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