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