deluxe live albums, that Paul loves playing “Live And Let Die”, if only for the sake of giving the crowd some fireworks.
Of course, most of the program is strictly Beatles. “Back In The USSR” seems oddly sluggish, but it’s more than redeemed by “I’m Down”, famously played at Shea a few blocks away 44 years earlier. It still amazes us how every version of “The Long And Winding Road” he plays sounds so close to the Spector version he professed to hate. John gets two nods, with a choking “Here Today” on the first disc and “A Day In The Life” duct-taped onto “Give Peace A Chance” on the second (the latter stripped of the second half of the traditional “Lennon/McCartney” credit). It’s a nice idea, except it comes off as a hollow singalong. (Paul’s performance may have been inspired by Neil Young, who’d been playing it, and much better, around the same time.) “Something” is his ukulele tribute to George, here in the arrangement well known from the Concert For George. It says a lot that Paul would hold up George’s arrangement for posterity. (And in further deference to his “baby brother”, the solo on “I’ve Got A Feeling” is botched here too.) Unfortunately, we’ll never know what John or George would have said about doing “I Saw Her Standing There” with Billy Joel.
The band, which has been serving him well for the better part of a decade, more than holds up their end of the bargain, not just on the Beatle tracks but on the Fireman songs as well. They know who’s paying their rent, and they’re not about to rock that boat.
After having heard him trot out the same crowd-pleasers several tours (and albums) in a row, some of the later transitions don’t quite translate out of autopilot. He gets the new stuff out of the way early, choosing to pile on favorite after favorite up until the very end, ensuring there’s not a dry eye in the bleachers. Long-suffering fans might want more songs from the recent albums, and he doesn’t play all the bass notes on “Band On The Run”, but c’mon. This 67-year-old bastard can’t be faulted after pushing out a show that tops two and a half hours.
In the end it doesn’t matter. He’s still Paul Freakin’ McCartney, and he doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing. Each of the releases he put out in the first decade of the 21st century were miles ahead of most of what he did in the previous two. It will be a sadder world when he’s not around. (The same goes for Ringo, for that matter.)

Paul McCartney Good Evening New York City (2009)—

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rolling Stones 38: Bridges To Babylon

We were becoming accustomed to several years between Rolling Stones albums. Since 1994’s well-received Voodoo Lounge they’d given us the not-really-unplugged Stripped, as well as finally approving the all-star Rock And Roll Circus CD and video. Their next studio album arrived pretty quickly.
Bridges To Babylon is another “better than expected” set of new versions of their trademark sound produced mostly by the omnipresent Don Was. Despite the presence of several bass players, guitarists and even Jim Keltner, they still sound like the Stones, which is good. However, the handful of tracks that utilizes such remixers as the Dust Brothers don’t sit as well as when the boys just do their thing.
For the most part, the album rocks, starting from the opening “Flip The Switch” and continuing on “Gunface”. We could’ve sworn “Too Tight” and “Out Of Control” were already song titles of theirs, but even “Anybody Seen My Baby?” (which notoriously bore such close resemblance to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” that she got co-writing credit) is mixed so well that it sounds like 1975; that, by the way, is a compliment. It was also their best single in years.
Keith shines vocally on three songs that showcase, in turn, his reggae side (“You Don’t Have To Mean It”), his bluesy side (“Thief In The Night”) and his slow ballad side (“How Can I Stop”). By contrast, Mick’s tendency towards history lessons (“Saint Of Me”) and woe-is-me heartbreak (“Already Over Me”) were getting tedious, but if you can ignore the lyrics, the music works. And every now and then, such as on the slightly countrified “Always Suffering”, it actually sounds like they’re working with instead of against each other.
At over an hour long, there’s a lot to take in, and perhaps it would have been better served as a tight single LP. At least there’s nothing really embarrassing, so it’s a decent listen. Just in case you’re keeping track, Bridges To Babylon was their 40th American album; however, since nine of those were hits compilations and seven were live recordings, it was really only their 24th new album. But with another extravagant world tour underway, the odds of the next one being a live album weren’t exactly going to result in a gambling windfall for anybody.

The Rolling Stones Bridges To Babylon (1997)—

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pretenders 3: Learning To Crawl

Two of her band members were dead or dying, but Chrissie Hynde still had a need to express herself musically (plus a recording contract that required her to do so). She started out with a few singles to mark time until a replacement band would come together, and when it did, she successfully pieced together an album from those singles, in a similar fashion as both previous Pretenders albums.
Learning To Crawl doesn’t have the rebellious edge of the first two Pretenders albums, but it does deliver tight rock and roll, tempered with a certain maturity that came as a result of not just the death of her mates, but also the birth of her first child. This fact is pointedly brought up in the climactic verse of “Middle Of The Road”, which opens the album with a drum solo before cascading through an infectious riff and hearty backing vocals. The year-old single “Back On The Chain Gang” had already been a huge hit on the radio and MTV, and taken as something of a tribute to James Honeyman-Scott within her typically evasive lyrics. “Time The Avenger” and “Watching The Clothes” offer opposing views of daily life, the former of a businessman, the latter of someone literally doing her laundry. Her slightly softer side emerges on “Show Me” a rocking lullaby-cum-apology to her baby daughter.
The single mom theme seems to continue through the rockabilly-flavored “Thumbelina”, but a more autographical story emerges on “My City Was Gone”. A remarkably simple song (and the B-side to “Chain Gang”), it effectively updates the concern about urban sprawl originally voiced by Joni Mitchell on “Big Yellow Taxi” with the sad recognition that one can’t go home again. (This was made even more apparent once it got co-opted by Rush Limbaugh, who obviously hasn’t listened to the words.) Apparently not about to do any more Kinks covers, this time Chrissie puts her best aching croon on the obscure Hey Love soul classic “Thin Line Between Love And Hate”. That song’s themes about abusive relationships are reflected somewhat in “I Hurt You”, the weakest track on the album. But the album ends well with the modern Christmas classic “2000 Miles.”
Having survived such losses, it was hoped that the Pretenders would continue to make albums as strong as Learning To Crawl. But by the time the next one came out, drummer Martin Chambers was gone, and even Robbie McIntosh would soon find work with Paul McCartney. For many, this album is where the story ends. Or should have. But that would have gone against her survival instinct.

The Pretenders Learning To Crawl (1984)—
2007 expanded, remastered CD: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tom Waits 7: Heartattack And Vine

For a man who went his own pointed way in the ‘70s, it was perhaps fitting that the first Tom Waits album of the ‘80s should be so schizophrenic. Heartattack And Vine offers a hodgepodge of styles, mostly alternating between slow R&B and slow weepies. Somehow, the mix works.
The title track plods along with a limp, describing yet more of the seedy underbelly of L.A. (Great couplet: “You know there ain’t no devil/That’s just God when He’s drunk.”) The album’s barely gotten warmed up before an instrumental, the just as slow “In Shades”, occupies four minutes of time. Then it’s an odd shift to “Saving All My Love For You”, a lovely outtake from two albums back, layered in strings fit for a pre-dawn reverie. “Downtown” isn’t much to get excited about unless you like Hammond organ runs, but he pens another classic in “Jersey Girl”, the one song Bruce Springsteen wishes he’d written, and indeed, since made his own.
A better use of the familiar recipe propels “’Til The Money Runs Out”, with Tom’s spitting wheeze riding the voodoo beat. Then it’s back to the sap with “On The Nickel”, a sadly beautiful tribute to the “little boys” who live on skid row, with key changes after every other verse and a near lullaby ending. The mood is jostled by “Mr. Siegal”, which continues the New Orleans jazz vibe from Blue Valentine and may or may not refer to the Vegas gangster. There are a few good lines in there, but it goes on too long. The album ends with another lullaby in “Ruby’s Arms”, another tearjerker sung at dawn, this time to a sleeping woman he’s about to leave for good.
It’s a fitting way to go out, for with Heartattack And Vine, Tom Waits basically said goodbye to his old persona, his producer and his label. The journey he was about to take would be even stranger than where he’d already been, but he had to leave the Tropicana Hotel sometime.

Tom Waits Heartattack And Vine (1980)—3

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Gilmour 3: On An Island

After his longest musical silence yet, broken only by the surprise reunion of Pink Floyd with Roger Waters for the Live 8 charity concert, David Gilmour was content to be taken on the strength of his own name again. Such things happen when a guy turns sixty.
On An Island was co-produced with the legendary Chris Thomas, who’d mixed both The Dark Side Of The Moon and The Division Bell (among other things), and Phil Manzanera, a unique guitarist best known for his work with Roxy Music. Rick Wright appears on a few tracks (and indeed, the subsequent tour) but Nick Mason is absent.
Much of the album suggests the feeling of floating downstream, particular on the floating title track, wrapped comfortably within the harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash. “Smile” is a pretty little love song, recorded nearly by himself with his wife on some vocals. The most schizophrenic song is “A Pocketful Of Stones”, which begins slowly for about a minute before switching to a poignant piano accompaniment under lyrics that have been suggested to be about either Syd Barrett or George W. Bush. The album even ends in a cycle, with the aptly titled “Where We Start” reprising the mood and feel of the early tracks.
Several instrumentals change the moods as well. “Castellorizon” adds orchestration to another guitar solo, the dreamy “Then I Close My Eyes” is prefaced by the sound of Turkish instruments, and “Red Sky At Night” is not a cover of the hit by The Fixx, but is instead a showcase for Gilmour on saxophone, of all things.
On An Island is pretty, slow and generally quiet, and the attempts to rock don’t; those who purchased the CD at Best Buy would very much have enjoyed the six-minute “Island Jam” included on a bonus CD. But overall it’s a nice if underwhelming album, and at least he didn’t try to disguise it as the return of Pink Floyd, because it wasn’t.
The tour for the album spawned two DVDs, the second of which was also released on CD in a dizzying variety of editions. Like the tour, Live In Gdańsk begins with a suite from Dark Side (of course) before a performance of On An Island in its entirety. A smattering of oldies make up the rest of the program, with a few tributes to Syd, who died that summer, a full-length “Echoes” and even “Fat Old Sun”. The more elaborate packages included various DVDs with bonus content, some including a bonus performance of “Wots… Uh The Deal”, sure to drain the wallets of the most devout Floyd enthusiasts. As live albums go, it’s enjoyable, unique for the live orchestra on some songs and Rick Wright on everything, as he himself died the week before the album came out. (Slightly more appealing was the Arnold Layne EP, a live tribute to Syd that featured two versions of the title track, one sung by Rick Wright and the other by David Bowie, plus Gilmour’s acoustic tribute of “Dark Globe”.)

David Gilmour On An Island (2006)—3
David Gilmour Live In Gdańsk (2008)—3

Monday, March 14, 2011

Elvis Costello 29: National Ransom

Elvis’s flirtation with bluegrass on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane proved to be much more than that once he took the show on the road. Several new songs came to fruition, and having taken the newly christened Sugarcanes back to the studio with T Bone Burnett at the helm, he emerged with National Ransom, a much more cohesive work than its predecessor.
The sheer variety of sound and style certainly makes it more interesting, with lots of nooks and crannies to hide the details. He hasn’t put out an album this, dare we say, eclectic since Spike. While that album—also a T Bone Burnett production—flirted with Celtic and New Orleans influences, much of National Ransom is colored by country and bluegrass instruments, with “pre-war” and Western swing being the predominant genres.
Thankfully, any and all drums are provided by Pete Thomas, and Steve Nieve is allowed to contribute some piano and organ here and there. The raveup title track has some new alt.country elements, as does “Five Small Words” and the truly catchy “I Lost You”, yet it’s not a stretch to hear these played by the Imposters. And good luck not getting swept up by the twisted Merseybeat of “The Spell That You Cast”.
“Bullets For The New-Born King” shows off his guitar prowess, those little hands of concrete finding gentle parts to play. Even more effective is the moving “One Bell Ringing”, with its horn parts reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s jazzier albums. Other tracks seem familiar; “Stations Of The Cross” borrows heavily from “My Dark Life”, while “Church Underground” appears to be a development of what started in “Just Another Mystery”. “That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving” follows in the R&B/soul tradition of The Delivery Man and The River In Reverse, while “My Lovely Jezebel”, despite the presence of Leon Russell and Marc Ribot, doesn’t quite make it.
Then there are songs that sound like they come from another time or place, like “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”, which would have fit on Spike, and the charming “A Slow Drag With Josephine”, with its closing whistle that reminds us of the Star Wars cantina scene. He’s been trying to write the big send-off of “A Voice in The Dark” for years, and he’s finally nailed it. Meanwhile, “You Hung The Moon” is a lovely crooner, even despite the subject matter.
In fact, some of these lyrics are so dense it’s not always clear what he’s on about, while others, like the clunkily-titled “Dr. Watson I Presume” are a little too obvious, but at least that one has a decent chorus. “All These Strangers” has potential, but takes so long to navigate the twists and turns of the melody following all the words.
At over an hour long, National Ransom was considered a bona fide double album, but he wasn’t done yet. Those who ordered it directly via his website had the option to receive the four-song National Ransack EP, later issued only on vinyl. Along with two excellent originals, a cover of “Big Boys Cry” by Bobby Charles and a surprising remake of his own “I Don’t Want To Go Home”, previously heard only in demo format on one of the My Aim Is True reissues, make it an essential companion to the album proper.

Elvis Costello National Ransom (2010)—3

Friday, March 11, 2011

Neil Young 45: Le Noise

Recorded live in a big room, mistakes and all, Le Noise gets its title from producer and fellow native Canadian Daniel Lanois—a man whose production style is a matter of taste for people, so that much of the album’s success or lack thereof is dictated by their opinion of him.
This is about as “solo” as a Neil album can be, for it consists only of his voice and guitar, subsequently run through a variety of effects. There are no drums or bass; any rhythm comes solely from his Gretsch or whatever loops have been dictated in the mixing process.
“Walk With Me” sets the tone, musically and lyrically, his slashing modal D chords providing the base for a plea or a dare. “Sign Of Love” comes from the same mold, something of a musical sequel to “Cinnamon Girl”, with an equally mysterious object of affection. The mood slows a bit for “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” without being redundant, but a true departure comes in “Love And War”, a pretty straightforward statement of purpose as he’s ever done, performed on an acoustic.
One of the more challenging tracks is “Angry World”, starting with its sampled vocal snippet that brings to mind “One Of Our Submarines” by Thomas Dolby. The performance is incredibly rough, and a little dissonant—even for Neil—but it soon wins over. “Hitchhiker” provides another piece of autobiography, a daring litany of his past drug use, set to a melody previously used in “Like An Inca” on Trans. An acknowledgement of his family and lost friends underscores how many of his peers and collaborators he’s survived. The acoustic returns for “Peaceful Valley Boulevard”, the track most typical of the Lanois sound, with a mysterious mythology to match. A cross between ecological concerns and personal improvement is the theme behind the oddly effective “Rumblin’”.
Like many Lanois projects, the album seems to be best suited for listening on cold, dark nights, or maybe accompanied by the full moon under which Neil tends to record. (The sessions were also filmed, giving an intimate glimpse into the creation of each track. Unfortunately, the occasional glimpse of Neil at a piano or his pump organ only has us wondering how many outtakes are in his growing vault.) Le Noise is not the easiest listen, but like most of his darker material, it is ultimately rewarding, and we can be happy that this old man is still in touch with his personal muse.

Neil Young Le Noise (2010)—4

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

David Bowie 32: Reality

Almost as quickly as ever before, Bowie was back with another new one, with much of the same band and production crew as on the satisfying Heathen. But while some have hailed Reality as a masterpiece, these ears were not nearly as wowed. The ingredients generally don’t add up and the covers—an unrecognizable “Pablo Picasso” by Jonathan Richman and “Try Some Buy Some” by George Harrison via Ronnie Spector—don’t seem to fit anywhere.
Something about “New Killer Star” manages to sound like a typical Bowie album opener, its jaunty meter belying the lyrics that seem to reference the recent attack on the World Trade Center. “Never Get Old” crosses the moods of Never Let Me Down and Outside, and it’s an odd transition into the depressing but touching lament of “The Loneliest Guy”. “Looking For Water” portends a doom that also may or may not be inspired by the aftermath of 9/11, while the tension in the opening verses of “She’ll Drive The Big Car” doesn’t last through the different chorus sections.
“Days” isn’t the Ray Davies song, which is a shame, since he could probably nail it. One of the more teasing tracks is “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon”, with its straightforward guitars, bass and drums riding a stop-and-start rhythm. The title track piles a lot of heavy sounds into a small space, making the lengthy closer “Bring Me The Disco King”, with its quieter jazz backing, easier to swallow.
Reality isn’t very exciting, no pun intended, but ultimately the good outweighs the bad. Bowie’s a trouper, so when he’s excited about something he promotes it. The subsequent tour was one of his better ones, covering all the highlights of his nearly forty-year career, until a health scare forced him to cut it short. The CD version of A Reality Tour (which had already been a DVD) shows off a terrific band, good sound and an extremely cheerful singer, yet suggested something of a finale for such a wild career. It was just as well; outside of a few guest appearances and the occasional catalog update, he stayed silent for his longest stretch in decades. Nine-plus years without new music had us thinking that he really had retired, yet, as much as we’d missed his input, something told us he was happy where he was. Finally.

David Bowie Reality (2003)—3
2007 limited 2CD edition: same as 2003, plus 8 extra tracks
David Bowie A Reality Tour (2010)—

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tom Waits 6: Blue Valentine

Don’t be fooled by the opening notes of “Somewhere”, dutifully subtitled as being the song from West Side Story. Despite the syrupy strings and the passionate if raspy vocal, it’s not representative of Blue Valentine as a whole.
Perhaps Tom thought he was beginning to spin his wheels; after all, how many songs can you write from the perspective of a barstool while clutching a Kerouac novel? This time out he added a jazzy tinge to his R&B, with guitars and pianos both electric and dominating the arrangements. Unfortunately, a lot of it sounds the same, undercutting the vague story within “Red Shoes By The Drugstore” and the true crime detail of “Romeo Is Bleeding”. “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” has a few humorous lines, but it’s all a clever setup for the twist in the last verse. Then there’s “$29.00”, which is eight minutes long and seems longer.
“Wrong Side Of The Road” seems to hearken back to the slow shuffles on his second album, but “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” picks up the pace a bit with an infectious riff. Likewise, “A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun” seems to recycle some familiar territory, with nursery rhyme references and the pointed mention of a scarecrow. And as with the last album, the closer is a near title track, but this time it’s a slow torchy burner on electric guitar, showing off his prowess on the instrument.
Past the promise of “Somewhere”, Blue Valentine doesn’t sound that great on paper, but there’s one track we didn’t mention yet. What redeems this album comes in the middle of side two, the positively heartbreaking “Kentucky Avenue”. Quite possibly the saddest song ever written and recorded by anybody, it begins tentatively with a few rolls on the piano, then the vocal begins to describe some quirky neighborhood characters—you know, the types of oddballs you find in Tom Waits songs. But soon the identity of the narrator becomes clearer. This isn’t a barfly but a kid, somewhere before adolescence, perhaps talking to himself—or is he? Throughout the track there is only one change from the few repeating chords, and right after that interval, the song begins to expand, his voice reaching for higher notes and cracking with emotion. When the strings finally enter, the secret is revealed: the person meant to hear this monologue is confined to a wheelchair and wears legbraces. The narrator’s desire to free his friend from this virtual prison stretches his dreams to the limit, the strings underscoring both the compassion of a child and the futility of the situation.
The song is stunning, and never fails to catch in your throat. And it makes the rest of the album almost worthwhile.

Tom Waits Blue Valentine (1978)—

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Big Star 3: Live and Nobody Can Dance

While Big Star wasn’t well known in their time, those that had experienced them firsthand generally agreed that their few live performances weren’t exactly stellar. But when the band became trendy in the early ‘90s, Rykodisc managed to pad their catalog with a live performance recorded by a Long Island radio station two months after Radio City was released, and after bass player Andy Hummel had quit.
Live presents the band, now reduced to a power trio with an unfamiliar bass player, plowing through two short sets of songs from their two albums, stopping halfway through for a quick interview and an acoustic set by Alex Chilton. The fluctuating levels inherent in most radio studio performances can be distracting, making the band sound even shakier than they already are. Alex is still depending on the same Strat tone he used all over Radio City, but he does a good job of covering all the guitar parts while straining to hit some of Chris Bell’s high notes. His disdain for the record business is apparent in both his between-song comments and the interview, and he gives the most of himself in a cover of Loudon Wainwright III’s groupie anthem “Motel Blues”.
While not as essential as their studio albums, people clamoring for anything from Big Star were happy to ingest Live, as it was the only official record of the band (well, part of them, anyway) in concert. That would change.

A few years later, another CD snuck out on a tiny label. Nobody Can Dance is split between a March ’74 rehearsal for that Long Island radio show and a short, pitch-problematic Memphis set from a few months after. The sound is even better (for the most part) than the Ryko set for the first half, while the second half provides proof that they not only played “Baby Strange” back then, but even included “The Letter”, presumably by audience request, an acknowledgement of Alex’s teenybopper past. Typically perverse, they do it in the slower Joe Cocker arrangement.

Big Star Live (1992)—3
Big Star Nobody Can Dance (1999)—

Friday, March 4, 2011

John Cale: Fragments Of A Solo Career

After leaving the Velvet Underground in 1968, John Cale—arguably the band’s most accomplished musician—dabbled in production and session work, before finally putting out his first solo album in 1970. Vintage Violence actually beat Loaded into the stores by about six months, but was even less of a hit.
It’s an oddity of an album, consisting mostly of straightforward rock songs based around his pounding piano, colored by country-styled electric guitar and crisp drums. The lyrics don’t always click, but the songs are so catchy the meanings don’t matter. “Gideon’s Bible” and “Please” sport lovely melodies, while “Big White Cloud” and “Charlemagne” go for a big production sound. The juxtaposition of the folkie “Amsterdam”, the startling “Ghost Story” and the simple “Fairweather Friend” demonstrates his refusal to be pigeonholed. Throughout, the then-unknown Garland Jeffreys wails along in harmony.

Both Church Of Anthrax, his last album for Columbia and a collaboration with avant-gardist Terry Riley, and The Academy In Peril, his first album for Reprise (who’d hired him as an A&R exec), were difficult listening for those seeking the mainstream pop of Vintage Violence. Which only made his next “rock” album more striking.
Paris 1919 is another collection of straightforward songs, recorded largely with members of Little Feat as the house band, giving the proceedings a slicker, L.A. feel. The opening “Child’s Christmas In Wales” shares its title with the wonderful Dylan Thomas piece, though its typically obscure lyrics that barely rhyme make it an unlikely Yuletide classic. “Hanky Panky Nohow” and “Antartica Starts Here” offer lush soundscapes, but the title track with its rich orchestration is the highlight of the album.

A switch to Island Records put him in touch with some like-minded individuals who, like and with him, recorded a series of albums that predicted both punk and New Wave, both in sound and subject matter. But he could also be tender, as demonstrated on the lovely “I Keep A Close Watch”. The Island Years 2-CD retrospective combines the three albums from this period. Rhino’s Seducing Down The Door compilation samples the same period but within the context of the rest of his solo career, including his 1990 collaboration with Brian Eno. But one of the more satisfying collections is the live Fragments Of A Rainy Season album. Recorded “unplugged”-style with only piano and acoustic guitar, these stripped-down arrangements bring out the basic quality in each. And his closing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” more than likely inspired Jeff Buckley’s beautiful version.

John Cale Vintage Violence (1970)—3
John Cale Paris 1919 (1973)—3
John Cale Fragments Of A Rainy Season (1992)—

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pink Floyd 17: The Division Bell

Seven years is a long time between albums for anybody, but since the Roger-less Pink Floyd had toured for about two of those years, their follow-up wasn’t that long in coming. But what made The Division Bell a better album was that it was pretty good; designed as a band collaboration with all three members on board—albeit with Gilmour’s wife given several co-writing credits—it has enough of the classic Floyd vibe throughout to make it a worthy successor to their old albums.
It starts, as it should, with a lengthy instrumental to set the mood. “What Do You Want From Me”, driven by an electric piano, doesn’t have to stretch too far to resemble “Have A Cigar” to remind the kids who this band is. The first real surprise is “Poles Apart”, with its spiraling acoustic guitars and smooth steel, marred only by a midsection that visits a carnival midway for some reason. “Marooned” is another instrumental that’s just plain bleak, followed by the recent history lesson of “A Great Day For Freedom” and the redemption of a lush chorus. And Rick Wright gets his first solo vocal in decades on the depressing “Wearing The Inside Out”.
The second half of the album is a little more cheery. “Take It Back” is built around trademark delayed guitar riffs, delivered in a style more akin to U2. There’s something about the way the tempo cuts in half for the last lines of the chorus, setting up for the dreamy intro to “Coming Back To Life”. The cowbell on that track gets maddening after a while, but the solos are classic Gilmour. “Keep Talking” is the most blatant expression to be the theme of the album, a plea for communication, and notable for the computerized appearance of Stephen Hawking. “Lost For Words” brings back the jaunty acoustic, and despite another bridge that travels to a boxing ring, brings the album down to earth with the blunt description of what his “enemies” told him when he asked “to wipe the slate clean”. The finale returns us to Grantchester Meadows amid the tolling of Parliament bells for “High Hopes”, which, despite its morose grandiosity, still yearns for a simpler time.
Naturally, Waters dismissed the album as the sloppy work of imposters, pretenders to his throne, and in some ways, he’s correct. But while it doesn’t reach the same level as the band’s ‘70s peak, The Division Bell—as does, to a much lesser extent, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason—succeeds by capturing some of the Pink Floyd magic that was sadly missing from nearly everything Waters had done since going on his own. Thus, the band gave the people what they want. (Waters, in comparison, tended to tell the people what they want, and pouted when no one agreed with him.)
By spearheading the revival of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour made the smart move. As the guitarist, composer and singer, he was able to sell his solo work via the Pink Floyd label; work that wouldn’t (and didn’t) sell much outside of the core Floyd audience. That’s a shame, as his actual solo albums were just as melodic and commercial as either of the two last Floyd albums, but without the pretension.
But following the release of the obligatory double live album Pulse, which repeated half of Delicate Sound Of Thunder but sported a complete performance of The Dark Side Of The Moon as well as a great take on “Astronomy Domine”, Gilmour must have felt that his mission was accomplished. Outside of continual repackages, it seemed like there was never to be another new Pink Floyd album.

Pink Floyd The Division Bell (1994)—
Pink Floyd Pulse (1995)—