Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joy Division 3: Still

To deal with the loss of their friend, singer and main lyricist, the rest of Joy Division simply went back to work making music. The trio morphed into New Order, using the smoother voice of guitarist Bernard Sumner, and added the drummer’s girlfriend on keyboards to take some of the pressure off their new singer. The band’s first single, “Ceremony”, was a new recording of a song played live at the final Joy Division show, a gig memorialized on two sides of a double album, Still.
It’s another Joy Division album with a title that could be taken any number of ways, the most common assumption being that it was intended to combat bootlegs. Indeed, the other two sides collected studio outtakes, mostly from the time of the first album and subsequent singles, but none of their extraneous singles save one rare compilation track. (The eventual CD left out one of the live songs, unlisted on the LP to begin with.)
The outtakes are interesting in their own way, but it’s often clear why they were unreleased in the first place. It may well have been pointed out that the melody for “Something Must Break” is identical to the Perry Mason theme. Meanwhile, on “The Ice Age”, the repeated chorus “I’m living in the ice age” sounds more like “I’m really, really angry”. “The Sound Of Music” is the most recent studio cut, and naturally sounds more developed than the other tracks (with the possible exception of “Glass”, from the first sampler that included the band’s music). Allegedly the surviving members applied some “post-production” sweetening to these tracks, but they’re still pretty rough.
As a document, the live half does show off the energy of the band, while underscoring their drawbacks—the bass has no oomph, drums rush and slow down, fingers miss frets and the synth goes way off-key for a full minute of “Decades”. The rest is hit or miss, “Ceremony” starting halfway through, yet leading smoothly into “Shadowplay”. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but performances like “New Dawn Fades” and “Transmission” predict early U2. And it’s almost fitting that the last song of the show, “Digital”, was also one of the first songs they’d ever released, providing a true bookend for Ian’s career. (The studio half ends with an encore cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” from a month before; it’s pretty sloppy, but does show some humor when Ian makes a “Louie Louie” reference at the end.)
Since it was never intended to be the final Joy Division album, it shouldn’t be treated as such, but should only be considered as an addendum. And as New Order would evolve and dominate the ‘80s techno scene, the legend of Joy Division would only grow, and inspire further epitaphs.

Joy Division Still (1981)—3

Friday, July 25, 2014

Jimi Hendrix 19: West Coast Seattle Boy

Collectors were still acquainting themselves with whatever bounty they could take from Valleys Of Neptune when, hold and below, another four-CD Jimi box appeared. Rather than repeat the 2000 box, which had been part of the previous MCA deal, West Coast Seattle Boy prefaced three discs of unreleased music with a disc devoted to the session work he’d done before the Experience, for the likes of the Isley Brothers, King Curtis and Little Richard. This stuff had been clogging up gray-area records and tapes since Jimi was alive, and while there are some who will welcome these things in best-ever quality, the real story doesn’t begin until disc two, after he’d hooked up with those two English guys and truly became the Jimi Hendrix of legend. (Perhaps to make up for it, the set included a DVD, and was also available in a single-disc distillation, which was the style at the time.)
So, just like the 2000 box, we travel chronologically through studio alternates and a handful of live tracks, some of which were on since-deleted box sets, others further songs from the Berkeley concert and Band of Gypsys shows. Pay close enough attention and you’ll hear some pretty interesting things.
Many of the outtakes and rarities are instrumental, allowing us to focus on his playing. The best include “Little One” from the Electric Ladyland era, featuring some Indian drones likely contributed by Dave Mason. “Cat Talking To Me” is also pretty decent, particularly without the Mitch Mitchell vocal heard previously. “New Rising Sun” is a longer mix of the dreamy piece that opened Voodoo Soup. “Calling All Devil’s Children” follows a terrific riff unfortunately mixed down to allow a “political rally” to take over the track. “Young/Hendrix” is a 21-minute jam previously excerpted on Nine To The Universe, notable for a five-second riff that Lenny Kravitz stole for “Are You Gonna Go My Way”. Then there’s “Messenger”, a jam on chromatic riffs with Jimi’s overdubbed piano on top. And “Peter Gunn/Catastrophe” is rescued from oblivion, or more accurately, War Heroes.
Of course, there are some actual songs here. “Mr. Bad Luck” purports to be the original mix of the track that sported 1987 overdubs on Valleys Of Neptune; the later version that now opens South Saturn Delta as “Look Over Yonder” is still the one to have. A handful of home recordings preview songs destined for Electric Ladyland and Cry Of Love, including a solo “My Friend”, plus “Tears Of Rage”, not yet widely known outside the Dylan circle. “The Everlasting First” is one of his final guest sessions, with Arthur Lee’s second incarnation of Love. The last piece on the disc is the acoustic “Suddenly November Morning”, from a longer suite of unfinished ideas.
While good, West Coast Seattle Boy was another missed opportunity. Considering all the distinct eras and bands of Jimi’s short career, the grab-bag approach ultimately gives short shrift to the story, distorting it, and making his official catalog even harder to navigate. And the Estate wasn’t done yet.

Jimi Hendrix West Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology (2010)—3

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sting 10: Songs From The Labyrinth

Never one to miss a chance to remind you just how much smarter he is than you are, Sting’s second album of the millennium was in the classical vein. Songs From The Labyrinth consists solely of music written by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, performed entirely on lutes. This is hardly an excavation of buried treasure, as Dowland was already well known to connoisseurs; fellow New Wave refugee Elvis Costello had already performed, recorded and released some pieces several years before Stingy got around to it.
Wisely, he lets special guest Edin Karamazov handle the fretwork, and indeed, the pieces with no vocals are the least distracting. Sting himself plays lute in the background on one interlude, and in duet on another longer piece. When he does sing, and he does, he does so in his imitable style, up close and back-of-the-throat nasal. This approach was great for something like his cover of “Spread A Little Happiness”, but gets a bit trying here. “Can She Excuse My Wrongs”, for instance, would be much better served with a softer vocal, or at least smoothing out all the sharp inhales. As the first track with a vocal, it sets a tone for the album at large.
Because many of the pieces were originally written for ensembles, we’re treated to multiple Stings singing in harmony. “Fine Knacks For Ladies” is one example of this overkill, but will certainly influence any number of college a cappella groups to tackle it.
And because the album is designed to be something of an aural biography, every three tracks or so he reads excerpts from a letter, written by Dowland, in his breathiest BBC accent, accompanied by stock sound effects. It doesn’t help. (One track’s music is credited to Robert Johnson—not, need it be said, the blues legend, but a Dowland contemporary.)
As might be expected, Songs From The Labyrinth topped the classical chart, as many crossovers tend to do upon release, before sharply typically tailing off in sales. It’s since been reissued with a variety of bonus tracks, some of which stem from a DVD documenting the rehearsals and live performances. If the listener is not put off by Sting’s attempts at vocalizing these pieces, rest assured there are other, more pleasing recordings by more apt voices out there. For example, John Potter, formerly of the Hilliard Ensemble, has released several albums under the moniker The Dowland Project; those are worth sampling, as is anything by the Hilliard Ensemble. Meanwhile, this writer plans on checking out other recordings by Edin Karamazov.

Sting Songs From The Labyrinth (2006)—2

Friday, July 18, 2014

CSN 5: Demos

While Neil spent much of the decade promising and delaying his box set, the others in Crosby, Stills & Nash quickly realized that there was gold in them there hills. Crosby’s box set came first in 2006, followed by Nash three years later. Each three-CD set was handsomely packaged with the requisite remixes and alternates; the Stills set wouldn’t arrive until 2013, but was expanded to four, since he’d had more albums to sample. But well before that, he’d released Just Roll Tape, purporting to be a long-long demo session recorded in April of 1968. With snippets of songs never revisited, along with the usual embryonic versions of a few classics, the set proves that he wouldn’t truly find his voice until he had other voices to support him. (It also shows him to be a master of time travel, since it’s been established that Buffalo Springfield had a gig in Arizona while this session was supposedly taking place in New York.)
The very same day Neil’s Archives box finally emerged, so did a CSN disc called, simply, Demos. Culled from the first three or so years they worked together, it’s a low-key, enjoyable collection of songs you already know, but generally in a basic format. In other words, solo and acoustic, and no harmonies.
Considering how headstrong these guys were, the demo versions aren’t that different, structurally, from the finished productions. In most cases they’re blueprints to be built on; “Music Is Love”, for example, appears to be the simpler basic track before Graham and Neil loaded it up to open Crosby’s first solo album, while “Long Time Gone” is an early band version that hasn’t quite arrived at its proper feel.
And that’s another perk to the set—the songs aren’t limited to just the group albums, but include plenty of ideas that wouldn’t reach fruition until their various solo albums. All of Nash’s songs (save “Marrakesh Express”) would end up on his first album, while Stills’ ideas (as proved on Just Roll Tape) could sit around for years before making one of his albums. “You Don’t Have To Cry” consists of just the one verse that would be repeated for the album version, though Crosby’s unplugged sketches of “Déjà Vu” and “Almost Cut My Hair” are even longer than the released takes.
Demos is for fans only, and might have spurred a sequel had the sales been there. But it does succeed for the reasons mentioned, as well as for sending people back to the first records they made together and apart. While not the cottage industry that runs message boards concerning hypothetical post-1970 Beatle albums culled from solo work, there must be more than a few fans who have compiled their own collections of the best of CSN apart.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Demos (2009)—3

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Genesis 4: Foxtrot

With all the ridicule prog-rock gets, it’s undeniable that the people who composed the music were inventive. It could be said that, like Spinal Tap, their taste was always more in question than that of whether or not they were skilled, but it’s staggering to think of how these bands were able to keep up the pace of creativity while touring between the release of a new album every 12 months.
In the case of Genesis, they definitely weren’t stagnating, as demonstrated by Foxtrot. The album art may suggest a sequel to Nursery Cryme, but that’s only on the surface; the guys had a lot more up their ruffled sleeves.
Beginning with a glorious Mellotron fanfare that goes from pastoral to foreboding and back in a matter of seconds, “Watcher Of The Skies” is one of the most exhilarating tracks in their catalog. Its crisp 6/4 meter keeps the whole band in check, and particularly showcases Phil Collins as an excellent drummer. Each high-hat tap or stifled crash is timed perfectly with Steve Hackett’s accents. Its placement on the album makes it easy to repeat as many times as one wishes. “Time Table” is a simpler arrangement, with piano predominating, and a lyric longing for the days of old. Its pastoral mood fades away for “Get ‘Em Out By Friday”, a truly strange narrative more in line with Peter Gabriel’s surreal song introductions. Using various dialects and voices, he tells a multi-faceted story of people being evicted from council flats, then leaping 40 years into the future when the government has limited the height of its citizens to four feet, so that they may build more floors to house people from whom they’re still colleting rent. “Can-Utility And The Coastliners” is even more obscure, providing a less edgy contrast to the previous song, the acoustic and whistling organ gently bobbing us along like a ship on waves.
Side two begins with “Horizons”, a brief, Steve Hackett acoustic instrumental that gains and loses an apostrophe depending on what edition of the album you have. It’s a lovely interlude, not unlike the snippets Steve Howe added to Yes albums. It’s a particularly effective pallet cleanser considering what takes up the rest of the side. “Supper’s Ready” begins with a couple enjoying a quiet evening at home, and with the arrival of seven “saintly shrouded men” outside their window, they get to watch the Biblical Apocalypse ensue right there on the lawn, with a happy ending for all concerned. Seven sections of the songs are labeled, some with fanciful wordplay, occasionally reprising earlier sections, but flowing all the while. (The “Willow Farm” section is particularly striking in its change of pace; besides foreshadowing another future epic, there’s another tempo change for an almost Beatlesque interlude.) If we’re going to take a cheap shot anywhere, let’s just say that without this song, neither Marillion nor their singer Fish would have had anything resembling a career.
Genesis was getting better with every album, and Foxtrot was their best work yet. Their live reputation might have helped garner some attention, with their singer occasionally donning a dress, fox head, flower petals, bat wings and the like. The band proved that there was substance behind the shock.

Genesis Foxtrot (1972)—

Friday, July 11, 2014

Van Morrison 24: Best Of Volume Two

Only three years and two albums since the first, hugely successful collection, here came another compilation from the man’s mostly recent catalog. Fans expecting more hits they knew and/or loved may have been baffled by the choices, supposedly made by Van himself. The Best Of Van Morrison Volume Two sticks pretty much to the stuff PolyGram owned worldwide, so that meant nothing from the ‘70s. Instead we get two songs from each of his ‘80s albums, two from Them, and one each from the live album, the Chieftains album and Hymns To The Silence, then his latest release.
From a strictly musical point of view, it’s a nice set. After starting with the bang of “Real Real Gone”, the program stays predominantly mellow, which isn’t surprising given the period sampled. Some of the transitions will keep the listener on his or her toes, with “A Sense Of Wonder” giving way to “I’ll Tell Me Ma”, which precedes “Coney Island”, and the live “Rave On John Donne” setting up the two Them tracks. (“Don’t Look Back”, a John Lee Hooker song, is a decent slow blues with tasty piano, while their unique rearrangement of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was one of the better contemporary covers. Most likely its inclusion here spurred Beck to sample it a few years later.)
If Van really did compile this set, we give him points for including some of our favorite deep cuts. The Best Of Van Morrison Volume Two is not as immediately accessible as its older brother, but it’s not a waste of plastic. Still, we strongly encourage people to dive into the albums themselves for even more gold.

Van Morrison The Best Of Van Morrison Volume Two (1993)—4

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tori Amos 1: Little Earthquakes

To this day it’s still mistaken for Kate Bush, but Little Earthquakes immediately established Tori Amos as a dominant talent, and one of the most revered artists of the ‘90s. Not that this happened overnight. This was actually her second album on the Atlantic label, having since convinced the industry powerhouse to delete and bury Y Kant Tori Read, her eponymous hair-metal debut most notable today for employing Matt Sorum a year before Slash saw him play with The Cult. Having decided, rightfully, that the image that album perpetuated wasn’t really her, she determined to follow her instincts and find her “real” sound.
It took a while, and several producers, but Little Earthquakes is the statement of a woman truly comfortable in her own skin, and would become a guru for thousands of young women (and, to be fair, men) aching to be the same. It was an appealing package: a classically schooled pianist, with frizzy red hair and a contextually direct performance style: she eschewed the stool for a bench, while she’d straddle, half facing the audience, almost daring them to stare.
This presentation would be especially provocative whenever she performed “Me And A Gun”, a harrowing a cappella piece recounting her experience of being raped. This factoid was never ignored during the promotion of the album, but unfortunately it would be mistaken as the main theme of “Silent All These Years”, the excellent first single. It may have something to do with that, but the larger message is that of speaking up, and not letting your voice be silenced.
The determination not to be victimized needn’t be restricted to sexual assault, and both “Crucify” and “Girl” can be taken as feminist anthems at their most basic. “Precious Things”, with its horror movie arrangement, and the cabaret-style “Leather” are songs about relationships, partially informed by growing up with a minister father. Speaking of which, “Winter” would appear to be more directly about him, but again, it’s a plea for self-acceptance, and the way her emotion catches in her throat on the final chorus will do the same for the listener. The string arrangement is suitably dramatic without being overblown. Some timely comic relief comes with “Happy Phantom”, a vaudeville jig about avenging one’s tormentors from beyond the grave.
Because her style is opaque, and informed by pagan and other influences, the songs are easy to misinterpret. “Mother”, a lengthy solo piece, conjures images of childhood, possible abuse and dancing lessons. The title track provides more of a sense of closure after “Me And A Gun”. So things like “China” and “Tear In Your Hand”, with their easy metaphors, rise above as excellent, catchy pop.
These interpretations will likely be scoffed at by more learned individuals; as a male there is no way I can begin to understand what it’s like to be female. But for whatever the reason, Little Earthquakes was worth all the work Tori Amos put into it, and it still triggers emotional reactions with every play. And its simple girl-and-her-piano sound was a welcome alternative in the early grunge era. (In fact, not only did the singles house highly sought-after outtakes from the album, she even rearranged “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for voice and piano, which Kurt Cobain himself appreciated.)

Tori Amos Little Earthquakes (1992)—4

Friday, July 4, 2014

Robyn Hitchcock 26: I Often Dream Of Trains In New York

As even punk nears middle age, it’s become common for established musicians to celebrate the anniversary of one of their acclaimed albums by performing it live, in its entirety. These self-tributes are usually reserved for albums that either weren’t appreciated on original release or too complicated to perform at the time; see recent reboots by Lou Reed and Van Morrison for prime examples.
Robyn Hitchcock had just re-re-released his acoustic favorite I Often Dream Of Trains the year before doing a brief tour playing what he called “the director’s cut” of the album. The final night was filmed and recorded, eventually released as I Often Dream Of Trains In New York.
A “cassette fragment” of “Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl” plays over the PA before slowing to a halt, whereupon our hero comes out to play “Nocturne”. From there, he and two cohorts (helping out on guitars, keys and horns) play most of the album the audience knows and loves, based on their polite but fervent applause after each song ends. Besides rejigging the order, a few changes are made: “Flavour Of Light” (as opposed to “Night”) may be a misprint, but the “tongue of fire hissing through the dark and tropical night” in “This Could Be The Day” are now “thrown by Nubian Dave”, and not slaves—perhaps in reverence of the new president, whom he’s very pleased was elected. “Mellow Together”, “Furry Green Atom Bowl” and “Bones In The Ground” are all excluded, but “Uncorrected Personality Traits” is an a cappella joy. “That’s Fantastic Mother Church” is stuck in the middle, and doesn’t pick up the pace despite its rhythm.
A few encores are included to fill out an otherwise short program: “America” (swapped on the DVD for “I’m Falling” from the recent Venus 3 album), “Up To Our Nex” (from the same album) and a rearranged “Goodnight I Say”. In all, a nice curio. Now if he’d only do a similar tour for Eye

Robyn Hitchcock I Often Dream Of Trains In New York (2009)—3

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blue Nile 1: A Walk Across The Rooftops

A Scottish band called The Blue Nile bubbled out of obscurity in the mid-‘80s, with an inscrutable sound as oddly appealing as it was anti-mainstream. Their debut LP, A Walk Across The Rooftops was a slow burning success, particularly considering how long it took for them to do a follow-up.
The album is an exercise in minimalism. At its most basic it’s synth-pop, using all the sounds available in the first half of the ‘80s, with a drum machine not yet advanced to sound real. The tracks are constructed like paintings, not as a set of chord changes upon which the lyrics hang. A few beats here, a guitar or bass line there, and a wash of keyboard combine for the general feel. Paul Buchanan’s vocals, straining just this side of proper pitch, express longing and other emotions wrapped in glamorous imagery borrowed from old movies. Sometimes they make sense, other times you wonder if he learned to speak English phonetically.
The opening title track contains all these aspects, and would seem to epitomize the album. It seeps in like fog as the narrator walks across said rooftops, before boldly declaring, “I am in love.” A distant trumpet adds some further color, and it fades away much the way it arrived. “Tinseltown In The Rain” is driven by a funkier rhythm, with enough of a hook to have it pass for a hit single. The bridge asks the pointed question, “Do I love you?” (The answer: “Yes, I love you.” Good to know.) The more mechanical “From Rags To Riches” is another symphony of randomly placed sounds; this time he’s sure to explain that he’s “in love with the feeling”. Not a lot happens for seven minutes.
“Stay” is a more straightforward pop song, though that pre-programmed fill is the aural equivalent of the Wilhelm scream. Possibly the highlight is “Easter Parade”, a quiet and pretty piano piece with the slightest of color and a vocal not too far removed from Bruce Springsteen. (Rickie Lee Jones re-recorded this with the band themselves, which makes them sound like her in reverse.) The final two songs evoke more of the factory sounds in their own unique ways; “Heatwave” is not the Motown classic, and “Automobile Noise” gives the feeling of silently leaving the city behind.
While a little cold, A Walk Across The Rooftops is a sneaky little album that succeeds in spite of itself. Truly, nothing really sounds like it, and its cult has grown steadily since its release. Enough interest in the album over the years led to the inevitable remaster with bonus tracks. While Blue Nile obsessives complained about what was left off (like the Rickie Lee Jones song), at least they could finally enjoy pristine digital copies of the band’s elusive first single, the gorgeous B-side “Regret”, and the phenomenal unreleased gem “St. Catherine’s Day”.

The Blue Nile A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)—
2012 Remastered Collector's Edition: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks