Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Frank Zappa 10: Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Another archival dig appeared only six months after Burnt Weeny Sandwich. If that album presented a comparatively easily digestible look at the Mothers, Weasels Ripped My Flesh lives up to its great title with a more, shall we say, challenging experience. The majority of the contents come from the various directed improvisations typical of Mothers concerts, once the band was big enough to keep things from getting too off-kilter.
Things get challenging right away with “Didja Get Any Onya?” An odd-metered stomp gives way to a monologue with a German accent, a few rounds of “MOO-AH” leading to the song title, and even a segment recognizable to owners of Trout Mask Replica as music from “The Blimp”. There’s an abrupt switch to “Directly From My Heart To You”, an obscure Little Richard B-side sung here by Sugarcane Harris, also on electric violin. Just as that dirty blues comes to a halt, “Prelude To A Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” crashes through atonal chords, snorks and Roy Estrada’s operatic yodeling over a Mozart piece tinkled on electric piano. “Toads Of The Short Forest” has about a minute of tightly constructed music from the studio, before going back to a stage where we hear, Frank tells us, “drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4, and the alto sax blowing his nose.” A slow jam puddles along until Frank announces a short break. A good way to end the side.
The song titles alone will stick in your head long before the music does, and that’s certainly the case with “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue”, a tribute to the jazzman wandering from slow to frenetic. “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula” would appear to be a leftover from Uncle Meat, the intro a nice little horn piece, the rest giving way to sped-up and edited tape. “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” is an alternate take of a song released the year before as attempt to crack the top 40, complete with tasty acoustic solo. “Oh No” is an old melody that had appeared a couple of times on Lumpy Gravy, here given a lyric skewering the “peace and love” statements of the time, with the return of Ray Collins on lead vocalizin’. There’s a seamless jump to “The Orange County Lumber Truck”, which itself seems to have evolved from jams on “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black” and “Harry, You're A Beast”. It’s one of the more tuneful parts of the album, so it only makes sense that it leads to the title track—two minutes of sustained noise before Frank bids the “boys and girls” good night.
It has yet to be determined what exactly else Frank had planned for his multi-disc Mothers retrospective, as he was soon distracted by a new version of the band, new material, and yet another movie. Although Weasels Ripped My Flesh isn’t as immediately accessible as Burnt Weeny Sandwich, the high points are enough to help you endure the more trying moments. Collectors will note that it was the first Zappa album not to be released in a gatefold sleeve; everybody else will agree that the cover is pretty hilarious.

The Mothers Of Invention Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)—

Monday, October 29, 2012

Jean-Luc Ponty: King Kong

One oddity that crops up in the Zappa discography is an album credited to jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. King Kong (subtitled “Jean-Luc Ponty Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa”) presents some familiar and not-so-familiar melodies in a modern jazz environment. Ponty had already appeared on Hot Rats, while Frank had been incorporating electric violin into the Mothers as well. The musicians are a cross between jazz cats and such Mothers as Ian Underwood and Art Tripp. The album’s also important to the history, as these were the sessions that introduced Frank to George Duke, who would go on to be a valuable contributor to the ‘70s version of the Mothers. Because of Frank’s involvement in the project, it can almost be seen as a cousin to Lumpy Gravy, without the dialogue, as a way to present himself as a serious composer. (In fact, several session musicians appear in the orchestras for both that album and this.)
The title track sounds much as it did on Uncle Meat, kicking right out of the gate, to the point where one might be surprised it’s not from a textbook Zappa album. George Duke’s electric piano fits right in, as he would for much of the decade. “Idiot Bastard Son” is a surprising choice, considering the original lyrics, but here the construction of the song shows off its musicality. “Twenty Small Cigars” makes its debut here, in a slow down-on-your-luck ramble that helps one find the melody on the Zappa version out soon. Frank himself appears to add some guitar to “How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That”—a Ponty composition despite the Zappa-worthy title.
“Music For Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra” runs for over 19 minutes, and would appear another in a line of attempts to combine some of his long-gestating classical works, “Pound For A Brown” and “Duke Of Prunes” being just two of the melodies familiar to fans, with a few trademark honks placed in the score. “America Drinks And Goes Home” presents the chaotic Absolutely Free track in a somewhat clearer frame, but just as nutty.
We don’t know what jazz aficionados feel about this album, but for the Zappa story it’s as notable a footnote as any of his other tangents, if only as a document of his quest for respect as a composer. Its rating below should therefore be taken well inside that context.

Jean-Luc Ponty King Kong (1970)—3

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 7: Hendrix In The West

After two vault-scrapings, somebody decided that a live album might be a decent way to make money off a dead Hendrix. Rather than highlight a single performance, thus began the practice of siphoning songs from the hundreds of concerts he’d played, sticking in this case to the Isle Of Wight Festival and Berkeley from 1970, and San Diego and the Royal Albert Hall from 1969 with the original Experience. (We haven’t figured out the significance of the title Hendrix In The West, seeing as only half of the album was recorded on that American coast; from an overseas standpoint, he pretty much only performed in the Western Hemisphere, so the mystery remains.)
For the most part, the album doesn’t concentrate so much on the obvious, but does present him at the peak of his inspiration. The opening “God Save The Queen/Sgt. Pepper” medley from the Isle of Wight Festival (issued several times everywhere, but not in the US until 2002) is meant as a simple warmup, and the crowd responds happily. “Little Wing” is short but sweet, but “Red House” keeps your attention for thirteen minutes, from quiet to screaming, steady all the way. (It’s Jimi’s name and photo on the cover, but the excellence of Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding and even Billy Cox should not be underestimated.)
A more impromptu “Johnny B. Goode” is delivered with plenty of fire, followed by a blazing take on “Lover Man”, making its album debut. An incredibly funky groove somehow leads to a take on “Blue Suede Shoes” (from a soundcheck, which probably explains the fade) and the set closes with an especially hot “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, which also fades for some reason.
Hendrix In The West is a solid album, but our cynicism over the motivation is underscored by the sloppy presentation. Besides seeming to be in a different sequence in every country, the compilers tried to pull a fast one by crediting the Albert Hall tracks to San Diego, resulting in a legal issue that kept the two Albert Hall tracks from appearing when the estate reissued the album nearly forty years later (not surprising, considering how many times that show had been recycled on countless no-name labels). So “Little Wing” appears instead from the Winterland shows, and “Voodoo Child” comes from San Diego. Three more songs from San Diego fill up another 20 minutes on the CD, leading us to wonder why they didn’t use the other two songs from the show, which had appeared on an official box set in the early ‘90s, just before the estate took everything back. Since so many of the tracks are available elsewhere, the album’s relevance today has been lessened. But it’s still pretty damn good.

Jimi Hendrix Hendrix In The West (1972)—4
2011 version: same as 1972, plus 5 extra tracks (and minus 2 original tracks)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

They Might Be Giants 1: They Might Be Giants

Arguably, a band can be considered successful when they divide the public into two distinct groups: those who like said band and those who hate them. Such has been the case for They Might Be Giants for close to three decades. Success hasn’t spoiled them—in fact, it’s barely touched them—and their champions are grateful for that.
TMBG (as their fans call them, and it’s a lot easier to type so we will too) began as two guys named John presenting a truly original version of geek-rock, with the accordion being a central instrument and their tendency toward songs about science and American history. Imagine Ween without the drugs and you’re almost there. With one John handling the stringed instruments and the other tackling keys and horns, their earliest shows were accompanied by a meticulously programmed drum machine. Considering the processing that real drums had received in the ‘80s, the percussive sounds heard on their self-titled full-length debut album don’t sound any more fake that many other records of the time.
The album crams 19 songs into a program just under 40 minutes, and it’s safe to say nothing sounds like anything else. Many of the songs debuted on their “Dial-A-Song” answering machine greetings, so brevity was the soul. As many of the songs are simply sketches and not Grand Works of Art, a brief synopsis of the more substantial ones will have to suffice.
“Everything Right Is Wrong Again” is a built-in contradiction, using a plot point from the Lucy-and-Desi film The Long, Long Trailer as a key chorus element. Their first “hit”, “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head”, crashes that away, and “Number Three” aptly delivers the third song in a transition to the next “hit” in “Don’t Let’s Start”. “Hide Away Folk Family” is one of the longer tracks on the album, with a round-style chorus, and the discovery too late that a backwards accordion doesn’t sound too different from a forward one. “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes” and “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” are full of the wacky lyrics, music references and rhythm changes fans love. “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” gets a way-over-the-top vocal for a song that doesn’t deserve one. Being good pioneers of modern recording, “Boat Of Car” includes a Johnny Cash sample, while “Absolutely Bill’s Mood” is built around a literally phoned-in guitar solo.
They Might Be Giants didn’t set the world on fire, but it fit in perfectly with the rest of the stuff on college radio before the term “alternative” was coined. Our general impression is that one of the Johns didn’t take himself as seriously as the other, but for the most part they complement each other nicely. The album is like the people who created it: you’ll either like it or you won’t.

They Might Be Giants They Might Be Giants (1986)—

Monday, October 22, 2012

King Crimson 11: Thrak

After the disbanding of the ‘80s version of King Crimson, Fripp kept busy with the occasional magazine article and collaboration, but mostly with a course called Guitar Craft, wherein many of the philosophical disciplines he’d come to champion were combined with a method of playing, notably using a new tuning he’d devised. (He would record and tour with some of the more proficient practitioners as The League of Crafty Guitarists.)
The digital era gave him another reason to assess the legacy of King Crimson, resulting in remasters of the catalog and some archival digs in box set form. The big news arrived in 1994, with the announcement of yet another version of King Crimson. This time the ‘80s combo—each of whom had kept very busy in the meantime—was augmented by a second drummer (Pat Mastelloto, most famous for pounding the skins for Mr. Mister) and another Chapman Stick player (onetime Crafty Guitarist Trey Gunn) to balance Tony Levin. This “double trio” format managed to contain enough elements of each previous incarnation of the band to earn the right to use the moniker.
The new album was preceded by a self-produced EP, which would recur down the line, and also confirm Fripp’s belief that the least label interference was best for him. Vrooom (sometimes rendered in all caps) is mostly a first draft, teasing listeners with the potential of the band as they jam towards a result.
Thrak (also occasionally given the all-cap treatment) is a much more polished and better balanced program, building on the foundation of Vrooom. It begins the same way, with a quiet rumble and crashing in on the pounding theme of “VROOOM”, beginning with a melody right out of Red and pausing for a few fingerpickings. The second half of the track is now “Coda: Marina 475” ever descending to its end. The glorious sound of Mellotron strings heralds “Dinosaur”, the first vocal appearance of Adrian Belew (and very Lennonesque one at that) and a terrifically catchy should-have-been-a-hit. The Mellotron reappears halfway through in a suggestion of Barber’s “Adagio For Strings”, setting up a false ending before the chorus reappears. “Walking On Air” is another radio-friendly tune, with a lovely backwards-sounding solo. “B’Boom” is mostly a drums solo leading into the title track, another insistent riff.
The second half of the album is more vocal-oriented: the two halves of “Inner Garden”, the driving funk of “People” (which really takes off in the last couple of minutes’ solo), the slinky “One Time”, and the Peter Gabriel-ish “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream”. “VROOOM VROOOM” and its coda provide more variations on the opening salvo, bringing things nicely full circle.
By tempering Adrian’s voice (or piling more sound around him) the ‘90s Crimson seems to rock more than ever, pretty much picking up where the band left off in the ‘70s, without relying so much on the electronics of the ‘80s. They certainly sounded like they were having fun, and now that they had the technology, many of the concerts performed by the double trio would become available for purchase directly from Fripp’s website, while a few would get wider release. B’Boom and Vrooom Vrooom highlight performances from several shows, while Thrakattak presents a bunch of ambient experiments from the tour, chopped and mixed Zappa-style.

King Crimson Thrak (1995)—4

Friday, October 19, 2012

Andy Summers and Robert Fripp: I Advance Masked and Bewitched

At first it sounded like an odd match—the guitarist for a popular mainstream band facing off against the same for one of rock’s most challenging—but taken down to the basic details, it makes sense that Andy Summers and Robert Fripp would be so compatible. There were enough precedents in both the Police and King Crimson to show their similarities, and tendencies to create textures and spit out staccato solos. (They’re about the same age, too, Andy the older by three years. He’d also played in a whole slew of prog outfits before the Police got him.)
I Advance Masked is a true duet, each track compositionally credited to both, playing alternately dizzying runs up and down necks and exploring the capabilities of the guitar synthesizer. Being entirely instrumental, the titles suggest various moods, sometimes beautifully, as with “Girl On A Swing”, where a gentle piano dances around an acoustic guitar while a birdlike melody soars back and forth. “Painting And Dance” presents a nice little chamber piece, and tracks like “Under Bridges Of Silence”, “The Truth Of Skies” and “In The Cloud Forest” contain enough Frippertronics to build moods. There are enough uptempo pieces to keep it from being entirely impressionistic; the title track (which shares some constructive elements with “Neurotica” from Beat) is particularly edgy, a tension that continues on the percussive “New Marimba”. “Hardy Country” also provides a change in dynamic, just as “Stultified” ends the album with a set of precisely played dissonant figures.
While not a smash hit, and little promotion considering their commitments to their main bands, a follow-up still materialized. Bewitched isn’t simply more of the same, mostly because it’s more of a Summers album than a collaboration with Fripp, as the song credits make plain. While we haven’t found any official proof, the album was split between a “dance” side, which adds a real rhythm section, and a “dream” side, which is much more contemplative. Once again the titles try to be descriptive (“Begin The Day”, “Parade”, “Forgotten Steps”, “Train”), and while “What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy” is upbeat, reminiscent of Fripp’s “discotronics” period, at ten minutes it tends to drag. When the album works best, the notion of Eno mixing an ECM album isn’t so alien.
While musically satisfying, the presentation on Bewitched isn’t as successful as I Advance Masked. Having limited themselves to two albums, a 90-minute Maxell contains both nicely. If Police fans found their way here, they could well have graduated to King Crimson via a back door. More directly, it gives the listener a chance to hear Fripp’s current style unadorned by the Levin/Bruford rhythm section, nor particularly Adrian Belew. It also raises Andy’s profile a bit, giving him a chance to step out of Sting’s shadow.

Andy Summers/Robert Fripp I Advance Masked (1982)—4
Andy Summers/Robert Fripp Bewitched (1984)—3

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Van Morrison 8: Veedon Fleece

Possibly because it doesn’t have a recognizable hit single, Veedon Fleece is one of Van’s lesser-known albums. Which is too bad, because it’s one of his most underrated. It also comes across as one of the more overtly Celtic albums in the canon. Not all of the songs have such touches, but there’s a pervading Irishness that goes right through to the green cover.
With a gentle acoustic strum over two chords and color from a piano, “Fair Play” is a sweet waltz, picking up whenever Van gets to scatting. Following in a similar mood, “Linden Arden Stole The Highlights” would appear to be about some kind of modern outlaw, a John Wesley Harding sort of character. Apparently, despite loving the little children, we’re informed at the end of the song that he’s “living with a gun”. That very predicament is bemoaned at the start of “Who Was That Masked Man”, which uses a shrill falsetto that only gets a little bit in the way. Only four songs in “Streets Of Arklow” manages to be a nice distillation of the entire album instrumentally and thematically, which is an odd setup for “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push The River”. Running at nearly nine minutes, it’s very much in the vein of Astral Weeks, picking that album’s meditations on various philosophies, with tense strings, a dancing flute, William Blake and the Eternals, as well as other spiritual ideas that will surface again and again over the years, on a search for the mysterious object of the album title.
Side two begins deceptively upbeat, as “Bulbs” offers more of the rock sound of his recent albums. The lyrics are fairly impenetrable, seemingly describing a baseball or (American) football game and referencing light bulbs—some of which turn blue, as they had for Jimi Hendrix—redeemed every time by the wordless “la-la-la” section. Whatever the story, it’s clear John Hiatt has heard this song. “Cul De Sac” contains a musical pun, being a rewrite of “Dark End Of The Street”, and hindsight would suggest it’s another look back at his home town. As the band vamps on the ending (still reminiscent of the closing theme from Saturday Night Live) Van grunts and emotes. Similarly simple chords carry “Comfort You”, another sweet love song, contrasted with the more intimate come-on in “Come Here My Love”. The distant drone of a hurdy-gurdy and pipes hover beyond the edge of “Country Fair”, which sports a melody that we’ll hear again, and ends on a completely unexpected fingerpicked flourish.
Besides being very quiet, Veedon Fleece is sneaky. It may not seem much at first, but the individual and collective qualities of each track emerge to present something very special. Without a clear “hit single” (the most obvious choice being “Bulbs”) it becomes a collective entity, and a fine album.

Van Morrison Veedon Fleece (1974)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, October 15, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 6: Rainbow Bridge

Moreso than The Cry Of Love, the second posthumous Hendrix album was born out of greed. Tied to a mess of a film that Jimi wanted no part of, the cover of Rainbow Bridge pushes it as the official movie soundtrack, with a photo suggesting that it includes music from the concert featured in the film. It doesn’t. It’s still a decent collection of leftovers, providing two further sides of music that may or may not have been part of whatever his next studio album was supposed to be.
“Dolly Dagger” is a cool funky opener, and while “Earth Blues” is in the same tempo, the backing vocals make it seem less of a carbon copy than some of the tracks on Cry Of Love. A nice surprise is “Pali Gap”, a five-minute jam that develops from nothing into a tastefully played instrumental full of mood and meaning. If you can handle congas and slide guitar effects skidding around the stereo spectrum, “Room Full Of Mirrors” is another hidden gem. The trebly bass is very high in the mix, stopping only when he goes into the inspired chorus (“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah”). Less exciting for non-gearheads is the studio take of “The Star Spangled Banner”, recorded a full five months before its famous appearance at Woodstock, here more of a sound picture than performance art.
Jimi’s “old” sound returns on “Look Over Yonder”, a late-1968 studio recording by the original Experience. It’s played mostly straight, with some overdubs but not too many. That sits nicely next to an epic 11-minute version of “Hear My Train A-Comin’” recorded at Berkeley. Just as with “Red House”, his other original blues trademark, this song was rarely played the same way twice, and this one is as mesmerizing as any—the power trio, with Jimi wailing on top of Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox. Finally, “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” begins with a complicated structure for about a minute, roughly switching gears into a more simple theme with a descending bass line (think “All Along The Watchtower” crossed with the end of “Stairway To Heaven” with a D major thrown in). After a minute of that, complete with sleigh bell percussion, he asks if the microphone is on and begins singing a verse. There’s even a chorus of sorts, and something of a resolved ending.
As an album, Rainbow Bridge holds together very, very well, making it even preferable to Cry Of Love. Unlike that album, however, it wasn’t reissued on CD until 2014, and until then couldn’t be as easily replicated at your local CD emporium. Half of the songs would surface on First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, while the rest were spread between two compilations and a pricey box set. It’s moot now, while the quest for authenticity required that the bonehead decision to put the tiny dialogue transcription in orange on a busy background is even more maddening in the jewel case format.

Jimi Hendrix Original Motion Picture Sound Track From Rainbow Bridge (1971)—

Saturday, October 13, 2012

R.E.M. 18: Accelerate

It actually happened—for the first time since the start of the creative decline that coincided with Michael Stipe shaving his head, R.E.M. produced an album that encouraged repeat listens. Accelerate sounds like them again, rocking like Lifes Rich Pageant and the better parts of Green—and nothing like the muddy glam of Monster. This was the R.E.M. we’d been waiting for since that misfire, still clogging the used bins nationwide.
Having decided shorter is better, the band keeps it simple here, with eleven songs coming in at under 35 minutes. These songs don’t meander, and barely give you time to catch your breath before the next one kicks in. “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” fires out of the speakers, Stipe sounding good and pissed off—at haters, perhaps? “Man-Sized Wreath” is especially reminiscent of Pageant with its guitar attack, “Taxman” bass and drums that actually sound like the much-missed Bill Berry. “Supernatural Superserious” was an iffy choice for a lead single, but it comes off more solid when heard within the sequence. Guitars drive these songs, as opposed to the keyboards from the last few albums. Although “Hollow Man” starts with piano and threatens to slow things down, it soon accelerates (sorry) smoothly to an urgent rocker, like Pearl Jam filtered through R.E.M., of all things. “Houston” has what sounds like a distorted organ, but it’s mostly an effect used on a song likely about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The title track begins with one of those great atonal Peter Buck riffs, before turning into an urgent rocker akin to ‘90s Rush (and that’s meant in a good way).
“Until The Day Is Done” rivals their best acoustic moments, and delivers their meditative side much more effectively than anything on their last three albums. Most of the words on the album are jumbled, which is good, since close listens haven’t always proved to be rewarding. Stipe does sprinkle political statements throughout the tracks, and it’s tough to listen to “Mr. Richards” without thinking of Cosmo Kramer. “Sing For The Submarine” could have used a little more ambiguity too. But overall it’s about feel, with the top speed of “Horse To Water”, ending with the Blur-like “woo-hoo” interjections on “I’m Gonna DJ”—a song previewed on the previous year’s live album, and luckily overcomes any potential of being this album’s “Shiny Happy People” or “Stand”.
The original version of this review ended thusly: “Time will tell if this album has staying power, but for now, it’s great to have them back.” We stand by that statement. Accelerate is an excellent return to form, and their best effort since Automatic For The People. So there.

R.E.M. Accelerate (2008)—

Friday, October 12, 2012

Crowded House 5: Recurring Dream and Afterglow

After ten years, four albums, and the addition and subtraction of new and old members, Crowded House called it quits with a farewell concert and a hits collection. Recurring Dream shuffled four tracks from each of the albums, all of which were actually singles somewhere in the world. Being the ‘90s, three new tracks were included, and unfortunately, none suggested that the band was leaving potential untapped. “Not The Girl You Think You Are” and “Instinct” rumble along, exposing the hole drummer Paul Hester left when he’d quit the band a few years before. “Everything Is Good For You” is a little better, but hardly as exciting as the actual hits.
Those underwhelming new tracks notwithstanding, it’s still an excellent introduction to the band. After all, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” still belongs on any list of classic 20th century pop music, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “Yesterday” and so forth. (More exciting to fans overseas was the “Special Edition”, which added an entertaining live disc compiled from several shows. The water was muddied somewhat some 14 years later with the pointedly titled The Very Very Best Of Crowded House, which duplicated all but five tracks from Recurring Dream, replacing those with the execrable “Chocolate Cake”, two more songs from Together Alone, and two others from the current century.)

Right in line with the dwindling interest the American public showed in the band over the years, it should be of little surprise that an outtakes collection (of sorts) was released by the end of the century. Afterglow offers mostly unreleased songs spanning their career, from “Recurring Dream” (which predates the debut, and explains the title of the hits album) to “Help Is Coming”, a gloomy but enticing song from the never-finished fifth album.
They’re not all hidden gems; “My Telly’s Gone Bung” is a jokey Paul Hester song that would have worked best as a B-side. By the same token, “I Love You Dawn” and “Lester”, despite their tunefulness, are too personal (the former about Neil Finn’s wife, the latter about his dog) to have fit within an album sequence. Still, those are just a handful of songs included here that were early contenders for Woodface before that album merged with a Finn Brothers project. A clean mix of “Private Universe” without the percussive effects helps reveal that song’s qualities; two other refugees from the Together Alone era (“I Am In Love” and “You Can Touch”) are nice surprises as well.
Only after ingesting the four individual albums should Afterglow be tackled, but chances are it will be worth it. It too was included as part of the pantheon when the Deluxe Editions came out, rather than its contents being farmed out to the bonus discs for the studio albums. The three new songs from Recurring Dream appear on this bonus disc, along with demos for each. Further songs from the band’s last days appear, signifying a “different” band, even more so from Together Alone, and closer to the jarring sound of Neil’s eventual solo album.

Crowded House Recurring Dream: The Very Best Of Crowded House (1996)—
Crowded House Afterglow (2000)—
2016 Deluxe Edition: same as 2000, plus 14 extra tracks
Crowded House The Very Very Best Of Crowded House (2010)—

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Suzanne Vega 4: 99.9 F°

With this album Suzanne took a big leap out of folk into pop. While 99.9 F° has a couple of voice-and-acoustic duets, most of the production spotlights a much louder band than the guys she had before. Unfortunately, Crowded House and Los Lobos cohort Mitchell Froom was that producer. Fortunately, he brought along Richard Thompson, session rat Jerry Marotta on drums and Attractions exile Bruce Thomas all over the bass.
Some of the “new” sounds are refreshing, and nicely complement her lyrics, which vary between straight and vague, as ever. “Rock In This Pocket (Song Of David)” is sung from the point of view of Goliath’s opponent. “Blood Makes Noise” was the first single, heavy on the bass and delivered at a speed that doesn’t suit her, really. “In Liverpool” is a melancholy reverie with an expansive arrangement, but the title track goes back to a noisy loop. There’s finally a quiet one in “Blood Sings” (where she’s backed by some of her old band members), but that’s contrasted with the nightmare circus of “Fat Man And Dancing Girl”.
“(If You Were) In My Movie” is unnecessarily parenthetical and a little underdeveloped. “As A Child” is more appealing, and the same can definitely be said about “Bad Wisdom”. Compared to the first song on her previous album, it’s another song directed at a “mother”, only this time something has definitely gone wrong in the person’s life. With all the talk of blood and doctors on the album, and the climate in which it was created, AIDS was the assumption, but as it turns out, it’s a different kind of child abuse. Other reviewers have made the Bangles comparison for “When Heroes Go Down”, a wonderfully short pop song that proves she’s sound great singing the phone book. “As Girls Go” could easily be a track off the then-recent Crowded House or Richard Thompson albums, but it’s matched well to her. “Song Of Sand” has a string quartet, and then it’s over.
Again, much of the production gets in the way of 99.9 F°, but it was nice to know she couldn’t be so easily pigeonholed. It’s a short but varied album, and still a pleasant diversion.

Suzanne Vega 99.9 F° (1992)—3

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Session

One of the more surprising hits of the late ‘80s was an album supposedly recorded live to a single microphone in a church. That would explain the title of The Trinity Session, and while Cowboy Junkies got their name randomly, it’s an apt description for their sleepy brand of country and folk. They were made for VH-1, and provided twentysomethings not interested in rap or hair metal with someplace else to go.
The album alternates between originals and covers, and the differences are seamless. The opening a cappella “Mining For Gold” shows off Margo Timmins’ oft-labeled angelic voice, going right into “Misguided Angel”, a sweet love song. “I Don’t Get It” isn’t as successful vocally, but an extra-slow version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the sad but pretty “To Love Is To Bury” redeem the side. We don’t even mind the accordion.
“200 More Miles” builds slowly and effectively, leading nicely to a cover of “Dreaming My Dreams With You”. But it was their intriguing take on “Sweet Jane”, modeled on the lesser-known slower version from the Velvet Underground 1969, that brought them all the attention (in the States, anyway). “Postcard Blues” mostly sits there, but their version of “Walkin’ After Midnight” does a nice job of showcasing several musicians and ending the program, complete with ambient post-gig audio-verité. (Typically for the time, those of us who bought it on vinyl were cheated out of two extra tracks: the rambling, rumbling “Working On A Building”, and a clever arrangement of “Blue Moon” that adds some original verses.)
They’d turn up the volume on future releases, but nothing they’ve done since has seemed to resonate with the public as much as The Trinity Session did, and still does. It’s a great one for late-night listening, not so much for driving on a sunny day.

Cowboy Junkies The Trinity Session (1988)—

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jimi Hendrix 5: The Cry Of Love

Jimi suffered from the disease known as “recording-itis”, whereby the afflicted individual simply can’t finish anything in the studio, endlessly tinkering, trying to replicate the sound in his head on tape. And to compound that pressure, he was constantly rearranging potential track sequences for his next album, which he figured might as well be another double-LP set, considering the piles of songs he’d been amassing. One of these proposed albums might have been called First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, and since his death it has become something of a legendary lost album (see Lifehouse, Get Back, Smile, etc.) that people would eternally argue over as to what it would have, or could have been.
But back then, Reprise needed to put out an album, so Mitch Mitchell and Eddie Kramer compiled The Cry Of Love, consisting of ten tracks on a single disc. For the most part their choices are sound, alternating funky jams and slower stuff.
“Freedom” is a strong opener, with vocals that may or may not have been influenced by Richie Havens’ impromptu improvisation at Woodstock, as displayed in the film of the same name. The ending has a nice up-ending in the tempo and a great jazzy flourish. “Drifting” continues the “underwater” sound from side three of Electric Ladyland to complement the seafaring lyrics. (The vibes may have been someone else’s afterthought, but they don’t get in the way.) “Ezy Ryder” references another counterculture cinematic touchstone, but outside of the phased and panned guitars, it doesn’t really excite. Maybe it’s the congas mixed at the same level as the rest of the track. “Night Bird Flying” is just a hair slower than the other uptempo tracks thus far, and uses way too much cowbell. The only real clunker on the album is “My Friend”, an in-joke of a song disguised as a club jam, already done better in the form of “Voodoo Chile”. Moreover, it was recorded in 1968, and could easily have been elbowed in favor of other candidates.
“Straight Ahead”, sounds very similar, again, to the toe-tappers on side one, leading one to think that some of them could have been combined into one or two really strong tracks. Maybe that was the plan all along. Experts say that “Astro Man” was part of another project entirely, about a comic book superhero. Whatever the truth, it’s little more than a sketch, with too many overdubbed guitars fighting for space. All is forgiven by “Angel”, one of his most beautiful songs, and one that deserves to be called a classic. “In From The Storm” is another strong one, with a familiar yet comfortable riff and several changes in tempo, though we detect a quote from Jeff Beck’s “Rice Pudding” at the end. Fittingly, the last track is supposedly the last thing Jimi recorded, the moderately charming “Belly Button Window”, a blues sung from the point of view of a fetus.
While The Cry Of Love has moments of excellence, it wasn’t about to challenge any of his previous studio albums as the ultimate masterpiece. It’s mostly of interest to those who have thoroughly digested those earlier albums, and will likely pique curiosity as to what else was left behind. That would be addressed soon enough, and that goes for this forum as well.
When the first Hendrix CDs were issued in the mid-‘80s, The Cry Of Love was one of the posthumous few to be included. When the catalog changed hands in 1993, it went out of print, but a few years later the songs became available in a different sequence on another reassessment of the legacy. That was that for another couple of decades, until, in time for the 44th anniversary of his death, the original album was rereleased by the estate, using the original 1971 mixes, further gumming up a catalog they’d done so much to streamline.

Jimi Hendrix The Cry Of Love (1971)—3

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Van Morrison 7: It’s Too Late To Stop Now

This is one of those albums that gets mentioned as one of the best live albums of all time. It was certainly lavish; two records in a triptych cover loaded with photos, offering nearly 90 minutes of music from three club-sized shows in L.A. and London. For a guy who’s gained a reputation as a reclusive grump, it takes the listener back to a time when Van Morrison was an exciting, engaging performer.
While the quote marks and ellipses vary from cover to spine to the labels, “…It’s Too Late To Stop Now…” does offer up the hits, so to speak, with songs from each of his solo albums to date. There’s even a throwback to his days with the R&B group Them, demonstrated by the energetic performances of “Here Comes The Night” and “Gloria” on side four.
Van has always considered his role as a performer to be his job, so his shows have stayed in the tradition of the jazz and soul revues that he fell in love with as a boy. For him, it was never about promoting your latest record; a show was always about the music and the moment. That’s what makes his choices to cover Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke and Sonny Boy Williamson some of the better moments on the album. In the hands of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra—the usual guitar, bass, piano and drums augmented by both horns and a string section—songs like “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do”, “I Believe To My Soul” and “Help Me” emerge as part of his own fabric.
Of his own catalog selections, it’s the longer numbers that do stand out. Already epic tracks like “Saint Dominic’s Preview”, “Listen To The Lion” and “Cyprus Avenue”, as well as a “Caravan” that goes over nine minutes, demonstrate the tightness of the band, able to stop and start at the drop of a hand, while following his scat of the moment. “Cyprus Avenue” closes the album, and it’s a particularly engrossing display of interplay between Van, band, and even the audience. At one moment of silence between burst of music, an audience member shouts “Turn it on!” (perhaps a reference to “Caravan”, which precedes it) to which Van slyly replies, “It’s turned on already.” That gets a whoop from the audience, followed by another battering of the chords and a shout of “It’s too late to stop now!” (first heard, of course, at the end of “Into The Mystic”) that brings the final chord.
So while It’s Too Late To Stop Now is a perfectly enjoyable album, is it essential? The greatest live album ever made? That’s a matter of personal taste. His shows were always unpredictable, and still are, so this is merely a snapshot of one of his phases. A single album of the highlights would certainly get it more plays around our house, but still no more than any of the studio albums.
Not only because of the cover design, for years it was rumored that the album was cut down from a triple, and whether or not that’s true is now moot. Not too long after his first three Warner albums were expanded (supposedly against Van’s will), the original 1974 release was subtitled Volume I, coinciding with the unveiling of …It’s Too Late To Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD. This deluxe package devotes a disc each to shows from each of the original venues, with the video portion coming from London. Along with further choices from his albums, covers include “Hey Good Lookin”, “Since I Fell For You” and “Buona Sera”, plus the then-unreleased “There There Child”, “I Paid The Price” and “No Way” (written by pianist Jeff Labes). With 3½ hours of new music, it’s essential for anyone who loves the original album.

Van Morrison “…It’s Too Late To Stop Now…” (1974)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track
Van Morrison …It’s Too Late To Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (2016)—

Monday, October 1, 2012

King Crimson 10: Three Of A Perfect Pair

The ‘80s version of King Crimson knew their audience. Guys raised on prog probably spent their non-musical attention reading sci-fi and fantasy novels, usually presented by the authors as trilogies. Three Of A Perfect Pair closes the book, so to speak, on this version of the group, which disbanded once the tour was over. Even the title seems to provide something of a conclusion.
Musically, the band was very much an anachronism; Yes, Genesis and the Moody Blues had retooled their approaches to cover more pop and grasp at success on the Top 40 chart. The title track, despite its wacky meter, almost comes off as a pop song, with a willfully perverse synth guitar solo that sounds like someone trying to figure out his effects pedals while playing it. “Model Man” and “Man With An Open Heart” have enough elements to keep them contemporary as well, but both are just too unsettling to be effective. “Sleepless” is an improvement, built around Tony Levin’s tapped bass. Because Adrian Belew’s vocal dominates the songs with lyrics, it can be said that this doesn’t really sound like a Crimson (read: Fripp) album until “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds)” and its layered guitars.
On the CD, without the separation of side one and side two, it’s a seamless transition to “Industry”, with even more synth guitar exploration. In the mode of similar tracks on the “trilogy”, it escalates into tense chaos without ever losing track of the rigid beat. “Dig Me” is very jagged and challenging, stopping twice for a simple exhilarating “chorus” over major chords. Daringly, the album ends with “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part III”, which provides not only a suggested bridge to the mid-‘70s version of the band (two prior to this) but provides a finale for this lineup. As others have noted, the track fades before its resolution is revealed, an oddity in the catalog.
It’s probably a matter of taste, but considering Bill Bruford’s skill on acoustic percussion, his reliance on electronic drums here diminishes his contribution somewhat. Of the three albums by this lineup, Three Of A Perfect Pair places just below Discipline but above Beat. They should probably all be heard together as a set, but as they weren’t composed that way, that would explain why they remain separate entities. While we’re still more partial to the first album and Red, these have their moments and are certainly not wastes of plastic.

King Crimson Three Of A Perfect Pair (1984)—3