Friday, May 31, 2013

Frank Zappa 17: Over-Nite Sensation

The recent fusion experiments inspired him to apply that updated sound to some actual songs his technically proficient combo could play. Over-Nite Sensation turns away from extended improvisation (for the most part) to make a play for FM radio, which had become permissive enough to handle tracks that more than hinted at sexual perversions (and if the lyrics weren’t clear enough, the miniscule details all over the album jacket drove the point home).
“Camarillo Brillo” is loaded with precise rhymes and references to other Zappa signposts, launching some more in-jokes in the process (“is that a Sears poncho?”). A heavy wah intro brings in the slightly funky “I’m The Slime”, which also introduces his deep half-spoken voice, both a trademark and an excuse to eschew melody. “Dirty Love” is fairly straightforward, though his fascination with poodles (and their use by some fetishists) is still puzzling. “Fifty-Fifty” features the truly challenging voice of Ricky Lancelotti; that it’s one of the few Zappa songs only available in one incarnation, studio or live, speaks to its disposability, though the electric violin solo makes a nice distraction.
“Zomby Woof” is another reinterpretation of a monster movie motif, or maybe it’s a metaphor. Ricky sings the second half of it, so there’s that. The more literal “Dinah-Moe Humm” became a regional hit, considering the appeal of the lyrics, helped along by the backing singers who obviously found union scale preferable to raising objections over what they were singing. Finally, “Montana” is apparently where one goes to make a fortune farming dental floss.
Over-Nite Sensation is a good album, but not a great album, trying too hard at times to be goofy. Still, it’s one of those Zappa albums that makes a good gateway, since it delivers one of the main stereotypes of his image.

The Mothers Over-Nite Sensation (1973)—3

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Donald Fagen: The Nightfly

We may as well consider The Nightfly to be the last Steely Dan album, since it has all the hallmarks of such, save a single contribution from Walter Becker. It was recorded and released relatively quickly, arriving less than two years after Gaucho. Despite its sterility, a by-product of the early ‘80s thanks to the new fad called digital recording, it’s still better than that album.
Critics then and now have hailed The Nightfly for its careful use of digital technology, presenting it as a solid defense in the re-emergence of analog among snobs. It’s also something of a concept album, and even though its sound doesn’t really fit the thoughts of a not-yet-adult suburban kid on the verge of the Kennedy administration, the songs are good; the hopeful, forward-thinking tone of “I.G.Y.”, predicting a future resembling that of The Jetsons, fits with the modern sound. “Green Flower Street” is a jazzy blues about an interracial romance, a set up for a slick version of the Lieber-Stoller R&B classic “Ruby Baby”. That song was once covered by the Beach Boys, and it’s hard not to hear echoes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” in “Maxine”. Somebody should do a new arrangement of this song that uses only the piano as heard on the intro, but still using the intricate one-man harmonies.
“New Frontier” continues the seduction motif; this time the narrator’s trying to drag his quarry down to his bomb shelter with promises of Dave Brubeck records. That’s likely part of the playlists dear to the narrator of the title track, vividly depicted on the album cover. This is probably the least successful segment of the album, if only because the music conjures less the sound of free-form radio than the Teflon-coated version of jazz perpetuated from the mid- to late ‘80s and afterwards by GRP Records and stations who wished they’d been the first to apply for the call letters WJAZ (proximity to Mount Belzoni notwithstanding). The old Dan version of island music returns on “The Goodbye Look”, which may or may not take place in recently “liberated” Cuba. He must have made it out in time, because we leave him hoping for romance in the jaunty “Walk Between Raindrops”.
Just as nothing was heard from the entity known as Steely Dan for some time, so was The Nightfly Donald Fagen’s only solo statement for several years, save the occasional soundtrack contribution. Still, it made for a nice wrap-up to the catalog, ending their era as the reigning sultans of sarcasm. Unless sardony is a real word, which it isn’t.

Donald Fagen The Nightfly (1982)—

Monday, May 27, 2013

Cars 5: Heartbeat City

As a sign of things to come, there was a sizable gap between The Cars’ fourth and fifth albums. Part of that time was spent for Ric Ocasek and Greg Hawkes to record solo albums, and likely the rest of the time involved programming the Fairlight drums that drive Heartbeat City. This album is extremely familiar for its singles, and moreso the accompanying videos, which MTV played constantly.
Those singles were so well-placed that hearing them within the original album context seems almost random, particularly if you remember hearing them as each came out. Nonetheless, beginning the album with “Hello Again” and that belching synth riff makes sense. “Looking For Love” is a hidden pop gem, overshadowed nearly immediately by “Magic”, one of the greatest summer songs ever. (Even if you could spot the table he was standing on in the pool the second time you watched the video.) Then there’s “Drive”, all lush keyboards and Ben’s scolding voice, its video notable for introducing Ric to Paulina Porizkova. Ben also gets lead on “Stranger Eyes”, another edgy number.
“You Might Think” was the first single, and starts side two in true potboiler fashion. It’s still a pretty good stupid song. “It’s Not The Night” is the now-obligatory Greg Hawkes co-write, but it’s hard to tell how something this slight took two people to create. (Not one of Ben’s better vocals either.) “Why Can’t I Have You” was another slow single, but even another appearance by Paulina didn’t help sell it. “I Refuse” screams ‘80s movie soundtrack, but the title track ends everything in a menacing fashion.
Heartbeat City is another quality Cars album, full of snappy pop just like they’d always promised. A noticeable difference in the production credits is Robert John “Mutt” Lange, then between Def Leppard albums; modern ears can hear his hand in the backing vocals, so maybe it’s his touch that helps keep the album sounding fresh.

The Cars Heartbeat City (1984)—

Friday, May 24, 2013

Rolling Stones 47: Light The Fuse

While gearing up for various celebrations of their 50th anniversary, the Stones quietly made available some more official bootlegs. Two were expansions of already documented tours, making Light The Fuse one of the more enticing titles. This was a club show to kick off their 2005 tour supporting A Bigger Bang, recorded at a Toronto theater with capacity of about a thousand. (Not the same place that spawned side three of Love You Live, a show that’s still on the wish list.)
The club atmosphere is good for them, as it removes the distractions of the spectacle so common to Stones tours. Here they’re just playing, opening up with the new “Rough Justice”, and going back for a sloppy “Live With Me” and a slower, dirtier “19th Nervous Breakdown”. Any doubt that Charlie can’t keep up is dispelled by a sharp take on “She’s So Cold”, followed by “Dead Flowers”. With audible interplay between the instruments, “Back Of My Hand” works a lot better in this setting than it did on the album.
About halfway through Mick thanks the crowd and the city, and introduces all the people on stage, including the singers and horn players who’d turned up during “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”. That provides a nice spot for Keith to sing “Infamy”, which stumbles to a close, and Mick comes back to yell “Oh No, Not You Again”. Things turn left for covers of “Get Up Stand Up” and “Mr. Pitiful”. Then it’s “Tumbling Dice”, “Brown Sugar”, a tease, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
We pick on these guys a lot here, but it’s examples like Light The Fuse that demonstrate why they’re still worth having around. When it comes right down to it, they’re a pretty decent band.

Rolling Stones Light The Fuse: A Bigger Bang Tour (2012)—
CD equivalent: none; download only

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Beach Boys 10: Surf’s Up

This is one odd little album, nearly sunk by some embarrassingly earnest tracks, and saved by some truly great ones. Surf’s Up gets its title from yet another Smile refugee, this one the haunting centerpiece that was supposed to be the capper of that abandoned album. Its inclusion is welcome, but an odd choice for an album largely “concerned” with ecology. The cover, featuring a rendition of the 19th-century sculpture “The End Of The Trail”, gives the album a link to the American past, and suggests a gravitas we’re still not convinced the band could carry.
The Beach Boys had a new manager who’d managed to finagle his way into their orbit at a time when they weren’t looking too closely at résumés for accuracy. He thought they should be more socially conscious, so that’s why “Don’t Go Near The Water”—an odd sentiment from a bunch of guys who’d spent ten years telling us of the wonders of the beach and surf—starts the program with a lament about pollution. It’s an impressive recording; it’s just too bad the lyrics try too hard. All is nearly redeemed right away with Carl’s wonderful “Long Promised Road”, his first great song, and a terrific match of lyrics and music. But then “Take A Load Off Your Feet” has that same rinkydink approach that sank Smiley Smile, and it’s hard to believe they could really take themselves this seriously. The seesaw goes back for “Disney Girls (1957)”, a suitably nostalgic reverie from Bruce that’s not at all embarrassing. Which can’t be said for “Student Demonstration Time”, a stupid rewrite of “Riot In Cell Block Nine” referencing recent antiwar activity, complete with idiotic sound effects and Mike Love’s voice processed as if it were coming from a megaphone. (You know, for that “realistic” feel.)
“Feel Flows” got some exposure recently on the Almost Famous movie soundtrack; a mildly psychedelic track, it’s layered in phasing effects and stops for a lengthy free-form jazz flute solo. “Looking At Tomorrow” is helpfully titled “A Welfare Song” as if the bleak lyrics weren’t clear enough. Its bathroom echo effects recall John Lennon, of all people, and its brevity sets up the final three songs of the album, all pointedly credited in whole or in part to Brian. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” is one of the more bizarre songs, if only because that quivery vocal is provided not by Brian, whom it resembles, but that earth-friendly manager, singing from the point of view of a dying tree. “’Til I Die” continues the virtual wake, gorgeous despite its bleak outlook. This leads up to the unveiling of the title track, embellished from its original, abandoned 1966 incarnation to include some newer touches, and fading grandly, just like “Cabinessence” did two albums prior.
There really is more good than bad on Surf’s Up, although the bad is bad enough to mar the album as a whole. Still, Carl and Brian contributed some of their best work, though Dennis, the recent rising star, is virtually absent. Even Bruce had something worthwhile to say. At the turn of this century, Capitol reissued the album as a two-fer with Sunflower, which again had some people hailing the pair as buried treasure. Truthfully, the Boys could do a lot worse, and they would.

The Beach Boys Surf’s Up (1971)—3

Monday, May 20, 2013

Billy Joel 6: 52nd Street

So now he was a star, and he did the smart thing: he didn’t screw with the formula. Same band, same producer, same New Yawk summertime radio candy, with a few touches to indulge his knowledge of pop history and classical motifs. 52nd Street was an easy hit as a result.
“Big Shot” crashes out of the speakers, all snotty delivery and fingerpointing. “Honesty” is another one of his lovely classical pieces expanded into a pop song. What always kills is the way he stretches the word “on” neatly into the final chorus. “My Life” was drilled into the public consciousness by its use as the theme song for the sitcom that launched the career for future Oscar® winner Tom Hanks, though we’re still not sure why it sounds like he’s puking on the fade. “Zanzibar” is an incredibly complicated composition for a portrait of a twentysomething barfly—perhaps the protagonist of “Captain Jack” if he’d lived this long? This is the tune that fits the use of the trumpet on the album sleeve, with bop legend Freddie Hubbard taking the solo.
As before, side one is stacked with the hits, so side two presents hidden treasure for the casual album buyer. A slow piano with a smoky sax sets up the false intro for “Stiletto”, one of his more popular deep cuts. “Rosalinda’s Eyes” returns to the MOR lite jazz sound of the mid-‘70s; it’s notable to mention that “Rosalinda” is a variation on his mother’s name. The horn-heavy “Half A Mile Away” has some decent hooks, but overall it’s fairly slight. A harbinger of future works, however, appears in the big production behind “Until The Night”. Here is an overt Righteous Brothers homage at a time when they were in the “where are they now” file; his stellar, intricate vocal arrangement is spot-on, and the little touches in the arrangement (percussion, strings, etc.) show a dedication from students of the recording art form. (Righteous Brother Bill Medley would even record it himself a few years later.) It makes such a statement on the side that the title track comes off as something of an afterthought, but still well played.
52nd Street would have been welcome to anyone who’d already inhaled The Stranger—more of the same without being a complete retread. And that’s just what we demand of our pop stars.

Billy Joel 52nd Street (1978)—

Friday, May 17, 2013

Jimi Hendrix 11: Blues

The CD era gave the Hendrix catalog another life, helped by the increased commercial interest in archival material. First, Rykodisc got into the game with two very well received compilations, one of performances from San Francisco’s Winterland in 1968 and the other of BBC radio appearances. Each of his concerts were unique, providing different and evolving interpretations of his songs, giving both the casual collector and diehard chronicler a lot to explore. In fact, there are so many officially available CDs of individual concerts that we hesitate to dive in here, though we may eventually.
Of course, any time he wasn’t on stage he was usually in the studio, as the vault peeks of the ‘70s proved. Reprise still owned the rights to much of this material, so in keeping with the box set boom, their first major new release was Lifelines, a reproduction of a radio show called Live And Unreleased, which presented three CDs’ worth of familiar and alternate material, often with narration obscuring the music, plus a fourth disc of a 1969 Experience concert. A year later, Stages presented four more concerts, one each from 1967 through 1970, on four CDs. These became immediate collectors’ items, deleted when the catalog switched to MCA, who immediately raised eyebrows by repackaging the three Experience albums with new artwork.
But MCA’s next move was surprisingly good, even with Alan Douglas’s name in the credits. Blues collected 11 mostly obscure recordings to firmly present Jimi Hendrix as a key link in the blues guitar tradition, rather than just a flashy guy who played with his teeth.
The set is neatly bookended by “Hear My Train A-Comin’”, first in an acoustic 12-string solo performance from 1967, then in the lengthy electric performance as heard on Rainbow Bridge. “Red House” appears in its original UK LP rendition, then again with the expanded “Electric Church”. In between are such warhorses as “Born Under A Bad Sign”, “Mannish Boy”, “Catfish Blues” and “Bleeding Heart”, plus the originals “Once I Had A Woman” and “Jelly 292”, alternate versions of previously altered album tracks. The most interesting yet controversial piece is a re-edited “Voodoo Chile Blues”, from several takes of the slow version heard on side one of Electric Ladyland.
The timing for Blues was excellent, given the genre’s then-resurgence thanks to young white guys like Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd (who considered Jimi an influence), and veterans such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King (who considered him an heir). Its stature in the canon is confirmed by its continual in-print status when the estate took over the catalog five years later, and again in this century when it moved to Sony.

Jimi Hendrix Blues (1994)—4

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Steely Dan 7: Gaucho

And thus begins the tradition among California-transplanted songwriters to take an eternity making an album that turns out, after all that grasping for perfection, to be not worth the wait. Emerson, Lake & Palmer may have done it first, and Guns N’ Roses are carrying the torch today, but leave it to the cocaine cocktail circuit to make it fashionable to be bland.
Becker and Fagen toiled for hours over three years in five studios to get that optimal sound, tapping the talents of so many hired guns that no two tracks on Gaucho feature the same lineup. One track only has Fagen’s vocal, with no instrumental contributions from either of them among the people playing. “Babylon Sisters” shuffles along, with enough catchiness to make it a shoo-in for SD compilations, but without really saying anything. “Hey Nineteen” is more memorable, despite the drum machine, in its portrayal of an “older” man attempting to seduce a young lady with tequila and weed. (And get this: the girl of the title would be approximately 53 years old now. How’s that make you feel, Don?) “Glamour Profession” presents the sound that launched the CD101/lite jazz sound, along with an eyebrow-raising reference to one Hoops McCann. That’s the highlight of its seven minutes.
The title track begins with a great groove, stolen directly from an obscure Keith Jarrett album track. The boys insisted it was an homage, but that doesn’t excuse the bold imitation of Jan Garbarek’s sax. Granted, the verses take the feel someplace else, the chorus is reminiscent of the same for “Doctor Wu”, and the Mexican motif in the bridge conjures up memories of ¡Three Amigos! The musical bed for “Time Out Of Mind” would be rewritten in a couple of years for a more successful final product; meanwhile, good luck trying to find Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar as advertised. “My Rival” has a nice snotty sound and more elaborate horns for a change of pace, but is it necessary to have the backup sings chant the title of the song at the start of every verse? Finally, “Third World Man” adds some drama and actual dynamics, but it sure has taken a long time to get there.
Gaucho sounds like a Steely Dan album, but it simply doesn’t offer as many highs as the ones that came before. It meanders to a close, and while the boys would still work together over the years, their appearances from here on out would be fewer and further between.

Steely Dan Gaucho (1980)—2

Monday, May 13, 2013

Van Morrison 14: Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart

Well, this was certainly different. Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart is a largely overlooked album, and for good reason. For one, there were no hits on it. It was also one of the last of Van’s albums to appear on CD, so it wasn’t exactly high profile. There’s a reliance on instrumentals, which tend to be more moods than compositions, as hinted at on “Scandinavia” from the year before on Beautiful Vision.
And overall, it doesn’t really sound like a Van Morrison album. Part of this can be attributed to trumpet player Mark Isham, who’d moved from sessions for the esoteric ECM label to Van’s studio band, playing with a number of synthesizers that increased with each album. A wash of warm synths pervades each track, a sound that would be more effective on his own solo debut for the Windham Hill new age label; here, it gets bland.
“Higher Than The World” is an attempt to start at speed, but doesn’t quite catch fire. “River Of Time” oddly brings to mind Robyn Hitchcock’s “52 Stations”, while “Rave On, John Donne” is a recitation over a two-chord bed, his brogue calling up the names of great poets (leaving out, thankfully, L. Ron Hubbard, who gets “thanks” on the album cover). In between are “Connswater”, an instrumental jig buried, again, under the keyboards, and “Celtic Swing”, which begins slowly, but the band comes in behind the sax.
“Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1” is yet another lengthy instrumental, this time more in the mode of “Scandinavia” with its precise piano intervals, while a melody emerges that was first hinted at on “Stepping Out Queen” and will appear again. It’s actually mesmerizing, with a great rush when the band kicks in, and we don’t even mind the moaning women. “Irish Heartbeat” is actually something of a song instead of an atmosphere for once, and would get a better treatment down the road as well. Conversely, “The Street Only Knew Your Name” is an older song revived here, slightly rearranged, heavy on the keyboards, naturally. The interplay at the end of “Cry For Home” suggests that it’s a live group recording, as opposed to being assembled piecemeal like so many albums of its era. But as lovely as the first part was, “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 2” doesn’t do much besides repeat the title to form its lyrics (and to aver, “I’m a soul in wonder”).
Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart is a nice album, but only exciting in moments. (And the best song he recorded that year, a Robbie Robertson production of “Wonderful Remark”, wasn’t even included, only appearing on the King Of Comedy soundtrack.) Meanwhile, Warner Bros. wasn’t taking chances anymore, and dropped him in a major housecleaning.

Van Morrison Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart (1983)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 5: The River

Just a couple of years after shaving three records’ worth of music down to one, Bruce put out a double album. Based on the path he’d been riding, one might fear that The River is a concept album, or worse, a rock opera. While there is an overall theme, it’s more of a general idea, and nothing that different from where he’d already been. He was still striving to make that perfect rock ‘n roll record, and indeed, the basic ‘50s and ‘60s fundamentals throughout provide a firm foundation.
“The Ties Than Bind” has a predominant 12-string guitar for a striking opener. Before things get too deep, “Sherry Darling” is a simple rock ‘n roll song, complete with party noises (which, frankly, are unnecessary). “Jackson Cage” has that 12-string again, plus a cheesy Farfisa that puts a ‘60s garage vibe on a song about, believe it or not, a literal and/or metaphorical prison. “Two Hearts” is another driving rocker, so it’s a nice transition when the side ends with “Independence Day”, a slower, more acoustic tune. (Each of the sides end with a slow song, for excellent effect.)
“Hungry Heart” is the one everybody knows. It didn’t sound at all like Springsteen the first few times it was on the radio because he actually sang it in a decent voice. There’s even a decent key change in the instrumental break. “Out In The Street” provides more of that blue-collar defiance he’s known for. “Crush On You” has a punk vibe not unlike what the Stones were doing recently on Some Girls; “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” is even simpler. “I Wanna Marry You” takes us back to the boardwalk (his own, from “Sandy”, as well as that of the Drifters) but the romantic notion of that is dashed by the second verse of the bleak title track, which closes the second side.
It’s a pretty sharp turn, and had the album ended there, people would have marveled at how he was able to balance joyous, throwaway rock ‘n roll with something so comparatively deep. But this particular road hadn’t ended yet, as the subdued tragedy of “Point Blank” displays. Beginning an album side, in fact an actual disc itself, with something so dark is a bold move indeed. The soap opera aspects of the lyrics notwithstanding, it demands the listener to take notice—then “Cadillac Ranch” brings us right back to the skating rink, and we stay there for “I’m A Rocker”. The more subdued “Fade Away” is an underrated lost-love song that sounds like Southside Johnny, and a good choice for a single. That provides a good setup for “Stolen Car”, and another marriage that didn’t live up to the hopes of the groom. This one isn’t so much a story as a snapshot—we leave the narrator where we found him, just driving.
And with that, side four kicks off with another song about a car, “Ramrod”. “The Price You Pay” is very similar to “The Promised Land”, down to the melody and harmonica, but is more broadly philosophical. “Drive All Night” crawls along slowly for eight and a half minutes, a seduction taken from the Van Morrison playbook. (You can hear where young John Bongiovi got his vocal chops and Sam Cooke phrasing.) “Wreck On The Highway” is an inevitable sight for someone doing so much driving; what’s striking is how matter-of-fact the song is delivered—no heavy drama, but for a false ending, just simple folk singing.
The River is a long album, and not just because it’s a two-record set. Some of the “fun” numbers and songs about cars could have been removed for a really tight single LP, but Bruce was feeling that he was in the position to “say something”. Even the slighter songs—and there are several—don’t seem like filler. Overall the sound is terrific, a great live room sound, not as cramped as the last one sometimes seemed. Steve Van Zandt sings harmony throughout, reminding us why he was such a key part of the sound, and what was missing when he went on his own.

Bruce Springsteen The River (1980)—

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Beach Boys 9: Sunflower

The Beach Boys were never supposed to last as long as they did, and certainly not past the first handful of songs about cars and surfing. But along the way, Brian became a stronger writer, and evolved into the composer that’s so revered today. As for the other guys, they became a “band” by default, much like the Monkees, and there continues to be argument over whether their post-Pet Sounds albums have merit.
Case in point: There is a school of thought that decrees Sunflower, the first Beach Boys album of the ‘70s as well as for a new label, a masterpiece tragically unappreciated in its time. That opinion is not shared here.
The cover features a nice sunny photograph of the six Beach Boys with assorted toddlers, and in Mike Love’s case, a formidable beard. Beneath the track listing on the rear is an exhaustively detailed description of the technology that went into capturing the music. In all, it’s not clear just whom they were hoping to impress.
In a smart move, Brian’s writing is a common thread. “This Whole World” wanders through a labyrinth of changes and a tight Spector arrangement. “Add Some Music To Your Day” is another hymn to the healing powers of music, and while a nice sentiment, it tries too hard. “All I Wanna Do”, simple as it is, is a good period piece.
Dennis contributes four songs, and quite honestly, his slower moody ones ring more true than the rockers. Case in point: “Slip On Through” and “Got To Know The Woman” just seem forced, while “Forever” is a home run, sappy as it is. Carl’s getting more involved too, equally adept at carrying a driving rocker like “It’s About Time” (a full band collaboration with several out-of-tune instruments) as he is with a romantic tune like “Our Sweet Love”, about which the worst we can say is that the chorus lets down the rest of the song.
Bruce Johnston is given nearly equal time here, and the results are mixed. “At My Window” is a trifle of a song about a bird who came to the location in question. “Deirdre” is a strange little love song written with Brian, something of a 4 Seasons number with a slight orchestral arrangement and a stupid trombone part. His showpiece is “Tears In The Morning”, which is excruciating on several levels. First, it rhymes “morning” with “warning”, dropping the letter G in both cases, then the accordion comes in too early before we’re told she moved to Europe. Pretty soon we don’t blame her for leaving, if only so she could miss the pointless atmospheric tag at the end of the track.
Just to confuse things altogether, the final five minutes of the album are given over to “Cool Cool Water”, an impressionistic piece that began in the Smile era and was never really finished, except that Mike Love seemed to get into it enough to contribute lyrics. After all, in an ocean or in a glass, cool water is such a gas.
Sunflower sounds a little dated today, which is understandable. What keeps it from being a classic, no matter what anybody else says, is its random construction. It’s one thing to have a variety of styles, but they have to hang together to make an album. Those heavenly harmonies pop up everywhere, but sometimes the effect is more like somebody else doing a Beach Boys homage than what’s accepted to be the real thing. It just barely gets a passing grade, and only because the melodies do stick.

The Beach Boys Sunflower (1970)—3

Monday, May 6, 2013

Paul Simon: Graceland

He was always a methodical writer, but even with taking an average of three years between albums, Paul Simon’s commercial draw had dwindled since the mid-‘70s. A professional reunion with Art Garfunkel didn’t last long enough to complete the album he’d started, and when Hearts And Bones finally emerged, its quality didn’t ring too many cash registers. It was safe to say he was no longer relevant. (Not that he was oblivious to the situation; he did, after all, include not one but two songs called “Think Too Much” on the album.)
So when the FM radio DJ announced a new song by Paul Simon in the summer of 1986, the initial ho-hum response turned into a raised eyebrow of curiosity. The song was “You Can Call Me Al”, and its catchy chorus, odd rhythm and punchy horns made it a hit. (And thanks to its clever video, for years afterwards record store clerks had to explain to customers that the album with “that Chevy Chase song” was in actuality by Paul Simon.)
It wasn’t an immediate success, but over several months the momentum built, and somehow Paul Simon managed to claw his way back to the mainstream with an album full of appropriated sounds, just like he’d always done. Graceland soon became as ubiquitous in CD racks as Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water had been in our parents’ record collections. The album was so popular that a year after it won the Grammy for Album of the Year, the title track won Record of the Year; we’re pretty sure the voters thought it was the album that had been nominated.
Still, the accolades were deserved. The debate will continue as to just how much credit he should get compared to the third-world musicians whose bootleg tape he’d heard, but the truth is he built on something fresh and different to many Americans’ ears, and complemented it with resonant lyrics. In the process, he provided a stepping-stone for people to gain a greater appreciation for “world music”, as well as more dialogue about apartheid.
To backtrack a sentence, Graceland wouldn’t have been successful if it wasn’t a “good” album, and it is. A wheezy accordion heralds in the broken-leg dance of “The Boy In The Bubble”, contrasting the news reporting of the verses with the major-key prophecies of the chorus. The subtle pull of the title track includes the harmonies of the Everly Brothers to capture the wide-eyed experience of traveling. “I Know What I Know” is just plain wacky and fun, leading into “Gumboots”, an update of that original bootleg tape. A good deal of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” can be attributed to the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choral group (they also provide the fire for the a cappella “Homeless” on side two) but the story of the rich girl and the poor boy is just plain sweet.
“You Can Call Me Al” starts the second side, with “Under African Skies” providing a near-lullaby before “Homeless”. “Crazy Love, Vol. II” talks of Fat Charlie the Archangel, which sounds autobiographical on the umpteenth hearing. It’s also something of a signpost on the album, as “That Was Your Mother” is built on a zydeco groove, and “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” is supposedly a Los Lobos composition they brought to the sessions, only to raise more issues down the road as to just how selfish the man might be.
But that’s all redundant when faced with the basic fact that Graceland was a wonderful surprise when it appeared, and never wore out its welcome. From a primal, instinctive standpoint, it’s a good album, and one that still makes people smile over 25 years later.

Paul Simon Graceland (1986)—4

Friday, May 3, 2013

Steely Dan 6: Aja

This album is so slick it should have been sponsored by Pam® cooking spray. Aja was Steely Dan’s pinnacle, and their sixth album in as many years. They would never work this fast again.
The LP’s inner gatefold included two sets of liner notes, one of which was written with such a negative attitude towards Becker and Fagen that hindsight has suggested they wrote it themselves (borne by the equally snide response in the remastered CD booklet). Each track is also annotated with the laundry list of the 35 session pros old and new who contributed their performances at scale.
There was also a TV commercial for this album, in which a mysterious female voice (since revealed to be the one and only Eartha Kitt) explained that it was available “on ABC Records”. (Can you remember any other bands who were on ABC Records? And if this album was such a hit, how did they get swallowed up by MCA soon after?) It also helpfully demonstrates the correct pronunciation via the title track, which expertly conjures up images of the Orient for those who’ve never been there. Between Steve Gadd’s drums and Wayne Shorter’s sax, it’s an incredible track. A second favorite on the album would be “Josie”, but only when it’s Joe Jackson’s version, which he called “Look Sharp!” (Though this one does have Jim Keltner on drums.)
In between are five other songs, all on the lengthier-than-Top 40 side. This entire album was in constant rotation on the FM stations the year it came out (in between Billy Joel and Springsteen cuts), which could be why to this day we always mix up the lyrics from “Deacon Blues”, “Peg”, “Black Cow” and even “Josie”, and have to pay attention to the choruses to recall which song we’re hearing. Or maybe it’s just that too much of Aja sounds alike. “Home At Last” sounds fresh today, if only because it hasn’t been overplayed. However, “I Got The News” is something of a jazz-disco tune with little substance.
We said it was their pinnacle, and it is. Just as much as Can’t Buy A Thrill, Aja is quintessential Dan, epitomizing everything people either like or don’t like about them—slick arrangements and obtuse lyrics. Those descriptions have been used for each of their albums reviewed thus far, but the scales don’t lie; besides, when have you ever heard somebody praise Donald Fagen for his velvet throat?

Steely Dan Aja (1977)—3

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Billy Joel 5: The Stranger

With this one, he nailed it. The first key ingredient was producer Phil Ramone, who parked the boy in A&R Studios in New York City, and had him record his latest East Coast batch of tunes with his regular band (plus a few ringers brought in). The cast of characters can be seen on the back cover, and we still can’t match the face of the guy in the Yankee jersey with the more familiar bearded countenance of the late Mr. Ramone. Still, the photo always puts us in the mood for spaghetti and a carafe or five of Chianti.
We can’t speak for the rest of the country, but in the greater New York City area, nearly every track on The Stranger was in constant radio rotation, AM and FM alike. It’s a microcosm not only for his own career, straying just this side of rock, but for the time and place: this is the sound of summer in New York City in the late ‘70s.
It also presents another good defense for the art of the album side: side one alone has “Movin’ Out”, the title track, “Just The Way You Are” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”. There’s no deep concept going on here, but each just seems to fit. (And again, if you were a kid back then, today you know all the words without knowing you know them.)
“Movin’ Out” is subtitled “Anthony’s Song”, but most people would think of it as the “ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK” one. Mama Leone and Sgt. O’Leary are distantly related to the characters in “Piano Man”, and just as believable. The title track is framed by that wonderful piano piece with the whistling; the main body of the song isn’t as wonderful, though the bridges provide excellent contrast. “Just The Way You Are” is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as formatting goes, and has become a cliché seeing as how he’s no longer married to the object of the lyrics (as Ben Folds can appreciate). Meanwhile, notice the subtle 10cc “I’m Not In Love” background vocal effect on the fade. We said that the side wasn’t meant to be conceptual, which is good considering the suite that is “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”. The opening section (and reprise) fits the mood of such a place, and the Dixieland detour of section two leads well into what we always heard as the story of “Thunder and Eddie”.
There are more European hints throughout “Vienna”, a song forever linked with a certain Taxi episode. A more universal plaint appears in “Only The Good Die Young”, where the lyrics beat the hell out of the arrangement. “She’s Always A Woman” is loaded with similes, which only inspires more (e.g. “she drinks like a fish”, “she eats like a pig”, “she lies like a rug”, etc.) “Get It Right The First Time” is fluff, but it’s well-constructed fluff. Even the samba lilt of the post-chorus la-la is infectious. “Everybody Has A Dream” sports a 1971 copyright, suggesting that it wasn’t yet deemed worthy of any album yet, but maybe the access to an all-star choir made it easy to fill out the side. But there’s something else—just seconds after “Everybody Has A Dream” insists its way to the fade, that haunting “Stranger” theme returns for a couple more minutes, whistling and all.
That’s the thing with Billy Joel—scrape away the lyrics and the Long Island arrangements, and you’ve got well-crafted music. The Stranger was a huge hit, going gold within six months and certified diamond (10 million) today. Granted, some of that is thanks to its continual “Nice Price” availability; a more recent deluxe edition added a contemporary concert, and another one added a DVD to that. From here he would ramp up his dance with critics who refused to accept him as deep, while selling out stadiums and hockey arenas. (The piano kid would have been just as excited to make it to Carnegie Hall, which is obvious from the reception his “hometown” crowd gives him throughout the concert included on that bonus disc.)

Billy Joel The Stranger (1977)—
2008 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition: same as 1977, plus 12 extra tracks (Deluxe Edition adds DVD)