Friday, September 30, 2011

Byrds 2: Turn! Turn! Turn!

Back when bands used to put out two albums a year—the luxury! Can you imagine?—it wasn’t common for said bands to screw with the formula too much. That’s how the Byrds’ second album gave the kids what they wanted: 12-string guitars, pristine harmonies and a couple of Dylan covers.
But they were smart guys, so Turn! Turn! Turn! wasn’t a complete retread of their debut. It helped that the title track was a huge hit, borrowed from a Pete Seeger arrangement of some Bible verses. “It Won’t Be Wrong” was left over from their earliest days trying to get a record deal, but “Set You Free This Time” stands out with Gene Clark’s rugged yet right lament on lost love. Listen for his mournful harmonica on the fade. It’s to the band’s credit that they managed to cover a previously unheard Bob Dylan song, the majestic ode to music of “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. The boys do a nice job finding harmonies for it, and somebody thought it was a good idea to bring Chris Hillman’s bass all the way up in the mix. Another stretch comes with the updated adaptation of the old folk song “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, which directly references the Kennedy assassination.
Another Gene Clark classic starts off side two in “The World Turns All Around Her”, framed by all those interlocking 12-strings. There’s a detour into a cover of another folk chestnut, “Satisfied Mind”, before we go back way left field for “If You’re Gone”. This song is, yes, another masterpiece by Gene Clark, a sad goodbye over unresolved harmonies that add an other-worldly air to the Eastern-sounding guitar. Unfortunately the effect is killed by a rather tepid run through “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and “Wait And See”, the first David Crosby song credit on a Byrds album, is just okay. In keeping with tradition, they end with a gag: this time it’s a folk-rock rendition of “Oh! Susannah”.
Turn! Turn! Turn! is still a good album, and shows off their progress as a tight band, but it still amounts to some water-treading. What was missing is apparent on the upgraded CD. First, there’s “The Day Walk”, occasionally subtitled “Never Before”, an incredible song surpassed in its untimely sophistication by the wondrous “She Don’t Care About Time”, which had been relegated to a B-side. It should come as no surprise by now that both of these songs were written by Gene Clark, whose quality of work was obviously starting to intimidate the more headstrong full-time guitar players in the band. It’s a matter of taste whether McGuinn’s Bach-flavored solo on the latter song was a good idea or just him trying to steal some limelight. A different arrangement of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, an unreleased take of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, a couple of alternate takes and a song that never got vocals, “Stranger In A Strange Land”, round out the bonuses, bringing up the disc’s value greatly.

The Byrds Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)—3
1996 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 7 extra tracks

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Velvet Underground 6: VU and Another View

In an early clue to the reissue trend of the CD era, Bill Levenson at PolyGram started taking advantage of the latest remastering technology to explore some of the lost treasures in the company’s vaults. Having acquired the rights to the Verve and MGM labels, he was able to coordinate the reissues of the first three Velvet Underground albums, which had long been out of print. (Loaded was still owned by Atlantic, and had stayed in their catalog on the strength of “Sweet Jane” and “Rock & Roll”.)
Glowing press items and the budget price helped push each album, but just as interesting to newcomers and old fans alike was the cool collection of unreleased tracks Levenson found in the same vaults and spruced up nicely, even adding a more contemporary snap to the drums.
While most of the tracks were recorded in the space between the third album and Loaded, the notes took pains to insist that VU was in no way a rumored lost album; it was still a testament to Lou Reed’s ability to write great songs and the band’s ability to deliver them. “I Can’t Stand It”, “Ocean” and “Lisa Says” were of course familiar to the seven people who’d bought Lou’s first solo album. These versions rock as good as any; “Lisa Says” in particular benefits from not having the “why am I so shy” interlude. Likewise, “She’s My Best Friend” and “Andy’s Chest” are run at faster paces than Lou’s sluggish solo takes. Just as revelatory is “Stephanie Says”, which would be redone on Berlin and here features a wonderful arpeggiated guitar part plus John Cale’s fittingly sympathetic viola.
Then there are the completely new tracks. “Foggy Notion” chugs along like a train (particularly on the LP version, which has a false start available nowhere else), but the more ordinary “One Of These Days” was best left aside. “Temptation Inside Your Heart” sounds like they didn’t want to bother mixing the vocal parts, but it’s still nice to hear the boys banter in the booth. And good old Moe Tucker gets the last word with the exceptionally sweet “I’m Sticking With You”.

VU must have been something of a success, as nothing else could explain how a second volume, with the phonetically clever title Another View, snuck into stores with no fanfare and the same inner sleeve that had graced its brother reissues. This one was definitely for obsessives, as the multiple takes and backing tracks are more indicative of a bootleg. While the sound is excellent and up to major-label standards, one longs to hear the lyrics that would have graced such songs as “Guess I’m Falling In Love” and “Ride Into The Sun”; at the same time, “I’m Gonna Move Right In” isn’t much more than a jam. “We’re Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together” was familiar to longtime fans, though “Ferryboat Bill” and “Coney Island Steeplechase” could have spent more time being honed before recording. The first recorded version of “Rock & Roll” is nice from a historical standpoint, but you’d be hard-pressed to decide which version of “Hey Mr. Rain” is better. Both feature John Cale, and both are stunning. If you like that sort of thing.

The Velvet Underground VU (1985)—
The Velvet Underground Another View (1986)—3

Monday, September 26, 2011

Robert Plant 10: Raising Sand

To the astonishment of everyone, Robert Plant managed his biggest critical success in years—if not ever—for his collaboration with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand. Much of the success can be attributed to hip roots music producer T Bone Burnett, who’d already sold millions and got a Grammy for his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The sound sits somewhere between that, a Daniel Lanois production and a Tom Waits album, and not just from using some of the same musicians.
Alison Krauss has one of the sweetest, clearest voices in music, not to mention that she’s a cute as a box full of buttons. She’s also a great fiddle player, which takes a back seat to the songs. The selections run the gamut from bluegrass standards to newer folk nuggets. The exceptions are a recent Waits tune, which Alison nails, and amazingly, “Please Read The Letter”, a song first heard on the Page/Plant album and here taken at a much more contemplative pace. The two Gene Clark songs are exceptional, though we can do without yet another version of “Fortune Teller”. The track that got the most exposure was the chugging “Gone Gone Gone (Done Me Wrong)”, which sounded the most like something like Robert might have sung earlier in his solo career.
Most of the songs are duets, and they blend nicely. What’s especially impressive is the development of Robert’s voice as he’s aged. For a tangential comparison, consider the recent sounds of Bob Dylan, who finally stopped yelling like he did through most of the ‘80s and got more comfortable in the lower register. That kept his voice from getting worse until just recently. Robert’s done that too; he doesn’t go for the high notes at all, and instead has made the most of the notes he can reach.
Raising Sand is the culmination of his work since the turn of the century, immersing himself in older folk and country songs and reinterpreting them in fresh ways. Not only did it win a Grammy, but it kept him interested in doing absolutely anything besides heeding the inevitable calls for a Zeppelin reunion. It’s a special album; not about to replace the band that spawned him, but it’s far from an embarrassment.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss Raising Sand (2007)—4

Friday, September 23, 2011

R.E.M. 8: Out Of Time

After their longest absence yet, Out Of Time sent R.E.M. thoroughly in to the stratosphere. It still had its weird moments, but concentrated more on straight pop with lighter touches—like chamber string arrangements—to truly appeal to the masses.
That’s not to suggest it would be confused with anything else on the pop charts. The very first sound we hear is KRS-One’s spoken intro to “Radio Song”, which blasts the current state of the broadcast medium. The song alternates between a standard arpeggiated section and a funky organ-based rant, with more KRS-One. The striking first single was “Losing My Religion”, and it’s easier to maintain one’s interest by continually embellishing it with different lyrics (“It’s bigger than you and you’re not that big… that’s me in the bathroom, that’s me in the driveway… consider this, consider this a divorce… every waking hour I’m flossing my bicuspids, brushing my incisors… I thought I heard you sing, I tawt I taw a puddy tat…”) “Low” provides the old swampy R.E.M. sound, though we still scratch our heads to the repeated lines about “love”. Contemporary interviews said this was their first album that dealt with the topic of romantic relationships, but if that’s the case, what the hell was Reckoning about? Anyway, “Near Wild Heaven” brings back the sunshine on a song led by Mike Mills; one can’t see Stipe contributing much to this beyond the “ba-ba-ba-bah-bah-bah” chorus. The nearly instrumental “Endgame” resembles nothing too far removed from “please stand by” music on PBS.
Even the band never wants to hear “Shiny Happy People” again. This album’s equivalent to “Stand”, it has been only slightly redeemed by Sesame Street’s revision. “Belong” is an extended jam started on the last tour, a distant cousin of “Superman” giving Stipe a reason to think he could recite his poetry without having to worry about melody. “Half A World Away” reprises the organ and mandolins in something of a retread of “Losing My Religion”. Mike Mills takes the lead again on “Texarkana”, which sports a strong resemblance to latter-day Moody Blues. “Country Feedback” is one of those songs that divides people, and rightfully so. It’s a simple four-chord sequence, repeated with distortion and feedback, layered with pedal steel guitar and Stipe’s stream-of-consciousness vocals, the latter of which would become a growing trend. Our favorite is still “Me In Honey”, a simple strum with a catchy beat, Kate Pierson’s moaning counterpart and an unresolved lyric about a life choice. With all their talk of “progression”, this song is classic R.E.M. just like we want them: guitar, bass and drums with vocals.
As with anything that became hugely popular in the early ‘90s, familiarity has lessened Out Of Time’s excitement over the past two decades (good Lord), but boy, did it sound great when it came out. The boys also didn’t tour behind it, so we were left to scramble to watch any TV appearances, which probably heightened the excitement. These days it seems a little too sunny, and we can forgive that. It didn’t emerge in the friendliest of atmospheres.
It was another one of those albums that made us feel very old once its 25th Anniversary Edition came out. The bonus disc was filled up with what the packaging called demos, but are better described as early versions, mostly without lyrics. That means two more versions of “Losing My Religion”, “Shiny Happy People”, “Near Wild Heaven” and “Texarkana” (one of which has Stipe singing a completely different set of lyrics) and three of “Radio Song” (one of which sounds like Bill Berry singing the other parts). There is one otherwise unfinished “rocker”, but slightly more interesting, and less tedious, is the expensive package, which adds most of their appearance on the Mountain Stage radio show plus the obligatory 5.1 surround mixes and video artifacts.

R.E.M. Out Of Time (1991)—
2016 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 1991, plus 19 extra tracks (Deluxe adds another 15 tracks and Blu-ray)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Byrds 1: Mr. Tambourine Man

In hindsight, it was highly improbable that the Byrds would have left such an indelible stamp on rock history. They were basically a bunch of folkies who, after seeing A Hard Day’s Night, realized they could make more money by emulating the sounds of the British Invasion. Jim McGuinn (as he was then known) took a shine to the 12-string Rickenbacker he saw George Harrison playing in the movie, so that was different. David Crosby got himself a 12-string too, but chose to concentrate on rhythm and high harmonies. Gene Clark wrote a bunch of songs but was relegated to tambourine onstage. Chris Hillman, previously a mandolinist, learned the bass quickly enough, and Michael Clarke’s haircut got him in the band as long as he learned his way around a drumkit.
Another marketing angle that would have backfired on anyone else was their access and interpretation of Bob Dylan’s songs. While the Byrds weren’t explicitly responsible for his going electric, their amplified renditions certainly proved that his appeal went far beyond the coffeehouse. As a result, folk-rock was invented.
In addition to the title track—which artfully chopped the song down from its four verses into a simple, catchy chorus-verse-chorus format—Mr. Tambourine Man offers three other Dylan classics previously known in their acoustic renditions on Another Side Of Bob Dylan. “Chimes Of Freedom”, “All I Really Want To Do” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” each gain a little something from the blend of electricity and harmonies.
To prove they were more than a jukebox, half of the album was devoted to the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl songs written by Gene Clark. The most famous is still probably “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, noticeable from its opening suspended-A strum and its carbon-copy cover by Tom Petty. That said, “Here Without You”, “It’s No Use” and the others prove that he (and the band) were capable of creating commercial pop. Another nod to their folk routes came in their stellar arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “The Bells Of Rhymney”, which itself foreshadowed a later hit. And for another strike for the counterculture, the set closes with a cover of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”, riding the irony of its status as a wartime lament.
If there’s a clunker on the album, it’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe”, which they didn’t write but cheerfully recorded as a favor. But thanks to those great singles, the chiming Rickenbacker and those stellar harmonies, Mr. Tambourine Man remains a solid album. When their catalog was revamped in the mid-‘90s, there wasn’t much to add outside a few alternate takes. But Gene Clark’s “She Has A Way” deserved better than to be left in the vault, and to prove that these guys could play (despite the studio musicians used on the single) the updated CD now ends with an instrumental backing track to a song never finished.

The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)—
1996 CD reissue: same as 1965, plus 6 extra tracks

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lou Reed 14: The Blue Mask

The ‘80s brought some changes in music, while others ignored them. Lou Reed was more concerned with getting sober than anything else, but in the process worked to make his albums more literary if not poetic. For instance, the title track for 1979’s The Bells was said to be a spontaneous performance that he ranks with his best.
For whatever reason—and it couldn’t have been blockbuster record sales—he went back to RCA for The Blue Mask, which works as both a new beginning as well as a continuation of his life’s work. He sounds like he’s trying to bring it back to basics, from the borrowing of the cover photo from Transformer to the basic two guitars, bass and drums (just like the Velvet Underground).
Lou saw each of his albums as chapters in his ongoing Great American Novel, often blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and here the album is bookended by odes to his then wife Sylvia. “My House” references both his recent marriage and his attempts to contact the spirit of his mentor Delmore Schwartz. The problem is his attempt to apply a melody to his lyrics, almost as an afterthought. “Heavenly Arms” is a doo-wop song in all but arrangement, complete with the use of his wife’s name as the chorus.
More sentimentality is upfront on “The Day John Kennedy Died”, a surprising recount of that event, balanced with an expression of hope for good in a dark world. “Women” opens with a beautifully gentle guitar piece, before turning into an ode to the gender that rides the line between sarcasm and apology for much of his earlier misogynistic work.
His alcoholic ways are explored in “Underneath The Bottle”, but one would hope that the scarier imagery in “The Gun” isn’t from personal experience. “Waves Of Fear” has a great band sound, and while “Average Guy” tries to rise above its jokey punk vocal, its snotty portrait is best left to actual comedians. A little better is “The Heroine”, a solo performance that has only a cosmetic lyrical relation to “Heroin” from the first VU album. The blistering title track is a journey back to the depths of decadence.
If anything, The Blue Mask is a very cohesive album, helped by the band and anchored by the fretless bass of Fernando Saunders (an acquired taste to be sure) and featuring Reed disciple Robert Quine of the Voidoids on the other guitar. It was better than most of his recent work, but it’s hardly a masterpiece.

Lou Reed The Blue Mask (1982)—3

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ben Folds 6: Ben Folds Live

Whether he’s playing with a band or on his own, every Ben Folds concert offers something different from the previous performance. His encyclopedic knowledge of his own catalog, as well as others, means every setlist is a coin toss, and his love for new and old cheese can lead to any number of improvisations.
So when he puts out a live album culled from a variety of concerts, the selection can almost seem arbitrary, leading one to suspect such a move as being merely financial while he takes his sweet time between new studio albums. But fans should have plenty to appreciate with the simply titled Ben Folds Live, beginning with the sly distortion of his first band’s first album title in the artwork, and continuing with the cover photo itself (documented in a hilarious clip on the accompanying DVD).
It’s just him and a piano, but such is his style that he’s still able to make the rockier songs move. And since the audiences are all devoted fans, it’s easy enough for them to pick up his instructions to emulate some of the arrangements, like the horns on “Army” and the harmonies on “Not The Same”. (The guy from Cake even walks on to add his part to “Fred Jones Part 2”, just like on the album.)
A few rarities are included, like the rarely heard “Silver Street” and the jokey B-side about B-sides, “One Down”. His debt to Elton John is paid on a faithful “Tiny Dancer”, while “Philosophy” is extended to incorporate all kinds of themes for the coda, including Dick Dale’s surf classic “Miserlou”, which the crowd likely knew from watching Pulp Fiction.
As enjoyable as it is for fans, there’s still something incomplete about Ben Folds Live. It’s best illustrated by the inclusion of “Rock This Bitch”, which is kind of his own “Drums In Space” improvisation, and which has been different every time he’s done it. So how could he possibly pick one?

Ben Folds Ben Folds Live (2002)—3

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lou Reed 11: Take No Prisoners

Arista knew that Lou’s live albums sold the best, so a residency at the Bottom Line led to Take No Prisoners, a two-record set with a fairly apt title. This album presents Lou as his generation’s Don Rickles, paying the barest attention to the songs, choosing instead to bark at or about whoever’s pissing him off at any given moment.
The biggest nose-thumb is “Walk On The Wild Side”. Rather than the snappy beat poetry that was a radio staple, here he begins by complaining about the sound crew, club management and promoter, moving on to his critics, and finally starting the song before distracting himself (and the crowd) with the intention to go into further details about how the song came to be and the people inside it. Even that’s barely accomplished, and for sixteen minutes he talks and talks, occasionally punctuated by an actual chorus. Like the best comedy albums, it’s actually pretty entertaining.
But in between the crowd-baiting and general ranting you can hear a patient band keeping up with him, and pulling out some truly amazing performances. He does inhabit each of the monologues on “Street Hassle” for a performance that rivals the original. “Coney Island Baby”, so pretty in its gentle studio cut, is stretched even further here, complete with a few more lines taking about his high school intramural sports experience, getting completely worked up for each lead-in to “the glory of love”, and letting the band drive him for a slamming end. “Berlin” is patterned after the version on his debut, using the chorus but also tapping into the anger of the album the song inspired. And he slows “Satellite Of Love” down to a more leisurely pace, even strapping on a guitar for the distorted chords at the end. (Those last three tracks would comprise one side of 1985’s Arista “hits” collection City Lights, while “Coney Island Baby” was featured on the career-spanning Rock And Roll Diary a few years earlier.)
Take No Prisoners should only appeal to diehard fans, or at least those who like their Lou snarling. Even the packaging played up this side of him, with collages of “shocking” articles about the boy decorating the inner sleeves. If anything, looking at the actual vinyl makes for an interesting comparison with, say, Barry Manilow Live. (Addendum: apparently the cover itself caused a bit of controversy in the world, as explained by one of our faithful readers.)

Lou Reed Take No Prisoners (1978)—3

Monday, September 12, 2011

R.E.M. 7: Green

It was a fleeting, fascinating time when your favorite band would put out a new album, an eternal year after the last one, and full of anticipation at “what’ll they sound like this time?” you’d sit listening to it over and over again, digesting it, trying to figure where it fit in the pantheon of all that had gone before.
Particularly after the water-treading that was U2’s Rattle & Hum, this was what it was like to experience Green, the new R.E.M. album, released on Election Day 1988 on the verge of the third term of the Reagan administration. It was a big deal for the band, having graduated to Warner Bros. while retaining the producer from their last album. (Not to be outdone, their previous label put out the Eponymous “hits” collection a month in advance, complete with such rarities as the original indie single version of “Radio Free Europe”, a couple of alternate takes and a song used in a movie nobody saw but this commentator, though he’d be happy to be proved otherwise.)
Despite their growing accessibility, there was still a mystery about R.E.M., and as it was becoming easier to understand the words coming out of Stipe’s mouth, it was also easier to concoct wacky theories about their meaning. For the first few months of owning Green we were convinced that it was a concept album sung from the point of view of a disabled and/or retarded child, which only sounded dumber the more we expounded on it. But think about it: “Pop Song 89” is a collection of simple statements, followed by “Get Up”, an escape from dreaming complete with a musical box interlude. “You Are The Everything”—the first overt use of mandolin on an R.E.M. album—looks back to simpler times when you could stretch out in the back seat of a car. The near-nursery rhyme “Stand” would soon become everyone’s least favorite song. Stipe held “World Leader Pretend”, a view of war from a little green army men perspective, to be so important that he actually printed the lyrics in the packaging. And once you get to the competing vocals in “The Wrong Child”, it’s a little unsettling.
“Orange Crush” wasn’t the best choice for lead single, and its title doesn’t help; basically it’s a more mercenary approach to “World Leader Pretend”. Things get really loud on “Turn You Inside Out”, with Mike Mills yelling his harmony in the background. The real standout is “Hairshirt”, one of the band’s prettiest and simplest yet most baffling songs. “I Remember California” follows a doom-laden riff through a foreboding premonition of the end times. It’s the last song listed on the back of the CD case, but wait! Didn’t we see the number 11 on the disc itself, next to a blank space and a time listing? Why yes, there’s another song on the album. Based around the most basic of drum beats—played by Peter Buck, as Bill Berry insisted that it was impossible “to play that stupidly for that long”—the song is listed at the band’s website as “Untitled”, but copyrighted as “11”. It incorporates more intertwined lyrics, and one of the most tender benedictions ever, suitable for all formal occasions: “I made a list of things to say/But all I want to say/All I really want to say is/Hold her and keep him strong/While I’m away from here.”
Familiarity ate away at Green’s luster over time, and the ubiquity of the hits tends to keep it on the shelf. But when taken down for a spin, the better parts still emerge, and it’s hard to believe that it was so long ago. At the same time, it’s easy to see where they’d take themselves over the next few years.
First, however, they toured, and most of a concert from Greensboro—conveniently enough for the packaging—makes up the bonus disc in the 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (a further five issued as a Record Store Day vinyl exclusive). The band is tight and driven, showing that the new songs were made for the stage, but maybe it’s the months on the road that make some of the backing vocals a little rusty. He’s not credited anywhere, but Peter Holsapple did add some voice and instrumentation on that tour, so maybe we can blame him. Still, his presence makes it possible for them to play “Perfect Circle”. Also, to show they hadn’t been resting, we even get sneak previews in the form of “Belong” and “Low”.

R.E.M. Eponymous (1988)—4
R.E.M. Green (1988)—
2013 25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1988, plus 21 extra tracks

Friday, September 9, 2011

Asia: Asia and Alpha

It’s fairly inarguable that Americans and Europeans love cheese. Whether it’s cheddar, Brie, Camembert or Gouda, somebody somewhere is sinking his or her teeth into it and feeling immediate satisfaction. And when it comes to musical cheese of the ‘80s, few morsels are as tasty as Asia.
Based on the ingredients, they might have been considered prog-rock, but a cursory listen to the music they created put paid to that fairly quickly. This was arena-rock plain and simple, and a welcome infusion into the music scene at a time when disco was dead and metal hadn’t become mainstream. It’s very possible that the eponymous debut “saved” the record industry, giving boys in high school parking lots something to talk about until Led Zeppelin’s Coda snuck out that fall.
But it had its roots in prog, causing those family trees to become even more entangled. On bass and lead vocals was John Wetton, who’d made his name with one of the mid-‘70s King Crimson lineups. On drums was Carl Palmer, having shed the albatrosses of Emerson and Lake. The other two guys came from Yes—Steve Howe, who’d been their lead guitarist for all of the ‘70s, and Geoff Downes, who’d been on exactly one Yes album (without Jon Anderson) fresh from the “success” of the Buggles. (The other Buggle, Trevor Horn, kept himself busy producing the band still known as Yes, along with ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and others.)
Asia is masterfully sequenced, putting the first two singles at the top. Anyone who remembers when “Heat Of The Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” were on constant MTV rotation will have trouble refraining from singing along. Both songs are chock full of fast guitar, keyboard beds and dramatic shifts, and are pure pop. Past that, there’s still high comedy in the way John Wetton never quite hits the high notes on “Sole Survivor” and “One Step Closer”. “Time Again” begins with a painfully plodding riff, speeding up and slowing down before going to full gallop in the song proper.
“Wildest Dreams” begins the second side with the type of suspended chords favored by old Genesis, before finding its base in the electric piano couplets that shortly would be stolen by Bon Jovi on “Runaway”. “Without You” is the requisite sensitive lost love song, while “Cutting It Fine” begins with a tasty acoustic trill soon picked up by the keyboards, then trampled into the relative minor key. More strained high notes carry the song through to its extended dreamy ending. They pull out all the stops for “Here Comes The Feeling”, lifted nearly wholesale from The Who’s “Had Enough”, throwing in several key changes at the end and finishing on a pointedly stupid flourish.

The album was so successful that a follow-up was in order. However, just like Men At Work alongside them, all of the best eggs had seemingly gone in the first basket. Despite the catchiness of “Don’t Cry”, the aching splendor of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” and the boneheaded determinism of “My Own Time (I’ll Do What I Want)”, there wasn’t enough quality, real or perceived, to sustain interest in the rest of Alpha. There were two songs based around the metaphor of eyes, and “The Heat Goes On” tries too hard to evoke a connection to “Heat Of The Moment” without being as good. (Though it does have a pretty decent Hammond B-3 solo.)
They were barely out of the gate before having to replace Wetton on the “Asia in Asia” tour with Greg Lake, of all people, who apparently wasn’t thrilled enough with his old comrade to keep his next band from turning into Emerson, Lake and Powell. A very long two years went by before Wetton was back for Astra, but now Steve Howe had gone off to another prog supergroup (the hilarious GTR, which was produced by Geoff Downes) only to be replaced by a guy from Krokus.
Anytime you see Asia these days, you can bet on having Geoff Downes scowling behind his keyboards, but it’s anyone’s guess whether any of the original other three will be along for the ride. Or, you can look for a guy named John Payne, who was the band’s singer in the ‘90s and has managed to ride that rocket this far into the 21st century. But those of us who remember will pull out our copies of the first two albums, once the pride of the fledgling Geffen label, and smile, and then laugh and laugh and laugh.

Asia Asia (1982)—
Asia Alpha (1983)—

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Van Morrison 2: Moondance

Having found a way to make the music he heard in his head, Van proceeded to record a collection of songs that covered all his interests: jazz, folk, country and even pop. Of all his records—and he’s got a lot—Moondance is still the best place for newbies to start.
In a departure from the esoteric jazz sound of Astral Weeks, the album is overtly catchy, with memorable choruses and hooks aplenty. None so more than “And It Stoned Me”, which seemingly describes a journey to a fishing hole with a stop off at a guy who offers the narrator and his friends a welcome drink of water or something stronger. Whether that something is to be considered sinister is moot for our purposes here; the singer is just happy to reveling in the day and what the moment has to offer. Maybe they’ll even catch something. A pointedly more adult journey is taken on the title track, still one of the most unique tracks ever recorded in the rock era, layered by a jazzy bassline, piano and flute backing. “Crazy Love” is an overt love song, complete with the Sweet Inspirations helping out, just like they would have had he stayed in the “Brown Eyed Girl” mode forever. “Caravan” manages to convey images of a gypsy troupe in the countryside along with the wonder of hearing amazing new and old sounds on American radio. But it’s “Into The Mystic” that crowns it all, a wondrous song about something and nothing, taking joy in whatever it is that’s rocking Van’s gypsy soul. These songs are perfect, and give another reason why the art of the album side must be preserved.
Side two is slightly straighter pop, less deep but still catchy. “Come Running” works in the saxophones that supported the songs on side one, but they were so unobtrusive that they didn’t overwhelm. They continue on “These Dreams Of You”, a nice loping fable that begins in Canada. The Sweet Inspirations return for “Brand New Day”, a wonderful celebration of the same. “Everyone” was famously used for the closing credits of The Royal Tenenbaums, and hearkens back again to his earlier image while hinting at the depth he’d decided to plumb. (That sure is a prominent harpsichord, isn’t it?) Which only makes the jumping bass of “Glad Tidings”, an early clue to the new direction, all the more welcome.
Again, Moondance is a solid pop album. If anything, its relationship with its predecessor can be compared to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, wherein the latter softened the delivery to make the message more palatable. Even if that was his intention, he wouldn’t admit it, but he would rarely attempt to be so universally accessible going forward. (And if you’re looking for further distraction from his longtime image, take a gander at the liner notes, written by his then-wife with the alliterative hippie name. It’s quite a leap from the Van who’s best known for being grumpy and lonesome.)
A good 43 years after its original release, with virtually no warning or seeming tie-in, Warner Bros. created something of a Moondance Sessions set, adding 50 tracks on three discs to the original LP (plus a surround mix). Along with multiple working takes of half of the album’s songs, there are also lengthy, raucous takes of “I’ve Been Working”, 13 takes of the ultimately unreleased Van-goes-to-Rio “I Shall Sing” eventually pawned off on Art Garfunkel, and alternate mixes aplenty. (A cheaper two-disc option offered 11 of these. Van, who did not authorize the project, condemned it in all formats.)
As with any jazz performer, Van constantly modified arrangements until he was satisfied with them, so hearing the directions these songs might have taken is fascinating. While the band is certainly tight on “Caravan”, we can be grateful he dropped the “buttercup” rhyme for the album version. “Glad Tidings” began in the tempo we know, but was also tried and abandoned in slower takes. (Take 9 is a keeper, however.) Sadly, he did not end “Into The Mystic” with “it’s too late to stop now” every time.

Van Morrison Moondance (1970)—4
2013 Expanded Edition: same as 1970, plus 11 extra tracks
2013 Deluxe Edition: same as Expanded Edition, plus 39 extra tracks (and Blu-ray disc)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Television 2: Adventure

Once upon a time, record labels weren’t as quick to dump people from their rosters if they hadn’t sold millions of copies of their records. This was certainly the case of a smaller label like Elektra, which, despite having the distribution power of the Warner conglomerate, still maintained a lean but choice stable of performers. So it was that Television recorded and released their second album to even less of a ripple than their first.
Chances are, even the handful of people who were excited to have another Television album might have been disappointed at first, as Adventure doesn’t seem as groundbreaking as Marquee Moon. And how could it be? Instead, Tom Verlaine concocted some relatively tame compositions, yet still loaded with melody and interlocking guitar parts. “Glory” is a rocking opener, but things immediately get softer for “Days”. “Foxhole” follows along in the tradition of “Friction”, a little harder and loaded with war metaphors. “Careful” is a misleading title for a song whose main motif is “I don’t care”; likewise, the production buffs a lot of potential edge off it. The shimmering “Carried Away” adds piano and organ into the mix, and one suspects the Patti Smith Group might have enjoyed this one.
The second side is dominated by two “epics”, with a classic in the middle. “The Fire” sports a whistling intro right out of a horror movie, which both accentuates and deflates the drama of the song. The chords of the chorus elevate the song past the rather ordinary verses. “Ain’t That Nothin’” is the album’s masterpiece, a compact distillation of the best parts of Marquee Moon, with a great lyric on top. (It was also the album’s single, which nobody bought either.) “The Dream’s Dream” fades in on a flourish, plays without vocals for a couple of minutes, then turns left for the verse before continuing on the theme prior for the last half of the track, building and building, then hushing again for a more meditative vamp through the fade.
There’s nothing wrong with Adventure; it simply doesn’t deliver the excitement of its predecessor. Still, for anyone who loves Marquee Moon—and you know who you are—the album deserves a place in the rack next to its brother. And with Rhino’s upgraded version of the album, you get liner notes and bonus tracks, such as the long-lost title track, an early take of “Glory” and two alternates of “Ain’t That Nothin’”—the single mix and a nearly ten-minute instrumental take not listed in the packaging.

Television Adventure (1978)—
2003 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 2, 2011

Monkees 6: Head

The Monkees’ feature film Head was designed to explode their image, and on that level it was successful. Throughout its 85 minutes the Pre-Fab Four skewer their caricatures, get sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner, are trapped in a variety of boxes, get torn limb from limb and even attempt suicide off a bridge. Despite having no real plot, it can be considered an extended version of the TV show, right down to the same lettering on the credits. But there are teenage musical interludes, just like on the show, and because it was the law, there was a soundtrack album.
Head can be considered the last real Monkees album, as it was the last to feature all four members for the better part of thirty years. However, it’s a stretch to call it a Monkees album at all, since the handful of actual songs are interspersed with incidental music, dialogue and effects from the film (sometimes repeated) making for a very disjointed listening experience even if you had watched the film ahead of time.
Like said film, the album starts promisingly enough with a montage leading into the exquisite “Porpoise Song”, with its majestic psychedelic swirl, about something and nothing all at the same time. A spoken nursery rhyme parodies the “hey hey we’re the Monkees” theme song, before giving way to Mike’s “Circle Sky”. While it was performed live by the Monkees themselves for the movie, the studio version was recorded with session guys, and it’s a little tighter, as can be imagined.
Unfortunately, this is where the good part ends. “As We Go Along” is a Goffin/King composition chirped by Micky, while Davy gets to tap-dance all over “Daddy’s Song”, another uncomfortably personal Nilsson song. Peter finally gets two songs on an album, but they’re the quasi-mystical “Can You Dig It?” (accompanied by an embarrassing sequence in the film featuring Micky as a sheik) and the fitting “Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again?”, both leftovers from the sessions for the last album. Neil Young’s buried in there somewhere, too.
Peter would leave the band soon after filming the band’s phenomenally hideous 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee TV spectacular, leaving the other three (and then, just two) to continue making albums and touring. It’s a shame that Head is the end of the line, considering the promise they showed only a year before. Still, Monkeemaniacs hold their entire catalog in high esteem, and likely are still drooling about Rhino’s Deluxe Edition, expanded to three CDs, and possibly the most elaborate re-packaging of seven songs that weren’t that good to begin with.

The Monkees Head (1968)—
1994 reissue CD: same as 1966, plus 6 extra tracks
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 38 extra tracks