Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Gerry O’Keefe: Whatever Suits You

The word “pop” in relation to music has had several connotations over the past fifty years, most of them derogatory. Today it conjures mental images of man-boys with bad haircuts and lithe jailbait writhing or getting implants. Once upon a time, even the Beatles were considered a pop group, before they were appreciated as musicians by those deemed fit to judge such things.
Pop is short for popular, of course, and to be popular in the industry is to be lucrative. Therefore, the songwriters behind all the big faceless hits of the ‘60s in particular had to crank out songs that would appeal to current trends, but because they were craftsmen (and women), they took a certain pride in their work, and strove to create things of lasting merit. They were made to sound good through a single speaker broadcasting AM radio, certainly. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be pathetic, of course.
These days, the purveyors of pop work with ProTools and autotune, and the sounds they create can be as interchangeable as the product that ultimately made Greg Brady decide not to wear Johnny Bravo’s suit. Somewhere among them is a handful of writers who still start with an acoustic guitar, pen and paper to hone their craft.
Gerry O’Keefe understands how it’s done, and is doing his own part trying to reclaim the tradition of the pop craftsman in a sterile atmosphere. His music stems from the example set by the Brill Building types that dominated the top 40 charts of decades past. After many years working in original and cover bands in the Chicago area, his knack for recognizing a solid hook has finally resulted in his very first album under his own name.
Whatever Suits You is an easygoing collection of friendly strums, accented by heartland riffs and understated harmonies. Best of all, the words are as well constructed as the chords. Any modern acoustic troubadour would kill for a song like “Your Brand New Beginning” in their set. It’s easy to imagine songs like “Good When It’s Gone”, “We’ll Call It Hope” and “Stuck, Still, Not Even Slow” on the radio. “The Road That Doesn’t End” gets an extra boost from a simple piano added to the standard guitar-bass-drums combination to accentuate the ache. And good luck getting the Beatles ‘65 twang of “Darlin’ Divine” out of your head once it’s there.
It would seem that people don’t write songs like this anymore, but we know that’s not true; they’re just hard to find. Thankfully, Whatever Suits You is available via the usual online merchants, in download format as well as an actual, tangible CD with artwork, liner notes and everything. It’s one of the nicer surprises of the year.

Gerry O’Keefe Whatever Suits You (2013)—

Monday, December 30, 2013

Programming Alert

This blog has been going steady for nearly six years, and there is still plenty of music yet to be tapped, considered and collected. It began as a creative outlet during an employment drought, and has continued despite positive changes to that drought.
When we began, we thought twice a week would work, in the tradition of the two days in the week when we got our main shipments at the CD store. Time and inspiration led us to post three days a week soon after embarking, which led to some truly imaginative scheduling.
The inspiration is still there, but the time is not. Therefore beginning this week, we're going back to that twice-weekly schedule. We hope that dedicated readers will understand; after reviewing about a thousand albums, can anyone accuse us of slacking? Ultimately, quality must be considered before quantity. Besides, it's not like we're stopping completely.
Look for a new post tomorrow, and again on Friday. That's the pattern we'll keep going forward, and should we manage to speed up the output again, everybody wins.
Thanks for reading this far, and please keep spreading the word. Here's to a great new year.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Beatles 32: Bootleg Recordings 1963

When a rumor emerges in Beatlemaniacland, the inhabitants immediately begin picking it apart, seesawing between euphoria and anger, and falling off several times into conjecture and other tangents. So it was that news of a bumper bundle of unreleased material to emerge on iTunes (now that the two companies named Apple were the bestest of buddies) sparked off a week or so of unfounded opinions. Then it was available, then it wasn’t, and then it was again.
Given the title Bootleg Recordings 1963, it’s a little over two hours of material—predominantly BBC radio performances as yet uncollected on an official Apple release, plus several studio outtakes and two demos. In all there are 59 tracks, retailing for 40 bucks American, or 67¢ a song. All of the BBC stuff has been floating around on bootlegs for years, as have the demos, while most of the studio outtakes appear for the first time in stereo.
The studio outtakes come first, peeking into the sessions for the Please Please Me album and follow-up single, and two more from later in the year. Then it’s a haphazard leap into the many radio appearances, tagged with the alleged (and often incorrect) original broadcast date. The usual suspects appear, as well as performances of some of the covers they didn’t put on their albums. If you haven’t had your fill of “A Taste Of Honey”, “Till There Was You” or even “She Loves You”, you might after this. Finally, non-professional recordings of two songs Lennon and McCartney gave away (“Bad To Me” and “I’m In Love”) round out the program.
Lots of collectors balked at spending their iTunes credits on stuff they mostly had, and cursed Apple for “ripping off the fans again”. Which is only true if something was promised and not delivered, and that didn’t happen. By boldly stating that these are bootlegs, that excuses any lack of sound quality. Considering how clean the studio stuff is, that’s not an issue either. It’s also hilarious to hear someone who can only have been familiar with this music thanks to pirates, copyright cheats and outright thieves complain about the rightful owners’ integrity.
Most tantalizing of all is the knowledge that there are several hours’ worth of studio material not included here. So if this was a gambit to protect their copyrights, as has been assumed with the existence of similar Bob Dylan compilations, what is the fate of the rest of the material? Clearly, we haven’t emptied the well.

The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 (2013)—3
CD availability: none; download only

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

David Darling: Cycles

The ECM label specializes in jazz with a European bent, though such a generalization is not entirely accurate. The music tends to be very atmospheric and usually experimental, with eclectic cover art to match. When the Windham Hill label started, it was ECM Records they tried to emulate. As a result, and after the fact, ECM has been lumped in with the New Age category. True, there are some similarities between performers and even content, but it’s an unfair dismissal. Trying to describe an ECM record is like dancing clumsily, badly and loudly about Architectural Digest.
Since their inception, the label has boasted many big names in jazz, including Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny. One of their more successful pairings was the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble male vocal quartet. Just because you like one ECM record doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll like another—or any other—but their standard is of such high quality that once you’re in, anything they do is worth checking out. Some of our favorite recordings have emerged this way, including Pat Metheny’s New Chautauqua, Ralph Towner’s Diary, Eberhard Weber’s Later That Evening, Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, The Hilliard Ensemble’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah and Jan Garbarek’s I Took Up The Runes.
Garbarek, a favorite of label owner and producer Manfred Eicher, was essentially the reason why ECM Records got started. In addition to his own vast discography, he appears on many albums in the ECM catalog, including one of the brightest of the hidden gems in the history of music. Cycles is credited to the cellist David Darling, but is essentially an ensemble piece, with prominent contributions on every track from Garbarek, Steve Kuhn on piano, Arild Andersen on bass, Oscar Castro-Neves on guitar, and the late, great Colin Walcott (most famous for his work in Oregon with Ralph Towner) on sitar, tabla and percussion.
The opener, “Cycle Song”, features a series of relative chords in fifths, not dissimilar to “Thanksgiving” from George Winston’s December. The combination of piano and cello was the sound our mind’s ear had heard for years, finally realized. “Cycle One: Namasté” offers a spooky little theme for Garbarek to spring from, and something of a setup for the epic, aptly-titled “Fly”. Side two begins almost abruptly with “Ode”, which was originally recorded under the title “Ode To A Fillmore Dressing Room” on Icarus by the Paul Winter Consort. “Cycle Two: Trio” and “Cycle Three: Quintet And Coda” are lengthy yet engrossing extrapolations on similar themes. The closing “Jessica's Sunwheel” is almost an anticlimax, as it breaks out of the predominantly modal structures of the previous tracks.
This hardly does justice to the experience of hearing the album itself, and Cycles is not for everyone. It works best at dusk, on grey rainy mornings, and particularly on yuletide nights with only the lights of the tree on. The ECM site doesn’t offer audio samples, but Amazon does. Since the label has never gone overboard promoting any of their releases, it’s never been easy to find. We got it as a gift one wonderful Christmas, in a pile of secondhand LPs selected for their importance to the giver in the hope that we’d appreciate them too. And we did. If it resonates with you, Constant Reader, then there’s a chance it might lead to you other wonderful albums as well. Isn’t it great when music does that?

David Darling Cycles (1982)—4

Monday, December 23, 2013

Bob Dylan 56: 50th Anniversary Collection 1963

Well, it happened again, sort of. This time, the assumed record label attempt to either protect their archives, tease the public or both resulted in a six-record set of otherwise uncollected (but mostly bootlegged) Bob Dylan recordings, with limited availability.
This time, however, the studio takes on 50th Anniversary Collection 1963 total exactly six: alternates of “Eternal Circle” and “Percy’s Song”, another extremely sloppy stab at “That’s All Right, Mama” that peters into something called “Sally Free And Easy” before stopping altogether, the slightly more interesting “East Laredo Blues” piano solo, and the legendary unreleased tracks “Hero Blues” and “New Orleans Rag”.
The bulk of the live recordings are of more historic than musical interest. “When The Ship Comes In” at the March on Washington, for example, would be a lot more palatable if it didn’t sound like a news broadcast (and didn’t have Joan Baez yodeling all the way through it). Typical is a 12-song sequence called “The Banjo Tape” (because of one of the accompanists; he appears to have acquired a 12-string). In this seemingly impromptu hootenanny, the most successful songs, and the ones that don’t break down after a minute, happen to be his own compositions.
There’s also the balance of his two legendary New York concerts of the year, at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Despite these having already been plundered for various Bootleg Series sets (and in one case, Greatest Hits Vol. II) with pristine sound, having been professionally recorded, the question is begged: why not issue the complete shows in sequence?
Then there are a few lost songs, some better than others. “Ramblin’ Down Through The World” began the Town Hall show, and isn’t much of anything. “Hiding Too Long” is more fascinating, if clumsy. There are a few renditions of “John Brown”, and several of “Only A Pawn In Their Game”.
Like most bootlegs, this isn’t an album sequenced for anything other than posterity, and the multiple takes of less than exciting songs gets tiresome. It still provides a fascinating glimpse at the kid trying to finish his second album and on his way to his third.

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection 1963 (2013)—3
CD availability: none; LP only

Friday, December 20, 2013

Beatles 31: On Air

It only took the Apple powers that be nineteen years—yes, that long—to release a no-brainer sequel to Live At The BBC. Considering all the work done by bootleggers in the meantime, digging up the best sources and whatnot, On Air, helpfully subtitled Live At The BBC Volume 2, should have been another terrific collection, right?
Well, not exactly. Given the dozens of heretofore officially untapped possibilities, any one Beatlemaniac’s choice is going to be different from another. And when you’ve got the suits involved, they’re going to go for the common denominator, stressing beloved hits over historical rarities.
One of the things that made the 1994 set so exciting was the bumper crop of otherwise unheard Beatles songs—covers, mostly, but still fun. Having used most of those up already, On Air essentially frames an “alternate” Please Please Me (or The Early Beatles, for those of you playing in the U.S.), with all their singles and most B-sides represented as well. Because they repeated several songs throughout their dozens of BBC appearances, 12 songs appear in alternate versions from the first batch, two come from a 1995 EP that all the fans have (plus another alternate here) and the one BBC track on Anthology 1 shows up again too. We’re not about to compare all the different versions, but this particular run through “Glad All Over” here is fairly raucous. Meanwhile, John still sings “small coat” instead of “‘cos my uncle” on “Memphis, Tennessee”.
There are some “new” songs—“Beautiful Dreamer” and Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You”, both in fuzzy sound but we’ll take them, and a rockin’ run through “Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club”—leaving a few still in limbo. The lead track is Buddy Holly’s “Words Of Love”, recorded a year and a half before its appearance on a Beatles LP (and two years before the Americans got it). “Please Mister Postman” is heard with a full stop ending, instead of a fade, and “And I Love Her” is the arrangement we all know, but electric. “Honey Don’t” and “Kansas City”, which appeared in 1963 versions on the first set, come from the more obvious Beatles For Sale era here. They even include an outtake sequence from the recording sessions for the BBC version of “I Feel Fine”.
Naturally, snippets of dialogue and canned chatter sets up several tracks; the excruciating commentary by Lee Peters makes the less-intrusive presence of Brian Matthew all the more welcome. (Beatle historians will wince at the reference to Paul’s upcoming birthday party, as we know that was the occasion that John got drunk and beat up one of their Liverpool buddies.) Each disc ends with a half-hour’s worth of individual interviews with the boys from 1965 and 1966, which, while interesting, lack the exuberance of only a few years before.
Taken all together, On Air is a stretch for two CDs. It could also be that so much of the fun was already spent on the first set (which got a mild facelift the same day) so that the potential riches to be were inevitably been diluted. It’s still the Beatles, and it’s still fun. But you’ll still listen to the other one more.

The Beatles On Air—Live At The BBC Volume 2 (2013)—3

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Van Morrison 21: The Best Of Van Morrison

One of the smartest things the PolyGram record company did was to finagle distribution of the Island label, which ensured massive profits from worldwide sales of U2 and Bob Marley. In fact, proceeds from the latter’s posthumous Legend compilation would be enough to sustain any number of third-world economies.
The other smart thing they did was to release The Best Of Van Morrison. Now it was easy for college kids, children of hippies and general music fans to bond to something other than the same three Steve Miller, James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett greatest hits CDs.
Even if you don’t fit into that category, and good for you if you don’t, The Best Of Van Morrison is still an excellent teaser for the gems to be found deep within the man’s still-growing catalog. Along with the obvious hits—“Brown Eyed Girl”, “Moondance”, “Domino”, “Wild Night” and “Gloria”, one of three songs from the Them days—this filled-to-capacity collection includes other songs that may not have been hits, but still qualify as some of his “best”. And they cover over two decades of work, too—two songs each from Into The Music, Beautiful Vision, Poetic Champions Compose and Avalon Sunset and hitting every major album before and in between. And even if you already know and love those albums, whoever was in charge made sure to include the relatively rare “Wonderful Remark”, originally written in the early ‘70s, and finally appearing in a grand Robbie Robertson production for a Scorsese soundtrack in 1983.
While it’s easy to quibble over what was left out—we’d gladly swap “Dweller On The Threshold”, “Whenever God Shines His Light” and “Did Ye Get Healed?” for “Tupelo Honey”, “Wavelength” and a player to be named later—The Best Of Van Morrison lives up to its title, and likely expanded his commercial viability for the decade to come. Which was a good thing, since he was still making albums.

Van Morrison The Best Of Van Morrison (1990)—5

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lou Reed 23: Le Bataclan

One of those gray-area releases that always seemed to turn up over the years was a one-off performance for French television that reunited the first three people to leave the Velvet Underground. Le Bataclan ‘72 spotlights Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico at a time when none of them were particularly visible, and certainly not commercially viable.
Lou had just recorded his first solo album, and had yet to fall into the Bowie circle, so he delivers some sleepy acoustic renditions of his old and new material—“Black Angel’s Death Song” is particularly striking in this format—before stepping aside to shakily strum behind the other two. Cale does three songs, two of which were never otherwise recorded, and then Nico sings a serviceable “Femme Fatale” before dragging her harmonium out to accompany her unique brand of lieder.
This can be startling if you’ve never heard it before, but basically, after the chamber pop of her Chelsea Girls album in 1967, the Teutonic titwillow started writing her own songs to the seesawing accompaniment of the aforementioned harmonium, which were then helped onto wax by Cale. And while they may seem to be simple two-finger noodlings, she still manages to sound convincing. Whatever these songs are about, they mean something to her.
For the sake of preserving history, a full minute of Nico coughing is not edited out, perhaps to excuse whatever might go wrong with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, which is good because nothing does. She even comes back to sing lead on a jaunty rendition of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.
Amazingly, for all the time spent tuning between songs, they never seem to find the right pitch. This is even sadly apparent on the snippets of “rehearsals” stuck on the end of the disc. Both happen to be songs from the third VU album, so perhaps this was the first Cale and Nico had heard them.
As with many bootlegs gone official, this doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Still, it’s a fascinating snapshot of Lou the troubadour, with giant hair and less attitude. YouTube clips abound, for easy sampling, teasing and/or repelling, depending on where you stand or sit.

Lou Reed, John Cale & Nico Le Bataclan ‘72 (2004)—

Friday, December 13, 2013

Neil Young 49: Live At The Cellar Door

One of the selling points for the Blu-ray version of Neil’s Archives box was that it provided the capability to download additional material as it became available. His rationale was that if he discovered something he considered Archive-worthy, it would go right into the virtual filing cabinet around which the project was formatted. And for the better part of a year, right around each month’s full moon, a new item would pop up to add to the pile of music already contained in the set. Since then, nothing.
In a move guaranteed to irritate Blu-ray owners, Live At The Cellar Door, compiled from six shows over three days late in 1970, emerged as a standalone CD. This installment of his Performance Archive Series (dubbed “2.5” to go between the already-established 2 and 3) was recorded a whopping six weeks prior to the shows sampled for Live At Massey Hall. Given that this period has already been well mined—“See The Sky About To Rain” having already appeared on the box—and folks have been clamoring for any news on the status of Archives Vol. 2 and beyond, this disc may seem redundant to those of us without Blu-ray players. Were these solo acoustic performances really that different from any others, in the way that shows by the likes of, for example, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa or even Neil with Crazy Horse might have been?
Luckily, it is a little different. “Expecting To Fly” receives a nice treatment at the piano, for example. So does, amazingly, “Cinnamon Girl”, so often associated with electric fuzz, and here with an intro resembling that of “After The Gold Rush”, which is likely the reason for the spontaneous applause. He acknowledges that he never did it that way before, and it’s pretty clear why. In fact, half of the album is a showcase for his “almost a year” of piano playing.
Given the between-song “raps” that dotted similar releases, Live At The Cellar Door mostly sticks to the music, except for a three-minute detour before “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”. The prelude is punctuated by his fingers messing with the piano strings to comic effect, while the song itself travels from sorrowful to jaunty and back. It’s one performance that makes the album worth owning.

Neil Young Live At The Cellar Door (2013)—3

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Traffic 5: Welcome To The Canteen

Now that Traffic was back, they expanded to add Ric Grech (most recently of Blind Faith) on bass, Jim Gordon (ditto from Derek & The Dominoes) on drums, and the inimitably named Reebop Kwaku Baah on percussion. (With those two pounding the rhythm, Jim Capaldi retired to the tambourine, and stayed there.) By the time they recorded gigs for a potential live album, Dave Mason was back in the band, again, and he takes a center role on Welcome To The Canteen.
A crisp rendition of “Medicated Goo” opens the album, then Mason steps forward for “Sad And Deep As You”, an overly sensitive strum that makes a nice transition into “40,000 Headmen”. That becomes a lengthy acoustic jam, then Mason comes back with the repetitive yet still mesmerizing “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” (thanks to Stevie’s organ part).
Side two is made for jamming, with about ten minutes each devoted to “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (which is always a matter of personal taste) and “Gimme Some Lovin’”, rearranged with a “Get Back”-style gallop. Considering the glut of live albums hitting the marketplace (and this blog, no less), your endurance of this segment will be a matter of personal taste.
When Welcome To The Canteen was released, the cover and label credited the seven (!) individuals who made up the band at the time of recording. Later reissues, reflecting that the ensemble (save Mason) went on to record as Traffic, used that name on the spine and elsewhere, so that’s how it’s credited now. It’s still an intriguing little sidestep in the netherworld between actual Traffic albums.

Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, Chris Wood, Rick Grech, “Reebop” Kwaku Baah, Jim Gordon Welcome To The Canteen (1971)—3

Monday, December 9, 2013

Allman Brothers 3: Fillmore East

Labels were a lot more patient with their acts once upon a time. The first two Allman Brothers Band albums hadn’t exactly lit up the charts, but they were a hard-workin’ band, and having built a following at the Fillmore East in New York City, somebody had the bright idea to record their next album there. And they did, and everybody was happy—band, management, consumers, even the roadies on the back cover. At Fillmore East is designed to show the band at their intricate best, leaning on their trademark lengthy jams. That had already been established with the studio LPs, but double live albums threw any rules out the window.
Side one kicks in well with the ancient “Statesboro Blues” (a classic) and brings on their friend Thom Doucette to blow harp on the not-nearly-as-ancient “Done Somebody Wrong”. As they often prefaced their music with a little history, both Bobby “Blue” Bland and T-Bone Walker are acknowledged for giving them “Stormy Monday”, but from the guitar to that Hammond organ, it’s all theirs now. Side two is devoted to “You Don’t Love Me”, taken at such a steady gallop that you wonder how they’ll fill the side. The solution? Duane. He takes advantage of the space provided to go off on his own for a few minutes, and bring the band back behind him. He even throws in a few bars of “Joy To The World”, which is a little odd for March. The side fades just as “Whipping Post” rumbles up, but that will have to wait.
Side three showcases their jazz influences. One might expect something called “Hot ‘Lanta” to be a typical southern rock boogie, and one would be wrong. Rather, it’s a clever setup for the extended take on “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed”; this one goes for over 12 minutes, and ends up as tight as ever. Finally, side four is all about “Whipping Post”, though apparently not the one started at the end of side two. Wikipedia features a lengthy description of the peaks and valleys here, so we’ll just leave it by saying that it’s fairly phenomenal. If you listen closely at the fade, you’ll hear another tune that will rear its head soon enough.
As live albums go, At Fillmore East is worthy of its heralded status; you just have to be really into guitars to get it. The band would revisit these shows soon enough, which will be explained in this space eventually. Needless to say, its compact disc history has become quite confusing. Its initial double-CD package was redundant once the industry made room for everything on one. In 1992, just in time for the band’s own renaissance as a recording, touring entity, The Fillmore Concerts brought together all of these and then some. The next century brought forth a Deluxe Edition of the original album, resequenced to approximate the actual setlist and original mixes. Finally, 2014 brought The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings, consisting of all four March shows plus the final June show, which was previously on the Deluxe Edition from their next album, which will be discussed in due course. Therefore, there’s plenty more to love if you love this.

The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East (1971)—4

Friday, December 6, 2013

Paul McCartney 33: New

For a man oozing with so much creativity, Paul McCartney’s never been praised for his clever album titles. For every Tug Of War, Band On The Run or even McCartney II there’s such cringe-inducers as Back To The Egg, Memory Almost Full and Kisses On The Bottom. And now, this. It’s a good thing that the quality of any McCartney album doesn’t depend solely on its title, or else we’d have to write off New immediately.
Much was made of how this was his first “rock” album in six years, coming as it did on the heels of Kisses. But that ignores the inspiration that went into creating the Fireman album, and the quality of what came out of it. Another antecedent would be Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, which had one young hot producer at the helm; New has four such names, two of them direct progeny of previous, legendary collaborators.
Interestingly, these young producers deliver sounds that hearken back to decades earlier, whether or not McCartney’s lyrics constantly look back. The charms of “Save Us” have to fight an insistent fuzzy guitar part, and even through the drums sound canned, it’s a catchy opener. “Alligator”, with its pleas for someone to “save me” makes a redundant choice to put next, but it’s soon forgotten. As with his last “rock” album, he takes the opportunity to evoke his own past, covertly in “On My Way To Work” (sung from the point of view of the same bus in “A Day In The Life”) and overtly in “Early Days”. In the middle is “Queenie Eye”, another jaunty track with a seemingly nonsense lyric that is so irresistibly catchy you can’t help shake your head and smile. The title track incorporates a “Penny Lane” march in something of an homage, likely unintentional, to The Rutles’ “Doubleback Alley”.
The second half of the album has a more unpredictable sound. “Appreciate” takes a few plays to, well, appreciate, mixing his ‘80s tendencies with modern touches. “Everybody Out There” is a strange cousin to “Mrs. Vandebilt” musically—it’s not a stretch to imagine Linda happily yelling “hey” at all the right spots—if the lyrics are a bit forced. Built on drones and loops, “Hosanna” is basically a one-man operation that sounds like it took as long to write as it did to record; here it serves as a palette cleanser before the more upbeat if unsubstantial “I Can Bet” and “Looking At Her”, which sounds a lot longer than it is. With an intro that brings to mind “It’s Raining Men” when it returns for its crescendo, “Road” doesn’t have quite enough drama for a finale.
But in this era of “deluxe” editions around the world, which add various bonuses, whether audio, visual or tchotchke, to a “standard” edition, it was a moot argument. Most McCartney fans would have gone for any of the packages that added more music anyway. “Turned Out” sounds halfway between an early-‘80s George Harrison track and a late ‘80s McCartney track, and would have made a decent B-side if they hadn’t been made obsolete of bonus tracks. “Get Me Out Of Here” is an innocuous little strum, making reference to the celebrity reality show of the same name. (Another track, the more experimental “Struggle”, only came out in Japan.) Unlisted on the cover of any edition but indexed separately is “Scared”—not a John Lennon solo cover, but a show of vulnerability with a suitably frightened piano part. It makes for a sobering end.
No matter what anyone tries to say, New is not a grand statement, or even one of his more important albums. It is, however, proof that for all his talents and hobbies, Paul McCartney still gets a kick out of making records. A few of these songs will likely appear in the slightly modified setlist of his next handful of concerts, and they’ll be replaced with whatever he chooses to include from his next album.
So it’s just his New album. Long may he run.

Paul McCartney New (2013)—3

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Coldplay 1: Parachutes

Well before a Seth Rogen movie made them a homophobic punchline, there was a certain “guilty pleasure” aspect to Coldplay. They were a band that wasn’t at all cool to like, yet grew immensely popular with each album. The formula seemed simple enough: combine the angst of Radiohead with the stadium appeal of U2. They weren’t the first to try that in the wake of OK Computer and the absence of a late-‘90s Joshua Tree, but they were able to coast on it for a while.
In fact, much of the backlash on the band seemed to arise after that Seth Rogen movie, as people tried to figure out what was so annoying about the band. Listening to their debut today, it’s clear who the band is, even though singer Chris Martin hadn’t met Gwyneth Paltrow yet, or perched himself at the front of too many stages playing piano, or doomed his bandmates to the same anonymity that befell the members of Matchbox 20, Maroon 5 or Counting Crows that weren’t Rob Thomas, Adam Levine or Adam Duritz, respectively.
What makes Parachutes such a good album—that is, unless, you hate Coldplay—is its simple dedication to songs, played with a minimum of bombast. This isn’t the type of thing you’d expect to hear played by a local band in the corner of a club, but move that scenario to a small theater and it fits better. Clearly, these guys had ambition.
Ultimately, four of the songs were hit singles. Of those, the biggest (and best) were “Yellow”, which is about as loud as they got at this point, and “Trouble”, which would find its way into any number of MTV reality shows to illustrate someone’s unique strain of inner turmoil. “Yellow” in particular demonstrates perfection in simplicity, another case where changes you’ve heard countless times can form something stirring, whatever the hell he’s on about. “Trouble” was enough to keep him writing at the piano, ensuring a decent formula for future hits—best exhibited here in the closing “Everything’s Not Lost”. “Shiver” is an admitted Jeff Buckley homage, but only if you think about it, while “Don’t Panic” (itself re-recorded from an earlier EP) goes by awfully quick.
The album could even be slotted into the folk-rock category of adult alternative, as demonstrated by the slower, moodier “Spies”, “Shiver” and “We Never Change”. One song that seems of its own breed is “High Speed”, which makes sense, since it was one of the earliest songs the band had completed; its placement on the album provides a nice change of mood. And there’s even a “hidden” track, which they’d do again.
This is not meant to convert anyone on the opposite side. We were originally drawn to the band on the basis of “Yellow”—or more specifically, its video—and were very pleased with the rest of the album. And it’s refreshing to throw it on again all these years and generations later to find that it’s still pretty good.

Coldplay Parachutes (2000)—4

Monday, December 2, 2013

Beach Boys 13: Good Vibrations

After the fans had scooped up the Capitol two-fers, with their collective bounty of bonus tracks, and sprang for the ‘70s reissues, which had no bonuses, was that it for the Beach Boys? Heck no. They needed a box set, and they got one.
With artwork supposed to suggest a surfboard but instead resembled plywood (but still not as hideous as the painting used to decorate the individual jewel boxes), Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys served up five discs full of music, including over fifty previously unreleased tracks. As with most box sets covering such a long career, the earliest discs cover the fewest years, leaving the remainder to race through the decades. There could well be somebody thrilled to have “Kokomo” on the same disc as “Sail On Sailor”, but we haven’t met them.
Indeed, due to their productivity and quality, discs one and two cover 1961 through 1966, including all the hits from their very first pre-Capitol single, in their original single mixes as opposed to album mixes. Things get really interesting towards the end of the first disc, presenting a slightly compact overview of Brian’s development as a producer and arranger. But a key enticement for buyers was the 30 minutes of Smile-related music on the second disc. Most of this had never been heard in this form, and even at that advanced date the compilers still hadn’t quite figured out where everything was supposed to fit. (It’s not always easy to tell where “Heroes And Villains” stops and “Do You Like Worms” begins; also, what’s called an intro to “H&V” is really the prelude to “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, which people still thought had been destroyed.) Covering the period from “California Girls” through Pet Sounds and just slightly beyond, disc two is likely the one owners play most.
And from there, it’s not quite as dreamy. Disc three valiantly covers up to the Surf’s Up album, choosing some of the more tuneful selections from that period. Disc four jumbles the chronology just a bit to begin with “Sail On Sailor”, and proceeds through the rest of the ‘70s and what there was of the ‘80s to demonstrate what they did after Endless Summer kept them in business. Among the more interesting rarities are Brian’s “Fairy Tale Music” from the Holland bonus EP without the narration, and some samples from the orchestrated solo album he didn’t finish. Finally, the fifth disc, an assortment of session extracts, vocal- or music-only mixes and oddments, lays a foundation for the Pet Sounds Sessions and Smile Sessions sets to come.
As with the entire catalog revamp, the Good Vibrations box is well done and comprehensive. The liner notes very kindly supply what songs came from what albums and when they charted, and even include references to the various compilations that came out in between, making sure geeks like us have everything we need in context. The compilers also worked closely with Brian, who apparently refused to allow “Let Him Run Wild” to be included for reasons known only to him. It may be typical to say, but the Smile material made it worth the purchase, if not essential until the later period got its own best-of CD. Unfortunately, the box didn’t clear out the vaults, either, as further rarities sets added on to the pile, as did another box set 20 years later.

The Beach Boys Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys (1993)—

Friday, November 29, 2013

Band 3: Stage Fright

The Band had two highly appreciated albums under their belt, so it was time for the “difficult third album”. Stage Fright shows the balance of power changing in this democracy, with most of the songs solely credited to “Jaime Robbie Robertson”, despite the ensemble work that went into each. Robbie says today that the album was intended to get away from the mythology set forth by the first two, but he’s never been one to let the truth get in the way of good reissue liner note copy.
“Strawberry Wine” features Levon at his most nasal, while Garth wanders around his accordion-sounding keyboard, which he’ll do for the better part of the album. But Richard comes in to sing “Sleeping”, sweet as ever. It’s an excellent Band performance, and surprising that it’s not as well known. “Time To Kill” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” are more raucous, giving Robbie plenty of room to shred in his own way, and particularly that pinched tone. “All La Glory” slows it down again, presenting Levon sounding more than ever like Richard and Rick.
Things get more familiar on the second side, where the hits resided. “The Shape I’m In” is more along the lines of the second album, with a funky clavinet and shaggy dog lyrics to match. Similarly, “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” evokes Levon’s memories of the music he heard passing through town as a kid, which led him to stage his own “Midnight Ramble” in the later years of his life. “Daniel And The Sacred Harp” is a forced re-framing of the ancient parable about someone who sells his soul for music, about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The swapped vocals don’t really help, but the instrumentation should please anyone still hung up on the second album. The title track is still the best song on the album, from the jumpy piano and sympathetic bass to the shaky vocal from Rick. “The Rumor” has just enough mystery to make it special, but that only underscores what’s been missing.
It’s not just the lack of rustic mystery that keeps Stage Fright from being overly successful; maybe it doesn’t seem to have as much of that five-guys-playing-in-a-room vibe. (Which is odd, since legend has it the album was recorded in a theater setting. Perhaps the dueling mixes by Todd Rundgren and Glyn Johns are to blame. The upgraded CD would have been a great place to include both, but only offers a few alternates and a radio commercial.) But they’d keep at it, and come around again soon enough.

The Band Stage Fright (1970)—3
2000 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Van Morrison 20: Avalon Sunset

For fans of aging rockers, 1989 was a boon of a year. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Stones all returned to both the charts and popular favor. Even cult guys like Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson made a big leap towards mainstream notice as well. But one of the biggest surprises was Van Morrison, who didn’t do anything too different from the bulk of his ‘80s output, but managed to serve up a recipe that resonated.
Avalon Sunset begins, improbably, with a duet featuring Cliff Richard, one of the first pop stars to be knighted by Her Majesty and a long time away from the pop charts, in America at least. “Whenever God Shines His Light” sets up a pious mood that will last for the duration, but most directly in the moody “Contacting My Angel”. That song is more of a meditation, but only if you listen closely. “I’d Love To Write Another Song” is only another in a growing line of disgruntled complaints about the record industry, here suggesting that he’s stuck. Which is why “Have I Told You Lately” makes such a nice choice to hear next; the sentiment had been used by other songs for years, but somehow Van’s actually seems heartfelt. Then he sits down for a two-chord meditation about “Coney Island”, obviously some place local to Belfast as opposed to the amusement park us Yankees know about. Just as we’re getting lulled into the wonder of this particular never-never land, the tearjerking theme of “I’m Tired Joey Boy” comes in, and we’re baffled by the philosophy of this particular character’s head.
Lest anyone think his piety was too much to follow, “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God” shows that Van is still struggling, but at the very least, he can get an album title out of it. “Orangefield” brings him back to the fields wet with rain on a golden autumn day, and yet he can still get another decent song out of it. The celebration of existence continues on “Daring Night”, an incredibly simple song caught up in, well, a sense of wonder. And finally, “These Are The Days” provides another reminder of what there is to savor, while we can.
He may not be doing anything new or different, but Van was able to build on his best work of the decade into something completely palatable (read: sweet) for those who might have only known him from Moondance. The image of the world painted by Avalon Sunset is very enticing; one wonders if the world he sings about actually exists. Or, as one of the songs says, “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?” Truly, and I ask you.

Van Morrison Avalon Sunset (1989)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1989, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, November 25, 2013

Derek and the Dominos: Layla

So much has been written over the years about this album that we hesitate to weigh in. Certainly it’s essential for any fans of the electric guitar; even after everything Eric Clapton accomplished in the ‘60s, Layla was still a new height for his development, both professionally and creatively.
It’s understandably considered a Clapton album, but we must remember that Derek and the Dominos were, above all, a band. Clapton and keyboard player Bobby Whitlock collaborated early and often on the album, Bobby’s vocals adding a Sam & Dave-style vibe to the album as a whole. Bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon were tight, having played with Delaney & Bonnie (where they met Clapton) and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. All four (along with Dave Mason, seemingly incapable of being in any band for more than a few gigs) worked on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and went off to Florida to record. While there, they crossed paths with the Allman Brothers Band, which is how Duane Allman ended up guesting on the album. (That’s also important to mention: he didn’t play on the whole thing, and never played any shows with the Dominos. He was devoted to his own band and remained so.)
“I Looked Away” is a great opener, and a song that doesn’t get enough attention. All of the elements of the band are introduced here, setting a standard for the four sides. Jim Gordon inverts the snare and kick on “Bell Bottom Blues” in a way no one else do, yet makes it work. “Keep On Growing”, just like “Anyday” on side two, builds a good groove over six and a half minutes, working the guitars and organ nicely against each other. Likewise, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “Key To The Highway” establish themselves as the modern standard by which these blues standards are known today. If there’s a clunker in the first half, it’s “I Am Yours”, which uses a poetic idea from an earlier century but not as well as the title track, and predicts Clapton’s laid-back style of the ‘70s.
The second half of the album is stellar. “Tell The Truth” finds the stank and stays there, giving Duane plenty of room to soar. “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” builds on a hyper-tense rhythm—with excellent fretwork from Carl Radle—eventually settling into a nice groove for the fade. “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” is another cover, but more fitting with Clapton’s overall theme for the album, that being his infatuation with George Harrison’s wife.
Things absolutely take off on side four. Their epic, keening arrangement of “Little Wing” does to Hendrix’s original what he did to “All Along The Watchtower” (and amazingly, they recorded it before he died). The final cover is the much simpler “It’s Too Late”, which gets its point across much faster than the blues workouts of the other sides. It’s merely a sorbet for the unmistakable riff of “Layla”, a song that’s a classic all its own, but is truly made by Jim Gordon’s gorgeous piano theme (which he allegedly stole from Rita Coolidge) over the second half of the track. It is truly one of the finer moments in music. And where can you go from there? Bobby’s solo “Thorn Tree In The Garden” has been compared to “Good Night” following “Revolution 9”, but we think it’s more like having to settle for vanilla ice cream because they ran out of chocolate.
There’s a lot of music on Layla, and the great moments still stand out, even after decades of Classic Rock Radio threatening to kill them off. It’s very possible to make a stellar single LP out of the music here, but that would suggest that the lesser tracks are garbage, which they’re not.
Because of the length, it first appeared as a double CD until the industry caught up to capacity capabilities. It was also the recipient of the first box set devoted to a single album; 1990’s The Layla Sessions served up the album on a single disc, plus a disc of jams with and with the Allman Brothers Band, and another disc of alternate takes. That was for the 20th anniversary; the 40th anniversary brought forth a deluxe edition, with other unreleased tracks, and the so-called “super deluxe” version, which added the In Concert album. These are all for those with unlimited income; everybody else should stick with the original. On vinyl.

Derek and the Dominos Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs (1970)—

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 12: Greatest Hits

Meanwhile, Bruce tried to stay busy in the ‘90s. The two new albums released the same day weren’t as successful as the tour supporting them, as fans flocked to see their hero running around a stage with people that pointedly were not the E Street Band. An MTV Unplugged appearance was pointedly electric, and an album released outside America was a pricey import. But Bruce did manage to recapture some respect with a song written for the highly popular film Philadelphia; “Streets Of Philadelphia” wasn’t as dramatic as the song Neil Young wrote for the same movie, but it caught on enough to garner an Oscar, and eventually a few Grammies. It was also a key selling point for his first-ever Greatest Hits album.
The title ticked a lot of fans off, since not all the songs were hits, not all the hits were on it, and there was nothing from his first two albums (likely because that would have put money in the pocket of his former manager and producer). Chances are they had the four songs from Born In The U.S.A. a couple of times already, too.
But for people whose CD racks consist solely of hits collections, soundtracks and such, Bruce’s Greatest Hits did cover enough of those bases. If you like one of the songs, you like them all.
Most attention was paid to the four brand new songs at the end, all recorded with—ta-da!—the E Street Band. First, there was “Secret Garden”, destined to replace “Every Breath You Take” as the most misunderstood song choice for wedding receptions, helped along by Jerry Maguire. Its understated keyboards had already become a Boss trademark, and his intimate vocal belies something of a bizarre “Candy’s Room”. “Murder Incorporated” wasn’t exactly new; this angry track was left over from the Born In The U.S.A. sessions, dusted off and sounding great. “Blood Brothers” is back to quiet, with lyrics that seem to refer to the band, but probably don’t. It soon picks up a galloping beat not unlike Dire Straits, and that’s meant as a compliment. Finally, “This Hard Land” was another early-’80s leftover, but newly recorded.
Songs as strong as these only made people wish Bruce and the boys could record and release a full album. But that wouldn’t happen for a while. In the meantime, Greatest Hits ensured big-box record retailers outside the 201 area code that they could still have a Springsteen slot in their racks with decent turnover.

Bruce Springsteen Greatest Hits (1995)—4

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Billy Joel 12: The Bridge

And so we enter the Wayfarer years, wherein Billy Joel competed with Bruce Willis for who could have more photos taken of him in sunglasses. (To their credit, they didn’t go the stupid hat route, considering their current hairlines.) The Bridge was Billy’s first album since who cares when that didn’t have some kind of them or style tying it together, unless that theme is “I’m sleeping with Christie Brinkley and you’re not.” Or “Check out the guest stars I’ve got all over this thing.” Hmm. Maybe there’s a theme after all.
At any rate, were the tunes any good? That depends. “Running On Ice” begins with a suitably illustrative piano part, followed by another syncopated section that plays off the song’s edginess, and likely kept it from being a hit single in those feel-good times. Instead, folks ate up “This Is The Time”, a fairly overt Valentine to his wife, sure to replace “Just The Way You Are” as that decade’s first wedding dance. That came after “A Matter Of Trust”, pushed along by the count-in and prominent video wherein the Piano Man actually plays a guitar! Except that according to the liner notes, he doesn’t, and this decade’s ears wish they sounded more like, you know, guitars. Still, a catchy tune. The first single from the album was actually “Modern Woman”, heard originally to promote the shrill Bette Midler vehicle Ruthless People, and sounding like a direct descendant of “You’re Only Human”. A fourth single was “Baby Grand”, a smoky duet with Ray Charles—both guys sing and play piano here—that works as a slightly faster “New York State Of Mind”.
One jazz tune wasn’t enough, so side two is blasted open by the big band horns of “Big Man On Mulberry Street”. It pales in comparison to “Baby Grand”, which wasn’t as obvious in the days when you had to flip the record or tape between sides. Still, it does clean the palette somewhat for “Temptation”, a moody tune stuck between love and guilt. “Code Of Silence” is possibly the album’s hidden gem, musically and even lyrically. Co-written with Cyndi Lauper at the height of her multicolored career, she’s used sparingly on vocals, thankfully, with a minimum of chirp. (Liberty DeVitto cleverly turns the beat around, if you notice.) With only one song left, it’s time to bring in the last guest, and for “Getting Closer” it’s Steve Winwood, then firmly back in the high life again. His Hammond B-3 works around a rhythm that wants to be a Traffic homage, but isn’t.
Despite the novelties of each track, there’s no real progression on The Bridge. It’s odd to say, but even when Billy Joel was exploring old styles he was doing something “new”. This is merely a collection of songs that don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with just having an album of songs.

Billy Joel The Bridge (1986)—3

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bad Company 4: Burnin’ Sky

Sometimes when you go back to the well, there’s nothing there, which Bad Company found out on their fourth album. Burnin’ Sky has everything already in the band’s bag of tricks, except for songs that stick in one’s brain.
Heralded by a clap of thunder, the title track is pretty much the only song anybody remembers. It’s a fairly basic riff that goes on a little long. It fades into birds chirping, suggesting that whatever set the sky a-burnin’ is made better by the “Morning Sun”, an acoustic idea that isn’t much of a stretch, covered up by flutes. The strut tempo returns on “Leaving You”, which isn’t too deep, but stutters to an uneasy halt, which is surprising, since this band could never be accused of not being tight. “Like Water” is credited to Paul Rodgers and his then-wife, which was nice of him, except it doesn’t really go anywhere. For some reason, a very quiet, jokey rendition of “Happy Wanderer” appears next, followed by “Everything I Need”, which sounds like it wants to be a ‘50s pop parody, with hiccupping vocals and a spoken interlude, except that the chorus section has a little more meat to it. Amazingly, this trifle is credited to all four members.
“Heartbeat” would have been a good contender for a single, especially with the intricate dual guitar solo. It’s not until Simon Kirke’s “Peace Of Mind” that a sensitive piano song appears, but it’s sunk out of the gate by Paul Rodgers’ “people I just wanna tell ya” monologue over the intro; somewhere Paul Stanley took notice. “Passing Time” begins with a hint of an epic—probably the “Sympathy For The Devil” bongos—following some basic changes through some very disconnected lyrics. Mick Ralphs serves up two riff-heavy tracks, but again, neither “Too Bad” nor “Man Needs Woman” offers anything we haven’t heard already. “Masters Of Ceremony” is also credited to the entire band, but at seven minutes, it’s little more than a jam on the title track, with stock blues phrases drunkenly blurted here and there.
So once it spins down to nothing, Burnin’ Sky becomes a lot of time spent on not much. Outside of those fleeting moments, there isn’t anything really driving one back to hearing it again, especially as the closing track takes away the charm of the title song. It is simply background music—not so annoying to take off, but not enticing either.
This too was expanded in line with the rest of the catalog; outside of a couple of takes of the title track that sound less menacing than the finished product and the aptly titled outtake “Unfinished Story”, the other works-in-progress don’t show anything we missed, unless you want an even longer run through “The Happy Wanderer”, or wonder how “Too Bad” and “Man Needs Woman” sounded like with Mick singing.

Bad Company Burnin’ Sky (1977)—2
2017 Deluxe Edition: same as 1977, plus 14 extra tracks

Friday, November 15, 2013

Jethro Tull 2: Stand Up

On only their second album, Jethro Tull were already evolving. Where the cover of their first album depicted them as crazy, leering old men, Stand Up was a little more elaborate, from the intricate woodcut motif to the actual pop-up of the band in the gatefold. Records sure were fun once upon a time.
The album’s a little heavier than the debut as well, partially due to the arrival of guitarist Martin Barre, who also played flute and whose louder approach on the frets is different from the pure blues of Mick Abrahams, who left to form Blodwyn Pig. Thus “A New Day Yesterday” sports a powerhouse riff along the lines of what Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were starting to do. “Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square” picks up a character from the first album, this time to the accompaniment of guitars treated to sound Greek. “Bourée” is a jazz arrangement of a Bach melody, mostly featuring the flute and Ian Anderson’s gruntings, but he does step aside for a bass solo. They get closer to their eventual sound on “Back To The Family”, which seesaws between sections of different tempi—a more restrained verse and heavier interludes, setting up the dynamic shift of “Look Into The Sun”, a pleasing slice of electric English folk.
Sticking with the formula, “Nothing Is Easy” kicks off the second side with another onslaught of riffs, guitar versus flute in waltz-time, plus drum explosions and a sure-to-please syncopated ending. The Greek sound returns on “Fat Man”—complete with a bongo solo—and that waltz tempo is back on “We Used To Know”, which starts tentatively then builds into a wild showcase for the wah-wah pedal. “Reasons For Waiting” is just lovely, with the flute sounding more like the type heard on a Traffic album. There’s even a sympathetic string arrangement over the second half. Any soothing feeling is blasted aside by “For A Thousand Mothers”, providing an edgy end, complete with a surprise reprise.
It’s easy to imagine long-haired kids playing air guitar to Stand Up, and it should go without saying that the same kids might have been inspired to mime the flute as well. We said it anyway. It’s a decent follow-up, showing the band amid their quest through the mythical forest to find the ultimate sound. Or something like that. (A later CD added both sides of the “Living In The Past” and “Sweet Dream” singles, as did a three-disc expansion, which also added BBC sessions, radio spots, a previously released 1970 Carnegie Hall show condensed to fit on a single disc, and a DVD with the audio of the same show, unedited.)

Jethro Tull Stand Up (1969)—3
2001 remastered CD: same as 1969, plus 4 extra tracks
2010 Collectors Edition: same as 2001, plus 17 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Elvis Costello 32: Wise Up Ghost

Usually, when an established-for-decades artist attempts to sound contemporary, the results can be abysmal. Elvis Costello is too smart a guy to sound younger than he is, but he’s long been a champion of the esoteric, and works best with people whose record collections are as deep and diverse as his. Still, because his knowledge of the history of popular music is so deep, he knows that you don’t have to go too far to risk repeating yourself or someone else. Therefore, he will work with a spark other than guitar or piano to get his creative juices aboil. (For example, When I Was Cruel started as an album of loops, amended by actual players; the last “loud” thing he put out before that was “The Bridge I Burned”, which was also heavy on loops, with a monologue spouted through a megaphone effect.)
Wise Up Ghost is a collaboration with The Roots, best known these days as being the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, but also respected as an innovative R&B combo. They’re a terrific live band (?uestlove in particular being a fascinating drummer), so it’s too bad that so much of the album sounds sampled.
Perhaps because their mutual attraction came from their familiarity with his catalog, several songs are either triggered by samples (albeit obscure) from the Costello catalog or apply new arrangements to whole sets of established lyrics. This becomes a game of “Spot the Reference” for Costello-heads; we’ll do our best not to list them all here, but suffice it to say the songs he chose makes this one angry antiwar diatribe, demonstrate that nothing has changed since he first wrote the words. The tracks that truly stand out do so because not only do they not sound like reworked older songs, but they also don't sound like everything else on the album.
“Walk Us Uptown” was the smart choice for lead track, since it’s not overtly derivative of other Costello tracks, but the mix and organ part evokes Christopher Walken flying through a hotel lobby pre-dawn. “Sugar Won’t Work” is more impressive, with a neat guitar snaking its way through the verse, plus an intriguing string counterpoint and harmonies that suggest this could be a great tune by the Imposters one day (assuming they’re still on retainer). “Refuse To Be Saved” grants a new chorus to “Invasion Hit Parade”, delivered in a sing-speak voice that makes the debt (and reference) to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” more overt, and an arrangement that recalls the Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion”. In the same tempo, “Wake Me Up” combines three Costello lyrics over a quote from another; it’s otherwise enlivened by some great jagged rhythm guitar. “Tripwire” is the first classic tune, despite its reliance on the four-chord sample that runs through it. What saves it are the thoughtful lyrics, and loads of layered harmonies. But “Stick Out Your Tongue” is an unnecessary reboot of “Pills And Soap” (with a few other anti-media verses mixed in). While the original was indeed influenced by early rap, at least it managed to incorporate chord changes.
“Come The Meantimes” kicks up the tempo to recall the glory days of ska, while depending on a ‘60s soul sample. “(She Might Be A) Grenade” is a reworking of “She’s Pulling Out The Pin”, and not much better than that little-known, lackluster track. He's probably revisiting his older political songs to prove that nothing has changed. If you thought the brief sample from an Italian lounge record on “When I Was Cruel No. 2” was genius, then you’ll love “Cinco Minutos Con Vos”, which is an actual duet, finding melody over a grinding F-E progression. “Viceroy’s Row” recalls a less cluttered “Bridge I Burned”, its horn figure recalling a more kitsch era. The title track builds from an orchestral sample from North to a disquieting degree, adding martial drums and a heavy guitar doubling the line. “If I Could Believe” is the long-awaited ballad, culminating in a pretty little flourish of strings that winds up in discord.
There is an awful lot of sameness throughout Wise Up Ghost, but what keeps it worthy of return are the songs that feature him singing, as opposed to reciting. It definitely improves with familiarity, as after a while you can actually discern a song underneath the dressing. Maybe we’re being too nice; it’s recommended with an emphatic caveat that it might not resonate with the casual listener.
Naturally, a deluxe edition in wacky packaging came out simultaneously, with three extra songs to entice those aforementioned Costello-heads. Why these weren’t included in the album proper is a mystery, as they’re no worse than some of the ones that were. “My New Haunt” and “Can You Hear Me?” are both slowly funky, the latter relying on another mix of lyrics from three older songs. However, “The Puppet Has Cut Its Strings” is a remarkable “afterthought”, a paranoid lyric wandering over a claustrophobic piano and simple rhythm.

Elvis Costello and The Roots Wise Up Ghost (2013)—3

Monday, November 11, 2013

Allman Brothers 2: Idlewild South

Arriving less than a year after their LP debut, Idlewild South has some things in common with that album—seven songs four one side, three on the other, just over half an hour long—but it’s hardly a retread. While it does offer another program of blues, other influences creep in, helping to solidify what made the Allman Brothers Band unique, and heads above imitators.
Dickey Betts emerges as a songwriter here, bookending side one with a pair of distinct classics. “Revival” opens with an acoustic strum, switches into a modal riff that builds over other gear changes before settling into the gospel-influenced vocal part—even letting each instrumentalist take a one-bar solo. Compare that to “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed”, a mesmerizing instrumental loaded with jazz influences, running seven minutes in this version. In between, Gregg Allman offers up the funky “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and “Midnight Rider”, which is either playing on the radio or a television commercial as you read this.
Side two takes a step way back into the blues, with an elaborate arrangement of “Hoochie Coochie Man”, shouted here by bassist Berry Oakley, and likely to give Gregg a rest. He comes back strong with the torchy “Please Call Home”, his piano giving brother Duane plenty of room to wander. “Leave My Blues At Home” is one of their hidden gems, a terrific showcase for the ensemble, driven by a very complicated bass line.
While it does show their growth, Idlewild South doesn’t have the same element of surprise as the first album. That’s not necessarily a criticism; in fact, the two albums were reissued a few years later as a two-record set, called Beginnings. It’s still available as a single CD, and it’s a highly economical option for newcomers.

The Allman Brothers Band Idlewild South (1970)—

Friday, November 8, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 11: Lucky Town

The other album that came out the same day as Human Touch had a better shot at being accepted by those who’d struggled through the 14 songs they heard already. Lucky Town is a 20 minutes shorter than its brother, and was recorded even more quickly than that. It’s another one-man-band deal, with the addition of veteran session drummer Gary Mallaber and good old Roy Bittan. By not being as labored, it has a freshness the other lacks, and has aged better.
Just like its brother, it begins with a potboiler in the form of “Better Days”, which gets its growl from the drop-D tuning all over the album. (It also takes the daring step of rhyming “piss” with “kiss”.) The title track certainly sounds like a textbook Springsteen song; it could have been combined with “Local Hero”, which crackles like a Mellencamp song, though it loses its way lyrically following the updated “Glory Days” sentiment of the first verse. “If I Should Fall Behind” is a gentle love song, not at all clichéd, but “Leap Of Faith” is an empty arena singlaong that sounds too much like “Local Hero” to stand out.
“The Big Muddy” is the requisite song of mystery, in dire need of a better chorus and hook; surely a scholar like Bruce would have heard the phrase from Pete Seeger. The true centerpiece of the album is “Living Proof”, a song about his newborn son and infused with emotion not at all staged. Despite its overused title, “Book Of Dreams” celebrates his wedding, providing a much happier ending to Tunnel Of Love. “Souls Of The Departed” is a well-intentioned lament for boys damaged by war overseas and at home, but one gets the feeling he wrote it already. And “My Beautiful Reward” is a nice little ending, an acoustic strum helped along by organ and drums in to the sunset.
Could these songs have been better served by the E Street Band? While not as easy to answer as whether McCartney should have stuck with Wings, the distinct absence of a saxophone suggests that Bruce wanted to move on.
Lucky Town is the better album of the two, and not just by comparison. Still, because this is exactly the forum for such speculation, here’s our suggestion for the 45-minute album that should have been released that day, still called Human Touch:
Side one: “Better Days”, “Lucky Town”, “Local Hero”, “With Every Wish”, “Roll Of The Dice”
Side two: “Human Touch”, “If I Should Fall Behind”, “I Wish I Were Blind”, “Living Proof”, “Book Of Dreams”
Burn a CD of that and see if you agree. If you don’t, submit your own.

Bruce Springsteen Lucky Town (1992)—3

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 10: Human Touch

Bruce had begun working on his follow-up to Tunnel Of Love soon after the end of the tour supporting it. In the meantime, his marriage ended, he took up full-time with Patti Scialfa, they started having kids, and he fired the E Street Band. (Roy Bittan was the exception, but he wasn’t an original member anyway.)
After about two years of recording in virtual secret (as Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet) with hired guns, he was on his way to having something ready. Then he wanted to write just one more song to finish it off, and ended up writing ten. So instead of combining the best, he released both sets as separate but similar entities, on the same day, mere months after Guns ‘N Roses had done the same thing. However, this was not a case of Jersey Illusion I and II. While Bruce’s albums shared similar design elements, they weren’t parts one and two of the same stew. A sizable gap between albums being part of the Springsteen experience, the result was usually that the finished product was worth the wait. But nothing is a given in the record business, and Bruce was suddenly in the position of finding out who his true fans really were.
Human Touch was that mostly completed album, and it’s easy to see why he sat on it so long. The title track is an engrossing six minutes, and a good demonstration of simplicity working in his favor. But “Soul Driver” is sunk immediately by keyboards that were already dated in 1992, and a melody he’d already used for a song he gave to Gary U.S. Bonds a decade earlier. (Like other tracks here, it sports a Sam & Dave vocal arrangement, with the bonus here being that it actually is Sam Moore singing his part.) “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” is the type of song that would have gotten airplay as a non-album B-side; here, the novelty plot takes up space. “Cross My Heart” is a simple song sent askew by a bluesy solo that takes it away from whatever romantic sentiment is meant in the lyric. Likewise, “Gloria’s Eyes” misses its potential with a generic backing. However, “With Every Wish” shows what he could do with other musicians, as the backing here is provided by three veterans of the ECM and Windham Hill labels, and it’s quite soothing. Then “Roll Of The Dice” crashes in, but since it’s a by-now welcome return of the E Street sound, it’s a great return to form.
It’s tempting to say the same for “Real World”, but’s it’s pretty much the same song, except for that ridiculous bell that clangs every eight beats in place of the glorious Bittan piano. “All Or Nothin’ At All” builds on the rockabilly beloved by “Pink Cadillac” without going anywhere, while “Man’s Job” is a passable expansion of a cliché. Speaking of which, “I Wish I Were Blind” isn’t a new sentiment, but his lyric is an excellent update. Here the duet vocal comes from Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield. (And if you get tired of waiting for the song to fade, you can always repeat the closing choruses of “Science Fiction Double Feature”, which is always fun.) “The Long Goodbye” is an apt title for a song with two more after it, but at least it’s not as canned sounding as “Real Man”, which comes across as a Springsteen parody. The closing “Pony Boy” is basically a lullaby to his new baby son, and while it’s nice, it’s also superior to most of what has gone before.
Ultimately, Human Touch is a dull album, which is a shocking statement to say about Bruce Springsteen. It’s also an hour long, proving that he hasn’t always been his best editor. The handful of bright spots does keep it from being a complete waste, and besides, there was another album to consider.

Bruce Springsteen Human Touch (1992)—2

Monday, November 4, 2013

Jethro Tull 1: This Was

Say the name Jethro Tull to the average person, and there’s a good chance his or her mental image will immediately depict a wild-eyed, frizzy-haired guy wearing a codpiece and wielding a flute. But they were more than that, as we’ve come to find. (For one, that guy with the codpiece isn’t named Jethro. Chances are you knew that if you’d read this far, but then again, maybe not.)
They began as many British bands in the late ‘60s did—as a blues band. Tull’s difference was not so much in the power category, but in the jazz influences, most obvious in Ian Anderson’s placement of the flute as the center solo instrument, over the guitar or harmonica. If you’re not a particular fan of the flute, as we haven’t been, that can be enough of a deterrent from going any further with them.
Which would be a shame, because their debut, This Was has a lot to recommend. “My Sunday Feeling” offers up a little Cream volume, and then they take it way down for “Some Day The Sun Won’t Shine For You”, which is basically “Key To The Highway” with new lyrics. A snaky riff underpins “Beggar’s Farm”, and Ian steps aside to let guitarist Mick Abrahams sing on “Move On Alone” (foreshadowing alert!) complete with a sympathetic horn arrangement. Side one ends with “Serenade To A Cuckoo”, a Roland Kirk instrumental that the liner notes helpfully inform us was the first thing Ian learned on his flute. (Well, not that helpfully, printed as they are in neon green text on a bright orange background.)
“Dharma For One” is another jazzy instrumental, although one they wrote themselves. As drum solos go, Clive Bunker is no Ginger Baker, but the guitar has a cool tone. They take a trip to more typical blues with “It’s Breaking Me Up” (complete with harmonica) and yet another version of “Cat’s Squirrel”. “A Song For Jeffrey” is a striking departure from the program, combining blues and skiffle into the sound that would soon become all theirs. With its open ending, the minute or so of “Round” serves as something of a coda.
The title is equally open-ended, one reading being “This Was what we sounded like then, and we’ve moved on”. If that’s the case, so be it; we didn’t expect to enjoy at as much as we did on first listen, and maybe other newbies will have the same experience. Fans knew all along, and they, like the band itself, were on to something. (The Tull catalog has undergone a handful of sonic re-evaluations in the digital era; the initial expanded This Was added three contemporary tracks from singles, while the eventual “40th Anniversary” edition included mono and stereo mixes, a pile of BBC performances, and further singles.)

Jethro Tull This Was (1968)—
2001 remastered CD: same as 1968, plus 3 extra tracks
2008 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: same as 2001, plus 22 extra tracks

Friday, November 1, 2013

Van Morrison 19: Irish Heartbeat

On something of a roll, Van’s next album was a full-blown collaboration with the Chieftains, the venerable Irish combo. Essential for fans of both artists, Irish Heartbeat is a treat from start to finish, offering eight traditional pieces and remakes of two recent Van originals, all treated the same way. Besides being an obvious go-to pick for St. Patrick’s Day listening, it can be enjoyed all year long, assuming you find it pleasing.
Basically, they’re the band, he’s the singer, albeit one who is also credited with guitar and even drums. Half the songs are duets with Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, June Boyce and/or the band’s own Kevin Conneff. Each side begins with an infectious jig, and both “Star Of The County Down” and “I’ll Tell Me Ma” encourage singalongs. Some of the tunes, like “Raglan Road”, “Carrickfergus” and “She Moved Through The Fair” are already standards of sorts, and are welcome here. Less well-known are “Tá Mo Chleamhnas Déanta” (sung in both Gaelic and English) and the moody “My Lagan Love”, where he really lets loose with the Irish equivalent of scatting. It all comes to a joyous close with “Marie’s Wedding”.
It sounds like a no-brainer today, but this was merely the first of the Chieftains’ successful summits with singers not normally filed in the same part of the record store. But while they appeared on other Van albums after this one, Irish Heartbeat has yet to spawn a sequel, which is too bad, seeing as they don’t have as much time left. It was also arguably the last time he sounded remotely happy.

Van Morrison & The Chieftains Irish Heartbeat (1988)—4

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Frank Zappa 22: Zoot Allures

Hindsight shows us that this was a transitional period for Frank. Henceforth all of his albums would be under his name, as opposed to rotating with some permutation of the Mothers. He was also suing his managers and record companies, so that put a lot of projects, already vulnerable to that day’s X-acto knife, in continual change.
The cover of Zoot Allures is misleading, since it depicts Frank and newest drummer Terry Bozzio alongside two guys who aren’t even on the album. The tracks themselves come from a small handful of sources; unfortunately, some incredible music is crammed between (or beneath) some vocals that are truly uncomfortable to endure.
“Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station” is a silly song, with that conceptual continuity to make it appear significant. The vocals are split between a falsetto and a “German” accent for added mystery. Luckily, it soon fades for “Black Napkins”, one of Frank’s best solos. It’s only four minutes long, which is too bad, since the next track is more than twice that. From a studious standpoint, “The Torture Never Stops” could be taken as another piece of social commentary, delivered in the up close ‘n personal voice he’d debuted on Over-Nite Sensation, over a slowwwww Bozzio beat and Frank on everything else (guitars, electric piano, bass). As a track it’s mesmerizing, and somewhere out there must be a mix of the song without the prominent female moans (allegedly recorded during a threesome, and used here to blur the line between pleasure and pain). When critics call Frank a misogynist with a sadistic streak, this is their ammunition. It doesn’t help that he follows it up with “Ms. Pinky”, a tribute to a sex doll that both the Police and Roxy Music did way better.
“Find Her Finer” is a fairly generic stroll in the same vein, driven by what was probably (for the time) a unique synth bass effect. This meanders along until the tentative introduction for “Friendly Little Finger”, in which a guitar solo is synchronized with an altogether different drum track. A brass arrangement of “Bringing In The Sheaves” sets up “Wonderful Wino”, which had loomed in the background for about six years; while folks might like that guitar tone, this is not the best version of the song. However, the instrumental title track is a truly marvelous piece of mystery, sadly fading into “Disco Boy”, built around a rhythm box and a “doody” motif. (It was something of a hit, naturally.)
It’s becoming tiresome to say—and it’s not going to be a popular opinion in this case—but Zoot Allures is another of those Zappa albums that just misses being worthwhile. With more instrumental tracks like “Black Napkins”, “Friendly Little Finger” and “Zoot Allures” in place of the vocals, it could have been another Hot Rats or Waka/Jawaka. Archeologically, it did point Frank toward the possibilities of generating product out of guitar solos, and showed him a new way to create something from other somethings.

Frank Zappa Zoot Allures (1976)—

Monday, October 28, 2013

Traffic 4: John Barleycorn Must Die

Steve Winwood is often associated with keyboards, but those who paid enough attention to Traffic and Blind Faith would have heard him on guitar as well. So it wasn’t altogether surprising that after Blind Faith stopped, he would start recording all by himself. (After all, Paul McCartney was doing it around the same time.)
Halfway through the process he decided that the songs needed a little something extra, so he called his old colleagues Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood to add drums and winds. That was all it took to turn John Barleycorn Must Die into a full-fledged Traffic album, less than two years after they’d split. Even without the psychedelia that cloaked their earlier work, it still evokes an aural image of guys playing in a room somewhere, probably in a house.
Side one is a contender for the title of Perfect Album Side. “Glad” lands on the front step with a thud, the piano dancing over its riff for eight bars, then stepping for the sax, coming back eight bars later. And back and forth they go, the sax even finding a wah-wah pedal along the way. The last two minutes are a little exploratory, a harbinger of the future if you will. All the time the song always seems on the verge of having lyrics, but that doesn’t happen until after “Freedom Rider” and its glum saxophone kicks in. The words are beyond our comprehension, but that doesn’t keep you from trying to sing along. A neat little transition quotes from “Glad”, giving way to a dual flute solo that brings to mind a more restrained Jethro Tull. Steve’s piano pounds away over the coda, and it all tumbles down into “Empty Pages”. This happy-sounding song is apparently about writer’s block, disguised as a love song. Or something.
The second side has a lot to live up to. “Stranger To Himself” is Winwood alone, except for a few bars of Capaldi harmony. It shows his able skills at arranging, playing the guitar off the piano, as well as the drums. There’s even a pretty dirty lead guitar all the way through. Then things slow way, way down. “John Barleycorn”, as explained on the cover, is an extended interpretation of an old English folk song about alcohol. Played on a high-capoed acoustic, its verses circle and circle under a flute, to the point where the story gets denser and denser. Finally, “Every Mother’s Son” has just enough Hammond to supply the “majestic” tag. It’s another mostly one-man performance, and our favorite part is when the drums forget to keep playing during the organ solo.
John Barleycorn Must Die arrived right about when English folk was getting an electric renaissance, and fits well alongside other Island artists of the time. But despite those rustic touches, there’s a thick coat of jazz, combining for one excellent rock album. The band was off to a fresh new start.
As with many classic albums, what they put out was what they had, and reissues haven’t brought forth anything forgotten from the sessions. The first (UK-only) upgrade added some live tracks and two brief session outtakes; the Deluxe Edition has neither outtake, and uses different live tracks, filling up the space with alternate mixes. It’s a good argument for preserving the original as it was.

Traffic John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)—

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 15: BBC Sessions

Like most hungry London-based performers, The Jimi Hendrix Experience made multiple appearances on the BBC’s handful of radio shows that focused on current pop music. And like most people who went on to be world-famous, many of those performances were spread around via bootlegs until legitimate releases happened.
The first such release occurred during Rykodisc’s brief affiliation with the Estate. Radio One presented 17 tracks, split between hits and more unique performances. Ten years later, once the “family” gained control, an expanded double-disc set more directly titled BBC Sessions presented virtually everything he recorded for the station, presented in a not-quite-chronological order to cut down on repetition.
As with most BBC collections, the fanatics will have lots to pick apart, while the more casual fan will gravitate towards markedly alternate versions of songs they know, along with those that are, well, new. Of those rarities, how about his one-time-only cover of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” That comes from a show hosted by British blues legend Alexis Korner, who also plays slide with the band on “Hoochie Coochie Man”. “Driving South” was an excuse to jam, and three versions appear here. The blues chestnut “Catfish Blues” appears in its first known performance, complete with a nod to “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, as does “Hear My Train A-Comin’”, in two takes (one with “party” noises, the other with “support” vocals). He even composed a “Radio One Theme”. Of course, one must take the good with the bad, so while his funky arrangement of “Hound Dog” has merit, the overdubbed barking makes it one to skip. Better backing vocals are on their cover of “Day Tripper”, which does not include John Lennon, no matter what anybody tells you. However, that is Stevie Wonder playing drums on the extended jam that leads into his own “I Was Made To Love Her”.
Most tracks come from a very busy 1967, when the band played a lot of shows and had the tightness to prove their worth. Jimi was able to create his own pyrotechnics without the multitracking that would soon dominate his regular studio work. Thus “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” is a simpler trio version, without all the decorations the single/album track got. Of historical importance, the set ends with the band’s notorious performance on the Lulu TV show, when they cut short “Hey Joe” (which had been requested by the hostess herself) to go into “Sunshine Of Your Love” in “tribute” to the recently disbanded Cream, who’d written the song with Jimi in mind in the first place. And it’s just as well, since there are two other, similar takes on “Hey Joe” elsewhere in the set.
Because the BBC never saved anything, the sound quality is a little muddy, and the tweaking modern-day producers took to make the set less mono doesn’t help. But as a companion to the three true Experience albums, and in balance with the post-Experience recordings we’ll get to soon enough, BBC Sessions is a worthy addition to the Hendrix pile.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience BBC Sessions (1998)—4
2010 reissue: same as 1998, plus 1 extra track