Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Prince 15: The Hits

It shouldn’t be surprising that Prince would resist a hits collection while he was still busy writing and creating new music. It also shouldn’t be surprising that when he did allow such a compilation to happen, it wouldn’t be anything simple or straightforward.
The Hits was released as two separate volumes, neither of which was sequenced with more than a slight concession to chronological order, both stacked with actual hits—along with some odd choices—and each with a pair of “new” songs. The Hits 1 offered the laid-back single “Pink Cashmere” and a live version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”. In addition to “When You Were Mine” and “I Feel For U”, this would suggest that the first volume was intended to showcase tunes that were hits for others. The Hits 2 could be seen as the raunchier of the two, leaning on his more suggestive lyrics, and included the rocking “Peach” (featuring Kim Basinger on sampled moan of ecstasy) and “Pope”, which samples comedian Bernie Mac and seems to be highly influenced by Digital Underground.
As long as you were going to buy both anyway, The Hits/The B-Sides boasted a third disc of tracks collected on CD for the first time. While not all-inclusive, it did spotlight many of the gems hidden on 45s and 12-inches throughout the ‘80s, including “Erotic City”, “God”, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, and the standalone single “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”. Granted, that means there are cast-offs like “La, La, La, He, He, Hee”, but who else was loading up quality B-sides like these? Two unreleased nuggets cap the disc—the alternate “video mix” of “4 The Tears In Your Eyes” aired during Live Aid after being donated to the USA For Africa, and the majestic “Power Fantastic”, recorded during the last days of the Revolution.
Those looking for just the hits in a simple package only had to wait until 2001’s The Very Best Of Prince, which presented the more obvious choices from the same period on a single disc. Five years later, Ultimate Prince offered a different smattering with a disc of extended mixes, and ten years after that, the posthumous double CD 4ever was mildly streamlined around the contents of The Hits 1 and The Hits 2, including “Peach” and the live “Nothing Compares 2 U”, with the added bonus of the 1999-era outtake “Moonbeam Levels”.
At any rate, The Hits effectively closed a chapter in Prince’s career, drawing a definite line between what happened before, and what would come after. He would continue to intrigue, certainly, but he would also confound.

Prince The Hits 1 (1993)—3
The Hits 2 (1993)—3
The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)—

Friday, November 27, 2020

Roger Daltrey 2: Ride A Rock Horse

Thanks to his star turn in Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Tommy, Roger Daltrey was more of a household name outside the confines of The Who. With more time off from the band, he took the starring role in the same director’s even more outrageous Lisztomania. Rick Wakeman provided the soundtrack, which featured a few vocal turns by Roger, singing lyrics given to rocked-up arrangements of Franz Liszt melodies.
While all that was going on, Roger took the opportunity to record his second solo album. As before, Ride A Rock Horse served to spotlight working songwriters, including producer Russ Ballard, Philip Goodhand-Tait, and Paul Korda. And also as before, the style of the album as a whole was different from that of The Who, this time leaning towards horn-based R&B and mainstream AOR. (He even gamely filmed a few promos to help the album along. His newly acquired acting chops are well shown by his miming of guitar and even piano, which he doesn’t play in real life.)
“Come And Get Your Love” is a snappy, mildly discofied opener, with hearty female backing vocals that seem to predict Bob Dylan’s born-again phase. “Heart-s Right” (no, we don’t know why it’s spelled that way) and “Proud” deliver similar arrangements, bracketing “Oceans Away” which arrives just in time for a big ballad, featuring a piano solo right out of the Elton John playbook. Speaking of which, “World Over” has some nice “Philadelphia Freedom”-style guitars.
“Near To Surrender” is one of those “chin up, buddy” tunes designed to inspire, and it actually works without being overly saccharine, but “Feeling” returns us to the generic muscle soul from side one. The only real misstep is the oh-so-funky cover of Rufus Thomas’ “Walking The Dog”, followed by the campy Cockney of “Milk Train”, itself prefaced by fake applause. Somehow the closing “I Was Born To Sing Your Song” makes a fitting conclusion, perhaps because it resembles a slicker version of the songs on the first.
While not as consistently pleasing as Daltrey, Ride A Rock Horse underscores Roger’s ability as a singer and performer, and not just as Pete Townshend’s mouthpiece. Best of all, the band needn’t have worried that he’d abandon them anytime soon. Though they probably took great glee in ribbing him over the album cover. (The eventual expanded CD added the later B-side “Dear John” and an alternate version of “Oceans Away”.)

Roger Daltrey Ride A Rock Horse (1975)—3
2006 reissue: same as 1975, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Keith Moon: Two Sides Of The Moon

Having finally driven away his wife and daughter, and bored out of his skull when the Who weren’t recording or touring, Keith Moon went off to LA to drink with Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, and anyone else who dared to keep up with them. And since everyone else was doing it, he recorded a solo album. The general consensus is that he shouldn’t have, really.
Every song on Two Sides Of The Moon is impeccably arranged to the quality control standards of the time, as would be expected from the same people who played on sessions for Ringo, Harry, and John. Familiar names like Jesse Ed Davis, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, and Flo & Eddie are joined by Joe Walsh, John Sebastian, Dick Dale, and Suzi Quatro’s sister, who brought other members of the band Fanny.
But as much of his spotlight on “Bell Boy” would suggest, Keith couldn’t carry a tune no matter what brandy bottle he’d brought it in. The styles run from ‘50s and country to glam and schmaltz; depending on his mood, he either yells through the tracks or attempts to croon them. While the upbeat numbers may have some comedy value, the damage he inflicts on “Don’t Worry Baby”, “In My Life”, and even “The Kids Are Alright”—which sports the only thing resembling one of his inimitable drum breaks—is absolutely horrifying. Along with Ringo’s audible drunken encouragement throughout, Beatle fans might’ve been interested in “Move Over Ms. L” (recorded for Walls And Bridges but saved for a B-side) had not Keith’s delivery rendered the lyrics even more garbled than John’s.
The one saving grace of Two Sides Of The Moon is that it’s only half an hour long. It isn’t funny enough for a comedy album, and knowing what we do now about his personal life and demons, listening feels uncomfortably voyeuristic. The cleverest aspect of the package is the expensive cover art, based around a die-cut sleeve that takes the title literally.
The inevitable CD reissue added a couple of outtakes, the even more hideous falsetto single version of “Don’t Worry Baby”, and three songs intended for his next album, produced a year later by Steve Cropper, which was mercifully never completed. Amazingly, a double CD celebrating his 60th birthday filled the program with further outtakes from the sessions, such as a terrible version of the Knickerbockers’ “Lies”, a worse plow through “My Generation”, a thankfully shelved Christmas single, and even more examples of Keith and Ringo’s inebriated schtick. (It must be stated, however, that John Sebastian’s guide vocal for “Don’t Worry Baby is almost as bad as Keith’s.)

Keith Moon Two Sides Of The Moon (1975)—1
1997 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 8 extra tracks
2006 Deluxe Edition: same as 1997, plus 32 extra tracks

Friday, November 20, 2020

Elvis Costello 35: Hey Clockface

Like many working musicians, Elvis Costello had to cancel a tour and other best-laid plans as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With his itinerary scuppered, he made the best of a restricted situation and emerged at year’s end with one of the most challenging—and ultimately rewarding—albums of his career.
Hey Clockface is a daring amalgam of recordings from three distinct sessions. The bulk come from Paris with a combo featuring Steve Nieve on all kinds of keyboards, with brass, reeds, and cello from some French musicians, and even Steve’s stepson AJUQ on drums and harmonies. (Steve spent the lockdown holed up in the French countryside with his wife Muriel Teodori and stepson, and streamed “Daily Improvisations” for weeks on end over Facebook.) For variety, some solo recordings come from Helsinki with a rhythmic approach inspired by Tom Waits’ Real Gone, and two songs were collaborated on and recorded remotely during the lockdown with Michael Leonhart and Bill Frisell. When put together, it all works.
“Revolution #49” begins with a sound not unlike Peter Gabriel’s Mideast experiments, giving way to a spoken narrative as clear as mud. It’s a nice lead-in to the angry “No Flag”, one of the Helsinki tracks that thankfully has enough instrumentation to cover his mouth percussion. One can imagine what the Imposters would bring to this tune. “They’re Not Laughing At Me Now” is mildly smug song of schadenfreude, sung at a slow pace, almost relishing the comeuppance. The mysterious “Newspaper Pane” is one of the Leonhart-Frisell collaborations, fitting seamlessly with the rest of the tracks (thanks to the Nieveian organ parts), while “I Do (Zula’s Song)” has a mournful gait that recalls several facets of Tom Waits, whoever Zula is. “We Are All Cowards Now” is the best of the Helsinki recordings, as it sounds like an actual band, and provides less ambiguous protest than “No Flag”. The title track comes at an odd place smack in the middle of the program, with a jokey vaudeville delivery already satisfied by “A Voice In The Dark”. It seems to exist only to be shackled to Fats Waller’s “How Can You Face Me?”, which he’s careful to credit.
Lovely as it is, “The Whirlwind” is a mysterious ballad that is part of the batch written for the musical staging of the political fable A Face In The Crowd, coming eventually to the Broadway stage. Unfortunately, “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” is the least successful of the Helsinki experiments, another portrait of another fictional muckraker, the story overtaken by the auteur’s human beatbox. Just as inscrutable, “The Last Confession Of Vivian Whip” doesn’t explain who she is or why we’re hearing it, but it’s a lovely melody contributed by Nieve and Teodori. “What Is It That I Need That I Don’t Already Have?” pits an aside by Bob Dylan to an arrangement recalling Leonard Cohen, then “Radio Is Everything” is another mysterious monologue over Frisell’s loops and Leonhart’s accompaniment. The mood shifts again for “I Can’t Say Her Name”, more cocktail ragtime oddly positioned in the sequence, particularly when he repeats the cartoony scatting from the title track over what should have been a fade. Thankfully, all is redeemed by the heartbreaking and gorgeous “Byline”, from the piano and his melody to the lyrics and AJUQ’s harmonic chorale.
In some ways, Hey Clockface can be seen a vast improvement over the similar experimentation that sank When I Was Cruel, delivering the late-night autumnal feel of North for easily Elvis’s best jazz excursion to date. Maybe in a few years we’ll actually know what the hell some of these songs are about.

Elvis Costello Hey Clockface (2020)—

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Fripp & Eno 4: The Equatorial Stars

While Robert Fripp appeared on the occasional Brian Eno album in the ‘90s, it seemed that their years of intense collaboration were in the past. We were wrong.
The Equatorial Stars presents a modern but not radical departure from their initial work together. For the most part, these are ambient pieces along the lines of Thursday Afternoon and Apollo, with the latter connection underscored by the track titles, each named after an actual star or constellation. Those seeking Fripp’s more serrated style of playing will be disappointed, but it should be noted that he’d spent many of recent off years between King Crimson projects taking his Frippertronics approach to exotic locales around the world, creating “soundscapes” of improvisatory playing over prepared loops.
As with most (successful) ambient recordings, concentrated listening is rewarded by not required, but a few segments stand out. Fripp’s soloing is subtle on “Meissa” and “Tarazed”, and particularly noticeable on “Ankaa”. “Altair” is pinned to a funk rhythm that actually raises the volume and sets toes tapping. Overall, the mood borders on spooky, but The Equatorial Stars is recommended to anyone who enjoys Apollo.

Fripp & Eno The Equatorial Stars (2004)—3

Friday, November 13, 2020

Joni Mitchell 24: The Early Years

With nary a rarity in her catalog, Joni Mitchell has generally let her albums speak for her career. While other artists of her caliber, generation, and output have shared their sketchbooks, Joni has resisted such openness. Her only box set that doesn’t merely repackage albums, 2014’s Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced, presented four hours of music going as far back as Blue covering the subject of, well, love, all taken from the catalog.
Her longtime manager, the late Elliot Roberts, had been privy to his other client Neil Young’s ongoing efforts to document his professional career, so maybe we can thank him for convincing her to finally delve back in the past. After all, Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is dedicated to his memory. These five CDs cover roughly five years before her first album was recorded, and it provides an abundance of riches, and in pretty good quality.
The set begins with a quasi-audition tape recorded at a Saskatoon radio station, wherein she treads the folk music ground familiar to fans of Joan Baez, furiously strumming her ukulele, yet her voice is as strident and clear as ever. Two club sets by “Joanie Anderson” expand her brand somewhat, in her engaging introductions, though a rendition of the calypso “Sail Away” hints at some of the harmonic heights she’d achieve in a few years’ time.
With the second disc, a performance of “Urge For Going” at her mother’s birthday party debuts her earliest songwriting attempts. “Born To Take The Highway” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are more naïve than naiveté, and Jac Holzman of Elektra Records was presumably less than wowed by the five songs from her audition for him. Nonetheless, her voice and passion makes them work in the context of this box. Besides, the songs began to just pour out.
The decided shift from traditional material to her own compositions is amplified by her switch to guitar and her discovery of alternate tunings, evident in a couple dozen songs she never brought to a studio. A trio of unheard songs from a March 1967 tape (“Gemini Me”, “Strawflower Me”, “A Melody In Your Name”) are particularly astounding; a few months later “Free Darling”, featuring a slight detour with the phrase “I came to the city”, is buried amidst demos of familiar songs. Despite its melancholy tone, “Come To The Sunshine” is an unabashed love song, while “The Gift Of The Magi” suffuses the O. Henry story with existential horror. “Dr. Junk” sports dizzying changes and wordplay, and a good example of why she might have been hesitant to explore her history. But “What’s The Story, Mr. Blue?”, which she says was cobbled together from several unfinished songs, displays a wry, even ribald humor.
Most of the familiar songs appear as formed as we got to know them, either from her albums or the covers that sustained her before she got her own contract. Though there are a few word changes and alternate melodies, but hardly radical ones. A tantalizing snippet called “Joni Improvising” finds her edging up to “The Dawntreader” and “I Had A King”. We finally have her own versions of “Eastern Rain”, which Fairport Convention recorded early on. There’s even a performance of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” to illustrate how it influenced “The Circle Game”. Several radio and television appearances are introduced by fawning hosts, to which she replies with equal parts modesty and candor.
While she’s increasingly avoided live performance in recent decades—citing stage fright, insufficiently receptive audiences, and the tedium of having to constantly change guitar tunings as the main deterrents—she did start out on the coffeehouse circuit, so it’s insightful indeed to hear how she fared when she was literally singing for her supper. Three straight sets from the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan cap the package, and demonstrate how much she had in her arsenal at that time. Songs she would scatter throughout her first three albums (four if you include “Little Green”, wherein she sings the name of the daughter she gave up) are often prefaced by lengthy introductions and elaborations, painting a portrait of a performer at ease in the spotlight. After breaking a string, she beseeches someone to change it for her while she performs an a cappella song.
As might be expected of a release this size, some songs (e.g. “Both Sides Now”, “Urge For Going”, “The Circle Game”) appear repeatedly. Still, the pure talent in her voice and fingers shines throughout. Also, there’s not a single song played on the piano. Those would come.

Joni Mitchell Archives—Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (2020)—

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Journey 13: Generations

Steve Augeri had a thankless task replacing Steve Perry in Journey, but money is money and tour they did. While they made progress by maintaining the same lineup for two albums in a row, Generations muddles their aim by farming out four of the songs to every other band member. At least, they kept the songwriting in house for the most part. They even brought back Kevin Elson to produce.
The album continues Neal Schon’s quest for respect as a shredder, with more emphasis on power and less on ballads. Brevity is barely considered with most songs over five minutes; after all, don’t we wanna hear all that fretwork?
“Faith In The Heartland” is the rousing anthemic opener, and a good show case for Augeri, though there is a little of Perry’s asides just before the fade. Neal and Jonathan Cain didn’t notice how much the verse of “The Place In Your Heart” resembles that of “Ask The Lonely”, but they can still write a chorus. Drummer Dean Castronovo takes over the mike for the lackluster “A Better Life”, and he does a pretty good Steve Augeri impression, slightly better than Jonathan mewling his way through “Every Generation”. Augeri takes control for two songs he wrote on his own, the tender-but-barbed “Butterfly (She Flies Alone)” and the more adventurously metered “Believe”.
“Knowing That You Love Me” provides the requisite dark love song, kicked aside by the more frenetic war commentary in “Out Of Harms [sic] Way”. As if that wasn’t fast enough, Neal revives “In Self-Defense” from his second collaboration with Jan Hammer, a song incidentally co-written with Steve Perry. “Better Together” is a defiant message to the haters, and one they’d need before handing “Gone Crazy” over to Ross Valory. The classic Journey sound returns for “Beyond The Clouds”, and we still can’t figure out if she’s dead or just dumped him.
The band kindly gave a copy of Generations to anyone who attended one of their concerts that summer, but added the generic “Never Too Late”, sung by Dean, as a bonus to the retail release. Meanwhile, Japan got the exclusive extra of Jonathan’s “Pride Of The Family”, probably the only song in this century that quotes 38 Special.
This album will be easily embraced by the already converted; nobody else need bother.

Journey Generations (2005)—3