Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bob Dylan 58: 50th Anniversary Collection 1964

Another Christmas present arrived from Bob Dylan in the form of the third limited-release collection of copyright busters. This time, nine LPs cover the extraneous material, filling in the holes around the one album he recorded in 1964, and the performances already available on various Bootleg Series. This stuff has long been documented, and one wonders if the producers merely follow the lead of certain websites.
A single visit to the studio in June was the source for Another Side Of Bob Dylan, and two sides’ worth of outtakes from it form the centerpiece of this set. Two incomplete, forced takes of “Black Crow Blues”, both on the guitar, demonstrate why the one on the album has piano. A 44-second excerpt of “Mr. Tambourine Man” seems to be included just because it can be, but four separate takes of “I Shall Be Free No. 10”, some with different words, show both how and why it was edited on the LP.
A tape recorded with Eric Von Schmidt (the blues guitar player he’d met in the green pastures of Harvard University) spans three sides and follows the pair running through blues riffs, R&B covers, silly impromptu songs and what appears to be the first recorded performance of “Tambourine Man”. If you’d rather hear him spar vocally with Joan Baez, four tinny “duets” are placed where they belong.
The rest of the material chronicles various live performances, beginning with a short set from Canadian television that closes with a nice version of “Restless Farewell”. Two of the records cover a London performance two years to the day before the notorious “Albert Hall” concert, recorded in excellent quality. “Walls Of Red Wing” and “Eternal Circle” are the rarities here, along with another “Restless Farewell”. The concerts on either side of the Halloween Philharmonic Hall show are, unfortunately, barely listenable; the intercom-quality sound in Philadelphia obscures the crowd’s laughter at “I Don’t Believe You” and their wonder at “It’s Alright Ma”, and renders the variations in “Talkin’ World War III Blues” inaudible. The California shows are a bit clearer but marred by the taper’s conversations. These would never have passed for official releases, so having them here to “protect” their copyright is laughable.
Somewhere out there somebody spent lots of money on one of the thousand copies of this set, and generously shared it over the Internet. Some people will buy anything.

Bob Dylan 50th Anniversary Collection 1964 (2014)—
CD availability: none; LP only

Friday, December 26, 2014

Bob Dylan 57: Basement Tapes Complete

Only a year after one of its finest installments, Bob Dylan’s occasional Bootleg Series maintained its quality by revisiting one of the most beloved and mysterious eras of his career. Volume 11 served up two discs of unadorned recordings, alternates and true rarities from the series of sessions known as the Basement Tapes, in excellent sound, with no after-the-fact overdubbing and no Band-only tracks. And to beat that, a deluxe edition offered everything captured in those sessions with Bob present, 139 tracks in mostly chronological order. (The timing was particularly apt, as the project was revealed and released right around the time of another album involving long-lost lyrics.)
For those seeking only a taster, The Basement Tapes Raw is two hours of arguable highlights, focusing on completed songs and less on the “jam” aspect of the sessions. Here, finally, in one tidy package are some truly legendary tracks in pristine sound. Neither “Silent Weekend” nor “Get Your Rocks Off” seems finished, but Dylan’s laughter on the latter makes it worth the listen. The first take of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” sports a truly surreal batch of alternate lyrics, while take two of “Too Much Of Nothing” is more straightforward than the chromatic experiment that made the 1975 album. The amateurish trombone all over “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” makes it clear why it was left alone till now. “Sign On The Cross” manages to stay mesmerizing over seven slow minutes, and “All You Have To Do Is Dream” has the potential of a wonderful pop song, whatever “floor birds” are. And while “I’m Not There” made its legal debut in 2007, it’s great to have this fascinating tune back alongside its brothers (including the close cousin “I’m Alright”).
The armchair Dylanologist has to have everything, and The Basement Tapes Complete does offer hours of listening pleasure, though not everything deserves more than one play. A 12-string acoustic guitar is hard to get into tune in the first place, much less when it’s being strummed by someone for whom pitch is already elusive. The compilers did do us a favor by putting the “least listenable” of the tracks on the sixth disc; besides not being recorded as well, with a particularly distorted electric piano guiding the way, there’s little hidden treasure here. Also, these were a bunch of guys in their 20s, basically playing hooky, so some of the goofiness doesn’t translate. But when they do catch fire, its wonders to behold.
There’s already been a lucrative cottage industry based around picking these sessions apart, and many of the mysteries will never be solved—mostly because nobody was anal enough to note dates, times, locations, who was playing what, etc. Some insist that “Garth’s order” isn’t to be trusted, but there is some structure to it, as successive performances are heard to go increasingly off rails. We can also hear where the focus switched from playing whatever struck to trying to arrange brand new songs. Having multiple takes of several songs will inspire further argument as to which is “best”. (And to think “Tiny Montgomery”, of all things, was the earliest track considered worth selling, appearing a whole disc away from the next one, “Million Dollar Bash”. From there, he doesn’t let up until disc five.)
The mystique of the sessions remains, mostly because it’s still not clear why all this was preserved on tape in the first place. Remakes of “One Too Many Mornings”, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Blowin’ In the Wind” suggest possible preparations for a stage performance. His Nashville Skyline voice surfaces a few times. The preponderance of country & western covers puts Self Portrait in yet another light, and makes Robbie Robertson look especially petty for claiming that it was The Band who “taught” Dylan all this music, instead of the other way around. How come he never went back to “One Man’s Loss”, “Lock Your Door” or “Wild Wolf”? Was it all recorded before John Wesley Harding? And what the hell was his fascination with “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”, anyway?
We can be thankful that this weary world can finally hold not only a completed Beach Boys Smile CD, but a Basement Tapes collection that surpasses even the most revered bootlegs. Now fans had a very wide bridge from Blonde On Blonde to John Wesley Harding, and it only took 47 years.

Bob Dylan & The Band The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (2014)—4

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Elvis Presley: Christmas Album

While a glance at the budget cassette rack this time of year made it seem like the King of Rock ‘N Roll recorded ten different Christmas albums, that was a misleading implication thanks to RCA’s incessant repackaging of their biggest star. There were ever only two albums, recorded 14 years apart, give or take a single here and there. Even after the catalog was streamlined in the ‘90s, the same music has appeared again and again, sometimes with hideous results.
Of those two albums, the first is the best, recorded the year before Elvis went into the Army, never to return. But even that was a repackage of sorts, with eight new holiday tracks supported by the four songs from that year’s Peace In The Valley EP of gospel music. While not strictly Christmas music, they present a side of Elvis Presley that was perhaps his truest. Indeed, his gospel recordings rank among his finest performances. “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)” is a wonderful group vocal, and once you get past the mawkishness of “I Believe”, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)” provide pure serenity.
But it’s still the rocking half that people remember, and for good reason. Besides having Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana holding up the beat in back, this was the debut of Leiber & Stoller’s “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and the snappy “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”, both unmistakably Elvis. In between there’s “White Christmas” a la the Drifters, a swaggering “Here Comes Santa Claus”, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and his wacky update of “Blue Christmas”, with that yodeling backing making it more “blue” than sad. The much calmer “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” begin side two, for a better transition to the gospel tracks.
Elvis was more of a singles artist than an album artist, but the care put into this original sequence underscore what was lost anytime the contents were shuffled, reshuffled, augmented and diminished time and time again. The least intrusive ones usually pair it with 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas. Coming from the Vegas jumpsuit years, it’s not completely awful, but over the top and insincere, about as preferable to the ‘50s Elvis as latter-day Bing Crosby is to “White Christmas”. Left in its intended state, Elvis’ Christmas Album demonstrates what made him so special, especially to those of us who weren’t around before he became a caricature.

Elvis Presley Elvis’ Christmas Album (1957)—4

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beach Boys 15: Christmas Album

Like any red-blooded American boy, Brian Wilson loved Christmas. Likely influenced by Phil Spector’s album as well as their own “Little Saint Nick” from the year before (think a thematic cross between a little Deuce Coupe and a certain sleigh), The Beach Boys' Christmas Album was released a month after their live album, Capitol having zero qualms about loading up the shelves with their artists.
Five of the songs are Brian Wilson originals, played (most likely) by the band themselves. “Little Saint Nick” is still the best meld of the holiday spirit and the band’s brand. “The Man With All The Toys” has a jarring hiccup of a supporting part, “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Christmas Baby” present Mike at his most nasal, while Al is credited with lead on “Christmas Day”. Outside of the occasional quote in a guitar solo, these are pop tunes with specific lyrics. Based on these it’s just as well that Brian didn’t try to write a whole album of Christmas songs, else his nervous breakdown might’ve been sooner or more severe.
To complete the album, the rest of the program consists of holiday favorites given lush, Four Freshman-style arrangements, much more typical of Johnny Mathis. Brian sings a couple of the prettier ones alone, but they all come together for the likes of “Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”, the latter with an unfortunate “circus” motif in between verses. They give their best blend to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, and bury some a cappella gymnastics under Dennis’s “special” spoken message over “Auld Lang Syne”.
Despite the promise of side one, this is not a rockin’ Christmas album, yet it does provide an interesting transition to the more advanced music Brian would create in 1965. The album never really went out of print, and even appeared on CD a few times with varying bonus tracks. At the end of the ‘90s, Ultimate Christmas more than doubled the original lineup with further extras, most notably “Child Of Winter”, a standalone single from 1974, and selections from the band’s aborted 1977 Christmas album. One of these, “Santa’s Got An Airplane”, updated the mode of travel with help of the unfinished late-‘60s track “Loop De Loop”. “Winter Symphony” is a promising Brian Wilson that could stand to be slower and not as busy. There’s even a rare Dennis Wilson recording for that cult base. As with most Beach Boys music post-Endless Summer, these later tracks are simply not as strong as the prime material from the original era. (Their a cappella rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, the B-side to “Little Saint Nick”, hasn’t been included on any of these CDs since 1991, but has turned up elsewhere.)

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)—3

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sting 11: If On A Winter’s Night

Way back in 1985, as the singles from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles piled up, Sting recorded an arrangement of the relatively obscure carol “Gabriel’s Message” as a B-side. It gained more exposure a couple of years later as part of the first Very Special Christmas charity album, and with its sparse presentation, even with layered vocals, it has remained a welcome holiday favorite.
The same song opens If On A Winter’s Night…, but it’s a brand new performance that sets the tone for the rest of this not-exactly-Yuletide-themed album. He uses the same breathy, sonorous tone that made his lute album such a tough listen; in the days of vinyl, you’d check the player to make sure it was at the correct speed. The photos of him with his masculine, full beard as he stands in a bulky sweater — reminding one of that professor character Will Ferrell used to play on SNL, talking about his “lover” and gorging himself on goat meat — contemplating either the snow outside or the guitar in his hand, give the game away.
These songs just seem so overdone, even with such humble instrumentation. Even when he does something relatively straight, like the old chestnut “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”, he sinks it with a four-line monologue in the middle that would embarrass Barry White. His wordless vocal interlude on “The Snow It Melts The Soonest” is therefore welcome, as it doesn’t sound like he’s doing a character, or auditioning for a movie role, as demonstrated by his lugubrious reading of “Now Winter Comes Slowly”. “The Burning Babe” comes closest to the Sting of old, with jazzy drums, soprano sax and a decent vocal.
The gushing liner notes, describing how and why the album was recorded, don’t really give much insight as to why he chose what he chose other than they sounded like winter songs. He re-does “The Hounds Of Winter” from his last good album, for no other reason as that one word in the title, or maybe to ensure some publishing royalties. As most of these are traditional songs, he could use the coin. Speaking of which, “Soul Cake” is the wassail song as established by Peter, Paul & Mary; “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” is not the Donovan song, as that would have been a stretch.
All the way through If On A Winter’s Night… is the nagging thought, “This would be so much nicer if he wasn’t on it.” If you’re looking for yuletide music with an English folk lilt, this isn’t it. As a Christmas album it falls short, and as a Sting album it’s just too precious. Better it be considered a winter album; musically, of course, it’s lovely, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. Subtle hurdy-gurdy, Northumbrian pipes, delicately plucked guitars and other gentle touches often show the potential so often stomped over like so much snow from boots out in the hall. It’s therefore best enjoyed in the background when you’ve finished shoveling out your driveway, since it won’t inspire you beforehand.

Sting If On A Winter’s Night… (2009)—

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stomu Yamashta: Go

Steve Winwood was relatively quiet in the years following the end of Traffic, before gearing up for the solo career that would ultimately bring him a higher love. His first real project was a rather adventurous one, and one that still dwells in relative obscurity today.
A truly odd gathering of musicians, Go was billed as a collaboration between Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta, Winwood and Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, in that order. As if that wasn’t enough, their eponymous album also included contributions from Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze on synthesizers, Pat Thrall and Al DiMeola on lead guitars, Junior Marvin from Bob Marley’s Wailers on rhythm, Traffic’s Rosko Gee on bass, backing vocals by Thunderthighs, and string arrangements from none other than Paul Buckmaster. Taken all together, Go melds jazz fusion, synth prog, and even, given the year, disco for an end result that should fail horribly, but doesn’t.
Like all concept albums, good or bad, there’s a story, which isn’t easy to follow considering that it begins on side two. Lyrics for all tracks save one are credited to Michael Quartermain, if that is his real name. And even once you get the story (travel through space and time, good vs. evil, what is the nature of man, how can you mend a broken heart and so forth) you don’t really care; it’s the music that matters.
A suitably spacey intro brings in “Solitude”, which turns into “Nature” in time for Winwood’s first, tentative vocal. Similarly, “Air Over” is a setup for “Crossing The Line”, a more straightforward rock song. “Man Of Leo” is pretty dated funk, but some typical tasty Hammond organ work, melding to DiMeola’s solo workout for “Stellar”, punctuated by seemingly random clanging that will inspire fans of Blazing Saddles to exclaim “The sheriff is near!” The story presumably ends with the extended extraterrestrial effects of “Space Theme”.
Lots more space sounds dominate side two, through “Carnival” which is meant to evoke Stravinsky, but might be better appreciated with “Atom Heart Mother” or “Saucerful Of Secrets” as a point of reference. Winwood returns halfway through the side with some truly mushmouthed vocals on “Ghost Machine”, a brisk number that ends almost as quickly. “Surf Spin” floats around to set up “Time Is Here”, an aimless jam for a “seize the day” message, while “Winner/Loser”, credited solely to Winwood, has a contemporary Elton John vibe, but also sounds the most like the natural follow-up to the last Traffic album.
Most of the participants would go on to perform and release the suite (in its correct order, with extended solos) for the self-explanatory Go — Live From Paris, and most save Winwood would return on Go Too. The albums have appeared on CD, sometimes combined into a complete set, but the original LP, with its wonky sequence and booklet, is still preferred.

Stomu Yamashta/Steve Winwood/Michael Shrieve Go (1976)—3

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jethro Tull 6: Living In The Past

Now that they’d gotten very far away from their roots, it was time for Jethro Tull to look back. Living In The Past first arrived in a thick cardboard package, like old 78s used to, with a booklet of photos showing how the band had changed from album to album. Along with familiar hit singles from the albums, various non-album tracks helped sweep up anything that might have gone missing, and demonstrate their progress—particularly in America, where some songs were making their vinyl debut.
Beginning appropriately with “Song For Jeffrey”, several early singles get wider exposure, from what sounds like an electric mandolin on “Love Story” and the reverent yet cautionary “Christmas Song”. The collection’s title track has since become an FM radio staple, if one can imagine a 5/4 tune with a flute part that quotes from “You Really Got Me” becoming a hit. “Driving Song” is a blues shuffle, and “Bourée” represents the second album.
The sinister “Sweet Dream”, made more unsettling by the trumpets, gives way to the more swinging “Singing All Day”. “Teacher” represents Benefit, while “Witch’s Promise” points to the English folk sound where they were headed next. The Americans could now enjoy the tightly intricate “Alive And Well And Living In” (in place of “Inside”), more so than the celeste-driven “Just Trying To Be”.
What was side three presents two selections from a Carnegie Hall concert, and recorded very cleanly, we might add. “By Kind Permission Of” is a mostly-solo piano medley of familiar classical themes and blues clichés, joined here and there by Ian’s flute, the band coming in at the very end. “Dharma For One” is extended for even more soloing.
Sporting the appetizing image of “the excrement bubbles”, “Wond’ring Again” was a predecessor to “Wond’ring Aloud” from Aqualung; here it’s followed by “Hymn 43” from that album, while the Brits got “Locomotive Breath”, which would have been preferred. The balance of the set presents the Life Is A Long Song EP; the title track, the nostalgic “Up The ‘Pool” and the grateful “Nursie” make it a less labored alternative to the sound of Thick As A Brick, while “Dr. Bogenbroom” and the instrumental “For Later” pick up the pace in between.
Because of the differences between the UK and US lineups, and future attempts to squeeze everything onto a single CD, several editions of Living In The Past have emerged over the years. But whatever the sequence, the first-time listener (guilty) will be pleasantly surprised at the new sounds, the “hits” kept to a minimum. And because it covers the arc of five albums, there’s not a lot of sameness over the two LPs.

Jethro Tull Living In The Past (1972)—

Friday, December 5, 2014

The New Basement Tapes: Lost On The River

Given the development of this unique little album, it’s bound to confuse people who aren’t obsessed with Bob Dylan or any of the participants. (Especially since its release was arguably overshadowed by a product more important to those obsessed.) Basically, it’s new music written to suit a pile of handwritten lyrics most likely dating from prior to the recordings known for years as The Basement Tapes. (Something similar happened in the ‘90s with unused Woody Guthrie lyrics, so there’s another precedent.) The project was driven by T Bone Burnett, so ultimately, it’s a T Bone Burnett album, familiar to anyone who’s heard the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack or Raising Sand, the stellar meeting of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The New Basement Tapes is the name given to the collective, these song gathered under the title Lost On The River.
They’re not trying to recapture the basement sound of “Million Dollar Bash” or “Please Mrs. Henry”, but living within the country, blues and Appalachian folk that people like Greil Marcus insist inspired the original sessions. Banjo and fiddle courtesy of Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops make this a distinct slice of Americana, and that’s considering that two Brits—Burnett buddy Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford on leave from Mumford & Sons—are involved. Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes round out the group, and everybody swaps instruments when one is needed. (Of course, there’s a deluxe version with five more songs, one per band member.)
As per his recent work, Elvis tends to over-emote and spit. “Six Months In Kansas City” is two songs stuck together, encouraging shouted asides from the rest of the group, but still fares better than “Married To My Hack”. “Golden Tom—Silver Judas” could go on his “Sugarcane” albums, and the lovely melody on his version of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#12”) makes it the keeper of his contributions. (It was a smart move to record several versions of each song to inspire collaboration, and certainly to set up a possible sequel already in the can should demand arise, but the mind shivers at the possibility of stabs at “Hidee Hidee Ho” that didn’t make the first cut.)
Elvis is arguably the biggest “name” here, but he doesn’t nudge aside the lesser-known players. If anything, this album will expose people to them. Jim James already made a stamp as a Dylan interpreter from his appearance in the surreal faux-biopic I’m Not There. Arguably, his songs sound the most like potential Dylan songs, given his voice’s similarity to the Nashville croon. “Down On The Bottom” builds well, while “Nothing To It” is both jaunty and rocking, infused with a wonderful fuzz.
The original basement sessions were a pointed boys’ club, so having a woman sing on these also makes it separate from that established norm. At first appearance Rhiannon Giddens reminds the listener of Natalie Merchant, who appeared on the Billy Bragg and Wilco collaborations on the Guthrie material, but that comparison is grossly unfair considering how much more she offers. She infuses “Spanish Mary” with a melody that Bob would have been happy to pinch himself (and if he keeps making albums, he still might). And her closing take of “Lost On The River” (denoted “#20”) is pleasingly spooky. Taylor Goldsmith’s “Liberty Street” also recalls the Bragg/Wilco project, only because it’s so damn gorgeous, while “Card Shark” sounds uncannily like early Bruce Cockburn. Marcus Mumford’s offerings sound a lot like what’s thus far brought him a fan base; “Kansas City” and “Stranger” are his standouts, the latter a welcome example of Dylan wordplay.
But even though Dylan was the spark for the project, and he did endorse it while keeping his distance, the album is best appreciated out of that context, and for that, it succeeds. To get a better appreciation for their accomplishment, the Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued documentary is rather illuminating, though the staged recreations of the events of 1967 inspire more winces than wonder.

The New Basement Tapes Lost On The River (2014)—4

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

David Bowie 34: Nothing Has Changed

Celebrating fifty years of media manipulation, the Nothing Has Changed compilations capped a fertile period of activity for David Bowie, in which he got lots of press but only appeared in public via the videos for his well-received The Next Day album. We say “compilations” plural because, in an echo of the Best Of Bowie deluge of a different version appearing depending on what country you bought it in, this new set appeared at least three ways, each with a different cover: a three-CD set in reverse chronological order, a two-CD in forward order, and a two-LP version that jumps all over the place. Besides being a nod to the Changes albums (and song) from the RCA years, when it comes to repackaging, nothing has changed.
To entice the Bowie nut who has everything already, many of the songs appear in various edits or remixes. That’s fine if you want the Pet Shop Boys hijack of “Hallo Spaceboy” or the condensed single of “‘Heroes’”, but Bowie’s propensity to release multiple remixes of the same song makes only slightly more sense than the Stones. (Speaking of which, is there anyone out there who thinks the Jagger duet on “Dancing In The Street” belongs on anything purporting to be his “best”?) Nothing from the Tin Machine era is included, leaving a gap but also keeping the sound consistent between the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s.
With all the repetition, there are some interesting, truly rare tracks. “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)” is a lengthy croon over an edgy jazz traffic jam, not unlike Elvis Costello’s experiments in the same Herrmannesque territory. Touted as a “brand new song recorded specially” for the set, he needn’t have bothered. Much more exciting are “Let Me Sleep Beside You”, “Your Turn To Drive” and particularly “Shadow Man” from the unreleased Toy album, begging the question of whether that will ever be released on its own. And for those of us who don’t have anything from before “Space Oddity”, a handful of early singles (sorry, no “Laughing Gnome”) enables the selections to span fifty years.
As ever with these things, Nothing Has Changed is a good Bowie set for the newcomer, and frustrating for the longtime fan. But at least the Stones didn’t put out another hits album this year.

David Bowie Nothing Has Changed (2014)—4

Friday, November 28, 2014

Waterboys 1: The Waterboys

The brain child of one Mike Scott, an earnest young man equally obsessed with romantic poetry and pop music, the band known as The Waterboys went through a variety of styles and even more permutations in a relatively short time without ever truly catching on in the States outside of what used to be considered alternative radio. For the first few albums anyway, there was a consistency, best described by the eventual song title “The Big Music”. In the early ‘80s, this was a style comparable to that of U2 and Big Country, suggesting that the smaller countries in the British Isles were about to take over music. (They didn’t, but it was nice while it lasted.)
The Waterboys is pretty solid for a mostly one-man band effort recorded across different sessions. The trilling “December” is an unlikely Christmas song, so much so that it needn’t be limited to just one time of year. “A Girl Called Johnny” was the first single, sporting the distinctive sax of the even more distinctively named Anthony Thistlethwaite, who would be the most consistent Waterboy through most of their career. “It Should Have Been You” is the most traditionally constructed song, if a bit overwrought vocally. “The Girl In The Swing” isn’t much, but its 6/8 time nicely matches the image of the title.
His piano playing is a lot more interesting than the plodding style from later albums, as demonstrated on the meandering yet mesmerizing “Gala”, which any other producer would have edited severely. From time to time the drum machine gets a little robotic, as on “The Three Day Man”, yet the one track with a full band, the pointedly defiant “I Will Not Follow”, not exactly a riposte to those Irish boys, sounds the most like vintage ‘80s. Speaking of which, “Savage Earth Heart” isn’t too far removed from Dublin either; while another long solo performance, one can hear the potential to sound bigger and better with a full band.
The Waterboys appeared in North America first as a five-song mini-album, before becoming standard worldwide with eight songs. With the rejigging of the catalog, it’s since been expanded with a few B-sides, unreleased tracks and “Gala” extended to its full 9½-minute length. It remains an impressive debut.

The Waterboys The Waterboys (1983)—3
2002 CD remaster: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Byrds 10: Byrdmaniax

Still going, the Byrds kept the same lineup together to record another album. The striking cover of molten silver faces and wacky title Byrdmaniax don’t really represent the music contained within, but then again, the band hadn’t been predictable since David Crosby was still around.
Studio veteran Larry Knechtel’s strident piano opens “Glory, Glory”, another gospel adaptation; musically it’s joyful, which is the point, but Roger’s vocal doesn’t really stir, which also keeps “Pale Blue” from catching fire. “I Trust” is a little better, but more of the same. Skip Battin takes over for the rest of side one, first on “Tunnel Of Love”, which is decorated by too many horns and female choir, then on the kitschy “Citizen Kane”, featuring a Betty Boop-styled muted trumpet and incessant woodblocks.
While based in the same novelty territory, “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician” has the right mix of satire and folk to go in the plus column. Skip returns to sing “Absolute Happiness”, which succeeds without a gimmick. “Green Apple Quick Step” is another Clarence White flat-picking showcase, and we could swear there’s an accordion in there; he also sings “My Destiny”, which slows things down again. “Kathleen’s Song” is a pretty McGuinn strum, unfortunately buried under orchestral swells. Clarence gets the last word with “Jamaica Say You Will”, which predates Jackson Browne’s own version by a year, and damn if Clarence doesn’t sound like the song’s author.
Byrdmaniax wasn’t a hit, and the band would soon complain that the orchestrations had happened without their consent. That doesn’t excuse their own performances, but then again they were under a lot of pressure to create product, having lost the clout that might have enabled them to buy some time. The expanded CD that came out in the shadow of (Untitled) didn’t offer much in the way of extras, just a tepid cover of “Just Like A Woman”, a gentle alternate of “Pale Blue” and another forced vocal by Clarence on a Gene Clark song, of all things. Per tradition there’s an instrumental hidden track, this time an alternate of “Green Apple Quick Step” as a better tribute to Clarence.

The Byrds Byrdmaniax (1971)—2
2000 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pink Floyd 18: The Endless River

And you thought seven years was a long time between albums? Try twenty. That’s how many had gone by since the last Pink Floyd studio album, and with the passing of Rick Wright it looked like the band was finally done. Sure, Roger Waters took his improved multimedia upgrade of The Wall on the road, and managed to convince Nick Mason and even David Gilmour to show up for a few dates, but new music appeared out of the question.
That changed when Gilmour put off work on a solo album to “finish up” some jams left over from the early stages of the Division Bell sessions. With Nick Mason in tow, The Endless River is a tribute to Wright, an ambient experiment, and likely the last thing ever to be remotely labeled a Pink Floyd album.
Designed as a four-part suite, it’s largely instrumental, many tracks less than two minutes, and moody little pieces they are. “Things Left Unsaid” begins with snippets of conversation in proper Queen’s English, over a few minutes of atmospherics along the lines of “Cluster One”. The aptly titled “It’s What We Do” is built around sounds familiar from Wish You Were Here; a little “Welcome To The Machine” here, some “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” there. “Ebb And Flow” finishes the first section with some heavily panned electric piano and acoustic.
“Sum” conjures images of the racecars Gilmour and Mason adore; that track and “Skins” feature some of the most energetic drumming Nick Mason’s done in decades. The hand of co-producer Youth is noticeable here. The brief “Unsaid”, set up the more majestic “Anisina”, combining the piano bass of “Us And Them” with the swirling strings of “Comfortably Numb” underneath slide guitar, saxophone and hearty “ooh”s.
A lot of the titles seem tossed off; calling one track “The Lost Art Of Conversation” continues the communication theme of the last album but rings weirdly on an album with no vocals. Similarly, “On Noodle Street” sounds just what it is, a smooth jazz riff. “Night Light” is another nondescript interlude before the ‘80s sound (think more “Blue Light” than “Run Like Hell”) of “Allons-Y”. This piece is bisected by “Autumn ‘68”, a vintage recording of Rick Wright on the glorious Royal Albert Hall organ we wish was longer and less adorned. We didn’t really need more soundbites from Stephen Hawking, but there he is, inevitably, halfway through “Talkin’ Hawkin’”, which is at least musically different from “Keep Talking”. Is that a howl from Dark Side buried in there?
Some of the guitar-less moments resemble sci-fi movie soundtracks, and “Calling”, “Eyes To Pearls” and “Surfacing” don’t always catch. Then the chimes of Big Ben reappear at the start of “Louder Than Words”, the only song with a vocal on the album and something of a weary summation until the closing solo, ending the album in a minor key. Not much at first, it improves with familiarity. (Despite the insistence that the album was to be treated like a four-sided LP, the deluxe DVD and Blu-ray packages included some extra music, dominated by extended jams on “Wearing The Inside Out” and one rocking track called “Nervana”.)
So while The Endless River isn’t a grand finale, it is something of a conclusion, and a fitting one. People can and will argue whether this would be more or less valuable in a deluxe anniversary edition of The Division Bell—one of which had appeared earlier in the year, boasting a surround sound mix and a double LP pressing that matched the CD, unlike the original edited LP—but it sure is nice to hear the guys again.

Pink Floyd The Endless River (2014)—3

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Neil Young 52: Storytone

A Letter Home proved to be not much more than a snapshot of an experiment, as Neil’s next real album was much more substantial. Storytone was presented as an orchestral album with Neil’s voice and occasional harmonica, but also made available with a Solo Storytone disc of Neil accompanying himself on piano or guitar. He’s also released yet another permutation of the songs, mixing elements of both within each track, so whichever is the “real” version remains up in the air.
In the orchestral setting his voice sounds more vulnerable than ever, bringing to mind recent Brian Wilson. The strings recall Comes A Time, and particularly the lonesome cowboy sweep of Prairie Wind, while even evoking Gordon Jenkins’ work with Frank Sinatra. The songs are presented as a suite, some seeming to follow on from the one before, whether she’s sleeping or he’s still driving.
“Plastic Flowers” recalls the piano version of “Living With War”; it’s unknown if giving the flowers of the title to Mother Nature’s daughter is supposed to be a good thing. “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” is the one he likely hopes to will get the most attention. With its urgent riff and choir, it’s not as much of a departure. The end is overly melodramatic, ending with a “Day In The Life”-type stop and a surprise coda. The grumpy “I Want To Drive My Car” is more This Note’s For You than Fork In The Road, with a big-band backing and even an electric solo, probably courtesy of Waddy Wachtel. The joy of the open road doesn’t seem to pervade in “Glimmer”, where he’s left alone behind the wheel with only his thoughts and choked memories. Here’s a place where the Sinatra echo is most obvious, particularly when followed by “Say Hello To Chicago”, arranged in a style that will sound to most under-40 ears like Brian Setzer. Seeing as Neil doesn’t croon, it sounds very out of place.
“Tumbleweed” is more lush yet gentle, a lullaby suggesting the plant itself. “Like You Used To Do” is another Bluenotes cousin, a woman-done-me-wrong song, before the grand sweep of the final songs. Insisting that he’s not different from anyone else, “I’m Glad I Found You” offers a hushed, repeated ending in a naked love song. “When I Watch You Sleeping” sounds like it has a pedal steel, asking the unanswerable question as to how the late Ben Keith might have shaped this album. She’s still sleeping in “All Those Dreams”, while Neil rides off into the sunset, burning not a drop of gasoline.
The horn-driven blues songs break up any threat of monotony, but they don’t really fit in; in many ways the solo versions, each just as unique and just as considered as the arranged versions, allow the listener to get in deeper. “Plastic Flowers” and “I’m Glad I Found You” are pretty on the piano, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” stark, “Glimmer” less mournful. “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Like You Used To Do” are more subdued strums, and “Say Hello To Chicago” a boozy late-night reverie right off a Tom Waits album. “Tumbleweed” is given a ukulele arrangement similar to how Paul McCartney’s been playing “Something” of late. “When I Watch You Sleeping” and “All Those Dreams” finish things up, quiet and acoustic.
Coming so soon after the shocking revelation that he was divorcing Pegi (and taking up with Daryl Hannah), it’s not easy to keep the lyrics separate from diary entries. In fact, the mood and content of Storytone can be compared with Elvis Costello’s North, another love-lost-and-found album that divided listeners. Time will tell whether this will be a substantial chapter or just another tangent.

Neil Young Storytone (2014)—3

Friday, November 14, 2014

Coldplay 5: Mylo Xyloto

The biggest band on the planet kept going, comfortable with the knowledge that anything they did would be multi-platinum. And so it was with Mylo Xyloto. This time, there’s a concept, something having to do with a futuristic struggle of good vs. evil, not that you’d be able to tell from listening to the album, decoding the lyrics or flipping through the CD booklet.
For the most part, they embrace modern pop, using machine-driven drums and the by-now familiar Chris Martin “whoa-oh-oh” hooks. They seem to have left the circular piano of “Clocks” and its clones behind, in favor of that solitary bass drum that drove “Viva La Vida”. To be arty, a few brief tracks exist only as interludes or introductions, while other tracks end with similar detours.
A key turnoff for anyone not otherwise into current music would be “Princess Of China”, which features the “vocal” stylings of Rihanna. She doesn’t get too much in the way, but after a while, one expects the auto-tune queen, part-time punching bag and lingerie model to show up all over the album, particularly on “Paradise” and “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”, or within the canned chipmunk voices on “Charlie Brown”.
But those songs are undeniably catchy, and the listener vacillates between wanting to hate the album and hoping it will become comfortable. “Us Against The World” is played so delicately you’re not convinced of the actual meter, while “Major Minus” is just a little too jarring and clattery. “U.F.O.” sounds like it could be from the first album; it almost comes off as a finale, as does “Up In Flames”, but instead they bookend the Rihanna track. And indeed, the pounding “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart” does work as a sewing-together of whatever’s gone before, more so than “Up With The Birds”.
Mylo Xyloto soars when it wants to, but doesn’t get too experimental. It’s also not as long as it seems. The band seems compelled to make their audience think; for them, it’s not enough to put addresses of human rights organizations and such in the liner notes. At the same time, they make it hard for that same audience (and all the haters) to get lost in the music.

Coldplay Mylo Xyloto (2011)—3

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gregg Allman: Laid Back

While the rest of his band (or what was left of it) was putting together Brothers And Sisters, Gregg Allman was hopping between there and another set of players for his own solo album. True to its title, Laid Back presents music more suited towards the end of the party as opposed to trying to get one going.
In a truly odd move, he begins with a version of “Midnight Rider” that downplays the defiance of the original with a more haunted, hunted feel. Without a hotshot guitar to take over, a new bridge sports unobtrusive horns. The horns stick around for “Queen Of Hearts”, a terrific torchy number that touches on jazz, its instrumental breaks jumping between 6/8 and 5/8. By contrast, “Please Call Home” is made over with a bigger arrangement, even a female choir, but still remains the same song. After three moody tracks, “Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing” is an oddly timed dose of boogie.
Jackson Browne’s “These Days” was not yet a standard, but this version had a lot to do with how it became one. Gregg’s voice is perfect for the melancholy of the song, particularly the final couplet (“please don’t confront me with my failures/I’m aware of them”). “Multi-Colored Lady” comes the closest to a true Allman Brothers Band candidate, a mildly sleepy tune bettered by “All My Friends”, which sounds familiar until you realize the initial melody was used by Neil Young for “Comes A Time”. The little switch in the key at the end of each verse is very effective. Finally, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is the gospel standard, played with fervor and passion.
Particularly for those less enamored with Southern rock, Laid Back is a surprisingly fresh change of pace from the established Allman Brothers brand. The strings and horns have a lot to do with the smooth sound, without straying too far into Adult Contemporary territory, and we can thank Chuck Leavell’s touch on the piano. The cover art is hideous, courtesy of the same guy who did Bitches Brew and Abraxas, but that was the ‘70s for you.

Gregg Allman Laid Back (1973)—

Friday, November 7, 2014

Band 6: Moondog Matinee

They may have been out of new ideas, but they still wanted to play, so in the same year that David Bowie and John Lennon embarked on oldies projects, The Band eschewed an album of new songs for a grab-bag of early rock ‘n roll and R&B. (Besides, everybody was PO’d at Robbie for elbowing aside the collaboration that made their first albums so good, or so Levon would have us believe.)
Moondog Matinee is an attempt to recreate the feel of the “jook joints” where they’d started out. But just as other oldies projects transplanted the music to the current decade, The Band drag their musical selections firmly into the seventies. The biggest culprit is Garth Hudson’s arsenal of decidedly modern keyboards. That said, his saxophones, when heard, come closer to making the façade real, especially on tracks where Robbie’s not stomping on the wah-wah.
Overall, it’s a fun album, as the boys certainly sound like they’re enjoying themselves, and the songs aren’t the typical hackneyed touchstones. Levon tackles “I’m Ready” and Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” with glee, tackling the frog voice on the latter but thankfully avoiding the girl part. Except for the gospel parody “Saved”, Richard sings most of the slow ones, filling “Share Your Love” and “The Great Pretender” with the appropriate emotion, while Rick takes center stage on “A Change Is Gonna Come”. And all three revel in the swamp of “Holy Cow”.
Not content to leave well enough alone, “Mystery Train” isn’t just an extended jam but includes new verses. It’s followed up by the instrumental “Third Man Theme”, which even the early Beatles used to kill time, providing a silly end to what was side one.
While certainly a placeholder for their career as a whole, Moondog Matinee is recommended to the listener who’s not expecting much. The reissue adds a few more recordings from the sessions, including Chuck Berry’s “Back To Memphis” and The Band’s own “Endless Highway”, both of which had been doctored and passed off as live recordings on earlier reissues.

The Band Moondog Matinee (1973)—3
2000 CD reissue: same as 1973, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Modest Proposal

[The following is a letter I have sent to Tony Bennett's management. I'd love to see this happen.]

Dear Ms. Weiner:

I'm hoping you can get this idea in front of either Tony or Danny Bennett, as I think it's got some incredible potential.

Tony Bennett's legacy has now spanned two centuries, and he continually gains new generations of fans. He's a respected interpreter of some great American songwriters, but I've noticed that even on his newest album, he's still going back to the well from the pre-rock era. There is, however, one American songwriter that I don't believe he's ever covered, and that's Tom Waits.

Just the first two Waits albums, Closing Time (1973) and The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), are full of songs that would be a tremendous fit for Mr. Bennett's voice, from saloon songs to snappy jazz. And further into the Waits catalog are even more songs that would do justice to his talent, and vice versa; "Tom Traubert's Blues", "Foreign Affair", "Kentucky Avenue", "Ruby's Arms", "Take It With Me" and "Time" are just the first handful that come to mind. (Hey, if he even wants to tackle the likes of "Cemetery Polka", "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six" or "Pasties & A G-String", more power to him.)

I am not a salesman or an entrepreneur, just a music fan and writer. This idea came to me from a discussion years ago with a friend, and as time goes on I'm amazed that nobody else has suggested it. I'm sure that if you asked his friend Elvis Costello, even he would agree that "Bennett Sings Waits" would be a hit. (Just don't let him take credit for the idea, unless he's already suggested it, in which case what are we waiting for?)

Thank you for your time and consideration. I'd love to hear even one song in this vein, and certainly before Barry Manilow does it first.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Journey 1: In The Beginning

To admit any fondness for Journey is to risk ridicule, vandalism or ever being allowed near a jukebox again. Men of a certain age will associate the band with the first time they had their hearts handed to them without thanks or apology by the first girl they really, really liked in high school, and is only one reason why The Last American Virgin remains the most realistic teen sex comedy ever produced. Yet we digress, naturally.
The people who dismiss Journey would be even more contemptuous should they hear the band’s first, Steve Perry-less albums. Here’s another case where a band’s first recordings don’t completely resemble what truly made them famous. Journey was formed around the afro of teenage guitar whiz kid Neal Schon and vocalist/organist Gregg Rolie, both recently of Santana. They teamed up with bass player Ross Valory and a rhythm guitarist, and convinced drummer Aynsley Dunbar to leave steady British session work for a shot at stardom.
For the most part, Journey straddles the line between what used to be called fusion and what we still call cock rock. Gregg could sing, but his strength lay more in the keys than what he sang. Neal plays incredibly clean for such a fast guitarist, but is also consistently, constantly showy. Two lengthy instrumentals are almost comical in their gravitas, while “To Play Some Music” sports an eructating vocoder, not yet perfected by Peter Frampton.
Look Into The Future shed the rhythm guitarist and attempts to deliver more hooks, but at this juncture Gregg is still writing and singing lyrics that would make the ear wince if they came out of Paul Rodgers’ mouth. There are several anachronistic Beatlesque references, most pointedly in their mild rearrangement of “It’s All Too Much” (complete with backwards ending!) and the nod toward “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in “You’re On Your Own”. And the main riff of “I’m Gonna Leave You” will remind you of “Carry On Wayward Son”.
The songs on Next aren’t as long, but are a little slower and tend to meander. “Here We Are” has an unexpected synth intro before the song takes over with Gregg still attempting a Lennon imitation. “Hustler” proves why Aynsley isn’t known for his lyrics. “Nickel & Dime” gets its title from the 5/4 and 10/4 meters, and still sounds like Rush, while two songs have Neal trying to sing as well as play like Hendrix. There are some nice moments in “Spaceman”, except that it’s an ode to hang-gliding. (We did not make this up.)
Neal’s voice wasn’t enough to carry the band either, so they went off to find a singer. Once they did and started to get popular, a double album called In The Beginning sampled each of the first three albums, leaning more heavily on the first two, with no real logic to the sequencing. It had a brief availability as an import CD; even the three albums themselves have never gotten the reissue fanfare of the later (hit) albums. They remain recommended for those who love the band for their instrumental prowess, and not at all for anyone looking for ear candy.

Journey Journey (1975)—3
Journey Look Into The Future (1976)—
Journey Next (1977)—2
Journey In The Beginning (1979)—3

Friday, October 31, 2014

Who 25: Hits 50

The Who already have too many compilations clogging up shelves, but just like their brethren in the Rolling Stones, a 50th anniversary is apparently enough reason to make another one. Sporting a much more fitting cover (and title) than what the Stones did, The Who Hits 50! is also available in multiple editions, thankfully limited to two CD versions, plus vinyl and Blu-Ray for those with money to burn.
Both begin with “Zoot Suit”, when they were still the High Numbers, and move steadily through the singles. Once they hit the ‘70s, or disc two if you have the double, the selections have to balance between actual singles and key album tracks. Needless to say, the opportunity to simply replicate Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy has been ignored, with not even all of those tracks represented.
The double disc takes the idea of “hits” to the extreme, seeming to think that anything released on a 45 counts. That’s why their version of “The Last Time” appears, as do “Dogs”, “Call Me Lightning”, “Postcard”, “Trick Of The Light”, “It’s Not Enough” (the non-hit from Endless Wire) and the pointless, clumsy edit of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. (Kudos for including the long version of “Magic Bus” in glorious mono, and equal demerits for not including the longer, alternate “I’m A Boy”.)
The single disc isn’t too different from the other 37 single-disc CDs that have come out, except for how it finishes. Even though nobody liked it before, and it wasn’t even a hit, “Real Good Looking Boy” (the new song unleashed for their 40th anniversary) appears again, but the big selling point, so they say, is the first new Who track in eight years. “Be Lucky” is either an anthem of empowerment or a snide indictment of modern pop music, complete with an auto-tuned phrase; hardly a classic, but mostly harmless.
That one new track is the only reason why we’ve bothered giving this collection its own post. As good as the majority of the music is, The Who Hits 50! is docked half a point for redundancy. 2002’s The Ultimate Collection is still the best overview of their full career.

The Who The Who Hits 50! (2014)—

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Smiths 3: Meat Is Murder

The Smiths seemed to save their most refined pop for their singles, making their albums a platform for grand statements less likely to hit the charts. And in those “Frankie Say Relax” times, could there have been a more bold attitude than Meat Is Murder?
“The Headmaster Ritual” is a strong opener, an excellent mix of groove and subtle changes, upon which Morrissey’s tale of schoolboy woe sits within a five-note range. “Rusholme Ruffians” is a rockabilly shuffle, a carefree decoration for a song filled with even more violence and fear. It’s not easy to follow the free-verse of the vocal, but we can assume that sound effect at the end is some kind of carnival game shutting down. There’s a similar retro-twang to “I Want The One I Can’t Have”; the band are credited with the album’s production, so the instruments are mixed better, but Morrissey still sounds like he’s singing in a closet, and we don’t mean that metaphorically. Just as muddy is “What She Said” with some near-metal bursts from Johnny Marr. The high-point is “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”, which lives up to its archetypically lengthy title, and sports a fake fade.
In the US, “How Soon Is Now?” was added to the top of side two—a wise choice, since it not only made this stellar track more available, but improved the album as a whole. “Nowhere Fast” is the best rockabilly raveup here, with excellent, surprising rhymes to boot. While seductively sad, “Well I Wonder” is one of their least successful mopes, and the atmospheric rain over the end makes it even more maudlin than it needs to be. (Especially since the effect always ends up sounding like a toilet running or somebody filling same.) “Barbarism Begins At Home” isn’t much more than a groove that goes on for seven minutes; excellent as it is, and particularly that bass, it would have been better served as a B-side or an extended dance mix. And since the first album ended with a somber elegy for innocent victims, the title track uses buzzsaw sound effects and plaintive moos and bleats to illustrate Morrissey’s vegetarian stance.
Violence certainly pervades Meat Is Murder, whether perpetuated on students or farm animals, by teachers and parents, or between society classes. The Smiths certainly weren’t shy about confrontation, but they’d yet to learn how to really seduce their audience.

The Smiths Meat Is Murder (1985)—3

Friday, October 24, 2014

Joy Division 4: Substance

By the mid-‘80s, as New Order’s status in what used to be called college alternative grew, the legend of Joy Division grew with it. Their three albums were reissued, and a year after a New Order compilation of the same name, Substance collected many of the singles, 12-inch and EP tracks (more so if you got the CD, or certain countries’ edition of the cassette, which most consumers in 1988 were buying anyway) that hadn’t made it to Still.
Singles, by their very nature, had to be more immediate to make an impact, so most of the tracks sampled here are more upbeat, direct and gloom-free compared to much of Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Even more striking are the earliest songs, recorded with punk fervor while the band was still learning their instruments and Ian Curtis had yet to develop the lower-register croon that would become his signature. Listen to “Warsaw” and “Leaders Of Men” and try to convince yourself it’s the same guy on “Transmission” and the later 12-inch version of “She’s Lost Control”. However, the key selling point for the album is “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, the iconic single released just weeks after Ian hung himself. With near-jangling guitars, a bass line matching the synth note for note, the high-hat work coming this close to collapsing and Ian’s vocal blending gloom with pop, it was and remains a hell of a way to say goodbye.
Substance certainly fills in the Joy Division story, but it doesn’t close the book. Shortly after a New Order best-of came out in the ‘90s, so did one for the original band. Permanent offers a mostly chronological mix of single and album tracks, bookended by two different mixes of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. For an even wider picture, the Heart And Soul box set presents “their entire studio output” on the first two discs, a third disc of further studio tracks, outtakes and BBC sessions, and a fourth disc sampling four live shows. (This pricey import was reissued, four years after its initial appearance, by Rhino.) Other compilations followed, one cramming songs from both bands onto one disc, others offering alternate mixes and more BBC material, but the choices remain the same as ever: 1) the two albums and the two compilations, 2) Permanent for the most succinct overview, or 3) the box set for virtually everything.

Joy Division Substance (1988)—
Joy Division Permanent (1995)—4
Joy Division Heart And Soul (1997)—

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jimi Hendrix 20: People, Hell And Angels

Out of nowhere came People, Hell And Angels, another Hendrix vault compilation. Something of a counterpart to Valleys Of Neptune, it served up more studio takes that might have made up his fourth album, recorded in 1969 post-Noel and touching on the Band of Gypsys.
As should be clear by now, Jimi recorded several takes and arrangements of his works in progress, depending on his mood and who was around. So here’s another “Bleeding Heart” (this one slow), another “Hear My Train A Comin’” (more like the more familiar live versions), a decent “Earth Blues” with the Gypsys and an early stab at “Izabella” with the expanded Woodstock band. Of the unfamiliar material, “Inside Out” comes from mid-1968, pre-Ladyland, a duet with Mitch embellished by Jimi’s own bass part and more guitar. Sadly too short is “Villanova Junction Blues”, otherwise recorded only in jams and at Woodstock.
The album also attempts to further “right” some of the liberties taken by Alan Douglas forty some years earlier. Along with a longer excerpt of “Easy Blues”, last heard on Nine To The Universe, “Somewhere” is rescued somewhat from Crash Landing, in a take featuring Stephen Stills on bass. (That album’s title track also appears in a different but unaltered take, while what used to be known as “Captain Coconut” is added as a bonus on the Target stores edition of the album, in all of its twenty-minute splendor.) “Hey Gypsy Boy” was first heard on Midnight Lightning, supposedly recorded the same day as “Let Me Move You”; while funky and fiery, it’s basically a showcase for vocalist/saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, and therefore belongs on a collection of Hendrix session work. Similarly, “Mojo Man” is a completed track by sometime backup singer Arthur Allen to which Jimi added a lead part.
The Estate stated that People, Hell And Angels will be their final archival release of studio material; since then they’ve only authorized a reissue of The Cry Of Love and the first official CD of Rainbow Bridge. (For the student seeking to dig deeper, there are plenty of official live releases, always with the chance of more.) We can recommend it as a worthy installment, along with most of the studio releases of the last two decades, but that doesn’t excuse the anachronistic cover art. Really, a pile of songs from 1969 and the best they could do was a shot from two years earlier?
If we were in charge of things, and obviously we were not, neither this album, South Saturn Delta, Valleys Of Neptune, First Rays — especially now that the two 1971 releases are available again — nor the box sets would have happened. Rather, the music would be grouped chronologically, Anthology-style, for less of a grab-bag approach, and giving the student a much smoother journey through the man’s studio life, particularly to demonstrate all the directions he explored in the last 24 months of his time on the planet.

Jimi Hendrix People, Hell And Angels (2013)—3

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tori Amos 2: Under The Pink

Riding high on the success of her real debut, playing songs to adoring young females and frat boy jocks who thought she was pretty hot, Tori Amos had a ready-made audience for her next album. Under The Pink arrived while her debut still had legs; her confidence showed in her experimentation with different keyboards and rhythms, but everything sounded enough like Little Earthquakes without being a retread.
Accurate or not, “Pretty Good Year” is an apt way to start, a piano-and-vocal piece exploding with drums and strings for the bridge. The familiar setting is knocked askew with the offbeat meter and guitar squeals under “God”, the provocative first single. A heavily “prepared” piano is the only accompaniment for “Bells For Her”, and it does indeed suggest distant, ancient church bells. After that drifts off, “Past The Mission” starts as a jaunty song, turning to a more somber chorus with hints of murder in the lyrics and doom in the voice of Trent Reznor in the harmonies. “Baker Baker” is a mournful twist on the nursery rhyme, pleading to be made “whole again”. She can tug heart strings when she wants to, so while “The Wrong Band” and “The Waitress” provide dark humor, they’re not as effective.
Of course, trying to decode her lyrics can take up a lot of time, so the power of a tune like “Cornflake Girl” makes up for what you haven’t figured out yet. The second half of the song, devoted to an extended piano solo and a soulful choir of women, still stands neck hairs. (As for her assertion that she’d “never been a cornflake girl”, YouTube says otherwise.) The balance of the album is devoted to lengthier epics, beginning with the remembrance of sexual awakening in “Icicle”. It’s in the same spot as “Mother” from the first album, from its occasionally solo to a distinct Kate Bush moment every time she sings “I should have”. “Cloud On My Tongue” is almost as hushed, but a little shorter and more stirring. Something in the “doot-doot-DOO” rhythm of “Space Dog” always reminded us of Otto singing along to his headphones on The Simpsons, so the other musical motif works better (even with yet another shout-out to Neil Gaiman). Finally, “Yes, Anastasia” is a nine-and-a-half-minute epic touching on the life of the titular tsarina, but probably violence in general.
So in this case, more of the same was a comfort. Under The Pink made an excellent follow-up, and to her credit, her next albums would go further away from the “girl and her piano” stereotype. She would retain a strong following, but never really sounded like this again.

Tori Amos Under The Pink (1994)—4

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Genesis 5: Live and Selling England By The Pound

While working on their next opus, Genesis prepared a live LP to tide over fans. Live offered faithful, well-recorded renditions of five lengthy fan favorites, including an excellent take of “The Knife” with Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, neither of whom played on the original album track. (“Supper’s Ready” was destined for the album but ultimately excluded, as the band had yet to figure out how to configure a three-sided live album.) The UK got the album first, while Americans had to wait until the following year, by which time their most accessible album to date had been released.
By “accessible”, we’re not suggesting that Selling England By The Pound sounds like their ‘80s blockbusters, but because there’s less emphasis on dark mythology and bizarre sexual encounters—at least not on the surface, anyway—what leaps from the speakers (or earbuds, or what have you) are the melodies, the songs, the hooks, demonstrated with the first three songs on the album. There is mythology of a sort, but as suggested by the album title, the songs present images of Britain that seem both archaic and modern. “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight” presents the first of many Anglo puns in its title, proceeding through lilting melodies and pastoral imagery to more violent passages, all suggesting some triumphant tale but disguising a seething indictment of commercialism. A menacing hum turns out to be an aural representation of a lawnmower, as the narrator of “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” sings his defense of his simple life in the band’s first great, unlikely pop hit. (In another case of conceptual continuity, the phrase “the way I walk” will return in the Genesis saga.) It’s incredibly catchy, marching away to the sound of the lawnmower. “Firth Of Fifth” sports a gorgeous solo piano introduction, leading nearly seamlessly into the song proper, with driving drums, thick Hammond organ and fuzz guitar in unison with the bass. There’s a brief verse and what appears to be a bridge, but the meat of the song is in the instrumental sections. When the intro returns following the flute solo, check out Phil’s rolls, and the way Hackett ends up playing the same solo the flute played on guitar. Throughout, Tony Banks shows his deftness at the Mellotron. After a slight ritard, the verse returns for the song to fade on the piano. Those three tracks form such a majestic core that “More Fool Me” is easily overlooked. Its overall sound (and lovelorn content, odd for this band at the time) points towards the latter half of the decade, and not just because, as the sleeve pointed out, helpfully, “vocals: Phil”.
The second side is more challenging. Given the medieval red herrings on side one, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that the participants in “The Battle Of Epping Forest” aren’t kilted, bearded warriors but London street gangs (think the Krays and their contemporaries). It gives Peter a chance to try out some more of his wacky voices, and indulge in the rapid rhymes that would take over his next opus. A title like “After The Ordeal” would tend to suggest some kind of continuity with the previous track, but is just an instrumental, mostly following a mandolin-like riff suggesting yet another ocean voyage, and a verse that was never written. It provides a sorbet before the final epic. (You know it’s going to be a big deal because of its plucked intro, similar to “Supper’s Ready”.) The story within “Cinema Show” isn’t much—Romeo and Juliet meeting up at the movies, with Romeo hoping for a matinee of their own afterwards—but the music develops and builds to again, something majestic. If you’re not paying close enough attention, the brief “Aisle Of Plenty” moves neatly from “Cinema Show” into a reprise of “Dancing With The Moonlit Knight.” (Clever boys, they.)
Genesis hadn’t figured out how to be consistent yet, but Selling England By The Pound will reward those who have stuck around this long. When combined with the previous two, the truly great pieces overshadow the less successful ones, and only improve with familiarity.

Genesis Live (1973)—3
Genesis Selling England By The Pound (1973)—

Friday, October 10, 2014

Van Morrison 25: Too Long In Exile

Those who thought the last, double album was too damn long will be only slightly relieved with this single disc, except that, at 77-plus minutes, it’s the equivalent of a two-record set. Too Long In Exile is another case of Van throwing all his ideas at one bucket, from the new songs complaining about the music business to the covers of jazz and blues standards and, most astonishingly, remakes of his own music. (Well, just one, but still.)
The sound for much of the album continues from the last one, with Georgie Fame, Candy Dulfer and the rest of his usual suspects. The title track is lyrically vague but catchy, followed by the paranoid “Bigtime Operators”, a subject he’s not about to abandon anytime soon. “Lonely Avenue” is a terrific version of the Ray Charles classic, up until where he sneers the word “you” approximately 73 times (we counted) in eight out of twelve bars. “Ball & Chain” is a backhanded compliment, nicely arranged with a developed melody and tossed-off lyrics. Other Van experts have pointed out that “In The Forest” takes its melody from “Orangefield” and its content from similar evocations of his imagination. Meanwhile, “Till We Get The Healing Done” takes the changes from “Oh The Warm Feeling”, but its attack is a little too relentless over eight minutes to affect any actual healing.
While it undoubtedly helped sell the album, there’s no other excuse for this tepid rendition of “Gloria”, outside a John Lee Hooker album wherein the blues legend sings a pile of songs with modern ones. Meanwhile, the CD booklet helpfully offers a transcription of all the words, to emphasize every spelling of the name. After a half-decent take of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (making, surprisingly, its first-ever appearance on any Van album), John Lee comes back to offer extemporaneous counterpoint to “Wasted Years”, which fades out while they’re still discussing them. And from here, the album actually gets better. “The Lonesome Road” and “Moody’s Mood For Love” are two excellent renditions of jazz standards, though we could do without the other singers taking a verse on the latter. “Close Enough For Jazz” is a sprightly instrumental featuring Van’s own deft acoustic guitar, while the equally toe-tapping “Before The World Was Made” sets a Yeats poem to somebody else’s music. The most interesting stretch on the album is reminiscent of the climax of Into The Music: here, he begins with “I’ll Take Care Of You” by Brook Benton, leads it via key change into an “Instrumental” with his own alto sax, then tells the band to go back to the first part, which he copyrights as “Tell Me What You Want”.
There’s an album’s worth of music here that would be considered good, even by his own standards. But putting “too long” in the title turns out to be somewhat ominous. Too Long In Exile instead becomes too much to take at once. Take all the covers—basically, “Lonely Avenue”, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and everything from “The Lonesome Road” on—and you have a pretty solid set. Here they prove how ordinary the rest of the songs are.

Van Morrison Too Long In Exile (1993)—3

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tom Waits 23: Bad As Me

As with each of the albums Tom Waits has put out over the last 20 years, critics fell all over Bad As Me, starting with superlatives like “tour de force” and working up from there. We won’t go that far, but to say that unlike his more conceptual work of late, it’s more in keeping with Bone Machine and Mule Variations in being just a collection of songs (though we do miss the piano ballads that still stand out from the latter, and still don’t subscribe to the fawning over the former).
There’s no gimmick this time, save what he swears was his wife’s request that he do some short songs for a change. And he does, beginning with the sputtering “Chicago”. “Raised Right Men” has a decent message and even chord changes, but both are camouflaged by the maddening tabla Tom taps for most of the track. After the meandering falsetto of “Talking At The Same Time”, “Get Lost” is a welcome slice of rockabilly, especially given the lazy feel of “Face To The Highway”. “Pay Me” is a pretty accordion-based ballad, with a nice piano coda, setting up the tropical croon in “Back In The Crowd”.
The title track mixes metaphors and dirty blues, which get even dirtier in “Kiss Me”, with the effects of a scratchy record decorating this cousin of “Blue Valentines”. “Satisfied” got the most attention upon release, due to its shout-outs to “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards”, and the appearance of the latter himself on the track. Keith sings harmony on “Last Leaf”, the weeper that follows. Despite its military imagery, “Hell Broke Luce” follows well on from similarly barked nursery rhymes on Rain Dogs. “New Year’s Eve” ends the album on with a waltz, but the inclusion of a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”—not once but twice—is a tad gratuitous.
For no real reason other than to get fans to buy a copy of the album that wouldn’t fit in their racks too well, Bad As Me was also made available in a limited edition with the dimensions of a hardcover book and a “bonus” disc with three more songs. “She Stole The Blush” would have been welcome on the main album; the same could be said of “Tell Me”, which fits the “tropical” mode of “Back In The Crowd”. Seashore noises also appear on “After You Die”, more metaphors that don’t say much, in possibly a rough draft for “Face To The Highway”.
The good thing about Tom Waits music is that some of the better songs reveal themselves over time, and maybe that will happen with these. Either way, it’s nice to have a Waits album that doesn’t require a lot of attention, and for that, Bad As Me gets the job done.

Tom Waits Bad As Me (2011)—3

Friday, October 3, 2014

Traffic 8: When The Eagle Flies

Of all the Traffic albums, When The Eagle Flies has always been the most obscure. Coming as it did at the end of their tenure, and with no real standout track, it’s often been overlooked. It’s a depressing, even spooky album, partially due to the line drawings, reminiscent of children’s illustrator Garth Williams. And as with every one of their other releases of the decade, there was another lineup, stripped to a quartet. Jim Capaldi went back to the drumkit, turning in an excellent performance, while band newcomer Rosko Gee took over on bass. Reebop plays a few of his congas, but wouldn’t make the cover art.
It gets off to a snappy start with “Something New”, which sounds a lot bigger than it is thanks to all the overdubbed guitars and horns. Lest we get too comfortable, “Dream Gerrard” is eleven minutes of noodling under a repeated sax riff, Mellotron off a King Crimson record, and some very primitive synth bloops and bleeps. The extended jazzy end is quite Crim-like as well. The bloops continue on “Graveyard People”, which probably made for a nice effect in 1974, but now only distract from the funk.
If anyone knows any song from this album, it’s probably “Walking In The Wind”, which fades in on obvious effects to a catchy bass and piano duo; therefore sounding more like the band we’d come to know. “Memories Of A Rock N’ Rolla” is another lament of the traveling lifestyle, tackled better by other songs. This one lopes along glumly until shifting abruptly into an upbeat groove reminiscent of Chicago. It’s been said that the basic tracks of the album were recorded live on a short tour before being embellished in the studio; this is most apparent on “Love”, which meanders amid questions about the key before finding its way to an actual tune and disappearing. Finally, the agitated title track doubles the piano with the organ for an ecological lament, mixing in what sounds like radio transmission and fading away.
When The Eagle Flies didn’t make much of a splash, and the band—or what was left of it this time—split soon after. Capaldi and Winwood would collaborate on each other’s albums, Stevie eventually having more success than anyone else. Chris Wood died in 1983, not long after Reebop. There would be another Traffic album in 1994, but we shan’t speak of that other to say that it was Traffic in name only. Various compilations over the years attempted to distill the band to a single set, Smiling Phases and Gold arguably the most successful, being double CDs, but aren’t identical, and skew either side of early and late. Their legacy shouldn’t end here, but their constantly evolving nature always made them seem fleeting anyway.

Traffic When The Eagle Flies (1974)—

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blue Nile 2: Hats

A Walk Across The Rooftops was intriguing, but not immediately stunning. When their second album came out at the end of the decade, that did the trick.
Hats follows the template of the first album closely: seven tracks, mostly around the five- to six-minute range, alternating upbeat tracks with slower numbers. All feature yearning lyrics and aching melodies, and it’s really hard to put into words the emotions they convey. The basic instrumentation consists of synthesizers, guitar, bass, trumpet, percussion and the soaring vocals of Paul Buchanan.
“Over The Hillside” creeps in with electronic drums and (fake?) strings, but the effect isn’t as cold as on their first album. By the time the song winds up you’ve got the sensation of riding a train going home (more on that later). “The Downtown Lights” was a moderate hit in the UK, and got even more notice when covered by Annie Lennox and Rod Stewart, both of whom followed the impressionistic arrangement to the letter. Just when the song seems to be winding down, an extended coda kicks in with incredibly picturesque imagery. “Let’s Go Out Tonight” closes what was once considered side one on a melancholy note, with a slow, ticking beat and stairstep guitar over sad piano accents. There’s an undercurrent of tension, accented by the repeat of the first verse an octave higher.
“Headlights On The Parade” has elements of the techno-pop sound that was all the rage in the ‘80s, but transcends it (again) with the vocal. While all these songs are stunners, “From A Late Night Train” is probably the album’s high point. It’s quite evocative of the scenery one could see south of Boston from the window of the Amtrak—to suggest just one mind movie of the thousands of candidates available worldwide—the streetlights shining on waterways and wet pavements. The entire lyric bleeds regret, leading right up to the breakdown of the last line. The switch from the minor to the major-seventh at the end is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but they pull it off.
After all that, “Seven A.M.” is a little monotonous; they must have known this when sequencing the album, as there’s several seconds of silence before it stumbles in. And while “Saturday Night” doesn’t live up to the potential of what has come before, the last minute or so, while repetitive, always leaves one wanting more.
Hats is truly one of the hidden gems of the ‘80s, arriving in what turned out to be a pretty good year for albums that have endured. It’s also another wonderful album for quiet evenings and rainy mornings, and it can be enjoyed even if one hasn’t been wallowing in self-pity. As with many classic albums, the eventual expanded remaster didn’t uncover any real gold, save a few alternate takes, one unreleased song (the underwhelming “Christmas”), a live version of “Headlights” and the okay B-side “The Wires Are Down”.

The Blue Nile Hats (1989)—
2012 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1989, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rush 2: Fly By Night

The second album from Rush offered several slight changes that would shape if not improve the band. First and foremost, their new drummer was also a lyricist, and the other two would soon learn to let Neil Peart throw his weight around. Just as important was the arrival of producer Terry Brown, who would oversee their next ten albums. Fly By Night immediately sounds better than the debut, but it’s not necessarily a leap forward.
Heavy riffing drives “Anthem”, which shares a title with an Ayn Rand novella that would figure again in the band’s development. Lyrically, it is an anthem, a celebration of the self, with delay effects on both vocals and guitar to set it apart. “Best I Can” sounds like Kiss to these ears, and not just in its determination to rock at all costs. Then, “Beneath, Between & Behind” evokes the spirit of Led Zeppelin in a veiled indictment of the “failed promise” of America, right on the cusp of the Bicentennial. Side one ends with the lengthy prog workout “By-Tor And The Snow Dog”, with labeled sections and sub-sections, and the musical depiction of the battle at hand, which would be a lot easier to handle if not for the guitar effects that end up signifying intestinal problems on the part of the dog. Still, it’s fun to try to keep up with the syncopated middle section.
The title track returns to the basic rock sound, with a basic riff to thrill budding guitarists, and is one of the better “gotta travel on” songs of the decade. “Making Memories” has a jarring acoustic riff used later by Bad Company, and is one of their more generic sounding tracks. Things get very quiet on “Rivendell”, an overt tribute to haven of the same place from J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. They stay that way for the first part of “In The End”, and while it’s musically up to snuff, the words are pretty basic, demonstrating that the new guy should be the one to handle them from now on.
The boys are settling into their comfort zone on Fly By Night, and all the parts were in place, but as we’ve said, they still had a ways to go. While a little better than the debut, it’s only a bit better.

Rush Fly By Night (1975)—

Friday, September 26, 2014

Robyn Hitchcock 27: Propellor Time

Robyn’s work with the collective dubbed the Venus 3 was productive, in that a short amount of time together spawned three complete albums over a period of five years. As is usual with following the guy, the third (and to date, final) installment was released on the same tiny British label, run by a guy from the Higsons, that put out Shadow Cat.
Of the three, Propellor Time is the least interesting, despite who’s on it—Nick Lowe and John Paul Jones being just two of the contributors. It doesn’t help that Robyn is still trying to write songs with as few chords as possible, letting his quirky two-liners carry interest from one stanza to the next. But he still manages, usually, to make them sound pleasing, and he does right off with “Star Of Venus”. With Morris Windsor on harmonies, one drools at how it could have sounded as an Egyptians track. “The Afterlight” previously appeared on a live EP; here its studio version mostly seesaws between two chords in an inadvertent stylistic homage to Dylan’s “Tiny Montgomery”, lifting for the bridge. “Luckiness” trots along under a prominent mandolin, ending with applause, but the first real eyebrow-raiser is “Ordinary Millionaire”, featuring contributions from Johnny Marr, who is also credited with composing the music. What the CD still calls side one (and indeed, it was available in a limited release on cassette) ends with “John In The Air”, a somewhat psychedelic sea chant that truly grows.
The title track provides further inspiration for our hero, with an excellent arrangement of music composed by Peter Buck that reminds us of Eno’s “Julie With...” Contrarily, “Primitive” goes back to a three-chord vamp, but the set culminates in “Sickie Boy”, whjch (like the title track) ranks up with the best of his career, catchy and joyful, ending with recited credits and, again, applause. A lengthy pause precedes the harmonica-heavy “Born On The Wind”, which is a pale shadow of “Serpent At The Gates Of Wisdom”, just as “Evolove” seems like another tacked-on bonus.
In what’s become a trend, Propellor Time is worth playing a few times, and it certainly isn’t bad, but we still get the feeling these are leftovers. Sometimes those are worth sweeping up, and some of these are.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 Propellor Time (2010)—3