Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Frank Zappa 45: The Helsinki Concert

Right after the Frankensteinian assembly of the first volume in Frank’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, the second volume was devoted to exactly one band’s performance at exactly one gig (although evidence has emerged that there were actually two shows, but still). This is basically the Roxy & Elsewhere band, but with only one horn player and one drummer, in this case Chester Thompson. Napoleon Murphy Brock and George Duke enjoy a lot of onstage repartee; the inside joke of this particular show revolves around the word “tush”, as well as Suzi Quatro, who was also touring Finland at the time. Also, Ruth Underwood shows her incredible percussion chops throughout.
We prefer the arrangement of “Village Of The Sun” from Roxy to the version they race through here, but there’s no question that the band is tight. While a good chunk of the repertoire comes from that album, they also played songs that were yet to be released, including “RDNZL” and “Approximate” (another chance for Frank to include a tap-dancing sequence near the start, annoyingly). Part of the guitar solo for “Inca Roads” was edited into the track released on One Size Fits All. “Pygmy Twylte” gets a longer guitar solo before devolving into “Room Service”, a rockin’ groove that turns into something of a sub-Flo and Eddie routine about hotel food and groupies. After an “Idiot Bastard Son” interlude, there’s a dizzying transition into “Cheepnis”.
“Dupree’s Paradise” appears in a 24-minute “rock band” arrangement, as opposed to the chamber music score, but first we must endure further routines and in-jokes regarding their manager’s wife theft of hotel towels. These are forgotten once the drum solo and percussion duet take over, though the duck calls leave something to be desired. This manages to segue into a performance of “Satumaa”, a “Finnish tango” apparently familiar to most of the crowd. “T’Mershi Duween” is another early rarity, moving neatly through “The Dog Meat Variations” and “Uncle Meat”.
Perhaps the most historic aspect of this show is the baffling request for the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” just before “Montana”. Frank duly includes “Whipping Post” references throughout the song, and indeed a cover would be a Zappa concert staple come the ‘80s. A detour into “Big Swifty” provides the finale.
As with the first volume, this set is best appreciated by aficionados, and while some of the sequences become tiresome, it’s still a decent representation of one of Frank’s more celebrated bands. That might actually make it a good place to start.

Frank Zappa You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2: The Helsinki Concert (1988)—3

Friday, October 15, 2021

Elton John 18: The Thom Bell Sessions and Victim Of Love

As further proof that Elton John was undergoing some kind of identity crisis, the follow-up to his tepidly received A Single Man was a maxi-single of three songs recorded two years earlier. The Thom Bell Sessions were named for the producer in charge, famous for his popular “Philly soul” hits of the time; by the time Elton got to work with him, he’d moved to Seattle.
Elton was happy to merely be the singer on the sessions, letting the producer provide the songs as well as the backing. Indeed, “Three Way Love Affair” benefits from Elton’s warm voice, and while “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” was a catchy hit, it could well have been the Spinners, who actually sing on “Are You Ready For Love”, which runs for eight minutes. Those of us who were thoroughly sick of disco by the summer of ‘79 were dismissive, but today we can agree that the production is indeed impeccable.
A good ten years later, once Elton was slowly regaining commercial acceptance again, The Complete Thom Bell Sessions presented all six songs originally recorded for the project. While false advertising, “Nice And Slow” found Elton and Bernie Taupin collaborating with Bell, and “Country Love Song” wouldn’t be confused for a Tumbleweed Connection outtake. A superior re-recording of “Shine On Through” would open A Simple Man.

But he wasn’t done with disco, nor was he ready to take control in the studio. For his next trick, he hooked up with Pete Bellotte, whom he’d first met in the mid-‘60s and had since gone on to make a mint creating Eurodisco with Giorio Moroder and writing for Donna Summer. That hitmaking approach was applied to Victim Of Love, to which Elton devoted exactly eight hours, which is what it took to apply his vocals to the generic backing tracks. Save the execrable opening cover of “Johnny B. Goode”, the songs were supplied by the producer and his team. Truly shocking are the credits, which include such musicians as Marcus Miller on bass, Keith Forsey on drums a few years before Billy Idol, the ubiquitous Paulinho da Costa on percussion, and even Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons hiding from the Doobie Brothers on the title track. Like most disco albums of the time, there is no break between songs, just the same four-to-the-bar kickdrum thump. The only respite comes with the silence at the end of each side. Even more so than The Thom Bell Sessions, Victim Of Love lacks any of Elton’s personality, and therefore any of his genius or talent.

Elton John The Thom Bell Sessions (1979)—
1989 The Complete Thom Bell Sessions: same as 1979, plus 3 extra tracks
Elton John Victim Of Love (1979)—

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Graham Nash 5: Songs For Survivors

For the first time, the winner of the “who’s gonna be the first of CSN to do a solo album” contest went to Graham Nash, though apparently it took him two years to find a label that would distribute it. The nod to the title of his first solo album 30 years before is clever, but as with most sequels, Songs For Survivors has a high hill to climb.
The first drawback is his voice, which shows the effect of time, and gets in the way when he tries to sound sincere. “Dirty Little Secret” is a strong opener, referencing the specter of racism, but “Blizzard Of Lies” and “Lost Another One” are just too cheerful musically to match the lyric content. It’s dangerous for anyone but Leonard Cohen to write about “The Chelsea Hotel”, but at least he stays away from overt references to that song (or Joni’s “Chelsea Morning”, for that matter), choosing instead to celebrate the artists who led mostly bleak lives there. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly still be sappy, “I’ll Be There For You” is the pick-me-up nobody we know requested. (Maybe it got somebody through a crisis, which would be fine.) “Nothing In The World” delivers the same sentiment, but it’s a better song all around.
“Where Love Lies Tonight” is pure ‘70s James Taylor, if you like that sort of thing, but the cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Pavanne”, featuring harmonies from one Sydney Forest, is particularly surprising, and very nice. “Liar’s Nightmare” may sound like it rips off “Masters Of War”, but since that stole the melody of the traditional “Nottamun Town”, no harm no foul. Despite the length, it’s the best tune on the album, and somehow makes “Come With Me” bearable.
Despite all we’ve said, Songs For Survivors is still one of his better solo albums, though that’s considering how thin the competition is. Soundwise the production is commendable, thanks to the father-son team of Russ and Nathaniel Kunkel, while instrumental support from the likes of Matt Rollings, Dean Parks, and Viktor Krauss is understated and more than competent.

Graham Nash Songs For Survivors (2002)—3

Friday, October 8, 2021

Jerry Garcia 6: Cats Under The Stars

Just as bandmate Bob Weir got to indulge his quirks outside the confines of the Grateful Dead, so could Jerry Garcia. And he did, constantly. Cats Under The Stars ventured near the MOR territory of Bob’s recent outing, but at least Jerry had lyricist Robert Hunter to keep him in familiar territory. Keith and Donna Godchaux feature prominently, on keyboards and too-loud vocals respectively, alongside the reliable John Kahn, Merl Saunders, and Ron Tutt; the collective was dubbed, naturally, Jerry Garcia Band.
“Ruben And Cherise” is one of those character mythologies that Robert Hunter weaves so well, though we could do without the synth horns and guitar effects that sound like a warped steel drum. It’s also easy to sway too, despite the constant tempo changes. John Kahn is credited for the music on the calypso-flavored “Love In The Afternoon”, and it’s surprising that nobody pointed out the chord changes are identical to “Ship Of Fools”. “Palm Sunday” is a brief trifle, sunk by what sounds like a synthesized harmonica, while the title track starts with a decent groove and another screwy meter. We’d love to take that tinkly keyboard out of the mix.
Side two is just strange. First off, “Rhapsody In Red” is a celebration of music that just plain rocks, Jerry soloing from start to finish, whether he’s singing or not. Unfortunately, Donna is the only vocalist on her own “Rain”, which otherwise sports a smart chamber strings and horns arrangement behind the adult contemporary backing, the guitar sounding like ‘70s Traffic. She also leads the choral group on John Kahn’s “Down Home”, evoking a cowboy campfire. “Gomorrah” brings Jerry back to the microphone for a slow lope a la “Candyman” or “Sugaree”, more in line with classic Garcia-Hunter.
Deadheads find Cats Under The Stars to be an absolute treat, but they probably like Donna anytime and anywhere. While Jerry’s voice and guitar ring throughout, the uninitiated may find the album to be dated at best, and generally sub-par. (The bonus tracks on the expanded CD are mostly covers and aren’t very exciting—unless you want a 16-minute version of “Don’t Let Go”—although there is a rehearsal of “Down Home” without Donna and a lovely stripped-down take of “Palm Sunday”.)

Jerry Garcia Band Cats Under The Stars (1978)—
2004 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Bob Weir 3: Heaven Help The Fool

The Dead’s deal with Arista Records allowed members to do solo albums, and Bob Weir was the first to bite. Where his first solo project involved the rest of the band anyway, it seems he had a different vision for Heaven Help The Fool. This time, the musicians included schlockmeister David Foster, Tom Scott, Waddy Wachtel, two guys from Toto, Bill Champlin on his way to ‘80s Chicago, and the guy who played drums in Journey after they booted Steve Smith. Do the math, and you get L.A. smooth.
That’s the prevailing sound from the start. “Bombs Away” is catchy, but there are far too many singers and saxophones in the way of the tune. If “Easy To Slip” sounds like a step in the right direction, keep in mind it’s a Little Feat cover, and that’s Elton John’s rhythm section holding it down. “Salt Lake City” is about as inspiring as the Beach Boys song of the same title, and it didn’t work for them either. Besides, he’s already a little old to be talking about all the pretty Mormon girls he’d like to see there. (As with all the songs that weren’t covers, John Barlow is the lyricist, so blame him.) “Shade Of Grey” moves through what sounds like several keys from verse to chorus, and musically surpasses the gang vocals on every “out in the streets”.
Maybe we’re just dim, but we can’t tell whether the title track is boasting or a warning. And maybe we’re suckers for mush, but “This Time Tomorrow” is a heartbreaker, even with the lush strings. However, in six short years Marvin Gaye could actually roll in his grave in reaction to the limp arrangement of “I’ll Be Doggone”. That makes the generic arena rock of “Wrong Way Feelin’” a relief.
There’s nothing wrong with Heaven Help The Fool except that it’s a departure from the Dead brand. One suspects that given his druthers, Bobby would have preferred a career like Boz Scaggs or Dan Fogelberg had attained by this time, and gladly worked with producer Keith Olsen forever. But for extremely rare occasions, none of these songs would make it to Dead setlists, which is telling.

Bob Weir Heaven Help The Fool (1978)—2

Friday, October 1, 2021

Genesis 21: Archive #2

Having already devoted four discs to the Peter Gabriel era of the band, the Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 box set was designed to supplement the Phil Collins era. Whereas the first set was teeming with goodies for the fans, this time out they had a smaller pool covering a wider period.
The sequencing is just plain strange, as each disc ignores chronology. The first contains B-sides (largely studio tracks, plus one extended remix), the second is all live versions (some of which happened to already be B-sides), and the third has more remixes, then more live versions, and then more B-sides. Warning to uber fans: Steve Hackett only appears on one live track (alongside Bill Bruford on drums) and just three of the B-sides.
The “B-sides” disc is gold for collectors and just as maddening. At their best, they show a more experimental side of the band in a time when they’d become mainstream. For example, “On The Shoreline” is a surprisingly poppy little gem from the We Can’t Dance? era that hearkens to earlier triumphs, while “Hearts On Fire” utilizes canned horns with vocals way too close to “Illegal Alien”. “You Might Recall”, “Paperlate”, and “Evidence Of Autumn” return to digital after being exiled from the North American version of Three Sides Live. “Do The Neurotic” is a lengthy instrumental of some merit, even if it does sound like the theme song to an ‘80s detective TV show, while “I’d Rather Be You” defines B-side throwaway. The “Naminanu” and “Submarine” instrumentals are somewhat related to “Dodo/Lurker”, so that’s nice, but here they’re separated by “Inside And Out” from the Spot The Pigeon EP, the surprisingly strong “Feeding The Fire” from the Invisible Touch sessions, and a seven-minute remix of “I Can’t Dance”.
In the booklet—which goes in depth into the albums of the period, even though most of the music discussed isn’t heard—Tony Banks’ justification for the selection of live tracks is that none had appeared on a live album before. That doesn’t mean we were aching for a live version of “Illegal Alien”, but that’s what kicks off the second disc. Luckily, the bulk of the disc concentrates on deep cuts from earlier albums, such as “Ripples”, “Entangled”, and “Duke’s Travels” (which extends through “Duke’s End”). Well-deserved credit is given to Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson for their valuable contributions to the band on stage.
The first 25 minutes of the third disc are devoted to three extended remixes from the Invisible Touch era before jumping back for contemporary-ish live versions of a profanity-laden “No Reply At All”, a heckled “Man On The Corner”, and an affected “The Lady Lies”. Then it’s more B-sides from the first few years of the Phil era: “Open Door” and “Pigeons” return from Three Sides Live and Spot The Pigeon exile respectively; “The Day The Light Went Out” and “Vancouver” are mildly poppy yet mysterious; “It’s Yourself” is a revelation, as it leads directly into the opening of “Los Endos” on A Trick Of The Tail. A ten-minute “work-in-progress” recording of “Mama” closes the set, and is the only previously unreleased studio track.
That right there is annoying, although the band insisted that any “outtakes” per se ended up as B-sides. But even with the limited supply, there were some key omissions—namely, “Match Of The Day” from Spot The Pigeon and “Me And Virgil” from the 3x3 EP (or side four of Three Sides Live, depending on your location). Somehow the band thought the extended remixes they included were less embarrassing than the tracks they left out. Couldn’t those have been added in context, and the 12-inch variations relegated to its own disc with others of the sort? This is all quibbling, of course, since the set is designed strictly for diehards. By now the hits could be found elsewhere anyway, but at least some of those rarities were available again.

Genesis Genesis Archive #2: 1976-1992 (2000)—3

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Queen 3: Sheer Heart Attack

Once upon a time, a young and hungry band would write, record, tour, and repeat. Sometimes this would lead to not one but two brand new albums being released in the space of a calendar year. Those were the days. (Plus, records were cheaper then.)
Sheer Heart Attack finds Queen determined to leave their mark on the music scene, and loudly. But first: remember how the last album with “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside”? Well, that’s referenced in the atmospheric intro to “Brighton Rock”, which hides a tale of star-crossed lovers at the seashore in a frantic arrangement. Brian May takes a mostly unaccompanied solo that takes up about three minutes in the middle of the song, setting up a showcase for live appearances; we’re going to assume this is supposed to illustrate their romantic interlude before the twist ending. After all that volume and bombast, the campy “Killer Queen” is a surprise, but one that better signals the band’s sound going forward, with the prominent piano and flanged vocals and guitars. “Tenement Funster” is a dark little recording, wherein Roger Taylor boasts of his rock star coolness (tongue in cheek, thankfully) before an abrupt switch to “Flick Of The Wrist” returns Freddie Mercury to center stage for a portrait of an even more unsavory character. This too goes directly to the next song; here “Lily Of The Valley” appears to be another overwrought ballad in a prog suite, particularly with the reference to “seven seas” and the “king of Rhye”, but’s it’s more clever than that. “Now I’m Here”, with its dizzying time changes and chord changes, plus a reference to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”, brings a fairly adventurous side one to a breathtaking close.
An impossible high note sung by Roger heralds “In The Lap Of The Gods”, which belies its bombastic intro and strangely processes Freddie’s voice to a lower pitch, and frankly, doesn’t go anywhere, limping to a close. A speed-metal template save the harmonies, “Stone Cold Crazy” barrels past in just over two minutes, with two guitar parts chasing each other over the bridge. “Dear Friends” another left turn, and another piano and voice interlude. John Deacon’s acoustic strumming on “Misfire” makes the song sound like any number of Doobie Brothers tunes from the period, but the same cannot be said about “Bring Back That Leroy Brown”, which shares a title and the traits of Jim Croce’s character, but this is a vaudeville sendup with incredible bass work from Deacon and Brian on ukulele. The echoed acoustics and vocals on “She Makes Me” doesn’t quite match the “Stormtrooper In Stilettos” subtitle, though the police sirens and heavy breathing over the end are tough to miss. Finally, “In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited” merely presents a wholly different song to the one heard at the top of the side, and one more likely to cause audiences to sway and sing along, at least until the explosion at the very end.
There’s a lot going on throughout Sheer Heart Attack, and we suspect its charms truly emerge with time. At any rate, the inclusion of “Killer Queen”, “Now I’m Here”, and “Stone Cold Crazy” alone launch it above the line. (The 1991 expansion of the album added only a modern remix of “Stone Cold Crazy”; this was ignored two decades later, which offered a live “Now I’m Here” from 1975, two tracks from a contemporary BBC session, a fun a cappella mix of “Leroy Brown” that incorporates other instruments only where there are no vocals, and “Gods Revisited” from the 1986 Wembley show.)

Queen Sheer Heart Attack (1974)—3
1991 Hollywood reissue: same as 1974, plus 1 extra track
2011 remaster: same as 1974, plus 5 extra tracks