Friday, May 24, 2024

Frank Zappa 52: Playground Psychotics

After preparing and releasing twelve hours of music collated from his entire career, Frank’s next big project was dedicated to the Flo & Eddie era of the band. Playground Psychotics combined field recordings with concert excerpts to provide a widescreen portrait of what he called “A Typical Day On The Road”.

Each disc starts with several minutes of indexed dialogue captured by his trusty portable tape recorder, capturing the band and roadies in conversation on planes, in hotels, and backstage. One segment is an interview with the manager of the hotel where the infamous “mud shark incident” took place. “Diptheria Blues” is a dressing room jam featuring Aynsley Dunbar on whiskey bottle. Much of the humor, onstage and off, is clearly visual, so lovers of in-jokes and bathroom humor will be in heaven. Things get truly nutty when we get to hear tape recordings featuring playbacks of recording captured on other band members’ tape recorders, culminating in the closing segment on disc two. Some of this was excerpted from the videotape The True Story Of 200 Motels, briefly documenting the cause and result of Jeff Simmons quitting the band, not wanting to be fodder for Frank’s thesis at the expense of his musicianship.

The musical excerpts are far more interesting, with further songs from the Rainbow Theater show that ended with Frank being knocked off stage, which we don’t get to hear here. While the Pauley Pavilion is listed as another source, the only music heard from that show is a short “Divan” segment of what would become “Sofa”. Instead, much of the music comes from the Fillmore stint, including older songs and a thirty-minute “Billy The Mountain” (cobbled together from two shows) that’s actually listenable. One of the key selling points of this album outside the Zappa faithful is an alternate mix (and edit) of what Beatle fans knew as side four of John & Yoko’s Some Time In New York City, documenting their guest appearance with the Mothers. Despite being given such new song titles as “Aaawk” and “A Small Eternity With Yoko Ono”, “Well” is still the only segment of true musical appeal.

Because of the anthropological approach, Playground Psychotics will be mostly of interest to fanatics who can stomach Flo & Eddie. While cramming several months of material into two CDs is no small feat, a larger context was certainly needed. Sure enough, the band’s two sets at Carnegie Hall in October 1971 were released in a four-CD package forty years later, in decent-sounding mono and including a performance by the doo-wop combo and support act The Persuasions. (Carnegie Hall was reissued a little over eight years later as a three-disc set that omitted the Persuasions segment.) Hearing the transitions and dynamics as played shows just how hot the band was, but you also have to endure the vocalists’ attempts at humor. “Magdalena” is even more repulsive here, and 15 minutes are devoted to “The Mud Shark”. There’s a more complete “Divan” suite (including “Stick It Out”, eight years before Joe’s Garage) with lots of four-letter words in English and German. Beyond that, “King Kong” runs a half an hour to accommodate solos—though it abandons the 3/8 meter after the first minute or so—and “Billy The Mountain” is now up to 47 minutes.

That was all well and good, but connoisseurs would be even more sated ten years after that by The Mothers 1971. This eight-CD set encompassed all four unedited Fillmore sets (including John & Yoko, unexpurgated) and the complete Rainbow show, with another sixteen songs from Scranton and Harrisburg in between to present a sort of virtual concert. With so many repeats of the material, “Billy The Mountain” emerges as a major if silly work, and we can almost start to appreciate the musicality of the “Shove It Right In” suite; it’s just too bad that the lyrics are so puerile. If you want to hear a ribald take on “My Boyfriend’s Back”, here’s your chance. Turns out Don Preston only played on the encores at the Fillmore, which certainly helped cool Frank’s otherwise petulant mood. Don’s fully on board at the Rainbow, leading the opening “Zanti Serenade”, extended for another ten minutes here. “Wonderful Wino” is still in the set, and the encore was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, after which we can actually hear Frank hitting the concrete floor.

Frank Zappa/The Mothers Playground Psychotics (1992)—2
Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention
Carnegie Hall (2011)—
The Mothers
The Mothers 1971 (2022)—

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Nilsson 8: Nilsson Schmilsson

The world was finally ready for Harry Nilsson, and so was he. Hooked up with rising producer Richard Perry, who’d brought Barbra Streisand firmly into the present-day, they decamped to London and recruited such Beatle-centric aces as Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, and Gary Wright to create Nilsson Schmilsson. The blurry photo of a distinctly non-sexy photo of the bathrobe-clad artiste holding a hash pipe in front of an open refrigerator notwithstanding, this was the pinnacle of his pop journey.

Still, that cover photo nicely sets up the jaunty “Gotta Get Up”, complete with some in-context dreams, before canned car noises continue the story in “Driving Along”, which provides further chance for observation. Despite the optimistic sound of those tracks, a cover of “Early In The Morning”, accompanied by solely by a pawed organ, suggests our hero is stuck somehow. Suddenly it’s hours later and “The Moonbeam Song” has us pondering not only the skies but “bits of crap”. Horns weren’t a new thing on Nilsson albums thus far, but Jim Horn’s soulful arrangement on “Down” is firmly contemporary.

While side one is short, it’s a strong record so far, but side two is where everything goes into the stratosphere. It took Harry’s vision to turn Badfinger’s “Without You” from a middling album track to a soaring plaint, and the template for everyone thereafter. He follows it with the goofy “Coconut”, a song made for the Muppets if there ever was one. Following a sprightly take on Shirley & Lee’s “Let The Good Times Roll”, “Jump Into The Fire” doubles down on the one-chord challenge of “Coconut” for seven minutes, pounding the riff into submission over an audibly detuned bass while Henry Hill watches out for helicopters. The mildly mewling “I’ll Never Leave You” provides a mildly paranoid ending, but when you consider that it was left over from The Point!, it makes more sense.

If anything made Harry a household name, Nilsson Schmilsson was it. But then he had something to live up to, which was an impossible task. Still, he should have been proud of it. (The eventual expanded CD included some interesting bonuses: a “Without You” that’s even more overwrought in Spanish; “Lamaze”, a Smile-sounding track that dissolves into laughter after a recitation; a 1968 take of “Gotta Get Up” still in vaudeville mode; an alternate “Moonbeam”; and two songs that would be reworked on future albums.)

Nilsson Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)—
2004 CD reissue: same as 1971, plus 6 extra tracks

Friday, May 17, 2024

Guns N’ Roses 2: Lies

By the end of 1988, tapes (and CDs) of Geffen catalog number 24148 sold hourly. It seemed every kid and their older siblings had to have Appetite For Destruction—along with Metallica’s …And Justice For All—and the posters, pins, T-shirts, and stickers sold pretty well too. Soon enough, another Geffen catalog number (24198) was flying out of stores alongside its elder brother. GN’R Lies was something of a stopgap, a glorified EP and initially priced accordingly.

The “live” side ran only 13 minutes, and replicated the now-rare Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP from 1986, put out while the band was prepping Appetite. These were actually demos spiced up with canned audience noise, but most young listeners were fooled. “Reckless Life” is pretty snotty, as is the cover of Rose Tattoo’s “Nice Boys”. Somebody’s honking a sax on “Move To The City”, which swamps the swagger of this otherwise lame song, but Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” is a fairly accurate demonstration of their roots. Axl’s profane intro proves he didn’t understand the song’s lyrics.

The second side of all new acoustic-based tracks put them well ahead of not only the Unplugged trend but the competition, proving they really were musically adept. “Patience” is the first surprise, since pretty much nobody was whistling on songs then, and Axl sang most of it straight, saving the yowl until the coda. “Used To Love Her” is a poorly landed joke, but it’s still catchy as heck, somewhat descended from the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. The revamp of “You’re Crazy” is startling and very successful, slowed down and funky, but still edgy. “One In A Million” is the tune that pissed off everybody with a conscience, as it railed equally against law enforcement, foreigners, and minorities. It’s got more whistling and some fuzz guitar, and the portions of the song that don’t offend—like the backing track and about half of the lyrics—are actually pretty good. Instead, Axl was all about making statements, and the backlash was such that the song was pointedly left off the deluxe expansions of Appetite For Destruction three decades later, though the song remains available. Not for the last time would Axl torpedo any respect the band garnered.

Side two is what makes Lies worth keeping, though the mixed messages in the music as well as all over the tabloid-style cover prevented them from gaining more respect. Yet at this point they pretty much ruled the roost, so much so that every wannabe band made sure to include power ballads on their next albums.

Guns N’ Roses GN’R Lies (1988)—

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Ringo Starr 7: Ringo The 4th

The regal title was supposed to be punny—this was Ringo’s fourth album of modern material, suggesting that Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups Of Blues (and of course, Blast From Your Past) didn’t count. But Ringo The 4th was actually a departure, as he eschewed the all-star (read: ex-Beatle or related) help and let producer Arif Mardin run the proceedings. There are still tons of top-line session players, though he did play the drums, augmented by Steve Gadd. He even co-wrote six of the songs with buddy Vini Poncia. But it was 1977, and that’s how we got a disco album.

“Drowning In The Sea Of Love”, a six-year-old hit for Joe Simon, gets the Philly soul approach, with the backing vocalists mixed as high as Ringo. They also dominate “Tango All Night”, which was actually released as a single in Argentina; when he intones “I-yi-yi,” you’ll be inclined to agree with the sentiment. “Wings” is one of the originals, and while it kinda rocks, we wonder whether Paul McCartney’s band had any influence on the title. His mopey delivery is just too much for “Gave It All Up”, a litany of life’s disappointments that somehow still has a happy ending. The line about sitting “with a couple of beers” is unfortunately believable, and the coda sports a motif stolen from a Bee Gees song from the year before. “Out On The Streets” manages to pick up the pace, but it’s still faceless, up until the very odd closing rap.

He gives his all for “Can She Do It Like She Dances”, but it’s still embarrassing to endure. While “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” has nothing on Robert Palmer’s version, it actually fits Ringo okay, again, until he starts extemporizing over the fade. “It’s No Secret” is an inoffensive slice of yacht rock, and “Gypsies In Flight” is an even slower variation on the same melody. Finally, “Simple Love Song” wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t sound so much like “Philadelphia Freedom”.

Truly, if Ringo was his best album, Ringo The 4th is barely 25% as good, or as successful. His cachet was sinking fast, and the label didn’t pick up his option. And to think only three years before he was the hottest ex-Beatle on the charts.

Ringo Starr Ringo The 4th (1977)—2

Friday, May 10, 2024

David Crosby 9: Here If You Listen

Enjoying the continued collaboration with Michael League, David Crosby kept up his creative run to work with him again—plus two women who’d sung on one song on the Lighthouse album—for his fourth album in five years’ time. (Yes, he actually doubled his output.) He even went so far as to credit Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and League in that order on the cover of Here If You Listen, albeit under his much larger name, but still. Age did not affect the man’s gift.

The album truly is a collaboration, with everyone either contributing to the songwriting or providing it on their own. Voices blend everywhere, and while his is the most noticeable, the performers are serving the music, not Crosby. Just as he was able to prove in CPR, he does thrive when he’s in a band. With one exception, the quartet provides all the instrumentation, and none of those include percussion of any kind.

“Glory” showcases each vocalist in a lush but not overprocessed mix; indeed, the production is pristine throughout this album. “Vagrants Of Venice” sports a circular riff from Becca and collaborative, poetic lyrics. “1974” is one of two vintage demos newly amended here; wordless vocals from presumably that year scat over a trademark strum before the others join in to fill out the track. Snarky Puppy pianist Bill Laurance supplies the basis for “Your Own Ride”, wherein Crosby directly addresses his mortality inside a song for his youngest son. The lyrically minimalistic “Buddha On A Hill” is most notable for supplying the album title, which is frankly repeated way too many times, but the combination guitar and vocal solo is striking.

Becca set a Jane Tyson Clement poem to her own music for “I Am No Artist”, an eyebrow-raising claim considering Crosby’s history, but it’s not his song. “1967” is the other augmented vintage demo, his familiar “dun-dun” placeholders overlaid with three repeated lines of antiwar prose, fading on hammer-ons a la Michael Hedges. (And yes, we’d love to hear more demos like this.) Crosby alone supplied the lyrics for “Balanced On A Pin”, another subtle meditation on mortality and potential, while League takes the lead on the feminist “Other Half Rule”. Given all that’s come so far, Willis’s “Janet” is a jarring funk detour, and the cover of “Woodstock” is a vocal distillation of Joni’s original and the CSNY cover, but more along the lines of the former.

That sort of thing works better as a concert highlight than an album track. Sure enough, the combo played a short tour in support of the album, one night of which was commemorated on a CD and DVD four years later, and which ends with that very cover. The set is pulled mostly from the new one and Lighthouse, with an early detour to Stevens’ “Regina” from one of her solo albums, and a smattering of jazzier Croz classics. “What Are Their Names” is a minute-long a capella snippet, but “Déjà Vu” is stretched to ten minutes. Throughout the program he’s in excellent voice and having a great time, and it’s clear their natural-sounding blend was not a studio concoction.

David Crosby Here If You Listen (2018)—3
David Crosby & The Lighthouse Band
Live At The Capitol Theater (2022)—3

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Graham Nash 8: Over The Years

For no reason we can fathom, except maybe that the oldest song was turning fifty, Graham Nash decided to put together an anthology of his work. Over The Years… consisted of two discs—one of the album tracks we all know, and the other with demo versions of eight of the songs, plus seven others.

The first disc is enjoyable by itself. Most of it features Crosby, Stills, and sometimes Young, and from the fertile four-year period that straddled the turn of the ‘70s. Starting with “Marrakesh Express”, there are no real surprises or eye-raisers. Two of the five Songs For Beginners tracks are “previously unreleased mixes” for those who notice such things. Just one song comes from the ‘80s, and the disc ends with “Myself At Last” from his most recent album.

The demos disc is mostly previously unreleased, and provides an alternative view of most of the same period. These aren’t the lo-fi cassette variety we often get with demos, but studio-quality recordings. Beginning again with “Marrakesh Express”, it continues chronologically but still doesn’t get past 1972 until the last three songs. Each track is denoted with not only the year, but the city where it was recorded. Generally the demos aren’t too different from the final product, but there are some rarities. There’s “Horses Through A Rainstorm”, recorded by both the Hollies and CSNY but not released until decades later by either of them. The intricacies of “Pre-Road Downs” turn out to be built-in, which is unexpected, just as the piano on “Wind On The Water” is better than we thought him capable. (“Just A Song Before I Go” is another surprise on piano.) “Man In The Mirror” sports an almost jaunty intro that went unused, and “I Miss You” and “You’ll Never Be The Same”—both from Wild Tales—actually work better here. “Wasted On The Way” features Stephen Stills and Timothy B. Schmit, just like the album version would.

But for the repetition, Over The Years… nicely recaps what people like about Graham Nash. It also says something about his output that he seems to have very little that hasn’t been heard, nor does he put much stock into much over the last three decades.

Graham Nash Over The Years… (2018)—3

Friday, May 3, 2024

Kinks 29: Come Dancing

It had been ten years since the last Kinks kompilation, and it’s pretty safe to say that they had enough hits to fill such an album—particularly since their contract was up with the latest label. As proven by Come Dancing With The Kinks, helpfully subtitled “The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986”, there were two records’ worth. The so-called Arista years were pretty solid as it turned out, and most of these tracks were FM radio favorites.

Of course, the live album included songs that had been around before, which is how the set could begin with “You Really Got Me”. That’s a good setup for the familiar structure of “Destroyer”, and while the disco thump of “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is out of place, “Juke Box Music” and “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” show a common thread. The title track starts an upbeat side two, through “Sleepwalker”, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Do It Again”, and “Better Things”.

The third side begins like the first, this time with “Lola”. The snotty “Low Budget” leads into three more songs from State Of Confusion—“Long Distance” (which was only on the cassette of that album), “Heart Of Gold”, and “Don’t Forget To Dance”. The mood of that one is revealed to have its roots in “Misfits” from five years earlier, and it’s wisely placed at the top of side four. “Living On A Thin Line” gives Dave some of the publishing, but the real value is the first LP appearance of 1977’s “Father Christmas” single, with its bluntly honest sentiment disguised by a Springsteenian intro. The extended live “Celluloid Heroes” provides a fitting conclusion.

The set’s running time just exceeded 80 minutes, so something had to be sacrificed for the burgeoning compact disc format. To achieve this, the compilers chose to cut “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Sleepwalker”, and “Misfits”. The latter was no real loss, but surely the two lesser tracks from State Of Confusion (read: non-hits) could have been booted instead.

When the album was reissued at the turn of the century as part of the Konk overhaul, those two were indeed left off, along with the live “Celluloid Heroes”, but replaced by “Full Moon”, “A Gallon Of Gas”, and “Good Day”. In other cases, the longer album tracks were used instead of single versions, to fill the disc to capacity. This only underscores that a band’s “best of” is purely subjective, as opposed to “greatest hits”, which can be verified. The order was shuffled as well, so it now begins with “Come Dancing”, sticks the live tracks in the middle, and ends with “Father Christmas”. Other than that, it seems very random, so while they may not sound as good, the 1986 versions are preferred.

The Kinks Come Dancing With The Kinks/The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986 (1986)—3
The Kinks
Come Dancing With The Kinks/The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986 (2000)—3