Friday, September 21, 2018

Byrds 15: Live 1969 & 1971

If it happened at any other time but the late ‘60s, the Byrds would have ended after David Crosby left the band, and the remaining members would have issued their work under another name—the Sweethearts, perhaps, after the album where things truly changed. Once Chris Hillman bailed, and Roger McGuinn was the only Byrd left, the band we knew only three years before was done anyway. Yet, the band called the Byrds that featured a phenomenal lead guitarist named Clarence White on five albums cannot be so easily discarded. That combo was truly unique for its time, playing both traditional country songs and rock amalgams, well before the Eagles ran with the concept. Granted, the Flying Burrito Brothers were working a similar experiment, but they too suffered from revolving band members.

Today, two different artifacts have become part of the Byrds canon, and both come from the era featuring the group we’re going to call the Sweethearts. Live At The Fillmore — February 1969 compiles highlights from two nights at the Fillmore West, right after Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde came out. The sets were heavy on that album and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, with a few other country covers thrown in alongside a medley of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, and “Eight Miles High”, and ending with “Rock & Roll Star”, “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, and “Chimes Of Freedom”. From the opening “Nashville West”, Clarence wails and Roger keeps out of his way.

The only lineup change until the final Byrds album for Columbia was Skip Battin on bass; that incarnation of the Sweethearts (catchy, isn’t it?) was already represented on the first two sides of (Untitled). By now they didn’t sell records in America, but flourished in the UK. A well-performed set was extracted from Roger’s vaults for Live At Royal Albert Hall 1971, released on the psychedelic-centric Sundazed label, and it’s clear how far they’d come as a live act since the Fillmore show. Just as on (Untitled), they begin with “Lover Of The Bayou”, and move through their older Dylan covers with newer tracks. Things go acoustic to show off Clarence’s prowess there, through a couple of traditional songs and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. (By now Gene Parsons would leave the kit to play banjo, and their road manager covered on percussion.) A lengthy “Eight Miles High” jam has to wait through an extended bass solo for the song itself to emerge. While not on the same level as in the folk-rock era, their vocal blends shine throughout, right through the closing a cappella take on “Amazing Grace”. We even get to hear them called back for several encores.

These two albums nicely complement the studio albums of the period, and show strengths that were sadly lost in the mixes. And anytime we get to hear Clarence White, everybody wins. Both are worth seeking out.

The Byrds Live At The Fillmore — February 1969 (2000)—3
The Byrds
Live At Royal Albert Hall 1971 (2008)—

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Rush 13: Power Windows

After not too long a break, another Rush album appeared, with another co-producer. Those who thought Grace Under Pressure was too shiny would likely welcome the better balance of guitar and synth on Power Windows. Amazingly, the album even got a semi-positive review in Rolling Stone magazine.
“The Big Money” crashes out of the silence, full of percolating bass and suspended guitar chords, and a mid-section that could almost be mistaken for U2. Lyrically it’s not the most adventurous, but the cyclical patterns make it memorable. “Grand Designs” starts okay but doesn’t break much ground, though we really like that high-speed piano run about halfway through. While it seems a little forced these days, “Manhattan Project” is about the creation of the atomic bomb—a big topic of the era—swinging between a plaintive melody and a more urgent chorus, with a string arrangement by Anne Dudley, best known for her work with Trevor Horn and Art of Noise. “Marathon” is a more upbeat anthem to bring side one to a close, metaphors aplenty, and featuring an actual choir.
Side two doesn’t always catch fire. “Territories” is a pretty blatant (for them) commentary on world politics, stuck to a mildly Eastern rhythm and Far Eastern melodies. “Middletown Dreams” is something of an extension of the suburban setting of “Subdivisions”; the chorus is the best part, and since practically every state in the U.S. has a Middletown, concertgoers could always cheer for theirs. “Emotion Detector” sounds like elements of other songs on the album, so it doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least “Mystic Rhythms” does a better job with “exotic” sounds and would allow Neil to play around his electronic kit onstage.
While they still weren’t exactly mainstream, Power Windows finds the band even further from their prog-metal roots. The down side of the bargain was that their “big arena sound” was making many of their songs sound indistinguishable from each other. And while the sidelong epic seemed to be well in their past, none of the tracks is shorter than five minutes, adding to the density. It works, but only just. And perhaps the only dated thing about the album is the haircut of the kid on the cover, who still looks surprisingly like Anthony Michael Hall.

Rush Power Windows (1985)—3

Friday, September 14, 2018

Journey 10: Trial By Fire

Steve Perry’s solo album hadn’t made much of an impact, but then again Bad English—Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain’s collaboration with John Waite—didn’t last past a second album, and Neal’s attempt at metal in Hardline was largely ignored. Even the Storm, which featured Gregg Rolie and the spurned rhythm section of Ross Valory and Steve Smith, missed out on success. Yet in an era when the Eagles managed to get back together, the re-emergence of Journey in the studio made sense, at least from a commercial angle. But would they sound any good?
Sure enough, the “classic lineup” that gave us Escape and Frontiers did indeed make an entire album together, which immediately led to Steve’s refusal to tour behind it, and an unintentionally hilarious episode of Behind The Music. The most maddening thing was, by Journey standards, Trial By Fire was pretty good.
Coming in at over an hour, the album shows the three songwriters attempting to straddle all possible worlds associated with the brand, giving equal time to big ballads and riff-heavy rockers. In fact, the first “single” from the album was a double: “Message Of Love” aped enough of “Separate Ways” to make it to classic rock radio, while “When You Love A Woman” was destined to be several couples’ wedding song. They are separated on the album by “One More”, another loud track with top-speed fretwork and nightmarish strings.
From there it’s mostly where they left off on Raised On Radio, but with a more unified sound than the patchwork of that album. “If He Should Break Your Heart” and “Forever In Blue” are typical Perry looks back to the high school crush who still haunts him, seemingly. And just when you think they’ve got the magic back, “Castles Burning” induces a headache sure to last longer than the six minutes it takes to sit through. You’re smarter to hit the skip button for “Don’t Be Down On Me Baby”, a slow apologetic waltz that apparently didn’t take, for all Steve’s got are the memories in “Still She Cries”, and Jonathan slathering the end of the track with John Tesh piano stylings.
Along with new age, so-called “world music” kept instrumentalists busy in the ‘90s between reunion albums, and “Colors Of The Spirit” also shows the influence of The Lion King back then. “When I Think Of You” brings back the romance and the slow dance, even if it does recall the love theme from Major League. Yet if there’s a real winner on the album, it’s “Easy To Fall”, to which the whole band rises: music, lyrics, harmonies, chord changes, key changes, a retro outro, just a great performance, and truly a hidden gem in the catalog. “Can’t Tame The Lion” delivers a final blast of arena rock, with “It’s Just The Rain” (complete with sound effects!) and the title track hobbling to the finish. (As if that wasn’t enough, there was a hidden track after several seconds of silence, the half-baked Sam Cooke reggae homage “Baby I’m A Leaving You”. This was given its own index on the eventual reissue, followed by “I Can See It In Your Eyes”, a surprisingly edgy track previously only included on the Japanese version of the album.)
As head-slappingly silly as it seems sometimes, Trial By Fire remains a much more worthy end to the Steve Perry era of Journey. Whatever legs it might’ve had were undermined by the band’s inactivity, leaving the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, and countless other “reunited” bands to rake in the box office receipts. The album’s mostly been forgotten; meanwhile, we’re still trying to figure out the significance of the cat lady and the giant baby in the boat on the album cover.

Journey Trial By Fire (1996)—3
2006 CD reissue: same as 1996, plus 1 extra track

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Paul McCartney 35: Egypt Station

Because he can—and will—play practically any instrument, the novelty of Paul McCartney recording an album all by himself hasn’t been a novelty since the 20th century. Now that technology has made it much easier and faster for him, much of his rock output since the War on Terror has been recorded that way, with the credits mentioning some help from his loyal touring band, but not always being specific.
Egypt Station follows in the one-man-band vein, once again collaborating with a young hot producer of the day whose job is to help him find his way and perhaps rein him in from time to time. This approach worked best on Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, where Nigel Godrich allegedly challenged him repeatedly to strive for substance. Not so here; these days, with the likes of James Corden and Jimmy Fallon fawning all over him to younger audiences, he can get away with being cute.
The old bastard can still find a melody from time to time. The tracks that stand out for us—more so than the one-note upbeat tunes—are slower and piano-based. “I Don’t Know” is an audacious, vulnerable start (following the brief “Opening Station” ambient fanfare of sorts); one must skip halfway through the album to “Hand In Hand” for a similar mood. An exception is “Dominoes”, which rises above its basic elements to be catchy for five minutes. “Do It Now” tries to be inspirational, along with the other social commentary on the album.
Much will be made of “Despite Repeated Warnings”, an allegory in the form of a suite that compares the President Trump era to a pending disaster. “Who Cares” is something of an anti-bullying anthem but addressed more intimately, even when framed by some feedbacky guitar. “People Want Peace” isn’t the most controversial statement he could make, but that’s what happens when it’s 2018 and you can stretch an hour’s worth of music across four sides of vinyl. Like other tracks on the album, it’s a musical echo of “Queenie Eye”. Speaking of which…
While Paul’s not the worst drummer in the world, he’s never been especially inventive at the kit, and his beats can go in circles. But after half a century of creating, some repetition can be forgiven, somewhat. “Happy With You” recalls “Dance Tonight” and “Early Days”, both in acoustic approach and the latter in the way it talks about the past (in this case, the drugs and drinking in which he indulged). The same can be said for “Confidante”, and while we wanted to speculate whom the subject could be, turns out it’s only his guitar. “Come On To Me” would already be considered a sequel to “Nod Your Head”, if not for the puerile play on pronunciation throughout “Fuh You”, proudly helmed by the singer from OneRepublic, who was born shortly after Back To The Egg came out. Least exciting are “Caesar Rock”, built around another punning syntax, slightly redeemed by his ballsy vocal delivery, and “Back In Brazil”, a strange little story that was likely suggested by the rhythm, almost recalling some of his ‘80s experiments, and not in a good way. These are the most egregious examples of spontaneous lyrics he didn’t bother to improve.
A second “Station” interlude would seem to close the program, but for “Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link”, another apparent stitching of incomplete songs, closed out by a decent guitar solo. As before, the Target chain got two extra tracks; “Get Started” is a catchy track with lazy lyrics, while “Nothing For Free” is best summed up by its closing line: “My brain stopped working today.”
As harmless pop, Egypt Station isn’t substantial, nor is it offensively half-assed. That’s been par for his course; we don’t expect much, and he doesn’t completely waste our attention. The promise of a new McCartney album wasn’t always a good thing, but even after a five-year gap, we should be happy he’s given us a distraction in these troubled times. People will love it, and eventually they’ll realize there’s not much here to treasure. He can do way better than this.

Paul McCartney Egypt Station (2018)—

Friday, September 7, 2018

Streets Of Fire: Original Soundtrack

The pantheon of rock ‘n roll movies is littered with a handful of great films, from either musical or cinematic standpoints, but mostly dominated by some horrible missteps. Yet, even some of these turkeys have their fans, who enjoy them from a “so bad it’s good” angle. As with albums, what makes a great rock ‘n roll movie is largely a matter of personal humor. Also, the nostalgic value will vary depending on personal experience. Therefore, the following may baffle most readers.
Streets Of Fire was supposed to be Walter Hill’s next blockbuster following 48 Hrs., but despite one hit single, this supposed “rock & roll fable” made no dent at the box office. Not did it take off in heavy cable rotation, even with the star power of Michael ParĂ©, fresh off his iconic lead role in Eddie & The Cruisers, which did manage to gain a following on the smaller screen. Granted, the setting was a little weird—‘50s crossed with ‘80s in a city that appeared to have been built in a basement but still rained a lot—but it had Diane Lane at her jailbait hottest, Rick Moranis in a really bad suit, and Willem Dafoe as a psychopath with a tendency to wear fishing waders without a shirt. We could go on (Bill Paxton! Lee Ving! E.G. Daily! The other cute girl from Too Close For Comfort!) but then we’d never get to the music.
The soundtrack is an odd hodgepodge of styles, right in line with the anachronistic setting of the film itself. The two big production numbers come from the grandiose mind of Jim Steinman, loaded with multisyllabic verses and turns of phrase, pounding drums and percussive pianos, with the usual suspects (Rory Dodd, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, etc.) making up the faceless “Fire Inc.” “Nowhere Fast” would be recorded by Meat Loaf that same year, yet “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” appears to have been largely ignored, albeit tailor-made for the likes of Bonnie Tyler.
Half the album was produced by Jimmy Iovine, who called in favors from some important friends. “Sorcerer” was written by Stevie Nicks, sung by one Marilyn Martin, who would go on to duet with Phil Collins for another soundtrack and nothing else. (Indeed, it’s not too tough to discern Stevie’s voice in the mix, indicating that this was an outtake from her most recent solo album.) Meanwhile, “Never Be You” is a rare collaboration between Tom Petty and Benmont Tench, sung in the film by Laurie Sargent, but on the album by Maria McKee, not yet known from Lone Justice, except by Benmont, who was infatuated with her. Placing the music directly in the “now” is “Deeper And Deeper”, an occasionally lengthy track by the Fixx (conveniently signed to MCA, which released the soundtrack) used over the end credits.
Part of the plot involved an R&B vocal group, so the mostly a cappella “Countdown To Love” demonstrates their doo-wop prowess, while “I Can Dream About You” is supposed to be their big breakthrough; indeed it made it to #6 in the real world, voiced by the white guy who wrote it. For our money the best tunes here are by the Blasters, with the obscure Leiber-Stoller nugget “One Bad Stud” and their own “Blue Shadows”. (Ry Cooder composed and performed all the incidental music in the film, mostly in the vein of Link Wray’s “Rumble”, and represented only on the album by the rather dull “Hold That Snake”.)
We’re not about to suggest that either film or album deserves an elevated level of respect, but anytime we come across anyone who’s seen Streets Of Fire, much less enjoys it, we feel a sense of brotherhood like no other. At the very least, it’s got enough connections to people with fervent cult followings to be mentioned as a sidebar in their discographies. And just like Tom Cody, we’ll take it wherever we can get it.

Streets Of Fire: Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1984)—3

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Bob Dylan 64: Live 1962-1966

Way back in the pre-electric era, a handful of Bob Dylan concerts were recorded by Columbia for possible issue as an album to be titled In Concert. While several performances from these shows have been included on a variety of archival compilations, neither the album as originally sequenced—any of the variations considered—nor the complete shows have been granted specific release. The appearance in 2011 of an ultra-rare concert from his folksinger days turned out, so far, to be a standalone idea.
However, Columbia has seen fit to offer up hours of material for procurement, initially on a limited basis, to preserve their copyright license and probably with the assumption that they would be pirated and shared anyway. The first three years of his recording career were “protected” this way, then just about every captured note from 1965 and 1966 was served up via deluxe box set treatments.
As we’ve said before, it’s not all gold, and while some people have to have everything the man ever uttered or strummed, there’s barely enough time to hear it all, much less ingest it. That makes the sudden appearance of a double-disc set called Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections seem like a great idea until you’re done with it. Given the breadth of truly rare compositions to choose from, only “Seven Curses” and “John Brown” represent songs not on the albums originally released during that period. Historically speaking, there’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” with only two verses, “When The Ship Comes In” from the March on Washington with Joan Baez, the electric “It Takes A Lot To Laugh” from Newport and “Maggie’s Farm” from the Hollywood Bowl. The same take on “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is repeated from the seventh Bootleg Series; we’d’ve preferred the incendiary “Like A Rolling Stone” from the final Albert Hall show.
Granted, the music is excellent, and the sequencing does illustrate his development from a Woody Guthrie wannabe to the legendary performer that inspired generations. Those who haven’t clogged their hard drives with this stuff already will likely appreciate it being made available, and at a relatively low price point. But it’s an awfully random collection, belying its origin as a Japan-only release, a sequel of sorts to another grab-bag set that at least offered some actual rarities (one of which is repeated here). The haphazard production is underscored by the bad proofreading on the spines, which read “PREFORMANCES”, along with the shameful omission of Richard Manuel from the credits on the electric tracks from 1966.

Bob Dylan Live 1962-1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections (2018)—3

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Programming Alert (August 2018)

Due to shenanigans on the part of property managers, planning and zoning committees, union officials, and likely people still not happy with our less-than-glowing assessment of Bob Dylan's Desire album, Everybody's Dummy is not yet installed in our new headquarters, and therefore inadequately equipped to resume regular posting. However, we assure that our staff is indeed working toward those goals, as we are eager and determined to return full-strength. Thank you for your patience, and please keep reading.