Friday, March 30, 2012

Frank Zappa 4: Lumpy Gravy

While he made his impact on society in a rock band, Frank saw himself as a composer first, creating what he considered to be 20th century classical music. Well before the Mothers started he had composed various pieces for orchestra that would eventually find their way into the rock format. So it was that when Capitol Records offered him a chance to record an instrumental album, he jumped at it.
The usual record company shenanigans meant that the album was delayed for several months, by which time he had already begun assembling We’re Only In It For The Money, and in the process, kept fiddling with the tapes from the Capitol instrumental sessions. When the album known as Lumpy Gravy finally appeared, it was credited to Zappa alone (well, along with the “Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus”) and presented as something of a companion to the Mothers album.
And it is, though it’s even more chaotic than its brother. By the time he was done editing it, Lumpy Gravy was two side-long collages just short of 16 minutes each, mixing the orchestra pieces, some older pop-jazz recordings and excerpts from ad-libbed conversations between various acquaintances. Those dialogue snippets—about pigs, ponies and Oldsmobiles—soon take over the proceedings, but the intrepid listener will find music now more commonly recognizable as “Oh No”, “King Kong” and “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”. (That classical snippet from “Mother People” is here as well.)
Those just dipping their toes into the man’s work might be confused by Lumpy Gravy, or they may enjoy the musical passages, which aren’t atonal. It’s not for everyone, but we can dig it.
Its first CD appearance came on a two-fer where it followed the much-maligned ‘80s remix of We’re Only In It For The Money, a move that arguably provided its widest exposure. The 1995 Rykodisc catalog relaunch presented it on its own, with the difference that each of the two parts was indexed (for the few CD players that still utilized that feature) with formal titles for each subsection.
The Lumpy Money Project/Object triple-CD set, besides providing the genesis of the WOIIFTM album, presents Frank’s original orchestra-only edit (which, not surprisingly, includes several sections repeated verbatim several times) along with a previously unreleased version of the finished album with new bass and drums added in 1984 a la the WOIIFTM remix. This would have certainly upset purists—especially the lyrics sung Thing-Fish-style added to the opening theme now known as “Duodenum”—had it been released that way.

Frank Zappa Lumpy Gravy (1968) —
1986 Rykodisc CD: same as 1968, plus remixed We’re Only In It For The Money album
1995 Rykodisc CD: same as 1968

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Graham Nash 1: Songs For Beginners

The immediate result of the Beatles “breakup” in 1970 meant that fans could potentially get four albums a year instead of one. The same could be said for CSNY, whom many were calling the Beatles’ American counterpart that same year. By mid-1971, each of the four had followed Déjà Vu with their own statement.
Graham Nash’s album was the last to emerge. Of the group he was the most pop (and least experimental) so it’s to be expected that Songs For Beginners would be as accessible as it is. Like those of his cronies, it was pieced together over time and using many of the same musicians.
The album is bookended by two political songs. “Military Madness” is a toe-tapping history lesson, with Dave Mason’s incessant soloing and wailing backing vocals. “Chicago” would have been familiar to those who’d bought 4 Way Street a month earlier; here its coda is indexed separately as “We Can Change The World”, his heavy-handed piano pounding away.
In between are eight songs that seem to mostly lament his breakup with Joni Mitchell. “Better Days” and “Simple Man” are nice little sketches, embellished by just enough instrumentation, while “Wounded Bird” just floats past. “I Used To Be A King” gets something of a big production, with the likes of Jerry Garcia and, depending on which credits you read, Neil Young adding pedal steel and piano to its urgent chorus. Neil’s influence is obvious on “Man In The Mirror”, from the country touches to the competing meters. “Sleep Song” was supposedly too risqué for the Hollies; “Be Yourself” and “There’s Only One” come off as hurriedly written, but still enjoyable.
Barely half an hour long, there’s still a lot of memorable melody packed into these grooves. He can still be proud of Songs For Beginners, and it makes a nice companion to his friends’ contemporary installments. Of course, just as with the Beatles, the idea of four albums a year instead of one was too good to be true. Yet the initial bounty suggested otherwise, and for a time, the promise of the music seemed to be eternal.

Graham Nash Songs For Beginners (1971)—

Monday, March 26, 2012

Police 6: Afterwards

After only five albums in as many years, the Police were done. The closest thing to a sixth album came in the form of a single new song on a hits collection. The drastically rearranged “Don’t Stand So Close To Me ‘86” drew howls of protest from fans and critics alike, but we’ve always enjoyed it, and not even in a “so bad it’s good” way. Why the other guys didn’t physically injure Sting while recording this we’ll never know, though apparently Stewart Copeland was waylaid by a broken collarbone, so maybe he did try. But surely they were just as befuddled as to why he felt compelled to change the reference to “that famous book by Nabokov.” The rumor was that Sting wanted to rerecord all of the songs included on Every Breath You Take: The Singles, but considering how long it took to complete the one, it’s just as well. (The album was reissued on CD ten years later with both versions, a new cover, and The Singles changed to The Classics. Further hits collections have surfaced, one of which combined Police hits with Sting solo tracks and a pointless remix by the individual then known as Puff Daddy.)
Sting had decided he was fine without the other guys anyway, and the success of his solo career seemed to confirm that. Their label, however, continued to reap the benefits of the catalog, taking the bold step of compiling all five albums and extraneous tracks into a four-CD set called Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings. A few foreign-language and live tracks were missing, so it wasn’t necessarily complete, but it did include “I Burn For You” and a couple of less appealing cuts from the Brimstone & Treacle soundtrack. Also, it wasn’t in a box, but a book-style digipack.
A wise move came with Live!, which offered a 1979 radio broadcast on one disc, and selections from a 1983 concert (previously available on VHS) on the other. Only a few songs were repeated between the shows, and understandably, there’s more energy on the earlier theater performance than the later arena show with backup singers. (As a historical footnote, hell froze over in 2007, and the trio reunited for a world tour, which was commemorated with a CD/DVD combo. Since then, they’ve gone their separate ways again.)

The Police Every Breath You Take: The Singles (1986)—4
1995 The Classics version: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks
The Police Message In A Box: The Complete Recordings (1993)—

Friday, March 23, 2012

Crowded House 4: Together Alone

Having a fourth member around to help with guitars and keyboards must have appealed to the boys, as their fourth album added Mark Hart as a full contributor. Together Alone was released worldwide in the fall of 1993, but didn’t appear in the US until January 1994, when it was promptly ignored by anyone who hadn’t already bought the import. Mitchell Froom is nowhere to be found, refreshingly. Consequently, the songs aren’t as quirky, and provide more space for the sounds to fill.
“Kare Kare” would be a dreamy soundscape of the beach near where they created the album, if not for the drums. Much more insistent is “In My Command” is more insistent, with an edgy verse but more “classic” chorus. “Nails In My Feet” sounds a lot like “Catherine Wheels” towards the end of the album, and revives some of the angst from Temple Of Low Men. There’s a relentless rocker in “Black & White Boy” that makes it infectious, despite the vagueness of the lyrics and the rhythm turning up on “Skin Feeling” later on. The slow-burning “Fingers Of Love”, with its Leslie-effect guitar, slows things down again, while the folky “Pineapple Head” is just plain charming and ambiguous. “Locked Out” was the first single, another terrific pop song and most likely given its greatest exposure by its inclusion on the Reality Bites soundtrack.
A lengthy detour to native surroundings threatens to stop the album cold, however. “Private Universe” opens with what sounds like traffic leaving a city, ending up at the seashore surrounded by log drummers. Even though “Walking On The Spot” is another slow one, it’s so lovely, even if it is about marital strife, and the accordion doesn’t even ruin it. It’s a sneaky prelude to “Distant Sun”, the best song on the album, and one of the best constructed songs Neil Finn has ever written. It doesn’t break any rules, relying on those familiar C-shape chords in the usually changes, but arranged in such a way—maybe it’s the familiarity—that fits like a pair of old jeans. As mentioned, “Catherine Wheels” sounds a little too familiar, but the subtle harmony by brother Tim edges it along its deceptive length. Paul Hester is thrown a bone with “Skin Feeling”, and then the log drummers return, with a Maori choir in tow, for the title track.
Despite the repetition, Together Alone delivers enough variety and familiarity to make it a strong entry in the Crowded House pantheon. As nobody in America cared, despite a record company push promised in the pages of Billboard, that might have had something to do with why the whole business ground to a halt.
As with most Deluxe Editions of albums we like a lot, the one for Together Alone has a lot to live up to. A small handful of demos show songs that were arguably improved for the release, while the so-called “Zen mix” of “Locked Out” fits very well with the near-ambient B-side “Zen Roxy”. It also has four otherwise unknown but promising songs, four from the studio and two live, the latter so new we get to hear Neil Finn calling out the chord changes.

Crowded House Together Alone (1994)—4
2016 Deluxe Edition: same as 1994, plus 14 extra tracks

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Paul McCartney 32: Kisses On The Bottom

This late into his career, whenever Paul McCartney puts out a new album, the jokes write themselves. More so than with Ringo, who admits to recording with “anyone who rings his doorbell”, explaining why he’s been just as prolific as Paul since the turn of the century. But this time Ringo can say he had the idea of doing a standards album first. Paul’s well aware of that precedence, which probably has something to do with why he waited 42 years to do his own.
Let’s get this out of the way now: the title is stupid, and we don’t care that Kisses On The Bottom comes from the lyrics of one of the songs he’s covering. He’s not fooling anyone, and it should be no surprise that the Cute Beatle is a dirty old man.
The album at least tries to avoid the obvious song choices, especially since Rod Stewart attempted to corner the market with five CDs and counting of music from the pre-rock era. Maybe Paul was intimidated singing through vintage mikes, as unfortunately his hushed delivery sounds too much like Rod sometimes. He sings much of the album like he’s trying not to wake slumbering guests.
Luckily, arranger Diana Krall’s encyclopedic knowledge of the material, along with a sympathetic combo backing him, makes it worth more than a few spins. “Home (When Shadows Fall)” and “More I Cannot Wish You” are truly lovely. “Always” and “Bye Bye Blackbird”—the latter with a wonderfully lush intro that shames Ringo’s version—are given gorgeous treatments worthy of Sinatra records. “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” is silly without being too sugary, and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” is sung at full voice, so it works too. (“Get Yourself Another Fool” isn’t as effective, and it’s surprising that he says he hadn’t heard it before. We suspect the suggestion came from Diana’s husband Elvis Costello, who does a great version of it cribbed from a Sam Cooke album.) “Inch Worm” was previously foisted on Mark Hopkin; here we’re reminded that this nearly 70-year-old man has a daughter in grade school.
He does depart from the trend by adding some songs of his own. Eric Clapton’s guitar is thankfully pulled back on “My Valentine”, overtly inspired by Paul’s third wife. Stevie Wonder returns on harmonica to color “Only Our Hearts”, a sneaky little gem of a song that closes the album. (This age of iTunes bonus tracks and Target exclusives provides two more tracks, one being a remake of his own “Baby’s Request”, the saloon song that closes Back To The Egg.)
Kisses On The Bottom is a vanity project, fitting with his current work mode of creating when he can, touring when it fits his custody agreement, and recording albums with a good balance of no fuss and high quality. It’s not likely to stand out on any ten best list, nor will it oust the top of anyone’s all-time favorite McCartney albums. (But it’s certain to get more plays than Ocean’s Kingdom, his ballet score from the previous fall.)

Paul McCartney Kisses On The Bottom (2012)—3

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ben Folds 10: Lonely Avenue

Outside of the usual promotion for his previous, disappointing album, Ben seemed more interested in new projects. His interest in college a cappella groups led to his stint as a judge on a televised talent show series, and the stopgap in the form of University A Cappella!, wherein songs from his catalog were interpreted by fourteen college groups. (He added two performances of his own.)
A more adventurous departure came with his full collaboration with British author Nick Hornby, whose books Juliet, Naked and High Fidelity (the latter even better than the John Cusack film based on it) are must-reads for any record-collecting obsessive. For Lonely Avenue, Nick wrote the words and Ben wrote the music, communicating via e-mail. The results were then recorded by Ben with help from his band. Paul Buckmaster contributes several string arrangements, paving a further path from Elton John.
The best songs tend to be the pretty ones, or at least where he’s not trying to be too clever. “A Working Day” is a brief one-man-band that sounds too much like Way To Normal, but at least it’s over quickly. Then it’s a visit to a terminal spouse at a hospital—not an uncommon destination for a Ben Folds album. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” was dated even before it was recorded, and seems to exist solely to give Ben another excuse to exercise his patented potty mouth. The thing is, the chorus is kinda catchy. Equally catchy, despite itself is the tribute to “Doc Pomus”, wherein our unlikely duo pinpoints their ideal comparison of the type of songwriting team to which they aspire. “Your Dogs” uses the animal in another Folds song title, in another glimpse at the travails of modern suburbia, while “Practical Amanda” turns out to be a thank-you note for the yin a spouse provides the narrator’s yang.
The rest of the album is strong for the duration. The most developed story (and arrangement) might be “Claire’s Ninth”; much like the character studies from Rockin’ The Suburbs, it’s an excellent glimpse inside the effects of divorce and estrangement—subjects these guys know and cover well. “Password” puts the age-old conundrum of jealousy and perceived infidelity squarely in the present, with a distinctly ‘70s slow jam arrangement to nudge the plot along. “From Above” was a good choice for a lead single, a tense yet infectious reflection on relationships that never happened. The momentum carries through the crush a “teenage poetry nerd” has for “Saskia Hamilton”, before the grand finale of “Belinda”. This brilliant song looks at any singer-songwriter who had a huge hit with a song written for someone he hasn’t been with in years, but still has to sing the song onstage (think Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, or Ben anytime someone requests “The Luckiest”). The music for the imaginary song is perfect, and we struggle to feel sorry for the guy—just like a character from a Nick Hornby novel. Just make sure to stop the disc before it actually ends, as there’s a minute of silence before a surprise snippet from an outtake version obliterates the arrangement.
Lonely Avenue see-saws between being good and very good. Ultimately it’s not fair to criticize the subject matter, since again, Ben only supplied the music. It’s still a step in the right direction, and suggests that at the very least, his musical ear will always triumph over his lyrical shortcomings.

Ben Folds/Nick Hornby Lonely Avenue (2010)—

Friday, March 16, 2012

Van Morrison 6: Hard Nose The Highway

Nobody following along with Van thus far would have expected him to do some major departure from his basic style. But with Hard Nose The Highway, it could be said that this was his first weird album. That’s not to say he pulled a Bowie, went disco, or even embraced an alternate religion, the latter being part of his repertoire anyway.
The worst thing about this album is the cover, followed by the title. And the cover is just horrible. A painted collage of a grassy field with cattle the same color as the stars in the nearby night sky, with a close-up of one of the characters from Kung Fu, while Our Hero crouches on the back, in front of a large moon, a few lepers hanging around a seedy bar (complete with product placement) and a couple of floating heads.
Those able to stomach the packaging enough to open the shrinkwrap would be wise to buckle in for a strange trip. “Snow In San Anselmo” is an altogether disturbing song to start, with a ghostly choir chirping about, well, snow (in San Anselmo). There’s some give and take for a few verses, a couple of double-time jazz breaks and even an endorsement of the round-the-clock hospitality of the local pancake house. From there the rest of the album has to try and keep up. “Warm Love” made the Top 40 a few months before the album came out; it’s a harmless love song, but with too many flutes for our taste. “Wild Children” struggles to celebrate the icons of his youth, and could be the first song written specifically about baby boomers. On either side he takes his first leaps into complaining about the music business—the title track treats it all as a job, echoing lines from “These Dreams Of You” at the fade, and “The Great Deception” spews a little venom.
Lester Bangs once wrote that side two was full of songs about falling leaves, but that doesn’t fairly approach what’s actually on it. First of all, it opens with a cover of “Bein’ Green”, made famous by Kermit the Frog. Now while Van wasn’t the first person to do the tune—Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich had beaten him to it—his take is much jauntier than the melancholic lyrics usually suggest. Okay, so maybe “Autumn Song” doesn’t hold up for ten minutes, but most of the second half sounds improvised, with the band following the dynamics nicely. “Purple Heather” is a nice slow-tempo interpretation of “Wild Mountain Thyme”, with a sweet trill of strings.
Taken all together, Hard Nose The Highway really is pretty good. It does set up an autumnal mood, so if you don’t particularly like falling leaves, perhaps the individual tracks will obscure that. Because it’s so different, and probably because of its less than stellar reputation over the years, it manages to rise above its brothers. Which is particularly impressive considering that he’d at least two albums’ worth of stuff in the can, yet he picked these eight songs to represent him.

Van Morrison Hard Nose The Highway (1973)—

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name

In the equation of CSN, Graham Nash was the pop, Stephen Stills was the rock, and David Crosby filled in the spaces between. The big guy didn’t always write songs as straightforward as his mates; even as far back as the Byrds his stuff tended to defy structure. So what ended up becoming his first and, for a long while, only solo album came not from having a stockpile of material so much as hanging out with various members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana in an open-studio policy. As it happened, the loose atmosphere managed to coalesce on a bunch of feels and extended jams, overlapping with other Airplane and Dead side projects.
While Stills’s album used other people to bolster his own one-man band tracks, Crosby went the other way, and it can be argued that most of the tracks on If I Could Only Remember My Name… could be just as easily credited to the players more so than the guy whose name was on the spine.
He did just that with the opening track, a simple strum around the idea that “Music Is Love”, which was subsequently hijacked by Graham Nash and Neil Young into more of a production. It sputters out almost as smoothly as it started. “Cowboy Movie” is basically Crosby backed by the Dead, stomping a “Down By The River”-style riff for eight minutes over an allegorical tale about how Rita Coolidge split up CSN with lots of lead from Jerry Garcia. More of a mood piece is “Tamalpais High (About 3)”, wherein Garcia faces up against Jorma Kaukonen over layered Crosby harmonies. The Dead rhythm section also anchors the mesmerizing “Laughing”, built around a slow narrative and climbing guitar, culminating in Sweet Joni Mitchell twittering above Garcia’s pedal steel.
Side two begins with another “collaboration”. “What Are Their Names” is a loose jam credited to the players, the title arriving halfway through, chanted by a choir dominated by Grace Slick. “Traction In The Rain” is a much quieter protest song, soft and gentle. Another intricate alternate tuning provides the frame for “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)”, a beautiful duet with Graham Nash that true to its title offers endless yet pristine variations on “wee-do-do-doot-dee” among its stanzas. The other guitars and rhythm section becomes almost opaque, and a lovely piano from Gregg Rolie dances around the vocalists. The song is an excellent setup for the remainder of the album, which only features Crosby’s own voice and some guitar. “Orleans” is an adaptation of some traditional song he heard, while “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here” is a striking piece of work, his own wordless voice recorded six time and echoed into an ethereal, medieval, other-worldly cry from the soul.
While much of the album ends up being just jams, they do betray a certain structure, and the participants would insist that larger forces were at work. Upon first listen, If I Could Only Remember My Name… may seem like the aural equivalent of a crash pad, but its charms do emerge, creating a lovely lazy setting. What helps it succeed is that each side is pleasing enough on its own, so that it’s not out of the ordinary to listen to one several times in a row before flipping the record over. That’s helped it hold up for forty years, and the fact that it was recorded so well in the first place makes the current CD worthy of purchase. (It even has a bonus track, a mostly acoustic eight-minute ramble called “Kids & Dogs” that, while lovely, spoils the effect of “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here”.)

David Crosby If I Could Only Remember My Name… (1971)—4
2006 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 1 extra track

Monday, March 12, 2012

Big Star 6: Keep An Eye On The Sky

One of the modern rules of the music business is that sooner or later, everybody gets a box set. (This remains true even well after multi-disc collections weren’t necessarily packaged in boxes anymore.) Even bands that only had a couple of albums, given enough street cred, will be anthologized in time.
And so it happened with Big Star. Two albums while they existed, a legendary third album that went through various permutations on its way to being official, and every critic starting from 1992 insisted they were the bee’s knees, and some of us would be inclined to agree. But if you’re not already a fan, why should you care?
For the handful of us who do search out every scrap of tape related to the band, Keep An Eye On The Sky provides enough of an alternate view of Big Star as should ever be available. Over the first three discs comes enough alternate takes and mixes of the songs we’ve already inhaled, with the expected handful of surprises to keep us both interested and no resentful that we’ve bought the same three albums again. A few pre-band tracks set up where the boys came from, including a Chris Bell excerpt from another studio opus that would go unheard until put squarely into context later on. A smattering of Alex Chilton demos brings several songs down to their bare bones. Along the way, we get to hear some embryonic versions of certain studio creations, like the intro to “Jesus Christ” and the original lyrics for “Stroke It Noel”. The two best songs from Chris Bell’s so-called solo period, “I Am The Cosmos” and “You And Your Sister”, are placed well within context to show that such a studio rat might have been well served by sticking with the band instead of going his own way, recording in England and smashing his car into a pole.
Something of a holy grail arrives on the fourth disc, which presents an entire concert from the quiet period just before the second album was recorded, without Chris Bell but with the original “other three”, running through songs from the first two albums, playing some unexpected covers—Flying Burrito Brothers?!?—and a rendition of “ST 100/6” that incorporates the mid-section from the outtake described above.
Again, this collection, while comprehensive, is really for fans only. Anyone else would be best advised to go for the two-fer of the first two albums before even considering if they need anything else. And if you are already a fan, there will be enough on Keep An Eye On The Sky to make you feel as if you’ve spent your money well.

Big Star Keep An Eye On The Sky (2009)—4

Friday, March 9, 2012

Simon & Garfunkel 5: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Another long delay was primed with some singles before Bridge Over Trouble Water finally emerged. Their elegant pop turned more sophisticated, with the addition of a rhythm section and what would soon be called “third world” influences. (It was also their first album to break the 30-minute barrier.)
It’s kind of a depressing album, since the boys weren’t getting along that well, which shows in the lyrics and on the dreary cover. But it’s chock full of hits, many of which would be learned at school, camp and church singalongs. The rest of the album is pretty good too.
The title track is one of the greatest vocal performances not only of the 20th century, but in the history of recorded music. One day Paul Simon will be able to accept that while he created it, it took Art Garfunkel to make it so incredible. Until then, he can sit on it, Potsie. The rest of us can enjoy the stately piano, Art’s clear delivery, and the hint of strings that creep in before the final verse, building with the cracking drums until the sweeping finish. It’s a credit to the sequencing that “El Condor Pasa” trills in on Peruvian instruments, a Latin touch that nicely sets up the hand-clappy singalong of “Cecelia”. “Keep The Customer Satisfied” hearkens back to their rockabilly roots, in a nice allegory for the touring musician. In comparison, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is about as pretentious as they can get, even if it is a veiled reference to their own dwindling partnership.
“The Boxer” had been a hit single a good nine months earlier, and a wonderful demonstration of the boys’ close harmonies. Enough scans of the lyrics puts paid to the concept that the song’s supposed to be an unflattering portrait of Bob Dylan; instead we can see the young Paul Simon lashing back against the unscrupulous record company executives who challenged his integrity, forcing him to put out five albums in six years. “Baby Driver” was its flipside, another jaunty throwback to an earlier decade, with inscrutable lyrics. Slightly more direct is “The Only Living Boy In New York”, where Paul admits to actually missing having Artie around. The song is aching and stirring, especially those soaring backing vocals over the end. It’s too bad that “Why Don’t You Write Me” deflates the emotion with a hokey doo-wop throwaway. Their true roots shine on a half-live performance of the Everlys’ “Bye Bye Love”, ending with the gentle benediction in “Song For The Asking”.
Even if they hadn’t planned it that way, nearly all of Bridge Over Trouble Water sounds like a goodbye note. The cover art plays up their differences, and not just in height and hair color. Yet the disparate parts all come together, and as if they knew it would be their final statement—which, to date, it has—they gave it their all. While some of their music may be stuck in the time in which it was created, it’s still an amazing listen. And nobody since sounds like them.

Simon and Garfunkel Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)—4
2001 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2011 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1970, plus Live 1969 album and DVD

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Frankie Goes To Hollywood: Welcome To The Pleasuredome

Even though they had a handful of hits, Frankie Goes To Hollywood is unfairly called a one-hit wonder today. Most people remember “Relax”, whether due to the various videos presenting different views of hedonism, its use in the movie Body Double, or from the, shall we say, spunky sound effect in the middle.
This was a band certainly made for the video generation, as their image could be inflated into something larger than life, and certainly themselves While they had already existed as a band—you know, playing their own instruments and everything—they truly became something noticeable when Trevor Horn and his crew got involved. The sonic experiments already proven commercial by ABC and Yes were taken to their wildest extremes with each new single.
The second single was “Two Tribes”, framed by an air-raid siren and a gloomy piano intro before exploding into an infectious dance beat with a speedy guitar riff and pretty simple lyrics about war. Its video was a work of genius, depicting the leaders of the US and the USSR in a cockfight ring, with Frankie singer Holly Johnson “singing” the song in the guise of a sports commentator.
Meanwhile, the band were supposedly hard at work at their debut album, which, in keeping with their overblown self-importance, emerged as a double album. Welcome To The Pleasuredome played up their image to the hilt, from the Picasso homage on the cover to the merchandise order form sure to shock anyone’s parents. Most striking now is the inner-sleeve quote from one band member who almost expects that they’ll be yesterday’s news ere long.
There is something of a sequence to the record, though it was probably accidental. Side one is mostly a setup for the thirteen-minute title track, which ended their streak by not becoming a number-one single. One reason could be that it illuminates Holly Johnson’s three-note range and tendency towards Morrissey-style repeated couplets. Side two provides alternate mixes of the first two singles, sandwiching a barely recognizable version of the Motown classic “War”, featuring spoken passages by a Reagan soundalike, and soon to be done better by Bruce Springsteen. (More about him shortly.) Another soundalike closes the side with an impression of Prince Charles discussing orgasms over a jaunty fanfare.
Side three is mostly devoted to the band’s cover versions. Unfortunately, their reverent take on “Ferry Cross The Mersey” (part of their bid to be the biggest thing from Liverpool since Gerry & The Pacemakers) is cut short, giving way to an equally reverent version of “Born To Run”. Critics called foul at what they viewed as desecration, but then again the song was only nine years old at the time. Mostly they didn’t like how it’s followed by “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”.
That’s the end of the covers, which at least provided a distraction from the band’s limited songwriting capabilities. “Wish (The Lads Were Here)” seems to stop halfway through in favor of a sinuous instrumental punctuated by female sighs and moans. “Krisco Kisses”, “Black Night White Light” and “The Only Star In Heaven” have not aged well, but “The Power Of Love”, promoted by a Nativity-based video given its December chart push, provides something of a show-stopping climax. The final listed track, “Bang”, lasts barely a minute, comprising a melody from the single version of “Ferry” with the Reagan voice finally stating, “Frankie say no more.”
By the time Welcome To The Pleasuredome came out, Americans were already distracted by Wham!, whose “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video unintentionally demonstrated how passé the “Frankie Say” T-shirt had become. In fact, Wham! took over from FGTH on the UK pop charts as well. Various CD editions have presented differing track orders and mixes, and somewhere out there is a 25th anniversary edition that presents the original LP sequence alongside rarer material. A much better buy is the Bang! greatest hits collection, which has all the “good” songs mentioned above, as well as the handful of singles from their second album, which nobody bought.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood Welcome To The Pleasuredome (1984) —2

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rolling Stones 44: Shine A Light

Having had fun with his recent Bob Dylan project, Martin Scorsese decided to reclaim his throne as king of the rockumentary with a Stones concert. And as long as there was a movie, why not issue a soundtrack? After all, it had been only four years since the last Stones live album.
We haven’t decided if the credit for “digital editing” refers to any post-dubbing, and it’s also not clear why Bob Clearmountain needed to mix the album at two different studios. But Shine A Light gets a slight edge over their previous five live albums in that the Beacon Theater setting is more intimate than any stadium, and the energy is more apparent. The horn section and vocalists don’t get in the way, and Darryl Jones’ bass manages to be heard. Charlie crackles as ever, even trying to add some life to “As Tears Go By”. Mick uses the f-word a lot, and has fun with “Faraway Eyes”. The biggest cheers are saved for Keith’s harmonizing. He sings three songs on his own, and even engages the crowd with conversation and a mention of the X-pensive Winos, which must have thrilled Mick no end. Unfortunately, whoever’s in charge decided that the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world shouldn’t be left to stand on their own, so the album is graced by the presence of three so-called special guests: Buddy Guy, which makes sense; Jack White, which is a stretch; and Christina Aguilera, which is a crime to humanity.
Despite the performances of over half the songs from A Bigger Bang on their current tour, the newest songs on Shine A Light were first released in 1983. And to their credit, only four songs are repeated from Live Licks (a strategy Paul McCartney should consider for his next live album). There’s a single-disc version, but what fan’s gonna settle for that?

Rolling Stones Shine A Light (2008)—3

Friday, March 2, 2012

Stephen Stills 1: Stephen Stills

Almost as soon as CSNY came together, they split into pieces, and each of the boys got on with their lives. Neil was already doing his own thing, so Stephen Stills ended up being the first to really go “solo”.
The most accomplished musician of the group, Stills could have easily done his own one-man-band album a la McCartney. But because he thrived on having foils in the studio (as well as an attraction to other big names), his eponymous debut mixes near-solo tracks with full band performances.
One such song that likely started out alone until he added bass, congas and a pile of voices, “Love The One You’re With” remains a relic of the free love generation, catchy despite itself. “Do For The Others” wouldn’t have been out of place on the CSN albums, as demonstrated by the nice harmony on the “ooh” following the choruses. “Church (Part Of Someone)” uses gospel as a springboard, adding a choir and subtle strings to fill out the sound. “Old Times Good Times” is predominantly a jam featuring a famous guitarist. It wasn’t enough for him to have Hendrix on his album; as soon as Jimi’s solo ends Stills lets loose with a thoroughly indulgent flourish on the Hammond B-3 that is as stupid as it is rude. (Dedicating the album to the man two months after he died is a lame apology.) “Go Back Home” sounds mostly made up on the spot until about two minutes in when there’s an actual chord change, and another famous guitarist of the period, this time Eric Clapton, graces the proceedings.
“Sit Yourself Down” is more soulful piano with choir, and the mood stays on the pensive side with “To A Flame”, with understated strings and drums from one Ringo Starr. “Black Queen” was long a fixture of CSN shows, a slow acoustic blues, during which he would often admonish the audience for not taking it seriously. (The liner notes suggest he was gonged on tequila for this particular recording.) “Cherokee” gets a little jazzy, juxtaposing time changes with horns and flute over a sitar-style guitar, revving up and fading quickly to make way for “We Are Not Helpless”. Taken as a retort to Neil Young’s song, it travels through a few sections, and “America’s Children” detour with more help from Ringo and a choir, winding up to a big finish that obscures the lyrics.
Despite some of our comments, Stephen Stills is extremely enjoyable. The album is an amalgam of styles and sessions on two continents, and it’s a strong one. Only occasionally does he come off as a jerk, which wouldn’t always be the case going forward.

Stephen Stills Stephen Stills (1970)—4