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)—

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