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