Friday, March 28, 2014

Tom Waits 21: Orphans

Best described by the man himself as “a bunch of things that fell behind the stove while making dinner,” Orphans is a three-CD set presenting a grab bag of new music and extracurricular activities. Subtitled Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, it separates the music into those three, somewhat descriptive categories. Because it offers nothing from the ‘70s, this is not the ultimate Waits rarities collection. However, it does offer such nuggets as his wonderful dwarfs-on-strike arrangement of “Heigh-Ho”, and a whole pile of songs previously hiding on movie soundtracks, like the mandolin-scented “Bottom Of The World”, his cover of “Sea Of Love” and even a song from Shrek 2.
There’s an awful lot of music here, so much that it takes a long time to take it all it. Hence, we find the multitude of end-of-year accolades a bit suspect. Sure it’s trendy to champion Tom Waits in this century, but they can’t all be zingers, can they? Therefore, the best way to approach the set is how it was designed: as three separate albums.
Brawlers is the most consistently upbeat disc, starting strong with the hiccupping rockabilly of “Lie To Me”. Many of the tracks sound like outtakes from Mule Variations or Real Gone, and a couple of tracks had debuted on a Waits-produced John Hammond album that came out in between those. There’s a full-fledged studio recording of “Fish In The Jailhouse”, a rousing encore from his 1999 tour, and “Rains On Me”, written with old pal Chuck E. Weiss. “The Return Of Jackie And Judy”, from a Ramones tribute album, sports a rhythm track straight off of White Light/White Heat (essentially a faster version of “LowDown” back at the start of the disc). But the song that got all the attention was “Road To Peace”, an outright indictment of American activities in the Mideast, sung with sparing concern for rhyme, taken nearly verbatim from pages in the New York Times. (He even names names.)
Bawlers would suggest a pile of songs aimed in the general vicinity of one’s heartstrings, but for the most part, it’s more of a tuneful antidote to some of the noisier elements of the first disc. “Bend Down The Branches” is a brief lullaby, of all things, but if you’re looking for variations on “Kentucky Avenue” or “Take It With Me”, you can save the Kleenex. It’s not until “Shiny Things” (once you get past the banjo) that one of those heartbreaking melodies emerges, and flowers full on the intro for “World Keeps Turning”. One true gem is “If I Have To Go”, a pretty ballad left off of Franks Wild Years, while one of the oldest songs here is “Take Care Of All Of My Children”, written for a 1984 documentary about homeless teenagers (and ties in with “Never Let Go”, from a later film based on that documentary). “Tell It To Me” is a gentle waltz, decorated with a rare pedal steel, which also turns up on his cover of “Young At Heart”. He leads an overdubbed choir of himself raising pint glasses to “Goodnight Irene”, and there’s even another Ramones cover in “Danny Says”.
Bastards is devoted to his wackier side, from spoken word pieces to collaborations and obscure covers. How obscure? Well, there’s stuff from tribute albums dedicated to Kurt Weill, Daniel Johnston and Skip Spence, a recital of a Charles Bukowski poem, and two variations on an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. (“Home I’ll Never Be” is the better of the two, and could go on the Bawlers disc; the rest could conceivably fit on Brawlers, but for their inherent wackiness.) Next to “Heigh-Ho”, the highlight is “Altar Boy”, an outtake from the project that inspired Blood Money, sung in the drunk style of the Small Change album. Overall, much of your enjoyment of this disc will depend on how much you liked the Real Gone approach. Two hidden tracks are tucked at the end: “Dog Treat”, a pre-song monologue while his fingers wander about the piano keys (always a highlight of his live shows), and “Missing My Son”, a story with a trick ending that may or may not be an old joke.
This admittedly only scratches the surface of everything in Orphans. Sure, it’s good; there’s just way too much of it. And one person’s single-disc distillation will certainly differ from any other. And the only reason why the album exists is because the Anti label was happy to finance anything he did, on his terms. Must be nice. (For the collector, the set was released three years later as on vinyl, each section split into two records, with a seventh disc including six more songs.)

Tom Waits Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (2006)—3

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Joe Jackson 16: Volume 4

Having gone back in time once already, sort of, Joe’s next move went even further. He reunited the original Joe Jackson Band and picked right up where they left off. Okay, not really, but Volume 4 does well to wash away the bad taste left by much of Beat Crazy all those years ago.
Right away, Dangerous Dave Houghton rolls in the drums and Graham Maby percolates a bass line, Joe lets out a howl and Gary Sanford proves that he hasn’t changed his amp settings in 23 years. But then Joe throws on a piano part right out of Night And Day, and “Take It Like A Man” manages to meld a lot of styles together. The equally clever “Still Alive” nicely apes the XTC version of the Beatles, with a bridge reminiscent of Steely Dan’s “Barrytown”. “Awkward Age” absolutely crackles, just like they used to. And just like they used to, they get mellow, or at least mellower, on “Chrome”, with its intricately plucked guitar and a bass solo where the guitar or piano solo would be. The mood stays that way for “Love At First Light”, a slightly melancholy portrait and a rather adult perspective on a casual encounter. As a possible reaction, “Fairy Dust” crashes in with a 5/4 tempo, heavy wah-wah guitar and jazz attack, and presents another argument about sexual roles.
“Little Bit Stupid” has a great trashy sound to go with the title, before moving back to a sensitive approach on “Blue Flame”, about as close as the album gets to a seduction. Then, as if to wipe that away, there’s “Dirty Martini”, complete with the band chanting backups and a cheesy Farfisa-guitar duet, stopping for a New Orleans-flavored piano break. “Thugz ‘R’ Us” works where it shouldn’t, a ska-fueled spoof of angry youth, sounding mostly like a Madness track of, say, 23 years earlier. And finally, “Bright Grey” comes to an edgy, angry finish, just this side of chaotic.
Volume 4 is no more a “comeback” than any other artist’s so-called “return to form”, but what makes it successful is its simplicity. Listeners knew by now that Joe Jackson was an exceedingly talented musician, and even a skilled composer, though sometimes songs require a more straightforward approach, and that’s what we have here.
Those whose appetites were whet by the six-EP included in early pressings of the album (the Japanese, incidentally, got an excellent cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”) would have been very pleased to scoop up Afterlife, captured on the reunited band’s tour, mixing old and new, including songs that only Graham Maby may have played before.

Joe Jackson Band Volume 4 (2003)—3

Friday, March 21, 2014

Billy Joel 13: Kohuept

After The Bridge, Billy Joel was about as American as apple pie, blue jeans and baseball. Somehow he took his tour to post-glasnost Soviet Union, which his label commemorated with a live album, a two-record set short enough to fit on one CD. (Technically, the album’s title is Kontsert, which is phonetic Russian, but we boorish Americans have no respect for other cultures, so to us, the Russian alphabet appeared to spell Kohuept, which was easy to ridicule as Kaput. And of course, the cover was bright red.)
The set opens with a Russian folk song sung a cappella, before plowing through “Angry Young Man”. “Honesty” is played solo, sounding very much like the classical piece it began as. Billy came to build bridges and educate, so he offers a lengthy explanation before “Goodnight Saigon”, made lengthier by the translator. “Stiletto” makes a surprising appearance, being more of a deep cut than even a radio hit. A bigger band fleshes out the jazz sentiments of “Big Man On Mulberry Street”, but his Ray Charles impression on “Baby Grand” comes out more parody than homage. Similarly, on “An Innocent Man” he apes the growls of Ben E. King while ceding the high notes to a backup singer.
From there it’s pretty much all hits, until the obligatory cover of “Back In The U.S.S.R.” He does strap on an inaudible guitar for “A Matter Of Trust”, and ends the show with a solo acoustic version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. By then he sounds exhausted.
The album was recorded at the end of a long tour, and his voice isn’t always up to the task. But for a long time, this was the only official souvenir of his longtime band playing the big hits, Songs In The Attic being a live album with a twist. Many years later, in the era of the deluxe package, the album was expanded, with a new title, and now runs the equivalent of a full show. The first half now sounds completely different with the addition of “Ballad Of Billy The Kid” (completely with an introductory explanation that includes the theme from The Magnificent Seven), “She’s Always A Woman” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”. A snippet of the doo-wop chestnut “What’s Your Name” precedes “The Longest Time”. More hits a scattered throughout the second half, and the disc closes with rehearsal recordings.
Since he seemingly stopped writing songs, the only “new” Billy Joel albums have been of the live variety. This upgrade is arguably more entertaining, as it comes from the height of his career, rather than the motions of the oldies circuit. Liberty DeVitto was his best drummer anyway.

Billy Joel КОНЦЕРТ (1987)—3
2014 A Matter Of Trust: The Bridge To Russia: same as 1987, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bad Company 6: Rough Diamonds

With a mix of mystery, a neat circular piano motif and tasteful guitar work, “Electricland” continues the Bad Company tradition of starting every album by grabbing the listener by the throat. It’s a terrific song, full of changes and lyrics just on the verge of meaning something. And from there, Rough Diamonds is their most forgettable album yet.
The disco thump on much of the record—particularly in “Cross Country Boy” and “Untie The Knot”, though the latter does have a pretty cool break after the bridge—suggests that these are leftovers from their last album, three years before. As for the rest, the overwhelming feeling is just bland. “Ballad Of The Band” is an attempt at sardonic commentary on rock ‘n roll that flies by at just over two minutes. “Nuthin’ On The TV” is tied to a New Orleans stomp, complete with horns, and Mick Ralphs soloing throughout. (Both of those are credited to Boz Burrell, so maybe that was the problem.)
They were never much good at storytelling, yet they try just about every angle. “Painted Face” suggests another sad tale of fame gone bad a la “Shooting Star”, but it doesn’t quite get past the setup, and the synth accents place it firmly in the early ‘80s. More typical of their old sound is “Old Mexico”, about as underdone as “Downhill Ryder” and “Racetrack”, back-to-back juxtapositions into other high-speed occupations, likely metaphors for something known only to him. Only “Kickdown” provides anything remotely of the quality of “Electricland”, even if the narrator was “brought up in a back street/workin’ every night and day”.
So what happened? Even Paul Rodgers, who can still belt with the best of them, sounds pretty bored throughout Rough Diamonds. The Swan Song label was on its last legs anyway, and the Hipgnosis artwork is as arbitrary as ever, with a serrated edge likely to not get too bent from repeated filing. For all their potential, did Badco really not have enough in them to make it to six albums?
Bad Company Rough Diamonds (1982)—

Friday, March 14, 2014

Joy Division 1: Unknown Pleasures

While not every punk band was ignorant musically, the genre did inspire many to pick up instruments and learn as they go. That’s pretty much what happened with Joy Division, a band that literally self-destructed on the eve of their arrival in America. They still managed to gain enough of a following to become more than just a cult curio; at the same time, their limited career keeps their legacy nice and compact: two studio albums, a bunch of collected singles and some live recordings. Because of their capabilities, nobody sounds like them, though many have tried.
With a cover image resembling a mountain range but revealed to be radio waves, Unknown Pleasures was split (on vinyl and cassette) between “Outside” and “Inside”. The sound on both sides is cold, claustrophobic and somewhat industrial. (They were, after all, signed to Factory Records.) Drums sound almost electronic even when they’re not, and the bass player drives a melody without any notice of what the rhythm is. The guitar parts are inventive in a way that only someone with limited ability can find, and that’s meant as a compliment. Over it all, Ian Curtis sings with anger and frustration, emotion compensating for pitch, occasionally echoing Iggy Pop and, dare we say it, Jim Morrison. The band’s devoted following have spent decades ingesting and interpreting the lyrics, so we’re not about to try and do that; these brief descriptions will have to suffice for now.
With an invitation to pogo, “Disorder” is an excellent opener, even with sound effects that appear to be a toilet flushing. Things slow down right away for “Day Of The Lords”, describing a scene of some remembered horror, culminating in repeated queries as to “when will it end?” “Candidate” seems a lot longer than it is, possibly because it’s so low-key—mostly drums and a bass sounding like a cello, with atmospheric noises here and there. “Insight” is about as minimal, except for the truly silly synth-drum hits and electronic meltdown in the bridges. Things truly coalesce on “New Dawn Fades”, which deftly pairs a poetic lyric with a song structure.
The nearly robotic “She’s Lost Control” is an “important” track, being apparently about witnessing somebody’s else’s grand mal seizure, which will loom large in his legend. In any other band, the bass and guitar would play the same riff in unison, but not these guys. “Shadowplay” begins very slowly before acquiring more energy through minimal changes. Some of those seem so arbitrary that one occasional deviation sounds like a mistake, except that the band hits it at the same, seemingly random instance, that it’s either genius or a happy accident. As for “Wilderness”, this time the guitar and bass do move mostly in unison until they get bored and start wandering, well, off into you know where. With an intro borrowed by Devo for “Whip It”, “Interzone” is downright energetic, with its dueling Lou Reed vocals. It’s also the shortest song on the album, coming right before the longest, the gloomy and foreboding “I Remember Nothing”, the machine eventually running out of fuel to the sound of breaking glass and crashing metal.
The influence of Unknown Pleasures can be heard on the debut albums by such bands as U2, R.E.M. and The Smiths, so it’s safe to say that college alternative started here. The production does make it sound dated, but it’s also a style that indie bands are still trying to emulate. It’s also a case where the real thing does justice to the legend.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (1979)—

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks

Not every band known as punk pioneers was made up of tone-deaf kids who didn’t know how to play their instruments. The Sex Pistols cultivated an image as anti-music despite the undeniable chops of guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook. Their original bass player, Glen Matlock, was seemingly kicked out of the band for being too talented. The self-styled Johnny Rotten, who definitely had the attitude, brought in his musically incompetent friend Sid Vicious to play bass instead; that was the most “punk” thing about them. (While not credited as such, Steve Jones either played bass on their sole studio album, or had his guitar parts mixed in such a way to give the tracks some bottom. And who was that producer? Chris Thomas, famous from his work on the White Album and Dark Side Of The Moon.)
We’re not going to attempt to recount their entire story, mostly because it’s been done so well elsewhere, but suffice it to say that their basic legacy endures in its most simple form as a single LP, which was released by the third label to sign them in the UK, and has remained in print on Warner Bros. since its release in the US. What’s especially convenient about Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols is that it includes all of their singles. (Naturally, some of the mixes and performances are different from those singles, so good luck if you’re a completist.) Musically, it’s no more distorted than most heavy metal, mostly based around power chords learned from the Who and the Kinks, while lyrically, it’s occasionally very funny.
Marching feet and a riff stolen from The Jam kick off “Holidays In The Sun”, Johnny shouting garbled references to Belsen and the Berlin Wall. “Bodies” is blatantly anti-abortion and pro-fanity, the latter easily keeping it off many right-to-lifer’s playlists. “No Feelings”, “Liar” and “Problems” all display the defiant attitude that had been pissing people off for months, none more so than “God Save The Queen” (which became such a piece of history that it was included as part of the Olympic ceremonies in London, with Her Majesty in attendance).
“Seventeen” is an oddity; besides being the shortest song on the album, its title is a smokescreen for the chorus (“I’m a lazy sod”, which soon turns to “I’m a lazy Sid”). It’s over in time for “Anarchy In The U.K.” to make its appearance. A wonderful mix of acronyms and anger, it’s easy enough to transfer to other countries and associations for the millions of bands who’ve covered it. Want more proof these guys were clever? Manager Malcolm McLaren told them to write a song about submission; thus “Submission” takes it literally (“I’m on a submarine mission for you, baby… I can’t get enough of your watery love”). They apparently needed no such prodding for “Pretty Vacant”, another statement of purpose. “New York” slams more stolen power chords into the wax, its lyrics insulting people on two other continents, including those who might have actually appreciated the band. Finally, “EMI” leaves a fat raspberry for their first former record label, getting in a dig at A&M at the end.
There was no way such a good thing could last, and the band was done within months of releasing Never Mind The Bollocks. The two talented guys went on to record with Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, and take whatever gigs they could get; Johnny went back to his own name and fronted the ever-changing and truly anti-music Public Image Ltd; Sid’s solo career didn’t get him any further than being accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death and dying himself before he was brought to trial. Trying to mop of the rest of their recorded legacy is difficult, not least because of the spottiness and repetition of everything they did. So it’s just as well that this album presents them at their best, and most influential.

Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)—4

Friday, March 7, 2014

Band 4: Cahoots

Having gotten over their Stage Fright (sorry), The Band had promises to keep, and promptly recorded their fourth album right on schedule. The result was Cahoots, their weirdest effort yet. The front cover is a murky painting incorporating the photo from the second album, while the back shows the guys with their eyes closed. Some suggest that this is indicative of how they sleepwalked through the recording process, but that’s not entirely fair.
Never having been a fan of the New Orleans sound, and equally dismissive of horn sections, it says a lot that “Life Is A Carnival” is such a good opener. Those horns also provide a step to the future before we get there. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” appears here a few months before Bob Dylan’s own version; the Band’s has a few different words, takes the Roman setting too literally and gets a somewhat strained vocal by Levon, who sings much better elsewhere. “Last Of The Blacksmiths” does indeed sport an arrangement that suggest a man pounding molten metal, with a slightly processed piano and even weirder sax interludes. Besides being an unintentionally fitting title, “Where Do We Go From Here?” is an oddly placed defense of such endangered species as buffalos and trains. Though better than most of the ecological songs the Beach Boys were trying around the time, the backing is inspired, right down to the abrupt ending, signifying how things can disappear just like that. Woodstock neighbor Van Morrison turns up to duet with Richard Manuel on “4% Pantomime”, an enigmatic in-joke that’s still a highlight. (Interestingly, Van calls Richard by his Christian name, while Richard’s return address is to the “Belfast cowboy”, giving Van an apt nickname at his most rural.)
Robbie is credited with writing all the songs on side two, so perhaps their success or failure should be ascribed solely to him. “Shootout In Chinatown” is all misplaced mystery, complete with dopey “Oriental” touches in the arrangement, and all three vocalists trading lines. “The Moon Struck One” does the mystery a little better; is it a portrait of neighbor kids, a love triangle, or both? As one correspondent has pointed out, Bruce Springsteen borrowed some of the themes for the less vague “Spirit In The Night”. “Thinkin’ Out Loud” sports some fantastic piano and a tasteful dobro solo, but the basic rumination of the title is derailed by “band on the road” tangents. “Smoke Signal” works over every possible metaphor to defend the Indians from the cowboys (Robbie being descended from the former) and ending up wondering how to communicate, while Levon beats a tattoo on the kit. While “Volcano” is, thankfully, not the same song made famous by Jimmy Buffett, it does provide some grit, from the horn section to Rick’s considered voice. Finally, “The River Hymn” returns us to the old-time antebellum feel of the second album, understood and interpreted best by Levon.
Cahoots has gotten a bad rap over the years, its biggest fault being that it’s neither Big Pink nor the second album. Taken completely on its own, it’s just fine, and only hindsight reveals that they may have been running out of steam. (The bonus tracks on the reissue are alternately illuminating and frustrating, from the take of “Bessie Smith” that comes from a few years before to an outtake of “Endless Highway” and an acetate of “Don’t Do It”. And of course, another radio commercial.)

The Band Cahoots (1971)—3
2000 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Van Morrison 22: Enlightenment

At, arguably, his highest profile in the better part of twenty years, one would think all Van had to do was release an album and the world would follow. Unfortunately, the record-buying public didn’t act they way they used to, so perfectly enjoyable albums were overlooked.
Enlightenment is not at all perfect, but it does fit with the mold Van had built throughout the ‘80s. The mix is warm and comfortable, typical of the sound he’d been honing all decade. “Real Real Gone” is a wonderful opener, all punchy brass, and fading on the R&B song quotes at the end; as it turns out, the song was ten years old at the time. The title track spends a lot of time admitting how he doesn’t know the definition of the word, but the music is hardly despairing. For “So Quiet In Here” he indulges in some of his method acting, feeling the words instead of just singing them. Even at six minutes, it manages to recall the better moments of such disparate albums as Astral Weeks and No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. As long as he’s revisiting themes, “Avalon Of The Heart” doesn’t just recall the last album; he even talks of “the viaducts of my dreams” as mentioned on “Astral Weeks” while quoting the melody of “Beautiful Vision”. Luckily, the choir of voices is mixed discreetly alongside the orchestra. “See Me Through” provides another opportunity to wander, with his own harmonica tooting along in the background, a deft guitar solo, and whispered touchpoints that will be picked up again in the future.
So while side one is mostly strong, side two loses its way in spots. “Youth Of 1,000 Summers” (downgraded from “eternal summers” only three albums before) manages to mix gospel with a Latin feel. It’s very much a trifle, if heartfelt, but it does not prepare the listener for “In The Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll”. Over a pleasant, toe-tapping two-chord backing, Irish poet Paul Durcan recites a memoir of listening to the radio in that pre-Elvis time period, with the pacing of Rich Hall imitating Paul Harvey on Saturday Night Live. Van joins in for the choruses, and extemporizes with sound effects all the way to the end. The rest of the side isn’t as interesting, however; “Start All Over Again” recycles the melody from “Country Fair” and “The Mystery”, but at least it has a good live feel. “She’s My Baby” is a fairly tepid love song, with a “can’t eat, can’t sleep” angle title to a baffling “egg on my face” reference. “Memories” is heralded by a wheezing accordion, or maybe it’s a harmonium. Whatever it is, the song spins and spins until the end without leaving much behind, going completely against the message of the song.
Enlightenment isn’t as overtly commercial as Avalon Sunset, so therefore it didn’t sell (mostly because most people were happy with the hits album). The good parts mentioned make it worth adding to the pile, if you’re so inclined.

Van Morrison Enlightenment (1990)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1990, plus 2 extra tracks