Friday, August 12, 2022

Clash 5: Sandinista!

The one word that is common to just about every review of this album is “mess”. And it’s true: the fourth album by the Clash is a sloppy, sprawling mess. Without a Guy Stevens to throw chairs at them, they produced themselves, and instead threw just about everything they could find into the mix, from recordings in London, New York, and Jamaica. Having made friends with various of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, they were invited to contribute. Joe Strummer’s old busking partner Tymon Dogg brought his violin, and Mick Jones was dating Ellen Foley from “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”, so she was around too. (The band would go on to back her up on her next album.) The year before they’d convinced Epic to release London Calling as two records crammed into one sleeve, so they did the same with this album, and then some: six sides full of sound, if not necessarily music. London Calling ran just over an hour; Sandinista! is over twice that length.
During that year reggae and dub had made big impressions on the band, and while disco may have sucked, rap was appealing. That makes “The Magnificent Seven” so startling, with beats straight from Grandmaster Flash and a bubbling Chic bass line. (Norman Watt-Roy of the Blockheads is responsible for this and some of the funkier bass lines throughout the album; Paul Simonon does play, but not as loudly nor as proficiently.) Some dreamy keyboards and a Motown beat bring in “Hitsville U.K.”, which barely sounds like a Clash song since Ellen Foley’s vocals are mixed louder than Mick’s. Joe turns the blues song “Junco Partner” inside out to a wacky reggae backing, then Topper Headon takes his first lead vocal on “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, an upbeat track dominated by what sounds like the Space Invaders and Pac-Man arcade games at top volume. “The Leader” is the shortest song in the entire set, with some good rockabilly that actually sounds like the band for a change. It’s over before you know it, and is nudged aside by “Something About England”, which sounds like half of a big production, as if they loaded up the multitracks and forgot to raise the faders on the rhythm section for the first minute or so. There’s a strong lyric in there, but you can’t hear it.
Side two starts with another track unlike anything they’d done before. “Rebel Waltz” sports an intricately picked guitar line before a harpsichord(!) and other keyboards fill in under it—another strong tune distracted by the mix. Whatever gravitas it’s supposed to impart isn’t helped by “Look Here”, a Mose Allison tune mostly played straight but, again, smothered with atonal touches. With “The Crooked Beat”, Paul gets to follow up the threat laid down by “The Guns Of Brixton” on an even longer song layered in percussion devoid of meter or tempo. (In foreshadowing, the latter half of the track is basically a dub version. Stay tuned; we’ll explain.) Guitars return on “Somebody Got Murdered”, a starkly matter-of-fact statement heavily laden with futility. “One More Time” is a decent fusion of rock and reggae, but you have to juggle Joe’s fake accent with the highly nasal toasting from Mikey Dread. We fade to silence, and then we’re treated to “One More Dub”, an experiment that works.
After an aircheck of Joe calling into progressive New York radio station WBAI, “Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)” is something of a retread of “The Magnificent Seven” but not as slick. It ends abruptly for “Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)”, which sounds like the Clash again, to take over. There’s an extended ending where the song begins to fade under some feedback, then comes back in before fading for good. “Corner Soul” is another one lost to a busy mix and even more Ellen Foley, but mixed lower. A tape of a street huckster opens and closes the otherwise steel drum-fueled “Let’s Go Crazy”, but the more obviously dub-influenced “If Music Could Talk” is an improvement. Then things go completely off the rails for “The Sound Of Sinners”, a completely unexpected gospel rave-up with Topper adding a nice harmony. There’s even a benediction of sorts at the end.
With that setup, side four almost sounds like where the album (or another one) should start, as the guitar siren of “Police On My Back” makes you think the Clash you’ve been used to have returned after all, but surprise! Eddy Grant wrote this song, before he rocked on down to Electric Avenue. “Midnight Log” is another brief one in the vein of “The Leader”, while “The Equaliser” is a mostly dub track of double length that sounds like it’s missing the main context. “The Call Up” was the danceable first single, an anti-draft protest that still takes up a lot of space. Its sentiment is continued in “Washington Bullets”, which gives the album its title and skewers every country that subscribes to the military industrial complex. In a poor mixing choice, the organ is absolutely pinned at the end of the track. “Broadway” could be Strummer’s Sinatra moment, or at least a prediction of the Replacements’ “Nightclub Jitters”, but the mix is too crazy, and just to make things interesting, the last minute is given over to Mickey Gallagher’s daughter’s rendition of “The Guns Of Brixton”. By now anyone would be justified in calling this the band’s White Album.
The Clash-ness continues on “Lose This Skin”, except that it’s written and caterwauled by Tymon Dogg, whose sawing violin predicts the Waterboys. Some clever helicopter effects via guitar open the extremely melodic “Charlie Don’t Surf”. It’s one of the better tracks here, but by now it’s clear they were struggling to fill six sides, as “Mensforth Hill” runs “Something About England” backwards, with posed dialogue on top. (Again, White Album.) After that “Junkie Slip” sounds like another one that should’ve been a B-side, and while “Kingston Advice” has promise, it’s literally torpedoed throughout by video game noises. Similar sound effects are used like percussion on “Street Parade”, which deserves better.
Side six is either loved or hated, considering that most of it recycles what’s come before. But first we have “Version City”, which opens with the sound of a sample from Mattel’s version of the Mellotron winding up under an unctuous announcer, a bad omen for how the rest of an otherwise decent song is treated. “Living In Fame” is a dub version of “If Music Could Talk” sung by Mikey Dread, but then the sample and announcer come in again and “Silicon On Sapphire” layers a conversation between computers (this is not a joke) over the track for “Washington Bullets”. “Version Pardner” takes us all the way back to “Junco Partner” on side one, and isn’t as jarring, but it’s just as random. Mickey Gallagher’s sons get into the act, singing “Career Opportunities” from the first album over a sprightly harpsichord-led arrangement. And where else can we go with a mellow instrumental of “Police & Thieves” (or maybe “If Music Could Talk”?) called “Shepherds Delight”, possibly due the bleating interjections, that suddenly switches to a slowed-down tape of a car driving off?
There’s nothing pointedly awful on Sandinista!; even the dub versions on side six would have made decent B-sides, and then people would be clamoring for them. Still, trying to shave the album to a stellar single disc is near-impossible. Call it the results of a busy year, and take time to see what rises to the top. If anything, the dub experiments heard on B-sides and Black Market Clash will not only make more sense, but improve in stature.

The Clash Sandinista! (1980)—3

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Rickie Lee Jones 4: The Magazine

Her next “real” album took some time, but apparently Rickie Lee Jones found inspiration in Paris, and managed to kick whatever her addictions to record The Magazine. The producer is different, but the sound is still slick, with the reliable Steve Gadd drumming on several tracks and various members of Toto here and there. The big difference is the use of synthesizer, which is subtle, but pronounced in the all-digital recording.
“Prelude To Gravity” is a lovely piano instrumental with light strings, whereas “Gravity” itself crashes in with drums. It’s a very complicated song, with lots of tempo shifts and accents, and poetry we can’t begin to decipher. While it begins like a nursery rhyme, “Juke Box Fury” is more along the lines of her jazz-bo hits. It even has the same hackneyed horn part from her other albums, pinning the choruses, but her vocal blend at the end of each still kills. We’re amazed that “It Must Be Love” wasn’t a hit single, either by her or anybody else, since it’s one of the most perfectly mainstream songs she’d yet written, with just enough of the right ingredients to make it original. “Magazine” recalls the sadder stories from Pirates, and we’re not sure whether the narrator is waiting for a lover or a drug connection.
Those horns return “The Real End”, which seems like a more obvious choice for a single with its simple pre-chorus hook and matter-of-fact cynical lyrics about fleeting romance. There’s a stretch where she layers her own voice like horns, which would have been enough. “Deep Space”, subtitled “An Equestrienne In The Circus Of The Falling Star”, provides another welcome see-saw shift to quiet, especially before “Runaround”, which mentions the “Juke Box Fury”, and sounds like two different songs forced together. The album closes with three pieces called “Rorschachs”. The first is a very European instrumental with trilling guitars and mandolins and a hummed melody called “Theme For The Pope (Marrants D’eau Douce)”, which translates as “sweet water fools”. (There is a version out there sung as a duet with Sal Bernardi—yeah, him again—in French, and seem to describe some lost souls between Memphis and Nashville. We had to look this up, because the lyrics aren’t included on the original vinyl.) “The Unsigned Painting” begins with a lonesome plaint, which is brushed aside by a spoken impressionistic piece. This segues into the more musical “The Weird Beast”, which continues the strange imagery via interlocking vocals.
The album works best when she’s exploring, making the more adult contemporary ear candy seem out of place. The Magazine is impenetrable to be sure, but somehow she makes it all very compelling. The listener wants to understand the songs, and that makes it worthwhile. She’s unique, all right.

Rickie Lee Jones The Magazine (1984)—3

Friday, August 5, 2022

Elvis Costello 37: The Resurrection Of Rust

In 1972, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named D.P. MacManus joined forces with a fellow aspirant named Allan Mayes in the latter’s combo, a folk-rock outfit dubbed Rusty. Eventually whittled down to the duo, the pair performed under that moniker for about 18 months in and around Liverpool before going their separate ways. In time MacManus would change his name to Elvis Costello, and while Mayes has continued to play music professionally in the decades since, he hasn’t attained a fraction of the acclaim or notoriety his erstwhile partner has.
Roughly fifty years after their initial collaboration, the two reunited to finally record what amounts to a six-song demo. The Resurrection Of Rust is supposedly drawn from their old repertoire, now with the added extra of having the Imposters backing them on each track. (As with Elvis’s last album, all the parts were recorded from various studios around the world, brought together in the mix. Thanks, Covid.) As a bonus, the prominent organ on the infectious “Surrender To The Rhythm” is contributed by Bob Andrews, who played on the original Brinsley Schwarz recording.
That song and the slower, soulful “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love” are Nick Lowe covers—a writer who looms large in Costello’s history, and whose voice that of Mayes occasionally resembles—from the same album, while “I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind” was also covered by the Brinsleys back then. “Warm House (And An Hour Of Joy)” is a D.P. McManus original said to be a crowd-pleaser back then; here he sings it in his “precious” voice and harmonizes with himself as well as Mayes. “Maureen And Sam” is possibly the most intriguing song, since this original co-write would one day emerge heavily re-written as “Ghost Train”. In this incarnation, the subjects of the song are treated with much more pathos, with major-seventh chords to match. The staccato sections may have been part of the original arrangement, but here Elvis plays it way too heavy, and the canned applause halfway through distracts. The mood is lifted by their medley of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”; Elvis makes his long-awaited debut on electric violin here, in addition to the mandolin he trills here and elsewhere. (We’re pretty sure he wasn’t proficient on those in 1972. To make collectors even more irate, the Japanese version includes an actual Rusty demo from that year, the lo-fi “Silver Minute”.)
Pleasant as it is, the duo’s voices aren’t a natural blend—Elvis tends to emote to his nature, while Mayes sings low yet convincingly on his own. He’s the better guitarist, having spent all that time on the road playing covers, but Elvis nudges his own leads into the mix here and there. Nonetheless, The Resurrection Of Rust is a labor of love, and the mutual affection is evident in every note. A sequel would be welcome.

Rusty The Resurrection Of Rust (2022)—3

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Dave Mason: Alone Together

It’s hard to say where exactly Dave Mason fit into Traffic, the band he helped found. The psychedelia of their first singles gave way to more straight music, to the point where his compositions sounded very different from what Steve Winwood and the others were doing. He was on their first two albums, and quit the band after each one was finished. Even his first solo single featured them as the backing band on the B-side. When he finally recorded his first solo album, he’d gone even further away.
The credits on Alone Together have always been vague; there is a comprehensive listing of musicians, but it’s not clear which tracks specifically feature Leon Russell, Larry Knechtel, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, Carl Radle, and other names familiar from Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker’s band. But right along with other albums out around the same time with those luminaries, this is more of your basic boogie. If anything, it’s most notorious for its elaborate cover art, which extended to the puke-colored vinyl.
“Only You Know And I Know” would be the “Feelin’ Alright” of the album, having been covered by lots of people since its introduction here. It is infectious, with its layered guitars and harmony blend fitting well into the Layla mold. “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving” is more laid back, but has a nice full sound, and shows his tendency to restrict his melodies to a three-note range. “Waitin’ On You” is a little more funky, with a prominent electric piano and a “soul choir” to help out with the choruses. “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” sounds most like a Traffic sound instrumentally, with his wah-wah at full volume, and is that a banjo in the mix?
“World In Changes” is all trilling guitars with a nice organ counterpoint that eventually swallows the arrangement. “Sad And Deep As You” is fittingly titled, another nice piano and acoustic track, whereas “Just A Song” is just that, with a few more chord riffs, plus the banjo and the soul choir again. “Look At You Look At Me” was written with Jim Capaldi, which may explain why there’s something about it that seems unique while sounding like everything that’s gone before.
The album itself has gone in and out of print over the years, mostly because since the Blue Thumb label ceased to exist and MCA never knew how to keep it going. For its 50th anniversary, Mason rerecorded and released it as Alone Together Again, initially because he said he never liked his vocals, but more recently he’s blamed the Universal Studios fire of 2008.
We’re going to make the bold statement that Dave Mason was always a better session guitarist than he was a solo artist. Prominent and welcome on various Crosby, Stills & Nash solo and duo albums, his biggest hits would generally come from other people. His eventual addition of “All Along The Watchtower” to his live shows was a tribute driven by his appearance on Jimi’s original track, and gave him a chance to wail. There will be those that champion his albums, but we just disagree.

Dave Mason Alone Together (1970)—3

Friday, July 29, 2022

Talking Heads 12: No Talking, Just Head

You can’t blame them for trying.
The members of Talking Heads had grown tired of waiting for David Byrne to deign them with his presence again, so after five or so years they began recording together. Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth had stayed busy producing other people, so they had several singers they could ask to sing for them, along with old friends from their CBGB days, when they started making music together again. Byrne had other ideas, and tried to sue them; the eventual project was credited to The Heads, with the album pointedly titled No Talking, Just Head.
No matter how they approached it, the deck was stacked against them. Sometimes an established band can find a new singer to take them to commercial heights, but not every band is AC/DC. Rather than sticking with one collaborator, the Heads assigned each of the 12 tracks on the album to somebody different. Each of the resulting songs is so different, it sounds like a mix tape of 12 different bands.
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde opens with the dark “Damage I’ve Done”, and would go on to tour with the trio to promote the album. Michael Hutchence of INXS (who would have their own issues trying to replace a singer) ironically makes one of his last appearances on an album on “The King Is Gone”, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry wails the profane title track. “Never Mind”, which seems to be based around the drums for their version of “Take Me To The River”, is a showcase for Richard Hell, while the frenetic “No Big Bang” is an odd pairing for the otherwise soulful Maria McKee. Shaun Ryder gets to do his Happy Mondays thing all over “Don’t Take My Kindness For Weakness”.
A still-unknown spoken word performer named Malin Anneteg recites the strange lyrics for “No More Lonely Nights”, while the singer from Live was still coasting on their hit album when he added “Indie Hair”. “Punk Lolita” might be the highlight of the album, with Debbie, Johnette, and Tina Weymouth trading fun rap-influenced vocals just like Tom Tom Club. Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes is lost in the mix of “Only The Lonely”, but there’s no mistaking Andy Partridge on “Papersnow”. Finally, cult figure Gavin Friday warbles “Blue Blue Moon”.
While Chris, Jerry, and Tina were all undoubtedly key to the success of Talking Heads, and contributed to the sound of the band, David Byrne’s vocals and lyrics were what resonated in millions of album sales. This goes both ways, as Byrne’s solo albums are nearly devoid of any music that sounds like the old band. No Talking, Just Head remains a curio, more interesting for fans of the individual singers.

The Heads No Talking, Just Head (1996)—2

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Robert Fripp 2: Frippertronics

Once finally released, Exposure returned Robert Fripp to the music industry, kind of, and he sought to find his way through it on his own terms. His Frippertronic experiments of improvising over prerecorded loops saw him performing in small, non-standard venues, from record stores to pizza parlors, with the audience up close. This was how he chose to compose, and while making an album out of them wouldn’t be easy, he managed to get two.
The first was given the unwieldy title God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners, which suggested they were condensed from what could have been two separate albums. Each half of the title referred to a different side of the record or tape, each built on Frippertronics. The first (called “Side A”) offers three performances of increasing lengths, bleeping, and intensity, all sounding very much like No Pussyfooting but without any Eno input. The other (called “Side One”) adds a rhythm section, including Eno and Talking Heads favorite Busta Jones, to the loops, which was Fripp’s idea of “discotronics”. “Under Heavy Manners” begins much like the rest of the track until overdubbed band kicks in, and a pseudonymed David Byrne bleats a raspy vocal. After coming to a halt, Fripp instructs the proceedings to “continue,” and “The Zero Of The Signified” presents a more relentless beat, which eventually fades for the Frippertronics to dominate as they too fade.

A year later, Let The Power Fall presented another full album of Frippertronics from the same 1979 performances that begat the previous set; this time there was no added rhythm section. Three longer pieces alternate with three shorter ones, all similar in structure but differing in intensity. From time to time a melody emerges, and they can be quite lovely, but they come and go, as is the fleeting nature of the music.
These albums are interesting for filling in the blanks between ‘70s Crimson and ‘80s Crimson, but they are not easy listening. Fripp has always preferred live performance to a static media format to express himself musically, so these pieces may well have been more exciting for those who witnessed them take shape out of seemingly nowhere. In fact, 2022’s Exposures box set collected further hours’ worth of Fripp performances from this period, with lengthy soloing over the loops, on five CDs, and even more on Blu-ray, so the selections that made up these two albums had to have stood out somehow.
When some of his back catalog was first prepared for CD in the mid-‘80s, Fripp couldn’t help “revising” (his term) some of the music. 1985’s God Save The King compilation augmented the Under Heavy Manners half with music from 1981’s dance-oriented The League of Gentlemen. The “title track” was a rejigged “The Zero Of The Signified” with a new, more furious solo overdubbed throughout. This track, along with the previously unreleased jam “Music On Hold”, was included as a bonus on the first-ever CD reissue of Queen/Manners, following their inclusion in Exposures. Meanwhile, Let The Power Fall got a “Definitive Edition” CD release in 1989 alongside other King Crimson albums; its reissue in the wake of Exposures sported extras consisting of a single edit and two alternate mixes, all of the “1984” track.
As technology evolved, so did Fripp’s approach to Frippertronics. By the ‘90s they had evolved into “soundscapes”, and resulted in a series of self-published CDs and downloads. Possibly their widest exposure came during 2020’s Covid lockdown, when a weekly “Music For Quiet Moments” was plucked from the archives and distributed via YouTube and streaming sites, eventually collected as a box set. Now numbering in the dozens, Fripp’s soundscapes will not be explored in this forum.

Robert Fripp God Save The Queen/Under Heavy Manners (1980)—2
2022 reissue: same as 1980, plus 2 extra tracks
Robert Fripp Let The Power Fall (1981)—2
2022 reissue: same as 1981, plus 3 extra tracks

Friday, July 22, 2022

Paul Simon 18: Stranger To Stranger

For most of his post-Garfunkel career, Paul Simon has painstakingly created songs with the mildest suggestion of a rhythm as touchpoints. In his old age, with the ease and advancements of home recording, he doesn’t have to travel to other countries and observe other cultures for inspiration. He still could, of course; he just doesn’t have to.
Stranger To Stranger sounds like it was assembled on a computer, and we don’t mean that in a bad way. The sound is still fresh and pure, like thanks to the assistance of “his old partner Roy Halee”, which is how the credit actually reads. Many of the tracks involve multiple players and exotic instruments, but it still remains very much a solitary vision.
The first sound we hear is an Indian string instrument that the liner notes tells us sounded like “The Werewolf” to the auteur’s ears, so he wrote a song around it about doom and death. Sound effects abound, and the track is taken over by a gothic horror movie pipe organ by the end, along with more howls. “Wristband” is a very clever song that retains its humor past several listens, and manages to extend the idea of exclusive entry past its premise. “The Clock” is an instrumental built around a simple pulse, with some chimes, and is over too quickly. More complex rhythms and textures drive “Street Angel”, while a waltz of sorts propels the lilting title track. As predicted two tracks earlier, “In A Parade” finds the street angel in a hospital being diagnosed for mental disorders, with beats to match.
The engaging “Proof Of Love” is very reminiscent of his early ‘90s work, and apparently the noted Brazilian influence is why. “In The Garden Of Edie”—again, clever—is another instrumental that isn’t long enough. “The Riverbank” continues the musing on death, but over a mildly funky groove that isn’t down in the slightest. “Cool Papa Bell” would be mostly a tribute to a Negro League baseball legend, but is dominated by a tuba and spends more time reflecting on a certain twelve-letter epithet. The closing “Insomniac’s Lullaby” adds sound effects and Harry Partch instruments to a lovely guitar piece and meditation on sleeplessness. It’s more of a prayer than a lullaby, but it’s effective.
Stranger To Stranger is another winner in a career that’s slowly winding down. From time to time he leans on one of his spoken character voices rather than trying to find a melody, but the solo guitar pieces have us wishing he would do an instrumental album of same. He should also be commended for the album’s digestible length, at just over 37 minutes. (That said, a deluxe edition included a few extra tracks, starting with the exquisitely recorded “Horace And Pete”, the theme song for a Louis C.K. web series, which should have been on the main album. The oldie “Duncan” and “Wristband” come from a well-received performance on A Prairie Home Companion. “Guitar Piece 3” is a spooky interlude, while “New York Is My Home” is a collaboration with Dion DiMucci, also featured in the aforementioned web series.)

Paul Simon Stranger To Stranger (2016)—