Friday, April 12, 2024

Jayhawks 7: Rainy Day Music

Having proven that they could stretch outside the box, the Jayhawks took advantage of the wave of the 21st century and went back to the well, so to speak. Rainy Day Music pared the group back to the core of Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, supported by the stalwart Tim O’Reagan on drums and harmonies and former Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy on the other guitars and stringed instruments. With the help of producer Ethan Johns, scion of the legendary Glyn, and a sessioneer on most of the keyboards, the sound was pared back too, without excessive fuzz or feedback, giving the songs room to breathe.

Proof that they’ve gone back to basics is evident immediately on “Stumbling Through The Dark”, with its prominent banjo. “Tailspin” has a little more crunch, but gets its boost from a great chorus and a terrific countermelody from Tim. “All The Right Reasons” brings the proceedings back to just above a hush, at least until the drums kick in, and “Save It For A Rainy Day” is one of those catchy songs we could swear we’ve heard before. There must be a reason why the protagonist of “The Eyes Of Sarahjane” spells her name that way, but it still sounds like a chorus matched to a completely unrelated verse. Not quite as schizophrenic is “One Man’s Problems”, which skirts with funk when it’s not going for California pop. Both are eclipsed by Tim’s “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way”, which even has a Mellotron.

Others have noted that the second half isn’t as strong, but that’s not to say it’s not good. “Come To The River” goes for a soulful Southern rock vibe, and “Angelyne” manages to get a new song out of the same chords that launched a thousand Byrds and Petty knockoffs. “Madman” is another vibe peace, with swampy bongos and acoustic guitars under close harmonies. While very much related to “Waiting For The Sun” musically, with more acoustic touches, “You Look So Young” succeeds, particularly in the breakdown and subsequent bridge. Tim contributes another strong one, “Tampa To Tulsa”, while “Will I See You In Heaven” comes solely from the pen of Marc, who does not sing it. The closing reprise of “Stumbling Through The Dark” only helps to suggest that the album does seem to run long and gets too quiet at times.

Despite that, Rainy Day Music is nice and cozy for any kind of weather, and a welcome change of pace. It also helped that the American label’s new distribution deal with Universal brought them within the purview of the Lost Highway imprint, which gave it decent promotion among people interested in Ryan Adams and the like.

As was common at the time, a limited edition package included a bonus CD titled More Rain, which included the rockin’ “Fools On Parade”, two demos of otherwise unreleased songs, two alternate versions of album tracks, and a live acoustic take of “Waiting For The Sun”. These songs were not included on the expanded reissue some ten years later; instead five different, previously unreleased demos and another live cut were crammed onto the end of the disc.

The Jayhawks Rainy Day Music (2003)—3
2014 Expanded Edition: “same” as 2003, plus 6 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Brian Eno 27: Mixing Colours

We don’t know if being Brian’s younger brother has done Roger Eno any favors, but he has managed to build up a catalog of his own brand of ambient music over the decades. Mixing Colours was the Enos’ first released collaboration in decades, and it was apparently built over a period of 15 years.

The brief is very much like the albums Brian did with Harold Budd—Roger plays gentle keyboards, mostly in the acoustic or electric piano family, and Brian treats the sound or adds his own touches. Each track’s title is derived from a specific shade or tint, so whether or not they convey an accurate representation of a mood is up to the individual. That being so, we found “Snow” to be very pretty and engaging, even before we checked to see what it was called. “Celeste” seems to be one of the more musically developed pieces, as opposed to a sketch, and “Slow Movement: Sand” does convey a certain majesty as it builds. By comparison, “Desert Sand” is dominated by a Brian texture right out of 1976. “Obsidian” breaks from the mold with an organ-based sound, tempered by the more chamber-nursery tone of “Blonde”. The album is easy to have in the background, so one might not notice that the melody of “Spring Frost” turns up again an hour later as “Cerulean Blue”, for example.

Mixing Colours was released at the start of the COVID lockdown, and provided a companion for enforced solitude. Some time afterwards, the Luminous EP presented another seven tracks by the duo, which may be easier to ingest as a shorter program. These were then inserted into the album’s original sequence, which was rereleased as Mixing Colours Expanded. All together, it’s pleasant aural wallpaper from the family dynasty that invented it.

Roger Eno and Brian Eno Mixing Colours (2020)—3
Roger Eno and Brian Eno
Luminous (2020)—3

Friday, April 5, 2024

Elton John 24: Ice On Fire

For his next trick, Elton wrote an entire album with Bernie Taupin, brought back Gus Dudgeon to produce, but overlooked his trusty rhythm section to rely on hired guns and threw himself back into the ‘80s. After all, Bernie was fresh off the success of “We Built This City” for Starship. But perhaps the biggest crime about Ice On Fire was the mullet.

Typical of its era, “This Town” sounds like the theme from a buddy cop soundtrack, and even though the horns are real, they sound canned, and Elton’s delivery is near rap. And that would indeed be Sister Sledge on the backing vocals. At least “Cry To Heaven” is a return to a piano ballad, and it mostly works except for the stock Yamaha DX-7 chime that will always sound like a Taco Bell commercial. Despite the cringey lyrics, “Soul Glove” is generically catchy, with a popping bass by Deon Estus, who’d recently worked with Wham! (More on them later.) “Nikita” was the surprising first single, a non-binary-specific love song with allusions to Soviet relations in the thawing of the Cold War. “Too Young” features the Queen rhythm section, not that you’d notice, particularly with subject matter that would make Benny Mardones blush.

Credited to six writers, “Wrap Her Up” is excruciating enough for George Michael’s falsetto response to every line, and gets worse with the litany of female icons over the end, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Nancy Reagan. “Satellite” is loaded with wacky space effects and an intro that sounds like a ripoff of Bowie’s “Fame”, but the song itself mostly improves on that. Unfortunately, “Tell Me What The Papers Say” is completely cheesy in a not-good way, and the fake horns cover up the bass and piano way too much. “Candy By The Pound” might have potential if not for the robotic backing. All this makes the closing ballad “Shoot Down The Moon” both welcome and frustrating.

The cassette and CD included an extra track in “Act Of War”, a duet with R&B singer Millie Jackson that completely jarred at the end of the program. For some reason this was not included on the eventual expanded CD, which instead added three live songs used as B-sides as well as “The Man Who Never Died”, an instrumental written for John Lennon. No version of the album included the all-star single “That’s What Friends Are For”, wherein Elton sang with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. This was a charity single released to raise money for AIDS research, which would become a key campaign for Elton once he got sober. But that was some time away.

Elton John Ice On Fire (1985)—2
1999 CD reissue: same as 1985, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Who 17: Who’s Last and Shea Stadium

Following Pete Townshend’s statement saying the band was done, there were rumors of a live album in the works that would encompass The Who’s entire career. Instead, the following Xmas saw the release of Who’s Last. Instead of a retrospective, the album consisted solely of performances taken from the 1982 farewell tour. And since it was on MCA, nothing from the ‘80s was included.

This is the showbiz Who, going through the motions, delivering the hits, with Pete playing the Schecter Telecaster copy that always sounded like his chorus pedal was jammed in the full position. It takes balls to include songs already perfected on Live At Leeds, and superior versions of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” were on The Kids Are Alright. Most of the tracks are padded front and back with audience noise. At least John Entwistle gets the last word with his shredding vocal on “Twist And Shout”, and Kenney Jones plays with more fire throughout the album than he demonstrated on any of his Who studio recordings. Except for the backing tapes to “Who Are You” and the Who’s Next tunes, any keyboards heard are provided by Tim Gorman, cruelly called “Jim Gorman” in the liner notes, adding to the shoddiness of the package. Despite occasional moments—such as the rockabilly coda to “Long Live Rock”—Who’s Last proved to be about as inspired as its title.

It took forty years, but they finally got around to releasing a complete show from this tour, but only after it had been released on DVD and Blu-ray that went out of print. They weren’t the first band to play Shea Stadium since the Beatles, but they were certainly the biggest, cramming the field over two nights. As it was about three weeks into the tour, they were up to speed and not yet worn out. (The final show from Toronto has been on video for years, and throughout that Pete looks as uncomfortable as his haircut.)

Live At Shea Stadium 1982 is taken from the second night, and being able to hear a complete set already puts it above Who’s Last. The mix is good, making the keyboards more audible, especially when they pan across the stereo spectrum. Roger’s in good voice as ever, Pete and John less so, but Pete’s sobriety kept him on track. And since they weren’t just playing the hits, but promoting the new album, the setlist is more balanced. Once they get the newer songs out of the way, they start dipping into the past. Pete does a verse of “I’m One” solo before the band crashes in for “The Punk And The Godfather”, and “Drowned” jams for nine minutes. They even play “Tattoo” for some reason, though Pete blows the first chorus, and include “I Saw Her Standing There” in the encores. It’s a long two hours, and not stellar, but better than what we had.

The Who Who’s Last (1984)—2
The Who
Live At Shea Stadium 1982 (2024)—3

Friday, March 29, 2024

Queen 9: The Game

Like most bands, a live album presented something of a chapter break for Queen, who leapt right into the ‘80s with The Game. There wasn’t a complete overhaul of their sound, but everyone except Brian May had shorter hair, and while he doesn’t have it on the cover, the inner sleeve shows Freddie with his new mustache.

Right away it’s clear that the band’s legendary aversion to synthesizers has passed, as “Play The Game” whizzes into place, but it soon turns into a standard if Beatlesque piano-driven piece from Freddie, with lots of layered harmonies and guitar bursts. (The video is worth watching for its now hilariously dated green screen effects and the freeze frame on each of the singers in turn, as well John Deacon, who of course never sang a note in the band and so just stands there.) “Dragon Attack” has a terrific snaky riff and a vocal not too far removed from “We Will Rock You”. This might have pleased those who weren’t happy with the overt funk of “Another One Bites The Dust”, the smash single that definitely sold the album. Deacon wrote it, as well as the more rocking “Need Your Loving Tonight”. The other draw was the undeniably catchy, rockabilly-tinged “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, which had been a single a full six months before the album came out.

“Rock It (Prime Jive)” begins with Freddie singing over a slow arpeggiated guitar, but the tempo changes and Roger Taylor takes over, its stupidity underscored by a cheesy organ. But for the handclaps, things get darkly humorous with “Don’t Try Suicide”, a track that otherwise sounds directly derived from “Walking On The Moon” by the Police. “Sail Away Sweet Sister”, sung mostly by Brian, is more somber but not mournful, and we wish the instrumental coda was longer. Roger brings back the stupid with “Coming Soon”, but Brian rises to the occasion with “Save Me”, an expression of empathy that could have been on any of their earlier albums.

Even with the modern touches, The Game is one of their better albums, and a return to form. Some of the credit could go to their new co-producer, who at this time was known only as “Mack” and apparently kept them reined in. They still sounded like Queen, and that’s all that mattered. (The routine modern remix on the 1991 reissue—this time of “Dragon Attack”—was again ignored for the later expansion, which instead included two live versions, the contemporary “A Human Body” B-side, the first take of “Sail Away Sweet Sister”, and a snippet of the unfinished “It’s A Beautiful Day”.)

Queen The Game (1980)—
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1980, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1980, plus 5 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Neil Finn 7: Out Of Silence

Always into doing something different, Neil Finn’s next move was to rehearse and record an album quickly, and in front of an audience. But Out Of Silence wasn’t just another live album—its production was livestreamed, which wasn’t a common thing in those days. Another unique aspect is that he wrote (and played) the songs on piano, adding another facet to his style. Sons Elroy and Liam add bass and drums where requested; throughout, strings and a small choir of singers add color.

The electronic effect at the start notwithstanding, “Love Is Emotional” sets the bittersweet template, continued on “More Than One Of You”. Beginning with some spooky vibes, “Chameleon Days” is a little more experimental sounding, or maybe it’s just his falsetto vocal. Arpeggiated guitars drive “Independence Day”, which gets a terrific lift for the choruses. Brother Tim shows up for “Alone”, derived from the works of British author Mervyn Peake.

Keeping it in the family, wife Sharon co-wrote “Widow’s Peak”, another poetic reverie. “Second Nature” picks up the pace with the most accessible track here. He gets mildly political on the pleading “The Law Is Always On Your Side” and “Terrorise Me”, the latter of which echoes “Edible Flowers”. These make “I Know Different”, while weary, something of an expression of hope.

Out Of Silence can be a little precious at times, but it’s certainly a welcome departure. A lot is packed into its 35 minutes, and it may be his finest solo work yet.

Neil Finn Out Of Silence (2017)—3

Friday, March 22, 2024

Jerry Garcia 8: Almost Acoustic

Multiplatinum success wasn’t going to slow Jerry Garcia down any, and just because the Dead didn’t have any gigs booked didn’t mean he wasn’t going to play somewhere. For a few months in 1987 and 1988 he did a series of shows with a group that augmented a few members of the Jerry Garcia Band with old friends David Nelson (of New Riders of the Purple Sage) and Sandy Rothman plus a fiddle player. Hence, the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band.

The repertoire was primarily folk and blues, not as extreme as the bluegrass of Old & In The Way but certainly connected. Almost Acoustic presented a grab bag of tunes recorded during stands in Frisco and L.A. and released on the Dead’s own label for the new generation of Deadheads to snap up for their CD players. These kids would have been familiar with the likes of “Deep Elem Blues” and “I’ve Been All Around This World”, and of course the closing “Ripple”, but they might not have expected the original song about Casey Jones. In the process they would become more familiar with the work of Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, Jimmie Rodgers, and so forth.

The playing is relaxed and friendly, the crowd noise appreciative but not distracting. Jerry’s voice is a bit rough, but he’d been through a lot lately. Luckily the other pickers sing, and they harmonize well. And if you like this, there’s more where it came from, as seen below.

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band Almost Acoustic (1988)—3
     Archival releases of same vintage:
     • Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, NYC, 10/31/87 (2004)
     • Pure Jerry: Lunt-Fontanne, The Best Of The Rest (2004)
     • Ragged But Right (2010)
     • On Broadway: Act One (2015)
     • Electric On The Eel (2019)