Friday, December 30, 2016

Rush 9: Moving Pictures

The one Rush album everyone can agree on (unless you hate Rush, in which case you should stop reading this entry immediately), Moving Pictures presents the band at perhaps their most creative peak, when the synthesizers became integral to the band’s sound without completely taking it over. The economy of writing laid out on Permanent Waves is even better displayed here, most songs not too long and still meaty enough to be immersive.
This is the album that begins with “Tom Sawyer”, another one of their most recognizable songs, and based mostly on a single drone. Then we have a song about a car, in this case a mispronounced “Red Barchetta”, given an extremely picturesque arrangement that changes gears just like all the best (and worst) songs about cars do. Every teenage guitarist worth his salt just had to master that harmonics riff, being one of the few Alex Lifeson parts that doesn’t require speed to impress. Trainspotters love to explain the significance of “YYZ”, its Morse code tempo giving each of the band members room to show off. A Zeppelinesque hook introduces “Limelight”, practically a pop song and one of Neil Peart’s most personal, ironic, and often misinterpreted lyrics.
It’s such a perfect album side that many spotty youths we know played it way more than the flip, often skipping right to “Witch Hunt” in the middle of side two. It was their loss, which they would all realize once the charms of “The Camera Eye” were allowed to be heard. A two-verse song contrasting and comparing two iconic cities isn’t any literary leap, particularly when the cities in question are Manhattan and London, but they can be a pretty big deal to anyone seeing them for the first time. The verses are almost secondary to the main thrust of the song, with its grandiose swoop and cinematic breadth. Still, at eleven minutes most D&D players would have been more impressed by the sinister undertones and gothic overtones of “Witch Hunt”, and since “Vital Signs” even got airplay on MTV, most of the kids were able to keep up with the backwards reggae beat and tricky stop-time.
Even the band themselves know how large Moving Pictures looms in their legend, going so far as to spotlight it on tour some 30 years after its initial release. There’s nothing silly or embarrassing here, but there is some well-placed humor, both in the music and on the cover. Again, of all their catalog, this is the one album every Rush fan can agree on, and the best entry point.

Rush Moving Pictures (1981)—4

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oasis 3: Be Here Now

All of a sudden, and mostly because Blur hadn’t swatted them out of the way at home or in the US, Oasis was the biggest band in the world. Those accolades fueled the hubris necessitating the news flash that they weren’t the Beatles. Hell, they weren’t even the Jam, even after cozying up to and getting endorsements from the similarly coiffed mod icons, and ticking off the surviving Fabs in the process. They remained, however, five of the luckiest guys in the world led by the whims of a cokehead with a marginal talent for recycling old riffs and lyrics.
Whereas (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? was, and remains, a highly catchy collection of pop songs, the much-anticipated Be Here Now still tries patience. Most of the songs are over six minutes long, and thanks to the uniform mixing—all distorted guitars and crash cymbals with feedback hum, extended endings and too much tambourine—it takes more listens than most can stand before individual songs stand out under Liam Gallagher’s whine. Only their third album, and it’s already a sad game to discern which of their own songs they’d begun to rewrite.
Yet, it’s a long time to get to even that point. “D’You Know What I Mean?” has the attitude but none of the substance of the debut, and after seven minutes it finally gives way to “My Big Mouth”—an apt title for the Gallagher brothers, to be sure, and a lame rewrite of the previous album’s title track. Noel comes to the fore on “Magic Pie”, something of a timely recapture of the Revolver era and a good distillation of the better moments of the album, but again, who in the hell besides these guys in those days thought seven-minute tracks were a good idea, with or without crash cymbals and feedback? Even Noel yells “shut up!” right before one of the final extended free-form fades.
That’s three tracks, and the listener has already sacrificed 20 valuable minutes of existence. We’ve yet to hear anything as catchy—or, ironically, as anthemic, given the length—of anything from the first two albums. That almost comes with “Stand By Me”, a lazy title and a pale remake of “Live Forever” and “Married With Children” from the first album, but goes far too long to make its point. “I Hope, I Think, I Know” is welcome given its four-minute brevity, but it’s still buried beneath a barrage of sound, and the same approach sinks “The Girl In The Dirty Shirt”, which insists on ending with a pointless electric piano vamp.
These songs are all in the same tempo, with that damn tambourine driving it along, so by the time “Fade In-Out” kicks in, nobody cares, even after it finally changes chords. Here also is when they decide to placate those with short attention spans by tossing up “Don’t Go Away”, a mope worthy of anything else in the decade, and the album’s high point. Had the album started there, the title track would have been a welcome groove, but by now it’s just more indulgence, with a stupid slide whistle to boot. By the time we’re almost at the end of this very long album, we get the Beatlesque plea in “All Around The World”, complete with Liam’s unique pronunciation of “shine”. That goes on for nine minutes, and it would be a good place to end the album, but we still have to be told that “It’s Gettin’ Better (Man!!)”, over a groove that doesn’t sound any different from the previous hour. Just to make sure, they tack on another two minutes of “All Around The World” to let everyone know just how artistic they were.
Back then, when we really, really wanted to like this album, we said, “It will be interesting to see where these guys are in five years, assuming they’re still around.” And despite all it’s problems, we still want to like Be Here Now. But boy, did they fall off the tram. The band’s attempts to come off confident only end up wary, as if they knew everybody else had figured them out. Why else would they have a tambourine cover everything up for 71 minutes?
Two decades on people are still defending this album, and they shouldn’t. Naturally, it had to be reissued with bonus discs, which did at least unearth some decent (if still too long) Noel-sung B-sides in “The Fame”, “Flashbax” and “Going Nowhere”. Acoustic takes of songs like “Stand By Me” show their obvious sources, inescapable appeal, Noel’s limited strumming ability, and the blend the brothers could create when they weren’t slapping each other around. We even get an acoustic busk of “Setting Sun”, the acid-house Chemical Brothers track that had Noel singing lead. But there’s also an entire disc of Noel’s one-man band demos of the songs that became the album, all of which portend the horror to come, and certainly the length. Had they been released back then, they might have aged better than the album itself.

Oasis Be Here Now (1997)—

Friday, December 23, 2016

Grateful Dead 6: American Beauty

To stretch a metaphor, American Beauty is to Workingman’s Dead as Revolver is to Rubber Soul. The Dead were firing on all their creative cylinders, and produced an album that both complemented and built on its predominantly acoustic predecessor.
And talk about a strong opener: “Box Of Rain” is a fully fleshed-out arrangement, with acoustic guitar, Clarence White-flavored leads, harmonies, piano, bass and both drummers in a busy mix, capped by a lead vocal by Phil Lesh. It really is one of their best tracks, especially when heard in context with the two songs that come next. “Friend Of The Devil” is the one all guitar players try to learn, with its descending riff in G, but what we hear now is the high-speed mandolin, contributed by Garcia buddy David Grisman. (We also can’t help singing the first verse of “Kiss Me Deadly” along with that riff. Mostly because we don’t know the rest of “Kiss Me Deadly”.) “Sugar Magnolia”, with Jerry playing pedal steel like nobody else, is just as much of a quintessential Dead tune, and always seems longer than it really is. “Operator” is Pigpen’s contribution to both the album and the genre of songs that take place on a telephone. “Candyman” sounds most like the last album, being another slow sad lope, and loaded with lots of folk song references.
Any Deadhead worth his or her salt will immediately swoon and sway to “Ripple”, and join in the celestial choir finishing the tune with “da da da”s. On the record it’s a quick segue to “Brokedown Palace”, which almost seems like a natural part two, a honky tonk piano adding to the atmosphere. Something of a sore thumb is “Till The Morning Comes”, mostly because we far prefer Neil Young’s shorter song of a similar title from the same year. There’s something a little sinister about declaring “you’re my woman now” and demanding that she make herself easy. “Attics Of My Life” provides a wide palette to prove how much they’d progressed on their harmonies, but just like the last album started and finished strong, so does this with “Truckin’”, which has more drug references to make the kids giggle, and the source of any mention of a long, strange trip.
To continue our Beatles insight above, while that band spent the next three years in the studio, the Dead took the opposite route, and wouldn’t release another studio album of new material for three years. They almost didn’t have to, since they proved themselves so well with both Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. This album completes the one-two punch, and belongs in the other side of a Maxell 90 with its brother. (Live versions, most from before the album was released, all needing a lot of work on harmonies, fill up the expanded disc, along with edited single versions of “Truckin’” and “Ripple”.)

Grateful Dead American Beauty (1970)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 8 extra tracks

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Bruce Springsteen 21: The Promise

Maybe it was only isolated to one corner of the country, but up in the northeast, one of rock ‘n roll’s most bootlegged artists of a certain decade was Bruce Springsteen. Part of that was due to his legal troubles in the late ‘70s, wherein he was prohibited from releasing his big follow-up to Born To Run. He was allowed to record, and he played an enviable roster of shows, but all that free time encouraged him to write at least three albums’ worth of material, so that when his next album did arrive (to unquestionable acclaim amongst the already converted) it barely scratched the surface of what had been on his mind.
For the better part of 30 years, fans clung to concert tapes and illicitly acquired dubs of the stuff he was working on then, so it was very surprising (and welcome) when he eventually signed off on The Promise, released not only as an adjunct to an anniversary edition of Darkness At The Edge Of Town, but allowed to stand on its own as its own entity, separate from the setup. (Which is why we’re talking about it here, rather than in the context of that album’s reissue.) It was the smart move, because it’s a terrific pile of tunes. These aren’t just siphoned tracks scattered across a larger collection of cast-offs from a disparate career; these recordings all come from the same singular era, with the same defined band members trying to help him concoct his next attempt at the Great American Novel on wax.
And that’s why The Promise is an excellent package, as it presents not one but two LPs’ worth of tunes that would have gone a long way to establishing Bruce as a force to be reckoned with. Go into it blind and ask yourself: this stuff wasn’t as good as what he did end up releasing in 1978? Once you get past that, higher thumbs up to the kid who was so focused on the message he wanted his fourth album to present that he could nudge aside two dozen other songs that anybody else of that era would’ve killed to write, much less record. These are all tunes worthy of that time, and if he had just thrown them on the first pile of plastic that went past the conveyor belt, whatever he called it would have been hailed by Rolling Stone, WNEW-FM and the rest of the usual suspects as a deeply crafted work of amazing import, with maybe only that week’s Graham Parker or Steve Forbert albums to suggest an opponent, but hardly enough to stick in the long run.
Scholars can pinpoint the exact spots, but even we can hear elements that would surface on things that actually did emerge at the time. The set begins with an alternate arrangement of “Racing In The Street”, and continues through what amounts to full-band demos of “Because The Night” and “Fire”, which would have brought him piles of money if he’d released them himself rather than pawn them off on others. Truly, if deejays had gotten their hands on “Rendezvous” back then, you’d still be hearing it today. The set gets its title from a legendary outtake that finally appears in a full band take, right up there with his other epic ballads, but without the engine. (And really, quoting “Thunder Road” so soon after the song of that title? That just wasn’t done in ’78.) They’re not all gems; “Talk To Me” and “It’s A Shame” would have been much better served by Southside Johnny. And nice as it is, listen to “Candy’s Boy” and try to convince yourself that this trip to the beach beats the ball of tension it would eventually evolve into. It’s particularly odd that the last track listed is the underwhelming and hardly enjoyed “City Of Night”, particularly when “The Way” is more what we’d expect from him. Slight as it is, it’s got Clarence, and he wouldn’t be around for much longer.
Everything sounds crisp and clean, and unlike the post-production that rankled fans on Tracks, the songs crackle like the analog of 1977. A handful of tracks have had modern sweetening, but not so much that they render the songs anachronistic. We’re going to go out on a limb and suggest that these songs are to the Bruce pantheon as any of Dylan’s 1965-66 leftovers are to his. Here was a guy firing on all cylinders, and right in the middle of it, he’d figured out how he wanted his albums to sound. It’s clear he knew how to write hits; he wanted to write songs that would last. Good for him.

Bruce Springsteen The Promise (2010)—

Friday, December 16, 2016

Neil Young 56: Peace Trail

Making albums that by anyone else’s standards would be considered kinda goofy is one thing that keeps Neil Young so interesting after half a century of recording, and it’s also one of his more maddening traits. Peace Trail written and recorded quickly in a simple trio format, might just be his goofiest project yet. Here we have ten songs, mostly played acoustic, with some electric fuzz and distorted harmonica, to the accompaniment of a muted bass and the inventively percussive Jim Keltner on drums. Sometimes the strumming is straight, while the drums crash around like boxes; other times it’s the song that’s off-kilter.
The title track has the potential to be a classic, and will likely garner cheers on concerts for years to come. The recording is embellished by his now-trademark pump organ and AutoTuned response vocals. Used as ironic commentary on his last album, apparently he’s embraced it. He gives a manifesto of sorts with “Can’t Stop Workin’”, half the length of the previous track but sounding louder, with increasingly dissonant harmonica blasts. “Indian Givers” addresses the 2016 protest of Standing Rock, which is a timely topic on the release date; time will tell its impact. “Show Me” would translate well to a raucous electric take when the time comes, being a fairly standard tune, but things get a little more surreal on “Texas Rangers”, which refers not to the baseball team but to law enforcement, delivered in a verse structure with a poetic device (as shown on the lyric sheet poster) that modifies back and forth over a half-step after each verse.
A deceptively straight chord sequence is the setup for “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”, which soon becomes something of a rant by a tea party advocate that’s already been misinterpreted by one audience member as an anti-Muslim rant. There’s little to be misinterpreted in “John Oaks”, the saga of a modern Johnny Appleseed type whose attempt to speak at demonstration turns tragic. One of the least penetrable tracks is “My Pledge”, which comes off like the stream of consciousness of someone stuck outside of time, particularly when lines are echoed and AutoTuned. He apparently didn’t notice that “Glass Accident” uses the melody of “Beautiful Bluebird” for an otherwise pleasant if thin allegory about protecting the planet once we’ve noticed something’s gone awry. But nothing could prepare the listener for “My New Robot”, which begins as a love song, then describes in detail the unpacking of item in the title before literally “powering off”.
The closest comparison we can think of in the pantheon could be side one of Hawks & Doves, but even that sounds tame compared to this program. Some of the rambling in Greendale is echoed, and those harp solos are right off of Sleeps With Angels. Peace Trail is as intriguing as it is maddening; this is the latest state of the Neil, who’s often been compelled to share his thoughts while they’re fresh and while he still can. At this rate he’ll have something else to say soon enough.

Neil Young Peace Trail (2016)—3

Friday, December 9, 2016

Rolling Stones 49: Blue & Lonesome

Another constant in the history of the Rolling Stones—post-‘80s, anyway—is that anytime Keith goes out on his own, Mick reels him in to do another Stones album. Why else would they be cutting tracks a full ten years after their last studio full-length? If the liner notes are to be believed, a detour from those recent sessions led to spirited takes on blues covers from their personal libraries, and within three days, they had an album’s worth of tracks, which they then sat on for nearly a full year before releasing them as Blue & Lonesome. (It’s not like it took all that time to design the cover.)
On paper it sounds great: the Stones playing the blues, just like they started out. Some are slow, some are dirty, all have energy; take the spirit of “Black Limousine” from Tattoo You and you get the general feeling. Every now and then there’s an echo of their first albums, just not as tinny. If, again, the liner notes are to be believed, these were all single takes, with no overdubs. And if Mick really managed to nail his vocals in one pass, we owe the guy an apology, since he sounds really good here. (We have no such questions about his harp ability; the kid can blow, even at 72. These guys are now older than the legends they grew up idolizing.)
It’s the four full-time Stones here, with Darryl Jones relegated to the sub-credits for each tune, along with Chuck Leavell and Matt Clifford on various keyboards, and Eric Clapton on two songs wherein you have to really pay attention to pick him out. The song choices are particularly commendable, being mostly lesser-known compositions by either or associated with Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed and the like. A track-by-track rundown doesn’t seem necessary, but suffice it to say that the songs don’t all sound alike. “Just Your Fool” is a snappy starter, “Commit A Crime” opens with the familiar drum fill from “Love Is Strong”, and the title track spells out the ampersand. “All Of Your Love” isn’t exactly like the one familiar to Clapton and Aerosmith fans, though “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is likely to start arguments among those who know Zeppelin. While relatively short, “Hoo Doo Blues” plods a bit, but “Little Rain” accomplishes more with its own slow tempo. (Suffice it also to say that Ian Stewart, their original piano player and long-suffering road manager, would’ve loved this album.)
There must be people out there still hoping that the Stones will release another classic album before they’ve all left us, and there are just as many people, if not more, who figure the band has nothing to prove, and wonder why they bother. (Well, besides money.) If we take Blue & Lonesome on the basis for what it is—12 blues covers by one of the best-ever British blues bands—it’s a good album. It’s not embarrassing in the least, nobody’s chasing any contemporary trend, and Charlie’s sounding good tonight, inny? Let’s just hope they don’t tour behind it.

Rolling Stones Blue & Lonesome (2016)—3

Friday, December 2, 2016

David Bowie 36: Lazarus

In addition to recording what turned out to be his last album, the other thing David Bowie was working on the year nobody knew he had terminal cancer was a stage musical based on the character he played in the wacky 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth. If the liner notes are to be believed, the cast recording for Lazarus took place the morning the world found out he was gone.
The musical becomes something of a Bowie revue, pulling together over a dozen tunes from his career, some well-known (“Changes”, “All The Young Dudes”), some not as much (“It’s No Game”, “This Is Not America”), some more recent (“Valentine’s Day”, the title song), and three previously unheard. There’s a rock combo for the backing, with Bowie saxes, and if you ever wanted to hear the guy from Dexter and the subject of How I Met Your Mother sing Bowie, here’s your chance. Try as they might, the men can’t help but add Bowie inflections to their delivery, while Sophia Anne Caruso’s solo spots are pure Broadway kiddie schmaltz. The newer songs stick to the templates on The Next Day and Blackstar, but some of the older ones get arrangements that aren’t exactly karaoke. (Presumably key to the plot are snippets of Ricky Nelson singing “Hello Mary Lou” and Bowie’s own recording of “Sound And Vision”.)
The big deal here, of course, is Bowie’s own versions of those three new songs, added on a bonus disc along with his rendition of the title song, providing 12 precious additional minutes of music as another kind of farewell (and eventually released as the digital-only No Plan EP on its own to celebrate what would have been his 70th birthday, followed by a physical release some weeks later). “No Plan” is moody and melodramatic; “Killing A Little Time” is edgy and clattery; “When I Met You” is romantic and anthemic. All are up to the quality and spirit of the last two albums, and will likely be dissected over the years to come in the absence of any other recordings from his final years. At least they weren’t tacked onto a “special deluxe” reissue of Blackstar, which would have forced us to buy that album again, and would arguably have messed with its unity. (The rating below is for the new songs, as we’re casting—yeah, we said it—the musical versions aside.)

Lazarus: Original New York Cast Recording (2016)—3

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Cat Stevens 7: Buddha And The Chocolate Box

The ‘70s moved along, and slowly enveloped many performers in its slick wake. Cat Stevens was still searching, the title of his new album reflecting the subliminal pull of the spiritual and the sensual. Buddha And The Chocolate Box is similarly pulled between reflective music and contemporary touches, without any resolution. The smart move was to revert to songs as opposed to a suite, but he was enamored with arrangements, so the songs themselves are either slathered in backing vocals or punched along by the rhythm.
Right away, “Music” would be a decent if naïve plea for how to achieve universal harmony, but apparently his definition of “sweet music” involves lots and lots of cowbell. “Oh Very Young” was the hit single, and fits in thematically with the message of those wonderful acoustic albums, but the arrangement paved the way for Al Stewart’s handful of hit singles a few years away. The long-awaited acoustic finally comes to the fore on “Sun/C79”, which appears to be something of a forced medley—the first part an ode to nature, before seeming to evolve into a narrative about a groupie told to the issue of their encounter. With its downright odd pop culture references, “Ghost Town” has some nice passages in between the Old West saloon touches, which seem more parodic than evocative. “Jesus” is a misleading title, seeing as the second verse is about Buddha, and shouldn’t he get equal billing too?
That simple message is swatted away by “Ready”, an overly lusty exhortation, but then “King Of Trees” comes in with a gentler piano and something of a chorale arrangement for yet another celebration of a vague guru figure. “A Bad Penny” is stuck between the chamber-pop ‘60s with its harpsichord and horns, but the rolling drums keep it from being that kind of a throwback, and render the kiss-off message even more confusing. “Home In The Sky” could be a lot better were it not for another (self-overdubbed) chorale part and a busy baroque organ.
There are good songs on Buddha And The Chocolate Box, but they’re buried beneath a thick layer of velvet and velour. With few exceptions, his strength is shown to lie in the simple, and because he kept chasing “bigger” ideas over three albums and counting, we can’t give this a better rating than we have.

Cat Stevens Buddha And The Chocolate Box (1974)—

Friday, November 25, 2016

Elton John 3: Tumbleweed Connection

The third time was the charm, and with Tumbleweed Connection, Elton John (and Bernie Taupin, to whom he was joined at the hip) hit on the formula that would sustain him for the next five years and nearly twice as many albums, and rightfully so. Here was an album that played up the mythology of the American West, as seen by a couple of kids from England. Even the cover photo, rustic as it is, was captured at a British Rail station.
“Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun” plays on that mythology right away, the simple combo supporting the pounding piano and Leon Russell-style vocal. But then “Come Down In Time” appears on the back of a plucked harp and reeds, a song of waiting and wondering amidst a wash of strings, and a wonderfully unresolved ending. It’s back to the theme for “Country Comfort”, its fiddle and steel guitar touches making it both akin and superior to Rod Stewart’s earlier cover. The Western theme continues on “Son Of Your Father”, a morality tale about a duel on a farm, the authenticity dashed by the first line’s reference to a “tramline”, but still in the established feel. The geography shifts slightly east to the Civil War South in “My Father’s Gun”, which is supremely elevated by its soulful chorus.
It’s not clear whether the narrator of “Where To Now, St. Peter?” is the father of the previous song, the son reaching the same end, or a doomed soldier in another war altogether. The ingredients are basic—piano, bass, drums, acoustic guitar, and a lead played both with a wah-wah pedal and through a Leslie speaker—but it’s that soaring vocal and subtle choir of well-paced high notes that carry it. In a similar placing and mood to side one, “Love Song” was not written by Elton or Bernie, but sung in a gentle duet with the song’s actual author, Lesley Duncan, with fingerpicking that recall John Lennon’s softer contributions to the White Album. Continuing the programming style, “Amoreena” puts us back in the lazy country, laughing fit to burst upon each other. The piano work is hardly lazy, those rolling chords more than just rhythm. “Talking Old Soldiers” is just voice and piano, sung in the form of a conversation, and reveals the album as not just a celebration of the Old West, but as a war protest. “Burn Down The Mission” is the closing epic, another dense Taupin lyrics that surpasses comprehension, but it’s the key and tempo changes Elton brought to the song that make it so good.
Tumbleweed Connection arrived only six months after the previous album, indicative of the speed of output that would follow. It’s also indicative of the quality of music we’d come to expect from Elton John, and why we care about him today. This train wouldn’t stop for long. (There were only two proper outtakes from the album: the sensitive “Into The Old Man’s Shoes”, which was used as a B-side, and “Madman Across The Water”, which wouldn’t have fit the theme of the album anyway and would be re-recorded for a future project. Both appeared on the expanded CD and eventual Deluxe Edition; the latter filled out its bonus disc with demos of some of the album’s tracks and a BBC session.)

Elton John Tumbleweed Connection (1970)—4
1995 CD reissue: same as 1970, plus 2 extra tracks
2008 Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Morphine 4: Like Swimming

Morphine made a big-label jump in time for their next album, but there’s very little on Like Swimming that deviates from their norm. There is, however, variety from track to track, so the listener can’t get too comfortable.
A lovely snippet called “Lilah” opens the album, plowed aside by “Potion”. “I Know You (Pt. III)”, following on from the two on Good, is very much in their comfort zone. That could almost be said for “Early To Bed” and its noir sentiments, except for the keyboard blasts straight off a Prince album. “Wishing Well” is all slide bass and layered sax, and the title track has a nice touch in the way of a fingerpicked acoustic down in the mix. The fuzz comes out on “Murder For The Money”, switching between Velvet Underground grunge and Morphine groove, and from here the music really begins to seesaw.
The most eerily poignant track is “French Fries W/Pepper”, a clever autobiography that predicts where he’ll be in a few years’ time (hopefully drinking red wine and eating the delicacy in the title). “Empty Box” is a mystery involving the mail, but not in a Velvet Underground way. The backing in “Eleven O’Clock” is crazily insistent, and still matching the barest of lyrics, then it’s back down to the usual mood for “Hanging On A Curtain”, with the barest Mellotron cello. With its electronic backing, “Swing It Low” sounds like nothing else on the album; as it turns out, it was taken from a Sandman solo project.
Like Swimming may have been set up to rake in that Spielberg-backed money, but there’s no real standout along the lines of the last two albums. That said, sometimes there’s no shame in preaching to the converted.

Morphine Like Swimming (1997)—3

Friday, November 18, 2016

Band 10: Jericho

The surviving members of the Band who weren’t Robbie Robertson had been stumbling along for a while, playing whatever shows they could, and getting a few handouts via Ringo’s All-Starr Band and such high-profile gatherings as Roger Waters’ restaging of The Wall in Berlin and Bobfest. While many of their complaints about Robbie Robertson may have been well-founded, the truth of the matter is that they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire with the songs they were writing, since they hadn’t appeared to have written any.
For proof, consider the contents of Jericho, the first Robbie-less Band album that took several years and too many guest musicians to bring together. Of the dozen songs here, only two have writing contributions from any of the original members, and we’ll get to those. Along with covers of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters songs, there’s a version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” featuring two of the Hooters, and, even stranger, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”, which most of the world hadn’t heard until the first Bootleg Series box, and we’re betting the boys in the Band hadn’t either.
Just in case the legacy didn’t speak for itself, a good deal of the budget went to Peter Max for a painting of the Big Pink house. Their original producer John Simon gets partial credit for doing that here, and just so nobody could get away without shedding a tear, there are back-to-back tributes to Richard Manuel. “Too Soon Gone” was written by Jules Shear and the piano player who was in the band before Richard, and replaced him later, only to die himself before Jericho was finished. It’s followed by “Country Boy”, a lonesome lament sung by Richard himself.
Outside of their voices and instruments, songwriting credits go to Levon Helm on exactly two songs: “The Caves Of Jericho”, a mine tragedy obviously Xeroxed from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Move To Japan”, an embarrassing protest of consumerism that’s more obnoxious than clever. He’s much more suited to the honky tonk of “Remedy” and “Stuff You Gotta Watch” than Rick Danko is on “Amazon (River Of Dreams)” which relies far too much on rain forest sound effects.
Yet amazingly, Jericho is enjoyable. Levon and Rick can still sing, and Garth knows where to put his keyboards and horns. But too many tracks demand to be skipped, so it’s only for the faithful, who’d probably endure the other two Band albums of the ‘90s, but we just can’t.

The Band Jericho (1993)—

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Van Morrison 31: Back On Top

A switch of labels meant that yet again, a new Van Morrison CD was touted as “a return to his classic sound!” Even the title Back On Top suggests wishful thinking, and while the album did okay chartwise, a lot of that had to do with the promotional push—Point Blank being a blues-based label distributed by Virgin.
Indeed, the opening “Goin’ Down Geneva” is a pretty dirty blues, far away from the smooth jazz of recent years. “Philosopher’s Stone” immediately hits the brakes, suggesting not so much the quest for alchemy but a pointed reference to the previous year’s archival release, and sure enough Brian Kennedy is right there on top of the mix, where he’ll sit for the rest of the album. “In The Midnight” is even quieter, with a tasty Mick Green guitar solo, and thankfully Brian Kennedy doesn’t turn up until the very end. The title track packs a little more punch, thanks to Pee Wee Ellis on sax, but then it’s another meditation about “When The Leaves Come Falling Down”. It’s pretty, but he’d already proved the thesis 13 years earlier.
“High Summer” turns the clock back a few months, and finds our hero with the harmonica stuck in his mouth and mumbling the lyrics. “Reminds Me Of You” hearkens back to mid-‘60s soul, a decent hymn of heartbreak ruined, again, by Brian Kennedy. Right when we think he’s keeping the complaints about show business to a minimum, “New Biography” is a direct hit on an actual book that had been published, with lots of spitting p’s and his first recorded acknowledgment of the Internet. More Sam Cooke-isms color “Precious Time”, which crams several clichés into an admittedly snappy tune. And just as the first half ended, the finale comes with a midtempo reverie on a “Golden Autumn Day”. (We checked carefully, but found no reference to any garden wet with rain.) The last few moments of the album, which focus on the simple strings arrangement, are lovely.
There’s more life than usual on Back On Top, and the energy helps a lot, where other albums merely crawled along. One can almost forgive Brian Kennedy.

Van Morrison Back On Top (1999)—3
2008 CD reissue: same as 1999, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kinks 7: Face To Face

The Stones had Between The Buttons, a thoroughly British album nobody knows about today, but they wouldn’t’ve got there were it not for The Kinks. Face To Face, with its exploding head Carnaby Street cover and song content, is the first album they made that fits in with what all Ray Davies’ disciples see as his mission to preserve the Empire for future generations. (He was merely writing songs, of course, but we’re not about to let facts get in the way of mythology.)
After a relevant sound effect, Dave gets the first track (again) with “Party Line”, a song that makes no sense in this century, much less decade. “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” works as a lonesome track, though it wouldn’t be years before anybody knew this was another plea to an older Davies sister, who would go on to inspire future Kinks works. “Dandy” was also a hit for Herman’s Hermits, a good pick being a portrait of a still-dedicated follower of fashion. “Too Much On My Mind” presents another portrait of the artist in distress, decorated by a gentle harpsichord courtesy of Nicky Hopkins. He also gets to play the flourish on the next track, a tribute to a “Session Man” much like himself. Nicky gets to add better color to “Rainy Day In June” (along with lots of thunder effects), a very advanced track that doesn’t deviate from a single bass note (or tonal, or drone, what have you) but still conveys an image. That makes “House In The Country”, social comment notwithstanding, almost a break in the tension with its barrelhouse piano and Dave’s leads borrowed from Chuck Berry.
While it’s supposed to suggest rolling waves, the opening of “Holiday In Waikiki” more evokes a draining sink or flushing toilet on half-speed. But that’s incidental compared to the bent surf homage of the lyrics and guitar. More social comment comes in “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale”, wherein the well-respected man has to sell his house. In case “Dandy” didn’t do it for you on side one, “Fancy” crosses British chamber pop with Indian drone wonderfully. “Little Miss Queen Of Darkness” builds a trad-jazz pastiche on a barely in-tune acoustic, then Dave takes over “You’re Lookin’ Fine” for a welcome bit of variety (Ray must not have felt comfortable being so brazen). One could be forgiven for thinking the entire album was a setup for “Sunny Afternoon”, the big single from the summer before. This is almost the prelude to “Most Exclusive Residence”, though we have a little more sympathy for the well-respected man on this track. But lest we get too serious, “I’ll Remember” is a simple fare-thee-well, combining Ray’s Ricky Ricardo homage in dropping the “g” from “everything” and Dave’s lead part, which would inspire the incidental music for The Prisoner.
Some accounts call Face To Face a concept album, but outside of sound effects, good luck finding a story. Instead, these are terrific songs that would have had the Beatles and Stones on their collective toes. It’s their secret weapon, an album nobody mentions, but those who do positively revere. Recent repackages (all imports, but easy enough to find) add contemporary singles, B-sides and unreleased tracks of dubious vintage, but this might be one of those albums that’s best left alone.

The Kinks Face To Face (1966)—4

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Doors 6: Absolutely Live

Having righted the crystal ship somewhat, several shows on the Doors’ tour supporting Morrison Hotel were recorded for potential release, and while no single show emerged as a definitive document, most of a couple of New York appearances were added to some other performances for release as Absolutely Live.
Several tracks made their album debut here, but anyone looking for a lost classic will be disappointed, unless they think everything Jim spouted was poetry. After a lengthy harangue by an emcee who today sounds like a pissed-off Bill Murray, the band kicks into the Bo Diddley standard “Who Do You Love”, which Jim sticks to for the most part, drifting off into occasional “verse”. Then there’s a peculiar medley of “Alabama Song”, “Back Door Man” and “Five To One”, with an interlude called “Love Hides”, which Jim recites while the band vamps. “Build Me A Woman” isn’t much more than a blues, with racy lyrics that probably shouldn’t have made it to the master considering all the legal trouble Jim was already having.
As unreliable as Jim was supposed to be during this time, he seems to be able to get the job done, taking hold of “When The Music’s Over” and only telling the rowdy crowd to “shut up!” once, elaborating on the tense situation with a few in-jokes after they finish the tune. Unfortunately, Ray gets to sing “Close To You”, a Willie Dixon tune that sounds like a Morrison parody. It’s not a good setup for “Universal Mind”, an otherwise unreleased song that pairs some of Jim’s less inspired couplets with a bolero section that was probably sitting around since the first album. The “petition the Lord with prayer” segment of “The Soft Parade” leads not into that song, but “Dead Cats, Dead Rats”, a recitation over the vamp for “Break On Through”, which continues as planned, but has to endure Ray’s backup vocals. (Maybe that’s why it was subtitled “#2” on the vinyl?)
Arguably the real draw for this album is side four, which is mostly devoted to a performance of the notoriously unrealized “Celebration Of The Lizard” suite. Its limitations are apparent; unlike more successful epics like “The End” and “When The Music’s Over”, here the band tried to create music to match Jim’s words, but the sections don’t sync up. (“Not To Touch The Earth” was always annoying, but “Names Of The Kingdom” would be acceptable were it not too derived from “Scarborough Fair”). A long “Soul Kitchen” caps the set, but not without Ray adding his two cents.
While the band is tight and well-prepared to keep up with their singer’s whims, much of this album’s legacy rests on the fact that they hated the cover, which used an older picture of Jim while pushing the other guys into the background. The album stayed out of print in the digital era until Oliver Stone’s film increased interest in the band. One result was a new double-disc, In Concert, which put most of Absolutely Live on one disc, relegating “Close To You” to the second, along with the entirety of 1983’s Alive, She Cried (which mined the same era at half the length) and a few other live tracks that had snuck out over the previous decade. That set too went out of print, though Absolutely Live was re-reissued as a standalone CD with completely new cover artwork that still depicted just Jim. Meanwhile, the Doors organization began issuing complete concerts under the Bright Midnight Archives umbrella, so anybody that really has to have these shows can snap them up as fast as their credit cards can swipe.

The Doors Absolutely Live (1970)—3

Friday, November 4, 2016

Humble Pie 3: Humble Pie

Still trying to find their way by their third album, Humble Pie at least had a major label behind them. Their self-titled debut for A&M lands all over the place, but eventually coalesces.
To begin with, “Live With Me” is a slow slog over two chords, building from simple organ to glissandos and crashing drums, thankfully coming to life at the end of each “verse”, traded off between three of the guys. The other one, Jerry Shirley, proves why he didn’t sing much on “Only A Roach”, a country parody about weed. Then it’s back to the boogie on “One Eyed Trouser Snake Rumba”, an obvious euphemism with more rotating vocals. Frampton’s “Earth And Water Song” offers some embarrassing metaphors as lyrics, but it builds on the acoustic promise of the earlier albums, adding enough crunch when called for.
The sound that sold tickets at the Fillmore appears at the top of side two, a powerful blast on Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready”. In what seems an echo of side one, we have another country pastiche in “Theme From Skint (See You Later Liquidator)”, an industry lament heavy on inside references. The amps turn up again on “Red Light Mama, Red Hot!”, and just like on side one, go off again for “Sucking On The Sweet Vine”, an overly sensitive plaint from Greg Ridley. (Incidentally, pedal steel hotshot B.J. Cole is all over this album, when the quieter tunes call for him.)
The credits and content give the impression of a band trying to figure things out while the tape rolled, but despite a shaky start, Humble Pie redeems itself. If anything, it’s more simple than the first two, so it’s easier to absorb. But the first two are better.

Humble Pie Humble Pie (1970)—3

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Rod Stewart 2: Gasoline Alley

Much as we’d hope this was a concept album all about Walt Wallet and little Skeezix, Gasoline Alley presents the “other side” of Rod Stewart, the more acoustic and introspective singer than the rooster with the stupid haircut on the back cover. Once again he’s helped along by Ron Wood and guitarist Martin Quittenton, plus Mick Waller when the other Faces aren’t handy.
The title track is a drums-less strum for guitars and mandolin matching Rod’s melody. Ian McLagan shows up to pound the piano for a lengthy bash at “It’s All Over Now”—not a Stones original but certain in the spirit of their version. And how many albums quote the opening track in the musical break of the second track? Lest we stray too far from the country, “Only A Hobo” is a decent version of a Dylan outtake, better than any version Bob did himself that we’ve heard. The Faces come back for “My Way Of Giving”, a remake of a Small Faces tune from the pre-Ogden’s era, Rod duetting with Ronnie Lane here on the chorus.
Elton John’s own version of “Country Comfort” wouldn’t be out for a few months, but Rod’s take crosses the writer’s feel with a little “Handbags And Gladrags” sweetness, while making the title plural. But “Cut Across Shorty” is the highlight here, a raucous stomp of acoustics and drums, with a fiddle sawing away, pointing the direction to his next solo album. Woody’s mostly restrained on this album, but he can’t helping noodling all over “Lady Day”; “Jo’s Lament” is a little better, more of an update of an Appalachian tune. The Faces (save Mac, “not available due to bus strike”, the credits say) close the set with the stuttering funk of “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want To Discuss It)”.
Gasoline Alley doesn’t always get its due, particularly considering how Rod Stewart has spent most of his career. But particularly in tandem with his first album, we can hear how he managed to become such a magnetic singer in the first place.

Rod Stewart Gasoline Alley (1970)—

Friday, October 28, 2016

Mark Knopfler 7: Kill To Get Crimson

When one is a fan of a particular performer, new albums are bought more out of habit, and with a lot of finger-crossing that something will even approach said performer’s best work. Mark Knopfler wandered through the new century dropping crumbs here and there, and Kill To Get Crimson would appear to be another one in a lengthening series of temporary diversions until the next change of wallpaper.
He’s not about to change his style, or his approach. This much is obvious on “True Love Will Never Fade”, and in case that sentiment comes off as vague, he’ll repeat the title about 47 times before the track ends. But then “The Scaffolder’s Wife” matches flute and vibes for a more cinematic angle.
The album proceeds like that, with mystery on “The Fizzy And The Still” and the familiar romantic dobro on “Heart Full Of Holes”. “We Can Get Wild” doesn’t, but “The Secondary Waltz” is charming. “Punish The Monkey” is a meaningless groove, “Let It All Go” and “Behind With The Rent” songs in character, “The Fish And The Bird” and “Madame Geneva’s” descended from arcane English folk. Finally, “In The Sky” floats along for over seven minutes, and is probably still up there.
Kill To Get Crimson just slides over the thumbs-up finish, but—and we’re getting really tired of saying this—would be a lot better if it weren’t so long. Yes, it’s nice when musicians use the capacity of the compact disc to provide value, but it’s nicer when you actually want to devote an hour to an album.

Mark Knopfler Kill To Get Crimson (2007)—3

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Morrissey 2: Bona Drag

Just as he had as a member of the Smiths, Morrissey forged his solo career not on albums, but singles, releasing four new songs (plus B-sides) in the space of the calendar year following his debut. And just as with the Smiths, his second album was a simply a compilation of those singles and some, but not all, of the B-sides. Convenient for non-collectors, for sure, but maddening for anyone who already had “Suedehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” on Viva Hate, wonderful as they are.
All of the singles are decent, as a matter of fact, and while most of the B-sides are on the second half of the set, Bona Drag is still sequenced to enhance listening, not to provide a chronology. “Piccadilly Palare”, “Interesting Drug” and “November Spawned A Monster” are all Smith-worthy (though Mary Margaret O’Hara’s vocal interjections over the instrumental break of the latter are a little unsettling). “Will Never Marry” is a little slower, based around keyboards, one of the better B-sides, in contrast with “Such A Little Thing Makes Such A Big Difference”, the title itself a knowing acknowledgement of inferiority. “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys” finds him developing his sound, despite having the Smiths rhythm section on hand, though “Ouija Board, Ouija Board” is another step back.
Side two is dominated by B-sides, luckily elevated by the repeats mentioned above. “Hairdresser On Fire” wasn’t on the British version of the first album anyway, so it’s nice to have it here. “He Knows I’d Love To See Him” is mopey even for him, and “Yes, I Am Blind” only piles it on, but is redeemed by the guitars; this would have been a fabulous Smiths track. “Lucky Lisp” appears to be another occasional benediction to Johnny Marr, and a clumsy one, but still vague. “Disappointed” has a satisfying stomp very much in the “How Soon Is Now?” pattern without being self-plagiaristic. It’s even got a funny ending.
Taken all together, Bona Drag shows he at least had a solid work ethic, and the effort makes up for some of the less-than-stellar output. The current version of the album is mostly cosmetically different, with an altered cover, though a few of the tracks have been remixed or edited. More amazingly, he added six outtakes of the era, including the very decent “Happy Lovers At Last United” and “Let The Right One Slip In”, the less successful “Lifeguard On Duty”, and “Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness”, previously given to Moz idol Sandie Shaw and a musical ripoff of “You Can’t Hurry Love”.

Morrissey Bona Drag (1990)—3
2010 20th Anniversary Edition: “same” as 1990, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, October 21, 2016

Toad The Wet Sprocket 1: Bread And Circus

As R.E.M. slowly emerged from college alternative darlings to mainstream success, several young bands formed in their buttoned-up wake, dominated by jangly and/or arpeggiated guitars and earnest yet enigmatic frontmen. Most of these bands had the hubris of youth, where everything was important, especially the aches caused by an unjust world.
Cling as they might to their collective and individual integrity, these guys (and a few girls) still longed to be rock stars, and the sooner they expressed that desire over saving any specific rainforest, the less likely they were to rocket to success with one unlikely album, plummet back to earth with the next, and be accused of selling out. In the ‘90s, one such band was Live, and while Soul Asylum was never lumped into the post-R.E.M. wave, their career arc is worth scoffing at here.
A sense of humor helped, and that’s one reason why Toad The Wet Sprocket didn’t follow the same self-destructive path. They started mostly together in high school, and weren’t exactly pinup material; some may have found the singer cute, but the guitarist and bass player sported anachronistic beards common to guys in the drama club. Following the classic template, their first album was self-released before being picked up by Columbia. Most of Bread And Circus is in the same vague setting: elongated, unintelligible syllables, harmonized for emphasis, washed in reverb, with a rhythm section that is both competent and dynamic. A few songs stand out, such as the strong opener “Way Away”, followed by “Scenes From A Vinyl Recliner”. “Know Me” lets the angst push past furrowed eyebrows, and while “One Little Girl” is far from the best track, at least they were trying to stretch out with something the kids could dance to. “Always Changing Probably” even has a saxophone, for crying out loud.
Bread And Circus still sounds like a demo, because it was. They would get better, but it remains something of a harbinger.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Bread And Circus (1989)—3

Friday, October 14, 2016

Frank Zappa 30: Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar

A few albums earlier Frank had stumbled on an easy way to copyright new compositions: merely extracting a guitar solo from a live performance of an established song. A few examples dotted those records, and now he put together three complete albums of assorted instrumental excerpts, separated by Lumpy Gravy-style dialogue. Originally sold individually via mail order, they soon found their way into a nationally distributed collective box. With the exception of a mid-‘90s release that replicated the set on three CDs, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar can be usually found as a two-disc package, all the original music intact.
The package deal is best, since no one “album” is better than another. Given the unifying effect of the contents, and considering that many of the solos come from different performances of a small handful of stage favorites—“Inca Roads” being the most common catalyst—recorded during a four-show London run in February 1979, a track-by-track dissection is futile for our purposes, but we must call out some highlights.
Frank never said he was the greatest guitarist on the planet, but insisted he played his own stuff very well. Many of the solos here are distinctively toned, usually over a two-chord vamp, so he never had to worry much about changing keys or memorizing scales and modes. Things do get interesting when there’s a tricky time signature, as on “five-five-FIVE”, based on 5/8, 5/8 and 5/4. This is particularly refreshing when the band gets stuck in a reggae groove, again on two chords. “Treacherous Cretins” begins with an intriguing electric sitar arpeggio, threatens reggae but luckily gives way to Vinnie Colaiuta’s better drumming. “The Deathless Horsie” follows an extended meter similar to “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, but the real keeper is “Ship Ahoy”, taken from an Osaka performance of “Zoot Allures” a few years earlier. Here his guitar is put through an effect that’s somewhere between a wah-wah and a synth filter, for a terrific sound.
There is humor on the album, and not just what he called each album. “Variations On The Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression” is an apt title for a vamp on what sounds like “Evil Ways” (or “Oye Como Va”, or “She’s Not There”), and you can’t help but smile at titles like “Gee, I Like Your Pants”, “Pinocchio’s Furniture” and “Soup ‘N Old Clothes”. Sometimes the song title comes from the dialogue snippets, but they’re still very random.
The set arguably drags towards the end, with a full side’s worth of slower music taken from studio improvisations, but taken as a whole, Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar goes solidly in the plus column, and should offend absolutely nobody.

Frank Zappa Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar Some More (1981)—
Frank Zappa
Return Of The Son Of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981)—3

Friday, October 7, 2016

Pat DiNizio: Songs And Sounds

Given the declining excitement about anything new from the Smithereens, Pat DiNizio made a surprising detour into solo territory. Its faux-jazz packaging, complete with pretentious liner notes, didn’t help any, but those who looked closer could see that Songs And Sounds was recorded with the bass player from the Stranglers, a drummer who’d worked with Jeff Beck and Lou Reed, and a horn player for extra color.
The opening “Where Am I Going?” comes from an old Bernard Herrmann movie score, and its lugubrious sound would confound listeners into thinking he’d turned into Mark Eitzel from American Music Club. But it’s a false alarm, as the next track, and most everything that follows, could easily be a Smithereens track. It’s all there: melody, chord changes, toe-tapping beats. Perhaps some different faces in the studio were just the shot in the arm he needed.
The lyrics are still what we’d expect from the sad sack of Scotch Plains, given the lovelorn content of “No Love Lost” and “A World Apart”. “124 MPH” has a boomy demo quality for a difference, while “Today It’s You” is almost nasty. Contemporary reviews compared his delivery to the mature Elvis Costello, and similarities can be heard on that track and even the lullaby for “Liza” (though she’d probably sleep better if he strummed the acoustic a little more quietly).
Most of Songs And Sounds is slower than punk speed, which isn’t that big a deal, except that it makes the closing cover of “I’d Rather Have The Blues” more of a downer, the studio-verité excerpt hidden at the end notwithstanding. Naturally, the album made no impact on the charts, but it’s still worth discovering.

Pat DiNizio Songs And Sounds (1997)—3

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Jethro Tull 10: M.U.

Even if their concepts weren’t grasped by everybody, Jethro Tull had amassed enough familiar songs to fill a hits collection, and that’s exactly what M.U. is. The letters supposedly stand for “musician’s union”, and other letters are used in the back cover’s detailed credits as to who played what and when.
Each of the band’s albums, save the debut and the most recent, is represented, almost all in radio edits, to spotlight the riffing, and taking everything completely out of their album contexts. Side one especially plays just like one of those themed “lunch blocks” deejays used to do, consisting of a handful of songs by a single band. “Thick As A Brick Edit #1” helpfully presents the first three minutes of that album, going right into the animal sounds of “Bungle In The Jungle”.
Side two has a little more variety, with the exotic touches of “Fat Man” hitting the jazzed-up “Living In The Past”. Then “A Passion Play Edit #8” drops us into the middle of the second side of that album, towards the end of Act III, also known as “Overseer Overture”. Years before it became standard for best-of albums, there’s a brand-new track in “Rainbow Blues”, a decent outtake from War Child.
M.U. wouldn’t be Tull’s only hits collection, but it set the benchmark for the rest, and has stayed in print most of these years. Perfectly listenable and immediately recognizable, it says almost nothing about their bigger ideas, and features all the qualities listeners either love or hate about them.

Jethro Tull M.U.—The Best Of Jethro Tull (1976)—

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tears For Fears 6: Raoul And The Kings Of Spain

Another album nobody cared about when it came out was from the band still known as Tears For Fears. Ten years and only two full-lengths after Songs From The Big Chair—still their best work—Roland Orzabal’s latest project was scheduled, then dropped from their label before it could be released, and picked up by another that did release it, only to have it sink like a stone. It’s too bad, because Raoul And The Kings Of Spain was the most cohesive thing he’d done since that high watermark. (Curt Smith was still AWOL at this point.)
That’s a lot of back story, but maybe it will get people to appreciate this underrated gem, which sports rich production, regretful but otherwise impenetrable lyrics, and plenty of dynamics. Spanish imagery seems to be a key theme here, as portrayed in the artwork and the songs themselves (the title track, the punning and slinky “Sketches Of Pain”, and “Los Reyes Catalicos”, which appears halfway through and again as a reprise) but if there’s a story here we haven’t figured it out.
In between are all kinds of catchy tunes, most flowing in and out of each other, making something of a suite that still supports the idea of a concept. “Falling Down” builds from a very simple guitar riff to a track that should have been a hit single, if people still cared about TFF. “Secrets” begins with “Imagine”-style piano—something of a trend in the ‘90s—before escalating into a soaring statement in their own style. The weakest track is “God’s Mistake”, which sounded dated even when it was tried as a single, but even in this company it’s doesn’t require skipping.
“Sorry” simply explodes from the speakers with a lot of energy, and “Humdrum And Humble” builds on the retro-soul stylings popularized by Seal. “I Choose You” is the slow ballad, and a sentiment Ralph Wiggum can get behind. Reading the lyrics for “Don’t Drink The Water” won’t help, but does get the feet going again, while “Me And My Big Ideas” sneaks in TFF mainstay Oleta Adams just before the album finishes.
One of the best things about Raoul And The Kings Of Spain is that you can probably find it in a used bin for under five bucks. Thank the waning consumer confidence in the Tears For Fears brand, because with this album, their loss is your gain.

Tears For Fears Raoul And The Kings Of Spain (1995)—4

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pretenders 6: Packed!

The cover has the classic band logo, but the close-up shot of Chrissie Hynde’s trademark bangs and eyeliner should be proof that Packed! is a Pretenders album in name only, despite the instrument setup shown on the back. The only other member present is drummer Blair Cunningham, who joined up at the end of the last album; most of the tracks pick from a pile of players, including Rockpile’s Billy Bremner and producer Mitchell Froom, whose usual noisy production style takes a backseat here.
The focus is back on straight rock, thankfully, with a little pop influence for the more romantic tracks. “Never Do That” is a nice jangly tune with catchy verse and chorus, except that it’s basically a straight rewrite of “Back On The Chain Gang”. The pleading “Let’s Make A Pact” keeps her vulnerability upfront, continuing from the softer side shown on the last album. Her hackles raise a little on the galloping “Millionaires”, proof that she shouldn’t yodel, and “May This Be Love” is another unnecessary cover of a more obscure Hendrix tune. “No Guarantee” provides some welcome kick, but all goes quiet again on “When Will I See You”, co-written with Johnny Marr, which only adds insult to the injury that he didn’t stick around to collaborate on the whole album.
“Sense Of Purpose” would be a hit single in a just world, just as the same world would have mixed out her over-excited interjections in the third verse and at the end. “Downtown (Akron)” gallops along with little to say, and the cod-reggae of “How Do I Miss You” comes too close to the Marr collaboration three tracks early. “Hold A Candle To This” revives some of the snottiness of the early albums, but “Criminal” goes back to being sensitive and wistful.
Even despite the cover design, Packed! more accurately described how full the boxes of returns were. The album was ignored upon release, despite its scattered qualities, though a couple of the songs would remain in her repertoire down the road. It’s recommended for being better than Get Close, but still lacks any real memorable hit.

Pretenders Packed! (1990)—3

Friday, September 23, 2016

Joni Mitchell 14: Dog Eat Dog

The ‘80s found so many legends from the decades before, who had once set trends, now following them. Joni Mitchell’s skills with words and music hadn’t diminished, even if she was taking more time between albums, but the production on Dog Eat Dog, then and now, makes it difficult to get past. One of those producers, along with Joni and Larry Klein, is Thomas Dolby, who’s just fine in his own element—we can listen to “Airwaves” for hours on end, and we have—but dare we say his presence caused Joni to become, shall we say, blinded by science?
Most of the album deals with global and political concerns, which caused more controversy than the fact that “Good Friends”, the love song that opens the album, is sung as a duet with Michael McDonald. “Fiction” would be a decent synth-pop track if she wasn’t singing on it, and while the lyric makes some points, it’s more list than poetry. The message of “Three Great Stimulants” is more successful, with a more palatable accompaniment. “Tax Free” attacks televangelists, a few years before a bunch of them met scandal, but using Rod Steiger to give voice to the “men of God” is a little heavy-handed. “Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another)” is literally built around the sound of a cigarette machine—cute, but somewhat deflates her own preaching.
The title track brings all her gripes together, equating evangelists with “big wig financiers”, not exactly popular opinions under Reaganomics. Given the instrumentation and interjected effects, it’s hard to tell if she’s trying to emulate the lifestyle of “Shiny Toys” or lampooning it. It’s soon forgotten however, with “Ethiopia”, easily the highlight of the album, sticking mostly to piano with little in the way of production gimmicks, and a powerful commentary on what was one of the news events of the year. The subject of “Impossible Dreamer” isn’t clear until she includes “Give Peace A Chance”, but it’s more impressionistic than direct. She ends back where she started, with the straight-ahead romance of “Lucky Girl”, thankfully without Michael McDonald.
We’ve given Joni the benefit of the doubt thus far, but Dog Eat Dog misses the mark as an album. It still has its fans; even lifelong Joni fanatic Prince would have enjoyed some of the modulations here. But the key word there is “some”.

Joni Mitchell Dog Eat Dog (1985)—

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mott The Hoople 3: Wildlife

Suggesting a sojourn in the country, a title like Wildlife would have us think this is a gentler Mott The Hoople, from the straightforward “boys outside” photo to a predominant acoustic guitar on several tracks. And are those zodiac symbols next to their names on the back cover? Not as immediately heavy as the first two albums were, probably due to working without producer Guy Stevens, it’s managed to go unnoticed, despite some gems.
They’re still a band at this point, as Mick Ralphs gets the first vocal on “Whisky Women”, which several have said predicts Bad Company. Despite those acoustic strums, there’s still plenty of lead and that overloaded organ. Ian Hunter provides the sleepy “Angel Of Eighth Ave.”, and Mick comes back for “Wrong Side Of The River”, which is even sleepier, but there’s some great interplay in the stops and starts. “Waterlow” might take things a little far, a cracked vocal lamenting “blue broken tears” over piano and weepy strings, but Ian manages to redeem himself with a powerful take on “Lay Down”, Melanie’s super-hit song about Woodstock.
The album gets even weirder on side two with “It Must Be Love”, where a pedal steel keeps up the country pace, and a chorus that mostly repeats the word “love”. Ian can’t pick up the energy for “Original Mixed-Up Kid”, which is probably why Mick is back to declare why “Home Is Where I Want To Be”. The band must have known that a lightweight collection of seesawing songs from these guys wasn’t going to fly, so the set ends with an extremely loud and pounding live performance of Little Richard’s “Keep A’Knockin’” that runs through “Mean Woman Blues” and “What’d I Say”, strangely attributed to Jerry Lee Lewis.
So while Wildlife is a little disjointed, and there’s too much Mick and not enough Ian, it’s not a bad album, per se. At least it’s paced well.

Mott The Hoople Wildlife (1971)—3

Friday, September 16, 2016

Phil Collins 1: Face Value

Some of the songs Phil Collins wrote in the wake of his divorce ended up on the most recent Genesis album, but somehow the demos of the rest were deemed strong enough to form the basis of his first solo album. And considering what Face Value led to, it could be said that said divorce made him millions in the long run. (Not that we’d wish misfortune on anyone, but the man does have his detractors.) While he’d contributed inventive drums to Genesis albums, had done sessions for Brian Eno and even moonlighted in the British fusion band Brand X, from this album forward, he was squarely in the world of pop.
Everybody knows the story behind “In The Air Tonight”, how Phil witnessed a murder, then invited the perpetrator to the front row of one of his concerts, where he told the whole story and instructed the authorities to make the arrest. What people don’t know is that Phil himself was simultaneously apprehended for aiding and abetting a fugitive of justice by not reporting the crime when it happened, and he’s been in prison ever since.
Whatever you want to believe, it’s still a spooky song, with a sound that’s been imitated as a sincere form of flattery, and of course, those gated drums. “This Must Be Love” sounds even more like a demo, in stark contrast to the upbeat jazzy remake of “Behind The Lines”. By ignoring the big fanfare and adding Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section to follow the melody, we can concentrate more on the lyrics, and choose to play the original again. The crickets that can be heard at the end shouldn’t be considered a critical commentary, but effectively set up the stark tale of farmland woe in “The Roof Is Leaking”, supposedly with Eric Clapton on that dirty dobro. This fades into the excellent instrumental “Droned”, which then morphs into “Hand In Hand”, for which he apparently never wrote words, so they’re substituted by a children’s choir and the horn section. Maybe he realized it was too close to “Follow You, Follow Me”.
The horns are used to much better effect on “I Missed Again”, which was a more obvious choice for a single. We have a weakness for “You Know What I Mean”, consisting solely of piano, lush strings and Phil’s sad vocal, especially since the horns come back on “Thunder And Lightning”, a cloying slice of smooth jazz that nonetheless shows off Daryl Stuermer, who’d graduated from supporting Genesis member onstage to Phil’s main guitarist whenever he was solo. Notice also Phil’s piano composing style, which entails pounding the same single bass note while moving the chords around with the other hand. (Hey, it worked for Graham Nash.) “I’m Not Moving” sounds less produced than some of the other tracks, giving it some well-needed charm, erased by the lounge sax and too-slow pace of “If Leaving Me Is Easy”. Finally, an experiment that shouldn’t work but does is his cover of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, to which he invents a harmony and inserts various loops generated by Daryl Stuermer and the horns. If you listen closely at the fade, he adds two lines from “Over The Rainbow”.
Even though there is a side’s worth of really good music here, Face Value does not earn a passing grade. As songs, they’re fine, but as an album it misses the mark. But nobody cares about what we think, least of all the modern-day consumers who pounced on this record on both sides of the ocean.
As part of a massive reissue campaign called “Take A Look At Me Now”, Phil reissued his solo albums with the expected bonus discs (and unexpectedly, updated cover photos that reflected the name of the campaign). Face Value’s extras are a strangely sequenced grab bag of demos and live versions culled from various decades. If you ever wanted to hear “Misunderstanding” with a horn section, here you go. More interesting is “…And So To F”, a Brand X number well played by the live band. Of the demos, “Misunderstanding” and “Please Don’t Ask” tie the album back to Duke, while an instrumental called “Against All Odds” provides another key to the future.

Phil Collins Face Value (1981)—
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1981, plus 12 extra tracks

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Prince 2: Prince

The inner sleeve of his debut album depicted Prince in triptych, shirtless and possibly pantsless, with a guitar for modesty. For his self-titled follow-up, we get to see his hairy chest in living color, life size on the front cover, and riding a winged white horse on the back.
The lyrics are not only more suggestive, but more blatant. The music is much the same, made for dancing, but he’s been working on his hooks. One of those kicks off the proceedings, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” became his first real hit. (The album cut contains another two minutes of synth and clavinet.) “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is in the same mode, but he lets loose with a ripping guitar solo that’s unmistakably him. “Sexy Dancer” is a throwaway dance number, except that the musical interplay (again, all him) is excellent. That trifle to one side, “When We’re Dancing Close And Slow” is a seduction over two chords, with a lot of melodic variations to keep it from being monotonous.
In the same slow jam vein, “With You” could almost be a Bee Gees ballad from the same period. Then, with heavy fuzzed guitars and even a cowbell, “Bambi” approaches rock, and appears to be an angry lament for a woman who spurned him for—wait for it—another woman. The piano and acoustic guitar on “Still Waiting” sound both R&B and country, giving more spectrum to his sound. If you listen carefully to “I Feel For You”, you can hear the basis of the arrangement Chaka Khan made a hit five years on. The album ends with “It’s Gonna Be Lonely”, another slow jam that at least tries to stay out of lyrical clichés.
While more diverse than his first album, Prince relies too much on the falsetto. But it starts strong, and the rock elements scattered throughout are a good sign. Plus, it’s always nice to hear real drums when machines are handy.

Prince Prince (1979)—

Friday, September 9, 2016

Paul McCartney 34: Pure McCartney

At this point in history it’s a challenge to name any major artist that hasn’t gone through a major catalog overhaul combined with vault excavations. Not even halfway through reissuing each of his post-Beatle albums with bonus tracks and deluxe packages for those who could afford them—and he’s taking his sweet time, unlike Jimmy Page’s warp-speed rehaul of nine Zeppelin albums—Paul McCartney happened upon a Spotify playlist he then decided to sell rather than just publish. Such is life in the modern world.
Pure McCartney is the fourth compilation of his solo work, and the fourth one that doesn’t offer much to the collector who already has the contents five or more times. It’s sold as a two-disc set, a nearly identical four-LP set, and a four-CD set, which goes deep into the catalog, to extents that will vary depending on the listener, and the one we’ll discuss.
There’s no faulting the songs, since disc one starts with “Maybe I’m Amazed”, and continues through some more of the familiar ‘70s tracks, the first wrench being the underappreciated “Warm And Beautiful”, and then a couple of tracks later with “The Song We Were Singing”. This one, which appeared on his first album after the two-year Anthology blitz, fits so well with what’s come before we have to admit that the staffer that devised this playlist either has a good ear or stumbled upon a particularly effective shuffle. It’s more of a stretch to jump up to “Early Days”, from his most recent full-length of this century, but not as nutty as going to “Big Barn Bed”, from forty years before.
From here it’s a grab bag of the usual expected tracks interspersed with some surprises from the post-Wings era; it’s his own damn fault, because he wanted something to replace the Beatles in his frame of reference, and boy, did they. We hear certain album tracks and are surprised by what doesn’t come next; for instance, “Dear Boy” goes not into “Uncle Albert” (though it does appear two songs later) but “Silly Love Songs”. And what’s wrong with that? I’d like to know. Linda permeates the proceedings, which makes sense, since she had been such a prominent figure in his development in those increasing decades. Something tells us wife #3 is okay with that. (But four songs from Ram plus “Another Day” on disc one?)
Everything’s going fine, like a McCartney compilation should, until “Bip Bop” leaps out of the middle of disc two. That’s when you remember that you just bought a Spotify playlist, or could have hooked up your tape deck if your car had one too. Who among us would stick “Calico Skies” between two tracks from Band On The Run, much less the finale and the opener in that order, via “Hi Hi Hi” and “Waterfalls”? Most of these are good songs, but it comes down to personal preference. “Appreciate” was a groaner from the new album, but it’s forgiven by “Sing The Changes” from the last Fireman album. The third disc has the two superstar Motown duets, so one’s tolerance of those can be tempered by such recent joys as “Fine Line”, “Dance Tonight” and “Queenie Eye”, and the Tug Of War gems “Wanderlust” and “Here Today”, but you also have to endure “Girlfriend”, “Press”, and “Pipes Of Peace”. However, we’re fond of “Winedark Open Sea” and “Beautiful Night”, and the set does bring “We All Stand Together” to its first-ever US release.
It doesn’t take a genius to notice that nothing from Flowers In The Dirt, one of his few critical and popular successes from the post-Wings era, was included, and he even admitted that he didn’t want to detract from that album’s upcoming deluxe reissue. Which again begs the question: “Why didn’t you just make a Spotify playlist instead of selling these songs for the umpteenth time?” Because, he’d answer: you pinheads will buy anything I put on the blocks. So we do. And that’s why we’ll endure “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”, because there’s no telling when he’ll get around to Press To Play in the Archive series.
Pure McCartney recycles Wings Greatest and All The Best!, but not all of Wingspan. Granted, it had been 15 years since that set, but “Temporary Secretary” hadn’t gained any cred then, so here it is now, setting up “Hope For The Future” from that video game he soundtracked. (Better that than the Rihanna and Kayne tune, right?) The thing is, this guy has recorded so many songs since 1970 that anyone’s version of the best of them will still be pretty damn awesome. We’ve avoided making our own Spotify playlist of our favorites simply to keep him from saying, “I can sell that,” and not even crediting us for including elusive B-sides. But rest assured we’d end with “Singalong Junk”, as opposed to the vocal version that ends the set.

Paul McCartney Pure McCartney (2016)—4

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Replacements 6: Pleased To Meet Me

Officially down to three members, The Replacements ended up in Ardent Studios, birthplace of the Big Star albums Paul Westerberg loved so much, with producer Jim Dickinson, who’d worked on Third and also played piano with the Stones. Dickinson’s ability to get music out of substance-addled musicians, plus his early adoption of digital recording technology, made Pleased To Meet Me a strong, if short album.
Side one is nearly perfect: “I.O.U.” is a powerful opening kissoff; “Alex Chilton” pays loving tribute to the man of the title (who himself appears later on the album); “I Don’t Know” a hilarious call-and-response summation of the relationship between the band and everyone in the industry who tried to help them; “Nightclub Jitters” showing the more “adult” side of Westerberg with a faux-cocktail jazz backing; and “The Ledge” is a truly harrowing monologue by a boy contemplating suicide, continuing for a full minute after we apparently hear the fatal leap.
Side two goes through some throwaway rock that torpedoes further perfection, but the cold opening of “Never Mind” is an excellent development in Westerberg’s education in making records of good songs. “Valentine” is just that, and exactly the kind that a girl crushing on him would love to receive. “Shooting Dirty Pool” stomps through the mix with some admittedly clever lyrics, and “Red Red Wine” is little more than a mushmouthed paean to the beverage, but they’re forgiven for what comes next. “Skyway” is tender, acoustic, heartbreaking and infectious, and a great setup for “Can’t Hardly Wait”. Westerberg had been trying to perfect this song for two years, constantly fiddling with the lyrics, but that classic riff is unquestionable. Apparently it wasn’t his idea to add horns or the strings, but by setting it into posterity, the song was finished for him, and that’s the version that has become one of the band’s most beloved tracks.
Because the tunes are so good, Pleased To Meet Me seems longer than 33 minutes, and there’s more than that added to the updated CD. Along with noisy B-sides like “Election Day”, “Tossin’ And Turnin’” and “Route 66” (as well as Chris Mars crooning a cover of “Cool Water”), we get a few band demos of songs that would go unreleased or retooled. “Photo” combines the better elements of “Shooting Dirty Pool” and “Red Red Wine”, while “Kick It In” has some real promise. Alternate versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Can’t Hardly Wait” provide some archaeology, but overall, it’s one of the few expanded CDs that really does deliver value.

The Replacements Pleased To Meet Me (1987)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1987, plus 11 extra tracks