Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Flying Burrito Bros 4: Last Of The Red Hot Burritos

The Burritos may have been done, but they still had contractual obligations. For a final tour, Chris Hillman brought in Al Perkins on pedal steel and Kenny Wertz on guitar and banjo to replace the departed Sneaky Pete and Bernie Leadon respectively, plus a couple of Wertz’s earlier bandmates, Byron Berline on fiddle and Roger Bush on upright bass. These two would be incremental in the band’s set, as heard on Last Of The Red Hot Burritos.
Released as last gasp after Hillman ran off to Stephen Stills’ Manassas project (bringing Al Perkins with him), the album presents possibly the closest thing to the original spirit of the band, melding country and rock and with a healthy supply of Hillman’s beloved bluegrass. Beginning with a sprightly romp through “Devil In Disguise”, “Six Days On The Road”, and “My Uncle”, they were facing a highly appreciative, raucous crowd. The acoustic, overtly bluegrass portion of the set includes “Dixie Breakdown”, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, and is just as well received.
The band rocks again on “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” and “Don’t Fight It”, which fit right in with the Memphis tracks on their first album, while a swampy take on “High Fashion Queen” is a nice diversion. Chris does a nice job singing “Hot Burrito #2”, to which Perkins thankfully adds some fuzz, and the set ends with the obscure James Carr tune “Losing Game”, which features piano that wasn’t onstage.
Last Of The Red Hot Burritos was elsewhere sweetened before release in the studio, with additional piano as well as guitar to “Orange Blossom Special”. Rick Roberts is a decent singer, but doesn’t have the same harmonic blend with Hillman as Gram Parsons had. The packaging was odd, with a gatefold that features photos of everyone who was ever in the band, and liner notes based around interviews with Gram and Sneaky Pete. It’s still a nice bookend to the band, especially if you ignore the revamped version of the group that would stumble around the late ‘70s and on. (Over the years the Burritos’ legend has only grown, but it would be another four decades before further live documents officially emerged—most notably an “authorized bootleg” from a year before Last Of The Red Hot Burritos when Bernie and Sneaky Pete were still in the band.)

The Flying Burrito Bros. Last Of The Red Hot Burritos (1972)—3
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Authorized Bootleg/Fillmore East, New York, N.Y. – Late Show, November 7, 1970 (2011)—3

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Dolby 2: The Flat Earth

That pesky hit single was a double-edged sword for Thomas Dolby, as he suddenly felt pigeonholed as something of a novelty act. He was already well into the process of recording his next album, but had to cut it short due to promotional obligations, which didn’t allow him to adjust the schedule for completing it. The way he tells it, The Flat Earth suffered as a result. It certainly feels short, and at 37 minutes, it is.
Somebody else pointed out that where the first album predicted steampunk, here he’s the khaki-panted world traveler. “Dissidents” burbles in, soon joined by scratchy guitars for a pretty funky track about, well, being a dissident writer. The title track begins much the same way, but the rhythm is more subtle, with textures that would soon be equated with mainstream embrace of so-called world music. (This is a good place to call out Kevin Armstrong’s exemplary guitar work throughout the album.) Even more gorgeous is the melancholy “Screen Kiss”, a portrait of a small town girl ruined by the big time. Listen for Matthew Seligman’s wonderful bass playing, very evocative of Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album.
After a mysterious intro, “White City” sounds more like the last album, with another impenetrable lyric. The barely audible narration by Robyn Hitchcock as “Keith” doesn’t clear anything up, not that we’d expect it would. “Mulu The Rain Forest” suffers from an overuse of effects; the piano and vocal on their own are just plain gorgeous. His cocktail jazz arrangement of “I Scare Myself” sounds so much like him few might have realized it was originally written and recorded by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks seventeen years before. As something of a reward to the those hoping for more comedy, “Hyperactive!” provides the closest echo of “She Blinded Me With Science”, loaded as it is with wacky voices and voiceovers, matched by a truly twisted video. Still, that’s why we can’t help but chuckle at the trombone whenever it appears, but the song sounds very out of place following what’s gone before.
Those who really paid attention to his first album won’t be too surprised with The Flat Earth. He’s definitely reaching here, looking for new sounds and making the most of available technology. Considering how labored it all its, who knows if more time would have improved it any? (The converted should certainly seek out the 2009 import remaster, which loads up the balance of the CD with off singles, a collaboration with Ryuchi Sakamoto, and soundtrack work, plus a couple of live tracks.)

Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth (1984)—3

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Morrissey 7: Southpaw Grammar

Morrissey never hid his love of glam rock from his own work, so it should be no surprise that art-rock wasn’t far behind. Southpaw Grammar lets the band—the same as the last few albums, except a rotating rhythm section—bash through eight songs, with a big Steve Lillywhite production.
Based around a sample from a Shostakovich symphony, “The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils” is very much a dirge that at least gets some energy once the drums kick in, and runs a total of eleven minutes. “Reader Meet Author” is a tightly packed rock tune that skewers critics, not noticing for a second that he’s calling the kettle black. “The Boy Racer” is even louder and angrier, and seems to resent the new brand of Britpop bands taking his place in people’s ears, but we could we be reading way too much into it. “The Operation” begins with a two-minute drum solo that’s more rhythmic than virtuostic, until the song itself takes over, another nasty kiss-off. (It goes into a completely different rave-up for the last two minutes.)
“Dagenham Dave” is seemingly a portrait of a typical working-class lout, but it’s hard to tell since the verses are spare and the chorus merely repeats the title ad infinitum. “Do Your Best And Don’t Worry” is the closest thing yet to a Morrissey pep talk, whereas “Best Friend On The Payroll” is even more minimalist in its lyrics, which is a shame since the melody is so catchy. (And quite honestly, who among his fans could relate to the struggles of employing a personal servant?) Finally, “Southpaw” is another lengthy one, mostly a showcase for guitar effects and pyrotechnics, coming to strange halt after ten minutes.
Southpaw Grammar is edgy and angry, perhaps too much. It’s not an album to get lost in, but it certainly rocks. He always defended it, of course. (Some 14 years later he saw fit to reissue the album in a dramatically revised format, with a completely different sequence, Bowie-inspired cover art, and four extra tracks.)

Morrissey Southpaw Grammar (1995)—3
2009 Expanded Edition: “same” as 1995, plus 4 extra tracks

Friday, September 8, 2023

Van Morrison 46: You’re Driving Me Crazy

Joey DeFrancesco was a third-generation jazz phenom who was already a major label recording artist at the age of sixteen. He’d already worked with John McLaughlin and guested on dozens of albums in between recording his own before Van Morrison tapped him and his small combo for You’re Driving Me Crazy.
This was Van’s third album released in the space of seven months, and like the others, it’s a jazz and blues set combining standards and remakes of his own tunes. Most of the latter are recent (“Evening Shadows”, “Magic Time”, the whiny “Goldfish Bowl”) or certainly obscure (“All Saints Day”, “Celtic Swing”, and we’re not sure we needed another sprint through “The Way Young Lovers Do”, or a bop version of “Have I Told You Lately” with daughter Shana. The covers are a grab bag as well, from Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” to Ray Charles’ “Sticks And Stones”.
What helps everything stand out is DeFrancesco’s Hammond B-3 organ, and occasional trumpet. Van plays alto sax here and there—you can always tell when he’s about to because he keeps singing with the mouthpiece in; he also takes a nice harmonica break on “Things I Used To Do”—but mostly lets Troy Roberts do the heavy horn work. It’s refreshing to hear Van in a different environment. (Yes, he had Georgie Fame in his band for a while, but that was more R&B than jazz.)
The album was supposedly recorded over two days, and at 70 minutes, they seem to have kept everything. Van also seemed to enjoy himself, as we can hear him laughing during the solos on the title track, and at the end of “Every Day I Have The Blues”. As with most of his work this century, You’re Driving Me Crazy is not a major statement; it’s just a gig. And it’s a pretty good one.

Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco You’re Driving Me Crazy (2018)—3

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Tom Verlaine 2: Dreamtime

Two years went by before Tom Verlaine finished a second solo album. Dreamtime picked up where the last one left off, offering ten more tunes like what we’d come to expect. Half of the album features the Fred Smith-Jay Dee Daugherty rhythm section; the other sports the drummer for the Dictators and a guy who’d go on to work with John Waite. Guitarist Ritchie Fliegler is his foil throughout.
“There’s A Reason” delivers what we’ve come to expect—insistent riffing, jagged accents, strangulated vocals—and the program follows through. “Penetration”, which is just Tom with Jay Dee, except for a piano at the end, kinda stumbles into place, but is precisely constructed. The pattern falls right into place on “Always”, a straightforward chugger but for a lovely angelic chorus, whereas “The Blue Room” is a rumbling instrumental except for the word “hi-fi”. With its arpeggiated guitars and straight pop structure, the brooding “Without A Word” could be a hit for someone with a better voice.
Except for the 12-string, “Mr Blur” could be another lost Television track, just as the power chords on the chorus of “Fragile” are downright mainstream. “A Future In Noise” is about as blunt a putdown song as he’d yet to write up to this point. “Down On The Farm” is the resident wacky track, with a guitar part predicting car alarms, strangely romantic overtures in the words, and a big swirly finish. “Mary Marie” is a more toned-down portrait of a mystery woman.
Even with the sameness, Dreamtime is another satisfying Verlaine album for anyone willing to decipher the meaning of the lyrics. Not a lot of people did, and the album was pretty much forgotten until well into the digital era, when it was reissued on the Infinite Zero label, an archival imprint curated by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin. Along with gushing liner notes, this edition very nicely added two extra tracks from a rare single: “The Blue Room” with more, seemingly extemporaneous vocals, and a longer, hotter mix of “Always”. (These were not included on the later Collector’s Choice CD.)

Tom Verlaine Dreamtime (1981)—3
1994 Infinite Zero Archive CD: same as 1981, plus 2 extra tracks

Friday, September 1, 2023

Nilsson 6: The Point

While he’d had some success, Harry Nilsson had yet to become a household name. Always looking for an angle, and with the help of an acid trip, he came up with an idea that would turn into not just his new album, but a feature-length children’s television special. The Point! was something of a cross between Dr. Seuss’s “The Sneetches” (which would be animated and broadcast two years later) and an earlier TV special, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. An otherwise inoffensive kid with a different physical attribute from his neighbors is ostracized by them, and sent off with only his canine companion for company. Along the way they meet all kinds of wacky characters and return to share valuable lessons about inclusion, conformity, and hopefully forgiveness.
Like most TV specials of the era, it’s as charming as it is dated, as befits the technology of the time and the style of the head animator, best embodied for this generation in the commercials for Tootsie Pops. (One notices the influence of Yellow Submarine and The Phantom Tollbooth as well.) Dustin Hoffman originally narrated, in a role later redubbed by Ringo Starr and then Alan Thicke, while the part of the boy in the story, as well as the boy to whom the story is told, was played by none other than Mike Lookinland, then otherwise occupied as Bobby Brady. Other roles were filled by such voice luminaries as Paul Frees, June Foray, and Lennie Weinrib.
On the album, Nilsson narrates most of the story as seen in the film, which is over twice as long. The music is only tangentially related to the plot, but tempers the “hey man” tone of his narration. (We can even hear him turn a page at one point.) Still, the songs work on their own, singalongable by adults and kids of all ages, which, if you’ll pardon the expression, was the point.
“Everything’s Got ‘Em” mostly establishes that “this is the town and this is this people”; we assume the title refers to the ubiquitous points. A narration sets the scene about a boy born without a point on his head like everyone else has, but most people seem to like him anyway. “Me And My Arrow” is a wonderful song for any kid and his or her dog, though the bridge doesn’t fit at all, in all its familiar Nilsson-ness. The contest in the story that leads to the immediate crisis is illustrated by “Poli High”, basically a cheerleading chant that sports a brief “hold that line” counterpoint we would swear he heard in “Revolution 9”. The story’s Karen equivalent banishes the boy and his dog from the town, we are informed that the next song will conveniently fill the time it takes to get to the next part of the story, and “Think About Your Troubles” does just that, with a rather straightforward explanation of how water is repurposed in nature.
Some narration condenses the action in the film to the point (sorry) where the travelers come upon a seemingly bottomless hole, setting up “Life Line”, a lonesome song with a deceptively cheerful melody. Once out of that tough spot, the pair meets more fascinating people in the film, which is glossed over on the album until a prehistoric bird picks them up for “P.O.V. Waltz”. After “flying high in the sky,” they’re dropped off, and eventually nap, to the tune of “Are You Sleeping?”, which could be a nice lullaby if not for the same bridge detour that colors “Me And My Arrow”. The boy and his dog return to the town and point out that everything has a point. Thus science and compassion prevail over ignorance and egomania, and we live happily ever after.
With The Point!, he began to develop his “rock” voice more. As more people began to take notice of this character, the concept itself would endure outside of him. The songs were expanded into stage productions, one of which would reunite two Monkees. And for all its hippy-dippyness, it’s still a nice story. Such feel-good be-yourself messages were common in that era, and frankly, the message is just as important today.
The first expanded version of the album added the standalone single “Down To The Valley”, which was in the same spirit of the album if a little too busy—and very much like mid-period Beach Boys—and the B-side “Buy My Album”, which beseeched the listener to do just that, even though “Down To The Valley” wasn’t on any album. The more elaborate package a few years later sported excellent liner notes by Nilsson uberfan Curtis Armstrong, a reproduction of the original comic book insert of the story, and different bonuses: early versions of “Think About Your Troubles” and “Life Line”, an alternate take of “Down To The Valley”, and as a hidden track, the surviving excerpt of a demo for “I’ll Never Leave You”.

Nilsson The Point! (1971)—3
1998 DCC CD: same as 1971, plus 2 extra tracks
2002 BMG Heritage CD: same as 1971, plus 4 extra tracks

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Kinks 27: State Of Confusion

Having re-established themselves as a big act, Ray Davies and the Kinks picked up where they left off. State Of Confusion even sports a similar cover theme to Give The People What They Want, but features the whole band, which was nice of Ray, who still wrote and produced everything.
The title track is a solid rocker with great keyboards, and they thankfully drop the scream accent a few bars in. The lyrics are fairly generic, but the music and particularly the guitar parts make it work. On a similar theme, “Definite Maybe” takes on the angst of modern life from another angle and a different rhythm. Opening with a Hendrixian take on “Here Comes The Bride”, “Labour Of Love” is a blatantly cynical view of marriage, repeatedly described as “a two-headed transplant”. What sold the album was “Come Dancing”, still a charming retro tune in tone and theme, and we still crack up at the mother’s commentary in the quiet section. It’s also a nice respite from the loudness of the first three tracks. (The video is still as charming as ever.) That happy memory is dashed aside by the post-breakup scene in “Property”.
The melancholy mood continues in “Don’t Forget To Dance”, which not only shared a word from the first single, but repeated the spiv character from the video in its own. Still, the song is a nice sentiment, and well constructed. A wash of loud guitars brings in the noisy “Young Conservatives”, an astute observation on a political trend on both sides of the pond, even pulling in a reference to a “well respected man”. “Heart Of Gold” begins with the same chord figure of “Don’t Forget To Dance” but in a different key. The verses go all over the place, seeming to describe basic sibling rivalry in one, teenage rebellion in another, and a bridge about paparazzi, yet somehow Ray says the song was inspired by the child he’d just had with fiancée Chrissie Hynde. Despite the title, “Clichés Of The World (B Movie)” is the most successful portrait of modern psychodrama hear, except for maybe the sci-fi interlude that may refer to brother Dave’s recent adventures, which we’ll explain shortly. Dave gets to yell his way through “Bernadette”, which nobody seemed to notice was already a Four Tops title, nor did they think to modify the riff stolen directly from Little Richard’s “Lucille”. Ray’s sneered interlude doesn’t add much, either, and the album just kinda ends. (Dave was likely too busy anyway with his third solo album in as many years. Chosen People continued his flirtation with synths and drum machines, and was very competent rock-wise, but ignored overall. The title track and “True Story”, which seem to address his alleged visitation by aliens who began transmitting voices into his head around this time, likely didn’t help.)
State Of Confusion is, once again, ordinary but competent, but should please anyone who liked the last album. “Come Dancing” may well have helped a new generation further discover the band’s history; the videos certainly helped. As happened in those days, the cassette version offered a variation, in this case adding an extra song on each side: “Noise” is a rant about that subject, literally and metaphorically, while “Long Distance” is a decent chapter in his “life on the road is hard” saga. (These were both added to the eventual expanded CD, following the “original extended edit” of “Don’t Forget To Dance” and the outtake “Once A Thief”.)

The Kinks State Of Confusion (1983)—3
1999 Konk CD reissue: “same” as 1983 cassette, plus 2 extra tracks