Friday, November 8, 2019

Frank Zappa 39: Thing-Fish

Over a period of three months, Frank released four distinct albums, each unique and challenging in its own way. Outside of Them Or Us, none could really be called a rock album, and the two instrumental releases would take some getting used to. But Thing-Fish would divide listeners most of all.
This was not the first musical Frank had envisioned, but of all his earlier grand designs, this came closest to realization. It was a bold idea: at a time when AIDS was barely beginning to register on the mainstream public consciousness, Frank expanded his opinion that the disease was the result of a government-sponsored scientific experiment to the extent that in addition to making people very sick and killing them, the effects would also lead to mutations of cartoonish extremities based on ongoing stereotypes.
Of course, any idea worth doing is worth overdoing, so Frank took this scenario and packaged it as a three-record set purporting to be the original cast recording of the opus intended for the Broadway stage. The cover depicts the title character and narrator, whose name is based on a character from the Amos ‘n Andy radio and TV show, with an oversized potato-shaped head and cartoonish duck lips, in conversation with one of the chorus members, known as the Mammy Nuns, all of whom are described as dressed like Aunt Jemima from the syrup packaging of the same name. (Really, we’re not making this up.)
The plot begins, as all Broadway shows do, with Thing-Fish (voiced by Ike Willis) explaining how the experiments of the Evil Prince led to their current condition. The proceedings soon turn into a play-within-a-play, as a yuppie couple named Harry and Rhonda (played by Terry and Dale Bozzio, who’d left the Zappa fold to form Missing Persons) wander into the theater expecting something like Cats. Much like what happened when the Mothers of Invention had a theater residency in 1967, Harry and Rhonda are assimilated into the action and subjected to various psychological horrors. For example, we meet Harry-As-A-Boy (given a genuinely hilarious gee-whiz delivery by the second Bob Harris to play with Zappa), who explains that women’s liberation turned Harry gay, disguised by the yuppie drive to succeed at all costs. Meanwhile, Rhonda is shown to have evolved from an actual blow-up doll to a ruthless feminist businesswoman. Their inevitable disgust for and at each other culminates in side five’s “Briefcase Boogie”, wherein Rhonda has sexual congress with said object, described in full four-letter detail. (The Broadway show never happened, but a simple search online makes it relatively easy to find a pictorial from Hustler magazine that provides visuals. This is also absolutely true.)
Much of the music on Thing-Fish is obscured by dialog, but for the most part, the “songs” are previously released Zappa tracks given new context with the overlaid commentary (for example, “The ‘Torchum’ Never Stops” in an extended mix of the Zoot Allures track). “No Not Now” appears twice, once with new vocals by Ike, and again as the finale, played backwards with the new title “Won Ton On”. The music that isn’t recycled is mostly performed on the Synclavier, which also provides the computerized vocals by the Crab-Grass Baby, the horrifying offspring of Harry’s depraved televangelist father and, apparently, Rhonda in her inflatable incarnation. As for new “songs”, “He’s So Gay”, a twisted mélange of doo-wop and upbeat synth pop, would have fit perfectly on the other ‘80s “rock” albums. “Brown Moses” is supposed to be the commentary by that character (described as resembling Uncle Ben from the rice box), portrayed by Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Wistful Wit A Fist-Full” is a stereotypically Broadway showcase for piano and voice, in this case delivered by the remorseful Evil Prince in the style of Al Jolson. (Also, there are zero guitar solos on any of the six sides.)
Much as with 200 Motels and Joe’s Garage, this is an angry album, full of black humor, blanket indictments, and uncomfortable truths. It is not an easy listen, and while the libretto helps explain the action better than the dialog, one must actually hear Thing-Fish’s intonation to understand some of the purposely mangled language. Thing-Fish is hardly the first play to depict sexual activity, deviant or otherwise, but even after something like Spring Awakening became a sensation, we really can’t see how Frank really thought something like this would ever be staged per his script. Even if it was, critics would lambaste it and the Tonys would ignore it, which Frank would only flog as proof of ongoing censorship and the inability of the average American to understand his genius.

Frank Zappa Thing-Fish (Original Cast Recording) (1984)—

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Joni Mitchell 22: Millennial Compilations

Although seemingly retired, Joni kept her hand in the marketplace with not one, nor two, but three thematic retrospective sets released over a period of nine months. Each follows something of a theme, building on the mild renaissance her career had experienced; the first two continued to use her own paintings for the cover art.

First came The Beginning Of Survival, which took its title from a letter written by a Native American chief to “the Great Chief in Washington” a century before, reproduced in the package. Released in an election year amid various wars in the Mideast, the set focused on social commentary from the mid-‘80s on, mostly from the “difficult” Geffen albums. Therefore, most but not all of the tracks have jarring synthesizer arrangements and her lower voice. Perhaps it’s a good intro to her least celebrated period, but the music is still a matter of personal taste, and some tracks are simply less annoying than others.

A few months later, Dreamland covered her entire career, from the ‘70s up through the orchestral albums of this century. The songs range from beloved hits already collected on Hits to more challenging pieces like “The Jungle Line”, “Dancin’ Clown”, and the title track. The chronology is all over the place, forcing the listener to take her as she is (or was), yet there is a thread from song to song (“Free Man In Paris” to “In France They Kiss On Main Street”, the harmonicas on “Furry Sings The Blues” into “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”). Three tracks are remakes from her orchestral albums, and the set ends with her original recording of “The Circle Game”. With even more of her paintings depicted in the package, perhaps these are the songs that meant the most to her.

The same could be said for what came the following spring. Songs Of A Prairie Girl collected songs to celebrate and evoke Saskatchewan, its “long, cold winters [and] short but glorious summers” per her brief notes. Five songs are repeated from Hits, including “Urge For Going”, but for the most part the program leans towards the later years; “Cherokee Louise” is in its arguably superior Travelogue incarnation. Two songs from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter appear: the title track, and right smack dab in the middle of the program, a so-called remix of “Paprika Plains” that aims to even out the dynamics a bit. Both songs benefit by this context, even with “Raised On Robbery” sandwiched between them. Because so many of the tracks reference her youth, there’s a certain nostalgia, and even melancholy, throughout the set.

Ultimately, these CDs prove that there is no way to encapsulate Joni Mitchell in under 79 minutes. Much like other mercurial artists among her contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, etc.) any favorites are going to vary from person to person, and different albums speak to different people in different ways. What comes through is that, as a composer, she was anything but ordinary. Hopefully any of these albums has drawn a newbie into her complete catalog.

Joni Mitchell The Beginning Of Survival (2004)—
Joni Mitchell
Dreamland (2004)—3
Joni Mitchell
Songs Of A Prairie Girl (2005)—3

Friday, November 1, 2019

Neil Young 62: Colorado

For half a century, the connotation of Neil Young playing with Crazy Horse inspires the immediate aural image of a plodding electric assault, and with lots of evidence to support that. But the fuzz of “Like A Hurricane”, Ragged Glory, and Psychedelic Pill belies the lower dynamics that Neil has brought out of the guys, such as “Lotta Love”, “Running Dry”, “Oh Lonesome Me”, and countless other tunes with Billy Talbot on bass and/or Ralph Molina on drums. Take also Tonight’s The Night, recorded with that rhythm section and trading guitar and piano duties with Nils Lofgren, who was in Crazy Horse for their debut Neil-less album.
Now that Poncho Sampedro is semi-retired, Nils came back to support Neil and the other two for a few shows, which led to an album. Colorado was recorded in that state, with oxygen tanks on hand to help them adjust to the higher climate, and while many of Neil’s recent quirks are still in place—harangues about the same political issue in consecutive tracks, singing far above his range, yelling tunelessly when he hasn’t bothered to write a melody, as he does on most of the loud ones—the album holds together better than any of the last handful, simply because it offers variety and repels assumptions.
With a blast of harmonica, “Think Of Me” is a jaunty acoustic strum that sounds more like Prairie Wind than Crazy Horse until the harmonies kick in. This promising start is followed by the sludge of “She Showed Me Love”, which ponders the fate of Mother Nature in the hands of “old white guys” and “young folks”. It’s long enough to begin with, but then plods away for another seven minutes of jamming and repeats of the title on top of the six it took to get there. As the only lengthy track on the album, it seems odd that this was the one groove given such an honor.
That’s basically the template for the album: softer songs alternating with loud ones. “Olden Days”, about losing touch with friends for various reasons, sports a nice little riff echoed by the voice and piano (uncredited, though it’s probably Nils), but it seems to be over awfully quickly. Then it’s back to doom, as “Help Me Lose My Mind” alternates an agitated verse with a more inspired chorus change (musically, anyway). The sad little metaphor of “Green Is Blue” is effective, and in case you missed the point, “Shut It Down” pounds it into your head. “Milky Way” was the first track streamed to the public, and while its first-take demo quality underwhelmed then, it works much better in this context. Plus, with its tension being more quiet than loud, it provides welcome contrast.
The charming “Eternity” not only revives earlier lyric ideas, such as a house of love and a train of love, but it also features the tapdancing skills of Nils Lofgren (“click, clack, clickety clack” indeed). Set to a tune we can’t put our finger on, “Rainbow Of Colors” is another attempt at an alternate national anthem, in that it offers a positive message instead of just saying why the other side is wrong. One might think the album would end there, but “I Do” is a tender love song that takes us out very gently, along the lines of “Music Arcade” and “Without Rings”. (Those who bought the vinyl—or paid the subscription—got a bonus in the form of the moody but moving “Truth Kills”, plus a live solo electric “Rainbow Of Colors”.)
Many of Neil’s albums this century have been difficult to absorb; part of that can be ascribed to the loss of producer David Briggs in 1995. Now the death of longtime manager Elliot Roberts, to whom Colorado is dedicated, will likely affect Neil in ways he can’t fathom. We predict this album will have staying power, and those who say it’s not a Crazy Horse album need to revisit Sleeps With Angels.

Neil Young With Crazy Horse Colorado (2019)—3

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Lou Reed 24: Perfect Night

It’s safe to say that the ‘90s were going pretty well for Lou Reed, coming off a series of well-received albums. His appearance at 1997’s Meltdown Festival in London, backed by his stalwart combo of Mike Rathke on the other guitar, Fernando Saunders on bass and Tony “Thunder” Smith on drums, was recorded and released the following year as Perfect Night: Live In London. (Of course, it helped that that year’s event was curated by Laurie Anderson, Lou’s significant other.)
The set is fairly low-key, traveling through Lou’s entire catalog, starting with “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. “Perfect Day” follows, having recently been featured in Trainspotting. “The Kids” is played straight, with a little extra emotion on the choruses, but no screaming children. “Vicious” is very low-key, hanging mostly on one chord a la “Kicks” (which follows directly from “Busload Of Faith”, which comes next). “Riptide” is given a much calmer setting than its album version, while “Sex With Your Parents” is just as effective, particularly after a surprising top-speed delivery of “The Original Wrapper”. Three songs from Time Rocker, a little-seen collaboration with playwright Robert Wilson, make their debut here. “Talking Book” is pensive and wistful; “Into The Divine” is a little heavier love song of sorts, on two chords; “Why Do You Talk” is stark and accusatory.
As usual, the publicity for the album centered on his latest “perfect” guitar sound, in this case an acoustic that didn’t feed back. Perfect Night doesn’t have the ferocity of Rock ‘N Roll Animal or the comedy of Take No Prisoners, so for that reason it’s a nice alternative. But it still rocks.

Lou Reed Perfect Night: Live In London (1998)—3

Friday, October 25, 2019

Jerry Garcia 3: Compliments

Jerry Garcia’s second solo album (as opposed to collaboration) was originally titled simply Garcia, but some copies had a sticker above the title reading “Compliments Of”. In order to differentiate it from 1972’s Garcia album, we’re going with the expanded title, as has everyone else over the past 30 years.
Unlike that first Garcia album, which he recorded by himself with only Bill Kreutzmann, this installment features a pile of hired guns, as well as familiar names like Merl Saunders and John Kahn, who supposedly spearheaded the project and suggested several of the tunes. The album follows on from the recent Saunders collaboration, with Jerry playing mostly obscure covers from all over the place. For the most part, they’re fairly dull; “Let It Rock” barely sounds like a Chuck Berry song, and “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is just plain unconvincing. Van Morrison’s early “He Ain’t Give You None” doesn’t go anywhere, and the female backing singers don’t help. There’s something of a New Orleans vibe throughout, but we never had much use for Little Feat either.
From time to time his guitar leaps out of the mix, and it’s welcome. One true highlight is Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby”, which evokes Django Reinhardt, complete with gypsy violin. “Turn On The Bright Lights” is another slow burner with plenty of lead work, but probably could have been faded earlier. We have to admit his Dr. John impression on “What Goes Around” is uncanny. “Mississippi Moon” comes from bluegrass buddy Peter Rowan, about whom more will be heard, while “Midnight Town” is a collaboration between John Kahn and Robert Hunter, and a wonderful ending.
This album grew on us to the point where we increased the initial rating; basically the less familiar you are with the original versions of these songs, the better. (The later expanded version of the album adds another nine covers from the Compliments sessions, some of which would feature in future Garcia bands and shows. There’s also a brief jam called “Cardiac Arrest” that’s livelier than anything else on the album, old or new.)

Jerry Garcia Compliments Of Garcia (1974)—3
2004 expanded CD: same as 1974, plus 10 extra tracks

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Robert Hunter: Tales Of The Great Rum Runners

Outside of the band members themselves, few names are more sacred to Deadheads than that of Robert Hunter. His lyrics first appeared on the band’s second album, and he would contribute more to just about every album after that, usually collaborating with Jerry Garcia but sometimes with Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart. According to one source, he is the only non-performing member of any band that has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He managed to rack up a pile of tunes that hadn’t been recorded by the time the Dead had their own label, and thus Tales Of The Great Rum Runners was his solo debut, albeit with some of the band helping him out. Unfortunately, his voice leaves something to be desired, forced when loud and nervous when quiet. While it does have some of the same weedy qualities as Garcia’s, to the point where one can imagine these as Dead tunes, Jerry could actually hit the notes and carry the tunes. Indeed, “It Must Have Been The Roses” would reappear on a Garcia solo album, and become part of many a Dead set. We can almost hear Jerry singing “That Train”, “Maybe She’s A Bluebird”, and “Children’s Lament”, the latter here with a nostalgic bagpipe background. “Keys To The Rain” is Dylanesque in words and delivery, except for the meter changes and mariachi horns. And as befitting the album title, each side begins with something of a sea chanty, sung a cappella.
Since it’s Robert Hunter, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners is essential for Deadheads, who will enjoy the lyrics and many of the arrangements. But his legacy is better appreciated on other albums.

Robert Hunter Tales Of The Great Rum Runners (1974)—

Friday, October 18, 2019

Genesis 17: The Way We Walk

Maybe they knew this would be the last big tour for a while, as Genesis took the opportunity to glut the marketplace with not one, but two live albums culled from their big tour supporting We Can’t Dance. Playing on the video and chorus for “I Can’t Dance”, both volumes were titled The Way We Walk, and were sequenced thematically.

Volume One: The Shorts was released first, in time for the holiday buying season, and concentrated on the hit singles, some recorded on the Invisible Touch tour. Outside of Phil Collins’ evangelist impression on “Jesus He Knows Me”, F-bomb in “Invisible Touch”, and gargling through “I Can’t Dance”, there’s no real difference from the studio versions, except that stalwart supporting players Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson are on hand to fill out the sound. (Nice of the boys to include them on the cover, though.) It helped that none of the songs had been repeated from earlier live albums, but that also meant that your enjoyment depended on whether you liked the ‘80s version of Genesis.

If you didn’t, maybe you were more excited by Volume Two: The Longs, which arrived a few months later with no intention of going gold. This set was devoted to their lengthy epics, mostly focusing on instrumental interplay. “Old Medley” begins with “Dance On A Volcano” before weaving tunes from the Peter Gabriel era over 15 minutes, then teasing the crowd with random lines from the likes of “That’s All”, “Your Own Special Way”, “Follow You, Follow Me” and, sadly, “Illegal Alien”. (Earlier tours had similar medleys, wherein Phil would even sprinkle a Mike + The Mechanics tune and “You Can’t Hurry Love”.)
Four tracks exceed ten minutes; “Drum Duet”, thankfully, is “only” six. Even in this context the newer pieces stick out, though the “Home By The Sea” suite does well, as does “Domino”, begrudgingly. The two epics from We Can’t Dance don’t gain any stature but don’t lose any either.

Genesis The Way We Walk Volume One: The Shorts (1992)—3
The Way We Walk Volume Two: The Longs (1993)—3