Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Steve Perry 2: For The Love Of Strange Medicine

Oddly, the glass-shattering voice of Steve Perry stayed silent for years following the last Journey album. When he did emerge, it seemed he’d spent his time growing his hair and singing himself hoarse. For The Love Of Strange Medicine finds him even raspier than on Raised On Radio, working with a bunch of unknown session guys, save the keyboard player from Winger and the bass player from Toto. Just as with his previous solo outing, there are enough Journey elements to keep the true believers invested, and wondering why he couldn’t just get the real guys to do it.
“You Better Wait” was the best choice for first single and opening track, and the best song on the album by far. It sports all the hallmarks people associate with That Voice—flashy lead guitar, piano and synth, layered vocals, pounding drums. From there, “Young Hearts Forever” strains to keep pace, but already sounds dated, and slows down needlessly in the middle. The slow ballad arrives right on time with “I Am”, followed by the theme song for a soundtrack to a movie yet to be filmed, “Stand Up (Before It’s Too Late)”. The title track limps along with some decent hooks, but not a lot of energy, while “Donna Please” attempts to be a heartbreaker a la “Suzanne”.
“Listen To Your Heart” attempts to inject some heavy rock into the proceedings, but somehow ends up jerry-rigging several half-baked ideas together. “Tuesday Heartache” is more heartache-by numbers that takes a strange detour into a Peter Gabriel soundtrack halfway through. “Missing You” is a little clichéd, but it’s a good kind of clichéd, just as “Somewhere There’s Hope” embraces the main ingredients of so-called melodic rock: ¾ time, slamming snares, piano, and yes, a choir. It even goes on about two minutes too long. That only makes the opening of “Anyway” (“I’d like to say I’m sorry/I’d like to make amends”) unintentionally hilarious.
While just a little better than Street Talk, the album underwhelmed, though “You Better Wait” was a mild hit. Fanatics raced to pick up the CD-maxi single, as well as the one for “Missing You”, both of which included songs not on the album. Two of those—“If You Need Me, Call Me” and “One More Time”—appeared as bonus tracks for the head-scratching reissue of For The Love Of Strange Medicine 12 years later (alongside two lesser outtakes and a live “Missing You” from his solo tour). Why these tracks were relegated to B-side status instead of the album itself, where they would have both been more welcome and appreciated, would be a mystery for a few years yet.

Steve Perry For The Love Of Strange Medicine (1994)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1994, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, April 13, 2018

Rush 12: Grace Under Pressure

For much of the band’s career to date, producer Terry Brown loomed large, to the same subliminal effect on a record sleeve as a George Martin or an Andrew Loog Oldham. So it was indeed A Big Deal when the next Rush album credited a different name alongside theirs.
Grace Under Pressure arrived at the height of ‘80s silliness, and a glance at the back cover provides proof. Synthesizers were now at the forefront of the mix, alongside guitars that were even further from prog. Hindsight has been kinder to the album than we were at the time, enthralled as we still were with Moving Pictures. The new album seemed almost too slick, too shiny; but again, if this was your high school soundtrack, your reaction would have been different.
To their credit, each of the songs does indeed explore, vividly, the concepts of human stress—not in the egomaniacal Dark Side Of The Moon sense, but more what non-rock stars must endure on a daily basis in so-called modern society. The album starts with a moment of “2112” wind and then “Distant Early Warning” (commencing a worrying trend of not having the title mentioned in the song itself, making it tough to request on the radio) echoes the contemporary nuclear worry prevalent in 1984, yet dares to hint at the notion of a romantic relationship. “Afterimage” goes right to the point, reflecting on a recently deceased friend, and not at all mawkishly; rather, the urgency in the riff conveys anger at what/who was lost. “Red Sector A” is divisive, being as it sports what we’d still call a disco beat, but it’s paired a compelling lyric, evocative of the Holocaust, which Geddy Lee’s parents survived. “The Enemy Within” is said to be part one of the completed “Fear” trilogy, which began two studio albums before, continuing the reggae beat from the second part (and from “Vital Signs”). Each installment is thus less interesting than the last.
A somewhat robotic beat fittingly but annoyingly inaugurates “The Body Electric”, accompanied by percolating bass and more unresolved chords; as with much of the album, the chorus is the best part. “Kid Gloves” has a dizzying, cyclical riff in 5/4 that calms down for the choruses, and reading the lyrics now, they come off as something of a comfort for the confused teen mindset depicted in “Subdivisions”. The edgy “Red Lenses”—listed in lowercase and demonstrative color type in all documentation—is loaded with plays on the word and simple rhymes. Finally, “Between The Wheels” employs a suitably tense synth bed, hints at a chance of perseverance with a driving chorus, but reverts to the tension to reflect the cycle.
It’s not one of our go-to Rush albums, so we’re always surprised how listenable Grace Under Pressure turns out to be whenever we throw it on. Still, it’s a long way from the yowls and sorcery of the previous decade, and does show that while the band may no longer be considered progressive, they have progressed.

Rush Grace Under Pressure (1984)—3

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Paul Westerberg 2: Eventually

Some critics still cared about Paul Westerberg, and his label had Replacements fans working there, so they were willing to bankroll another solo album. Eventually was an apt title, considering that it took a while to complete, starting with Brendan O’Brien (in between multiplatinum Pearl Jam albums) as producer, and finishing with the more indie-minded Lou Giordano.
The music follows the same template as his more recent albums to this point, catchy guitar-driven rock with clever couplets. “These Are The Days” and “Century” would have fit on 14 Songs, but the listener’s ears perk up on the bittersweet “Love Untold”, a terrific song unfairly ignored by most radio programmers. Right on time, the tempo picks up for the hook-laden “Ain’t Got Me” and the relentless trash rock of “Had It With You”, which comes off as a cross between “My Little Problem” and “Backlash”, except there’s no female duet partner. “MamaDaddyDid” returns to a lazier strum, and not very exciting.
Side two (on the cassette, since no vinyl version was released at the time) immediately becomes more interesting with “Hide N Seekin”. It begins like a demo, Westerberg singing over a single quiet electric guitar, pausing for several silent seconds after the chorus, then picking up again, adding a slight organ and brushed drums to the mix. “Once Around The Weekend” is a bit of a retread, but everyone got excited for “Trumpet Clip”, which features good ol’ Tommy Stinson on bass and, yes, trombone while the auteur spits out the lyrics, giggling occasionally. “Angels Walk” is redeemed by some decent guitar rips, but it’s forgotten once “Good Day” takes over, a piano dirge that, but for the lyrical nod to “Hold My Life”, one might not guess is a tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson. From there, “Time Flies Tomorrow” keeps it quiet and sensitive.
There’s no thrashing on the album, nothing that fans complained had been missing since Don’t Tell A Soul. Yet, Westerberg sounds more confident overall on Eventually, which puts it strongly in the plus column. The whole is definitely greater than the parts.

Paul Westerberg Eventually (1996)—

Friday, April 6, 2018

Genesis 14: Genesis

After touring to support Three Sides Live, and taking a few months off for Phil Collins to push his second solo album, Genesis went right back to work on their next album, and had it out by the end of the year. (Right after Phil finished a brief tour as Robert Plant’s drummer.) Titled simply Genesis, it has since been referred to as the “Mama album”, thanks to the opening track and first single, whereas we immediately recognized the childhood toy depicted on the cover.
“Mama” was a good choice for an introduction to the album, as its harsh sound dragged the band back from the pop sound people had begun to associate with them. (Another good sign: no horn sections anywhere.) That said, “That’s All” is fairly simple, both in execution and lyrics. The next two tracks form a suite that completes the side, just like the old days. “Home By The Sea” takes some time to absorb; apparently the repeated demands to “sit down” come from the ghosts occupying said home. “Second Home By The Sea” is a lazy title, but nicely pairs with its brother, bringing everything full circle in the last minute.
That’s a pretty decent album side, but the execrable “Illegal Alien” is up there with the worst songs the band has ever committed to posterity. At best it’s an accurate Men At Work pastiche, but even they had the taste not to go this politically incorrect. “Taking It All Too Hard” is a little better, back to Phil’s recently patented breakup lyrics. Around our way “Just A Job To Do” was an FM radio staple, a heavier track with good band interplay. One of the sneakier songs in their catalog, “Silver Rainbow” begins with a catalog of paradoxes, then moves into what seems like a cautionary lecture, until you realize he’s talking about the first time making out with a girl (“and a bear comes in the room” being a particularly red herring). Finally, “It’s Gonna Get Better” works around tricky time signatures and finds a suitable melody to deliver its uplifting message.
“Illegal Alien” aside, Genesis remains one of their better albums because the three of them were still playing like a band, contributing equally. We’ll go so far as to say it was their last good album, which says a lot, considering how busy they’d been up to this point.

Genesis Genesis (1983)—

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bruce Springsteen 24: Chapter And Verse

With a glimpse of mortality following the loss of E Street Band members, and even before he started writing his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen opened his legendary vaults to demonstrate the making of certain key albums in his catalog. Some were also accompanied by live artifacts. He’d already started offering downloads of shows from his most recent tour, but the Bruce Springsteen Archives went further back, selling professionally recorded concerts, complete with aesthetically relevant artwork, from his entire career.
It’s a fairly impressive endeavor, having recently escalated to a new release every month or so, and higher concentration on the previous century. Once his book was published, a companion of sorts was also released. Chapter And Verse doesn’t attempt to condense every musical reference in the pages into an 80-minute program, but it does provide something of a chronological overview, even going back before the fame.
His first band is represented by “Baby I”, a worthy garage rock stomp, and an even louder thrash at “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”. Once he started writing his own songs in the ‘70s, Steel Mill takes over for “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)”, with a lot of pinched lead guitar and organ; then they evolve into the Bruce Springsteen Band for “Ballad Of Jesse James”, which belies a distinct Van Morrison influence. “Henry Boy” is an awfully busy acoustic demo that predates the first album, and the best parts would form the backbone of “Rosalita” two years down.
“Growin’ Up” is included in the demo version previously heard on Tracks, and from there we go forward with a song per album until this century. The idea seems to be to include the most personally important track from each, and not necessarily the hits. If that’s what you’re looking for, you have other options. This one’s for the diehard fans.

Bruce Springsteen Chapter And Verse (2016)—3

Friday, March 30, 2018

Grateful Dead 8: Europe ‘72

Having become dedicated (sorry) to playing shows, that was the place to hear new Grateful Dead music. And since their live albums were moneymakers, they were able to travel with a label-subsidized tape unit to capture all of their European shows, which would then become their third live album, and a three-record set to boot.
Europe ‘72 doesn’t replicate a typical show, but it does mirror the “Skull & Roses” album by presenting songs old and new. Pigpen takes a smaller role throughout, with new pianist Keith Godchaux filling in the arrangements, and his wife Donna singing backup. The energy flags a bit over the six sides, but it’s very possible that many early listeners concentrated on a side at a time.
After a rollicking “Cumberland Blues”, “He’s Gone” is a pleasant saloon lope that provides the title of a future live album and “One More Saturday Night” makes the transition from Bob Weir solo track to Dead standard. “Jack Straw” is a mysterious song with many layers, possibly a murder ballad, possibly the plaint of escaped convicts. There’s no such mystery about “You Win Again” except that it’s a Hank Williams song. “China Cat Sunflower” emerges from the psychedelic era to form a jam with “I Know You Rider”, which some Dead-influenced band is likely playing somewhere right now, or thinking about it.
“Brown Eyed Women” has a somewhat modern sound, but lyrics that evoke moonshiners from the early part of the century, and it’s a grower. Pigpen comes to the microphone for “It Hurts Me Too”, the ancient blues tune, but not as slow as “Ramble On Rose”. “Sugar Magnolia” gets extended nicely, complete with fake ending, and keen ears have spotted that one can pick out a few notes from “Dark Star” at the beginning. Pigpen emerges again on “Mr. Charlie”, a decent midtempo boogie, but “Tennessee Jed” blends in with the other low-energy tracks to keep it from standing out.
Right on time, the album switches to extended jams, as on Live/Dead, which actually helps bring us around. Side five begins with an introduction for “Truckin’” that acknowledges its hit single status, and extends after 13 minutes into an “Epilogue”. This is presumably continued in a mildly atonal “Prelude” on side six, before ending with a slow “Morning Dew” that manages to sustain interest.
For continuity’s sake, the first CD version of Europe ‘72 split the album across two discs, comprising three sides apiece. The eventual expansion had the first four sides on one disc, with the rare Pigpen track “The Stranger (Two Souls In Communion)” as a bonus; a hidden gem, to be sure, if a shaky performance. The other CD offered the “Truckin’” through “Morning Dew” run, plus Weir’s “Looks Like Rain” and a half-hour romp on the Rascals’ “Good Lovin”, which is interesting if you like Pigpen.
Even before that, the same period was mined for other archival releases. Hundred Year Hall was culled from a concert in Germany, and had the boost of being the first release following Garcia’s death. A complete show from two days earlier was eventually released in a shuffled order as Rockin' The Rhein With The Grateful Dead, while Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead: England ’72 offered four discs from various dates. For the absolute collector, Europe '72: The Complete Recordings offered all 22 shows on 73 CDs, packed in a suitcase. Each show was eventually released individually, but even more accessible for those on a budget was Europe '72 Volume 2, which presented a companion to the original without repeating any of its songs, though there is some overlap with the Skull & Roses set. The first disc delivers even more Pigpen, with the second more devoted to lengthy jams and a lovely “Sing Me Back Home”. (Those who still can’t get enough can sample the New York shows immediately before the tour on Dick's Picks 30, one entire show of which is on Dave's Picks Volume 14.)

Grateful Dead Europe ‘72 (1972)—
2003 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 6 extra tracks
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Hundred Year Hall (1995)
     • Steppin' Out With The Grateful Dead: England ’72 (2002)
     • Dick's Picks 30 (2003)
     • Rockin' The Rhein With The Grateful Dead (2004)
     • Europe '72: The Complete Recordings (2011)
     • Europe '72 Volume 2 (2011)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 14: Academy Of Music, New York City, 3/26/72 (2015)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Oasis 6: Familiar To Millions

Most post-baby boom bands would consider getting to play Wembley Stadium to be a highlight of their success. For all their posing, Oasis is no different. Therefore, having revitalized the brand with two new members on guitar and bass, plus a guy on keyboards, their “triumphant” (according to the liner notes) appearance at Wembley in the summer of 2000 dictated that a live album be released as a souvenir.
Familiar To Millions doesn’t have any real surprises in the songs everyone already knows, except that Liam sounds more bored than ever. He and Noel make sure to take time during and between songs to berate whoever they want into the microphone with countless variations on “fook”. Much more interesting are the not-so-obvious song choices, such as the B-sides “Acquiesce” and “Step Out” (which sounds similar enough to Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight” to give that song’s writers royalties). Noel tackles Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My”, though nobody told him not to play the whole D chord, as well as “Helter Skelter”, tacked on as a bonus from a show an ocean away from Wembley. (A highlights CD omits five songs, including all the covers, not counting the tag of “Whole Lotta Love” at the end of “Cigarettes & Alcohol”.)
As a live album, Familiar To Millions serves as an able hits collection, geared towards those familiar millions. Yet there’s something about the entire crowd singing the chorus to “Don’t Look Back In Anger” with happy throats.

Oasis Familiar To Millions (2000)—3

Friday, March 23, 2018

U2 18: Songs Of Experience

While—to nobody’s surprise and despite their insistence otherwise—U2 didn’t have the follow-up to Songs Of Innocence in stores within the year, it did only take them three years to decide on a sequence for it, with a tour thrown in to celebrate thirty years of The Joshua Tree. The hype machine would have us believe that the band was just as important as they’d ever been, if not more, though some of us longtime fans feel that taking a hint from R.E.M. wouldn’t be such a horrible loss. Still, Songs Of Experience is a competent set of catchy anthems, delivered by no less than nine producers, as many as five on a single track.
Rather than blowing the doors open, “Love Is All We Have Left” is about as quiet as they’ve ever been. It makes mention of Bono’s so-called “near-death experience”, as does “Lights Of Home”, a collaboration with sister-rock band Haim (and for which they get full songwriting credit). “You’re The Best Thing About Me” sounds like two different songs duct-taped together, with its trashy guitar verse and a more anthemic (there’s that word again) section used for the chorus. “Get Out Of Your Own Way” would be good advice, but loses points for the closing rap by Kendrick Lamar, which bridges into the bombastic yet dull “American Soul”.
The album starts to sag here, through the lackluster “Summer Of Love” and “Red Flag Day”, though it’s nice to hear the Edge’s vintage harmonies in the mix again. “The Showman (Little More Better)” is something of a departure into mindless pop, but we always hear Stewie and Miley singing about friendship from the Hannah Montana episode of Family Guy. Yet it makes “The Little Things That Give You Away”, moody as it is, a nice diversion.
The sentiment in “Landlady” seems a little strange, until one realizes that it’s a pet name for his long-suffering wife, to whom he’s been apologizing, in song, since the Carter administration. “The Blackout” begins like a generic, annoying dance tune, but develops into something decent by the end. It’s clear they’re trying for big stadium singalongs, so that’s the role “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” plays, if the other ones don’t take. Finally, “13 (There Is A Light)” is touching, a hymn of sorts, that reaches new heights by appropriating “Song For Someone”, one of the better tracks from the last album.
That’s where the standard CD ends, but since vinyl was a lucrative format again, the equivalent of side four was added to a so-called deluxe edition of the CD. “Ordinary Love” is an alternate mix of a song they wrote for a Nelson Mandela film bio, “Book Of Your Heart” has potential, but is best appreciated for Edge’s early-‘80s guitar style and tone. The “St Peter's String Version” of “Lights Of Home” heightens the tension big time, while an alternate mix of “You’re The Best Thing About Me” (billed as “U2 vs. Kygo”, a DJ, and included on the deluxe CD and a download with the vinyl) is unnecessary and seizure-inducing.
With all the time and talk that’s gone into every U2 album of this century, we must concede that they haven’t delivered anything pointedly bad or even embarrassing. Songs Of Experience will please the fans, and it’s not a waste of time or plastic. A nice, quiet, graceful retirement isn’t likely in their playbook, unless another “near-death” experience finally gets them off the catwalk. Shave it down and combine with the highlights from the one before, and it would rate higher, but that would mean eight years between albums.

U2 Songs Of Experience (2017)—3

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Todd Rundgren 17: Swing To The Right

For the second Utopia album in a row, the cover art features a Beatles reference. But while Deface The Music was played in the style of the Fab Four, Swing To The Right merely uses a doctored photo from a Revolver-era record burning to tie into the album’s theme, a reaction to the conservative wave then washing over America. For the most part, the music is modern (read: dated) New Wave, and something of a less robotic version of Devo.
The title track does approach the band’s prog roots, except for its “wacky” resolutions. Todd takes over the mic for “Lysistrata”, a snappy retelling of an ancient love-conquers-war Greek comedy, though “The Up” tries a little too hard to be catchy. Still, it’s a treat compared to the assembly line effects of “Junk Rock (Million Monkeys)”, which attacks the current music scene. That doesn’t stop the stock chorus pedal Todd uses throughout the album, though less so on “Shinola”.
A remake of the O’Jays’ “For The Love Of Money” doesn’t do the original any justice, even when followed by “Last Dollar On Earth”, which almost resembles the Tubes (whom Rundgren had produced before and would again). He manages to turn “Fahrenheit 451” into an enjoyable Prince-style party anthem, and then it’s over to Broadway for “Only Human”, a big blue-eyed soul ballad that sticks out badly at first, but soon becomes preferable to most of what’s come before. Finally, “One World” is a very decent rocker in the vein of such album-closers as “Just One Victory” and “Sons Of 1984”.
Swing To The Right is an ugly-sounding record, which matches the lyrical content, but doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. Having become a democratic unit—on the liner notes anyway, which credits all songs to the band—it’s not always easy to figure out who’s singing, except when it’s Todd, but the better songs are all his.

Utopia Swing To The Right (1982)—

Friday, March 16, 2018

Jimi Hendrix 21: Both Sides Of The Sky

For no apparent reason, even after saying they were done with this sort of thing, another hodgepodge of unfinished studio recordings by Jimi Hendrix was unleashed on the world. Both Sides Of The Sky purports to consist of even more contenders for his never-realized fourth album, while sporting cover art based on a younger version of the man who composed the music therein. The compilers even dared to call it “the third installment in the trilogy”.
However, much of this has been heard before, in one way or another. The fanatics can contrast and compare alternates of “Hear My Train A-Comin’” (with the Experience) and “Lover Man” (with Band of Gypsys), and shake their heads over a sped-up “Stepping Stone” that touches on country and polka. “Mannish Boy” appeared in a slightly different form on Blues, and “Georgia Blues” was on the now-deleted companion to Martin Scorsese’s take on the genre. “Power Of Soul” was in a different mix on South Saturn Delta, as was a less-developed demo of “Sweet Angel”, here bridging the similarity to “Little Wing” with the xylophone. Three tracks teased on the 1990’s Lifelines set appear in more complete takes and/or composites; “Things I Used To Do” is a jam with Johnny Winter, and “Send My Love To Linda” combines a few solo takes with a full Gypsys rendition, but “Cherokee Mist”, featuring Jimi on electric sitar and feedback with Mitch Mitchell playing along, is a fascinating peek into the Electric Ladyland sessions.
It seems the biggest selling point for the marketers are two jams with Stephen Stills on organ and vocals, supposedly recorded at the same session but with different drummers. “$20 Fine” is basically a Stills song with Jimi adding guitar, and “Woodstock” is very similar to the CSNY version that had yet to be released, except that Jimi is merely playing bass. These would probably be better suited to a Stills compilation, but the Estate likely insisted only they could release them. That leaves only “Jungle”, which starts with some meandering and eventually gains Buddy Miles on drums, before fading out.
Considering not every note Jimi played in a studio setting has been made available to those who don’t collect bootlegs, it’s too soon to tell if this is really it for what the Estate has to offer. Of course, there are still plenty of official live releases, always with the chance of more to come, for those inclined to explore. If we were in charge of things, and obviously we were not, neither this album, nor the other two in the “trilogy”, nor South Saturn Delta, nor First Rays — especially now that Cry Of Love and Rainbow Bridge are widely available again — nor the box sets would have happened. Rather, the music would be grouped chronologically, Anthology-style, for less of a grab-bag approach, and giving the student a much smoother journey through the man’s studio life, particularly to demonstrate all the directions he explored in the last 24 months of his time on the planet.

Jimi Hendrix Both Sides Of The Sky (2018)—3

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Van Morrison 34: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

And on Van goes, putting out a new album every year or so, daring us to care. The labels haven’t given up on him either, and somehow What’s Wrong With This Picture? was released on the Blue Note label, legendary for its jazz catalog, which likely appealed to him.
The title track begins full and lush, giving us the mistaken impression that this will be a make-out album. But then he ends the first verse by actually saying “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” and cracking himself up in the process. Then it’s off to the upbeat swing of “Whinin Boy Moan”, the adult contemporary shuffle of “Evening In June”, and the bluesy “Too Many Myths”, featuring his own sloppy acoustic guitar. If you didn’t get enough Acker Bilk on the last album, he’s back to collaborate on “Somerset”. While the backing isn’t very adventurous, “Meaning Of Loneliness” does enter some thought-provoking lyrical territory, and while someone is singing along, he’s low in the mix and not Brian Kennedy.
The mood is broken again by “Stop Drinking”, an adaptation of a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune with a mix of R&B, skiffle and rockabilly. It’s back to the blues, and complaining about being famous, in “Goldfish Bowl”. “Once In A Blue Moon” touches on calypso, before the cover of “Saint James Infirmary”, most of which is devoted to soloing, slows things down again. “Little Village” is in a 12-bar structure, but somehow manages to evoke his late-‘80s sound. No prizes for guessing what he’s complaining about in “Fame”, but we do wonder if the call-and-response chant of the title at the end is a nod to David Bowie. “Get On With The Show” takes another cliché and builds a song around it without any real cohesion.
To answer the album’s title question, there’s nothing wrong with this particular picture, expect that we still half expect the guy to wow us like he used to. He’s obviously capable of blending several styles, but hearing so many at one time gives the impression of listening to several albums instead of just one. And at over an hour long, What’s Wrong With This Picture? isn’t likely to wow anyone.

Van Morrison What’s Wrong With This Picture? (2003)—3

Friday, March 9, 2018

Joni Mitchell 17: Turbulent Indigo

An artist of Joni Mitchell’s stature can be allowed the time and space to work, and a three-year gap had become her norm. But when that gap comes between two albums of such comparative quality, it’s worth the wait. Turbulent Indigo finds Our Heroine back on Reprise Records, where it all started, gently plucking her guitar strings and singing songs both direct and opaque. From time to time, Wayne Shorter flutters in on his soprano sax.
“Sunny Sunday” is a simple sketch of a woman who shoots a gun at a streetlight and always misses, a provoking metaphor. The theme of struggle set, the loudest song on the album—which isn’t saying much—is “Sex Kills”, which manages to skewer pharmaceutical companies, big oil, the gun climate, and just about everything else that’s wrong with society. “How Do You Stop” is a cover of a then-recent James Brown tune, and features Seal on backing vocals (she’d done the same for his album that year too). Somehow it fits perfectly on the album. The title track matches the cover self-portrait of herself with Van Gogh’s bandaged ear, making clear points about artistry. Her voice ably reaches the upper end of her current range on “Last Chance Lost”, a moving rumination on the end of a relationship (which may or may not be her own).
The heartbreak continues on “The Magdalene Laundries”, which refers to the fate of so-called “fallen women” in Ireland, in asylums that existed through even this past century, and by extension condemns the Catholic Church for its complicity. The piano emerges on “Not To Blame”, a timely lament for victims of spousal abuse and worse, which steadily ticks toward a hopeless conclusion. “Borderline” uses clever alliteration and mild wordplay to discuss the conflicts we instigate with each other, followed by another view on difference. A study of a man trying to impress a French girl, “Yvette In English” was written with David Crosby, and first appeared on his own album the year before. Joni’s version is superior, except for the constant repeats of Yvette’s name throughout the track. Finally, “Sire Of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)” is both the longest track and the closer, but not given epic treatment or any other stature above the rest. Still, its recasting of Job’s arguments with God is mesmerizing, particularly with the “antagonists” in her own multitracked voice mocking her plight.
Turbulent Indigo is a strangely soothing listen, given the subject matter. Not a single track could be considered upbeat, yet it’s a strong statement. And yes, it’s good to have her back.

Joni Mitchell Turbulent Indigo (1994)—

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Paul Simon 7: One-Trick Pony

While Art Garfunkel was the first of the duo to hit the big screen as an actor, Paul Simon had similar dreams. After becoming best buds with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, he began to rack up several comedic appearances on that show, and even managed to get a speaking role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. From there, it was a natural jump to writing and starring in a full-length feature film.
One-Trick Pony concerns a musician who made it big in the ‘60s with a protest song, and is now traveling the country playing whatever gigs he can get for his band, from driving between small clubs in a van to flying out to open up for the B-52s on a bigger bill. His character is stubbornly holding on to his integrity as a working musician, which causes friction with his estranged wife and son, and prevents him from getting much sympathy from record executives. (Along with the band members playing versions of themselves, Lou Reed is the only other musical actor in the film, in a hilarious role as a smarmy promo guy with AM radio ears.) Our Hero is alternately sarcastic and depressed, not exactly likable, a little stiff, but lean and swarthy, with possibly the best toupee of his career.
The film isn’t exactly a thinly veiled autobiography, but it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy when its failure to wow the public relegated the once all-powerful Simon to the “where are they now” file. The accompanying album didn’t help much. Save the toe-tapping opener “Late In The Evening”, “God Bless The Amputee”, the title track, and “Ace In The Hole” (the latter two recorded live), most of the tracks are middling jazzy pop, with lyrics that serve to reflect the malaise running through the film. Thus, the album is equally dour, demonstrating the lack of enthusiasm the music receives onscreen, and doesn’t resonate much without the visuals.
In a further demonstration of the character’s stubborn nature, the fictional protest song “Soft Parachutes” wasn’t included on the album, but did finally appear on this century’s expanded reissue, along with two early versions of “Oh, Marion” and “How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns”, plus “Stranded In A Limousine”, which had been MIA since Greatest Hits Etc. was deleted. (No sign of the “AM radio” version of “Ace In The Hole”, however.) So it’s a little more complete now, but not exactly better.

Paul Simon One-Trick Pony (1980)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1980, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, March 2, 2018

King Crimson 8: Earthbound and USA

Using a live album to say farewell to a disbanded band (and possibly fulfill contract obligations) is not a rare practice, and even King Crimson, who were so bent on challenging the norm, are part of the litany. In fact, they did it twice in their pre-digital era.
That’s not to say there wasn’t resistance from within. Robert Fripp has long insisted that the magic of a live performance can only be appreciated in person, and that no recorded artifact, where audio or visual, can do it justice. That attitude is evident all over Earthbound, collected from concerts with the Islands lineup of the band and originally mastered from a cassette, with sound quality to match. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is more distorted than it should be, and Boz Burrell doesn’t do the vocal justice. He’s not much better on “Peoria”, the boogie improv named after the town where it was recorded. With honking and shrieking sax from Mel Collins, Fripp on the wah-wah pedal, and Boz’s sub-Buddy Miles scatting (as well as on the title track), it’s hard to believe it’s the same band. Slightly more interesting is a 15-minute expansion on “Groon”, the free-jazz B-side from 1970, complete with processed drums.

Earthbound wasn’t even released in America until this century, and only got bonus tracks (of equally fuzzy sound quality) 45 years after it was originally released. In contrast, USA, which was recorded on the tour immediately preceding the recording of Red, sports much better sound overall. With John Wetton and Bill Bruford, this was arguably the best Crimson lineup that didn’t include Tony Levin. Also, given Fripp’s insistence on audio-vérité, some tracks were enhanced in the studio by prog figure Eddie Jobson, who wasn’t even in the band. Still while his contributions are noted, they are well blended into the mix.
After a snippet from “The Heavenly Music Corporation” over the PA, the band crashes in with “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”. Somehow the finale from that album becomes just as effective an opener here. “Lament” and “Exiles” are ably tackled, also showing how well the Mellotron stayed in tune. “Asbury Park”—like “Providence” on Red—gets its title from the city where it was recorded, and is a worthy improv. “Easy Money” follows shortly, although it fades before whatever the actual ending was, and the band is brought full circle with an excellent take on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, complete with requisite distortion on the vocal. (To preserve the listening experience of the original LP, two tracks from the same show were added for the 30th Anniversary Edition: “Fracture” and a wonderful “Starless” that predates the Red version.)

King Crimson Earthbound (1972)—
2017 40th Anniversary Edition: same as 1972, plus 3 extra tracks
King Crimson USA (1975)—4
2002 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Brian Eno 10: On Land and Thursday Afternoon

Eno’s extracurricular production work was often presented as collaboration, so that it had been some time before he has something for the record rack with his own name on the spine. The third album in the Ambient series was credited solely to Laraaji, the taken pseudonym of a street musician specializing in zither and hammer dulcimer. Day Of Radiance. A more hypnotic album, it features those layered instruments in a continual cascade of shimmering notes and harmonics, pretty much left alone on side one, and more obviously treated by the man at the mixing board on side two.
Co-credited with avant-garde trumpet player Jon Hassell, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics was released around the same time, appeared to inaugurate another series a la the Ambient experiment. That didn’t exactly happen, but the album does present a heavily treated trumpet sounding nothing like the instrument we’d recognize, augmented by synthesizers and exotic percussion. While not exactly ambient, it still provides a similar backdrop to whatever you’re doing.

The fourth and apparently final Ambient volume was credited to Eno alone, though it was not a strictly “solo” project. On Land was recorded over a three-year period, during which he’d spent and increasing amount of time around people equally fascinated with tribal percussion and so-called “found sounds”. While many of the tracks are designed to evoke certain geographical areas, the overall effect isn’t exactly soothing. More along the lines of the short experiments on Music For Films, these pieces alternately create a mood of impending doom at worst, and sitting near a swamp listening to frogs farting at best. All after dark, of course. The last two tracks (“A Clearing” and “Dunwich Beach, Autumn, 1960”) finally approach something pretty. Peter Gabriel would put some of these ideas to better use on his own soundtrack work, but then Eno never claimed to be a musician.

A few years after On Land—and following another collaboration discussed elsewhere—a further volume in what could be considered the Ambient series emerged in the form of Thursday Afternoon. This was an hour-long piece of music intended to be the companion soundtrack to one of his video paintings: in this case, a study of a reclining nude, presented in such a way that your television screen needed to be turned on its side to appreciate it properly. As for the music, it includes some of the cricket sounds and bird noises of On Land, with a wandering piano on top of a synth base, never tense, hardly hinting at melody. And for that, it’s effective mood music.

Brian Eno Ambient 4: On Land (1982)—2
Brian Eno Thursday Afternoon (1985)—3

Friday, February 23, 2018

Monkees 9: Good Times

The latest “new” Monkees album, released to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 20th anniversary, has gotten kudos for its choice song material, contributed and masterminded by some of the more respected power-pop songwriters of the early 21st century, many of whom learned their craft by listening to Monkees records as kids and, less blatantly, longing for the velvet and velour stage outfits of the Partridge Family. That some of these people have been employed by the Austin Powers franchise should be no surprise.
One defense of the factory ethic is that the Monkees originally relied on Brill Building veterans for their music, from song to record, and while that’s true, it didn’t make a difference once the TV show was over. The four learned how to be a real band, succeeded at it, and promptly worked separately, to increasing indifference. Just like that, they were no longer a band, and without the show, they had no impetus to be, except from a nostalgic point of view.
Here’s the truth, and it will hurt: The Monkees were inessential without the TV show. You can bring any of the participants together in any combination, but they will be even less relevant than they were at the time. (Moreover, they don’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because there was nothing rock ‘n roll about Davy Jones. Sorry, folks.)
Micky and Davy worked together several times throughout the ‘70s, but it wasn’t until the big revival in 1986 that Peter was allowed back in the fold. A new hits collection—the first of many to come—called Then & Now… The Best Of The Monkees sported three “new” songs, sung by Micky and supposedly including Peter somewhere, and then Davy joined in for Pool It! the following year. The music was purely generic ‘80s pop, with all the fake drums and bad keyboards you can imagine. Mike Nesmith was conspicuous in his absence, as was any lasting impression.
Ten years later, Mike took part in the 30th anniversary campaign on the condition that he write and direct their reunion TV special, and that any new album would be written and performed solely by the four of them. Beginning with a re-recorded “Circle Sky”, Justus tried to rock, and was a little better than Pool It!, though the jury’s out as to whether Micky’s ponytail is preferable to his current choice of hats. (The TV special was clever, though. In places.)
After Davy left for that Broadway stage in the sky, the other three continued to celebrate him, Mike even going so far as to insist that the Monkees “were his band. We were his sidemen.” A few reunion tours were easy enough to pull off, but only the absolute rabid would be excited about a new album, recorded half a century after the first. Since some of those rabid ones included power pop devotee Adam Schlesinger (responsible for the music in That Thing You Do!) and his buddies in Fountain of Wayne, here was a chance for a reunion album made from true love and not merely commerce.
Indeed, Good Times! manages to capture enough of the classic vibe, and not just because it relies on vintage unfinished ’60s recordings for some of the material. The title track is an embellished Harry Nilsson demo, “Gotta Give It Time”, “Whatever’s Right”, and “Wasn’t Born To Follow” never got vocals until now, and “Love To Love” uses a 1967 track with a 1969 Davy vocal and backups recorded this century. (It’s his only appearance on the album, a Neil Diamond blender mix of “Little Bit Me” and “Solitary Man”.)
Each of the guys contributes an original, but most of the other tracks come custom-made straight from Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Andy Partridge (XTC), and even a collaboration between Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Paul Weller (The Jam). None are very embarrassing, if a little derivative, though the best is probably “Me & Magdalena” by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. (The album version is nice, but the janglier “Version 2”, available some places as a bonus track, is truly wonderful.)
Skeptical as we were, we have to admit Good Times! is worthy of all its good ink thus far received. It’s certainly better than any other “new” product released after the show was cancelled, and goes a long way to reaffirming the Monkees’ justifiable position in rock history. And that should be enough, because they still don’t belong in that building in Cleveland.

The Monkees Good Times! (2016)—

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Jethro Tull 13: Repeat

Less than two years after one Tull “hits” collection, somebody thought it was a good idea to release another. Curiously, most of the tracks on Repeat—subtitled The Best Of Jethro Tull Vol. II—are heavier rockers than the more folk-influenced direction Ian Anderson was currently in. That means there’s a lot of power for FM radio fans, starting with the edit of “Minstrel In The Gallery”, through “Cross Eyed Mary” and “A New Day Yesterday”. “Bourée” quiets things down slightly, making a smooth transition into “Thick As A Brick (Edit #4)”, from halfway into the first side of that album.
Detail-oriented readers will notice that all of these songs predate M.U. While they’d only released two albums since that one, it says a little something about the quality when this set lives that far in the past, if you will. “War Child” and “A Passion Play (Edit #9)” (from the last part of that album) keep it heavy without being overly familiar, and “To Cry You A Song” goes all the way back to Benefit. Only with the title track from Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die! are we brought up to date. However, fans got something of a bonus in “Glory Row”, a previously unreleased track featuring prominent accordion that has since been added to reissues of—you guessed it—War Child.
Repeat is a decent listen, but the “better” songs were arguably already on its predecessor. That said, those wishing to keep their collections slim would have enjoyed the convenience.

Jethro Tull Repeat—The Best Of Jethro Tull Vol. II (1977)—

Friday, February 16, 2018

Byrds 14: Box Sets

Towards the end of the ‘80s, with the likes of Tom Petty and R.E.M. reviving interest in the Rickenbacker, the Byrds began to attract attention from a younger generation. Just in time for their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as a new Roger McGuinn solo album, and following successful lawsuits in favor of the band members not named Clark or Clarke came a four-disc box set covering the band’s tenure on Columbia.
Simply titled The Byrds, albeit with individually titled discs, the set begins with (naturally) “Mr. Tambourine Man” and moves all the way through Farther Along. Because the existing CD reissues of the albums were a little spotty, the sound was greatly enhanced, with many of the early songs presented in wide stereo and with extended endings, some of which had been revealed on the independent Never Before compilation from a few years before. That set also boasted some previously unreleased tracks, and many of them (such as “The Day Walk”, “She Has A Way”, and “Psychodrama City”) were included in the box in context.
As with most sets of its type, the earlier material vastly outweighs the later material, with the first five albums covered on the first two discs. A live radio take of “Roll Over Beethoven” sung by David Crosby isn’t much to write home about, but the real enticement was the inclusion of several Sweetheart Of The Rodeo tracks with Gram Parsons’ original vocals, as opposed to the common album tracks redubbed by McGuinn. The remainder of the discs speeds through the Clarence White era, still giving him some overdue recognition, and still sounding very different from the original incarnation of the band.
To bring it all back home, so to speak, the final 20 or so minutes of the set are given over to new recordings featuring the three senior members. Live recordings of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Tambourine Man” with Bob Dylan (from a Roy Orbison tribute, of all things) are a sloppy setup for four studio tracks: a new recording of “He Was A Friend Of Mine”; the obscure Dylan cover “Paths Of Victory”; “From A Distance”, concurrently covered by Bette Midler in a Grammy-winning performance; and “Love That Never Dies", which was basically a teaser for McGuinn’s upcoming Back To Rio album. (Heralded as a comeback at the time, it hasn’t worn well, save two songs contributed by Byrds disciples: Elvis Costello’s “You Bowed Down” and Tom Petty’s “King Of The Hill”.)

Each of the Columbia albums was overhauled in the ‘90s, and most of the rarities in the box were included on their respective expansions, but it was still surprising that a second box set dedicated to the band came out a mere 16 years later. In addition to a DVD of mimed clips from the vintage era, the four discs in There Is A Season go a little wider on the history of the band, starting with six tracks from the Beefeaters and the Jet Set, a.k.a. the Byrds before they were the Byrds. Some of these were already available on various collections dubbed Preflyte, and while they have some of that harmonic charm, the pieces aren’t all there yet. More live material from the Clarence era shows their prowess, and two songs from the 1973 “reunion” move the spotlight back to Gene Clark. Yet for some reason, they choose to close with “Paths Of Victory” from 1990.
Much of the rare stuff was already covered on that first box, and is repeated on There Is A Season. As it pushed the first box into deletion, it’s the only comprehensive set available for physical purchase. There is more emphasis on Gene, but some of the swaps in the way of album tracks are questionable.

The Byrds The Byrds (1990)—4
The Byrds There Is A Season (2006)—4

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Marshall Crenshaw 5: Good Evening

Somehow, on his fifth album, Marshall Crenshaw seemed a little confused. Good Evening sounds a lot like him, but several of the songs are written by or with other people, and the overall sound—even for the late ‘80s—is a little confused, mixing country with contemporary touches, and not always well.
It’s always good to start with your single, and “You Should’ve Been There” has enough mystery, as well as some trademark hooks, to catch one’s ear. But with its speedy rhymes and strange details, “Valerie” is a Richard Thompson gem that just sounds odd coming out of Marshall’s mouth. “She Hates To Go Home” begins with truly awful keyboards, but manages to put together a catchy tune and a wholly out of place acoustic guitar solo. “Someplace Where Love Can’t Find Me” comes from the pen of John Hiatt, and while it’s no “Thing Called Love”, it’s worthy of further covers. A quirky tribute to a deejay, “Radio Girl” was written with the two main BoDeans, but still sounds like a demo.
“On The Run” is fairly ordinary, but increases in stature after one hears what comes next. “Live It Up” takes the funky Isley Brothers tune into quirky Alex Chilton territory, but that’s nothing compared to “Some Hearts”, from schlockmeister Diane Warren, complete with sawing fiddle. (Yes, that Diane Warren, and yes, that Carrie Underwood song.) The twang continues on “Whatever Way The Wind Blows”, which gets kinda generic, but he goes back to his more obvious roots on Bobby Fuller’s “Let Her Dance”, which still goes on longer than it should.
You want to like the guy, and Good Evening is hardly a bad album; it’s simply not very exciting. Even loaded with hired guns like Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, and James Burton, he can’t figure out what kind of album wants to make. It’s not country enough for country, but has too much of that to make it as a rock album. Shame on us for profiling, but that’s what happen when you establish a brand.

Marshall Crenshaw Good Evening (1989)—

Friday, February 9, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 4: Dulcinea

While they hadn’t become “hot”, Toad The Wet Sprocket racked up plenty of mileage over the time it took their third album to be noticed. That bought them some time to hone Dulcinea, another good mix of accessible college folk-rock, with some harder, darker songs too.
Mainstream attention didn’t mean the songs would be dumbed down at all, and indeed, it was at least a decade before we noticed that “Fly From Heaven” (which begins “Paul is making me nervous”) is sung from the point of view of James, brother of Jesus, concerned that the next generation of apostles would distort his martyred brother’s message. Even without that knowledge, it’s got a yearning quality and another catchy chorus. “Woodburning” is one of the heavier tunes, along the lines of the songs the band Live was having bigger hits with around this time. The furrowed brow in that song carries over to “Something’s Always Wrong”, which is much more straightforward musically and lyrically. Some dark humor emerges in “Stupid”, which only takes a few listens to make it plain that the guy’s wife is in congress with the handyman. Romantic woes are covered further in “Crowing”, a sad look at a doomed relationship from the outside, and inside perhaps, that turns into a growl of frustration on “Listen”.
“Windmills” is the most direct tie-in with the album title, though by now just about all the songs appear to be about an unattainable ideal. Its gentleness is nicely paired with the humor in “Nanci”, wherein a couple (perhaps the one from “Stupid”) argues over splitting up their record collection. While certainly radio-friendly, “Fall Down” was possibly the weakest song on the album to be chosen as the first single, maybe because it’s got “down” in the title. The microphone goes over to guitarist Todd Nichols for two songs—first the driving “Inside”, which gives him a chance to shred, and the much spookier “Begin”. Due to the different timbre in his voice, which is mixed low anyway, the words are hard to follow, and the screwed-up typeface in the liner notes doesn’t help. The latter song appears to be coming to grips with a death in the family, which aptly sets up the finale. “Reincarnation Song” begins quietly, with Glenn Phillips singing in almost a character voice, a little cracked, in all senses of the word. The band joins gradually, as the narrator moves from death to a supposed afterlife, onto to emerge back in the world again as a newborn. And just as the fifth chord in the repeated sequence descends further, singer and guitar let loose, howls competing with feedback for an extended jam that will stand your hair on your neck if you let it.
Dulcinea is not an immediately easy listen, particularly given the vagueness in the lyrics, but the album as a whole sports a full, live sound, helping it to seep into the psyche. Hard to believe it’s already this old, but it was indeed a highlight in a busy year filled with excellent music.

Toad The Wet Sprocket Dulcinea (1994)—4

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Jeff Beck 5: Beck, Bogert & Appice

Vanilla Fudge never had a reputation for subtlety, but something about their rhythm section appealed to Jeff Beck, so after a few false starts he was able to rope in bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice for his latest Jeff Beck Group. Rechristened Beck, Bogert & Appice, they recorded exactly one studio album together.
Part of the appeal of the Americans was their vocal abilities, similar but mostly anonymous, especially after none of the other vocalists Beck tried worked out. Yet he himself takes the microphone for “Black Cat Moan”, a dirty blues courtesy of producer Don Nix. “Lady” has harmonies (and bubbling bass) reminiscent of classic Cream, with a galloping beat that serves it well, starting and stopping on various dimes. The boys get mushy on “Oh To Love You”, with big harmonies, block piano chords, Mellotron, and even a Coral sitar sound. The song shouldn’t work, but it does. “Superstitious” is indeed the Stevie Wonder song, originally written for Beck, here removed of all its funk to bludgeon that classic riff into the runout groove, complete with a drum roll that slows down to nothing.
The ultra-simple “Sweet Sweet Surrender” starts with acoustic guitar of all things, and we can blame Don Nix for the words on this one. (Pretty sure Gregg Alexander heard it too.) “Why Should I Care” has a terrific riff and double-tracked vocal constructed from prime ear candy that must have sounded great on a car radio. The wah-wah comes out for “Lose Myself With You”, which sounds a lot like the previous song but isn’t as good. (Somewhere Tommy Shaw files this away for “Too Much Time On My Hands”.) “Livin’ Alone” is more boogie from the same general cloth that takes way too long to finish, but fans will recognize the Beck-Ola tone. For a smooth closer, Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud” (also revived later that year by Todd Rundgren) is given a mostly reverent treatment, except for Beck’s ill-conceived idea to use his airplane-taking-off effect right before the big solo.
Beck, Bogert & Appice is a little dumb but still fun, and as with most of Beck’s projects, the group didn’t last. Those seeking even more of what this power trio had to offer could shell out the bucks for a double live album recorded and released only in—where else?—Japan. It’s worth seeking out if you like the talkbox, drum solos, singers haranguing audiences about their lack of enthusiasm and moral casualness, and for Beck’s brief rendition of the Beverly Hillbillies theme.

Beck, Bogert & Appice Beck, Bogert & Appice (1973)—3

Friday, February 2, 2018

David Crosby 2: Oh Yes I Can

After pulling the best survival stunt next to that of Keith Richards, one wants to truly root for David Crosby. The least prolific partner in the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young law firm, his comparatively miniscule output can be put down partially to years of drug addiction and subsequent incarceration. Giving only two songs to the American Dream project, one hoped that he was holding out the really good stuff for his own solo album, which arrived only 17 years after his previous one.
Unfortunately, most of the music on Oh Yes I Can would have the superfan saying, “Oh, no you don’t.” The arrangements, performed by the usual suspects, still reek of the worst ‘80s adult contemporary touches. “Drive My Car”, which had been sitting around since the previous decade, has average lyrics and showcases David Lindley in an uncharacteristic shredding frame. “Melody” sounds like a Star Search audition, but at least “Monkey And The Underdog” has some decent metaphors along the lines of “Cowboy Movie”. “In The Wide Ruin” is a pretty piano piece written by Craig Doerge and Judy Henske with nice harmonies, but hits an awful cliché when the drums kick in. (Bette Midler would have nailed this one.) Finally, “Tracks In The Dust”, a simple, slow strum performed with virtuoso “new edge” guitarist Michael Hedges and Graham Nash, is exactly what we want, and right in his wheelhouse.
Such a beautiful moment is splashed away by “Drop Down Mama”, a prime example of white man blues hollered badly. Bonnie Raitt does not contribute the dirty slide guitar to that, but she does harmonize on “Lady Of The Harbor”, a love song to the Statue of Liberty that very much in line with predicts the sound with which she would soon take VH-1 by storm. “Distances” begins with some of those lovely wordless melodies, and while it would be better without lyrics, it does follow some of those unpredictable changes we’d been waiting for. “Flying Man” is one of those “songs with no words”, but it’s sung over a generic pop-jazz track led by Larry Carlton, making the vocals practically inconsequential. The title track does have some potential, going through inspired tempo changes, but singing “I’m sitting at my piano” while that instrument plays is just a little lazy. It’s not much better in the next verse where he’s literally sitting in his kitchen, especially considering that it’s supposed to be a declaration of commitment to his one true love. (And in case you didn’t know, “fire and ice makes water.”)
The album closes with a striking re-arrangement of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” by Michael Hedges, possibly the most political moment next to “Tracks In The Dust”, and again, underscoring just what this album could have been. Sadly, Oh Yes I Can is not a demonstration of his grand return to form.

David Crosby Oh Yes I Can (1989)—2

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Robbie Robertson 4: Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy

Not that age should have any real bearing on the type of music anyone should attempt, but chances are anyone following Robbie Robertson’s career never thought, “I bet he’d sound amazing with some trip-hop beats behind him.”
Yet with Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy, that’s more or less what he did. Following along from the field experiments of Music For The Native Americans, Robbie continued exploring elements of music by the indigenous peoples of Canada, and collaborated with hip programmers Howie B. and Marius de Vries. The result is jarring, and not exactly cohesive.
While some of the tracks are fine without his vocals (still an acquired taste), when he does put himself at the forefront of the mix, we wish the extra dressing could be stripped away for the songs to breathe. “The Code Of Handsome Lake” and “Unbound” follow closest to the first two solo albums. The centerpiece of the album is arguably “Sacrifice”, which gives voice to convicted activist Leonard Peltier. Somehow the message is diluted by the samples from “One Step Beyond” on “Take Your Partner By The Hand”.
As a Robbie album, it fails. As a world fusion album, we’re not the ones to judge.

Robbie Robertson Contact From The Underworld Of Redboy (1998)—2

Friday, January 26, 2018

Mick Jagger 3: Wandering Spirit

With everything supposedly hunky dory in Stones land—mostly because we hadn’t heard otherwise—a new Mick Jagger solo album was a little surprising, but not when you consider it came on the heels of a Keith Richards solo album. Plus, given the less-than-legendary legacy of his first two works on his own, anything wrapped in yet another photo of Mick on an unmade bed—shirtless this time—couldn’t bode well.
However, Wandering Spirit defied expectations by being, shall we say, Stonesy. Perhaps we can thank co-producer Rick Rubin for that; most of the tracks involve guitars, bass, drums, and traditional keyboards. “Wired All Night”, “Out Of Focus”, “Don’t Tear Me Up”, “Put Me In The Trash”, “Mother Of A Man” are only missing Keith’s riffing and Charlie’s swing. And the few trips outside genre could hardly be called attempts at sounding contemporary. Even “Sweet Thing”, with its sampled vinyl crackle and falsetto, has enough funk to rock. The title track has a terrific rockabilly feel, updated for shredding. “Hang On To Me Tonight” approaches lonesome country, but it’s bested by far by “Evening Gown”, which should have been a Stones track with Keith harmonies.
In addition, some covers divert from the all-Mick show. “Think” is a revved-up take of a song most might have known from James Brown, while “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” is a Stax tune given a slight Jamaican feel in the vocal. But given the length of the album, we could have done without “Use Me”, which doesn’t add anything to Bill Withers’ classic original except bring Lenny Kravitz in to take a few verses.
The album’s strong enough to keep you interested all the way through the last two, wholly unexpected tracks. The minor-key “Angel In My Heart” is accompanied by harpsichord and strings, of all things, then he sings “Handsome Molly” in a brogue, with only a fiddle by his side.
He didn’t tour behind it, and there wasn’t any real gimmick to the album, so Wandering Spirit was received well and soon forgotten. It’s too bad, since it remains a strong album—certainly the best one he’d done on his own to date—and deserves wider appreciation.

Mick Jagger Wandering Spirit (1993)—

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Doors 9: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine

Once the Doors were deemed finished, the powers that be valiantly attempted to preserve Jim Morrison’s legacy in rock. Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine presents a sprawling overview of the band’s work over two LPs, crammed to the gills with their biggest radio hits and album tracks. It nicely avoided anything already on 1970’s 13; while an obvious cash-in, it remained the “hit single” companion compilation, particularly if you wanted “Light My Fire”, “Touch Me”, “Hello I Love You” and so forth.
Weird Scenes represents each of the six studio albums, nearly equally, with the shortest shrift given to The Soft Parade. While that title track would have been welcome here, it’s place is perhaps taken by two then-unalbumized B-sides: “Who Scared You” from the Soft Parade era, and “You Need Meat (Don’t Go No Further)”, the flip of “Love Her Madly” featuring the imitable vocal stylings of Ray Manzarek.
Outside 1973’s The Best Of The Doors, which was released exclusively to meet the fleeting demand for quadrophonic sound, Weird Scenes and 13 sufficed. Then two things happened: “The End” was used in Apocalypse Now, and the salacious Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive kindled interest in the band among a generation who missed out on them the first time. Money was to be made, and confusion be damned.
1980’s Greatest Hits supplanted 13 by including two songs from L.A. Woman, but lost points for “Not To Touch The Earth” (the only explicable reason being the “I am the lizard king” lyric). 1985’s Classics went more for album tracks, but the same year’s double LP The Best Of The Doors retread both that and Greatest Hits. The ‘90s brought more interest via Oliver Stone’s movie, the soundtrack of which leaned on the idea of Jim as a poet. Greatest Hits was also expanded slightly for CD with a new cover. The new century started the wave all over again, with another sequence deemed The Best Of The Doors, and two different sets called The Very Best Of The Doors, none of which should be confused with Legacy: The Absolute Best, The Future Starts Here: The Essential Doors Hits, or The Platinum Collection.
Along with the same handful of songs included for the ninth or tenth time, some kind of rarity was always stuck in the middle of these sets to entice repeat consumers. The 2010 documentary When You’re Strange, for example, attempted to undo the myths perpetuated by Oliver Stone, and its companion CD mixed hits, poetry readings, and some live versions. It should also be no surprise that for all but three of these albums, Jim was the only guy depicted on the front cover. And only Singles, available as 20 replica 45s or a two-CD set (or a deluxe version containing a Blu-ray with the 1973 quad Best Of), touched on the music the other three made without him.
Each new set only underscored how solid Weird Scenes was, and remained. At 99 minutes, it was too long for a single CD, but the emergence of Record Store Day as a marketing ploy led to its reissue on vinyl in 2014, as well as a digital version and double-disc set, using the newest remasters and restored vocals. If you must have any, pick that up and 13.

The Doors Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine (1972)—4

Friday, January 19, 2018

Prince 6: Purple Rain

Of all the musicians to venture into films in that era, or in their careers, Prince seemed highly unlikely. Purple Rain was badly acted even then, but the performance sequences were convincing and enticing, and with the marketing tied into the accompanying album, Prince and the Revolution were suddenly very big deals. (Now we know better, but back then the Revolution were a real band, and they cooked.) Along with Born In The U.S.A.—and “Magic” by the CarsPurple Rain defined the summer of ‘84. A case could be made for The Boss, but only Prince got airplay on all the radio stations, whether Top 40, classic rock, or “urban contemporary”. Most of the songs became hit singles, and part of the common fabric. Quite simply, everybody in America dug him, from the city to suburbia.
And it still holds up today. Three decades on it’s easy enough to make fun of the lyrics to “When Doves Cry”, and even in the title track, but we defy anyone to resist “Let’s Go Crazy”. That crazy “dearly beloved” intro gives way to a track that rocks, mimed so precisely to open the movie. “Take Me With U” introduces the questionable vocal abilities of Apollonia, as well as his fascination with finger cymbals. Following mostly in order, “The Beautiful Ones” was recorded by Prince alone, and quite vivid given its placement in the film. The “Wendy? Yes Lisa” dialogue at the top of “Computer Blue” is what most people remember of the song, which always seemed incomplete, especially when one read the extra lyrics on the inner sleeve. Here again it becomes a setup for “Darling Nikki”, the infamous tune that introduced the world to Tipper Gore, and those of us with record players ruined our needles trying to decipher the backwards message at the end.
“When Doves Cry” was the striking preview to both the film and the album, with a video that acted as a trailer and featured the band, who don’t play on the song, and we’d still love to hear the removed bass line. The rest of the album slightly rejigs the live sequence that closes the movie, albeit with some overdubs. “I Would Die 4 U” sizzles, and “Baby I’m A Star” is bold (and also includes more backwards messages), but the title track absolutely had to end the album. It’s stellar in its simplicity, culminating in that fantastic solo that still rings even after the strange strings take over the end. And we can still hear the audience cheering. (Better yet, seek out the footage of the first-ever performance of the song that became the basis of the album track, with most of the brilliance already there.)
While forever tied to the movie, Purple Rain is not a soundtrack album per se, since you’d have to get the Time’s album for “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” (plus, arguably, Apollonia 6’s opus for “Sex Shooter”). Even though Prince was the writer and performer of those tracks, none were included when an expanded edition of the album finally appeared, but it did include a disc of vault items, including the full 12-minute “Computer Blue”, “Father’s Song” (a full recording of the piano piece quoted as the guitar solo in “Computer Blue”), and some other music from the era, although some of what was included dated from after the movie and album were released. An even more expanded set included a full disc of single edits, extended mixes and B-sides, including “Erotic City”, “17 Days”, “Another Lonely Christmas” and “God” (both in its original instrumental “Love Theme From Purple Rain” form and the re-recorded B-side with vocals).

Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain (1984)—4
2017 Deluxe Edition: same as 1984, plus 11 extra tracks (Deluxe Expanded Edition adds another 15 tracks, plus DVD)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Elton John 6: Madman Across The Water

Elton and Bernie were very busy in 1971, and the third LP was the best of all. The real follow-up to Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across The Water builds on the American influences without relying on any real theme or concept, save superior, mature songwriting.
Some of his best and certainly highly iconic songs load up side one. Everybody knows “Tiny Dancer” by now, or at least can associate it with the male star of Who’s The Boss. “Levon” is one of the most hauntingly moving songs about very little, other than to remind us that English is possibly the only language where Jesus is not used as a given name. Equally mysterious but less serious is the identity of “Razor Face”, although the wild accordion over the end ties in with the Band influence of the track before. Such a jaunty touch is a fake-out setup for the title track, with its vivid, almost cinematic arrangement matching the implicit horror in the lyrics. We particularly like the backwards effect on the acoustic guitar bridging the two halves. (Compared to the version recorded for Tumbleweed but shelved, they made the wise choice to redo it.)
Side two isn’t as immediately classic, but only because it has a lot to follow. “Indian Sunset” attempts to sum up the plight of the Native American. It’s a lovely production, and a stirring song, but the lyrics are what one might expect from a British kid who watched a lot of cowboy movies growing up. It’s a strange jump to “Holiday Inn”, their contribution to the “rock star on the road” genre, with that wonderful mandolin part. We’re guessing “Rotten Peaches” is the plaint of a man in prison, but the joyful accompaniment is such an odd juxtaposition with the words that it works. Speaking of odd, “All The Nasties” brings the choir heard earlier on the album to the fore, even given their own intro to the “oh my soul” mantra toward the end. (Nick Drake fans note: Robert Kirby was the arranger.) Something of a reaction to critics, its message is reinforced by the comparatively brief and extremely mournful “Goodbye”, which predicts future faux-classical pieces like “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word”.
All together, Madman Across The Water is solid, and we must mention Paul Buckmaster’s wonderful string arrangements throughout. In a fine example of “it is what it is”, there were apparently no outtakes of interest. While most of his other albums from his first decade in the business have been reissued and expanded multiple times, this one remains as it always was: nine songs, and that’s it. Amen.

Elton John Madman Across The Water (1971)—

Friday, January 12, 2018

Humble Pie 5: Rockin' The Fillmore

While Humble Pie remained relatively obscure throughout the U.S., somebody had the bright idea to record their residency at New York’s Fillmore East, and then release a double live album from it. (This in a calendar year that already saw similar albums from the Allmans to Zappa.)
But most bands rose to the occasion at the Fillmore, particularly when their diehard fans went to every show, and the Pie truly kick their butts on Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore. Building on the volume of Rock On, which they were supposed to be promoting. Starting with the swapped vocals on “Four Day Creep”, it’s a punishing plow through “I’m Ready” and “Stone Cold Fever”. Every track is loud and most are pretty long, two even taking up a side each—one of those is an incredibly slow but fascinating drag through Dr. John’s “I Walk On Gilded Splinters”, the other an equally muddy “Rollin’ Stone”. Side four picks up the pace, and is given over to two songs usually associated with Ray Charles, “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and the terrific “I Don’t Need No Doctor”.
Mysteries remain about the album, such as why they needed a two-part title, and if they went through all the trouble about including special labels on two of the sides, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have them be photos from the actual show, rather than an outdoor concert somewhere far from the venue being commemorated? Then, over 40 years later, the upstart Omnivore label managed to curate a set of all four shows from this stint, which spelled out which tracks came from which shows. As it turns out, “Stone Cold Fever” was played only the once, and all the sets began with the same four songs, close to the same length, though there was a little stretching on the encores, which varied. Unfortunately, Steve Marriott’s patter didn’t always vary, and the third time he describes “Gilded Splinters” as his favorite boogie isn’t as funny as the first. But if you loved the original album, the complete set is a must.

Humble Pie Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore (1971)—

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Faces 3: A Nod Is As Good As A Wink

While Every Picture Tells A Story rocks with acoustic instruments, anyone who longed to hear Rod Stewart with some voltage beneath him needed only wait a few months before another Faces album. From its live cover shot and cheeky title, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse, positively crackles.
Yet while Rod swaggers his way through “Miss Judy’s Farm”—just one of the tracks here that refuses to stick to an ABAB rhyme scheme—over those terrific Ian McLagan electric piano licks, Ronnie Lane gets his share of the spotlight too. “You’re So Rude” is a randy slice of afternoon delight, with blasts of organ and sound effects pushing the story along. Lest one think it’s all silly, “Love Lives Here” brings on the heartbreak, and while Mick Jagger would never admit to stealing the mood for “Fool To Cry”, he was wise not to borrow the harpsichord. Ronnie returns for the aftermath of the relationship—in a pub, naturally—on “Last Orders Please”, and whatever sadness Rod had two songs earlier is well gone by the groupie abuse in “Stay With Me”.
Side two begins, out of character, with the melancholy “Debris”. Sung by Ronnie, with Rod helping out on the choruses, what sounds like another sad love song turns out to be memories of his dad. It’s very sweet, but unfortunately followed by a rather tepid rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that eventually picks up, but the lead guitar stays stuck in the Leslie speaker. The fun returns on “Too Bad”, another funny tale of Life on the Road that could have taken place earlier in their careers or that week. And fun as “That’s All You Need”, it too doesn’t make sense, from going about remembering an estranged brother, to the guy showing up mid-track for “a cup of coke” and steel drums taking the album to the spindle.
But we don’t listen to Faces albums for deep thoughts, and that’s why A Nod Is As Good As A Wink is just plain fun. Besides, it’s always nice to hear Ronnie Lane break up the monotony, isn’t it?

Faces A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse (1971)—