Friday, June 27, 2014

Tom Waits 22: Glitter And Doom

In the decade since “returning” to music with Mule Variations, Tom toured occasionally, usually for short stretches and hitting cities somewhat out of the way or simply missed the last time. With a lot of material to choose from, Glitter And Doom Live just scratches the surface of the 21st-century Tom Waits concert experience, not least because you can’t hear the unique sight of the man stomping away at his microphone stand, kicking up clouds of talcum powder, or contorting his figure to “direct” the band.
Still, it’s a smooth program, culled from various dates but mixed to sound continuous. With older son Casey manning the kit, and younger son Sullivan turning up on clarinet, the band nicely translates the rusty, dusty sound of the albums to the big stage. The selections from Real Gone particularly improve here, emerging as songs as opposed to just sounds.
They’re not all clang, boom and steam, of course; “Fannin Street”, “Lucky Day” and “I’ll Shoot The Moon” provide some quieter moments, while “Live Circus” and “Story” provide welcome detours of humor. If that’s not enough, an entire second disc is devoted to a single track combining a half hour of various tall tales, bad jokes and hypothetically restrictive local laws taken from preludes to his solo piano numbers, ending with a quick run through “Picture In A Frame”.
As with most Tom Waits albums, this will not provide a bolt of understanding for the unconverted. His voice is raspy, the melodies are basic and some people just don’t get him. But if he doesn’t come to your town anytime soon, Glitter And Doom will have to do.

Tom Waits Glitter And Doom Live (2009)—3

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mark Knopfler 4: The Ragpicker’s Dream

Working at a pace we hadn’t seen in a couple of decades, Mark Knopfler returned in 2002 with The Ragpicker’s Dream, another low-key collection of original songs with that familiar tone and rasp. Compared to the overblown concepts that marred Sailing To Philadephia, this one’s a lot more relaxed, understated and satisfying.
The album’s at its best when it feels like you’re sitting on a casual strum, Knopfler singing either in the style of or actual re-creations of ancient folk songs. “Why Aye Man”, “Hill Farmer’s Blues”, “Fare Thee Well Northumberland” and “Marbletown” appear to be sung by tradesmen away from home, without seeming repetitive. However, when he adds more rock to the mix, as on “Coyote” and “You Don’t Know You’re Born”, it gets a little tedious, except for the chorus.
He’s careful not to stick too close to a couple of styles. “Devil Baby” takes place in a circus, and the same wacky scene inhabits “Old Pigweed”. “A Place Where We Used To Live” is more timeless, even jazzy, while on “Daddy’s Gone To Knoxville” and the sales pitch of “Quality Shoe”, he sounds uncannily like Leon Redbone. He even sneaks in an original Christmas song for the title track, without limiting it to the usual clichés.
A little shaving here and there might even put The Ragpicker’s Dream on a higher level, but for what it is, it’s a nice, comfortable listen. Save it for your next rainy day and see how it goes down.

Mark Knopfler The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)—3

Friday, June 20, 2014

Byrds 9: Untitled

By the turn of the decade, the band calling themselves the Byrds had become a tight unit, particularly with the addition of new bass player Skip Battin (a relic at age 35 but not enough of a Manson lookalike to scare producer Terry Melcher). And what better way to show off their prowess than with a live document?
The album called (Untitled) brings together the best of all possibilities, prefacing an album’s worth of new material with two sides recorded live. Side one begins with “Lover Of The Bayou”, a new song from an unrealized McGuinn musical. Roger sounds equally raspy on their cover of “Positively 4th Street”, keeping the Dylan connection going. He steps aside for a decent blow through “Nashville West”, and then it’s a trip to the recent past with “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N Roll Star”, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Mr. Spaceman”—songs barely three years old but already sounding ages away. An experiment that shouldn’t work but does is a side-long jam on “Eight Miles High”, which fades in from somewhere, teases the riff, and explores the cosmos for thirteen minutes before the first verse. If not for the 12-string, this could be easily mistaken for any other jamming band.
The studio portion is a mixed bag, ranging from above-average country-rock to less successful experiments. The forced metaphors in the otherwise classic “Chestnut Mare” don’t improve over time, but the exhilarating chorus cannot be beat, and it remains the last great song in McGuinn’s arsenal. “All The Things” and “Just A Season” come from the same well, and deserve more attention, but “Hungry Planet”, with its distracting Moog effects, is simply not enough of an idea gone on too long.
The other guys are given moments to shine, with varying success. “Truck Stop Girl” proves that Clarence White was a much better guitarist than he was a lead singer; the mumbled delivery doesn’t help the story any. “Take A Whiff On Me” is a countrified update of a Leadbelly song about cocaine, which was likely appreciated by everybody in Laurel Canyon. Gene Parsons’ croon is well-suited for “Yesterday’s Train”, particularly when it find chord changes that don’t bring “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to mind. Skip Battin brought some songs in to fit the morbid mood; “You All Look Alike” is bleated by Roger from the point of view of a hippie with a gunshot wound, while “Well Come Back Home” is one of the first songs to celebrate the Vietnam veteran, though its lengthy ending (complete with Buddhist chant) should have been faded sooner.
Overall, it’s a stronger collection than the last few, and is certainly enjoyable from a playing standpoint. It also managed to escape the stigma of the bloated double album. When its turn came around to be expanded at the turn of the century, the compilers generously added several studio recordings, including superior versions of “All The Things”, “Yesterday’s Train” and “Lover Of The Bayou”, plus a take of “Willin’” (written by Lowell George, as was “Truck Stop Girl”) a full year before it appeared on the first Little Feat album. Rounding out the (Unissued) disc are more live recordings, two of which post-date the album proper, including a truncated arrangement of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Hidden at the very end is an a cappella arrangement of “Amazing Grace”; even this far along, they were all about harmonies.

The Byrds (Untitled) (1970)—3
2000 (Untitled)/(Unissued) remaster: same as 1970, plus 14 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Billy Joel 15: River Of Dreams

Now it had been four years between albums, so River Of Dreams was more “long-awaited” than ever. Just like the last time, Billy got a guitarist to produce; this time it was former L.A. session rat Danny Kortchmar, but he’s not necessarily the guy heard wailing all over the place (sometimes it’s Leslie West). The social commentary continues, with more emphasis on what passed for rock in 1993.
He also seems to be going for a different vocal approach, with a lot more crooning in a lower register. This is apparent on “No Man’s Land”, decrying suburban sprawl and decay. We never thought we’d say this, but something about the falsetto (and the finger cymbals) on “The Great Wall Of China” resembles that of Prince in his psychedelic phase. The lyrics are clever without meaning anything, and the Beatlesque touches are interesting. “Blonde Over Blue” has that croon again, a back-handed love song that’s one of the least “Billy Joel-sounding” songs in his catalog. Despite its pseudo-classical title, “A Minor Variation” is a slow funk number in the vein of recent Steve Winwood, and seems even longer than it is. “Shades Of Grey” is pretty loud—incidentally, the only track with Liberty DeVitto on drums—to end a disjointed side.
What was still called side two is an improvement. “All About Soul” is very well-constructed pop, just this side of melodramatic with more hooks than you can count. Even the backing vocal from Color Me Badd, the antithesis of soul, can’t sink this one. “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” fits the “classic Billy Joel” mold, a classical piano piece with a simple, loving vocal, in this case sung to a child. And then there’s the title track, as simple as they come, but again, so frickin’ catchy that it won’t let go. “Two Thousand Years” likely started as another classical theme, but the “hole in the bucket dear Liza” theme after each verse is a distraction. Finally, “Famous Last Words” closes the proceedings on a high note, the Hammond organ prominent over the fade.
And with that prophetic title matching a song that’s anything but grandiose, thus ends the last album of new Billy Joel songs for 21 years and counting. Whether or not that was the intention, River Of Dreams was a better place to stop than Storm Front—and who knows? Maybe we’ll hear from him again someday.

Billy Joel River Of Dreams (1993)—3

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rush 1: Rush

If you were a white suburban American male, it was a simple rite of passage. On your first day of high school, they gave you your math book, your chemistry book, your gym locker combination and the newest Rush album. All these things were required to navigate the journey to manhood.
That’s why, like rings on a tree trunk, you can always tell how old someone is by what their favorite Rush album is, give or take a year. If the album you got with your gym locker combination didn’t take, chances are you were converted when you fell in with certain upperclassmen, who would be highly schooled in not only telling you why an older album was better, but possibly how to play some of those spidery riffs.
Like most stereotypes, it’s not an exact science. Plenty of American males, white or otherwise, hate Rush, will tell you why, and refuse any counter-claim. Geddy Lee has an annoying, shrill voice; to today’s ears he sounds uncannily like Gwen Stefani. Neil Peart is an overrated drummer; if he’s so good, he wouldn’t need such a huge kit. Alex Lifeson is a pedestrian guitarist; nothing he’s done is particularly innovative. Their songs suck, and they have no talent—that’s the weakest argument right there, as quality is a matter of opinion, and there is no questioning their technical abilities.
But even the greatest Canadian power trio of all time—sorry, Triumph fans—had to start somewhere, and Rush started without Neil Peart and his dainty prose. Instead, they were a basic heavy rock combo who met in high school, influenced by Cream and Led Zeppelin. Somebody had to sing, so Geddy stepped up, yowling some terribly clichéd lyrics, even by 1974 standards. Mostly the subjects revolve around women and rockin’, both anomalies in their catalog on the whole.
“Finding My Way” is a good place to start the debut, a straightforward driving song, and certainly better than the thankfully short “Need Some Love”. “Take A Friend” has a long fade-in on an arpeggiated riff soon to be appropriated by Spinal Tap, stock echo tricks on the vocal, and an ambiguous message. They’re very insistent that the person who needs a friend should get him slash herself one, but don’t give any pointers on how to achieve that. Things finally slow down for the moody “Here Again”, for seven and a half minutes.
“What You’re Doing” — sadly, not a Beatles cover, but a Zeppelin pastiche musically — pairs the most obvious rhymes in the genre with some tight playing, while “In The Mood”, complete with cowbell, is boogie straight from the notebooks of Lynryd Skynyrd. “Before And After” plays a dreamy instrumental for about three minutes before switching into standard riffing. The big hit was “Working Man”, that indestructible ode to their audience, with solos highlighting everybody and an ending right off the first Zeppelin album.
There are enough elements on Rush that will sound familiar to anyone who came into the party later, which includes just about everybody who’s ever owned a Rush album—Geddy’s voice for one, and some of the guitar flourishes. But they weren’t anything special at this point, and weren’t doing anything that different from, dare we say, Kiss or even Aerosmith at the same juncture. They needed a gimmick, and soon.

Rush Rush (1974)—

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

R.E.M. 22: Unplugged

In a year that saw no 25th anniversary of an album that could be expanded, the corporation once known as R.E.M. found an unexpected way to comb the vaults and throw a bone to their still-mourning fans. First issued as a Record Store Day vinyl exclusive, Unplugged 1991 & 2001—The Complete Sessions presents the band, as well as MTV, at two distinct junctures in their histories.
The 1991 appearance was a big deal when the band had just released Out Of Time but weren’t undergoing a massive tour for it. But they were already darlings of MTV, which was arguably at the height of its influence on the music industry. The Unplugged franchise had already spawned a handful of companion albums, but had yet to win Grammys.
And of course, it’s not strictly unplugged by definition, for while Bill Berry gamely taps his bongos, Mike Mills stays mostly ensconced behind an organ; he does come forward to warble the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around”, one of the few pop songs Michael Stipe appears to have heard before. Still, the forum fits the six songs from the album they were promoting, which had plenty of acoustic touches to begin with. As a bonus for those fans who’d been hoarding their cassette-next-to-the-VCR copies all these years, five more songs from the taping appear at the end of the first disc, including the B-sides “Fretless” and “Rotary Eleven”.
Ten years later, the band’s stock had waned considerably, as had that of the channel no longer devoted to “music television”. Perhaps not able to convince VH-1 to do it, they returned to MTV to promote Reveal, their second album without Bill. The three guys who would augment them for the rest of their career fill in all the extra space ably on a set mostly culled from material they’d written since the first Unplugged show. (Interestingly, the “unbroadcast” portion is almost entirely from Reveal, which should be telling. And what’s with the “unabetted” comment appearing in two different places? Bad editing!) Much of their music in that period—as demonstrated by “Electrolite”, “Daysleeper”, “At My Most Beautiful”—was more acoustic-based anyway, and didn’t necessarily involve drums, making Bill’s absence less noticeable. But how is it that Bob Dylan doesn’t get credit for the verse of “Like A Rolling Stone” stuck at the end of “Country Feedback”?
An official R.E.M. Unplugged album should be welcome to fans, and certainly to those who need to be reminded how important those guys were at one time. It also has us wondering what else they’ll dig up, and how soon.

R.E.M. Unplugged 1991 & 2001—The Complete Sessions (2014)—

Monday, June 9, 2014

Joe Jackson 17: Rain

Now that it’s uncommon for artists to release an album a year, we simply don’t get to hear dispatches from the front as often. At least the upside is that veteran performers (the smarter ones, anyway) now put out new albums only when they’ve absolutely got something worth saying. And in the 21st century, Joe Jackson is one of those people.
He’s had his own gripes with the machinery over the years, as documented in his memoir A Cure For Gravity. Since his first album he’s gone through four labels and dabbled in a variety of genres throughout his career, some more successful than others. On Rain, easily his best album since the ‘80s, the only gimmick is keeping it simple: piano (lots of it), bass, drums and his own voice on ten strong songs.
Backed by the rhythm section of the original Joe Jackson Band, each track is straightforward with a multitude of hooks, starting with “Invisible Man”, something of a statement of purpose. Many of the other tracks have a timelessness to them, as if they could have been written at any other part of his career, following in order with “Too Tough”, “Citizen Sane” and the aching “Wasted Time”, another heartbroken classic with zero schmaltz. A nice tonic is “The Uptown Train”, which channels Ramsey Lewis’s “The In Crowd” (again) without directly plagiarizing.
“King Pleasure Time” is another jazz reference, but in name only; a terrific tempo drives this acerbic portrait. Any pomposity in the deceptively self-obsessed “Solo (So Low)”, a pseudo-classical piece with vocal, gets punctured by a few well-placed four-letter words. “Rush Across The Road” is near-perfect pop, complete with a bass solo replicating the chorus and even a fake ending. Snide commentary on the music business has to wait all the way until “Good Bad Boy”, an attitude going on for nearly six decades now. Finally, “Place In The Rain” recalls “Love At First Light” from Volume 4, and provides an odd appreciation for the album title, complete with ambient sound over the last minute.
Critics at the time compared the album to the original Night And Day, but a better precedent would be Summer In The City, recorded with a similar format. The occasional layered vocals on Rain show that it’s wasn’t captured completely live in the studio, but it may as well have been. If “intimate” isn’t the best word to describe this performance, let’s just say it’s direct, and was well worth the nearly five-year wait.

Joe Jackson Rain (2008)—4

Friday, June 6, 2014

Coldplay 3: X&Y

Rather than futz with the formula too much, Coldplay’s third album reinforced the brand, song after song. In fact, the music on X&Y is so consistent that the songs blend together, making it difficult to pin down which of them had that hook you liked. (It also continues the band’s U2 fixation by employing Brian Eno, who wouldn’t have bothered if he hadn’t heard something that intrigued him.)
With a wash of celestial keyboards, “Square One” establishes the pattern of much of the album. Keyboards suggest a spacey theme, a soundtrack to the guys shooting through galaxies in space suits. The song goes in an entirely different direction at the end, but with earnestly empathetic lyrics. This continues on “What If”, wherein the band’s guitarist (pop quiz: anybody know his name offhand?) begins to assert himself, as he will throughout the album. “White Shadows” manages to cross “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” with “Shiny Happy People”, and while we’re at it, “Fix You” is the fourth song in a row with the same basic structure (a plaintive keyboard, a solo vocal) but brings all the pieces together for the Millennial generation’s very own “Everybody Hurts”. “Talk” is catchy, probably because it’s based on a Kraftwerk melody, but the first real winner is the title track, which moves from the pattern with a chorus that almost seems psychedelic, or even Beatlesque.
“Speed Of Sound” rewrites “Clocks” from the last album, just as “A Message” delivers more of the general encouragement. “Low” takes another step away from the norm, with a driving beat that eventually the band gives into, resulting in a glorious explosion of power chords that thrill. That clears the way a bit for “The Hardest Part”, with its almost country feel and infectious piano—so much so that one wonders if it would make a better instrumental, to let the melody breathe a little more. By now the album is starting to get a little long, and while “Swallowed In The Sea” has all the makings of the finale, they save the big finish for “Twisted Logic”, a much better choice for an ending and a decent showcase for Jonny Buckland (answer to quiz in previous paragraph). But even that’s not the end—“Till Kingdom Come” is the requisite hidden track, written in the style of Johnny Cash, and maybe he might have recorded it.
While all this may appear dismissive, there’s no denying that X&Y is enjoyable, as long as you don’t try to get too much out of it. Or, if you’re feeling down and susceptible to pep talks from sensitive Brits, maybe it will pull you out of those doldrums. But if we’re supposed to take them as seriously as they want to be taken, they would need the shakeup that somebody like, say, Brian Eno would provide.

Coldplay X&Y (2005)—3

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Neil Young 50: A Letter Home

In the same year he announced the Kickstarter campaign for a new audio platform that would play music in quality far superior to MP3s and CDs, Neil released an album recorded in a do-it-yourself booth, direct to scratchy disc. A Letter Home is another album of covers—his second in two years—recorded quickly and simply, leaning mostly on coffeehouse favorites from his formative days.
His Canadian twang is more pronounced on the opening greeting to his mother (now presumably reunited in Heaven with her ex-husband, aka Neil’s father) in which he gets in a plug for saving the planet. Then he starts singing: Phil Ochs’ “Changes”, “Girl From The North Country” as arranged by Dylan, “Needle Of Death” by Bert Jansch (previously appropriated for “Ambulance Blues”), Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, and the legendary “Crazy”, made famous by Patsy Cline and giving Willie Nelson some royalties.
He begins side two (the album was, after all, both recorded and released on a record first, before the CD and digital versions) with another shout-out to Mom, and that’s about where the wheels come off. His jaunty piano isn’t the best vehicle for Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe”, but it does add variety. Then studio owner Jack White takes over the keys, plinking and singing along on possibly the worst-ever version of “On The Road Again”, sending more money Willie’s way. “If You Could Read My Mind” is another song that originated well after Neil was a household name (Springsteen’s “My Hometown” being the third) and is a faithful rendition of another Gordon Lightfoot song. (Here’s hoping for an electric “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” on the next covers collection.) “Since I Met You Baby” puts Neil back on the piano, and he and Jack do their best Everly Brothers for “I Wonder If I Care As Much”.
Throughout A Letter Home, one can hear echoes of Neil’s own work, and it helps to have some familiar melodies. The rating below applies to its general listenability in the context of his entire career. Neil fans have to have it, and will enjoy it. Everyone else can carry on as they please.

Neil Young A Letter Home (2014)—2