Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Cars 7: Move Like This

After literally decades of avoiding the nostalgia train—and the “New Cars” project that paired Elliot Easton and Greg Hawkes with Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, and Prairie Prince doesn’t count—Ric Ocasek apparently wrote a set of song that he decided would sound perfect if played by the old guys. David Robinson was contacted, and the Cars, now a quartet in the absence of the late Ben Orr, were back. For a while, anyway.
Move Like This isn’t going to supplant any of the original series, with the possible exception of Door To Door, but that at least had “Strap Me In” on it. These tracks are very evocative of their classic sound, with percolating synths that recall Devo, steady drums, lots of guitars, and those omnipresent harmonies. Ric’s voice is certainly older, and doesn’t have that goofy quality he used to promote (though that doesn’t keep him from sounding like Goofy on some of the slower tunes). The production was split between the band and Jacknife Lee, when he wasn’t busy with U2 and R.E.M.; Ric and Greg are both credited with playing bass, whether programmed or stringed.
“Blue Tip” (the opener), “Free”, and “Sad Song” are possibly the best tunes, with riffs right off the first couple albums, and sardonic lyrics. “Hits Me” actually mentions Ric’s resemblance to Ichabod Crane. The aforementioned slower songs, “Soon” and “Take Another Look”, aren’t always as convincing; maybe if Ben were around he could have added his croon.
As reunions go, Move Like This is far from embarrassing. The band played a handful of shows to promote it, and that was it.

The Cars Move Like This (2011)—3

Friday, September 13, 2019

Paul Westerberg 3: Suicaine Gratifaction

He still had powerful friends in the industry, but normal folks still waiting for Paul Westerberg to rock again—or at least reunite the Replacements—weren’t going to get to exhale anytime soon. Pleasant as his first two solo albums were, they didn’t sell, and somehow he ended up on Capitol Records with Don Was, of all people, co-producing his album while waiting for the Rolling Stones to call. Suicaine Gratifaction is an unwieldy title, with way more syllables than an album that sounds like it takes place in a suburban living room should. Indeed, most of the basic tracks were recorded at his house, where he was sober and a first-time father, which further suggest why the songs are low-key and spare.
“It’s A Wonderful Lie” starts the set with a simple strum rather than a brash potboiler; it even closes with the sound of him putting his guitar down with a shrug. “Self-Defense” is one of many slow piano tunes here along the lines of “Good Day” from the last album. Lest things get too downbeat, “Best Thing That Never Happened” finally comes close to rocking with the wordplay we expect, taken up a further notch on “Lookin’ Out Forever”, wherein he delivers a tune that would be a favorite if any Gin Blossoms fans heard it. Plenty of riffs here, and quite tasty. Then it’s back to wistful territory on “Born For Me”, given the same tempo as “Here Comes A Regular” but much more romantic, with Shawn Colvin singing along an octave higher on the choruses. “Final Hurrah” is loud again, but it reminds us of songs he’s already written.
“Tears Rolling Up Our Sleeves” is another unique image, but the song doesn’t do much except highlight a goofy keyboard part that pops up in the mix here and there. He’s back on the piano for the beginning of “Fugitive Kind”, which gets a band injection after a couple of minutes and juggles a few hooks for a surprising duration, then it’s back to melancholy balladeering on “Sunrise Always Listens”. He cheers up considerably on “Whatever Makes You Happy”; the sound of his baby son timed just right in the pause before the last chorus puts a big smile on the track. It’s never clear why he shot an “Actor In The Street”, but by the end of “Bookmark” he sounds like he just wants to go to sleep, and you might too, except that it’s a pretty nice cop of Tom Waits’ ballad style without the rasp.
There’s nothing really “wrong” with Suicaine Gratifaction except that it fails to thrill. The songs are competent, tuneful, and well-constructed, but that’s about it. Worth hearing, certainly, but at this point he’d become a guy whose albums sold more out of habit than excellence.

Paul Westerberg Suicaine Gratifaction (1999)—3

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Morrissey 5: Vauxhall And I

Fairly energized by the success of his last solo album, Morrissey stuck with the two guitarists and collaborators for a follow-up that, thankfully, was not a retread at all. Vauxhall And I isn’t quite as brash as Your Arsenal, but while it still has a big sound, it’s more lush too.
Beginning quietly but building slowly, “Now My Heart Is Full” would make longtime fans swoon, with his soaring vocal and Smiths-worthy backing. The mood immediately goes dark on “Spring-Heeled Jim”, which paints a portrait of a ne’er-do-well, while dialogue from a British documentary film may be important, but it distractingly overtakes the mix, obscuring the track. “Billy Budd” cranks up the energy again, with terrific wah-wah guitar and galloping drums. “Hold On To Your Friends” threatens to be somber, but finds the tempo soon enough and really turns around for the chorus. And you can add “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer You Get” to his pile of classic titles with tunes to match. (“I bear more grudges than lonely High Court judges”? Terrific.) All in all, a solid side of music.
That’s a lot to live up to, and the rest of the album tries, but without much increase in tempo. “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself” is a spiteful little strum, and “I Am Hated For Loving” follows the same basic lines, but it’s not as bitter. Things stay dreary on “Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning”, with its mournful clarinet effect and near-whispered vocal. With its briefest of lyrics, “Used To Be A Sweet Boy” is something of a trip back to the old house, perhaps to reel around a fountain? “The Lazy Sunbathers”, out there on the beach just after “a world war was announced,” might be a reference to Nero fiddling in the face of apocalypse, or something else entirely. Finally, “Speedway” has a sound effect 16 seconds in that could be a motorbike or car, but sounds more like a chainsaw. That makes more sense with all its talk of rumors and lies, and the album soon pounds to a close.
Despite running out of steam, Vauxhall And I is a decent album, and goes a long way to sustaining Morrissey’s icon status. At this point, he’d been a solo act longer than he was a Smith, and while he would always be connected with that group, he’d certainly proved what he could do on his own. With the right band. (Luckily for fans, the 20th anniversary update of the album kept the track order intact, and added a bonus disc with a 1995 concert.)

Morrissey Vauxhall And I (1994)—3
2014 20th Anniversary Definitive Remaster: same as 1994, plus 14 extra tracks

Friday, September 6, 2019

Kiss 1: Kiss

Stanley Eisen and Eugene Klein were a couple of enterprising young men from Long Island determined to make it big in the music business. What set them apart from their contemporaries was their innate understanding of the power of branding, as well as loyalty to said brand among consumers. (Musical acumen helped, but art wasn’t as big a goal as commercial success.) After dissatisfaction with the progress of their band Wicked Lester, the two vocalists (one on the guitar, the other on bass) methodically searched for and found a lead guitarist and a drummer whom they felt would achieve their vision.
By this time the boys had changed their names to the more rockin’ Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. Guitarist Paul Frehley gladly went by Ace so there wouldn’t be two Pauls in the band, and drummer Peter Criss had already truncated his surname from Criscuola, so all they needed now—naturally—were personas to go with their carefully manufactured images. The uniform suits and nicknames (the quiet one, the cute one) ascribed to another fab foursome wouldn’t be enough for these guys. Each member of Kiss (sometimes rendered in all caps, but we’re not going to do that) would wear distinctive makeup and costumes befitting their “characters”. Elaborate stage performances with as much pyrotechnics and comic book shock level that could fit into whatever venue they were playing became just as important as the music they made.
And what of the music they made? As demonstrated on their eponymous debut, the emphasis is on heavy riffs, not exactly metal, but harder than glam. (And what makes those riffs so distinctive? The guitars are tuned down a half-step.) The lyrics are basic, easily grasped by any suburban white kid hoping to find a woman who’d give him a deuce, whatever that was, drink cold gin with him, or do it somewhere even less comfortable than the back of a Volkswagen.
Track by track the songs are solid. “Strutter”, “Nothin’ To Lose”, “Firehouse”, “Cold Gin”, “Deuce”, and “100,000 Years” all deliver hooks upon hooks, all in E or A, and while “Let Me Know” isn’t as exciting, a harmonized a cappella breakdown before a raveup and fade is a clever touch. Our personal favorite is the instrumental “Love Theme From Kiss”, which is just a terrific title. “Black Diamond” is the album’s equivalent of an epic, starting with an acoustic intro with a sensitive vocal, plowing through over the riff, slowing down the chords for another Ace solo and ending on a single A chord, repeated and slowed down over two full minutes.
It’s suggested that lengthening this tune, along with adding more silence between tracks, was done to push the album over the half-hour mark. Then, in a rare case of Kiss doing something they didn’t want to do, an oldie called “Kissin’ Time” was given new lyrics and a Kissified arrangement and released as a single in the label’s attempt to boost sales. It’s fairly embarrassing, except for Ace’s solo, which almost justifies its being stuck at the top of side two in all but the album’s first pressings, and it remains there in the CD sequence as well.
Rock ‘n roll is supposed to be fun, and a little stupid, and Kiss fit the bill. The album is simply loaded with catchy tunes, and while it took a while for people to notice, these guys were on their way to notoriety, in all senses of the word.

Kiss Kiss (1974)—4

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Rod Stewart 6: Smiler

Just as we had to battle preconceptions of Rod Stewart formulated in the wake of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and that ilk, it’s tough to look at Smiler, his last solo album while he was still with the Faces, as better than it is. It was his first album on his own in two years, and frankly, the formula was wearing thin.
“Sweet Little Rock ‘N Roller” is a decent bash through a Chuck Berry tune with Ronnie Wood turned up to ten. (Pointedly, despite appearances by Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, there are no virtual Faces tracks on this album.) A brief harpsichord piece called “Lochinvar”, and just like similar segues on the last two albums, it introduces a track in the vein of “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well”, but “Farewell” swings and misses. One of the drummers beats a tattoo into “Sailor”, which also sports a horn section and screaming females in a case of too much ketchup. What begins as a lovely acoustic reverie turns into a crowded medley of “Bring It On Home To Me” and “You Send Me” that’s less of a tribute to Sam Cooke than a ego exercise. Elton John and Bernie Taupin contributed “Let Me Be Your Car” to the proceedings, and Elton even sings on it. He would find better duet partners.
While there’s no question his voice is suited to it, changing the gender of a certain song to “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Man” does nobody any favors. “Dixie Toot” has promise, but belabors the point with the horn section and and a Dixieland band. “Hard Road” is a decent bash but for the bongo drums mixed way up. For some reason we get an acoustic instrumental of “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”, perhaps as a thematic setup for “Girl From The North Country”. It has a decent arrangement, but is his least successful Dylan cover to date. But the most curious track is “Mine For Me”, donated by Paul and Linda McCartney, which sports a melody very close to another cover Rod would claim very shortly. It’s hard to picture what Paul would have done with this himself, but we’re hoping he’d’ve avoided the steel drums. Sure sounds like Paul harmonizing here, though.
Smiler suffers by comparison with all that has gone before, and at least it attempts to rock most of the time. But we’re starting to sense his more annoying attributes coming forth, and the excesses of the ‘70s tainting otherwise talented individuals.

Rod Stewart Smiler (1974)—

Friday, August 30, 2019

Talking Heads 7: Stop Making Sense

Being filmed for a concert documentary would have appealed to art school alumni, so Talking Heads gladly allowed that to happen for Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense. And you can’t have a movie without a soundtrack album, which is how ended up putting out two live albums in the space of two years.
While the film represents a performance in real time, beginning with David Byrne by himself and gradually adding the other Heads and additional musicians until the stage is full, the album takes a more basic approach, sequenced for listenability. Four songs are included from Speaking In Tongues, which was the album the tour was supporting, and the songs shared with The Name Of This Band are in different arrangements. The result is an excellent intro to the band’s work thus far.
Just as in the film, the album opens with a solo performance (acoustic guitar with beatbox accompaniment) of “Psycho Killer”. The Speaking In Tongues songs follow, and all are excellent versions, if not superior to the studio takes. They’re presented in a jumbled order from the actual setlist, but frankly, starting with “Swamp” and ending with “Girlfriend Is Better” is a fine succession and completes an excellent album side.
Side two’s nothing to sneeze at either. A slightly rearranged “Once In A Lifetime” is just as essential as the studio version, the band truly filling in and enhancing it. “What A Day That Was” would have been new to anyone who hadn’t heard David Byrne’s Catherine Wheel album, and it fits fine here. “Life During Wartime” opens with an unfamiliar keyboard cadence before finding its way to the trademark riff, while “Take Me To The River” pumps up the stark blues of their own version with a little more soul.
Listening to the original LP today, it seems to go by more quickly than 40 minutes, which is understandable, as the more prevalent cassette and CD versions extended all but three of the tracks, for a total of seven minutes; these also sported an alternate mix of “Slippery People”. Just in time for the fifteenth anniversary of the album (and a DVD release of the film), a “Special New Edition” presented all the songs as performed in the movie in order, albeit edited to fit on a single CD. It even begins with Byrne’s introduction (“Hi. I got a tape I want to play.”) “Psycho Killer” is now followed by a lovely stripped-down “Heaven” with Tina Weymouth on bass and one of the backup vocalists. The other two emerge for a couple of early songs, and then the stage is full. Along with a couple more tunes from Speaking In Tongues, David is nice enough to step aside for a virtual Tom Tom Club performance of “Genius Of Love”, complete with Chris Frantz’s version of toasting. (Plus, he had to get into that big suit. You know, so he could make his head smaller.)
Those of us who miss Stop Making Sense as we first heard it can simply program our CD players, burn a disc, or make a Spotify playlist. The version now available can certainly be called definitive, but you might as well own the DVD for, well, the full picture. It really is a fine film, and everybody looks like they’re having an absolute ball. Even David Byrne seems like he actually appreciates everyone else on stage, to the point of bringing the crew onstage before his exit.

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense (1984)—4
1999 Special New Edition: same as 1984, plus 7 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Todd Rundgren 20: Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia

Since we started this mission, we’ve tried to give equal time to albums good and bad, short and long. The idea is that an artist’s story is told by the albums he, she, or they make, and we’ve tried where possible to approach each entry from the perspective of somebody following along in real time, as each new album emerged. When it comes to certain veterans, however, it can be tough to dredge up anything new to say about people who haven’t necessarily said anything new in decades.
Now, that’s not fair to a guy like Todd Rundgren, who has long explored the boundaries of whatever technology was available at every given moment. But between record companies and his own attention span, he stopped being truly and consistently commercial by the time the ‘80s were underway. Luckily for him, he had plenty of production work, and he also managed to keep Utopia going as an active band while pushing work under his own name.
In the space of a year, Utopia released two studio albums for the indie Passport label. Both albums included songwriting contributions from all four members, and embraced current music technology, like drum machines and synthesizers. Both are slick and loud, both approach political commentary in between love songs, and neither is very good. The Cars may have done it best, but here Utopia comes off like the Tubes.
Oblivion came first, in a none-more-black cover with light embossing that belies the slick contents within. “Itch In My Brain” is no “Hammer In My Heart”, and it’s pushing it to have a song called “Winston Smith Takes It On The Jaw” in 1984. “I Will Wait” has potential, as does “Maybe I Could Change”, even with its quasi-Broadway intro. But of the whole album, “Crybaby” is the real keeper despite everything against it, like the keyboards and the inscrutable video with Willie Wilcox’s rotating motorcycle drumset, but at least it featured Ellen Foley.
POV arrived sporting graphics made up predominantly of windows from the then-mindblowing Macintosh operating system; oh, the memories this brings back for those of us who remember a world before Microsoft. The photos suggest some kind of sci-fi thriller; meanwhile, Todd was sporting one of his worst haircuts, and considering his history at the barber, that’s saying something. “Play This Game” is a terrific opener, but “Style” kills the momentum, and will have the listener looking online for “Jane’s Getting Serious”. “Mated” is half-decent yacht rock, and “Zen Machine” is no “Zen Archer”.
After the band was pretty much done, but before the label collapsed, they released Trivia, which compiled a grab-bag of selections from both Passport albums, along with some fine choices from 1982’s Utopia album that elevate the others. Two new tracks were recorded for extra enticement, “Fix Your Gaze” preferable to “Monument.” (The artwork is so dated it hurts: the front image looks like the work of someone who just bought a computerized graphic design program, while the back capitalizes on the Trivial Pursuit craze.)
A decade later, Rhino had already reissued every Rundgren and Utopia album up to 1982, so when they acquired the rights to the Passport albums, they combined everything on a double-disc set cleverly dubbed Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia. For the cover art, they went with the most photogenic option, as if that did any good. The first disc had Oblivion plus “Fix Your Gaze”, while the other had POV plus “Monument” and the B-side “Man Of Action”. This edition is tough to find, but the two albums now stream from the usual places with the extra tracks.
And that, dear reader, is how we can justify reviewing all these so-so albums in one post.

Utopia Oblivion (1984)—2
POV (1985)—2
Trivia (1986)—
Oblivion, POV & Some Trivia (1996)—2