Friday, February 28, 2014

Coldplay 2: A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Any young band coming off a mildly successful debut album is faced with an immediate quandary for their follow-up: deliver more of the same, and risk charges of redundancy, or stretch out in another direction, and confound the skeptics? More adventurous bands might choose the latter option; Radiohead did and watched it pay off, while Weezer did too, and took a sabbatical in the where-are-they-now file.
Coldplay always comes off as being just as dialed in to what their fans and critics say, while still trying to maintain their integrity as artists of substance. With A Rush Of Blood To The Head, they managed to deliver their stated brand without repeating themselves.
The angry, edgy guitars that begin “Politik” hint at a new direction, and one to make people notice, but that’s a red herring. “In My Place” provides a keening ballad in the tradition of “Yellow”. The edge comes back on “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face”, with a pounding snare and one-note riff that will separate the fans from the pans.
And it pretty much goes from there, from the sensitive yearning of “The Scientist” to the stadium-ready “Clocks”, both built around basic yet insistent piano parts. “Daylight” recycles the pattern of track 3, and the droning “A Whisper” is anything but; meanwhile, “Green Eyes” (written and recorded well before Gwyneth Paltrow became a fixture) revives the folk strums of Parachutes.>br> The piano would gain prominence in their overall sound, without a guitar hero to otherwise hog the spotlight. For example, “Warning Sign” begins as a strum, but is reduced to piano and vocal by its drawn-out end. The title track mixes all of the tricks in their bag so far, leaving a surprising finale with “Amsterdam”, starting quiet and building to a finish that screams second encore.
A Rush Of Blood To The Head appealed to a post-9/11 audience seeking something that at least appeared to have meaning. Arty videos helped, of course, depicting the photogenic frontman emoting, leaving one’s recognition of the rest of the band as spotty as ever. It’s a good toe-tapping, knee-jogging album to have on in the background, even if it doesn’t reveal much with close inspection. Thus, they were slowly on their way to world dominance. (In their quest to be the next U2, the CD booklet included a page full of pleas and websites relating to various world charities.)

Coldplay A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)—

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Jimi Hendrix 17: Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues

A couple of years before stamping his name on documentaries about Bob Dylan and George Harrison, director Martin Scorsese tried to one-up Ken Burns with a PBS series on the blues. If anything, it opened the opportunities for a flood of companion CDs covering famous and forgotten bluesmen, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Sony rediscovered Robert Johnson in 1990.
A well-sequenced and equally well-received compilation dedicated to the blues side of Jimi Hendrix had already been out for ten years. But the estate heard cash registers, so they dove in with another set. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: Jimi Hendrix should not be considered definitive in the least; while it only overlaps a few song titles with that well-done 1994 set, it’s not exactly illuminating.
Five of the tracks could be considered standard—the Smash Hits version of “Red House”, “Come On” and the long “Voodoo Chile” from Electric Ladyland, the execrable “My Friend” from Cry Of Love and later First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, and “Midnight Lightning”, which closes South Saturn Delta. Three songs are repeated from the box set of only three years earlier, including a smoking take of “Hear My Train A-Comin’” with the Experience.
That leaves exactly two songs not officially released before. “Georgia Blues” is a something of a rewrite of “Stormy Monday”, featuring Lonnie Youngblood on sax and lead vocals, in an uncanny similarity to Bob Seger. Slightly more interesting is “Blue Window”, where he’s backed by the Buddy Miles Express for 13 minutes, horns and all.
As many of the tracks feature Jimi playing alongside people other than the Experience or the Band of Gypsys, the album does succeed in presenting another side of him. Unfortunately, it had already been done, and better, making it less a loving portrait than a grab for cash. Its out-of-print status today suggests that even the Estate doesn’t consider it part of the canon. Naturally, with those two tracks back out of circulation, used copies go for big bucks.

Jimi Hendrix Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: Jimi Hendrix (2003)—3

Friday, February 21, 2014

Genesis 2: Trespass

Their second album finds Genesis getting closer to the sound most associated with them, even though two of their more important members had yet to join the band. Trespass steps away from pretty chamber pop towards progressive folk, if you will, with lengthier songs, more insistent guitar parts and Tony Banks’ Hammond organ. Peter Gabriel plays a flute a lot, too.
Opening with the slightly overwrought “Looking For Someone”, Gabriel takes control as the focal point, showing the dynamics he’s learned since the debut. The music is grand and considered, somewhat at odds with the rather ordinary subject matter, and culminating in exactly the type of grand flourish later epics would include. Not the only literary allusion on the album, “White Mountain” takes its inspiration from Jack London, in an anthropomorphic tale of wolves fighting for power (or not). This subject matter is bettered before the album’s end. “Visions Of Angels” suggests the Christian overtones that would color later albums, but emerges as a paean of unrequited love. All the band members are credited with backing vocals, and the cumulative effect of their harmonies on “dance in the sky” (the first word rhyming with “ponce”) causes ones eyes to roll.
Genesis experts long insisted that “Stagnation” was about the aftermath of nuclear war, helped by the vague preface on the lyric sheet, but recent interpretations of it as a monologue by Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings make more sense (particularly given the Tolkienesque painting in the gatefold). At nearly nine minutes, the song does actually stagnate somewhat, but builds nicely in the “I want a drink” section out to the end. “Dusk” is half that length, and doesn’t really sink in at all, particularly with what comes next. “The Knife” is an excellent closer for the album, as it cleanly points the path the band would take going forward. Gabriel takes on the persona of a revolution’s leader, with despotism simmering below the surface of his cleverly treated vocal. The tight precision of the guitar and organ heightens the tension, underscored in the “quiet” section, and culminating in the sound effects that illustrate the inevitable violence.
Genesis would improve, making Trespass easier to appreciate in hindsight. At this point, they were just another band finding their way, and not standing out too much in the process.

Genesis Trespass (1970)—

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jethro Tull 3: Benefit

Tull continues to cement their style halfway between “heavy music” and folk on Benefit. There was no elaborate gatefold this time, though the simpler cover does play off the “stand up” concept from before. (They did gain a full-time piano player in John Evan, who ably fills in behind the heavy riffing.)
With a flurry of backwards flutes, “With You There To Help Me” sets the tone, and it’s surprising that this didn’t get more play on the FM stations where we grew up. But it’s “Nothing To Say” that is a true harbinger of the next album, specifically its title track. “Inside” skips along, transplanted from side two on the American LP. (The British version eschewed “Teacher” for a track we’ll cover soon enough.) “Son” begins fairly insistent and heavy, then fades somewhat abruptly, giving way to a folkier interlude before it gets heavy again. “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey And Me” is the second instance on this blog where the third member of the Apollo 11 crew gets a namecheck—this time alongside the third Jeffrey in as many Tull albums. It seems to provide a quieter respite at the end of the side, until the chorus crashes in.
Side two serves up more of the same in “To Cry You A Song”, layered electric guitars in harmony, soon reminiscent of Blind Faith, but with a stop-start verse that is trademark Tull. The flute comes back in full force on “A Time For Everything?” without getting too nutty. As mentioned, the Americans got the single “Teacher” in the middle of side two, and it’s easily the catchiest thing yet heard on a Tull album. (We also wonder if Elvis Costello realizes where he got the hook of “Girls Talk” from.) “Play In Time” is a carrot for headbangers, with lots of tape effects (sped up and backwards, to Frank Zappa’s horror) to add to the feeling of unease. As with side one, we end with a more acoustic reverie. “Sossity; You’re A Woman” has an almost medieval feel, which the lyrics soon betray.
Throughout Benefit the riffing is pretty basic, making many of the songs sound alike, hence our rushed summary. It’s no grand statement—they weren’t at that stage yet—but even its sameness avoids embarrassment. (The expanded CD stuck to the British sequence, and added “Teacher” and other songs of the time. By the time of 2013’s multi-disc expansion, surround-sound guru Steven Wilson was given the reins, and he provided new mixes and various remasters of different mixes of the same handful of songs.)

Jethro Tull Benefit (1970)—3
2001 remastered CD: same as 1970, plus 4 extra tracks
2010 Collectors Edition: same as 1970, plus 21 extra tracks and DVD

Friday, February 14, 2014

Beach Boys 14: The Smile Sessions

And just like that, only seven years after Brian Wilson’s 2004 incarnation was accepted and adored, the real thing came out—amazingly, with the endorsement of both Mike Love and Al Jardine. The Smile Sessions was made available several ways: a single disc of the final sequence plus bonus tracks; a massive box adding two discs of sessions and a disc each devoted to “Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations” sessions, plus a book, a vinyl version of disc one and a couple of 45s; and a double-disc edition that condenses the four sessions discs down to one bonus disc. (Whew.)
It’s a lot of music to take in, no matter what your level of familiarity. Smile as presented here mostly follows the 2004 sequence, with one slight shift and none of the updated lyrics. The music already included on the Good Vibrations box set re-appears, in even better sound and context.
We begin, appropriately, with the a cappella “Our Prayer”, rescued from 20/20, into an adaptation of the doo wop oldie “Gee” setting up “Heroes And Villains”, which itself moves as expected into “Do You Like Worms” (now subtitled “Roll Plymouth Rock”, its 2004 title). Several short pieces follow: “I’m In Great Shape” is a brief interlude attached to “Barnyard”, which abruptly shifts to “My Only Sunshine” and its introduction via “The Old Master Painter”, ending with a reprise of a “Heroes And Villains” theme. (As already demonstrated on the 1993 box, many of the components of the songs are interchangeable with others, which is how people got confused when piecing together their own versions.) “Cabin Essence” ends the suite in all its glory and splendor.
We move to the compact sweep of “Wonderful”, much better than the Smiley Smile remake. The mostly instrumental “Look” was called “Song For Children” in 2004; here it’s kept simple with some allusions to “Good Vibrations”. Some of the vocalizations reappear in “Child Is Father Of The Man”, which itself is repeated on the fade of “Surf’s Up”, rescued from the album of the same name.
The third, final movement comes closest to providing the apocryphal symphony devoted to the four elements. “I Wanna Be Around” is another oldie taken over by the sound effects of the “Workshop”. “Vega-Tables” always got more attention than it deserved, but at least this mix sounds more complete. “Holiday” presents a nice mental image of a seafaring adventure, nicely melded with “Wind Chimes”. A section previously thought to be part of “Heroes And Villains” is now restored to its rightful place at the start of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”, and now the world can finally hear the “Fire” music that supposedly scared the pants off its own composer. (It actually is fairly unsettling, even if you’ve seen Eddie And The Cruisers.) “I Love To Say Dada” begins with a “water” chant to provide some relief, and it all comes down to “Good Vibrations”, heard here with its original lyrics and some other mix variations.
Which is a good place to make this statement. While Beach Boys experts are justifiably fond of “Good Vibrations”, a whole disc of sessions chronicling its development is overkill for the deluxe box. Yes, it’s a great song, and yes, it would have been included on the album (against Brian’s wishes) had it been completed at the time, but it’s about as essential to Smile as “The Ballad Of John & Yoko” is to Abbey Road. (Also: lots of people insist that the project’s correct title is SMiLE, and that’s how it is all over the graphics, but it’s annoying to type over and over that way so we haven’t.)
With the final sequence totaling 49 minutes, the bonus tracks nicely complement what has gone before. “You’re Welcome” was a B-side and a nice a cappella bookend, while “He Gives Speeches” is the original lyrics to the song that became more famous as “She’s Goin’ Bald”. Further excerpts of “Heroes And Villains” parts prove that sometimes Brian just didn’t know where to stop, but eight minutes devoted to a “Smile Backing Vocals Montage” is an excellent tribute to his long-suffering bandmates.
As with any “lost” album, Smile is not a masterpiece, or a missing link that may have changed the course of the human race had it only been allowed to breathe. But The Smile Sessions is a generous gift, long overdue, and finally in a place where what made it good, and worth hearing, can be appreciated.

The Beach Boys The Smile Sessions (2011)—4

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brian Wilson 2: Smile

Seemingly cured of his demons—enough to remarry and adopt a few kids—Brian Wilson continued his own path through the end of the century, releasing a few solo albums and avoiding any true collaboration with the other Beach Boys. Unlike his first solo album, which was most likely created at pharmaceutical gunpoint but sounded pretty good nonetheless, his new music didn’t rise far above the “that’s nice” accolade. Basically, he was competing with his own past, via the rehaul of the Boys’ catalog and even his own reunion with onetime collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
Parks was part of the Smile project, the famously unfinished masterpiece that was destined to rival the Beatles’ best moments had it only been allowed to breathe, or so we were led to believe. Rumors began to spread around 1988 that all the music intended for it would actually be released; meanwhile, fans not content with the 30 minutes or so included on the box set in 1993 scrambled for anything said to represent the finished product as it stood in 1967.
Listening to these bootlegs, one could completely understand why the project got stalled. The existing pieces were certainly unfinished, and overlapped so much that a strict running order seemed almost arbitrary. Had the album come out back then, the standard thinking—outside of a few renegades who champion notoriously bad albums—would likely be that Smile was an overblown waste of tape. And the Beach Boys legacy wouldn’t be any different today, and Brian would still be a mess.
But it did change. Most people either love or hate the Beach Boys, and everyone hates Mike Love, but anyone who’s taken time to even try to like Pet Sounds can agree that Brian Wilson composed some pretty amazing music that just happened to fit on AM radio. And not only did he emerge from his paranoid shell, he assembled a band of devoted musicians, and went on tour around the turn of the century with them. These guys drove him to begin performing Pet Sounds in its entirety, with technology enabling the studio creation to exist on a stage. That was so well-received that Brian finally consented to “completing” something resembling Smile, with assistance from (surprise surprise) Van Dyke Parks, and performing it live. Critics raved, and then it was recorded in the studio.
Everyone related to the project was careful to say that Brian Wilson Presents Smile is not the real lost album; however, it is a stunning recreation. Comparing the new tracks to the bootlegs, the casual listen might have fooled one’s ears into thinking they’re the original tracks. While Brian’s voice is much shakier, all the elements are there.
That’s a deliberate pun; whatever was supposed to be the “Elements” suite is lost to the microdot. But with the CD format at its disposal, the piece has been separated not into two sides but three movements. It follows much of the bootlegged sequences, beginning with “Our Prayer” and “Heroes And Villains”. Most pundits usually put “Good Vibrations” at the start of “side two”, with the epic “Surf’s Up” at the end; here “Surf’s Up” closes the middle section, while a lyrically rearranged “Good Vibrations” appears as a coda. Some of the most famous outtakes appear, like “You Are My Sunshine”, “Child Is Father To The Man” and even a recreated “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (aka the “Fire” sequence).
It’s still a pretty silly record, with puns that induce more winces than wonder; most of those were added solely for this production. Issued through Nonesuch, it comes in a neat little package with embossed slipcase and booklet. Inevitably, the experience becomes somewhat anticlimactic, but there are a few absolutely gorgeous moments that could rank with the finest 20th century American music, up there with Gershwin, Cole Porter, Aaron Copland and so on.
2004 was a year where the impossible happened, from the Red Sox winning the World Series to Brian Wilson finishing Smile. Naturally, it stoked hopes for an official release of the original recordings, but if that wasn’t gonna happen, at least we’d have this.

Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)—

Friday, February 7, 2014

Traffic 7: Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory

Another album, another lineup—but as long as Steve Winwood, Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi were around, it was still Traffic. Outside of its cover design, Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory doesn’t share much more with its predecessor; for one, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section fills up the back, while Reebop thumps along happily on his congas. Overall, it sounds more slick, not folky enough, and generally dull.
The title track crashes out of the gate, with a few nasty guitar riffs, establishing a groove but not much else. Oh, except for the police siren halfway through. Apparently Stevie just wanted to jam, and he does. That’s six minutes right there, and the rest of the side is given over to “Roll Right Stones”. This one begins with a pretty piano part, over which Stevie “doo-doos” wordlessly, then the track goes in another direction for the verse. There’s a lengthy jam over the chorus, where Chris Wood gets to put his sax through a wah-wah again, to a flatulent degree, and right about where you think it should fade, it goes back to another verse. Where “The Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” mesmerizes, this just refuses to end.
“Evening Blue” tries to recall the folkier moments of their catalog, but for the damn congas mixed so high. “Tragic Magic” is a showcase for Chris Wood, neither tragic nor particularly magical. Don’t bother waiting for the lyrics, because there aren’t any; instead, there’s a big horn section to drive to the quick (after six minutes) fade. And with another flourish of the congas, perhaps the album can be summed up best by the final track. A title like “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” is a carrot for any critic, but it’s saved by the chords and performance, and there’s the general impression that they’re trying to impress. Here, finally, toes will tap for the first time since the beginning of side one.
One desperately wants to like Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory, but the players don’t make it easy. Sure, the album sounds great, but unfortunately smooths over any grit that could keep it from being a little bland. Except for the title track, everything is in the same moderate (read: not fast) tempo, and the famed funky rhythm section seems to exist just to keep time. Maybe those stereotypes about Jamaica are accurate. Jim Capaldi can sure shake that tambourine, though.
The expanded band toured, with Barry Beckett playing extra keyboards, and released a live set later in the year. On The Road presents lengthy, slightly faster versions of six already lengthy songs over two records (except in America, where it was edited a single LP, but that’s been rectified for the CDs). There’s not much of an improvement on the studio versions, unless a 20-minute version of “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” or 17 minutes of “Low Spark” excite you. “Tragic Magic” isn’t bad, but “(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired” is all too apt until Stevie lets it rip on the guitar after the last vocal.

Traffic Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory (1973)—2
Traffic On The Road (1973)—

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Allman Brothers 4: Eat A Peach

Just like that, Duane Allman was dead, leaving behind his band and his brother. An album already started would end up as a tribute, and Eat A Peach neatly straddles what he started and where they’d go, for better or worse. Their albums to date were either brief or live, and here they provide a little bit of both.
Side one was recorded after the fact, and it presents the band keeping a brave face. “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” is an excellent statement of purpose, from the grand piano intro to Dickey’s impeccable slide playing—not his forte, but well done here. Dickey gets credit for “Les Brers In A Minor”, a nine-minute jam in the tradition of “Elizabeth Reed”. It’s a fascinating piece, developing from nothing into a tremendous sound. Then there’s “Melissa”, which Gregg says was his brother’s favorite song, gently played on acoustics, with Dickey again imagining what Duane would have played.
It’s back to the Fillmore East for side two, which presents the first half of “Mountain Jam”. From the first few rambling measures one might confuse this with a Grateful Dead recording, until the guitars let loose and the organ follows. It’s a totally live performance, with a few bum notes here and there to prove it, and it takes a while to get used to, especially if you’re not into drum solos. The side fades as Berry begins his bass solo, and that’s roughly where it fades back on side four. The band finds its way back in with a quote from “Third Stone From The Sun”, and the dynamics begin anew. Somehow they get to an arpeggiated ending— not bad for a jam built on a melody by Donovan, of all people. (Modern-day CDs present the whole 33 minutes uninterrupted in the middle of the program.)
Side three presents a mix of live and studio, all featuring Duane to some extent. First are a pair of blues standards recorded at the Fillmore; “One Way Out” sizzles, as does a decent reprise of “Trouble No More”—mixed very well to show off the band across the stereo picture. “Stand Back” is a funky shuffle driven by electric piano, not bad but not the high point. For some, that pinnacle would be “Blue Sky”, the Dickey tune that lays a blueprint for southern rock at its worst, and a redneck anthem today. The last word, not counting the continuation of “Mountain Jam”, comes from Duane, playing the pretty and fittingly brief instrumental “Little Martha”.
A cynic might say that a double album is excessive, especially when over half of the album appears to have been left over from the Fillmore set. However, Gregg Allman insists that Eat A Peach was supposed to have more of the live stuff anyway. For the most part, the “new” material is of their standard, and now that it can be had all on one shiny CD makes it economical.

The Allman Brothers Band Eat A Peach (1972)—