Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paul Rodgers: Cut Loose

Perhaps to prove that he still had something to offer, Paul Rodgers’ first solo album, which arrived only a year after the last, disappointing Bad Company album, was presented as a one-man band. Everything on Cut Loose, including drums and all the lead guitars, were supposedly played by him and him alone. We knew he was good, but we didn’t know he was that good. (Plus, the shorter hair and trimmed unibrow made a striking statement amidst the uninspired, Hipgnosis-free cover art.)
A blast of tight, distorted guitar opens “Fragile”, before switching gears into the galloping verse; both sections are better than the lyrics, which don’t have a lot to say, but we don’t look to this guy for deep philosophy anyways. The title track has the same theme of “Movin’ On”, “Run With The Pack” and plenty of his other “road” songs, and it’s easy to imagine this with Badco. “Live In Peace” will be familiar to anyone who bought the second Firm album; the big difference is that the drums play the same rhythm all the way through instead of the dynamic bombast the band brought to it. It’s even got a decent solo. “Sweet Sensation” is a little wimpy—maybe it’s the drum machine—but ends up being pretty catchy. “Rising Sun” is based around a repetitive piano motif with classical undertones, but after several repeats (because, after all, “no mountain is too high, no river is too wide”) it starts to resemble the Psycho theme.
“Boogie Mama” is about as generic as you can get, and was also covered by The Firm at their first concerts. So was “Morning After The Night Before”, which is a much better song until you realize he’s playing the opening arpeggio from “More Than A Feeling”. “Northwinds” finds him back on the road in another song made for his old band, while “Superstar Woman” was actually left over from their first album. Finally, one can be excused for dreading what “Talking Guitar Blues” could be on an album like this, but it’s a harmless strut along the lines of “Rock Steady”. It even ends with a smattering of applause.
Virtually ignored at the time, Cut Loose helps to cleanse the palate after the sterile thud of Rough Diamonds, particularly if you’re not expecting much. It certainly puts him in a positive light, and much more than the strutting rooster stereotype he’d filled up till this point. But even the mild interest in The Firm a few years later didn’t help it sell.

Paul Rodgers Cut Loose (1983)—3

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bruce Springsteen 14: Tracks

Fans who saw the shows Bruce played to promote The Ghost Of Tom Joad were understandably excited whenever he pulled out a little-played oldie, or better yet, something that never made it to a record. That feeling of nostalgia, along with the knowledge that it would sell, likely fueled the completion of his second box set. Tracks presents four discs of studio material covering 25 years of recording. Only two songs were recorded live (besides, that area was pretty much covered already) and nine had been B-sides, leaving 55 songs put on tape with every intention, at one time or another, of competing for a spot on whatever album he hoped would emerge from the accumulating pile.
The set starts, appropriately, with four songs from his Columbia “audition”, and proceeds to tell the rest of the story, more or less chronologically, with some deviation to accentuate flow. Everything appears in studio quality, whether mixed then or for the box; in a few cases he added horns or even vocals from E Streeters to fill up a song just prior to its release here. We’re hardly of the caliber of the most devoted Springsteen scholars; the supplementary notes compiled by his most dedicated fanzine is required reading for anyone approaching this collection. But we do enjoy lists and puzzles, so hearing this alternate history does provide another perspective, and some more appreciation for why people love the guy so damn much.
Since so many of these songs were at one time contenders for whatever album he was trying to complete, the question is begged as to whether he should have included any of the rejects over what he did. The answer is an emphatic no. While there are some true compositional gems, so many of the tracks have the same production effects that color the ones we already know. The River might well have been better off as a single LP, or even the earlier, rejected sequence that would have been The Ties That Bind. Born In The U.S.A. would still have bad synthesizers, and we’ve already discussed how to improve on Human Touch and Lucky Town. And because it only scratches the surface, the jury is out on the alternate universe of Darkness At The Edge Of Town—for now, anyway. Perhaps the elusive Electric Nebraska is being saved for a future anthology as well.
As with any project of this theme, the “real fans” had lots of complaints with liberties taken and songs ignored. This continued the following spring when 18 Tracks distilled the box down to a single disc—you know, for the “casual fan”—but also added three songs not on the box, effectively forcing fans to open their wallets again.
It’s a well-thought-out selection, focusing on rockers (mostly), alternate versions of familiar songs and two of the more popular B-sides (namely “Pink Cadillac” and the underrated “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart”). The “new” songs then appear at the end of the disc. “Trouble River” was left off of Human Touch, despite being half-decent, and likely because it runs the same riff into the ground. The legendary Darkness-era song “The Promise” appears in a brand new solo recording, as opposed to a vintage E Street take. But all is nearly redeemed by “The Fever”, the best song left off his second album, perhaps because it sounded so much like his first album (where it also would have been the best song). Criminally excluded from Tracks, one wonders if this was the plan all along.

Bruce Springsteen Tracks (1998)—3
Bruce Springsteen 18 Tracks (1999)—

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Smiths 1: The Smiths

In a time when U2 and R.E.M. were already considered too mainstream for the college alternative, The Smiths were the absolute rulers of the scene (with the possible exception of The Cure, who were a lot synthier and projected even shriller yodeling). Looking back it makes perfect sense; in Morrissey, sensitive kids had an icon they could worship and hurl wilted flowers at. This self-styled “poet” crooned his pained lyrics with calculated repetition, equally inspired by Oscar Wilde, Joy Division and soulful ‘60s pop as he was obsessed with Hollywood glamour, gay icons and Britain’s Angry Young Men. Johnny Marr immediately made a name for himself as a guitar hero, providing melodicism and bite wherever either was needed more. And while those two got most of the attention (by design), the rhythm section was nothing to sneeze at—Andy Rourke’s bass percolated right along with Mike Joyce’s powerful drums.
Unfortunately, their self-titled debut doesn’t always deliver that musical combination at its best, or with the same care given to their singles. Throughout The Smiths the vocals are buried, the drums sound robotic and the bass is hidden. This is most apparent on side one; despite starting strong with “Reel Around The Fountain” (which still sounds like the soliloquy of someone who enjoyed the abuse he suffered), it was one of the tracks subjected to piano and organ overdubs by none other than Paul Carrack, halfway between Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics. “You’ve Got Everything Now” dances near a ska rhythm as Morrissey laments “the terrible mess I’ve made of my life”. “Miserable Lie” begins with a pleasant, sad strum, but degenerates into a pointless stomp with such lyrics as “I’d like to see your underwear” and his falsetto at its most insistent and annoying. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” is an improvement, though it’s clear the guy’s got issues; it even quotes their debut single ere the close. “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” is a circular riff that doesn’t really go anywhere, and the more you listen to the lyrics the more they seem to approach pedophilia.
In the US, “This Charming Man” was added to the LP at the top of side two, and has remained on the album worldwide ever since. It was the smart move, being such a strong single. “Still Ill” is a better mix of music and anger that could have been a single, especially leading into an alternate mix of “Hand In Glove”, that excellent debut, and the snaky riff of “What Difference Does It Make?” “I Don’t Owe You Anything” is another good homage to the heartbroken pop of twenty years before, but it’s overshadowed by the closer. “Suffer Little Children” is the most adventurous composition on the album, as it incorporates some unorthodox changes, but mostly because of the subject matter. The song is an elegy for the victims of the so-called Moors Murders of the early ‘60s, children not much older than Morrissey himself was at the time. While not intended to exploit, the idea to incorporate a woman’s laughter (sounding at first like a sob) makes it a song one would choose to avoid.
There’s enough good on The Smiths to make it a good place to start, but they would improve and quickly. At the same time, there’s enough of what makes Morrissey such an insufferable character that keeps people away from the band completely here too.

The Smiths The Smiths (1984)—3

Friday, May 16, 2014

Crowded House 6: Time On Earth

Ten years after Crowded House’s final performance, Farewell To The World was released on CD and DVD, presenting the concert in its emotional entirety. To add to the PR, a new album by the reconstituted band was in the works, and arrived as promised.
Despite the presence of bassist Nick Seymour and latter-day member Mark Hart, Time On Earth is really Crowded House in name only, since the songs started out for a Neil Finn solo album. It’s also missing a lot of the quirkiness (and harmonies) that made the first four CH albums so archetypal. (The press, tour and artwork spotlit their new drummer, but he’s not even on half the album.)
Sadness permeates the album, from the tempo to the lyrics. Something’s missing, or more to the point, someone. Paul Hester was such a lovable clown for the band, and perhaps it’s a cliché to say that it wasn’t enough to keep him around. It’s tough to hear “English Trees” and “You Are The One To Make Me Cry” without getting depressed. The very quiet “A Sigh” comes immediately before the tense “Silent House”, originally written with and recorded by the Dixie Chicks. “Transit Lounge” is distracted by a foreign voice suggesting the same, with an “ethereal” woman’s voice helping out elsewhere.
There are a few tracks that will get the toes tapping in a familiar way: “Don’t Stop Now”, familiar enough for a single; “Even A Child”, written with Johnny Marr; the classic-sounding “She Called Up” and its teasing hook; “Say That Again” and its jumpy meter. “Pour Le Monde” is a nice cross of the Lennon and McCartney piano styles, with an orchestral part that reflects the better elements of the last Finn Brothers album. Thankfully, the French title is only decoration. “Walked Her Way Down” travels from a moody piano piece to an infectious track. “People Are Like Suns” is a final slow song on an album with too many of them, but becomes a good place to end.
For all its schizophrenia, perhaps the worst thing we can say about Time On Earth is that it’s too long—an ironic statement considering the title. It’s pleasant background music, and while it could be said that Crowded House was “back”, they were hardly “better than ever”.

Crowded House Time On Earth (2007)—

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Joy Division 2: Closer

Like most bands of the time, Joy Division kept writing and performing new material, releasing a few singles and EPs that would stand separate from their next album. And by the time that came out, their singer was dead, having attempted and succeeded at suicide the day before—that’s right, a whole day—before the band was to fly to New York for their first American shows. Instead of furthering their promising career, Ian Curtis was immediately cast in cement as a troubled icon, guru to sad kids, and influence on bands who could only know Joy Division through their handful of records.
Closer (we don’t know if it’s pronounced with a hard or soft ‘s’) became the band’s epitaph, its white sleeve contrasting with the black of Unknown Pleasures, its lettering evocative of gravestone etchings, its cover photo of a tomb. While recorded at Pink Floyd’s plush, modern studio, it still sounds like it was recorded in a hallway, with the vocals sent through a tin can, and at first listen is even more robotic than their debut. And like that album, the subtleties emerge and haunt.
“Atrocity Exhibition” turns things on its head by putting the guitarist on bass while the bass player creates abrasive noises on the guitar. Ian repeats “This is the way, step inside” as if directing lambs to a slaughter. “Isolation” may be the catchiest tune written on the subject, with a danceable beat and a synth part that launched innumerable New Wave combos. It’s very well constructed, repetitive but not redundant, and developing as it goes. A neat backwards effect leads into the simple drum beat of “Passover”, which mostly hangs back to spotlight Ian’s developed melody, letting the guitar wander only in between verses. The robotic feel continues on “Colony”, circular and jagged, and on “Means To An End”, with a basic descending riff that sounds like Peter Hook keeps changing his mind as to which notes to include.
Side two has the more satisfying set of songs, in terms of developed arrangements. “Heart And Soul” purrs along with an undercurrent of travel (think Pink Floyd’s “On The Run”, or Steve Miller’s “Swingtown”) with the simplest of guitar strums punctuating Ian’s rumination. The influence of “Twenty Four Hours” would be felt all the way into the ‘90s, with its use of dynamics and strummed bass, alternate driving and tense sections, and the surprise ending. Then, with a hiss of crickets, “The Eternal” wafts in, decorated by funereal piano. After the sad verse the crickets return, now sounding more like locusts, but recede again for another litany of lament. Finally, “Decades” presents the most developed integration of synth into their sound, a grand finale that predicts the likes of Yaz and Depeche Mode.
Revisionist opinion to the contrary, Closer is not a matching bookend to their debut, but the sound of a band having not quite arrived at their potential. And it’s too bad, because it’s clear they were on to something, but as with many legends of rock, there’s no way of knowing what else they might have done. Ian Curtis might have waited another couple of years before killing himself, he might have gotten over his demons and lived into a ripe old age, or the plane carrying the band to the USA could have crashed into the Atlantic. It’s moot, but their fans can be thankful for what they have.

Joy Division Closer (1980)—

Friday, May 9, 2014

Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition

At the end of the Sex Pistols’ final American performance, The Artist Then Known As Johnny Rotten looked out to the audience and said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” While a seemingly taunting remark, it was actually an acknowledgment of his position as a pawn in somebody else’s joke. With the band effectively over, he resolved to do everything his way from then on, and not be used by anyone.
Step one for John Lydon was reclaiming his name; step two was forming a new band. Public Image got their name from their first single; this was soon amended to reflect his desire to “limit” said image in favor of their music. Hence, Public Image Ltd. (or PiL, per their logo). Very British, don’t you know.
Their first album wasn’t released in the States, and their second album had an even stranger route. Metal Box consisted of three 12-inch 45s crammed into a film canister, with only a slip of paper listing the song titles. Cheaply made and susceptible to damage, it was eventually rejigged as a two-record set at standard LP speed and retitled Second Edition.
Just as the Pistols showed a generation of amateurs that anyone could be in a band, PiL followed on the post-punk example of Joy Division and the like, creating songs from the barest of frameworks and instrumental direction. Keith Levene, who’d been kicked out of an early lineup of the Clash, contributed anarchic guitar parts, as well as synthesizer. Jah Wobble was a self-taught bass player fond of reggae and dub. Both filled in on drums on Second Edition whenever the band was in between full-time sticksmen; this would explain why many of the tracks seem to go out of sync from time to time. The singer’s whiny yell has evolved into a low croon, with occasional bleating to remind us who he was, eschewing the verse/chorus format for stream-of-consciousness patter and murky imagery.
The album is an assault, beginning with the ten-minute “Albatross” (as in “getting rid of the”) and the edgy “Memories” (as in “this person’s had enough of useless”). “Swan Lake” gets its title from the Tchaikovsky quote badly played by Keith Levene throughout; as a single, this was called “Death Disco”. “Poptones” and “Careering” form a fascinating pair, lengthy anti-songs chosen to be mimed on American Bandstand, of all things.
The second half of the non-metal version of the album kicks off with instrumentals: the Krautrock-influenced “The Socialist” and an alternate mix of a B-side, here called “Graveyard” mixed in favor of the guitar. From there the album gets increasingly challenging: “The Suit” skewering society; the seemingly spontaneous “Bad Baby”; the utter random construction of “No Birds”. “Chant” piles everything on, with a maddening drum attack, Lydon repeating “love war fear hate” for five minutes on one track while the main vocal gets even more paranoid. And with the effect of a radio changing stations, “Radio 4” provides a perverse Enoesque synth coda.
Second Edition is not easy listening, and some will say it’s not music; those who can endure it will find it mesmerizing. And for that, Public Image Ltd. accomplished exactly what it set out to do.

Public Image Ltd. Second Edition (1980)—3

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Suzanne Vega 7: Beauty & Crime

The Blue Note label, once a venerable home for the best in modern jazz, found themselves well in the black with the surprise success of one Norah Jones, who played piano but wasn’t exactly jazz. Willing to throw the rule book out the window in the 21st century, they signed Suzanne Vega as a free agent, and released her first album in six years. Beauty & Crime finds her in familiar territory, still balancing introspective writing with up-to-date recording techniques.
“Zephyr & I” is the first indication that this wasn’t your grandpa’s Blue Note, and particularly not with a riff borrowed directly from Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight”. It’s quirky and cute, but immediately surpassed by “Ludlow Street”, a haunting tribute to her departed brother, with a melody that tugs at the heart. “New York Is A Woman” manages to overcome the limitations of that metaphor, though we could do without the Klezmer arrangement that keeps popping up. Similarly, “Pornographer’s Dream” states that figure of speech right away, with a near-lounge delivery that improves by the chorus. “Frank & Ava” is perhaps too literal a comparison for a couple that finds it’s “not enough to be in love”, unless she really is imagining the celebrities of the title, while “Edith Wharton’s Figurines” is more obscure.
A lifelong New Yorker, it’s easy to read sadness into songs like “Bound” (“the way of the world
has taken its toll/ravaged my body
and bitten my soul”), except that in this case, it’s about reconnecting with the man who would become her husband (and remains so as of this writing; good for her and better for him). But it’s followed by “Unbound”, a less successful techno-groove. “As You Are Now” is a tender love song, with sympathetic strings, leading nicely into the final two songs. Both deal with the aftermath of 9/11: “Angel’s Doorway” alludes to the eternal cleanup, while “Anniversary” reflects on the survival of the city as a whole. To her credit, the album ends on an upbeat tempo, rather than a somber one.
There are good songs on Beauty & Crime, but they’re still hidden behind production effects and bigger arrangements. It takes a few listens for those songs to emerge, which may well be one reason why the album, lauded as it was, didn’t sell. And that’s too bad, because we’d happily listen to her sing anything.

Suzanne Vega Beauty & Crime (2007)—3