Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Frank Zappa 27: Orchestral Favorites

Throughout his lifetime, and towards the end of it, Zappa often went on at length about all the problems he had with “real” musicians, and how people in the classical field ignored him, ripped him off, or otherwise disrespected him. (Can’t imagine why they didn’t hit it off right away.) Insult added to injury anytime he financed an orchestral performance himself, paying for the copying, rehearsing and sundry. But that was usually the only way he could get the dots on the paper to be played.
The final album of music owed to his old label, Orchestral Favorites presents most of the rest of the material originally recorded in 1975 for a larger project, then siphoned off, re-edited and shelved. Timing being everything, it was seemingly rush-released in the wake of Sheik Yerbouti; those looking for more of the same humor would have been disappointed. Instead, they’d get a well-recorded representation of Zappa’s composing abilities.
As the title suggests, this is an orchestral album, with no vocals, which alone makes it an improvement on his last released orchestral experiment, 200 Motels, even repeating some themes. “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” bookend the set and take up the most space, striking a balance between grand themes and avant-garde expressionism. “Pedro’s Dowry” was written specifically for the project, and recalls elements of Lumpy Gravy and “Holiday In Berlin”. “Naval Aviation In Art?” is a brief, suspenseful violin piece, and the old standby “Duke Of Prunes” reappears with a ‘70s shuffle and overdubbed guitar solo.
Throughout Orchestral Favorites, horns and strings rub up against percussion, a standard drum kit, harmonicas, electric violins and electronic keyboards. Together, it provides an alternative to the standard menu of filthiness.

Frank Zappa Orchestral Favorites (1979)—3

Friday, September 25, 2015

Joni Mitchell 12: Shadows And Light

Live albums can preserve a key moment in time, or serve to sum up a chapter of an artist’s career. Or sometimes it’s just a way to fulfill contractual obligations. Shadows And Light, Joni’s second double live set, puts her in front of a tight jazz combo, featuring no less than Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Michael Brecker and Don Alias—a long way from that lovelorn folksinger.
The concert was also a video production at the time, evidenced by the introduction, which melds the title track with sound bites from Rebel Without A Cause and Frankie Lymon. Then it’s right into songs from Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Mingus, but only one from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. She’s clearly about the band here, letting “Pat’s Solo” bridge “Amelia” and “Hejira”, just as “Don’s Solo” connects “Black Crow” and “Dreamland”. (You’ll have to get the DVD for “Jaco’s Solo”.) A capella group The Persuasions were on the tour as well, and back her up on “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, hinted at in the intro. The only early “hits” here are “Free Man In Paris” and the closing, moody arrangement of “Woodstock”.
The songs benefit from the unified context, and the sound is clean and full, as befits the players and their concern for tone. Shadows And Light ends up being a good entrée into Joni’s less commercial work, capping off a busy decade and setting the stage for one with less activity.

Joni Mitchell Shadows And Light (1980)—

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Robyn Hitchcock 29: Love From London

After thirty years as a solo artist, with a catalog that has sold well into the dozens, Robyn Hitchcock doesn’t inspire more than a raised eyebrow from most people, least of all those who wonder why he gets so much attention from this blog. Admittedly, his heyday is well in the past, but for those still longing for the consistency he supplied in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Love From Londøn comes the closest yet.
First of all, a circular piano part drives “Harry’s Song”, a mysterious number and oddly foreboding opener. “Be Still” is more upbeat, harmonious and pinned by an insistent cello part, while “Stupefied” combines a tabla effect with handclaps and dotty piano. It takes bollocks to write a song called “I Love You” at this late date, and he marries it to a pretty obnoxious backing. More successful is “Devil On A String”, with its college-rock guitar and canned sax.
Besides having a very Hitchcockian title, “Strawberries Dress” could have easily been lifted from an Egyptians album. “Death & Love” are topics he’s covered fully, but here don’t really figure past the title. “Fix You” takes the lyrical hook from the Coldplay song and turns it into a commentary on capitalism (“Now that you’re broke, who’s gonna fix you?”) with a suitably tense backing. “My Rain” is very intricate acoustically and electrically, and matches “Harry’s Song” for the gem of the album. Just to keep things constant, “End Of Time” is a happy sounding song about death, with seashore effects that recall his first solo album and a reprise of what is presumably the album’s title track.
The credits would have us believe that any drums heard on Love From Londøn are computerized, yet the album sounds just as lively as any of his recent work with a human percussionist. We hesitate to give it a higher rating than what we have, but it really is one of his better albums of this century.

Robyn Hitchcock Love From Londøn (2013)—3

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ben Folds 14: So There

String accompaniments have been features of every Ben Folds album, going back to his first with the Five. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that each of the new songs on So There are all accompanied by an ensemble called yMusic, who provide strings, wind and brass accordingly.
With one exception, most of the songs are opaque lyrically, with an overlying effect of melancholy, even on the upbeat ones. “Capable Of Anything” can’t decide if it’s an apology, a rejoinder or a pep talk, and we’re dying to know who inspired the molasses-slow “Not A Fan”. The title track is the most complex, with its lightning piano runs and extended bridge. “Long Way To Go” is a completed version of a snippet dating back to the fake leak of Way To Normal, and the backing to “Phone In A Pool” sounds like something he’s written before. There’s an odd juxtaposition of references in “Yes Man”, which mentions both “click and drag” and a Fotomat; something the amateur photographer in Ben likely meant intentionally. Of course, Mr. Locker Room returns for “F10-D-A” (“with a big fat D… C what it’s like to B”), which is musically interesting, but the joke doesn’t survive the first verse. “I’m Not The Man”, written with actress and former paramour Alicia Witt, is another sad song in a string of several.
That’s just half of the album, and a setup for his very first completed “Concerto For Piano & Orchestra”. Commissioned and performed by the Nashville Symphony, this three-movement piece sounds very American to these ears, and anything with a prominent piano is going to be compared to “Rhapsody In Blue” anyway. Unlike other “rockers do classical” pieces, such as by Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson, this piece doesn’t try to marry the genre, nor is it obvious that it’s written by someone without a classical background. So for that, it works.
The listener is left thinking of such low-key conclusions as “Boxing”, “Evaporated” and “The Luckiest”—all nice songs, but an album full of them needs variety. So There lacks a really standout hook, but at least he’s not repeating himself. Too much.

Ben Folds So There (2015)—3

Friday, September 11, 2015

Genesis 9: Seconds Out

At another crossroads, Genesis chose to present their progress in the form of their second live album, and a double to boot. Seconds Out was recorded mostly during the tour for their last album, and occasionally features the sound of two drummers: Chester Thompson, who was brought in to cover the beat while Phil Collins was up front singing, and to play off of him when Phil ran back to his own kit during instrumental sections. (One song, recorded the year before, features the sticks and skins of Bill Bruford, plus Phil.) Already gaining a reputation as an incomparable live band, here they show off the template which, with another adjustment to come, they’d follow for the best part of the next two decades.
The more interesting parts are the songs originally sung by Peter Gabriel, which is most of the album, and Phil handles those characters pretty well. This is evident when the band moves from “Squonk” to what’s labeled here as “The Carpet Crawl”, building from near silence to the glorious crescendo and back again. “Robbery, Assault And Battery” isn’t any less insufferable live, but “Afterglow” makes a surprise appearance at the end of side one. “Firth Of Fifth” does okay without the piano intro, and Hackett covers the flute solo on guitar with some help from Tony, while “I Know What I Like” is twice as long due to an extended coda that touches on other, older songs (like “Stagnation”), and would continue to do so. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” melds neatly into the “closing section” of “The Musical Box”, providing abridged slices of those epics.
That’s not to say they were already cutting corners on their past. All 24 minutes of “Supper’s Ready” are pretty impressive, Phil navigating the words, melody and voices well, and even joining in on drums for the 9/8 section. “Cinema Show” is also close to the original, but given an abrupt ending. “Dance On A Volcano” culminates in a drum duel, nicely setting up “Los Endos” to bring us full circle to the start. The album fades to the sound of thousands of clapping Parisians being treated to Ethel Merman over the PA.
Seconds Out is successful both at presenting the band’s show, as well as providing something of a “hits” sampler through their more recent work. Steve Hackett left the band before it was released, bringing us one step closer to the Phil Collins we know today.

Genesis Seconds Out (1977)—

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tears For Fears 3: The Seeds Of Love

After two albums that had come out relatively close to each other, it took Tears For Fears four full years to complete their follow-up. Roland Orzabal had come down with a severe case of studio-itis, recording and re-recording tracks, with seemingly little input from Curt Smith. (Keyboardist Nicky Holland became Orzabal’s key collaborator in the interim.) By the time The Seeds Of Love finally came out, the music scene had changed from the synth-pop that helped launched the band; as a result their sound was less experimental, but still elaborate pop.
The opening track, “Woman In Chains”, is notable as a near-duet with Oleta Adams, who got a nice boost for her career thanks to this album, as well as from its production, which very much resembles the recent hit work by Peter Gabriel. At over six minutes, the track is given time to breathe and expand, and is quote stirring. “Badman’s Song” is even longer, beginning with a frantic Latin jazz solo, and continuing with gospel overtones. “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” was a late entry into the psychedelic revival of two years before, but because Beatles nostalgia was still in vogue, the song became a hit. What’s more, Curt Smith’s voice was heard for the first time on the album. He’s also prominent on the slightly wimpy “Advice For The Young At Heart”, a little too adult contemporary for these ears.
Side two’s songs are just as lengthy, a little more demanding and not always as catchy. “Standing On The Corner Of The Third World” mostly rumbles along at a medium tempo, with occasional melodies borrowed from “I Believe”. “Swords And Knives” is a little more involved but just as meandering. As if one song about knives wasn't enough, “Year Of The Knife” beings inexplicably with the sound of a live audience cheering, though there’s been no indication that it was actually recorded at a concert. Maybe they were going for a “Broken” vibe? Anyway, there’s a return to the “sun and the moon, wind and the rain” motif from “Women In Chains”. “Famous Last Words” is the shortest song, has hints of the Blue Nile and more “sun and the moon”, and leaves the listener feeling depressed about the end of the world.
While not a triumph—few albums that take so long to make are—The Seeds Of Love does show the band progressing. The best songs still sound good today, and that’s always appreciated. (The eventual reissue sported four contemporary B-sides, one of which would eventually be reworked for their next single, which we’ll get to, and the sterile jazz of “Music For Tables”.)

Tears For Fears The Seeds Of Love (1989)—3
1999 remastered CD: same as 1989, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 4, 2015

Smithereens 3: 11

The cover suggests a nod to the film Ocean’s Eleven (the Rat Pack one, years before the 21st century reboot) while most rock fans would take the title as a Spinal Tap reference. With 11, the Smithereens were able to keep up their track record three albums running.
As ever, it’s all about riffs, volume and melody, so “A Girl Like You” and “Blues Before And After” are pinned to muscular hooks. “Blue Period” sports a chamber pop string quartet, a harpsichord solo influenced by “In My Life” and—wait for it—Belinda Carlisle on harmonies. But good as they are, “Baby Be Good” and “Room Without A View” already sound like other Smithereens songs—“Listen To Me Girl” and “House We Used To Live In” respectively—a trend that becomes more apparent for the duration of the album.
“Yesterday Girl” is pretty snappy, even if it does share several elements with the Beach Boys’ “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, which they already covered on their first EP. “Cut Flowers” is the only song on the album with a co-writing credit, and perhaps Jim Babjak’s input is what helps make the song so good. Some would suggest it’s the backing vocals by the Honeys, a group better known as Brian Wilson’s ex-wife, ex-sister-in-law and ex-cousin-in-law. Speaking of which, the name “William Wilson” is a cross between the California auteur and an Edgar Allen Poe protagonist, and it’s a pretty busy song for such an obscure narrative. Keeping with the retro references, “Maria Elena” was also the name of Buddy Holly’s wife, and while it references a few song titles, the catchiness is more Pat DiNizio than Holly. Despite the Beatles ‘65-style intro, “Kiss Your Tears Away” is a midtempo lullaby with a prominent Coral sitar.
There’s a lot to like on 11, but it’s not as strong as the first two, and not just because those had all the good ideas. Consumers thought differently, and bought enough copies of the album to keep the band on the road for another year.

The Smithereens 11 (1989)—3

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Replacements 3: Hootenanny

The Replacements were ever determined to wipe their noses in the direction of anyone who’d take them seriously. The cover graphics and liner notes on Hootenanny are a diversion tactic, demonstrated immediately by the shambolic title track, wherein the band members swap instruments.
From there it’s another see-saw ride between punk thrash and tuneful attempts at pop. “Run It” is about the joys of ignoring traffic signals, but “Color Me Impressed” is Paul Westerberg’s first great rock song, and “Willpower” demonstrates how they’d figured out dynamics in the studio (as demonstrated by “Go” on the Stink EP). And then there’s “Take Me Down To The Hospital”, a boogie shuffle with actual cries of pain. There’s a reference to blisters on fingers at the end, a good setup for the last song on the side. The credit for “Mr. Whirly” reads “mostly stolen”, and indeed, it begins with the intro of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, devotes a verse to “The Twist”, and finishes with an extemporaneous section devoted to the title sung to the tune of “Oh! Darling”.
Side two tries to cover more ground. Westerberg’s solo-with-drum-machine “Within Your Reach” was hailed at the time for its depth, but now it just sounds as dated as that drum machine. (And reminds one of the less wincey moments of Say Anything.) “Buck Hill” is a fairly competent instrumental, while “Lovelines” consists of Westerberg reading the personals, harmonized, over a cool groove. “You Lose” and “Hayday” straddle that see-saw, while the unamplified “Treatment Bound” comes closest to an actual hootenanny.
With just a little more polish, Hootenanny would be more than obnoxious, but they weren’t there yet. That’s why we can’t give it a passing grade. (The expanded CD gets points for adding “Lookin’ For Ya”, plus a fast remake of “Johnny’s Gonna Die” and a better rehearsed “Treatment Bound”.)

The Replacements Hootenanny (1983)—
2008 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 7 extra tracks