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