Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Journey 8: Raised On Radio

Steve Perry’s solo album was an early sign that Journey wouldn’t last without him, but they still managed to pull together an album that, for the first time in the Perry era, sported a title with more than one word. Raised On Radio found the singer defiantly in charge, credited as sole producer and bringing in players from his solo project to replace Ross Valory and Steve Smith. One report has them leaving “due to creative differences”, others say they were fired. Whatever the truth, their absence is felt big time.
With different sections in seemingly different keys, “Girl Can’t Help It” has enough of the established Journey vibe to pass, and it’s smart to start out that way. But “Positive Touch” would have been a great hit for the Pointer Sisters; here it’s just cheesy. And that saxophone? Good Lord. “Suzanne” is a vast improvement, providing a lovelorn lyric with yearning, keening chorus; one of their more underrated, ignored classics. “Be Good To Yourself” is the requisite pep talk, but might have been more effective as a side-opener or closer. Then we get funky with “Once You Love Somebody”, with a decent melody but a generic backing, and “Happy To Give” is about as far removed from rock as they’ve ever been.
The title track didn’t come with printed lyrics, although Perry and Cain are credited for them. Once you decipher the mushmouthed slurring, it’s merely a string of oldies song titles strung together over a rockin’ riff. Yet it makes the otherwise lightweight “I’ll Be Alright Without You” stand out, with its Greek-chorus asides and extended guitar solo. Something must have happened to Perry’s voice; already husky on the album, he doesn’t sound like himself until the first chorus of “It Could Have Been You”. “The Eyes Of A Woman” is another one that would have sold buckets of a solo album, but there’s no denying the lighters-in-the-arena potential of “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever”, which might as well be “Faithfully” played backwards, with lyrics equally applicable to a lover as they are to you: the true fans.
Raised On Radio was great if you loved Street Talk. But longtime fans who were already uncomfortable with the encroaching adult contemporary influence on a band that developed from the fancy fretwork of Santana would resent Neal Schon for going along with something so by the numbers. Then again, nobody had conceived of Bad English or Hardline yet, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Naturally, Journey toured to promote the album, with newcomers Randy Jackson resembling a portly Clarence Clemons on bass and the decidedly non-photogenic Mike Baird on drums. The setlists included two songs from the Perry solo album and a few covers as encores. (The expanded CD includes live versions of “Girl Can’t Help It” and “I’ll Be Alright Without You”, as previously heard on the videos for said songs.) And that would be it for a long time.

Journey Raised On Radio (1986)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, June 16, 2017

Replacements 8: All Shook Down

What would be the final Replacements album wasn’t really a Replacements album at all. All Shook Down was a full-fledged Paul Westerberg solo album, in the auteur’s mind anyway, with the other Replacements used where he felt necessary, but often passed over for different drummers and guitarists. Surprisingly, the chosen co-producer was Scott Litt, then in the midst of a multi-album run with R.E.M.
The slashing chords of “Merry Go Round” put the sound right in line with the more radio-friendly direction of the last album, though “One Wink At A Time” immediately turns off the main road with studiously picked acoustics and honking sax. The highlight of the album, and among the best songs Westerberg ever wrote, is “Nobody”, an all-too-real wedding song, toast and kiss-off all at once. The barely contained anger bursts out on “Bent Out Of Shape”, another terrific rocker, and slides back to melancholy for “Sadly Beautiful”, which features a viola solo by the one and only John Cale. “Someone Take The Wheel” provides a bit of upbeat relief, and seems to describe both a failing marriage and a failing band.
The same summation could be applied to “When It Began”, amazingly chosen as the second single from the album to go along with the band’s last tour. The title track is barely there, a half-asleep recitation of non-sequiturs over heavy breathing and recorders. “Attitude” is supposedly the only track that includes the whole band and not session players, and in a perfect world there’d be a nastier electric version that surpasses this polite strum. “Happy Town” gets a boost from Benmont Tench on organ, while the all-too-brief “Torture” is all guitars, with just a tambourine and a harmonica solo. Another special guest is Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, lending her wail to the duet of “My Little Problem”. (He would also collaborate with fellow Les Paul Junior aficionado Joan Jett around this time on “Backlash”, even appearing in the song’s video, but her album bombed.) Finally, “The Last” crosses the lounge style of “Nightclub Jitters” with a less glamorous portrait of yet another drunk.
While not the popular opinion, All Shook Down is a highly underrated album. It may not have been what fans wanted, but as a collection of songs both written and performed well, it holds up. Of the bonus tracks included on the eventual expansion, seven are Westerberg demos, two of which for songs that didn’t make the final album: the very fragile, unsettling “Tiny Paper Plane”, and “Kissin’ In Action”, probably the most “Mats-sounding” track of all when it eventually appeared on the wonderfully titled promo Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap. That rare disc also included “Ought To Get Love”, a rowdy leftover from the Don’t Tell A Soul sessions, and Tommy Stinson’s excellent writing debut, “Satellite”; both are welcome here.
Personal footnote: Those of us who awaited the album’s release found ourselves in quite the quandary, as it was sold only on cassette or CD in the U.S. Hence, any acquisition would end up filed all alone in a rack far away from its vinyl brothers. (It was available on the fading format in Germany, although a mispress reportedly resulted in side one consisting of duets by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.) Now that vinyl is all the rage at inflated prices, All Shook Down can be procured more readily. Or not.

The Replacements All Shook Down (1990)—4
2008 CD reissue: same as 1990, plus 11 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rush 10: Exit Stage Left

Four studio albums meant it was time for a double live album, and Rush complied, at the height of their game. In addition to another clever theater phrase, Exit… Stage Left bridges the transition from lengthy prog epics to synthesizer-driven music. Most of the music comes from the previous four albums, with the exception of two songs on side two, which was recorded on a tour a year before the rest of the tracks.
Even with the silence between tracks, it holds together as a solid piece, crashing open with “Spirit Of Radio”, jumping on “Red Barchetta” and extending “YYZ” with a three-minute drum solo. The middle of the album provides context for those who came in at either Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures, tossing in the stadium-friendly “Closer To The Heart” and “The Trees”, the latter preceded by an instrumental prelude called “Broon’s Bane”, which got kids working on their fingerpicking. At twelve minutes, “Xanadu” may try patience, or it may send them back to the mall to pick up the earlier albums. It’s back to the hits on side four, with the socko punch of “Freewill” and “Tom Sawyer”, with “La Villa Strangiato” as the grand finale.
Outside of the lengths of some of the tunes, there’s not a lot of difference between the recordings on Exit… Stage Left and the original albums; Rush was never a band that improvised, and the fans didn’t want that anyway. But in the absence of greatest hits, it delivers enough of the experience to keep those kids buying concert tickets, and geared up for the next album.

Rush Exit… Stage Left (1981)—

Friday, June 9, 2017

Oasis 4: The Masterplan

Like all good British bands, Oasis had amassed a pile of B-sides for all the singles they’d released over the span of three albums. Most of these have been included on expanded 21st-century versions of those albums, but back when the band was still fresh, 14 of them were put together on The Masterplan.
Besides keeping these songs available, the set nicely reinforces Noel Gallagher as a performer in his own right. The orchestral pomp of the title track just wouldn’t fit with Liam’s sneer anyway. Noel’s acoustic busk of “Morning Glory” bookends “Acquiesce”, and he also sings the choruses in between Liam’s verses. “Talk Tonight” is a wonderfully sensitive plea for sanity, while “Going Nowhere” suffers from the Bacharach overload of the time. Speaking of which, “Half The World Away” bears a strong resemblance to “This Guy’s In Love With You”, but only in the main theme and a few of the chords. While we’re at it, “Listen Up” resembles “Supersonic” from the first album, but has some intricate (for Noel) modulations over the chorus that make it the better song; perhaps such touches kept it a B-side. “Headshrinker” is blown open with a great Stonesy riff, making a nice diversion from the usually worn influences.
Still, some of the songs were better as B-sides. “The Swamp Song”, excerpted as interludes on the Morning Glory album, is interesting to hear once in total, while the accordion diversion at the end of “(It’s Good) To Be Free” is just silly. And although their loud, live plow through “I Am The Walrus” wouldn’t have sat well on an album, it’s great to have here.
As only two of the tracks come from singles released to promote Be Here Now, The Masterplan might have made for a better third album than the overblown mess that did come out. Instead it became a nice reminder what made the band so good in the first place, and might even have helped keep them relevant into the next century.

Oasis The Masterplan (1998)—

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 22: Wrecking Ball

Nearly four decades into his recording career, the inevitability of Rolling Stone magazine giving every Bruce Springsteen album a five-star review is nearly pathological. Granted, we’re no doctor, but sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re listening to the same album.
Wrecking Ball is the “angry” Bruce album, bemoaning the state of the union with a boomy sound and a lot of yelling, even for him. Part of that comes from the day’s headlines, but mostly because technology allows him to build his tracks himself, which keeps him from being reined in as he might in a band situation. Most of what’s left of the E Street Band are pasted in here and there, but overall it’s a collaboration with co-producer Ron Aniello. Between them, they cover most of the instruments, even drums. Even with real instruments, there’s a dependence on loops and samples that makes it all very sterile-sounding.
“We Take Care Of Our Own” begins with all the subtlety of a U2 anthem, but the glockenspiel or its equivalent soon gives away who it really is. It’s exactly what his fans hope for, but it doesn’t last. “Easy Money” is stuck somewhere between a drum machine and a campfire, with nursery rhyme-level lyrics; “Shackled And Drawn” has a slightly better hook. Then we come to “Jack Of All Trades”, which details all the things a workin’ man can do around the house to take care of his own during hard times. Meant to be stirring, it ends up maudlin, but hopefully somebody out there took some comfort from it. (The guitar solo comes from new best friend Tom Morello, best known from Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.) “Death To My Hometown” is not a protest of the worst single from Born In The U.S.A. but another worker’s anthem sung in a brogue with backing to match. Despite its bombast (and another Tom Morello solo), “This Depression” manages to be a welcome return to more familiar Bruce.
The title track, inspired by the demolition of many of the stadiums he once filled, is pretty ordinary until the bridge about halfway through, which makes the return to the opening motif a smooth one. “You’ve Got It” provides another respite in the form of a basic love song without any sociological agenda, but it’s not one of his better ones. The most daring track is “Rocky Ground”, which uses a gospel sample and refrain, even including a rap; the song deserves a more stripped-down approach to be more effective. The fake gospel overtone carries over to “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, first heard over a decade earlier on a live album, now re-recorded with one of Clarence’s solos flown in. “We Are Alive” begins with the sound of a needle in dead wax, and soon stomps along as a modern Woody Guthrie song, its message deflated by mariachi horns right out of “Ring Of Fire”.
The album proper ends there, but any Boss fan worth his or her salt would have had to pick up the “Special Edition” for its two extra tracks. “Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale)” sounds like it comes from the same campfire as “We Are Alive”, and could work over the closing credits of a Coen brothers drama. Finally, “American Land”, first heard as part of the Seeger Sessions trip, gets a studio version here, and still sounds like the Pogues.
Despite the acknowledged highlights, Wrecking Ball is a lesser Springsteen album. We’ve let him slide before, and he’s allowed to experiment all he wants, but even he wouldn’t suggest that everything he’s done is gold.

Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball (2012)—

Friday, June 2, 2017

Grateful Dead 7: Skull & Roses

In the year following their first live double album, the Dead had recorded and released a pair of LPs that concentrated on succinct songwriting. They learned to use this concentrated approach onstage, where they were now down to five members, with just one drummer. Hence, their next live installment—also a double—reflected less of a lengthy, space jam approach and more of the tight country and blues covers they’d picked up along the way, and indeed made their own, to the point where only obsessives like ourselves know (or care) that other people wrote and recorded them first.
The album simply titled Grateful Dead by the record label has long been referred to by Deadheads (as christened on the inner gatefold) as “Skull & Roses”, due to its artwork and to differentiate it from the eponymous debut. A quick listen to the two similarly titled albums should dispel any confusion, as they almost sound like two different bands. Beginning with the confident gallop of “Bertha”, a Garcia-Hunter original, side one moves to Merle Haggard’s prison lament “Mama Tried” and the jugband revision of “Big Railroad Blues” before ending with the complicated textures and meter of “Playing In The Band”, spotlighting Bob Weir in the music he wrote. Side two is the album’s only concession to psychedelic jamming, being an 18-minute extension of “The Other One”, known previously to record-only fans as the first track from the second album. Keep in mind the first five minutes are devoted to a drum solo.
Side three is all covers: “Me And My Uncle”, written by Papa John Phillips and learned from a Judy Collins album; “Big Boss Man”, which gives Pigpen his moment in the dwindling spotlight; “Me And Bobby McGee”, captured a month after Janis Joplin’s version topped the charts; and the standard “Johnny B. Goode”, which shows just how much of the Dead’s sound came directly from Chuck Berry. Side four is split between another Garcia-Hunter original, the mournful “Wharf Rat”, and the medley of “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad”, establishing the Bo Diddley beat that they’d use for countless similar medleys over the duration of their career.
If one was so inclined, the “Skull & Roses” album could be shaved down to a single LP highlighting the band’s original compositions. Indeed, “Bertha”, “Playing In The Band” and “Wharf Rat” were sweetened in the studio, predominantly by Garcia buddy Merl Saunders on organ (as well as some unclarified pianist and doubling of the vocals on the latter track). With those on one side and “The Other One” on the other, it would have been a simple sequence, but that would have been at the expense of the covers that, again, loom large in the legend. And indeed, the album as a whole is one of their better sets, with a fresh live sound throughout that concentrates more on the music than the audience. The quick fades, however, can be a little frustrating.
Another double album that could fit on a single CD, the eventual expanded version added two more ‘50s vintage covers and the now-obligatory hidden radio ad. A few later vault releases have mined the era surrounding this album, most notably the four-CD Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead, which scans through four of the Fillmore East shows out of the New York dates recorded for what would be the “Skull & Roses” album.

Grateful Dead Grateful Dead (1971)—4
2003 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 3 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Ladies And Gentlemen… The Grateful Dead (2000)
     • Three From The Vault (2007)
     • Winterland May 30th 1971 (2012)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Simon 5: Still Crazy After All These Years

A common theme in the mid-‘70s was the so-called divorce album, wherein confessional singer-songwriters lamented the passing of the relationship with whatever dew-eyed muse that had inspired their most beloved songs of romantic devotion. John Lennon spilled his troubles on Walls And Bridges, and Bob Dylan arguably set the standard with Blood On The Tracks, but Paul Simon’s way with cryptic words kept Still Crazy After All These Years from being merely dirty laundry. It even won Grammys. (He limited the expression of his inner turmoil to a cheesy mustache and a cheesier hat.)
The album is front-loaded with some of his best songs, beginning with the resigned title track, its cool electric piano and offbeat strings that perfectly frame the inevitable sax solo. One big draw is “My Little Town”, a reunion on tape with Art Garfunkel (also included on his own concurrently released album). Easily one of their spookier tracks, it nails the feeling of being trapped by one’s origins, heritage, family, society, etc.; in other words, everything that made Simon & Garfunkel spokesmen for their disaffected generation. “I Do It For Your Love” is an extremely melancholy reverie on the ended marriage, finding a metaphor in an odd place, but countered by the jive-rhyme in “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”, something of a spin on “Love Potion #9”. After four solid tracks, “Night Game” is just plain odd, taking some common baseball expressions literally. It seems out of place here, being more in line with his proper solo debut.
For a big-time mood swing, “Gone At Last” is a gospel raveup sung as a duet with Phoebe Snow and the now-familiar Jessy Dixon Singers whooping it up in back. From there, “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy” seems to be way too slow, but manages to keep up with itself, and our warped ears hear influences on and of Van Morrison and Tom Waits of the same period. We don’t have much use for “Have A Good Time”, between the cutesy delivery, broken-legs meter shifts, and particularly the out-of-place sax solo appearing at the end like a busker around a corner in a subway tunnel. “You’re Kind” is much better, by being simple and offering up a twist ending that’s very real. A final mood swing arrives in “Silent Eyes”, a slow, poetic creation, not exactly a prayer, but still establishes a mood of night and sleep. (In an odd bit of foreshadowing, the piano here is played by Leon Pendarvis, whom most casual TV viewers would recognize as a longtime member of the Saturday Night Live band. Thanks in part to his friendship with producer Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon would go on to appear on the show in various capacities many times over the coming decades.)
Such a strong closing track makes Still Crazy After All These Years Paul Simon’s best work since splitting with Artie, and easily on par with the better Simon & Garfunkel albums. (Bonus tracks on the eventual reissue include a demo of a future hit single and a very alternate arrangement of “Gone At Last”.) It must have taken a lot out of him, since his output would be less prolific going forward.

Paul Simon Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, May 26, 2017

Bob Dylan 62: Triplicate

We’ve already noted that Bob has rarely repeated himself in over half a century of recording, but some of his work has emerged, usually in hindsight, in arcs of threes. Triplicate is the third installment in his recent obsession with the Great American Songbook, and it’s three discs — whether you buy LP or CD — to boot. These 30 new recordings are evenly split between them, totaling just over 30 minutes each. It’s a lot of music to take in at once, and an in-depth analysis is out of our capabilities at this point. As with the last two, it’s nighttime listening, or if maybe if it’s raining, and probably not something that will be blasted out car windows or at the beach.
The first disc begins with a dance band horn section and ends jauntily; the second and third each start the same way but also end more subdued. Frank Sinatra is still the common touchstone. Disc one offers three songs from his September Of My Years album, which originally commemorated Frank’s (gasp!) 50th birthday, coloring the mood, but not clarifying it any. It’s easier to get into the more familiar, well-trodden songs, like “As Time Goes By”, “Stormy Weather”, “Sentimental Journey”, “My One And Only Love”, “These Foolish Things” and “Stardust”. In our case, the selections we know from September Of My Years and “Trade Winds”, familiar from Bugs Bunny cartoons, inspire the most humming along.
Once again transposing orchestral arrangements to a tiny combo, his band is flawless, particularly when left to themselves, quietly purring along behind the soft guitars and pedal steel. Dance band horns appear at times, providing variety. As should be expected, Bob’s voice varies. He has trouble on “Day In, Day Out”, “Where Is The One” and on tunes with the widest ranges, but is flawless on “It’s Funny To Everyone But Me” and even the wistful “There’s A Flaw In My Flue”. As silly as the title sounds, his delivery is convincing, the opposite effect of the blue pajamas he mentions on “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan”.
The album title is just plain lazy, and the ones given to the individual discs, despite the apostrophes, seem almost arbitrary, as much red herrings as Fallen Angels was for that album. The liner notes, presumably not written by him, work a little too hard to praise. Triplicate remains something of a novelty, and Shadows In The Night remains the better album, making a welcome, familiar listen after getting through an hour and a half of similarly arranged pieces. So too does Fallen Angels fall better into place, but we dare say this one is the runner-up of the three. So far.

Bob Dylan Triplicate (2017)—3

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cat Stevens 8: Greatest Hits

Due to his success in the ‘70s, Cat Stevens’ original label took plenty of advantage of the material he recorded in the ‘60s, repackaging the same two albums in different configurations and even daring to put a more contemporary photo on the cover along with a false claim that the contents delivered his “best”. He wouldn’t have been able to stop them anyway, but could certainly claim Greatest Hits as the title for an album dedicated to his more recent, and indeed, best work.
Greatest Hits is not presented chronologically, and neatly transitions from the simpler acoustic material to the more electric arrangements and back again. Some of the new transitions work quite well—for instance, “Father & Son” to “Sitting” to “Morning Has Broken”. Original copies came with a poster featuring a July-through-June calendar of sorts, with lyrics appearing where dates would be, suggesting some kind of framework. Most of his singles are here—“Peace Train” in its early-faded edit—including the non-album cover of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night” and the “new” exclusive “Two Fine People”.
For an introduction to Cat Stevens—or at least the one who dominated the airwaves and turntables in the early ‘70s—the curious would be well served by Greatest Hits. And then they’d end up grabbing Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat anyway. It’s since been surpassed by later compilations, which we’ll get to eventually and in context.

Cat Stevens Greatest Hits (1975)—

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mick Jagger 1: She’s The Boss

With the strength of the Rolling Stones Records label behind him, Bill Wyman released two solo albums in the ‘70s, both of which sold on the strength of his name, neither of which were that exciting, mostly because Bill can’t sing. (He did a little better in the early ‘80s with “Je Suis Un Rock Star”, being something of a novelty song with a cheesy synth part to match his weedy voice.)
It’s understandable that Bill would need to stretch his creativity, having been demoted to the least respected Stone once Ron Wood became Keith’s fulltime pal. But the idea of a Mick Jagger solo album, after over two decades of being both the voice and key creative consultant of the band, made even less sense. What could he do on his own that he couldn’t accomplish with the band he ran with an iron fist?
The answer lies in a Latin phrase we don’t feel like looking up, but roughly translates to “the question answers itself.” Mick was always interested in contemporary beats, while Keith and Woody were happy to play the same Chuck Berry riffs in between drinks and snorts. Each of the Stones albums so far had something “danceable” on it, but only so much. The new worldwide deal with CBS had the key provision that Mick would be given the opportunity to do solo albums; crafty as he always was, he figured his name would be enough to sell units, and possibly unshackle himself from the band that was becoming an albatross. Attaching his voice to a song credited to the Jacksons, in an attempt to cash in on the phenomenal success of Thriller (not coincidentally, another solo project by someone previously associated publicly with a band he no longer needed) gave him something of a test shot.
Hence, She’s The Boss, which accomplishes the feat of sounding nothing like the Stones save a few lines here and there, since he didn’t change his voice at all. He produced the album with Bill Laswell and Nile Rodgers (who also supplies the loudest guitars not already played by Jeff Beck), both of whom knew a thing a two about being contemporary as well as commercial. Keith gets writing credit on “Lonely At The Top”, one of dozens of songs out at the time that sounded exactly like “Footloose”, but no other Stones are involved at all. “½ A Loaf” tramples a metaphor with dated keyboards, while “Running Out Of Luck” and “Turn The Girl Loose” would have been lesser tracks on any Stones album, the latter particularly with its angry “ladies’ rap” over the fade. “Secrets” and the title track each labor over the same riff with a lot of yelling.
All this time later, the most palatable songs are the ones chosen as singles, and both are on side two. “Just Another Night” and “Lucky In Love” (which is about two minutes too long) could almost pass as Stones songs, if a little poppy. “Hard Woman” is the token ballad, with pretty Paul Buckmaster strings, although it’s not easy to buy Mick as a lovelorn, heartbroken sap this late in his tabloid career.
She’s The Boss isn’t a bad album for a piece of product, but fails as an out-of-expected-genre experiment by not being adventurous enough. However, it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing he released that year. That honor still belongs to his duet with David Bowie on “Dancing In The Street”, thrown together for the Live Aid concert. The song was bad enough; the video made it excruciating.

Mick Jagger She’s The Boss (1985)—2

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Byrds 13: McGuinn, Clark & Hillman

While nobody really noticed, the influence of the Byrds managed to subtly seep through the music of the ‘70s. Crosby, Stills & Nash carried the torch on the radio and arenas, with Crosby’s old band becoming more of a footnote in his biography. The Eagles certainly picked up some of the harmonic touches, and a band called Firefall, formed from the aftermath of the Flying Burrito Brothers, had some breezy hit singles just this side of yacht rock.
So when Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and Gene Clark decided to collaborate on an album, it less resembled the classic Byrds sound than the open-shirted, mildly discofied trend that was commercially viable in 1979. On paper, it could have been considered as much a Byrds album as anything released under that name after Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but both the album and the combo were named after the three members. If you’re looking for the Byrds, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a superstar summit, this is isn’t it either. If you long for the chime of that Rickenbacker 12-string, you’re out of luck.
The first warning sign is on the back cover, listing the Albert brothers as producers, and good ol’ Criteria Studios in Miami—Stephen Stills’ home base and knob twiddlers of choice, for his solo albums as well as the recent CSN reunion. The first sound the listener hears when dropping the needle on side one is a timbale, and sure enough there’s Joe Lala all over the mix, just like on those Stills projects. None of the three guys are credited with playing any instruments, though we can assume each played guitar, on his own songs anyway. None of the songs are credited as collaborations, which is no big deal.
Chris Hillman’s voice came a long way from being stuck in the background, so his spotlights are probably the least excruciating, but again, they sound like Firefall, which was fine for the times, but less so today. “Long Long Time” deserves further evaluation. Who knows what that nightmare intro to “Surrender To Me” is all about, but it’s also the only song none of the guys had a hand in writing. However, he is sorely to blame for “Stopping Traffic” and “Sad Boy”.
Gene Clark was arguably the best songwriter in the band, as displayed on the first two albums, but didn’t have much commercial success on his own. For a guy who was supposedly such a pioneer and harbinger of alt.country, “Little Mama”, “Feelin’ Higher”, “Backstage Pass” and “Release Me Girl” come off as generic, albeit competent adult contemporary. (There should never be a saxophone on anything approaching the Byrds, and fake audiences only ironically.)
Just as with the last get-together, McGuinn isn’t the dominant voice. Though “Don’t You Write Her Off” was the first single, and it’s got a terrific chorus, the verses are only tangentially related to it, and the steel drums are just painful. He’s redeemed by “Bye Bye Baby”, the gentle folk lullaby that ends the album, and easily the truest tribute to the legacy.
McGuinn, Clark & Hillman has its defenders, and we can respect that. Many of the people who bought this album upon release needed something to tide them over while the Eagles took their sweet time on The Long Run. In a perfect world, and in this age of revision, a “less-discofied” version of this album would be a welcome addition to the history. As for the guys themselves, they were soon down to duo without Gene, further albums were dead on arrival, and the ‘80s were virtually Byrd-free.

McGuinn, Clark & Hillman McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)—2

Friday, May 12, 2017

Prince 4: Controversy

From time to time in this forum, we’ve discussed a band slash artist’s “first four”. The debut album proclaims the newcomer, the follow-up restates the thesis, the third album pointedly tries to reinvent a wheel, and in senior year we find out what they’ve learned. The version of the theory applies to Prince, because Controversy is where the brand was firmly established. Deviations followed, certainly, but for anyone playing catch-up, this is the album that sounds most like the Prince that dominated the middle of the decade.
It looks like the same coat from the previous album cover; hopefully he’d changed his drawers for the poster inside. But just as there’s more color in the artwork, the tracks are more filled out, melding even more the styles of funk, rock and new wave. The title track choogles along with several riffs, quiets down for a recital of the Lord’s Prayer, and gets back up with a P-Funk chant, and then we hear that scream for the first time. Similarly, “Sexuality” suggests that the world’s ills can be healed by ignoring our superficial differences and getting busy. To prove his point, “Do Me, Baby” is a lengthy slow jam that culminates in one-sided pillow talk that’s more uncomfortable than arousing, personally.
Side two provides more variety over its five tracks. “Private Joy” is straight-ahead synth-pop ending in a wild feedback-heavy solo that bleeds into and throughout “Ronnie, Talk To Russia”. This lyrical dynamo sports a truly cheesy organ and cheesier machine gun effects, then it’s back to the dance floor for “Let’s Work”, with a particularly tasty pop-and-slap bass. “Annie Christian” is almost no-wave, with a robotic arrangement and non-musical vocals for a parable about the title character being responsible for death and destruction. Finally, “Jack U Off” swings, a dirty song that’s actually fun.
It’s not as strikingly enjoyable as Dirty Mind, but again, Controversy provides a logical progression, and a good setup for what was to come next. Besides, the falsetto was kept to a minimum.
However, it wasn’t the only Prince album out that year. Despite credits saying otherwise, the eponymous debut by The Time was all Prince, completely written and performed by him, save for Morris Day on vocals and occasional drums, plus Dr. Fink on a few synths and Lisa Coleman anytime a woman’s voice is heard. (“After Hi School” was written by guitarist Dez Dickerson, but Prince plays all the instruments.) It’s a danceable album, but still sounds very tossed off. “Girl” and “Oh, Baby” are almost laughable, brokenhearted slow jams with forced vocals by Morris, who really worked best in a visual medium. The best track by far is “Cool”, wherein his personality comes through big time. The same approach applied to What Time Is It?, recorded and released the following summer while Prince was finishing his next album. “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” is the only slow tune, and Morris has upped his attitude; “Wild And Loose” and “The Walk” even feature humorous dialogues with female conquests. “777-9311” and “The Walk” have a couple of scorching guitar solos, making things more interesting.

Prince Controversy (1981)—3
The Time
The Time (1981)—
The Time
What Time Is It? (1982)—

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Todd Rundgren 15: Deface The Music

So you know how Utopia had been approaching ordinary, radio-friendly music with each release? Well, who could have anticipated that their next move—or gimmick, if you will—would be an album of Beatle sound-alikes so uncanny they rival those of the Rutles?
The cover art is subtle, but Deface The Music is very much an homage to the Fabs, right down to the simple “more Utopia albums for your collection” ad on the inner sleeve. We’re not going to pick out every reference, but suffice it to say, these tracks scream moptop, with only Todd Rundgren’s nasal delivery keeping it oceans away from a bona fide British invasion.
The album’s sequenced chronologically, so to speak; side one is a celebration of 1964, from “I Just Wanna Touch You” all the way to “That’s Not Right”. The sound even apes early Capitol full dimensional stereo, with the drums and bass on one side and the other instruments on the other. The flute sound on “Alone” isn’t going to fool anybody, though; that’s neither the real thing nor a Mellotron. But what do you expect from a band that includes computer genius and synthesizer pioneer Roger Powell?
“Take It Home” closes side one with a hint of Rubber Soul, then “Hoi Polloi” kicks off side two in a mild aping of “Penny Lane”. “Life Goes On” will seem like a reference to a certain Revolver track about a spinster, but there’s a Utopia precedent already in “Love Alone” from the previous album. “Feels Too Good” even combines “Getting Better” with “Fixing A Hole”. Rather than taking it all up to Abbey Road, “Everybody Else Is Wrong” celebrates everybody’s favorite Lennon songs from the Magical Mystery Tour album, which both echoes Faithful and predicts that Todd would meet XTC one day. All it’s missing is a fake ending, confounding expectations yet again.
With only two songs out of thirteen over three minutes, Deface The Music goes by quick, but that just gives you more time to play it again. Chances are, you will.

Utopia Deface The Music (1980)—

Friday, May 5, 2017

Michael Nesmith: The First National Band

In addition to his increasingly experimental contributions to Monkees albums, Michael Nesmith also displayed a defiant affection for country music. As the band dwindled out of commercial favor, he began stockpiling songs, which usually began as poetry pieces with arbitrary titles, that he hoped to one day issue on his own.
His first major extracurricular experiment reared its wacky head in the summer of 1968. The Wichita Train Whistle Sings was recorded over two days with dozens of L.A.’s finest session players, and presented ten instrumental arrangements of Nesmith tunes, some already familiar from earlier Monkees albums. The record is best appreciated if one is fluent with the more standard recordings, because the styles used here range wildly from easy listening to high school marching band, with prominent banjos and a determination to be just plain nutty. Laughter at zany guitar lines is left in, along with the notorious sound of Tommy Tedesco’s prized Telecaster being hurled into the air and crashing to the floor.

Once free from the Monkees, he strove to fully explore the possibilities of blending the professional Nashville sound with his own idiosyncratic tendencies. Such a blend was already evident on “Listen To The Band” and “Good Clean Fun”, both chosen as Monkees singles, and after settling on some friends as his rhythm section, he was able to rope in pedal steel player Red Rhodes to complete the First National Band. In less than a year’s time, they recorded three albums’ worth of material, released faster than they could be recorded. Just like other early practitioners of what would become country rock would take decades to get any kind of respect, they were pretty much ignored at the time, being too country for rock and not country enough for country.
Magnetic South came first, frontloaded with Nesmith originals, some of which were those Monkees leftovers: the samba-flavored “Calico Girlfriend”; the all-too-brief “Nine Times Blue”, which goes into the nearly funky “Little Red Rider”; “The Crippled Lion”, a hidden Nesmith gem; and the surprising hit story-song “Joanne”, which cuts right to “First National Rag”, something of a commercial break telling the listener to flip the record over. There he pulls out the yodel for “Mama Nantucket” and “Keys To The Car”, and gets a little ambitious with “Hollywood”, but by ending with two covers—the straight croon of “One Rose” and a “mind movie” rendition of “Beyond The Blue Horizon”—it’s a nice little trip.

Loose Salute was half in the can by the time Magnetic South, and is even more country, but with only one cover (“I Fall To Pieces”). “Silver Moon” with its mild island lilt was a mild hit single, and probably the high point. Monkees fans today have already heard several better takes of “Conversations” (a.k.a. “Carlisle Wheeling”), and the original single of “Listen To The Band” was so definitive, even by his own admission, why do another? “Tengo Amore” is enticing until the vocal kicks in, a frighteningly accurate amalgam of Stephen Stills’ worst Latin tendencies. Where the first album was refreshing, this one’s almost ordinary.

By the time Loose Salute was on the shelves, the rhythm section had already left, so Nevada Fighter was finished with session pros. This time the sides were split, with Nesmith originals on side one and covers on side two. The originals are of fine quality, particularly “Propinquity” (another Monkees refugee) and the rocking title track. With the exception of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, the covers come from the pens of previous Monkee collaborators Harry Nilsson, Michael Murphey and Bill Martin, with a surprising choice in “I Looked Away”, best known as the opener for Derek and the Dominos’ Layla. Red Rhodes’ solo “Rene” closes the album, and the chapter, fittingly.
The three First National Band albums have been in and out of print over the years, and further reissues have gone as far as abridging them to cram the most music in. If one enjoys Nesmith’s voice and writing, and can handle a lot of pedal steel guitar, they’re worth checking out, particularly for fans of Gram Parsons. If anything, they run rings around Changes.

Michael Nesmith The Wichita Train Whistle Sings (1968)—2
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Magnetic South (1970)—3
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Loose Salute (1970)—
Michael Nesmith & The First National Band
Nevada Fighter (1971)—3

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

World Party 5: Dumbing Up

Even if it takes him years to finish an album for a tiny public that cares about it more than any distribution channel, Karl Wallinger has the skill to produce himself, layering instruments and sounds, either by himself or with dedicated players, to concoct the product in his head. (And, apparently, design his own cover art with stock programs.) As solid as Dumbing Up is, he could still use an editor.
Many of the tracks are long for what used to be airplay standards, and when they tend to be on the slow side, it’s easy to lose interest. “High Love”, obviously a ballad close to his heart for the time he devotes to it, would be better served by highlighting the sublime harmonies that don’t show up to until the end. Luckily, it’s followed by “Best Place I’ve Ever Been” is the upbeat quasi-single the album sorely needs. “Santa Barbara” is a lovely seaside-inspired piano reverie that’s a departure for him, though the seagulls could be scaled back. “All The Love That's Wasted” has something of a music-hall feel, but is immediately superseded by the grand “Little Bit Of Perfection”. “Another 1000 Years” is obviously melodically suggested by “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, which brings us to our next point.
Where the album truly falls short of excellent are the obvious pastiches. “Here Comes The Future” has an anachronistic arrangement that belies the title, and his funk experiments are kinda embarrassing anyway. And having already recorded several songs based liberally on Dylan’s electric heyday, “Who Are You?” loses any value in its rant by not trying harder (though at least it doesn’t all sound like its funk coda). In contrast, he manages to better direct his social commentary on the closing “Always On My Mind”, a simple solo piano with just piano, vocals, and some effects, albeit for over eight minutes.
Not long after the album was released with nary a ripple of impact, Wallinger suffered a brain aneurysm, the effects of which incapacitated for the better part of six years. Once sufficiently recovered, he rereleased Dumbing Up on his own label, shuffling the original sequence, dropping two songs and adding two new ones. “‘Til I Got You” and “I Thought You Were A Spy” are both effortless tunes that, amazingly, no one else had thought of yet. “All The Love That's Wasted” is no great loss, but it’s a shame he cut “Little Bit Of Perfection”. The album still ends with “Always On My Mind”; where else could it fit?

World Party Dumbing Up (2000)—3
2006 reissue: same as 2000, plus 2 extra tracks (and minus 2 tracks) plus DVD

Friday, April 28, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw 4: Mary Jean & 9 Others

In 1987, it wasn’t enough to write catchy songs and record them well. John Mellencamp had the “heartland sound” pretty much sown up, hair metal was creeping in, and record buyers were fairly selective in their nostalgia. One of the bigger movie hits that summer was the Richie Valens biopic La Bamba, which brought Los Lobos their biggest hit. Meanwhile, in the same film, Marshall Crenshaw played the role of Buddy Holly, which translated to little public interest in his fourth album, in shops around the same time.
Mary Jean & 9 Others is a suitably retro title, but makes the mistake of not putting the actual name of the potential hit single in the title. Still, This Is Easy & 9 Others mightn’t have grabbed many eyes on the shelf either, given the poorly lit photo on the cover, which depicts Marshall with brother Bob (back on drums) and the high-stacked hair of Graham Maby, on loan from Joe Jackson’s band. “This Is Easy” remains a great tune, and would eventually be used as the title of a turn-of-the-century best-of.
Given that fantastic start, much of the album follows his established template of catchy melodies, simple chords (save the occasional major-seventh), rockabilly rhythms and hooky choruses. One unfortunate sidestep is “This Street”, with its processed guitars and electronic drums, sounding much like a demo. He was no slouch at recording demos, but this one simply doesn’t fit the sound of the album. “They Never Will Know”, which closes the set, is more of a slow dance, but not too slow.
“Calling Out For Love (At Crying Time)” and “Somebody’s Crying” may have a word in common, but are both standouts. The closest thing what could be called the album’s title track is certainly toe-tappin’, but pales slightly in comparison to “For Her Love” (which it closely resembles structure-wise) from his second album. In the tradition of obscure covers, this album’s contribution is a subtly rocking “Steel Strings”, from former Plimsoul Peter Case’s critically acclaimed solo debut the year before.
That track tops five minutes, and most of the songs on Mary Jean & 9 Others are over four; perhaps with only ten songs in his arsenal he was hesitant to shorten them, lest the album seem too short. In an alternate universe, his version of “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from the La Bamba soundtrack might have joined the other “Crying” songs to entice consumers, but we should hope that in any alternate universe, he’s sold more records than he has in this one.

Marshall Crenshaw Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)—3

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Stephen Stills 9: Right By You

The cover of Stephen Stills’ only solo album of the ‘80s depicts what appears to be some kind of crazy angled rocket, alongside futuristic lettering. Those who took the time to flip it and see the back cover will see that it’s actually some kind of racing boat. Right By You is a nearly perfect representation of his misguided narcissism, every note a gem, every song a masterpiece. Of course, one has to be Stephen Stills to buy that.
We don’t know anyone who’s heard this album, much less owns it, so we have no idea whether the electronic drums that saturate all but the last two tracks sounded this awful in 1984. It should go without saying, yet we’ll say it anyway, that the percussion combines with the period keyboards and Latin rhythms for a truly aggravating listening experience. Lionel Richie could get away with these arrangements, and we’re not saying that in a bad way.
The same accomplices appear, like George Perry and Joe Lala, alongside other unrecognizable names. Graham Nash sings prominent harmonies, most frustratingly on a reworking of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” that didn’t really need another verse from Stephen’s hand. Mike Finnegan’s synth and soulful vocals on “Can’t Let Go” make an odd duet better suited to a female partner or a soap opera tie-in. Chris Hillman appears with cohort Herb Pedersen on a bluegrass version of an antiwar folk song. But the most striking guest is Jimmy Page, whose processed sound distracts from the horror on three tracks.
There just might be a good album buried under Right By You, which actually marked his return to Atlantic Records. In the absence of a reunited, rejuvenated CSN, maybe they figured it was an easy tax write-off.

Stephen Stills Right By You (1984)—

Friday, April 21, 2017

Elton John 4: Friends

Being the good professional songwriters they’d longed to be, Elton John and Bernie Taupin took seriously the task of composing the soundtrack to a film. If the film in question was a hit, they’d get noticed, and if it failed, at least they got paid. Friends was not a box-office smash, nor did it get kind reviews. The accompanying soundtrack album did manage to chart, however, most likely because Elton already had two hit albums in the U.S., and his star was rising.
We haven’t seen the film, and don’t plan to, but having read a few synopses online we can imagine that the music supports the apparent Romeo & Juliet Meets The Blue Lagoon In Rural France plot just fine. In the context of innocent young love the grownups don’t understand, Elton’s pretty melodies and Bernie’s sweet sentiments do have a universal appeal outside a movie theater, nudged along by Paul Buckmaster arrangements. The title track was even a minor hit single, being a simple celebration of emotion under two and half minutes. “Michelle’s Song” is of a similar sentiment and approach, and a better choice for a wedding song. The very pretty “Seasons” appears twice, first at the tail of a piece dominated by oboe, and again at the close as a reprise.
Roughly half of the album is devoted to orchestral music, mostly “variations” on themes used in the songs, with one piece used under a “poetic recitation” and an 11-minute plod seemingly culled from four separate cues. Luckily, Elton had some snappier numbers on hand, likely composed independent of the project at hand. “Honey Roll” is very much along the lines of the cowboy boogie of Tumbleweed Connection, and might even be an early draft of some of those songs. “Can I Put You On” is another midtempo rocker that even made it into his live set.
Originally released on a budget label, Friends got lost in the crowd of the other albums he’d put out in such a short period of time, and usually got noticed only after the fact in bargain bins. To date its only digital appearance has been via the 1992 Rare Masters collection, and a good place for it. Even the non-vocal (and non-Elton) tracks are included, although the original sequence has been slightly shuffled, disturbing the balance somewhat. But at least the music hasn’t been lost for good.

Elton John Original Soundtrack Recording From The Paramount Picture “Friends” (1971)—3
Current CD equivalent: Rare Masters

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Morphine 5: The Night

At the risk of sounding crass, the prize for most “rock ‘n roll” death goes to a man who actually died onstage. Morphine was playing a show in Italy, when Mark Sandman collapsed from cardiac arrest mid-song and never recovered. Besides putting an end to his band, it colored the reception of what would be their already-completed album.
At a whopping 50 minutes, The Night is the longest album in their catalog. While based, as ever, around that voices and those saxes, new (for them) instruments are heard throughout the album, more than before. Three songs even have female backup singers.
Lilah, namechecked on Like Swimming, appears to be the muse on the title track, which mixes Sandman’s own piano and Jane Scarpantoni’s cello for a rainy lament. A Tom Waits-style rumba with organ underpins the riveting “So Many Ways”, and piano takes over for “Souvenir”, with less tension and more familiar sounds. They get positively funky (again, for them) on “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer”, the organ provided by John Medeski. Lilah is pushed aside for one Martha Lee on “Like A Mirror”, which has a great couplet buried under a robotic beat. “A Good Woman Is Hard To Find” fades in, almost as if it were caught mid-performance, and is another contender for a mainstream hit.
“Rope On Fire” has a distinct Mideastern feel, with flavored strings and percussion; it could almost pass for adult contemporary world music, and that’s meant in a good way. The only percussion heard on “I’m Yours, You’re Mine” is a high-hat, unless there’s another beat buried in there somewhere, giving the song a ticking tension that threatens to explode with the organ and synth but doesn’t. Drums are all we hear on “The Way We Met”, which deserves a better backing. “Slow Numbers” is clever, recalling the mood, music and feel of the Rykodisc albums. The effect of somber Celtic fiddles dominates “Take Me With You”, which repeats the title enough to sound like an epitaph. The backing vocals sound tacked on, and that’s a shame.
It’s a bigger shame that The Night is the last Morphine album, and it’s not the first time a band’s promise was cut short. Not all of the tracks sound finished, begging the moot question: Was the released product his vision preserved, or an interpretation thereof?

Morphine The Night (2000)—3

Friday, April 14, 2017

Faces 2: Long Player

The next Faces album sported minimal cover art, a throwback to the days when records came in plain sleeves with only the label showing for identification. Interestingly, it wasn’t identical all over the globe; the British version even had “stitches” keeping the cardboard together. This is a good metaphor for the grab-bag nature of the tunes within Long Player.
“Bad ‘N Ruin” opens with a decent riff, barely bothering to change chords. Ron Wood solos constantly, as he was wont to do. “Tell Everyone” and “Sweet Lady Mary” are slower, sensitive tunes sung by Rod Stewart, but not as slow as the bottleneck-heavy “Richmond”, sung by Ronnie Lane. Then we’re transformed to the Fillmore East for a decent live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, less than a year after anyone heard Paul McCartney’s original recording. Ronnie takes the first verse, then Rod takes over, even starting to sing the song again after the band’s stopped. (A studio take was issued around the same time as a single.)
It’s back to the barrelhouse for “Had Me A Real Good Time”, eventually bringing in horns after the fake ending. “On The Beach” has all the audio quality of a rehearsal, but still sounds very together. It’s back to the Fillmore for a lengthy skip through Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good”, complete with call-and-response from the crowd. Woody’s dobro rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” closes the album, and provides something of a bridge to the next Rod Stewart solo album.
Long Player is good, and fun. Sounds like it, anyway. By not evenly laying out the slow tunes, the raveups, the acoustic ones and the boogies, it never gets stuck in a rut. We could use a little more Ronnie Lane and less Ronnie Wood, but that’s us.

Faces Long Player (1971)—3

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Van Morrison 32: Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again

Just as his previous label was willing to indulge him, so did Van Morrison’s current corporate home. Having moved more than a few copies of his last album, they went ahead and approved the release of two side projects within the same year.
Most kids in the post-war UK found their way to rock ‘n roll via skiffle, an offshoot of what used to be called “trad jazz” and best popularized by Lonnie Donegan, who played with Chris Barber’s band. Both men get equal billing (below Van) on The Skiffle Sessions, culled from two concerts in Belfast. Lonnie does most of the singing, as he should, and his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all over the years. It’s an enjoyable overview of the folk and blues traditionals that made up standard skiffle repertoires, complete with washboard, and would be just as enjoyable without Van, whose gruff vocals certainly stick out. Still, this album likely sent some checks to the other fellows, and having Dr. John on a few tracks probably helped too.

A much different, slightly more focused collaboration came in the form of a duet album with Linda Gail Lewis, otherwise known as Jerry Lee’s sister. You Win Again collects even more country and blues covers, mostly from Hank Williams and his disciples. For those of us who’d never heard of her before, and we’d be surprised if anyone had, Linda Gail has a fine voice, and when combined with Van, conveys a lot of fun. A couple of tracks seem to hint at the piano-pounding style of her brother, but otherwise it’s very similar to Van’s retro style, but with more twang. It does include one original, the goofy and strangely appealing “No Way Pedro”.
Both albums are certainly worth the plastic on which they’re printed, but are hardly essential. He’d already spent most of his career paying tribute to his influences and idols, so if anything, The Skiffle Sessions and You Win Again provide proof that he could still enjoy his “job”, onstage and off.

Van Morrison, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber The Skiffle Sessions—Live In Belfast (2000)—3
Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis
You Win Again (2000)—3

Friday, April 7, 2017

Pink Floyd 20: The Early Years

As they’d promised, each of the volumes (save the bonus mop-up set) in Pink Floyd’s massive The Early Years 1967-1972 box set were made available individually, making it a little easier for fans on a budget to not only acquire the sets, but make time to ingest them. In addition to the music, the DVD and Blu-ray portions of each provide tons of audio-visual material, performance footage and the like, as well as some rare quad mixes and (supposedly) a 5.1 surround mix of Meddle. As we’re all about audio here, that’s what interests us most.
1965-1967: Cambridge St/ation: This is the set for Syd Barrett fanatics, as most of the tunes began in his head. Opening with six tracks recorded at the start of 1965, we can hear the early R&B influence not very well translated by the players, Syd’s voice sounding more like intentional parody. (Roger Waters’ songwriting contribution is certainly intended to be humorous.) All the non-LP single sides are here, along with the alternate of “Matilda Mother”, “Jugband Blues”, the previously unreleased “In The Beechwoods”, and (finally) “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream”. The second disc is devoted to a live performance in Sweden (historic for hearing Syd in concert; demerits for nearly inaudible vocals) and a half-hour of experimental noodling for an avant-garde film project.
1968: Germin/ation: This transitional period, breaking in David Gilmour, is somewhat limited in unheard music, except to put the two singles and their B-sides in context. There are two incomplete tracks from a mid-summer session, one of which sounds like a prototype for “Cymbaline” but for the wacky time changes, the other a Waters piece that seems to have a nativity influence. The bulk of the disc is made up of two BBC radio appearances, including an early take of “Embryo” and one of six live performances of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” scattered throughout the audio portions of the volumes.
1969: Dramatis/ation: The band still finding their way, we get some outtakes from the More soundtrack, including a piece called “Hollywood” that bridges the gap from the untitled piece on the 1968 set with “Cymbaline”. The lone studio take of “Embryo” leads to a BBC session featuring a three-minute “Eugene” and songs that would end up on Ummagumma, followed by four tracks recorded live in Amsterdam, heavy on the slow jamming (“Eugene” now ten minutes), light on vocals. A slightly later performance in Amsterdam makes up the second disc; this is the much-bootlegged performance of two suites, The Man and The Journey, that dominated that summer’s tour. Most of the songs were from already-released albums, and bridged with further jamming and sound effects. It’s more historic than groundbreaking, particularly considering David’s failure to hit the high notes on “The Narrow Way”.
1970: Devi/ation: The “Atom Heart Mother” suite took over the sets at this time, and it appears here in three lengthy but discrete versions in reverse chronological order spaced throughout: a band-only live performance in Switzerland; a BBC performance with orchestra and choir; and a “studio runthrough” from before the orchestra and voices had been added. The balance of the first disc is dedicated to the rest of that radio appearance, with another long “Embryo”, another long “Eugene”, another “Green Is The Colour”, and two songs from side two of Atom Heart Mother. Most of the second disc is devoted to outtakes from their work on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. Predominantly instrumental, a little spacey, the standouts are the Laurel Canyon folkie pastiche “Crumbling Land” and “The Riot Scene”, which is more familiar now as the chords to “Us And Them”.
1971: Reverber/ation: While only five songs, this isn’t the shortest audio installment in the set, but it could be the most solid. Following the “Nothing” work-in-progress excerpt is a full hour-long BBC concert, with lengthy versions of “Embryo” (again, but no kiddie effects) and “Fat Old Sun”, faithful reproductions of “One Of These Days” and “Echoes”, and those wonderful John Peel intros. The band was tight, having shed much of the meandering that dominated the preceding years.
1972: Obfusc/ation: The CD portion of the announced package was to consist solely of the remixed Obscured By Clouds, but thanks to a “mistake”, the audio from the Pompeii performance was included as well. That’s a nice surprise bonus, particularly if you don’t mind two more versions of “Eugene”. In addition to sounding great, it shows how earlier “freeform” jams like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Saucerful Of Secrets” still made sense among the newer explorations from Meddle.
In theory, fans could benefit from the piecemeal availability depending on how they feel about certain phases of the band, e.g. pro- or anti-Syd, or a strong preference or hatred for a particular album. Between sound quality and performance, some volumes are simply more palatable than others. Chances are, for most Floyd heads, if they’re in for one, they’re in for all.

Pink Floyd The Early Years 1965-1967: Cambridge St/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1968: Germin/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1969: Dramatis/ation (2017)—3
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1970: Devi/ation (2017)—
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1971: Reverber/ation (2017)—4
Pink Floyd
The Early Years 1972: Obfusc/ation (2017)—4

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Kinks 8: Live Kinks

For various reasons, mostly bureaucratic, the Kinks didn’t tour America for most of the ‘60s. They were, however, shackled to the theater circuit all over the UK and other countries, where they appeared on bills with six other bands and played for about half an hour a show. One of these shows was recorded and released in the U.S. under the title The Live Kinks, and the following year elsewhere as Live At Kelvin Hall (that being the venue in Glasgow where it was recorded) and with a better cover.
As was the norm, what listeners heard on their hi-fis most likely included recordings made far away from Kelvin Hall and the screaming audience that overpowers the mix. The set, while a bit sluggish, presents competent reproductions of hit singles and recent album tracks, the only real rarity being a medley that finds its way from “Milk Cow Blues” through the Batman theme to “Tired Of Waiting For You” and back to “Milk Cow Blues”. Dreamy Dave Davies gets to sing lead on two songs, and he and Ray try to engage the crowd (who know the words to “Sunny Afternoon” and can be heard singing “Happy Birthday” at one point, but we don’t to whom). The band doesn’t sound terrible, and there’s probably a great performance buried under the audience noise. But it was just another day for the Kinks, who by all accounts were more occupied that month with a new song of Ray’s called “Waterloo Sunset”.
While other Kinks albums have been lavishly repackaged with each reissue, this one has only gotten as deluxe as having both mono and stereo mixes on one CD, with the international title and cover. Each reissue has also correctly listed the first track as “Till The End Of The Day”, whereas the original LP wrongly had it as “All Day And All Of The Night”.

The Kinks The Live Kinks (1967)—3

Friday, March 31, 2017

Doors 7: L.A. Woman

It must have been incredibly frustrating for the members of the Doors who weren’t Jim Morrison and wanted so desperately to be a popular working band. Their erratic frontman was still the focal point, but without his so-called poetry, compounded by the risk of imprisonment over indecency charges, they had limited commercial potential.
They were united, however, in not letting their record company dictate their output, especially after the release of 13, a fairly obvious collection of hit singles. So they continued to hone their craft, building on the simpler collaboration that made Morrison Hotel a step forward. And when they got stuck for ideas, they leaned on the blues. That itself wasn’t such as stretch, as their first album featured “Back Door Man”. The blues are easy to play but tough to master; having only three chords forces the players to be creative with them, and with (usually) two repeated lines before a third response, the lyricist must make the most of the limited space. On L.A. Woman, the best explorations succeed, and the others plod.
A blast of organ-driven funk opens “The Changeling”, with Jim’s grunts and shouts complementing the scowling, bearded face on the album cover. It’s a stark contrast to the straight commercial rock of “Love Her Madly”, one of their better singles, but then it’s back to the generic blues of “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”; at least the latter has better lyrics, but the Stones gave up this kind of wandering by their sixth album. The title track, with its multiple parts and shifting speeds, still evokes a feeling of speeding down brightly lit highways at night.
“L’America” manages to approach some of the actual poetic experiments of earlier albums, but still manages to throw in a naughty albeit clever play on words. A wonderful surprise is “Hyacinth House”, with a shimmering guitar, Jim’s inspired delivery, and Hammond organ using the same stops Richard Wright found in Pink Floyd. “Crawling King Snake” is proof that they only had so much in the hopper, but “The WASP (Texas Radio And The Big Beat)” is an excellent meld of his poetry and their interpretation of it. They almost sound like a unit. The best development of the blues format and what the band could actually do comes forth in “Riders On The Storm”, also notable for being one of the few songs that uses rain as a prominent sound effect, yet doesn’t sound like a toilet running.
Knowing what we know now, L.A. Woman becomes a bigger thing than it was, though some have suggested that many of the insiders suspected it would be the band’s last album. As it is, it wasn’t a bad way to go out. The three most-recognized tracks from the album should be enough to entice anyone to buy it, and the added attraction of “Hyacinth House” and “The WASP” will balance out any boredom.
Because people who should don’t pay close enough attention to these things, the album has been reissued twice as a so-called 40th Anniversary Edition: first in 2007 with the other albums, and then again five years later to belatedly celebrate the album itself. The earlier expansion added a previously released, posthumously overdubbed outtake and contemporary B-side, while the later one focused on alternate versions of most of the tracks, plus two other outtakes.

The Doors L.A. Woman (1971)—3
2007 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2012 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1971, plus 9 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Jethro Tull 11: Too Old To Rock ‘N Roll

Like a few other current bands of the time, Jethro Tull was in the position of being expected to deliver a production with every new album. Part of that pressure came from themselves, but it’s a pretty high order to fill album after album, year after year.
Coined in a period of the 1970s when too many rockers were having trouble dealing with turning 30, Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! itself is a clever phrase that would become all too apt as more musicians left the planet. But while one might expect the album to describe the rise and fall of a rock star, the story instead opens on a guy who’s already a has-been, finds his way to another plateau of fame and/or fortune, meets disaster, then emerges into an unknown but not hopeless future. All this is only determined via reading the album’s liner notes, which exist in the form of a comic book-style spread in the gatefold. The protagonist bears a mild resemblance to Ian Anderson, who has long insisted that Ray Lomas is not based at all on him.
We’ll leave others to sort out the concept, its execution and delivery; there was even an attempt at a TV special where actors played out scenes while the band played (now available in a deluxe reissue package). What’s important to us is how it sounds coming through speakers. On that basis, the album’s just fine. It opens with a melody soon to be recognizable halfway through the other side as the title track, and like most everything the band became best known for, exudes baroque pomp. Soon enough the strummed acoustic gives way to heavy electric and staccato flute, with gratefully little of the trendy synthesizers of the day. Ian’s voice is most often treated to that “bathroom echo” sound, which suits him as well as it did John Lennon.
The title track is the best-known song here, but that doesn’t make it the best song period. Hindsight has us thinking that the little classical lines played on strings, mandolins and guitars sound too much like one of Elton John’s parodies of the style, particularly when the chorus kicks into a ‘50s-style raveup for the big climax. (We’ll go further on a limb and compared “The Chequered Flag”, the grand finale, to Elton as well; it’s practically adult contemporary.) The stark and folky “Salamander” and “Bad-Eyed And Loveless” are welcome changes of pace, and “Taxi Grab” has some honking harmonica that recalls the band’s first albums. On songs like those, and even the more complex “Pied Piper”, there’s less of an obvious attempt to be profound, and just to play decent.

Jethro Tull Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! (1976)—3
2002 remastered CD: same as 1976, plus 2 extra tracks
2015 TV Special Edition: same as 2002, plus 24 extra tracks (and 2 DVDs)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Toad The Wet Sprocket 2: Pale

Kids looking for jangly pop with earnest vocals and mumbled lyrics while a certain band from Georgia took its sweet time between albums could have done a lot worse than Toad The Wet Sprocket, and they probably did. Their second album was recorded, again, on the cheap, with as little as possible spent on a cover design (all lyrics in lower case, of course), though it did boast something of a “name” producer in the form of one Marvin Etzioni. Once a member of Lone Justice, at this point in his career he was dubbed the “Mandolin Man”, and indeed adds some of that trilling to “Come Back Down”, the first single from Pale and the first single in the band’s catalog to utilize the word “down”.
Most of the album follows the same template: moody, not-too-loud songs mixing acoustic and electric guitars, sung by young Glenn Phillips, whose vocals are either tolerated or hated. Lead guitarist Todd Nichols sings two tracks that might as well be the main guy, but he doesn’t have the same gift of finding a wrenching melody. As with the debut, the overall sound is a bit claustrophobic, like an overcast afternoon in a house several miles away from a gas station or food. Some more moments emerge: the dynamics in “Don’t Go Away”, with its violin-tinged ending; the unsettling domestic drama related in “Corporal Brown”; the second half of closer “She Cried”; and possibly best of all, the nearly rocking “Jam”, complete with a “joke” ending. “Chile” would appear to be something of a political commentary, though we could do without the accordion (and didn’t like it when that other band used it either).
Pale had its fans upon release, but was most likely discovered by later fans going backwards. In that case, it’s a better listen than the debut, and ably bridges the gap to the next one. And only a couple of songs sound alike.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Pale (1990)—3

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Frank Zappa 31: You Are What You Is

In between tours, Frank installed a state-of-the-art studio in the basement of his house, and proceeded to spent most of his time there. The first album recorded (or at least finished) at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen was You Are What You Is, four sides of snide commentary on the state of America under the new Reagan regime. (No points for guessing he wasn’t in favor of much of it.)
Picking on dumb kids was old hat for Frank, and “Teen-age Wind” updates it to the era where they’d sniff glue, follow Grateful Dead concerts and even “go to a midnite show of 200 Motels!” And who should turn up in the next track but Jimmy Carl Black in his Lonesome Cowboy Burt guise, claiming to be “Harder Than Your Husband” (“to get along with”). As a country pastiche it’s far too complicated chord-wise. “Doreen” is basically a doo-wop song sped up and translated to a hard rock arrangement; one wonders if a “straight” version exists. “Goblin Girl” used to get occasional radio play around Halloween, but if any program directors listened to the actual lyrics they might have thought twice. The end of the track has some bits of “Doreen” layered on top, with some “pachuco” references from old Mothers albums, then it’s a quick cut to “Theme From The 3rd Movement Of Sinister Footwear”, a complicated guitar solo subsequently overdubbed.
Side two is a suite of sorts, beginning as another satire along the lines of “Dancin’ Fool” but takes a tragic turn before ending with more irreverence. “Society Pages” describes a doyen of suburbia, whose son would grow up to proclaim, “I’m A Beautiful Guy”. The Greek chorus reminds him that “Beauty Knows No Pain”, but he’s preoccupied with “Charlie’s Enormous Mouth”. Modeled on the woman from a one-time perfume commercial who also shovels a certain substance into her similarly oversized nose, leading to her premature demise and interment, where her vapid friends stand around asking “Any Downers?” (It’s too bad, as it’s a good riff.) Somehow Frank manages to tie this to a celebration of the “Conehead”, as seen on Saturday Night Live. The title track got some attention when its video was glimpsed on an episode of Beavis & Butthead—the original clip wouldn’t have been aired back in the day, given its depiction of Reagan in an electric chair and lyrics about “white” guys trying to be “black” and vice versa. Somehow this leads into “Mudd Club”, already immortalized by Talking Heads, played in a style hemispheres away than the music normally associated with the place. Somehow he decides that this would be a good place to lambaste the church (and the government) in “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”—a great track on its own—which continues on “Dumb All Over”, an extended rap in a mild Central Scrutinizer voice.
Even his concept couldn’t be contained on one side, so we get more of that final chant at the top of “Heavenly Bank Account”, which predicts a decades’ worth of crooked televangelists. Somehow this leads to a portrait of a “Suicide Chump”, who wants to end it all but is too scared to. A savior arrives in the form of an overweight girl, of whom the young man quickly tires and threatens to pummel; hence the refrain of “Jumbo Go Away”. “If Only She Woulda” works in the two most common chords from “Light My Fire” as a bridge explaining how the chump’s life got even worse. “Drafted Again” is an adaptation of a Zappa single from the year before, notable now for featuring the vocal stylings of 14-year-old Moon Zappa and six-year-old Ahmet.
Most Zappa fanatics seem to think well of You Are What You Is. These days it sounds very slick, even coming from the days before digital recording took its hold on Frank. Steve Vai is all over the album, providing a distraction from the negativity. Many of the tracks could stand find by themselves, but by insisting on weaving everything together (you know, ‘cos he was such a genius at “conceptual continuity”) they don’t get enough of a chance to breathe. Somehow.

Frank Zappa You Are What You Is (1981)—

Friday, March 17, 2017

Talking Heads 1: 77

Say the name “Talking Heads” and most people will think of a sweaty guy in a big white suit. David Byrne was indeed the voice and face of the band for most of their tenure, often to the detriment of other members. The rhythm section was (and still is) married to each other: self-taught bass player Tina Weymouth and mighty white drummer Chris Frantz. An early secret weapon was Jerry Harrison, who not only played guitar and keyboards, but brought some true indie cred being an original member of the Modern Lovers.
Talking Heads weren’t punk per se, and new wave hadn’t been coined yet, but their angular attack on the pop music form fit right alongside Television in the CBGB scene, forming a perfect square with the Ramones and Blondie. As is the case with many bands starting out, their first album stands somewhat apart from what would come after, mostly because they hadn’t landed on a certain producer yet.
Throughout Talking Heads: 77, David Byrne twitches, yodels and hiccups his way through lyrics that could best be described as “quirky”, sometimes hitting the notes, too. Even four decades later, it’s hard to tell if his persona is manufactured or authentic. (See? Rivers Cuomo isn’t such an innovator after all.)
The music is equally quirky, and sometimes just plain goofy. Even past its title, “Uh Oh, Love Comes To Town” features a steel drum solo. “New Feeling” pogoes along while David has a conniption, while “Tentative Decisions” starts slinky before finding a military march and singalong chorus of sorts. “Happy Day” follows the same musical structure of verse, pre-chorus and chorus, but with dreamy keyboards and bells, and one still expects the same lyrics on the chorus. For simple geek rock, it’s tough to beat “Who Is It?”, made more striking when followed by “No Compassion”, which seems to stop about three times before its actual end.
Side two seems to have more immediately catchy tracks, beginning with “The Book I Read”, which could even pass for a love song. “Don’t Worry About The Government” is more along the lines of a stereotypical Byrne lyric, even with the trilling mandolin effect. “First Week/Last Week… Carefree” utilizes marimbas and percussion for a quasi-tropical sound, with a saxophone that seems to predict Haircut 100, and a prominent “i-yi-yi-yi” hook that is used much better on the next track. That would be “Psycho Killer”, still the best song on the album and the best use of both Byrne persona and band sound. Whatever concern any listener may get from that dark portrait is easily brushed aside by the infectious silliness of “Pulled Up”.
Talking Heads: 77 does improve with familiarity, and there are people out there who think this is one of the greatest debuts by any band ever. Personally, we’re more into Television. (True to tradition, their first single wasn’t included on their first album, but today you can get an expanded CD that includes “Love -> Buildings On Fire” and marvel at the mariachi horns, along with some other B-sides and outtakes.)

Talking Heads Talking Heads: 77 (1977)—3
2005 CD reissue: same as 1977, plus 5 extra tracks