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