Friday, June 29, 2018

Replacements 9: All For Nothing

For years, rumors of a comprehensive set of outtakes from the Replacements’ time on the Twin/Tone label was said to be in the works, along with a rumor that such a thing couldn’t happen because Paul Westerberg stole the masters and dumped them all in one of Minnesota’s thousand lakes. Whatever the true story, fans got something of a gift with All For Nothing/Nothing For All, a double-CD set that offered four songs from each of the Sire albums on one disc, and 18 rare or unreleased tracks on the other. The cover art, seemingly depicting a sinking ship, was apt, along with the photos of the boys destroying one of their unfortunate rented vans throughout the booklet and images of beer mugs and urinals on the discs themselves.
The “hits” disc, a mix of rockers and sensitive ones, is fine, though everyone will have their own favorites that were left out. The second disc offers nuggets that would please even hardcore collectors. Some had already been B-sides, and others have since been appended to reissues of the albums themselves, but the selection and chronological sequencing make for a decent album’s worth of tunes. Highlights include: an earlier version of “Can’t Hardly Wait”; the brief but blatant “Beer For Breakfast”; vocal and writing debuts from Chris Mars (“All He Wants To Do Is Fish”) and Tommy Stinson (“Satellite”); “Date To Church” with Tom Waits; a sleazy take on “Cruella De Ville” from a Disney compilation; “Like A Rolling Pin”, a hoarse parody of a certain Bob Dylan song supposedly committed to posterity in the presence of the man himself; and their definitive crash through The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet”. Stay tuned for the unlisted track at the end, a hilarious alternate version of “I Don’t Know”. (Also exciting for the mid-‘90s, these were enhanced CDs, with two music videos on each, accessible via the CD drive on computers. High tech!)

About a decade later, Rhino managed to grab the rights to the band’s Twin/Tone albums, and celebrated with a new compilation. Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? purported to offer “the best of the Replacements”, and the eight songs from the pre-Tim albums are excellent choices. (They even sound better.) All but six tracks from disc one of All For Nothing distill that period well, but the real cheese here are the two new recordings, the grand studio reunion of Paul, Tommy, and Chris (who didn’t play drums but sang, so they still count). Both “Message To The Boys” and “Pool & Dive” aren’t exactly lost classics, but drummer of choice Josh Freese, whom Paul had used on a solo album and Tommy knew from Guns N’ Roses, gets the wallop down to ensure the vibe is there.

The Replacements All For Nothing/Nothing For All (1997)—4
The Replacements Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?: The Best Of The Replacements (2006)—4

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Phil Collins 3: No Jacket Required

After years of slowly but surely dragging Genesis to the mainstream, Mr. Showbiz cashed in all his favors and got a major label push to get this into everyone’s house. No Jacket Required was so huge it didn’t even need “Easy Lover” (big hit duet with Philip Bailey the previous fall) or “Against All Odds” (a.k.a. “Take A Look At Me Now”, a movie theme song from a year earlier) or even “Separate Lives” (the so-called love theme from White Nights, a duet with Marilyn Martin, which came out that Xmas) to sell it. This thing was huge, even winning a Grammy. (We would be remiss if not mentioning Howard Jones’ hit remake of “No One Is To Blame” the following spring, featuring Phil on harmonies and boomy drums.)
Then, as now, there are exactly two songs we really, really like: the brooding “Long Long Way To Go”, which sounds most like his earliest solo experiments and features Sting on harmonies, and “Inside Out”, which sounds like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at half-speed, but works the simple theme well enough. It could almost pass for Genesis, even without the bridge that resembles “Taking It All Too Hard”.
The rest of the album is pure pop, heavy on the horns and synths, even further away from prog, with a distinct Prince influence on the more upbeat tunes (especially “Who Said I Would”). Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. And the public did, eating up all the singles and loving all the wacky videos. Whenever we hear any of those songs—and “Sussudio”, “One More Night”, and “Take Me Home” are still in heavy rotation on the local “lite” radio stations—we’re reminded of a scorchingly hot summer sitting in front of an air conditioner, matching the sweaty guy on the album cover. (Patton Oswalt knows what we’re talking about.) Drop the phrase “great! great sandwich” into any conversation and see which of your contemporaries notice. Be forewarned that anyone who doesn’t remember the video for “Don’t Lose My Number” will be utterly baffled by the aside.
The CD version of No Jacket Required, for those early adopters, offered an extra track in the way of “We Said Hello Goodbye”, a nice midtempo ballad with an extended, moderately lush prelude, though something of an afterthought following the anthemic qualities of “Take Me Home”. It was included in the same spot on all reissues, as well as the 21st century “Take A Look At Me Now” edition, the extra disc of which (cheekily labeled Extra Large Jacket Required) was loaded with live versions of nine songs on the album plus “Easy Lover”, all recorded in the ‘90s save one. Demos of three eventual album tracks, none very illuminating, round out the disc, while fanatics bemoaned the absence of the B-sides “The Man With The Horn” and “I Like The Way”, and anything from 1988’s 12"ers compilation of six extended remixes.

Phil Collins No Jacket Required (1985)—3
2016 “Take A Look At Me Now” edition: same as 1985, plus 13 extra tracks

Friday, June 22, 2018

Grateful Dead 9: Bear’s Choice

Before leaving Warner Bros. to start their own label, the Dead apparently owed one more record on their contract. Thus began a vault-scraping tradition and industry that would balloon in only 20 years’ time. History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) would soon be known by its subtitle for easier reference, “Bear” being the nickname of their friend Owsley Stanley, who used to mix their shows in between concocting barrelsful of high-grade LSD. Recorded at the Fillmore East shortly after they completed Workingman’s Dead, it provides a nice counterpart to that album and American Beauty, with an acoustic side and an electric side, all covers leaning towards blues save one.
Pigpen had died by the time the album was released, so it stands as something of a tribute to him. He opens the set with “Katie Mae”, sung and played solo on acoustic, with some good-natured crowd banter to boot. Bob Weir sings “Dark Hollow”, and Jerry Garcia answers with “I’ve Been All Around This World”, both showing their roots well. Things pick up for a fun run through “Wake Up Little Susie”, which the crowd seems to both recognize and appreciate. The only tune known at the time of release from a Dead album is “Black Peter”, played here more slowly and sadly than the album version.
Side two gives the band more time to jam, Pigpen singing lead on both tunes. “Smokestack Lightning” is an 18-minute exploration of their early jamming roots, while “Hard To Handle” is now best known as that song the Black Crowes did. (One wonders whether they were more familiar with the Otis Redding original or this one.)
While there was never an official Vol. 2, the fourth release in the eventual Dick’s Picks series presented further selections from the same shows, heavy on the jam, spread across three discs. The eventual expansion of Bear’s Choice itself added only one song from the same shows, along with three songs from the Fillmore West the week before. (Other shows from the same general period would fill installments in other vault series, with others just as likely to follow in due time.)

The Grateful Dead History Of The Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) (1973)—
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Dick’s Picks Volume Four (1996)
     • Dick's Picks Volume Sixteen (2000)
     • Download Series, Volume 2: 1/18/70 (2005)
     • Download Series, Family Dog At The Great Highway 2/4/70 (2005)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 6: San Francisco 12/20/69 & St. Louis 2/2/70 (2013)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 10: Thelma, Los Angeles, CA 12/12/69 (2014)
     • Dave's Picks Volume 19: Honolulu Civic Auditorium, Honolulu, HI, 1/23/70 (2016)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Joni Mitchell 18: Hits and Misses

Amazingly, Joni had been in the business for nearly 30 years before somebody said, “Let’s do a hits album.” To which she replied, “Sure, as long as you put a ‘misses’ album out too.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Hits features a comedic cover shot of Joni lying in a street, presumably where the truck ran her over, whereas Misses depicts her drawing her chalk outline on the pavement—as she said, mooning the camera. Both albums were released simultaneously, and considering that the Hits volume was stacked with songs from Her First Four and Court And Spark, songs well known either in her renditions or in popular covers, it far outsold the sampler of lesser-known tracks that made up Misses. As something of a carrot for the fans, Hits begins with her only recorded version of “Urge For Going”, previously available only as a B-side. And while the program dwells mostly in that early era, “Chinese CafĂ©/Unchained Melody” and “Come In From The Cold” nicely represent the ‘80s and ‘90s respectively.

While Hits was a no-brainer, Misses rewards anyone brave enough to dive in. This set is not programmed chronologically at all, flying back and forth among the decades, with a slight emphasis on the Geffen years and “difficult” albums like The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. That said, fans familiar with the earliest albums will recognize “The Arrangement”, “A Case Of You”, and the title tracks from For The Roses and Hejira, the latter of which closes the set magnificently. They’re not all winners; later selections like “Nothing Can Be Done” and “Dog Eat Dog” are not our personal choices to advertise the lesser-loved albums, and the programmed sound of the newer tracks jars with the more pristine acoustic material, but if any of it gets people to dig deeper, it’s all good. The woman is, after all, an absolute treasure.

Joni Mitchell Hits (1996)—4
Joni Mitchell
Misses (1996)—3

Friday, June 15, 2018

Paul Simon 8: Hearts And Bones

A professional reunion with Art Garfunkel didn’t last long enough to result in a new Simon & Garfunkel album, so the album that did come out was credited to Paul Simon alone. Hearts And Bones was well-received critically, but its quality didn’t ring too many cash registers.
These days it’s easy to see why, as the tunes weren’t exactly radio-friendly, and after an exhausting tour with Artie he wasn’t about to go back on the road. Even his voice sounds weary on these tracks. Plus, his never-ending quest for inspiration via non-traditional sounds meant an unfortunate reliance on the trends of the time. “When Numbers Get Serious” and “Cars Are Cars” would both benefit from less busy, non-contemporary arrangements. Neither version of “Think Too Much” is very appealing, though the one labeled “(b)”, which comes first is less irritating, its calypso arrangement notwithstanding, than the faster “(a)” take.
However, the good outweighs the bad here. “Allergies” has a vocoder-type effect and electronic handclaps that still complement the fretful lyrics, as does the high-speed guitar solo from Al DiMeola. The title track and “Train In The Distance” are both pretty, understated reflections on his then-current wife and his first wife, respectively, both delivered with universal sentiments that make them gems in the catalog. “Song About The Moon” is something of a grower, with a “Slip Slidin’ Away”-style lope and a simple lyric espousing simplicity. On the other hand, “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” is supposed to be a cipher, stretching to connect the surreal painter with classic doo-wop combo references. It could go nowhere else on the album, so closing with “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (debuted two years earlier in Central Park) is not only reverent, but gains a mournful coda for strings with winds composed by Philip Glass, ending abruptly for optimal effect.
Ever since Hearts And Bones came out, fans have wondered how the songs would have sounded with Artie singing on them. (A few had been tried on their tour, but any Garfunkel contributions to the sessions were left aside during the final mix.) Much as we’d like to hear those for history’s sake, we’re just as interested in hearing stripped-down versions of the more trying songs. The eventual reissue included four bonus tracks along those lines; outside of “Shelter Of Your Arms”, which shares some lyrics with “When Numbers Get Serious”, the demos of “Train In The Distance” and “Rene And Georgette” sound pretty close to the final cuts, while “Johnny Ace” has a resolved ending on guitar. And it’s still a sad song.

Paul Simon Hearts And Bones (1983)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Brian Eno 13: Nerve Net and My Squelchy Life

If there’s a holy grail in the Eno catalog, My Squelchy Life was it. Said to be a pop album, his first real solo vocal release since the late ‘70s, it was announced, delayed, and disappeared. In its place arrived Nerve Net, an edgy, off-putting set that didn’t so much break new ground as walk over what his disciples had done in his absence. Neither industrial nor techno, it struggled to catch fire with new fans or old.
For most of the album, vocals are used more for atmosphere than lyrical content. “Wire Shock” is designed for the dance floor, as is “What Actually Happened?”, wherein the vocoder disguises a narrative of sexual assault. “Fractal Zoom” and “Ali Click” were each subject to multiple remixes, the latter likely due to its use of the “Manchester beat” via EMF.
And therein lies part of our problem with the album, and the time in which it appeared: the remix. All of a sudden there wasn’t a definite version of anything. Every track with any kind of beat was given over to some engineer who would rejig it into something different yet the same. It made an expensive hobby even more so when a fan was driven to track down everything. It also made for a confusing listening experience when an album would include another version of a track, as Nerve Net does. After “Distributed Being” featuring Robert Fripp and John Paul Jones, the album ends with not just “Web”, a six-minute drone, but an even longer alternate mix, together pushing the program needlessly over an hour.
But in this century, when everything old is new again, the world can re-assess Nerve Net in the form of a deluxe expanded CD that includes—ta-da!—My Squelchy Life as the bonus disc. The album wasn’t completely lost, of course; three of the tracks made it to Nerve Net (one under a different title), others were on CD singles and the occasional soundtrack, while a further five were a selling point for 1993’s Vocal box. And now, dare we say, it’s easier to appreciate Nerve Net as part of the bigger picture—well, sort of. “My Squelchy Life” and “Juju Space Jazz” are just as off-kilter here, while “The Roil, The Choke” emerges better from a weird spoken piece into a lush, harmonic treat. “I Fall Up”, with its insistent “more volts! I’m sucking the juice from the generator!” hook is a great opener, and “The Harness” is an extremely melodic follower. The “moon piano” solo piece called “Decentre”, labeled “Appendix” on the Nerve Net sleeve, turns out to have been “Little Apricot” on Squelchy. Still, tracks like “Tutti Forgetti” and “Everybody’s Mother” are just as jarring as what did come out on Nerve Net.
Taken together, these albums now present a more satisfying follow-up to the collaboration with John Cale of only a few years before. But it also shows that in the ‘90s, Eno was more content working with sounds, not songs, and would rather let the likes of U2 and James use his talents for theirs.

Brian Eno Nerve Net (1992)—
2014 expanded edition: same as 1992, plus 11 extra tracks CD

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jeff Beck 6: Blow By Blow

It took him long enough, but Jeff Beck finally figured out that he could record albums without a singer. Blow By Blow was recorded with a young rhythm section and Max Middleton from the second Jeff Beck Group.
The sound is a departure from the heavy rock of earlier Beck albums, leaning more on funk and now sounding more like fusion, beginning with “You Know What I Mean”, a James Brown strut filtered through the new decade. Especially notable on an album produced by George Martin, the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” gets a nutty approach, with a reggae groove and, to help identify the song, a few lines “sung” through a talkbox effect usually associated with Peter Frampton. It’s a sound that seems to suggest the title of the next track, “Constipated Duck”, which doesn’t sound like one. For such a great title, it’s fairly brief before fading into “Air Blower” (called “AIR Blower” on pre-CD pressings, we assume as a nod to the studio where the album was recorded), an uptempo jam that slows down dramatically towards the end, leading into the extremely jazzy “Scatterbrain”, a furious fusion with tight precision and even a sympathetic string arrangement.
Stevie Wonder dominates the start of side two, first with “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” played beautifully and mournfully by Beck, and the highly funky “Thelonius”, with the man himself on clavinet (and more constipated duck sounds). After Max Middleton’s “Freeway Jam”, with its catchy hook and breezy groove, it’s back to a more dramatic sound. “Diamond Dust” is a haunting piece in 5/4, the guitar, piano, and strings complementing each other on a beautiful melody. (Interestingly, the song was written by a guitarist in a band featuring most of the former members of the second Jeff Beck Group.)
It’s not easy to write about an instrumental album, particularly one where the nuances are more abstract. Still, Blow By Blow finally shows Jeff Beck thriving, successfully making his way on his own terms. Not quite jazz, certainly not rock, just Jeff Beck.

Jeff Beck Blow By Blow (1975)—

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Toad The Wet Sprocket 5: In Light Syrup

The ‘90s saw the explosion of movie soundtracks boasting contributions from the dozens of alterna-rock bands then jockeying for attention. It was a cheap way for the usual labels to front-load their retail cash-ins without having to license expensive tracks from elsewhere, and even when a movie didn’t do that well, the bands’ fans would have scarf the CDs up for that rare track they didn’t have.
At the same time, certain television shows had reached obsessive levels amongst their viewership that even they managed to inspire “soundtrack” albums. Thusly, devotees of shows like Friends, Ally McBeal, and even The X-Files could proudly display their allegiances with a simple jewel case.
These types of marketing partly explain how Toad The Wet Sprocket, after four albums with moderate sales, managed to amass enough tracks to fill up an album-length rarities compilation as a stopgap whilst recording their next album. Cheekily titled In Light Syrup, in a nod to the nutritional content might find in a can of fruit cocktail, it’s a decent set of soundtrack cast-offs, bonus tracks from CD singles (we used to call them B-sides), and a few nuggets previously known only to fan club members who treasured the occasional cassettes the band sent out.
These weren’t throwaways so much as songs they really did work on, but felt didn’t fit with the rest of the songs that were released on albums. (Or maybe they couldn’t find better titles than “All In All”, “All Right”, and “All She Said” once “All I Want” became their hit.) The soundtrack songs come first, and we do recall “Brother” and “Good Intentions” getting local airplay. Things get interesting once we dig deeper, such as the mild XTC influence on “Hobbit On The Rocks” and the even goofier “Janitor”. Musically, “So Alive” and “Chicken” sound like early U2, and other songs give more attention to Todd Nichols, who plays second fiddle even here.
Most of the tunes on In Light Syrup were recorded in the vicinity of Fear and Dulcinea, so there is a consistency in the sound. So while it’s very much for the fans trying to play catch-up, it’s also a worthy addition to the catalog. As the better mop-up sets should be.

Toad The Wet Sprocket In Light Syrup (1995)—3

Friday, June 1, 2018

CSN 5: Live It Up

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any worse, Crosby, Stills & Nash managed to underperform to the least of their senses, if not their abilities. The embarrassment of Live It Up begins with the cover art, depicting giant hot dogs being roasted on the moon. That should be enough to keep the album far from the cash register, but people bought it anyway. Whether they enjoyed the noisy, unsuited production values remains an equal mystery.
The liner notes helpfully pinpoint the dates each of the songs were committed to posterity; for the most part the recordings came immediately in the wake of the underwhelming release of American Dream, proving that they didn’t pay attention to their own bad reviews. The hideous title track was contributed by constant sideman Joe Vitale and recorded as far back as 1986, which is only part of the problem, but it’s followed “If Anybody Had A Heart”, penned by buddies J.D. Souther and Danny Kortchmar, supposedly featuring Roger McGuinn on 12-string, and first heard over the closing credits of that same year’s About Last Night (aka Demi Moore’s finest nude scenes before the implants). Stills steps forward with two polar opposites. “Tomboy” is another Latin-tinged drag, while “Haven’t We Lost Enough” is a very appealing and welcome acoustic tune, even though it was written with the singer from REO Speedwagon. Crosby and Nash team up on “Yours And Mine”, which pleads for someone, someone to think of the children. (Guest star: Branford Marsalis on sax, what else?)
After that downer, Stills and Nash bring back the “carnivále!” atmosphere for the unnecessarily parenthesed “(Got To Keep) Open”, with Bruce Hornsby on piano and accordion somewhere in there. Nash thought well enough of the drummer from Go West to spearhead the inclusion of “Straight Line” (guest star: Peter Frampton!), followed by his own “House Of Broken Dreams”. “Arrows” is a Crosby collaboration with buddy Michael Hedges, who doesn’t appear on the track, perhaps to make room for Branford Marsalis again. This tune would have been a low light on any Hedges album, which might explain how it got here instead. Finally, there’s “After The Dolphin”, which is not about the endangered mammal for once, but refers to a pub destroyed during World War I. A different angle for an anti-war statement, but badly tied to a synth program that jars with the canned radio reports.
So that’s one decent song out of ten, and surprisingly, the best thing Stills did all decade. The rest of Live It Up is beyond defense, and deserves to be buried.

Crosby, Stills & Nash Live It Up (1990)—1