Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lou Reed 12: The Bells

In an anomaly for his catalog, The Bells found Lou Reed sharing songwriting credits. While the lyrics were all his, the music was developed with band members, jazzman Don Cherry, and Nils Lofgren of all people. Like his last two albums, it was recorded in that German binaural system that was supposed to be the most authentic you-are-there reproduction. That may have been necessary considering his continued reliance on a guitar synthesizer that created sheets of sound, which might even have been just fine if Lou didn’t go out of his way to make it such a chore to listen to not what he had to say, but how he said it.
On “Stupid Man”, he crams a whole lot of lyrics into a decent template that goes too fast for him to get the words out. By contrast, the perverted three-word groove of “Disco Mystic” even makes it into his published anthology of complete lyrics. The dense doo-wop of “I Wanna Boogie With You” seems to successfully match mood and message, but then he’s back to the obnoxious bleating in “With You”, not even bothering to separate the tracks. “Looking For Love” has an insistent catchy melody over the pounding rhythm section and piano—plus Marty Fogel, who honks a sax that would be in place on a Graham Parker album—that Lou barely attempts to match. A shame, because not only is it the only song he wrote alone, but it could’ve been a decent hit if performed right. “City Lights” returns him to a deep bass near-croon, over a track smothered in whistles, bells, and similar noisemakers.
The longest songs take up side two, and while each is challenging, they’re superior. “All Through The Night” works a lyric about futility and desperation over a simple boogie groove while (just like in “Kicks”) drinks rattle, dishes clinks, and conversations go on in the background, occasionally rising to drown out the band—a clever audio effect, but frustrating. Despite its strange samba rhythm, “Families” is the most arresting lyric, depicting a conversation between a grown man estranged from his home, studying how the disconnection that causes teens to leave home continues into adulthood, and underscores it. Finally, there’s the title track, a long dirge of an improvisation that pits sax against Don Cherry’s trumpet while Lou mumbles indiscernibly for five minutes. After several threats, the voice finally comes to dominate, in a lyric Lou swears he made up on the spot. Ultimately, it’s hypnotic.
While it was his hallmark, Lou’s seeming insistence on spending the least amount of time perfecting his vocals often worked against his obsession with getting the words and accompaniment absolutely perfect. If he didn’t have a melody, he didn’t bother trying to find one, and that makes The Bells, for all its unique offerings, frustratingly inconsistent.

Lou Reed The Bells (1979)—

Friday, November 24, 2017

Journey 9: Greatest Hits and Time3

While no formal announcement was made, Journey was done, and the label wisely put together a hits compilation. Greatest Hits was fairly comprehensive, focusing solely on the Steve Perry era, leaning heavily on the Jonathan Cain era, and sticking with the ear candy. In addition to all the singles from the albums, what we used to call side one is framed by “Only The Young” and “Ask The Lonely”, putting them right along side their albumized brothers. Beyond that, the sequence is a grab bag, but at least they save “Be Good To Yourself” for last so you can skip it entirely. Wikipedia tells us, and they’re never wrong, that it’s among the most successful compilation titles by anyone ever, and most of those sales racked up before it was repackaged 18 years on with an extra track.

Since every band got its own box set in the ‘90s, Journey’s turn came right on schedule. The oddly titled Time3 mostly got it right by starting at the very beginning, with a full half-hour of music from the borderline fusion period before Steve Perry came along. To prove the point, a failed track called “Velvet Curtain” is duct-taped onto the completed “Feeling That Way” to show how he transformed it. There aren’t a lot of rarities here, outside of a few B-sides and live tracks since added to reissues of the albums, and some unfinished ideas from the mid-‘80s era. Some of the bigger hits appear in live incarnations, so despite the selection of deeper album cuts, it’s not the definitive Journey package for someone who just wants one title on the shelf.

At the turn of the century, the new trend was the double-disc “Essential” anthology, which was an excuse to regurgitate a hits collection with some deeper cuts. The Essential Journey did just that, basically replicating the Greatest Hits sequence with only a little variety on disc one, with a questionable choice filling up the second. It would be another ten years before Greatest Hits 2 finally offered a decent (and decently priced) companion. In addition to more stuff from the Cain era (and big points for including “Suzanne”) and the FM radio hits and album tracks that stood out on the box set, segues like “Good Morning Girl” into “Stay Awhile” and “Feeling That Way” into “Anytime” were preserved. (We’d’ve dumped “Walks Like A Lady” and “When I Think Of You” for “Natural Thing” and “Edge Of The Blade”, but once again, the phone did not ring.)

Journey Greatest Hits (1988)—4
2006 CD reissue: same as 1988, plus 1 extra track
Journey Time3 (1992)—3
Journey
The Essential Journey (2001)—
Journey
Greatest Hits 2 (2011)—4

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Phil Collins 2: Hello, I Must Be Going!

This was the part of music history where it began to become impossible to avoid hearing Phil Collins. Months after touring behind the last Genesis album, he was back working on his second solo album. Hello, I Must Be Going! went further to establish him as Mr. Entertainment, balancing shameless pop with more substantial material, sometimes with the speed of a ping-pong match.
“Those drums” begin the album, as “I Don’t Care Anymore” angrily throws boxes all over the place. Then it’s a major mood swing to the horns-heavy “I Cannot Believe It’s True”, one of several songs that does not need to exceed five minutes but does anyway. Successful despite itself is “Like China”, a terrific, almost sweet tune not ruined by his Cockney accent. “Do You Know, Do You Care?” goes back to the darker sound, with those drums again, angry vocals and guitars used like loops. Amazingly, and a sad commentary on the record-buying public, his too-cute cover of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” became a massive hit, hyped by yet another promo video wherein he played all the parts.
Keeping things upbeat, “It Don’t Matter To Me” layers extremely syncopated horns over a very simple sequence. “Thru These Walls” begins in “In The Air Tonight” territory, right down to similar scenes in the video, but he errs too far on the side of creepy. Then it’s back to the ultra-sweet “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”, which relies solely on voice, piano, guitar, bass, drums, and strings to convey the equally simple sentiment. Right out of nowhere comes “The West Side”, a near-fusion instrumental that still manages to clear the palette for “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning”, which displays his uncanny ability to write heartbreakers.
Ultimately, Hello, I Must Be Going! is a better album than Face Value, mostly because it was designed as an album, rather than a collection of enhanced demos. He even took it on his first solo tour, yet the eventual expanded reissue offers only a handful of tunes from that era (including covers of “It’s Alright” and “People Get Ready”), along with performances from later tours. Two demos cap the disc, wherein we can hear him “doo-doo” and “no-no” his way through the yet-to-be-completed lyrics for “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”.

Phil Collins Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982)—3
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1982, plus 11 extra tracks

Friday, November 17, 2017

Paul Westerberg 1: 14 Songs

After the end of the Replacements, Paul Westerberg sobered up and laid low for a while. His first musical contributions appeared on the timely Singles soundtrack, wherein “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting For Somebody” (the latter of which had even more variations in the film itself) jockeyed for attention among all the hot Seattle grunge music that sold it.
Advance critical acclaim raised high hopes for his first actual solo album under his own name, and the label had such high regard for 14 Songs that, in a fad of the time, it was simultaneously released in a limited edition as a cloth-bound book with pictures and an interview. However, it wasn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, nor was it ultimately received as one. (Besides, Tommy Stinson had already carried the torch, and ably, on his own.)
“Dice Behind Your Shades” sums up the weakness of the album. It’s a good song, and highly catchy, with trademark wordplay, but it’s just one of several on the album that can’t stand out. If anything, it sounds like a reconstituted track from All Shook Down. At worst, it hides the splendor of a song like “Things”, which on the surface relies on the barest of finger variations, but—given time and space outside the context of the album—reveals itself as a profound personal statement about, well, the things that he does and which define him.
A softie at heart, songs like “Runaway Wind” and the home demos “Even Here We Are” and “Black Eyed Susan” try to convey his tender side, but overall it’s the rockers that succeed. “Knockin’ On Mine” goes a long way on one chord, while “World Class Fad” is just plain snotty, and we mean that in a good way. “Silver Naked Ladies” features Ian MacLagan on piano and the auteur himself on saxophone, and not badly either. “Something Is Me” has some good lines, but tries too hard.
We want to like this album, but we’d rather listen to what came before. However, a major plus for 14 Songs, and keeps it somewhat interesting, is that he plays all the electric guitar, providing all the fills, rhythm, and solos that sparkled on all those ‘Mats albums. At least that hadn’t changed.

Paul Westerberg 14 Songs (1993)—3

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Bash & Pop: Friday Night Is Killing Me

After the Replacements stumbled to a close, it was surprising that of all the members, the first real solo project was from drummer Chris Mars. Horseshoes And Hand Grenades contained 14 songs, written and performed by Mars, with the exception of the bass and help from members of Soul Asylum on three tracks. The songs are catchy, guitar-based alterna-pop-rock, marred only by the sad fact that he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. It was easy to read pointed barbs at his former bandmates within the lyrics, and he’d go further with the title of his next, equally harmless album, 75% Less Fat. (More consistent was guitarist Slim Dunlap’s The Old New Me, putting him back in the Stonesy bar band mode he was made to play.)
Yet while the band’s auteur kept close to his vest, it was Tommy Stinson who made the most of the Mats’ legacy by picking up where they’d left off. He grabbed Steve Foley, the band’s last touring drummer, who conveniently had a brother who played bass. Tommy switched to guitar, recruited another six-stringer, and thus Bash & Pop was born.
Friday Night Is Killing Me shows just how much he learned following Paul Westerberg around for a decade. The songs fall into basic buckets; straightforward rock with clever lyrics (“Never Aim To Please”, “Tickled To Tears”, the title track, “Tiny Pieces”) and noisy stompers (“Hang Ups”, “Loose Ends”, “One More Time”, “Fast & Hard”, “He Means It”), all drawn up from Stones and Faces blueprints. Each side ends with a wistful acoustic strum (“Nothing”, “First Steps”) The overall sound is crisp and clean, following on from All Shook Down. And while Tommy doesn’t have the greatest voice either, he’s got charm and he’s having fun—something sorely lacking from the ‘Mats’ last days.
Two dozen years after the album came and went, it was reissued by the same label that had been busy curating the Big Star legacy. The obligatory bonus disc is loaded with demos and alternate versions, plus a few contemporary B-sides and strays, including “Making Me Sick” from the Clerks soundtrack. Perfect for the obsessives among us, but at the very least it gives the album another chance at exposure.

Bash & Pop Friday Night Is Killing Me (1993)—
2017 CD reissue: same as 1993, plus 18 extra tracks

Friday, November 10, 2017

Who 26: Maximum As & Bs

Part of the music industry’s money-making strategy for the second decade of the 21st century was to reprint anything and everything on limited-edition vinyl in multiple colors and at exorbitant prices, while still not allowing returns from retailers. Every now and then they’d get clever, but a lot of the time the attention to reproductive detail resulted in products that were nice to look at, but not necessarily convenient to listen to, particularly in the modern era of immediate digital access.
The business team behind the The Who are clearly no dopes when it comes to recycling, and one of their recent, more clever projects involved four chronological box sets offering replicas of the band’s original 45s, with accurate labels and picture sleeves where applicable. The audio has since been compiled and issued in a five-CD set called Maximum As & Bs. While we extend kudos for the correct non-use of apostrophes, and it’s great to finally have some of their so-called lost tracks handy again, it would have fit on four CDs, and not a few tracks appear for the umpteenth time.
Three short years ago, the Who Hits 50 set included most of these A-sides, yet this box does tell the story fairly well. Beginning with the first High Numbers record, it goes through the band’s singles in order. Since half of the debut album was milked for the charts, those tracks nicely frame both versions of “Circles”, even including the then-unreleased “Instant Party Mixture” as well as “Waltz For A Pig”, the Graham Bond Organisation track credited to “The Who Orchestra” for legal reasons. Repetitions are few, so “Circles” doesn’t appear again as part of the Ready Steady Who EP, also included in context.
The milking continues in the Tommy era, so a few of those album tracks appear in jarring edits, and again in re-recordings for the movie soundtrack. But even for a band who learned early on that the album format was their strength, some of their lesser-known gems finally resurface (read: everything from 1970 through 1973). Then we hear the band’s overall output quality diminish alongside its quantity, with fewer rarities. Album cuts were used for B-sides, and outside of “Bony Moronie” from 1971, the live tracks included here come from the 1982 and 1989 Keith-less tours. Then it’s a big leap to the two new songs from 2004, and the Wire & Glass EP from two years later. Finally, there’s “Be Lucky” from that last compilation, and yet another stereo remix of “I Can’t Explain” to complete the circle.
With 90 tracks lasting five hours, there’s certainly a lot of music here, and the plethora of distinct mixes on Maximum As & Bs makes quibbling over what wasn’t included exactly that. Plus, it beats having to get up and flip or replace the record every three minutes.

The Who Maximum As & Bs: The Complete Singles (2017)—

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Rush 11: Signals

Each new album increased their popularity, and inducted new Rush fans into the fold. But if there was any doubt that Rush were the patron saints of the high school parking lot, the first track on Signals—released in time for the fall semester—dispelled it.
As with the previous album, a synthesizer dominates, setting a standard for the band’s new next phase. It’s a catchy riff, with nice open suspensions and slight minor modifications, and then the lyrics start. Tying in with the zoning map on the back cover, “Subdivisions” expertly nails the alienation felt by the average North American suburban teenage boy, many of whom may well have been Rush fans. The song doesn’t treat the turmoil as petty or insignificant, nor does it encourage violence or revolution. The band knew their audience, because they remembered what it was like to be that audience.
It’s a good start to the album, which does manage to keep up. “The Analog Kid” is built on a circular guitar riff, and further explores the dreams of a teenage boy, only scratching the surface. “Chemistry” begins with chords reminiscent of their early work, with a little “Vital Signs” thrown in, plus rare lyrical contributions from all three band members that likely would have made some sense to the kids struggling through science class. In contrast with the track earlier, “Digital Man” paints another archetypical portrait, with lots of guitars over a jazzy rhythm.
Reggae influences continue on “The Weapon”, which, while part of the in-progress “Fear” trilogy, isn’t really that scary. As further proof that they knew their fan base, “New World Man” was literally written to fill space, as a measure to keep the cassette sides equal. Besides being one of the better tracks here, it also became something of a hit. A sobering meditation on the loss of creativity, “Losing It” is possibly the least Rush-like track, beginning with synth parts off a Journey album and an electric violin contributed by a guy who would one day be best known for working with k.d. lang. And after years of exploring science fiction in their lyrics, “Countdown” is a factual account of the band’s experience watching the launch of the Columbia space shuttle.
While not as universally appealing as Moving Pictures, Signals provided a worthy follow-up for the growing fan base to wear out in their tape decks. Hindsight shows the worrisome encroachment of synthesizers into the band’s onstage arsenal, but the best songs are still highlights.

Rush Signals (1982)—

Friday, November 3, 2017

Oasis 5: Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants

The bad grammar somehow fitting, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants presents a still-defiant Oasis, somewhat bruised following their fall from infallibility but still determined to rock. Having lost two members, the band relied more on loops and samples to create their music. That’s not so much of a stretch, considering Noel Gallagher sang on a hit single by the Chemical Brothers. It’s still derivative of an earlier decade, but at least the trip-hop influence doesn’t hurt one’s ears like Be Here Now did.
Right out of the gate, “Fuckin’ In The Bushes” shows off the new sound, though it isn’t much more than a collage. Based around a “Funky Drummer”-type sample, complete with vinyl crackles, the new sound is also presented ably on “Go Let It Out”, which was the first single, though the Mellotron is out of place. The second single, “Who Feels Love?”, is way too long and a little too psychedelic, with backwards guitars and sitars, and a melody that sounds too much like earlier, better Oasis tracks. Plus, the hippy-dippy sentiment doesn’t sound convincing coming out of Liam’s mouth or Noel’s hand. “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” manages to combine an AC/DC stomp with “Roadhouse Blues”—stupid, but still fun, until the 30-second farting synth at the end. Surprisingly good is “Little James”, Liam Gallagher’s first recorded composition and written for his son. Even more impressive is the production, incorporating “Don’t Look Back In Anger” piano, though the “Hey Jude” ending goes (again) a little long.
“Gas Panic!” returns us to India before floating on another psychedelic bed, and by now we wish they’d pick up the tempo a hair (one of the downsides of quitting coke, to be sure). Still, Noel sings two further slow songs in a row: “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” is another feather in his vocal cap, while “Sunday Morning Call” is a more elaborate production. Together they provide respite from Liam’s rasp. “I Can See A Liar” is a wonderful glam stomp, with a few hints of the Cult in the riff, for a terrific shot of energy. And that’s good, because “Roll It Over” just drags until the end.
For all the imperfections and indulgences, Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants is still not as indulgent as Be Here Now, and manages to hold interest. Being relatively tight, it’s a welcome return to form quality-wise on par with the first two Oasis albums. But we must add one final gripe: if you’re going to book legendary vocalists P.P. Arnold and Linda Lewis, give them something to do besides sing “ah” buried in the mix.

Oasis Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants (2000)—3