Monday, March 30, 2009

Beatles 23: Reel Music and 20 Greatest Hits

Inevitably, 1982 saw Capitol trumpeting the Beatles catalog with the obvious slogan “it was twenty years ago today”. Each of the 45s were to be ceremoniously reissued on the 20th anniversary of its original release, a plan they actually took through 1990 with a couple of detours to accommodate for such brief packaging whims as cassette singles and CD3s. They also began needless repackaging á la 1976.

Reel Music was based around the idea that people born after 1964 became acquainted with the boys via TV reruns of their movies, so a 42-minute LP highlighting each film was compiled featuring some of their biggest hits. But since all were on the Red and Blue albums—and several other collections by this point—the faithful were buying their fourth or fifth versions of the same recordings. The booklet was an interesting if unsuccessful art concept, notable for the liner notes and memorabilia covering each of the films. The sections for Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be merely reprinted photos from the inner gatefolds of those albums, each of which had been quietly reissued without the extras. As another oddity of the ‘80s, “The Beatles’ Movie Medley” combined sections of seven of the album’s tunes into a four-minute single that actually charted. Part of this was to promote the album, but it also was influenced by the Stars On 45 movement—kind of like a top 40 Hooked on Classics—that rerecorded hit melodies over a thumping disco beat for aerobics workouts. (This sloppy edit, like the Reel Music compilation itself, has yet to appear on CD.)

October brought 20 Greatest Hits, which were crammed onto a single LP in order of US release for an hour’s worth of music. (The British release featured a few different songs in a different order.) The packaging is very understated (translated: minimal) and as was the norm, all had appeared on at least one post-1970 collection—naturally, both Red and Blue albums—with the only rarity being an edit of “Hey Jude” that fades at the five-minute mark. It was a decent set of music, of course, but the timing just wasn’t right for someone seeking a single-disc compilation of the band’s hits. Anyone who had to have it on CD would have to wait, sort of, until the turn of the century.

These compilations might have pleased neophytes, until they ended up getting all the original albums anyway. Meanwhile, diehard collectors got increasingly irritated with the parade of things they already had, when they just knew there had to be a pile of great unreleased stuff just itching to get out. For once, they were right, but it would be a long time and a few more lawsuits before any of it would be officially revealed. We should at least be thankful that some of those lawsuits put a stop to more collections like these. The ratings below reflect the content diluted by the lack of exclusivity.

The Beatles Reel Music (1982)—
Current CD equivalent: none
The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits (1982)—
Current CD equivalent: 1

Friday, March 27, 2009

David Bowie 8: Diamond Dogs

Bowie’s next concept was killed before it hit the water, and had transformed into his next style by the time it hit the road. Diamond Dogs gets its influence from two literary sources: William Burroughs and George Orwell. The former’s cut-up technique clouds the storyline set up by the latter, but if you can get through the arrangements, there is some amazing music here.

“Future Legend” is an overture of sorts, with scary effects in the background, going right into the pseudo-live “Diamond Dogs”. The delay on the vocals can be something of a headache after six minutes, and it was an odd choice for a single. “Sweet Thing” fades up on a backwards piano chord, and takes a spooky journey into the heart of the city, inspiring some of Bowie’s best vocals. The “Candidate” interlude is listed as its own track, and then it’s back to the rest of “Sweet Thing”. A bastardization of the “Changes” riff stomps all over the cracked sidewalk, and with a twisted guitar thrash “Rebel Rebel” rises out of the murk. This is still a great song, with Bowie nailing that riff all over the place (indeed, he plays all the guitar parts on the entire album) and a great groove. That’s just side one.

Side two is somewhat anticlimactic. “Rock ‘N Roll With Me” is made for the stage, but “We Are The Dead” takes one of the more vivid portions from Orwell’s book and applies the cut-up technique for a continually descending sound. “1984” will always reek of disco thanks to the Shaft-inspired arrangement. “Big Brother” overdoes the Mellotron vocals, but saves the best part for last—the denouement into “The Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family”, which is nothing more than a groove cut short by the skipping effect that ends the side.

Diamond Dogs effectively left the glam Ziggy image behind, to the point of ignoring his Christian name, but still reeked of decadence. It’s a dark, difficult but ultimately rewarding album. (Later CD reissues attempted to show the evolution of the songs. The 30th Anniversary Edition is begrudgingly preferred, despite its high price and the fact that a single disc’s worth of music is spread conceptually across two. A few early versions of “Candidate” and the scrapped “Dodo” are featured on that second disc, along with later remixes and an inferior single mix of “Rebel Rebel” that should have stayed buried.)

Bowie Diamond Dogs (1974)—
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1974, plus 2 extra tracks
2004 30th Anniversary Edition: same as 1990, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

David Bowie 7: Pin Ups

Even with a new album, Bowie couldn’t shed the Ziggy persona so easily, and announced at the final show of the 1973 tour (captured on an album not released until 1983) that it would be their last. By the time the next album happened, drummer Woody Woodmansey had already taken the retirement threat seriously, so Pin Ups was recorded with Aynsley Dunbar on the stool.
The album is a successful experiment, with a bunch of Mod-era songs cleverly redecorated to fit the Ziggy template. Some would have been familiar to FM radio listeners, and Bowie gives an incredibly affectionate performance throughout. (Mick Ronson also gets to showboat on guitar and string arrangements.)

The Pretty Things’ “Roslyn” chugs along with a relentless Bo Diddley beat, and their “Don’t Bring Me Down” is just one of many songs with that title. The Yardbirds’ take on “I Wish You Would” shows how much of a template it was for the Spiders sound, though Them’s “Here Comes The Night” is a little campy. The obscure “Everything’s Alright” sports a snaky riff, while “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” was deemed important enough to have its lyrics printed on the inner sleeve.

The most successful track is “Sorrow”, an obscure tune that most people hadn’t heard at all until he released his version as a single, while his takes on “Friday On My Mind”, “Shapes Of Things”, “See Emily Play” (with a tiring extended ending that lifts from familiar classical “riffs”) and the two Who covers have a little too much “visiting alien” effect on the vocals. Then again, if he landed from another planet and learned our crazy ways from the streets of Swinging London, who are we to argue? Fans didn’t mind; to them it sounded like the spaced-out Bowie they’d come to love.

The Rykodisc reissue added two more covers. “Port Of Amsterdam”, a Jacques Brel tune done acoustic with increasing volume, was recorded during the Ziggy sessions and used as the B-side for “Sorrow”. “Growin’ Up” is the Springsteen song from the earliest sessions for the next album, and features Ron Wood on guitar. Granted, neither was from the same era as the rest of the album, but they had to go somewhere.

David Bowie Pin Ups (1973)—3
1990 Rykodisc: same as 1973, plus 2 extra tracks

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Roger Daltrey 6: Parting Should Be Painless

After being blindsided by Pete Townshend’s announcement that the Who were finally finished—and after some time waiting to see if he’d change his mind, as he had in the past—Roger Daltrey found himself suddenly solo, and not as a side project. With a title like Parting Should Be Painless, it was hard (sorry) to think of the album as anything but a commentary on the end of his band. This being Roger, of course, he didn’t write any of the songs, and we find it hard to believe he set out such a thesis to the ones who did.

The album came out in the wake of the New Romantic movement in British music, whereas Americans were still catching up to New Wave and whatever was on MTV. And now that he had the chance to do anything he wanted, with a deal on Atlantic to boot, Roger didn’t want to make an album that sounded like the Who, so he didn’t. And then nobody bought it.

“Walking In My Sleep” was a half-decent single heavy on synth and sax, and unfortunately the high point of the album. While it’s unknown why the tense is different, “Parting Would Be Painless” was already on an album put out by its songwriter, one Kit Hain, the year before, and its romantic angle should definitely not suggest it’s about the Who. “Is There Anybody Out There?” serves up middle-aged angst on a track better suited to Bonnie Tyler, though the nightmare strings really need to be toned back. The unintended creepy come-on “Would A Stranger Do?” is an early composition by one Simon Climie, who’d go on to collaborate with the likes of Pat Benatar and Eric Clapton down the road. The first really surprising track is “Going Strong”, written by Bryan Ferry, likely in the lead-up to Avalon. While one-chord songs may have worked too many times for Roxy Music, here it just plods.

“Looking For You” is another Kit Hain tune that kinda works, though his voice gets buried in the otherwise catchy choruses, but we’re more startled by his gruff take on “Somebody Told Me”, an obscure song from the first real Eurythmics album. “One Day” is somewhat in the vein of his R&B-flavored work from the ‘70s, if a little dull, whereas “How Does The Cold Wind Cry” tries for something of a stadium anthem without the dynamics. “Don’t Wait On The Stairs” throws another publishing bone to Steve Swindells, done here in an almost Prince style. (No, really.)

Roger doesn’t sound very confident throughout Parting Should Be Painless, and it would appear he wasn’t. The production, courtesy of a guy who’d worked with Wire in the punk days and helmed Soft Cell’s version of “Tainted Love”, is competent, only slightly dated, but not very unique. This couldn’t have been the statement Roger wanted to make. (And the cover? What’s up with the leopard print and the diving pose?)

Roger Daltrey Parting Should Be Painless (1984)—2

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pete Townshend 5: Scoop

Taking an idea that had been approached with Who Came First, Pete put together a two-record set of some of his demos, some of which naturally ended up as Who songs. Scoop is a very satisfying collection, covering two decades of experimentation, without any noticeable order to the sequencing.

For starters, “So Sad About Us” shows the young artist at work, with a spoken introduction, before abruptly merging into the instrumental “Brrr” from several years later. Songs familiar as Who tracks—such as “Squeeze Box”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Bargain”, and “Circles”—show how much was already in place before the band did their part, but it’s the otherwise “new” tracks that really show his breadth as a writer. “Zelda” is different, sung over some furiously bowed violins, while “Politician” has a great atmosphere, which he accomplished in a home setup. “Dirty Water” is a fun jam in a professional studio with Kenney Jones on drums, but “Piano: Tipperary” is fairly stupid, as signified by his otherwise detailed liner notes, reproduced for this song here: “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm?”

Much better is “Unused Piano: Quadrophenia”, a beautiful piece that explores some themes from that album, making one wish there was more solo piano in his catalog. “Melancholia” is described in the notes as not having been heard by the Who, a statement that would be proved incorrect ten years later. “Things Have Changed” is a charming lost gem from 1965, and “Popular” is the better basis for what became “It’s Hard”.

The second half of the album isn’t always as strong, but there are still some eye-openers. First there’s what he calls the “one man band… voodoo-dub-freak-out” of “The Magic Bus”, followed by the template for “Cache Cache”. “Cookin’” is cute country, where we get to hear him learning how to play pedal steel while the tape runs. “You’re So Clever” was bested by “And I Moved” for Empty Glass, just as “Body Language” was bested by the other poetic stuff on Chinese Eyes What he calls “Initial Machine Experiments” is actually pleasant in its own way, if you don’t mind synth noodling.

“Mary” is a drastically edited Lifehouse refugee, followed by the unused “Recorders” experiment for Quadrophenia, which leads well into “Goin’ Fishin’” to round out this particular sequence. “To Barney Kessel” is a nice little unfinished guitar piece, but there’s something too sad and haunting about “You Came Back””, the significance of which wouldn’t be revealed until the next century. “Love Reign O’er Me” wraps it all up, with as much power as the Who version, closing with the sound of Pete walking on the beach.

Scoop goes a long way to show that Pete would be just fine on his own, particularly when, by year’s end, he announced that the band was finished. The quality of stuff he was putting out whet fans’ appetites for more music, as well as more peeks into his vaults.

Pete Townshend Scoop (1983)—4

Friday, March 20, 2009

Neil Young 24: Ragged Glory and Weld

What to do when riding high? Time to call the Horse! Barely a year after Freedom, Neil was back again, with an album the likes of Kurt Loder immediately branded as essential. Now decades later, the jury’s still hung as to just how essential Ragged Glory is, but there’s no mistaking that it’s loud.

“Country Home” starts us off on the right foot. It’s nice and long, and ends with several seconds of lingering feedback, as do most of these songs. It seems to just keep going, and that’s fine. “White Line” is another resurrected nugget from the ‘70s, and “F*!#in’ Up” isn’t as funny after the first few listens. “Over And Over” is very long but not dull, but it’s still hard to tell “Love To Burn” and “Love And Only Love” apart until the choruses kick in. “Farmer John” is a stupid old garage band song, perfect for these guys. They sure have a lot of fun playing it. “Days That Used To Be” takes most of its melody from “My Back Pages”, but that’s okay since both songs cover similar ground. “Mansion On The Hill” was the first single, Lord knows why, except that it’s pretty short and uses the word “psychedelic”. “Mother Earth” ends the ride with a twist—a live vocal and distorto guitar performance with overdubbed backing vocals.

Ragged Glory isn’t as forgettable as much of his ‘80s material, but it just doesn’t have enough variety, especially coming so soon after the potpourri on Freedom. Also, Neil made a big deal at the time about “Don’t Spook The Horse”, which was left off the album for use as a B-side. First of all, it could have fit on the album with room to spare, and second of all, it was kinda ordinary. But it does include this priceless bit of advice: “If you wanna pet that old hound dog, make sure he ain’t rolled in shit.” This was rectified somewhat 33 years later when the album was remastered and rereleased as part of his ongoing Original Release Series box sets. Dubbed the Smell The Horse Edition, an extra disc included an alternate mix of “Don’t Spook The Horse” along with the acoustic “Interstate”, which had been a later B-side, and previously unreleased takes of “Boxcar” and “Born To Run”—his, not Bruce’s—the latter running over twelve minutes while they pound the simple riff into the ground. (To date, this additional disc has yet to appear outside of the box set.)

Weld documented the subsequent Smell The Horse tour, and fills the same kind of purpose as Live Rust. Most of the songs are on that album or Ragged Glory, and the performances are all pretty straightforward, with some exceptions. “Blowin’ In The Wind” is played in a similar style to “Mother Earth”, after some Gulf War sound effects. “Welfare Mothers” features some silly give-and-take twixt Neil and Billy Talbot at the drawn-out end. We don’t need another “Tonight’s The Night”, though “Roll Another Number” is a different way to end these feedback-soaked, wartime proceedings. This collection has a really great version of “F*!#in’ Up” too. (Originally included only in the deluxe version of the set, Arc is a 35-minute sound sculpture built from various song endings and jams from the tour, within which one can discern the endings of some familiar tunes. There is a small following on the Internet that has an annual Arc-fest devoted to playing the disc communally, which, given Neil’s fanatic fan base, isn’t surprising.)

Neil Young & Crazy Horse Ragged Glory (1990)—3
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Weld (1991)—3
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Arc (1991)—2

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Neil Young 23: Eldorado and Freedom

With a lot of activity over the past few years, Neil was certainly keeping busy, and soon enough there was word of yet another brand new album, to be called Eldorado. The only thing that surfaced was a five-song EP with that title, released only on CD in Japan; it would not receive wider release for another 33 years.

Credited cheekily to Neil Young & The Restless—the latter being the rhythm section from the Bluenotes—it’s a brief snapshot of a mostly loud session that rocks harder than anything on the recent CSNY album. Two of the songs have since appeared nowhere else: “Cocaine Eyes” starts with serious amp buzzing and continues with a Horsey riff and a melody he’d put to better use in a few months, while “Heavy Love” has a similar spirit but a better chorus. Both are incredibly abrasive, but frankly, neither song truly thrills.

The other three songs got more attention when the full album did finally arrive. Freedom was compiled from several sessions, with rotating players, and as satisfying as a well-rounded meal. There’s something on here for Neil-heads from all walks of life to enjoy.

“Rockin’ In The Free World” appears first in a live acoustic setting; in those days he’d play it twice in the same show. It’s still a good song, if overplayed by now. “Crime In The City” has some great verses; the original as done with the Bluenotes apparently had about ten more. Edited slightly from the EP, “Don’t Cry” has a really bent attitude through it, with lots of pyrotechnics, plus the explosion at the end is priceless. It stands out much better here than in between the two abandoned songs on Eldorado. “Hangin’ On A Limb” is a nice surprise, and a really sweet vocal from Linda Ronstadt that doesn’t get in the way. “Eldorado” is the same track from the EP, with excellent use of Mexican melodies and a mysterious tale about something. “The Ways Of Love” is another pleasant country charmer, left over from the late ‘70s.

“Someday” has contemporary keyboards and Bluenote horns, but still a good tune. Also on the EP, “On Broadway” really and truly is a cover of the Drifters classic. It seems like a very odd choice for Neil, whose covers tend to be more esoteric, but he uses the song to turn the hope of stardom into the pointlessness of crack addiction in no time. “Wrecking Ball” quotes from “Like A Hurricane”, and is a nice respite from all the despair that permeates the rest of the album. It’s very pretty. “No More” is a vast improvement on “Night Song” on the CSNY album, using that D modal tuning and absolutely sweating with determination not to fall prey to weakness. Powerful. “Too Far Gone” is another mid-‘70s leftover honky-tonk lament, then the electric “Rockin’ In The Free World” slams it all shut in best Tonight’s The Night/Rust Never Sleeps tradition.

1989 saw a lot of established artists—McCartney, Dylan, the Stones, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello—return to form somewhat after pissing away most of the decade. Despite the quieter love songs, Freedom is a really angry album that managed to capture a lot of attention. Rather than beating a different genre to death with each album, Neil put them all together in one package, and got a hit out of it. There’s still a little “sheen” in the mix, but not enough to ruin it today.

Neil Young & The Restless Eldorado (1989)—
Neil Young
Freedom (1989)—

Monday, March 16, 2009

Robert Plant 3: The Honeydrippers and Shaken ‘N Stirred

Zep-heads still hoping for some kind of reunion were very excited with the news of a band fronted by Robert Plant called the Honeydrippers. The anticipation was tempered when the project actually appeared in stores. An EP in all senses of the term, Volume One was a complete nostalgia trip, featuring Plant singing five ‘50s R&B songs produced by label head Ahmet Ertegun with the help of Jimmy Page (on two songs), Jeff Beck (on two others), Paul Shaffer and Nile Rodgers. “Rockin’ At Midnight” got picked up by just about every radio station, while “Sea Of Love” was a huge hit on the lighter ones, complete with a strange but slightly amusing video in which the teenage Carmen Plant cavorted about a Greek resort while her dad lip-synched the tune next to a shirt on a hanger.

The other three tracks were just as enjoyable; “I Get A Thrill” and “I Got A Woman” are more upbeat boogie, and “Young Boy Blues” loads on the syrup. At barely eighteen minutes, it whetted appetites for a full-length album, or at least a Volume Two, but nothing ever materialized.

The Honeydrippers hits were still getting airplay when Shaken ‘N Stirred arrived the following spring. Although “Little By Little” was a decent taster, with this album Plant unfortunately decided to de-emphasize not only guitars but songs with actual choruses, resulting in a horribly inaccessible listen. Too many song titles are onomatopoetic, and while “Easily Lead” was said to be evocative of his old band, it wasn’t. A title like “Too Loud” is all too apt, particularly for an Art of Noise homage with a near-rap delivery. Outside of the slightly catchy “Pink And Black”, the only saving grace on this noisy, cluttered album was the majestic “Sixes And Sevens”, which sounded great at two in the morning on your FM radio. (Another difference was the drummer. Phil Collins being just a tad busy in 1985, Robert brought in Richie Hayward, formerly of Little Feat, to play rhythms and sounds completely opposite to what had thus far paid his rent.)

He took the album on tour, complete with a horn section for a Honeydrippers encore, but most of his efforts were overshadowed by the full-fledged Zeppelin reunion at Live Aid that summer. A further attempt to push the album was made with Little By Little—Collector’s Edition, no more collectable than a 12-inch single with an extended remix of the title track (which later appeared on the remastered CD), live versions of “Easily Lead” and “Rockin’ At Midnight” (which didn’t), and the album version of “Sixes And Sevens”.

After a good start, Robert Plant seemed to have gotten stuck. He would either have to embrace his past, or find some way to stay marketable on his own if anyone was going to care.

The Honeydrippers Volume One (1984)—4
2007 remastered CD: same as 1984, plus 1 extra track
Robert Plant Shaken ‘N Stirred (1985)—2
2007 remastered CD: same as 1985, plus 1 extra track

Friday, March 13, 2009

Who 16: It’s Hard

To hear of another Who album so soon after the last one seemed a blessing at first. But the announcement of a big American tour was tempered by word that it would be their last, putting even more pressure on the album’s success.

As could be predicted by the adolescent sniggers inspired by the title, It’s Hard just isn’t that good. Outside of a few flourishes here and there, it doesn’t sound very much like a Who album, which is made all the worse by various melodic touches that hearken back to other songs, and not in a good way.

“Athena” was probably the wise choice for the single, and is almost funny. John’s “It’s Your Turn” takes the synth line first heard in “Had Enough” (and again, stolen that year by Asia) and puts it to a growly Roger vocal about aging rock stars. “Cooks County” is boring and redundant, one of Pete’s worst efforts. The title track starts out promisingly, but ultimately its catchiness quickly turns empty. “Dangerous” is a step in the right direction, but is more of an Entwistle song than a Who song. A lot of people still like “Eminence Front” (or “Living In The Bronx”, as one radio listener called it) but it’s merely a list disguised as a song over a pedestrian riff.

“I’ve Known No War” is a little too obvious, leaning on the pulse of “Join Together”. “One Life’s Enough” raises eyebrows with its somewhat racy lyrics, but now seems so out of place. “One At A Time” is a better John song, with good playing but more in the comical “My Wife” mode. “Why Did I Fall For That” uses the swagger too much, and blows too many canisters on the opening. “A Man Is A Man” needs a whole new set of lyrics to matter (and even when taken in the context of “Fish Shop” from Pete’s Horse’s Neck collection of short stories, it’s still embarrassing). “Cry If You Want” is descended from both “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Communication” from Chinese Eyes, and might have been good if it didn’t drag so much.

Pointedly, the band started working on the album without Pete, who was busy with both his recovery and the completion of his solo album. By the time he was involved he had nothing left to give. There were plans to do another album once the tour ended, but ultimately, because of this mess we can be glad the group stopped when it did. And because of this one wouldn’t expect any subsequent Who album, whenever it would arrive, to be any good. (It’s Hard was duly reissued in the ‘90s, with some tracks slightly extended past their original fades, and live tracks for the bonuses.)

The Who It’s Hard (1982)—2
1996 remaster: same as 1982, plus 4 extra tracks

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Robert Plant 2: The Principle Of Moments

Almost immediately after finishing and promoting his first solo album, Robert went back to work with mostly the same crew on a follow-up. The Principle Of Moments duly arrived about a year later, delivering much the same formula with more emphasis on synths. And as before, none of the tracks could be accused of nostalgia.

If anything, the songs were even catchier. “Other Arms” was a decent radio hit, from the “lay down your arms” hook suggesting nothing less than a soldier of love to the hearty backing vocal troupe. “In The Mood” wafts in on a fluffy bed of synthesizers*, for one of the hookiest songs he’s ever recorded. Along with a diabolical time signature, the title of “Messin’ With The Mekon” appears to be a phonetic mishearing of whatever the chorus is. A quiet bass interlude sets up the extended ending, taking us to a pleasant place before the clattery Arabics of “Wreckless Love” take out the side.

“Thru’ With The Two Step” is a complicated one, with about three or four sections cobbled together, but the bridge with Robbie Blunt’s bent guitar gets us every time, just like his embellishments on the final verse do. “Horizontal Departure” opens with a neat riff, then matches a near-reggae verse to a more conventional chorus, while the aptly titled “Stranger Here… Than Over There” features Robert straining the top of his range over a bass line later borrowed by Mike Mills for “Old Man Kensey”, with another minute-long coda of oddness. Finally, there’s “Big Log”, another installment in the tradition of a man at the end of his album, contemplating the road he’s already on and where it may take him. Built around one of the most robotic drum machines ever committed to tape, wax or aluminum, it’s still a terrific tune, and a nice showcase for Robbie Blunt’s dexterous, understated touch.

Being 1983, MTV put the videos for “In The Mood” and “Big Log” in heavy rotation, and both would remain Classic Rock radio staples for the rest of the decade. The production on The Principle Of Moments does evoke a distinct time and place, of billowy polkadot shirts and Aquanet, but the album is still strong. (The remastered CD added three live tracks, including a cover of Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself”, and one studio outtake, not exactly hidden treasure.) With this one-two punch, Plant’s solo career was off to a good start. These remained his most consistent records for the better part of two decades, during which he’d experience greater success and try his fans’ patience, as we shall soon see.

Robert Plant The Principle Of Moments (1983)—
2007 remastered CD: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

Monday, March 9, 2009

Daniel Lanois 2: For The Beauty Of Wynona

As Acadie had been such a nice surprise, by the time Daniel Lanois’s next album came out it had earned the tag “long-awaited”. Unfortunately, the bar had been set pretty high, and those seeking a straight continuation of the debut would be disappointed.

For The Beauty Of Wynona is an okay but not altogether stellar follow-up; could be his dealer in New Orleans was lacing his supply. This time out he stuck with a small team of players and engineers, and for the most part they provide a harsh, almost sinister edge to the proceedings, symbolized by the cover shot of a nude with a knife. “Beatrice” and “The Collection of Marie Claire” are fairly unsettling, and throughout the album there’s little gentle fingerpicking, replaced mostly by heavy distorted guitars. “The Messenger” has a title that will immediately recall “The Maker”, but beyond that it’s a slow foreboding tale. “Sleeping In The Devil’s Bed” and “The Unbreakable Chain” will most likely please casual listeners, but the highlight by far is the aching centerpiece “Death Of A Train”. Here the vocal gets a slapback echo over brushed drums and an archetypical keyboard bed, and when the guitar does finally come crashing in at the end, the track explodes into light.

For The Beauty Of Wynona had an awful lot to live up to, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect so much from it. It’s worth throwing on once in a while to reconnect, but again, “Death Of A Train” makes it all worth it.

Daniel Lanois For The Beauty Of Wynona (1993)—3

Friday, March 6, 2009

Daniel Lanois 1: Acadie

Right at the end of the ‘80s, after a few years of producing the likes of U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois finally put out an album under his own name. Acadie was recorded in spurts with contributions from some of the luminaries on his earlier projects, yet sports a uniform sound noticeable to fans of his production work. The final product was assembled in New Orleans, which neatly bookends the French Canadian influences of the tracks.

“Still Water” is a perfect intro, setting the tone for the rest of the album with gentle vocals, acoustic guitars, muffled drums and ethereal keyboards. “The Maker” is the closest thing to a hit here, as it has been covered by Dave Matthews, and even in a Karaoke version sung by Willie Nelson (on the Lanois-produced Teatro album; the original was also used years later over the closing credits of Sling Blade). “O Marie” and much of “Jolie Louise” are in French, but still fun to sing along with, even in between lines like “my kids are small, four and three” and “I drink the rum till I can’t see”. “Fisherman’s Daughter” is a moody tone poem, with a brief spoken verse that ends almost as abruptly as it begins, going right into the instrumental “White Mustang II”.

“Under A Stormy Sky” has a rock-Cajun combo, and we still wonder if that’s Dylan on the harmonica. Then “Where The Hawkwind Kills” comes tumbling in. (This is the one track that most people think sounds like Bono singing; to his defense, Lanois said basically that if you had Bono yelling in your headphones for a few years, you’d sound like him too.) “Silium’s Hill” is another street-person interlude before the menacing “Ice”, another U2 touchpoint. “St. Ann’s Gold” brings us close to the end with a prayerful feeling, made complete by the dramatic interpretation of “Amazing Grace” featuring the voice of Aaron Neville on Mars transposed to a minor key.

Daniel Lanois rarely makes his own albums, and like his mentor Brian Eno, just because you like one album he’s worked on doesn’t mean you’ll like them all. But chances are, if you enjoy this one, it’s worth trying just about anything else with his name on it. (He’s pretty proud of the album too, since he reissued it in 2005 with a new cover, and again in 2008 with bonus tracks at a higher price.)

Daniel Lanois Acadie (1989)—5
2008 “Goldtop Edition”: same as 1989, plus 6 extra tracks

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Freedy Johnston: This Perfect World

He barely had a hit single, and chances are he’ll never gain any more popularity than what he has now. But Freedy Johnston can be proud of more than a handful of recordings in his sparse catalog, and This Perfect World in particular.

His style is very much in the vein of a singer-songwriter, but more adult alternative than folk; a male version of Suzanne Vega, if you will. His songs are a little oblique, with a lot bubbling under the surface that doesn’t emerge until repeated listenings. The majority of his songs have a strong undercurrent of sadness, even the sprightly ones; in fact, sometimes it’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly why they’re sad, which only adds to the ache.

The characters in his songs know more than they tell. One boasts of his “Bad Reputation”, while another is a “Disappointed Man”. Something ungodly is the cause of “Evie’s Tears”, and may or may not return to the scene of “Evie’s Garden” eight tracks later. The narrator of the title track has obviously been carrying lots of baggage for many years, and while he states his case for letting some of it go, it’s clear that for whatever reason, he’s cursed to carry it alone.

But even the songs that aren’t overtly sad sound so damn jaunty. “Can’t Sink This Town”, “Gone Like The Water” and “Across The Avenue”, to name a few, feature toe-tapping hooks and easy harmonies that obscure the sinister underbelly, even after the umpteenth listen.

Freedy Johnston sings in a thin voice with a slight twang, and on This Perfect World he gets stellar support from the likes of guitarist Marc Ribot, bass player Graham Maby and producer Butch Vig on a detour from Nirvana to Garbage. The playing throughout is direct but not at all dated. It has endured as one of the best albums of the ‘90s.

Freedy Johnston This Perfect World (1994)—5

Monday, March 2, 2009

Men At Work: Business As Usual and Cargo

They arrived without fanfare, save a few drum hits and a mysterious sax riff. One of the first bands broken by MTV, rather than the radio—perhaps there was something hypnotic in the lazy eyes common to the band members—for the next 18 months, Men At Work was all over the place.

It’s always convenient when a band’s collected works fit on both sides of a 90-minute tape—or in this case, the only works worth having. Business As Usual included three top-10 hits, followed soon enough by Cargo, which, according to an industry joke, shipped gold and returned platinum. Both albums have their embarrassing moments, overshadowed by the well-crafted pop on all sides.

If you’re in your thirties or forties, it’s virtually impossible to listen to “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” without smiling. The hits don’t stop there—“I Can See It In Your Eyes” is a great lost single, while “Down By The Sea” and “Touching The Untouchables” throw some Steely Dan into the Police mix. And that’s just the first album.

Cargo suffers in comparison with Business As Usual; the weaker songs are written by the lead guitarist around his stock Strat tones. But the goodies here include the anti-nuclear “It’s A Mistake” (as timely as today’s headlines), the deceptively sunny “Blue For You”, the epic “No Sign Of Yesterday” and the incomparable “Overkill”, which was covered by no-hit wonders Lazlo Bane in 1998, complete with hilarious audio and video cameos by Colin Hay himself.

There really is no modern comparison to Men At Work; bands like Matchbox 20 or Third Eye Blind were either too successful, not successful enough to sustain two albums, or just a bunch of faceless guys behind a self-centered frontman. But the Men have endured. Their cassettes have actually worn out from constant play, and unless you want to replace them on used vinyl, both albums have been reissued on CD with the obligatory extra B-sides and live tracks.

Men At Work Business As Usual (1982)—4
Men At Work
Cargo (1983)—3