Friday, August 30, 2013

Frank Zappa 20: One Size Fits All

While one of his more challenging albums musically, One Size Fits All is also one of Zappa’s more accessible. Unless we’re missing something, there doesn’t appear to be a single off-color lyric or bathroom subject matter anywhere; instead, the focus is on the music and the incredible performances herein.
The positively dizzying “Inca Roads” approaches prog-rock, from its subject matter to its time signatures to its Moog solos. But as soon as you hear Ruth Underwood’s vibes and marimbas, it’s a Zappa song through and through. “Can’t Afford No Shoes” is political below the surface, which is easy to miss if you just concentrate on the guitar. One of his more majestic (there’s that word again) melodies has got to be “Sofa”, which is heard again at the end of the album, with German lyrics, and no amount of research has been able to explain what the hell it all means. “Po-Jama People” is a pretty tasty showcase for George Duke’s piano and Zappa’s guitar, playing at each other, and particularly after the vocal section finishes.
Side two concentrates more on his own homegrown mythology. One can spend as much time pondering the significance of “Florentine Pogen”, which would seem to be a young lady named after a Swedish brand of cookie, or one could squint at the constellations on the star map all over the cover and play “Find the In-Joke”. Luckily for “Evelyn, A Modified Dog”, she doesn’t suffer the same ridicule and abuse as her poodle relations, and before you know it we’re in the drunk tank in “San Ber’dino”, with a harmonica that sounds like an accordion. In a mild harbinger of a future style, “Andy” gets a grand arrangement, something like Utopia-goes-to-Broadway. Whatever it’s about.
One Size Fits All was partially recorded in a television studio for eventual broadcast, which would account for its fresh, live sound. Again, the music is of such a level and quality that the words seem an afterthought. It’s an excellent place to newcomers to wade in, particularly after such a high silly ratio in much of his other ‘70s work.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention One Size Fits All (1975)—4

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Robyn Hitchcock 21: Olé! Tarantula

It would seem that Robyn Hitchcock’s albums are the most consistent when he’s either working completely solo, or when he’s got a solid unit behind him for the duration. That’s the evidence one gleans from the first play of Olé! Tarantula, his most solid album since the heyday of the Egyptians. Here he’s helped out by the Venus 3, a trio of escapees from Young Fresh Fellows, Ministry and R.E.M. (longtime buddy Peter Buck). And considering that the other two guys have since been tapped to help out R.E.M. onstage and in the studio, that should suggest a certain mutual intuition.
Right from the top, “Adventure Rocket Ship” and “Underground Sun” sound like vintage Robyn; even “Museum Of Sex” works despite its saxophones and rambling lope. Speaking of which, “Belltown Ramble” sports a dotty piano over the acoustic and non-linear lyric for six minutes. The title track seems like an excuse to write a song to match said title, but it’s got all the ingredients for fun.
By now Robyn fans tend to give songs with titles like “(A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs” the benefit of the doubt, whatever the context. “Red Locust Frenzy” comes at the traditional spot when one of his albums starts to drag, nudged along by a riff not distantly related to “I’m Only You”. “‘Cause It’s Love (Saint Parallelogram)” was written with XTC’s Andy Partridge, and could have used some of his lyrical whimsy. “The Authority Box” is nice and trashy, in direct contrast with “N.Y. Doll”, something of a letter written from the point of view of that band’s Arthur Kane.
As we’d long begun to suspect that we were supporting this guy more out of habit than fascination with his development—not helped by pricey import-only items like Obliteration Pie and This Is The BBC—it was truly joyous to find something as, well, good as Olé! Tarantula. Clearly this was not a fluke, since he took the band on the road (pushed by some exposure from the Sundance Channel) and dug deep into his catalog. Some examples emerged on Sex, Food, Death… And Tarantulas, an EP released the following year; in the meantime, it was hoped that the Venus 3 would be able to help their boss out again, provided they could find the time.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 Olé! Tarantula (2006)—3

Monday, August 26, 2013

Band 2: The Band

Their first album was dominated by the specter of their old boss Bob Dylan, but if they were going to get anywhere, they had to be their own men. So for their second album, they were simply and emphatically The Band. All the sounds and songs (more on that later) came from their own mouths and fingers. Once again the focus is on Americana, or an image what it was supposed to be at one time.
Richard Manuel wrote many of the songs on the debut, but here the most consistent name is that of Robbie Robertson. We’ll likely never know if Robbie’s adoption of the songwriting was genuine or underhanded, but there’s no question that the voice of The Band was a combination, with Richard’s plaintive tones countered by Levon Helm’s redneck yowl. These are nicely balanced on side one, with the near-majestic “Across The Great Divide” giving way to the ribaldry of “Rag Mama Rag”. Everybody knows “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by now, its sad salute leading into the hope of “When You Awake”. “Up On Cripple Creek”, with its bouncy wah-wah clavinet returns the fun, but Richard’s stirring lead on “Whispering Pines” puts him back in charge.
Side two is a little more unpredictable, with even more obscure lyrics and complicated melodies. “Jemima Surrender” follows a dirty riff through a good groove before “Rockin’ Chair” takes us to the seaside. So when they all let loose on “Look Out Cleveland”, it’s a great reminder that these guys could really rock. “Jawbone” is just plain odd, with a trick opening and a nearly impossible-to-follow meter if you’re trying to clap along. “The Unfaithful Servant” (excellent lead vocal by Rick Danko) seemingly sends us back to another era, its graceful piano and acoustic guitar ringing in somebody’s parlor, while “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” details what’s happening out in the fields. It’s an excellent display of their dynamics.
This is another one of those albums that people say is perfect, and they’re entitled to their opinion. It’s very good, and it’s solid, but most of all it’s mysterious. More than anything, it influenced other musicians, who would strive to recreate the same sense of community on their own records. But even The Band would find how ego and other distractions would make such a democracy impossible. We’ve gone back and forth about what rating to give it, simply because we don’t personally feel compelled to play it all that often, but somehow anything less doesn’t make sense. (The latest remastered CD gets points for including “Get Up Jake”, a later B-side recorded during these sessions, alongside some intriguing alternate takes and/or mixes.)

The Band The Band (1969)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 7 extra tracks

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 8: Live/1975-1985

Springsteen fever lasted a good two years after Born In The U.S.A. came out, and when the world tour finally finished, it seemed as good a time as any to put out a live album. But rather than just pull from the shows they’d just done, Bruce, his management and his grateful record company decided to make it an event. Therefore, Live/1975-1985 was released as a box set, following the five-LP/three-CD or tape pattern from the previous year’s Bob Dylan box. Even then, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to put those two curly-haired, gravel-voiced singer-songwriters in the same sentence, but while Bob had 20 years of music (released and unreleased) under his belt, the 3½-hour length of the Bruce box was roughly equivalent to one of his concerts.
The title was pushing it, since only one of the forty songs was recorded as early as 1975; maybe because his old manager would have got the cash? But it does progress chronologically for the most part, with the bulk of three sides coming from L.A.’s Roxy Theater in 1978, then a couple of sides bouncing between Nassau Coliseum and the Meadowlands in 1980 and 1981, and the final four sides coming from the Born In The U.S.A. mega-tour. (Again, with few exceptions, everything comes from either L.A. or New Jersey.)
The opening “Thunder Road” from 1975 is mostly Bruce and Roy Bittan on piano, making for an intimate start. It’s also a good setup for the club atmosphere of the Roxy shows, which is where his storytelling works best, as on the lengthy rap in the middle of “Growin’ Up”. Soon enough, the recordings move to the hockey arenas and stadiums, where the sound of “Bruuuuuce” fills the gaps between songs (though you can almost hear the footsteps of the crowd heading towards the bathroom during “Working On The Highway”). In a harbinger of the future, Patti Scialfa gets to wail a bit by herself on “Cover Me”, and “No Surrender” is transformed into a sensitive folk song.
Of course, the big excitement to collectors was any and all of the songs that hadn’t ever been on a Springsteen album before. “Paradise By The ‘C’” is a good-timey instrumental showcasing Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. You gotta wait all the way until side seven to hear “Seeds”, a song he apparently ever only played three times, which is just as well, since it’s the groove from “Pink Cadillac” for about five minutes with canned horns. That comes out of “Born In The U.S.A.” and precedes the lengthy intro to “The River”, wherein he does a monologue about how he and his dad never got along except for this one time he went for his physical at the draft board and they didn’t take him. Lest anybody be confused about how he felt about the Reagan administration, an angry cover of Edwin Starr’s “War” comes next. (Maybe he’d heard Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s version?)
His shows always included a rousing cover or twelve, so we also get a hot performance of the Stax nugget “Raise Your Hand” (also covered by the J. Geils Band in the same era). Then there were the songs made famous by others, like “Fire” (Pointer Sisters) and “Because The Night” (Patti Smith). A reverent cover of “This Land Is Your Land” from 1980 sets up the leap to the near-present and a trio of songs from Nebraska that manage to come across in a stadium setting. It’s fitting that the set ends with his cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”, a B-side that was a big radio hit around these parts.
Being who it was and when it came out, every major publication (led by Rolling Stone, who were always close to his payroll) hailed the box as the greatest development in the evolution of recorded music. Granted, Springsteen’s live shows are what sustained his reputation over all those lean years, helped along by bootlegs often derived from local radio broadcasts of shows such as these, albeit with four-letter words and references to bootleggers rolling tapes. (While Bruce is the only person we see on the cover, for the first time, the E Street Band was given equal billing, and rightfully so.) And the set sold very well, considering that it was Springsteen, and it was Christmas. And just like that, everybody who wanted it had it, and returns of unsold copies after the new year were plentiful. That doesn’t take away just how solid it is.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/1975-1985 (1986)—4

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cream 2: Disraeli Gears

Like any hungry band, Cream gigged a lot, and managed to build up enough material for another album. Disraeli Gears is arguably their most popular album, as it features many of their most famous songs—any of which are likely playing on the radio as you read this.
Eric Clapton was getting the courage to sing more, as heard on “Strange Brew”, but even more prominently in duet with Jack Bruce on “Sunshine Of Your Love”, one of the most iconic riffs ever. But a more important influence on the band would be engineer Felix Pappalardi, who managed to contribute songs (and eventually instruments) to the mix, starting with “World Of Pain”, the motif of which would be borrowed 27 years later by Elvis Costello, of all people. “Dance The Night Away” is dominated by two 12-string guitars, played in a style Jimmy Page must have heard while with the Yardbirds. The nearly plodding “Blue Condition” marks the vocal debut of Ginger Baker, whose pitchless delivery reminds one of Syd Barrett, though his pronunciation “through” as “froo” is endearing.
Jack’s voice dominates side two, which starts with the one-two punch of “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” and “SWLABR”. They’re two of the funniest songs in rock, and we’re not so sure that was intentional. Part of it comes from Bruce’s near-histrionic delivery (“comin' to me with that soulful look on your FA-A-A-A-CE”; “her NAME is AF-ro-DIE-TEE”,), the rest from the lyrics. They’re also very catchy, musically, “Ulysses” sporting a chord sequence that will re-appear, and soon. The “up” feel is soon enveloped in the mist that is “We’re Going Wrong”. It’s a very moody song, played with such tension and mystery that when the blues comes back for “Outside Woman Blues”, it’s like coming up for air. (It’s credited as an arrangement of somebody else’s song, which we’d love to hear to confirm whether Eric added “whilst” himself—making it the consummate British blues recording.) Despite some excellent guitar, “Take It Back” suffers from distracting harmonica and party sounds, but its off-kilter effect makes a logical transition to “Mother’s Lament”, a silly traditional song sung in thick Cockney three-part harmony.
Some would say Disraeli Gears is their best album; as ever, one’s enjoyment will be tempered by how sick they are of those radio staples. The interplay between the three is incredible, and entirely in synch, with nobody dominating. (The drums are still mixed to one channel, which was the style at the time.) Even if you never need to hear the hits again, there’s enough buried in between to grab your attention.

Cream Disraeli Gears (1967)—4

Monday, August 19, 2013

Joe Jackson 14: Summer In The City

With his classical experiments seemingly pleasing nobody but himself and a handful of diehards, it was amazing to see that Joe Jackson still had the support of a major label like Sony. (Not only that, but they gave him his own imprint, though why he chose Manticore, previously the domain of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, remains a mystery.) The bean counters would have been very pleased indeed to see the contents of this live album, recorded at a few club shows with Joe on piano, backed by only Gary Burke on drums and the stalwart Graham Maby on bass. Summer In The City delivers an hour’s worth of music, pulled from his “pop” years, alongside some covers given his own reverent stamp, just to prove that he’s not a complete snob.
The title comes from the Lovin’ Spoonful classic, so it’s only right that the album begins with a run through that song. Some meandering sets up “Obvious Song”, his last near-hit from nearly a decade before. “Another World” is taken pretty straight, except for a bass solo; Joe even remarks that he usually doesn’t go for those, but Graham’s never one to abuse that power. A lengthy, non-reggae “Fools In Love” shows off its debt to the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” via an interlude, just as “The In Crowd” sets up “Down To London”. (This after a reverent “Mood Indigo”, in tribute to Duke Ellington.)
The next handful of tracks are listed as a “medley”; basically that means he played them all in a row without much gap. Otherwise, there’s not much in common between “Eleanor Rigby”, “Be My Number Two”, “Home Town” and “It’s Different For Girls” except for the fact that he does them seamlessly. (Oh, and that they’re all excellent performances of good songs.) However, Steely Dan’s “King Of The World” proves to be an excellent model for his own “You Can’t Get What You Want”. If this worldwide stardom thing didn’t work out, he could easily make a living doing such covers in any number of piano bars around the world. The closing take on “One More Time”, the guitar-heavy opener to his debut, even works in this format.
Summer In The City provides a nice reminder to fans and detractors just what a fine performer he is, proving that when he deigns to, he can really give the people what they want. This was a nice carrot to dangle the business, especially since he was about to go back to the well again.

Joe Jackson Summer In The City: Live In New York (2000)—4

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jam 8: Snap!

Having already closed out their short career with a live retrospective, it was high time for a Jam hits album. Snap! was a two-record set, packed to the gills with all of their singles, plus album tracks and B-sides. That last detail is key, because while The Jam made some excellent albums, their singles put them firmly in the tradition of the Beatles before them (and the Smiths after) by ensuring that every record counted, be it a single, LP or EP.
And they had some terrific singles in between those albums. “All Around The World” combines the energy of their first two albums with a call-and-response vocal; Bruce Foxton even got his own moment to shine on “News Of The World” two 45s later. (And what came between those? “The Modern World”, of course.) All Mod Cons gets the most representation with six tracks, leading up to two superior double-sided singles. The narrator of “Strange Town” takes the guise of “a spaceman from those UFOs”, but it’s just as fitting a description of any naïf lost in the Big City. “The Butterfly Collector” is a particularly nasty speech to an aging strumpet. “When You’re Young” dispenses further wisdom to “kids” his own age, while “Smithers-Jones”, in its original B-side guise, will always inspire debate as whether it or the tarted-up version on Setting Sons is better. Those were great singles, but the top was “Going Underground”, a masterpiece of melody, anger and fear, while “Dreams Of Children” predicts the Revolver-isms of their next album with a familiar riff and what sounds like the chorus of “Thick As Thieves” run backwards over it.
“That’s Entertainment” appears in a very similar demo version, while a remixed “Funeral Pyre” (written by the whole band) conjures the image of flames over a galloping rhythm. The horn section kicks off the final phase of their career for “Absolute Beginners”, but its upbeat mood is tempered by the haunting “Tales From The Riverbank”. The band’s last two hits were as elaborate as they were foretelling; “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)” sports bright strings, intricate guitar parts and a hilariously tragic lyric, while “Beat Surrender” overturns the anger of his younger days with a determination to rise above the BS. It provides an optimistic conclusion.
The original LP set (which came with a bonus EP of songs from their final show) was soon rejigged for the emerging compact disc format; since everything wouldn’t fit, Compact Snap! has eight fewer songs, sacrificing a few B-sides and album tracks, but still including every A-side. In 1991, after the reemergence of Paul Weller as a rock artist, the label released Greatest Hits, which duplicated most of Compact Snap!, with only a few substitutions. Six years later, The Very Best Of The Jam (not released in the US) added two more songs, while 2002’s The Sound Of The Jam took another stab at compiling their best. It wasn’t until 2006 that Snap! was reissued in a full two-CD package (three if you bought the one with the live EP) with all 29 songs. Even the inclusion of “Precious” can’t diminish the quality of this music.

The Jam Snap! (1983)—5
Compact Snap! CD: same as above, minus 8 tracks

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Van Morrison 17: No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

When nobody was looking, Van released one of the best albums of his career. Of course, with a title like No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, he was bound to confound, and those who stayed away missed out on something special.
Somebody pointed out that it’s a song cycle like Astral Weeks; although there are several references to that album, so say it’s a similar cycle is stretching it. He does begin with a statement in “Got To Go Back”; only seconds in we hear one of his patented “oh yeah” utterances, followed by memories of Orangefield, listening to Ray Charles. The words are an evocation of longing that anyone can understand, and it’s a wonderful way to start. “Oh The Warm Feeling” is simple and quick, with the soprano sax darting all over, a subtle love song. With another seemingly disconnected introduction, “Foreign Window” is a lovely, lengthy observation full of allegory and suggestion, building just right through the fade. The feeling of wonder is distracted by the rant about “copycats” that begins “A Town Called Paradise”, a musical reworking of “Astral Weeks” that luckily switches to another plea to get back to nature and simplicity. That mythic place is best described by “In The Garden”. “The fields are always wet with rain,” he says, as they should be, and he sings to an unnamed figure who could be a lover who showed him a better life via Christ. But even that isn’t meant to be definite, as he states the album title: “No guru, no method, no teacher/Just you and I in nature.” That credo is repeated with varying intensity before a wonderful change of tempo, and the fade.
Having lulled us into a pleasant dreamland, “Tir Na Nog” continues the gentle ride, rich with such familiar imagery as golden autumn days, gardens wet with rain, chariots of fire and Jerusalem. Mythology plays a similar role in “Here Comes The Knight”, its title proving that Van actually has a sense of humor (and history). He never sings the title itself, but musically the verse recalls “Crazy Love” and “Tupelo Honey”, and the choruses revive the theme from “Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart No. 1” via “Stepping Out Queen”. While he insists that “this love will surely last forever”, “Thanks For The Information” arrives to dispute that. With a great riff over simple chords that, surprisingly, no one else had found before, Van bemoans the “obstacles” keeping him from achieving happiness. (One mystery yet to be solved by the Internet: at the start of the third verse he spits something to the effect of “subliminal dummy tech or MTV”, yet the official lyrics and every transcription site substitute something else.) After all that, “One Irish Rover” provides another lullaby setting up “Ivory Tower”. Starting like a great lost Dire Straits song, the intro is merely a decoy for another cry of self-pity, yet a catchy one that follows the chorus out the door and down the street.
No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is a gem of an album, good for driving on rainy days, and home in the evenings, and even to fall asleep to, and that’s meant in a good way. It has a lovely sheen, and despite the somewhat incongruous ending, it better displays how a sense of wonder really feels. A very special album indeed.

Van Morrison No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bad Company 1: Bad Company

Among other things, Bad Company holds the distinction of being one of the only bands to achieve success while signed to another, more successful artist’s vanity label—in this case, Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song. (Compare with the Beatles, who had Mary Hopkin and Badfinger for Apple, and the Rolling Stones, who had Peter Tosh for about five minutes for their Rolling Stones Records.)
They were something of a minor British supergroup, including former members of Free, Mott The Hoople and King Crimson. We never had much use for Free, and have rarely sat through “All Right Now” without wanting to box our own ears. But we’re told that’s an unfair dismissal, akin to hating Dire Straits solely because of “Money For Nothing”. (Interestingly, Boz Burrell learned to play bass in Crimson, before landing the job here.)
It’s since been suggested that Bad Company was recorded due to a crisis of faith within the Led Zeppelin camp. With studio time already booked, the band was allowed to use it. They were prepared, with a pile of riff-heavy tunes, exemplified by “Can’t Get Enough” and “Rock Steady”. “Ready For Love” is a re-written Hoople track, done (and sung) much better here. Each of those is still in pretty constant rotation on Classic Rock radio, so how much one likes this album depends on how sick one is of hearing the songs. That’s why “Don’t Let Me Down”, at the end of side one, stands out as a mellower respite.
The moodier style continues with the title track, exploding on the choruses. (This song is something of a trend-setter, as such bands as Iron Maiden and Icehouse would also follow the band name-album title-song title pattern.) “The Way I Choose” is another slow one, with Crimson alum Mel Collins on sax, but they wake us back up for “Movin’ On”. A brief album ends with “Seagull”, essentially a solo Paul Rodgers performance, right down to that one out-of-tune string.
On this album, the boys collaborated nicely. Perhaps they’re a guilty pleasure, but Bad Company delivers when you want good driving music without having to think. And sometimes, that’s just fine.
Soon after Jimmy Page began expanding the Led Zeppelin catalog, Badco got similar treatment. The debut got a bonus disc with over an hour of extras, including multiple early takes of a few songs, the “single edit” of “Can’t Get Enough” and a rightfully discarded mix with Hammond organ, the decent outtake “Superstar Woman”, and the B-sides “Little Miss Fortune” and “Easy On My Soul”. Those last three alone are as good as the album proper.

Bad Company Bad Company (1974)—4
2015 Deluxe Edition: same as 1974, plus 12 extra tracks

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cream 1: Fresh Cream

These days Eric Clapton is the most famous member, but Cream started out as a compact democracy. The original power trio, they had Clapton on guitar (naturally) delivering the blues angle, rounded out by two jazz pedigreed guys in Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on bass, vocals, harmonica and whatever else he could touch.
Bruce was the dominant singer in the band, established on Fresh Cream, seeing as Clapton wasn’t as confident in his vocals at the start. Besides being able to carry a tune while playing the bass, Bruce’s keening baritone lent itself to layered harmonies, as displayed on “N.S.U.” and “Sweet Wine”, both of which could be called psychedelic before the fact. “Sleepy Time Time” and “Dreaming” come from more of a music hall tradition, which likely appealed to manager Robert Stigwood. All together, they deliver a diverse menu of styles. (Just to keep things confusing, the original US LP began with “I Feel Free”, their first hit single, and omitted “Spoonful”, which ended the first side. In their homeland, the opposite was the case. The CD you can buy today includes both, thankfully, being essential to the album.)
Side two provides something of a blues primer, being mostly hepped-up arrangements of songs every London R&B band should have memorized by then. “Cat’s Squirrel” is a suspended-fourth riff as old as the hills, and just plain fun. Clapton sings a rather polite lead on Robert Johnson’s ragtimey “Four Until Late”, which is wiped aside by a furious “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”. “I’m So Glad”, an extremely simple Skip James song, rises above its simplicity via a neat descending intro, compact guitar solo and dynamic drums. Those drums dominate the last song on the album, as “Toad” begins with a jam on E, followed by a definitely musical drum solo that would become a template, for better for worse, for drummers of all levels of skill.
The one nitpicky thing that holds back enjoyment of the album—besides the bomber jackets on the cover—is its extreme stereo separation, with the basic backing track (instruments) in one channel and the vocals on the other. That makes some tracks sound like one of your speakers isn’t working, and in this age of Deluxe Editions, it’s a wonder why Fresh Cream hasn’t been made available in mono. It’s a terrific debut, economical and powerful.

Cream Fresh Cream (1966)—4

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Billy Joel 9: The Nylon Curtain

The summation provided by Songs In The Attic bought Billy some time for his next album, which turned out to be somewhat ambitious. We haven’t been able to find any contemporary reference that explains the title, but The Nylon Curtain would appear to have something to do with suburbia, as demonstrated by the aerial photo of a typical Levittown neighborhood on the inner sleeve. (Meanwhile, Rush beat him to the marketplace by two weeks with their own rendition.)
This time he was trying to be topical, and he does so right off the bat with “Allentown”. That he can get such a catchy hit out of a song decrying unemployment is a testament to his skill, his phrasing of “an American flag” notwithstanding. But a whole album of protest songs wouldn’t fly, so the next track reveals the other overriding touchpoint: the Beatles. “Laura” is a suitably nasty song about co-dependency, with a Ringo stroll, descending chords into sevenths, bathroom echo added to the Lennonesque sneer, and even a Harrisonian guitar solo. A lovely baroque flourish frames the song, a true hidden gem kept off the radio by a certain seven-letter adjective. “Pressure” was the most contemporary sounding track for the time, so it was the first single (and his first expensive video for the MTV age). But the song that got the most attention at the time was “Goodnight Saigon”, a tribute to Vietnam War veterans, which was an increasingly popular topic at the time. It’s one of those songs that can either inspire chills (for its realism) or ridicule (the helicopter effects) but it’s a strong statement from a guy who got through the era on a deferment.
Side two is just as musically rich. “She’s Right On Time” is an honorary holiday classic, thanks to its passing references to Christmas trees. Like “Laura” it’s framed by a pretty little piece, which turns up in the middle eight, and the harmonies come right off Abbey Road. “A Room Of Our Own” borders on being more of a list than a lyric, saved by some unexpected juxtapositions. The electric piano keeps it contemporary, but those guitar stabs in the pre-chorus are truly Fab. The Lennon voice returns on “Surprises”, a psychedelic portention of doom, taken way over the top in “Scandinavian Skies”. Here the nightmare strings of “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am The Walrus” accompany a series of airplane trips through various European cities, suggesting World War II but mostly wordplay. “Where’s The Orchestra?” stretches another metaphor to the brink, this time in the setting of a theater finale. In fact, it was about 20 years after the album was out that we realized that the melody of “Allentown” is played over the fading chords.
Due in part to its emulation of Beatle songcraft, The Nylon Curtain has certainly held up over the years. It’s the one Billy Joel album to get if you want more than just the hits, and has a lot to do with why we can’t hate the guy. When he’s good, he’s very good, and so is this album.

Billy Joel The Nylon Curtain (1982)—4

Monday, August 5, 2013

CSN 3: Daylight Again

The story behind Daylight Again is, basically, Crosby was getting too far gone to be a viable partner in the CSN law firm. However, when Stills and Nash started working together without him, various powers that were suggested that maybe something couldn’t be done to make it seem like the three Laurel Canyon musketeers were right there together in one place, and thus facilitate at least a top 40 album, if the top ten was to be considered too greedy. Even if you weren’t an ‘80s record executive, such logic would make sense. Besides, these guys weren’t doing much on their own anyway. A five-year gap since the last CSN album was nothing compared to the chasm that separated Déjà Vu and CSN, as if anyone was paying attention to any of the solo albums that had sprouted up in the same time.
Stills had been working with a guy named Michael Stergis, whom, despite his songwriting and instrumental credits all over Daylight Again, doesn’t seem to have parlayed that into anything worth creating a Wikipedia page over. “Turn Your Back On Love” is about as bland yet inoffensive as we might hope from Stills at this point. “Wasted On The Way” is Nash’s subtle summary of the previous ten years, all high harmonies lamenting what could have been. Despite itself, “Southern Cross” is the highlight of the album, a simple acoustic strum evoking both the tranquility of the sea and “Back In Black”, which it resembles chord-wise. (Go ahead; listen to them back to back, and damn, if they don’t mesh perfectly.) Nash gets tough on “Into The Darkness”, sung to the syncopation of a basic riff, but it’s eclipsed by one of the Crosby songs he’d actually managed to finish. “Delta” is a positively gorgeous song, proving that even at his least coherent, he had the gift of song. It always seems more of an epic than it is.
Stills was still writing songs, so we get the back-to-back splendor of “Since I Met You” and “Too Much Love To Hide”, both of which are far more interesting musically than they are lyrically; in fact, Nash’s enthusiastic harmonies only underscore how average these songs really are. “Song For Susan” is hardly a substitute for “Our House”, but Nash puts a lot into it, so it’s a good effort. Stills finally slows down long enough to remind us that “You Are Alive”, a good setup for Crosby’s only other contribution, a cover of “Might As Well Have A Good Time” by a couple of fellow travelers. To bring everything back home, the title track is basically a new intro welded to the front of “Find The Cost Of Freedom”, now with Art Garfunkel helping out (according to the credits, but good luck picking him out) just in case Crosby couldn’t cut it.
The usual suspects are all here—Joe Vitale, George “Chocolate” Perry, Craig Doerge, Michael Finnigan. Meanwhile, Crosby and Nash don’t add anything instrumentally to the album, underscoring just how non-collaborative Daylight Again was. It’s not a bad album, but it certainly isn’t very exciting. Those two singles were successful enough to send the boys on the road, which resulted in the Allies live album, which was released very quickly compared to usual pace. It included two studio tracks: the hideous “War Games” and “Raise A Voice”, which would one day be appended to Daylight Again with three other outtakes of vague interest.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Daylight Again (1982)—3
2006 remastered CD: same as 1982, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, August 2, 2013

Joe Jackson 13: Symphony No. 1

In absolute defiance of commercial salvation, Joe decided to write and record a symphony. This wasn’t an orchestral album, like the otherwise ignored Will Power, nor was it particularly “classical”. If anything, Symphony No. 1 resembles the electronic keyboard-based pieces one might find on an ECM album, and certainly on his most recent non-rock releases. Along with his own keyboards, the usual JJ combo is heard, with special guests Terence Blanchard on saxophone and stunt guitarist Steve Vai.
While he’s someone who’s said he hated the idea of concept albums, the four movements are supposed to represent the stages of life. Maybe so, but the album is best enjoyed without context. It’s also an improvement over his last two albums, which tried to bridge big musical ideas and modern lyrics. Because no words are sung or spoken here, the music is left to speak for itself. It almost qualifies as “night music”.
Normally an album like this would be relegated to the opening paragraph of a larger review devoted to a subsequent album, but because Symphony No. 1 was such a pleasant surprise—especially given the arduous task of trying to sum up Night Music and Heaven & Hell—it garners more than a footnote. Whether or not it’s a bona fide symphony is moot, though it did win the first-ever Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Rather, it’s quite enjoyable, and deserving of wider exposure. We almost feel like we owe the guy an apology.

Joe Jackson Symphony No. 1 (1999)—3