Friday, December 6, 2019

Roger Waters 4: Is This The Life We Really Want?

Much like a certain character in a Dickens novel, Roger Waters had a change of heart in the 21st century, and began to embrace his former bandmates in public. An actual Pink Floyd reunion for Live 8 in 2005 amazingly did not involve a Fender Precision bass soaring across the stage, and when he took his latest update of The Wall on tour, both Nick Mason and David Gilmour contributed to one London performance.
Still, despite a kinder, gentler Roger, many of the new images and messaging within the staging of The Wall proved he could still be plenty disgusted over world issues, and when he finally got around to a new album after 25 years, it showed. Is This The Life We Really Want? isn’t much different from his other solo albums, except that there are no all-star guests and exactly one guitar solo. While there isn’t a storyline, most of the things that pissed him off on Amused To Death have multiplied, particularly the media and global terrorism. Nigel Godrich, most famous for producing Radiohead and Beck, takes charge here, tethering Roger in much as he did Paul McCartney in 2005. The album still sounds somewhat Floydian, with familiar strings, keyboard flourishes, octave notes on the bass, and so on.
Sound effects like ticking clocks and conversations abound, some not easy to discern in the murk of the mix. The songs are mostly slow and depressing, his voice either gravelly and disgusted or howling with rage. He occasionally lapses into lists instead of lyrics, and did not write a distinct melody for each of the tracks. F-bombs are spat, particularly when railing against Donald Trump.
“When We Were Young” is a “Speak To Me”-style intro, with ticking clocks, a heartbeat pulse, and muffled voices, moving into “Déjà Vu” (a title that doesn’t appear until the end of the tune). It’s a profound rumination on what he’d do if he were God, then if he were a drone, complete with startling effects. A drumbeat that evokes Bowie’s “Five Years” drives “The Last Refugee”, a sad reflection that erupts into the much angrier “Picture That”, with a wonderful rant culminating in “a leader with no [expletive deleted] brains”, all over music that sounds like “Sheep”.
That takes a lot out of him, and a cough that reminds us of the first grunt on “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” heralds “Broken Bones”, a mostly acoustic elegy for Mistress Liberty. The title track maintain tension over several minutes, then detours into a strange monologue in south London accent about ants before ending on what sounds like a patient flatlining. Some “Welcome To The Machine” mechanics continue the same tempo and heighten the tension on “Bird In A Gale”, which is less political but just as bleak. The Bowie beat must be a theme for lost children, as it returns on “The Most Beautiful Girl”, about another victim of random government-sanctioned violence.
As before, a song about an innocent is answered from the point of view of the finger on the trigger, and “Smell The Roses” brings in the funk a la “Have A Cigar” filtered through the second half of “Dogs”. It’s a good way to set up the album’s finale, which is really one song with three titles, and the middle one is just one verse. Taken together, “Wait For Her”, “Oceans Apart”, and “Part Of Me Died” may well be, dare we say, the most beautiful thing he’s ever released. The suite ends with a positive message, but also on an unresolved, minor chord, almost abruptly.
While not an easy listen, the music on Is This The Life We Really Want? is certainly moving, and serves the lyrics, whether or not you understand what he’s talking about. While he’s preaching to his choir, the album is a lot better than it could have been. In other words, it was worth the wait.

Roger Waters Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017)—3

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Brian Eno 17: Drawn From Life

As might have been predicted from the largely action-devoid pieces he’d dabbled with throughout the ‘90s, Brian Eno wasn’t so much interested in composing music to be merely heard as he was creating the soundtrack to interactive experiences. But by the end of the decade the ambient brand had become an actual thing, with artists like Aphex Twin taking the lead on the charts, and others bringing in beats, of all things, for a new genre known as trip-hop.
His first album of the new century, then, was a collaboration with a German composer (deejay, actually) named J. Peter Schwalm, released on the same Astralwerks label that had been mining the territory he’d discovered. Some of the music on Drawn From Life recalls the recent “space jazz” of The Drop; at other times they could be more Music For Films. The percussion certainly keeps it contemporary. Regular collaborator Nell Catchpole adds violin here and there, while Laurie Anderson’s robotic voice fits right in on “Like Pictures #2”, as does somebody named Lynn Gerlach, credited with the disembodied contribution to “Rising Dust”. The original immersive intention of ambient music is reinforced on “Bloom”, where the sound of Eno’s young daughters at the kitchen table can be heard. (A mix without the voices is also included, but it’s redundant.)
Altogether, Drawn From Life is pleasant, mostly harmless, and not at all overbearing. It’s melodic in places, which makes it a little more interesting, but it’s hardly a buried treasure. If you want to chill out, chill out.

Brian Eno & J. Peter Schwalm Drawn From Life (2001)—3

Friday, November 29, 2019

Giles, Giles & Fripp: Cheerful Insanity

As he’s hardly discouraged a reputation as a sour crank, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Robert Fripp has a sense of humor. A glance at the British cover of The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp, depicting the band members grinning idiotically, should be enough to cause shaking of heads among fans seeking out anything related to King Crimson.
The band consisted of brothers Michael and Peter Giles on bass and drums (and vocals), with Fripp on guitar. The album credits list Nicky Hopkins among the session musicians. The album sounds somewhere between early Moody Blues, later Zombies, a little Syd Barrett, the Bonzo Dog Band and, especially, the whimsy of side two of Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Much of this comes from the interspersing throughout side one of “The Saga Of Rodney Toady”, a spoken word piece from Fripp, who sounds like he either has a mild stutter or he can’t read his own handwriting. Side two is glued together by “Just George”, wherein the same two couplets are repeated in a variety of Monty Python-type voices. Silly as they are, the inserts do provide something of a sorbet in between the albums tracks proper. Fripp’s high-speed jazz guitar is featured throughout, with precious little of the distortion, sustain, or feedback that would be most associated with him, save on the closing “Erudite Eyes”, the closest thing to a freakout. There is the occasional Mellotron, but possibly the most interesting portion to Crimson fans would be the middle section of “Suite No. 1”, which predicts “Prelude: Song Of The Gulls”.
In the ‘90s, when the labels were digging up anything worth reissuing, The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp made its official CD debut worldwide, with standardized cover art, liner notes, and additional tracks in the form of single mixes plus two unreleased tracks from a final session. These last are of great interest as they feature Ian McDonald, who would play a larger role in the next Fripp and Giles project. (The streaming version includes all these, but none of the spoken links.)
Normally that would be that, but for those who have to have everything, a collection called The Brondesbury Tapes has gone in and out of print over the years, and presents a hodgepodge of home recordings and multi-tracking experiments by the three, plus McDonald. Further Frippery is to be beheld here, with a few more solo pieces and early sketches of what would become standard Crimson fare, including “Drop In”. Some lyrics are contributed by one Peter Sinfield. “I Talk To The Wind” is one of several tunes featuring the vocals of Judy Dyble, recently of Fairport Convention; this track had already appeared as far back as 1976, on the prematurely posthumous A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson double LP.

Giles, Giles And Fripp The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles And Fripp (1968)—2
1992 CD reissue: same as 1968, plus 6 extra tracks
Giles, Giles And Fripp The Brondesbury Tapes (2001)—

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Dwight Twilley 1: Sincerely

Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour were a couple of nice boys with nice hair from Tulsa who created some of the tastiest power pop (though they despised that term) of the mid-‘70s. With Dwight concentrating on guitars and keyboards, and most of the singing and songwriting, and Phil holding down both bass and drums, together they were the faces of the Dwight Twilley Band, but that understates the nearly constant input of Bill Petcock IV on lead guitar. Both sang, and it takes a while to figure out who’s who. Their debut, Sincerely, provides plenty of catchy opportunities to figure it all out.
It’s always a good idea to start your album with your hit single, and “I’m On Fire” is a terrific place to begin, with riffs, hooks, guitars, everything. “Could Be Love” combines real drums with a machine, and what sounds like a toy organ with a toy piano; clearly these guys had lots of fun making records. Lest you think they’re wimps, “Feeling In The Dark” is much harder rock, with Leon Russell pounding away on piano, then “You Were So Warm” evokes the Beach Boys in harmonies and chords. The title track sounds as lo-fi as anything else, but fun fact: the backwards guitar and bass were provided by engineer Roger Linn, just a few years before inventing his eponymous drum machine.
They’re not all winners, of course. “TV” is an ode to that very technology delivered by a rockabilly vocal; thankfully “Release Me” returns to a girl group sound. “Three Persons” has layered vocals that disguise the lyrics, but that “love you, love you” chorus always pricks up our ears. With its vibrato falsetto and cliché lyrics, “Baby Let’s Cruise” seems like a parody, but it’s just so damn infectious despite itself. “England” is probably the best example of how the lyrics don’t seem to have any purpose except to fill out the track, especially when “Just Like The Sun” does a better job of conveying an image.
As their friend Tom Petty soon found out, Shelter Records proved to be a false promise for a lot of its artists, so this and other Twilley albums have been in an out of print over the year, with and without bonus tracks. Thanks to the Internet, Sincerely is easy enough to be heard, and should be.

Dwight Twilley Band Sincerely (1976)—

Friday, November 22, 2019

Elton John 12: Captain Fantastic

The man couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop, and before you knew it, here was a new Elton John album. Having looked back somewhat with the hits album, for their next multiplatinum move Elton and Bernie concocted a concept album intended to evoke their early pre-fame years as struggling songwriters and performers. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy even came in another elaborate package with a poster, two booklets of photos and such, and even lyrics to a song that wasn’t on the album because they never finished it.
The title track begins with sounds that recall their Western fantasies of only a few years before, but beyond that brief beginning, the music is mostly contemporary, and not at all evocative of the period when these events were supposedly taking place, no matter what the lyrics convey. Which is fine, of course, and likely helped the album’s sales, but dates the album today. “Tower Of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers” follow the same template—a moody opening referring to snowy pavements and struggles, then a more straightforward backing from the band (most of whom would be sacked before the tour). “Tell Me When The Whistle Blows” is pure Philly soul, with some particularly tasty Davey Johnstone guitar, but it’s a welcome left turn to the classically epic “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, on some days our absolute favorite Elton John song. At nearly seven minutes, this opus of thanks for being talked out of a doomed marriage was an odd choice for AM radio, but boy, did it sound good.
“(Gotta Get A) Meal Ticket” blasts off side two with a killer riff and more Philly soul, but suddenly we’re in Gilbert & Sullivan territory for the jumpy “Better Off Dead”, and “Writing” is pure yacht rock. Luckily, Elton remembered his better albums and was sure to build up to a big satisfying finale. “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” is mournful for most of it, again sounding mildly derivatively classical. The bridge is in a major key, then the verse reverts to the minor before finding its way back to major key for the resolution. Then without warning, “Curtains” takes over. Slow archetypal Elton chords are decorated by his double-tracked vocal while the band peeks in here and there. There are only two verses, each ending with a simple “oh-oh-oh” motif. On the second, the band finally kicks in completely, right on time for a surprising couplet, surprising in that it is not only directed at the audience, but is delivered in the first person plural, Bernie and Elton together: “And just like us, you must have had a once upon a time.” The “oh-oh-oh” is joined by additional wordless harmonies and parts, somewhat reminiscent of “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, bringing everything up to date as the credits roll.
At this point Elton had the Midas touch. Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy shipped gold and was the first album ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts. It still holds well as an album, but today’s ears are beginning to detect that the gravy train might not last. (The initial expanded CD added the pertinent singles “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, along with the B-side “One Day At A Time”, a recent solo Lennon cover. For the album’s 30th anniversary, the B-side “House Of Cards” was added to these on the one disc, while a second presented the bulk of a 1975 Wembley concert where the album was played in order by his revised and expanded band, followed by “Pinball Wizard” and “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.)

Elton John Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)—3
1995 CD reissue: same as 1975, plus 3 extra tracks
2005 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: same as 1995, plus 13 extra tracks

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Mary Hopkin 4: Live At The Royal Festival Hall

Having had enough of the pop music industry, and already starting a family, Mary Hopkin kept mostly to herself over the decades, surfacing occasionally on a background vocal or an album on a small label. Any Apple reissue brought her attention, and once her kids were grown they became extremely determined to promote their mum. One of the first CDs released on the Mary Hopkin Music label was a concert performed in the wake of Earth Song/Ocean Song, opening for headliner Ralph McTell.
It’s an eclectic set, touching on some of the hits but mostly on the folk songs she loved, such as “Silver Dagger”, “Once I Had A Sweetheart”, “Both Sides Now”, and “Morning Is Broken”. Acoustic guitars, plus Danny Thompson on upright bass, and a small string quartet back her gently. Just as her delivery is confident, her banter in between is witty and utterly charming. Speaking of which, one can’t help but smile as she and husband Tony Visconti duet on the Beatles’ “If I Fell”. She even does “Those Were The Days”, she says, because her in-laws had “flown in from New York” to hear it.
The sound quality is a little wonky on the last two songs, but her voice—that sweet, angelic voice—is clear as a blue sky, and shines through. Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 is a wonderful discovery for anyone who enjoyed her brief pop career.

Mary Hopkin Live At The Royal Festival Hall 1972 (2005)—

Friday, November 15, 2019

Bob Dylan 65: Travelin’ Thru

The ongoing Bob Dylan Bootleg Series project has resulted in volumes designed to be as revelatory as they are historically important. The fifteenth such release certainly illuminates a legendary collaboration, but it doesn’t necessarily rewrite history.
Travelin’ Thru goes in depth into the creation of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, two albums that were so unlike what Bob had done before, as well as what his perceived rock ‘n roll peers had accomplished. They’re also albums that, for the most part, have never been plundered by bootleggers, so the anticipation for hearing outtakes for the first time runs high. The first disc in the set devotes the equivalent of an album side’s worth of alternates from each of these albums, but unfortunately there are no “HOLY CRAP” moments among the selections. The lone unheard song, “Western Road”, isn’t much more than an uninspired 12-bar repeating the same clichés about going to Chicago. There are some takes tried in alternate tempos, but nothing that will have the listener thinking it should have been released instead of what was. (The compilers admit to the dearth of multiple takes, partially because they allegedly just weren’t different, but mostly because the tapes themselves have been missing for decades. We can’t blame the Universal fire for this one, much as we’d like to.)
The packaging for Travelin’ Thru prominently trumpets “featuring Johnny Cash” throughout, as the bulk of the set is dedicated to the session of duets that yielded the version of “Girl From The North Country” that opens Nashville Skyline. Unfortunately, little else reaches that level of sublimity, the majority of the summit spent running through what they can recall of various songs while Johnny’s band, which included Carl Perkins, gamely plays along and navigates the hairpin key changes. Johnny comes off better throughout, as their voices don’t quite mesh with Bob in full “Lay Lady Lay” croon, and he barely harmonizes more than singing a single note against Johnny’s melody. A few tunes could have had potential had they worked on them, but it’s hard to say whether they thought it would be worth it. One stab deserving attention is the real-time mashup of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Understand Your Man”, each man singing a verse from either song simultaneously. We could get excited about finally hearing Bob sing “Wanted Man”, but they spend most of the take trying to remember the words and making up new ones. Clearly they enjoyed each other’s company, and Bob even appeared on the debut episode of ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show, performing “I Threw It All Away” and the almost-a-single “Living The Blues” and duetting with Johnny on “Girl From The North Country”. (All three are included here.)
To fill out a set that could easily fit on two discs instead of three, we get two further outtakes from Self Portrait, both Cash songs: “Ring Of Fire” gets a slick treatment and “Folsom Prison Blues” speeds up into a jam. Along the same lines are a handful of songs from a documentary about bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, including the Scruggs Family arrangement of “Nashville Skyline Rag” and Bob’s half-remembered “To Be Alone With You”. Recorded amidst the New Morning sessions, his voice has returned to its familiar rasp.
When you count the various copyright collections that emerged over the last decade or so, Travelin’ Thru effectively fills in the remaining gaps on the first decade of Bob’s career. It’s highly unlikely a future Bootleg Series release will cover anything else from the ‘60s. This one will be welcomed by Dylan obsessives, and everybody loves Johnny Cash. But it’s also nice to have an installment in the series that doesn’t break the bank. And no “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue”!

Bob Dylan Travelin’ Thru 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (2019)—3