Friday, May 14, 2021

Marshall Crenshaw 11: This Is Easy

Certain artists have that first album that’s so solid that the idea of a greatest hits album almost seems redundant. The Cars and the Pretenders come to mind, but in Marshall Crenshaw’s case, where his later albums never had the legs of his first, a hits album is an opportunity to show people what they might be missing.
Being the good curators they’d always been, the Rhino label went for the one-two punch, by expanding his stellar debut simultaneously with compiling a best-of. This Is Easy! offered an unbeatable chronological sequence of his finest ear candy. Opening with the early wide-eyed single “Something’s Gonna Happen”, it moves through only four songs from the debut, and includes the “You’re My Favorite Waste Of Time” B-side. Field Day and Downtown each get four songs, and the balance of his studio albums get smaller but choice samples, right up to “Starless Summer Sky” from 1996.
Those two singles are the only real rarities, but since many of the albums had gone out of print by then, This Is Easy! very conveniently revived songs that had been lost to indifference. Some even appeared in their single edits, which guaranteed that the disc was filled to capacity. In fact, Rhino’s double disc The Definitive Pop Collection six years later expanded the program by a mere eight songs, tacking on a few more recent tracks but also adding “Cryin’, Waitin’, Hopin’” from 1987’s La Bamba soundtrack. And for all the different producers and players involved, everything goes together like they were meant to be.

Marshall Crenshaw This Is Easy! The Best Of Marshall Crenshaw (2000)—4

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Todd Rundgren 25: No World Order

Ever the technophile, Todd Rundgren leapt into the possibilities of interactive music by offering his compositions as a series of files that could be programmed, sampled, and manipulated by any listener with the technology (read: cash) and the patience to handle it. For those who would rather hear his latest music as complete songs, a non-interactive version of No World Order was designed to suffice, though still credited to his TR-i moniker. With 16 tracks, six of which were alternate versions, this was still presented as an uninterrupted program, to encourage the shuffle play function on the listener’s CD player to encourage random and infinite variations of the sequence. (A year later, Rhino released No World Order Lite, which stuck to the ten songs, though it didn’t recoup their losses much.)
All of this makes a simple recap of the musical content more difficult than usual, since the music was designed to be fluid. With the exception of his voice and guitars, the accompaniment is largely computer-generated for a very sterile atmosphere. Luckily, “Worldwide Epiphany” is tuneful and rocking, though his rap detour (not the only one here) shows a debt to Public Enemy. “Day Job” is delivered in a Chuck D bark, punctuated by some berserk samples, but while “Fascist Christ” is more direct and topical, it’s hard to take him seriously. “Love Thing” is new jack swing two years after Bell Biv Devoe’s peak, whereas “Property” has a “Billie Jean” bounce. By the time the title track comes around the rap approach has become tiresome, and it goes on to derail “Proactivity”. However, “Word Made Flesh” brings back the rock for a potential anthem, and “Time Stood Still” and “Fever Broke” display more of his own classic brand of soul music.
While No World Order isn’t made for casual listening, Todd still displays his expert grasp on production and songwriting throughout. Maybe somebody out there has the capability to remix the tunes, dilute the raps, and update the dated textures into something more approachable. But then, doesn’t that negate the point of the exercise?

Todd Rundgren/TR-i No World Order (1993)—

Friday, May 7, 2021

Roxy Music 7: Manifesto

The boys in Roxy Music got their side projects out of their system, and restarted the band without any agenda outside of making music. Gone were the camp affectations and ironic nostalgia; with Manifesto they were all about style and what would soon be called new romantic.
Side one, or the “East Side”, and the title track slowly burbles into place underneath a solo by rotating bass player Alan Spenner over a near-disco beat. Bryan Ferry’s lyric is kinda poetic, and the track comes to a surprising finish like, well, a spaceship taking off. “Trash” is right in line with current new wave, thanks to a cheesy organ. “Angel Eyes” would be re-recorded in a more dance vein, but the original album version is a lot more rock, and a lot more fun, honestly. “Still Falls The Rain” is a pleasant trifle, with all the Roxy ingredients in place, while “Stronger Through The Years” has something of a sinister undercurrent, and lots of further input from Alan Spenner.
The “West Side” is a little more direct, or is it? “Ain’t That So” seems to be bouncing in and out of different tempos, throwing out a melodic twist here and there that bucks the simplicity of the chorus, which consists of repetitions of the title. Except for the prominent Andy Mackay saxophone, “My Little Girl” sports harmonies right off the latest Cars album and a snare sound akin to somebody kicking a garbage can. “Dance Away” is an apt portrait of heartache, but it took a remix for the single to rearrange the structure and tighten up the track. Unfortunately, “Cry, Cry, Cry” is meaningless pop, though Phil Manzanera does give his all to his solos. The theme of dancing away heartache returns on “Spin Me Round”, ending the album rather softly.
The title may have been meant to be ironic, since Manifesto isn’t the grand statement their earlier albums seemed to be. They’re merely doing what Roxy Music collectively did well. For other people this might be considered treading water, but in this case it works. (Fun fact: after “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” were respectively re-recorded and remixed as singles, the new versions replaced the originals on future pressings of the album, as well as the compact disc. When the CD was remastered in 1999, the original “Angel Eyes” was reinstated, but “Dance Away” was not. Both were sound decisions.)

Roxy Music Manifesto (1979)—3

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Dire Straits 7: Money For Nothing

While it wasn’t revealed in a major press release or even mentioned at the time—despite what Wikipedia says, because we would’ve remembered—Dire Straits had broken up following their lengthy tour promoting Brothers In Arms. The band was exhausted, and Mark Knopfler was happy to concentrate on scoring films.
With even less fanfare, an album called Money For Nothing snuck out toward the end of 1988; this turned out to be something of a hits collection, not that the title nor the video-inspired artwork made that clear. The tracklist ran mostly chronologically through their handful of albums, beginning naturally with “Sultans Of Swing” and “Down To The Waterline”. Then we’re surprised with a live version of “Portobello Belle”, which is dated June 1983 in the briefest of album notes, making it something of an outtake from Alchemy. (In fact, it would have been played right before that little jig that segues into the first introduction to “Tunnel Of Love”.) Just to mess with us, a “remix” of “Twisting By The Pool” comes next, and only after that do we jump back to “Tunnel Of Love” and “Romeo & Juliet”. Then, for no reason we’ve been able to establish, it’s an alternate take of “Where Do You Think You’re Going”.
For a jolt, except for those who just flipped their record or cassette, “Walk Of Life” wheezes in, followed by a slightly edited “Private Investigations”. What’s called a “remix” of “Telegraph Road” from Alchemy runs only 12 minutes, followed by shorter versions of the default title track and “Brothers In Arms”.
As nutty as that all is, it’s still a good way to spend an hour, even given the fact that most of the people who bought the album would have already owned the three songs from Brothers In Arms. Those consumers weren’t part of the marketing plan ten years later when the more pointedly titled Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits replaced Money For Nothing as their official compilation. This time the sequence was strictly chronological and filled to capacity, dropping the two alternates representing Communiqué for “Lady Writer” and swapping the live “Telegraph Road” for the live “Love Over Gold”. “So Far Away” joined its brothers, as did three songs from On Every Street and two more later live versions. At least they kept “Twisting By The Pool”. That song was a glaring omission from 2005’s Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler, which was made available in single-disc and double-disc versions, both leaning on Knopfler’s solo work. A duet with Emmylou Harris was the only real carrot, at least until their collaborative album came out the following year.
All this has only made the original Money For Nothing album grow in stature, considering that it’s now been out of print for decades, and some of its highlights remain elusive. The band didn’t have a lot of official rarities, but it sure would be nice if they could be revived.

Dire Straits Money For Nothing (1988)—4
Dire Straits
Sultans Of Swing: The Very Best Of Dire Straits (1998)—
Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler
Private Investigations: The Best Of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler (2005)—3

Friday, April 30, 2021

Nilsson 1: Spotlight On Nilsson

Harry Nilsson was always something of a cult artist, the type of guy who had lots of fans in the business, even when he didn’t sell records. He never toured, and his live appearances were limited to presenting on awards shows. He began as a songwriter, yet the songs he’s arguably known best for were written by other people.
But he also had quite a voice, and a wide range, so he managed to record some singles for a Capitol Records subsidiary that didn’t remotely overspend on graphic design. Both sides of each of those singles, plus two other songs recorded during that period, were collected on Spotlight On Nilsson, which wouldn’t gain any real attention until it was reissued multiple times after he became a big name, and even then not by much. (He didn’t have the face of a teen idol anyway.)
With ten songs coming in at a whopping 22 minutes, the album barely hints at his potential, but even buried under the generic ‘60s production, his voice is recognizable. Well, most of the time; “The Path That Leads To Trouble” sports a growl similar to that of Sonny Bono, who likely worked with Harry on some Phil Spector sessions. “Good Times” would be offered to the Monkees, though they wouldn’t finish it for 50 years. “So You Think You’ve Got Troubles” serves up a wonderful litany of ailments, very much in the vein of future humorous Nilsson tracks, but it’s a cover of a little-known country song. “I’m Gonna Lose My Mind” dabbles in R&B, right down to the Raelettes-style singers mixed just as high as he is. “She’s Yours” crams a lot of tempo changes and dynamics into two minutes.
A startlingly rearranged “Sixteen Tons”, go-go style, nearly renders the song unrecognizable, but it wouldn’t be the last time he’d tinker with a standard. A similar arrangement pins “Born In Grenada”, wherein we’re supposed to buy that he’s from Mississippi. “You Can’t Take Your Love (Away From Me)” is a forced title nowhere near as good as the “think about the good times” bridge, but he was still learning. Presented lullabye-style, “Growin' Up” sounds more like the sophisticated pop he’d develop soon enough, but “Do You Believe” is more generic soul.
Spotlight On Nilsson is a mere taster for a career that would go in several directions, but even from the start, he was set on using just the surname. It’s available for streaming, or you can search for an obscure CD that pairs the tunes with a John Stewart album from four years later called Willard, the title track of which, sadly, is not related to the film about a man obsessed with rats.

Nilsson Spotlight On Nilsson (1966)—2

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rickie Lee Jones 1: Rickie Lee Jones

Musician magazine once did a photo essay tracking various styles through the decades, wherein Robert Palmer descended from Bryan Ferry and Richard Harris before him in the guise of the lounge lizard, and Edie Brickell was the latest version of the girl with the beret following Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Chauvinism has long been a feature of the music business, but if we could think of a more clever way to introduce Rickie Lee Jones than the standard elevator pitch, we would, but until then, here’s the deal.
She did indeed wear a beret onstage, and sang in a very unique voice ranging from scat to soprano. Her songs were jazzy and had the familiarity of standards, steeped in beat poetry influences. She also happened to be romantically involved with Tom Waits, then still in his wino troubadour phase. Lenny Waronker swooped in and signed her up to Warner Bros., and produced her eponymous debut with Russ Titelman. Given the era and the caliber of session players involved, Rickie Lee Jones is very much a sophisticated ‘70s pop album, anchored by the smash hit “Chuck E.’s In Love”. That song was all over the radio in 1979, surprising for its verses of hip lingo delivered by a mushmouth. (People liked the twist at the end, despite it being pure fiction.)
The rest of the album is a mix of hep cat jive and more sensitive material, beginning with the reverie “On Saturday Afternoons In 1963”. “Night Train” is not the James Brown song, but one of many in her catalog that long for deliverance via some mode of transportation. Similarly, “Young Blood” isn’t a cover either, but a good companion to “Chuck E.”, with its mid-‘70s Joni arrangement and salsa influences. “Easy Money” had already been recorded by Little Feat’s Lowell George for his one solo album before he died, and we hear a Waits similarity here too. We’re especially taken by “The Last Chance Texaco”, which really works the metaphors related to car trouble and relationships, as she explores both ends of her vocal range and effectively works in the sound of passing cars.
“Danny’s All-Star Joint”, where the jukebox “goes doyt-doyt”, is particularly jazzy and cinematic, and takes us right back to a time of flared plaid slacks and Boz Scaggs records. By a sharp contrast, “Coolsville” is a brooding recollection of lost youth, lost friends, lost innocence. “Weasel And The White Boys Cool” concocts another scenario of characters, this time around a guy named Sal, which happens to be the first name of a future collaborator, but there we are getting ahead of ourselves again. That’s the last of the uptempo tunes, as the torchy “Company” tugs the heartstrings and “After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Goodnight)” leaves her alone by the lamppost.
Her voice is an acquired taste, to be sure, and all the hype surrounding Rickie Lee Jones kept us from paying too much attention for a long time. But her artistry is subtle, and would continue to be so, as we shall see. The rating below may be adjusted again and again until we’re absolutely sure.

Rickie Lee Jones Rickie Lee Jones (1979)—3

Friday, April 23, 2021

Phil Collins 9: Tarzan

Despite his plummet from grace throughout the ‘90s, Phil Collins still had some clout in the business. Why else would be asked to score a major motion picture for Walt Disney Animation? And when that soundtrack went on to win Oscars and Grammys, did he give a crap if anybody didn’t like him?
We haven’t seen Tarzan, nor do we plan to if we can avoid it. The horrific deaths in The Lion King were traumatizing enough, and we’re sensitive about sad cartoon animals. Regardless, the songs on the soundtrack are competent, and about what one might hope or at least expect for such a listening experience. “You’ll Be In My Heart” was the lynchpin of the score, and there are probably elements of it sprinkled through “Two Worlds” and “Strangers Like Me”. Rosie O’Donnell, when people still liked her, thankfully scats unrecognizably on one version of “Trashin’ The Camp”, while the dreamboats in NSYNC dominate the other. (Phil’s duet with Glenn Close on one version of “You’ll Be In My Heart” is brief.)
About a third of the album is devoted to Mark Mancina’s score, so Phil only had to re-record his portion in four other languages to ensure its success in non-English-speaking regions. He even wrote more songs for the Broadway musical version, but hopefully the reader will forgive us for not digging that deep.

Tarzan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (1999)—3