Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Bruce Springsteen 23: High Hopes

Having decided he could create albums anywhere and anytime, Bruce went the Tattoo You route by raiding his outtakes vault. However, while the Stones managed to create a great album from their leftovers, Bruce only ended up with a plateful of table scraps on High Hopes, a desperate title to be sure.
Some songs had appeared in earlier incarnations. The title track had been part of the E Street Band reunion sessions two decades earlier; it’s a cover, so he can’t be blamed for the lazy chorus, but he should have known better about the horns. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was introduced on the reunion tour and released on the 2001 live album, and is just as long here, but still good. Tom Morello played guitar on half the album, and sings some of the verses on the too-long, too-loud rock remake of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”. (He also allegedly suggested all the covers that were included. “Just Like Fire Would” was originally recorded by a punk band, but here it’s all Bruce. Similarly, “Dream Baby Dream” was originally by synth-punk duo Suicide, and becomes an aching prayer.)
“Harry’s Place” was likely left off The Rising in favor of “Mary’s Place”, which is no better. “Down In The Hole” begins low-key like a Devils & Dust track, but picks up with crazy samples and sound effects, just as “Heaven’s Wall” opens with a gospel chant and beats a “raise your hand” motif into submission. “Frankie Fell In Love” is a nice throwback to his character songs from the ‘70s, and “The Wall” a nice memorial to Vietnam veterans. But “This Is Your Sword” is an unconvincing call to arms, and “Hunter Of Invisible Game”, while lilting, lopes aimlessly.
While some of the songs are certainly worth saving from obscurity, the album as a whole fails. Perhaps as proof that he’s no longer his best editor, an EP called American Beauty appeared for Record Store Day and online streaming, containing four songs easily as good if not better than anything on High Hopes. The title track and “Hurry Up Sundown” are rousing arena rockers, “Mary Mary” a sweet strum, and “Hey Blue Eyes” a deceptively pretty tune about wartime atrocity.

Bruce Springsteen High Hopes (2014)—2
Bruce Springsteen
American Beauty (2014)—3

Friday, October 27, 2017

Bob Weir 1: Ace

Of the Grateful Dead’s front men, Bob Weir was always the most basic musically. His songs had a tendency toward good-time boogie, with no rampant experimental characteristics. It was a good balance for a live show, since the songs were simple enough to learn, but as the only selections on an album, things can get a little dull. Unless, of course, you love to boogie.
Ace is a Bob Weir solo in name only, as the basic band on every track is the Grateful Dead; moreover, it serves as the premier of new keyboards guy Keith Godchaux, along with his wife Donna on backing vocals. “Greatest Story Ever Told” leaps out of the gate with a war whoop and exactly the type of rhythm Deadheads live for. Thanks to lyrics by Robert Hunter, the story is interesting. “Black-Throated Wind” has a different sound thanks to lyrics from Weir’s friend John Barlow, the stumbly meter, and prominent horn section, but “Walk In The Sunshine” is just plain dippy even for him. “Playing In The Band” had already appeared on the “Skull & Roses” album, here it’s nearly twice as long and more intricate, thanks to the competent piano.
The true hidden gem of the album is “Looks Like Rain”, with its perfectly heartbroken vocal, a complementary pedal steel from Jerry, and a string arrangement of all things. It’s a wonder this hasn’t been covered by more people. It could be because its effect is flattened by the goofy mariachi horns on “Mexicali Blues”—a decent saloon tune, but oh, that incessant “da-dat-dat”. “One More Saturday Night” would also be a band staple; here’s it’s just more boogie in the mode set by “Greatest Story”. With its multi-faceted lyrics and possible interpretations, “Cassidy” makes for a very effective closer.
Take the best parts of Ace and shuffle them with the vocal highlights from Garcia’s solo album from earlier in the year, and you’d have a pretty strong ’72 Dead studio album. Instead, indulgence reigned the day, even for these guys. As it is, there’s enough good on it to outweigh the rest, so it works. Meanwhile, two of the songs (“Playing In The Band” and “Greatest Story”) would appear later the same year on Mickey Hart’s solo album Rolling Thunder, which went even further away from the traditional Dead sound. Despite the appearances of most of the Dead, the album incorporates contributions from members of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and other Frisco musicians, the Tower of Power horns, and two well-known tabla players to his own percussion to present something of a world music fusion.

Bob Weir Ace (1972)—3

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Jerry Garcia 1: Garcia

With all the time they spent touring, it’s a wonder the members of the Grateful Dead had any time for extracurricular activities. But play they did. Due to his prowess on a variety of stringed instruments, Jerry Garcia was in high demand for his friends’ sessions, making prominent appearances on solo albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash and Paul Kantner, the first album by New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and co-billing on Hooteroll? by jazz fusion organist Howard Wales. His own solo album was very much a one-man affair; with the exception of Bill Kreutzmann on drums and lyrics by (who else?) Robert Hunter, Garcia let him loose on guitars, bass, pedal steel, and keyboards.
And since he sings anything with words, it sounds a lot like a Dead album. Side one alone is wall-to-wall: “Deal”, “Bird Song”, “Sugaree”, and “Loser”, all of which were played live by the band before the album was released, and stayed concert staples for the duration. Each is in that loping, acoustic-based mode established on the last two studio albums, so they will already sound familiar.
Back when album sides had to be flipped to hear the rest, it’s possible that many owners of this LP wore out side one. These days, if listening on CD or a cassette dub, what used to be side two would be rather harsh on one’s mellow. The first three tracks for something of a suite; “Late For Supper” and “Spiderdawg” are examples of avant-garde or musique concrete (take your pick), with the kind of dissonant piano stabs and electronic effects usually associated with early Pink Floyd, whereas “Eep Hour” is a more conventional instrumental built around minor-key triplets and Floydian changes. He stays on piano for the gospel-tinged “To Lay Me Down”, which was attempted for American Beauty but not used, but would still surface onstage from time to time. “An Odd Little Place” is a gorgeous interlude for minimalist piano and atmospheric drums, and makes a fantastic prelude for “The Wheel”, which has an epic feel and big sound considering, again, it’s all Jerry plus Bill.
The eventual expansion of Garcia presents a few of the songs in their early stages—just acoustic guitar, vocal, and drums—plus the piano-and-drums first pass through the “Eep Hour” suite. There’s even a version of “Eep Hour” itself on electric guitar that takes it to a completely new place. Even so, the original sequence worked so well on its own, so the extras are only essential for completists, who are likely trying to catch up with all the live shows the band keeps issuing.

Jerry Garcia Garcia (1972)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1972, plus 8 extra tracks

Friday, October 20, 2017

Robert Plant 13: Carry Fire

His hair may be too long and his face ever more creased, but fifty years into his commercial career Robert Plant sounds very comfortable with his voice, his instrument. Carry Fire continues with the palette set by lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, his previous solo album, except that the rhythms here are not as overtly exotic, and the breadth of material not as wide.
“The May Queen” was the first preview track, and it’s fairly circular, finally breaking out in the wordless chorus. “New World…” would have been a stronger choice, as it has a driving tempo and therefore more energy. But despite its slower pace, “Season’s Song” moves like a boat on the sea, and it’s a keeper. Towards the end of “Dance With Me Tonight”, right alongside the sound of a heraldic horn, his voice finally emerges an octave higher than it’s been all album, and one can’t help but smile at its familiarity. It’s a good setup for “Carving Up The World Again”, a protest song with a tribal beat and better chorus. He’s been political before, so it’s not that big a deal, but it’s not his strong suit, and that makes “A Way With Words” something of a relief.
These ears aren’t especially wowed by the balance of the album. The exotic influences return on the title track, by way of more overt loops; it improves as it builds. “Bones Of Saints” ups the tempo to a rock level again, getting a lot of steam out of the “no, no, no” chorus. He lets out a few good yells near the end, but “Keep It Hid” remains tense and restrained. “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” is a wholly original reading of the rockabilly classic, sung as a duet with Chrissie Hynde of all people, and ending with some more great yells. Finally, “Heaven Sent” ends the album very, very slowly, and fades just as it gets interesting.
The previous album was so fresh and interesting that Carry Fire is already at a deficit for fair comparison. But it too reveals its strengths the more it sinks in, and he’s onto something.

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters Carry Fire (2017)—3

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cat Stevens 9: Numbers

As he continued to maneuver the pop industry, Cat Stevens became more obsessed with finding some kind of meaning to it all. Having long been “on the road to find out”, his next project was an exploration of numerology disguised as fairy tale. Numbers is a good-sounding album for the most part, best appreciated by not listening too closely to the story, whatever the hell it is.
After the instrumental opener “Whistlestar”, “Novim’s Nightmare” sits comfortably along his classic acoustic work. “Majik Of Majiks” begins as an excellent piano ballad, but the contemporary drums, female backing vocals, and sax solo by David Sanborn take it into the disco. “Drywood” is a little better, a mix of old and new, funky but not embarrassing.
However, “Banapple Gas” is a little embarrassing, mixing a trip to the islands with a country pedal steel and even a Coral sitar—catchy, to be sure, but not something you’d want to sing along with unless you’re about four years old. “Land O’ Freelove & Goodbye” is borderline baroque with the harpsichord and vocal lines, but a children’s choir is never a good idea. One of the less adventurous tracks musically is “Jzero”, fittingly as it’s about the antagonist of the story. “Home” deserves more study, particularly without the synth strings and children getting in the way. They also get to smother “Monad’s Anthem”, otherwise dominated by a heavily processed voice of some kind of overlord.
All these journeys were very important to the Cat, otherwise he wouldn’t have invested so much time in them. But lots of people were trying to convey messages in those days, and the better ones did it without roping in a bunch of kids. (The Wall doesn’t count.) By this time the audience was growing weary of listening to him finding his way, and Numbers didn’t help either side.

Cat Stevens Numbers (1975)—2

Friday, October 13, 2017

Paul Simon 6: Greatest Hits, Etc.

Having begun to work more slowly than ever, Paul Simon went for the standard contract-ending maneuver. Greatest Hits, Etc. compiled tracks (hits and otherwise) from his four solo albums of the decade, sweetened by two new songs to suck in those who’d already bought the albums. “Slip Slidin’ Away” has since become one of his more popular standards, an easygoing meditation on good people trying to do good things, with a clip-clopping rhythm and the Oak Ridge Boys harmonizing along. “Stranded In A Limousine” is a funky, jazzy parable that’s probably about something more profound, or at least designed to sound that way.
There’s no denying the worthiness of the hits in this package (“Me And Julio”, “Mother And Child Reunion”, “50 Ways…”) but some of the choices to fulfill the “etc.” label are up to personal taste. “Have A Good Time” mars side one, but is redeemed by the live version of “Duncan” that follows, and “I Do It For Your Love” on side two. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is simply an odd way to end the album, particularly coming after the raucous “Loves Me Like A Rock”. What’s more, “My Little Town” is glaringly absent.
With the snail’s pace that would follow, it would be a long time before he had any worthy contenders to add to his roster of “hits”. By the time that happened—in a big way—Greatest Hits, Etc. no longer sufficed, and was replaced with a more comprehensive set on another label. “Slip Slidin’ Away” would remain in the pantheon, but “Stranded In A Limousine” would revert to rarity status, not returning to general availability until the new century.

Paul Simon Greatest Hits, Etc. (1977)—
Current CD availability: none

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Todd Rundgren 16: Healing

Though he’d dismiss the notion today, Todd Rundgren’s first completely solo album in three years was a reaction to violence, both in his home and in the world. Healing relies more than ever on synthesizers and his own ability to get new sounds out of them while staying true to his songwriting abilities.
Six separate tracks totaling close to half an hour are crammed onto side one, resulting in an experience reminiscent of such experiments as “Treatise On Cosmic Fire” and “In And Out The Shakras We Go”, only with lyrics. “Healer” is a plea for exactly that; “Pulse” layers synths in a sneakily funky way, seeming to build in density with each measure. “Flesh” comes across as mildly evangelical and serious, then the oom-pah silliness of the resentful “Golden Goose” dispels any sense of calm created thus far. An antidote arrives in “Compassion”, his patented brand of blue-eyed soul. “Shine” is almost two songs in one, beginning with a dreamy Todd-and-piano segment that is shunted aside by a jarringly busy arrangement that goes way too long.
Side two is devoted to the three-part “Healing” suite. While they do run together and themes recur, the segments are strong on their own too, it’s a pleasing listening experience, and more effectively conveys his message than side one. The saxophone in “Part I” approaches yacht-rock waters, but never takes over the track. There’s a smooth transition to the softer “Part II”, and while “Part III” is a variation on the opening segment, there’s something a little abstract about it.
The album itself was a self-contained work, and while “Compassion” comes close, there wasn’t a radio-friendly hit single, so he wrote one. “Time Heals” was included — along with its moody B-side, “Tiny Demons” — on a seven-inch stuck inside the sleeve, resembling a 45 but running at 33. The songs have since been appended at the end of every CD reissue of the album, nicely capping an album that appreciates in value.

Todd Rundgren Healing (1981)—3

Friday, October 6, 2017

Van Morrison 33: Down The Road

It can be tiresome to trawl through a legacy artist’s ongoing catalog when even the artist in question avers that he’s just doing a job. Van Morrison has never felt compelled to justify his albums; he simply records them and puts them out, and considers any status in the grand pantheon as moot, but somehow still deserving of awe.
Unfortunately for us, we’ve established a format here, and we must proceed, somehow. Down The Road is another competent album of pleasant R&B-inspired originals with some country flavors. He’s not overtly complaining about how the industry’s screwed him, but at least two songs lament the state of current popular music. “Hey Mr. DJ” is a Sam Cooke song in all but delivery, while “Whatever Happened To P.J. Proby?” gets its inspiration from a guy best known as having a hit with a Lennon-McCartney giveaway. “Choppin’ Wood” is supposedly about Van’s father, but it’s got the same rhythm as the far inferior “Talk Is Cheap”, lessening the sentiment somewhat. “All Work And No Play” spouts the usual clich├ęs, and his ill-advised quasi-scatting results in one of the least essential versions of “Georgia On My Mind” ever recorded. Despite the pedestrian lyrics, “Evening Shadows” is an intriguing collaboration with jazz clarinet legend Acker Bilk, and we get more variations on common themes like “Meet Me In The Indian Summer” and “What Makes The Irish Heart Beat”.
At 15 tracks and over an hour of playing time, Down The Road is too long to really ingest, and the listener would likely put on an earlier album that truly resonates. In the plus column: not a sign of Brian Kennedy anywhere.

Van Morrison Down The Road (2002)—3

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Graham Nash 3: Innocent Eyes

Graham was so starved for collaboration in the mid-‘80s that he participated in a Hollies reunion, then defied all the lessons he should have learned from Stephen Stills’ recent monstrosity. The cover of Innocent Eyes may have qualified as cutting-edge computer graphics in 1986, but now it’s just a blurry mess. Speaking of which…
Take away his voice and every track sounds like it was written and recorded for an action/comedy movie soundtrack, probably on MCA. There are guitars, but they’re fighting for space with the Yamaha DX7s and Linn drums. You can hear that third world conch blowing sound that was all the rage, best associated with the opening seconds of “Sledgehammer”. And when there’s a deviation in rhythm, he relies on reggae. (Beats Latin, but still.)
There is no point in doing a track-by-track rundown, since they’re all fairly hideous. He went on the record to say that the sound was his own doing, that he hadn’t been coerced by anything other than his own desire to stay contemporary and rely on other songwriters for help. For the most part, the lyrics don’t say anything particularly profound, though “Chippin’ Away” would be revived by CSN when the Berlin Wall came down. “Glass And Steel” is a welcome departure in tempo and content, another song written in sympathy for David Crosby’s struggles of the time.
Then “I Got A Rock” steps all over everything, and we’re reminded how bad Innocent Eyes is. As ever, stripped-down arrangements might help illuminate whatever assets are in the tunes, but why bother?

Graham Nash Innocent Eyes (1986)—