Friday, May 13, 2022

Neil Young 63: Citizen Kane Jr. Blues

Eighteen months after they were originally announced, the second, third, and fourth installments in Neil’s Official Bootleg Series finally appeared. Two of these chronicled shows only two days apart, and mined material already on four other archival releases. But most fans were far more excited about a show that should have been part of Archives Vol. II—it even fits chronologically between two of that set’s discs.
Citizen Kane Jr. Blues was mastered from the original cassette recording of an impromptu set played in the wee hours at New York City’s Bottom Line following a Ry Cooder gig; Leon Redbone was the opener. Neil had just finished recording On The Beach, but would only play four of that album’s songs, and played even further material that had yet to be released, or even recorded in the forms we would get to know them. (The show was edited to fit on two vinyl sides, but Neil does provide a “complete” stream of the album on his site, which runs about ten minutes longer, mostly due to a lengthy monologue before “Motion Pictures” that explains why he hasn’t played “Southern Man” in a while, and discusses “honey slides”, a potent marijuana concoction that allegedly fueled his recent writing and recording.)
After a brief introduction, he introduces a song with a title that gives this boot its title, but would come to be known as “Pushed It Over The End” and a highlight of the upcoming summer’s CSNY tour. Even without the dynamics of the full band, the stop-start arrangement is hypnotic. He introduces “Long May You Run” as a song he wrote about his car, and the audience chuckles throughout. “Greensleeves” is delivered straight, to silence, then he apologetically sets up “Ambulance Blues” for being a “bummer”, but again, they hang on to every line. At the time, only “Helpless” had made it to an album, and the crowd is happy to hear it.
“Revolution Blues” is just as spooky acoustic, and he downplays the down mood of “On The Beach” by opening with a few guitar licks in the style of Stephen Stills. An inebriated-sounding request for “something country-western” prompts “Roll Another Number (For The Road)”, which is appreciated with clapalongs and yee-haws. Even without the full intro “Motion Pictures” is mesmerizing. He offers the crowd a choice between two songs for his last number, but they want to hear both, so they get a lovely “Pardon My Heart” and then “Dance Dance Dance”, a month away from mutating into “Love Is A Rose”.
Basically, if you love this period of Neil, Citizen Kane Jr. Blues is essential. While he’s been all about sound quality, and replicating other bootlegs with pristine tapes from his own Archives, this show is intimate, raw, and seemingly much more spontaneous. Even the stray coughs from the crowd enhance the natural ambience. And it’s from a period that hasn’t been as documented as, say, early 1971. There will never likely be a better-sounding version of this show, and that’s fine.

Neil Young Citizen Kane Jr. Blues (2022)—4

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Neil Finn 3: 7 Worlds Collide

To promote the all-but-U.S. release of his second solo album, Neil Finn played a weeklong residency at a theater in Auckland, New Zealand with a band that included two members of Radiohead and other special guests, sometimes trading each other’s songs. The highlights were compiled on 7 Worlds Collide. (The DVD version added even more selections, and provides key visual clues to what’s going on.)
A few of the One Nil tracks make the program, while “Loose Tongue” from his first solo album is nicely translated to the stage. Johnny Marr emerges from years of session work to sing his own “Down On The Corner”, and Neil returns the favor by ably tackling The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano takes a rare spotlight on the transfixing “Paper Doll” before harmonizing nicely on “Turn And Run”. It wouldn’t be a show without Tim Finn, and the two perform not only a few from their one collaboration album to date, but preview “Edible Flowers” from the next one. Eddie Vedder reveals himself to be a huge Split Enz fan, taking lead vocals on “Take A Walk”, “Stuff And Nonsense”, and “I See Red”, the latter yelled over a band fronted by Neil’s son Liam (more on him later). The band also backs him on “Parting Ways” from the most recent Pearl Jam album. For Crowded House fans, “Weather With You” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” close the set.
7 Worlds Collide isn’t the first time Neil would collaborate with surprisingly likeminded musicians, but it is an unexpected surprise. One suspects it may have helped pave the way for the emergence of One All in the U.S. the following year.

Neil Finn & Friends 7 Worlds Collide (2001)—

Friday, May 6, 2022

Yes 4: Fragile

Growing up with classic rock radio meant we’ve been prejudiced against not just certain songs, but certain bands. That’s why we think this little forum of ours has been so important; not only can we put certain things we love in context, but we’ve also come around on songs we, frankly, hated with a passion.
Fragile begins with one such culprit, the immortal-despite-our-better efforts “Roundabout”. Once upon a time we would hear those twelfth-fret harmonics and lunge to change the station as soon as possible. It’s still not our favorite song by any stretch, but time, patience, and the determination to review albums no matter what has allowed us to see why so many Yes fans and fanatics love it so damn much.
The album has something of an apt title, since the band had just bounced Tony Kaye because he didn’t want to venture further than piano and organ. To both replace him and better attain their vision, they convinced Rick Wakeman to give up sessions and bring his arsenal of keyboards into the fold. Under pressure and short on funds, they concocted an album consisting of four mostly long songs, interspersed with “individual ideas” from each band member. Pink Floyd had already tried this, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer would one day get several albums out of the method; the trick is to have such statements fit into a larger collaborative concept (think the White Album or Déjà Vu.
“Roundabout” does indeed start the album, and those beginner harmonics only slightly disguise Chris Squire’s monster bass. Wakeman’s keys come in on the second verse and we start to appreciate just how intricate the tune is. Its structure repeats sections with mild variations, so that it’s never quite over when you think it is. And after all this time, while we’re not sure how mountains would come out of the sky, what else could they possibly do but stand there?
Wakeman gets the first solo spot, a piece called “Cans And Brahms” that reassigns instruments in a symphony to different keyboards and overdubbed. These days it sounds more canned than Brahms, mostly since Switched-On Bach had already blazed the trail. Then Jon Anderson does a vocal round called “We Have Heaven”, which gets pretty busy until a door slams on it and footsteps run away into the wind. (Again, this was two years after Pink Floyd did it.) This brings us to “South Side Of The Sky”. This never got as much radio play as the rest of the album, yet that shouldn’t suggest it’s no good. The first verses have good rocking tension, and Wakeman’s completely solo piano interlude (which likely kept it off the radio) cleverly sets up an extended vocal chorale with good band support before the verses come back again.
Bill Bruford has been fairly constrained thus far, but side two starts with “Five Per Cent For Nothing”, a 35-second burst that really is in 4/4, but syncopated with competing atonal lines from Squire and Steve Howe and a few stabs from Wakeman. It’s a mere prelude to that other song you might be sick of, “Long Distance Runaround”. Here again we can marvel how well the players double each other, and Wakeman appears to be playing a primitive electric piano rather than something more advanced. (The internet tells us that Bruford is playing in 5/8 over the band’s 4/4 in the verses, which explains the off-kilter effect.) It’s deceptively short, ending on a flourish that segues into “The Fish”, which almost always got airplay as a result. This is Chris Squire’s statement, which we’re told is all layered bass parts, but there are drums, some wah-wah, and a chant of the song’s subtitle (“schindleria praematurus”, for all you marine biologists out there). Steve Howe’s solo spot is the longest, the Spanish-classical original “Mood For A Day”. It gets busy but is mostly pastoral, which belies the furious intro of “Heart Of The Sunrise”, wherein everybody gets to blow (in the jazz sense, that is). The track seems to slow down, but then the riffing returns with a vengeance. The vocal doesn’t come in for almost four minutes, for almost another song completely. The interplay increases with precision, until finally the main riff swallows the tune whole. But wait! After a few seconds of silence, a door opens to return us to “We Have Heaven”, already in progress.
Fragile really is better in context as an album than parsed out in a rotation, and despite its fragmented genesis, just plain works. Also, this was the debut of Roger Dean as their go-to album art guy, and his other-worldly ideas fit the music perfectly. More of his designs appear in a booklet that came with initial pressings, featuring the now-customary shots of each band member on stage and with their families. Anderson offers four lines of a poem, while Wakeman offers a dense paragraph of thanks to various individuals, organizations, and a pub. (The initial expanded CD added two timely tracks: the full-length cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”, which will be discussed in a different context, and a rough mix of “Roundabout”. Only the latter was included when the album was reissued in a “definitive edition” with new mixes by Steven Wilson, along with other rough mixes and outtakes.)

Yes Fragile (1971)—4
2003 remastered CD: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2015 Definitive Edition: “same” as 1971, plus 6 extra tracks (plus DVD or Blu-ray)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Pretenders 16: Valve Bone Woe

If anyone’s read this far, they know the high esteem in which we hold Chrissie Hynde as a singer. In addition to her own songs, she’s proven a deft interpreter of others’ music since the first Pretenders album. Her first all-covers album has the design of a classic jazz vocal album, but while some of the selections on Valve Bone Woe fall into that category, she’s also brave enough to add songs outside the Great American Songbook.
Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” is taken fairly straight, until the slightly discordant fade, which sets up the trip-hoppy effects that derail the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No”, otherwise taken in a torch style. “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well” are more reverent treatments, and she seems to only wail along with the trumpet on “Meditation On A Pair Of Wire Cutters” by Charles Mingus. One might expect her to tackle an Astrud Gilberto vocal, but instead she goes for the earlier Jobim composition “Once I Loved”. Meanwhile, her “Wild Is The Wind” follows closer to David Bowie’s version than that of Nina Simone or Johnny Mathis. (She does the bridge just once, preferring an extended ending that will make you nostalgic for Portishead.)
Trip-hop effects also color “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, and while we’re intrigued anytime someone covers Nick Drake, Bred Mehldau set the bar for “River Man”. Still, the ending nicely segues to “Absent Minded Me”, which she heard from either Julie London or Barbra Streisand, although this is also taken over by factory sounds by the close. We can’t hear her anywhere on Coltrane’s “Naima”, which also gets the effects treatment, but luckily “Hello, Young Lovers” isn’t too ornate. She tackles an obscure Kinks song for the first time in decades, but the already bossa nova “No Return” could have stayed out of the rainforest, especially when the traffic jam runs through it. “Que Reste-t-il De Nos Amours?” shows she can still slay us in French, but we did not need a minute of sampled dialogue from a French film. Maybe we’d feel different had we learned the language.
As should be clear, Valve Bone Woe is best when it’s not so busy. Even her voice can’t compete with all the treatments; co-producer Marius de Vries is likely to blame for those. That said, she still knows how to pick ‘em.

Chrissie Hynde With The Valve Bone Woe Ensemble Valve Bone Woe (2019)—3

Friday, April 29, 2022

Frank Zappa 46: Broadway The Hard Way

In 1988, Frank Zappa assembled a band that was arguably his most accomplished for what was supposed to be a lengthy worldwide tour. The 12-person band, including a full horn section, made it through an East Coast leg and a few months in Europe with a repertoire in the dozens before a petty mutiny imploded the project, and that was that.
Naturally, Frank had recorded all the gigs, and used his suddenly free time to compile a few albums from the gigs that had actually been played. Broadway The Hard Way was the first of these, and concentrated heavily on the new songs that had debuted. Considering the timeframe, the lyrical content and subsequent asides focused on two pet peeves: the activities of the Reagan administration and the hypocritical hijinks of such televangelists as Jimmy Swaggart.
The album originally appeared two ways—a two-sided program on LP and cassette, and an extended, rejigged sequence on CD. Both started with the same three songs, all new. “Elvis Has Just Left The Building” is sung by new guitarist Mike Keneally this side of a Johnny Cash impression, punctuated by accents from Ike Willis and a pretty good imitation of Sam Kinison screaming. “Planet Of The Baritone Women” is misogyny directed at Wall Street in an old European style, whereas “Any Kind Of Pain” almost approaches adult contemporary in its sax solos and chorus; Frank takes a solo here.
On the LP and cassette, the balance of side one was filled by “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk”, which was the last song before intermission. This is a highly intricate song in structure and harmony, mostly dealing with televangelists Jim Bakker (who went to prison for embezzlement) and Pat Robertson (who was running for president that year) but touching on the NRA and the KKK along the way. A fan named Eric Buxton, who’d been following the tour, is brought up to read a Twilight Zone-style monologue before the music becomes more adult contemporary again.
Side two of the LP and cassette begin with Frank explaining the concept of a form of prison food called “confinement loaf”, which is referred to throughout “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”, which follows, and elsewhere on the album. However, the CD omits this detail, so it goes straight from “Any Kind Of Pain” to “Dickie’s Such An Asshole”, matching the LP and cassette sequence again.
So anyway, “Dickie’s Such An Asshole” dated from the Roxy era when the Watergate hearings were threatening to take down Nixon; clearly Frank saw parallels between that scandal and the Iran-Contra affair from the year before. “When The Lie’s So Big” continues to lambaste Republicans, with clever inserts and quotes from the horn section, then “Rhymin’ Man” turns its ridicule to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also running for president that year. This time the Johnny Cash voice is more overt. “Promiscuous” is rapped by Ike Willis about then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop (whom Frank felt resembled Cap’n Crunch via his uniform and facial hair) and the theme from the TV show The Untouchables allows Ike to do a Robert Stack impression while skewering figures in Iran-Contra.
The LP and cassette end there, but the CD has another half an hour of music. “Why Don’t You Like Me?” rearranges “Tell Me You Love Me” with new words about Michael Jackson, sung by Robert Martin in a bad impersonation. “Bacon Fat” is an old R&B tune with new lyrics about confinement loaf, while the jazz instrumental “Stolen Moments” becomes a prelude for special guest Sting to come onstage and sing “Murder By Numbers” (which, he explains, was denounced by Jimmy Swaggart). “Jezebel Boy” asks why vice squads don’t round up male prostitutes with the zeal they apply to females. After some entertaining sound effects, it’s a thematic switch to “Outside Now”, and Frank gets to solo again, as he does also on “Hot-Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel”. That leads thematically to a rewrite of “What Kind Of Girl?” focusing on Swaggart’s reported adventures with prostitutes. There’s a quote from “Strawberry Fields Forever” halfway through, which is this album’s only nod to an extended “Beatles Medley” played throughout the tour, with further parody lyrics devoted to the torrid subject. The CD ends with “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk”, complete with the intermission announcement and exhortation to vote.
Considering that most of the songs are cobbled together from multiple performances—sometimes as few as two but usually five or as many as ten, and back and forth within a track—it’s a testament to Frank’s editing skill that Broadway The Hard Way flows like a single show. Further performances would appear in the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, as well as on two double-CD sets we’ll get to, but then there was a twenty-year wait before Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show presented the band’s final performance in Frank’s homeland, complete with the Beatle rewrites. Even there, the references are as dated as his pink shirt and jacket.

Frank Zappa Broadway The Hard Way (1988)—3
1989 Rykodisc CD: same as 1988, plus 8 extra tracks

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Elton John 19: 21 At 33

He was still selling out concert halls and arenas, but Elton John was obsessed with his chart placings. (He still is to this day.) 21 At 33 was something of an attempt at a comeback, even going so far to include Bernie Taupin and some old bandmates in the mix. But it’s still a mix, and not quite a blend.
“Chasing The Crown” is an excellent opener, with all the rock elements we’ve been missing, and lyrics by Bernie. The female choir fits, but it turns out that blazing guitar is courtesy of Steve Lukather, proving why he banked so much doing sessions. “Little Jeannie” was the hit single, with some “Daniel” echoes in the instrumentation; these days the drum machine in the second verse is a clever touch alongside the real thing. Gary Osborne wrote the lyrics for that one, and the next track is Elton’s first collaboration with Tom Robinson, who’d achieved notoriety a few years before with “Glad To Be Gay”. “Sartorial Eloquence” is a posh way of saying “gee but you clean up nice”, which wasn’t more successful as a hit single under the title “Don’t Ya Wanna Play This Game No More?” Bernie returns on “Two Rooms At The End Of The World”, which would describe and celebrate their tried-and-true writing method. Unfortunately, the track is just too punchy, and while he’d use this blueprint more successfully in the future, the horn and other singers engulf Elton’s parts.
Bernie’s also responsible for “White Lady White Powder”, which was hardly a subtle metaphor even then. The simple piano is soon joined by Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson and turns into something of a retread of “Phildelphia Freedom” without the strings. To underscore their intimacy with the song’s message, three of the Eagles add harmonies. Having seemingly packed his nostrils to the limit, “Dear God” is a limp prayer via Gary Osborne; the music deserves better. (This time the choir includes Bruce Johnston, Toni Tennille and two other veterans from The Wall, plus Peter Noone, of all people.) Tom Robinson also contributed “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again”, here given an arrangement too close to that of “Little Jeannie”, and a sax solo from the guy who used to play with Billy Joel. The genre shifts again on “Take Me Back”, which would do better if it was more overt country, especially given Byron Berline’s double fiddle solo. Finally, “Give Me The Love” is a disco-tinged collaboration with Judie Tzuke, whom we’ve never heard of either, but she was signed to his record label, so there.
While starting mostly strong, 21 At 33 fails as an album, though it’s certainly better than the missteps of 1979. Given his work ethic, he wasn’t about to take any time off. The album title was more of a score than a milestone anyway: he turned 33 years old while making the album, which would be his 21st. (This may seem confusing taking our series into account, but his arithmetic included everything we’ve reviewed thus far, plus Lady Samantha, a UK-only collection of B-sides and rarities issued initially only on 8-track and cassette that we’ll get to in another context.)

Elton John 21 At 33 (1980)—

Friday, April 22, 2022

Grateful Dead 16: Shakedown Street

Their record company wanted more product, so the Dead decamped to their rehearsal space to deliver what would become Shakedown Street. Still required to use a name producer, they went the somewhat safe route with Little Feat’s Lowell George, who’d be dead within the year.
There is something of a gumbo feel to their laid-back cover of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’”; this was one of Pigpen’s showcases back in the day, but it’s handled here by Bob Weir. It’s also splattered with timbale-style percussion, which continues on “France”, wherein Donna Godchaux duets with Weir on music he wrote with Mickey Hart to a Robert Hunter lyric. It’s got way too much steel drums, but some nice acoustic soloing, which only whets listeners’ appetites for Jerry Garcia to do something. Unfortunately he does so with the heavily discofied title track, the chorus and hooks of which still bear an uncomfortable similarity to “Stayin’ Alive”. This wouldn’t keep the tune from becoming a live staple, however. “Serengetti”, a track consisting solely of Mickey and Bill Kreutzmann’s percussion, is a more successful experiment, and a nice distraction. However, “Fire On The Mountain” uses the same two-chord template—maybe because Mickey wrote the music?—as “Franklin’s Tower”, but a hair slower. It, too, would become a favorite onstage.
Side two starts strong with “I Need A Miracle”—a rather ordinary sentiment, but the track has power. “From The Heart Of Me” is Donna’s final spotlight with the band, and while it’s a little chirpy, it’s a nice song, perhaps too quirky to be an adult contemporary hit. Historians shouldn’t be misled by “Stagger Lee”—rather than work up a new arrangement of this chestnut, Robert Hunter wrote all new words to tell the story, including the previously unknown fact that “she shot him in the balls.” Ideas remained thin, however, as “All New Minglewood Blues” is a slowed-down retread of a song from their first album. But “If I Had The World To Give” is a very tender Garcia-Hunter tune, and a nice benediction.
Despite its shortcomings, Shakedown Street isn’t a “bad” album, but it’s not great. The most popular songs continue to sell it to those who embrace them. (Bonus tracks on the eventual expanded CD include a version of “Good Lovin’” with Lowell George singing lead, alongside three songs from the band’s legendary appearance in Egypt in front of the Sphinx, including a 13-minute slog through “Fire On The Mountain”.)

Grateful Dead Shakedown Street (1978)—3
2006 expanded CD: same as 1978, plus 5 extra tracks