Friday, December 29, 2017

Frank Zappa 33: The Man From Utopia

Right around this time Frank started (over)using a vocal technique he called “meltdown”, which was really just him singing in an overly smarmy lounge-jazz voice, which is funny for about half a minute. The only possibly interesting aspect of the technique was that whiz-kid guitarist Steve Vai would listen to the tapes of Frank thus emoting onstage, then painstakingly transcribe the notes so he could double the vocalizing via overdub on the track. Frank, naturally, was so proud of his extemporaneous brilliance that his vocal on the completed track (and subsequent album product) remained mixed just as high, while the more impressive guitar work (again, not his, but he “wrote” it) takes the aural back seat.
This is important to know, because The Man From Utopia suffers for it. It starts okay with “Cocaine Decisions”, a rather well-thought-out diatribe against young urban professionals who spent much of their salaries on Columbian sky candy, to the point where their jobs might be affected. Then the meltdown takes over “The Dangerous Kitchen”, an otherwise clever portrait of what the facilities at the Zappa household looked like when various musicians, employees, progeny and assorted friends went in search for sustenance. “Tink Walks Amok” is a multi-layered, multi-bass solo performed by Arthur Barrow, peppered occasionally by the “My Sharona” riff Frank was so fond of quoting. Unfortunately it’s elbowed aside by “The Radio Is Broken”, wherein Frank and Roy Estrada both use the meltdown voice to crack each other up whilst describing old sci-fi horror movies. Roy does throw in his falsetto briefly, with an original Mothers throwback reference. A good old snork opens “Mōggio”, a welcome instrumental.
“The Man From Utopia Meets Mary Lou” combines two R&B sides from the mid-‘50s, sung in style, but losing something with the modern instrumental sheen. “Stick Together” is another diatribe, this time against American unions, delivered over a reggae beat and the same two chords, salvaged slightly by the asides from Ray White and Ike Willis. As it doesn’t say anything new, “SEX” is puerile by even Frank’s standards, relying on a couplet that Spinal Tap would use to much better (and funnier) effect. The respite from the meltdown is broken by “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”, yet another summary of the sexual-scatological exploits involving the band and crew. Finally, “We Are Not Alone” is a fairly rocking instrumental, heavy on saxophones, with a couple of intriguing changes in tempo and use of mandolin.
In another case of post-partum tampering, the first authorized CD issue of The Man From Utopia was not only remixed, but re-edited and re-sequenced. This breaks up the meltdown selections a little better, but the albums isn’t improved as a whole. The side-ending instrumentals are swapped, so the disc now ends with “Mōggio”, but first one must endure (or skip) “Luigi & The Wise Guys”, a doo-wop harmony piece that doesn’t say much more than “you’re a dork”. After which, the listener may either agree or feel insulted. Especially coming after “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats”.

Frank Zappa The Man From Utopia (1983)—2
1993 Barking Pumpkin CD: “same” as 1983, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Robyn Hitchcock 31: Robyn Hitchcock

Another one of those heritage artists we find ourselves paying attention to more as a custom than out of continued wonder, Robyn Hitchcock keeps putting out albums that occasionally recall his ‘80s heyday with a single band, but don’t always carry through every second. It took him nearly four decades in the business before he released an eponymous album, a move that always suggests A Major Statement.
He always does better when he records with a dedicated band, and Robyn Hitchcock indeed gets a boost from a cohesive sound. It also helps that the album rocks. “I Want To Tell You About What I Want” gets out of its one-chord groove in time, and while “Virginia Woolf” spends less time on her than Sylvia Plath, it follows right along with terrific guitar leads. “I Pray When I’m Drunk” is a something of a Johnny-Cash-meets-the-Byrds pastiche that works by being brief. “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox” opens the same way as the first track, but opens up with a terrific chorus. Things finally slow down for the lengthy “Sayonara Judge”.
“Detective Mindhorn” seems to be connected with the fictional star of a recent British film; catchy as it is, it’s too long to be a theme song. The country sound resurfaces on “1970 In Aspic”, another curious look back at a year from his youth, a theme he continues on “Raymond And The Wires”, another tribute to his father. Another slower song goes longer on “Autumn Sunglasses”, with plenty of Rickenbacker 12-string and a lyric that doesn’t sound too labored. Finally, “Time Coast” ends the set with toe-tapping garage rock.
Robyn Hitchcock is another one of those albums that sounds great when it’s playing, and will likely continue to. But by the time we get around to listening to it again, he’ll have another one out.

Robyn Hitchcock Robyn Hitchcock (2017)—3

Friday, December 22, 2017

Smithereens 8: Christmas With The Smithereens

Only a handful of rock (as opposed to pop) bands have attempted to devote an entire album to Christmas music, so it makes sense that one of the few to try, much less succeed, would be a combo with an overt retro sound. One of the more clever novelty projects of the Smithereens’ continued career, Christmas With The Smithereens finds the band bashing their way through a variety of Yuletide-related rock ‘n roll songs.
Their choices avoid the obvious ones, and their arrangements are fresh, for the most part. “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” is best known as a swaggering Elvis tune, yet these guys put a distinct Merseybeat bent on it, complete with harmonica. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and “Run Rudolph Run” aren’t carbon copies either. Rather than retread “Little Saint Nick”, resident Beach Boys nut Dennis Diken sings lead on Brian Wilson’s “Merry Christmas Baby”, and the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” is reinforced as a modern classic. The three originals work too, working in references to It’s A Wonderful Life being on TV, and finding albums like Shut Down Vol. 2 and Rubber Soul under the tree.
There is some filler, like the recitation of A Visit From St. Nicholas over a swing drum solo, and a four-minute expansion on the single verse of Beatles’ “Christmas Time Is Here Again!”. Even “Christmas” by the Who is an odd choice, except for foreshadowing their Tommy tribute two years down the road. But again, considering the empty field of competitors, Christmas With The Smithereens is enjoyable both as a holiday album, as well as part of their catalog.

The Smithereens Christmas With The Smithereens (2007)—

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Neil Young 58: The Visitor

During the promotional period following the release of Living With War, Neil was asked why he wrote an album full of protest songs. He responded that nobody else was writing them, so he felt he had to do it himself. Apparently not having heard any since, and despite once acknowledging that “just singing a song won’t change the world”, the genre has nonetheless dominated his mindset.
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that for a protest song to be effective, it must be as catchy as it is precise, while also demonstrating a universal appeal. Although The Visitor, recorded with his new pals Promise Of The Real, isn’t as monotonous as The Monsanto Years, he still struggles with getting his message across without sounding like a cranky old man. (In case it’s not obvious, the obsession this time is saving the planet from Donald Trump.)
Another barrier would be the overall sound. The band has been praised for their ease in accompanying Neil on a level beloved by fans of the Crazy Horse collaborations. But while that trio was sloppy to begin with, Promise Of The Real adds another guitar player, conga percussion, and sometimes keyboards to the soup, making everything sound like it was recorded from the other end of a theater. And in addition to his pump organ, many of the songs prominently feature what sounds like a toy piano. (As for his voice, he continually works outside what’s left of his range.)
The protest songs tend to follow the Greendale approach of chanted vocals with Neil barking over the top, usually around a catchphrase that would be below Graham Nash. “Already Great” isn’t too bad, but should be faded before the “whose street” chant dubbed onto the end. “Fly By Night Deal” doesn’t add much, but at least it’s over quickly. Sporting classic Neil solos, “Stand Tall” is a direct descendant, musically and thematically, of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and “Let’s Impeach The President”, so it sounds familiar, but the soundbites of talking heads on the news channels mar the track. “Diggin’ A Hole” and “When Bad Got Good” are a pair of plodding trash-rockers that make “T-Bone” seem like a word of genius, but if anything, they elevate “Children Of Destiny”. When premiered the previous Independence Day, it seemed alternately overblown and treacly, but it’s more cohesive, and welcome, in this context.
At least he varies the program somewhat. “Almost Always” is built around the main riff from “Unknown Legend”, and more gently airs his concerns about everything. “Change Of Heart” is even more gentle, with almost stream of consciousness words, and ending on a note of hope. The strangest track by far is “Carnival”, in which he channels Tom Waits via a mariachi backdrop in a demented vision, every now and then returning to his own voice for three bridges. At over ten minutes, “Forever” takes patience, particularly when he strains for the high notes, but it spreads a sense of calm that ties the album together at the end.
Few people in his employ would be reckless enough to challenge him, and it’s not Neil’s fault that some of his most reliable collaborators have gone to that recording studio in the sky. Still, it’s inevitable that The Visitor will be unfavorably compared to his earlier, classic work—especially given that the long-promised Archives was transformed from a physical format to an streaming Internet model the same day this album was released.
Meanwhile, a short film directed by Daryl Hannah and starring Neil and the band was completed in time for the following spring’s SXSW convention. Paradox was either an ecological parable, impenetrable fantasy in the spirit of Journey From The Past, or inside joke (take your pick). The accompanying soundtrack album—dubbed “Special Release 10” in Neil’s unique catalog nomenclature—was streamed on the Archives site and other major online services well in advance of its release, giving the curious plenty of time to decide if they just had to own it. Most of the music is improvised or seems that way, but not always similar or even as engrossing as the electric meanderings of Dead Man. “Diggin’ In The Dirt” is a simple fireside strum with the POTR boys. We’d be excited about a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”, except that Willie’s son Lukas sings it. Time is also devoted to a couple of blues covers, and the Nelson brothers warbling 45 half-remembered seconds of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”. Neil even carefully copyrighted the lyric (singular) of “Hey”.
As for more familiar fare, the album is bookended by an edit of “Show Me” from Peace Trail and an alternate mix of “Tumbleweed” from Storytone. The most interesting tracks are right in the middle: a live version of “Peace Trail” with the kids, a 10-minute wordless jam on “Cowgirl In The Sand”, and a solo “Pocahontas” with his trusty pump organ. Basically, an album side’s worth.

Neil Young + Promise Of The Real The Visitor (2017)—3
Neil Young + Promise Of The Real Paradox (Original Music From The Film) (2018)—2

Friday, December 15, 2017

Bob Dylan 63: Trouble No More

After he publicly embraced Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and began using his stage and albums to tell everyone about it, it took some time for fans to “get it”. The common belief is that he got Jesus out of his system after three albums, but close perusal of the songs he’s written over the last four decades prove that he’s still concerned about the end times, holy wrath and judgement, and other mysteries of faith. His approach changed, but he really didn’t.
Anyway, Bob’s so-called “born again” years continue to perplex longtime fans as well as newcomers, so a Bootleg Series volume devoted to the period makes sense from a marketing standpoint. While the recordings on those three albums vary from a quality standpoint, he also toured constantly with a stellar band backing him up, giving the songs room to breathe and grow. Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981, in all its incarnations, consists largely of live recordings in terrific sound.
And here’s where it gets a little annoying for the consumer. As they’ve done lately, the volume is available as a two-CD set, as well as an eight-CD box with a DVD and books. The cheap set is all live, taken from concerts covering three calendar years, with a few duplicates of songs from different shows, and a small handful of songs that never made it to albums. The larger set includes those discs, plus two more discs of “rare and unreleased” studio outtakes, rehearsals, and live performances, including even more new-to-the-official-canon songs. There’s also two discs’ worth of selections from an April 1980 residency in Toronto, plus a full show from July 1981 in London on two more CDs. (And if you bought the set through Bob’s website, you got another concert from November 1979 on another two CDs.) Taken all together you have six versions each of “Slow Train” and “Gotta Serve Somebody”, four of “Solid Rock”, and two or three versions of several others of the period.
Of the new material on the two-CD version, “Ain’t Gonna Go To Hell For Anybody” is nice to hear in decent quality. As a song it’s preferable to “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One”, which struggles under its New Orleans groove. “Blessed Is The Name” is actually better when the ladies sing. And we get earlier versions of “Groom’s Still Waiting At The Altar” and “Caribbean Wind” before he heavily revised the lyrics.
The big box does indeed provide some real gems, like the live versions of “Slow Train” and “Do Right To Me Baby” from early in his conversion. The virtual concerts nicely show not only how well the band rode the dynamics, but we also get to hear appreciative audiences, despite the legend. The alternate studio takes are occasionally illuminating, like the passionate first reading of “Pressing On”. Some of the unreleased songs aren’t very exciting lyrically, though “I Will Love Him” and “Jesus Is The One” are a little overt but well played, and “Thief On The Cross”, “Yonder Comes Sin”, and “Cover Down, Pray Through” just plain rock. Rather than the take issued as a B-side and available nowhere else, we get take one of “Trouble In Mind”, and “Ye Shall Be Changed” is repeated from the first Bootleg Series box. The 1981 concert is interesting for how he mixed earlier material with the Christian material, but unfortunately he’d already developed that whiny tendency to spout the lyrics rather than sing them.
The two-CD version of Trouble No More should suffice for all but the most rabid listeners. None of Bob’s sermonizing between songs is included, nor any of the opening sets of gospel from the rotating set of backing vocalists, but when we do hear them, they fit rather than dominate. Yet we maintain that a happy medium could have been achieved, had they simply added the “rare and unreleased” discs to the two live ones for a single, comprehensive package; not too big, not too small. Sometimes we think they’re intentionally ignoring us.

Bob Dylan Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981 (2017)—

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rolling Stones 50: On Air

Two decades after every other band of their caliber (and several of lesser) released authorized compilations of recordings from their live BBC appearances, the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world finally got around to beating the bootleggers with their own. The main purpose of On Air (not the band’s most imaginative title, since others got to it first) was to tie in with a hardcover book of the same title that documented their TV and radio spots throughout the ‘60s. However, because the scope is limited to radio recordings only, the audio artifact only goes up to 1965.
And that’s fine, because most of the tracks included come from the period when they were still considered blues interpreters. Only a small handful of Jagger/Richards compositions are included, the rest of the selections being expected Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, plus other songs similar to the ones that filled up their first handful of albums. Throughout we get to hear that great rhythm section, sending Bill Wyman some due and royalties, as well as Brian Jones blowing harp.
It’s not complete, nor does it have a set chronology. That means that one of the earliest recordings (“Come On”) is followed by one of the last (“Satisfaction”, of course), and bouncing around from there. We can also hear their hopes of being blue purists dashed slightly by the screams of the girls in the audience for the theater performances.
Of course, there’s more than one version of this available; an 18-track single disc seems pointless when the double CD adds another 14. Four of the tracks were included on a vinyl EP with the super deluxe GRRR! set, but the real appeal, of course, are the eight songs that were never on any other Stones album ever. “Fannie Mae” and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” are both serviceable tracks that would have fit on any of them. “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Memphis Tennessee” were done better by the Beatles, though even Mick doesn’t know who “took the message and wrote it on the wall” in the latter. “Beautiful Delilah” was a common Chuck Berry cover, but rare for them. “Cops And Robbers” is good silly fun, and everybody played “Hi Heel Sneakers” back then. “Crackin’ Up” is noted as one of the “new” songs to the canon, even though we do like the hot take already on Love You Live.
As can be expected, the sound quality varies due to whatever source tapes they could get. The first couple of tunes on the second or “bonus” disc are particularly grainy, but luckily the quality improves from there. In the end, it’s a long overdue addition to the wall, and as the liner notes suggest, interesting to compare to their last album.

The Rolling Stones On Air (2017)—

Friday, December 8, 2017

Kinks 10: Village Green Preservation Society

Ray Davies wasn’t the only songwriter of his generation obsessed with the simpler setting of childhood, but he was easily the most prolific. Having already filtered his talent through character-driven songs, he put a tune written for the previous Kinks album in the bullpen and set to work on building a concept around it. A 12-track sequence was planned and cancelled, while other singles came and went, and eventually an album with 15 songs appeared with the grand title The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society.
Its lack of commercial success upon original release, in America as well as Britain, has had a lot to with its current status among rock snobs and other elitists for being Ray Davies’ greatest accomplishment. While it is a concept album, it’s not a rock opera with a set narrative. Rather, it’s merely a collection of songs inspired by the idea of that quaint English tradition of the town square, where humble citizens would gather for community and whatnot. Much like the Shire for Tolkien fans, it’s a portrait of an idyllic place that was then slowly fading away thanks to postwar industry; indeed, even Ray isn’t looking at the scenery through rose-colored glasses. And no matter; the village green may have had its flaws and drawbacks, but it was home, and less scary than the Big Black Smoke.
The title track perfectly sums up the attitude of the album, celebrating and mocking traditional values at the same time. With its inspired use of rhymes (with tough words like “consortium”, “affinity” and the like) it’s such a great song that coming up with a whole album to live up to it would be a daunting task for anyone. Yet “Do You Remember Walter” lives up to challenge, an open letter to a childhood friend, lamenting their distance while accepting it. Spotlighting a theme that will be revisited at the album’s end, “Picture Book” has such an infectious riff that Green Day managed to steal it. Then we come to one of the album’s few named characters; “Johnny Thunder” is the local bad boy, but the pretty chordal riff in a style Pete Townshend also enjoyed seems to be at odds with the image of the tough guy on his motorbike. “Last Of The Steam Powered Trains” is basically a rewrite of “Smokestack Lightning”, but takes a clever metaphor to fit in with the theme of changing times. It even picks up momentum as it passes, and ends at a faster tempo than started. Clever. It’s easy to consider “Big Sky” a rumination on theology; is the title character “looking down on all the people” some kind of deity, or simply an astronomical entity incapable of emotion? Similarly, “Sitting By The Riverside” is supposed to evoke a pastoral occasion, but the merry-go-round-broke-down freakout after each verse intrudes on the dream.
One might also assume that “Animal Farm” was suggested by the novel of the same name, ten years before Roger Waters ran with the idea. However, here it’s simply Ray wishing to return to a simpler life, living among (or even as one of) those creatures without a care. “Village Green” is the older track that was the seed for the album, and while it’s a little busy, it still reinforces the theme of the album without being redundant. He makes reference to leaving to find fame and fortune, then uses the lady he’s scolding in “Starstruck” to perhaps point the finger back at himself. Then we come to what in retrospect seems to be the only psychedelic track in the Kinks kanon (sorry, had to do it). “Phenomenal Cat” seems more suited to Syd Barrett than a more “straight” writer than Ray, especially with the sped-up vocals, and it’s more jarring when we get to the music hall spoof of “All Of My Friends Were There”, which foretold some of Ray’s less impressive live appearances thanks to various medications. With “Wicked Annabella”, about a local witch legend, Brother Dave finally gets a lead vocal on a dirty track suited for him, down to the biscuit-tin drums. “Monica” describes another woman of the town, in this case the hooker with a heart of gold. There is a mild island feel, but the “I-I shall die” section always wins. Finally, “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” (“to prove that they really existed”) means something so different in the modern age of the selfie where everything must be documented, but the message remains: being involved in life is preferable to just looking at it.
As many of the tracks weren’t designed to be singles, Village Green Preservation Society isn’t the easiest listen, and takes some patience to appreciate. Without a linear tale to tell, it’s a challenge to determine what the songs have to do with each other, except that they came out of Ray’s brain and he said they were all connected. But once the songs become more familiar, and one marvels at the arrangements—most of the keyboards courtesy of good old Nicky Hopkins, and tasteful use of the Mellotron to simulate orchestral instruments rather than make noises—it’s understandable that so many people wish they could live there year-round. (Those so enamored will want to nab the imported three-CD deluxe edition, which includes stereo and mono versions of the album and the songs bumped for the original release, plus alternate mixes and many of the singles and cast-offs recorded during the same period.)

The Kinks The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1969)—4

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Pretenders 9: Viva El Amor

After two decades and only six albums, the idea of the Pretenders in 1999 seemed silly. But the near-comeback via Last Of The Independents kept those involved willing to stick around for Chrissie Hynde’s next batch of songs, some of which were, again, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.
At first sample, ¡Viva El Amor! seems stuck between contemporary beats and anonymous backings, which happens when you pit producers like Stephen Hague and Stephen Street against each other. “Popstar” is a snotty insult of the latest wave of girl singers, with robotic drums and a late cameo by David Johansen. The highly catchy “Human” was better, and a cover of an obscure song from a few years before by Divinyls (whose singer Christine Amphlett was Chrissie Hynde’s only competition in the awesome bangs department). “From The Heart Down” threatens to waver to sappiness, but The Duke Quartet returns from their cameo on Isle Of View to add strings right around the guitar solo, making it quite affecting. “Nails In The Road” is the first great guitar song on the album, a hidden gem, but even though “Who’s Who” is the second song in a row to reference a “queue”, it’s a little on the wimpy side. “Dragway 42” is more of a production than a song, something of a Mideastern travelogue, but the Duke Quartet neatly adds nightmarish accents to Chrissie’s fine vocal.
“Baby’s Breath” is a snotty riposte to a lackluster lover, with some confusing meter jumps. “One More Time” sounds like another run-of-the-mill torch song, but again, her vocal range is astounding. “Legalise Me” is a good pounding rocker that gives guest star Jeff Beck (no slouch when it comes to bangs, either) a change to blow his pyrotechnics everywhere. Then the mysterious “Samurai” manages to slow down the proceedings somewhere between a memory and a hallucination. Her perfect Spanish rendition of a Cuban folk song is given the pre-encore spot, before the mildly dreamy ode to the “Biker” lifestyle, which features the Duke Quartet again.
While the lamentable Get Close was an embarrassing display of Chrissie going soft, the equally venom-free ¡Viva El Amor! is a fine serving of mature, vulnerable pop, for lack of a better term we can’t invent. Perhaps because we expected so little, it is indeed a pleasant surprise, and well worth spending time around.

Pretenders ¡Viva El Amor! (1999)—

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mott The Hoople 6: Mott

After David Bowie glitted off to his next musical obsession, the newly popular Mott The Hoople were back to making their own records their own way. Mott was a return to the “straight” sound of their Atlantic years, though we do detect some leftover Mick Ronson influence on Mick Ralphs’ solos. (Also, they were down to a quartet, Verden Allen having tired of having his songs passed over.)
The album is mostly pounding rockers with a few quieter, moodier pieces, and both approaches have their hits and misses. “All The Way From Memphis” is a perfect opener, with the same notes hit for fourteen seconds and a terrific shout-along chorus. “Whizz Kid” pummels past with little subtlety, but we will allow that some of the backing vocals in the verses are right out of Bowie. And we don’t know why the song stops on a dime, returning for a few seconds way in the distance. Starting with a grand dramatic intro, “Hymn For The Dudes” soon quiets down too, and would appear to be another response to their perceived success. Then it’s back to the stomp for “Honaloochie Boogie” with its long vowel and oddly processed vocals, and “Violence” is pretty obnoxious, with an incongruous violin (ha!) over the chorus.
“Drivin’ Sister” is more mindless boogie framed by obvious sound effects, but then there’s “Ballad Of Mott The Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich)”, which seemingly references one of the band’s last gigs before Bowie supposedly rescued them. It’s gentle and a little sad, and very sweet. Up to this point we’ve only heard from Ian Hunter’s mouth, with Mick Ralphs limited to just one lead vocal. “I’m A Cadillac” works car clichés over a couple of familiar hooks, but the best part is when it morphs into “El Camino Dolo Roso”, a sneaky instrumental that gains a lot of momentum. Finally, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” is just plain odd, trilling with mandolins, and fretting over some kind of Freudian dilemma.
While more solid than All The Young Dudes, Mott is merely serviceable rock in a familiar setting. The boys were back on track. It wouldn’t last, of course.

Mott The Hoople Mott (1973)—3
2006 remastered expanded CD: same as 1973, plus 4 extra tracks