Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rush 17: Chronicles

Smart labels anthologize the ones who got away, particularly when the ones have continued to thrive elsewhere. While Rush had jumped to Atlantic, Mercury knew that their catalog would continue to sell, particularly in the CD era. Hence, Chronicles neatly summarized the band’s history from start to now, on two discs, democratically sampling each one of their albums; the exception was three songs from Moving Pictures.
In addition to providing an excellent overview that documented the taming of Geddy Lee’s vocal cords, the big draw for fans was the inclusion of the songs that had been left off the original CDs of All The World’s A Stage and Exit… Stage Left. “What You’re Doing” and “A Passage To Bangkok” each appear in sequence to ensure that every album was represented. Moreover, “Mystic Rhythms” was included from A Show Of Hands, and “Show Don’t Tell” provides true closure.
The modes of the times dictated that a double CD was packaged in a clamshell case about an inch thick, but Chronicles was worthy of taking up space on a shelf, and seemingly would always. It stayed in print even after the catalog was remastered in 1997, whereupon Mercury took to anthologizing them again, and not for the last time. Retrospective I: 1974-1980 and Retrospective II: 1981-1987 each repeated ten tracks from either disc of Chronicles and made some very bold additions (“By-Tor”? “The Body Electric”?) while jumbling the chronology and adding zero rarities. (Both volumes were combined into a single slimline package for 2006’s Gold, which reinstated “Working Man” to the dais at the expense of “Something For Nothing”.)
Then in 2003, likely to cash in on the band’s return from hiatus, The Spirit Of Radio was a single disc purporting to present the band’s “greatest hits”, despite the fact that only one of their singles had ever cracked the Billboard Top 40. That said, it again stuck to the timeline and hit all the highlights, with the possible exception of “Force Ten”. (True completists would also want to make room for the two Rush entries in Universal’s head-scratching ICON series. The first was a glorified mix tape that mixed familiar tracks with deep cuts; this was repeated a year later in a second version, along with a disc that sampled all their Mercury live albums.)

Rush Chronicles (1990)—4
Retrospective I: 1974-1980 (1997)—
Retrospective II: 1981-1987 (1997)—
The Spirit Of Radio: Greatest Hits 1974-1987 (2003)—4

Friday, October 11, 2019

Jeff Beck 10: Flash

Five years was a long time in the ‘80s, so when Jeff Beck finally got around to recording an album, the music scene had changed dramatically. The cover of Flash is telling; here El Becko is shown wearing a stylish suit, not unlike the blazer Bob Dylan appropriated for the same year’s Empire Burlesque. (Like that album, producer of the moment Arthur Baker adds his sheen as well, dating the album just as severely today.) Nile Rodgers dominates the proceedings, fresh from Mick Jagger’s solo album.
Beck’s guitar is just as adventurous as ever, but on every track, drums boom and synths dominate the bass, bringing to mind “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins, which isn’t on the album, and likely wasn’t recorded yet, but you get the idea. The album as a whole resembles so many movie soundtracks of that period.
The big draw was Rod Stewart’s appearance on a cover of “People Get Ready”, which would bring the singer a needed boost, soon to be derailed by “Love Touch”. Most of the rest of the vocals came from the soulful throat of Jimmy Hall, once of Wet Willie, here following the footsteps of Bobby Tench. “Ambitious” is fairly funky, but takes off when Beck takes over. He’s all over “Gets Us All In The End” pretty much from start to finish, a track otherwise tailor-made for Bonnie Tyler, but “Stop, Look And Listen” and “Ecstasy” are ultimately generic vocally. And while anybody would know by now that Beck was no singer, somehow Nile Rodgers felt he should take the mic for “Get Workin’” (punctuated by the stuttering sample best personified by “Rock Me Amadeus”) and “Night After Night”. Luckily for everyone he’s mixed low, and several background singers fill up the cavern of sound.
Interestingly, two instrumentals each come from keyboard players we’ve heard on previous Beck albums. Jan Hammer’s “Escape” manages to employ dynamics over the same metronomic beat. Tony Hymas offers “You Know, We Know”, which starts okay, but soon turns into everything else. The LP and cassette ended there, but certain CD pressings maximized the extra playing time by adding two B-sides. “Nighthawks” is another ordinary Nile Rodgers tune sung by Jimmy Hall, while “Back On The Streets” features the talents of Karen Lawrence, soon to be heard singing the opening theme to the hit TV show Misfits Of Science.
Flash managed to become something of a hit, mostly for the Rod Stewart connection, but also because it fit squarely into radio formats of the time. It’s undeniably catchy, perhaps a guilty pleasure, and at its best when you can concentrate on the guitar, not the dressing. If you can’t, dock the rating a full point.

Jeff Beck Flash (1985)—3

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Cat Stevens 12: Footsteps in the Dark

After a few years of musical silence, the news emerged that Cat Stevens had changed his name yet again. Now known as Yusuf Islam, he had retired from pop music to devote his life to his family and his faith. Meanwhile, his songs still played on the radio, in all formats, so releasing a second greatest hits compilation wasn’t too much of a stretch.
Despite its subtitle, Footsteps In The Dark is fairly short on actual hits, but it’s still chock full of quality. In a covert admission that the albums since the first hits album hadn’t aged well, the set covers songs throughout the entire ‘70s. As an added bonus, three songs make their album debut.
Side one is nearly flawless, beginning with “The Wind” but veering off course with “(I Never Wanted) To Be A Star”; okay, we get it. “Katmandu” and “Trouble” are rescued from Mona Bone Jakon. In between is the charming “I Want To Live In A Wigwam”, the B-side of “Morning Has Broken”. “On The Road To Find Out” turns out to be just one of the foreshadowings scattered throughout his pop career, while “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”, written for and featured prominently in the film Harold And Maude finally appears for home enjoyment.
The second side hops even wider throughout the decade, from “Where Do The Children Play?” and “How Can I Tell You” to later tunes “The Hurt”, “Daytime” (whence comes the album title), and “Silent Sunlight”. The simple but sweet “Don’t Be Shy” is the other Harold And Maude song here, and for some reason “Father & Son” appears, despite its inclusion on the first hits album.
The CD era would eventually inspire further collections, beginning with Classics Volume 24 (numbered as part of A&M’s 25th Anniversary Classics series), which combined tunes from both hits albums and nicely included “If You Want To Sing Out”. Several different releases purporting to be The Very Best Of Cat Stevens have appeared over the years; the most recent is not chronological, but includes more pop material from the ‘60s and concludes with, yes, “If You Want To Sing Out”. 2005’s Gold double CD was very comprehensive, going from “Matthew & Son” through Teaser And The Firecat on the first disc alone, and including both Harold And Maude songs. The second disc rushes through the rest of the ‘70s, and even includes a new track recorded by Yusuf Islam himself specifically for this set. All that said, Footsteps In The Dark is still the best (and cheapest) choice, particularly for “I Want To Live In A Wigwam”.

Cat Stevens Footsteps In The Dark: Greatest Hits Volume Two (1984)—

Friday, October 4, 2019

David Crosby 4: CPR

In another one of those unlikely stories outside a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, David Crosby needed a liver transplant, and met a kid he likely would have given up for adoption if he hadn’t already ran out on the mother. Not only did young James Raymond bear little resentment towards his deadbeat dad, but he’d spent much of a blissful childhood becoming a rather accomplished musician in his own right. Once this odd couple started spending time together, jam sessions happened, and songs appeared. With the assistance of session rat Jeff Pevar, the easily monikered CPR started playing shows and recording an album.
Even more unlikely, the resultant CPR offers some of Crosby’s best work in literally decades. Relying mostly on Raymond’s musical ideas, which come from places outside his usual toolbox, the lyrics flow without sounding forced or trite. Highlights include “Morrison”, a belated criticism of Oliver Stone’s version of the Doors story. “That House” and “Somehow She Knew” express different kinds of loss and the sorrow they bring. “Rusty And Blue” is fleshed out from his live album, the source of the title “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”. One PR selling point was “Little Blind Fish”, a CSNY leftover that had snuck out on bootlegs; the similarities are minimal. “Time Is The Final Currency” is a wonderfully understated closer.
Raymond sings the main voice on “One For Every Moment”, with percussion that veers a little close to Stills territory, as well as “Someone Else’s Town”, complete with F-bomb. On his own he sounds like Timothy B. Schmit; with Crosby he provides something of a high Nash counterpoint. The moody “Yesterday’s Child” is the best of his offerings. Throughout, Pevar adds guitar touches worth of Danny Kootch and David Lindley, while a variety of supporting players, some familiar, prop up the back end.

A few years later, following a CSNY reunion album and tour, CPR was back in business with Just Like Gravity. Like the debut, it’s on the long side, but it rocks a little harder, overall. It’s still in the slightly jazzier adult contemporary with New Age touches of the debut, but tunes like “Darkness” use sneaky melodies and non-standard chords to skew off the beaten path. The vocals are also shared more, taking turns on verses, and the kid gets more of a spotlight, taking charge on “Eyes Too Blue” and “Jerusalem”. “Angel Dream” lists Graham Nash as a co-writer, and has something of the moving sweep of “Delta”. Crosby’s voice is still up to the task right off the bat in “Map To Buried Treasure” and elsewhere; the title track is just him and an acoustic, and it’s the sound fans have waited to hear since about 1972.

These albums appeared on a tiny independent label, as did two live recordings, and are tough to find today, but they are streaming. Together they help preserve Crosby’s relevancy as the years go by.

CPR CPR (1998)—3
Just Like Gravity (2001)—3

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Paul Simon 13: 1964/1993

Lots of people’s careers were celebrated with box sets in the early ‘90s, and some of them were actually worth investing in—usually if there were rare or unreleased tracks on them. That’s what made Paul Simon’s place on the shelf so maddening. First of all, the title was off; the music runs the gamut from 1957 to 1991, so somebody wasn’t paying attention. Even limited to three discs, as befits a guy who’d recorded fewer than a dozen albums, much of 1964/1993 was stuff people had already, whether on the albums themselves or, more likely for the time, Negotiations And Love Songs.
The set begins with the version of “Leaves That Are Green” from his then-out-of-print solo album, moving through only a handful of tracks from the Simon & Garfunkel albums—possibly due to licensing—with the live take of “Kathy’s Song” for variety. A tentative demo of an unfinished “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, already sounding like he meant it for Art to sing, is included for petulant reasons. The classic rendition follows, as does a strange little spoken segment called “The Breakup”, wherein Art attempts to make a statement about their separation while Paul interrupts constantly from the control booth. This goes into the original “Hey, Schoolgirl” single from 1957, then “My Little Town” is the last we hear from Art before the chronology returns to the start of Paul’s actual solo career.
From there, it’s basically an expansion on Negotiations, with a lot of the same tunes, save a live version of “Still Crazy After All These Years” from 1991. The final disc has seven songs from Graceland, five from The Rhythm Of The Saints, and three from Concert In The Park. There is another bonus in the form of “Thelma”, an outtake from Rhythm Of The Saints that’s worth more than a cursory listen.
Certainly, the music contained on 1964/1993 is such a high quality, even if you had it already, that we can’t fault the content. It simply should have been something else entirely, and both he and his label would soon learn a harsh lesson on what consumers were willing to abide.

Paul Simon 1964/1993 (1993)—

Friday, September 27, 2019

Roxy Music 4: Country Life

Somehow Roxy Music managed to maintain a lineup for two straight albums. Given the evidence on Country Life, we can presume that familiarity with each other worked in their favor.
Side one is easily their best, most consistent side since the debut, while not as startling. “The Thrill Of It All” is yet another classic opener, a simple piano part running through the entire track while the drums pound the pavement. “Three And Nine” brings back the camp and a nod to the ‘50s, with what sounds like French words but aren’t. Then “All I Want Is You” is an excellent wall of guitars, and a return to the sound of “Thrill” without repeating it. Similarly, “Out Of The Blue” rocks just as hard, with plenty of phasing on and off Eddie Jobson’s violin. “If It Takes All Night” sounds like one of Ferry’s perverted covers from his solo albums, though the party rhythm of the track doesn’t mesh with the arrival of “that old ennui”.
In full illustration of what the album listening experience was like back in the days when we had to manually switch between sides, the second half of the album is a different trip. “Bitter Sweet” is a dire little tune, made even more foreboding when the stormtroopers come marching through and the proceedings take a distinctly Germanic tone, even before he sings a verse in that language. A baroque harpsichord leads “Triptych”; strange even for them, the lyrics seem occupied with the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The trashy rock sound returns for “Casanova”, a putdown worthy of Dylan’s nastiness. The party seems to be winding down a la side two of the debut on “A Really Good Time”, but “Prairie Rose”, with its slide guitars and honking saxes, is one of the odder evocations of the state of Texas in the rock ‘n roll era.
We didn’t expect much from Country Life, after the so-so Stranded and Bryan’s solo experiments, so its quality certainly delivers and gives hope for the future. In fact, the album’s decent enough that they didn’t need the women in the translucent underwear to draw attention to it.

Roxy Music Country Life (1974)—

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Bryan Ferry 2: Another Time, Another Place

Just bursting with the need to express himself, Bryan Ferry found time in between Roxy Music albums to record another collection of covers, this time leaning on country music, R&B, and even standards. The tuxedo shot on the cover is at odds with the musical content, just like last time.
And just like last time, the results as heard on Another Time, Another Place are mixed. The beginning of “The ‘In’ Crowd” predicts another hit song down the road, but in this context it sounds like a typical Roxy tune, which is fine. From there, the arrangements vary from song to song. After a winking first verse, he tramples through “Funny How Time Slips Away” and turns “You Are My Sunshine” into a New Orleans funeral. “(What A) Wonderful World” is the Sam Cooke tune, not the one made famous by Louis Armstrong, turned into a calypso cha-cha. His take on “It Ain’t Me Babe” isn’t as horrifying as what he did to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, but it’s not much better. “Fingerpoppin’” is possibly the least-known track here—at least it is to us—and interchangeable with “Barefootin’” and tunes of that ilk. “Help Me Make It Through The Night” survives a very misplaced key change, but the best is truly saved for last. The title track is a Ferry original, and easily as good as any Roxy tune.
Musically, Another Time, Another Place is fine, provided you have little familiarity with the originals and don’t listen too closely to the words. If anything, it’s a snapshot of a time when labels were willing to put out anything their artists recorded.

Bryan Ferry Another Time, Another Place (1974)—